“Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:1–10)
Acts 2 tells the story of what happened on the day of Pentecost. At that time, thousands of Jewish people from all around the Roman world who had gathered in Jerusalem. The followers of Jesus had all gathered together in one room, about 120 people, and in fulfillment of the promise of Christ, the Holy Spirit came rushing in, filled each one, kicking off the next phase in God’s plan of salvation – the spreading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ around the world. The followers of Jesus began to speak in languages they previously didn’t know and everyone who heard was amazed and wondered what was going on.
Then Peter, the leader of the group, stood up and addressed the crowd with a sermon outlining what had been happening in Jerusalem, how it fulfilled the prophecies, and how it all revolved around Jesus of Nazareth, someone that they’d no doubt been hearing about. He told them of His life, false trial, lawless crucifixion, and His miraculous resurrection which could be attested to by the hundreds of witnesses standing around them. He told them that it was their sin, their rebellion, which had put the Messiah, the Lord, the Christ, on the cross. Jesus was crucified by their hands.
Acts 2:37 says this,
“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’”
In Acts 16 Paul and his partner Silas are arrested, severely beaten, placed in stocks and dropped into a prison. Here’s what scripture says happens next,
“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’”
What would your answer be to these people? Pretend you are Peter. There stands before you the very group of people that crucified Jesus. Among them are the very people that chanted, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” There stand the lawyers who kicked off the false trial, the people that spit on him as He carried His cross to Golgotha, who mocked Him while He was dying on the cross. A group of people corrupted by false teachers, full of hypocrisy, claiming to be the chosen people of God, but who despised and killed His Son, the Lord whom you love. Now they stand before you, their consciences on fire, frightened of the judgment of God, and they say to you, “What shall we do?”
Or pretend you are Paul. You’ve been working hard in ministry but almost everyone in town seems to be against you. They mock you, the crowds beat you, the city magistrates have you stripped and beaten, and you’ve just spent the evening in jail, lying naked in a pool of your own blood, your feet bound in stocks. Now, standing before you is this pagan, Roman, jailer. So far from Christian, it’s almost unfathomable. He’s been listening to you sing and talk about Jesus all night and has just had a brush with death as he contemplated suicide to escape the wrath of his masters, and now He’s worried about the wrath of this new God he’s been hearing about all night. He’s on his knees before you, terrified and confused, utterly undone. He looks up at you and says, “What must I do to be saved?”
What do you say? Maybe your temptation is to blast them. Stop being hypocrites! Stop persecuting us! Stop worshipping your own good deeds. Start listening to what we have to say! Get on your knees and kiss the dirt, thanking God he doesn’t blast you right here! And you, Roman Jailer, you pagan, your life is a total mess! You need a complete overhaul. Let me write a list for you of all the things you need to do in order to be a good Christian. First you need to clean up your life. Go to church, listen to some sermons, join a small group, start serving, and don’t forget to tithe… oh and pray and study your bible and fast and sell your belongings and stop drinking and smoking and playing cards and… and…. But that’s not right.
Paul’s answer was, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31). Peter’s answer was, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…” (Acts 2:38).
The answer to the question, “What must we do to be saved?” is a simple one. Believe Jesus is who He said He is – the friend of and saviour for sinners. Then, show that you believe in Him by admitting you are a sinner, repenting of your sin by changing your life, and be baptised in His name. It’s not that the repenting and baptizing save you. After all the thief on the cross who hung beside had no time to change his life, pay back his debts, do any good deeds, or be baptized, and yet Jesus says He’s in heaven right now (Luke 23:39-43). What saves you is faith. What shows your faith is a changed life and humbling yourself in baptism.
LD11: Why Jesus Alone?
Let’s turn to this week’s questions from the Heidelberg Catechism. If you recall, in this section of the Heidelberg we are studying the Apostles Creed and are on the second stanza, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son, our Lord…”. So question 29 is,
“Why is the Son of God called Jesus, that is, Saviour?”
The name, Jesus in Greek or “Joshua” in Hebrew, was a common name at the time and literally translates to “Yahweh Saves” or “God Saves”. Many Jews gave their children this name as a reminder to wait for God’s salvation, but in Jesus it took on new meaning. It didn’t mean “God will save us someday”, but “Here is God’s salvation!”
So the question, “Why is the Son of God called Jesus, that is, Saviour?” is answered,
“Because he saves us from all our sins, and because salvation is not to be sought or found in anyone else.”
Question 30 follows by asking,
“Do those who seek their salvation or well-being in saints, in themselves, or anywhere else, also believe in the only Saviour Jesus?”
In other words, if we put this in our modern context, is everyone who talks about Jesus, knows the name of Jesus, or claims to have faith in Jesus – but clearly puts their faith in other things as well –saved? Is someone who says they are a Christian, talks about Jesus, sings about Jesus, but also believes in praying to saints, uses magic or astrology, lives superstitiously, or trusts in their own goodness or abilities an actual, saved Christian? What about Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, and Roman Catholics who all talk about Jesus but add a whole bunch of other beliefs and requirements to the gospel. Are they saved?
The answer in the Heidelberg and I believe it is scriptural is:
“No. Though they boast of him in words, they in fact deny the only Saviour Jesus. For one of two things must be true: either Jesus is not a complete Saviour, or those who by true faith accept this Saviour must find in him all that is necessary for their salvation.”
In other words, the Jesus they talk about, cannot be the Jesus of the Bible.
This is what Paul was saying in the passage in Galatians. When he said,
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” (Gal 1:6-7)
he didn’t mean that the gospel distorters were leaving the church or had stopped calling themselves Christians. He meant that they were staying in the church as teachers, but adding things to the gospel that were nullifying it, making it a message that damns instead of saves. (Check out this article)
This is what Paul’s letter to the Galatians is all about – false teachers coming into the church and teaching that not only do people need to believe in Jesus for their salvation but that there is a list of a bunch of other things they had to do as well.
I want to show you a video that outlines the whole of Galatians so you can see Paul’s full argument here. I’m doing this for two reasons. First, I believe that this video explains this much better, more visually, and more concisely what Paul is saying in Galatians. And second, because I want to inspire you to watch the rest of these videos on RightNow Media.
I’ve talked about the importance of starting up some small groups in this church, and this might be a great series to do in your home. You can find that series when you go to the Recommended Studies section of the Beckwith Baptist Church page on RightNow Media. And, if you want to study the book of Galatians in more detail, then I recommend a new study series that has come out by Kyle Idleman. I linked to it on the Heidelberg Helps section on our RightNow media church page. It’s only 6 weeks long, the videos take only 11 minutes to watch, the discussion guides are all free, and if you’re worried you won’t know how to lead it, the leader’s guide is only $8. No excuses not to have a small group in your home.
Back to our study though.
I hope you see, from scripture and the catechism here, how seriously God takes the idea of adding anything to the gospel. There is no salvation in “Jesus and something else”. Our human nature makes us want to add a bunch of religious hoops to jump through, traditions that must be kept, and lifestyle changes that need to be made in order to be saved, but that’s not how Christianity works. That’s how cults and false religions work, but that’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) As the Apostles say, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
Our human nature, even when we are presenting the Gospel, even with the best intentions, makes us want to include a list of laws, books, and to-do lists with salvation. We want to tell people about Jesus and salvation, but also about how to clean up their lives and become good people – meaning, people like us. But that’s not the gospel. Jesus didn’t tell us to go and make versions of ourselves, turning people into little Pastor Al’s, or little you’s. He told us to tell people that salvation is a free gift from Him and to follow Jesus alone.
In the New Testament, it was the Judaizers who wanted people to add the Torah to the gospel. Then it was the Catholics who wanted to add traditions and religious superstitions. Then it was the Mormons and JW’s who wanted to add good works and strange rules and new bible books. All of these are equally wrong, offensive, and paths to hell. Why?
Because even if these people use the name of Jesus,
“Though they boast of him in words, they, in fact, deny the only Saviour Jesus. For one of two things must be true: either Jesus is not a complete Saviour or those who by true faith accept this Saviour must find in him all that is necessary for their salvation.”
In other words, they don’t believe in Jesus for salvation. They talk about Jesus but believe that his perfect life and crucifixion isn’t enough. They believe Jesus needs their help. Jesus needs their help. And Jesus refuses, God refuses, to share glory, to share worship, to share His holy temple, or the temple of your heart with someone else. To do so is blasphemy. To say Jesus’ perfect life, death on the cross, and glorious resurrection was insufficient to save, is blasphemy.
Do you remember last week when I said that believing God’s provision to be transactional only leads to pride or despair? This is the same thing. Believing that we are the ones who must save ourselves by following a list of rules will either lead to pride because we saved ourselves and therefore steal glory from God, or it will lead us to despair because we will always be worried that we haven’t done enough to earn God’s favour and will, therefore, be damned no matter what we do. That’s the message of the world religions, cults, and false Christian groups. Take pride in saving yourself, or always feel guilty, ashamed, and afraid because you’ll never be good enough for God. It’s terrible, and why Paul was so upset when he heard about it.
Let me close with this. The only way we can say we are ever right with God is because of our belief in what Jesus did for us – not because of anything we did for ourselves. All we must do is believe in Jesus as the risen Lord and we are saved. Yes, this requires seeing ourselves as sinners which leads to the desire to repent, and then to obey him by identifying ourselves as His follower through baptism and worship and joining a church and changing our lives – but none of that saves us. If we believe in Jesus, we are saved – no matter what sins we have committed, and even if we completely mess things up afterward.
That’s why 1 John 1:9 says,
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Not, if we beat ourselves up, or clean ourselves up, or do enough prayers, or read enough verses, or pay it all back, or anything else. Forgiveness comes to all those who believe in Jesus and ask for it. It’s automatic, built on the covenant He wrote, in His blood, on the cross. He did all the work.
I like something that Kyle Idleman, the guy who did the Galatians series on RightNow, said.
In Galatians… “Paul is letting the people in Galatia know that he has been down the religious road before and it doesn’t lead to freedom it leads to slavery. It doesn’t lead to transformation, it leads to frustration. It doesn’t lead to life, it leads to death. But Jesus has set him free from all of that. And what the gospel of freedom did for Paul, the gospel of freedom can do for you.” (https://www.rightnowmedia.org/Content/Series/229928?episode=Trailer)
In a few moments, we are going to have communion. We are going to come to the Lord’s Table, by His invitation, to celebrate and remember His life, death, and resurrection and His promise to save us if we would put our faith in Him alone for salvation from the consequences of your sins and the wrath of God. My encouragement to you is, as we sing the next song – maybe you don’t need to sing right now, maybe you need to pray instead while others sing – as we set up the table, as we stop for a moment, before we take the bread and cup, I want you to check your heart. Do you recognize yourself to be a sinner in need of repentance and salvation? Do you come to Jesus alone for that salvation or do you have other idols besides Him? Have you asked for and accepted forgiveness? Can you take the bread and the cup, knowing you are one of His children? Or, is there hypocrisy within you – false beliefs, other saviours that you turn to, the desire to save yourself, or secret sins that you refuse to admit or repent from? Are there people in your life you need to forgive as you’ve been forgiven, or you need to ask forgiveness from in order to be right with them and God?
You don’t need to clean yourself up to come to Jesus. You don’t need to be religious to come to Jesus. But you do need to admit yourself a sinner in need of Him as your saviour, and then get right with God in a prayer of confession. Take some time to talk to Him in song, in prayer, and in silence, before we take communion.
Last week we talked about how scary it can be to talk about our faith and some ways we can get over the fear of sharing what Jesus is doing in our life with the people around us. It essentially came down to four things: show people love before you stress about sharing the gospel with them, remember to pray and give yourself and the whole situation over to God, tell them your story and not someone else’s or a list of memorized steps and prayers, and finally, to be consistent but also patient with them and God, knowing He has it under control.
Knowing those four things takes some of the stress off the situation because it makes sharing our faith much more natural rather than forced. It’s stressful to talk to a stranger, it’s easier to talk to someone you have gotten to know. It’s stressful to have to regurgitate steps and techniques that you’ve memorized, but it’s easier when you simply tell your own story of what God has been doing in your life. It’s stressful when you think you are alone, or that all of eternity hinges on you getting this moment right, but it’s a lot easier when you know that God is with you and everything will happen in His timing.
I really appreciated Justin’s story from the video. And parts of his story line up with what I talked about and then parts of it don’t. Which isn’t surprising since everyone’s story is different, right? He had a teacher who he knew cared for him, but instead of talking to him about Jesus directly, the teacher invited this messed up drug-dealer to church – and He went! So who did the work there? God did all of it, right? The teacher was kind and gave the kid an invite, but it was God that got this rebellious teen to walk through the door of a church alone. Justin got saved his first time at church. That’s totally God, right? The teacher wasn’t even going to pray with him! He didn’t believe that God was going to save this kid on his first night at church – but He did!
And you can hear the resolve in Justin’s voice during the second part of the video, right? He feels an urgency to share his faith with the people around him. He hates the idea of people going to Hell because he hasn’t shared with them. He even feels a sense of guilt – misplaced guilt, I would say – for not sharing Jesus enough with his friend who committed suicide. It’s God who saves, not Justin, but I appreciate his passion.
But his story and his mission, though very personal for him, is also a universal one. It’s told all through scripture, and has been repeated for thousands of years. Justin was a sinner who couldn’t care less about his soul, God, Jesus or God’s people. But God was working in his heart, even when He didn’t know it. He met someone who showed him love and had the courage to invite him to a better way. God worked a miracle and gave him the choice between two roads that led either to Jesus or away from Him. He walked towards Jesus and the stirrings of his heart were explained to him by one of Jesus’ preachers. He felt compelled to renounce his sin and gave his life to Jesus by confessing not only to God, but to the one who had given him the first invitation. And now he lives his life as one with a fire in his bones that compels him to share this message with all the other people who are lost like he was.
That’s evangelism in a nutshell, and it’s the natural thing for Christians to do. The more we understand what we were saved from and who our saviour is, the stronger the compulsion to share that message.
More Forgiveness More Love
Turn with me to Luke 7:36 and let’s read it together:
“One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” [Simon was the name of the Pharisee whose house Jesus was eating at.]
“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.””
Look at what she does. She had no doubt been listening to Jesus public teaching and had been deeply moved by it, and was desperate to meet Jesus. She hears where Jesus is and drops everything to come. She runs to a place where she knows she is despised and unwelcome – to a Pharisees house. She brings something valuable to her, a very expensive alabaster jar of perfume, as an act of atonement or repentance, showing her sorrow for her sin and desire to make it right. She stands behind him, not feeling worthy to even speak a word to Jesus. She weeps. Not because she is afraid or sad, but from the grief of her sinful life, the desperation to be forgiven, and to have the destruction of her soul repaired by Jesus. One commentary I read gave a beautiful thought:
“The tears, which were quite involuntary, poured down in a flood upon [Jesus’] naked feet, as she bent down to kiss them, and deeming them rather fouled than washed by this, she hastened to wipe them off with the only towels he had, the long tresses of her own hair…”
She kisses His feet. The word here means she kissed his feet repeatedly, over and over an act of reverence, thankfulness, and humility. Jesus was her Lord, Master, Teacher, and Saviour, and she showed it publically and with great humiliation.
Contrast that with the Pharisee. Now, was Simon less of a sinner than the woman? No, of course not. His sins were just less publically known. Simon considered himself worthy of the presence of Jesus at his table – in fact, he may have even felt that he was equal to Jesus. So he didn’t even bother to show Jesus the most basic hospitality. No kindness, no greeting, no service. This woman knew she was a sinner in need of a Saviour – Simon did not.
The Pharisee was aghast that Jesus would let such a sinful person touch Him. Jesus had the reputation of being a Prophet, someone who was close to God and had a special connection to Him, someone who was holy, with special knowledge that no one else had. So Simon thought, “This guy must be a really bad prophet if he can’t even tell who this woman is. He can’t be who he says he is. He can’t be as holy or important as I thought he was. I’m a much better teacher and much more holy person than Jesus. I’d never let this woman anywhere near me!”
Jesus knew what Simon was thinking and even while the woman was still washing and anointing His feet, Jesus gets Simon’s attention and tells the parable of two people who were forgiven their debts.
He inherently knows the answer to Jesus question, right? It’s common sense. A denarii is the equivalent to the average worker’s daily wage. One person owed a year and a half’s worth of debt. So take your annual household income and add 50%. The average household income in Canada is about $76,000, so that means that the first person owed about $115,000 dollars. By contrast the other person owed about $11,000.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been forgiven a debt of any substantial size, or given a gift of something fairly expensive, but it’s a pretty amazing feeling. And, in human terms, the amount of amazing feeling you get is generally commensurate with the amount you’ve been given or forgiven. Not that I recommend playing the lottery, but think about it. Who celebrates more, the one who wins $20 off a scratch card or the one who wins the million dollar jackpot? Who feels more accomplished, the team that leads the entire season and then wins the cup, or the underdog team with the new coach, that struggled with injuries, and eeks out a second period overtime win in game 7?
In the same way, the one who knows the depth of their sins and knows they’ve been forgiven much will love much, but “he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
Are You A Sinner?
If you know you are a sinner doomed to hell by your own hand, unable to save yourself, but plucked from death and reborn anew by the amazing grace of Jesus, your love for Jesus and for God will be far more than the one who thinks they are mostly good, who believes they have earned their own place in heaven, who commands their own life, or just needs God to occasionally step in when things get a little too difficult.
In recent years, for those who still sing hymns, some churches have taken to changing the words to the great John Newton hymn, Amazing Grace, because the original version is too unpalatable. The original lyrics say, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” But, understandably, most people don’t like saying they are wretches, but they like the song, have some nostalgia for it, or like the idea of getting grace from God, so they change the words to “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved and strengthened me” or “that saved and set me free”. That’s much better, they think.
The problem with that is that we are wretches. For many years John Newton was a vile human being: A runaway, a rebel, a military deserter, and a convict. To get out of prison he begged to work on a slave ship, the vilest of positions, where his racism ran rampant and he helped to kidnap and kill people, living with complete moral abandon, working hard to tempt and seduce others to sin with him. One night there was a great storm where he thought he would die, and suddenly verses he had learned as a child sprang to mind and he begged God for forgiveness and help. God intervened and not only saved his life, but his soul. He changed his life and started to work to clean up the slave trade industry until he became so disgusted that he quit and joined the ministry. Newton took to writing hymns and poems for his church’s Thursday evening prayer service, and one of these was Amazing Grace. The guilt and shame of his former life never left him, and near the end of his life when he was getting more feeble and sick, as people kept wondering if he would retire, he would reply,
“I cannot stop. What? Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?”
John Newton knew well the wretchedness of his soul and how amazing the grace of Jesus must be that He would be willing to save him. But we have lost that these days. People today don’t like to talk about “sin that leads to death”, but instead about “brokenness that needs healing”. If they believe in an afterlife, or a sort of heaven, when you ask them if they are going when they die they will say, “I hope so. I think I’ve been a good person.”
Too many Christians don’t know if they are saved or not, because they believe that their salvation is based on how obedient or loving or good they have been, rather than on their faith in Jesus. I’m not against new music or new worship songs, but it is not good that so many have turned from singing the old hymns that said things like, “Alas! and did my Savior bleed and did my Sovereign die? Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?” “What, I’m not a worm!” we argue. “I’m a good person!”
Many will no longer sing, “I need Thee, precious Jesus, for I am full of sin; My soul is dark and guilty, My heart is dead within. I need the cleansing fountain Where I can always flee, The blood of Christ most precious, The sinner’s perfect plea.”  “I’m not full of sin, I’m a good person.” “I’m not dark and guilty, I just need a little help.” “My heart isn’t dead within me, I have lots of feelings and love.” “I’m not dirty, I don’t need a cleansing fountain.”
But that’s not how scripture teaches it. That’s not what Christians believe. God says in the Bible:
Romans 1:18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”
Romans 3:10-18, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
And some say, “That’s only talking about really bad people. That’s not me. I’m a good person.” To which God replies in Romans 3:23, “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” .1 John 1:10, “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…”
To which God replies in Romans 3:23, “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” .1 John 1:10, “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…”
1 John 1:10, “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…”
James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…”
Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…”
Turn with me again to Ephesians 2 and let’s read it together. This is a passage we have read many times, but we must never allow to stray far from our memory.
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
That is the condition of our soul were it not for the Amazing Grace of Jesus Christ. You and I are not good people in need of a little help. Our souls are not sick and in need of a doctor. We are not drowning and just need to grab onto a life preserver. Without Jesus we are walking corpses, dead in our sins, citizens of an enemy kingdom, children of disobedience, living out the passions of our flesh, selfishly doing whatever we think is best for us, under the rightful wrath of God.
Isaiah 64:6 uses four similes to describe what Gods sees when He looks at us: “We have all become like one who is unclean”, like a leper, rotting, infected, and infectious to others. “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” The words “polluted garment” can be translated “filthy rags” referring to the cloth used to soak up the blood from a woman’s menstrual cycle. People cannot do “good deeds” to gain
“We have all become like one who is unclean”, like a leper, rotting, infected, and infectious to others. “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” The words “polluted garment” can be translated “filthy rags” referring to the cloth used to soak up the blood from a woman’s menstrual cycle. People cannot do “good deeds” to gain
“All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” The words “polluted garment” can be translated “filthy rags” referring to the cloth used to soak up the blood from a woman’s menstrual cycle. People cannot do “good deeds” to gain favour with God any more than someone can bribe us by giving us a used menstrual pad. It says “We all fade like a leaf”, decayed, brittle and lifeless. And “our iniquities [meaning our sins], like the wind, take us away.” We have as much ability to save ourselves as a dead leave has against fighting a strong wind. The leaf doesn’t choose where to go, the wind does. In the same way, we don’t choose what we do, our flesh, our sin, our iniquity does.
It says “We all fade like a leaf”, decayed, brittle and lifeless. And “our iniquities [meaning our sins], like the wind, take us away.” We have as much ability to save ourselves as a dead leave has against fighting a strong wind. The leaf doesn’t choose where to go, the wind does. In the same way, we don’t choose what we do, our flesh, our sin, our iniquity does.
It is imperative we understand this. It affects your prayer life, your worship, your humility, your desperation for God’s word, and your passion for sharing your faith. The woman atJesus’s feet knew she was a sinner and wept at His feet seeking forgiveness and reconciliation with God, which she received. Justin from the video knows he is an undeserving sinner saved from Hell, and he is compelled to tell others. John Newton knew he was a pitiful wretch who was only saved by the Amazing Grace of God and he was compelled to tell others. I too, though I have known God all my life, was saved as a child, know that I am a depraved sinner who, left to himself, would sin myself into oblivion. I cannot judge anyone else as worse than me! But by the Grace of God go I. There is no bottom to my selfishness, greed, and sin – and praise God there is no bottom to His Amazing Grace found in Jesus Christ… and knowing that I am compelled to tell others.
Now keep reading in Ephesians 2:4:
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
The question is, do you know this? How much of a sinner do you think you are? Do you know the name by which you are saved? Were it not for God, how much of a sinner you would be? Do you know the One who has redeemed you and what you have been redeemed from? Do you thank God every day for His Amazing Grace to a wretch like you?
The one who knows the depth of their sin and realizes how much they have been forgiven will love Jesus more, pray more, worship more, and talk about Jesus more – they are motivated to share the love and forgiveness of God with others because they know how much they are loved and forgive. But “he who is forgiven little, loves little”, prays little, worship little, loves little, forgives little, and talks about Jesus little.
 Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
Let’s start with a quick review and then close of the section of 1 Corinthians 3 that we’ve been studying for the past few weeks.
If you recall, we’ve been looking at Paul’s threefold illustration to describe why the Christian church needs to ensure that they remain united. Remember that in this section Paul is addressing the major problem that the Corinthian church is facing, that being divisions among them. They were a divided church.
They had divided over many issues, but to make matters worse, without telling them, the church had decided to claim different teachers and apostles as the leaders of their various factions. And so Paul begins by calling them children, chastising them for their immaturity and telling them that he’s disappointed that he can’t talk to them like mature believers, but instead has to deal with a bunch of fighting.
It’s almost like the school teacher walking into the classroom, or a parent coming into the children’s room, and seeing them brawling in the middle of the floor. That’s not why they came in, and they really don’t want to deal with it. They had a whole lesson planned out, something amazing to tell them, a story to share, a wonderful new experience to give them – but now they have to give the same old lecture about why they need to get along, why fighting is bad, how they should be treating each other better, why fighting hurts their heart, etc.
They had so much more planned for them, but now they have to backtrack and talk to them like their toddlers. That’s how Paul starts chapter 3.
And so, to teach these immature believers why what they are doing is so serious, Paul uses three illustrations. His first is to liken the church to being a farmer’s field where God is the owner and everyone else is a worker. There’s no reason to elevate one over the other because it’s God who gets the glory anyway! We covered that a couple weeks ago.
Next, he likens the church to being a building that is being built by the actions of the individual believers in the church. He warns them that a day of fire (or day of trouble) is coming and that it will test what their church is made of – so they’d better make sure that their church is made of solid stuff. We talked about that last week.
Today, we read the final of this trifecta of illustrations where Paul says the church is God’s temple. This is the most poignant of the three and it comes with a threat.
You Are God’s Temple
Open up to 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 and let’s read it together:
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”
It’s really interesting the way that Paul starts this. He takes the previous illustration about the building and reveals that they’re not constructing just any building, but are, piece by piece, deed by deed, prayer by prayer, song by song, visit by visit, charity by charity, are building God’s temple!
He seems almost flabbergasted that they wouldn’t know this. “Guys! Don’t you know who you are and why it is such a huge deal that you are united under Jesus? It’s because your church, your family of believers, is the very place where God resides. Yes, as we read elsewhere, every believer is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, but at the same time, when Christians are together, they remain one, single temple. It’s an amazing concept.
He doesn’t say, “Don’t you know that you are all temples”, so you should all act like it. No, Paul changes from talking about individuals to talking to them as a collective. The “You” there is plural. He’s saying, “You are all God’s temple, collectively.”
Now, the temple, in the Old Testament, was the very location of the presence of God in the world. At the time this was written, around 54AD, the Temple in Jerusalem was still around. It would be destroyed in only 16 years. Consider what Paul was saying here – and what it meant to the people listening.
They looked around the city of Corinth and saw many, many temples. Huge, beautiful places of worship that were said to be the temporary homes of the gods. And many of the Jewish people in the church had been to see the Temple in Jerusalem, experienced the solemnness, the gravity, the power, and the presence of God in the temple. They had seen the priests walking around, had witnessed the sacrifices, and perhaps even watched as the High Priest made his procession towards the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place on earth.
And now Paul was saying that God had moved. Just as He has moved from the Garden of Eden into the Tabernacle, and from the Tabernacle into the Temple, so now God had moved again – not into another building, but into the hearts of believers. Just as the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem once housed the presence of God, so now, the temple curtain had been split, and now every believer carried the very presence of God with them everywhere they go. The Christian heart, in a very real sense, is the Holy of Holies.
Anyone Who Destroys
Which is where that really scary passage in the middle there comes from. “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.” This goes back to the temple priests who, if they did something against the temple, violating God’s rules about treating it with the utmost respect and keeping it special and holy, would be put to death. 1 Peter 2:9 says Christians are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” . In other words, every believer is given similar joys and responsibilities to what the temple priests had!
- When you visit your Christian friend, you are coming as a priest of God.
- When you share the gospel with your neighbour, you do it as an ambassador for Christ.
- When you bring a casserole over to a sick family, you are acting out your duty as a temple priest.
- When you worship in song, run the a/v, hand out bulletins, give encouragement, pray over someone, help in their garden, attend their wedding or funeral, or just shake their hand in the street, you do it as someone with the Holy Spirit inside you, a representative of God, a part of the chosen race, the royal priesthood, the holy nation.
It’s a huge deal.
Therefore, in the same way as God took seriously an Old Testament priest marring or disrespecting the physical temple, so God takes just as seriously Christians who violate the sanctity of His spiritual temple, that is, the body of believers around you.
So, to divide yourself from the church by choosing not to gather with fellow believers, or through fighting, jealousy or neglect, you risk incurring God’s wrath. To hurt a fellow believer is like profaning or blaspheming the temple of God.
How serious is this? Let’s go to another passage that works in a similar way. Matthew 6:14-15 “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15) Does not forgiving someone mean you will lose your salvation? Or, does not attending church mean you’re not going to heaven? No, because your salvation is not bound to your actions, but to your faith.
What this is talking about is your daily relationship with God, the cleaning away of the cobwebs of your soul, the retuning of your spiritual radio so that you can remove the static of sin and hear God more clearly. This is the action of daily repentance for your sins against others, and granting forgiveness for the sins they have committed against you. If you don’t do that, then you do not understand forgiveness, and God will hold back his hand of forgiveness toward you.
In the same way, someone who is not in right relationship with their brothers and sisters in Christ, won’t be able to see or hear God well, will still have a stain of guilt in their soul, will grow more bitter towards God as they grow more bitter towards others, will be a worse image of Christ for the world to see, will be walking in darker places, will be abiding in death instead of life, and will be under the judgement and discipline of God. Does that sound like a temple priest? No, because it’s a high standard.
Unity is Critical
Believers shouldn’t divide from one another. Why? Because they are God’s Field, God’s Building, and God’s Temple. Each of those illustrations is a collective one. We are meant to be together. The only bad thing on earth before the fall of man was that it was “not good for man to be alone.” (Gen 2:18) Even in the perfection of Eden, before the Fall, standing full in the presence of God, it was not good for man to be alone. Why? Because we are designed to be together.
Therefore, as individuals in the church, each of us have the responsibility to ensure that we remain united! Unity should be the number one, overriding characteristic that shows people how Jesus has changed us. Jesus says in John 13:35,
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
In fact, multiple times in scripture, it is how we treat our fellow believers that shows the condition of our heart. One of our assurances of salvation is that we have a drive to love our fellow believers, the brothers and sisters that make up our forever family.
“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” (1 John 3:14-15)
“Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.” (1 John 2:9)
“We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 John 4:19-21)
After praying for the disciples during the Last Supper, He prayed for us. And what was the central theme of that prayer: unity.
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (John 17:20-23)
How will the world know that Jesus is the Saviour, sent by God? One huge way is by how the people of the church treat one another. And Paul reveals why? Because the presence of God is no longer in a building – He’s in us. We are God’s temple, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. When people want to visit God, know forgiveness, be ushered into His presence, and be told about the message of salvation – they can come to us: the people of God’s church.
What this Means, Practically
So, what does this mean, practically? It means we live out our faith and obedience to God by loving the people of our church first. Over and over in the Bible we are told to do good, but not just to everyone, we are to begin first with the body of believers around us (Gal 6:10).
It means, of course, forgiving one another as you have been forgiven (Eph 4:32), and keeping a short account of wrongs. But it also means, as 1 Peter 4:9 says, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling”, having one another into each other’s homes – even the people you don’t know or who are difficult guests.
How about this one from Colossians 3:12-13:
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
See that? He reminds us that we are God’s chosen ones and then says that because of that, we need to be patient with one another, bearing with one another. That means when someone in the church is rude, difficult, judgemental, or anything else that annoys us, we… bear with them in love! Why? Because God bears with us all the time.
And there are so many more, but let me give one more from Hebrews 10:24-25,
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
We talked about what “the Day” means last week, right? The day Jesus comes back, and the days of trouble that will inevitably come to our life. So, how do we get ready? Stir one another up towards love and good works, encourage one another, and not neglecting to meet together.
Why? Because, to quote an old maxim, “United we stand, divided we fall.” That’s how God has set it up from the very beginning.
We are God’s Field workers, each one as valuable as the next.
We are God’s House, built by the individual actions of each person here.
And we are God’s Temple, the holiest place on earth, full of priests who proclaim salvation through Jesus alone.
How do we show it? By our unity and mutual love.
We like doing things ourselves, right? I think almost everyone here today takes pride in the skill and abilities they have, what they can accomplish, and how, for the most part, they don’t really need anyone’s help to get by. Sure – as I said last week – some of us are willing to admit our weaknesses and need for God for spiritual things, but when it comes to practical things – like home repair, cooking a meal, fixing a car, building a shed, manipulating a computer, or making clothes – we’re still pretty fond of the fact that we don’t need anyone’s help to do it.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Being a do-it-yourselfer is good. Actually, in scripture, God praises the one who learns skills and then applies them with diligence. It’s not only those who know the Bible and practice spiritual disciplines that get kudos, but God also shows His pleasure with those who work hard at growing their business, playing music, build, manufacture, teach, explore, or make art. During the building of the Tabernacle in Exodus 35, God called on all people who knew to spin yarn and linen, work metal, grow plans and herbs, carve wood, and more.
There were a couple of men in particular that God blessed to be able to do all kinds of practical things. It says,
“Then Moses said to the people of Israel, ‘See, the LORD has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver—by any sort of workman or skilled designer.” (Exo 35:24-29)
Sometimes Christians look at men and women who know lots about the Bible, or write, or are able to preach, or teach Sunday school and assume that’s what God wants all believers to try to live up to – but it’s not true. God needed a lot of skilled workers to build His temple and serve His people, and Bezalel and Oholiab were specially gifted by God to be craftsmen. And it’s the same in today’s church. We need all kinds of people in this world, this community, and this church.
If they would have said, “Since I’m just good at doing artistic stuff and am not a priest or a lawyer or a holy man, then I can’t work for God.”, they would have been disobeying God. All the time that these men spent alone in their sheds, planning, carving, pounding, moulding, and polishing – and apprenticing others how to do the same – brought glory to God and helped the worship of the entire nation of Israel.
And the priests would be sinning if they were to look at them and say, “I can’t believe you’re wasting your time banging metal together and weaving strings! You shouldn’t be an artist or hunter or shepherd or politician or soldier – you should quit all that and start doing important things!”. That would go against what God built and asked them to do.
God has given skills to some people that others will never have – because He decided they should have them to use them for His glory and the good of humanity. Many of Jesus parables aren’t based in the spiritual realm but in the practical side of life. He tells stories about farming, banking, housekeeping, construction, wine-making, baking, fishing, management, and law – and we never get a hint of Jesus disparaging or minimizing any of these occupations. It is the priest and the religious expert who get blasted by Jesus, not the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker.
Working in The Spirit’s Power
Why am I telling you this? Well, first, it’s important, but I also think it relates to our passage in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. Let’s read it and then I’ll riddle it out for you:
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
The simple message today is that there are some things in this life that God offers to partner with us on and some things that He is required to do all by Himself.
If you remember Paul’s story you will recall that Paul was a skilled guy with some of the best training the ancient world had to offer. Before he ever knew Jesus, his name was Saul, and he was already a formidable intellect, an unmatched student, and a force to reckoned with. He spoke multiple languages, had memorized huge quantities of not only scripture but also secular teachings, and was one of the most skilled lawyers in the world. He was a powerful speaker and no one could match his devotion or his resolve. He had the ferocity of a shark, the skill of a fox, the wisdom of an owl, the memory of an elephant, and the determination of a pit-bull. People feared getting on the wrong side of Saul.
When Jesus turned Saul’s world upside down, he became Paul the missionary. And did Paul still use his great powers for the sake of spreading the gospel? Sometimes, yes. He gave unparalleled speeches before great worldly counsels, brought wisdom and insight to the apostles, and figured out more theology than almost anyone ever. Even the Apostle Peter said that some things in Paul’s writings are so complicated that they require a great deal of study and effort to understand (2 Peter 3:16). He was a true genius.
And yet, if you remember the story of Corinth, when Paul came into town the first time, he wasn’t he mighty man of God we might think he was. No, he was a man at the end of his rope. Saul the powerful persecutor had become Paul the broken and persecuted. He was alone, exhausted, rejected, afraid, and perhaps even ready to quit being a missionary altogether. But God had met him in a special way, had strengthened Him, encouraged him, and told him to keep preaching.
Paul’s message to the Corinthians wouldn’t be like his message to the Athenians or the Jews, or anyone else. Instead of turning all his mental and intellectual powers towards convincing people about the truths of Jesus’ claims to be Lord, God and Saviour, he decided to keep things very simple and leave the convincing up to God.
When Paul came into Corinth, he had only been an active, traveling missionary for about 4 years, but he had learned some valuable lessons during that time. One main thing he learned was that he needed to speak to people in a way they understood. He tells the Corinthians later that
“I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law… that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law… that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” (1 Cor 9:19-23)
Paul learned the importance of contextualizing his message to his audience. Which was one reason he made the decision not to “proclaim to [the Corinthians] the testimony of God with lofty speech and wisdom”. As we’ve said before, that would have been a distraction to them.
But he had learned another lesson too: that the success of his work wasn’t dependent on his intelligence or abilities but on God’s blessing. His missionary journey had broken him down, and as he taught the Corinthians, he didn’t sound like one of the greatest teachers in the world – instead, he was weak, fearful, and even trembling. He didn’t use a lot of arguments and illustrations and human wisdom (what he calls “plausible words of wisdom”), which would have impressed them, but instead, he abandoned all of that and “decided to know nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ and him crucified”.
He didn’t talk about the idols in town and draw illustrations from them. He didn’t give them history lessons or impress them with poetry and quotes from great philosophers – which he certainly could have, and that’s how the most popular teachers spoke. Instead, he kept it simple: Jesus of Nazareth is God incarnate, and the only way of salvation. He lived a perfect life, died at the hands of sinners, and rose again to conquer death, hell and sin, and offers forgiveness to anyone who would turn from their sins, and believe that He is their Lord, God and only Savior.
I’m sure there were many discussions and many challenges, but instead of trying to impress them with his great knowledge, win them with powerful arguments, twist them in circles with his intellect, he simply talked about Jesus Christ who died on the cross to save sinners.
He left the persuasion up to the Spirit of God. If God wanted the Corinthians to become Christians… if God wanted to plant a church in this pagan town… if God wanted to turn people in this crazily sinful city into disciples of Jesus… then God would have to do it.
Paul would be obedient and preach – but He wouldn’t try to do anything else. Not only was he was too tired and broken, but he had learned that if he tried to do it in his own strength, it would blow up in his face – especially in Corinth, the seedbed of Satanic influence. If he used his own strength, then maybe they would become disciples of Paul – but not Jesus. He wanted their “faith” to “rest not in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.” And so he left the persuasion of souls up to God, by leaving any demonstration of power up to the Holy Spirit.
Working With God
And so, I say again: The message today is that there are some things in this life that God offers to partner with us on and some things that He needs to do all by Himself.
God doesn’t need us to do anything. He is perfectly capable of doing whatever He wants, but sometimes He prefers to accomplish His will through His people, so He invites us to work with Him. He gives us skills, abilities, gifts, time, energy and opportunity – and then says, “Ok, go do the thing I just set up. I’ll go with you to make sure it works.”
It’s like when your three year old wants to help you build something. You buy the pieces, do the planning, make the measurements, organize the equipment, and figure out the best time to do it – and they hold the flashlight, pound in the final nail, or get to paint a little part of it. And then later, they can tell all their friends, “See that thing over there? I built that!” Are they right? Of course not. But what does mom or dad say? “Great job! What a big help you were! Do you want to do something else together?”
I think God is like that sometimes. He does 99.99% of the work, and then says, “Ok, now, I’ll do this last part with you. Go build this thing. Finish this up. Talk to that person. Draw that picture. Make that meal. Give them that book. Fix that thing.” And it takes a bunch of our energy and effort and time, but we finally finish, and then, when something incredible happens as a result, we sit back and think, “Wow, see that over there? I did that!” Are we right? No, of course not. But what does God say? “Great job! What a big help you were! Do you want to do something else together?”
I think it’s like that when we partner with God. Christians who walk with God a long time start to realize this and more and more turn the glory back to God. They realize that it wasn’t them that did anything, but God working through them. They may have partnered with God in obedience, but it was really God who gets the glory.
That’s similar to what Paul was doing. He knew that he was supposed to preach and teach. It was his job and he was using the skillset God gave him. Just like Bezalel and Oholiab were good at arts and crafts, so Paul was good at talking. He was called and built for that purpose, and would be disobeying God if He didn’t do his job.
But He knew that whatever happened, it was God’s show. He knew that the more he depended on his own abilities and strengths, the less God would shine through Him. The more they saw of Paul, the less they would see of Jesus. And so he resolved, especially in his weakened state, to show as little of Paul, and as much of Jesus, as possible.
Things Only God Can Do
We have to realize, as Paul did, that there is nothing of eternal we can do without God, and there are a lot of things that are completely outside of our control. And, if we want God to act (to demonstrate His Spirit and His power), then we need to stop trying to do it for Him.
It would be like the three year old taking the pencil out of the adult’s hands and saying, “I’ll plan out this project.” Or taking the skill-saw away and saying, “Stand back, dad, I’ll cut this wood.” Or saying, “Get out of the kitchen. I’ll figure out how to make Thanksgiving dinner myself! Last year you made something I didn’t like, so this year I’m going to do the whole thing on my own.”
That’d be crazy, right? A toddler can’t do that. They’d get hurt, hurt someone else, ruin the project, and likely burn down the whole house. “Here, let me wash that phone for you.
“Here, use this wrench to cut that wood.” “Here, let me decorate that car for you.” A child absolutely needs to depend on the adult to get the job done right and safely.
It’s the same with us. There are things that we simply cannot do, that require a demonstration of the Spirit, and a movement of the power of God. And if we try to do them, we just mess it up! There are a lot of things that I could list, but consider these for a moment:
As much as we want to argue and convince people that we are right, we cannot change people’s hearts – only God can do that. Faith is a gift from God, not a skill we can teach. The Gospel and all its implications can be defended and explained, but it takes God changing a heart before it will be embraced.
Or pride. We cannot kill the pride within us – only God can. We can pretend to be humble, but even then we start to get prideful about how humble we are! Only God can truly humble us.
We cannot remove fear from ourselves. We can do all manner of worldly things to try to control fear or even ignore it – but we cannot remove it. Only God’s perfect love can drive out fear.
We cannot stop worrying, and we cannot take away anyone else’s worry. We can give someone money, but we can’t remove worry from their hearts. We put someone in a safe place, assure them of their security, but nothing but a miracle from God can remove their worry.
We cannot generate love for someone, or make ourselves be able to truly forgive someone. We can chose to perform loving actions, and choose to forgive, but only God can ignite a love within us so strong that it overcomes our own hatred, bitterness or selfishness.
We cannot learn to hate our sin – that requires a miracle from God. We will make excuses for our sin, say how much we need it, explain it away, or bury it in a dark place so only we can see it. Even if it makes us sick, destroys our family, hurts our body, and destroys our minds, we can’t make ourselves hate it so much that we want to be free of it. Only God can do that. Only the power of the Holy Spirit can show us how hateful sin is. Unless God does that, we – and anyone we are praying for – will stay in their sin.
Let me give you two quick applications:
First, in all you do, partner with God. Sure, we can work with our hands, serve our family, fix something, and do a million other things without even thinking about God – and the unbelieving world does that all the time – but we can also do those things in partnership with God, which makes them an act worship and gives them everlasting value. That’s why scripture says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men…” (Col 3:23), “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor 10:31) “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col 3:17) When you acknowledge the presence and the partnership of God in whatever task, it will bring a new meaning to all you do.
Second, and more importantly, realize that you are also utterly dependent on God for everything in your life. Don’t live as a “religious Christian” for spiritual things, but a “practical atheist” the rest of the time. You will not be able to see a demonstration of the Spirit’s power if you are trying to do everything yourself and fix all your own problems. You are designed to need God, therefore stop being too foolish or prideful to ask.
It’s not your job to hold it all together, to be strong for everyone, to fight the good fight alone, or pull up your own socks. The more you exercise your control, the less you are giving to God. The more you work in your own strength, the less you will get from God. The more you try to figure it out in your own wisdom, the less wisdom you will get from God. If you’re trying to calm the storm, then you’ll never turn to Jesus who can do it for you. If you’re trying to make everyone safe and secure, you’re refusing the help of the one who can actually protect you. If you’re trying to plan your future without talking to God, you are performing a hopeless task.
There’s a great line in a song from Casting Crowns that says, “I’m on the throne, stop holding on and just be held.” That’s a great line and an important truth. It’s not your job to hold on by your own power – what you need to do is acknowledge that in order to see God’s power at work in your life, you need remember that you just need to be held by Him.
We just finished going through the Gospel of Mark together, and it took 43 weeks, so for this series I want to do the opposite – I want to do four books in four weeks. Today I want to start a four-week series that I’m calling “summer shorts”, where we are going to go through four of the shortest books in the Bible, each from the New Testament: Philemon, Jude, Second John and Third John. Each of these books is less than a chapter, less than 500 words, in fact.
Now, to call them “books of the bible” is a little misleading. They’re not books, they’re letters. Each one of these letters was sent to their respective churches to address a very specific issue, and I believe that studying them will help and inspire each of us to grow in that respective area. I’m really looking forward to this mini-series and I hope you are too.
Let’s get started by looking at the letter from the Apostle Paul to Philemon – just 335 words long. Before we read it, I want to give you a little background on what is happening here.
This is a letter, written by the Paul while he was a prisoner in Rome (which we’ve talked about before), and was delivered to the same place as his letter to the Colossians. As he sat under house arrest, awaiting trial before Caesar, he wrote letters to some of the churches he visited during his missionary journeys or that had been planted by those churches. There were various motivations, but mostly it was to address issues that had cropped up in the churches – like false teachers, bad theology, church fights, etc. – after he had left.
He had various helpers around him while under house arrest, sometimes people he had brought with him to train further, sometimes people that had tagged along, and others that had sought him out. When they came, they brought him letters from the churches, financial support, and, of course, news about what was happening at the church – which all prompted the letters.
One of the letter carriers was a man named Onesimus, who had a unique story. He was originally from Colossae, but was now in Rome, and had come across Paul’s ministry – and became a Christian. Pretty soon, he and Paul became friends and ministry partners, and as they worked together, Onesimus’ story came out. It turned out that he was a runaway slave, who, in the providence of God, had actually ran away (and stole from) one of the key leaders in the church that Paul had planted in Colossae – a wealthy man named Philemon.
This complicated matters because, under Roman law, a running away and stealing from one’s master was punishable by death. Paul knew that the best thing that could happen would be for Onesimus to go back and make things right with Philemon, but who knew how he would react. Onesimus was scared that Philemon, though a good guy and a Christian, might be angry, or think that he needed to set an example of him to the rest of the people that worked in his household. But returning was the right thing to do, so Paul wrote two letters – one to the church, addressing their theological and practical issues, and one to Philemon himself, addressing the Onesimus problem.
So as we read, picture Onesimus, the runaway slave, walking towards Philemon’s house, letters in hand, then standing before his former master, holding up the letter and having him read these words:
“Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.
Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
Who Was Philemon?
Let’s talk about the main character first, so we can get an idea of what’s happening here. It says that this letter is addressed to a few people: Philemon, Apphia (who is likely Philemon’s wife), and to Archippus (who is probably Philemon’s son and a teacher in the church in Colossians.) This family was the host family for the church in Colossae. Very wealthy, very involved in the church, and very well known in the community.
Paul and Philemon are clearly friends and ministry partners. Paul calls him “beloved” or “very dear” to Him. He’s a man who loved others, had a strong faith, showed generosity and hospitality to many people in his church and community. He was a good, Christian man who shared his faith and his finances with others.
Paul opens with a prayer for his friend Philemon, one of thanks to God for him and all the good memories Paul has of the kind of man he is. Paul, sitting under arrest and awaiting a trial that might cost him his life, had a lot of things on his mind, but Philemon was such a great guy, such a helpful Christian, such a powerful influence for good to so many churches (especially in Colossae) , that he was memorable to Paul. He likely funded some of Paul’s missionary journeys as well as supporting the hurting people of the church in his city.
Paul also says that he “hears” (using the present tense) that Philemon has kept up the good work. Even after Paul moved on, and with all the difficulties of having a big home, a business, and being in ministry, Philemon has continued to be an example of faith and generosity. Verse 7 says that Paul gets much joy and comfort just by thinking about Philemon.
His love for Paul is evident, but it’s more than that. It’s because so many local Christians and missionaries abroad have been “refreshed”, encouraged, had their weight lifted, their work eased, and their hearts filled by Philemon’s generous ministry.
Do you know anyone like that? A good, generous hearted person that, when you start to think of them, you can’t help but smile? I know a few. They’re the people you don’t need to worry about offending because they’re not looking for a problem – their patient and kind. They’ve got your back. They’re the people that you can go to with a problem and you know you’ll get help without strings attached. They’re the people that, when crisis hits, they always seem to be there with an encouraging word and something to ease the struggle. They don’t have a personal agenda, they’re not trying to fix you, they’re just there, helping, loving, giving, and making you feel loved.
I remember a time, after I was going through the darkest period of my ministry, I discovered a few of these people that make me smile when I think of them. One person stands out in particular. I had recently resigned from my church with nowhere to go, after a very difficult ministry. The government was taking its sweet time in getting us our Employment Insurance, and we were at the end of our money – literally, less than a dollar in the bank. There were no prospects on the horizon and it looked like we were in trouble. It was a tough time for my family.
One day we got a call from a lady who wondered if she could come by and bring us some strawberries. She was a quiet person – someone who never popped up on anyone’s radar. I said, “of course” and she showed up at our house a short while later. She handed me the strawberries and thanked me for letting her bring them over, and then gave me an envelope. After handing me the envelope, she literally ran to her car as fast as she could. I tried to start a conversation with her, but all I could manage was a quick thank-you as she popped into her car and sped away.
We hadn’t told anyone about our financial struggles, but had agreed to trust God for our needs. I gave the strawberries to Anita, and opened the envelope – to find a very generous amount of money – exactly what our family needed until the EI came.
The word that Paul uses in verse 7 is exactly the right word – we were “refreshed.” Her action not only blew our minds, but gave us a huge amount of encouragement at exactly the right time. It showed us the generosity of God and of our fellow believers. It renewed our faith in God and revived our weary souls. It reminded us that we weren’t alone, that God supported our decision to leave, that He would take care of us, and that not all Christians are hypocrites who do more harm than good – which is how we were starting to feel. We were “refreshed.”
Do you know anyone like this? I hope you do. Are you someone like this? I know that some of you are. You are a Philemon, one who brings joy, comfort, love and refreshment to the saints around you because of your willingness to encourage people and be there to ease their burdens. It brings you joy, and brings joy to the ones you help. You show us the heart of God, often when we need to see it the most. And we smile when we think about you.
Remember Who You Are
Was Paul just buttering up Philemon because he was about to ask him something difficult? I don’t think so. It is more likely that Paul was absolutely genuine in his praise and thankfulness – but that Philemon would need a reminder of who he was. He would need a reminder that he was a good, Christian man before Paul moved on.
We all need that kind of reminder sometimes. Sometimes, when we’re feeling low, forgotten, depressed, tempted, angry, afraid, we are presented with something that goes counter to what we believe. Satan’s voice starts to get a little louder, and more seductive. “Why no do that? You deserve it. You’ve been good, so you’ve earned it. No one will know. Why not?” and sometimes, the answer we need to give is that “We’re Christians” and that means something.
We’re not Hindus or Buddhists or Islamic pagans who believe that we just need to do more bad than good. We’re not atheists or agnostics who do things out of pragmatism or self-interest. We are Christians who believe that God is good, His ways are good, His word is good, and we want to be like Him. We are Christians.
We sometimes need to remind ourselves what we believe.
- I believe that sin is wrong.
- I believe I’m not the centre of the universe.
- I believe that God has a law that is to be obeyed.
- I believe that Satan is real, is tempting me, and wants to harm me and the people I love.
- I believe that Jesus is better than anything else.
- This is what I believe and where I’m going to stand.
- I’m committed to God and He’s committed to me.
I think Paul was saying, “Listen, Philemon, I know you possess the love of God in your heart, that you love believers, and that you have a generous heart – but in a moment I’m going to test that. Remember who God has made you to be. Remember who you are.”
On one side was Philemon, on the other was Onesimus – the runaway slave who had fled his position, stolen from his master, and was standing awaiting judgement. I know we’ve all been there, on both sides of this relationship. We’ve all been the offender and the offended. We’ve all been the one who got hurt and the one who did the hurting. We’ve all been the one who took, and the one from whom it was taken. And now the two parties, not friends but master and servant, employer and employee, stand face to face. All the power is in Philemon’s hands because Onesimus has chosen to humble himself and courageously do the right thing.
What needs to happen here is forgiveness and reconciliation, but if pride sneaks in, vengeful feelings take hold, fear rules the day, or Philemon’s or Onesimus’ heart gets hard, it could go very wrong. So now, let’s see how Paul sheds the light of wisdom on this situation. This is where we really start learn from this letter:
1. Forgiveness is a Command
First, when we look at verse 8, we see that forgiveness is a command. Paul starts this part saying, “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required…”. In other words, Paul had the scriptural authority, pastoral authority, spiritual authority and apostolic authority to command Philemon to do this. That’s an important realization. Forgiving others and pursuing reconciliation in relationships isn’t optional, depending on how we or the other person feels, how long it’s been, or anything else. Forgiveness is commanded.
The clearest place we read this is the words of Jesus right after He teaches the Lord’s Prayer. He says that when we pray, we are to say:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:9-15)
Without even pausing for a breath, Jesus ties our understanding of the forgiveness we have from God to our willingness to forgive others. The implication is that we cannot say we understand how much we are forgiven, and how deep our sin debt was, if we are unwilling to forgive others. Therefore, Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush, but commands that His people forgive.
The command to forgive is something Paul had to continuously remind his churches about. To the Colossians, Philemon’s church, Paul says, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (3:13 NIV) to the Ephesians he says, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (4:32 NIV)
2. Forgiveness From the Heart is a Blessing
But! God doesn’t want us to forgive and seek reconciliation with people merely because we have to. He wants us to want to, because of our love for Him and our love for others. Paul says to Philemon, “I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you…”
Paul doesn’t want to coerce Philemon’s love for Onesimus. He wants it to be genuine love, motivated by His love for God and for all believers – which he has demonstrated over and over and over in the past. Paul wants the love to be authentic. It is so much better, so much more of a blessing to everyone around, so much richer for both parties, so much more of an act of worship to God, if the forgiveness and reconciliation of the relationship comes not only as an act of the will, but an act of the heart. Love from God, to us, that pours out onto the person that hurt us.
Paul says in verse 14 that he doesn’t want Philemon’s “goodness” (which he spoke so highly of earlier) to merely be motivated out of “compulsion” – whether compelled by obedience, or by Paul’s order, or assumed because Onesimus stayed in Rome – but done with “consent”.
The idea of loving and serving out of compulsion is an interesting point in scripture. When Paul tells the Corinthians to give to help the suffering Christians in Jerusalem he says, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7) It is better if done with love.
When Peter speaks to the elders of the church he says, “…shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you …” (2 Peter 5:2) A leader in the church should not only serve because he feels he has to, but because he wants to. Service, leadership, discipline, preaching, counselling that is motivated by love is far better than that which is motivated by obligation.
I think we all know this deep down. Which is better, the gift given out of love, or the one out of obligation?
- “Here’s your birthday gift. I had to get it because it’s your birthday.”
- “Here’s a rose. I’m supposed to get my wife flowers because I read it in a book somewhere.”
- “C’mon honey, it’s Thursday night. Let’s go to the bedroom and get this over with.”
Everything is better when motivated by love rather than obligation, right?
3. Give Mercy & Grace
Now we move to the next part. Forgiveness is commanded, but what happens after that is situational – it will change depending on the circumstances. Remember, we’re still on Philemon’s side of the ledger and there are a lot of things that he can do to Philemon. Philemon can say, “I forgive you, but the law says I can have you killed or beaten.” There were a number of things that Philemon could do if he wanted. He was well within his rights to take his “pound of flesh” (literally and figuratively), but Paul doesn’t want that.
What would make Paul, and God, happiest, would be to see amazing grace. We all know this feeling right? A person comes to us, admits they are wrong, and we know we have to forgive them – but what about after that? Now they’re on our turf! They’ve admitted they’re wrong! They’ve opened themselves up for anything! And the temptation is to strike, right? Hurt them as much as they hurt us. Make them pay. How sorry are you really? Maybe we can get them to jump through some hoops for our pleasure. Maybe we can get them to publically humiliate themselves. Maybe we can just keep this in our back pocket and jab them with it whenever we want to. After all, it’s our right! We were the offended people!
Paul points out that even though Onesimus made a lot of mistakes, has shown remarkable growth as a Christian and is truly repentant. Yes, he was once a “useless” person, no good to anyone, but now that he’s given his heart to Jesus, he’s “useful”! His repentance is genuine, his heart is right with God, he wants to be right with you, and he has demonstrated that he wants to make it right. Honour him and what God is doing in Him by NOT exacting your right to discipline him or taking what you are due. This is an appeal to grace and mercy.
We don’t have to punish before we can forgive. All over scripture we are told to treat our enemies well – how much more-so a believer who comes to us repentant and in need of forgiveness! If the person is a Christian, then Jesus was punished for that sin. We need not add to it. Let’s not answer repentance and humility with more pain, but with grace.
4. Never Assume
Verses 13 and 14 are an interesting section because they make the point that Paul didn’t want to assume that Philemon would do the right thing. Paul didn’t want to order him, nor did he want to merely assume that Philemon would forgive Onesimus. If Paul would have kept Onesimus with him in Rome, that would have been assuming. No, reconciliation had to happen face to face. It needed to come from Philemon to Onesimus.
We should never assume anything when it comes to forgiveness and reconciliation. We need to work it through. Yes, sometimes its awkward, often risky, usually emotional, and definitely challenging, but it should never be assumed that all is right with the world. I’ve really learned the lesson about dealing with things quickly, even willing to ask the embarrassing questions like, “So, are we ok? Have I done anything to offend you? Have you forgiven me?” Sure, it’s a little hard, but it’s scriptural. Jesus says,
“…if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser…” (Matthew 5:23-25)
Ephesians 4:26 says,
“…do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.”
The implication of both of these is that we need to take the time and make the effort to seek forgiveness and reconciliation, or we leave Satan the occasion to do more harm. We all know what it’s like to go through a night of uncertainty after a fight with someone. Do they still love us? Are we still friends? What happens now? Why did I say that? What can I do? Maybe it’s too late.
Dealing with it soon stops bitterness from taking hold and keeps our connection to God and others strong. So we must deal with it quickly and face to face. Onesimus had to travel 2000 kilometers to get from Rome to Colossae to be face to face with Philemon. We ought to follow his example and be willing to do the hard work of meeting with people to make sure we are forgiven and reconciled.
5. God Can Use This Too
Verses 15 and 16 are probably my favourite of the letter. They say,
“For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”
In other words God has a plan and can use this too. Even though this was a difficult situation, and even though Onesimus was wrong, God is still sovereign over all things and can use this for His glory and the benefit of His people.
He almost seems to be saying, “Maybe this was God’s plan all along. Maybe this is the only way you would be able to see Onesimus as more than your servant or slave, but able to see him as a fellow human being, a brother in the Lord. Maybe this is part of God’s plan to finally break down the walls between masters and slaves, owners and servants, upper class and lower class, and bring unity to your home, your church, and your nation. Maybe God is setting you up as an example to follow so that more people will put away their prejudice and embrace their fellow man – no matter what class they are – as brothers and sisters in Christ. God has a plan, Philemon, and this could be the beginning of something beautiful – and you’re on the forefront of it! So… don’t get in the way!”
When our hearts are soft and our grace is abundant, God can use us to do amazing things. Paul was willing to risk his friendship Philemon because he knew that God could do something much bigger, if they could get this right. That’s big picture thinking on Paul’s part, and he invites Philemon, and the rest of us, to join him in trying to see past our arguments, hurts, and relationship issues to the bigger, gospel picture. The one that shows the whole world that we are people of love, forgiveness and acceptance; and nothing does that better than when people see forgiveness and restoration among our relationships.
6. Reconciliation Means Putting Things Right
Let’s end in verses 17-20. The final part of this section of Paul’s letter to Philemon reminds us that there are still some things that need to be put right. Onesimus did steal from Philemon, after all, and that needed to be paid back.
We spent a lot of time talking about Philemon. Paul wanted Philemon to come to the Onesimus with a generous, gracious, open and loving heart. On the other side was Onesimus, who needed to come with a repentant heart, willing to pay back what he owed. Now, that was probably extremely difficult. He was a slave, therefore probably broke, especially after traveling from Rome to Colossae. The only person that had any money in this relationship was Philemon. But that doesn’t mean Onesimus didn’t need to try. The right thing to do would have been for Onesimus to have tried to pay it back, whatever that meant, because making it right, paying it back, fixing what was broke, and doing whatever it takes to repair the damage, is an important part of asking forgiveness.
“If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” (vs 18)
What Paul does here, in light of the situation, is what Jesus does for us – Paul asks to take Onesimus’ sin onto his own shoulders. Just as Jesus was the propitiation, the payment, for our sins when God charged our sins to Jesus’ account, so Paul wanted Onesimus’ theft charged to Paul’s account.
There’s a great line in vs 19 where Paul says, “I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.” It’s a great line because it reminds Philemon that he was converted to Christ, and learned about salvation through Jesus from Paul’s ministry. Therefore Philemon “owed” Paul something much greater than whatever Onesimus stole – his eternal life.
Don’t take that too far, as though Paul was saying that he was really Philemon’s saviour. No, it’s more a reminder of the thing we all need to remember when it comes to forgiveness and reconciliation: That we are all sinners, that we were all damned and headed to hell, until someone told us about Jesus and we were saved by grace. Understanding that grace, how much it cost to save us, and remembering Jesus’ death on the cross for our sake, makes the sins of others seem very small in comparison. Paul knows that it is so much easier to forgive people when we look at them in the light of eternity and with our eyes fixed on the cross of Jesus Christ and His gospel. It puts everything into perspective. That’s what Paul wanted to do with Philemon.
We end where we ought to: on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How can we forgive? Because of Jesus. How can we confront? Because of Jesus. How can we have the strength to take the long, difficult walk towards someone we need to forgive, or ask forgiveness from? Because of Jesus.
Let’s remember Philemon and Onesimus’ example, but even more, the example and love of Jesus Christ who paid the penalty for our sins so we might be reconciled to God.
5 Commitments to Prevent Divorce in Your Marriage and Promote Unity in Your Relationships (Mark 10:1-12)
“And he left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again. And again, as was his custom, he taught them. And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’ And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’” (Mark 10:1-13)
Jesus is very clear about his teaching about divorce. It happens as a result of sinful, selfish actions and hard hearts. Like too many people I’ve talked to, the Pharisee came to Jesus looking for all the loopholes in God’s law that would allow for divorce. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked that. I think I’ve been asked, “What does the Bible say about the reasons to get divorced?” more than “What does the Bible say about how to prevent divorce?” They come thinking, “Is this thing my spouse did a biblical grounds for divorce?” rather than “How can I find forgiveness, restoration, counselling and healing for this relationship now that my spouse has done this thing?” People are looking for the way out of their relationship– not the way to fix it.
And I don’t begrudge them the question. When “the D word” starts to come up in our minds, it comes from a place of great pain and hurt. No one goes into a marriage thinking they will one day get divorced. No one wants the anguish, shame and cost of divorce. But it’s happening more and more today.
We all know people, and perhaps we are this person, that can’t sleep at night because of disagreements both past and present. People with broken marriages – or who have come close – and who don’t know where to start to repair the relationship. We know people who have left churches, left home, left their jobs or schools, or even their home town, because they didn’t know how to resolve conflict. The hurt was so bad that they felt their only solution to end the pain was to leave. But that’d doesn’t solve the problem, does it? Many of us carry deep scars from unresolved hurts.
Now I don’t want to go into a diatribe against divorce or the pornified, messed up, hook-up culture around us. I also don’t want to talk about the ways that God allows for divorce, because when Jesus was asked the question He didn’t answer it with “Ok, here’s what the Law says: If your spouse cheats, or abandons you because of your faith, and a good case could be made that spousal abuse is a reason too… if they didn’t do that then you’re stuck.” No, He got to the heart of the issue… literally talking about the heart of the person asking the question. He essentially said, “The only reason that this was put into the Law at all was because you have irredeemably hard hearts. Listen, God gave you to each other so you would ‘hold fast’ [which is literally the Greek word for “glue”] and become “one flesh”, a singular person, and looking to tear apart that flesh is a terrible thing that is going to cause amazing amounts of damage. Marriage is meant to glue two people together so they do not come apart again, and looking for excuses to get divorced misses the point completely!”
Our Heart First
Today I want answer the question I get asked less: “What does it take to stay together when something bad happens in a relationship?”
The principles I’m going to share today are important for married couples, but they also apply to every other relationship we have. These aren’t “how to fix the other person” type principles or even “the steps to go through to reconcile a relationship”. What I want to talk about is how to fix our own heart first, before we even get to talking to the other person. Jesus was very concerned about the heart of the individual asking the question, so that’s where we’re going to park today.
Blowing the World’s Mind
I was listening to an Albert Mohler talk this week where he spoke about the normalization of sexual sin in the church. A secular writer in the New York Times had written that all homosexuals have to do is just wait a little while because very soon all the churches who are against homosexuality will eventually come around. His evidence is that this has happened already with divorce. Churches don’t even talk about it as a problem anymore.
When divorce was on the rise, the same thing happened as we see today with homosexuality. First, churches were shocked, then many mainline, liberal, churches and religions started to accept it. Then, as the culture began to see more and more divorces around them, more and more churches started to redefine their position on divorce. They started to reinterpret scriptures and emphasize Jesus’ “Judge not as ye be judged” removing any interpretations that were hard for divorced people to listen to. Then more and more elders, deacons, pastors, missionaries and Christian celebrities started to get divorced (just as more and more are coming out as gay).
Then, as it became normalized, churches started to talk about how important it was not to ostracize or disrespect or exclude divorced couples. Let me quote from the article by this secular writer:
“A generation ago, many Christian churches followed these biblical admonitions and would not sanction what they viewed as ‘adulterous’ second marriages. Today, in large part because of the power of changing social norms, it is no longer common for most Protestant churches to refuse to marry a woman to a man who had divorced his previous wife. And few churches would exclude or disrespect a couple because either spouse had married before.”
In other words, all the world has to do is wait for us to compromise, and we will. And we have. Divorce among Christians is normal, church splits are normal, grumpy business meetings are normal… every day the Christian church grows to be more and more like the world.
If we get this right in our church, it is going to blow people’s minds. For the world, seeing people get angry, separated, divorced, fighting, back bighting, seeking revenge, gossiping, slandering is normal. It’s how things usually go. But when they see believers respond to relationship problems with grace and forgiveness, treating enemies like friends, humbling ourselves and doing the hard work of reconciliation, it blows their minds. We show how different we really are.
None of us want to be in a church that acts like the world. We don’t want to be in a church with collapsing marriages, power struggles and worldly garbage. We’re supposed to be different – and anyone who comes to our doors should expect us to be different.
It is my hearts deepest desire that when people come into this place they will find people who are full of grace, who love Jesus and the church, who speak words of love, kindness, and encouragement. Whose eyes are filled with compassion and joy, and who are turning to Jesus and pointing others to him.
5 Commitments to Cultivate Unity
So let’s talk about the five commitments we must make in our own hearts so that we can cultivate unity in our marriages, relationships and church. (These points were taken from the book/website, “The Peacemaker” by Ken Sande)
We’ve all heard that “many hands make light work”, or “there is strength in numbers”, or “a cord of three strands is not easily broken” (Ecc. 4:12). They are all simple ways of saying that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole, and that we are stronger when we stay together. We can do more when we work together.
The same is true in marriage, friendship and in the church. The depth of our relationship increases the strength of our abilities. A committed, married couple is stronger than two friends doing the same thing. Two friends working together are stronger than two workmates. A church, united under Christ, is stronger than any group united by a simple cause.
The famous preacher Charles Spurgeon once said, “The devils are united as one man in their infamous rebellion, while we believers in Jesus are divided in our service of God, and scarcely ever work with unanimity.” Unfortunately for many Christians and churches, Spurgeon is right – including in our marriages. We aren’t working together very well.
So, how do we get to working well together as a church and with our spouses? Here are the five commitments we need to make.
Commitment 1: To love Jesus Christ above all things and sacrifice our mini-agendas for His sake.
First we need to commit ourselves to loving Jesus Christ above all things, and sacrifice our mini-agendas for his sake. What does that mean? It means that we need to realize that unity in marriage, friendship or in the church isn’t something that we do ourselves. The Bible reminds us of this over and over – that it’s God who unites us and keeps us together, through the power of Jesus and the Holy Spirt.
- When the bible talks to husbands about how to love their wives it says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” (Eph 5:25)
- When he talks to the wives he says, “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” (Col 3:18).
- To the church he says we should be “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Eph 5:21).
- In Ephesians 4:3 it says, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
- 1 Corinthians 1:10 says, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”
- In Philippians 2:2 it says, “…make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.”
In all our relationships we are encouraged to always be connected to Jesus first and then others. Our relationship with Him is the foundational relationship for all others. If we are not forgiven by Him, how can we know to forgive others? If He doesn’t show us how to love sacrificially, then how can we love others that require our sacrifice?
Christian unity originates in God: The Holy Trinity of Father Son and Spirit is always united, and invites us to be united to them. The unity we have as Christians is remarkably different from anything the world has to offer. Non-Christians rally around politics, causes, moral issues, environmental concerns, and can built their unity around a singular cause. But the Christian church is not built around a cause, it is built around a person – the Lord Jesus Christ, whose spirit inhabits all believers. And so as we commit ourselves to His name, His will, His promise, His model, His teaching, in His power, that we are able to put aside our mini-agendas.
What do I mean by mini-agendas: I mean setting aside our own desires and preferences because we see the relationship as more important. Yes, we want the dishes done, the food warm, the money situation fixed, our career to take off, the bedroom more exciting, our parenting better, the house cleaner, the toilet seat up or down, the toenail clippings and socks picked up, our in-laws dealt with, and finally get to choose the movie for once… but we set that aside for the sake of unity and because Jesus has told us to stay committed. We don’t let the bitterness take hold, and we ask God every day to help us with it.
Commitment 2: To obey the Word of God in all things.
Our second commitment that will help us maintain unity in our marriage and our church is to realize that God has given us commands and doctrines that we must be committed to. He never sacrifices the truth for the sake of a relationship, but He will always prioritizes a spirit of grace. Truth with Grace.
We commit our hearts to Jesus and our heads to the word of God. Ephesians 4:4-6 says, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Some people think that in order to avoid relationship problems, we have to avoid controversy and hard topics. They think that in order to avoid breaking up, we have to coat our conversations with little, white lies, for the sake of the other person. That’s absolutely wrong.
The Bible says that we need to know where we stand, be honest with God and one another, and then work towards an agreement about our faith, practices, theology, decisions, and everything else we need to work together. Lying causes bitterness and resentment, the truth sets us free.
Now, it’s impossible to consider a relationship, even a marriage, where everyone agrees about everything all the time. That would be amazing, but that’s not the whole point. No, what God wants us to do is be in the life-long process of growing in our knowledge of God and one another. God built differences into us, and that’s ok. It is for our benefit and growth that we bump up against, and marry, people that are very different than us. And lying to ourselves and others about who we really are sidesteps that gift.
A couple needs to be solidly united on the most important things in life: Our faith and theology about Jesus, the authority of scripture, what church we will attend together, whether they want children, where and how you plan on living… but the rest can be up for discussion and compromise. “Are we going to have a TV in the bedroom?”, “Do you put the forks in the dishwasher pointy side down or up?” or “Who makes the bed?” are not critical issues. They can be worked out – or discussed for the entirety of the marriage.
But the couple, and the church, must do the hard work of discussing the critical things in the relationship in an open, honest and Godly way. So your commitment, before you ever step into the conversation with the other person, is that you will be directed by the Word of God, honest in all you say, and gracious about everything that is non-essential.
Commitment 3: To develop Christ-like humility and submission.
Now, the third commitment we have to make before we can have unity in our marriages and church is the commitment to develop Christ-like character: especially humility and submission.
Now, I know that doesn’t sound like much fun – because it isn’t. But I’m convinced that this is where so much of what we are trying to do falls apart. There are many believers who are theologically sound and love Jesus, but they refuse to humbly submit to someone else – whether it be their spouse or a brother or sister in the church. These folks want to be right and see that their mini-agendas get moved forward.
Their pride is what keeps the relationship from being united. They are right, and they will argue with, shout down, manipulate, nag and publically embarrass the other person as much as it takes until they cave. That’s the opposite of Christ-like humility and submission. Philippians 2:3-4 says to each of us – me, the elders, deacons, servants, teachers, musicians, sound guys, husbands, wives, children: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
If we want strong marriages and a strong church then we need to be willing to put our agenda aside as less important than the other’s. A relationship where your ideas are as good as, if not better than, mine. A relationship where you want to listen first and talk second. One where you desire to hear what the other person has to say – all they have to say – because you value them. A relationship where we set aside our own wants and desires because what we want might negatively affect someone else. Even if we really, really want it – and it’s totally within our grasp – we don’t get it or do it because the other person is more important. We show up when we don’t want to because we love the other person and want to support them. Where we spend as much time thinking about the other persons needs as we do thinking of our own.
Commitment 4: To respect and pursue God given diversity.
The fourth commitment we must make is to respect and pursue God given diversity. Just as Jesus accepted us, so we are to accept others. In our marriages this means we realize that we don’t need to turn our husbands or wives into someone else, but respect and love who God created them to be. In the church this means that we love and thank God for the fact that people are different. God doesn’t want us to be the same, but He does want us to work together for the same goal.
Throughout scripture, especially the New Testament, we are reminded that God made us different on purpose. Romans 12:4-8 says it this way:
“For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”
This is certainly true in the church, but also in marriages. It’s a good thing that one is a free-spirit and the other a control-freak. It’s good that one is a spender and the other a saver, one likes action the other drama, one reads the other likes music, one emphasizes quality the other durability, one wants intimacy more often than the other, one a crier the other stoic, one an adventurer the other a homebody. Those are good things – and we need make the commitment before God that we will respect the differences in our spouse, thank God for them, and then allow God to help us become better people through them.
Diversity in marriage and in church can lead to amazing things. God purposefully puts different people together so He can better grow His kingdom. We need to experience diversity so we can see God work in new ways. It makes our lives, and our church, more interesting, more creative, and stronger.
The other side of this is that instead of envying people’s differences, we embrace our own uniqueness and thank God for it. Romans 15:7 says we need to “accept one another then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” Our mutual respect for each other brings praise to God! We don’t accept each other’s sins, but we do embrace our differences. God treats us like an orchestra – each instrument of unique individual value and beauty, but blending together under one Conductor, playing complimentary parts of one glorious composition.
Commitment 5: To NOT GIVE UP.
And finally, the fifth commitment that you have to make within yourself, before God, is that you won’t give up. That you will earnestly strive to prayerfully pursue peace, resolve your conflict, preserve the relationship, and stay stuck together like glue, no matter what. The key word is commitment.
Remember the words of the traditional marriage vows – words that people aren’t using anymore because they seem to hard-core:
“I, take you, to be my wedded wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy law, and this is my solemn vow.”
Those are words of strong commitment before God, and they represent the commitment that Jesus made to you. They almost sound like Romans 8:38-39:
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Satan is always sowing seeds of doubt, conflict, offence and division among people. He wants our joy diminished, our worship of God to be lessened, and our witness for Christ destroyed. He wants to make our lives difficult so that we won’t be able to work together against his demonic kingdom.
The best way to deal with these seeds is to be committed to being humble and gentle with one another and pursue, pursue, pursue everything it takes for peace! Forgive the little irritations, overlook minor offences, bear with those who disappoint is, and lovingly correct and deal with the sins are too serious to overlook.
As we make these commitments in our own hearts before God we will be able to say:
“Yes, we have conflict in [our marriage and] in our church – who doesn’t? But Jesus has transformed the way we deal with conflict. We discuss our differences candidly and fervently, but we refuse to let them divide us. We will not walk away from our marriages or from our friends. And we will not leave our church just because we’ve been offended or things are not going exactly as we want. Our relationships are a testimony to the reconciling power of the gospel of Christ, and we will strive with every ounce of our strength to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (From Peacemakers.net)
Let’s work together in this to honour God with our marriages, our relationships and our church.