Imagine for a moment that you are sitting at home one night when you hear a weird noise outside your door, see a bunch of flickering lights, and then moments later hear a knock on your door.
You answer it and there stands an alien family from outer space – there’s an alien mom, alien dad, and a couple of alien kids. You look at them for a moment, not being sure how to react, when one of them says, “Hi! We’re on vacation and got a little lost. We were on our way to our favourite spot but got turned around. Then we noticed your planet had its lights on so we decided to stop by. We’ve got a few days left in our vacation and think it would be great for the kids to see a planet like this. But before we head off, we have a question for you: What’s this planet like?”
How do you answer that? That’s a huge question, with a thousand answers. Do you talk about how we do food and water? How we communicate? Do you start with the national and political and religious situations they should consider? Do you start describing mountains and valleys and sunsets, or do you start with the Seven Wonders of the World? Maybe you should start with the history of the planet, it’s location in the solar system, how life came to be, and why it looks the way it does? But where should they go first? What must they definitely see on earth before they leave? What should they definitely avoid? What warning signs should they look out for and what is the best place to go to understand our global culture? If you’re a farmer you’ll probably have one answer, if you’re a geologist another. If you are a politician you’ll prioritize some things, if you’re an artist you’ll mention something completely different.
But the earth is finite, right? Technically, eventually, you could summarize and describe everything they would need to know so they had a basic understanding of planet earth and could set out on their way – but what if they asked you to describe our solar system, or our galaxy – from the atomic level all the way up to the largest formations of stars and everything in between. That would be hard, right?
But again, those things are tangible, physical, measurable. With a good enough microscope and telescope, you could theoretically take a good crack at it and eventually come up with a description of everything in the known universe.
But what about God? He is infinitely more difficult to describe? Why? Because He’s not finite, He’s infinite. He’s not bound by time, He’s eternal. He doesn’t have limits and boundaries that we can mark off because He is all-powerful, ever-present, and all-knowing. He is literally unfathomable. And yet, it is our task as believers is to try to get to know Him. As I said before, from Christ’s words in John 17:3,
“…this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Theology is the science of studying God. RC Sproul, in his book Everyone is a Theologian says this:
“Theology is inescapable. Not everybody is a professional Theologians with a capital-T, but we are all theologians with a lower-case-t because we all have some view of who God is. And so, fundamental to living and walking as a Christian is clear understanding of the truth of God.”
Regardless of what else we do in this world, our jobs, our family, our struggles and victories, it all revolves around the greatest mission in life: to know God and to know Jesus. All those things – our studies, our work, our relationships – not only teach us about ourselves and this world, but they all come back to teach us about the One who created it and for whom it was created (Col 1:15-17).
That’s what we’ve been getting at for the past couple weeks. In the catechism we are studying, we are trying to get a “clear understanding of the truth of God” so that we can wrap our minds around who He is, what He’s like, and what that means for us.
In truth, the last couple sermons and this one are the same – just broken up over the weeks. It would have been overwhelming to try to answer everything that Day 8 wants me to cover. In Day 8, which covers questions 24 and 25 of the catechism, it is traditional to explain not only the answers to the questions but to give an outline of how we know there is a God in the first place and then spend time describing His most obvious attributes.
Over the past couple weeks I gave a quick review, discussed the first attribute of God found in the doctrine of the Trinity, and then I told you that we would move into talking about more of those attributes. So that’s what I want to do today. As I said about trying to describe earth to those alien vacationers, it’s an impossible task to complete, but there are many things that we can do to get a good start.
God Wants to Be Known
And a good place to start is that God is a person who wants to be known.
Sometimes people say that God is unknowable, too mysterious, too impossible to understand, and therefore they either give up trying or construct a version of Him that is easier for them to comprehend. In fact, I just used the word “unfathomable” to describe Him. But to be “unfathomable” doesn’t mean that we can know nothing about Him, it means we cannot know everything about Him. And, in fact, because of the limited capacity of our language, even the words we use to describe Him will fall short, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. Yes, God is invisible and infinitely complicated, but on the other hand, God is a clearly a person who wants to be known, who has chosen to reveal Himself and has demonstrated a desire to be known in a lot of different ways. Today we’re going to talk about the most general ways.
General Revelation: Creation
First, He makes Himself known in Creation. Romans 1:19–20 when speaking of those who refuse to believe in God it says,
“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”
Psalm 19:1–2 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”
Psalm 8:3-4 says, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”
The point here is that creation itself declares that there is a God. Theologians call this “General Revelation” as opposed to “Special Revelation” because it’s not specific. Examples of special revelation are things like the Bible, prophecies, miracles, the person of Jesus – but the world around us, the wonders and power of creation, is an example of “General Revelation”. No one can come to a saving knowledge of Jesus through “General Revelation”, but through it, they can understand some of the big concepts like God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature”. Meaning that everyone on earth, at some point in their life, looks at the world around them, the beauty, complexity, design, and usefulness and thinks, “Wow, there is something beyond me. Something self-existent that was before me, before everything, something beyond me that has the wisdom and power to create all of this.”
General Revelation: Conscience
But that isn’t the only source of General revelation. Coupled with the revelation of God in Creation is Him revealing Himself in our Conscience.
Let me read Romans 2:12-16 which speaks of how all mankind, not only those who have read the Bible, have fallen under the judgment of God. It says,
“For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”
The second General Revelation of the existence of God is that everyone on earth has a human conscience. Yes, this conscience is flawed and imperfect, but it is also universal. Thomas Aquinas called this the Natural Law. What it is is an argument that if there is a universal, objective, moral law to which all humanity agrees, then there must be a Universal Law Giver. There can only be an up and a down, a right and a wrong, if there is some sort of reference point. And that reference point cannot be something we all coincidentally just came up with. We cannot have the belief that this world is all about the “survival of the fittest” alongside the internal, universal moral imperative not to murder. Yet everywhere, regardless of religion, history, or culture agrees that murder is wrong.
I heard a quote this week that said:
“For the atheist, humans are just accidents of nature; highly evolved animals. But animals have no moral obligations to one another. When a cat kills a mouse it hasn’t done anything morally wrong. The cat is just being a cat. If God doesn’t exist, we should view human behaviour in the same way. No action should be considered morally right or wrong. But the problem is that good and bad, right and wrong, do exist. Just as our sense experience convinces us that the physical world is objectively real, our moral experience convinces us that moral values are objectively real. Every time you say, ‘That’s not fair. That’s wrong. That’s an injustice.’ You affirm your belief in the existence of objective morals.” In other words, the person who says that murder, terrorism, and child abuse is morally right is just as mistaken as the person who says that 2+2=5. (The Theology Forum)
Everyone that has ever existed, if they have the capacity for self-examination and self-awareness, has a moment when they see a glimpse of God’s divinity in Creation. It’s universal. Also, every human being has a moment when they realize that their thoughts, actions, and motives are somehow conflicting with what they know is right. Their moral behaviour doesn’t line up with their moral understanding. They inherently know something is right or wrong, not because that thought was written in some book or because their parents said so, but because something greater, something within them has said it was right or wrong. Then they do the opposite, breaking their conscience, creating within themselves guilt and shame.
Every human being has to deal with those two general revelations – and then they must do something about it. They see the vastness of space, the beauty of a sunset, the power of a storm, the birth of a baby and it triggers something primal in their soul. At the same time, they realize that there is something in them that compels them and everyone else, every society on earth, towards and away from certain behaviours. Somehow, even in secret where no one can see them, in their heart of hearts, they feel pride when they do good and guilt when they do wrong.
At that moment they are faced with a choice to either explore those feelings, those revelations, those divine moments. They are given the invitation to seek after that power, try to discover more about it, to find that moral lawgiver – or repress that thought, ignore it ever happened, deny that guilty feeling and repress it until it goes away, to refuse to believe that there is any being above themselves or any morality that should stop them from achieving their own desires.
That is a universal, human experience, and it is what Romans 1 and 2 are all about. In the words of one commentary I have, it says,
“From creation we can learn in general, that there is a God, and that He is omnipotent and all-wise; from conscience, that there is a holy and just God, who hates and punishes evil.” (Thelemann, O. An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. p. 86)
We just went through an election in Carleton Place and we were inundated with road signs with candidates’ names on them and pamphlets in the mail with pictures and slogans. Creation and Conscience are sort of like God’s signs, God’s calling cards, His invitations to know Him more. But what we cannot do is deny we have seen the invitation.
No human being will stand before God and say, “I never knew there was a being above me. I never knew the difference between right and wrong. I never felt that there was power or wisdom beyond myself.” Everyone will stand before God and say, “Yes, I knew in my heart that there was some kind of eternal power and divine nature beyond myself. I perceived it in creation. And I knew that throughout my life I was given the choice between right and wrong and I chose wrong time and again. I stand self-condemned. I chose to deny you, chose not to seek you, and chose to darken my heart so I could choose wrong, against my conscience, so I could have material things. I exchanged the pursuit of God for a lie of my own preference.”
Conclusion: The Virtuous Pagan
The bad news about General Revelation is that it only has the power to condemn humanity. Turn with me to Romans 1:18–25 and let’s read the expanded section of what we’ve been studying. It says,
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
The question often comes to Christians: What about the person who has never heard Gospel, never read the Bible, never heard about Jesus? What about the innocent person who grew up in a far-flung country that has never been visited by missionaries or whose tribe wouldn’t let them in? Surely God wouldn’t hold that against them? How could a good and loving God condemn someone to Hell just because they’ve never heard of Him? That’s unfair! This is often called the problem of the “Virtuous Pagan”.
This argument has even been used to say that it is actually cruel of Christians to send missionaries because perhaps God would have saved that person if they had never heard of Jesus. What if the missionary bungled the presentation or the person couldn’t understand the story. We should just leave them alone so that they can find God their way, shouldn’t we?
The Doctrine of General Revelation, as presented in the Bible disagrees. First, God has not promised salvation to everyone and has no obligation to save everyone. The fact that He chooses to save anyone is because of His grace, not because He has to. The Bible doesn’t present humanity as good, moral, wonderful little creatures that God sends to Hell for no reason. Instead, the Bible presents humanity as fallen, sinful, evil beings that have rejected God, rejected objective morality, and have chosen sin instead, making themselves an enemy of God.
Everyone in that has ever existed, in every country, language, and nation, will stand before God and be self-condemned (they will admit their guilt before God) for what they have known through General Revelation. No one will be able to argue that they deserve Heaven because of their own merit or because of their ignorance. Some will be even more condemned because they not only rejected God’s General Revelation through Creation and Conscience, but have actually read the Word of God, seen the Law of God, heard about the gospel of Jesus Christ, and rejected it too.
But the good news is that God has not left everyone condemned. He could have. But instead, God has revealed Himself and His plan of salvation to us and has invited us to be a part of spreading that message to others.
Next week we are going to move from talking about the General Revelations of God to the Special Revelations, and how we can know God better through them.
 Taken from ESV Study Bible note on Rom 1:19-20
 Thelemann, O. (1896). An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. (M. Peters, Trans.) (p. 86). Reading, PA: James I. Good, D. D, Publisher.
Pastor Al Do You Really Believe in a Magic Talking Snake?
I want to start this morning with a little bit of apologetics. Last week we talked about the Fall of Man as presented in Genesis 1-3 and there’s one part of that story that keeps coming up in the secular world as a way to discredit Christians – that being the “talking snake”.
As I studied last week and went through the various pictures of Adam and Eve for last week’s PowerPoint, I saw a lot of pictures that looked really ridiculous, and I kept asking myself if I really actually believe this story or not. And it’s an important story to believe in. If the story of the Fall of Man is fictional, it affects a lot of things in Christianity.
First, if it’s fiction, then what parts of the Bible should be believed? Second, a lot of other books in the Bible reference that story as true, so can they be believed. Third, Romans 5 says that Jesus is the second Adam that didn’t fail, but did it right, and through which we find our salvation. So how can Jesus be the second Adam who did it right if there was no first who did it wrong? To discredit the story of creation and the fall in Genesis 1-3 is to dismantle much of what the theology of salvation is built on. No talking serpent, no temptation, no Eve taking the fruit, no fall… etc.
So how do I answer the question? Do I actually believe in a magic talking snake that tempted the only people on the planet to eat a forbidden fruit? Do you? Why? Well, let me tell you how I process it.
Humility Before the Word of God
The first place I start is humility before the Word of God. I remember that I don’t know everything and just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s wrong or impossible. If I told you not to worry that your OS defrags your solid state drive when you have Volume Shadow Copy turned on, would you believe me? Is it something you’ve ever worried about? Maybe you should, because automated defragging your SSD ups your writes. Worried now?
Just because you don’t understand what I’m talking about, doesn’t mean I’m wrong or trying to mislead you. And just because I don’t fully understand Genesis 1-3 doesn’t mean it’s wrong or trying to mislead me either. I decided a long time ago I was going to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt. That doesn’t mean I turn my brain off when I read or study, but it does mean that when I study, I start with the thought, “The Bible isn’t trying to lie to me, manipulate me, or hurt me. God is the author of truth, this is His book, and He’s using the Bible to teach me, guide me, and help me understand Him, myself, and the world. So whatever I’m not understanding isn’t God’s fault.”
A Story for All People
I also remember that the story in Genesis 1-3 isn’t meant to be a modern biography or scientific textbook explaining the exact details of what went on. It’s a story meant to convey important truths to different people who would live in different places and eras. That doesn’t mean it’s misleading though. It means’ it was told in a way that everyone could understand.
When Genesis was written, the concept of Satan wasn’t as fleshed out as it is by the end of Revelation, so his character is introduced in a very important way. The whole story is told in such a way that anyone who reads it, from Moses to today, will see the most foundational messages upon which all the rest of the scriptures will be built – God is eternal and good, man was created eternal and good, temptation is real, sin is terrible, and man’s choices have big consequences.
To do this, the first three chapters of the Bible use poetry, prose, imagery, repetition, and intricate word play, and to tell the story of Creation and the Fall in a way everyone can understand. Just because it was written thousands of years ago to people who weren’t interested in modern science, doesn’t make it wrong.
The Multiple Forces Argument
The third thing that helps me believe Genesis 1-3 is to remember that Satan is real, powerful, a master of deception, and capable of supernatural things. Here’s something I’ve been working on in my brain for a while, which I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else, and it goes like this: There are four sorts of “forces” that act upon us in this world:
- Visible Personal Forces
- Visible Impersonal Forces
- Invisible Impersonal Forces
- and Invisible Personal Forces.
People have no problem with the first one, “Visible Personal Forces”, right? These are things we can see, and that make the choice to affect us. People are visible, personal forces.
People have no problem with the second one, “Visible Impersonal Forces”. Examples of this would be a rockslides, forest fires, earthquakes, tornados. We can see them affecting us, but they don’t make the choice to do so. A fire doesn’t choose what it’s burning. It just does it.
People have no problem with the third one either, “Invisible Impersonal Forces”. Examples of this are things like magnetism, wind, or gravity. We can’t see them and they don’t choose to affect us. They just do. We can’t take a picture of gravity, but it’s real, right?
It’s the fourth one that people get hung up on, “Invisible Personal Forces”. This is a personal being that chooses to affect our lives, but we can’t see them. But why is this one different? If the rest are true, why not this one? This is God, Angels and Demons. If we can believe in an invisible impersonal force like gravity, why not an invisible personal demon?
There are hundreds of papers written on invisible, personal forces that affect us all the time. Governments and corporations use psychological warfare to intimidate, demoralize, or persuade people to do things. They don’t have to be standing in front of you to affect you either. They can use things like propaganda, stress, bribes, language, suggestions, media, repetition, and technology to do it for them. We have no problem believing in the power of peer pressure, mob-mentality, or group think, right? But that’s not visible force, is it? No one says, “As of this moment you should go flip cop cars and smash windows”, it just sort of happens. Other examples of invisible, personal forces are things like memories of people who have died, your own personality, hypnosis, or even emotional love and physical pain. People will debate the power of the butterfly effect and talk about good or bad luck or Murphy’s Law as though they are real, but have a problem with the existence of Demons.
All I’m saying is that it is not unreasonable to believe that there are such things as Invisible Personal Forces, like God, Angels or Demons – who are real, creative, and powerful – that affect our lives every day. And the being introduced in Genesis 3 as a tempting serpent is an example of that. Just because it’s difficult to understand or strange to our ears doesn’t make it untrue.
So, I think to myself, if God is the author of the Bible, the story of Genesis 1-3 is written to tell me the truth, and there really is such a being as Satan, then why would it be impossible for this story to be true? Why couldn’t Satan use a serpent to tempt Eve? I believe what Jesus says, and He says that Satan is a master deceiver (John 8:44), capable of looking like a false messiah and even do miracles so convincing that even people who claim to be Christians will be deceived by him (Matthew 24:24). 2 Corinthians 11:14 says he can even masquerade as an angel of light.
So, is it not possible that Satan used his powers of deception to either manipulate or take on the form of a serpent? Or, if that’s too much, if invisible personal forces are real, then that would mean a form of that is demonic possession, right? Why couldn’t Satan have possessed this animal’s body and used it?
Now I sound crazy, right? I sound like I’m reaching beyond the scope of reality. But hold on. If the Bible isn’t trying to fool me, and Satan is real and powerful, then why is it impossible? It doesn’t have to be the kind of snake we think of today, does it? Genesis 3:1 says that the “serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field” and Revelation 20:2 calls Satan, “the dragon, that ancient serpent”, so this clearly wasn’t the kind of snake we see today, but perhaps a very clever animal that is long extinct. In fact, in Genesis 3:14, when God is cursing the serpent, He changes the form of the serpent to one that stands to one that slithers. There are lots of scientists who think snakes used to have legs but lost them as they evolved. And I’ve watched enough BBC nature documentaries to know that there are animals capable of some pretty incredible things, right?
We’ve all seen the amazing things trained dogs, dolphins, and chimpanzees can do, right? I saw an article that showed how humans have taught parrots, orangutans, elephants and seals to mimic the human voice. And you’ve probably heard about Koko the gorilla that was capable of understanding thousands of English words and signed back over a thousand.
So, I’m not saying I understand it all, but all I’m saying, is why not, in the history of the world, with all the species that have ever existed, couldn’t there have been a smart, serpent-like creature capable of mimicking human speech that Satan possessed and used? Just because I don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it isn’t true. But is it plausible? I believe it is. Or, if that’s too much, then maybe Satan simply used some sort of supernatural power to talk through it, the same way God did with Balaam’s Donkey.
Now, why spend so much time on this today? The reason is simply that there’s a big difference between saying we believe something and actually believing it, and that difference has consequences. There are often nagging questions in the back of our minds that cause us to doubt God’s Word, doubt our faith, doubt how serious we should take it, and wonder if all that we say we believe is actually true. It causes us to distrust God, distrust other Christians, and to live in fear. Our doubts are weapons that Satan can use to cause us to think and believe some destructive lies.
If he can use our doubts to cause us to question the existence of Adam and Eve, then why not Abraham and Jesus too? If Genesis is made up, then why not the Gospel of Matthew? If there was no Fall of Man, no first sin that corrupts all mankind, then where is the curse and what did Jesus die for? Does that mean we’re all basically good people and everyone is going to heaven? If we’re all basically good, then what’s wrong with the world? And if we’re all good, or a bunch of it is made up, then why tell anyone about Jesus at all?
Satan can use these doubts to take us apart in surprising ways. It’s the same tactic he used on Eve. “Did God actually say…?” was an attack on God’s Word and His character. If he can get us to doubt what God says, then we have permission to edit His Words, change them, or dismiss them. Then we’re in trouble. Then the foundations of our life and faith start to crumble. Then we start to doubt that God is real, that Satan is real, that invisible, personal spiritual forces are real, and it makes us an easier target.
Those niggling doubts, which so many of us suppress thinking there are no good answers, embarrassed to ask other people in case we sound crazy or stupid, undermine our faith and become a foothold in our lives for the devil and a stumbling block to those around us. That’s why we need to spend time praying, studying, talking, and sharing our doubts and questions about God. He’s not scared of us looking into it, and He’s not angry that there are things we don’t understand, so it shouldn’t prevent us from asking and searching. Sure, not every question will have the perfect answer, but I have yet to find an important question that hasn’t gotten a reasonable answer over the past couple thousand years. The real trouble comes when we refuse to find them.
Is Hell Real?
Consider the questions from the Heidelberg Catechism that we’ve been studying, especially those today. We’ve spent three weeks talking about the importance of realizing that we are sinners, right? Last week we said that sin isn’t God’s fault, but question 9 comes. It says
“But does not God do man an injustice by requiring in his law what man cannot do?”
Ursinus, in his brilliance, knew that the human heart is full of doubt and is desperate to escape blame. We hate being called sinners and want to do everything we can to push that guilt away. We want to pretend the Fall wasn’t real, that Satan isn’t real, that we’re basically good people, and anything we do that’s wrong is someone else’s fault – even God’s. But neither God nor Ursinus lets us off the hook.
The question is basically “Isn’t it unfair for God to ask us to obey a Law that He knows we can’t obey because of our sinful nature?” and the answer comes:
“No, for God so created man that he was able to do it. But man, at the instigation of the devil, in deliberate disobedience robbed himself and all his descendants of these gifts.”
As I said last week, God didn’t set Adam up for failure, but for success. He absolutely could have obeyed, but fell to temptation chose not to. And now all of us children of Adam are all living with the consequences of having a sinful nature.
Question 10 continues,
“Will God allow such disobedience and apostasy to go unpunished?”
Herein lay another area of our doubts – that God would actually punish sin. Doesn’t God love us? Won’t he let us get away with it? Isn’t He a Good Father who lets His children off the hook because he loves them so much? A kind God wouldn’t really make anyone go to Hell, would He?
People work really hard to try to deny that sinners are punished in Hell, and even harder to try to convince themselves that they themselves aren’t sinners, but neither is true. “Will God allow such disobedience and apostasy to go unpunished?” The answer in the Catechism comes:
“Certainly not. He is terribly displeased with our original sin as well as our actual sins. Therefore he will punish them by a just judgment both now and eternally, as he has declared: Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law (Gal 3:10).”
God promised punishment to Adam and Eve (Gen 2:17). He promised punishment to Moses and the Israelites (Ex 34:7). The Lord, through the prophets, promised to take vengeance on all His enemies (Nah 1:2), and we’ve already learned that sin made us an enemy of God (Eph 2:1-3). Jesus said that without Him, that many will be led to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14) and promised that there would be a final separation where some people would be sent into eternal flames and endless misery (Matt 13:30-42).
Hell, like talking about the snake, makes some people very uncomfortable. They want to hold onto their doubts. They want to deny it. They want to live in ignorance. They don’t want to ask questions lest they learn something they don’t like. They don’t want to think that some people that they love are in Hell, or that they might be as well.
But, just as changing the story of Eden changes everything, so does removing Hell. Look at question 11 of the Catechism:
“But is God not also merciful?”
It’s almost an outcry, isn’t it? But how can the concept of Hell line up with a loving God?
And the answer is this:
“God is indeed merciful, but he is also just. His justice requires that sin committed against the most high majesty of God also be punished with the most severe, that is, with everlasting, punishment of body and soul.”
Yes, God is love, and part of love is ensuring that justice is done. Consider yourself. If you were wronged – you went downtown, someone jumped you, beat you, stabbed you, and stole your belongings – it would be unloving, unjust, unkind for a judge to simply let the mugger get away with it. How much more should humanity be punished for committing such “disobedience and apostasy” against the perfection of God? He is absolute perfection, and humanity chose Satan, sin, disobedience, and betrayal – and we keep doing it over and over willfully and in ways we don’t even know. You must admit yourself to be a sinner.
But our doubts fight, don’t they? “I’m not that bad. God’s not really like that. I don’t want that to be true.” My plea for you is to allow the conviction of God to fall upon you and to allow Him to judge you guilty – because it’s only then that you’ll be willing to ask and accept forgiveness. If you doubt yourself to be a sinner you will doubt the cost of your salvation.
Let me close with this: When it comes to difficult, uncomfortable topics like Hell, do what I said before. First, stop thinking you know everything and show some humility before God and His Word of God. Second, realize the teaching about Hell isn’t there to harm you, but to tell you something that you need to know so you can make a better decision. And third, overcome your doubts by choosing to share them, study the truth, and then settle it in your mind.
“Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem. If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me.” (1 Corinthians 16:1–4)
The calendar is kind of weird this year. I would go as far as to say it borders on ironic. Did you know that the first day of Lent, which is, historically, the 40 days of preparatory fasting that comes before Easter is on Valentine’s Day? It’s hard to start your fast on the same day that someone gives you a big box of chocolates and takes you out for a special dinner.
And, did you know that Easter Sunday is on April Fool’s day this year? Again, bordering on ironic considering how completely central Easter is to Christianity and how many people in these days think that believers are just being fooled into believing lies so they’ll give up their money or go to hell. And yes, that’s my segue into what we’re talking about today, money and the church.
I punched the words “church money meme” into google I got about 20 million hits so I think it’s pretty safe to say there is a lot of anger and misunderstanding about money and the church out there. Even among Christians there is division. Some people think that we should never talk about money in church while others are all about the fundraising for good causes. Some people get offended when anyone talks about their money, especially preachers. I looked back over my sermons over the last 6 years here and while I’ve tangentially mentioned money in lots of sermons, from what I saw I’ve only preached on Tithing once and that was in August 2012, so I think we’re probably due – plus it’s the next verse of our 1 Corinthians study.
Here are a few examples the kinds of things I saw online:
The first one is super common. It’s a standard misquoting of 1 Timothy 6:10 where people assume it says, “Money is the root of all of evil.” And so the thinking is, “If money is evil then why ask for it at church?” That’s logical thinking because it points out hypocrisy. The church claims to be good and then asks for something evil.
I’m not going to preach memes today, but let’s just get the actual quote from 1 Timothy 6 and see what it actually says and I’m going to give it some context, starting in verse 6, “But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” (6:6-10)
What’s this about? That money is evil? No, it’s about being content and not chasing riches. Would you agree that people who are constantly discontent, always wanting more, never having enough, are miserable people? They can’t be happy, can they? So, the warning comes that discontentedness is a trap that leads to destruction, because a heart that is never happy, but has an unbridled craving for more, is going to get you into trouble!
Another standard theme that comes up a lot is that it’s horrible for a church to ask for money. After all group of people dedicated to helping others wouldn’t ask for money, right? Jesus would never ask for money, would He? God doesn’t need our money, does He? Isn’t it horrible that someone would walk into a church poor, hungry, falling apart, and then be taken advantage of by being manipulated into giving their little bit of money away?
I completely understand this indictment and kind of agree with it. Unfortunately, there are way too many churches that call themselves Christian but are merely schemes to take people’s money. The health and wealth, prosperity preachers and the legalists are both to blame for this reputation. They both play on guilt, shame, false theology, false promises, and false threats in order to take people’s money. Then they use the media to spread their false gospel so that the culture thinks we’re all like that. So whenever the church talks about money it’s usually seen it through the lens of the prosperity gospel. It’s a similar misunderstanding to what we talked about last week with the treatment of women in the church.
So let’s tie those two things together – women and money – and see what Jesus did. Take a look at Luke 8:1-3:
“Soon afterward he [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.”
There’s Jesus, traveling with a group of men and women. Some were His chosen disciples, others followed out of love. What is notable here how many women were there and how many different social levels they came from. Everyone from outcast Mary to the wealthy socialite, Joanna followed Jesus! And what were these women doing? Giving Jesus money and supplies for His ministry, which He accepted and gave to Judas to hold onto – who then stole from Him, but that’s another story.
Giving to Jerusalem
Talking about money can be a divisive topic – even more so when it is wrapped in religion. So my plan is to stay away from my own personal views and simply give you a biblical picture of what God says about how money and the church work together.
Let’s start with our passage today in 1 Corinthians and work our way out from there. We see that it starts with “Now concerning” which we learned a long time ago means that Paul is changing topics and moving on to the next question that they had asked him in their letter to him. They asked something like, “We heard that some of the churches were taking up collections to help out the Christians in Jerusalem, what are we supposed to do?”
Part of Paul’s mission, along with planting churches and sharing the gospel, was to collect funds to help the Christians in Jerusalem who were under terrible persecution (Gal 2:10). Jerusalem was under attack and was facing a famine. And while the Jews were harassed by all kinds of troubles, Christians had it even worse because not only were they living in a war zone but were also under attack from their own non-believing relatives and former friends. They were very poor.
This wasn’t a revolutionary idea. We don’t see “survival of the fittest” in the Bible. Generosity towards the care of the poor, the needy, the weak, and the stranger, is one of the foundational principles of the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus. In the Law of God given to Israel, Deuteronomy 15:7-8 says, “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” Generosity was commanded.
So, in the same way, the churches were “ordered” or “directed” to take up collections to help the poor and needy. We see this same ask in other letters in the New Testament (Rom 15:16, Acts 11:29, 2 Cor 8:4). And it’s this collection order that came from the Apostles that I want to take apart a bit.
Regular Lifestyle Generosity
The first thing I want you to notice is the regularity of the giving. It says, “On the first day of every week”. This wasn’t meant to be a one-time donation, a single moment of help during a crisis, but meant to foster a lifestyle of generosity. All over scripture, from beginning to end, in Genesis, the Law, Psalms, Proverbs, and Prophets we see generosity towards those in need as one of the key marks of the lifestyle of the believer. Of course, the OT Law also demanded regular contributions for all kinds of reasons, 10% for the priests to live on, 10% to pay for the religious feasts (Lev 27:30-33, Num 18:21-24, Deut 14:22-27), and every three years a special offering for the poor, but these were a more like taxes than charity. And there were even more commanded times of giving – the Sin Offering, Guilt Offering, Burnt Offerings, Cereal Offering, Drink Offering, Peace Offering, Offering for Vows… which added up to a lot of giving. Israel was forced to get into the habit of being generous.
Jesus came to fulfill the Law and often spoke and told parables about sacrificial generosity, caring for the poor, and regular giving. He equated selfishness with unbelief that leads to hell (Matthew 25:31-46) and praised the generosity of a poor widow who gave her last two cents to the temple as an act of obedience and faith (Mark 12:41-44). Then, continuing this teaching, the Apostles, throughout the letters of the New Testament commanded believers to remember to, “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” (Romans 12:13) This lifestyle giving can’t be done in one swoop. The regularity of it is meant to reflect the change of heart that comes when we repent of our sins and make Jesus our Lord. It shows that we see the danger of the love of money and the benefit of serving others generously and sacrificially as Jesus did every day.
The way that this was taught to the Corinthians and the rest of the churches was to connect their giving to the weekly church service. The day of worship had already been changed from the Jewish Saturday Sabbath to the Lord’s Resurrection Day on Sunday and they were either being told to bring their donation to the church to be kept in one pile or to add it up in in a special place at home, like we would keep a penny jar, until Paul got there to take it to Jerusalem. Later, in 1 Timothy 5 we see this giving expanded to include paying those elders who taught the Bible.
The thing that we see here is regular lifestyle generosity. Why do we take an offering at church each week? Because it’s consistent with scriptural teaching and gives Christians the encouragement to get into the habit of giving and meeting needs regularly.
Second, I want you to notice that it says, “each of you”. No one was exempt. That bumps into one of the charges those memes had against the church, doesn’t it? There’s the guy that shows up with his life falling apart and then gets guilted and manipulated into giving. And sadly, that happens. Some false teachers say that if you give money to the church then God is obligated to bless you. They say that the more you give the better off your health and relationships and finances will be. But that’s unbiblical. We come to Jesus as Saviour of our souls and source of eternal life, not as some kind of Santa Clause pyramid scheme that is meant to fulfill our earthly wishes for health and wealth.
What the Bible does teach is that “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24). And, as we already said, that constantly worrying about money and security and stuff is drain on our faith and a poison to our soul. Jesus says, “…do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles [or “Unbelievers”] seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:31–33)
Christians know they don’t own anything in this world, but that everything is God’s (Matthew 25:14-30) and we are merely stewards. That’s why Christians talk a lot about Stewardship. Christians know that we don’t own our homes, cars, clothes, or money. It’s not ours to control. We did not have them when we were born, we don’t have them for most of our lives, and we won’t have them when we die – and so we realize that dedicating our lives to worrying about building and keeping piles of stuff is ultimately “vanity and a striving after wind…”. Ecclesiastes teaches us this.
So we say along with Job, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21) We’re merely stewards of what we have and our faith in God tells us that whatever we have in our hand isn’t really that important because God can either give us more or take it away. He can multiply it like the loaves and fishes or dry it up with a drought –that’s up to Him. All we can do is be faithful with what He has and trust Him to give us what we need.
And so, on each Lord’s day, every one of the believers in the church was instructed to open their hands and demonstrate that they trust God more than they trust themselves through the exercise of giving. It is an act of faith, obedience, and sacrifice that says, “God, everything is yours. I trust you. I know you love me. I’m holding nothing back. Use this to take care of people and I trust you’ll take care of me too.”
Now, the argument comes, “Well, if God is so powerful, why doesn’t He just give them what they need? Why does God need money at all? If everything is God’s and He can make miracles, why does He need my money to do it? Why not just send rain to the deserts, have manna fall from heaven in the cities, heal all the sick, fix all the lame, give everyone a job… why does He want my money?”
First off – it’s not your money, it’s His… but second… He will. When all is said and done, at the end of our time here, He will do all those things. But in the meantime, God is doing His work to sanctify us – to make us more like Jesus. How does He do that? By giving us the opportunities and the choice to help each other – or not. By giving our planet enough to go around and then requiring that we share it with each other – or not. By making some places in the world flourish with an abundance of food, medicine, education, and more – and then allow other places to ave needs – and then give us the means to move around and help each other – or not. He creates the opportunity for sacrifice, generosity, and love, but, as always He leaves the choice to us. It is in making the choice to love that we become more like Jesus.
Generosity is A Choice
Notice that here, and this holds for the rest of the New Testament, the compelling of generosity by religious taxes and the amounts required to give is gone.
Jesus fulfilled the law and upped the ante for His followers. Remember the Sermon on the Mount? The Old Testament Law told people not to murder and forced them to get along on pain of death, Jesus says, “It’s not about murder, it’s about the sin of out of control anger. Be peacemakers. Figure out how to reconcile with one another.”
The OT Law said, “Don’t commit adultery” or you’ll be put to death. Jesus said, “The issue isn’t adultery, it’s the sin of lust that causes you to be an adulterer in your heart. Do everything you can to deal with that.”
The OT Law said, “Don’t break your oaths or else you’ll be punished.” Jesus says, “It’s not about just breaking oaths, but living a whole life where everything you say is simply true.”
The bible teachers the time were saying that God said it was ok to love your neighbours and hate your enemies, but Jesus says, “No. God doesn’t want you to hate people. He wants you to love everyone and do good to them – even your enemies.” That’s harder, isn’t it? That requires more. That requires divine intervention, God’s work in our hearts.
The OT Law told people what to do and what not to do. Be generous or else. But Jesus got to the root of the problem – the sins of selfishness, fear, worry, greed, and said, “I’m not going to force you be generous. I’m not going to prescribe percentages and consequences. I’m going to be generous to you, serve you, give everything for you – my whole life as a demonstration of my love for you – and then ask you to do the same for everyone else. I’m going to invite you to be generous as I am generous.”
And anyone who is a Christian, anyone who understands what Jesus did for them, who understands God’s love for them, who figures out all that was given for them, who finally has that moment where the sacrificial generosity that Jesus showed them clicks – will get it. They’ll realize what the wealth of love they’ve been given, and the generosity of their God, and it will become natural for them to be generous with others.
We’ll talk more about this next week, but I want to leave you with two questions. First, do you know why we pass the plate on Sundays enough to explain it to others? And second, have you begun to grasp how wide and long and high and deep the love of Christ is for you (Eph 3:18), and does your life reflect that generosity to others?
Historically, Christians have been rightly concerned about the protection of human beings. They also support religious liberty. So what is the problem ith Motion 103? Is it merely Orwellian inspired PC “newspeak”? What does this motion actually target? Should Christians be worried about it?
Referenced Article: Actually, one needn’t be a hysterical bigot to have concerns with M-103
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We read a scripture last week from the Isaiah 8-9 and I want to take this week to revisit one of those verses. Open up to Isaiah 9:6-7 and let’s read it together again. Last time we emphasized verses 1-5, as we discussed God coming as the child Jesus, making Himself the answer to the troubles of this world, the light shining in the darkness, the Saviour for those who cannot save themselves. This time I want to look at another of the titles that Jesus is given. Let’s read it together:
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”
This passage is one of the most famous in the Bible for a lot of reasons, one being how specific it is in speaking of God coming as a child, but also because it is so jam-packed with descriptions of how God intended to save His people. I gave you some of the backstory last week, which I won’t rehash here, but it’s no wonder, in light of how terrible things had gotten for Israel and for the rest of humanity, that people have turned to these words for hope.
For centuries God’s people have turned to this passage, especially during the seasons of Christmas and Easter, because it reminds us that when things get difficult, we are not alone, God has a plan, our Saviour is real and present, God loves us, and we have hope because our Rescuer is greater than any of our trials.
Is God Distant?
But our hope isn’t just for someday. One thing I’ve noticed is that even though some believers trust Jesus is their Saviour and that they are going to be with Him in Heaven, they think that right now, there’s not much that He’s doing for them.
They find comfort knowing that God is in charge, that Jesus loves them, that His Bible is full of really good stuff, and that sometimes He even answers prayer and performs miracles, but they figure that most of the time, when things aren’t going too badly in the day-to-day of normal life, that God isn’t really doing much.
Usually Christians frame their faith by believing the most amount of energy expended on the relationship comes from them. God sits in His Throne Room, Jesus Stands in the Heavenly Temple, the Holy Spirit dwells in us… but it is we who say our prayers, go to church, sing the songs, do good deeds, take communion, read the Bible, share our faith, ask and grant forgiveness, build churches, set boundaries, choose our jobs, go to work, eat food, raise our kids…. Sure, we do it by reading God’s word, and when we get stuck, we pray and God answers, but most of the time we see Him like a good friend; someone who is good to talk to, who cares about us, who we can call on for help, but who has their own house, their own problems, and a million other things to deal with – so as much as we know we can call on them anytime, we don’t want to overstep any boundaries, strain the friendship, or come across as needy.
I think a lot of people have felt this way. I know I have. It’s easy for me to see Jesus as King on High, Great Teacher, Creator of the Universe, Saviour of the Whole World… but it’s been hard to see Him as the ever-present “friend of sinners” “who sticks closer than a brother” (Luke 7:34; John 15:14; Prov 18:24; 7:4). What does that even mean and how does that work?
I’ve done some thinking and reading about it and one thing that helped me understand this better was this name in Isaiah 9:6, “Wonderful Counsellor”, so let’s take that apart a bit.
The first thing you should know is that people argue over where to put the comma. Some translations say “…his name shall be called wonderful, counsellor, mighty God…” and others say, “…his name shall be called wonderful counsellor, mighty God.” I don’t think it really matters a terrible amount, and I only bring this up to remind you why it’s important to thank God for all the amazing bible translators who put their time, effort, blood, sweat and tears into deciding on what to do with that comma. Whichever way it goes, both are appropriate titles for Jesus. He’s “Wonderful” in His own right and a “wonderful counsellor”.
Advocate & Advisor
That’s what I want to study a bit today. What makes Jesus a “wonderful counsellor”. To do that, let’s start by look at what the word “counsellor” and see what it means.
The main way that the word “Counsellor” is used in the Old Testament is to describe someone who gives advice and recommendations. You’d have the king, and he would be surrounded by advisers, elders, prophets, oracles, and friends who helped him remember the law of the land, gave him the relevant news about what was happening, what had been done throughout history, and give warning and guidance with decisions. King Solomon, renowned for his wisdom, gave counsel to his people and rulers of other nations.
Of course not only kings need counsellors, proverbs talks a lot about the importance of everyone having good counsellors in their life. (Prov 15:22; 27:9)
In the Bible, God is seen as the ultimate counsellor who gives direction to those wise enough to ask for it, and even frustrates the counsellors who oppose Him (Ps 33:10-11). Isaiah says, “This also comes from the LORD of hosts; he is wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom.”
Jesus, in the New Testament is presented as a great counsellor and advocate for the people who came to Him for hope, healing, wisdom, and knowledge. It says He knew what was inside of men (John 2:25) and that in Him is “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:2-3). The Bible says another reason Jesus is such a good counsellor is because He’s felt our weakness and has faced the same temptations we face every day, but did it perfectly (Heb 4:15-16). Who better to turn to?!
Near the end of Jesus time on earth, before His crucifixion during the Last Supper, Jesus told His followers that He would be leaving them. Not just in death, but after rising He would leave again and send them a Counsellor that would be even better than He. The word that Jesus uses here is translated “Helper” in the ESV is from the Greek word PARACLETE, which can is also translated “helper, advocate, encourager, comforter and [our word today] counsellor” He says,
“I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:7-15)
So, let’s put this all together. In the Old Testament God is the perfect counsellor who guides and gives wisdom to those who ask, and who inspires people to write the scriptures as the guide for faith and life. In the New Testament Jesus comes as the God-Man who experiences the worst of humanity, but navigates this world perfectly, making a way for us to be in perfect union with the Father. Jesus, though He could have, didn’t put Himself on the throne and rule like Solomon, taking one problem at a time, but instead did something better by ascending to Heaven and sending His Holy Spirit, who is God and knows God’s thoughts, to take residence in the hearts of believers so we have full access to Him at all times.
The Bible says that we are never alone and never need to lack wisdom, because we have access to our Advocate and Counsellor, the Spirit of God, at all times and in every place.
That’s the first important truth we need to grasp. All believers have access to not only the word of God, but the person of God, who will lead us, guide us, correct us, convict us, enable us and help us daily. This is what pastors usually emphasize. God is with you, Immanuel, all you need to do is ask, and He will give you what you need.
What You Don’t Have To Ask For
But I want to keep going on that, because a Wonderful Counsellor doesn’t just sit around in their room and wait for us to come to them. Most do. A friend will call up and see how you are doing, but usually respects your boundaries and doesn’t try to guide your life too much. A psychologist or psychiatrist may be very smart and helpful, but they usually stay in their office and don’t move into your house. That requires a Wonderful Counsellor and it’s something exclusive to Jesus. I want to show you a little bit about how this works.
There are things that your Wonderful Counsellor will do for you that you don’t even have to ask for. There are ways that He is involved in your life that you sometimes don’t see or realize, but are just as active and meaningful as when He answers prayers or works special miracles.
I want you to turn with me back to a section of scripture we talked about a few weeks ago which I haven’t been able to shake and I think gives us a very practical way of understanding how our Wonderful Counsellor works even when we don’t ask.
It’s in Hosea 2.
Now, we don’t have a lot of time left to take this apart, but as we read it I want you to remember that the story of Hosea and Gomer is the living illustration of God and His people. As Hosea’s wife left him to go and commit adultery with other men, so the people of God broke their covenant with Him and worshiped other gods.
This passage shows how God intends to do everything in His power to save His beloved people from the damage they are causing to themselves. The interconnections are incredible, and I wish we had time for them, but for now, what we see in chapter 2 is God telling Israel, through the prophet Hosea how He’s going to deal with their adultery. He has the right to divorce them and walk away, but instead, He has a plan – and it’s a remarkable plan. His plan is to use circumstance to turn her around. Notice that God says almost nothing until the very end. All of His counsel, his wisdom, will come without her asking and through events that will happen in her life. Let’s go through it together and I’ll point out a few things about how God counsels us without us ever asking.
God Allows Our Sin to Affect Us
“Plead with your mother, plead—for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband—that she put away her whoring from her face, and her adultery from between her breasts; lest I strip her naked and make her as in the day she was born, and make her like a wilderness, and make her like a parched land, and kill her with thirst. Upon her children also I will have no mercy, because they are children of whoredom. For their mother has played the whore; she who conceived them has acted shamefully.”
What we see here is God letting the nation’s sins catch up with them. He’s not going to hold back the evil anymore, but let them have what they want. He doesn’t bring the warning himself though, but instead sends her illegitimate children to do it. The results of their sinful actions rise up against them and they will see what life is like when God pulls back His hand of protection. If they want to live like demons, then they can experience Hell. As they turned away from Him, so He would turn away for a time, to allow their sins catch up with them. This will force them to see that the life they have chosen only results in pain, that the gods they worship are false, and that when they walk away from God, evil follows. Even in this there is mercy as He says He could do far worse – take everything away – but he won’t.
Sometimes God does that to us. You and I can’t even begin to process how much He does to hold back the full results of our sin and the sin of this world! We lust in our hearts, steal from others, rip people off, murder them with hate, make our own selfish plans, and so much more – and without us seeing it or ever thanking Him, God actually keeps us from blowing up everything in our lives. But sometimes, our Wonderful Counsellor chooses not to stand between us and the full consequences of our actions and, for our own good simply lets our sin catch up with us so we can experience the results.
I saw a sign this week that said, “Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes the reason is you’re stupid and make bad decisions.” That’s very true, and our Good Father and Wonderful Counsellor spends a lot of time protecting us from our own bad decisions and the bad decisions of others. It’s called common grace. But sometimes, He lets our sinful hearts have what they want and it often feels terrible and produces great suffering.
God Takes Away Freedoms
“For she said, ‘I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.’ Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns, and I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths. She shall pursue her lovers but not overtake them, and she shall seek them but shall not find them. Then she shall say, ‘I will go and return to my first husband, for it was better for me then than now.’” (vs 5-7)
The adulterous woman says, “I’m going to leave and go party with the bad guys. They’re great! They give me so much!” This is a people who not only believe they are getting away with their sin, but actually prefer it. They steal something or cheat someone and get away with it, and think it’s awesome. They have a sinful habit that the keep going back to, but no one knows and they feel good about it. They fill their minds with garbage, but still think they’re good parents and influences. They are filled with jealousy and hatred, but are able to put on the front where others think they’re super nice. It’s all working out.
What does God do? “hedge up her way with thorns” and “build a wall”. In verse 9 and throughout the passage it says things like , “I will take away my grain when it ripens and my new wine when it is ready.” You can’t party with the demons and give offerings to Baal if you don’t have any wine and grain. They see it as a famine, God sees it as an act of mercy. Sometimes God causes all our work to come up fruitless, no matter how hard we try, because He knows that the results of our labours will lead us away from Him and be used to harm ourselves and others.
Sometimes God takes things away so that we can’t access them anymore, because they are leading us to sin. We lose our job, the computer crashes, our car breaks down, we run out of money, no one will hire us, our health fails and we can’t go anywhere… and then we complain that God isn’t blessing us. I believe that scripture teaches that sometimes – not always but sometimes – this happens as an act of mercy that keeps us from sinning further! That tragedy blocks us from being able to go after and access our sin, and forces us to live without it.
Has that ever happened to you? Where bad circumstances made it so that you weren’t able to even get to your temptation or vice, and you had to live without it? That tough time was a mercy to teach you something! Maybe you’re a prideful, controlling, jerk, who got hurt and was forced to learn humility. That was a gift from your Wonderful Counsellor.
God Exposes Our Shame
“Therefore I will take back my grain in its time, and my wine in its season, and I will take away my wool and my flax, which were to cover her nakedness. Now I will uncover her lewdness in the sight of her lovers, and no one shall rescue her out of my hand.”
As I’ve already said, there are times when our Wonderful Counsellor allows our sin to catch up with us and it brings suffering to us. And there are times when God takes away our freedoms to keep us from sin. But sometimes, the only way to deal with the darkness is to expose it to the light.
Here we see God causing sinners to feel deep shame and embarrassment by not only letting them get caught, but exposing their sin to a lot of people. A good Bible word would be “humiliation”. God humiliates them.
Sin, by its nature, loves darkness, and so do sinners. This is why Jesus and the Bible talk so much about darkness and light. We read in Ephesians 5:11-13, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible…”
What’s the first line of our passage in Isaiah? “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”
Problems, fears, temptations, and sin shrivel when they are exposed to the light, which is why Satan works overtime to make you afraid to share your temptations with others, make you feel like you are alone so you never share your struggles, make you believe there is no one you can trust, and gives you a thousand reasons why you should keep your troubles and sinful habits a secret. He ingrains hypocrisy into each one of us until wearing our mask feels more natural than not. He can’t take away a Christian’s salvation, He can’t turn a child of light back into a child of darkness, but He works overtime to convince them to keep as much of the darkness in them as possible – and then convinces them that they need to keep that darkness a secret.
But sometimes, as an act of mercy and divine discipline, God refuses to let us keep it in the dark. He forces it into the light. Someone catches us in the act. Someone hacks in and exposes our internet history and what sites we’ve signed up for. We get sick and someone goes through our personal belongings. We have a breakdown in public. Or as someone else tries to get free, they exposes our own dark secrets.
And we feel deep shame, regret, fear, and humiliation. That isn’t God punishing us. That’s our Wonderful Counsellor helping us to bring light into a dark place. Sometimes the only way to break through our fear and stubbornness and addiction is to drag us kicking and screaming into the light so everyone can see who we really are and what we’ve been hiding. As long as it’s a secret it has power over you, but once it comes to light, it loses its power and you can get help and healing. Jesus came to shine light into the darkness.
“This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” (1 Corinthians 4:1-5)
The Apostles are a very misunderstood group of people these days. The word itself simply means “one who is sent”, so technically anyone who is sent by the Lord to do anything – whether it’s pray for a sick person, deliver a casserole, or give a gift card to Freshco –are technically apostles.
But when people talk about apostles today, they are usually referring to the 12 apostles, chosen by Jesus Christ to be the ones who would continue his ministry and even write more scripture to include in the Bible. Do those kids of apostles still exist today? I would say categorically no. But believe it or not, there are people today who claim to be new apostles, drawing followers by their claims to be messengers from God, with the same authority as the ones in the Bible.
This was happening in the ancient world too as teachers claimed to have the same power and authority as the apostles of Jesus. So the question is, how do we know the real ones from the fakes? So using our scripture today, let’s look at what an apostle is and what they do.
Verse 1 contains two important phrases that will be unpacked in the rest of the chapter. It says, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” So let’s concentrate on those two descriptors: An apostle of Christ is a “servant of Christ” and a “steward of the mysteries of God.”
Servants of Christ
The first section of verses, from 2-5, explain what a “servant… and steward of Christ” is supposed to be, and the first descriptive word that is used is “faithful”. A real apostle – and perhaps for application we can extend this as far as to saying a real believer in Jesus – is faithful. Faithful to who? Their master, Jesus Christ. That’s how they see themselves. Not elevated above others, but brought into submission to Jesus. They only go where they’ve been told to go, say what they’ve been told to say, and do what they’ve been told to do.
They know, as Paul says in verse 4, that it is to Jesus that they must ultimately give account, not any human being. Part of the back-story here is that not only were some people pretending to be apostles, but there were some people in the churches that preferred the pretenders to the real thing! They even went so far as to criticize the real apostles because they liked what the new guys were saying better.
But a real apostle doesn’t have their own “take” on Jesus and never updates the story. They don’t make the news, the just report it. They don’t write the letters, they just deliver them. All true apostles are in agreement and the story is always kept straight. Anyone who says different is a false apostle.
That’s one of the most amazing things about scripture. It is a series of books written over 1500 years by 40 different authors from vastly different cultures and backgrounds, but it all holds together. Why? Because God is the author of scripture, not man. The real apostles stayed totally dependent on Jesus for all that they were to do and say. Why? Because it was to Jesus they would have to finally give account, not their churches or anyone else.
This is an important application for us too. We may not be apostles, but it remains true that what we think of ourselves (our self-esteem or self-image) and what others think of us (our reputation or popularity) isn’t nearly as important as what God thinks of us.
This is a big struggle for a lot of people. Most people liked to be liked, and they spend a lot of time trying to change themselves, their opinions, their clothes, their jobs, their image, and everything else, so they can be either liked or respected. They will change almost anything so people will say they are attractive, intelligent, powerful, cool, interesting, or whatever.
Teenagers face this perhaps more than anybody, but the temptation doesn’t disappear when you’re older. As a child grows up and starts to realize that they are an individual – that they like certain things and dislike others, and have different skills, abilities, and problems than others – they are sort of forced to figure out who they are. As their minds, bodies, and emotions, change, they are in a constant state of flux, rarely being able to settle on a single identity.
Last year’s favourite outfit, the one that everyone said looked so nice, no longer fits and now you have to find another. Last year’s toys are no longer interesting. Everything is in flux. And on the journey to discover who they are, other people’s opinions weigh pretty heavily.
But this doesn’t go away. It’s intense when you are a teenager trying to figure out everything from how you want to look to what you want to be when you grow up, but when you get older it doesn’t go away. People’s opinions still seem to matter a lot. Does my boss like me? What do my friends think of me? How do people see me? I know plenty of older adults who spend a lot of time wondering if people think they are attractive, intelligent, powerful, cool, or interesting. That’s what drives the advertising industry! We wouldn’t want new clothes, phones, cars, homes, and vacations if we weren’t constantly comparing ourselves to others!
A few years ago country artist Blake Shelton wrote a song called “Who are You When I’m Not Looking” which sounds like the inner dialogue of a man on a first or second date. The first verse says, “My oh my, you’re so good-looking… but, who are you when I’m not looking?” The rest of the song is a series of questions which amount to things like “Do you drink? Are you silly? How do you handle anger? Do you have bad habits? How do you relate to your family?”. He’s essentially saying, “You’re beautiful on the outside, but before we go any further, are you just as beautiful on the inside?” Pretty good questions, actually.
The message here is that the only opinion that really matters is God’s. What does He think of us, our actions, our motives, our words, our clothes, our friends and our opinions?
I said last week that the true test of a person’s character is who they are when no one is looking. The message this week is that regardless of what you present to the world, God knows who you really are.
David and Saul
That’s the story of King Saul and King David. When Israel turned their back on God as their King and asked for a human King, God gave them exactly what they wanted. Saul was the tallest, most handsome, most regal looking man in the kingdom. He really looked the part, but had some deep character flaws.
David, on the other hand was the youngest son of a small-town shepherd. When God sent the Prophet Samuel to appoint the new king after Saul had thoroughly disqualified himself, Samuel didn’t know who he was going to get. The first son who came out of Jesse’s house was Eliab, the oldest boy. 1 Samuel 16:6-7 says this,
“When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is before him.’ But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’”
That truth is echoed all throughout scripture! David says to his own son, Solomon,
“And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought.” (1 Chron 29:9)
He was saying, “Son, no matter what you do, no matter how great you become, no matter what anyone says about you, know this: God knows who you really are, and that’s what really matters.”
The God Who Knows
God is called the One who “tests minds and hearts” (Psalm 7:9; Jer 17:10; Acts 1:24) because He knows what’s going on inside us. We can fool everyone else – sometimes even ourselves – but we can’t fool God. He knows what we really mean when we pray for selfish things. He knows our thought life and watches where our eyes go behind our sunglasses. He knows our browser history even when we use incognito mode. He knows what you really meant when you said what you said. He knows when we come to the Bible to learn or when we just want to be proven right. He knows the difference between acts of love and the desire to look good. There is absolutely no reason to try to fool Him, and He’s ultimately the only opinion that matters, so why bother trying to fool anyone else?
The Bible talks a lot about pleasing God and pleasing people. In the Bible, fear of God is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge, but fear of man foolish and sinful (Prov 29:25). We are warned to take more account of what God says about us – and can do to us – than anyone else!
When it comes to worrying about what powerful men might do to us, Jesus said in no uncertain terms, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
And so, Paul says in vs 3 that in comparison to what God could do to him, the accusations of the Corinthians pale in comparison. So he says, “I’ve already examined myself and don’t see anything wrong, but that doesn’t mean much since my judgment of myself and your judgment of me mean very little in the end. All that matters is what the Lord thinks of me! He can see the deepest parts of me and everyone else, and in the end, he will either condemn me or commend me.”
The same message comes to us today, and it’s our concluding question today. Who are you? Who are you when no one is looking?
We’ll look at the second part of what it means to be an apostle next week: that they are “stewards of the mysteries of God”, but let’s leave it there for now. A true apostle of God lives for God and knows it is the Lord who will judge them. So they don’t bend the gospel for the sake of others.
So, if the apostles are following Jesus and demonstrating to us how we ought to live our life –Paul says in verse 16 that we are to imitate the apostles – then we must ask ourselves in what ways are we compromising our beliefs and our obedience to God because we are afraid of what people might think of us? In what ways are we hypocrites who say we believe one thing, but then do another when no one is around?
Jesus has saved us and He is our Lord. Who do you fear more, love more, respect more, want to impress or desire to please more than Him? That’s your true Lord. That’s your real god.
I invite you to ask yourself who you really are and why you do what you do.