“Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:1–16)
What is Lent?
We’re headed into the Easter season. This week we celebrated Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday as it’s sometimes called, followed by Ash Wednesday, the official start of the season of Lent.
Lent has been observed for hundreds of years, dating back before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The counting of the days of Lent is a little convoluted since some churches observed seven weeks of fasting except Saturdays and Sundays because they liked the number 7. Others wanted it to be 40 days because of the significance of that number in the Bible. Moses was on Mouth Sinai fasting for 40 days, Elijah walked for 40 days while fasting, and of course, Jesus fasted for 40 days when being tempted in the desert – and there are more examples.
The Western church has settled on the formula being that Lent lasts from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday), changing the date depending on when the Jewish Passover occurs, which is on the first full moon following the Spring equinox, making Lent 46 days long, minus the Sundays, or Lord’s Days, when we celebrate His resurrection rather than His crucifixion, by worshipping rather than fasting, bringing the number of fasting days to 40. Makes perfect sense, right?
The season of Lent has traditionally been a time when Christians avoided certain foods, parties, and celebrations to contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus instead. We cut out some of the distracting, pleasurable things from our lives to confess our sins, meditate on the sufferings of Christ, and prepare our hearts by remembering why Jesus had to die on the cross. It’s a time to consider the habits of our life, mortify those sins that have cropped up, think less of ourselves and more about Jesus by spending more time, energy and effort on our spiritual lives and relationship with God.
The day before Lent starts is called Shrove Tuesday and it is that day that really emphasizes how far culture has moved away from a Lenten spirit. Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the word “Shrive” meaning to confess sins and receive absolution or forgiveness. It was a day set aside to really clean out our hearts by getting serious with our sin before the season of Lent began. A day to say with David in Psalm 139(:23-24), “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”
But here’s what happened. There were a bunch of foods that people would traditionally give up for Lent – things like meat, fish, fatty foods, eggs, milk, and sweets. Like the Israelites with their simple, bitter foods and unleavened bread, Christians used their diet to show what was going on in their hearts. But because there wasn’t refrigeration back then the foods people gave up would spoil before the 40 days were over. And what’s the best way to get rid of fats, eggs, milk, sweets, and meat? Have a pancake party.
So, Shrove Tuesday turned into Shrovetide, three days set aside to use up these foods. Over time, the day of confession became a time when families would get together and eat up all the foods they couldn’t have during Lent. Shrove Tuesday turned into Pancake Tuesday or Fat Tuesday (because it was the day to use up fatty foods). And you likely already know the French name for Fat Tuesday – Mardi Gras.
Now, when you think of Mardi Gras, I’m sure the first thing that comes to mind is confession of sin, repentance, soul-preparation, and spiritual discipline, right? No. Mardi Gras is now an entire season, starting on January 6th, dedicated to parties and parades and often, perversion.
Now, let me pause here for a moment to say that while Christianity is against perversion, we are emphatically not against parties or parades or pancakes – because scripture is not against them. As Ecclesiastes 3 says, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven… a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…” (3:1,4) My point today, the reason I’m talking about Lent today, is because as a culture, especially our modern, Western culture, we are really, really bad at weeping and mourning part because we spend too much time laughing and dancing.
And in losing our ability to weep, mourn, lament, and fast – but instead keeping ourselves in a perpetual state of entertainment, distraction, and celebration, has caused us to lose a very important part of our spiritual lives and a critical way that we connect to God.
What Happens When We Lose Lent
I know I struggle with this sometimes. I’ll gear myself up for a time of self-discipline – like a change of diet or a spiritual discipline or to focus on something that I know God has been asking me to deal with – and it seems like I’m constantly interrupted by excuses to laugh and dance. The whole culture seems to work against me.
Every month has a holiday, or a birthday, or anniversary, or party of some kind. Every week the stores have a sale on something that I like. I’m surrounded by things that not too long ago were only available on special occasions. I can buy a birthday cake and sweets and balloons and chocolate and oranges every day if I want to. I don’t have to wait for a newspaper or magazine to come to my door, I can get news and pictures and crossword puzzles all day long. I don’t have to wait for next week to see my favourite TV show, or for a few months to see a movie, Netflix has new ones every day, and I can binge an entire season in one day! There’s always a new, big movie event or concert or game or playoff or another piece of entertainment that everyone says I must see. I walk into a store and there’s limited edition everything there – books, movies, candy, clothes – and two or three special seasons represented – Valentine’s Decorations next to St Patrick ’s Day stuff next to Easter chocolates – each telling me to get it soon, while it’s on sale, before it’s gone. Then I turn on the radio and hear commercials for deals that are all ending soon, so I’d better get it, that I deserve it, that I would be stupid not to jump on. Every YouTube video and picture on Instagram shows me the latest trend I’m missing out on, or something I need to experience, or something I need to take my kids to, or something I need to do with my wife. RightNow media introduces 12 new studies every week and the blogs I follow tell me about 10 new books I want to read.
And it all kind of works on me. My spirit cries out to stop, get away, find silence, meditation, confession, prayer, solitude – but I almost feel guilty not participating in all that other stuff. I work for one day and then I feel like I deserve a reward. I eat a vegetable and then feel like I deserve dessert. I worry about missing out. What if someone asks me if I’ve seen something or tried something, or gone somewhere, and I have to say that I haven’t done it? What if it would have been fun and I missed it forever?
I’m constantly tempted to live in a perpetual state of distraction, entertainment, and satisfaction – and yet the Spirit of God, the Lord Jesus, and the scriptures say that the happiness that I am constantly pursuing in those other areas, the blessedness I’m trying to find in them, the joy I want to feel when I indulge, doesn’t come from being distracted, entertained, and trying to feel satisfied with the world, but with pursuing poverty, mourning, meekness, hunger, self-denial. Jesus says in His introduction to the Sermon on the Mount that if we want to feel fully human, know real peace, experience real joy, feel the satisfaction of contentedness in the midst of struggles by knowing the presence of God, then the recipe is to remove a lot of that other stuff and seek the beatitudes.
That’s really what Lent is supposed to be about. It’s not a belief that parties and celebrations are bad. It’s saying that sometimes the human soul requires a time of fasting, penitence, regret, mourning, confession, tears, simplicity, solitude, and lament. Not because we want to sit around being bitter, eating ashes, wallowing in guilt and shame, but because we know that the only way to get right with God and others is to admit that we are sinners who need a Saviour, that we are weak and need help, that physical pleasure isn’t enough and that we need spiritual fulfillment, that discipline and self-denial make us into better, more godly people.
In Matthew 11 Jesus says to the crowds,
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (vs 28-29)
And then in Matthew 16 He said,
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (vs 24)
They seem contradictory, but both are true. Jesus says to put away the priorities of this world and the huge burden it is to try to pull ourselves towards happiness, joy, and contentment by using the things the sinful, distracting, immediate pleasures the world has to offer – but to pick up His way of life, His cross, because we will find that burden easier, lighter, and His path the way to true freedom. Jesus says that the way to gain freedom for our souls is not to avoid guilt, shame, lament, confession, mourning, the cross, but to embrace it, because when we finally do – when we finally turn from worldly pleasures to the kind of life Jesus offers – it is then that we will experience true freedom.
1 Peter 2:11 says that all those pleasures and distractions the world offers are actually like propaganda from the Enemy who uses them to war against our soul. It says,
“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.”
1 John 2:15-17 gives this warning,
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.”
It’s trying to give us a bigger view, an eternal view, comparing what the world offers with what Jesus offers. The world is full of wonderful things that God has given us for our joy and pleasure, that we can use to enhance our connection to God, but each one, because of this fallen world has the potential to be twisted into a trap for our souls.
- Food is wonderful, gluttony is a prison.
- Sexual pleasure is wonderful, but there’s a lot of ways it can ruin lives.
- Parties and wine and dancing and friends are wonderful, but addiction and alcoholism and hangovers and bad decisions and regrets are not.
- Work, education and study are wonderful, but workaholism, anxiety, arrogance, and elitism can be dangerous results.
- Having money and stuff and comfort is wonderful, but selfishness, controlling others, being in debt, and refusing to obey God for fear of losing it, can be terrible results when sin takes over.
- Video games and hobbies are wonderful, but removing yourself from reality to live in a fantasy world, and ignoring your friends, family, and community is not.
It is during the season of Lent that Christians are invited to cut out the distractions, do an inventory of our souls, to invite God to examine us and show us how the world has been fooling us, and to come out the other side cleaner, more holy, more blessed, and more committed to following Jesus no matter where He wants to go because we prefer His way to the world’s.
Lent & The Beatitudes
Look back with me to what Jesus said in Matthew 5:13-16. Jesus calls his followers “Salt” and “Light”. He says,
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.”
What’s Jesus talking about here? He’s talking about how His people should be different from the world, distinct from the world, special. The illustration of being a lamp is pretty easy to understand but consider the salt.
Just like today, salt was used as a preservative and flavouring for food, something that worked like nothing else. What makes salt special is its saltiness, its difference from the rest of the food. What point is there on sprinkling on something that tastes no different than what you’re already eating? What point is there in rubbing on or mixing in something that has no preserving effect? We wouldn’t use it.
Our calling as Christians, as followers of Jesus, is to “permeate society as agents of redemption.” We are to witness the moral decay of the world, the blandness of what it offers, the corruption of its promises, realize it to not only be a trap, but so much worse than what Jesus offers, and remain different, special, unique, salty. We don’t separate ourselves from the world, avoiding it and condemning it from ivory towers and stained glassed cloisters – after all salt doesn’t do anyone any good when it’s left in the shaker – but we work ourselves into the world, in our jobs, our communities, our friendships, our sports teams, etc. and add the flavour of Christ, the light of Jesus to that place. And we only do that by remaining different.
If we act and sound and look like the world, then we are of no use to them or the Kingdom of God. No one will become thirsty for the gospel of Jesus if they never experience our saltiness. No one will ever desire to get out of the darkness unless they see the light within us.
How To Remain Different
So how do we remain different? What distinctiveness should we have? What makes a Christian different from the world? That’s what the Beatitudes are all about. Jesus gives the Beatitudes to show us what salt and light looks like.
Some people think that what sets Christians apart is what we do and don’t do. Christians don’t drink, or smoke, or vape, or party, or watch violent movies, or listen to certain kinds of music, or swear, or make jokes, or do yoga or martial arts. Some Christians even believe that the best way for them to be Christian is to never participate in anything the culture is doing so they never go to movies, listen to secular radio, watch sports, or participate in politics.
But that’s not what Jesus says here at all. In fact, most of these have nothing to do with what we do or don’t do, but instead speak of the attitude of our hearts. What makes us salty in the world is not what we do or don’t do, it’s our character.
Everyone faces death, everyone gets angry, everyone feels sad, everyone gets sick, everyone gets betrayed, everyone feels pride. Lots of people go to parties, drink alcohol, get promoted or fired from their jobs, are blessed with good looks or money or talent, or struggle with handicaps, abuses, and disabilities. The difference isn’t that Christians run to their bubble to avoid anything bad, but instead that they actually face the problem, understand it differently, and have a very different attitude because of their relationship with Jesus.
One book I’ve read lately that has really helped me with this is J. Oswald Sanders’ “Spiritual Maturity”. In his chapter on the Beatitudes, he says,
“It is a common idea that blessedness flows from the possession of wealth, the absence of sorrow, the gratification of appetite, being well spoken of and kindly treated. Christ’s teaching cut right across this popular concept of happiness and indicated that the very experiences we are eager to avoid are the ones conducive to the deepest joy and most to be coveted.”
Why? Because they are the ones that show how Jesus has changed our lives. They are the things that make us saltier, that increase the wattage of the light that shines within us, and shows how different we are from the world.
Consider the first beatitude:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The world says that you will be happy and blessed once you have realized your potential, maximized your strength, have total independence. Jesus says, “No. You will find joy and real prosperity and blessing when you realize that you are a person in need.” When you admit you are weak and bankrupt in your soul, once you realize you are empty is the only time you will allow God to fill you up. It is only once you’ve been broken of your pride, realized your inadequacy for the demands of your life, and come to God with empty hands, that God’s unlimited resources are available to you. Until then, you’re going to be trying to take on the world with your own strength and losing over and over.
Consider the second beatitude:
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Mourning is something that our society actively avoids. We idolize and worship youth and vitality while pushing age and sickness and death farther and farther from our collective minds. The Wall-Street Journal recently had an article on “The Free-Form Funeral” where people avoid churches and the topic of death in favour of more celebratory ceremonies. They are doing rock concerts and parties that memorialize life instead of facing the problem and pain of death and loss. Mourning doesn’t feel good, so they opt for a party. Grief is no fun, so it’s avoided.
The problem here is that grief and mourning are dangerous to avoid – in fact, they are impossible to avoid. Eventually, the party will end, the distraction will stop, and these people will still be faced with their loss, but will have no guidance or community to help them through it. They won’t be able to go to anyone with their feelings of loss because it’s socially unacceptable to do so, so they’ll either have to let it eat them alive – or they’ll have to get rid of it using chemicals and distraction.
But mourning and grief are gifts from God that we shouldn’t avoid. It is in those times of sadness that we are finally open to being comforted. When we face the evil of death it forces us to ask big questions, realize how powerless we really are, it forces us to face the temporary nature of this life, and forces us to feel lonesome, regretful, and sad. It is in our mourning that we are invited to ask for help. And it is in our mourning that the gospel message, where Jesus Christ the Son of God conquers sin and death, bringing hope to a lost world, starts to make sense – where the names of God like Comforter, Shepherd, Father and friend, start to really become real.
But none of that can happen if we do not mourn.
And that’s only the first two of the beatitudes. Let me close with this. Let me encourage you to consider embracing the season of Lent by committing to a time of fasting and prayer. Choose something in your life to remove – tv, entertainment, a meal, a certain food, your phone, the internet – and replace the time you would spend on that with a time of prayer and reading the scriptures.
And during that time, let me invite you to meditate on and study the Beatitudes. Many of you have prayed that God would make you salt and light, to be used to affect this world in a positive way, to see your heart and your community changed by the Gospel in deeper ways. This is a good place to start.
 Blomberg, C. (1992). Matthew (Vol. 22, p. 102). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.”
 I’m going to use a lot of concepts from his chapter called “Christ’s Ideal of Character”.
*Sorry, no audio this week. 😞 *
One of the people in that video, the artist, Makoto Fujimura said that at one point in his life Jesus became real to him. He said, “This historic figure was no longer just this historical figure… and he wanted to reveal himself to me in a way I could understand.” The author, Eric Metaxas, make some logical statements about Jesus and then said, “But there’s more to this than logic. Believing that Jesus is God is one of those things that at the end of the day, God has to… reveal it.”
I believe both of those statements are true. Christianity has a logical consistency, a good argument behind it, based not only in scripture and philosophy and faith, but also on eyewitnesses, historical evidence, archeological consistency, textual stability, and more. The story of Jesus, the person of Jesus, when looked into from clinical, apologetic, evidence-based, even scientific viewpoint, holds up to scrutiny – but at the same time, because of the hardness of our hearts, our love for sin, and the work of the Enemy, that evidence is never enough.
No one is ever convinced or argued into the Kingdom of God. You can’t walk up to someone who hates God, loves sin, hates the church, show them a pile of solid proofs about who Jesus is, and suddenly have them repent and follow Jesus. People can look at all the proof in the world, read every line of the Bible, know dozens of Christians, and listen to weeks and weeks of sermons, but if their heart is turned away from God, it’ll never be enough to cause them to repent. Faith and repentance, becoming a Christian, requires a movement of the Holy Spirit in their heart that cannot be manufactured with any level of convincing conversation.
That doesn’t mean that apologetics and good scholarship and archeology and study bibles and aren’t important. It means it isn’t enough.
Jesus, the Stumbling Block
Why? Because the person of Jesus, the nature of Jesus, the true, historical Jesus, is a stumbling block. This is why people keep trying to craft different Jesus’s for themselves and their own religions. So they can create a more easily understood, more malleable, more consumer-friendly, more simplistic version of Jesus that doesn’t offend or confuse people. They remove parts of who He claimed to be – His divinity or His humanity, His compassion or His anger, His love for sinners or His vengeance against them – because one of those pictures don’t line up to whom they want Jesus to be.
Turn with me to Matthew 21:23-27. This event occurs during Passion Week, the last week before Jesus is crucified. Everything in Jesus’ life is turned up to 11. We see more preaching, more teaching, more confrontations, more explanations of His mission, and more people trying to kill Him. In today’s passage, we are on the Tuesday after Palm Sunday or the Triumphal Entry, and the opposition is really starting to heat up.
Jesus has spent Monday night with some friends in the town of Bethany, a couple kilometres from Jerusalem. He had a busy Monday where, while he was walking back to Jerusalem in the morning to teach, he was looking for some breakfast and passed a fig tree full of leaves. He expected to find some little buds to eat, but there was nothing there. Just leaves. He cursed the tree and kept walking. Why did he curse it? It was a parable to teach his disciples about the city of Jerusalem, especially the temple. The tree had the look of health and fruitfulness, but it was actually worthless. In the same way, Jerusalem looked like a fruitful, worshipping city with a temple dedicated to God – but there was nothing under the surface. It was a hollow, dead, fruitless temple, with a hollow, dead, fruitless religion.
As he entered the city He and the disciples saw the parable come to life. Jesus came to teach and worship and found part of the temple full of corrupt money changers and salesman profiting off the poor pilgrims. He drove them all out by force and began to heal the blind and the lame. This infuriated the Jewish leaders, but they couldn’t do anything because of the crowds. Jesus stayed for a while and left to spend the night in Bethany again.
The next day they walked past the same fig tree and saw it withered and dead. Jesus had removed the hypocrisy of the false growth and shown what good the tree really was so no one would ever mistake it for being fruitful again. Another picture of Jerusalem. They walked to the temple and once again saw the parable come to life. Before Jesus is able to do anything else, the group of Jewish leaders were waiting to confront him.
It says in verse 23,
“And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus answered them, ‘I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?’ And they discussed it among themselves, saying, ‘If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.’”
Notice that we’re back to the question we’ve been asking for weeks now, “Who is Jesus?” The chief priests and elders are indignant with Jesus and say, “Who do you think you are? What right do you have to come in here, drive people out of the temple, teach different things that we do, go against our traditions, make us look like fools, and cause a bunch of people to call out and worship you? Only a great prophet like Elijah could have that authority. Only someone who comes in the name of God with the power of God would be allowed to do that! And we know you can’t be from God because you’re not following our traditions and doing what we tell you to do…”
Jesus, as usual, doesn’t give them a straight answer because it wouldn’t have made any difference. They weren’t asking Him to learn, they were trying to trap Him so they could have an excuse to stone Him to death. So Jesus shows everyone, especially His disciples, how much like the fig tree they really were. He implies that He has the same authority as John the Baptist and asks what they thought of him. Everyone knew that as popular as John was, these Jewish leaders hated him and refused to listen to His message. But the Jewish leaders knew that almost everyone around them believed John to be a real prophet. Jesus turned their trap against them. How did he do that?
Because they were forced at that moment to either declare that John the Baptist and Jesus were either from God and therefore to be obeyed (meaning that in rejecting them, these leaders had rejected God) – or say that Jesus and John were merely human and a couple of liars who had defrauded all the people (therefore implying that the crowds had rejected God by following false prophets).
Here’s the thing, this is the same choice that everyone who is confronted by Jesus is given. Is Jesus a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord? And everything changes depending on that answer. The answer to that question sets a person’s entire worldview. All a person’s decisions, hopes, dreams, and plans are filtered through that question. How they see the origins of the universe, the problems of the day, and how they react to crisis and blessing, all depend on answering that question. Is Jesus a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord?
Liar, Lunatic or Lord?
Theologians call this the “trilemma” and it’s an argument that goes back a long time. It goes like this (and you heard it referenced in that video): If Jesus claimed to be God, but knew He wasn’t and was just saying that to manipulate people, gain followers, become popular, or for whatever reason – then He was a liar. Nothing He says should be trusted. Hundreds, thousands, and up to today, billions of people claim to put their faith in Jesus as God, as Saviour, as the one who saves them. They pray to Him, believe Him, and change their whole lives based on His claims. But if He knew He wasn’t God and was a liar, then it is one of the worst lies in history. He shouldn’t be counted as a great moral teacher, but a moral monster. And everyone who trusts him is a naïve, fool who believes a great and terrible lie.
But, if Jesus claimed to be God, and actually believed it, but wasn’t, then He’s a madman. If someone came to you and said they were God, perfect and powerful in every way, a deity in human flesh, and they really believed it – told a bunch of people, gathered disciples, you’d assume they were crazy, right? And you’d assume anyone who believed Him was just as crazy. Anyone who would follow a man saying he’s God, even to the point of facing torture and death, giving up their time, money, abilities, and freedom to whatever He says, must either be utterly stupid or totally insane. So that’s option 2. Jesus and all His followers are nuts.
Or there’s option 3. Jesus is exactly who He says He is. He is very the Son of God, the Way, the Truth, the Life, and the only Saviour of Mankind, one with the Father. He is, as the Nicene Creed says,
“Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father. Through him all things were made.”
There are no in-betweens there. He is either God or He isn’t. You can’t have Jesus as a great moral example if He, and by extension, His followers are the perpetrators of the greatest lie in history. You can’t have Jesus as a great teacher if He is one of the most insane people in history. You either dismiss Him as a liar or a lunatic, or you worship Him as Lord.
HC:LD14 – Confessing the Real Jesus
This is the question raised in the Heidelberg Catechism today. It’s based on the third statement of the Apostles Creed. The Heidelberg, in question 35 asks the question,
“What do you confess when you say: He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary?”
and answers it,
“The eternal Son of God, who is and remains true and eternal God, took upon himself true human nature from the flesh and blood of the virgin Mary, through the working of the Holy Spirit. Thus he is also the true seed of David, and like his brothers in every respect, yet without sin.”
Consider the gravity of those two statements! That Jesus did not have a human father, but was conceived by the Holy Spirit of God Himself, but born as a very human baby to a young woman named Mary who had never known a man (Matthew 1:18). That means He is not just another guy, however special and talented He was. It means Jesus is the Son of God (Matthew 17:5, Luke 1:35; Matthew 16:17, 8:29; Romans 1:1-3), the incarnation of God (John 1:1-14; Phil 2:5-11; Matthew 1:23; Col 2:9-10). It means that even though Jesus was no longer in Heaven, while He walked the earth He still contained the very nature of God, the power of God, the authority of God. It meant that Jesus was not only of the Son of God but of the Lineage of the human King David (Matthew 1:1, 12:23, 15:22, 21:9), of the tribe of Judah, heir to the throne of Israel, and had the right and power to overthrow Herod and Rome. It meant that He was the embodiment of all the prophecies of the Old Testament, and the very author of not only the Law of Moses and the entire Bible, but every strand of DNA in every human being – and creator of everything in existence (John 1, Matthew 5-7, John 8:48-59). It means that when Jesus speaks, it isn’t merely a good idea, an interesting message, a powerful teaching – it is the very words of God, perfect in authority – greater than Elijah or Moses or Solomon, greater than any other priest, prophet or king, of any religion, in any place, for all time (Hebrews 1-3, 7-10). When He says something, it happens. When He curses something, it is cursed. When He forgives someone, they are totally forgiven (Mark 2:1-12). It means that Jesus wasn’t born under the curse of Adam because He was not a child of Adam and would therefore have no sinful nature. He would be a new Adam, faced not with one bad option in the tree of knowledge, but surrounded by a world steeped in Sin, overrun by the enemy, temptations on every side, facing weakness, sickness, pain, betrayal and death – and yet faced them all perfectly, remaining pure and holy for His entire life. (Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15)
Which means that there is no one else in all existence like Jesus. He is the perfect prophet (knowing God’s thoughts perfectly because He is God), the perfect priest (sinless, ageless, yet tempted in all the ways we are, and the once-and-for-all sacrifice for our sins) and the perfect king (will never die or be overthrown, with the very authority and power of God).
That statement from Jesus, His followers, this creed, and our church, is a massive claim, but it’s what we believe. And it doesn’t leave wiggle room. I won’t go through them all here, but when I post this sermon, I’ll footnote a bunch of supporting scriptures for you to look up.
Agnosticism: Have Your Cake and Eat it Too
So, back to our text. Jesus has just asked these Jewish leaders about where John the Baptist’s authority comes from and it says in verse 25,
“And they discussed it among themselves, saying, ‘If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’”
These people didn’t even care which answer was right – they were afraid of either answer. Today, we might use the term agnostic and it’s where a lot of people get stuck because they don’t want to choose. They like the idea of Jesus as a moral teacher and they can’t argue with the historical or textual proofs. They don’t want to call Jesus a liar or a lunatic. When they look into it they see there are good arguments, compelling evidence, actual good scholarship – but they know there’s a consequence to making a choice. It means they have to call Him “Lord” – and they’re not prepared to do that. So they ride the fence.
Look at question 36 of the Heidelberg.
“What benefit do you receive from the holy conception and birth of Christ?”
In other words, “So what? What good does it do you to believe all these claims about Jesus? Why not just remain agnostic? Why not just play the middle ground and stay on the fence? Why not just say you think Jesus is a great guy, and say you believe in God, but not actually repent and make Jesus your Lord? Then you can have you cake and eat it too. It gets people off your case. You can say you’re a “spiritual person”. You can say you are a “believer” and people will leave you alone because they will rarely actually ask what you actually believe. So why not ride the fence?
The Heidelberg answers, Because
“He is our Mediator, and with his innocence and perfect holiness covers, in the sight of God, my sin, in which I was conceived and born.”
Jesus doesn’t let you sit on the fence. The Bible says that “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus…” (1 Tim 2:5). No other. The Bible says that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23) and “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:22) and that it will either be our death and our blood, or the death and blood of Jesus that will determine where we spend eternity. Ephesians 1:7 says, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace…” We cannot sit on the fence, we cannot embrace agnosticism, because the claims of Jesus doesn’t allow us to – and the problem of death and eternity is something we must all face.
One thing that amazes me about Jesus is His patience. He lets people sit on the fence for much longer than I would if I were Him. In His love, He desires that many would be saved. He gives grace to the underserved and gives them the gift of time. He presents the truth to them but lets them spin their tires, play with idols, mess up their lives, develop addictions, ignore Him, insult Him and His people, and waits. He never lets them go though. He works in their hearts, their conscience, their lives, to try to bring them back to Him until they are utterly lost. And then He lets them hit bottom… and goes and finds them and offers again to save them.
He’s the shepherd, leaving the 99 to go and find His one lost sheep. He’s the father from the parable of the prodigal son, waiting with His eyes on the gate for His child to come home, ready to cover them, heal them, restore them, and celebrate with them. He’s far more patient than I am. But His patience is not forever. And so I say to you today, if God has been tugging at your heart to make a first time commitment to Jesus, admitting your sin and your need for a Saviour – or to come back to Jesus because you are in rebellion, don’t wait.
Don’t harden your heart like the Jewish leaders who stood before Jesus, saw the evidence, but refused to believe because they didn’t want to let Jesus be their Lord. Yes, there’s a cost. It will cost you everything. You’ll have to give up your sin, yourself, your future, your grudges, your addictions, your control, your finances, your toys, your family, your job – everything. Eventually, He will demand it all from you.
But today He merely asks the question, “Will you believe? Will you stop your arguments, stop making excuses, stop pretending you can’t hear me and let me in? Let me be your Lord, your God, your Saviour, and your Friend. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. My yoke is easier than the yoke you’re pulling. My burden is lighter than the one you’re carrying. My way is better than the way you are going (Matthew 11:28-30). Let me help you. Let me save you. Stop, turn around, and follow me.”
I’ll close with the words of Mark 8:34-38,
“And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’”
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?
“Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:1–10)
Acts 2 tells the story of what happened on the day of Pentecost. At that time, thousands of Jewish people from all around the Roman world who had gathered in Jerusalem. The followers of Jesus had all gathered together in one room, about 120 people, and in fulfillment of the promise of Christ, the Holy Spirit came rushing in, filled each one, kicking off the next phase in God’s plan of salvation – the spreading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ around the world. The followers of Jesus began to speak in languages they previously didn’t know and everyone who heard was amazed and wondered what was going on.
Then Peter, the leader of the group, stood up and addressed the crowd with a sermon outlining what had been happening in Jerusalem, how it fulfilled the prophecies, and how it all revolved around Jesus of Nazareth, someone that they’d no doubt been hearing about. He told them of His life, false trial, lawless crucifixion, and His miraculous resurrection which could be attested to by the hundreds of witnesses standing around them. He told them that it was their sin, their rebellion, which had put the Messiah, the Lord, the Christ, on the cross. Jesus was crucified by their hands.
Acts 2:37 says this,
“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’”
In Acts 16 Paul and his partner Silas are arrested, severely beaten, placed in stocks and dropped into a prison. Here’s what scripture says happens next,
“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’”
What would your answer be to these people? Pretend you are Peter. There stands before you the very group of people that crucified Jesus. Among them are the very people that chanted, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” There stand the lawyers who kicked off the false trial, the people that spit on him as He carried His cross to Golgotha, who mocked Him while He was dying on the cross. A group of people corrupted by false teachers, full of hypocrisy, claiming to be the chosen people of God, but who despised and killed His Son, the Lord whom you love. Now they stand before you, their consciences on fire, frightened of the judgment of God, and they say to you, “What shall we do?”
Or pretend you are Paul. You’ve been working hard in ministry but almost everyone in town seems to be against you. They mock you, the crowds beat you, the city magistrates have you stripped and beaten, and you’ve just spent the evening in jail, lying naked in a pool of your own blood, your feet bound in stocks. Now, standing before you is this pagan, Roman, jailer. So far from Christian, it’s almost unfathomable. He’s been listening to you sing and talk about Jesus all night and has just had a brush with death as he contemplated suicide to escape the wrath of his masters, and now He’s worried about the wrath of this new God he’s been hearing about all night. He’s on his knees before you, terrified and confused, utterly undone. He looks up at you and says, “What must I do to be saved?”
What do you say? Maybe your temptation is to blast them. Stop being hypocrites! Stop persecuting us! Stop worshipping your own good deeds. Start listening to what we have to say! Get on your knees and kiss the dirt, thanking God he doesn’t blast you right here! And you, Roman Jailer, you pagan, your life is a total mess! You need a complete overhaul. Let me write a list for you of all the things you need to do in order to be a good Christian. First you need to clean up your life. Go to church, listen to some sermons, join a small group, start serving, and don’t forget to tithe… oh and pray and study your bible and fast and sell your belongings and stop drinking and smoking and playing cards and… and…. But that’s not right.
Paul’s answer was, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31). Peter’s answer was, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…” (Acts 2:38).
The answer to the question, “What must we do to be saved?” is a simple one. Believe Jesus is who He said He is – the friend of and saviour for sinners. Then, show that you believe in Him by admitting you are a sinner, repenting of your sin by changing your life, and be baptised in His name. It’s not that the repenting and baptizing save you. After all the thief on the cross who hung beside had no time to change his life, pay back his debts, do any good deeds, or be baptized, and yet Jesus says He’s in heaven right now (Luke 23:39-43). What saves you is faith. What shows your faith is a changed life and humbling yourself in baptism.
LD11: Why Jesus Alone?
Let’s turn to this week’s questions from the Heidelberg Catechism. If you recall, in this section of the Heidelberg we are studying the Apostles Creed and are on the second stanza, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son, our Lord…”. So question 29 is,
“Why is the Son of God called Jesus, that is, Saviour?”
The name, Jesus in Greek or “Joshua” in Hebrew, was a common name at the time and literally translates to “Yahweh Saves” or “God Saves”. Many Jews gave their children this name as a reminder to wait for God’s salvation, but in Jesus it took on new meaning. It didn’t mean “God will save us someday”, but “Here is God’s salvation!”
So the question, “Why is the Son of God called Jesus, that is, Saviour?” is answered,
“Because he saves us from all our sins, and because salvation is not to be sought or found in anyone else.”
Question 30 follows by asking,
“Do those who seek their salvation or well-being in saints, in themselves, or anywhere else, also believe in the only Saviour Jesus?”
In other words, if we put this in our modern context, is everyone who talks about Jesus, knows the name of Jesus, or claims to have faith in Jesus – but clearly puts their faith in other things as well –saved? Is someone who says they are a Christian, talks about Jesus, sings about Jesus, but also believes in praying to saints, uses magic or astrology, lives superstitiously, or trusts in their own goodness or abilities an actual, saved Christian? What about Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, and Roman Catholics who all talk about Jesus but add a whole bunch of other beliefs and requirements to the gospel. Are they saved?
The answer in the Heidelberg and I believe it is scriptural is:
“No. Though they boast of him in words, they in fact deny the only Saviour Jesus. For one of two things must be true: either Jesus is not a complete Saviour, or those who by true faith accept this Saviour must find in him all that is necessary for their salvation.”
In other words, the Jesus they talk about, cannot be the Jesus of the Bible.
This is what Paul was saying in the passage in Galatians. When he said,
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” (Gal 1:6-7)
he didn’t mean that the gospel distorters were leaving the church or had stopped calling themselves Christians. He meant that they were staying in the church as teachers, but adding things to the gospel that were nullifying it, making it a message that damns instead of saves. (Check out this article)
This is what Paul’s letter to the Galatians is all about – false teachers coming into the church and teaching that not only do people need to believe in Jesus for their salvation but that there is a list of a bunch of other things they had to do as well.
I want to show you a video that outlines the whole of Galatians so you can see Paul’s full argument here. I’m doing this for two reasons. First, I believe that this video explains this much better, more visually, and more concisely what Paul is saying in Galatians. And second, because I want to inspire you to watch the rest of these videos on RightNow Media.
I’ve talked about the importance of starting up some small groups in this church, and this might be a great series to do in your home. You can find that series when you go to the Recommended Studies section of the Beckwith Baptist Church page on RightNow Media. And, if you want to study the book of Galatians in more detail, then I recommend a new study series that has come out by Kyle Idleman. I linked to it on the Heidelberg Helps section on our RightNow media church page. It’s only 6 weeks long, the videos take only 11 minutes to watch, the discussion guides are all free, and if you’re worried you won’t know how to lead it, the leader’s guide is only $8. No excuses not to have a small group in your home.
Back to our study though.
I hope you see, from scripture and the catechism here, how seriously God takes the idea of adding anything to the gospel. There is no salvation in “Jesus and something else”. Our human nature makes us want to add a bunch of religious hoops to jump through, traditions that must be kept, and lifestyle changes that need to be made in order to be saved, but that’s not how Christianity works. That’s how cults and false religions work, but that’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) As the Apostles say, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
Our human nature, even when we are presenting the Gospel, even with the best intentions, makes us want to include a list of laws, books, and to-do lists with salvation. We want to tell people about Jesus and salvation, but also about how to clean up their lives and become good people – meaning, people like us. But that’s not the gospel. Jesus didn’t tell us to go and make versions of ourselves, turning people into little Pastor Al’s, or little you’s. He told us to tell people that salvation is a free gift from Him and to follow Jesus alone.
In the New Testament, it was the Judaizers who wanted people to add the Torah to the gospel. Then it was the Catholics who wanted to add traditions and religious superstitions. Then it was the Mormons and JW’s who wanted to add good works and strange rules and new bible books. All of these are equally wrong, offensive, and paths to hell. Why?
Because even if these people use the name of Jesus,
“Though they boast of him in words, they, in fact, deny the only Saviour Jesus. For one of two things must be true: either Jesus is not a complete Saviour or those who by true faith accept this Saviour must find in him all that is necessary for their salvation.”
In other words, they don’t believe in Jesus for salvation. They talk about Jesus but believe that his perfect life and crucifixion isn’t enough. They believe Jesus needs their help. Jesus needs their help. And Jesus refuses, God refuses, to share glory, to share worship, to share His holy temple, or the temple of your heart with someone else. To do so is blasphemy. To say Jesus’ perfect life, death on the cross, and glorious resurrection was insufficient to save, is blasphemy.
Do you remember last week when I said that believing God’s provision to be transactional only leads to pride or despair? This is the same thing. Believing that we are the ones who must save ourselves by following a list of rules will either lead to pride because we saved ourselves and therefore steal glory from God, or it will lead us to despair because we will always be worried that we haven’t done enough to earn God’s favour and will, therefore, be damned no matter what we do. That’s the message of the world religions, cults, and false Christian groups. Take pride in saving yourself, or always feel guilty, ashamed, and afraid because you’ll never be good enough for God. It’s terrible, and why Paul was so upset when he heard about it.
Let me close with this. The only way we can say we are ever right with God is because of our belief in what Jesus did for us – not because of anything we did for ourselves. All we must do is believe in Jesus as the risen Lord and we are saved. Yes, this requires seeing ourselves as sinners which leads to the desire to repent, and then to obey him by identifying ourselves as His follower through baptism and worship and joining a church and changing our lives – but none of that saves us. If we believe in Jesus, we are saved – no matter what sins we have committed, and even if we completely mess things up afterward.
That’s why 1 John 1:9 says,
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Not, if we beat ourselves up, or clean ourselves up, or do enough prayers, or read enough verses, or pay it all back, or anything else. Forgiveness comes to all those who believe in Jesus and ask for it. It’s automatic, built on the covenant He wrote, in His blood, on the cross. He did all the work.
I like something that Kyle Idleman, the guy who did the Galatians series on RightNow, said.
In Galatians… “Paul is letting the people in Galatia know that he has been down the religious road before and it doesn’t lead to freedom it leads to slavery. It doesn’t lead to transformation, it leads to frustration. It doesn’t lead to life, it leads to death. But Jesus has set him free from all of that. And what the gospel of freedom did for Paul, the gospel of freedom can do for you.” (https://www.rightnowmedia.org/Content/Series/229928?episode=Trailer)
In a few moments, we are going to have communion. We are going to come to the Lord’s Table, by His invitation, to celebrate and remember His life, death, and resurrection and His promise to save us if we would put our faith in Him alone for salvation from the consequences of your sins and the wrath of God. My encouragement to you is, as we sing the next song – maybe you don’t need to sing right now, maybe you need to pray instead while others sing – as we set up the table, as we stop for a moment, before we take the bread and cup, I want you to check your heart. Do you recognize yourself to be a sinner in need of repentance and salvation? Do you come to Jesus alone for that salvation or do you have other idols besides Him? Have you asked for and accepted forgiveness? Can you take the bread and the cup, knowing you are one of His children? Or, is there hypocrisy within you – false beliefs, other saviours that you turn to, the desire to save yourself, or secret sins that you refuse to admit or repent from? Are there people in your life you need to forgive as you’ve been forgiven, or you need to ask forgiveness from in order to be right with them and God?
You don’t need to clean yourself up to come to Jesus. You don’t need to be religious to come to Jesus. But you do need to admit yourself a sinner in need of Him as your saviour, and then get right with God in a prayer of confession. Take some time to talk to Him in song, in prayer, and in silence, before we take communion.
Over the past while our church has been going through a study of the Heidelberg Catechism, a 400-year-old summary of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. When we paused for Christmas a couple weeks ago we were only on Day 8, but we’ve already covered a LOT of material. We covered the bad news like sin, Law, guilt, and wrath – and also the good news about who Jesus is and why He is the only One who can bring salvation to the world. We spent a lot of time really digging deep into what it means to be a sinner saved by the grace of God.
Then, after learning how we can get back into a relationship with God we transitioned into getting to know God better by learning more about who He presents Himself to be. Along the way we’ve covered some pretty deep and intense topics, using a lot of important, theological language and doctrinal concepts. We’ve done introductions to why theology matters and where creeds come from. We’ve spoken of God as triune, omnipotent, omniscient, holy and righteous. We’ve spoken of Jesus as saviour, sacrifice, mediator, and advocate.
Studying these subjects and using theological language sometimes gets mixed reviews and actually be a bit of a danger. While my hope is always that these sermons help us grown in our knowledge and love for God, these types of studies can sometimes bring the temptation to detach our hearts from our minds, our relationship with God from our understanding of Him; to cerebralize our faith instead of letting the concepts inform our worship and relationship with Him. There is a danger that instead of expanding our love for God, the study of theology can cause us to sterilize our love for Him. He becomes a subject to study rather than a person to know.
This kind of thing happens to us all the time. Let me give you a couple examples. Humans have this capacity to get used to things pretty quickly. If we are surrounded by a certain smell – whether it’s good or bad – it’s not too long until we experience something called olfactory fatigue where we no longer even smell it anymore. We can be baking cookies and pies or trying to choose a new perfume or lotion, or up to our eyeballs in sewage, and at some point, our nose just gives up and we don’t even notice the scent anymore. It’s not until we leave the environment for a while and then return that we even realize how strong it was.
Bank tellers can handle thousands and thousands of dollars per day, and where at one time holding a huge pile of cash in their hand was something amazing to them, it’s not long until it becomes so commonplace that they don’t even think about it as money anymore – just something to be counted and stuffed in a drawer. Or consider museums. People fly around the world at great expense to visit the world’s greatest museums, to stand before great art for just a short period of time, sometimes even moved to tears by its beauty and the intensity of being near it, but the security guards and cleaning staff are so used to seeing it that they don’t even care anymore. It’s just part of the background of their job. The first time you watch a movie it changes your life, you tell all your friends, you want to experience it again – you even buy it to bring home and watch again – but then, after 3 or 4 more viewings, the surprises wear off, the experience dulls, and now the DVD just sits on your shelf among the others. This happens to everyone. Surgeons get used to seeing blood and holding people’s guts in their hands, factory workers get used to the huge or complex and dangerous machines they see and use every day.
There’s an old phrase that says “familiarity breeds contempt” and while it’s not always true – like in marriages or friendships or study – there is a nugget of truth in there. The more we get to know something the more in danger we are of taking it for granted. The teenager with the new driver’s licence merges onto the highway for the first time and as they get up to speed they feel like they’re about to break the sound barrier and fly off the road – so they grip the steering wheel tightly, open their eyes wide, and stare intensely at the road. But it’s not long until that same teen is in the fast lane and passing vehicles while holding food in one hand, changing the music on their iPod with the other, and driving with their knees.
That’s the danger of familiarity, and it can happen to us when we study theology too. It can be tempting to take the things we know about God for granted, try to put Him in a box, or get so used to using words like “awesome”, “almighty”, “saviour”, “glory” and “grace” that they lose their intensity. And when that happens, blasphemy and pride aren’t too far behind.
The season of Christmas and Advent offer a cure to that though. Even with all the complexity of the season, the packed schedule, the family issues, the emotional intensity, the commercialism and stress, there is a haven found in Sunday morning worship. Over the past month, many churches around the world have chosen to pause their services and light an advent candle. We do that here too. There is a short reading, some scripture, a moment of pause as the candle is lit, and a moment to reflect. It is a simple and beautiful way to cause us to stop for a moment and elevate our thoughts to the real meaning of what we’re doing here and why this season is so special. Each week a different candle is lit, a different special scripture is read, and a different aspect of the life and promises of Jesus Christ come into view. Each week we remember one more gift that Jesus gave us He came at Christmas. And it’s done in simple ways, with simple language, and with materials that have been in use for thousands of years.
Different traditions have different shapes, different readings, even different amounts of candles, but each one is full of symbolism. In ours, we have five different candles – three purple, one pink, one white. Purple is the historic liturgical colour for the four Sundays of Advent. Pink (or technically “rose) is the colour of the third Sunday. The purple traditionally represents these weeks as concentrated times of prayer, repentance, and reflection in preparation for the big celebration of Christmas, but the third, pink candle interrupts that intensity with a week of rejoicing and celebration. Traditionally even the priests wore pink vestments on that week to set it apart. (Unfortunately, our church doesn’t have such a tradition because I think they’re pretty and now I want one!)
As I said, each of the candles has a different theme, but these themes aren’t communicated with big words, deep doctrinal study, or intense theological exposition. Instead, the words are very simple, and the concepts very meaningful – even intimate. The candles represent Hope, Love, Joy and Peace, and they surround the middle candle which we will light on Christmas Eve, the Christ candle. It reminds all believers everywhere that of our deepest longings – our desire for a hope that does not disappoint us, love that keeps us forever, joy in the midst of suffering, and a peace that passes understanding – are found only when we have Jesus at the centre of our lives. That’s what I want to talk about this morning.
In Jesus There is Hope
The first candle represented Hope. Hope, one could say, is the thing that keeps most of us alive. We can live for a long time in many difficult circumstances, but if we lose hope, it is then that we are in true danger. Hope is something we cannot live without but is tough to come by these days. There’s so much bad news and uncertainty, so many doom and gloom voices out there that sometimes it’s hard to find any hope. Most people are taught, from the moment they enter school, that they are evolved from scum, there is no such thing as eternity, nothing they do ultimately matters, any emotion they feel, even for their parents or loved ones, is just learned behaviour and biochemical trickery. As they move through life the best they are given is to be told to try to squeeze as many years of pleasure and distraction as they can out of this messed up world before death comes and they slip into oblivion.
There is no hope in that, is there? That’s a dim view of life, and we can see it in the rise of depression, addiction, abortion and suicide. The world doesn’t promise much. We put our hope in politicians or scientists or friends, but things never really change much and these supposed saviours fail us over and over. So the best we can come up with is to distract ourselves from thinking about the future, use chemicals to stop the scary thoughts in our head, and keep ourselves trapped in the immediacy of entertainment, because when we stop for a moment all we see when we look forward is a black hole that is getting blacker.
But then comes the first week of Advent that says, “When Jesus came, He brought with Him a great hope.” The scripture we read on that day was from Isaiah 9:2 and it describes the coming of Jesus this way: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” The coming of Jesus at Christmas was the coming of a beam of light into a dark place. Suddenly, because of Him, because of His, His words, His message, His life, and His work on the cross we are no longer faced with meaninglessness and oblivion, but salvation from sin, resurrection from the dead, restoration of our lost souls, a mission in this life, and then eternity with God! 1 Peter 1:3-4 says it this way:
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy, he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade…”
Is that not what all humanity longs for? Isn’t that why you are here today? Because you’ve looked at the things of this world and realized that the hope it offers perishes, spoils and fades, but that in Jesus Christ hope never can. That’s a hope we can build our lives on. That’s the hope that Jesus brought at Christmastime to offer to all people.
In Jesus There is Love
What is this love rooted in? What foundation does it have? It is established in love. But not a worldly kind of love. Our hope doesn’t come from one who only loves those who love Him back. It’s not the kind of love that happens as an exchange of goods, or because someone did something for Him. He doesn’t just love people who achieve some kind of level of loveableness. We’ve all experienced that kind of worldly love. And it’s the kind that we worry about, the kind that fades, the kind that we feel like we can mess up and lose. But God’s love isn’t like that. God offers a better kind of love – a deeper love.
When we lit the Love candle we read John 3:16-17 which talks about the depth of God’s love for us. It says,
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
Romans 5:6-8 describes the love we find in Jesus this way:
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
That’s remarkable. Jesus didn’t come for those who had earned the right to be saved or were special enough to be saved. It says that Jesus came “when we were still powerless” – other scriptures say that we weren’t just powerless but were “dead in our… sins” (Eph 2:1). It says that Jesus came when we were “ungodly” – when we had no dignity or worthiness or goodness. He doesn’t just love those who are “good people” but for those who were “ungodly”. He came to a people who are His opposite. And then He “died for the ungodly”.
It says that God showed us the kind of love that we have all been so desperate to experience. It says “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” When Jesus came at Christmastime He wasn’t coming to help His friends.
A couple of verses later, in Romans 5:10 it says that Jesus died while “we were God’s enemies”. That’s the story of the deep love at Christmas. Jesus came to the unlovely, the unlovable, His enemies and His opposites, to live among us and save us the trouble we brought on ourselves. He went through Hell so we wouldn’t have to, gained nothing so we could gain everything.
In Jesus there is Peace
Which is why, if there is no Jesus, there is no peace. Many of you know this feeling. Without Jesus, we are still enemies of God and our spirits can never be at peace. We always feel like God is against us, like we are alone in an out of control world. Without the guidance of Jesus, the good shepherd, we never know what it means for God to give us such a love for our enemies that we are able to pity them, feel bad for them, even find peace while sitting at a table with them. It is only knowing that Jesus is in control that we are able to be at peace in a world filled with strife and turmoil. Without Jesus, we are always trying to fill our lives with something that will quell our fears, give us security, and help us understand the world so we can control it better – but they all fail us because it’s impossible to find true peace anywhere else but in the presence of Jesus Christ.
On the Sunday we lit the peace candle we read the prophecy about Jesus that came 600 years before He was born in Isaiah 9:6-7 which said that when Jesus came His people would say,
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.”
In Romans 5:1-2 we read it about our peace with God this way:
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand”
When we put our trust in Jesus, He grants us is peace. Peace in our hearts that we know our eternity is secure because we don’t have to earn heaven. Peace with others because we understand forgiveness (knowing we have been forgiven so much). Peace in the knowledge we cannot lose our salvation and that we can trust God because He has everything under control. Peace knowing that we are loved so very much by a God who traded His Son for us.
In Jesus there is Joy
And, therefore, knowing all of this – when we are secure in the hope Jesus offers, understanding the love Jesus has for us and knowing we are at peace with God and others and within ourselves because of what Jesus has done for us – we have joy.
Without Jesus, a person can’t have true joy. Certainly, in God’s common grace, even the most godless pagan can experience happiness. We can be entertained and distracted for a time, even smile and laugh for a moment. We can surround ourselves with lots of good things like family, friends, finances, food, and fun – but all of those things only bring temporary moments of happiness. Our family lets us down or passes away, our children grow up and leave, we fall out of friendships, the food runs out or makes us fat or sick, the money doesn’t keep its promises, and the fun only lasts so long. It’s not too long before we realize that the things we thought were supposed to bring us everlasting joy don’t last.
That’s why Jesus doesn’t promise us happiness but instead promises us more. He offers us Joy, and it is perhaps the greatest gift God gives to His followers. It is more complex than an emotion, but comes from a connection to something that transcends this world, transcends our emotions, is bigger than what this world can offer – transcendent joy comes from our transcendent God. We already read a joy scripture today when we lit the candle, but I want to read another from when Jesus speaks about the mixing of Love and Joy in John 15:8–13,
“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.’”
What brings a person joy? What makes a person full of joy even when their circumstances aren’t very happy? Jesus tells us here. We have joy when we know that we have a life that leads to more life. When we know we are in right standing with God. When we are mindful of God’s presence and the good things He provides every day. When we know we are bearing fruit in our lives because God is working through us. When we live a disciplined life, free from folly and stupid decisions because God’s Spirit is helping us moment by moment. When we feel the ever-abiding love of God, knowing the Creator is on our side and works all things for our good and His glory. When He brings us to a family of believers who surround us with His love, accept us for who we are, and care for us no matter what because they know Jesus too. What brings us joy us knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus loved us so much that He was willing to lay down His life for us, call us His friends, advocates for us, and will be with us every step of every day for the rest of eternity. That kind of joy is the exclusive province of the Christian who believes in Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord.
I know that church and Christmas and theology and doctrine can get complicated. I know that when you look inside there are a lot of things you don’t even understand about yourself, let alone the world around you. But I know this for certain: that everyone here wants these four things: Hope, Love, Peace and Joy. And I know this: The message of Christmas, the message of the church, the message of the Bible is that they are found ultimately, fully, perfectly and only, in Jesus.
So take time to consider that this week. To meditate upon Hope. To remember it and pray and journal about Love. To sing about Peace and share that Joy with others. All centred around the person and work of Jesus Christ.
How many here have Instagram? I do. I’m pretty much done with Facebook these days, and I’ve mostly shifted over to Instagram. I like it a little more because it’s a little more dumbed down. There’s not as much going on in the feed as there is on Facebook. It’s just a stream of pictures, comics, and quotes that I can thumb through, and then double if I like.
Most of the stuff on there, and I’m assuming this is how it works for you too, I just scan past and never think about again. But there was one quote that I saw recently that caused me to pause and has stuck in my brain. It’s a quote from a theologian named Steven Lawson.
It goes like this:
“Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.”
I tried to find the context for the quote, whether it was a sermon or a book or something, but couldn’t. And that’s ok because this short sentence is powerful enough on its own. The background is likely the famous song Amazing Grace which starts, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
And both of those echo what we read in Ephesians 2:1-9. Please turn there and listen to how we are described before Jesus saves us:
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Here we read how God sees us before we are saved, before He resurrects our hearts, before we admit we are sinners and accept Jesus as our Saviour. He sees us as dead in our sins, sons and daughters of hell, workers of disobedience to whom evil comes so naturally, we don’t even notice it. He sees us as His enemies, deserving of wrath, and condemned. Meaning that even the good we thought we were doing, wasn’t good at all, but actually worked against God. (Isa 64:6; Romans 1)
And yet, despite being a dead, wretched, lost, blind, enemy of God – He shows us an incomprehensibly great kindness by sending His only Son, trading His Son for us on the cross, and accepting his death for our sake. He then cleanses us from unrighteousness, comes to live inside us, and promises that from now on we will be with Him forever. And what is the cost of this great salvation? What must we do? Good deeds? Give money on Sundays? Go to church? Punish ourselves? No. Jesus completely paid the price, all we must do is believe He did it. That’s why we’re here, singing, giving, serving, and studying His Word today, right?
More Wrath More Grace
BUT, here’s the thing. Steven Lawson was right. “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.” It’s almost a mathematical equation. The more you understand how much wrath God had prepared for you, how much trouble you were in, the more amazing you will understand His grace and forgiveness and the work of Jesus to be. BUT, the opposite is true too. The more you think you deserve God’s grace, the less amazing you’ll think it is.
We just had that tornado touch down in Dunrobin outside of Ottawa, right? Every time something like that happens in the news I hear someone say the same thing, “Nothing like that ever happens around here. We live in such a boring place. I wish we would have something cool happen like a tornado or hurricane or something!”
I promise that no one in Dunrobin is thinking that way. None of the people who the tornado missed are jealously looking at their neighbours house and wishing it would have wiped them out. None of the parents are looking at those with terrified, injured children think, “Wow, my family is so boring. I wish my kid had been almost killed by a tornado.”
Why? Because they saw firsthand the devastation, the damage, the wrath of the storm. Because it touched them they have a respect for it, fear of it, and for many, a thankful heart that it wasn’t worse.
Those who are far from the storm, safe in their homes, watching it on the news laugh at the storm, mock the storm, even wish the storm upon themselves for fun. Why? Because they have not felt its fury. But those who were in it, closest, who were holding each in a basement other while the storm ripped their house apart, they respect the wrath. I watched a video of a man who was in his home with his daughter when the tornado hit. It ripped off the roof of their house, and his daughter went flying up. He grabbed her little hand as she was being pulled into the storm, and held on for dear life until it passed. That man isn’t at home joking about wanting the storm to come to his town. Why? Because he felt the wrath of the storm.
The Gospel Balance
Christians are often criticized because we talk too much about sin. We are sometimes characterized as being joyless, fun-sucking, lemon-eating, sourpusses who spend too much time thinking about how bad and undeserving and guilty we are. The church is sometimes seen as a guilt factory where people who come in needing some help or encouragement are told instead that everything is their fault and that they should actually feel worse. And in some cases, that can be true. Some churches, some preachers, even me on occasion, concentrate too much on the bad news. Which is why there are so many that refuse to talk about the bad news at all.
People generally don’t like feeling guilty, shameful, wretched, blind, or lost – so they avoid places, like the church, where those feelings happen, and instead, seek out places that affirm them. They join groups that make them feel good about their life choices, feel accepted no matter what they’ve done, encourage them to do it more, and get told that they should never have any bad feelings about it. This is great when a person is trying to lose weight, learn a craft, study for exams, or get free from an addiction – but it works the other way too. Alcoholics go to bars to be surrounded by people who won’t judge them, addicts go to clubs to be with people who do what they do, violent people seek out people who want to be violent with them, sexual sinners seek out people who sin like they do and won’t criticize them, and argumentative jerks go to online chat groups…
What they want is to get rid of the feeling of guilt, shame, and fear that what they are doing is wrong. They want to be surrounded by people who will say: “Despite how you feel, despite the warnings in your head, despite your feelings of guilt and shame, keep doing it. You’re fine. You’re good. You were built this way. You deserve it. Your excuses are enough reason. You’re the exception. All of your actions are justified – because you are just like us. And if enough people say that it’s ok, good, right, beautiful, helpful, and healthy – then we can start to believe that. And we’re going to make sure everyone else believes it too.”
The Gospel of Jesus Christ exists within a paradox where guilt meets grace. There is a tension in Christianity that we all hold at the same time – and it is in that tension that we must live in order to create within us a heart of praise and thanksgiving. Christians exist in the tension between God’s Righteous Holy Wrath against us sinners who deserve Hell and the mystery of God’s Amazing Grace.
We hold in our minds, at the same time, the knowledge that we are dead, wretched, lost, blind enemies of God who have utterly rejected Him, with flesh that keeps pulling us towards sin, loving sin and self too much, and failing God every day – and the knowledge that somehow, for some reason that we will never understand, God loves us so much that He traded His Son for us so that we could be with Him forever (Rom 11:28-36). Or as Romans 5:6-8 says it,
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
That quote that I mentioned before, “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.” could be restated, “Grace cannot amazing to you unless you know how wretched, lost, blind you actually were.”
That’s why Christians spend so much time talking about sin – because we know the damage it does and the consequences of not taking it seriously. That’s why Christians spend so much time praying. Because we know that we can’t really trust ourselves, our minds, our hearts to lead us the right way. That’s why Christians don’t run from guilt, but instead walk through that guilt into grace. If we ignore the guilt, we cannot get to forgiveness. Because when we feel guilty, ashamed, and afraid of God’s wrath, it forces us to go to Jesus to deal with it.
Jesus the Advocate
My daughter Eowyn memorized a verse this week that I really needed to hear. As she was working on it, I was going through a tough time, making some bad decisions, getting really down, Satan accusing me over and over in my ear – and she kept coming to me, handing me the book, and reviewing the verse to make sure she had it right. So I had to read it multiple times that day and eventually is sunk in. It’s from 1 John 2:1 and here’s what it said:
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
What a healing balm that has been to my soul this week. The apostle, in this book repeatedly calls Christians, “My little children”. I like that and needed to hear it so much. It’s a reminder that as grown up and smart as I think I am, spiritually I’m still a child. I’m not all grown up and mature, like my Heavenly Father. I’m still learning, growing, making mistakes, and tripping over my own feet. And God knows this. When I sin, He’s not looking down on me in wrath. No, I’m a Christian. I’m forgiven. I’m one of His kids.
Sometimes I still get afraid that God is mad at me for the things I’ve done. That God is punishing me. But then I remember Romans 8:15–16 which says,
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God…”
I have to remind myself: I’m a Christian. God is my dad. When I sin, He still loves me. I’m no longer under His wrath. And as His kid, His child, I don’t need to be afraid of Him.
People tell me sometimes that I can be sort of scary. I have angry eyebrows, a pointy beard, and a loud voice and that freaks people out. Do you know who isn’t scared of me? My kids. They’ve seen my face, heard my voice, and know me – so they don’t get scared when I talk – even when I want them to be! I raise my voice during a conversation for some reason, people turn their heads and wince, babies cry, sirens start going off in the distance – and my kids laugh. Why? Because they know I’m not scary. I’m their dad. That’s how God wants me to see Him too.
Next it says,
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.”
God doesn’t want us to sin. Part of the reason He wrote the Bible was to show us our sin. The Law of the Old Testament, the stories of Israel, the hard-hearted Pharisees, the cruel Romans, the arrogant Greeks, the false teachers, the superstitious pagans – we see ourselves in all of them, and we see our sin. The Bible shows us our faults and then guides us on how to make it right. God doesn’t want us to sin. He still hates sin and hates seeing His children doing it – and will oftentimes discipline us so we can learn about the wrong we’re doing.
Later in chapter 3:9-10 we read:
“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”
Though we’ll never be free of our sinful natures until we get to heaven, God doesn’t want us to be “practicing” sin. We fall, we fail, we develop a bad habit, we go to the wrong place for comfort, that happens to all of us. But when Christians do it, we recognize it as sin. That means we don’t want to do it, even though we just did. We want to change, want to be holier, and we ask for God’s help. But sometimes we keep falling, right? Does that mean God hates us? Does that mean we’re not really Christians? That’s what Satan the Accuser wants us to think (Rev 12:10).
No, there’s an amazing but in there. It says,
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
And I’ll keep reading,
“He is the propitiation for our sins…”
If a human being was creating a religion what would that say? It would go, “I’m writing down all these things so that you won’t sin. But if you do sin, boy are you in trouble! You’d better not! Jesus won’t be happy with you!” But that’s not what it says, is it?
It says that Jesus is our Advocate. In other words, Jesus is our lawyer. He takes up the cause for us before God the Judge. He presents our defence, speaks to God for us, He mediates the conversation with God and He’s on our side. He’s our Advocate before God. And God listens because Jesus is “righteous”, meaning He is perfect. More than this, Jesus is also “the propitiation for our sins”. That means that Jesus was the sacrifice who bore God’s wrath against us so that we could be free.
This is where the understanding of “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.” comes into play again. Christians sin. Someone said to me recently that they didn’t want to come to church because they feel like a hypocrite. I told them, “It’s ok. We’re all hypocrites.” What did I mean? I meant that even though all the Christians in the church say we hate sin, we all keep on sinning. All of us. We keep sinning, keep doing things our own way, keep denying God and living as practical atheists, keep being selfish and bitter and trying to steal God’s glory. But what happens when we sin? Do we lose our salvation? Or does God simply forget about it? Does He pretend it didn’t happen? Do His kids get away with sin?
No. Do you know what happens? A Christian sins, again and again, and Jesus, our Advocate, says, “Father, don’t count that sin against them. Remember, I took the punishment for that sin. You poured your wrath out on me for that. They are still free.”
When Jesus was on the cross, God looked at the entire timeline of human existence, at the sins of all who would believe – from Adam and Eve to the very last believer at the end of time – potentially billions of people and billions upon billions of sins – and He poured the exact amount of wrath out on Jesus to pay for all of them. All our sins in our past and all the sins in our future are not forgotten by God – they are paid for by Jesus.
Christians who recognize that they are sinners, and how deep that sin goes, are people who recognize the immensity of the wrath that Jesus took for us – and recognizing that allows us to begin to understand how Amazing His Grace really is.
And understanding that grace, that undeserved merit, and then seeing all the other good things God gives us which we absolutely do not deserve – changes our lives. It makes us more willing to forgive others. Knowing that when we were enemies of God He forgave us allows us to forgive our own enemies. Knowing how generous God has been with us allows us to be generous with others. Knowing that Jesus came to serve us makes us want to serve others.
That’s why Christians take time to contemplate our sin and the wrath we deserved because of it – but the grace we got instead – it causes us to praise, to worship, to give thanks.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Chances are when you sit at the table with whoever you are celebrating with, you’re going to say grace before you eat. At least I hope you do. It’s an important habit all Christians should have – to stop for a moment and recognize that where you are and what you have is a good practice to develop humility. But when you do sit down and say grace, when you think about all the things you are thankful for, I want you to remember that that list is much longer than you realize. One Christian leader said it this way: “Everything above Hell is grace.” (Bill Stafford)
Allow that thought to enter your Thanksgiving this season. Allow yourself to see how great a sinner you are and then, as you contrast your darkness with light, realize how great your Saviour is.