Turn with me to Mark 8:27-33. This scripture occurs in the final year of Jesus’ earthly ministry as His focus has grown more steadily towards His journey to Jerusalem and the cross. He has already gathered His disciples and they have been with Him for a couple years. He has already done much travelling and teaching and has had a lot of run-ins with a lot of different people. At one point in his travels, it says,
“And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they told him, ‘John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.’ And he asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Christ.’ And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’”
You gotta love, Peter. He goes from telling Jesus who He is to arguing with Jesus about the very same thing. “Who am I?” asked Jesus. Peter says, “You are the Christ.”, meaning the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of the living God and divinely anointed leader who will liberate God’s people from their great oppressor. In Peter’s mind that meant military victory over Rome and the establishing of the Jewish people as the rulers of the earth. Then Jesus starts to clarify what it meant for Him to be the Christ. He told them what would happen soon – rejection from the leaders of Jerusalem, a false trial before the chief priests, cursed to be crucified on a Roman cross, but then to rise again in victory. That’s not what Peter wanted to hear. Peter had an identity crisis on behalf of Jesus. The Christ can’t die! That sounds like defeat! So Peter starts to argue with Jesus, rebuking the One he had just called Christ. “No way! That’ll never happen! You have the power to stop that. You could use your power to overthrow Rome! You don’t need to die on a cross. Surely the angels will protect you.” Sound familiar?
Now turn to John 6. You will see at the beginning of this chapter the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Everyone was really excited about that. Look at verse 14.
“When the people saw the sign 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.”
Another identity crisis. Jesus, in His compassion, feeds the hungry masses. They are impressed, call him “The Prophet”, meaning a man like Moses who God used to miraculously feed Israel manna in the desert, and immediately want to force Him to become King. And Jesus takes off. Now why did the people want to make Jesus King, and why would Jesus take off on them? After all, being the Christ makes Him king, right? Why run away?
Turn to verse 25-26,
“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.’”
Same problem as Peter. Jesus Christ had come to save the people, not from the oppression of Rome, but from a much greater oppressor – death. And that plan required Him to go to Jerusalem, be falsely accused, have the sins of the world placed on His shoulders, and for Him to die under the curse. His coronation would come later, but that’s not what the people wanted. They wanted a king now. They wanted a new Moses. Jesus wanted to give them more. And if Jesus would have become King then, everyone in His Kingdom would still be under the curse of sin and death because He wouldn’t have gone to the cross. Jesus had a bigger picture.
Over and over in Jesus’ life, people kept misunderstanding who He was, why He had come, and what He was supposed to do. His family, friends, followers, and enemies all argued with Jesus about who He was and what He was doing. He was called crazy, demonic, and a blasphemer. Eventually, by the end of John 6, a huge amount of His disciples would leave, angry and confused about who Jesus claimed to be.
As we go through a study of the Apostles Creed in this section of the Heidelberg Catechism we are answering a few fairly straightforward questions that people have been asking about Jesus for literally two thousand years: Who is Jesus?
Last week it was the question, “Why is the Son of God called Jesus, that is, Saviour?” In other words, what makes the name of Jesus so significant, and what does it mean to us? And the answer was, “Because he saves us from all our sins, and because salvation is not to be sought or found in anyone else.” The name “Jesus” means “God Saves” and throughout His life Jesus claimed – and the Christian church has claimed ever since – that faith in Jesus is the only way anyone can be saved from the judgement of God against their sin.
Today we move from the significance of the name of Jesus to His title, “The Christ”. When Peter answered the question, “Who do you say I am?” that was His answer, and it was packed with significance.
Question 31 of the Heidelberg asks the question,
“Why is he called Christ, that is, Anointed?”
In other words, “What is the significance of calling Jesus ‘Christ’? What does it mean that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Chosen One?
During the trial before His crucifixion, Jesus stood silently as He was accused of a lot of things, but none of them held up, even in that false, kangaroo court they had come up with. But the High Priest, who didn’t care who Jesus really was and just wanted Him dead, had one more card up his sleeve. It says in Matthew 26:63-66,
“And the high priest said to him, ‘I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ Then the high priest tore his robes and said, ‘He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?’ They answered, ‘He deserves death.’”
Jesus was crucified because of the claim that He is “the Christ”. Why was that such a big deal? The Heidelberg summarizes it this way:
“Because he has been ordained by God the Father, and anointed with the Holy Spirit, to be our chief Prophet and Teacher, who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption; our only High Priest, who by the one sacrifice of his body has redeemed us, and who continually intercedes for us before the Father; and our eternal King, who governs us by his Word and Spirit, and who defends and preserves us in the redemption obtained for us.”
Why was Jesus’ and His followers’ claim that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one, such a big deal? Because He it said, and the Christian church says today, that Jesus is God’s perfect prophet, priest, and king. Those are the only people that get anointed by God – prophets, priests and kings. What does that mean?
Prophet, Priest, King
It means that Jesus claims, and we believe, to be the greatest of all the prophets or teachers. Over and over Jesus claimed to not only be talking about God but to be speaking the very words of God (John 8:28, 12:49-50, 14:24). In that way, He is greater than Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist or Peter. Jesus is our chief teacher because He is the One who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God because He is God. He is the best interpreter of the Law because He is the lawgiver. He is the best preacher of the gospel because He Himself is the good news. He is the best proclaimer of the kingdom of God because it’s His kingdom. Everyone other than Jesus knows a part of God’s plan. Jesus knows everything and was willing to teach us a lot of it when He came, and then even more through His Spirit within.
He is also the greatest priest, greater than all priests that came before. A prophet’s job is to tell us God’s word. A priest’s job is to bring the people before God by doing what is necessary to make us worthy and then interceding on our behalf. Jesus does this better than any other. Every other priest is sinful, Jesus is sinless. Every other priest offered animals, Jesus offered Himself. Other priests have to repeat sacrifices, Jesus was once and for all. Other priests offer sacrifices for a certain group of people, Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. Only one priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and then only once per year, Jesus lives in Heaven and stands before God Himself. Other priests die, Jesus lives forever.
And Jesus is the greater King. Other kings are appointed by military might or birth Jesus was appointed by God. Other kings have boundaries to their kingdoms, Jesus’ kingdom has no borders. Other kings have thrones on earth, Jesus has a throne in heaven. Jesus’ kingdom has the greatest armies, the greatest victories, the highest power, the best laws, and will last for eternity because no one can overthrow Him. His word is not only law, but can actually bend reality to His will.
Who is Better than Jesus?
In the book of Hebrews in the New Testament the Christians there are being faced with persecution because of their faith and are considering giving up and either turning back to Judaism or their pagan roots. The whole argument of Hebrews stands on this question, “To where will you turn that is better than Jesus?” Back to Caesar, back to Moses?
That’s an echo of our question today. What makes Jesus special? Why should we put our whole faith in Him and no other, especially when it’s difficult, inconvenient, and causes us frustration or pain? Isn’t Jesus just a prophet like some other religions say? Isn’t He just a great moral teacher, as some secularists say? Isn’t He just a good model to live by, but not to take so seriously? Do we really have to give our whole allegiance to Him and Him alone, even when the world comes against us? Why does He deserve that kind of allegiance?
That’s what the audience to the letter of the Hebrews were considering. They were like the crowd in John 6 we talked about, standing before Jesus, asking for more loaves and fishes, as He said, “I’m not here to fill your bellies with bread. I am the Bread of Life. I was sent by God, spoken of by the prophets, and anyone who believes in me alone for salvation, that my flesh and my blood are the only way, will have eternal life. Everyone else who tells you any other way is a liar.”
Listen to what happened after Jesus said that.
“After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” (John 6:66)
That claim – Jesus’ claim to be the Christ, the greatest prophet, priest and king, the only way of salvation, the one to whom you must swear sole allegiance to on His terms – was too much to ask for many. They didn’t want Jesus they wanted bread, so they left. It continues,
“So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’” (John 6:67–69)
Gotta love Peter.
This was the same choice that was being given to the believers that the letter to the Hebrews was sent to, and is the same choice we are given now. Sure, we don’t live in a land where we face direct persecution or imprisonment for our faith, but our allegiance is tested in other ways every day.
I want to show another one of those videos that I showed you last week so you can see how this argument is shown in Hebrews, and hopefully inspire you to do your own study.
The Application for today is a simple one, and it comes from Question 32 of the Heidelberg.
“Why are you called a Christian?”
That title is an important one. If Jesus is the Christ and we are Christians, then there must be a connection. And the answer is this,
“Because I am a member of Christ by faith and thus share in his anointing, so that I may as prophet confess his name, as priest present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to him, and as king fight with a free and good conscience against sin and the devil in this life, and hereafter reign with him eternally over all creatures.”
There’s a lot going on here that I’m not going to get into about the priesthood of believers and our eternal destination and place in God’s Kingdom, but I want to make this simpler. Do you trust Jesus as your Christ? Is He your perfect prophet, the One to whom you turn for ultimate truth? Do you trust Jesus as your perfect priest, the One who through His atoning sacrifice has made a way for you to stand before God cleansed from all your sins? Do you trust in Jesus as your perfect king, the Lord of your life who you obey with your whole heart? Where will you turn that is greater than He?
And then further, do you, as a follower of Christ, a Christian, in the Greek meaning “little Christ” – act as a “little Christ”? Do you publically profess and confess to being one of His, spreading the truth as one of his little-prophets, spreading the gospel, the message of reconciliation as what the Bible calls, one of Christ’s “Ambassadors” (2 Cor 5:18-20)? Do you, as a little-priest under Jesus, present your life to Him as a continual sacrifice (Rom 12:1), thanking him every day for what He has done for you? And, do you, as a little-king under Jesus, put on the armour of God (Eph 6:11) and do battle against your sin (1 Tim 1:18-19) so your life glorifies your Lord and King, Jesus?
This is not a threat from Jesus to “do a better job”, but an invitation to walk with Him. He offers you forgiveness and strength, defence and protection, a hope and a future, a mission and a reward if you are willing to accept Him as your one and only saviour. Will you do that today, and then live out that relationship every day?
As I said a couple weeks ago, working through all the things that Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism wants to go through takes a lot longer than just one week. In fact, we’ve done four sermons on Day 8 and it’s going to take us at least two more weeks to get on to Day 9. What we’re working on right now is a discussion of the Attributes of God, which is an understandably complex topic and makes me very thankful for my commentaries.
Actually, we’ve been learning about this topic for a while now. It all started back at the end of August when I preached a special sermon I entitled “Bible Reading, Prayer, & The Crucible” – which on my computer is actually called “DO your devos” – and was grounded in Psalm 119:9 which said, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.” That sermon was meant to inspire you to commit to reading, studying and praying through the Word of God more consistently to prepare you for what was to come.
With that groundwork set, I went on vacation for a few weeks hoping your heart would soften as you studied and prayed. When I came back, we had a few special weeks in a row. The first was a sermon about how to prepare for the Lord’s Supper through self-examination, the next was Volunteer Appreciation Sunday, and then came the Thanksgiving Sermon where we explored what it means that “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.”
I capped off that prep time with a sermon called “Greater Knowledge Leads to Greater Love”, which was about the importance Bible Study and how diligent exploration of God’s Word will deepen your love for and confidence in God.
Did you notice the bookends? In August we started with the bookend of the importance of reading your Bible devotionally and prayerfully, followed by some weeks to practice, the Lord’s Supper to get your heart right, a Thanksgiving message to inspire worship, and then the other bookend about not just reading your Bible, but studying theology to know God better. This was all done purposefully to slowly give you time to prepare for Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism.
Just four weeks ago, on October 14th, I ended that final bookend sermon by saying this:
“Next week, and for the next little while, we are going to get into a section of the Heidelberg Catechism that is going to be challenging… and I want you to be prepared for it. I will try to teach it well, but I also need you to prepare yourself for it. I need you to till up the soil of your heart and be ready to listen to whatever God chooses to sow there by praying and asking God to help you learn and understand. I need you to try to appreciate the importance of these subjects and fight against the instinct to let it gloss over you because of its technicality.”
I fear many of you didn’t take my words to heart, nor have many of you heard what I’ve been saying since August. I’m not sure why. I’m not sure what to blame for the disconnect between what I’ve been trying to teach from the Bible and the practical application I’ve been asking you to make in your life. I’m confused and frustrated that what I’ve been saying and repeating for so long has been either lost, ignored, or has missed the mark.
It’s possible that I haven’t explained it well and that the sermons were confusing or boring or poorly written and you didn’t understand what I was asking you to do. If so, I ask your forgiveness. If that’s the case, please let me know so I can try something else, or come to Overtime and ask for clarification.
My Worry: Apostasy
What I’m worried about is that there are people in this church, a church which I believe loves God and His Word very much, are growing distant from Him and don’t notice. I’ve heard reports and had discussions which have told me that many people here are not even doing the very basics of daily Bible reading and prayer. It’s not that I’m frustrated that you aren’t reading systematic theologies or books from the second century. My concern is that there are too many here who neglect prayer and rarely or literally never pick up their Bible.
I worry that you have felt the Holy Spirit convict you about reading, praying, journaling, meditating – but you have repeatedly, over and over, pretended you didn’t hear Him, kept doing what you were doing before, and are now very used to living without being fed by the Word and Spirit of God, that your knowledge has shrunk, your spirit has grown cold, and your conscience has hardened, and you hardly even notice it anymore. You are used to starving your spirit and feeding on the world. You are used to being spiritually sick and the medicine of God’s Word doesn’t taste good to you anymore.
As your pastor that concerns, frustrates, and frightens me. It makes me feel like the author of Hebrews. Turn with me to Hebrews 5:11.
Hebrews, some commentators believe isn’t so much a letter as it is a transcription of a sermon. Here, in Hebrews 5:11 we hear the preacher, right in the middle of explaining some complicated theology about Jesus, pause his whole argument to say to his listeners,
“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:11–14)
This describes some people here today and in many churches in North America. Not everyone, but some. These are people who have been Christians for a while – years – but through neglect of their souls, neglect of reading, prayer, study, meditation, have become “dull of hearing”. And I’m not just talking to the seniors or older people, I’m talking to the teens too who were born in Christian homes, have been part of a church for well over a decade, and have sat through hundreds of sermons and classes. They “ought to be teachers” by now, but don’t even know “the basic principles… of God.”
This isn’t because you went to a bad church or because you didn’t have access to good study materials. It isn’t because you live in a country where there aren’t any Bibles. It’s not because you didn’t have time to do it or because the persecution made it dangerous to be seen with a Bible or be caught praying. It’s simply neglect. It isn’t a priority for you.
The Cost of Neglect
And that neglect is causing problems. Notice what the cost is of the neglect of your soul in this passage. It says that those who are “unskilled in the word of righteousness” are immature – they remain spiritual babies. Why? They are malnourished. When you are a baby, it is appropriate for you to nurse, to be fed only by your mother’s milk. But some people, year after year, live on nothing but milk – the basic, elementary doctrines of the faith. They never eat meat, never delve into the complexities of a deeper relationship with God.
What would you say if you saw a 10 or 15-year-old boy nursing from their mother’s breast? What if you learned they had never eaten anything else? What would that child look like? Thin, sickly, malnourished. Why? Because their mother’s milk isn’t enough for them to live on anymore. The mother can’t produce enough.
In the same way, a weekly, 30-minute sermon cannot produce all that is necessary for you to have a healthy, growing, vibrant, strong faith. And if this is all the spiritual food you get, then your soul is going to be thin, sickly, and malnourished.
And there is a cost to that. Look back at the verse. A “mature” believer, as in one who is consistently feeding themselves good, complex spiritual food, has “their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
What does that mean for someone who is immature? It means their “powers of discernment”, meaning their supernatural ability to know right and wrong, truth and lie, will be unpracticed and unable to “distinguish good from evil”.
It’s not even that neglecting the Word and prayer makes you spiritually weak and therefore an easier target for temptation, but that you won’t even see the temptation coming because your judgement is so clouded, your spiritual radar so gummed up, that you aren’t even able to discern the difference between right and wrong!
Jesus Takes This Seriously
Some of you may argue with me saying that of course, you know right and wrong. Some of you will argue that do lots of good things for the church and for other people and therefore how can I say that you are in spiritual danger or are spiritually immature. Some of you will argue that you have gone through a lot lately, are facing a lot of difficulties, and that there are lots of excuses for why you aren’t reading your Bible, praying, meditating or studying.
Keep your thumb in Hebrews 5, but please turn with me over to Revelation 2. If you have a red-letter Bible, you will notice that this section is red because these are the words of Jesus to a big group of believers meeting in the city of Ephesus. Let me read them to you, starting in verse 2.
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.”
This is a good church, full of people who are patient in suffering, disciplined in their lives, working hard to be biblical in their conduct, and have shown a lot of endurance in their faith. But read verse 4,
“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”
For Jesus to “remove the lampstand” means that they would lose their status as a church and Jesus would treat them like apostates, people who only pretended to be Christians but were in fact, unbelievers. Why would He do this? Because they no longer did things out of love for God, but were just going through the motions of being a good church, and were therefore not really His people. Even though they looked good on the outside their love for Jesus was non-existent. Their private devotional life, their private prayer and study life didn’t happen, and their gathering with each other to serve and share wasn’t motivated by love. That put their church in danger of a serious judgement.
Flip over a page to Revelation 3:1 and let’s read something similar there too, written to the church in the city of Sardis.
“I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.”
Sounds similar, doesn’t it? They look alive, but they are dead. Reminds me of what Jesus said to the Jewish leaders in Matthew 23:27-28 and said,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
What makes them hypocrites? What’s wrong with their “works”? That’s a word used in both of these passages. What “works” are those? What made Ephesus’ and Sardis’ works incomplete? Think of 1 Corinthians 13. They lacked love. Their works weren’t done because of love for God or others. They were dead works that just looked spiritual.
The Danger of Apostasy
Please understand that I’m not saying this because I’m angry with you. I’m not saying this to try to make you pay better attention to my sermons. I’m preaching to myself as much as I am to you because I’ve struggled with this too. The enemy works hard to distract us away from Bible reading, study, prayer and meditation, and he’s very good at it.
What I want you to see is that even though I’ve been preaching and preparing you for months, giving you reason after reason, resource after resource, for how you can connect with God more regularly, many of you are in the same spiritual condition that you were before I said anything. Some even worse off.
Yes, as your pastor, I find that frustrating because I wonder what I did wrong or what I could have done better to convince you, but there’s another emotion that is even greater than my frustration – and it’s fear for you. I’m scared for you.
Jesus has some serious warnings in Revelation for people who say they are Christians and do Christiany things but lack personal, private, devoted time in prayer and study. There are threats and promises made by Jesus against those that pretend – and not just the loss of the ability to discern right and wrong. If you’ve lost your thirst for God’s word, you are in real trouble. Sin is crouching at your door, Satan is prowling around you and your family, ready to devour you, but you have no spiritual armour to protect yourself, your family, your church or your neighbourhood. How can a soldier who is starving and weak, untrained and undiscerning defend themselves or anyone else? But more than that! What if your refusal to obey causes you even more harm?
Turn back to Hebrews again, this time to the next part in Hebrews 6:1. Here we read about the dangers of apostasy, the danger of pretending to be a Christian but then falling away from the faith. You are worse off than if you had never known about Jesus, (2 Peter 2:20-22).
After talking about how hard it is to teach immature believers he describes the “milk”, the elementary doctrines or basic principles that all believers should have a good handle on and which he wants to move past. It says,
“Therefore, let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits.”
But listen to why it is so important to move past the “milk” and onto the “solid food”; why it is so important to do the work of personal Bible study, private prayer, and meditation. It is because those who neglect their souls, neglect growing mature in the faith, who remain babies, are in danger of being apostate.
“For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.”
This passage describes those who have heard the gospel but not accepted it, who know about the light of salvation but have never repented from the darkness, who have tasted what heaven is like by being around God’s people and tasted the Lord’s Supper but have never actually become a follower of Jesus, who have even experienced miracles and felt the presence of God by being part of a Christian community but have never invite the Holy Spirit into their lives, who have “tasted the goodness of the word of God” in preaching and applying the wisdom to their lives but only taste little bites – never consuming the whole of God’s word to make it part of them. These people, who experience the corona, who skirt the edges of faith but never repent and commit – once they hit some kind of wall – are in danger of making their hearts so hard towards God that they may instead come to hate Him.
You’ve probably met these people. Who once came to church, sounded like Christians, but now hate God, hate the church, hate Christians. Their familiarity with the faith, which was devoid of a personal relationship with Jesus, actually became the main ingredient that caused them to hate God.
That’s the danger of coming to church, listening to sermons, calling yourself a Christian, but refusing to submit to God’s call to repentance from your sin and commitment to Bible reading, study, meditation and prayer. You may think you are a Christian when in fact you are a hypocrite who is one push away from becoming an apostate that hates God. And if you don’t think that’s possible, ask that person who left the church. Or listen to the negative language you’ve mumbled under your breath or even said aloud about God and other Christians over the past while and ask yourself what that says about how far you are from walking away for good. Why? Because you have not repented when God told you to and you have not been attending to the needs of your soul. Your faith has no roots and is being slowly choked out (Mat. 13:21-22).
The passage in Hebrews gives hope though. In verse 9 the preacher says,
“Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
I feel the exact same way. I look at you and I am “sure of better things” because I have experienced your love for God and for me. I have seen the energy you put into “serving the saints”, how much patient kindness you have shown me and the people around you. And it is my “desire” for “each one of you” to turn that energy, that “earnestness”, toward your private devotional time, your daily bible reading, your prayer life, your meditation and journaling and study.
It’s not really that hard to start because you are surrounded by all kinds of help. Use the free Our Daily Bread devotional guide, read any of my books which I can give to you for free. Watch some sermons on YouTube, subscribe to a podcast that reads or studies the Bible, There are 20,000 bible studies to go through on RightNow Media. Surely one of them will do the trick! Call up one of your elders or deacons and ask them what they do for their devotional time or to meet with you and help you design a personalized quiet time. Ask them to hold you accountable by calling you every week. Create a small group in your home dedicated to learning how to read, pray and study better.
Do what you must because the consequences of not following through in this area of your life are dire.
I remember hearing somewhere that it is the psychologically healthier mind that can handle holding opposing thoughts and paradoxes in tension. It’s the unhealthy mind that is always trying to rectify the world and make it fit exactly, perfectly into categories. A healthy mind is ok with not understanding everything in the world and knowing that some things are inexplicable and out of control, and yet clearly exist and must continue. It is the unhealthy one that requires the whole world to be explained and under control.
There are some fun examples of paradox, like what would happen if Pinocchio were to say, “My nose will now grow.”?
Or the famous “Ship of Theseus paradox” in which a ship leaves port in Athens to go on a long journey, and along the way as has to replace the rotten planks, the mast, the sails, and eventually every other part. The question is, is it the same ship when it gets back to Athens?
Or my favourite: Since buttered toast will always fall butter-side down when you drop it, and a cat always lands on its feet. What would happen if you tied a piece of buttered toast to a cat and then dropped it?
Here’s one from Proverbs. Proverbs 26:4 teaches, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.” Which means that it’s often impossible to talk to people who want to do foolish things. That’s true, right? If someone is committed to doing something stupid, there’s very little we can do about it. Well, the next verse says this, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he
Well, the next verse says this, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” Which means, we should say something when someone’s about to do something foolish or they might think they’re doing the right thing! Both are true, aren’t they? But it depends on the situation. Sometimes one applies, sometimes another.
As much as Christian apologeticists and theologians would like to have an answer to every question they are posed, God asks believers to hold a lot of truths in tension. Now, these paradoxes are not the same as contradictions. A professor of mine used to say, “The Bible has no contradictions in it, only important differences.” That is to say, the Bible agrees with itself completely, but there are some things in it that are beyond our comprehension.
These paradoxes continue to trouble believers and create a lot of tension. For example:
- If God knows our needs, is all wise and perfectly sovereign over everything, and will always do what is best, then why should we pray or give or serve or sacrifice?
- If God is going to save who He is going to save, then why should we bother sharing the Gospel?
- If God is the one who decides when we are going to die, then how can anyone truly commit suicide or murder?
- If God knows everything and planned everything in advance, but never sins and never tempts, then how can we explain the existence of Satan and Hell?
- How can Jesus be both fully God and fully man?
- How can there be One God in three persons of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit?
These are hugely important questions that have been discussed and debated by believers for hundreds of years, and used by atheists and enemies of the Gospel to try to discredit Christianity.
Those questions may be more theological and theoretical in nature, but these types of paradoxes also spill out into how we live out our faith.
- God says that we are saved by grace not works, but then also tells us that we need to be doing good works because we are saved.
- God says that He will oppose the proud, but exalt the humble (James 4:10), so how can we be humble while at the same time wanting to be exalted by God?
- Paul says that we are strongest when we are at our most weak (2 Cor 12:10), so how do we embrace weakness while at the same time trying to grow stronger?
- Jesus says it’s better to give than to receive, because when we give we will receive blessings from God (Acts 20:35). So is it wrong to give to others because we want to receive blessings from God?
- The Bible teaches that Jesus sets us free and gives us an abundant life, and then tells us in Romans 6:18 that we are “free from sin, but slaves of righteousness.”, and that this world will be full of trouble. So are we free and abundant or slaves in a world of trouble?
- Jesus says, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39). How does that work?
This tension is perhaps most keenly felt as we discuss and live out the Doctrine of Sanctification. What is Sanctification? To sanctify something means to make it “holy or purified”. It is closely associated with the word “Consecration” which is the separating of a thing or person fr divine service. In communion, the bread and wine are Consecrated, or set apart for a special service. When a missionary or pastor or elder is called, we are saying they are Consecrated for their mission, or set apart for a special task.
In the Old Testament, there were various things that were consecrated unto God’s temple: the sacred furniture, the priests, the offering, and even the worshippers, were set apart for a special purpose. And when they had been set apart, the first step would be to take the Consecrated thing or person, and then “Sanctify” it. They would do things like wash their garments, change their clothes, and then sprinkle blood or pour oil on it or the person and declare them clean and ready for whatever God wanted to use them for.
If you recall last week, I talked about the importance of knowing you are “called”. I could just have easily used the word “consecrated”. Christians have been called out by God to be set apart as something special in the world. But before they can be used by God, they must be Sanctified. Before sanctification we are “unclean” or “profane” and not worthy to be in God’s presence or used by God.
Remember I said we are spiritually dead, enemies of God, a citizen of the Kingdom of Darkness? That’s our position before we are saved, so in order to be brought into God’s presence, into Heaven, and be used for His Holy purposes in this world, we need to be “Sanctified”, or “cleaned”, or “made holy”, or “purified”. Now, how does that happen? The same way it did in the Old Testament. We need to be chosen, cleaned, changed, and then covered in a blood sacrifice.
Hebrews 10:10-14 says:
“…we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
Jesus provides the blood offering that allows for us to be cleansed of our sins and sanctified before God. When the Israelites in the Old Testament were doing it, the priests had to keep killing more and more animals, every day, every month, every year, to atone for the people. Jesus’ sacrifice was the once-and-for-all, final sacrifice that would allow anyone who would believe in Him to be saved.
What does that mean? It means that anyone who believes in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour are washed in His blood (that’s why we use that phrase), cleansed from their sin, and set apart for God’s special purpose. We can come before Him because He has made us clean. That’s the rules He set out from the beginning. Hebrews 9:11-15 puts it this way”
“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.”
Jesus fulfilled everything that was required by God in the Law and completed the work of all that had come before. The sacrifices of the Old Testament were imperfect and wore off. Jesus’ sacrifice is perfect and eternal. God says that “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) and that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” and that “under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Hebrews 9:22)
The only one who could die for a human would be a human, but since we all have a sin problem, we can only die for our own sin! We needed a human being to come and live a perfect life, who could then be the final blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of the rest of humanity. Jesus chose to be that final sacrifice. Only through His death and the shedding of His blood could we be free from our sins. Therefore the author of Hebrews tells us that we can “have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus”. Not by what we have done, but what He has done.
Jesus sacrifice has made it possible for us to be cleansed of our sins and made right with God. When we come to God for forgiveness, He doesn’t say yes because He’s so nice. He can only say yes because our sins are already paid for. Sin must be paid for, and Jesus took the payment. God can’t be in the presence of sin, so everything must be purified, cleaned, and sanctified. It is Jesus’ blood that does that.
What does this mean for us? As I said last week, knowing this keeps the accusing demons at bay. When He starts to say that you aren’t saved, that God rejects you, that you’re not good enough, that you’ve lost your salvation, or that you need to clean yourself up to come to God, then you can say, “No. My salvation isn’t dependent on my own goodness but on the shed blood of Jesus. I can’t sanctify myself or make myself good in His sight – I need Jesus to do that, and He has because I’ve put my faith in Him.”
Now, this kind of thinking seems terribly foolish to a lot of people. Paul says as much to the Corinthians in just a few verses in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Before God gets a hold of our hearts and saves us, this whole idea of sanctification and being saved by the power of a blood sacrifice seems terribly foolish to us. Paul will say something similar in chapter 2:14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
Herein lies another paradox: that even if we already know this truth, we will always refuse to accept it until God opens our eyes to it. Only God can choose us and clean us up. Only God can sanctify us, gives us the mind of Christ, and give us the capacity to make the choice to love Him.
Until God opens our eyes we can’t even see the problem of sin and our need for sanctification. I was watching a sermon by Alistair Begg this week and he said this,
“Humanity, as it confronts the reality of the human condition has all kinds of suggestions as to how it can be fixed. But that is in large measure because contemporary notions of the state of man are frankly unprepared to give any credence at all to this diagnoses which… runs throughout the Bible whereby the Bible tells us that outside of Christ we are dead, we are enslaved, and we are condemned… It speaks to the issues of our state that everyday we live our lives, every newspaper that unfolds before us, every broadcast that comes across our screen, confirms the reality of what GK Chesterton observed that ‘whatever else may be in doubt, man is not what God intended for him to be.’ And so the explanations that are given are fairly routine.
The trouble is that man is simply sad, or perhaps he is dysfunctional, or we may be prepared to acknowledge that he is sick. That’s why he does these dreadful things, why he kills and maims and rapes and turns in upon himself. This is explained in terms of sickness. The one thing that is almost wholesalely rejected is the diagnoses that the bible gives here, namely that man is sinful. And the reason that this is so crucial is because a superficial view of the human condition results inevitably in attempts to fix the condition in similarly superficial fashion. So that for example, we may try, if man is simply misguided, to cure the predicament by increasing the level of education. If he is sick, by increasing the amount of medication. If he’s just rebellious, then perhaps by legislation – or even by indoctrination or domination…. This is how society as a whole, and towns and cities and families and sports teams and businesses and academic institutions try and do something about the fact that man is messed up.”
You see, this is how man tries to fix his sin problem, and you can see it all the time as the governments of North America try to figure out how to fix what’s wrong with the world. They refuse to believe that sin is the problem, so they can’t find the real cure, which is Jesus Christ. So instead they treat everything topically, or superficially, by giving more access to medication and healthcare. And whatever sins they can’t solve through education, they will create laws against.
- They solve the problem of loneliness, sadness and sickness by making laws so doctors can kill their patients more easily.
- They solve the problem of sexual addiction and broken families by allowing people more access to easier divorces and give them the right to kill the unborn.
- They truly believe that they will solve the world’s problems with education – if we can just educate the youth to be more open minded and teach the terrorists to be more inclusive and kind, then everyone will get along.
- That’s why we have a nanny state where governments want to ban sugary drinks to cure people of gluttony.
- They mandate being nice by jailing anyone who makes others uncomfortable with their opinions, because no one should ever have hurt feelings.
- They rebrand mental illness into alternative lifestyles.
- In some places they try to force people to take care of their stuff by fining them for not recycling and having a vehicle that is too muddy.
- Did you know that doorknobs are being banned in Vancouver, even in private homes, because they aren’t easy enough for some people to open?
How can the world stem the tide of violence and hatred without admitting we need a new heart from Jesus? They make laws.
- One 5 year old girl in Pennsylvania was labled a “terroristic threat”, suspended from school, and ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation because she brought a Hello Kitty gun that shoots bubbles to her school.
- Seven year old Joshua was suspended from second grade because he chewed a pop-tart into the shape of a gun and said “bang, bang.”
Do you see how different the Christian view is to this? Christian say that we are evil on the inside, we have a heart problem that needs a complete regeneration from the inside out, a new birth, a recreation, a resurrection by the power of God. We need to be cleansed and given a new heart through Jesus Christ. We need Him to kill the effects of sin in us and then raise us up to new life. We don’t think we can do this on our own. The only way to battle sin is through a miracle from God.
Outside the Christian church it’s exactly opposite. They believe people are basically good on the inside and with enough education, rules, encouragement and tolerance, everyone will finally conquer their sadness, or sickness, or differences, and finally come together.
It’s totally opposite, isn’t it?
This is why Christians preach the existence of sin, the depravity of our hearts, and our desperate need for the sanctifying power of the blood of Jesus Christ.
The Paradox of Sanctification
This is where the paradox comes in. All of what I have said is absolutely true. If you are in Christ you are a new creation. That’s what the Bible says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Cor 5:17) It’s a present reality. The Bible speaks of it in the past-tense as though it’s already happened!
- Colossians 3:1: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”
- Ephesians 2:5-6: “…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…”
- Romans 6:6: “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.”
It’s all past-tense to God. Already done. Our old self is dead and we have been set free. We were dead, now we’re alive and have already been raise up with Him and seated next to Jesus. It’s already happened in God’s eyes! Just like Jesus was dead and buried for oursins, and then raised to life and seated with God, so we died with Christ and now we’re raised to life and death no longer has dominion over us. The thing we fear most, death, no longer has power over us because our life is hidden in God in Christ. It’s a present reality!
If Jesus doesn’t come back first, our bodies will someday die, but it will be like going to sleep and waking up with Jesus. Death has no sting.
That is, by the way, one of the pictures of baptism. It represents the death and burial of our old selves and the new life we have now that we live in Christ. The waters we pass through represent the cleansing of our souls by the blood of Jesus.
The moment we are saved, that we give our hearts to Jesus, we are immediately and perfectly cleansed. Ready for use in God’s temple, able to stand in the Holy of Holies because we have been cleansed by the shed blood of Jesus.
But… it doesn’t feel like that, does it? We’re not perfected yet, are we? I know I’m not. It is a paradox that all of the promises of God are ours the very moment we are saved, but at the same time we must wait for them. God doesn’t deliver us out of this world and make us perfect. This is why Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Our sanctification is sure, but not seen yet.
Many Christians will describe their process of sanctification, which theologians call “Progressive Sanctification”, with the words, “Already, but not yet.” We are already perfectly clean before God, but not yet perfectly sanctified. We’re right before God and there is nothing we need to do to gain salvation, while at the exact same time we are working out our faith with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).
This is why Paul could start his letter to the messed up church in Corinth with the words, “to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” That was a super messed up church. They were dividing, arguing, doubting, questioning the apostles, up to their eyeballs in sexual immorality and greed, their marriages and families were messed up, they were slipping into idolatry, and more. And yet, Paul calls them “sanctified… saints”? Why?
Because they were Christians. Their salvation, sanctification and status before God wasn’t based on their actions or maturity – it was based on whether they were called by God and cleaned by Jesus, which they were. Yes, they were messing up their lives and their church a whole bunch, and Paul was going to address that, but he wanted to make sure they knew who they were first. They were God’s people, who had been shown a great love, called out like Lazarus from the grave, chosen from among many to be given undeserved grace, and then sanctified by the blood of Jesus Christ.
They had forgotten their calling and their cleansing, their salvation and their sanctification, and had slid back into living like the world, so Paul needed to remind them of what and who’s they were.
I’m going to talk about the other side of Sanctification next week – that is, our responsibility toward our own holiness – but I wanted to make sure you understood this truth first. You cannot save yourself, you need the blood of Jesus Christ to sanctify you before God. You need to admit you are a sinner who can’t educate or exercise or empower himself enough to save himself. You need a miracle.
And those who have experienced that miracle, I want to you remember how far you were brought – from death to life, from sinner to saint, from impure to pure, and to thank God for that truth. Thank God for saving you from trying to save yourself. Thank God for the knowledge that there is nothing you can do to increase His love for you because He loved you before you ever loved Him. And most of all, thank God for sending His son to die on the cross, shedding his blood for your sake, to make it possible for you to be saved. If it weren’t for Him, you would still be condemned.
A Closing Thought From Ezekiel 36
I want to close today with a reading from Ezekiel 36:22-32 which gives a picture of how salvation works. You see, our salvation through Jesus wasn’t a new idea, but was God’s plan all along – from the very beginning. And even in the Old Testament people weren’t saved by their works, but by their faith – and that faith didn’t come from them, but from God. The Christian faith didn’t come up with anything new that wasn’t in the Old Testament. We simply understand it better because Jesus has shown us what it all means.
Let me read it and as I do, notice how it is God who does the work of sanctification and salvation… and realize why? Not for our sakes, but for His glory: “Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.
“Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.
I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations.
Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord GOD; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel.
…On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt. And the land that was desolate shall be tilled, instead of being the desolation that it was in the sight of all who passed by…. Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the LORD; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it.” (Ezekiel 36:22-36)