“Before I was a Mom”
By Suzana Haertzen
Before I was a Mom…I made and ate hot meals. I had unstained clothing. I had quiet conversations on the phone.
Before I was a Mom… I slept as late as I wanted and never worried about how late I got into bed. I brushed my hair and my teeth every day.
Before I was a Mom… I cleaned my house each day. I never tripped over toys or forgot words to lullabies.
Before I was a Mom… I didn’t worry whether or not my plants were poisonous. I never thought about Immunizations.
Before I was a Mom… I had never been puked on, pooped on, spit on, chewed on, peed on or pinched by tiny fingers. I had complete control of my mind, my thoughts, and my body. I slept all night.
Before I was a Mom… I never held down a screaming child so that doctors could do tests or give shots. I never looked into teary eyes and cried. I never got gloriously happy over a simple grin. I never sat up late hours at night watching a baby sleep.
Before I was a Mom… I never held a sleeping baby just because I didn’t want to put it down. I never felt my heart break into a million pieces when I couldn’t stop the hurt. I never knew that something so small could affect my life so much. I never knew that I could love someone so much. I never knew I would love being a Mom.
Before I was a Mom… I didn’t know the feeling of having my heart outside my body. I didn’t know how special it could feel to feed a hungry baby. I didn’t know that bond between a mother and her child. I didn’t know that something so small could make me feel so important.
Before I was a Mom… I had never gotten up in the middle of the night every 10 minutes to make sure all was okay. I had never known the warmth, the joy, the love, the heartache, the wonderment, or the satisfaction of being a Mom. I didn’t know I was capable of feeling so much before I was a Mom
I like that poem because it reminds me of the persistence of mothers. There are many words that we can use to describe moms. Words like loving, patient, compassionate… but I think the word “persistent” is one that works the best. Movies and books are replete with stories about good guys who credit their mothers for how they turned out so good – and bad guys who could always count on their mother loving them. Regardless of the outcome of the child’s life, one thing that remains is the persistent love of their Mother.
The Persistent Love of God
The untiring love of a mother actually serves to point us to One that is greater – to God’s love. That’s what I want to talk about today: God’s persistent love.
I believe that the perpetual, stubborn love a mother has for their child is part of how God designed them to be – and is meant to reflect and teach us something about God’s love for us. In scripture, God is presented as the Creator and Sustainer of all things, the one in which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:24-29; Psalm 104) . He is persistently ensuring the existence of all things.
When Jesus was challenged about healing on the Sabbath, he looked at the Jews and said, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 7:15) meaning that even though God invented the Sabbath by resting on the seventh day, God was still upholding the universe – if He were to stop, everything would cease to exist.
God doesn’t quit. Think of the nation of Israel who did everything they possibly could to offend and reject God, trying to thwart everything He was trying to do for them. They worshipped demons, killed the prophets, and turned their backs on His Word. At more than one point they were so far gone that they even forgot about their miraculous deliverance from Egypt (Judges 2) and even lost the Book of the Law (2 Kings 22).
Yet, as much disrespect as God suffered, He continued to treat them with special care and persistent love. When one generation didn’t respond, He’d come back to the next generation and try again. When they went on their trip through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, just like little kids in the car (back before iPads), they whined about everything. It was like the world’s worst car trip! God’s taking them to Disneyworld and they spend the entire time complaining about the food, water, directions, view, signs, all the while kicking the driver’s seat.
Yet, God continuously and persistently provided what they needed and even more. A prophet would ask for a sign and God would give them one. A king would go into a foolhardy, selfish battle, and God would allow him to succeed. When the nation of Israel couldn’t get over their worship of idols, God treated them as children and sent them to their room – a whole generation into Babylonian captivity as a discipline – and then rescued them so they could be with Him again. God showed persistent devotion to His people.
Our Lack of Persistence
Most of us are lousy at being persistent. The divorce rate, even among Christians, hovers around 40%, and many today aren’t even getting married in the first place – and more and more couples are refusing to have children. That makes moms very special.
But it’s not just marriages and families, people are also dropping out of high-school and college at alarming rates – especially young men.
Most people don’t even keep the same job for more than a few years. According to one report I read, half of people stay in their job for under 2 years, and only 30% stay at one job for over four. The average Canadian will have roughly 15 careers in their lifetime. The average new, small business will last less than five years. And it’s not because of the financial crisis. 75% of the time it’s because they end up with too many personal problems that get in the way, so they have to shut down their successful small business.
I could go on, but I think that most of know – especially these days when so many of our excuses have been taken away – that all of us have a problem with persistence, and the problem is getting worse. Do you ever sit at home these days and wonder why you can’t just keep a consistent schedule? A consistent attitude? A consistent diet? Why every day – even though for most of us, our schedules have been almost completely cleared – we struggle to remain consistent.
The Persistent Love of Jesus
As in all things, we would do well to look at Jesus, who was doggedly persistent. Consider how He treated His disciples! They argued with Him, ignored Him, denied Him, sold Him out, and fled the Garden of Gethsemane, cowering in the dark as He died on the cross, but He always loved them, forgave them, restored them, and continued to work with them. They kept asking the same dumb questions, doing the same dumb things, and Jesus kept forgiving them, repeating Himself, teaching them, loving them, serving them, and sacrificing for them.
Our salvation was brought by Jesus’ deep desire to win us back to His Father. He marched to the cross of His own will, despite the pain, clueless disciples, and abusive religious authorities. He had the power to quit anytime – but He obeyed His Father in the face of great temptation, so He could finish the work of salvation for our sakes. He stood firm on the promises and the power of God – and marched forward out of love for you and me.
The persistent love of a good mother points us to the greater love we see in Jesus. Those who had a good mom, who had a mom that loved them despite their foolishness, are more able to understand what it means that God won’t quit on them.
God Makes Strange Selections
For a lot of us, we think that God’s love is dependent on how worthy we are. “But”, we say, “I’m not like Peter, or Paul, or John, or Moses, or Elijah, or any of the other heroes of the Bible! Of course, God loved them, of course, Jesus loved them. They had special powers and great faith. I can’t even read the Bible and every day – those guys were amazing! They were easy for God to love! I can’t see how God can love someone as inconsistent and sinful as me!”
Actually, you might be more like those “heroes” guys you know. What is awesome about the love of God is that He shows it most often in the strangest places, and to the weirdest people. Most often He doesn’t go for the best and brightest, the most loveable, but instead chooses the small, weak, dumb, pitiable, faltering, failing, down and out, unlovable people that no one would pick.
Did you ever play dodge-ball as a kid? By the way, did you know that many schools have outlawed dodge-ball? One expert I read said, “We take the position that [dodgeball] is not an appropriate instructional activity because it eliminates children and it does not respect the needs of less-skilled children.” That guy sure wasn’t around when I was growing up! I was definitely one of the “less-skilled” children and had absolutely none of my “needs respected” during dodge-ball!
I absolutely remember what it was like when the teacher would yell out “DODGEBALL!” Fear immediately gripped my tiny heart. Except for a few of the girls, I was easily the smallest kid in my class. And we would always line up against the walls, the teacher would pick two “Captains” and then they would pick teams. Anyone else go through this?
They would go through the whole class and take turns picking the big kids, fast kids, kids that threw hard, the popular kids… and there would be me, the fat kid, the kid that got asthma attacks, and a couple other “losers”, standing against the wall as the kids fight over who had to take us. I hated that feeling – but I knew why: I wasn’t big, or strong, or fast, or popular.
Here’s my point: If God was picking the dodgeball team, He would do it differently. He would have picked me, the littlest girls, the fattest kid, and the kid with asthma first, and then shown how He could win the game with us. To God be the glory!
1 Corinthians 1:26-31 is something I read often and it says,
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
Isn’t that awesome?! God shows His persistent love by loving those who need it most. He chooses the weak things of the world on purpose to show His glory. For all our faults and failings, God loves us even more – because it’s when we realize our weakness and our utter dependence on God that He can finally show His strength through us.
God’s Overwhelming Optimism
I think it’s because God, like a good mother, has an overwhelming amount of optimism about what His children are capable of if they were just listening to Him.
That’s what a good mom does right? No matter how much we screw up, mom says, “You have such potential! You’re so smart! So handsome! So pretty! You have so much potential! You have a light inside you! It’s just that you keep making dumb decisions, hang out with dumb people, and need some serious help.” How many of us got that speech?
I think God feels something similar. Not because of how great we are and what we can do for Him, but because He knows what He can do through us! He knows what we’re like. It’s not like we can fool Him into believing we are better than we are. We can’t pad our resume before God. God knows how utterly messed up we really are – but He still has an overwhelming optimism that when He chooses us to do something, that we can do it.
When He picks us, introduces us to Jesus, saves us from Hell, gives us the gift of His Spirit, and then gives us a mission in this world, He actually believes we can do it! Is it a strange thought to believe that God has faith that you can overcome temptation, overcome your addiction, overcome bitterness, overcome fear, and grow into a better image of Jesus? God knows what He can do, and so He knows that when you are depending on Him, you can do anything!
In Philippians 4:13 Paul says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” And in 2 Corinthians 12 Paul asks God to make him stronger by getting rid of a terrible malady he is facing, and God simply tells him “no”. Why? God says, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” And Paul’s response was,
“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:9-10)
J Oswald Sanders once said,
“There is an optimism in God which discerns the hidden possibilities in the unpromising character. He has a keen eye for hidden elements of nobility and promise in an unprepossessing life. He is the God of the difficult temperament, the God of the warped personality, the God of the misfit.”
We look at ourselves and that’s what we see: “the difficult temperament… the warped personality… the misfit.” We don’t see a person God could use – let alone doggedly pursue with persistent love. We see our sin and addictions and feel defeated all the time. We see our hang-ups and fears, and all the hidden things in our lives and minds that we think prevent us from being loved and used by God. We see our lack of ability, lack of holiness, lack of understanding, lack of courage – we are too afraid, too young, too old, too uneducated, too different, not different enough.
What I want to tell you this morning is that the persistent love of God covers that. God believes in You because He believes in Himself – and when you feel weak, all He requires is that you lean harder into Him. A life turned over to God will be imbued, infused, permeated, saturated with His amazing power and love.
God’s Relentless Pursuit
God believes in you because it is God Himself that is working through you, even despite your weakness and flaws. Just as a mother can’t forget her love for her child, but continues to love them no matter what they have done, even more-so does God relentlessly, persistently, love His children. He can’t forget His love for us.
We have a book at home called “I Love You Stinky Face” which is about a child trying to see how far his mother’s love will go, coming up with all manner of terrible ways he thinks could make his mother not love him.
“But Mama, but mama! What if I were a big, scary ape? Would you still love me then?:
“But Mama, but Mama, what if I were a swamp creature with slimy, smelly seaweed hanging from my body, and I couldn’t ever leave the swamp or I would die? Will you still love me then?”
“But Mama, But Mama, what if I were a super smelly skink, and I smelled so bad that my name was Stinky Face?”
And the mother always sweetly responds, reassuring her child that she will love him no matter what. She replies, “Then I would give you a bath and sprinkle you with sweet-smelling powder… And if you still smelled bad, I wouldn’t mind, and I would hug you tight and whisper in your ear, ‘I love you Stinky Face’. ”
I think Psalm 23 is like that. Let’s close by reading it:
Consider as I read: Who is the active person in this relationship?
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
We are sheep. We get tired and He makes us lie down. We get thirsty and he takes us to a drink. We get sick and He restores. We pursue sin and he puts us on the righteous path. We wander into the valley of the shadow of death, God pursues us, protects us, comforts us. We surround ourselves with enemies and strife, and Jesus does all the work to save us – and proceeds to make us a celebration dinner and crown us as victors! Then, for our whole life, he follows us, follows us, follows us – until we finally take our rest in His House forever.
Do you see how much God loves you? Pursues you? Acts on your behalf?
The reminder of God being the one that pursues us with relentless love is found all over scripture. He stubbornly, tenaciously pursues us, inviting us over and over to turn more and more of our life over to Him because He knows that if we give our life to Him fully that we will finally know peace, joy, and purpose.
While you might quit on yourself. God will never quit on you.
“But God, But God, What if I continuously work myself into a frenzy, anxious about almost everything in my life? Will you still love me then?” (“Yes, and I will lie you down in green pastures, beside still waters.”)
“But God, but God, what if I destroy my soul with sin, harden my heart with bitterness, and corrupt my spirit with lusts of the eye and the flesh? Will you still love me then?” (“Yes, and then I will restore your soul, and I will lead you down the paths of righteousness.”)
“But God, but God, what if I go through a depression so bad that it’s like walking through a valley of the shadow of death? One so dark that I can’t even see you? Will you still love me then?” (“Yes, and I will walk with you, and comfort and protect you every step of the way – even if you don’t know I’m there or thank me.”)
It is the devil preaches the message of despair. He’s the one that whispers in your ear that God doesn’t care about you, God has forgotten you, that you are beyond His grace and forgiveness, that you’ve finally gone too far, that you’ve reached the end of His patience, that you should just quit praying because He’s not listening, that God gave up on you, that God’s punishing you, that everything is too scary and God’s no longer helping you… That’s the voice of Satan lying to you, not God.
God will never quit on you, and will always love you. A long as you are still taking breaths in this world, if you have given your life to Jesus, if you are one of His children, who has accepted Him as your Lord and Savior – no matter how far you’ve backslidden – you will always be loved and always given the chance to come to Him – because He’s not just waiting on you, He is constantly, and relentlessly pursuing you with His love. All you need to do is turn around – and you’ll see Him right there.
To say it’s a strange time is an understatement. As this pandemic looms, and the lockdown enters its second month, it’s very interesting to see how people are reacting. While some sit at home bored, others, like front-line and emergency workers, are being run off their feet. The educated professionals that are used to having “important jobs” have been told they are “non-essential” while the service and retail workers who they used to look down on are now treated as vital “essential workers” who put their life on the line every day serving the public.
I’m 100% sympathetic to how difficult it must be these days to be a doctor, nurse, or other medical workers – but as a former Wal-Mart stock-boy and cashier, I have a special spot in my heart for the people at the grocery and department stores whose lives are all now far more complicated, much scarier, and way more difficult. Imagine for a moment being a 16-year-old grocery store cashier. It’s your first job and you just started a couple months ago. It seemed pretty straightforward. The main parts of the job were to know where stuff is, get the money right, and be polite to people.
How must they feel now? All of a sudden they are given surgical masks and gloves, are stuck in a Plexiglas cage, and have a dozen new rules to follow. The public is panicking and the management doesn’t know exactly what to do. And, they’re told that if they don’t get it right they could be held responsible for spreading a deadly virus. What must it be like as a parent to send your teen off to work these days while you are forced to stay at home?
Coping with Stress
No matter who you are – everyone in every arena of life has been affected by this. And, as the internet churns out more information, the government makes more announcements, the 24-hour-news-cycle generates more stories to grab your attention, and the weeks continue to wear on and on — everyone having to deal with more stress, anxiety, fear, confusion, loneliness, and worry.
How are people coping? I saw an interesting graphic this week put out by Stats Canada[i] talking about what Canadians are doing to deal with the challenges the COVID-19 situation has brought. As it turns out they’re watching a lot of TV, playing a lot of video games, surfing a lot of internet, and drinking a lot of alcohol. I would imagine that if Stats Canada dug a little deeper they would find that Canadians are dealing in a whole lot of other self-destructive ways too.
Consider your own life over the past few weeks. How have you reacted to increased stress, decreased accountability, more time on your hands, or more responsibility dumped in your lap? What have you been doing to “cope” with your stress? More arguing and controlling? More alcohol or food? More pornography and non-stop media? Or are you sleeping more, avoiding life, zoning out? What have your interactions online looked like during this time? God honouring, faith-producing, helpful posts that point to truth and hope – or are you spreading fear, argument, and gossip?
Trial by Fire
Stressful times, and not just during global pandemics, bring out the best and the worst in people. The Bible talks about times like this being like going through a “fire” that either causes you to be refined like gold in a furnace, showing and helping you remove the negative dross in your life – or causing your whole life to burn down as you realize that everything from your foundation up was just made of matchsticks.
And I’m not talking about just the difference between believers and non-believers – though that is certainly the case too. I’m talking about Christians.
Turn with me and consider 1 Peter 1:3–7:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Peter is talking to Christians here who were going through a very difficult time of persecution and trial. He reminds them that their salvation is because of God’s “mercy” – meaning that He didn’t have to save them, but chose to anyway. He reminds them of what their present faith is in – the God who gives them a “living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”. Then, like the verse we read last week in Romans 8 that says nothing can separate us from the Love of God in Jesus Christ, Peter then reminds them that because of God’s mercy, and the finished work of Jesus Christ, nothing can ever take away that hope because it is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading”.
He tells them that it is in remembering those things – the love of God, the salvation of Jesus Christ, their security in Heaven – all the things we talked about last week – that, as the meditate on their salvation in Jesus, they will find the strength and desire to pray, worship, trust, serve, and “rejoice”, even in the midst of their “various trials”.
But look at verse 6 again where Peter says that their rejoicing will be mingled and mixed with grief. “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials…” Christianity doesn’t say that as soon as we get saved all our earthly problems are solved. That’s a false gospel. If anyone has ever told you that the reason that you are going through a bad time – grieving, suffering, hurting, sadness – is because you don’t believe in God hard enough – they are not telling you the gospel. That’s not Biblical truth.
Think about John chapters 13-17, the discourse in the Upper Room. On the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, He told the disciples a lot of important things about what was coming and how they should respond. He washed their feet and then told them to serve one another in love. He told them that their faith in Him would let them see and experience the presence of God. He told them how to pray and that if they need something they only need to ask in His name. He told them of the importance of obedience and how the presence of the Holy Spirit would help them to know Him, follow Him, and would connect them to Him in the most intimate way imaginable.
And He gave warnings, telling them to stay connected to Him or their life would be weak and meaningless. He said,
“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
Then He warned them that living like that would make the world hate them, just as it hated Him. But, no matter what, He would never, ever leave them alone – and would always comfort and help them.
Then He warned again them about his imminent death, and the great sorrow they would feel – but that, after He rose again, their sorrow would turn to joy, and that joy would be greater than they had ever experienced before.
And then, after talking for hours, right before He prayed for them – and us – in His “High Priestly Prayer”… as He was rising to leave to go to the Garden of Gethsemane to face that death, He said this:
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
That’s the gospel. In this world you will have trouble and trials and struggle and difficulty. This world is still affected by sin. As Peter said, “For a little while” meaning, in this life, we will be “grieved by various trials” – but “but take heart; [Jesus has] overcome the world”.
Testing the Genuineness of Your Faith
That’s what the next verses in 1 Peter 1:6–7 basically say: “…now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
These trials and difficulties, all the frustrations we are facing, the worry that has come over us – whether it’s the death of a loved one, our own sickness, a financial or job loss, dealing with loneliness, or having our work become harder, more complicated, and have more risk – are part of what Peter means when he says “various trials”.
What do these do? He says they “test” the “genuineness of your faith”. In other words, these times force you to see whether or not you really believe what you say you believe. At the same time, while it tests the strength of your faith – the strength of your convictions – it also shows you what your faith is actually in.
God uses trials like this to refine and reveal. He refines your faith, strengthens your faith, purifies your faith, by forcing you to see and remove what is weakening it – and it reveals things in your life, showing you things about yourself and others, that you didn’t even know were there.
Bear the Fruit of Repentance
Turn with me to Luke 3:1–20. I want to share something that I think God was telling me this week about myself, and that might help you:
This is the introduction to the ministry of John the Baptist, a man sent by God – the final Old Testament style prophet – who was meant to prepare the way and announce the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.”
So there’s the general tone of John the Baptist’s message: “The Messiah is coming to begin the final work of salvation, so get yourselves ready for it.” Remember a couple weeks ago I preached the “Epic” sermon about the various phases of God’s plan of salvation? Here’s the announcement of God’s final and greatest phase: The Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour, the Judge of All Mankind, is coming into the world – with an axe in one hand, a winnowing fork in the other, and the refining fires of the Holy Spirit to purify the world before God’s wrath, God’s refining fire, sweeps through the whole world burning away the fruitless trees and worthless chaff.
He preached this with power and conviction and as he said, “Get ready” he would invite people to repent. To repent means to change your life, turn around and go the other way, acknowledge you are wrong and start doing right. And to show that repentance he invited them to be baptized – an external washing to show their desire to be clean on the inside.
But, some were coming for baptism that only wanted the outer sign, not to change their ways. But John wasn’t interested in numbers – he wanted people to really change and get ready for the coming of Jesus. He wanted the hard soil of their hearts to be tilled up, made soft, and made ready for the seeds of the gospel that Jesus would be coming to preach.
But some people just wanted to go through the motions. They wanted to say they had been baptised, but they didn’t actually want to repent. For whatever reason – out of fear, peer-pressure, religious devotion, or misunderstanding – when they came to John they didn’t want to change their hearts and prepare themselves for Jesus – they didn’t care about their sin – they just wanted to get wet.
John hated that hypocrisy because it was the same hypocrisy that completely dominated the whole Jewish religion at that point. So He looked at the crowds who were all excited to be baptized and said, “You brood of vipers! You snakes! What are you doing here? I see your motives and I know that you’re not here to give your hearts to God and submit to the Messiah – you’re here for your own selfish, stupid reasons. You make excuses for your sin and think you’re going to escape God’s wrath because of your religious traditions or because you’re going through some religious motions. That won’t work! Religious devotion, devoid of repentance, devoid of hatred of sin and submission to God, will still lead you to hell.”
And when Jesus came, and the religious people saw Him and heard his message of repentance and submission to Him, they didn’t repent – they hated what He said and murdered Him so they could keep being religious hypocrites. The presence of Jesus was the fire, the trial that revealed their sin –and showed everyone how evil they really were.
The crowds, seeing how serious John was about making sure their hearts were right with God before they participated in any sort of external sign, said in verse 10, “Ok, then what shall we do?” If we’re not supposed to be just doing religious stuff – getting wet, singing the songs, saying the prayers, doing the sacrifices, bringing the tithe – if none of that actually matters to God, then what are we supposed to be doing? We’re here to get baptized because you told us to get baptized or God will be mad at us… so what are we supposed to do?
John’s answer was the one that we saw in verse 8. “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance”. In other words, make your life show that your repentance is real – that you sin and want to be godly. Real repentance will require changed life, changed behaviour, different priorities, and different ethics. It reminds me of the famous passage in Micah 6:6-8,
“’With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
That’s basically what John was saying, right? “If you’ve got extra, share. If you’re in a position of power, be kind and fair and honest. Show God you love Him, that your repentance is real, that your faith is real, that you want Jesus in your life and trust His way is the best way – by “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly as a servant of God.”
Herod the tetrarch didn’t like this message. He was caught in a bunch of public sins that went against God’s commandments, and John called him out on it. What was Herod’s response? Arrest John and lock him in a room where he couldn’t hear him anymore.
That’s my conclusion today: During this time you are going to be faced with all kinds of temptations. Some in your home, others at work. Some online, others face to face. There will be temptations to overuse things that bring you comfort, to overindulge in addictions, waste your time, and use self-destructive behaviour. Some of you will face the temptation to live in fear and to be a fear monger, spreading bitterness and paranoia. Others will be tempted to be selfish and greedy or to make personal gain on the back of the suffering. Some will take their fear out on convenient people that don’t deserve it. Some will face emotional struggles worries rise up. Others will face spiritual struggles as they neglect prayer times, study times, and fellowship opportunities. Some will be tempted toward hopelessness while others will try to live in denial.
The list of temptations is endless – but what I want you to see is that this strange time that we are going through is also an opportunity for God to refine your faith and reveal your weaknesses and strengths.
When it happens, and God shows you your sin, feel the guilt and shame – but don’t be overwhelmed by it – just turn that sin over to Jesus, accept that He died for that sin too, accept His forgiveness – and then repent. Change the behaviour, put up a wall between you and the sin, tell someone else about your struggle, do the opposite of it, and then bear fruit in keeping with repentance.
Then, if you choose to humbly reflect on your life, admit that you need a lot of help, listen to the voice of God, and allow Him to make some changes, God will refine you and you will be a stronger, more faithful, more joyful, person on the other side of this.
Or, you can respond like Herod. When God’s Spirit convicts you, when He shows you your sin – tell Him to shut up, lock that voice away, pretend you didn’t hear it, and persist in your sin – and then come out the other side of this time more addicted, more afraid, more bitter, more controlling, and more hurtful than when you went in.
I don’t want that for any of you. Please, submit to God. Listen to His voice. Cut out the things that are hurting your soul. And bear fruits in keeping with repentance.
Please open up to 2 Corinthians 1:3-10 and let’s read it together.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.”
Nothing New Under the Sun
Just pause there for a second. I know I just started, but I really need you to notice this: things weren’t going well for Paul, his missionary team, the other apostles, or the churches they had been planting.
Normally, at the beginning of his letters, Paul starts a bit more cheerfully by thanking God and pronouncing a blessing on the people he’s writing to, but he just sort of jumps in right here with the serious stuff.
If you remember our series in Corinthians you’ll remember that Corinth was a pretty rough place to be a Christian. It was full of temptations and pagan thinking, and as soon as Paul left town to plant other churches the Corinthian Church fell backward in a big way. That’s where we get 1st Corinthians. 2nd Corinthians was written to the same church, but things had gotten worse. Now, not only were false teachers taking over the church with unchristian teachings and practices, but those who had stayed faithful were facing all sorts of hardship. Nero had recently become emperor of Rome and we all know how much he hated Christians, so the persecution of believers was ramping up throughout the whole world.
Not only were there spiritual and personal problems within the church, but now Christians were starting to lose their jobs, get kicked out of the guilds, and having their ability to buy things for their family and sell things to make money stripped away. Their lives were in danger as they were being reported for false crimes, and their refusal to call Nero a “god” and bow to him as “lord” meant they were in danger of being tried and executed as enemies of the state. It was not a good time to be a Christian or a missionary.
So, when Paul opens up his letter here, he jumps right to what the Christians in Corinth needed to hear most. In light of all the danger, difficulty and frustration around them, he begins, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
What amazing words from a man who is afflicted, suffering, and “utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” – writing to people who were potentially suffering the same problems. Astonishing words from a man who thought he might die at any moment for the sake of the gospel – writing to people who might die at any moment because they believed.
Over and over these days we keep hearing that we are “living in unprecedented times” and need “unprecedented measures”. I googled that phrase – “unprecedented times” – and told google to show me results for only the past month. I got 15 million results. But these are not “unprecedented times”!
Even if we just go back 500 years we’ll see Martin Luther and all the doctors, politicians, and churches in his era facing the Bubonic Plague. Later, in the Fall of 1665 we see the “Great Plague of London”. Then, a couple hundred years later, in the fall of 1854, Charles Spurgeon, one of the greatest preachers of all time, faced a massive Cholera outbreak – and all of these were “as real and as impactful as what we are facing now”[i].
And, what’s interesting – but not too surprising when you think about it – is that you’ll read almost the same things from these pastors, doctors and politicians that you read in the news today: Make sure you wash your hands, don’t gather together in big crowds, and make sure you say your prayers. There really is nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:9)!
The people who faced these times – whether it was Roman persecution or a pandemic – were just as confused and worried as we are.
That’s why it bugs me when people say these are unprecedented times. They’re not. Disease, sickness, and death are part of life. Suffering is the usual course of mankind. People being selfish and hoarding resources is nothing new. Watching politicians and rich people use the crisis to try to gain power, influence, and money is nothing new. Worrying over our families and neighbours because of unforeseen trouble is nothing new. And seeing people rise up to the occasion to spread hope, joy, and help to their fellow man, is also nothing new.
What Do We Do?
But it somehow always comes as a surprise, doesn’t it? Whether we get sick, someone we love dies, we get robbed, people try to capitalize on suffering, or the governing authorities mess up – we somehow always seem to react like it’s completely unexpected and has never happened to anyone else, ever. It seems to be human nature to get so myopic, so self-focused, so caught up in our own lives and moments, that we think that the whole universe not only revolves around us – but that we are so special that history began when we were born and no one else’s experience can compare to our own. But that’s not true, is it?
And so, with that in mind – taking the historical blinders off, opening our vision up beyond ourselves, and realizing that others have faced what we are facing – we must ask ourselves, “How did they get through it? How did they react? What did they stand on?”
Which brings us back to our scripture for today. Look back at verse 9. It begins, “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.” What did Paul do when he was faced with suffering, pain, sickness, persecution, and the threat of imminent death? How did he get through it? What words of hope did He give to the people he loved and served?
“But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.”
Christian theology and belief is not separated from our real life experiences. The miracle of the Resurrection at Easter is not merely an historical event that we just fondly remember at this time of year – it is a truth that affects our daily lives. Christians exist, moment to moment, in light of the resurrection – and the further we get from that light, the less time we spend talking to God about it, meditating on it, reading about it, the more hopeless we become.
We’ve talked many times before about how important it is that we take what we know about the gospel in our heads and allow it to affect our hearts and our hands – how critical it is that we don’t merely say we believe, but actually live and think and love and hope, like the death of Jesus on the cross, His resurrection from the dead, and his glorious ascension, are the very air we breathe.
That’s why Paul could look at the “deadly peril” he was facing and say “There is some good to be found in this difficulty because it ‘makes us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead’”. And the more we rely on God, the better off we will be.
Paul said it this way in the 1st letter to the Corinthians:
“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:54–55)
Or to the Romans,
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?… Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31–32; 35–39)
These words were not written by a wealthy mega-church pastor, sitting in a clean office with an ensuite bathroom, surrounded by a bunch of middle-class church folks – these words were written by a suffering servant of Jesus who says his life felt like he was “being killed all day long”.
Where does that strength come from? Where can you find that kind of hope? How do you take another step, plant another church, face another shipwreck, do another day of travelling hungry, when the churches you plant are under attack, you’re constantly on the run from being stoned or lashed, and Emperor Nero, the cruelest ruler in Roman history, was only a few years away from burning Christians as human torches to light his dinner parties?
Or, for us today – how can you watch the news, read your Facebook feed, and live in the world today as the COVID19 Pandemic takes over our daily lives – as we lose more and more freedoms – as we told to isolate ourselves and live in fear? How do we face it?
If your hope is in “science” or “politicians” or “policies”, they will fail you. Their best attempts and intentions are still affected by human corruption and have yet to save the world from pain, disease, fear, and death. And they certainly haven’t shown themselves to have the power to raise the dead!
Your hope must be in the Risen Lord Jesus. You must rely, as our scripture today says, “not on yourselves but on God who raises the dead”. He is the only one who can deliver you from “deadly peril” – whether by preserving you from becoming ill, or by sending a miracle to make you well when you are sick, or by delivering you to heaven after you die. That is what is captured in the confident phrase of verse 10: “…and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.” It is in the knowledge and hope of the resurrection that we find our comfort.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the cornerstone, the foundation, of everything else that Christians believe. All our theology – all our ministries – all our morality – all our preaching and teaching – all our values – our entire worldview rests on the historical fact that Jesus Christ really died on the cross, was really buried in a tomb for 3 days, and then really rose again from death to life, and still lives today. It’s the single, most important belief in Christianity – and it is constantly under attack by unbelievers, and sometimes even overlooked or ignored by those who claim to be followers of Jesus. They’re fine with Jesus as a good moral teacher, but they stumble over the resurrection. But when they do, they miss the entirety of the gospel.
The Corinthian church had this problem too, and Paul addressed it in 1 Corinthians 15. Open up with me to 1 Corinthians 15:12 and let’s read it together:
“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.” (1 Corinthians 15:12–20)
I don’t intend to go into the evidences for the resurrection, because that’s not really the point of today’s message – but I do commend you to read “The Case for Christ” by Lee Strobel or even watch the movie.
Today, I’m talking to believers, to Christians who claim to follow Jesus but are plagued with fear and worry about what’s happening in the world around them, to the people they love, and within their own hearts.
My message to you today is that when there is so much uncertainty in the air, so much misinformation and confusion, so many people grasping at temporary salvation through extreme measures and putting their hopes in human efforts, that you will remember that everything you are going through is an opportunity to remember that you cannot rely on yourself or anyone else to save you from death, or to bring you joy, or give you the hope that will bring you through this time – you must connect with and trust the God who raises the dead, the Holy Spirit He sent to live within you, and the love of the Lord Jesus Christ who has promised to deliver you. Are you talking to Him every day? Are you living in the light of the resurrection and the presence of the risen Lord?
Let me close with this: I want you to notice that there are three sources of comfort mentioned in our passage today that we should be availing ourselves of every day. Look back at 2nd Corinthians 1:3.
Of course, the primary comfort is the one that I’ve been talking about already – the comfort that comes from knowing our future is secure because of the Risen Lord Jesus – but there are two more.
The first comfort mentioned is the comfort of God the Father. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction…” Every day, every moment, your Heavenly Father is ready and willing to grant you peace and joy in the midst of your trials. Are you coming to Him every morning, every afternoon, every night – reading His word, talking to Him in prayer, singing to Him songs of praise, sitting silently and meditating on His truths – so He can fill up your very, very leaky cup?
The second comfort mentioned is each other. “…The Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
We who are receiving comfort from God, are given that comfort not only for ourselves, but so that we can pass it on to others. When we feel lonely, afraid, weak, or sick – an then God meets us in our affliction, making us feel strong because God is strengthening us, it is our responsibility, to make purposeful contact with people who are weak. God meets us in our loneliness so we can share that grace with someone else who is lonely. God gives us hope and joy to combat our fears – and then tells us to go share what we have experienced with someone else who needs to hear it. God strengthens our feeble hands when they are weak so that we can serve others who need it! He doesn’t just meet us in our affliction for our own sake – but so that we will meet others “with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” Are you being a source of joy and hope for your immediate family, for your extended family, and for the people in your church – even those not in your usual circle? Are you talking to God every day, feeling His presence – and then using that strength to making the phone calls, sending the texts and emails, and spread that hope and joy to others?
And to those who need comfort – are you allowing not only God but other believers to bring it to you? Are you making yourself available to them, picking up the phone, responding to texts, connecting wherever you can so that they can point you to Jesus?
This is how we will get through this time. By meditating on the resurrected Lord Jesus and the hope that brings us. By using that meditation to connect ourselves to God the Father through the Holy Spirit, the One who raised Jesus from the dead. And by taking the strength we receive from Him and spreading it to the people around us who need it.
It’s been sort of my tradition to take time on Palm Sunday to tell the story of the history of the world, the story of salvation, from beginning to end, because I think it’s important – maybe especially during times like these – that we remember that the moment we are living in and the events we are looking at are part of a larger story, a metanarrative, that has been going on for a very long time.
Chapter 1: The Beginning
Our story begins in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” 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 ever were heavens or an 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 – it was “Created”. 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, life unlike any other creature had: Physical and Spiritual Life. And then He formed the woman from a part of the Man, 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 divinity with 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 was unheard 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, and satisfying. There was only one bad option.
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 whether or not one believes God’s Word. If there is to be a real relationship between Creator and creation, rejection had to 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 something 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 good, they wanted the knowledge of evil 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 “goodness” and “life”… but after they fell, they knew “good and evil and death”.
And since God is good, perfect and holy, 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 their 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 creation was tainted, marred, 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. And, as God had promised, they 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.
Now, that’s all bad news, right? Well, even though it was all bad news, there was one glimmer of hope– 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 death and Satan (Genesis 3:15). That, though it would be bleak for a while, and the consequences were dire, God’s Gospel said there was still hope.
Chapter 4: Noah
Now, 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 – He was a sinner too. It was that Noah was the only one willing to listen to the message of salvation.
After the flood, God started overusing 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.
Have you ever wondered 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 will even want to 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 what made him special was, again, like Noah, he was willing to listen to God 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 Jacob’s 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 raised 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 couple hundred years, 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. 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 of Israel to become the slaves of the Egyptians. They were in slavery for a very long time, generations of 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 and start worshipping a golden calf of their own design, gave them laws to live by so they would know how to worship Him, how to care for one another, and be different from the rest of the world.
He said things like: “I am the only God, worship me alone. 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, sort of like they did in the Garden of Eden. Except, this would be a bloody system, full of death. Not just one lamb like during the Passover in Egypt, 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 sin of the nation onto an animal and then kill it in the place of the people. The payment for sin is always death. God has 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, so they could be in a right relationship with Him – 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 the Fall.
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 like the flood 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 they wouldn’t and couldn’t obey the law. It wasn’t long before they turned away 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 praying to and making sacrifices to 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 saving work that needed to be done.
Chapter 8: Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.
The next chapter in history is a sort of in-between time which you can call “Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat”, and it lasted 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 was really just an 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 there 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 participated in child sacrifice. 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 Law-giver, 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 of sin, warn them of the dangers of sin, and show them the path of repentance – but most would be ignored or even attacked.
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. A man who would finally obey God perfectly. The One who was promised to Adam and Eve, who would come through Abraham’s tribe, who would represent mankind, but have the power to conquer evil, forgive sin and even destroy death. The coming of Jesus is spoken about in every book of the Old Testament.
This cycle went on for years… hundreds and hundreds of years… and all the while God continued to prepare the world for Jesus, raising up nations, setting the stage, 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.
Humanity was in a miserable state and 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 perfectly, love God and others perfectly, be the perfect prophet, perfect priest, and perfect king. He would speak only truth, 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 roads and laws and 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 – 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) were 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 Jesus’ life and ministry. Rejection and suffering would be the pattern of life for the Son of God.
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 God’s Anointed One, the person to whom they should submit, 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 good 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. God comes to save us – and 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, it isn’t sickness or sadness… 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 God’s forgiveness and love and grace is not present – where and sin and death and wrath 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 gluttony or lust or abuse – not political corruption or corporate greed. 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 on Jesus. We will never fully understand the suffering Jesus went through 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. He offers to exchange our sin for His righteousness.
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 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 His Law and our consciences. He shows us His plan of salvation in the scriptures. He raises up people to share his plan of salvation with us personally. Jesus does all the work of obeying God’s law, taking God’s wrath, and dying for our sins. 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, bled for it, and then rose from the dead to show His victory over it – and then extends His nail-scarred hands to offer freedom to anyone who would believe. He makes each of us an offer.
Will you accept the risen Jesus as your only Saviour? 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. Yes, we still see the effects of sin, because the story isn’t quite over yet. This pandemic is a reminder that the consequences of sin are terrible and lead to corruption and death. It’s a reminder that, as Romans 8 says, creation is groaning along with us, waiting to be finally freed from its bondage to corruption, eagerly awaiting our final destination and the redemption of our bodies. But, Christians know, that times like this also remind us of the hope we have in Jesus – that as wonderful as they may be, there is no politician, no doctor, no scientist, no person, that can deal with our real problem – the weight of sin in our souls. We talked about that last week.
This Epic is the greatest message that can be known, and I want you to internalize it: It tells you that you were personally designed by a loving creator who offers you hope, and purpose, and a secure future no matter what happens in this world. It reminds you that life is more than just food, money, sex, friends, and career. It tells you that your instinct towards justice and your deep desire for hope and peace and joy and freedom can be fulfilled, but only in Jesus. It tells you that your decisions today have eternal consequences. And reminds you that you do not need to fear death because death has lost its sting. – and that even your most terrible suffering can be turned into the greatest of 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 Bible, and to tell His story, this Epic, to as many people as you can.
The song I played earlier is called “The Voice of Truth” and it’s by a Christian band called “Casting Crowns”. It’s a song that has meant a lot to me over the years – especially in my first years of being a pastor.
You see, when I was in high school I never thought in a million years that I would be a preacher. I grew up loving computers and Star Trek. I was a nerd before nerds were cool. From the moment my dad bought the family that Tandy 1000 and I got that first MS-DOS manual, I was hooked. Put it this way, when I was in high school and the library computer wasn’t working properly, I was the one who got called out of class to come and take a look at it – and only sometimes because I was the one who had broken it in the first place.
So, when God called me to ministry it was as much of a surprise to me as it was to everyone else. My call came during my first year of Bible College. I had just flunked out of computer school and needed to be registered somewhere in order to be a Summer Student at the Pulp Mill in my home town, so I registered at the Bible College my pastor went to. I only signed up for one year because I definitely wasn’t going to need a Bible degree, but within the first 3 months, once I had given my life back to Jesus and He had done some work in my heart, He told me one thing: “Stay here”.
So, I signed up for the 4 year Bachelor’s Degree program, still having no idea what I was supposed to do with my life – only knowing one thing: I won’t be a preacher. I took courses to work for a missionary organization, or be a counsellor, but nothing for preaching or teaching.
Then, after 4 years, with a Certificate, a Diploma, and a bunch of ministry experience, under my belt, I still didn’t know what to do. I asked my denominational leader, and he told me to go back to school. So I signed up for a 3 Year Master’s of Divinity Degree – still having no idea what I’d be when I grew up.
Fast forward to the last semester of my third year. I had picked my own classes, found my own mentors, volunteered and worked for the churches I wanted to, even created a new job at a big church called “media minister” where I organized the sound, video, and print ministries of the church. I’d done everything in my power to avoid preaching. Everything I did was behind the scenes. I took lots of courses for everything other than preaching… sure that my future was in ministry, but not in the pulpit. But by the last semester, I still didn’t know what God wanted me to do.
Until one day when I just gave up trying to control my future. I gave up on guiding my own way and guessing what my future would look like. Instead, I prayed a very dangerous prayer: “Lord, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m educated beyond my intelligence and abilities, and have no idea what you want. So, from this moment on, I’m just going to say ‘yes’ to everything everyone asks me to do. You’d better put some people in my way because I’m just going to say ‘yes’.”
Now, I don’t necessarily recommend that prayer, but I’ll tell you what happened. Three days later the Academic Vice President of the school called me out of the blue and said, “Al, I want you to preach at a little church that just lost their pastor.” If I hadn’t told God that I would say ‘yes’ to everything, I would have laughed him off the phone, said “No thank you, sir.” and hung up. But I committed to saying ‘yes’.
So I took the one and only sermon I had ever had to write, for the one and only class I was forced to take to pass my degree, and I preached it at that little church. I was petrified. But, they asked me back. I’m guessing they were desperate because the sermon was not good.
Then, another church called and wanted me to preach there. And I said “yes” and went. Then a little church in the middle of nowhere, a full hour away from where my family was living in Edmonton, in a little town named Gwynne Alberta, called me to be their weekly preacher. And, scared as I was… I still said “yes”.
Then I graduated, and another little church – this time in Cleveland, Ohio called me to be their full-time pastor. I didn’t want to go to the US. I didn’t want to be a solo pastor. I didn’t want to be a preacher. I wanted to serve behind the scenes, help other pastors and preachers be good at what they do – but no, God said, “No. I’m taking you out of your comfort zone, Al. I’m taking you from your churches of 1000 people and I’m putting you in a church of 25. I’m taking you out of Canada. I’m taking you from being surrounded by technology to a place where they still use an overhead projector, slides and a hymnal. And most of all, I’m taking you away from the comfort of hiding in the back, and I’m going to make you stand up and preach my word.”
And, I said yes. And here’s something a lot of people don’t know – and why that song “Voice of Truth” is so meaningful to me. I was terrified every week for over 10 years. Every week for over a decade, 50 weeks out of the year, right before service, I would be in the bathroom sick, on my knees in front of a toilet, begging God to help me. I’ve been preaching for about 16 years now, and for well over half of it – and still sometimes to this day – I’m often still so scared that I end up on my knees in the bathroom before service.
There were a lot of times I wanted to run away, quit, do something to disqualify myself so I wouldn’t be allowed to preach anymore. There were a lot of times well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) people said something that devastated me for days after the sermon. There have been times I would sit before my computer, blank cursor blinking away, fighting back tears because I didn’t know where I was going to get the strength to write one more message.
The voices in my head would say the very same things that the lyrics to the song said. The first verse is about when Peter was standing in the boat, looking out at Jesus walking on the water, wanting to walk out to Him, and then taking that step off the boat… It says, “Oh what I would do to have the kind of faith it takes to climb out of this boat I’m in, onto the crashing waves. To step out of my comfort zone into the realm of the unknown where Jesus is and He’s holding out His hand. But the waves are calling out my name and they laugh at me reminding me of all the times I’ve tried before and failed. The waves they keep on telling me, time and time again. ‘Boy, you’ll never win! You’ll never win!’”
I’ve heard that voice many times. I’m sure you have too.
These are trying times we are living in right now. So much fear, confusion, anguish, and uncertainty. The enemy the world is trying to fight right now isn’t some rogue nation, or terrorist organization, its invisible – a virus. It’s not happening somewhere over there in a foreign land – it’s happening right here, in our towns and cities, to people we know.
There’s literally panic in the streets as people hoard food and essentials, not knowing what will happen next. People are being told to stay in their homes, to be wary of one another, to fear strangers, to always be on guard, to change their whole lives. People are being sent home from work and are afraid of what that means for their finances because most people in Canada simply don’t have anything in their savings. Others are being forced to work in places where they can become infected – but the protective equipment is becoming scarce, their hands are dry and painfully cracking from constantly using hand-sanitizer, and the customers they serve are getting more upset, more impatient, and won’t abide by the rules.
The politicians and media and bloggers and podcasters are all in a frenzy right now, spitting out new information, ideas, numbers, explanations, guesses, and theories. The helpful ideas and statistics we hear one day end up being completely altered the next. Information and misinformation are passed along with equal authority by news agencies and well-meaning citizens, and it’s hard to know what the truth is, and how we’re really supposed to be responding.
And I’m not talking about “social distancing”, “washing your hands”, and not buying all the toilet paper at the store. I’m talking about how to respond in our hearts, our minds, our souls. We’re so worried about our bodies these days that it’s easy to forget that humans are far more than just flesh. The damage that can be done to us during this time is not merely physical. Yes, it would be bad to get COVID19, and we should take precautions – but that’s not the only thing that will cause us harm.
We are also intelligent creatures, emotional creatures, and spiritual creatures. It’s entirely possible for us to get through this pandemic without ever getting the Coronavirus, and yet still have permanent scars.
Fear can cause spiritual sickness and leave permanent scars too. Anyone who has ever experienced trauma, abuse, or has a phobia knows this. The scars aren’t external, but internal. It is easy to be afraid these days – and to let that fear dictate our lives – and for that fear to make permanent changes inside of us. It’s easy to look at the crashing waves before us, to see the upheaval in the land, have our hearts melt within us, and to form beliefs that will cripple us for a long time.
The frustration and anger we have against those who were first diagnosed, with those who spread it, with those who refused to self-isolate, who hoard and steal supplies, who are mismanaging the crisis and causing us to lose work and money, or putting people we love in danger – that anger – can start to fester, to spread to the people around you, and that bitterness can infect the people around you causing them to get bitter too. That anger can start to manifest in more permanent scars like divorce, abuse, broken friendships, racism, sexism, ageism – that don’t go away, but stick with us.
Another scar that fear creates is paranoia. You start to believe the world is out of control. The invisible virus is everywhere, and there’s no way to know who has it. The government starts cracking down with harsher controls and penalties, and it starts to feel more and more oligarchical, more oppressive. The media hypes to the max, blogs and websites start to write more conspiracies and talk more about superstition than actual healthcare. The stores shut down, work shuts down, construction shuts down, and you start to be afraid for your financial future too. Your neighbour or family member doesn’t believe it’s serious and tries to leave the house or come over for a visit… and you get scared for them, for you, for everyone.
That fear isn’t something that will go away when the pandemic subsides. That fear will stay with you, because it was there before and it’s deep-seated, firmly established inside you. All the things you were secretly thinking before starting to become reality – and you convince yourself that this pandemic isn’t the problem – it’s just the surface of all the other terrible things that need to be worried about. And it’s crippling.
Then you end up being the one on your knees in the bathroom, sick to your stomach, with a thousand voices telling you how terrible it will be, how no one can be trusted, how everything is against you, how the systems will fail, how no one is watching, no one understands, and no one cares…
Have you felt that fear? Have you felt racism and prejudice rise up in you? Anger and bitterness? Paranoia, desperation, and superstition? I’m sure you have. What can be done? How do we combat that level of fear?
The song gives us a clue. I want to read the chorus to you, “But the voice of truth tells me a different story. The voice of truth says, “Do not be afraid!”. The voice of truth says, “This is for My glory”. Out of all the voices calling out to me, I will choose to listen and believe the voice of truth.”
The greatest weapons we have against fear are Truth and Faith. When the voices come barreling into our head, log-jamming our mind with fear, what are we to do? Seek Truth and hold fast to Faith.
I think of 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 – turn with me there. It says,
“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…”
The whole world is trying to find and use tools to fix this pandemic. Scientists and doctors are pulling out all the stops to try to end the devastating effects of COVID19. But how do we destroy the effects of fear, the stronghold that fear can take in our lives? What weapons do we have at our disposal? They are not “fleshly” weapons. Washing our hands, social distancing, cleaning the house, having a good schedule, working out, eating well, is not going to demolish the stronghold of fear in our hearts. There is not enough money, power, and political might out there to solve the problem of fear. We keep trying to put our faith in these things, but it never works. There’s always something they miss, something they didn’t see coming.
So many people sat in their homes and jobs thinking our modern society is way beyond ever having a “plague” again. Our scientists are too smart for that. Our medicine to amazing to allow for it. Our laws too well thought out. Our economy too strong to fall apart, our political leaders too experienced to ever let the whole world shut down like it did a century ago. And yet, here we are.
I’m all for science and technology. I love living in a world of medicine and antibiotics and MRI machines. I’m glad we have economists and police officers and politicians. But we have to remember that our greatest weapons against fear are not these people, their money, their systems, or their clever ideas. Our greatest weapons are Truth and Faith.
When we face all the “arguments” and “lofty opinions” out there that tell the dozens of reasons to be afraid – what can we do? We do as verse 5 says, we “take every thought captive to obey Christ”. What does that mean?
It means that when we are faced with something to be afraid of, with a news article, blog post, podcast, family member or friend, or even a thought in our head – that causes us to be afraid, to worry, to want to panic, to hide, to lash out, to take control, to get bitter – to do whatever it is you do when you’re angry. You stop, you take that thought captive, and you hold it up to the truth of Christ, and you say, “Lord Jesus, is this thought true? Does it line up with reality and logic and your Word? Does it obey you?” As Jesus said, “the Truth will set you free…” (John 8:21-32)
Turn with me to Psalm 46.
Literally, when I was writing this script, I got an emergency message on my phone. You know the one complete with lights and horns and scary noises and yellow exclamation marks that freak you out in the middle of the night? I got one of those that read, “You are at high risk of spreading COVID 19. You are required by law to self-isolate. DO NOT visit stores, family or friends.” I thought, “Dang! How does my phone know if I got it!?! What app did I download? What government spy software is on there?!” Turns out it was for “Travellers Returning to Ontario”, but I missed that part. It kind of freaked me out for a second.
What do we do when our mind says the world is out of control, no one knows what to do, terrible things are on the horizon, it’s too much for me, but no one else can do anything about it either? What do we do? Look at Psalm 46:
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
Come, behold the works of the LORD, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. ‘Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!’ The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah”
God is not weak, God is not distant. This Psalm says, “Remember who God really is, what God really wants, and remember His strength. Nothing is out of His control. He is All-Knowing, Ever-Present, and All-Powerful. He sees everything and everything works within his constraints and abides by His plans. Be Still, my heart, know that God – the God of hosts, the God of angel armies, is with us. He is the fortress we run to because He is strong.”
But our mind says, “But how can any of this be for the good? Maybe God is all powerful, but maybe He doesn’t care.”
Then we read the words of Romans 5:1–8. Turn there.
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
We read this and remind ourselves: “I know I am loved because God actually traded His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, for me on the cross. While I was His enemy, dead in my sins, unable to do anything of value, a child of hell, God sent His Son to save me – to die for me – to take the cross for me. I don’t need to ever doubt His love.”
Plus, God promises that all the current suffering will work out for God’s glory and our good. All this suffering is building endurance and character. It’s a trial to go through, a refining fire, where, if we are wise, obedient, and faithful, we will come out the other side more hopeful, more loving, more godly than before. What is happening in the world is bad – but it’s not all bad – there is much opportunity for good! I think of the words of Mr. Rogers who reminded us that when bad things happen and we’re scared when watching the news, to “look for the helpers.”
Jesus suffered for the sins of the world, and asks believers to follow in His footsteps. So, as His followers, we don’t fear suffering, we face it knowing God is good, God is with us, and God can do amazing things with faithful people who are willing to be obedient to Him.
What got me off the floor of the bathroom each and every Sunday was not the strength of my own character or will. It wasn’t any strength I had inside me. It was because God had brought me to a place where I was utterly dependant on Him – and so I had to trust that He would allow me to do what He wanted done. If you’re a Christian today, I’m sure you can relate to God doing something similar with you. This pandemic is a way to show us how weak we are, how finite we are, and should cause us to become more dependant on Him. The only weapons we have when fear starts to take over are Truth and Faith. What’s true? And is God still God?
“God called me to preach. God’s Word has Power. It will not return void. God has given me something to say. He will give me the strength to say it. He won’t abandon me. He will be with me every step of the way. Now, all I have to do is get up and do what He has already told me to, and trust the I can because He will do it.”
Let me close with two more verses to keep in mind.
The first is 1 John 1:18,
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”
One reason you might feel fear is because you think God is punishing you – or the world – and you’re worried that the only way you can fix it is to live perfectly. That’s impossible – and it’s a trap.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ says that you are an imperfect sinner, born into sin, who loves their sin, and cannot escape it because it is woven into your DNA like a curse. Even all the good deeds you do to try to impress God end up working against you because they’re not even good deeds for their own sake – but driven by fear and selfishness. But, you are right to fear punishment, because God is wrathful against sinners and anyone who has broken His law. If you’ve ever violated any part of the Bible or any part of your conscience, you are a sinner doomed to face the wrath of God. And just like if you broke the laws of Canada, you can’t just tell the judge what a great person you are most of the time and ask him to let you go. There’s no amount of good you can do to cancel out your sin.
The only way to be saved, to be free from the fear of judgement, is to believe that you are a desperate sinner in need of a great saviour. That you are utterly unable to save yourself, and that you need Jesus to take all the punishment for you. To trust in the love of God, the “perfect love” of God, that accepts you as you are, and if you ask, will place all your guilt, shame, and sin onto Jesus, so He can take the punishment for you.
Then, the moment you believe, you are saved and utterly clean and totally free. As Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Then, when the thought comes that God is punishing you or your family for doing something bad, you can say, “Nope. God placed all my punishment on Jesus, who took it gladly for my sake, and there is no condemnation for me anymore. This bad thing that is happening not because God is mad at me, or because I’m supposed to be punished – it’s a bad thing because there is sin in the world, and the effects of sin are evil. I’m not in heaven yet. But, I trust that God will do something good through this, so I will remain faithful to Him.”
Truth and Faith.
And the final verse I want to leave you with is one that I’ve had in mind for a couple weeks now. It’s Isaiah 26:3–4, which says,
“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock.”
Do you want peace at this time? Stand steadfastly in Faith on the Word of God and the Person of Jesus. Let God’s Word and the presence of Jesus Christ, be the everlasting rock beneath your feet. Turn to those spiritual weapons – prayer, reading the Bible, sharing your fears with other believers, listening to testimonies of God’s faith from biographies and online videos. Fill your mind with Truth and practice Faith – and you will break those strongholds and come out of this time stronger and more hopeful than when you went in.
I’ve been working on getting a live-stream church service up and I think I’ve figured it out. I’m very glad for some helpful internet services that make the job easier!
Here’s the plan:
This Sunday at 10am I will LiveStream a church service (much like we’re used to) to a series of online platforms. Unfortunately, YouTube is NOT one of them, but it’s available a few other places so I think everyone should be covered. Here’s how to access it.
The easiest way is to go to the church’s website at:
It will also stream on our church’s Facebook page:
It will be simulcast on my Art of the Christian Ninja FB Page too:
It will also be available on YouTube here:
If you have any questions, let me know.
By the way, the church also now has Zoom Conferencing software that will allow me to host a Small Group study for everyone no matter where they are — and one of the coolest features is that people without internet can join the group using a special phone number! I’m looking forward to trying that out, so stay tuned for that soon.
During the season of Lent is the time when we fast and contemplate the sufferings of Jesus, what they teach us about Him, and what they mean to us.
Please open up to Mark 8:27-38:
“And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they told him, ‘John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.’ And he asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?”’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Christ.’ And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.
And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “’Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’”
Suffering should be no surprise to Christians, but it always seems to be. Yet, Jesus was so crystal clear about what following Him would look like.
If you look at the passage today you’ll see that Peter declares that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, and then Jesus starts to unpack what that really means. He describes what the rest of His life on earth would look like, preparing His followers for what would be happening during that year. He tells them of how this would be His final journey to Jerusalem, how difficult it would be, how much rejection He would face, and how the leaders of the city, even the priests and the scholars who knew God’s word best, would challenge Him, despise Him, reject Him, and ultimately work to get Him executed. But to remember that wouldn’t be the final defeat as in three days He would rise again from death.
But look at Peter’s response. “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” Peter, and likely the rest of the disciples – especially Judas’ Iscariot’s – concept of Christ’s mission was a very different one. Their whole picture of what it meant to follow Jesus, what that life would look like walking with Him, and how their lives would end – didn’t include suffering – especially unjust suffering. That’s what Peter was rebuking. His idea was to march into Jerusalem as a conquering hero, overthrow Rome, re-establishing Israel as a great world power, call down some angels and fire, spread health and wealth to the people, kick out all the bad rulers and install the 12 disciples as the new regents under Jesus. Victory upon victory. No place for suffering. But Jesus completely shuts down that idea.
Suffering MUST Happen
It all comes down to one, very important word in verse 31: “must”. “…he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things…” This is the issue that burns in the minds of so many. Why “must” suffering be a part of life? If Jesus is God’s Son, the Messiah, the most perfect, most loving, kindest, most sinless person in the world, you’d think He’d have a charmed life. Why “must” the King of Kings “suffer many things”? And, by extension, why should everyone who follows Him be required to take up a cross and suffer along with Him?
God is all-powerful, all good, all-knowing, all-loving – and yet He allowed His Son and all who would follow Him, to face unbelievable heartache, betrayal, and pain. It doesn’t make sense – which is why Peter had such a strong reaction. It’s the same reaction we have when the suffering gets piled on, isn’t it? It goes against our natural inclinations and causes us to question everything.
When we’re hit with sickness, death, pain, or sadness, these are all-natural questions: Why am I suffering? Am I even allowed to call this suffering in light of all the terrible things others are going through? What does it mean to suffer? What purpose does this pain have? Why am I going through this? Why is the person I love facing this? If God is all-good and all-powerful, can’t he come up with a better way? If I were God I know I could…
As we ask and read and pray, talk to some Christians, and more time passes – especially when we look back at other times of suffering – we start to understand more, but not completely. We start to see a little purpose in the suffering, some reasons behind it, some fruit that has come from it, and start to see some of God’s reasoning – but the question still lingers: “Wasn’t there a better way? How can this level of suffering be God’s perfect plan? Must it really be this way?”
The Sufferings of Christ
For the answers to these questions, we look to the life of Christ. If Jesus lived the perfect life and was perfectly loved by the Father… if Jesus is the perfect model and standard for living… if Jesus is our true teacher and friend… if His Father is our Father… if, once we are saved, His perfection is our perfection, and we are truly saved and fit for heaven… then whatever His life looked like – and whatever His follower’s life looks like – is going to give us a hint as to what is normal or normative or usual for all believers. Especially since He said,
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
So, did Jesus have to suffer? Theologically speaking, one thing we know for sure – and we’ve talked about this a lot – is that Jesus’ suffering was the only way to destroy the curse of sin.
2 Corinthians 5:21 says,
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Hebrews 9:22 says,
“Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”
It was only through His suffering that we could be saved. Listen to Colossians 2:13–14,
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
Now turn to Romans 5:1–11,
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
Our peace with God comes through the shed blood of Jesus. That was the price. God said, “Those who break my law must pay the penalty of suffering and death.” Jesus said, “I will suffer and die for their sake.” And anyone who accepts that is saved.
What we don’t usually understand though is that the sufferings of Christ that led to our salvation were not just in the final week of his life. His whole life, from birth to death, was one long passion walk. Isaiah 53:3 says the Messiah would be,
“despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…”
As you wonder about your own sufferings, consider Jesus’ life. Philippians 2:6-7 says that coming to earth was an act of supreme humiliation. Jesus, who is God Almighty,
“did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men…”
When He was born his parents could find no good place to stay so He was born in a barn and laid in a feeding trough (Luke 2:7). Not long after, when he was only a couple years old, Jesus barely escaped being murdered by King Herod (Matt. 2:14) and had to flee his country and live as a refugee. When He came back He lived in Nazareth, a town that some people despised (John 1:46). It is thought that his adopted father, Joseph, died when he was a young man, which is why Jesus waited until he was older to start His earthly ministry. Then when He did, His family called Him crazy and tried to shut him down (Mark 3:21). When he came back to his hometown of Nazareth to spread the gospel, they chased him out of town so they could throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:29). The scriptures say that for His whole life Jesus knew thirst (Matt 4:2), exhaustion (John 4:6), poverty, and homelessness (Luke 9:58). Consider Luke 19 when Jesus wanders off by Himself to a hillside to look over the city of Jerusalem, which He loved so much, and we see Him just burst into tears.
The devil tempted Him harder and more than any other person (Matt 4:1-2) and his enemies hated him more than anyone else (Heb 12:3). He was falsely accused many times of being a glutton, drunkard, blasphemer, and child of the devil (Matt 11:19, 9:3, 12:24). His friends and disciples were weak in faith and support, and often worked against him. The people around Him mostly only liked them for what they could get out of Him and then rejected Him when He wouldn’t perform. Near the end, when we see Him in the Garden of Gethsemane, He is alone, forsaken by all His disciples, and so overcome with sorrow and fear that in His agony He literally sweats blood (Luke 22:44). Then He faces trials, beatings, mocking, and torture in the worst way humans have ever devised – a Roman cross.
All of this suffering, every bit, was totally undeserved. When we contemplate our own sufferings, we know that many of them are deserved, right? We mess up a relationship, get addicted to something, lash out in anger, don’t plan ahead, spend too much money, and it causes suffering in our lives. We might complain or try to spread the blame, but deep down we know it was our own fault. Theologically, we know that all sin leads to suffering – that our sinful souls, and the sin of others, even if we don’t realize it, are always getting us in trouble, pulling us from God, leading us into sin, causing ripple effects of suffering in our lives and those around us.
But Jesus never deserved any of His sufferings. None of them. He never did anything wrong. He had no sinful nature. Everything He suffered was undeserved. And every time He was given the option to take the easy way out – by Satan or circumstance – whenever there was a way to avoid suffering, He almost never took it. Why?
Because the Christ, “…the Son of Man must suffer many things…” That was His mission. To face a lifetime of suffering that only got worse and worse. As the Christ, Jesus had a job: to suffer. Suffer to bring God glory. Suffer to set an example for us. Suffer to pay for our sin debt. The perfect plan for Jesus’ life was to suffer. That was the best way for Him to bring glory to God and accomplish the mission the Father had given Him.
Hebrews 2:10 says,
“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”
Hebrews 4:15–16 tells us that it is because of Jesus’ sufferings that we know that HE is on our side, that He understands what it’s like for us to go through tough times, and that allows us to know how compassionate He is towards us. It says,
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
But why would He do this? What did Jesus get out of it? Surely there was something He got out of it. Some payoff that made it worth all the misery, right? We feel this way, right? We’ll go through the suffering if it means that we’ll get something in the end – we get more stuff like Job, we get treasures in heaven, we get the adulation of others for being so strong, praise from our peers for facing such difficulty, more ministry opportunities because we’ve faced so much. We’re willing to suffer, but we want a payoff. What motivated Jesus?
Here’s the thing. He gained – nothing. Before His incarnation He had everything. He is God. Perfect relationship with the Father, the worship of angels, all power, all glory, everything was already His. So why suffer?
Turn to Isaiah 53:2-12.
“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 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.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”
This is why we sing “Amazing Grace”. Jesus gained nothing through His suffering. But it is through His suffering that we were saved. Romans 6:23 that
“the wages [the payment] of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Why did Jesus suffer? The Great Judge of the Universe demanded justice. Sinners must be punished. Now, this is something we all agree with. Even the most liberal person in the world agrees with this. If someone commits a crime, our God-given internal sense of justice demands that it be made right. And we inherently know that the punishment must fit the crime. If someone steals a candy bar from a corner store and the judge gives them the death penalty, something inside us cries out injustice. If someone rapes and murders and tortures a dozen families with young children – and the judge gives them a $5 fine and sends them on their way, that same feeling arises and we know that injustice has been done. If someone hurts us or someone we love, our heart always cries out for justice. Why? Because we are creatures made in God’s image and we have an inherent need for justice.
Now, I ask you – having this sense of justice in you – what should the penalty be for breaking God’s law? Think about this for a moment.
Two people are brutally murdered. One of them is a terrible person. He’s been a thief, murderer, drug dealer, liar, and cheat for 70 years. He’s fathered a dozen children from a dozen women, and abused and neglect all of them. In his time he’s corrupted hundreds of people, destroyed the lives of hundreds more.
The other person is a 6-year-old girl, friend to everyone, her mother’s beloved only child, and the apple of her father’s eye. She’s smart, pretty, kind, generous, and sweet. Everyone who knows her loves her, and she lights up every room she’s in.
Now, if these two people – the terrible man and the little girl – were murdered in the same way, at the same time, should the murder receive the same punishment? Our inclination is to say no, right? The purity, innocence, loveliness, specialness, and potential of the little girl makes us want a greater penalty for her murder than the terrible man’s. Why?
Because something inside of us knows that the more special, beautiful, and innocent, something is – the more it should be protected, and the greater tragedy it is that it was taken.
Now I ask you – how much more does this matter when the offence is against a perfectly holy, perfectly loving, perfectly kind, perfectly beautiful, perfectly majestic, God? If we believe the penalty for sin must be increased in proportion to the offence – then it only makes sense that rebelling against the Law of God, the Word of God, the Person of God, and the Presence of God, by squandering all that He offered us, preferring sin and self, and turning into His enemies – should require quite a punishment, right?
Seeing the devastation that sin has caused in our own lives and world, makes us angry. How much more wrath does God have against sin? Jesus took that wrath for you. Jesus faced that suffering for you. Galatians 3:13 says,
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…”
I want you to contemplate this for a time this Lent. That suffering is part of God’s plan, and that it’s not the exception. The world hates this message. They refuse to believe that suffering has value and they run from it. They refuse to follow a suffering Saviour or listen to a God who tells them that the best plan for their life is one that includes suffering. That’s why 1 Corinthians 1:18 says,
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” It is because of our faith in God’s perfect plan, which includes suffering, that Christians believe Romans 8:28 which says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Our feelings betray us, our hearts give out, our bodies long for release, but when we are Christians, our spirits can know – even in the midst of suffering – that God can be trusted. Is there a better way? If there was, that’s what God would have done. Jesus demonstrates and the Bible teaches that none of our sufferings, no matter how terrible, will be forgotten or go to waste. They all have a purpose. God is not cruel, He is compassionate and merciful.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Consider Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Afraid, overwhelmed, weeping, sweating blood, not wanting to face the cross. His body was falling apart. Just like us, He wanted escape, release, freedom from suffering, for some other way. Jesus knows how we feel. But what did He say? “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42) He turned His suffering over to the Father.
That’s all we can do. Tell God that it hurts, that we wish it could be different, but then say, “But I trust you. And I’ll keep going into your will. ” I think of the words of Job in 13:15,
“Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face.”
These are the words of a faithful man. Regardless of suffering, my hope is in God. I’ll keep bringing all these things to Him, keep pouring my heart out, even arguing – but in the end, I will trust that God knows what He’s doing. He will punish those who have wronged me. He will restore all that was taken from me. He will see all the things I’ve done that others have overlooked. He will strengthen me when I’m weak and let me take another step and face another day. He will raise me if I’m humble, give wisdom when I need it, establish and hold me fast because He is my foundation. My suffering has value, and God is perfect in Justice. My salvation is assured, and I will wait for the Lord.
This is how it worked for Jesus, Paul and all the Apostles, and all those who call themselves followers of Jesus. Your suffering is not the exception – it’s the rule. Every step you take carrying that cross has value, though neither you nor anyone else may see it. And God has promised that He will use it for His Glory and your good. That’s a guarantee.
At this time of Lent, and in your daily suffering, look to Jesus and talk to Jesus.
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, something Christians have been observing for hundreds of years, dating back before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.
Traditionally, this has been a time of fasting and prayer – when Christians avoid certain foods or meals so they can take that time to talk to God and contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ instead. These days, modern believers have expanded the definition of “fasting” to include almost anything that we find pleasurable or distracting, like TV, internet, desserts, video games, or chocolate. The idea is to remove something we like and replace it with something we like better. To consider the habits of our life, mortify the sins that have cropped up, think less of ourselves, and more about Jesus by setting aside time, energy and effort to concentrate on our spiritual lives.
This isn’t easy, especially when most of us aren’t fans of religion, don’t like denying ourselves the things we want, and live in a hyper-consumer driven culture.
Does anyone remember when the TV signal used to shut off every night? I remember when I was a kid staying up late at night and then the TV channel I was watching would say, “This concludes our broadcast day”, play the national anthem, and then just put up a test pattern until the next morning. Do you remember having to wait for Saturday morning to watch cartoons? What about setting your VCR to record a show you wanted to see because it would be on at a certain time, only once, and then it was gone forever?
That’s not the world we live in anymore. TV is available 24 hours a day. All our favourite sources of media are now “on-demand” whenever we want them. If you like crossword puzzles, you used to have to buy a book of them or wait until the newspaper came the next day – but now, you can fire up the iPad and do as many crossword puzzles as you like!
And our culture doesn’t help. Every week seems to have another holiday, birthday, anniversary, or special day of some kind. Every store has a sale something we want. Every day there’s another “must-see” concert, game, or movie. Everything is always hyped to the max, making us constantly feel like we’re always missing out on something.
This is all terribly bad for our hearts and spirits. Living in a constant state of distraction, never feeling satisfied, always feeling like we deserve a reward, is bad for us. Our spirits cry out for silence, meditation, confession, prayer, solitude – but the moment we try to give them what they need, we remember something we have to do, someone asks for something, we run out of milk and eggs, we remember there’s a sale somewhere, the car needs gas and the gas station has a good points program that’s only for today, another episode of our show is available or there’s a new movie premiering that night, our phone dings to tell us someone wants to chat, or needs an answer, or has scheduled a meeting for us, or reminds us of the thing we were supposed to be doing.
It’s very hard on our spirits to live in that state, and it will inevitably cause damage to our souls – we start to spiritually starve to death. We go from thing to thing, distraction to distraction, event to event, job to job, feeling hollow. We may get enough sleep and eat our veggies, enjoy our work, and have a generally happy life – but something deep inside feels hollow, empty – like part of us is starving and there’s nothing we can do to feed it.
Starving for God
Christians should understand this and know why it’s happening. Turn with me to Psalm 63 and consider the words of David when he was living as a refugee in the wildernesses and deserts of Judah, far from his throne, far from the Tabernacle, running away, hungry, thirsty, attacked, afraid, hunted by his own family and people.
“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” (Psalm 63:1–8)
He may have felt physical hunger, thirst, and fatigue, but as a man of God he knew that his real problem, the real danger, wasn’t lack of food or weariness of his body – it was the weariness of his soul. His complaint wasn’t that God wasn’t around, but that he missed God’s special presence in the Tabernacle, in corporate worship, in hearing the prayers and singing praises with God’s people, in meeting God in a unique way in the sanctuary. Being driven from the regular times of worship, sacrifice, songs, covenants, the reading of God’s word, was causing his soul to starve – so in the wilderness, he prays alone, sings alone, meditates alone, and declares that it is God alone – despite missing the trappings of religion – that would be his spiritual sustenance.
Have you ever experienced spiritual starvation? The spiritual atrophy that comes from the neglect of the care of your soul.
There’s a line in the Lord of the Rings movies that often comes to my mind. After years, even decades, of living with the One Ring in his pocket, it’s power having extended his life far beyond normal, Bilbo Baggins says to Gandalf,
“I feel old, Gandalf. I know I don’t look it, but I’m beginning to feel it in my heart. I feel thin. Sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
Have you ever felt that way? I know I have.
If we are not careful, the many wonderful things that our homes, town, nation, and modern life have to offer will actually work against us. You’ve likely heard the term “empty calories”, right? It describes food that taste amazing – like pop, candy, or fast foods that are full of fat, sugar, and salt, but contribute nothing to the health and wellbeing of our bodies. No vitamins, mineral, protein – just food that tastes good on the tongue, fills the belly, but actually starves the body. A lot of our modern life is like that, but for the soul. It takes time, feels good while doing it, has a semblance of meaning, relationship, depth – but is actually starving our souls.
1 Peter 2:11 says it this way,
“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 says this,
“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.”
The Bible tells us over and over that the satisfaction we seek deep in our souls cannot be found in anything this world has to offer. Instead, these things we spend so much time, energy, money, and attention on, wage war against our soul, killing our joy, and then they “pass away” – like empty calories.
Jesus said to those who are hungry for real, spiritual food,
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35).
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:38)
Psalm 107:9 says to those who are yearning for more than this world has to offer,
“For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.”
At the very end of his book, the prophet Habakkuk, after hearing God’s voice, says that no matter what is happening around him, his connection to God is what will sustain Him.
“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” (Habakkuk 3:17–18)
Jesus’ disciples were often worried about eating and food and money and safety – to the point of being so distracted that they could neither hear nor understand Jesus’ teaching. In John 4:31–34 the disciples came to Jesus with some food, urging Him to eat because he had gone many hours without food. He responded to them,
“‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Has anyone brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.’”
As Jesus said,
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)
The Apostle Paul understood this better than most. When looking back at the totality of his life before he met Jesus, said,
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him….” (Phil. 3:8–11)
This world has many wonderful things to offer, but as Christians, we must be so careful about how we treat them. Food and drink are wonderful gifts from God, but gluttony and addiction are a prison. Sexual pleasure is a wonderful gift from God, but outside of God’s control, it causes devastation and heartache. Parties and celebrations are a wonderful gift from God, but drunkenness and debauchery lead to the destruction of your life and happiness. Work and education are wonderful gifts from God, but workaholism, anxiety, and elitism destroy relationships. Having money, wealth, comfort, and safety are wonderful gifts from God – but laziness, selfishness, the belief that your stuff will protect you or make you happy, or refusing to obey God for fear of losing it, will drive you to misery. Hobbies and movies and video games are wonderful gifts from God, but choosing a fantasy world over reality, or ignoring your friends, family, and self-care for the sake of that fantasy, poisons your soul. Social media and the internet are wonderful gifts from God that have great potential to build people up – but we all know that they are also rife with temptations that destroy lives.
It is during the season of Lent that Christians are invited to examine these things, to do an inventory of our lives, to finally listen to the outcry of our hearts and decide to feed our souls the good food of God’s word and the presence of Jesus Christ.
The only way we are going to be able to see the ways that we are being fooled and manipulated by the enemy of our souls is to purposefully give ourselves to what the church fathers have called the spiritual disciplines.
Consider our study of Jesus cleansing the Temple in John 2 and how 1 Corinthians 3:16 tells us that since the resurrection of Jesus, God’s people, you, me, and those who worship at this church, are now the Temples of the Holy Spirit in which God dwells. If you are a Christian, then God has made His home in your heart, in your soul, and has placed His Holy Spirit within you as a seal of your salvation and to knit you together with Him. You have the Holy of Holies inside of you.
Turn with me to Ephesians 4:17–32.
“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
There are some who need to hear this today, but cannot hear it because the corruption of the world has deafened their ears and darkened their souls. Their minds have grown futile, their understanding darkened, they are alienated from God because of the hardness of their heart. Some who hear this are on the edge. You want to hear God, you want your mind renewed, you want to worship with purity and joy, but there are corruption and impurity in you that continuously leads you away from Jesus and towards sin.
But here’s the problem – you may not even know it. Sometimes the things that Paul describes here come so naturally, are so ingrained in us, that we don’t even know we’re doing them. We don’t even see it. Falsehood replaces some truths because the little white lies make our lives easier. We are angry, and sin in our anger, but we don’t even realize we’re angry. We steal like a thief, but we don’t acknowledge it because it’s from the government or big corporations or because it’s something small and no one will notice. We go to work and care for our families, but somewhere in us is a refusal to share with people in need because they don’t deserve it, or because there might be less for us. We participate in “corrupting talk” like coarse jokes, swearing, sexual innuendo, double-entendres, gossip, mockery, slander, but we don’t even notice it because it’s such a part of our vocabulary, or because we do anonymously online.
What the Bible is saying here is that we need to do an act of will where we, as Christians, “put off the old self” and “put on the new self”. How? Through obedience. Through spiritual discipline. Through fasting, prayer, and study. By asking God to look into our hearts and see how our lives have been corrupted “through deceitful desires” and how we have given an opportunity to the devil to do us harm. By asking God what way you have allowed the enemy a foothold in your life, home, and church.
I read the words of the 17th-century puritan pastor Richard Baxter this week and it gave me pause. He wrote this specifically to pastors, but I think there’s a message here for everyone who desires to do the will of God.
“The Enemy hath a special eye upon you. You shall have his most subtle insinuations and incessant solicitations and violent assaults. As wise and learned as you are, take heed to yourselves lest he outwit you. The devil is a greater scholar than you are and a nimbler disputant. He can transform himself into an angel of light to deceive you. He will get within you and trip you up by the heels before you are aware. He will play the juggler with you undiscerned, and cheat you of your faith and innocence, and you shall not know that you have lost them. He will make you the very instrument of your own ruin.” (Richard Baxter, “The Reformed Pastor”, Nisbet, 1850, p.85)
How can we know if we have corrupted our souls with sins we can’t see, crippled our personal worship, or let false gods or false ideas worm their way into our hearts, lives, spirits, relationships, and church? The only way is to ask Jesus what He thinks of the conditions of our souls, and then sit quietly and listen for an answer. And that takes time, effort, energy, humility, and careful attention.
But the good news is that it is never, ever too late. The Good Father is always on the lookout for the prodigal son and daughter. The Good Shepherd is always looking for His Lost Sheep. He will always accept you when you decide to get right with Him – and will help you grow closer to Him when you ask. He will do the work, but you must let Him by giving Him permission and room to work. I encourage you to consider cutting some things out of your life for the sake of fasting, praying, and meditating on the condition of your soul during Lent.
Let me close today with the words of Jesus to the Church in Laodicea, because I think it’s appropriate. Turn with me to Revelation 3:14–22,
“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation. I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, “’Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.’” (John 3:1–21)
Last week we ended our study of this section at verse 9 where Nicodemus, marvelling at what Jesus has just told him, says, “How can these things be?” The whole concept of being “born again” or “born from above” was blowing his mind. For his whole life, he had been told and had taught that the way to please God, get forgiveness, be holy, and have a blessed life, was through rules and religion. He was a Pharisee, a “separated one”, a member of the Sanhedrin, one of the top-dogs of Israel, famous for being a man who not only followed and enforced the Mosaic Laws but all the other extra laws that the Pharisees had since come up with. He was 100% sold out to the fact that it was through stricter and stricter obedience and enforcement of the rules that Israel would be saved.
But Jesus, this newcomer on the scene, who spoke with authority like they’d never seen and backed up His words with great signs and miracles was saying something very different. He was saying that salvation doesn’t come from trying harder and being more religious. He was saying that all of our human efforts to please God through religious fervour were actually working against Nicodemus’ relationship with God. His rules and religion was putting a wedge between him and God, him and others, and was actually leading people into damnation, not salvation. And I think Nicodemus knew it.
When he looked at himself and his fellow Pharisees he didn’t see men that oozed the love of God. He saw people who were harsh, unloving, unkind, ungracious, and who were always worried that God was mad at them because they hadn’t done enough. People who lived in a constant state of either prideful arrogance for being such awesome people – or in fear and deep doubt because they were never sure if they’d done enough. What a terrible way to live. But they were locked into it. Their devotion to traditions, their lust for power, their whole comprehension of God, was locked into this pattern. And I’m convinced Nicodemus felt it.
And here stood Jesus saying that everything he believed was wrong. Jesus said that the only way to find forgiveness, blessing, salvation, and reconciliation with God is to give up being a Pharisee – to totally repent of that way of living and thinking – and to simply ask God to change his heart. I said last week that Nicodemus immediately knew that Jesus was talking about Ezekiel 36 & 27, and I believe that’s what gave Nicodemus the epiphany.
But an epiphany wasn’t enough. It’s one thing to hear the truth – another to submit to that truth. So Nicodemus says in verse 9, “How can these things be?”
The Five Solas
Another way of saying this would be, “How could we get this so wrong for so long? How could everything we’re saying be wrong? Surely there must be some middle ground? I can’t believe that all of my religious fervour, all my hard work, all the self-denial, all the work I’ve put into showing people how to be a good person – counts for nothing?”
This is the problem a lot of people have with Christianity. Christians, atheists, and other religions all take issue. There is something deep inside of us that believes that we can save ourselves, impress God, and earn the right to go to heaven. There’s something deep inside the human spirit that refuses to believe that all our efforts, our good deeds, our self-sacrifice, our worldly success, our passion, our knowledge, our study, our “work for God”, our church attendance, our donations record, our all amounts to nothing in the end.
This was the great work of the reformers like Luther and Calvin who saw the state of the Christian Church – how corrupt and Pharisaical it had become – opened up their Bibles, saw the truth, and began to preach it. They came up with the Five Solas of the doctrine of salvation – the five “Alones” – that were in exact opposition to everything the Roman Catholic Church had been teaching and doing. Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria. The Salvation that God offers is by Scripture Alone, by Faith Alone, by Grace Alone, through Christ Alone, and to the Glory of God Alone.
The Salvation Jesus offers is described and understood only through the scriptures, the Bible. It doesn’t matter what “makes sense to you” or how you “feel”. God has outlined the way that people are saved from sin and death and the path of salvation is clearly outlined in scripture. Anything different than that is a lie. That salvation is by faith alone, not by any human endeavour. It is given from God by grace alone, not because we deserve any of it, but because, as Ephesians 2:4-5 says,
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…”
And who does scripture point to? Who must we have faith in? Through whom did this grace come? Through Jesus Christ alone. Acts 4:12,
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” [NIV]
And why did God do it? Why did God make us, let us fall, send prophets, write scripture, save some and condemn others? Why does humanity exist at all? For the glory of God alone. We read that last week in Ezekiel 36. The Reformers weren’t coming up with anything new – they weren’t creating a new church – they were “reforming” the church back to the way it was supposed to be.
Jesus says it this way to Nicodemus in John 3:10-15,
“Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’”
Jesus says, “You’ve read, memorized, and taught every verse in the Hebrew Bible and you don’t still understand God’s will. Your mind is trapped on earth and all the things you think you can do here to try to climb your way to heaven. Take it from me, the only person who has ever come down from heaven, that there is only one path. Remember the story (Num. 21:4-9) of when all the people spoke against God and Moses, and the Lord sent fiery serpents to poison everyone? No one was going to be able to good-deed their way out of being poisoned. They were cursed and already dead – it was just a matter of time before the poison finished them off. Do you remember how they saved themselves, Nicodemus? What did they do? Did they pray a bunch, sacrifice animals, give tithes? No. What was their path of salvation? God told Moses to make a bronze image of the serpent, set it on a pole, and raise it high in the air so that anyone who looks on it, the moment He sees it, would be saved from the poison that was killing them. That’s how it works. Except in this case, the poison is sin and I’m the One who is going to be raised up – on a cross – and everyone who looks to me will be saved – but not just in this life – they will be given eternal life. Do you understand what I’m saying, Nicodemus? You cannot save yourself by any means because you are poisoned with sin. All of your good deeds are corrupted by sin. Your thinking is corrupted by sin. Every convert you make is doubly corrupt because they are following you! There is only one way to be saved. You need that poison dealth with. You need to look to me.”
And Jesus continues explaining this to Nicodemus in verse 16, the most famous verse in the Bible.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)
The Pharisees were all about judgment and condemnation. They loved popping up behind people, catching them breaking one of their rules (not God’s, theirs) and then using their position of authority to judge and condemn them. Read through the gospels again and see how many times Jesus is walking around, teaching, hanging out with his disciples, and then a Pharisee just jumps out of nowhere and starts condemning Him. It’s quite ridiculous once you see it.
But when God did finally send His Son, the Messiah, the Son of Man, the one the whole Old Testament prophesied about, He didn’t act like a Pharisee. He didn’t come and zap all the bad people left and right, killing Israel’s enemies, blasting everyone who didn’t perfectly follow the law, and passing out health, wealth, and power to all the good and obedient Pharisees. He did exactly the opposite. God the Father sent Jesus the Son to save people, not condemn them. Jesus came with an extended hand, not a closed fist. God loved the world so much – Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, Romans, Pagans, Tax Collectors, Prostitutes, Adulterers, Drunkards, and yes, even Pharisees – that He was willing to raise up His perfect, beloved, Son on a cross for them.
And instead of the path of salvation being an impossible list of rules that no one could keep. He showed that the Law only had the power to condemn (Rom 8:4), but He – the only person who would ever keep the entire Law, perfectly – had the power to forgive and exchange Himself for sinners. Just as anyone who looked to the serpent was saved, so would any who look to Him. Just as the Israelites in Egypt believed that the blood sacrifice of the spotless lamb would allow death to Passover them, so the blood of Jesus would do the same. Just as anyone who believed that on the Day of Atonement, the bloody death of bulls and goats, and the sprinkling of their blood on the altar, mercy seat, and people, would atone and mane propitiation for – or make reparations for and appease God’s wrath for their own sin – so the blood of Jesus would do the same.
Jesus wasn’t there to bring final judgement. Not this time. He was coming to offer salvation to any who would believe in Him.
Nicodemus’s mind must have been reeling at this point because it went against everything he had ever believed. All the words of the prophets he’s memorized must have been racing through his mind with new understanding, new interpretation, knowing that Jesus was speaking the truth. His guilt and shame for being so wrong must have been immense. But there was that human side that made him want to refuse Jesus’ words, refuse to believe he wasn’t at least partly responsible for his own salvation.
And Jesus doubles-down in verse 18,
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
Zero wiggle room. Salvation comes by the Word of God alone, through faith in Jesus alone, by the grace of God alone, through the Son of God alone, and for the glory of God alone. No other options.
Turn with me to John 14, but keep your thumb in John 3. Jesus is in the upper room preparing his disciples for what is going to happen that night. He will be leaving them because he’s about to be betrayed, falsely accused, condemned, and murdered. They’re obviously freaking out and Jesus says, “‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:1–7)
I’m the way, Thomas. You can’t get there unless I take you there. You can’t know truth unless I tell it to you. You can’t have life unless I give it to you. No one can come before God, no one can be saved unless I am the one who brings them.”
That’s what Jesus was telling Nicodemus too.
Turn back to John 3. The natural question that comes to most Christians at this point, I think, is “Why would anyone reject this message?” It’s beautiful, simple, and generous. People everywhere struggle with guilt, shame, and fear. They want to be right with God and others. They want to know forgiveness and hope. They look at their lives and know that this isn’t all there is, that their habits are ruining them, and all the stuff they are amassing is empty. All the things they’ve tried to do to kill the pain, ignore the shame, and distract from the emptiness and hopelessness they feel, isn’t working.
Then they hear the gospel. You’d think that it would come as a welcome relief to them! Hope, help, forgiveness – all for free because Jesus paid the cost. Connection to God, the gift of the Holy Spirit, a cleansed soul, and the knowledge that no matter what happens in this world, it will work out for our good and God’s glory – and that the sufferings of this blip of a life will be nothing compared to the glory that is coming (Rom 8:18). Seems pretty, “No duh.” to me.
Why would anyone reject this? Why would Nicodemus hem and haw? Why would the Pharisees condemn Jesus for this message and ultimately betray and murder Him? Why would generations of Christians after be martyred for spreading a message of amazing grace, free salvation, eternal hope, and a renewed spirit, for anyone who would believe in Jesus alone? Why, if Christians have some of the greatest philosophers, scientists, apologists, writers, thinkers, and agents of mercy of all time and in the whole world, would people reject what we have to say with such vehemence?
Jesus answers that question in verses 19-21,
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
The reason is that they love their sin and themselves. They prefer darkness. God wants to expose their sin to the light, expose their deeds, expose their thoughts, and let them see how evil they are. But they want to stay in the dark because they don’t want to be exposed. Accepting Jesus’ message means admitting and exposing sin. It means saying, “I’m wrong. I’m a sinner. I’m an addict. I’m a gossip. I’m controlling. I use people. I’m lazy. I’m critical. I’m superstitious. I want glory for myself and don’t want to share. I have hate in my heart that I don’t want to let go of. I don’t want to submit to authority. I love money more than people. I want power. I want to hurt people. I want to use people for my own gratification. I want to steal things because I think I deserve them. I want to do what I want, when I want, and be the ultimate arbiter of what is good and right for me and everyone else. I don’t want God, I want to be God.”
To come to Jesus means coming to the light and having everything exposed. That’s why they won’t come.
Consider your own sins for a moment. Where and when do you do them? Out in the open? Lights on? In front of people? Or do you find a corner, turn off the lights, and get alone?
When you’re about to gossip or slander, do you speak in a loud voice for all to hear, or do you find a corner and whisper? When you want to control and manipulate someone, do you do it in front of their friends, family, and church – or do you do it alone, through e-mail, and tell them to keep secrets? Where do you keep the things you sin with; on a shelf for all to see, or tucked away in a dark place? Where have you gotten in the most trouble, and have had the most problems – with things that people did and said in the open for all to see and hear or the ones that happened during secret meetings, private messages, dark places, and back-room encounters? Sin hates the light, because the light causes it to wither and die.
If you are doing things in the darkness right now, what you are doing is not only dangerous but foolish. Your deeds are only secret from some. God knows, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the news lately, you will eventually be found out.
Isaiah 29:15 says,
“Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the Lord, who do their work in darkness and think, ‘Who sees us? Who will know?’”
In Luke 12:1-3 Jesus says,
“Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” (also Luke 8:17)
I’m telling you the truth.
Turn with me to Ephesians 5 and listen to what the Apostle Paul says,
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Ephesians 5:1–17)
I’ll leave the rest of the passage for you to read on your own time.
But let this be our conclusion today. Jesus is inviting you to the light but your sin loves darkness. I beg you to expose all your dark things to the light. James 5:16 says to
“confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
Do you want healing in your soul, your marriage, your family, your church? Start confessing your sins to one another.
Now, expect resistance. Satan really hates it when Christians do this. He’s going to give you every excuse in the world. “Now’s not a good time.” “They won’t be able to handle it.” “It’s too risky. I might lose my friend, marriage, job, position.”
Something will come to mind, maybe even now, and automatically you’ll hear, “It’s not that big of a deal. You don’t need to confess that one. It’s between you and God.” That’s Satan. Do you want to be free of that sin? Do you want salvation? Do you want healing?
“…Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
To whom? First, to Jesus. Use your voice, out-loud, and confess that sin, out-loud, to God and ask for forgiveness in Jesus’ name. God is the one you’ve offended most and who you need to deal with first.
Then, confess the one you sinned against. Confess to the people you affected. Confess to the ones who felt the ripple effects. Confess your sin to your Christian friend. Then tell your mentor, deacon, elder, and pastor. Drag that sin, kicking and screaming, into the light and keep blasting more and more light on it until it is shrivelled and dead. That’s the only way to be free.
Please open up to John 3:1–21.
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.’”
What is a Pharisee?
If you recall, last week we covered the passage just before this one that acts as a sort of introduction to the next section of the Gospel. It’s a sort of paragraph header in the midst of the chapter division that comes through the sign miracles, meant to key us into seeing a change in perspective, but not really a change in theme or signs.
Jesus has taken the torch from His forerunner John the Baptist, has inaugurated His kingdom at the Wedding in Cana, and has cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem during the time of the Passover. While He was there, the Jews demanded a sign, but Jesus refused them – and went on to perform other signs for those around Jerusalem who weren’t demanding it of Him. It was a pretty substantial kickoff to His earthly ministry and we’ve talked a lot about it.
Last week John, the author of the gospel tells us that though a lot of people believed in Jesus, Jesus didn’t believe in them, because “he himself knew what was in man”. We covered that a lot last week, but we need to remember it as we enter into the story of Nicodemus.
Nicodemus is introduced as a “man of the Pharisees… a ruler of the Jews.” The Pharisees were known as the “separated ones”. Not that they isolated themselves from others, but that they were extremely zealous for ritual and religion and considered themselves better than everyone else. They followed the Mosaic Law to a ridiculous degree, even adding 613 of their own laws and regulations on top of it to make it even more stringent.
For example, God had written into the 10 Commandments that no one was supposed to break the Sabbath, right? Work 6 days, and then set aside the seventh day for rest and worship. The Pharisees heard this and came up with 39 extra rules so that no one would accidentally break the Sabbath – and Jesus broke them all the time. In John 5:10 Jesus heals a lame man and tells him to pick up his bed and walk home. The Pharisees were upset because they had made a law saying no one was allowed to carry anything on the Sabbath. In John 9:16 Jesus heals a blind man by mixing dirt and spit. This broke the Pharisaical law about not making mixtures. In Luke 13 Jesus heals a disabled woman who was bent-over for eighteen years. The Pharisees were angry because he had broken the law about not straightening a deformed person’s body – and maybe even the one where they weren’t allowed to untie knots. And these rules got weird. For example, they were allowed to eat an egg that had been laid on the Sabbath – but only if they killed the chicken who laid it the next day for violating the Sabbath.
At the time, there were about 6000 Pharisees around. They were mostly middle-class people and had a great influence on the common people because the Pharisees not only made up these crazy laws but enforced them. If they saw you tie your shoe or even grab a bit of grain to eat as a snack, they would get you publically embarrassed, punished, and maybe even kicked out of your synagogue.
But Nicodemus wasn’t just a regular Pharisee, he was a “ruler of the Jews”. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, their 71 members “Supreme Court”. Rome had given them civil and criminal jurisdiction over people. They weren’t allowed to use capital punishment (as we learn from Jesus’ trial and crucifixion) but they were the most powerful group in the whole of Judaism.
You can begin to see why this man came to Jesus after dark. Jesus had been causing trouble in the Temple and defied the Sanhedrin, but had also shown Himself to be a powerful miracle worker and teacher. Nicodemus was curious but cautious. His whole life, and likely going back generations, he had known only the strictness of religion as the way to please God – and here stands a powerful Rabbi, teaching things that seem contradictory to everything he holds dear – but is also able to do amazing miracles. How could this be?
There are a lot of people like Nicodemus today. People who think they have it all figured out, who have worldly power and influence, who have (what they believe to be) a rock-solid understanding of reality, of spirituality, of how life works. Whether its atheism, deism, spiritualism, some other religion, or a version of Christianity that they grew up with or have created in their own head, their brain-cement is set. If you ask them the answer to “life, the universe, and everything” they’ll give you some kind of answer. It may be nihilism or some version of karma. It might be self-actualization or pseudo-spirituality. It might be traditionalism or moralism or humanism. Whatever it is, they’ve got it all figured out – right up until they hear about Jesus.
Many people here today either suffer from or have recovered from this. You have your own version of God. You have your own version of Jesus. You have your own version of how life, and work, and church works. You have your own rules about how marriage and family works. You may use the same words as people around you, but they have wildly different meanings.
For example, if I said the word “submission”, it would conjure up a certain picture in your mind. What does it mean to be a submissive Christian? Who are Christians supposed to submit to? James 4:7 says, “Submit yourselves to God.” Everyone is on board with that. But what about Ephesians 5:21 which says we should be “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Does your definition of “submission” extend to submitting to the people around you today? What about the next verse in Ephesians 5:22 which says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” Wives, does your submission to God, submission to Jesus, extend to humble submission to your husbands? Husbands, do you understand how to respond to that submission, by, as verse 25 says “lov[ing] your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”?
And further, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13-14 says Christians are to,
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution…”.
Does your submission to God extend to all the laws of the land and those who have been elected to government or positions of authority above you? Ephesians 6:5-8 tells us to submit to our employer and work for them as we would work for Jesus. Does your submission to God include humble submission to your boss?
And further, Hebrews 13:17 tells the church to,
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
Does your submission to God include humble submission to the church leadership and eldership?
Pretty much everyone here today says they believe the Bible and want to do what God says – but most people here also have a different interpretation of who God is, what God wants, what God said, and how far they are willing to go in that obedience.
Pretty much everyone here would say they agree that “submission” to God’s will is important to them. If I asked for a show of hands as to who is willing to submit their lives to God’s will and God’s word, I would see a lot of hands.
Here’s the thing: The Pharisee would have raised his hand. And every single person in our church, every single person in Jerusalem, would have said that there was no one better at submitting to God than Nicodemus – everyone except Jesus. Why? Because regardless of how confident he was, how popular he was, how much affirmation he received from other people, how deep his traditions went, and how powerful his influence was, his understanding of God’s will and priorities was totally out of whack. And his understanding of “submission” was radically different than God’s.
He prayed loudly in the streets, tithed with trumpets, and lorded his power over people to force them to be like him. But God wanted him to pray in his closets, give secretly, “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” with Him. (Matt 6; Mic 6:6-8) The Pharisees weren’t humbly submitting to God and holding up a high standard for God’s people to follow. They were proudly, arrogantly, willfully, though perhaps unwittingly, destroying their religion and driving a wedge between God and His people.
Consider Jesus’ woes in Matthew 23. One said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15) Everyone they converted to their version of the faith wasn’t closer to God – they were closer to Hell. Jesus spent a lot of His ministry untying the knots the Pharisees had wrapped the people in.
Jesus Knows Nicodemus
The Pharisees had hundreds and hundreds of laws that were designed to please God and make them “separate” and better and holier than everyone else, and all kinds of people were patting Nicodemus on the back for how knowledgeable and spiritual he was. And all these laws did was “separate” Him from God. And I’m convinced that He felt it. I think that’s why he walked up to Jesus that night. Jesus had a connection to God that Nicodemus longed for, but had never been able to achieve through a lifetime of Pharisaism. It reminds me a lot of the story of Martin Luther.
As Nicodemus walks up to Jesus, Jesus knows exactly what’s on his heart. Jesus knows why Nicodemus came. He knows his past, his preconceptions, his confusion, and his greatest need. Remember, Jesus “[knows what is] in man” (2:25)
Nicodemus opens with “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (3:2) I don’t know who the “we” is but it could be either him invoking his position as a member of the Sanhedrin, or that he was perhaps sent by a few curious Pharisees to see what was so special about Jesus. He’s respectful, even acknowledging him as a Rabbi, a teacher, who is clearly connected to God. That’s what brought him out that night. How could Jesus, the one who overturned tables in the temple and drove out the money-changers, who defied the Sanhedrin and then scorned them with His words, teach and perform miracles with such obvious spiritual power. No one in the Jewish ruling class had this kind of power, and none of them taught with such conviction and authority. What made Jesus different? What gave Him this connection?
Jesus cuts to the chase. Nicodemus wants access to this kind of power, conviction, authority, and relationship with God. Jesus answers His question. You want to know what it takes? “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” (3:3)
Have you ever sat in a conversation with two people who obviously knew way, way more than you about something, or who had spent a lot of time together, and the longer they talked, the more jargon they used, the more they finished each other’s sentences, the more shorthand and half-stories they mounted up, the less you understood – but you knew that they were 100% understanding one another? That’s sort of what was happening here. They were using rabbinical shorthand.
Jesus cut to the chase and answered the question that Nicodemus hadn’t even asked yet. “Nicodemus, I know what you want – and you need to know that it requires a complete spiritual transformation, a total regeneration that can only come by the power of God. You need to reject everything you think you know about religion and God and the path to salvation – all of the outward things you think are right, all the hypocritical rules, all the grasping at power – everything you have been thinking up until this point needs to be dumped out and you need to realize that the change you are seeking, the power you are seeking, the connection to God you are seeking, the salvation from the wrath of God that you fear deep in your heart, only comes if you are “born again” (or “born from above”). It is only produced by God doing something inside of you – not by anything you can do yourself.”
Now, remember Nicodemus isn’t dumb. The question that he asks next sounds dumb, but it’s not. It’s how rabbis talked. Nicodemus totally gets what Jesus is saying and responds with, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (3:4). It’s not that Nicodemus misunderstood what Jesus was saying, it was that Nicodemus knew exactly what Jesus was saying but had no idea how he was supposed to start his whole life over again. Jesus had just told him that everything he thought he knew about God, all the ways he’d been trying to achieve holiness and salvation, all the good works and religion, all the self-denial, were utterly futile, and now he didn’t know what to do. What he was really saying is, “How can I possibly start over now? I’m old, set in my ways, a public figure, an important member of the Sanhedrin. Doing what you say would cost me – everything. My own group would turn against me. I would be removed from my own Synagogue and kicked out of the Temple. If I believe what you say, my life is over. How can I begin again now? I’d have to start from scratch, with nothing.”
Jesus’ response is to say, “Yes. It will cost you everything. You don’t have the power to do this. No one does. It must come from above.” “Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5–8)
“You don’t know how to do this anymore than you can predict where the wind will blow next. All of the things you’ve been trying to do are human efforts, fleshly works. Don’t be surprised when I tell you that if you have a spiritual problem you need a spiritual solution. You’re powerless against sin, not connecting with God, can’t get rid of your guilt, can’t teach with power, totally misunderstand what God wants. How can you be surprised that no human effort can fix this? A spiritual problem need a spiritual solution! You cannot be fit for the Kingdom of God unless you are utterly changed from the inside out.
This reminds me of another of Jesus’ woes to the Pharisees in Matthew 23. He says,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” (Matthew 23:25–26)
The solution to your problems isn’t more work, more elbow grease, more good works, more rules – it’s submission to God’s Will, God’s Way, God’s Spirit, and allowing Him to do the work in your heart that you cannot.
When Jesus said, “…unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus knew Jesus was talking Ezekiel 36:25.
Turn with me to Ezekiel 36:22 and let’s read the context. Notice that it is God who does the saving, and notice especially verse 25.
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
Who does the work? God. Who does the cleansing? God. Who does the saving? God. Who does the washing? God. Who removes the heart of stone and replaces it with a soft heart of flesh? God. Who gives the Spirit to convict, encourage, strengthen, and help His people obey these ever-so precious “rules” the Pharisees were so concerned about? God.
This world is ripe with self-help books and inspirational blogs and Instagram posts telling you how to fix your soul, life, marriage, family, finances, guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, depression, work, and church. And they’re 99.99% wrong.
Jesus is so clear here. The only way to be saved is not through willpower, education, politics, religion or finding your own path to God – it is submitting to Jesus and asking the Spirit of God to fix your heart. The only way to have a good marriage is to submit to God and allowing the Spirit of God to change your heart and cause you to love your spouse with the love of Jesus. The only way to be a good citizen in a land as confused as ours is by wholly submitting to the Spirit of God for hope and guidance. The only way to be blessed through your work, and have your work be a blessing to others, is if you completely turn it over to God, submit every job to Jesus as your boss, and give your employer the respect God requires of you – even if you don’t feel like it.
The only way to be a godly church, grow into a godly church, reconcile our relationships, to see the schemes of the devil for what they are and be the church that Jesus wants us to be, is not to try to arrest control from Him for ourselves, or start up a zillion ministries, or to keep one foot out the door in case something goes wrong, or ignore problems, or tighten our financial fists – but to wholly submit ourselves, our church, our plans, our ministries, to God’s Spirit and God’s Word. Salvation has never been a “reward for human works”. We must realize that whatever we do in the flesh is going to be of no account, and ultimately harmful, but whatever is done by the Spirit – by prayer, by study, by humility, by submission – will produce fruit.
Let’s close out this section of the story by turning back to John 3:9. What’s Nicodemus’ response?
“Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’”
John MacArthur once wrote,
“People have always stumbled over the simplicity of salvation.”
And I would add that people have always stumbled over the simplicity of the whole Christian life. We are forever trying to complicate things, when God keeps trying to simplify it.
We are presented with a problem – in our heart, in our relationships, in our work, or in our church – and we immediately make it complicated. We make calendars, plans, committees, appointments, lists and more lists. We run far and wide, googling our hearts out, amassing books and articles and videos and counsellors. We jump ahead with emails and phone calls and travel plans and requests for money. We take out loans and get credit cards.
Before it even crosses our mind to pray and seek God’s will, we’ve already done 40 things to help the situation – and then we hit our knees and tell God to bless what we’ve come up with.
That’s not how it works. It’s actually very simple.
Stop. Pray. Wait. Read scripture. Pray. Wait. Talk to a mature Christian. Pray. Wait. Go to church and worship and listen. Go to the prayer meeting and pray and listen. Go to small group and learn, and pray, and talk, and listen.
We’ve talked many times about “the ordinary means of grace”, about how unexciting, uncool, but how profoundly simple and effective they are. Prayer and Fasting to cleanse the soul and connect to God. Obediently attending church so you can hear the Word of God and connect to fellow believers. Being baptized and attending the baptisms of the people in your church so you can be mutually encouraged and show your commitment to Christ and one another. Take the Lord’s Supper as a reminder of what your salvation cost, how much Jesus loves you, and as a reminder to get right with those who you’ve sinned against or who have sinned against you. Meet in each other’s homes regularly for times of celebration and support, and visit the sick and needy. Meet with your spiritual elders for training and teaching and wisdom.
The Christian life isn’t complicated and so many of our spiritual problems are solved by submitting to these simple things regularly and obediently.
 The Gospel According to Jesus, John MacArthur, Pg 53.
 The Gospel According to Jesus, MacArthur, Pg 56.
 The Gospel According to Jesus, MacArthur, Pg 56.
**Sorry, no audio this week**
“So the Jews said to him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” (John 2:18–25)
We talked last week about the cleansing of the temple and how important that event was – and how it’s connected to the miracle of water to wine during the wedding in Cana – but we never got to the response from the people. In John, the miracles of Jesus, whether it was water to wine, healing the sick, or raising the dead, are called “signs”. “Signs” are meant to point to something greater than themselves. So when Jesus does a miracle it’s never just about the thing He was doing – it’s a sign that points to more. We’ve talked about that a lot over the past few sermons, so I won’t belabour that further, but it is important to remember.
This whole section here is about how people are responding to the signs Jesus was giving them – the nature of their belief. After inaugurating His Kingdom at the Wedding in Cana, Jesus travels to Jerusalem with a few of his disciples and walks into the temple with a whip and starts flipping over tables, releasing the animals from their pens and cages, and telling people to stop turning His Father’s house, the place where the nations were to come and meet Him, into a shopping mall that exploits the pilgrims. It offends God on a deep level and Jesus demonstrates that in no uncertain terms.
“The Jews”, meaning the religious authorities like the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Sanhedrin, were obviously offended by this because the whole shopping mall was their idea. So they demand that Jesus demonstrate His authority to tell people to take the things away and call the temple His “Father’s House” by showing them some kind of spectacular miracle that would convince them that He was a prophet. Jesus refuses. From the context, and the rest of the gospels, we know that it wouldn’t have worked anyway. Whenever Jesus did a miracle, the Jewish Authorities never responded with faith and humility, but instead more hatred and another plan to try to kill him.
His response, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” was a multifaceted answer that required a lot of digging and interpretation.
First, it was Jesus saying that He knew exactly what the Jews were planning to do with Him. He would spend the next couple years demonstrating in no uncertain terms that He was God in the flesh, and they would respond by murdering Him. They would never accept His authority.
Second, it was an indictment against their religious corruption, implying that the temple and their whole religious structure was so corrupt that it needed to be torn down completely and that He was the only one who could rebuild it the way God had intended it.
Third, it actually was a declaration of His power and authority. They demanded a sign that would prove He had the right to cleans the temple – He basically said that He doesn’t just have authority over matters like these, but in fact has authority over life and death itself.
Of course, the Jews didn’t want to hear any of that – they couldn’t hear any of that. Their hearts were so hard that the only thing they could hear was the absolute surface meaning of what Jesus had said. Sin had so overcome their hearts, their hearts had become so calcified through their false religion and hypocrisy, that the deeper meaning of Jesus’ words just bounced off without having any effect. Notice that later, Jesus’ true followers thought back to this moment and were able to begin to grasp the deeper meaning. But for the Jews, Jesus’ true meaning was impenetrable.
He Had No Faith in Their Faith
And that’s what this whole section is really about – especially from 23-25 – about how people perceived Jesus, what they believed, and the depth and substance of that belief. It’s a sort of summary of what had happened in Jerusalem over the course of Passover, and acts as an introduction to the stories that will come next.
The disciples see the sign of water to wine and believe. The Jews see Jesus cleanse the temple and refuse to believe. But Jesus performs some more signs among the people and many of them believe. But then, if you notice the next story, Jesus meets with the Pharisee Nicodemus – perhaps one of the men who had challenged Him at the temple, but certainly one who knew what Jesus had done there. Nicodemus is given a long teaching about the importance of being “born again”, of rejecting everything he thinks he knows about religion and instead of being utterly changed from the inside out by the power of God, and throughout the gospel, we see Nicodemus slowly coming to faith (7:50; 19:39). Then, in chapter 4, Jesus meets the Samaritan woman, who is also given a long dialogue about who Jesus really is, the “living water” (4:10) who offers “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:14) and she and many fellow townspeople believed in Jesus as “saviour of the world” (4:42).
We go from the Jewish Pharisee Nicodemus believing in Jesus, to the Samaritan Woman believing in Jesus, to the final story in this section in John 4:46-54, about a Gentile Centurion in the service of Herod, coming to Jesus for a miracle, and then believing in Jesus.
Jews, Samaritans, and Romans. Religious experts, ignorant sinners, and desperate pagans. Men and women, young and old, teachers and wives and government workers, all meeting Jesus and believing.
That’s what makes this section in 2:23-25 such an important transition. Jesus is at the very beginning of His earthly ministry and is standing in Jerusalem at Passover and every type of person is there. Jews, gentiles, men, women, young, old, believers, unbelievers, religious, atheist, pagan, all there in Jerusalem with many witnessing His signs and “believing”.
But the undercurrent of this section is that we need to be very careful about how we read the word “believe”. The disciples believe Nicodemus believes, some ordinary Jews believe, the Samaritans believe, the Roman official believes. But what is the substance of that belief?
Do these Jews at the Passover, and all the others from then on, after witnessing the signs, believe that Jesus Christ is the true Messiah, the Son of God, the saviour of their souls who would have to die on a cross for their sins to be atoned for? Had they given their lives to Him? Was He their Lord and Saviour? Would they follow Him to the end?
Look at what it says,
“Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” (2:23-25).
There’s a bit of wordplay here in this section. It basically says that even though people entrusted themselves to Him, He didn’t entrust Himself to them. They believed in Jesus, but He didn’t believe in them. He had no faith in their faith.
Why? Because as God, as our creator, as One with divine omniscience, He knew exactly what was going on inside of people’s heads and hearts – and knew how the story ended. He knew the Jews that demanded a sign weren’t going to believe it even if they saw it. He knew that Nicodemus didn’t really need a rabbinical debate about what Jesus did at the temple, but needed to be born again through faith in Him. He knew that the Samaritan woman at the well didn’t just need water, but needed acceptance and compassion and conviction and hope – and when she tried to dodge Him confronting her sins and struggles, He didn’t fall for it. He knows people’s hearts and knows exactly how to clear away the smokescreen to get to their true needs.
Jesus isn’t fooled by us. He knows all our secrets, motives, reasons, and excuses. He knows how fickle we are and how easily we can deceive ourselves. He knows how squirmy we can be when confronted with our sin, or told to submit to His will, and knows how great we are at denial and self-deception. He wrote Jeremiah 17:9 which says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Not us! Only Jesus understands it.
We should be very thankful for this. No one is better at lying to us than we are. Self-deception is a hallmark of what it means to be human. And couple that with our natural tendencies toward believing whatever we want to believe regardless of the truth and rejecting authority even if they’re right, and we’ve got a recipe for trouble.
Consider yourself for a moment, and how many times you have lied to yourself or winningly believed a lie because it’s easier. I googled examples of ways that we lie to ourselves and found a really interesting article on Psychology Today that outlined a few of them. See if any of these apply to you.
The first way that we lie to ourselves is to convince ourselves that “ignorance is bliss”. “Strategic ignorance” for the sake of not getting burdened with reality. Doing things like avoiding information sources that give differing opinions or refusing to study something too much because you’re worried you’ll learn something you don’t like. Do you do that? Only listen to news sources and podcasts you agree with? Only read books that tell you what you want to hear? Only hang around people that share your worldview? Have you ever refused to learn more about something, even something theological or mechanical or personal, because learning more means more responsibility, so you prefer not to know? “Don’t tell me how to add washer fluid to my car because then I’ll have to do it!”
The second was called “reality denial”. And it simply means rejecting information you don’t like so you can build a false sense of security. Someone gives you bad news and you just ignore it. An addict insisting they don’t have problem and can stop anytime. An abuser telling themselves that it’s the fault of the person their abusing. Ignoring your bank and credit card balance and heading to the store, hoping that the debit machine will work.
Another way we lie to ourselves is “overconfidence”, believing we are stronger than we really are – while another was the opposite, called “self-handicapping”, where we are afraid to see what we’re really capable of, or are afraid to fail, so we never really try.
Other ways were doing things like, excusing our own faults while judging others harshly for the same ones. Or “cherry-picking data” that supports our own preconceived beliefs. Another was our tendency towards “sour grapes” where we see something we want, but when we find out we can’t have it, say that it wasn’t probably that good after all.
The quote at the bottom of the article was really interesting. It said,
“Self-deception can be like a drug, numbing you from harsh reality…”
This was a secular article – but how much more should Christians, who know that “the heart is deceitful… and desperately sick”, understand our human tendency towards self-deception? And yet we keep falling for it. Take a moment to consider how many times you’ve lied to yourself, just this week!
Or if that’s too uncomfortable, consider how many times you’ve tried to convince someone else of the truth but they simply wouldn’t hear it. You could get the Bible, the dictionary, the encyclopedia, three peer-reviewed studies, and ten testimonies that all agree with what you’re saying – but if they don’t want to believe it, they just won’t. Instead, they react with argument, anger, rejection, running away. Why? They want to believe the lie because the truth is too inconvenient or difficult. They prefer the drug of self-deception. That’s human nature, and that’s what Jesus knew.
He knew that almost every single one of the people that claimed belief in Him, from the disciples who travelled with Him to the desperate Jews looking for a saviour from the Romans, to all the variety of gentiles, would reject Him in the end. Jesus’ could not count on them to carry Him through to the end of His mission. It was not He who needed them to surround Him with love and support and help – it was they who needed His love, support, and help. They were the walking dead, He is the life bringer. They are those trapped in darkness, He is the source of light. They were the ones who had fallen to temptation, He was the One who proved He never would. They were the blind fools, He was the only one with His eyes open, and who had the power to make them see. Jesus is the doctor, we are the sick. Jesus is the righteous one, we are the unrighteous. Jesus is the curse-breaker, we are the cursed. Jesus doesn’t need to believe in us – we need to believe in Jesus.
What conclusion can we draw from this section of scripture? I supposed it is twofold.
First, that we recognize our tendency towards self-deception, toward believing what we want to believe, toward rejecting truth because it’s difficult or requires us to humble ourselves and say we were wrong. If we can recognize that we are capable of being deceived, that not everything we think is right, that not all our feelings are accurate, that not everything we think about ourselves and others is true – we go a long way towards having a teachable spirit that God can infuse with truth and light. So long as we believe everything we think and feel is right we make ourselves an easy target for the enemy because He traffics in lies and is happy to tell us whatever we want to hear so we will remain steeped in sin and error. Then He can manipulate us into hurting ourselves and others – and we’ll think we’re right for doing it! Satan wants us to continue to believe lies because when we live in lies, we reject God – because God only speaks truth (John 17:17).
And second, once we humble ourselves to realize that we are easily deceived, that we need to pursue truth. Jesus prayed for us in John 17:17,
“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”
He wants us steeped in truth because the more we know the truth, love the truth, and learn the truth, the more we will be free from evil and live in the presence of God.
This is why God’s word says things like, if you have something against someone, go and talk to them, and seek truth and reconciliation (Matt 5:23; 18:15-20). Satan wants us sitting at home concocting stories and having imaginary arguments. God says, “Go and seek the truth.”
This is why Jesus says in John 8:31–32,
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Keep reading my word, stay in it every day, study it, listen to it read and preached and taught, because then you won’t be deceived. Satan wants you to read a verse or two and then come up with your own ideas, your own interpretations, your own conclusions about God and His will. He wants you captive to guessing and uncertainty and confusion and fighting with others based on your confident ignorance. God wants you to know the truth, because ignorance and self-deception is a prison, and truth is the path to freedom. Doing this takes work and humility though…
This is why God says go to church and submit to those more mature than you – those who are more steeped in the truth. Consider what it says in Ephesians 4,
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” (Ephesians 4:11-14)
We keep ourselves from being tossed around by lies by submitting to Christians that are more mature than us.
And this is why God warns us over and over not to trust our own feelings. says,
“Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.” (Proverbs 28:26)
“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Proverbs 14:12)
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Proverbs. 3:5)
Turn to Romans 7:15–25 and see what the Apostle Paul, a godly man who loved Jesus, said.
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Jesus is Always Faithful (Even When We’re Not)
And so what is the ultimate conclusion – to realize our weakness, that God doesn’t need us, that Jesus doesn’t “count on us” or “believe in us”, but loves us anyway.
It should amaze us that Jesus knows the wickedness of our hearts and loves us anyway. When we are unfaithful, He is faithful. Consider the words of 2 Timothy 2:11–13,
“The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.”
What an amazing saviour! That even when we are “faithless”, even when we have a momentary lapse in trusting Jesus, a momentary fall into temptation, Jesus doesn’t reject us. He remains faithful because He has so totally identified with us, has so completely saved us, has so totally changed us, that we become like Himself. He found us when we were lost, forgave us when we were enemies, and adopted us when we had completely rejected Him. That’s the miracle of the cross – our sin exchanged for His holiness, our imperfection exchanged for His imperfection, which has allowed us to become brothers and sisters to Christ and children of God. We never lose our salvation – not because we are so faithful – but because Jesus is faithful to us.
He’s faithful even though He knows what’s in our hearts. Even though we keep failing, keep falling, keep fighting, keep sinning, keep trying to wrestle power back from Him – He remains faithful to us anyway. That’s one, big reason that we love Jesus so much and try to live in the light of His truth. We are easily deceived, but He is not. And therefore, we need His light, His life, His word, His Spirit, His mind, to overtake our own so we can rightly perceive the truth and by that truth know Jesus and be set free.
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.
Please turn to John 2:1–12 and let’s read it together.
“On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’
Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, ‘Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.’ So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.
After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there for a few days.”
The First Sign Ripples Out
This is the very first “sign” of the seven miraculous signs of the Gospel of John. John calls them “signs” because they are not meant to stand alone, but to point to something greater. Like a road sign that points to a city or a store, the miracles of Jesus aren’t singular events for one person at one time but are meant to be a big arrow pointing us to something special about Jesus, His mission, His character, and His person.
When you’re reading the Gospel of John it’s quite helpful to use these miracles as sort of chapter divisions. As I’ve said before, there are more ways to divide up the book because it’s such an intricate tapestry of stories and themes, but using the signs is perhaps the most straightforward. Let me tell you what I mean:
This first sign, the first miracle Jesus ever performed, was Jesus turning water to wine at a wedding in Cana in Galilee. It’s rich with symbolism. It is an inaugural miracle not only displaying God’s mercy to the people who ran out of wine but as a way for Jesus to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth and tell us something special about Himself.
Two key phrases to look at here are when Jesus says, “My hour has not yet come” and at the end when it says Jesus “manifested his glory” and his “disciples believed”.
In the Gospel of John, the “hour” always refers to the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection and glorification when he would receive his true position and sit at God’s right hand. The hour where He accomplishes His greatest work in being an atoning death for all who believe, conquering death by resurrection, and then claiming victory in His ascension and giving of the Holy Spirit. But at this point in His ministry, especially since most people didn’t understand what the Messiah was really going to be like, it wasn’t the right time for Him to reveal Himself openly as Israel’s Messiah. He was telling His mother in no uncertain terms that her timeline was not His, that she didn’t have the right to demand things of Him, and that He was going about His heavenly Father’s business, not hers. Her response is to give control of the situation over to Him, “Do whatever He tells you.” and to step back.
After all, this was only the “third day” of His ministry. He’d gone about 10 Kilometers out of Nazareth, had just gotten the baton from John the Baptist, hadn’t gathered all the apostles yet, and had some things to do. But there He stands, His mother having requested help, the servants waiting for a command, the wedding party embarrassed… and He acts out of grace. But he takes that seemingly small miracle and makes it something huge. At that moment, by God’s appointment and His power, He uses that miracle to inaugurate His Kingdom in a very special way.
And that first sign ripples out all the way to chapter 4:42 – because in this first sign Jesus “manifested His glory” or “displayed” or “showed who He really is by demonstrating His sovereignty over the whole of the material universe and nature itself.” And that power, that demonstration, ripples out. Because Jesus didn’t just make wine – He showed people a “sign” of who He really is.
Wine is a powerful biblical symbol representing things like joy, happiness, conversion, and life itself. It was used in Jewish worship rituals and given as a sacrificial offering to God. It represented God’s covenant with Israel, which He would withhold for disobedience. It was served at times of celebration and to cheer hearts, and given to help the weak and sick as a source of healing and life.
Israel at the time of Jesus was, in a sense, all out of wine and only had dirty water left over. There was no celebration in the land because they were under great oppression from Rome and their religion had been almost thoroughly corrupted by the oppression of the Pharisees and the rest of the wicked Sanhedrin. For Israel, just like the wedding guests, the wine had run out, and all they were left with was dirty water. They needed a miracle.
And so, in this first miracle, Jesus inaugurates the His kingdom, declares his intention, and shows His power, by making wine. He is the wine-giver, the celebration maker, the life bringer, the healer of bodies and souls. But, in a way very typical of Jesus, this multidimensional, world-changing miracle was done in a very small place with very few people. He’s in the town of Cana, at a private party, and only a few disciples. It was a small inauguration but it rippled out.
Consider that Jesus’ next act was to cleanse the temple in Jerusalem. From little Cana to big Jerusalem. Jesus has just inaugurated His Kingdom, turned dirty water into choice wine, and comes into the temple as a warrior prince, defending His father’s castle, demanding they remove the corruption from His kingdom. Just as He had miraculously turned a bunch of dirty washbasins into the best wine anyone had ever tasted, He would also miraculously remove the corruption of sin from people’s hearts and flood it with His own presence and power, so everyone could see what real prayer, real worship, real faith looks like. Just as He purified the water, so He would purify His People and their worship.
Then in chapter 3, Jesus meets Nicodemus, a Pharisee and teacher of Israel, and says that the only way people can be part of His newly inaugurated Kingdom is to be miraculously born again. The Pharisee thought it had to do with obedience and strictness to the law – and Jesus says that’s impossible – and that the change must be far more dramatic. More than simply going through religious motions, a person’s whole being must be radically transformed. He says, “The only way to please God, the only way to enter His Kingdom is if you are completely renewed, reborn, changed from within, born of water and the spirit.”
Just as Jesus turned ordinary water into the best of wine, miraculously overcoming the laws of nature, so He would use His power to cause people to be reborn from worldly beings into spiritual beings. He would make the impossible possible. Just as it’s impossible to convince people that dirty water is amazing wine, so it is impossible for a dirty, corrupt soul to please God. No matter how much you stir or heat or cool or add to that dirty water – it’s going to taste like dirty water. No matter how many good deeds or religious actions you do, no matter how many donations you make or volunteer hours you work, no matter how bad you feel about your wrong or how much you try to ignore it, you’ll never make your soul palatable to God. You need a miracle of transformation.
And so, just like Jesus made dirty water into the best wine, so He takes dead spirits and corrupt souls, and makes them alive, and good, and holy, and acceptable to God. He takes sinners and makes them saints. How? It says at the end of the story with Nicodemus. Just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness so that any of the cursed people who looked upon it would be saved from the poisonous snakes, so anyone who would look upon the Christ who was lifted on the cross for their salvation would be saved. They would turn from water to wine the moment they looked to Christ for salvation.
Then, in 3:22-36 the miracle ripples from Cana to Jerusalem to all of Judea. Jesus is on the Judean countryside John the Baptist declares Jesus to be the source of eternal life. Just as the wine was used for ceremony and sacrifice, celebration and healing, and became a symbol of a good and blessed life – so Jesus would show Himself to be the perfected source of sacrifice, celebration, healing, and eternal life. Jesus was the life-giving wine-maker.
Then the ripples of the first miracle move out further, from the town of Cana in Galilee to the big city of Jerusalem, to the whole of the province of Judea, to world of unbelievers as represented by Samaria. And the similarities of the story of the woman at the well and the wedding in Cana are too obvious not to be a thematic echo of the first story.
Consider that both stories start with needing a drink and have water in jars. The first takes place at a wedding, the other is about a woman with many weddings and was currently living with someone out of wedlock. For those at the wedding Jesus provides wine, showing He is the life-giver, and for the Samaritan woman who came for water at the well, He says He is Living Water. At the wedding, He says, “My hour has not yet come” and then inaugurates His Kingdom but to the woman at the well He fully declares Himself to be the Messiah. At the wedding the disciples see the sign and believe, at the well, the Samaritans hear the gospel and believe.
The first four chapters of the Gospel of John all point back to that first sign, and use story after story, interaction after interaction to show Jesus declaring Himself to be the saviour, showing His power, inaugurating the coming of the kingdom of God, and then spreading that kingdom from a few people to the city, to the province, to the world. From insiders, like the few disciples and Jesus’ mother, to the outsiders like Pharisees and Samaritans.
So many people get caught up in arguments about what kind of wine Jesus made and how alcoholic it was (or wasn’t). They get caught up on Jesus calling his mother “woman” and wondering if Jesus was being rude to her or not – He wasn’t. They get caught up on these minor details that they completely miss what the “sign”, the “miracle” was pointing to! That Jesus is the King, Healer, Life-Giver, Reason for Celebration, and Lamb of God who’s precious blood will be poured out as a sacrifice for people who wouldn’t understand, consumed by people who don’t deserve it, just as that unique and amazing wine Jesus made was poured out to the unsuspecting wedding guests in an act of grace.
There are two points I would like to pull out of this story as an application today.
The first is that things like this are why you need to study your bible. Not just read it devotionally, not just pick out favourite verses, not stick in your favourite books, but to actually study your Bibles. Stories like this one are like onions where you see the first layer and think you understand what’s going on – but then as you connect the story to the Old Testament, the sacrificial system, the imagery of wine, the timing of the story, the locations within, the author’s intention and themes – then the story really comes to life and starts to teach you about Jesus.
It’s one thing to know that Jesus is gracious enough to provide wine to people who needed it, it’s another to understand that this whole section is about the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, the promise of Eternal Life, of the picture of Jesus as not only the wine-giver but the sacrificial wine itself. Of watching that miracle rippling out from town to city to province to the world, and thereby seeing that Jesus’ love isn’t merely for the individuals at the party, or the few disciples that saw and believed – but his love extends to those who do not understand what He did, who drank the best wine not knowing where it came from. It extends to the Jewish people who rejected Him, to the Pharisees who kept challenging Him and made themselves His enemies, and then that to every other person in the world.
He gave His new-wine, His blood, His gift of eternal life to ordinary tradesmen, to his neighbours and friends, to the self-righteous hypocrites, the social rejects, the ones who worship wrong and reject His laws, those steeped in sexual-immorality, the abused, the anguished, the ones who don’t even understand how God or love or sacrifice works. He gives that wine, that grace, that love, that living water, the fruits of His sacrifice, to everyone.
But you can’t see all that unless you study!
Second, I want you to notice that this story speaks to us today.
Consider how this story should inspire us to celebrate our connection to Jesus and His love for us. Dirty water to wine, Repentance to Faith, being confronted by our sin and then offered forgiveness and eternal life from the hands of Jesus, should cause us to celebrate. When life is dark or difficult, the knowledge being part of Jesus’ Kingdom because He chose you from the beginning of time, is something to be thankful for. Knowing He is victorious and has destroyed death is always and ever something to motivate worship. When you are down or sad or afraid, take a minute to consider this story from John.
Jesus loved the disciples enough to show them His glory. Has Jesus shown you His glory? In your life have you witnessed His power?
Jesus loved the wedding guests by providing that which they did not deserve at a quality that astounded them. Have you seen Jesus’ hand of provision giving you undeserved grace? Have you ever gotten something from Jesus that was of such quality, such a gift, that you know it was a miracle? During difficult times, it’s helpful to recall the list of things Jesus has done in the past – for His people and for you.
Jesus loved His mother by reminding her that everything happens by His will and on His timeline. Has Jesus ever set you straight and told you to be patient? Have you ever jumped the gun on His will and ended up regretting it? Sometimes the love of God is shown in making us wait, or sternly reminding us to trust His will.
Jesus loved the Pharisee who kept making excuses and arguments by telling Him the truth and refusing to compromise. Jesus is the way, truth, and life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him. The Pharisee made excuses, and Jesus told him there was only one way. Have you been trying to argue with Jesus about how you should get into heaven, how He should operate in this world, how the church should go, how your future should be? Is He loving you right now by reminding you that He is Lord, He is the Way, He is the wine-maker, the life-giver, the living-water, and you are not? Is He showing you love by demanding you submit to Him and Him alone?
Jesus loved the woman at the well by – well, everything. He spoke to her when custom said not to. He indulged her arguments. He gently confronted her sin. He acknowledged her pain and fear. He worked with her wrong religious beliefs. He gave her forgiveness when, maybe, the whole community, and certainly a Jewish rabbi, wouldn’t. Then He used her, the social reject, as His vessel to carry his Living Water, His New Wine, to a whole bunch of people from her neighbourhood, changing their lives forever. All in the span of a few hours!
Has Jesus been confronting your sin, your wrong beliefs, your pain, and telling you to submit to Him as saviour and Lord, to forgive and be forgiven? Has He been gently reminding you of His love, entering into your pain, sitting through your arguments, telling you the truth, and then inviting you to give it all to Him? Has He shown you grace and is now offering to use you, one who went from dirty water to new wine, to help carry His gospel to your friends?
There’s a lot going on in this story – but it doesn’t just stay on the page. How is Jesus using this story in your life today? He’s still the wine-maker, the living-water, the grace-giver, for you today. My prayer is that you would discover Him in His word, in your prayers, and in your service to His Kingdom.
Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Cana. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 405). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
“The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, ‘What are you seeking?’ And they said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and you will see.’ So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘’You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas’ (which means Peter).’
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael said to him, ‘How do you know me?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’ Nathanael answered him, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered him, ‘Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’” (John 1:35–51)
We’re back into our study of the Gospel of John and have come to a transitional moment where Jesus begins calling his first disciples. It will help you to recall what we have studied already because we’re going to keep noticing important themes throughout the whole book.
What Are You Seeking?
John is obviously fast-forwarding the story a bit, but there is some really key phrasing to see here. For example, notice the theme of “seeing”. The whole passage starts with Jesus walking by John the Baptist and him saying, “Behold!” to his disciples. “Behold!” is the same word as “See!” The two disciples of John the Baptist, Andrew and John, leave to go walk behind Jesus.
Jesus hears them coming behind Him, turns and says His first words of the whole book, “What are you seeking?” or “What are you looking for?”, another reference to “seeing” used all over the New Testament for people who are looking for something or someone.
Considering how important the themes of light and seeing are in the Gospel of John, we shouldn’t pass by this too quickly – especially since that question and theme dominates the rest of this section.
John and Andrew dodge the question by saying, “Where are you staying?”, meaning “Our rabbi just told us that you’re the Lamb of God, one like the Passover lamb, through whom deliverance from death will come by the shedding of their own blood. And we would like to spend some time with you.”
Jesus’ answer? “Come and you will see.” Now, I promise that when Jesus, the One who created light, the One called the light of the world, says, “Come and you will see.” He doesn’t just mean “Come and see where I’m staying tonight.” He means, “I’m about to open your eyes wider than you could ever imagine.” And then, He does.
And that light shines from John and Andrew to Peter. What was Jesus’ first question? “What are you seeking?” What does Andrew say to Peter? “We have found the Messiah?” Can’t find something without seeing it, right? Seeking and finding. John says, “See!”, then Jesus says, “Come and you’ll see!” and then they say, “Peter, come and see!”
Now, look at verse 43 and we see something interesting. Who does the “finding” now? Jesus does. John and Andrew “found” Jesus. Jesus “found” Philip. Jesus looks for Philip, finds Him, and calls Him.
Excurses: Varied Responses
Pause for a moment and marvel at the different responses to Jesus here. First, notice that Jesus is always the first one to say or do something, but the responses are so varied!
John and Andrew leave their rabbi and Jesus turns and asks them a direct question, but they respond by wanting to spend the whole day talking to him. Jesus is presented to them as the “Lamb of God”, the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, they call him “rabbi” or “teacher” and then spend the day working that out. It seems studious, careful, theological.
Jesus and Peter are different. Peter is introduced to Jesus as “The Messiah”, the “Christ” the “Anointed One”, the Great King and Saviour in the Line of David. Jesus is still the first one to speak, but it’s bold and direct – like a King. Bold and direct like Peter. “This is who you are, Peter. And this is who I will make you.” Peter’s response is to obey and follow, seemingly without a word.
Everyone up to this point is either sent or brought to Jesus, but Philip is different. Jesus seeks Philip out. How does Philip describe Jesus? He uses biblical language, describing Him as the one the scriptures spoke about, but then uses Jesus’ name and address! “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Philip, at this point, sees Jesus as the man sent by God. That definition will very soon be changed to see Jesus not merely as a man sent by God, but as God become man.
And now, in verse 44 we see another, completely different response to Jesus. What’s really neat here, if you look at verse 45, is that when Philip goes to Nathanael he uses the words “we have found” meaning that John, Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathanael might have been close friends. Nathanael probably already knew who the “we” was; studious Philip, passionate John and Andrew, headstrong Peter. They had all had some kind of radical experience over the past day or two and wanted to share it with Nathanael. But Nathanael wasn’t an easy sell.
The whole crowd is headed off to follow Jesus, but Nathanael is a sceptic. He knows his Bible. Nathanael being “under the fig tree” may be pointing to the custom where scholars and rabbis would study under vines, fig and olive trees. It meant that Nathanael, a serious student of the Bible, had probably been studying when Philip found him, knew his stuff, and was absolutely committed to God’s word. But here’s the thing. He knows what Moses and the prophets wrote, and there’s nothing in there about Nazareth. Plus, he lived just a few miles away and knew it wasn’t a nice place. The Roman army garrison that lived there gave the town a pretty poor reputation for immorality and lack of commitment to God. Nathanael did the mental math and realized that there is zero chance he will follow any Nazarene as the Messiah.
What does Philip respond with? “Come and see.” There’s our theme again. There was zero point in Philip arguing with Nathanael. He’d probably lose anyway! So Philip says the only thing that would work: “Hey man, you’re smart enough to decide for yourself, but you gotta come and see. I’m convinced. John, Andrew, Peter are convinced. Just come and meet Jesus and you’ll see what we see.”
And to his credit, despite thinking he knows better, despite his prejudice against Nazarites, despite all the scriptures and stereotypes flowing through his mind that said, “This is dumb. Your friends are dumb. I’m not dumb.” he followed his friend anyway. Imagine if he’d been stubborn, stuck to his doubts, thought himself smarter than everyone else, and just stayed by the fig tree. He would have missed Jesus! But, for whatever reason – out of love and trust for his friends, or curiosity, boredom, or to save his friends from throwing their lives away, he went. He would go and “see” for himself.
He went and what does Jesus say? “Behold!” There’s that word again! John the Baptist said it of Jesus, now Jesus says it of Nathanael, “See! Look! Behold! A true Israelite, a man who loves the Word of God, a man in whom there is no deceit, no guile, no trickery, nothing shady. He’s 100% a straight-shooter. This man only cares about one thing: truth. You can’t fool this guy.” It’s an even more complex compliment, because, if you recall where the name “Israelite” comes from, you’ll remember that it was when Jacob, the usurper, the trickster, the one who got his way through deceit and guile and trickery, was wrestling with God. Jacob means “one who wrestles or struggles with God”. That’s how all of Israel related to God. They questioned Him, debated Him, dialogued with Him, tested Him, even aggressively confronted Him. And when they obeyed God, it was with ferocious obedience. 
That’s probably the kind of man Nathanael was. He didn’t just accept anyone’s word, even God’s. Instead, he wrestled and studied and made sure that when he believed something it was 100% true – and no one, like no one, was would have an easy time change his mind.
That sort of personality is a double-edged sword. How does one breakthrough to that kind of person? With a hard that stiff, eyes that focused, and a mind that skeptical, what can God do to breakthrough? Argument won’t help. No amount of conversation is going to change Nathanael’s mind at this point. How is Jesus going to shine light into Nathanael’s soul? Nathanael doesn’t need to hear something about the light – he needs to “see” it.
So Jesus performs a miracle of omniscience. He identifies himself as Messiah by displaying supernatural knowledge. Super-natural knowledge. Knowing things beyond the ability of normal, natural people. And more specifically, not just super-natural knowledge – super-Nathanael knowledge. Jesus demonstrates, in no uncertain terms, that He knows more, sees more, and understand more than Nathanael ever has or could. And Nathanael gets it immediately!
Evidence confirmed, mind changed, allegiance given, 100% absolute commitment to Jesus as his new “Rabbi”, the “Son of God” and His “King”. He says, in effect – “You are now my teacher, my mind is yours to shape. You are now my saviour, my destiny is yours to control. You are now my King, my life is yours to command.”
And then, in an act of grace, Jesus says, “If you’re willing to believe because of one piece of evidence – just wait until you see the rest!” And tells Nathanael, the “true Israelite”, to recall another story about Jacob, often called Jacob’s Ladder – the vision of God’s heaven being connected to Jacob’s earth. Jesus was saying, “Nathanael, you call me Rabbi, and Son of God, and King, but there’s so much more. I’m Jacob’s Ladder, the one who connects heaven and earth – I’m the one you’ve been looking for, Nathanael. The one who will connect everything that you’ve been studying, and thinking, and pondering, and wondering, and wrestling with for your whole life with, together.
There are four things in this story that I want to connect together as some practical applications today.
First, I want you to go back to the first thing Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “What are you seeking?” This is the single most important question you can ask yourself in life and when talking about Jesus. What do you want out of life? What is the most important thing for you right now? What do you desire? Do you know what that is? I promise you it’s not money, or fame, or education, or food, or a mate, or a better job, or more stuff. All that is merely a means to an end. You might think you want freedom from pain, money in the bank, a healthy body, lots of friends, a perfect spouse, and lots of fun – but you don’t. Those are all too small. We’ve been talking about this over Christmas, but it applies today too. What you really want is love, hope, peace, and joy. You want to know you are loved no matter where you are or what you’ve done. You want to have the hope that no matter what happens in this world, it will all work out for your good. You want to have your life built on a foundation so strong that no matter what storms occur outside of you, you will not be shaken, but will always be at peace. And you want to know a joy that can never be taken away. Joy that goes beyond feelings, beyond fun, beyond momentary stimuli, beyond distraction, but comes from a spring deep, deep down in your heart that never seems to stop – even when things around you feel sad. Joy that destroys feelings of guilt, shame, and fear. That’s what you really want.
And so, when you come to Jesus, He’s going to ask you, “What are you seeking?” and if the answer is, “More money. No sickness. Something more interesting to do. A place where I can feel important. Some religion that makes me think I’m better than others because I’ve earned God’s love. To keep everyone I love happy and safe.” He’ll simply say, “No.”
But if you want True Love, Abiding Hope, Peace that passes understanding, and Joy that never fails – then come to Jesus and He will say, “That’s what I offer. But you must submit to me giving it to you the way that I deem best. Let me be your Saviour, Rabbi, God, Master, Lord, and King, and I will give you what your heart truly desires.”
The second thing I want you to notice is that everyone who comes to Jesus has the same story but different. Jesus always approaches first, confronts the person with their need, and presents Himself as the solution to that great need – but the responses and story that is written from that point are often very unique and special. Jesus is a real person, someone you can get to know, who listens and speaks and relates to us not only on a corporate level as humanity but on an individual level too. Everyone connects to Jesus in similar and different ways, not because we get to make up our own version of Jesus, but because Jesus meets us where we’re at and treats us like real, unique, special, people.
I personally resonate with Nathanael’s story. In fact, John 1:47 has made itself my “life-verse” because I want to be a man within whom there is no guile, no trickery, no deceit. If you know me, then you’ll know I don’t do secrets and sneakiness well. I have a skeptical mind that tends toward lots of arguments and trying to see lots of sides to things – and I can get trapped in arguments with myself, with God, with others, all in the pursuit of clarity and truth. I love truth, hate lies, and feel like I’m not easily swayed by opinions. Jesus meets me in a very Nathanael way: I study His Word, wrestle with obedience and understanding, and then Jesus shows His power and authority in my life with unquestioning clarity, proving Himself to know more than me.
And I’m sure many here have a similar relationship with Jesus and maybe relate to one of these stories yourself. Everyone does, and that’s ok. I shouldn’t measure your relationship with God by my standards, and vice-versa. Instead, I should share my special relationship with God with you, and you with me, so that we can see an even larger picture of who Jesus is.
Third, I want you to notice that no one really finds Jesus. Sometimes people use the phrase “I found Jesus.”, but it is always Jesus who found them first. Jesus is never lost. He’s the shepherd who finds the sheep. In Luke 19 he says, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Jesus is never lost. He is the way, the truth and the life, and is the only way to be found. He invites you to seek Him and says anyone who does seek will find (Matthew 7:7-8), but it’s not like He’s hiding. He’s there, ready, available, open, willing to listen at all times. If you feel a tug on your heart, He’s found you. The only question is, are you willing to be found or do you want to stay lost?
And fourth, I want you to notice that a living relationship with Jesus Christ is one that naturally leads to being shared. Being excited about Jesus, who Jesus is, what Jesus is doing, what He’s been teaching you, how you’ve been learning, and all the things He is doing through you should naturally lead us to be sharing it with people who either don’t know Him or who have forgotten.
I’ve used this example many times. If you find a great product, like a super good razer that shaves like nothing else, or a restaurant with amazing food, or a book that really impacted your life, or a new habit that has helped you sleep better than ever – it is your natural inclination to share it because you want the people you care about to have a better life too. You want them to celebrate what you’ve found, and you want them to experience the same thing.
Why is our relationship with Jesus any different? It’s because there is no spiritual enemy constantly telling us to be afraid to share how great our razer. I’m not saying that we share Jesus as the answer to everyone’s problems – because we all know that committing to Jesus doesn’t mean everything in this world gets easier, in fact, it often gets harder. I’m saying that once we’ve experienced the Love, Hope, Peace and Joy that Jesus has given us – it should be natural for us to tell people where it came from. But Satan hates that, and so he makes us afraid to speak, afraid to share, afraid we’ll lose a friend, afraid we’ll embarrass ourselves, afraid we won’t use the right words, afraid we won’t be able to answer all the questions…
But that’s the thing. There is no right way to share. We just share our own stories in our own way. And Jesus has promised that when we speak He’ll be there to help us. And if we come up against a Nathanael we don’t need to argue. We just simply say, “Hey, why don’t you ‘come and see’? See my life before and after Jesus. Come see some people I know who have met Jesus. And, why not just talk to Jesus yourself? Ask Him to show Himself to you because you want to meet Him. He’s no performing monkey who is going to do magic tricks for you – but if you want to meet the real Jesus, just ask Him. He’ll respond. Talk to me, come to church, and then talk to Jesus yourself. Just be ready because this is no small thing to do.”
Let Jesus do the hard work of shining the light in their dark souls and converting them. All you need to do is introduce them to Him by sharing what He’s done in your life and then inviting them to “come and see”.
 (Borchert, G. L. (1996). John 1–11 (Vol. 25A, pp. 147–148). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.)