This week I share an interesting article about controversy, an interesting resource for answering tough questions, and continue our interesting study of John Bunyan’s classic, Pilgrims Progress.
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“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.)
Pastor Al Do You Really Believe in a Magic Talking Snake?
I want to start this morning with a little bit of apologetics. Last week we talked about the Fall of Man as presented in Genesis 1-3 and there’s one part of that story that keeps coming up in the secular world as a way to discredit Christians – that being the “talking snake”.
As I studied last week and went through the various pictures of Adam and Eve for last week’s PowerPoint, I saw a lot of pictures that looked really ridiculous, and I kept asking myself if I really actually believe this story or not. And it’s an important story to believe in. If the story of the Fall of Man is fictional, it affects a lot of things in Christianity.
First, if it’s fiction, then what parts of the Bible should be believed? Second, a lot of other books in the Bible reference that story as true, so can they be believed. Third, Romans 5 says that Jesus is the second Adam that didn’t fail, but did it right, and through which we find our salvation. So how can Jesus be the second Adam who did it right if there was no first who did it wrong? To discredit the story of creation and the fall in Genesis 1-3 is to dismantle much of what the theology of salvation is built on. No talking serpent, no temptation, no Eve taking the fruit, no fall… etc.
So how do I answer the question? Do I actually believe in a magic talking snake that tempted the only people on the planet to eat a forbidden fruit? Do you? Why? Well, let me tell you how I process it.
Humility Before the Word of God
The first place I start is humility before the Word of God. I remember that I don’t know everything and just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s wrong or impossible. If I told you not to worry that your OS defrags your solid state drive when you have Volume Shadow Copy turned on, would you believe me? Is it something you’ve ever worried about? Maybe you should, because automated defragging your SSD ups your writes. Worried now?
Just because you don’t understand what I’m talking about, doesn’t mean I’m wrong or trying to mislead you. And just because I don’t fully understand Genesis 1-3 doesn’t mean it’s wrong or trying to mislead me either. I decided a long time ago I was going to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt. That doesn’t mean I turn my brain off when I read or study, but it does mean that when I study, I start with the thought, “The Bible isn’t trying to lie to me, manipulate me, or hurt me. God is the author of truth, this is His book, and He’s using the Bible to teach me, guide me, and help me understand Him, myself, and the world. So whatever I’m not understanding isn’t God’s fault.”
A Story for All People
I also remember that the story in Genesis 1-3 isn’t meant to be a modern biography or scientific textbook explaining the exact details of what went on. It’s a story meant to convey important truths to different people who would live in different places and eras. That doesn’t mean it’s misleading though. It means’ it was told in a way that everyone could understand.
When Genesis was written, the concept of Satan wasn’t as fleshed out as it is by the end of Revelation, so his character is introduced in a very important way. The whole story is told in such a way that anyone who reads it, from Moses to today, will see the most foundational messages upon which all the rest of the scriptures will be built – God is eternal and good, man was created eternal and good, temptation is real, sin is terrible, and man’s choices have big consequences.
To do this, the first three chapters of the Bible use poetry, prose, imagery, repetition, and intricate word play, and to tell the story of Creation and the Fall in a way everyone can understand. Just because it was written thousands of years ago to people who weren’t interested in modern science, doesn’t make it wrong.
The Multiple Forces Argument
The third thing that helps me believe Genesis 1-3 is to remember that Satan is real, powerful, a master of deception, and capable of supernatural things. Here’s something I’ve been working on in my brain for a while, which I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else, and it goes like this: There are four sorts of “forces” that act upon us in this world:
- Visible Personal Forces
- Visible Impersonal Forces
- Invisible Impersonal Forces
- and Invisible Personal Forces.
People have no problem with the first one, “Visible Personal Forces”, right? These are things we can see, and that make the choice to affect us. People are visible, personal forces.
People have no problem with the second one, “Visible Impersonal Forces”. Examples of this would be a rockslides, forest fires, earthquakes, tornados. We can see them affecting us, but they don’t make the choice to do so. A fire doesn’t choose what it’s burning. It just does it.
People have no problem with the third one either, “Invisible Impersonal Forces”. Examples of this are things like magnetism, wind, or gravity. We can’t see them and they don’t choose to affect us. They just do. We can’t take a picture of gravity, but it’s real, right?
It’s the fourth one that people get hung up on, “Invisible Personal Forces”. This is a personal being that chooses to affect our lives, but we can’t see them. But why is this one different? If the rest are true, why not this one? This is God, Angels and Demons. If we can believe in an invisible impersonal force like gravity, why not an invisible personal demon?
There are hundreds of papers written on invisible, personal forces that affect us all the time. Governments and corporations use psychological warfare to intimidate, demoralize, or persuade people to do things. They don’t have to be standing in front of you to affect you either. They can use things like propaganda, stress, bribes, language, suggestions, media, repetition, and technology to do it for them. We have no problem believing in the power of peer pressure, mob-mentality, or group think, right? But that’s not visible force, is it? No one says, “As of this moment you should go flip cop cars and smash windows”, it just sort of happens. Other examples of invisible, personal forces are things like memories of people who have died, your own personality, hypnosis, or even emotional love and physical pain. People will debate the power of the butterfly effect and talk about good or bad luck or Murphy’s Law as though they are real, but have a problem with the existence of Demons.
All I’m saying is that it is not unreasonable to believe that there are such things as Invisible Personal Forces, like God, Angels or Demons – who are real, creative, and powerful – that affect our lives every day. And the being introduced in Genesis 3 as a tempting serpent is an example of that. Just because it’s difficult to understand or strange to our ears doesn’t make it untrue.
So, I think to myself, if God is the author of the Bible, the story of Genesis 1-3 is written to tell me the truth, and there really is such a being as Satan, then why would it be impossible for this story to be true? Why couldn’t Satan use a serpent to tempt Eve? I believe what Jesus says, and He says that Satan is a master deceiver (John 8:44), capable of looking like a false messiah and even do miracles so convincing that even people who claim to be Christians will be deceived by him (Matthew 24:24). 2 Corinthians 11:14 says he can even masquerade as an angel of light.
So, is it not possible that Satan used his powers of deception to either manipulate or take on the form of a serpent? Or, if that’s too much, if invisible personal forces are real, then that would mean a form of that is demonic possession, right? Why couldn’t Satan have possessed this animal’s body and used it?
Now I sound crazy, right? I sound like I’m reaching beyond the scope of reality. But hold on. If the Bible isn’t trying to fool me, and Satan is real and powerful, then why is it impossible? It doesn’t have to be the kind of snake we think of today, does it? Genesis 3:1 says that the “serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field” and Revelation 20:2 calls Satan, “the dragon, that ancient serpent”, so this clearly wasn’t the kind of snake we see today, but perhaps a very clever animal that is long extinct. In fact, in Genesis 3:14, when God is cursing the serpent, He changes the form of the serpent to one that stands to one that slithers. There are lots of scientists who think snakes used to have legs but lost them as they evolved. And I’ve watched enough BBC nature documentaries to know that there are animals capable of some pretty incredible things, right?
We’ve all seen the amazing things trained dogs, dolphins, and chimpanzees can do, right? I saw an article that showed how humans have taught parrots, orangutans, elephants and seals to mimic the human voice. And you’ve probably heard about Koko the gorilla that was capable of understanding thousands of English words and signed back over a thousand.
So, I’m not saying I understand it all, but all I’m saying, is why not, in the history of the world, with all the species that have ever existed, couldn’t there have been a smart, serpent-like creature capable of mimicking human speech that Satan possessed and used? Just because I don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it isn’t true. But is it plausible? I believe it is. Or, if that’s too much, then maybe Satan simply used some sort of supernatural power to talk through it, the same way God did with Balaam’s Donkey.
Now, why spend so much time on this today? The reason is simply that there’s a big difference between saying we believe something and actually believing it, and that difference has consequences. There are often nagging questions in the back of our minds that cause us to doubt God’s Word, doubt our faith, doubt how serious we should take it, and wonder if all that we say we believe is actually true. It causes us to distrust God, distrust other Christians, and to live in fear. Our doubts are weapons that Satan can use to cause us to think and believe some destructive lies.
If he can use our doubts to cause us to question the existence of Adam and Eve, then why not Abraham and Jesus too? If Genesis is made up, then why not the Gospel of Matthew? If there was no Fall of Man, no first sin that corrupts all mankind, then where is the curse and what did Jesus die for? Does that mean we’re all basically good people and everyone is going to heaven? If we’re all basically good, then what’s wrong with the world? And if we’re all good, or a bunch of it is made up, then why tell anyone about Jesus at all?
Satan can use these doubts to take us apart in surprising ways. It’s the same tactic he used on Eve. “Did God actually say…?” was an attack on God’s Word and His character. If he can get us to doubt what God says, then we have permission to edit His Words, change them, or dismiss them. Then we’re in trouble. Then the foundations of our life and faith start to crumble. Then we start to doubt that God is real, that Satan is real, that invisible, personal spiritual forces are real, and it makes us an easier target.
Those niggling doubts, which so many of us suppress thinking there are no good answers, embarrassed to ask other people in case we sound crazy or stupid, undermine our faith and become a foothold in our lives for the devil and a stumbling block to those around us. That’s why we need to spend time praying, studying, talking, and sharing our doubts and questions about God. He’s not scared of us looking into it, and He’s not angry that there are things we don’t understand, so it shouldn’t prevent us from asking and searching. Sure, not every question will have the perfect answer, but I have yet to find an important question that hasn’t gotten a reasonable answer over the past couple thousand years. The real trouble comes when we refuse to find them.
Is Hell Real?
Consider the questions from the Heidelberg Catechism that we’ve been studying, especially those today. We’ve spent three weeks talking about the importance of realizing that we are sinners, right? Last week we said that sin isn’t God’s fault, but question 9 comes. It says
“But does not God do man an injustice by requiring in his law what man cannot do?”
Ursinus, in his brilliance, knew that the human heart is full of doubt and is desperate to escape blame. We hate being called sinners and want to do everything we can to push that guilt away. We want to pretend the Fall wasn’t real, that Satan isn’t real, that we’re basically good people, and anything we do that’s wrong is someone else’s fault – even God’s. But neither God nor Ursinus lets us off the hook.
The question is basically “Isn’t it unfair for God to ask us to obey a Law that He knows we can’t obey because of our sinful nature?” and the answer comes:
“No, for God so created man that he was able to do it. But man, at the instigation of the devil, in deliberate disobedience robbed himself and all his descendants of these gifts.”
As I said last week, God didn’t set Adam up for failure, but for success. He absolutely could have obeyed, but fell to temptation chose not to. And now all of us children of Adam are all living with the consequences of having a sinful nature.
Question 10 continues,
“Will God allow such disobedience and apostasy to go unpunished?”
Herein lay another area of our doubts – that God would actually punish sin. Doesn’t God love us? Won’t he let us get away with it? Isn’t He a Good Father who lets His children off the hook because he loves them so much? A kind God wouldn’t really make anyone go to Hell, would He?
People work really hard to try to deny that sinners are punished in Hell, and even harder to try to convince themselves that they themselves aren’t sinners, but neither is true. “Will God allow such disobedience and apostasy to go unpunished?” The answer in the Catechism comes:
“Certainly not. He is terribly displeased with our original sin as well as our actual sins. Therefore he will punish them by a just judgment both now and eternally, as he has declared: Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law (Gal 3:10).”
God promised punishment to Adam and Eve (Gen 2:17). He promised punishment to Moses and the Israelites (Ex 34:7). The Lord, through the prophets, promised to take vengeance on all His enemies (Nah 1:2), and we’ve already learned that sin made us an enemy of God (Eph 2:1-3). Jesus said that without Him, that many will be led to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14) and promised that there would be a final separation where some people would be sent into eternal flames and endless misery (Matt 13:30-42).
Hell, like talking about the snake, makes some people very uncomfortable. They want to hold onto their doubts. They want to deny it. They want to live in ignorance. They don’t want to ask questions lest they learn something they don’t like. They don’t want to think that some people that they love are in Hell, or that they might be as well.
But, just as changing the story of Eden changes everything, so does removing Hell. Look at question 11 of the Catechism:
“But is God not also merciful?”
It’s almost an outcry, isn’t it? But how can the concept of Hell line up with a loving God?
And the answer is this:
“God is indeed merciful, but he is also just. His justice requires that sin committed against the most high majesty of God also be punished with the most severe, that is, with everlasting, punishment of body and soul.”
Yes, God is love, and part of love is ensuring that justice is done. Consider yourself. If you were wronged – you went downtown, someone jumped you, beat you, stabbed you, and stole your belongings – it would be unloving, unjust, unkind for a judge to simply let the mugger get away with it. How much more should humanity be punished for committing such “disobedience and apostasy” against the perfection of God? He is absolute perfection, and humanity chose Satan, sin, disobedience, and betrayal – and we keep doing it over and over willfully and in ways we don’t even know. You must admit yourself to be a sinner.
But our doubts fight, don’t they? “I’m not that bad. God’s not really like that. I don’t want that to be true.” My plea for you is to allow the conviction of God to fall upon you and to allow Him to judge you guilty – because it’s only then that you’ll be willing to ask and accept forgiveness. If you doubt yourself to be a sinner you will doubt the cost of your salvation.
Let me close with this: When it comes to difficult, uncomfortable topics like Hell, do what I said before. First, stop thinking you know everything and show some humility before God and His Word of God. Second, realize the teaching about Hell isn’t there to harm you, but to tell you something that you need to know so you can make a better decision. And third, overcome your doubts by choosing to share them, study the truth, and then settle it in your mind.
I’ve said a few times over the past years that one of the driving thoughts behind my life and ministry is that there is great comfort in good theology. I believe that with every fibre of my being and it informs every part of how I conduct myself as not only a pastor and teacher but a counsellor, father, husband, and friend. I honestly don’t believe that I myself am smart enough, clever enough, compassionate enough, wise enough, or experienced enough to be of much help to anyone on my own and therefore I do my best to point people to One who is greater than me. But to do that requires that I know Him, right?
What occurred to me this week was that the inverse of my little statement is also true. While there is great comfort in good theology, there is great discomfort in bad theology or theological chaos.
In Matthew 5-7 we read what we call the Sermon on the Mount, and in it Jesus covers a lot of ground. He teaches the Beatitudes where we encounter the upside down kingdom where the meek, the mourning, and the persecuted are in fact, blessed. He speaks of His mission to fulfill the Law of Moses and how His followers will conduct themselves in regards to it by teaching on God’s view of anger, lust, divorce, promises, revenge, money, prayer, worry, relationships, love, fruitful living, and salvation. And then at the end, in Matthew 7:24-27 Jesus gives this illustration:
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
That’s a powerful claim. Not only that the words of Jesus are sufficient to be the foundation of one’s entire life, but that anyone built on any other words are fools who will fall apart – and the next verses say as much. It says in verse 28,
“And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”
The scribes hemmed and hawed about what they were teaching, quoting various rabbis, footnoting everything they said, distancing themselves from the Word of God. Jesus spoke with divine, declarative authority. The message from Jesus was simple, as He declared more succinctly to his closest followers during His final hours in the upper room: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
In fact, Jesus says those kinds of declarative statements all throughout the Gospel of John. In John 6 He says, “I am the bread of life”, without whom, you’ll starve. In John 8 He says, “I am the light of the world”, without whom you will walk in darkness. In John 10 He says, “I am the door”, and if you don’t enter by me, you can’t be saved. In John 11 He says, “I am the resurrection and the life”, the only one with the power to raise the dead, and without whom you will be in everlasting death.
These are the declarative statements of a person who knows that He is the only way anyone can be saved. Who knows His way is the only one in which people can find real, lasting, eternal comfort. Who knows His message is the most important message that has ever or will ever be given, and that believing or disbelieving Him is the most important decision anyone will ever make. He wasn’t wishy-washy, He didn’t beat around the bush, He didn’t leave it open to interpretation, He was absolutely crystal clear: If you build your life on the foundation of me and my teachings, then when the floods and destruction of life comes, when chaos comes, when tragedy comes, when death comes, you will still live – if you don’t you’ll be destroyed.
That’s the message of Jesus, of the Apostles, and of the church for thousands of years. We preach Jesus, teach Jesus, proclaim Jesus, worship Jesus, pray to Jesus, and listen to Jesus. No one else.
A Constant Battle for Right Theology
But, in each generation there are always people who want to argue about it. There are always those who dispute and teach false doctrines about God. It has been this way for all time. When Satan challenged Eve, He didn’t just point at the fruit and say, “Wow, doesn’t that look good.” He challenged the Word of God. How did Satan begin the dialogue with Eve?
“He said to the woman, ‘Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?’” (Gen 3:1)
That’s a theological argument about the word of God, a twisting of it, and it required a defence. Then it says,
“And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’’” (Gen 3:2-3)”
What does Satan do then? He calls God’s character into question.
“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Gen 3:4-5)”
These are all theological arguments. What did God say? What is God like? What will God do? How will God respond? Can God be trusted? What does God really mean when He says…
And that’s how it’s been for all time. God makes a declarative statement, Satan or one of his agents twists the statement, calls God’s Word or character into question, and then tempts the believer to go another way. Then God raises up a prophet, a priest, a teacher, a missionary, a preacher, to declare the truth again and give the king, the people, the nation, the church a choice. Who will you believe?
We see this in Elijah and the Prophets of Baal. The king, due in large part to his pagan wife Jezebel, had lead him and most of the nation to turn away from God and worship demons named Baal and Asherah. Elijah proposed a contest where he and the false prophets would each create separate altars, pray for fire to come from heaven, and see who answers.
The false prophets prayed and danced and cut themselves all day long, but got nothing. And then it says this in 1 Kings 18 that Elijah called all the people together, soaked the altar with buckets and buckets of water, and then prayed,
“And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, ‘O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.’” (1 Kings 18:36–37)
The issue was theological. Who is the real God? What had God said? Who is God’s true servant who declares truth? What would God do? Why were the king and the people wrong and Elijah right?
And so it continues throughout history. Prophet after prophet calling the people back to the One, True God. Then Jesus comes and is constantly confronted with theological arguments by the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes – experts in the Bible, the Prophets, the Traditions, and the Law. Their truth claims versus His. Then Jesus establishes His church, and it takes all of 15 minutes for false teachers start to corrupt the apostle’s teachings. Paul would preach how Jesus is the Messiah foretold in the Jewish scriptures (which we call the Old Testament), how Jesus saves people by grace, and what Jesus expects of us – and then he’d leave to go plant another church and someone would come in and start teaching something else. They’d teach that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, that Jesus was just a good man, that the people needed to follow the Law of Moses and be circumcised, or that because Jesus saved them from all their sin it didn’t matter how they lived and they sin however they want.
Acts 17:10–13 gives a great summary of how this worked. It says,
“The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds.”
So here you have a great summary of Paul’s life. He would go somewhere to preach or plant a church, in this case, Berea. He would teach Jesus from the Old Testament in a local synagogue and see how they responded. Most of the time he was kicked out, but in Berea, they actually listened and then examined the Bibles to see if Paul’s theology and doctrine were right or not. As they studied the Bible their hearts were moved and a lot of people got saved. But as soon as that happened, as soon as good theology was declared, a group would rise up against it. This group would pull out all the stops to keep Paul from preaching. They would argue, mock, threaten, and lie to the local authorities to stop Paul from preaching about Jesus. Then Paul would either get beaten and locked up, or beaten and run out of town, and would then have to either write a letter, send another teacher, or wait until the heat died down to return.
Why was it so important that Paul come back though? Why not just cut his losses and try somewhere else? Because he knew that the only real source of comfort and joy and hope was Jesus. He knew that those who had decided to trust Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord were believing lies about Him. That meant their worship was corrupted, their leaders were corrupt, their church practices were becoming corrupt, and the message they were declaring to their neighbours wasn’t one that would save, but would ensnare. There is great comfort in good theology and there is great discomfort in theological chaos. And they were in chaos.
So Paul would come back and untwist all the bad theology, false doctrine, and harmful practices that had gotten into that church. In other words, He would call them back to their foundation in Jesus, call them back to the truth, back to good theology and doctrine.
We Must Teach
How would he do this? Through teaching. In Deuteronomy 11:18–28, as God is giving His Law, He says to the people of Israel,
“You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth. For if you will be careful to do all this commandment that I command you to do, loving the LORD your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him, then the LORD will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations greater and mightier than you. Every place on which the sole of your foot treads shall be yours. Your territory shall be from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River, the river Euphrates, to the western sea. No one shall be able to stand against you. The LORD your God will lay the fear of you and the dread of you on all the land that you shall tread, as he promised you. See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you today, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside from the way that I am commanding you today, to go after other gods that you have not known.”
You see how seriously God takes the teaching, understanding, and application of His Word, right? Teach your kids, remind yourselves, talk about this, because it is only when you are standing on the foundation of my word that you will see victory and blessing – and it is when you forget to teach it, lose my Words, and fall away that you will feel the curse. And so, the command is to teach and keep teaching.
In the New Testament there are two main words used for teaching: DIDASKO and KATECHEO. DIDASKO is the word for the authoritative teaching of doctrine, the declaring of divine truths, the Word of God. Jesus DIDASKO the people. Then Peter and the Apostles DIDASKO the church under the authority of Jesus.
But then, later in the New Testament a different word is used. It’s the word KATECHEO, from where we get our word Catechism. This word is different. It’s still teaching, but it’s not declarative – it’s the passing along of information. It’s repeating what’s already written down. It’s used when someone is reciting prepared lines on a stage or when an apprentice is being taught how to do something.
We don’t DIDASKO our children or congregations. We don’t declare divine truths with the authority of Jesus. We KATECHEO, we pass along what Jesus has already declared. We teach it in ways that the listener can understand. We explain the words one by one, we use examples and illustrations and personal stories to convey the doctrine in a way that all ages can understand. We teach the 4 year old, the 40 year old, and the 90 year old, about Jesus and the cross, but we do it using different words so they will understand.
Catechism For Comfort
This is something many modern churches have gotten away from – we no longer teach people the doctrines of the Christian faith. We live in a theologically illiterate age – people don’t know God or the Bible. According to one study in 2013 half of Canadian Christians believe the Bible has irreconcilable contradictions. Only 1 23% of Christian Canadians believe the bible is relevant to modern life. 64% of Canadian Christians believe that all the major world religions teach the same thing. Only 14% of Canadian Christians read their bibles at least once per week, and only 11% of Canadian Christians talk about the Bible outside of Sunday services.
And if I’m right that there is great comfort in good theology, and great discomfort in theological chaos, then that would explain why so many people, so many Christians, are in such a bad way – they neither know God, nor His goodness, nor His plan. They don’t know if they are saved, what God thinks of them, how to pray, why to pray, or if God is even listening. They don’t know how to conduct themselves when they are wronged, how to hold together a marriage, how to face suffering, what their life purpose is, or how to find it. Even among people who have called themselves believers for decades, there is very little true comfort and Christian hope, because there is very little knowledge of God. And it shows in generations of people who are increasingly spiritual lost, deeply anxious, more and more addicted and drowning in hopelessness. People are abandoning the faith because they do not know or understand the foundations of what they are supposed to believe.
This is why we must teach. And I’m not talking about Bible Trivia. I’m talking about the foundations of Christian hope. When your friends let you down, your spouse is hurting, your children leave, where will you turn? When you face suffering, loss, and death, how will you find meaning? When you are surrounded by bad news, spin, lies, and corruption, how do you know that things are going to work out? If you are stuck in habitual sin, continuously breaking God’s law, constantly feel guilty and ashamed, afraid of judgment, do you know whether or not God will forgive you? When are in need of guidance, purpose, resources, do you know what kinds of prayers God answers? If God isn’t answering your prayers, do you know why? What about your reason for living? Do you know why you are here? If you know these things, you may have comfort, if you do not, you will be in chaos.
When your child, your friend, your brother or sister, turns to you and says “why?” – “Why is this happening? Why should I trust God? Why shouldn’t I believe God hates me? Why should I get up in the morning? Why does the world feel so out of control? Why should I keep living? Why should I bother praying, reading the Bible, or going to church? Why don’t I feel any comfort from God?” What will you say?
Most don’t have an answer because they themselves have never been taught. Children turning to mom and dad and grandma and grandpa and asking huge questions about life, faith, suffering, eternity, relationships, morality – and they get trite, simplistic, and wrong answers. They come and ask for advice and the best that mom and dad and grandma and grandpa can do is say, “Maybe you should go to the doctor. Maybe you should see a psychiatrist. Maybe you should just quit or try harder.” Or worse, “Do whatever your heart feels is right. I just want you to be happy.” That is an invitation to disaster.
This is why we must teach, this is why we must teach, why we must catechize.
Heidelberg Next Week
So, next week we will be starting a one year series on the Heidelberg Catechism. I want everyone here to have the tools to be able to not only answer big questions for others but to be able to grasp how high and wide and deep is the love of God, and be firmly established in the Word of God. I want you to know what you believe, why you believe it, and why it should bring you comfort.
When I’m in my darkest places, at my most desperate moments, feeling like the waves are rising, the waters crashing, the darkness looming – I turn to Jesus. And then Satan attacks, asking me if I really believe all this nonsense, if Jesus is really real, if God really cares… and the only defence I have is the Word of God, the Doctrines of God, the Theology of God. And they bring me comfort because they re-establish me on the foundation of Christ.
I want that for you as your pastor. As Colossians 2:7-8 says, I want you to be “rooted and built up in [Jesus] and established in the faith…” not “[taken] captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”
That’s what I want for each of you, and so that’s why we’re starting that series next week. My hope is that you will follow along, do some homework and heart work, and that it will glorify God and build up His church.
If you were to ask people what their favourite day of the year is, you’ll get a lot of answers. For some, it’s a holiday like Christmas or Thanksgiving or Halloween. For some, it’s tied to a cultural festival like New Years or Hanukkah or Cinco De Mayo. Others are more personal and will tell you it’s their Birthday or a special Anniversary that is meaningful to them. Usually, these days are chosen because of the events surrounding them, the pomp and circumstance, or the special memories that come to mind on that day.
But what if you change the question slightly? What if instead of asking people what their “favourite” day is you ask them what the “most important” day of the year is. That takes it out of the personal realm and makes people think more about how that day impacts others.
I googled “What is the most important day of the year?” and came up with some interesting answers. My favourite of which was from one dude on the internet. And he super likes this day. Can you guess which day it is?
And apparently, he really likes “Earth, Wind and Fire” too – but then again, who doesn’t?. When asked “What does September 21st mean to you?” His answer was: “Absolutely nothing. And hopefully it means even less in the coming years.” If that’s not commentary on modern life, I don’t know what is.
Good Friday or Easter?
If you ask a group of Christians what the most important day of the year is, you’d think you’d get a consistent answer, but you won’t. There are some pretty important days in the Christian calendar and it’s easy to make an argument for why they would all take the lead. Christmas was when the God of the Universe was incarnated as a human baby – that’s a pretty big deal. If there was no Christmas then there would be no Jesus, no New Testament, no Christianity, right?
Other believers will tell you that Good Friday is the most important day of the year. That was the day when Jesus died on the cross, having the wrath of God poured on Him instead of us, dying so anyone who would believe in Him would live. That’s a pretty huge day. If there was no Good Friday, there would be no cross, no salvation, no restoration of lost sinners to God, no freedom from sin.
We’re here today celebrating Easter as another super important day in history – the day that Jesus rose from the dead, proving everything He said to be true, showing Himself to be God and Messiah and Saviour. No one else has ever done that.
So you can see why Christians are torn on which day is most important and why we make such a big deal of this season – why our whole Christian year, our worship services, our songs, our sermons, our prayers, so many of our conversations and meetings, revolve around what happened over these three days.
If you were to ask the Apostle Paul what the most important day was, he would say it this way: from 1 Corinthians 15:3, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day…” What is of “first importance” to Christians? What’s the most important thing that all believers need to remember at all times? The death of Jesus on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter Sunday. They are inseparable.
Of First Importance
Please open up in your Bibles (or the ones in the pew in front of you) to 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 and let’s look at that passage together. Verses 1-11 have already been read today and I want to spend some time going through this section to see why the events of Good Friday and Easter are so important – not only to Christians but to everyone.
Right off the start, from verse 1 we read,
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.”
This is the final section of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. He’s gone through a lot of topics so far. He’s spoken about everything from theology to culture, worship to family issues, and more, and now he’s come to the end of the letter and wants to make sure that above everything else he’s written they remember one thing: “the gospel”.
What is the gospel? It’s explained in the verses we just read. The gospel is the good news, the message about Jesus and which they received and believed – but had gotten off track from. They had messed up a lot of things in their life and church, and he had told them a lot of ways to fix it, but above all, if there was one thing that was going to bring them back from the brink it would be this: Remember the Gospel.
What does that mean? It means that even though that when Paul was with them he had taught them a lot about God, the Bible, life, and morality, there was one message that was over, under and around all of these things: the Gospel. One foundational message that everything else stood on: that God became a man, died, was buried and rose again.
The Foundation of Everything
If you’ve ever been on a sports team or been a coach or done anything at a competitive level, there’s one thing that you keep being told. Whether you are playing intermural floor hockey or competing for the Stanley Cup in the NHL there is one thing that stays consistent: “The Fundamentals”. When things go wrong at the highest level, what do they say: “We weren’t sticking to our game. We got too fancy. We forgot the fundamentals.” When they’re asked how they’re going to win, they never say, “Trick plays and fancy footwork”, right? No, that’s why the interviews and “keys to the game” are so repetitive and boring: “Stay focused, solid goaltending, get pucks on the net, execute the plays, do the fundamentals.”
That’s kind of what Paul is doing here. He just wrote them a huge, complicated letter addressing a lot of subjects, but then at the end he says, “Guys, none of this matters if you forget the fundamentals, the basics, the foundation of everything: that God loves you so much that He sent His one and only Son to take your punishment, to die on the cross, to be dead and buried for three days, and then rise again on the third day. Everything else starts to make sense once you get that into your heart.”
And it does! Pick an issue. Pick a problem. Pick a crisis. Maybe you have a broken heart. Bad self-image issues. Maybe you live with anxiety, fear, depression, or anger problems. Maybe you are a child of divorce or were abused. Maybe you were the abuser, you did the bad stuff, you hurt people. Maybe you are lonely, or overwhelmed, or exhausted. Maybe you are childless, or your body is sick, you have needs, or you are going through a confusing situation.
It’s in these moments that our souls want to cry out to God for help, but then we stop ourselves because we aren’t sure if God listens to one person’s problems, if God cares about us, if God is real, if God is kind. Does God care about my feelings, how I look, whether I have friends? Does God know what it’s like to be anxious, afraid, sad, or angry? Does God know what it means to be abandoned and abused? What does God think of people who have done terrible, selfish things? What does God think of abusers? Are they beyond hope? Does God know what it’s like to be lonely and exhausted and overwhelmed? Has God ever been bent over with emotion, so exhausted that He couldn’t stand, “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” to the point of sweating blood? Has he faced political problems, religious problems, relationship problems, sickness, tragedy, fear, pain, and death? The answer is yes. Jesus knows what that’s like.
Isaiah 53:3 describes him as, “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.” Jesus, the Son of God to whom all glory is due, gave it up. Why?
Why go through that? Why leave heaven, leave the Father, leave the perfection of beauty and the worship of angels to face a life of pain, rejection, shame, betrayal, and crucifixion?
Isaiah 53:4 continues with the answer:
“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.”
Jesus, the Great Shepherd, saw us as sheep that had gone astray, lost in the dark woods, torn to pieces by the wolves of temptation and sin, dead by our own choices – and then, the Great Shepherd became a sheep. He came into the dark, faced the wolves, and traded places with us. He died so we could live. In heaven he God has no grief, no sorrow, but Jesus came to earth to bear our griefs, to carry our sorrows. All the wrath God had against sinners – all his hatred for those who had insulted Him, blasphemed Him, broke His laws, spread hate, destroyed others with their lust, stole from Him and each other, lied and murdered – would be placed on Jesus. Why?
For the love of sinners. He did it so it there would be no one who would not have grace available to them – no matter how bad they are, no matter what they’ve done – no one would be lost forever if they would admit they are a sinner, turn away from their sin, turn toward Jesus, and ask forgiveness in His name.
When we start at the gospel, building everything we know about God and this world on the foundation of the story of Jesus – when we start to “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Eph 3:18), then everything else starts to come clear.
Are you loved and valuable? Is there someone who sees you as beautiful and worthy of kindness? Yes, so much God traded His one and only Son for you. Is there someone that knows what is going on in the depths of your heart, has faced the same issue perfectly and is willing to help you? Yes, Jesus stands ready at every moment to hear your prayer and help you. Is there someone who has seen the bad you have done, the sin you’ve committed, the hurt you’ve caused, and will still forgive you, clean you up, welcome you into His arms, and give you a new mission in life? Yes. Jesus died for your sins so you could have a new life in him.
And this understanding, this truth that we call the Gospel, fills us up and then spills onto others. How can we forgive someone who hurt us? By realizing how much we have been forgiven by God. How can we know our lives have meaning and purpose? Because God’s word says as long as we have breath, God has something for us to do. How can we know that our sufferings, the worst years of our lives, weren’t wasted? How can we find meaning in such deep pain? Because of the cross and the empty tomb. The worst day in human history, the day sinners tortured and killed the most perfect, most valuable person to ever live – the most unjust, cruel, terrible day ever, led to the greatest miracle, the most important day in history, as God attributed Jesus death to us. When Good Friday becomes Easter Sunday we see that the most terrible day become the most glorious day as man’s greatest enemies were utterly destroyed.
Look back at 1 Corinthians 15 all the way down to verse 54 and see the power of the empty tomb:
“When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
Without Jesus we are perishable, swallowed up by sin, stung by death, overpowered by temptation, disloyal, changeable, fruitless and labouring in vain. But when we turn our lives to Jesus, everything changes: The fear of death becomes powerless. We are no longer slaves to temptation. We become stable, abounding in the knowledge that so long as we are following Jesus, no matter what happens, the labor is not in vain. Or in the words of John Newton from Amazing Grace,
“Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
But How Can We Know For Sure?
This all sounds well and good, but how can we know for sure this is true? Is it all based in our feelings? Are we simply to take it on faith? Is it all about that tingle in the spine, that twist in the gut? How do we know this isn’t just a comforting thought that someone came up to give weak, stupid people comfort?
Turn back to 1 Corinthians 15 and let’s read in verse 3 again,
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
We can know this is true for two reasons: First, because this was all “in accordance with the scripture” and second, because there were so many witnesses to the empty tomb.
In Accordance with Scripture
The passages I read to you from Isaiah 53, which accurately describe the events of Good Friday, were written almost 700 years before Jesus was born. God’s plan of salvation, Jesus dying on the cross and rising again, wasn’t an afterthought, wasn’t a way of making a bad situation into a good one – it was the plan since the beginning. We read about the coming of Jesus in prefigures and prophecies in every book of the Old Testament – from Genesis to Malachi. This shows the power and accuracy of the Bible.
Nothing is ever out of control for God. Even the worst day in history was planned out ahead of time and told about in scriptures. God gave His people hope by telling them how they would one day be saved. One way we can know that all of this is true is because of the Bible. It holds up to scrutiny and shows us that God is trustworthy and has a plan.
The Empty Tomb
The second evidence that everything I’m saying about Jesus is true is how many witnesses there were to crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. This is why the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter Sunday are both of “first importance”.
When this was written Cephas, also known as Peter, was still alive. So were the other apostles. You could literally ask them what they saw. But not only them, hundreds of other people saw Jesus alive after being dead and buried, and most of them were alive too. Jesus’ own family including James, his brother whom he grew up with, worshipped Jesus as the Risen Lord. (Consider what it would take for you to worship a member of your family as Creator of the Universe.) And Paul, who was an enemy to Christians, who hunted them down, tortured and even killed Christians, met the living Jesus and then gave His life to preaching the gospel.
This is no small thing. People don’t die for a lie. The apostles didn’t make this up so they would get fame, fortune, comfort, and power. No, instead they were despised, rejected, impoverished, faced many dangers, chased down, and then tortured and killed for sharing the story of Jesus. People don’t do for a story they made up.
And since that day, many, many more, have met the living Jesus. They have experienced the love of God, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the friendship of Jesus – not merely as feeling, but as fact. People have lived and died for Jesus – not because it was their “religion” or their “culture” – but because they knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Jesus is alive, that Jesus is God, and that Jesus is the only way of salvation.
My invitation to you this morning is to simply give your life to Jesus. Admit that you are a sinner, that you have broken God’s law, that you stand guilty before a righteous God, and that there is no amount of good you can do to cancel it all out. Once you admit that, ask for forgiveness from God for all you have done. Accept that Jesus died on the cross for that sin, that He traded Himself for you, that He did all the work necessary to save you, and accept His forgiveness. Agree that Jesus really did rise from the dead, conquering sin and death once and for all and that because of your faith in Him, death and sin have no more power over you.
And then, once you have done that – you need your make Him your Lord. Christians, this is a message to you too. Step off the throne of your life and put Jesus on it. Take your plans, your designs, your work, your family, your whole life, and give it to Jesus. Bow to Him as your Lord, your Boss, your King. The Bible says He already is your King anyway. There will come a day when “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10–11) Today is the day you are invited to do it by your own choice. Will you accept Jesus as your Saviour and your Lord?
Festival of Dangerous Ideas
Today is Easter Sunday, the day that the Christian church has set aside for hundreds of years – dating back to the third century – to celebrate and remember the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ! This event is the single most important event in the history of humanity!
To start today, I want to show you a clip that I found online that comes from an annual event in Australia called the “Festival of Dangerous Ideas”. This is a group that brings leaders and thinkers from around the world together to discuss and debate big ideas.
For example, in 2009 they had famous atheist Christopher Hitchens present the topic of “Religion Poisons Everything” and then Cardinal George Pell talked about how “Without God we are Nothing”. In 2012 they had talks entitled “All Women Hate Each Other”, “A Foetus is Not a Person” and “The Devil is Real”. So that’s the type of environment we’re talking about here. A group of intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals all gathered together to see who can either inform or offend the most people with their chosen position.
This clip is from 2013 and comes from the Q&A portion and I want you to listen to the answers from three of the panelists. First you will hear from Gay Activist Dan Savage, then Feminist icon Germain Greer, and finally, Journalist and Author Peter Hitchens.
Before I play though, let me quickly relate a little of Peter Hitchen’s fascinating story. He’s a Christian author, and he’s at this “Festival” to represent the Christian side of things, but the story of his coming to faith is almost as dramatic as the Apostle Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.
His brother is the famous, and recently deceased atheist author I just mentioned who spoke on “Religion Poisons Everything”, and at one point both brothers agreed that belief in God was ridiculous. Peter was literally a hard-core, Bible-burning, Marxist.
The story goes that while on holiday with his girlfriend in France, they went to view a famous painting called “Last Judgement” (by Rodgier Van der Weyden), when upon looking at the painting, suddenly the question, “What if I have to face judgement someday?” crept into his mind – and stuck there – sending him on a path of discovery that would bring him to faith in Jesus Christ and conservative Christianity. In 2010 he wrote a book called “The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me To Faith” as a counterpoint to his brother’s book “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” which was written the year before.
So, with all that in mind, take a look at this clip:
The answers to that question: “Which idea would most change the world for the better?” were incredibly varied. The first guy, Dan Savage, who is a professional sex therapist wants to practice population control and maybe even kill all babies for 30 years. The second person, Germaine Greer, is a radical feminist who believes that all men hate women and desire to enslave them, says that the best thing that we could do for this planet would be to throw off all moral constraints and embrace ultra-individualism.
Both of those answers, by the way, simply come down to being “If you want to create a better world, let everyone do whatever they want without consequences.” It was maddening to listen to the applause for those answers – loud applause for population control and mandatory abortions – and then hear absolute silence after Hitchens gave his answer about Jesus.
Hitchens’ answer, obviously, is the one that I want to focus on today, because he gives the right answer! Let me read his answer again:
“The most dangerous idea in human history and philosophy remains the belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and rose from the dead and that is the most dangerous idea you will ever encounter… Because it alters the whole of human behaviour and all our responsibilities. It turns the universe from a meaningless chaos into a designed place in which there is justice and there is hope and, therefore, we all have a duty to discover the nature of that justice and work towards that hope. It alters us all. If we reject it, it alters us all as well. It is incredibly dangerous. It’s why so many people turn against it.”
He’s absolutely correct. There is no more dangerous, life-altering, world-changing, perspective-shifting, truth in all the universe than the belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died on a cross and rose from the dead. Believing that changes everything about everything.
If it’s true, then that means that there is a God, the Bible is true, there really is a definitive moral law (right and wrong does exist and we don’t get to make it up). It means that this is not all there is, and that we need to stop living in the moment, but live in the light of eternity. And that God has judged humanity as sinners, condemned us to Hell, and anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus for salvation is truly doomed. Christianity is no mere cultural belief or part-time religious hobby– it’s a worldview-shattering truth.
The Resurrection As Fact
That’s why Christians vehemently reject the idea that Jesus was simply a good, moral teacher who had some great ideas about how to make the world better. Jesus wasn’t like one of those people at the “Festival of Dangerous Ideas” who stands up, pontificates on a few points, comes up with a few interesting ideas, and then slides out of history to allow the next thinker to build on His ideas.
No, Christians teach and believe that Jesus Christ is the third person of the Trinity, the Son of God, equal in majesty and authority with God the Father. And that at one point in history, Jesus, who was never created, but existed eternally, came into His creation, adding to Himself the flesh of a human being, so He could perfectly identify with us.
Because of God’s love for us, He sent His Son to be born as a baby, grow up to be a man, live a perfect life, and then die for the sins of all who would believe. Because He’d never broken God’s law, He did not stand under the judgement of God. Out of love for us, God laid the punishment for sins upon Jesus, exchanging His Son for us on the cross. He took the punishment we deserve. On Good Friday, God poured out all His wrath against sin onto His innocent Son, so that we, the guilty could be spared. Sin brought death and separation from God, so sin needed to be dealt with, and God dealt with it by having Jesus die for us instead.
And to prove, once and for all, that He had destroyed the consequences of sin and conquered death, Jesus rose from the dead and promised that anyone who would put their faith in Him as their Lord and Saviour, would rise from the dead as well. Anyone who does not is required to face their own judgement and punishment from God, which is Hell.
This belief is foundational to our whole worldview; it’s the bedrock that we base our life, faith and existence upon. It is the beginning of our entire way of thinking and the reason for our hope. That’s why we make sure that everyone knows that when we talk about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we aren’t talking about an idea, but an historical fact! Our faith in Jesus and Christian worldview isn’t held together by how strongly we believe – but on how strong the evidence is for what we believe. Our love for Jesus isn’t based in a theory, an idea, or a philosophy, but on the true and risen Lord Jesus Christ.
Remember the Resurrection
1 Corinthians 15 shows us how foundational this belief is.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians church, he was writing to a church with a lot of issues: sexual immorality was rampant, they were taking each other to court, they had huge flaws in their theology and were divided into factions, some people were literally starving while others were getting drunk during the Lord’s supper, and I could go on… it was a mess.
So, after taking 14 chapters to teach and correct a whole bunch of these problems, Paul does something critically important – he reminds them of their foundation of their faith. They were wandering around, straying from their convictions, getting into trouble, splintering the church, and ruining their witness, and Paul in Chapter 15, like a referee at a basketball game blows the whistle loud and calls them back to the centre. Let’s read what Paul says:
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.”
What’s happening here? Paul is telling them that they have stepped off of the firm foundation and are walking into quicksand. Some false teachers had crept into the church and had started chipping away at their faith in the resurrection, which had caused them to forget the cost of their salvation, which caused them to start to believe that how they lived really didn’t matter, which resulted in all kinds of problems.
The point here is that everything we do as Christians has its roots in the resurrection. What we believe about this life and the afterlife affects every decision we make, every relationship we have, and how we set our priorities. The issue here is that we start to wander from our faith in God and obedience to His Word when we start to forget that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a true, historical fact. It is much easier to neglect our souls, live for ourselves, and pretend God doesn’t see what we’re doing, when we distance our minds from the belief that Jesus Christ really did live, die and rise again.
And I totally understand, 2000 years after the event, living in a country thousands of miles away, in a completely different era, that it’s difficult to keep that truth in our minds. Every day we are presented with a thousand distractions and reasons to live like it is all just a fairy-tale for weakminded people who can’t deal with their own problems. I get that.
And that was already happening in the Corinthian church, only 30 years after the resurrection! So the Apostle Paul blows the whistle and calls everyone back to centre so they can reset their minds and hearts. He tells them they need to “hold fast” to what was preached or they’re going to get themselves into trouble. Don’t be swayed by other messages and untruths, or you will be in danger of having a false and useless faith! You won’t be saved because you don’t believe the right things!
This isn’t just a big deal, it’s the biggest of deals! We must deal with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and remember its consequences every day. The passage continues:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received…”
Notice that for a second – he’s about to talk about something that is “of first importance”. This is the number one thing that must be gotten right, above and beyond everything else. He received the knowledge from Jesus and the apostles and then delivered it to the Corinthians, and they had let other things distract them. Paul calls them back to the most important thing. And what is that:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…”
The number one thing that Christians need to remember and hold fast to is the reason for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ death wasn’t an accident, it was planned. The whole of the Old Testament points to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. His sacrifice wasn’t an afterthought. – it was the plan all along! From Genesis to Malachi, the plan was for Jesus to die for sin, be buried in the ground, and then rise again on the third day.
Evidence for the Resurrection
How sure was Paul that Jesus died and then rose again? 100%! This wasn’t just a hope or a story, but was historical fact. How do we know this? Because of what Paul says next:
“…he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
Do you see how the most important fact about Jesus is not that He is a good teacher, but that He’s resurrected Christ? Paul calls the Corinthians back to the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection so they would get their hearts right with God. Later, the Apostle Peter would say something similar when he wrote,
“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16)
In other words, “Guy’s we’re not making this up! We saw this with our own eyes! This is a true report! You need to change your lives, change your heart, alter your course, and come to Jesus because He really does exist, He really is the Son of God, He really did die for your sins, and He really did rise from the dead, and He really is coming back to judge everyone!”
Sometimes Christians forget why we tell others about Jesus. It’s not so that we can grow our church, get more money in tithes, or make the world a nicer, more moral place. We’re not just sharing nice stories so people can deal with this difficult world. We talk about Jesus because the Gospel is true! He’s alive right now, He’s making salvation available, and judgement day is coming! We’re sharing the truth!
Evidence and Counter Arguments for the Resurrection
Not everyone believes that though, do they? And so, quickly, like Paul did for the Corinthians, I want to go through a few of the evidences for the historical, factual resurrection of Jesus Christ. When you start to doubt or to forget, you can come back to a few of these to remember that your life isn’t based on “cleverly devised stories and myths”, but on the person of Jesus Christ. And for this exercise we are going to assume a few things:
- First, that Jesus was an historical person. This is something that everyone (Christian and non-Christian) agrees with, so that’s not a problem.
- Second, we are going to assume that Jesus really did die on the cross – another nearly undisputed fact, despite what Dan Brown would have us think.
- Third, we are going to assume that the biblical account of Jesus’ death and resurrection are the best historical documents we have for understanding this event – and that’s also true. Critical historians of all stripes – believers and non – all accept that the gospel accounts are accurate in their historical detail. They may disagree about the mystical parts and the conclusions that the church gleaned from them afterward, but most agree that the details are historical.
What we are going to concentrate on is the empty tomb. If Jesus did live, and did die, then the only question that remains is: did He rise again? Paul’s answer is: He appeared to Peter, the apostles, and 500 other people, and himself, so ask us. We can’t do that, so we’ll do the next best thing – we’ll look at the evidence.
Here’s some possible explanations for the empty tomb that have come up through the years and some counter arguments to them.
The Swoon Theory
First is what people call the “swoon theory”. This is the idea that Jesus was merely unconscious when He was laid in the tomb, and later woke up and went to find the disciples to claim He had risen again.
The evidence against this one is fairly straight forward. First, the Roman solider in charge of killing the prisoners decided not to break Jesus’ legs because he knew Jesus had died. (Mark 15:44-45) Then he took a large, sharp spear and stabbed Jesus through the ribs and into his heart, letting out blood from the heart and water from the protective sack surrounding it. (John 19:32-34) No one walks away from that.
Next, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrapped Jesus body cocoon-style, head to toe, in tight linen and 75 pounds of powdered spices. It’s very difficult to believe they wouldn’t have figured out he was still alive. And even then, if they didn’t notice, it would have been impossible for Jesus to have gotten out considering His injuries and blood-loss.
Finally, there is no way that a beaten and bloodied, mostly dead Jesus would have inspired his believers put their faith in Him because He had been resurrected and conquered death. They’re not that gullible.
The Wrong Tomb
The next theory is that the women and disciples went to wrong tomb. This is unlikely too. According to Matthew 26:61, the two women were there when He was placed in the tomb and it’s very implausible they forgot which one it was. And according to John 20, Peter and John went to the tomb too, and it’s really, really unlikely that between the four of them none of them knew where Jesus was buried.
Thieves or the Apostles Stole the Body
Another theory is either thieves or the apostles themselves stole the body. This is doubtful considering that there were a bunch of Roman soldiers sealed the tomb and then were stationed outside of it to make sure that exact thing didn’t happen. (Matthew 27:65-66) Furthermore, the testimony that Jesus rose from the dead and they met Him, was a real problem for His followers. People make up stories for their own benefit. People lie to achieve something. The apostles didn’t get any earthly benefit from relating the story that Jesus rose again. They were rejected by their people, beaten, abused, tortured, and eventually killed for their belief in Jesus’ resurrection. At some point, if it was made up, they would have said so. It wasn’t worth the trouble they got into. The only reason they kept teaching that Jesus rose again was because it was true and He had changed their entire life.
The Key to Hope and Faith
And, going back to our passage in 1 Corinthians, that’s the whole point. The resurrection of Jesus Christ changes everything! It means that salvation is real and available. It means that Jesus has all the power to fulfil His promises to give us hope, a future, a purpose in this world, the presence of the Holy Spirit, daily help to meet our needs, and to bring us into eternity with Him. The resurrection means everything, and without it we are nothing.
Listen to how Paul says it:
“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 15:12-19)
If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then we are here for no reason, we misrepresent the truth, we have no salvation, and there death is still something to be feared. If Jesus didn’t rise again, sin is still victorious, death is still our enemy, evil still rules the day, and everyone who died has been condemned to Hell.
As scripture says, if we only believe in Jesus for the benefits that come in this life, then we should be pitied – because we are the greatest of fools. We deny ourselves pleasures, sacrifice for others, humble ourselves, face persecution and argument, and talk about hope, love and faith – and for what? If it’s all a lie, and no one is raised again, then what’s the point.
I asked someone who recently came back to Christianity after falling away for some years, “What was that like to wake up every day without God, without heaven, without salvation, without Jesus, without hope?” Their answer: “It was terrible.”
And they were right. Life without Jesus, without the resurrection, is terrible. But life in the light of the resurrection is worth living – and more than that – worth giving our lives for.