A lot of things sort-of collided this week. First, of course, we’ve got this pandemic looming over us with all that entails – including the enforced social distancing rules that are making daily life increasingly stressful and depressing. Next, I had a few people texting me and asking about how we can have the Lord’s Supper, communion, as a church. Could we prepare it ourselves at home and then all watch the video and do it. Would that be ok? I also came across a bunch of people and posts – from people inside and outside Christianity – that kept saying that we don’t need to gather together as a church in order to be Christian. The general gist of the argument was that a person’s connection to God, their relationship with Jesus, was only an individual one and a Christian doesn’t need anyone else to have a full and healthy relationship with God. And then, mixed into all of this, came the explosion of riots and protests in the US and Canada, as a result of systemic racism.
As I processed all of these huge issues – social distancing, communion, the church, the riots – it occurred to me that there is an underlying, common theme. Essentially, at the heart of it all, is the problem of “division”. Humanity is divided. Social Distancing because of the pandemic has divided our communities and families. Don’t visit grandma, don’t go within 6 feet of any human being, don’t shake hands, don’t sing together, don’t give gifts, don’t share meals, don’t worship together. That alone is catastrophic for the human soul.
But, of course, human divisions have existed long before COVID-19 came along. The bigotry of racism, sexism, ageism, classism, nationalism has divided us since Cain and Abel. In our modern context, another “ism” has grown: “Individualism”. The idea that a single person is more important than the group, that people should work for their own advantage, and that their thoughts and actions are valid simply because they are their own – and no one has the right to judge them. This individualism has infected Christianity, which is where the people who say, “I don’t need any other believers, I don’t need the church, I don’t need accountability, or elders, or theology books, or a church family – it’s just me and God and that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
Right now, as I speak to you, humanity might be the most divided it’s ever been. It’s one thing to be sexist and think one gender is worse, another to be nationalist and think every other country is evil, another to be ageist and think every other generation is stupid, another to be racist and think that people with different coloured skin are somehow inferior – but when it comes to individualism – the belief that every other person on earth is worse, evil, stupid, and inferior, to you – I don’t think you can get a society more divided than that.
As I said, this moment in time might be the most divided humanity has ever been.
Origins of Division
Where did all this division come from?
God’s plan, which we see in Genesis 1 and 2, was a united humanity. God created Adam and Eve – who were probably brown people, by the way – and placed them in the Garden of Eden. Already, at the very beginning, there was the potential for problems. God is Creator, Adam and Eve are creation. Adam was male, Eve female. Adam was first, Eve was second. But instead of division, there was perfect community, perfect unity, between God, Adam and Eve.
It didn’t last long. In Genesis 3 we see Adam and Eve rebel against God when they start to think that God is being prejudiced against them! So, in ignorance and jealousy, they fall for the devil’s lies and bring sin into the world. From that moment we were divided.
With sin came a curse. The results of sin caused cracks and fissures to form in every aspect of the universe. Humans would be divided from their Creator because God cannot be in the presence of sin. The earth would turn against itself and against humanity, as death and corruption entered the world, even the ground itself would work against us. The division would be between Adam and Eve too, men and women, who, even though they would be drawn towards each other, there would be endless strife. In Genesis 4 we see the story of Cain and Abel, two of the children of Adam and Eve. Cain wants to worship God one way, Abel does it a different way. Cain is enraged when God accepts Abel’s sacrifice and not his and kills his brother. Then, by the time we get to Genesis 6, the hearts of men are completely corrupt as evil takes over the world.
Heart, soul, mind, body, creation, relationships all divided. Emotional walls, spiritual separation, intellectual disagreement, physical strife, a corrupted universe, destroyed unity – all because of sin. God sends a flood to wipe out the world but, in His grace, spares one family – Noah’s – because Noah was the only one who was listening when God sent the warning. After the flood subsides, humanity starts to spread all over the place, populating the world – creating civilizations, but also bringing sin, suffering, war, and division, wherever they went.
Regardless of if you’re an evolutionist, an “old-earth” person, or a young earth person, the agreement is that it was after a great dispersion, as humans started to settle in parts of the world that had different climates and vegetation, that we start to see minor variations in the human genetic code, as generation after generation develop differences in their skin colour, hair colour, eye shape, etc.
You see, God didn’t create many different races – He created one: The Human Race. You cannot use the Bible to condone any form of racism. It’s not in there. People have used a lot of evolutionary theory to defend racism – saying that some colours are more “evolved” than others – but you can’t defend racism from the Bible.
God didn’t create many races, He created one: The Human Race. God didn’t create many religions and “paths to Him”, He created One, faith in the Son of God, The Messiah, Jesus Christ. God doesn’t prefer one gender over the other. He made them equal and complimentary. God doesn’t prefer one age over another. He knits the baby together in the mother’s womb, loves and defends children, trains up and uses young men and women, and gives important work and honour to the elderly. Salvation through Jesus Christ came through the Jewish People, Jesus came as a Jewish Man, but it was to offer salvation to everyone, regardless of race, nation, age, or gender.
In Revelation 5:9-10, as the story of the end begins and the first scroll is opened, it says they sing,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
In Revelation 7:9-10, it says,
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
In the kingdom of God, there is no division.
All the division we see and experience has one source: the human heart. The corruption sin brings to the human heart is what divides nations, tribes, peoples, and languages. It is sin that creates every terrible “ism” inside us. That’s not from God – that’s our sin.
Racism, classism, ageism, and all the others are not just political or economic issues. It’s not because of a lack of education or a bad upbringing. Yes, they have political, economic, and social implications – but they are not the source or the solution. The source of the problem, the root of the weed, the thing you have to dig all the way down to in order to kill the problem – is the corruption of all human hearts because of the curse of sin.
That’s why the only solution to the problem of racism, ageism, sexism, and all the other terrible “isms” is only found in Jesus Christ.
The Gospel, or the “Good News”, of Jesus Christ begins with the bad news. The first words spoken in the Gospel of Matthew are the angel telling Joseph not to divorce Mary, but that “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20–21) The first words of Jesus in the gospel of Mark are “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15) In Luke we read that the forerunner of Jesus, John the Baptist’s whole job, was to prepare people for the coming of Jesus by telling people to repent “for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3).
The bad news of sin, the acceptance that we are sinners, must come first – and one really good word to describe the results of sin would be “division”. Sin divided us from God (Isa 59:2) and each other. It created a deadly, untreatable infection to come upon our souls, it built an unbreachable wall and dug an uncrossable chasm between humanity and God, and fractured humanity into an irreparable mess. Jesus came to cure the disease, smash that wall, take the judgment – the sinless one became sin, took the whole of it onto Himself, and then was judged and killed in our place – so He could become the bridge that allows us to cross that chasm, and to remake, reform, recreate our individual hearts, and humanity into being whole again.
Look at the life and ministry of Jesus. There was no barrier he didn’t cross. He loved men, women, Jews, gentiles, Samaritans, soldiers, slaves, Pharisees, prostitutes, tradesman, tax collectors, children, seniors, the sick, the possessed, the wealthy and popular, the poor and outcast – equally. He saw every one of them the same – as sinners.
When Jesus declared Himself to be the only “way, truth, and life” (John 14:6) He was calling us lost, lied to, and dead. We are all, as Jesus describes us, sheep without a shepherd (Matt 9:36), lost people who needed finding (Luke 19:10), sick people who need a physician (Luke 5:31-32), lawbreakers under judgment (Matt 12:36), spiritually dead people who needed resurrection (Rom 6:23; John 14:6). Jesus’ mission wasn’t merely to set a good example for us to follow – it was to, by his own death, to mortify (or kill) the sin inside us, and that has infected the whole world, so that we might rise as a new creation, just as He rose from the dead.
Take a minute and consider what happened at the very birth of the Christian church. Jesus gathers a diverse group of men and women, dies, rises again, ascends to heaven, and tells them to go and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
So they do. About 120 followers of Jesus were gathered together in one room, praying, worshipping, talking together. Men, women, young, old, Pharisees, tax collectors, all gathered in the name of Jesus, waiting obediently for what He promised.
Then boom. Look at Acts 2, which we just read last week,
“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:1–4)
A diverse group in one place, and what does God do. How does he send the Holy Spirit? Audibly and visually. Everyone hears, everyone sees. Everyone in the room experiences the tongues of fire divide and rest upon everyone else. Not just the apostles, not just the men, not just the old people… everyone is given the gift of the Holy Spirit, the presence of God in their hearts. And then everyone starts to speak in languages that they didn’t know before.
Unity upon unity. Jesus unites a diverse group in His name, demonstrates the seriousness of that unity with wind and fire, and decimates the division of races, languages, and nations by equipping His people to share the gospel with the thousands of people around them who were, as verse 5 says, “Jews… from every nation under heaven”.
Peter preaches a long sermon, and presumably, the other 119 take their turn sharing and interpreting, and the crowd yells out (in verse 37), “What shall we do?” Peter answers in verse 38, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” First the bad news, then the good news, then the invitation to join the reunited, reformed, recreated, family of God. Who gets access to the Holy Spirit? Just the original followers? Just the people that heard Jesus teaching, and experienced the crucifixion and resurrection? Nope. Everyone. God reverses the curse of the Tower of Babel and unites the people under one banner. As Ephesians 4:4-6 says,
“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Then in Acts 2:42-47 we see the Holy Spirit of God working in the hearts of the people as they devote themselves to worshipping together, learning the word of God together, and taking care of each other. Verses 44-45 we see the destruction of classism as
“all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
Now, if you remember, Jesus’ command to the apostles right before he ascended was to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” But they didn’t want to. They liked what they had going, so they stayed put. So God sent persecution to force a bunch of them to get out of Jerusalem and do what they were supposed to be doing.
Within a short period of time, there were churches all over the place – Macedonia, Galatia, Greece, Rome, Egypt – and it starts to freak the apostles out a bit. Racism starts creeping into the church. It had already been there during the first crisis when the Greek-speaking Jews and the Hebrew-speaking Jews got into a big fight (Acts 6), but now there were people from all over the place, every nation, tribe, tongue, colour… all claiming Jesus as Lord.
Weirdly, it seems the first instinct of the apostles is to say that non-Jewish people couldn’t have access to the Holy Spirit, couldn’t be a full part of God’s family. But God squashes that thought in a hurry!
In Acts 10 God gives Peter a vision of a giant picnic blanket full of every food imaginable – including all kinds of foods the Jews weren’t allowed to eat. God tells Peter, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” (v13) And Peter says, “No way, Lord! I would never eat anything ‘unclean’.” And God says, “What God has made clean, do not call common.”(v15). Then it says that Peter saw this vision three times in a row as God hammered home the point, but Peter still didn’t quite get it.
So God used a non-Jewish, Roman Centurion named Cornelius to explain it to him. While Peter was standing in Cornelius’ house, sharing the gospel with a whole household of non-Jewish people, the Holy Spirit came again the same way He came the first time: he gave the gentiles the ability to glorify God in languages they didn’t know before that day.
Peter declares in Acts 10:27, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”, which is just a fancy way of saying, “Well, I guess everyone really does get to be part of God’s family!”
It reminds me of my first church. I was a young man. 27 years old when I started. It was in Cleveland, Ohio and it was in rough shape. The building was beautiful. 3 story stained glass window, immaculate flooring, beautiful sanctuary, amazing kitchen in the big basement. Every room was stuffed with ministry material – but it was never used.
When I came to the church, the average age of the people there was 72 years old. The majority of them were German immigrants, who had left a post-World War 2 Europe, and had banded together to start a German church for all their fellows who were coming to America. And for decades the church grew. A boatload of German Baptists would come, and they would come to the German Baptist church. But after a while, there were no more boatloads.
Then the children started growing up. They were attending American schools where they spoke English. They had English friends. They spoke English at their jobs. The only place they spoke their native language was at home and at church. So the young people asked the older people to let them have an English service. Something a little more in their style. Something they could invite their friends to. The parents said “No, the old ways are better.” And family by family the children left – until all that remained was a handful of grey-haired old people who, in desperation, had changed to an English service and called a new, young pastor.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but there wasn’t just ageism in the church, but racism too.
I started to preach and have outreach ideas and God started to bless. But God is hilarious and very smart, so the first people that were saved and came to church were a couple named Senolia and Julio. Senolia was a black woman from the west-side of Cleveland, Julio was a Hispanic rapper full of tattoos. They first came to the church so I could marry them. Senolia said they had called 12 other churches but the pastors wouldn’t perform the marriage because of their race, or because it was a mixed-race marriage. I was more than happy to marry them, but I said that I wouldn’t do it unless they did a bunch of weeks of pre-marital counselling. It was during the premarital counselling that I was able to share the gospel and they were saved and baptised.
When they started coming to church, it was rough. By then a few others had shown up, and they were… shall we say… from a group that the congregation wasn’t used to seeing. For example, there was the young lady who “didn’t dress like a Christian”, her live-in boyfriend who would come to church in a tank-top undershirt to show off his tattoos, and their hyperactive little girl.
Right away I could see there was a problem. The new people sat in their own section, while many of the “regulars” wouldn’t even get up to greet them. The new people would chat with each other, while many of the “regulars” would ignore them, even going so far as to speak to each other in German so they couldn’t be understood.
God was showing me that within this church full of people who said they were Christians and had been attending church for—some of them, 75 years – didn’t know Jesus, didn’t understand His message, didn’t embrace His family, weren’t changed by the gospel. And in the end, and in very short order, only 3 years after I got the job – a year after I left – the church was closed.
The story of the gospel is one of unifying a broken world. The story of the church, when you read the New Testament, is a group of people who are being led by the Holy Spirit to follow Jesus’ teaching and example and struggling to be a people who don’t have the barriers of racism, classism, nationalism, and individualism. The church had victories and failures, do good for a while and then do bad for a while, but the consistent message of the Bible, of Jesus, of the Holy Spirit, is one of unification in Jesus Name.
If you are hearing me today and you have one of those “isms” in your heart – repent and kill that sin right now.
If you’ve elevated yourself above others, believe that you are better and more valuable than others, that you have a special line to truth and connection to God that no one else has – get on your knees and repent because the corruption and darkness of sin has a hold of your heart.
If you have looked down on or talked badly about the opposite gender, stereotyping and jump to conclusions about a person before you even meet them – repent from that sin.
If you have hatred or bias against younger people or older people, valuing one over the other, or disparaging one or the other – you are in sin and need to repent.
If you’ve been watching the news and have been thinking or talking badly about “those people”, prejudging a whole group because of the colour of their skin, where they live, or how much money they have – repent and turn that sin over to Jesus right now. It is ungodly, unbiblical, unChristlike, and is poisoning you and everyone around you.
But you don’t need to listen to me. Listen to the words of scripture:
Romans 10:10–13, “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”
1 Corinthians 12:12–14, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.”
Colossians 3:8–14, “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
Galatians 3:26–28, “…for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Ephesians 4:1–6, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Ephesians 2:14–19, “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…”
James 2:1–4, 8–10, “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?… If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”
Do you get it? Do you see the heart of God? Do you see His hatred of racism, sexism, classism, nationalism, individualism…? Do you understand His desire for unity? I hope you do.
Please open up to 2 Corinthians 1:3-10 and let’s read it together.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.”
Nothing New Under the Sun
Just pause there for a second. I know I just started, but I really need you to notice this: things weren’t going well for Paul, his missionary team, the other apostles, or the churches they had been planting.
Normally, at the beginning of his letters, Paul starts a bit more cheerfully by thanking God and pronouncing a blessing on the people he’s writing to, but he just sort of jumps in right here with the serious stuff.
If you remember our series in Corinthians you’ll remember that Corinth was a pretty rough place to be a Christian. It was full of temptations and pagan thinking, and as soon as Paul left town to plant other churches the Corinthian Church fell backward in a big way. That’s where we get 1st Corinthians. 2nd Corinthians was written to the same church, but things had gotten worse. Now, not only were false teachers taking over the church with unchristian teachings and practices, but those who had stayed faithful were facing all sorts of hardship. Nero had recently become emperor of Rome and we all know how much he hated Christians, so the persecution of believers was ramping up throughout the whole world.
Not only were there spiritual and personal problems within the church, but now Christians were starting to lose their jobs, get kicked out of the guilds, and having their ability to buy things for their family and sell things to make money stripped away. Their lives were in danger as they were being reported for false crimes, and their refusal to call Nero a “god” and bow to him as “lord” meant they were in danger of being tried and executed as enemies of the state. It was not a good time to be a Christian or a missionary.
So, when Paul opens up his letter here, he jumps right to what the Christians in Corinth needed to hear most. In light of all the danger, difficulty and frustration around them, he begins, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
What amazing words from a man who is afflicted, suffering, and “utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” – writing to people who were potentially suffering the same problems. Astonishing words from a man who thought he might die at any moment for the sake of the gospel – writing to people who might die at any moment because they believed.
Over and over these days we keep hearing that we are “living in unprecedented times” and need “unprecedented measures”. I googled that phrase – “unprecedented times” – and told google to show me results for only the past month. I got 15 million results. But these are not “unprecedented times”!
Even if we just go back 500 years we’ll see Martin Luther and all the doctors, politicians, and churches in his era facing the Bubonic Plague. Later, in the Fall of 1665 we see the “Great Plague of London”. Then, a couple hundred years later, in the fall of 1854, Charles Spurgeon, one of the greatest preachers of all time, faced a massive Cholera outbreak – and all of these were “as real and as impactful as what we are facing now”[i].
And, what’s interesting – but not too surprising when you think about it – is that you’ll read almost the same things from these pastors, doctors and politicians that you read in the news today: Make sure you wash your hands, don’t gather together in big crowds, and make sure you say your prayers. There really is nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:9)!
The people who faced these times – whether it was Roman persecution or a pandemic – were just as confused and worried as we are.
That’s why it bugs me when people say these are unprecedented times. They’re not. Disease, sickness, and death are part of life. Suffering is the usual course of mankind. People being selfish and hoarding resources is nothing new. Watching politicians and rich people use the crisis to try to gain power, influence, and money is nothing new. Worrying over our families and neighbours because of unforeseen trouble is nothing new. And seeing people rise up to the occasion to spread hope, joy, and help to their fellow man, is also nothing new.
What Do We Do?
But it somehow always comes as a surprise, doesn’t it? Whether we get sick, someone we love dies, we get robbed, people try to capitalize on suffering, or the governing authorities mess up – we somehow always seem to react like it’s completely unexpected and has never happened to anyone else, ever. It seems to be human nature to get so myopic, so self-focused, so caught up in our own lives and moments, that we think that the whole universe not only revolves around us – but that we are so special that history began when we were born and no one else’s experience can compare to our own. But that’s not true, is it?
And so, with that in mind – taking the historical blinders off, opening our vision up beyond ourselves, and realizing that others have faced what we are facing – we must ask ourselves, “How did they get through it? How did they react? What did they stand on?”
Which brings us back to our scripture for today. Look back at verse 9. It begins, “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.” What did Paul do when he was faced with suffering, pain, sickness, persecution, and the threat of imminent death? How did he get through it? What words of hope did He give to the people he loved and served?
“But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.”
Christian theology and belief is not separated from our real life experiences. The miracle of the Resurrection at Easter is not merely an historical event that we just fondly remember at this time of year – it is a truth that affects our daily lives. Christians exist, moment to moment, in light of the resurrection – and the further we get from that light, the less time we spend talking to God about it, meditating on it, reading about it, the more hopeless we become.
We’ve talked many times before about how important it is that we take what we know about the gospel in our heads and allow it to affect our hearts and our hands – how critical it is that we don’t merely say we believe, but actually live and think and love and hope, like the death of Jesus on the cross, His resurrection from the dead, and his glorious ascension, are the very air we breathe.
That’s why Paul could look at the “deadly peril” he was facing and say “There is some good to be found in this difficulty because it ‘makes us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead’”. And the more we rely on God, the better off we will be.
Paul said it this way in the 1st letter to the Corinthians:
“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:54–55)
Or to the Romans,
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?… Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31–32; 35–39)
These words were not written by a wealthy mega-church pastor, sitting in a clean office with an ensuite bathroom, surrounded by a bunch of middle-class church folks – these words were written by a suffering servant of Jesus who says his life felt like he was “being killed all day long”.
Where does that strength come from? Where can you find that kind of hope? How do you take another step, plant another church, face another shipwreck, do another day of travelling hungry, when the churches you plant are under attack, you’re constantly on the run from being stoned or lashed, and Emperor Nero, the cruelest ruler in Roman history, was only a few years away from burning Christians as human torches to light his dinner parties?
Or, for us today – how can you watch the news, read your Facebook feed, and live in the world today as the COVID19 Pandemic takes over our daily lives – as we lose more and more freedoms – as we told to isolate ourselves and live in fear? How do we face it?
If your hope is in “science” or “politicians” or “policies”, they will fail you. Their best attempts and intentions are still affected by human corruption and have yet to save the world from pain, disease, fear, and death. And they certainly haven’t shown themselves to have the power to raise the dead!
Your hope must be in the Risen Lord Jesus. You must rely, as our scripture today says, “not on yourselves but on God who raises the dead”. He is the only one who can deliver you from “deadly peril” – whether by preserving you from becoming ill, or by sending a miracle to make you well when you are sick, or by delivering you to heaven after you die. That is what is captured in the confident phrase of verse 10: “…and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.” It is in the knowledge and hope of the resurrection that we find our comfort.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the cornerstone, the foundation, of everything else that Christians believe. All our theology – all our ministries – all our morality – all our preaching and teaching – all our values – our entire worldview rests on the historical fact that Jesus Christ really died on the cross, was really buried in a tomb for 3 days, and then really rose again from death to life, and still lives today. It’s the single, most important belief in Christianity – and it is constantly under attack by unbelievers, and sometimes even overlooked or ignored by those who claim to be followers of Jesus. They’re fine with Jesus as a good moral teacher, but they stumble over the resurrection. But when they do, they miss the entirety of the gospel.
The Corinthian church had this problem too, and Paul addressed it in 1 Corinthians 15. Open up with me to 1 Corinthians 15:12 and let’s read it together:
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:12–20)
I don’t intend to go into the evidences for the resurrection, because that’s not really the point of today’s message – but I do commend you to read “The Case for Christ” by Lee Strobel or even watch the movie.
Today, I’m talking to believers, to Christians who claim to follow Jesus but are plagued with fear and worry about what’s happening in the world around them, to the people they love, and within their own hearts.
My message to you today is that when there is so much uncertainty in the air, so much misinformation and confusion, so many people grasping at temporary salvation through extreme measures and putting their hopes in human efforts, that you will remember that everything you are going through is an opportunity to remember that you cannot rely on yourself or anyone else to save you from death, or to bring you joy, or give you the hope that will bring you through this time – you must connect with and trust the God who raises the dead, the Holy Spirit He sent to live within you, and the love of the Lord Jesus Christ who has promised to deliver you. Are you talking to Him every day? Are you living in the light of the resurrection and the presence of the risen Lord?
Let me close with this: I want you to notice that there are three sources of comfort mentioned in our passage today that we should be availing ourselves of every day. Look back at 2nd Corinthians 1:3.
Of course, the primary comfort is the one that I’ve been talking about already – the comfort that comes from knowing our future is secure because of the Risen Lord Jesus – but there are two more.
The first comfort mentioned is the comfort of God the Father. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction…” Every day, every moment, your Heavenly Father is ready and willing to grant you peace and joy in the midst of your trials. Are you coming to Him every morning, every afternoon, every night – reading His word, talking to Him in prayer, singing to Him songs of praise, sitting silently and meditating on His truths – so He can fill up your very, very leaky cup?
The second comfort mentioned is each other. “…The Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
We who are receiving comfort from God, are given that comfort not only for ourselves, but so that we can pass it on to others. When we feel lonely, afraid, weak, or sick – an then God meets us in our affliction, making us feel strong because God is strengthening us, it is our responsibility, to make purposeful contact with people who are weak. God meets us in our loneliness so we can share that grace with someone else who is lonely. God gives us hope and joy to combat our fears – and then tells us to go share what we have experienced with someone else who needs to hear it. God strengthens our feeble hands when they are weak so that we can serve others who need it! He doesn’t just meet us in our affliction for our own sake – but so that we will meet others “with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” Are you being a source of joy and hope for your immediate family, for your extended family, and for the people in your church – even those not in your usual circle? Are you talking to God every day, feeling His presence – and then using that strength to making the phone calls, sending the texts and emails, and spread that hope and joy to others?
And to those who need comfort – are you allowing not only God but other believers to bring it to you? Are you making yourself available to them, picking up the phone, responding to texts, connecting wherever you can so that they can point you to Jesus?
This is how we will get through this time. By meditating on the resurrected Lord Jesus and the hope that brings us. By using that meditation to connect ourselves to God the Father through the Holy Spirit, the One who raised Jesus from the dead. And by taking the strength we receive from Him and spreading it to the people around us who need it.
A few weeks ago I told you that the gospel of John is all about explaining who Jesus really is. If you recall, I said that by the time the Gospel of John was written, the gospels and letters of the New Testament had already been written and been circulating individually for some decades, so a lot of people had already been introduced to Jesus, but there was also a lot of false teaching going on.
So, when John wrote his gospel he wanted to make it absolutely clear that everyone who read it would understand the singular claims Jesus Christ made about Himself and why the Christians followed Him. Remember, most of the first believers were Jews, so it was a pretty big deal that so many of them had started worshipping a man the same way that they had been worshipping Yahweh. These Jewish people had stopped following the Sanhedrin, stopped believing in the Old Testament sacrificial system, started meeting in their homes, said that there was no need for the priesthood anymore, and changed their day of worship from Saturday to Sunday. That’s a pretty radical change.
And as John was writing, the message of this Jewish Messiah named Jesus of Nazareth was shaking the whole world. Everyone from trade union leaders to city officials to pagan temple leaders to the emperors themselves were having to figure out what to do with these people known as “Christians” because their message was upending everything.
We live in what is known as the “information age”, a time where news stories from around the world can be shared instantly with almost every person on the planet – even directly to their pocket no matter where they are in the world. I saw this great tweet a while back that said, “Do y’all remember, before the internet, that people thought the cause of stupidity was the lack of access to information? Yeah. It wasn’t that.” I totally agree. Even in our “information age” where we have access to a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, people are still making up and believing lies about almost everything.
Imagine how difficult it was to keep the story of Jesus Christ straight in the first century as the gospel spread throughout the Roman world. After the post-Pentecost diaspora, when thousands of new Christians left Jerusalem because of the persecution, even the Apostles couldn’t keep up. They would sometimes go into a city and find a Christian church there already set up and would have to straighten out some of the things they’d not understood, gotten wrong, or just plain made up. That’s why we have the letters of the New Testament and the gospels. It’s God’s way of giving the world the straight truth about Jesus.
So, when John was writing this gospel, he already knew what all the other letters said, and since his home base was in Ephesus, probably at the most important seminary in the world, he also knew the majority of the false teachings. Now, he could have written a letter like Paul’s, combatting the false teachings point by point, but that’s not what he did.
You’ve probably heard the old illustration that when they teach a bank teller or cashier to spot counterfeits they don’t teach them every way it someone can counterfeit a bill, right? What do they do? They teach them what a real bill looks like so that they know everything that doesn’t match it is wrong. That’s what John did. With all the misinformation and confusion and false teaching about Jesus, God had Him write a supplement to the other gospels and letters that would give an abundantly clear picture of who Jesus is and why Christians worship Him.
Which brings us to the structure of the letter. John didn’t write the way we might normally think a biography is written. He didn’t start at birth, go year by year hitting the high-points, and then ending with the death. John, instead, writes thematically.
Imagine you’ve been asked to describe what a person is like. Maybe it’s a eulogy at a funeral or you’re the reference for someone on their resume. You’re not really being asked to give a chronological outline of their life, right? You’re being asked what kind of person they were. How would you do that? You wouldn’t give their resume. You’d start with a single character trait and then give an example. Then you’d talk about how people responded to him.
For example: “My friend is a really hard worker. Let me tell you about a time he went over and above for a group he was working with. Some people get annoyed with my friend because he tends to set the bar really high for himself and it tends to point out the lazy members of whatever team he’s on, but he’s not showing off. He just really believes in working hard.”
Or: “My grandfather was a really brave man. Let me tell you a story about something he did to show his bravery, not just when he served in WWII but when he was at home too. Some people thought my grandpa stuck his nose where it didn’t belong, and some of us relatives kept telling him to stop jumping into help people all the time, especially when he got older, but it didn’t make any difference. My grandpa was willing to jump in and help anyone, anywhere no matter what.”
That’s what John does. Matthew and Mark already gave Jesus’ resume and Luke already gave an orderly biographical account of Jesus’ life, so God inspired John to write with a different purpose. John wants you to meet know Jesus the way He does, and so he tells stories.
The Thread of “Light”
But these stories aren’t merely disconnected events pointing to a few character details – far from. These stories are woven like an intricate tapestry. If you’ve ever seen the backside of a cross-stitch, sewing project or tapestry you’ll have an appreciation for all the crazy connections that you don’t really see at first. And if you’ve been unwise enough to pull on a thread from one of those projects, you’ll know just how surprising it is to see how much that one thread is holding together.
Let me give you an example of what I mean by an intricate thread. When John starts his gospel he begins with
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)
John uses some very simple language to convey some huge concepts. “In the beginning” points to the very first words of the Bible and how God created all that there is simply by speaking, “Let there be light.” Then John says, in effect, “You know how the words you speak are not you but are you at the same time? You know how your mind and will and personality is conveyed by your words? Well, Jesus is the Word of God and was with God before time began and, in fact, is God. Jesus made all things. Jesus is the source of life. When God said, “let there be light” and then “let there be life”, that was Jesus. Jesus is the source of all life and all light.
Now look at verses 9-11,
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”
Jesus, the creator of light, the source of all light and life, came into the world, but was rejected. Why? Flip over to John 3:19-21:
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
Now flip to John 8:12. Jesus is being confronted by some Pharisees, who, even though they’ve seen Jesus’ miracles and heard his message refuse to follow Him.
“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”
Now look at John 9:5. Jesus says,
“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
Huge claim, right? John says that Jesus is God and is the source of all light and life. He says that when Jesus came into the world He was the true light and that the reason anyone rejected Him was that they preferred darkness and continued to live in darkness. Then John says that he didn’t come up with this concept, Jesus Himself kept saying He was the light of the world. So what did Jesus do to prove He was the creator of light and the light of the world? Look at the sub-heading of chapter 9. He healed a man who was born blind. He brought light to a place no one could ever bring it before. Then, we see the Pharisees argue with the man who was healed from blindness. A simple man who saw the light (both figuratively and literally) standing before a bunch of religious professionals who refuse.
Now flip to John 12:27. We’re now in the last week of Jesus’ life. Judas has agreed to betray Jesus and He has just performed the Triumphal Entry. He’s been preaching and teaching and performing miracles for a few years now and is standing before the crowds who have just been chanting “Hosanna!” Read from verse 27,
“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven: ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.”
There stands Jesus, after the Triumphal Entry where he has declared Himself King and Messiah before the crowds. But He knows they don’t get it. He prays and God Himself responds. But the people can’t understand. They are in the dark. Jesus explains, again, that he’s going to be crucified.
And what do we see?
“So the crowd answered him, ‘We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?’”
He’s standing right in front of you! The skies have just answered his prayer! He’s raised the dead, caused the lame to walk, the blind to see! He has been calling Himself the “Son of Man” non-stop for three years! But even then, they are in darkness. He’s one week away from having them chant “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” and send Him to the cross.
Look at verse 35,
“So Jesus said to them, ‘The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.’ When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him…”
Now look at verse 44, which contains the last time we read the word “light” in the Gospel of John, completing the thread. Jesus has shone His light everywhere, but has been rejected over and over by people who love the darkness. Verse 42 said that the Pharisees had so much influence over people, had kept them in the dark so effectively, that even people in authority were afraid to declare their belief in Jesus. Now, He’s days away from being crucified at the hands of the people He’d come to save. It was so overwhelming that for a time he went away and hid himself, an act declaring His sadness, God’s imminent judgment, and that His work as the light of men, the revealer of God, was done.
At the end we read Jesus’ last public declaration – His one, final, ultimatum before He would go off with the disciples to the Last Supper, Gethsemane, and then the cross. This is his very last public teaching. He turns to this crowd and it says,
“And Jesus cried out and said, ‘Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.’”
Then, those that loved the darkness, who would not receive His words, tracked Him down, brought Him before an illegal court with false charges and fake witnesses, lied to Governor Pilate about what Jesus did, who found no guilt in Him but still had Him flogged and mocked and then crucified. One of the soldiers even stabbed Jesus through the heart to make sure he was dead.
One would believe that the darkness had won at that point.
Have you ever gotten to what you thought was the end of a book or movie and then checked to see how many pages or how many minutes are left – and been surprised how much there still is to go? I wonder if the first people reading the story of Jesus felt that way. How can there be another two chapters after this! What else is there to say?
But let’s go back to the very first verses of John’s gospel, the first mention of “light”.
“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4)
Death was not the end. Darkness didn’t win. Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to many, many people.
Now look at 1:9-13 again,
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Remember? Jesus is the originator, the source, of “life” and of “light”, right? Those two concepts are woven together and then threaded all through the tapestry of John’s Gospel. If you leave the darkness and follow Jesus, the “true light”, you not only gain “true light”, but “true life” – a life that doesn’t end. Eternal life.
What amazes me is that we only tugged on one thread today. “Light”. There are so many more. I hope to cover a few more threads before we get into the into the verse-by-verse study because it will help us see the big themes before we study the individual stories.
But I cannot end without giving an invitation. Over and over Jesus gives the invitation to walk away from the darkness and into His light. God loved the world so much that He sent Jesus to show us His light and to bring us freedom from the darkness of death and sin. And anyone who believes in Jesus – who believes Jesus, the man who is God, sacrificed Himself on the Cross for their sins, and then rose again on the third day – can be saved. Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world, He came to save it. But that salvation requires something of you.
You must believe – and demonstrate that belief by walking away from darkness. As Jesus said, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
So, I ask you today. If you are a believer, if you have seen the light, have you walked away from darkness? Has Jesus been exposing dark parts of you, and your response has been to pull away from Jesus and try to remain in the dark because you love the things of darkness more than you want Jesus? More than you want life? I beg you to repent. To drag that sin into the light, confess it to Jesus and to another believer, and let Jesus kill that sin before you are overcome by that darkness.
And, if you are not a believer today, is it because Jesus has asked you to give up something you know is wrong, but you want to keep doing it, so you are simply refusing to believe? You’ve felt the presence of God, seen the work of God in your life, even felt the conviction to give up your sins and come to Jesus – but you know He requires that you drag that sin into the light so He can kill it forever?
What do you hope to gain? Why would you trade light for darkness, life for death? What good will it do you if you gain this whole world by giving your heart to darkness – but end up forfeiting your soul to eternal death in Hell?
All you must do is stop, get on your knees, renounce the darkness and accept that Jesus is the one, True light and only source of true light. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…”
Now is the time.
Turn with me to Hebrews 1 and we’re going to read some scriptures there about the supremacy of Jesus. The whole message of Hebrews is an argument about how Jesus is better than anything and anyone. The people who first heard this message were Jewish Christians who were under a lot of growing persecution. They were losing their families, friends, jobs, and homes, being put in prison, even losing the ability to buy and sell, because of their faith in Jesus. Many of them, because it was so difficult, were turning back to Judaism. This letter was written to basically say, “Where are you going to go that’s better than Jesus? Do you not see how crazy it is to turn away from the truth toward a lie just to make your life more comfortable? Jesus is better than anything you’re going to turn to, so don’t give up. Keep praying to Jesus, keep worshipping Jesus, stay with the people of Jesus. Don’t go join a losing team because they had a good period because, at the end of the game, Jesus wins.”
Let’s start in Hebrews 1:1-4,
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”
We talked about this last week. Jesus is not only superior to angels but is actually God Himself.
Now move forward to Hebrews 3:1-6 to the next argument.
“Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, who was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses also was faithful in all God’s house. For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses—as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.) Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house, if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope.”
If you recall, we talked about how great Moses was last week. This second argument is that Jesus is greater than Moses. Moses may have set up the Tabernacle, appointed the priests, and delivered the Law – but Jesus is the one who wrote the Law and whom the Tabernacle was built to worship!
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.”
Jesus isn’t like human priests who have their own sins and failings, and then end up dying on you. Jesus is perfect, sinless, and stands eternally before God. Why trade the perfect Jesus, who stands before God interceding on your behalf, for some human priest? That’s crazy.
Now turn to Hebrews 9:11–15,
“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.”
Why would you ever go back to human priests, a dead religion, temporary sacrifices, human mediators, and the old covenant of the law of death? Jesus is the better high priest, the better tabernacle, the better sacrifice, the better mediator of the better covenant. Why would you put your faith in anyone or anything else other than Jesus? Everything else is worse, or broken, the way of death, or a lie! Only faith in the finished work of Jesus on the cross allows us to be cleansed from sin, approach God in prayer, receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and gives us the security in knowing we have eternal life. Everything else is insecure. Everything else is lesser.
Now turn to Hebrews 10:19-25 where we see the Coup de Gras of the book of Hebrews. It summarizes everything that came before and prepares us for the last couple of chapters. It is the essence of everything a Christian believes.
“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Confidence to stand before God because Jesus stands with us. A new and ever-living way to God because Jesus made the way through His blood. Clean hearts, clean consciences, new life because Jesus paid for our sins. Eternal security because Jesus is faithful. A family of believers who serve and love and encourage one another in His name, built on the love of Jesus. Jesus is Head of the Church. Jesus calls us to salvation, Jesus saves us, Jesus equips us, Jesus gives us good works to do. We love others because Jesus first loved us. We forgive because Jesus shows us how to forgive. We serve because Jesus shows us how to serve. Jesus rules and defends the church as King and dwells among us by His Spirit – and it is only by His Word, His Power, that it is upheld, and by which we are saved.
So why would we ever, ever trade anything for Jesus?
Jesus, at the Right Hand of God
Take a look at today’s lesson from the Heidelberg Catechism, which not only speaks of the truth and importance of the ascension of Jesus (which we’ve covered), but His glorification. Remember, we’re going through the part of the Heidelberg that is teaching the Apostles Creed and we’ve come to the last part of section 2 about what Christians need to believe about Jesus Christ.
Question 50 is,
“Why is it added, and sits at the right hand of God?”
the answer is
“Christ ascended into heaven to manifest himself there as Head of his church, through whom the Father governs all things.”
We’ve been covering the ascension of Jesus over the past few weeks and why that’s important to believers, especially with the gift of the Holy Spirit, but what happened to Jesus after He ascended?
Turn over to Ephesians 1:16–23, and let’s read it there. I want you to notice that Paul’s prayer for His church here is that they would realize how utterly crucial their faith in Jesus Christ alone is, how that connects to the work of the Father – and how the benefits of faith only come through Jesus. He says,
“I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
That last phrase is so critical. God put all things under Jesus’ feet and gave Jesus, the head and highest authority over everything in existence, to the church, and made the church the body of Jesus, His hands and feet on earth. One study bible I have says that
“Christ enjoys His position as head over everything for the sake of the church. Not only is Christ at the most exalted position in the universe, but He is also there representing believers and governing the universe for their sake.” 
His authority “exists for the sake of service” and as our Head, He delegates that authority and responsibility to serve to us, His body.
I know that’s a big thought, but it goes back to what we were saying before. Jesus’ ascension and glorification are not just things that happened – but are actually beneficial to the church. His ascension and glorification are an integral part of the plan of salvation.
Listen to the next question of the Heidelberg. Question 51,
“How does the glory of Christ, our Head, benefit us?”
“First, by his Holy Spirit he pours out heavenly gifts upon us, his members. Second, by his power he defends and preserves us against all enemies.”
Nothing can happen to a believer except that it comes through the hands of Jesus. He is our defender and preserver. Jesus told us that people are going to hate us because of Him (Lk 21:17.) He told us that when we follow Him we are going to make ourselves enemies of the demons and the powers of this world. The more we connect with Jesus, the more we participate in those Ordinary Means of Grace we talked about last week, the more we repent and pray and serve and share the gospel, the more Satan is going to hate us and the more difficult it will be. Anyone who proclaims Jesus as Lord and shares His gospel with tenacity is a target.
Jesus tells us in advance that this is going to happen, promises to go through it with us, and then delivers us from it. The enemies won’t win. That’s why it’s so dangerous to change teams. That’s why the author of Hebrews was so passionate in His arguments. He was deeply concerned for anyone who would water down or compromise the gospel for the sake of avoiding persecution. He didn’t want anyone to change teams in the middle of the game because it felt like Team Jesus was losing.
I think of Psalm 73 where the psalmist Asaph speaks about how close he was to changing teams,
“Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind….” (vs 1-5)
In verse 16 he says,
“But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.”
Alone, he couldn’t figure out why the world seemed so topsy-turvy, but as soon as he came to the place of God, heard the word of God with the people of God, He remembered that what he was seeing wasn’t the whole story. The game isn’t over after one or two periods, it doesn’t end at half-time. That’s the message of Hebrews, and that’s the point of today’s lesson.
There is no one better to turn to than Jesus. Any religion, whether they call themselves Christian or otherwise, that is not built on the foundation of Jesus – with Jesus as the only Saviour, the only Advocate, the only Way to God, and the highest authority, is a dangerous lie and does not have the way of salvation.
The Exclusivity of Jesus
That sounds exclusive. That sounds narrow and stubborn. It sounds discriminatory and politically incorrect. It sounds like I’m saying that not everyone goes to heaven. It sounds like I’m saying that Jesus chooses some people and doesn’t choose others. It sounds like I’m saying that even the most well-intentioned, faithful people, who do good things for their whole life and believe in their religion with all their heart, will still go to hell because they don’t believe in Jesus.
That’s exactly what I’m saying.
Turn with me to Matthew 7:13–27 and listen to the words of Jesus as He ends the Sermon on the Mount, the manifesto of the Kingdom of God. He ends with four warnings. There are two roads, the right one and the wrong one. There are two kinds of prophets, true ones and false ones. There are two kinds of disciples, Jesus’ and the enemy’s. There are two foundations that people can build their lives on, Him or the one that will be destroyed. There are only two teams and Jesus ends His longest sermon by warning the people to be on the right team.
Listen, starting in verse 13,
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
Now, let me give a very specific and very politically incorrect warning and teaching, but one that must be heard. As I said, any religion, even if they call themselves Christian, that is not built exclusively on the foundation of Jesus as the only Lord, only Saviour, only advocate, only way to God, and interprets everything through the lens of the word of God alone, is a dangerous lie – and does NOT lead people to salvation. This includes Jehovah Witnesses, Christian Science, Mormons, and the Roman Catholic church.
I want to talk a moment about the Roman Catholic Church because we know a lot of people who either are Romans Catholics or are former Roman Catholics and the question comes up all the time, “Are they saved? Do I have to share the gospel with them?”
I turn the question back to you. Consider the exclusive claims of Christ that we’ve just covered, and now let me tell you a little bit about Roman Catholic beliefs.
The first thing to know is that Roman Catholics teach that the Pope in Rome is the “visible head of the church” and the “representative of Jesus on earth.” Roman Catholic doctrine states that when the Pope speaks “ex-cathedra” that his authority and infallibility is equal to that of the apostles, the Bible, and Jesus Himself. These teachings are bindingly “irreformable”. His words are as authoritative as the voice of God – even if they contradict scripture or other Popes (which they have). And you can’t argue with Him from the Bible because the Pope has proclaimed ex-cathedra that He is the only one who can interpret scripture properly. Keep in mind, this isn’t some kind of ancient teaching from 500 years ago. You might be tempted to think that this was only something that people believed when Martin Luther was alive, but all of this was reaffirmed at the Second Vatican Council in 1965.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches all kinds of unbiblical heresy under this authority. Here are some:
- They teach that God has made the Roman Catholic Church infallible and only Catholics go to heaven.
- They teach that the Bible does not give the full way of salvation, but that one must participate in Catholic traditions to get the whole gospel.
- They teach that people can earn their salvation through good works and even paying money – and they can do this on behalf of others so they can be saved too.
- They teach that Jesus death on the cross was not enough for salvation, but that Christians need to do good works and punish ourselves or we can’t be saved – and that includes more punishment after death in Purgatory, where people go through a version of hell for potentially thousands of years before they’re allowed into heaven.
- But they also teach that Mary and that the Saints were such good people that they built up a treasury of good works that the Pope has the authority to dispense to whoever he wants – even to the dead relatives in Purgatory – if someone does enough good things, pays the church enough money, or visits certain Catholic tourist spots. (In case you were wondering, that’s the doctrine of “indulgences” that Luther fought against and it is still alive and well today.)
- And speaking of Mary, if you’ve ever wondered why they have such a fondness for her, it’s because they have elevated her almost to the position of Jesus. They even use Biblical terms reserved for Jesus and the Holy Spirit to describe her. Mary is sinless, Mary is their mediator and advocate and intercessor, Mary is the one who takes people to heaven, Mary delivers souls from death, and must be like God because their doctrines teach people to pray to and give their lives to Mary, the “all-holy one”. They even call Mary the “Helper”, giving her the same title as the Holy Spirit. 
So, do these Roman Catholic doctrines, which are core to Roman Catholic religion, reflect the teachings of scripture and hold Jesus Christ as exclusive head, total authority, sole saviour, and only mediator for all believers before God? Or do they teach something else?
Just because someone uses the name of Jesus, doesn’t mean they follow Him? Just because they say, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” doesn’t make them followers of Jesus. A corrupt gospel is not a saving gospel, even if many of the words sound Christian. Yes, you need to evangelize your Roman Catholic family, friends, and neighbours because if they follow Catholic doctrine, then their faith is not in Jesus alone and they are not saved. And that’s going to be an uphill battle because the lies are sometimes so close to the truth that they think they’re the same. This is why you must pray and study as you humbly share the true gospel with them.
Let’s close with question 52 of the Heidelberg, which I think is a beautiful benediction of our hope in Jesus. The question is,
“What comfort is it to you that Christ will come to judge the living and the dead?”
In other words, why is knowing that Jesus, your friend, your saviour, your Lord, is the highest authority and will judge everyone in the end? That kind of answers itself doesn’t it? Imagine getting in trouble with the law, getting dragged before the court in handcuffs, uncertain about your future, and when the judge comes in, it’s your best friend.
Listen to the answer because I think it’s beautiful and can inform our prayers and our worship,
“In all my sorrow and persecution I lift up my head and eagerly await as judge from heaven the very same person who before has submitted himself to the judgment of God for my sake, and has removed all the curse from me. He will cast all his and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but he will take me and all his chosen ones to himself into heavenly joy and glory.”
That’s who I long to see when my life is over and I hope it’s who you want to see too. The One who has done it all for me – and all who believe.
 The Reformation Study Bible, Pg. 1706
The question we’ve been answering for the past few weeks is “Who is Jesus?” We’re going through the Heidelberg Catechism, which, at this point, is taking us through a line-by-line, word-by-word study of the Apostles Creed, the oldest and most reliable summary of Christian beliefs we have. It goes all the way back to the very beginnings of the church and is a simple statement of the very core of what a Christian must believe in order to be called a “Christian”.
If you recall, a “Creed” is “a formal statement of Christian beliefs” and a “Catechism” is “a summary of the principles of Christian religion in the form of questions and answers”. So the Heidelberg Catechism, in order to teach the summary of the Christian religion, is using the statements in the Apostles Creed as a jumping off point. The second line of the Apostles’ Creed says, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son, our Lord”.
Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been unpacking this summary by carefully going through each of these words. What does the word “Jesus” mean? What does the word “Christ” mean? And today, we head into the last two, “What does ‘only-begotten Son’ mean?” and “What does ‘our Lord’ mean?”
Are You The Christ?
“At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.’
The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?’ The Jews answered him, ‘It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken—do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.’ Again they sought to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands.
He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing at first, and there he remained. And many came to him. And they said, ‘John did no sign, but everything that John said about this man was true.’ And many believed in him there.” (John 10:22–42)
Hopefully, this brings to mind last week’s message where the Jewish leaders crucify Jesus because He claimed to be the Christ. Obviously, that wasn’t the first time they’d asked.
One thing that is often said of Christians is that we have exaggerated or even fabricated what Jesus said about Himself. They say that Jesus was a good morality teacher, a powerful preacher, and an influential guy, but all the stuff about Him being the Messiah, God’s Son, the Lord, is all made up by Christian leaders so they could grow their sect and use His name to manipulate people. They say that Jesus never claimed to be a Saviour or God.
These people haven’t read the Bible. In this passage, Jesus makes some very specific claims about Himself and you can see how his audience reacts.
There has been a bit of a stalemate between Jesus and His opponents because they have become split over Him. He’s obviously a miracle worker. Jesus has performed at least 20 major miracles – many in public – including feeding the 5000, healing a man born blind, casting out demons, and raising the dead. The leaders of the Jews have not only heard witnesses but actually seen things for themselves that were clearly miracles. Some of the group want to believe Him, others want to condemn Him, while others just want to leave Him alone.
At this point, Jesus is walking and teaching in an area around the Temple called Solomon’s Colonnade when a gang of Jewish leaders stop Him, form a circle around Him, and confront Him. They have finally come up with a question that they are sure, if He answers it publically, is going to allow them to kill Jesus.
In Verse 24 they basically say, “Ok, quit beating around the bush with all this teaching and miracles stuff and just spit it out. Are you the Christ or not?” Jesus had never publically said that He was the Messiah or the Christ because He knew that everyone who heard it would completely misunderstand it to be a military and political term. He didn’t want His gospel message of repentance and salvation clouded with all of that baggage and misinterpretation.
Now, do you think that if He said, “Yes, I am, so follow me” that it would have had any effect at all? Of course not. Their minds were made up.
They Hear My Voice and Follow
So what does Jesus answer? First He says in verse 25, “I’ve already told you in multiple ways, but you really don’t care, do you? The evidence is staring in your face, but you’ve already got your minds made up. You don’t want to believe and you can’t believe because your heart is so hard.”
There are a lot of people like this, aren’t there? They see evidence for the existence of God all around them in creation. They have a sense of conscience inside them that points them to right and wrong. They hear the name of Jesus, the claims about Jesus being God, Saviour, and Lord. They attend some church services, watch some YouTube videos, read some Bible, maybe even have a few conversations with their Christian friend or family member, but in their heart of hearts, it doesn’t really matter what they hear, because they don’t want to believe.
They are willfully blind because believing in Jesus, putting their faith in Jesus, has consequences they don’t want to face. For the Jewish leaders, it meant admitting they were wrong in their interpretation of the law, wrong in their application of it, and asking forgiveness of God and the people they mislead. It meant stepping off the throne and letting Jesus be in charge. It meant admitting they were wrong and changing. And they just couldn’t do that. They loved themselves and their sin so much that they were able to look at the evidence for the Messiah, the One standing right in front of them… who actually said, “Yes, I’m the Christ. Look at my miracles and you will know. Look at the scriptures and you will know. Listen to the witnesses and you will know. Listen to me and you will know.” deny the obvious, pick up rocks, and try to kill Him so He’d shut up.
Sometimes people wonder why Jesus doesn’t just show up to them, do some miracles, tell them exactly everything they need to know, answer their questions, provide evidence, and do whatever other little dance they demand. The answer is two-fold.
First, He already did all that. You want lightning, thunder, plagues, the sun to stop, the storms to quiet with a word, the dead to rise, the blind to see, to watch him walk on water? He did that. Oh, but he didn’t do it right in front of you so it doesn’t count? So, he’s supposed to do that for every human being, individually, for all time? Everyone, on their 13th birthday, gets a visit from Jesus where He blows their minds and tells them everything they ever need to know, and then moves on to the next person? And then later, when they forget, to come back and do the dance again to remind them? Why not just do a whole bunch of things in front of credible witnesses and have them pass along the whole story? Like, maybe in a book.
So that’s the first reason. God already showed us everything and isn’t a circus performer. Second, it wouldn’t work anyway. In Romans 1 it says that because people love their sin so much they actually “suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18). Regardless of the evidence or what is happening inside of them, the cutting of their conscience, the feeling of guilt and shame, the desire to know God, they “suppress the truth” so they don’t have to face the consequences. It says,
“For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Rom 1:21)
That’s what Jesus meant by, “…you do not believe because you are not among my sheep…” Look at verse 27. What makes someone a follower of Jesus? What makes us one of his sheep? He says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
Say you go to a dog park and there are dozens of dogs and owners. How do you know who’s dog is who’s? Because when they call their dog, the dog listens and follows. Or say you go to a playground that is full of children with moms and dads everywhere. One mom realizes it’s time to go and yells, “Ok, honey, time to go!” What happens? One kid perks up, looks around, find’s their mom and leaves. Why? They know the voice and they follow it.
Every dog in the park, every kid in the playground heard the same voice, but only certain children respond. A lot of people heard Jesus. Many had seen the same evidence, same miracles, heard the same witness, studied the same scriptures. But only some followed. What sets apart the followers of Jesus is that He so captivates their hearts that they are willing to humble themselves, listen to His voice, and obey what He says.
Maybe you know people like this. Maybe you are someone like this. You all have access to the scriptures. You have all been listening to the same sermons. You all have access to the same Spirit. You’ve felt convictions in your heart about something or other, recognized sins, bad habits, fears, anxieties, and needs. You’ve been reading your Bible and have literally heard, somewhere deep in your soul, something important. You’ve heard the voice of Jesus saying, “Drop that garbage and come to me. Stop doing that thing that’s killing you and come to me. Stop going to that place that is ruining your soul. Let go of that sin, that control, that fear, that worry, and come to me. I’m trustworthy. I’ll take care of you. My way is better. I’ll free you from that if you let me.”
And you’ve been faced with a choice. To listen to the call of Jesus, to repent, to admit you’re wrong, to ask forgiveness, and to do what Jesus is saying. Or to ignore it. To prefer your sin. To embrace your doubts. To argue with Jesus. To fill your eyes and ears with noise so the Holy Spirit can’t break through. You’ve looked at the evidence that Jesus is calling you, but instead, you’ve decided to pick up stones and crush that voice so you can keep on sinning.
Jesus tells you to let go of your control, but you say no. Jesus says to forgive that person, but you prefer your bitterness and fantasies about punishing them. Jesus says stop working so much, to rest, to worship, to be with your family and church, but you say no so you can get more money, more toys, more accolades from your peers because you don’t think Jesus will do enough to compensate or take care of you. Jesus says stop being lazy and get to work, but you prefer your sloth and manipulating people into helping you. Jesus says to stop and pray, journal, trust, study, read, but you say, “No, Jesus. The hours of this day are mine. Back off.”
Each day, each morning, everyone here is presented with a choice: to live in submission to Jesus, trusting His Word and His way as one of His followers – or to “suppress the truth” so we can keep on sinning. God, in His grace, gives us that choice – and then allows the consequence of that choice to affect our lives.
But why? Why should we be following Jesus? We see two good reasons in verses 28 and 30. First, Jesus says, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
For those interested, we see here we see in this passage a lot of the doctrines of Calvinism. We see Total Depravity in the unbelief of the Jews, Unconditional Election in that God the Father gives Jesus the sheep, Limited Atonement in that there are some non-sheep who will not have eternal life, Irresistible Grace in that everyone who is called follows, and the Perseverance of the Saints in that no one is able to snatch the sheep out of Jesus’ or God’s hands. So… do whatever you want with that…
But the point is that one reason that we follow Jesus is that He alone gives the gift of eternal life and eternal security. We talked about this last week when we covered Peter’s question, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”, right?
But the second reason Jesus gives them, and us, is when He says in verse 30, “I and the Father are one…” or further on in verse 38, “…the Father is in me and I am in the Father…”.
What did Jesus mean by that? It’s a big idea that leads us back around to the Apostles Creed and the Heidelberg Catechism. When we are asking, “Who is Jesus?” and “Why should we follow Him?” the Creed is very compressed? Because He’s “Jesus”, the Saviour. Because He’s “The Christ”, the Messiah. And further, because He’s the “only-begotten Son” and “Lord”.
Question 33 of the Heidelberg asks the question,
“Why is he called God’s only-begotten Son, since we also are children of God?”.
In other words, if every human is technically a “child of God”, what makes Jesus special?
In John 3:16, the most famous passage of scripture it says,
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
The term doesn’t mean that Jesus was created by God or was born by God, it’s something else. When the Bible presents these big thoughts about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, human language falls short, so the Bible uses a combination of imagery and the best possible words so we can get close. In this case, calling Jesus God’s “only begotten Son” is a title. It’s connected to a lot of other places in John and the rest of scripture, going all the way back to when Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac (Gen 22:2, 12). “Begotten” draws a whole bunch of concepts and scriptures together into one word. (John 1:1-18, Heb 1)
So, why is Jesus called the “only begotten Son”? The Heidelberg answers this way,
“Because Christ alone is the eternal, natural Son of God. We, however, are children of God by adoption, through grace, for Christ’s sake.”
Again, this takes a little more explaining, but remember last week’s lesson from Hebrews about Jesus being, “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb 1:3)? That’s the idea. In simple language, Jesus being the Son of God means He is “the unique, one of a kind, perfect incarnation of God, the One the Father sent to be the sacrificial offering for sin, the Light of God, the Word of God, the person of God in the flesh.”
It’s a big concept, but an important application. So the first reason we wake up in the morning, listen to His voice, and choose to obey Him is because He is the Son of God! Not only does He offer His children wisdom, knowledge, forgiveness, peace, help and hope – but as God, He deserves our worship, attention, and obedience.
Which leads to question 34 and the next reason we ought to submit to Jesus.
“Why do you call him our Lord?”
And the answer is,
“Because he has ransomed us, body and soul, from all our sins, not with silver or gold but with his precious blood, and has freed us from all the power of the devil to make us his own possession.”
The first reason we submit to Jesus is because of who He is, He is God. The second reason is because of what He’s done. Jesus was often called “Lord” when He was on earth (Lk 7:13; Acts 5:14; 1 Cor 6:14; Jas 5:7; John 13:13, 20:28) It was another title, one of respect, faith, reverence and worship. In John 13:13 Jesus said, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.” When Peter preached the first sermon at Pentecost he said, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Ac 2:36) In Philippians 2:9-11 Paul says,
“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Jesus is the Lord. Jesus is God. Jesus deserves the worship God gets. It glorifies God when we worship Jesus as Lord because Jesus is God. That’s a fact. At some point, every knee will bow to Him – every knee. If you’ve read the gospels you know how the demons reacted when they met Jesus. They hated Him, but they still reacted with fear and humility. They know.
But God, in His grace, offers us the choice to kneel now and accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour or kneel later when His patience has run out.
When John the Baptist was calling people to repentance, telling people to get right with God before the end comes, he said this,
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11–12).
Jesus is Lord whether we acknowledge it or not. The truth is still the truth regardless as to whether we choose to believe it or try to “suppress” it.
Let me close with this. Jesus is God because of who He is. His nature is divine. And Jesus is Lord because of what He’s done. He has conquered. He has ransomed. He has won the battle against sin and death. That is truth whether you like it or not, and now you are presented with a choice.
If you are not a Christian, will you, right now admit yourself to be a sinner in need of a saviour? Will you admit that you need forgiveness from God, to be ransomed from Hell because you cannot pay your own way, asking for it only in the name of Jesus?
And if you are a Christian today, will you finally allow Him to be the Lord of all areas of your life? Of your time, abilities, finances, choices, relationships, body, and mind? Will you look inside yourself, at the things that Jesus has been asking you to do – whatever that is – and say “yes” now? Not because you feel like it. Not because you understand it. Not because you’ve got it all worked out. Not waiting for the right moment. Not trying to negotiate terms with God. Just say “Yes, Lord. I will do that.” because Jesus is your God. Jesus is your Lord. Jesus is your Saviour. And you owe him your obedience and worship.
This is a call to repentance. A call to evaluate your life and turn it completely over to Jesus. Would you bow your heads with me and pray this prayer in your hearts?
“Lord, I admit myself to be a sinner who has loved sinning, but now I see it clearly and I hate it. I want to be free of it and I cannot free myself. I am guilty and ashamed and I need you to save me, clean me up, restore me back to you, and set my feet on the right path. I give it all up, Jesus and I call you my Lord, my Saviour, my God. I do this because there is no one greater to go to except you. You are the one who died on the cross for me, who shed their blood for me, who rose again from death so that sinners could be free. I want to be free.
And so I say, with you as my Lord. This day is yours – every moment. My choices are yours –every one. My money is yours – do whatever you want with it. My work is yours – let it be for you. My children are yours – make them into who you want to be and help me to raise them your way. My marriage is yours – help me love my spouse as I am supposed to according to your Word. My school is yours – use it to prepare me for whatever you want me to do. My reputation is yours – I will proclaim you as Lord even if people think I’m crazy. My entertainment is yours – I will turn my internet, tv, cell phone, books, magazines, music choices, all over to you and only use them for things that honour you. My calendar is yours – I will work when I am to work and rest when I am to rest, according to your will. My body is yours – I will eat, drink, sleep, speak, listen, and serve your way, even if my body is crying out for garbage, I will obey you. My future is yours – I give you permission to decide where I will go to school, how I will be trained, what my job will be, who I will marry, what church I will attend, what friends I will have, what missions I will go on, what home I will live in, how my retirement will go, how long you allow my mother and father to live, how long you allow my friends and family to be with me, how long I will live, and when and where I will die. It’s all yours. It’s yours because you are my Lord and my God. And when this prayer is over I’m going to sing to you because you deserve my song. Help my whole life be lived as a song of praise to you. Amen.”
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?
Advent is a special time of year when Christians remember the incarnation of the Son of God at Christmas and prepare our hearts for the time when Jesus will come again. As we’ve done each year, Carnivore Theology is taking a break from our usual schedule of hot topics and interviews to share some personal thoughts, meditations, sermons and reflections on this special time of year. This week we present a full-length sermon from Pastor Al entitled “Jesus as Tabernacle”.
*AOTCN Followers: I’m double dipping this week so the sermon audio is also the CT audio! Sermon Text is below
Christmas time has a lot of symbols attached to it. In fact, marketing teams have worked really hard to try to attach logos and symbols to the various celebration days we have so that they can sell us targeted things. At Easter everything is covered in bunnies and colourful eggs. On Valentine’s Day everything is covered in hearts. Thanksgiving turkey, Halloween pumpkin, St Patrick’s clover. Each one gets a colour scheme too, right? St. Patrick’s Day is green. Halloween is orange and black. Thanksgiving is brown and orange. Valentine’s Day is red. Easter gets a bunch of pastels.
But Christmas seems to be a bit more difficult. If you asked yourself what the standard symbol of Christmas is, it’s hard to pin down. Some use the holly and ivy, others poinsettas, some use silver bells, others a Christmas tree, or gold stars. Some use snowflakes or Santa’s face or a present. The colour scheme seems to be all over the map too. Red and green and brown and white and silver and gold… it’s almost like no matter how hard the marketing teams try, the Christmas season is too big to be nailed down to one symbol or theme.
I watched some “man on the street” interviews where they asked people what Christmas meant to them and the general theme was getting together with family and eating, but that’s too generic. If you ask them what Thanksgiving or New Years or September Long Weekend was all about they’d probably give the same answer.
In the Christian church, we’d like to believe that we’ve got this nailed down, but we don’t. There are a lot of self-professing evangelicals reject even the most foundational Christian beliefs. Ligonier Ministries just did a huge survey of thousands of Christians across America and the findings were shocking.
Almost half agreed that God accepts worship from all religions, not just Christianity. Half believe that they have to do good deeds in order to get to heaven. Most of the people, well over half, said that God won’t punish people for little sins. Christians are confused too. Over half believe Jesus was God’s first creation. Half of the people who said that God is the author of the Bible also said that modern science discredits what the Bible even says. So it’s no surprise that when the interview said, “It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior”, that the results were split down the middle with half agreeing and half disagreeing.
After all, if you believe that God doesn’t really punish sins, that we save ourselves through good deeds, that Jesus was just another created being, and that science has basically discredited the Bible, then why bother telling anyone about Jesus at all?
Christianity, and Christmas, to most people, even though they love the season – and most would say Christmas is their favourite time of year – has been almost completely drained of meaning because Christianity has been almost completely drained of theology. Which is likely why, when we ask the question: “What is the Christmas symbol? What is Christmas all about?” all we get from most people is an array of plants, presents, pretend things and some vague statements about family get-togethers.
Expecting a Saviour
Turn to Luke 1:31-33. We must, as Christians, settle in our hearts the real meaning of Christmas and be absolutely clear, laser focused, on what we are celebrating and why. If we are not, if we allow the vagaries and trappings to overtake us, we not only risk losing the story (as we talked about last week), but risk losing the Gospel, the story of salvation, the only way to be saved from Hell. Let me explain what I mean.
Over the last two weeks we’ve been setting up the drama of Christmas. The people of God living as the least important province of a pagan nation, in some kind of miserable half-life, facing famine, enemies, luke-warm worship, corrupt priests, and declining faith… to which the prophet Malachi’s brings a message that God save them and restore them, and to watch out for the forerunner of God, the one who would come before, who would be Elijah.
We then wait 400 years in silence, between the Old and New Testaments, until an angel comes to an old priest named Zachariah, who has an old, barren wife named Elizabeth, who is told that he will be the father of John the Baptist, who would come in the spirit of Elijah. And the drama continues to build when 6 months later, in a small town in the middle of nowhere, an angel tells a young, unmarried girl named Mary, that the promised forerunner has come and she has been chosen to be the mother of the promised Saviour. The angel says,
“And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:31-33)
As I said last week, these words have become too familiar to us. So familiar that we almost dismiss them, but you must understand that this wasn’t what anyone was expecting. The promised Saviour of the world, the One who has been promised for thousands of years, was never expected to come this way.
Thinking of this from our own perspective might help. We are used to Jesus as the great moral teacher, Jesus as the Saviour on the cross, Jesus as the social revolutionary who changed all the rules, Jesus as the friend of sinners. We are used to the Jesus who did impossible things like raise the dead, calm storms with a word, feed thousands from a child’s lunchbox. Jesus turning over tables in the temple, Jesus staring down and calling curses upon the corrupt Pharisees, Jesus surrounded by sinners and social rejects. We are familiar with all those pictures of Jesus – and they very much reflect what Israel was expecting.
They expected a miracle worker, a military conqueror, a superman who would overthrow the evil government, rebuild the great temple, and take over as King of the planet with the Jewish people in their rightful place as the nation of priests for planet earth. They expected Moses mixed with Elijah mixed with David mixed with Solomon, exploding on the scene draped in majesty and wielding unstoppable power.
That’s generally what we expect too, when we stop for a moment and get honest with ourselves. That’s the Jesus we would write into our story. We want the Jesus who stops our problems in a second, who gives us everything we want in a moment, who destroys everyone who has ever wronged us, who showers us with pleasure and comfort and prestige and success – and we, like the nation of Israel, don’t understand, and react very poorly, when Jesus comes in a very different, much quieter, much more patient, much more humble, much more time consuming way. Incidentally, that’s one of the reasons we know that this wasn’t made up, because no one – literally, no one – would have come up with this.
Jesus Broke Expectations
Mary was promised a son who would be named Jesus. Jesus means “Saviour”. She was told that he would be “great” and be called “the Son of the Most High”. That was a name for God that went all the way back to Genesis 14. Jesus wouldn’t be a man like every other human being, who had a sinful, human father, but would be like Adam, created perfectly by God without a sinful nature.
And this One who was Son of God and Saviour would be given the “throne of… David”. Remember the state of the nation: conquered, under corrupt pagan rule, taxed almost into oblivion, unable to do anything without going to Rome for permission. King David was the great, conquering King who conquered the enemies of Israel and united the nation, ushering in the greatest time of peace and plenty in Israel’s history. And a long time before Mary, David was promised that Someone would sit on his throne forever, that one of his descendants would inaugurate a Kingdom would be established forever, that it would be unconquerable. Jesus would “reign over the house of Jacob”, meaning all twelve tribes of Israel would be united again, and that kingdom would have “no end”.
That was everyone’s picture of the coming Messiah, and though it perfectly describes Jesus, He didn’t arrive the way they expected, He didn’t live the way they expected, He didn’t do what they expected, and He didn’t conquer in the way they expected. Which is one reason why so many people rejected Him.
Jesus own family, even Mary, and Jesus’ closest followers took a long, long time to wrap their heads around what Jesus was doing and what it all meant. They simply didn’t have a box to put Jesus in, they had no template prepared that could fit the real Jesus. All of their preconceptions, all of the things they had assumed about God and God’s plan, all of the things they had been focusing on up to that point needed to be completely reorganized, completely re-understood, because of Jesus.
Now, it’s important to know that Jesus was doing anything wrong! He didn’t come and change anything. He didn’t just reinterpret the Bible in a weird way that no one had though tof. No, it wasn’t that Jesus was trying to be counter cultural – it was that everyone’s assumptions about Him were all wrong. They had created their own Saviour template, created their own God-box, and thought Jesus would fit into it.
Sometimes we think that we need to live up to other people’s expectations. We change ourselves to fit what other people think about us, or we do things that we thing other people expect us to do. We succumb to peer-pressure because we want to be accepted, we stop doing things we actually like because the crowd says we’re weird. We stare at our closets, our car, our homes, and we wonder how we can make things more acceptable and impressive to others.
I know, for myself, I often feel pressure to fit the mould that people have designed for me. Some people think I’m smart, and I like that, so when I don’t know the answer to something, it’s tempting to dance around and try to make something up. Some people think since I’m a pastor there are things I should and shouldn’t do, so it’s tempting to be hypocritical and fudge parts of my life so that I live up to their expectations. I’m sure you’ve felt the same way, changing how you talk to sound more like the crowd, leaving out information about yourself because you’re embarrassed to admit certain things to that group of people.
God isn’t like that. God does not feel constrained by our assumptions about who He is or how He should do things. He is not swayed by democracy or popular opinion. He doesn’t change Himself to gain more followers or try to impress His constituency or His fan base. God doesn’t answer prayers He doesn’t want to answer because you have correctly manipulated Him. God is immutable, unchangeable, perfect.
Galatians 4:4 says, “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son…” The plan to send Jesus Christ on that day, in that way, to live that life, and die that death, was exactly what He had intended to do all along. It’s just that humanity wouldn’t, or couldn’t, understand or accept it. But that wasn’t going to change God’s plan.
Jesus Tabernacled with Us
With this in mind, turn with me to John 1 and I want to read the Christmas story from a completely different perspective. Normally we read the beginning of Luke and Matthew at Christmas time, and that’s appropriate, but that’s not the only Christmas story in the Bible. There are others that teach us about Jesus from other perspectives.
John’s gospel, for example, was written some decades after Matthew, Mark and Luke, and therefore teaches us a lot about Jesus that we don’t find in the other gospels. And the way He introduces Jesus is different than the other three. Matthew and Luke start at Jesus birth. John backs up the story to help us understand what it means that Jesus is the Son of the Most High God by starting the story before the beginning of time, introducing Jesus with the same words as the start of Genesis, showing us that Jesus is God, uncreated, existing with God, as God before time, before He was named Jesus. Let’s read it together:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
And then, like the other Christmas stories, we start with the end of Malachi, the coming of Elijah, John the Baptist. Verse 6,
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.”
Who is this “true light” which the darkness cannot overcome? John continues by giving a brief summary of the life of Jesus as it reflects Israel’s relationship with God. God is perfect, the source of life, but was continually rejected by Israel, just as Jesus would be. Continue in verse 10:
“He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
So, how do we receive him? What do we need to believe? How are we born again? Now comes the Christmas story as told in the Gospel of John, in verse 14:
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’’) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”
Jesus is God, and is the Word of God, and at one point in History, which we call Christmas, God took on flesh. “The eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, infinite, holy Son of God took on a human nature and lived among humanity as one who was both God and man at the same time, in one person.”
The words, “dwelt among us” are super-important and introduce a critical concept that gets lost in translation, and if we don’t understand them we completely miss the whole point of the Christmas story. It literally means that when the Word, the Son of God became flesh, he was “pitching his tent among us”.
Every Jewish person reading this would immediately know what this meant. It was a picture of the Tabernacle, the tent that God lived in among the Israelites. In the beginning God created both Heaven and Earth, two complimentary places designed for one another, with the Garden as God’s meeting place and Adam and Eve as the ones who cared for it. But now because of sin, that connection was broken and an impassable wall, an uncrossable chasm was now between them.
But, in God’s grace, no matter where Israel wandered, no matter how far humanity would fall away, there would be one place on earth where Heaven and Earth would touch, a sort of Heavenly embassy, a single holy place where God would choose to condescend and dwell so we would not be utterly without contact or hope. That place was the Holy of Holies in the Tent of Meeting, the Tabernacle, and instead of Adam and Eve attending it, it was Aaron the High Priest and his family the Levites.
When Israel finally stopped wandering and had taken back most of the Promised Land, God allowed King Solomon to change the portable tent into a more permanent home called the Temple. It too would be the place where Heaven and Earth would touch and where God could be found. If anyone in the world wanted to meet God, offer sacrifice, and gain forgiveness, the only place they could come would be God’s embassy, God’s one house, the Temple. This is why the Temple is the heart of Israel’s national life, and why it’s destruction was so utterly disheartening to the people living during the Babylonian exile.
But remember why it that happened. The meaning of the Temple had been lost. Just as so many have lost the meaning of Christmas and turned it into a dozen different symbols and vague traditional recollections around food and songs, so had they done to God’s Temple.
The Ark of the Covenant, which was God’s Throne, the Holy of Holies, and the Temple itself had turned from a Holy Place where one could meet God and be cleansed from sin – into a talisman, a lucky charm, a national tradition – a mixture of symbolism and superstition that had very little to do with a relationship with God – just like Christmas is today. The chief priests became worldly and wealthy, kings would use the temple as an excuse for violence and warfare, and by the time of Malachi (as we said before) God had basically left the Temple. It was just an empty hall surrounded by hypocritical religious people going through empty ceremonies. Much like Christmas for most people.
And then, 400 years later, when everything was at its darkest, “the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.” (Luke 1:26–27) A light pierced darkness, for the darkness had not overcome it. “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” The Son of the Most High, the Word of God, “became flesh and [Tabernacled, pitched his tent] among us, [so] we [could see] his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
No longer would the presence of God staying in one place, instead, the Holy of Holies would move around again, but in a completely different way. Now, instead of walls of canvas or gold or stone, human flesh would be the tent in which God would dwell.
Jesus, the baby we celebrate at Christmas time gives us everything God requires for Salvation. Jesus was born as the perfect Adam and never sinned. Jesus is the perfect Israel who never wandered from faith. Jesus is the perfect prophet and priest who always and only spoke the words of God. Jesus is the perfect temple, the very incarnation of the love of God in the world, face to face with humanity. And Jesus is the perfect temple sacrifice, taking God’s wrath against sin, dying on the cross in place of sinners, shedding His blood as the spotless, Passover lamb, so we might be saved.
This is what Christians celebrate at Christmastime. This is what we must never forget: Jesus of Nazareth, born as a baby in a manger was the climax of God’s salvation story, the fulfilment of every symbol in scripture, the living embodiment of God.
 ESV Study Bible notes
This morning, in the light of Palms Sunday, I want to talk about the history of the world — from the beginning to the end — the story of God and humanity.
Chapter 1: The Beginning
Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This is the start of our story. Notice how I said that it’s the start of our story. Not the beginning of The Whole story. Just our part. God is eternal, existing before there was ever a heaven or an earth.
So God created the universe, the stars, the planets, our world, and everything on it. And He did it in steps. As we read the creation story we see that God is imaginative, powerful, orderly, and is really enjoying His work. We don’t know everything about the beginning of time, but we do know that it did not come together by random chance. Over and over again God creates and then looks at what He is doing and says that “it is good”. He likes what He sees. He made the skies, the oceans, the birds, trees, the sun, the moon… all of it. God, in an amazing process, formed all of creation out of nothingness… and then called it “good”.
And then, after everything else was created… He began His greatest work. God literally saved the best for last. He decided to create humanity. All of the rest of creation was a good thing… but this was going to be the best thing. God formed a man out of the dirt of the ground, like a potter lovingly molding a clay sculpture in His own image, and then breathed life into them. And then He formed the woman from a part of Him, making them complimentary equals. He bestowed upon these two beings something unique in the world… a living spirit that reflected His own. Humanity was designed to bear God’s own image and carry inside us His divine breath. We are the best thing He ever made, and He loves us very much.
And He took His two favourite creations, named Adam and Eve, and put them into a wonderful garden. There was endless food, total comfort, no shame, no danger, no anger, meaningful work, and perfect love. Greed wasn’t a problem, relationships weren’t a problem, sex wasn’t a problem, disease wasn’t heard of, and best of all, these humans had the glorious privilege of walking and talking with God face to face. It was the best place ever. But it didn’t stay that way.
Chapter 2: The Fall
Adam and Eve, with some help from the devil himself, decided that Eden wasn’t good enough. God had placed them where they would have everything they could ever need but had only one rule: Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
In a world of delicious options, there was only one tree from which they weren’t aloud to eat. Can you imagine a world where there is only one bad choice? Everything else on the entire planet was a good choice. There was only one bad one.
Many have asked why God would put that tree there at all. The answer is simply this: without it, there would have been no choice. In order for His creation to have free will and the ability to love, there must be the option of choice. There must be a way to choose not to love, not to obey, not to believe God’s Word. If there is to be free will, rejection must be an option. There must be another choice.
And Adam and Eve made the other choice. They chose not to trust their Creator. They chose to believe God was holding out on them. They chose to take that which they were not allowed to have, and which they had been warned would do them harm. That choice is called sin and it changed the whole of creation.
Chapter 3: Cast Out From Eden
The moment Adam and Eve decided to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, everything changed. It was at that moment when sin entered the world. God had warned them that everything would change, but they did it anyway. He warned them of the consequence of death coming through sin, but they didn’t want only the knowledge of life, they wanted the knowledge of death too. They knew that once they ate it, they would have a special knowledge which they didn’t have before – something God didn’t want for them, which would hurt them… and they ate anyway. Before that moment they only knew “good”… but after they fell to temptation, they would know “good and evil”.
And since God is good, perfect and holy, and He can’t be around evil – He has no part with evil or evil-doers. Their action made it so that He could no longer communicate face to face with His beloved people anymore. Things had changed.
The sin not only affected them but the rest of the world as well. They were the pinnacle and the stewards of creation, and now that they had sinned, all of creation was marred – it’s like their sin bled inky blackness from them onto everything else in the universe.
Soon after the Fall we read of shame, anger, distrust, fear, blame… weeds, toil, pain, frustration… everything changes because of sin. God’s wrath and justice are at work, but in an act of divine grace, they were cast out of Eden so they would not eat of the Tree of Life as well and be trapped forever in their sinful state.
And, as God had promised, Adam and Eve knew death. You see, death was something that wasn’t a part of God’s perfect design. But every choice has a consequence, and the consequence of disobedience is the need for just judgement. All humanity believes in some form of justice – it’s a carryover from being made in His image. A good parent, a good society, a good God, punishes wrong. The punishment for sin is death.
All bad news, right? Well, even though it was all bad news, there was one glimmer of hope in the whole midst – the promise of salvation to come. Even in the midst of judgement, God shares the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, promises Eve that there will one day, Someone born of women will finally do something to reverse all of their mess. That, one day, someone would come as an enemy of the serpent, who though He would be struck, would crush Satan’s head (Genesis 3:15). Though it would be bleak for a while, and the consequences were dire, there was still hope for humanity.
Chapter 4: Noah
Now even though humanity had fallen and was now outside the Garden of Eden, it didn’t stop them from “going forth and multiplying”. Adam and Eve were having children, and their children were having children, and the world was being populated. The Bible says that Adam lived 930 years and someone can have a lot of kids in that amount of time!
Not only were people multiplying, but their sin was multiplying too. People were actually getting worse. The bible says that by the time of Noah things were really grim. It says in Genesis 6:5 that “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
Eight generations had gone by, and there were lots of people on the earth, and they were inventing new ways to be evil, corrupt to the core, disregarding their Creator completely.
The Bible says that God was grieved. He had such a great love for His people, but they had so completely turned their backs on Him and were doing such harm to each other that He was sorry that He had made them in the first place. So He decided to send a flood to wipe them out. Not to destroy humanity, but to destroy the wickedness of that generation which had gotten completely out of control.
But again, there was grace in the midst of judgement. There was a man named Noah who was Adam’s Great grandson x 8. God decided to save Noah and his family, the one family left who was listening to Him. Was Noah perfect? No, but He did love God and seek to live like God mattered. It was not that Noah was worthy to be saved, but that He was the only one listening to the message of salvation.
After the flood, God used Noah and his family to repopulate the world again. He started over. That’s what God does. He takes in an impossible situation and adds creativity, and grace, and love, and hope. Yes, humanity would fall again. Noah didn’t make it very far out of the ark before he and his family were sinning again. But even that pointed to Jesus in that we are reminded that even the most righteous man on earth was not good enough to stay righteous for long because there was a deeper problem, an internal problem with humanity, a darkness and depravity that went to every human’s core that needed to be dealt with. Sin wasn’t just about doing bad things – it is something broken inside of us that will always pull us away from God. God set the rainbow in the sky, promising never to flood humanity again because He was about to put His full plan into motion.
Chapter 5: Abraham
Right around the death of Noah, possibly even the same year, a man named Abram was born. God’s narrative of grace continues as He decides to show love to an obscure, pagan man, who neither knew Him nor followed Him. Abram wasn’t anyone special, just a guy who God decided to work through, and who was willing to listen and obey. God says to him, “leave your country and your people and go into a different land.” and Abram obeys.
God then makes a promise to Abram – who was then a senior citizen, married to a barren wife, and had no children – that he would have many descendants and they would become a great nation. In fact, God promises that the whole world would be blessed because of his family line. He would give them a special place to live and would take care of them. God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and gets to work.
This was a pretty good deal for Abraham, but he never gets to see the plan fully worked out during his lifetime. That doesn’t mean God didn’t keep his promise, though. Abraham did have two children, and his grandson would be a man named Jacob. Abraham’s second son, Jacob, was the one who would really see God’s blessings taken to another level, as his children became the 12 patriarchs for the nation of Israel. It was these twelve families that would form the political and geographic system through which the rest of God’s plan of salvation for the world would be carried out.
Chapter 6: Joseph
Now, God needs to make sure that this family is taken care of, which is where we get the story of Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob. God, amazingly, uses the anger and jealousy of Joseph’s brothers to save the whole family from starvation, years before a terrible drought would hit the land. Most of us here know or have heard the story of Joseph.
His story was personally tragic as his brothers sell him into slavery, he’s falsely accused of rape, and is sentenced to jail for many years. Though he was God’s chosen man, he went through some really tough stuff, but after a time, God gave Joseph the opportunity to interpret a bad dream the Pharaoh was having – a dream about a terrible drought to come – and Joseph was put in charge of preparing for it.
In an amazing way, God rose Joseph up to take care of His people by bringing them down to Egypt to be saved from a famine that would have wiped them all out, and then prepared them for the next phase of His plan.
Chapter 7: Moses
Jacob and these 12 brothers were down in Egypt and were doing fine for a long time until a different Pharaoh came into power who didn’t know about Joseph or the promises that the previous administration had made to his family. And instead of being thankful for them, he started to fear Jacob’s family (who were now being called “Israelites”), and instead of talking to them or keeping his promises, he decided to make the whole nation his slaves. They were in slavery for hundreds of years, suffering, but still having children.
One of these children was named Moses. At exactly the right time in history, God worked some powerful miracles and used Moses as the person to lead His people out of Egypt as one, unified nation, ready to get back home to the land that God promised their father Abraham so many years ago — the “Promised land”.
But first, God brought them to a place where He would make a covenant with them. He wanted to make an agreement that as long as they would commit themselves to being His special people, trusting and worshipping Him alone, just like Adam and Eve were supposed to, He would take care of them. They would be victorious and well supplied.
God, in His grace, knowing that they would say “yes” to the contract, but because of their inherent sin problem would, within days, turn back to sin, gave them laws to live by so they would know how to worship Him, care for one another, and be different from the rest of the world. “Know that I am the only God and worship me only. Don’t murder each other. Don’t steal from each other. Honour your parents.” All these rules were for their own good, and to make sure that the relationships between Him and themselves could continue. And though God can’t be around sin, He gave them a religious system, centering around the shed blood of an innocent lamb, by which they could finally approach their Creator, know Him better, and get temporary forgiveness for their sins. All of this pointed to Jesus, the one who would come and be the perfect, sacrificial lamb, who would give people permanent forgiveness and restore humanity back to being like they were before Adam and Eve Fell.
Israel was now free from slavery, ready to take back the Promised Land, had a good leader in Moses, laws to protect them, and God’s promise to care for them… but of course, still being marred by sin, broken in their souls, they rejected God and started praying to, worshipping, and putting their trust in created things instead of the creator – even wooden and stone statues of their own making.
Even a good leader and a Law written by God Himself, accompanied by earthquakes and miracles wasn’t able to keep people from committing evil. Plus death still existed in the world. There was more that needed to be done.
Chapter 8: Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat
The next chapter in human history is sort of the in-between time which you can call Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat. It was the time of the Judges, the Kings, and the Prophets. In the time between the giving of the Law and when Jesus the Saviour would come a lot of things happened, but it seemed to keep to this endless cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.
As far as good things that happened: With God’s help they reclaimed the Promised Land, and divided it up amongst the 12 tribes. They built some great cities and became one of the richest civilizations in history. They even took down the tabernacle – the temporary tent of worship – and built a beautiful temple in a holy city.
A lot of bad things happened too. They broke every law in God’s book over and over. They made idols, cheated and abused each other, committed adultery, dishonoured their parents, broke the Sabbath, and even sacrificed their own children to demons. Throughout this time God kept raising up prophets to warn them about the consequences of their bad decisions, but they kept killing the prophets!
For a long time, God was the King of Israel, but eventually, they decided that they didn’t want God to be King anymore, but instead wanted to be like all the other nations and have a human king. This was like a slap in God’s face! He had always been their ruler, their Law giver, great judge, provider, the one to keep them safe and lead their armies — and now He somehow wasn’t good enough. God’s chosen people, the one that he picked out from among all the others, the one that He had promised Abraham would be a great nation, once they had become one, turned their backs on Him, just like all those who had come before.
They put kings in place who kept messing up, but God in His mercy kept sending prophets to the way back to Him. We have a lot of these prophet’s writings in the Bible. Each of the prophets would share God’s mercy, remind them of His hatred for sin, about how much He wanted the people to come back to Him, warn them that if they continued on the path they were on that He would have to discipline them for their own good.
Then, since no one would listen, the prophets would talk about Promised One that would finally come and end this repetitive cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat, once and for all. They reminded the people of the One who was promised to Adam and Eve, the One who would come through Abraham’s tribe, the One that would conquer evil, sin and even death. The coming of Jesus is spoken of in every book of the Old Testament.
This cycle went on for years… hundreds and hundreds of years… Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat, and all the while God was continuing to prepare the world for Jesus. He was showing everyone, through Israel, that there was not one person who could obey Him, not one who would worship Him rightly. The prophets would fail, the priests would fail, the kings would fail, the heroes would fail, the people would rebel… the Law condemned everyone.
They needed one who would be called the Messiah, which means the “Chosen One”. He would be the one who would finally break the pattern. He would finally obey the law perfectly, love God and others perfectly, be the perfect prophet, perfect priest, and perfect king. He would conquer their enemies, bring justice to the oppressed, and lead people into a right relationship with God. He would be called the Christ, the Anointed one. And for years, Israel waited.
Chapter 9: The Messiah
God was waiting until the world was just right (Gal 4:4). Israel was at the pinnacle of their rebellion. The Romans had built a civilization that would allow the story of Jesus to travel throughout the world. God waited until just the right moment to send His greatest Gift to the world. But He surprised everyone by how He did it.
Consider the irony of how Jesus entered the world. Since the beginning of time, people were waiting for this One Person to come. This would be the most important person in history, the Saviour of the world from their greatest problems. And when He finally came… almost no one knew. When the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus, finally arrived, He didn’t come as a mighty King on a white horse leading a huge army. He didn’t come in a bolt of lightning on a mountain, with a booming voice proclaiming the Judgement of God.
No, as the old Hymn says, “He had no stately form, He had no majesty…”. He came as a baby, a helpless infant. The Son of a virgin, adopted by a poor, Galilean Carpenter. Born in a humble stable, in a tiny village – a nobody from nowhere.
No palace like King Solomon. No fanfare like King David. No blasts of fire like Elijah. The Chosen One came in so quietly that His presence went nearly unnoticed by almost all of those who were looking for Him. The Jewish scholars of the day (and today) are looking for a political leader, a military conqueror… but that’s not what they got… at least not yet.
And what did humanity do with Him? Well, His identity didn’t stay hidden forever. What did people do when they finally found out this Messiah that had come?
Well, one of the first people to hear, when Jesus was only a couple years old, was King Herod, who immediately tried to murder Him. It would be mostly rejection, not loving acceptance, would be the pattern of Jesus’ life.
Today is Palm Sunday. Today is the day that the followers of Jesus worshipped Him as Messiah, laid palm branches and their cloaks at the feet of Jesus who was riding into Jerusalem, showing Himself to be the King of the Jews and the one foretold by the prophets. They were celebrating the forthcoming conquest of the Roman army, the overthrowing of their political oppressors, their new position as the most powerful kingdom in the world. They were right to celebrate, but they were wrong about how Jesus would do it. And when He didn’t do things their way… their disappointment immediately turned to anger.
I can’t say it any better than the Deacon Stephen does to the Jewish Ruling Counsel right before they killed him. He was standing before the very people who were supposed to teach Israel about the coming of Jesus! These were the ones who should have been the first to know, acknowledge and spread the news that God had sent the Messiah!
Stephen says to them: “You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you! Name one prophet that your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous one –The Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.” (Acts 7:51-53)
Humanity did it again! God Himself enters the world in human form. He sends His own beloved Son, 100% God and 100% man, the only One who could save us from sin and death. The perfect one to teach us how to live, love and worship properly. And what is our response? We condemn the Anointed One, the Messiah, the perfect Son of God, to the worst, most painful, agonizing, excruciating death imaginable… a Roman cross. We murdered God.
One would think that that would be the end of the story. Where do you go when there is no more hope left? How can an author finish a story when the hero is killed before the villain is defeated? You can’t. The story must stop when the hero is dead. Right?
For a moment, God’s pen lifts from the paper. The world looks bleak. There is no hope. The disciples are scattered. The Messiah is dead. The villain has won. Sin will reign forever.…
Chapter 10: The Resurrection
But our God is the greatest author of all. His pen stops for only a moment. He turns the page and begins the next chapter. The death of Jesus Christ would not be the end of the story. Three days after Jesus dies God writes something that turns the greatest defeat in history into the climax of His Epic tale. He turns dead silence into a loud crescendo! He turns ultimate tragedy into ultimate victory!
God flips all History on its head. In the story God is writing there are no mistakes. The One who was to be our Saviour… was supposed to die. His victory came because of His death. There is no greater hero than One who would give His life for others. The name of this Hero is Jesus Christ. He gave His life for us.
At the beginning of the story, God said that the consequence of sin would be death. The Messiah was going to come and defeat the greatest enemy of this world. Almost everyone thought that this meant that it would be a political, military, human victory. But God, the great author, reveals that humanity’s greatest enemy isn’t any person or nation or empire… the greatest enemy in this world is death – death that came because of sin. So what needed to be conquered? Sin.
The judgement and effects of sin – physical and spiritual death, and the total removal of the grace, love and presence of God is called Hell. Sin entered the world with Adam and Eve and has poisoned every human soul, putting us on a one way path to Hell. And that needed to be dealt with. God’s righteous judgement, His wrath against sin, needed to be poured out to bring about perfect justice. He can’t just let humanity get away with it. He can’t just ignore sin. He must punish it.
We will never understand the full measure of the punishment that Jesus took for those who would put their faith in Him. Jesus came to exchange Himself for us – the perfect human, the only One who did not deserve judgement, chose to take the punishment for anyone who would believe and trust in Him, so we could be restored back to God.
Jesus is the ultimate hero as He walks out of the grave, conquering the greatest enemy ever. He defeats the effects of sin. He beats death. That weight of judgement that all of humanity had borne for thousands of years was placed on His shoulders, and He carried it, paid for it, and then offered the freedom that He bought with His own blood freely to anyone who would believe in Him.
Chapter 11: The Denouement
Today, we are living in the denouement. We are living at the end of the great Epic. The story has unfolded, the villain has been conquered, the Hero has been lifted high. We are living in the days of epilogue before God brings His story to a close at the Final Judgement. Every day gets us closer to the end of this story and closer to next book, the story of eternity.
This Epic gives us the greatest message that can be known: That you were created for more than just what you see and touch. You were designed by a loving creator who gives you a hope and a purpose. Your life is more than just food, money, sex, friends, and a career.
You are a created being whose decisions have eternal consequences. You need not fear death, and you can trust that even your most difficult times can be turned into great victories because of our awesome God. You can experience divine love, be cleansed, and made new. God will never leave you, never forsake you, and because of the work of our Hero, Jesus Christ, you can live in His presence today and forever.
This is a great story because it is a true story. People have loved it so much, and believed in the Hero so deeply, that they have died to tell it to others. I urge you, if you have not already, to accept the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, and to tell His story, this Epic, to as many people as you can.
Last week I gave you a brief introduction to Spiritual Journaling using Scripture as your Guide. (If you haven’t read that yet, I suggest you start there.) I said that the system I’m teaching isn’t the only way to meet with God, but it is one way that has worked for me and I want to pass on to you.
What I’m going to be teaching today is how to have a conversation with God every day. Not a one-way prayer, but a conversation. I’m not talking about a type of mysticism where we hear special revelations from God, but a system where we bring our sins and needs, cares and concerns, desires and fears, before God, and then listen to Him as He talks to us from scripture.
This isn’t a free-flowing, off the top of your head, whatever you feel like saying, prayer – it’s a conversation. It’s not us trying to shoe-horn God’s Word to say whatever we want it to say either. It’s us speaking our heart to God, and then opening ourselves to hearing what God wants to say to us.
Last week I introduced the concept by looking at some practical tools to get us started. The majority of our time was spent talking about why there are so many kinds of bibles and which one would be best to use, so this week I want to look at the rest of the story. First, why journaling is important, second, how to set up your Bible to get a balanced scriptural diet, and then third, I want to share the technique of using scripture to guide to what you are going to say to God and then listening to what He wants to say to you. Ready?
So let’s start with the question, “Why Journaling?”
Let me start with the assumption that you have agreed with the last 5 sermons. You agree that God’s voice is available and that you want to hear it. You agree that your heart is hard, twisted and deceptive and you need God to give you a new one and then explain how it works. You agree that God’s Word is more important than your daily bread and that without connecting to Him in a meaningful way, you will spiritually starve. You agree that the Bible is like our umbilical cord to Jesus, the way that God has given us to connect to Him. You agree that the Bible has supernatural power, and that God uses the reading of it to reveal our souls and make us more like Jesus.
You agree that you’ve struggled with forgetting that being a Christian means being in relationship with a real person named Jesus Christ, and that you’ve sometimes slipped into perfectionism (trying to “do your devos right”) or carelessness (where you shortcut your time with God). And you agree that you want to connect with God in a consistent, meaningful way, and are open to trying something different to see if that helps you grow closer to Him.
So, beginning there, the question is this: Why can’t I just say it in my head? Why do I need to write it down? What’s so important about writing my prayers?
Let me start with this. You don’t have to write your prayers, but I encourage you to try it. I said that this is my system and that you should try it, and then adapt it. If you find it helpful, then keep it. If not, then try something else. There’s nothing in scripture that says that writing out your prayers is more holy, or more effective, than speaking them aloud or in your mind. However, I believe there are some benefits to journaling your prayers. (I really appreciated Stephen Eyre’s section on journaling in his book “Drawing close to God: the essentials of a dynamic quiet time”)
People of the Book
First, Christians are people of The Book. We love the Bible. For centuries people have used Scripture as a key text in their spiritual, moral, family, governmental, and educational lives. For a lot of people in the world, as missionaries translate the bible into more and more languages, the Bible is the first book they ever read. As we’ve said before, we believe God gave us the Bible and that His written word has power.
Therefore, reading and writing have always been an important part of Christianity. God introduced us to Himself by asking prophets to write down what He was saying. Throughout the years Christians have written more and more books to help believers grow closer to God. And, although in our journaling we are not going to be writing scripture, and perhaps no one will ever read our journal, humanity’s relationship with God has been indelibly tied to the written word.
Writing Helps Us Process
Second, writing things down helps us process what is going on inside. You’ve probably experienced trying to pray and having a log-jam of thoughts and emotions all come crowing to the front. Or, sitting down to pray and realizing you have absolutely nothing to say. You know you should. It’s not like your life is perfect and you know everything – but you don’t know what to say.
Having to form sentences and choose words – and then write them down – helps our brains to process the complex thoughts and emotions that are rolling around our hearts and minds. It might be hard to start writing sometimes, but as you start, you’ll find that more thoughts start to come. Maybe you start with a question or a request. It doesn’t matter how you start writing because what you are doing is beginning a conversation with God. He’ll take you where He wants you to go. You’re obedience to sitting down, concentrating and opening His Word gets the ball rolling and gets you set to both speak and listen.
My journal entries more often or not start with either the words “Good Day, Lord.” Or “Bad Day, Lord.” And it starts to flow from there.
Writing Makes Our Prayers Feel More Solid
Third, writing out prayers makes them feel more concrete to us. Our prayers are always heard by God, but sometimes our prayers feel like they float away into the ether – they don’t feel very solid. Sometimes after we’ve said amen, we don’t remember what we’ve just said, we’re not really sure what to expect an answer to, and we can’t remember what God had been saying. Certainly, if you were to ask a week later what our heartfelt conversation with God was about, we wouldn’t remember hardly any of it.
However, once you start to write out our prayers you are able to see a record of what you’ve been thinking, feeling and experiencing with God. You’ll be able to look at a transcript of your conversations with Him, see patterns in your prayers over a period of time, and be able to see how God is answering prayers in specific ways. You’ll see that when you ask questions, someone is answering those questions. You can look back, even after a year, and see how God has given you new perspectives, new understanding, and changed you into a different person. You may not have even realized it, but God had been doing some really good work in and through us, incrementally, in small steps – and when you are consistent in meeting Him every day, and writing down your conversations, you can see His work in a tangible way.
Let me give you an example from my own journal of what I mean. This is an actual entry in my Journal from April 22nd this year. This is how it started:
“I don’t feel very good, Lord. Not sure what’s wrong. Too much uncertainty of good and near certainty of bad, I suppose. That and changing my diet, the spiritual attack of Holy Week, my constant distractions, and all the rest… I’m not angry, just… I don’t know. So, God, I just need a rest in you. I’ll take what you give me, but I just need a rest in you for a bit.”
You can see that I didn’t really know what to write, or where to start, or what I was feeling – I just knew I needed God. Then I got into my Bible reading. I’ll explain my Bible Reading System in a moment, but let me first show you what God did so you can see some of the fruit. Remember, this isn’t me choosing my favourite verses or searching through my concordance for certain words. This is just me reading whatever came next in my plan.
First I came to the book of Philemon. It’s only a chapter long, so I read the whole thing. And verses 6 and 20 jumped off the page. Verse 6 says, “I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.” And verse 20 ends with the words, “Refresh my heart in Christ.”
Here’s what I wrote:
“That’s what I need, Lord. And you remind me that being active in sharing my faith will give me an understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. God help me share my faith and please refresh my heart.”
I then turned to Luke 18:33-43 which tells the story of the blind beggar who receives his sight from Jesus. I wrote this: “Lord, in the same way as the beggar, I have no idea how you can do it, but I need your help. God, changing things isn’t much fun and I’m already facing resentment for it. God help my attitude. Help me be a better husband, father and Christian.”
Then I read Isaiah 40 which starts, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God…” and ends with:
“Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God’? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
I didn’t go looking for these passages. They were just next in line in my reading plan. I wrote in response:
“God, I’m weary, give me strength. I’m weak (so weak, Lord), give me power. I’ve stumbled and fallen and I don’t know where to walk, renew my strength. Help me to live in your promises.”
Then I opened to the next bookmark which was at Psalm 146 and says,
“Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord, my soul. I will praise the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing. Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God. He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them—he remains faithful forever. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked. The Lord reigns forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord.”
And I wrote:
“God, you are hearing me, I know. Another reminder of your goodness to the weak. I fear, that when I close this book I will go back to sadness, but for now I’m so thankful for your words of hope.”
And then I read 1 Chronicles 17 which has the prayer of David where he says,
“Who am I, Lord God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, my God, you have spoken about the future of the house of your servant. You, Lord God, have looked on me as though I were the most exalted of men. What more can David say to you for honoring your servant? For you know your servant, Lord. For the sake of your servant and according to your will, you have done this great thing and made known all these great promises…. You, my God, have revealed to your servant that you will build a house for him. So your servant has found courage to pray to you. You, Lord, are God! You have promised these good things to your servant. Now you have been pleased to bless the house of your servant, that it may continue forever in your sight; for you, Lord, have blessed it, and it will be blessed forever.”
I simply wrote:
“God, you bless and protect your people out of your love and generosity. I trust your love and generosity today. God, help me live in it.”
I remember feeling then, and still feel, so very overwhelmed by how specifically God was speaking to me. Gently reminding me of his love, showing me how to find strength, and then closing by reminding me of this promise that my salvation and blessing is secure because He is God. He has promised me great things and though it is sometimes hard – just like David’s life was blessed, but hard – I am one of His children.
I don’t tell you this to show off or make myself seem super spiritual, but to show you that Spiritual Journaling using Scripture as Your Guide has deeply affected me, and it is my great prayer that passing it along to you will help you as well.
I needed to hear from God so badly that day. And God was there, just as He always is. And I can look back over and over to read that promise, and it is just as precious to me today as it was the day when I had that conversation with God.
5 Bookmarks for a Balanced Spiritual Diet
This all comes from scripture, so what I want to do now is explain to you a way that you can set up your Bibles in a way that I call “Five Bookmarks for a Balanced Spiritual Diet.”
The Danger of Only Reading Favourites
Let me start with a picture: A friend calls you up sounds pretty desperate to have a conversation with you. You suggest that they come over to your place, or go out to a coffee shop where it’s quiet, so you can talk. A short time later, you’re together and they say to you, “I really appreciate your friendship, and I value your advice. You know me better than anyone, and I have a few problems right now that I want to run past you.”
You take a sip of your coffee and look at your friend, concerned and full of love for them, and say, “Ok, sure… what’s on your mind?”
And as they begin, they reach into their back pocket and say, “Well… before we start, I’ve got a few recipe cards here that I’ve written some of my very favourite things you’ve ever said to me. They are so powerful, easy to remember, and really wonderful to hear. So, I’m going to tell you everything, but when you answer me, it would be great if you’d only answer by reading from these cards, ok?”
That doesn’t give you a lot to work with, does it? But that’s what we do with God when we choose only a small pile of verses to read or live our life only reading certain parts of the Bible.
I love memory verses and we all have our favourite passages of scripture. Some people even have a life-verse that they hang onto and is special to them. But, to hear from God in a balanced way, we need to be reading the whole book, not just our own favourite parts. In order to have a conversation with someone, we need to let them speak to us freely, not assuming what they are going to say and then giving them a multiple-choice answer sheet to pick from.
RE: Bible Reading Plans
So what we need, to make sure we are reading the whole Bible, is reading plan. There are lots and lots out there. Some go through the Bible in a year, others in 90 days, others in 3 years. Some take you through the Bible from cover to cover, others jump around, others go through it chronologically.
I don’t think it matters which one you use as long as you remember that a bible reading plan is guide, not a rulebook. Stick to the plan as much as you can, but if you find yourself getting behind, don’t stress out, just keep going. Remember, you’re not in a race to get to the end, but having a conversation with God.
I’m sure you would find it frustrating to talk to someone who kept telling you to hurry up and talk faster so you can get to the end. And you wouldn’t want your friend to feel the need to talk to you for 17 straight hours because they forgot to call you last week. Just go at the same rate and you’ll either catch up, or you won’t. Getting to the end isn’t the point anyway.
So here’s my method for setting up your “Five Bookmarks for a Balanced Spiritual Diet”.
This plan is setup to be done 6 days out of the week and requires putting bookmarks in five different sections of the Bible. When you get to the end of a section you just put the bookmark back at the beginning and start over.
Bookmark 1 goes into the Stories of the Old Testament, also called the “Law and History” by some people. It starts at the beginning of the book of Genesis and goes to the end of the book of Esther. That’s 436 chapters, and if you read it 6 days out the year you’ll get through the whole thing in about a year and a couple months.
Bookmark 2 goes into the Poetry of the Old Testament, also called the “Wisdom and Worship” books. It starts at the beginning of Job and goes to the end of Song of Songs. That’s 243 chapters, and if you read it for 6 days a week, you’ll get through it in around 9 months.
Bookmark 3 goes in the Prophecy of the Old Testament, also called the “Major and Minor Prophets”. It starts at the beginning of Isaiah and ends in Malachi. That’s 250 chapters and if you read it 6 days per week, you’ll get through the whole thing in around 9 months.
Bookmark 4 goes at the beginning of the New Testament in a section about Jesus and His Church, also called “The Gospels and Acts of the Apostles.” It starts at the beginning of Matthew and ends in Acts. It’s 117 chapters and if you read it for 6 days per week you’ll have read it almost three times in a year.
The last Bookmark, number 5, goes in the Letters of the New Testament, also called “Theology and Eschatology”. It starts in the book of Romans and goes to end of the book of Revelation. It’s 143 Chapters and if you read it for 6 days out of the week, you’ll have read it more than twice after a year.
Doing this has a couple advantages:
First, it will keep you from getting bored. Maybe it’s just me, but reading 4 chapters of Leviticus in a day – and knowing that that’s where I’ll be for the next month – and only looking forward to the book of Numbers – isn’t much fun.
That’s why I set it up this way. So when your slogging your way through Leviticus, you only have to read one chapter and you know that you’ll be getting to a story in Kings and the Gospel, and you’ll be able to read a Psalm. When the Prophecies get confusing and you’re not getting much out of the Psalms that week, something in the Letters will be a spark for you. Not every chapter of every reading will be mind-blowing. Sometimes it’s about just reading and seeing the big picture of the story of the Bible.
Second, you’ll be amazed how the themes and history of scripture come together. You’ll read things in the Old Testament that will make passages in the New Testament make so much more sense. The names of Jesus, or some of Paul’s illustrations for the church, will come alive as you see that theme in Genesis, and the Psalms and Prophets. Stories you read in the History books will make all those weird prophecies start to make sense. The stories you read about the life of David will bring so much more meaning to the Psalms he wrote.
So, now that you have your bookmarks in the right place, your Bible is open, your pencil is in hand, and your Composition Book is sitting in front of you, what do you do? Here’s the technique and it takes me about half an hour to finish – sometimes more sometimes less. And this is where the importance of the margins I talked about earlier comes in.
1. Write the date and the day of the week on the top corner of the page. Why? Because when you look back on it, you’ll be able to get a lot more out of it if you can see when you did it. You’ll see things like “Oh, that was close to my birthday and I didn’t even notice how much it was bothering me.” or “I seem to get tempted in the same way on the same day of the week.” or “I can’t believe how much the winter affects my attitude. I’m such a different person in the springtime.” or “God was really preparing me for the Easter season, or for that tough thing that was coming in my life. Even months before I can see him getting me ready.”
2. Write what’s going on in your heart at the top of the page. God is there and He’s listening. You are going to talk to Him, He will talk to you and you will listen. This is where you start the conversation. The rest of the journaling may not go where you expect it to because maybe God has something different for you, but many times you’ll find that God meets you exactly where you are at and gives you what you need. And it all starts here.
So just start writing, as we talked about before. You don’t have to be eloquent, but you do need to be honest. Write from the top of your head and just begin. What is your most pressing concern, need, fear, praise, hope, desire… start there. What question do you need an answer to? What series of questions are bugging you? It can be a short sentence or two, or a whole paragraph. Sometimes mine takes more than a page because there’s a lot on my mind, but as you saw in my example, sometimes it’s only a jumble of thoughts and feelings in a short couple sentences.
3. Read the first bookmark and talk to God about it. Sometimes I start from the Old Testament and go to the New, other times I start with the New Testament and go to the Old. It doesn’t really matter. You’ll be amazed how whatever you’ve just read connects to the paragraph you just wrote off the top of your head. Or, you’ll see something else and God will start to build a new idea in your mind.
You’ll begin to realize that he’s answering the question or concern you just raised in a way that you would have never seen before, and that is far more than coincidence.
Now remember as you read, that it’s not a race. There will be times that you’ll read a chapter from beginning to end and that’s good. Other times you’ll want to continue the story and you’ll read a couple. Sometimes it’s a list of names, so you skim them over for a few chapters. By the way, when you get to those lists of names, don’t go too fast or you’ll miss some good stuff. Look for descriptive phrases like “he was a mighty man” or “they cried out to God and trusted him” or “they broke faith with the God of their fathers.” They are little nuggets that speak volumes about these names, and that God can use to speak to our own hearts.
Sometimes (and this happens to me in the Gospels a lot) you read only a couple of verses and they hit you like a two-pound hammer, and that’s more than enough for the day. That’s ok. Just leave your bookmark there and come back tomorrow!
Once you’ve read your section for the day – whatever the length – write down what you see there.
- What did God just tell you about Himself?
- What did you just learn about humanity?
- What sins where there? What blessings?
- What kind of promises di you just read?
- Were you convicted of anything, or did you learn anything?
- Did God bring to mind something you need to do?
Write it down as a prayer to God.
- “God, I see this in here…”
- “Lord, I see a mistake that this person made and I’ve done that too…”
- “Jesus, I hear your promise here, and it means this to me…”
- Sometimes I’ve just written: “I have no idea what this means, and I don’t know what’s going on, but I am reminded that you are God and I am not.”
And as you’re writing, that’s a good time to highlight the specific passage that God spoke to you through. Maybe you don’t have one for each chapter, and that’s ok. But there will be sometimes that God really speaks through a specific verse or section. Highlight it, make a note next to it, circle it. Interact with the text and your journal as you are having a conversation with God.
You’ve probably had conversations with people who like to draw things out, right? They grab a napkin or a piece of paper or they set-up the salt-shakers and spoons to explain what they’re talking about. That’s what I’m talking about. God is there talking to you. Highlight the text, circle the word that jumps out. Draw a line under the sentence and then draw a big line across the page to the verse it connects to, and a star next to it. It doesn’t have to have any more rhyme or reason than that it is your interaction with your Bible as you are interacting with God.
4. Work your way through the bookmarks. Then move to the next bookmark and do the same thing. Watch for themes as God starts weaving His message out for you. Listen for God’s voice to speak to you. Don’t try to shoehorn meanings in there, just take what is naturally in the text, and write down what you are hearing God say. Have a conversation with God. You speak, He speaks, You reflect and speak, He speaks some more…
5. Look back through your conversation. When you get to the end, take a moment to read what you just wrote and look over the highlights in your Bible. See the conversation as a whole and realize that God was speaking to you. I’ve even taken to circling some of the things that connect together and have drawn a line from point to point as God spoke.
6. Optional: Write a Title for the day. At the very top of the page, if your time with God was especially meaningful that day, and it’s something you just know you’re going to want to look back on later – either to remind yourself or share with someone else (because sometimes God gives you a message for someone else and it’s way easier to give the message if you’re reading it!) – then write a title on the top of the page. It doesn’t happen very often, but I’ve written things like “this is how to pray” or “the dangers of sin” or “God wants humility” either as a title, or right in my bible.
7. Pray through your prayer list. The last thing you do, before you’re done, is to pray for others. In the little margin, on the left side of the page is a perfect little section to keep the names of people you’re praying for. Start with your immediate family and work outwards to your friends, church, neighbourhood, country and the world. Write down each name. Then, when you come back the next day, you’ll have a list to start with and to add to.
So there’s the system. If you have any questions or comments, please leave it in the comments section below or contact me personally.
As the sun gets warmer and the trees start to bloom, I find myself looking forward to summer vacation. I’ve heard of one place that sounds nice… but I’m not sure that I’d ever go there for a holiday. I think you’ll understand why once I tell you about it.
A Not So Lovely Vacation Spot
Behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center is a lovely, little wood-lot on a hillside where people are often seen lying in the sun or reclining in the shade, as squirrels and other little forest creatures play in the trees.
It is out on this hillside where a man named Arpad Vass, a scientist at the University’s Anthropological Research Facility, works every day. All those folks spread out there in the Tennessee heat didn’t get there on their own. They are not lying down because they need a tan, but because they’re all very much dead — they are cadavers, sprawled out intentionally as a way of studying modes of human decomposition.
They are the lifeless bodies of people who have donated their bodies to science, and it is Doctor Vass’s job is to evaluate how these bodies decompose under various conditions: buried in shallow graves, stuck in car trunks, wrapped in plastic bags, submerged in a man-made pond, just to name a few. He figures out all the different ways the human body can be disposed by a murderer. The data collected helps detectives throughout the world catch murderers.
Maybe you’ve heard of this. There is a TV show that I used to watch called Bones. At its core, Bones is a drama about forensic science. Each episode focuses on solving the mystery behind someone’s murder by examining the remains. They are brought to Dr. Brennan’s forensic anthropology team at the Jeffersonian Institution, and by studying whatever is left over of the person, they are able to figure out ‘who-dun-it’. The series is somewhat based on the life and writings of a real life forensic anthropologist named Kathy Reichs.
The truth is that in the 21st century, death has been almost thoroughly sanitized for our protection. We simply don’t like to think about death. We don’t even like to say that someone died. We’ve come up with all sorts of nicer ways to say it. They “Passed away”, are “deceased”, have “ceased to be”, are “no more”, have “gone to the other side”, , “shuffled from this mortal coil”, “gone into that good night”, are “in a better place”, have “crossed over”, are now “asleep”, are “dearly departed”, “pushing up roses” or have simply “kicked the bucket”. We’ll come up with any way to say it other than, “They died.”
Consider funerals. Many people spend thousands of dollars to pay an expert to prepare the body for us, so we don’t have to see it. We get them to put makeup on the body so they will look like they are only sleeping and not really dead. Then we pay them to put the dead person into very nice clothes, complete with jewelry and a new hairdo, and lay them into ornately carved, plush box full of silken pillows. Then after paying all this money to dress up the body, we close the box so no one has to see it, cover the box in flowers, so we don’t have to think about the box, and then we bury it in the ground — and put up a very expensive, beautifully carved piece of stonework to mark the spot. Even the hole we dug for the body gets decorated.
And sadly, people don’t even have to be dead for us to put them out of sight. It seems that anyone that reminds us of death is locked up and sent away. The elderly, the sick, the dying are stuffed away in special hospitals and homes, away from eyes of our society, so we don’t have to think about death – especially not our own.
Easter & Death
The way we celebrate the Easter season points to our phobia about death. These days, when most people think of Easter, their minds are filled with pink bunnies, new bonnets, marshmallow chicks, plastic grass, colorful eggs and candy! Even crosses – the symbol of the bloody death of Jesus Christ – is sanitized and decorated to make it easier on the eyes. We want to fast forward to Easter Sunday – and forget about the crucifixion.
But, scripture teaches us that as important as new life in Christ is – and the wonderful truth of the resurrection – it doesn’t overshadow the death of Jesus. Please open up your bibles to 1 Corinthians 15:1-8:
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
Nearly every year since it came out I’ve watched “The Passion of the Christ.” Not because I like the movie, but because it remind me of the price that Jesus paid for my sin. It shows me courage Jesus showed on His march to the cross. It reminds me of the love our Heavenly Father has for us, that He would send His Son to go through that for our sake.
Think back to you you’ve done on Good Fridays in the past, and how you’ve responded to Holy Week – from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. Have you taken the time to remember what happened – to acknowledge the death of Jesus Christ – or do you avoid thinking about it in favour of more pleasant things?
The thing is, if we had to pick a decoration theme that the Easter season, it wouldn’t include flowers and bunnies – it would more resemble Halloween! There’s a corpse, burial clothes, embalming, a tomb, ghosts, screaming, torture…
I hope you come to the Good Friday service this week. Even though I don’t have control over what all happens there, I do get to preach, and it is my hope to remember the Amazing Grace of God and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Good Friday that was necessary because of our sins.
Why? Because, as Paul said to the Christians in Corinth, it is of “first importance.”
You see, along with our discomfort with death comes the same kind of discomfort with Good Friday. We know the story and want to skip to the good part. We don’t like the part where Jesus is wrongly arrested, falsely accused, beaten, tortured, abandoned, crucified, stabbed in the heart and then placed in a borrowed tomb, alone. We want to skip to the good part on Easter Sunday.
We like to forget that the disciples and the women who went to the tomb on Sunday morning were fully expecting to the dead and already decaying body of their friend and teacher, Jesus. They did not go to His tomb to see His resurrection. They intended to make certain that the body of their friend, their mentor and their rabbi was properly and respectfully prepared so that it could decompose quickly and with dignity. That’s what the spices they were carrying were for. And then, later, the bones could be taken and put in an ossuary or “bone box” and then buried somewhere else.
We can make no mistake. The women and disciples expected to find a corpse. Although Jesus had told them of His resurrection all the time, they really didn’t get it. Even though He said that He would rise in 3 days, they didn’t really believe it. Jesus said in John 14:1-3,
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
Jesus said it over and over, but on Easter Sunday, there was absolutely no doubt in the minds of the women who were coming to the tomb (Luke 23:56-24:1, 10), that that when they arrived they would find the lifeless body of Jesus… and they wouldn’t need a forensic scientist to tell them how He died. Most of His followers didn’t have the stomach to stay and watch, but they knew. He’d been on a Roman cross – and while you go up on a cross alive, you always come down dead.
That’s why they panicked! Let’s read the story from John 20:
“Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.
And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned and said to him in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher).”
In a lot of translations there’s exclamation point there on “Rabboni!” That’s possibly the most under-rated exclamation point in the entire Bible. Seeing Jesus alive was the most incredible thing that she had ever seen – and the last thing she would ever expected!
And that’s the point the apostle Paul drives home in 1 Corinthians 15 when he writes to the church about 20-30 years later. Verses 3 and 4:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried…”
You see, back then there was no funeral homes to preparing bodies for burial. Family and friends were the default morticians. Their culture knew what death smelled like, what death looked like, what death does to a body. Tombs were closed, barricaded by large rocks and stone, but everybody knew what was happening inside the darkness of the sealed tomb. In fact, before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, Martha reminded Jesus of how much it would smell.They knew what tombs were like, and what went on in them.
When Easter happened, those first witnesses saw something unprecedented in the history of human remains. The material, fleshly body of Jesus of Nazareth, somehow became a former-dead-body! They had seen Lazarus come to life after 4 days, sure… but that was Jesus healing someone else. What they were seeing here was different. This was someone actually bringing himself back to life! No one performed a miracle. There was no doctor, no prophet, no prayers. But He came back!
Even modern science hasn’t found a way to change dead bodies into live ones. They can take the parts from a recently dead body and transplant them into the living – like heart or lung…. but they can’t raise the dead.
The Miracle of Resurrection
When Paul is writing this to the Corinthians he’s addressing something that was being wrongly taught in the church. Some people were saying that there was no resurrection from the dead… no life after death. Even people today have a problem with that concept. But the church in Corinth had people who were teaching that there was no such thing as someone rising from the dead. Paul’s whole point here… his whole reason for writing this section… is to give proof and testimony to the fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is a critical, uncompromising part of the Christian faith. It is the central part of the Christian faith – that DEATH HAS BEEN OVERCOME!
Paul hammers this message here: Jesus was dead, and then He was alive. And Jesus, as a live, post-crucified person, was seen by numerous individuals whom he lists in verses 5-8.
“…and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
The disciples did not make the resurrection up. To them it was a crushing defeat. Peter returned to fishing… the disciples has scattered… the followers of Jesus knew He was dead. They were not just gullible witnesses who were testifying to a hope that they had… they were people who were telling the story of the hard evidence that had stood right in front of them!
Resurrection = Hope
Here’s why it’s important: Look at verses 16-19 of this same chapter:
“For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
This is how monumental the death of Jesus is to Christians. Our salvation is only possible if Jesus died and rose again. As Hebrews 9:22 says,“… without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” That’s a restatement from the Law of Leviticus 17:11, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement…” Jesus had to die.
If Jesus didn’t die, our sins wouldn’t be paid for. And if He didn’t die, then he couldn’t be resurrected. And if there is no resurrection, then we have no hope.
If Jesus wasn’t raised, if the tomb isn’t empty, if death can’t be reversed somehow, then, as verse 14 says, “your faith is futile”. If Jesus’ death didn’t pay our penalty for sin… then we “are still in our sins.” If There is no resurrection, then all those who have died before us… no matter what they did… “Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” They’re dead in their sins because “the wages of sin is death, and the gift of God is eternal life, through Jesus Christ …”(Rom 6:23)
Paul says, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” If the only reason that we are Christian is because of the perks we get while we are alive on earth… then we are to be pitied. One of my commentaries says it this way:
“If all the preachers lied (15:15) and no one will be raised, then not only is faith meaningless for this life, it is meaningless in death. Those who believed in Christ believed a lie; those who died because of persecution for their faith perished for no reason. The consequences of believing the lie that there will be no resurrection shake the very foundations of the Christian faith…. If the only promise of the Christian faith applies to this life, then why believe in it? Why believe in a faith that brought –in this culture and even still in many places in the world – persecution, sorrow, death, ostracism, separation? Without the resurrection, there would be no hope for final judgment and justice or hope for a final dwelling place with God. There would be nothing but death to look forward to. If the end is the same for everyone, then why not live like the pagans in sensual pleasure (15:32)? Why deny oneself? Why be miserable if the other choices bring the same result?” (Life Application Bible Commentary – 1 & 2 Corinthians)
The bodily death and burial of Jesus is truly of “first importance” and is the very linchpin of human history. His dead body, coming to life, has made all the difference, and has given hope everyone who believes.
Three Things to Remember
So there are three important things that I want us to remember during the next week of the Easter Season, and they are found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4.
1. Jesus’ Death was Always the Plan
First… Jesus died for our sins “according to the scriptures”. The death of Jesus as the substitute for our sins wasn’t something that the church or the Apostles came up with. It’s wasn’t something that God came up with on the spot. The crucifixion of Jesus was always God’s plan to save humanity from the consequence of sin, right from the beginning.
The Phrase, “according to the scriptures” refers to the Old Testament prophecies regarding this event that would come true in the future. Plans that God wrote into every book of the Bible. Plans He would carry out.
The People of Israel were waiting for God to send them a Saviour, and the reason they were waiting was because of the prophecies about the Messiah that would come, that God would send!
It is so important that we know that Jesus’ death as a sacrifice on our behalf wasn’t a way to make good of a bad situation. It was exactly the way the scriptures said He would save us – hundreds and thousands of years before.
2. Jesus Was Buried
The second thing I want us to remember is that Jesus was “buried.” The fact of His death is revealed in His burial. Everyone in Paul’s day there were false teachers of trying disprove the death of Jesus Christ.
But Jesus did die on the cross and was buried in a tomb. It’s a historical fact. Some have tried to say that Jesus only passed out… usually called the “swoon theory”. But consider that it was a Roman Soldier who told Pilate that Jesus was dead… not a follower of Jesus or someone with a political agenda.
And remember, they didn’t break His legs because they knew He was dead. They even stabbed Him in the side, right into his pericardium (his heart sac), making “blood and water” pour out of Him (John 19:34). Then Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took him and wrapped his whole body in traditional fashion and placed it in the tomb themselves (John 19:38-42). Then the enemies of Jesus, the Pharisees, stationed a round-the-clock guard so no one could mess with the body. Jesus did die.
Consider for a moment the lives of the apostles after they saw Jesus alive. One theologian (David Strauss) said this, “It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulchre, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening and indulgence, and who still at last yielded to His sufferings, could have given to the disciples the impression that He was a Conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life, an impression which lay at the bottom of their future ministry. Such a resuscitation could only have weakened the impression which He had made upon them in life and in death, at the most could only have given it a [mournful] voice, but could by no possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, have elevated their reverence into worship.”
3. Jesus’ Resurrection is a Historical Event
And the third thing that I want us to remember is that it is this week, as we gather together to celebrate and remember Holy Week, is that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. Permanently. He did not die again.
This is not just a belief, but a historical fact. Jesus said Himself that He would be in the tomb for three days and rise again… and even though no one believed Him… He did. He was seen in the flesh by many people, and even ate and taught publically only days after his very public crucifixion. Hundreds of witnesses attested to this fact. Look at 1st Corinthians 15:6. Paul seems to be saying, “If you don’t believe me ask one of these other 500 or so people. Don’t take my word for it… go ask one of the witnesses who had seen Him live, die, be buried, and then come back to life!”
Believe it or not, there are those who doubt that Jesus rose from the dead. And there are lots of supposed “arguments” against the resurrection.
Some say that the women went to the wrong tomb… but they were present when Jesus was placed there and new the area well. (Matthew 27:61)
Some say that the followers of Jesus stole the body and then pretended He rose again.… but no one questions that there were soldiers stationed there to guard against that.
Most of the disciples ran away like scared little girls when the guards came to get Jesus in Gethsemane, so it’s hard to believe that they would suddenly became so brave that they would be willing to face a detachment soldiers to steal Jesus’ body and fake a resurrection.
Some say that Jesus’ resurrection was some kind of group hallucination, but it’s hard to believe over 500 people had the same hallucination. Not to mention that if it was all in their minds, there would be an actual body that could be produced to discount their story.
We simply cannot get away from the fact the historical evidence points to the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Sure, the details of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus is a subject of debate among scholars, historians, philosophers and theologians… I admit that. You almost get the sense in reading chapter 15 that Paul himself was trying to describe a process that is somewhat mysterious to even him. But the bottom line is that somehow, at God’s initiative, and through the resurrection of Jesus, death became a lot less about blood and guts, bodies and decay, and a lot more about the power of new life – and the very temporary, unscary nature of death – now that Jesus has defeated it.
After His resurrection, Jesus invited His disciples to check him out — to put their hands in the wounds, feel inside, touch him. To be sure that it was Him, and that He had conquered death. It was a proclamation to everyone that this secret, dark world of the grave had been exposed — the gruesomeness of Friday had turned into the glorious light of Sunday morning.
For a while there’s still a lot of darkness in this world, but believers have the promise that it won’t always be that way. The cure for death has been found — and we learned it from the only One who could teach us… from the one who Himself died… and was buried… and rose again… so that we might live with Him.
I’m so proud of our Sunday school kids, and the teachers, for taking the time to memorize the Romans Road to Salvation over the past few months. Memorizing of scripture takes time, concentration, and energy – and it is a way to worship God. That time is never wasted and these kids will be amazed at how many times in their life God will keep bringing these verses up in their minds during times of crisis and trouble. When they are in a tough spot, or need encouragement, God will bring these verses to mind because they have stored them where no one can get them – in their hearts.
In doing this they have echoed the praises of Psalm 119:9-16. Let’s turn there and talk for a moment about what happens when we study, memorize and meditate on scripture.
A Pure Path
An old German version of the Bible has a great title for Psalm 119. It calls it “The Christian’s Golden ABC of the Praise and Love of the Power and Profit of the Word of God.” That’s exactly what Psalm 119 is. The author of the psalm uses the letters of the Hebrew alphabet to create an intricate, acrostic poem in thanks and praise for – and commitment to –the Word of God. Each section has its own theme and takes apart that theme in 8 lines – and each line starts with the same letter. It’s a beautiful piece of poetry about the “vital ministry of the Word of God in the inner spiritual life of God’s children.” (Warren Wiersbe – Be Exultant)
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.” (Psalm 119:9-16 ESV)
Notice it starts with a question. “How can a young man keep his way pure?” The two key words there are “way” and “pure.” The word “way” can also be translated “path”, “highway”, or even “caravan”. The word “pure” can also be “clean” or “clear” or “blameless”.
How can someone without experience, keep their path clean, their highway clear?
The picture the psalmist is painting for us is a young man setting off on the journey of his life, starting out from his door and looking ahead at the horizon to the endless expanse in front of him. He looks back at his parents, knowing he is now too old to be under their full-time guidance and it is time for him to make his way in the world.
He steps forward, opens the gate, and looks up to God and says, “God, how can I make sure the path I’m walking on is the right one? How can I keep from stumbling? How do I keep from getting lost? How can I keep my life pure so that I can hear your voice and know I’m heading the right way? How can I be confident in the way I’m going? How can I live a life where all the problems come from outside me – not from a bunch of dumb things I bring on myself? Lord, how can a young man keep his way pure?”
And the rest of the section – in fact the whole of Psalm 119 – is an answer to that question. See what his answers are.
Setting up Guardrails
First, as we look at verse 9, he says that he needs to guard his way according to God’s word. In other words, for a person to walk in a straight line, not get lost, and be assured of his destination, he must set up safe-guards on the sides of the road; guardrails all the way along, so that when things start to go wobbly in life, there is something there to bounce off of so one’s life doesn’t careen over the edge.
I’ve driven on some fairly precarious mountain roads, and I’ve been very thankful for the guardrails along the sides. They give me a sense of security that if I blew a tire, or lost control that I wouldn’t go over the cliff, but would bounce off the guard rail. Sure there would be some damage, but it wouldn’t be catastrophic. That’s the first benefit of studying, memorizing and meditating on scripture – it tells us where to set the guardrails in our life.
People in this world believe that what really want is “freedom”. They say that in a perfect world there would be no rules and everyone would be able to do whatever they wanted free from oppression and outside influence – and the world would thrive. You’ve probably heard that a lot.
Think of the words to John Lennon’s song “Imagine”. “Imagine there’s no heaven, no hell, no countries, no religion… imagine all the people living life in peace.” That’s the definition of freedom for a lot of people: no God, no government, no rules. But that’s not freedom, that’s anarchy. The human heart is not able to deal with that kind of world – it’s simply impossible. Every nation that has eliminated God didn’t find a time of peace and freedom, but instead saw the rise of oppressive leaders who devastated and oppressed the people. Think Joseph Stalin, Mau Zedong, Pol Pot, or Che Guevera. Their atheism didn’t spawn a life of “peace”, but chaos.
The Broad Road
Jesus would call the kind of “freedom” that Lennon sang about “the broad road”. A life, without walls, without guardrails, without rules. And he says this: “…wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14 NIV)
The “broad road” “leads to destruction”, not life and peace and flourishing. It is the heart that seeks God, which is guarded on both sides by the Word of God that finds life.
Even as I write that I realize how difficult it is to understand, much less apply. To agree with Jesus about choosing the narrow road requires a movement of the Spirit of God. And often, it requires that a person travels the broad road for a while, has their life spin out of control, and then careens of the edge and explodes. That’s the testimony of so many men and women I know.
“I was on the broad road. I was living for myself and I didn’t care what people thought of me. I did what I wanted. And it lead me to sin, and sin more and more, darker and darker, and then I realized what I thought was freedom was actually a trap. I wasn’t controlling my life, it was controlling me. My addictions, my desires, my appetites, my way of life was controlling me. I was captive to my ‘freedom’ and I couldn’t get free. And then things really started to spin out of control. I lost my closest relationships, my friends turned out to be enemies, everything I thought was secure fell apart – and I hit rock bottom. It was only there that I finally looked up and saw Jesus offering me forgiveness and life.”
And their testimony almost always ends the same way: “I’m telling you all of this horrible stuff that I went though because I don’t want you to go through it! Don’t make the mistakes I did. I’m trying to teach my kids not to do what I did. Not to even start down that path. I want them to walk the straight and narrow – to flee the broad road to destruction that I went down.” (Go to “I am Second” for a long list of inspiring testimonies)
In fact, much of the wisdom literature in scripture (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and more scattered throughout the other books) is written to try to warn people away from taking the broad road that leads to destruction. Look at the beginning of the book of Proverbs.
“Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching, for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck. My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent. … my son, do not walk in the way with them; hold back your foot from their paths, for their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed blood.” (Proverbs 1:8-10, 15-16)
Can you hear the pleading of the parents to their son to stay on the straight and narrow? The rest of the book of Proverbs is a series of sayings meant to help an immature person find maturity the easy way – without having to crash and burn to learn it. How many of us wish that we would have learned the lessons from our parents and not had to repeat their mistakes?
The very beginning of the Psalms starts the same way, right from the first verse: talking about choosing the right path to walk on in this life.
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:1-2)
All through the Bible you can read the voice of the Prophets, and the voice of God, saying “Here’s how life is meant to be lived. Follow these rules and you will have peace, and flourishing, and joy, and righteousness and purity, and know the heart of God! You will avoid much suffering and pain if you just follow this path.” And chapter after chapter is stories of people looking at the narrow path and saying, “I want to go my own way.” And then walking down the broad road – which leads to their destruction.
The prayer of the Psalmist is:
“With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:10-11)
The first benefit of studying, memorizing and meditating on scripture is that it gives us the guidelines for how to thrive in this life. Having it in our minds keeps it ready for us. Here is how I’m supposed to deal with anger. Here is how I find the will of God. Here is how I flee temptation. Here is what I say when Satan shows up. Here is how I should pray. Here is the kind of friends to have. Here is how I should spend my time. Here is how I should treat my money.
Learning and Teaching
“Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth.” (Psalm 119:12-13)
The second benefit of memorizing scripture is that as we study and learn and remember, the Holy Spirit uses that time to teach us, and then gives us the words to teach others.
When Jesus was about to be crucified His followers were quite worried about losing their teacher and connection to God. But Jesus looks at them and says something very important. Turn to John 16:4-14.
“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:4-14)
This is what happens when we spend time reading, studying and memorizing scripture. The Holy Spirit of God comes in and teaches us about sin and righteousness. He gives us insight into the ways that Satan works. He expands our minds so that we can tell truth from falsehood. He teaches us how to glorify God and what true worship looks like. And then gives us the words to speak when we are sharing the gospel or in a spiritual battle.
God Breathed Answers
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
Some people are afraid to share their faith because they might get questions they don’t have answers to. Others think that there is no real way to know God and they speak as though He is some great mystery. But Scripture, the Bible, has been “breathed out by God” and given to us “for teaching”, so that we can be taught the ways of God, the thoughts of God, the plan of God, the will of God. Between the Bible and Holy Spirit is inside of us, we can have a pretty good idea of who God is. And when we are sharing our faith with others, the Holy Spirit promises to remind us of what God has said about Himself and His plan of salvation.
Some people say they aren’t sure what God thinks about certain things – they can’t really know what is good or bad. Scripture has been given to us “for reproof”, or “for conviction”, or “for rebuking”. That means that within the Bible is everything we need to be able to expose false teachers and expose personal sin. Right and wrong, good and evil, wisdom and foolishness isn’t a grand mystery. Scripture has the power to point out mistakes and clarify how we can make it right.
Some say that they aren’t sure if they can ever know they are truly saved. But the scriptures were given “for correction” which is a word that means it tells us “how to restore ourselves to a right place before God.” In other words – the Bible tells us how to correct this problem of sin and death. It’s only the Bible that gives us the good news of hope in salvation through Jesus.
Some say they don’t know what to do with their life. What should I do? Where should I work? How should I parent? What should I do with an empty nest? What should I buy? The scriptures were given “for training in righteousness” so that we can know how to live a holy life. The Bible is an instruction book for life. I’m convinced that 99% of everything we need to know about how to live in this world is captured within this book – and the Holy Spirit will give us special knowledge about the other 1% when we need it.
That’s why the Psalmist says to God in Psalm 119, “Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes!” He knows that the only way he can live well is if God is his instructor.
Delighting in God’s Word
The third benefit of memorizing, studying and meditating on scripture is that it brings delight! Let’s read Psalm 119:14-16:
“In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”
This is something that a lot of people simply don’t agree with. Using words like “memorizing”, “studying” and “meditating” in the same sentence as “delight” makes no sense to them because it all sounds like work. And it is work.
But once you have experienced the Spirit of God entering into your life in a new way, guiding you in life, protecting your spirit, battling for your purity, teaching you new things about yourself and God, reminding you about the love you have in Jesus Christ – you can start to see how the psalmist feels.
Psalm 119:97-104 says it this way:
“Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day. Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts. I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word. I do not turn aside from your rules, for you have taught me. How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.”
I like learning – but there’s something special about my time with God. It’s more than learning – it’s experiencing the presence of God. I understand what the psalmist is talking about! The Word of God comes alive for me when I read it in the mornings. There are times when I’m studying for a sermon and insights that I never had considered start flowing into my mind. I start welling with emotion, getting excited, or sometimes it hits me and I feel a terrible sense of conviction, sadness or anger. Reading, studying and meditating on scripture is an experience for me.
There are times where I walk away from a time with God, and I’m literally breathless because of what I’ve just learned from Him. There are times when God brings to mind a scripture and it protects from doing something harmful, and I am so thankful that he did that for me – because I watch others around me crash and burn because of that same error. There are times that reading the Bible depresses me because I start to feel God’s heart on a particular subject – and He shares His grief with me.
It breaks my heart how distracted most of us are – me included. The cares of the world, finances, fears, entertainment, and so much more, draw us away from the Word of God. We go to so many other things for life, knowledge, peace, joy, hope, help, guidance, and peace. But it all comes up short. Why do we keep going back?
When we lose sight of the word of God, the temptations start to grow, fears start to creep in, unrighteous anger fills our stomach, jealousy and bitterness take root – and a time of meditating on God’s word, in the presence of the Holy Spirit, wipes so much of that away!
Examples of Delight
Consider what the children recited today, and think of the hope, the joy and the wonder that they will have in their hearts for the rest of their lives as the Holy Spirit brings that back to them.
They start to think, “I’m a good person. I don’t need Jesus and all this religion. I don’t need a saviour. I can save myself. God saves everybody because we are basically good and God loves everyone, right?” And the Holy Spirit says,
“Remember Romans 3:23, ‘For all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. and Romans 6:23, ‘For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.’’”
Satan comes in and says, “God doesn’t love you because you sinned. You need to earn your salvation! You haven’t done enough to impress God. You need to be better! God’s disappointed in you! You don’t have enough faith. You need to be a better person and clean up your life before you come to God.”
And the Holy Spirit says, “Remember Romans 5:8, ‘But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’”
Satan tells them to keep quiet. “Don’t share your faith. Keep it to yourself. It’s between you and God. Religion is personal. You don’t have to be uncomfortable. Just keep it to yourself.” And the Holy Spirit says,
“Remember Romans 10:10, ‘For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.’”
And then, when they eventually fall into sin, the backslide, and Satan turns up the heat and starts to condemn them. “God hates you now. You’re dirty. God says He loves you and then you turn around and do that? You let him down over and over! He’s done with you. He’s not listening to your prayers anymore. There’s no point in reading your bible. He’s heard you confess that sin so many times that He’s sick of it! Maybe you were saved before, but you just lost it. And you’ll never get it back.”
And, the end of the Romans road comes from Romans 8:1 and 38-39.
The Holy Spirit says, “Remember, ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus… For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’”
That’s where delight comes from. That’s the power of memorizing and studying scripture. I hope you know that delight.
Valuing the Bible
Do you value having a Bible? How much do you value having study guides and thousands of hours of sermons and books to read about the bible? Can you imagine, for a moment, what it would be like if you didn’t have a copy of the Bible? If you knew Jesus, and were saved, loved the one true God, but you couldn’t read about him every day, how different would your life be? What would your life be like if there was no bible in the English language? Would it be different? I hope so.
We are so fortunate. So blessed. Let’s close by watching a short video, but let me set it up first.
True Christianity is “illegal” in China, but it is spreading like a wild-fire there. Some estimates are that there are 20,000 conversions per day. Police will search homes, confiscate CD’s, bibles, song books and calendars, and then arrest people who have “illegal religious gatherings” (The Empty Cross Pg 14) . I read this week that “In China, believers often share one copy of the Bible. Each person receives a page, and when they have memorized it, they get back together to exchange their portion of the Bible.” (Bible Smuggling) What you are about to see is a group of Chinese Christians receiving a bible in their own language for the first time.
Let’s start with a couple of short stories:
I remember, a while back, going to a fancy restaurant on my parent’s 25th anniversary. We had a great meal, and my brother had bought a bottle of Dom Pérignon, which was pretty good too. After the appetizer we were served a small bowl of orange sorbet. I thought, “Wow! An appetizer dessert! That’s a good idea! I love this restaurant!” My mom told me that the reason they served it was not for dessert, but because a citrus based sorbet would cleanse the palate so I could properly taste the main entrée.
Another short story: A while back, my wife and I were shopping for perfume. We went to the store together to try a bunch of different scents and see what we would like. They took the sampler, sprayed it on a little piece of paper, and then we would smell the paper… and we did this a whole bunch of times. By the 10th little piece of smelly paper we were both getting a headache, and everything was starting to smell the same anyway.
The problem was something that is apparently called “Nasal Fatigue”. Our brains and bodies were overcome by too many scents and it was hard to discern what was good and what was not so good. Then I saw a small container of coffee beans on the counter. I remembered reading somewhere that coffee beans are good at cleansing the palate between smells. So I took a deep breath of the coffee beans, and gave my wife the container. And sure enough, it worked. I could smell again.
A Calloused Heart
Why am I telling you this? Because within these two short stories is an important lesson. If we don’t take the time to cleanse our senses with a purifying agent, they get dulled and everything starts to taste and smell the same. They get overloaded with stimuli and lose the ability to discern the subtle differences in our environments. Left unchecked it could become dangerous because we wouldn’t know the difference between good and spoiled foods, good air to breath and bad air. We need to keep our senses sharp.
I think the same thing can happen in our spirits. We are inundated with stimuli all the time. Between our online life, the TV, books, magazines, newspapers, friends, coworkers, teachers, preachers, sportscasters, billboards, and every other voice and attention grabber around us, I believe it’s easy to get overloaded and lose our ability to discern things in a godly way.
Things that used to be considered to be sin, become normal, even celebrated. Things that used to make us flinch and recoil, don’t affect us anymore. News that should rend our hearts and bring us to tears has no effect, or worse, becomes a joke. Our relationships become more distant as virtual things become our preference. Our ability to trust falls away as we listen to voices that tell us to distrust everything. Our greed and pride grows by inches, and lust becomes common place. A callous grows over our heart.
Consider the “normal things” you’ve seen this week… things you might not even notice anymore. Television commercials and programs continually sexualize younger and younger men and women. You watch your favourite comedy show and ¾ of the characters are sleeping around and having sex outside of marriage. You watch your favourite action or drama and you tune-out the foul language, get used to witnessing murders, find yourself cheering for the corrupt police officer, and hope that the married character will leave their spouse so they can finally be with their “soul mate”. If you hear these kinds of sins enough times, they start to become normal… and excusable. That husband is a jerk… she belongs with the other guy.
Consider how many times you’ve been told how much “you deserve” this week. You deserve fast, excellent service, great taste, multiple choices, a great body, happiness, success and the car / house of your dreams. If you hear that you are the centre of the universe enough times, you start to believe it.
Consider how many things you’ve been told to be afraid of. They start the news by telling you that there are at least 4 horrible things happening right now, and they will tell you more soon. With dramatic music and graphics, and a clever title like “The end of everything you’ve ever known…” they explain about 10% of the problem. Then they squeeze in some “experts” that were available today who tell you how bad it’s going to get. Then they tell you that they will “bring you more as the story develops” – or they might completely drop the story and never mention it again if it turns out to be nothing.
Then, because they need you to keep watching, the next segment starts to tell you why you need to be afraid of your veterinarian, how the global economy is collapsing, why you should never by hot-dogs, and how your toothbrush could be killing you. It doesn’t matter if it’s all misinformation and half-cooked stories because you’re watching. And — if you’re told enough times that you need to live in fear, then you’re going to start believing it.
Spiritual Palate Cleansing
What we need is a spiritual palate cleansing. We need to have some way to reset our hearts, minds and spirits so that we can tell the difference between right and wrong, distinguish wisdom from foolishness, and be able to see, hear, and experience things as they really are.
During my devotionals this week I came across a book by Andrew Comiskey called “Naked Surrender” where he talks about this very thing. He says,
“I believe that we are living in a time of unprecedented… idolatry. The moral ozone layer has burned off. … We used to flinch…. We stopped flinching. Idols sear our skin, and we no longer feel it. Desensitized by all manner of evil…. Idols empower all the wrong things; they awaken lust and deaden conscience. We then act badly, in ways that rob us of clarity and virtue and leave us unfit for real relationships.”
Our damaged palate, our desensitized soul, our callous hearts, have deep effects on our lives, our families, our church, and our relationship with God.
Our Spiritual House
Why am I making this a big deal? Because I believe this is a big deal to Jesus. Turn to 1 Peter 2:1-9. You’re going to notice a similar theme to what we talked about during the Christian Integrity series, but I want to take it from a different angle.
“So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’”
Once again we are talking about what makes up our spiritual house. And in this scripture we are reminded that Jesus is the capstone, or the foundation stone, the One on whom we are built. He is precious to us, necessary. If He moves, we all move. And, as we said before, He cares very much, and takes an active role, in how we are built. Peter says we “are being built up as a spiritual house”. In 1 Corinthians 3:9 we are called “God’s Building”. In Hebrews 3:6 we are called “God’s House.”
Let’s keep reading from verse 7:
“So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,’ and ‘A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.’ They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
Unbelievers stumble over Jesus, the cornerstone. Instead of building their lives on Him, they see it as a hindrance. Maybe you’ve felt this too. Before you were saved you saw a relationship with Jesus as a hindrance – something that would get in the way of your life. Too many rules, too much baggage, not enough freedom. So you avoided Jesus and Christianity because you saw “the cornerstone” as a “rock of offence”.
This is what we are like before we are saved – and it’s what we do when we sin. People try to find a good, solid foundation to build their lives on, right? So they start digging down and searching for something solid. All at once they hit a huge, gigantic boulder under where they want to build! That’s Jesus. Some people see that and say, “Wow, that’s awesome. I’ve never found anything so stable, so secure, so helpful, so perfect in it’s ability to keep my house secure.”
But others look at it and instead of building on it, they try to dig it out. They resent its placement. They want their house over here, not over there. They don’t like the shape of it, and they want to form it in their own image, but it’s too strong. Having a stone like that as a foundation means they won’t get the life they want, so they try to chip away at it with bad doctrine and excuses. They get the large backhoes of world religions to try to dig it out, but they can’t move it. This huge foundational stone goes on and on and it forces them to either build there or leave it altogether. This stone, that should be their foundation, becomes a hated thing to them. But for those who have been chosen, who were destined to believe, that is the most precious stone in the world.
You are a Holy Place
Listen to Ephesians 2:19-21 as it echoes what Peter is saying:
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
You see, this image is all over scripture. It’s corporate – we are God’s house – and it’s personal – you are God’s House. There are many ways to describe a believer, but one way scripture uses is to call us God’s Building, God’s Temple. The church corporately is God’s Temple. But also, each individual Christian is a Temple, built stone by stone, by the Holy Spirit as a special place for the person of God to indwells. That makes the soul of each believer a holy place, just like Mount Sinai when the bush was burning, or the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle. You’re heart and mine – all believer’s hearts – are a holy tabernacle.
Listen to 1 Corinthians 3:16-17:
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”
God takes you, His temple, very seriously. If someone tries to corrupt His temple with false worship, with idolatry, with false doctrine, they will be destroyed. Anyone who takes on a believer will face the wrath of God. He loves His People, His Household, His Children, His Holy Place where He dwells. Within you.
Cleansing the Temple
Now, having established that we are the Temple of God, and I want to turn to how seriously God takes His temple — which is your body, your spirit, and this body of believers, let’s watch this.
This is the big idea that blew my mind this week. That I can get so plugged up with what the world gives me, things that I’m unquestionably shovelling into my life, that I lose the sensitivity to the voice of God, and the Holy Spirit inside me. I allow things into my mind and heart which pollute my relationship with God, and offend Him deeply. To the point where I don’t never know what’s right and wrong anymore. I can’t tell the difference between things that God finds offensive, and what pleases Him. I can’t tell an idol from the true God. I can’t understand His will, and I am indifferent to His presence and His word.
The money changers and those selling the animals for sacrifice had become a common site in the temple. In fact, even after Christ cleansed the temple at the beginning of His ministry, they moved right back in and He did it again at the end. It had become normal and excusable! People needed to exchange their foreign money for local currency. People needed to buy animals for sacrifice locally, instead of bringing them from far away. This made sense. No one cared. No one made a fuss. Not the religious people, not those buying, certainly not those making a profit. Who cares?
The Cathedral of our Heart
Let me another part of Andrew Comiskey’s book that really struck home for me,
“One of my favorite passages involves Jesus cleansing the temple. Here [Jesus] is at his least tolerant and inclusive. Here his radical love rids God’s house of all within that does not manifest him. Jesus does not dialogue with these detractors—he whips both man and beast and drives them out, overturning tables and shouting: ‘Get out!’ He cares about what goes on in the temple because the temple represents God to others. It is, after all, the house of the Creator.
[Now listen to what he says next because it’s the point that we’re making here.]
“…I am God’s house. …My ‘cathedral’ is still vulnerable to housing… idols: … gods and goddesses that have power to defile the temple and cripple my capacity to love others well…. ”
I love that word He uses – “My ‘cathedral’.” When was the last time you thought of yourself as a cathedral built for the honour and glory of Jesus? When was the last time you looked into a mirror and saw a cathedral? A beautiful work of art full of halls and rooms and intricacies that only few have ever seen, intricately planned and uniquely made, infinitely precious and incredibly powerful, the home of many holy things. When was the last time you considered yourself to be a house of God?
That’s how God sees you. Jesus is within the walls of your heart. And I believe He is just as passionate today about the condition of your heart today as he was about the Temple then. I believe He is just as angry, ferocious and violent about the sin that is housed in our hearts, and all the corrupt things that distract us and keep us from Him.
We don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s just a tv show. It’s just one night. It’s just a joke. It’s my culture.
But Jesus sees them as very big deals. We embrace the sin, play with it, roll it around our tongue, caress it with our hands, gaze at it with our eyes and store in our minds… as though it’s no big thing. We keep it in a special place in our cathedral. And Jesus sees it and wants to destroy it because it is corrupting His Father’s Temple!
How I wish that I had the vision of sin that Christ has. I wish I could hate it as much as He does. But I’m steeped in it. I’m used to it. My palate is too clouded to discern the things of God very well. My heart is still to calloused, my eyes and ears too used to profanity, my mind so full of garbage it’s hard to distinguish the sacred from the worldly. Sure, I can see better than I used to, but I still don’t see it the way Christ does.
We excuse it. We talk to others and they say it’s no big deal, that it’s part of our personality, that everyone is doing it… and because because we haven’t been cleansing our palate with the pure Words and Spirit of God, it doesn’t even taste wrong to us … so we ingest more and more, and we grow sicker and sicker.
This is why a season of fasting, repentance and renewal is such a critical time in the life of a believer! This is why the church fathers created the season of Lent as a time to practice giving up lesser things and cleansing ourselves from worldly influence. It gives us a chance to evaluate how we are treating our body, mind, eyes, hands, feet. It makes us look twice at what we put into our mouth, what we read without thinking about it, what we touch every day. And we realize that it’s a very big deal to Jesus, because it may be profaning His temple.
Now let’s read 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. Before we start, I want you to notice all the quotation marks in the first few verses, this is Paul quoting back to the Corinthians some of their favourite slogans and excuses for why they don’t need to worry about what they are doing with their bodies.
“‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other.”
In other words, the Corinthian church had separated their spiritual lives from their physical lives. They disconnected their bodies from their souls and figured that you could do whatever you want with your body and it wouldn’t affect your mind, heart and soul. Have you ever heard that? “It’s just physical?”
They said, “Since I’m saved by grace, and everything is God’s, I can do anything I want.” Paul says, “Sure, but not everything has benefit”. They said, “But I’m free from religion and my soul is secure forever and now I can enjoy all the pleasures of this world!” Paul says, “Yes, but don’t let it dominate you. Don’t let it become your god… your idol… your master.”
Then it goes deeper and more sinister. You’ve heard this before. They said, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food”, or in other words, “if my body says it wants it, then it’s obviously what I need to do.”
“My body says, ‘Eat!’ and I need to eat, therefore I’ll eat what and when I want to. It’s just food.”
“My mind wants distraction because I’m tired of concentrating. So I can watch whatever I want. It’s just TV.”
“I’m angry and my body wants to hit something. It’s not my fault that’s how I’m built. I’m just a violent person. I’m just doing what comes naturally.”
“My body says has natural, sexual desires and wants release, therefore I’ll get it wherever I want however my body wants it. It’s not my fault if I have natural desires! It’s just sex.”
And Paul replies, “And yet both are from God, and God can destroy them if He wants to.” In other words, “God designed you with desires. You get hungry so you can feed yourself — but that doesn’t mean you should eat addicting garbage. And you have sexual desires too, but that doesn’t mean you can fulfill them however you want. He gave them as good things, but wants you to use them in a healthy way. He wants you to experience joy and love and pleasure and grow closer to your spouse. He created it. He designed it. He knows how it works. Don’t use it in a destructive, sinful, harmful way.
Continue in verse 13 and see how this ties into what we’ve been talking about with our bodies as Temples of God
“The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
Any kind of sin is incompatible with our unity in Christ – they all divide us from Him – but sexual sin is particularly evil. The word there is “PORNEIA” which includes all sexual activity conducted without your heterosexual marriage partner. That includes everything from adultery to masturbation. God brings out sexuality as special because sex has a uniquely spiritual component. You literally become “one” with the person. It’s not just physical. It’s not just a biological release – it’s a spiritual tying, and emotional connection. That’s why adultery – whether it’s with another person or in your mind though sexual imagery or sexual stories – is so damaging. It tears the soul – divides the oneness of the marriage.
And it profanes your body, which is a temple of the Holy Spirit.
A Disgusting Sanctuary
Think of it this way. You would be very surprised if you came in next week and found pornographic posters hanging all over the sanctuary, right? You would be offended, distracted, and probably never come back. Then why do you hang them in the temple of your mind where Jesus dwells? It’s the same to Jesus.
You probably wouldn’t bring your favourite porn star, pin-up girl, or someone who you are in an adulterous relationship to church with you because you’d be ashamed how people would look at you… but you’ll take someone online, or in a book, or at work, or in an old memory, and fanaticize about them – which lets that person into your heart – which is the Temple in which Jesus dwells. What’s the difference?
You’d probably have a problem if you came into church one day and the walls looked like a truck-stop bathroom stall… full of dirty limericks, swear words, filthy pictures, and profanity. And yet you will readily accept much of that into your own heart, and into your own temple. You might have a problem if the decorations in here were tributes to dollar bills, bloody violence, and revenge… all surrounding a golden recorder full of all of the gossip and bitter slander you could ever want to hear…, but is that what the walls of your personal cathedral look like? When Jesus walks through the cathedral of your heart, what does He see?
When he comes to sit with you at the communion table in your heart, does He have to sit next to a pile of your money and favourite possessions? What is there to eat? Good, healthy spiritual food, or do you only offer him the same bitter root that you’ve been chewing on for such a long time? Is your personal cathedral dedicated to comfort? No rough edges, nothing to bother you, no annoying people, no annoying rules, and at the centre is a you on a pillow – and Jesus can come in as long as He’s quiet, doesn’t disturb anything, and only gives you things that make you more comfortable?
Perhaps, in the cathedral of your heart is a cross – the symbol of the Christian faith. What other symbols are beside it, competing for importance? Maybe the make of your car, or your favourite technology? Is there a sports-team logo next to the cross? You identify yourself, in the cathedral of your heart, as Christian – and what? Is there a place of worship next to the cross, where you spend your time, your money, your energy, and your attention. Jesus gets part of your worship, but the other idols demand a sacrifice too.
You’ve been to lots of people’s houses and they all have sayings on their walls, on the fridge, in their bedroom. So, as Jesus wanders the halls of the cathedral, what is written on the walls of your heart? The scripture you’ve memorized, the prayers you repeat, the lyrics to a worship song pictures of your family and friends, concerns for your community and the world … right beside the dirty jokes you’ve been reading on the internet and the lyrics to hundreds of songs that celebrate hate, money, alcohol and sex, and all of the harmful, lying, abusive self-talk that you are so used to speaking to yourself as you call yourself stupid, ugly, worthless, and hated. Not the words of God on the walls of your cathedral, but the words of Satan, and you read them over and over.
And in a special place, all on its own, is the ornate carving of your favourite four-letter-word? The one you use in your mind constantly, and which slips out when you feel stress.
Has Jesus found the room you have dedicated to memories of your old girl or boyfriends where you like to spend time when you feel rejected or lonely?
What inhabits the cathedral of your heart?
Maybe you’re feeling convicted right now and you need to talk to God about the mess in your heart. You need to ask forgiveness and ask Him to start clearing that stuff out. You’ve tried, but it only gets worse. You need to ask Jesus to do it, and start replacing all of that garbage with holy things.
What the Church is Made Of
Here’s something you’ve perhaps never thought about: Whatever makes up your cathedral, is what our church is made of. This church is not made of stone and wood. It’s not decorated with paint and pictures. Our church isn’t our music or preaching style, the size of the building, or a weekly event. If we think that any of these things are what bring glory to God, improve our worship, or draw people closer to him, we’re dead wrong.
Our church is built out of the hearts and minds of the people that attend it. We have built this church day by day, deed by deed, decision by decision, sin by sin, idol by idol, fight by fight, prayer by prayer, sacrifice by sacrifice, act of love by act of love, over the history of this church. This is what we are made of, what inspires our worship, what God judge us by, and determines our blessings or need for discipline.
What we see when we are here together and behaving ourselves for an hour on Sunday is only the tiniest part of what we would call “church”. The church God sees, and is really concerned with, is the cathedral of our hearts. He’s concerned about what we are doing in our minds as we sing the songs and listen to the sermon. He’s concerned about what we think when we see the people around us, or think of the one’s not here. He’s concerned with the things we do when we are alone in our room, what we do when we hear of a need, what we communicate in our phone calls and e-mails. That’s what makes up our church.
Our church is built seven days a week out of our private thoughts, our actions and inactions, our secret good deeds, our personal worship and devotion, our love for one another, our sacrifice for each other and God… and it’s built from our private sins, our personal idols, our prejudices, our hate and our hypocrisy. That determines whether we are living by the power of the Holy Spirit, or are grieving Him. That’s why we need to take care of each other.
Jesus Hates Hypocrites
Jesus had some incredibly harsh words for the Pharisees who looked good on the outside, were amazing in their religious obedience, were pillars of the community and great church goers — but were absolutely corrupt on the inside. He said,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence…. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:25)
“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me…” (Matthew 15:7-9)
There are so many scriptures against hypocrisy that it is truly overwhelming.
Looking at Your Cathedral
Let me close with this question: What does the cathedral of your heart look like? Listen to Jesus speaking into your heart about your faith. Listen to what the scripture says about having your insides match your outsides.
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” (James 1:22-25)
Some of us need a palette cleansing today because we have so filled ourselves with compromise and sin that we no longer even know right from wrong. The only way to know the condition of your heart, and to purify your cathedral, is to cleanse your palette through repentance and confession, and seek purity. Look deep inside for that which is dividing your heart.
Or in the words of 2 Timothy 2:20-22, which speaks about cleaning up the cathedral of your heart:
“Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”
Here’s the Audio for this sermon:
For the past while we’ve been studying the characteristics of a person and a Christian of integrity. We’re asking the question, “what does it mean to look and act like a Christian, and a Christian church?” It all starts with the first verse, the question that is asked at the of the list, “LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?” In other words, what do the people of God look like? What does a believer act like?
Let’s read the rest of the Psalm together. I’m reading from the ESV now.
“He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart; who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend; in whose yes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the Lord; who swears to his own hurt and does not change; who does not put out his money at interest and does not take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things shall never be moved.”
What we see in Psalm 15 are some very important words that describe what Christian Integrity looks like. We all want to be – we want our children to be – people of Christian integrity. We want to work with, compete against, and have friends who have integrity. But what does that look like? Psalm 15 tells us 5 critical things that we need to have in order to say that we have integrity. These are perfectly shown in the life of Jesus, who is our model for life.
If we are to be his people, then we must always be Truthful (we tell the truth all the time), Loving (we love all people and never discriminate based on outward differences), Honouring (we reject hypocrisy and hypocrites, but honour people who are working out their faith every day), we are Trustworthy (we never break our promises) and we are Generous (we use our money well). This week we are looking at the second part of verse 4 where it says that a man or woman of God, “…swears to his own hurt and does not change;”. I like the NIV translation of this verse which says, “…who keeps an oath even when it hurts, and does not change their mind;” or the New Living Translation which says, “…and keep[s] their promises even when it hurts.”
A Multivitamin Psalm
I’m amazed that this short psalm is so encompassing. It’s like a multivitamin — small, but full of important things we need to live. And in a way it’s also like a multivitamin because if we let it get inside us, it can do well, but sometimes chewing on it can taste pretty bitter. Psalm 15 covers our everyday actions (what we do), the motivations of our heart (why we do what we do), the importance of how we use our words, how we treat believers and non-believers, how to protect our reputations, and how we use our money. You can’t live on multivitamins though, which is why we are going to the rest of scripture to get a balanced diet – to help us understand more about what’s going on and how we can obey God’s word.
Divided in Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength
Integrity is rooted deep in the heart of all believers. To have integrity means being a whole Christian – worshipping and serving God all of our heart, all of our soul, all of our mind and all our strength (Mark 12:30). Not just our minds, or just our hands. It means not being divided between two things – ourselves and God, or the world and God. It means not being split in our hearts, which causes us a lot of grief.
If you are a believer, then I’m sure you’ve felt this. You are faced with a choice, and the pulling in your heart begins. You love God, but you also feel emotionally attached to something else… or you know that obeying God means you will feel bad for a little while, or lose a friend, or look bad in front of people. And so your heart is divided.
Or you feel a division in your soul. Part of you wants to pray, but the other part wants to pretend God doesn’t exist – to watch TV, sleep, read a favourite book. Every time you are tempted to sin, you feel that division in your soul – part wanting to obey God, part wanting to reclaim your soul to yourself, to give it back over to the devil so you can experience some worldly pleasure. And it causes you pain because you have a divided soul.
Or you have a divided mind. Your thought-life sometimes feels like a game of racquetball, your thoughts bouncing around from worship songs to sexual sin, from bible verses to jealousy and bitterness, from love to fear and worry. You want to devote yourself fully to God, but moments later you are fanaticizing about what you could do if you won the lottery. Right in the middle of a time of prayer you start to make a grocery list. A divided mind, and it causes you to feel guilty and frustrated.
Or divided strength. The same hands you used to help someone, that you raised in worship, that turn the pages of your bible, that hug your children, within hours are used in private sin. The natural talent you have allows you to worship God in a special way, but it is also a way to elevate yourself above others so you can feel superior to them.
Everyone feels this. Not one person in this world has perfect integrity. Not even the most dedicated monk, living in the most distant monastery thinks about God all the time. Not even the Apostle Paul could! Listen to him wrestling in Romans 7, the same way each of us does:
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:15-24, ESV)
Jesus as Our Model and Strength
Paul is caught up in the same spiritual warfare as we are, daily battling our fleshly/worldly desires and our spiritual ones. Who will save us from this body that wants to eat spiritual death, walk the path of death, enjoy spiritually dead things, revel in demonic, hell-spawned sin, hang around spiritually dead people? Who can save us from this divided heart?
We can’t save ourselves. Paul answers the question this way in verse 25, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” What is required to save us from this divided heart, this “body of death”, is that someone live a perfect life, be a perfect model, and then go through death, be killed, and then destroy death by rising from the dead! Who can kill death? Who can save us from this body of death? The one who destroyed death once and for all, Jesus Christ!
In other words, when God saved us, we became His people. As Psalm 15 says, we “dwell in his sanctuary”, we “live on his holy hill.” He saved us. He adopted us into his family and since we are his, we have access to the same privileges as Jesus Christ. We are not alone in the struggle for integrity. We have the Holy Spirit inside of us, convicting us of sin, reminding us of our hope, showing us our Father, giving us new wants and desires. And when we listen to Him, we will have what is needed to combat our divided hearts.
Stay Close to Jesus!
This is why every mature believer since the beginning of time has said the same thing over and over – it has not changed!
Stay Close to the Word of God: Read, study and meditate on the Word of God. If you want to live a wise life, go to the source of all wisdom. If you want to be like Jesus, read about Jesus.
Stay close to Jesus: Talk to Him all the time – be in prayer in the morning, the afternoon, the evening, about all things. If you want to be protected, strengthened and encouraged, stay close to Jesus.
Stay around Jesus’ People: Love and be loved by other believers. Serve and be served by other believers. Don’t try to draw strength from hypocrites, unbelievers, and people who play for Satan’s team. Lean on your Christian friends and Elders in the church.
It hasn’t changed for millennia!
This is what God said to Adam and Eve – Listen to my word, stay close to me, take care of each other.
This is what God said to Israel – Listen to my word, stay close to me, take care of each other.
This is what God said to every prophet – Tell them my word, tell them to draw close to me, tell them to start taking care of each other.
This is what Jesus told Paul and Peter and James and John to write to His churches – Tell them to stay in my word, tell them to stay close to me, tell them to take care of each other.
And that’s what Jesus came to do for us and to model for us – Jesus perfectly obeyed God’s word, Jesus was in perfect union with God, Jesus cared so deeply for people that He gave His life for them.
And He gives us access to His Spirit when we obey Him!
God Makes Promises and Keeps Them
Using this as our stepping off point, let’s talk for a little bit about this idea of being trustworthy and how our ability and desire to be trustworthy comes from God. God has made a lot of promises and it would be counter to His very nature, since He is God and can do anything, to break a promise. He can always keep His promises because of who He is.
Listen to some of these:
- 1 Corinthians 10:13, “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”
- 2 Thessalonians 3:3, “But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one.”
- John 10:28-29, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”
- John 14:3, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
- (And my favourite verses) Romans 8:38-39, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord”
- (And perhaps the most comforting promise) 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
We live and die by the promises of God. We believe that He will follow through on them. He is not a liar. He does not go back on His word. Whether we realize it or not, when Christians are in trouble, we echo the words of Psalm 119:154, “Plead my cause and redeem me; give me life according to your promise!” When we worship God, foremost on our minds are his promises, like in verse 162, “I rejoice at your word [“promise” NIV] like one who finds great spoil.” When we read and remember all of the promises He has given us, and his ability to follow through, it’s like looking over a vast treasure. They are our sure inheritance.
Keep Your Vows
And so what God is concerned about here in Psalm 15 is our reputation for being like Him, like one of his people – to be trustworthy. What we say is always what we do. A person of integrity doesn’t break their promises. We are not liars. My ESV Study bible says this, “Vows must be kept because God keeps his promises and desires that his people imitate his moral character.” Therefore God takes what we say very seriously.
And if you made a vow to God, it was very serious business. Listen to part of the Law from Deuteronomy 23:21-23,
“If you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin. You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God what you have promised with your mouth.”
Remember the vow of Jephthah from the book of Judges. He was facing down an enemy army, and even though God had already promised Him the victory, He panicked and made a rash vow to God that if God let him win, when he returned from battle, anyone or anything that came through the door of his house would be offered as a sacrificed. Of course God kept His word and Jephtheh won the battle, but the one who came through the door was his daughter. And He dedicated her the service of God and that she would never marry, ending his own bloodline. His life is a lesson in rash vows.
A person must be careful with what they say, especially to God. And when they do make a promise, they need to fulfill it quickly, and no delay. Why? Because God will hold everyone accountable to their actions, and to their promises. Even the rash and foolish ones. He wants to teach us that words matter.
Turn to Ecclesiastes 5:2-7 and read another warning,
“Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words. When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.”
Scripture teaches us that we need to be careful with our worship, our prayers our words, and our promises when coming before God. God will hold us accountable to these things. He says that it is the fool who comes before God with many words, and many promises, but doesn’t keep them.
In verse 6 we see the messenger coming to collect on the vow and the person who made the vow saying, “Oh no… I didn’t mean it. It was a mistake. I was just in the moment. I didn’t mean to. That was just part of the song I sang. I was desperate. I was afraid. I was caught up in emotion.” And God still holds them accountable.
Proverbs is right when it says in 20:25 says, “It is a trap for a man to dedicate something rashly and only later to consider his vows.”
Now, just so we don’t think this is an academic exercise that only applies to ancient Israel, let’s ask the question: Can this happen today? We don’t make blood sacrifices any more, and I can’t remember the last time I took an ephah of grain to a temple because I needed a new set of oxen, so can we make a vow before God today?
I believe we can, but it’s different for us, because I believe that God takes what Christians say today even more seriously.
You’ve probably heard people say, “I swear to God!” “I swear on my mother!” “I swear on the Bible!” People did that back then too. They used to swear by all sorts of things: By earth, heaven, the temple, the alter sacrifices, the gold in the temple… but like good Pharisees, they had all these little rules about it.
In Matthew 23:16-21 Jesus looks at the Pharisees and teachers and talks about this very thing. He says,
“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.”
His point is that everything is God’s so no matter what you are swearing by, it is all holy! You are accountable for all your words and vows, no matter what you swear on, because everything God has done is sacred. Even the hairs on your head belong to God. You can’t even swear by your own head, because you are not your own! Therefore, all vows are holy and need to be kept.
A Higher Standard
But Jesus went even farther. In the Sermon on the Mount we read Jesus talking to His followers about being trustworthy and careful with our words. And, as Jesus always does, He pushes beyond the Old Testament Law. Turn to Matthew 5:33-37.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
He said to His followers that they need to be so well known for their trustworthiness that they don’t even need to make an oath or a vow. It should simply be… “Oh, that person’s a Christian? They follow Jesus? Well, then I can trust them because everything they say is true.”
People used to use these oaths, and vows, and pledges, to get around things. They tried to find loopholes and ways to get off the hook. “Oh, I vowed by the temple, and not the gold… so it doesn’t count.” “I vowed by the alter and not the sacrifice, so it doesn’t count and I don’t have to do it.”
Jesus always took the Old Testament Law and then raised it up to a higher standard. As one of my commentaries said, “Instead of letting people off the hook, he set the hook deeper. Jesus spoke about oaths in order to point out that they were not the main problem – integrity was. A liar’s vow expresses a worthless promise. But when a person of integrity says yes or no, that person’s simple word can be trusted.”
I think what affects me the most is this verse in Matthew 5:37,
“Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
The first thing that grabs me is that this is supposed to be simple. And it really is. Just do what you say. When you say something, mean it. When you say you’ll do something, do it. When you say you won’t do something, don’t do it. Keep your promises.
But the other part is, “Anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” I think what this means is that we shouldn’t be adding a bunch more words to our words. People should just be able to trust what we say, without a bunch of extra explanation, excuses, justifications, pretexts and rationalizations.
For example, if someone comes up and says, “Will you do this?” We should be able to say, “Yes, I will.” And leave it at that. It’s when someone is a known liar and can’t be trusted, that more and more words start coming. People only need oaths when there is a possibility that the other party is lying! That’s why we have such a proliferation of contracts in our world. We can’t trust anyone! Believers know that every word they speak will be held accountable by God, and so they simply do what they said they would do, or don’t do what they said they wouldn’t do.
So, in keeping with what Jesus has said, and what the Psalm has said, let me pull two simple applications out of this.
First, and this is obvious, Christians need to be careful with what we say. And this means both “yes”, and “no”. If you don’t plan on doing it, then don’t say YES. If you don’t want to do it, then say NO. If you don’t have the time to do it, then say NO. If you are already way over committed, then just say NO. If a telemarketer calls you on the phone and asks for a pledge, and you aren’t going to, don’t lead them along, or pretend… just say NO.
If someone asks you to do something that you cannot accept, you shouldn’t need to launch into the 20 minute explanation of your schedule, your health, your family problems… and all the reasons why you can’t say yes. Simply say “I’m sorry, NO, I can’t.” If you have a good reputation then they know you’re not being rude, or blowing you off, they know you can’t because you said so.
And when you learn to say NO, when you say YES to something, it will mean so much more to you and the people around you! You’ll be known as a person who is able to follow through. You will have integrity.
So the first thing is that we need to be careful what we say, and what agreements we make. Just let our YES be YES, and our NO be NO, and let that be that… anything else is evil.
Modern Vows You May be Breaking
The second application I’d like to make, is that we need to keep the vows we make — the YES’s and NO’s we’ve already got. I’ve been thinking about this, and this may hit home for some of you. We, as Christians who will stand before God, and who know that all of His things are holy, even us… must fulfil our vows, pledges and promises. He takes them very seriously because our integrity reflects His character, His Kingdom and His Son.
So let me ask you this. Are you fulfilling the agreements you’ve made? Are you looking for a way out? Or, are you breaking any? Remember the Psalm. “LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?” One “who keeps his oath even when it hurts”. Here’s some examples of some promises that we make today. How are you doing on these?
Rental / Lease agreements. You promised to pay your rent on time, take care of the place, not sub-let, to report things that go wrong, and to clean up after yourself. How are you doing?
Copyright Agreements. Every movie and CD you’ve ever bought has had a copyright in it. In Canada you are not allowed to copy music or movies you didn’t pay for. Not even for “private use”. You can’t borrow from the library and put the music onto your computer. It’s illegal. Have you broken that agreement? Are you clean in this area?
If you have Netflix then you are only allowed to watch programming available in your region. Changing your computer to get the “American Netflix” breaks your terms of service agreement. It’s the same with American Satellite systems. They are illegal in Canada.
Business agreements. Are you fulfilling all of your business agreements? Are you doing good work, done on time, without gouging the customer for extra profit, cutting corners, using inferior products, and all the rest? Are you a trustworthy business person?
Employment contracts. When you started your job, you probably agreed to certain things when you signed an employment contract. You promised not to steal anything from work… not even a pen or a paperclip. You agreed to use your sick days when you are sick… not other times. You may have signed a confidentiality agreement. Employees, are you keeping it? And if you are an employer, then are you following your agreements? Paying on time and in proportion to their work, granting them their time off without guilt or frustration, making sure they get their break times, that they are trained and understand their job.
Visitor Agreements. When you bought that that day-pass to the zoo, the park, the campus, the hotel, or whatever, you probably accepted a visitor agreement. You agreed not to take pictures of certain things, not to take anything home, not to pick any flowers, to clean up after yourself, to stay away if you feel sick, and many have the agreement to “not make unreasonable demands”. Are you abiding by your agreements?
Loan or Credit Card contract. When you agreed to take their money, you promised you would pay it back. Are you? Or are you trying to find all sorts of ways around having to pay back what you owe them? People think that they are just big, evil corporations… but you made a contract with them. God takes that very seriously! Are you keeping your end of it?
Store agreements. When you bought that thing from the store, you agreed to pay for it. Did you pay the right price for it? If they made a mistake and gave you too much, did you go back and tell them and pay more? When that poor, underpaid, overworked cashier told you “I’m sorry, that’s not our policy”, did you freak out on them? You agreed to purchase it there. You paid for it. The return policy is written on your receipt, on the wall, on the website. Do you expect special treatment? Are you asking them to break their own rules, to make their YES into a NO, for your sake?
Church Membership. When you became a church member you agreed to certain things. You agreed to support the church financially, and with your time and abilities. You agreed to be actively involved in votes and meetings, even when they are boring.
When you voted for last year’s budget, they whole church raised their hands to say they would allow the deacons to spend the money, and that they would give in proportion. Have you been living up to that agreement? We have a large financial deficit this year, so either we agreed to spend too much, or people aren’t supporting in the way they agreed to.
There are people who used to attend this church, who agreed to support it during good and bad times, but left others here to pay the bills and fulfill their ministry responsibilities in their place. They broke their promise to the church.
When you voted for the elders and deacons you agreed to submit to the eldership, support new ministries with your work, attendance and finances. As a Church Member you agreed to be active in your spiritual development, and practice church discipline. If you are a member, are you doing these things, even when it’s inconvenient, or difficult… “even when it hurts”?
Marriage agreements. A vow taken before God for life. Even when it’s hard… when it’s next to impossible to see how it’s going to work out… are you willing to stay together and seek reconciliation? Are you putting effort in? Serving for, suffering for, loving, caring, and pursuing your mate like you are supposed to? Husbands, are you being Jesus to your wife? Wives are you respecting and caring for your husbands? Or is there a point at which you believe it is ok to break your covenant because it is too hard. Maybe not divorce, but merely avoid each other – live separate lives. Do you have that thing in the back of your mind that says, “If they do that again… I’m out of here… I’ll never forgive them!” Or, have you said to yourself, “I’m going to love them and serve them and keep my vows, no matter what!”
I could go on, but you get my point. Is your YES YES and your NO NO? Are you sticking to your contracts, agreements, and covenants… even when it hurts? Or are you like the world that seeks to blame others, wants special treatment, makes excuses, breaks promises, and walks away when it’s too hard?
You are a child of God who has the Holy Spirit within them, a new creation that does not love the things of the world anymore. Are you leaning on God and drawing from His strength so you can obey Him in this way?
(I used this prayer by Pastor Scotty Smith this week.)
I don’t know where you are at today, and I don’t pretend to know what is going on in your heart – only God knows that. I can say with absolute certainty that there is something you desire very much, that you have worked for, that you have tasted, and that you want more of – I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that every one of us in the room today wants peace. As I’ve meditated on this idea, I wonder if the pursuit of peace might be the one, biggest thing in our life– possibly above all others – for much what we do as human beings.
Yes, we all want to be loved. We all want to have joy. We all want to know freedom. We all want physical, emotional and spiritual healing – but are those not all ways to find peace? Peace of mind. Peace of spirit. Peace in our jobs. Peace in our hearts. Peace in our families and relationships. If there is one thing that we all want, it is peace.
Our Powerful Desire for Peace
Many people who get addicted to something say they started because their lives were a mess and they needed an escape – it made them feel better, or because they were just trying to fit in (translate that – be at peace with their friends).
One might think that this wouldn’t apply to adrenaline junkies. People who love fast cars, roller coasters or jumping out of planes or off of cliffs for fun. But when you listen to them being interviewed, or talk to them after, they say things like, “I don’t know what it is, but when I’m up there… going fast… pushing the limits… it just feels right.” Some will just flat out say that that’s where they are most “at peace.”
When someone dies after suffering with a painful disease we comfort each other by saying they are “resting in peace.” Parents of young children are just looking for a little “peace and quiet”. Conflict counsellors are always talking about ways people can “make peace.” People spend hours and hours in front of tv and movie screens and on the internet because they are avoiding real life and escaping into a place where they can have a time of peace. At Christmas time we read the words “peace on earth and good will towards men” on all sorts of decorations and cards. Many people will decorate their houses with the word “peace” in blinking lights this year.
Our Pursuit of Peace
The pursuit of peace is a powerful desire in the human heart. And we’ll go to many extremes to find it. Many suicide notes simply say that ending their life was the only way they could find peace. Murder, in a sense, is a violent way of making peace. Eliminate the other person, and there will be a moment’s peace.
We have multi million dollar industries dedicated to bringing us a moment’s peace. We have spa’s and massage places. We get CD’s that have ocean sounds, and noise blocking headphones. Many people are addicted to online video games because their virtual reality helps them escape real-reality. Some people live online because it is the only place they can feel in control and at peace… the real-world is simply too messy.
We come from many different places, with many different issues, problems, hopes and anticipations… we all have a similar desire: Peace. We may not all define it the same say, or find it the same way. In fact, your version and definition of where you are most at peace may be a place that causes me anxiety. But it is the same thirst.
Peace is not found in a place. Some seek to find peace in nature, or among people at a party, or in a dark room. We have all come here… to this place called a “sanctuary”… this place of refuge… so that we can have at least an hour or so where we need not worry, fight, buy, sell, hunger, thirst, clench our teeth, or be concerned, bothered or anxious… but simply come to be in the presence of God and His people, to sing new and familiar songs to Him, and to hopefully hear some kind of message from His Word that we can take home and apply so that we can have a little more peace than when we came in. And while our location might assist us, it cannot bring us true and lasting peace.
Peace is not found in a substance. Unfortunately, there nothing I can say, do or give you that will give you peace. There is no way the singers, or song writers, or musicians can do that. No smell, food, chemical or physical sensation will give you true and lasting peace. Temporary maybe, but not true and lasting peace. The people around you cannot bring you peace, because peace is a condition that is found on the inside, and doesn’t come from the outside. No human can give you peace because peace isn’t something people can exchange with one another. Peace is not a pill or an exercise or a habit, or something that you can buy and import into your body because peace is not found in a substance.
Peace is not found in knowledge. You might think, “maybe when I have it all figured out, gain enough knowledge, ask enough questions, and understand how the universe works, then I will be able to have peace. Once I can figure out the reason why all these things happen, then I will have peace.” But the pursuit of knowledge alone, doesn’t satisfy. It took me a long while, but eventually I figured this out. Warren, in the little book we’re looking at says it this way:
“An educated mind does not automatically produce a peaceful heart.” (Pg 88).
Peace is not found in circumstance. You could be sitting in the most beautiful, peaceful spot in the world, and still be weighed down by the cares and worries of your life, the battles waged in your heart, and the confusion of your mind. And yet, in the same way, you could be in the most uncomfortable, war-torn, sad place in the world, surrounded by destruction and pain… and feel a “peace that passes understanding”.
We talked about this a couple weeks ago. We think that if we could just change our circumstance – more money (or less money), a sunnier vacation spot, a different house, a better job, a different family, a better marriage – if that person would still be alive, or that person would leave me alone – or whatever circumstance needs to change so that we can finally have peace.
But it doesn’t work, does it? If we’re honest, we know that when we finally get what we want externally, it doesn’t change our problems internally. We get it, but we don’t feel any more at peace! Why? Because peace doesn’t come from outside of you… it comes from within.
I said this before, too. The problem isn’t physical or emotional – the desire for peace is deeply spiritual – deeply internal. We are broken and at war deep inside ourselves. And so, when we try to fix the problem externally, it doesn’t work! The problem is spiritual, so we need to have it fixed spiritually.
Peace comes from the one who is called the Prince of Peace. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the story of peace. Peace comes when you allowing the message of the Gospel and the person of Jesus Christ to take hold of your heart, have access to your soul, and then let Him release you from the burdens of your soul. It’s not something you can do yourself. True and lasting peace is not a human thing – it’s a God thing. And it will only come when you stop trying to make it happen through external means, and get into a saving relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Peace to Men on Earth”
Let’s turn, once again, to the passage from Luke 2:8-14.
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.’”
The shepherds who heard these words for the first time were looking for peace too. Personal peace. Relational peace. Political peace. Being a Jewish person under the Roman occupation and King Herod was bad – but shepherds had it worse because they were outcasts even in their own society. We romanticize them because David was a shepherd and we all love Psalm 23, but shepherds then were rejected outsiders. Their work made them ceremonially unclean, so they couldn’t be around religious people, and because their work was so constant, they couldn’t get to the temple very often to make the sacrifices to be made clean. They were considered to be untrustworthy and unlikeable. To be a shepherd was to be someone who was never at peace with people or God.
There was one word they were waiting to hear so that they could finally know true peace was at hand… the word Messiah, (or Christ). There would be no peace until the Messiah came. Those words were tied together: “Christ” and “Peace”. The expectation was, and is for many Jewish people today, that the Messiah would come and bring destruction to their worldly enemies and bring political and economic peace. Restore Israel to its former glory. No more war, no more starving, no more shame.
“The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’…The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth. He will drink from the brook by the way; therefore he will lift up his head.”
How’s that for a song about Jesus? Wrath, judgement, corpses… Not exactly “Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie, right?” But that’s the Christ the nation of Israel was expecting!
When these humble shepherds heard this heavenly announcement, their minds must have gone back to the prophecy of Isaiah 9:6-7,
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.”
They read that very differently than the passive reading we give it today, which is what compelled these shepherds to leave their sheep and go see this child for themselves! Our warrior Christ! Peace by the might of our King! At Last!
Imagine the conversation as they were coming back to the field after seeing baby Jesus. “I can’t wait for this kid to grow up. I wonder if I’ll be able to join his army.” A little more spring in their step and their chests sticking out a little farther. The next time they walked by a Roman Guard there was a little less fear. Now they walked as men who knew that their enemy’s days were numbered.
God’s Plan for Peace
But it didn’t happen the way they thought it would. And in fact, when the peace of God through Jesus Christ was made available to them, most people rejected it. They didn’t want peace in the way Jesus was bringing it. They loved singing Psalm 110, and loved listening to Isaiah 9, but they chose to forget that God would bring peace His way, not theirs, and didn’t realize how this peace would be won. Their thoughts were fixed on a military conqueror, but God didn’t send one.
Why? Because their problem was spiritual. They wanted the Messiah to change their circumstances, to change where they lived and how they lived, they wanted more food, more money, more land, less war, less troubles, to be on top of the world. But Jesus didn’t come to offer them the world!
God’s plan was so much bigger. It was not only a plan to free them from the oppression of Rome, but the oppression of Death itself. Not only to save them from their earthly enemies, but from their much more powerful and potent demonic enemies. Not only to cleanse their city of people who they didn’t want there… but to cleanse their very lives from sin and evil… and to make possible a righteousness in their hearts that hadn’t been available to humanity seen since the Garden of Eden. He didn’t offer the world – He offered something so much better.
God’s true plan was revealed by prophesied by Isaiah, but most people didn’t want to hear it. Let’s read together God’s revealed plan for bringing peace through Jesus Christ as told by Isaiah 53.
“Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
Pause there. That’s saying, “Who would believe the way God would work? Who would believe the prophecy that said God would send a suffering messiah who would be rejected by those he came to save? Who would believe how God’s power… His “arm”… would be revealed by coming Himself to Die for the sins of the world? Not many would believe this prophecy.
Problem 1: He Doesn’t Look Right
“He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”
This is the first problem many people had and have with Jesus. He not impressive enough for them. He’s ordinary looking, born to ordinary parents, had an ordinary job, and traveled with ordinary people. It was who Jesus was on the inside (not the outside) that made Him so remarkably different! But many people want their saviour to be someone who not only does the right stuff… but also looks good doing it. Someone who looks like they are super-religious and knows something about God that we don’t. Someone flashy, and strong. Someone super handsome that people are drawn to immediately. Someone powerfu who fits with their mental description of why they want their peacemaker to look like.
Jesus doesn’t play that game. He didn’t come with His full glory, but instead came humbly. A question to consider here: When Jesus offers you peace, do you reject it because it’s not coming in the way you want it, in the shape you want it, by the person you want it from? Do you reject the gift of peace through the Lord Jesus Christ because the wrapping paper is too plain for you?
Imagine getting an amazing present… a 10 karat diamond ring, or a state of the art computer, or priceless sculpture… and rejecting it because it was wrapped in newspaper. Many people do that with the peace that comes through Jesus Christ. He doesn’t match their mental picture, so they dismiss Him and reject the peace that comes through a relationship with Him.
Problem 2: Peace ≠ Comfort
“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
This is yet another problem for many people who desire peace, but don’t accept it the way Jesus offers. For them, peace equals comfort and convenience. Let me try to use an illustration to explain what I mean.
Imagine someone offering to build you a beautiful home. You can design every part of it, and price is no object. You spend months planning out the perfect house, getting the swatches for the carpet, choosing the marble for the counters, setting out the perfect bathroom fixtures… and finally you’re ready to build. The benefactor says, “Ok, I’ll start building, but I need to know where you want the house put.
I’ve got two places in California picked out. The good news is that one place is on the side of a mountain, facing the ocean where you can see the sunrise every day… and the other place is in the suburbs. The bad news is that both places are next to a fault line and experience earthquakes from time to time. So where do you want your house?”
If your definition of peace is where everything in life… all of your circumstances, everywhere you go, and everyone around you is always nice and nothing bad ever happens… then that’s like choosing to build on the side of the cliff. For you, peace is all about the view. A beautiful home, a beautiful life, must look beautiful.
It’s always a surprise when bad things happen to you because you don’t deserve it. You did everything you could to be at peace. You make your life picture perfect on the outside. No one knows what is happening inside your house, but on the outside it’s beautiful.
But the earthquake inevitably comes – and in this life it always will – there will always be something coming to shake your life – instead of having the strength and foundation to ride it out, the security that you are well established, the knowledge that peace is not about your circumstance – you blame everyone else when things go wrong, especially God. When parts of your house fall off it can’t be because of you – you made everything look perfect.
And so you spend weeks completely stirred, shaken, lost, afraid, confused, until you can clean up everything on the outside, until the wound is no longer fresh, pushing the doubt and fear deeper inside – and you clean up the externals. You dress up, look nice, tell everyone you’re ok, put on airs, pretend that you are at peace because you desperately need to feel it. You push away everyone that reminds you of anything negative, you end relationships that hurt, you only seek people that make you feel good – and drop them when they no longer do. And you think that maybe this time, if you make everyone believe that everything is just right — it will be.
But there goes another rumble, and another part of your life falls off the cliff. And you never feel at peace because you’ve got the wrong definition of peace.
Peace In the Midst
Jesus teaches that peace is not about what’s going on around you. He teaches that peace is something that occurs despite what you’re going through. He says that you can access peace in the midst of suffering. That’s why peace isn’t something that can you can achieve all by yourself… your foundation cannot be of your own making. Peace is a gift from God that is only found in a relationship with Jesus Christ, the Chief Cornerstone and the Prince of Peace.
Read verse 5 again,
“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
You see, were it not for Jesus dying on the cross for our sins, we would still be under the judgment of our “transgressions”, which means “rebellion, defection, sins” and could never be at peace with God. We would still be His enemy.
Were it not for Jesus, we would still be under the weight of our “iniquities”, which means “guilt, perversion, depravity” and no one who lives with guilt, is bent towards perversion, and lives a depraved life can ever be at peace with others. If it were not for the brutal punishment Jesus took for our sakes, we would always have fear of God’s judgment looming over us and we would never be able to have emotional peace or any kind of peace of mind — our guilt and shame would eat away at us for our whole life. And were it not for the punishment He took for us, we would be plagued by the evil around us, always looking to mete out revenge, trapped in a cycle of hate, always wanting to make sure that those who wronged us paid for it. But our faith in Christ lets us know that God is perfect judge who won’t let anyone get away with their sins – and anyone who has faith in Jesus has had their punishment give to Jesus and in no way would we ever want to add to that punishment.
If it wasn’t for Jesus being wounded for us, we could never be healed. His wounds allow us to be forgiven, to heal from the pain of our own sin and the sins that others have committed against us, and gives us the freedom and strength to forgive others.
Find Peace with God through Jesus Christ
How do we access this kind of peace? Through Faith.
Romans 4:24-5:11 explains how and why we can have peace:
“It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
I hope you see this because it is very important. Our faith in the risen Jesus Christ, who died for our sin, gives us access to peace with God. Through Jesus, and only through Jesus, we have grace and hope. That hope brings us through any sufferings and gives us a firm foundation and a new perspective on things that try to shake our peace. But since our peace is not built on circumstance, but on faith in the love of God proved in Jesus Christ, even suffering leads to more hope and more peace. Our weakness – our lack of faith and lack of peace – didn’t keep God away, but instead He came to die for us. No matter what we have done, no matter how not at peace with God we are, Christ died for us. We need not fear wrath, because Jesus took it. And now we are reconciled, made right with God, given life when we had death. This reconciliation leads to rejoicing and worship!
I hope you see that faith in Jesus leads to rejoicing and worship – peace in the midst.