Please open to John 2:13–17 and let’s read it together. But before we do, a little context.
Remember where we are in the Gospel of John. I told you last time that the Wedding in Cana was on the third day, but commentators are actually divided about whether the days in John are meant to be taken literally as 24-hour time periods or are more like “literary organizing statements” meant to alert the reader that these stories should be read as one thematic unit. I lean towards the later.
Whatever the case, in the Gospel of John, Day one has a delegation sent out to interrogate John the Baptist. Day two John declares Jesus to be “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). On day three, a couple of John the Baptists’ disciples, John and Andrew, leave John the Baptist and spend the day with Jesus, eventually bringing Simon Peter (1:35-42). Jesus then heads to Galilee and on day five and finds Philip and Nathanael. By day seven – seven usually being a pretty significant number in the Bible – Jesus hasn’t gathered all his disciples yet, but has a core group who attend the Wedding in Cana where Jesus turns water into wine. We talked a lot about the imagery of that event a couple weeks ago.
Now, with His earthly kingdom inaugurated, the Lord, Saviour and King Jesus, with His disciples, heads into Jerusalem – the royal city, the capital city, and heads straight to the Temple, the most important place in the entire world, because it was the place where YHWH accepted worship, where sins were atoned for, where he invited all of humanity to find Him and know Him.
And in comes Prince Jesus, King Jesus, the God-man, the Son of God, the law-giver, the One who wrote the rules for how they should worship, the One who gave the plans for how it should be constructed, for what was acceptable as worship and what was not. Here comes the Son of the One to whom this temple was dedicated, in the time of the Passover, the most important Jewish festival, a reminder of God’s power to punish the wicked by bringing pestilence and death, but also how He miraculously delivered His people from that curse through “the blood of the lamb” (don’t miss that connection), and rescue his people from slavery. Jesus is the God of the Israelites, the plague bringer, the One who sent the angel of death, and also the Lamb who was slain and whose blood must be shed and wiped on the doorposts for people to be saved. Jesus was the One to whom this Temple was dedicated and who had sent prophets into the world to declare this place as the one and only place on earth where humanity could deal with their sin and get right with their Creator. And what does He see?
“The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple, he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there.” (2:13)
The Passover was a time of pilgrimage for not only the Jews but for all those who had chosen to follow God, including gentile proselytes. The Law of Moses commanded that all who come during this time of year bring their best animals to sacrifice as an atonement for their sins, a way to show how serious was, how sin leads to death, and to remind everyone how gracious God is for accepting the death of an animal, the temporary exchange of the animal’s blood, instead of requiring the death of the human being.
The temple was constructed in such a way that everyone on earth could come and worship God, bring prayers, and get right with Him. But, since God’s holiness was meant to be paramount, what you see is a series of gates and doors and chambers leading from the outside of the temple, all the way into the holy of holies.
On the outside was the Court of the Gentiles, or the Court of All-Nations, to which Herod had added a huge, 35-acre platform and a sort of porch, called the Royal Stoa, which had many columns and a roof. The Court of All-Nations, was where the world was invited to come and pray and worship God – even those who were not full converts to Judaism. Next was the middle part which was only for the Jews, God’s chosen people. Next came the Temple area where only priests could go. Then, through another gate was the Holy Place where only a few priests could go, and finally, there was Veil separating priests from the Holy of Holies, the throne room of God, where only the High Priest could go, and that only once per year.
The whole of the temple was designed as a way for people to come and connect with God, hear His Word, see the cost of their sin, make sacrifices and prayers, and understand that not only are they separated from God by their sin – but also invited by God to get right with Him and become one of His people.
But as Jesus walks into the Courtyard of the Gentiles, the Court of All-Nations, probably under the Royal Stoa, what did he see? The nations of the world accepted, by His chosen people, praying, being taught God’s Word, connecting everyone to the only path of salvation, the One, True God? No. They had taken the Court of the Gentiles and turned it into a shopping mall. They used this area to exploit the pilgrims who needed to exchange their currency for that used at the temple and to buy their animals for sacrifice. Not only had they commodified the worship of God, but were doing it in the very place where the nations were invited to come and pray.
To contemporize this, think of it this way: We take Communion Sunday pretty serious at our church. Each month we set aside time where I talk about the importance of Communion, give time for personal reflection, give a warning about taking it with a good heart, and give an invitation for using the Lord’s Supper as a way to get right with God and renew your relationship with Him and His church. It’s a big deal.
Now, imagine that next week you bring a friend to church. This person knows nothing about Christianity but you’ve been talking to them about your faith, they’ve realized their sin, have felt the weight of their guilt, and want to be made right with God. They beg you to take them to church next week so they can have their consciences cleaned, so they can experience new life, so they can be right with their Creator.
But when you come to the door, instead of seeing the communion table laid out with dishes with little pieces of bread and tiny glasses of grape juice, you see the whole back two rows of pews exchanged for a couple ATMs and machines that make change. And when you look to the front, there’s a vending machine full of little, plastic bags of bread and wine.
You tell your friend to get out their debit card so they can get some cash, telling them that it costs $4 per transaction. But then they need to put the ATM cash in the change machine because the vending machine only takes change, and the change machine costs another $4 bucks. Then, when they go to the vending machine, the little pack of bread costs $12. You tell your friend that they need to do this because it’s the only way that you can be right with God, and if they don’t that God will still be angry with them.
Your friend isn’t allowed to sit down because each of the pews has a little door with a lock on it only allowing people who have paid for the privilege of sitting. So, you unlock your pew, sit down, and your friend stands next to you in the aisle. You tell them not to worry because if they give you a little money to contribute to the cost of the pew, they can sit down next week.
When it comes time for Offering, instead of music you see a commercial for some books for sale in the library, and another commercial for how great tasting our communion bread and juice is compared to other churches — and how much more God loves people who use our vending machine. But when the plate is passed for offering, you learn that we don’t take Canadian currency anymore, but instead, we take Beckwith Baptist Bucks that can be bought in packs of 5s, 20s, and 100s. Your friend wants to be right with God and doesn’t know any better, so he fumbles with his wallet as the usher stands there waiting for him to get out their debit card again to buy some Beckwith Baptist Bucks. He doesn’t have a lot of money, so he opts for the $5 Buck, and gets a glare from the usher. You whisper in your friend’s ear that it’s generally understood that people who give more are more blessed by God and that anyone who is poor or sick or out of work must not be right with God. You tell them that maybe they should give a little more and that way God might be happier and then give them more money. They take out their wallet again and buy $20 more Beckwith Baptist Bucks.
How are you liking this version of the church? Do you see anything wrong with it? That’s like what Jesus walked in on that day. And, in fact, it’s what a lot of churches through the ages have looked like. This is the kind of church Martin Luther and the Reformers were fighting against – the church exchanging money for salvation. In fact, it wasn’t too long ago that it was common practice in some Anglican, Presbyterian and Catholic churches to charge “pew rent” to families so they could sit down during service.
What does Jesus think of this? How does Jesus react to His people putting up barriers to His free gift of salvation? How does Jesus react to people messing with His Word, His Law, and His Worship? Read from verse 14:
“And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’”
This Isn’t Your Church
Jesus takes it seriously. Jesus’ Father’s House, His House, the House of Worship given by God as the one place on earth where the world can come to Him – had been turned into a shopping mall that exploited, rather than invited, those who wanted to meet God.
I want you to consider a couple of passages before we move on here. Turn with me to Leviticus 10. At the beginning of Leviticus God tells Moses how to set up the tabernacle, who will be His priests, and how they are to conduct their worship. In Leviticus 8 God consecrates Aaron and his Sons to be priests and shows them what to do. In chapter 9 Aaron gives an offering and it is accepted by God. But then, look at chapter 10:
“Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the LORD has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’’ And Aaron held his peace.” (Leviticus 10:1–3)
At the very beginning of the Temple Worship, while everything was still new, Aaron’s sons tried to offer incense their own way, instead of how God authorized it and were instantly killed. How seriously does God take the worship in His temple? Very seriously. His way or death.
Some of you might think, “Oh, that’s Old Testament stuff. God doesn’t do that in the New Testament.” Turn to Acts 5:1–11. This event takes place right at the very birth of the Christian church. It says,
“But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.
After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.”
How seriously does God take worship, offerings, lying to the church, and grieving the Holy Spirit of God? Very seriously. Ananias and Saphira abused the church through deception and threatened it right at its very beginnings, and just like Nadab and Abihu, God needed to show how serious this was. He wants “great fear” to come upon the whole church in regards to these things.
Some of you might think, “Oh, that was only during biblical times at the birth of the church. Jesus wouldn’t do that now. He’s much nicer now.”
Turn to Revelation 2:18–29:
“And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: ‘The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze. I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. Only hold fast what you have until I come. The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. And I will give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
If you have a red-letter Bible, it’s easier to note that these are the words of Jesus. How seriously does Jesus take the theology morality of his church? Very seriously.
Back up to Revelation 2:13-16. Jesus says,
“I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.”
How seriously does Jesus take false teaching and causing His people to stumble into? Very seriously.
You see, the temple of the Jews wasn’t their temple. Solomon’s Temple wasn’t Solomon’s. Herod’s Temple wasn’t Herod’s. And in the same way, this church is not your church. This isn’t my church. It’s Jesus’ Temple, Jesus’ Church. Jesus is the One who saves people, who calls people to it, who enables worship, who raises up and brings down leaders, who defends it, energizes it, equips it, and disciplines it.
He has set up in His Word the way he wants to be worshipped, the way the church should be organized, the attitudes of the hearts of the believers who come, and how they are supposed to treat one another and the world around them – and He takes it very seriously.
Remember what happened when the Corinthian Church started messing with the Lord’s Supper? God killed some of the people in the church. (1 Cor 11:30). Yes, He gives us a lot of freedom within those boundaries, but don’t be mistaken that we can do whatever we want here. There are things that we can do within these walls, in our meetings, in our homes, in our services, that invite the judgment and discipline of God.
We love to sing about Jesus as accepting and loving and generous and kind – which He is. He exchanged Himself for us on the cross. He bled and died for us. He gives us new birth, a new spirit, raises us from death to life, and gives us hope and peace and joy and eternal life. That’s all true. Jesus broke down all the walls of the temple by dying and rising again. No more Court of the Gentiles. No more place where only Jews can go. No more Holy Place. The veil is torn and the Holy of Holies, the presence of God, the Holy Spirit, no longer dwells in one place that only one person can see once per year, but is now in the hearts of every believer. We, as individuals, and we the church are now the Holy of Holies, the Temples of God.
But, Christians, you must also realize that God’s love and Jesus’ grace does not give us permission to do whatever we want. He’s not only our Saviour, He’s also our Lord. Jesus says that we show our love not just through singing and praying, but though “obedience” (John 14:15).
Turn with me to Hebrews 10:19-31. These are words written to Christians who had been suffering for their faith. Words written as an encouragement and a warning about how they conduct themselves as believers and as a church,
“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
My conclusion for you today is for you to consider these words and take them seriously. I want a “great fear” of God to come upon you in regard to how you relate to Him and His church.
Take time to consider what you know about the Christian life, about your own personal sins, personal holiness, your devotional life, about how believers should operate as individuals and as a group.
- About whether you and this church is humbly obeying God in how you treat your soul, your family, your fellow believers, those on the leadership team, and the community around you.
- Are you in a right relationship with everyone, humbly submitting to the ones God has told you to humbly submit to, and pursuing unity and peace? Check your heart for your attitude about those who are here, and those who are not. Examine yourself for whether you are acting humbly, perusing unity, giving grace, bearing with one another in love.
- Examine your mind and heart during worship and the reading and study of God’s word. Where was your head and heart at during the songs? Focused on Jesus or somewhere else? Where was it at during the reading of scripture? What about during this sermon?
- Examine yourself for how you are contributing to the needs of the church? Are you giving your tithes and offerings obediently, sacrificially, joyfully, and generously? Or are you holding back? Is God pleased with how you use your money and possessions or not?
“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” (Galatians 6:7–8)
Our God is gracious and forgiving, with love that endures, but He is also a consuming fire. Jesus says to we believers in Revelation 3:19, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” How do we escape Jesus’ reproof and discipline? Though zealous worship and repentance.
- What has Jesus been telling you lately?
- What has He told you to start doing or give up?
- Who has He told you to get right with?
- Who has He commanded you to submit to, but you have been refusing?
- In what ways have you individually, and we the church, felt Jesus’ love through reproof and discipline – and in what ways must we increase our zeal and make sure we repent.
Consider these questions, especially as we are about to have communion together. This week, read God’s Word and ask Him to bring you to passages that you need to see. Meet with God’s people and ask God to speak through them. Get on your knees, on your face, and ask God to show you your sin and from what you must repent so that you will not fall into His hands and face His discipline – either now, or at the judgment seat of Christ.
 Borchert, G. L. (1996). John 1–11 (Vol. 25A, p. 145). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
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.
You know me as one of the hosts of Carnivore Theology. Al has invited me to share my new project with you. I have recently begun writing The GoodFaith Blog, where I share my thoughts on faith, family, books, and culture. After a decade of pastoral experience, I returned to school. I did this, in part, to help myself and the church better understand and engage with our culture. What’s in a name? For me, the name of the blog communicates a desire to engage honestly with significant issues. I hope to do so with integrity, or a just regard for the viewpoints of others (those whose ideas I engage with, my readers, and the church). It is my hope that people will join me in thinking deeply about things that matter without ever compromising the good faith.
Good faith is a term used to summarize an organizing principle of contract and commercial law. A duty of good faith is a duty to act honestly and with just regard for the commits made to another party. I see a parallel in the Christian faith. Read the rest of this entry »
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We’ve been slowly working our way through 1st Corinthians and after a Christmas break and the January series on depression, it’s time to get back into our study by turning to 1st Corinthians 5.
“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’”
Would You Rather?
People love playing the “What’s worse?” or “Would you rather?” game. There’ are websites and apps dedicated to them! Would you rather inhale a bug while riding your bike or find a hair in your food at a restaurant? What’s worse: having bird poop land on your head or stepping barefoot in dog poo? Would you rather be almost blind or almost deaf? What’s worse” running out of gas or getting a flat tire?
For good or for ill, people are comparative by nature. We love comparing things. We turn everything into competitions to see who is stronger, faster, can eat more, or anything else. We have competitions for best air guitar, extreme ironing, and ugliest dog. In Japan they have baby crying contests. In the US they have the International Cherry Pit Spitting Championship (the record on that is 28.51m or 93 ft 6.5 in, by the way. That’s the long distance across a basketball court!)
People do this with sin too. If someone is caught doing something they shouldn’t, one popular defence is to say that whatever they were doing wasn’t as bad as something they could have done or that someone else did. “Allan, did you steal a cookie from the cookie jar?” “Yes, but at least I didn’t eat all of them! Yes, but I didn’t rob a bank! Yes, but yesterday I stole two, so this is actually way better.” The idea is to minimize, or trivialize the sin by comparing it to something. We make it seem less important, less significant, than it really is, by holding it up to something we think is worse.
What it shows is a misunderstanding of the seriousness of sin. It’s not just a cookie from the cookie jar, is it? It’s theft. It breaks the 8th Commandment. It shows a lack of respect for parental authority. It shows that there is something wrong with the heart. It sets a bad example for those around and lowers the standards for everyone.
To which the detractors cry, “This is the slippery slope fallacy! Stealing a cookie doesn’t mean that they’ll be robbing banks soon! It won’t bring about the fall of western civilization! It’s just a cookie!” To which Christians, theologians, and God replies: “There is no such thing as a small sin.”
No Small Sins
When we look at sin we tend to trivialize it. When God looks at sin He sees something much more serious. Jesus demonstrated this during His Sermon on the Mount. Turn with me to Matthew 5 and see what Jesus does here.
Look at verse 21. First Jesus talks about anger, something that we don’t spend too much time thinking is that big of a deal. We assume that carrying around anger and bitterness towards people is no big deal as long as we don’t get out of control. We think that yelling at someone in the car who cut us off in traffic is no big deal. Jesus says,
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
It’s so serious that Jesus says next,
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)
In other words, your anger towards your brother needs to be dealt with before you even walk through the doors of the church, before you do your devos, before you say your prayers, before you tithe. If you have anger against someone, even if you think you’ve got it under control you are in spiritual danger and God is not going to accept your prayers or offering!
Move to verse 27. Next Jesus says,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Matthew 5:27-30)
That’s twice that Jesus has talked about the danger of hell.
Men think, “Oh, it’s no big deal to hang that poster, play that video game, watch that show, visit that site, or check out those girls at the mall. I’m faithful in marriage, would never cheat, and it’s not like I went looking for it. It’s just there. I’m just here to buy shoes. I watch it for the plot. I play because it’s fun.”
Women think, “It’s no big deal to read those stories or watch those movies and fantasize about being with someone else. It’s no big deal to think about my old boyfriends or coworkers. No big deal to just scan through a few posts on Facebook. No big deal to wonder about what it would be like to be with them. No big deal to get my motor running with a little fantasy.”
We think it’s all in our heads, secret, and that everyone does it so it’s no big deal. Does this passage make it look like God thinks it’s no big deal? Jesus isn’t adding anything to what God has already said – He’s merely explaining it properly.
And yes, this is hyperbole – or overstatement for effect – but His point is to emphasize how dangerous sin is and how important it is that we maintain control over the purity of our thought life. “Even things of great value should be given up if they are leading a person to sin.” (ESV Study Bible) Why? Because sin is super dangerous! It is ultra-destructive.
This is just like “what’s worse” or “would you rather”. What’s worse? Giving up your internet connection, not going to the mall, deleting Facebook, breaking off that friendship, changing jobs, missing that show or deleting that game – or corrupting your conscience, losing God’s blessing, and living in a state of perpetual, spiritual sickness? Would you rather have the fruits of sin or the fruits of the Spirit?
This is the danger of minimizing sin. It’s eating away our soul like cancer, hurting our family, infecting our children, polluting our worship, corrupting our community – and we treat it like it’s no big deal.
This is what the Corinthians were doing. Paul begins with a startling statement about what is happening in the church: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife.” (5:1) He was sleeping with his step-mother, perhaps even as an adulterous affair. Certainly the Old Testament condemned this, but it was so evil that not even the pagans around them had laws against it. And if you remember the sexual history of Corinth, that is really saying something.
They knew it was wrong but were unwilling to admit it or do anything about it. They knew it was a sin, but didn’t see it as a problem. What’s worse, they thought, to tell this guy to stop sinning and breaking God’s laws or to allow it to continue? They felt that telling him would have been worse.
Look at 5:2, “And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn?”
The church was so accepting of sin that they were not only being tolerant of sin in their midst, but actually being arrogant about it. Where they should have seen the danger of the sin, mourning that it had taken hold of one of the families in their church, in sorrow for the disgrace it would bring to the name of Jesus, they were actually proud of it! “Look how tolerant, loving, caring, accepting we are!”
Their perspective of sin had gotten terribly out of whack. They remind me of the people Paul was talking about in Romans 1:32 where he says, “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” In that case he was talking about unbelieving, out of control, pagans – but it also described the Corinthian church. They knew it was sin, practiced it, and then went as far as to give approval to those who were doing it.
What does the Bible say ought to have been done? “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” Keep in mind that this person is a self-professed Christian! How should they treat this brother? This man doesn’t know how dangerous his sin is so they should “…deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”. This means that the church should stop getting between him and the consequences of his sin. If he wants to live like a demon, then let him experience hell! Why? So his heart breaks when he sees how damaging his sin is. So long as the people around him are tolerating the sin, making excuses, and accepting it, there is no way they will repent. He needed to see the full consequences of his actions.
Sometimes we need this too. Sometimes we need God to let us see what happens when we don’t take sin seriously. Sometimes God lets the shoe fall. We hurt our marriage, families, friends, church, community, or reputation. We turn from God, live with sin, keep it secret, or have a bunch of people make excuses for you: “It’s just your personality. It’s no big deal. You deserved it. We all understand.” and we start to think we’re getting away with it – that there’s no consequences to the sin.
We’re still going to church. We’re still singing the songs, meeting with our friends, enjoying our life, going to work, living our life – and so we get used to having that sin in our lives. No one calls us on our anger or bitterness problem, so we never deal with it. No one calls us on letching over the young women, so we think no one cares. No one calls us on our foul language, addictions, or out of control spending, so we think it’s no problem.
That’s not how Christians are to love one another. That’s not how we are to address sin in the church. Christians have a higher sensitivity to sin, a better perspective of it, a higher standard for ourselves, because are all-too aware of how damaging it is. It’s not just a little anger problem, a little private lust, a little spending issue, a little language problem – it’s a cancer to your soul. It’s a wedge that can be hammered into your relationships with your family, friends and church. A Christian sees sin for how dangerous it really is.
Paul says, “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.” (5:6)
If you are an expert on anything it comes with a blessing and a curse. On one hand you can do something amazing that few people can – on the other hand, you are cursed with the ability to see shoddy work.
If you know how to paint or decorate or design or build, then walking into most people’s houses takes real effort because all you see is mistakes. Runs here, sags there, unmatched colours, poor architecture.
If you are an expert cook or wine taster or coffee then you are blessed, but it also means that most people’s food and coffee tastes bad.
If you are an expert in journalism, history or politics then watching a movie or the news is agonizing because of all the inaccuracies and outright errors.
If you are an expert on exercise or nutrition then seeing what people put into their bodies almost bring you physical pain because of how terrible it is.
And that’s true for all of you who have special training, whatever it is. Your special knowledge gives you a different perspective on the world around you – and it’s not always good.
For a Christian, our understanding of sin makes us realize something other people don’t understand. We don’t see it as a white lie, a little vice, a necessary evil, an excusable moment – we see a virus, cancer, death.
You may have heard of a woman named Joy Milne who has a very special ability. She can smell when someone has Parkinson’s Disease, which is a very difficult disease to diagnose. She first noticed it in her husband as she sensed his smell changing and then he was diagnosed. Scientists were intrigued so they did an experiment where 12 people, six with Parkinson’s and six without, wore shirts all day and then brought them in to be bagged. Joy then smelled each shirt and was right 12 out of 12 times. The actual story goes that they thought she was wrong about one of them, but then eight months later that person was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
Christians are like that. When we finally see our sin, hate our sin, repent of our sin, ask God’s forgiveness of our sin because Jesus died on the cross for our sin, we are given the presence of the Holy Spirit inside of us. And one of His gifts is to make us more sensitive to sin.
As you mature as a Christian you may notice this phenomena in your life. Someone says something, does something, or you go somewhere and there’s some radar that goes off inside of you. Red flags fly, the Geiger counter starts to click, and you know something is hinkey.
Things that didn’t bother you before now seem uncomfortable. Things you used to let go, you now want to deal with. Places that were fun are no longer fun. It’s remarkable. That’s God fixing your broken conscience. That’s the presence of Jesus in you.
As we mature that sensitivity grows, but it also goes away as we practice sinning. The more we accept sin, turn our back to it, blind ourselves to it, accept it, tolerate it, fear it, and allow it to occur, the more we “sear our conscience” (1 Tim 4:2). Our heart gets harder instead of softer, less sensitive, less able to tell right and wrong. That’s what was happening to the Corinthians. They wouldn’t call sin sin, and had lost their ability to see it. Had they lost their salvation, no? But they were still in great spiritual danger. Their church had cancer.
They let the disease of sin grow up in their midst. They allowed the little bit of leaven into their bread, and it infected the whole lump.
I used to work for a pulp mill and one of my jobs was to clear out a section where they had broken down a building. My job was to take everything in the pile, go through it, stick it in a truck, and drive it to where it could be better used. At one point I came across a big bunch of round circles. So I started busting them apart and putting them in garbage bags. A few days later someone came by and saw me doing it and yelled “WHOA! STOP! What are you doing?! Do you know what those are?!” The obvious answer was “no”. They were asbestos gaskets. Every gasket I broke was full of compressed asbestos which made a nice little cloud for me to breathe in.
Asbestos, for those who don’t know, is not to be breathed. The little fibres get inside your lung, get stuck, scar your tissue, and then leads to cancer and all kinds of other breathing problems.
One minute I was happily busting little circles, and the next I was sitting in the mill office filling out paperwork just in case I die of asbestosis someday.
What stopped me? Someone saw what I was doing and knew more than me. He knew those little circles were dangerous, not to be broken, not to be breathed, to be treated carefully by an expert, not by an untrained, idiot, summer student. He knew the danger and he stopped me right there.
That’s what the church is supposed to do with Christians who are sinning. That’s what we’re supposed to do with our fellow brothers and sisters. We are supposed to see the danger and deal with it – patiently, gently, truthfully, scripturally, courageously.
We’ll talk about that more about how to do that next week, but for now that’s where we are going to leave it.
So I ask you: How seriously do you take sin? The sin in your own life, in your family, and in your church? I’m not talking about the country and the world right now – I mean inside you, your closest relationships, and your church. Do you take it as seriously as God does, as Jesus does, as you should? Or do you tolerate it, make excuses for it, trivialize it, allow the cancer to grow and fester, allow your loved ones to play with the asbestos.
I’d like you to pray about that this week.
Tonight we’ve read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke. Luke, the man whom the gospel was named after, was Greek Gentile (or non-jewish), who was trained as a doctor. He was a friend to the ailing Apostle Paul and accompanied him on some of his missionary journeys to help him with his consistent health issues. Luke was a very intelligent, detail-oriented man, a diligent physician, and a passionate follower of Jesus who was led by God to write an account of the life of Jesus Christ about 40 years after His death and resurrection.
Let me take a minute to read the very first part of the Gospel of Luke because it gives us a good idea of why he wrote what he did. He says,
“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:1-4)
So the backstory goes like this: Theophilus was most likely a wealthy, Roman patron who learned some things about Jesus through some preachers and oral traditions but wanted someone to do some research into how accurate the stories were. The name of this small-town, Jewish, carpenter who had walked on water, raised the dead, fed thousands, and who had died on a Roman Cross only to be seen by hundreds of witnesses to have come back to life three days later, must have been quite a fascinating story. And to hear that He claimed to be the Creator of the Universe come in flesh, the Messiah of the Jewish people and the Saviour of the world was worth checking out.
But, like many of us, he probably had his doubts, so he found a trustworthy, non-Jewish, non-apostolic, non-eyewitness, unbiased man, to go and do some research – and Luke fit the description. Maybe Luke was his own doctor, we don’t know. What we do know is that Theophilus trusted Luke to set about going throughout the Jewish and Roman world to gather witnesses and write down what people had seen and heard.
Luke states his mission right up front. He says that even though others had undertaken to write about Jesus (by this time the Gospel of Mark had already been written), His plan was to gather the data he had learned over the years, and record it in an orderly way so that Theopholis, and all those who would read his gospel after, would be able to “have certainty concerning the things [they had] been taught”.
We sometimes assume that people from a long time ago were silly, superstitious and far more gullible than we are today, but that’s simply not true. CS Lewis calls that “chronological snobbery”. They were as intelligent as we are. The first century people knew how extreme Jesus’ claims were and they weren’t about to believe it until they could get some “certainty”.
What would give them that? Well, Luke would talk to the “eyewitnesses”. He says that he had “followed all things closely”, which is also translated, “invested everything from the beginning”.
Now, Luke was no dummy. He didn’t grow up in a Christian or a Jewish home, but a Greek one. The Greeks looked down on Jews as backward and strange. Plus Luke was a doctor, used to making decisions about what to do with a patient based on the evidence of their symptoms. He wasn’t about to give up his heritage and convert to Christianity because of a few fantastical stories.
Also, around this time, the barbaric and insane Emperor Nero had already been in power and had set about destroying Christianity through torture and murder. It was likely that by the time of his writing, Luke had already known of the many who had been killed, and may have even witnessed the brutal death of his good friend Paul.
It was one thing for those who had seen Jesus face to face, had talked to Him, to face martyrdom. But Luke, Theopholis, and the Romans he was writing to, hadn’t seen any of what Jesus had done first hand, and to claim to be a Christian in those days was no light thing. If someone claimed belief that Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a perfect life, died on a cross and then rose again to prove He was Saviour of the World, they had better be sure. A lot of people’s lives – including Luke’s – rode on the accuracy of his research.
So, He visited the witnesses and wrote what they saw and heard – and we’re not just talking about the Apostles. It’s very likely he talked to Mary, Jesus’ mother and some of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, and heard first-hand how His birth came about. He could have talked to Lazarus, the man Jesus rose from the dead, and of course to many of the hundreds of witnesses around Jerusalem and scattered throughout countries beyond, who had actually seen Jesus’ miracles, witnessed His death, and had then spoken to Him after His resurrection.
Distrust of Certainty
Luke’s mission was to give Theophilus and the rest of his readers, including us, “certainty”. That’s not a popular word these days. People don’t really like “certainty” because it sounds too dogmatic. We live in an age where we distrust almost everything – the news, the weatherman, our facebook feeds, and even the supposed truth-checkers. We’ve seen too much corruption, and our hearts hardened towards anyone who claims to be certain of anything.
We much prefer saying, “no one can know the truth” or “you believe what you believe and I’ll believe what I believe and we’ll both say we’re right.” I actually hear that quite a bit. I heard it at a coffee shop just a couple days ago. One barista was a Christian, the other was an Atheist. As I sat waiting for my friend, who was late to arrive, I listened as they debated Trump vs Hillary, then Trudeau vs Harper, and then moved from politics to religion. As they disagreed, one kept reminding the other that this might not be the best conversation at work, but the other was relentless. At one point I came out for a refill on my coffee and the Christian barista looked at me and said, “If you want to talk about religion, this guy is a pastor!”. I almost got swept into the fray, but ended up being quickly dismissed with “Ugh, church people. He probably doesn’t even believe in evolution.”
Before I could answer, the other barista chimed in with, “Yes, yes, but we can all believe whatever we want to believe, right?” And the atheist responded like a good Canadian, “Well, of course.” And, since it wasn’t really the right time or place, I slunk away back to my table.
I’m not sure what it is about this coffee shop, but many times I’m there I face little interruptions like this. A few weeks ago as I sat across from someone else who looked me right in the eye and said, “You don’t actually believe that the Spirit of God impregnated a virgin, do you?” I replied, “Yes, I actually do.” and received back something like, “Well, there’s your problem…” And about a week ago someone interrupted a conversation I was having and thanked me for talking about the Bible.
No one is really neutral on the subject of Jesus, and there are a lot of people who think Christians are crazy for believing this stuff. I get it. Jesus made some huge claims. That’s why people try to say these events are mythological or symbolic, or stolen from other, ancient cultures. There’s no way that someone could be born of a virgin, live a perfect life, fulfill hundreds of prophecies written over centuries, be stabbed through the heart and pronounced dead, sit in a cold tomb for three days, and then join his friends for lunch and a Bible study soon after! That’s got to be made up!
But that’s kind of the point isn’t it? There is no one like Jesus. Not before or since. That’s why it was so critical for Luke to get it right, because believing this wasn’t just a choice – it was the difference between life and death. Following a myth that causes people to stop hiring you, refuse to sell goods to you, gets you kicked out of your family, and makes you a target of the government, isn’t worth it. The only reason anyone would believe it would be if it’s true.
For Christians, this is the most important truth in the universe, and we stake our lives, our reputations, and our eternities on it. We believe that there is a God, the Father almighty, who created heaven and earth. We believe gave humanity the free will to choose to obey Him or not, and that we chose to go our own way, incurring the penalty of the curse, physical and spiritual death. We believe that the Bible is the Word of God, written by trustworthy men that were carried along by the Holy Spirit to ensure it would be exactly what God wanted to say, and that it tells us of how God has worked through all of human history to bring about His plan to deliver us from the consequences of sin.
We believe that the Bible was written not only to tell us about God and ourselves, but to tell us what the Saviour would be like. For centuries before Jesus’ birth God told us what to look out for. Jesus fulfilled over 300 historical prophecies. The odds of anyone doing that are astronomical.
Christians believe that the stories the Bible tells about Jesus are historically true because they were confirmed by eyewitnesses, and through diligent scholarship we are sure that the words in today’s Bible are nearly identical to the words written by the original authors.
We believe that Jesus was truly conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under a real man named Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, was buried, and three days later, really did rise from the dead, making a way for all who would believe in Him to be free from the curse of death and hell.
We believe that the baby we celebrate at Christmas is the judge of all mankind and everyone will stand before Him to make an account of their lives. And that everyone, everywhere will one day bow their knee – so we choose to do it now.
We believe that God alone can forgive our sins, and only does it because of our faith in in Jesus. And that one day, because Jesus proved He could do it first, He will raise us all from the dead to live with Him forever.
Many of us come here tonight not just out of tradition, to sing songs and hear old stories that bring us nostalgic comfort, but because we believe the story of Christmas and are thankful for God sending His Son to be born in such a humble way so we might be saved through Him.
As we sit in these shadows and see the light of the Christ candle, we see an image of the light of the world who has pierced the darkness, and offers to exchange the darkness of our hearts for the light of His life.
I pray with all my heart that you would, like Luke, investigate the claims of Jesus Christ and come to believe in Him too – and that if you do believe it, that you would take time in the next few days to reaffirm your faith and recommit your lives to Him.