Please open up to Luke 10:25–42, but before we read it I would like you to notice something as we read. I want you to notice that even though we are going to read two seemingly distinct stories, happening at different times and in different ways, they are actually very similar. Both are quite famous parts of scripture, but it’s sometimes forgotten that they give the same message. The first one is pretty easy to understand but the second one is more subtle. Let’s read it together.
“And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How do you read it?’ And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.'”
So pause there a second. The beginning of this story makes it pretty easy to understand what’s going on, doesn’t it? Up comes a lawyer, who we already know is probably a bad guy because lawyers and Pharisees and Sadducees often came against Jesus to try to trap Him, trick Him, embarrass Him, or discredit Him – but they always end up losing to Jesus – until the end of the story where they break their own laws to crucify Him. So, by the fourth word we can have a pretty good idea that some shenanigans are about to go down.
What’s the context here? Everyone is sitting down somewhere and Jesus is in the middle of teaching when suddenly a Lawyer stands up to “test” Jesus. We don’t necessarily know his motivation is bad until we read the next verse, 29, which says,
“But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’”
This lawyer had come to hear Jesus teach, and had either been impressed by Him or was getting progressively more upset at Him, but at some point pops up out of the group to ask Jesus the most difficult, important question he can think of: “How can I inherit eternal life?” Or, how can someone be saved from sin and death?
Remember, this is a Lawyer and in his mind, and in the mind of many Jewish people at the time, because of the teachings of the Lawyers and Pharisees, the way to impress God, to make God happy, to gain favour with God, to get eternal life with Him, was to obey the Laws of Moses.
That’s why they had devised so many extra laws on top of them. God said, “Don’t use my name in vain.” So the Lawyers and Pharisees said, “Ok, no one is allowed to say the name of God at all, ever, or even write it down.” God said, “Rest on the Sabbath.” So the Lawyers and Pharisees devised lists and lists of rules about every part of life – how far to walk, how to eat, how to wash, how many knots you can tie in a rope. So many rules that God’s “day off to rest and worship” became a terrible burden and frustration to the people. But if God wanted obedience and eternal life was at stake, better safe than sorry, right?
So that’s the mindset that this man had when talking to Jesus. Rules and laws make people holy and win God’s favour. So Jesus’ answer to Him is perfectly tailored: “What do you think God’s Law say about Eternal Life?” And the Lawyer gives the right answer. “Love God with everything you’ve got and love your neighbour as much as you love yourself.”
But here’s the thing, and this is something everyone here understands and struggles with – me included. Knowing the right answer and understanding what it means are two different things. And then, understanding what the right answer means and then living by that truth are two different things too!
I’m reading through Pilgrims Progress again and just finished the part where a character named Faithful has had a conversation with someone he meets on the road named Talkative. It’s a really interesting encounter and I highly recommend you read the whole book, but it essentially goes like this. The main character, Christian, is walking with his friend Faithful and they’ve been having a great conversation. As they walk, they catch up to a man named “Talkative” who Christian knows but Faithful doesn’t. Christian hangs back so as to not have to walk with Talkative, but Faithful trots on ahead to strike up a conversation. Things seem to go pretty well because Talkative is really good at talking – and doesn’t care what the subject is. Faithful is quite impressed with how godly and religious Talkative is and falls back see what’s up and invite Christian to join the conversation.
Christian grins at his friend and says, “This man whom you are so taken with is fooling you just as he’s fooled so many before.” Faithful is surprised because Talkative seems like he knows so much about God and religion and faith, but after a while Christian basically says, “If you want to see what Talkative is really like, go ask him to talk not only about religion but ask him plainly how his belief Jesus has changed His heart and life.”
Faithful does so and it doesn’t take long until Talkative gets so offended and angry that he takes off. It seems that even though Talkative loved chatting about religion and theology and faith – he had allowed none of it to penetrate his heart and change his life.
It’s the same with this Lawyer, and most of the other religious leaders Jesus bumps into. They knew a tonne of scriptures, had memorized the entire Old Testament and had been trained to be experts in debate and interpretation – but as much as they knew about God’s Law, they had completely missed having a relationship with the Lawgiver. As much as they worked hard to obey the Laws, they had forgotten Who had written them and why they had been written in the first place – not to burden God’s people but freedom, not to separate them from God but to show them how to grow closer to Him, not to be a hammer to pound on their fellow citizens but a guide to help them know how to love one another and get along.
Who Is My Neighbour?
Jesus responds saying essentially, “Yes, your words are exactly right. If you love God and everyone else you come in contact with perfectly, you will have eternal life.” Sounds simple, but it isn’t. Our sinful nature makes this impossible. We can’t love God or anyone else perfectly because our sin not only clouds our judgement but makes us selfish and lazy. We cannot live in perfect love with anyone.
Notice that in the next part we see that the Lawyer jumps right past the “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind” part because he thinks he does that already. Like the Rich Young Ruler, he believes that he has obeyed the entire law perfectly. Therefore, he assumes, he must love God perfectly. But, then, maybe because his conscience has been tweaked by something he’s done, or because he wants to impress the crowd or trap Jesus, the Lawyer asks one more question. “…who is my neighbor?”
Why did he ask this? Because as a Lawyer, he wants to know the boundaries of the law. What’s the limit, the line, the border that can’t be crossed? How far can I go before I’ve broken the law? It’s the same with us, right? Just consider when we’re driving. The speed limit is 70, but how much can we get away with before we actually get in trouble? 75? 80? How much checking our cell phone is too much? How far do I have to go before I absolutely have to wear my seatbelt? How long does the red light have to be red before I’m in trouble? What if it turns red as I’m driving through? Our question isn’t “How can I obey this law perfectly?” but “How much can I get away with before I’m in trouble?” That shows the sin in our heart. That’s what the lawyer was doing here.
“Ok, so I know God says I’m supposed to love my neighbour, but who, technically, does that include? How big of a circle can I draw before the people outside of it don’t matter? Who can I offend without worrying about it? Who can I ignore without God caring? Who can I hate and despise while still being able to say I love my neighbour?” From verse 30 Jesus gives the very famous answer.
“Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’”
Jesus tells the story of The Good Samaritan and gives a lot of details. Everyone would assume the victim was a Jew, and everyone knew that the trip between Jerusalem and Jericho was full places where people could get mugged and left for dead. Then come two good, law-abiding, religious, Jewish leaders, a priest and a Levite, who knew that God’s law said that if they touched a dead body they would be defiled and ceremonially unclean and therefore unable to perform their duties in the temple. So, better safe than sorry, they ignore the man so they can keep doing their jobs in the temple. Seems harsh, and the average person would have thought this wasn’t very nice, but the Lawyer, presumably, completely understood. But then the story takes a weird turn. Next comes a Samaritan. Jews hated Samaritans with pure, racist hatred. For a Samaritan to be the hero of a Jew would have been scandalous. But there it was.
If you’re having a tough time grasping the story, maybe think of the story this way: A man who had just finished working late at night in downtown Ottawa was walking up the stairs of a parking garage. It was Saturday at 2am, he was tired and already had his keys in his hands, when suddenly a group of men came through the door, mugged him, beat him, took his car, and kicked him down the cement stairs.
Not long after another man, a surgeon at CHEO who had been called in to do emergency surgery on a child came up the stairs and saw the unconscious bleeding man. He knew he couldn’t risk infection or contamination, and was in a hurry, so he stepped over the man’s body and headed to his car. Next came the pastor of a local mega-church. He had been doing some late night counselling and was headed home for some much-needed rest before he had to preach in the morning. He saw the beaten man, stepped over him, and walked away.
Next, up the stairs, came another man, a pimp. He had spent the evening collecting money from the women under his employ and shooting scenes for his porn website. He was a little drunk, a little high, and his knuckles still hurt from having to get a little rough while he was collecting his dues. But when he saw the man lying on the stairs, he had compassion. He lifted him up, brought him to the hospital, made sure he got a room and then went to the gift shop to buy some magazines for when the man woke up. He even told the nurse that if no one came for the man to give him a call on his cell phone so he could help out.
Now look at verse 36,
“’Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You go, and do likewise.’”
Jesus forced the Lawyer to answer his own question. He was looking for the borders and loopholes in the law and Jesus closed them tight. Who is your neighbour? Who does God want you to show love, compassion, and care to? Everyone.
The priest and the Levite were encumbered by their interpretation of the Law. In no way was God’s Law meant to be frustrating, burdensome, and an excuse to prevent someone from showing compassion, and yet they somehow managed to make it that way. Jesus wiped all that nonsensical interpretive garbage clean and forced the lawyer to admit the truth. The way to love God is not to nit-pick laws so you can find loopholes and excuses, but to love God by loving everyone as your neighbour.
Mary and Martha
But now we turn to the next story in the passage. Let’s read it, starting in verse 38,
“Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’”
Do you see the echoes of the previous story? Jesus is teaching a group of people when someone stands up and asks Jesus a question that is very close to their heart. For the Lawyer, it was a question about the Law, but for Martha, it was a question about priorities. And both ended up the same way. What was the Lawyer trying to do when he asked, “Who is my neighbour?”? He was trying to justify himself. And what was Martha trying to do? To justify how busy and distracted she was.
But this story is much more subtle. In the first one, it’s a Lawyer – booo. He’s testing Jesus – booo. What’s Martha doing? She’s serving. And not just serving, she’s serving Jesus and the disciples! Martha welcomes Jesus, the famous Rabbi, and all of his disciples into her home. They would all need to have their feet washed, to be made comfortable, and to have a meal prepared for them. We don’t know how much help Martha had, but she clearly didn’t think it was enough. She was frazzled and distracted and anxious and getting angry.
But she wasn’t a bad guy like the Lawyer, was she? She was doing a good thing! Just like the Lawyer, she felt justified in her actions. He obeyed the law; she was a great and wonderful hostess, preparing extra special things for her guests. How could anyone look at Martha and criticize her? How could anyone compare her to the Lawyer? It’s easy to criticize the Lawyer, but super-servant, super-frazzled, Martha? Isn’t she just trying to do a good job for Jesus?
But what does Jesus say? Verse 41,
“But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.’”
This whole section is telling the same story. How does one gain eternal life? Loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. How do we show that? We love our neighbour. Who is our neighbour? Everyone. How did the Jewish people mess this up? By believing that the way to love God is to work so hard to obey His Law that they actually offend, hurt, and ignore loving God and their neighbours. They became more concerned with how many knots they could tie, and how ceremonially pure they were, or how far walked – that they forgot to worship and enjoy God or show love and compassion for their fellow man.
Martha makes the same mistake. She has prioritized hosting, serving, and working, over loving Jesus and Mary. Was she doing something wrong? No. Was she breaking laws? No. But where was her heart? She was working so hard to serve her guests that she was no longer able to find joy in it. She wasn’t fuelled by love. She was fueled by frustration, anger, pride, and jealousy. She forgot that Jesus Christ, the miracle-working Son of God, the source of light and life, was sitting in her living room. She didn’t care what he was saying. She didn’t care that Mary had the privilege of listening. She only cared about her own plans and priorities to the point where this wonderful, gracious, generous host, who was so excited to have Jesus over – actually comes into the room and yells at her sister in front of Jesus, accuses Jesus of not caring, and then tries to tell Jesus what to do! “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” “C’mon Jesus. Chop chop! I clearly care more about these people than you do, Jesus. I clearly have a better grasp of what’s important. Tell my sister to stop listening to you.”
Her priorities were as messed up as the Lawyer’s. She wasn’t serving out of love. She wasn’t loving God – who was sitting in her living room – or loving her neighbour – who included her sister and Jesus. That’s why Jesus responds as he does. He says her name twice, probably to get her attention and to show dissatisfaction with her (He does this with Peter and Paul too (22:31, Acts 9:4)). And then He essentially says, “You think you’re priorities are right, but they’re not. You are so worked up, so upset, so troubled and anxious about all the serving you are doing that you have forgotten the most important things – to love God and your neighbour. All this serving is only driving you away from your guests, away from your sister, away from love, and away from Me.”
Martha was doing exactly what the Priest and the Levite did – using a good, legal excuse to be able to ignore loving someone. “I can’t love Mary right now, the sandwiches need to be made. I can’t listen to the teachings of Jesus right now, I have too much to do. I should walk in there and give Jesus and Mary a piece of my mind. I’m in the right here. Jesus is wrong.”
And not only were her priorities a mess, but she actually tried to suck Mary into her whirlwind. “Jesus, tell Mary to stop listening to you, stop learning from you, stop sitting in your presence, stop letting her sit in front of a Rabbi, doing something very few women were ever allowed to even do, and force her to be as distracted and upset as I am.”
Jesus says, “No Martha. You’re not right. Your heart isn’t right. Your priorities aren’t right. And you’re not going to cause Mary to stumble into your own sin.”
So what does that mean for us today? I think this is an appropriate message for the beginning of the year because the lesson here is something we all struggle with. Regardless of whether you make New Year’s resolutions or not, we all are trying to figure out what’s wrong with us and how to improve our lives – whether that be our spiritual lives, our health, our relationships, or our careers. And as we try to come up with the game plans what will fix everything, it’s really easy to get our priorities out of whack.
The lesson in what we’ve read today teaches that a godly life doesn’t start with a list of rules and regulations, more knowledge and willpower, or trying to cut out all the toxic things in our life. Those aren’t bad things – just like Martha wanting to serve people and the Lawyer obeying the Law weren’t bad things – but they aren’t things that lead to eternal life, that lead to grace and hope and joy and peace.
What did we learn today? That in order to live a life of love, of service, sacrifice, obedience, and holiness, doesn’t come from a list of laws – it comes from a changed heart.
So before you do anything, before you decide on a diet, exercise routine, schedule, life plan, bible reading plan, spiritual retreat, marriage counselling, personal counselling, killing a habit, battling an addiction, or anything else, remember that it will be meaningless, even cause your love to grow cold and become callous to the things of God if you are not connecting with Jesus as your first priority. If you don’t, it won’t be long until you are either looking for loopholes like the Lawyer, or trying to drag other people into your personal tornado like Martha.
What does that look like? Well, consider that the Samaritan was a man living outside the Law of Moses but still had a heart for the things of God. So, it’s not about white-knuckling through the Bible-In-a-Year, or forcing yourself to wake up at 6am, or fasting so many days per week, or promising to be more generous and forgiving. It’s about connecting your heart to God, trusting that He will guide you, lead you, and help you.
Once you’ve settled in your heart that you need Jesus’ presence in your life more than anything else, things fall into place. When you come to a moment when you need self-control, you won’t trust your own rules and laws and willpower but will lean on Him and ask for help. As you trust His guidance, you’ll learn that sometimes your personal rules and outlook actually prevent you from doing his will – like the priest not helping the man who was attacked. You’ll learn how to be flexible, kind, and generous because you’re living by God’s priorities and not your own. And when you inevitably mess up, you won’t see yourself as a failure or a victim who should just give up, but as a sinner in need of a Saviour, a work in progress that God is ever forgiving and always willing to help.
My hope for you in 2019 is that you will begin by cultivating this attitude and mindset of faith. That you will know that life comes from loving God and others, but that love is not simply a list of rules and anxiety driven service driven by your own willpower and personal agenda – but a heart that has experienced the love of God and is allowing it to flow into the rest of your life. First to yourself, your family, and then to the world.
Every year around Christmas time people all over the world set up nativity scenes – and there’s a huge variety. There are old-timey ones that have great detail and classic poses, modern, new ones that are more simple, even impressionistic, and there are the weird and silly ones. We have a Little People set at home and new this year is a rubber duck set we found online. But my favourite weird nativity that I found online this year is the hipster nativity set where Mary is taking a duck-face selfie with baby Jesus, the cow is eating gluten-free feed and is 100% organic, and the wise men show up on Segways with gifts from Amazon.
Regardless of how traditional or weird the Nativity Set is, one thing always holds true – it’s never lonely around the manger. Jesus is surrounded by people, and that’s what I want to talk about tonight.
The holidays are a time for getting together with all kinds of people. We plan dinners and events with people we work with, we take a little more time talking with people around us about the season, we find time to have friends in our homes and go to theirs to meet others, we make time to gather with family members that we don’t see very often. If you ask most people over 12 years old what their favourite Christmas memories are they will no doubt all give the same list – the big family dinner, the family around the tree, seeing family from far away that they haven’t seen in a long time. No matter how nice the decorations are, how great the turkey is, what presents you get, what music you sing, or what your favourite tradition is, the make-it-or-break-it part of Christmas is how close or far away you are from the people that mean the most to you.
Which is why Christmas can also be such a lonely, difficult time of year for a lot of people. As the lights multiply in the streets, store music changes to carols, the smells of baking fills the air, and the traditions multiply around you, they can trigger some pretty intense emotions that you’d rather not deal with. The decorations and the smells – though nice – are sometimes a reminder of what’s missing. And it’s one big reason that so many struggles with depression and addiction around Christmas time.
We did a lot of reading and singing tonight and there was a pretty resounding theme to all of it, right? One that is familiar to many. That the world looked pretty dark and lonely and scary – for Israel, the shepherds, and the world – but that all changed when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. As Isaiah 9 said,
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…” (Isa 9:1,6)
That was written 700 years before Jesus was born. And when the Apostle John wrote his gospel about Jesus he started with words that sounded very similar. I want to look at the first 13 verses of the first chapter of John because I want you to notice something very important tonight. It’s a Christmas story but told in a different way. It begins by introducing Jesus as not only a baby in a manger, but backs up the story way before Mary and Joseph, even before Adam and Eve. It says that Jesus wasn’t merely a special man, but God incarnate – and speaks of His coming as a light piercing the darkness. It says,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Next, John introduces fast forwards to the forerunner, the precursor, the prophet who was to prepare people for the coming of Jesus – the one known as John the Baptist. It says in verse 6,
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”
This is all building up to a summary of who Jesus is and why He came. John will tell the rest of the story in his book, but for now, here is the story of Jesus in a nutshell. Starting in verse 9,
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”
If you know the story of Jesus then you know that this is exactly what happened. Jesus came into the world, lived a perfect life, spread light and wisdom and goodness and truth, showed people who He was and demonstrated His divine power in healing and miracles, but even those closest to Him didn’t understand Him. He came to the world He had established, to the humanity He had created, to the nation He had chosen, and they did not receive Him. He was born in barn and laid in a feeding trough, because there was no room for Him and that reality would dominate His entire ministry. He would come to people, tell them the truth, but instead of receiving Him, they would try to use Him, misunderstand Him, lie about Him, neglect Him, and then reject, humiliate, abandon, and unjustly crucify Him.
Jesus said this in John 3:19-20,
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light…”
God Created Family
But if we keep reading at the beginning of John we find out that there is more to the story. Jesus came as light in the darkness, but people loved the dark more than the light – but listen to verse 12,
“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
What does it says Jesus provides for those who receive Him, who put their trust in Him, who believe in Him? Most often in church, we say that believers receive salvation, forgiveness, cleansing, hope, renewal, joy, etc. and all that is true, but notice what it says here: believers are given “the right to become children of God”.
One of the greatest gifts that we receive when we come to Jesus is the gift of family. It means never having to be alone. Consider the story of scripture, right? In the beginning, God creates the whole world and puts Adam in it. There is no sin, Adam can see God face to face, everything is perfect, but God says something is “not good”. What is it? “It’s is not good that the man should be alone.” (Gen 2:18). So God makes Eve and then tells Adam to go make a family.
When God saved Noah, He told him to bring his family. When God chose Abraham, God chose to bless an old, barren couple with a family and then worked through that family to create a great nation through which He would bless the world. And that pattern continued. Moses needed his family’s help. David and Solomon’s biggest problems came when they messed with God’s plan for their family. Over and over we see that God doesn’t just use special individuals, but families to carry forth His will and dispense His blessings.
When Jesus came to earth, He could have come like one of that lone-gunman we see in those old western movies. A man in a white hat with no past rides into town, dispenses justice, and then rides off into the sunset. He had the power to do that. He’s God, He doesn’t need anyone to help Him. But what was His perfect plan? It was to come as a member of a family. He had a mom, step-dad, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles. That wasn’t an accident.
And then, to everyone in this dark world, He not only offered salvation through His death on the cross for all who believe but also offered them the opportunity to be part of His family. Not His human family, but His eternal family.
“…To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…”
The word “right” is a legal term. It means that not only is an invitation given, but also a contract is signed. If you believe in Jesus then you have the “right” to call God your Father. Listen to the words of Ephesians 1:3-5,
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…”
When you are saved you are also adopted as a son or daughter of God, because He wants you in His family. He wants to be your Dad. When Jesus teaches His followers how to pray, how does He tell them to start the prayer? “Our Father”. What does Romans 8:15 say to all believers who are afraid?
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!”
You don’t need to be afraid because Dad is with you. What does Galatians 4:6 say about how close our Heavenly Father is?
“And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”
Your Heavenly Father is as close to you as your own spirit.
Could God’s view of families be why He repeatedly tells His people that the way we love Him best is to show our love for widows and orphans? To be family to those who have none.
My message this evening is simple and twofold. The first is that I want you to remember to appreciate your family. For all the drama and excitement and struggles of being part of one, a family is one of God’s greatest gifts and I want you to remember that the best part of Christmas isn’t the food or fun, but your family. They are what you’re going to remember, so maybe stay off the electronics, put down the drink, and spend time with them. And remember, if you are a Christian, you are part of a bigger family too. God doesn’t just make Himself our Father, but also gives us a new family of brothers and sisters that we will be with forever. So if you need something, if you have something to share, call up one of your brothers and sisters in the faith.
And second, if you don’t know Jesus and feel alone tonight, if you are afraid of what is happening inside and around you, if you need freedom from your guilt and fear, or have never really known the deep love of a Father who accepts you for who you are and wants to be with you forever – Jesus stands ready to invite you into His family, if you are willing to receive Him. To receive Him means more than merely agreeing with some facts about Him, but welcoming Him into your life, submitting to Him as Lord, and building a personal relationship. It means believing what He says and trusting His way is better. To do this you need to admit your sins, admit your guilt, admit your need, and then accept that Jesus died for that sin. Receive Jesus as Lord and Saviour. At that moment you become a child of God and will never be alone again, but will be adopted as a son or daughter of God.
And if you do that tonight or tomorrow, I encourage you to call someone and tell them right away. What a great gift to give and receive at Christmas.
Over the past while our church has been going through a study of the Heidelberg Catechism, a 400-year-old summary of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. When we paused for Christmas a couple weeks ago we were only on Day 8, but we’ve already covered a LOT of material. We covered the bad news like sin, Law, guilt, and wrath – and also the good news about who Jesus is and why He is the only One who can bring salvation to the world. We spent a lot of time really digging deep into what it means to be a sinner saved by the grace of God.
Then, after learning how we can get back into a relationship with God we transitioned into getting to know God better by learning more about who He presents Himself to be. Along the way we’ve covered some pretty deep and intense topics, using a lot of important, theological language and doctrinal concepts. We’ve done introductions to why theology matters and where creeds come from. We’ve spoken of God as triune, omnipotent, omniscient, holy and righteous. We’ve spoken of Jesus as saviour, sacrifice, mediator, and advocate.
Studying these subjects and using theological language sometimes gets mixed reviews and actually be a bit of a danger. While my hope is always that these sermons help us grown in our knowledge and love for God, these types of studies can sometimes bring the temptation to detach our hearts from our minds, our relationship with God from our understanding of Him; to cerebralize our faith instead of letting the concepts inform our worship and relationship with Him. There is a danger that instead of expanding our love for God, the study of theology can cause us to sterilize our love for Him. He becomes a subject to study rather than a person to know.
This kind of thing happens to us all the time. Let me give you a couple examples. Humans have this capacity to get used to things pretty quickly. If we are surrounded by a certain smell – whether it’s good or bad – it’s not too long until we experience something called olfactory fatigue where we no longer even smell it anymore. We can be baking cookies and pies or trying to choose a new perfume or lotion, or up to our eyeballs in sewage, and at some point, our nose just gives up and we don’t even notice the scent anymore. It’s not until we leave the environment for a while and then return that we even realize how strong it was.
Bank tellers can handle thousands and thousands of dollars per day, and where at one time holding a huge pile of cash in their hand was something amazing to them, it’s not long until it becomes so commonplace that they don’t even think about it as money anymore – just something to be counted and stuffed in a drawer. Or consider museums. People fly around the world at great expense to visit the world’s greatest museums, to stand before great art for just a short period of time, sometimes even moved to tears by its beauty and the intensity of being near it, but the security guards and cleaning staff are so used to seeing it that they don’t even care anymore. It’s just part of the background of their job. The first time you watch a movie it changes your life, you tell all your friends, you want to experience it again – you even buy it to bring home and watch again – but then, after 3 or 4 more viewings, the surprises wear off, the experience dulls, and now the DVD just sits on your shelf among the others. This happens to everyone. Surgeons get used to seeing blood and holding people’s guts in their hands, factory workers get used to the huge or complex and dangerous machines they see and use every day.
There’s an old phrase that says “familiarity breeds contempt” and while it’s not always true – like in marriages or friendships or study – there is a nugget of truth in there. The more we get to know something the more in danger we are of taking it for granted. The teenager with the new driver’s licence merges onto the highway for the first time and as they get up to speed they feel like they’re about to break the sound barrier and fly off the road – so they grip the steering wheel tightly, open their eyes wide, and stare intensely at the road. But it’s not long until that same teen is in the fast lane and passing vehicles while holding food in one hand, changing the music on their iPod with the other, and driving with their knees.
That’s the danger of familiarity, and it can happen to us when we study theology too. It can be tempting to take the things we know about God for granted, try to put Him in a box, or get so used to using words like “awesome”, “almighty”, “saviour”, “glory” and “grace” that they lose their intensity. And when that happens, blasphemy and pride aren’t too far behind.
The season of Christmas and Advent offer a cure to that though. Even with all the complexity of the season, the packed schedule, the family issues, the emotional intensity, the commercialism and stress, there is a haven found in Sunday morning worship. Over the past month, many churches around the world have chosen to pause their services and light an advent candle. We do that here too. There is a short reading, some scripture, a moment of pause as the candle is lit, and a moment to reflect. It is a simple and beautiful way to cause us to stop for a moment and elevate our thoughts to the real meaning of what we’re doing here and why this season is so special. Each week a different candle is lit, a different special scripture is read, and a different aspect of the life and promises of Jesus Christ come into view. Each week we remember one more gift that Jesus gave us He came at Christmas. And it’s done in simple ways, with simple language, and with materials that have been in use for thousands of years.
Different traditions have different shapes, different readings, even different amounts of candles, but each one is full of symbolism. In ours, we have five different candles – three purple, one pink, one white. Purple is the historic liturgical colour for the four Sundays of Advent. Pink (or technically “rose) is the colour of the third Sunday. The purple traditionally represents these weeks as concentrated times of prayer, repentance, and reflection in preparation for the big celebration of Christmas, but the third, pink candle interrupts that intensity with a week of rejoicing and celebration. Traditionally even the priests wore pink vestments on that week to set it apart. (Unfortunately, our church doesn’t have such a tradition because I think they’re pretty and now I want one!)
As I said, each of the candles has a different theme, but these themes aren’t communicated with big words, deep doctrinal study, or intense theological exposition. Instead, the words are very simple, and the concepts very meaningful – even intimate. The candles represent Hope, Love, Joy and Peace, and they surround the middle candle which we will light on Christmas Eve, the Christ candle. It reminds all believers everywhere that of our deepest longings – our desire for a hope that does not disappoint us, love that keeps us forever, joy in the midst of suffering, and a peace that passes understanding – are found only when we have Jesus at the centre of our lives. That’s what I want to talk about this morning.
In Jesus There is Hope
The first candle represented Hope. Hope, one could say, is the thing that keeps most of us alive. We can live for a long time in many difficult circumstances, but if we lose hope, it is then that we are in true danger. Hope is something we cannot live without but is tough to come by these days. There’s so much bad news and uncertainty, so many doom and gloom voices out there that sometimes it’s hard to find any hope. Most people are taught, from the moment they enter school, that they are evolved from scum, there is no such thing as eternity, nothing they do ultimately matters, any emotion they feel, even for their parents or loved ones, is just learned behaviour and biochemical trickery. As they move through life the best they are given is to be told to try to squeeze as many years of pleasure and distraction as they can out of this messed up world before death comes and they slip into oblivion.
There is no hope in that, is there? That’s a dim view of life, and we can see it in the rise of depression, addiction, abortion and suicide. The world doesn’t promise much. We put our hope in politicians or scientists or friends, but things never really change much and these supposed saviours fail us over and over. So the best we can come up with is to distract ourselves from thinking about the future, use chemicals to stop the scary thoughts in our head, and keep ourselves trapped in the immediacy of entertainment, because when we stop for a moment all we see when we look forward is a black hole that is getting blacker.
But then comes the first week of Advent that says, “When Jesus came, He brought with Him a great hope.” The scripture we read on that day was from Isaiah 9:2 and it describes the coming of Jesus this way: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” The coming of Jesus at Christmas was the coming of a beam of light into a dark place. Suddenly, because of Him, because of His, His words, His message, His life, and His work on the cross we are no longer faced with meaninglessness and oblivion, but salvation from sin, resurrection from the dead, restoration of our lost souls, a mission in this life, and then eternity with God! 1 Peter 1:3-4 says it this way:
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy, he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade…”
Is that not what all humanity longs for? Isn’t that why you are here today? Because you’ve looked at the things of this world and realized that the hope it offers perishes, spoils and fades, but that in Jesus Christ hope never can. That’s a hope we can build our lives on. That’s the hope that Jesus brought at Christmastime to offer to all people.
In Jesus There is Love
What is this love rooted in? What foundation does it have? It is established in love. But not a worldly kind of love. Our hope doesn’t come from one who only loves those who love Him back. It’s not the kind of love that happens as an exchange of goods, or because someone did something for Him. He doesn’t just love people who achieve some kind of level of loveableness. We’ve all experienced that kind of worldly love. And it’s the kind that we worry about, the kind that fades, the kind that we feel like we can mess up and lose. But God’s love isn’t like that. God offers a better kind of love – a deeper love.
When we lit the Love candle we read John 3:16-17 which talks about the depth of God’s love for us. It says,
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
Romans 5:6-8 describes the love we find in Jesus this way:
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
That’s remarkable. Jesus didn’t come for those who had earned the right to be saved or were special enough to be saved. It says that Jesus came “when we were still powerless” – other scriptures say that we weren’t just powerless but were “dead in our… sins” (Eph 2:1). It says that Jesus came when we were “ungodly” – when we had no dignity or worthiness or goodness. He doesn’t just love those who are “good people” but for those who were “ungodly”. He came to a people who are His opposite. And then He “died for the ungodly”.
It says that God showed us the kind of love that we have all been so desperate to experience. It says “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” When Jesus came at Christmastime He wasn’t coming to help His friends.
A couple of verses later, in Romans 5:10 it says that Jesus died while “we were God’s enemies”. That’s the story of the deep love at Christmas. Jesus came to the unlovely, the unlovable, His enemies and His opposites, to live among us and save us the trouble we brought on ourselves. He went through Hell so we wouldn’t have to, gained nothing so we could gain everything.
In Jesus there is Peace
Which is why, if there is no Jesus, there is no peace. Many of you know this feeling. Without Jesus, we are still enemies of God and our spirits can never be at peace. We always feel like God is against us, like we are alone in an out of control world. Without the guidance of Jesus, the good shepherd, we never know what it means for God to give us such a love for our enemies that we are able to pity them, feel bad for them, even find peace while sitting at a table with them. It is only knowing that Jesus is in control that we are able to be at peace in a world filled with strife and turmoil. Without Jesus, we are always trying to fill our lives with something that will quell our fears, give us security, and help us understand the world so we can control it better – but they all fail us because it’s impossible to find true peace anywhere else but in the presence of Jesus Christ.
On the Sunday we lit the peace candle we read the prophecy about Jesus that came 600 years before He was born in Isaiah 9:6-7 which said that when Jesus came His people would say,
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.”
In Romans 5:1-2 we read it about our peace with God this way:
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand”
When we put our trust in Jesus, He grants us is peace. Peace in our hearts that we know our eternity is secure because we don’t have to earn heaven. Peace with others because we understand forgiveness (knowing we have been forgiven so much). Peace in the knowledge we cannot lose our salvation and that we can trust God because He has everything under control. Peace knowing that we are loved so very much by a God who traded His Son for us.
In Jesus there is Joy
And, therefore, knowing all of this – when we are secure in the hope Jesus offers, understanding the love Jesus has for us and knowing we are at peace with God and others and within ourselves because of what Jesus has done for us – we have joy.
Without Jesus, a person can’t have true joy. Certainly, in God’s common grace, even the most godless pagan can experience happiness. We can be entertained and distracted for a time, even smile and laugh for a moment. We can surround ourselves with lots of good things like family, friends, finances, food, and fun – but all of those things only bring temporary moments of happiness. Our family lets us down or passes away, our children grow up and leave, we fall out of friendships, the food runs out or makes us fat or sick, the money doesn’t keep its promises, and the fun only lasts so long. It’s not too long before we realize that the things we thought were supposed to bring us everlasting joy don’t last.
That’s why Jesus doesn’t promise us happiness but instead promises us more. He offers us Joy, and it is perhaps the greatest gift God gives to His followers. It is more complex than an emotion, but comes from a connection to something that transcends this world, transcends our emotions, is bigger than what this world can offer – transcendent joy comes from our transcendent God. We already read a joy scripture today when we lit the candle, but I want to read another from when Jesus speaks about the mixing of Love and Joy in John 15:8–13,
“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.’”
What brings a person joy? What makes a person full of joy even when their circumstances aren’t very happy? Jesus tells us here. We have joy when we know that we have a life that leads to more life. When we know we are in right standing with God. When we are mindful of God’s presence and the good things He provides every day. When we know we are bearing fruit in our lives because God is working through us. When we live a disciplined life, free from folly and stupid decisions because God’s Spirit is helping us moment by moment. When we feel the ever-abiding love of God, knowing the Creator is on our side and works all things for our good and His glory. When He brings us to a family of believers who surround us with His love, accept us for who we are, and care for us no matter what because they know Jesus too. What brings us joy us knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus loved us so much that He was willing to lay down His life for us, call us His friends, advocates for us, and will be with us every step of every day for the rest of eternity. That kind of joy is the exclusive province of the Christian who believes in Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord.
I know that church and Christmas and theology and doctrine can get complicated. I know that when you look inside there are a lot of things you don’t even understand about yourself, let alone the world around you. But I know this for certain: that everyone here wants these four things: Hope, Love, Peace and Joy. And I know this: The message of Christmas, the message of the church, the message of the Bible is that they are found ultimately, fully, perfectly and only, in Jesus.
So take time to consider that this week. To meditate upon Hope. To remember it and pray and journal about Love. To sing about Peace and share that Joy with others. All centred around the person and work of Jesus Christ.
I’ve decided that I don’t want to be stuck in Day 8 anymore, so we are going to do one more attribute and then move on. But before I do that I want to give you a few tools for you to use at home to better explain what we are going through on Sunday mornings here, which will explain these attributes and even more, likely far better than I can.
The first are two books on the holiness of God that I want to recommend to you. Holiness is an important concept that I simply cannot cover in one sermon, and understanding it will radically improve your relationship with God. They are modern classics, written in contemporary language, that you can get for a pretty good deal. The first is “Holiness” by JC Ryle and the second is “The Holiness of God” by RC Sproul. The Ryle book you can get free on Monergism.com and the Sproul one you can get from Amazon, but it’s also presented as a video series on RightNow. Matt Chandler has one too, and I’m sure it’s great.
In fact, if you go to the Beckwith Baptist Church page on RightNow Media, I recently created a playlist called “Heidelberg Helps” that covers in much greater detail a lot of the topics that I’m going through right now. You can use them in small groups or in your private study time.
If you’d also like a couple of books that are great summaries of Christian Theology, then I recommend getting either (or both of) “Essential Truths of the Christian Faith” by RC Sproul, “Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe” by Mark Driscoll, or the newest one, “Pilgrim Theology” by Michael Horton. Those get progressively longer, by the way. Essential Truths has 300 pages while Pilgrim Theology has 450. Or, if you want a good challenge, you can read one of my new favourite books, an abridged version of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion by Only Lane and Hilary Osborne. They took a 1000 page book and condensed it to less than 300 pages.
God in Relation to Man: Righteousness
Ok, let’s finish off Day 8. God’s Holiness in relation to man meant that God was set apart from us, different, special, pure, without any spot or stain, perfectly good. But where Holiness speaks of quality, Righteousness speaks of activity. Psalm 145:17 says, “The LORD is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works.” Holiness is who God is, Righteousness is what God does – His “ways”. The Hebrews word is the same as “road” or “direction”. God always goes the right way.
To be holy means God is perfect in who He is. To be righteous means God does right things. He cannot do wrong. To do wrong is counter to His nature. If God does it, it must be righteous because he can do no other. And because God is always righteous and right means He is also just. He cannot allow anyone to get away with unrighteousness. He cannot allow injustice to go unchecked in His universe. Therefore wrong actions, lawbreakers, moral failures, injustice, must be perfectly dealt with. It is contrary to God’s nature to allow wrong things, sinful actions, or sinful inactions, to go on forever without dealing with them. He must make the wrong things right. Certainly, God can choose to be patient with unrighteousness and evil, He can choose not to punish it immediately, but because He is righteous He must punish and correct evil. And conversely, righteousness and goodness must be blessed. (Ezekiel 18:20; 1 Peter 3:14). Galatians 6:7 says it this way, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”
Condemned in Our Unrighteousness
That’s a warning to us, an admonition: That our deeds are judged by God and our sin provokes His righteous anger. Knowing this, therefore, should compel us to seek after righteousness. Part of fearing God is fearing God’s wrath, judgement, and discipline. It means recognizing that sin is another way we are separated from God. So, as humans, our problem is not only are we stained by unholiness and therefore cannot stand in the presence of God, but we have also willfully done wrong things that God the Righteous Judge must punish.
The term “Righteous” is actually a legal one, usually, used by God towards people rather than the other way around. To be righteous means to be on the right side of the law, to be unrighteous a lawbreaker. If you’re following along, then you’ll know that this is what the whole first section of Romans is all about.
Turn to Romans 2:6-11. It says
“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.”
God is not partial to anyone. There is no race or gender or social status that he prefers. Because God is righteous His concern is whether or not you are holy or unholy, righteous or unrighteous, guilty or not guilty. But, as we learn in Romans, the problem is that everyone is guilty, right? Go a little forward to Romans 3:10-12,
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
When we read the Law of God, as in the 10 Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, or the rest of scripture, we realize that we are lawbreakers and stand condemned. That’s what verse 19 says,
“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.”
No one can read the Bible and not think that they are a sinner. And, as we already learned when we talked about General Revelation, even without the Bible, our own conscience condemns us. We know we are unrighteous.
Made Righteous by Grace Through Faith
So what are we to do? If the warning is that we ought to fear God because we stand guilty before the One who must punish lawbreakers, then we’re in trouble. How can we get right before this righteous Judge?
Some might think that they can just start obeying the law and be ok? But that’s not how it works, right? If I steal something or murder someone I can’t just say, “Ok, I got it out of my system. I’m good now. It’ll never happen again.” No, I need to face the consequences of my actions. Justice demands that I pay for my crime. It would be morally wrong for a judge to let me get away with murder or not pay back when I’ve stolen because I promised not to do it again.
That means that no matter how much I obey from this point on, I’m still condemned. All those Bible rules we spend so much time talking about have no power to save — only to condemn. Look at verse 20,
“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
All the Law can do is show me where I’ve gone wrong and teach me what I’m supposed to do right. But it can’t save me from what I’ve already done wrong. Following rules can’t fix my unholiness or my unrighteousness.
How can someone be made righteous then? How can a sinner go from guilty to not-guilty without having to face the punishment for their lawbreaking? How can God be a righteous judge who doesn’t let anyone get away with evil, who punishes wrong, who defends the defenceless, who comes to the aid of those who are wronged, who makes everything right in the end… without sending every human being to Hell to pay for what they’ve done?
This is what almost drove Martin Luther mad. As a good catholic, a good monk, he knew that God was Holy, Righteous, Perfect, and Good. He knew that God must punish evil. And he knew that he was a sinner. The church was telling him that if he did enough good things – confession, confirmation, penance, visiting relics, prayers, service, tithing – that God would forgive him. And there’s a lot of religious today who teach the same thing. If you believe hard enough, do enough religious things, be nice, don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t litter, recycle your bottles, eat your veggies, give some money to people who need it – then God will be impressed and bless your life and let you into heaven. They see faith in God as transactional – I do something good for God, God does something good for me. And if I do enough good things, then I can kind of erase the bad things and God will just overlook them.
But here’s the problem that stuck in Martin Luther’s head. What if he didn’t balance it out properly? What if he wasn’t good enough? What if he forgot to confess something? What if he was supposed to do something but didn’t realize it? What if his confessions weren’t because he was really sorry for his sin, but because he was scared of being punished? Didn’t that disqualify them from even being confessions? What if he wasn’t sorry enough? What if he wasn’t good enough? What if he didn’t suffer enough? What if he enjoyed something too much? When he was a monk, Luther fasted and prayed so much that he weighed almost nothing and basically destroyed his innards for the rest of his life. Even the Augustinian monks who were known for being a very serious group– even the leader of the monastery – was telling him to chill out.
He would spend hours and hours in confession every day, pouring out everything he could think of, and then go out and do as many religious things as possible, and then come back and confess more. He never felt that he was good enough for God could ever look upon with any kind of grace or love.
But there is comfort. That Jesus Christ, through His work on the cross, has fully satisfied God’s requirements for righteousness and justice, and through faith in Him we can become righteous before God. What does that mean?
Keep reading in Romans 3:20–25,
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
That section is so critical to understanding how we can go from unrighteous to righteous in the eyes of God. If doing a bunch of good deeds cannot save us and the Law of God only has the power to shows us our guilt and unrighteousness, then what can be done? God is the perfection of righteousness, perfect in all He does, cannot do wrong, and is the source of all right and wrong. He, therefore, cannot allow anyone to get away with unrighteousness, lawlessness, moral failure. It is contrary to His nature to allow wrong things to continue and not be dealt with, to allow sin to go unpunished, to allow a wrong to go unrighted. He must make things right. That’s why the Bible says that righteousness comes from God.
So, here is God’s plan, and what saved Martin Luther’s soul. Humanity stood condemned in our unrighteousness with no way out. Then, God put Jesus Christ “forward as a propitiation”. In other words, God laid the punishment for our unrighteousness on Jesus. Something had to be done to pay for the sins. The fine needed to be paid. The jail time had to be done. The electric chair had to be sat in. Justice demands it. Every lie, theft, murder, rape, disobedience, disrespect, blasphemy, and everything else had to be made right. God’s perfect justice demands that the perfect punishment for sin must be handed out.
But who could do it? No human being could do it because every person has their own sin. The only one who could stand in the place of sinners would be one who could stand before the judge as not-guilty. So, God, Himself came. God sent His Son Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, to be born in human flesh, to live a perfectly righteous human life, to be perfectly obedient to God’s Law – but then to be unjustly tried as guilty, betrayed by humanity, nailed to a cross, and executed as a sinner for things He’d never done. On that cross, he not only faced the wrath of Rome and Israel but the full might of God’s wrath. Then, once He had paid the fine, done the time, he offered to trade himself for anyone who would believe in Him – regardless of who they are, where they’re from, or what they’ve done – “for there is no distinction”. There’s no sin that cannot be forgiven by God because of Jesus. All one must do is believe they are sinners and accept that Jesus took their punishment, died on the cross, then rose again in victory.
2 Corinthians 5:21 says it this way:
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
There is no work to do, no Law to follow – just a person to believe. So, how do you know you are saved? I ask you: Do you believe that Jesus was sacrificed on your behalf, facing the justice of God, taking the punishment you deserved, paying for the sins you have committed? Do you believe Jesus did everything necessary, that “it is finished”, and there is nothing you can do to save yourself? If so, then by that faith you are declared righteous. God places your sins on Jesus, counts them as paid for, and then sees and treats you as though you had lived the same perfect life Jesus did. In God’s eyes we become as righteous as Jesus. God is just and also the justifier.
Abraham Saved by Faith
Turn to Romans 4 and I want to read what is going on there. The question that Paul is answering here is “How was Abraham, who lived before Moses and the Law, before Jesus and the Cross, saved from his sins? Was it different back then? We know Abraham wasn’t perfect, he sinned just like anyone else, so was everyone before Jesus condemned? Or did God make allowances for sin because Moses hadn’t written the law yet? If salvation comes only by faith in Jesus, then how could anyone have be saved before He came?”
The answer for Abraham is the same as for us. Abraham was justified, made righteous, by His faith in the Word of God. Start in verse 20 where it speaks of Abraham’s faith:
“No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness.’ But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”
So, the Old Testament way of salvation was the same as the New Testament way: by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to God’s Word alone. Abraham was an unrighteous sinner like everyone else, yet in His grace, God chose to save him (Remember, Abraham did not choose God.) Abraham then responded to God’s invitation in faith, leaving his homeland to do what God told him to do. Throughout his life Abraham struggled with sin, making bad decisions and disobeyed God sometimes, but he always kept his faith and grew deeper with God as the years went by. It eventually culminated in his ultimate act of faith on Mount Moriah, when he believed God’s promise so much that he was willing to sacrifice the only human who could have fulfilled the promise, his son Isaac. It was an act of supreme faith.
Just as God chooses Christians out of the world, so he did with Abraham. Just as Christians cannot be justified or made righteous by obeying the law, neither was Abraham. Just as we believe in God’s Word and demonstrate that belief through obedience, so did Abraham. But what did Abraham believe?
Move back up to Romans 4:1-5,
“What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…”
He simply believed what God had told him. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh (John 1) and Abraham had faith in the Word of God. Abraham didn’t know the name Jesus Christ, but his salvation required a faith like ours. He was not justified by anything he did, not by works, otherwise he could have bragged that he saved himself. No, just like us, Abraham believed God’s Word, trusted that God would save Him, that God would provide, that God would bring forth the salvation of the world through his family line, and then demonstrated that faith by living a life that reflected those beliefs. He was the father of our faith.
Let me conclude with this. The admonition here is that we always keep in mind that God is right in all He does, meaning not only that He is trustworthy, but that He will make everything that has gone wrong right. He will punish sinners and fix everything that has gone wrong. It also means that for their own good, God will discipline any of his people that are headed toward sin. Therefore, we ought to take sin very seriously. We ought to pursue righteousness because Jesus said that God blesses those who do. (Matt 6:33)
But we also need to remember that even though God’s standard is absolute perfection, we cannot save ourselves by mere obedience or religious practice. The only way to be right with God is to believe that Jesus died on the cross for your sins. If you don’t believe that, then you are still in trouble, but if you do, that means that for believers, the pressure is gone. The pressure to perform has been taken away. The fear of whether or not we are good enough to get to heaven has been taken away. The worry as to whether or not God is punishing us for our sins is gone because we know Jesus took that punishment. It means knowing that you if you’ve asked forgiveness and believe in Jesus, no matter what you’ve done, how messed up you think you are, you are right with God. You have been declared righteous by God, and who has the power to reverse His decrees? No one. Jesus has done everything we need in order that you can be saved and made part of God’s kingdom, and there is nothing you can do to lose that (Rom 8).
The only question you must ask yourself when you feel like God is against you, when you feel unworthy of His love, when you are tempted to do something in order to impress Him enough to listen to you, is this: Do you believe that Jesus has done enough make you righteous before God? If the answer is yes, then rest in that, come before your Heavenly Father with confidence, and trust that Jesus work is enough.
If you’ve been following along, you know that we’re a little stuck in Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism and that a bunch of the sermons I’ve preached over the past while are actually one, long sermon divided up into more manageable pieces. It started with a quick review of the Heidelberg and the importance of theology and doctrine to our relationship with God, then moved on to talking about the attributes of God. We started with the most complicated, that being that God is Triune, and then moved into a discussion of what theologians call “General Revelation”, which is how we can know there is a God if we don’t have a Bible or prophets or anyone else to tell us – and that is through Creation and our Conscience.
That brought us to the problem of the Virtuous Pagan and showed us that General Revelation only has the power to condemn us – to show us that we are sinners and stand condemned before God. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that God did not leave us condemned. Instead, God gave us not only General Revelation, but “Special Revelation”, more information about who He is, what He wants, what happened to us, and how He is going to fix the problem. He did this in a few different ways. He spoke to prophets, gave people visions, performed miracles, and inspired others to write laws, prophecies, and teachings in a book we call the Bible. And most importantly, the most important of the Special Revelations is that we get to see who God is in the person of Jesus Christ.
Over the past couple sermons, we’ve been working through some of the attributes of God that God has presented in the Special Revelation of scripture. If you recall, we are breaking these attributes down into three sections. First, God in relation to the whole world. Second, God in relation to mankind. And third, God in relation to Himself.
We’ve already covered “God in relation to the world” where we talked about His Omnipotence, Omniscience, and his Omnipresence – or that He is All-Powerful, All-Knowing, and Ever-Present. Today we are going to move on to talking about “God in relation to mankind”.
But, as I said before, it is both boring and unhelpful to simply list a bunch of attributes and read the verses from which we learn them, so we are going to further divide the discussion into more helpful categories. That way we not only see what God has said about Himself but what it means to us as an admonition (or warning), how that brings us comfort, and how we see that attribute in the life of Jesus.
I apologize for this super-quick review, but if you want to catch up, I encourage you to read or listen to the other sermons. Also, stay around for Overtime after service and ask any questions you want. My hope here is to not only give you information to help you understand God but to inspire you to pursue a deeper, consistent and more meaningful relationship with your Heavenly Father, and for that, as I said last week, it’ll mean some homework for you.
God in Relation to Man: Holiness
The first of God’s attributes in relation to mankind is His holiness. This is such a critical attribute because it helps us understand a lot about who God is and how He works. Some theologians and commentaries even call this the “chief attribute of God”. More important knowing that He is all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present, or even that God is love, is that God is holy. This is an attribute we see repeated hundreds and hundreds of times in scripture.
In scripture, we hear the host of heaven saying, “Holy, holy, holy” of God in the Old Testament (Isa 6:3) and Jesus in the New (Rev 4:8). The primary meaning of the word “Holy” is to be separate, special, different, set apart. God is totally different than man, totally separate from man, because God has no sin, no spot, no stain, no darkness. He is perfect in his moral purity and completely separate from His creation. We see glimpses of His holiness in this world, but they are only reflections of Him, like seeing the sun through the clouds, or light seen from around a corner.
But occasionally in the Bible, God chooses something out from His creation and comes near to it – and that place is called “Holy”. It becomes holy because it has come in proximity to the Holy God.
Holy by Proximity
When God was creating the world, he rested on the seventh day and “made it holy” (Gen 2:3). When Moses came near the burning bush he had to remove his sandals because was now on “holy ground” (Exo 3:5). The High Priests robes and jewelry became “holy garments” because they were only used in the “Holy place”, the temple (Exodus 28). When Joshua and Israel crossed the Jordan River, they “consecrated themselves” or “made themselves holy” before they went into the “holy land” (Josh 3:5, Psalm 78:54). When David was hungry in 2 Samuel 21, the only thing he found to eat was the “bread of the Presence” or 12 loaves of “holy bread” which were only for the priests to eat (1 Sam 21:4-6). Jerusalem is called the “holy city” (Neh 11:1; Rev 21:10).
In Jerusalem was the “holy temple” (Ps 5:7) and inside the “holy temple”, separated by a huge, heavy drape in royal colours and embroidered with pictures of angels, so no one could see inside, was “most holy place” or the “holy of holies” where sat the Ark of the Covenant, the Mercy Seat, the very throne room of God on earth (Exodus 26:31-33).
The veil wasn’t just to make the room separate though, it was a form of protection. It was in the Holy of Holies that God would appear, and even then he was clouded because anyone who would see the holiness of God would die. Therefore there was a veil and the only person allowed in this holy room was the High Priest, and he could only come once per year, and that only after washing himself, putting on special clothes, burning incense so the smoke would cover his eyes, offering sacrifices to atone for his sins and the sins of the people, and bringing sacrificial blood with him. (Lev 16:2, Exo 28; Heb 9:7). It was a serious and dangerous meeting because God is so holy it is actually dangerous to us.
Consider it this way. There are a lot of things in the world today that we can take a little bit of, but too much will kill us, right? This Christmas I bought my dad what I think is a unique present for Christmas. We went to a special store in Manotick that has bags and bags of different kinds of imported ————. (Not sharing! Dad reads these blogs!) He likes it so I made him a gift-set. Then I read an article online that said too much ———– can kill people 40 and over. So, yeah, I sent my dad a potentially lethal Christmas gift.
Actually, a lot of things in this world are lethal. We can drink a glass of wine, but too much alcohol and we die. Salt makes food taste better and we need it to live, but too much can kill you. Same with water. If you drink too much water in one shot, you can die. Humans need to work in order to live and function in this world, but if we only work, all the time, giving up eating, relationships, and sleep, we’ll die.
It seems that humans need impurities because pure versions of things tend to harm or kill us. We couldn’t see or live without the sun, but if we stare at it, it’ll burn out our retinas and we’ll go blind – stay out in it too long and it’ll cook you and then give you cancer. We need air to breathe, but pure oxygen will kill us.
Sin Separates Us From God
This is why sinful humans cannot be in the presence of God, why sin separates us. God’s holiness does not mean He cannot be around sin, but that sin cannot be around God. This is a really important concept and one that a lot of people don’t understand.
Sometimes we get this view in our head that the reason that sin is a problem, and why sin separates us from God, is because our sin would somehow taint His holiness. That somehow God keeps us away because He’s afraid that if we get too close that we’ll mess Him up. Some people believe that when the Bible says that God is “too pure to look upon evil” that it means he can’t see us, can’t be near us, can’t tolerate our presence. That isn’t it at all. Not even close.
The reason that Adam and Eve were removed from God’s presence and kicked out of the Garden of Eden wasn’t merely as a punishment, and certainly so that they wouldn’t infect God, but because their sin made the presence of God lethal to them. The reason for the veil in the temple was so people who got a glimpse in wouldn’t die.
God isn’t like that pristine white couch that your grandma or your friend had that no one wants or is allowed to sit on because you’re going to get it dirty. “No, sin cannot be in the presence of God because whenever God draws near to sin, the raging inferno of His… holiness washes all sin away.” And that includes us.
Open up to Isaiah 6 and let’s read the call of Isaiah the prophet together:
“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.’”
Do you see what happened there? Isaiah has a vision of God and what is his reaction? Terror. So far all he’s seen is God’s entourage. He’s seen some angels, felt an earthquake, heard an announcement, and saw some smoke, and he is convinced he is going to die. Why? Because of his sin. And he wasn’t wrong! God hadn’t shown up yet and if He had, Isaiah would have been consumed by the holiness of God. So what does God do? He sends one of the seraphim to touch a burning coal to Isaiah’s lips, to burn away the impurity, to atone for the sin. And then Isaiah can stand in the presence of God.
That’s why no one can be in the presence of God unless their sins have been dealt with first. Just as the High Priest needed washing, clothes changing, and blood sacrifice before he could even walk into an area where there was a clouded version of the merest hint of God’s holiness and glory, so any human needs to have their sin dealt with before they could be in the presence of God. Not to protect God from us, but to protect us from God.
This is why “good people go to heaven” isn’t true. This is why “if I do more good things than bad, then I can go to heaven” doesn’t work. This is why doing religious things doesn’t get you any credit with God. This is why not everyone goes to heaven. Everyone has sinned (Rom 3:23) and therefore literally cannot withstand the presence of God. When their sin comes near the presence of holy God they will be like straw before a blast furnace, they will be utterly destroyed.
The only solution is for us to be as holy as God, without imperfection, without blemish, without sin, without any condemnation, to be as perfect as God is – otherwise we are literally toast.
But how can a human become that holy? By ourselves, we can’t. That’s why we need the blood of Jesus, the sacrifice of Jesus, to atone for our sins, to wash away our sins, to cleanse us from unrighteousness. We need Jesus, the God-man, to take the entirety of God’s wrath against sin, to stand before the blast furnace of God’s holiness as our propitiation, as our sacrifice, as our stand-in. We need Jesus, the only man to ever live a perfectly holy life, to take that wrath, to die the death we should have, take the punishment we should take, pay the price we should pay, and then live again to prove He has conquered sin once and for all and has the power to not only forgive us but to make us clean to.
The Torn Veil
When Jesus was on the cross, right when He died, Matthew 27:50-51 says, “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” At that moment, something fundamentally changed about humanity’s relationship with God. No longer would we only be able to be able to meet God behind a curtain in a human temple after a bunch of preparation and sacrifices. Now, because of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice, perfect atonement for sin, because He had done His work, there was no longer any need for a barrier between God and Man that could only be breached once per year by one special person. Jesus stood before the blast furnace of God’s holiness and wrath and through His sacrifice made a way for us to stand before God.
Turn with me to Hebrews 9:6-14. Here’s how it describes the difference between our relationship with God before Jesus and after,
“These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”
Now, there is no longer a “holy of holies” where God’s Spirit dwells and which we must travel to visit. Now, everyone who believes in Jesus becomes a Temple and has the Holy of Holies inside them and carries God with them everywhere.
Before He was crucified, Jesus prayed to God for this-this way in John 17:20–23,
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
1 Corinthians 6:17-20 says it this way,
“But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.… Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?”
Let me close with our admonition and comfort in knowing that God is holy.
The admonition here, the warning, is that knowing how Holy God is, and how fundamental to His nature holiness is, God’s people should be filled with reverence for God and hatred towards sin. We should not take God lightly, use His name callously, or pretend that God is like us because He is decidedly not like us. That should inform our worship and words. And we should not take sin lightly. We should be pursuing holiness in our lives, our conduct, and our words, because we know that sin put Jesus on the cross, separates us from God, and has caused every problem in our lives and this world.
1 Peter 1:14–16 says it this way,
“As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”
But the comfort here is that we are not left to pursue that holiness alone. In fact, we can’t. It is The Lord Himself, by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the blood of Jesus Christ, that or uncleanliness is taken away and we have the ability to pursue holiness. We can’t white-knuckle being holy. It must come from God. We must be dependent on Him (1 John 1:7).
Turn with me to Ezekiel 36:22–29. Listen to what God says there about what He will do and why:
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses.”
This is what Jesus did for all believers who call out to Him. This is what Jesus offers to all people who see their sin and hate it; all those who are sick of themselves, who are done trying to hide their sin or trying to impress God or others, but feel like garbage inside. This is what Jesus offers to those who know they need help beyond anything that this world has to offer; to those who feel guilty, shameful, used, worn, and afraid. He offers holiness and the ability to live a holy life in His presence.
The warning is that we must take the holiness of God seriously, that our sin condemns us, clouds us, and infects us and others through us – but the comfort is that God has offered to save us from ourselves, clean us up, and make us holy, if we are only willing to admit we are sinners, ask for his forgiveness, take ourselves off the throne of our life, and put Jesus in charge.
 ESV Study Bible (Isaiah 6:3)
 Brower, K. E. (1996). Holiness. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 477). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
As I said a couple weeks ago, working through all the things that Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism wants to go through takes a lot longer than just one week. In fact, we’ve done four sermons on Day 8 and it’s going to take us at least two more weeks to get on to Day 9. What we’re working on right now is a discussion of the Attributes of God, which is an understandably complex topic and makes me very thankful for my commentaries.
Actually, we’ve been learning about this topic for a while now. It all started back at the end of August when I preached a special sermon I entitled “Bible Reading, Prayer, & The Crucible” – which on my computer is actually called “DO your devos” – and was grounded in Psalm 119:9 which said, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.” That sermon was meant to inspire you to commit to reading, studying and praying through the Word of God more consistently to prepare you for what was to come.
With that groundwork set, I went on vacation for a few weeks hoping your heart would soften as you studied and prayed. When I came back, we had a few special weeks in a row. The first was a sermon about how to prepare for the Lord’s Supper through self-examination, the next was Volunteer Appreciation Sunday, and then came the Thanksgiving Sermon where we explored what it means that “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.”
I capped off that prep time with a sermon called “Greater Knowledge Leads to Greater Love”, which was about the importance Bible Study and how diligent exploration of God’s Word will deepen your love for and confidence in God.
Did you notice the bookends? In August we started with the bookend of the importance of reading your Bible devotionally and prayerfully, followed by some weeks to practice, the Lord’s Supper to get your heart right, a Thanksgiving message to inspire worship, and then the other bookend about not just reading your Bible, but studying theology to know God better. This was all done purposefully to slowly give you time to prepare for Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism.
Just four weeks ago, on October 14th, I ended that final bookend sermon by saying this:
“Next week, and for the next little while, we are going to get into a section of the Heidelberg Catechism that is going to be challenging… and I want you to be prepared for it. I will try to teach it well, but I also need you to prepare yourself for it. I need you to till up the soil of your heart and be ready to listen to whatever God chooses to sow there by praying and asking God to help you learn and understand. I need you to try to appreciate the importance of these subjects and fight against the instinct to let it gloss over you because of its technicality.”
I fear many of you didn’t take my words to heart, nor have many of you heard what I’ve been saying since August. I’m not sure why. I’m not sure what to blame for the disconnect between what I’ve been trying to teach from the Bible and the practical application I’ve been asking you to make in your life. I’m confused and frustrated that what I’ve been saying and repeating for so long has been either lost, ignored, or has missed the mark.
It’s possible that I haven’t explained it well and that the sermons were confusing or boring or poorly written and you didn’t understand what I was asking you to do. If so, I ask your forgiveness. If that’s the case, please let me know so I can try something else, or come to Overtime and ask for clarification.
My Worry: Apostasy
What I’m worried about is that there are people in this church, a church which I believe loves God and His Word very much, are growing distant from Him and don’t notice. I’ve heard reports and had discussions which have told me that many people here are not even doing the very basics of daily Bible reading and prayer. It’s not that I’m frustrated that you aren’t reading systematic theologies or books from the second century. My concern is that there are too many here who neglect prayer and rarely or literally never pick up their Bible.
I worry that you have felt the Holy Spirit convict you about reading, praying, journaling, meditating – but you have repeatedly, over and over, pretended you didn’t hear Him, kept doing what you were doing before, and are now very used to living without being fed by the Word and Spirit of God, that your knowledge has shrunk, your spirit has grown cold, and your conscience has hardened, and you hardly even notice it anymore. You are used to starving your spirit and feeding on the world. You are used to being spiritually sick and the medicine of God’s Word doesn’t taste good to you anymore.
As your pastor that concerns, frustrates, and frightens me. It makes me feel like the author of Hebrews. Turn with me to Hebrews 5:11.
Hebrews, some commentators believe isn’t so much a letter as it is a transcription of a sermon. Here, in Hebrews 5:11 we hear the preacher, right in the middle of explaining some complicated theology about Jesus, pause his whole argument to say to his listeners,
“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:11–14)
This describes some people here today and in many churches in North America. Not everyone, but some. These are people who have been Christians for a while – years – but through neglect of their souls, neglect of reading, prayer, study, meditation, have become “dull of hearing”. And I’m not just talking to the seniors or older people, I’m talking to the teens too who were born in Christian homes, have been part of a church for well over a decade, and have sat through hundreds of sermons and classes. They “ought to be teachers” by now, but don’t even know “the basic principles… of God.”
This isn’t because you went to a bad church or because you didn’t have access to good study materials. It isn’t because you live in a country where there aren’t any Bibles. It’s not because you didn’t have time to do it or because the persecution made it dangerous to be seen with a Bible or be caught praying. It’s simply neglect. It isn’t a priority for you.
The Cost of Neglect
And that neglect is causing problems. Notice what the cost is of the neglect of your soul in this passage. It says that those who are “unskilled in the word of righteousness” are immature – they remain spiritual babies. Why? They are malnourished. When you are a baby, it is appropriate for you to nurse, to be fed only by your mother’s milk. But some people, year after year, live on nothing but milk – the basic, elementary doctrines of the faith. They never eat meat, never delve into the complexities of a deeper relationship with God.
What would you say if you saw a 10 or 15-year-old boy nursing from their mother’s breast? What if you learned they had never eaten anything else? What would that child look like? Thin, sickly, malnourished. Why? Because their mother’s milk isn’t enough for them to live on anymore. The mother can’t produce enough.
In the same way, a weekly, 30-minute sermon cannot produce all that is necessary for you to have a healthy, growing, vibrant, strong faith. And if this is all the spiritual food you get, then your soul is going to be thin, sickly, and malnourished.
And there is a cost to that. Look back at the verse. A “mature” believer, as in one who is consistently feeding themselves good, complex spiritual food, has “their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
What does that mean for someone who is immature? It means their “powers of discernment”, meaning their supernatural ability to know right and wrong, truth and lie, will be unpracticed and unable to “distinguish good from evil”.
It’s not even that neglecting the Word and prayer makes you spiritually weak and therefore an easier target for temptation, but that you won’t even see the temptation coming because your judgement is so clouded, your spiritual radar so gummed up, that you aren’t even able to discern the difference between right and wrong!
Jesus Takes This Seriously
Some of you may argue with me saying that of course, you know right and wrong. Some of you will argue that do lots of good things for the church and for other people and therefore how can I say that you are in spiritual danger or are spiritually immature. Some of you will argue that you have gone through a lot lately, are facing a lot of difficulties, and that there are lots of excuses for why you aren’t reading your Bible, praying, meditating or studying.
Keep your thumb in Hebrews 5, but please turn with me over to Revelation 2. If you have a red-letter Bible, you will notice that this section is red because these are the words of Jesus to a big group of believers meeting in the city of Ephesus. Let me read them to you, starting in verse 2.
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.”
This is a good church, full of people who are patient in suffering, disciplined in their lives, working hard to be biblical in their conduct, and have shown a lot of endurance in their faith. But read verse 4,
“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”
For Jesus to “remove the lampstand” means that they would lose their status as a church and Jesus would treat them like apostates, people who only pretended to be Christians but were in fact, unbelievers. Why would He do this? Because they no longer did things out of love for God, but were just going through the motions of being a good church, and were therefore not really His people. Even though they looked good on the outside their love for Jesus was non-existent. Their private devotional life, their private prayer and study life didn’t happen, and their gathering with each other to serve and share wasn’t motivated by love. That put their church in danger of a serious judgement.
Flip over a page to Revelation 3:1 and let’s read something similar there too, written to the church in the city of Sardis.
“I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.”
Sounds similar, doesn’t it? They look alive, but they are dead. Reminds me of what Jesus said to the Jewish leaders in Matthew 23:27-28 and said,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
What makes them hypocrites? What’s wrong with their “works”? That’s a word used in both of these passages. What “works” are those? What made Ephesus’ and Sardis’ works incomplete? Think of 1 Corinthians 13. They lacked love. Their works weren’t done because of love for God or others. They were dead works that just looked spiritual.
The Danger of Apostasy
Please understand that I’m not saying this because I’m angry with you. I’m not saying this to try to make you pay better attention to my sermons. I’m preaching to myself as much as I am to you because I’ve struggled with this too. The enemy works hard to distract us away from Bible reading, study, prayer and meditation, and he’s very good at it.
What I want you to see is that even though I’ve been preaching and preparing you for months, giving you reason after reason, resource after resource, for how you can connect with God more regularly, many of you are in the same spiritual condition that you were before I said anything. Some even worse off.
Yes, as your pastor, I find that frustrating because I wonder what I did wrong or what I could have done better to convince you, but there’s another emotion that is even greater than my frustration – and it’s fear for you. I’m scared for you.
Jesus has some serious warnings in Revelation for people who say they are Christians and do Christiany things but lack personal, private, devoted time in prayer and study. There are threats and promises made by Jesus against those that pretend – and not just the loss of the ability to discern right and wrong. If you’ve lost your thirst for God’s word, you are in real trouble. Sin is crouching at your door, Satan is prowling around you and your family, ready to devour you, but you have no spiritual armour to protect yourself, your family, your church or your neighbourhood. How can a soldier who is starving and weak, untrained and undiscerning defend themselves or anyone else? But more than that! What if your refusal to obey causes you even more harm?
Turn back to Hebrews again, this time to the next part in Hebrews 6:1. Here we read about the dangers of apostasy, the danger of pretending to be a Christian but then falling away from the faith. You are worse off than if you had never known about Jesus, (2 Peter 2:20-22).
After talking about how hard it is to teach immature believers he describes the “milk”, the elementary doctrines or basic principles that all believers should have a good handle on and which he wants to move past. It says,
“Therefore, let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits.”
But listen to why it is so important to move past the “milk” and onto the “solid food”; why it is so important to do the work of personal Bible study, private prayer, and meditation. It is because those who neglect their souls, neglect growing mature in the faith, who remain babies, are in danger of being apostate.
“For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.”
This passage describes those who have heard the gospel but not accepted it, who know about the light of salvation but have never repented from the darkness, who have tasted what heaven is like by being around God’s people and tasted the Lord’s Supper but have never actually become a follower of Jesus, who have even experienced miracles and felt the presence of God by being part of a Christian community but have never invite the Holy Spirit into their lives, who have “tasted the goodness of the word of God” in preaching and applying the wisdom to their lives but only taste little bites – never consuming the whole of God’s word to make it part of them. These people, who experience the corona, who skirt the edges of faith but never repent and commit – once they hit some kind of wall – are in danger of making their hearts so hard towards God that they may instead come to hate Him.
You’ve probably met these people. Who once came to church, sounded like Christians, but now hate God, hate the church, hate Christians. Their familiarity with the faith, which was devoid of a personal relationship with Jesus, actually became the main ingredient that caused them to hate God.
That’s the danger of coming to church, listening to sermons, calling yourself a Christian, but refusing to submit to God’s call to repentance from your sin and commitment to Bible reading, study, meditation and prayer. You may think you are a Christian when in fact you are a hypocrite who is one push away from becoming an apostate that hates God. And if you don’t think that’s possible, ask that person who left the church. Or listen to the negative language you’ve mumbled under your breath or even said aloud about God and other Christians over the past while and ask yourself what that says about how far you are from walking away for good. Why? Because you have not repented when God told you to and you have not been attending to the needs of your soul. Your faith has no roots and is being slowly choked out (Mat. 13:21-22).
The passage in Hebrews gives hope though. In verse 9 the preacher says,
“Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
I feel the exact same way. I look at you and I am “sure of better things” because I have experienced your love for God and for me. I have seen the energy you put into “serving the saints”, how much patient kindness you have shown me and the people around you. And it is my “desire” for “each one of you” to turn that energy, that “earnestness”, toward your private devotional time, your daily bible reading, your prayer life, your meditation and journaling and study.
It’s not really that hard to start because you are surrounded by all kinds of help. Use the free Our Daily Bread devotional guide, read any of my books which I can give to you for free. Watch some sermons on YouTube, subscribe to a podcast that reads or studies the Bible, There are 20,000 bible studies to go through on RightNow Media. Surely one of them will do the trick! Call up one of your elders or deacons and ask them what they do for their devotional time or to meet with you and help you design a personalized quiet time. Ask them to hold you accountable by calling you every week. Create a small group in your home dedicated to learning how to read, pray and study better.
Do what you must because the consequences of not following through in this area of your life are dire.
John McCrae and Flanders Fields
In Canada and around the world, the poppy has long been a symbol of the immeasurable sacrifice made by those who have died defending and preserving the rights and freedoms of others. It was a Canadian physician, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae who made it a symbol of Remembrance Day. I did some reading about him and learned about how his poem came about.
In April 1915, John McCrae was in the trenches near Ypres, Belgium, an area traditionally called Flanders, where some of the heaviest fighting of the First World War took place/ During what was known as the Second Battle of Ypres neither side was giving way. On April 22, the enemy used deadly chlorine gas against Allied troops in an attempt to break the stalemate. Despite the debilitating effects of the gas, Canadian soldiers fought relentlessly and held the line for another 16 days.
In the trenches, John McCrae tended to hundreds of wounded soldiers every day. He was constantly surrounded by the dead and the dying. We can get an understanding of what saw by reading part of a letter he sent to his mother around that time.
“The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare. We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds…..And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.” (Prescott. Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae, p. 98)
On the day before he wrote his famous poem, one of McCrae’s closest friends was killed and buried in a makeshift grave with a simple wooden cross. Because of the absence of a chaplain, he himself presided over the funeral. Wild poppies were already beginning to bloom between the crosses marking the many graves. We can imagine him meditating over what his friend, and the many soldiers who had fallen before him, would say to those who were still living in the trenches –holding the line. It was through his poem that he gave them a voice. (http://www.vac-acc.gc.ca/remembers/sub.cfm?source=history/firstwar/mccrae/flanders)
It reads like this:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
During the summer of 1917 Lieutenant Colonel McCrae was troubled by attacks of asthma and bronchitis, possibly aggravated by the chlorine gas he inhaled at Ypres. On January 23rd,1918 he was admitted to hospital with pneumonia. He died five days later at the age of 46 and was buried in Wimereux Cemetery north of (Bull-oy ne) Boulogne, not far from Flanders fields.
No Greater Love
Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:13) We take time on Remembrance Day to honour those who have laid down their lives serving our country. It is a terrible loss when a soldier dies in battle, and we will often say that their life was “taken from them”. An enemy, took this soldier’s life. But their life was not only taken from them – it was given by them, laid down by them, because they were willing to put themselves in harm’s way – standing in front of the innocent, defending their countrymen, placing themselves where the danger would be greatest, knowing what could happen, so others could be safe. Their sacrifice was a choice. One that ought to be remembered.
Jesus Christ and The Cross
As Christians, one thing we do every week – not only once a year, but every Sunday – is to remember the One who willingly laid down His life not to defend our nation, but to save our souls; Jesus Christ. What makes Jesus’s sacrifice different than that of the soldiers’ is that we can never say that anyone “took Jesus’ life”. The symbol of the Poppy is a powerful symbol of sacrifice and dedication, but it pales in comparison to the most perfect symbol of sacrifice – the cross.
In John 10:17-18 Jesus says, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” We often say that God sent Jesus to die on the cross, but we must also remember that Jesus is God and chose, even though He didn’t have to, and could have walked away at any time, to give His life in our place.
We are the ones who committed cosmic treason by sinning against God. We are the ones who deserve death and Hell. We are the ones who should have received our just punishment. Yet, because of Jesus’ love for us, He was willing to literally give His life for ours.
It was neither Satan, nor the Jews nor the Romans who put Jesus on the cross. His life was not taken by someone else. Jesus put Himself there. He had the power and authority to stop His suffering at any time, but He stayed out of obedience to God and love for us so we might be saved from damnation.
A soldier’s life and death can inspire great things. Politics and worldviews around the globe have been shaped by the death of individuals and battalions who have fallen in battle. World leaders, religious authorities, and common people everywhere, can point to the soldier as an example of bravery, tenacity, excellence, dedication, and sacrifice.
But the Christian understands this best of all because we see all those attributes most perfectly in Jesus. It is His perfect sacrifice that compels Christians to worship, serve, pray and give their own lives to Jesus in return. The fact that Jesus exchanged His life for mine is the most powerful message I have ever heard. That kind of sacrificial love boggles the mind. I don’t any believer is fully able to process what Jesus has done for them.
Martyrdom and Persecution
But, there are some who can more than others. In the same way that a soldier understands Remembrance Day better than most, it is those under persecution for their faith and those who have sacrificed themselves because of the name of Jesus, that can understand what He did on the Cross better than most. Like Remembrance Day, Martyrdom and Persecution aren’t subjects we are comfortable talking about. They evoke a lot of emotion, and therefore some people prefer to avoid the subjects altogether. But it’s important, and I think today as we look at Remembrance Day, is the right day to talk about it.
The word Martyr itself comes from the Greek word MARTYS which means “witness”, as in a witness in a courtroom. It literally refers to those who were willing to give an official testimony before civil authorities. As Christians gave their lives for their faith, pointing to Jesus as the reason for their sacrifice, it came to be known as the term for those who were suffering in the name of Jesus,and finally settled to be the word people use to describe someone who is so committed to their faith, so willing to testify before anyone – even a persecutor – of their commitment to their beliefs,that that they are willing to die. The ultimate witness of truth.
But this isn’t just yesterday’s problem. Some people may think that Christian martyrdom and persecution ended hundreds of years ago, but it didn’t. It’s a present reality for many people today, and we’re hearing about it more and more in the news. The website Voice of the Martyrs, among others, is dedicated to telling those stories. This shouldn’t be a surprise though. Jesus promised that anyone who serves Him will risk persecution and martyrdom.
Jesus looked right at his followers and said in John 15:18-20, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
And there is no point at which this will stop. It is a future reality as well. When the Apostle John was given the revelation of the future he saw this, “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” (Rev 6:9-11)
It has happened, it is happening, it will continue to happen, and it’s going to get worse. Thank God that today, as we sit here in this room, we are not in a country like North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, or Iraq where Christians live in constant fear of losing their lives because of their faith. But it is coming and we should pray it doesn’t come soon.
A Special Place in the Kingdom
For those to whom it has come, let us remember this: Jesus loves and honours those who suffer and are martyred in His name. They aren’t suffering or killed because God loves them less or forgot them because they are cursed, or because they didn’t have enough faith. They did not suffer because of their sin –Jesus already paid for that. They were not abandoned by God because they had done something wrong. Their death was attended by God, and Jesus was next to them in every moment. Our identification with suffering as losing God’s blessing is a very Western, very wrong idea. The Bible says that Martyrs have a special place in His Kingdom.
I don’t want to get into a whole study of the end times right now, but listen to the special place Jesus affords martyrs during the end times. Revelation 20:4-5, “ThenI saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.”
These men and women are not forgotten in the eyes of God. They are not abandoned in their suffering. No, these martyrs have a special place beside Jesus in the kingdom and will be given things byGod that those who are not martyred will not have or experience.
A Realistic Picture of Christianity
When a soldier signs up to defend their country, whatever their motivations, the government is given the responsibility to train them for the job they will be asked to do. They need to teach the troops how to obey orders, improve their skills, fitness and strength, to learn how to care for and use their weapon. They must learn first aid so they can treat wounds, how to march so they can move as a unit, and study tactics so they can be prepared for battle.
It would be a disservice to the recruit if they weren’t given an accurate picture of life as a soldier. It would be foolish if boot-camp was an easy place to be, and if the officers lied about what life in the service was like.
When Jesus spoke about the Christian life, He didn’t paint a rosy picture for those who would believe in His name. In fact, the life he described for those who follow Him seems hard, unfair, and dangerous. In the same way, when Jesus was sending His disciples out to preach that The Messiah had come and the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand, He said,
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles…. [and a few verses later] Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:16-22)
Being a follower of Jesus requires the commitment of our entire being. Our lives, our choices, our hearts, our possessions, our plans, our marriages, our families, will be tested. Those who believe in Jesus must be ready to give everything to Him because it may be asked of them – knowing that Jesus has already given everything for us.
What Sustains a Persecuted Christian?
A lot of people practice their faith the same way they choose a car, a piece of art, a vacation, or food. They go by taste. “I like trucks better than cars, modern art better than classical, warm places over cold ones, black licorice over red.” If they like that part of the Bible or theology or Christian discipline, they keep it. If they don’t like it they throw it away. They see Christianity as a smorgasbord of options from which they get to pick and choose.
When talking about their faith they say things like “This is what I believe. It might not be true for you, but it’s true for me and that’s good enough. We all need to find what works for us, and create our own truths, our own version of God. Then we can be happy.”
God forbid you call yourself a Christians to make your family happy, or because it’s politically helpful, or culturally expected, or because you like the idea. That faith will not sustain you when persecution comes. The only way to stand up to persecution, to suffering, to the inconvenience that comes with being a Christian, is to believe with every fibre of your being that what Jesus says is true.
We are often amazed by those who are able to withstand persecution, even unto death, and wonder if we would be able to do the same. What gives them the strength to sustain their faith during those difficult times?
In a word, “Assurance”. Hebrews 11:1 says “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…”
God doesn’t allow us to pick and choose things about Him. We don’t have the right to decide our own morality, or what we think God is like. Our God is a revealed God. We may not like what He has revealed, but that doesn’t change who He is. We’re not talking aboutsubjective truths based on our preferences and tastes. We’re talking about objective truths. As surely as 1+1=2, as consistently as the force of gravity keeps us on the ground, and as absolutely sure we are of our very existence, so is the objective truth that God has revealed Himself and His will in a very singular way; through His Word, through the person and work of Jesus Christ. These are not truths to be chosen amongst, picked through for what we like and don’t like, but truths that are meant to be found, taught, discovered and believed.
Christians who suffer through persecution, or for that matter, Christians who suffer through anything in this life, learn that they don’t have the option of treating their faith in Jesus as a pie-in-the-sky, subjective truth which they can pick up or put down at their convenience. For those who suffer, their beliefs must have certainty. Suffering tests the quality of our faith. Their relationship with Jesus can’t be merely based on peer pressure, feelings, or fashion. If your faith is only as strong as your feelings, then you are in real trouble.
Your decision to be a Christian must be a very real one, because it affects every moment of your life, from when you get up in the morning to when you go to sleep at night. If God changed your heart, revealed His presence, sent His Son, made you His, and sealed you salvation by His Holy Spirit, then you must live that way. When you go through suffering or persecution you faith is no longer your opinion – it becomes either true or false, life or death – because you need to be absolutely certain you’ve put your faith in the right person.
In suffering we are sustained by what we “know”. When Job was going through is great suffering he said, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last, he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh, I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” (Job 19:25–27)
Nebuchadnezzar looked at Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and said to them, “…if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”
And their response was, “Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Da 3:15–18)
How could they do that? Certainty.
The heroes of the faith in the scriptures and the Christian martyrs who have come since, were not certain in themselves. It wasn’t about their own strength, their own will, their own abilities. They were not strong in themselves. They did not build their lives on their own foundation. Their strength lay in the God they knew would deliver them.
When Paul was under arrest for preaching and teaching Jesus, he said 2 Timothy 1:12 that he wasn’t ashamed ofhis suffering, nor the Gospel, nor Jesus. He said, “I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.”
When a suffering Christian prays, they must know with certainty that God hears them and will answer. They don’t have time for spiritual games, they need Jesus to help them. 1 John 5:14-15 says, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we knowthat he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.”
A believer in suffering must have certainty in the God who loves them and will deliver them, or they will fall apart and go all manner of other places for comfort. The question is whether or not they believe Jesus when He says in Matthew 6:31–34, “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. Butseek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
Or Romans 8:31-32, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
I believe that with the same certainty with which I believe 1+1=2. We should not be afraid to talk about Christian martyrs or those facing suffering because they teach us about being committed to Jesus. They, in their lives and deaths, point us to Christ and give us a picture of what it means to be totally free from hypocrisy, to be absolutely certain of their faith. They didn’t say one thing and do another. They said it, lived it, and it cost them their lives.
Let me close with a few simple questions to consider:
First, do you ever take the time to read the stories of the Christian martyrs? Have you readFoxe’s book of Martyrs, Jesus Freaks, or any other book about someone who died for their faith? Or, maybe do you skip over the difficult parts of scripture that talk about suffering? Let me encourage you to read those books and verses. They are a powerful way to challenge yourself and grow in your faith.
Second, how certainis your faith today? Is it subjective like a favourite flavour, or is it anunshakable, objective truth? When persecution comes, do you have your rootsburied deep in the truths of God’s word and the Holy Spirit’s presence in yourlife? Or, when suffering comes, do you find yourself falling into doubts,fears, poor coping strategies, sinful habits, even avoiding God and otherChristians? Could that be because you aren’t doing those things, like prayer,study, meditation, and worship, that are necessary to grow your faith deeper?
Third, are you avoiding something difficult, that you know God wants you to do, but you don’t want to because it will be uncomfortable or inconvenient? Do you walk away from situations where you could glorify God, choosing to pretend you are not a Christian in that moment, because acting like a Christian will bring unwanted attention? Is it possible that God has been calling you to do something important – or stop doing something – but you know that obeying in that way will bring a time of hardship or suffering… so you choose not to obey? If so, you are missing a great blessing.
A 2nd-century Christian author named Tertullian said “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” which means that it is possible that your sacrifice, your blood, your pain, your loss, your obedience, will be the seeds by which many others will grow in faith and obedience to Jesus. I don’t want you to miss out on that kind of blessing because you fear man more than you fear God!
There are many places in the world that only know about Jesus because one brave Christian was willing to obey God and go preach and die for the gospel. I do not want to suffer, nor should any of us, but Romans 5:3-5 is the absolute truth and cannot be circumvented. Whatis the recipe for hope? “…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” To believe that all suffering is evil is to deny what God can do with it. And to run from and try to avoid all forms of suffering is to avoid Jesus and thereby avoid building hope and faith – in yourself and others.