We’re just beginning a new series on the Gospel of John. Last week we did a bit of an overview of who John was, and his audience was, how John’s gospel fits in with the other three, and that the major theme is introducing and defending who Jesus really is. He’s writing decades after the other three gospels were written. The Apostle Paul had written his letters to all the churches many years before and had already died.
The people reading and hearing this book about Jesus were now 50 years away from when the actual events occurred. Many of them lived far away from Jerusalem, where they took place. And many of the people who saw the life, death and resurrection had already died, so the information about Jesus was almost all second-hand. But John hadn’t died, and when he was quite old, maybe 90 years old, the Holy Spirit compelled him to write his own eye-witness account of his experiences with Jesus, addressing not only the false-teachings about Him, but also giving another side to the story, another aspect that would complement the already existing gospels to give a much bigger, much clearer picture of Jesus so no one would be able to doubt who He really is.
Why Context is Important
You might be asking, why is all this context so important? Why not just jump into chapter 1 verse 1 and get going with what the book actually says instead of spending so much time on the background. My answer is because doing that leads to mistakes in interpretation. Context is critically important to our understanding of the Bible.
We sometimes have the unfortunate habit of actually disconnecting Bible verses from the Bible. Many of you likely have a bible verse on your phone, on a mug, a shirt, or your wall at home. And while that’s good to do, for the most part, it can sometimes lead to pretty serious misunderstandings of what God actually meant in that verse.
My favourite version of this, for example, is how many times you hear people quote Matthew 7:1 where Jesus says, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” I’ve heard this used, most often, as the reason why everyone should mind their own business and never, ever, tell someone that something they are doing is wrong.
Is that what it means? No. That takes it out of the context. What about John 5:24 where Jesus says, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” What about Luke 17:3 where Jesus says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him…” Obviously “Judge not” doesn’t mean “never judge”. So what does it mean? Well, let’s look at the context. In Matthew 7, Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount and is just about to say, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (7:5). In other words, Jesus isn’t saying, “Don’t ever judge”, He’s saying, “don’t judge like a hypocrite”. Don’t be unduly harsh or arrogant in how you look at other people’s sins, or God will do the same thing to you. In other words, when you judge, because you will absolutely need to judge right and wrong, good and evil, wise and foolish… do so with as much generosity and grace as God has given you.
That’s just one, obvious example of what is called “proof-texting”, and it comes from not understanding the context of the verse. And in not understanding it, we apply it wrong. And when we apply it wrong, sin isn’t confronted and people are left miserable in the clutches of the enemy. We don’t want to do that, so before we study any book of the Bible, before we start taking apart the chapters and verses and words, we always spend time talking about the background of the whole book.
Who wrote it? Who were they writing to? What genre of book is it? Why did they write it? Is it poetry, history, proverb, instructions, allegory, a letter addressing a certain topic? That will change how you read it, right? When was it written? Before the Babylonian exile or after? Before the destruction of the Temple or after? Before Jesus or after? That matters because it all helps in interpreting what God was saying to the people who originally heard the message and how we should be reading it today.
Context, CLRA, & the CBOQ
Let me give you another example, this time with a bit more contemporary controversy. Right now, in the CBOQ (our denomination, the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec) there are a few churches who are now accepting members, teachers, leaders, and elders who are actively part of the LGBTQ community. This all came to a head a few years ago when Danforth Baptist Church in Toronto, which is associated with the CBOQ, released a statement saying they will no longer consider “sexual orientation or gender identity” when choosing leaders for their church.
This has caused division in the churches of the denomination. Some are in favour it, others are against it, and some don’t know what to think. The more conservative churches that are against the idea of LGBTQ leadership in the church formed a coalition called CLRA or the “Covenant Life Renewal Association” and came to the leadership of the CBOQ demanding action be taken against Danforth and other churches that would follow their example. So, for about three years now the leadership of the CBOQ has been trying to figure out what to do – and stalling. They’ve refused to take a stand on the issue and it has frustrated the conservative wing greatly – to the point where some have left or are considering leaving the CBOQ altogether.
I’m actually headed to a meeting this coming Thursday where I’ll be part of something I’ve never heard of happening before. Two different denominational leaders, one from the CBOQ and the other from the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptists (FEB), will be giving separate presentations to the same group of pastors and church leaders. First, the president and former president of the CBOQ will give an update on how the committee is dealing with the LGBTQ issue (which I do not expect to go very well, considering I recently received an update email from the committee where they just kicked the can down the road a bit farther). Then, in the afternoon, Steve Jones, the National President of all of the whole Fellowship Baptist denomination will explain how they dealt with the LGBTQ issue and then give information to anyone who wants to transfer to their denomination. It is absolutely wild to me that two denominational presidents will be in the same room with the same pastors giving pitches about their denominational stances on this issue.
Consequently, this could be a very important week in the life of our church. Why? Because in our church we believe that as much as we love people in the LGBTQ community, as welcome as they are in our church and ministries, and as much grace and generosity we want to give them, we must draw the line where God draws it. And that means that people who live and promote an LGBTQ lifestyle cannot be members, leaders, or teachers in our church.
We don’t say this because we believe that we are better than the people in the LGBTQ community. We don’t hate them or think they are undeserving of God’s love. We hold to this standard because this is what the Bible teaches and no matter what culture says or what pressures we face, “We must obey God…” (Acts 5:29)
What does all this have to do with context? Well, it goes back to that statement made by the Danforth church and what brought about the big split in the CBOQ. I want to read part of it to you so you can see how it went down.
It begins, “Because God has welcomed us into his family through faith in Jesus Christ and calls us to pursue love and justice for all, Danforth Church is welcoming and inclusive of all people regardless of age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, family makeup, social status, income, ability, or physical or mental health.” With that, we wholeheartedly agree. Everyone is welcome at our church and at the feet of Jesus.
Then they get into their statements and they need to be read very carefully. Statement 1 is, “We share and uphold the values of love, justice and equal rights for all people, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, family makeup, social status, income, ability, or physical or mental health; and we desire to reflect the heart of God and the attitude of Jesus Christ towards those who have been marginalized”. That sounds good, and upon first glance seems right on, but it really needs some clarification.
We totally agree with the idea of everyone being worthy of love and justice and that we should love the marginalized like Jesus does – but what do they mean by “equal rights for all people”? For example, they say that they believe that people of any “age” should have “equal rights”. Does that mean a 3-year-old should have the same right to vote as a 21-year-old? Should a 3-year-old be allowed to borrow money, get a tattoo, or quit school if they want to? Probably not, so “equal rights” sounds nice, but really needs some clarification.
Statements numbers 2, 3 and 4 is where things really become problematic. Number 2 says, “We find our agreement in the core and primary beliefs of the Christian faith reflected, for example, in the Nicene and Apostles Creeds; and we accept a diversity of views among us on many other theological and/or disputable matters….”. Certainly, those creeds give the basic outline of the Christian faith. I’ve taught both of them here. But they are certainly not comprehensive statements of everything we believe. For example, neither creed covers murder or greed or lying. It doesn’t say they’re right or wrong. Is murder one of those “disputable matters” we should “accept a diversity of views” about? Probably not. But it’s not in the Apostles Creed, so…. In the same way, why would we say that something as foundational as human sexuality and gender, which are also not covered in the creeds, are “disputable”?
The third statement goes even farther saying, “We acknowledge that the cultural, social and religious contexts of the scriptures are significant in our interpretation of biblical passages and that humility is required in holding positions on secondary and/or disputable matters…” There’s our word for today: “context”, except it’s using it the exact opposite way we are using it today. What they are saying is that because the bible was written in a different culture, with different social norms, and different religious contexts, it must therefore no longer be applicable to today – and we can, therefore, dismiss much of what the Bible says and interpret it much more broadly because it was written for a different people at a different time.
These are the same people who argue that the Bible doesn’t have anything to say to contemporary audiences about human sexuality and gender because it was written to a bunch of backwards people in ancient times. I hear the argument all the time that if Christians believe homosexuality is wrong, then they shouldn’t be eating shellfish or wearing polyester-cotton blends either because the Bible forbids those too – and we’re hypocrites for picking and choosing which verses we obey.
They grab verse like Leviticus 19:19 which prohibits wearing cloth of two kinds of material and equate it to verses in 1 Corinthians and Romans and 1 Timothy that teach homosexuality is a sin. But that’s terrible biblical interpretation! That’s worse than the “judge not” proof-texting we were talking about before. It’s a non-argument for anyone who knows anything about the Bible.
The laws about not eating shellfish or wearing mixed cloths or all the other ones about how to treat menstruating women or not boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk were laws given specifically to the nation of Israel, not everyone. It was partly to make them look weird and different from the rest of the nations around them – to show their holiness, their set-apartness. In fact, many of the food laws specifically say that they are for the Israelites and not everyone.
I don’t want to get into the whole thing right now, but in the Bible, you will see three different kinds of laws: Civil Laws given specifically to the Israelites, Ceremonial Laws that defined how they practiced worship, and Moral Laws based which are universal for all people.
When Jesus came, He expanded the kingdom to include gentiles who don’t have to follow the Civil Laws of Israel, and He fulfilled all the Ceremonial Laws, creating a new way to worship God that wasn’t based around the Temple anymore. The only Laws left, and which are universal for all people, for all time because they are based on God’s nature and not one group of people, are God’s Moral Laws. Part of Biblical interpretation is understanding these different kinds of laws and which ones are applicable to believers today.
So, are blending cloths on the same interpretive level human sexuality and gender? No. Not even close.
But are the fact that these laws were written to an ancient culture significant? Yes, as is the fact that they are being taught to and interpreted by people who live thousands of years later in different cultures all over the world. So yes, culture is significant. Part of my job as a preacher is to grapple with the texts so I can “understand the principles and imperatives within” and then present them to a contemporary audience in an understandable way. That’s my job. That’s been the job of Bible preachers and teachers forever. Figure out what God was saying and then sharing the meaning and application for today.
But, when I’m looking at a verse I do not have the right to contradict what God is saying because it disagrees with my current, contemporary context. Regardless of how much our society wants to reinterpret morality, humans do not get to dismiss something that God plainly teaches as truth-for-all-time just because they don’t want to believe it anymore.
I was reading another pastor’s interpretation of the Danforth Statement and he pointed out how ironic it is that Danforth would say that Christians must come by our interpretation of biblical passages with “humility” – because they’re not using the word in a biblical way. What they mean is that a humble person should never think they really know what the Bible means. That somehow, as Michael Krueger said, “To be uncertain is to be humble. To be certain is to be arrogant.”
But that’s not biblical humility. Biblical humility says, “God has been crystal clear about some things and I’m going to believe it and obey it regardless of what I feel about it or what pressures I face from society.” In the words of Isaiah 66:2, “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” Or 2 Corinthians 10:5, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…” In John 14:15 Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commands.” That means that Jesus has clearly commanded us to do specific things. In Luke 11:28 Jesus said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
That means we study, study, study, using all the resources at our disposal to figure out the clear meaning of what God is saying in any given passage and then work hard to do what He says. That’s biblical humility. If you can make a good, biblical argument for something – then Christians should teach and obey it. If you want us to support LGBTQ, don’t appeal to culture or feelings, appeal to scripture. Let God’s Word be the final voice to speak on the issue.
That’s not what Danforth is doing. Let me read statement 4 so you can see how they believe people should interpret the will and word of God. “We hold that people have the right and responsibility to seek and hear God for themselves, and to determine and respond to God’s will for their lives within the context of the Biblical values of love, faithfulness, monogamy, respect and integrity, and within a community of accountability…”
Again, on the surface, this seems to be something we can agree with. God does meet people as individuals, and each believer does have access to the same Word and the same Spirit, and each is invited to pray and be led by God. But the context and application of this statement are dangerous. The implication here is that a person’s “seeking and hearing” can be divorced from proper, biblical interpretation. They cherry-pick words like “love, faithfulness, respect, and accountability”, but they neglect to say that every believer’s interpretation of God’s will must come under the authority of His revealed Word. We can’t just go off and make up a god of our own design, or pick and choose the biblical values we like while getting rid of the ones that make us uncomfortable.
And that’s what Danforth and the other churches like them are doing, and that’s why Jason and I are headed off to a meeting in Hamilton this week. Because clear biblical interpretation and obedience to God’s word are critically important – and we only want to be associated with groups that hold to that standard.
We weren’t able to get much into John today, because of this discussion of the context and the meeting on Thursday, but we’ll get into it more next week, and then I hope to start in chapter 1 verse 1 the week after. But before I close this message I want to read a passage of scripture that perfectly summarizes the issue that we’ve been talking about today: interpretation, misinterpretation, contextualization, and pressures that preachers, and really all Christians, face when it comes to obeying God’s word. It comes from 2 Timothy 3-4.
2 Timothy is from the Apostle Paul to his protégé Timothy as Paul was sitting in a Roman prison, awaiting death. He’s writing to Timothy about persevering in the gospel and care for the churches, even in spite of great suffering from outside and within. Paul figures this may be the last message he may ever give to young Timothy and tells him to keep on fighting for the faith. Paul speaks of many who used to call themselves faithful followers of Jesus, but who have abandoned him and the gospel because of persecution and compromise.
He writes to Timothy about suffering being normal for all believers and how the only way to persevere is by God’s power. He says the only way to access God’s power is to know God’s Word and to believe the true and only Gospel of Jesus Christ. He says that the only way to know the Gospel is through the scriptures. He says that those who believe those scriptures will persevere, but those who do not will show themselves by leaving the faith. So he entreats Timothy to keep preaching, keep teaching, keep studying, and to deal with all false teaching as though it is deadly cancer that needs to be cut out or the church will die.
Even at the close of the letter, Paul asks Timothy to come and visit him one last time and to bring his books with him so Paul can keep studying and writing until the very end. The gospel, the Word of God, is constantly under attack and Paul wants to keep helping believers to rightly interpret the scriptures so they won’t believe lies and lose their connection to God.
In truth, I want to read the whole of the book, because it is one, solid argument from front to back about what we are talking about today – the importance of rightly studying God’s word – but we don’t have time. So, as I read, listen to how Paul speaks of the dangers of misinterpretation and the importance of studying so we can know the truth.
“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.
You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
That’s what I want to do, and what I want for each of you as well. I don’t want you seeking out people to tell you what you want to hear. I want you to know the truth about by that truth be set free. I want all of us to stand on the firm foundation of the Word of God, to preach and teach His Word, to be sober-minded, endure whatever suffering comes as a result of our beliefs and to fulfil the ministries and good works God has given us to do.
Imagine following in the footsteps of Moses – how huge a task that would be. Moses is probably the most important person in the Old Testament. It was through Moses that the nation of Israel was delivered from Egypt. It was Moses that led and judged the people for decades. It was Moses that climbed Mount Sinai to meet with God, and Moses who shone with the Shekinah glory, terrifying the people by his closeness to God. It through Moses that God gave Israel the Law, the Priesthood, the Tabernacle, and the Pentateuch. He wrote Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and most of Deuteronomy.
Just for a moment, turn back a page to Deuteronomy 34:10–12,
“And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the LORD sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.”
Those are big shoes to fill. Now, turn back to the first lines of the book of Joshua:
“After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, ‘Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel. Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses. From the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites to the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun shall be your territory.”
Now there’s a big job, right? It’s no understatement to say that the people of Israel are a tough group to try to lead – and now Joshua not only has to deal with the daily problems of the nation but actually lead them in countless battles to conquer the entire Promised Land.
And Joshua has seen how this goes. He’s been Moses’ right-hand man since they left Egypt. He was there as Moses ascended Mount Sinai, and he saw Israel worshipping the Golden Calf when they came down. Joshua was one of the twelve spies Moses sent to explore the Promised Land and knew how strong the armies and how fortified the cities were. He watched as the courage of Israel fell, was there as they turned on Moses and Aaron, and saw the heartbreak in Moses’ face as the people lost faith in God. He saw that over and over. God makes a promise, the people break faith almost instantly, they blame or even try to kill the leader, and the nation suffers. I can’t imagine how trepidatious he must have been when Moses laid his hands on him, telling him he would be the next leader of Israel – and how difficult it must have been to see Moses die.
Tough for Everyone
What Joshua was feeling is something that all Christians can relate to. Like Israel and Joshua, someone enters our life to tell us God’s plan of deliverance, we then experience God’s power-saving us from our slavery to sin, and then we enter a new reality where we now live in relationship with God. And in that new reality, we are sometimes like Israel – rebellious, short-sighted, faithless, foolish – but eventually, we come around to God’s plan. And we are sometimes like Joshua – blessed to have a mentor who is close to God, get commissioned for some kind of ministry, and are released to go forth to win victories in God’s name.
But all along the way, like both Israel and Joshua, even though we have experienced God’s promise and power, it often seems unnecessarily difficult. People let us down – or we let ourselves down. The enemy sends temptations and lies that we fall for. We face a challenge – or series of challenges that look so daunting that we wonder how we could ever go through them. Whether it’s the ministry God has given you, the struggles of raising a family, or just your own, individual troubles, I’m sure you know how Joshua might have felt.
And I’m sure you wonder, as I have, just as Joshua and Israel did as they stood on the edge of the Jordan looking out over land full of enemies – how am I going to get through this? Have you asked that question? That’s not a question that God is unprepared for. God knows what’s going on in your heart, just as He knew what was going on in Joshua’s. God knew Joshua needed a message of hope and strength beyond himself, and so God, in His grace, gave him the recipe for success. And I believe it’s the same recipe for us today. It’s the same recipe I’ve been introducing for the past couple weeks as we’ve been covering the ascension of Christ.
I’ve been holding off going through the actual questions of the Heidelberg because I wanted to do some introductory stuff, but I think now’s the time to bring them in because, if you’ve been following the last two sermons they’ll make a lot more sense.
So, question 46 is,
“What do you confess when you say, he ascended into heaven?”
and the answer is,
“That Christ, before the eyes of his disciples, was taken up from the earth into heaven, and that he is there for our benefit until he comes again to judge the living and the dead.”
We’ve already covered a lot of that. Jesus, in His resurrected body, ascended into Heaven in view of many witnesses, is there “for our benefit”, and will come back again.
Question 47 comes next saying,
“Is Christ, then, not with us until the end of the world, as he has promised us?”
And the answer is,
“Christ is true man and true God. With respect to his human nature he is no longer on earth, but with respect to his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit he is never absent from us.”
That’s what we covered last week, right? Jesus is in heaven, but within the mystery of the Trinity, because of the Holy Spirit, He is also with us.
Brief Excurses: The Hypostatic Union
Question 48 follows up with a technical question,
“But are the two natures in Christ not separated from each other if his human nature is not present wherever his divinity is?”
In other words, if Jesus has a human body in heaven, isn’t it impossible for him to be two places, or a million places, all at once? The answer given here is,
“Not at all, for his divinity has no limits and is present everywhere. So it must follow that his divinity is indeed beyond the human nature which he has taken on and nevertheless is within this human nature and remains personally united with it.”
If you’ve been around me for the past couple weeks you know I’ve been dropping the term “hypostatic union” into conversations lately. That’s what this is all about. “Hypostatic union” is the complex term for how theologians describe that Jesus can have two natures at the same time – fully God and fully man. It’s not that we can really understand it, but that we accept it because it’s what the scripture teaches.
Keep your thumb in Joshua, but turn with me to Hebrews 1:1-4 which begins by explaining the hypostatic union saying, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”
That term, “nature” is the Greek word HUPOSTASIS, where we get Hypostatic. Jesus, the man, has the same, exact nature as God. Jesus was born fully human, died a human death, had a bodily resurrection, and still has that resurrected, glorified body right now – the same kind of body we will get when Jesus comes back. His humanity takes nothing away from His godliness – meaning in adding flesh He never subtracted from His Godliness. And His godliness takes nothing away from His humanity – meaning that His life, temptations, pain, and death were the same as any human faces. One creed says it this way: that Jesus’ two natures are perfectly unified “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation”.Hence the term: Hypostatic Union. This is a critical part of understanding who Jesus is.
Three Benefits of Christ’s Ascension
But now we come to question 49, which is the kind of question we’ve seen all along,
“How does Christ’s ascension into heaven benefit us?”
In other words, “So what?” Ok, so Jesus ascended into heaven and a bunch of stuffy theologians come up with a weird, complex term to explain something nobody really understands. So what?
Well, the answer is what we’ve been talking about for the past few weeks. It says that the reason Jesus’ ascension is a benefit to us is that,
“First, he is our Advocate in heaven before his Father. Second, we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that he, our Head, will also take us, his members, up to himself. Third, he sends us his Spirit as a counter-pledge, by whose power we seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God, and not the things that are on earth.”
So first, it says that Jesus is our Advocate before the Father. If you recall, I’ve brought up the image of Jesus as a lawyer a few times lately. That’s what an advocate is. Jesus, as our Advocate defends us before the Judge of the universe (Romans 8:34; 1 John 2:1). If it were not for Jesus as our Advocate, we could never approach God – not even in prayer.
Listen to 1 John 2:1,
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
When you blow it as a Christian, who stands up for you? Jesus does.
Listen to Romans 8:34,
“Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”
When Satan accuses you, shames you, makes you feel guilty, and says you deserve condemnation, who supports you, advocates for you, defends you, and stands with you between Satan and God? Jesus does.
If your still in Hebrews, turn to Hebrews 4:14–16,
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
When you are afraid, tempted, weak, in need, who makes it so you can come near to the throne of God and receive the grace you need? Jesus, the Son of God. The One who can sympathize with you, who has compassion on you, because He lived a human life and faced everything you’ve faced, but can also stand before God because He is without sin. If you are a Christian today, one who has asked forgiveness for their sins in the name of Jesus, then Jesus isn’t up there judging you, angry with you, disappointed in you – He’s advocating for you.
The second benefit we’ve already covered a lot, that what happened to Jesus shows what will also happen to all those who follow Him. He died and rose again, so will we. But look at the third benefit of Christ’s ascension: That Jesus “sends us his Spirit as a counter-pledge, by whose power we seek the things that are above…”.
We’ve talked about that a lot too – that Jesus had to leave so the Helper would come (John 16:7) and what I want to close on today is how that works.
Life With/By the Spirit
If Jesus is up there advocating for us and has sent the Holy Spirit to be our Helper, how do we tap into that power? How do we get that help? How do we face all the trials and temptations and pain and battles and disappointments that are going to inevitably come – and do it in a way that we know that God is at work? How do we tap into the supernatural power and promises that God has said He would provide?
This is something I’ve been chewing on for a while now and the answer is far simpler than you might think. And the answer is to live by, or walk with, or keep in step with the Spirit of God. Now, what does that mean?
For that I want you to keep your thumb in Joshua, but turn with me to Galatians 5:16-26. It begins,
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”
There’s the problem, right? Our flesh, our sinful side, our former self, has desires that go against what God wants. Our bodies, which are still affected by sin, still have to deal with addiction, stress, fear, anxiety, depression, hunger, thirst, lust, and all the rest, and it is always pulling us in the wrong direction. Our spirits want to connect to God and live His way – to be kind, patient, self-controlled, joyful, temperate, loving – but our flesh fights against us. It wants to fulfil our desires in bad ways. Our fear fights with our faith. Our depression fights with our desire to worship. Our lusts fight with our desire for purity. Our willpower fails, we lose self-control, and we go for immediate gratification – even if it makes us sick.
So how can we win more battles than we lose? It says in verse 16, by “walking with the spirit”. That answer hasn’t changed for thousands of years. It’s the same answer that God gave Joshua. Look back at what God says to Joshua in 1:5. He was about to face a lot of enemies and was surrounded by a lot of weak, sinful, difficult people. He had his own weaknesses too.
So what was the recipe?
“No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.’”
Over and over God tells Joshua to be “strong and courageous”. In our culture that might sound like God is telling Joshua to “suck it up”, “get tough”, “try hard”, “workout”, “do it right”. But that’s not what it means. God gives Joshua lots of promises. That He will always be with Joshua, that God will secure the victories, God will make sure they get what He promised them, God will make him prosperous and successful.
But how can Joshua make sure that he gets those promises? How can he be strong enough and courageous enough to do what God is calling him to do without blowing it? By walking with, walking by, living by the Word of God. Look at verse 7,
“Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”
The promises weren’t something Joshua and Israel would gain through their obedience – they were something they would lose by their disobedience. We often get that backwards. We think that if we do good things God will reward us. That’s not how it goes. It’s the opposite. All of God’s promises are already available to His people. The Armor of God, the Fruit of the Spirit, freedom from condemnation, the peace that passes understanding, answers to prayer and spiritual and temporal blessings are all ours already because they are promised to us – and God never breaks His promises. God secured those promises in Jesus Christ. That’s what the Lord’s Supper is about. But… but… God leaves it to us to access those promises. God told Joshua to eat, sleep and breathe His word – to read the Law over and over, to meditate on it, to remember everything that God had said – or Joshua would forget and turn away.
Now, turn back to Galatians 5 and notice how similar it sounds. Joshua wants to know how to conquer the Promised Land. God says, “Walk with me. Do things my way.” We want to know how to escape the works of the flesh, the sinful desires that keep us so messed up, and be able to live by the fruit of the spirit. God says, “Walk with me. Do things my way.”
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.”
Look back at that list in verses 19-21 and take a moment to see yourself in there. I’m sure you’ve asked yourself. How do I get rid of this fleshly desire for sexual immorality? How do I rid myself of all the addictions I run to when I get worried or stressed out? How do I stop being so angry, argumentative, and bitter? How do I get rid of my penchants for superstition? How do I stop being jealous of people? You’ve been a Christian for a while, but these things still plague you. They’re almost automatic – your body seems to jump at the chance whenever it can – almost before you can even decide to. How do you deal with that?
Now, look at the list of the fruit of the Spirit. I’m sure you’ve prayed, “Lord, how do I experience real love? How do I find real peace? How can I become more patient and kind? How do I start doing good things instead of the bad things I keep doing? How do I become gentle? Where do I get some actual self-control, because my willpower just isn’t doing the trick?”
It comes by “walking by the Spirit”. What does that mean? It means the same thing it meant to Joshua. Joshua was told that the victories are already won. Just walk in and take the land. God is with you. God will fight for you. God will make sure it happens.
What did Joshua have to do? Cross the Jordan, walk with God, and remind Himself every single day that God is with Him. I’m sure there were times he said to himself “I don’t have to be terrified. I don’t have to be dismayed. The Lord my God is with me wherever I go. I don’t have to be terrified. I don’t have to be dismayed. The Lord my God is with me wherever I go.”
In the same way, Christians can say, “I don’t have to sin. I don’t have to be discouraged. I don’t have to be afraid. Christ Jesus has crucified my flesh with its passions and desires and I have new life by the Spirit. All I have to do is believe it, ask Jesus for help, and walk where He tells me to go.”
Ordinary Means of Grace
You see, it’s not about trying harder, going through a Bible in a Year program, pulling up your socks, and white-knuckling your way into becoming more patient, kind, self-controlled. It’s about reminding yourself that God has already won those victories in your life and invites you to simply take them. These promises are available – but they do not come to those who do not ask.
In Joshua 7 we see Israel blow it big-time. After the huge success of the fall of Jericho, Joshua and the people of Israel are feeling pretty confident. So confident they forget to ask God what to do next, someone breaks God’s law, and when they head off to their next battle they get utterly wrecked. Why? Because they stopped obeying God’s word and depending on God for their victory.
God was happy to give them victory – right up until they forgot about Him and started thinking that the victory was their own. Right up until someone decided to go against His word and do what they shouldn’t. Then they lost the blessing – until they dealt with the sin. That’s how it goes, and that’s how it always will go. God will give you the victory over that sin you want to kill. He will demonstrate great power in your life – but only if He gets the credit for doing it.
But let’s get practical. How do we walk in step with the Spirit? What does that look like? What did it look like for Joshua and Israel? What did it look like for Moses and Elijah? What did it look like for Peter and Paul? What did it look like for Jesus? Same answer.
Through what Christians have called the ordinary means of grace. If the question is, “How do I, as a believer, get access to all the Grace the Lord wants to give me for all the needs I have? How do I walk in step with the Spirit? How do I find Jesus every day? How do I hear His voice, find His wisdom, feel His presence, get His protection, sense His correction when I’m going wrong, and know His comfort when things are hard?”
The answer is so very simple and has been the same one forever: It is the simple, daily obedience of talking to God in prayer every day, regularly reading and sitting under the teaching of God’s word, participating in the life of the community of believers, and reminding ourselves of what God has done through the ordinances He provided.
That’s how it worked for Israel, for Jesus, for Peter, and how it works for us. Sure, there are special times when God shows up in a unique way, but God isn’t playing a game of “catch me if you can” where we have to go looking for Him. God makes Himself available everyday all day, and is interested in every part of our life, and has given us these ordinary ways to connect with Him regularly. Talking to God every day, sitting under the teaching of God’s Word regularly, participate in a community of believers, and follow the ordinances of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism.
That sounds too simple, too easy – there must be something more complicated that God wants, something that specifically targets my own sin, my own issue, my own fears – some special book or discipline or exercise – but ask yourself how easy is it really?
How hard do you find it to read God’s Word and pray every day? How hard is it to attend church once per week, 52 weeks in a row? How hard is it to fully participate in a worship service? How hard is it to commit yourself to serve in even the most simple ministry? How hard is it to fully participate in the Lord’s Supper with repentance, reverence, and celebration? How hard is it (or was it) to submit to baptism and attend someone else’s? How hard is it to have other Christians over for a meal? Or, how hard is it to ask other Christians to pray for you?
It’s actually very hard, isn’t it? Those ordinary means of grace sometimes feel almost impossible! They should be easy! There are a dozen things we do every day without even breaking a sweat. So why is reading God’s word and praying every day so hard? Why is Sunday morning such a struggle? Because the enemy knows that these simple things, prayer, studying God’s word, and being here together, are the single greatest weapon we have to defeat him.
If the enemy can get you distracted with 1000 good things – but keep you from your devos, you’re an easy target for temptation and lies. If he can get you bitter against just one person at church, and keep you from attending or being able to pay attention – you’re an easy target for temptation and lies – and then he can use you to divide the church and wreck it for everyone.
That’s why Sunday morning is such a battle, why prayer is such a battle, because the ordinary means of grace are so incredibly potent that they can dismantle the works of the enemy in our lives. They are what keep us in step with the Spirit. They are what help us bear fruit in our lives. They are what allow us to hear the voice of God. And they are the ways by which we are able to conquer sin.
My encouragement to you is to commit to these ordinary means so you can walk in the Spirit, walk with Jesus, and let Him destroy those sins and strongholds in your life.
As I said a couple weeks ago, working through all the things that Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism wants to go through takes a lot longer than just one week. In fact, we’ve done four sermons on Day 8 and it’s going to take us at least two more weeks to get on to Day 9. What we’re working on right now is a discussion of the Attributes of God, which is an understandably complex topic and makes me very thankful for my commentaries.
Actually, we’ve been learning about this topic for a while now. It all started back at the end of August when I preached a special sermon I entitled “Bible Reading, Prayer, & The Crucible” – which on my computer is actually called “DO your devos” – and was grounded in Psalm 119:9 which said, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.” That sermon was meant to inspire you to commit to reading, studying and praying through the Word of God more consistently to prepare you for what was to come.
With that groundwork set, I went on vacation for a few weeks hoping your heart would soften as you studied and prayed. When I came back, we had a few special weeks in a row. The first was a sermon about how to prepare for the Lord’s Supper through self-examination, the next was Volunteer Appreciation Sunday, and then came the Thanksgiving Sermon where we explored what it means that “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.”
I capped off that prep time with a sermon called “Greater Knowledge Leads to Greater Love”, which was about the importance Bible Study and how diligent exploration of God’s Word will deepen your love for and confidence in God.
Did you notice the bookends? In August we started with the bookend of the importance of reading your Bible devotionally and prayerfully, followed by some weeks to practice, the Lord’s Supper to get your heart right, a Thanksgiving message to inspire worship, and then the other bookend about not just reading your Bible, but studying theology to know God better. This was all done purposefully to slowly give you time to prepare for Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism.
Just four weeks ago, on October 14th, I ended that final bookend sermon by saying this:
“Next week, and for the next little while, we are going to get into a section of the Heidelberg Catechism that is going to be challenging… and I want you to be prepared for it. I will try to teach it well, but I also need you to prepare yourself for it. I need you to till up the soil of your heart and be ready to listen to whatever God chooses to sow there by praying and asking God to help you learn and understand. I need you to try to appreciate the importance of these subjects and fight against the instinct to let it gloss over you because of its technicality.”
I fear many of you didn’t take my words to heart, nor have many of you heard what I’ve been saying since August. I’m not sure why. I’m not sure what to blame for the disconnect between what I’ve been trying to teach from the Bible and the practical application I’ve been asking you to make in your life. I’m confused and frustrated that what I’ve been saying and repeating for so long has been either lost, ignored, or has missed the mark.
It’s possible that I haven’t explained it well and that the sermons were confusing or boring or poorly written and you didn’t understand what I was asking you to do. If so, I ask your forgiveness. If that’s the case, please let me know so I can try something else, or come to Overtime and ask for clarification.
My Worry: Apostasy
What I’m worried about is that there are people in this church, a church which I believe loves God and His Word very much, are growing distant from Him and don’t notice. I’ve heard reports and had discussions which have told me that many people here are not even doing the very basics of daily Bible reading and prayer. It’s not that I’m frustrated that you aren’t reading systematic theologies or books from the second century. My concern is that there are too many here who neglect prayer and rarely or literally never pick up their Bible.
I worry that you have felt the Holy Spirit convict you about reading, praying, journaling, meditating – but you have repeatedly, over and over, pretended you didn’t hear Him, kept doing what you were doing before, and are now very used to living without being fed by the Word and Spirit of God, that your knowledge has shrunk, your spirit has grown cold, and your conscience has hardened, and you hardly even notice it anymore. You are used to starving your spirit and feeding on the world. You are used to being spiritually sick and the medicine of God’s Word doesn’t taste good to you anymore.
As your pastor that concerns, frustrates, and frightens me. It makes me feel like the author of Hebrews. Turn with me to Hebrews 5:11.
Hebrews, some commentators believe isn’t so much a letter as it is a transcription of a sermon. Here, in Hebrews 5:11 we hear the preacher, right in the middle of explaining some complicated theology about Jesus, pause his whole argument to say to his listeners,
“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:11–14)
This describes some people here today and in many churches in North America. Not everyone, but some. These are people who have been Christians for a while – years – but through neglect of their souls, neglect of reading, prayer, study, meditation, have become “dull of hearing”. And I’m not just talking to the seniors or older people, I’m talking to the teens too who were born in Christian homes, have been part of a church for well over a decade, and have sat through hundreds of sermons and classes. They “ought to be teachers” by now, but don’t even know “the basic principles… of God.”
This isn’t because you went to a bad church or because you didn’t have access to good study materials. It isn’t because you live in a country where there aren’t any Bibles. It’s not because you didn’t have time to do it or because the persecution made it dangerous to be seen with a Bible or be caught praying. It’s simply neglect. It isn’t a priority for you.
The Cost of Neglect
And that neglect is causing problems. Notice what the cost is of the neglect of your soul in this passage. It says that those who are “unskilled in the word of righteousness” are immature – they remain spiritual babies. Why? They are malnourished. When you are a baby, it is appropriate for you to nurse, to be fed only by your mother’s milk. But some people, year after year, live on nothing but milk – the basic, elementary doctrines of the faith. They never eat meat, never delve into the complexities of a deeper relationship with God.
What would you say if you saw a 10 or 15-year-old boy nursing from their mother’s breast? What if you learned they had never eaten anything else? What would that child look like? Thin, sickly, malnourished. Why? Because their mother’s milk isn’t enough for them to live on anymore. The mother can’t produce enough.
In the same way, a weekly, 30-minute sermon cannot produce all that is necessary for you to have a healthy, growing, vibrant, strong faith. And if this is all the spiritual food you get, then your soul is going to be thin, sickly, and malnourished.
And there is a cost to that. Look back at the verse. A “mature” believer, as in one who is consistently feeding themselves good, complex spiritual food, has “their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
What does that mean for someone who is immature? It means their “powers of discernment”, meaning their supernatural ability to know right and wrong, truth and lie, will be unpracticed and unable to “distinguish good from evil”.
It’s not even that neglecting the Word and prayer makes you spiritually weak and therefore an easier target for temptation, but that you won’t even see the temptation coming because your judgement is so clouded, your spiritual radar so gummed up, that you aren’t even able to discern the difference between right and wrong!
Jesus Takes This Seriously
Some of you may argue with me saying that of course, you know right and wrong. Some of you will argue that do lots of good things for the church and for other people and therefore how can I say that you are in spiritual danger or are spiritually immature. Some of you will argue that you have gone through a lot lately, are facing a lot of difficulties, and that there are lots of excuses for why you aren’t reading your Bible, praying, meditating or studying.
Keep your thumb in Hebrews 5, but please turn with me over to Revelation 2. If you have a red-letter Bible, you will notice that this section is red because these are the words of Jesus to a big group of believers meeting in the city of Ephesus. Let me read them to you, starting in verse 2.
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.”
This is a good church, full of people who are patient in suffering, disciplined in their lives, working hard to be biblical in their conduct, and have shown a lot of endurance in their faith. But read verse 4,
“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”
For Jesus to “remove the lampstand” means that they would lose their status as a church and Jesus would treat them like apostates, people who only pretended to be Christians but were in fact, unbelievers. Why would He do this? Because they no longer did things out of love for God, but were just going through the motions of being a good church, and were therefore not really His people. Even though they looked good on the outside their love for Jesus was non-existent. Their private devotional life, their private prayer and study life didn’t happen, and their gathering with each other to serve and share wasn’t motivated by love. That put their church in danger of a serious judgement.
Flip over a page to Revelation 3:1 and let’s read something similar there too, written to the church in the city of Sardis.
“I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.”
Sounds similar, doesn’t it? They look alive, but they are dead. Reminds me of what Jesus said to the Jewish leaders in Matthew 23:27-28 and said,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
What makes them hypocrites? What’s wrong with their “works”? That’s a word used in both of these passages. What “works” are those? What made Ephesus’ and Sardis’ works incomplete? Think of 1 Corinthians 13. They lacked love. Their works weren’t done because of love for God or others. They were dead works that just looked spiritual.
The Danger of Apostasy
Please understand that I’m not saying this because I’m angry with you. I’m not saying this to try to make you pay better attention to my sermons. I’m preaching to myself as much as I am to you because I’ve struggled with this too. The enemy works hard to distract us away from Bible reading, study, prayer and meditation, and he’s very good at it.
What I want you to see is that even though I’ve been preaching and preparing you for months, giving you reason after reason, resource after resource, for how you can connect with God more regularly, many of you are in the same spiritual condition that you were before I said anything. Some even worse off.
Yes, as your pastor, I find that frustrating because I wonder what I did wrong or what I could have done better to convince you, but there’s another emotion that is even greater than my frustration – and it’s fear for you. I’m scared for you.
Jesus has some serious warnings in Revelation for people who say they are Christians and do Christiany things but lack personal, private, devoted time in prayer and study. There are threats and promises made by Jesus against those that pretend – and not just the loss of the ability to discern right and wrong. If you’ve lost your thirst for God’s word, you are in real trouble. Sin is crouching at your door, Satan is prowling around you and your family, ready to devour you, but you have no spiritual armour to protect yourself, your family, your church or your neighbourhood. How can a soldier who is starving and weak, untrained and undiscerning defend themselves or anyone else? But more than that! What if your refusal to obey causes you even more harm?
Turn back to Hebrews again, this time to the next part in Hebrews 6:1. Here we read about the dangers of apostasy, the danger of pretending to be a Christian but then falling away from the faith. You are worse off than if you had never known about Jesus, (2 Peter 2:20-22).
After talking about how hard it is to teach immature believers he describes the “milk”, the elementary doctrines or basic principles that all believers should have a good handle on and which he wants to move past. It says,
“Therefore, let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits.”
But listen to why it is so important to move past the “milk” and onto the “solid food”; why it is so important to do the work of personal Bible study, private prayer, and meditation. It is because those who neglect their souls, neglect growing mature in the faith, who remain babies, are in danger of being apostate.
“For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.”
This passage describes those who have heard the gospel but not accepted it, who know about the light of salvation but have never repented from the darkness, who have tasted what heaven is like by being around God’s people and tasted the Lord’s Supper but have never actually become a follower of Jesus, who have even experienced miracles and felt the presence of God by being part of a Christian community but have never invite the Holy Spirit into their lives, who have “tasted the goodness of the word of God” in preaching and applying the wisdom to their lives but only taste little bites – never consuming the whole of God’s word to make it part of them. These people, who experience the corona, who skirt the edges of faith but never repent and commit – once they hit some kind of wall – are in danger of making their hearts so hard towards God that they may instead come to hate Him.
You’ve probably met these people. Who once came to church, sounded like Christians, but now hate God, hate the church, hate Christians. Their familiarity with the faith, which was devoid of a personal relationship with Jesus, actually became the main ingredient that caused them to hate God.
That’s the danger of coming to church, listening to sermons, calling yourself a Christian, but refusing to submit to God’s call to repentance from your sin and commitment to Bible reading, study, meditation and prayer. You may think you are a Christian when in fact you are a hypocrite who is one push away from becoming an apostate that hates God. And if you don’t think that’s possible, ask that person who left the church. Or listen to the negative language you’ve mumbled under your breath or even said aloud about God and other Christians over the past while and ask yourself what that says about how far you are from walking away for good. Why? Because you have not repented when God told you to and you have not been attending to the needs of your soul. Your faith has no roots and is being slowly choked out (Mat. 13:21-22).
The passage in Hebrews gives hope though. In verse 9 the preacher says,
“Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
I feel the exact same way. I look at you and I am “sure of better things” because I have experienced your love for God and for me. I have seen the energy you put into “serving the saints”, how much patient kindness you have shown me and the people around you. And it is my “desire” for “each one of you” to turn that energy, that “earnestness”, toward your private devotional time, your daily bible reading, your prayer life, your meditation and journaling and study.
It’s not really that hard to start because you are surrounded by all kinds of help. Use the free Our Daily Bread devotional guide, read any of my books which I can give to you for free. Watch some sermons on YouTube, subscribe to a podcast that reads or studies the Bible, There are 20,000 bible studies to go through on RightNow Media. Surely one of them will do the trick! Call up one of your elders or deacons and ask them what they do for their devotional time or to meet with you and help you design a personalized quiet time. Ask them to hold you accountable by calling you every week. Create a small group in your home dedicated to learning how to read, pray and study better.
Do what you must because the consequences of not following through in this area of your life are dire.
I’m a fan of the mystery genre. I like shows and movies where the main character, or the team, has a big problem to solve and has to use problem-solving ingenuity and cool technology to try to figure out what happened. One of my favourites is when there’s a missing person that needs to be found within a certain time or something bad will happen. The gathering of clues and working the problem is interesting, but once that sense of urgency is added, it becomes so much more interesting.
When someone goes missing in these shows, it’s often up to at least one of the investigators to interview the family and friends to sift for clues in the missing person’s personality and habits in order to figure out what might have led to the situation in the first place. What was this person like? What were their habits? Who are their friends? Did they have any enemies? Were they under any special stresses? Did they meet anyone new?
Right now I’m re-reading, for the third or fourth time, the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and still loving it. Of course, he doesn’t have a team of investigators working with him when solving crimes, so he does all the interviewing himself.
Most times in the stories, the person with the problem comes into 221B Baker Street, sits down in front of the fireplace, Holmes sits back, closes his eyes and says, “Tell me what happened and spare no details.” Of course, for the sake of the story, the person usually has a very good memory of exact conversations and locations, but when they are done the great detective usually asks a few clarifying questions and says, “Ok, I’ll get back to you about this soon.” and invites the person to leave.
One of the best things about his friend Watson is his ability to stay quiet when Holmes is thinking because in a lot of the stories, Sherlock Holmes simply sits in one place – in his chair, a cab, a hotel room – and thinks. And Watson just sits there. Then, after a while, Sherlock with stand up, call Watson over, and say, “Let’s go, there’s only one thing I need to see before I know exactly what happened.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, at the beginning of the adventures says that there are three abilities that a great detective must have: The powers of observation, of deduction, and a great knowledge of past cases. Later, as he develops the character he adds two more: a good imagination and staunch determination.
I’ve actually mulled these over in my head quite a bit over the last couple years, and as I’ve been reading again. I think Doyle is absolutely right about these being necessary for a good detective, but I also think that they are also valuable for Christians who study theology.
The word Theology itself means simply, the study of God, right? To do theology is actually very much like a missing person case from those TV shows or a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Theologians, like detectives, search through the evidence around them to try to discover and understand all that they can about God – and that certainly needs the abilities to critically observe all the evidence, to be able to rightly deduce its meaning, and to have a vast and growing knowledge of history and philosophy and other studies. They need to be able to use their imaginations to put the immensity of trying to understand such eternal and sometimes paradoxical things together, and of course, the determination to keep working at it when it all seems too impossible to ever grasp.
But it’s worth it. There is something especially unique and pleasant about studying the person and the attributes of God.
The Joy of Studying God
Proverbs 9:10 says that
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”
Isaiah 26:3 says,
“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.”
Remember talking about Psalm 119:9-11 which says,
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word. With all my heart I have sought You; Do not let me wander from Your commandments. Your word I have treasured in my heart, That I may not sin against You.”?
You see the interplay between reading the Word and meeting God because even though Psalm 119 is a love song about the Bible, but it’s just as much a song about the joy of studying God, because it is through God’s Word that we encounter the person of God.
And it goes the other way too. As Psalm 14 begins, and which Romans 1 echoes and expands,
“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God.”
Part of what it means to be a Christian, part of the way we worship God, demonstrate our love for Jesus, and participate with the Holy Spirit is to try to “understand God”, to “seek after God”. What does that mean but to try to track him down? Like Sherlock Holmes following the evidence to solve the crime and discover whodunit, we follow the revelations of God to do the same – to answer questions like: Who created everything and why? What is the purpose of this world and what is my purpose as an individual? What is God like? What does He want? What does He expect of us?
That’s part of what we’re doing as we study the Heidelberg Catechism – we’re following the evidence, the apologetic, the arguments for not only whether God exists, but who He is, what He is like, and what that means for us.
It began where we must begin, with an explanation of why there is misery in our world and how that misery can be fixed. After all, mankind is nothing if not selfish and is constantly asking the question, “What do I get out of it?”. And so it starts with explaining our greatest problems and how those problems are only solved by Jesus Christ. It explains the depth of our grief and then presents Jesus as the exclusive answer.
But then it must defend that exclusivity, right? What makes Jesus special? Why Him? And what does it mean to have faith in Him alone? And once those questions are answered, presenting faith in Jesus as the only way of salvation, inviting people to become Christians, the author of the Catechism does what any investigator would do: starts digging into the specific details. In question 22 it asks, “What, then, must a Christian believe?”
As we move through the catechism the discussions become more and more specific beginning a line by line study of the Apostles Creed. It’s not enough to know the crime and whodunit. Remember, a good investigator, a good detective, a good theologian, must do more. They must observe as many details as they can, even to the minutia that no one sees. They must seek to deduce all they can about the means and motives behind what happened. They must meditate and study history so they can gain greater knowledge of how this has been seen in other areas of life. They must apply their imagination that they might try to experience what they are learning for themselves and understand it on a deeper level. And they must show the dogged determination to keep digging until there is no more gold to be mined from their study.
Studying Details Deepens Our Love
And that’s what Ursinus does in this catechism, especially in his commentary – and more-so those theologians who have come after. They dig and dig and defend and imagine and explain and apply all they can so that the Christians who are reading and listening can better discover the God they worship, the Saviour they follow, and the Spirit that abides in them.
Why though? Why do all this work? Sherlock Holmes is asked this question often too. He spends hours sifting through pieces of evidence, lays on the grass studying a footprint for what seems like far too long, speaks of the tiniest little things – like cigar ash or someone’s shoelaces – as though they are of the most immense value. And he is often mocked by other detectives for it.
That happens to a lot of theologians and studious Christians too. In fact, it happens to a lot of people that become fascinated with a subject. Perhaps you’ve had this experience. You find interest in something – doesn’t matter what it is: art, chemistry, weather patterns, history, fishing. And as you learn, you get more and more into the minutia, the details, the obscurity of the subject. But the more you learn about the details, the more they fascinate you, the more important you realize they are. But when you try to explain it, others mock or get bored.
An art student walks into a museum and looks at a painting. Everyone else sees simply a picture of a dish, or a face, or a meadow, appreciate the colours and a couple details and then walks away. But then the art student walks up and begins to become fascinated with the thickness of the paint, the intricacy of the brushstrokes, the changes of momentum and how the thickness of the paint interacts with the canvas and the light. They pull out a magnifying glass and ooh and aah over the smallest corner of the painting – and everyone around them thinks their nuts.
The average people can sit around and talk about historical events like 9-11 or D-Day or Napoleon’s conquests, but a history buff can spend hours talking about how incredibly important the invention of paper currency was. They can argue the importance of the sextant vs the astrolabe vs the compass to ancient mariners – and while everyone around them is wilting like flowers, they’re enjoying every second!
My point is that learning the minutia, the details, about something you love doesn’t get confusing or boring, it actually deepens your love for that thing. It works in relationships too. In a good marriage, the two are consistently learning more about the other. They study one another, ask the other questions about their history, their current interests, their pains and their plans. And after 20, 30, 40 years, because people are such intricate creatures, there are still surprises, still things to learn. And as that knowledge grows, so does the love. One way you can tell that someone loves you, or that you love someone, is by how many questions they ask you about yourself, or how much you want to know about them. And in the same way, one way you can tell that someone doesn’t care is using you, or has lost interest, is when they don’t ask you personal questions. Love makes a person want to know more.
So this pursuit, this study of God, isn’t just about amassing knowledge. It’s not about getting the right answers. It’s not even about being able to defend our faith when it’s attacked by doubts or unbelief. The greatest reason we study God is to deepen our love for God.
Certainly, in the study of God, we gain much. As the scriptures, we read said: we gain wisdom for life, knowledge of lofty things, a peace and security knowing God is trustworthy. We gain an appreciation for purity and righteousness and desire to do good. But more than all that, we gain a deeper, more intimate relationship with God.
Jesus, in the High Priestly Prayer He prayed before He was betrayed and arrested, began like this:
“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:2-3)
When Jesus came it was to save us from sin and death and give us a path to eternal life. We gain access to eternal life through faith and belief in Him. What must we believe? That’s question 22, right? We believe the gospel. What is the Gospel? The gospel is the knowledge of who God is and what God has done through Jesus. Which is why Jesus defines eternal life as the continuing and growing knowledge of “the only true God, and Jesus Christ”.
As God works in us to grow our knowledge of the gospel, so our faith in Him grows. As we submit to Him in prayer and study and our knowledge of who God is growing, our desire for and ability to worship grows. As we talk to Jesus and learn about Jesus, our humility and maturity and love for others grow. As we learn more about the work of the Holy Spirit within us, our peace and security and trust grow, our conscience becomes more sensitive, and we discover the purpose of our life.
And each of these new discoveries causes us to grow more in love with God. We learn to appreciate and embrace His justice, holiness, and discipline. We appreciate more and more His patience, grace, and fatherly heart. As we reflect on who He is, we see ourselves and everyone else around us for who we are – not only wretched sinners in need of grace but special works of art that were lovingly fashioned by a perfect Creator.
But this only comes if we are willing to learn. That growth only comes if we are willing to humbly admit that we don’t know everything about God, or the world, or ourselves. It means humbly coming before God’s general and specific revelations and trying to see what He wants to show us – not trying to bend it into what we want to see.
Next week, and for the next little while, we are going to get into a section of the Heidelberg Catechism that is going to be challenging – the introduction to the Trinity and the Attributes of God – and I want you to be prepared for it. I will try to teach it well, but I also need you to prepare yourself for it. I need you to till up the soil of your heart and be ready to listen to whatever God chooses to sow there by praying and asking God to help you learn and understand. I need you to try to appreciate the importance of these subjects and fight against the instinct to let it gloss over you because of its technicality. I ask you, over the next while, to cultivate within yourself those attributes of a good detective so that we can not only grow in the knowledge of God together but also grow in love for God and each other.
I’ve been doing something lately that I rarely do. I can’t actually remember when I’ve done this before. I’ve been reading books for myself. I know that sounds weird to say, but usually when I read, study, or watch something, it’s so that I can learn for the sake of my job. But lately, because of all the struggles I’ve been going through, my reading hasn’t been learning about other things, but about learning about myself. That’s lead me to a bunch of books, some given by my counsellor, others by my own research, that don’t just talk about a subject, but speak directly to me, and they have really been helping me to heal.
One of the books that I read was called “12 Faithful Men: Portraits of Courageous Endurance in Pastoral Ministry” and I absolutely ate it up. It was a series of 12 mini-biographies about a bunch of historical pastors who went through hard times and how they faced them.
I read about men like John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, who was arrested for preaching the gospel and spent almost thirteen years in prison. While he was in that prison cell he was not only writing one of the greatest books of all time, but also suffering incomprehensible spiritual attacks. He was deeply sad, angry, lonely, and afraid. But when he was told he could go free if he would stop preaching, he said, “If I were out of prison today, I would preach the gospel again tomorrow by the help of God.”
I read about Charles Simeon who, as a young man, was appointed to be pastor of a church that didn’t want him. The congregation responded by refusing to come and locking the doors of their pews so no one could sit down. Anyone who came had to sit in aisle seats that Simeon paid for himself. In response to his, the church wardens threw the seats out into the street and then stood outside heckling, threatening the people coming in. Then, when Simeon was leaving they threw rocks or eggs at him, or waited to beat him up. He stayed at that church for twelve years.
I read stories of pastors facing disappointment, heartache, racism, tragedy, depression, financial ruin, and political coercion – and when the question was inevitably asked, “How did they respond? How could they face all this and remain faithful? Why didn’t they quit?” the answer always came “They held onto the Word of God and Prayer.” And every book I’ve read so far has had that same resounding anthem.
The Perils of Youth
We’re going to take a little break from the Heidelberg this week, so please open up to Psalm 119:9–16 and let’s read it together:
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”
Psalm 119 is written as an acrostic love song to the Word of God, each section giving another reason why the Bible contains the very words of life and the neglect of it brings death. In this section, the concentration is on how a believer can live a holy life.
It begins with the question: “How can a young man keep his way pure?” The author has in mind to give wisdom to help people avoid the pitfalls and perils that come with youth, but I would argue that this section of the psalm isn’t merely for the young.
Consider what it’s like to be a young person, aged 15-25. What are the defining characteristics? There are good things and bad, right? Most youth are strong, virile, passionate, excitable, energetic, and want to try new things. Their bodies heal quickly from injury and are more flexible, growing stronger every day. They feel emotions with great intensity – when they are sad their world is destroyed, but when they are happy they are elated. When they find interest in something, it captivates their attention and they can spend hours and hours on it.
But there are also some bad things with youth, right? They are ignorant and are easily manipulated and fooled into believing lies. Their desire to try new things can lead them into dangerous, addictive, and destructive habits. Their youthful bodies make them think they are indestructible so they take greater risks, but their underdeveloped brain and lack of experience cause them to face unnecessary danger. Their passions, while a wonderful gift, can run wildly out of control, driving them to think and believe extreme things that simply aren’t true. “Everyone hates me! I’m the ugliest person ever! My parents are the worst people in the world!! Everyone is doing the same stupid, scary, dangerous thing – but I have to do it because acceptance from my peers is the only thing that matters, and I’ll literally die if I don’t get their approval!” (Not that they say it exactly like that…)
But, those thoughts aren’t only the purview of youth, are they? Be honest. Those of us who are older still struggle with those thoughts, don’t we? They may be more refined, with the sharp edges sanded off by the years, but they are the same thoughts.
We struggle with loneliness and acceptance. We want to live out our purpose and change the world, struggling to wonder if we are in the right job, the right marriage, the right city – and wondering if we should bug out and start over. We do stupid, selfish things with our money in an attempt to make ourselves feel better or to impress others. We experiment with ways to fix our feelings of guilt, shame, fear, anxiety just as much. Sure, we do it in more refined ways – with wine, medication, vacations, a false social media identity, bossing people around, quitting our jobs – but we also do it with food, pornography, and drugs. We get fooled by advertisers and become extreme in our devotion to things like sport teams, name brands, diets, and personal comfort or experiences. And each of those immature things corrupts our relationship with God and causes impurity to enter into our souls.
So, when we read, “How can a young man keep his way pure?”, let’s not assume that it’s not about us. Let’s restate it this way: “How can someone who struggles with immature thinking keep from corrupting their life?”
And the answer is: “By guarding it according to your word.” Conversely, how can a person make sure they corrupt their life? By neglecting, or forgetting, God’s word.
I wanted to take a quick break from the Heidelberg before I went on vacation because there has been a resounding theme to a lot of the conversations I’ve had with many of you, and that is the neglect of God’s Word and prayer. And I’m not talking about the normal, Christian humility where we all say, “Yeah, I could be praying more.”, but a true neglect of personal quiet times, reading God’s word and prayer.
My guess is that this is happening because of the many struggles that we are facing as a church. Over the past couple years the families in our church have been through physical and mental health issues, faced sickness and death, have struggled with hurting marriages, strained family relationships, and broken friendships. We’ve seen addiction issues, depression, and anxiety. We’ve seen financial problems and job loss. And of course, most of you know about the struggles we’re having as a church. My family has been going through a tough time, but the church as a whole is struggling too.
All of these struggles are a sort of crucible that we are going through together and as individuals. A crucible is a pot used by metal workers in order to melt their metal in a furnace. They are designed to withstand incredible heat when put into a fire so that the metal can get to the melting point. When the metals are melted in the crucible, a bunch of gunk and impurities separate from the metal and floats to the top (called dross), and it’s scraped off and discarded leaving the metal more pure. Leaving the dross in causes the metal to be weak.
How does God refine the impurities out of his people?
Proverbs 17:3 says, “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tests hearts.”
God purifies his people by giving them situations by which their faith and obedience and discipline and love are tested.
Isaiah 48:10–11 says, “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.”
God sends affliction, or trials, or troubles to His people on purpose so that by them we can see our impurities, the dross that is gunking up and weakening our metal. So we can understand the ways that we are profaning the name of God and giving glory to or trusting other people and things than Jesus.
To Jeremiah, who lived around the time of the exile, when the whole nation had become hypocrites, God said that one of his mission was:
“I have made you a tester of metals among my people, that you may know and test their ways. They are all stubbornly rebellious, going about with slanders; they are bronze and iron; all of them act corruptly. The bellows blow fiercely; the lead is consumed by the fire; in vain the refining goes on, for the wicked are not removed. Rejected silver they are called, for the LORD has rejected them.” (Jeremiah 6:27–30)
God sent waves of affliction and trouble to them, gathering them in the crucible of Jerusalem, and placing them in the furnace of affliction, but they were like a bad alloy, or a metal that was entirely dross – just a bunch of bubbling junk. At no point did their trials cause them to repent, to relent from their sin, to turn back to God.
We here are going through trials in this church for a purpose. You are personally going through tough times, but they are not without cause – they are designed by God to show you something about yourself, something about God, something about your faith.
And for many people here, one of the things that has bubbled up as dross is a lack of commitment to taking time to read God’s Word and pray – which shows that we are going to other places for comfort and hope. The furnace continues, the heat of affliction grows hotter, and – I know because I’ve talked to many of your – you feel the conviction to repent, to turn to God, to read and study his word, and to pray, but you don’t. And that refusal has caused a lot of impurities to settle in your heart.
- Fears and doubts cloud your thinking.
- Lack of sleep, the need for more and more medications to stop your racing thoughts.
- Constant anxiety or depressive thoughts.
- Obsessing over work or lack of desire to do anything.
- Out of control anger and arguing more and more with the people you love.
- You don’t feel close to God, close to the church, close to your friends. You actually avoid Christian events, people and music.
- Your worship life is gone, and you feel spiritually dry.
- You drink more, eat more, sleep more, hide more, or get busier and busier to avoid thinking.
- Maybe you’ve even gotten to the place where you consider quitting your job, moving away, quitting the church, divorcing your spouse, or even committing suicide,
Why? Because the furnace has shown your dross, the impurities that are weakening your spirit, but you haven’t repented.
Road to Emmaus
Turn with me to Luke 24:13-35 (but keep your thumb in Psalm 119). This is the story of the two disciples who meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus. This story occurs after Jesus has been crucified and rose from the dead, even after Peter and John and Joanna and the Marys saw the empty tomb. And it begins:
“That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?’ And they stood still, looking sad.”
Pause there. Jesus interrupts their conversation and asks them what they are talking about – and they can’t even speak. They just stop, stand still, and look sad. Have you ever had that moment where you are doing kinda okay, and then someone asks you just the wrong question and you stop, get that catch in your throat, the sting in the eyes, and you just can’t talk? These men loved Jesus, and the subject makes them deeply sad. Keep reading:
“Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?’ And he said to them, ‘What things?’”
Ever had that experience where someone asks you how you’re doing and you just decide to tell them? “Fine, you really want to know?!” and you just verbal diarrhea everything that’s been going wrong?
“And they said to him, ‘Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.’”
Blaarghh… right? “Well, stranger, we’ve got a lot going on right now. We don’t know what happened, why it happened, and we have no idea where it’s leading. We thought God was doing one thing and then it turned out we were wrong. The plans that we thought were set, all the hopes we had, exploded in our faces. Then a bunch of things happened we didn’t expect and people started saying things we don’t really understand.” I’m sure we’ve all been there.
So, what does Jesus do? Look at verse 25:
“And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!’”
Let me translate that to modern speak: “You dummies, don’t you read the Bible?” Then Jesus says in verse 26:
“Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’”
“You know if you read your Bible more you wouldn’t have been so surprised by any of this. If you had been in the word, listening to Jesus, listening to God, then this would make a lot more sense to you. There is zero reason for you to be hopeless and sad right now.”
And how does Jesus follow that up? How does Jesus bring these sad men comfort? Look at verse 27,
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
He did a Bible study. Why? Because the answer to: Why did this happen? What was the purpose? What is Jesus doing? Is God still in control? Where is this all going? – is all answered in the Bible! The Bible and prayer are the means by which God communicates to His people. Jesus didn’t come up with a bunch of new theories and psychological mumbo-jumbo or memorized pat answers – He went to the source of truth: God’s Word, and explained it carefully, from beginning to end.
This is my point today: Many of you are starving your souls of the Word of God and that is why you feel such fear and sadness. You don’t have answers to what is going on, and don’t have wisdom to deal with it, because you aren’t turning to the source of wisdom. The Bible is how God speaks to His people – corporately and personally, in church and in your private times. You don’t need a pastor or priest or expert to read the scriptures to you and interpret what they say. If you are a Christian, then you have the Holy Spirit of God, the presence of Jesus Himself, with you if you ask Him to be there when you are reading.
You don’t need another book, a special formula, a prayer guide, or a podcast – as helpful as those things are. You need to find a quiet place, open your Bible, read it, meditate on it, pray about what you read, and ask God to help you apply it to your life.
Look back to Psalm 119: it says,
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.”
What keeps us from sin and helps us flee temptation? Memorizing scripture.
“Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes!”
“Statutes” means “prescriptions or “boundaries” or “limits”. How can you learn the boundaries that your life is meant to run in so you don’t smash into the wall? Ask God to teach you through His Word.
“With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth.”
The word “rules” there is the word for “judgements” or “the deciding of a case”. How can you understand the ways that God sees the world, how justice works in the world, how things can look out of control but are actually following God’s rules? Through the study and reading of the word of God.
Look at the next part:
“In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”
Look at the words “delight”, “meditate”, “fix my eyes”. The NIV translates that last sentence as, “I will not neglect your word.” (NIV)
How do you find joy in sadness, hope when afraid? How do you find reservoirs of love when you seem to be all tapped out? By finding your delight in the Word of God? How do you do that? By taking time to slow down… meditate… fix your eyes… mull over… chew on… reflect on… write about… think about… talk about… pray about… the Word of God.
“But I don’t have time!” we all cry! And I say this: You must make the time. This isn’t about learning a bit more about theology so you can answer some trivia questions – this is about the sustenance of your soul. This is as important as eating and breathing, and neglecting it is what is making you soul sick and too weak to deal with the crucible God has you in.
The only way to understand the refinement God is working in you, the only way to pass through the crucible, is to get rid of the dross, to become strengthened by praying and meditating on the Word of God often and for long periods of time. There is no substitute.
Turn back to Luke 24 and look at the effect that being with Jesus and studying His word had on those two men:
“So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’ And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
First, it made them want more, so they begged Jesus to be with them.
Second, being with Jesus opened their eyes to the truth! If they would have let Him go down the road, and not begged for more time with him, they would have missed Him and still been in the dark.
Third, their hearts burned within them, meaning they were delighted, excited, impassioned, convicted, encouraged… all by the study of the word of God. That’s what private Bible reading and prayer can do. Being with Jesus makes our hearts burn within us.
And fourth, it caused their faith to grow so much that they leapt into action to spread the good news to others. They were headed from Jerusalem to Emmaus, but after talking to Jesus, “that same hour”, they ran back to Jerusalem so they could tell the other disciples what had happened.
And fifth, their story caused everyone’s faith to grow. The disciples told Simon’s story, the two men told their story, and everyone gave glory to God for the amazing things that they had experienced. From sadness and fear and confusion to joy, hope, and faith – all through the presence of Jesus and the study of His Word.
I encourage you to commit to changing your habits, cutting things out – be ruthless if you have to – and make time to be in prayer and in God’s Word. Take time to repent, to study, to pray, to seek God’s wisdom, to seek Him out about your crucible, to ask Him what dross He is getting rid of, to be thankful for His love, and to be unafraid to ask Him for what you need.
“As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” (1 Corinthians 14:33b-35)
Oh boy, have I ever been looking forward to preaching on this passage…
No one likes to be told to shut up – least of all, in my experience, women. If I tell my guy friends or my sons to “shut up” it goes a lot better than if I were to tell my wife, daughters, or female friends.
But, unfortunately, that’s a reputation that some pastors, churches and Christians have. One accusation consistently brought against the Christian church is that we are anti-female, oppressing and restricting women. And of course, horrible stories like the homeschooling parents who kept their children starving and chained to their beds, or the various reports of religious communes and cults that force women and children into servitude don’t help because they are invariably called “devout Christians” at some point by the media.   And, in our post-Christian, post-church culture, it’s natural to lump everyone who calls themselves Christian together with them. The pastors are cult leaders, the men are mysogonist pigs, the women are fools or terrorized, and the children treated no better than slaves.
I’ve heard from a few of you that some people around this area have even wondered if Beckwith Baptist Church is a cult. Long gone are the days when the small, local, Baptist church was seen as a beacon of morality. Now, the most basic Christian terms like “Christian”, “pastor”, “elder”, “deacon”, “biblical “authority”, “submission”, evoke among the culture pictures of abuse, brainwashing, and financial exploitation. People don’t know the difference between David Koresh and Jamestown, Westboro Baptist Church, or the evangelical church around the corner. Conversations with people about “going to church” or “being a Christian” these days have a lot of baggage, so it’s little wonder that some are ashamed to admit it.
And when it comes to a passage like we are looking at today, it’s even worse. Christians aren’t automatically given the benefit of the doubt to explain what it means, but instead beaten over the head with it as it’s used as confirmation bias for outsiders to spread false beliefs about what goes on here.
And within the church this is the kind of verse that people tend to avoid. They like the Gospels and Proverbs and Psalms and whatnot, even Revelation and Romans, but when it comes to this kind of verse, it’s just easier to pretend it doesn’t exist. But it doesn’t work, does it? There’s always that nagging voice inside of you that says, “What have you gotten yourself into? These people look all nice and happy now, but there’s a secret underbelly where some really bad stuff happens. These women aren’t happy, their afraid – you just don’t see it yet. These kids aren’t loved, they’re terrified to show their true feelings. These church men are all the same – they preach love and grace but secretly they are using religion to control women, harm their kids, and take people’s money. Be careful. Don’t get sucked in.”
These Christians tend to stay on the outside, never really giving themselves fully to Jesus, God, or their church, because they’re afraid they are going to be let down. They feel drawn to God, drawn to worship, drawn to Jesus. They love the message of Salvation, the idea of having a community of believers, and the practical ways that the Bible is changing their lives, but they are secretly afraid of learning too much, seeing too much, engaging too much, of finding out what Christianity is really all about.
Then a terrifying thought hits their brain: “You’re being lied to. You’re being manipulated. This church says that they’re not a cult, but that’s what all cults say isn’t it? It’s when you get into the inner circle that things start to get scary and oppressive.”
So they come to church on edge, waiting for confirmation of this little voice in their head. They start to watch the news with new eyes, seeing how much damage religion is doing around the world, and the horrible things people have done in the name of Christ. They start to remember personal stories of difficult times when they went to church as a kid, or stories their family has told, and remember that there was a lot of hurt there. Now when they attend it feels different. Now the people seem a little stranger, less trustworthy, and all the messages seem to be about judging and hating others, giving more money, and unquestioning submission to some human authority.
They usually come for a while, hoping all this isn’t true, but then, without fail, someone says or does something to confirm everything they’re thinking. A pastor commits adultery, a youth worker abuses a child, a trustee is caught stealing, a small group leader starts a fight. And their fears are confirmed so they leave angry, sad, frustrated, feeling stupid and used, vowing never to get fooled again.
They still have a hunger for God in their heart, but they keep that all to themselves now. They stay home, read the bible themselves, or start to experiment with other religions.
This story has been played out over and over in the church. Perhaps you know someone who has gone through it, or perhaps you secretly thinking some of this yourself.
So what do we do at times like this? It is my belief that everything I just described is a direct Satanic attack on the souls of people seeking God and who believe in Him. He’s a liar, a master deceiver, a manipulator who has been playing this game for a long time. So what is the solution to these sorts of lies? What are we to do when we come across a difficult passage like this that stirs up so much inside us? The only way to defeat a lie is with the truth, and so instead of avoiding these passages, we have to dig into them. We need to confront our biases and our fears and be willing to allow God’s Word to tell us what He is really saying.
So I want to do that today. I want to give us four questions to ask when it comes to these types of difficult passages so we can have a deeper faith, more trust in God, and a stronger witness to the unbelieving world.
Does this Sound like the Biblical God?
The first question I want you to ask yourself is “Does my interpretation of this passage sounds like what Jesus preached and what the rest of the Bible teaches?”
Let’s read it again,
“As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
What does that sound like to your modern ears? Based on your personal history and worldview, what does that sound like? It sounds like the Apostle Paul is telling all women everywhere to keep their mouth shut when they come to church, right? He cites God Law as his authority and in verses 37, which we didn’t read, he says, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord.” It sounds like he’s saying, “God says women in all churches for all time need to shut up. Jesus says a woman asking questions is terrible.”
Sounds close, right? But is it? Does that interpretation line up with what the rest of the Bible says? Not even close. What does the Bible say? It says God created woman as the other half of His image, a compliment and gift to man, different in many ways, but equal in dignity, worth, purpose (Gen 2). It was sin that turned men against women making them use their physical strength to oppress, subjugate and enslave them.
When God gave Israel His Law, they had come from a world full of violence, superstition, oppression, and evil. His people were to be different so He broke them away from the norm and gave them a higher set of standards that elevated the status of women and children, giving them rights and protections under the Law they never had before.
And it gets better. In the New Testament. Jesus treated women and children with so much more respect and care than the culture ever did. He didn’t see women as sexual objects, or judge them by their beauty, age, marital status or anything else. He simply saw them as genuine persons worthy of love and respect. He met with them, protected them, listened to them, taught them, and cared for them as no one else would, and then taught his followers to do the same.
I want to play a clip from a man named Todd Friel who is the host of Wretched TV and Radio. He talks a little funny, but he’s a good, Christian guy and I think this clip helps us understand something important about the Christian view of women.
I could do a whole sermon on the biblical view of women, but that’s not the point today. Does the Bible teach that men should oppress women? No. Now, does it teach that women should shut up in church?
Well, in the same letter in chapter 11 it says that women are allowed to pray and prophecy in the church. It says, “…but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head…” I won’t get back into the issue of head-coverings, but notice that there were women praying and prophesying in church. In the Old Testament we have women like Meriam and Deborah leading worship and speaking publically to the people. Psalm 68:11 (NET) says, “The Lord speaks; many, many women spread the good news…” In the New Testament we see the Prophetess Anna speaking at the temple (Luke 2:36-38), Philip the Evangelist’s four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:9), and the Apostle Peter saying at Pentecost, “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dream…” (Acts 2:17).
Clearly, from scripture, we can say that women have the same spiritual availability to not only teach, prophecy, and share God’s Word but were doing it in the Christian church right from its inception.
So if Jesus elevated the status of women, and the church has been a champion of women’s rights, and so many other places in scripture say women can speak in church, what’s going on here?
What’s the Historical Context?
That’s the second question: “What’s the historical context?”
Notice that he’s not just telling women to change their behavior, but everyone! He tells those coming to church and eating all the food to stop it (let’s be honest, that’s probably the men). He tells those who are getting drunk at church to stop it. He tells those who are flipping out like they did at the pagan temples to stop it. He tells everyone who is being noisy and disorderly to stop it. He tells those who are yelling and singing over each other to stop it. He tells the tongues speakers to limit themselves. He tells the prophets and preachers to take turns. That’s men and women.
He’s like the referees at a hockey game where a brawl has broken out. He’s blowing his whistle, separating fighters, sending some folks to the bench and others to the locker room. He’s restoring order.
And another issue he’s dealing with is that there were a specific group of women who were disrupting the church services with questions. Whether it was because they didn’t understand what was going on and wanted to learn, or they were arguing with the points the teachers were making, or something else, these women were causing trouble in the church.
We’ve talked a lot about context over the past while so I won’t bore you with a repeat, but there are two things I want you to remember: the situation with the headdresses and the problem of disorderly worship.
Remember how messed up and chaotic the church services in Corinth were. Everyone in the church was doing whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, as loudly as they wanted, right? Remember the context of 1 Corinthians 14 where Paul is talking about what it means to be orderly in church. That’s a really important part of what’s going here. Paul’s not singling out women, but listing a whole bunch of things that are going wrong in their church services. One of those things, among many, was this group of women.
It’s likely the same group of women who were being addressed in the head coverings controversy. Remember when we talked about them we saw that there were some women that were coming to church and were not only causing disturbances but were embarrassing their husbands by they causing scenes, flaunting their sexuality and independence, and were being a bad witness to the church and the rest of society. In that lesson, we talked about how one of the big issues was that these women were disobeying God by refusing to submit to the biblical teachings of complementarianism and male headship (again, something I’m not going to repeat here). That’s very, very similar to what’s going on here.
It’s not that these women weren’t allowed to pray, prophecy, speak in tongues, worship, or serve – it was that they were part of the disorderly service problem and needed specific correction. They were asking so many questions that it was causing a ruckus (just like those speaking in tongues were). Sure, they were allowed to learn, but the worship service wasn’t the time to be interrupting with a bunch of questions.
Notice as well that this is addressed to wives. That’s what gives us a clue that this is connected to the headdress and male headship issue. It’s likely that these women weren’t just politely asking too many questions, but were actually making a scene, being out of control with their words, and reflecting badly on their husbands and families. So Paul gives them the same message as before – respect your husbands enough to show some self-control and bring your spiritual concerns to them privately first.
I wonder if this also speaks to the women who refuse to talk to their husbands about anything spiritual at all, but instead keep all those conversations for their Christian girlfriends, small groups, pastors, and Christian professionals. They have so little respect for their husband’s spirituality that they leave them completely out of the conversation. They have an issue in their heart and need counsel, a question about the Bible, need some wisdom or direction, or help with some other part of life, and don’t even talk to their husbands about it, but immediately go to their pastor, small group leader, or Christian friends. What does that say about how much they value and respect their husbands opinions? That it has zero value. That’s hurtful to the marriage disrespectful to the husband. Wives, talk to your husbands first about what’s going on in your heart. Don’t leave him out of the mix.
The first question is, “Does my interpretation of this passage line up with what the rest of the Bible teaches?” and the second question is “What is the greater historical context of this difficult passage?” . So, the third and fourth questions are simply, “What does this passage mean?” and “Will I submit myself to it?”
So, what does this passage mean? It means that the Bible elevates women, not degrades them. They have equal access to God’s Holy Spirit and are invited to learn and participate in church worship services just like men, and are under the same rules to keep it orderly. But, it also means that there is a lesson there about self-control and humbly submitting to how God wants to do things. It means that you don’t get to say whatever you want to say whenever you want to say it. It means practicing patience and submission to authority. It means respecting your husband enough to include him your spiritual walk, asking his thoughts, listening to his answers, even if it makes you uncomfortable or you don’t feel like he’s up to it.
In the end, once we study this passage, and strip away our own bias, what we see here are some verses about the godly attitudes of humility and respect? Humility and respect toward God and His rules for how we live our life. Humility and respect for your church family, placing their desires above your own. And humility and toward your husband, and that’s something that, I think, everyone can understand and agree on.
I encourage you to be introspective this week about this. Have you let Jesus take control of your tongue, your pride, and the openness between you and your spouse in your marriage? Are you practicing humility and respect in these areas?
Part two of our Word Study episode. Steve’s away so Chad and Al get their nerd on with some talk about some free tools for doing Bible Word Studies.
Tools We Discussed
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