Turn with me to 1 Kings 18:1–40 and I want to read two stories about the prophet Elijah today, but we need to read a large section so we can get the whole story. A lot has already happened up to this point, but you’ll figure out how things are going as we read. The only thing you really need to know is that the current king of Israel is an evil guy named Ahab who married an even worse, pagan woman named, Jezebel, who did everything they could to insult God and provoke His anger.
Elijah comes on the scene as God’s messenger and tells Ahab that because of the horribleness in Israel, He was going to bring a three-year drought. God then tells Elijah to take off for a while. During this time, a good man named Obadiah becomes governor under Ahab, which is a pretty difficult job for a faithful man of God. We pick up the story in 1 Kings 18:1.
“After many days the word of the LORD came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, “Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth.” So Elijah went to show himself to Ahab. Now the famine was severe in Samaria. And Ahab called Obadiah, who was over the household. (Now Obadiah feared the LORD greatly, and when Jezebel cut off the prophets of the LORD, Obadiah took a hundred prophets and hid them by fifties in a cave and fed them with bread and water.) And Ahab said to Obadiah, “Go through the land to all the springs of water and to all the valleys. Perhaps we may find grass and save the horses and mules alive, and not lose some of the animals.” So they divided the land between them to pass through it. Ahab went in one direction by himself, and Obadiah went in another direction by himself.
And as Obadiah was on the way, behold, Elijah met him. And Obadiah recognized him and fell on his face and said, “Is it you, my lord Elijah?” And he answered him, “It is I. Go, tell your lord, ‘Behold, Elijah is here.’” And he said, “How have I sinned, that you would give your servant into the hand of Ahab, to kill me? As the LORD your God lives, there is no nation or kingdom where my lord has not sent to seek you. And when they would say, ‘He is not here,’ he would take an oath of the kingdom or nation, that they had not found you. And now you say, ‘Go, tell your lord, “Behold, Elijah is here.”’ And as soon as I have gone from you, the Spirit of the LORD will carry you I know not where. And so, when I come and tell Ahab and he cannot find you, he will kill me, although I your servant have feared the LORD from my youth. Has it not been told my lord what I did when Jezebel killed the prophets of the LORD, how I hid a hundred men of the LORD’s prophets by fifties in a cave and fed them with bread and water? And now you say, ‘Go, tell your lord, “Behold, Elijah is here”’; and he will kill me.” And Elijah said, “As the LORD of hosts lives, before whom I stand, I will surely show myself to him today.” So Obadiah went to meet Ahab, and told him. And Ahab went to meet Elijah.
When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” And he answered, “I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the LORD and followed the Baals. Now therefore send and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”
So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the LORD, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men. Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the LORD, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” And all the people answered, “It is well spoken.” Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.
Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that had been thrown down. Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD came, saying, “Israel shall be your name,” and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD. And he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two seahs of seed. And he put the wood in order and cut the bull in pieces and laid it on the wood. And he said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” And he said, “Do it a second time.” And they did it a second time. And he said, “Do it a third time.” And they did it a third time. And the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.
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.” Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God.” And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.”
And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink, for there is a sound of the rushing of rain.” So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel. And he bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees. And he said to his servant, “Go up now, look toward the sea.” And he went up and looked and said, “There is nothing.” And he said, “Go again,” seven times. And at the seventh time he said, “Behold, a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” And he said, “Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot and go down, lest the rain stop you.’” And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel. And the hand of the LORD was on Elijah, and he gathered up his garment and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.”
That’s what I call a power encounter. Elijah, the man of God called during a very difficult time, stands alone on the mountain, surrounded by hundreds of enemies – but he’s bold, brash, and confident. So much so that he not only builds his altar but soaks it with buckets and buckets of water. And then BOOM, God shows up in an amazing way! The people’s hearts melt. They have seen firsthand that the Baals are fake and the Lord is God. Elijah is vindicated, the people turn on the false prophets, then as the people repent God ends the drought with a great rain. Elijah even tells Ahab he better get going because the whole country is about to be one, big, flooded, mud pit and if he didn’t leave now his chariot was going to get very stuck.
Wouldn’t we all like to have God use us in such a way?
The book of James in the New Testament actually uses this passage to say that this sort of encounter isn’t outside the realm of possibility for Christians. In fact, James 5:13–18 says that the same God, the same Spirit, the same power that was at work on Mount Carmel is available to the people of God in the church. He says,
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.”
A Nature Like Ours
Our first instinct might be to say, “Nah. That’s Elijah. He’s the greatest prophet of the Old Testament. I’m not like him!” Today’s message isn’t about prayer. What I want to focus on right now are the words, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours…”
Other translations say that “Elijah was a human being, even as we are…” (NIV) or “Elijah was just like us…” (BSV) or “Elijah was a man subject to like passions as we are…” (KJV) and James’ point is to argue against the idea that Elijah was special somehow.
Remember the story in Acts 14(:8-18) where Paul and Barnabas go to Lystra to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and God heals some people through them, but everyone starts to worship them as Zeus and Hermes instead of believing in Jesus? The whole crowd starts getting ready to treat them as gods and offer sacrifices to them and Paul tears his clothes and cries out, “Men, why are you doing these things? We are men of like nature with you, and we bring you good news…” “We’re not gods! We’re just regular people! Jesus is God! Jesus has the power! Jesus did the miracle! Let’s talk about Jesus!”
That’s what James is saying too. Elijah was just a guy that God chose to work through. Elijah was just a guy who did what God told Him to do. When God said to pray for a drought, he did. When God said to pray for rain, he did. Elijah didn’t make the rain start or stop. No one can do that except God. Elijah was just a regular guy who just said what he was told to say. God had the power. God did the miracle. Let’s talk about God.
That’s the whole message of the book of James. You want an answer to prayer? You want to see Jesus at work in your life and others’? Here’s how: It’s not believing that you’re super special and powerful, it’s knowing you are not but trusting Jesus and just doing what He tells you to do anyway. Then you’ll see His power.
What Was Elijah Like?
But I want to go back to 1 Kings for a bit and take a look at the kind of guy Elijah was – because it’s easy to think, “Oh sure, you say ‘he’s just a guy’, but he’s, a super-saint. He was always praying, always trusting, super humble, charismatic, organized, full of joy and trusting God all the time…. that’s why God used him. I’m not like that. If Elijah had half the problems I had, then the story would have been different…”
But let’s look at 1 Kings 19. These verses come right after the Mount Carmel power-encounter, right after the rains come, right after all that amazing God stuff….
“Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept under a broom tree.”
Elijah hears that Jezebel is after him and what’s his reaction? You’d think it would be to put the boxing gloves back on, ring the bell, and call round 2 – but no. We see terror, depression, suicidality. This often happens to people after great battles, even if they are great victories. You’ve probably experienced this. Things don’t go so well for a while, but you’ve been putting up a fight – or you have a bunch of days where some really cool stuff happens. You focus on a project and it goes really well… you have an awesome, busy vacation… you have some kind of personal breakthrough… you run a race or paint a picture the best you’ve ever done… and then, for some reason, the next day you feel totally deflated, depleted and depressed. You were flying high yesterday – proactive, energized, able to get the job done – but today, now that the stress has let up, you can’t handle anything. You’re foggy. You get sad. You get sick. The amazing thing you just did yesterday looks worse than it did. You spiral into a funk. Ever felt that? Where does that come from?
Some people call it the “Let-Down Effect” or “Adrenal Fatigue” and you’ve probably experienced it. It basically means that our bodies are capable of squirting all kinds of helpful hormones into our system to keep us going when we need energy, but those resources are finite and once the stress is over (whether it’s good stress or bad) those helpful hormones are depleted, our systems start to crash, and our bodies and minds start to unravel. You’ve probably felt this if you jump into an exercise you haven’t done in a while. Day One goes great, you’re surprised how well you do, but the next day you feel like you’re going to die.
That can happen mentally too. You tell your body that you can’t afford to be grumpy or tired right now – so you hold all those negative feelings in, push down that stress reaction, overlook all the stuff that’s bothering you – so you can get the job done, enjoy the vacation, or whatever – but those brain chemicals run out too. And living in fight or flight for that long has filled your body with stress chemicals and other issues. That box of emotions you’ve been packing inside your heart gets full and starts to leak. I’m sure you know the feeling. This may be part of what Elijah was going through.
Some people, if they are naturally or usually more anxious or depressed than average, or naturally have less energy than average, or have learning or physical disabilities, start with a deficit and end up requiring more of their minds and bodies than others. An introverted person has to psych themselves up to go to a party, or give a presentation, or have a discussion they’re not looking forward to. A person with ADD has to psych themselves up to be able to buckle down to study for a long time or pay attention during an important family dinner or meeting. Your average person can wake up to an alarm clock, eat breakfast, take a shower, and go for a walk – but for someone with depression, that takes way, way more energy to do and then actually requires some recovery time! Maybe Elijah was that kind of person too. Wouldn’t surprise me.
Look at what happens here. Elijah, the man who had just confronted thousands of armed zealots with great courage, knowing that God absolutely had his back – is now scared of one woman. So much so that he takes off and “ran for his life” 200 kilometres South. He’s not praying or doing anything positive. He’s running as far away as he can, to the very edge of the Promised Land. He gets there and is utterly exhausted. He’s so scared he won’t even tell his servant where he’s going and takes off into the wilderness, alone, and collapses under a shady tree. At that moment, depression really takes hold. He ran away to escape death. But what does his exhausted, depleted brain say?
Look at what he prays. He says, “It is enough.” Literally, that means, “Let it be enough.” “I’m done, Lord. I can’t take anymore. Please let this it.”
Then he says, “Take away my life”, meaning, “I want to die. Kill me, God.” He ran away to escape death! How muddled are his thoughts? How messed up are his emotions? How depleted are his mental and physical reserves? He’s so down he wants God to kill him. “God will do it better than Jezebel”, he may have thought.
He says, “I’m no better than my fathers.” Here we see how utterly disappointed he is with himself. He feels like a total failure. Keep in mind the Mount Carmel encounter was only a week ago! But now, all of that is forgotten. All he sees is how cowardly he is, how fruitless his ministry has been, how impossible the fight against Jezebel is, how nothing will ever change, how he’s not the right man for the job, how he has no help, no support, no comfort, no hope.
Now, keep in mind, these are all lies – but that doesn’t matter. His brain is incapable at this point of processing truth. He’s so stuck in the dark that he can’t see the light.
He prays this one sentence prayer and passes out.
Consider our phrase from James again, “Elijah was a human being, even as we are…”. We see Elijah on Mount Carmel with fire from heaven or confronting the evil Ahab, or praying for rain and seeing a flood and we think, “Wow! That’s amazing!” But we often forget about Elijah under the broom tree a week later. Elijah wasn’t super-human. He was just a guy who said “yes” to God. That’s James’ point. God showed Elijah grace in choosing him even though he was a very weak vessel. Elijah obeyed and God gave him everything he needed on Mount Carmel. But the story isn’t about how special Elijah is. All Elijah did was say “Yes” and then go where he was told to go and say what he was told to say. God did everything.
God’s Gracious Response
I don’t want to leave the story without looking back at 1 Kings 19:5-8 to see God’s response to Elijah’s prayer. Did he kill him? Rebuke him? Let’s see.
“And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.”
How does God respond to this utterly spent man, who is totally depressed, took off on his responsibilities, gave his resignation, and then seriously contemplated suicide? Wind and fire? A booming voice from the mountain top?
No. He sends an angel to deliver some pancakes. No sermon. No judgment. No guilt. No pressure. Just some pancakes. And then the angel left him alone to sleep some more. Elijah’s problem wasn’t lack of faith – his problem was physiological. He was physically, emotionally, and mentally spent. He didn’t need a lecture or pep-talk or guilt-trip. He needed pancakes and some rest. God knew that. God knows our physical limitations. He’s not disappointed with us for being human.
What does God do next? What does the angel say, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” God acknowledges that Elijah’s problem isn’t faith, it’s physical. “Dude, you’ve rested, but now you need to eat some more.” God, for now, completely ignores the content of Elijah’s prayer that he prayed in that depressive funk, and just says, “Ok, eat something. You’re not done yet, but I totally agree that you need to recharge. Take some rest. Eat some food. Once you’re ready, I’ve got something else for you. Now that you’ve slept, sit up and eat and you’ll feel better.” What’s the prescription? Prayer time? Meditation? Worship songs? Big meeting? A new schedule? A better list? Nope. More pancakes. And these were like, seriously good pancakes too. Had to be like Lembas Bread from Lord of the Rings. Because they fuel him for a while.
With his body rested, his belly full, things started to look a little better. Is he fully recovered? Heck no. Is he 15% better than when he laid down and wanted to die? Sure. He’s got enough in the tank for whatever thing God has next. Elijah’s depression prayer is forgotten, Elijah gets up, says “Yes” to God again. And God doesn’t send him to take on the world again. God gives him a break for over a month, but keeps him moving forward. And sends him to mount Horeb, also called Mount Sinai, where God first spoke the Ten Commandments to Moses and Israel. In other words, instead of sending Elijah back to work right away, God bring Elijah back to Him. He brings Elijah back to the genesis of his faith. Back to basics. Back to what brought Elijah and God together in the first place. And they have a long talk.
I’ll leave the reading of the next part of 1 Kings 19 to you, but suffice to say that after Elijah has recovered a bit, God meets Elijah in a powerful way, deals kindly but appropriately with his needs, his attitude, and his sins, but also brings him back for about 15 more years of ministry – even mentoring God’s next prophet. God saved Elijah by His loving kindness.
God Prefers the Weak But Willing
Let me close with this: When God calls a person to salvation and wants to use a person for His kingdom, He doesn’t call the strong, talented, powerful, influential, wise, and smart. He prefers people who are weak but willing. They know they are weak, but they are willing to say “I’m not sure why you chose me, but Yes, I will go. I will do it your way, in your strength, in your time, because I know I can’t do it on my own.” And then He equips them to do the job.
That’s the strange part. God bypasses the already capable so He can equip those who are incapable. God bypasses those who seem to have it all put together, in favour of people who are a mess. God bypasses the intellectually superior in favour of those who know they don’t know it all. God bypasses those who are secure unto themselves and chooses people with great insecurities because they are the ones who know they need Him most. God prefers the weak but willing. Then He equips those people, making them stronger, smarter, more powerful, more influential, wiser, and more talented. All He requires from us is to say “Yes, Lord.” And since that person knows where they came from – and everyone else knows where that person came from too, and the wild improbability that they would be able to pull off what they are doing – God gets the glory. God blesses us, we feel useful, and He gets the glory. It’s a good deal.
“Elijah was a human being, even as we are…” Flawed, emotional, prideful, prone to depression, anxiety, even suicidality – but God chose Him, equipped Him, put Him in the right place at the right time to do amazing things – and all Elijah had to do was say “Yes”. And then, even when Elijah had a total meltdown, God didn’t turn His back on him and head off for someone better who wasn’t so damaged. No, God was gracious, loving, kind, patient, truthful – and gently scooped Elijah back up, set him on his feet, strengthened him, and kept using him.
That’s what God does. That’s how God sees you, your family, and this church. No one is too messed up, too far gone, too weak, too stupid, to be saved and to serve. What disqualifies someone is pride and a hard heart. What matters is simply saying, “Yes, Lord. Despite my weakness, insecurities, failures, and fears, I will serve – but I won’t go unless you go with me. I can’t do anything of value on my own.” (Ex 33:15) That’s a heart God can use.
So, my encouragement to you is the same as before. Don’t write yourself off – or anyone else. If you’re in sin, stop, repent, and ask for God’s forgiveness and healing and He promises to do it. But your past or current mess, or the past or current mess of that person who has been blowing up their life, doesn’t mean God is done with them, and it doesn’t mean God can use them or you to serve His kingdom.
Maybe it’ll take some time. Maybe you need some recovery time. Don’t feel bad if you’re under the broom tree right now. Don’t feel guilty that life wiped you out. You are a human being, even as we are. Don’t feel bad that your brain and body are depleted and all you can do these days is sleep and eat some pancakes. That’s ok.
But – but while you are there under the broom tree, don’t think God’s done with you. Don’t think God’s mad at you. Don’t think that God is disappointed with you. He’s not. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 8:1) You need to accept help, accept that you’re depleted, accept you are weak and let him and God’s people minister to you.
And for that person you are concerned about, that seems like they’ll never recover? All that needs to happen – literally the one thing that needs to happen – is for them to ask God for help. Consider the prodigal son. Consider Peter who denied Jesus. Consider Elijah. He ran as far as he could, gave up, and passed out. But, in that dark moment, he simply said, “God, I’m done. I’m spent. I’m a mess.” It was a cry for help, and God used it. Sure, what He asked God to do was wrong – but that didn’t stop God from helping him. God took that cry for help and used it. God knew what He really needed. Why did God answer that prayer? Because it had the single, most important ingredient God can use to change a life – humility. All the words were a mess – but within his heart was the ember of humility that God could use to restart his fire.
So that’s what we’ll pray for. We’ll pray for those who are weak, and we’ll pray for humility. Humility to accept our limitations and receive God’s amazing grace.
A lot of us are like those two followers walking down the road to Emmaus. They start out, perplexed, anxious, disappointed in how things have turned out, confused about God’s plan, talking to one another about things they don’t understand, and hoping that if they keep walking away, that somehow they will leave their problems behind them. They wanted God to solve their problems and make them happy, but somehow that wasn’t God’s plan. So they’re disappointed with God, with Jesus, and are walking away.
Some are like those two when they’re a little farther down the road when, even though Jesus is walking alongside them, even talking to them, they don’t recognize Him or His presence. They are believers, but because of their sin, doubt, fear, or pride – because their focus is on themselves and their troubles – are blind to the presence of Jesus, unable to see, hear, or understand what He’s saying. Even though Jesus offers His word and an explanation of the entire story from beginning to end, they don’t get it because their hearts are darkened to Him.
And then there are those who have had that “aha” moment with Jesus, where they’ve finally figured out who Jesus is, recognize His person and His power, realize He is the one that the whole Bible is talking about, and whose hearts burn within them to know more. In the story in Luke, once Jesus leaves them, they jump up and run back to the city of Jerusalem so they can find others to share their story of hope with.
Everyone is somewhere on this path.
Paul and Corinth
Please open up to 1 Corinthians 15:1-21. This passage is written by the Apostle Paul, a man who walked every part of that path with more intensity than any of us will ever experience. Paul is mostly known as a dedicated missionary of the gospel of Jesus who travelled all around the ancient world preaching, teaching, and planting churches in the name of Jesus. Paul was not always a missionary though. Paul wasn’t even his birth name. When he was born he was Saul, the son of a strict Jewish family who were also Roman citizens. When he was young he likely not only studied under a rabbi but also attended Greek school at the same time. Then, in his teens, moved to Jerusalem where he was given the chance to study under one of the most famous Jewish teachers of all time, Gamaliel. Paul eventually becomes a Pharisee – the strictest and most hard-core followers of the Law of Moses. And Saul was the top of his class. He was the most hard-core of the hard-core. It was the Pharisees that spent the most time antagonizing and attacking Jesus and Saul was most likely in Jerusalem when Jesus was there. It’s very likely that the two of them crossed paths, with Paul on the side of the Pharisees, not Jesus.
We are first introduced to Saul as a young man of around 20 or 30 years old, holding the clothes for an angry mob that were stoning the first Christian martyr, a man named Stephen. Saul hated Jesus and he hated Christians. He hated Jesus and his followers so much that he made it his personal mission to destroy them. He saw Jesus as a condemned and crucified blasphemer and anyone who believed in Him as worthy of the same punishment.
Acts 8:3 says that “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” He likely had his hand in the suffering and death of many Christians. Saul was a powerful, intelligent, influential, man on a mission and nothing was going to stop him. Until Jesus did.
Jesus didn’t come walking beside him though. There was no gentle invitation. Instead, as Saul was headed into another town to rout out the Christians, Jesus blasted a light from heaven, knocked Saul to the ground, and said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”. Not “my followers”, but “me”. Saul spent three days, blind and trembling. He couldn’t eat or drink. His whole life was turned upside down. Everything he thought he knew was wrong.
A few days later Jesus sends one of his followers, Ananias to cure Saul’s blindness and baptize him as a new believer. Over the next days and years, Saul would reorient everything he had ever been taught and realize it all pointed to Jesus. He had memorized the whole Old Testament and suddenly everything he thought he knew was wrong – but those scriptures and prophecies started to make a lot more sense. Jesus walked with Him and explained the scriptures, just as He did to those followers on the road to Emmaus. Paul meditated, prayed, and spent time talking and listening to Jesus until He had that “aha” moment about God’s upside-down kingdom. The crucified Lord made sense. The gospel made sense. The life of Jesus made sense. God as a suffering servant made sense. The only thing that didn’t make sense was why Jesus, the one who he hated so much, would save him. Why would Jesus show love to the one associated with the people who got Him crucified, and who had tried to destroy His people! Saul never forgot that amazing grace. So he changed his name to Paul and took that message to as many people as he possibly could – suffering every injustice and pain imaginable so more people could hear.
So that’s the author of our passage today. Now, consider the audience. Paul was writing to the Corinthians, a church in the Greek city of Corinth. Corinth was a town full of pagan idols, temples, and activities. It was a cosmopolitan, port town with lots of money and people. Paul came into this town a bit of a wreck. He had some bad experiences on the road and when he got to Corinth he was almost ready to quit being a missionary altogether. But Corinth accepted him, listened to his simple messages, and a church was formed. And they were so excited too! Imagine living your whole life on the Las Vegas strip, surrounded by sin and lies and temptation, but add to that believing that the gods you worship are fickle, angry, at war with each other, even easily bribed. It is a life out of control. But then you hear the Gospel of Jesus. That there is One God above all and He loves you, accepts you, and wants to save you. That this God didn’t just love a certain group of people, but even loved messed up pagans like you, and was willing to not only save you from hell, but change your life here and now, to give you a hope and a purpose, and affect your life so utterly that you could put away all the garbage in your life and live with Him as your one God, through whom you would find true peace and joy.
Corinth was a city of darkness and Jesus came to them like a beam of light. Corinth was a land of spiritual thirst and Jesus came to them as the one who quenched that thirst.
But Paul had to move on to plant other churches, and it wasn’t long until the darkness crept into the church and started to corrupt it. They started letting pagan worship practices come in. They started arguing with one another. They fought and even sued one another. Then came the sexual temptations and drunkenness where people were using the freedom of the gospel to excuse all kinds of depravity, even worse than the pagan temples – and they were bad. Then the other side of the church overcorrected and started banning everyone from doing almost anything – no marriage, no meat, no holidays, no nothing. It wasn’t long until they started letting false teachers take the pulpit, men who would deny the resurrection of Jesus and draw people away. The church, in quite short order, became a mess of compromise, division, and corruption. Paul heard about this and though he couldn’t leave the church where he was, he wrote a letter to them. We call this letter 1st Corinthians.
The passage I’m about to read is in chapter 15. Paul has already been writing about how their sin was destroying the joy and peace they once had in Jesus, but he was building to something. In Chapter 12 he tells them that under Jesus they shouldn’t be divided but united – and not in a boring, cookie-cutter, sameness, but in appreciation of their differences. In Chapter 13 he tells them that the only way to do this is by letting the entire motive for everything they do be love. In Chapter 14 he gives more examples, but then in Chapter 15, right before he closes his letter, he tells them how, and why, they should take all this so seriously.
Why should they fight temptation? Why should they humble themselves and seek unity? Why should they study the Bible and get their theology and practice right? Why choose a life of humility, sacrifice, and temperance when all around them were opportunities for self-aggrandizement, power, and pleasure? And even if they wanted to, how could this wreck of a church actually come back to Jesus? Surely He was done with them. Surely they were too far gone.
But Paul remembers his own story, and how much it mirrored theirs. If anyone was “too far gone” it was him. And he knows that the amazing grace of Jesus, the gospel of Jesus Christ, has the power to utterly and completely change lives. The same power that rose Jesus from the dead, that turned him from Saul to Paul, was available to them. The hope and power they knew at first wasn’t gone, it was still there.
How could they access it? By remembering what happened on day one when Paul first arrived and preached that first message. By going back to what they first believed. By dumping all the garbage that had come up in their lives, their homes, their relationships, their church, their city, and their nation – and by getting back to the foundation of their faith. By seeing their sin for what it was, the ploy of the enemy to draw them away from Jesus toward their previous, hopeless, shame-filled life. To turn away from the mess that Jesus had saved them from and back toward Jesus. They had already been saved by Jesus, empowered by God, and had the presence of the Holy Spirit – but they had forgotten. All they had to do was remember.
And so Paul says in Chapter 15:
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.”
The Resurrection Is EVERYTHING
I saw an article online this week where BBC radio called 2000 people to ask them about their beliefs about Christianity for a program they were putting on Palm Sunday in 2017. They discovered that only 35% of the people that called themselves Christians believe the biblical account of the resurrection of Jesus, and only 61% even believed in life after death. Then what do they believe? Why are they even calling themselves Christians? And Canada isn’t so different in their statistics. Western Christianity is not so different from the Corinthian church 2000 years ago. We are just as affected by our culture, just as forgetful.
In our world today we sometimes forget why the Christian church exists. Some people think it’s here as a place to get together as a community once a week for some fun and support. Others see it as a place where morality is taught so kids can know right and wrong. Others see it as a political organization, a motivated group gathered to promote either conservative or liberal values, depending on whether you prefer talking about the economy or social justice. Some people see the church as a way to network so they can make friends and business partnerships. Others see the church as the keepers of culture and tradition, a place to be married and buried, maybe visited on important holidays, but not really something that affects daily life. Others see it as a place for idiots and rubes to get another injection of blind-hope and be duped out of their money by corrupt leaders.
Why do we exist? Why are we here today? Why are we making a big deal of this thing we call Easter, the day of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ? Is it tradition? Is it just part of our culture? Is it to make some kind of allegorical point about sacrifice? Is it just an excuse to get together, sing some songs, think big thoughts, and eat some treats?
No, the Christian church exists to proclaim the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s why we’re here. Everything else – our community work, good deeds, hospitals, orphanages, music, art, education, traditions, everything, is meaningless without the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We do good works so people will see the risen Jesus. We open hospitals and orphanages and schools to give mercy and sacrificial care to needy people because Jesus has shown mercy to us when we had need, and so we can share the gospel with them, telling them that they don’t just need medicine and a home, but the healing of their souls. We create masterpieces of music and art not merely to celebrate the death of Jesus, but because of His resurrection. His death is only worth painting in the light of His resurrection. Otherwise, the story isn’t one of victory, but tragedy.
As Paul said, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…. if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” If the resurrection isn’t real, if we’re just here for pancakes and some nice music, to read from a book full of lies and prophecies that never came true, to sing songs about a made up fiction, and to go home in the same condition in which we came – no closer to God, no more holy, no more meaning, no more hope – because the resurrection didn’t happen, then we are above all most to be pitied.
If Jesus isn’t alive, then there is no answer to sin, no meaning to our suffering, and we’re all doomed to either oblivion or hell. If Jesus isn’t alive, then sin and death have won. If Jesus isn’t alive, then everyone who has ever died is either gone forever into a meaningless void or has been doomed to hell because they died still condemned, because their faith was in the wrong person. If Jesus isn’t alive, and all this church has to offer is some false “hope in this life only”, and a few moral nuggets that you can take or leave, then what’s the point? Why live like a Christian if Jesus is dead?
Jay Adams defined Christian Preaching as “preaching that will get you thrown out of a synagogue or mosque.” Because for a message to be a Christian message, it must say something about Jesus that no one else says. A message that is not only distinct but radical and offensive to those who don’t believe it. A Christian life, a life lived in the light of the resurrection cannot look like a pagan life, a Buddhist life, a secular life. Our beliefs are not interchangeable. For a Christian life, and Christian message to be Christian, it must show that Jesus is unlike anyone else. The Gospel of Jesus is more than telling people to be good and moral and honest. It’s more than showing people how to do life. It’s more than learning bible verses that look good on mugs and pillows and tattoos. It is about finding our sufficiency in Jesus because Jesus is the only one who lived a perfect life, died an innocent death, and then rose again after being buried in a tomb, conquering sin and death, showing Himself to hundreds of witnesses, and creating a movement where so many people have met Him – have personally met the risen Lord – that they are willing to give everything, even to die, to share the message of salvation with others .
The Resurrection is E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G.
This is why it is so utterly heartbreaking and aggravating to see Christians and churches that miss the point, who forget about living in the light of the resurrection so they can concentrate on other things. It’s like watching someone brag about how great their house looks, while it’s on fire. It’s like hearing someone brag about getting a new stereo in a car that doesn’t have an engine or wheels. It’s like someone saying how attractive their girlfriend is, even though it’s a corpse they covered in make-up and propped up against a wall. Christianity without the resurrection isn’t just pointless, it’s bizarre, even disgusting. It brings no glory to God and offers no hope to anyone. It’s an exercise is religious futility.
This is also why it’s so painful for us to see a life lived without Jesus, good or bad. Christians, you know this feeling. You know what it’s like to see someone that is either utterly wasting away because of their slavery to sin, or who have such wonderful gifts but are only using them for their own glory. Or, perhaps worse, you know what it’s like to watch a person grow up in church, learn all the lingo, go through the motions of attending Sunday School, saying the prayer of salvation and getting baptized – but then to realize their faith had no roots, and they never did know Jesus. They head into high school or college and before long you realize that it was all pretending.
Why does that hurt so much? If the point of Christianity was about giving some moral lessons and traditions, then what more can you ask? But if Christianity means having a living, dynamic relationship with the risen Lord Jesus Christ – then seeing people enslaved to sin, living an empty, secularly successful life, or knowing people who only pretended to be believers – is soul-crushing. Why? Because everything they do is still soaked in sin.
We see a life full of good things – but know that since they didn’t know the resurrected Jesus, they died under the curse and went to Hell. What a heartbreaking waste. We look at their impact, the followers they gather, the children they have, the work they do, how beautiful and successful people say they are – but then realize they spent their whole lives under the influence of Satan and that everyone who followed them was pointed toward death, and they stand in judgment before God for the people they corrupted.
The resurrection is everything because it is the foundation of reality, hope, purpose, meaning, and life itself. A life not lived in the light of the resurrection is a wasted life – a dangerous life – a meaningless life.
Why? Because if you don’t know the resurrected Jesus, then you are like those disciples on the road to Emmaus – walking away from Jerusalem – before Jesus came to them. You are lost, though you think you know where you are going. You are believing lies, even though you think you know the truth. You are trying to find meaning and security where there is none. You are trying to discern what to do with your life while living in the dark. You are trying to find purpose among utter chaos, direction with no compass. Without knowing Jesus, all of your efforts to find peace, hope, and meaning, is like using your own strength to pull light out of a black hole.
So, my question to you today is this: Where are you on the Emmaus Road?
If you are a Christian, are you living in the light of the resurrection? Do you live each day in the presence of the risen Lord Jesus Christ? Living each day like He is real, available, present, and willing to walk with you every step of the way? Does your relationship with the living, Lord Jesus make a difference in your daily life? Do you talk to Him about your hopes, fears, worries, plans, needs, and desires, knowing that He is near and willing to protect and guide? Or do you live as though you believe a story that happened 2000 years ago? I challenge you to examine yourself. Are you walking with the risen Lord Jesus each day?
If you are not a Christian, have you looked into the most important event in human history? Have you spent time thinking about it, reading about it, and talking about it – even if it’s uncomfortable, even if you know that believing it is a terrible risk? Have you felt the Holy Spirit tugging at your conscience, placing people in your life to tell you about Jesus, pointing you away from sin and death, and inviting you towards life – but you’ve been pushing them aside because you are afraid, or because your pride keeps telling you that your way is better? My challenge to you is to study the resurrection, talk about it with people, and seek the truth – and then, when you have done that and realize that it’s true – to submit yourself to what God has been trying to do in you, accept that amazing grace, turn away from your sins, ask God’s forgiveness, believe that Jesus died for those sins and rose again to destroy them forever, and follow Him from now on as your Risen Lord.
Chapter 1: The Beginning
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)
This is the start of our story. Notice how I said that it’s the start of our story. Not the beginning of The Whole story. Just our part. God is eternal, existing before there was either heaven or earth.
So God created the universe, the stars, the planets, our world, and everything on it. And He did it in steps. As we read the creation story we see that God is imaginative, powerful, orderly, and is really enjoying His work. We don’t know everything about the beginning of time, but we do know that it did not come together by random chance. Over and over again God creates and then looks at what He is doing and says that “it is good”. He likes what He sees. He made the skies, the oceans, the birds, trees, sun, moon… all of it. God, in an amazing process, formed all of creation out of nothingness… and then called it “good”.
And then, after everything else was created… He began His greatest work. God literally saved the best for last. He decided to create humanity. All of the rest of creation was a good thing… but this was going to be the best thing. God formed a man out of the dirt of the ground, like a potter lovingly moulding a clay sculpture in His own image, and then breathed life into them. And then He formed the woman from a part of Him, making them complimentary equals. He bestowed upon these two beings something unique in the world… a living spirit that reflected His own. Humanity was designed to bear God’s own image, to carry His divine breath inside us. We are the best thing He ever made, and He loves us very much.
And He took His two favourite creations, named Adam and Eve, and put them into a wonderful garden and gave them the task to spread His glory and make more images in the form of children that would stretch from that little garden to the whole rest of the world. A whole planet of image bearers in perfect relationship with their Creator. There was endless food, total comfort, no shame, no danger, no anger, meaningful work, and perfect love. Greed wasn’t a problem, relationships weren’t a problem, sex wasn’t a problem, disease wasn’t heard of, and best of all, these humans had the glorious privilege of walking and talking with God face to face. It was the best place ever and would only get better. But it didn’t stay that way.
Chapter 2: The Fall
Adam and Eve, with some help from the devil himself, decided that God’s plan wasn’t good enough. God had placed them where they would have everything they could ever need, but had only one rule: Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
In a world of delicious options, there was only one tree from which they weren’t allowed to eat. Can you imagine a world where there is only one bad choice? Everything else on the entire planet was a good, healthy, satisfying choice. There was only one bad one.
Many have asked why God would put that tree there at all. The answer is simply this: without it, there would have been no choice. In order for His creation to have free will and the ability to love, there must be options. To make love real, there must be a way to choose not to love. To make obedience real there must be a choice not to obey. To make trust real there must be a way to show one does not believe God’s Word. If there is to be a real relationship between creator and creation, rejection must be an option.
Adam and Eve made the other choice. When given the choice to love, trust and obey, they chose not to. They chose to believe God was holding out on them. They chose to take that which they were not allowed to have and which they had been warned would do them harm. That choice is called sin and it changed the whole of creation.
Chapter 3: Cast Out From Eden
The moment Adam and Eve decided to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, everything changed. At that moment something new entered the world called “sin”. God had warned them that everything would change, but they did it anyway. He warned them of the consequence of death coming through sin, but they did it anyway. They didn’t want only the knowledge of life, they wanted the knowledge of death too. They knew that once they ate it they would have a special knowledge which they didn’t have before – something God didn’t want for them, which would hurt them… and they ate anyway. Before that moment they only knew “good”… but after they fell to temptation, they now knew “good and evil”.
And since God is good, perfect and holy, and He can’t be in relationship with evil – He has no part with evil or evil-doers. In His love, He cannot let the infection of sin go untreated. In His justice, He cannot allow sin to go unpunished. Now, because of their choice, He could no longer communicate face to face with His beloved people because the white-hot furnace of His holiness would utterly destroy them. All because of the decision to sin.
As stewards of the world, and since the world was created for them, the sin not only affected them but the rest of the world as well. They were the pinnacle of creation and now that they had sinned all of creation was marred and effected – it’s like their sin bled inky blackness from them onto everything else in the universe.
Within moments of falling to temptation, we read of shame, anger, distrust, fear, blame… then weeds, toil, pain, frustration, heartache. Everything changed because of sin. God’s wrath and justice were at work, but in an act of divine grace, they were cast out of Eden so they would not eat of the Tree of Life as well and be trapped forever in their sinful state.
And, as God had promised, Adam and Eve would now know death. You see, death was something that wasn’t a part of God’s perfect design. But every choice has a consequence, and the consequence of disobeying the law is judgement. All humanity believes in some form of justice – it’s a carryover from being made in His image. A good parent, a good society, a good God, punishes wrong. And the punishment for sin is death.
All bad news, right? Well, even though it was all bad news, there was one glimmer of hope in the whole midst – the promise of salvation to come. Even in the midst of passing His judgement, God shares the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, promising Eve that one day, Someone born of women will finally do something to reverse all of their mess. That, one day, someone would come and do battle with the death and Satan (Genesis 3:15). Though it would be bleak for a while, and the consequences were dire, God’s Gospel said there was still hope.
Chapter 4: Noah
Even though humanity had fallen and was now outside the Garden of Eden, it didn’t stop them from “going forth and multiplying”. Adam and Eve were having children, and their children were having children, and the world was being populated.
Not only were people multiplying, but their sin was multiplying too. People were actually getting worse. The bible says that by the time of Noah things were really grim. It says in Genesis 6:5 that “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
Eight generations had gone by, and there were lots of people on the earth, and they were inventing new ways to be evil, corrupt to the core, completely disregarding their Creator and their fellow man.
The Bible says that God was grieved. He had such a great love for His people, but they had so completely turned their backs on Him and were doing such harm to each other that He was sorry that He had made them in the first place. As God, as Creator, it is His right to do whatever He wants with His creation, so He sent a flood to wipe them out, to wash away the wickedness which had gotten completely out of control.
But again we see the gospel of grace in the midst of judgement. There was a man named Noah who was Adam’s Great x8 grandson. God saved Noah and his family because they were the only family left who was listening to Him. Was Noah perfect? Did he earn salvation by being a good person? No, but He loved God and lived like God mattered. It was not that Noah was worthy to be saved, but that He was the only one listening to the message of salvation.
After the flood, God started over using Noah and his family to repopulate the world again. That’s what God does. He takes an impossible situation and adds justice, creativity, grace, love, and hope. Yes, humanity would fall again. Noah didn’t make it very far out of the ark before he and his family were sinning again. But even that pointed to Jesus.
We sometimes wonder why God doesn’t just wipe out all the bad people and just leave us good ones? It’s because we are all bad people! None are free from the effects of sin. Even the most righteous man on earth was not good enough to stay righteous for long. The problem of sin goes deep, very deep. Humanity has an internal problem, a depravity that goes to our very core. That needs to be dealt with. Sin isn’t just about good people who occasionally do bad things – it describes something broken inside of us that will always pull us away from God. A curse that needs to be lifted before we can get right with God.
And so, God set the rainbow in the sky, promising never to flood humanity again because He was about to put His full plan into motion.
Chapter 5: Abraham
Right around the death of Noah, a man named Abram was born. God’s gospel plan continues as He, in an act of amazing grace, chooses to show love to an obscure, pagan man, who neither knew Him nor followed Him. Abram wasn’t anyone special, just a guy who God decided to show love to, to give an invitation to, but who was willing to listen and obey. God says, “leave your country and your people and go into a different land.” and he does.
God then makes a promise to Abram – who was then a senior citizen married to a barren wife with no children – that he would have many descendants and they would become a great nation. In fact, God promises that the whole world would be blessed because of his family line. He would give them a special place to live and would take care of them. This was such a wild promise that the moment his wife Sarai heard it, she laughed out loud. God presses forward, changes Abram’s name to Abraham, Saria’s to Sarah, and gets to work.
This was a pretty good deal for Abraham, but he never gets to see the plan fully worked out during his lifetime. That doesn’t mean God didn’t keep his promise, though. Abraham did have 8 children, each becoming the father of different people groups. His second son, Jacob, would really see God’s blessings taken to another level as his children became the 12 patriarchs of the nation of Israel. It was these twelve families that would form the political and geographic system through which the rest of God’s plan of salvation for the world would be carried out.
Chapter 6: Joseph
Now, God needs to make sure that this family is taken care of, which is where we get the story of Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob. God, amazingly, uses the anger and jealousy of Joseph’s brothers, the terrible reality of kidnapping and slave trade, and years of wrongful imprisonment as the plan to save this one family from a terrible drought would hit the land. Most of us here know or have heard the story of Joseph.
His story was full of suffering. Though he was God’s chosen man, he went through some really tough stuff, but after a time, God used it to raise Joseph up to a position where he would not only be able to take care of His own people but to save Egypt and the surrounding lands from famine. Then, in Egypt, God prepared His people for the next phase of His plan.
Chapter 7: Moses
Jacob, Joseph and their family was down in Egypt and doing fine for a long time until a different Pharaoh came into power who didn’t know about what Joseph had done and didn’t remember the promises the previous administration had made to his family. Instead of being thankful, he started to fear Jacob’s growing family (who were now being called “Israelites” after the new name God had called Jacob). But instead of using diplomacy or communication, he suddenly decided to force the whole nation to be the slaves of Egypt. They were in slavery for hundreds of years, suffering, but still having many children.
One of these children was someone you know, a man named Moses. At exactly the right time in history, God worked some powerful miracles and used Moses as the person to lead His people out of Egypt as one, unified nation, ready to get back home to the land that God promised their father Abraham so many years ago — the “Promised land”.
Pharaoh tried to stand in the way of God’s deliverance, but after 10 plagues, he finally let them go. The final plague was another picture of God’s salvation plan, pointing to Jesus. The angel of death would come upon Egypt and the only way to be saved from the curse was to have the blood of a spotless lamb spread on the entrance of their home, and for them to hide behind that blood so death would pass them over.
But before they went to the Promised Land, God brought them to a place where He would make a covenant with them, a contractual agreement. He told them that as long as they would commit themselves to be His special people, trusting and worshipping Him alone, just like Adam and Eve were supposed to, He would take care of them. They would be victorious and well supplied.
God, in His grace, knowing that they would say “yes” to the contract, but because of their inherent sin problem would, within days, turn back to sin, gave them laws to live by so they would know how to worship Him, care for one another, and be different from the rest of the world. “I am the only God and worship me only. Don’t murder each other. Don’t steal from each other. Honour your parents.” All these rules were for their own good and intended to make sure that the relationships between Him and each other would be peaceful.
But God did something even better than the Law. He gave them a religious system by which they could temporarily deal with their sin problem and be able to approach God. This would be a bloody system, full of death. Not just one lamb, but many, many animals. It would culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the Day of Deliverance, the most important annual celebration of the year where the High Priest would symbolically place all of the sins of the nation on an animal and then kill it in the place of the people. The payment for sin is death. God had the right to destroy everyone who sins immediately, but instead, He allowed the shed-blood of an animal to stand in their place for a short period of time. It was temporary forgiveness and the sacrifices went on day after day, year after year.
All of this again pointed to Jesus, the one who would come and be the once-and-for-all, perfect sacrifice, to die in the place of sinners, making a way for us to have permanent forgiveness, restoring us back to the same relationship we had with God before Adam and Eve ate that cursed fruit.
So now, Israel was free from slavery, ready to take back the Promised Land, had a good leader in Moses, wonderful laws to protect them, God’s promise to care for them, and a system by which they could be in relationship with God… but of course, having good laws and good a religion didn’t actually fix the problem of sin. Just as wiping away all of humanity in a flood, leaving only one, good family didn’t solve the problem of sin, making a list of rules didn’t either.
The people were still under the curse of sin; their souls still bent away from God, and so wouldn’t and couldn’t obey the law. It wasn’t long before they turned from the law, their religion, and from God, and started praying to, worshipping, and putting their trust in created things instead of the Creator – even wooden and stone statues of their own making.
Even after being delivered from slavery by miracles, given more miracles on their journey to the Promised Land, given a good leader in Moses, give a Law written by God Himself – emphasized with thunder and earthquakes and even more miracles – it wasn’t enough to keep them from committing more sins and evil. Plus death still existed in the world. There was more that needed to be done.
Chapter 8: Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.
The next chapter is a sort of in-between time which you can call Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat, and it would last 1000 years. It was the time of the Judges, the Kings and the Prophets. In the time between the giving of the Law and the birth of Jesus the Saviour, a lot of things happened, but it seemed to keep to this endless cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.
As far as good things that happened: With God’s help they reclaimed the Promised Land, and divided it up amongst the 12 tribes. They built some great cities and became one of the richest civilizations in history, wrote Psalms and Proverbs, even took down the Tabernacle – the temporary tent of worship – and built a beautiful temple in the holy city of Jerusalem.
But it was more bad than good. They broke every law in God’s book over and over. They made idols, cheated and abused each other, broke the Sabbath, and even sacrificed their own children to demons. Throughout this time God kept raising up prophets to warn them about the consequences of their bad decisions, but they kept killing the prophets!
For a long time, God was the King of Israel, but eventually, they decided that they didn’t want God to be King anymore, but instead wanted to be like all the other nations and have a human king. This was like a slap in God’s face! He had always been their ruler, their Lawgiver, great judge, provider, the one to keep them safe and lead their armies — and now He wasn’t good enough. God’s chosen people, the one that he picked out from among all the others, the one that He had promised Abraham would be a great nation, once they had become one, turned their backs on Him, just like all those who had come before. Just like Eden.
Most of the kings were a mess of sin and selfishness, but God in His mercy kept sending prophets to show the way back to Him. Each of the prophets would remind the nation of God’s hatred for sin and how much He wanted them to come back to Him, warning them about the dangers of sin, and saying He would have to discipline them for their own good.
Then, since no one would listen, the prophets would keep talking about the Promised One who would finally come and end this cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat, once and for all. One who would finally obey. They spoke of the One who was promised to Adam and Eve, who would come through Abraham’s tribe, who would conquer evil, sin and even death. The coming of Jesus is spoken of in every book of the Old Testament.
This cycle went on for years… hundreds and hundreds of years… and all the while God was continuing to prepare the world for Jesus. Raising up nations, setting the stage for the birth of Jesus at exactly the right time. He was showing everyone, through Israel, that there was not one person who could obey Him, not one who would worship Him rightly. The prophets would fail, the priests would fail, the kings would fail, the heroes would fail, the people would rebel… the Law condemned everyone.
They needed one who would be called the Messiah, which means the “Chosen One”. He would be the one who would finally break the pattern. He would finally obey the law perfectly, love God and others perfectly, be the perfect prophet, perfect priest, and perfect king. He would conquer their enemies, bring justice to the oppressed, and lead people into a right relationship with God. He would be called the Christ, the Anointed One. And for years, Israel waited.
Chapter 9: The Messiah
God was waiting until the world was just right (Gal 4:4). Israel was at the pinnacle of their rebellion. The Romans had built a civilization that would allow the story of Jesus to travel throughout the world. God waited until just the right moment to send His greatest Gift to the world. But He surprised everyone by how He did it.
Consider the irony of how Jesus entered the world. Since the beginning of time, people were waiting for this One Person to come. This would be the most important person in history, the Saviour of the world. And when He finally came… almost no one knew. When the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus, finally arrived, He didn’t come as a mighty King on a white horse leading a huge army. He didn’t come in a bolt of lightning on a mountain, with a booming voice proclaiming the Judgement of God.
He came as a baby, a helpless infant. The Son of a virgin, adopted by a poor, Galilean Carpenter. Born in a stable, laid in a feeding trough in a tiny village. A nobody from nowhere.
No palace like King Solomon. No fanfare like King David. No blasts of fire like Elijah. The Chosen One came in so quietly that His presence went nearly unnoticed by almost all of those who were looking for Him. The Jewish scholars of the day (and today) are looking for a political leader, a military conqueror… but that’s not what they got… at least not yet.
His identity didn’t stay hidden forever. And what did God’s chosen people do when they finally found out their Messiah had come? What was humanities response to the Saviour?
Well, one of the first people to hear, when Jesus was only a couple years old, was King Herod, who immediately tried to murder Him. That would typify a lot of His life and ministry. Rejection and suffering would be the pattern of Jesus’ life.
Today is Palm Sunday. Today is the day that, 2000 years ago, the followers of Jesus laid palm branches and their cloaks at the feet of Jesus who was riding into Jerusalem, showing Himself to be the King of the Jews and the one foretold by the prophets. He was signalling His position as King, the one who they should submit to, listen to, obey. But they were celebrating something different. They thought this meant Jesus would conquer the Roman army, overthrow their political oppressors, set them up as the most powerful kingdom in the world. They were right to celebrate, but they were wrong about how Jesus would do it. And when He didn’t do things their way… their disappointment immediately turned to rage.
I can’t say it any better than the Deacon Stephen does to the Jewish Ruling Counsel right before they killed him. Stephen was standing before the very people who were supposed to teach Israel about the coming of Jesus! They were the ones who should have been the first to know, acknowledge and spread the news that God had sent the Messiah!
Stephen says to them: “You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you! Name one prophet that your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous one –The Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.” (Acts 7:51-53)
Humanity did it again! God Himself enters the world in human form. He sends His own beloved Son, 100% God and 100% man, the only One who could save us from sin and death. The perfect one to teach us how to live, love and worship properly. And what is our response? We condemn the Anointed One, the Messiah, the perfect Son of God, to the worst, most painful, agonizing, excruciating death imaginable… a Roman cross. We murdered God.
One would think that that would be the end of the story. Where do you go when there is no more hope left? How can an author finish a story when the hero is killed and buried before the villain is defeated? You can’t. The story must stop when the hero is dead, right?
For a moment, God’s pen lifts from the paper. The world looks bleak. There is no hope. The disciples are scattered. The Messiah is dead. The villain has won. Sin will reign forever.…
Chapter 10: The Resurrection
But our God is the greatest author of all. His pen stops for only a moment. He turns the page and begins the next chapter. The death of Jesus Christ would not be the end of the story. Three days after Jesus dies God writes something that turns the greatest defeat in history into the climax of His Epic tale. He turns dead silence into a loud crescendo! He turns ultimate tragedy into ultimate victory!
God flips all History on its head. In the story God is writing there are no mistakes. The One who was to be our Saviour… was supposed to die. His victory came because of His death. Suddenly all of the foreshadowing in the Old Testament makes sense. There can be no greater hero than One who would give His life for others. He would be the one to crush the serpent. He would be spotless lamb whose blood would save from death. He would be the final sacrifice of that religious system. His death would be the means by which we would be saved.
The Messiah’s mission was to defeat the greatest enemy of this world. Almost everyone thought that this meant that it would be a political, military, human enemy. But God, the great author, reveals that humanity’s greatest enemy isn’t any person or nation or empire… the greatest enemy in this world is sin. It was sin that needed to be conquered.
If sin was left unconquered, then humanity was doomed. Do you know the name of the place where love and grace are removed and physical and spiritual death reign forever? It’s called Hell. Sin puts us on a one-way path to Hell with nothing to stop it. That needed to be dealt with.
Not sickness, not poverty, not wrath or gluttony or lust or abuse. All of those are a result of sin and there was only one way to deal with sin. The flood didn’t work. The list of Laws didn’t work. The bloody sacrificial system didn’t work. Good kings didn’t work. Advancing civilization didn’t work. Because none of it dealt with sin. Sin needed to be paid for, dealt with, and destroyed.
And so God, in His grace, sent His Son Jesus, and then poured out the full measure of His judgement against sin on Jesus. We will never understand the full measure of the suffering Jesus took for those who would put their faith in Him. Jesus – the perfect human, the only One who did not deserve judgement, chose to take the punishment for anyone who would believe and trust in Him so we could be restored back to God.
But, just as in Eden, God offers a choice. God does not save everyone whether they want it or not. God does not force anyone to follow Him. Love requires a choice. So God offers a choice.
God does all the heavy lifting. He shows us He exists through creation. He shows us our sin through our conscience. He shows us his plan of salvation in the scriptures. He raises up people to share his plan of salvation. Jesus does all the work of obeying God’s law and dying for sin – and then He makes each of us an offer. Will you accept Jesus as your only Lord and your only Saviour?
Jesus is the ultimate hero as He walks out of the grave, conquering the greatest enemy ever. He defeats the effects of sin. He beats death. That weight of judgement that humanity had borne for thousands of years was placed on His shoulders, and He carried it, paid for it, and then extends his pierced hands and offers the freedom He bought with His own blood freely to anyone who would believe in Him.
As Romans 10:9-10 says, “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”
Chapter 11: The Denouement
Today, we are living in the denouement, the end of the great Epic. The story has unfolded, the villain has been conquered, the Hero has been lifted high, and His people are victorious. We are living in the days of epilogue before God brings His first story to a close at the Final Judgement. Every day gets us closer to the end of this story and closer to the next book, the story of eternity.
This Epic is the greatest message that can be known: That you were designed by a loving creator who gives you a hope and a purpose, and life is more than just food, money, sex, friends, and a career. That your instinct towards justice and desire for hope and peace can be fulfilled. That your decisions have eternal consequences. That you need not fear death and that even your most terrible suffering can be turned into great victories. That you are worthy of and can experience divine love, the cleansing of your soul, and be made into a new person. That God will never leave you, never forsake you, and because of the work of our Hero, Jesus Christ, you can live in His presence today and forever.
This is a great story because it is a true story. People have loved it so much and believed in the Hero so deeply, that they have died to tell it to others. I urge you, if you have not already, to accept the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, to read this story over and over in your Bibles, and to tell His story, this Epic, to as many people as you can.
**Content Warning: This post may be a little graphic.**
Seeing the title of this post may be a little surprising to you but it’s a topic that I’ve been meaning to cover for a long time. And since I don’t have to prepare a sermon this week I thought that this would be a perfect time to work on it.
Why did I want to cover such a topic? Because it comes up a lot more than you might think in my counselling ministry. I’ve been asked the question, “Is it okay to masturbate?” many times over the years. I’ve been asked by men, women, teens, moms, dads, husbands and wives. I’ve been asked face to face by people in my home church and through e-mail by people all around the world who have contacted me through my blog. This is a relevant and important topic and I want to try to give it a proper treatment.
But since I don’t have to write a sermon this week, instead of writing it as a block of theological prose, I want to do it in the form of a conversation.
Three People One Conversation
Corrine (40): “Hi, Pastor Al. I’m the mother of a teen boy and a teen girl and I have a really personal question for you. What does the Bible say about masturbation? My son has started to take 20-minute showers and I’m starting to find laundry baskets full of sticky clothes and I’m sure he’s masturbating. My daughter probably is too, though I’ve never caught her. It makes me angry and scared and I want to yell at them and tell them to stop, but I don’t know what to say.”
Kyle (15): “Hey, Pastor Al. I’ve got a problem. Or, at least, I think it’s a problem. I don’t know. Maybe not. I know porn is bad and I’m not supposed to have sex before marriage and stuff, but what about masturbation? My school tells me it’s natural and healthy and some websites I’ve seen even tell me it’s good for my mental health, but I feel really guilty after I’ve done it. What does the Bible say about it?”
Ted (31): “G’mornin’, Pastor Al. Actually, I’m not doing very well today. I feel sad, sick, depressed, and angry. I’ve been married for a while now, and I love my wife, but my sex life is pretty much dead. Between work, the kids, her health, our busy schedules, her period, and everything else, we basically don’t do it anymore. And the last couple times we’ve done it, she’s been so unresponsive that it’s not even enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong, I love her, and the rest of our marriage is pretty good, but it’s killing me that we can’t be together. I think I’m one of those men with high testosterone because I’m literally always horny. And I can hold it together for a little while, but after a few days, it’s all I can think about. I start to get angry and have sex dreams and feel irritable and depressed. That’s when I do it and I’m so sick of that cycle. I’ve been working really hard not to look at porn, though I do fail sometimes, but what about just doing it myself so I can stay sane? Am I allowed to just get myself off in the shower and be done with it? When I do I try to think of my wife. It makes me feel better for a bit – while at the same time it makes me feel guilty too. So, what do you think? Does the Bible even say anything about that kind of stuff?”
Pastor Al: “Wow, that sounds really tough, and I’m really glad you had the courage to come to me and ask about it. Not only that, I’m really proud of you that you are asking the question ‘What does the Bible say?’ because that means you want to do things God’s way and that shows humility and obedience. That’s really good. The first thing I need to ask you is this: What’s the pornography situation in your home right now? Do you have blockers on the internet or is it wide open? Is this question really about pornography or is it about masturbation?”
CKT: “Yes, we’ve got the blockers up and all that. Our house is locked down. The only place it can be accessed is through the data on the cell phones, but we have safe-guards on them and don’t have a tonne of data so that’s not really a big issue. This really is about masturbation.”
Pastor Al: “Ok, that’s good, because it’s an important distinction. What do you know already? I’m guessing you’ve already done some googling, right?”
CKT: “Some, but there are a million websites with a million different answers, and half of the response that come up are pornographic so I just gave up and came to you. But I did learn that Christians call masturbation ‘Onanism’ for some reason. What’s that all about?”
Pastor Al: “Yeah, let’s get that out of the way. Onan was a guy in the Old Testament who was killed by God because he ‘spilled his semen on the ground’ (Gen 38:9). Some people think this means that any man who ejaculates anywhere except into a woman’s vagina is sinning, but that’s now what it means. According to God’s law, if a married man died without a child, another one of his family members was obligated to marry the widow and sire a son so that the dead man’s property would be passed down to her son and the widow would be taken care of. Onan didn’t want to obey this law because he wanted the land for himself. He was happy to have sex but didn’t want to risk her getting pregnant, so whenever they had sex he pulled out. So Onan’s sin wasn’t ‘spilling his semen on the ground’, it was refusing to obey God’s law and not caring for the widow, but using her instead.”
Pastor Al: “But definitions are still important. Strictly speaking masturbation, simply put, is stimulating yourself in such a way that it produces sexual arousal. That’s it.”
CKT: “Ok, but is it a sin?”
Pastor Al: “Well, it’s not quite that simple. There’s actually no Bible verse you can go to that says that masturbation is either good or bad. There are lots of verses about sexual purity, but nothing about masturbation.”
CKT: “So it’s okay?”
Pastor Al: “Well, hold on. Let’s explore it a little bit more. It’s not that the Bible has nothing to say, it’s just that there’s no ‘gotcha verse’. Look at 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 for example. The ESV gives this section the title ‘Flee Sexual Immorality’, right? Here, let me read it to you:
‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything. ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 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. So glorify God in your body.
Paul starts by saying, essentially, “Jesus has freed us from the Law that forced God’s people to eat, drink, wash, travel, clothe themselves, etc. in certain ways. Jesus fulfilled the Law and opened up the world to His people to enjoy and explore free from the restrictions of the Law which only brought guilt. But that doesn’t mean we are free to do whatever we want. Romans 6 says that Jesus doesn’t set us free to do whatever, but instead that we “have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” (Rom 6:18). That means that even though we have tonnes of freedom in Christ, far more than any Jew or other hyper-religious nuts, there are still limitations because we are not our own, we are the property of Christ and He can tell us to do what He wants. Paul talks about some of those limitations in 1 Corinthians.
We all want a ‘gotcha verse’ to make this simpler, but there isn’t one. So, since there is no Law or scripture specifically against masturbation, then that means we have to ask some more questions, and I think this passage gives us 4 really good ones: “Is masturbation helpful?” “Is masturbation dominating me?” “Does masturbation honour God’s plan for sexual purity in marriage?” “Does masturbation glorify God?”
CKT: “It sounds like you are saying that it’s bad, right? It’s hard to believe masturbation is helpful and God-glorifying!”
Pastor Al: “Not necessarily. Just because something doesn’t sound God-glorifying, doesn’t mean it isn’t. People starve themselves in fasting and that glorifies God. Police officers and soldiers kill people and that glorifies God. Parents punish and discipline their children and that glorifies God. And when doctors slice people open, fill them with poison, and blast them with radiation that causes them to be terribly sick to cure cancer – and that also glorifies God. Right?”
CKT: “Well, now I’m really confused.”
Pastor Al: “Hang in there because what we’re talking about isn’t as simple as ‘Don’t steal’ or ‘Be generous’. It’s more complicated because it has far more to do with your motives than your actions.”
CKT: “Ok, so how do I figure out the motive? From what I can tell it’s just horniness.”
Pastor Al: “Well, there’s a lot happening when someone masturbates, so let’s do a pros and cons list to see what’s actually going on behind the surface of the action. So, why do people masturbate?”
CKT: “Well, it feels good. But that’s not a good reason for anything, is it?”
Pastor Al: “It’s not a bad reason though. People do lots of things just because they feel good. People eat cake, which has very little nutritional value, but I never get asked whether the Bible says it’s ok to eat cake. People skydive and surf and look at art and get suntans and swim and get massages and back-scratches and their nails done… and none of that is in the Bible. They just do it because it feels good. That doesn’t make it wrong.”
CKT: “Ok. It also alleviates pressure. There’s a bunch of pent-up emotions inside that get some kind of release afterwards.”
Pastor Al: “Sure. Anything else?”
CKT: “Some people say it’s a good way to learn about how you get pleasure so you can enjoy sex with your partner more.”
Pastor Al: “Alright.”
CKT: “And, uh… I guess it relieves stress? I know someone who couldn’t get to sleep at night unless they did it before bed because it helped them sleep.”
Pastor Al: “Well, stress relief yes, but that person may have been addicted.”
Pastor Al: “Yeah, pretty much anything can become addictive. If this person literally couldn’t stop, used it as their main source of escape, and felt compelled to keep doing it even if they didn’t want to, they were addicted.”
Pastor Al: “Yeah. Masturbation is a powerful thing. We’ve already talked about some of the good things it can provide, like physical pleasure and stress relief, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have dangers. Just like food can make you fat, exercise can ruin your body, and work can destroy your marriage, using a good thing in bad ways can cause real problems.
That’s the next question: ‘Is masturbation dominating me?’ Pastors, counsellors and mental health experts are all over the map with this topic because masturbation (especially to orgasm) has such a powerful effect. Doctors and psychiatrists will look at compulsive masturbation as a sign of potential mental, emotional, or behavioural problems. It can be a sign that there’s something happening beneath the surface that is far more serious.
When it gets out of control chronic masturbation can lead to withdrawal from life, disengaging with healthy relationships, and actually drive someone into deeper levels of depression.
God made sex feel good because He wants us to enjoy it. When our genitals are stimulated we feel pleasure, excitement, distraction, release, and our brain starts to squirt out all kinds of good-feeling chemicals like dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin. That’s a wonderful gift. And it works even when we pleasure ourselves privately.
The issue is that our desire for masturbation can be masking much greater problems. The reason that we get addicted or think about it all the time isn’t necessarily because we like masturbating so much – it’s because there’s something wrong in our lives and we know that spending some time alone doing that is a guaranteed way to be free from those negative feelings for a while. It works every time.
Incidentally, that’s how all addictions start. Something’s wrong with life and the person finds a substance or activity that gives them a rush and makes them forget their problems for a time. Whether it’s shooting heroin, eating until their sick, binging Netflix, thrill-seeking, or masturbating, it’s the same obsessive drive. And then it’s not long until that addiction starts to take over healthy things in their life. They withdraw from their family, friends, church, and school so they can do it more. When they are offered positive, healthy choices – counselling, nutritious food, a board game with the family, or sex with their spouse – they say no because they don’t get the same rush as they do from their addiction. That’s when things really start to spiral.
CKT: “Well, that’s scary! I don’t think it’s at the level of addiction though. I think it’s more about alleviating the pressure. After all, we all have these biological urges inside us (given to us by God, by the way) and it’s not our fault that we want release, is it?”
Pastor Al: “No, it’s not. But for every one of our desires, God has given us a way to have them fulfilled in a righteous way. It’s our sinful nature that corrupts those desires and tries to fulfill them in sinful ways. (James 1:14-17)
Say you have a desire for power. Our sinful nature tells you to dominate people, oppress them, control them. God says, if you want real power, submit your will to mine and live by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Say you have a desire for riches. Our sinful nature says to steal from others, work too much, hoard your stuff, don’t share. God says if you want real riches, tithe properly, give things away, take care of the poor, and live simply, then you’ll see treasure beyond your imagination.
God gives us a desire for tasty food, we invent refined sugar. God gives us a desire for justice, we invent revenge. God gives us a desire for peace, we punish anyone who disturbs us. God gives us a natural desire for intimate relationships and sexual release, we invent pornography and spend time away from humanity wrapped in a shield of self-stimulation.
Sometimes we get depressed, anxious, afraid, lonely, or angry and we feel bad and want a pick-me-up. God invites us to cast our cares upon Him in prayer, gives us His Word to read so we can hear His voice, gives us brothers and sisters in Christ to call, gives us the beauty of His creation to walk in, a thousand things to study in the world, and worship music to sing to lift our spirits – but instead, we lock ourselves in our bathroom alone so we can play with ourselves because we know it’s an easy way to get a hit of those feel-good brain chemicals.
So, the question comes, ‘Does masturbation honour God’s plan for the way He wants us to fulfil that desire?’”
CKT: “Ok, so I know pornography is bad, and I know there are lots of other things to do when the urge hits. And I know the importance of keeping busy and going for walks and stuff — believe me, I’ve tried! But sometimes going for a walk or listening to music or reading isn’t an option, or it isn’t helpful. And right now, in this situation, finding sexual release from a loving spouse is… just… not possible!”
Pastor Al: “Ok, so now I’m going to ask you a very personal question. What kind of thoughts go through a person’s head when they masturbate? What thoughts go through yours?”
CKT: “Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but there are a variety of things, I guess. All the porn is blocked, but I’m able to find sexual comics online. They’re not real people, just drawings, so it’s not really porn. Sometimes I read sexy stories. Or, sometimes I picture my spouse doing things that I want them to do. Sometimes I dwell on those types of things for a while, but mostly I just use them to get myself started so I can get done faster. Why, is that wrong? It’s not porn!”
Pastor Al: “You seem a little defensive. How do those things make you feel? What does your conscience say?”
CKT: “Honestly, they all feel wrong. Looking at naked drawings of people having sex seems wrong. Readings stories about people having sex seem wrong. And I feel guilty about it. But what about fanaticizing about my spouse [or future spouse]? How can that be wrong?”
Pastor Al: “There’s the operative word: ‘fantasizing’. And fantasies can be dangerous. You’re right about the sex comics and stories. They’re sinful stories about sinful actions that create sinful thoughts that affect your ability to have a holy thought life. Jesus said in Mark 7:21–23, ‘For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’ and porn, sexual comics and stories are all defiling. When Paul wrote in Philippians 4:8 about guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, he said, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” and those comics and sexual stories are neither true nor honourable nor pure nor lovely nor commendable to others. Would you ever in a million years link to those comics on social media or give them to your small group to read? No way, right? That should tell you something.
In the same way, fantasies about your spouse are equally dangerous. That person in your mind may look like your spouse, but they aren’t, are they? They do and say things your spouse wouldn’t do or say, right? Essentially, what you’ve done, is dressed a porn star or prostitute in your spouse’s skin and have made them perform for you. And that’s damaging to your soul and your marriage. It causes resentment, bitterness, anger, and lust to swell in you because your reality will never be the same as your fantasy. It is, without question, a way for Satan to drive a wedge between you and your spouse, and you and the God who provided that spouse for you.”
CKT: “I’ve never thought of it like that.”
Pastor Al: “Yeah, it’s serious business. Ok, so what have we covered so far?”
CKT: “Well, the first question was ‘Is masturbation helpful?’ and we came up with a few ways it can be like stress relief and learning about your body. The second question was, ‘Is masturbation dominating me?’ which led to talking about addiction and how masturbation can be a sign of greater problems. The third question was, ‘Does masturbation honour God’s plan for sexual purity in marriage?’ and that really seemed to put a nail in the coffin, didn’t it? It’s hard to see how a person can masturbate while keeping their minds totally clean and pure and holy, right?”
Pastor Al: “That’s definitely a problem. But it’s not necessarily a deal breaker. After all one could say the same thing about sports. Some people get super competitive or trash-talk or start to hate the people on other teams. Or we could say the same thing about alcohol. Some people can have a glass of wine and it’s no big deal at all. Other people know that they can’t do it because it’s a real problem for them. Just because some people get super-triggered by something doesn’t mean it’s bad for everyone. That’s what Romans 14 is all about, right?”
CKT: “Ok, so that only leaves the last question. ‘Does masturbation glorify God?’”
Pastor Al: “Right. So what do you think the answer is?”
CKT: “Well, based on what we’ve been talking about I would say that since there’s no verse that says God forbids it, and since there are some good things that come from it, I suppose it could glorify God when we do it. Boy, that’s weird to say out loud. But there seem to be lots and lots of ways that it can be dangerous or addictive or sinful and therefore not glorify God. Is that right?”
Pastor Al: “Pretty good! Most people wish God would be super-clear about this kind of thing, but the fact is, He’s not. God has given us freedom to enjoy this world and glorify Him in millions of ways. Some of those ways are done in relationship with others, like serving, counselling, corporate worship, teaching, being a parent or child, or being married – but some things are done totally alone. God even says in Matthew 6 that things like doing good deeds, giving, and a lot of our praying should be done in such a way that no one ever sees it. The Bible says that everything we do – no matter how wonderful or mundane, how public or secret – can be a continual, living, holy, acceptable sacrifice of worship to God – and that could, potentially also include masturbation.”
CKT: “Really? How?”
Pastor Al: “Well, let’s do a little checklist. Masturbation could glorify God if:
- You keep your mind out of the gutter and only think of things that are excellent, lovely, praiseworthy, true, etc.
- You are not addicted to it, but are being self-controlled in your use of it.
- You are not choosing it instead of other, better things like time with your loved ones, worship, prayer, scripture, church, counselling, etc.
- You’re doing it as a way to help yourself or others to be more holy.
CKT: “Wait, what? Masturbate so you can be more holy?”
Pastor Al: “Well, 1 Corinthians 7:2-5 says that sexual frustration is a path to temptation and sin, right? That’s why we get married. It says,
‘But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.’
The best way for a person to deal with their sexual urges is with their spouse. And a spouse should do what they can to help out. But if a spouse simply cannot do anything because they are too sick or infirm, then it seems to me that the next step is to have a conversation with the spouse about masturbation. After all, when you get married your body isn’t just your own, it’s owned by God and your spouse too.
So, if you can get right with God about masturbating, then the next step is to get right with your spouse. If they say that you can do it because it’s going to help you and your relationship, and you can do it in such a way that you’re not fanaticizing about other people or some porned-up version of your spouse, then why not?
Or, say you’re not married but in a constant state of distraction because your hormones are totally going crazy. You’ve prayed for help, read your bible, are practicing self-control, are trying to keep your thoughts pure, but your sexuality is ever-present and there’s no way to get married. There’s nothing in scripture that says you can’t masturbate. Yes, there’s a laundry list of warnings about how you can do it wrong – but that’s true about a lot of things.
I’m not saying it’s a perfect solution and I’m not saying it’s right for everyone. All I’m saying is that according to what I read in scripture, there is a way to masturbate in a way that glorifies God and helps holiness. Maybe, sometimes, one thing you can do to help yourself to serve God and others better is to masturbate.
Think of it like having a cup of coffee or taking an afternoon nap. You’ve got somewhere to be at 3pm and nothing to do between now and then. You’re tired but you’ve got your work done and have some free time. You’ve done your devos, had a snack, chatted with your family, and now you’re alone. You’re not bored or sad or angry or depressed, you’re not trying to escape life or create artificial joy, you just know that the 3pm event is going to take some energy. So you have a choice. Make a pot of coffee and have a couple mugs or go to bed and have a nap. Neither is wrong and you’re motives are good.
Do some people abuse coffee? Sure. Do some people sleep too much? Sure. But that’s not your problem. You’re just doing what you think is right and you know that God, your family, and your spirit are at peace with that decision. That cup of coffee or that nap will bring glory to God. Maybe masturbation can do the same thing for some people.”
CKT: “Ok, Pastor Al. I think I have some thinking and praying to do. Some of that is way outside my field of experience and I really need to chew on that. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me about this. Please pray that I make the right decision and honour God with how I deal with it.”
Pastor Al: “Will do, CKT. Have a great day! Let me know if you have any more questions.”
I got a lot of help from:
- Butman, R. E. (1999). Masturbation. In D. G. Benner & P. C. Hill (Eds.), Baker encyclopedia of psychology & counseling (2nd ed., p. 726). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)
The very first line of “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” from CS Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” is one of my favourites. It says,
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
If you’ve read the Narnia books or watched the movies, then you’ll remember Eustace Clarence Scrubb. He begins the book as a thoroughly unlikeable character. He’s honestly worse than the White Witch. Sure, she was pure evil, but Eustice was a self-centred, know-it-all, cowardly, jerk.
If you don’t know who I’m talking about, then maybe you’ll remember the feeling you had when watching or reading about Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter. I hate that pink lady so much… but back to Eustice.
Lewis spends a good chunk of the book introducing us to this obnoxious and disagreeable person, giving him opportunity after opportunity to redeem himself or show a little bit of good, but it never happens. Then comes the scene where the ship has been hit by a huge storm, is in absolute tatters, runs aground on an island, everybody spills out haggard and exhausted. But they know that even though they are all utterly drained, they must rally for a few more hours so they can gather food and firewood to set up camp. Eustice, seeing that there will be no rest, slowly sneaks away so he can have a nap somewhere out of site.
After a short time, he comes across a dragon’s cave. He watches the dragon die and then sees its store of treasure. His rottenness really comes to the fore as he imagines all the selfish things he could do with this fortune until he falls asleep on a pile of gold. “When he awakes, Eustace is no longer a boy but a dragon, the outward manifestation of his inner greed and selfishness.” He discovers that the gold bracelet he put on his arm is now bringing great pain as it constricts his dragon leg, and when he tries to go to the others he finds himself cut off from his friends, isolated and alone. He curls up in a ball and starts to cry hot, dragon tears.
His friends never give up the search though and eventually, after much suffering and loneliness Eustice starts to regret his ways, miss his friends, and after much trial and error because he can no longer speak, manages to explain his predicament to his shipmates, even use his new form to help gather supplies.
After some time as a dragon, Aslan, the Christ character of the book arrives. He leads Eustace to a garden on top of a mountain where a well stands in the very centre. Eustace wants to enter the water so the pain in his leg could be soothed, but Aslan says he must undress first. Eustice realizes that Aslan must mean that he must shed his skin, like a snake. He sees how dirty and scaly he looks and starts to peel off that layer, “only to discover another nasty, scaly, and rough layer underneath. And then another. After three layers, he realizes it’s vain — he will never make himself clean or get rid of his pain or shed the nasty skin.”
Aslan the Lion then says Eustace, “You will have to let me undress you.” Eustace is obviously nervous about having a huge lion with great claws come and tear at his skin, but he’s so desperate for relief that he relents and lies down on the ground, flat on his back. Lewis describes what happens next from Eustace’s perspective:
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…. Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off — just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt — and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me — I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again…. After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me… in new clothes.”
This passage has come to my mind many times since I read it recently. There is some great truth in it.
Often in our lives, we desire to be cleansed, renewed, made right, fixed, changed into a new person. We look at the life we’ve led, the decisions we’ve made, the foolish nonsense we’ve gotten ourselves into, and we wish it could be different. We feel guilt, shame, anxiety, sadness, and anger and we want it to change. We are addicted and want freedom. We are afraid and want security.
And so we do what Eustace did first. We try to peel off an outer layer, something on the surface, in hopes that that’s all we need. We read a book, try a change of habit, make a new schedule, commit to exercising, make a prayer time, get a Bible-in-a-year checklist and say we’re going to read it. We tell people around us that we’re going to try to be nicer, better, cleaner, more friendly, less stressed, more committed, more determined – and that we’ll do it by changing one or two things in our life. Give something up, join a group, take a walk, clean our house, and organize our lives.
But it doesn’t work. We strip off that one layer and it’s not too long until we realize that we really haven’t changed anything. We’ve exchanged one bad habit for another, one idol for another, one way of control for another, one enemy for another, and no matter how clean our room is, how clear our schedule is, how many days in a row we read our bible, attend group, or go for a walk, nothing ultimately changes inside of us. The fear, sadness, anger, and hunger are still there.
So we do what Eustace did again. We strip off another layer. We change something else on the surface of our lives in hopes it will change us. We do something radical like die our hair, get a piercing, shave or grow our beard, get a tattoo, buy a new wardrobe, in hopes that if we look different then we will feel different. Then we look around for other things that we can change. We dump our friends and try to find new ones. We see our church and blame them for not doing enough, so we go somewhere else or stop going altogether. We see our doctor and blame them for not giving the right treatment, so we get a second opinion. We blame our medication and figure it isn’t working right, so we stop taking it or go find different ones. We blame our family and spouse, so we ignore them, commit adultery or get a divorce. We blame God so we go looking for another religion.
We hope that if we change what is happening on the outside, change enough surface things, that it will fix our deepest problems. But it doesn’t work. With every surface change, with every layer of stripped-off skin, we eventually realize we haven’t really changed. We’re still the same dragon we were when we started.
“Tim Keller once said in a sermon, ‘The way to deal with guilt is not to avoid it, but to resolve it. Eustace not only realized he couldn’t get his own skin off, but that only God can come and take your skin off, and to do this you have to let him pierce deep. You must take all the guilt on yourself and stop blame shifting and take responsibility for what you’ve done wrong. No excuses. Full in the face.’”
This is what everyone must do before they can know the freedom and healing that comes with being made new by the power of Jesus Christ. They must look their sin in the face, stop making excuses, stop blaming others, stop thinking it’s just a surface problem and say,
“The reason that nothing changes no matter what I do is because I am the problem.
The reason I feel so afraid is that I want to be in control of everything and everyone. I want to be God because I don’t trust Him.
The reason I’m so angry is that I believe that my life should be one of unbroken comfort and ease. Deep down I resent everyone who makes me feel even a little bit uncomfortable, and I hate that God allows suffering in my life, so I hurt others so I control them, punish them for taking my comfort, and feel better about myself.
The reason I’m addicted is that I chose to be. I felt lonely, afraid, sad, or bad in some way and wanted an escape. I knew what I was doing was wrong, knew it had consequences, but chose to do it anyway because I didn’t care about anyone or anything other than myself at the time. I wasn’t fooled into a trap. I jumped into it. And I keep going back into the trap because I don’t want to go through the pain of leaving it, regardless of what it’s doing to me or the people I love.”
The only way to be free of sin is to admit you are a sinner. Admit you like feeling the rush that comes when you are the centre of attention, and so you seek it out, push others down, even steal the glory from God so you can feel good about yourself – because deep down you believe you should be worshipped.
Admit that even though you pretend to be nice on the surface, that deep down you are full of hate and you allow that hate to come out in socially acceptable ways. You would never murder anyone, but you will gossip about them, slander them, mock them, make rude comments about them, and stab them in the back – not to their face but to others or anonymously online – and then when you feel guilty or get caught, you make excuses saying they deserved it. There are people you hate, would never show love or affection or friendship to, even though you don’t know them, simply because of their race, gender, or social status.
Admit that you lie and believe lies on purpose because the truth is less convenient.
Admit that you lust after men and women who you are not married to, and that you want to, that you enjoy it, and you don’t care if pornography and human trafficking and prostitution is utterly destroying people’s lives and making it so you can’t even have a conversation with a young man or young woman without objectifying them, because you like it – and you don’t care about the suffering that comes from pornography because allows you to feel pleasure.
Admit that you have used all kinds of excuses to weasel out of work you should have done because you are lazy.
Admit that you are jealous of those who have more than you, who are better looking than you, who have a better life than you, and you would gladly take all of their comforts and dump all your problems on them if you could because you care more about yourself than anyone else.
Admit that you’ve stolen many, many times. You steal from the government by falsifying your taxes, from stores by keeping change that wasn’t yours or using coupons wrongly, from media companies by stealing signal and sharing passwords, from musicians and artists by downloading their songs and books and art for free instead of paying for them, from your parents when they weren’t looking, from your neighbours, your friends, your church, even from God by not giving Him what you promised Him.
Stop making excuses for your sin, stop blaming others, stop making light of it, stop assuming it’s just a little problem, a white lie, a personality quirk, and admit that you are a sinner who has loved sinning, and will keep doing it for as long as you can, until you are caught, or it kills you. And there’s nothing you can do to stop.
Only then, only when you admit your biggest problem is you, your sin, your failure, your decisions, your debt, will you ever be willing to ask for help. Only then will you roll over, expose your belly, and, regardless of how much you fear it, allow Jesus to change you utterly.
In Alcoholics Anonymous they call this “Rock Bottom” and it refers to the very lowest level a person can hit before they are willing to look up. Some people’s rock bottom requires very little loss before they ask for help – other people need to go through a lot more suffering, but the common theme is suffering, loss, and then admission of need. As long as a person is living in denial, defending what they do, comfortable with their addiction, they will never want to change. Until an alcoholic sees that drinking is a problem, they will never stop, they will never be able to root out what is really driving them to drink. In the same way, until a sinner sees that the real problem with their life is that their sin holds them captive, they will never ask to be freed from it, and thereby never know freedom.
What Happens When You Finally Admit Your Sin
What happens when you ask to be free? What happens when you finally admit you are living under a curse, that there is nothing you can do, and that you want to be free from the living-death that your sins keep you in? What happens when you realize the consequences of your sin are yours, feel the heat of the wrath of God coming against you, and are pressed down with guilt and shame? What happens when you turn yourself belly up and allow Jesus to strip you down and then dress you in His clothes? What happens when you finally admit you are a sinner in need of a saviour?
The picture of Eustace is one of a sinner whose outsides finally caught up with his insides. He was always a dragon, now he just looked it. So what did Aslan have to do? He had to kill the dragon part of Eustace so He could become who He was intended to be on the outside and the inside.
To save us from our sins, Jesus has to kill the sinful part of us, the part that has killed our souls and damned us to eternal death in Hell. Then Jesus must resurrect us to a new, eternal life that is no longer trapped in that curse. The only way to conquer your dragon is to kill it. You can’t make friends with it and hope it will behave. You all know the experience of trying to make friends you’re your dragon-self – it never stays friendly. The only cure for sin is death.
So how does God kill the sin part of us?
He Became Sin Who Knew No Sin
2 Corinthians 5:21 gives the answer,
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
This is one of the most important verses in scripture because it helps us understand how salvation through Jesus works. How is it possible that we can be sinners to the core, rebellious lovers of iniquity, our backs turned against God and toward all manner of depravity – and then be made right with Him without being punished, without facing God’s wrath? How can we go from being dead in our sins (Eph 2:1), destined for Hell, to alive in Christ and live with Him forever? If God hates sin, and the wrath of God must be poured out against it, then how can sinners be saved? How can the curse of sin be broken?
We know it’s not by trying to change our behaviour, right? Not only is that insufficient – because our sins are so numerous and powerful – but it’s ineffective. It’s like trying to cure cancer using lotion. It’s like trying to fix a brain tumour by getting a haircut. The consequences must be terrible and the effect of the cure must be complete.
It says that “for our sake”, because of His great love for us, Jesus chose to exchange Himself for us. This is where Lewis’ illustration of Eustace falls apart a bit – but was actually written about in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”. Jesus doesn’t just tear away the dragon from us. Instead, Jesus becomes the dragon. Or rather, God treats Jesus like He is the dragon. God puts upon Jesus the full weight of His wrath against sin. Jesus, the one “who knew no sin” became sin. Jesus had the entire measure God’s wrath against sin, the full curse, placed on Himself, and then takes the punishment you deserved.
The rejection of Jesus should have been ours. The scourging should have been us.
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:4-6)
“He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross…” (1 Peter 2:24)
A surface change in our behaviour isn’t enough to deal with the problem of sin. We need to have the curse of sin broken in us. We need someone to kill that dragon. Jesus did that for you, for me, for anyone who is willing to admit their sin and their need for a Saviour. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The scripture is clear, and our conscience attests to the fact that there is nothing we can change in our behaviour to fix the problem (Rom 8:3). We couldn’t obey God, so Jesus obeyed for us. We didn’t want to die for our sin and face hell, so Jesus took our condemnation, died for us, and took the full weight of hell on Himself. We want to be made righteous and free from the curse of sin in our life, to be made clean and right with God and those around us, but we can’t do that ourselves – so Jesus lived a perfectly righteous life, and then died like a cursed sinner, so we, who deserved that death, could be made righteous.
When we put our faith in Jesus, God kills that dragon of sin inside us strips us to the core, and then resurrects us to new life. That’s why Christians are baptized. It’s an external picture of what’s happening on the inside. We admit our sins and then go under the water in death, we are buried with Christ as the water envelopes us, and then we are raised to new life as we come out of the water, cleansed and set free from the curse of sin.
This is why one of the pictures of becoming a Christian is known as being “Born Again”. Jesus said to the Pharisee Nicodemus, a man dedicated to living an upright, perfect life according to the Law of Moses, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) What did that mean? It meant that the way of the Pharisees, the way of laws and rules and surface changes will not make you fit for heaven. You must let God kill your sinful self, your sinful flesh, and let Him resurrect you as a new person, born again.
This happens only when you believe in Jesus. Every other religion, every self-help book, every other messenger will tell you to try harder, do more, pull up your socks, and give you a list of superficial things you need to change so you can become a better person. Or they’ll just teach you how to become friends with your dragon. That’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jesus doesn’t offer a surface change, a spiritual band-aid, a list of rules and steps to a better life – He offers to take your sins upon Himself, die in your place, destroy the dragon within you, kill your old self, and then resurrect you as a new person, free from your slavery to sin. All He asks is that you admit you need Him and Him alone, believe in Him and Him alone, and allow Him to invite you to enter into His death and His resurrection.
Let me close by reading Romans 6:1-14.
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”
[1, 2, 3] I got a lot of help in this section from https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/my-dragon-skin-torn-off
“Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:1–16)
What is Lent?
We’re headed into the Easter season. This week we celebrated Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday as it’s sometimes called, followed by Ash Wednesday, the official start of the season of Lent.
Lent has been observed for hundreds of years, dating back before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The counting of the days of Lent is a little convoluted since some churches observed seven weeks of fasting except Saturdays and Sundays because they liked the number 7. Others wanted it to be 40 days because of the significance of that number in the Bible. Moses was on Mouth Sinai fasting for 40 days, Elijah walked for 40 days while fasting, and of course, Jesus fasted for 40 days when being tempted in the desert – and there are more examples.
The Western church has settled on the formula being that Lent lasts from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday), changing the date depending on when the Jewish Passover occurs, which is on the first full moon following the Spring equinox, making Lent 46 days long, minus the Sundays, or Lord’s Days, when we celebrate His resurrection rather than His crucifixion, by worshipping rather than fasting, bringing the number of fasting days to 40. Makes perfect sense, right?
The season of Lent has traditionally been a time when Christians avoided certain foods, parties, and celebrations to contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus instead. We cut out some of the distracting, pleasurable things from our lives to confess our sins, meditate on the sufferings of Christ, and prepare our hearts by remembering why Jesus had to die on the cross. It’s a time to consider the habits of our life, mortify those sins that have cropped up, think less of ourselves and more about Jesus by spending more time, energy and effort on our spiritual lives and relationship with God.
The day before Lent starts is called Shrove Tuesday and it is that day that really emphasizes how far culture has moved away from a Lenten spirit. Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the word “Shrive” meaning to confess sins and receive absolution or forgiveness. It was a day set aside to really clean out our hearts by getting serious with our sin before the season of Lent began. A day to say with David in Psalm 139(:23-24), “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”
But here’s what happened. There were a bunch of foods that people would traditionally give up for Lent – things like meat, fish, fatty foods, eggs, milk, and sweets. Like the Israelites with their simple, bitter foods and unleavened bread, Christians used their diet to show what was going on in their hearts. But because there wasn’t refrigeration back then the foods people gave up would spoil before the 40 days were over. And what’s the best way to get rid of fats, eggs, milk, sweets, and meat? Have a pancake party.
So, Shrove Tuesday turned into Shrovetide, three days set aside to use up these foods. Over time, the day of confession became a time when families would get together and eat up all the foods they couldn’t have during Lent. Shrove Tuesday turned into Pancake Tuesday or Fat Tuesday (because it was the day to use up fatty foods). And you likely already know the French name for Fat Tuesday – Mardi Gras.
Now, when you think of Mardi Gras, I’m sure the first thing that comes to mind is confession of sin, repentance, soul-preparation, and spiritual discipline, right? No. Mardi Gras is now an entire season, starting on January 6th, dedicated to parties and parades and often, perversion.
Now, let me pause here for a moment to say that while Christianity is against perversion, we are emphatically not against parties or parades or pancakes – because scripture is not against them. As Ecclesiastes 3 says, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven… a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…” (3:1,4) My point today, the reason I’m talking about Lent today, is because as a culture, especially our modern, Western culture, we are really, really bad at weeping and mourning part because we spend too much time laughing and dancing.
And in losing our ability to weep, mourn, lament, and fast – but instead keeping ourselves in a perpetual state of entertainment, distraction, and celebration, has caused us to lose a very important part of our spiritual lives and a critical way that we connect to God.
What Happens When We Lose Lent
I know I struggle with this sometimes. I’ll gear myself up for a time of self-discipline – like a change of diet or a spiritual discipline or to focus on something that I know God has been asking me to deal with – and it seems like I’m constantly interrupted by excuses to laugh and dance. The whole culture seems to work against me.
Every month has a holiday, or a birthday, or anniversary, or party of some kind. Every week the stores have a sale on something that I like. I’m surrounded by things that not too long ago were only available on special occasions. I can buy a birthday cake and sweets and balloons and chocolate and oranges every day if I want to. I don’t have to wait for a newspaper or magazine to come to my door, I can get news and pictures and crossword puzzles all day long. I don’t have to wait for next week to see my favourite TV show, or for a few months to see a movie, Netflix has new ones every day, and I can binge an entire season in one day! There’s always a new, big movie event or concert or game or playoff or another piece of entertainment that everyone says I must see. I walk into a store and there’s limited edition everything there – books, movies, candy, clothes – and two or three special seasons represented – Valentine’s Decorations next to St Patrick ’s Day stuff next to Easter chocolates – each telling me to get it soon, while it’s on sale, before it’s gone. Then I turn on the radio and hear commercials for deals that are all ending soon, so I’d better get it, that I deserve it, that I would be stupid not to jump on. Every YouTube video and picture on Instagram shows me the latest trend I’m missing out on, or something I need to experience, or something I need to take my kids to, or something I need to do with my wife. RightNow media introduces 12 new studies every week and the blogs I follow tell me about 10 new books I want to read.
And it all kind of works on me. My spirit cries out to stop, get away, find silence, meditation, confession, prayer, solitude – but I almost feel guilty not participating in all that other stuff. I work for one day and then I feel like I deserve a reward. I eat a vegetable and then feel like I deserve dessert. I worry about missing out. What if someone asks me if I’ve seen something or tried something, or gone somewhere, and I have to say that I haven’t done it? What if it would have been fun and I missed it forever?
I’m constantly tempted to live in a perpetual state of distraction, entertainment, and satisfaction – and yet the Spirit of God, the Lord Jesus, and the scriptures say that the happiness that I am constantly pursuing in those other areas, the blessedness I’m trying to find in them, the joy I want to feel when I indulge, doesn’t come from being distracted, entertained, and trying to feel satisfied with the world, but with pursuing poverty, mourning, meekness, hunger, self-denial. Jesus says in His introduction to the Sermon on the Mount that if we want to feel fully human, know real peace, experience real joy, feel the satisfaction of contentedness in the midst of struggles by knowing the presence of God, then the recipe is to remove a lot of that other stuff and seek the beatitudes.
That’s really what Lent is supposed to be about. It’s not a belief that parties and celebrations are bad. It’s saying that sometimes the human soul requires a time of fasting, penitence, regret, mourning, confession, tears, simplicity, solitude, and lament. Not because we want to sit around being bitter, eating ashes, wallowing in guilt and shame, but because we know that the only way to get right with God and others is to admit that we are sinners who need a Saviour, that we are weak and need help, that physical pleasure isn’t enough and that we need spiritual fulfillment, that discipline and self-denial make us into better, more godly people.
In Matthew 11 Jesus says to the crowds,
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (vs 28-29)
And then in Matthew 16 He said,
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (vs 24)
They seem contradictory, but both are true. Jesus says to put away the priorities of this world and the huge burden it is to try to pull ourselves towards happiness, joy, and contentment by using the things the sinful, distracting, immediate pleasures the world has to offer – but to pick up His way of life, His cross, because we will find that burden easier, lighter, and His path the way to true freedom. Jesus says that the way to gain freedom for our souls is not to avoid guilt, shame, lament, confession, mourning, the cross, but to embrace it, because when we finally do – when we finally turn from worldly pleasures to the kind of life Jesus offers – it is then that we will experience true freedom.
1 Peter 2:11 says that all those pleasures and distractions the world offers are actually like propaganda from the Enemy who uses them to war against our soul. It says,
“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.”
1 John 2:15-17 gives this warning,
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.”
It’s trying to give us a bigger view, an eternal view, comparing what the world offers with what Jesus offers. The world is full of wonderful things that God has given us for our joy and pleasure, that we can use to enhance our connection to God, but each one, because of this fallen world has the potential to be twisted into a trap for our souls.
- Food is wonderful, gluttony is a prison.
- Sexual pleasure is wonderful, but there’s a lot of ways it can ruin lives.
- Parties and wine and dancing and friends are wonderful, but addiction and alcoholism and hangovers and bad decisions and regrets are not.
- Work, education and study are wonderful, but workaholism, anxiety, arrogance, and elitism can be dangerous results.
- Having money and stuff and comfort is wonderful, but selfishness, controlling others, being in debt, and refusing to obey God for fear of losing it, can be terrible results when sin takes over.
- Video games and hobbies are wonderful, but removing yourself from reality to live in a fantasy world, and ignoring your friends, family, and community is not.
It is during the season of Lent that Christians are invited to cut out the distractions, do an inventory of our souls, to invite God to examine us and show us how the world has been fooling us, and to come out the other side cleaner, more holy, more blessed, and more committed to following Jesus no matter where He wants to go because we prefer His way to the world’s.
Lent & The Beatitudes
Look back with me to what Jesus said in Matthew 5:13-16. Jesus calls his followers “Salt” and “Light”. He says,
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.”
What’s Jesus talking about here? He’s talking about how His people should be different from the world, distinct from the world, special. The illustration of being a lamp is pretty easy to understand but consider the salt.
Just like today, salt was used as a preservative and flavouring for food, something that worked like nothing else. What makes salt special is its saltiness, its difference from the rest of the food. What point is there on sprinkling on something that tastes no different than what you’re already eating? What point is there in rubbing on or mixing in something that has no preserving effect? We wouldn’t use it.
Our calling as Christians, as followers of Jesus, is to “permeate society as agents of redemption.” We are to witness the moral decay of the world, the blandness of what it offers, the corruption of its promises, realize it to not only be a trap, but so much worse than what Jesus offers, and remain different, special, unique, salty. We don’t separate ourselves from the world, avoiding it and condemning it from ivory towers and stained glassed cloisters – after all salt doesn’t do anyone any good when it’s left in the shaker – but we work ourselves into the world, in our jobs, our communities, our friendships, our sports teams, etc. and add the flavour of Christ, the light of Jesus to that place. And we only do that by remaining different.
If we act and sound and look like the world, then we are of no use to them or the Kingdom of God. No one will become thirsty for the gospel of Jesus if they never experience our saltiness. No one will ever desire to get out of the darkness unless they see the light within us.
How To Remain Different
So how do we remain different? What distinctiveness should we have? What makes a Christian different from the world? That’s what the Beatitudes are all about. Jesus gives the Beatitudes to show us what salt and light looks like.
Some people think that what sets Christians apart is what we do and don’t do. Christians don’t drink, or smoke, or vape, or party, or watch violent movies, or listen to certain kinds of music, or swear, or make jokes, or do yoga or martial arts. Some Christians even believe that the best way for them to be Christian is to never participate in anything the culture is doing so they never go to movies, listen to secular radio, watch sports, or participate in politics.
But that’s not what Jesus says here at all. In fact, most of these have nothing to do with what we do or don’t do, but instead speak of the attitude of our hearts. What makes us salty in the world is not what we do or don’t do, it’s our character.
Everyone faces death, everyone gets angry, everyone feels sad, everyone gets sick, everyone gets betrayed, everyone feels pride. Lots of people go to parties, drink alcohol, get promoted or fired from their jobs, are blessed with good looks or money or talent, or struggle with handicaps, abuses, and disabilities. The difference isn’t that Christians run to their bubble to avoid anything bad, but instead that they actually face the problem, understand it differently, and have a very different attitude because of their relationship with Jesus.
One book I’ve read lately that has really helped me with this is J. Oswald Sanders’ “Spiritual Maturity”. In his chapter on the Beatitudes, he says,
“It is a common idea that blessedness flows from the possession of wealth, the absence of sorrow, the gratification of appetite, being well spoken of and kindly treated. Christ’s teaching cut right across this popular concept of happiness and indicated that the very experiences we are eager to avoid are the ones conducive to the deepest joy and most to be coveted.”
Why? Because they are the ones that show how Jesus has changed our lives. They are the things that make us saltier, that increase the wattage of the light that shines within us, and shows how different we are from the world.
Consider the first beatitude:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The world says that you will be happy and blessed once you have realized your potential, maximized your strength, have total independence. Jesus says, “No. You will find joy and real prosperity and blessing when you realize that you are a person in need.” When you admit you are weak and bankrupt in your soul, once you realize you are empty is the only time you will allow God to fill you up. It is only once you’ve been broken of your pride, realized your inadequacy for the demands of your life, and come to God with empty hands, that God’s unlimited resources are available to you. Until then, you’re going to be trying to take on the world with your own strength and losing over and over.
Consider the second beatitude:
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Mourning is something that our society actively avoids. We idolize and worship youth and vitality while pushing age and sickness and death farther and farther from our collective minds. The Wall-Street Journal recently had an article on “The Free-Form Funeral” where people avoid churches and the topic of death in favour of more celebratory ceremonies. They are doing rock concerts and parties that memorialize life instead of facing the problem and pain of death and loss. Mourning doesn’t feel good, so they opt for a party. Grief is no fun, so it’s avoided.
The problem here is that grief and mourning are dangerous to avoid – in fact, they are impossible to avoid. Eventually, the party will end, the distraction will stop, and these people will still be faced with their loss, but will have no guidance or community to help them through it. They won’t be able to go to anyone with their feelings of loss because it’s socially unacceptable to do so, so they’ll either have to let it eat them alive – or they’ll have to get rid of it using chemicals and distraction.
But mourning and grief are gifts from God that we shouldn’t avoid. It is in those times of sadness that we are finally open to being comforted. When we face the evil of death it forces us to ask big questions, realize how powerless we really are, it forces us to face the temporary nature of this life, and forces us to feel lonesome, regretful, and sad. It is in our mourning that we are invited to ask for help. And it is in our mourning that the gospel message, where Jesus Christ the Son of God conquers sin and death, bringing hope to a lost world, starts to make sense – where the names of God like Comforter, Shepherd, Father and friend, start to really become real.
But none of that can happen if we do not mourn.
And that’s only the first two of the beatitudes. Let me close with this. Let me encourage you to consider embracing the season of Lent by committing to a time of fasting and prayer. Choose something in your life to remove – tv, entertainment, a meal, a certain food, your phone, the internet – and replace the time you would spend on that with a time of prayer and reading the scriptures.
And during that time, let me invite you to meditate on and study the Beatitudes. Many of you have prayed that God would make you salt and light, to be used to affect this world in a positive way, to see your heart and your community changed by the Gospel in deeper ways. This is a good place to start.
 Blomberg, C. (1992). Matthew (Vol. 22, p. 102). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.”
 I’m going to use a lot of concepts from his chapter called “Christ’s Ideal of Character”.
Every year around Christmas time people all over the world set up nativity scenes – and there’s a huge variety. There are old-timey ones that have great detail and classic poses, modern, new ones that are more simple, even impressionistic, and there are the weird and silly ones. We have a Little People set at home and new this year is a rubber duck set we found online. But my favourite weird nativity that I found online this year is the hipster nativity set where Mary is taking a duck-face selfie with baby Jesus, the cow is eating gluten-free feed and is 100% organic, and the wise men show up on Segways with gifts from Amazon.
Regardless of how traditional or weird the Nativity Set is, one thing always holds true – it’s never lonely around the manger. Jesus is surrounded by people, and that’s what I want to talk about tonight.
The holidays are a time for getting together with all kinds of people. We plan dinners and events with people we work with, we take a little more time talking with people around us about the season, we find time to have friends in our homes and go to theirs to meet others, we make time to gather with family members that we don’t see very often. If you ask most people over 12 years old what their favourite Christmas memories are they will no doubt all give the same list – the big family dinner, the family around the tree, seeing family from far away that they haven’t seen in a long time. No matter how nice the decorations are, how great the turkey is, what presents you get, what music you sing, or what your favourite tradition is, the make-it-or-break-it part of Christmas is how close or far away you are from the people that mean the most to you.
Which is why Christmas can also be such a lonely, difficult time of year for a lot of people. As the lights multiply in the streets, store music changes to carols, the smells of baking fills the air, and the traditions multiply around you, they can trigger some pretty intense emotions that you’d rather not deal with. The decorations and the smells – though nice – are sometimes a reminder of what’s missing. And it’s one big reason that so many struggles with depression and addiction around Christmas time.
We did a lot of reading and singing tonight and there was a pretty resounding theme to all of it, right? One that is familiar to many. That the world looked pretty dark and lonely and scary – for Israel, the shepherds, and the world – but that all changed when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. As Isaiah 9 said,
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…” (Isa 9:1,6)
That was written 700 years before Jesus was born. And when the Apostle John wrote his gospel about Jesus he started with words that sounded very similar. I want to look at the first 13 verses of the first chapter of John because I want you to notice something very important tonight. It’s a Christmas story but told in a different way. It begins by introducing Jesus as not only a baby in a manger, but backs up the story way before Mary and Joseph, even before Adam and Eve. It says that Jesus wasn’t merely a special man, but God incarnate – and speaks of His coming as a light piercing the darkness. It says,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Next, John introduces fast forwards to the forerunner, the precursor, the prophet who was to prepare people for the coming of Jesus – the one known as John the Baptist. It says in verse 6,
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”
This is all building up to a summary of who Jesus is and why He came. John will tell the rest of the story in his book, but for now, here is the story of Jesus in a nutshell. Starting in verse 9,
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”
If you know the story of Jesus then you know that this is exactly what happened. Jesus came into the world, lived a perfect life, spread light and wisdom and goodness and truth, showed people who He was and demonstrated His divine power in healing and miracles, but even those closest to Him didn’t understand Him. He came to the world He had established, to the humanity He had created, to the nation He had chosen, and they did not receive Him. He was born in barn and laid in a feeding trough, because there was no room for Him and that reality would dominate His entire ministry. He would come to people, tell them the truth, but instead of receiving Him, they would try to use Him, misunderstand Him, lie about Him, neglect Him, and then reject, humiliate, abandon, and unjustly crucify Him.
Jesus said this in John 3:19-20,
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light…”
God Created Family
But if we keep reading at the beginning of John we find out that there is more to the story. Jesus came as light in the darkness, but people loved the dark more than the light – but listen to verse 12,
“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
What does it says Jesus provides for those who receive Him, who put their trust in Him, who believe in Him? Most often in church, we say that believers receive salvation, forgiveness, cleansing, hope, renewal, joy, etc. and all that is true, but notice what it says here: believers are given “the right to become children of God”.
One of the greatest gifts that we receive when we come to Jesus is the gift of family. It means never having to be alone. Consider the story of scripture, right? In the beginning, God creates the whole world and puts Adam in it. There is no sin, Adam can see God face to face, everything is perfect, but God says something is “not good”. What is it? “It’s is not good that the man should be alone.” (Gen 2:18). So God makes Eve and then tells Adam to go make a family.
When God saved Noah, He told him to bring his family. When God chose Abraham, God chose to bless an old, barren couple with a family and then worked through that family to create a great nation through which He would bless the world. And that pattern continued. Moses needed his family’s help. David and Solomon’s biggest problems came when they messed with God’s plan for their family. Over and over we see that God doesn’t just use special individuals, but families to carry forth His will and dispense His blessings.
When Jesus came to earth, He could have come like one of that lone-gunman we see in those old western movies. A man in a white hat with no past rides into town, dispenses justice, and then rides off into the sunset. He had the power to do that. He’s God, He doesn’t need anyone to help Him. But what was His perfect plan? It was to come as a member of a family. He had a mom, step-dad, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles. That wasn’t an accident.
And then, to everyone in this dark world, He not only offered salvation through His death on the cross for all who believe but also offered them the opportunity to be part of His family. Not His human family, but His eternal family.
“…To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…”
The word “right” is a legal term. It means that not only is an invitation given, but also a contract is signed. If you believe in Jesus then you have the “right” to call God your Father. Listen to the words of Ephesians 1:3-5,
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…”
When you are saved you are also adopted as a son or daughter of God, because He wants you in His family. He wants to be your Dad. When Jesus teaches His followers how to pray, how does He tell them to start the prayer? “Our Father”. What does Romans 8:15 say to all believers who are afraid?
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!”
You don’t need to be afraid because Dad is with you. What does Galatians 4:6 say about how close our Heavenly Father is?
“And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”
Your Heavenly Father is as close to you as your own spirit.
Could God’s view of families be why He repeatedly tells His people that the way we love Him best is to show our love for widows and orphans? To be family to those who have none.
My message this evening is simple and twofold. The first is that I want you to remember to appreciate your family. For all the drama and excitement and struggles of being part of one, a family is one of God’s greatest gifts and I want you to remember that the best part of Christmas isn’t the food or fun, but your family. They are what you’re going to remember, so maybe stay off the electronics, put down the drink, and spend time with them. And remember, if you are a Christian, you are part of a bigger family too. God doesn’t just make Himself our Father, but also gives us a new family of brothers and sisters that we will be with forever. So if you need something, if you have something to share, call up one of your brothers and sisters in the faith.
And second, if you don’t know Jesus and feel alone tonight, if you are afraid of what is happening inside and around you, if you need freedom from your guilt and fear, or have never really known the deep love of a Father who accepts you for who you are and wants to be with you forever – Jesus stands ready to invite you into His family, if you are willing to receive Him. To receive Him means more than merely agreeing with some facts about Him, but welcoming Him into your life, submitting to Him as Lord, and building a personal relationship. It means believing what He says and trusting His way is better. To do this you need to admit your sins, admit your guilt, admit your need, and then accept that Jesus died for that sin. Receive Jesus as Lord and Saviour. At that moment you become a child of God and will never be alone again, but will be adopted as a son or daughter of God.
And if you do that tonight or tomorrow, I encourage you to call someone and tell them right away. What a great gift to give and receive at Christmas.