Please open up to Luke 8:4-15, the Parable of the Sower. I figure that this is the last of the “Building Faith during Difficult Times Series” that I started at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown and it’s time to get back into the expositional study of the Gospel of John that we were doing before that.
You can probably tell, by now, that my devotions of late have been from the Gospel of Luke. It’s been such an encouragement to work my way through Luke, section by section, doing a little study – but mostly just reflecting on it and asking God to speak through it.
Which leads naturally into today’s message, which I think is a very fitting end to the series – and which I believe speaks directly to where we are at today.
Let’s read together, starting in verse 1:
“Soon afterward he 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. And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable…”
So there’s the context. Jesus, His disciples, and some women who were supporting (literally deaconing) His ministry, were going through “cities and villages” proclaiming the “good news of the kingdom of God”.
There’s a lot going on in this introduction. Notice a few things. First, that lots and lots of people are hearing the gospel from Jesus. Cities and villages all over the place.
Second, notice the diversity of the people following Jesus. The 12 were already a pretty diverse group including scholars and tradesman, a tax collector, a religious zealot, some singles, some married, some brothers, young and older, faithful people and sceptical ones… but also there was a diverse group of women there. Mary Magdalene had suffered greatly with mental and physical anguish brought on by demon possession. She was probably quite the social outcast. Contrast her with Joanna, who was a wealthy and powerful, Roman woman whose husband served as a sort of business manager to King Herod. That’s a huge variety of people – and it shows that Jesus’ message wasn’t just for a certain group – but for everyone. The good news of the Kingdom of God wasn’t for a select few, or a certain kind of person – not just for the poor and outcast, or the very religious or scholarly, or just the men, or just people who had their act together… it was for everyone!
Here we see Jesus as the coming King announcing His Kingdom. As the Messiah, come to heal the sick and cast out Demons with the power of God. As the gracious one who didn’t discriminate against anyone. As the missionary who needed financial support for his food and travel. Jesus Christ, the son of God, proclaiming the Gospel and gathering a huge diversity of followers.
Remember that context for the parable we’re about to read. Starting at verse 4 again:
“And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable, ‘A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.’ As he said these things, he called out, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’”
Jesus often spoke in parables, little stories, that were meant to convey big truths to common people. They weren’t merely “sermon illustrations”, but were actually the very message themselves. Most often, the parables were used to convey one, big truth, but interpreters over the years have often seen much more – sometimes too much as they way over analyze every detail. Suffice to say, parables are more than “simple stories”. One commentator “describe them as both ‘works of art’ and ‘weapons of warfare’.”
In verses 9-10 we see that Jesus was asked why he spoke in parables and what the parable meant.
“And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’”
What does Jesus mean? Essentially, that people can only know the truth if God reveals it to them. We’ve studied this many times before. People love sin and want to stay in the darkness. It requires a miracle from God to shed light into a dark soul, to expose them to the truth, and for them to see their sin and feel the weight of guilt and shame. Unless God shines the light on them, unless God calls them, unless God anoints them (1 John 2:20, 27) unless God explains it to them, reveals it to them (1 Cor 2:10)… they just can’t see it, and they don’t want to.
That part in quotations in verse 10, is taken from Isaiah 6:9-10, where God commissions the prophet Isaiah to go and preach to the people of Israel – but to realize that every word he says is going to have absolutely no positive effect. His messages would be absolute truth, the very voice of God, but instead of softening the hearts of the rebellious, they would only harden them further. Instead of opening their eyes, they’ll shut them tighter. Instead of opening their ears, they will stuff more cotton in. Instead of repenting and giving their hearts to God, they will sin all the more and their heart will become calloused.
That’s what Jesus is saying here about why He uses parables. For those who want to know God better, who the Spirit is working in them, who are asking, seeking, and knocking… they will receive, and find and will have the door open to them. But those who don’t want to hear it, who love their own sin, their self, who feel justified in their actions, who don’t want to be lorded over by anyone else – the parables will only harden their hearts further.
Why? Because, as 1 Corinthians 1:18 says,
“…the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
The story of the gospel, the message that Jesus was spreading far and wide, to cities and villages, to a diversity of people everywhere – is a divisive message.
Consider the parable. What is the common factor? The seed, right? What’s the difference? The soils. As verse 11 says, “The seed is the word of God.”
Every soil gets the same seed. The message isn’t changed based on the audience. Jesus didn’t tell the rich people one thing and the poor people another. He didn’t tell the Romans one thing and the Jews another. He didn’t alter His message to be more palatable to the audience He was facing. He preached the same message, the same truth, to everyone.
What was that message? “Repent, believe, and follow Me as your only Lord and Saviour.” Remember last week’s message on Luke 6? How did it end? With the parable of the two house builders. One built on the Rock, which was the one who comes to Jesus, hears the Word of God, and obeys. The other built on sand, which was the one who comes to Jesus, hears the Word of God, and rejects it. Both hear the same message – to one it becomes the very foundation of their lives – to the other, it’s optional, foolish, offensive, and they reject it.
This is how it’s always been – from the very beginning of time, through every verse of the Old Testament, in every nation, through the ministry of Jesus, and into the days of the Christian church, there has been one message: Acknowledge you are a sinner, doomed to judgment by a righteous God. Repent of that sin by acknowledging that you cannot save yourself, but your only hope of salvation is to give up everything, take yourself off the throne of your life, cast yourself upon the grace and mercy of God, and trust Him alone in every part of your life. In short, simply to believe that what God says is the highest authority and good that you can know or experience — and then live like it.
That’s been the message since the beginning of time. And that message has either enlightened hearts unto repentance and humility and salvation – or hardened hearts unto hell.
You’ve experienced this in your own life, your own heart, and when you’ve shared the word of God with others.
In your own life, there have been times when you’ve had to choose between believing the Word of God and obeying, or doing things according to your own ideas, traditions, or feelings. This pandemic, and all the craziness it’s brought, has been a refining and revealing fire that has given us so many opportunities to trust God or not to trust Him.
Maybe you’ve faced financial struggles. The Word of God says,
“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles 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)
Jesus says that an unbeliever will worry, get anxious, start to prioritize money and security over seeking God and living rightly before Him. Their worry will drive them to do selfish or sinful things. That’s an opportunity to either trust God or not.
Some people have had to face some serious difficulties in their close relationships. The stress of the lock-down and all that came with it has revealed things about their friends and family and church that they may not have known was there. Some news places are reporting that there is surge of divorce filings, domestic violence, and substance and alcohol abuse, right now. The US and Canada are facing race riots and hyper politicizing of the epidemic. Small cracks that were present before have been blown wide open.
The Word of God says,
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27–29)
It says, stay married and do the hard work of reconciliation. (Matthew 19:9; Eph 4:32)
The Word says, “Do not get drunk…” (Eph 5:18) and “be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.” (1 Peter 4:7). Jesus says, “If your eye or your hand causes you to sin, get rid of it.” (Matt 5:27-30)
And you’re presented with a choice. Humility before God, getting rid of the alcohol or whatever, getting rid of the computer… doing the hard work to love and forgive the people who hurt you…… or ignore God and keep turning to substances and anger and bitterness and rage.
You see, the “good news” of the gospel of Jesus Christ, isn’t just, “Yay, everyone gets saved.” It’s, “I have good news for you. The absolute corruption of your souls, the curse that makes it so you can do no good thing, that has driven you into slavery to sin and Satan… can be broken. But… you are not going to go from slavery to freedom… you are going to go from slavery to slavery.
Romans 6:20,22, “For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness…. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.”
That’s the good news! The opportunity to change gods, change lords, changes bosses, change allegiances, change slave masters, is placed before you. You didn’t have a choice before – you didn’t even know you had a slave master – but Jesus comes and tells you how bad off you are. He shines light into your dark heart, and that light illuminates a whole lot of your sin, guilt, shame, fear, prejudice, and greed…
It’s like you’re sitting alone, in a pitch-black room, eating something. It’s all you’ve ever known. And suddenly, Jesus breaks open a door you didn’t even know was there, and light floods in all around you. And you see that what you’ve been eating is muck, garbage, poison… and He says, “You don’t know it, but you’re living in a prison. You’re sentenced to death. I’m offering you a way out.” And then He presents an option to you. Follow Him through His door, take His path, go His way, live under His rules, with Him as your ultimate authority. He’ll cure your poison, but you must take His medicine. He’ll pump your stomach, but it’s going to be uncomfortable and you’re going to have to let Him. He’ll take your punishment for you, take your death sentence for you, but you must give up the muck, leave the prison, and call Him alone your God.
Or… you can tell Jesus to get lost, say He’s crazy for saying you’re in prison, that you’re offended that He would call you condemned, kick the door closed, embrace the darkness, and stay in the room pretending that you were never shown the truth.
Jesus offers that choice to everyone who hears Him.
The Four Soils
Now, take a look at Jesus’ explanation of the Parable in verse 11,
“Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.”
I think this parable has special, devotional significance for believers here today. In light of everything happening in our world, our homes, our church, right now. Because of late we have faced a lot of these sorts of situations and have been given the opportunity to trust God’s word or not. We can see ourselves in the various soils.
And remember, Jesus is talking to His disciples. The unspoken question is perhaps, “Why doesn’t everyone accept this Gospel? Why doesn’t everyone do what God says? Jesus is awesome, powerful, gracious, kind, and offers salvation from death and hell. His way is always better! Why wouldn’t everyone take Him up on this? Wherein lays the difficulty? Why would people we know, we love, who are reasonable, and are more than willing to trust us about so many other things – have a completely different reaction when we start talking about Jesus or the Bible?”
In other words, there’s nothing wrong with the seed, and the sower is doing their best to spread it all over the place, so why won’t it take root and grow?
Some people who hear the Word of God are those whose heart is like a hard path – the words just bounce right off. They “heard” the words, but their hearts are like pavement. They are like the religious leaders who followed Jesus around, but only criticized, scoffed, and argued. It’s not a “passive unbelief”, it’s an active refusal to humble themselves and obey.
There’s an element of spiritual warfare here to because it says the “devil” comes and “steals away the word, so that they may not believe and be saved.” In other words, these are people who not only refuse to believe Jesus, but have so completely rejected Him that it’s like Satan has locked their minds and hearts and thrown away the key. They are worldly people, believing their own ideas, and only have derision for God, Jesus, and believers.
How can one get through to this person? Well, how would you turn a hard packed road into fertile farm land? It’s going to require something to break through that ground – and that often comes in the form of suffering, fear, and facing death. God has to send a big, hard tiller – before the healing rains can penetrate that ground. All we can do is pray.
For us Christians, devotionally, can you see yourself in the hard-packed ground? Are there parts of the Word of God that you simply won’t believe, won’t obey, no matter what? Are there parts of your life that don’t line up to what God wants, but no matter how many people point it out, how many times God brings it up in study and prayer, how many messages you hear about it, how many spiritual authorities tell you to submit – there’s just no penetrating that part of your life? You are doing yourself and your soul damage if there is. And you’re giving your spiritual enemy a foothold in your life and family.
Then there are those whose hearts are like stony ground. They hear the word, receive it with joy, but don’t take root. They believe for a while, and then fall away. What causes them to fall away? Testing. These are people who seem like they are Christians, love worship music, small groups, potlucks, and hanging around with believers. It gives them comfort and hope and peace. They feel loved and accepted.
But there are two problems: They have no roots and there are some huge rocks in their field. The roots represent spiritual maturity. Think of Psalm 1,
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.” (Ps 1:1-4)
Blessed is the person who takes counsel from the godly, has left the way of sinners, and has given up his pride, his scoffing at God and God’s people, and replaced it with humility. They love God’s word, meditate on it, study it, pray about it, lets it penetrate their soul and change their character. And their roots grow deep as they drink from the stream of God’s Word.
But, there are people who look and sound like believers, but have no roots. The rocks in their field are false ideas they refuse to give up, sins they refuse to repent from, and a sense of arrogance that they keep, believing that they are better than everyone else. They hear messages about repentance and humility – but they assume it’s for other people. They don’t have study habits in private, and very little prayer life, except when they’re around other Christians. They don’t submit to Godly authority or God’s Word. The only interpretation they want is their own.
And then testing comes, trials, suffering, difficulty comes – and they have no framework built for it. Jesus is supposed to be the answer to all their questions, the fixer of all their problems, the great gift-giver in the sky that makes their life better. But then God ordains a time of difficulty, a time of spiritual training, of discipline, of maturing – and they say, “Forget this! Christianity is too hard, too strict, too constrictive. I’m going my own way, coming up with my own ideas, and create my own version that I like better.” And they fall away. I’ve seen this many times, and I’m sure you have too.
Can you see yourself in this one? Has this time of testing and trial that we’ve been going through revealed any weaknesses in you, any big rocks you need to deal with? Has it shown you the true depth of your roots? That’s a gift from God! That’s an invitation to spiritual maturity. Don’t reject it, don’t give up, don’t quit. Instead, humble yourself, accept correction, accept discipline, find some spiritual authorities to get under, and allow God to deepen your roots so you can face adversity with grace and courage.
Then there’s the “thorny ground” people. This is similar, but opposite to the rocky ground people. This person also lacks maturity. They might grow a little more than the rocky people, but in the end they end not much better – they are immature and fruitless. What is the cause of their immaturity? “cares, riches, and pleasures”. In other words, “life”.
They see their sin, want to be saved, and come to Jesus. The seed penetrates the ground, and it grows. But God isn’t planting just to have a seed sprout – He wants fruit! He wants to take this believer and train them in righteousness, use them for His Kingdom, show His glory and bring His love to the world through them.
But that requires maturity, and they don’t like that. Instead, their heart is full of cares, worries, anxieties. They are worried about comfort, security, pleasures, and money. Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” “Go into the world and make disciples of all nations.” “I have given you a gift, a talent, and a place in my body of believers. I’ve set aside good deeds designed just for you, now go!”
And this person responds, “But Lord, that’s not comfortable. What about my retirement? What about my stuff? Won’t that cost me some money? That seems kind of risky, Lord. I’m not so sure. I really like being healthy, comfortable, warm, and well rested. Plus, every time someone sticks their necks out around here, someone smacks them down like a game of whack-a-mole. So, I’m just going to keep my head down. Stop asking me to serve in areas where it’s not…. easy… . Stop convicting my heart to do difficult things. Stop telling me to use my gifts in ways that might get me in trouble. Thanks for saving me… but that’s all I want from you. Other than that, please leave me alone.”
Do you see yourself in this? During this time, have your fears, concerns, and worries, caused you to tell God that you don’t want to obey Him because it’s too risky? Has God told you to share something and you said, “No, I’m might need it.” and then kept it? Has God told you to serve somewhere and you said, “No, that might put me at risk or get me in trouble.”? As the stress and anxiety grew, did you start clinging a little harder to your worldly pleasures, worldly riches, worldly comforts, because you were afraid you might lose them?
Maybe you’ve lost out on a real blessing, real spiritual fruit, missed out on being used by God in a special way, because your concern for yourself overwhelmed your trust and obedience to God – and the thorns choked out your fruit.
Good Soil – Conclusion
The final soil is the good soil. People who hear “the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” What a rich description. They hear it, grip it, bind it to their life, glue it to their souls, in their “honest (or “noble” or “beautiful”) and good heart”. Their heart is “honest”, they’re not lying to themselves or anyone else. It’s beautiful, unmarred by the blackness of sin because Jesus has washed it clean. And it’s good, meaning it’s actively positive. No rocks, no thorns, because they’ve fully repented, totally turned their lives over to Jesus, and keep repenting and tossing out rocks and weeds every time the Holy Spirit shows them one.
Here’s the thing: It’s not that these people are special.
I recently watched a movie about Mr. Rogers (a wonderful, Christian man I greatly admire and respect) and at one point a reporter who is doing a piece on Mr Rogers turns to his wife, Joanne, and says, “He must be a saint.” Her reply was profound,
“I don’t like that word. If you make him out to be a saint, then nobody can get there. They’ll think he’s some otherworldly creature. If you make him out to be a saint, people might not know how hard he worked.”
In other words, it’s not that Mr. Rogers was special… or “otherworldly”. It’s just that he was obedient to Jesus. Jesus did a mighty work in his life, changed his heart, cleansed his sins, broke the curse, and Mr Rogers thanked Jesus by obeying. He took God’s Word seriously and applied it to His life as a servant of God. He said what he believed Jesus wanted said, did what He believed Jesus wanted done, reacted the way He believed Jesus wanted Him to react, and forgave as he believed Jesus wanted him to forgive. His soil took the seed of the gospel, and God was able to produce much fruit through him.
Jesus doesn’t want special people. The motley crew following Him proves that. And the motley crew that makes up most Christian churches proves that too. Jesus doesn’t have a “type” or a “favourite kind of person”. All that He requires is a person that hears His Word, believes it, and humbly obeys – even when it’s hard, risky, inconvenient, or they don’t feel like it.
The question is: How receptive is your heart to trusting Jesus?
 Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Parable. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 1606). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
 Life Application Bible Commentary – Luke – Pg 202
It’s been sort of my tradition to take time on Palm Sunday to tell the story of the history of the world, the story of salvation, from beginning to end, because I think it’s important – maybe especially during times like these – that we remember that the moment we are living in and the events we are looking at are part of a larger story, a metanarrative, that has been going on for a very long time.
Chapter 1: The Beginning
Our story begins in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Notice how I said that it’s the start of our story. Not the beginning of The Whole story. Just our part. God is eternal, existing before there ever were heavens or an earth.
So God created the universe, the stars, the planets, our world, and everything on it. And He did it in steps. As we read the creation story we see that God is imaginative, powerful, orderly, and is really enjoying His work. We don’t know everything about the beginning of time, but we do know that it did not come together by random chance – it was “Created”. Over and over again God creates and then looks at what He is doing and says that “it is good”. He likes what He sees. He made the skies, the oceans, the birds, trees, sun, moon… all of it. God, in an amazing process, formed all of creation out of nothingness… and then called it “good”.
And then, after everything else was created… He began His greatest work. God literally saved the best for last. He decided to create humanity. All of the rest of creation was a good thing… but this was going to be the best thing. God formed a man out of the dirt of the ground, like a potter lovingly moulding a clay sculpture in His own image, and then breathed life into them, life unlike any other creature had: Physical and Spiritual Life. And then He formed the woman from a part of the Man, making them complimentary equals. He bestowed upon these two beings something unique in the world… a living spirit that reflected His own. Humanity was designed to bear God’s own image, to carry His divinity with us. We are the best thing He ever made, and He loves us very much.
And He took His two favourite creations, named Adam and Eve, and put them into a wonderful garden and gave them the task to spread His glory and make more images in the form of children that would stretch from that little garden to the whole rest of the world. A whole planet of image bearers in perfect relationship with their Creator. There was endless food, total comfort, no shame, no danger, no anger, meaningful work, and perfect love. Greed wasn’t a problem, relationships weren’t a problem, sex wasn’t a problem, disease was unheard of, and best of all, these humans had the glorious privilege of walking and talking with God face to face. It was the best place ever and would only get better. But it didn’t stay that way.
Chapter 2: The Fall
Adam and Eve, with some help from the devil himself, decided that God’s plan wasn’t good enough. God had placed them where they would have everything they could ever need, but had only one rule: Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
In a world of delicious options, there was only one tree from which they weren’t allowed to eat. Can you imagine a world where there is only one bad choice? Everything else on the entire planet was a good, healthy, and satisfying. There was only one bad option.
Many have asked why God would put that tree there at all. The answer is simply this: without it, there would have been no choice. In order for His creation to have free will and the ability to love, there must be options. To make love real, there must be a way to choose not to love. To make obedience real there must be a choice not to obey. To make trust real there must be a way to show whether or not one believes God’s Word. If there is to be a real relationship between Creator and creation, rejection had to be an option.
Adam and Eve made the other choice. When given the choice to love, trust and obey, they chose not to. They chose to believe God was holding out on them. They chose to take that something they were not allowed to have, and which they had been warned would do them harm. That choice is called sin and it changed the whole of creation.
Chapter 3: Cast Out From Eden
The moment Adam and Eve decided to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, everything changed. At that moment something new entered the world called “sin”. God had warned them that everything would change, but they did it anyway. He warned them of the consequence of death coming through sin, but they did it anyway. They didn’t want only the knowledge of good, they wanted the knowledge of evil too. They knew that once they ate it they would have a special knowledge which they didn’t have before – something God didn’t want for them, which would hurt them… and they ate anyway. Before that moment they only knew “goodness” and “life”… but after they fell, they knew “good and evil and death”.
And since God is good, perfect and holy, He can’t be in relationship with evil. He has no part with evil or evil-doers. In His love He cannot let the infection of sin go untreated. In His justice He cannot allow sin to go unpunished. Now, because of their choice, He could no longer communicate face to face with His beloved people because the white-hot furnace of His holiness would utterly destroy them. All because of their decision to sin.
As stewards of the world, and since the world was created for them, the sin not only affected them but the rest of the world as well. They were the pinnacle of creation and now that creation was tainted, marred, effected – it’s like their sin bled inky blackness from them onto everything else in the universe.
Within moments of falling to temptation, we read of shame, anger, distrust, fear, blame… then weeds, toil, pain, frustration, heartache. And, as God had promised, they would now know death. You see, death was something that wasn’t a part of God’s perfect design. But every choice has a consequence, and the consequence of disobeying the law is judgement. All humanity believes in some form of justice – it’s a carryover from being made in His image. A good parent, a good society, a good God, punishes wrong. And the punishment for sin is death.
Now, that’s all bad news, right? Well, even though it was all bad news, there was one glimmer of hope– the promise of salvation to come. Even in the midst of passing His judgement, God shares the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, promising Eve that one day, Someone born of women will finally do something to reverse all of their mess. That, one day, someone would come and do battle with death and Satan (Genesis 3:15). That, though it would be bleak for a while, and the consequences were dire, God’s Gospel said there was still hope.
Chapter 4: Noah
Now, even though humanity had fallen and was now outside the Garden of Eden, it didn’t stop them from “going forth and multiplying”. Adam and Eve were having children, and their children were having children, and the world was being populated.
Not only were people multiplying, but their sin was multiplying too. People were actually getting worse. The bible says that by the time of Noah things were really grim. It says in Genesis 6:5 that “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
Eight generations had gone by, and there were lots of people on the earth, and they were inventing new ways to be evil, corrupt to the core, completely disregarding their Creator and their fellow man.
The Bible says that God was grieved. He had such a great love for His people, but they had so completely turned their backs on Him and were doing such harm to each other that He was sorry that He had made them in the first place. As God, as Creator, it is His right to do whatever He wants with His creation, so He sent a flood to wipe them out, to wash away the wickedness which had gotten completely out of control.
But again we see the gospel of grace in the midst of judgement. There was a man named Noah who was Adam’s Great x8 grandson. God saved Noah and his family because they were the only family left who was listening to Him. Was Noah perfect? Did he earn salvation by being a good person? No, but He loved God and lived like God mattered. It was not that Noah was worthy to be saved – He was a sinner too. It was that Noah was the only one willing to listen to the message of salvation.
After the flood, God started overusing Noah and his family to repopulate the world again. That’s what God does. He takes an impossible situation and adds justice, creativity, grace, love, and hope. Yes, humanity would fall again. Noah didn’t make it very far out of the ark before he and his family were sinning again. But even that pointed to Jesus.
Have you ever wondered why God doesn’t just wipe out all the bad people and just leave us good ones? It’s because we are all bad people! None are free from the effects of sin. Even the most righteous man on earth was not good enough to stay righteous for long. The problem of sin goes deep, very deep. Humanity has an internal problem, a depravity that goes to our very core. That needs to be dealt with. Sin isn’t just about good people who occasionally do bad things – it describes something broken inside of us that will always pull us away from God. A curse that needs to be lifted before we will even want to get right with God.
And so, God set the rainbow in the sky, promising never to flood humanity again because He was about to put His full plan into motion.
Chapter 5: Abraham
Right around the death of Noah a man named Abram was born. God’s gospel plan continues as He, in an act of amazing grace, chooses to show love to an obscure, pagan man, who neither knew Him nor followed Him. Abram wasn’t anyone special, just a guy who God decided to show love to, to give an invitation to, but what made him special was, again, like Noah, he was willing to listen to God and obey. God says, “leave your country and your people and go into a different land.” and he does.
God then makes a promise to Abram – who was then a senior citizen married to a barren wife with no children – that he would have many descendants and they would become a great nation. In fact, God promises that the whole world would be blessed because of his family line. He would give them a special place to live and would take care of them. This was such a wild promise that the moment his wife Sarai heard it, she laughed out loud. God presses forward, changes Abram’s name to Abraham, Saria’s to Sarah, and gets to work.
This was a pretty good deal for Abraham, but he never gets to see the plan fully worked out during his lifetime. That doesn’t mean God didn’t keep his promise, though. Abraham did have 8 children, each becoming the father of different people groups. His second son, Jacob, would really see God’s blessings taken to another level as his children became the 12 patriarchs of the nation of Israel. It was these twelve families that would form the political and geographic system through which the rest of God’s plan of salvation for the world would be carried out.
Chapter 6: Joseph
Now, God needs to make sure that this family is taken care of, which is where we get the story of Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob. God, amazingly, uses the anger and jealousy of Joseph’s brothers, the terrible reality of kidnapping and slave trade, and years of wrongful imprisonment as the plan to save Jacob’s family from a terrible drought would hit the land. Most of us here know or have heard the story of Joseph.
His story was full of suffering. Though he was God’s chosen man, he went through some really tough stuff, but after a time, God raised Joseph up to a position where he would not only be able to take care of His own people but to save Egypt and the surrounding lands from famine. Then, in Egypt, God prepared His people for the next phase of His plan.
Chapter 7: Moses
Jacob, Joseph and their family was down in Egypt and doing fine for a couple hundred years, until a different Pharaoh came into power who didn’t know about what Joseph had done and didn’t remember the promises the previous administration had made. Instead of being thankful, he started to fear Jacob’s growing family (who were now being called “Israelites” after the new name God had called Jacob). But instead of using diplomacy or communication, he suddenly decided to force the whole nation of Israel to become the slaves of the Egyptians. They were in slavery for a very long time, generations of suffering, but still having many children.
One of these children was someone you know, a man named Moses. At exactly the right time in history, God worked some powerful miracles and used Moses as the person to lead His people out of Egypt as one, unified nation, ready to get back home to the land that God promised their father Abraham so many years ago — the “Promised land”.
Pharaoh tried to stand in the way of God’s deliverance, but after 10 plagues, he finally let them go. The final plague was another picture of God’s salvation plan, pointing to Jesus. The angel of death would come upon Egypt and the only way to be saved from the curse was to have the blood of a spotless lamb spread on the entrance of their home, and for them to hide behind that blood so death would pass them over.
But before they went to the Promised Land, God brought them to a place where He would make a covenant with them, a contractual agreement. He told them that as long as they would commit themselves to be His special people, trusting and worshipping Him alone, just like Adam and Eve were supposed to, He would take care of them. They would be victorious and well supplied.
God, in His grace, knowing that they would say “yes” to the contract, but because of their inherent sin problem would, within days, turn back to sin and start worshipping a golden calf of their own design, gave them laws to live by so they would know how to worship Him, how to care for one another, and be different from the rest of the world.
He said things like: “I am the only God, worship me alone. Don’t murder each other. Don’t steal from each other. Honour your parents.” All these rules were for their own good and intended to make sure that the relationships between Him and each other would be peaceful.
But God did something even better than the Law. He gave them a religious system by which they could temporarily deal with their sin problem and be able to approach God, sort of like they did in the Garden of Eden. Except, this would be a bloody system, full of death. Not just one lamb like during the Passover in Egypt, but many, many animals. It would culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the Day of Deliverance, the most important annual celebration of the year, where the High Priest would symbolically place all of the sin of the nation onto an animal and then kill it in the place of the people. The payment for sin is always death. God has the right to destroy everyone who sins immediately, but instead, He allowed the shed-blood of an animal to stand in their place for a short period of time. It was temporary forgiveness, so they could be in a right relationship with Him – and the sacrifices went on day after day, year after year.
All of this again pointed to Jesus, the one who would come and be the once-and-for-all, perfect sacrifice, to die in the place of sinners, making a way for us to have permanent forgiveness, restoring us back to the same relationship we had with God before the Fall.
So now, Israel was free from slavery, ready to take back the Promised Land, had a good leader in Moses, wonderful laws to protect them, God’s promise to care for them, and a system by which they could be in relationship with God… but of course, having good laws and good a religion didn’t actually fix the problem of sin. Just like the flood didn’t solve the problem of sin, making a list of rules didn’t either.
The people were still under the curse of sin; their souls still bent away from God, and so they wouldn’t and couldn’t obey the law. It wasn’t long before they turned away from the Law, their religion, and from God, and started praying to, worshipping, and putting their trust in created things instead of the Creator – even praying to and making sacrifices to wooden and stone statues of their own making.
Even after being delivered from slavery by miracles, given more miracles on their journey to the Promised Land, given a good leader in Moses, give a Law written by God Himself – emphasized with thunder and earthquakes and even more miracles – it wasn’t enough to keep them from committing more sins and evil. Plus death still existed in the world. There was more saving work that needed to be done.
Chapter 8: Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.
The next chapter in history is a sort of in-between time which you can call “Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat”, and it lasted 1000 years. It was the time of the Judges, the Kings and the Prophets. In the time between the giving of the Law and the birth of Jesus the Saviour, a lot of things happened but it was really just an endless cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.
As far as good things that happened: With God’s help they reclaimed the Promised Land, and divided it up amongst the 12 tribes. They built some great cities and became one of the richest civilizations in history, wrote Psalms and Proverbs, even took down the Tabernacle – the temporary tent of worship – and built a beautiful temple in the holy city of Jerusalem.
But there was more bad than good. They broke every law in God’s book over and over. They made idols, cheated and abused each other, broke the Sabbath, and even participated in child sacrifice. Throughout this time God kept raising up prophets to warn them about the consequences of their bad decisions, but they kept killing the prophets!
For a long time, God was the King of Israel, but eventually, they decided that they didn’t want God to be King anymore, but instead wanted to be like all the other nations and have a human king. This was like a slap in God’s face! He had always been their ruler, their Law-giver, great judge, provider, the one to keep them safe and lead their armies — and now He wasn’t good enough. God’s chosen people, the one that He picked out from among all the others, the one that He had promised Abraham would be a great nation, once they had become one, turned their backs on Him, just like all those who had come before. Just like Eden.
Most of the kings were a mess of sin and selfishness, but God in His mercy kept sending prophets to show the way back to Him. Each of the prophets would remind the nation of God’s hatred of sin, warn them of the dangers of sin, and show them the path of repentance – but most would be ignored or even attacked.
Then, since no one would listen, the prophets would keep talking about the Promised One who would finally come and end this cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat, once and for all. A man who would finally obey God perfectly. The One who was promised to Adam and Eve, who would come through Abraham’s tribe, who would represent mankind, but have the power to conquer evil, forgive sin and even destroy death. The coming of Jesus is spoken about in every book of the Old Testament.
This cycle went on for years… hundreds and hundreds of years… and all the while God continued to prepare the world for Jesus, raising up nations, setting the stage, showing everyone, through Israel, that there was not one person who could obey Him, not one who would worship Him rightly. The prophets would fail, the priests would fail, the kings would fail, the heroes would fail, the people would rebel… the Law condemned everyone.
Humanity was in a miserable state and needed One who would be called the Messiah, which means the “Chosen One”. He would be the one who would finally break the pattern. He would finally obey perfectly, love God and others perfectly, be the perfect prophet, perfect priest, and perfect king. He would speak only truth, bring justice to the oppressed, and lead people into a right relationship with God. He would be called the Christ, the Anointed One. And for years, Israel waited.
Chapter 9: The Messiah
God was waiting until the world was just right (Gal 4:4). Israel was at the pinnacle of their rebellion. The Romans had built roads and laws and a civilization that would allow the story of Jesus to travel throughout the world. God waited until just the right moment to send His greatest Gift – but He surprised everyone by how He did it.
Consider the irony of how Jesus entered the world. Since the beginning of time, people were waiting for this One Person to come. This would be the most important person in history, the Saviour of the world. And when He finally came… almost no one knew. When the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus, finally arrived, He didn’t come as a mighty King on a white horse leading a huge army. He didn’t come in a bolt of lightning on a mountain, with a booming voice proclaiming the Judgement of God.
He came as a baby, a helpless infant. The Son of a virgin, adopted by a poor, Galilean Carpenter. Born in a stable, laid in a feeding trough, in a tiny village. A nobody from nowhere.
No palace like King Solomon. No fanfare like King David. No blasts of fire like Elijah. The Chosen One came in so quietly that His presence went nearly unnoticed by almost all of those who were looking for Him. The Jewish scholars of the day (and today) were looking for a political leader, a military conqueror… but that’s not what they got… at least not yet.
His identity didn’t stay hidden forever. And what did God’s chosen people do when they finally found out their Messiah had come? What was humanities response to the Saviour?
Well, one of the first people to hear, when Jesus was only a couple years old, was King Herod, who immediately tried to murder Him. That would typify a lot of Jesus’ life and ministry. Rejection and suffering would be the pattern of life for the Son of God.
Today is Palm Sunday. Today is the day that, 2000 years ago, the followers of Jesus laid palm branches and their cloaks at the feet of Jesus who was riding into Jerusalem, showing Himself to be the King of the Jews and the one foretold by the prophets. He was signalling His position as God’s Anointed One, the person to whom they should submit, listen to, obey. But they were celebrating something different. They thought this meant Jesus would conquer the Roman army, overthrow their political oppressors, set them up as the most powerful kingdom in the world. They were right to celebrate, but they were wrong about how Jesus would do it. And when He didn’t do things their way… their disappointment immediately turned to rage.
I can’t say it any better than the Deacon Stephen does to the Jewish Ruling Counsel right before they killed him. Stephen was standing before the very people who were supposed to teach Israel about the coming of Jesus! They were the ones who should have been the first to know, acknowledge, and spread the good news that God had sent the Messiah!
Stephen says to them: “You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you! Name one prophet that your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous one –The Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.” (Acts 7:51-53)
Humanity did it again! God Himself enters the world in human form. He sends His own beloved Son, 100% God and 100% man, the only One who could save us from sin and death. The perfect one to teach us how to live, love, and worship properly. And what is our response? We condemn the Anointed One, the Messiah, the perfect Son of God, to the worst, most painful, agonizing, excruciating death imaginable… a Roman cross. God comes to save us – and we murdered God.
One would think that that would be the end of the story. Where do you go when there is no more hope left? How can an author finish a story when the hero is killed and buried before the villain is defeated? You can’t. The story must stop when the hero is dead, right?
For a moment, God’s pen lifts from the paper. The world looks bleak. There is no hope. The disciples are scattered. The Messiah is dead. The villain has won. Sin will reign forever.…
Chapter 10: The Resurrection
But our God is the greatest author of all. His pen stops for only a moment. He turns the page and begins the next chapter. The death of Jesus Christ would not be the end of the story.
Three days after Jesus dies God writes something that turns the greatest defeat in history into the climax of His Epic tale. He turns dead silence into a loud crescendo! He turns ultimate tragedy into ultimate victory!
God flips all History on its head. In the story God is writing there are no mistakes. The One who was to be our Saviour… was supposed to die. His victory came because of His death. Suddenly all of the foreshadowing in the Old Testament makes sense. There can be no greater hero than one who would give His life for others. He would be the one to crush the serpent. He would be spotless lamb whose blood would save from death. He would be the final sacrifice of that religious system. His death would be the means by which we would be saved.
The Messiah’s mission was to defeat the greatest enemy of this world. Almost everyone thought that this meant that it would be a political, military, human enemy. But God, the great author, reveals that humanity’s greatest enemy isn’t any person or nation or empire, it isn’t sickness or sadness… the greatest enemy in this world is sin. It was sin that needed to be conquered.
If sin was left unconquered, then humanity was doomed. Do you know the name of the place where God’s forgiveness and love and grace is not present – where and sin and death and wrath reign forever? It’s called Hell. Sin puts us on a one-way path to Hell with nothing to stop it. That needed to be dealt with.
Not sickness, not poverty, not gluttony or lust or abuse – not political corruption or corporate greed. All of those are a result of sin and there was only one way to deal with sin. The flood didn’t work. The list of Laws didn’t work. The bloody sacrificial system didn’t work. Good kings didn’t work. Advancing civilization didn’t work. Because none of it dealt with sin. Sin needed to be paid for, dealt with, and destroyed.
And so God, in His grace, sent His Son Jesus, and then poured out the full measure of His judgement on Jesus. We will never fully understand the suffering Jesus went through for those who would put their faith in Him. Jesus – the perfect human, the only One who did not deserve judgement, chose to take the punishment for anyone who would believe and trust in Him, so we could be restored back to God. He offers to exchange our sin for His righteousness.
But, just as in Eden, God offers a choice. God does not save everyone whether they want it or not. God does not force anyone to follow Him. Love requires choice. So God offers a choice.
God does all the heavy lifting. He shows us He exists through creation. He shows us our sin through His Law and our consciences. He shows us His plan of salvation in the scriptures. He raises up people to share his plan of salvation with us personally. Jesus does all the work of obeying God’s law, taking God’s wrath, and dying for our sins. Jesus is the ultimate hero as He walks out of the grave, conquering the greatest enemy ever. He defeats the effects of sin. He beats death. That weight of judgement that humanity had borne for thousands of years was placed on His shoulders, and He carried it, paid for it, bled for it, and then rose from the dead to show His victory over it – and then extends His nail-scarred hands to offer freedom to anyone who would believe. He makes each of us an offer.
Will you accept the risen Jesus as your only Saviour? As Romans 10:9-10 says, “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”
Chapter 11: The Denouement
Today, we are living in the denouement, the end of the great Epic. The story has unfolded, the villain has been conquered, the Hero has been lifted high, and His people are victorious. Yes, we still see the effects of sin, because the story isn’t quite over yet. This pandemic is a reminder that the consequences of sin are terrible and lead to corruption and death. It’s a reminder that, as Romans 8 says, creation is groaning along with us, waiting to be finally freed from its bondage to corruption, eagerly awaiting our final destination and the redemption of our bodies. But, Christians know, that times like this also remind us of the hope we have in Jesus – that as wonderful as they may be, there is no politician, no doctor, no scientist, no person, that can deal with our real problem – the weight of sin in our souls. We talked about that last week.
This Epic is the greatest message that can be known, and I want you to internalize it: It tells you that you were personally designed by a loving creator who offers you hope, and purpose, and a secure future no matter what happens in this world. It reminds you that life is more than just food, money, sex, friends, and career. It tells you that your instinct towards justice and your deep desire for hope and peace and joy and freedom can be fulfilled, but only in Jesus. It tells you that your decisions today have eternal consequences. And reminds you that you do not need to fear death because death has lost its sting. – and that even your most terrible suffering can be turned into the greatest of victories. That you are worthy of and can experience divine love, the cleansing of your soul, and be made into a new person. That God will never leave you, never forsake you, and because of the work of our Hero, Jesus Christ, you can live in His presence today and forever.
This is a great story because it is a true story. People have loved it so much, and believed in the Hero so deeply, that they have died to tell it to others. I urge you, if you have not already, to accept the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, to read this story over and over in your Bible, and to tell His story, this Epic, to as many people as you can.
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, “’Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.’” (John 3:1–21)
Last week we ended our study of this section at verse 9 where Nicodemus, marvelling at what Jesus has just told him, says, “How can these things be?” The whole concept of being “born again” or “born from above” was blowing his mind. For his whole life, he had been told and had taught that the way to please God, get forgiveness, be holy, and have a blessed life, was through rules and religion. He was a Pharisee, a “separated one”, a member of the Sanhedrin, one of the top-dogs of Israel, famous for being a man who not only followed and enforced the Mosaic Laws but all the other extra laws that the Pharisees had since come up with. He was 100% sold out to the fact that it was through stricter and stricter obedience and enforcement of the rules that Israel would be saved.
But Jesus, this newcomer on the scene, who spoke with authority like they’d never seen and backed up His words with great signs and miracles was saying something very different. He was saying that salvation doesn’t come from trying harder and being more religious. He was saying that all of our human efforts to please God through religious fervour were actually working against Nicodemus’ relationship with God. His rules and religion was putting a wedge between him and God, him and others, and was actually leading people into damnation, not salvation. And I think Nicodemus knew it.
When he looked at himself and his fellow Pharisees he didn’t see men that oozed the love of God. He saw people who were harsh, unloving, unkind, ungracious, and who were always worried that God was mad at them because they hadn’t done enough. People who lived in a constant state of either prideful arrogance for being such awesome people – or in fear and deep doubt because they were never sure if they’d done enough. What a terrible way to live. But they were locked into it. Their devotion to traditions, their lust for power, their whole comprehension of God, was locked into this pattern. And I’m convinced Nicodemus felt it.
And here stood Jesus saying that everything he believed was wrong. Jesus said that the only way to find forgiveness, blessing, salvation, and reconciliation with God is to give up being a Pharisee – to totally repent of that way of living and thinking – and to simply ask God to change his heart. I said last week that Nicodemus immediately knew that Jesus was talking about Ezekiel 36 & 27, and I believe that’s what gave Nicodemus the epiphany.
But an epiphany wasn’t enough. It’s one thing to hear the truth – another to submit to that truth. So Nicodemus says in verse 9, “How can these things be?”
The Five Solas
Another way of saying this would be, “How could we get this so wrong for so long? How could everything we’re saying be wrong? Surely there must be some middle ground? I can’t believe that all of my religious fervour, all my hard work, all the self-denial, all the work I’ve put into showing people how to be a good person – counts for nothing?”
This is the problem a lot of people have with Christianity. Christians, atheists, and other religions all take issue. There is something deep inside of us that believes that we can save ourselves, impress God, and earn the right to go to heaven. There’s something deep inside the human spirit that refuses to believe that all our efforts, our good deeds, our self-sacrifice, our worldly success, our passion, our knowledge, our study, our “work for God”, our church attendance, our donations record, our all amounts to nothing in the end.
This was the great work of the reformers like Luther and Calvin who saw the state of the Christian Church – how corrupt and Pharisaical it had become – opened up their Bibles, saw the truth, and began to preach it. They came up with the Five Solas of the doctrine of salvation – the five “Alones” – that were in exact opposition to everything the Roman Catholic Church had been teaching and doing. Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria. The Salvation that God offers is by Scripture Alone, by Faith Alone, by Grace Alone, through Christ Alone, and to the Glory of God Alone.
The Salvation Jesus offers is described and understood only through the scriptures, the Bible. It doesn’t matter what “makes sense to you” or how you “feel”. God has outlined the way that people are saved from sin and death and the path of salvation is clearly outlined in scripture. Anything different than that is a lie. That salvation is by faith alone, not by any human endeavour. It is given from God by grace alone, not because we deserve any of it, but because, as Ephesians 2:4-5 says,
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…”
And who does scripture point to? Who must we have faith in? Through whom did this grace come? Through Jesus Christ alone. Acts 4:12,
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” [NIV]
And why did God do it? Why did God make us, let us fall, send prophets, write scripture, save some and condemn others? Why does humanity exist at all? For the glory of God alone. We read that last week in Ezekiel 36. The Reformers weren’t coming up with anything new – they weren’t creating a new church – they were “reforming” the church back to the way it was supposed to be.
Jesus says it this way to Nicodemus in John 3:10-15,
“Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’”
Jesus says, “You’ve read, memorized, and taught every verse in the Hebrew Bible and you don’t still understand God’s will. Your mind is trapped on earth and all the things you think you can do here to try to climb your way to heaven. Take it from me, the only person who has ever come down from heaven, that there is only one path. Remember the story (Num. 21:4-9) of when all the people spoke against God and Moses, and the Lord sent fiery serpents to poison everyone? No one was going to be able to good-deed their way out of being poisoned. They were cursed and already dead – it was just a matter of time before the poison finished them off. Do you remember how they saved themselves, Nicodemus? What did they do? Did they pray a bunch, sacrifice animals, give tithes? No. What was their path of salvation? God told Moses to make a bronze image of the serpent, set it on a pole, and raise it high in the air so that anyone who looks on it, the moment He sees it, would be saved from the poison that was killing them. That’s how it works. Except in this case, the poison is sin and I’m the One who is going to be raised up – on a cross – and everyone who looks to me will be saved – but not just in this life – they will be given eternal life. Do you understand what I’m saying, Nicodemus? You cannot save yourself by any means because you are poisoned with sin. All of your good deeds are corrupted by sin. Your thinking is corrupted by sin. Every convert you make is doubly corrupt because they are following you! There is only one way to be saved. You need that poison dealth with. You need to look to me.”
And Jesus continues explaining this to Nicodemus in verse 16, the most famous verse in the Bible.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)
The Pharisees were all about judgment and condemnation. They loved popping up behind people, catching them breaking one of their rules (not God’s, theirs) and then using their position of authority to judge and condemn them. Read through the gospels again and see how many times Jesus is walking around, teaching, hanging out with his disciples, and then a Pharisee just jumps out of nowhere and starts condemning Him. It’s quite ridiculous once you see it.
But when God did finally send His Son, the Messiah, the Son of Man, the one the whole Old Testament prophesied about, He didn’t act like a Pharisee. He didn’t come and zap all the bad people left and right, killing Israel’s enemies, blasting everyone who didn’t perfectly follow the law, and passing out health, wealth, and power to all the good and obedient Pharisees. He did exactly the opposite. God the Father sent Jesus the Son to save people, not condemn them. Jesus came with an extended hand, not a closed fist. God loved the world so much – Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, Romans, Pagans, Tax Collectors, Prostitutes, Adulterers, Drunkards, and yes, even Pharisees – that He was willing to raise up His perfect, beloved, Son on a cross for them.
And instead of the path of salvation being an impossible list of rules that no one could keep. He showed that the Law only had the power to condemn (Rom 8:4), but He – the only person who would ever keep the entire Law, perfectly – had the power to forgive and exchange Himself for sinners. Just as anyone who looked to the serpent was saved, so would any who look to Him. Just as the Israelites in Egypt believed that the blood sacrifice of the spotless lamb would allow death to Passover them, so the blood of Jesus would do the same. Just as anyone who believed that on the Day of Atonement, the bloody death of bulls and goats, and the sprinkling of their blood on the altar, mercy seat, and people, would atone and mane propitiation for – or make reparations for and appease God’s wrath for their own sin – so the blood of Jesus would do the same.
Jesus wasn’t there to bring final judgement. Not this time. He was coming to offer salvation to any who would believe in Him.
Nicodemus’s mind must have been reeling at this point because it went against everything he had ever believed. All the words of the prophets he’s memorized must have been racing through his mind with new understanding, new interpretation, knowing that Jesus was speaking the truth. His guilt and shame for being so wrong must have been immense. But there was that human side that made him want to refuse Jesus’ words, refuse to believe he wasn’t at least partly responsible for his own salvation.
And Jesus doubles-down in verse 18,
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
Zero wiggle room. Salvation comes by the Word of God alone, through faith in Jesus alone, by the grace of God alone, through the Son of God alone, and for the glory of God alone. No other options.
Turn with me to John 14, but keep your thumb in John 3. Jesus is in the upper room preparing his disciples for what is going to happen that night. He will be leaving them because he’s about to be betrayed, falsely accused, condemned, and murdered. They’re obviously freaking out and Jesus says, “‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:1–7)
I’m the way, Thomas. You can’t get there unless I take you there. You can’t know truth unless I tell it to you. You can’t have life unless I give it to you. No one can come before God, no one can be saved unless I am the one who brings them.”
That’s what Jesus was telling Nicodemus too.
Turn back to John 3. The natural question that comes to most Christians at this point, I think, is “Why would anyone reject this message?” It’s beautiful, simple, and generous. People everywhere struggle with guilt, shame, and fear. They want to be right with God and others. They want to know forgiveness and hope. They look at their lives and know that this isn’t all there is, that their habits are ruining them, and all the stuff they are amassing is empty. All the things they’ve tried to do to kill the pain, ignore the shame, and distract from the emptiness and hopelessness they feel, isn’t working.
Then they hear the gospel. You’d think that it would come as a welcome relief to them! Hope, help, forgiveness – all for free because Jesus paid the cost. Connection to God, the gift of the Holy Spirit, a cleansed soul, and the knowledge that no matter what happens in this world, it will work out for our good and God’s glory – and that the sufferings of this blip of a life will be nothing compared to the glory that is coming (Rom 8:18). Seems pretty, “No duh.” to me.
Why would anyone reject this? Why would Nicodemus hem and haw? Why would the Pharisees condemn Jesus for this message and ultimately betray and murder Him? Why would generations of Christians after be martyred for spreading a message of amazing grace, free salvation, eternal hope, and a renewed spirit, for anyone who would believe in Jesus alone? Why, if Christians have some of the greatest philosophers, scientists, apologists, writers, thinkers, and agents of mercy of all time and in the whole world, would people reject what we have to say with such vehemence?
Jesus answers that question in verses 19-21,
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
The reason is that they love their sin and themselves. They prefer darkness. God wants to expose their sin to the light, expose their deeds, expose their thoughts, and let them see how evil they are. But they want to stay in the dark because they don’t want to be exposed. Accepting Jesus’ message means admitting and exposing sin. It means saying, “I’m wrong. I’m a sinner. I’m an addict. I’m a gossip. I’m controlling. I use people. I’m lazy. I’m critical. I’m superstitious. I want glory for myself and don’t want to share. I have hate in my heart that I don’t want to let go of. I don’t want to submit to authority. I love money more than people. I want power. I want to hurt people. I want to use people for my own gratification. I want to steal things because I think I deserve them. I want to do what I want, when I want, and be the ultimate arbiter of what is good and right for me and everyone else. I don’t want God, I want to be God.”
To come to Jesus means coming to the light and having everything exposed. That’s why they won’t come.
Consider your own sins for a moment. Where and when do you do them? Out in the open? Lights on? In front of people? Or do you find a corner, turn off the lights, and get alone?
When you’re about to gossip or slander, do you speak in a loud voice for all to hear, or do you find a corner and whisper? When you want to control and manipulate someone, do you do it in front of their friends, family, and church – or do you do it alone, through e-mail, and tell them to keep secrets? Where do you keep the things you sin with; on a shelf for all to see, or tucked away in a dark place? Where have you gotten in the most trouble, and have had the most problems – with things that people did and said in the open for all to see and hear or the ones that happened during secret meetings, private messages, dark places, and back-room encounters? Sin hates the light, because the light causes it to wither and die.
If you are doing things in the darkness right now, what you are doing is not only dangerous but foolish. Your deeds are only secret from some. God knows, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the news lately, you will eventually be found out.
Isaiah 29:15 says,
“Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the Lord, who do their work in darkness and think, ‘Who sees us? Who will know?’”
In Luke 12:1-3 Jesus says,
“Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” (also Luke 8:17)
I’m telling you the truth.
Turn with me to Ephesians 5 and listen to what the Apostle Paul says,
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Ephesians 5:1–17)
I’ll leave the rest of the passage for you to read on your own time.
But let this be our conclusion today. Jesus is inviting you to the light but your sin loves darkness. I beg you to expose all your dark things to the light. James 5:16 says to
“confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
Do you want healing in your soul, your marriage, your family, your church? Start confessing your sins to one another.
Now, expect resistance. Satan really hates it when Christians do this. He’s going to give you every excuse in the world. “Now’s not a good time.” “They won’t be able to handle it.” “It’s too risky. I might lose my friend, marriage, job, position.”
Something will come to mind, maybe even now, and automatically you’ll hear, “It’s not that big of a deal. You don’t need to confess that one. It’s between you and God.” That’s Satan. Do you want to be free of that sin? Do you want salvation? Do you want healing?
“…Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
To whom? First, to Jesus. Use your voice, out-loud, and confess that sin, out-loud, to God and ask for forgiveness in Jesus’ name. God is the one you’ve offended most and who you need to deal with first.
Then, confess the one you sinned against. Confess to the people you affected. Confess to the ones who felt the ripple effects. Confess your sin to your Christian friend. Then tell your mentor, deacon, elder, and pastor. Drag that sin, kicking and screaming, into the light and keep blasting more and more light on it until it is shrivelled and dead. That’s the only way to be free.
How many here have Instagram? I do. I’m pretty much done with Facebook these days, and I’ve mostly shifted over to Instagram. I like it a little more because it’s a little more dumbed down. There’s not as much going on in the feed as there is on Facebook. It’s just a stream of pictures, comics, and quotes that I can thumb through, and then double if I like.
Most of the stuff on there, and I’m assuming this is how it works for you too, I just scan past and never think about again. But there was one quote that I saw recently that caused me to pause and has stuck in my brain. It’s a quote from a theologian named Steven Lawson.
It goes like this:
“Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.”
I tried to find the context for the quote, whether it was a sermon or a book or something, but couldn’t. And that’s ok because this short sentence is powerful enough on its own. The background is likely the famous song Amazing Grace which starts, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
And both of those echo what we read in Ephesians 2:1-9. Please turn there and listen to how we are described before Jesus saves us:
“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. 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.”
Here we read how God sees us before we are saved, before He resurrects our hearts, before we admit we are sinners and accept Jesus as our Saviour. He sees us as dead in our sins, sons and daughters of hell, workers of disobedience to whom evil comes so naturally, we don’t even notice it. He sees us as His enemies, deserving of wrath, and condemned. Meaning that even the good we thought we were doing, wasn’t good at all, but actually worked against God. (Isa 64:6; Romans 1)
And yet, despite being a dead, wretched, lost, blind, enemy of God – He shows us an incomprehensibly great kindness by sending His only Son, trading His Son for us on the cross, and accepting his death for our sake. He then cleanses us from unrighteousness, comes to live inside us, and promises that from now on we will be with Him forever. And what is the cost of this great salvation? What must we do? Good deeds? Give money on Sundays? Go to church? Punish ourselves? No. Jesus completely paid the price, all we must do is believe He did it. That’s why we’re here, singing, giving, serving, and studying His Word today, right?
More Wrath More Grace
BUT, here’s the thing. Steven Lawson was right. “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.” It’s almost a mathematical equation. The more you understand how much wrath God had prepared for you, how much trouble you were in, the more amazing you will understand His grace and forgiveness and the work of Jesus to be. BUT, the opposite is true too. The more you think you deserve God’s grace, the less amazing you’ll think it is.
We just had that tornado touch down in Dunrobin outside of Ottawa, right? Every time something like that happens in the news I hear someone say the same thing, “Nothing like that ever happens around here. We live in such a boring place. I wish we would have something cool happen like a tornado or hurricane or something!”
I promise that no one in Dunrobin is thinking that way. None of the people who the tornado missed are jealously looking at their neighbours house and wishing it would have wiped them out. None of the parents are looking at those with terrified, injured children think, “Wow, my family is so boring. I wish my kid had been almost killed by a tornado.”
Why? Because they saw firsthand the devastation, the damage, the wrath of the storm. Because it touched them they have a respect for it, fear of it, and for many, a thankful heart that it wasn’t worse.
Those who are far from the storm, safe in their homes, watching it on the news laugh at the storm, mock the storm, even wish the storm upon themselves for fun. Why? Because they have not felt its fury. But those who were in it, closest, who were holding each in a basement other while the storm ripped their house apart, they respect the wrath. I watched a video of a man who was in his home with his daughter when the tornado hit. It ripped off the roof of their house, and his daughter went flying up. He grabbed her little hand as she was being pulled into the storm, and held on for dear life until it passed. That man isn’t at home joking about wanting the storm to come to his town. Why? Because he felt the wrath of the storm.
The Gospel Balance
Christians are often criticized because we talk too much about sin. We are sometimes characterized as being joyless, fun-sucking, lemon-eating, sourpusses who spend too much time thinking about how bad and undeserving and guilty we are. The church is sometimes seen as a guilt factory where people who come in needing some help or encouragement are told instead that everything is their fault and that they should actually feel worse. And in some cases, that can be true. Some churches, some preachers, even me on occasion, concentrate too much on the bad news. Which is why there are so many that refuse to talk about the bad news at all.
People generally don’t like feeling guilty, shameful, wretched, blind, or lost – so they avoid places, like the church, where those feelings happen, and instead, seek out places that affirm them. They join groups that make them feel good about their life choices, feel accepted no matter what they’ve done, encourage them to do it more, and get told that they should never have any bad feelings about it. This is great when a person is trying to lose weight, learn a craft, study for exams, or get free from an addiction – but it works the other way too. Alcoholics go to bars to be surrounded by people who won’t judge them, addicts go to clubs to be with people who do what they do, violent people seek out people who want to be violent with them, sexual sinners seek out people who sin like they do and won’t criticize them, and argumentative jerks go to online chat groups…
What they want is to get rid of the feeling of guilt, shame, and fear that what they are doing is wrong. They want to be surrounded by people who will say: “Despite how you feel, despite the warnings in your head, despite your feelings of guilt and shame, keep doing it. You’re fine. You’re good. You were built this way. You deserve it. Your excuses are enough reason. You’re the exception. All of your actions are justified – because you are just like us. And if enough people say that it’s ok, good, right, beautiful, helpful, and healthy – then we can start to believe that. And we’re going to make sure everyone else believes it too.”
The Gospel of Jesus Christ exists within a paradox where guilt meets grace. There is a tension in Christianity that we all hold at the same time – and it is in that tension that we must live in order to create within us a heart of praise and thanksgiving. Christians exist in the tension between God’s Righteous Holy Wrath against us sinners who deserve Hell and the mystery of God’s Amazing Grace.
We hold in our minds, at the same time, the knowledge that we are dead, wretched, lost, blind enemies of God who have utterly rejected Him, with flesh that keeps pulling us towards sin, loving sin and self too much, and failing God every day – and the knowledge that somehow, for some reason that we will never understand, God loves us so much that He traded His Son for us so that we could be with Him forever (Rom 11:28-36). Or as Romans 5:6-8 says it,
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
That quote that I mentioned before, “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.” could be restated, “Grace cannot amazing to you unless you know how wretched, lost, blind you actually were.”
That’s why Christians spend so much time talking about sin – because we know the damage it does and the consequences of not taking it seriously. That’s why Christians spend so much time praying. Because we know that we can’t really trust ourselves, our minds, our hearts to lead us the right way. That’s why Christians don’t run from guilt, but instead walk through that guilt into grace. If we ignore the guilt, we cannot get to forgiveness. Because when we feel guilty, ashamed, and afraid of God’s wrath, it forces us to go to Jesus to deal with it.
Jesus the Advocate
My daughter Eowyn memorized a verse this week that I really needed to hear. As she was working on it, I was going through a tough time, making some bad decisions, getting really down, Satan accusing me over and over in my ear – and she kept coming to me, handing me the book, and reviewing the verse to make sure she had it right. So I had to read it multiple times that day and eventually is sunk in. It’s from 1 John 2:1 and here’s what it said:
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
What a healing balm that has been to my soul this week. The apostle, in this book repeatedly calls Christians, “My little children”. I like that and needed to hear it so much. It’s a reminder that as grown up and smart as I think I am, spiritually I’m still a child. I’m not all grown up and mature, like my Heavenly Father. I’m still learning, growing, making mistakes, and tripping over my own feet. And God knows this. When I sin, He’s not looking down on me in wrath. No, I’m a Christian. I’m forgiven. I’m one of His kids.
Sometimes I still get afraid that God is mad at me for the things I’ve done. That God is punishing me. But then I remember Romans 8:15–16 which says,
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God…”
I have to remind myself: I’m a Christian. God is my dad. When I sin, He still loves me. I’m no longer under His wrath. And as His kid, His child, I don’t need to be afraid of Him.
People tell me sometimes that I can be sort of scary. I have angry eyebrows, a pointy beard, and a loud voice and that freaks people out. Do you know who isn’t scared of me? My kids. They’ve seen my face, heard my voice, and know me – so they don’t get scared when I talk – even when I want them to be! I raise my voice during a conversation for some reason, people turn their heads and wince, babies cry, sirens start going off in the distance – and my kids laugh. Why? Because they know I’m not scary. I’m their dad. That’s how God wants me to see Him too.
Next it says,
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.”
God doesn’t want us to sin. Part of the reason He wrote the Bible was to show us our sin. The Law of the Old Testament, the stories of Israel, the hard-hearted Pharisees, the cruel Romans, the arrogant Greeks, the false teachers, the superstitious pagans – we see ourselves in all of them, and we see our sin. The Bible shows us our faults and then guides us on how to make it right. God doesn’t want us to sin. He still hates sin and hates seeing His children doing it – and will oftentimes discipline us so we can learn about the wrong we’re doing.
Later in chapter 3:9-10 we read:
“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”
Though we’ll never be free of our sinful natures until we get to heaven, God doesn’t want us to be “practicing” sin. We fall, we fail, we develop a bad habit, we go to the wrong place for comfort, that happens to all of us. But when Christians do it, we recognize it as sin. That means we don’t want to do it, even though we just did. We want to change, want to be holier, and we ask for God’s help. But sometimes we keep falling, right? Does that mean God hates us? Does that mean we’re not really Christians? That’s what Satan the Accuser wants us to think (Rev 12:10).
No, there’s an amazing but in there. It says,
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
And I’ll keep reading,
“He is the propitiation for our sins…”
If a human being was creating a religion what would that say? It would go, “I’m writing down all these things so that you won’t sin. But if you do sin, boy are you in trouble! You’d better not! Jesus won’t be happy with you!” But that’s not what it says, is it?
It says that Jesus is our Advocate. In other words, Jesus is our lawyer. He takes up the cause for us before God the Judge. He presents our defence, speaks to God for us, He mediates the conversation with God and He’s on our side. He’s our Advocate before God. And God listens because Jesus is “righteous”, meaning He is perfect. More than this, Jesus is also “the propitiation for our sins”. That means that Jesus was the sacrifice who bore God’s wrath against us so that we could be free.
This is where the understanding of “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.” comes into play again. Christians sin. Someone said to me recently that they didn’t want to come to church because they feel like a hypocrite. I told them, “It’s ok. We’re all hypocrites.” What did I mean? I meant that even though all the Christians in the church say we hate sin, we all keep on sinning. All of us. We keep sinning, keep doing things our own way, keep denying God and living as practical atheists, keep being selfish and bitter and trying to steal God’s glory. But what happens when we sin? Do we lose our salvation? Or does God simply forget about it? Does He pretend it didn’t happen? Do His kids get away with sin?
No. Do you know what happens? A Christian sins, again and again, and Jesus, our Advocate, says, “Father, don’t count that sin against them. Remember, I took the punishment for that sin. You poured your wrath out on me for that. They are still free.”
When Jesus was on the cross, God looked at the entire timeline of human existence, at the sins of all who would believe – from Adam and Eve to the very last believer at the end of time – potentially billions of people and billions upon billions of sins – and He poured the exact amount of wrath out on Jesus to pay for all of them. All our sins in our past and all the sins in our future are not forgotten by God – they are paid for by Jesus.
Christians who recognize that they are sinners, and how deep that sin goes, are people who recognize the immensity of the wrath that Jesus took for us – and recognizing that allows us to begin to understand how Amazing His Grace really is.
And understanding that grace, that undeserved merit, and then seeing all the other good things God gives us which we absolutely do not deserve – changes our lives. It makes us more willing to forgive others. Knowing that when we were enemies of God He forgave us allows us to forgive our own enemies. Knowing how generous God has been with us allows us to be generous with others. Knowing that Jesus came to serve us makes us want to serve others.
That’s why Christians take time to contemplate our sin and the wrath we deserved because of it – but the grace we got instead – it causes us to praise, to worship, to give thanks.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Chances are when you sit at the table with whoever you are celebrating with, you’re going to say grace before you eat. At least I hope you do. It’s an important habit all Christians should have – to stop for a moment and recognize that where you are and what you have is a good practice to develop humility. But when you do sit down and say grace, when you think about all the things you are thankful for, I want you to remember that that list is much longer than you realize. One Christian leader said it this way: “Everything above Hell is grace.” (Bill Stafford)
Allow that thought to enter your Thanksgiving this season. Allow yourself to see how great a sinner you are and then, as you contrast your darkness with light, realize how great your Saviour is.
The more I study the Heidelberg Catechism, the more I like it. It appeals to me on so many levels – it’s beautifully written, theologically rich and complex, but is also laid out in such a logical way that it’s very readable and straightforward to follow. I wish that I had been able to go through this, or something like it, a long time ago – not as a pastor preaching a series, but as a congregant or student. Even to this day, I feel so far behind in understanding what are considered to be the basics of the Christian faith.
I admit I wasn’t the best student in the world, but I don’t really remember going through any kind of catechism as a child, teen, adult, or when I was in Bible College. Sure, we studied stories and books of the Bible but it seemed divorced, at least in my mind, from how it impacted my daily Christian walk. Even in seminary, as I was taking Hermeneutics, Systematic Theology, Baptist History and Thought, and Christian Ethics, I knew what I was learning was important, but it almost felt like I was memorizing trivia answers so that I seem like I know what I’m talking about, rather than really connecting those thoughts as an anchor to my faith.
I love learning, and I love knowledge, but for a long time that meant simply amassing a bunch of information rather than taking time to meditate on the meaning of what I was actually learning. I learned words like Law, Covenant, Atonement, Grace, Sanctification, and Justification and knew their definitions, but somehow there remained a sort of disconnect between those concepts and my daily Christian faith, my prayer life, bible reading, and personal relationships. I could preach, teach, counsel, and answer lots of questions, but I was more like a theological calculator than an actual pastor. It wasn’t until I started facing a bunch of personal difficulties that those concepts really started to sink in.
Maybe you’ve experienced this: You’ve been to Sunday School and learned lots of Bible stories. Went to Bible camp, got baptized, and sat through a bunch of sermons. You’ve been to Small Groups and read your Bible at home. But your connection to God wasn’t really growing. You know more stuff, and look like a confident Christian on the outside, but on the inside, you wonder if you’re really a believer at all. You keep sinning, don’t pray as often as you know you should, don’t read your Bible with the passion you feel you ought. You come to church and though it’s nice to be here but inside it feels like you’re going through the motions and you hope that no one notices. You like your Christian friends, but are fairly indifferent towards getting to know them better. You still talk about God, but it’s been forever since you actually shared your faith with anyone – partly because you’re not sure if what you have to offer is going to help at all… since you’re not sure how much it’s helping you.
I’ve been in that place, even as a preacher. Showing up on Sundays, sermon in hand, saying what I think are all the right things, but wondering if somewhere very deep down I’m simply parroting other people’s deep thoughts about faith because I’m afraid to look at myself in the mirror and face the realization that my own faith is so terribly shallow.
But then, and I don’t know how long ago it was, I started to get really interested in Theology. I think it came because of the mix of my need for good answers to tough questions, my longing for a deeper relationship with God, and my fear of standing up here as a hypocrite leading other people into error. I know a lot of it came because I was facing difficult times and my reaction showed how far I really was from God, how undisciplined, how unsanctified, and that realization started to scare me.
And so, I started asking God for help. And whereas before I was simply reading the Bible because I was supposed to, and reading books about “how to grow a church” or “how to preach” or “how to lead” – those books started to become distasteful to me – I believe God gave me a new interest in Theology. And as I started to study, it was like a healing balm to my wounded soul, like a big drink of cool water after being thirsty for so long. Suddenly those terms I had learned started to move from my mind to my heart to my soul. Suddenly the sermons I’d heard, even ones I’d preached, started to make a different kind of sense to me. Suddenly the music we were singing in church, especially the old hymns, started to speak to my problems, encourage me, challenge me, and build my faith.
A Mighty Fortress
Recall to your mind the first 4 or 5 weeks of this sermon series and then consider the words to the 500-year-old hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”:
“A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing: Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. For still our ancient foe doth seek to work his woe; his craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.”
That speaks of the problem of sin, temptation, and Satan. It continues:
“Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing; were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing. Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he; Lord Sabaoth is his name, from age to age the same, and He must win the battle.”
What’s that about? That salvation from sin, death, temptation, and Satan is found in Jesus alone, not in our own strength. That if we try to fight him in our own strength, then we will lose. When I’m utterly ruined by guilt, shame, fear, doubt, trials and temptations – should I buck up, pull up my socks, and try harder? No? Who wins the battle? Lord Sabaoth, or “God of the Angel Armies” is His name. And it continues:
“And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us. The Prince of Darkness grim,—we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! His doom is sure,—one little word shall fell him.”
But life is still hard, we say, still “filled with devils”, and it threatens to undo us. Why shouldn’t we live in fear? What reason can we give not to live in constant fear of all the things that can and will go wrong? Because God has promised that “His truth will triumph through us”. What does that mean? It means that even through our trials, storms, and sufferings, Satan is still losing. Romans 8:36-37 says that even if we face death all day long and are regarded as sheep for slaughter, we are still “more than conquerors”. Why? Because our enemy is already beaten and is “one little word” away from total destruction. What is that word? “Jesus”. He is the one that can say to a storm: “Peace! Be Still!” and it stops in a moment (Mark 4:35-39). He is the One before whom demons cower who can command them with one word to “Go!” (Matthew 8:289-34). Jesus is the one who, at the beginning of John is called “The Word… who was with God and… was God” (John 1:1), the LOGOS, the power through whom all things came into being.
The hymn concludes:
“That word above all earthly powers—no thanks to them—abideth; the Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth. Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also: the body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is for ever.”
What does it mean to “abideth”, or “abide”. It means to continue, to remain. This whole verse calls to mind John 15:1-11, which is Jesus’ illustration that says that He is the Vine, we are the branches, and God is the Vinedresser. Jesus says,
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:4–11)
To abide, as verse 9 says, means to trust and rest and believe in the love of Jesus? What does that look like? That’s verse 10. It means we keep His commandments, or more simply “do things His way”, because it shows that we trust Him. Jesus says that the qualification for salvation, for answered prayer, for acceptable worship, and for bearing any kind of fruit in this world is that He abides in us and we abide in Him.
“The Prince of Darkness grim,—we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! His doom is sure,—one little word shall fell him. That word above all earthly powers—no thanks to them—abideth; the Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth.”
Some people don’t like these kinds of old hymns because they sound so dark and grim, talking about sin, death, hell, Satan, suffering – but it’s not grim – it’s hopeful! It’s a theological explanation, in song form, of why we need not be overcome by temptation, fear, sadness, or hopelessness. It’s a song that says if “we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing”, but that there is one who can win the battle, One who is greater than us, who has chosen to be “on our side”, and who will not only win for us, but will give us even more by granting us “the Spirit and the gifts”?
What does that mean? It means that Christians who abide in Jesus, who trust Jesus, who love Jesus and know that He loves them, will be given the gift of the presence of the Holy Spirit, the very person of God, to dwell in you just as the presence of God dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the temple of Israel (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:16-20). And with His presence comes spiritual gifts like you’ve never experienced before.
Beauty Under Our Noses
There’s a thing online that I come across sometimes that always makes me pause, and it’s the blogs and sites that are dedicated to before and after pressure-washing pictures. Sidewalks, decks, driveways, walls that have been left to the ravages of their environment brought back to their former splendour by some high-pressure water. It’s not that they were ruined, it was just that they were covered in the gunk of the ages.
Hymns and theological studies are kind of like that. We all like seeing a new car, new paint job, new building, or a new piece of tech because it’s so smooth and shiny, but it’s amazing how much beauty there is in the older things around us. Sometimes we walk by a plaque or building or walk down a sidewalk – or pick up an old hymnal, systematic theology, catechism, puritan classic, book of prayers – and assume that it’s just old, tired, useless, or broken down with age – but once we remove the gunk of our own biases and do a little study work – we start to realize the amazing beauty that has been right under our noses.
When I started to study theology, songs like “A Mighty Fortress” started to come alive to me. Not because of their own inherent beauty or power – which I think they have – but because they pointed me to the beauty and power of the promises that God had been telling me all along in His word, but that I was missing or misunderstanding or glossing over because I wasn’t doing the meditative work to allow them to penetrate my heart.
Christ the Mediator
Consider today’s study of the Heidelberg Catechism which speaks of the need for God’s justice to be fully satisfied by Christ our Mediator. Words like “Justice” “Justification” “Satisfaction” Mediator” are rich with meaning, but come across as cold and pedantic, old-timey and covered in the gunk of the ages. So when we hear them or read them they sometimes bounce off of us. But if we take a moment to ponder them, to meditate, study, and explain them, suddenly the beauty and joy of what is being said, starts to come forth.
Look at Question 12, and remember the context. We’ve just spent 4 weeks talking about the trouble and misery of sin. We’ve come face to face with mankind’s greatest problem, and our own guilty conscience. We’ve tried to make excuses, denying our guilt, blaming God, blaming others, denying the need for punishment and the existence of Hell – and hopefully came last week to the place where we finally relent and say, “I am a sinner, condemned by the Word of God and my own conscience. I have offended Holy God and deserve a just punishment for having a heart that loves sin and for the sins I have committed for my whole life.”
Now we come to question 12:
“Since, according to God’s righteous judgment we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, how can we escape this punishment and be again received into favour?”
How can we escape justice? Look at the answer:
“God demands that his justice be satisfied. Therefore we must make full payment, either by ourselves or through another.”
You cannot escape justice. Justice will be done.
Turn with me to Psalm 139 where the psalmist says,
“O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.”
You are caught in your sin, guilty before God. And what happens when we get caught? Our natural tendency is to look for an escape. How do I get out of this problem? Where can I run? God says, “Nowhere.” Justice must be served. We talked about that last week.
In question 13 you search your pockets,
“Can we by ourselves make this payment?”
And the answer is
“Certainly not. On the contrary, we daily increase our debt.”
The Judge has declared us guilty and demanded we pay for that guilt. He has seen that we are debtors who are in way over our head, owing more than we could ever repay, with interest working against us with every minute that goes by. Psalm 130:3 says, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” In other words, if God actually showed anyone the full weight of their sins – all they have done, said, and thought wrong, all the things they did but shouldn’t have done, or didn’t do but ought to – would anyone be able to argue with Him that they are perfect? No, of course not. At death, our Debt Collector, who is also the Judge, calls us in to pay the debt. Every moment of our life was a moment of grace. He could have called it anytime – and if we cannot pay him back, we must face the terrible consequence of Hell.
But the Judge, says this: “I want full payment, now! Can you pay it?”
In Question 14 we look around the divine courtroom, desperately hoping to find someone who can help us by paying the debt:
“Can any mere creature pay for us?”
Perhaps there is another human who is good enough to pay our debt? Perhaps God would accept an animal on our behalf? The answer comes:
“No. In the first place, God will not punish another creature for the sin which man has committed. Furthermore, no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin and deliver others from it.”
An angel can’t take our punishment because they are a spiritual being and the punishment for sin must be endured in body and soul. The death of an animal can’t satisfy the debt because it doesn’t have an immortal soul and cannot choose to take the punishment on themselves. Even in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament those sacrifices were only temporary and insufficient. Hebrews 10:3 says that “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins…”.
What about another human being? No, our debt cannot be paid by someone who also owes a debt to the Judge. They must pay for their own sins. If I owe a million dollars and cannot pay it back, then how could I turn to another human being – even if he be a saint – and ask him to pay? He’s in debt too because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23). We look around the courtroom, all around the world, and find no one who can pay our debt for us – and we know we are condemned.
Then Question 15 comes:
“What kind of mediator and deliverer must we seek?”
If no angel, no animal, and no human on earth can pay our debt for us, then to whom can we turn to save us from the consequence of our sin debt?
The answer comes:
“One who is a true and righteous man, and yet more powerful than all creatures; that is, one who is at the same time true God.”
As 1 Timothy 2:5-6 says: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…”
Or as 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
You stand before the Judge and Debt Collector who is God and know you are condemned in your sin debt to death and punishment in Hell. You look around the courtroom for anyone else who can pay it, and find no one.
But then, the Judge Himself looks you in the eye and says, “I have an idea.” And He calls in His own Son. He says, “Son, this one owes me more than they can ever repay. They are condemned to death and hell. Would you be willing to take their place, exchange yourself for them, stand before Me in judgement, and take their punishment? Would You take their sin debt and allow Me to pour the fullness of my wrath, all of Hell, upon You, for their sake? You are the only one that can do it. You are my Son and my Word, perfect in every way, and everything I have is yours. You have no debt. I’m willing to accept you in their place.”
Jesus has all the qualifications to be the perfect mediator between sinful humanity and perfect God. He is the perfection of God born as a man, and totally without sin.
Jesus looks at you and says, “I am willing if you want me to. Do you want me to?”
Jesus says, “I will abide with you. I will abide in you, just as my Father abides in me. I will take His wrath against you upon myself. All you have to do is admit that you can’t pay the debt and that you need me. I’m the only one that can do this. You cannot do this alone. There is no amount of good deeds or praying or religion you can do to pay this debt. Are you willing to let me pay it for you? If you say yes, I will give you freedom from sin, the Holy Spirit, a new purpose, spiritual gifts, a peace that passes understanding, and eternal life. I will reverse your curse and pay all your debt for every sin you commit from birth until death. And then I will stand before the Father in Heaven as your advocate, your mediator, interceding on your behalf. I’ll be the life-giving vine, you be the branch that I make fruitful. Do you want that?”
That is the offer of salvation in Jesus Christ. This is what it means that He is our mediator – not priests or pastors or popes or Mary or saints — this is a promise we only find in Jesus.
All we must do is admit we are sinners and believe that Jesus died on the cross and rose again to pay for that sin. That’s the gospel. This is how salvation works. And He’s willing to do it if we are willing to turn our lives over to Him.
These are the promises I see in scripture, in the study of good theology, and in the songs that point us to that promise. Will you accept them? Will you study? Will you sing?
Let me close with the words of Romans 8:31-38, which I have read many times, and will read many more:
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Most of you know that my family has been going through a tough time lately, but I know we’re not alone. Many people here today are going through difficult, confusing, painful times. It’s been heartening for us, as a church family, to spend time talking to one another about the struggles we’ve been having, and quite interesting that many people seem to be running towards the same place in scripture when they need comfort. A few people have told me how much Psalm 23 has been comforting them lately, and really, throughout their lives.
Please open up to Psalm 23 and let’s read it together:
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
You can see why this is such a powerful and meaningful psalm. It’s because it takes the situation out of our hands and places it in God’s. It’s an admission that we’re not in control, we’re not strong, we’re not smart, we’re not wolves or bears or tigers – we’re sheep and we need to be taken care of.
When we read Psalm 23, we admit all that, and then give it over to God. God lays us down, God restores us, God leads us. God protects us, God comforts us, God conquers, God anoints and heals and serves us.
When do realize our need for the shepherd most though? In the green pastures by the still waters? No. That’s when we end up wandering off, thinking the world is easy.
It is in the Valley of Shadow of Death and the Presence of our Enemies that we really lean into God, when we clutch Him harder, when we realize that we are only sheep – and as our view of God grows, as our nearness to the shepherd grows, the darkness and the enemies no longer seem as big or as dangerous, because the Shepherd is there with us.
Difficult times cause us to think about where we find our comfort and hope, don’t they? I’ve been thinking a lot about comfort and hope lately. Where do I find comfort? What brings me hope? And the truths of my answers have been tested. I might say that I trust the Shepherd, that I believe in prayer, that His Word is my light and guide, that Jesus is my hope – but it’s not until I’m walking in the shadows, surrounded by enemies, that the truth of my heart is revealed.
Where we Turn
When the shadows fall, the enemies surround, the world turns against us, nothing works out, and everything goes out of whack – our relationships, our health, our work – it is natural for us to look for comfort. We want something that will make us feel better. We want something that will calm us down when we are frenzied and anxious, or energize us when we are down and depressed. We want something to repair our soul when it feels bruised and beaten, to take away the pain that we feel in our minds and bodies.
But, more often than not, it is not to our Shepherd that we turn first, is it? Instead, there are many other places we go for comfort. We turn to money, possessions, riches, luxury, financial security. We figure that if we have enough money or stuff, then we’ll feel better. If we get the nicer phone, nicer car, nicer tv, nicer food, nicer vacation, nicer tools, nicer house, that we will feel better. And that’s what ads sell us – buy this and feel better about yourself, your relationships, your future, your past, your present. We think that if we get enough piles of money then nothing can hurt us. Banks try to sell us that. Financial security equals comfort.
Or we turn to exercise and medicine. We work on our bodies, eat right, exercise, drink lots of water, take vitamins, go to the doctor to get pills to balance our hormones and body chemicals, thinking that if we can be super healthy and perfectly juiced, then we will no longer have fears or pain. We will be strong enough to fight off sickness and enemies, we will be beautiful and therefore popular, we will be able to run away from danger or save people we love, and most of all, we will live forever. Pursuing bodily health isn’t bad, but the motives behind it aren’t always good – sometimes it’s driven by fear and the desire for more comfort than it can provide.
Some people turn to stubbornness and control. Psalm 2:1-3 says,
“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’”
They think that controlling all aspects of their life, and everyone else’s, will bring them comfort. All they need is the perfect plan, the perfect calendar, the perfect to do list, and for everyone to simply do everything they are told, and then everyone will be happy. If we write enough laws and rules everyone will be content. If we buckle down hard enough, dig in our heels hard enough, grit our teeth hard enough, then we can take control of our world and bend it to our wills, and then we will all find peace. It’s a lie we tell ourselves all the time.
Some turn to other people as their source of comfort. They believe that politicians, scientists, religious gurus, celebrities, their spouse, their kids, their friends, or their community group is going to save them. Those people are all they talk about, and their entire hope is in them and their plans. And when they inevitably fall, it’s utterly devastating – but instead of learning from their mistake, they simply find another flawed human being to put their hopes in. These people, no matter how bright they are, aren’t solid foundations, but are as Jude 12-13 says,
“These are hidden reefs… shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.”
Others turn to worldly pleasure, distractions, entertainment, food, pornography, drunkenness, and drugs. Life is hard, everything is out of control, our emotions are a mess, our thinking isn’t helping, and there is no way to fix any of it – so why bother? Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. Our culture is built on this concept and it’s destroying the foundations of our society. We are literally entertaining and distracting ourselves to death. Pharmaceutical companies sell pills that have nothing to do with health, but simply treat bad feelings. Stores have more entertainment food than actual food. While teens die of fentanyl overdoses and the media declares an opioid crisis, the Canadian government legalizes marijuana so that more people can get high. Our culture is obsessed with non-marital, no-commitment, purely animalistic sex – even though sexually transmitted diseases are growing in record numbers. And they’ve created phone apps to assist their hook-up culture to be more efficient. And the government has made sure that there are no laws against abortion so that no one accidentally has a baby and a family as a consequence.
Our modern, Canadian, culture is built on the concept of “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” and it’s destroying our bodies and our souls.
Our Only Comfort
The first two questions of The Heidelberg Catechism address this very issue – the issue of comfort. They are a summary of the rest of the catechism and start with the most important question: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” Christian, what do you turn to when you face the valley of the shadow of death, when you surrounded by enemies? Christian, what do you hold as the source of your greatest hope, knowing everything else is going to let you down, your celebrities, your chemicals, your doctor, your exercise, your body, your friends, your riches, your security, is all going to fall apart – so what is the one comfort, the one thing that won’t fall apart in this world or the next? What comfort will give you an anchor through all the storms of this life and never leave you, even after you die? What thought, what truth, can you build the entire foundation of your life on that will never shift, shake or move?
“That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
Though this is not a quote from the Bible, each line is very biblical, and you can see some of the verses in the footnotes I provided on your handout. It breaks down into four great comforts.
I Am Not My Own
Perhaps the worst feeling we can have is loneliness. We can go through a lot of difficult things if we know that someone has our back. We can face injustice and fear, insurmountable odds, and terrible dangers, if we know someone is on our side. But when we feel alone, our strength fades quickly. A Christian’s first comfort is that we are not our own, but belong to someone – to Jesus.
1 Corinthians 6:19-10 says, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.”
Titus 2:13-14 says, “…our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession…”
The word “redeemed” means “to be bought back”. We were slaves to sin, slaves to Satan, captured and enslaved by death, and Jesus loved us so much that He bought us from our slave owners at a great price. He traded Himself for us so that we could be His.
A Christians’ comfort comes from the knowledge that we are not our own, we are not alone, Jesus bought us because He wants us to be with Him. God is not against us, God is for us, because we belong to Him. So He does for us what we would do if we bought something precious. We would clean it up, protect it, cherish it, display it so others can see it, and use it as a way to show off.
That’s what Jesus does with us. He takes our spiritually dead body out of the muck of sin, restores us to life, cleans us up, gives us new clothes, new armour, and then helps us to become something that He uses to show His glory off. When people look at us they think, “Wow, that person is so different! They know Jesus and look at them! Jesus must really be someone special!”
Payment for Sin
Our second comfort comes in that our sins are perfectly and totally forgiven. Not some, not most, not just the past ones – all of our sins forever were placed on Jesus as He hung on the cross and took the wrath of God against them. 1 John 2:1-2 says,
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Propitiation means “the removal of wrath by the offering of a gift”. To do wrong, to break the law, means to incur judgement and wrath. The only thing that appeases the wrath of God our Judge against for the wrong we’ve done is punishment and death. Romans 6:23 says “the wages of sin is death”. Jesus offered Himself to pay that wage so we wouldn’t have to. He substituted Himself for us. He assumed our obligations and all the wrath God had against sin was poured out on Him instead of us. And therefore all our sins are dealt with. Martin Luther called it “The Great Exchange”.
Therefore, when we think that God is punishing us is wrong. To believe we need more punishment is to take away from what Jesus did on the cross. To try to punish others for their wrong is to say that Jesus didn’t suffer enough. To think that God is holding our sins against us is to say that God didn’t accept Jesus’ sacrifice. To try to impress God with good works or religion is to say that what Jesus did in His life and on the cross wasn’t good enough.
One of our greatest comforts, especially when Satan is telling us that God hates us, that He’ll never restore us, that He has had enough of us, is to remember that our sins are fully paid for by Jesus – all of them – and we have been set free. There is no longer anything separating us from God, and nothing we must do in order to make ourselves worthy of it, and anyone who says differently is a liar. All that must be done is to accept Jesus’ sacrifice on your behalf. He has done everything necessary for our salvation and there is nothing standing between you and God’s forgiveness except yourself, your pride, and your false notions.
Our third comfort comes in that we are protected, or preserved.
2 Thessalonians 3:3 says, “But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one.”
And Romans 8:28, when talking about the trials of life says, “…we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Psalm 18 begins, “I love you, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies.”
So, we are not our own, we were bought with a price by the blood of Jesus, and therefore He is the one who preserves and protects us. He is God and that means that everything that happens, whether we think it’s good or bad or otherwise, happens because He allows it to happen – and there is nothing that anyone can do that is beyond His control.
We read stories like Joseph being sold into slavery and put in prison, or Daniel being set up by his enemies and thrown into a lion’s den, or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refusing to bow to an idol and then thrown into a fiery furnace, all the difficulty and pain Paul faced on his missionary journeys, and of course all the sorrow and rejection Jesus faced – and we are reminded that even though things get very difficult, everything happened for a reason and brought fruit for God’s people to bring God more glory.
God has the power to preserve us from any danger that will come – the power to get us through any trial that we are currently facing – and the power to turn even the worst parts of our lives into victories for Him. There are so many stories of people who go through hard times or have been in really bad places, but realize after they turn to God and start to trust Him, that He used it all for so much good. There is great comfort knowing that everything that happens to us will be used by God to help us grow stronger, more faithful, to grow His Kingdom, and to bring Him glory. No valley, no matter how dark – no enemy, no matter how strong – will not be overcome, turned into light, and used by God if we trust Him with it.
And the fourth comfort we see in question one is our assurance.
2 Corinthians 1:20-22 says, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him [that is Jesus]. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory. And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.”
Since our salvation is not something we can buy or get by good deeds, it is therefore not something we can lose. Since Jesus establishes it, it is firmly established and unable to move. On the cross Jesus said, “It is finished!” (Jn 19:30) on the cross and is called the “Amen” in Rev 3:14. Here we see that our salvation is an “Amen” too, an “it is so”, a total completion. We are anointed, sealed, and guaranteed, not by our own actions or our own strength – but by the Spirit of God. There is no way we can lose our salvation, no way God will turn His back on us, no one that can ever take it from us, and nothing we can do to remove ourselves from His hand. I recommend you read Romans 8 for more about this.
This is where our eternal comfort lies – in that Jesus loves us, died for us, protects and preserves us, uses everything to help us, and will never, ever, ever leave us, even unto death.
Nothing we try, and no one else, can or will give us that kind of comfort. There is no amount of money that gives us that kind of hope, no chemical that gives that kind of joy, no human being that gives us that kind of promise, which is why Christians turn to Jesus. He is the only and best comfort in life and in death.
Guilt, Grace and Gratitude
And now look at question 2: “What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” How do I get access to this type of assurance, this hope, this comfort? The answer is a summary of the rest of the catechism. Some have broken it up into 3 simple words that you need to know: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. What must I know?
“First, how great my sins and misery are; second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.”
This is what we’re going to be talking about for the next year or so. First, we must understand our guilt. The Bible says that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6) If we think we are going the right way, we’ll never ask for directions. If we think we’re healthy, we’ll never ask for a doctor. We will not ask for forgiveness unless we know we are guilty. We need to realize how deep our sin problem really is.
Once we confess ourselves a miserable sinner, we then need to know how to be delivered from those sins. The simple answer, as I’ve been saying, is to confess your sins to Jesus and to believe that He died for your sins and rose again to prove He has conquered them. There’s a lot to know about that – and we’ll cover it in the coming months – but that simple truth is where everything starts. Will you admit that you are a sinner and trust that Jesus did everything to pay for your sins so that the wrath of God against you could be appeased?
And third, once we have realized our guilt and accepted forgiveness, the natural thing to do is to give thanks. Such an awesome truth should change our lives. Every kindness we receive deserves gratitude, right? Someone does something nice, we feel like we want to say thank you and do something nice back. If we go to the doctor, we pay for his services. So, even though we’ll never be able to pay Jesus back, how much more should our lives be changed by the knowledge of our salvation. We were headed to an eternity in Hell, now we are invited to an eternity with God. Our response should be a godly life of thanksgiving that honours Him, right?
This is what we’ll be talking about over the next while – the problem of sin, the solution to the problem in Jesus, and how our lives should change as a result.
Ok, so I need you to take a moment to remember the last few sermons, because they have all been, in some way, preparatory for this one. On the first Sunday of the year we talked about we are sometimes convicted to make changes in our life, and therefore make “Resolutions” to change – but how those resolutions rarely last very long. That’s when we talked about accountability not only to God but also to each other. The next week we talked about the Church Membership Covenant and how it is simply a type of accountability tool to help each other walk with Jesus more joyfully, biblically, and consistently. That was followed by last week’s message on “Unity and Harmony” which was an overview the theological underpinnings of how and why the work of Jesus on the cross brings us back into fellowship with Him and with each other, and how us doing the hard work to live that out brings glory to God and honor to Jesus.
Hopefully, those big thoughts of Accountability, Unity, and Harmony have been bouncing around your head for the past month because it will help you understand what is going on in our passage today. Please turn to 1 Corinthians 14:1-33.
First, and as always, a little context first. 1 Corinthians is a letter written by the Apostle Paul, inspired by God and with the authority of Jesus, to a new and relatively small church in the ancient Greek city of city of Corinth. Corinth was not unlike Ottawa or other big cities in North America today. It was cosmopolitan, multicultural, multi-ethnic with a vast array of religions and places of worship. It had very rich and very poor people, famous thinkers, great actors, beautiful architecture, and was a port town with lots of tradesman and visitors.
Atheism was almost unheard of and the life of the city ebbed and flowed from the pagan temples. They were where you’d go not only for worship, but for entertainment, to find work, to buy groceries, or to eat out. The experience of being part of a “worship service” in one of these temples was pretty intense. There were temple prostitutes, drugs, music, and other pretty crazy stuff going on two as people opened their minds to demonic influence. Some people would scream, others laugh. Some would fall down and shake, writhe on the floor, speak gibberish, or tell fortunes with special “words from the gods”.
None of this was considered weird though. It would be normal for someone, rich or poor, man or woman, to come into the temple, join an orgy, take drugs, and party – or beg favour from the god and be told to either pay money, hurt themselves, or do something extreme or terrible to ensure the god’s goodwill. That was normal.
Then the Apostle Paul came to town and planted a Christian church and it was very different from what they were used to. He was tired and overwhelmed from a long, difficult mission trip, but stayed for a year and a half, preaching, teaching, counselling, and preparing the church. He taught them that God loved them and saved them by grace, and didn’t need or want them to do all the crazy stuff they were doing at the pagan temples. He taught them God’s expectations for biblical faith, salvation, prayer, and how God creates people for his glory and equips them to worship Him and take care of each other.
He left and went on to plant and help more churches, but it wasn’t too long until he started hearing that there were problems in Corinth. We’ve been covering a lot of those issues over the past year or so, but most of them centred on divisions in the church – which we learned last week means that they had forgotten the very foundation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
They had divided on which teacher they liked better – some choosing Peter, others Paul, others Apollos – forgetting that their first allegiance was to Jesus and the teachers all just worked for Him. Because of the fighting in the church, they had given room for Satan to have a field-day among them and some of the habits of the old temples had worked their way back into their church. They forgot the gospel and started to believe they had to do certain things to get saved and win God’s favour. They forgot what God had said about purity and righteousness as both rampant sexual immorality and some form of pleasure denying asceticism had grown up in the church. They forgot about the unity and harmony that comes from being united to Jesus and started suing one another. They had also forgotten about the exclusive claims of Jesus, that there is only one God and one way to be saved as they grew bored with their church or felt pressure from society to go back to their old temples to offer worship to the pagan gods – while other people were using their freedom in Christ as an excuse to offend everyone around them by refusing to conform to the basic, cultural standards of their society.
In the section before the one we’re looking at right now, we’re seeing how all this had crept into the most foundational of their Christian practices as even the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, what we call Communion, had been corrupted. They’d meet for a worship service, which always included the special time of Communion where the sacrifice of Jesus was remembered, and it was a fiasco. Some would come early and eat all the food, others would get drunk on the communion wine, and the hungry among them would continue to starve.
Paul then, in chapter 12, turns the topic to Spiritual gifts, which are God’s special gifts given upon conversion to believers, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to help people worship God, serve their church family, and spread God’s love around the world. We talked about that in November and the sermon is online, so I’m not going to review it here, but I want you to remember that the big issue was that they had gotten God’s gifts confused with the type of things that were happening at the pagan temple.
In their previous religious experiences, it was all about self and selfishness. It was about manipulating the gods and the people around them to get what they wanted. It was about having intense ecstatic experiences that centred on their own desire for pleasure or excitement. It was about being the centre of attention, feelings special, and being more spiritual, more euphoric, more intense than those around them.
But the Christian church isn’t about selfishness, it’s about selflessness. It’s about being like Jesus, the servant of all who gave His life as a ransom for many. It’s about God saving us unto good works and living a life humbly serving His will and not our own. It is about using our gifts, talents, abilities, finances, to help others and point them to Jesus.
Giving up self-centred religion is hard though. Giving up on the belief that we can manipulate God is hard. Giving up being the centre of attention and living for others is hard too – which is one reason why this church, once the Apostle left – slipped back into old habits and needed to be corrected. In that correction, Paul gives some teaching on the Spiritual gifts, teaches them about loving service in Chapter 13 (which I hope you remember), and then here in chapter 14 addresses two of the gifts that were causing most of the trouble – Prophecy and Tongues.
Prophecy and Tongues
Just a quick note on what those are, so the passage is more easily understood when we read it:
Prophecy is, essentially, is the spiritual gift of speaking words from God. This is either something God has suddenly revealed or brought to mind, usually the words of scripture that apply to a certain situation or some piece of wisdom or direction or are very much like the gifts of preaching and teaching when God uses a person to speak and explain the Word of God to someone. They come through normal, human language, and according to the Bible, have to be tested or evaluated for truth, based on what God has already revealed in the Bible (1 Cor 14:29, 1 Thess 5:19-21).
So the picture of the New Testament spiritual gift of prophecy isn’t Moses standing on a hillside declaring words from God that no one has heard before, but more like a Christian friend, teacher, elder, or preacher speaking words that line up with scripture and seem to exactly fit a certain moment in time, bring glory to God and clarity, comfort, and direction to those who are listening. Sometimes God uses the words that the person is speaking to go straight into the heart of the listeners, believers or unbelievers, so much so that it seems like the secrets of their heart have been revealed to the speaker and God is speaking directly to them.
The gift of Tongues is similar but different in that the message from God is coming in a language that the person speaking doesn’t know – sometimes as another human language, like in Acts 2, or sometimes in a language that no one knows. This can happen when a Christian is alone, during their private prayer times, or publically when God takes over a person’s voice and shares a message that no one is able to understand until someone with the gift of interpretation stands up to explain what the message means. When spoken privately, it’s an intimate act of worship. When spoken publically, just like the gift of prophecy, this public message is meant to bring glory to God and clarity, comfort, and direction to those who are listening.
You can see how tempting it would be for a person who wants that weird, ecstatic, religious experience, or who wants to be the centre of attention, or who wants to feel special, to want this to happen to them. And especially for those in this Corinthian church where people were coming out of those pagan worship rituals. The other spiritual gifts, like hospitality, encouragement, service, giving, mercy, faith, or helps are not nearly as spectacular or flashy as tongues, right?
So, with that in mind let’s read 1 Corinthians 14:1-33 together:
“Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.
Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.
Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. In the Law it is written, ‘By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.’ Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.
What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.”
A Gospel Issue
Do you see what the big issue is here? God is all about Christians using their gifts. He wants people to speak His word to people, to bring His wisdom and comfort and joy to them. He wants His power to be shown, for Christians to be built up, for faith to grow, worship to be exciting and inspirational, and for people to get saved. He wants believers to experience what it’s like to speak the words of life to one another and see God’s Spirit move in a powerful way.
But, as with all sources of power and all gifts, there is the risk of it being misused. Usually, our greatest strengths are those that cause us the most trouble, right? This church had a lot of amazing spiritual experience, and had seen God move in amazing ways, had experienced God’s grace in an amazing way, but with that explosive power had come the temptation toward selfishness, division and pursuing the gifts rather than the Giver.
Instead of listening to God, they were more interested in being heard by others. Instead obeying God, they kept trying to tell God what they wanted. They were treating Jesus the way they had treated their pagan gods. Instead of coming to the Son of God humbly for salvation, for direction, for hope, for help, they came for the gifts and experiences associated with Him.
This still happens today and happened when Jesus walked the earth. Turn to John 6 where it tells the story of when Jesus had preached all day and those who were listening hadn’t brought food and were hungry. He had compassion on them and miraculously fed thousands of them with one boy’s lunch. After everyone had eaten until they were full, the disciples gathered twelve baskets of extra food left over!
Now read what happened next:
“When the people saw the sign [the miracle] that he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!’ Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” (John 6:14-15)
What did the people want from Jesus? Eternal life? Salvation from death? Freedom from sin? Peace in their hearts through a right relationship with God? Did they even want to be with Jesus, the source of life and light, the very Son of God? No. They wanted full bellies. So Jesus takes off, runs away, and that night escapes to the entire other side of the sea. But the people follow him. Read from verse 22:
“On the next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Other boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus.
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.’”
Do you see that there? Same issue as in Corinth. They were willing to completely bypass their relationship with God, forget about the Word of God, and dismiss everything that Jesus was offering them – for the sake of the gifts. In this case it was the food and freedom from hunger, in Corinth it was the spiritual gifts of tongues so they could feel special and powerful, but it was the same motive. They didn’t want Jesus, they wanted to use Jesus to get what they wanted – even if it meant trying to make Jesus give them what they wanted by force. They completely missed the point of the Gospel Jesus was preaching. He offered eternal life, these Jews wanted sandwiches. Jesus offered peace and purpose and a spiritual family, they wanted to babble and look cool to their friends.
This is a terrible temptation for any counsellor, preacher, or evangelist, but when we concentrate on the gifts, point people to the good things Jesus offers, we inevitably miss out on presenting the Gift-Giver! If they are converted to the gift, if we seek the gift, we will invariably feel let down because it will only feed our selfish desire for more – but if we are converted to and seek the Giver, only then will we be satisfied.
Jesus says, “I showed you signs that I’m the Saviour and the path to eternal life, but you don’t want that, do you? You want the gifts.” In another place He says,
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)
Or, what is the point of eating your fill if you don’t accept eternal life? What is the point of speaking in tongues if you aren’t making any sense, helping anyone, worshipping God, or even connected to Him? What is the point of being the centre of attention and getting all the adulations of being a prophet, if you are far from God?
Keep reading in John 6 because something important happens there. Look at verse 28: “Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’”
The Corinthian church was so active with these gifts that they had forgotten what they had believed and the work of sharing the gospel of Jesus! Their worship services didn’t proclaim Jesus anymore. They were as bad as the pagan temple, a cacophony of drunken noise that didn’t make sense to anyone. There was no message telling people how to find peace with God, no sharing what it means to be righteous, no message of hope, mercy and grace – just meaningless madness done no longer in the name of Apollo or Aphrodite but in the name of Jesus.
Jesus implores His listeners to see the miracles as signs that they must do the one thing they must do to be saved – believe in Him. Paul, in the same way, implores the church to quit focusing on the signs and the gifts, and go back to the simple message they first believed, and to proclaim it in an orderly, understandable, humble, God glorifying way.
I could go farther into this, but I’m out of time. I want to you to take some time this week to read 1 Corinthians 14 in the light of John 6 and to explore in yourselves what ways you are focusing on the gifts rather than the Gift-Giver.
- In what ways are you simply using the people around you, the church, and even God, as a way to get what you want – even at the expense of your relationships with them and God?
- In what ways have you made your life, your home, your church, or your soul, a cacophony of self-centred noise that is out of tune with what God wants for your life? What I mean is to ask yourself about what ways you are being self-focused, self-centred, self-motivated – but pretending to do it in the name of Jesus. Teaching, helping, speaking, giving, singing, reading, eating, working, all for yourself, so you can be seen and steal glory from God by being seen by others, rather than using your gift to bring glory to Him and serve those around you. It’s impossible to hear God when everything in your life is focused on telling you how great you are.
- In what ways have you replaced a simple, orderly relationship with God, simple worship, simple prayer, simple bible reading, simple service, simple singing, with complicated, bombastic, ritualistic, religion? It could be choosing not to read the Bible so you can read the latest Christian book or listen to some preacher – or only talking about God when you are in public, but never giving Him a second thought when you are alone or with your family – or being caught up in trying to impress God with good works or punishing yourself.
- In what ways have you complicated your relationship with Jesus so that you are losing your focus on Him in favour of things that are merely about Him?
*This was an outdoor service so the audio is a little off.
Leaving it to the Professionals
You probably know the name Billy Graham, right? His evangelistic crusades are known around the world. He has preached to millions of people in more than 185 countries, started a radio program, magazine, and multiple mission organizations was a spiritual adviser to three presidents and worked with Martin Luther King Jr. to help with racial integration in the US church. Even though he retired in 2005 he’s still renown as being the most famous evangelist of the past century – and perhaps in history.
Now, a name you may not know as well as Leighton Ford, though in some circles he’s almost as famous. Leighton is a Canadian man who married Billy Graham’s sister and worked closely with him for many years before founding his own ministry in 1986. He’s been a leader of multiple global missions organizations, has authored many books, and has won many awards for his Christian leadership and influence around the world.
In one of his books, he tells a funny story about what happened when Leighton wasn’t so famous. The story goes that both he and Billy Graham were invited to speak in an open air crusade in Halifax. Leighton Ford was to speak the first night and Billy Graham the next. Billy had come a day early and decided to come incognito and listen to Leighton speak. So he donned a hat and some dark glasses and sat on the grass at the back of the crowd so no one would recognize him.
Directly in front of Billy sat an elderly man who seemed to be listening pretty intently to Leighton’s sharing of the gospel. When he invited people to come forward as an open sign of their commitment to accept Jesus as their Saviour, Billy decided to do a little evangelism too. He tapped the man on the shoulder and asked, “Would you like to accept Christ? I’ll be glad to walk down with you if you want to.” The old man looked him up and down, thought it over for a moment, and then said, “Nah, I think I’ll just wait until the big gun comes tomorrow night!” (Good News is for Sharing, Leighton Ford, 1977, David C. Cook Publishing Co., p. 67)
I like that story because it makes an important point, in that, in the minds of a lot of people, talking about Jesus, sharing the gospel, or evangelism, is the job of the “big guns”, not just anyone. Some think that it’s all well and good to live as a Christian, but when it comes to actually explaining their faith, explaining the story of Jesus from a biblical perspective, they’d better leave that to the “professionals”. They feel they might get it wrong or panic or not tell the whole story or something, so when the moment comes they say something like, “Well, come to church with me and listen to a sermon.” Or “Why don’t I get you in touch with my pastor and he’ll explain it to you.” Or they’ll apologetically give them a book or a pamphlet in the hopes that it will explain everything. Have you ever had that experience?
When the Moment Comes
We’ve spent the past month or so talking about some of the most important things to remember when we share our faith with others in the hopes of alleviating some of that fear.
If you recall, the first thing we talked about was that for the most part evangelism isn’t meant to be done on street corners or in large events by the “big guns”, but meant to be done as a natural part of an already existing relationship. Step one was to show the person you want to share the gospel with love and care. Meet with them, serve them, talk to them, eat with them, be their friend, before you get to the sharing part.
The second was that we need to pray before we share, not only to invite God to take over the situation but so that our hearts are in the right place. The third was to make sure that we are telling our story, right? Not something you memorized from a pamphlet, but sharing what God has done for you and is doing in your life today. And the fourth thing was to remember to be patient and keep praying and loving them as God works in their hearts.
We’ve talked about a lot of ways to make sure we get our hearts in the right spot before we ever share with them.
But what happens when the moment comes that we do need to explain what Christianity is all about? So, picture this scenario: You’ve befriended someone – or they are your child or spouse or parent or coworker or whatever – and you’ve done all the other things we’ve talked about. You’ve got your heart in the right place. You’ve shown them love, had them over to your house, and they know you care for them. You’ve prayed for them. You’ve told them your story and have been open about your Christian faith. And you’ve been patient – and now they’ve said, “Ok, so I get that you take this stuff seriously and I’ve seen some things in your life that look pretty interesting. But what do you believe anyway? What do Christians believe that is so different from anyone else? Tell me what you believe.”
This is a big moment, right? So what are you going to say? It’s too vague to simply say, “I believe the Bible.”. And saying, “Well, I believe in Jesus” doesn’t really help either. You don’t want to shut down the conversation and grab a bible and make them start reading from Romans 1. And you’re not likely to pop on RightNow media or a YouTube clip to have some “big gun” professional do it for you.
So this is where a simple tool comes in handy. You’ve already told your story and how God affects your daily life, but now they want something more universal, more theological, more explanatory of what your group, your tribe, your faith, your religion, your church, believes.
And so today what I want to share with you is a simple method that only takes a few minutes to draw, and can be discussed for 5 minutes or hours if you like. It’s something you can sketch out on a napkin off the top of your head and only requires one verse to memorize. And once you’ve got that verse memorized you’ll have enough tools to explain the basics of the Christian faith. And this works for people of all ages and backgrounds because it’s pretty universal language.
This isn’t a presentation that you have to get right either or do in a certain order. It’s simply something you can put in front of you as a discussion point so you can explain the basics – and it’s something they can take with them.
And since you won’t get notes for this moment, I won’t use my notes either…. But please follow along and draw with me.
(Sorry, Readers, you’ll have to listen to it on the podcast!)
I walked into Walmart the other day and saw a bunch of Halloween candy, so I guess Halloween is coming up again. That seems a little early to me, but maybe it’s a piggy-back on things to stuff in kid’s school lunches – which also starts up soon. These two things, Halloween and starting school have something in common, of course, and that is that they can both be sort of scary. One is scary because of all the strange costumes, dark themes, vampires, zombies, and the pressure to do things that terrify you, while the other is, of course, Halloween.
I went digging around on the internet to learn about some different things that people are afraid of. So what I’m going to do is put some things up on the screen and you tell me if they are scary or not scary, ok? Now, we’re not going to make fun of anyone though because we can’t really pick what we’re scared of, can we?
For example, I’m scared of heights. I don’t like being high up in places, but I don’t know why (Acrophobia). Anyone with me?
Here are some others, so you say scary or not scary.
- Fear of Spiders (Arachnophobia)
- Fear of taking a bath (Ablutophobia).
- Fear of Loud Noises (Acousticophobia).
- Fear of Needles (Trypanophobia).
- Fear of snakes (Ophidiophobia).
- Fear of Chickens (Alektorophobia).
- What about fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth (Arachibutyrophobia).
- Fear of slime (Blennophobia).
- Fear of clocks (Chronomentrophobia)
Today I want to talk about something else that is kind of scary for a lot of people, and that is sharing our faith with others. Even with people we are close to, like our family, friends, and coworkers, it seems like we can talk about any other topic under the sun – even controversial things like politics, climate change, alternative medicine, or genetic engineering, we can talk all day long – even arguing about the existence of God seems to be easier – but when it comes to sharing our own personal faith story, what we believe and why and how it changes our life, many of us lock-up.
A lot of questions go through our minds:
- How do we start talking about Jesus with someone that knows nothing about Him, or is full of misconceptions about Christianity?
- What if they’re an atheist?
- What if they’re part of a different religion?
- How do I bring it up in conversation without sounding like a salesman?
- And how can we tell the whole story without leaving out important parts?
Christians have an understanding that we are supposed to hold each other accountable, but for a lot of friendships, there’s an unwritten rule, especially with non-believers, that we’re always supposed to be nice, funny, only say kind things – and just ignore the bad stuff, right? How do we break that barrier? Maybe in a very, very close friendship, we can say, “Hey, what’s going on?” but it seems awkward to press more than that. And if that’s the case, how can we tell them that Romans 3:23 says “For all have sinned” and that includes them, and that Romans 6:23 says “the wages of sin is death…” and Hebrews 9:27 says, “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment ”, and Matthew 25:41 says that to some Jesus will say, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…” where Revelation 20:10 says “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever”. That doesn’t sound very nice. How do you bring that up in conversation? What if we mess it up, or they misunderstand, or they get upset with us, and we lose them as a friend? So we think it’s better to just keep quiet and hope God will do something.
And even if we do get up the courage, when should we do it? When is the right moment? Is there a right moment? Should we just blurt it out whenever we want to? You know… get invited over to their house for dinner and say, “This meal is very nice, please pass the ketchup – oh and by the way you’re all sinners who are doomed and need Jesus.” That’s a little weird, right?
Should we invite them to church first, or tell them about Jesus first? Maybe we should wait for them to ask us. But what if they never ask? Then what?
And say all the stars do align, and it’s the perfect moment, at the perfect time, and they are sitting in rapt attention waiting for us… then what should we say?
Sharing our faith can be a little difficult sometimes, and scary, and sort of complicated when we think about it, so today, in light of the topics we’ve been covering in 1 Corinthians lately, I want to tell you four things to remember when you want to share your faith in Jesus Christ with someone, and then next week, I’ll give you a simple tool to use.
Show Them Love Before You Share the Gospel
The first thing I want you to know about sharing your faith is that you need to show them love before you share the Gospel. This is something that a lot of people get wrong. We all know the Great Commission Jesus gave in Matthew 28:19-20 that says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”. Sometimes we think that means that it’s our job to simply go out and tell the gospel to people wherever they are, even if we don’t know them.
If you walk in downtown Ottawa on any given night you’ll see people handing out tracts, yelling on street corners, or even simply standing there holding a sign with a bible verse on it. I remember one time I was downtown and saw a very surly, unhappy looking man standing on the street holding a sign with John 3:16-18 on it, which says,
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
The happiest message in the world held by the grumpiest person imaginable. Mary Poppins taught us that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine goes down”, but I don’t think this guy saw that movie. So I started to wave at him. I waved and waved until we locked eyes. And I continued to wave until he waved back at me. I wanted this guy to give some sort of human contact to the message he was trying to spread. Eventually, he begrudgingly raised his hand, to about waist level, and gave me a bit of a wrist twist indicating that he acknowledged my existence. But his face didn’t change.
Certainly, sometimes God calls people to be public preachers and missionaries that speak to strangers. Some people are called to stand before crowds and preach to the masses, but that’s the rare exception and not usually how He works. God is a very personal God, Jesus is a personal saviour, and the Gospel, though universal, is a very personal one. Every individual needs to make a decision for or against Christ. Which means most of the time, like 99.9% of the time, God works through close relationships to spread His message. In fact, those crowd preachers aren’t that effective unless they have spent time preparing some way to personally connect those they speak to to some kind of church group.
God did not write a message in the sky, but sent Jesus to be one of us, to live among us, to tell us the message personally. The disciples were all handpicked to be with Jesus. He physically touched the sick and leprous. Even when Paul went from city to city preaching the gospel, he would sit with people in marketplaces, take time for questions and home meetings, spending hours with people, and then when he left he appointed elders who everyone knew personally.
Jesus says in John 13:35 something that we all need to remember,
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Loving the person comes before we bring them to church or share our story with them. The way that they know that we have Jesus in our hearts, and the way that they will know that Jesus is real to us, is by the love we have for them and others. So that’s where we have to start – loving.
So before you share your faith, ask yourself:
- Do I love this person?
- Do they think I love them?
- Do I want to tell them about Jesus because I love them or for some other reason?
- Have I shown them love by helping them, caring for them, eating with them, telling them the truth, and being their friend?
Remember to Pray
The second thing I want you to remember when you share the gospel with someone, is to pray. I read a great inspirational Instagram quote this week which said, “When prayer becomes your habit, miracles become your lifestyle.” And whole I don’t want to dig into the finer points of that too much, it does make a point. We must pray first and often because we don’t know when these divine appointments will come. God promises in the Bible that He will give us the words we need, the wisdom we need, the timing we need, and the help we need when we come to talk to our friends about Him. But even more important is that the Bible says that the Holy Spirit must do the work in our friend’s heart before they can hear anything we say! Remember 1 Corinthians 3:7, “So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.”
You probably remember the Parable of the Four Soils that Jesus told. It’s the story of a farmer who goes out and spreads seeds on all kinds of different ground – hard ground, rocky ground, thorny ground, and good ground. The seeds represent the Gospel of Jesus and the different grounds represent different types of hearts.
Many people have hard hearts, like the hard ground. The seeds of our message just bounce off and never grow. God says in the Bible that it is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict people of sin (John 16:8) and change their hard heart into a soft one (Eze 36:26-27). We can’t do that. We can’t argue, bribe, or convince anything to give up their sin and believe in Jesus – only the Holy Spirit can do that – which is why we must pray.
So first we show them love, and then pray. Pray God will soften your heart to hear him. Pray that you will feel compassion for the lost, not just judgment. Pray that you will want to witness to them. Pray for the boldness to speak truth. Pray God opens doors of opportunity. Pray God sends more workers to help you. Pray against Satan and the demons who are working against you and the person you are sharing with. And pray that when you present the message that God will make the person’s heart soft so they can hear the words that God gives you.
Tell Them YOUR Story
The third thing to remember about sharing your faith is that you need to start with your story. We sometimes think we need to start with apologetics, which is the defence of the faith. And while apologetics are great, and RightNow media has some excellent training videos that I think everyone should watch, you don’t need to have a perfect defence of the Bible in order to share your story – because it’s your story. They can argue up and down about the existence of God and science vs faith, but they can’t argue about your story – and it is your story that is going to touch them the most.
When you speak, you don’t have to speak in generalities about “God” and “The Bible”, but you can speak very specifically about what you know about God and His Son Jesus and what you know from the Bible. Tell them what it means to know that you that you are a sinner who needs a Saviour. How you went from an unbeliever to a believer. Tell them what it’s like for you to be a Christian. Tell them what God has been doing in your life, what you are learning at church and from the Bible, what miracles you have seen lately.
Which leads to the important point that you need to have an active relationship with God, right? If you don’t know the joy of worshipping the One who saved you from sin, if knowing God doesn’t affect your daily life, if you aren’t learning anything, and you haven’t seen any miracles, then you don’t have much of a story to share, right? That could be a reason you’re not – simply because Jesus doesn’t really matter to you one way or the other. But when you have a growing, dynamic relationship with Him, where your daily devotions have meaning, your prayers are being answered, He is close to you in struggles, you are growing in maturity as God kills more and more sin in your life, and your worship is meaningful and expressive – then you’ve got something to share.
You don’t have to make anything up, or memorize the Billy Graham Four Steps to Peace with God, or tell far flung missionary stories, or try to copy what your pastor or parents said – just tell them what it’s like for you.
- What does it feel like to know you’re forgiven from you’re your sins?
- What’s it like to talk to God in prayer and know He speaks to you personally in the Bible?
- What’s it like to know that you are loved no matter what you do?
- What’s it like to have the Holy Spirit inside of you telling you right from wrong every day?
- What’s it like to be afraid of something, or sad beyond measure, or furious with anger, but then pray and know that God is literally working in your heart at that moment to take care of you?
- What’s it like to know that Jesus has a plan for your life and that even when bad things happen you know they’ll work out for the good?
- What’s it like to be part of His church? What’s it like to sing worship songs?
- What’s it like to memorize Bible verses and have them spring to mind at just the right moment?
This is how evangelism works, and has always worked: individuals sharing what God has done and is doing in their lives. God is writing a story in your life and that’s the one that He wants you to tell.
And the fourth thing I want you to remember is that you need to be patient. The Bible is replete with verses about waiting for God, waiting on God, and being patient as God does His work. So be patient and keep talking to them. Keep serving them. Keep being their friend. Keep praying, but don’t stop sharing your story with them.
Here’s a tip I heard somewhere: When you have coffee or see them at work and they say, “How are things?” You can say, “Well, I’ve had some interesting things going on at work, in my family, and with my faith, which would you like to hear about?”
Think about it this way, if you saw a cool movie or bought an amazing product, you’d tell them, right? Then why not tell them about something cool or amazing that happened in your spiritual life? It’s mostly fear that keeps us from doing that, which is helped by prayer, and when I or others have done it, I can’t remember a single person saying it blew up in their face. Why? Because we’re not forcing it. We’re not making it up. It’s not coming out of nowhere. It’s part of us, and that person cares for us, so it’s natural for them to listen to something like that.
They may not get saved the first time you tell them. They may not be ready to turn from their sin. They might be afraid, or confused, or have more questions, or something else. So be patient with them, keep loving them, keep praying for God to open their hearts, and keep talking to them about what God is doing in your life.
There may come a time when you think that you’ve said it too many times – don’t believe it. I’ve heard of people who were exposed to the gospel the first time and gave their life to Jesus right there – and I know people whose friend or spouse told them about Jesus for 20 years, 30 years, 40 years before their heart was soft enough for the seed of Jesus’ story to take root. So keep on praying for them. God isn’t finished with them yet.
Yes, sharing our faith can be a little scary sometimes, but my message to you today is to keep loving them, keep praying for them, and keep talking to them about Jesus. That’s what God wants us to keep doing, and that’s how people get saved, so that’s what we should do.
Please open up to 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 and let’s read it together:
“Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.
Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”
The Moral Butterfly Effect
Food is a huge topic today – an obsession even. What to eat, how much, and what it’s made of, are endlessly debated in articles, documentaries, and online. But with the advent of the global economy, the questions go even deeper. Where the seeds came from, how it was planted, cultivated, harvested, distributed and marketed is matter for much contention as well. Consider Bananas. They seems pretty straight forward, right? If I like bananas I should go to the store and buy some and eat them. But it’s not that simple. Bananas are now super-complicated.
For example, we have to consider where they were grown. Banana harvesters from Ecuador are apparently suffering great labour abuses and we don’t want to support that, do we? Then there’s the problem of banana blight. Did you know that every banana consumed in the western world descends from a plant grown by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, in England, 180 years ago? And because of that they are all susceptible to being attacked by a certain kind of fungus. This actually happened in the 1950s when a disease wiped out most of the world’s bananas and we had to change to a different type. Your grandpas bananas are not the same as yours So, when we want one, we have to ask if we want to support this kind of farming? I’m not judging, just asking.
But it goes deeper. Because of low carb and Glycemic diets and whatnot, Bananas are getting a bad rap. One article I read called it “one of the worst breakfast items we can have.” (To which I thought, “Wow, this guy would probably die if he saw of the things that we’ve called ‘breakfast’ at my house! He’d be like, “Yeah, man you should probably have a banana instead of that skittle smoothie.”)
There’s no decision we can make that doesn’t have some sort of moral consequence. Where we go, what we say, what we do, and what we don’t’ do, makes a moral ripple effect that not only hits us but spreads far and wide, affecting people we don’t even realize. Think of it as the moralistic butterfly effect. That’s what we’re talking about today.
Meat and Idols
The Christians in the Corinthian church had come across some choices people were making that were causing some moral tornados in their congregation. There were some Christians who, even after conversion, continued to buy meat from and attend parties and feasts held in the pagan temples. And since this was such a regular part of life, they wanted to know if it was ok.
Here’s a little background: In the same way that we enjoy getting together for barbecues, dinner parties, and church potlucks, it was common practice to for someone to buy or bring their meat to a temple to eat. Except these dinner parties had a very religious overtone. The meat would be divided into 3 portions – one to be burned as an offering, one given to the priest, and one given back to the offeror to eat and serve. If the priest didn’t want their portion then it would be sold in the marketplace – which meant that if you went to someone’s house, the meat they served you had likely been dedicated to one of the gods of the temple.
The teaching against participating in pagan rituals and worshipping other God’s is pretty clear in the Bible. All through the Old Testament (which was the Bible the Corinthians were reading), it repeats the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exo 20:3). God’s people are repeatedly told not to serve or worship any other so-called god. When they entered the Promised Land God’s command was to totally remove any remnant of the pagan worship (Exo 34:11-16). And he’s really serious, using words like tear down and break and destroy. It doesn’t matter how cool looking the altars are, or how much they offer you to be their partner, or how attractive their daughters are… don’t get involved with them, get rid of all of it. And this is continuously repeated, and disobeyed, all through the Old Testament.
And this question came up in the New Testament too when the Jerusalem Council, full of Apostles and headed by Peter and James, decided on whether non-Jewish people needed to follow the Law of Moses and Jewish religious rituals. They concluded,
“Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.” (Acts 15:19-20)
But if Jesus declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19) then why would the Apostles say that the Gentiles were to not eat certain foods? Because there was a split happening in the church between the Jews and Gentiles over this issue and the Apostles decided to tell the Gentiles who were worshipping in the same church with the Jews to be sensitive to their brothers so that they wouldn’t be so shocked, hurt, and offended and therefore stumble into sin and division. Every time a Gentile had a Jewish friend over it could a massive rift in the relationship. The gentile would offer a bloody piece of undercooked meat that had been blessed by a pagan priest and offered in sacrifice to the Goddess Aphrodite, and the Jew would have a full-on conscience meltdown. It went against literally everything that they believed and held dear for their entire lives! And so the Jerusalem counsel basically commanded the Gentiles to give their Jewish neighbours a break for the sake of unity.
But in Corinth, staying clear of any contact with idolatry was nearly impossible. It was literally everywhere, woven into the very fabric of society. The temples, which we’ve talked about before, were the centre of society and also acted kind of like restaurants of our time. Some meals for the trade guilds, clubs, and private dinner parties were held in the temple dining room. But it was bigger than that. Wrapped into this “temple restaurant” were all the community events and various traditional feasts and festivals on the calendar. AND the temple was also a place to do business and get some of your grocery shopping done! So the Corinthians really needed to know what to do. Did the Old Testament and the decision of the Jerusalem Council extend to them as well? Imagine that being a Christian meant you could never eat at a restaurant, have a birthday party, go to a Canada Day party, shop at the mall, visit your non-Christian friends, or conduct most business transactions ever again!
So the questions was, “Are we allowed to go to these events?” Would it be considered participating in the pagan ritual, meaning breaking commandments and offending God, or if it was no big deal because they are Christians and know better?
This may sound like an old problem, but we deal with these kinds of moral dilemmas all the time today. Certainly when we make our food decisions, like our banana illustration, but in lots of other ways also. What if a Christian is invited to participate in a non-Christian wedding? What if a bartender or casino worker gets saved – can they keep their job? Can a Christian go to Las Vegas? If our taxes go to a government that promotes unbiblical practices, should we pay them? Can a Christian go on an offensive attack when at war? How should a Christian deal with panhandlers? Can a Christian be a business partner or employ non-Christians? Or the age old, is it ok for a Christian to lie if it means they are protecting someone’s life?
These are not insignificant questions and do deserve our consideration. We ought not merely roll along in our lives assuming that everything we do, think, and say is ok with God as long as it isn’t a flagrant sin where we break one of the 10 Commandments. We shouldn’t assume that God doesn’t care about the minutia of our lives, or that God hasn’t spoken about the most righteous, wisest way to make these decisions. And, as I’ve already said, we shouldn’t simply assume that our decisions, even the “little ones”, don’t have lasting impacts and far-reaching effects. Immature people coast along assuming everything they think is right, that the most important thing to consider is whether it makes them happy, and assuming that their decisions only affect them or a small circle around them. Mature people spend time considering and studying their decisions and motives, knowing that even their smallest, most private actions can have far-reaching, unforeseen consequences.
Have you ever had that happen? Where you made a seemingly insignificant decision or one that you thought was only significant for you, only to find that when you tugged on that thread it unraveled a lot more than you thought? That happens more than you think it does.
The point is that there is much more going on than merely a singular action or decision. Each has ripple effects that expand into eternity – effects we can’t see, but God can – and so at all times, Christians try to do things God’s way – not only to simply obey him (which is important) but also because we trust that He knows better than do. That’s why it’s so important to prayerfully read the Bible because when we turn our hearts to God and follow Jesus, we can “have the Mind of Christ”.
So, what does God say about these kinds of situations, where we are faced with a moral dilemma that we’re not too sure about, seems to be fine with scripture, but maybe not… seems to be fine with our conscience, or with other people’s consciences, but not with ours… and we’re not sure what to do?
First, I want you to notice that the Corinthians asked. They were a sinful, prideful, messed up group, but there were some in the church that had the humility and wisdom to ask the Apostle what God has to say about the subject.
Most people don’t do this. Many Christians don’t do this. They either lack the humility or the wisdom to simply ask someone else about the situation. They are presented with a question, an option, a decision, or a situation, and instead of pausing for a moment and thinking, “What does God say about this? What would my parents say? What would my spouse think? What would my pastor counsel here?” they just go with their first impulse or whatever their guy says to do. Contrary to every romantic comedy, adventure or fairy-tale movie you’ve ever seen, “Follow your heart” is really terrible advice.
Can I invite you to another level of maturity and ask you to get wise counsel? This is all over the Proverbs.
“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” (Prov 12:15),
“Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” (Prov 11:14)
“Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.” (Prov 28:26) or at the very beginning of Proverbs,
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7)
The most famous of these is in Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”
How do we avoid the crooked paths? Trust God and distrust ourselves. In which ways are you to acknowledge God? Just the big decisions? No. “All your ways”.
Christians Know the Truth
So let’s look at what God says about this and then draw out some application. Read verses 1-3 again. It says, “Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.”
What’s being said here? You’ll notice some quotation marks. Greek didn’t have quotation marks, so these are the scholar’s best guess as to what the Corinthians had asked Paul in the letter they sent him. If we put the quotes from verses 1 and 4 together we get something like, “Hey Paul, all us Christians know that an idol isn’t a real god, right? We all know there’s only one God. And we all know the meat is just meat, right? And since we know all that and going to these things and eating the food should be no big deal. It’s not like we are worshipping. It’s not like we believe all this nonsense. We have knowledge that all these lost people don’t have – so it’s no big deal if we go and participate, right?”
The word “knowledge” there is key. And Paul agrees with them, to a point. Verses 4-6 say as much. The altars, pagan statues, idols, and religious stuff all around town does not actually represent any real “gods” or “lords”. The truth is that there is only one God and one way to Him, and all the other gods and ways are either made up, created by demons to deceiving people, or are man-made inventions designed to manipulate and abuse people in the name of religion. But skip to verses 7, “However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.”
That’s a very unpopular truth, isn’t it? Some people know the truth and some people don’t. Some people are right and others are wrong. It sounds arrogant to our tolerant, politically correct, culturally sensitive, ears. Now, I’m not going to get into an epistemological debate on the existence or non-existence of absolute truth or whether anyone can really know anything. Instead, I’m simply going to say that believing in truth and the existence of right and wrong reflects the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ and of the God of the Bible. It’s not our idea, it’s His.
It is Jesus who claimed to be the Son of God, the author of scripture, the fulfiller of all its promises, the light of the world, the giver of eternal life, the only one who can forgive sin, the door to salvation, “the way, the truth, and the life”, and that it is only through Him that we can gain access to God (Matthew 26:63, Mk 2:10; John 3:14-16, 4:26, 14:6, 10:28-30). It is we who simply believe Him.
There are no competing gods in heaven, battling one another for dominion over the earth, or splitting the lands among themselves (“You get worshiped by Greece, I’ll take USA, you get Saudi Arabia.”). Nor, as some people believe, does God does not represent Himself in multiple ways – to some He comes as Zeus, others Buddha, others as Shiva, others as Odin, others as Allah, others as YHWH, others as Jesus. That’s what some people believe. They agree that there is only one God, but that there are many paths to Him and that He’s totally fine with whatever path you take, just as long as you are sincere.
Jesus doesn’t leave that option open. Jesus says, “Many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many.” (Matthew 24:5) All through the New Testament the apostles warn against false teachers who come and spread false gospels and false teachings in the name of Jesus. But there is only One Jesus, One God, one Creator, one Lord and Saviour and He has been very clear in how He has revealed Himself. The only question is whether we will believe what He has revealed or if we will choose to disbelieve it.
People love visiting holy sites and it’s easy to get swept up in the beauty of the architecture or culture surrounding them. Throw in a couple of really peaceful looking, or extremely dedicated followers and it’s hard to tell them that their entire belief system is based on a lie. We want to say that a really dedicated Buddhist monk, whose life is dedicated to pursuing peace, understanding, good deeds, hard work, and the enjoyment of the world, is almost completely wrong. We want to be nice and tell them that they are like 75% right and that that’s going to count for something when they stand before God. But that’s not what scripture says, not what Jesus teaches, and not what God commands.
But this doesn’t just happen with other world religions, it happens with groups that claim to be Christian like the Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, and other people that have “Christian” on the sign and talk about Jesus, but don’t actually teach what Jesus taught — and there are a lot of them. They talk about Jesus, use Bible verses, sing some of the same songs we do, are very passionate in their beliefs, but they are wrong and deceived and their message does not lead to salvation.
When I was growing up we didn’t use maple syrup. We put Bee Hive Golden Corn Syrup on our pancakes. Sometimes we put Aunt Jemima on there, which was good because it was like liquid butter mixed with sugar. But when I moved to Ontario I was introduced to real maple syrup and I’ve been hooked ever since. I love it! Maple season is now a magical time for my family, where we run off to the sugar bush, wander through the forest, and see how many maple treats we can eat until we slip into a sugar coma.
But have you ever had the experience of going to a restaurant, ordering breakfast with pancakes, asking for maple syrup, and then have them bring you a wonderful looking warm, brown goo — that TASTES NOTHING LIKE MAPLE SYRUP! But by the time you figure it out, it’s already been spilled all over your food and you have to eat it. It looked like maple syrup, the server implied that it was maple syrup, it poured like maple syrup, and ¾ of the people at your table are slurping it up like it doesn’t even matter, seemingly totally ignorant of the fact that what they are eating is a lie! There’s not even any Maple in it. It’s High Fructose Corn Syrup, Caramel Colour and Artificial Flavours. Why is no one else bothered by this? It’s fake. It’s not real.
In the same way, there are many religions out there that call themselves Christian or holy and claim to be the truth and the way to God – but are wrong. Christians know this.
The Principle of Brotherly Love
But, God says in verse 7, when it comes to the people around you, in your church, “…not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.”
For some people, even though they are Christians, the situation is simply too much for them. Just like the Jerusalem Council said about being sensitive to the Jews, there are some in the church who can’t handle it. For them, the eating of that meat really is a stumbling block. They are so used to believing that idols and gods are real that when they eat the food offered to the idols they really do think of it as worship to real gods and their consciences are violated. They feel guilty, they feel shame, they feel separated from God.
And there are some in the church that have a hard time only trusting in Christ for their salvation. For them, there’s a huge temptation to do what the ancient Israelites would do by hedging their bets – praying to Jesus, but also sacrificing to whatever god they thought might help – and it’s a constant temptation to them.
For others, because of their former way of life, being in that place, eating that food, is too much of a temptation because it could suck them right back into it. They need to avoid it because they are not strong enough yet in the Lord not to fall. There’s an inner struggle within them to obey God and trust Christ – and so they don’t touch any of that stuff with a 10-foot pole.
For others, their family was so bound up in it, so deceived, so destroyed by it that they hate it, because it had so much power over them – and they still feel like it has power over them, so they don’t go anywhere near it. They’d rather give up everything – parties, business partners, meat, friends, family – for the sake of their relationship with Jesus, rather than running the risk of falling back into their former lifestyle.
You see, we’re not really talking about choosing bananas or maple syrup, we’re talking about eternity and the corruption of our conscience.
Paul says in verse 8, “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” Consuming or abstaining from a certain kind of food or drink doesn’t make us any holier. Jesus was very clear in when He said, “And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him…. from within, out of the heart of man…” (Mark 7:14-15; 21-23)
It’s not whether or not you know that it’s not about the food. For you, it might be fine, but, what about your brother or sister that can’t handle it, that isn’t as mature as you, that isn’t as strong as you? It is the Principal of Brotherly Love and it overrides all that other stuff.
That’s why we are told in verses 9-11, “…but take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”
It’s the principle of brotherly love and it must factor into our thinking when we consider all of these moral quandaries. Sometimes things are cut and dry, right and wrong, biblical or unbiblical, and that makes it easy. We aren’t allowed to do it. But what if scripture doesn’t cover that clearly, or it is absolutely allowed, but it is causing troubles for those around us? Then we abstain out of love for our fellow man.
It’s not about the type food we eat, or whether we drink beer, or what movie rating we allow, or what game we play, or what we buy, or where we go. It is that if the decisions we are making are causing our brothers and sisters in the faith to stumble into sin, then we are being Satan to them! We are their tempters! And in this way we are destroying their conscience, harming their relationship with God, and sinning against Christ. It’s a really, really big deal.
There is much more we can say, because chapter 9 continues the thought, but I want to end there today encouraging you to think about some of the decisions that you’ve been making, some of the lifestyle choices you’ve made, and ask yourself if loving others even factored into your thinking. Is it possible that you are doing something with your freedom in Christ that is hurting someone else? And you who are weak in conscience, do you have friends who are putting you in positions where you are tempted, or where you are weak, and you haven’t said anything? Say something.
Let us live in the knowledge of the freedom Christ brings us, but never get so “puffed up” that we use that knowledge to do harm to someone else.
The Gospel Truth
Today I want to talk about the “Gospel”. That word has been hijacked a bit by our culture so I want, at the outset, to clarify what that word even means. The term “The Gospel Truth” has actually become an idiom in our culture – meaning a group of words that have a meaning you can’t get from the words themselves. Like “it’s raining cats and dogs” (which means there’s a lot of rain coming down), or “beating round the bush” (which means to avoid talking about something), the words “the gospel truth” have now become idiomatic for something that is supposed to be unquestionably true.
A quick Google search for showed people using the phrase in concert reviews (“she loves singing, that’s the gospel truth”. scientific studies (“don’t take this study as the gospel truth”), marriage advice (“here’s some advice, but don’t take it as the gospel truth), and of course, attacks against mainstream media (“CNN, NBC, ABC all present their claims as the gospel truth”). It seems to either a way to double down on how truthful you are, or to squirm out of having people totally buy what you are saying.
The word “gospel” comes from the Greek word EVANGELION, which is where we get our word “evangelism” or “evangelist”. An “evangelist” is someone that tells the “good news”. The world simply means “good news”. When Mark begins telling the story of Jesus, he starts with the word EVANGELION: This is the good news. At the time the word meant any kind of good news. 2000 years ago if someone knocked and said “Have you heard the good news?”, you wouldn’t immediately think they were religious, but simply thought it could be a good sale down at the camel emporium or they just found some money in their sock drawer. [Did ancient Greeks have sock drawers?] Today, however, the word “Gospel” or “good news” is synonymous with the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Now, when knocks on your door or stops you in the street and says “have you heard the good news?” almost everyone immediately knows this person is going to say something about Jesus!
My least favourite example of culture appropriating the word “gospel” is from the old Disney movie “Hercules” which opens by presenting the Greek myths with gospel-style, church music, using the hook on the chorus “and that’s the gospel truth”. It’s annoying to me that they would use what sounds like upbeat church music to present myths. It puts the Bible at the same historical accuracy level as Homer’s Odyssey. Which simply isn’t true.
Not a Myth
Christians don’t follow myths. What we believe is not based on philosophy or stories that make us feel good. Instead, we believe the true gospel, the real gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ, really happened. Jesus life, death, and resurrection were the plan of salvation, the gospel, that God had written since the beginning of time. We stake our lives and our eternities on it.
Open up to 1 Corinthians 15. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 the Apostle Paul writes to the church about the importance of remembering that the resurrection of Jesus really happened. He says:
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
He’s telling the Christians that no matter what happens in this world, the reason we can have hope is because of the historical reality that Jesus really was raised from the dead. He reminds them that this is what was taught to them, this is what they believed, and when the world around them starts to shake, this is what they need to “hold fast to” – not because it is a nice story, but because it’s true. God’s plan, “according to the scriptures”, was that Jesus would die on a Roman cross. He really was buried and He really did rise three days later. And how could they be sure? Ask Cephas and the apostles, who were still around. If you don’t believe them ask one of the other five hundred witnesses who are still around.
Some people had come to the church and said, “That’s impossible! People don’t come back from the dead!” To which Christians reply, “No duh. That’s why it’s so special! That’s why we have a great big celebration about it every year! Because it’s a miracle.”
But some of the people in the Corinthian church had forgotten the good news were starting to lose faith – and this was only 30 years after the resurrection! As they lost their faith in the resurrection they started to lose hope, which meant the foundation of their lives started to wobble, which caused them to flail about looking for something to make the world make sense, and they were starting to wander into sin, hopelessness, fear, worldliness, sadness, greed, and anything else that would distract them or some level of control – and their pastor, Paul, blows the whistle and calls everyone back to the centre so they can do a big reset.
I’m an Edmonton Oiler fan and I’m very glad to see my team back in the playoffs this year. It’s been a long time. But I still remember 2006 when they made the trade for a big defenseman named Chris Pronger who took the team to the playoffs. He was a huge guy with lots of experience on a team that no one thought would be able to win. I remember watching as the Oilers would get behind, start chasing the puck, start freaking out, and then 6 foot 6 inch, 220 pound Chris Pronger would get the puck, look around at the rest of the guys and reset the whole team. It happened time and again. The young, inexperienced guys, would be buzzing around, and Pronger would basically stop the game and give everyone a chance to get back to where they needed to be.
That’s what Paul did to the church. He stopped their buzzing and reset the whole church. “Guys, remember the truth! Remember what you heard! Remember what you believe and why you believe it! Put down the idols, sin, greed, fear, and foolishness and remember that God is real, Jesus has risen, the Holy Spirit is active, and you are His!”
He goes on to say in verse 12 that if Jesus has not be raised from the dead, if the resurrection isn’t true, then there is no point in being a Christian – life has no hope. He says: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
That’s what we are proclaiming today. My message and the message of this church is the same. “In fact, Christ has been raised from the dead” and therefore we have hope. Adam sinned and brought death to the world – but Jesus’s death made it so that we could be alive again.
I opened the Good Friday service with a prayer that I want to read part of again because I found it so powerful. It said, “It was on the cross that grace removed our burdens and heaped them onto Jesus, where he was made a transgressor, a curse, and sin for our sake…. Christ was all anguish that we might be all joy, rejected so we could be accepted, cast off so we could be brought in, trodden down as an enemy so we could be welcomed as friends, surrendered to hell’s worst so we could attain heaven’s best, wounded that we could be healed, thirsty so we would be able to drink, tormented so we could find comfort, made shame so we might inherit glory, entered darkness that we might have eternal light. Jesus Christ, our Saviour, wept so that our tears might be wiped away, groaned in agony so we could have an endless song to sing, endured all pain so that we could have unfading health, bore a crown of thorns so we could have imperishable crowns of glory, life, and righteousness. He bowed his head so that ours could be lifted to heaven, he experienced reproach so we could be accepted, closed his eyes in death so we could gaze on the unclouded brightness of God. He died so we could live forever.”
The world seems upside down right now, but, Christians around the world proclaim today: remember the gospel! In a world awash with bad news, and a life full of frustration, remember the good news.
We all need some good news these days, don’t we? But for some reason, the media doesn’t really like reporting “good news”. Can you imagine turning on the TV to your favourite news program and hearing only good news for 30 minutes straight? I can’t even fathom what that would be like.
How about instead of saying “1 in 6 people lie on their tax form”, they could say, “Did you know that 83% of people are very honest and do a great job on their taxes every year!” Instead of hearing about how the legal system is failing, the police have problems, and the bad guys are getting out of jail on a technicality, we heard stories like “The police saved countless lives this month by giving out tickets to people who drive too fast, took care of special needs people by giving out tickets, arrested lots and lots of bad guys, saved many families from harm, and visited a whole bunch of schools to help children have a better life.” Instead of hearing about the crooked bankers, wouldn’t it be nice to hear that like 99.9% of the people at the bank aren’t crooked and are just trying to do a good job. That’d be a nice change, wouldn’t it?
I would love to turn on the TV and see some positive stories: “This just in… 20 kittens were born today – here’s some pictures. Baskin Robins has a deal on waffle cones – here’s a coupon. And now for the weather: Hey, the sun us up, it’s nice outside, there are flowers blooming in the park, and everyone should go outside and play. Now for the sports: Almost every athlete in every sport practiced really hard, played exactly by the rules, worked well with their team mates, made lots and lots of money, donated some of it to charity, and the vast majority are still very happily married. Oh, and half the teams won their games! And now for entertainment news from Hollywood: there are actually a bunch of fun movies to take your kids too … and some of them are in 3D.”
Yes, I know that life sucks sometimes and everyone wants us to freak out all the time. ISIS is killing people, Christians are being blown up while they sit in their churches, Syria is gassing civilian woman and children, the US just dropped the biggest non-nuclear bomb in their arsenal on Afghanistan. Add to that the incredibly difficult things that we are all facing in our day-to-day lives – addiction, abuse, illness, pain, loss, depression, anxiety, sadness… and it’s easy to start to feel hopeless.
As the world presses in and our foundations start to shake, we also start to flail about looking for something to grab onto to steady ourselves. Even committed Christians find themselves wondering what God is doing, where Jesus is, why we are going through this, and we start to grasp for immediate answers and instant comfort. Our fight or flight instincts kick in and we want to rail against those around us, or do anything for a moment’s peace – even if we know it will harm us.
But we need more, don’t we? We need more than just a quick fix or a boost of good news from the world around us – we need something ultimate, some piece of good news that we can build our whole lives on. Something that, when all is lost, the world is dark, the demons are swirling, we feel desperately hungry, angry, lonely, tired and sad, that holds us fast. Some people call this a metanarrative – an overarching story that gives meaning to everything. And that metanarrative, that overarching meaning, that good news is found in the resurrection of Jesus.
What the Good News Means
Some of you know that my family has been through a rough time lately. And I know from talking to you that many of you are also facing some very difficult situations personally, emotionally, financially, relationally. And so I want to share with you, from a bit of a personal side, what the Good News means to us – what it means to me – especially during dark times.
On Easter Sunday we wake up early, put on our itchy pants and fancy dresses, come to church and celebrate, sing about, and talk about the resurrection of Jesus. And we sometimes phrase it as “God did this for the world. God loves everybody.” But today I want to close with what the good news means to me… and hopefully you can resonate with it.
I could do this in 10 words: “The gospel of Jesus Christ means everything to me.” Or I could preach endlessly, for hours and hours, about the ways Jesus has changed my life, what the scripture says, what I have studied in my theology books, and what He has done for me in my darkest times.
No doubt you are wondering which one I picked. You’re hoping for the 10 word conclusion, and hoping against the endless one, right? Well, I’m hoping to lean more towards the former than the latter, if that means anything.
So, when the world is at it’s darkest and I need good news, I am reminded of the resurrection of Jesus and all that it means for me and those who believe. Let me share a little of what gives me hope during those hard times.
First, the resurrection of Jesus means that absolute truth and absolute morality exist. What a horrible insecurity it is to believe that there is no such thing as truth that nothing can be certain, everything is pliable, and that everyone’s opinion, conjecture and feelings are equally valid. That somehow even if something is a lie, it can be the “truth to someone”. That’s an unsettled, foundationless existence.
I have comfort in the knowledge that there are some non-negotiables in this world – that not everything is up for grabs. Some things are categorically bad, and others are absolutely good. Yes, there arere some grey areas I don’t understand, but its good news that God has given us black and white. Jesus died to save me from the wrath of God against sin which leads to eternal death, and because of Him I can be free and clean. It’s as black and white as that. There is right and wrong, good and evil, saved and unsaved, and those things are set by God – not man, not me, not anyone but God alone.
I Am Loved
Second, the death and resurrection of Jesus tells me that I am overwhelmingly, undeservingly, and unconditionally loved by the One who created me. When life is at its worst. When I feel like I’m on the edge of madness, people let me down, and I am utterly confused, I look to the cross and know that God loves me, to the tomb and know that Jesus is alive and with me. It is He who gives me comfort, teaches me, holds me together, and willingly grants a peace that passes understanding. When I can’t count on anyone, I can count on Him. When no one will listen, I can talk to Him and He understands. And when I am alone, I can listen to Him because He really does speak. When I am alone He’s always there. He will never leave me, nor forsake me.
If I had to continuously wonder if I had done enough to earn God’s love, I would be forever paranoid and afraid of Him. If God only loves me because of the good things I do, say, think then I am in real trouble, because, in truth, I know that am a wretched, selfish, sinful man.
But He doesn’t. God so loved the world, and so loved me, that He sent His one and only Son to earth, to live as a human being, and to take the punishment that you and I deserve. He did this because He loves us with an everlasting love.
I Have a Purpose
Another piece of good news that Jesus reminds me of is that we are specially created to have a purpose and a destination. I am not a being who is simply tossed upon the winds of time and space, only to exist for a moment and then disappear into nonexistence. The bible teaches me that God knew us before we were born, put us together in a very specific way, with special gifts and talents and a unique temperament. He chose our parents, where we would grow up, and designed us in such a way that we have a reason to live.
In a world where we are taught we are the summation of a random occurrence of molecules and that we are governed more by chemistry and electrical impulse than an eternal soul… were we are only as valuable as long as we are producing and being good consumers, but where life has no ultimate meaning, there is no assurance of a bright future, and only oblivion to look forward to in eternity… it is good news to know that the opposite is true.
God Has Power
The resurrection also reminds me that no matter how bad life gets messed things up, God is big enough to fix it. Jesus showed that, if He desires, He has the power to solve every problem and turn every bad thing into something good. From making the blind see and the lame walk to turning water into wine just so someone wouldn’t be embarrassed, He showed He isn’t just about big problems but He is also concerned with everyday problems too. He fed 5000 people with one kid’s lunch to show that we never have to worry about provision when He’s in charge. When all of the disciples were terrified that their boat would capsize in the storm, Jesus stood up and literally rebuked the wind and waves and the storm just stopped. And He can, and has, done the same thing for the storms in my heart, my mind, and in my life as well. And the resurrection proves that even death has no power over Him! When things look bleak, it is good news to remember that God not only loves us, but has great power.
I Am Free
And of course, the best news, to me and anyone else who believes, is that we are free from the consequences of our sins. This is the core of evangelism – that because of Jesus we are free. Jesus knows what I’ve done. And Satan, who’s other name is the Accuser, has every right to stand on the other side of God’s courtroom and proclaim to the Judge of all mankind, that I am guilty and deserve death, hell and eternal punishment for breaking God’s divine law over and over. And I do – I deserve the punishment. And yet, there stands Jesus, who’s other name is the Advocate, telling God that every punishment I deserve, every sin I’ve committed, every wrong that I have done, has been atoned for… has been paid for, by Him on the cross.
You see, God couldn’t just let all my sin go. He can’t just forget about it. He is perfectly good and righteous, and upholds perfect justice. Every wrong must be given exactly the right punishment. No one will get away with anything. But for those who believe, that punishment was poured out on Jesus. I was a slave to sin, he bought me back. I was chained to the devil, on my way to the blackness of hell, and Jesus Christ proclaimed light, broke the chain, and brought me back. He exchanged His body for mine, His blood for mine. He went through Hell so I wouldn’t have to.
Christians don’t follow Jesus because we have to. We don’t do good because we are afraid of God. We do it because we want to show our love and thanks to Jesus and because I trust that God knows what He’s doing with my life WAY better than I do. When God tells me I’m doing wrong I try not to see it as Him taking something away but as a Father who is protecting me.
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus reminds us of all of this! The story of humanity, from Adam to today, is only good news because Jesus is in the story! No matter where we are, what we have done, or who we think we are… God still loves us, Jesus died for us, forgiveness is available to us, and we can live forever in the knowledge that we are God’s people.
If you believe that this morning, I would ask you, and encourage you to remember that today is a day of celebration! And that no matter how bad the news is in your life… and no matter what your dark days, your bad thoughts, or the TV says… there is still good news.
No matter how tough you have it this morning… and I know that some of you are in a very dark place, and it is very hard to see any light… there is good news that if you are willing to turn your life over to Jesus, ask forgiveness for your sin, and open your heart to what He would like to do in you, He will give you hope. He’s never let me down and has taken such good care of me, that even when everything looked really messed up and beyond hope, He has done great things far beyond what I could have asked or even imagined.
*Sorry, no audio.
Tattoos & Human Branding
I don’t have any tattoos, but I know lots of people who do – and a few that don’t have one yet but want one. As far as the Bible goes, there’s no problem with getting or having a tattoo, so long as it’s not done in as part of a pagan religious ceremony (Lev 19:28) or done in a prideful way, to show off and attract attention to your body (1 Peter 3:3-4). If you can do it in a tasteful, humble way, is profitable and helpful, that honours your body as God’s temple, and is an act of worship that brings glory Him glory, then go for it! (Eph 5:4 Col 3:8; 1 Cor 6:19-20; 10:23, 31)
As funny as some of these are, I want to take a minute to use it as an illustration. All of the people we saw in those pictures made the choice – however misguided that choice may have been – to go and get their bodies marked, but human branding has been around for a long time.
People would brand their slaves as their own property, brand thieves, brawlers or other undesirables with letters on their skin marking their crime. The practice even occurs a few times in the Bible. God marked Cain so people wouldn’t kill him (Gen 4). Ezekiel had a vision of men dressed in linen walking through a town destined for destruction marking the people who lamented their sins so they would not be destroyed (Exe 9:4). In Revelation it speaks of two different marks, those marked by God for salvation and those who take the Mark of the Beast (Rev 7:3; 13:16-17). Paul speaks of the scars on his body, from beatings, stonings and lashings as marks that point to his faith in Jesus (Gal 6:17). And it was seeing the marks in His hands side that brought doubting Thomas to faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (John 20:27).
The marks of Jesus are often called the “Stigmata”, from which we get the term “stigma”. Last week we spent some time looking at a biblical view of depression. It was by no means comprehensive, but I think we covered some of the basics, and I hope it was helpful to you. I was surprised how much feedback from last week’s message, both locally and after I posted it on the internet. I got hits and messages from all over North America. I even received an email from someone in Mexico.
The comment I heard repeated most often, including from my new friend in Monterey, revolved around stigma. Multiple people thanked me for simply not making them feel badly about struggling with depression or mental illness. Being a person suffering from mental illness like depression is bad enough, more than a few Christians I know have recently admitted some bad stories about letting people at church know about their struggles, and then having that knowledge used against them.
They come to their friend, their church, their family, to share a small part of one of their deepest struggles – that for a long time they have been in a daily battle against their own brain, that has made them feel anxious, sad, fearful, hopeless, and like an utter failure – and instead of getting love, acceptance, support, and prayer – they get stigmatized, branded, tattooed with a label. Most often in the church, that label is “Lazy” or “Faithless”.
Instead of coming alongside this person and patiently bearing their burdens with them, they accuse them of not having enough faith, not praying enough, not reading the bible enough, not understanding enough theology, not worshipping enough. They throw out quick answers like, “Have you done your devos? Reading the Bible and praying always cheers me right up!” or “You should listen to more worship music.” or “You need to stop drinking coffee, you’re your vitamins and do some exercise, and then you’d be happy.”
The implication to those quick answers is that the person’s problem is their fault – as though this was something they chose, or there’s something they are not doing that if they would just do, then their sickness would go away. That’s a ridiculous notion that we would never apply to any other sickness, would we?
I don’t intend to repeat last week’s message about the importance of realizing that they are suffering from a mental illness, meaning that they are literally sick, and that part of their body is broken (their brain chemistry) and outside of their control. And I don’t intend to try to convince you how bad it is by telling you a bunch of horror stories from my life or anyone else’s – please just believe me that however bad you think it is to be clinically depressed or suffer from mental illness, the reality is that it’s probably worse. But after hearing from more than a few people relate stories of how much pain they have been caused by people in the church, and saying that they are literally afraid of telling other Christians about their struggles, I feel there’s a couple topics we need to cover.
People Usually Fear / Hate Sickness
Today I want to talk about how God uses sickness and suffering for our good and His glory. Essentially, what we’re talking about is a building a theology of sickness.
People who are sick are often treated very badly by their fellow man. Maybe it comes from our inherent fear of death, so we distance ourselves physically and emotionally from anyone who is suffering. Maybe it comes from our belief that all suffering and sickness is bad, and therefore we need to avoid it at all costs. Maybe it comes from thinking that anyone who is sick or suffering is being punished by God, or has lost faith, and therefore we need to stay away while God deals with them. Whatever the case, being sick, whether with a mental or physical illness, has often come with stigma – they are marked as outsiders and shunned.
Even though the Old Testament is full of commands to care for the poor and be merciful to the suffering (Deut 15:11; Micah 6:8), and they did have medicine and physicians (Job 13:4; 1 Chron 16:12; Jer 6:22) it was often believed that anyone with any kind of handicap, from birth defects to blindness to leprosy to the flu to losing life or limb in an accident, was being punished by God for their sins, and was therefore shunned from the community.
From ancient times until today one way that societies have dealt with their weak and sick is to lock them away, forget them, or simply kill them – and this is on both ends of the spectrum. In some ancient cultures, if a baby had any kind of defect at all, it was policy to leave it out in the open until it died so that it’s weakness wouldn’t impact the family or the nation. In some cultures today girls are seen as weaker than boys, so they murder baby girls in favour of having more boys.
Since we have the technology to look inside the uterus before the baby is born doctors can diagnose all kinds issues a baby might have. Most of these issues are non-life threatening and are very treatable, but often end in abortion. For example, the rate of Downs Syndrome children has rapidly declined these days, not because there are less of them, but because they are murdered before they are ever born.
In the proudly liberal United Kingdom, famous for their open-mindedness and tolerance, they have a law that says you can abort a “disabled child” up to the day it’s born. Because the term “disabled” isn’t defined well, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of women have aborted their baby because it had a cleft lip. Why? Because people hate, shun, stigmatize, and reject sickness.
And we do it on the other end of the spectrum too as we take the sick and the elderly, push them out of our society, remove them from our media, lock them away in homes to forget about them, charge them enormous fees to care for them, and then, when they are rejected and alone, and feel like a burden to everyone around them, the lawmakers, doctors and insurance companies offer them euthanasia (Greek for or “The Good Death”). Like Coke, Pepsi or Nike, they find a young, pretty spokesmodels like Brittany Maynard to be their advocate and make suicide seem like a wonderful thing that everyone should consider, and then do what they can to eliminate other options.
One recent example of this comes from the story of Stephanie Packer, a mother of four who lives in California which recently legalized doctor assisted suicide. She has an auto immune disease that forms scar tissue on her lungs which makes it hard to breathe. She was told she wouldn’t live until age 32, but she’s already a year past that. She’s been in treatment for a long time, but when her doctors switched her expensive chemotherapy drugs, her insurance company informed her that they refused to pay for them. She then asked if they would cover the cost of the drugs that would put her to death. They said yes, and that it would only cost her $1.20. The same thing happened to a 64-year-old woman in Oregon who was given the choice between paying for a $4000/month drug to help her get better, or a $50 drug that would kill her.
Humanity hates and fears weakness, sickness, and death, and we will do everything we can to remove it from our minds, hearts, homes, and country. Christians need to be better, but too often we’re not. Instead, we, in our own ways, mark those who are sick, hurting, or weak, as undesirable outcasts that need to be treated by specialists, and only hang out with people who are strong, helpful, and that contribute to our wellbeing.
Think about it. I’ve heard so many times that people want friends that will help them grow, a church where they will be fed, spouses and partners and friends that will strengthen them – but they never, ever, ever mean someone that is sick or hurting. They always mean that they want to find someone who is strong, smart, and healthy, that will build them up. They never meant that they want to be surrounded by people that are sick, weak, afraid, confused, struggling, and in constant need.
But let me tell you the God’s honest truth. The place your faith will grow most, where you will be challenged most, where you will be tried, tested and refined most – is among the lust, hurting, and sick.
I hear Christians ask all the time about how they grow more spiritual, get closer to God, deepen their prayer life, learn more about the faith, be more dependent on scripture, hear the Holy Spirit, and become more like Jesus – and that’s a good thing. But the answer isn’t just “read your bible, pray every day”, avoid bad things, and you’ll grow, grow, grow. No, what will really, truly cause you to become desperate for the presence of God is to come face to face with weakness.
Sickness as a Gift
The Bible says that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6) and one way we become more humble, and thereby gain more grace, is to be faced with sickness – in ourselves or someone else.
- Physical, emotional and mental weakness will stop you in your tracks and force you to evaluate your life and faith.
- Whether you are the one who is ill or the one facing the illness, it will test the strength of your marriage, your friendships, and the bonds of your church and family.
- It will require you to admit you have problems and that you need help, opening up your heart to the ability not only to admit physical and mental problems but ultimately spiritual ones.
- It will force you to stop depending on yourself and humbly accept the help of God and others.
- It will force you to see your own weakness, and even your own mortality, and realize your time on earth is short.
- And it gives others an opportunity to care for you, thereby helping them grow.
- It will cause you to talk to God in ways you never have before– whether in anger, sadness, fear, or faith.
When you or someone you love is in pain your prayers get a lot less general. Gone are your prayers for a nice meal, a happy life, and to bless everyone around you –because now you realize what it means to come to God and say:
“Father in heaven. Hallowed be your name.
Bring your kingdom soon, because I hate this world full of sin and death.
May your will be done, because I am utterly at a loss for what to do.
Give me this day my daily bread, because I am weak, tired, and all of my energy is spent – I need a miracle of provision from you if I’m going to make it through this day.
Forgive me my sins, because I realize now how worldly I have been and how much I have sinned against others who just needed my love and comfort. How I wish I had been more merciful to them, because I could use their mercy now!
Help me to forgive those who have sinned against me, because people are saying and doing so many stupid, selfish things to me and the one I love, and I don’t need any more bitterness in my heart, God. I don’t have the time or energy to argue. I just need to find a place to know your life.
God, lead me not into temptation – because I’m tempted to give up, tempted to quit, tempted to go to evil places for a moment’s comfort, tempted to lash out at the one I’m supposed to be caring for and the ones that are caring for me, tempted to push people away, tempted to stop worshipping, stop praying, stop asking for help. God I’m so very tempted.
I need you to deliver me from evil, because all the time I can feel the presence of the evil one around me, and as I battle this illness on so many fronts – I need your spiritual protection so there’s at least one battle I don’t need to fight because you are doing it for me. Protect me, God.
I recognize yours is the kingdom, and I am but a humble citizen.
I recognize that yours is the power, because I feel so powerless.
And yours is the glory, so help me to somehow bring you glory in this as you make me more fit for your kingdom.
Forever and ever, even now, even in this time, even as terrible as this feels today – amen, so be it, I relent, I give it all to you.”
In Sickness You Meet Jesus
To my fellow Christians, I remind you that it is when you are face to face with the weak, the sick, and the poor – which includes those who suffer with depression – that you are closest to Jesus, and have the greatest opportunity to bless him. Turn with me to Matthew 25:31-46 and consider the words of Jesus:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
We will not be saved because of our compassion and mercy towards those brothers and sisters who are hungry, naked, sick and imprisoned, but we will do it because we are saved. Listen carefully: Your understanding of your salvation and all that Jesus has done for you is demonstrated in how you treat those around you, especially those who are difficult – like the sick, the poor, the estranged, or your enemies.
A Christian understands from what they have been delivered. They know that in the eyes of a perfect God they were deplorable, wretched, sinners, enemies of God. Before we are saved by Jesus, the Bible says we have all the attraction and benefit of a rotten, stinking, enemy corpse (Isaiah 64:6; Eph 2:1-3). Humanity became sick with sin and succumbed to it completely. Jesus didn’t come to meet us in hospital room, or our deathbed, he came to our grave. We have the smell of death and rotten deeds all about us – as unattractive as possible – and yet, though there was not anything good about us, God sent His only Son to take the punishment for our sin so we could be reborn as one of His people (John 3:16; Eph 2:4-5).
He stepped into a land of madness, sickness, death, betrayal, and hatred – a world completely bent away from Him – and stayed out of love. We insulted Him, He healed our wounds. We hated Him, and He exercised our demons. We broke every law He gave us, used the body He gave us for sin, rejected the prophets He sent us, corrupted the Word He spoke to us. He wept over us, prayed for us, fed us, calmed our storms, took the cross for us, sent us His Holy Spirit, and invited us to be part of His family. And even though we continue to get it wrong, sin like crazy, spit in his face, refuse to listen, obey, pray or do what He asks, even though we keep erecting idols in our hearts – He keeps walking with us, forgiving us, helping us, sitting with us, weeping with us, mourning with us, and reminding us of why we can still have hope.
We are never more like Jesus, and we never see Jesus more, than when we are serving, helping, and loving people who are suffering – and that includes people who are facing depression and mental illness.
Next week I hope to give some practical tools, but I that’s where I want to leave it this week. But let me challenge you to some reflection:
First, is there anyone in your life that you have stigmatized, marked as an untouchable because they are too weak, sick, sad, or frustrating? Has God called you to serve someone, visit them, feed them, help them, welcome them, clothe them, but you have said no, because like the pagan world around you, you don’t want to, are too lazy, too afraid to be touched by weakness, sickness and death? I beg you to repent. Ask forgiveness of those you have marked as outcasts because of your own selfishness, fear and sin, and then go and be Jesus to them – and meet Jesus in them.
And second, to those who have been marked by sin, who bear the scars of depression, anxiety, sickness and pain. I challenge you to change your perspective on your suffering to see that you are not being punished, and God has not left you. You have been given to your church and your family as a gift by which we are able to see Jesus. You have been given something that forces you to grow closer to Jesus, to depend more on Him, and to have a greater faith than many people will ever experience – if you allow it to drive you to Jesus and not from Him.
Consider how you can say the words of 1 Corinthians 12:9-10, which have been echoed by so many faithful believers throughout the centuries: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Handout / Small Group Questions:
These examples of knock-off products are pretty funny and easy to spot, but it’s not always so innocent.
High-end art and fashion are constantly having to fight against forgeries. I read this week that fake fashion, which range from illegal knock-offs sold in shady ways to big companies stealing each others’ designs, costs the industry billions of dollars.
Art forgery has a similar problem as artists try to replicate the style of famous artists like Picaso, Monet, and Renoir, and then sell their new paintings for a lot of money. John Myatt, before he was arrested, was able to do it 200 times, even forging the certificates of authenticity, and was so good at it that famous auction houses like Sothebys and Christie’s sold his work for thousands of dollars. The conspiracy ran so deep that the gallery he worked with actually went as far as altering the records of genuine masterpieces so they would more closely match the forgeries.
Experts should have seen the difference sooner. It’s been said a thousand times, but it remains true, that the only way to spot a forgery is to be an expert the real thing. There are innumerable ways to counterfeit art, money, or fashion these days, but there is no way to turn a new painting into a 16th century original.
Canada has one of the most difficult pieces of money to try to counterfeit, so I looked up some of the measures that they have used to make it harder for people to counterfeit. I saw right on the Bank of Canada website under “Counterfeit Prevention” how they keep our money secure. First, it encourages everyone to check the money often. At stores, banks, and in personal transactions, they say people should carefully examine the bills, large or small. But examine them for what? Their next point is to “Know Your Notes” which says, “Security features are helpful only if you use them. To fight counterfeiting, the Bank offers free training materials to help the public, businesses, and police agencies use the security features in genuine bank notes. If you know your notes, you’ll be able to detect a counterfeit at a glance and protect yourself from fraud.”[i]
For example, every bill has a shiny section on the edge that is hard to replicate. It also has fancy squares on the edges that tell machines what denomination it is. They actually have a piece of metal in them too, somewhere. One of the coolest ones is that And, if you shine a light through the little white section under the word Canada, you will see a face appear on the bill and the number completed.
It goes on to tell people that passing counterfeit money is illegal and then tells us what we should do when we are offered a counterfeit bill – and these are great:
First, “Assess the situation to ensure that you are not at risk.” Probably good advice because forgers are usually bad-guys who do bad things.
Next, “Politely refuse the note and explain that you suspect that it may be counterfeit. Ask for another note (and check it too).” That’s good too. I like how the Bank of Canada officially tells people to be polite. So Canadian. “No thank you, I don’t want fake money because not only is it not worth anything, but I could get in trouble for using it. Sorry, may I have the real thing, please?”
Next, “Advise the person to check the note with the local police.” Also good advice. “You should check with the authorities here. Something’s fishy and you’re being misled and misleading others. You’re actions or inactions are harming individuals, businesses, and the economy. Whoever gets caught holding this bill is either going to be in trouble, or will be out of pocket for the cash. Using this money hurts people so you should deal with it soon.”
Finally it says you should “Inform your local police of a possible attempt to pass suspected counterfeit money.” This is a big deal to the government and they want to know about this. Passing along fake money is a serious issue and they are going to use force to make sure it doesn’t happen!
Here’s my point: as big of a deal as fake art, fashion, money and toys are, material things aren’t the only thing this world tries to counterfeit. There are plenty of counterfeit things.
Christians believe that the Bible is the final authority on all matters of faith and life. We believe 2 Timothy 3:15-17 which says that the Bible is
“able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
We believe that God has, in His Word, revealed the best way to live in this world. Most people are aware that He has given us a moral law to guide our lives, like the 10 Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, but it’s so much more. He has given us biographies and illustrations about how to live in a complicated world, principles on how to deal with money and possessions, guidance on how to pray and worship, proverbs that teach us how to live wisely and make good choices, psalms that help us deal with loss, hurt and fear, prophecies to give us hope, and instructions for how to arrange the social orders of marriages, families, friendships, churches, businesses, and governments. God has been gracious to give us all we need in order to live wise, godly, holy, productive, kind, lives that protect us from harm, honour Him, and take care of our neighbours.
The problem is that because of our love of sin we are prone to disagree with God’s plan and create counterfeits that seem like a good idea but are, in fact, dangerous deceptions.
Which Path Will You Take?
Most people inherently agree that there are imperially good choices and bad, that there are right paths and wrong ones, but at the same time, we also tend to fight against it, thinking that our feelings and intuitions will guide us. This concept is all over Jesus’ teachings. Turn to Matthew 7:12.
Jesus here gives us what we call “The Golden Rule”. It says, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” People often twist this to mean that we can do whatever we want as long as no one gets hurt, but that’s not what it means at all. Keep reading:
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
We see here that Jesus isn’t blowing away God’s standards in favour of the simple, “do whatever but don’t hurt anyone”, instead He’s clarifying that the path He demands people follow is actually much narrower than people think. We hear the Golden Rule and think it gives us the freedom to do anything we want, while Jesus makes it clear that living His Gospel and His Way is actually harder and a lot more demanding.
He actually piles up the illustrations to make sure that we don’t understand this. He gives three different pictures of choice. The first is the road. Will you choose the hard, narrow way that leads to life, or the wide and easy way that looks easier, but leads to destruction? One is a clever forgery, designed to look even better than the original, but is actually dangerous. Will you choose the real or the counterfeit?
Who Will You Listen To?
The next choice is found in verses 15-20, where He gives us a choice of who we can listen to:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
Jesus says there will be two kinds of teachers in this world – the ones that tell the truth and ones that don’t. The problem is that they both look like sheep. Their messages sound similar enough to the kind the Shepherd gives, but inwardly they are wolves that are trying to mislead the sheep and pull them away from the protection of the shepherd so they can be eaten.
The Bible is full of warnings and teachings about how to tell the difference between true and false teaching – which I won’t get into here – but notice that Jesus analogy switches from sheep and wolves to healthy and unhealthy trees. His teaching is that even though we can’t know for certain the spiritual state of any individual, one thing to look for when trying to find the differences is by looking to see which one bears good fruit.
What does that mean? Well, it’s too huge of a theme to cover here, but in essence, it means that the life and teaching of that individual helps people live lives that show they are touched by God’s blessing.
Galatians 5:19-23 lays down a good list of the kinds of things we are to look for:
“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”
Jesus is clear, more than once, that there will be a lot of teachers that are telling counterfeit truths that seem good, seem like something the sheep should be doing, but are in fact dangerous lies.
What Foundation Will You Build On?
Turning back to Matthew 7 we see Jesus’ giving people a third illustration as to the choices we will be given, and that’s the foundation upon which we build our lives. We see it in 7:24-27,
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
In context here, Jesus is differentiating Himself from the religious establishment that has grown up around them and been corrupted by the Pharisees, Sadducees, Sanhedrin, but it’s not only those. He’s also drawing a dividing line between Himself and any other foundation. Whether it’s another religion or atheism or agnosticism, the establishments of politics and law, or something in our culture like political correctness or liberalism or conservatism or economics, or beliefs like pantheism or deism, Jesus is saying that there are really only two foundations: the one that stands and the one that falls.
Forever people have been coming up with all kinds of other foundations to build their lives on that are merely dangerous counterfeits of what God has said and Jesus offers. They look and sound good, but they’re no better than a fake 20 dollar bill. Looks good, might get you by for a while, but will fail you in the end.
All of those give a taste of what Jesus offers, and can sound sort of like what Jesus says if you don’t read too closely, but are dangerous foundations created by false teachers to ensnare, control, and distract people from salvation through Jesus Christ. Buddhism, Confucianism, Neopaganism, Islam, Mormonism, and Scientology all have little slices of truth in them but are merely counterfeits.
Jesus is Exclusive
That’s the exclusive claim of Jesus Christ. He is the only gate, the only path, the only good shepherd, the only good gardener, the only solid rock, the only Saviour, the only one who has seen God, the only one who has been to heaven and come to tell people, the only one who conquered death, and the only way to God. He doesn’t give other options.
This is why Christians teachers have fought and died to keep the Bible available to all believers everywhere. Jesus said unequivocally, “If you abide [remain] in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32). The Apostle John said, “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God.” (2 John 1:9)
This isn’t religion talking. This is a Jesus talking. Christians’ didn’t say this about Jesus, Jesus said it about Himself. We merely believe what He said! Jesus appointed prophets and apostles who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write books of the Bible for us to read so we could know this.
It all comes from God, His Son Jesus, and His Book. We don’t get to make things up. We don’t get to draw other paths, choose other teachers, or make other foundations.
Pressure To Conform
Let me give you a quick example of how this is messed up today. There’s a group of Baptist churches in Texas who have come face to face with the LGBTQ community and have been forced to re-evaluate what they believe about the issue. They started to make motions towards officially accepting gay marriage, and in response, the other churches in the denomination stopped sending them money. It was the right thing to do, but the denominational leadership didn’t think so.
Let me read you a couple of quotes from their press release: “What happens when these churches begin to push for a return to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture?… Once we begin to listen to the voices who wield their power and financial strength in this way, we have begun a slippery slope to fundamentalism and irrelevancy.”[ii]
What does that mean? They were scared these other Baptist churches, who had withheld their money, were going to try to force them to return to believing that the Bible is the final authority for their life, faith, and denomination. How weird is that? A group of Baptist Churches in the Southern United States who is scared of a group that might force them to believe the Bible again. And why? Because then they would slip into “fundamentalism and irrelevancy” – translated: Then the culture won’t like us anymore.
One more quote. When talking about why they thought that it was ok to openly accept the teachings of the LGBTQ community, they said this: “The convention’s express theology of deciding who belongs in God’s kingdom is regressive and does not represent the forward-thinking theology of our Christ where walls are torn down to make room for all people marginalized and Pharisee alike.”
If you know your Bible’s even a little bit, and have been listening at all this morning, it should cause you to pause for a moment that a group of Baptist leaders said this. They were disappointed that a group of churches would not only follow and believe the Bible, but that they would ever draw a line about who is saved and who isn’t. “That kind of thinking”, they say, “is backward, old-school, undeveloped, and regressive. After all, Jesus was a forward thinking theologian who torn down walls, opened up the paths to be wide and easy, and allows people to build on whatever foundation they like! He gathered fruit from all kinds of trees, even took grapes from thorn bushes and figs from thistles. He made room for all people to join his kingdom– even the Pharisees.”
I’m really not sure what Bible they’re reading, but it’s not the same as mine. Jesus had more condemnation for the Pharisees than anyone else! And the Pharisees that did follow Jesus, like Saul, Joseph of Arimathea, and maybe Nicodemus, ended up radically altering their beliefs or completely leaving their positions as Pharisees in order to come in line with Jesus’ exclusive claims.
How does this tie into our study of 1 Corinthians 5? Because there may be no one place that modern society sees this playing out than the area of human sexuality. As you saw in the example of those Baptist churches in Texas, there is a huge temptation today to follow the ways of the world when it comes to human sexuality.
- A lot of Churches are falling in line with the understanding of sex and gender.
- The government has passed new laws and even changed the charter of rights and freedoms to accept the new way.
- Businesses that used to believe holding to conservative values would sell more products are embracing alternative sexual lifestyles and dumping any spokespeople that don’t agree.
- Movies and television have made sexual sins like pornography, adultery, and lust, normal and healthy, even going so far as to encourage people to physically harm and dominate each other.
- Educators are now including the new sexuality in their curriculums.
- Psychiatrists and psychologists have changed their definitions of mental illness to come more in line with popular culture’s views.
- Major sports organizations have said they won’t play in certain cities, or allow their teams to compete if they don’t accept LGBTQ values.
- Even pollsters, those who ask questions to thousands of people trying to understand what the nation thinks about certain topics, are having a hard time because people feel so pressured to give the “popular answer” instead of actually stating their own beliefs, that it messes up their data.
Why Are Christians Different?
There’s immense pressure to fall in line with the “new normal”, so why don’t Christians do it? Why do we insist on teachings that are so “backwards, old-school, undeveloped, and regressive”? Our reason is simply this: God has given a singular way for humanity to experience His full blessing when it comes to human sexuality, and everything else is a counterfeit. God has given humanity a singular path to follow, one garden to eat from, one foundation to build our sexuality on, and he’s very clear about it.
There are a lot of different, specific sins that the Bible condemns as outside God’s one way: Adultery, Lust, Crude Talk, Prostitution, Sensual Enticement, Bestiality, Homosexuality, but those words don’t come close to covering all the different ways that humans have conceived to sexually sin and so the word the New Testament most often uses to describe sexual sin is the Greek word PORNEIA, where we get our word “Porn”.
PORNEIA is a sort of junk drawer word that is used to describe anything that falls outside of God’s plan for human sexuality. Our hearts are so hard in this, our flesh so messed up, and there are so many ways that we have conceived to break God’s law, that there is no way for God to give us a full list of ways to go wrong, so He goes the other way – He shows us the right way and then says, “Anything outside of that is sin.”
I want to get into God’s plan for human sexuality next week, but for this week I wanted you to understand one, key point. God sets the standards, and we are to live in them. God has given us sex and gender as a gift, but as with all His gifts, we have corrupted it with sin. God gave us the right way enjoy sex, and we figured out a thousand ways to get it wrong.
What I want you to hear today is this message: Jesus didn’t come to make us free to do whatever we want as long as nobody gets hurt, but instead makes it absolutely clear that following Him and His Word requires an exclusive commitment.
That plays out in a lot of different ways in our lives, but our topic for the next while is human sexuality. God has prescribed one way to enjoy the blessing of sex and gender, and everything else is counterfeit, everything else is PORNEIA. Just because it feels good, feels right, is how we grew up, is agreeable to society, promoted by governments, encouraged by movies, media and experts – doesn’t mean it’s right, holy or good.
I’ll get into more specifics next week, but take time to meditate on this. Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour and His Word as authoritative in your life? Are you willing to walk the narrow path, only eat the good fruit, and build on the singular foundation of the words of Jesus Christ, regardless of how you feel or what everyone is saying about human sexuality?
Paul, in the letter to the Corinthians which we are studying, after talking about the church’s lack of maturity, uses one of their greatest problems as an example of how bad things had gotten – that problem being “division”. The church is divided – in many ways – but the way that the Apostle addresses first is that they have divided themselves according to their favourite teacher.
Of course, these divisions weren’t solely based on their favourite teacher, but went much deeper. They had divided over all kinds of things – all of which are still present in the modern church. They disagreed about how to worship God, what laws they had to follow, and how they should live their lives. They had created division on their different races and cultures, their social statuses, and even by their spiritual giftings.
The rich abused the poor, the Greeks wouldn’t talk to the Jews (and vice-versa), those who spoken in tongues looked down on those who didn’t, the teachers thought they were better than the servants. Some wanted to follow the whole Law of Moses while others wanted to incorporate worship styles from the culture around them. Some people wanted full sexual liberty, while others were trying to convince everyone that they had to remain unmarried virgins all their lives. Some people loved having big bar-b-cues with the leftover meat that had been used when the animals were sacrificed to the pagan gods, while others refused to eat anything other than vegetables. The church was incredibly divided – and so Paul addresses this first.
And of course, as with any group dedicated to raising themselves up and demonizing another, they had created a civil war among themselves and needed to pick some heroes to lead the charge. And so, without telling them, they had each picked their own favourite apostle, preacher or teacher to represent their group.
Some had picked Peter, the hot-headed, blue-collar, leader of the apostles, who struggled with getting along with non-Jews. Others had picked Paul, a highly educated, genius level Jewish scholar, who had seemingly turned away from his Jewish heritage and dedicated his life to sharing the gospel with the gentiles. Still others chose Apollos, the non-apostolic, but super talented, super popular, super knowledgeable preacher, who was widely known for his boldness in publically defending Christians and Christianity.
These men had no idea that the Corinthian church was using them as unwitting leaders of these various factions, and as excuses for their sin. “Paul said that we didn’t need to follow the Law of Moses, so that means that I can do whatever we want!” “Well, Peter still lives in Jerusalem and follows the whole Law, and he’s the leader of the Apostles, so obviously he’s right!” “Well, if Apollos were here, I know that he would be on my side!”
The church is just as divided today as it was then. It’s really not any better. I’m not just talking about denominations – which get kind of a bad rap, actually – but true divisions based on race, culture, worship style, theological arguments, and more. There are black churches that won’t accept white people, white churches that won’t accept black. There are suburban churches that won’t help the poor and inner city churches that hate rich people. There are churches dominated by well educated professionals and those by working class folk. There are churches for the young, for the old, and for those in between. There are religious churches that have hundreds of rules and disciplines, and others dedicated to freedom and exploration. And even within the ones that look mixed, there are cliques and factions and groups.
And yes, there are divisions here. There are people sitting in this church today who refuse to have other people from their church in their own home, and still hold bitter resentment against them. There are people sitting here today who literally hate others in this church. There are some who tiptoe around others for fear of setting them off, and others who gossip about and mock their brothers or sisters in Christ behind their back. There are some who use the feeblest excuses to avoid being with others in the church, who would choose a dozen other things to do rather than pray with, study with, play with, eat with, or help people in their church.
There are some who couldn’t care less what was happening in the lives of those who they have attended church with for years, and are secretly happy when something bad happens to them – even people within their own family. Some are jealous of the success that others have achieved, the house they have, the car they drive, the phone they use, the state of their marriage, their family achievements … while others look down on their fellow Christian because they disagree with the lifestyle they lead – not that the choices are sinful, they just don’t like it. Some, though they would never say it, are annoyed by the presence of children, while others are annoyed by the presence of old people. They want to be in a place built only for them, literally wishing that the people around them were gone so they could be more comfortable.
Many people here today don’t pray for the people that attend their church. Not a single word lifted up to God on behalf of the people they worship with every week. In fact, if you asked them to name the people sitting around them – let alone share something important about them – they couldn’t do it anyway. Many couldn’t care less whether the people that are sitting around them came to church or not and literally refuse to take me up on my encouragement to follow up with those who are missing. If half the church got hit by a bus this Wednesday, they might not even notice for weeks to come.
There are people here today who divide themselves from the church simply refuse to serve. They’ll come, sit, stand, sing, and then leave – but they won’t serve. Why? Because they see this church the same way they see Tim Hortons. Those around them aren’t real people – just workers that make the coffee, seat fillers in a faceless crowd, non-people that aren’t worth the time to get to know. They’ll smile politely while quietly judging them by their clothes, hair, or whatever – but until they need something, they won’t bother to even acknowledge their existence.
They don’t care if a deacon, teacher and other worker burns themselves out. If one of the deacons worked themselves into a sickness, or feels the only way out from under their church workload is to leave, they would either not notice – or worse, blame them for not being strong enough.
They don’t care if the parents around them need a break. They don’t care if the kids need a smile and a kind word because they had a rough week. They don’t care if the musicians showed up an hour and a half before they did. It doesn’t even cross their minds. Church is like Tim Hortons. They come, float past everyone, consume whatever they like, dismiss what they don’t, hope nobody bothers them, and then leave without ever making a mark in anyone’s life – or allowing anyone to make a mark in theirs. And then have the audacity to complain about the overburdened servants if things don’t go their way!
A Good Year
I love you guys enough to tell you straight, that our church has divisions.
We’ve grown a lot in the past year. God has blessed us with new families, new opportunities to serve, and new challenges that required us to support one another. We’re having one of our best financial years in a long while, and have been blowing our missions giving away! We’ve seen lives changed, people saved, dedicate and rededicate their lives to Jesus. We’ve had relationships grow, grown deeper in our theology, and witnessed true miracles happen among us. This has been an amazing year, and it’s been my privilege to be your pastor.
I’m not saying that we are a bad church. Far from! In fact, by all the forms of measurement I know, and based on my own reading and life-experience, this is an exceptionally good church! I have never felt more love in any other church than this one. And as I’ve talked to many of you, especially those who haven’t been coming for very long, I’ve heard that you’ve felt the same thing.
Now, I’ve attended churches with huge divisions and factions. I’ve pastored churches with such obvious cliques that people literally sat in clusters during the service, leaving large spaces between them and the ones they didn’t want to talk to. One church I pastored had people who refused to even speak English after service so they could separate themselves from the new people.
My home church, a few years after I left, went through a hugely messy and painful church split. Hearts were broken and people left the faith and never went to church again. I promise you that we are not there. I thank God that this church is more characterized by love and joy now than it was when I first got here. I can’t speak about times before, but I know some of you can, and you’ve told me about some of the hard things you were going through before my time. And please realize, I’m not taking any credit for this, at all! That is as far from my point here as possible. All glory to God for the growth we have seen here!
But I will tell you this. The potential for a split is here. We may not have factions and fighting right now, but we are not as united in spirit as we could and should be. Everything I’ve just said about the divisions among us is true. I didn’t exaggerate.
And I think many of you know this. I believe that the Holy Spirit has been moving in the hearts of the people here and many of you don’t feel as connected to God or your brothers and sisters as you know you should be. Your Bible reading has suffered, as has your prayer life. You’ve been convicted by the Holy Spirit that something is wrong. You’ve tried to pray more and read your Bible more, but there’s still something wrong. I’m saying that the issue isn’t just prayer and study – but that you need to engage with your church.
You’ve heard God prompt you to have more people over to your house, to be part of a small group, that there are people you need to forgive and grant forgiveness too, that you haven’t been obeying God’s command to love, encourage and support the believers around you.
I believe that some of you have felt that there has been a blockage in your spiritual life, a spiritual hurdle that you haven’t been able to jump, and I think that for some of you this is it – you’ve filled your life with too many things, some of them good, others pointless, but they have prevented you from being obedient to God by connecting to your church – and it has left a vacuum in your spiritual life
Open up to 1 Corinthians 3:9-15 and let’s read it together:
“For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:9-15)
Here we see Paul shifting his illustration. Last week we talked about how the church is God’s field, but here in verse 9 the illustration changes. “You are God’s field, God’s building.” And then Paul talks about the importance of making sure that the church is built on the right foundation and being made of the right stuff? Why? Because the day of fire is coming.
The “You” there is plural. He says, “You”, the whole church, are “God’s building”. Paul says that he knows that he came in and laid the foundation of their church of the pure preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He didn’t mess around. Remember in chapter 2 he said, “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.”
Anyone who has built anything – from a Lego project to a fence to a house – knows the importance of a good foundation, and Paul knows that the foundation he poured was built of the right stuff. He used good fill, no garbage or dirt inside it. He packed down the base well, making sure he preached the whole of the gospel, the story that comes from Genesis to the prophets. He poured consistently and took the time to cure it well, answering their questions, defending them from attackers, staying for a long time to make sure it was strong. He built the church upon the person and work of Jesus Christ and nothing else.
The foundation of their church was strong, as I believe our church’s is. It was planted by godly men preaching God’s word, filled with people who wanted to know Jesus better and proclaim His name. And today, my hope is that I continue to preach an unadulterated gospel – teaching the pure word of God and the message of Jesus Christ as it applies to our lives.
Building on the Foundation
But notice that the object of the teaching changes from plural to singular. “You” all are “God’s building” turns to “Now if anyone builds on the foundation… each one’s work will become manifest… the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.”
When it comes to building the church, the responsibility rests upon the individual. Paul laid the foundation, and then gave it to the individuals to build the church. Building the church isn’t even the pastor and elder’s main job. Listen to Ephesians 4:11-12,
“And he (that is God) gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…”
Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers are a small group within the big church. Most people in the church aren’t given those roles because only a few people are required to teach and equip the church – and then everyone else is sent out to do the work God calls them to do.
This is how it works in a lot of arenas in life. A good country needs a few good politicians, a few good law makers and a few good law enforcers, but many, many good citizens. A sports team requires a bunch of players, but only a few coaches and referees. For a new skyscraper to be built downtown, it needs an architect, a few engineers, a few supervisors, but a whole bunch of workers to build it.
That’s how the church works too. The apostles and prophets give us the scriptures, the foundation of our relationship with God. The evangelists come and plant a church, and then the pastors and teachers work to equip and train everone in how they are to follow God every day.
This is why Paul changes from plural to singular. Every single person here is responsible for how they build themselves and this church. No one is exempt from the responsibility to do what God has called them to do. If you’re not doing what God has asked you, then you are sinning. And if you’re doing someone else’s job, then you are sinning.
Of course, I don’t mean that everyone has to volunteer to do something on Sunday. Some people will do things like that, but most won’t. Paul, later in 1 Corinthians, is going to break down a whole bunch of ways that people work together as the church. Paul says in chapter 12:4-11,
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.”
And that’s not even the whole of possibilities in scripture. In Romans 12 we read about the gifts of encouragement, generous giving, leadership, service, and teaching. In Ephesians 4 we read about the gifts of evangelism. Other places talk about the gift of hospitality. There are so many ways that God has given people to build up the church. It’s the pastors and elders job to work hard to make sure that everyone is equipped to do whatever God has called them to do, not just plug them into existing programs, and then it’s the individuals in the church that go out and do it together!
And that’s the thing. It all has to happen in community. There’s not a single gift God gives us that can be done without getting involved with someone else. If you are an encourager, you need someone to encourage. If you’re a leader you need people to lead. If you’re a helper you need someone to help. Teachers need students, discerners need problems, and administrators need people to organize. And while we are working in our gifts, doing all the “one anothers” in the Bible, God is pleased with us and we will grow spiritually.
But as long as we are divided, or fractured, or splintered, or neglecting one another, or ignoring one another, or jealous of one another, then we will remain spiritual infants – and worse, set ourselves up for Satan to split our church.
The Day of Fire
This passage warns everyone here, me included, to make sure we are evaluating what we are building our spiritual house out of. Our foundation is secure, those who are saved are secure – that’s verse 15 – but that doesn’t mean that what we’ve built here is guaranteed to survive.
My first church was divided. One generation refused to serve the other. It closed shortly after I left. My home church was amazing while I was growing up, and then imploded, almost on the verge of total collapse, shortly after I left. (Take that coincidence however you like.☺)
Neither of these churches ever thought they would suffer a huge split. No one does. No one gets married assuming they will divorce. No one plants or pastors a church expecting a church split. But it happened. Why? Because division crept in and when the day of fire came, their house didn’t stand.
The day of fire is coming. In context here that means the day Jesus comes back, but it also means days of trial and strife. They are coming for you, your home, your neighbourhood and your church. I know some of you have already been through a day of fire and your spiritual house was evaluated – and it showed you the parts that were made of gold, and the parts that were made of straw.
Are you ready? Are we ready? Are we united enough here, loving enough, supportive enough, gracious enough, to weather the days of fire to come? Are we practicing generosity, serving one another humbly and sacrificially? Are we bearing with one another in love, seeking harmony and forgiving everyone in the church? Can you honestly say you can greet everyone here with a handshake without there being any kind of animosity?
Or on the other side: Have you let others into your life? Are you working to make friends here that you trust? Have you opened your heart to those around you? Do you know what their biggest struggles are, and have you shared your own with some people here?
Check your heart. I’ll say it again: the day of fire is coming. Soon is coming a day when your faith and all that you’ve built in your life will be tested. A time is coming when your family will go through a trial. A time is coming when our little church will be tested to see “what sort of work each one has done.”
This is going to sound harsh, but when it comes, can the church lean on you because you have built your life out of Godly materials? Will the life you have contributed to this church family stand strong on the day of fire – when Christianity is illegal, when someone falls to public sin, when a madman bursts through the doors, when a family has a major tragedy – will your faith be strong enough to help those around you weather it, or will you (and everyone who counted on you) find out that your faith is built of nothing but straw.
I invite you to examine yourself.
Chad, Steve and Al are finally back together and talking about the pluses and minuses of the modern testimony movement and the best ways to share your personal faith journey — and things to avoid while doing it.
How Can You Help Carnivore Theology?
1. Pray for us!
3. Record a question in your voice on our SpeakPipe page! (We love this the most!)
5. Buy some cool stuff from our new Merch Store! (And check out our friend Kim’s amazing art while you’re there!)