**Sorry, no audio this week due to technical issues (of me not changing the batteries in the mic…🙄)**
Let’s turn back to our passage from last week, John 5:1–18.
“After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk.’ And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.
Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, ‘It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.’ But he answered them, ‘The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’’ They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?’ Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.’ The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.’
This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”
Last week, I began with the reminder to try to put ourselves into the passages we are reading, especially with those who Jesus interacts with, because if we are careful and willing, we will see ourselves reflected there. But the scriptures aren’t about us… they’re about Jesus. So in the forefront of our mind must always be not just “What is this saying about me?” But more importantly, “What is this saying about Jesus?”
Quick Review of the Structure of John
Remember, that’s John’s intention when writing this gospel – to paint a portrait of who Jesus is through story, symbolism, contrast, and reflection.
If we go back that that first graphic we looked at when starting this series, you’ll remember that John uses a lot of 7s in his book. In chapter 1, the introduction to the book, as Jesus gathers His first followers we see seven different titles for Him: “Lamb of God”, “Son of God”, “Rabbi”, etc. Then, in the first half of the gospel we see seven miracles, or “signs”, that point to important revelations of who Jesus is and designate the author’s divisions of thought: water into wine, healing the centurion’s son, healing a paralyzed man, feeding the 5000, healing a man blind from birth, and raising Lazarus from the dead. And peppered throughout the whole book are two sets of seven “I am” statements from Jesus, where He either make a claim about Himself, or simply uses the divine name that God gave to Moses, YHWH, as His own name. As I said before, there’s a lot of intricate story weaving in this book.
In the first four chapters (our chapters, not John’s), which we’ve already covered, we see Jesus interacting with five different types of people: a small gathering of Jewish people at a wedding, a larger gathering of people and Jewish leaders at the Temple, a one-on-one talk with a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, a one-on-one talk with a Samaritan woman at a well, and then Jesus talks to all of them while talking to a gentile, Roman centurion, about healings and signs.
In each of these interactions, Jesus shows something important about Himself. At the wedding, Jesus is inaugurating His Kingdom, kicking off His earthly ministry with a celebration, generosity, and all the symbolism that comes along with wine (which we talked about already). At the temple Jesus reveals that He is the true “temple of God” where heaven and earth meet, and declares Himself to be the Son of God, Messiah, and King. When meeting with the Rabbi in the middle of the night, He declares that He is the One sent by God to be a sacrifice for sin, and anyone who believes in Him must give up their religious hypocrisy and be born again with a new heart, through faith in Him alone. And then, all of those revelations come crashing together as he tells the most unlikely person, a sinful, socially rejected, Samaritan woman, that He is the Living Water, the Source of Eternal Life, the Perfect Rabbi, the Messiah and Christ – and she runs into town sharing Jesus claims with the other Samaritans and many are saved.
Last week, we moved into another sort of division where John shows us another sign, with more subdivisions. The sign, the miracle that designates the change in the story is the healing of the lame man at the Sheep Gate pool, but the subdivisions this time aren’t about connecting with people groups, but interacting with the important Jewish celebrations and religious feasts. And now, instead of Jesus going from place to place being accepted and followed – like the first four interactions were all about – now we see a whole bunch of rejection. The same groups that accepted him during the first section of the book all start to turn away until everyone is arguing about Jesus, the Jewish leaders do everything in their power to arrest, stone, and kill Jesus, and the only people left following Him are the twelve disciples. In fact, the opposition gets so fierce that right before the final miracle of the seven, the raising of Lazarus, as Jesus is about to walk back into Judea, the Apostle Thomas is so convinced their walking into an antagonistic hornet’s nest, says to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (11:16) And the story of Lazarus leads directly into the second half of the book, all about Passion Week, the last seven days before Jesus was crucified.
Jesus, the Sabbath, and the Pharisees
So, as we turn back to the story we are looking at today, the healing of the man at the Sheep Gate Pool, we have to ask ourselves, “What does this say – what are we meant to see – what is the sign pointing to – about Jesus?” and “What is this saying to us?”
Last week we covered the miracle. Jesus walks into the Sheep Gate, sees a superstitious, hopeless, old man who has been an invalid for thirty-eight years, heals Him, and says in verse 8, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” (5:8) That’s critically important. Verse 9 says, “And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.”
The next line reveals what this story is all about. Not only is the miracle a chapter division, but John here reveals that his subdivision theme is changing too. We’ve already been introduced to “the Jews” (which in John always means the “Jewish Ruling Class”), but now we see an other critical piece of information that leaps off the page. “Now that day was the Sabbath.”
That would be an “oooooohhhh…” moment for anyone reading. The Sabbath was a pretty famous Jewish peculiarity. No other people in the world took a whole day off – including their servants and slaves – to stop working, selling, cooking, farming… just to worship and rest. Everyone else had a 7 day work week. But for the Jews, everything stopped on Friday night and didn’t start again until the appearance of at least three stars in the sky on Saturday night.
If you recall the story of Nehemiah rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, you’ll remember in Chapter 13, after the walls and gates had been rebuilt, when the Sabbath came around, Nehemiah commanded that all the gates of the city be shut and locked until after the Sabbath. All the merchants and sellers from all over the land came up to the doors, and for the first time in decades, couldn’t get through. Let me read that portion to you, because it’s great:
“As soon as it began to grow dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the Sabbath. And I stationed some of my servants at the gates, that no load might be brought in on the Sabbath day. Then the merchants and sellers of all kinds of wares lodged outside Jerusalem once or twice. But I warned them and said to them, ‘Why do you lodge outside the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you.’ From that time on they did not come on the Sabbath. Then I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come and guard the gates, to keep the Sabbath day holy.” (Nehemiah 13:19–22)
If you think that’s serious, then fast-forward a few hundred years to the birth of an extremist group called the “Pharisees”, or “the separatists”, the “separated ones”. Essentially the “we’re better than everyone else and God love sus more” group.
By the time of Jesus there were three different groups that were in charge of the Jewish people. John summarizes them by just calling them “the Jews”, but he’s referring to the Jewish Ruling class: the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes. Essentially these groups were the lawmakers, police, and lawyers of the time, and therefore pretty much everything in Jewish society – except for what their Roman government dictated – ran through them.
And this group took it upon themselves to decide not only that everyone had to keep the Sabbath or get in trouble – but exactly how the Sabbath was to be kept. So they made and enforced a whole bunch of extra laws that make sure no one would ever break the Sabbath again. No planting, or plowing, or reaping, or sorting, or chopping vegetables, or mixing anything together, or cooking, or laundry, or tying knots, or untying knots, or hunting, or smoothing, or chopping, or writing, or erasing, or making things, no starting a fire, or putting out a fire even if your house is going to burn down, and definitely no carrying things outside – or “transferring anything between domains”, and especially not “transferring anything through a public thoroughfare”. Well, technically, if you absolutely had to move something, you were allowed to move it 4 cubits (or 6 feet).
Remember, none of this was in the Old Testament Law, it was all invented by the Pharisees as a way to make sure everyone “kept the Sabbath”. God had created a day for His people where they could rest, worship, enjoy each other… where they weren’t expected to produce anything, but just had to remember that God was their provider, God had everything under control, and the whole point of existence wasn’t to do work, make money, produce things… but to connect with God and be with the people you care about.
But the Pharisees had taken the God-given gift of the Sabbath and turned it into a huge burden. Now people dreaded the Sabbath because they couldn’t do anything. It wasn’t enjoyable. Now, around every corner was a Pharisee watching to see if you’d pick anything up, make yourself a snack, write a note, smooth out a wrinkle, or – you know – prevent your house from burning down. It was awful. But the Pharisees had a huge amount of power. If you broke their laws, you could be kicked out of the synagogue, shunned by your community, arrested, beaten, even threatened with death.
That’s what makes verses 8-9 such a critical part of the story. Jesus commands the man to break the Pharisees Sabbath rules, and then sends him to walk through a public thoroughfare with his bed under his arm. You can imagine how that would be received.
Well, as per usual, there’s a Pharisee lurking around somewhere nearby and the man takes, probably, like 20 steps, and some Jewish Officials jump out and say, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” (5:10)
The man, quickly dodges the accusation and deflects the blame, “Hey, it wasn’t my idea, someone came up to me after being a hopeless invalid for thirty-eight years and healed me. Then he said, ‘take up your bed, and walk’. I wasn’t about to argue with a guy that powerful!”
The Jewish Official’s eyes get all squinty and aggressive, ready to come down like a sack of hammers on that guy, ask – “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?”
Pause there for a second and notice that question. Do you see anything missing? The miracle, right? It wasn’t, “Show us the one who had the power to heal you from decades of hopeless pain and misery… we’re very interested in a person like that…”. No, all they could think about was “Someone told you to break our rules!? How dare they! We need to get this guy! Arrest Him! Make an example out of Him! He’s a lawbreaker, sinner, and he’s spreading His evil among these poor, unfortunate, sick people! He’s making them break the Sabbath!” How crazy is it that a guy who had been lying around for almost 40 years, finally gets up and walks, and is told to lie right back down by the most religious, supposedly godly people in town?
Now, Jesus hadn’t told the man who He was and had already left, so there was nothing for these guys to go on, but then Jesus does something really interesting. He finds the man he healed to introduce Himself properly. “Hi, I’m Jesus, the guy who healed you. I have already demonstrated that I have divine power, and you have already demonstrated faith and obedience toward me. Look at yourself! You are well! I healed you. But I have a further message for you. I didn’t simply heal you so you can go back to a sinful life. I, your new master, the source of your new hope and new life, want more for you. I not only want you free from worldly misery, but from the misery of sin. So ‘sin nor more, that nothing worse may happen to you.’” The implication there is that the man’s condition may have been a result of his own foolishness and sin getting him into trouble.
To modernize it, imagine a semi-religious man, goes to church Christmas and Easter, is a kind of ok guy. One day he drives drunk, gets into an accident, and wrecks himself. Snaps his spine and ends up in a wheelchair. He’s in that chair for almost 40 years. Over that time everyone in his life has abandoned him, he’s tried every kind of remedy, spent all his money on treatments and pills, and now spends all day watching tv, and decides to put his hope into one of those health-and-wealth, false gospel, televangelists. He sends his last few dollars, gets kicked out of his apartment, and ends up in some kind of hostel. Jesus comes in, asks if He wants to be well, heals him, and then tells him, “Ok, I’ve healed your body, but that’s not your real problem is it? Your real problem is guilt, shame, fear, anger, betrayal, and selfishness that led you into sin, that caused this to happen, and has driven you into more and more misery, right? Your problem is sin. Now, I’ve healed you. But, I didn’t heal you so you can go back to drinking and foolishness – go live rightly, godly, as a follower of mine. Change your heart, repent of sin, put your hope in me, and live my way – or the misery that will come to you will make these last forty years look like a picnic – because you will end up in Hell. Now, go, live as a Christian.”
What is this man’s response? Well, as soon as He obeys Jesus, by picking up his mat and walking, He immediately gets into trouble. Now, I figure one of two things is happening here. Either he’s obeying Jesus by making sure He submits to the Jewish Ruling Authorities and does what he’s told – or he’s slipped back into his former pattern of self-centredness, blaming others for his problems (like he did at the pool), and immediately throwing Jesus under the bus.
We don’t know. But the application is the same here. People’s response to Jesus’ grace is often surprising. Some people are thankful, others aren’t. Some respond with obedience, others don’t. Some meet Jesus and follow Him, others just go back to their old lives. It’s amazing that Jesus’ grace doesn’t come with strings – instead it comes with an invitation.
That’s the man, but let’s get back to the Jewish Rulers. Look at what’s going on here, because it’s really ironic. A man who has been unable to move, or work, or mix, or tie or untie anything, who has probably been technically keeping the Sabbath perfectly for 40 years because He was unable to move, meets Jesus, the rightful King of the Jews, the one who gave the law to Moses, the perfect Rabbi, the Messiah, the true temple of God, the source of Eternal life – and completely heals this guy and sends him out on a mission. Did Jesus do anything wrong? No. Did He have the right to tell that man to “take up his bed and walk”? Absolutely! Did Jesus know how the Sabbath works? Yes, it was His idea in the first place.
But Jesus sets up this confrontation on purpose so that He can reveal something about Himself to all these people, especially the Pharisees. Look at the titles of the next sections and you’ll see what. In the ESV they are, “Jesus is Equal with God” and “The Authority of the Son”.
He took that man from invalid to missionary in an instant. Then He offered to save the man’s soul. And then, after demonstrating His power, and declaring His authority, He confronts the Jewish leaders with a huge speech about who He really is: Look down to verse 39-40, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”
Jesus set up a confrontation where He said, in no uncertain terms, that He is the Lawgiver, the Perfect interpreter, the Son of God, and equal to God Himself. That He alone has the right to pass judgment and decide who lives and dies – not them! He is the perfect interpreter of God’s will – not them! That He is the real Jewish Ruler – not them. And they should be bowing down and obeying Him, not everyone bowing down and obeying them.
He says, “You guys think you know so much about the Bible – but God Himself is standing in front of you and you can’t even see it. Instead you reject and persecute me.” And he gives them, in much more detail, the same message He gave the man he healed, “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.”
Again, Jesus gives grace. He doesn’t judge and condemn them immediately but gives them the truth and then some time to accept it. And again, that grace is presented with an invitation – this time to the Pharisees. “Repent, submit, be healed, or be damned.” Needless to say, that didn’t go over too well.
Let’s leave it there this week, but draw out a couple applications.
The first application is that Jesus is gracious and kind, giving favour to everyone on earth. Matthew 5:45 says, “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” But that miracle, that grace, comes with an invitation and a warning: Deal with your sin before the worst possible thing happens to you. The first application is a reminder that Hell is real and Jesus’ invitation is urgent. If you aren’t a Christian today, then you must realize that you are living on borrowed time, that every moment you’ve been alive has been an act of undeserved grace, and that it can end at any time. You are alive today because Jesus keeps you alive and is giving you time to repent, deal with your sin, and turn to Him as your Lord. You don’t know when that grace will end, so you must take your spiritual reality, the condition and destination of your soul, seriously.
The second application is that many of us make the same mistake as the Pharisees do. Some of us, because we’re stuck in our own ways, rules, religion, mindset, tradition, or whatever, look at someone who is obeying Jesus, and because they’re not doing things our way, not following our path, not doing things the way they’re supposed to be done, we judge, condemn, and persecute that person.
Some of you here have looked at God’s perfect will, His design and plan for someone else’s life, and you have judged it as wrong. You condemned that person, and therefore condemned God. When confronted with your reasoning for why you disliked, judged, attacked and reviled that person, you talked about your feelings and then twisted God’s word to fit your conclusion – and in doing so, condemned God’s will, harmed a follower of God, and did Satan’s work for him. And just like the Pharisees, you need to repent and ask forgiveness of God and the person you wrongly judged.
And the third application, which leads from the previous, is that Jesus is Lord, Jesus is God, and Jesus is the one who gets to interpret scripture – not us. In other words, you cannot expect to come away from a Bible study, class, or personal bible-reading time, with the right interpretation and application of scripture without having first repented of sin, humbled yourself before Jesus, invited the Holy Spirit to show you the truth, and then submitting your interpretation to the counsel of godly Christian elders, teachers and mentors.
Reading the bible alone, in a vacuum, prayerlessly and/or without asking a diversity of more mature, trained believers to help you, is spiritually foolish and dangerous. You will be led astray by your feelings, and turn into either a judgmental, hyper-religious Pharisee, or into a false teacher who accepts sin and error, leading others – and encouraging others – towards sin, idolatry, and licentiousness.
Pastor Al Do You Really Believe in a Magic Talking Snake?
I want to start this morning with a little bit of apologetics. Last week we talked about the Fall of Man as presented in Genesis 1-3 and there’s one part of that story that keeps coming up in the secular world as a way to discredit Christians – that being the “talking snake”.
As I studied last week and went through the various pictures of Adam and Eve for last week’s PowerPoint, I saw a lot of pictures that looked really ridiculous, and I kept asking myself if I really actually believe this story or not. And it’s an important story to believe in. If the story of the Fall of Man is fictional, it affects a lot of things in Christianity.
First, if it’s fiction, then what parts of the Bible should be believed? Second, a lot of other books in the Bible reference that story as true, so can they be believed. Third, Romans 5 says that Jesus is the second Adam that didn’t fail, but did it right, and through which we find our salvation. So how can Jesus be the second Adam who did it right if there was no first who did it wrong? To discredit the story of creation and the fall in Genesis 1-3 is to dismantle much of what the theology of salvation is built on. No talking serpent, no temptation, no Eve taking the fruit, no fall… etc.
So how do I answer the question? Do I actually believe in a magic talking snake that tempted the only people on the planet to eat a forbidden fruit? Do you? Why? Well, let me tell you how I process it.
Humility Before the Word of God
The first place I start is humility before the Word of God. I remember that I don’t know everything and just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s wrong or impossible. If I told you not to worry that your OS defrags your solid state drive when you have Volume Shadow Copy turned on, would you believe me? Is it something you’ve ever worried about? Maybe you should, because automated defragging your SSD ups your writes. Worried now?
Just because you don’t understand what I’m talking about, doesn’t mean I’m wrong or trying to mislead you. And just because I don’t fully understand Genesis 1-3 doesn’t mean it’s wrong or trying to mislead me either. I decided a long time ago I was going to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt. That doesn’t mean I turn my brain off when I read or study, but it does mean that when I study, I start with the thought, “The Bible isn’t trying to lie to me, manipulate me, or hurt me. God is the author of truth, this is His book, and He’s using the Bible to teach me, guide me, and help me understand Him, myself, and the world. So whatever I’m not understanding isn’t God’s fault.”
A Story for All People
I also remember that the story in Genesis 1-3 isn’t meant to be a modern biography or scientific textbook explaining the exact details of what went on. It’s a story meant to convey important truths to different people who would live in different places and eras. That doesn’t mean it’s misleading though. It means’ it was told in a way that everyone could understand.
When Genesis was written, the concept of Satan wasn’t as fleshed out as it is by the end of Revelation, so his character is introduced in a very important way. The whole story is told in such a way that anyone who reads it, from Moses to today, will see the most foundational messages upon which all the rest of the scriptures will be built – God is eternal and good, man was created eternal and good, temptation is real, sin is terrible, and man’s choices have big consequences.
To do this, the first three chapters of the Bible use poetry, prose, imagery, repetition, and intricate word play, and to tell the story of Creation and the Fall in a way everyone can understand. Just because it was written thousands of years ago to people who weren’t interested in modern science, doesn’t make it wrong.
The Multiple Forces Argument
The third thing that helps me believe Genesis 1-3 is to remember that Satan is real, powerful, a master of deception, and capable of supernatural things. Here’s something I’ve been working on in my brain for a while, which I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else, and it goes like this: There are four sorts of “forces” that act upon us in this world:
- Visible Personal Forces
- Visible Impersonal Forces
- Invisible Impersonal Forces
- and Invisible Personal Forces.
People have no problem with the first one, “Visible Personal Forces”, right? These are things we can see, and that make the choice to affect us. People are visible, personal forces.
People have no problem with the second one, “Visible Impersonal Forces”. Examples of this would be a rockslides, forest fires, earthquakes, tornados. We can see them affecting us, but they don’t make the choice to do so. A fire doesn’t choose what it’s burning. It just does it.
People have no problem with the third one either, “Invisible Impersonal Forces”. Examples of this are things like magnetism, wind, or gravity. We can’t see them and they don’t choose to affect us. They just do. We can’t take a picture of gravity, but it’s real, right?
It’s the fourth one that people get hung up on, “Invisible Personal Forces”. This is a personal being that chooses to affect our lives, but we can’t see them. But why is this one different? If the rest are true, why not this one? This is God, Angels and Demons. If we can believe in an invisible impersonal force like gravity, why not an invisible personal demon?
There are hundreds of papers written on invisible, personal forces that affect us all the time. Governments and corporations use psychological warfare to intimidate, demoralize, or persuade people to do things. They don’t have to be standing in front of you to affect you either. They can use things like propaganda, stress, bribes, language, suggestions, media, repetition, and technology to do it for them. We have no problem believing in the power of peer pressure, mob-mentality, or group think, right? But that’s not visible force, is it? No one says, “As of this moment you should go flip cop cars and smash windows”, it just sort of happens. Other examples of invisible, personal forces are things like memories of people who have died, your own personality, hypnosis, or even emotional love and physical pain. People will debate the power of the butterfly effect and talk about good or bad luck or Murphy’s Law as though they are real, but have a problem with the existence of Demons.
All I’m saying is that it is not unreasonable to believe that there are such things as Invisible Personal Forces, like God, Angels or Demons – who are real, creative, and powerful – that affect our lives every day. And the being introduced in Genesis 3 as a tempting serpent is an example of that. Just because it’s difficult to understand or strange to our ears doesn’t make it untrue.
So, I think to myself, if God is the author of the Bible, the story of Genesis 1-3 is written to tell me the truth, and there really is such a being as Satan, then why would it be impossible for this story to be true? Why couldn’t Satan use a serpent to tempt Eve? I believe what Jesus says, and He says that Satan is a master deceiver (John 8:44), capable of looking like a false messiah and even do miracles so convincing that even people who claim to be Christians will be deceived by him (Matthew 24:24). 2 Corinthians 11:14 says he can even masquerade as an angel of light.
So, is it not possible that Satan used his powers of deception to either manipulate or take on the form of a serpent? Or, if that’s too much, if invisible personal forces are real, then that would mean a form of that is demonic possession, right? Why couldn’t Satan have possessed this animal’s body and used it?
Now I sound crazy, right? I sound like I’m reaching beyond the scope of reality. But hold on. If the Bible isn’t trying to fool me, and Satan is real and powerful, then why is it impossible? It doesn’t have to be the kind of snake we think of today, does it? Genesis 3:1 says that the “serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field” and Revelation 20:2 calls Satan, “the dragon, that ancient serpent”, so this clearly wasn’t the kind of snake we see today, but perhaps a very clever animal that is long extinct. In fact, in Genesis 3:14, when God is cursing the serpent, He changes the form of the serpent to one that stands to one that slithers. There are lots of scientists who think snakes used to have legs but lost them as they evolved. And I’ve watched enough BBC nature documentaries to know that there are animals capable of some pretty incredible things, right?
We’ve all seen the amazing things trained dogs, dolphins, and chimpanzees can do, right? I saw an article that showed how humans have taught parrots, orangutans, elephants and seals to mimic the human voice. And you’ve probably heard about Koko the gorilla that was capable of understanding thousands of English words and signed back over a thousand.
So, I’m not saying I understand it all, but all I’m saying, is why not, in the history of the world, with all the species that have ever existed, couldn’t there have been a smart, serpent-like creature capable of mimicking human speech that Satan possessed and used? Just because I don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it isn’t true. But is it plausible? I believe it is. Or, if that’s too much, then maybe Satan simply used some sort of supernatural power to talk through it, the same way God did with Balaam’s Donkey.
Now, why spend so much time on this today? The reason is simply that there’s a big difference between saying we believe something and actually believing it, and that difference has consequences. There are often nagging questions in the back of our minds that cause us to doubt God’s Word, doubt our faith, doubt how serious we should take it, and wonder if all that we say we believe is actually true. It causes us to distrust God, distrust other Christians, and to live in fear. Our doubts are weapons that Satan can use to cause us to think and believe some destructive lies.
If he can use our doubts to cause us to question the existence of Adam and Eve, then why not Abraham and Jesus too? If Genesis is made up, then why not the Gospel of Matthew? If there was no Fall of Man, no first sin that corrupts all mankind, then where is the curse and what did Jesus die for? Does that mean we’re all basically good people and everyone is going to heaven? If we’re all basically good, then what’s wrong with the world? And if we’re all good, or a bunch of it is made up, then why tell anyone about Jesus at all?
Satan can use these doubts to take us apart in surprising ways. It’s the same tactic he used on Eve. “Did God actually say…?” was an attack on God’s Word and His character. If he can get us to doubt what God says, then we have permission to edit His Words, change them, or dismiss them. Then we’re in trouble. Then the foundations of our life and faith start to crumble. Then we start to doubt that God is real, that Satan is real, that invisible, personal spiritual forces are real, and it makes us an easier target.
Those niggling doubts, which so many of us suppress thinking there are no good answers, embarrassed to ask other people in case we sound crazy or stupid, undermine our faith and become a foothold in our lives for the devil and a stumbling block to those around us. That’s why we need to spend time praying, studying, talking, and sharing our doubts and questions about God. He’s not scared of us looking into it, and He’s not angry that there are things we don’t understand, so it shouldn’t prevent us from asking and searching. Sure, not every question will have the perfect answer, but I have yet to find an important question that hasn’t gotten a reasonable answer over the past couple thousand years. The real trouble comes when we refuse to find them.
Is Hell Real?
Consider the questions from the Heidelberg Catechism that we’ve been studying, especially those today. We’ve spent three weeks talking about the importance of realizing that we are sinners, right? Last week we said that sin isn’t God’s fault, but question 9 comes. It says
“But does not God do man an injustice by requiring in his law what man cannot do?”
Ursinus, in his brilliance, knew that the human heart is full of doubt and is desperate to escape blame. We hate being called sinners and want to do everything we can to push that guilt away. We want to pretend the Fall wasn’t real, that Satan isn’t real, that we’re basically good people, and anything we do that’s wrong is someone else’s fault – even God’s. But neither God nor Ursinus lets us off the hook.
The question is basically “Isn’t it unfair for God to ask us to obey a Law that He knows we can’t obey because of our sinful nature?” and the answer comes:
“No, for God so created man that he was able to do it. But man, at the instigation of the devil, in deliberate disobedience robbed himself and all his descendants of these gifts.”
As I said last week, God didn’t set Adam up for failure, but for success. He absolutely could have obeyed, but fell to temptation chose not to. And now all of us children of Adam are all living with the consequences of having a sinful nature.
Question 10 continues,
“Will God allow such disobedience and apostasy to go unpunished?”
Herein lay another area of our doubts – that God would actually punish sin. Doesn’t God love us? Won’t he let us get away with it? Isn’t He a Good Father who lets His children off the hook because he loves them so much? A kind God wouldn’t really make anyone go to Hell, would He?
People work really hard to try to deny that sinners are punished in Hell, and even harder to try to convince themselves that they themselves aren’t sinners, but neither is true. “Will God allow such disobedience and apostasy to go unpunished?” The answer in the Catechism comes:
“Certainly not. He is terribly displeased with our original sin as well as our actual sins. Therefore he will punish them by a just judgment both now and eternally, as he has declared: Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law (Gal 3:10).”
God promised punishment to Adam and Eve (Gen 2:17). He promised punishment to Moses and the Israelites (Ex 34:7). The Lord, through the prophets, promised to take vengeance on all His enemies (Nah 1:2), and we’ve already learned that sin made us an enemy of God (Eph 2:1-3). Jesus said that without Him, that many will be led to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14) and promised that there would be a final separation where some people would be sent into eternal flames and endless misery (Matt 13:30-42).
Hell, like talking about the snake, makes some people very uncomfortable. They want to hold onto their doubts. They want to deny it. They want to live in ignorance. They don’t want to ask questions lest they learn something they don’t like. They don’t want to think that some people that they love are in Hell, or that they might be as well.
But, just as changing the story of Eden changes everything, so does removing Hell. Look at question 11 of the Catechism:
“But is God not also merciful?”
It’s almost an outcry, isn’t it? But how can the concept of Hell line up with a loving God?
And the answer is this:
“God is indeed merciful, but he is also just. His justice requires that sin committed against the most high majesty of God also be punished with the most severe, that is, with everlasting, punishment of body and soul.”
Yes, God is love, and part of love is ensuring that justice is done. Consider yourself. If you were wronged – you went downtown, someone jumped you, beat you, stabbed you, and stole your belongings – it would be unloving, unjust, unkind for a judge to simply let the mugger get away with it. How much more should humanity be punished for committing such “disobedience and apostasy” against the perfection of God? He is absolute perfection, and humanity chose Satan, sin, disobedience, and betrayal – and we keep doing it over and over willfully and in ways we don’t even know. You must admit yourself to be a sinner.
But our doubts fight, don’t they? “I’m not that bad. God’s not really like that. I don’t want that to be true.” My plea for you is to allow the conviction of God to fall upon you and to allow Him to judge you guilty – because it’s only then that you’ll be willing to ask and accept forgiveness. If you doubt yourself to be a sinner you will doubt the cost of your salvation.
Let me close with this: When it comes to difficult, uncomfortable topics like Hell, do what I said before. First, stop thinking you know everything and show some humility before God and His Word of God. Second, realize the teaching about Hell isn’t there to harm you, but to tell you something that you need to know so you can make a better decision. And third, overcome your doubts by choosing to share them, study the truth, and then settle it in your mind.
Last week we said that there were two main sins that the false teachers were leading the churches that Jude was writing to towards.The first was them teaching wrong things about who Jesus is and what He did. Theologians call this: Christology — the study of Christ. The second problem was that the false teachers were “perverting the grace of God into sensuality.” (vs 4) — in other words, they were teaching that since God forgives sin then Christians can sin without restraint! They could sin — and even should sin more — because it makes God’s forgiving grace look even better.
So the two areas that are being attacked in the church was their theology and their morality. Or — what they believe and how they live. How they think and how they act. I’m not sure there are two more important issues that people, especially Christians, have to get right than their theology and their morality!
There are a lot of important issues that we can talk about in the church — things like worship style, local and global missions, what kind of ministries we have, whether we do small groups or not, what to do during Sunday School, how important membership is, technological advances, how to deal with church discipline, divorce, alcohol, smoking… and, I’m sure, a million others. Churches have split over these issues, so obviously they are important in some regard. But, really, the two most important things we need to get right in our church is to be biblical in our theology and our morality. What we believe about God and the impact those beliefs have on our life.
And Jude (among other places in scripture) have some pretty strong things to say about Christians and churches that don’t their their theology and morality seriously.
The State of Evangelicalism in Canada
This is important to us today since we definitely live in an age where theology and morality have been sidelined — in the general culture, and even in the church. I’ve already given examples of Atheist Pastors and Popular False Teachers, so I’m not going to rehash that, but I did want to give you a quick example of what I mean about people who don’t care about biblical theology or biblical morality.
Just this May, a market research group called the Angus Reid Institute released a study where they looked at the theological and moral beliefs of Canadians who call themselves evangelical Christians. I’m not sure how they defined that, but let’s go with it anyway. Here’s a few stats from their report:
- 46% of Canadian evangelicals “disapprove of and do not accept” same-sex marriage. That leaves 54% that do accept it. (By contrast, 84% of all Canadians approve of same-sex marriage.)
- 54% of Canadian evangelicals “disapprove of and do not accept” a woman being able to obtain a legal abortion for any reason. So that means 46%, almost half, of evangelical Christians think there are good reasons to kill babies. (Compare that with the 81% of all Canadians who support abortion.)
- 38% of Canadian evangelicals believe we need to worry about our own country most and let the rest of the world take care of itself. So almost 2 out of 5 people who call themselves Christians would do away with global missions.
- When it comes to “religious people” — whatever that means:
- 18% of “approve and accept” people under 18 years old having sex.
- 40% of people who embrace religion agree that right and wrong is a matter of personal opinion.
- And 10% of religious people think that the growth of atheism is a good thing.
Theology and Morality is being thrown out the windows of evangelical churches. Instead of standing up for truth (or as Jude says, “contending for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints”), or as Jesus said, being “salt” and “light” in this dark world, Christians are becoming more and more like the secular world around us.
I was given a stark reminder of how worldly our churches have become as I read about the Ashley Madison leaks this week. If you haven’t heard about this, there is a site online that’s whole purpose is to connect married people who want to commit adultery. Their slogan is “Life is short. Have an affair.”
A while back their computers were hacked and just recently the hackers released a huge list of names of the people that were registered. Right now Calgary and Ottawa are fighting for top spot for most people registered in their respective cities. At one point it was reported that 20%, or 1 in 5, people in Ottawa were registered with the adultery site. That’s incredible.
My first reaction to this news was pretty callous. I though, “Good, let the philandering adulterers get publicly shamed.” I confess that wasn’t a very loving attitude. Jesus didn’t look at adulterers with judgement and anger, but with compassion. Compassion because of how many people are hurt when sexual sin is involved.
One result of this website’s user data being released has been that a whole bunch of church leaders, 400 in fact, were outed as people who committed (or wanted to commit) adultery, and will likely be resigning from their positions this week. This is going to have a heartbreaking effect on a lot of people, and ripple out a long ways. Plus, it gives the people who hate Christians yet another reason to call us hypocrites. Worse than that is that I also read that not only are people getting disqualified from ministry and divorced, but some may have even committed suicide.
This is why our view of theology and morality matters so much. Yes, sin will always be with us, and fools and failures will always happen, but you can’t tell me that if these people had a right view of God’s justice and mercy, and were seeking to live by His moral standards, that this would have happened.
We need to get these things right in our personal lives and our church. We need to talk about this all the time. We need to make sure that we study and live out biblical theology and biblical morality. Not only because we don’t want to bring shame to the name of Jesus, but because it protects our souls from harm! It’s a matter of self preservation.
Look again at verse 3. Jude says we need to “contend for the faith”. Other translations say: “defend the faith”, “continue your vigorous defence of the faith”, “compete for the faith”, “fight for the christian faith”, “persevere in the faith”, “agonize for the faith”.
Which faith? He says “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” The biblical, ancient, right and true faith that was given to us by the apostles and prophets chosen by God to deliver His message to us.
Men and women of the faith have been fighting this battle for centuries… millennia… and Jude urges us to pick up their sword and mantle and continue the fight. Sadly, most Christians aren’t.
Why Should I?
“Why should I?”, some of us ask. “I’m no theologian, I’m no judge, why should I take up the sword and mantle? It’s not my fight. It’s a battle between egg-heads who like to fight over bible words and crazy people who picket and petition on street corners. I’m not either of those.”
Let’s take a look at a big reason that Jude gives for why we all need to be involved in “contending for the faith”.
God Will Judge People Who Spread Falsehood
Look at verses 5-7 and see the biggest reason why — and it’s not warm and fuzzy: God is going to judge, condemn and punish — quite severely — those who believe, teach and spread falsehood about Him. If we really love people, then we need to warn them about the coming wrath against people who get theology and morality wrong.
“Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day—just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.”
Jude reminds his readers that Jesus isn’t just a great teacher that we can listen to some things and forget others, but is in fact, the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, eternal in His divine nature, and active in the world since the very beginning. Jude reminds them that what we believe about Jesus and God — our Christology and Theology — isn’t something that we come up with, but has been given to us in scripture. We don’t get to come up with our own ideas about God and Jesus, but must study what God has revealed about Himself.
I know this annoys people today, but it’s the truth. Making up a god of your own creation does you no benefit in this life or the next. It is for us to discover our Creator, not for us to invent one.
Jude’s warning gets more serious when reminds them that the same people Jesus saved out of Egypt were destroyed before they ever got to the Promised Land. Why? Because they failed to trust God, take Him at His word, they lost their faith, they forgot their theology, they forgot their morality — Jude says they “did not believe”. Just because they were out of Egypt gave them no right to stop obeying and trusting God. Just as believing in Jesus and going to church doesn’t mean we don’t have keep contending for our faith.
Jude’s next reminder is about “the angels”. Jude reminds them that even though angels were a special creation of God, they too lost their faith and rebelled against God’s authority. They were sent out of His presence and condemned to hell.
Next Jude lays down an example of the kind of power God wields against people who refuse to listen to Him. Sodom and Gomorrah were great cities with huge morality problems — especially condoning sexual sin. Jude reminds the readers that God wiped these people off the map — leaving only a smoking crater where these cities once stood. I read this week that during the first century a person could still see smoke rising from the site of where Sodom and Gomorrah once stood.
So Jude’s question is simple: Do you really want to spread lies, misinformation, and falsehood about this God? He destroyed the same Israelites He saved from Egypt because of their unbelief. He cursed the angels because of their unbelief. He utterly destroyed whole cities because they refused to welcome Him or live by His word. Jude says these stories of destruction “serve as an example” to us. Do you really want to be on the wrong side of this God? Better to get our theology and our morality right than mess with Him.
The examples continue throughout. In verse 11 we read, “Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion.”
People who teach and believe false theology and morality are walking the same way as Cain, who wanted to worship God on his own grounds, not by God’s command, and when his offering was rejected, he turned to murdering his faithful brother.
They rush into “Balaam’s error”. Balaam was a prophet who was willing to say whatever the enemy King Balak wanted him to, so he could get paid. Balak wanted Balaam to curse Israel, and it didn’t matter to Balaam what he said, because he was all about the money. He tried over and over to try to curse Israel, but God kept preventing him. Yet he stubbornly kept moving forward against God’s will. In the same way, people who don’t care about good theology and morality are usually more concerned with their money and comfort than God, others, or their own soul. They just stubbornly keep moving closer to judgement.
“Korrah’s rebellion” was against Moses. Korrah gathered 250 popular leaders to try to overthrow Moses and Aaron and change Israel’s worship practices. They didn’t care what God had said. They didn’t care that Moses was God’s man, that Aaron was His chosen priest. They wanted to do things their way, believe what they wanted to believe, come to God on their own terms. God’s response was to open up the earth and swallow up the men, their households and all their goods. And then, for good measure, God sent fire from the sky to consume them. (Num 16)
No Big Deal
Has Jude made the point clear about how serious God is about our theology and morality? So I ask you, do you take what you believe seriously enough?
Sometimes we think that the God of the Old Testament was mean and spiteful, but the God of the New Testament is friendly and loving. They are the same God. Jesus is the one who delivered the Israelites from slavery to Egypt, Jesus is the one who died on the cross to save us from slavery to sin and Satan. The God who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah is the same One who inspired David to write Psalm 23 and Paul to write 1 Corinthians 13.
God is very patient, and willing to let a lot go, but not forever. Judgement will come upon all, and I want to make sure I’m on the right side of Him when He comes. Therefore I study, pray and seek to live a moral life under Him. Could I do better? Certainly, but that’s the point — I want to do better and know more about Him. What about you? How seriously do you take your theology and morality?
This is no joke. God’s wrath is no joke.
Messed Up Numbers
In verse 17 we read Jude’s plea to the churches, and I want to read it in the International Children’s Bible so we all understand. It says:
“Dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ said before. They said to you, ‘In the last times there will be people who laugh about God. They will do only what they want to do—things that are against God.’ These are the people who divide you. They do only what their sinful selves want. They do not have the Spirit. But dear friends, use your most holy faith to build yourselves up strong. Pray with the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in God’s love. Wait for the Lord Jesus Christ with his mercy to give you life forever. Show mercy to people who have doubts. Save them. Take them out of the fire. Show mercy mixed with fear to others. Hate even their clothes which are dirty from sin.”
That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? I said at the beginning that there are a lot of things we can talk about at church, but there are two things that we have to get right: our theology and morality. That’s what he’s saying here too.
We shouldn’t be surprised that there are people who spread falsehood about God and Jesus and the Bible. Jesus warns us about that, as do the prophets and apostles. We shouldn’t be divided by them because we should be prepared enough to see them coming.
I’m passionate about this because of the reports I keep reading about how biblically illiterate North America is — and that’s incredibly dangerous. The Bible is how we learn about theology and morality — who God is, how we are saved by Jesus, and how we are to please Him. The Bible isn’t just God’s love-letter to us, it’s the message that tells us how we can avoid being judged as sinners and destroyed by fire. It’s the how-to so we can avoid Hell, so we better get it right! .
Just last year in the US people were asked how much they knew about the Bible. 81% said they felt pretty knowledgeable about the Bible — but:
- less than half could name the first 5 books
- half of them thought that John the Baptist was one of the twelve apostles.
- 22% said that Noah was married to Joan of Arc.
- 36% thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple.
In 2013 a Canadian study found that only 14% of Canadians read the bible at least once a month. The number was at 28% in 1998. Here’s the kicker: 67% of Canadians identify as Christians according to Stats Canada.
Those are some messed up numbers. How do you even know what a Christian is if you don’t read the Bible?
So Jude leaves us with some pretty clear things to do in order to combat false teaching and take our faith seriously. He says in verse 20 that [and I’m switching back to the ESV now]:
First: we need to “build ourselves up in our most holy faith”. The imagery of God building us up, and us building each other up, is all over scripture. We are seen as God’s temple, built on the foundation of Jesus Christ and His apostles, and are commanded to hold fast to the truth so that we are a good, strong place for God to reside. We need to stick to the strong foundation. This means we engage in personal bible study, corporate teaching, small groups, and exploration of what scripture says. Not just on Sundays, but everyday throughout the week.
Second: We need to “pray in the Holy Spirit”. I’m reading about prayer right now and know that I need to work on this too. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we speak in tongues or have some kind of charismatic prayer experience. What this means is that we are praying in harmony with what God the Holy Spirit wants us to pray about, rather than merely our own agenda. To get beyond the grocery list of topics on our mind, and discover what is on the mind of God. That’s where our faith will really grow.
Third: we need to “keep ourselves in God’s love”. In other words, this isn’t just about wanting to “flee the coming wrath” (Matt 3:7), but falling in love with the One who loves us. Romans 8:15, “…you received the Spirit of Sonship and by Him we cry ‘Abba, Father.’’. Beyond salvation is the knowledge of our adoption as the sons and daughters of God, and the love we have for our Father.
Jesus said in John 14, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments…. If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.” Keeping God’s word is “keeping ourselves in God’s love”. And we must know God’s word to keep it! If we don’t know God’s word, then how can we be living in it and loving Him as He has asked to be loved? To not be in God’s word is sin.
Fourth: we need to “save others by snatching them out of the fire”. When we come across a doubter who has been messed up by false teaching, let’s have mercy on them by telling them the truth and realizing we all believed lies at one point. When we see someone doomed to hellfire, we should have mercy on them by sharing the gospel.
And when we meet the false teacher, we should have mercy on them too, but also remember to fear God and give appropriate attention to the danger of speaking to that person. The word picture Jude uses of “hating even the garment stained by flesh” describes — and I’m not kidding here — soiled, poopy, underwear. His message is that we should show love because they are a human being made in the image of God, but treat everything around them the way we would treat a dirty diaper — hold our breath, keep it at arms length and toss it out.
Notice the action words in verses 20-23. “Building”, “praying”, “keeping”, “waiting”, “saving”. We are meant to be people of action, contending, fighting, for good, biblical theology and morality. Jesus is the only way, the truth the life. It is only by His name that we are saved. He has the words of eternal life. Let us not grow weary of doing the hard work of building, praying, keeping, waiting, saving and contending for our faith in Jesus Christ.
What can you do today, and this week, to build your faith and contend for the faith?
“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 1:24-25)