We had a phone call last Sunday afternoon that informed us that this could be my last week as pastor of Beckwith Baptist Church. As I said in the announcements, there’s a vote on Wednesday that will determine whether I’ll be around for six more months – or that this will be my last sermon – maybe ever. Many of you know the situation, so I’m not going to go over it here.
But, it’s a sobering thought. What if this really is my last sermon, ever? What if, after today, I go home, get told on Wednesday that I’m done, and then never stand in a pulpit again? Spending the week trying to figure out what that might look like has been strange and difficult – as all of life’s major transitions are.
I’m sure many of you have been through something similar. The death of a loved one, moving to another place far away, divorce, changing churches, some environmental disaster… all have a seismic impact on our lives. And it’s not always bad things that rock our little boats. Sometimes it’s good things – a new opportunity, a missions opportunity, meeting someone special, getting married, coming into some money, moving on to university, or starting a new career, are all events that cause stress and make us totter a bit, forcing us to find solid ground, get our bearings, and evaluate our lives.
For me, this week, the thought, “If this is my last sermon ever, what should it be?” has stuck in my mind. And as I chewed on it, one passage kept coming to mind – the Sermon on the Mount. It’s probably the best place I can think of to turn to find solid ground, true north, and a proper assessment of what our priorities should be.
Turn with me to Matthew 5-7 – the greatest sermon ever preached, given by the Lord Jesus while He sat on a hillside facing a magnificent view of the Sea of Galilee, to a huge crowd of people who had seen His miracles and wanted to know what He was all about. Jesus sat down to teach the small group that were committed to following Him – but the picture is of literally thousands of people all leaning over their shoulders listening in.
The Sermon on the Mount
If you’ve read this passage, then you’ll know there’s a lot going on here, and it’s very impactful – and there are a lot of perspectives on it. Some see Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as a list of instructions, the marching orders of their life, and check-list of ways to try to earn their way into heaven. Others see it as hyperbole, an over exaggeration of some unachievable ideal we should be shooting for, but can never achieve. Some see this as an instruction manual on how to be a super-Christian, better than everyone else, or think that it was only meant for the apostles, so it doesn’t apply to them. Some say we should be living these words out every day, while others teach that it only applies during the end times.
But what the Sermon on the Mount really is, is an inaugural address, a manifesto, a constitution, a sort of throne speech / state of the union address, where Jesus outlines what life in His Kingdom is all about. He, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, is looking at those who chose to follow Him – and those who were thinking about following Him – the nation He had founded when He chose Abram and Jacob and Moses so long ago – and told them what life in His Kingdom was supposed to look like, what He as King expected, what God as Creator expected, what the governing laws and judgments and priorities of His kingdom would be. The crowds had been schooled in the Pharisees version of what God’s ways were (which we’ve covered a lot of times so I won’t repeat it now) and here, Jesus gives a huge list of corrections.
If you’ve read it, you’ve probably noticed that Jesus goes through a lot of the Old Testament. He’s basically trying to rewire all the mess the Pharisees had created and give the proper interpretation and application of the Law and the Prophets. Why? So He could create a list of rules to live by? No…that’s what the Pharisees did. What Jesus was doing was giving people the recipe for an abundant, Godly life, full of peace, hope, joy, freedom, and forgiveness.
All they had heard before was about God’s anger and wrath, and how the only way to appease Him was through obeying depressing lists of joyless rules that made life miserable. They had been taught that anyone who was sick, oppressed, persecuted, poor, or miserable was clearly under God’s judgment. And that religion was a path to worldly health and wealth. Jesus corrects all of that.
At first, the Sermon on the Mount looks like a list of rules, but if you look closer, it’s actually a list of freedoms! It’s the words of a gracious and loving God showing His people how to live free of sin, vice, error, darkness, and fear of man. It’s teaching us how to really love people, and really connect with God – not just how to do religious stuff. It paints a picture of a God who knows us, loves us, even likes us as individuals, so much so that He wants us to have all the things our hearts desire – and is more than willing to give it. It’s a sermon full of unfiltered, unadulterated, clear, clean truth. No couching, no hemming and hawing, no giving two sides of the argument, no differing opinions, just the way of truth that leads to life – from the One who is “The Way, the Truth and the Life”.
Jesus kicks off the sermon with a bang, completely upending humanity’s entire understanding of how life works. He gives what we call “the Beatitudes”. Beatitude comes from the Latin word BEATUS which means “blessed” or “happy”, because that’s how they all start.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (5:3)
In other words, the citizens of the Kingdom He is about to describe, those who will be King Jesus’ workers and soldiers and priests, His adopted brothers and sisters who will be the co-heirs to the throne – will be people who realize they are spiritually bankrupt, unable to give anything of value to God, and who know they must absolutely depend on His mercy and grace for everything.
In one sentence Jesus blows their entire, corrupt, works based, honour based, hypocritical, religious system out of the water. He says, “My people, God’s true followers, aren’t the self-sufficient, arrogant, pious, holier-than-thou, popular, powerful, whitewashed-tombs you think are God’s favourites. God’s favourites, the blessed ones, the ones who have God’s ear, are those who know they have no good thing in them, no reason for God to love them, nothing to offer, and know they are wretched, sinful, and broken –but who know that every day they must depend on God for anything good, completely hoping in Him.”
And the rest of the Beatitudes, and really the rest of the Sermon on the Mount are about taking that first sentence apart. What does a humble, dependant, follower of God look like? Look at the rest of the beatitudes:
A citizen of God’s Kingdom mourns their sins, and the effects of sin in this world, and comes to God for their ultimate comfort. They don’t run to drink, drugs, sex, money, power, entertainment. They know their only real protection from sin is in the arms of God.
They are meek, or gentle, not lording power over others, but instead, serving them.
They are hungry for righteousness, thirsty for a clean, unpolluted soul.
They are merciful, showing undeserved kindness and forgiveness and patience to difficult people, treating them as they would want to be treated.
They are pure in heart. They don’t merely put efforts into looking good on the outside, but spend a lot more energy on asking God to purify their inner thoughts, motives, and desires.
They are peacemakers, overlooking the wrongs people do to them, and even putting themselves in places where there is strife and conflict, so they can infuse it with the love and forgiveness and the justice they’ve been shown by God.
They are the ones willing to face persecution, hate, reviling, gossip, slander, and all kinds of evil – doing battle for their King, entering the fray, taking the slings and arrows of the devil and the people that work for him –because their eye is on a greater prize, standing in the throne room of heaven and hearing, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
And you can see all these Beatitudes echoed throughout the rest of the sermon. Look at the next part about how the citizens of heaven are salt and light in the world. Salt isn’t seen when it’s at work, it’s humble in its influence. Light is always doing battle with the darkness, it’s brave in its influence.
Look further down to verse 21 about anger. Of course Jesus’ disciples get angry, just like God gets angry, but they know that what they do with that anger is what’s important. It’s not just about not hurting people, but about using that anger as fuel for righteousness.
Lust is similar. Just like getting angry isn’t something we can control, being attracted to someone isn’t either. It just happens. But godliness isn’t just about avoiding sleeping with them, it goes deeper. Lust isn’t about sex – it’s about controlling our appetites. Like our hunger for food, our sexuality isn’t something we can avoid – it can only be fed in a healthy, godly way. And the follower of Jesus hates sin so much, hungers for righteousness so much, longs for a pure heart so much, that they are willing to do anything, go to extremes, to avoid letting sin take residence in their heart.
And Jesus continues in verse 33when He talks about oaths. Godly people shouldn’t need external forces like contracts and oaths and promises and rules to make us keep our word. A Kingdom follower doesn’t need to lie, manipulate, or pretend. We know that words matter, that God is our provider, that we have inherent value, and that God is watching everything we do –knowing even our thoughts and motives – and so we simply live honestly.
The same with revenge or our enemies in verse 38. Think back to the description of a Christian in the Beatitudes. Before you stands your enemy. They’ve hurt you or someone you love, have lied to you or about you, have created a lose-lose scenario for you, and are standing there laughing. Now, if you are the king of your own universe, then you get to be judge and jury and executioner too. If your identity is in your pride, then you’re going to want to restore it at all costs. And so your anger will cause you to retaliate, seek revenge, dole out punishment. But, if you are poor in spirit, meek, merciful, a peacemaker who is willing to be treated badly for righteousness’ sake, then you’re going to have a completely different response. You’ll pity them, trust God to deal with them properly, forgive as you have been forgiven, let it go as Jesus let you go, give grace and love to this undeserving person, just as Jesus gave grace and love to an undeserving you.
Matthew 5 isn’t about rules – it’s about finding freedom in doing things God’s way. Religion, pride, out of control anger, lust, revenge, hatred – those are terrible burdens that ruin your life. Here, Jesus teaches us how to live free of those burdens through a life of love and grace.
Not turn to Matthew 6. I think Matthew 6 is probably my favourite part of the Sermon on the Mount – and not just because I wrote a book on it. It’s why I wrote a book on it!
A lot of Matthew 5 was action based. Do good deeds. Here’s what to do if you get angry. Here’s what to do if you lust. Here’s what to do if you have marriage problems. Here’s what to do at work and with social agreements. Here’s how to deal with difficult people.
But now the emphasis changes from things “to do” to “don’t do this”. I want to read this section a bit closer because, for me, it’s really applicable for today. Should this be my final sermon, I think the most helpful thing I could leave you with are the Lord’s words in Matthew 6. So let’s read them together:
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (6:1–4)
Again, this is obviously an indictment of the Pharisees, but also of everyone who thinks that God wants an external show of how religious you are. It’s a message to everyone who comes to church (or the Temple in their case) with anger, lust, fear, judgementalism, worry, pride, corruption in their heart, habitual sins that have taken over their lives – but have no intention of dealing with it. They walk into service with a heart crusted over with sin, and so everything in the service – the songs, the message, the scriptures, the people serving them, the opportunity to give generously, the chance to serve others, the needy people around them, the helpful people around them, the reminder in the Lord’s Supper and the preacher’s petition to repent – everything that is designed to help them to meet Jesus, to connect with God, to be renewed by the Holy Spirit – all bounce off and have no effect. Sure, they sing, and bow their heads, and chat afterward, ask how you’re doing, even bring a box of cookies to share, but none of the spiritual stuff affects their heart, lives, decisions, or souls. They always leave the same way they came in, unchanged, unrepentant, unaffected – ironically, usually thinking themselves better than everyone in the room who actually wept over their sin, shared their weaknesses, asked for help, sang with gusto even though they don’t have a good voice, who showed they didn’t know something by asking a question – they mock those people as weak and stupid – and leave church with an even harder heart.
Jesus says here, and really all over scripture in the Old Testament and New, that He couldn’t care less about you attending church, singing songs, or doing any other religious actions if you are not intimately connected to Him.
God hates hypocrites: people who pretend to be something they are not – religious hypocrites most of all. Which is why Matthew 7 – and so many of New Testament letters – spend so much time warning His followers to watch out for wolves that pretend to be sheep, thorn bushes that pretend to be grapevines, clouds without water, wandering stars that steer ships to the rocks, shipwrecking reefs hidden under the water. People who look like prophets, teachers, and miracle workers, but are actually liars and workers of lawlessness, sent by Satan to destroy the faithful and corrupt the church.
Perhaps the ultimate religious hypocrite is the one who is a hypocrite in prayer. Look at verse 5,
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
How can we know who these hypocrites are? Because they love to be seen as pious people. Their whole identity is wrapped up in people thinking how good they are. These are people who attend church, teach classes, serve on committees, play in the worship band, go on mission’s trips, and do all the Christian stuff – buy they’re not actually Christians. They’re not “poor in spirit”, they’re prideful and unrepentant. They don’t “mourn” their sin, they hide it. They’re not “meek”, they actually try to make sure they have the positions of highest influence. And they’re certainly not “merciful”, their critical, judgmental, and wrathful against anyone who opposes them. If you ever wonder if you’re dealing with a religious hypocrite, just imply that perhaps there might be some sin in their heart, that they might have the wrong motives, or that they’re not spiritually qualified for a position. This type of person will absolutely flip out.
I can’t tell you how many of these people I’ve served with, or watched serve, on various committees and boards over the past 20 years of ministry – and I’m sure you have too. They’re like a cancer on the church, and I’ve watched them ruin a lot of ministries, churches, pastors, and turn a lot of faithful, young Christians away from the church.
Worrying About Money Ruins the Church
The final part I want to go through, I think, is especially poignant for this church. I’ll leave Matthew 7 for you to study yourself, but I think verses 19-34 address something that I’ve heard talked about almost endlessly for the last 20 years: worrying about money. It really has been a non-stop topic for as long as I’ve been a pastor. It seems as though Christians believe that God will provide for them at home, at work, for missionaries, for their friends, their family, and every other ministry – but when it comes God miraculously providing for their church, suddenly all that faith goes out the window. It’s all impossible. There’s no money, no hope, no faith, no possibility of God providing.
They look at the budget and the money is a little down, and the response is always the same. For 16 years I’ve been attending church board meetings, and the response is always the same. Panic, argue, tighten the fist, and stop ministering to people.
If someone came to you as an individual and said, “I’m really worried about my finances. I’m losing my job, I’ve got bills to pay, and I don’t know what to do.” Or they said, “I believe God is calling me to go to the mission field, but I need to raise a bunch of money, and I have no idea what to do…” What would you say?
Pray about it. Trust God. Share your needs with friends. Keep tithing and be extra generous with your money, because God loves a cheerful giver and honours those who trust Him. Right?
Do you know what I hear from church boards, trustees, and church meetings? It’s the same thing every time: “What if we need to replace the roof? What if the furnace quits?” and the next thing is always the same: “We’d better cut all our funding to missionaries, stop doing outreach, kill our community programs, stop benevolent giving, stop buying Sunday school material for the kids…” Suddenly the physical building is far more important than any believer, ministry, or needy person in the community. Essentially, the church stops trusting God, stops being generous, stops doing ministry, tighten their fists and panics. Then they find a scapegoat and sacrifice them, because that’s easier than talking about the systemic sins within the whole church. Every single time.
You’d think that, as a group of believers, that when a financial crisis hits there would be more prayer meetings, more serving others, more generosity, right? That they’d unite together as a church family and bang on the doors of heaven, begging for mercy and provision. Nope. Suddenly, every meeting is about money. In fact, prayer meetings are cancelled in favour of meetings to talk about money. The elders, pastors, deacons, and ministry leaders are told to step aside, while the treasurer and trustees take up the time to talk about how dire things are, how desperate things are, and how hopeless things are. I’ve watched it happen so many times.
Then the younger Christians start to get confused and upset. Why are we talking so much about money? Why did we stop doing things for the community? Why did we stop helping missionaries? Why are there so many budget meetings, and why is everyone so upset all the time? So they leave the church.
Then the generous Christians, the faithful tithers, start to see that a bunch of people int eh church, the ones in leadership, don’t actually care as much about worship, evangelism, missions, and discipleship as they thought. It turns out that when the rubber meets the road, it’s really the building, the roof, the furnace, and the bills that matter. So they leave the church.
Then even the faithful Christians start to get frustrated. They want to do ministry. They want to pray. They want to talk about Jesus and trust God for help. They don’t want to argue about money and bewail how hopeless everything is, turning on each other to toss accusations and place blame. But they are told to be quiet, to not be so naïve. And, eventually, they leave the church too. Again, I’ve seen time and again.
And all that’s left are a group of people who talk about money, blame others for their problems, talk about the good old days, and spend their meetings talking about what they really reassure: the roof, the furnace, the floors, the carpets, the parking lot… and occasionally someone says what they really need is to “get some young people” into the church. I’ve seen it over, and over, and over…
But, let’s read Matthew 6:19-34 and see what Jesus has to say about this:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 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. But seek 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.”
The secret sauce for a joyful, abundant, growing Christian – and a joyful, abundant, and growing church – is there in verse 33, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
Instead of worrying and arguing and blaming and panicking – the simple questions are these: “What does God tell us to do? What does Jesus want from us? How should a kingdom citizen react to this situation? Is our King, our God, trustworthy, and kind, and generous, and helpful? If so, what does He want from us? What is the most righteous thing to do right now?” Even if it’s hard. Even if it’s counter intuitive. Even if it’s costly.
If we want “all these things to be added to us”, whether in our individual life, our family life, or our church life, we must ask, “What is the most righteous, godly, biblical, Christian thing that I can do, right now?” Is it to sell our possessions and give generously? Is it to seek or grant forgiveness from someone you’ve been avoiding? Is it removing an obstacle or temptation from your home because it’s corrupting your heart? Is it changing your schedule and priorities so you can pray and read and serve more? Is it to get on your knees and repent for the sins you’ve been keeping secret? Is it confessing your sins to another believer in hopes of getting healing and help? I don’t’ know what it is for you, but whatever it is, whatever the Spirit has been telling you for so long, that you’ve been ignoring and refusing – choose today to seek it first, as a Kingdom follower, a disciple of Jesus, and pursue that righteousness with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength… and trust that God will meet your needs “far more abundantly than all you might ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20) because that’s exactly what He promises.
**Sorry, no audio this week due to technical issues (of me not changing the batteries in the mic…🙄)**
Let’s turn back to our passage from last week, John 5:1–18.
“After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk.’ And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.
Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, ‘It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.’ But he answered them, ‘The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’’ They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?’ Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.’ The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.’
This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”
Last week, I began with the reminder to try to put ourselves into the passages we are reading, especially with those who Jesus interacts with, because if we are careful and willing, we will see ourselves reflected there. But the scriptures aren’t about us… they’re about Jesus. So in the forefront of our mind must always be not just “What is this saying about me?” But more importantly, “What is this saying about Jesus?”
Quick Review of the Structure of John
Remember, that’s John’s intention when writing this gospel – to paint a portrait of who Jesus is through story, symbolism, contrast, and reflection.
If we go back that that first graphic we looked at when starting this series, you’ll remember that John uses a lot of 7s in his book. In chapter 1, the introduction to the book, as Jesus gathers His first followers we see seven different titles for Him: “Lamb of God”, “Son of God”, “Rabbi”, etc. Then, in the first half of the gospel we see seven miracles, or “signs”, that point to important revelations of who Jesus is and designate the author’s divisions of thought: water into wine, healing the centurion’s son, healing a paralyzed man, feeding the 5000, healing a man blind from birth, and raising Lazarus from the dead. And peppered throughout the whole book are two sets of seven “I am” statements from Jesus, where He either make a claim about Himself, or simply uses the divine name that God gave to Moses, YHWH, as His own name. As I said before, there’s a lot of intricate story weaving in this book.
In the first four chapters (our chapters, not John’s), which we’ve already covered, we see Jesus interacting with five different types of people: a small gathering of Jewish people at a wedding, a larger gathering of people and Jewish leaders at the Temple, a one-on-one talk with a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, a one-on-one talk with a Samaritan woman at a well, and then Jesus talks to all of them while talking to a gentile, Roman centurion, about healings and signs.
In each of these interactions, Jesus shows something important about Himself. At the wedding, Jesus is inaugurating His Kingdom, kicking off His earthly ministry with a celebration, generosity, and all the symbolism that comes along with wine (which we talked about already). At the temple Jesus reveals that He is the true “temple of God” where heaven and earth meet, and declares Himself to be the Son of God, Messiah, and King. When meeting with the Rabbi in the middle of the night, He declares that He is the One sent by God to be a sacrifice for sin, and anyone who believes in Him must give up their religious hypocrisy and be born again with a new heart, through faith in Him alone. And then, all of those revelations come crashing together as he tells the most unlikely person, a sinful, socially rejected, Samaritan woman, that He is the Living Water, the Source of Eternal Life, the Perfect Rabbi, the Messiah and Christ – and she runs into town sharing Jesus claims with the other Samaritans and many are saved.
Last week, we moved into another sort of division where John shows us another sign, with more subdivisions. The sign, the miracle that designates the change in the story is the healing of the lame man at the Sheep Gate pool, but the subdivisions this time aren’t about connecting with people groups, but interacting with the important Jewish celebrations and religious feasts. And now, instead of Jesus going from place to place being accepted and followed – like the first four interactions were all about – now we see a whole bunch of rejection. The same groups that accepted him during the first section of the book all start to turn away until everyone is arguing about Jesus, the Jewish leaders do everything in their power to arrest, stone, and kill Jesus, and the only people left following Him are the twelve disciples. In fact, the opposition gets so fierce that right before the final miracle of the seven, the raising of Lazarus, as Jesus is about to walk back into Judea, the Apostle Thomas is so convinced their walking into an antagonistic hornet’s nest, says to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (11:16) And the story of Lazarus leads directly into the second half of the book, all about Passion Week, the last seven days before Jesus was crucified.
Jesus, the Sabbath, and the Pharisees
So, as we turn back to the story we are looking at today, the healing of the man at the Sheep Gate Pool, we have to ask ourselves, “What does this say – what are we meant to see – what is the sign pointing to – about Jesus?” and “What is this saying to us?”
Last week we covered the miracle. Jesus walks into the Sheep Gate, sees a superstitious, hopeless, old man who has been an invalid for thirty-eight years, heals Him, and says in verse 8, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” (5:8) That’s critically important. Verse 9 says, “And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.”
The next line reveals what this story is all about. Not only is the miracle a chapter division, but John here reveals that his subdivision theme is changing too. We’ve already been introduced to “the Jews” (which in John always means the “Jewish Ruling Class”), but now we see an other critical piece of information that leaps off the page. “Now that day was the Sabbath.”
That would be an “oooooohhhh…” moment for anyone reading. The Sabbath was a pretty famous Jewish peculiarity. No other people in the world took a whole day off – including their servants and slaves – to stop working, selling, cooking, farming… just to worship and rest. Everyone else had a 7 day work week. But for the Jews, everything stopped on Friday night and didn’t start again until the appearance of at least three stars in the sky on Saturday night.
If you recall the story of Nehemiah rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, you’ll remember in Chapter 13, after the walls and gates had been rebuilt, when the Sabbath came around, Nehemiah commanded that all the gates of the city be shut and locked until after the Sabbath. All the merchants and sellers from all over the land came up to the doors, and for the first time in decades, couldn’t get through. Let me read that portion to you, because it’s great:
“As soon as it began to grow dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the Sabbath. And I stationed some of my servants at the gates, that no load might be brought in on the Sabbath day. Then the merchants and sellers of all kinds of wares lodged outside Jerusalem once or twice. But I warned them and said to them, ‘Why do you lodge outside the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you.’ From that time on they did not come on the Sabbath. Then I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come and guard the gates, to keep the Sabbath day holy.” (Nehemiah 13:19–22)
If you think that’s serious, then fast-forward a few hundred years to the birth of an extremist group called the “Pharisees”, or “the separatists”, the “separated ones”. Essentially the “we’re better than everyone else and God love sus more” group.
By the time of Jesus there were three different groups that were in charge of the Jewish people. John summarizes them by just calling them “the Jews”, but he’s referring to the Jewish Ruling class: the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes. Essentially these groups were the lawmakers, police, and lawyers of the time, and therefore pretty much everything in Jewish society – except for what their Roman government dictated – ran through them.
And this group took it upon themselves to decide not only that everyone had to keep the Sabbath or get in trouble – but exactly how the Sabbath was to be kept. So they made and enforced a whole bunch of extra laws that make sure no one would ever break the Sabbath again. No planting, or plowing, or reaping, or sorting, or chopping vegetables, or mixing anything together, or cooking, or laundry, or tying knots, or untying knots, or hunting, or smoothing, or chopping, or writing, or erasing, or making things, no starting a fire, or putting out a fire even if your house is going to burn down, and definitely no carrying things outside – or “transferring anything between domains”, and especially not “transferring anything through a public thoroughfare”. Well, technically, if you absolutely had to move something, you were allowed to move it 4 cubits (or 6 feet).
Remember, none of this was in the Old Testament Law, it was all invented by the Pharisees as a way to make sure everyone “kept the Sabbath”. God had created a day for His people where they could rest, worship, enjoy each other… where they weren’t expected to produce anything, but just had to remember that God was their provider, God had everything under control, and the whole point of existence wasn’t to do work, make money, produce things… but to connect with God and be with the people you care about.
But the Pharisees had taken the God-given gift of the Sabbath and turned it into a huge burden. Now people dreaded the Sabbath because they couldn’t do anything. It wasn’t enjoyable. Now, around every corner was a Pharisee watching to see if you’d pick anything up, make yourself a snack, write a note, smooth out a wrinkle, or – you know – prevent your house from burning down. It was awful. But the Pharisees had a huge amount of power. If you broke their laws, you could be kicked out of the synagogue, shunned by your community, arrested, beaten, even threatened with death.
That’s what makes verses 8-9 such a critical part of the story. Jesus commands the man to break the Pharisees Sabbath rules, and then sends him to walk through a public thoroughfare with his bed under his arm. You can imagine how that would be received.
Well, as per usual, there’s a Pharisee lurking around somewhere nearby and the man takes, probably, like 20 steps, and some Jewish Officials jump out and say, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” (5:10)
The man, quickly dodges the accusation and deflects the blame, “Hey, it wasn’t my idea, someone came up to me after being a hopeless invalid for thirty-eight years and healed me. Then he said, ‘take up your bed, and walk’. I wasn’t about to argue with a guy that powerful!”
The Jewish Official’s eyes get all squinty and aggressive, ready to come down like a sack of hammers on that guy, ask – “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?”
Pause there for a second and notice that question. Do you see anything missing? The miracle, right? It wasn’t, “Show us the one who had the power to heal you from decades of hopeless pain and misery… we’re very interested in a person like that…”. No, all they could think about was “Someone told you to break our rules!? How dare they! We need to get this guy! Arrest Him! Make an example out of Him! He’s a lawbreaker, sinner, and he’s spreading His evil among these poor, unfortunate, sick people! He’s making them break the Sabbath!” How crazy is it that a guy who had been lying around for almost 40 years, finally gets up and walks, and is told to lie right back down by the most religious, supposedly godly people in town?
Now, Jesus hadn’t told the man who He was and had already left, so there was nothing for these guys to go on, but then Jesus does something really interesting. He finds the man he healed to introduce Himself properly. “Hi, I’m Jesus, the guy who healed you. I have already demonstrated that I have divine power, and you have already demonstrated faith and obedience toward me. Look at yourself! You are well! I healed you. But I have a further message for you. I didn’t simply heal you so you can go back to a sinful life. I, your new master, the source of your new hope and new life, want more for you. I not only want you free from worldly misery, but from the misery of sin. So ‘sin nor more, that nothing worse may happen to you.’” The implication there is that the man’s condition may have been a result of his own foolishness and sin getting him into trouble.
To modernize it, imagine a semi-religious man, goes to church Christmas and Easter, is a kind of ok guy. One day he drives drunk, gets into an accident, and wrecks himself. Snaps his spine and ends up in a wheelchair. He’s in that chair for almost 40 years. Over that time everyone in his life has abandoned him, he’s tried every kind of remedy, spent all his money on treatments and pills, and now spends all day watching tv, and decides to put his hope into one of those health-and-wealth, false gospel, televangelists. He sends his last few dollars, gets kicked out of his apartment, and ends up in some kind of hostel. Jesus comes in, asks if He wants to be well, heals him, and then tells him, “Ok, I’ve healed your body, but that’s not your real problem is it? Your real problem is guilt, shame, fear, anger, betrayal, and selfishness that led you into sin, that caused this to happen, and has driven you into more and more misery, right? Your problem is sin. Now, I’ve healed you. But, I didn’t heal you so you can go back to drinking and foolishness – go live rightly, godly, as a follower of mine. Change your heart, repent of sin, put your hope in me, and live my way – or the misery that will come to you will make these last forty years look like a picnic – because you will end up in Hell. Now, go, live as a Christian.”
What is this man’s response? Well, as soon as He obeys Jesus, by picking up his mat and walking, He immediately gets into trouble. Now, I figure one of two things is happening here. Either he’s obeying Jesus by making sure He submits to the Jewish Ruling Authorities and does what he’s told – or he’s slipped back into his former pattern of self-centredness, blaming others for his problems (like he did at the pool), and immediately throwing Jesus under the bus.
We don’t know. But the application is the same here. People’s response to Jesus’ grace is often surprising. Some people are thankful, others aren’t. Some respond with obedience, others don’t. Some meet Jesus and follow Him, others just go back to their old lives. It’s amazing that Jesus’ grace doesn’t come with strings – instead it comes with an invitation.
That’s the man, but let’s get back to the Jewish Rulers. Look at what’s going on here, because it’s really ironic. A man who has been unable to move, or work, or mix, or tie or untie anything, who has probably been technically keeping the Sabbath perfectly for 40 years because He was unable to move, meets Jesus, the rightful King of the Jews, the one who gave the law to Moses, the perfect Rabbi, the Messiah, the true temple of God, the source of Eternal life – and completely heals this guy and sends him out on a mission. Did Jesus do anything wrong? No. Did He have the right to tell that man to “take up his bed and walk”? Absolutely! Did Jesus know how the Sabbath works? Yes, it was His idea in the first place.
But Jesus sets up this confrontation on purpose so that He can reveal something about Himself to all these people, especially the Pharisees. Look at the titles of the next sections and you’ll see what. In the ESV they are, “Jesus is Equal with God” and “The Authority of the Son”.
He took that man from invalid to missionary in an instant. Then He offered to save the man’s soul. And then, after demonstrating His power, and declaring His authority, He confronts the Jewish leaders with a huge speech about who He really is: Look down to verse 39-40, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”
Jesus set up a confrontation where He said, in no uncertain terms, that He is the Lawgiver, the Perfect interpreter, the Son of God, and equal to God Himself. That He alone has the right to pass judgment and decide who lives and dies – not them! He is the perfect interpreter of God’s will – not them! That He is the real Jewish Ruler – not them. And they should be bowing down and obeying Him, not everyone bowing down and obeying them.
He says, “You guys think you know so much about the Bible – but God Himself is standing in front of you and you can’t even see it. Instead you reject and persecute me.” And he gives them, in much more detail, the same message He gave the man he healed, “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.”
Again, Jesus gives grace. He doesn’t judge and condemn them immediately but gives them the truth and then some time to accept it. And again, that grace is presented with an invitation – this time to the Pharisees. “Repent, submit, be healed, or be damned.” Needless to say, that didn’t go over too well.
Let’s leave it there this week, but draw out a couple applications.
The first application is that Jesus is gracious and kind, giving favour to everyone on earth. Matthew 5:45 says, “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” But that miracle, that grace, comes with an invitation and a warning: Deal with your sin before the worst possible thing happens to you. The first application is a reminder that Hell is real and Jesus’ invitation is urgent. If you aren’t a Christian today, then you must realize that you are living on borrowed time, that every moment you’ve been alive has been an act of undeserved grace, and that it can end at any time. You are alive today because Jesus keeps you alive and is giving you time to repent, deal with your sin, and turn to Him as your Lord. You don’t know when that grace will end, so you must take your spiritual reality, the condition and destination of your soul, seriously.
The second application is that many of us make the same mistake as the Pharisees do. Some of us, because we’re stuck in our own ways, rules, religion, mindset, tradition, or whatever, look at someone who is obeying Jesus, and because they’re not doing things our way, not following our path, not doing things the way they’re supposed to be done, we judge, condemn, and persecute that person.
Some of you here have looked at God’s perfect will, His design and plan for someone else’s life, and you have judged it as wrong. You condemned that person, and therefore condemned God. When confronted with your reasoning for why you disliked, judged, attacked and reviled that person, you talked about your feelings and then twisted God’s word to fit your conclusion – and in doing so, condemned God’s will, harmed a follower of God, and did Satan’s work for him. And just like the Pharisees, you need to repent and ask forgiveness of God and the person you wrongly judged.
And the third application, which leads from the previous, is that Jesus is Lord, Jesus is God, and Jesus is the one who gets to interpret scripture – not us. In other words, you cannot expect to come away from a Bible study, class, or personal bible-reading time, with the right interpretation and application of scripture without having first repented of sin, humbled yourself before Jesus, invited the Holy Spirit to show you the truth, and then submitting your interpretation to the counsel of godly Christian elders, teachers and mentors.
Reading the bible alone, in a vacuum, prayerlessly and/or without asking a diversity of more mature, trained believers to help you, is spiritually foolish and dangerous. You will be led astray by your feelings, and turn into either a judgmental, hyper-religious Pharisee, or into a false teacher who accepts sin and error, leading others – and encouraging others – towards sin, idolatry, and licentiousness.
Please open up to John 5:1-18 and let’s read it together:
“After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk.’ And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.
Now that day was the Sabbath.
So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, ‘It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.’ But he answered them, ‘The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’’ They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?’ Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.’ The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.’
This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”
A Desperate Situation
A while back I said that as you read through John, to put yourself in the place of the people that Jesus interacts with. I want you to do the same with this passage – we are the invalid and we are the Jews.
Let’s start with the first part of the story. Sometime after Jesus had healed the Centurion’s son, Jesus was headed up to Jerusalem for one of the three feasts that all Jewish males were required to attend. We don’t know which one.
While Jesus was at this feast He chose to head to the Sheep Gate. Jerusalem had all kinds of gates. The Old Testament mentions 17 different gates for the first temple, and eight for the temple that was rebuilt by Nehemiah and added to by Herod. And each gate had a different name and theme. There was a Fish Gate where the fisherman brought their catches through to be sold, the Valley Gate that opened up to the Valley of Hinnom, the Dung (or Garbage) Gate where Jerusalem had their burning waste dump. This gate was called the Sheep Gate and was historically where the sheep and lambs were brought through for the ritual temple sacrifices.
One day, Jesus, the One John the Baptist recently called “The Lamb of God who takes away the Sins of the World” (1:36), decides to come up through the Sheep Gate. Don’t miss that, because there’s a lot going on. The Lamb of God entering through the Sheep Gate where the sacrifices come through, which was about 200 meters from where Pilate would condemn Him to death, only a hundred or so more meters to the Via Dolorosa, which was the road Jesus would take to Calvary.
Near the Sheep Gate there was a pool called Bethesda meaning “House of Mercy” or “House of Outpouring” and verses 2-3 gives us a picture of what this place looked like. There was a pool there – (actually by the time of Herod there were 2 pools, one above the other) – with a series of columns holding up a roof that would provide some protection from weather. Instead of being fed by a spring, this pool system was designed to be filled up when it rained. A long time before, this pool was likely used to wash the sheep that were coming into the temple area after being herded from whatever place they had come from, but now it had become a place where sick, desperate people would congregate in hopes of getting some kind of mercy, charity, and maybe even a miracle.
If you have an ESV Bible you’ll notice something interesting in verse 4 – it’s interesting in that there is no verse 4. In other translations you’ll see a verse 4 which give an explanation that the reason sick people congregated there was that there was a superstition that sometimes an angel would come, stir the pool, and the first person to get in would be immediately healed. The reason the ESV doesn’t include this verse is because the oldest, most trusted manuscripts, actually don’t have that line. It was inserted sometime after by a scribe who felt it necessary to add an explanation. But since it’s not in the best manuscripts, a lot of modern translations leave it out. But that doesn’t mean it was wrong – in fact, verse 7 tells us that the stirring of the waters is exactly what the man was hoping for.
But the picture here is one of blind, sick, lame, paralyzed people who were living in a time when they were considered cursed, unclean, and didn’t have a way to take care of themselves. And, if they didn’t have family to take care of them, these people would often become street beggars. And as society condemned them, forgot them, and pushed them aside, they would become more and more desperate.
And desperate people tend to be more easily manipulated, more willing to believe lies and superstitions, more self-centred, selfish, and protective. Jesus walks into an area filled with hurting, forgotten, broken people who – because of their suffering and how they’d been treated – had basically given up on their neighbours, families, friends, religion, priests, and God. They were now a group of superstitious people whose whole lives revolved around waiting for some kind of supernatural stirring of some magic water, which would then lead to a mad dash competition to beat each other to the pool in hopes of some kind of miracle.
We are often no different than these people. Fear, sickness, betrayal, disrespect, being forgotten, living in pain, financial struggles – especially when it carries on for a long while – often leads to a myriad of temptations. When the trouble first starts – the pain begins, the sickness sets in, the emergency happens, the betrayal occurs – we handle it ok. We talk to friends, read the Bible, pray to God – but then it doesn’t go away, the situation doesn’t get better, and sometimes it gets worse.
So, sometimes we press in harder. We call our friends for help, tell our church to pray, spend more time in the Word and in Prayer. But it still doesn’t get better. The pain is worse and more complicated, the doctors can’t find a cause. The betrayals start to stack up as more people believe lies. The bills keep coming but the income doesn’t get better. The emergency keeps affecting you, the stress being drawn out for days, weeks, and months. The sickness doesn’t go away, and you find out its chronic and untreatable.
Then, as friends and family and the church stops calling, stops asking how you’re doing, stops giving you support, and the trips to the doctor all end with the same bad news, and people seem to move on to the next thing – you’re still stuck with the same pain – it’s easy to start to become discouraged and even desperate.
And we are tempted to do what this man did. Go away from people, start skipping church and eventually just leave altogether. Stop praying because it doesn’t work. Leave the Bible on the shelf because it doesn’t help. Start to gather with other sick, pained, miserable people… not because they encourage you, but because they feed your misery and affirm your bad decisions.
And then, as you distance yourself from God, His word, and His people, Satan starts to present you with more and more dangerous ideas on how to feel better. He dangles bait in front of you, leading you toward destruction. He offers you drink and drugs, pornography and entertainment, gambling and garbage food. He offers you loans, and new credit cards, and opportunities to steal. He helps you find people who want to commit adultery with you, hurt others with you, do illegal things with you.
And he shows you stories of people who got the miracle they wanted… through televangelists, superstitions, cults, pagan practices, witchcraft, the occult, moral compromise. Things that would have been unthinkable, ridiculous, and laughable before – start to become more reasonable. The more desperate you get, the more reasonable they become. After all – Christianity didn’t work. God didn’t fix your life when you asked. The Church left you behind. The doctors can’t help, friends can’t help… why not try… crystals, horoscopes, healing services, bank loans, divorce, chemicals, abuse, or maybe even sending money to the guy on TV who promises to send you magic spring water from Russia that will force God to fix your body and fill up your bank account. And if you don’t believe me – then you’ve probably never heard of Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, or Peter Popoff.
Now, you might be thinking, “That’s too extreme, Pastor Al. I don’t do that. I would never do that.” Well, maybe today – but that’s at least one direction the road of spiritual compromise goes. So ask yourself – what ungodly, unbiblical, unfaithful things are you doing right now because stress, fear, lack, sadness, worry, has been pressing in on you.
Are you drinking a little more? Are you distancing yourself from certain godly people because they make you feel guilty? Are you reading and watching videos about how to get miracles and give yourself special spiritual powers? Is your debt creeping up as you use money you don’t have to try to solve your problems? Do you find yourself doing little, superstitious things – wearing a cross for luck, carrying a little pocket angel, repeating special “words of power” that have worked for other people, or adding other spiritual things to your life in hopes of twisting God’s (or the universe’s) arm to make things go your way?
Those are the path to danger. You don’t start as the kind of person who believes God puts sick people in competition with one another to see who can get in the magic angel rain pool… that happens gradually as hopelessness, fear, worry, and sadness take over you faith, trust, and obedience to God and His word.
Do You Want to Be Made Well?
In verse 5 we see that this man had been an invalid for thirty-eight years – longer than many people’s lifespan back then. To everyone, even to himself, he was a hopeless case. His faith was gone, his friends were gone, his family was gone, and to him, God was gone, grace was gone, hope was gone, and he was too weak to even try to work within his own superstition.
Jesus asks a peculiar question: “Do you want to be made well?” It almost sounds sarcastic, doesn’t it? He’s standing in a place full of misery and suffering, surrounded by the most desperate cases imaginable. They were sitting beside what they thought was a magic healing pool. Why else would they be there other than to be made well?
But this man’s understanding of God and spirituality was completely warped. Remember, there stands Jesus, the Son of God, the Lamb of God, the Creator of the Universe. He is God. His question forces the man to declare what His faith is in.
We read elsewhere of Jesus asking people questions before healing, and many declare their faith in Him for a miracle. The leper comes and says, “If you choose, you can make me clean!” (Mark 1:40) The woman with the years of bleeding said, “If I but touch His clothes, I will be made well.” The leader of the synagogue came and said, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” (Matt 9:18)
But how does this man answer? With nothing but negativity and hopelessness and blaming others: “It’s impossible. God’s abandoned me. People have abandoned me. The only hope I have is the magic rain water and I’m too weak to get there. For decades now, people have pushed me aside and ran before me to get the miracle. No one cares. Nothing can help me.” Bad attitude, bad faith, bad logic, bad spirituality, and bad theology.
What’s interesting is that Jesus doesn’t argue. There’s no lecture, no teaching, no correction, no sermon. Just the command, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” In fact, as we read, Jesus doesn’t even introduce Himself! At first, after the miracle, the man didn’t even know it was Jesus who healed him!
The man’s greatest expectation was that, perhaps, this stranger might stick around long enough to, maybe get him to the pool. When he answered, there was zero faith in Jesus, zero faith in God, and the thought that He was about to walk out of that place perfectly healed hadn’t even crossed his mind. He’s lying there before God Himself – and didn’t even know it.
What Does This Tell Us About Jesus?
I want to pause the story there this week, even though a lot happens after the man is healed, and I want to ask the question: What does this tell us about Jesus?
First, that Jesus is compassionate. Matthew 12:18-21 quotes Isaiah 42:1–3, which is a description of Jesus’ attitude towards hurting, abused, forgotten, hopeless people: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” He weeps with those who weep, and understands the suffering of hurting, abused, forgotten, slandered, weak people better than anyone. He has empathy, compassion, and kindness. Jesus hates pain, suffering, and sickness because Jesus hates sin – and they are all a result of sin. That’s why He came to die on the cross – to reverse the curse, to destroy the effects of sin, and to make a path for anyone who would believe in Him to be free of those effects forever. The first thing we must see here is that Jesus is kind and compassionate to people who are suffering.
The second thing we ought to see is that Jesus gives grace to whom He decides to give grace. Grace, by definition, is undeserved merit, undeserved favour. Did this man deserve to be healed? No. Did He deserve a conversation with Jesus? No. What did He deserve? As a faithless, hopeless, superstitious, sinner, He deserved nothing more than being condemned to everlasting torment in hell. That’s what he deserved.
I’ve had a few people text me lately that some of the things that have happened to me were “undeserved”. “You don’t deserve this.”, they say. My response is always, “What I deserve is Hell – anything above that is grace.” And I mean it.
This man did nothing to deserve a miracle. I think of Romans 9 which talks about what theologians call “divine election” or “God deciding who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.”
Turn to Romans 9:13–24 and let’s read it together. We’re jumping into the middle of an argument here, but the first line is a good summary, “As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” Think of the Old Testament story of Jacob and Esau. Esau was older and should have gotten the blessing, but instead God worked it out so Jacob did. Neither was a particularly good person – Esau arrogant, Jacob a liar – but God overturned tradition and expectation and chose the young liar to be His chosen servant. So Paul asks in verse 14,
“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”
What is the biblical answer to “Who gets chosen for heaven and who goes to hell?” Simply, “Whoever God decides.” No one deserves heaven. No one deserves grace. We’re all vessels of wrath prepared for destruction – and some of us get plucked out of the flames and given a place of honour. Why? Because God decided to show us love and grace. That’s it.
The second thing we need to learn about Jesus is that He shows grace to whom He shows grace. He walked into a place full of sick, desperate, superstitious, and selfish people – and decided to save one of them. That’s His prerogative. He’s God, we’re not. Anyone one of us who is plucked from the flames, healed, and adopted – should spend our whole lives praising Him for His undeserved grace!
Third, Jesus has His own schedule. Thirty-eight years that man waited. Until he was utterly hopeless, forgotten, and bitter. God is not obligated to any of us. And He’s not obligated to hurry up and do things on our timeline. God allowed this many to be sick, allowed him to be hopeless, and placed him in that spot – specifically so Jesus could use Him for His glory and purposes on that day. And, as we read, that purpose was to show that Jesus claimed to be God, that Jesus had the power of God, that Jesus had the divine authority to properly interpret and apply all of the laws of scripture – which presented the option to the Jewish leaders to either turn their lives over to Jesus – or to hate Jesus so much that they wanted to kill Him all the more. God isn’t obligated to give us grace – and He always does things on His own timeline for His own perfect purposes. The only question we are asked is if we will trust His timing and His purposes?
And fourth, Jesus’ invitation is always to faith, repentance, and obedience. Jesus did everything. He came through the Sheep Gate, walked to the pool, came up to the man, and offered him healing. When the man answered Jesus’ question with bitterness and hopelessness, Jesus still healed Him. Jesus had the power and did all the work. All the man had to do was get up, grab his bed, and walk.
Every miracle Jesus did required a faithful action – sometimes before, sometimes after – but always contained the invitation to trust Jesus and obey Him. This man went from hopeless to faith in Jesus in a split second – and demonstrated that change by standing up and walking away. He didn’t even know who Jesus was! Jesus didn’t require that – yet – but in His divine plan, Jesus knew that the man would know eventually. All Jesus required at that time was for the man to stand up, grab the bed, and walk away.
That’s the Christian faith in a nutshell. As I said, we are all this man. Lost, hopeless, superstitious, bitter, forgotten, doomed, and unable to save ourselves. Then, the Lamb of God walks into our lives, unbidden, uninvited, and says, “Do you want to be made well?”. Our theology is usually messed up, our expectations confused, our testimony unimpressive, our hearts still torn by selfishness, temptations, and the effects of sin – but Jesus comes anyway, and offers to completely change our lives. But that invitation always comes with an order to believe, repent, and obey Him.
Look at John 5:14–15 again,
“Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.’ The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.”
It’s always the same story. Jesus comes and gives undeserved grace to a doomed and broken sinner. He offers healing and demands obedience. The person obeys and is told, “Ok, you’re mine now. Walk with me, trust me, repent from sin, and obey me.” And then we are used to tell the world who Jesus is and what Jesus does – often in ways we could never have planned or expected.
Please open up to John 4:46–54:
“ So he came again to Cana in Galilee, where he had made the water wine. And at Capernaum there was an official whose son was ill.  When this man heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went to him and asked him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death.  So Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”  The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”  Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way.  As he was going down, his servants met him and told him that his son was recovering.  So he asked them the hour when he began to get better, and they said to him, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.”  The father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” And he himself believed, and all his household.  This was now the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee.”
The story opens with Jesus coming back around to where this whole section had began. If you recall the outline, you’ll remember that John writes using the miracles as chapter dividers (I’m not talking about the chapter divisions that came later in the 16th century.)
This whole section opened with the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine, the inauguration of King Jesus and the start of His earthly ministry. Then we read how his mission expands geographically and by population as He meets bigger and bigger groups from more diverse places – towns to cities to crowds, Jews to Samaritans, and now we see him with a gentile. They all meet Jesus, hear the gospel, and are forced to either accept or deny Him.
Now, we see this section coming full circle, back to where it began, Galilee. John mentions the first miracle right before he closes this chapter with an encounter with the final people group – a Roman Centurion, likely serving in the honour guard of the very wicked King Herod Antipas.
The miracle of the water to wine had happened at a private wedding, but the story had apparently spread like wildfire, not only among the Jews, and not only in Cana, but throughout Galilee – even all the way in Capernaum, a day’s walk away.
I don’t need to tell you that Jews and Romans didn’t get along. The Romans had conquered the Jewish people, taxed them into oblivion, and oppressed them in myriad ways. Any Jewish person who had any partnership with Rome would be kicked out of his synagogue and treated as a pariah.
So, you can imagine the scene when Jesus, His disciples, and anyone else who was tagging along, saw this Roman Centurion, leader of a hundred Roman soldiers, clad in armour and robes, sticking out like a sore thumb among the crowd.
But this man wasn’t coming to Jesus as a representative of the King, a man of influence and power, one to whom many bowed their knee – he was coming as a desperate father with a very sick child.
Our pomp and self-importance sure does melt quickly in the face of illness, death and tragedy, doesn’t it? Most days we walk around thinking we are pretty well off, pretty in control, pretty pleased with ourselves, thinking that the problems of the world are affecting everyone else, and that our choices are why our lives are better than theirs. We look at the old, sick, tired, poor, weary, anxious, fearful, desperate – and we think, “Oh, those people. If they’d only live like me, they wouldn’t feel like that! If they’d just do what I do, they’d be so much better off.” We start to think that we’re untouchable, above the mess of the world, specially blessed, untouched by the curse of sin that weighs so heavily on others.
And then we get sick. Or someone we loves gets sick. Or an accident happens. Or a tragedy strikes – we get laid off out of nowhere, a natural disaster wipes us out financially, we wake up one day and the whole world has changed.
I remember having that experience a few years back when I woke up one day and one whole side of my face was completely paralyzed. It had sunk down like you see when people have a stroke and I couldn’t move it at all. I went to bed feeling absolutely fine – and when I woke up, I couldn’t talk, eat, or even blink. I went to the doctor and got some medication – and then the pain set in. It was excruciating. I remember reading somewhere that because the nerves in the face are so sensitive, so close to the brain, so many nerves bundled up there – that facial nerve pain is some of the worst pain a person can experience. And I can attest that it is absolutely awful. Medication wouldn’t even touch it. The only relief I got was heating up a magic bag in the microwave and, basically, cooking that side of my face. That was a miserable time. And it happened absolutely out of nowhere.
And it scared me. I looked really weird now and couldn’t talk properly. And I basically talk for a living. In a moment, my face was even scarier than usual – and my calling as a preacher was over. It was really hard.
I’m sure you’ve had a similar experience. You’re fine – and then you are humbled by sudden tragedy. It takes you down a peg or two, doesn’t it?
But that’s not a bad thing. It shows us our limitations, reminds us of our humanity, forces us to contend with death, reminds us that we aren’t God, and brings us face to face with just how powerless we really are.
That’s what this Centurion had experienced. You can hear the desperation in his voice in verse 49: “Sir, come down before my child dies.” It’s not an order from on high. It’s not a command from a military leader. It’s a desperate plea from a man who cannot do anything – to the only person he’s ever met that can. That’s the blessing of pain, struggle, sickness, tragedy, and death. It forces us to contend with ourselves, and gives us the motivation to come to God.
Jesus Tests Him
Look at Jesus’ response. Is it an immediate yes? Does He take the 20 mile walk with him? Does he even respond with anything positive? No. Jesus says, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”
This wasn’t spoken merely to the Centurion – it was spoken to everyone. The disciples, the Pharisees, the followers, the looky-loos. Why? Because this was their heart. They didn’t want to believe, or follow, or humble themselves, or make Jesus their Lord and Saviour, unless He was willing to perform for them, do what He was told, meet their worldly needs.
The apostle Nathaniel needed a miracle before he believed (1:46-51). Mary wanted a miracle from Jesus when it wasn’t His time (2:4). The Pharisees demanded a miracle when Jesus cleansed the temple (2:18). Those who believed His message kept demanding signs over and over (2:23-25). We learn later, that even John the Baptist doubted who Jesus was until He heard about the miracles (Luke 7:19).
We’ve talked about this lots before, so I won’t belabour the point, but motives are super-critical to God. Doing the wrong thing for the right reason often gets filed under “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 5:8). Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, regardless of how benevolent or costly or positive the effects, is actually credited as sin.
- Proverbs 16:2 says, “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit.”
- James 4:1 says, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?”
- Ecclesiastes 12:14 says, “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
- Jesus in Matthew 6:1, during the Sermon on the Mount says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” Later, in verse 5, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites.” And in verse 16, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.”
- Hebrews 4:12–13 says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
Motives are critical to God. And that’s exactly what Jesus is testing here. What are the Centurions motives? Is He coming to have Jesus perform another miracle for show? Is this a test of Jesus’ claims to godhood? Is this some kind of power play to make Jesus do what he wanted? Or was this man really coming to Jesus in desperation and faith, knowing that Jesus was His only hope?
- James 4:6, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
- 1 Peter 5:5, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
- Proverbs 3:34, “Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor.” – which is another way of saying, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
When Jesus said, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” He knew what was in the Centurion’s heart – and He knew was about to use him as an example to His followers and detractors. Sure, it was a test of the Centurions motivations – but just as much it was a teaching moment for everyone else.
The Centurions response, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”, was a way of saying, “I don’t care about all that. I’m coming to you for help, for a miracle, because I need some grace and you’re the only one in the whole world who can do this. I believe in you. I believe you are touched by God. Please, just help.”
Trust And Obey
Jesus’ response is extremely interesting and very important. What was the request? “Come down and heal my son.” The walk from Capernaum to Cana was a day’s walk uphill, so to go from Cana to Capernaum was all downhill. “Come down and heal my son.”
What does Jesus say, “Go; your son will live.” (v 50) The Centurion says “Come”, Jesus says the opposite; “Go”. What do you think of that? His child is dying, he has just walked or ridden for hours, trying to track down Jesus. He finally finds Him, humbles Himself before Him, makes an urgent, maybe tearful request, and Jesus says, “No, I’m not coming. Just go. It’s done.”
What a moment of crisis for the Centurion, right? Every doctor, every rabbi, every healer, every miracle worker he’s ever experienced or heard of had to be there for it to work.
It reminds me of the story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5:1-14. Turn there. Let’s read it together (Keep your thumb in John):
“Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the LORD had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper.”
Ok, so super important, high up, guy. Famous, powerful, a friend of the King of the mightiest kingdom in the world. But, he’s got a problem. (Sound familiar?) He got leprosy. Like I said – sickness is sometimes the only way God can break through our pride and get our attention.
Keep reading in verse 2,
“Now the Syrians on one of their raids had carried off a little girl from the land of Israel, and she worked in the service of Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, ‘Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.’ So Naaman went in and told his lord, ‘Thus and so spoke the girl from the land of Israel.’ And the king of Syria said, ‘Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.’
So he went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, ‘When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.’ And when the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, ‘Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Only consider, and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me.’”
Why did the King of Israel freak out? There was an uneasy truce between the nations, but Israel couldn’t hope to defeat Syria in any kind of military engagement. And here, on his doorstep, is the commander of the Syrian army with a letter in his hand from the King that says, “Here’s a huge amount of money. I want you to cure my guy from leprosy.” A seemingly impossible task, but one that if ignored could lead to war and the destruction of Israel. The King of Israel knew he couldn’t do it, but He also didn’t ask God to do it, and didn’t even think of Elisha… he had no faith, no trust, no humility – only fear.
Keep reading in verse 8,
“But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent to the king, saying, ‘Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.’ So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.’”
Look at the similarity between Jesus and the prophet Elijah – because we’re supposed to see that connection. Elisha says, “Where is your faith, king? Why so upset?” Which is very similar to Jesus saying, “Where is your faith, Israel? Why do you need so much proof?”
Consider things from Elishas perspective. There’s Naaman coming down the road; this great, foreign leader parading to his house. He’s a friend of the king, a dangerous and powerful man. Just like the Roman Centurion. What does Elijah do? He doesn’t even come out to meet him. He sends a messenger saying, “Go.” Just like Jesus. “Go and wash… and your flesh shall be restored.”
Same deal, same test. What is Naaman’s motivation? Where is Naaman’s faith? Remember why Elisha got involved? So that the leader of Syria’s armies would know, without a doubt, that God was with Israel, and that there was a real prophet among them – so they’d better be careful how they treated the Israelites. But Naaman needed to see it. Naaman needed the miracle. He wouldn’t believe without the miracle.
But here’s where the stories part ways. Jesus says “Go”. Elisha says, “Go”. The Centurion obeys, leaves in faith, trusts Jesus, and meets a messenger that says “Your son is better.” What does Naaman do?
“But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, ‘Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?’ So he turned and went away in a rage.”
Faith. Trust. Motives. Humility. He has none. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” The Centurion was humble. Naaman – not so much. “Why didn’t Elisha didn’t greet me personally! Doesn’t He know who I am? I’m insulted! Why doesn’t he wave his hand and make it better? That’s what the really good prophets do. That’s how it works! What’s with this wash in this dirty, foreign river stuff? And 7 times?! C’mon if all I needed to do was take a bath, I’ve got even better rivers back home! This is stupid! I’m leaving!”
I want to tell you something important here, and I need you to see it. God doesn’t do things our way and has no problem hurting our feelings if it’s what’s best for us. I’m going to say that again: God doesn’t do things our way and has no problem hurting our feelings if that’s what’s best for us. He’s a good parent, a good friend, a good shepherd, a good leader, a good doctor, a good king. He doesn’t do things our way and will hurt us if that’s what will heal us. God will use tragedy to bring about humiliation, so we might have right motives, so we will trust and obey Him.
God wants obedience, humility, worship, deference, respect, submission. He demands it of all of us. The Bible reminds us multiple times that every knee will bow to God. (Isa 45:23; Phil 2:10-11; Rom 14:11) There is no forgiveness without repentance, there is no repentance without obedience and submission to God’s Word and will, and there is no obedience and submission without humiliation. To save you, God must humble you. If God left you proud and full of self-esteem, you would be damned. The God that modernity and liberal churches have created, and some here have created – the God that puffs up your self-esteem, only tells you how great you are, how special you are, how lovely you are, how unique you are, only dice nice, comforting, easy, soft things –is super concerned about your feelings, and would never do anything to make you upset – is a false god.
God cares more about your soul than you do. He cares more about you than you do. He cares more about your spouse, your kids, your parents, your friends, and your church than you do – and He wants them saved and holy and with Him (2 Peter 3:9) more than you do. And so, He’s willing to do more than you will do, to do the hard things you don’t want to do, to say the hard things you don’t want to say, so that they might see their true selves, their true nature, their real problem, and humble themselves before God while they are still alive on earth – so they don’t have to do it later before they are condemned to hell for all eternity.
That’s why the Bible tells us to do hard things – things that sometimes hurt people’s feelings.
- Things like Titus 3:10 where you warn a divisive person twice and then have nothing more to do with them.
- Things like 1 Corinthians 5:5 or 11 where we turn our friend and church mate “over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved” and to refuse to associate with anyone who calls themselves a Christian, but is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or idolatry, or abusive in speech, or addicted, or a liar. To “not even eat with such a one.”
- Things like Jesus says in Matthew 18:17 where if someone refuses to repent from their sin, even after being confronted by their friends and the church, to treat them like they are an unsaved person.
- Or 2nd Thessalonians 3:13-15 which says, “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”
- Or Romans 16:17-18, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.”
But that’s not nice! Aren’t Christians supposed to be nice? What if we hurt their feelings? How are we supposed to grow the church and gain followers and fill the offering plate if we do all this and hurt people’s feelings? Won’t that affect our reputation? Won’t that hurt the church?
That doesn’t matter. The glory of God, our obedience to His word, and our humility before Him, is what matters. The purity of the gospel, seeking first His kingdom and His righteousness is what matters. Confronting sin, being truthful, and doing battle against the devil in the name of Jesus Christ, is what matters. God grows and defends the church, and has given us the Word telling us how to do it. Even if someone gets offended, even if their feelings get hurt, even if they get mad, leave, and seek revenge.
1 Peter 2:9-10, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
We proclaim God’s excellencies and live as His people by doing things His way even when it’s hard any unpopular.
Turn with me to 2 Peter 2 (but keep your thumb in 2 Kings, and your other thumb in John) and I want to read the whole chapter, because I want you to see how serious God is, how serious the apostle is, about standing on God’s truth, protecting the purity of the church, and confronting sin with some pretty serious language that will definitely hurt people’s feelings.
“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority.
Bold and willful, they do not tremble as they blaspheme the glorious ones, whereas angels, though greater in might and power, do not pronounce a blasphemous judgment against them before the Lord. But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction, suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you. They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.
These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: ‘The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.’”
Sin within the church, among church members, is no small thing, and God has given us some very specific commands on how to deal with it – even though it’s hard, even though it’ll make us unpopular, even though it will hurt someone’s feelings.
Verse 10, “Bold and willful, they do not tremble…” Why? Pride. And God opposes them. And if we don’t deal with them as God has commanded, God will oppose us too. So what is the kind thing? For God to take away their boldness, break their will, and make them tremble.
Let’s finish the story in 2 Kings 5:13:
“But his servants came near and said to him, ‘My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?’”
Can you imagine how hard that would have been? There’s the greatest military leader in the world, best buddy of the king, and he’s hopping mad – literally raging. And the servant says, “Just do it. Humble yourself. Obey. Oh, great one who commands the greatest army in the world and could have me killed with a word – please humble yourself. God’s prophet told you to do something. Just do it, man. Humiliate yourself and be clean.”
In verse 14 we see the story converge again with Jesus and the Centurion:
“So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.”
He humbled himself and obeyed. Elisha and Jesus weren’t doing things the way they wanted, weren’t meeting their expectations, were treating them with a sort of insensitivity, and required them to humiliate themselves and obey before they would see the miracle. For the Centurion, it was a long walk back home. For Naaman, it was washing himself over and over and over and over and over in a place he didn’t want to be.
And their humility, obedience, and faith that God’s way was right and better, led to the miracle – and it lead to even more people hearing and seeing and fearing the power of God. Obedience leads to blessing. Pride and fear of man leads to losing God’s blessing.
Let me close with this. God is asking you to do something hard right now. I know this. You have come to Him asking for a miracle because you need something. You see a bad situation and you need God to step in. You are afraid, in need, desperate, anxious, worried, sick – or someone you love is – and you need a miracle. Our church is being asked to do some hard things right now; to confront sin, division, pride, rebellion… and God is asking us to do some difficult things that are going to hurt some people’s feelings.
My question to you is: Are you willing to humble yourself before God, before God’s word, before God’s spirit, and do things His way – even if it means you’ll become unpopular, make someone mad, make someone sad, make someone lonely, hurt someone’s feelings? Are you willing to confront sin and obey Jesus, doing the hard things scripture asks you to do, even if people are going to call you mean, rude, angry, selfish, arrogant, and unfriendly? Will you take that persecution for the sake of Jesus’ name, His glory, His church? Are you willing to say, “Your way God, not mine. Your plan God, not mine. Your will God, not mine. And for your glory, in your name, for love’s sake, I’ll do whatever you ask, no matter what the consequence – because I want your blessing and to see your hand work more than anything else in the world.”
You are being tested right now. In your private life, and in your church. I hope that, like Naaman, like the Centurion, you humble yourself and pass the test.
 The Gospel and Episles of John FF Bruce – Pg 117
Please open up to John 4, the story of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, and let’s read it together:
“Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.
A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.’ (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?’ (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.’
Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come here.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am he.’
Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you seek?’ or, ‘Why are you talking with her?’ So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?’ They went out of the town and were coming to him.” (John 4:1-30)
We Are the Samaritan Woman
I’ve already done a big intro to the story last week, so I won’t repeat it here, but what I want you to remember is that we are all the Samaritan Woman. Consider the outline of this story, and how much it parallels our own lives and the testimonies of those who meet Jesus.
We are Sinners
In verses 1-9 we meet the Samaritan woman. A sinner, despised, rejected, humiliated, ashamed, afraid. And when we’re honest with ourselves, that’s us. But Jesus approaches her anyway. We talked about that last week, so I won’t go over that point again.
We are Ignorant
In verses 10-14 the Samaritan woman shows how ignorant she is about who Jesus is, confused about what He offers her, and totally unaware of a reality beyond her comprehension — and yet, even though she’s ignorant and confused and guilty, she’s also somehow argumentative with Jesus! That’s us. And yet, Jesus, instead of becoming impatient and angry, and walking away, He offers her life and truth. That’s grace and mercy. He offers, for anyone humble enough to admit they don’t know it all, admit their ignorance, and trust what He is saying, access to a brand new existence, a total reframing of your reality, and a never ending spring of eternal life. She came down for water – Jesus was there to change her life.
Look what He says: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” But, here’s the thing – and we’ve talked about this lots before – she didn’t know, we don’t know, and we can’t know until Jesus tells us and shines light into our souls.
But, if sitting there today, you were able to see, able to understand, able to climb out of your darkness and into the light, see reality from God’s perspective, know what God expects, know who Jesus really is, and who you are to Him, you would be begging Jesus right now for wisdom, truth, and salvation. But, so often, we don’t see. In fact, in our ignorance and stubbornness and darkness – we argue with the Creator of the Universe.
How many of you understand this? How many of you have been, or are being, the Samaritan woman? Looking back at your life, those of you who are saved and have been down the road a little bit, how many times do you look back and see that God was telling you something, showing you something, preparing you for something, the Holy Spirit was speaking to you, warning you, teaching you – but, for too long, you refused to listen, refused to obey, stayed ignorant, thick, and too stubborn for God’s voice to penetrate?
Looking back, once Jesus opens your eyes, you realize that so many of your prayers, and plans, and conversations with believers were just you trying to stay in your sin, and arguing with Jesus about things you don’t even come close to understanding. And now, in retrospect, you wished you would have seen, trusted, and obeyed, far sooner. You wish you would have just shut up and trusted what God’s Word said, just obeyed immediately. Instead of “kicking against the goads” (Acts 26:14) and putting yourself through more misery until your life blew up or God forced you into humiliation – you wish you would have just believed what Jesus was trying to tell you in the first place and trust what He was doing.
I can hear Jesus saying to each of us: “If you only knew the gift of God standing before you, the reality of your situation, what’s actually going on… you would be acting and speaking and praying and living and spending and working so much differently right now.”
How I wish and pray for each person here to have the discernment to see what’s really going on in your life, in your church, and among those you love. I pray for that every day: For me, for my family and for all of you, to see what’s really going on; to have God’s eyes. And to finally be humble enough, wise enough, godly enough, to see the truths, the sins, the gifts, the stagnant water in our lives that is poisoning us, to see the reality of Jesus standing before you, hear the truths He’s telling you – and beg Him to give you living water instead.
We are Short-Sighted
In verses 15-26 we see how short-sighted the Samaritan Woman is. “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” We see how she grasps a little bit of what Jesus is saying, gets a peek of light, has a little revelation of who is really standing in front of her, who Jesus really is – at least that He knows something she doesn’t — but then she does exactly what we all do when we get a taste of the reality of God’s existence.
We get a peek of Jesus’ power – in church, in a sermon, by seeing Him work in a friend, by reading a biography, or watching a movie – and it touches something in us. Jesus might be what we’re looking for. So, we come to Jesus and do what she did – ask Him to solve our immediate problems, to deal with our felt needs.
“Ok, Jesus. I need more money, a better family, a more fulfilling job, a really good girlfriend (or boyfriend or spouse), an inspirational mission, a roadmap of my future, and answers to some really complicated questions so I can look smart in front of people, ok?”
All the while we’re evading, denying and making excuses for our real, actual problem: the curse of, and our love of sin that has destroyed our souls, taints our every action, and has caused us to be separated from God, to be under His wrath, and condemned to hell! How many of us would trade our souls, trade a real walk with Jesus with all the risks, dangers, and sufferings that come with it – for a bit more comfort, more respect, more health, less troubles? And yet we do that all the time when we come to God and we ask for superficial solutions to our far deeper, spiritual problems.
But, how does Jesus respond? By confronting the real problem, by making her see her sin. Jesus responds to the superficiality, the short-sightedness of our requests by confronting us with reality. That’s why a lot of us avoid the Bible, avoid prayer, avoid Christian counselling, avoid talking to mature believers, and why so many Christians avoid submitting to elders and committing to a church – it’s because when they look at the Bible, close their eyes to pray, talk to other Christians, listen to sermons, and serve a body of believers – the superficiality starts to show, their real sins start to come up, and they feel fear, guilt, shame, anger… so they run from it – and their spiritual lives remain superficial and powerless.
But that’s not what Jesus wants. Jesus wants us to see ourselves how we really are, how God sees us, how serious our sins are, and to realize that we don’t need more comfort and less troubles – we need a spiritual resurrection, a complete renewal, a total overhaul of our entire being. He wants us to break, to fall on our knees, to see our desperate situation – because He loves us and that’s the only time we will call out for Him to save us. It would be terribly unloving to give you more money and health, but leave you damned and a slave to the Devil.
Then, when we finally realize our real problem, really see ourselves for the first time, and feel the weight of the curse of sin and our powerlessness against it, our heart cries out with the words of the Samaritan Woman, “Give me that… show me where I can find that kind of solution. I wish someone would just fix this deep problem. I wish someone greater than me, someone stronger than me, someone more loving than me – someone who sees what a mess I really am, but loves me anyway – would come and save me. I want someone who will see how much trouble I’m in, and not run from me, but run towards me. I wish there was someone who doesn’t want anything from me, who isn’t trying to manipulate me, who has no ulterior motive, but just wants to help me because they are good and kind and merciful. Where is the Christ, the Messiah, the only one who can somehow, miraculously save me from this guilt, shame, and fear of the wrath of an almighty God who I keep offending over and over and over. I wish that person would just come. I need them so much.” And Jesus says to her and to you, “I who speak to you am he.” “That’s me!”, He says. “I’m right here. I’ll do that. I offer salvation freely to all who ask, to all who trust, to all who will turn from their sin and follow me. I will show you true worship, give you a new spirit, access to perfect truth, and a direct connection to God. But you have to give up your sin and do things my way. My way is better.” He speaks the words of Matthew 11:27–30, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
We are Affected
In verses 27-28 we see the kind of reaction that people are going to have when they see you with Jesus. Once you give your life to Jesus, the people you know – your family, friends, workmates, community, even enemies – are going to marvel at how strange, incredible, weird, counter-cultural, you are now that you’ve met Jesus. The disciples didn’t confront her or Jesus – but only because it was Jesus. Anyone else would have been called out, the woman told to get lost, and the rabbi reported to the Sanhedrin and publicly shamed.
Here’s the thing: If you walk with Jesus – and I mean really walk with Jesus – people are going to react. Some people will react to you like a good smell, like your presence makes things better, and want to know what it is that makes you different. Some are going to see a change in you and wonder why, and then you can share your testimony – and maybe even introduce them to Jesus.
But others are going to get upset. They’ll question Jesus’ motives, argue about how foolish and naive you are, condemn you for being part of a bunch of duped, stupid weirdos, for submitting yourself to an ancient book and unpopular religion. You’ll change for the better, the light of Jesus taking over your decisions, your home, your habits – but they’ll start to get mad about what your life looks like now, complain about how much you’ve changed, worry about your priorities, and become offended by the effect Jesus has had on you.
And it doesn’t change the longer you follow Jesus. The more you follow Him, the more opposition you will face. That’s why so many refuse to change, refuse to obey, refuse to let Jesus transform them into a new creature – because it gets them in trouble. So they try to live with one foot in Christianity, and one in the world – but that’s impossible and their religion, spirit, and life gets corrupted. And, what’s strange, is that they will often champion how much better it is to compromise, and invite people to do the same.
But if you follow Jesus, listen to what He says, and submit to Him as the Way, Truth and Life – you will change. And it will affect every relationship you have.
You know this, and you’ve experienced it, right? You’ve experienced how just using Jesus’ name in conversation – just dropping the J-word as anything other than profanity – immediately changes the air in the room, doesn’t it? How much more will a life completely changed by Jesus affect those around them?
We are Empowered
In verses 28-29 we see that the Samaritan Woman immediately used by Jesus to spread the gospel to the people around her.
Turn to Ephesians 2:8–10 (keep your thumb in John),
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
We are not saved by our good works, but we are saved unto good works. Jesus is planting a vineyard, God is a vinedresser, and His goal is to make fruit. That’s why the love of God, the salvation of your soul, is not merely a gift for you alone – it’s meant to be shared.
You love people because you are loved by Jesus. You forgive people because you are forgiven. You serve people because Jesus serves you. You are honest with people because Jesus is honest with you. You confront sin because Jesus hates sin and it cost Him His life. You join a church, love your church, commit to your church, because Jesus has made you part of His family, and given you a gift to serve His people. You give tithes and offerings generously, joyfully, sacrificially, obediently, and regularly, because Jesus has given you so much, Jesus is your provider, and you want to obey and trust Jesus in all areas of your life.
Whether you accept it or not, the moment you are saved, you are on a mission: To show and tell the people closest to you what Jesus has done in your life, is doing in your life, and about how amazing, different, unique, and powerful He is – by speaking His words and living His way. And I don’t mean a mission somewhere in the world, I don’t just mean people who are called as missionaries, or just pastors, or just teachers, but every single believer has been given the mission to share the love of Jesus with everyone around them through words and actions.
Consider for a moment who this woman really was. She was a social reject, ostracized, mocked, derided, infamous in town for her lifestyle and sin. Whether her husbands had all divorced her or died, she would have been considered a woman under a curse. Her current lifestyle, of living with a man she’s not married to, was sinful and shameful. No one should have listened to her raving and ranting and pleading about coming out to the well in the middle of a hot afternoon to see some Jewish stranger who she thinks is a prophet, and maybe the Christ. Especially, if you remember last week, a group of Samaritans. But God had prepared their hearts to listen, had given her the words to say, and the courage to speak.
If you look down to verses 35-38 (which we’ll study next week) you will see that the fields were “white for harvest” and all she needed to do was to start reaping things she did not sow. In other word, all she had to do was open her mouth, have the courage to speak, and she would see that God had already done all the work of tilling, sowing, watering, and preparing the hearts of the people in her home town to come to Jesus. And we see in verse 39 that the harvest was huge.
Why? Because she was such a good speaker? Because she knew all the answers? Because she was so good at apologetics? Because she had such a good reputation? Because she was wealthy and successful? Because she had so much experience? Because people trusted her?
None of that. The only thing that had changed was that she had met Jesus and was willing to tell people what He had done for her. And that’s all we’re responsible for too. All we are responsible to do is to talk about what Jesus has done for us. Not to answer a million science and history and philosophy questions – but simply to tell our story, our testimony, our perspective on what Jesus has done. And we’ll see that is more than enough for God to use to save souls.
Let me conclude with this: As you read the Bible, and read the Gospel of John, look for see how Jesus treats people, and see yourself in those He is interacting with. Humble yourself and see you are the Samaritan Woman. You are the Pharisee. You are the Lame, the sick, the hungry. You are the grumbling. You are the amazed and perplexed, the obedient and desperate disciples. You are the adulterous woman, and the man born blind.
See yourself – and then see the amazingly deep, personal, genuine love Jesus had for those people – and has for you. And then, as you see and feel that, respond accordingly with thanksgiving, worship, humility, and obedience.
**Sorry, no video or audio this week!**
Please open up to John 4, the story of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman. We start where we left off last week:
Jews and Samaritans
“Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour. A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)”
Pause there for a second so we can see the stage set for this interaction.
As we learned last week, the Pharisees were out there causing trouble for Jesus and John the Baptist, stirring people up and starting arguments, so Jesus leaves. The plan is to head from His baptism spot on the edge of the Judean border to Cana in Galilee, a walk of about 60 miles or 100km, that took three days. If people walk about 5km/hr, then that means Jesus had walked for about 7 hours by the time he got to Sychar. So, obviously he was going to be tired. He sits down near Jacob’s Well, a pretty famous spot in the region going back 1800 years, all the way to Genesis 49. One cool thing about wells is that, because they’re 100 foot holes in the ground, they don’t move, so it’s pretty easy for archeologists to find them. The location is actually inside a Greek Orthodox church now.
Jesus Had to Pass Through Samaria
There’s actually a bunch of interesting things happening in this introduction to the story. First was the fact that Jesus went through Samaria at all. It was the most direct route, but the most devout Jews, in order to avoid defiling themselves by even touching Samaritan soil, would actually go a longer way around. There was a deep and abiding racism against Samaritans and Jews. They couldn’t agree on anything and didn’t like each other at all.
It went back to about 700 years before, in 2 Kings 17, when the king of Assyria brought a bunch of foreign people to settle among the Jewish people living in Samaria. Over time they intermarried and started to fuse together their Jewish and pagan beliefs. This, of course, offended the faithful Jews and that offence turned into hatred. By the time of Christ, the Samaritans had so strongly assimilated into gentile, non-jewish culture, that there weren’t many similarities left.
Except that a lot of the Samaritan’s religion had kept concepts from their Jewish roots. The Samaritans, in response to being rejected and ostracized, developed their own version of the Pentateuch, their own competing version of the Temple on Mount Gerizim, and their own interpretations of Israelite history.
For a modern understanding, think of Catholics or Jehovah Witnesses or Mormons. They have done something similar. God gave us an inerrant Bible, a clear gospel, and a very clear outline on how to be a church. But Catholics, Mormons, and JW’s, while keeping a lot of the same language, wrote their own version of the Bible, added a bunch to it, changed the gospel to be no gospel at all, and use their church structures to control and abuse people. It’s offensive and wrong – and terribly confusing that people lump Christian Churches in with Catholics, JW’s and Mormons, because we are very, very different.
Add to that an unhealthy amount of anger and racism, and you can start to see how Jews felt about Samaritans. It’s why the story of the Good Samaritan would have had such an impact. It would be like telling the story of the Good Baby Eating Satan Worshipper.
But Jesus chooses to go through Samaria. He doesn’t go around. In fact, verse 4 says that Jesus “had to pass through Samaria”. Some take this as “because it was the most direct route”, but based on the rest of the Gospel of John we can see that it wasn’t a practical decision, it was a gospel decision. Jesus had to pass through there, because it was the next mission field.
Remember the outline. Jesus’s mission goes ever outward. He goes from a little wedding in Cana in Galilee, to preaching in more Jewish towns, to the capital city of Jerusalem, to preaching throughout all of Judea, and then, and then into Samaria. The next story, if you look down, is Jesus healing the gentile’s son. From Jews, to half-Jews half-gentiles, to full gentiles. Jesus’ message is preached to everyone. That’s why he “had to pass through Samaria”.
A Samaritan Woman?!
The next interesting thing we see is who Jesus talks to. It said Jesus got there at the sixth hour, so it was about noon. Jesus had been walking for a long while, and it was the hottest part of the day. He sat down, exhausted, and here comes a Samaritan woman.
Jesus starts the conversation. He says, “Give me a drink.” And that’s a really important point. This would have been a huge crisis moment for a traditional Jew – especially a Jewish Rabbi. Jewish men didn’t treat women very well, and rabbis were even worse. Women were supposed to say ‘in their place’. A traditional Jew wouldn’t talk to a woman in public – they wouldn’t even talk to their own wife in public. A rabbi wouldn’t be caught dead discussing anything theological with a woman, because women and tradesman – like fisherman and carpenters – were considered too stupid to be able to understand anything about religion.
That’s one reason that the Sanhedrin was so amazed by Peter and John’s speech in Acts 4:13. They never would have thought a couple of tradesman could ever speak so well and understand so much. And do you know who was considered even lower than a woman, lower than a tradesman? A tradesman’s wife. They were basically nothing in society. And lower than that? A Samaritan Woman. Lower than that? A divorced Samaritan Woman. Lower than that? A divorced Samaritan woman who was living in sin with someone. That’s her.
And this woman, she was coming to fetch water during the middle of the afternoon. Everyone else, all the other women, would have come in the morning when it was cooler and easier. Why did she come in the afternoon? We learn later that it’s because she’s had a pretty rough life, and she has lived as an outsider in her own town. A ostracized person, among ostracized people.
So, for Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, to strike up a conversation with a half-breed, theologically messed up, socially rejected, Samaritan, woman was an incredibly strange thing to do.
And his request is even stranger. He asks her for a drink. We’ve talked a lot before about how important eating and drinking was to Jewish culture. It was considered a very intimate act. And we talked even last week about how important ritual purity was to Jewish culture. While the disciples were off trying to find some kosher food in Samaria, Jesus was sitting at a well, chatting up a woman, and asking her to draw Him some water, touch the cup, and give Him the water to drink.
That’s why it blows her mind. I think in our modern context, with this pandemic, we can wrap our heads around this, right? We don’t touch each other, shake hands, or hug people. We cover ourselves with a mask and refuse to breathe the same air as our neighbour. The moment we walk into a store, we sanitize our hands – and then when we walk out we sanitize again. Paranoia about getting COVID has made people obsessed with paying attention to what they touch, who they are near – every cough, every sniffle, every trip – analyzed and careful and ripe with stress and fear.
That’s what it was like to be a Jew in Jesus time living under Pharisaic rules – but times a hundred.
You’ve probably already had the experience where you’ve needed to hand something to someone, or you wanted to give something to someone, and what did you do – give them a bunch of caveats, right? “Ok, here it is. Don’t worry, I washed it, dried it with a clean cloth, sealed it in a new bag, let it sit out for 10 hours, and I’ll leave it on your front step so we don’t have to even go near one another.”
Put it this way: Imagine if tomorrow you were walking down the street in downtown Ottawa. It feels like 45 degrees, and even more with the pavement reflecting all the heat. You’re tired, hot, and super thirsty. You round a corner and see a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk. His eyes are downcast, he’s dirty, and an old surgical mask is pulled down under his chin. You see him reach beside himself and grab a can of coke. He takes a big drink and sputters out a cough.
Imagine saying to this stranger, “Hey man, can I have a sip of your coke?”
That’s what’s going down here. Jesus “had to pass through Samaria” so that He could have this interaction, to share the gospel with someone, and use her to save a lot of people.
What About Us?
What do you suppose we’re supposed to see in this interaction here? What are Christians supposed to be emulating? What lesson is there for us in these first few verses?
I think there are some other scriptures we can look to in order to help us understand:
Let’s start in Philippians 2:1–9,
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross….”
Jesus, of all beings, could have elevated Himself above this woman. There were a dozen reasons for Jesus to have nothing to do with her. But what did Jesus do? He humbled Himself, humiliated Himself, condescended to her, and loved her. Jesus has the right to be prejudiced. He really is higher and better than we are. He is sinless, we are sinners. He is perfect, we are spiritual dead. He is light, we are children of darkness. He is from heaven, we are captives to hell.
But Jesus didn’t see it that way. Instead, he had “affection and sympathy” for us. He humbled Himself, emptied Himself, didn’t hold onto the glory of God, but instead became the servant of all – Jews, gentiles, Samaritans, prostitutes, tax collectors, adulterers, enemy soldiers, wicked Pharissees – He loved and serve them all – even to the point of dying on the cross in their place – in our place.
Or how about James 2:1–9,
“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”
In Philippians we see that it’s a sin for us to think ourselves better than someone else – and here we see it’s a sin for us to think someone else is better than another. Who is God closest to? What does the Bible say? The poor, the widow, the orphan, the refugee, the outcast, the meek, the lowly, the broken, the lost, the sick. Why? Jesus says in Luke 7:41–42, “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
God gets more glory and more love from the people that know they need Him most. And therefore, our preference, if any, should be for the lowly, the reject, the outcast, the broken, the lost. Preferring one person over another, thinking them better than another, because of their wealth or position or some other external reason, is a sin.
How about Romans 12:9–21, entitled “Marks of the True Christian”.
“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
This is the heart of God for people within the church. Philippians 2 said that we shouldn’t think ourselves better than others. James 2 said we should think one person is better than another. And here in Romans 12 we see how we should treat those who treat us badly.
The command in verse 9 is for love to be “genuine” – the love that Jesus has is a “genuine” love. Sincere, real, not hypocritical, not a show – but genuine feelings of love.
For who? Look at the list. In verse 9, we see love for what is good. Verse 10, to have a familial love for our fellow Christians. In verses 11-13, to love Jesus by serving Him patienty, faithfully, hopefully, and serving his people generously.
But the list goes on. Who else are we to show genuine love to? Those who persecute us. Those who weep. Those who are lowly. Other words for “lowly” are stooped, helpless, sullen, downcast, depressed. Who else? Love those who try to make life difficult by trying to make peace with them. Love your enemy.
That’s what Jesus is demonstrating here, and that’s what Christians are supposed to be doing – first to each other and their families, then for their neighbourhoods and community, and then to the world.
Pause for a moment and ask yourself, “Does my life reflect the love that Jesus has for people?”
Do you think of others more than you think of yourself, putting other’s interests before your own? Or do your preferences and desires come first? When given the choice to serve or be served, do you chose to serve? How do you treat those who serve you, like waiters, cashiers, custodians, delivery people? With humility and respect, or as though you are better than them? When given the choice to be first, do you step aside and let someone else be first?
Consider your associations. Who do you prefer to be around? Do you seek out the company of the wealthy, privileged, comfortable, safe, easy, good-for-business, enjoyable, positive, people who you know won’t ask much of you, and you can expect reciprocal treatment from? Do you avoid difficult, needy, lowly, depressed, weeping, troubled people, people who cause you discomfort, or grief, because they’re just too much work, not worth your time, not worth your energy? If so, then you would have been one of the Jews who walked around Samaria and would never have taken the cup from the woman at the well.
Or what about Colossians 3:5–17:
“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
This is a mega-theme of the Bible and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus is kind and compassionate – and so we are kind and compassionate. Jesus is accepting and patient. We are accepting and patient. Jesus is humble and forgiving, we are humble and forgiving. Jesus is a peacemaker who brought peace to our hearts, we are peacemakers who bring peace to other’s hearts. Jesus teaches us, shares wisdom with us, sings to us, meets us in our spirit and encourages us – and we respond by teaching, sharing, singing, meeting, and encouraging others.
To be a Christian literally means to be a “little Christ”.
My daughter has a job at Subway now and it’s my job to pick her up after she’s done a shift. The moment she sits down next to me, the whole car smells like fresh baked bread. She’s saturated with it – and it immediately makes me want to have a sandwich. It was the same when my wife worked at Tim Hortons and a Bagel shop. She’d come home and I’d immediately crave bagels.
It was the opposite with my dad – sometimes. He was a pipefitter at a stinky, old pulp-mill and would sometimes have to work with something called “black liquor”. Black liquor is essentially concentrated tree gunk that is left over from the pulp making process. It’s super gross, super smelly, super sticky, and super toxic. If one little drop of that stuff gets on your clothes or boots, then you’ll smell awful – and all your clothes have to come off in the garage before you’re allowed in the house.
How do you know someone is a Christian? How do you know someone has met Jesus, experienced forgiveness, loves Jesus, and is walking with Jesus? Their lives look more and more like Jesus’ life. Their words sound more and more like Jesus’ words. Their hearts care more and more about the things that Jesus cares about. Anger, wrath, malice, slander, lies, obscene talk, prejudice all disappear – and when those sins are pointed out, they are quickly repented of. In other words, they walk with Jesus so much that they start to smell like Him – and they make people hungry for what they know, where they’ve been, what they’ve experienced, the Saviour they’ve been walking with.
And the same is true of the opposite. How do you know someone is a hypocrite, a Christian pretender, a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Because they don’t sound like Jesus, serve like Jesus, love like Jesus… and they carry that smell with them in all of their interactions, decisions, ideas, and motives.
How do we get the kind of love that Jesus has? Where does it come from? Is it white-knuckle, guilt trip, self-generated, love that we have to pretend we have so that Jesus will be happy? No. “Love must be genuine.”
Where does that genuine love come from? The answer is in 1 John 4:7–12:
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.”
Love comes into our hearts as a gift of God, and is perpetuated, motivated, filled-up, by the knowledge that God loved us so much He was willing to pour out the full weight of His wrath against sin – onto His Son instead of us. Verse 11, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” Knowing God’s love as demonstrated in Jesus’ sacrifice, is the foundation and model for how we love others. Knowing God’s forgiveness, given because of Jesus’ sacrifice, is the foundation and motivation for our ability to forgive others. Knowing that God wanted to be united with us so much that He sacrificed His own Son, put His Hon through Hell for us, is the foundation, the driving force, for why we work so hard to tell people about reconciliation to God through Jesus Christ, and, as a church, why we work so hard towards unity. Those that do not know God’s love, do not do this.
Let’s read one more scripture, a little back from what we just read, in 1 John 3:7–10. Listen,
“Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.”
Pause there – How do we know who has that seed in them? How do we know the devils from the righteous?
“By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”
Conclusion: From Love to Love
Let me conclude. We’ll get back into the story again next week.
When we say that Christianity is all about love, we sometimes get a little too pie-in-the-sky, ethereal, high-concept. The Bible is much more practical, must clearer about how that works. Those who love Jesus, who are saved by Jesus, demonstrate that love through humility, grace, patience, and a deep love for people who need it most.
Jesus “had to pass through Samaria”, to meet this woman, and had to ask for a drink from her, to show us something very, very important: How to love like He loves… how to love who He loves… how to love the way He loves.
And further, to demonstrate to us that no matter who we are, how messed up we are, how despised and rejected we have made ourselves, how much we have disappointed ourselves and God and others, no matter how bad our theology is, how corrupt our family or our culture, how sinful and lost we are – it doesn’t keep Jesus away. He loves you. He loved you before you were born. He has loved you for your whole life. And He continues to love you no matter what you’ve done. That’s why He went to the cross for you, to save you! Before you ever deserve it, He has already decided you’re worth it.
And if you know that love, have experienced that love, and have participated in that love – then you will, and you must, show that love to others. How do you know a Christian from a non-Christian, a devil from a believer? You will know by how much love, grace, forgiveness, and humility they demonstrate towards those who need it most, and who make it most difficult.
How can you know that you are a believer, that you have been saved? Because your heart starts to fill up with love for people you’ve never loved before, with forgiveness for people you never would have forgiven, with acceptance of those you never would have accepted. Because you start to feel genuine love, real love, unhypocritical love, for Jesus, His word, His church, and for everyone around you, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done.
Just like Jesus feels for you.
 Borchert, G. L. (1996). John 1–11 (Vol. 25A, p. 202). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
Please open up to John 3:22-36. We’re back into the Gospel of John series we started a while back. Life is ever-so-slowly starting to look a little bit more normal – and I think it’s good to get back into the regular exposition of God’s Word as we were doing before.
I think, since we haven’t been here since February, it behooves us to do a bit of a review of the Gospel of John up to this point.
I remember a while back when I was contemplating what series to do next – after coming back from that big stress leave I took – that I wanted to do something simple, straightforward, with lots of stories that wouldn’t be super complicated to study. And so, I figured I’d pick the Gospel of John. After all, a lot of people are told that’s the very first book of the Bible they should read, right?
Wow, was I ever wrong. When I sat down to work on the outline and overview of the book, I had no idea that just introducing the structure of the book was going to take 4 weeks. The Gospel of John is like an onion – every time you peel off a layer, there’s another one underneath. The book is, for lack of a better term, “intricate”.
The first line, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) kicks off a prologue that outlines and summarizes the whole rest of the book. It introduces Jesus as the condescended God, incarnated light of the world, John the Baptist as His forerunner, and the message of salvation through the “grace and truth” of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and Him alone.
It sets up the book as one full of rich imagery meant to expand the reader’s understanding of who Jesus is. It speaks of concepts like light and darkness, the Tabernacle and Moses, Law and Grace, our adoption as children of God, Jesus as the Lamb of God, the Son of God, and seven other important titles. The concepts in the prologue are then expanded on throughout the rest of the book – and the structure of the book is woven together like a tapestry.
In the first four chapters we see Jesus interacting with individuals, then from chapters five to eleven we see Him interacting with large groups – and always expanding geographically outward, with more people following Him. All throughout, we see the themes from the prologue keep coming back as John introduces Jesus using seven different miracles, or as he calls them “signs”, that point to who Jesus is.
We see Jesus as the source of Life when he turns water to wine, as the Master of Space and Distance as He heals a Nobleman’s son. We see Jesus as Master of Time as He heals a Lame man on the Sabbath. We see him as the Bread of Life as He feeds the 5000, and the Master of Nature as He walks on water and calms the storm. But, with the multitudes we don’t see growth, but instead we see more and more groups rejecting Him.
All throughout, Jesus is becoming more and more controversial. We see little breaks in the story as people are confronted with who Jesus really is and are forced to reckon with that reality. And along with more controversy comes more enemies, who get angrier, more jealous, and more violent.
Until we get to the sixth sign where Jesus heals a man born blind – something completely unheard of, and absolutely miraculous. His enemies argue and complain, but they can’t deny Jesus’ power. In this miracle Jesus shows He is the “light of the world”, able to bring light into the darkest of places, just like the prologue said. And His enemies respond by showing they “love the darkness” and hate the light, just like the prologues said.
Then, in the seventh miracle – seven being a very symbolic number in the Bible – Jesus does something completely otherworldly, something only God could do – He looks at Martha and says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:9). Martha says “yes” – and then Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.
You’d think this would solidify Jesus as Christ, Saviour, and God, right? How can you argue with someone who can raise the dead? Well, no. Instead, Jesus enemies loved the darkness so much that their response to seeing the lame walk, the blind see, the hungry fed, and the dead raised – was… let me read 11:53, “So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.”
At that point, the story of Jesus slows down to a crawl. The first half of the book, 11 chapters, covers about 3 years of Jesus’ life – the second half of the book, 10 chapters, takes place over the course of one week: Passion Week.
The Gospel of John is a truly incredible book. I haven’t even gone over all the ways that John divided and organized it. It’s incredibly interwoven and beautifully designed.
My hope is that this series we’re doing will inspire you to not only read the Gospel of John, but to appreciate it, to meditate on it, and most of all, to see Jesus in new and fascinating ways because of how He’s revealed here.
John the Baptist Exalts Christ
But let’s get into our passage today. I hope you’ve kept your thumb in John 3:22-36. This part occurs right after Jesus spends the night talking with the Pharisee Nicodemus about why he had come into the world, what His mission was, how it would all go, and how people would react.
Then, the next day, hopefully after Jesus got a couple of hours sleep, it says,
“After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized (for John had not yet been put in prison). Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. And they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.’”
Pause there a second. This whole section is about argument and interpretations of what’s going on. See the picture here, because a lot is going on. Remember, a lot of what the Gospel of John is doing is simply answering the question, “Who is Jesus?” and to do this he uses a lot of imagery and illustration – which we’ve already discussed a bit. Another thing it uses is contrast.
I take a lot of pictures these days. I set up a lightbox in my office to take pictures of the various little projects I do. A lightbox is simply a big, white, cloth box that you shine a bunch of lights in. If you’ve ever seen anything sold by Apple, you’ll know they love lightboxes. They take their phone or whatever, and stick it on a completely white background. That’s what I try to do.
When I’m editing the pictures, there’s a bunch of settings I can use, but , to me, the one that makes the biggest difference is the “contrast” setting. The more contrast there is, the bigger the difference between the white and the object. The colours get richer, the blacks get darker, and whatever I’m taking a picture of pops off the screen.
Many times in the Gospel of John you’ll see the author boost the contrast so that we can see something about Jesus – when compared to someone else. In this case, Jesus is being contrasted with John the Baptist.
We’ve already seen that John the Baptist is called the “witness”, while Jesus is called “the light” (1:7-8). John the Baptist is a “voice”, Jesus is “the Word” (1:14,23). John baptizes with water, Jesus with the Spirit (1:33).
Here we see both Jesus and John are having baptisms, but Jesus is in the Judean countryside, and John the Baptist is in Samaria. John is called “rabbi” (or teacher) – and this is the only place in scripture anyone other than Jesus is called “rabbi”, so you know something’s going on.
So, what’s happening there? The stage is set in verse 22-24, but the situation comes about in verse 25, “Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification.” This was a major point of argument between the followers of John and Jesus, and the rest of the Jewish leadership. The Jews, meaning the Pharisees and members of the ruling counsel, would often, it seems, come to John and confront him about why he thought he had authority to baptize people. He wasn’t an official in the temple, he wasn’t an authorized teacher, and he wasn’t even in Jerusalem. So it rankled them that people kept coming to John to be ritually washed – or baptized. For the Pharisees, as most of you know, ritual washing was a HUGE deal. They were all about rules and regulations and religion and ceremony. They were always upset with Jesus – not because He broke the Mosaic Laws – but because He kept breaking all the extra laws they had put on top of them.
For example – you know how we’re all about sanitization and washing hands right now? – well, we have nothing on the Pharisees. Consider this: at one point (in Matthew 15), a bunch of high-ranking Pharisees and scribes travelled all the way from Jerusalem to Gennesaret (which is, like, 130 kilometers) to ask him one, super huge important question that had been bothering them so much they just couldn’t wait. That question:
“Why don’t your disciples wash their hands before they eat?” (Matt 15:2).
For them, washing hands wasn’t about personal hygiene, it was about being ceremonially, religiously clean. Before a Pharisee would eat they had a special ceremony for washing. For them, the condition of your hands was the condition of your soul. Some taught that if you didn’t wash your hands, you could get a demon. Others, that it showed how much sin was in your life. Others said that if you ate with unwashed hands, you could forfeit eternal life.
Their ceremony was interesting. Every home had to have a certain amount of ceremonial water available. They were told to use the amount of water that would fill one and a half eggshells. They were to hold their hands upwards, have water pored over their fingers while the water ran off their wrists. Then they were to turn their hands with fingers pointed downwards and do it again. Then, they were to rub the fist of one hand in the palm of the other, and then do it with the other hand. If you were really devout, you would do this in between every course of the one meal!
You can see the heart of the one that came to John’s followers with questions about “purification”. Which is why, every now and again, one of the officials would take the trip to wherever John was and basically say, “What are you doing and why?” And start an argument.
John’s baptism wasn’t about an external show of religious devotion, or some kind of superstition. His baptism was one of repentance. It was an external symbol of what was going on in the heart of the person being baptized. They were saying, “I’m a sinner. I need God. I want to change my life and priorities. I want my heart to be ready and clean for when the Messiah comes.” And they would show that by publicly immersing themselves in water.
Which is why we see in verse 26,
“And they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.’”
Apparently the argument with the Jewish official got pretty heated. Not only was he upset at what John the Baptist was doing – but he had brought a report that there was another person, named Jesus, who was nearby, just on the other side of the Samaritan border, who was baptizing people too.
This was all too much! The Jewish official was upset because now two people were breaking their ceremonial laws… and now the followers of John were upset too because Jesus was starting to gather more followers and baptize them. In fact, some of the people who had been baptized by John were headed over to Jesus to be baptized again. So, they ask, “What’s that all about?”
The Jewish official was mad because traditions were broke and his culture and authority were being insulted. The followers of John were jealous on behalf of their master, because Jesus was getting more popular. Everyone is upset because this ceremony, this ordinance, these ritual washings, were all being done by different people for different reasons.
John the Baptist’s Answer
So what does John the Baptist say? Remember, they have just called him Rabbi. John the Gospel writer makes a point of that. In other words, this Jewish Official and the followers of John, and everyone else gathered around them, look to John the Baptist, the teacher, for an explanation.
And in essence, in his answer, John contrasts himself and everyone else – including the Jewish officials – with Jesus. He looks at them and
“John answered, ‘A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.’ He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
What does John say here? “I might be a rabbi, a teacher, who talks about God – but Jesus literally is God and the source of all knowledge. I didn’t come up with any of this, it was given to me by God… and He’s right over there. I am the forerunner, He is the Christ. I am the best man, He’s the groom. I might be at the party, but the party is all for Him. I’m from earth, He’s from heaven. I’m a witness to the truth, but He’s the truth incarnate. I talk about repentance and wash people with water – Jesus utterly changes people and gives them the Holy “Spirit without measure”. I was chosen for a mission, but Jesus has been “given all things”
“Therefore – now look at me everyone – look at me Jewish official – look at me disciples – look at me people who are here to get baptized… I am hereby announcing my retirement. I refuse to be a distraction to what Jesus is doing. I will not compete with Him. He must increase, but I must decrease. My job was to tell you the problem. I’ve warned you about the wrath of God, the death of your soul, the corruption of your religion, the poison of the Pharisees, and the need for repentance, and you’ve listened to me – but now instead of talking about the problem, I’m pointing you to the solution. He’s right over there… His name is Jesus, He’s the Son of God, and “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
And that’s the point of this whole narrative – and where we can find something to apply to our lives. Just like the Jewish Officials, Christians and religious people argue about all kinds of things too. Just like John the Baptist’s disciples, the way we practice our faith, religion, Christianity can become competitive, and we can get jealous and upset as we argue about which teacher is best, which translation of the Bible is best, which music is best, which tradition is best, which church is best…
Individually, we can be like the Jewish Officials by being argumentative, stubborn, superstitious, overzealous for trivial issues. Or, we can be like John the Baptist’s disciples and start to worry more about our positions, traditions, focusing on numbers and finances and growth, rather than on Jesus or serving people. Both of these two groups had it wrong because they were worried more about the external things: teachers, washing, popularity, respect — and not worried enough about the internal things: Am I right with God? Is my heart full of sin? Where is my faith? Do I “believe in the son” and “obey the Son”?
John the Baptist’s words here, and John the Gospel writer’s intent here, is for us to stop comparing ourselves to others, stop comparing our ministries or church to others, stop comparing our families to others, stop trying to impress God and others through external things – and to realize that in order to be a Christian, it is our internal priorities that need to change. “Jesus must increase, and I must decrease.”
Over and over we see John the Baptist say what he’s not. “I’m not the Christ.” “I am not Elijah” (1:21), “I am not worthy to untie” Jesus sandals (1:27). Those are the words of a man that is more concerned about what God thinks than what anyone else thinks.
He’s courageous enough, and bold enough to stand up and declare what God wants to say – even if it gets him in trouble, even if it gets him arrested, even if it gets him beheaded. But every word he speaks, everything he does, points away from himself and toward Jesus. And when one of his own people try to elevate John – he reacts by debasing himself and declaring the praises of Jesus as God, Lord, Saviour and Christ, and in no uncertain terms, stepped away from the spotlight, humbled himself, humiliated himself, so Jesus could be seen all the more clearly.
And so, I want to ask you this morning: Do you see yourself in this narrative? Are you like the Jewish Official, more worried about external things than what’s going on inside you? Are you like John’s disciples, competitive with others, comparing yourself, your life, your church, your ministry, you marriage, your kids, your job, with others – always worried about success, and numbers, and finances, and what people think?
Or, are you willing, if that means Jesus gets more glory, to “decrease”. Are you willing to decrease your influence, decrease your expectations, decrease your finances, decrease your comfort, decrease the authority you think you have over any part of your life – and turn it all over to Jesus so He can “increase”?
You’ll often hear the gospel framed as a pitch for all the wonderful things that you can get from Jesus – and there are many wonderful gifts that come from Him – but there’s another part, a deeper aspect of faith. It’s that the closer you get to Jesus, the more you are with Him, the more you study about Him, and worship Him, the brighter He will shine – and the duller you will look. Are you ok with that? Are you ok if God uses you in a mighty way, changes people’s lives, speaks through you in a special way – but no one will ever know? Are you ok with never getting rewarded, praised, or thanked for doing the right thing? Or maybe, in your obedience, in doing the right thing, a whole lot of people misunderstand and it actually costs you. Are you ok with that?
I think of the story of David in 2 Samuel 6. Do you remember that one? The Ark of the Covenant, the very Throne of God, was coming back into Jerusalem for the first time in a long time. It had been taken by the Philistines, recovered and then profaned by Saul (which cost him is throne), and, because it was so powerful and dangerous, had been kept at someone’s home. But when David became king and heard that the one who had the ark was being blessed, he decided it was time to bring it to Jerusalem so the whole nation could be blessed.
And David, being a passionate, musical, worshipful guy who loved God, made it into a huge deal. It was like a parade with music and dancing and instruments and party food and sacrifices to the Lord. And it says in 2 Samuel 6:14, “And David danced before the LORD with all his might. And David was wearing a linen ephod.” A “linin ephod” was a simple version of the type of garment that priests used. So there’s the king of Israel, not walking all dignified in a fancy royal robe, but dancing with all his might, in a simple outfit, right in front of everyone.
David’s wife Michal sees him and is super upset. Her dad, Saul, would never have done that. It says she “despised him in her heart” (2 Sam 6:16). Once the party was over and the Ark was set in its place, David returned home and his wife tore a strip off him. (2 Samuel 6:20)
“How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ female servants, as one of the vulgar fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!” (2 Sam 6:20)
And what was David’s response:
“It was before the Lord [I was dancing]… and I will celebrate before the Lord. I will make myself yet more contemptible (other translations say “undignified”) than this, and I will be abased in your eyes.” (2 Sam 6:21-22)
In other words – I don’t care what people think. I was worshipping God, dancing before Him, and if it means more worship and glory goes to God – then I will become even more undignified. In other, other words: “He must increase, and I must decrease.”
I think of Jesus words in Matthew 5:11–12,
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
So I ask you: Are you willing to decrease, to be undignified, contemptible, abased, unpopular, reviled, persecuted, uttered against, falsely accused – if it means obeying Jesus and that Jesus gets more glory? Or does your self-image come before your obedience and worship of God?
 Borchert, G. L. (1996). John 1–11 (Vol. 25A, p. 189). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 You Are the Christ, David Whitcomb, Ambassador International, Pg. ??
Please open up to Luke 8:4-15, the Parable of the Sower. I figure that this is the last of the “Building Faith during Difficult Times Series” that I started at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown and it’s time to get back into the expositional study of the Gospel of John that we were doing before that.
You can probably tell, by now, that my devotions of late have been from the Gospel of Luke. It’s been such an encouragement to work my way through Luke, section by section, doing a little study – but mostly just reflecting on it and asking God to speak through it.
Which leads naturally into today’s message, which I think is a very fitting end to the series – and which I believe speaks directly to where we are at today.
Let’s read together, starting in verse 1:
“Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means. And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable…”
So there’s the context. Jesus, His disciples, and some women who were supporting (literally deaconing) His ministry, were going through “cities and villages” proclaiming the “good news of the kingdom of God”.
There’s a lot going on in this introduction. Notice a few things. First, that lots and lots of people are hearing the gospel from Jesus. Cities and villages all over the place.
Second, notice the diversity of the people following Jesus. The 12 were already a pretty diverse group including scholars and tradesman, a tax collector, a religious zealot, some singles, some married, some brothers, young and older, faithful people and sceptical ones… but also there was a diverse group of women there. Mary Magdalene had suffered greatly with mental and physical anguish brought on by demon possession. She was probably quite the social outcast. Contrast her with Joanna, who was a wealthy and powerful, Roman woman whose husband served as a sort of business manager to King Herod. That’s a huge variety of people – and it shows that Jesus’ message wasn’t just for a certain group – but for everyone. The good news of the Kingdom of God wasn’t for a select few, or a certain kind of person – not just for the poor and outcast, or the very religious or scholarly, or just the men, or just people who had their act together… it was for everyone!
Here we see Jesus as the coming King announcing His Kingdom. As the Messiah, come to heal the sick and cast out Demons with the power of God. As the gracious one who didn’t discriminate against anyone. As the missionary who needed financial support for his food and travel. Jesus Christ, the son of God, proclaiming the Gospel and gathering a huge diversity of followers.
Remember that context for the parable we’re about to read. Starting at verse 4 again:
“And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable, ‘A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.’ As he said these things, he called out, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’”
Jesus often spoke in parables, little stories, that were meant to convey big truths to common people. They weren’t merely “sermon illustrations”, but were actually the very message themselves. Most often, the parables were used to convey one, big truth, but interpreters over the years have often seen much more – sometimes too much as they way over analyze every detail. Suffice to say, parables are more than “simple stories”. One commentator “describe them as both ‘works of art’ and ‘weapons of warfare’.”
In verses 9-10 we see that Jesus was asked why he spoke in parables and what the parable meant.
“And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’”
What does Jesus mean? Essentially, that people can only know the truth if God reveals it to them. We’ve studied this many times before. People love sin and want to stay in the darkness. It requires a miracle from God to shed light into a dark soul, to expose them to the truth, and for them to see their sin and feel the weight of guilt and shame. Unless God shines the light on them, unless God calls them, unless God anoints them (1 John 2:20, 27) unless God explains it to them, reveals it to them (1 Cor 2:10)… they just can’t see it, and they don’t want to.
That part in quotations in verse 10, is taken from Isaiah 6:9-10, where God commissions the prophet Isaiah to go and preach to the people of Israel – but to realize that every word he says is going to have absolutely no positive effect. His messages would be absolute truth, the very voice of God, but instead of softening the hearts of the rebellious, they would only harden them further. Instead of opening their eyes, they’ll shut them tighter. Instead of opening their ears, they will stuff more cotton in. Instead of repenting and giving their hearts to God, they will sin all the more and their heart will become calloused.
That’s what Jesus is saying here about why He uses parables. For those who want to know God better, who the Spirit is working in them, who are asking, seeking, and knocking… they will receive, and find and will have the door open to them. But those who don’t want to hear it, who love their own sin, their self, who feel justified in their actions, who don’t want to be lorded over by anyone else – the parables will only harden their hearts further.
Why? Because, as 1 Corinthians 1:18 says,
“…the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
The story of the gospel, the message that Jesus was spreading far and wide, to cities and villages, to a diversity of people everywhere – is a divisive message.
Consider the parable. What is the common factor? The seed, right? What’s the difference? The soils. As verse 11 says, “The seed is the word of God.”
Every soil gets the same seed. The message isn’t changed based on the audience. Jesus didn’t tell the rich people one thing and the poor people another. He didn’t tell the Romans one thing and the Jews another. He didn’t alter His message to be more palatable to the audience He was facing. He preached the same message, the same truth, to everyone.
What was that message? “Repent, believe, and follow Me as your only Lord and Saviour.” Remember last week’s message on Luke 6? How did it end? With the parable of the two house builders. One built on the Rock, which was the one who comes to Jesus, hears the Word of God, and obeys. The other built on sand, which was the one who comes to Jesus, hears the Word of God, and rejects it. Both hear the same message – to one it becomes the very foundation of their lives – to the other, it’s optional, foolish, offensive, and they reject it.
This is how it’s always been – from the very beginning of time, through every verse of the Old Testament, in every nation, through the ministry of Jesus, and into the days of the Christian church, there has been one message: Acknowledge you are a sinner, doomed to judgment by a righteous God. Repent of that sin by acknowledging that you cannot save yourself, but your only hope of salvation is to give up everything, take yourself off the throne of your life, cast yourself upon the grace and mercy of God, and trust Him alone in every part of your life. In short, simply to believe that what God says is the highest authority and good that you can know or experience — and then live like it.
That’s been the message since the beginning of time. And that message has either enlightened hearts unto repentance and humility and salvation – or hardened hearts unto hell.
You’ve experienced this in your own life, your own heart, and when you’ve shared the word of God with others.
In your own life, there have been times when you’ve had to choose between believing the Word of God and obeying, or doing things according to your own ideas, traditions, or feelings. This pandemic, and all the craziness it’s brought, has been a refining and revealing fire that has given us so many opportunities to trust God or not to trust Him.
Maybe you’ve faced financial struggles. The Word of God says,
“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. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:31–33)
Jesus says that an unbeliever will worry, get anxious, start to prioritize money and security over seeking God and living rightly before Him. Their worry will drive them to do selfish or sinful things. That’s an opportunity to either trust God or not.
Some people have had to face some serious difficulties in their close relationships. The stress of the lock-down and all that came with it has revealed things about their friends and family and church that they may not have known was there. Some news places are reporting that there is surge of divorce filings, domestic violence, and substance and alcohol abuse, right now. The US and Canada are facing race riots and hyper politicizing of the epidemic. Small cracks that were present before have been blown wide open.
The Word of God says,
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27–29)
It says, stay married and do the hard work of reconciliation. (Matthew 19:9; Eph 4:32)
The Word says, “Do not get drunk…” (Eph 5:18) and “be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.” (1 Peter 4:7). Jesus says, “If your eye or your hand causes you to sin, get rid of it.” (Matt 5:27-30)
And you’re presented with a choice. Humility before God, getting rid of the alcohol or whatever, getting rid of the computer… doing the hard work to love and forgive the people who hurt you…… or ignore God and keep turning to substances and anger and bitterness and rage.
You see, the “good news” of the gospel of Jesus Christ, isn’t just, “Yay, everyone gets saved.” It’s, “I have good news for you. The absolute corruption of your souls, the curse that makes it so you can do no good thing, that has driven you into slavery to sin and Satan… can be broken. But… you are not going to go from slavery to freedom… you are going to go from slavery to slavery.
Romans 6:20,22, “For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness…. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.”
That’s the good news! The opportunity to change gods, change lords, changes bosses, change allegiances, change slave masters, is placed before you. You didn’t have a choice before – you didn’t even know you had a slave master – but Jesus comes and tells you how bad off you are. He shines light into your dark heart, and that light illuminates a whole lot of your sin, guilt, shame, fear, prejudice, and greed…
It’s like you’re sitting alone, in a pitch-black room, eating something. It’s all you’ve ever known. And suddenly, Jesus breaks open a door you didn’t even know was there, and light floods in all around you. And you see that what you’ve been eating is muck, garbage, poison… and He says, “You don’t know it, but you’re living in a prison. You’re sentenced to death. I’m offering you a way out.” And then He presents an option to you. Follow Him through His door, take His path, go His way, live under His rules, with Him as your ultimate authority. He’ll cure your poison, but you must take His medicine. He’ll pump your stomach, but it’s going to be uncomfortable and you’re going to have to let Him. He’ll take your punishment for you, take your death sentence for you, but you must give up the muck, leave the prison, and call Him alone your God.
Or… you can tell Jesus to get lost, say He’s crazy for saying you’re in prison, that you’re offended that He would call you condemned, kick the door closed, embrace the darkness, and stay in the room pretending that you were never shown the truth.
Jesus offers that choice to everyone who hears Him.
The Four Soils
Now, take a look at Jesus’ explanation of the Parable in verse 11,
“Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.”
I think this parable has special, devotional significance for believers here today. In light of everything happening in our world, our homes, our church, right now. Because of late we have faced a lot of these sorts of situations and have been given the opportunity to trust God’s word or not. We can see ourselves in the various soils.
And remember, Jesus is talking to His disciples. The unspoken question is perhaps, “Why doesn’t everyone accept this Gospel? Why doesn’t everyone do what God says? Jesus is awesome, powerful, gracious, kind, and offers salvation from death and hell. His way is always better! Why wouldn’t everyone take Him up on this? Wherein lays the difficulty? Why would people we know, we love, who are reasonable, and are more than willing to trust us about so many other things – have a completely different reaction when we start talking about Jesus or the Bible?”
In other words, there’s nothing wrong with the seed, and the sower is doing their best to spread it all over the place, so why won’t it take root and grow?
Some people who hear the Word of God are those whose heart is like a hard path – the words just bounce right off. They “heard” the words, but their hearts are like pavement. They are like the religious leaders who followed Jesus around, but only criticized, scoffed, and argued. It’s not a “passive unbelief”, it’s an active refusal to humble themselves and obey.
There’s an element of spiritual warfare here to because it says the “devil” comes and “steals away the word, so that they may not believe and be saved.” In other words, these are people who not only refuse to believe Jesus, but have so completely rejected Him that it’s like Satan has locked their minds and hearts and thrown away the key. They are worldly people, believing their own ideas, and only have derision for God, Jesus, and believers.
How can one get through to this person? Well, how would you turn a hard packed road into fertile farm land? It’s going to require something to break through that ground – and that often comes in the form of suffering, fear, and facing death. God has to send a big, hard tiller – before the healing rains can penetrate that ground. All we can do is pray.
For us Christians, devotionally, can you see yourself in the hard-packed ground? Are there parts of the Word of God that you simply won’t believe, won’t obey, no matter what? Are there parts of your life that don’t line up to what God wants, but no matter how many people point it out, how many times God brings it up in study and prayer, how many messages you hear about it, how many spiritual authorities tell you to submit – there’s just no penetrating that part of your life? You are doing yourself and your soul damage if there is. And you’re giving your spiritual enemy a foothold in your life and family.
Then there are those whose hearts are like stony ground. They hear the word, receive it with joy, but don’t take root. They believe for a while, and then fall away. What causes them to fall away? Testing. These are people who seem like they are Christians, love worship music, small groups, potlucks, and hanging around with believers. It gives them comfort and hope and peace. They feel loved and accepted.
But there are two problems: They have no roots and there are some huge rocks in their field. The roots represent spiritual maturity. Think of Psalm 1,
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.” (Ps 1:1-4)
Blessed is the person who takes counsel from the godly, has left the way of sinners, and has given up his pride, his scoffing at God and God’s people, and replaced it with humility. They love God’s word, meditate on it, study it, pray about it, lets it penetrate their soul and change their character. And their roots grow deep as they drink from the stream of God’s Word.
But, there are people who look and sound like believers, but have no roots. The rocks in their field are false ideas they refuse to give up, sins they refuse to repent from, and a sense of arrogance that they keep, believing that they are better than everyone else. They hear messages about repentance and humility – but they assume it’s for other people. They don’t have study habits in private, and very little prayer life, except when they’re around other Christians. They don’t submit to Godly authority or God’s Word. The only interpretation they want is their own.
And then testing comes, trials, suffering, difficulty comes – and they have no framework built for it. Jesus is supposed to be the answer to all their questions, the fixer of all their problems, the great gift-giver in the sky that makes their life better. But then God ordains a time of difficulty, a time of spiritual training, of discipline, of maturing – and they say, “Forget this! Christianity is too hard, too strict, too constrictive. I’m going my own way, coming up with my own ideas, and create my own version that I like better.” And they fall away. I’ve seen this many times, and I’m sure you have too.
Can you see yourself in this one? Has this time of testing and trial that we’ve been going through revealed any weaknesses in you, any big rocks you need to deal with? Has it shown you the true depth of your roots? That’s a gift from God! That’s an invitation to spiritual maturity. Don’t reject it, don’t give up, don’t quit. Instead, humble yourself, accept correction, accept discipline, find some spiritual authorities to get under, and allow God to deepen your roots so you can face adversity with grace and courage.
Then there’s the “thorny ground” people. This is similar, but opposite to the rocky ground people. This person also lacks maturity. They might grow a little more than the rocky people, but in the end they end not much better – they are immature and fruitless. What is the cause of their immaturity? “cares, riches, and pleasures”. In other words, “life”.
They see their sin, want to be saved, and come to Jesus. The seed penetrates the ground, and it grows. But God isn’t planting just to have a seed sprout – He wants fruit! He wants to take this believer and train them in righteousness, use them for His Kingdom, show His glory and bring His love to the world through them.
But that requires maturity, and they don’t like that. Instead, their heart is full of cares, worries, anxieties. They are worried about comfort, security, pleasures, and money. Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” “Go into the world and make disciples of all nations.” “I have given you a gift, a talent, and a place in my body of believers. I’ve set aside good deeds designed just for you, now go!”
And this person responds, “But Lord, that’s not comfortable. What about my retirement? What about my stuff? Won’t that cost me some money? That seems kind of risky, Lord. I’m not so sure. I really like being healthy, comfortable, warm, and well rested. Plus, every time someone sticks their necks out around here, someone smacks them down like a game of whack-a-mole. So, I’m just going to keep my head down. Stop asking me to serve in areas where it’s not…. easy… . Stop convicting my heart to do difficult things. Stop telling me to use my gifts in ways that might get me in trouble. Thanks for saving me… but that’s all I want from you. Other than that, please leave me alone.”
Do you see yourself in this? During this time, have your fears, concerns, and worries, caused you to tell God that you don’t want to obey Him because it’s too risky? Has God told you to share something and you said, “No, I’m might need it.” and then kept it? Has God told you to serve somewhere and you said, “No, that might put me at risk or get me in trouble.”? As the stress and anxiety grew, did you start clinging a little harder to your worldly pleasures, worldly riches, worldly comforts, because you were afraid you might lose them?
Maybe you’ve lost out on a real blessing, real spiritual fruit, missed out on being used by God in a special way, because your concern for yourself overwhelmed your trust and obedience to God – and the thorns choked out your fruit.
Good Soil – Conclusion
The final soil is the good soil. People who hear “the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” What a rich description. They hear it, grip it, bind it to their life, glue it to their souls, in their “honest (or “noble” or “beautiful”) and good heart”. Their heart is “honest”, they’re not lying to themselves or anyone else. It’s beautiful, unmarred by the blackness of sin because Jesus has washed it clean. And it’s good, meaning it’s actively positive. No rocks, no thorns, because they’ve fully repented, totally turned their lives over to Jesus, and keep repenting and tossing out rocks and weeds every time the Holy Spirit shows them one.
Here’s the thing: It’s not that these people are special.
I recently watched a movie about Mr. Rogers (a wonderful, Christian man I greatly admire and respect) and at one point a reporter who is doing a piece on Mr Rogers turns to his wife, Joanne, and says, “He must be a saint.” Her reply was profound,
“I don’t like that word. If you make him out to be a saint, then nobody can get there. They’ll think he’s some otherworldly creature. If you make him out to be a saint, people might not know how hard he worked.”
In other words, it’s not that Mr. Rogers was special… or “otherworldly”. It’s just that he was obedient to Jesus. Jesus did a mighty work in his life, changed his heart, cleansed his sins, broke the curse, and Mr Rogers thanked Jesus by obeying. He took God’s Word seriously and applied it to His life as a servant of God. He said what he believed Jesus wanted said, did what He believed Jesus wanted done, reacted the way He believed Jesus wanted Him to react, and forgave as he believed Jesus wanted him to forgive. His soil took the seed of the gospel, and God was able to produce much fruit through him.
Jesus doesn’t want special people. The motley crew following Him proves that. And the motley crew that makes up most Christian churches proves that too. Jesus doesn’t have a “type” or a “favourite kind of person”. All that He requires is a person that hears His Word, believes it, and humbly obeys – even when it’s hard, risky, inconvenient, or they don’t feel like it.
The question is: How receptive is your heart to trusting Jesus?
 Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Parable. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 1606). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
 Life Application Bible Commentary – Luke – Pg 202
This is going to be a little bit different of a post, so thank you for taking the time to read.
As you know, I’ve been a full-time pastor since 2005 and have been putting my sermon texts and podcasts and books on ArtoftheChristianNinja.com for about 7 years ago. My greatest passion is helping people find tools and inspiration to pursue a deeper, consistent, and more meaningful relationship with God. If you’ve listened to my podcast, you heard that line so many times. It’s absolutely true and has driven my preaching, teaching, writing, counseling, discipleship ministries for years — which I’ve coupled with my love of technology to create podcasts and blogs and a bunch of free resources.
I’ve written a few books (which I give away free), have a weekly sermon blog and podcast, and have created a couple of other podcasts that have tackled current events, religion, life, and everything else. Carnivore Theology was by far the most successful and ran for over 100 episodes. I’m on the verge of kicking off another one I think I’m going to call “Of Interest” where I go through some interesting articles and do a bit of a study — but to do so effectively I need some support.
Over the years of having this blog a lot of people have asked how they can support my work — and have been incredibly generous in helping me with one-time gifts for the various associated fees. Those gifts have been humbling and encouraging.
What I’m doing today is announcing that I’ve set up a Patreon account. Patreon, for those who don’t know, is basically a subscription service where “patrons” from around the world can sign up to give a monthly amount of their choice to creators (like writers, podcasters, youtubers, musicians, and artists) so they can have consistent financial support from the people that appreciate their content.
I’m sure you’re wondering: Why do you need a Patreon, Pastor Al?
Many of you know my story of late. I’ve faced a lot of trials over the past few years, and some months ago, my church (Beckwith Baptist Church) was forced to take me from full-time to part-time pay. They’ve generously continued my medical benefits, but my income has taken a hit and the pandemic hasn’t helped. Plus, there are some pretty weird things going on in the denomination I’m with, and that’s going to have financial impact too. Over these months I’ve continued to serve pretty much full-time anyway (and moreso during the COVID-19 crisis – as I’m sure you noticed with all the new service videos I’ve put out) but I’m at the point now where I have to find other sources of income.
The thing is, that I would LOVE to continue to write, preach, teach, podcast, serve my church and community, and keep Art of the Christian Ninja going and improving… but to do that I need regular financial support — hence this Patreon.
What I’m asking is that you would prayerfully consider supporting me with a regular, monthly gift “subscription” at Patreon.com/ArtoftheChristianNinja (there’s also a link on the top corner of my website). Not only will you be supporting my preaching and writing ministry, but you will be allowing me to keep the blog and podcast going, create more content, and take care of my family.
As an expression of gratitude, I’m going to try to give some exclusive content to the Patreon supporters but I have no idea what that is at this point. Everything I do is available free on the AOTCN website – and I always want it to be! Maybe I can send people a printed copy of one of my books – or make a mug – or 3D print a fridge magnet. I’m open to ideas!
My intention is that ArtoftheChristianNinja.com and all the content on it will always be free. Right now, I’m thinking about putting together another book or two, some study guides, a few sermon collections, and I’ve got a few other ideas percolating, but to dedicate the time to them, I need some help.
Thank you so much for your consideration!
Have a great day, and God bless.
Please turn to Luke 6:17 where we read about Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain”. We’re used to hearing about the “Sermon on the Mount”, but Jesus obviously preached the same message more than once to different audiences. So, this is the “Sermon on the Plain” and you’re going to see lots of parallels to the “Sermon on the Mount”.
This section begins this way:
“And he came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all. And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:…”(Luke 6:17–20)
So, that’s the context. Jesus is standing before a “great multitude”. He has just spent time showing His divine power, His divine grace, doing things that only God can do, and the crowd is pressing in on Him seeking to get closer to this incredible power.
This is how it works for all that come to the Lord. They witness His power, see His grace, feel His love, hear His invitation to come and be healed – and it’s attractive. Maybe it’s through seeing the life of a believer, a Christian friend, or through a message they hear from a preacher or teacher, something causes them to see that their world, their whole life, could be different if they meet Jesus. Some are driven by curiosity, wondering at these teachings that go against so much of what the world says. Some are driven by spectacle, hoping to see and experience things that they can’t get anywhere else. But many, if not most, who come to Jesus, are driven by a need for healing.
This is why so many Christians are accused of their faith being a “crutch” to get through life. Unbelievers use the term derisively, implying that if a person would just try harder, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, self-actualize, discover their inner potential, they would be able to accomplish whatever they wanted without the need for outside help – especially help from a “pretend friend in the sky”.
But those who come to Jesus come to Him because they know they’re not strong enough, that the world is too big, the problems too complicated, their resources too few, their bodies and minds insufficient for the task. In fact, Christians don’t just need God as their “crutch”, it’s so much worse. We believe that without God, without the work of Jesus in our lives, the presence of the Holy Spirit, we aren’t just limping and need a crutch – we’re dead and need a resurrection.
It is our need that drives us to God’s power in Jesus, just as it was for the crowds that day. Our relationships are a mess and we need them fixed. Our bodies are falling apart and we need them healed. Our minds are awash with negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, and we need some kind of reboot. Our emotions are out of whack and we’re hurting ourselves and others out of desperation and fear. We try a whole lot of things, but in the end realize nothing works, and that we are not enough, and so we turn to Jesus for help. Like the crowds, we seek to “touch him”, for “power” is coming out of Him. Power we don’t have, but need.
What Jesus Wants
In the Bible, miracles are always pointing to something else. Miracles don’t just happen in a vacuum, just to be nice, they are guideposts, signs, that point us to something that we are supposed to see.
Jesus’ miracles, just like the Apostles’ and missionaries that would come after Him, were meant to show the crowd, “God is with this person. This person has power and authority unlike anyone else, so listen to Him.” And then the gospel presentation and teaching would follow.
And so it is here. For Jesus, having crowds gather around Him and press in was a good thing and a bad thing. It was good in that He was able to show His grace to needy people, and that they were a sort of “captive audience” that would stick around and listen to what He had to say. But it was bad, because throughout His ministry these same people, the crowds He was gathering, kept misunderstanding His message, mission, and intentions, and started only coming for the miracles and not the message.
What did the crowds want? Access to Jesus’ power and healing of their problems. So, how did they see Jesus? For many of them, Jesus became a means to an end. Come to Jesus, have Him touch you or someone you care about, get that miracle and then go home happy. “Yay, praise God, I can walk, I can see, I’m free of the unclean spirits. Now, back to my normal life just like it was before. I hope Jesus sticks around in case something else bad happens.”
Right? What did Jesus want? He wanted them to look past the miracles and see the One who was performing them. To get their minds off of their bodily needs and see their much deeper spiritual needs. To completely reorient their understanding of who God is, what God expects, and how God intends to save them.
The crowds, after experiencing Jesus’ power, would try to force Him to be their king, lead their armies, conquer their Roman enemies, and be the one who gave them all the food and comfort they ever needed (John 6:15).
That’s not why Jesus came. That’s not what Jesus offers. He doesn’t offer worldly comfort, earthly success, a problem free life. Jesus offers something greater – the salvation of our souls from Hell, the restoration of our relationship with our Creator, a lifetime of fruitful discipleship with Him by our side, and an eternity with Him after we die.
But the crowds didn’t see that. In fact, if you asked them if they would choose healthy bodies and a peaceful life right now – or to follow Jesus as their Lord and Saviour – 99.9% of them would have said, “I’ll take the health and wealth now, please.”
Where Rubber Meets the Road
Today is Father’s Day and, while I don’t want to be overly stereotypical, generally speaking it’s the Father who gives the tough truths and encourages the risky behaviour. When the kid is learning to ride a bike, Mom will make sure the kid has a helmet and pads – while Dad is telling them to wipe their tears, get up off the ground, and then showing them how to ride with no hands. When the kid falls flat at the playground, the mom’s instinct is to run over and see if they’re ok – a father’s instinct is to wait to see how the kid reacts. Will they cry? Will they dust themselves off and try again? Will they pout and want to leave the park? Dad wants the kid to know that really good stuff, the best stuff life has, requires risk, and sometimes that risk ends up causing us pain – but we’ll never be able to get to the really good stuff unless we’re willing to endure the pain. Maybe your dad was different, but in my experience, the dad’s I know are the ones who are more than willing to love their child by dropping a truth bomb and helping them learn how to deal with the tougher side of life. It’s all well and good to say you want to be a firefighter, cowboy, superhero, or famous artist – but it’s another thing to realize what you’re saying and what happens where the rubber meets the road.
I like that phrase, “where the rubber meets the road”. It’s descriptive. It’s about that moment when all the theories and plans and ideas are tested by reality.
When you consider what Jesus says to the crowds with the “Sermon on the Plain”, you’ll see that it’s a very “rubber meets the road” message.
Picture the crowd. This great healer has come to town and they’re out to find him. They bring their sick and needy, carrying them on their backs, just so they can be touched by Jesus. And they witness miracles. The lame are dancing, the blind are seeing their families, the possessed are free and worshipping, the terminally sick are up and excited and hugging their families. What an electric atmosphere that must have been.
And they look at Jesus and think, “This guy is it. He’s the One. He’s going to solve all our problems! He can feed the poor, heal the sick, and has immense power to do whatever He wants. Surely he won’t stop at what we see today. Surely he’s headed to Jerusalem to take back the city, to set up a new kingdom. I’ll follow this guy! He has the power to give me everything my heart desires!”
The Sermon on the Plain
And what does Jesus say? He looks at His disciples, who are surrounded by celebration, who themselves are drooling over the prospect of their Master setting them all up as governors of the reclaimed Israel, with wealth, nice houses, servants, and comfort.
And Jesus says,
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
The term “blessed” there means more than just “happy”. It has more to do with than mere feelings. It speaks of a status and situation where a person is favoured by God, gets extra attention from God, is special to God.
This is exactly the opposite of what everyone was thinking. Everyone thought, “You know when someone is blessed by God, special to God, because they have health, wealth, power, and privilege.” Jesus says the exact opposite. In fact, the word “poor” there had far more implications than just someone who doesn’t have much money. It speaks of someone who is “poor in spirit”, who have so little, who are so needy, that they have nothing but God. Every meal, every step, every decision, everything requires that God gives it to them – because they can’t do it themselves. These are people who have nothing to fall back on, no earthly security, no savings, no insurance, no safety net. They are always on the edge of ruin. Their whole life is a tightrope walk without a net.
“Blessed”, “favoured”, “special to God” are those people. I can’t imagine the crowd’s reaction at this upside down reality that Jesus is talking about. Look at verse 24,
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
This type of “rich” wasn’t talking about mere economic status. These are people who believe themselves to be better than others, are haughty (Prov 28:11), who use their status and power and wealth to oppress the poor. The one who gives no consideration to the condition of their soul, or their standing before God, or their place in Eternity, but is content to simply have some worldly consolation through their stuff, or make themselves feel better by treating others badly.
Again, this seems so opposite! In their world, and in our world today, we think that the blessed ones are those who have lots of stuff, have power to do whatever they want, don’t ever need anyone else, who can command respect and attention wherever they go. People who others get nervous around, who can demand things and have it happen for them simply because of who they are. That’s who people look up to. That’s who people want to be – rich, successful, powerful, feared. Why? Because their life is better. They we see as blessed. Who do people not want to be? Poor, desperate, insecure, powerless, hand-to-mouth. They we see as cursed.
Jesus flips all that upside-down.
This is why I say this is a very “where the rubber meets the road” message, because Jesus is outlining what life in His Kingdom looks like. Everyone around is thinking, “Let’s make this guy King! Let’s listen to this guy! Let’s do what this guy says! He’ll lead us to great things! He’s really blessed by God, and we’d like to get in on that action.”
And Jesus says, “Yes, I’m here to set up a kingdom. I’m here to inaugurate a new age. I’m here to gather a people for myself, who will follow me. People who will see the world the way I see the world and treat people how they should be treated.”
And Jesus turns to His disciples, the ones who have chosen to follow Him, and says, “Are you ready to hear what life in my Kingdom, with me as King, looks like? Do you want to know the type of people that I’m going to attract, and save, and empower, and use to spread my kingdom and my gospel? Do you want to hear what my Kingdom is all about?”
Look back at verse 20:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”
And you can hear the disciples say, “Sure, sure Jesus, I get it. You want to use the humble, the hungry, the outcasts because that way you get to show your power and demonstrate what a miracle you can make in someone’s life. For sure. I guess I can get behind that. But then, once you’ve got your army of outcasts ready, then we go conquer our enemies, right? You’re going to destroy the bad people, overthrow the corrupt government, take away the tax collectors who steal our money, punish the rich people who take advantage of us and make us their slaves, the racists who think they’re so great and treat others like garbage… you’re going to wipe them out, right?”
Look at verse 27,
“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.
If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
“Wow, that’s tough, Jesus. Love our abusers? Give away things and don’t expect them back? That’s not what I expected… But ok. I’ll do that. I’ll treat my enemies kindly. I’ll be content knowing I’m a better person than they are, that they’re condemned to judgement, and even though I’ll treat them nice to their face – I’ll never forgive what these terrible people have done to me and those I love.”
“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”
“Ok, Jesus, but that’s just your opinion. You’re a good teacher, and you’ve done some good things, but you’ve got some pretty extreme ideas. I’ll take what you’re teaching into consideration, but I’m going to talk to some other people, find some other teachers, read some other books, learn about some other ways of thinking, and then mash that together and come up with something that works for me.”
“He also told them a parable: ‘Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.”
“Oh Jesus, I’m smart enough to know what’s right and wrong, who to trust and who not to? In fact, I see clearly than most. Sure, some of these dummies need you to teach them right and wrong, but I don’t. When I look around I see a whole lot of people that know way less than me, who are way worse than me. I’m really smart, and they need me more than I need them.”
“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”
“Ok, if my eye is full of logs and I can’t see straight because of my own sins and biases, then, how can I tell who to listen to? How can I know who is telling me the truth? How can I know which people are your followers with your priorities, and which ones are false ones who are trying to mess me up? How can I tell the shepherds from the wolves?”
“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”
You see, Jesus’ kingdom, His way, His word, are so often the opposite of what we feel is right. Feelings are dangerous. Coming up with our own mashed up version of God or religion or right and wrong is dangerous. We’re not capable.
That’s why Jesus started with, “Blessed are the poor, hungry, weeping, and reviled.” Because if you live a Christian life, if Jesus is your Lord, if you follow the word of God in every aspect of your life, if you pick up your cross daily and follow Jesus – you’re going to end up where Jesus ended up. Jesus was poor, hungry, weeping, and reviled, and those who follow Him should expect nothing less.
Loving your enemies is going to make you more enemies, because people are going to misunderstand you. Even your side will turn on you because you’re not hating who you are supposed to hate.
Knowing you are poor, foolish, sinful, easily led astray, changing how you think about yourself, and wholly trusting that God will lead you and provide for you, is going to confuse a lot of people. Every time you say, “I’m waiting for God. I will not move unless God moves with me. I will not reach for what He hasn’t given me.”, they’re going to get mad at you, argue with you, call you foolish, stupid, lazy, and an extremist. Your faith in God will make faithless people very upset.
Loving the unlovable, the thief, the abuser, is going to hurt. Going back over and over, opening yourself up over and over, giving your heart away over and over, only to have it mangled by the one you are trying to love, will make you spend a lot of time weeping. But that’s how Jesus is. His arms are always open. That’s how God the Father is. He welcomes the prodigal son home with celebration. But it’s hard, and you will weep.
Following God’s word, standing on His promises, doing things His way is going to cause people to revile you. The world, and a lot of people in the church, have real hatred for those who plant their feet firmly on the Word of God and refuse to move unless they are convinced from scripture. They’re going to argue with you, beg you to compromise, and tempt you towards an easier rout – just like Satan did to Jesus in the wilderness. But we respond the way Jesus did – with more scripture. But taking that stand will cause many people inside and outside the church to hate your guts.
Christianity isn’t the easy road. During times like we are going through now, as individuals, as a church, as a province and country, our convictions face real tests. We are forced to decide whether we believe that Jesus is Lord and we have to do things His way despite how we feel – or whether we think we know better because His way doesn’t feel right.
Everyday, especially over the past couple weeks, there have been dozens of really important options laid out before us – ones that are clear in scripture – and we’ve been given the opportunity to either follow Jesus or not. This pandemic, and this season in our church, if it has done anything, it has shown you how strong your convictions really are, how firm your faith really is, how pure your mind really is, and where your weaknesses really are. It’s shown us whether we are ruled by fear or by Jesus, by greed or by Jesus, by our feelings or by Jesus, by popular opinions or by Jesus, by our appetites or by Jesus. I hope you’ve been paying attention, because God has been giving us a crash course on the cost of discipleship lately.
Let me close with how Jesus closes His “Sermon on the Plain” with another, “where the rubber meets the road” statement.
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.”(Luke 6:46–49)
I’m going to give you some time of silence to talk to God, and then I’ll play a final song, and then close in prayer.
A lot of things sort-of collided this week. First, of course, we’ve got this pandemic looming over us with all that entails – including the enforced social distancing rules that are making daily life increasingly stressful and depressing. Next, I had a few people texting me and asking about how we can have the Lord’s Supper, communion, as a church. Could we prepare it ourselves at home and then all watch the video and do it. Would that be ok? I also came across a bunch of people and posts – from people inside and outside Christianity – that kept saying that we don’t need to gather together as a church in order to be Christian. The general gist of the argument was that a person’s connection to God, their relationship with Jesus, was only an individual one and a Christian doesn’t need anyone else to have a full and healthy relationship with God. And then, mixed into all of this, came the explosion of riots and protests in the US and Canada, as a result of systemic racism.
As I processed all of these huge issues – social distancing, communion, the church, the riots – it occurred to me that there is an underlying, common theme. Essentially, at the heart of it all, is the problem of “division”. Humanity is divided. Social Distancing because of the pandemic has divided our communities and families. Don’t visit grandma, don’t go within 6 feet of any human being, don’t shake hands, don’t sing together, don’t give gifts, don’t share meals, don’t worship together. That alone is catastrophic for the human soul.
But, of course, human divisions have existed long before COVID-19 came along. The bigotry of racism, sexism, ageism, classism, nationalism has divided us since Cain and Abel. In our modern context, another “ism” has grown: “Individualism”. The idea that a single person is more important than the group, that people should work for their own advantage, and that their thoughts and actions are valid simply because they are their own – and no one has the right to judge them. This individualism has infected Christianity, which is where the people who say, “I don’t need any other believers, I don’t need the church, I don’t need accountability, or elders, or theology books, or a church family – it’s just me and God and that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
Right now, as I speak to you, humanity might be the most divided it’s ever been. It’s one thing to be sexist and think one gender is worse, another to be nationalist and think every other country is evil, another to be ageist and think every other generation is stupid, another to be racist and think that people with different coloured skin are somehow inferior – but when it comes to individualism – the belief that every other person on earth is worse, evil, stupid, and inferior, to you – I don’t think you can get a society more divided than that.
As I said, this moment in time might be the most divided humanity has ever been.
Origins of Division
Where did all this division come from?
God’s plan, which we see in Genesis 1 and 2, was a united humanity. God created Adam and Eve – who were probably brown people, by the way – and placed them in the Garden of Eden. Already, at the very beginning, there was the potential for problems. God is Creator, Adam and Eve are creation. Adam was male, Eve female. Adam was first, Eve was second. But instead of division, there was perfect community, perfect unity, between God, Adam and Eve.
It didn’t last long. In Genesis 3 we see Adam and Eve rebel against God when they start to think that God is being prejudiced against them! So, in ignorance and jealousy, they fall for the devil’s lies and bring sin into the world. From that moment we were divided.
With sin came a curse. The results of sin caused cracks and fissures to form in every aspect of the universe. Humans would be divided from their Creator because God cannot be in the presence of sin. The earth would turn against itself and against humanity, as death and corruption entered the world, even the ground itself would work against us. The division would be between Adam and Eve too, men and women, who, even though they would be drawn towards each other, there would be endless strife. In Genesis 4 we see the story of Cain and Abel, two of the children of Adam and Eve. Cain wants to worship God one way, Abel does it a different way. Cain is enraged when God accepts Abel’s sacrifice and not his and kills his brother. Then, by the time we get to Genesis 6, the hearts of men are completely corrupt as evil takes over the world.
Heart, soul, mind, body, creation, relationships all divided. Emotional walls, spiritual separation, intellectual disagreement, physical strife, a corrupted universe, destroyed unity – all because of sin. God sends a flood to wipe out the world but, in His grace, spares one family – Noah’s – because Noah was the only one who was listening when God sent the warning. After the flood subsides, humanity starts to spread all over the place, populating the world – creating civilizations, but also bringing sin, suffering, war, and division, wherever they went.
Regardless of if you’re an evolutionist, an “old-earth” person, or a young earth person, the agreement is that it was after a great dispersion, as humans started to settle in parts of the world that had different climates and vegetation, that we start to see minor variations in the human genetic code, as generation after generation develop differences in their skin colour, hair colour, eye shape, etc.
You see, God didn’t create many different races – He created one: The Human Race. You cannot use the Bible to condone any form of racism. It’s not in there. People have used a lot of evolutionary theory to defend racism – saying that some colours are more “evolved” than others – but you can’t defend racism from the Bible.
God didn’t create many races, He created one: The Human Race. God didn’t create many religions and “paths to Him”, He created One, faith in the Son of God, The Messiah, Jesus Christ. God doesn’t prefer one gender over the other. He made them equal and complimentary. God doesn’t prefer one age over another. He knits the baby together in the mother’s womb, loves and defends children, trains up and uses young men and women, and gives important work and honour to the elderly. Salvation through Jesus Christ came through the Jewish People, Jesus came as a Jewish Man, but it was to offer salvation to everyone, regardless of race, nation, age, or gender.
In Revelation 5:9-10, as the story of the end begins and the first scroll is opened, it says they sing,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
In Revelation 7:9-10, it says,
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
In the kingdom of God, there is no division.
All the division we see and experience has one source: the human heart. The corruption sin brings to the human heart is what divides nations, tribes, peoples, and languages. It is sin that creates every terrible “ism” inside us. That’s not from God – that’s our sin.
Racism, classism, ageism, and all the others are not just political or economic issues. It’s not because of a lack of education or a bad upbringing. Yes, they have political, economic, and social implications – but they are not the source or the solution. The source of the problem, the root of the weed, the thing you have to dig all the way down to in order to kill the problem – is the corruption of all human hearts because of the curse of sin.
That’s why the only solution to the problem of racism, ageism, sexism, and all the other terrible “isms” is only found in Jesus Christ.
The Gospel, or the “Good News”, of Jesus Christ begins with the bad news. The first words spoken in the Gospel of Matthew are the angel telling Joseph not to divorce Mary, but that “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20–21) The first words of Jesus in the gospel of Mark are “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15) In Luke we read that the forerunner of Jesus, John the Baptist’s whole job, was to prepare people for the coming of Jesus by telling people to repent “for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3).
The bad news of sin, the acceptance that we are sinners, must come first – and one really good word to describe the results of sin would be “division”. Sin divided us from God (Isa 59:2) and each other. It created a deadly, untreatable infection to come upon our souls, it built an unbreachable wall and dug an uncrossable chasm between humanity and God, and fractured humanity into an irreparable mess. Jesus came to cure the disease, smash that wall, take the judgment – the sinless one became sin, took the whole of it onto Himself, and then was judged and killed in our place – so He could become the bridge that allows us to cross that chasm, and to remake, reform, recreate our individual hearts, and humanity into being whole again.
Look at the life and ministry of Jesus. There was no barrier he didn’t cross. He loved men, women, Jews, gentiles, Samaritans, soldiers, slaves, Pharisees, prostitutes, tradesman, tax collectors, children, seniors, the sick, the possessed, the wealthy and popular, the poor and outcast – equally. He saw every one of them the same – as sinners.
When Jesus declared Himself to be the only “way, truth, and life” (John 14:6) He was calling us lost, lied to, and dead. We are all, as Jesus describes us, sheep without a shepherd (Matt 9:36), lost people who needed finding (Luke 19:10), sick people who need a physician (Luke 5:31-32), lawbreakers under judgment (Matt 12:36), spiritually dead people who needed resurrection (Rom 6:23; John 14:6). Jesus’ mission wasn’t merely to set a good example for us to follow – it was to, by his own death, to mortify (or kill) the sin inside us, and that has infected the whole world, so that we might rise as a new creation, just as He rose from the dead.
Take a minute and consider what happened at the very birth of the Christian church. Jesus gathers a diverse group of men and women, dies, rises again, ascends to heaven, and tells them to go and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
So they do. About 120 followers of Jesus were gathered together in one room, praying, worshipping, talking together. Men, women, young, old, Pharisees, tax collectors, all gathered in the name of Jesus, waiting obediently for what He promised.
Then boom. Look at Acts 2, which we just read last week,
“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:1–4)
A diverse group in one place, and what does God do. How does he send the Holy Spirit? Audibly and visually. Everyone hears, everyone sees. Everyone in the room experiences the tongues of fire divide and rest upon everyone else. Not just the apostles, not just the men, not just the old people… everyone is given the gift of the Holy Spirit, the presence of God in their hearts. And then everyone starts to speak in languages that they didn’t know before.
Unity upon unity. Jesus unites a diverse group in His name, demonstrates the seriousness of that unity with wind and fire, and decimates the division of races, languages, and nations by equipping His people to share the gospel with the thousands of people around them who were, as verse 5 says, “Jews… from every nation under heaven”.
Peter preaches a long sermon, and presumably, the other 119 take their turn sharing and interpreting, and the crowd yells out (in verse 37), “What shall we do?” Peter answers in verse 38, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” First the bad news, then the good news, then the invitation to join the reunited, reformed, recreated, family of God. Who gets access to the Holy Spirit? Just the original followers? Just the people that heard Jesus teaching, and experienced the crucifixion and resurrection? Nope. Everyone. God reverses the curse of the Tower of Babel and unites the people under one banner. As Ephesians 4:4-6 says,
“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Then in Acts 2:42-47 we see the Holy Spirit of God working in the hearts of the people as they devote themselves to worshipping together, learning the word of God together, and taking care of each other. Verses 44-45 we see the destruction of classism as
“all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
Now, if you remember, Jesus’ command to the apostles right before he ascended was to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” But they didn’t want to. They liked what they had going, so they stayed put. So God sent persecution to force a bunch of them to get out of Jerusalem and do what they were supposed to be doing.
Within a short period of time, there were churches all over the place – Macedonia, Galatia, Greece, Rome, Egypt – and it starts to freak the apostles out a bit. Racism starts creeping into the church. It had already been there during the first crisis when the Greek-speaking Jews and the Hebrew-speaking Jews got into a big fight (Acts 6), but now there were people from all over the place, every nation, tribe, tongue, colour… all claiming Jesus as Lord.
Weirdly, it seems the first instinct of the apostles is to say that non-Jewish people couldn’t have access to the Holy Spirit, couldn’t be a full part of God’s family. But God squashes that thought in a hurry!
In Acts 10 God gives Peter a vision of a giant picnic blanket full of every food imaginable – including all kinds of foods the Jews weren’t allowed to eat. God tells Peter, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” (v13) And Peter says, “No way, Lord! I would never eat anything ‘unclean’.” And God says, “What God has made clean, do not call common.”(v15). Then it says that Peter saw this vision three times in a row as God hammered home the point, but Peter still didn’t quite get it.
So God used a non-Jewish, Roman Centurion named Cornelius to explain it to him. While Peter was standing in Cornelius’ house, sharing the gospel with a whole household of non-Jewish people, the Holy Spirit came again the same way He came the first time: he gave the gentiles the ability to glorify God in languages they didn’t know before that day.
Peter declares in Acts 10:27, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”, which is just a fancy way of saying, “Well, I guess everyone really does get to be part of God’s family!”
It reminds me of my first church. I was a young man. 27 years old when I started. It was in Cleveland, Ohio and it was in rough shape. The building was beautiful. 3 story stained glass window, immaculate flooring, beautiful sanctuary, amazing kitchen in the big basement. Every room was stuffed with ministry material – but it was never used.
When I came to the church, the average age of the people there was 72 years old. The majority of them were German immigrants, who had left a post-World War 2 Europe, and had banded together to start a German church for all their fellows who were coming to America. And for decades the church grew. A boatload of German Baptists would come, and they would come to the German Baptist church. But after a while, there were no more boatloads.
Then the children started growing up. They were attending American schools where they spoke English. They had English friends. They spoke English at their jobs. The only place they spoke their native language was at home and at church. So the young people asked the older people to let them have an English service. Something a little more in their style. Something they could invite their friends to. The parents said “No, the old ways are better.” And family by family the children left – until all that remained was a handful of grey-haired old people who, in desperation, had changed to an English service and called a new, young pastor.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but there wasn’t just ageism in the church, but racism too.
I started to preach and have outreach ideas and God started to bless. But God is hilarious and very smart, so the first people that were saved and came to church were a couple named Senolia and Julio. Senolia was a black woman from the west-side of Cleveland, Julio was a Hispanic rapper full of tattoos. They first came to the church so I could marry them. Senolia said they had called 12 other churches but the pastors wouldn’t perform the marriage because of their race, or because it was a mixed-race marriage. I was more than happy to marry them, but I said that I wouldn’t do it unless they did a bunch of weeks of pre-marital counselling. It was during the premarital counselling that I was able to share the gospel and they were saved and baptised.
When they started coming to church, it was rough. By then a few others had shown up, and they were… shall we say… from a group that the congregation wasn’t used to seeing. For example, there was the young lady who “didn’t dress like a Christian”, her live-in boyfriend who would come to church in a tank-top undershirt to show off his tattoos, and their hyperactive little girl.
Right away I could see there was a problem. The new people sat in their own section, while many of the “regulars” wouldn’t even get up to greet them. The new people would chat with each other, while many of the “regulars” would ignore them, even going so far as to speak to each other in German so they couldn’t be understood.
God was showing me that within this church full of people who said they were Christians and had been attending church for—some of them, 75 years – didn’t know Jesus, didn’t understand His message, didn’t embrace His family, weren’t changed by the gospel. And in the end, and in very short order, only 3 years after I got the job – a year after I left – the church was closed.
The story of the gospel is one of unifying a broken world. The story of the church, when you read the New Testament, is a group of people who are being led by the Holy Spirit to follow Jesus’ teaching and example and struggling to be a people who don’t have the barriers of racism, classism, nationalism, and individualism. The church had victories and failures, do good for a while and then do bad for a while, but the consistent message of the Bible, of Jesus, of the Holy Spirit, is one of unification in Jesus Name.
If you are hearing me today and you have one of those “isms” in your heart – repent and kill that sin right now.
If you’ve elevated yourself above others, believe that you are better and more valuable than others, that you have a special line to truth and connection to God that no one else has – get on your knees and repent because the corruption and darkness of sin has a hold of your heart.
If you have looked down on or talked badly about the opposite gender, stereotyping and jump to conclusions about a person before you even meet them – repent from that sin.
If you have hatred or bias against younger people or older people, valuing one over the other, or disparaging one or the other – you are in sin and need to repent.
If you’ve been watching the news and have been thinking or talking badly about “those people”, prejudging a whole group because of the colour of their skin, where they live, or how much money they have – repent and turn that sin over to Jesus right now. It is ungodly, unbiblical, unChristlike, and is poisoning you and everyone around you.
But you don’t need to listen to me. Listen to the words of scripture:
Romans 10:10–13, “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”
1 Corinthians 12:12–14, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.”
Colossians 3:8–14, “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
Galatians 3:26–28, “…for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Ephesians 4:1–6, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Ephesians 2:14–19, “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…”
James 2:1–4, 8–10, “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?… If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”
Do you get it? Do you see the heart of God? Do you see His hatred of racism, sexism, classism, nationalism, individualism…? Do you understand His desire for unity? I hope you do.
Please open up to Luke 5:16. We’re going to concentrate our efforts on one verse today and use it as a jumping-off point for something that I believe is important for us during this difficult time.
Luke 5:16, “But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.”
The NIV translates that “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” The New American Standard Bible says, “But Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray.”
The question I want to answer today is “Why did Jesus do that?”
The Humanity of Christ
It’s astonishing when you stop to think about it, what Jesus gave up in the incarnation. Jesus, the Son of God, existed before time began, equal to and in perfect relation with the Father. He lived in perfect love, perfect holiness, perfect strength. Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnipresent. Worshipped by angels, able to create the universe with a thought.
And then, in an act of divine grace and mercy, as John 1:14 puts it, the Son of God “became flesh and dwelt among us.” Literally, the Son of God, “pitched his tent” or “tabernacled” among us. The fullness of God within the confines of a human man. Not to get too technical, but Theologians call this the Hypostatic Union. Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine, possessing all of the Creators attributes, but also the son of Mary (Gal 4:4-5). He had a human nature that had everything that makes us human, including a human mind, soul, and body. These two natures were perfectly united, without any confusion or division.
He did this to save us because humanity couldn’t save itself. We needed a human representative to stand before the Father, but that representative couldn’t be under the curse of sin. Only a perfect being can stand before God. And so God sent His one and only Son to live a perfect life, and then offer Himself to the Father as the final sacrificial blood offering that the Mosaic Law required. God accepts the death of His Son in exchange for anyone who would believe in Him. And, since Jesus hadn’t sinned, death could not hold him, the grave could not keep him, and He was raised from the dead. As we just read in Acts 2:24, “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”
It’s really important that we understand the implications of that Hypostatic Union – the perfect divinity and perfect humanity of Jesus. Philippians 2:5–8 says it this way, “…Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
In His “emptying”, Jesus didn’t lose or subtract His divinity, but added humanity to His nature. Jesus chose to be born, to live as a servant, to be in the likeness of men, in human form, obedient to all that meant, obedient to the Father, as limited and frail as any human being.
The Bible records the limitations of his human body many times. He was born (Luke 2:7). He grew up (Luke 2:40, 52). He got tired (John 4:6) and thirsty (John 19:28) and hungry (Matthew 4:2). At times we see him become physically weak (Matthew 4:11; Luke 23:26).
Jesus also had human emotions. “When Jesus heard the centurion’s words of faith, ‘he marveled’ (Matthew 8:10). Matthew 26:38 says that his ‘soul is very sorrowful, even to death.’ In John 11:33–35, Jesus is “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled,” and even weeps. In John 12:27 Jesus says, “Now is my soul troubled,” and in John 13:21, he is “troubled in his spirit.” The author to the Hebrews writes that “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7).” 
Jesus had a human mind. In Luke 2:52 it tells us that as Jesus grew up into adulthood he, “increased in wisdom and in stature”. At times we see Jesus’ showing a limitation in what he knows, but other times demonstrates supernatural knowledge – but that connected to His spirit rather than his mind.
One way that we see Jesus’ incarnation in action is that when He performs a miracle or does something supernatural, we often read that He did it “by the Spirit of God” (Matt 12:28, Mk 2:8, Luke 4:1 ). This means that part of the limitation Jesus put on Himself would be that He wouldn’t manifest His own power by Himself, but that, like any other human, would be utterly dependant on the Spirit of God, and a connection to His Father. As our perfect example, Jesus knew that He needed to demonstrate how humanity, His followers, was meant to function. And that meant that His power didn’t come from Himself, but from His connection to the Father through the Spirit of God.
This is why, at the beginning of His ministry Jesus reads Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor; He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…” (Luke 4:18) This is why we read in Acts 10:38 that… “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” This isn’t a statement saying that Jesus was some regular, sinful guy that God gave special powers to… it is a declaration that, while Jesus was fully divine, He chose to require that which humans require – the anointing and blessing of God for the power to do good, face evil, share the gospel, and walk with God.
Now, why am I tell you all this? Because it’s critical that you see that Jesus was fully human before we get to our passage today. Why? Because you’re human too.
There’s a passage I think a lot about these days. It’s from Mark 12:28–32, and you can turn there if you like.
It says, “And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” …”
The description of holistic spirituality is captured in this very short verse, which is a quote from God in Deuteronomy 6:5. The first and most important law for humanity, the only way we can experience eternal life, is to love God with everything we are and to show that love to others. I would argue – and I think most pastors, theologians, and counselors would agree with me – that one comes before the other. We must love the Lord and experience His love before we will be able to love our neighbour.
But look at how it’s divided: Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength. I think those divisions are so critical for us to meditate on. Humans aren’t merely bodies. I don’t care how atheistic or naturalistic you are, you cannot deny that humanity is merely a mechanized concoction of chemicals and matter. You know, inherently, that humans are more than just meat creatures.
In the beginning, when God created humanity, He made us special. He made us in His image. He created our physical bodies, but that’s not all. In order to be God’s image in this world, to be His people, able to be intimately, relationally connected to Him, we needed to be more than merely physical. We needed to be a union of body, intellect, emotion, and spirit.
And so God imbued this physical body with a heart, or emotions, desires, affections. He gave us a soul, or psyche, or consciousness, our being, what makes us unique individuals. And He gave us a mind, or intellect, intelligence. It is the fusion of these four things – heart, soul, mind, and strength that makes a person.
We just covered how these divisions were represented in Christ. And it is in turning all of these areas of our lives over to God that we will experience what it means to be truly human, to know real love, to be able to do good, face evil, share the gospel, and walk with God.
With all this as our background, I want to turn back to our verse today, Luke 5:16. Let’s read it in context starting in verse 12, “While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’ And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately the leprosy left him. And he charged him to tell no one, but ‘go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.’ But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.”
This was a bit of a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. We read in 4:40 that Jesus would sometimes already stay up all night teaching and healing people, and that He was already growing in popularity as he went from synagogue to synagogue, but after this event, His popularity skyrocketed.
He commanded the leper not to tell anyone because He wanted to avoid crowds of people who would come for physical healing but wouldn’t care about listening to the Gospel message about all that healing symbolized. Throngs of sick and demon-possessed that would come just for a miracle – and then walk away without turning to Jesus as Lord – would lose out on the reason Jesus came in the first place. He didn’t come to merely heal bodies, but to make a way for us to get back into a right relationship with God.
So Jesus tells this man to do what Moses commands but to keep it quiet. The man disobeys – maybe wanting to help Jesus by spreading the news – and all it does is make things more complicated for Jesus and His disciples. Now, instead of Jesus having the freedom to come into towns and preach in synagogues, verse 15 says that the news about Jesus’ power spread like wildfire and huge crowds would gather every time they heard Jesus was around. This is why we read about Jesus, running away, escaping, and taking off on boats and stuff.
What I want to zoom in on right now is Jesus’ response to this newfound stress and opportunity.
Let’s consider ourselves in that position, which shouldn’t be much of a stretch. You’ve got a life going. You’re doing pretty well. Things are going along pretty steadily, with only an occasional blip of frustration or difficulty, but you’re generally able to do what you need to do every day.
Then something happens. Whether it’s a great success or a great failure, a new opportunity or a huge catastrophe, something changes. Maybe it’s a new job, maybe it’s the loss of one. Maybe you come into some money, maybe you or someone you love gets cancer. Maybe it’s becoming part of a new social group, or maybe it’s a global pandemic. Whatever the case, something lobs a grenade into your life and things change.
New stress, new decisions, new fears and worries, new challenges, new relationships, new costs – all growing beyond your capacity to understand and navigate.
Heart, soul, mind, and strength are all getting tapped. Your emotions are becoming frayed, out of control anger, deep valleys of depression, anxiety starting to drive your decisions.
Your mind is running out of resources. There’s too much data to process, too many opinions and ideas to sift through. You have to remember too many things all at once. Now you’re starting to forget things, to push away new ideas, overusing entertainment because you just don’t want to think anymore.
Your body is getting tired. Stress hormones are causing you to have headaches, your joints are sore, your stomach hurts, you can’t sleep and can’t wake up. Starving yourself has made you weaker, and your comfort foods are making you lethargic.
And your spirit is wearing thin. You’re wracked with self-doubt, regrets from the past, fear of the future. You’re having an identity crisis as you try to figure out who you are in all this. All your bad habits have started to show and you feel guilt and shame. You are stretched beyond your giftings and are starting to drop the ball on important stuff. You don’t show kindness like you used to. You don’t want to be generous anymore because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t feel peace like you used to because so many things have been dropped in your lap.
What do you do? What do people usually do?
In truth, they usually blow up their lives. How many people do you know, personally, who went through a time of stress – loss of a loved one, financial crisis, personal sickness, a sudden move, a new career – who seemed like they were doing ok for a while, but then a huge part of their life exploded?
Out of nowhere, they cheat on their spouse.
Out of nowhere, they get caught doing something illegal.
Out of nowhere, they crash their car while drunk driving or end up overdosing and in drug-rehab.
Out of nowhere, they get divorced.
Out of nowhere, you find them covered in scars from self-harm.
Out of nowhere, they lose our gain a huge amount of weight.
Out of nowhere, they drop out of all of their hobbies, interests, teams, stop answering their phone, and go dark online.
Out of nowhere, you find that they’re suddenly interested in weird conspiracy stuff, cults, extremist groups.
That wasn’t “out of nowhere”. This is a person who was stretched beyond the capacity of their heart, soul, mind, and strength – and was stretched so far that something snapped. Maybe you’ve felt it. Maybe you’ve had something snap in you – or someone you know snapped.
It’s all too common and I know more than a few stories. I’m sure you do too. This huge thing didn’t come “out of nowhere” – it was something that built and built and built, and then that sudden change became the catalyst for their life blowing up.
I don’t want that for you. “Oh, it can’t happen to me!” I hear you say. I can introduce you to at least half-a-dozen people who thought the same thing. 1 Peter 5:8, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Ephesians 4: 27 says, “’In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (NIV)
The devil, your adversary, is prowling around waiting for you to get tired, weak, to do something stupid. Like an expert climber, he’s looking for that little foothold, that little crack, that opportunity, to grab hold of part of your life… because once he gets into that little crack he can start to wedge in deeper and deeper.
How do we keep from that? How did Jesus keep from that? He had the same weaknesses we do but never sinned, never gave the devil the foothold, never succumbed. The Bible says He was tempted in every way possible (Heb 4:15), that Satan literally got in Jesus’ face on multiple occasions. But He stood firm. How?
Look back at today’s verse, Luke 5:16, “But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.” That’s how. Over and over in the gospels, we see Jesus run away, retreat, sneak away, to make time to pray. He prayed when he was baptized (3:21), prayed when things got busy (5:16), prayed when he was confronted (Mt 11:25-26), prayed before choosing the disciples (6:12), prayed before he walked on water (Mt 14:23), prayed when he was transfigured (9:29), and prayed on the cross (23:46).
The answer to the question, “How did the fully human man, Jesus Christ, not utterly crumble under the weight of His mission, the disappointment of his followers, the ignorance of the crowds, the brutality of his enemies, and the scope of the plan that would become the pinnacle and fulcrum of history and eternity?” is “he would withdraw to desolate places and pray”. The verb tense in this sentence emphasizes that this was Jesus’ regular practice – which is why some translations put the word “often” in there. Jesus would “often withdraw” to pray.
So I ask you today this simple, yet critical question: “Do you think you are stronger than Jesus?” I know, that’s a brutal, heavy-handed question, but just sit in it for a second.
“If Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in whom the Holy Spirit dwelt in power and perfection – absolutely needed to get away and pray – then don’t you think you do to?” The answer is of course, “Yes, you do.” You are nowhere near as spiritually, emotionally, and mentally strong as Jesus Christ – and yet, even in the middle of work, in the morning, at night, before and after big and small events – took off to pray. Shouldn’t you?
Let me read Mark 1:35-37. After a long night of healing, casting out demons, preaching, folks finally start to go home. What does Jesus do? He gets a little sleep and then takes off. Mark 1:35–37: “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’”
I wonder how many times that scene played out during Jesus’ earthly ministry. How many times did the disciples turn around and Jesus just wasn’t there? How many times did they wake up in the morning and have to go find Jesus? How many times were throngs of expectant crowds disappointed because Jesus had completely taken off on them? How many people, expecting to be healed, came to where Jesus was, but He had already snuck away and was now miles from where they were? I bet it was often.
Let’s break this sentence down a bit and really dig into it because I think it’s critical we see what Jesus did.
I think the three most important words are “withdraw”, “desolate” and “pray”. That’s our formula. How do we keep our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, focused on God? How do we ensure that the Holy Spirit has full reign in our hearts, that God has full reign over our souls, that we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16), and give proper, God-given Sabbath rest to our bodies?
We need to “often withdraw”. The word there can also be translated “slip away”. Escape. It means that we leave work on the table. It means we leave people hanging. It means we let the calls go to voicemail. It means we leave the chores undone. It means we don’t watch the show with everyone. It means we won’t be able to accomplish everything on our lists because we have run away to occupy our time with greater things.
This goes against a lot of people’s natural instincts. Most of us feel like we’re letting God down if we aren’t always available to people, or if we don’t finish our daily list. It’s not true. What “lets God down” is when we make ourselves available to people, get our daily list done, but at no point in that day spent any time with Him. It’s not that we’re really “letting God down” though… He doesn’t need us… but He desires us.
He doesn’t want your list of things to do. He doesn’t want your religious activity. He doesn’t want you for your job, your hobby, your social platform, your skills, your abilities, talents, your ideas. He wants you.
He’s a good father that wants to spend time with His kids. Think of it this way: How do you know someone is your friend? Is it when they give you something? No. That’s charity. Is it when they do some work for you? Not really. Is it when they talk about you when you’re not there? Is it when they sit down and read your biography? No.
How do you know they’re your friend? Because they want to spend time with you and do it as often as they can. That’s what God wants. And more than that, it’s what humans need. We are not designed to do anything for a long time. God built physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual limitations in us so we might realize our need for Him.
That’s the first one – you need to “withdraw” – and the second is that you need to go to “desolate places”. The word there is for wilderness, deserts, open pastures, secluded spots. Remember how Jesus taught us to pray, right? Matthew 6:6, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
How do you know someone is your friend? Because they want to spend time with you. How do you know that they are a close friend, a best friend, or even closer? Because you want to spend more and more time with them alone. If you want an intimate relationship with God, a deep relationship with Jesus, a strong connection to the Holy Spirit – it happens when you are alone and free from distractions.
I don’t need to tell you how to get alone. You know your own life. What I’m trying to say is that if you neglect withdrawing to be alone with God, you are doing harm to your heart, soul, mind, and strength. You are setting yourself up for failure. You are lighting the fuse, however long it is, that leads to you blowing up your life – and hurting yourself and others. You need God’s voice, God’s presence, and God isn’t loud – it’s quiet, soft, and can best be heard when you are alone, quiet, and open.
Let me close with this: You need God. Just as Jesus needed a consistent connection to the Father, so do you. But it won’t just happen. You will never find the time. You must make the time. You must run away from things, escape from things, say no to things, drop out of things, disappoint people, delete the app, unplug the tv or computer, let go of your need for accomplishment, and stop finding your value in how much work you can do.
That is the only way you are going to be able to connect to God. And it’s urgent. It’s a huge deal. The devil is prowling and you are not equipped to resist Him if you are not connected to God. The devil has a foothold in your life and you are not wise enough to see it if you aren’t hearing the voice of God. The enemy wants to cripple your heart, soul, mind, and strength – and he will succeed if you do not “withdraw to desolate places and pray”.
A Living and Active Word
Most of you know the passages I read at the beginning of service – the Call to Worship and the weekly Scripture Reading – are chosen long before I read them on Sunday mornings. Around the beginning of December each year I usually take a day to sit down with what’s called a “Lectionary of Daily Readings” – which itself was written a long time ago and is based on a Liturgical calendar from centuries ago – and I go through and read and choose each of the Sunday passages for the year.
I do this from a Lectionary mostly because it is designed to give an overview of Christian theology and important passages throughout the year – and there’s no way I would be able to come up with something better than they would. The difficult part is that each Sunday actually has 4 readings – one from the Psalms, one from the New Testament Letters, one from the Gospels, and another passage chosen based on what day of the Liturgical calendar it is.
For example, today is the “Sixth Sunday of Easter”, of “Year A” in the 3-year rotation, and the readings are from Acts 17, Psalm 66, 1 Peter 3, and John 14. But since the tradition at our church is to have only two scripture readings, I try to rotate between the bunch so our church gets a balanced diet of Old, New, Psalm, and Letters.
But what amazes me almost every week is that even though these passages are chosen long ago, and based on calendars from even longer ago – they are so often exactly what our church needs to hear that day.
God, in His wisdom and grace, has given us a book where the words don’t just stay on the page, but is (as Hebrews 4:12 says) “the word of God… living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
The Bible isn’t merely a book. It is the main and usual means by which God speaks to us today, by His Holy Spirit making the words of the Bible come alive to us, speaking exactly what we need to hear, like God was writing specifically to us. All we need to do us submit ourselves to reading it, humbling ourselves before it, and being open to what God wants to say – and then listen to what God says when He does speak!
Sometimes He speaks messages of encouragement, other times conviction – but His Word and His Spirit work together in a humble heart to tell us exactly what we need to hear.
When Suffering Comes
Turn with me to 2 Timothy 3:10 and listen to the words of Paul to his protégé Timothy. These are the words of an older servant of God who is in prison, facing his final days on earth, preparing to be sentenced to death at any moment for the sake of the gospel. And listen to what He says to Timothy:
“You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me.”
Young Timothy’s job was to try to combat the false teachers who had taken over some of the churches that he and Paul had been planting. But Timothy was a very different person than Paul. Timothy was younger, meeker, more tender-hearted. Paul was a rock – Timothy was more easily bruised. Not that Timothy wasn’t courageous and wise – he was just younger. But he’s been following Paul’s example – obeying Jesus, stepping up to speak and serve as a pastor to the church in Ephesus – and then suffering just like Paul did, just like Jesus did. And Paul says, “You’ve been following in my footsteps – and those footsteps often lead to suffering.”
And he continues in verse 12,
“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.”
“This is the usual way of things, Timothy.” Jesus promised that everyone who tries to live like Him will face what He faced – difficult times, persecution, evil people, fake people, and liars. Obedient Christianity is not an easy road. Paul knew this. Timothy knew this.
But now, Timothy was all alone. Paul was locked up in a Roman prison hundreds of miles away. Timothy couldn’t just hide behind Paul whenever he had a problem. He couldn’t ask Paul whenever there was a tough question. When the fake people, the deceivers were spreading rumours and lies about him, and Paul, and Jesus, and God, and how salvation worked, and were successfully convincing good Christians to do wrong things, He couldn’t just get Paul to refute them. Timothy was alone.
And so Paul, who himself was very lonely in his prison cell, wrote to tell Timothy what to do.
And I think that’s where a parallel comes in for us today, right? A lot of you who are listening to me right now are alone. Either you are alone because there’s no one around you – or you are alone in your faith because you’re the only believer in your family – or you’re alone because God has called you to do something difficult that people don’t really understand – or you’re alone because your work has forced you to live behind walls, barriers, masks, and gloves – or maybe you are surrounded by family, but you feel alone because there is tension in the house, arguing and hurt feelings, and you find yourself sitting by yourself a lot.
Loneliness is a huge issue right now. Despite the bit of good news recently about reopening a few places, we’re still under “social isolation” rules and many people are feeling a “wave of loneliness” hitting them as COVID-19 continues to be a present reality. I don’t need to recount all the things that have been going on because you know them – but I’m sure it won’t surprise you that the mental health crisis we were already having has only gotten worse. Depression, anxiety, addiction, abuse, panic attacks, suicides, are on the rise. Things weren’t great before and they’re worse now.
In our church, I’m amazed at how well folks are holding up. If my numbers are correct, about half of our church has lost their jobs, and most are negatively financially impacted by what’s going on – and yet, when we talk, even though there are concerns and some discouragement, I mostly hear stories full of positivity, hope, and faith.
But we’re not immune to the effects of this pandemic, are we? We’re not immune to loneliness, isolation, stress, and fear. I don’t want to speak for you, but I wonder if a lot of us feel like Timothy might have. We have faith. We know God has the big-picture under control. We’re not worried about our souls because Jesus is our gracious Saviour. But moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day, we are presented with questions we don’t have answers to, people that frustrate us, fears that we can’t shake, and moments of discouragement.
Maybe it’s right after we watch the news or see some article go by on social media. Maybe it’s after a conversation with someone that didn’t go the way you thought it would. Maybe it’s when you’re standing in the grocery store surrounded by people in masks and visors and surgical gloves, where you’re thinking about every single little thing you’re touching and reminding yourself not to touch your face – and the anxiety rises. Maybe it’s when you get to the till and you wonder if there’s enough money in the bank, or for how long the money will last. Maybe it’s the quiet moments, right after you turn off the tv or the tablet, right before you go to sleep, that things start to sink in, the worries creep in, the guilt, the bitterness, the anger…
Christians aren’t immune. Timothy was a wonderful man of God, trained by the greatest missionary ever, given charge over what was, at the time, the most important missionary church in the world – but Timothy wasn’t immune to the fears, stresses, and the emotional toll.
Keep in mind that the emperor at the time was Nero, one of the most terrible people in history! We might complain that the government is being unfair to churches now, but Nero was literally feeding Christians to the lions, and lighting Christians on fire, for entertainment. That’s the environment Timothy was in.
Stay In The Word
So what does Paul say to Timothy? Paul is writing what he thinks could be the last letter he will ever write, to someone he deeply loves. What does the greatest missionary of all time, the author of the letters of the New Testament, the man who had unparalleled revelations from God, who perhaps suffered more for the gospel than any other person ever – what does Paul write in the final paragraphs of his final letter to this stressed out young man who feels the weight of the world on his shoulders?
Look at verse 14:
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
What does Paul say? Stay in the Word of God. Root yourself in the Bible. Eat, sleep and breathe the scriptures.
Timothy was raised by a Christian mother and grandmother and grew up in the faith. He’s been hearing bible stories and reading the prophets since he was little. Today, we would say that Timothy went to Sunday School, went to Youth Group, went to AWANA, took catechism, grew up in church, had active Christian role-models. The Bible, which we would call the Old Testament, was a huge part of Timothy’s Christian upbringing.
And then, when God told Paul to mentor Timothy and take him on his journeys, his family and his church laid hands on him, prayed over him, and commissioned him for ministry. Then, as the Apostles wrote more scriptures, and they were being copied and sent around, Timothy would have been part of collecting them and keeping them. He would likely have copies of the gospel of Luke and Acts, the book of James, and Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, Corinthians, and even Romans – and of course the two personal letters to himself.
When Timothy got stressed out, confused, overwhelmed, tired, sick, afraid, and attacked – what did Paul say to do? Turn to the scriptures. Read. Pray. Listen to God’s Spirit speak to you directly through the words of the Proverbs, Psalms, Prophets, the Law, and the Apostles. He told Timothy – when the difficulties come – remember what you already know, what you’ve already learned, the parts you’ve memorized and studied, all of the scriptures you’ve hidden in your heart, all the stories your grandma told you, all the songs your mother sang to you, all the stories about Jesus you’ve heard and read – bring them all to mind, Timothy!
Timothy, your faith in Jesus Christ is fed and fueled by your attention to and humility before the Word of God. They’ll connect you to Jesus Christ, increase your faith, remind you of your hope and salvation, and make you wise.
Do you need to connect to the Spirit of God? The scriptures were breathed out by Him. They have the power and presence of God in them.
Do you feel inadequate to interpret these times, confused by the slick false-teachers and need some instruction? Do you feel confused about the big questions of life, meaning, eternity… the scriptures are a spring of knowledge that will never run dry.
Do you sense that you are being lied to or that you believe lies? Do you feel like the darkness is starting to seep into your soul? The scriptures only tell the truth and are valuable for reproof, or rebuking, bringing light and clarity to and light in the darkness of this world.
Do you wonder if you’re going the right way? Wonder what needs to change in your life? Do you see someone in sin and not know what to do? The Scriptures are the best way you can correct yourself or someone else. They present the straight and narrow path, show you the walls on either side, and is the compass that will guide you to true north.
You don’t need to have the right words to say when you see someone in trouble – the Bible has them. You don’t need to wonder about your life plan – the scripture will tell you. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – 95% of what humans spend so much time trying to figure out, the most important things every human wants to know, has already been answered in the Bible! The Word of God will train you up, show you the right way, help you grow in maturity, and give you the equipment you need to do good in this world.
One of my commentaries says it this way,
“If Timothy would nurture his spiritual life in the Scriptures that he would use in his ministry, he would be fully qualified and prepared to undertake whatever tasks God put before him. What a tragedy for any Christian to be labelled as spiritually unprepared for a task when the means of instruction and preparation are readily at hand!”
I’ve always felt a sense of kinship with Timothy. I also grew up in the church. I’ve been a Christian for as long as I can remember. I have more bible stories, hymns, songs, and sermons in my brain than almost anything else. I’ve served in some form of ministry since I was asked to be a puppeteer in the Sunday School at age 13.
When I was called into ministry, I really connected with Timothy. He was a young pastor, stretched way beyond his comfort zone, taken far from his home and comforts, and dropped into a difficult church with no idea what to do. That was me in my first and second churches!
People stopped telling me how “young I am for being a pastor” about 5 years ago, but it hasn’t been that long since I felt like I was living a very Timothy-esque life. That often meant not knowing what to do, what to say, or how to help. It meant many hours of loneliness, heartache, fear, and confusion as people within the church lied to, betrayed, and hurt me and my family. There were some wonderful, beautiful times, and some amazing people too – but it also meant shedding a lot of tears.
And when I did, I would read Paul’s letters to Timothy and know that they were also God’s letters to me. Jesus spoke to me through them. When I turned to scripture, Jesus would comfort me, teach me, correct me, train me, and equip me for what I needed to do. Often hymns and scripture songs would come to my mind that I sung during church, Sunday School, or one of the Bible programs or VBS’s I went to. And they would be like a healing balm to my soul. A personal message from God, like He was singing to me personally.
I’m so glad I grew up in church and I know that some of you have had the same experiences. I’m so thankful for the Sunday School teachers I had, the AWANA leaders, the people that ran the Vacation Bible Schools, the pastors and song leaders that put the time in day after day, week after week, trying to get some little bit of light, some nugget of truth, some bit of Godly wisdom, drilling bible verses into my thick, distracted, little skull. Because those little bits of light were what God used to bring me out of some very dark times.
Sometimes, even as a pastor, I didn’t feel like reading my Bible. I got down, felt hurt, felt like God tricked me into taking a job that only made my life miserable. And I didn’t want to talk to God. I didn’t want to read something else about perseverance, or patience, or because I wanted to quit.
And in those moments, so very often, a bible song would come to my mind, an old hymn that was rich in scripture. And it wouldn’t be convicting or challenging or harsh. God didn’t send a criticism or some spur to kick me into gear. He sent me light, comfort, joy.
♫“For I am convinced, that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers. Nor life, nor death, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” ♫
That’s Romans 8:38-30.
♫ “My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do. My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do. The mountains are His, the valleys are His, the stars are his handiwork too. My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do.” ♫
That’s basically Psalm 8, 66, 147, and Isaiah 40 all wrapped up into one verse.
My message today has one point – stay in God’s word. Keep reading in 2 Timothy and you’ll see why I preach how I do.
But the Bible isn’t just for preachers. It’s not just for missionaries, teachers, and youth workers. The Bible was written in a common language, for common people, to bring everyone to God. It is not merely for studying and arguing about.
I can’t tell you how special it was when I went from studying God’s word, memorizing it, learning about it like a textbook – to reading it like it is God’s personal letter to me. When I finally realized that the “living and active” word of God wasn’t just big ideas and grandiose concepts meant to guide our lives – but that if I listened, if I asked, if I prayed, that God would actually talk to me, individually, through His Holy Spirit making the word come alive and speak to me about exactly what I’m going through, showing me something about God or myself or the world that I needed to see that day.
And that’s true for everyone. God still speaks through His Spirit and His Word today, to anyone who is willing to humble themselves and listen.
Now of course, I have to give the warning that not everything you think is correct, right? Like, that old joke where the man was desperate to know the will of God so he decided he would open up the bible to a random page and whatever it said he would do. So he opened up to Matthew 27:5 and it said, “Judas hanged himself.” Startled, the man quickly closed the bible and reopened it with his finger landing on Luke 10:37, “Go and do likewise”. Now, a lot more worried, the man tried one more time, with his finger landing on John 13:27, “What you are about to do, do quickly!”
You know that’s not how it works, right? You know you need context, study, meditation, to tell others what you think God is saying, and to get guidance from Christian friends, elders and pastors.
So what am I saying? I’m saying that during a time like we are having now. When loneliness, anxiety, worry, and stress, are starting max out, take over, become their own epidemic – that it’s critical that you commit yourself to reading the Bible, singing the Bible, sharing the Bible, posting the Bible on your fridge and phone and computer.
But most of all, when you get alone with God, when you’ve made the time to read His Word – to read with anticipation that God is present and willing to speak! To read knowing and trusting that if you have given your life to God, if you are saved by Jesus Christ, if you are a Christian, that God’s Holy Spirit will speak to you through His Word.
To come to His Word the way you come for your first meal of the day – hungry and expecting it to feed your soul, fill you up, energize you for the day, and keep you alive – knowing that if you don’t get it in you, if you starve yourself, you are going to be weak and unable to function. Come to God’s Word anticipating, expecting, longing for it to feed your soul for the day.
 Lea, T. D., & Griffin, H. P. (1992). 1, 2 Timothy, Titus (Vol. 34, pp. 237–238). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
“Before I was a Mom”
By Suzana Haertzen
Before I was a Mom…I made and ate hot meals. I had unstained clothing. I had quiet conversations on the phone.
Before I was a Mom… I slept as late as I wanted and never worried about how late I got into bed. I brushed my hair and my teeth every day.
Before I was a Mom… I cleaned my house each day. I never tripped over toys or forgot words to lullabies.
Before I was a Mom… I didn’t worry whether or not my plants were poisonous. I never thought about Immunizations.
Before I was a Mom… I had never been puked on, pooped on, spit on, chewed on, peed on or pinched by tiny fingers. I had complete control of my mind, my thoughts, and my body. I slept all night.
Before I was a Mom… I never held down a screaming child so that doctors could do tests or give shots. I never looked into teary eyes and cried. I never got gloriously happy over a simple grin. I never sat up late hours at night watching a baby sleep.
Before I was a Mom… I never held a sleeping baby just because I didn’t want to put it down. I never felt my heart break into a million pieces when I couldn’t stop the hurt. I never knew that something so small could affect my life so much. I never knew that I could love someone so much. I never knew I would love being a Mom.
Before I was a Mom… I didn’t know the feeling of having my heart outside my body. I didn’t know how special it could feel to feed a hungry baby. I didn’t know that bond between a mother and her child. I didn’t know that something so small could make me feel so important.
Before I was a Mom… I had never gotten up in the middle of the night every 10 minutes to make sure all was okay. I had never known the warmth, the joy, the love, the heartache, the wonderment, or the satisfaction of being a Mom. I didn’t know I was capable of feeling so much before I was a Mom
I like that poem because it reminds me of the persistence of mothers. There are many words that we can use to describe moms. Words like loving, patient, compassionate… but I think the word “persistent” is one that works the best. Movies and books are replete with stories about good guys who credit their mothers for how they turned out so good – and bad guys who could always count on their mother loving them. Regardless of the outcome of the child’s life, one thing that remains is the persistent love of their Mother.
The Persistent Love of God
The untiring love of a mother actually serves to point us to One that is greater – to God’s love. That’s what I want to talk about today: God’s persistent love.
I believe that the perpetual, stubborn love a mother has for their child is part of how God designed them to be – and is meant to reflect and teach us something about God’s love for us. In scripture, God is presented as the Creator and Sustainer of all things, the one in which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:24-29; Psalm 104) . He is persistently ensuring the existence of all things.
When Jesus was challenged about healing on the Sabbath, he looked at the Jews and said, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 7:15) meaning that even though God invented the Sabbath by resting on the seventh day, God was still upholding the universe – if He were to stop, everything would cease to exist.
God doesn’t quit. Think of the nation of Israel who did everything they possibly could to offend and reject God, trying to thwart everything He was trying to do for them. They worshipped demons, killed the prophets, and turned their backs on His Word. At more than one point they were so far gone that they even forgot about their miraculous deliverance from Egypt (Judges 2) and even lost the Book of the Law (2 Kings 22).
Yet, as much disrespect as God suffered, He continued to treat them with special care and persistent love. When one generation didn’t respond, He’d come back to the next generation and try again. When they went on their trip through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, just like little kids in the car (back before iPads), they whined about everything. It was like the world’s worst car trip! God’s taking them to Disneyworld and they spend the entire time complaining about the food, water, directions, view, signs, all the while kicking the driver’s seat.
Yet, God continuously and persistently provided what they needed and even more. A prophet would ask for a sign and God would give them one. A king would go into a foolhardy, selfish battle, and God would allow him to succeed. When the nation of Israel couldn’t get over their worship of idols, God treated them as children and sent them to their room – a whole generation into Babylonian captivity as a discipline – and then rescued them so they could be with Him again. God showed persistent devotion to His people.
Our Lack of Persistence
Most of us are lousy at being persistent. The divorce rate, even among Christians, hovers around 40%, and many today aren’t even getting married in the first place – and more and more couples are refusing to have children. That makes moms very special.
But it’s not just marriages and families, people are also dropping out of high-school and college at alarming rates – especially young men.
Most people don’t even keep the same job for more than a few years. According to one report I read, half of people stay in their job for under 2 years, and only 30% stay at one job for over four. The average Canadian will have roughly 15 careers in their lifetime. The average new, small business will last less than five years. And it’s not because of the financial crisis. 75% of the time it’s because they end up with too many personal problems that get in the way, so they have to shut down their successful small business.
I could go on, but I think that most of know – especially these days when so many of our excuses have been taken away – that all of us have a problem with persistence, and the problem is getting worse. Do you ever sit at home these days and wonder why you can’t just keep a consistent schedule? A consistent attitude? A consistent diet? Why every day – even though for most of us, our schedules have been almost completely cleared – we struggle to remain consistent.
The Persistent Love of Jesus
As in all things, we would do well to look at Jesus, who was doggedly persistent. Consider how He treated His disciples! They argued with Him, ignored Him, denied Him, sold Him out, and fled the Garden of Gethsemane, cowering in the dark as He died on the cross, but He always loved them, forgave them, restored them, and continued to work with them. They kept asking the same dumb questions, doing the same dumb things, and Jesus kept forgiving them, repeating Himself, teaching them, loving them, serving them, and sacrificing for them.
Our salvation was brought by Jesus’ deep desire to win us back to His Father. He marched to the cross of His own will, despite the pain, clueless disciples, and abusive religious authorities. He had the power to quit anytime – but He obeyed His Father in the face of great temptation, so He could finish the work of salvation for our sakes. He stood firm on the promises and the power of God – and marched forward out of love for you and me.
The persistent love of a good mother points us to the greater love we see in Jesus. Those who had a good mom, who had a mom that loved them despite their foolishness, are more able to understand what it means that God won’t quit on them.
God Makes Strange Selections
For a lot of us, we think that God’s love is dependent on how worthy we are. “But”, we say, “I’m not like Peter, or Paul, or John, or Moses, or Elijah, or any of the other heroes of the Bible! Of course, God loved them, of course, Jesus loved them. They had special powers and great faith. I can’t even read the Bible and every day – those guys were amazing! They were easy for God to love! I can’t see how God can love someone as inconsistent and sinful as me!”
Actually, you might be more like those “heroes” guys you know. What is awesome about the love of God is that He shows it most often in the strangest places, and to the weirdest people. Most often He doesn’t go for the best and brightest, the most loveable, but instead chooses the small, weak, dumb, pitiable, faltering, failing, down and out, unlovable people that no one would pick.
Did you ever play dodge-ball as a kid? By the way, did you know that many schools have outlawed dodge-ball? One expert I read said, “We take the position that [dodgeball] is not an appropriate instructional activity because it eliminates children and it does not respect the needs of less-skilled children.” That guy sure wasn’t around when I was growing up! I was definitely one of the “less-skilled” children and had absolutely none of my “needs respected” during dodge-ball!
I absolutely remember what it was like when the teacher would yell out “DODGEBALL!” Fear immediately gripped my tiny heart. Except for a few of the girls, I was easily the smallest kid in my class. And we would always line up against the walls, the teacher would pick two “Captains” and then they would pick teams. Anyone else go through this?
They would go through the whole class and take turns picking the big kids, fast kids, kids that threw hard, the popular kids… and there would be me, the fat kid, the kid that got asthma attacks, and a couple other “losers”, standing against the wall as the kids fight over who had to take us. I hated that feeling – but I knew why: I wasn’t big, or strong, or fast, or popular.
Here’s my point: If God was picking the dodgeball team, He would do it differently. He would have picked me, the littlest girls, the fattest kid, and the kid with asthma first, and then shown how He could win the game with us. To God be the glory!
1 Corinthians 1:26-31 is something I read often and it says,
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
Isn’t that awesome?! God shows His persistent love by loving those who need it most. He chooses the weak things of the world on purpose to show His glory. For all our faults and failings, God loves us even more – because it’s when we realize our weakness and our utter dependence on God that He can finally show His strength through us.
God’s Overwhelming Optimism
I think it’s because God, like a good mother, has an overwhelming amount of optimism about what His children are capable of if they were just listening to Him.
That’s what a good mom does right? No matter how much we screw up, mom says, “You have such potential! You’re so smart! So handsome! So pretty! You have so much potential! You have a light inside you! It’s just that you keep making dumb decisions, hang out with dumb people, and need some serious help.” How many of us got that speech?
I think God feels something similar. Not because of how great we are and what we can do for Him, but because He knows what He can do through us! He knows what we’re like. It’s not like we can fool Him into believing we are better than we are. We can’t pad our resume before God. God knows how utterly messed up we really are – but He still has an overwhelming optimism that when He chooses us to do something, that we can do it.
When He picks us, introduces us to Jesus, saves us from Hell, gives us the gift of His Spirit, and then gives us a mission in this world, He actually believes we can do it! Is it a strange thought to believe that God has faith that you can overcome temptation, overcome your addiction, overcome bitterness, overcome fear, and grow into a better image of Jesus? God knows what He can do, and so He knows that when you are depending on Him, you can do anything!
In Philippians 4:13 Paul says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” And in 2 Corinthians 12 Paul asks God to make him stronger by getting rid of a terrible malady he is facing, and God simply tells him “no”. Why? God says, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” And Paul’s response was,
“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:9-10)
J Oswald Sanders once said,
“There is an optimism in God which discerns the hidden possibilities in the unpromising character. He has a keen eye for hidden elements of nobility and promise in an unprepossessing life. He is the God of the difficult temperament, the God of the warped personality, the God of the misfit.”
We look at ourselves and that’s what we see: “the difficult temperament… the warped personality… the misfit.” We don’t see a person God could use – let alone doggedly pursue with persistent love. We see our sin and addictions and feel defeated all the time. We see our hang-ups and fears, and all the hidden things in our lives and minds that we think prevent us from being loved and used by God. We see our lack of ability, lack of holiness, lack of understanding, lack of courage – we are too afraid, too young, too old, too uneducated, too different, not different enough.
What I want to tell you this morning is that the persistent love of God covers that. God believes in You because He believes in Himself – and when you feel weak, all He requires is that you lean harder into Him. A life turned over to God will be imbued, infused, permeated, saturated with His amazing power and love.
God’s Relentless Pursuit
God believes in you because it is God Himself that is working through you, even despite your weakness and flaws. Just as a mother can’t forget her love for her child, but continues to love them no matter what they have done, even more-so does God relentlessly, persistently, love His children. He can’t forget His love for us.
We have a book at home called “I Love You Stinky Face” which is about a child trying to see how far his mother’s love will go, coming up with all manner of terrible ways he thinks could make his mother not love him.
“But Mama, but mama! What if I were a big, scary ape? Would you still love me then?:
“But Mama, but Mama, what if I were a swamp creature with slimy, smelly seaweed hanging from my body, and I couldn’t ever leave the swamp or I would die? Will you still love me then?”
“But Mama, But Mama, what if I were a super smelly skink, and I smelled so bad that my name was Stinky Face?”
And the mother always sweetly responds, reassuring her child that she will love him no matter what. She replies, “Then I would give you a bath and sprinkle you with sweet-smelling powder… And if you still smelled bad, I wouldn’t mind, and I would hug you tight and whisper in your ear, ‘I love you Stinky Face’. ”
I think Psalm 23 is like that. Let’s close by reading it:
Consider as I read: Who is the active person in this relationship?
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
We are sheep. We get tired and He makes us lie down. We get thirsty and he takes us to a drink. We get sick and He restores. We pursue sin and he puts us on the righteous path. We wander into the valley of the shadow of death, God pursues us, protects us, comforts us. We surround ourselves with enemies and strife, and Jesus does all the work to save us – and proceeds to make us a celebration dinner and crown us as victors! Then, for our whole life, he follows us, follows us, follows us – until we finally take our rest in His House forever.
Do you see how much God loves you? Pursues you? Acts on your behalf?
The reminder of God being the one that pursues us with relentless love is found all over scripture. He stubbornly, tenaciously pursues us, inviting us over and over to turn more and more of our life over to Him because He knows that if we give our life to Him fully that we will finally know peace, joy, and purpose.
While you might quit on yourself. God will never quit on you.
“But God, But God, What if I continuously work myself into a frenzy, anxious about almost everything in my life? Will you still love me then?” (“Yes, and I will lie you down in green pastures, beside still waters.”)
“But God, but God, what if I destroy my soul with sin, harden my heart with bitterness, and corrupt my spirit with lusts of the eye and the flesh? Will you still love me then?” (“Yes, and then I will restore your soul, and I will lead you down the paths of righteousness.”)
“But God, but God, what if I go through a depression so bad that it’s like walking through a valley of the shadow of death? One so dark that I can’t even see you? Will you still love me then?” (“Yes, and I will walk with you, and comfort and protect you every step of the way – even if you don’t know I’m there or thank me.”)
It is the devil preaches the message of despair. He’s the one that whispers in your ear that God doesn’t care about you, God has forgotten you, that you are beyond His grace and forgiveness, that you’ve finally gone too far, that you’ve reached the end of His patience, that you should just quit praying because He’s not listening, that God gave up on you, that God’s punishing you, that everything is too scary and God’s no longer helping you… That’s the voice of Satan lying to you, not God.
God will never quit on you, and will always love you. A long as you are still taking breaths in this world, if you have given your life to Jesus, if you are one of His children, who has accepted Him as your Lord and Savior – no matter how far you’ve backslidden – you will always be loved and always given the chance to come to Him – because He’s not just waiting on you, He is constantly, and relentlessly pursuing you with His love. All you need to do is turn around – and you’ll see Him right there.
To say it’s a strange time is an understatement. As this pandemic looms, and the lockdown enters its second month, it’s very interesting to see how people are reacting. While some sit at home bored, others, like front-line and emergency workers, are being run off their feet. The educated professionals that are used to having “important jobs” have been told they are “non-essential” while the service and retail workers who they used to look down on are now treated as vital “essential workers” who put their life on the line every day serving the public.
I’m 100% sympathetic to how difficult it must be these days to be a doctor, nurse, or other medical workers – but as a former Wal-Mart stock-boy and cashier, I have a special spot in my heart for the people at the grocery and department stores whose lives are all now far more complicated, much scarier, and way more difficult. Imagine for a moment being a 16-year-old grocery store cashier. It’s your first job and you just started a couple months ago. It seemed pretty straightforward. The main parts of the job were to know where stuff is, get the money right, and be polite to people.
How must they feel now? All of a sudden they are given surgical masks and gloves, are stuck in a Plexiglas cage, and have a dozen new rules to follow. The public is panicking and the management doesn’t know exactly what to do. And, they’re told that if they don’t get it right they could be held responsible for spreading a deadly virus. What must it be like as a parent to send your teen off to work these days while you are forced to stay at home?
Coping with Stress
No matter who you are – everyone in every arena of life has been affected by this. And, as the internet churns out more information, the government makes more announcements, the 24-hour-news-cycle generates more stories to grab your attention, and the weeks continue to wear on and on — everyone having to deal with more stress, anxiety, fear, confusion, loneliness, and worry.
How are people coping? I saw an interesting graphic this week put out by Stats Canada[i] talking about what Canadians are doing to deal with the challenges the COVID-19 situation has brought. As it turns out they’re watching a lot of TV, playing a lot of video games, surfing a lot of internet, and drinking a lot of alcohol. I would imagine that if Stats Canada dug a little deeper they would find that Canadians are dealing in a whole lot of other self-destructive ways too.
Consider your own life over the past few weeks. How have you reacted to increased stress, decreased accountability, more time on your hands, or more responsibility dumped in your lap? What have you been doing to “cope” with your stress? More arguing and controlling? More alcohol or food? More pornography and non-stop media? Or are you sleeping more, avoiding life, zoning out? What have your interactions online looked like during this time? God honouring, faith-producing, helpful posts that point to truth and hope – or are you spreading fear, argument, and gossip?
Trial by Fire
Stressful times, and not just during global pandemics, bring out the best and the worst in people. The Bible talks about times like this being like going through a “fire” that either causes you to be refined like gold in a furnace, showing and helping you remove the negative dross in your life – or causing your whole life to burn down as you realize that everything from your foundation up was just made of matchsticks.
And I’m not talking about just the difference between believers and non-believers – though that is certainly the case too. I’m talking about Christians.
Turn with me and consider 1 Peter 1:3–7:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Peter is talking to Christians here who were going through a very difficult time of persecution and trial. He reminds them that their salvation is because of God’s “mercy” – meaning that He didn’t have to save them, but chose to anyway. He reminds them of what their present faith is in – the God who gives them a “living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”. Then, like the verse we read last week in Romans 8 that says nothing can separate us from the Love of God in Jesus Christ, Peter then reminds them that because of God’s mercy, and the finished work of Jesus Christ, nothing can ever take away that hope because it is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading”.
He tells them that it is in remembering those things – the love of God, the salvation of Jesus Christ, their security in Heaven – all the things we talked about last week – that, as the meditate on their salvation in Jesus, they will find the strength and desire to pray, worship, trust, serve, and “rejoice”, even in the midst of their “various trials”.
But look at verse 6 again where Peter says that their rejoicing will be mingled and mixed with grief. “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials…” Christianity doesn’t say that as soon as we get saved all our earthly problems are solved. That’s a false gospel. If anyone has ever told you that the reason that you are going through a bad time – grieving, suffering, hurting, sadness – is because you don’t believe in God hard enough – they are not telling you the gospel. That’s not Biblical truth.
Think about John chapters 13-17, the discourse in the Upper Room. On the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, He told the disciples a lot of important things about what was coming and how they should respond. He washed their feet and then told them to serve one another in love. He told them that their faith in Him would let them see and experience the presence of God. He told them how to pray and that if they need something they only need to ask in His name. He told them of the importance of obedience and how the presence of the Holy Spirit would help them to know Him, follow Him, and would connect them to Him in the most intimate way imaginable.
And He gave warnings, telling them to stay connected to Him or their life would be weak and meaningless. He said,
“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
Then He warned them that living like that would make the world hate them, just as it hated Him. But, no matter what, He would never, ever leave them alone – and would always comfort and help them.
Then He warned again them about his imminent death, and the great sorrow they would feel – but that, after He rose again, their sorrow would turn to joy, and that joy would be greater than they had ever experienced before.
And then, after talking for hours, right before He prayed for them – and us – in His “High Priestly Prayer”… as He was rising to leave to go to the Garden of Gethsemane to face that death, He said this:
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
That’s the gospel. In this world you will have trouble and trials and struggle and difficulty. This world is still affected by sin. As Peter said, “For a little while” meaning, in this life, we will be “grieved by various trials” – but “but take heart; [Jesus has] overcome the world”.
Testing the Genuineness of Your Faith
That’s what the next verses in 1 Peter 1:6–7 basically say: “…now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
These trials and difficulties, all the frustrations we are facing, the worry that has come over us – whether it’s the death of a loved one, our own sickness, a financial or job loss, dealing with loneliness, or having our work become harder, more complicated, and have more risk – are part of what Peter means when he says “various trials”.
What do these do? He says they “test” the “genuineness of your faith”. In other words, these times force you to see whether or not you really believe what you say you believe. At the same time, while it tests the strength of your faith – the strength of your convictions – it also shows you what your faith is actually in.
God uses trials like this to refine and reveal. He refines your faith, strengthens your faith, purifies your faith, by forcing you to see and remove what is weakening it – and it reveals things in your life, showing you things about yourself and others, that you didn’t even know were there.
Bear the Fruit of Repentance
Turn with me to Luke 3:1–20. I want to share something that I think God was telling me this week about myself, and that might help you:
This is the introduction to the ministry of John the Baptist, a man sent by God – the final Old Testament style prophet – who was meant to prepare the way and announce the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.”
So there’s the general tone of John the Baptist’s message: “The Messiah is coming to begin the final work of salvation, so get yourselves ready for it.” Remember a couple weeks ago I preached the “Epic” sermon about the various phases of God’s plan of salvation? Here’s the announcement of God’s final and greatest phase: The Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour, the Judge of All Mankind, is coming into the world – with an axe in one hand, a winnowing fork in the other, and the refining fires of the Holy Spirit to purify the world before God’s wrath, God’s refining fire, sweeps through the whole world burning away the fruitless trees and worthless chaff.
He preached this with power and conviction and as he said, “Get ready” he would invite people to repent. To repent means to change your life, turn around and go the other way, acknowledge you are wrong and start doing right. And to show that repentance he invited them to be baptized – an external washing to show their desire to be clean on the inside.
But, some were coming for baptism that only wanted the outer sign, not to change their ways. But John wasn’t interested in numbers – he wanted people to really change and get ready for the coming of Jesus. He wanted the hard soil of their hearts to be tilled up, made soft, and made ready for the seeds of the gospel that Jesus would be coming to preach.
But some people just wanted to go through the motions. They wanted to say they had been baptised, but they didn’t actually want to repent. For whatever reason – out of fear, peer-pressure, religious devotion, or misunderstanding – when they came to John they didn’t want to change their hearts and prepare themselves for Jesus – they didn’t care about their sin – they just wanted to get wet.
John hated that hypocrisy because it was the same hypocrisy that completely dominated the whole Jewish religion at that point. So He looked at the crowds who were all excited to be baptized and said, “You brood of vipers! You snakes! What are you doing here? I see your motives and I know that you’re not here to give your hearts to God and submit to the Messiah – you’re here for your own selfish, stupid reasons. You make excuses for your sin and think you’re going to escape God’s wrath because of your religious traditions or because you’re going through some religious motions. That won’t work! Religious devotion, devoid of repentance, devoid of hatred of sin and submission to God, will still lead you to hell.”
And when Jesus came, and the religious people saw Him and heard his message of repentance and submission to Him, they didn’t repent – they hated what He said and murdered Him so they could keep being religious hypocrites. The presence of Jesus was the fire, the trial that revealed their sin –and showed everyone how evil they really were.
The crowds, seeing how serious John was about making sure their hearts were right with God before they participated in any sort of external sign, said in verse 10, “Ok, then what shall we do?” If we’re not supposed to be just doing religious stuff – getting wet, singing the songs, saying the prayers, doing the sacrifices, bringing the tithe – if none of that actually matters to God, then what are we supposed to be doing? We’re here to get baptized because you told us to get baptized or God will be mad at us… so what are we supposed to do?
John’s answer was the one that we saw in verse 8. “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance”. In other words, make your life show that your repentance is real – that you sin and want to be godly. Real repentance will require changed life, changed behaviour, different priorities, and different ethics. It reminds me of the famous passage in Micah 6:6-8,
“’With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
That’s basically what John was saying, right? “If you’ve got extra, share. If you’re in a position of power, be kind and fair and honest. Show God you love Him, that your repentance is real, that your faith is real, that you want Jesus in your life and trust His way is the best way – by “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly as a servant of God.”
Herod the tetrarch didn’t like this message. He was caught in a bunch of public sins that went against God’s commandments, and John called him out on it. What was Herod’s response? Arrest John and lock him in a room where he couldn’t hear him anymore.
That’s my conclusion today: During this time you are going to be faced with all kinds of temptations. Some in your home, others at work. Some online, others face to face. There will be temptations to overuse things that bring you comfort, to overindulge in addictions, waste your time, and use self-destructive behaviour. Some of you will face the temptation to live in fear and to be a fear monger, spreading bitterness and paranoia. Others will be tempted to be selfish and greedy or to make personal gain on the back of the suffering. Some will take their fear out on convenient people that don’t deserve it. Some will face emotional struggles worries rise up. Others will face spiritual struggles as they neglect prayer times, study times, and fellowship opportunities. Some will be tempted toward hopelessness while others will try to live in denial.
The list of temptations is endless – but what I want you to see is that this strange time that we are going through is also an opportunity for God to refine your faith and reveal your weaknesses and strengths.
When it happens, and God shows you your sin, feel the guilt and shame – but don’t be overwhelmed by it – just turn that sin over to Jesus, accept that He died for that sin too, accept His forgiveness – and then repent. Change the behaviour, put up a wall between you and the sin, tell someone else about your struggle, do the opposite of it, and then bear fruit in keeping with repentance.
Then, if you choose to humbly reflect on your life, admit that you need a lot of help, listen to the voice of God, and allow Him to make some changes, God will refine you and you will be a stronger, more faithful, more joyful, person on the other side of this.
Or, you can respond like Herod. When God’s Spirit convicts you, when He shows you your sin – tell Him to shut up, lock that voice away, pretend you didn’t hear it, and persist in your sin – and then come out the other side of this time more addicted, more afraid, more bitter, more controlling, and more hurtful than when you went in.
I don’t want that for any of you. Please, submit to God. Listen to His voice. Cut out the things that are hurting your soul. And bear fruits in keeping with repentance.