Please open up to John 5:1-18 and let’s read it together:
“After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk.’ And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.
Now that day was the Sabbath.
So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, ‘It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.’ But he answered them, ‘The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’’ They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?’ Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.’ The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.’
This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”
A Desperate Situation
A while back I said that as you read through John, to put yourself in the place of the people that Jesus interacts with. I want you to do the same with this passage – we are the invalid and we are the Jews.
Let’s start with the first part of the story. Sometime after Jesus had healed the Centurion’s son, Jesus was headed up to Jerusalem for one of the three feasts that all Jewish males were required to attend. We don’t know which one.
While Jesus was at this feast He chose to head to the Sheep Gate. Jerusalem had all kinds of gates. The Old Testament mentions 17 different gates for the first temple, and eight for the temple that was rebuilt by Nehemiah and added to by Herod. And each gate had a different name and theme. There was a Fish Gate where the fisherman brought their catches through to be sold, the Valley Gate that opened up to the Valley of Hinnom, the Dung (or Garbage) Gate where Jerusalem had their burning waste dump. This gate was called the Sheep Gate and was historically where the sheep and lambs were brought through for the ritual temple sacrifices.
One day, Jesus, the One John the Baptist recently called “The Lamb of God who takes away the Sins of the World” (1:36), decides to come up through the Sheep Gate. Don’t miss that, because there’s a lot going on. The Lamb of God entering through the Sheep Gate where the sacrifices come through, which was about 200 meters from where Pilate would condemn Him to death, only a hundred or so more meters to the Via Dolorosa, which was the road Jesus would take to Calvary.
Near the Sheep Gate there was a pool called Bethesda meaning “House of Mercy” or “House of Outpouring” and verses 2-3 gives us a picture of what this place looked like. There was a pool there – (actually by the time of Herod there were 2 pools, one above the other) – with a series of columns holding up a roof that would provide some protection from weather. Instead of being fed by a spring, this pool system was designed to be filled up when it rained. A long time before, this pool was likely used to wash the sheep that were coming into the temple area after being herded from whatever place they had come from, but now it had become a place where sick, desperate people would congregate in hopes of getting some kind of mercy, charity, and maybe even a miracle.
If you have an ESV Bible you’ll notice something interesting in verse 4 – it’s interesting in that there is no verse 4. In other translations you’ll see a verse 4 which give an explanation that the reason sick people congregated there was that there was a superstition that sometimes an angel would come, stir the pool, and the first person to get in would be immediately healed. The reason the ESV doesn’t include this verse is because the oldest, most trusted manuscripts, actually don’t have that line. It was inserted sometime after by a scribe who felt it necessary to add an explanation. But since it’s not in the best manuscripts, a lot of modern translations leave it out. But that doesn’t mean it was wrong – in fact, verse 7 tells us that the stirring of the waters is exactly what the man was hoping for.
But the picture here is one of blind, sick, lame, paralyzed people who were living in a time when they were considered cursed, unclean, and didn’t have a way to take care of themselves. And, if they didn’t have family to take care of them, these people would often become street beggars. And as society condemned them, forgot them, and pushed them aside, they would become more and more desperate.
And desperate people tend to be more easily manipulated, more willing to believe lies and superstitions, more self-centred, selfish, and protective. Jesus walks into an area filled with hurting, forgotten, broken people who – because of their suffering and how they’d been treated – had basically given up on their neighbours, families, friends, religion, priests, and God. They were now a group of superstitious people whose whole lives revolved around waiting for some kind of supernatural stirring of some magic water, which would then lead to a mad dash competition to beat each other to the pool in hopes of some kind of miracle.
We are often no different than these people. Fear, sickness, betrayal, disrespect, being forgotten, living in pain, financial struggles – especially when it carries on for a long while – often leads to a myriad of temptations. When the trouble first starts – the pain begins, the sickness sets in, the emergency happens, the betrayal occurs – we handle it ok. We talk to friends, read the Bible, pray to God – but then it doesn’t go away, the situation doesn’t get better, and sometimes it gets worse.
So, sometimes we press in harder. We call our friends for help, tell our church to pray, spend more time in the Word and in Prayer. But it still doesn’t get better. The pain is worse and more complicated, the doctors can’t find a cause. The betrayals start to stack up as more people believe lies. The bills keep coming but the income doesn’t get better. The emergency keeps affecting you, the stress being drawn out for days, weeks, and months. The sickness doesn’t go away, and you find out its chronic and untreatable.
Then, as friends and family and the church stops calling, stops asking how you’re doing, stops giving you support, and the trips to the doctor all end with the same bad news, and people seem to move on to the next thing – you’re still stuck with the same pain – it’s easy to start to become discouraged and even desperate.
And we are tempted to do what this man did. Go away from people, start skipping church and eventually just leave altogether. Stop praying because it doesn’t work. Leave the Bible on the shelf because it doesn’t help. Start to gather with other sick, pained, miserable people… not because they encourage you, but because they feed your misery and affirm your bad decisions.
And then, as you distance yourself from God, His word, and His people, Satan starts to present you with more and more dangerous ideas on how to feel better. He dangles bait in front of you, leading you toward destruction. He offers you drink and drugs, pornography and entertainment, gambling and garbage food. He offers you loans, and new credit cards, and opportunities to steal. He helps you find people who want to commit adultery with you, hurt others with you, do illegal things with you.
And he shows you stories of people who got the miracle they wanted… through televangelists, superstitions, cults, pagan practices, witchcraft, the occult, moral compromise. Things that would have been unthinkable, ridiculous, and laughable before – start to become more reasonable. The more desperate you get, the more reasonable they become. After all – Christianity didn’t work. God didn’t fix your life when you asked. The Church left you behind. The doctors can’t help, friends can’t help… why not try… crystals, horoscopes, healing services, bank loans, divorce, chemicals, abuse, or maybe even sending money to the guy on TV who promises to send you magic spring water from Russia that will force God to fix your body and fill up your bank account. And if you don’t believe me – then you’ve probably never heard of Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, or Peter Popoff.
Now, you might be thinking, “That’s too extreme, Pastor Al. I don’t do that. I would never do that.” Well, maybe today – but that’s at least one direction the road of spiritual compromise goes. So ask yourself – what ungodly, unbiblical, unfaithful things are you doing right now because stress, fear, lack, sadness, worry, has been pressing in on you.
Are you drinking a little more? Are you distancing yourself from certain godly people because they make you feel guilty? Are you reading and watching videos about how to get miracles and give yourself special spiritual powers? Is your debt creeping up as you use money you don’t have to try to solve your problems? Do you find yourself doing little, superstitious things – wearing a cross for luck, carrying a little pocket angel, repeating special “words of power” that have worked for other people, or adding other spiritual things to your life in hopes of twisting God’s (or the universe’s) arm to make things go your way?
Those are the path to danger. You don’t start as the kind of person who believes God puts sick people in competition with one another to see who can get in the magic angel rain pool… that happens gradually as hopelessness, fear, worry, and sadness take over you faith, trust, and obedience to God and His word.
Do You Want to Be Made Well?
In verse 5 we see that this man had been an invalid for thirty-eight years – longer than many people’s lifespan back then. To everyone, even to himself, he was a hopeless case. His faith was gone, his friends were gone, his family was gone, and to him, God was gone, grace was gone, hope was gone, and he was too weak to even try to work within his own superstition.
Jesus asks a peculiar question: “Do you want to be made well?” It almost sounds sarcastic, doesn’t it? He’s standing in a place full of misery and suffering, surrounded by the most desperate cases imaginable. They were sitting beside what they thought was a magic healing pool. Why else would they be there other than to be made well?
But this man’s understanding of God and spirituality was completely warped. Remember, there stands Jesus, the Son of God, the Lamb of God, the Creator of the Universe. He is God. His question forces the man to declare what His faith is in.
We read elsewhere of Jesus asking people questions before healing, and many declare their faith in Him for a miracle. The leper comes and says, “If you choose, you can make me clean!” (Mark 1:40) The woman with the years of bleeding said, “If I but touch His clothes, I will be made well.” The leader of the synagogue came and said, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” (Matt 9:18)
But how does this man answer? With nothing but negativity and hopelessness and blaming others: “It’s impossible. God’s abandoned me. People have abandoned me. The only hope I have is the magic rain water and I’m too weak to get there. For decades now, people have pushed me aside and ran before me to get the miracle. No one cares. Nothing can help me.” Bad attitude, bad faith, bad logic, bad spirituality, and bad theology.
What’s interesting is that Jesus doesn’t argue. There’s no lecture, no teaching, no correction, no sermon. Just the command, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” In fact, as we read, Jesus doesn’t even introduce Himself! At first, after the miracle, the man didn’t even know it was Jesus who healed him!
The man’s greatest expectation was that, perhaps, this stranger might stick around long enough to, maybe get him to the pool. When he answered, there was zero faith in Jesus, zero faith in God, and the thought that He was about to walk out of that place perfectly healed hadn’t even crossed his mind. He’s lying there before God Himself – and didn’t even know it.
What Does This Tell Us About Jesus?
I want to pause the story there this week, even though a lot happens after the man is healed, and I want to ask the question: What does this tell us about Jesus?
First, that Jesus is compassionate. Matthew 12:18-21 quotes Isaiah 42:1–3, which is a description of Jesus’ attitude towards hurting, abused, forgotten, hopeless people: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” He weeps with those who weep, and understands the suffering of hurting, abused, forgotten, slandered, weak people better than anyone. He has empathy, compassion, and kindness. Jesus hates pain, suffering, and sickness because Jesus hates sin – and they are all a result of sin. That’s why He came to die on the cross – to reverse the curse, to destroy the effects of sin, and to make a path for anyone who would believe in Him to be free of those effects forever. The first thing we must see here is that Jesus is kind and compassionate to people who are suffering.
The second thing we ought to see is that Jesus gives grace to whom He decides to give grace. Grace, by definition, is undeserved merit, undeserved favour. Did this man deserve to be healed? No. Did He deserve a conversation with Jesus? No. What did He deserve? As a faithless, hopeless, superstitious, sinner, He deserved nothing more than being condemned to everlasting torment in hell. That’s what he deserved.
I’ve had a few people text me lately that some of the things that have happened to me were “undeserved”. “You don’t deserve this.”, they say. My response is always, “What I deserve is Hell – anything above that is grace.” And I mean it.
This man did nothing to deserve a miracle. I think of Romans 9 which talks about what theologians call “divine election” or “God deciding who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.”
Turn to Romans 9:13–24 and let’s read it together. We’re jumping into the middle of an argument here, but the first line is a good summary, “As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” Think of the Old Testament story of Jacob and Esau. Esau was older and should have gotten the blessing, but instead God worked it out so Jacob did. Neither was a particularly good person – Esau arrogant, Jacob a liar – but God overturned tradition and expectation and chose the young liar to be His chosen servant. So Paul asks in verse 14,
“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”
What is the biblical answer to “Who gets chosen for heaven and who goes to hell?” Simply, “Whoever God decides.” No one deserves heaven. No one deserves grace. We’re all vessels of wrath prepared for destruction – and some of us get plucked out of the flames and given a place of honour. Why? Because God decided to show us love and grace. That’s it.
The second thing we need to learn about Jesus is that He shows grace to whom He shows grace. He walked into a place full of sick, desperate, superstitious, and selfish people – and decided to save one of them. That’s His prerogative. He’s God, we’re not. Anyone one of us who is plucked from the flames, healed, and adopted – should spend our whole lives praising Him for His undeserved grace!
Third, Jesus has His own schedule. Thirty-eight years that man waited. Until he was utterly hopeless, forgotten, and bitter. God is not obligated to any of us. And He’s not obligated to hurry up and do things on our timeline. God allowed this many to be sick, allowed him to be hopeless, and placed him in that spot – specifically so Jesus could use Him for His glory and purposes on that day. And, as we read, that purpose was to show that Jesus claimed to be God, that Jesus had the power of God, that Jesus had the divine authority to properly interpret and apply all of the laws of scripture – which presented the option to the Jewish leaders to either turn their lives over to Jesus – or to hate Jesus so much that they wanted to kill Him all the more. God isn’t obligated to give us grace – and He always does things on His own timeline for His own perfect purposes. The only question we are asked is if we will trust His timing and His purposes?
And fourth, Jesus’ invitation is always to faith, repentance, and obedience. Jesus did everything. He came through the Sheep Gate, walked to the pool, came up to the man, and offered him healing. When the man answered Jesus’ question with bitterness and hopelessness, Jesus still healed Him. Jesus had the power and did all the work. All the man had to do was get up, grab his bed, and walk.
Every miracle Jesus did required a faithful action – sometimes before, sometimes after – but always contained the invitation to trust Jesus and obey Him. This man went from hopeless to faith in Jesus in a split second – and demonstrated that change by standing up and walking away. He didn’t even know who Jesus was! Jesus didn’t require that – yet – but in His divine plan, Jesus knew that the man would know eventually. All Jesus required at that time was for the man to stand up, grab the bed, and walk away.
That’s the Christian faith in a nutshell. As I said, we are all this man. Lost, hopeless, superstitious, bitter, forgotten, doomed, and unable to save ourselves. Then, the Lamb of God walks into our lives, unbidden, uninvited, and says, “Do you want to be made well?”. Our theology is usually messed up, our expectations confused, our testimony unimpressive, our hearts still torn by selfishness, temptations, and the effects of sin – but Jesus comes anyway, and offers to completely change our lives. But that invitation always comes with an order to believe, repent, and obey Him.
Look at John 5:14–15 again,
“Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.’ The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.”
It’s always the same story. Jesus comes and gives undeserved grace to a doomed and broken sinner. He offers healing and demands obedience. The person obeys and is told, “Ok, you’re mine now. Walk with me, trust me, repent from sin, and obey me.” And then we are used to tell the world who Jesus is and what Jesus does – often in ways we could never have planned or expected.
To say it’s a strange time is an understatement. As this pandemic looms, and the lockdown enters its second month, it’s very interesting to see how people are reacting. While some sit at home bored, others, like front-line and emergency workers, are being run off their feet. The educated professionals that are used to having “important jobs” have been told they are “non-essential” while the service and retail workers who they used to look down on are now treated as vital “essential workers” who put their life on the line every day serving the public.
I’m 100% sympathetic to how difficult it must be these days to be a doctor, nurse, or other medical workers – but as a former Wal-Mart stock-boy and cashier, I have a special spot in my heart for the people at the grocery and department stores whose lives are all now far more complicated, much scarier, and way more difficult. Imagine for a moment being a 16-year-old grocery store cashier. It’s your first job and you just started a couple months ago. It seemed pretty straightforward. The main parts of the job were to know where stuff is, get the money right, and be polite to people.
How must they feel now? All of a sudden they are given surgical masks and gloves, are stuck in a Plexiglas cage, and have a dozen new rules to follow. The public is panicking and the management doesn’t know exactly what to do. And, they’re told that if they don’t get it right they could be held responsible for spreading a deadly virus. What must it be like as a parent to send your teen off to work these days while you are forced to stay at home?
Coping with Stress
No matter who you are – everyone in every arena of life has been affected by this. And, as the internet churns out more information, the government makes more announcements, the 24-hour-news-cycle generates more stories to grab your attention, and the weeks continue to wear on and on — everyone having to deal with more stress, anxiety, fear, confusion, loneliness, and worry.
How are people coping? I saw an interesting graphic this week put out by Stats Canada[i] talking about what Canadians are doing to deal with the challenges the COVID-19 situation has brought. As it turns out they’re watching a lot of TV, playing a lot of video games, surfing a lot of internet, and drinking a lot of alcohol. I would imagine that if Stats Canada dug a little deeper they would find that Canadians are dealing in a whole lot of other self-destructive ways too.
Consider your own life over the past few weeks. How have you reacted to increased stress, decreased accountability, more time on your hands, or more responsibility dumped in your lap? What have you been doing to “cope” with your stress? More arguing and controlling? More alcohol or food? More pornography and non-stop media? Or are you sleeping more, avoiding life, zoning out? What have your interactions online looked like during this time? God honouring, faith-producing, helpful posts that point to truth and hope – or are you spreading fear, argument, and gossip?
Trial by Fire
Stressful times, and not just during global pandemics, bring out the best and the worst in people. The Bible talks about times like this being like going through a “fire” that either causes you to be refined like gold in a furnace, showing and helping you remove the negative dross in your life – or causing your whole life to burn down as you realize that everything from your foundation up was just made of matchsticks.
And I’m not talking about just the difference between believers and non-believers – though that is certainly the case too. I’m talking about Christians.
Turn with me and consider 1 Peter 1:3–7:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Peter is talking to Christians here who were going through a very difficult time of persecution and trial. He reminds them that their salvation is because of God’s “mercy” – meaning that He didn’t have to save them, but chose to anyway. He reminds them of what their present faith is in – the God who gives them a “living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”. Then, like the verse we read last week in Romans 8 that says nothing can separate us from the Love of God in Jesus Christ, Peter then reminds them that because of God’s mercy, and the finished work of Jesus Christ, nothing can ever take away that hope because it is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading”.
He tells them that it is in remembering those things – the love of God, the salvation of Jesus Christ, their security in Heaven – all the things we talked about last week – that, as the meditate on their salvation in Jesus, they will find the strength and desire to pray, worship, trust, serve, and “rejoice”, even in the midst of their “various trials”.
But look at verse 6 again where Peter says that their rejoicing will be mingled and mixed with grief. “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials…” Christianity doesn’t say that as soon as we get saved all our earthly problems are solved. That’s a false gospel. If anyone has ever told you that the reason that you are going through a bad time – grieving, suffering, hurting, sadness – is because you don’t believe in God hard enough – they are not telling you the gospel. That’s not Biblical truth.
Think about John chapters 13-17, the discourse in the Upper Room. On the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, He told the disciples a lot of important things about what was coming and how they should respond. He washed their feet and then told them to serve one another in love. He told them that their faith in Him would let them see and experience the presence of God. He told them how to pray and that if they need something they only need to ask in His name. He told them of the importance of obedience and how the presence of the Holy Spirit would help them to know Him, follow Him, and would connect them to Him in the most intimate way imaginable.
And He gave warnings, telling them to stay connected to Him or their life would be weak and meaningless. He said,
“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.” (John 15:5)
Then He warned them that living like that would make the world hate them, just as it hated Him. But, no matter what, He would never, ever leave them alone – and would always comfort and help them.
Then He warned again them about his imminent death, and the great sorrow they would feel – but that, after He rose again, their sorrow would turn to joy, and that joy would be greater than they had ever experienced before.
And then, after talking for hours, right before He prayed for them – and us – in His “High Priestly Prayer”… as He was rising to leave to go to the Garden of Gethsemane to face that death, He said this:
“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)
That’s the gospel. In this world you will have trouble and trials and struggle and difficulty. This world is still affected by sin. As Peter said, “For a little while” meaning, in this life, we will be “grieved by various trials” – but “but take heart; [Jesus has] overcome the world”.
Testing the Genuineness of Your Faith
That’s what the next verses in 1 Peter 1:6–7 basically say: “…now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
These trials and difficulties, all the frustrations we are facing, the worry that has come over us – whether it’s the death of a loved one, our own sickness, a financial or job loss, dealing with loneliness, or having our work become harder, more complicated, and have more risk – are part of what Peter means when he says “various trials”.
What do these do? He says they “test” the “genuineness of your faith”. In other words, these times force you to see whether or not you really believe what you say you believe. At the same time, while it tests the strength of your faith – the strength of your convictions – it also shows you what your faith is actually in.
God uses trials like this to refine and reveal. He refines your faith, strengthens your faith, purifies your faith, by forcing you to see and remove what is weakening it – and it reveals things in your life, showing you things about yourself and others, that you didn’t even know were there.
Bear the Fruit of Repentance
Turn with me to Luke 3:1–20. I want to share something that I think God was telling me this week about myself, and that might help you:
This is the introduction to the ministry of John the Baptist, a man sent by God – the final Old Testament style prophet – who was meant to prepare the way and announce the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.”
So there’s the general tone of John the Baptist’s message: “The Messiah is coming to begin the final work of salvation, so get yourselves ready for it.” Remember a couple weeks ago I preached the “Epic” sermon about the various phases of God’s plan of salvation? Here’s the announcement of God’s final and greatest phase: The Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour, the Judge of All Mankind, is coming into the world – with an axe in one hand, a winnowing fork in the other, and the refining fires of the Holy Spirit to purify the world before God’s wrath, God’s refining fire, sweeps through the whole world burning away the fruitless trees and worthless chaff.
He preached this with power and conviction and as he said, “Get ready” he would invite people to repent. To repent means to change your life, turn around and go the other way, acknowledge you are wrong and start doing right. And to show that repentance he invited them to be baptized – an external washing to show their desire to be clean on the inside.
But, some were coming for baptism that only wanted the outer sign, not to change their ways. But John wasn’t interested in numbers – he wanted people to really change and get ready for the coming of Jesus. He wanted the hard soil of their hearts to be tilled up, made soft, and made ready for the seeds of the gospel that Jesus would be coming to preach.
But some people just wanted to go through the motions. They wanted to say they had been baptised, but they didn’t actually want to repent. For whatever reason – out of fear, peer-pressure, religious devotion, or misunderstanding – when they came to John they didn’t want to change their hearts and prepare themselves for Jesus – they didn’t care about their sin – they just wanted to get wet.
John hated that hypocrisy because it was the same hypocrisy that completely dominated the whole Jewish religion at that point. So He looked at the crowds who were all excited to be baptized and said, “You brood of vipers! You snakes! What are you doing here? I see your motives and I know that you’re not here to give your hearts to God and submit to the Messiah – you’re here for your own selfish, stupid reasons. You make excuses for your sin and think you’re going to escape God’s wrath because of your religious traditions or because you’re going through some religious motions. That won’t work! Religious devotion, devoid of repentance, devoid of hatred of sin and submission to God, will still lead you to hell.”
And when Jesus came, and the religious people saw Him and heard his message of repentance and submission to Him, they didn’t repent – they hated what He said and murdered Him so they could keep being religious hypocrites. The presence of Jesus was the fire, the trial that revealed their sin –and showed everyone how evil they really were.
The crowds, seeing how serious John was about making sure their hearts were right with God before they participated in any sort of external sign, said in verse 10, “Ok, then what shall we do?” If we’re not supposed to be just doing religious stuff – getting wet, singing the songs, saying the prayers, doing the sacrifices, bringing the tithe – if none of that actually matters to God, then what are we supposed to be doing? We’re here to get baptized because you told us to get baptized or God will be mad at us… so what are we supposed to do?
John’s answer was the one that we saw in verse 8. “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance”. In other words, make your life show that your repentance is real – that you sin and want to be godly. Real repentance will require changed life, changed behaviour, different priorities, and different ethics. It reminds me of the famous passage in Micah 6:6-8,
“’With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
That’s basically what John was saying, right? “If you’ve got extra, share. If you’re in a position of power, be kind and fair and honest. Show God you love Him, that your repentance is real, that your faith is real, that you want Jesus in your life and trust His way is the best way – by “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly as a servant of God.”
Herod the tetrarch didn’t like this message. He was caught in a bunch of public sins that went against God’s commandments, and John called him out on it. What was Herod’s response? Arrest John and lock him in a room where he couldn’t hear him anymore.
That’s my conclusion today: During this time you are going to be faced with all kinds of temptations. Some in your home, others at work. Some online, others face to face. There will be temptations to overuse things that bring you comfort, to overindulge in addictions, waste your time, and use self-destructive behaviour. Some of you will face the temptation to live in fear and to be a fear monger, spreading bitterness and paranoia. Others will be tempted to be selfish and greedy or to make personal gain on the back of the suffering. Some will take their fear out on convenient people that don’t deserve it. Some will face emotional struggles worries rise up. Others will face spiritual struggles as they neglect prayer times, study times, and fellowship opportunities. Some will be tempted toward hopelessness while others will try to live in denial.
The list of temptations is endless – but what I want you to see is that this strange time that we are going through is also an opportunity for God to refine your faith and reveal your weaknesses and strengths.
When it happens, and God shows you your sin, feel the guilt and shame – but don’t be overwhelmed by it – just turn that sin over to Jesus, accept that He died for that sin too, accept His forgiveness – and then repent. Change the behaviour, put up a wall between you and the sin, tell someone else about your struggle, do the opposite of it, and then bear fruit in keeping with repentance.
Then, if you choose to humbly reflect on your life, admit that you need a lot of help, listen to the voice of God, and allow Him to make some changes, God will refine you and you will be a stronger, more faithful, more joyful, person on the other side of this.
Or, you can respond like Herod. When God’s Spirit convicts you, when He shows you your sin – tell Him to shut up, lock that voice away, pretend you didn’t hear it, and persist in your sin – and then come out the other side of this time more addicted, more afraid, more bitter, more controlling, and more hurtful than when you went in.
I don’t want that for any of you. Please, submit to God. Listen to His voice. Cut out the things that are hurting your soul. And bear fruits in keeping with repentance.
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.
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, “’Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.’” (John 3:1–21)
Last week we ended our study of this section at verse 9 where Nicodemus, marvelling at what Jesus has just told him, says, “How can these things be?” The whole concept of being “born again” or “born from above” was blowing his mind. For his whole life, he had been told and had taught that the way to please God, get forgiveness, be holy, and have a blessed life, was through rules and religion. He was a Pharisee, a “separated one”, a member of the Sanhedrin, one of the top-dogs of Israel, famous for being a man who not only followed and enforced the Mosaic Laws but all the other extra laws that the Pharisees had since come up with. He was 100% sold out to the fact that it was through stricter and stricter obedience and enforcement of the rules that Israel would be saved.
But Jesus, this newcomer on the scene, who spoke with authority like they’d never seen and backed up His words with great signs and miracles was saying something very different. He was saying that salvation doesn’t come from trying harder and being more religious. He was saying that all of our human efforts to please God through religious fervour were actually working against Nicodemus’ relationship with God. His rules and religion was putting a wedge between him and God, him and others, and was actually leading people into damnation, not salvation. And I think Nicodemus knew it.
When he looked at himself and his fellow Pharisees he didn’t see men that oozed the love of God. He saw people who were harsh, unloving, unkind, ungracious, and who were always worried that God was mad at them because they hadn’t done enough. People who lived in a constant state of either prideful arrogance for being such awesome people – or in fear and deep doubt because they were never sure if they’d done enough. What a terrible way to live. But they were locked into it. Their devotion to traditions, their lust for power, their whole comprehension of God, was locked into this pattern. And I’m convinced Nicodemus felt it.
And here stood Jesus saying that everything he believed was wrong. Jesus said that the only way to find forgiveness, blessing, salvation, and reconciliation with God is to give up being a Pharisee – to totally repent of that way of living and thinking – and to simply ask God to change his heart. I said last week that Nicodemus immediately knew that Jesus was talking about Ezekiel 36 & 27, and I believe that’s what gave Nicodemus the epiphany.
But an epiphany wasn’t enough. It’s one thing to hear the truth – another to submit to that truth. So Nicodemus says in verse 9, “How can these things be?”
The Five Solas
Another way of saying this would be, “How could we get this so wrong for so long? How could everything we’re saying be wrong? Surely there must be some middle ground? I can’t believe that all of my religious fervour, all my hard work, all the self-denial, all the work I’ve put into showing people how to be a good person – counts for nothing?”
This is the problem a lot of people have with Christianity. Christians, atheists, and other religions all take issue. There is something deep inside of us that believes that we can save ourselves, impress God, and earn the right to go to heaven. There’s something deep inside the human spirit that refuses to believe that all our efforts, our good deeds, our self-sacrifice, our worldly success, our passion, our knowledge, our study, our “work for God”, our church attendance, our donations record, our all amounts to nothing in the end.
This was the great work of the reformers like Luther and Calvin who saw the state of the Christian Church – how corrupt and Pharisaical it had become – opened up their Bibles, saw the truth, and began to preach it. They came up with the Five Solas of the doctrine of salvation – the five “Alones” – that were in exact opposition to everything the Roman Catholic Church had been teaching and doing. Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria. The Salvation that God offers is by Scripture Alone, by Faith Alone, by Grace Alone, through Christ Alone, and to the Glory of God Alone.
The Salvation Jesus offers is described and understood only through the scriptures, the Bible. It doesn’t matter what “makes sense to you” or how you “feel”. God has outlined the way that people are saved from sin and death and the path of salvation is clearly outlined in scripture. Anything different than that is a lie. That salvation is by faith alone, not by any human endeavour. It is given from God by grace alone, not because we deserve any of it, but because, as Ephesians 2:4-5 says,
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…”
And who does scripture point to? Who must we have faith in? Through whom did this grace come? Through Jesus Christ alone. Acts 4:12,
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” [NIV]
And why did God do it? Why did God make us, let us fall, send prophets, write scripture, save some and condemn others? Why does humanity exist at all? For the glory of God alone. We read that last week in Ezekiel 36. The Reformers weren’t coming up with anything new – they weren’t creating a new church – they were “reforming” the church back to the way it was supposed to be.
Jesus says it this way to Nicodemus in John 3:10-15,
“Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’”
Jesus says, “You’ve read, memorized, and taught every verse in the Hebrew Bible and you don’t still understand God’s will. Your mind is trapped on earth and all the things you think you can do here to try to climb your way to heaven. Take it from me, the only person who has ever come down from heaven, that there is only one path. Remember the story (Num. 21:4-9) of when all the people spoke against God and Moses, and the Lord sent fiery serpents to poison everyone? No one was going to be able to good-deed their way out of being poisoned. They were cursed and already dead – it was just a matter of time before the poison finished them off. Do you remember how they saved themselves, Nicodemus? What did they do? Did they pray a bunch, sacrifice animals, give tithes? No. What was their path of salvation? God told Moses to make a bronze image of the serpent, set it on a pole, and raise it high in the air so that anyone who looks on it, the moment He sees it, would be saved from the poison that was killing them. That’s how it works. Except in this case, the poison is sin and I’m the One who is going to be raised up – on a cross – and everyone who looks to me will be saved – but not just in this life – they will be given eternal life. Do you understand what I’m saying, Nicodemus? You cannot save yourself by any means because you are poisoned with sin. All of your good deeds are corrupted by sin. Your thinking is corrupted by sin. Every convert you make is doubly corrupt because they are following you! There is only one way to be saved. You need that poison dealth with. You need to look to me.”
And Jesus continues explaining this to Nicodemus in verse 16, the most famous verse in the Bible.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)
The Pharisees were all about judgment and condemnation. They loved popping up behind people, catching them breaking one of their rules (not God’s, theirs) and then using their position of authority to judge and condemn them. Read through the gospels again and see how many times Jesus is walking around, teaching, hanging out with his disciples, and then a Pharisee just jumps out of nowhere and starts condemning Him. It’s quite ridiculous once you see it.
But when God did finally send His Son, the Messiah, the Son of Man, the one the whole Old Testament prophesied about, He didn’t act like a Pharisee. He didn’t come and zap all the bad people left and right, killing Israel’s enemies, blasting everyone who didn’t perfectly follow the law, and passing out health, wealth, and power to all the good and obedient Pharisees. He did exactly the opposite. God the Father sent Jesus the Son to save people, not condemn them. Jesus came with an extended hand, not a closed fist. God loved the world so much – Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, Romans, Pagans, Tax Collectors, Prostitutes, Adulterers, Drunkards, and yes, even Pharisees – that He was willing to raise up His perfect, beloved, Son on a cross for them.
And instead of the path of salvation being an impossible list of rules that no one could keep. He showed that the Law only had the power to condemn (Rom 8:4), but He – the only person who would ever keep the entire Law, perfectly – had the power to forgive and exchange Himself for sinners. Just as anyone who looked to the serpent was saved, so would any who look to Him. Just as the Israelites in Egypt believed that the blood sacrifice of the spotless lamb would allow death to Passover them, so the blood of Jesus would do the same. Just as anyone who believed that on the Day of Atonement, the bloody death of bulls and goats, and the sprinkling of their blood on the altar, mercy seat, and people, would atone and mane propitiation for – or make reparations for and appease God’s wrath for their own sin – so the blood of Jesus would do the same.
Jesus wasn’t there to bring final judgement. Not this time. He was coming to offer salvation to any who would believe in Him.
Nicodemus’s mind must have been reeling at this point because it went against everything he had ever believed. All the words of the prophets he’s memorized must have been racing through his mind with new understanding, new interpretation, knowing that Jesus was speaking the truth. His guilt and shame for being so wrong must have been immense. But there was that human side that made him want to refuse Jesus’ words, refuse to believe he wasn’t at least partly responsible for his own salvation.
And Jesus doubles-down in verse 18,
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
Zero wiggle room. Salvation comes by the Word of God alone, through faith in Jesus alone, by the grace of God alone, through the Son of God alone, and for the glory of God alone. No other options.
Turn with me to John 14, but keep your thumb in John 3. Jesus is in the upper room preparing his disciples for what is going to happen that night. He will be leaving them because he’s about to be betrayed, falsely accused, condemned, and murdered. They’re obviously freaking out and Jesus says, “‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:1–7)
I’m the way, Thomas. You can’t get there unless I take you there. You can’t know truth unless I tell it to you. You can’t have life unless I give it to you. No one can come before God, no one can be saved unless I am the one who brings them.”
That’s what Jesus was telling Nicodemus too.
Turn back to John 3. The natural question that comes to most Christians at this point, I think, is “Why would anyone reject this message?” It’s beautiful, simple, and generous. People everywhere struggle with guilt, shame, and fear. They want to be right with God and others. They want to know forgiveness and hope. They look at their lives and know that this isn’t all there is, that their habits are ruining them, and all the stuff they are amassing is empty. All the things they’ve tried to do to kill the pain, ignore the shame, and distract from the emptiness and hopelessness they feel, isn’t working.
Then they hear the gospel. You’d think that it would come as a welcome relief to them! Hope, help, forgiveness – all for free because Jesus paid the cost. Connection to God, the gift of the Holy Spirit, a cleansed soul, and the knowledge that no matter what happens in this world, it will work out for our good and God’s glory – and that the sufferings of this blip of a life will be nothing compared to the glory that is coming (Rom 8:18). Seems pretty, “No duh.” to me.
Why would anyone reject this? Why would Nicodemus hem and haw? Why would the Pharisees condemn Jesus for this message and ultimately betray and murder Him? Why would generations of Christians after be martyred for spreading a message of amazing grace, free salvation, eternal hope, and a renewed spirit, for anyone who would believe in Jesus alone? Why, if Christians have some of the greatest philosophers, scientists, apologists, writers, thinkers, and agents of mercy of all time and in the whole world, would people reject what we have to say with such vehemence?
Jesus answers that question in verses 19-21,
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
The reason is that they love their sin and themselves. They prefer darkness. God wants to expose their sin to the light, expose their deeds, expose their thoughts, and let them see how evil they are. But they want to stay in the dark because they don’t want to be exposed. Accepting Jesus’ message means admitting and exposing sin. It means saying, “I’m wrong. I’m a sinner. I’m an addict. I’m a gossip. I’m controlling. I use people. I’m lazy. I’m critical. I’m superstitious. I want glory for myself and don’t want to share. I have hate in my heart that I don’t want to let go of. I don’t want to submit to authority. I love money more than people. I want power. I want to hurt people. I want to use people for my own gratification. I want to steal things because I think I deserve them. I want to do what I want, when I want, and be the ultimate arbiter of what is good and right for me and everyone else. I don’t want God, I want to be God.”
To come to Jesus means coming to the light and having everything exposed. That’s why they won’t come.
Consider your own sins for a moment. Where and when do you do them? Out in the open? Lights on? In front of people? Or do you find a corner, turn off the lights, and get alone?
When you’re about to gossip or slander, do you speak in a loud voice for all to hear, or do you find a corner and whisper? When you want to control and manipulate someone, do you do it in front of their friends, family, and church – or do you do it alone, through e-mail, and tell them to keep secrets? Where do you keep the things you sin with; on a shelf for all to see, or tucked away in a dark place? Where have you gotten in the most trouble, and have had the most problems – with things that people did and said in the open for all to see and hear or the ones that happened during secret meetings, private messages, dark places, and back-room encounters? Sin hates the light, because the light causes it to wither and die.
If you are doing things in the darkness right now, what you are doing is not only dangerous but foolish. Your deeds are only secret from some. God knows, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the news lately, you will eventually be found out.
Isaiah 29:15 says,
“Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the Lord, who do their work in darkness and think, ‘Who sees us? Who will know?’”
In Luke 12:1-3 Jesus says,
“Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” (also Luke 8:17)
I’m telling you the truth.
Turn with me to Ephesians 5 and listen to what the Apostle Paul says,
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Ephesians 5:1–17)
I’ll leave the rest of the passage for you to read on your own time.
But let this be our conclusion today. Jesus is inviting you to the light but your sin loves darkness. I beg you to expose all your dark things to the light. James 5:16 says to
“confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
Do you want healing in your soul, your marriage, your family, your church? Start confessing your sins to one another.
Now, expect resistance. Satan really hates it when Christians do this. He’s going to give you every excuse in the world. “Now’s not a good time.” “They won’t be able to handle it.” “It’s too risky. I might lose my friend, marriage, job, position.”
Something will come to mind, maybe even now, and automatically you’ll hear, “It’s not that big of a deal. You don’t need to confess that one. It’s between you and God.” That’s Satan. Do you want to be free of that sin? Do you want salvation? Do you want healing?
“…Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
To whom? First, to Jesus. Use your voice, out-loud, and confess that sin, out-loud, to God and ask for forgiveness in Jesus’ name. God is the one you’ve offended most and who you need to deal with first.
Then, confess the one you sinned against. Confess to the people you affected. Confess to the ones who felt the ripple effects. Confess your sin to your Christian friend. Then tell your mentor, deacon, elder, and pastor. Drag that sin, kicking and screaming, into the light and keep blasting more and more light on it until it is shrivelled and dead. That’s the only way to be free.
I think it’s appropriate that we start off the Christmas season with the very beginning of the Gospel of John today. We’ve been working on “context and structure” for about a month now and I feel like we could keep talking about it for another few weeks. The structure of John is absolutely fascinating! But we need to get into it and we’ll hit some of those interesting structural points along the way.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’ ”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” ( John 1:1-18)
If you have a study bible there’s a good chance that there are a LOT of notes about this first set of verses, because John packs a LOT of stuff in there. In fact, this section is like a summary of the whole rest of the book.
When Jesus God Speaks
John begins by calling Jesus “the Word” who “was with God” and who “was God.” He was there before “the beginning” and was the one who made everything. We’ve already discussed the Trinitarian aspects of this – how this affirms that Jesus is the same God who created the universe – but I want you to notice something else. John here is setting up one of the major themes of the book which is that when Jesus speaks God is speaking.
Over and over Jesus says things like, to the Jewish authorities in chapter 5,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19).
Or to the crowds and Pharisees in chapter 8,
“When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.” (John 8:28)
or to His disciples in
“Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” (John 14:10).
This was, and currently is, a major point of contention in regards to Jesus. Some people claim that Jesus never claimed to be God and that Christians came up with that idea later. Other religions claim that Jesus was merely a prophet sent by God but not God Himself. Some non-religious people hold Jesus up as a great moral teacher but refuse to believe in His divinity. This is absolutely wrong. Jesus absolutely presented Himself as God in the flesh.
Turn over to John 10:22-33,
“At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.’ The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?’ The Jews answered him, ‘It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.’”
When Jesus was crucified, this was the charge against Him: Because He claimed to be God. Pilate knew this and knew it wasn’t a good enough reason to sentence Jesus to the cross, which is why he declared him innocent and tried to free him. Jesus wasn’t killed for any other reason than claiming to be God. This incensed the Jews and they used all the political pressure they could, even claiming to support their Roman oppressors and threatening Pilate with disloyalty to Caesar, in order to have Jesus punished in the worst way possible.
Jesus didn’t just claim to be a prophet who was told what to say by God. He wasn’t just reporting what God says – He was saying that when He spoke, God spoke. No one else claimed that. Every other prophet said, “Ok, most of the time I’m just sinful, old, me – but sometimes God speaks His word to me and I tell it to you.” That’s not what Jesus claimed. There was nothing He said, no judgement He made, no miracle He performed, no woe he pronounced, no action He performed or word he spoke that didn’t carry the weight and authority and perfection of God.
So, that’s the first thing that John wants you to know, right upfront and throughout the whole book: Jesus is God and when He speaks, God speaks. Jesus is the Word of God.
And it’s also the first thing we are confronted by and are forced to reckon with. When we think of Jesus and by extension the scriptures which contain His words – and not just the Gospels, but every other word spoken in every other book – are we giving them the proper weight and authority in our lives? Do we take what Jesus says, or what the Bible says, as one opinion of many that we weigh against a bunch of others – or do we listen and obey as though God Himself has spoken to us? Because that’s exactly what is happening.
Jesus is the Source of Light and Life
The second big theme that we see throughout the gospel of John that is introduced here is that Jesus is the source of light and life.
Jesus was the one who said, “Let there be light” and “Let there be life” in Genesis 1. He spoke into the darkness and created the light. But, after sin entered the world in Genesis 3 there was a problem: darkness came back and death entered the world. Then, even in Genesis 3, right after the Fall of Man, God said that someone would be coming to fix the problem. The whole of the Old Testament points to the one who would come and do that. Then Jesus, the source of all light and all life, came. Darkness tried to reclaim the world for itself, but because of Jesus, it couldn’t.
We talked about this one a couple weeks ago, so I won’t repeat it, but as you read John, look for that theme too. And as you look, consider that not only are you being asked to see Jesus as the source of all light and life, the one who came to bring light to the darkness and to make a way through death into life, but you are being asked if you come to Him that way. That was what John was saying to his first readers too. Persecution and martyrdom and death were rampant among believers… and the political drama and insanity of the Roman Emperors like Caligula and Nero bringing death and famine by their own whims made everything very dark for almost everyone else… so where should people turn? John’s answer was, to Jesus, the source of light and life – in short, hope.
When you face dark things – sin, rebellion, temptation, unrighteous anger, bitterness, strife, lack, storms, struggles, sickness, and death – is your first instinct to come to the source of life and light or to go somewhere else? Because where you go first is probably the thing that you hold above Jesus as your functional saviour and source of hope.
Something difficult happens, darkness invades. You get sick, you feel pain, someone betrays you, fear and uncertainty starts to creep into your heart – what do you do? Where do you turn first? You want direction, comfort, freedom, an anchor for your soul. You are looking for a light in the darkness, so where do you turn first? Alcohol? Chemicals? Pornography? Sleep? Social Media Post to get some attention? Search the Internet for an answer? Lash out and hurt someone?
Or, do you come to Jesus and say, “Things are dark and I need some light. You are the light of the world. I feel death encroaching and need some hope. You are the source of life and hope.” And then wait on Him to provide you with what you need?
John the Baptist: Herald of Jesus
The third big theme of John, found in verses 6-8, and then again in 15, as we are introduced to John the Baptist. If you’ve heard the Christmas story at all, then you’ll know that things were getting darker in the world – for the Jews and Gentiles alike. The Gentiles knew nothing of the One, True God because paganism had utterly taken over their land, and the Jewish religious system was almost totally corrupted, totally divorced from the religion that God set up to draw people to Him, so even the people of God were far from Him. Things were dark.
But when things were at their darkest, a voice was heard, the voice of John the Baptist, the herald of the Kingdom of God. John the Baptist, a man chosen before he was born to prepare the way for Jesus, starts preaching a few years before Jesus begins his earthly ministry, and he has a simple, three part message. The Messiah is coming soon, repent from your sins and get ready for it, and live out that repentance by a changed life.
John the Baptist was a powerful preacher, used by God to call many people to a baptism of repentance, but John knew He wasn’t the Messiah. He didn’t know who He was heralding for most of His life, but He knew that the Messiah was imminent – and that that the Messiah wouldn’t just get people wet and tell them to change their behaviour – He would change them from the inside out by freeing them from the curse of sin altogether and coming to live inside them through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
In John 1:29-33 (turn there), after He has baptized Jesus and right before he hands off the baton to Jesus, even sending his own disciples off to follow Jesus, John says to them,
“‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John bore witness: ‘I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.’” (Matthew 3:11–12)
You’ll see John the Baptist come up a lot in the first half of the book as Jesus is compared to him. Everyone seemed to know John the Baptist and he had some serious street cred. We learn in Acts 18:25 and 19:3-4 that people throughout the whole world had experienced “John’s Baptism” and so a lot of people reading this Gospel would have already known how important John’s ministry and prophecy was. And, even though the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all speak of Him, the Apostle John makes absolutely clear that as important as John the Baptist was, he was only the herald, the forerunner, the announcer, of Jesus Christ. John wasn’t the light – he was only the voice who was crying out in the darkness saying, “The Light of the World is coming – be ready for it!”
But I think the Apostle John’s question for all those who read is this: Do you know that it is not enough that you feel bad about your sin. It is not even enough that you have repented from your sin by saying you want to stop. The end of repentance is not merely the change of behaviour – it is faith in Jesus. The question is, has your sorrow over your sin lead you to seek salvation and cleansing from Jesus, who can free you from the curse and grant you the gift of the Holy Spirit – or have you stopped at merely thinking you just need to change your behaviour? Because the testimony of the whole of scripture is that your problem isn’t that you are mostly good and just need a little “help from above” or that you have one or two big problems and that once God fixes those you’re ok.
The testimony of Jesus is that repentance isn’t enough – you must be “born again”. You must be utterly changed, from the inside out, by giving all your sin, all your self, your entire being, past, present and future, to Jesus. Jesus doesn’t come to offer the baptism of repentance. He doesn’t come to offer a little encouragement to assuage your guilt. He comes to offer the baptism of the Holy Spirit, a new life, a re-birth, to everyone who will believe.
I think of 2 Corinthians 7:10 which says,
“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.”
There’s a big difference between feeling bad about your sin because you were caught, or because it blew up in your face, or caused problems for you and others – and realizing that you are a complete sinner, that your sin infects every part of your life, that your sin has caused spiritual death, and that you need a complete renewal, a complete (what theologians used to call) revivification, to be reborn as a new person who died and rose again because of the work of Jesus. That’s a huge difference. Think of the difference between Judas and Peter. Judas had worldly sorrow leading to death – Peter felt just as bad, but was restored by Jesus to new life. Worldly sorrow, or even the mere baptism of repentance, still leads to death. It is Godly sorrow that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.
Saying a prayer one time and then getting wet in a baptismal ceremony does not save you. Sorrow for your sin, leading to hatred of sin and a desire to be free from it, which leads to you the foot of the cross where you confess your sin and need, asking Jesus to take the punishment for it and to give you new life – and then living out that faith through trust and obedience to Jesus is what saves.
The Response to Jesus
There are more introductions to big themes here in John’s prologue, but let’s only do one more: How people responded to Jesus.
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (vs 9-13)
Throughout the whole book, you’re going to see Jesus do miracles, make claims about Himself, and then see people’s reactions. Jesus talks to every kind of person in the Gospel of John. Jews and Samaritans and Gentiles, men and women, pious religious people and social rejects, beggars and nobleman, crowds and individuals, rich and poor. And we get to see their reactions. Sometimes it is faith, but most often it is rejection – even from those who first believed.
For a variety of reasons – whether it was because Jesus didn’t give them what they wanted, because Jesus said things they didn’t like, because Jesus claimed authority over them, because they didn’t understand what Jesus was doing, or because Jesus refused to do things their way, Jesus’ teachings, claims, and miracles were often accepted at first but then rejected. This happens over and over and over until we see finally Him at the end of His life, almost totally abandoned – only a handful of people willing to admit they even know Him. The cost and risk of believing in Jesus, following Jesus, admitting to being Jesus’ disciple was too high.
And so the question, implied here and asked throughout the gospel is this: Where do you stand? After hearing what Jesus has said and done, have you turned from darkness to the light, believed in Jesus for your salvation, and become a child of God who will obey Jesus in all things – or, after hearing all this, do you still refuse to believe and obey? Will you surrender everything to Jesus as your Saviour, Lord and God, and be born again as a child of light – or do will you continue to live in the darkness? There are only two roads. Only two teams to play for. Those who follow Jesus to eternal life and those who will suffer eternal damnation.
To our modern ears that sounds intolerant and closed-minded. We’re used to leaving room for differing opinions, allowing for individual expressions of belief, letting people make decisions about God for themselves. We’ve been taught that it’s not polite to talk about religion and that it’s a faux pas to say that there is only one answer about something so important or controversial.
But Jesus doesn’t leave us any wiggle room and He doesn’t allow us to make up our own beliefs about Him or God or ourselves or the way of salvation. Jesus claimed to be God in human flesh, our Creator who may claim the highest authority over us. Jesus claimed to be the light of the world and the source of life and that anyone who does not believe in Him will walk in darkness and death. And then He simply asked, “Will you believe what I say – and show that belief through faith and obedience to me? If not, you will remain in your sin and in darkness.”
 Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). John the Baptist. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 1201). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
An Introduction to the Gospel of John
Please open up to John 20:30-21, but before we jump in and read it, we need a little context. We are starting a series on the Gospel of John today, but I don’t’ want to jump straight into verse one. In fact, we’re going to start near the end. But first, some background.
The Gospel of John is just that, John’s presentation of the Gospel, the good news, about Jesus Christ. John’s is the last of the gospels written and tells the story of Jesus differently than Matthew, Mark and Luke. Those three are called the Synoptic Gospels because they are a “synopsis” or “summary” of the story of Jesus. They were all written within a couple decades of each other, from 50 to around 70AD, and each to a different audience. Mark wrote to convince the Gentiles of why they should follow Jesus as God, Matthew wrote to the Jews to show them that Jesus was their Messiah, and then Doctor Luke wrote his gospel and Acts together as an eye-witness account of Jesus’ life and ministry, and the birth of the church, for everyone.
These Synoptic Gospels were copied and circulated all over the place for about 20 years. At that time, most of, if not all of the Apostles died, except John. In 90AD, 50 years after he witnessed Jesus earthly ministry, John was still alive and ministering in Ephesus, a central hub and ministry training centre for many of the churches around the world. It wouldn’t be too long, maybe only 5 years, until even greater persecution against the church would cause John to be arrested, boiled in oil, and then exiled to the penal island of Patmos where he would write the Book of Revelation.
As he grew older in his ministry in Ephesus, God placed upon his heart to write his own Gospel, his own explanation of why people should believe in Jesus. But he would do it from his own perspective. Matthew, Mark and Luke had already written their defences of the Gospel so he didn’t need to re-write those again. He wrote something different. He wrote a “spiritual gospel”, a sort of supplement and complement to the other three. (Macarthur Study Bible – Pg 1569-1570) That’s why many of the stories in John’s book are different than Matthew, Mark and Luke’s – and why, when they overlap, John gives some more information and explanation.
So, for example, John’s gospel doesn’t start with the birth narrative. That’s already covered really well in Matthew and Luke. Instead, John starts with a greater understanding of where Jesus came from. Matthew starts with Jesus’ lineage and then tells the birth narrative because he was convincing his Jewish audience that Jesus was the Messiah and rightful King in the line of David. Luke begins with the story of John the Baptist because he’s picking up right where the Old Testament left off, and then gets into the birth narrative from an eye-witness account, likely after talking to Mary herself.
John didn’t’ need to do that. How does John start?
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:1–3)
John goes all the way back before the beginning of the Bible, before the beginning of time, to explain to His readers who Jesus really is. They’ve probably already read the other Gospels, and we all know that the first 50 years of the church was full of non-stop false-teaching about Jesus. By the time of John’s writing, the Apostle Paul had already written all his letters to the churches and been dead for over 20 years. As John writes his gospel, he does so with one eye on combatting the false-teachings about Jesus and the other on making an apologetic, a defence, for who Jesus really is. So, when the Apostle John starts his gospel, he expands his readers’ minds helping them understand something about Jesus that people weren’t grasping – so no one would ever have a doubt about who He is ever again. This Jesus, whom he is about to present, is fully God and fully man.
John is writing as an evangelist. He’s trying to convince people of who Jesus really is. Throughout the Gospel, John arranges the stories thematically to as “signs” that point to who Jesus not only said He is but showed He is. Like in John 6 when Jesus miraculously feeds thousands of people and then says, “I am the bread of life.” (6:35). John tells the story of Jesus do something miraculous, shows people misunderstanding that miracle, demonstrates how the current religious leaders are wrong, and then connects that story to Jesus explaining in no uncertain terms who He is and what the miracle meant. John does this over and over, using seven different miracles as the outline to explain seven different perspectives, so no one reading would have any doubts about who Jesus really is.
In John’s own words, near the end of the Gospel, John gives his mission statement: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30–31)
One Beggar to Another
John’s mission wasn’t merely to present facts about Jesus, to correct people who got the story wrong, or to show us how Jesus lived so we could do the same. That wasn’t his main motivation. He wrote this Gospel, as did the other gospel writers, as did Paul and Peter and everyone else who wrote a book of the New Testament – to tell the truth about, and convince people to follow the one, true, Jesus. Not a version of Jesus that fit with their worldview, not a pick-and-choose, buffet-style Jesus assembled from a bunch of different sources, not the Jewish version of Jesus, the Greek version of Jesus, or any other version of Jesus – and not because they just wanted everyone to think they were right or special or unique.
The Gospel writers wrote, as someone else put it,
“as one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.” (D.T. Niles)
That’s what evangelism, the sharing of the gospel, is all about. I’m subscribed to a bunch of different Christian YouTube channels and one thing that keeps popping up in my feed are videos of street evangelists with megaphones arguing with other people with megaphones. That’s not really the kind of evangelism we see in scriptures, but it’s the sort that gets clicks and attention. As they say though, it seems to be all heat and no light.
I remember being out in downtown Ottawa one night and there was a man standing on a street corner holding a sign that I think simply just had Matthew 3:2 on it,
“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
As I walked past him I read the sign and tried to catch his eye to wave at him. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt that he had good motives and I wanted to give him a sort of a, “Hey man, I don’t know you, but good for you for standing out here holding a bible verse.” But he wouldn’t acknowledge me. He just stood there with a gloomy look on his face, staring into nothingness. I kept waving though and I watched as he looked at me, and then looked away. So I started waving more. He didn’t move. So I stopped walking, stared right at him, and started waving and waving. Eventually, about a minute later, he begrudgingly gave me a little hand-twist and I smiled and went on my way.
From what I’ve read and experienced, that dude is basically what the world thinks we are when we say we’re Christians. A bunch of grumpy, judgemental, joyless people who generally dislike the world around them, and are carrying a message that no one really seems to understand. It’s not true – well, it’s not true for most of the Christians that I know – but it’s the stereotype, right?
And honestly, no one reading that guy’s sign is going to understand what it says anymore. What percentage of people in the Byward Market on a Friday night, do you think, know what any of those words mean? What does “repent” mean? What is the “kingdom of heaven”? What does “at hand” mean? It’s basically gibberish to 95% of Canada.
But the gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t gibberish. It’s not religion or opinion or a methodology or a good, old story to tell to make us feel better, or a hammer to beat down our enemies. It’s the difference between life and death. “…these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” That, at the very least, implies that those who do not believe in his name do not have “life”. It means they are “dead”. People who share, and teach, and defend, the gospel of Jesus – whether we’re talking about Matthew, Luke, John, or Paul – or Billy Graham or Dwight L Moody – or Pastors and Small Group Leaders and Sunday School Teachers – or just you sitting in a coffee shop or at your kitchen table telling your story to someone else – are not coming from a “high-horse” down to the ignorant masses to explain how we know the right way of doing religion.
No, we are just “one beggar telling another beggar where we found the bread.” The Apostles don’t elevate themselves in their books, but instead, debase themselves, showing how they were lost, blind, and afraid. The hero of the gospels, or Acts, or the letters, is never the author, nor any the apostles. The followers of Jesus don’t come off in a very good light. Matthew was a despised tax collector, Mark was a coward who took off on both Jesus and Paul, Peter stuck his foot in his mouth over and over and then denied Jesus at His most desperate hour. All of the men who would become the apostles repeatedly showed their ignorance, sin, selfishness, and cowardice. When they told the story of Jesus, they didn’t shine – Jesus did.
When Paul tells the story of His conversion he pulls no punches either. He loved himself above all, hated Jesus, and got great pleasure from abusing Christians as much as he could. Over and over Paul marvels at how much grace Jesus showed him. When Paul wrote to his protégé Timothy near the end of his life, after serving God for many years and suffering much for the faith, he said,
“I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Timothy 1:12–17)
The closer Paul got to Jesus, the smaller Paul got and the larger Jesus got. I love that line in verse 16, “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” Paul often wondered why Jesus would save him, one who hated Him so much and did so much damage to His people. And after a long while, this is what he had figured out. Jesus gave him mercy because if he could be saved – if Jesus could save Saul of Tarsus, the most fearsome opponent to the church alive, a man even the apostles were nervous around – anyone could be saved.
The Heart of Evangelism
That’s the heart of evangelism, that’s the heart of the New Testament, the heart with which John writes his gospel with, and the heart of every good preacher, teacher, and Christian who is sharing their faith. We don’t speak about how great we are because we found Jesus – we tell people how great Jesus is because He found us.
When we weren’t looking for Him, Jesus showed Himself to us. When we were up to our eyeballs in sin and self, spiritually dead, unable to even recognize good from evil, Jesus broke through and showed us the consequences of that sin, died for those sins, killed those sins inside of us, and then raise us to new life. When we were desperately seeking a way to rid ourselves of guilt and shame and fear through our own willpower, through religion, through lifestyle, through spiritualism, Jesus broke our wills and told us the truth about where salvation, freedom, and life really comes from. When we were hurting, afraid, lonely, and lost, using all sorts of means to distract and numb ourselves from pain – Jesus broke through the fog, shared His love with us, offered us a new life, a new path, with Him as the Lord of our lives instead of us, and made it possible for us to conquer those sins and feel what life is really like.
When we share the gospel, I mean really share our story, our testimony, the good news of Jesus Christ, it comes from the same heart that Paul wrote with. Someone asks us, “Why do you live and talk and think like you do? Why do you have hope when everything is so hopeless? Why can you say you feel forgiven when I know the terrible things you’ve done? How can you possibly forgive the person who hurt you so badly? Where does your strength of character, your peace, your patience, your kindness, your love, your joy, your generosity, your gentleness, your courage, come from?”
Our answer is the same as every other Christian’s. “Listen, man. Any good you see in me doesn’t come from me. I’m a sinner. I still sin a lot. I still love myself far more than I should. If you were inside my head sometimes, you wouldn’t be asking that question. But here’s what happened. Even though I was steeped in my own ignorance, even though I thought I was better and smarter than God, even though I kept doing things my way, Jesus changed my life. He showed me grace. Something happened one day that I can’t explain. At that moment, Jesus met me. It was like seeing light or hearing sound for the first time. And when I saw that bit of light, I wanted more and asked Him to help me. So He pointed me at His word, His people, and His way. He told me to step off the throne of my life and give it all to Him. And I did. He showed me my ignorance and sin, and how my life was no life at all but was steeped in death – and then He offered to save me from it. He was gentle, kind, and patient, but firm. Whereat one time I hated authority, I despised anyone telling me what to do, now I craved it. I want life the way He offers it, the way He lives it. That change wasn’t me. He did it all.
He helped me see what was wrong and still is. He helped me get clean from it and still is. But it wasn’t just that He gave me people to help me – which He did – He worked a miracle inside me. It like He took out my old heart and replaced it with a new one. I’m not the same person I was. He didn’t just change a couple things – He changed all of me. My priorities are different, my outlook is different, my interests are different, the way I see the world, and people, and politics, and work, and life, and death, and eternity are all very, very different than before. And that’s because of Him. It’s because, in His mercy, He changed me.
And so, here’s the secret. Every day, I go to Him. When I wake up, I talk to Him and He talks to me through His word and in my spirit – in my heart. As I go through my day, no matter what’s happening, I know He’s with me. I’m never alone. When I need wisdom, I ask and he gives it to me. When I sin and mess up – which is a lot – He always, always forgives me and then tells me what I need to do to fix it. When I’m frustrated and angry, or tempted, or afraid, I talk to Him, I read His Word, and He always, always, shows up. I can’t explain it. All I can say is that Jesus is real and alive, and I know Him personally – but more important… He knows me. That’s what’s different about me.”
That’s the heart and message I want to start this series out with. Yes, we may get into some more academic, systematic theology, jargony bits, because explaining the truth accurately is important – but I want it to always be at the front of our minds that John’s Gospel, and by extension this church, the ministries we have here, my ministry, and everything we do is motivated by the knowledge that true life, the meaning of life, abundant life, is only found by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as He is found in the Bible.
My encouragement to you is to read and study and pray along with me so that we can grow together in faith, hope, and love for Jesus, His Gospel, His people, and His Word.
Turn with me to Luke 24:50-53 and then we’ll be headed into Acts 1. Luke and Acts are actually two parts of the same work, both written in about 60-70AD by Luke, a gentile, Christian doctor who travelled with the Apostle Paul and was commissioned by someone named Theophilus to write a history of the life of Jesus and the beginnings of the Christian church.
So, let’s take a look at how Luke ends his first book. The events of Passion Week occur in chapters 22 and 23, the resurrection and Jesus’ appearing to His followers and disciples are covered in chapter 24 – and then at the very end of chapter 24, in verse 50, Luke closes off with a little summary of the Ascension, which he will describe in greater detail in Acts. It says,
“And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.”
If you recall last week’s message, you’ll remember that on the night of His betrayal, while He was still in the Upper Room after the Lord’s Supper, and then even more as they walked to the Garden of Gethsemane where He would be arrested, He was teaching them and preparing them for this moment. He told them of His imminent death, resurrection, and then ascension. He told them that even though He would die, and they would be in great sorrow, He would rise again – but even then He couldn’t stay long, but would ascend to the right hand of the Father to prepare a place for them (John 14:3). But even then they wouldn’t be alone because He would send the Helper, the Holy Spirit who would continue His work – and do even more through them than Jesus could ever have done Himself.
That’s what we’re talking about today.
Turn over to Acts 1 and let’s read there. Acts 1:1–11:
“In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’
So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’ And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’ Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away.”
Now skip down Acts 2:1,
“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
So, the timeline kind of works like this. Jesus was crucified the Passover and the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost. Pentecost literally means “the fiftieth day” and was on the 50th day of the Passover. So Jesus dies on the Passover, rose again 3 days later, and our passage in Acts here says that Jesus appeared to his disciples over a period of 40 days. So, if you math that out, Jesus ascended on the 43rd day of the Passover, meaning that the disciples waited seven days in Jerusalem between Jesus ascension and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, bringing about the next phase in God’s plan, the birth of the Holy Spirit empowered Christian Church.
Once the Holy Spirit comes we see a remarkable change in the followers of Jesus. Remember last week I told you how scared they were, locked away in a room, afraid to get the same treatment as Jesus? Not after Pentecost! Once the Holy Spirit comes we see a very different group of people.
Suddenly they can speak languages they could never speak before – not through education or study, but because the Holy Spirit just made it happen. Then, as a result of the sound of mighty wind and fire, and the commotion of the voices, a group of people starts to build outside. Let’s read that together in Acts 2:5–18:
“Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.’ And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others mocking said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.’”
Peter, the one who, over and over denied Jesus, who locked himself in a room afraid to be hurt because of what Jesus had stirred up, who had been rebuked by Jesus, along with the other disciples for his lack of belief, and had been given the great commission to “go into all the world and proclaim the gospel” (Mark 16:14-15), had sat in that room for a whole week after Jesus ascended. But once the Holy Spirit came, what do we see?
We see Peter stand up before crowds of people, Jews, Gentiles, Pharisees, Sanhedrin, everybody, and boldly proclaim the risen Lord Jesus. This uneducated fisherman stands before thousands of people gives a powerful sermon, full of prophecies and scriptures, speaking with conviction, accusation, authority, bravery, and humility.
Look how he ends his sermon in verse 36,
“Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
These are not the words of a coward. This doesn’t even sound like the same man from a few weeks before, does it?
That’s the power of the Holy Spirit in someone’s life and was exactly what Jesus had promised. Jesus said that after He ascended, the Helper, the Holy Spirit would do something new. No longer would God be with them, as in, alongside them, but after Pentecost, God would come and live inside of them. (John 14:15-16) And from the inside, with promptings and empowerment, they would learn things and be capable of things that they would never have been able to otherwise. The Holy Spirit would help them in their walk with God by being like a Geiger counter for lies, always pointing them to the truth if they would listen. He would teach them more than Jesus had ever been able to, and take away the blinders so their hearts and minds could finally understand what He had been saying. He would help them love the unlovable, forgive the unforgivable, reconcile the irreconcilable, empower and guide them for the mission He was sending them on, and allow them – even when things were at their most dark and most difficult – to experience joy, peace, and patience that surpasses their understanding.
That’s what we see here in Peter on the day of Pentecost.
But keep reading. Look at verse 37.
“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’”
There’s another fulfillment of one of Jesus’ promises about the Holy Spirit. Remember what Jesus said in John 16:7-8,
“Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment…”
Here’s the fulfilment of that promise. Some of these people standing before Peter were ones that had been chanting “Crucify Him” at Jesus’ trial. Peter tells the whole crowd that it was because of their sin, their hard hearts, and their rebellion that they crucified their Lord Jesus Christ. That was only a month ago! How does a group of thousands go from “We hate Jesus so much that we want to mock Him while He is beaten, scourged, humiliated, paraded down the street bleeding in a crown of thorns, and then nailed to a cross” to being “cut to the heart” and asking the followers of Jesus what they need to do to be forgiven?
There is only one explanation. A movement of God, the promise that Jesus made that the Holy Spirit would convict people of their sin, cause them to feel guilt and shame, and change them into people who want to repent and be forgiven. No one changes that much or that quickly unless the Holy Spirit does it for them.
Maybe some of you know a story like this. Maybe this is your story. Someone in absolute rebellion, hates God, hates Jesus, hates religion – and then boom! they turn their life over to Jesus. A rebellious child or selfish friend that suddenly, and for no reason, comes to their senses and wants to make things right. A drunk or addict who didn’t just get off of their substance, but has fallen down before God in repentance and is now a new man or new woman, a new creation and you would have never guessed what their old life looked like. A prideful, arrogant, jerk turned into a humble servant. A person full of anxiety and fear, out risking it all in Jesus name. Someone crippled by grief and depression changed forever into someone with a thankful heart who encourages others. That doesn’t just happen. They didn’t just read a good book and get some counselling. That’s a miracle. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. That’s why we depend on Him. That’s why we pray.
The Holy Spirit for Everyone
But now, look at verses 38-39, what Peter tells the crowd they must do in response to the conviction of the Holy Spirit,
“And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.’”
I want you to notice three things here. First, I want you to notice that we don’t save ourselves, but it is the Lord our God who calls us to salvation. That way we can’t take any of the credit for it. He gets all the glory. Second, I want you to notice that the gift of the Holy Spirit isn’t just for the apostles or those people a long time ago, but for all believers, everywhere, for all time.
But third, I want you to notice the responses that God requires of those who feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit. The response of a person who wants to be saved is to “repent and be baptized”. To repent simply means to “turn around”, change your direction, change your behaviour, change your mind. Admit you’re going the wrong way and turn around. This is the first step of being saved. Admitting that you’re wrong and God is right. Admitting that you are a sinner who loves your sin and who needs Jesus to save them from that curse. There are many who will feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit, but not many who actually repent. You must admit yourself to have broken God’s law, broken your conscience, be in need of forgiveness, and then ask God for that forgiveness – or you will not be forgiven. Even if you get baptized and go to church your whole life, telling people you are a Christian – if you do not admit you are a sinner, repent of your sin, and ask forgiveness, you are not saved, you are still going to hell, and you do not have the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Baptism doesn’t make you a Christian, nor does baptism make you cleansed from sin. Baptism is the outward sign of what has happened inside you. It is the first, symbolic act of obedience for a believer in Jesus. In baptism, you are saying that you have been cleansed by Jesus on the inside, the way that taking a bath cleans you on the outside. In baptism you are saying as you sink into the water, that you are dying to yourself, you are no longer your own, but now belong to Jesus, that your sinful self has died, has been pinned to the cross and buried in the tomb with Jesus – and then, as you come out of the water you are rising again as a new person, justified and sanctified by Jesus, utterly changed by the Holy Spirit, a new being with a new life. In Baptism you are publically identifying yourself as a follower and ambassador of Jesus Christ. That you love Him so much that you are willing to obey Him no matter what He tells you to do, and you’re not afraid to tell everyone.
So our response to the conviction of the Holy Spirit is to repent and be baptized. What does God do? He forgives us and gives the gift of the Holy Spirit. The moment we humble ourselves and ask forgiveness we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit inside us. Not upon baptism, not when a pastor or priest lays his hands on us, not once we’ve spoken in tongues or done some kind of miracle – the very moment of our conversion, the moment we admit sin and ask forgiveness, the Holy Spirit goes from “with us” to “inside us”.
And at that moment we are made new. From that moment we have all the promises that Jesus made to the disciples, all the promises of the New Testament, available to us.
Now, I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, because we’re not actually supposed to talk about the Holy Spirit until Day 20 of the Heidelberg, but I really feel like we need to cover this, because it’s critically important that we realize as individual believers and as a church that all the things we want to see happen and every good thing God will do through us as individuals or as a church, will only happen if we are dependent on and in communion with the Holy Spirit.
We have family members, husbands, wives, children and grandchildren who we desperately want to be saved. Will they be saved by our own actions or words or nagging or discipline? No. They will be saved when the Holy Spirit moves in their hearts.
We are facing stresses and problems and anxieties and frustrations that are stacking up against us so high that we not only have no idea how to deal with it all, but we feel like we are always on the edge of collapse. How will we have the wisdom, discernment, patience, and strength to get through? By reading self-help books, trying a new diet, and making a really good list? No! It will only be by the presence of the Holy Spirit empowering us beyond our human capabilities.
We want to see our church grow and impact our community and raise up leaders and missionaries and motivated disciples who will go out and change the world – but we’ve got financial issues, and leadership issues, and volunteer issues, and practical issues. How will this happen? With clever posters and websites and ministries and music and fun events? No! It will only happen if we allow the Holy Spirit to show us what to do, convict us of sin, empower us to ministry, raise up new workers for the white harvest, and then only if He goes out and does the work of convicting the world and changing people’s hearts before we ever get there.
Look back at our passage in Acts 2:42, about what the church looks like when the Holy Spirit has free reign over a group of people – before it gets corrupted by politics and sin and selfishness; before the enemy sent corrupt leaders and brought down great persecution on them, and all the rest. Look at what the church looks like moments after it was born, as they experienced the new miracle of the presence of the Holy Spirit inside of them:
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
That is my desire for me, you, your family, my family, this church, and the community around us. To love God’s word and each other. To see God’s power at work regularly. To be a united community of sacrificial love that takes care of each other, enjoys each other, worships regularly, and whose number grows because God keeps saving our family members, friends and neighbours. I’m sure that’s what you want too…
I don’t believe that’s something that only happened a long time ago. I believe that the same Spirit that inhabited them inhabits us today – but we no longer understand how to listen to Him. It’s my hope to talk about that over the next couple weeks, so we can all understand what it means to have the Holy Spirit inside us, and how to walk with Him so we can experience that kind of power and presence and hope here and in our homes.
My invitation to you is to read the Book of Acts and look at what the Holy Spirit does among God’s people, to whet your appetite and make yourself hungry, even desperate, for the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life – to begin to pray that you would know Him better, understand what it means to hear Him, feel Him, and have Him inside you.
We’re on Week 3 of our way through the Heidelberg Catechism. If you recall, the catechism is divided up into three sections: The first part speaking of the problem of sin that has separated us from God, the second how Jesus delivered us from that sin, and the third how our lives change as a result of this deliverance. In short, the three sections are Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude.
One of the main reasons we started this series is to answer some of the biggest questions that humanity has. For example, everyone, everywhere, asks the question: “Why is everything such a mess?” Every country, every city, every family, every individual looks at the world and wonders why things never ever seem to work out, why things are so hard, and why, even if things do go ok for a while, do they always end up falling apart? We look outward and wonder why the world is such a mess, but then it gets personal when we inevitably we look inward and ask: “Why am I such a mess?”
The need for an answer to these questions is actually a subtle way of playing the blame game, isn’t it? Whose fault is this mess of a world? Whose fault is all this mess inside me? And our blame list is long. For the world’s problems, from famine to war to floods, we blame politicians, greedy corporations, drug dealers, lazy people, and more. For our personal problems, we blame our environment, parents, education, genetics, and more. Sometimes we blame ourselves – for things within our control and even things outside our control. And of course, if you’re a religious person, you can always blame some version of God or the Devil.
Religion Seeks an Answer
The religions of the world, at their most fundamental, are a way to answer these big questions. I was watching a documentary clip the other day that was answering the question: “Why are there religions?” and the answer they gave was a typical trope a lot of internet videos give, saying that before we had the miracle of modern science to explain everything, people needed silly myths and made up nonsense to explain stuff and give the universe meaning – and religious people just can’t get over it. But eventually, they always say, everyone on earth will finally give up on religion finally only believe in pure science.
Now, though there is some truth to the claim that religion is all about explaining things, it’s not fully accurate. Religion is about worldview. Most religions don’t just explain where lightning comes from or why we have horses. Sure, some have elaborate stories about those things, but the main reason humans have religion isn’t to explain every little detail of the world, but to explain four really big questions: “Why is there something rather than nothing? What’s broken with the world? Can it be fixed? And where is the future headed?”
The answer to those questions is what sets Christianity apart from other religions. There are as many creation stories as there are religions, and each one has their own explanation of how the universe came into being, but it’s the next part that we’re concerned about today: “What is broken with the world?” What went wrong? And whether you’re on the side of Big Bang Evolutionists, Intelligent Design, or as one aboriginal tribe in Australia believes, that a giant rainbow snake tickled frogs until they barfed the world into being, your belief has to answer this question: What went wrong?
The Blame Game
Christians have a good answer to that question, and they come from the first three chapters of the Bible – and it’s what Day 3 of the Heidelberg Catechism is all about. Turn with me to Genesis 3.
Remember what we’ve covered already. Question 1 spoke of how our greatest hope and comfort in life is found in a relationship with Jesus Christ. Question 2 asked the question, “What do you need to know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?”. The answer was threefold: We need to know how great our sins and misery is, how we’re delivered from that misery, and how to be thankful for that deliverance. Guilt, Grace, Gratitude.
Last week we looked at the next, logical question, question 3, that basically says: “Ok, if I need to know my sins, then how do I find those out?” The answer was, essentially, “Read the Bible. The LAW of God in the Old Testament, the Words of Jesus in the New will tell you about how deep and your sin problem is.”
Which leads naturally to our questions today; question 6 which says,
“Did God, then, create man so wicked and perverse?”
In other words, “Ok, so after reading the Bible, I admit that sin is a huge problem for me and the world… so who’s fault is that? God’s?” As I said, immediately when we are faced with the question “What went wrong?” or “Why are things such a mess?” we play the blame game, right?
I encourage you to read the whole of the first three chapters of Genesis later because we’re going to jump around a bit, but for now, look at Genesis 3:6-13. Eve has just been tempted by the devil and decides eating the forbidden fruit is a good idea. It says,
“So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.”
So, Adam and Eve sin and immediately realize that something is wrong. We usually think that having “open eyes” is a good thing, but not here. They suddenly experience something they’ve never felt before – guilt and shame – and they do what anyone does when they feel guilt and shame, they try to cover themselves. We talked about guilt last week. Read verse 8:
“And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.”
Adam and Eve’s relationship with God was like that of children and their Father. For their whole lives, the voice of their Father brought joy to them and they would come running towards it – but now they ran from it. When Eve was talking with Satan you can see that she has a good and proper fear of God. Look at verse 3, Eve says, “…God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” That’s what’s called a healthy fear of God, a healthy fear of the Father. God set boundaries and said that if they went past them, they’d be trouble. Even at the very youngest of ages, this is something that children experience with their parents. “I’d better not do this wrong thing or I’ll get in trouble with mom and dad.” It’s a healthy fear. It’s a way that parents keep their children safe even when they’re not around.
But now that Adam and Eve have sinned, their healthy fear of God turns into an unhealthy dread of God. They start doing things they’d never considered. They do what little kids do when they know they’ve done something wrong. Have you ever known a little kid who tried to hide something they did wrong? They write on the table so they cover it with a placemat? They break something and then shove the pieces in the toy box. This is what Adam and Eve were doing. They covered themselves in an attempt to cover up the problem. Then, what do kids do? They go hide under their bed or in their closet. A teenager with a bad grade or who did something stupid will wander around town, stay at a friend’s, refuse to come home because they know when they get home, they’re going to have to face their parents. This is what Adam and Eve do. Their guilt doesn’t drive them to their Father, but away from Him.
Look at verse 9-10. Adam and Eve are hiding from God in the bushes and it says,
“But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ And he said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.’ He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’”
God, the righteous Judge of the universe, holds a mini-trial. He could have condemned them outright because He knew what happened, but He gives them the chance to defend themselves, to repent, to ask forgiveness. But what do they do instead?
Look at verse 12:
“The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.’ Then the LORD God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate.’”
Adam blames Eve and then blames God for making her in the first place. The woman blames Satan, maybe even implying that was God’s fault too? Everyone is blaming everyone, including God.
Blaming God for our sins and problems is literally the oldest argument there is. That’s why the first question of the catechism that comes after showing us our sin is, “Did God, then, create man so wicked and perverse?” The Bible reader feels guilty and immediately wants to blame shift. So, is sin God’s fault?
The answer comes:
“No, on the contrary, God created man good and in his image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness, so that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love him, and live with him in eternal blessedness to praise and glorify him.”
This is a common argument: “If God is all-powerful and all-knowing then everything is His fault, right? If God knows everything in advance, then He knew that Adam and Eve wouldn’t obey, so it’s His fault for creating them right? If He knew that Adam and Eve would eat of the tree, then it’s his fault for putting it there, right? If God wouldn’t have left them alone, then they wouldn’t have eaten it, so it’s His fault, right?”
The answer is “No, sin is not God’s fault.” But why? The first answer here gives the first reason why: Because God created us perfectly.
In Genesis 1:26 it says that God made us in His image, after His likeness. What does that mean? It means we were created immortal, intelligent, spiritual, good, and pure. One thing that makes us different from God is that we were also created with is the capacity to develop as beings. God is perfect and therefore needs no development, but humanity, though created very good, also has the ability and capacity for self-development. God doesn’t learn, but we do. God doesn’t have new experiences, but we do. God doesn’t do experiments to discover new things, but we do. God made us good, but also able to develop as beings. Why? So we could glorify God, honour Him, enjoy His creation, and learn to love Him more and more. It was a gift.
Then, Where Did Sin Come From?
So if God created us perfectly, in a perfect environment, how did sin come about? That’s question 7:
“From where, then, did man’s depraved nature come?”
The answer to which is:
“From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise, for there our nature became so corrupt that we are all conceived and born in sin.”
Why is everything around the world and inside us a mess? What went wrong? Sin went wrong. So where did sin come from? It came from Adam and Eve.
Our corrupt nature doesn’t come from God; it comes as a consequence of Adam’s decision to go against God’s will. God created people to be good, to live in a state of innocence, and to be capable of development. We were given the gift of choice. Animals don’t have that gift. They have a set of programs. Some of these programs are very complex, and we can use them to our advantage – like working with their natural inclinations and using reward or punishment to train them to do a task – but they are not capable of moral decision making. They don’t choose between right and wrong. We can name them and call them babies and personalize them and anthropomorphize all we want, but animals are incapable of moral choice. Only humans can do that.
Why? Because without choice there is no love. We couldn’t actually love God if there wasn’t another choice. God created us to be with Him as His children, to honour, glorify, enjoy and love Him – but if there was no other choice, then that love would be meaningless.
Here’s an example I’ve used before. What is your favourite flavour of ice cream? Mine is Rocky Road. If I go to Baskin Robins I always go through the same thing. I walk up and down the aisle, look at every flavour, try one or two, hem and haw over them, and then choose Rocky Road. Why? I really like Rocky Road. It’s my favourite.
Imagine though, that there was some sort of global ice-cream crisis and the next time you walked into Baskin Robins and looked at their cooler all it had was 31 buckets of Rocky Road. You go to Dairy Queen and they only have Rocky Road. You go to the grocery store and it’s just an aisle of Rocky Road. For years and years, the ice-cream crisis looms over humanity. The only ice cream anyone knows or remembers is Rocky Road. Eventually, people forget that there was such a thing as vanilla or strawberry or butterscotch ice cream. It’s only Rocky Road for all time. Now, when you walk up to someone and ask, “What is your favourite flavour of ice-cream?” What’s the answer? “Rocky Road.” But, is it there favourite? Doesn’t matter, right? They could be deathly allergic to chocolate and almonds and they’d still have to say their favourite flavour is Rocky Road. Why? Because there’s no other choice.
That’s why there was a forbidden fruit tree in the Garden of Eden. Because without choice, there is no love. God didn’t want robots programmed to love him. He wanted beings capable of choosing to love Him. It’s one of His greatest gifts to us.
But there’s something else about love. It isn’t real until it’s tested. It’s easy to say I will love my wife and will be committed to her forever if we crash and are stranded alone on a deserted island. It’s easy to say I’ll do my job when the boss is looking over my shoulder. Consider how you drive when there’s a police officer next to you. If you’re like me, you instinctively tap the breaks, you’re suddenly incredibly aware of your speed, mirrors, position in your lane, signalling, and everything else, right? Why? Because someone’s watching.
When does the test come? When other options become present. When no one is watching. My love for my wife and commitment to her alone has more meaning when I’m given the option and temptation of looking at or being with other women. My commitment to my work has more meaning when I’m getting it done when no one is watching me. My ability to drive safely and legally matters most when I’m alone at night and no one is watching.
And so, in the same way, God gave Adam and Eve the opportunity to show that their love for Him was real. He didn’t look over their shoulder every second, but instead, chose to let them be alone for a while. Why? Because love isn’t real until it’s tested.
Sure, God arranged the test, but it’s not that God set them up to fail. God set them up to succeed. He gave them a sinless nature, a perfect environment, told them exactly what to do and what not to do, gave them each other as accountability, and limited the bad choices to only one.
God didn’t leave them alone in a dangerous, confusing situation, rife with temptation, and then laugh as they failed. No, He put them in a perfect situation, surrounded by perfection, and then allowed Satan to present a single choice to them. Why? Because love requires choice and isn’t real until it’s tested. Man had to declare himself, through an act of free will, either for God or for evil. And the only way to do that is to face temptation. Temptation itself is not sin.
But look what happened in Genesis 3:1-4,
“The serpent… said to the woman, ‘Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?’ And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’”
In that temptation Adam and Eve were essentially asked by God, “Do you love me? Do you trust me? Do you believe my way is best? Will you let me be your Father God?”
Adam and Eve’s answer was the same one we’ve been making ever since then, “No God, we don’t love you, we love ourselves. We don’t trust you, we trust ourselves. We don’t want you to be our Father anymore because we think we can do a better job.”
This decision brought consequences with it. They were warned. Eve even said so, “God said that if we eat it we’ll die.” And the moment they took that fruit, God, as a righteous judge gave them the consequences He promised them. Spiritual and physical death came into the world. Now they were separated from God because He cannot walk with sinful things. Now, since they rejected God as their King and Father, their allegiance had changed and they came under the authority and slavery of sin and the devil. From that moment death became part of humanities DNA and would be passed on to all of their children. Romans 5:12 says it this way, “…sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…”
Another consequence was that man and woman, who were working together to God’s dominion around the world, would now seek to dominate one another. Creation was affected too and would now work against them. Now their God-given capacity for creativity and free will would now be clouded by sin and they would create evil things. Now, their moral compass would be broken, always pointing toward sin. Even our bodies would work against us.
And the final consequence was that where once we had eternal happiness in paradise and the presence of God, we would now face eternal suffering and death in hell, away from God.
This is where question 8 comes in:
“But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil?”
Is it really all that bad? Aren’t people basically good, but just need a little push in the right direction? I don’t feel like a bad person. I feel like a good person that bad things happen to sometimes. I don’t feel totally corrupt; I just make bad choices sometimes. Am I really corrupt?
The Catechism says,
“Yes, unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.”
Remember Romans 3:9-11 from last week? “…both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.’”
We deny this, but in truth, we are like a sick person who refuses to believe their sick. Think of sin like pneumonia. Have you ever had pneumonia? It’s when your lungs become infected and you can’t breathe properly. Everything becomes harder to do. Some people have pneumonia and don’t even realize it. It’s not until other things start to go wrong that they go to the doctor. Their heart is pumping too hard, their organs are shutting down, their brain is starving – and until they get tested, they didn’t even know they had pneumonia.
This is why the Bible often portrays sin as a kind of force. The Bible calls it a burden that makes life hard to maneuver (Isa 1:4), a stain that we can’t get out (Isa 1:18), a slave-owner to whom we owe a debt we can’t repay and makes us to do things (Matt 10:21-35; Heb 2:15), a lion that crouches at our door or prowls around us (Gen 4:7; 1 Pet 5:8), or an incurable disease making us stumble, weak, and contagious. Sin is portrayed this way because it’s so powerful, so much a part of us. But it’s not really a separate force outside us; sin is part of us, something deep inside us.
It’s so much part of us that we don’t even really realize it. Trying to figure out our own sinful motives is like asking a fish to describe what it’s like to be wet. It’s all we know and discerning the boundaries is almost impossible. Sin is like thirst, and that constant thirst makes it so that we can’t tell if our motives are pure or not. The engine that drives our decision making is corrupt and we never really fully know why we do what we do.
Sin is powerful, but it’s not God’s fault – it’s our fault – and it is why we and our world are in such misery. James 1:13–15 says,
“Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
If we didn’t desire sin, it would have no power over us. But we do.
Today’s big lesson is that God doesn’t make you sin. God offers the way out of sin. You make you sin. Satan doesn’t make you sin. Satan offers the temptation. You make you sin.
The reason the world is a mess, the reason you are a mess is because of sin. Your misery comes either from sins that you have committed, sins that others have committed against you, or the effects of sin that have corrupted the world around you – but they are not God’s fault. Any good you have done or experienced is a result of His common grace, His willingness to hold back the full effects of sin in this world and in your life. But a time is coming when that God’s patience, that common grace, His hand that holds back Hell, will be done and you will feel the full effects of your sin.
But God offers a way out. He offers regeneration, what Jesus calls being “born again”. He offers you a new heart to replace your old one, unstained clothes to replace your stained ones. He offers to buy you from your slave owner and cure you of the disease of sin. This isn’t something you can do on your own by sheer act of will. You can’t simply decide not to be a leper, not to be a slave, not to be a sinner. You need Jesus. But the first thing you must do, before you can be saved, before you can ask forgiveness, before you can be reborn, before you do anything else that can be considered good, is to admit you are a miserable sinner who loves their sin and needs a miracle. It is only then that you are ready to ask forgiveness and receive it.
1 John 1:8-9 give us this promise:
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
If you are not a Christian, will you confess your sins now, admit yourself in need, and ask for forgiveness in the name of Jesus? He promises to forgive you and cleanse you and help you.
If you are a Christian but are harbouring a sin that you love, will you confess it now, admit yourself to be weak and in need of help, and commit to removing it from your life? He promises to forgive you, and cleanse you, and help you.
(Let me give you some TIME TO PRAY)
If you did pray a prayer to God this morning, asking for forgiveness, let me encourage you to tell someone – tell me, one of the elders or deacons, or a friend you know is a Christian. Make it real to yourself by speaking it aloud.
 “Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism”, Otto Thelemann, Pg 131
*This was an outdoor service so the audio is a little off.
Leaving it to the Professionals
You probably know the name Billy Graham, right? His evangelistic crusades are known around the world. He has preached to millions of people in more than 185 countries, started a radio program, magazine, and multiple mission organizations was a spiritual adviser to three presidents and worked with Martin Luther King Jr. to help with racial integration in the US church. Even though he retired in 2005 he’s still renown as being the most famous evangelist of the past century – and perhaps in history.
Now, a name you may not know as well as Leighton Ford, though in some circles he’s almost as famous. Leighton is a Canadian man who married Billy Graham’s sister and worked closely with him for many years before founding his own ministry in 1986. He’s been a leader of multiple global missions organizations, has authored many books, and has won many awards for his Christian leadership and influence around the world.
In one of his books, he tells a funny story about what happened when Leighton wasn’t so famous. The story goes that both he and Billy Graham were invited to speak in an open air crusade in Halifax. Leighton Ford was to speak the first night and Billy Graham the next. Billy had come a day early and decided to come incognito and listen to Leighton speak. So he donned a hat and some dark glasses and sat on the grass at the back of the crowd so no one would recognize him.
Directly in front of Billy sat an elderly man who seemed to be listening pretty intently to Leighton’s sharing of the gospel. When he invited people to come forward as an open sign of their commitment to accept Jesus as their Saviour, Billy decided to do a little evangelism too. He tapped the man on the shoulder and asked, “Would you like to accept Christ? I’ll be glad to walk down with you if you want to.” The old man looked him up and down, thought it over for a moment, and then said, “Nah, I think I’ll just wait until the big gun comes tomorrow night!” (Good News is for Sharing, Leighton Ford, 1977, David C. Cook Publishing Co., p. 67)
I like that story because it makes an important point, in that, in the minds of a lot of people, talking about Jesus, sharing the gospel, or evangelism, is the job of the “big guns”, not just anyone. Some think that it’s all well and good to live as a Christian, but when it comes to actually explaining their faith, explaining the story of Jesus from a biblical perspective, they’d better leave that to the “professionals”. They feel they might get it wrong or panic or not tell the whole story or something, so when the moment comes they say something like, “Well, come to church with me and listen to a sermon.” Or “Why don’t I get you in touch with my pastor and he’ll explain it to you.” Or they’ll apologetically give them a book or a pamphlet in the hopes that it will explain everything. Have you ever had that experience?
When the Moment Comes
We’ve spent the past month or so talking about some of the most important things to remember when we share our faith with others in the hopes of alleviating some of that fear.
If you recall, the first thing we talked about was that for the most part evangelism isn’t meant to be done on street corners or in large events by the “big guns”, but meant to be done as a natural part of an already existing relationship. Step one was to show the person you want to share the gospel with love and care. Meet with them, serve them, talk to them, eat with them, be their friend, before you get to the sharing part.
The second was that we need to pray before we share, not only to invite God to take over the situation but so that our hearts are in the right place. The third was to make sure that we are telling our story, right? Not something you memorized from a pamphlet, but sharing what God has done for you and is doing in your life today. And the fourth thing was to remember to be patient and keep praying and loving them as God works in their hearts.
We’ve talked about a lot of ways to make sure we get our hearts in the right spot before we ever share with them.
But what happens when the moment comes that we do need to explain what Christianity is all about? So, picture this scenario: You’ve befriended someone – or they are your child or spouse or parent or coworker or whatever – and you’ve done all the other things we’ve talked about. You’ve got your heart in the right place. You’ve shown them love, had them over to your house, and they know you care for them. You’ve prayed for them. You’ve told them your story and have been open about your Christian faith. And you’ve been patient – and now they’ve said, “Ok, so I get that you take this stuff seriously and I’ve seen some things in your life that look pretty interesting. But what do you believe anyway? What do Christians believe that is so different from anyone else? Tell me what you believe.”
This is a big moment, right? So what are you going to say? It’s too vague to simply say, “I believe the Bible.”. And saying, “Well, I believe in Jesus” doesn’t really help either. You don’t want to shut down the conversation and grab a bible and make them start reading from Romans 1. And you’re not likely to pop on RightNow media or a YouTube clip to have some “big gun” professional do it for you.
So this is where a simple tool comes in handy. You’ve already told your story and how God affects your daily life, but now they want something more universal, more theological, more explanatory of what your group, your tribe, your faith, your religion, your church, believes.
And so today what I want to share with you is a simple method that only takes a few minutes to draw, and can be discussed for 5 minutes or hours if you like. It’s something you can sketch out on a napkin off the top of your head and only requires one verse to memorize. And once you’ve got that verse memorized you’ll have enough tools to explain the basics of the Christian faith. And this works for people of all ages and backgrounds because it’s pretty universal language.
This isn’t a presentation that you have to get right either or do in a certain order. It’s simply something you can put in front of you as a discussion point so you can explain the basics – and it’s something they can take with them.
And since you won’t get notes for this moment, I won’t use my notes either…. But please follow along and draw with me.
(Sorry, Readers, you’ll have to listen to it on the podcast!)
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.”
Last week I presented a problem: What do we do with hypocritical people who call themselves Christians, but continue to love their sin? This week I want to look at a biblical solution.
This is all part of a series on Psalm 15 which talks about what it looks like to be a person of Christian Integrity. We can probably all easily agree that a person of integrity has the core traits that Psalm 15 describes. They are Truthful, Loving, Honouring, Trustworthy and Generous. But in verse 4, right before it talks about honouring “those who fear the Lord”, it says that a person of Christian integrity is someone “… in whose eyes a vile person is despised.”
That’s what we talked about last week. How do we understand what “a vile person” is? And we came up with a simple definition that said a vile person is someone who “claims to be a believer, but has clearly rejected God’s word.” That’s the biblical understanding of “a vile person.”
This week we are going to look at what we are supposed to do with a person who does that. How do we as a church respond, and how do we as individual believers respond.
We are looking at this through the lens of 1 Corinthians 5. We already went through verses 1-6 last week, and we are picking it up in verse 7 this week.
Cut Out Infectious Sin
So what are we supposed to do with an unrepentant person, who says they are a Christian, but who won’t let go of their sin? If a church is working properly, and helping one another to honour God, grow in faith, love Jesus, serve people… and avoid sin, then what are they supposed to do with a believer who won’t stop sinning? What do we do with the person who claims to be a Christian, but clearly lacks integrity?
Paul says that the church must protect its integrity and the people of the church by removing the bad influence – what he calls “yeast”. We are to cut out the infectious sin. Read from verse 7.
“Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.”
Notice again that we are not talking about non-Christians, or believers who have stumbled and sinned one or two times. We are not talking about conducting witch-hunts and tribunals where we go door to door nit-picking everything that we don’t like and judging people who aren’t like us. And we are certainly not talking about only allowing perfect people who never sin into the church. What we are talking about dealing with are Christians who have a rebellious and unrepentant heart – one who has heard the words of God and has rejected them.
Paul tells us to separate the bad apple from the bunch. Reject them. Remove them. Don’t let it take any more effect. Remove their voice from the group and don’t listen to them. Remove them from fellowship and don’t have close associations with them as you would a believer. Cut the yeast out of the church before it infects the whole loaf. And it will. If you let a person who is committed to sin free to roam the church, they will infect others.
Let’s use gossip as an example. If not confronted and dealt with through Church Discipline, gossip will affect the whole church and damage a lot of people. We all know the damage gossip can cause.
Laziness, or busyness for that matter, are also sinister and damaging if left unchallenged. If lazy people are allowed to be lazy, and too busy people are allowed to be too busy, then people within the group will use them as an excuse for them to live the same way.
Unforgiveness can spread as well. If we do not practice forgiveness with each other, unforgivness will become the norm. Avoiding the hard work of reconciliation will become standard procedure. Then the bitter root will grow in our midst and we will have a bitter church.
The same with cheapskates. If we admire and allow people to be sinfully frugal misers and skinflints who pride themselves for being a scrooge, then will help others become to become scrooges too. We need to confront them and tell them they are sinning.
- “I don’t have to deal with that… just look at so-and-so… they’re getting away with it.”
- “It’s ok for me to do it, so-and-so does it all the time.”
- “I don’t have to do that because so-and-so doesn’t have to.”
Keeping Our Integrity
Keep reading in verse 9, but let me note that sometimes people sometimes take this scripture to mean that they have to avoid everyone outside the church too. The thinking goes like this: “If we are supposed to avoid sinners inside the walls, then how much more should we avoid everyone outside!” It’s important to know that’s not what he’s saying. This is specifically talking about judging and dealing with people within the church. Listen here:
“I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked man from among you.’”
Do you see that this is not about avoiding the world? Just as I said before, Christianity is not a cult that tells you to leave the world and only hang around like-minded believers. No, this is about dealing with problems among believers.
And his solution requires three things. Rejecting, Protecting and Restoring.
Rejecting, Protecting, Restoring
The first response that a church makes to an unrepentant Christian who is in sin is to reject them. The believers within the church keep their integrity intact by doing what Psalm 15 says – “despising the vile person”. In other words, reject the one who has rejected God. When someone calls themselves a believer and is in flagrant, unrepentant sin – we don’t associate with them. We make the believer feel badly about themselves and their sin, by giving them a taste of life as an unrepentant sinner again. When we hang around with them and pretend nothing is wrong, ignore their sin, we are in some ways saying that we agree with their sin. We become complicit with their sin. And we are also in danger of being tempted to sin with them!
Now, we don’t arrive there all at once, and it’s not the first response, so we’re going to talk more about how we get to that point in a minute.
The second response is to protect the integrity of the church and the person who is in sin. We protect our church’s integrity by showing the world that this person doesn’t represent us, and by removing the object of temptation from within our midst. And we protect the person by isolating them from feeling like their sin is ok. As we talked about last week. Removing them from the church is a way to stop enabling and avoiding the sin. It’s harsh, but it’s a measure of protection.
What they need to see is that their behaviour is not acceptable to anyone who calls themselves a Christian, and they are not allowed to be a part of the church – but are now part of the world – it should cause them to grieve. It gives them a chance to look at their life, to realize that if they are going to claim that Jesus is the Lord of their life, but not act like it, then they are a hypocrite. You could also say that this is a way to protect them from self-delusion.
This also protects us, the church, and even that person – to some extent. When we step away, we cannot enable them to sin. Think of it this way: If a fellow believer is going out of town so they can sin, and you say that you are happy to pick them up, babysit, watch their house, or whatever – you are enabling their sin.
If they give you something to hang on to for a while, so they don’t get in trouble, you’re helping them sin. If they want to borrow some money because they have spent all of theirs on sin – no, they can’t have any, even if that means they can’t pay their rent or their bills, because you will not enable them to sin. We protect our integrity, our church’s integrity, and even show love to the sinner by refusing to be part of their sin.
The third response is to setting up the conditions by which we will be able to restore this person who is caught in sin back to the fellowship. By God’s grace, when they get a taste of life outside the will of God, outside the people of God, and live for a while in the arms of Satan, they will see their sin and want to be restored.
We’ll talk about that in a moment too.
Other Scriptures About Despising the Vile
Now, in case you think I’m prooftexting here, I want you to know that despising and rejecting the person who has rejected God is all over the scriptures.
- “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us.” (Thessalonians 3:6)
- “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.” (2 Thessalonians 3:14)
- “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.” (Romans 16:17)
- “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)
I realize that this is hard! Even the practical working out of this teaching is hard. Are we allowed to pick up the phone if they call? What if we see them in the grocery store? How long do we do this for? If this is all about lovingly restoring them to the fellowship, and to the faith, then how do we do it?
Unfortunately, there are no way to answer every question. Some people will lean towards “we have to keep showing them love” and talk to them in a friendly way – and still remain firm on their need for repentance. Other people will lean towards, “I need to avoid this person because they will suck me into their sin” – and will avoid them altogether. Still other people will be more confrontational and only talk to the person when they are willing to talk about repentance, reconciliation and fixing their issue. I don’t think any one of those is wrong, and each can be supported biblically. What is needed is a spiritual sensitivity and an abiding desire to do the will of God. If we are listening to the Holy Spirit, reading His word, and seeking His glory, then I believe God can use us to help.
This is something that very few churches do well, and it’s one reason why there are so many problems among groups of believers. They refuse to practice church discipline, they allow sin to fester, and they will not reject those who have rejected God. This is something we have to get right because it is commanded by God, and lets us be a healthy, Christ honouring church.
The Matthew 18 Model
So, understanding that we need God’s love, discipline and presence to get this right, let’s go to the practical model for how to do this as taught by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17. This is a scripture where Jesus teaches us how to deal with sin among His people.
This isn’t the only place where we can learn about this, but I believe it’s the clearest for most situations we will find ourselves in.
Step One: One on One (Confront & Support)
Let’s start in verse 15:
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”
When we confront sin, it is to be confronted one on one first. The only exception is when you are confronting a Pastor or Elder in the church – in that case you skip to the step two where you bring in witnesses. 1 Timothy 5:19-20 says, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.”
This isn’t about special treatment – far from it considering the major impact it would have. It is about giving some protection from capricious accusations based on how people feel about them, rather than actual sins.
But when it comes to personal confrontation, it’s always one on one first. Now, some people look for the loophole here and say, “Well, if the sin isn’t directly against me, then I don’t have to deal with it.” I’m sure you’ve thought that, right? To you I reference Galatians 6:1-2:
“Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
In other words, another Christian’s sin is your business. The big idea here is that we are members of the family and we have the right and the responsibility to pull each other away from harm, and to take care of each other. Go to the person privately, quietly, gently, lovingly, patiently, and say, “I’ve been noticing something in your life that is sin. I heard from this person that you have been struggling with this sin. I have heard that you are angry with this person, that you are harbouring unforgiveness, that you are addicted to this, that there’s something that is separating you from God. I’m here to confront you about it, but I’m also here to help.”
See, we don’t just jump strait to handing them over to Satan. This goes two ways – confrontation and support. Confront the sin gently, and then say, “How can I help you carry your burden?” Confront, then support. Supporting them could be as simple as telling them how to make it right, and then they go do it, and you make sure they went and did it. “You took that thing and shouldn’t have. Go give it back. I’ll wait here until you have given it back.”
Or, if it’s something that could take a while, like if they struggle with lust, anger, unforgiveness, addiction, foul language, it could mean meeting with them until they get right with it. Whatever it is, we are to lovingly and gently confront sin in our brothers and sisters, support them as they try to get it right, and win them back to God because we love them – and for their own sake.
Step Two: Bring Friends
What if that doesn’t work? Verse 16,
“But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’”
If that person doesn’t listen, they blow you off, they deny it, they tell you to get lost, that it’s none of your business, that they can handle it, that you can’t judge them… you don’t get to just walk away and say, “Oh well, I tried.” Instead, you get one or two other believers who love them, and want the best for them, who have witnessed and understand the problem, and ask them to get involved. This isn’t to embarrass them or bully them, but to show them how serious this is. This also shows them that their sin isn’t a secret – people know about it.
This isn’t the pastor, or the elder – these are friends. Get some Christian friends together and invite them over, or invite yourself over. This isn’t your posse, but theirs! It’s a group of people that they will listen to. And when they are together, the group will try again.
If you are asked to be part of this group, after praying about it, I recommend that you do so. If you know about this situation, the person’s struggle, and you haven’t had the courage to confront them – but someone else has, and they invite you to come and help – go and help!
Step Three: Call the Elders
Ok, what if that doesn’t work? Get the elders and the church involved. Verse 17,
“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”
Even when they’ve told you to get lost, and then told some of their friends to get lost, we still don’t let it go. We still haven’t “handed them over to Satan”. We are still working together, as a church, to combat this sin, to break the hold it has on our brother or sister, and the next step is to go to the pastor or the elders.
God takes sin very seriously, and we want to show this person just how serious. Bring yourself and the witnesses to the pastor and the elders of the church. If you come by yourself, and the pastor (or elder) doesn’t know about the problem, then chances are he’s is going to ask for some witnesses anyway! Once you are together, we can come up with a plan on how to lovingly confront this person. Sometimes that means the pastor and elders take care of it themselves, other times they need to enlist your help. Be open, be humble, and be ready to help.
Step 4: Lovingly Avoid
And then comes the last step,
“…and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
This is where you “turn them over to Satan.” In other words, if this person is still unrepentant after all of this, then they are not acting like a believer, so don’t treat them like one. In fact, if they keep claiming to be a believer, and yet stay in their sin after all of this, don’t associate with them. They need to go through the process of “Reject, Protect and Restore”. We love them by showing them how serious their sin is and that they are slipping away from a right relationship with God! “Hand them over to Satan” because that’s what team they’ve decided to play for now.
We keep praying for them – all the time. We pray that their hearts would soften and they would come back. When they are before us, just like any other person in the world that is bound to Satan, we share the gospel and try to win them to Christ. We try to convince them to listen to Jesus, give up their sin, come to Christ, ask forgiveness, get right with God… but we do not allow them to believe their sin is ok.
I know this is tough. And I know we are not good at it. We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve done it wrong, or too harshly, or have avoided it, or been too soft. But we have to try to get this right. If it’s not done well, under the power of God and the instruction of the Word, then the church will be in danger of being overcome by sin. The loaf will be ruined with the yeast of sin. This might sound harsh, and if done with pride, or arrogance, it can be very damaging. But if it is done out of love, and a desire to see the person restored to the fellowship and to the faith, then it is an act of love and worship.
One of my favourite preachers likes to say “hard words produce soft hearts, and soft words produce hard hearts.” We want soft hearts towards God, repentant hearts, and sometimes that requires hard words and strong actions. If this is a brother or sister, and we want them back at our church, back in prayer, back serving God, back in worship, back in a loving relationship with Jesus – then we always leave the door open for reconciliation, and we make sure we do it with firmness and love.
It is a good day when you give us a glimpse into ourselves
Sin is our greatest evil, but you are our greatest good
Each of us has cause to loathe ourselves,
to not seek self-honour,
because when we look at ourselves,
we realize that we are glorying in rubbish.
are worse because of our sins
– let us never have the false belief that our sins are small,
or that you are not angry with our sin.
Let us not take other good men,
families or churches as our examples,
holding them up as our idols,
and think that we are somehow good because we are like them
or better than them.
No man is as good as you want them to be.
None of us are consistent.
None follow rightly in the ways of your holiness
or feel as they should when they are afflicted.
God, help us know when something is evil
when we are tempted to think it is right and good.
Help us to know, that when something is lawful according to the government,
that it is still wrong when it comes from evil purpose –
like a desire for reputation, for wealth, for worldly things.
Guve us grace to recall our needs.
Help us to know your will in scripture.
We need wisdom to guide others,
and daily repentance
which we so often neglect.
We need to have the spirit of prayer.
Keep us from having words without love.
Give us zeal for your glory,
never seeking our own ends.
Give us joy in you
and your will,
and a deep love for others.
You have an abundant fountain of grace.
Help us to not come up short of our need and desire for it.
Help us to touch the eternal spring.
Help us draw your life giving water from above.
In Jesus Name we pray, Amen
(Inspired by “Self Knowledge” from Pg 122 of “The Valley of Vision”)
(Here’s the link to the Sermon Video)
We’ve been working long and hard to be able to get to the practical aspects of the Four Core Christian Disciplines: Prayer, Bible Study, Church Attendance and Serving Others – and we’re close, but we’re not there yet.
Don’t Be An Ephesian
I agree that we need to talk about the “how-tos”, but as I said last week God convicted me that it’s important that we not begin with the practical side but by preparing our hearts. If you remember, I likened it to the qualifying lap of a car race – the warming of the tires which makes us stick to the road and not spin off when the race starts. The last thing I want you to do is begin working through these disciplines without an understanding of why you are doing them and who they are focused on. You’ll spin out in your faith and hit a wall by doing them for yourself and miss out on why you’re really supposed to be doing them.
You could fall into the same mistake as the church of Ephesus in Revelation 2:2-4 – which is a very big deal. Jesus looks at these busy, busy believers who were doing all sorts of good things in and for their church and says,
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”
His solution was the same one I gave you before – verse 5:
“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”
Do you hear what Jesus says to busy, religious people? Repent from your sin and get right before God. Then, get back to the basics of the faith (what I call the Four Core Christian Disciplines). Get your heart right, pray though Psalm 51, mean it with your entire being, and then start doing “the works” you need to do.
Repentance → Commitment
We read Psalm 51 last week and ended in verses 11-12 which say:
“Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.”
Now look at the next word:
Do you see it there again? Repentance first, and then commit to obedience. David’s heart is broken before God and he desires to restore the relationship he once had with God. He wants to be a “man after God’s own heart” again and so spends a good deal of the psalm dealing with repentance, but doesn’t end there!
“Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you. Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are God my Savior, and [then] my tongue will sing of your righteousness. Open my lips, Lord, and [then] my mouth will declare your praise.”
David, over and over, says, “God, I’m a sinner and I need you to forgive me, restore me and fill me with Your presence – and then out of that strength I will obey you.” We talked about this last week from Ezekiel 36. Remember verse 27?
“I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” God does the work and then causes us to move forward in obedience.
Think of the words of Isaiah 64:6 which talks about a group of people (the Israelites) who were once obedient and then fell into sin and disobedience. He says:
“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.”
In Isaiah 57:12-13 the prophet says this:
“I will declare your righteousness and your deeds, but they will not profit you. When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you!”
There is no point in doing any of these good, religous things if you have not repented of your sin first.
And as if to drive that point home, David takes a moment out of the psalm to remind himself about the very heart of God when it comes to repentance. He says in verses 16-17:
“For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Notice that in verse 13 David says, “I will repent and then I will teach and share the gospel.” and in verse 14-15, “I will repent and then I will sing worship songs.” Our relationship with God is not primarily built upon our obedience to what He says – that is important, but that comes later. Our relationship with God is primarily built upon our understanding of our total depravity in sin, our desperate need for a Saviour, and our ultimate need for grace and deliverance through the blood of Jesus. It is not about our acts of worship, church attendance, how much time we spend in prayer, how many committees we are on, how many people we have shared the gospel with, how many verses we have memorized, or any other religious thing – it is about having a “broken and contrite heart” before God. But what does that mean?
Listen to the Amplified Bible’s version of verse 17:
“My sacrifice [the sacrifice acceptable] to God is a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart [broken down with sorrow for sin and humbly and thoroughly penitent], such, O God, You will not despise.”
The Good News translation says it this way:
“My sacrifice is a humble spirit, O God; you will not reject a humble and repentant heart.”
I really like the way Eugene Peterson puts verses 16-17 in the Message Bible:
“Going through the motions doesn’t please you, a flawless performance is nothing to you. I learned God-worship when my pride was shattered. Heart-shattered lives ready for love don’t for a moment escape God’s notice.”
We start at Repentance, then go to Commitment. We commit our lives to Jesus and to His Service forever. We switch allegiances from the Kingdom of Darkness (which serves self and Satan), pick up our sword, put on our armour and begin fighting for the Kingdom of God (which serves Jesus Christ our Lord).
Once we have repented, the rest of our lives will be spent drawing our strength and joy from Jesus. We give everything up to follow Him.
I said this a couple weeks ago – “If I am to love and follow Jesus, I must know Him.”
How do we get to know Him? The Four Core Christian Disciplines! These are a matter of life and death – spiritual life and spiritual death. If your heart is attuned to Christ and you are practicing these disciplines, you will grow in maturity and in love for Him and others. If you begin in repentance and then neglect these disciplines, you will grow distant in your relationship with Him and you will find your love growing cold, your spirit growing weak, your heart hardening, temptation more difficult to flee, and sin more attractive.
Two Sides of Commitment
I believe this is why scripture balances out the motives behind our commitment. Forgiveness of sin and eternity with Jesus is a wonderful incentive to repent and believe, but God gives us even more reasons why we need to practice these Four Core Christian Disciplines. They are so critically important that God gives us every reason we could possibly need for why we must practice them. In scripture we read both “Incentives” and the “Commands” for the Four Christian Disciplines. God gives us positive, feel-good reasons for doing them… and then commands us to do them even when we don’t feel like it.
I want to talk about this before we get into the practical side of things. Again, this is tied to our motives, the preparation of our heart, and the attitude from which we approach our relationship with Jesus before we ever get down on our knees, open our bibles, get in the car to go to church, or serve someone. I hope you can follow along with my logic here:
Consider Prayer. Jesus sometimes uses enticing, encouraging language to give us a desire to pray to Him – the soft-sell for why we should pray.
- “And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13)
- “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6)
- “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)
- “Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.” (Jeremiah 33:3)
- “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
It’s like for all the Core Disciplines.
There are wonderful fruits given to those who will practice Bible Study.
- “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105)
- “I have stored up your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11)
- “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” (Revelation 1:3)
- “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
There are promises for those who will be faithful in Church Attendance:
- “…where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20)
- “…confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” (James 5:16)
- “…in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:5)
- “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32)
There are promises for those who are faithful in Service:
- “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)
- “Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.” (Proverbs 11:25)
- “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” (Proverbs 19:17)
- “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 5:16)
- “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” (Luke 6:38)
These are all wonderful promises from God that when we are obedient to the Four Core Christian Disciplines that we will see amazing fruit in our lives. If we listen to our Lord Jesus Christ, and give control of our lives to the Holy Spirit, then good things will happen! We will see miracles, our needs will be met, we will have heavenly rewards, we will see forgiveness and healing, we will know the great and hidden things of God, we will live in peace and dignity. Hearing the Word will bring blessing and training in righteousness. When we are together with other believers, God promises to be here in a special way, the support we gain from others will bring us healing, we have a place to belong. Those are wonderful promises and are what some people need in order to get on board with these disciplines. They need to know it’s going to work, that He will hear, that Jesus will act, that our obedience to Him and communication with Him is the way that we are going to see His power in our lives. They need to hear that God will make changes in our world when they are obedient to Him. And that’s ok! We all need to hear the enticements, the soft-sell, and grab on to those promises.
Other times the incentives don’t seem like enough. We need to be commanded to obey. Consider these commandment verses on Prayer in contrast to the ones we read before:
- “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
- “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6)
- “…praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints…” (Ephesians 6:18)
- “And [Jesus] told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” (Luke 18:1)
Sometimes we need to hear those kinds of verses that simply tell us that we must pray, we should never stop, we are commanded to, we are implored to (Paul uses the word “urge” in 1 Timothy 2:1). Sometimes that’s the only reason that we pray – because we must. It is then that our resolve is tested, our relationship with Jesus becomes real, and our faith is strengthened.
Listen to these Commands for Bible Study:
- “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21)
- “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
- “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching.” (1 Timothy 4:16)
- “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.” (Psalm 119:15-16)
There are times the only reason we come to the bible is because of our commitment to do so, and our willingness to follow our Lord. It’s not about wanting to – it’s about obedience.
And for Church Attendance:
- “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)
There are seasons where we just don’t want to go to church, we don’t want to sing, we don’t want to hear another sermon, we don’t want to be around people. It is during these times that the commands of scripture compel us to go – for our own good.
And to Serve:
- “And whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:44-45)
- “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace…” (1 Peter 4:10)
- “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:4)
- “…Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” (Luke 6:27-31)
There are times when we absolutely need to be commanded to do these things, because otherwise we simply won’t.
Sometimes, when things are going well, we don’t feel desperation for God and we don’t feel like we need to tap into the resources Jesus has for us. We don’t need Him because we’ve got it under control! We have enough money, we have a decent marriage, we are enjoying our work, our kids are happy, we are healthy. It’s easy to get complacent in our prayer lives when things are positive and happy.
On the other hand we sometimes don’t feel like praying, reading scripture, going to church, or serving others because things are not going well. God isn’t doing the things we expect (and want) Him to do. It can be easy to give up when we don’t see results: when we are not seeing the fruit, the good things, the rewards, the healing… when we are still confused and in the dark, when we have no peace. It is then that we need to have a different reason to pray.
There are times when God will bring us through a time of refinement, a time where we are going through the fires that are meant to purify us. There are times where we go through a “dark night of the soul”, where we walk “through the valley of the shadow of death”. At those times it is very normal to think He has abandoned us and to then start turning to other sources of strength – ourselves, our words, our anger, our reputations, our money, seeking salvation from other people, distraction from substances or entertainment. It is human for us to have a crisis of faith and want to stop praying when we are hurt.
I believe that’s why God has these commands – because we need them. We want all of our obedience to bring immediate blessing. We want it to work like our jobs – we put in 40 hours, at the end of the week we get 40 hours pay. But God doesn’t work like that.
We want Him to say, “If you are obedient, then I’ll immediately bring blessing.” But at times (more often than we wish) God plays the long-game where the blessings come later… sometimes much later. During those times it’s hard to grab onto the promises because they are hard to hear. It doesn’t matter how many times you read, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (Jn 15:17) because you’ve been abiding, and asking, and it’s not being “done”… at least not done the time and way you want it. You don’t want to hear the words of Romans 8:28 any more, (“…and we know that for those who love God all things work together for good…”) because you’re just not seeing any “good”.
It is during those times when the commands of scripture are what we need to grab onto. It is during the times of peace and rest, and of darkness and doubt, that we really build endurance, obedience, and when our relationship with Jesus can really grow.
Do don’t give up. Don’t quit. Listen to the promises of God and the commands of God and participate in the Four Core Christian Disciplines deliberately and passionately. Remember to begin with repentance, get your heart right with God, and then, for whatever reason is working for you that day – whether it’s because you are leaning on the promises of God, or simply because you are commanded to – practice those disciplines and see what God will do.