Pastor Al Do You Really Believe in a Magic Talking Snake?
I want to start this morning with a little bit of apologetics. Last week we talked about the Fall of Man as presented in Genesis 1-3 and there’s one part of that story that keeps coming up in the secular world as a way to discredit Christians – that being the “talking snake”.
As I studied last week and went through the various pictures of Adam and Eve for last week’s PowerPoint, I saw a lot of pictures that looked really ridiculous, and I kept asking myself if I really actually believe this story or not. And it’s an important story to believe in. If the story of the Fall of Man is fictional, it affects a lot of things in Christianity.
First, if it’s fiction, then what parts of the Bible should be believed? Second, a lot of other books in the Bible reference that story as true, so can they be believed. Third, Romans 5 says that Jesus is the second Adam that didn’t fail, but did it right, and through which we find our salvation. So how can Jesus be the second Adam who did it right if there was no first who did it wrong? To discredit the story of creation and the fall in Genesis 1-3 is to dismantle much of what the theology of salvation is built on. No talking serpent, no temptation, no Eve taking the fruit, no fall… etc.
So how do I answer the question? Do I actually believe in a magic talking snake that tempted the only people on the planet to eat a forbidden fruit? Do you? Why? Well, let me tell you how I process it.
Humility Before the Word of God
The first place I start is humility before the Word of God. I remember that I don’t know everything and just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s wrong or impossible. If I told you not to worry that your OS defrags your solid state drive when you have Volume Shadow Copy turned on, would you believe me? Is it something you’ve ever worried about? Maybe you should, because automated defragging your SSD ups your writes. Worried now?
Just because you don’t understand what I’m talking about, doesn’t mean I’m wrong or trying to mislead you. And just because I don’t fully understand Genesis 1-3 doesn’t mean it’s wrong or trying to mislead me either. I decided a long time ago I was going to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt. That doesn’t mean I turn my brain off when I read or study, but it does mean that when I study, I start with the thought, “The Bible isn’t trying to lie to me, manipulate me, or hurt me. God is the author of truth, this is His book, and He’s using the Bible to teach me, guide me, and help me understand Him, myself, and the world. So whatever I’m not understanding isn’t God’s fault.”
A Story for All People
I also remember that the story in Genesis 1-3 isn’t meant to be a modern biography or scientific textbook explaining the exact details of what went on. It’s a story meant to convey important truths to different people who would live in different places and eras. That doesn’t mean it’s misleading though. It means’ it was told in a way that everyone could understand.
When Genesis was written, the concept of Satan wasn’t as fleshed out as it is by the end of Revelation, so his character is introduced in a very important way. The whole story is told in such a way that anyone who reads it, from Moses to today, will see the most foundational messages upon which all the rest of the scriptures will be built – God is eternal and good, man was created eternal and good, temptation is real, sin is terrible, and man’s choices have big consequences.
To do this, the first three chapters of the Bible use poetry, prose, imagery, repetition, and intricate word play, and to tell the story of Creation and the Fall in a way everyone can understand. Just because it was written thousands of years ago to people who weren’t interested in modern science, doesn’t make it wrong.
The Multiple Forces Argument
The third thing that helps me believe Genesis 1-3 is to remember that Satan is real, powerful, a master of deception, and capable of supernatural things. Here’s something I’ve been working on in my brain for a while, which I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else, and it goes like this: There are four sorts of “forces” that act upon us in this world:
- Visible Personal Forces
- Visible Impersonal Forces
- Invisible Impersonal Forces
- and Invisible Personal Forces.
People have no problem with the first one, “Visible Personal Forces”, right? These are things we can see, and that make the choice to affect us. People are visible, personal forces.
People have no problem with the second one, “Visible Impersonal Forces”. Examples of this would be a rockslides, forest fires, earthquakes, tornados. We can see them affecting us, but they don’t make the choice to do so. A fire doesn’t choose what it’s burning. It just does it.
People have no problem with the third one either, “Invisible Impersonal Forces”. Examples of this are things like magnetism, wind, or gravity. We can’t see them and they don’t choose to affect us. They just do. We can’t take a picture of gravity, but it’s real, right?
It’s the fourth one that people get hung up on, “Invisible Personal Forces”. This is a personal being that chooses to affect our lives, but we can’t see them. But why is this one different? If the rest are true, why not this one? This is God, Angels and Demons. If we can believe in an invisible impersonal force like gravity, why not an invisible personal demon?
There are hundreds of papers written on invisible, personal forces that affect us all the time. Governments and corporations use psychological warfare to intimidate, demoralize, or persuade people to do things. They don’t have to be standing in front of you to affect you either. They can use things like propaganda, stress, bribes, language, suggestions, media, repetition, and technology to do it for them. We have no problem believing in the power of peer pressure, mob-mentality, or group think, right? But that’s not visible force, is it? No one says, “As of this moment you should go flip cop cars and smash windows”, it just sort of happens. Other examples of invisible, personal forces are things like memories of people who have died, your own personality, hypnosis, or even emotional love and physical pain. People will debate the power of the butterfly effect and talk about good or bad luck or Murphy’s Law as though they are real, but have a problem with the existence of Demons.
All I’m saying is that it is not unreasonable to believe that there are such things as Invisible Personal Forces, like God, Angels or Demons – who are real, creative, and powerful – that affect our lives every day. And the being introduced in Genesis 3 as a tempting serpent is an example of that. Just because it’s difficult to understand or strange to our ears doesn’t make it untrue.
So, I think to myself, if God is the author of the Bible, the story of Genesis 1-3 is written to tell me the truth, and there really is such a being as Satan, then why would it be impossible for this story to be true? Why couldn’t Satan use a serpent to tempt Eve? I believe what Jesus says, and He says that Satan is a master deceiver (John 8:44), capable of looking like a false messiah and even do miracles so convincing that even people who claim to be Christians will be deceived by him (Matthew 24:24). 2 Corinthians 11:14 says he can even masquerade as an angel of light.
So, is it not possible that Satan used his powers of deception to either manipulate or take on the form of a serpent? Or, if that’s too much, if invisible personal forces are real, then that would mean a form of that is demonic possession, right? Why couldn’t Satan have possessed this animal’s body and used it?
Now I sound crazy, right? I sound like I’m reaching beyond the scope of reality. But hold on. If the Bible isn’t trying to fool me, and Satan is real and powerful, then why is it impossible? It doesn’t have to be the kind of snake we think of today, does it? Genesis 3:1 says that the “serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field” and Revelation 20:2 calls Satan, “the dragon, that ancient serpent”, so this clearly wasn’t the kind of snake we see today, but perhaps a very clever animal that is long extinct. In fact, in Genesis 3:14, when God is cursing the serpent, He changes the form of the serpent to one that stands to one that slithers. There are lots of scientists who think snakes used to have legs but lost them as they evolved. And I’ve watched enough BBC nature documentaries to know that there are animals capable of some pretty incredible things, right?
We’ve all seen the amazing things trained dogs, dolphins, and chimpanzees can do, right? I saw an article that showed how humans have taught parrots, orangutans, elephants and seals to mimic the human voice. And you’ve probably heard about Koko the gorilla that was capable of understanding thousands of English words and signed back over a thousand.
So, I’m not saying I understand it all, but all I’m saying, is why not, in the history of the world, with all the species that have ever existed, couldn’t there have been a smart, serpent-like creature capable of mimicking human speech that Satan possessed and used? Just because I don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it isn’t true. But is it plausible? I believe it is. Or, if that’s too much, then maybe Satan simply used some sort of supernatural power to talk through it, the same way God did with Balaam’s Donkey.
Now, why spend so much time on this today? The reason is simply that there’s a big difference between saying we believe something and actually believing it, and that difference has consequences. There are often nagging questions in the back of our minds that cause us to doubt God’s Word, doubt our faith, doubt how serious we should take it, and wonder if all that we say we believe is actually true. It causes us to distrust God, distrust other Christians, and to live in fear. Our doubts are weapons that Satan can use to cause us to think and believe some destructive lies.
If he can use our doubts to cause us to question the existence of Adam and Eve, then why not Abraham and Jesus too? If Genesis is made up, then why not the Gospel of Matthew? If there was no Fall of Man, no first sin that corrupts all mankind, then where is the curse and what did Jesus die for? Does that mean we’re all basically good people and everyone is going to heaven? If we’re all basically good, then what’s wrong with the world? And if we’re all good, or a bunch of it is made up, then why tell anyone about Jesus at all?
Satan can use these doubts to take us apart in surprising ways. It’s the same tactic he used on Eve. “Did God actually say…?” was an attack on God’s Word and His character. If he can get us to doubt what God says, then we have permission to edit His Words, change them, or dismiss them. Then we’re in trouble. Then the foundations of our life and faith start to crumble. Then we start to doubt that God is real, that Satan is real, that invisible, personal spiritual forces are real, and it makes us an easier target.
Those niggling doubts, which so many of us suppress thinking there are no good answers, embarrassed to ask other people in case we sound crazy or stupid, undermine our faith and become a foothold in our lives for the devil and a stumbling block to those around us. That’s why we need to spend time praying, studying, talking, and sharing our doubts and questions about God. He’s not scared of us looking into it, and He’s not angry that there are things we don’t understand, so it shouldn’t prevent us from asking and searching. Sure, not every question will have the perfect answer, but I have yet to find an important question that hasn’t gotten a reasonable answer over the past couple thousand years. The real trouble comes when we refuse to find them.
Is Hell Real?
Consider the questions from the Heidelberg Catechism that we’ve been studying, especially those today. We’ve spent three weeks talking about the importance of realizing that we are sinners, right? Last week we said that sin isn’t God’s fault, but question 9 comes. It says
“But does not God do man an injustice by requiring in his law what man cannot do?”
Ursinus, in his brilliance, knew that the human heart is full of doubt and is desperate to escape blame. We hate being called sinners and want to do everything we can to push that guilt away. We want to pretend the Fall wasn’t real, that Satan isn’t real, that we’re basically good people, and anything we do that’s wrong is someone else’s fault – even God’s. But neither God nor Ursinus lets us off the hook.
The question is basically “Isn’t it unfair for God to ask us to obey a Law that He knows we can’t obey because of our sinful nature?” and the answer comes:
“No, for God so created man that he was able to do it. But man, at the instigation of the devil, in deliberate disobedience robbed himself and all his descendants of these gifts.”
As I said last week, God didn’t set Adam up for failure, but for success. He absolutely could have obeyed, but fell to temptation chose not to. And now all of us children of Adam are all living with the consequences of having a sinful nature.
Question 10 continues,
“Will God allow such disobedience and apostasy to go unpunished?”
Herein lay another area of our doubts – that God would actually punish sin. Doesn’t God love us? Won’t he let us get away with it? Isn’t He a Good Father who lets His children off the hook because he loves them so much? A kind God wouldn’t really make anyone go to Hell, would He?
People work really hard to try to deny that sinners are punished in Hell, and even harder to try to convince themselves that they themselves aren’t sinners, but neither is true. “Will God allow such disobedience and apostasy to go unpunished?” The answer in the Catechism comes:
“Certainly not. He is terribly displeased with our original sin as well as our actual sins. Therefore he will punish them by a just judgment both now and eternally, as he has declared: Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law (Gal 3:10).”
God promised punishment to Adam and Eve (Gen 2:17). He promised punishment to Moses and the Israelites (Ex 34:7). The Lord, through the prophets, promised to take vengeance on all His enemies (Nah 1:2), and we’ve already learned that sin made us an enemy of God (Eph 2:1-3). Jesus said that without Him, that many will be led to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14) and promised that there would be a final separation where some people would be sent into eternal flames and endless misery (Matt 13:30-42).
Hell, like talking about the snake, makes some people very uncomfortable. They want to hold onto their doubts. They want to deny it. They want to live in ignorance. They don’t want to ask questions lest they learn something they don’t like. They don’t want to think that some people that they love are in Hell, or that they might be as well.
But, just as changing the story of Eden changes everything, so does removing Hell. Look at question 11 of the Catechism:
“But is God not also merciful?”
It’s almost an outcry, isn’t it? But how can the concept of Hell line up with a loving God?
And the answer is this:
“God is indeed merciful, but he is also just. His justice requires that sin committed against the most high majesty of God also be punished with the most severe, that is, with everlasting, punishment of body and soul.”
Yes, God is love, and part of love is ensuring that justice is done. Consider yourself. If you were wronged – you went downtown, someone jumped you, beat you, stabbed you, and stole your belongings – it would be unloving, unjust, unkind for a judge to simply let the mugger get away with it. How much more should humanity be punished for committing such “disobedience and apostasy” against the perfection of God? He is absolute perfection, and humanity chose Satan, sin, disobedience, and betrayal – and we keep doing it over and over willfully and in ways we don’t even know. You must admit yourself to be a sinner.
But our doubts fight, don’t they? “I’m not that bad. God’s not really like that. I don’t want that to be true.” My plea for you is to allow the conviction of God to fall upon you and to allow Him to judge you guilty – because it’s only then that you’ll be willing to ask and accept forgiveness. If you doubt yourself to be a sinner you will doubt the cost of your salvation.
Let me close with this: When it comes to difficult, uncomfortable topics like Hell, do what I said before. First, stop thinking you know everything and show some humility before God and His Word of God. Second, realize the teaching about Hell isn’t there to harm you, but to tell you something that you need to know so you can make a better decision. And third, overcome your doubts by choosing to share them, study the truth, and then settle it in your mind.
We’re on Week 3 of our way through the Heidelberg Catechism. If you recall, the catechism is divided up into three sections: The first part speaking of the problem of sin that has separated us from God, the second how Jesus delivered us from that sin, and the third how our lives change as a result of this deliverance. In short, the three sections are Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude.
One of the main reasons we started this series is to answer some of the biggest questions that humanity has. For example, everyone, everywhere, asks the question: “Why is everything such a mess?” Every country, every city, every family, every individual looks at the world and wonders why things never ever seem to work out, why things are so hard, and why, even if things do go ok for a while, do they always end up falling apart? We look outward and wonder why the world is such a mess, but then it gets personal when we inevitably we look inward and ask: “Why am I such a mess?”
The need for an answer to these questions is actually a subtle way of playing the blame game, isn’t it? Whose fault is this mess of a world? Whose fault is all this mess inside me? And our blame list is long. For the world’s problems, from famine to war to floods, we blame politicians, greedy corporations, drug dealers, lazy people, and more. For our personal problems, we blame our environment, parents, education, genetics, and more. Sometimes we blame ourselves – for things within our control and even things outside our control. And of course, if you’re a religious person, you can always blame some version of God or the Devil.
Religion Seeks an Answer
The religions of the world, at their most fundamental, are a way to answer these big questions. I was watching a documentary clip the other day that was answering the question: “Why are there religions?” and the answer they gave was a typical trope a lot of internet videos give, saying that before we had the miracle of modern science to explain everything, people needed silly myths and made up nonsense to explain stuff and give the universe meaning – and religious people just can’t get over it. But eventually, they always say, everyone on earth will finally give up on religion finally only believe in pure science.
Now, though there is some truth to the claim that religion is all about explaining things, it’s not fully accurate. Religion is about worldview. Most religions don’t just explain where lightning comes from or why we have horses. Sure, some have elaborate stories about those things, but the main reason humans have religion isn’t to explain every little detail of the world, but to explain four really big questions: “Why is there something rather than nothing? What’s broken with the world? Can it be fixed? And where is the future headed?”
The answer to those questions is what sets Christianity apart from other religions. There are as many creation stories as there are religions, and each one has their own explanation of how the universe came into being, but it’s the next part that we’re concerned about today: “What is broken with the world?” What went wrong? And whether you’re on the side of Big Bang Evolutionists, Intelligent Design, or as one aboriginal tribe in Australia believes, that a giant rainbow snake tickled frogs until they barfed the world into being, your belief has to answer this question: What went wrong?
The Blame Game
Christians have a good answer to that question, and they come from the first three chapters of the Bible – and it’s what Day 3 of the Heidelberg Catechism is all about. Turn with me to Genesis 3.
Remember what we’ve covered already. Question 1 spoke of how our greatest hope and comfort in life is found in a relationship with Jesus Christ. Question 2 asked the question, “What do you need to know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?”. The answer was threefold: We need to know how great our sins and misery is, how we’re delivered from that misery, and how to be thankful for that deliverance. Guilt, Grace, Gratitude.
Last week we looked at the next, logical question, question 3, that basically says: “Ok, if I need to know my sins, then how do I find those out?” The answer was, essentially, “Read the Bible. The LAW of God in the Old Testament, the Words of Jesus in the New will tell you about how deep and your sin problem is.”
Which leads naturally to our questions today; question 6 which says,
“Did God, then, create man so wicked and perverse?”
In other words, “Ok, so after reading the Bible, I admit that sin is a huge problem for me and the world… so who’s fault is that? God’s?” As I said, immediately when we are faced with the question “What went wrong?” or “Why are things such a mess?” we play the blame game, right?
I encourage you to read the whole of the first three chapters of Genesis later because we’re going to jump around a bit, but for now, look at Genesis 3:6-13. Eve has just been tempted by the devil and decides eating the forbidden fruit is a good idea. It says,
“So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.”
So, Adam and Eve sin and immediately realize that something is wrong. We usually think that having “open eyes” is a good thing, but not here. They suddenly experience something they’ve never felt before – guilt and shame – and they do what anyone does when they feel guilt and shame, they try to cover themselves. We talked about guilt last week. Read verse 8:
“And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.”
Adam and Eve’s relationship with God was like that of children and their Father. For their whole lives, the voice of their Father brought joy to them and they would come running towards it – but now they ran from it. When Eve was talking with Satan you can see that she has a good and proper fear of God. Look at verse 3, Eve says, “…God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” That’s what’s called a healthy fear of God, a healthy fear of the Father. God set boundaries and said that if they went past them, they’d be trouble. Even at the very youngest of ages, this is something that children experience with their parents. “I’d better not do this wrong thing or I’ll get in trouble with mom and dad.” It’s a healthy fear. It’s a way that parents keep their children safe even when they’re not around.
But now that Adam and Eve have sinned, their healthy fear of God turns into an unhealthy dread of God. They start doing things they’d never considered. They do what little kids do when they know they’ve done something wrong. Have you ever known a little kid who tried to hide something they did wrong? They write on the table so they cover it with a placemat? They break something and then shove the pieces in the toy box. This is what Adam and Eve were doing. They covered themselves in an attempt to cover up the problem. Then, what do kids do? They go hide under their bed or in their closet. A teenager with a bad grade or who did something stupid will wander around town, stay at a friend’s, refuse to come home because they know when they get home, they’re going to have to face their parents. This is what Adam and Eve do. Their guilt doesn’t drive them to their Father, but away from Him.
Look at verse 9-10. Adam and Eve are hiding from God in the bushes and it says,
“But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ And he said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.’ He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’”
God, the righteous Judge of the universe, holds a mini-trial. He could have condemned them outright because He knew what happened, but He gives them the chance to defend themselves, to repent, to ask forgiveness. But what do they do instead?
Look at verse 12:
“The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.’ Then the LORD God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate.’”
Adam blames Eve and then blames God for making her in the first place. The woman blames Satan, maybe even implying that was God’s fault too? Everyone is blaming everyone, including God.
Blaming God for our sins and problems is literally the oldest argument there is. That’s why the first question of the catechism that comes after showing us our sin is, “Did God, then, create man so wicked and perverse?” The Bible reader feels guilty and immediately wants to blame shift. So, is sin God’s fault?
The answer comes:
“No, on the contrary, God created man good and in his image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness, so that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love him, and live with him in eternal blessedness to praise and glorify him.”
This is a common argument: “If God is all-powerful and all-knowing then everything is His fault, right? If God knows everything in advance, then He knew that Adam and Eve wouldn’t obey, so it’s His fault for creating them right? If He knew that Adam and Eve would eat of the tree, then it’s his fault for putting it there, right? If God wouldn’t have left them alone, then they wouldn’t have eaten it, so it’s His fault, right?”
The answer is “No, sin is not God’s fault.” But why? The first answer here gives the first reason why: Because God created us perfectly.
In Genesis 1:26 it says that God made us in His image, after His likeness. What does that mean? It means we were created immortal, intelligent, spiritual, good, and pure. One thing that makes us different from God is that we were also created with is the capacity to develop as beings. God is perfect and therefore needs no development, but humanity, though created very good, also has the ability and capacity for self-development. God doesn’t learn, but we do. God doesn’t have new experiences, but we do. God doesn’t do experiments to discover new things, but we do. God made us good, but also able to develop as beings. Why? So we could glorify God, honour Him, enjoy His creation, and learn to love Him more and more. It was a gift.
Then, Where Did Sin Come From?
So if God created us perfectly, in a perfect environment, how did sin come about? That’s question 7:
“From where, then, did man’s depraved nature come?”
The answer to which is:
“From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise, for there our nature became so corrupt that we are all conceived and born in sin.”
Why is everything around the world and inside us a mess? What went wrong? Sin went wrong. So where did sin come from? It came from Adam and Eve.
Our corrupt nature doesn’t come from God; it comes as a consequence of Adam’s decision to go against God’s will. God created people to be good, to live in a state of innocence, and to be capable of development. We were given the gift of choice. Animals don’t have that gift. They have a set of programs. Some of these programs are very complex, and we can use them to our advantage – like working with their natural inclinations and using reward or punishment to train them to do a task – but they are not capable of moral decision making. They don’t choose between right and wrong. We can name them and call them babies and personalize them and anthropomorphize all we want, but animals are incapable of moral choice. Only humans can do that.
Why? Because without choice there is no love. We couldn’t actually love God if there wasn’t another choice. God created us to be with Him as His children, to honour, glorify, enjoy and love Him – but if there was no other choice, then that love would be meaningless.
Here’s an example I’ve used before. What is your favourite flavour of ice cream? Mine is Rocky Road. If I go to Baskin Robins I always go through the same thing. I walk up and down the aisle, look at every flavour, try one or two, hem and haw over them, and then choose Rocky Road. Why? I really like Rocky Road. It’s my favourite.
Imagine though, that there was some sort of global ice-cream crisis and the next time you walked into Baskin Robins and looked at their cooler all it had was 31 buckets of Rocky Road. You go to Dairy Queen and they only have Rocky Road. You go to the grocery store and it’s just an aisle of Rocky Road. For years and years, the ice-cream crisis looms over humanity. The only ice cream anyone knows or remembers is Rocky Road. Eventually, people forget that there was such a thing as vanilla or strawberry or butterscotch ice cream. It’s only Rocky Road for all time. Now, when you walk up to someone and ask, “What is your favourite flavour of ice-cream?” What’s the answer? “Rocky Road.” But, is it there favourite? Doesn’t matter, right? They could be deathly allergic to chocolate and almonds and they’d still have to say their favourite flavour is Rocky Road. Why? Because there’s no other choice.
That’s why there was a forbidden fruit tree in the Garden of Eden. Because without choice, there is no love. God didn’t want robots programmed to love him. He wanted beings capable of choosing to love Him. It’s one of His greatest gifts to us.
But there’s something else about love. It isn’t real until it’s tested. It’s easy to say I will love my wife and will be committed to her forever if we crash and are stranded alone on a deserted island. It’s easy to say I’ll do my job when the boss is looking over my shoulder. Consider how you drive when there’s a police officer next to you. If you’re like me, you instinctively tap the breaks, you’re suddenly incredibly aware of your speed, mirrors, position in your lane, signalling, and everything else, right? Why? Because someone’s watching.
When does the test come? When other options become present. When no one is watching. My love for my wife and commitment to her alone has more meaning when I’m given the option and temptation of looking at or being with other women. My commitment to my work has more meaning when I’m getting it done when no one is watching me. My ability to drive safely and legally matters most when I’m alone at night and no one is watching.
And so, in the same way, God gave Adam and Eve the opportunity to show that their love for Him was real. He didn’t look over their shoulder every second, but instead, chose to let them be alone for a while. Why? Because love isn’t real until it’s tested.
Sure, God arranged the test, but it’s not that God set them up to fail. God set them up to succeed. He gave them a sinless nature, a perfect environment, told them exactly what to do and what not to do, gave them each other as accountability, and limited the bad choices to only one.
God didn’t leave them alone in a dangerous, confusing situation, rife with temptation, and then laugh as they failed. No, He put them in a perfect situation, surrounded by perfection, and then allowed Satan to present a single choice to them. Why? Because love requires choice and isn’t real until it’s tested. Man had to declare himself, through an act of free will, either for God or for evil. And the only way to do that is to face temptation. Temptation itself is not sin.
But look what happened in Genesis 3:1-4,
“The serpent… said to the woman, ‘Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?’ And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’”
In that temptation Adam and Eve were essentially asked by God, “Do you love me? Do you trust me? Do you believe my way is best? Will you let me be your Father God?”
Adam and Eve’s answer was the same one we’ve been making ever since then, “No God, we don’t love you, we love ourselves. We don’t trust you, we trust ourselves. We don’t want you to be our Father anymore because we think we can do a better job.”
This decision brought consequences with it. They were warned. Eve even said so, “God said that if we eat it we’ll die.” And the moment they took that fruit, God, as a righteous judge gave them the consequences He promised them. Spiritual and physical death came into the world. Now they were separated from God because He cannot walk with sinful things. Now, since they rejected God as their King and Father, their allegiance had changed and they came under the authority and slavery of sin and the devil. From that moment death became part of humanities DNA and would be passed on to all of their children. Romans 5:12 says it this way, “…sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…”
Another consequence was that man and woman, who were working together to God’s dominion around the world, would now seek to dominate one another. Creation was affected too and would now work against them. Now their God-given capacity for creativity and free will would now be clouded by sin and they would create evil things. Now, their moral compass would be broken, always pointing toward sin. Even our bodies would work against us.
And the final consequence was that where once we had eternal happiness in paradise and the presence of God, we would now face eternal suffering and death in hell, away from God.
This is where question 8 comes in:
“But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil?”
Is it really all that bad? Aren’t people basically good, but just need a little push in the right direction? I don’t feel like a bad person. I feel like a good person that bad things happen to sometimes. I don’t feel totally corrupt; I just make bad choices sometimes. Am I really corrupt?
The Catechism says,
“Yes, unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.”
Remember Romans 3:9-11 from last week? “…both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.’”
We deny this, but in truth, we are like a sick person who refuses to believe their sick. Think of sin like pneumonia. Have you ever had pneumonia? It’s when your lungs become infected and you can’t breathe properly. Everything becomes harder to do. Some people have pneumonia and don’t even realize it. It’s not until other things start to go wrong that they go to the doctor. Their heart is pumping too hard, their organs are shutting down, their brain is starving – and until they get tested, they didn’t even know they had pneumonia.
This is why the Bible often portrays sin as a kind of force. The Bible calls it a burden that makes life hard to maneuver (Isa 1:4), a stain that we can’t get out (Isa 1:18), a slave-owner to whom we owe a debt we can’t repay and makes us to do things (Matt 10:21-35; Heb 2:15), a lion that crouches at our door or prowls around us (Gen 4:7; 1 Pet 5:8), or an incurable disease making us stumble, weak, and contagious. Sin is portrayed this way because it’s so powerful, so much a part of us. But it’s not really a separate force outside us; sin is part of us, something deep inside us.
It’s so much part of us that we don’t even really realize it. Trying to figure out our own sinful motives is like asking a fish to describe what it’s like to be wet. It’s all we know and discerning the boundaries is almost impossible. Sin is like thirst, and that constant thirst makes it so that we can’t tell if our motives are pure or not. The engine that drives our decision making is corrupt and we never really fully know why we do what we do.
Sin is powerful, but it’s not God’s fault – it’s our fault – and it is why we and our world are in such misery. James 1:13–15 says,
“Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
If we didn’t desire sin, it would have no power over us. But we do.
Today’s big lesson is that God doesn’t make you sin. God offers the way out of sin. You make you sin. Satan doesn’t make you sin. Satan offers the temptation. You make you sin.
The reason the world is a mess, the reason you are a mess is because of sin. Your misery comes either from sins that you have committed, sins that others have committed against you, or the effects of sin that have corrupted the world around you – but they are not God’s fault. Any good you have done or experienced is a result of His common grace, His willingness to hold back the full effects of sin in this world and in your life. But a time is coming when that God’s patience, that common grace, His hand that holds back Hell, will be done and you will feel the full effects of your sin.
But God offers a way out. He offers regeneration, what Jesus calls being “born again”. He offers you a new heart to replace your old one, unstained clothes to replace your stained ones. He offers to buy you from your slave owner and cure you of the disease of sin. This isn’t something you can do on your own by sheer act of will. You can’t simply decide not to be a leper, not to be a slave, not to be a sinner. You need Jesus. But the first thing you must do, before you can be saved, before you can ask forgiveness, before you can be reborn, before you do anything else that can be considered good, is to admit you are a miserable sinner who loves their sin and needs a miracle. It is only then that you are ready to ask forgiveness and receive it.
1 John 1:8-9 give us this promise:
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
If you are not a Christian, will you confess your sins now, admit yourself in need, and ask for forgiveness in the name of Jesus? He promises to forgive you and cleanse you and help you.
If you are a Christian but are harbouring a sin that you love, will you confess it now, admit yourself to be weak and in need of help, and commit to removing it from your life? He promises to forgive you, and cleanse you, and help you.
(Let me give you some TIME TO PRAY)
If you did pray a prayer to God this morning, asking for forgiveness, let me encourage you to tell someone – tell me, one of the elders or deacons, or a friend you know is a Christian. Make it real to yourself by speaking it aloud.
 “Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism”, Otto Thelemann, Pg 131
If you recall last week, question 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism told us how a Christians greatest comfort is found in life and in death is found in a relationship with Jesus Christ, and then question 2 asked, ““What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” The answer was three things: “First, how great my sins and misery are; second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.”
Those three things are the outline of the rest of the catechism. The next 127 questions over 51 Sundays are broken down into three words: Guilt, Grace and Gratitude. The argument there is basically: You cannot understand how important the solution is if you don’t really understand the problem.
Have you ever had a car that started making noise, and even though you have no idea what’s wrong, you know something is? I’m sure you have. So you walk into the shop and what’s the first question that they ask you? “What’s wrong with it?” or “What’s it doing?” Which changes the event from a professional encounter between two adults to some sort of sound effects radio drama. “Well, when I drive down the highway, there’s a really loud scream like ‘EEEEEEEE!’ and a sort of rumbly grrrrrrr sound in the back and then when I stop it gets all crunchy and then goes ka-thunk!”
And then, if you have a good mechanic, they go, “Oh, ok. I think I know what that is. Let me take a look.” And then miracle of miracles, you come back in a couple hours and it’s fixed! They say, “Oh, you needed a new fan belt, some brake pads, and your CV joint was damaged.”
That’s kind of what the second question is saying. If you don’t understand your problem, which is the misery of your sin, then you can’t really understand the grace of God or the works of Jesus Christ. You’ll know there’s something wrong. You’ll hear the weird noises of your life – strained relationships, broken promises, debt, anxiety, out of control anger or lust, shame – but unless you understand the problem of sin, you won’t really know how to deal with the problem. You need someone who can interpret the weird noises in your life, explain what’s wrong, and then offer a solution. That’s what the Bible does.
Am I A Sinner?
The questions the Heidelberg Catechism has for us today continue the thought from last week. If the first thing we need to know is “how great my sins and misery are” then the next logical question is say: “From where do you know our sins and misery?” The answer is: “From the Law of God.” Question 4 follows naturally with:
“What does God’s law require of us?”.
Ok, if the Law of God is what shows us our sin, then what does it require? But instead of giving the answer as the 10 Commandments or the hundreds of other laws in the Bible, it quotes what Jesus said when He was asked the same question:
“Christ teaches us this in a summary in Matthew 22: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Question 5 comes next, and it’s one that we likely wouldn’t come up with as our next question, but is critically important to answer:
“Can you keep all this perfectly?”
In other words, “Can any human being perfectly love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, and perfectly love their neighbour as much as they love themselves?” To which the answer, if we’re honest with ourselves, should be “No”, right? The Catechism says,
“No, I am inclined by nature to hate God and my neighbour.”
That’s where some people usually start to argue. They say, “I don’t actually hate my neighbour. I don’t hate anybody! Sure, I’m not perfect in my love for God or others, but I don’t hate anyone…”
Hold that thought for a moment and let me show you a quick video. It does such a good job of explaining it in such a short time that I think it’s better if we just watch it together. It’s from “The Bible Project”, which can be found either on their website or through our Right Now Media subscription.
The LAW is a Mirror
I know that’s a lot to digest, but for today the thing I want you to remember is simply that God’s Law, the Bible, is a mirror. All the rules and expectations that God set through the prophets in the Old Testament, that Jesus taught in the Gospels, and that the Apostles said in the New Testament, are written to be a mirror that reflects the truth back to us.
James 1:22–25 says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”
It’s not one of those mirrors that makes you look bigger or smaller than you really are, it’s not tinted like rose coloured glasses to make things look better, nor is it tinted like dark sunglasses to make everything more gloomy and depressing, it’s just a mirror that simply reflects back the truth.
Have you ever known someone who has said, or perhaps you yourself has said, “That’s why I don’t like to read the bible, it makes me feel guilty.” That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons that the Bible is written. If you are in good standing before God, if you know you are forgiven and are living righteously, then the mirror reflects that back. You see God’s love, patience, kindness, generosity, sacrifice, and how He’s on your side. But if you don’t know where you stand with God, if you still love your sin, if you haven’t asked forgiveness, then the mirror of the Word is going to reflect that, and you’re going to feel guilt, shame, fear, and see God as a judge who hates and condemns you.
That guilt, that shame, that fear of condemnation that you feel, is not a bad thing. It’s not a reason for you to put down the Bible and ignore God and stop praying – it’s supposed to drive you to humility, to admit your wrong, and then to call out to Jesus for salvation and help!
Sin Goes Deep
The book of Romans is divided up just like the Heidelberg Catechism. The first three chapters are about sin, chapters 4-11 are about how we are saved from that sin, and then chapters 12-15 are about how our lives are transformed by that salvation. Guilt, Grace, Gratitude. The whole first section is written so that anyone who reads it understands the universal problem and misery of sin and could not possibly walk away thinking that they are in good standing with God. It shows the picture of how everyone has an immoral, messed up conscience and a broken relationship with our Creator – how deep the problem goes.
Turn to Romans 3 and let’s read starting at the middle of verse 9:
“For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’ ‘Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.’ ‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’ ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’ ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.’ ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’”
Notice how all of those are quotes from the mirror of Old Testament. To our modern ears, which are so used talking about self-esteem and blaming everyone and everything else for our problems, that sounds harsh, but remember what the video said: “Jesus showed that love is far more demanding than we realize…. And that our hearts are not currently equipped to fulfil even the basic command of God.”
In Matthew 5, which the video quotes, Jesus says love isn’t just about not murdering people, it’s about everything we say, do, and think about others when we’re angry – even to the point of forgiving and doing good for our enemies. He says that loving faithfulness to our spouse isn’t just about not committing adultery. That love encompasses is about everything we look at with our eyes and all the things happening in our hearts with every other person we meet. Jesus says that the law of love doesn’t just say, “Keep your promises”, but says that every word you say should be the truth.
James 2:8-10 says something similar,“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. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”
In other words, if you show any partiality towards someone, even once, – because of race, colour, gender, financial status, celebrity level, or personal relationship, you’ve broken the entire Law of God and stand guilty before him. A commentary I read this week said it this way,
“God as the highest good desires to be loved perfectly…. Indifference and lack of love toward Him are only lesser degrees of hatred…. [And] from the same root of sinfulness… arises also that relation toward our neighbor in which we love ourselves more than we love him….” (“Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism”, Otto Thelemann; Pg 124-125)
But, some say, “Can’t non-believers, non-Christians feel love towards people?” That form of love is not a divine love, born of sacrifice and obedience, but a “natural love” that is ultimately for one’s own pleasure and to one’s own advantage – a love that is more about self than the other. That’s why it so easily moves from love to hate. Have you ever known someone who once loved a person but now hates them? At one time they would have argued tooth and nail that their whole heart was for that other person, that they would do anything for them, but now, they won’t speak to them, won’t forgive them, insult them behind their back, and are filled with bitterness that won’t stop. That’s natural love.
The love that is from God doesn’t work like that. The love that we have from God is one that, as 1 Corinthians 13:7 says, “…always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
That’s why, when Romans 3 says, “None is righteous, no, not one…”, it’s exactly right. When we compare the light of God’s love to ours, our love looks like darkness. When we compare our life to God’s Law, we can’t say that we love like Him, our only conclusion must be that we hate Him and hate our neighbour. Why? Because we’ve all lied, and we don’t lie to people we love, we lie to people we don’t like, people we hate. We’ve all preferred someone over someone else, and loving people don’t do that, hateful people do. We’ve all done something with bad, selfish motives, proving that our greatest love is ourselves and not God or others.
When we look into the mirror that is the Law of God, the Bible, the purpose isn’t merely to look at a mirror. That’s one of the dangers of Bible Study or trying to read the Bible in a Year. No one looks at a mirror to see the mirror, they look at it to see themselves. In the same way, when we read the Bible, the Law, the commandments of God, the purpose isn’t merely to learn about them or memorize them – but to have the Spirit of God, through the living and active Word of God, look at us, pierce our soul, and discern the thoughts and intentions of our heart, so we can know our true selves through it. (Hebrews 4:12-13)
So Romans 3:19 continues, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
When we look into the perfect mirror of the Word, it should shut our mouths from all the excuses we give for our bad behaviour and all the ways we try to defend ourselves. It should stop our mouths and make us know that we really are accountable to God. And when we face that knowledge of sin we must tremble. It should cause us to feel fear, guilt, and shame. That’s what it’s supposed to do.
And that fear, guilt, and shame, should drive us to want to do something. When the noise of our broken car gets so bad we can’t stand it, we bring it to the mechanic, right? And so, when, through the reading and hearing of the word, we start to understand and feel the misery of our sin, the sickness of our souls, the damage we have caused, and the judgement of God, it should drive us to want to do something – to be rid of that fear, guilt, and shame. And how do we do that?
We come to Jesus, the one who paid for our sins on the cross.
Look at the next verses in Romans 3:21-26, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
We talked about propitiation last week. It is the removal of wrath by the offering of a gift. Jesus offered His blood for ours, taking God’s wrath which we rightly deserved, so that anyone who has faith in Jesus, who recognizes their sin, hates it, wants to be clean from it, and believes in Jesus alone for that Salvation, could be justified before God.
Once that happens God changes our hearts, cleans us up, and we see ourselves in the mirror very differently. Suddenly instead of being covered in sin and feeling fear, guilt and shame, we see ourselves as cleaned up, redeemed, and the Bible looks like light, guidance, and hope. It’s not the impossible standards of a terrible judge, but the loving words of a kind father who is helping us navigate this life.
Let’s close with the reminder of the story of the Rich Young Ruler found in Matthew 19:16-22.
“And behold, a man came up to him, saying, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’”
Sounds like question 2 from the catechism, doesn’t it? Jesus’ answer sounds a lot like our questions from today.
“And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“How can you attain salvation? Obey every law perfectly. Love God perfectly and love others perfectly.” How does the young man respond?
“The young man said to him, ‘All these I have kept. What do I still lack?’”
“Sure, Jesus, I looked into the mirror of the perfect law, all 613 commandments, and know for a fact I’ve kept every single one of them perfectly. I’m good. I’m a good person.” Jesus had already told him that there’s only one that is good, and the young man probably wasn’t Him, but the young man missed that one. It’s just like a lot of people who think they are “good” and don’t really need salvation, don’t need Jesus, don’t need repentance, don’t need prayer. Maybe that’s you today. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked and asked if they need prayer or help with accountability or with study and they say, “Nah, I’m good.”
And what does Jesus say? He just grabs literally the first commandment. “You shall have no other god’s before me.” (Exo 20:3) Or the first part of his summary, “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.”
Verse 21, “Jesus said to him, ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
That was quick. Did He really love God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength? Nope. He loved money and possessions. Did he really love others, like “the poor”, as much as he loved himself? Nope. He wanted to be rich and giving his riches to the poor would make him equal with them – and even thinking of that made him sad.
The Rich Young Ruler was lying to himself. I implore you not to do that. First, don’t make the mistake of avoiding the Bible because it makes you feel guilty, but second, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you are “good enough for God”. Allow the conviction of scripture to drive you to your knees, drive you to repentance, drive you to beg for God’s grace, to turn to Jesus for mercy, to thank Him for salvation, and to want to live a better, more righteous way.
Most of you know that my family has been going through a tough time lately, but I know we’re not alone. Many people here today are going through difficult, confusing, painful times. It’s been heartening for us, as a church family, to spend time talking to one another about the struggles we’ve been having, and quite interesting that many people seem to be running towards the same place in scripture when they need comfort. A few people have told me how much Psalm 23 has been comforting them lately, and really, throughout their lives.
Please open up to Psalm 23 and let’s read it together:
“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.”
You can see why this is such a powerful and meaningful psalm. It’s because it takes the situation out of our hands and places it in God’s. It’s an admission that we’re not in control, we’re not strong, we’re not smart, we’re not wolves or bears or tigers – we’re sheep and we need to be taken care of.
When we read Psalm 23, we admit all that, and then give it over to God. God lays us down, God restores us, God leads us. God protects us, God comforts us, God conquers, God anoints and heals and serves us.
When do realize our need for the shepherd most though? In the green pastures by the still waters? No. That’s when we end up wandering off, thinking the world is easy.
It is in the Valley of Shadow of Death and the Presence of our Enemies that we really lean into God, when we clutch Him harder, when we realize that we are only sheep – and as our view of God grows, as our nearness to the shepherd grows, the darkness and the enemies no longer seem as big or as dangerous, because the Shepherd is there with us.
Difficult times cause us to think about where we find our comfort and hope, don’t they? I’ve been thinking a lot about comfort and hope lately. Where do I find comfort? What brings me hope? And the truths of my answers have been tested. I might say that I trust the Shepherd, that I believe in prayer, that His Word is my light and guide, that Jesus is my hope – but it’s not until I’m walking in the shadows, surrounded by enemies, that the truth of my heart is revealed.
Where we Turn
When the shadows fall, the enemies surround, the world turns against us, nothing works out, and everything goes out of whack – our relationships, our health, our work – it is natural for us to look for comfort. We want something that will make us feel better. We want something that will calm us down when we are frenzied and anxious, or energize us when we are down and depressed. We want something to repair our soul when it feels bruised and beaten, to take away the pain that we feel in our minds and bodies.
But, more often than not, it is not to our Shepherd that we turn first, is it? Instead, there are many other places we go for comfort. We turn to money, possessions, riches, luxury, financial security. We figure that if we have enough money or stuff, then we’ll feel better. If we get the nicer phone, nicer car, nicer tv, nicer food, nicer vacation, nicer tools, nicer house, that we will feel better. And that’s what ads sell us – buy this and feel better about yourself, your relationships, your future, your past, your present. We think that if we get enough piles of money then nothing can hurt us. Banks try to sell us that. Financial security equals comfort.
Or we turn to exercise and medicine. We work on our bodies, eat right, exercise, drink lots of water, take vitamins, go to the doctor to get pills to balance our hormones and body chemicals, thinking that if we can be super healthy and perfectly juiced, then we will no longer have fears or pain. We will be strong enough to fight off sickness and enemies, we will be beautiful and therefore popular, we will be able to run away from danger or save people we love, and most of all, we will live forever. Pursuing bodily health isn’t bad, but the motives behind it aren’t always good – sometimes it’s driven by fear and the desire for more comfort than it can provide.
Some people turn to stubbornness and control. Psalm 2:1-3 says,
“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’”
They think that controlling all aspects of their life, and everyone else’s, will bring them comfort. All they need is the perfect plan, the perfect calendar, the perfect to do list, and for everyone to simply do everything they are told, and then everyone will be happy. If we write enough laws and rules everyone will be content. If we buckle down hard enough, dig in our heels hard enough, grit our teeth hard enough, then we can take control of our world and bend it to our wills, and then we will all find peace. It’s a lie we tell ourselves all the time.
Some turn to other people as their source of comfort. They believe that politicians, scientists, religious gurus, celebrities, their spouse, their kids, their friends, or their community group is going to save them. Those people are all they talk about, and their entire hope is in them and their plans. And when they inevitably fall, it’s utterly devastating – but instead of learning from their mistake, they simply find another flawed human being to put their hopes in. These people, no matter how bright they are, aren’t solid foundations, but are as Jude 12-13 says,
“These are hidden reefs… shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.”
Others turn to worldly pleasure, distractions, entertainment, food, pornography, drunkenness, and drugs. Life is hard, everything is out of control, our emotions are a mess, our thinking isn’t helping, and there is no way to fix any of it – so why bother? Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. Our culture is built on this concept and it’s destroying the foundations of our society. We are literally entertaining and distracting ourselves to death. Pharmaceutical companies sell pills that have nothing to do with health, but simply treat bad feelings. Stores have more entertainment food than actual food. While teens die of fentanyl overdoses and the media declares an opioid crisis, the Canadian government legalizes marijuana so that more people can get high. Our culture is obsessed with non-marital, no-commitment, purely animalistic sex – even though sexually transmitted diseases are growing in record numbers. And they’ve created phone apps to assist their hook-up culture to be more efficient. And the government has made sure that there are no laws against abortion so that no one accidentally has a baby and a family as a consequence.
Our modern, Canadian, culture is built on the concept of “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” and it’s destroying our bodies and our souls.
Our Only Comfort
The first two questions of The Heidelberg Catechism address this very issue – the issue of comfort. They are a summary of the rest of the catechism and start with the most important question: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” Christian, what do you turn to when you face the valley of the shadow of death, when you surrounded by enemies? Christian, what do you hold as the source of your greatest hope, knowing everything else is going to let you down, your celebrities, your chemicals, your doctor, your exercise, your body, your friends, your riches, your security, is all going to fall apart – so what is the one comfort, the one thing that won’t fall apart in this world or the next? What comfort will give you an anchor through all the storms of this life and never leave you, even after you die? What thought, what truth, can you build the entire foundation of your life on that will never shift, shake or move?
“That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
Though this is not a quote from the Bible, each line is very biblical, and you can see some of the verses in the footnotes I provided on your handout. It breaks down into four great comforts.
I Am Not My Own
Perhaps the worst feeling we can have is loneliness. We can go through a lot of difficult things if we know that someone has our back. We can face injustice and fear, insurmountable odds, and terrible dangers, if we know someone is on our side. But when we feel alone, our strength fades quickly. A Christian’s first comfort is that we are not our own, but belong to someone – to Jesus.
1 Corinthians 6:19-10 says, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.”
Titus 2:13-14 says, “…our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession…”
The word “redeemed” means “to be bought back”. We were slaves to sin, slaves to Satan, captured and enslaved by death, and Jesus loved us so much that He bought us from our slave owners at a great price. He traded Himself for us so that we could be His.
A Christians’ comfort comes from the knowledge that we are not our own, we are not alone, Jesus bought us because He wants us to be with Him. God is not against us, God is for us, because we belong to Him. So He does for us what we would do if we bought something precious. We would clean it up, protect it, cherish it, display it so others can see it, and use it as a way to show off.
That’s what Jesus does with us. He takes our spiritually dead body out of the muck of sin, restores us to life, cleans us up, gives us new clothes, new armour, and then helps us to become something that He uses to show His glory off. When people look at us they think, “Wow, that person is so different! They know Jesus and look at them! Jesus must really be someone special!”
Payment for Sin
Our second comfort comes in that our sins are perfectly and totally forgiven. Not some, not most, not just the past ones – all of our sins forever were placed on Jesus as He hung on the cross and took the wrath of God against them. 1 John 2:1-2 says,
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Propitiation means “the removal of wrath by the offering of a gift”. To do wrong, to break the law, means to incur judgement and wrath. The only thing that appeases the wrath of God our Judge against for the wrong we’ve done is punishment and death. Romans 6:23 says “the wages of sin is death”. Jesus offered Himself to pay that wage so we wouldn’t have to. He substituted Himself for us. He assumed our obligations and all the wrath God had against sin was poured out on Him instead of us. And therefore all our sins are dealt with. Martin Luther called it “The Great Exchange”.
Therefore, when we think that God is punishing us is wrong. To believe we need more punishment is to take away from what Jesus did on the cross. To try to punish others for their wrong is to say that Jesus didn’t suffer enough. To think that God is holding our sins against us is to say that God didn’t accept Jesus’ sacrifice. To try to impress God with good works or religion is to say that what Jesus did in His life and on the cross wasn’t good enough.
One of our greatest comforts, especially when Satan is telling us that God hates us, that He’ll never restore us, that He has had enough of us, is to remember that our sins are fully paid for by Jesus – all of them – and we have been set free. There is no longer anything separating us from God, and nothing we must do in order to make ourselves worthy of it, and anyone who says differently is a liar. All that must be done is to accept Jesus’ sacrifice on your behalf. He has done everything necessary for our salvation and there is nothing standing between you and God’s forgiveness except yourself, your pride, and your false notions.
Our third comfort comes in that we are protected, or preserved.
2 Thessalonians 3:3 says, “But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one.”
And Romans 8:28, when talking about the trials of life says, “…we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Psalm 18 begins, “I love you, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies.”
So, we are not our own, we were bought with a price by the blood of Jesus, and therefore He is the one who preserves and protects us. He is God and that means that everything that happens, whether we think it’s good or bad or otherwise, happens because He allows it to happen – and there is nothing that anyone can do that is beyond His control.
We read stories like Joseph being sold into slavery and put in prison, or Daniel being set up by his enemies and thrown into a lion’s den, or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refusing to bow to an idol and then thrown into a fiery furnace, all the difficulty and pain Paul faced on his missionary journeys, and of course all the sorrow and rejection Jesus faced – and we are reminded that even though things get very difficult, everything happened for a reason and brought fruit for God’s people to bring God more glory.
God has the power to preserve us from any danger that will come – the power to get us through any trial that we are currently facing – and the power to turn even the worst parts of our lives into victories for Him. There are so many stories of people who go through hard times or have been in really bad places, but realize after they turn to God and start to trust Him, that He used it all for so much good. There is great comfort knowing that everything that happens to us will be used by God to help us grow stronger, more faithful, to grow His Kingdom, and to bring Him glory. No valley, no matter how dark – no enemy, no matter how strong – will not be overcome, turned into light, and used by God if we trust Him with it.
And the fourth comfort we see in question one is our assurance.
2 Corinthians 1:20-22 says, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him [that is Jesus]. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory. And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.”
Since our salvation is not something we can buy or get by good deeds, it is therefore not something we can lose. Since Jesus establishes it, it is firmly established and unable to move. On the cross Jesus said, “It is finished!” (Jn 19:30) on the cross and is called the “Amen” in Rev 3:14. Here we see that our salvation is an “Amen” too, an “it is so”, a total completion. We are anointed, sealed, and guaranteed, not by our own actions or our own strength – but by the Spirit of God. There is no way we can lose our salvation, no way God will turn His back on us, no one that can ever take it from us, and nothing we can do to remove ourselves from His hand. I recommend you read Romans 8 for more about this.
This is where our eternal comfort lies – in that Jesus loves us, died for us, protects and preserves us, uses everything to help us, and will never, ever, ever leave us, even unto death.
Nothing we try, and no one else, can or will give us that kind of comfort. There is no amount of money that gives us that kind of hope, no chemical that gives that kind of joy, no human being that gives us that kind of promise, which is why Christians turn to Jesus. He is the only and best comfort in life and in death.
Guilt, Grace and Gratitude
And now look at question 2: “What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” How do I get access to this type of assurance, this hope, this comfort? The answer is a summary of the rest of the catechism. Some have broken it up into 3 simple words that you need to know: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. What must I know?
“First, how great my sins and misery are; second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.”
This is what we’re going to be talking about for the next year or so. First, we must understand our guilt. The Bible says that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6) If we think we are going the right way, we’ll never ask for directions. If we think we’re healthy, we’ll never ask for a doctor. We will not ask for forgiveness unless we know we are guilty. We need to realize how deep our sin problem really is.
Once we confess ourselves a miserable sinner, we then need to know how to be delivered from those sins. The simple answer, as I’ve been saying, is to confess your sins to Jesus and to believe that He died for your sins and rose again to prove He has conquered them. There’s a lot to know about that – and we’ll cover it in the coming months – but that simple truth is where everything starts. Will you admit that you are a sinner and trust that Jesus did everything to pay for your sins so that the wrath of God against you could be appeased?
And third, once we have realized our guilt and accepted forgiveness, the natural thing to do is to give thanks. Such an awesome truth should change our lives. Every kindness we receive deserves gratitude, right? Someone does something nice, we feel like we want to say thank you and do something nice back. If we go to the doctor, we pay for his services. So, even though we’ll never be able to pay Jesus back, how much more should our lives be changed by the knowledge of our salvation. We were headed to an eternity in Hell, now we are invited to an eternity with God. Our response should be a godly life of thanksgiving that honours Him, right?
This is what we’ll be talking about over the next while – the problem of sin, the solution to the problem in Jesus, and how our lives should change as a result.
Please open up with me to 1 Timothy 4:6-16 and let’s read it together.
What we are about to read are the words of the Apostle Paul written either from prison, or right after he had been released from prison, and was writing in order to counsel his young co-worker Timothy about some of the issues that were arising in the church in Ephesus and how to deal with them – especially the false teachers. Paul tells Timothy that true Christianity is evidenced by a lifestyle that is shaped by the gospel – and that corrupt doctrine is corrupted Christianity and will be evidenced by a corrupt life.
The letter up until this point has been covering a bunch of theological and practical issues in the church, has addressed some of the lies that the false teachers have been spreading, and now, we read these words. Let’s read it together:
“If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.
Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
If you recall a couple of weeks ago I talked about Timid Timothy, Paul’s co-worker and God’s obedient, but pretty roughed up soldier, sent into the toughest areas to help the church. Paul would plant a church and then move on, the church would end up in some kind of trouble, and then Paul would send Timothy to help them get things straight. Even though Timothy was young, timid, and stressed out, he was also obedient and godly. He when where God wanted him and preached what God wanted him to say.
How though? How did Timid Timothy stay strong in the face of false teachers, church factions, violent mobs, and utter confusion? How did he stay uncorrupted when faced with so many lies, rumours, divisions, hurt and anger? We see how in this passage. He stood firm on the gospel. Paul’s command here to Timothy, which is also God’s command to all churches, is to keep it simple and stand on the foundation of biblical truth. Timid Timothy held tight to his doctrine and it was his strength. His opponents weren’t fighting him, they were fighting God.
The word doctrine is all over the section we just read, though it’s translated “teaching” sometimes. Paul says in verse 6 that Timothy was trained in “good doctrine” and then in verse 11 tells him to “command and teach” that doctrine to others. Verse 13 says to keep reading the scripture in public and to keep teaching its doctrines. And then, in verse 16 he says, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching [that word means “the doctrines”]. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
How could young Timothy help to save these hurting, messed up, false teacher infected churches? By keeping a very close watch on his personal behaviour (so he didn’t disqualify himself) and his doctrines.
The word “doctrine” itself simply means, “authoritative teaching”, and in the New Testament it’s used to describe the standard, orthodox teachings given in the Old Testament, by Jesus, and through His apostles. It’s shorthand for “The right teaching of God’s Word.”
In Mark 7:6-8 Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
In Romans, a book full of theological teaching, Paul says in his final greetings 16:17, “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.”
In the qualifications of the elders given to another co-worker of Paul’s, a young man named Titus, it says that an elder in the church must “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Titus 1:9).
Why? Because it is by the persisting in good doctrine, right teaching, right theology, right understanding of the Word of God that both themselves and their hearers would be saved.
Necessary Controversy in the Church
“But!”, I hear some people saying, “People aren’t saved by doctrine! They are saved by Jesus! We don’t need a bunch of doctrinal statements, theological arguments, and catechetical documents – we just need Jesus! Doctrine is for those hyper Calvinist and fundamentalist guys who hate and judge everything and everyone. Loving people don’t argue about doctrine.”
A lot of people hate the very idea of studying theology and doctrine because all they see are a bunch of excuses to nit-pick and argue. “The gospel is simple”, they say, “just believe in Jesus and you’ll be saved! Why complicate it with a bunch of other boring and hurtful stuff that just causes church splits and arguments?”
In a sense, I can see their point. I’ve studied a bit of church history and I’ve been part of a few churches in my time, which means I’ve seen a lot of really bad stuff come from fights about theology. And for sure, it’s terrible when Christians fight. It not only makes us look bad, but it doesn’t bring glory to God. We read Acts 2 and Acts 4 and wonder why we can’t be more like that. United under God, fellowshipping in each other’s homes, “of one heart and soul”. And I wish that were true, but the history of the church, even in the New Testament isn’t one of continuous, blissful, uninterrupted unity – it’s a continuous battle against division.
Just consider the letter to 1 Corinthians we just studied. They were split over everything! Which apostle was better, sexual morality, what to eat, what to wear… everything. Every letter sent to the churches in the New Testament deals with a problem where Christians were dividing over some issue or another.
But here’s the thing. Even though Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:10, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” he says later in chapter 11:19, “for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”
In other words, in God’s divine direction for the church, He has allowed and even ordained that there be controversies and arguments in order that the quality of each person’s spiritual life. Controversies, times where there are differences of opinion and disunity in direction, are a way for God to “test and approve” his church. It sounds weird, but controversy is actually necessary for a healthy church. You can know the quality of a person’s faith better, and your own, by how we face controversy. You can tell who is pursuing right theology and good doctrine by being forced to clarify it and argue for it. You can tell who is cut out for leadership, and who is just a poser, by seeing how they face controversy. You can see which people are genuinely in love with God and His church, and which are just along for the ride, by seeing what happens when controversy arises. And often in the church, those controversies are doctrinal.
That’s why the scripture commands us to “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the [doctrines]. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” Right doctrine is the difference between worshipping the right God and the wrong one, trusting the right Jesus or the wrong one, having confidence in your salvation or not. Right doctrine, a right understanding of God, is the difference between being able to passionately worship the one, true, God for all He is and what He’s done or just going through a bunch of religious motions because it makes you happy or you think you’re supposed to. It’s the difference between having a church that honours and preaches God’s wisdom that saves and inspires or honours and preaches man’s wisdom that condemns and ensnares. Right doctrine is the difference between raising up children that are actually Christian, actually faithful, actually able to know what they believe and why, or are just a bunch of good, religious hypocrites who have no true foundation and will fall away when left to themselves. Seeing God rightly helps us fear God, pursue righteousness, mortify sin, and do what we can to be in right relationship with Him and others. Right doctrine is the strength of the Christian church, of the Christian family, of the individual believer. Without good doctrine, we lose our way.
As Bad as it Gets
There was likely never a time when the church had lost their way worse than right before the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The church and almost all of Christendom was an absolute mess because so much false teaching and bad doctrine had taken over the church.
I won’t get into all the ways the Roman Catholic Church had corrupted the gospel, but the worse way was perhaps something called “indulgences”. It was, in short, a way for the church to sell people forgiveness. The pope was spending money faster than it could come in and needed to make lots of money fast, and came up with the idea that the church could grant people forgiveness for certain sins, even in advance, even for people who were dead, if they would give the church some money.
Church representatives would go from town to town selling indulgences to poor people, telling them that if they contributed to the church that their dead parent could get out of purgatory, and that it was their fault if they let their family member suffer. They would go to rich people and say, if you want to sin, just give us some money and we’ll make sure it’s ok with God. It was an absolute corruption.
My favourite story of this was when one of the most famous indulgence sellers, a man named Tetzel, was found by a nobleman named Hans von Hake who asked if he could buy an indulgence for a big sin he would be committing in the future. Tetzel asked for a bunch of money and then gave him the receipt which said that the church would forgive him for whatever he did.
Hans then waited until Tetzel was headed out of town, attacked him, and stole all of the money Tetzel had collected. When Tetzel became angry and started to threaten him with the torment of purgatory if he didn’t give the money back, Hans just waved his receipt in his face and said that this was the big sin he was planning to commit, so it was already forgiven!
That’s how big of a mess the church was in. That’s what the church was teaching and no one knew any better because almost no one had access to the Bible – and those given the task of preaching and teaching it, even in the seminaries and universities, didn’t bother to read it either. All that mattered was what the pope had said was true. But for a few exceptions, the Bible was all-but forgotten in the Christian church. In other words, (and though this is an oversimplification) no one was watching the faith and the doctrines closely – and it had led to moral chaos.
Most of you know what happens next because we just celebrated it last October. A bright, young monk named Martin Luther comes on the scene, starts to study the Bible, posts 95 problems he has with the church that he’d like to discuss – especially indulgences –that document is printed on the fairly new Gutenberg press and it’s sent all over the place, and it sparks the Protestant Reformation.
Zacharias Bär (Ursinus)
We know lots about Luther and Calvin and Wycliffe and the other fathers of the Reformation, but someone else that was incredibly influential during that time period, that a lot of people don’t know about, was a man named Zacharias Bär, later known as Ursinus. [Telling Ursinus’ story, for me, is extraordinarily complicated because God was doing so very much during that time, in so many places, but I’ll do my best.]
Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation by nailing the 95 Thesis to the Wittenberg Castle Door in Germany in 1517. He worked for 30 years, writing, defending, travelling, pastoring, and teaching the Bible all over Germany, sending his writings all over the world, dying in 1546. John Calvin, another giant of the Reformation was born in France 1509, became a Protestant in 1533, partly due to Luther’s influence, and published the first edition of his masterwork, the Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1538, something he would work on all his life until he died in 1564. [There were so many other important figures at this time, but let me stick to just those two giants.]
There are two main periods at the beginning of the Reformation: this first generation of Luther and Calvin where they plowed the dry, stony ground the church had become, tilled up the land so God’s healing rain could be accepted and make the land fertile again. It was these men that scattered the seeds of gospel truth onto this newly productive land, sprouting churches and new hope in Jesus all over the place.
When they died, a second generation took up the work of the first, but their task wasn’t to plant the seed, but to guard the ripening harvest and plucking out all the weeds that were growing that wanted to choke out the new growth. It is to the second period that Ursinus belongs.
Zacharias Ursinus was born Zacharias Bär in Breslau, Germany in 1534. He grew up poor, but showed an amazing aptitude for learning and was sponsored by a rich doctor to go to university in Wittenberg in 1550, when he was barely 16 years old. That was just 4 years after Luther died.
After reading about him for a while, I think I can safely say he was a lot like Timothy. Both were very young and timid, but bright and faithful. Both were chosen by an older, greater man, and thrust into the world to do great things. Both served memorably and courageously, even despite their natural predilection towards meekness. He studied under a man named Philip Melanchthon, a famous friend of Luther’s and staunch defender of the Reformation. Melanchthon became like a father to young Ursinus and brought him all over the Reformed world. At age 21 he went to a church conference in the city of Worms, one of the most famous places in Luther’s career, and was sent off from there with a glowing letter of recommendation to study under the greatest teachers in Germany, Switzerland, and France for a few years.
He met the biggest names in the Reformed world, even John Calvin himself, receiving a free gift of the copy of all his works, including the newly completed Institutes that Calvin had been working on for 23 years!
While Ursinus was traveling and learning, some difficult things were happening back in Germany. A man named Otto Henry, an Elector Palatine, a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire in one of the most important, most influential positions in the world, died in 1559, after only 3 years. Otto had been one of the key figures that had moved away from the Roman Catholic church and allowed Reformed thinkers and Protestant parties to hold some seats of power and influence in politics and the universities. But though he was a follower of Luther, and even had Melanchthon as an advisor, he was also a fence sitter who didn’t want to get into theological arguments, even trying to keep contacts with Catholicism to avoid conflict.
When Otto Henry died, Frederick III came into power. Frederick was no fence sitter. Even though he was born Catholic, he married a Lutheran woman who converted him to Christianity. As he studied, he became more and more reformed minded and eventually became convinced of the teachings of Calvin.
As he took up Otto’s important position, he took it as his main task to unite the varied protestant groups and sects that were under his rule. He wanted his people united, the church united, the theology and doctrines gone through, and everyone to be on the same theological page. And so he turned to the faculty of the University of Heidelberg to help him out.
He wanted some big names. Otto had asked Melanchthon to lead the University of Heidelberg, but he said no. Now Frederick wanted another big name, the renowned Peter Martyr Vermigli, who taught at the University of Zurich. Vermigli said he was too old and would, in fact, die only a couple years later. But he had an idea. He had recently met a young man, only 26 years old, that loved God, knew God’s Word and Reformed theology in and out, and was eager to learn and serve the church in whatever way he could. His name was Zacharias Ursinus.
And so, in 1561, at age 27, Ursinus moved to Heidelberg to work as the superintendent of a preacher’s seminary inside the University. He was to become one of the pillars of the Reformation. It is not an understatement to say that Ursinus was being asked to become the John Calvin of Heidelberg – an incredibly daunting and dangerous task.
But how would Frederick and Ursinus unite such a divided group of believers? The Protestant Reformation was still new. Luther had only been dead for 14 years. The ink was still wet on Calvin’s Institutes. Most people had only had the Bible in their own language for less than 30 years, and there were a LOT of ideas coming from all directions.
The more they studied, the more they realized was wrong with the Catholic Church, even the most basic parts like the Lord’s Supper. What even was it? Did it magically turn into Jesus’ actual body and actual blood when the priest blessed it? Or was it just a symbol? If you missed taking it could you be forgiven? Who could take it? How often? In some Catholic churches, the bread and wine were considered so holy that common people weren’t even allowed to touch it – they could only look at it on the way by and then the priest would eat it. And in some cities, when the Protestants invited people for the Lord’s Supper, people fainted when they touched the bread, riots broke out, churches and priests were hunted down and killed.
How would Frederick and young Ursinus bring all this together? The answer came from the scriptures and from Luther. They would hold onto the doctrines, they would command and teach the doctrines, and they would watch their lives and their doctrines closely. They would persist in it, for by doing so they would save both themselves and their hearers.
Luther said it this way when speaking about the use of force to try to make people convert to Christianity or change their theology: “In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no one by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take me as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise, I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”
The Heidelberg Catechism
And so, they would teach the word to people, especially the youth. Before Frederick came to power the young people were either neglected or were being miss-taught by individual pastors who were just making things up as best they could. What they needed was a catechism, a positive and uniform training in the Christian faith that would state the doctrines clearly and comprehensively.
It wouldn’t be a document for dusty theologians and arguing university professors, it would be one that the young, the novice, the unlearned, the preacher and the schoolmasters could read, understand, and use as a rule to go by in their private learning, schooling, and church instructions. It wouldn’t be something brand new but would use the best of the existing catechisms and teachings of the church, from the Apostles Creed written in 390 AD to what John Calvin had written only a few years before. It would be divided up into three simple, logical sections: The problem of sin, the way man is saved, and how we should thank God for that salvation. And though it would have 129 questions and answers, it would be broken down into 52 sections so pastors and teachers could complete it in just one year. And in those divisions, it would use the words of the Bible, the teachings of Jesus, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s prayer. There would be a shorter one for easy study and a longer one with hundreds of notes and commentary – and then years later an even longer version with even more notes and commentary.
It wouldn’t just be a textbook but would be a beautifully stated theology, a personal confession of faith. It would be personal because unlike many other catechisms that came before and would come after, Ursinus’ Heidelberg Catechism would be written in the first person.
Let me read you the first question: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” And the answer: “That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
There is a beauty there, and power. We’re going to talk about that question this week, but what I really want you to walk away with this morning is the vitality and necessity of good doctrine, right theology, teaching and being trained in the Word of God, and what a gift it is to live in an age where we are overwhelmingly blessed with resources and good teaching.
And I want you to commit yourself to doing what 1 Timothy 4:16 says, to “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the doctrines.” as we study it together.
 Introduction to 1st Timothy: ESV Study Bible
 Luther, M., 2012. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Third Ed. Eds. T.F. Lull and W.R. Russell, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, pp.293-294.
 A lot of this is from Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, translated by Re. G.W. Williard, 2004, intro “Zacharias Ursinus and the Heidelberg Catechism
I’ve said a few times over the past years that one of the driving thoughts behind my life and ministry is that there is great comfort in good theology. I believe that with every fibre of my being and it informs every part of how I conduct myself as not only a pastor and teacher but a counsellor, father, husband, and friend. I honestly don’t believe that I myself am smart enough, clever enough, compassionate enough, wise enough, or experienced enough to be of much help to anyone on my own and therefore I do my best to point people to One who is greater than me. But to do that requires that I know Him, right?
What occurred to me this week was that the inverse of my little statement is also true. While there is great comfort in good theology, there is great discomfort in bad theology or theological chaos.
In Matthew 5-7 we read what we call the Sermon on the Mount, and in it Jesus covers a lot of ground. He teaches the Beatitudes where we encounter the upside down kingdom where the meek, the mourning, and the persecuted are in fact, blessed. He speaks of His mission to fulfill the Law of Moses and how His followers will conduct themselves in regards to it by teaching on God’s view of anger, lust, divorce, promises, revenge, money, prayer, worry, relationships, love, fruitful living, and salvation. And then at the end, in Matthew 7:24-27 Jesus gives this illustration:
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
That’s a powerful claim. Not only that the words of Jesus are sufficient to be the foundation of one’s entire life, but that anyone built on any other words are fools who will fall apart – and the next verses say as much. It says in verse 28,
“And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”
The scribes hemmed and hawed about what they were teaching, quoting various rabbis, footnoting everything they said, distancing themselves from the Word of God. Jesus spoke with divine, declarative authority. The message from Jesus was simple, as He declared more succinctly to his closest followers during His final hours in the upper room: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
In fact, Jesus says those kinds of declarative statements all throughout the Gospel of John. In John 6 He says, “I am the bread of life”, without whom, you’ll starve. In John 8 He says, “I am the light of the world”, without whom you will walk in darkness. In John 10 He says, “I am the door”, and if you don’t enter by me, you can’t be saved. In John 11 He says, “I am the resurrection and the life”, the only one with the power to raise the dead, and without whom you will be in everlasting death.
These are the declarative statements of a person who knows that He is the only way anyone can be saved. Who knows His way is the only one in which people can find real, lasting, eternal comfort. Who knows His message is the most important message that has ever or will ever be given, and that believing or disbelieving Him is the most important decision anyone will ever make. He wasn’t wishy-washy, He didn’t beat around the bush, He didn’t leave it open to interpretation, He was absolutely crystal clear: If you build your life on the foundation of me and my teachings, then when the floods and destruction of life comes, when chaos comes, when tragedy comes, when death comes, you will still live – if you don’t you’ll be destroyed.
That’s the message of Jesus, of the Apostles, and of the church for thousands of years. We preach Jesus, teach Jesus, proclaim Jesus, worship Jesus, pray to Jesus, and listen to Jesus. No one else.
A Constant Battle for Right Theology
But, in each generation there are always people who want to argue about it. There are always those who dispute and teach false doctrines about God. It has been this way for all time. When Satan challenged Eve, He didn’t just point at the fruit and say, “Wow, doesn’t that look good.” He challenged the Word of God. How did Satan begin the dialogue with Eve?
“He said to the woman, ‘Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?’” (Gen 3:1)
That’s a theological argument about the word of God, a twisting of it, and it required a defence. Then it says,
“And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’’” (Gen 3:2-3)”
What does Satan do then? He calls God’s character into question.
“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Gen 3:4-5)”
These are all theological arguments. What did God say? What is God like? What will God do? How will God respond? Can God be trusted? What does God really mean when He says…
And that’s how it’s been for all time. God makes a declarative statement, Satan or one of his agents twists the statement, calls God’s Word or character into question, and then tempts the believer to go another way. Then God raises up a prophet, a priest, a teacher, a missionary, a preacher, to declare the truth again and give the king, the people, the nation, the church a choice. Who will you believe?
We see this in Elijah and the Prophets of Baal. The king, due in large part to his pagan wife Jezebel, had lead him and most of the nation to turn away from God and worship demons named Baal and Asherah. Elijah proposed a contest where he and the false prophets would each create separate altars, pray for fire to come from heaven, and see who answers.
The false prophets prayed and danced and cut themselves all day long, but got nothing. And then it says this in 1 Kings 18 that Elijah called all the people together, soaked the altar with buckets and buckets of water, and then prayed,
“And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, ‘O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.’” (1 Kings 18:36–37)
The issue was theological. Who is the real God? What had God said? Who is God’s true servant who declares truth? What would God do? Why were the king and the people wrong and Elijah right?
And so it continues throughout history. Prophet after prophet calling the people back to the One, True God. Then Jesus comes and is constantly confronted with theological arguments by the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes – experts in the Bible, the Prophets, the Traditions, and the Law. Their truth claims versus His. Then Jesus establishes His church, and it takes all of 15 minutes for false teachers start to corrupt the apostle’s teachings. Paul would preach how Jesus is the Messiah foretold in the Jewish scriptures (which we call the Old Testament), how Jesus saves people by grace, and what Jesus expects of us – and then he’d leave to go plant another church and someone would come in and start teaching something else. They’d teach that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, that Jesus was just a good man, that the people needed to follow the Law of Moses and be circumcised, or that because Jesus saved them from all their sin it didn’t matter how they lived and they sin however they want.
Acts 17:10–13 gives a great summary of how this worked. It says,
“The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds.”
So here you have a great summary of Paul’s life. He would go somewhere to preach or plant a church, in this case, Berea. He would teach Jesus from the Old Testament in a local synagogue and see how they responded. Most of the time he was kicked out, but in Berea, they actually listened and then examined the Bibles to see if Paul’s theology and doctrine were right or not. As they studied the Bible their hearts were moved and a lot of people got saved. But as soon as that happened, as soon as good theology was declared, a group would rise up against it. This group would pull out all the stops to keep Paul from preaching. They would argue, mock, threaten, and lie to the local authorities to stop Paul from preaching about Jesus. Then Paul would either get beaten and locked up, or beaten and run out of town, and would then have to either write a letter, send another teacher, or wait until the heat died down to return.
Why was it so important that Paul come back though? Why not just cut his losses and try somewhere else? Because he knew that the only real source of comfort and joy and hope was Jesus. He knew that those who had decided to trust Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord were believing lies about Him. That meant their worship was corrupted, their leaders were corrupt, their church practices were becoming corrupt, and the message they were declaring to their neighbours wasn’t one that would save, but would ensnare. There is great comfort in good theology and there is great discomfort in theological chaos. And they were in chaos.
So Paul would come back and untwist all the bad theology, false doctrine, and harmful practices that had gotten into that church. In other words, He would call them back to their foundation in Jesus, call them back to the truth, back to good theology and doctrine.
We Must Teach
How would he do this? Through teaching. In Deuteronomy 11:18–28, as God is giving His Law, He says to the people of Israel,
“You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth. For if you will be careful to do all this commandment that I command you to do, loving the LORD your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him, then the LORD will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations greater and mightier than you. Every place on which the sole of your foot treads shall be yours. Your territory shall be from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River, the river Euphrates, to the western sea. No one shall be able to stand against you. The LORD your God will lay the fear of you and the dread of you on all the land that you shall tread, as he promised you. See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you today, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside from the way that I am commanding you today, to go after other gods that you have not known.”
You see how seriously God takes the teaching, understanding, and application of His Word, right? Teach your kids, remind yourselves, talk about this, because it is only when you are standing on the foundation of my word that you will see victory and blessing – and it is when you forget to teach it, lose my Words, and fall away that you will feel the curse. And so, the command is to teach and keep teaching.
In the New Testament there are two main words used for teaching: DIDASKO and KATECHEO. DIDASKO is the word for the authoritative teaching of doctrine, the declaring of divine truths, the Word of God. Jesus DIDASKO the people. Then Peter and the Apostles DIDASKO the church under the authority of Jesus.
But then, later in the New Testament a different word is used. It’s the word KATECHEO, from where we get our word Catechism. This word is different. It’s still teaching, but it’s not declarative – it’s the passing along of information. It’s repeating what’s already written down. It’s used when someone is reciting prepared lines on a stage or when an apprentice is being taught how to do something.
We don’t DIDASKO our children or congregations. We don’t declare divine truths with the authority of Jesus. We KATECHEO, we pass along what Jesus has already declared. We teach it in ways that the listener can understand. We explain the words one by one, we use examples and illustrations and personal stories to convey the doctrine in a way that all ages can understand. We teach the 4 year old, the 40 year old, and the 90 year old, about Jesus and the cross, but we do it using different words so they will understand.
Catechism For Comfort
This is something many modern churches have gotten away from – we no longer teach people the doctrines of the Christian faith. We live in a theologically illiterate age – people don’t know God or the Bible. According to one study in 2013 half of Canadian Christians believe the Bible has irreconcilable contradictions. Only 1 23% of Christian Canadians believe the bible is relevant to modern life. 64% of Canadian Christians believe that all the major world religions teach the same thing. Only 14% of Canadian Christians read their bibles at least once per week, and only 11% of Canadian Christians talk about the Bible outside of Sunday services.
And if I’m right that there is great comfort in good theology, and great discomfort in theological chaos, then that would explain why so many people, so many Christians, are in such a bad way – they neither know God, nor His goodness, nor His plan. They don’t know if they are saved, what God thinks of them, how to pray, why to pray, or if God is even listening. They don’t know how to conduct themselves when they are wronged, how to hold together a marriage, how to face suffering, what their life purpose is, or how to find it. Even among people who have called themselves believers for decades, there is very little true comfort and Christian hope, because there is very little knowledge of God. And it shows in generations of people who are increasingly spiritual lost, deeply anxious, more and more addicted and drowning in hopelessness. People are abandoning the faith because they do not know or understand the foundations of what they are supposed to believe.
This is why we must teach. And I’m not talking about Bible Trivia. I’m talking about the foundations of Christian hope. When your friends let you down, your spouse is hurting, your children leave, where will you turn? When you face suffering, loss, and death, how will you find meaning? When you are surrounded by bad news, spin, lies, and corruption, how do you know that things are going to work out? If you are stuck in habitual sin, continuously breaking God’s law, constantly feel guilty and ashamed, afraid of judgment, do you know whether or not God will forgive you? When are in need of guidance, purpose, resources, do you know what kinds of prayers God answers? If God isn’t answering your prayers, do you know why? What about your reason for living? Do you know why you are here? If you know these things, you may have comfort, if you do not, you will be in chaos.
When your child, your friend, your brother or sister, turns to you and says “why?” – “Why is this happening? Why should I trust God? Why shouldn’t I believe God hates me? Why should I get up in the morning? Why does the world feel so out of control? Why should I keep living? Why should I bother praying, reading the Bible, or going to church? Why don’t I feel any comfort from God?” What will you say?
Most don’t have an answer because they themselves have never been taught. Children turning to mom and dad and grandma and grandpa and asking huge questions about life, faith, suffering, eternity, relationships, morality – and they get trite, simplistic, and wrong answers. They come and ask for advice and the best that mom and dad and grandma and grandpa can do is say, “Maybe you should go to the doctor. Maybe you should see a psychiatrist. Maybe you should just quit or try harder.” Or worse, “Do whatever your heart feels is right. I just want you to be happy.” That is an invitation to disaster.
This is why we must teach, this is why we must teach, why we must catechize.
Heidelberg Next Week
So, next week we will be starting a one year series on the Heidelberg Catechism. I want everyone here to have the tools to be able to not only answer big questions for others but to be able to grasp how high and wide and deep is the love of God, and be firmly established in the Word of God. I want you to know what you believe, why you believe it, and why it should bring you comfort.
When I’m in my darkest places, at my most desperate moments, feeling like the waves are rising, the waters crashing, the darkness looming – I turn to Jesus. And then Satan attacks, asking me if I really believe all this nonsense, if Jesus is really real, if God really cares… and the only defence I have is the Word of God, the Doctrines of God, the Theology of God. And they bring me comfort because they re-establish me on the foundation of Christ.
I want that for you as your pastor. As Colossians 2:7-8 says, I want you to be “rooted and built up in [Jesus] and established in the faith…” not “[taken] captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”
That’s what I want for each of you, and so that’s why we’re starting that series next week. My hope is that you will follow along, do some homework and heart work, and that it will glorify God and build up His church.
Welcome to the 60th sermon in of our study of the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians! We started this series in April of 2016 and we’ve covered a lot of ground over the past couple years, but after long last, we’ve reached the final section where Paul is wrapping up the letter with his final greetings and instructions. Let’s open up there and read 1 Corinthians 16:5-24.
“I will visit you after passing through Macedonia, for I intend to pass through Macedonia, and perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter, so that you may help me on my journey, wherever I go. For I do not want to see you now just in passing. I hope to spend some time with you if the Lord permits. But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.
When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord, as I am. So let no one despise him. Help him on his way in peace, that he may return to me, for I am expecting him with the brothers.
Now concerning our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to visit you with the other brothers, but it was not at all his will to come now. He will come when he has opportunity.
Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. 14 Let all that you do be done in love.
Now I urge you, brothers—you know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints—be subject to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer. I rejoice at the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus, because they have made up for your absence, for they refreshed my spirit as well as yours. Give recognition to such people.
The churches of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord. All the brothers send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss.
I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen.”
This is one of those sections of the Bible that, on the surface seems like a weird one to study. What sort of life-changing message can we get from some 2000-year-old travel plans, a list of weird Greek names, and a signature? This seems like one of those sections that we should skim through and move past to get onto meatier stuff. After all, we’re only one page-flip away from 2nd Corinthians which is chock full of memorable and life-changing verses.
But, as Christians, we believe that when 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable …” it means that even sections like this one – and other boring ones like genealogies and number lists – are also somehow “profitable” to our souls. This isn’t addendum, but is, in fact, the Word of God meant to teach us about something.
So, as we read it we must open ourselves to what God wants to say, pray about it, do a little study, read a couple of commentaries, and then a whole lot of things start to spring forward.
The Church is God’s Gift
Actually, the more I dug into this one the more I got out of it. It was tempting to turn this section into a mini-series of its own, but I won’t. Though I think it would be interesting, I think it’s time to be done with 1 Corinthians and move on to something else.
If I had to summarize this final section, the general message, and the application of it for us today – though there are many others – I would say it this way: church relationships can get complicated.
When we come into a personal relationship with Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, we are given a lot of gifts – freedom from sin, the presence of the Holy Spirit, a new outlook on life, spiritual gifts – but one of the biggest gifts we’re given is the church itself. All through the Bible, we see that when God gets hold of someone’s heart He not only restores them to Himself, but also to His people. At the birth of the Christian church in Acts, we see the Holy Spirit empower the disciples to spread the message, but the message of salvation doesn’t lead merely to individual life changes but the creation of a new society. The Acts 2 believers didn’t just have a new, personal faith in Jesus, but devoted themselves to each other.
Jesus said to His disciples in John 13:34–35,
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
And then 1 John 3:14 says,
“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers.”
“The brothers” there refers to our church family. One way we know we love Jesus is that we love our church family. And a few verses later we read the same concept started in the negative. In 1 John 4:20 it says,
“If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”
So conversely, one way we know that someone doesn’t actually love Jesus, or isn’t really saved, or is in unrepentant sin, is that they distance themselves from or even talk negatively about other Christians.
When the church started to face greater persecution and started falling apart, which we read about in the book of Hebrews, one of the first things that started happening was that the believers started distancing themselves from each other. As the flock was disbanding out of fear and inconvenience, the author of Hebrews says in 10:23-25,
“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
He says, “Don’t give up hope, don’t give up the faith, trust in God – and one way to demonstrate that faith is to take care of each other, encourage one another, and keep meeting together. And as things get worse meet together even more!
Museum vs Hospital
But this isn’t often our natural inclination, is it? We live in a radically individualistic society already, one that doesn’t want to submit themselves to any groups – whether they be marriage, schools, political groups, or churches – but when it comes to days of trouble or trials or dealing with difficult people many people’s usual habit is to back away, isn’t it?
When trouble comes to us or to those around us, one temptation that often comes is to run away. We go through a difficult time and lock ourselves in our room and refuse to come out. Men and women go from partner to partner unwilling to face tough times with them. Couples go to their own wedding with a prenuptial agreement in their back pocket outlining what happens if they decide to leave. Men abandon pregnant women because being father is too hard. We join a club for fun and leave when things don’t go our way. A friend starts to become too needy, too dramatic, too complicated, and we stop asking how they’re doing, stop taking their calls, and hide them on our Facebook feed so we don’t have to see it. Most people tend to run from what they perceive as “negativity”.
This happens with Christians too as people hop from church looking for one feeds their wants and desires, but has zero drama and costs them nothing. “Church hopping” or “church shopping” is so popular that the Christian satire blog, “The Babylon Bee” has dozens of articles making fun of it.
One was entitled, “Local Family Commutes 700 Miles To Attend Church That Meets Their Exact Specifications” Another gave “8 Steps to Finding the Right Church” and includes things like, “Make sure the worship band plays only the genre you like”, “If the preacher doesn’t have 20,000 twitter followers, you’re in the wrong place”, but it was number 7 that jumped out at me. The satirical advice was, “Pick a church where everyone pretends to be happy. If anyone breaks down sobbing or insinuates that they need prayer for some sort of malady or ill fortune, everyone will understand if you excuse yourself to check out the other church down the road. You want a place where no one will burden you with their personal struggles. You don’t need that negativity in your life!”
The reason that satire works is because there’s a hint of truth in it. People tend to run from sickness, sadness, and “negativity”, but the truth is that the church is full of it. I know that’s not a popular statement, and it’s easily misconstrued, but it’s the truth.
Remember Luke 6:27-32 when the Pharisees saw Jesus hanging out with the tax collector named Levi, the one who would later be called the Apostle Matthew? Turn there. It says,
“After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’”
To eat with these people told everyone that Jesus considered them to be important, good contacts, even friends, and that blew minds of the men who were supposedly experts in religion and God’s Law. They wouldn’t be caught dead at that table! But how does Jesus answer?
“And Jesus answered them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.’”
In other words, Jesus didn’t come to gather a bunch of hypocritical people who, as the Babylon Bee article said, “pretend to be happy”, He came to call to Himself those who admit that they are sick. And what do you call a building where a bunch of sick people gathers in order to get well by a physician? A hospital. The church is a hospital.
Some people see the church as a museum, a clean place full of precious pieces of untouchable art. Each individual person and family protected from the other behind glass/ Everyone standing with their hands in their pockets because they don’t want to negatively affect anything around them. As each person look around all they see is rules, signs, protective ropes and security systems. Each family, each person, each artwork putting on their best face, trying to project an image that looks good so more people will want to come to the museum. That’s the mission of the museum. House perfectly preserved, untouchable beauty to attract people.
And that’s how a lot of folks see the church. They think, “The only way people are going to be attracted to Jesus is if I look good, look on top of things, look financially successful, look like I’ve never been tempted, never sinned, never had a bad thought, never argued with anyone.. that I serve perfect, act perfect, that my kids are perfect, my clothes are perfect – and then God will be happy with me, happy with the church, and send more people to our museum.”
And what happens when people come into that museum? Have you ever taken a kid to the museum? What are the rules? Dress nice, hands in pockets, don’t touch anything, don’t talk too loud, and pretend like everything in it is interesting even though it’s actually boring, confusing or weird. Has any kid you’ve ever met ever wanted to go to the museum for their birthday party? (The Children’s Museum in Gatineau doesn’t count!). Why? It’s uncomfortable.
Another question: What happens if you sneeze at the museum? You apologize, you feel awkward as your indiscretion reverberates off the walls – people give you the stare to think, “Hey, don’t you know that we’re in a museum! No noise! No sickness! No nothing! Just walk around with your mouth shut and look happy!” Sometimes the way we do church sends the same message.
But Jesus didn’t come to gather pieces of art for display, he came to call the sick and heal them. The church is not a museum. It’s a hospital full of people that need care. What happens in a hospital? Chaos. People with all kinds of maladies, from broken bones to cancer to mental illness to addiction are all stumbling through the door in need, desperately trying to get help. People come in their grubbiest sick clothes because they really don’t care how they look – they just want help. They aren’t trying to look cool, they’re not hiding their pain, they’re not pretending, they know that if they want help they need to say what’s wrong.
How do you feel in a hospital, surrounded by sick people? If you’re like me you feel a few things. Sometimes, if you’re really sick, you don’t really care what’s going on. You’re so worried about your own mess or whoever you’re looking after that you don’t really care about other people. You couldn’t care less that you haven’t showered or you’re carrying around a bag of barf and a urine sample. Pride is out the window. You just want the physician to come to help you.
Sometimes, when it’s not so urgent, you band together with the other people in the waiting room, right? You share stories, you ask what’s going on, you empathize with the mother who has the colicky baby, or the poor guy that came limping in, or the old person that is having a hard time with their documentation. You’re not judging anyone, you’re not mad at anyone for being at the hospital. Your pain brought you to a place where you need help, but it surrounded you with people who also need help – and it’s natural to start to realize that some of them are worse off than you and it should compel the empathy inside you to grow.
Have you ever sat in a clinic where you are brand new and come across someone who has been going there a while? You go to chemotherapy, or physio, or some kind of medicine or treatment for the first time and you’re nervous, confused, hopeful, scared, and you wonder if anyone has ever gone through this – and then someone sits next to you and says, “Hey, are you in for the same thing as me? Yeah, I’ve had that treatment, I’ve been on that medicine a couple times. It was no fun at first, but it works. I found it easier to take if I mixed it with juice. And don’t forget to drink water because I forgot and that messed me up. Oh, and it’s going to make you sore and tired, so be prepared for that. But after a while it really does work.”
There’s no judgment, no pride, no competition, is there? No, just two people that admit they need help from the same doctor coming together to share and support.
There are a great many illustrations for salvation, but one of the best is that our sickness is sin, the diagnosis is terminal, and Jesus is the Great Physician who is not only the doctor, but the cure. The only requirement He has is that we admit that we are sick and come to Him alone for the remedy. He does not save those who do not admit that they are sick. He despises hypocrites who put on the holier-than-thou, “I’m fine”, museum act.
Which means the people Jesus calls together are going to become a hospital church full of people in various stages of sickness and treatment, right? So it makes sense to treat each other as such. I’m in need of Jesus, you’re in need of Jesus. I’m a sinner, you’re a sinner. And sometimes, just like sick people, we need to give more help, more time, more love, more patience than other times. If someone limps in the door and says, “I’m sick.” We welcome them, introduce them to the Great Physician, and then help them, right? We don’t tell them to go fix themselves before introducing them to the doctor, right? We don’t turn away or pretend we’ve never been sick! We embrace them because that’s what Jesus did for us.
What does this have to do with our passage today? I want you to take a look at the subtext of what Paul says here. Turn back to our passage in 1 Corinthians 16:
In verses 5-9 we read about Paul’s travel plans. What’s going on there? Remember, the Corinthians have just sent envoy after envoy, with question after question, because their church was in crisis after crisis, and they needed Paul to come. What does Paul say, “I want to come but I can’t right now. I will come and stay for a while, but for now I need to be in Ephesus. There are a lot of good things happening and a whole lot of problems, and I need to be here.”
That’s not what the Corinthians wanted to hear, was it? Sometimes people don’t come when we call – even the Apostle Paul to Corinth. Paul needed to stay in Ephesus? Why? Because God was working and so was Satan. The Corinthians had to be patient.
Sometimes our whole world is falling apart and the person we call on to help doesn’t come. That can cause bitterness, anger, resentment, to grow in our hearts. We get mad at God for not making that person help us, we feel foolish for asking the wrong person, or angry at the person for not coming, which tempts us to react in a sinful way.
- “I was in trouble and the pastor or deacon or small group leader didn’t come – so I’m going to gossip about them and call them names behind their back.”
- “I needed help and I reached out to my friend, but they said they couldn’t right now – so I’m going to never speak to them again.”
- “I pulled away and no one noticed soon enough – so that proves no one cares and I’ll do something to harm myself.”
It’s hard sometimes, but the truth is that the only person we can really count on to show up when we need Him is Jesus. The only one who knows what we’re going through and promises help is Jesus – but He requires that we admit that we’re sick, that we need Him, and that means prayer, reading scripture, worshipping, and waiting on Him.
But what did Paul do? He sent Timothy. That’s a good thing, right? “I’m sorry, I can’t help you right now, but I’ll send along someone that will be able to.” But look what it says about Timothy in verse 10:
“When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord, as I am. So let no one despise him. Help him on his way in peace, that he may return to me, for I am expecting him with the brothers.”
Paul was strong, powerful, authoritative, respected. Timothy was, in a word, fragile. This wasn’t a warning to protect Timothy from the bad people in Corinth – but a warning to the church themselves to be nice to poor Timothy! He was young, timid, and had been through a lot already in his young life. He was the son of a mixed marriage, his father died when he was young, and he was chosen by Paul at a very young age. Timothy became one of Pauls’ right-hand guys, but his job often meant heading to troubled places either before Paul could get there or after Paul had stirred the pot. And it had gotten to him. He was a stressed out dude that even had stomach troubles. I feel for Timothy because I’m a lot like him right now.
As you all well know, sometimes church leaders, or parents, or teachers, even though they know what they’re doing, even though they are trying to do the work of the Lord, end up becoming very fragile because of things going on in their life. They used to be stronger, but now they can’t take a lot of pressure. They fall apart more easily. They need more naps and less confrontation. They need to be treated more gently. You can almost hear Paul saying, “Timothy is a godly leader and he’s going to say some things you don’t like, but I know how mean you guys can be. So be nice to Timothy! I want him back in the same condition I sent him!”
Isn’t it interesting that the Corinthian church, which had so many troubles and needed so much strong leadership, was sent timid Timothy? And that, with a warning! Oftentimes it’s the fragile, weak leader, or weak parent or weak friend that God uses in our lives the most. They aren’t ever-present, they aren’t super-strong, and they get overwhelmed easy – but they’re exactly the right person and God uses them. Why? Because they know they need Jesus. They’re not going to try to be Jesus for you, they’re going to point you to Him. They’re going to know how you feel. They’re going to be able to sympathize with your struggles like no one else. And in their weakness, they realize how much they need the Great Physician to do the work for them. They don’t have confidence and strength in themselves, they aren’t going to tell you to buck-up and try harder – they have learned to put their faith and gain their strength from someone greater than them – and that’s what you need.
And look at verse 12,
“Now concerning our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to visit you with the other brothers, but it was not at all his will to come now. He will come when he has opportunity.”
Apollos was the exact opposite of Timothy. The phrase “now concerning” meant that the Corinthians asked about Apollos. I wonder if it was, “Hey Paul, if you can’t come, can you send Apollos?” Apollos was actually from Corinth and was not only an amazing preacher, but a super-popular travelling speaker, very smart, powerful in speech, and bold in his demeanor. He had actually gone on tour, defending Christianity and teaching all over the place. He was like Ravi Zacharias from last week. He was so good that some people thought that Paul was jealous of Apollos because he was so popular.
What is so interesting here, and sort of funny, is that the Apostle Paul “strongly urged” Apollos to go to Corinth and Apollos said “No! Well, maybe I’ll go if I feel like it.” I find that amazing. Timid Timothy was Paul’s shell-shocked, PTSD ridden foot soldier, sent into battle after battle – while Apollos was more like a James Bond style spy, wandering around in fancy hotels, hanging out with cool people, and doing whatever jobs came up.
Sometimes, even when you’re the Apostle Paul, people don’t do what you want. Sometimes the one you think would be right for the job says no, and you end up with someone you wouldn’t have chosen. And that leads to temptation, right? You want to resent the Apollos you wanted and dump on the Timothy you didn’t. You resent the teacher, the parent, the child that doesn’t meet your expectations. You asked God for an Apollos spouse, an Apollos friend, an Apollos partner, but you got a Timothy. Which leads to sinful comparisons: “Apollos wouldn’t have done that. Apollos wouldn’t have said it that way. Apollos would have listened to me. Apollos would clean his room. Apollos would let me use the car. Apollos would treat me the way I want to be treated. And here I am stuck with you, timid, Tummy-Ache Timothy.”
But the truth is that God didn’t want Apollos there. God wanted Timothy there. Tummy-Ache Timothy was the right person for the job. Your weak or sick parent, child, teacher, pastor, brother, sister, friend, husband, or wife – is the right one, and God can use them to do things that Apollos never could. The question is whether you trust that God knows what He’s doing.
There are, of course, more names there, but let’s close with verses 13-14,
“Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.”
This is the end of the letter and a final summary of what he’s been saying. He addresses them like soldiers on the battlefield, or for our illustration today, nurses and fellow patients on the ward.
“Be watchful” means “stay awake” or “be on guard”. They had let all kinds of sickness and infectious and germs into their hospital church because they weren’t paying attention, weren’t on guard, weren’t doing best practices, and had fallen asleep on the job, and people were getting spiritually sicker and sicker. The command here is to wake up.
“Stand firm in the faith” means “Remember the foundation of the gospel.” They had not only let infections and germs run rampant among them, but they had lost the medicine! God the Father, Jesus the Saviour, and the Holy Spirit were always available to them but they had gotten so distracted by sin and had put their faith in so many other remedies that they had forgotten Jesus. Paul says, “You know the only treatment is pure faith in Jesus. Go back to that.”
“Act like men” means “stop being such a chicken and start doing the right things”! These caregivers had become too afraid, too distracted by sin, too overwhelmed by the enemy, to be able to help anyone. When they tried, they failed, because they were trying in their own strength – so they stopped trying. So Paul says, “Get back in there and help some people! Pray like you mean it, serve like you mean it, love like you mean it, worship like you mean it, study like you mean it!”
“Be strong”, means not in yourself obviously, but in God. This isn’t about pulling up your socks, it’s about reorienting yourself to the One from whom you get your strength. Remember one of the first things Paul said in chapter 1, “God chose the foolish, weak, and low things on purpose.” (1 Cor 1:26-31) In other words, God works most among the sick because that’s where He gets the most glory because that’s where people know they need Him most.
And if there was any doubt about where the strength comes from we see it in verse 14: “Let all you do be done in the love.” Our greatest strength isn’t in our personality, our bodies, our cleverness, or our words, it’s in our ability to love God and love others, because He first loved us.