During the season of Lent is the time when we fast and contemplate the sufferings of Jesus, what they teach us about Him, and what they mean to us.
Please open up to Mark 8:27-38:
“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.’
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.’”
Suffering should be no surprise to Christians, but it always seems to be. Yet, Jesus was so crystal clear about what following Him would look like.
If you look at the passage today you’ll see that Peter declares that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, and then Jesus starts to unpack what that really means. He describes what the rest of His life on earth would look like, preparing His followers for what would be happening during that year. He tells them of how this would be His final journey to Jerusalem, how difficult it would be, how much rejection He would face, and how the leaders of the city, even the priests and the scholars who knew God’s word best, would challenge Him, despise Him, reject Him, and ultimately work to get Him executed. But to remember that wouldn’t be the final defeat as in three days He would rise again from death.
But look at Peter’s response. “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” Peter, and likely the rest of the disciples – especially Judas’ Iscariot’s – concept of Christ’s mission was a very different one. Their whole picture of what it meant to follow Jesus, what that life would look like walking with Him, and how their lives would end – didn’t include suffering – especially unjust suffering. That’s what Peter was rebuking. His idea was to march into Jerusalem as a conquering hero, overthrow Rome, re-establishing Israel as a great world power, call down some angels and fire, spread health and wealth to the people, kick out all the bad rulers and install the 12 disciples as the new regents under Jesus. Victory upon victory. No place for suffering. But Jesus completely shuts down that idea.
Suffering MUST Happen
It all comes down to one, very important word in verse 31: “must”. “…he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things…” This is the issue that burns in the minds of so many. Why “must” suffering be a part of life? If Jesus is God’s Son, the Messiah, the most perfect, most loving, kindest, most sinless person in the world, you’d think He’d have a charmed life. Why “must” the King of Kings “suffer many things”? And, by extension, why should everyone who follows Him be required to take up a cross and suffer along with Him?
God is all-powerful, all good, all-knowing, all-loving – and yet He allowed His Son and all who would follow Him, to face unbelievable heartache, betrayal, and pain. It doesn’t make sense – which is why Peter had such a strong reaction. It’s the same reaction we have when the suffering gets piled on, isn’t it? It goes against our natural inclinations and causes us to question everything.
When we’re hit with sickness, death, pain, or sadness, these are all-natural questions: Why am I suffering? Am I even allowed to call this suffering in light of all the terrible things others are going through? What does it mean to suffer? What purpose does this pain have? Why am I going through this? Why is the person I love facing this? If God is all-good and all-powerful, can’t he come up with a better way? If I were God I know I could…
As we ask and read and pray, talk to some Christians, and more time passes – especially when we look back at other times of suffering – we start to understand more, but not completely. We start to see a little purpose in the suffering, some reasons behind it, some fruit that has come from it, and start to see some of God’s reasoning – but the question still lingers: “Wasn’t there a better way? How can this level of suffering be God’s perfect plan? Must it really be this way?”
The Sufferings of Christ
For the answers to these questions, we look to the life of Christ. If Jesus lived the perfect life and was perfectly loved by the Father… if Jesus is the perfect model and standard for living… if Jesus is our true teacher and friend… if His Father is our Father… if, once we are saved, His perfection is our perfection, and we are truly saved and fit for heaven… then whatever His life looked like – and whatever His follower’s life looks like – is going to give us a hint as to what is normal or normative or usual for all believers. Especially since He said,
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
So, did Jesus have to suffer? Theologically speaking, one thing we know for sure – and we’ve talked about this a lot – is that Jesus’ suffering was the only way to destroy the curse of sin.
2 Corinthians 5:21 says,
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Hebrews 9:22 says,
“Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”
It was only through His suffering that we could be saved. Listen to Colossians 2:13–14,
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
Now turn to Romans 5:1–11,
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
Our peace with God comes through the shed blood of Jesus. That was the price. God said, “Those who break my law must pay the penalty of suffering and death.” Jesus said, “I will suffer and die for their sake.” And anyone who accepts that is saved.
What we don’t usually understand though is that the sufferings of Christ that led to our salvation were not just in the final week of his life. His whole life, from birth to death, was one long passion walk. Isaiah 53:3 says the Messiah would be,
“despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…”
As you wonder about your own sufferings, consider Jesus’ life. Philippians 2:6-7 says that coming to earth was an act of supreme humiliation. Jesus, who is God Almighty,
“did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men…”
When He was born his parents could find no good place to stay so He was born in a barn and laid in a feeding trough (Luke 2:7). Not long after, when he was only a couple years old, Jesus barely escaped being murdered by King Herod (Matt. 2:14) and had to flee his country and live as a refugee. When He came back He lived in Nazareth, a town that some people despised (John 1:46). It is thought that his adopted father, Joseph, died when he was a young man, which is why Jesus waited until he was older to start His earthly ministry. Then when He did, His family called Him crazy and tried to shut him down (Mark 3:21). When he came back to his hometown of Nazareth to spread the gospel, they chased him out of town so they could throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:29). The scriptures say that for His whole life Jesus knew thirst (Matt 4:2), exhaustion (John 4:6), poverty, and homelessness (Luke 9:58). Consider Luke 19 when Jesus wanders off by Himself to a hillside to look over the city of Jerusalem, which He loved so much, and we see Him just burst into tears.
The devil tempted Him harder and more than any other person (Matt 4:1-2) and his enemies hated him more than anyone else (Heb 12:3). He was falsely accused many times of being a glutton, drunkard, blasphemer, and child of the devil (Matt 11:19, 9:3, 12:24). His friends and disciples were weak in faith and support, and often worked against him. The people around Him mostly only liked them for what they could get out of Him and then rejected Him when He wouldn’t perform. Near the end, when we see Him in the Garden of Gethsemane, He is alone, forsaken by all His disciples, and so overcome with sorrow and fear that in His agony He literally sweats blood (Luke 22:44). Then He faces trials, beatings, mocking, and torture in the worst way humans have ever devised – a Roman cross.
All of this suffering, every bit, was totally undeserved. When we contemplate our own sufferings, we know that many of them are deserved, right? We mess up a relationship, get addicted to something, lash out in anger, don’t plan ahead, spend too much money, and it causes suffering in our lives. We might complain or try to spread the blame, but deep down we know it was our own fault. Theologically, we know that all sin leads to suffering – that our sinful souls, and the sin of others, even if we don’t realize it, are always getting us in trouble, pulling us from God, leading us into sin, causing ripple effects of suffering in our lives and those around us.
But Jesus never deserved any of His sufferings. None of them. He never did anything wrong. He had no sinful nature. Everything He suffered was undeserved. And every time He was given the option to take the easy way out – by Satan or circumstance – whenever there was a way to avoid suffering, He almost never took it. Why?
Because the Christ, “…the Son of Man must suffer many things…” That was His mission. To face a lifetime of suffering that only got worse and worse. As the Christ, Jesus had a job: to suffer. Suffer to bring God glory. Suffer to set an example for us. Suffer to pay for our sin debt. The perfect plan for Jesus’ life was to suffer. That was the best way for Him to bring glory to God and accomplish the mission the Father had given Him.
Hebrews 2:10 says,
“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”
Hebrews 4:15–16 tells us that it is because of Jesus’ sufferings that we know that HE is on our side, that He understands what it’s like for us to go through tough times, and that allows us to know how compassionate He is towards us. It says,
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
But why would He do this? What did Jesus get out of it? Surely there was something He got out of it. Some payoff that made it worth all the misery, right? We feel this way, right? We’ll go through the suffering if it means that we’ll get something in the end – we get more stuff like Job, we get treasures in heaven, we get the adulation of others for being so strong, praise from our peers for facing such difficulty, more ministry opportunities because we’ve faced so much. We’re willing to suffer, but we want a payoff. What motivated Jesus?
Here’s the thing. He gained – nothing. Before His incarnation He had everything. He is God. Perfect relationship with the Father, the worship of angels, all power, all glory, everything was already His. So why suffer?
Turn to Isaiah 53:2-12.
“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”
This is why we sing “Amazing Grace”. Jesus gained nothing through His suffering. But it is through His suffering that we were saved. Romans 6:23 that
“the wages [the payment] of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Why did Jesus suffer? The Great Judge of the Universe demanded justice. Sinners must be punished. Now, this is something we all agree with. Even the most liberal person in the world agrees with this. If someone commits a crime, our God-given internal sense of justice demands that it be made right. And we inherently know that the punishment must fit the crime. If someone steals a candy bar from a corner store and the judge gives them the death penalty, something inside us cries out injustice. If someone rapes and murders and tortures a dozen families with young children – and the judge gives them a $5 fine and sends them on their way, that same feeling arises and we know that injustice has been done. If someone hurts us or someone we love, our heart always cries out for justice. Why? Because we are creatures made in God’s image and we have an inherent need for justice.
Now, I ask you – having this sense of justice in you – what should the penalty be for breaking God’s law? Think about this for a moment.
Two people are brutally murdered. One of them is a terrible person. He’s been a thief, murderer, drug dealer, liar, and cheat for 70 years. He’s fathered a dozen children from a dozen women, and abused and neglect all of them. In his time he’s corrupted hundreds of people, destroyed the lives of hundreds more.
The other person is a 6-year-old girl, friend to everyone, her mother’s beloved only child, and the apple of her father’s eye. She’s smart, pretty, kind, generous, and sweet. Everyone who knows her loves her, and she lights up every room she’s in.
Now, if these two people – the terrible man and the little girl – were murdered in the same way, at the same time, should the murder receive the same punishment? Our inclination is to say no, right? The purity, innocence, loveliness, specialness, and potential of the little girl makes us want a greater penalty for her murder than the terrible man’s. Why?
Because something inside of us knows that the more special, beautiful, and innocent, something is – the more it should be protected, and the greater tragedy it is that it was taken.
Now I ask you – how much more does this matter when the offence is against a perfectly holy, perfectly loving, perfectly kind, perfectly beautiful, perfectly majestic, God? If we believe the penalty for sin must be increased in proportion to the offence – then it only makes sense that rebelling against the Law of God, the Word of God, the Person of God, and the Presence of God, by squandering all that He offered us, preferring sin and self, and turning into His enemies – should require quite a punishment, right?
Seeing the devastation that sin has caused in our own lives and world, makes us angry. How much more wrath does God have against sin? Jesus took that wrath for you. Jesus faced that suffering for you. Galatians 3:13 says,
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…”
I want you to contemplate this for a time this Lent. That suffering is part of God’s plan, and that it’s not the exception. The world hates this message. They refuse to believe that suffering has value and they run from it. They refuse to follow a suffering Saviour or listen to a God who tells them that the best plan for their life is one that includes suffering. That’s why 1 Corinthians 1:18 says,
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” It is because of our faith in God’s perfect plan, which includes suffering, that Christians believe Romans 8:28 which says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Our feelings betray us, our hearts give out, our bodies long for release, but when we are Christians, our spirits can know – even in the midst of suffering – that God can be trusted. Is there a better way? If there was, that’s what God would have done. Jesus demonstrates and the Bible teaches that none of our sufferings, no matter how terrible, will be forgotten or go to waste. They all have a purpose. God is not cruel, He is compassionate and merciful.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Consider Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Afraid, overwhelmed, weeping, sweating blood, not wanting to face the cross. His body was falling apart. Just like us, He wanted escape, release, freedom from suffering, for some other way. Jesus knows how we feel. But what did He say? “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42) He turned His suffering over to the Father.
That’s all we can do. Tell God that it hurts, that we wish it could be different, but then say, “But I trust you. And I’ll keep going into your will. ” I think of the words of Job in 13:15,
“Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face.”
These are the words of a faithful man. Regardless of suffering, my hope is in God. I’ll keep bringing all these things to Him, keep pouring my heart out, even arguing – but in the end, I will trust that God knows what He’s doing. He will punish those who have wronged me. He will restore all that was taken from me. He will see all the things I’ve done that others have overlooked. He will strengthen me when I’m weak and let me take another step and face another day. He will raise me if I’m humble, give wisdom when I need it, establish and hold me fast because He is my foundation. My suffering has value, and God is perfect in Justice. My salvation is assured, and I will wait for the Lord.
This is how it worked for Jesus, Paul and all the Apostles, and all those who call themselves followers of Jesus. Your suffering is not the exception – it’s the rule. Every step you take carrying that cross has value, though neither you nor anyone else may see it. And God has promised that He will use it for His Glory and your good. That’s a guarantee.
At this time of Lent, and in your daily suffering, look to Jesus and talk to Jesus.
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, something Christians have been observing for hundreds of years, dating back before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.
Traditionally, this has been a time of fasting and prayer – when Christians avoid certain foods or meals so they can take that time to talk to God and contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ instead. These days, modern believers have expanded the definition of “fasting” to include almost anything that we find pleasurable or distracting, like TV, internet, desserts, video games, or chocolate. The idea is to remove something we like and replace it with something we like better. To consider the habits of our life, mortify the sins that have cropped up, think less of ourselves, and more about Jesus by setting aside time, energy and effort to concentrate on our spiritual lives.
This isn’t easy, especially when most of us aren’t fans of religion, don’t like denying ourselves the things we want, and live in a hyper-consumer driven culture.
Does anyone remember when the TV signal used to shut off every night? I remember when I was a kid staying up late at night and then the TV channel I was watching would say, “This concludes our broadcast day”, play the national anthem, and then just put up a test pattern until the next morning. Do you remember having to wait for Saturday morning to watch cartoons? What about setting your VCR to record a show you wanted to see because it would be on at a certain time, only once, and then it was gone forever?
That’s not the world we live in anymore. TV is available 24 hours a day. All our favourite sources of media are now “on-demand” whenever we want them. If you like crossword puzzles, you used to have to buy a book of them or wait until the newspaper came the next day – but now, you can fire up the iPad and do as many crossword puzzles as you like!
And our culture doesn’t help. Every week seems to have another holiday, birthday, anniversary, or special day of some kind. Every store has a sale something we want. Every day there’s another “must-see” concert, game, or movie. Everything is always hyped to the max, making us constantly feel like we’re always missing out on something.
This is all terribly bad for our hearts and spirits. Living in a constant state of distraction, never feeling satisfied, always feeling like we deserve a reward, is bad for us. Our spirits cry out for silence, meditation, confession, prayer, solitude – but the moment we try to give them what they need, we remember something we have to do, someone asks for something, we run out of milk and eggs, we remember there’s a sale somewhere, the car needs gas and the gas station has a good points program that’s only for today, another episode of our show is available or there’s a new movie premiering that night, our phone dings to tell us someone wants to chat, or needs an answer, or has scheduled a meeting for us, or reminds us of the thing we were supposed to be doing.
It’s very hard on our spirits to live in that state, and it will inevitably cause damage to our souls – we start to spiritually starve to death. We go from thing to thing, distraction to distraction, event to event, job to job, feeling hollow. We may get enough sleep and eat our veggies, enjoy our work, and have a generally happy life – but something deep inside feels hollow, empty – like part of us is starving and there’s nothing we can do to feed it.
Starving for God
Christians should understand this and know why it’s happening. Turn with me to Psalm 63 and consider the words of David when he was living as a refugee in the wildernesses and deserts of Judah, far from his throne, far from the Tabernacle, running away, hungry, thirsty, attacked, afraid, hunted by his own family and people.
“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” (Psalm 63:1–8)
He may have felt physical hunger, thirst, and fatigue, but as a man of God he knew that his real problem, the real danger, wasn’t lack of food or weariness of his body – it was the weariness of his soul. His complaint wasn’t that God wasn’t around, but that he missed God’s special presence in the Tabernacle, in corporate worship, in hearing the prayers and singing praises with God’s people, in meeting God in a unique way in the sanctuary. Being driven from the regular times of worship, sacrifice, songs, covenants, the reading of God’s word, was causing his soul to starve – so in the wilderness, he prays alone, sings alone, meditates alone, and declares that it is God alone – despite missing the trappings of religion – that would be his spiritual sustenance.
Have you ever experienced spiritual starvation? The spiritual atrophy that comes from the neglect of the care of your soul.
There’s a line in the Lord of the Rings movies that often comes to my mind. After years, even decades, of living with the One Ring in his pocket, it’s power having extended his life far beyond normal, Bilbo Baggins says to Gandalf,
“I feel old, Gandalf. I know I don’t look it, but I’m beginning to feel it in my heart. I feel thin. Sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
Have you ever felt that way? I know I have.
If we are not careful, the many wonderful things that our homes, town, nation, and modern life have to offer will actually work against us. You’ve likely heard the term “empty calories”, right? It describes food that taste amazing – like pop, candy, or fast foods that are full of fat, sugar, and salt, but contribute nothing to the health and wellbeing of our bodies. No vitamins, mineral, protein – just food that tastes good on the tongue, fills the belly, but actually starves the body. A lot of our modern life is like that, but for the soul. It takes time, feels good while doing it, has a semblance of meaning, relationship, depth – but is actually starving our souls.
1 Peter 2:11 says it this way,
“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 says this,
“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.”
The Bible tells us over and over that the satisfaction we seek deep in our souls cannot be found in anything this world has to offer. Instead, these things we spend so much time, energy, money, and attention on, wage war against our soul, killing our joy, and then they “pass away” – like empty calories.
Jesus said to those who are hungry for real, spiritual food,
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35).
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:38)
Psalm 107:9 says to those who are yearning for more than this world has to offer,
“For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.”
At the very end of his book, the prophet Habakkuk, after hearing God’s voice, says that no matter what is happening around him, his connection to God is what will sustain Him.
“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” (Habakkuk 3:17–18)
Jesus’ disciples were often worried about eating and food and money and safety – to the point of being so distracted that they could neither hear nor understand Jesus’ teaching. In John 4:31–34 the disciples came to Jesus with some food, urging Him to eat because he had gone many hours without food. He responded to them,
“‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Has anyone brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.’”
As Jesus said,
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)
The Apostle Paul understood this better than most. When looking back at the totality of his life before he met Jesus, said,
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him….” (Phil. 3:8–11)
This world has many wonderful things to offer, but as Christians, we must be so careful about how we treat them. Food and drink are wonderful gifts from God, but gluttony and addiction are a prison. Sexual pleasure is a wonderful gift from God, but outside of God’s control, it causes devastation and heartache. Parties and celebrations are a wonderful gift from God, but drunkenness and debauchery lead to the destruction of your life and happiness. Work and education are wonderful gifts from God, but workaholism, anxiety, and elitism destroy relationships. Having money, wealth, comfort, and safety are wonderful gifts from God – but laziness, selfishness, the belief that your stuff will protect you or make you happy, or refusing to obey God for fear of losing it, will drive you to misery. Hobbies and movies and video games are wonderful gifts from God, but choosing a fantasy world over reality, or ignoring your friends, family, and self-care for the sake of that fantasy, poisons your soul. Social media and the internet are wonderful gifts from God that have great potential to build people up – but we all know that they are also rife with temptations that destroy lives.
It is during the season of Lent that Christians are invited to examine these things, to do an inventory of our lives, to finally listen to the outcry of our hearts and decide to feed our souls the good food of God’s word and the presence of Jesus Christ.
The only way we are going to be able to see the ways that we are being fooled and manipulated by the enemy of our souls is to purposefully give ourselves to what the church fathers have called the spiritual disciplines.
Consider our study of Jesus cleansing the Temple in John 2 and how 1 Corinthians 3:16 tells us that since the resurrection of Jesus, God’s people, you, me, and those who worship at this church, are now the Temples of the Holy Spirit in which God dwells. If you are a Christian, then God has made His home in your heart, in your soul, and has placed His Holy Spirit within you as a seal of your salvation and to knit you together with Him. You have the Holy of Holies inside of you.
Turn with me to Ephesians 4:17–32.
“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
There are some who need to hear this today, but cannot hear it because the corruption of the world has deafened their ears and darkened their souls. Their minds have grown futile, their understanding darkened, they are alienated from God because of the hardness of their heart. Some who hear this are on the edge. You want to hear God, you want your mind renewed, you want to worship with purity and joy, but there are corruption and impurity in you that continuously leads you away from Jesus and towards sin.
But here’s the problem – you may not even know it. Sometimes the things that Paul describes here come so naturally, are so ingrained in us, that we don’t even know we’re doing them. We don’t even see it. Falsehood replaces some truths because the little white lies make our lives easier. We are angry, and sin in our anger, but we don’t even realize we’re angry. We steal like a thief, but we don’t acknowledge it because it’s from the government or big corporations or because it’s something small and no one will notice. We go to work and care for our families, but somewhere in us is a refusal to share with people in need because they don’t deserve it, or because there might be less for us. We participate in “corrupting talk” like coarse jokes, swearing, sexual innuendo, double-entendres, gossip, mockery, slander, but we don’t even notice it because it’s such a part of our vocabulary, or because we do anonymously online.
What the Bible is saying here is that we need to do an act of will where we, as Christians, “put off the old self” and “put on the new self”. How? Through obedience. Through spiritual discipline. Through fasting, prayer, and study. By asking God to look into our hearts and see how our lives have been corrupted “through deceitful desires” and how we have given an opportunity to the devil to do us harm. By asking God what way you have allowed the enemy a foothold in your life, home, and church.
I read the words of the 17th-century puritan pastor Richard Baxter this week and it gave me pause. He wrote this specifically to pastors, but I think there’s a message here for everyone who desires to do the will of God.
“The Enemy hath a special eye upon you. You shall have his most subtle insinuations and incessant solicitations and violent assaults. As wise and learned as you are, take heed to yourselves lest he outwit you. The devil is a greater scholar than you are and a nimbler disputant. He can transform himself into an angel of light to deceive you. He will get within you and trip you up by the heels before you are aware. He will play the juggler with you undiscerned, and cheat you of your faith and innocence, and you shall not know that you have lost them. He will make you the very instrument of your own ruin.” (Richard Baxter, “The Reformed Pastor”, Nisbet, 1850, p.85)
How can we know if we have corrupted our souls with sins we can’t see, crippled our personal worship, or let false gods or false ideas worm their way into our hearts, lives, spirits, relationships, and church? The only way is to ask Jesus what He thinks of the conditions of our souls, and then sit quietly and listen for an answer. And that takes time, effort, energy, humility, and careful attention.
But the good news is that it is never, ever too late. The Good Father is always on the lookout for the prodigal son and daughter. The Good Shepherd is always looking for His Lost Sheep. He will always accept you when you decide to get right with Him – and will help you grow closer to Him when you ask. He will do the work, but you must let Him by giving Him permission and room to work. I encourage you to consider cutting some things out of your life for the sake of fasting, praying, and meditating on the condition of your soul during Lent.
Let me close today with the words of Jesus to the Church in Laodicea, because I think it’s appropriate. Turn with me to Revelation 3:14–22,
“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation. I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
When doing any kind of experiment or making any kind of change, you need to establish a “baseline”, a starting point that serves as the one, known point of measurement that everything else will be compared to. Whether you’re studying climate change, time zones, altitude, typography, medicine, or physics, you need somewhere to start. You couldn’t do physics if the force of gravity or the speed of light changed from day to day. You couldn’t perform medicine if you didn’t know what healthy looks like. If you’ve ever tried to write a note on a piece of paper without lines, you know how wonky and wobbly your words get without them. You need a baseline to start with – something to compare everything else to.
Please open up to Hebrews 12:1–2. I’m reading out of the English Standard Version and before I begin I want you to notice the heading that the editors have given this section: “Jesus, Founder and Perfecter of Our Faith”. The “founder” of something is the one who originates something, initiates it, establishes it. It comes from the word “found” where we get the word “foundation” meaning “bottom” or “base” or the “lowest part”. The word “perfecter” is the word meaning to make perfect, make complete or totally finish.
This passage will speak about Jesus as, the “Founder and Perfecter of our faith”, meaning the One who came up with the plan of salvation, who set the rules for salvation, who laid the groundwork for salvation, and who became the foundation, the baseline, the bedrock of salvation. But Jesus is special. He not only established the rules and laid the foundation upon which everything stands – but He actually came and lived by those rules, walked the earth as a human being, faced everything this world has to offer, and did it so perfectly that it can never be done better.
Think of the NHL. There’s a big difference between the person who invented hockey, the coach of the team, and the individual players, right? If you had a competition between the guy who invented hockey back in 1875 and even an average player today, there would be no contest. The “founder” of hockey could never keep up. Even if the contest was between the coach and the player it might be a little more of a contest but the player would still dominate.
But each has a role. The league sets the rules so everyone knows how to play. The player has natural talent and practiced skills in order to play the game. And the coach studies the rules, observes the game, and critiques and organizes the players they can learn and grow beyond what they would be able to do for themselves. But none of them are perfect. Hockey coaches and players compare themselves to Scotty Bowman, Wayne Gretzky or Bobby Orr, but none of them were perfect.
What makes Jesus amazing, and what we are going to talk about today, is that Jesus not only sets the rules but plays the game perfectly and knows exactly how to coach everyone to do the same. Jesus is who we compare everything we understand about God, salvation, and life as a human being to. He’s the prototype, the standard, the baseline, the foundation, the founder, and the perfecter.
The preacher of Hebrews, as he is trying to encourage believers who are going through hard times, after giving a whole list of examples of people who remained faithful through difficulty, says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
In other words, as great as the examples of other believers like Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Gideon are, they are neither the founder nor the perfecter. They didn’t write the rules and they all blew it big time – and more than once. They are as much examples of God’s faithfulness to sinners as they are examples of people who kept the faith.
So, who are we to look to so we can understand how to “run the race set before us”? Do we look to Moses who took 80 years of training and then messed up in the end so that even he wasn’t allowed to see the Promised Land? Do we look to Gideon, who, though he followed God into great victories actually ended his life as a self-glorifying apostate who turned away from God and led the people into false worship practices? No. We look to Jesus who not only founded but perfected our faith.
I’m not a runner, as you can tell, but I like the illustration of “the race” that he uses here. Think of one of those Ironman Triathlon races. They need to know which way to go so they don’t get lost, how to pace themselves so they don’t waste energy, how to manage the ups and downs so they don’t get hurt, what to eat and drink, how to press forward when their body hurts, how to dress so they don’t chafe or carry extra weight, and so much more. Imagine if they had a video of someone who had run the race perfectly, and then was given the offer to have that person coach them, even to run and swim and bike alongside them?
Who should we compare our lives to in order to see if things are going right or wrong, for how to deal with what’s happening, and who should we ask for help when we don’t know what to do? We look “to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” He’s wrote the rulebook, established the path, walked it perfectly, and offers to walk with us as we do it ourselves
How This Affects Me
Now, before we get into the Heidelberg section of the message today I want to tell you why this point of theology is such a big deal – especially to me right now.
Lately, I’ve been struggling a lot with the kindness of God. The Bible, especially the psalms, talks a lot about God’s “lovingkindness” (Isa 63:7, Ps 69:16). The Bible says that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and we know that one of the definitions of love from 1 Corinthians 13 is that love is “kind” (vs 4).
You all know a lot of my story (and my story of late) so I won’t get into it, but over the past while here I haven’t really felt like God has been very “kind” to me, my family, some of my friends, the church, other people I hear about in the world. Now, I totally believe that God is “loving” and “good” and “just” and that all things work out “for the good of those who love Him” (Rom 8:28), but sometimes that doesn’t feel like “kindness”.
A good king can send a soldier off to die in a war for the sake of the kingdom, depriving a family of their father, but for the greater good. A good coach can make an athlete workout until their body hurts or until they get sick and literally can’t get up. A good martial arts instructor can give their student a swift kick in the guts, doubling them over in pain, as part of their training. I understand that. God as good creator, good king, good coach, the founder and perfecter of faith, allowing hard things, difficult things, painful things – loss and suffering — for the sake of His name, His glory, His kingdom and His people. I get that, I really do.
But it’s hard to see that as “kind” and it’s been a real struggle for me lately. And Satan has been chipping away at my faith and trust in God because I allowed that doubt, that thought, that confusion, to dominate my mind. It led to resentment with God, anger with God, distrust of God. It affected my prayer life. It’s been a struggle and I’ve talked to a lot of people about it – my counsellor, mentor, friends, other pastors – and they’ve all tried to help, but I’ve been stuck.
What really helped was a message I heard this week from a man named Doctor Paul Tripp who spoke at The Gospel Coalition Conference about the danger of viewing God through the lens of our circumstances instead of viewing our circumstances through the lens of God. He talks about times when because of what we are going through, we bring God into the court of our judgement and judge Him as being unfaithful, uncaring and unkind – which is an inversion of the proper theological process.
“It’s tempting, when you are going through dramatic things that you cannot escape to… let those function in your mind and heart as a way of understanding God. Danger! Danger! Danger! You don’t ever allow your experiences to interpret who God is. You let who God says He is interpret your experience. And that’s warfare.”
Now, I don’t want to re-preach his sermon because I hope to share it with you all one day, but I want you to know that’s the war-front I’ve been facing for a long while now. In my fatigue and sadness and anger, I have, too many times, fallen into the temptation of inverting my theological process. Something bad happens to me and I say, “Since I feel bad, and God knows and could do something about it but hasn’t taken away my problem, God must, therefore, be unkind.” That’s inverted theology.
What I’m supposed to do, what a Christian is supposed to do, is, when the difficult times come, is to speak the gospel to myself, speak truth to myself, speak the Bible to myself, and let the surety of who I know God has become the tool that interprets what I’m going through.
“Since I know God is kind, and I know God could do something about it but hasn’t taken away my problem even if I feel bad, God must, therefore, be doing something kind – even if I don’t understand it.”
I was getting it the wrong way around.
Heidelberg Catechism LD16
This is one of the advantages of going through this section of the Apostles Creed as taught in the Heidelberg, especially during the season of Lent when we are turning our minds to the sufferings of Christ. In my temptation and confusion of saying “God must be unkind because my life hurts right now” what I was really saying was, “Something has gone wrong with God, or my understanding of God. He’s not who I thought He was. Something is out of control. This isn’t normal. This isn’t right. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go. This goes against the rules, this isn’t the way the race is run, the coach is wrong about this one.”
But is it wrong? If Christians go through suffering, does that mean something has gone wrong with God? Is this how the race is supposed to go? The invitation of our scripture today is to “look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” to see if that’s what happened to Him. Because if it’s normal for Jesus, the One whom I’m following and who did it perfectly, then it must be normal for me.
Let’s look at the questions in the Heidelberg for the Lord’s Day 16, questions 40-44 and see what it says there about what we’re talking about today.
Question 40 says,
“Why was it necessary for Christ to humble himself even unto death?”
and the answer comes,
“Because of the justice and truth of God satisfaction for our sins could be made in no other way than by the death of the Son of God.”
We’ve talked about that a lot. Why did Jesus have to die? Because “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23) and there was no other way to pay them.
Question 41 says,
“Why was he buried?”
and the answer comes
“His burial testified that he had really died.”
That makes sense.
Then, having what Jesus went through, Question 42 says,
“Since Christ has died for us, why do we still have to die?”
and the answer comes,
“Our death is not a payment for our sins, but it puts an end to sin and is an entrance into eternal life.”
There’s more to say here, but for our purposes today I want you to notice how personal the Heidelberg makes these theological statements, reinforcing the truth that since Jesus is the founder and perfecter, the baseline and the model, of our faith, then it makes sense that we will go through what He went through and our experience will have a purpose because His had a purpose.
Question 43 gets even more personal saying,
“What further benefit do we receive from Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross?”
Almost sounds selfish, doesn’t it? Sure, sure, Jesus died on the cross and saved me from Satan, death and hell and has invited me into an eternally glorious relationship with Him and the Father forever in the perfection of paradise…. but what else do I get? The answer comes,
“Through Christ’s death our old nature is crucified, put to death, and buried with him, so that the evil desires of the flesh may no longer reign in us, but that we may offer ourselves to him as a sacrifice of thankfulness.”
This is straight out of Romans 6 which we’ve already talked about. Jesus died so that the sinful nature within us could be destroyed and so we could live free from the curse.
But now look at question 44,
“Why is there added: He descended into hell?”
Why would the Apostles Creed, the oldest and most trustworthy creed in Christian history include the line “He descended into hell?” This is a question that theologians have been arguing about for a long time and I don’t want to get into that argument right now, but I want you to notice how the Heidelberg’s answer applies to what we’re talking about today.
Why do we need to know that Jesus went through hell? The answer given is,
“In my greatest sorrows and temptations I may be assured and comforted that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his unspeakable anguish, pain, terror, and agony, which he endured throughout all his sufferings but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.”
In short, Jesus went through hell to found and perfect our faith. He went through hell, took the full weight of the wrath of God against sin, so we wouldn’t have to. He made salvation possible through His blood and suffering. That is the foundation, the bedrock, of our faith. But He didn’t just found our faith, He perfected it. In other words, He went through the sufferings of Hell so that, when we are in our greatest times of sorrow and temptation we can know that Jesus has faced worse than us, has taken those pains upon Himself, and has offered to walk with us through them until He delivers us through them in the end.
Suffering is Normal & Necessary, but not Ultimate
That’s the lens through which we are to interpret our difficult circumstances. Why did Jesus have to die and be buried? To save us. Why did Jesus have to suffer? Not only to save us, but to show us His love, commitment, and that suffering in this life is normal and necessary, but not ultimate.
Suffering is normal. That means everyone will face it. If God in human flesh, the most perfect being to ever live, faced suffering and taught that his followers would suffer, then it must be normal. God the Father loves Jesus His Son more than anything else, cares for His Son more than anyone else, and would never cause His Son to go through any unnecessary sufferings, He would never be unkind to His Son, and yet The Father put Jesus through great suffering for His whole life. That means the suffering was not only normal but necessary.
Hebrews 2:1 says it this way,
“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”
But even though that suffering was normal and necessary, it was not ultimate. Jesus came to suffer and die, but that wasn’t to be the end of the story. It says that Jesus founded our salvation through suffering, but one doesn’t stop building at the foundation. One lays a foundation in order to build something. Why did the Son of God lay the foundation of salvation? In order that the Son of God might “bring many sons to glory”! Christ’s sufferings were normal, they were necessary, but they were not ultimate.
And so, since Jesus is the founder and perfecter of our faith, the baseline, the model, the one who ran the race perfectly, the coach who can show me how to do it, then, when I am going through something difficult in my life and I start to ask myself, “Is this normal? Has something gone wrong? Has God lost control? Has God become unkind?” I must look to the baseline – look to Jesus – and interpret my circumstances and understanding of God through that lens. To let who God says He is, how God says He operates, how He operated in the life of His Son Jesus, interpret how I see my trials, temptations, and sufferings.
How to Endure
Look back at the text of Hebrews 12:1-2 one more time. It says,
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
“…Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross…” The cross of Christ represents the greatest suffering, the greatest injustice, the worst series of hours in human history. We talked about them a couple of weeks ago. How could Jesus endure such terrible things? Because He had his eye on the joy set before Him. He despised the shame and sufferings of the cross, He disregarded them, thought little of them, in comparison with the joy of what would happen through those sufferings.
He would win the souls millions, maybe billions of the people He loves and establish His Kingdom on earth. He would show the perfection of His holiness and set the perfect example through them. He would glorify God through His obedience and humility and conquer Satan, death and Hell once and for all. He would usher in the birth of the church. And by going through those sufferings He would be raised up to glory (Phil 2:5-11).
But not only that. Not only would He be raised up to glory, but all those who would follow Him. He was founding, paving the path, for His followers to achieve something they could never do on their own. He was making possible something that no one could ever attain. He would obey the rules so well, run the race so well, and be awarded such a prize that anyone who believes in Him would be automatically considered a winner of the race too.
This is easy to forget when we focus on our trials and sufferings. It’s easy to interpret God through the lens of our sufferings instead of interpreting our suffering through the lens of Jesus.
Conclusion: Romans 8:18-39
Let me close by reading one of my favourite passages of scripture which says this so clearly to those who are going through difficult times. How is it possible to go through suffering? How can we endure? The same way Jesus did – by keeping our eye on the joy that is set before us. Turn to Romans 8:18–39 which speaks of all these things – suffering, endurance, the life of Christ, struggles with faith, Jesus’ glorification, and ours, and our trust in God.
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)
The very first line of “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” from CS Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” is one of my favourites. It says,
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
If you’ve read the Narnia books or watched the movies, then you’ll remember Eustace Clarence Scrubb. He begins the book as a thoroughly unlikeable character. He’s honestly worse than the White Witch. Sure, she was pure evil, but Eustice was a self-centred, know-it-all, cowardly, jerk.
If you don’t know who I’m talking about, then maybe you’ll remember the feeling you had when watching or reading about Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter. I hate that pink lady so much… but back to Eustice.
Lewis spends a good chunk of the book introducing us to this obnoxious and disagreeable person, giving him opportunity after opportunity to redeem himself or show a little bit of good, but it never happens. Then comes the scene where the ship has been hit by a huge storm, is in absolute tatters, runs aground on an island, everybody spills out haggard and exhausted. But they know that even though they are all utterly drained, they must rally for a few more hours so they can gather food and firewood to set up camp. Eustice, seeing that there will be no rest, slowly sneaks away so he can have a nap somewhere out of site.
After a short time, he comes across a dragon’s cave. He watches the dragon die and then sees its store of treasure. His rottenness really comes to the fore as he imagines all the selfish things he could do with this fortune until he falls asleep on a pile of gold. “When he awakes, Eustace is no longer a boy but a dragon, the outward manifestation of his inner greed and selfishness.” He discovers that the gold bracelet he put on his arm is now bringing great pain as it constricts his dragon leg, and when he tries to go to the others he finds himself cut off from his friends, isolated and alone. He curls up in a ball and starts to cry hot, dragon tears.
His friends never give up the search though and eventually, after much suffering and loneliness Eustice starts to regret his ways, miss his friends, and after much trial and error because he can no longer speak, manages to explain his predicament to his shipmates, even use his new form to help gather supplies.
After some time as a dragon, Aslan, the Christ character of the book arrives. He leads Eustace to a garden on top of a mountain where a well stands in the very centre. Eustace wants to enter the water so the pain in his leg could be soothed, but Aslan says he must undress first. Eustice realizes that Aslan must mean that he must shed his skin, like a snake. He sees how dirty and scaly he looks and starts to peel off that layer, “only to discover another nasty, scaly, and rough layer underneath. And then another. After three layers, he realizes it’s vain — he will never make himself clean or get rid of his pain or shed the nasty skin.”
Aslan the Lion then says Eustace, “You will have to let me undress you.” Eustace is obviously nervous about having a huge lion with great claws come and tear at his skin, but he’s so desperate for relief that he relents and lies down on the ground, flat on his back. Lewis describes what happens next from Eustace’s perspective:
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…. Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off — just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt — and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me — I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again…. After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me… in new clothes.”
This passage has come to my mind many times since I read it recently. There is some great truth in it.
Often in our lives, we desire to be cleansed, renewed, made right, fixed, changed into a new person. We look at the life we’ve led, the decisions we’ve made, the foolish nonsense we’ve gotten ourselves into, and we wish it could be different. We feel guilt, shame, anxiety, sadness, and anger and we want it to change. We are addicted and want freedom. We are afraid and want security.
And so we do what Eustace did first. We try to peel off an outer layer, something on the surface, in hopes that that’s all we need. We read a book, try a change of habit, make a new schedule, commit to exercising, make a prayer time, get a Bible-in-a-year checklist and say we’re going to read it. We tell people around us that we’re going to try to be nicer, better, cleaner, more friendly, less stressed, more committed, more determined – and that we’ll do it by changing one or two things in our life. Give something up, join a group, take a walk, clean our house, and organize our lives.
But it doesn’t work. We strip off that one layer and it’s not too long until we realize that we really haven’t changed anything. We’ve exchanged one bad habit for another, one idol for another, one way of control for another, one enemy for another, and no matter how clean our room is, how clear our schedule is, how many days in a row we read our bible, attend group, or go for a walk, nothing ultimately changes inside of us. The fear, sadness, anger, and hunger are still there.
So we do what Eustace did again. We strip off another layer. We change something else on the surface of our lives in hopes it will change us. We do something radical like die our hair, get a piercing, shave or grow our beard, get a tattoo, buy a new wardrobe, in hopes that if we look different then we will feel different. Then we look around for other things that we can change. We dump our friends and try to find new ones. We see our church and blame them for not doing enough, so we go somewhere else or stop going altogether. We see our doctor and blame them for not giving the right treatment, so we get a second opinion. We blame our medication and figure it isn’t working right, so we stop taking it or go find different ones. We blame our family and spouse, so we ignore them, commit adultery or get a divorce. We blame God so we go looking for another religion.
We hope that if we change what is happening on the outside, change enough surface things, that it will fix our deepest problems. But it doesn’t work. With every surface change, with every layer of stripped-off skin, we eventually realize we haven’t really changed. We’re still the same dragon we were when we started.
“Tim Keller once said in a sermon, ‘The way to deal with guilt is not to avoid it, but to resolve it. Eustace not only realized he couldn’t get his own skin off, but that only God can come and take your skin off, and to do this you have to let him pierce deep. You must take all the guilt on yourself and stop blame shifting and take responsibility for what you’ve done wrong. No excuses. Full in the face.’”
This is what everyone must do before they can know the freedom and healing that comes with being made new by the power of Jesus Christ. They must look their sin in the face, stop making excuses, stop blaming others, stop thinking it’s just a surface problem and say,
“The reason that nothing changes no matter what I do is because I am the problem.
The reason I feel so afraid is that I want to be in control of everything and everyone. I want to be God because I don’t trust Him.
The reason I’m so angry is that I believe that my life should be one of unbroken comfort and ease. Deep down I resent everyone who makes me feel even a little bit uncomfortable, and I hate that God allows suffering in my life, so I hurt others so I control them, punish them for taking my comfort, and feel better about myself.
The reason I’m addicted is that I chose to be. I felt lonely, afraid, sad, or bad in some way and wanted an escape. I knew what I was doing was wrong, knew it had consequences, but chose to do it anyway because I didn’t care about anyone or anything other than myself at the time. I wasn’t fooled into a trap. I jumped into it. And I keep going back into the trap because I don’t want to go through the pain of leaving it, regardless of what it’s doing to me or the people I love.”
The only way to be free of sin is to admit you are a sinner. Admit you like feeling the rush that comes when you are the centre of attention, and so you seek it out, push others down, even steal the glory from God so you can feel good about yourself – because deep down you believe you should be worshipped.
Admit that even though you pretend to be nice on the surface, that deep down you are full of hate and you allow that hate to come out in socially acceptable ways. You would never murder anyone, but you will gossip about them, slander them, mock them, make rude comments about them, and stab them in the back – not to their face but to others or anonymously online – and then when you feel guilty or get caught, you make excuses saying they deserved it. There are people you hate, would never show love or affection or friendship to, even though you don’t know them, simply because of their race, gender, or social status.
Admit that you lie and believe lies on purpose because the truth is less convenient.
Admit that you lust after men and women who you are not married to, and that you want to, that you enjoy it, and you don’t care if pornography and human trafficking and prostitution is utterly destroying people’s lives and making it so you can’t even have a conversation with a young man or young woman without objectifying them, because you like it – and you don’t care about the suffering that comes from pornography because allows you to feel pleasure.
Admit that you have used all kinds of excuses to weasel out of work you should have done because you are lazy.
Admit that you are jealous of those who have more than you, who are better looking than you, who have a better life than you, and you would gladly take all of their comforts and dump all your problems on them if you could because you care more about yourself than anyone else.
Admit that you’ve stolen many, many times. You steal from the government by falsifying your taxes, from stores by keeping change that wasn’t yours or using coupons wrongly, from media companies by stealing signal and sharing passwords, from musicians and artists by downloading their songs and books and art for free instead of paying for them, from your parents when they weren’t looking, from your neighbours, your friends, your church, even from God by not giving Him what you promised Him.
Stop making excuses for your sin, stop blaming others, stop making light of it, stop assuming it’s just a little problem, a white lie, a personality quirk, and admit that you are a sinner who has loved sinning, and will keep doing it for as long as you can, until you are caught, or it kills you. And there’s nothing you can do to stop.
Only then, only when you admit your biggest problem is you, your sin, your failure, your decisions, your debt, will you ever be willing to ask for help. Only then will you roll over, expose your belly, and, regardless of how much you fear it, allow Jesus to change you utterly.
In Alcoholics Anonymous they call this “Rock Bottom” and it refers to the very lowest level a person can hit before they are willing to look up. Some people’s rock bottom requires very little loss before they ask for help – other people need to go through a lot more suffering, but the common theme is suffering, loss, and then admission of need. As long as a person is living in denial, defending what they do, comfortable with their addiction, they will never want to change. Until an alcoholic sees that drinking is a problem, they will never stop, they will never be able to root out what is really driving them to drink. In the same way, until a sinner sees that the real problem with their life is that their sin holds them captive, they will never ask to be freed from it, and thereby never know freedom.
What Happens When You Finally Admit Your Sin
What happens when you ask to be free? What happens when you finally admit you are living under a curse, that there is nothing you can do, and that you want to be free from the living-death that your sins keep you in? What happens when you realize the consequences of your sin are yours, feel the heat of the wrath of God coming against you, and are pressed down with guilt and shame? What happens when you turn yourself belly up and allow Jesus to strip you down and then dress you in His clothes? What happens when you finally admit you are a sinner in need of a saviour?
The picture of Eustace is one of a sinner whose outsides finally caught up with his insides. He was always a dragon, now he just looked it. So what did Aslan have to do? He had to kill the dragon part of Eustace so He could become who He was intended to be on the outside and the inside.
To save us from our sins, Jesus has to kill the sinful part of us, the part that has killed our souls and damned us to eternal death in Hell. Then Jesus must resurrect us to a new, eternal life that is no longer trapped in that curse. The only way to conquer your dragon is to kill it. You can’t make friends with it and hope it will behave. You all know the experience of trying to make friends you’re your dragon-self – it never stays friendly. The only cure for sin is death.
So how does God kill the sin part of us?
He Became Sin Who Knew No Sin
2 Corinthians 5:21 gives the answer,
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
This is one of the most important verses in scripture because it helps us understand how salvation through Jesus works. How is it possible that we can be sinners to the core, rebellious lovers of iniquity, our backs turned against God and toward all manner of depravity – and then be made right with Him without being punished, without facing God’s wrath? How can we go from being dead in our sins (Eph 2:1), destined for Hell, to alive in Christ and live with Him forever? If God hates sin, and the wrath of God must be poured out against it, then how can sinners be saved? How can the curse of sin be broken?
We know it’s not by trying to change our behaviour, right? Not only is that insufficient – because our sins are so numerous and powerful – but it’s ineffective. It’s like trying to cure cancer using lotion. It’s like trying to fix a brain tumour by getting a haircut. The consequences must be terrible and the effect of the cure must be complete.
It says that “for our sake”, because of His great love for us, Jesus chose to exchange Himself for us. This is where Lewis’ illustration of Eustace falls apart a bit – but was actually written about in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”. Jesus doesn’t just tear away the dragon from us. Instead, Jesus becomes the dragon. Or rather, God treats Jesus like He is the dragon. God puts upon Jesus the full weight of His wrath against sin. Jesus, the one “who knew no sin” became sin. Jesus had the entire measure God’s wrath against sin, the full curse, placed on Himself, and then takes the punishment you deserved.
The rejection of Jesus should have been ours. The scourging should have been us.
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:4-6)
“He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross…” (1 Peter 2:24)
A surface change in our behaviour isn’t enough to deal with the problem of sin. We need to have the curse of sin broken in us. We need someone to kill that dragon. Jesus did that for you, for me, for anyone who is willing to admit their sin and their need for a Saviour. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The scripture is clear, and our conscience attests to the fact that there is nothing we can change in our behaviour to fix the problem (Rom 8:3). We couldn’t obey God, so Jesus obeyed for us. We didn’t want to die for our sin and face hell, so Jesus took our condemnation, died for us, and took the full weight of hell on Himself. We want to be made righteous and free from the curse of sin in our life, to be made clean and right with God and those around us, but we can’t do that ourselves – so Jesus lived a perfectly righteous life, and then died like a cursed sinner, so we, who deserved that death, could be made righteous.
When we put our faith in Jesus, God kills that dragon of sin inside us strips us to the core, and then resurrects us to new life. That’s why Christians are baptized. It’s an external picture of what’s happening on the inside. We admit our sins and then go under the water in death, we are buried with Christ as the water envelopes us, and then we are raised to new life as we come out of the water, cleansed and set free from the curse of sin.
This is why one of the pictures of becoming a Christian is known as being “Born Again”. Jesus said to the Pharisee Nicodemus, a man dedicated to living an upright, perfect life according to the Law of Moses, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) What did that mean? It meant that the way of the Pharisees, the way of laws and rules and surface changes will not make you fit for heaven. You must let God kill your sinful self, your sinful flesh, and let Him resurrect you as a new person, born again.
This happens only when you believe in Jesus. Every other religion, every self-help book, every other messenger will tell you to try harder, do more, pull up your socks, and give you a list of superficial things you need to change so you can become a better person. Or they’ll just teach you how to become friends with your dragon. That’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jesus doesn’t offer a surface change, a spiritual band-aid, a list of rules and steps to a better life – He offers to take your sins upon Himself, die in your place, destroy the dragon within you, kill your old self, and then resurrect you as a new person, free from your slavery to sin. All He asks is that you admit you need Him and Him alone, believe in Him and Him alone, and allow Him to invite you to enter into His death and His resurrection.
Let me close by reading Romans 6:1-14.
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”
[1, 2, 3] I got a lot of help in this section from https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/my-dragon-skin-torn-off
“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”.
We’re continuing a series on the final week of Jesus’ life. We’ve already covered the events of Palm Sunday, and Monday where He cursed the fig tree, cleansed the temple. Last week we talked about Tuesday, a day where Jesus was attacked on all sides by every group in Jerusalem who wanted to trap Him in His words, so they could arrest Him as a traitor or a blasphemer. But none of it worked.
He spent the rest of the day as a sort of teaching tour-guide of the Temple, walking throughout and explaining many things, even taking time out to pronounce seven woes upon the Pharisees, eventually ending his tour with just his closest followers seated on the Mount of Olives with a spectacular view of the entire Temple. One of them comments on how beautiful it is and Jesus spends a long time telling them about the soon coming destruction of Jerusalem and expands his teaching all the way until the end of the world.
They leave the Mount of Olives and return for a well-earned sleep to the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. We don’t know much of what happened on Wednesday, but there is one event that cannot be missed – Judas’s bargain with the leaders the Temple Police, who report to the Sanhedrin, to betray Jesus.
Though there has been much speculation as to why Judas did this, scripture doesn’t really give us a specific answer. We know that Judas was never really a follower of Jesus – and Jesus knew that (John 6:64, 70) – though the disciples didn’t seem to notice.
One solid theory was that it was for the money. Judas’s name is often associated with wanting money. He kept the purse for the group and liked to dip into it for personal reasons. This seemed to give the devil a foothold in his life and was what Satan leveraged to turn him from Jesus. Just a few days before Judas was very upset when Mary had anointed Jesus feet with an ointment that would have cost a year’s wages. He saw it as a waste and would rather have sold it and kept some of the money.
On Monday Jesus overturned the marketplace tables of the money changers. On Tuesday Jesus told them that everything was God’s and that they had to honour the government with their taxes. On Tuesday evening Jesus warned them that because of their faith, they would lose everything, be hated by all, and go through great tribulation on account of Jesus.
No doubt all of this sat very poorly with Judas. Jesus was supposed to be his key to an easier life, not a harder one. The plan was to ride into Jerusalem, conquer Rome and set themselves up as lords of all the world – and all this talk of loss, suffering and pain wasn’t what Judas had bargained for.
In Mark 14:1-2 we get a glimpse of what’s going on behind the scenes:
“It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, for they said, ‘Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.’” (vs 1-2).
Mark places some of these stories thematically and next tells the story of Jesus’ anointing by Mary the night before Palm Sunday, emphasizing Judas’ problem with it and contrasting his heart with Mary’s. This gives us insight into what is about to happen next:
“Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him.” (Mark 14:10-11)
Perhaps when he walked up to the Temple Guard, Judas was simply looking for a payout. He figured things were about to go sour and he needed cash-out ASAP. He is given 30 silver coins – not an insignificant amount – maybe $10,000 in today’s money. With that action, Judas sets in motion the final day of Jesus’ life as a free man. He comes back to sit with Jesus and the Twelve, waiting for his moment.
Thursday is an incredibly busy day, by biblical standards. And, to get technical, we have to remember that the way that we mark days, and the way that the Jews marked days, is different. The Jewish understanding of a “day” is almost opposite to ours. The day begins when the stars come out at night. So technically, the events of Thursday mostly happen in the Upper Room during the Last Supper. Then when Jesus and disciples leave the room, it’s already Friday when they get to the Garden of Gasthemene – which we will talk about next week.
So the events of Thursday also bleed a little into the events of Friday, and lots happens. Mark’s Gospel whips through Thursday in only a nineteen verses, Matthew takes 32, Luke takes 38, but Gospel of John takes five chapters to go through it, 154 verses, most of which is Jesus talking. It’s almost all red letters.
Let’s read how Mark speaks of the events of Thursday, and then we’ll fill in the gaps from the other Gospels.
“And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” And he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us.” And the disciples set out and went to the city and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover.” (Mark 14:12-16)
So here’s what’s happening: Jews were expected to return to Jerusalem and stay there for the Passover meal, and plans had already been made for where they would take it together. So now they make their way to the room where they will spend the evening, and during supper Jesus does something remarkable. John 13 tells us what happens next:
“Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” (John 13:1-5)
Jesus is teaching them about humility and the importance of serving one another by doing something only a servant would do – wash their dirty feet. This is where we get the term Maundy Thursday, by the way… Maundy is the traditional term for Footwashing. Him doing this proves to be somewhat ironic since in about half-an-hour they’ll be arguing about who is the greatest among them. But He does try to explain it to them.
“When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, ‘Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.’ After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.’” (John 13:12-21)
Jesus washes the disciples’ feet – including Judas’. He speaks of His love for them and demonstrates His willingness to serve them. He implores them to serve one another in humility, but He knows the heart of the one who has already sold Him out. Jesus gives every possible invitation to Judas to change his mind, and every reason to turn from the path He was set on… but he would have none of it.
And then they return to the table, each disciple confused about what Jesus had just said about being betrayed. They sit down and only the one closest to Him, John, has the courage to quietly ask who would do it. Jesus says that it was the one sitting so near Him that they were even sharing the same food at dinner. Jesus then tears off a piece of bread, dips it and shares it with Judas. More irony. Judas sold Jesus out for a pile of money, and was being offered food from Jesus’ table, a sign of friendship.
“Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘What you are going to do, do quickly.’ Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the feast,’ or that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.” (John 13:27-30)
Many theologians wonder what happened when Judas took that piece of food from Jesus’ hands. Why was Satan able to get a hold of his heart right then? You’d think that would have been the time when he felt closest to Jesus and least likely to betray him. We know that Satan had been working on him already, but what made this the moment of decision?
Perhaps it was that Jesus seemed to already know what Judas had done. He had announced someone would betray him. Perhaps Judas was close enough to hear what Jesus had told John. I wonder if what pushed Judas over the edge was the very fact that Jesus had offered to wash his feet, be his friend and a share his meal. Judas didn’t want to serve a servant – he wanted servants! He didn’t want a friend, he wanted a conquering king! He didn’t want scraps from the table, he wanted to rule nations! He didn’t want a small purse, he wanted a treasury! Perhaps it was the very act of offering friendship that tipped the scales. And Jesus knew… and sent him out to get it over with… His heart growing heavier every minute.
Jesus Comforts His Disciples
The rest of the meal is an amazing series of events. Judas gets up and leaves to find the Temple guard, and Jesus begins to speak to the disciples for a long time. And his speech begins like this in verse 31:
“When he [Judas] had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once. Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’” (John 13:31-35)
Jesus will speak a lot about love this evening. The word “Love” will come up 31 times before the end of Jesus’ lesson. Next, Jesus will institute the Lord’s Supper and tell Peter that he will betray Him three times.
“Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.’ Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.” (John 13:36-38)
The disciples are visibly upset. Jesus has been talking about his death a lot this evening, he has said someone will betray him, Judas got up and left, and they just watched Jesus and Peter have a very disturbing conversation. I can’t imagine what was going through their minds.
But Jesus speaks words of kindness, strength and promise to them. It is from this discourse, in the final hours before Jesus is arrested, that we get some of the most amazingly helpful and comforting quotes of our faith. He’s agonizing inside, but Jesus begins by saying:
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” (John 14:1)
When they panic that they don’t know how to get to the Father to be with Him again, He says:
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
When they worry about how they will be able to go on without Him, what if they forget his teaching, what if they don’t know what to do, Jesus says:
“These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you…” (John 14:25-27)
He reminds them of the critical importance of depending on Him for everything — because He loves them:
“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing…. 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. You are my friends…” (John 15:5, 8-14)
He prepares them for what is about to happen, and what will happen for the rest of their ministry:
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you…. ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:18, 20)
Yhen He makes them a promise:
“…you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:22-24)
At the end of this teaching time, after He has tried to prepare them for what will come, the disciples look at Him and say:
“‘Ah, now you are speaking plainly and not using figurative speech! Now we know that you know all things and do not need anyone to question you; this is why we believe that you came from God.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do you now believe? Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.’” (John 16:29-33)
His concern for them, despite the fact that they have such little clue about what He is feeling – no one asks Him – and despite the fact that in only a few hours, they will scatter in fear and leave him alone to face a false trial and then death at the hands of their enemies – is staggering. He really, really, loves them.
And then Jesus prays. He prays for Himself, His disciples, and all of us believers that would come later. All of chapter 17 is a prayer Jesus spoke in the Upper Room during His last meal with the disciples. He’s only a short time away from His betrayals, arrest, false trials and crucifixion, and He calls out to God.
First, Jesus prays for Himself:
“When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” (John 17:1-5)
Next He prays for his disciples, staring in verse 6:
“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.
But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” (John 17:6-19)
And then, Jesus prayed for you, me, and all believers who came before and will come after us:
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.
Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:20-26)
After His prayer, He looked at them, and got up to leave. He warns them again that they will all fall away from Him, and Peter again states the He never will… and Jesus reminds him that He will deny Him three times. Words spoken in love, knowing what will come – and the disciples are starting to understand how much pain their Lord is in.
They leave the Upper Room and walk to the Garden of Gethsemane in the Kidron Valley, where Jesus wants to go to continue to pray and prepare His heart for the immense trial and suffering that would come very, very soon. And He wants His followers to pray for Him and to pray that they might not be afraid or betray Him that evening.
“Jesus went out [as was his custom] to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you will not fall into temptation.’ He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’ An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. ‘Why are you sleeping?’ he asked them. ‘Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.’” (Luke 22:39-46 [from the NIV])
In moments, Judas will come with a group of armed guards from the Sanhedrin, and return Jesus’ act of friendship from earlier that evening – He will give Jesus the kiss of friendship, which was designed to tell the guards exactly who to arrest.
Drawing an application from Thursday is no easy task. There is so many places we could go. A whole series’ of sermons couldn’t mine out all the wonders of what was said and what happened on Thursday. But I take this away:
Jesus loves His people so much. All the promises of Thursday are promises to us too.
He loved them enough to prepare a place for them in heaven.
He loved them by washing their feet and humbly serving them.
He loved them by preparing their hearts and minds for the trials that would come, and never lying about how hard it would be.
He loved them by warning them about the weakness of their hearts and convicting them of their sins.
He loved them by making them not only His followers, but His friends.
He loved them by promising them the Holy Spirit, a union to Him and the Father, that would never leave them.
He loved them so much He would be willing to listen to and answer their prayers when He went away.
He loved them by giving them each other to lean on.
He loved them even though He knew they would keep turning away from Him.
He loved them though they would betray Him.
He loved them though they would scatter.
He loved them even though they didn’t understand and were often disobedient and argumentative, grasping at power and refusing humility.
He loved them by praying for them and interceding on their behalf to His Father.
And, in His most amazing act of love, He loved them so much, that He was willing to take all of their sins, to suffer and die in their place, taking the wrath of God on Himself, exchanging His Righteousness for their sinfulness, so they could inherit eternal life and be with Him forever.
That’s the love of Jesus for us.
A couple weeks ago we started a series going through the final week of Jesus life His resurrection on Easter Sunday. We’ve already covered the events of Palm Sunday and Monday where we saw the Triumphal Entry, the Cursing of the Fig Tree and The Cleansing of the Temple. Today we will talk about what happened an even more eventful day – Tuesday.
Many people call the this time in Christ’s life “Passion Week”. It is so named because of the passion Christ showed during His march toward the cross to pay for the sins of His people. It could be argued that it was during Passion Week that Jesus preached the most stirring, emotional, difficult, and controversial teachings of His entire ministry. But He wasn’t the only one showing passion – so were His enemies.
I’m a child of the 80s and 90s, so the events of Tuesday remind me of when I used to watch the Royal Rumble during WrestleMania as a kid. For the uninitiated, the Royal Rumble is when they take a whole bunch of very large men, dressed in tights and other forms of weird clothing (and who call themselves “wrestlers”), stick them in one ring and let them pretend to beat the tar out of one another until one man remains. The rules were that two men would start in the ring and then every couple of minutes they send in wrestler after wrestler, 28 more, until one man stands victorious.
That’s what Tuesday is to Jesus. He’s taking on all comers. We read about group after group lining up to try to trick, trap and publically scandalize Jesus through all sorts of devious questions. But when the day comes to an end, He’s the only one standing.
Mark 11:20-13:37 give us the events of events of Tuesday, but I would like to park on the section where Jesus is confronted in the Temple, starting in verse 27. Before we dig into any application, I want to look at the attacks that come against Jesus, and who from:
“And they came again to Jerusalem. [that is, Jesus, His Disciples, and probably a growing group of followers] And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him…”
What we see here is the group called “The Sanhedrin”, which was the Jewish executive, legislative and judicial council. It consists of 70 members, plus the High Priest. Now, this wasn’t the entire Sanhedrin, but probably a delegation sent from it. They met every day (except on Festivals and the Sabbath) and had a lot of power in Jerusalem. They were the ones to whom all questions of the Mosaic law were finally put.
To understand what’s going on here, picture Jesus walking into church only to find a delegation of lawyers, judges and politicians, sent from the Supreme Court of Canada, standing in his way. Remember, Jesus had just caused a major scene the day before by throwing out the merchants and money changers from the day before. This was a group of powerful, angry men who were sent to question Jesus regarding His actions.
The First Volley
We already know from verse 18 that this group was planning on killing Jesus, but they couldn’t figure out how to do it since they were afraid that the crowds would turn on them if they did. Jesus was still immensely popular. They needed to turn the crowds against Him before they could eliminate Him.
“…and they said to him, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?’” (vs 28)
Jesus has only taken a few steps into the Temple, surrounded by a group of disciples that is growing every minute, when these men stop Him and ask Him for His credentials. There’s almost no doubt that after Jesus’ actions of the day before, they had convened a council to try to figure out what to do with Him, and they had come up with a plan: publically discredit Him so most of the crowds would stop following Him, capture him during the night when no one was watching, and then trump up some charges against Him – a plan that eventually succeeds, with Judas’ help.
Their first attempt was a well-laid trap. They wanted Jesus either to publically admit that He believed He was the Messiah, the Son of God, and that His authority came straight from God so they could accuse Him of blasphemy which was punished by death – or say that everything was by His own authority so they could accuse Him of being a megalomaniacal fanatic.
But Jesus knows their hearts. He knows they couldn’t care less about what authority Jesus speaks and performs miracles by and so He turned the question back on them to expose their cowardice. Verse 29:
“Jesus said to them, ‘I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.’ And they discussed it with one another, saying, ‘If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘From man’?’—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.’” (vs 29-33)
He reveals their motives and weakness to everyone around, and then Jesus goes even farther. Keep in mind that they aren’t in a private place with only 12 disciples and the delegation from the Sanhedrin. They are surrounded by a large, and ever growing, crowd. Jesus was already very popular, and now he’s in a Title-Fight with some of the most educated, influential and powerful people in their whole culture.
Remember high-school when kids would start to pick on one another, and then one would push the other? It wasn’t too long until the whole school found out and came running. Imagine Jesus vs The Sanhedrin. That would draw a crowd.
The Parable of the Tenants
“And he began to speak to them in parables. ‘A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’” (12:1-6)
It’s almost impossible for the crowds and the delegation to miss the point of this story — this is a parable of judgement. As soon as Jesus says the word “vineyard” they know that Jesus is talking about all of Israel, because it was a well-known metaphor in the Old Testament.
Jesus uses this story to not only to illustrate the tension between Him and the leaders of Israel, but to break it wide open. This story is a condemnation of all of them, and a prophecy of what would happen in only days.
The Landlord who planted and owns the vineyard is God – and it’s a good one. It is protected by a stone wall, built by the owner himself. He cultivated it and made it fruitful enough to need a winepress. He set up a tower as a lookout for trouble and a shelter for those who gathered the grapes. The owner of the land knows what He’s doing, and has created a great vineyard.
He steps aside and leases it to some tenants to run for a time. He’ll be back, but until then He wants them to care for and grow His vineyard – which should be pretty easy since He’s already done all the hard work. All they have to do is keep it up.
And they do. They sit back and enjoy the fruits of the owners labour. Sure, they had to pull some weeds, but it was the owner’s wisdom and strength that made it grow so well.
And when all the grapes were ready to be picked, and the owner comes back to collect some, the tenants won’t give it up. Those who remember the story of the cursing of the fig tree know what the fruit is meant to represent here: worship and obedience.
They want the grapes. All of them. The tenants, who here represent the Sanhedrin and other Jewish religious rulers, won’t give them up. They want the worship that is due to God. They want the praise. They want the power. They want the glory. They want to be obeyed. They want to have what God is rightfully due – the worship of His people.
God sent His angels, prophets, kings, judges, to tell them to give up what is only for Him, but they won’t have it. Finally God sends the Messiah, the very Word, the voice of God, the face of God. The One whom Hebrews (1:3) calls “…His Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” And soon, they would reject and kill Him.
Jesus looks them in the eye and knows their heart. He looks at the leaders of Israel and knows what they have been plotting. He says in verse 7:
“But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this Scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes?’” (vs 7-10)
The Sanhedrin, the elders, teachers of the Law, Pharisees, Sadducees, and the entire crowd catches on. Jesus says that “the vineyard”, which represents all the promises God made to Israel, will be taken from them and given to non-Jewish people. He will come and wipe out the Temple, the Sacrifices, and the Old Laws, and give the entire blessing “to others”.
Why? Because they rejected Him. He offered salvation – a sharing of the fruit – if they would humble themselves. But they saw Jesus as a stone that was in their way, that needed to be removed so they could build what they wanted to build. Jesus said, “No, I’m not in your way… I’m the cornerstone… and unless you build on me, everything you build will fall apart.”
If you read the accounts in Matthew and Luke you can read even more parables that Jesus told them, where He speaks of God as an enraged King who will dispatch His troops to destroy the leaders of Israel and invite gentiles into His wedding feast. Over and over Jesus issues warnings to the people and the Jewish leaders that they are on the edge of hell, and warns them against rejecting God’s plan of salvation through God’s chosen agent – Him.
See their reaction:
“And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.” (vs 12)
Exasperated and defeated, they walk away – but they’re not done. Their cronies are going to spend the rest of Tuesday playing the same hand over and over, trying to discredit Jesus and make him trip over his words. Just like in the parable, they are going to throw fist after fist, stone after stone, trying to get Jesus out of their way so they can take over the vineyard – but it’s not going to work.
Attack after Attack
“And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk.” (vs 13)
Next they send in the B-team of wealthy businessmen try to discredit him – the movers and shakers of the community. They thought they had come up with a great trap about paying taxes to Rome, where they thought they could get Jesus arrested as a traitor for saying not to pay taxes, or rejected by the people as a Roman sell-out by saying you have to support Rome. But it doesn’t work and they scurry away defeated.
Next they throw out a Hail-Mary by sending in the least credible of their ranks – the wealthy, aristocratic, smart-mouthed, materialist-minded politicians: “And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection. And they asked him a question…”. (vs 18) But their question, which was about who would be married to whom after the resurrection, is so ridiculous, and so poorly framed, and so unbiblical, that Jesus easily points out to everyone that they knew “neither the Scriptures nor the power of God”. (vs 24)
Finally, we see one man, a scribe, which we would call a Lawyer, who had been impressed with Jesus’ answers, come up and asked: “Which commandment is the most important of all?” (vs 28) Jesus answers Him, and they have a discussion about the importance of loving God and loving our neighbours, and it goes well, but this man still lacked something. He knew the right answers, was an expert in the scriptures, and understood God desired not only obedience but love – but had not yet put His faith in Jesus. “And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’” (vs 34)
I think Jesus spoke tenderly to him, rather than with the intensity He had been showing defending Himself to the other groups. This lawyer was almost there, but had yet to take the step of faith in Jesus that would lead Him to the Kingdom. And Jesus was pleased with Him, but wanted Him to know that He wasn’t there yet.
Mark says at the end of verse 34: “And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.”
“Ding-ding! Knockout! Presenting the undisputed, heavyweight champion of the woooorld!” Delegations from every Jewish leadership group had come to Jesus with some incredibly tough questions, and He faced them all down. Their efforts had been fruitless and they had been the ones who ended up looking foolish. Their hatred grew and they would have to come up with a revised plan for how to kill Jesus.
And that plan would be handed them on a silver platter in only a couple of days as one of Jesus’ own followers, who had had enough, came to them to sell Him out.
When I think of what applications we can pull from what was going on in Jesus’ life on this Tuesday, I can see two important things for us to remember:
First, Jesus knows what it’s like to be under attack from all sides. Remembering that helps us in our prayer life.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)
The people and families in our little church are under attack these days – and from many different angels. Jesus was challenged about all sorts of matters from all sorts of people, so we are also being challenged. Some are struggling with physical temptations to sin with their bodies. Others are being attacked by their family and friends. Some are under spiritual oppression that is trying to drive them into a dark place. Some are feeling it financially. Other are beset with fears of loss, confusion over the future, anxiety over decisions, or the pressure to be perfect.
The first application I see here is to remember that Jesus knows what it’s like to be hit on all sides. He was tired, had only ever done good and told the truth – but they were still attacking Him. Why? Because He was Son of the rightful owner of the vineyard. Just like you are.
If you’re a follower of Jesus, then you are going to be under attack. You are a son or daughter of the king, and you are hated by His enemies. In His final meal with the disciples before He is arrested and crucified, Jesus says to them,
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
And that’s the second thing to remember. No matter what came at Him, Jesus overcame all of His adversaries. Even in the end when they crucified Him, He came back from the dead. There was no temptation, no clever trick that, no theological or religious question that he couldn’t perfectly answer.
The message of the world is “Try harder, work more, be better, and you will over come the world.” The message of Jesus is, “I have already overcome them all. Trust me. Listen to Me. Follow my Words. Those who are in my Kingdom are already victorious.”
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose…. If God is for us, who can be against us?…we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:28, 31, 37)
That requires us to depend on Jesus. To put down our own wisdom and strength and pick up His. He is stronger, wiser, kinder, more loving, and more helpful than anything else we can turn to. Not only does He know exactly what you’re going through, but He’s been through it Himself, and He knows the way out — and He’s willing to share it with you, if you’d only submit yourself to His Lordship and listen. He will forgive you because He loves you. He will guide you because He is good.
To the scribe He said, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God” because he had knowledge but had not exercised faith. I implore you to allow your relationship with Jesus to take that eighteen-inch journey from your head to your heart and to make Him your true Lord and Saviour – in all areas of your life. Go to Him with everything.
Over the past couple years, going back all the way to September 2012, we have been working our way through the Gospel of Mark – and have made it all the way to Mark 7. My resolution this year, even though it is going to feel like lightspeed (to me), is to finish the Gospel of Mark before the end of Summer.
But since we’re in the Lent season, we’re going to do things a little out of order. For the next while, up until Easter, we are going to be working our way through Passion Week. Each Sunday we’ll be talking about a day in the life of Jesus Christ – the last week before His crucifixion and resurrection. Today, I want to talk a bit about Sunday and Monday. I also want to note that this series was inspired by an amazing book called “Crucify: Why The Crowds Killed Jesus“.
Up until this point, and for the past three years, Jesus has been wandering from town to town, preaching, teaching and announcing and explaining the message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:1). Everything has been about explaining that message. What has been fulfilled? What is the Kingdom of God? What is repentance? What is belief? What is the Gospel?
Over the last three years the teaching has been getting more and more specific. When he started, He was explaining His position as the fulfiller of Old Testament prophecies about the coming Messiah. Then He confirmed His claims through miracles. At first the messages and miracles were private – to individuals and the followers of John the Baptist, changing water to wine and healing small town people in their homes. But His reputation grew quickly and the crowds grew larger and larger.
After a time He was forced to teach from a boat to shores full of people, climb mountains to address thousands gathered to hear Him and have their sick healed. The pressure became relentless so He was forced to hide from the crowds and wake up extremely just so He could get some quiet time.
From these crowds He chose a select group of people, whom we call the Apostles, that would receive special training and a more intimate communion with Him. But even they didn’t fully grasp what He was doing. He had been making messianic allusions all along – explaining that He was intending to go to Jerusalem and suffer, even die, at the hands of the Jewish and Roman authorities. No matter how many times He explained it, no one really understood, no one really believed Him.
For them, He is a King, the Messiah, the Great Prophet, the Healer, the Miracle Worker who can make the lame walk, the blind see, and food materialize out of nowhere. Sure, He had some hard things to say as He preached things like the Beatitudes (What does “blessed are the poor” even mean?), or “Love your enemies”, or “God prefers when you pray privately and no one sees you”, or “if your eye causes you to sin, cut it out”, but this kind of extremism is to be expected from a prophet, isn’t it?
And He certainly had some strange habits for a future King. He ate with tax collectors and prostitutes. He performed miracles for Roman centurions and talked to Samaritans. But so what? He had undeniable power and authority from God, had gathered thousands of followers, and was now marching His way towards Jerusalem!
Surely this would be the One to finally conquer the Romans, destroy their enemies, elevate the Jewish people to be the greatest nation on earth… and have each of His twelve apostles at His side – each on a throne, with a province to rule, the world at their feet – I mean Jesus’ feet… yeah, Jesus’ feet.
Let’s read the events of Sunday from Mark 11:1-11:
“Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’’ And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it. And some of those standing there said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go. And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!’ And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”
The Triumphal Entry
Many Bible’s call that part “the Triumphal Entry”. We usually commemorate that day on Palm Sunday, which is 4 weeks from now. It was quite a day, and everything that happened, was exactly what His followers wanted to happen!
Imagine the intensity of the crowd. Jesus slept the night before in the house of His friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus – who many followers know because Lazarus’ resurrection. The disciples bring the animal for Jesus to ride on – a very important sign to everyone since it fulfilled the messianic prophecy of Zecheriah 9:9:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Everyone knew what Jesus was doing and claiming – to be royalty, the king of Jersualem, the Saviour of the city and its people – but they were completely mistaken as to why.
The Passover was only a week away, Jerusalem’s most popular event, and the city is already filling up with visitors – not to mention the entourage following Jesus. The multitude grows as the colt slowly makes the two mile journey from Bethphage to Jerusalem. The anticipation grows with every step with people laying down cloaks waving palm branches like flags in a royal procession.
Soon the large crowd following Jesus joins with the large crowd coming out of Jerusalem – even Jesus’ enemies, the Pharisees, have come to see the spectacle. The crowd’s excitement can’t be bottled up anymore and they shout, “Hosanna in the highest!”
“Hosanna” means “Save us! Please Save us! God save us!” They are shouting their expectation of Him to usurp King Herod and overthrow the Roman oppression of Emperor Tiberius. Some even shout the traitorous slogan: “Blessed is the King of Israel!” which could get you killed under Roman law.
The Pharisees hear this and are terrified. In Luke we read that they tell Jesus to command His followers to be silent! If the Romans hear this they could send their army, start arresting and killing people as rioters and traitors to the emperor. But they couldn’t be stopped, and eventually even the Pharisees give up trying (John 12:19).
The telling of the story in Luke gives us a glimpse into what was going through Jesus’ heart and mind at this time. As the crowds yelled adulations, His enemies were embarrassed, and the whole city chanted praise to Him, it says:
“And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.’” (Luke 19:41-44)
He’s looking into the eyes of the people, and knows their future. The gate He’s entering, the walls He’s passing, the people who are shouting, in mere days will turn on Him. They will reject their King and their Messiah. And then, in less than 40 years, in 70 AD, Emperor Titus and his Roman army will have enough of this ridiculous city with its rebellious people, will sack the city, and destroy everything, killing and enslaving hundreds of thousands of people.
He’s not revelling in His popularity, He’s weeping over the foolishness and rebelliousness of the people before Him. They just don’t get it. His words come in sobs. And what happens next, no doubt, comes as a surprise to everyone. Look at verse 11.
“And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”
The multitudes around Him are on bated breath , waiting for a word from their Saviour, their King, their Messiah. And what does He do? He leaves. He doesn’t walk up to the palace and demand an audience. He doesn’t perform any miracles. He doesn’t teach. He breaks into sobs of lament, gets to the Temple, looks around at everything, and then… walks away.
This helps to explain what happens the next day – on Monday.
Let’s read from verse 12:
“On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it. And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, ‘Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.’ And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came they went out of the city.”
On the way to Jerusalem we see Jesus do something very peculiar and highly symbolic. It’s no coincidence that the Cursing of the Fig Tree and the Cleansing of the Temple come next to each other. Many times in the Old Testament prophets use the fig tree as a symbol of Israel. scripture Mark is showing us something here.
Jesus is hungry and sees a fig tree with green leaves. He walks up to a tree expecting to find the little, edible buds that come out around March and April, before they fall off and turn into figs. The green leaves implied the presence of something more. This tree had leaves and no buds. No buds meant no fruit.
Jesus curses the tree that looks to everyone like it was healthy and could nourish those who come by. He curses the tree that, from afar, makes the promise of health and fulfillment, but that, up close, is fruitless – an utter disappointment.
And then he walks into Jerusalem. Jesus comes into a very different city than He had left on Sunday. The fervour of the previous day had abated and now it was time to get down to some serious preparations and shopping. Things had to be ready for the fast approaching Passover – which is why there were so many retailers in the temple courts.
The city was in full bloom, activity everywhere, a flurry of religious activity. Pharisees prayed on street corners, women ran to and fro busy in their preparations, men selling religious requirements and exchanging foreign currency at exorbitantly inflated prices. The noise was overwhelming, and Jesus’ heart was still heavy from the day before.
Not a thing had changed since He had cleansed the temple two years earlier. They had all come back and were just as fervent in their sales as before. The poor are being abused, the sick are forgotten, the needful pushed aside so more money could be made, and the religious machine could move forward.
Jesus is heart-sick at this situation. His closest followers don’t understand what He’s doing. The religious elites have forgotten the meaning and spirit of the Law He gave Moses. The Temple, the place that God had set aside so that the world could come and meet with Him, had been turned into a religious market designed to prey upon those who were meant to come and worship.
And Jesus has had enough.
“It is His last opportunity to demonstrate what His Father feels about the religious system that operates to keep the powerful in power, the weak in bondage, and the nation in self-serving blinders. He grabs the sides of tables and flips them over. He kicks the chairs of those selling pigeons at the expense of widows and orphans.” (Crucify: Why the Crowd Killed Jesus, Pg 226)
It’s the same as the cursing of the fruitless fig tree. Jerusalem, and its Temple, looks like they can satisfy the spiritual needs of its people, but it can’t. It’s all show and no substance. A mile wide and an inch deep. They were so caught up in religious activity that they forgot to feed the people. It was empty of anything good – nothing but green leaves.
The current reality of what Jesus was looking at “is so far removed from His Father’s intention that it compels Jesus to react.” (ibid)
Application: A Personal Cleansing
You can already guess at the application today – and it’s something that God has been working in my heart for a while now. In fact, before I started preparing for this sermon, I was asked to share a devotional with some area pastors, and I had come up with the same message to them – though I didn’t figure it out until I started my sermon prep. Unbeknownst to me, the lessons of Sunday and Monday have been stirring in my heart for some time.
And to close today, I want to read to you what I wrote to this group of pastors because I believe it applies to all of us today:
The heart, motivations and character of the worshipper is paramount to God – not the motions and methodology of our ministries. It doesn’t matter how right we get it, how great our churches are, how amazing the music, how far our reach, or how many people we get in the door. If our hearts (and the hearts of our people) are not connected to God, all that we have done it utterly meaningless.
I’m convinced that this is the reason we are not seeing revival in our churches – because we’re trying to find our salvation through methodology. We, the pastors and the churches, are not unlike the hypocritical Pharisees who conduct our rituals in public, open our doors, show off our religion and the trappings of our spiritual ceremonies – but they have not been energized by spiritual consecration, suffering obedience, and private prayer. A few people may be in prayer before we conduct our ceremony, but in my experience, is literally perfunctory – meaning “carried out with a minimum of effort or reflection.”
We give God our perfunctory prayer before the service and music practice, our perfunctory scripture reading at the right time, our perfunctory gathering of the offering, our perfunctory singing of the songs, our perfunctory attention to the sermon, standing up and sitting down when we’re supposed to…. We know it must be done, and we are doing it in obedience, but are we not just like the Israelites from Isaiah 1 who are going through the motions, doing the right thing, saying the right words, but the hearts of our people – and the ministers, elders, deacons, teachers – are in fact far from God? Are not our churches, pulpits, choirs, and pews not full of banging gongs and clanging symbols?
We are so used to the system we have come up with to worship God that we can go through all our religious activity – prayer, bible reading, study, fellowship, visitation, and worship – without even having to think about it. Everyone knows what must be done, when it must be done, and who must do it – and any deviation from the plan causes our little canoe to wobble precariously as people grump about how they “feel” and how they “want to be fed”.
Part of us (part of me) believes that if we keep working the methods, keep performing the ceremonies, that at some point God will bless us. I’m slowly learning that this attitude is fruitless. We need to be cleansed.
I am convicted so deeply these days that I am a mile wide and an inch deep – and I don’t think I’m alone. We pastors are nice people, full of bible knowledge, able to answer a multitude of questions about life, the universe and everything, faithful in our obedience’s, even hard workers – but I don’t think that’s enough.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, every verse takes away our methods and forces us to stay away from perfunctory obedience. In the Beatitudes we see Him stripping us of every worldly help as He says Blessed are the “poor, mourning, meek, hungry, merciful, pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted and the reviled.”
In that Jesus strips our ministries of thinking revival will come through riches or emotional displays of happiness. He strips us of believing revival will come through the spectacle of worldly consumerism and demonstrations of how clever we are. He tells us to be meek and takes away belief that revival will come by the force of our own will. He refuses to give us satisfaction, knowing that spiritual revival will not come to the satisfied. He smashes our idols and tells us that revival will not come if we bend the truth and partner with the world. He strips us of comfort, of safety, and even of friends as He tells us that following Him will require us step into a warzone, be amazingly costly, and make a lot of people many people angry. And Jesus’ path of cleansing and away of worldly methods and thinking continues throughout the sermon. He cursed the fruitless tree, He cleansed the Temple, and He cleanses us when we read His Sermon on the Mount.
Being “salt” and “light” means we lose our right to privacy and spiritual contentment Loving our enemies means we are forced to always be the bigger person. Next Jesus strips us of a private thought life as he says adultery is happens in mind, and is not merely an action.
Jesus tells us that we must stay married – even to a horrible, neglectful, bitter, unhelpful, selfish spouse – and that we have to serve them, love them, and give more and more to them every day. Some are stripped of the refuge of marital love.
Jesus says that every word we say matters – we are stripped from meaningless conversation or blowing off unimportant things that we foolishly agreed to.
Jesus says we have to “turn the other cheek”! Which means even if we are wiser, smarter, stronger and more right than our enemies– and could turn our enemies inside out – we aren’t allowed. We must let them strike us again.
I read the words of Jesus, and the actions of Christ as He curses the green fig tree and cleanses the temple, and I’m deeply convicted about the overwhelming depth of my sin and the personal responsibility I take for the lack of revival in my heart, my family, my church, my town and my nation. In a lot of ways, it is my fault. I’m just like that green tree, and those who used religion to their own selfish ends.
I can’t get away from that. I am so full of besetting sin and woeful spiritual inadequacy. The 7 Deadly sins of wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony are the air I breathe and the food I eat. No matter how hard I try, I can’t get away from them. I desperately need Jesus to cleanse the temple of my heart.
I want to be a better man, and I want God to make much of Himself through me – through each of us – but I cry out with Paul:
“I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:21-24)
And in the same measure I lean on the answer Paul gave; the only hope that He found:
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! … There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus… If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 7:25; 8:1, 31-35; 37-38)
What else can I do? What else can we do? In Jesus I must put my hope. If we are to see revival, we all must put our hope in Him. Not in our methods, not in our own strength, not in our consistency, friendship, relationship or even our giftings – but in Christ’s power to overcome all of our sins and somehow work good for His glory instead.
What is Lent?
We are currently in the traditional season of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday and goes until Easter Sunday. Most Protestants, Baptists included, don’t really celebrate much of the liturgical calendar, but the Lenten season has been celebrated by many Christians around the world since the third century.
Evangelicals usually avoid it, though it’s making somewhat of a comeback these days, because it’s associated with the rituals of Catholicism and old-school Christianity. The idea is that since the protestant reformation, we have thrown off the shackles of mindless pharisaical religion and now live as modern worshippers of God who follow the Bible and not the rules of man. But I think that by ceasing the practice of many of these traditions we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater and have lost some very powerful tools of Christian discipleship.
The protestant reformation was all about combatting false teachers who had moved away from the message of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus and were telling people they had to do certain things (like go in pilgrimages, say certain prayers, do penance, and give the church money) before God would forgive them.
But the protestants didn’t just get rid of the false Roman Catholic teachers, they also demonized many of the teachings of the traditional church, including the church calendar. The thinking was that since the Roman Catholics came up with it, it must therefore be wrong. In my opinion that’s too closed minded. I believe we can get a lot of benefit by participating in some of these traditions. Though they were eventually corrupted and used to manipulate ignorant people, they began with good intentions. Christians were encouraged to remember and celebrate the life of Jesus throughout the year, celebrate the saints and martyrs that had come before, and practice many important spiritual disciplines.
Lent is a period of 46 days – 40 regular days and 6 Sundays – that the church fathers set aside as a time of reflection and preparation before the high-holy days of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Instead of being like the world and avoiding feelings of sadness, lamenting, suffering and sacrifice, we choose to take a period of time to be more like Jesus and meditate, mourn, repent and fast.
Christians traditionally stopped eating certain foods and avoided celebrations so they could contemplate the meaning and significance of the ultimate sacrifice Jesus gave us on the cross. We choose to take a long time to think about why Jesus was crucified, what He went through, how much our personal salvation cost, what that means to us individually, to our family, and to our church.
It is a spiritual practice, a spiritual discipline, a spiritual exercise – something we are not very good, and is grossly undervalued these days. Lent is a time of prayer, meditation, fasting and repentance where we confront the sins in our life and try to put them to death. It’s a time to think less of ourselves and more about Jesus. It’s a time to give a special sacrifice of our time, energy, and efforts to God as an act of worship. It is a time to practice self-discipline and open ourselves to the amazing thing that God has done to save our souls.
We are Consumers
In the theme of thinking less of ourselves and more about God and others, I want to take some time today to address something that many of us struggle with – selfishness. If the season of Lent is about giving something up (like TV time, desserts, celebrations, internet) so that we can replace it with something better (a deeper relationship with God and a clean spirit), then the temptation to go along with that will be toward selfishly wanting to have it both – to have our cake and eat it too.
That’s what our society is all about, right? That’s the consistent temptation of where we live, isn’t it? Our society worships at the altar of consumerism. We are trained from very a young age that life is about accumulating pleasurable things and avoiding painful ones. We are born to go to school to get a job to get the money to buy the things that will make us happy. We find a person to live with that will make us happy and ward off pain. And if the job or the relationship brings pain, we get rid of it and get a new one.
Christianity doesn’t believe that. Christianity doesn’t agree with consumerism. Humans are not products, nor are the only valuable when they are contributing to society. Christians believe that all people, from their conception to death and at every stage in between – and even beyond death – have inherent dignity and worth. Every life is sacred and worthy of love and protection. Even the lives of our enemies are worth love and protection.
That’s what Jesus demonstrated to us when He died for us, His enemies. He came into the world that He created for goodness and perfection, but sinned, rebelled and destroyed itself in an attempt to usurp His position as God. But God made us His image bearers, and He loved us so much that He was willing to trade the life of His Son for us. Jesus was willing to trade His life for a bunch of disobedient, stubborn, gluttonous, vile, sinners who keep straying from His way, opposing His authority, abusing His goodness, twisting His privileges, and selfishly destroys His creation and continuously hurts the people around them.
But He came. He demonstrated the opposite of consumerism. He showed perfect unselfishness. He gave everything, received nothing, so we could have everything.
Nehemiah and the Wall
Nehemiah 5 describes a group of people that are just like us – people who have been saved from slavery to a foreign power, brought back to the promised land, but have to work with God every day to restore the ruins that were created by their own sin and rebellion. That’s the story of Nehemiah and the Israelites, but it’s also the story of every Christian.
The Jewish people had rebelled against God in every way possible and were disciplined by Him through being captured by their enemies (the Babylonians) and sent into 70 years of slavery. After that time, God brought them back to their land so they could start again. The land they returned to, especially the city of Jerusalem, was in ruins. The temple, homes, gates and defensive walls were all broken and burnt.
God raised up two important men, Ezra and Nehemiah to guide the people to rebuild their faith and their city. Ezra taught them the Bible and Nehemiah organized the rebuilding of the city. They faced many challenges from enemies outside the walls, but the work continued as people grew in faith and strength.
Then comes Chapter 5. If the story of Nehemiah is the story of the rebuilding of the people of God, then Nehemiah 5 shows what happens when Satan alters his attack against them from opposing them from the outside to tempting them from the inside.
Exploiting the Cracks
The wall, at this point, is a little more than half done, and the enemies outside the walls have been dealt with. Satan sees he’s not going to be able to shut down the city and the people by attacking them from outside the wall, so he changes his tactic to see if he can corrupt them from within.
“Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. For there were those who said, ‘With our sons and our daughters, we are many. So let us get grain, that we may eat and keep alive.’ There were also those who said, ‘We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine.’ And there were those who said, ‘We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards. Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, our children are as their children. Yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards.’” (vs 1-5)
So there’s the switch. The troubles move from outside the camp to the inside – which is a common tactic of the Enemy. If he can’t rattle our church or our families by having people attack us, he’ll switch to having us hurt ourselves.
The walls were being built up so there would be no cracks in their defenses, but the cracks were showing in their relationships. It’s not that they weren’t there before, but now that the community was coming together, the city was being rebuilt, the spiritual reformation was occurring, Satan chose to use one of the existing problems toward his advantage – and that problem was selfishness.
This will always happen, and continues to happen today. When revival and Godly spiritual growth is about to happen to an individual or to a group, whatever cracks are there will be exploited. Whether it’s a church, a friendship, a marriage, or a leadership team, the sin will be exposed and the fractures will deepen.
To the church in Ephesus Paul gave the warning to watch their relationships because their enemy would exploit their weaknesses:
“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” (Ephesians 4:25-27)
He told them to watch themselves for lies, and be careful with their anger, because their words to each other would give an opportunity to the devil to create divisions within the church.
You’ve no doubt seen this in your own homes. A husband and wife decide to recommit their lives to Jesus and strengthen their marriage. Suddenly all manner of hell breaks loose on them from the outside – job issues, money issues, car issues, illness all come at them, but they stay together and remain strong. The next attack comes from within. Satan looks for the crack in the spiritual armour – and it’s often selfishness.
The man starts to believe he deserves more “free time” because he’s earned it and spends more time away from his wife and family… or he believes he deserves something new and shiny so he spends more time at work. The wife feels likes she deserves more help because she’s doing everything, all the time, for everyone… she’s the victim, she deserves more respect, more free time, more presents, more affection, and since she’s not getting it, she’ll go get it herself from something or someone else.
It’s the same for the individual. They recommit their lives to Christ and all hell breaks loose. And then the inward battle starts. Fatigue, pride, anger, fear start to become more present – thoughts that never occurred before start to bubble up. That’s the spiritual battle we face.
It’s the same in a church. We commit ourselves to one another, preach, teach and sing the Word of God faithfully, serve one another, and commit to staying here. We are attacked from the outside, and it doesn’t shut us down, but causes us to grow closer to God and one another. Then he attacks us from the inside.
Like a boxer exploiting his opponents cuts and bruises by hammering on them until they break open, the enemy starts to hammer on the sins he finds in the individuals in the body. And, very often, the sin he hammers on most is selfishness and pride.
Little things that were never a big deal before – like the format of the bulletin, the name of a ministry, where someone sits, the placement of furniture, the clothes someone wears, people being late – start cause more frustration. Critical thoughts abound. People forget that God is the great provider and start talking about nickels and dimes. Relationships get stressed out. Volunteers feel unappreciated, leaders disconnected, bitterness starts to grow. Worries about attendance and finances and too few committee members start to take over conversations – and people start to look for where to lay the to blame.
None of these are new problems, but it keeps the church from concentrating on their mission. As long as they are arguing and stressing about the temperature of the room, how much ink costs, the colour of the music leader’s socks, they aren’t thinking about building their relationship with God or others – and Satan’s happy.
The attacks are subtle. We would so much rather have a frontal attack, but Satan knows that’s where your strongest – so he tempts us with pride, selfishness, laziness, fear, anger, lust, holding grudges, causing division, being overly critical, or giving in to distraction. We sense God calling us to go deeper, and at the same time the enemy is trying to set us up to be our own worst enemy.
I know I’ve been through this. I get more sensitive to what people say and see simple comments as attacks. “What did they mean by that!?” Innocent and helpful criticisms meant to help me do my job better throw me for a loop and I’m up all night wondering why that person doesn’t like me and if I’ll be fired at the next meeting. Satan takes my besetting pride and fear of man and presses on it until I’m half-crazed with worry and aren’t concentrating on anyone except myself and my own feelings.
When we commit ourselves to serving God, doing His will and living out his plan for our lives, we become a spiritual target. You may have been feeling that over the past while as you’ve been coming here – I know many of you have had the desire to connect deeper with God. But there is something nagging at you, trying to shut that down. It doesn’t want you do think spiritually, give up that sin, rebuild that relationship, or change your plans to line up more with God’s. The devil has ramped up his attacks and you’re feeling it.
All the little cracks get exploited and pounded on – and that’s exactly what was happening in Jerusalem. And the crack that Satan found and exploited was selfishness.
Exploiting the Poor
The Jewish brothers were taking advantage of the scarce resources and growing population and giving ample opportunity for the devil to have a field day with God’s people. The taxes were high because they had a foreign king and had to pay for the rebuilding of the city, so people had to borrow money against their homes and lands to pay their taxes. There was a famine in the land and people were on the edge of starving to death. So they would mortgage themselves to the hilt so they could by food for their families, but because of the drought, their crops weren’t paying off their debts.
But not everyone was poor. There were a group of successful Jewish businessmen and landowners who had left the exile in Babylon with a lot of money, and they were more than happy to lend it to those who didn’t have any – at a price.
The poor people, on the edge of starvation, were putting up their land, their homes, and their cattle – but it wasn’t enough. The only thing they had left was their children, and so they sold them to be slaves of the wealthy. And when that wasn’t enough, they sold themselves. They had to choose between starvation and slavery, and the wealthy men were snapping up houses, lands and slaves all over the place. Hostile takeovers, guaranteed forclosures, and the added bonus of free, slave labour.
In the Law given to Israel by Moses, we learn that it was fine for a Jewish person to lend to another Jew, but God forbid charging interest and exploiting people. Deuteronomy 24:10-14 teaches how God wanted His people to lend money to each other:
“When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not go into his house to collect his pledge. You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you. And if he is a poor man, you shall not sleep in his pledge. You shall restore to him the pledge as the sun sets, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you. And it shall be righteousness for you before the LORD your God. You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the LORD, and you be guilty of sin.”
Basically, God is making sure that wealthy people don’t exploit poorer ones. If a man is so poor that the only thing he has left is his last blanket, and you take it as a pledge for the money you’ve lent him… at least give it back at night so he can sleep on it! Don’t go stomping into someone’s house and take whatever you think they owe you – stand outside and wait respectfully. If someone is just barely eking out a living, give them pay at the end of the day – don’t make them wait for it – because they need it more than you do! God told people to work hard to pay off their debts, but also had a lot to say to the lenders.
And those laws were governed by love, not greed or selfishness. In fact, if a person was totally destitute, the rich person was supposed to simply give the money as a gift!
Loving People and Using Things
What it comes down to is Loving People and Using Things. The greatest definition of Selfishness I’ve ever heard is: Selfishness is loving things and using people. Christians are supposed to love people and use things… or even better, use things to love people… but selfishness means Loving Things and Using People.
Warren Wiersby says in his commentary:
“When the Devil, or the enemy, fails in his attacks from the outside, he will begin or intensify his attack from within; and one of his favourite weapons is selfishness.”
We’re reminded in Ephesians 6:12:
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
And those spiritual powers spend a lot of time tempting people and messing with relationships among the people of a community of faith by playing upon their fear, greed and selfishness. Fear of losing something that they want, greed to get what they want their way, and selfishness to take it from others who need it more.
And that destroys our witness and our relationships. A few people end up rich and happy while others die away. Good deeds are replaced by a lust for good things. Godly spirituality is replaced with a religion that worships religious things. Worship of God is replaced by worship of control and security. The costly risks that God asks us to take are forgotten and pushed aside so we can keep our treasures on earth for as long as possible.
When selfishness takes hold of a soul, a community, a church, or a nation, Godly Spirituality and a relationship with Jesus cannot continue. Jesus said:
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)
James echoed Him saying:
“Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (James 4:4)
And the Apostle Paul did the same saying:
“But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” (1 Timothy 6:6-10)
We must be very, very careful to Use Things and Love People – never to Love Money or Things and Use People. If we get that backwards we will give the devil a foothold in our souls, homes, work, ministry, and community. Jesus loved people and used things, so should we.
How To React to Selfishness
So what should we do? I believe that Nehemiah sets a good example for us, because his example is like Christ’s.
1. He Got Angry
First, we see in verse 6, he gets angry. “I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words.” His first reaction to selfishness was to be action. Jesus did the same thing when he saw the selfishness of the money changers in the temple. This is a good, godly reaction to seeing people who are being exploited and abused by people who have means. We are right to get angry.
Selfishness is far too common among God’s people. It happened in Nehemiah’s time. It happened in Jesus’ time. And it happened again in Paul’s. He had to confront the Corinthian church because there were people that were starving in their church meetings while others were gorging themselves and getting drunk on the Lord’s Supper. (1 Cor 11:17-22) Selfishness among believers is a perennial problem that has to be continuously confronted by angry saints.
2. He Thought About It
Ephesians 4:26 says, “In your anger do not sin” and part of that is taking a minute to think about what you’re going to do. That’s exactly what Nehemiah does. In verse 7 it says, “I took counsel with myself…”. He wasn’t so tied up in the building of the walls that he didn’t have time to deal with the needs of his community. His job was to fix the rebuild the city, not mediate economic reform. But when he heard the outcry, saw the injustice, witnessed the greed, he took some time away from his work to think (and we can assume pray) about it to come up with a solution.
3. He Accused
The third thing Nehemiah did absolutely shows the heart of Jesus. Verse 7 again, “I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, ‘You are exacting interest, each from his brother.’”
He got them together and flat-out accused them. He pinned them to the wall. He showed godly passion and conviction, knew his Bible, and knew what was wrong, and accused them using Biblical words. He does it privately at first, not publically, so that they are not embarrassed, and so the emotional charge doesn’t deflate morale and harm people who aren’t directly affected.
We must learn this courage! This is all over scripture:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (Jesus in Matthew 18:15)
“If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)
“As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him…” (Titus 3:10)
When we see sin and injustice, selfishness and ungodly behaviour, we have the responsibility to go to our brothers and sisters and accuse them.
4. He Taught Against It
After accusing the smaller group of nobles and officials who were part of the problem, it says at the end of verse 7 that Nehemiah “held a great assembly against them”. He gave a general warning to everyone involved in the sin. He privately accused the worst offenders to their face, and then, essentially preached a sermon to everyone else warning them of the same corruption.
Nehemiah was in a spiritual battle. He knew that Satan wouldn’t give up without a fight. He reminded all the people that God had freed them from Babylonian slavery, and how hypocritical it was for them to force these same people into slavery under themselves! He says, “Your selfishness – you’re using of people and loving things – is making us look like fools to the nations around us!”
Jesus said “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) and that works both ways. The world is watching us and is looking for any excuse to call us hypocrites. They will either see us loving one another and trusting God… or using one another and trusting ourselves. We destroy our witness if we are selfish individuals, selfish families, or a selfish church.
5. He Made Them Give it Back
The next thing Nehemiah does is to tell them to make it right.
“Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.” (vs 11)
And to their credit they do. And Nehemiah goes even further.
“And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised. I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, ‘So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied.’ And all the assembly said ‘Amen’ and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised.” (vs 12-13)
Nehemiah knew how dangerous and insidious the sin of greed and selfishness is, and so he forces them to make a public confession and an oath. That’s how you heal a deep hurt. That’s how you show repentance. That’s how we honour God. We ask forgiveness, and then make it right. Turn selfishness to forgiveness and promise not to do it again – and ask God to help us keep our word.
This shows everyone around how serious we are about following God, dealing with sin, loving one another, and committing ourselves to living by His Word. And the assembly ends with an AMEN! God is worshipped, the hungry fed, relationships restored, debts managed, the rebuilding of the walls continues, and God is honoured. It was hard work, and very costly for some, but it was the only way they could expect to receive God’s blessing on their lives.
6. He Demonstrated Generosity
And the final thing Nehemiah does was to go above and beyond. Satan was trying to corrupt the people through selfishness, so His response was to be overwhelmingly generous. He poured cold water all over hell’s flames by not only doing what was right, but by doing even more.
“Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes the king, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor. The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people and took from them for their daily ration forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God. I also persevered in the work on this wall, and we acquired no land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work. Moreover, there were at my table 150 men, Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations that were around us. Now what was prepared at my expense for each day was one ox and six choice sheep and birds, and every ten days all kinds of wine in abundance. Yet for all this I did not demand the food allowance of the governor, because the service was too heavy on this people. Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.” (vs 14-19)
A faithful believer will set the example of how to do it best. He trusted God for provision and lived generously with others. That’s what good Christians do. He refused to give the devil a foothold in his city, his work, or his life. Satan tried to destroy the work through selfishness, he fight with generosity.
That’s my hope for us too. As we enter this season of Lent, my prayer is that we use it as a time to refocus our lives away from loving things to loving God and His people, from storing our treasures on earth to storing them in heaven. Not to be known as a philanthropist, but because it’s the good, godly, Christ-like thing to do.
Let’s start with a couple of short stories:
I remember, a while back, going to a fancy restaurant on my parent’s 25th anniversary. We had a great meal, and my brother had bought a bottle of Dom Pérignon, which was pretty good too. After the appetizer we were served a small bowl of orange sorbet. I thought, “Wow! An appetizer dessert! That’s a good idea! I love this restaurant!” My mom told me that the reason they served it was not for dessert, but because a citrus based sorbet would cleanse the palate so I could properly taste the main entrée.
Another short story: A while back, my wife and I were shopping for perfume. We went to the store together to try a bunch of different scents and see what we would like. They took the sampler, sprayed it on a little piece of paper, and then we would smell the paper… and we did this a whole bunch of times. By the 10th little piece of smelly paper we were both getting a headache, and everything was starting to smell the same anyway.
The problem was something that is apparently called “Nasal Fatigue”. Our brains and bodies were overcome by too many scents and it was hard to discern what was good and what was not so good. Then I saw a small container of coffee beans on the counter. I remembered reading somewhere that coffee beans are good at cleansing the palate between smells. So I took a deep breath of the coffee beans, and gave my wife the container. And sure enough, it worked. I could smell again.
A Calloused Heart
Why am I telling you this? Because within these two short stories is an important lesson. If we don’t take the time to cleanse our senses with a purifying agent, they get dulled and everything starts to taste and smell the same. They get overloaded with stimuli and lose the ability to discern the subtle differences in our environments. Left unchecked it could become dangerous because we wouldn’t know the difference between good and spoiled foods, good air to breath and bad air. We need to keep our senses sharp.
I think the same thing can happen in our spirits. We are inundated with stimuli all the time. Between our online life, the TV, books, magazines, newspapers, friends, coworkers, teachers, preachers, sportscasters, billboards, and every other voice and attention grabber around us, I believe it’s easy to get overloaded and lose our ability to discern things in a godly way.
Things that used to be considered to be sin, become normal, even celebrated. Things that used to make us flinch and recoil, don’t affect us anymore. News that should rend our hearts and bring us to tears has no effect, or worse, becomes a joke. Our relationships become more distant as virtual things become our preference. Our ability to trust falls away as we listen to voices that tell us to distrust everything. Our greed and pride grows by inches, and lust becomes common place. A callous grows over our heart.
Consider the “normal things” you’ve seen this week… things you might not even notice anymore. Television commercials and programs continually sexualize younger and younger men and women. You watch your favourite comedy show and ¾ of the characters are sleeping around and having sex outside of marriage. You watch your favourite action or drama and you tune-out the foul language, get used to witnessing murders, find yourself cheering for the corrupt police officer, and hope that the married character will leave their spouse so they can finally be with their “soul mate”. If you hear these kinds of sins enough times, they start to become normal… and excusable. That husband is a jerk… she belongs with the other guy.
Consider how many times you’ve been told how much “you deserve” this week. You deserve fast, excellent service, great taste, multiple choices, a great body, happiness, success and the car / house of your dreams. If you hear that you are the centre of the universe enough times, you start to believe it.
Consider how many things you’ve been told to be afraid of. They start the news by telling you that there are at least 4 horrible things happening right now, and they will tell you more soon. With dramatic music and graphics, and a clever title like “The end of everything you’ve ever known…” they explain about 10% of the problem. Then they squeeze in some “experts” that were available today who tell you how bad it’s going to get. Then they tell you that they will “bring you more as the story develops” – or they might completely drop the story and never mention it again if it turns out to be nothing.
Then, because they need you to keep watching, the next segment starts to tell you why you need to be afraid of your veterinarian, how the global economy is collapsing, why you should never by hot-dogs, and how your toothbrush could be killing you. It doesn’t matter if it’s all misinformation and half-cooked stories because you’re watching. And — if you’re told enough times that you need to live in fear, then you’re going to start believing it.
Spiritual Palate Cleansing
What we need is a spiritual palate cleansing. We need to have some way to reset our hearts, minds and spirits so that we can tell the difference between right and wrong, distinguish wisdom from foolishness, and be able to see, hear, and experience things as they really are.
During my devotionals this week I came across a book by Andrew Comiskey called “Naked Surrender” where he talks about this very thing. He says,
“I believe that we are living in a time of unprecedented… idolatry. The moral ozone layer has burned off. … We used to flinch…. We stopped flinching. Idols sear our skin, and we no longer feel it. Desensitized by all manner of evil…. Idols empower all the wrong things; they awaken lust and deaden conscience. We then act badly, in ways that rob us of clarity and virtue and leave us unfit for real relationships.”
Our damaged palate, our desensitized soul, our callous hearts, have deep effects on our lives, our families, our church, and our relationship with God.
Our Spiritual House
Why am I making this a big deal? Because I believe this is a big deal to Jesus. Turn to 1 Peter 2:1-9. You’re going to notice a similar theme to what we talked about during the Christian Integrity series, but I want to take it from a different angle.
“So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’”
Once again we are talking about what makes up our spiritual house. And in this scripture we are reminded that Jesus is the capstone, or the foundation stone, the One on whom we are built. He is precious to us, necessary. If He moves, we all move. And, as we said before, He cares very much, and takes an active role, in how we are built. Peter says we “are being built up as a spiritual house”. In 1 Corinthians 3:9 we are called “God’s Building”. In Hebrews 3:6 we are called “God’s House.”
Let’s keep reading from verse 7:
“So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,’ and ‘A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.’ They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
Unbelievers stumble over Jesus, the cornerstone. Instead of building their lives on Him, they see it as a hindrance. Maybe you’ve felt this too. Before you were saved you saw a relationship with Jesus as a hindrance – something that would get in the way of your life. Too many rules, too much baggage, not enough freedom. So you avoided Jesus and Christianity because you saw “the cornerstone” as a “rock of offence”.
This is what we are like before we are saved – and it’s what we do when we sin. People try to find a good, solid foundation to build their lives on, right? So they start digging down and searching for something solid. All at once they hit a huge, gigantic boulder under where they want to build! That’s Jesus. Some people see that and say, “Wow, that’s awesome. I’ve never found anything so stable, so secure, so helpful, so perfect in it’s ability to keep my house secure.”
But others look at it and instead of building on it, they try to dig it out. They resent its placement. They want their house over here, not over there. They don’t like the shape of it, and they want to form it in their own image, but it’s too strong. Having a stone like that as a foundation means they won’t get the life they want, so they try to chip away at it with bad doctrine and excuses. They get the large backhoes of world religions to try to dig it out, but they can’t move it. This huge foundational stone goes on and on and it forces them to either build there or leave it altogether. This stone, that should be their foundation, becomes a hated thing to them. But for those who have been chosen, who were destined to believe, that is the most precious stone in the world.
You are a Holy Place
Listen to Ephesians 2:19-21 as it echoes what Peter is saying:
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
You see, this image is all over scripture. It’s corporate – we are God’s house – and it’s personal – you are God’s House. There are many ways to describe a believer, but one way scripture uses is to call us God’s Building, God’s Temple. The church corporately is God’s Temple. But also, each individual Christian is a Temple, built stone by stone, by the Holy Spirit as a special place for the person of God to indwells. That makes the soul of each believer a holy place, just like Mount Sinai when the bush was burning, or the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle. You’re heart and mine – all believer’s hearts – are a holy tabernacle.
Listen to 1 Corinthians 3:16-17:
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”
God takes you, His temple, very seriously. If someone tries to corrupt His temple with false worship, with idolatry, with false doctrine, they will be destroyed. Anyone who takes on a believer will face the wrath of God. He loves His People, His Household, His Children, His Holy Place where He dwells. Within you.
Cleansing the Temple
Now, having established that we are the Temple of God, and I want to turn to how seriously God takes His temple — which is your body, your spirit, and this body of believers, let’s watch this.
This is the big idea that blew my mind this week. That I can get so plugged up with what the world gives me, things that I’m unquestionably shovelling into my life, that I lose the sensitivity to the voice of God, and the Holy Spirit inside me. I allow things into my mind and heart which pollute my relationship with God, and offend Him deeply. To the point where I don’t never know what’s right and wrong anymore. I can’t tell the difference between things that God finds offensive, and what pleases Him. I can’t tell an idol from the true God. I can’t understand His will, and I am indifferent to His presence and His word.
The money changers and those selling the animals for sacrifice had become a common site in the temple. In fact, even after Christ cleansed the temple at the beginning of His ministry, they moved right back in and He did it again at the end. It had become normal and excusable! People needed to exchange their foreign money for local currency. People needed to buy animals for sacrifice locally, instead of bringing them from far away. This made sense. No one cared. No one made a fuss. Not the religious people, not those buying, certainly not those making a profit. Who cares?
The Cathedral of our Heart
Let me another part of Andrew Comiskey’s book that really struck home for me,
“One of my favorite passages involves Jesus cleansing the temple. Here [Jesus] is at his least tolerant and inclusive. Here his radical love rids God’s house of all within that does not manifest him. Jesus does not dialogue with these detractors—he whips both man and beast and drives them out, overturning tables and shouting: ‘Get out!’ He cares about what goes on in the temple because the temple represents God to others. It is, after all, the house of the Creator.
[Now listen to what he says next because it’s the point that we’re making here.]
“…I am God’s house. …My ‘cathedral’ is still vulnerable to housing… idols: … gods and goddesses that have power to defile the temple and cripple my capacity to love others well…. ”
I love that word He uses – “My ‘cathedral’.” When was the last time you thought of yourself as a cathedral built for the honour and glory of Jesus? When was the last time you looked into a mirror and saw a cathedral? A beautiful work of art full of halls and rooms and intricacies that only few have ever seen, intricately planned and uniquely made, infinitely precious and incredibly powerful, the home of many holy things. When was the last time you considered yourself to be a house of God?
That’s how God sees you. Jesus is within the walls of your heart. And I believe He is just as passionate today about the condition of your heart today as he was about the Temple then. I believe He is just as angry, ferocious and violent about the sin that is housed in our hearts, and all the corrupt things that distract us and keep us from Him.
We don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s just a tv show. It’s just one night. It’s just a joke. It’s my culture.
But Jesus sees them as very big deals. We embrace the sin, play with it, roll it around our tongue, caress it with our hands, gaze at it with our eyes and store in our minds… as though it’s no big thing. We keep it in a special place in our cathedral. And Jesus sees it and wants to destroy it because it is corrupting His Father’s Temple!
How I wish that I had the vision of sin that Christ has. I wish I could hate it as much as He does. But I’m steeped in it. I’m used to it. My palate is too clouded to discern the things of God very well. My heart is still to calloused, my eyes and ears too used to profanity, my mind so full of garbage it’s hard to distinguish the sacred from the worldly. Sure, I can see better than I used to, but I still don’t see it the way Christ does.
We excuse it. We talk to others and they say it’s no big deal, that it’s part of our personality, that everyone is doing it… and because because we haven’t been cleansing our palate with the pure Words and Spirit of God, it doesn’t even taste wrong to us … so we ingest more and more, and we grow sicker and sicker.
This is why a season of fasting, repentance and renewal is such a critical time in the life of a believer! This is why the church fathers created the season of Lent as a time to practice giving up lesser things and cleansing ourselves from worldly influence. It gives us a chance to evaluate how we are treating our body, mind, eyes, hands, feet. It makes us look twice at what we put into our mouth, what we read without thinking about it, what we touch every day. And we realize that it’s a very big deal to Jesus, because it may be profaning His temple.
Now let’s read 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. Before we start, I want you to notice all the quotation marks in the first few verses, this is Paul quoting back to the Corinthians some of their favourite slogans and excuses for why they don’t need to worry about what they are doing with their bodies.
“‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other.”
In other words, the Corinthian church had separated their spiritual lives from their physical lives. They disconnected their bodies from their souls and figured that you could do whatever you want with your body and it wouldn’t affect your mind, heart and soul. Have you ever heard that? “It’s just physical?”
They said, “Since I’m saved by grace, and everything is God’s, I can do anything I want.” Paul says, “Sure, but not everything has benefit”. They said, “But I’m free from religion and my soul is secure forever and now I can enjoy all the pleasures of this world!” Paul says, “Yes, but don’t let it dominate you. Don’t let it become your god… your idol… your master.”
Then it goes deeper and more sinister. You’ve heard this before. They said, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food”, or in other words, “if my body says it wants it, then it’s obviously what I need to do.”
“My body says, ‘Eat!’ and I need to eat, therefore I’ll eat what and when I want to. It’s just food.”
“My mind wants distraction because I’m tired of concentrating. So I can watch whatever I want. It’s just TV.”
“I’m angry and my body wants to hit something. It’s not my fault that’s how I’m built. I’m just a violent person. I’m just doing what comes naturally.”
“My body says has natural, sexual desires and wants release, therefore I’ll get it wherever I want however my body wants it. It’s not my fault if I have natural desires! It’s just sex.”
And Paul replies, “And yet both are from God, and God can destroy them if He wants to.” In other words, “God designed you with desires. You get hungry so you can feed yourself — but that doesn’t mean you should eat addicting garbage. And you have sexual desires too, but that doesn’t mean you can fulfill them however you want. He gave them as good things, but wants you to use them in a healthy way. He wants you to experience joy and love and pleasure and grow closer to your spouse. He created it. He designed it. He knows how it works. Don’t use it in a destructive, sinful, harmful way.
Continue in verse 13 and see how this ties into what we’ve been talking about with our bodies as Temples of God
“The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
Any kind of sin is incompatible with our unity in Christ – they all divide us from Him – but sexual sin is particularly evil. The word there is “PORNEIA” which includes all sexual activity conducted without your heterosexual marriage partner. That includes everything from adultery to masturbation. God brings out sexuality as special because sex has a uniquely spiritual component. You literally become “one” with the person. It’s not just physical. It’s not just a biological release – it’s a spiritual tying, and emotional connection. That’s why adultery – whether it’s with another person or in your mind though sexual imagery or sexual stories – is so damaging. It tears the soul – divides the oneness of the marriage.
And it profanes your body, which is a temple of the Holy Spirit.
A Disgusting Sanctuary
Think of it this way. You would be very surprised if you came in next week and found pornographic posters hanging all over the sanctuary, right? You would be offended, distracted, and probably never come back. Then why do you hang them in the temple of your mind where Jesus dwells? It’s the same to Jesus.
You probably wouldn’t bring your favourite porn star, pin-up girl, or someone who you are in an adulterous relationship to church with you because you’d be ashamed how people would look at you… but you’ll take someone online, or in a book, or at work, or in an old memory, and fanaticize about them – which lets that person into your heart – which is the Temple in which Jesus dwells. What’s the difference?
You’d probably have a problem if you came into church one day and the walls looked like a truck-stop bathroom stall… full of dirty limericks, swear words, filthy pictures, and profanity. And yet you will readily accept much of that into your own heart, and into your own temple. You might have a problem if the decorations in here were tributes to dollar bills, bloody violence, and revenge… all surrounding a golden recorder full of all of the gossip and bitter slander you could ever want to hear…, but is that what the walls of your personal cathedral look like? When Jesus walks through the cathedral of your heart, what does He see?
When he comes to sit with you at the communion table in your heart, does He have to sit next to a pile of your money and favourite possessions? What is there to eat? Good, healthy spiritual food, or do you only offer him the same bitter root that you’ve been chewing on for such a long time? Is your personal cathedral dedicated to comfort? No rough edges, nothing to bother you, no annoying people, no annoying rules, and at the centre is a you on a pillow – and Jesus can come in as long as He’s quiet, doesn’t disturb anything, and only gives you things that make you more comfortable?
Perhaps, in the cathedral of your heart is a cross – the symbol of the Christian faith. What other symbols are beside it, competing for importance? Maybe the make of your car, or your favourite technology? Is there a sports-team logo next to the cross? You identify yourself, in the cathedral of your heart, as Christian – and what? Is there a place of worship next to the cross, where you spend your time, your money, your energy, and your attention. Jesus gets part of your worship, but the other idols demand a sacrifice too.
You’ve been to lots of people’s houses and they all have sayings on their walls, on the fridge, in their bedroom. So, as Jesus wanders the halls of the cathedral, what is written on the walls of your heart? The scripture you’ve memorized, the prayers you repeat, the lyrics to a worship song pictures of your family and friends, concerns for your community and the world … right beside the dirty jokes you’ve been reading on the internet and the lyrics to hundreds of songs that celebrate hate, money, alcohol and sex, and all of the harmful, lying, abusive self-talk that you are so used to speaking to yourself as you call yourself stupid, ugly, worthless, and hated. Not the words of God on the walls of your cathedral, but the words of Satan, and you read them over and over.
And in a special place, all on its own, is the ornate carving of your favourite four-letter-word? The one you use in your mind constantly, and which slips out when you feel stress.
Has Jesus found the room you have dedicated to memories of your old girl or boyfriends where you like to spend time when you feel rejected or lonely?
What inhabits the cathedral of your heart?
Maybe you’re feeling convicted right now and you need to talk to God about the mess in your heart. You need to ask forgiveness and ask Him to start clearing that stuff out. You’ve tried, but it only gets worse. You need to ask Jesus to do it, and start replacing all of that garbage with holy things.
What the Church is Made Of
Here’s something you’ve perhaps never thought about: Whatever makes up your cathedral, is what our church is made of. This church is not made of stone and wood. It’s not decorated with paint and pictures. Our church isn’t our music or preaching style, the size of the building, or a weekly event. If we think that any of these things are what bring glory to God, improve our worship, or draw people closer to him, we’re dead wrong.
Our church is built out of the hearts and minds of the people that attend it. We have built this church day by day, deed by deed, decision by decision, sin by sin, idol by idol, fight by fight, prayer by prayer, sacrifice by sacrifice, act of love by act of love, over the history of this church. This is what we are made of, what inspires our worship, what God judge us by, and determines our blessings or need for discipline.
What we see when we are here together and behaving ourselves for an hour on Sunday is only the tiniest part of what we would call “church”. The church God sees, and is really concerned with, is the cathedral of our hearts. He’s concerned about what we are doing in our minds as we sing the songs and listen to the sermon. He’s concerned about what we think when we see the people around us, or think of the one’s not here. He’s concerned with the things we do when we are alone in our room, what we do when we hear of a need, what we communicate in our phone calls and e-mails. That’s what makes up our church.
Our church is built seven days a week out of our private thoughts, our actions and inactions, our secret good deeds, our personal worship and devotion, our love for one another, our sacrifice for each other and God… and it’s built from our private sins, our personal idols, our prejudices, our hate and our hypocrisy. That determines whether we are living by the power of the Holy Spirit, or are grieving Him. That’s why we need to take care of each other.
Jesus Hates Hypocrites
Jesus had some incredibly harsh words for the Pharisees who looked good on the outside, were amazing in their religious obedience, were pillars of the community and great church goers — but were absolutely corrupt on the inside. He said,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence…. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:25)
“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me…” (Matthew 15:7-9)
There are so many scriptures against hypocrisy that it is truly overwhelming.
Looking at Your Cathedral
Let me close with this question: What does the cathedral of your heart look like? Listen to Jesus speaking into your heart about your faith. Listen to what the scripture says about having your insides match your outsides.
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” (James 1:22-25)
Some of us need a palette cleansing today because we have so filled ourselves with compromise and sin that we no longer even know right from wrong. The only way to know the condition of your heart, and to purify your cathedral, is to cleanse your palette through repentance and confession, and seek purity. Look deep inside for that which is dividing your heart.
Or in the words of 2 Timothy 2:20-22, which speaks about cleaning up the cathedral of your heart:
“Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”
My nephew was asked to put together a report on Mardi Gras which reminded me of a reflection piece I had written that might be of help to him, and hopefully you too.
Throwing the Baby Out With the Bath Water
The traditional Christian season of Lent starts on February 13 this year. Christians have been practicing the 40 days of Lent for literally hundreds of years, since the third century. It’s only recently, in the grand scheme of things, that many believers have decided that they are not going to participate anymore. Some avoid it because it’s associated with the Catholicism or old-school Christianity, and I can understand that, but as with many other modernizations of the practices of our faith, I believe we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater and have lost a lot of traditions that were very powerful tools in Christian discipleship.
The Reformation was all about combatting the false teachers in the church who were telling people that they had to do certain things (like pay money, go on pilgrimages, say so many prayers, do penance before God would forgive them) and had moved away from the true message of salvation which says that we are saved only and fully by the penal substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ – the exchange of His life for ours on the cross. In correcting this error and walking away from this corrupt teaching they also walked away from many of the practices and disciplines that were part of the church.
Ancient practices like Advent, Lent, and Good Friday, were given up because they had been corrupted by false teachers who were using them to manipulate the faithful. They were started with the best intentions to be regular times on the calendar where Christians would remember and celebrate the life of Jesus and practice various spiritual disciplines, but then the false teachers started saying that Christians had to do them in order to be saved. Protestants rightly said, “No we don’t.”, but then many stopped participating in the holidays and disciplines surrounding them.
It is my belief that we should recapture some of the old ways because many of them are still good ideas, and powerful ways to experience God.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, and goes until Easter. It is a period of 40 days, which is a number we find all over the bible. The rains that brought the flood lasted 40 days and 40 nights, the Hebrews spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness. Moses fasted 40 days before receiving the 10 commandments, Goliath came out and insulted the Israelites for 40 days before David came, God told Jonah to give Nineveh 40 days to repent, and Jesus spent 40 days in the desert fasting and confronting Satan. It’s a spiritually significant number.
Lent is to be a time of reflection and preparation before we get into the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus at Easter. Instead of being like the world and avoiding sadness, lamenting and sacrifice, we choose to embrace it and seek to be more like Jesus as we meditate, mourn, repent and fast. We stop eating certain foods and avoid parties and celebrations for a time, so we can contemplate the meaning and significance of crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Instead of skipping straight to the resurrection, we take a long time to think about why Jesus was crucified, what He went through, what our personal salvation cost, and what consequences that has for us, our family and our church.
It is a time of prayer and repentance, of fasting and meditation, of consideration and mortification of sin, a time to think less of ourselves and more about Jesus, a time to give a sacrifice of our time, energy, and efforts to God in a special way. To practice self-discipline and open ourselves for God to show His amazing provision for our souls.
The Corruption of Shrove Tuesday
The day before Lent is called Shrove Tuesday and the story of the corruption of this day emphasizes a serious problem in the Church.
Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the word “shrive”, which means to confess sin. It was a day set aside to clean out our hearts before the special season of Lent began. To prepare ourselves for this very serious and spiritually significant time of the year. It was a day of becoming real with ourselves and our sin. A day to pray to God 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!
Pancake Day = Fat Tuesday = Mardi Gras?
But here’s what happened. There were certain foods that people would traditionally give up for Lent, foods like meat, fish, fats, eggs and milk. Like the Israelites with their unleavened bread, they would let their diet show what was going on in their hearts. And since they were going to give them up, and they would certainly spoil before the 40 days was over, Shrove Tuesday became the day that people would use up these foods.
And what’s the best way to get rid of fats, eggs, milk and meat? A pancake meal. So it became tradition that on this day of confession and repentance, of getting right with God, there would also be a large feast where families would get together on Shrove Tuesday and eat up all the foods they wouldn’t be eating during Lent.
And so Shrove Tuesday became Pancake Tuesday… or Fat Tuesday, because it was the day you would eat pancakes and use up your fatty foods. The French name for Fat Tuesday is Mardi Gras — maybe you’ve heard of it.
And when you and I think of Mardi Gras, the first thing that comes to mind is Repentance, Confession, and getting right with God, right? No, it went from a day of getting right with God to a day to tell God to get lost so we could indulge in as much sinful behaviour as we can!
It’s incredibly ironic what some of the customs for Mardi Gras have become. In place of opening our hearts to God, coming clean, and letting God shine His light on our lives, we have the “Mardi Gras mask” where people cover up their identities and be someone else for a day so they can get away with whatever they want without people knowing who they are.
Instead of preparing ourselves for a time to remember the sacrifice of Christ and to fast in His name, Mardi Gras has become a time to indulge ones self, to go overboard, to do everything to excess!
Where Shrove Tuesday was a time to confront temptation and sin, Mardi Gras has become an overly sexual, hedonistic day where men and women give up their dignity and “flash” the crowd to win some beads.
A Mardi Gras Heart
Now, believe me, I would love to spend the rest of our time pointing out other people’s sins, pointing out what’s wrong with the world and everyone one else… and say “Wow! Those guys are really bad!” But I can’t because you know what? I do the same things they do. Except I’m worse because I’m supposed to know better.
This is classic human, sinful behaviour, and something we all need to watch ourselves for! How many of us really act the way we are supposed to act as a Christian? How many of us are truly walking the walk of faith? The truth is that not many of us are. Not really.
Please understand that I’m talking to the more mature believers, not the new believers and the non-believers. Right now I’m talking to the people who have claimed to be believers for a while. Those who should be remarkably different after a long walk with Jesus. Those who claim that Jesus resides in their hearts, and who have listened to the Holy Spirit for a while. And that’s me included.
The “Christian Atheist”
Pastor Craig Groeschel wrote a book a while back called “Christian Atheist” which is all about people who claim to be Christians, but live as though God doesn’t exist. In other words, Christians who talk about Shrove Tuesday, but live with a Mardi Gras heart.
He begins with a very common story about two different kinds of atheists. The first are common atheist who doesn’t believe in God and doesn’t claim to. He then introduces another kind of atheist – the Christian Atheist. Check out this story from the book:
“Before our plane took off, Michelle struck up a conversation. Somewhat nervous about flying, she seemed eager to talk, as if our chat might make the flight pass more quickly. After describing her difficulties with balancing her checkbook and handling her divorced parents and her live-in boyfriend— who’s scared to death of marriage— she asked me about my life.
Creating a diversion from my “I’m a pastor” answer, I explained that I am married and have six children. “Six kids?! Don’t you know what causes kids?” she joked. After some more small talk, Michelle asked me what I do for a living. No longer able to dodge the inevitable, I answered, “Well, as a matter of fact, I’m the pastor of a church.”
This revelation gave Michelle permission to unleash a stream of Christian words and stories. Dropping the occasional “God told me” and “God is good,” she smiled softly as she described how she “gave her life to Jesus” at the age of fifteen at a Christian youth camp. After praying sincerely, she was eager to get back to school to share her faith and live a life of purity and spiritual integrity.
Michelle held on to her new belief in God but soon slipped back into her old way of life. As if in a confessional, Michelle continued pouring out her life’s darker details. She looked down as she admitted that she was doing things with her live-in boyfriend that she knew she shouldn’t. She told me she wanted to go to church but was simply too busy working and studying. She did pray many nights— mostly that her boyfriend would become a Christian like she was. “If only he believed in Jesus, then he might want to marry me,” she said, wiping her tears.
At last, Michelle expressed one final confession: “I know my life doesn’t look like a Christian’s life should look, but I do believe in God.”
Welcome to Christian Atheism, where people believe in God but live as if he doesn’t exist.”
I really understand where that girl is coming from, because I often act the same way. I see this kind of Christian Atheism — this Mardi Gras Heart — in myself quite often. I can’t speak for you because I don’t know your heart – but I know mine. Saying one thing, and doing another. Struggling with the same sins and temptations, time after time. Going days without praying or reading my bible. Going through the motions in worship and my devotional times. I may not have a huge, public sin to confess that would cost me my position as pastor… but I can certainly understand what it means to be a hypocrite in my own eyes – and in the eyes of God.
A Holy, Different People
God has been teaching me something over the past while, and I encourage you to ask yourself these questions: How are Christians different than other people? Why are we different? What makes you different than you were before you met Jesus? What does being a Christian look like on the inside and the outside? How do we keep from turning the parts of our life that are supposed to look like Shrove Tuesdays into the self-indulgent hedonism of Mardi Gras?
God describes His chosen people in Exodus 19:4-6 saying, “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Some of us think, “Well sure, Israel was special! They were the people of God! They had Mt. Sinai, the 10 Commandments, and were the people God chose to bring the Messiah Jesus Christ through. That’s true, but read 1 Peter 2:9 which was written to Christians, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”
That’s what a Christian is:
A Prayer of Confession
Lord, you have made me special. You said you knitted me together in my mother’s womb, set me apart from before creation, and have appointed good deeds for me to do in advance. You are the giver of good gifts, the author of salvation, and my personal redeemer. You bought me back from death, from captivity, from the rightful consequences of my sin. I rightly deserved Hell and you came for me. Lord, you demonstrated your love for me in this: while I was yet a sinner, you died for me.
And yet, in so many ways I live as though you don’t exist. In my daily life, I forget about you. I reject you. I disappoint you. I refuse to listen, and sometimes even ignore you. I take control of my life when I should be giving it to you.
I know that it is not my deeds, my good works, or anything that I do, that saves me. Yet, I also know that faith without works is dead. I know there is nothing I can do to make you love me more or love me less. But I also know that your love should spur me on to good deeds, and that your Son’s life is the perfect example of how I should live.
Lord, there are some areas of my life that I need you to deal with. Areas that I’m not proud of… and, in fact, I’m ashamed of. Areas of sin, rebellion and pride, idolatry and disobedience. Lord, you say in your word that if we confess our sins, that you are faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. I want to confess to you because I need cleansing.
I pray with David the words of Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment….”
Lord, there are areas of my life that are not pure, and times when I have chosen filth over purity… I’ve chosen to look upon sin… to listen to sin… to touch sin… to taste sin… to revel in and think about sinful things… and I’ve gone back for more… forgive me. Cleanse me.
Lord, I have made places of my heart and life off limits to you. I’ve heard you knocking on the door, and I’ve refused to answer. I’ve loved my secret places more than I’ve loved you. Please open up those doors and let your light in… no matter how painful it might be. I need you to clean those areas out.
Lord, I have lived dishonourably, and dishonoured others. I have taken the reputation of Christ and dragged it through the mud. I have been dishonest and disloyal. I have not let my yes be yes, and my no be no… and I have broken promises. Forgive me. And help me make it right with those I’ve hurt.
Lord, I have rejected your word. I have read parts of your bible and argued with you. I’ve even chosen to avoid parts of your word because they make me feel uncomfortable. When someone has asked me about what I believe, I have told them my opinion, which was not in line with your word, because I was ashamed of what you said. Forgive me for my arrogance and my fear of man.
Lord, You have given me opportunities to share my faith, and I have not taken them. You have given me chances to inject your truth, and I have kept my mouth closed. You have stirred my spirit to speak, and I disobeyed and walked away. There were chances to give you glory, to give you credit, to say that you are the one who did it… and I stole your fame… or I gave it to someone else… or simply didn’t say anything. Forgive me.
Lord, there are times when I have sought out the darkness. You call me to live as a child of light, but there are times when I have closed the blinds, locked the doors, turned off the lights, and preferred the darkness because it covered my sin. I have hidden my sins from my brothers and sisters in the faith. They have asked me, and I have lied to their face. You have given me chances to flee temptation, and I have dismissed them, and continued to walk towards sin, invited you to leave… and then I committed sin, on purpose… in the darkness of my private life. Forgive me.
Lord, I have rejected your church. I don’t really love your people, the body of Christ, as I should. In fact, I avoid them. I prefer the company of non-believers. I give my service to other places. I give my time to other people. I have come to church time and again, and then left quickly to avoid your people. I don’t ask how other people are doing because I don’t want to get involved. I make myself busy so I have an excuse to stay away. I do not treat other believers as my family. I have even mocked them, ridiculed them, and gossiped behind their back. Lord, forgive me for how I treat your beloved bride… your church.
Lord, I life too much as a citizen of this world, and not of your kingdom. I embrace many worldly things unquestionably. I have put idols in my home, idols in my work, idols in my car. I live by the world’s standards, not yours. I have spent money I don’t have, on things I don’t need, to impress people I don’t even really know. I am in debt because I want to be more like the world. I’m not different than the non-believers around me… in fact there is almost no discernible difference between me and them. Lord, forgive me for not living as the salt and light I should be.
Lord, I don’t acknowledge the spiritual realm. I live as though what I see is all that there is. I do not store my treasures in heaven, but instead spend time building bigger and bigger barns here on earth. I do not put on my spiritual armour… the armour of God which you have given me… but leave it off to the side every day as I go into the world. And then I blame you when I fall. When a battle is waged in my soul, I give up far too easily because I do not want to fight… I am too lazy… too selfish… too worldly. I love my flesh and the god of my stomach too much. Forgive me for not thirsting for You alone.
Lord, I ask you to “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit…. to sustain me”