“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.
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)
The very first line of “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” from CS Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” is one of my favourites. It says,
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
If you’ve read the Narnia books or watched the movies, then you’ll remember Eustace Clarence Scrubb. He begins the book as a thoroughly unlikeable character. He’s honestly worse than the White Witch. Sure, she was pure evil, but Eustice was a self-centred, know-it-all, cowardly, jerk.
If you don’t know who I’m talking about, then maybe you’ll remember the feeling you had when watching or reading about Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter. I hate that pink lady so much… but back to Eustice.
Lewis spends a good chunk of the book introducing us to this obnoxious and disagreeable person, giving him opportunity after opportunity to redeem himself or show a little bit of good, but it never happens. Then comes the scene where the ship has been hit by a huge storm, is in absolute tatters, runs aground on an island, everybody spills out haggard and exhausted. But they know that even though they are all utterly drained, they must rally for a few more hours so they can gather food and firewood to set up camp. Eustice, seeing that there will be no rest, slowly sneaks away so he can have a nap somewhere out of site.
After a short time, he comes across a dragon’s cave. He watches the dragon die and then sees its store of treasure. His rottenness really comes to the fore as he imagines all the selfish things he could do with this fortune until he falls asleep on a pile of gold. “When he awakes, Eustace is no longer a boy but a dragon, the outward manifestation of his inner greed and selfishness.” He discovers that the gold bracelet he put on his arm is now bringing great pain as it constricts his dragon leg, and when he tries to go to the others he finds himself cut off from his friends, isolated and alone. He curls up in a ball and starts to cry hot, dragon tears.
His friends never give up the search though and eventually, after much suffering and loneliness Eustice starts to regret his ways, miss his friends, and after much trial and error because he can no longer speak, manages to explain his predicament to his shipmates, even use his new form to help gather supplies.
After some time as a dragon, Aslan, the Christ character of the book arrives. He leads Eustace to a garden on top of a mountain where a well stands in the very centre. Eustace wants to enter the water so the pain in his leg could be soothed, but Aslan says he must undress first. Eustice realizes that Aslan must mean that he must shed his skin, like a snake. He sees how dirty and scaly he looks and starts to peel off that layer, “only to discover another nasty, scaly, and rough layer underneath. And then another. After three layers, he realizes it’s vain — he will never make himself clean or get rid of his pain or shed the nasty skin.”
Aslan the Lion then says Eustace, “You will have to let me undress you.” Eustace is obviously nervous about having a huge lion with great claws come and tear at his skin, but he’s so desperate for relief that he relents and lies down on the ground, flat on his back. Lewis describes what happens next from Eustace’s perspective:
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…. Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off — just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt — and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me — I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again…. After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me… in new clothes.”
This passage has come to my mind many times since I read it recently. There is some great truth in it.
Often in our lives, we desire to be cleansed, renewed, made right, fixed, changed into a new person. We look at the life we’ve led, the decisions we’ve made, the foolish nonsense we’ve gotten ourselves into, and we wish it could be different. We feel guilt, shame, anxiety, sadness, and anger and we want it to change. We are addicted and want freedom. We are afraid and want security.
And so we do what Eustace did first. We try to peel off an outer layer, something on the surface, in hopes that that’s all we need. We read a book, try a change of habit, make a new schedule, commit to exercising, make a prayer time, get a Bible-in-a-year checklist and say we’re going to read it. We tell people around us that we’re going to try to be nicer, better, cleaner, more friendly, less stressed, more committed, more determined – and that we’ll do it by changing one or two things in our life. Give something up, join a group, take a walk, clean our house, and organize our lives.
But it doesn’t work. We strip off that one layer and it’s not too long until we realize that we really haven’t changed anything. We’ve exchanged one bad habit for another, one idol for another, one way of control for another, one enemy for another, and no matter how clean our room is, how clear our schedule is, how many days in a row we read our bible, attend group, or go for a walk, nothing ultimately changes inside of us. The fear, sadness, anger, and hunger are still there.
So we do what Eustace did again. We strip off another layer. We change something else on the surface of our lives in hopes it will change us. We do something radical like die our hair, get a piercing, shave or grow our beard, get a tattoo, buy a new wardrobe, in hopes that if we look different then we will feel different. Then we look around for other things that we can change. We dump our friends and try to find new ones. We see our church and blame them for not doing enough, so we go somewhere else or stop going altogether. We see our doctor and blame them for not giving the right treatment, so we get a second opinion. We blame our medication and figure it isn’t working right, so we stop taking it or go find different ones. We blame our family and spouse, so we ignore them, commit adultery or get a divorce. We blame God so we go looking for another religion.
We hope that if we change what is happening on the outside, change enough surface things, that it will fix our deepest problems. But it doesn’t work. With every surface change, with every layer of stripped-off skin, we eventually realize we haven’t really changed. We’re still the same dragon we were when we started.
“Tim Keller once said in a sermon, ‘The way to deal with guilt is not to avoid it, but to resolve it. Eustace not only realized he couldn’t get his own skin off, but that only God can come and take your skin off, and to do this you have to let him pierce deep. You must take all the guilt on yourself and stop blame shifting and take responsibility for what you’ve done wrong. No excuses. Full in the face.’”
This is what everyone must do before they can know the freedom and healing that comes with being made new by the power of Jesus Christ. They must look their sin in the face, stop making excuses, stop blaming others, stop thinking it’s just a surface problem and say,
“The reason that nothing changes no matter what I do is because I am the problem.
The reason I feel so afraid is that I want to be in control of everything and everyone. I want to be God because I don’t trust Him.
The reason I’m so angry is that I believe that my life should be one of unbroken comfort and ease. Deep down I resent everyone who makes me feel even a little bit uncomfortable, and I hate that God allows suffering in my life, so I hurt others so I control them, punish them for taking my comfort, and feel better about myself.
The reason I’m addicted is that I chose to be. I felt lonely, afraid, sad, or bad in some way and wanted an escape. I knew what I was doing was wrong, knew it had consequences, but chose to do it anyway because I didn’t care about anyone or anything other than myself at the time. I wasn’t fooled into a trap. I jumped into it. And I keep going back into the trap because I don’t want to go through the pain of leaving it, regardless of what it’s doing to me or the people I love.”
The only way to be free of sin is to admit you are a sinner. Admit you like feeling the rush that comes when you are the centre of attention, and so you seek it out, push others down, even steal the glory from God so you can feel good about yourself – because deep down you believe you should be worshipped.
Admit that even though you pretend to be nice on the surface, that deep down you are full of hate and you allow that hate to come out in socially acceptable ways. You would never murder anyone, but you will gossip about them, slander them, mock them, make rude comments about them, and stab them in the back – not to their face but to others or anonymously online – and then when you feel guilty or get caught, you make excuses saying they deserved it. There are people you hate, would never show love or affection or friendship to, even though you don’t know them, simply because of their race, gender, or social status.
Admit that you lie and believe lies on purpose because the truth is less convenient.
Admit that you lust after men and women who you are not married to, and that you want to, that you enjoy it, and you don’t care if pornography and human trafficking and prostitution is utterly destroying people’s lives and making it so you can’t even have a conversation with a young man or young woman without objectifying them, because you like it – and you don’t care about the suffering that comes from pornography because allows you to feel pleasure.
Admit that you have used all kinds of excuses to weasel out of work you should have done because you are lazy.
Admit that you are jealous of those who have more than you, who are better looking than you, who have a better life than you, and you would gladly take all of their comforts and dump all your problems on them if you could because you care more about yourself than anyone else.
Admit that you’ve stolen many, many times. You steal from the government by falsifying your taxes, from stores by keeping change that wasn’t yours or using coupons wrongly, from media companies by stealing signal and sharing passwords, from musicians and artists by downloading their songs and books and art for free instead of paying for them, from your parents when they weren’t looking, from your neighbours, your friends, your church, even from God by not giving Him what you promised Him.
Stop making excuses for your sin, stop blaming others, stop making light of it, stop assuming it’s just a little problem, a white lie, a personality quirk, and admit that you are a sinner who has loved sinning, and will keep doing it for as long as you can, until you are caught, or it kills you. And there’s nothing you can do to stop.
Only then, only when you admit your biggest problem is you, your sin, your failure, your decisions, your debt, will you ever be willing to ask for help. Only then will you roll over, expose your belly, and, regardless of how much you fear it, allow Jesus to change you utterly.
In Alcoholics Anonymous they call this “Rock Bottom” and it refers to the very lowest level a person can hit before they are willing to look up. Some people’s rock bottom requires very little loss before they ask for help – other people need to go through a lot more suffering, but the common theme is suffering, loss, and then admission of need. As long as a person is living in denial, defending what they do, comfortable with their addiction, they will never want to change. Until an alcoholic sees that drinking is a problem, they will never stop, they will never be able to root out what is really driving them to drink. In the same way, until a sinner sees that the real problem with their life is that their sin holds them captive, they will never ask to be freed from it, and thereby never know freedom.
What Happens When You Finally Admit Your Sin
What happens when you ask to be free? What happens when you finally admit you are living under a curse, that there is nothing you can do, and that you want to be free from the living-death that your sins keep you in? What happens when you realize the consequences of your sin are yours, feel the heat of the wrath of God coming against you, and are pressed down with guilt and shame? What happens when you turn yourself belly up and allow Jesus to strip you down and then dress you in His clothes? What happens when you finally admit you are a sinner in need of a saviour?
The picture of Eustace is one of a sinner whose outsides finally caught up with his insides. He was always a dragon, now he just looked it. So what did Aslan have to do? He had to kill the dragon part of Eustace so He could become who He was intended to be on the outside and the inside.
To save us from our sins, Jesus has to kill the sinful part of us, the part that has killed our souls and damned us to eternal death in Hell. Then Jesus must resurrect us to a new, eternal life that is no longer trapped in that curse. The only way to conquer your dragon is to kill it. You can’t make friends with it and hope it will behave. You all know the experience of trying to make friends you’re your dragon-self – it never stays friendly. The only cure for sin is death.
So how does God kill the sin part of us?
He Became Sin Who Knew No Sin
2 Corinthians 5:21 gives the answer,
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
This is one of the most important verses in scripture because it helps us understand how salvation through Jesus works. How is it possible that we can be sinners to the core, rebellious lovers of iniquity, our backs turned against God and toward all manner of depravity – and then be made right with Him without being punished, without facing God’s wrath? How can we go from being dead in our sins (Eph 2:1), destined for Hell, to alive in Christ and live with Him forever? If God hates sin, and the wrath of God must be poured out against it, then how can sinners be saved? How can the curse of sin be broken?
We know it’s not by trying to change our behaviour, right? Not only is that insufficient – because our sins are so numerous and powerful – but it’s ineffective. It’s like trying to cure cancer using lotion. It’s like trying to fix a brain tumour by getting a haircut. The consequences must be terrible and the effect of the cure must be complete.
It says that “for our sake”, because of His great love for us, Jesus chose to exchange Himself for us. This is where Lewis’ illustration of Eustace falls apart a bit – but was actually written about in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”. Jesus doesn’t just tear away the dragon from us. Instead, Jesus becomes the dragon. Or rather, God treats Jesus like He is the dragon. God puts upon Jesus the full weight of His wrath against sin. Jesus, the one “who knew no sin” became sin. Jesus had the entire measure God’s wrath against sin, the full curse, placed on Himself, and then takes the punishment you deserved.
The rejection of Jesus should have been ours. The scourging should have been us.
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:4-6)
“He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross…” (1 Peter 2:24)
A surface change in our behaviour isn’t enough to deal with the problem of sin. We need to have the curse of sin broken in us. We need someone to kill that dragon. Jesus did that for you, for me, for anyone who is willing to admit their sin and their need for a Saviour. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The scripture is clear, and our conscience attests to the fact that there is nothing we can change in our behaviour to fix the problem (Rom 8:3). We couldn’t obey God, so Jesus obeyed for us. We didn’t want to die for our sin and face hell, so Jesus took our condemnation, died for us, and took the full weight of hell on Himself. We want to be made righteous and free from the curse of sin in our life, to be made clean and right with God and those around us, but we can’t do that ourselves – so Jesus lived a perfectly righteous life, and then died like a cursed sinner, so we, who deserved that death, could be made righteous.
When we put our faith in Jesus, God kills that dragon of sin inside us strips us to the core, and then resurrects us to new life. That’s why Christians are baptized. It’s an external picture of what’s happening on the inside. We admit our sins and then go under the water in death, we are buried with Christ as the water envelopes us, and then we are raised to new life as we come out of the water, cleansed and set free from the curse of sin.
This is why one of the pictures of becoming a Christian is known as being “Born Again”. Jesus said to the Pharisee Nicodemus, a man dedicated to living an upright, perfect life according to the Law of Moses, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) What did that mean? It meant that the way of the Pharisees, the way of laws and rules and surface changes will not make you fit for heaven. You must let God kill your sinful self, your sinful flesh, and let Him resurrect you as a new person, born again.
This happens only when you believe in Jesus. Every other religion, every self-help book, every other messenger will tell you to try harder, do more, pull up your socks, and give you a list of superficial things you need to change so you can become a better person. Or they’ll just teach you how to become friends with your dragon. That’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jesus doesn’t offer a surface change, a spiritual band-aid, a list of rules and steps to a better life – He offers to take your sins upon Himself, die in your place, destroy the dragon within you, kill your old self, and then resurrect you as a new person, free from your slavery to sin. All He asks is that you admit you need Him and Him alone, believe in Him and Him alone, and allow Him to invite you to enter into His death and His resurrection.
Let me close by reading Romans 6:1-14.
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”
[1, 2, 3] I got a lot of help in this section from https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/my-dragon-skin-torn-off
The more I study the Heidelberg Catechism, the more I like it. It appeals to me on so many levels – it’s beautifully written, theologically rich and complex, but is also laid out in such a logical way that it’s very readable and straightforward to follow. I wish that I had been able to go through this, or something like it, a long time ago – not as a pastor preaching a series, but as a congregant or student. Even to this day, I feel so far behind in understanding what are considered to be the basics of the Christian faith.
I admit I wasn’t the best student in the world, but I don’t really remember going through any kind of catechism as a child, teen, adult, or when I was in Bible College. Sure, we studied stories and books of the Bible but it seemed divorced, at least in my mind, from how it impacted my daily Christian walk. Even in seminary, as I was taking Hermeneutics, Systematic Theology, Baptist History and Thought, and Christian Ethics, I knew what I was learning was important, but it almost felt like I was memorizing trivia answers so that I seem like I know what I’m talking about, rather than really connecting those thoughts as an anchor to my faith.
I love learning, and I love knowledge, but for a long time that meant simply amassing a bunch of information rather than taking time to meditate on the meaning of what I was actually learning. I learned words like Law, Covenant, Atonement, Grace, Sanctification, and Justification and knew their definitions, but somehow there remained a sort of disconnect between those concepts and my daily Christian faith, my prayer life, bible reading, and personal relationships. I could preach, teach, counsel, and answer lots of questions, but I was more like a theological calculator than an actual pastor. It wasn’t until I started facing a bunch of personal difficulties that those concepts really started to sink in.
Maybe you’ve experienced this: You’ve been to Sunday School and learned lots of Bible stories. Went to Bible camp, got baptized, and sat through a bunch of sermons. You’ve been to Small Groups and read your Bible at home. But your connection to God wasn’t really growing. You know more stuff, and look like a confident Christian on the outside, but on the inside, you wonder if you’re really a believer at all. You keep sinning, don’t pray as often as you know you should, don’t read your Bible with the passion you feel you ought. You come to church and though it’s nice to be here but inside it feels like you’re going through the motions and you hope that no one notices. You like your Christian friends, but are fairly indifferent towards getting to know them better. You still talk about God, but it’s been forever since you actually shared your faith with anyone – partly because you’re not sure if what you have to offer is going to help at all… since you’re not sure how much it’s helping you.
I’ve been in that place, even as a preacher. Showing up on Sundays, sermon in hand, saying what I think are all the right things, but wondering if somewhere very deep down I’m simply parroting other people’s deep thoughts about faith because I’m afraid to look at myself in the mirror and face the realization that my own faith is so terribly shallow.
But then, and I don’t know how long ago it was, I started to get really interested in Theology. I think it came because of the mix of my need for good answers to tough questions, my longing for a deeper relationship with God, and my fear of standing up here as a hypocrite leading other people into error. I know a lot of it came because I was facing difficult times and my reaction showed how far I really was from God, how undisciplined, how unsanctified, and that realization started to scare me.
And so, I started asking God for help. And whereas before I was simply reading the Bible because I was supposed to, and reading books about “how to grow a church” or “how to preach” or “how to lead” – those books started to become distasteful to me – I believe God gave me a new interest in Theology. And as I started to study, it was like a healing balm to my wounded soul, like a big drink of cool water after being thirsty for so long. Suddenly those terms I had learned started to move from my mind to my heart to my soul. Suddenly the sermons I’d heard, even ones I’d preached, started to make a different kind of sense to me. Suddenly the music we were singing in church, especially the old hymns, started to speak to my problems, encourage me, challenge me, and build my faith.
A Mighty Fortress
Recall to your mind the first 4 or 5 weeks of this sermon series and then consider the words to the 500-year-old hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”:
“A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing: Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. For still our ancient foe doth seek to work his woe; his craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.”
That speaks of the problem of sin, temptation, and Satan. It continues:
“Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing; were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing. Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he; Lord Sabaoth is his name, from age to age the same, and He must win the battle.”
What’s that about? That salvation from sin, death, temptation, and Satan is found in Jesus alone, not in our own strength. That if we try to fight him in our own strength, then we will lose. When I’m utterly ruined by guilt, shame, fear, doubt, trials and temptations – should I buck up, pull up my socks, and try harder? No? Who wins the battle? Lord Sabaoth, or “God of the Angel Armies” is His name. And it continues:
“And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us. The Prince of Darkness grim,—we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! His doom is sure,—one little word shall fell him.”
But life is still hard, we say, still “filled with devils”, and it threatens to undo us. Why shouldn’t we live in fear? What reason can we give not to live in constant fear of all the things that can and will go wrong? Because God has promised that “His truth will triumph through us”. What does that mean? It means that even through our trials, storms, and sufferings, Satan is still losing. Romans 8:36-37 says that even if we face death all day long and are regarded as sheep for slaughter, we are still “more than conquerors”. Why? Because our enemy is already beaten and is “one little word” away from total destruction. What is that word? “Jesus”. He is the one that can say to a storm: “Peace! Be Still!” and it stops in a moment (Mark 4:35-39). He is the One before whom demons cower who can command them with one word to “Go!” (Matthew 8:289-34). Jesus is the one who, at the beginning of John is called “The Word… who was with God and… was God” (John 1:1), the LOGOS, the power through whom all things came into being.
The hymn concludes:
“That word above all earthly powers—no thanks to them—abideth; the Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth. Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also: the body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is for ever.”
What does it mean to “abideth”, or “abide”. It means to continue, to remain. This whole verse calls to mind John 15:1-11, which is Jesus’ illustration that says that He is the Vine, we are the branches, and God is the Vinedresser. Jesus says,
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 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. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:4–11)
To abide, as verse 9 says, means to trust and rest and believe in the love of Jesus? What does that look like? That’s verse 10. It means we keep His commandments, or more simply “do things His way”, because it shows that we trust Him. Jesus says that the qualification for salvation, for answered prayer, for acceptable worship, and for bearing any kind of fruit in this world is that He abides in us and we abide in Him.
“The Prince of Darkness grim,—we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! His doom is sure,—one little word shall fell him. That word above all earthly powers—no thanks to them—abideth; the Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth.”
Some people don’t like these kinds of old hymns because they sound so dark and grim, talking about sin, death, hell, Satan, suffering – but it’s not grim – it’s hopeful! It’s a theological explanation, in song form, of why we need not be overcome by temptation, fear, sadness, or hopelessness. It’s a song that says if “we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing”, but that there is one who can win the battle, One who is greater than us, who has chosen to be “on our side”, and who will not only win for us, but will give us even more by granting us “the Spirit and the gifts”?
What does that mean? It means that Christians who abide in Jesus, who trust Jesus, who love Jesus and know that He loves them, will be given the gift of the presence of the Holy Spirit, the very person of God, to dwell in you just as the presence of God dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the temple of Israel (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:16-20). And with His presence comes spiritual gifts like you’ve never experienced before.
Beauty Under Our Noses
There’s a thing online that I come across sometimes that always makes me pause, and it’s the blogs and sites that are dedicated to before and after pressure-washing pictures. Sidewalks, decks, driveways, walls that have been left to the ravages of their environment brought back to their former splendour by some high-pressure water. It’s not that they were ruined, it was just that they were covered in the gunk of the ages.
Hymns and theological studies are kind of like that. We all like seeing a new car, new paint job, new building, or a new piece of tech because it’s so smooth and shiny, but it’s amazing how much beauty there is in the older things around us. Sometimes we walk by a plaque or building or walk down a sidewalk – or pick up an old hymnal, systematic theology, catechism, puritan classic, book of prayers – and assume that it’s just old, tired, useless, or broken down with age – but once we remove the gunk of our own biases and do a little study work – we start to realize the amazing beauty that has been right under our noses.
When I started to study theology, songs like “A Mighty Fortress” started to come alive to me. Not because of their own inherent beauty or power – which I think they have – but because they pointed me to the beauty and power of the promises that God had been telling me all along in His word, but that I was missing or misunderstanding or glossing over because I wasn’t doing the meditative work to allow them to penetrate my heart.
Christ the Mediator
Consider today’s study of the Heidelberg Catechism which speaks of the need for God’s justice to be fully satisfied by Christ our Mediator. Words like “Justice” “Justification” “Satisfaction” Mediator” are rich with meaning, but come across as cold and pedantic, old-timey and covered in the gunk of the ages. So when we hear them or read them they sometimes bounce off of us. But if we take a moment to ponder them, to meditate, study, and explain them, suddenly the beauty and joy of what is being said, starts to come forth.
Look at Question 12, and remember the context. We’ve just spent 4 weeks talking about the trouble and misery of sin. We’ve come face to face with mankind’s greatest problem, and our own guilty conscience. We’ve tried to make excuses, denying our guilt, blaming God, blaming others, denying the need for punishment and the existence of Hell – and hopefully came last week to the place where we finally relent and say, “I am a sinner, condemned by the Word of God and my own conscience. I have offended Holy God and deserve a just punishment for having a heart that loves sin and for the sins I have committed for my whole life.”
Now we come to question 12:
“Since, according to God’s righteous judgment we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, how can we escape this punishment and be again received into favour?”
How can we escape justice? Look at the answer:
“God demands that his justice be satisfied. Therefore we must make full payment, either by ourselves or through another.”
You cannot escape justice. Justice will be done.
Turn with me to Psalm 139 where the psalmist says,
“O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.”
You are caught in your sin, guilty before God. And what happens when we get caught? Our natural tendency is to look for an escape. How do I get out of this problem? Where can I run? God says, “Nowhere.” Justice must be served. We talked about that last week.
In question 13 you search your pockets,
“Can we by ourselves make this payment?”
And the answer is
“Certainly not. On the contrary, we daily increase our debt.”
The Judge has declared us guilty and demanded we pay for that guilt. He has seen that we are debtors who are in way over our head, owing more than we could ever repay, with interest working against us with every minute that goes by. Psalm 130:3 says, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” In other words, if God actually showed anyone the full weight of their sins – all they have done, said, and thought wrong, all the things they did but shouldn’t have done, or didn’t do but ought to – would anyone be able to argue with Him that they are perfect? No, of course not. At death, our Debt Collector, who is also the Judge, calls us in to pay the debt. Every moment of our life was a moment of grace. He could have called it anytime – and if we cannot pay him back, we must face the terrible consequence of Hell.
But the Judge, says this: “I want full payment, now! Can you pay it?”
In Question 14 we look around the divine courtroom, desperately hoping to find someone who can help us by paying the debt:
“Can any mere creature pay for us?”
Perhaps there is another human who is good enough to pay our debt? Perhaps God would accept an animal on our behalf? The answer comes:
“No. In the first place, God will not punish another creature for the sin which man has committed. Furthermore, no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin and deliver others from it.”
An angel can’t take our punishment because they are a spiritual being and the punishment for sin must be endured in body and soul. The death of an animal can’t satisfy the debt because it doesn’t have an immortal soul and cannot choose to take the punishment on themselves. Even in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament those sacrifices were only temporary and insufficient. Hebrews 10:3 says that “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins…”.
What about another human being? No, our debt cannot be paid by someone who also owes a debt to the Judge. They must pay for their own sins. If I owe a million dollars and cannot pay it back, then how could I turn to another human being – even if he be a saint – and ask him to pay? He’s in debt too because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23). We look around the courtroom, all around the world, and find no one who can pay our debt for us – and we know we are condemned.
Then Question 15 comes:
“What kind of mediator and deliverer must we seek?”
If no angel, no animal, and no human on earth can pay our debt for us, then to whom can we turn to save us from the consequence of our sin debt?
The answer comes:
“One who is a true and righteous man, and yet more powerful than all creatures; that is, one who is at the same time true God.”
As 1 Timothy 2:5-6 says: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…”
Or as 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
You stand before the Judge and Debt Collector who is God and know you are condemned in your sin debt to death and punishment in Hell. You look around the courtroom for anyone else who can pay it, and find no one.
But then, the Judge Himself looks you in the eye and says, “I have an idea.” And He calls in His own Son. He says, “Son, this one owes me more than they can ever repay. They are condemned to death and hell. Would you be willing to take their place, exchange yourself for them, stand before Me in judgement, and take their punishment? Would You take their sin debt and allow Me to pour the fullness of my wrath, all of Hell, upon You, for their sake? You are the only one that can do it. You are my Son and my Word, perfect in every way, and everything I have is yours. You have no debt. I’m willing to accept you in their place.”
Jesus has all the qualifications to be the perfect mediator between sinful humanity and perfect God. He is the perfection of God born as a man, and totally without sin.
Jesus looks at you and says, “I am willing if you want me to. Do you want me to?”
Jesus says, “I will abide with you. I will abide in you, just as my Father abides in me. I will take His wrath against you upon myself. All you have to do is admit that you can’t pay the debt and that you need me. I’m the only one that can do this. You cannot do this alone. There is no amount of good deeds or praying or religion you can do to pay this debt. Are you willing to let me pay it for you? If you say yes, I will give you freedom from sin, the Holy Spirit, a new purpose, spiritual gifts, a peace that passes understanding, and eternal life. I will reverse your curse and pay all your debt for every sin you commit from birth until death. And then I will stand before the Father in Heaven as your advocate, your mediator, interceding on your behalf. I’ll be the life-giving vine, you be the branch that I make fruitful. Do you want that?”
That is the offer of salvation in Jesus Christ. This is what it means that He is our mediator – not priests or pastors or popes or Mary or saints — this is a promise we only find in Jesus.
All we must do is admit we are sinners and believe that Jesus died on the cross and rose again to pay for that sin. That’s the gospel. This is how salvation works. And He’s willing to do it if we are willing to turn our lives over to Him.
These are the promises I see in scripture, in the study of good theology, and in the songs that point us to that promise. Will you accept them? Will you study? Will you sing?
Let me close with the words of Romans 8:31-38, which I have read many times, and will read many more:
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Pastor Al Do You Really Believe in a Magic Talking Snake?
I want to start this morning with a little bit of apologetics. Last week we talked about the Fall of Man as presented in Genesis 1-3 and there’s one part of that story that keeps coming up in the secular world as a way to discredit Christians – that being the “talking snake”.
As I studied last week and went through the various pictures of Adam and Eve for last week’s PowerPoint, I saw a lot of pictures that looked really ridiculous, and I kept asking myself if I really actually believe this story or not. And it’s an important story to believe in. If the story of the Fall of Man is fictional, it affects a lot of things in Christianity.
First, if it’s fiction, then what parts of the Bible should be believed? Second, a lot of other books in the Bible reference that story as true, so can they be believed. Third, Romans 5 says that Jesus is the second Adam that didn’t fail, but did it right, and through which we find our salvation. So how can Jesus be the second Adam who did it right if there was no first who did it wrong? To discredit the story of creation and the fall in Genesis 1-3 is to dismantle much of what the theology of salvation is built on. No talking serpent, no temptation, no Eve taking the fruit, no fall… etc.
So how do I answer the question? Do I actually believe in a magic talking snake that tempted the only people on the planet to eat a forbidden fruit? Do you? Why? Well, let me tell you how I process it.
Humility Before the Word of God
The first place I start is humility before the Word of God. I remember that I don’t know everything and just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s wrong or impossible. If I told you not to worry that your OS defrags your solid state drive when you have Volume Shadow Copy turned on, would you believe me? Is it something you’ve ever worried about? Maybe you should, because automated defragging your SSD ups your writes. Worried now?
Just because you don’t understand what I’m talking about, doesn’t mean I’m wrong or trying to mislead you. And just because I don’t fully understand Genesis 1-3 doesn’t mean it’s wrong or trying to mislead me either. I decided a long time ago I was going to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt. That doesn’t mean I turn my brain off when I read or study, but it does mean that when I study, I start with the thought, “The Bible isn’t trying to lie to me, manipulate me, or hurt me. God is the author of truth, this is His book, and He’s using the Bible to teach me, guide me, and help me understand Him, myself, and the world. So whatever I’m not understanding isn’t God’s fault.”
A Story for All People
I also remember that the story in Genesis 1-3 isn’t meant to be a modern biography or scientific textbook explaining the exact details of what went on. It’s a story meant to convey important truths to different people who would live in different places and eras. That doesn’t mean it’s misleading though. It means’ it was told in a way that everyone could understand.
When Genesis was written, the concept of Satan wasn’t as fleshed out as it is by the end of Revelation, so his character is introduced in a very important way. The whole story is told in such a way that anyone who reads it, from Moses to today, will see the most foundational messages upon which all the rest of the scriptures will be built – God is eternal and good, man was created eternal and good, temptation is real, sin is terrible, and man’s choices have big consequences.
To do this, the first three chapters of the Bible use poetry, prose, imagery, repetition, and intricate word play, and to tell the story of Creation and the Fall in a way everyone can understand. Just because it was written thousands of years ago to people who weren’t interested in modern science, doesn’t make it wrong.
The Multiple Forces Argument
The third thing that helps me believe Genesis 1-3 is to remember that Satan is real, powerful, a master of deception, and capable of supernatural things. Here’s something I’ve been working on in my brain for a while, which I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else, and it goes like this: There are four sorts of “forces” that act upon us in this world:
- Visible Personal Forces
- Visible Impersonal Forces
- Invisible Impersonal Forces
- and Invisible Personal Forces.
People have no problem with the first one, “Visible Personal Forces”, right? These are things we can see, and that make the choice to affect us. People are visible, personal forces.
People have no problem with the second one, “Visible Impersonal Forces”. Examples of this would be a rockslides, forest fires, earthquakes, tornados. We can see them affecting us, but they don’t make the choice to do so. A fire doesn’t choose what it’s burning. It just does it.
People have no problem with the third one either, “Invisible Impersonal Forces”. Examples of this are things like magnetism, wind, or gravity. We can’t see them and they don’t choose to affect us. They just do. We can’t take a picture of gravity, but it’s real, right?
It’s the fourth one that people get hung up on, “Invisible Personal Forces”. This is a personal being that chooses to affect our lives, but we can’t see them. But why is this one different? If the rest are true, why not this one? This is God, Angels and Demons. If we can believe in an invisible impersonal force like gravity, why not an invisible personal demon?
There are hundreds of papers written on invisible, personal forces that affect us all the time. Governments and corporations use psychological warfare to intimidate, demoralize, or persuade people to do things. They don’t have to be standing in front of you to affect you either. They can use things like propaganda, stress, bribes, language, suggestions, media, repetition, and technology to do it for them. We have no problem believing in the power of peer pressure, mob-mentality, or group think, right? But that’s not visible force, is it? No one says, “As of this moment you should go flip cop cars and smash windows”, it just sort of happens. Other examples of invisible, personal forces are things like memories of people who have died, your own personality, hypnosis, or even emotional love and physical pain. People will debate the power of the butterfly effect and talk about good or bad luck or Murphy’s Law as though they are real, but have a problem with the existence of Demons.
All I’m saying is that it is not unreasonable to believe that there are such things as Invisible Personal Forces, like God, Angels or Demons – who are real, creative, and powerful – that affect our lives every day. And the being introduced in Genesis 3 as a tempting serpent is an example of that. Just because it’s difficult to understand or strange to our ears doesn’t make it untrue.
So, I think to myself, if God is the author of the Bible, the story of Genesis 1-3 is written to tell me the truth, and there really is such a being as Satan, then why would it be impossible for this story to be true? Why couldn’t Satan use a serpent to tempt Eve? I believe what Jesus says, and He says that Satan is a master deceiver (John 8:44), capable of looking like a false messiah and even do miracles so convincing that even people who claim to be Christians will be deceived by him (Matthew 24:24). 2 Corinthians 11:14 says he can even masquerade as an angel of light.
So, is it not possible that Satan used his powers of deception to either manipulate or take on the form of a serpent? Or, if that’s too much, if invisible personal forces are real, then that would mean a form of that is demonic possession, right? Why couldn’t Satan have possessed this animal’s body and used it?
Now I sound crazy, right? I sound like I’m reaching beyond the scope of reality. But hold on. If the Bible isn’t trying to fool me, and Satan is real and powerful, then why is it impossible? It doesn’t have to be the kind of snake we think of today, does it? Genesis 3:1 says that the “serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field” and Revelation 20:2 calls Satan, “the dragon, that ancient serpent”, so this clearly wasn’t the kind of snake we see today, but perhaps a very clever animal that is long extinct. In fact, in Genesis 3:14, when God is cursing the serpent, He changes the form of the serpent to one that stands to one that slithers. There are lots of scientists who think snakes used to have legs but lost them as they evolved. And I’ve watched enough BBC nature documentaries to know that there are animals capable of some pretty incredible things, right?
We’ve all seen the amazing things trained dogs, dolphins, and chimpanzees can do, right? I saw an article that showed how humans have taught parrots, orangutans, elephants and seals to mimic the human voice. And you’ve probably heard about Koko the gorilla that was capable of understanding thousands of English words and signed back over a thousand.
So, I’m not saying I understand it all, but all I’m saying, is why not, in the history of the world, with all the species that have ever existed, couldn’t there have been a smart, serpent-like creature capable of mimicking human speech that Satan possessed and used? Just because I don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it isn’t true. But is it plausible? I believe it is. Or, if that’s too much, then maybe Satan simply used some sort of supernatural power to talk through it, the same way God did with Balaam’s Donkey.
Now, why spend so much time on this today? The reason is simply that there’s a big difference between saying we believe something and actually believing it, and that difference has consequences. There are often nagging questions in the back of our minds that cause us to doubt God’s Word, doubt our faith, doubt how serious we should take it, and wonder if all that we say we believe is actually true. It causes us to distrust God, distrust other Christians, and to live in fear. Our doubts are weapons that Satan can use to cause us to think and believe some destructive lies.
If he can use our doubts to cause us to question the existence of Adam and Eve, then why not Abraham and Jesus too? If Genesis is made up, then why not the Gospel of Matthew? If there was no Fall of Man, no first sin that corrupts all mankind, then where is the curse and what did Jesus die for? Does that mean we’re all basically good people and everyone is going to heaven? If we’re all basically good, then what’s wrong with the world? And if we’re all good, or a bunch of it is made up, then why tell anyone about Jesus at all?
Satan can use these doubts to take us apart in surprising ways. It’s the same tactic he used on Eve. “Did God actually say…?” was an attack on God’s Word and His character. If he can get us to doubt what God says, then we have permission to edit His Words, change them, or dismiss them. Then we’re in trouble. Then the foundations of our life and faith start to crumble. Then we start to doubt that God is real, that Satan is real, that invisible, personal spiritual forces are real, and it makes us an easier target.
Those niggling doubts, which so many of us suppress thinking there are no good answers, embarrassed to ask other people in case we sound crazy or stupid, undermine our faith and become a foothold in our lives for the devil and a stumbling block to those around us. That’s why we need to spend time praying, studying, talking, and sharing our doubts and questions about God. He’s not scared of us looking into it, and He’s not angry that there are things we don’t understand, so it shouldn’t prevent us from asking and searching. Sure, not every question will have the perfect answer, but I have yet to find an important question that hasn’t gotten a reasonable answer over the past couple thousand years. The real trouble comes when we refuse to find them.
Is Hell Real?
Consider the questions from the Heidelberg Catechism that we’ve been studying, especially those today. We’ve spent three weeks talking about the importance of realizing that we are sinners, right? Last week we said that sin isn’t God’s fault, but question 9 comes. It says
“But does not God do man an injustice by requiring in his law what man cannot do?”
Ursinus, in his brilliance, knew that the human heart is full of doubt and is desperate to escape blame. We hate being called sinners and want to do everything we can to push that guilt away. We want to pretend the Fall wasn’t real, that Satan isn’t real, that we’re basically good people, and anything we do that’s wrong is someone else’s fault – even God’s. But neither God nor Ursinus lets us off the hook.
The question is basically “Isn’t it unfair for God to ask us to obey a Law that He knows we can’t obey because of our sinful nature?” and the answer comes:
“No, for God so created man that he was able to do it. But man, at the instigation of the devil, in deliberate disobedience robbed himself and all his descendants of these gifts.”
As I said last week, God didn’t set Adam up for failure, but for success. He absolutely could have obeyed, but fell to temptation chose not to. And now all of us children of Adam are all living with the consequences of having a sinful nature.
Question 10 continues,
“Will God allow such disobedience and apostasy to go unpunished?”
Herein lay another area of our doubts – that God would actually punish sin. Doesn’t God love us? Won’t he let us get away with it? Isn’t He a Good Father who lets His children off the hook because he loves them so much? A kind God wouldn’t really make anyone go to Hell, would He?
People work really hard to try to deny that sinners are punished in Hell, and even harder to try to convince themselves that they themselves aren’t sinners, but neither is true. “Will God allow such disobedience and apostasy to go unpunished?” The answer in the Catechism comes:
“Certainly not. He is terribly displeased with our original sin as well as our actual sins. Therefore he will punish them by a just judgment both now and eternally, as he has declared: Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law (Gal 3:10).”
God promised punishment to Adam and Eve (Gen 2:17). He promised punishment to Moses and the Israelites (Ex 34:7). The Lord, through the prophets, promised to take vengeance on all His enemies (Nah 1:2), and we’ve already learned that sin made us an enemy of God (Eph 2:1-3). Jesus said that without Him, that many will be led to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14) and promised that there would be a final separation where some people would be sent into eternal flames and endless misery (Matt 13:30-42).
Hell, like talking about the snake, makes some people very uncomfortable. They want to hold onto their doubts. They want to deny it. They want to live in ignorance. They don’t want to ask questions lest they learn something they don’t like. They don’t want to think that some people that they love are in Hell, or that they might be as well.
But, just as changing the story of Eden changes everything, so does removing Hell. Look at question 11 of the Catechism:
“But is God not also merciful?”
It’s almost an outcry, isn’t it? But how can the concept of Hell line up with a loving God?
And the answer is this:
“God is indeed merciful, but he is also just. His justice requires that sin committed against the most high majesty of God also be punished with the most severe, that is, with everlasting, punishment of body and soul.”
Yes, God is love, and part of love is ensuring that justice is done. Consider yourself. If you were wronged – you went downtown, someone jumped you, beat you, stabbed you, and stole your belongings – it would be unloving, unjust, unkind for a judge to simply let the mugger get away with it. How much more should humanity be punished for committing such “disobedience and apostasy” against the perfection of God? He is absolute perfection, and humanity chose Satan, sin, disobedience, and betrayal – and we keep doing it over and over willfully and in ways we don’t even know. You must admit yourself to be a sinner.
But our doubts fight, don’t they? “I’m not that bad. God’s not really like that. I don’t want that to be true.” My plea for you is to allow the conviction of God to fall upon you and to allow Him to judge you guilty – because it’s only then that you’ll be willing to ask and accept forgiveness. If you doubt yourself to be a sinner you will doubt the cost of your salvation.
Let me close with this: When it comes to difficult, uncomfortable topics like Hell, do what I said before. First, stop thinking you know everything and show some humility before God and His Word of God. Second, realize the teaching about Hell isn’t there to harm you, but to tell you something that you need to know so you can make a better decision. And third, overcome your doubts by choosing to share them, study the truth, and then settle it in your mind.
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
Most of you know that my family has been going through a tough time lately, but I know we’re not alone. Many people here today are going through difficult, confusing, painful times. It’s been heartening for us, as a church family, to spend time talking to one another about the struggles we’ve been having, and quite interesting that many people seem to be running towards the same place in scripture when they need comfort. A few people have told me how much Psalm 23 has been comforting them lately, and really, throughout their lives.
Please open up to Psalm 23 and let’s read it together:
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
You can see why this is such a powerful and meaningful psalm. It’s because it takes the situation out of our hands and places it in God’s. It’s an admission that we’re not in control, we’re not strong, we’re not smart, we’re not wolves or bears or tigers – we’re sheep and we need to be taken care of.
When we read Psalm 23, we admit all that, and then give it over to God. God lays us down, God restores us, God leads us. God protects us, God comforts us, God conquers, God anoints and heals and serves us.
When do realize our need for the shepherd most though? In the green pastures by the still waters? No. That’s when we end up wandering off, thinking the world is easy.
It is in the Valley of Shadow of Death and the Presence of our Enemies that we really lean into God, when we clutch Him harder, when we realize that we are only sheep – and as our view of God grows, as our nearness to the shepherd grows, the darkness and the enemies no longer seem as big or as dangerous, because the Shepherd is there with us.
Difficult times cause us to think about where we find our comfort and hope, don’t they? I’ve been thinking a lot about comfort and hope lately. Where do I find comfort? What brings me hope? And the truths of my answers have been tested. I might say that I trust the Shepherd, that I believe in prayer, that His Word is my light and guide, that Jesus is my hope – but it’s not until I’m walking in the shadows, surrounded by enemies, that the truth of my heart is revealed.
Where we Turn
When the shadows fall, the enemies surround, the world turns against us, nothing works out, and everything goes out of whack – our relationships, our health, our work – it is natural for us to look for comfort. We want something that will make us feel better. We want something that will calm us down when we are frenzied and anxious, or energize us when we are down and depressed. We want something to repair our soul when it feels bruised and beaten, to take away the pain that we feel in our minds and bodies.
But, more often than not, it is not to our Shepherd that we turn first, is it? Instead, there are many other places we go for comfort. We turn to money, possessions, riches, luxury, financial security. We figure that if we have enough money or stuff, then we’ll feel better. If we get the nicer phone, nicer car, nicer tv, nicer food, nicer vacation, nicer tools, nicer house, that we will feel better. And that’s what ads sell us – buy this and feel better about yourself, your relationships, your future, your past, your present. We think that if we get enough piles of money then nothing can hurt us. Banks try to sell us that. Financial security equals comfort.
Or we turn to exercise and medicine. We work on our bodies, eat right, exercise, drink lots of water, take vitamins, go to the doctor to get pills to balance our hormones and body chemicals, thinking that if we can be super healthy and perfectly juiced, then we will no longer have fears or pain. We will be strong enough to fight off sickness and enemies, we will be beautiful and therefore popular, we will be able to run away from danger or save people we love, and most of all, we will live forever. Pursuing bodily health isn’t bad, but the motives behind it aren’t always good – sometimes it’s driven by fear and the desire for more comfort than it can provide.
Some people turn to stubbornness and control. Psalm 2:1-3 says,
“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’”
They think that controlling all aspects of their life, and everyone else’s, will bring them comfort. All they need is the perfect plan, the perfect calendar, the perfect to do list, and for everyone to simply do everything they are told, and then everyone will be happy. If we write enough laws and rules everyone will be content. If we buckle down hard enough, dig in our heels hard enough, grit our teeth hard enough, then we can take control of our world and bend it to our wills, and then we will all find peace. It’s a lie we tell ourselves all the time.
Some turn to other people as their source of comfort. They believe that politicians, scientists, religious gurus, celebrities, their spouse, their kids, their friends, or their community group is going to save them. Those people are all they talk about, and their entire hope is in them and their plans. And when they inevitably fall, it’s utterly devastating – but instead of learning from their mistake, they simply find another flawed human being to put their hopes in. These people, no matter how bright they are, aren’t solid foundations, but are as Jude 12-13 says,
“These are hidden reefs… shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.”
Others turn to worldly pleasure, distractions, entertainment, food, pornography, drunkenness, and drugs. Life is hard, everything is out of control, our emotions are a mess, our thinking isn’t helping, and there is no way to fix any of it – so why bother? Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. Our culture is built on this concept and it’s destroying the foundations of our society. We are literally entertaining and distracting ourselves to death. Pharmaceutical companies sell pills that have nothing to do with health, but simply treat bad feelings. Stores have more entertainment food than actual food. While teens die of fentanyl overdoses and the media declares an opioid crisis, the Canadian government legalizes marijuana so that more people can get high. Our culture is obsessed with non-marital, no-commitment, purely animalistic sex – even though sexually transmitted diseases are growing in record numbers. And they’ve created phone apps to assist their hook-up culture to be more efficient. And the government has made sure that there are no laws against abortion so that no one accidentally has a baby and a family as a consequence.
Our modern, Canadian, culture is built on the concept of “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” and it’s destroying our bodies and our souls.
Our Only Comfort
The first two questions of The Heidelberg Catechism address this very issue – the issue of comfort. They are a summary of the rest of the catechism and start with the most important question: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” Christian, what do you turn to when you face the valley of the shadow of death, when you surrounded by enemies? Christian, what do you hold as the source of your greatest hope, knowing everything else is going to let you down, your celebrities, your chemicals, your doctor, your exercise, your body, your friends, your riches, your security, is all going to fall apart – so what is the one comfort, the one thing that won’t fall apart in this world or the next? What comfort will give you an anchor through all the storms of this life and never leave you, even after you die? What thought, what truth, can you build the entire foundation of your life on that will never shift, shake or move?
“That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
Though this is not a quote from the Bible, each line is very biblical, and you can see some of the verses in the footnotes I provided on your handout. It breaks down into four great comforts.
I Am Not My Own
Perhaps the worst feeling we can have is loneliness. We can go through a lot of difficult things if we know that someone has our back. We can face injustice and fear, insurmountable odds, and terrible dangers, if we know someone is on our side. But when we feel alone, our strength fades quickly. A Christian’s first comfort is that we are not our own, but belong to someone – to Jesus.
1 Corinthians 6:19-10 says, “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.”
Titus 2:13-14 says, “…our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession…”
The word “redeemed” means “to be bought back”. We were slaves to sin, slaves to Satan, captured and enslaved by death, and Jesus loved us so much that He bought us from our slave owners at a great price. He traded Himself for us so that we could be His.
A Christians’ comfort comes from the knowledge that we are not our own, we are not alone, Jesus bought us because He wants us to be with Him. God is not against us, God is for us, because we belong to Him. So He does for us what we would do if we bought something precious. We would clean it up, protect it, cherish it, display it so others can see it, and use it as a way to show off.
That’s what Jesus does with us. He takes our spiritually dead body out of the muck of sin, restores us to life, cleans us up, gives us new clothes, new armour, and then helps us to become something that He uses to show His glory off. When people look at us they think, “Wow, that person is so different! They know Jesus and look at them! Jesus must really be someone special!”
Payment for Sin
Our second comfort comes in that our sins are perfectly and totally forgiven. Not some, not most, not just the past ones – all of our sins forever were placed on Jesus as He hung on the cross and took the wrath of God against them. 1 John 2:1-2 says,
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Propitiation means “the removal of wrath by the offering of a gift”. To do wrong, to break the law, means to incur judgement and wrath. The only thing that appeases the wrath of God our Judge against for the wrong we’ve done is punishment and death. Romans 6:23 says “the wages of sin is death”. Jesus offered Himself to pay that wage so we wouldn’t have to. He substituted Himself for us. He assumed our obligations and all the wrath God had against sin was poured out on Him instead of us. And therefore all our sins are dealt with. Martin Luther called it “The Great Exchange”.
Therefore, when we think that God is punishing us is wrong. To believe we need more punishment is to take away from what Jesus did on the cross. To try to punish others for their wrong is to say that Jesus didn’t suffer enough. To think that God is holding our sins against us is to say that God didn’t accept Jesus’ sacrifice. To try to impress God with good works or religion is to say that what Jesus did in His life and on the cross wasn’t good enough.
One of our greatest comforts, especially when Satan is telling us that God hates us, that He’ll never restore us, that He has had enough of us, is to remember that our sins are fully paid for by Jesus – all of them – and we have been set free. There is no longer anything separating us from God, and nothing we must do in order to make ourselves worthy of it, and anyone who says differently is a liar. All that must be done is to accept Jesus’ sacrifice on your behalf. He has done everything necessary for our salvation and there is nothing standing between you and God’s forgiveness except yourself, your pride, and your false notions.
Our third comfort comes in that we are protected, or preserved.
2 Thessalonians 3:3 says, “But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one.”
And Romans 8:28, when talking about the trials of life says, “…we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Psalm 18 begins, “I love you, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies.”
So, we are not our own, we were bought with a price by the blood of Jesus, and therefore He is the one who preserves and protects us. He is God and that means that everything that happens, whether we think it’s good or bad or otherwise, happens because He allows it to happen – and there is nothing that anyone can do that is beyond His control.
We read stories like Joseph being sold into slavery and put in prison, or Daniel being set up by his enemies and thrown into a lion’s den, or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refusing to bow to an idol and then thrown into a fiery furnace, all the difficulty and pain Paul faced on his missionary journeys, and of course all the sorrow and rejection Jesus faced – and we are reminded that even though things get very difficult, everything happened for a reason and brought fruit for God’s people to bring God more glory.
God has the power to preserve us from any danger that will come – the power to get us through any trial that we are currently facing – and the power to turn even the worst parts of our lives into victories for Him. There are so many stories of people who go through hard times or have been in really bad places, but realize after they turn to God and start to trust Him, that He used it all for so much good. There is great comfort knowing that everything that happens to us will be used by God to help us grow stronger, more faithful, to grow His Kingdom, and to bring Him glory. No valley, no matter how dark – no enemy, no matter how strong – will not be overcome, turned into light, and used by God if we trust Him with it.
And the fourth comfort we see in question one is our assurance.
2 Corinthians 1:20-22 says, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him [that is Jesus]. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory. And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.”
Since our salvation is not something we can buy or get by good deeds, it is therefore not something we can lose. Since Jesus establishes it, it is firmly established and unable to move. On the cross Jesus said, “It is finished!” (Jn 19:30) on the cross and is called the “Amen” in Rev 3:14. Here we see that our salvation is an “Amen” too, an “it is so”, a total completion. We are anointed, sealed, and guaranteed, not by our own actions or our own strength – but by the Spirit of God. There is no way we can lose our salvation, no way God will turn His back on us, no one that can ever take it from us, and nothing we can do to remove ourselves from His hand. I recommend you read Romans 8 for more about this.
This is where our eternal comfort lies – in that Jesus loves us, died for us, protects and preserves us, uses everything to help us, and will never, ever, ever leave us, even unto death.
Nothing we try, and no one else, can or will give us that kind of comfort. There is no amount of money that gives us that kind of hope, no chemical that gives that kind of joy, no human being that gives us that kind of promise, which is why Christians turn to Jesus. He is the only and best comfort in life and in death.
Guilt, Grace and Gratitude
And now look at question 2: “What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” How do I get access to this type of assurance, this hope, this comfort? The answer is a summary of the rest of the catechism. Some have broken it up into 3 simple words that you need to know: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. What must I know?
“First, how great my sins and misery are; second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.”
This is what we’re going to be talking about for the next year or so. First, we must understand our guilt. The Bible says that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6) If we think we are going the right way, we’ll never ask for directions. If we think we’re healthy, we’ll never ask for a doctor. We will not ask for forgiveness unless we know we are guilty. We need to realize how deep our sin problem really is.
Once we confess ourselves a miserable sinner, we then need to know how to be delivered from those sins. The simple answer, as I’ve been saying, is to confess your sins to Jesus and to believe that He died for your sins and rose again to prove He has conquered them. There’s a lot to know about that – and we’ll cover it in the coming months – but that simple truth is where everything starts. Will you admit that you are a sinner and trust that Jesus did everything to pay for your sins so that the wrath of God against you could be appeased?
And third, once we have realized our guilt and accepted forgiveness, the natural thing to do is to give thanks. Such an awesome truth should change our lives. Every kindness we receive deserves gratitude, right? Someone does something nice, we feel like we want to say thank you and do something nice back. If we go to the doctor, we pay for his services. So, even though we’ll never be able to pay Jesus back, how much more should our lives be changed by the knowledge of our salvation. We were headed to an eternity in Hell, now we are invited to an eternity with God. Our response should be a godly life of thanksgiving that honours Him, right?
This is what we’ll be talking about over the next while – the problem of sin, the solution to the problem in Jesus, and how our lives should change as a result.
When we are saved by Jesus, He gives us a lot of gifts. One of those gifts is to become a member of His church, a family of believers spread throughout the world. All believers, everywhere are part of the Kingdom of God, the Body of Christ, the Universal Church both living here and in heaven. If you are a Christian you are part of God’s family. The church isn’t intended to be seen merely globally though, it’s most accurately seen and experienced locally as individual believers from the same geographic area choose to meet together to worship Jesus, fellowship with each other, learn and be discipled, and do good works to spread His love in their own neighbourhoods. Certainly, each church should be thinking about their global impact, sending and supporting missionaries and charities in countries that need help, but for most Christians, most of their impact, most of their work, most of their learning, most of their worship, most of their evangelism, is done at their home church.
The letters of the New Testament, though universally applicable, were mostly sent to individual churches: the church in the city of Corinth, in Philippi, in Rome. When Jesus gave John his great Revelation, he addressed it not to the universal church, but to seven specific, local churches. When God works, He doesn’t usually do it on a grand, global level, but instead chooses to work mostly through individuals like you and me in a local church just like ours. That’s the common, normal way God enacts His will in the world. Even the great, global impacts that we’ve seen some ministries have are part of a local church.
If you’ve read Purpose Driven Life, you’re reading a book written by a local pastor in Lake Forest, California. If you’ve listened to the band Casting Crowns, you’re listening to a youth pastor’s band from First Baptist in Daytona Beach, Florida. The Emotionally Healthy Spirituality book we’re going to do came from a ministry built over some years in a church in New York City.
Charles Spurgeon, one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century, became a Christian when he was driven to a Methodist Chapel during a snowstorm. A substitute preacher, with not much training, was simply reading the book of Isaiah. He came to Isaiah 45:2, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else.”, stopped reading, pointed straight at 15-year-old Charles and shouted, “That young man there looks very miserable! Look! Look, young man! Look now!”. God worked a miracle in Spurgeon’s heart, he was saved, became a preacher, and went on to plant many more churches.
It’s not just preachers and writers that have great impact, of course. God sets up preachers and teacher for training others – it is the rest of the church that gets credit for doing most of God’s work in the world. The deacons who visit the sick and serve those in need. The small groups who meet to pray and to share. The ministry leaders who care for children, teens, and seniors. The old married people who take newlyweds under their wing. The families who adopt and foster kids in tough situations. The musicians, artists, and actors who point people to God through their art. The mothers and fathers raising Godly children, and the countless others who go to work every day and serve God’s will there, working hard, having meaningful conversations, and sharing God’s love. That’s how God usually works. Though believers like you.
We talked a little about that last week when we talked about how our church helps us change our lives for the better, and in a lot of our sermons last year on the Body of Christ. The church is an important place, a vital place, for believers to be.
Keep You From Church
But not all believers want to be here. It’s the truth that growing Christians want to be with fellow believers but backslidden and sinning Christians tend to run away from other Christians. My wife was given a Bible a long time ago and I found these words inscribed in it: “This book will keep you from sin, and sin will keep you from this book.” Turns out it’s a quote from DL Moody. I could adapt that to say, “The church will help to keep you from sin, and sin will help to keep you from the church.”
People that are working on their sins, want to learn more about God, grow in righteousness and be trained for ministry flock towards the church and it’s ministries. Those who are fill of unrepentant sins, have unforgiving hearts, are prideful, selfish, or bitter, tend to avoid coming under the leadership of the elders, avoid meeting with other Christians who try to get into their business, avoid places where they might hear something they don’t like. They stay on the outskirts of the church, and are often used by Satan to start church fights and splits. If you are full of guilt and shame, because you are refusing to repent before God for your sin, then you’re not going to want to be around a bunch of people who are worshipping Jesus, saying they have been forgiven, and are trying to do good – because it makes your shame and guilt feel all the more acute. When your heart is messed up with sin it’s easier to be with sinners than Christians.
It breaks my heart that more people aren’t availing themselves of the blessing of being part of a godly, local church. There are so many lonely, confused, addicted, afraid, stressed out, falling apart people out there that are either running all over the place trying to find something to help – or have simply given up and are just trying to medicate or entertain the pain away until they die.
There are people that long for intellectual stimulation, to serve their community, a place to find their purpose, a group of people that sees the world differently than anyone else and knows something they don’t know. They long for the presence of God, the healing and forgiveness that comes from Jesus, even if they don’t know it. Sometimes they do turn to God in their desperation, but most often they refuse Him when He shows up and invites them to turn to Him in their times of distress. Sometimes they do turn to God, and start to pray or are driven to read God’s Word, hoping that something the Bible will help – not realizing, or refusing to believe, that so many of their needs can be met by not only talking to God, but being with His people and joining a good, Godly church.
And of course, there are far too many people who call themselves believers who have divorced themselves from the church. Whether because they had a bad experience or because of their own pride, they now refuse to be part of a church, choosing to stay home and watch tv preachers, listen to podcast, and chat with people online – all the while growing in bitterness and being led astray by lies because there’s no one there to correct their thinking.
It’s sad because sitting at home alone isn’t usually where miracles happen. They happen when you submit yourself humbly to Jesus and choose to live your life with the people of God.
Blessed to Be Your Pastor
I believe we are a good, Christ honouring church, and that most people here work hard to ensure that we stay that way. We’ve gone through a lot together and I can say that the furnace of affliction has refined this church and that God is preparing us for something special in 2018. You are an open church, willing to accept people that are different than you. You are a patient church, showing love when frustrations and difficulties have come. You are a humble church, being willing to do all kinds of things without requiring recognition or reimbursement. You are a generous church, giving more than expected, taking care of each other’s, showering blessings and help on people who share their needs. You are a church that does the hard things to seek unity, having extra meetings, holding people accountable, and being honest with one another even when it’s hard. You are a good church, wanting to make sure God is honoured by what is done here. You are a Biblical church, consistently showing your love for God’s Word.
I am beyond blessed to not only be your pastor, but to have me and my family be the recipients of so much of your God-given grace. That tells me that God is showing you love, working in your heart, and doing good works in you. That He is fulfilling His promise that the good work He has started in you will be carried on to completion (Phil 1:6). It tells me that you are trying to be sensitive to His Spirit. Yes, we’ve had some struggles, and I know that each of you has their own separate and very real trials – but here you are, worshipping, giving, and being attentive to God’s Word and His people. Here you are, looking forward to small groups and study groups. Here you are, serving, training, loving and caring for people. I’m blessed to be your pastor. Anyone who distances themselves from you guys is crazy, because you are being the hands and feet of Jesus.
And so, we come to that part of the year when we read our Church Membership Covenant again. This is the document that every single member of this church has agreed to. If you’re not sure if you’re a member, then you probably aren’t, because it requires baptism, meetings, and voting. It’s a big commitment here.
Last week someone said that they appreciated when I share my own struggles during the sermon and I said that I’ve learned that whenever you are working with a group and are starting a project, ministry, prayer group, small group, or whatever, that it’s really important to set the bar upfront. People will look to the leader to see how things are supposed to be. This is how hard we will work. This is the quality that’s expected. This is how we will talk and act. This is the level of openness and honesty expected. This is the level of risk we’ll be taking. I strongly believe that, so I try to set the bar high.
But it’s not me that chooses where the bar is set, I’m just following the example and commands of Jesus. It is He that sets the bar. He’s our saviour and our model. When we want to know how respectful, kind, honest, open, hard-working, risk-taking to be, we read His word, witness His example, and listen to what He says. That’s all I try to do – imperfectly for sure, but that’s what we’re all shooting for, right?
And that’s why we have a church membership covenant. It’s our man-made, human way, to hold each other accountable to the bar that Jesus has set for us. He sets the bar, then we follow Him, and work together to help each other to keep following. There’s lots of reasons we have this document, Why Our Church Has a Membership Covenant, but this year I simply want to take time to read it and remind us as to what is in it, what we’ve agreed to and to remind us to hold each other accountable to it.
A good church reminds each other of what the bible says and holds each other to it in love. This is simply a summarized way to do that. Is it a perfect document? No. But we here believe that it’s helpful. Here’s what it says:
Having been led, as we believe, by the Spirit of God, to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as our Saviour, and on the profession of our faith, having been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we do now, in the presence of God, most solemnly and joyfully enter into covenant with one another as one body in Christ.
We engage, therefore, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, to walk together in Christian love; to strive for the advancement of this Church in knowledge, piety and godly living; to promote its spirituality in sustaining its worship, ordinances, discipline and doctrine; to contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the Church, its work against sin and injustice in the world, the relief of the poor and the spread of the Gospel throughout all nations.
We agree to promote family worship and maintain private devotions; to educate our children in the teaching and practice of our faith; and to seek the salvation of our kindred and acquaintances. We strive to walk circumspectly in the world, to be just in our dealings, faithful in our engagements and exemplary in our deportment; to avoid all idle talk, backbiting and unrighteous anger; to practice temperance in all things; and to be zealous in all our efforts to advance the Kingdom of our Saviour.
We agree to strive to walk worthy of the vocation wherewith we are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
We covenant to watch over one another in brotherly love, to remember each other in prayer, to aid each other in sickness and distress, to cultivate Christian sympathy in feeling and courtesy in speech, to be slow to take offence, always ready for reconciliation, and mindful of the commandments of our Saviour.
That’s quite a list, isn’t it? Hard to live up to, right? This is why we thank God for grace and give grace to one another. Just as none of us will live up to the standard of being Christlike, or be perfect as God is perfect, or perfectly follow God’s word, until we finally get rid of this mortal flesh and receive our new bodies, so none of us will live up to this bible-based set of standards. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to try.
Being a Christian means taking responsibility for our own sins, our own attitudes, our own decisions, and our own actions. We own up to them. A lack of studiousness and godly living isn’t anyone else’s fault but our own. A lack of passion in worship or discipline isn’t because life is so hard, it’s because we’re sinners. A refusal to share the gospel with others, refusal to lead our family in a godly way, refusal to use our money properly, isn’t because our work is too busy, our kids are too much trouble, and our bills are too high – it’s because we’ve made poor, selfish, choices.
A Christian admits this. First we admit it to Jesus. We pray, “Jesus, I’m a sinner. I’ve messed up so much. The effects of the sin in my heart, my own selfish, stupid choices, have rippled out of my soul and affected everyone around me. Most of all, my sin has torn me away from you. Please forgive me, help me, heal me, put me on the right path, and help me stay there.” We admit to Jesus that we are sinners, and then we ask for His help. But it doesn’t stop there.
As we talked about last week, as James 5 says, we “confess our sins to one another and pray for one another, that [we] may be healed.” We need to bring others into the loop. This membership covenant helps us do that. It helps us see how we fall short of God’s standards, and helps us to see some things we need to ask our church to help us with.
But it does something else. As Galatians 6:1-2 says, it helps us to bear one another’s burdens, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
This covenant drives us to confessing our sins to Jesus. It gives us a list of ways we can grow and ask others to help us. And agreeing to it gives others permission to hold us accountable. It gives them permission to say, “Hey, are you reading your bible? Are you praying? How’s your marriage? Are you resting? Are you working hard? Are you serving others? What are your needs?” or “Hey man, you’re thinking some wrong things about God and we need to talk about that.” Or “You haven’t been to church in a while, you’re not giving or serving, and that’s not spiritual healthy – what’s going on?” Hey, you are stealing – not doing your taxes honestly, taking cable from the neighbours, illegally copying music or movies, ripping people off – and the God’s Word says you need to stop.”
By becoming a member of the church you are agreeing that the elders, deacons, and other members have permission to ask you hard questions and hold you accountable. This is how we keep sharpening each other (Prov 27:10). We do it as 1 Corinthians 13 says we should do it, full of love – but sometimes that love means doing the hard thing like confronting the sin. This is how we remain a good, godly, Christ-honouring, church. This is how we all grow closer to God and more like Jesus, together.
I’m going to try to bring the membership covenant up more this year to keep it in front of us, but my encouragement to you is to keep this document in your bible, use it to spur yourself and others on. Read it in your small group, your family devotions, and go over it in your private study time. Use it to spur your prayer life, your conversations with other believers, and to motivate you to help others.
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“For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:1-13)
Mortification of Sin
We’re jumping in and continuing on from last week, still on the topic of self-discipline and are continuing our discussion of what it means to take following Jesus seriously.
When we become a Christian and start following Jesus we are given an inward drive towards becoming more like Jesus – more holy, more righteous, more loving. “Be holy as I am holy”, God says to His people, and then gives us the help to do that.
We’ve talked before that we don’t do this in order to get saved but out of love and obedience for the One who saved us. We know we’ll never achieve perfection in this life, and that, because of our sinful nature we’re going to keep breaking God’s laws and doing wrong – but now that we are Christian we hate that sinful part of us, because it was sin that has messed up the world, our lives, and is what required Jesus to die on the cross. So we confess those sins every day in prayer, are thankful that God’s grace is so big and that the blood of Jesus covers all our sins past and future so we can be forgiven, and then we ask God for more help, more love, more patience, more kindness, more generosity, more self-control in the coming day to live better. Not just to be a holier than thou Christian prude, but because we’ve seen how sin hurts us, others, and our relationship with God.
That’s how Christians see sin. That’s why we work hard to get rid of the sins in our life – what believers used to call the “mortification of sin”. We work with God to try to mortify, or kill, or subdue, the fleshly, sinful desires inside us that cause so much trouble.
God uses some pretty serious, life and death language when speaking of how we should deal with our sin and practice self-control. Listen to Colossians 3:1-6 says, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these, the wrath of God is coming.”
So, because sin is so serious, a believer engages in a process called sanctification. To sanctify something means to set it apart for special use, to be made holy. Grandma’s special china collection is sanctified by the fact that it is cleaned and then kept carefully in a china cabinet. Your favourite hockey card is sanctified by you taking it from the collection, putting it into a special protective case, and then mounting it on the wall. You are sanctified by Jesus as you are taken from the enemy camp into his kingdom, from death to life, from slave to sin to freedom in Christ, and made one of His special people.
If you remember way back in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 it told us, “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
We cannot be righteous without Jesus. We can’t redeem ourselves. And we cannot purify or sanctify ourselves without Jesus. The Gospel of Christ tells us the consequences of our sins – death, hell, pain, suffering, fear, addiction, brokenness. It tells us that Jesus has come to save us from all that by taking the penalty for sin upon Himself, wiping out its effects by taking God’s wrath against sin for us, dying on the cross, and then rising again to show that He has destroyed sin’s power – and then invites us to follow Him. This is what it means to be born again. When we are chosen by God and accept His invitation we are immediately sanctified. Jesus’ perfect sacrifice made it so that all our sins are perfectly dealt with and if we died today we would be with Jesus forever.
But at the same time, while we still live on earth we continue to deal with the echo effects of sin all around us. So, while we are perfectly clean in God’s eyes, perfectly accepted, perfectly redeemed, we also enter the process of sanctification in order to become more like Jesus every day. We use a lot of different phrases to describe this today. We talk about growing in God or becoming spiritually mature, but whatever we call it, part of that process is the mortification, or killing, of the sinful parts of ourselves that affect our daily walk in this world. We will never become perfect, but we continue to struggle against and work towards holiness. We “put to death therefore what is earthly in [us]…”
Going Through the Motions
Now, just like today, some of the people in the Corinthian church thought that since they professed faith in Jesus, went to church, and joined in the Lord’s Supper, they could then live however they wanted. Remember the context of eating meat offered to idols and causing those around them to stumble in their faith by going against their consciences. They figured that since they were Christians, they could do whatever they wanted! Paul wanted them to be absolutely clear that wasn’t true, it was a false belief, and so he used multiple examples
This still happens today. Young people who have gone to church their whole life are especially in danger of this way of thinking. They have gone to church for as long as they can remember, can quote verses from the Bible, serve in a couple places each week, go to Youth Group or Small Group, they can answer some Bible Trivia questions and take communion each month… so they figure they’re good. They’re covered.
The Bible says, be careful. There’s a big difference between saving faith and merely going through the motions of a believer. Of course, this isn’t just about youth. I’ve seen this at all ages. People who attend sometimes, do a little volunteer work, and say they believe… maybe they even had a tearful conversion at a summer camp or walked down an aisle at a crusade – but they’re not engaged in the daily battle against sin. And they’re not just disengaged, they don’t actually care.
This is most acute when the young person turns 18 and moves out or goes off to college or starts a job and is getting paid and is then given the freedom of an adult. Suddenly it becomes clear that their faith is extremely thin, they haven’t been working on their sanctification at all, and within a short time, they are in real trouble. They weren’t Christians, they were merely covered by the grace of their Christian parents.
It wasn’t they that decided not to look at pornography, it was the fact that it wasn’t available in the house. It wasn’t they that decided not to waste hours on the internet and video games, it was their parent’s rules and schedules. It wasn’t they that decided to watch their tongue, it was the peer pressure from their Christian friends. It wasn’t they that decided reading the Bible. going to church, being cautious about friendships, and the rest was important, it was enforced in by house rules.
And when they get that first taste of freedom from those rules, their true level of sanctification really shows. Soon they are addicted, indebted, depressed, lethargic, have turned their back on the church, and have just enough understanding of God to blame and resent Him for all their problems. Again, I don’t want to pick on just young people, I’ve seen this in seniors too, where the only thing that kept them from blowing up their life was external pressure, not internal sanctification.
This too is all over scripture. The wheat and the chaff, the good seeds and bad, parable of the sower, the sheep and the goats, wolves in sheep’s clothing, whitewashed tombs, play actors (Matt. 3:12; 13:1-30; 5:15; 25:31-46; 23:25-27) are all phrases where Jesus talks about people that look like Christians to everyone else but are not really saved. These people talk about God, come to church, and receive the blessings of being a Christian without ever turning away from sin and towards Jesus.
Think of it like a strong smell. Coffee shops have a distinct smell. So do hockey and curling rinks. So does a workout gym or the Body Shop store. You’ve probably had that experience when someone comes home from a night out and you can tell exactly where they’ve been just by the smell, right? They walk by and immediately you just what they’ve been doing because they carry the smell with them. My wife used to work at a place where she always came back smelling of bagels. She’d have to change her clothes and wash her hair before it would come out. I had the same problem when I worked at the pulp mill. I always came home smelling of black liquor, which is basically the waste product from turning trees into pulp. It smells a lot worse than bagels and there were times I would have to strip down right in the doorway and leave my clothes in the garage rather than bring them in the house.
In the same way, a non-believer who comes to church and hangs around Christians can pick up their smell – their lifestyle choices, their joy, kindness, high morals, honesty, etc. but not actually have faith in Jesus at all. They can even stay so long they start to believe they are Christians without actually giving their life to Jesus.
Israel and Us
Let’s turn back to our passage. As we saw last week Paul used himself as an example of spiritual maturity and self-denial, but now he goes the other way and uses Israel as an example of spiritual immaturity. “The perfect example of believing the false notion that one can be saved and then live a faithless, God-less life can be seen in what happened to the Jews’ ancestors in the wilderness…” He phrases this as a warning, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”
“For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”
These were people who were saved by God as Christians are. They had multiple, manifold, manifest spiritual blessings. Miracles galore. Their story is every Christian’s story. They were rescued at a great cost from an oppressor, delivered from death by the blood of the lamb, redeemed from slavery, and given a new life. They were guided by God’s presence, given direction in the wilderness and darkness of life. They had a law-giver and spiritual leader to follow, just as we do in Jesus. As they trusted in God their enemies fell before them and behind them. And all along, they were given daily provision to sustain their bodies and souls. Every day they saw a new act of God’s love for them. Paul then drives the point home reminding them that Jesus is God and was the one protecting and providing for the Israelites, just like He does for us!
A People Overthrown by God
But now look at verse 5, “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” This should give us all great pause. God worked miracles, set them free from slavery, and provided for them along the way – but their hearts were not with Him. They were like the young person living with Christian parents, or the citizen living in a civil country. They had the blessings of being a child of God, surrounded by the smell, but their hearts were not with Him.
The word “most” is a pretty big understatement since out of the thousands that left Israel, only two were allowed into the Promised Land! The rest were left to wander and die in the wilderness. They were people of God, who saw God’s miracles, but died in faithlessness.
So, what happened? It is the same story from the beginning of Genesis all the way to the end. They didn’t have faith, they didn’t believe what God had said, they didn’t trust in God alone for their salvation. That’s what God desires. The path of Salvation is fairly simple. It means trusting that what God says is true and believing that His way is the only way.
It was like that for Adam and Eve, many stories of the Israelites in the Old Testament, the Pharisees and Judas in the New. God’s message was clear, they chose not to believe it, and were therefore condemned and “overthrown” by God.
In verse 6 we read, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” Sometimes people wonder why we have the Old Testament when we have the New, or what value there is in the Old Testament. It’s ancient, full of difficult things to read, and the New Testament seems so much nicer.
This verse tells us one reason why. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is immutable, unchangeable. The God who wiped out Sodom and Gomorrah, killed everyone in the flood, and instituted blood sacrifices as the only way to appease His wrath against sin is the same God who came to earth as a baby, wept over Jerusalem, died on the cross, and taught us to love our neighbours. The Old Testament was Jesus’ Bible, the Apostle’s Bible, and the first church’s Bible, and was perfectly sufficient for teaching about faith, salvation and life. The Old Testament doesn’t tell a different story, but gives us the beginning of the story and we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t study it. Paul says that the stories we read of the Israelites and how God dealt with them are examples for us that we should learn from.
So what are we to learn? There are four main sins that are highlighted. Let’s read together, and notice how serious these warnings are. Starting in verse 7: “Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
The temptations the ancient Israelites went through are the same as we go through today, and the sins they commit that separate them from God are the same too. The stories of the Bible are there to instruct us, warn us, encourage us, and teach us about ourselves and God. So I’m going to ask you to do a little digging in your soul to see if these are represented there.
The first mentioned is idolatry, which references the story of the Golden Calf when Moses went up to the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments and while he was there Aaron and the rest of the Israelites crafted an idol to worship in place of God. It wasn’t that they were simply tempted to put their faith somewhere else, it was that they actively chose to reject Yahweh, formed a false god of their own, and then “sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play”, meaning they copied in the cultural, pagan festivals they saw around them.
They did, essentially what I’ve been talking about with young people and cultural Christians. While Moses was away they threw all their beliefs out the window and then worshipped, feasted, drank and danced the way they always wanted to, showing what was really going on in their hearts.
We do the same today as we turn away from God and put our faith and trust in things of our own design – money, insurance, diet, human authorities, or when we dabble with pagan things like horoscopes or superstitions. We can make money, comfort, food, or sex our idol as we turn to it to save us from pain, guilt, shame, fear. Remember the context of the Corinthian church eating food offered to idols and realize that Paul was also speaking of Israel’s example of eating, drinking and partying like unbelievers, throwing off God’s standards and doing whatever they felt they wanted to do regardless of how it affected themselves or anyone else.
If you want to know what idols you have in your life, ask yourself: what you do and what do you reach for when you hit a crisis hits or when you want to celebrate?
The second temptation for the Israelites was sexual immorality. Pornography, lustful thoughts, wandering eyes, sexual fantasy, adultery, and the rest. For them, this was tied to their idol worship. They used the golden calf and worshipping false gods as an excuse to sin sexually. Once they had crafted a god of their own, or borrowed one from a neighbouring nation, they worshipped it as the unbelievers did – which included sexual sins. As we’ve already learned, this was a huge temptation in Corinth, but just as much in ancient Israel.
The further you wander from God, the more you believe what the world believes and act like the world acts, the easier it is to fall for the temptation toward sexual sin. We’ve already talked a lot about that so I won’t belabour the point, but notice God’s punishment here. You might think, “Well, that’s back in the olden days, God doesn’t do that now!”
Listen to the words of Jesus in Revelation 21:5-8, at the end of the Bible: “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ And he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty, I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.’”
You may think Jesus is the warm and cuddly version of God that doesn’t care about sin, lets everyone do what they want, and lets everyone into heaven, but I assure you, He’s the same as He was with the Israelites. He may wait on the punishment, but I assure you that your faith is revealed in your actions and though you may not take your sin seriously, but Jesus sure does.
Does that mean a Christian who sins sexually can lose their salvation? No. As we said before, the difference is sanctification. The difference is that you hate that sin and want to be rid of it. Do you?
The third temptation was put Christ to the test. What does that mean? It means questioning God’s reliability. It’s when we declare God unreliable and then force or demand that He proves himself to us. The Israelites “put Christ to the test” as they told Moses that God and him don’t know what they are doing, that they would surely die of hunger and thirst, that life was better under slavery, that God was holding out on them, refusing to give them their favourite foods, and ultimately that God wasn’t strong enough to defeat their enemies. Over and over they said that God had left them and demanded more and more miracles. (Numb 21, Exo 17)
The Pharisees “put Christ to the test” too. Even though they had heard of and even witnessed multiple miracles, they continued to bring false charges against Jesus, tried to trick Jesus into making mistakes, and then demanding Jesus prove Himself with more miracles (Mark 8:11, Matthew 12:38-39). They even did it as He hung on the cross.
Satan “put Christ to the test” in the wilderness as he tempted Jesus to work miracles for wrong reasons – even tempting Jesus to force God Father to prove His love and prove Jesus’ was special by jumping off the top of the temple!
Have you done this? Atheists love this game. They love mocking Christians and telling God to dance for them, write in the sky, do a crazy sign, and then claiming God doesn’t exist when He refuses to play their game. Do you do this? Do you ever tell God that you’ll believe or obey if He’ll do something for you? Do you ever put yourself in a situation where God has to act just so you can see if He’s real? Do you ever question if God is good or His ways are right, and then deny Him when things don’t go your way? The Bible is clear that is a very serious sin.
Jesus responds, “An evil and adulterious generation seeks for a sign…” Jesus never rebukes or corrects people who are genuinely seeking Him out of need, but He also knows when people are coming with wrong motives.
And the fourth temptation was what is here called “grumbling”. Grumbling isn’t simply talking to God about tough things in your life that you don’t like. God wants us to bring our frustrations, concerns, worries and all the rest to Him. Grumbling is akin to complaining. It’s that low-level murmer in the heart where you keep telling yourself how horrible your life is, how it’s out of control, how the universe is out to get you, that God isn’t helping, nothing is right, there’s not enough money, time, energy, health, or anything else. Your friends aren’t really that good, your house isn’t right, your technology isn’t good enough, your spouse isn’t good enough, your life is too hard, too hot, too cold, too noisy, too quiet… murmur murmer grumble grumble complain complain.
This one is very difficult for me and one of my greatest temptations. I’m a child of discontent and have a very critical heart. I know this about myself and I have to be very careful about it. Why? Because grumbling is spiritually destructive and debilitating. It shows a lack of faith in God, a belief that He is unloving towards you. It’s a lack of contentedness and shows a misunderstanding of grace. It is the belief that you inherently deserve more than you have and God is unfairly holding out on you. It destroys your worship, your prayer life, your relationships, and your witness to others. A grumbling spirit leads to fighting with others, and envy, jealousy, covetousness. (James 4:1-3) “I hate that person. Their life is better than my life, their job is better, the have more of what I want…. And I hate God too for not giving me what they have.” There’s a big difference between complaining to God and complaining about God. Job complained to God but didn’t sin. Israel complained about God and did sin.
What about you? Are you a grumbler?
This section ends with, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
God is faithful. He is for you. He wants your sanctification and wants you to be more holy, because more holiness leads to more joy. He wants your spiritual success and knows what you need in order to grow. He knows your breaking points. Your temptations are not unique to you and he has given you scripture, fellow believers, and the Holy Spirit within you to help you understand them and get through it. And, when you are faced with the burden of temptation, God promises two things: a way out of the temptation, and the strength to endure it. The escape may not be immediate, but He promises that if you trust Him, lean on Him, ask Him, then you will have the strength to endure the temptation and mortify that sin within you – and then grow stronger in faith and in sanctification.
 Life Application Commentary: 1 Corinthians, Pg 135.
Last week we talked about how scary it can be to talk about our faith and some ways we can get over the fear of sharing what Jesus is doing in our life with the people around us. It essentially came down to four things: show people love before you stress about sharing the gospel with them, remember to pray and give yourself and the whole situation over to God, tell them your story and not someone else’s or a list of memorized steps and prayers, and finally, to be consistent but also patient with them and God, knowing He has it under control.
Knowing those four things takes some of the stress off the situation because it makes sharing our faith much more natural rather than forced. It’s stressful to talk to a stranger, it’s easier to talk to someone you have gotten to know. It’s stressful to have to regurgitate steps and techniques that you’ve memorized, but it’s easier when you simply tell your own story of what God has been doing in your life. It’s stressful when you think you are alone, or that all of eternity hinges on you getting this moment right, but it’s a lot easier when you know that God is with you and everything will happen in His timing.
I really appreciated Justin’s story from the video. And parts of his story line up with what I talked about and then parts of it don’t. Which isn’t surprising since everyone’s story is different, right? He had a teacher who he knew cared for him, but instead of talking to him about Jesus directly, the teacher invited this messed up drug-dealer to church – and He went! So who did the work there? God did all of it, right? The teacher was kind and gave the kid an invite, but it was God that got this rebellious teen to walk through the door of a church alone. Justin got saved his first time at church. That’s totally God, right? The teacher wasn’t even going to pray with him! He didn’t believe that God was going to save this kid on his first night at church – but He did!
And you can hear the resolve in Justin’s voice during the second part of the video, right? He feels an urgency to share his faith with the people around him. He hates the idea of people going to Hell because he hasn’t shared with them. He even feels a sense of guilt – misplaced guilt, I would say – for not sharing Jesus enough with his friend who committed suicide. It’s God who saves, not Justin, but I appreciate his passion.
But his story and his mission, though very personal for him, is also a universal one. It’s told all through scripture, and has been repeated for thousands of years. Justin was a sinner who couldn’t care less about his soul, God, Jesus or God’s people. But God was working in his heart, even when He didn’t know it. He met someone who showed him love and had the courage to invite him to a better way. God worked a miracle and gave him the choice between two roads that led either to Jesus or away from Him. He walked towards Jesus and the stirrings of his heart were explained to him by one of Jesus’ preachers. He felt compelled to renounce his sin and gave his life to Jesus by confessing not only to God, but to the one who had given him the first invitation. And now he lives his life as one with a fire in his bones that compels him to share this message with all the other people who are lost like he was.
That’s evangelism in a nutshell, and it’s the natural thing for Christians to do. The more we understand what we were saved from and who our saviour is, the stronger the compulsion to share that message.
More Forgiveness More Love
Turn with me to Luke 7:36 and let’s read it together:
“One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” [Simon was the name of the Pharisee whose house Jesus was eating at.]
“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.””
Look at what she does. She had no doubt been listening to Jesus public teaching and had been deeply moved by it, and was desperate to meet Jesus. She hears where Jesus is and drops everything to come. She runs to a place where she knows she is despised and unwelcome – to a Pharisees house. She brings something valuable to her, a very expensive alabaster jar of perfume, as an act of atonement or repentance, showing her sorrow for her sin and desire to make it right. She stands behind him, not feeling worthy to even speak a word to Jesus. She weeps. Not because she is afraid or sad, but from the grief of her sinful life, the desperation to be forgiven, and to have the destruction of her soul repaired by Jesus. One commentary I read gave a beautiful thought:
“The tears, which were quite involuntary, poured down in a flood upon [Jesus’] naked feet, as she bent down to kiss them, and deeming them rather fouled than washed by this, she hastened to wipe them off with the only towels he had, the long tresses of her own hair…”
She kisses His feet. The word here means she kissed his feet repeatedly, over and over an act of reverence, thankfulness, and humility. Jesus was her Lord, Master, Teacher, and Saviour, and she showed it publically and with great humiliation.
Contrast that with the Pharisee. Now, was Simon less of a sinner than the woman? No, of course not. His sins were just less publically known. Simon considered himself worthy of the presence of Jesus at his table – in fact, he may have even felt that he was equal to Jesus. So he didn’t even bother to show Jesus the most basic hospitality. No kindness, no greeting, no service. This woman knew she was a sinner in need of a Saviour – Simon did not.
The Pharisee was aghast that Jesus would let such a sinful person touch Him. Jesus had the reputation of being a Prophet, someone who was close to God and had a special connection to Him, someone who was holy, with special knowledge that no one else had. So Simon thought, “This guy must be a really bad prophet if he can’t even tell who this woman is. He can’t be who he says he is. He can’t be as holy or important as I thought he was. I’m a much better teacher and much more holy person than Jesus. I’d never let this woman anywhere near me!”
Jesus knew what Simon was thinking and even while the woman was still washing and anointing His feet, Jesus gets Simon’s attention and tells the parable of two people who were forgiven their debts.
He inherently knows the answer to Jesus question, right? It’s common sense. A denarii is the equivalent to the average worker’s daily wage. One person owed a year and a half’s worth of debt. So take your annual household income and add 50%. The average household income in Canada is about $76,000, so that means that the first person owed about $115,000 dollars. By contrast the other person owed about $11,000.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been forgiven a debt of any substantial size, or given a gift of something fairly expensive, but it’s a pretty amazing feeling. And, in human terms, the amount of amazing feeling you get is generally commensurate with the amount you’ve been given or forgiven. Not that I recommend playing the lottery, but think about it. Who celebrates more, the one who wins $20 off a scratch card or the one who wins the million dollar jackpot? Who feels more accomplished, the team that leads the entire season and then wins the cup, or the underdog team with the new coach, that struggled with injuries, and eeks out a second period overtime win in game 7?
In the same way, the one who knows the depth of their sins and knows they’ve been forgiven much will love much, but “he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
Are You A Sinner?
If you know you are a sinner doomed to hell by your own hand, unable to save yourself, but plucked from death and reborn anew by the amazing grace of Jesus, your love for Jesus and for God will be far more than the one who thinks they are mostly good, who believes they have earned their own place in heaven, who commands their own life, or just needs God to occasionally step in when things get a little too difficult.
In recent years, for those who still sing hymns, some churches have taken to changing the words to the great John Newton hymn, Amazing Grace, because the original version is too unpalatable. The original lyrics say, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” But, understandably, most people don’t like saying they are wretches, but they like the song, have some nostalgia for it, or like the idea of getting grace from God, so they change the words to “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved and strengthened me” or “that saved and set me free”. That’s much better, they think.
The problem with that is that we are wretches. For many years John Newton was a vile human being: A runaway, a rebel, a military deserter, and a convict. To get out of prison he begged to work on a slave ship, the vilest of positions, where his racism ran rampant and he helped to kidnap and kill people, living with complete moral abandon, working hard to tempt and seduce others to sin with him. One night there was a great storm where he thought he would die, and suddenly verses he had learned as a child sprang to mind and he begged God for forgiveness and help. God intervened and not only saved his life, but his soul. He changed his life and started to work to clean up the slave trade industry until he became so disgusted that he quit and joined the ministry. Newton took to writing hymns and poems for his church’s Thursday evening prayer service, and one of these was Amazing Grace. The guilt and shame of his former life never left him, and near the end of his life when he was getting more feeble and sick, as people kept wondering if he would retire, he would reply,
“I cannot stop. What? Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?”
John Newton knew well the wretchedness of his soul and how amazing the grace of Jesus must be that He would be willing to save him. But we have lost that these days. People today don’t like to talk about “sin that leads to death”, but instead about “brokenness that needs healing”. If they believe in an afterlife, or a sort of heaven, when you ask them if they are going when they die they will say, “I hope so. I think I’ve been a good person.”
Too many Christians don’t know if they are saved or not, because they believe that their salvation is based on how obedient or loving or good they have been, rather than on their faith in Jesus. I’m not against new music or new worship songs, but it is not good that so many have turned from singing the old hymns that said things like, “Alas! and did my Savior bleed and did my Sovereign die? Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?” “What, I’m not a worm!” we argue. “I’m a good person!”
Many will no longer sing, “I need Thee, precious Jesus, for I am full of sin; My soul is dark and guilty, My heart is dead within. I need the cleansing fountain Where I can always flee, The blood of Christ most precious, The sinner’s perfect plea.”  “I’m not full of sin, I’m a good person.” “I’m not dark and guilty, I just need a little help.” “My heart isn’t dead within me, I have lots of feelings and love.” “I’m not dirty, I don’t need a cleansing fountain.”
But that’s not how scripture teaches it. That’s not what Christians believe. God says in the Bible:
Romans 1:18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”
Romans 3:10-18, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
And some say, “That’s only talking about really bad people. That’s not me. I’m a good person.” To which God replies in Romans 3:23, “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” .1 John 1:10, “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…”
To which God replies in Romans 3:23, “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” .1 John 1:10, “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…”
1 John 1:10, “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…”
James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…”
Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…”
Turn with me again to Ephesians 2 and let’s read it together. This is a passage we have read many times, but we must never allow to stray far from our memory.
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
That is the condition of our soul were it not for the Amazing Grace of Jesus Christ. You and I are not good people in need of a little help. Our souls are not sick and in need of a doctor. We are not drowning and just need to grab onto a life preserver. Without Jesus we are walking corpses, dead in our sins, citizens of an enemy kingdom, children of disobedience, living out the passions of our flesh, selfishly doing whatever we think is best for us, under the rightful wrath of God.
Isaiah 64:6 uses four similes to describe what Gods sees when He looks at us: “We have all become like one who is unclean”, like a leper, rotting, infected, and infectious to others. “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” The words “polluted garment” can be translated “filthy rags” referring to the cloth used to soak up the blood from a woman’s menstrual cycle. People cannot do “good deeds” to gain
“We have all become like one who is unclean”, like a leper, rotting, infected, and infectious to others. “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” The words “polluted garment” can be translated “filthy rags” referring to the cloth used to soak up the blood from a woman’s menstrual cycle. People cannot do “good deeds” to gain
“All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” The words “polluted garment” can be translated “filthy rags” referring to the cloth used to soak up the blood from a woman’s menstrual cycle. People cannot do “good deeds” to gain favour with God any more than someone can bribe us by giving us a used menstrual pad. It says “We all fade like a leaf”, decayed, brittle and lifeless. And “our iniquities [meaning our sins], like the wind, take us away.” We have as much ability to save ourselves as a dead leave has against fighting a strong wind. The leaf doesn’t choose where to go, the wind does. In the same way, we don’t choose what we do, our flesh, our sin, our iniquity does.
It says “We all fade like a leaf”, decayed, brittle and lifeless. And “our iniquities [meaning our sins], like the wind, take us away.” We have as much ability to save ourselves as a dead leave has against fighting a strong wind. The leaf doesn’t choose where to go, the wind does. In the same way, we don’t choose what we do, our flesh, our sin, our iniquity does.
It is imperative we understand this. It affects your prayer life, your worship, your humility, your desperation for God’s word, and your passion for sharing your faith. The woman atJesus’s feet knew she was a sinner and wept at His feet seeking forgiveness and reconciliation with God, which she received. Justin from the video knows he is an undeserving sinner saved from Hell, and he is compelled to tell others. John Newton knew he was a pitiful wretch who was only saved by the Amazing Grace of God and he was compelled to tell others. I too, though I have known God all my life, was saved as a child, know that I am a depraved sinner who, left to himself, would sin myself into oblivion. I cannot judge anyone else as worse than me! But by the Grace of God go I. There is no bottom to my selfishness, greed, and sin – and praise God there is no bottom to His Amazing Grace found in Jesus Christ… and knowing that I am compelled to tell others.
Now keep reading in Ephesians 2:4:
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
The question is, do you know this? How much of a sinner do you think you are? Do you know the name by which you are saved? Were it not for God, how much of a sinner you would be? Do you know the One who has redeemed you and what you have been redeemed from? Do you thank God every day for His Amazing Grace to a wretch like you?
The one who knows the depth of their sin and realizes how much they have been forgiven will love Jesus more, pray more, worship more, and talk about Jesus more – they are motivated to share the love and forgiveness of God with others because they know how much they are loved and forgive. But “he who is forgiven little, loves little”, prays little, worship little, loves little, forgives little, and talks about Jesus little.
 Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
Have you ever heard of “Anosmia”? It’s a fancy word describing the inability to smell and thousands of Canadians have this problem. I read a little about it this week and it’s actually a much more serious problem then one would think because our nose is something that keeps us safe. Why do we sniff leftovers or milk when it has been in the fridge for too long? Because our nose is our first line of defence to keep us from getting sick. If it smells bad, then we don’t eat it. Instead, we reject the food and throw it away. People with anosmia can’t smell when their food is bad, or if there’s a gas leak from their stove, or if their house is on fire!
Losing the ability to smell is a huge issue because it’s one way that we can spot dangers in the world and keep ourselves safe. Everyone agrees with this, right? I’m especially thinking of the bad food one. We open the fridge, spot some old guacamole and wonder if it’s any good. Guacamole always looks a little funky, so it’s hard to tell by sight. So we smell it. If it smells good, then get the chips – if not, toss it out. We don’t feel bad about tossing it out because it is dangerous and could make us sick.
Hang on to that principle and open up to Psalm 15.
“O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill? He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart; who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend; in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the LORD; who swears to his own hurt and does not change; who does not put out his money at interest and does not take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things shall never be moved.”
A few years ago I preached through this psalm over a series of 9 weeks and parked on one phrase in there that needed some explanation. Most people can get behind the rest of the psalm, but usually have a problem with one part. Can you guess which one?
I’ll give you a hint. People have no problem agreeing that God’s people are supposed to do what is right and speak truth. They have no issue with saying God’s people shouldn’t slander others or do evil against their neighbours and friends. They agree that believers should fear the Lord, admit their wrongs, and use their money wisely and generously. What part do people usually have a problem with? “Despising (or rejecting) vile people”.
The concept of believers rejecting or despising someone doesn’t sit well with some people. Most popular images of Jesus argue that He was all about love, acceptance, peace, and openness – that He would never reject or “despise” anyone, and would never call anyone “vile”. This simply isn’t true. While it may be true that Jesus didn’t call anyone “vile”, He did have some other choice words for them. He called some “blind” others “fools”. He called the scribes and Pharisees “whitewashed tombs”, “serpents”, “vipers”, “hypocrites”, “unmarked graves”, “children of hell”, and “murderers” (Matthew 23, Luke 11).
Jesus is the most loving, compassionate, long-suffering, friend that sinners could ever know – but He has no qualms about calling out sinners when He sees them. The most reviled sinners found themselves drawn to Jesus, compelled by his amazing grace, where they found forgiveness and acceptance. But no such softness was found when Jesus saw unrepentant sin and hard hearts. He called it out.
In the same way, Christians are supposed to recognize sin when we see it, recognize a hard, unrepentant heart, and reject the sin along with the sinner. We need to be able to detest what is “vile” for three important reasons. First, so that we, the community, and the unrepentant believer recognizes the seriousness of sin. Second, to compel the sinner to repent. Third, to protect the church from the effects of that sin. We’ve talked about these before.
We talked in the last couple weeks about the importance of recognizing the danger of sin and not tolerating or trivializing it, but instead confronting it. Last week we talked about who we are to judge, that being only our fellow Christians – and by what standards, that being the Bible. Certainly, the Holy Spirit helps us by working within us like a Geiger counter or radar detector that makes us sense when there is sin, but we always, always make sure we check our judgements with what the Bible says.
Going back to the food example: We open the fridge and spot some cheese. It’s covered in blue mold, we press it with our finger and it’s soft and funky, and when we give it the sniff test and it smells TERRIBLE. We immediately feel sick to our stomachs and cry out, “WHO LEFT THIS DISGUISTING CHEESE IN THE FRIDGE! HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN HERE? ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL US?!? I’M THROWING IT OUT! GROSS!” All of our senses are telling us that the cheese is bad for us, but then someone comes running around the corner saying, “No! Don’t throw that out! I just paid some good money for that cheese! It’s called Stilton and it’s delicious! The stinkier the better!”
You see, just because your senses say it’s no good, doesn’t mean it actually isn’t. That’s why we check with the Bible before we make a determination. It’s our standard for faith and life.
But what if something doesn’t pass the sniff test and doesn’t line up with the Bible? Then what ought we to do? How do we balance Jesus’ commands to love our neighbour as ourselves, love our brothers and sisters, bear with their faults, while at the same time “rejecting the vile” and as our passage in 1st Corinthians 5 which we are studying says, “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Cor 5:13)?
We talked about Step One last week, which was to look inward and evaluate our own sin, motives, and relationship with God, so that we are humbled and prepared, but what comes next?
Turn with me to Matthew 18 and let’s explore there what needs to be done to get this right. This is a very practical model given by Jesus to help us understand how to deal with sin among His people. This isn’t the only place where we can learn about this, but I think it’s the clearest for most situations we will find ourselves in.
Step Two: One on One (Confront & Support)
“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.” (Matthew 18:15)
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 must bring witnesses. 1 Timothy 5:19-20 says, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” This isn’t about special treatment – far from it considering the major impact it would have – it’s about giving public figures protection from 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 seen myself or heard from this person (yes, name that person so it’s not gossip) that you have been struggling with this sin.” For example, “I’ve heard that you are angry with someone, that you are harbouring unforgiveness, that you are addicted to something, that there’s something that is separating you from God. I’m here to ask you about it, tell you what God says, and I’m 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?” Confront, then support. Supporting them could be as simple as telling them how to make it right, and then they go do it and then hold them accountable by making sure they 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 regularly until they get right with it. Sometimes the issue is beyond our ability and we need to help them get into a treatment or counselling program and then talk to them about how that’s going. 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.
Step Three: Bring Friends
What if that doesn’t work? Jesus says in 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 that person 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 the sin is. This also shows them that their sin isn’t a secret – that people know about it.
The people you bring isn’t meant to be a pastor or an elder, but friends. This also isn’t your posse. Get a group of Christian friends that they will listen to and invite them over, or invite yourself over. And when you are all together, the group tries again.
If you are someone being 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!
After that meeting, you go back to what we talked about with loving support.
Step Four: Call the Elders
But what if bringing the group doesn’t work? This is where we 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” or “rejected the vile”. We are still working together as a church to combat this sin, break the hold it has on our brother or sister, and the next step is to get the church leadership involved.
God takes sin very seriously and we want to show this person just how serious it is. Bring yourself and the witnesses to the pastor and the elders of the church. (If you come by yourself, and I don’t know about the problem, chances are I’m 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 Five: 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.”
“…and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
This is where the church “turns them over to Satan.” This is not a happy time, but a sad one. If this person is still unrepentant after all of this, then they are not acting like a believer, which means their soul is in jeopardy. Therefore, since they are not acting like a Christian we 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, we are told not to even associate with them. That’s what it means in 1 Corinthians 5:11 when it says “not even to eat with such a one”.
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. Here’s just a few from the New Testament:
“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)
Now, why do we get to this step?
Reject, Protect, Restore
What most people don’t understand is that this fourth step is actually a process. We don’t just “Reject” – but we also protect and restore. Let me explain.
When a church is faced with an unrepentant Christian who is more committed to their sin than to Jesus, we are commanded by God 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 because they are a danger to themselves and others. We purposefully make the believer feel badly about themselves and their sin by giving them a taste of life as an unrepentant sinner again. They want to live like a demon so we let them experience a taste of hell. 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 or that their sin is no big deal. We therefore become complicit with their sin – just like the church in Corinth.
The second reason for rejecting them 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. When we keep them around us we are in danger of being tempted to sin with them! We protect ourselves from their bad influence and protect them from feeling like their sin is ok. Removing them from membership and refusing to meet with them socially is 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. Being rejected by their fellow believers because of their behaviour 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.
When we refuse to meet with them it also makes it so that 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, Jesus’ reputation, and even show love to the sinner by our refusing to do these sorts of things for them.
Which leads us to the third reason to reject the person, and the ultimate reason for Church discipline: this sets up the conditions by which we will be able to restore this person 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 as pawns of Satan for a while, they will see their sin and want to be restored back to Jesus.
This is ultimately what this is all about. Not kicking the person out, but doing everything we can to save them from the sin that is entangling them and restoring them back to spiritual health.
Conclusion: This is Hard but Important
I realize that this is hard! Often, the practical working out of these sorts of commands from God is hard. There are some practical questions too: 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 of the church faith in Jesus, then how do we do it? Unfortunately, there is no way to answer every question.
Some people will lean towards “we have to keep showing them love” and keep talking to them in a friendly way while remaining 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 necessarily wrong, nor do I think any of them is totally right, nor will any of us will do them perfectly. What is certain is our need for spiritual sensitivity and an abiding desire to do the will of God. I think all of this needs much prayer, study, and godly wisdom. If we are listening to the Holy Spirit, reading His word, and seeking His glory, then I believe God can use us to help those around us grow closer to Him and protect them from sin.
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.
This is tough stuff and none of us are good at it. We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve done it too harshly or have avoided it or been too soft. But that doesn’t excuse us from trying to get this right. It’s too important to ignore. Sin is too dangerous.
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. If we do this full of holier-than-thou pride it will be very damaging. The loaf will be ruined with the yeast of sin. But if we pursue Godly Church Discipline out of love and a desire to see sinners restored to the fellowship and to the faith, then it is an act of worship that God will bless.
Let’s keep seeing soft, repentant hearts towards, but always be willing to do the hard things that He asks us to do. If you know a brother or sister caught in sin, then pray for them, and courageously commit that you will help them see the danger of their sin and repent from it so they can get back to church, back in prayer, back to serving God, back in worship, and back in a loving relationship with Jesus.
We’ve been slowly working our way through 1st Corinthians and after a Christmas break and the January series on depression, it’s time to get back into our study by turning to 1st Corinthians 5.
“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’”
Would You Rather?
People love playing the “What’s worse?” or “Would you rather?” game. There’ are websites and apps dedicated to them! Would you rather inhale a bug while riding your bike or find a hair in your food at a restaurant? What’s worse: having bird poop land on your head or stepping barefoot in dog poo? Would you rather be almost blind or almost deaf? What’s worse” running out of gas or getting a flat tire?
For good or for ill, people are comparative by nature. We love comparing things. We turn everything into competitions to see who is stronger, faster, can eat more, or anything else. We have competitions for best air guitar, extreme ironing, and ugliest dog. In Japan they have baby crying contests. In the US they have the International Cherry Pit Spitting Championship (the record on that is 28.51m or 93 ft 6.5 in, by the way. That’s the long distance across a basketball court!)
People do this with sin too. If someone is caught doing something they shouldn’t, one popular defence is to say that whatever they were doing wasn’t as bad as something they could have done or that someone else did. “Allan, did you steal a cookie from the cookie jar?” “Yes, but at least I didn’t eat all of them! Yes, but I didn’t rob a bank! Yes, but yesterday I stole two, so this is actually way better.” The idea is to minimize, or trivialize the sin by comparing it to something. We make it seem less important, less significant, than it really is, by holding it up to something we think is worse.
What it shows is a misunderstanding of the seriousness of sin. It’s not just a cookie from the cookie jar, is it? It’s theft. It breaks the 8th Commandment. It shows a lack of respect for parental authority. It shows that there is something wrong with the heart. It sets a bad example for those around and lowers the standards for everyone.
To which the detractors cry, “This is the slippery slope fallacy! Stealing a cookie doesn’t mean that they’ll be robbing banks soon! It won’t bring about the fall of western civilization! It’s just a cookie!” To which Christians, theologians, and God replies: “There is no such thing as a small sin.”
No Small Sins
When we look at sin we tend to trivialize it. When God looks at sin He sees something much more serious. Jesus demonstrated this during His Sermon on the Mount. Turn with me to Matthew 5 and see what Jesus does here.
Look at verse 21. First Jesus talks about anger, something that we don’t spend too much time thinking is that big of a deal. We assume that carrying around anger and bitterness towards people is no big deal as long as we don’t get out of control. We think that yelling at someone in the car who cut us off in traffic is no big deal. Jesus says,
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
It’s so serious that Jesus says next,
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)
In other words, your anger towards your brother needs to be dealt with before you even walk through the doors of the church, before you do your devos, before you say your prayers, before you tithe. If you have anger against someone, even if you think you’ve got it under control you are in spiritual danger and God is not going to accept your prayers or offering!
Move to verse 27. Next Jesus says,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Matthew 5:27-30)
That’s twice that Jesus has talked about the danger of hell.
Men think, “Oh, it’s no big deal to hang that poster, play that video game, watch that show, visit that site, or check out those girls at the mall. I’m faithful in marriage, would never cheat, and it’s not like I went looking for it. It’s just there. I’m just here to buy shoes. I watch it for the plot. I play because it’s fun.”
Women think, “It’s no big deal to read those stories or watch those movies and fantasize about being with someone else. It’s no big deal to think about my old boyfriends or coworkers. No big deal to just scan through a few posts on Facebook. No big deal to wonder about what it would be like to be with them. No big deal to get my motor running with a little fantasy.”
We think it’s all in our heads, secret, and that everyone does it so it’s no big deal. Does this passage make it look like God thinks it’s no big deal? Jesus isn’t adding anything to what God has already said – He’s merely explaining it properly.
And yes, this is hyperbole – or overstatement for effect – but His point is to emphasize how dangerous sin is and how important it is that we maintain control over the purity of our thought life. “Even things of great value should be given up if they are leading a person to sin.” (ESV Study Bible) Why? Because sin is super dangerous! It is ultra-destructive.
This is just like “what’s worse” or “would you rather”. What’s worse? Giving up your internet connection, not going to the mall, deleting Facebook, breaking off that friendship, changing jobs, missing that show or deleting that game – or corrupting your conscience, losing God’s blessing, and living in a state of perpetual, spiritual sickness? Would you rather have the fruits of sin or the fruits of the Spirit?
This is the danger of minimizing sin. It’s eating away our soul like cancer, hurting our family, infecting our children, polluting our worship, corrupting our community – and we treat it like it’s no big deal.
This is what the Corinthians were doing. Paul begins with a startling statement about what is happening in the church: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife.” (5:1) He was sleeping with his step-mother, perhaps even as an adulterous affair. Certainly the Old Testament condemned this, but it was so evil that not even the pagans around them had laws against it. And if you remember the sexual history of Corinth, that is really saying something.
They knew it was wrong but were unwilling to admit it or do anything about it. They knew it was a sin, but didn’t see it as a problem. What’s worse, they thought, to tell this guy to stop sinning and breaking God’s laws or to allow it to continue? They felt that telling him would have been worse.
Look at 5:2, “And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn?”
The church was so accepting of sin that they were not only being tolerant of sin in their midst, but actually being arrogant about it. Where they should have seen the danger of the sin, mourning that it had taken hold of one of the families in their church, in sorrow for the disgrace it would bring to the name of Jesus, they were actually proud of it! “Look how tolerant, loving, caring, accepting we are!”
Their perspective of sin had gotten terribly out of whack. They remind me of the people Paul was talking about in Romans 1:32 where he says, “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” In that case he was talking about unbelieving, out of control, pagans – but it also described the Corinthian church. They knew it was sin, practiced it, and then went as far as to give approval to those who were doing it.
What does the Bible say ought to have been done? “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” Keep in mind that this person is a self-professed Christian! How should they treat this brother? This man doesn’t know how dangerous his sin is so they should “…deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”. This means that the church should stop getting between him and the consequences of his sin. If he wants to live like a demon, then let him experience hell! Why? So his heart breaks when he sees how damaging his sin is. So long as the people around him are tolerating the sin, making excuses, and accepting it, there is no way they will repent. He needed to see the full consequences of his actions.
Sometimes we need this too. Sometimes we need God to let us see what happens when we don’t take sin seriously. Sometimes God lets the shoe fall. We hurt our marriage, families, friends, church, community, or reputation. We turn from God, live with sin, keep it secret, or have a bunch of people make excuses for you: “It’s just your personality. It’s no big deal. You deserved it. We all understand.” and we start to think we’re getting away with it – that there’s no consequences to the sin.
We’re still going to church. We’re still singing the songs, meeting with our friends, enjoying our life, going to work, living our life – and so we get used to having that sin in our lives. No one calls us on our anger or bitterness problem, so we never deal with it. No one calls us on letching over the young women, so we think no one cares. No one calls us on our foul language, addictions, or out of control spending, so we think it’s no problem.
That’s not how Christians are to love one another. That’s not how we are to address sin in the church. Christians have a higher sensitivity to sin, a better perspective of it, a higher standard for ourselves, because are all-too aware of how damaging it is. It’s not just a little anger problem, a little private lust, a little spending issue, a little language problem – it’s a cancer to your soul. It’s a wedge that can be hammered into your relationships with your family, friends and church. A Christian sees sin for how dangerous it really is.
Paul says, “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.” (5:6)
If you are an expert on anything it comes with a blessing and a curse. On one hand you can do something amazing that few people can – on the other hand, you are cursed with the ability to see shoddy work.
If you know how to paint or decorate or design or build, then walking into most people’s houses takes real effort because all you see is mistakes. Runs here, sags there, unmatched colours, poor architecture.
If you are an expert cook or wine taster or coffee then you are blessed, but it also means that most people’s food and coffee tastes bad.
If you are an expert in journalism, history or politics then watching a movie or the news is agonizing because of all the inaccuracies and outright errors.
If you are an expert on exercise or nutrition then seeing what people put into their bodies almost bring you physical pain because of how terrible it is.
And that’s true for all of you who have special training, whatever it is. Your special knowledge gives you a different perspective on the world around you – and it’s not always good.
For a Christian, our understanding of sin makes us realize something other people don’t understand. We don’t see it as a white lie, a little vice, a necessary evil, an excusable moment – we see a virus, cancer, death.
You may have heard of a woman named Joy Milne who has a very special ability. She can smell when someone has Parkinson’s Disease, which is a very difficult disease to diagnose. She first noticed it in her husband as she sensed his smell changing and then he was diagnosed. Scientists were intrigued so they did an experiment where 12 people, six with Parkinson’s and six without, wore shirts all day and then brought them in to be bagged. Joy then smelled each shirt and was right 12 out of 12 times. The actual story goes that they thought she was wrong about one of them, but then eight months later that person was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
Christians are like that. When we finally see our sin, hate our sin, repent of our sin, ask God’s forgiveness of our sin because Jesus died on the cross for our sin, we are given the presence of the Holy Spirit inside of us. And one of His gifts is to make us more sensitive to sin.
As you mature as a Christian you may notice this phenomena in your life. Someone says something, does something, or you go somewhere and there’s some radar that goes off inside of you. Red flags fly, the Geiger counter starts to click, and you know something is hinkey.
Things that didn’t bother you before now seem uncomfortable. Things you used to let go, you now want to deal with. Places that were fun are no longer fun. It’s remarkable. That’s God fixing your broken conscience. That’s the presence of Jesus in you.
As we mature that sensitivity grows, but it also goes away as we practice sinning. The more we accept sin, turn our back to it, blind ourselves to it, accept it, tolerate it, fear it, and allow it to occur, the more we “sear our conscience” (1 Tim 4:2). Our heart gets harder instead of softer, less sensitive, less able to tell right and wrong. That’s what was happening to the Corinthians. They wouldn’t call sin sin, and had lost their ability to see it. Had they lost their salvation, no? But they were still in great spiritual danger. Their church had cancer.
They let the disease of sin grow up in their midst. They allowed the little bit of leaven into their bread, and it infected the whole lump.
I used to work for a pulp mill and one of my jobs was to clear out a section where they had broken down a building. My job was to take everything in the pile, go through it, stick it in a truck, and drive it to where it could be better used. At one point I came across a big bunch of round circles. So I started busting them apart and putting them in garbage bags. A few days later someone came by and saw me doing it and yelled “WHOA! STOP! What are you doing?! Do you know what those are?!” The obvious answer was “no”. They were asbestos gaskets. Every gasket I broke was full of compressed asbestos which made a nice little cloud for me to breathe in.
Asbestos, for those who don’t know, is not to be breathed. The little fibres get inside your lung, get stuck, scar your tissue, and then leads to cancer and all kinds of other breathing problems.
One minute I was happily busting little circles, and the next I was sitting in the mill office filling out paperwork just in case I die of asbestosis someday.
What stopped me? Someone saw what I was doing and knew more than me. He knew those little circles were dangerous, not to be broken, not to be breathed, to be treated carefully by an expert, not by an untrained, idiot, summer student. He knew the danger and he stopped me right there.
That’s what the church is supposed to do with Christians who are sinning. That’s what we’re supposed to do with our fellow brothers and sisters. We are supposed to see the danger and deal with it – patiently, gently, truthfully, scripturally, courageously.
We’ll talk about that more about how to do that next week, but for now that’s where we are going to leave it.
So I ask you: How seriously do you take sin? The sin in your own life, in your family, and in your church? I’m not talking about the country and the world right now – I mean inside you, your closest relationships, and your church. Do you take it as seriously as God does, as Jesus does, as you should? Or do you tolerate it, make excuses for it, trivialize it, allow the cancer to grow and fester, allow your loved ones to play with the asbestos.
I’d like you to pray about that this week.
We’ve been talking for the past few weeks about Mental Illness and Depression, something that is all too common in our community. We’ve talked about what Depression is, what causes it, and a bit of what it’s like to live with it. Last week we talked about the stigma of depression and how hard it is to be honest with people – even in the church – about what you are going through.
But if there’s one thing I want to make clear today it’s that Jesus knows what you are going through. A couple weeks ago I said that it’s possible that Jesus Himself faced true depression and I want to take a little time today to explain how important that truth is.
In Hebrews 4:14-16 we read this:
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 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.”
Many people who are going through a time of suffering and pain have a hard time praying. They feel like their prayers bounce off the ceiling, that there’s no way that God can understand what they are going through, and if He does, that He doesn’t care. Those are natural feelings that the Bible spends a lot of time arguing against.
The argument in this passage is that when we are in a “time of need”, what we really need is to “receive mercy and find grace to help”. No one would argue that. When we go through hard times, that’s what we want – mercy, grace and help. But where are we encouraged to turn to? “The throne of grace.” What is that? God’s throne. Before that throne stands a High Priest, a mediator, a go-between, between us broken, human sinners and the Perfectly Holy Creator of the Universe.
This is a big deal. We can’t come to God on our own because our sin prevents us. If we saw God, we’d die. We need someone who can talk to God, and who God will listen to. Who is that? Jesus. Jesus lived a perfect life, never sinned, and therefore can stand in the presence of God. And so He has promised to be our mediator, our facilitator, between us and God.
But there’s still a problem. How can Jesus know what we’re going through? He’s Jesus, after all! He’s God’s Son, a perfect person from two thousand years ago. How can He relate to what we’re going through? It was the same with the Old Testament priests. They lived a totally different life than the average person, so how could they pray for anyone? They don’t know what we’re going through!
Scripture says, “…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.” The teaching here is that Jesus actually knows exactly what we’re going through, has faced that same problem, that same temptation, that same situation, and yet navigated it perfectly. He literally knows how we feel, what thoughts are racing through our heads, and what it’s like to live surrounded by sin while living in this failing, human flesh. He gets it. He knows what it’s like to face what we are facing.
And to illustrate that today, I would like you to turn with me to Luke 4:1-13.
“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’” And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’”
And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.”
Before we get into taking this passage apart, I want to talk briefly about the nature of temptation.
If you’ve ever worked with addictions then you’ve probably heard of the acronym H.A.L.T., standing for Hungry, Angry, Lonely & Tired, and is a tool meant to help people recognize when they are at their most vulnerable so they won’t relapse. The Christmas Season is a major problem time for a lot of people with addictions, and is similarly a peak-time for spiritual troubles and temptations.
The first letter stands for Hungry. If you’re pinching pennies but are used to spending, or trying to stop the habits of sugar or alcohol by dieting, then you are going to feel hungry. It’s not just food though. It’s about something within you being drawn towards something. You have a craving, a hunger.
The next letter stands for Angry. If you’ve had some bad experiences over the holidays, or you’re back at work and people around you are grumpy, or you’ve been putting things off and need to catch up and it’s not going well, then you could be feeling angry. When we get angry we are more likely to go to our vices to gain control.
The L stands for Lonely. Maybe you had some wonderful times with your family over the holidays but now they’re gone and you feel lonely. Feeling alone can drive us to do foolish, dangerous things just to distract us from our loneliness.
The next letter stands for Tired. The dark and cold, the freezing rain, shoveling, and all Christmas shopping, planning and preparation, the long hours of partying, and then having to get back to work, can leave a person pretty tired.
And that’s just post-holiday stuff. Many of us have other stresses and issues in our lives that have been going on for a longer time and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of relief in sight. Plus some have pre-existing mental and physical conditions that leave you open to feeling miserable even on good days. There are lots of times that we feel extra hungry, angry, lonely and tired.
When those triggers occur, and it all starts to pile on, we tend to be much more open to falling for temptation. These times are when Satan really likes to turn up the heat. It is during Jesus’ weakest time, during His 40 day fast in the desert, that Satan piled on the temptations (Matthew 4:1-11). 1 Peter 5:8 says, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Do lions take on the biggest and strongest prey? No. They pick off the weak ones because they are easier. As Jesus said to His friends, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:38)
Turn there with me to James 1:14-15 and let’s talk a little about what temptation is and how it leads to sin. It says this: “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.”
Breaking this down simply, we read three important things. First, temptation has to do with “enticement” and “desire”. I enjoy fishing and it is absolutely true that you cannot catch all fish with the same bait. Some like worms, some like spoons and spinners, others want it to float at the top of the water or sink to the bottom. You change the bait depending on the fish you want to catch.
Similarly, though temptation is universal (1 Cor 10:13) different people have different desires. Not everyone is tempted towards the same things. When stress or fear or longing or hunger or anger or loneliness – or whatever trigger – comes, we all turn to different things for comfort. Christians are taught to turn to Jesus, and most believers do, but we also often find ourselves turning to other things as well – either instead of or along with, Jesus.
Some turn to material things, using shopping as their comforter, while others turn to alcohol or drugs, coffee, food or sugar. Some turn to wrath, yelling and controlling behaviour as they shout out their injustices and try to take control from God, while others push people away, putting on the headphones, wallowing in their mood, growing more fearful or bitter. Some turn to books, movies or video games, distracting themselves with entertainment, while others turn to pornography and sex for instant distraction and gratification. Some turn to gossip and slander, knocking others down so they can feel better, while others prefer lying about their emotions by pushing the bad feelings down and pretending everything is ok.
We all have these desires within us, and these desires make up our temptations. They are, in a very real sense, our ‘functional saviours’ that replace Jesus as our “go to” for protection, comfort, help, and hope. They don’t work, and often make things worse, but we still go to them.
So that’s the first part, “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire”. Here’s the thing: These desires aren’t always sinful. Technically, deep down, those desires are universal and given by God to be best fulfilled in Jesus. We don’t want alcohol, food, bitterness, video games or porn –we want to feel safer, happier, comforted, but those sins are a quick fix.
Which brings us to the second part. Next it says, “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin…”. Having desires isn’t sin. Sin is part of a process. When the desire stops being for the good God has for us and moves to formulating the plan of how to get what God wants us to have without Him, we sin. When plan to and then turn to someone or something other than God – where it is a fantasy in our heads or a chemical in our veins – we are sinning and causing ourselves spiritual damage.
Here’s how it works: Something happens and we are hit with the desire for love, comfort, protection, safety, fulfilment – and then God offers us Himself as the answer. Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) And we say “No, that takes too long, that’s not how we want to do it, you’re not doing it my way.” And we turn away from Him and come up with a plan for how to get our desire fulfilled without Him. That is sin.
And as it says at the end of the verse, “…and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” When we turn away from the Author of Life and try to find what we want outside of Him and His plan, we are walking the path of death, which is why we feel worse after we have done it. Sure, sinning works for a moment, but when our head clears, and we can hear our God-given conscience again, we feel guilt, shame, fear, dread…. which awakens a desire for peace, comfort, safety, which leads to a new temptation – a new opportunity to turn back to God, or try again with our sin. And the cycle continues.
With that all in mind, let’s turn back to our passage in Luke about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and take it apart a bit so we can see how He really does know what it’s like to walk in our shoes – so to speak.
Sent By His Father
The first thing I want to notice is that Jesus was sent into a time of suffering and temptation by God the Father. If we back up the timeline a bit to what was happening just before the temptation in the wilderness we find ourselves at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. It says in Luke 3:21-22:
“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”
Fast forward to Luke 4:1-2 and we read:
“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry.”
After the wonderful, peaceful, riverside moment where the whole Trinity is present, full of loving, affirming words – Jesus was sent into one of the most difficult times of His life. The same story in Mark 1:12 says, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” It’s the same word as when Jesus “drove out” the merchants in the temple (Mt 21:12), or when Jesus was forcibly driven out of his home town so they could throw Him off a cliff (Lk 4:29). This was God’s idea, and there was no choice in the matter. WHAM! Sudden suffering.
People with depression know this feeling, as do many of us who have been through difficult times. It comes out of nowhere, unprompted, and unasked for. One day you’re having a good day by the river, and the next you are starving alone in a wilderness, surrounded by darkness, dread, the snarling of wild animals (1:13), and non-stop evil voices. Jesus knows how that feels.
Jesus Was Weak
Next I want you to notice that Jesus was weak. He was in the desert wilderness alone for over a month. He ate nothing and was hungry. He had no special clothing to protect him on cold nights, and nothing to sleep on. The ground was hard, rocky and hilly, the sand blowing in his eyes. Hungry, lonely, tired… for sure. And not for one night, not for a week, but for over a month. And not just natural problems to battle, but also spiritual ones. The word “tempted” indicates that the temptation from Satan was continual, unceasing, night and day. The three temptations were just a final culmination, the last stabs, of Jesus’ terrible time.
Jesus knows what it is like to be weak.
Let’s turn our attention to the attacks. First, we see Satan attack Jesus’ identity and mission. The words of His Father, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”, may have seemed pretty far away after a few weeks in that demonic wilderness.
And so Satan attacks Jesus’ identity – who Jesus is. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” (Lk 4:3). Jesus, you are crazy to think you are the Son of God. You’re just a man. You’re not who you say you are. You’re not even who you think you are. You’re a fraud, a fake, a fool. Do something to prove to who you really are. Prove it. Do something to remind you of the good old days when you had everything. Do something so you can feel good, feel important, feel better, feel powerful…
Then the devil used his hunger against Him. God had sent Him there on a mission to combat Satan and Jesus would need all of His spiritual strength. One way humans concentrate on spiritual things is by fasting – removing the distraction of worldly things so we can concentrate on spiritual things. This is what Jesus was doing. Satan knows this and wants it to stop. He says: “Don’t you want something to eat? The road is long and hard and you are hungry. There’s no law against bread. Just this once, just for now, no one will see. Tell your spirit to be quiet and give in to your body’s cravings. It’ll help you. I promise. Since your body wants it, you have a craving, a desire, why not? It’s just a bit of bread. You have the ability to do it, you’re alone, I won’t tell anyone. Actually it’s really Your Father’s fault for putting you in this situation. You deserve bread. You wouldn’t be hungry if it wasn’t for Him and this messed up world. Use your power for yourself. Be selfish.”
Jesus knows what it is like to have your body work against you, to be hungry, to hear a thousand excuses as to why you should tell God to get lost and just give in to the thing that you know will fill the void for a moment.
Attacked His Mission
Next Satan attacks Jesus’ because He’s tired. He attacks His mission.:
“And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, ‘To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’” Aren’t you tired of this fight? Don’t you wish there was an easier way? Don’t you wish you could just give up? God’s way is too hard, it doesn’t make sense, it is just plain cruel. I’m giving you the easy way, the right way. Why suffer needlessly? I can give you what you want. You don’t have to do all the hard work, Jesus. You don’t have to spend years being attacked, misunderstood, mistreated, and suffering. You don’t have to wander lonely places, gather slow-witted followers just to have them turn on you and leave you to be arrested, falsely accused, and then murdered in the most brutal way humans have ever come up with. Why go through all that? I’ll give you the easy way out. I’ll give you everything you want, all the whole world, for free… just bend your knee a little. Just say that I win and I’ll make you a king under my command. Give up. Say it’s too much. Tell God His way is unfair, too hard, and bow to me.”
Jesus knows what it’s like to just want to quit, to be so exhausted you just want to take the easy way out. He knows what it’s like to wonder about the plan of God and to look at a hard life of discipline, and to have Satan offer an easier alternative.
Attacked His Theology
Next Satan attacks Jesus relationship with God. Verse 9:
“And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
Satan can quote scripture better than anyone, and knows how to twist it. He can misinterpret God’s Word, spin it to his own ends, and seek to convince people that God has said something He has not and permits something he has forbidden. He is a liar, the father of lies, and lies are his native language (Jn 8:44). This is why we need to work so hard to interpret it correctly, because when we are weak, Satan will throw all kinds of half-truths, mixed up verses, and out of context scripture, to help convince us to do his will instead of God’s. He’ll even use well-meaning, but biblically illiterate Christians, to give you good-sounding advice.
Jesus knows what it’s like to be surrounded by liars who can quote religious language and Bible verses, but who are only trying to lead you away from God.
Attacked His Trust in God
Along with this came the temptation to stop trusting God. He says: “How can you trust a God who would put you through this, Jesus? Maybe He’s left you? Maybe you’re on your own. Look around. You are alone. And look at those people down there. Here you are, the Creator of the Universe, the Son of God, and they don’t even know who you are, and you know it’s only going to get worse. They don’t love you – and I don’t think God loves you either. How could He? He sent you to this miserable wilderness alone, with no food, no water, no help, no clothes, no nothing – so that you could take me on! No warning, no help, no nothing. That’s unfair.
I know how hard this is for you. I know how badly you want to quit, even now, and you haven’t even hardly gotten started yet! I’ve got years to hurt you, your family, your friends, your followers, and then I get to turn the whole world against you. I have years left to make your life hell.
It’s not my fault though. I’m just doing my job. It was God who put you here in your weakest state, and then invited me to come and attack you non-stop. He delivered you into my hands! What kind of Father does that? He doesn’t love you.
You know what you should do? You should do something to force Him to prove that He cares. You should do something drastic and dramatic that makes everyone take notice. You should make God prove He loves you, force Him to do something. Make Him fulfill His promises to you. You should try to kill yourself. You should jump off this building and make God catch you. Then everyone will know how much pain you are in. Then, if God really wants to save you, He’ll be forced to intervene or let you die and bring you to heaven – either way you win.”
Jesus knows what it’s like to think like this – and so do many people who go through depression. I’ve been down this road and thought these same things. It’s exhausting.
As much as it pains me to do it, we need to leave it there for this week. Next week I want to look at how Jesus dealt with these temptations, and how He faced the symptoms of depression.
But for this week, I want you to know one thing: Jesus knows how you feel and what it’s like to go through what you are going through. I may not know exactly what you are facing, but Jesus knows every detail, and has been there. He’s lost friends, been betrayed, been hurt, angry, broken, and in physical pain. He’s lived without money or a home, been attacked by enemies, prevented from sleep, and attacked by demonic forces.
My hope for you today is that knowing this will spur you to have new and deeper conversations with Jesus in prayer, knowing He can sympathize with you – that He loves you and has experienced your pain, and is experiencing it even now. He is not a far away God, but one who knows your very heart, and has been touched by it.
Pray to Him as a friend, as a brother, as a kindred spirit, a fellow sufferer, who offers you real help and real hope, because He’s been where you are, has achieved victory over it, and offers to teach you how.
We read a scripture last week from the Isaiah 8-9 and I want to take this week to revisit one of those verses. Open up to Isaiah 9:6-7 and let’s read it together again. Last time we emphasized verses 1-5, as we discussed God coming as the child Jesus, making Himself the answer to the troubles of this world, the light shining in the darkness, the Saviour for those who cannot save themselves. This time I want to look at another of the titles that Jesus is given. Let’s read it together:
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”
This passage is one of the most famous in the Bible for a lot of reasons, one being how specific it is in speaking of God coming as a child, but also because it is so jam-packed with descriptions of how God intended to save His people. I gave you some of the backstory last week, which I won’t rehash here, but it’s no wonder, in light of how terrible things had gotten for Israel and for the rest of humanity, that people have turned to these words for hope.
For centuries God’s people have turned to this passage, especially during the seasons of Christmas and Easter, because it reminds us that when things get difficult, we are not alone, God has a plan, our Saviour is real and present, God loves us, and we have hope because our Rescuer is greater than any of our trials.
Is God Distant?
But our hope isn’t just for someday. One thing I’ve noticed is that even though some believers trust Jesus is their Saviour and that they are going to be with Him in Heaven, they think that right now, there’s not much that He’s doing for them.
They find comfort knowing that God is in charge, that Jesus loves them, that His Bible is full of really good stuff, and that sometimes He even answers prayer and performs miracles, but they figure that most of the time, when things aren’t going too badly in the day-to-day of normal life, that God isn’t really doing much.
Usually Christians frame their faith by believing the most amount of energy expended on the relationship comes from them. God sits in His Throne Room, Jesus Stands in the Heavenly Temple, the Holy Spirit dwells in us… but it is we who say our prayers, go to church, sing the songs, do good deeds, take communion, read the Bible, share our faith, ask and grant forgiveness, build churches, set boundaries, choose our jobs, go to work, eat food, raise our kids…. Sure, we do it by reading God’s word, and when we get stuck, we pray and God answers, but most of the time we see Him like a good friend; someone who is good to talk to, who cares about us, who we can call on for help, but who has their own house, their own problems, and a million other things to deal with – so as much as we know we can call on them anytime, we don’t want to overstep any boundaries, strain the friendship, or come across as needy.
I think a lot of people have felt this way. I know I have. It’s easy for me to see Jesus as King on High, Great Teacher, Creator of the Universe, Saviour of the Whole World… but it’s been hard to see Him as the ever-present “friend of sinners” “who sticks closer than a brother” (Luke 7:34; John 15:14; Prov 18:24; 7:4). What does that even mean and how does that work?
I’ve done some thinking and reading about it and one thing that helped me understand this better was this name in Isaiah 9:6, “Wonderful Counsellor”, so let’s take that apart a bit.
The first thing you should know is that people argue over where to put the comma. Some translations say “…his name shall be called wonderful, counsellor, mighty God…” and others say, “…his name shall be called wonderful counsellor, mighty God.” I don’t think it really matters a terrible amount, and I only bring this up to remind you why it’s important to thank God for all the amazing bible translators who put their time, effort, blood, sweat and tears into deciding on what to do with that comma. Whichever way it goes, both are appropriate titles for Jesus. He’s “Wonderful” in His own right and a “wonderful counsellor”.
Advocate & Advisor
That’s what I want to study a bit today. What makes Jesus a “wonderful counsellor”. To do that, let’s start by look at what the word “counsellor” and see what it means.
The main way that the word “Counsellor” is used in the Old Testament is to describe someone who gives advice and recommendations. You’d have the king, and he would be surrounded by advisers, elders, prophets, oracles, and friends who helped him remember the law of the land, gave him the relevant news about what was happening, what had been done throughout history, and give warning and guidance with decisions. King Solomon, renowned for his wisdom, gave counsel to his people and rulers of other nations.
Of course not only kings need counsellors, proverbs talks a lot about the importance of everyone having good counsellors in their life. (Prov 15:22; 27:9)
In the Bible, God is seen as the ultimate counsellor who gives direction to those wise enough to ask for it, and even frustrates the counsellors who oppose Him (Ps 33:10-11). Isaiah says, “This also comes from the LORD of hosts; he is wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom.”
Jesus, in the New Testament is presented as a great counsellor and advocate for the people who came to Him for hope, healing, wisdom, and knowledge. It says He knew what was inside of men (John 2:25) and that in Him is “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:2-3). The Bible says another reason Jesus is such a good counsellor is because He’s felt our weakness and has faced the same temptations we face every day, but did it perfectly (Heb 4:15-16). Who better to turn to?!
Near the end of Jesus time on earth, before His crucifixion during the Last Supper, Jesus told His followers that He would be leaving them. Not just in death, but after rising He would leave again and send them a Counsellor that would be even better than He. The word that Jesus uses here is translated “Helper” in the ESV is from the Greek word PARACLETE, which can is also translated “helper, advocate, encourager, comforter and [our word today] counsellor” He says,
“I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:7-15)
So, let’s put this all together. In the Old Testament God is the perfect counsellor who guides and gives wisdom to those who ask, and who inspires people to write the scriptures as the guide for faith and life. In the New Testament Jesus comes as the God-Man who experiences the worst of humanity, but navigates this world perfectly, making a way for us to be in perfect union with the Father. Jesus, though He could have, didn’t put Himself on the throne and rule like Solomon, taking one problem at a time, but instead did something better by ascending to Heaven and sending His Holy Spirit, who is God and knows God’s thoughts, to take residence in the hearts of believers so we have full access to Him at all times.
The Bible says that we are never alone and never need to lack wisdom, because we have access to our Advocate and Counsellor, the Spirit of God, at all times and in every place.
That’s the first important truth we need to grasp. All believers have access to not only the word of God, but the person of God, who will lead us, guide us, correct us, convict us, enable us and help us daily. This is what pastors usually emphasize. God is with you, Immanuel, all you need to do is ask, and He will give you what you need.
What You Don’t Have To Ask For
But I want to keep going on that, because a Wonderful Counsellor doesn’t just sit around in their room and wait for us to come to them. Most do. A friend will call up and see how you are doing, but usually respects your boundaries and doesn’t try to guide your life too much. A psychologist or psychiatrist may be very smart and helpful, but they usually stay in their office and don’t move into your house. That requires a Wonderful Counsellor and it’s something exclusive to Jesus. I want to show you a little bit about how this works.
There are things that your Wonderful Counsellor will do for you that you don’t even have to ask for. There are ways that He is involved in your life that you sometimes don’t see or realize, but are just as active and meaningful as when He answers prayers or works special miracles.
I want you to turn with me back to a section of scripture we talked about a few weeks ago which I haven’t been able to shake and I think gives us a very practical way of understanding how our Wonderful Counsellor works even when we don’t ask.
It’s in Hosea 2.
Now, we don’t have a lot of time left to take this apart, but as we read it I want you to remember that the story of Hosea and Gomer is the living illustration of God and His people. As Hosea’s wife left him to go and commit adultery with other men, so the people of God broke their covenant with Him and worshiped other gods.
This passage shows how God intends to do everything in His power to save His beloved people from the damage they are causing to themselves. The interconnections are incredible, and I wish we had time for them, but for now, what we see in chapter 2 is God telling Israel, through the prophet Hosea how He’s going to deal with their adultery. He has the right to divorce them and walk away, but instead, He has a plan – and it’s a remarkable plan. His plan is to use circumstance to turn her around. Notice that God says almost nothing until the very end. All of His counsel, his wisdom, will come without her asking and through events that will happen in her life. Let’s go through it together and I’ll point out a few things about how God counsels us without us ever asking.
God Allows Our Sin to Affect Us
“Plead with your mother, plead—for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband—that she put away her whoring from her face, and her adultery from between her breasts; lest I strip her naked and make her as in the day she was born, and make her like a wilderness, and make her like a parched land, and kill her with thirst. Upon her children also I will have no mercy, because they are children of whoredom. For their mother has played the whore; she who conceived them has acted shamefully.”
What we see here is God letting the nation’s sins catch up with them. He’s not going to hold back the evil anymore, but let them have what they want. He doesn’t bring the warning himself though, but instead sends her illegitimate children to do it. The results of their sinful actions rise up against them and they will see what life is like when God pulls back His hand of protection. If they want to live like demons, then they can experience Hell. As they turned away from Him, so He would turn away for a time, to allow their sins catch up with them. This will force them to see that the life they have chosen only results in pain, that the gods they worship are false, and that when they walk away from God, evil follows. Even in this there is mercy as He says He could do far worse – take everything away – but he won’t.
Sometimes God does that to us. You and I can’t even begin to process how much He does to hold back the full results of our sin and the sin of this world! We lust in our hearts, steal from others, rip people off, murder them with hate, make our own selfish plans, and so much more – and without us seeing it or ever thanking Him, God actually keeps us from blowing up everything in our lives. But sometimes, our Wonderful Counsellor chooses not to stand between us and the full consequences of our actions and, for our own good simply lets our sin catch up with us so we can experience the results.
I saw a sign this week that said, “Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes the reason is you’re stupid and make bad decisions.” That’s very true, and our Good Father and Wonderful Counsellor spends a lot of time protecting us from our own bad decisions and the bad decisions of others. It’s called common grace. But sometimes, He lets our sinful hearts have what they want and it often feels terrible and produces great suffering.
God Takes Away Freedoms
“For she said, ‘I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.’ Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns, and I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths. She shall pursue her lovers but not overtake them, and she shall seek them but shall not find them. Then she shall say, ‘I will go and return to my first husband, for it was better for me then than now.’” (vs 5-7)
The adulterous woman says, “I’m going to leave and go party with the bad guys. They’re great! They give me so much!” This is a people who not only believe they are getting away with their sin, but actually prefer it. They steal something or cheat someone and get away with it, and think it’s awesome. They have a sinful habit that the keep going back to, but no one knows and they feel good about it. They fill their minds with garbage, but still think they’re good parents and influences. They are filled with jealousy and hatred, but are able to put on the front where others think they’re super nice. It’s all working out.
What does God do? “hedge up her way with thorns” and “build a wall”. In verse 9 and throughout the passage it says things like , “I will take away my grain when it ripens and my new wine when it is ready.” You can’t party with the demons and give offerings to Baal if you don’t have any wine and grain. They see it as a famine, God sees it as an act of mercy. Sometimes God causes all our work to come up fruitless, no matter how hard we try, because He knows that the results of our labours will lead us away from Him and be used to harm ourselves and others.
Sometimes God takes things away so that we can’t access them anymore, because they are leading us to sin. We lose our job, the computer crashes, our car breaks down, we run out of money, no one will hire us, our health fails and we can’t go anywhere… and then we complain that God isn’t blessing us. I believe that scripture teaches that sometimes – not always but sometimes – this happens as an act of mercy that keeps us from sinning further! That tragedy blocks us from being able to go after and access our sin, and forces us to live without it.
Has that ever happened to you? Where bad circumstances made it so that you weren’t able to even get to your temptation or vice, and you had to live without it? That tough time was a mercy to teach you something! Maybe you’re a prideful, controlling, jerk, who got hurt and was forced to learn humility. That was a gift from your Wonderful Counsellor.
God Exposes Our Shame
“Therefore I will take back my grain in its time, and my wine in its season, and I will take away my wool and my flax, which were to cover her nakedness. Now I will uncover her lewdness in the sight of her lovers, and no one shall rescue her out of my hand.”
As I’ve already said, there are times when our Wonderful Counsellor allows our sin to catch up with us and it brings suffering to us. And there are times when God takes away our freedoms to keep us from sin. But sometimes, the only way to deal with the darkness is to expose it to the light.
Here we see God causing sinners to feel deep shame and embarrassment by not only letting them get caught, but exposing their sin to a lot of people. A good Bible word would be “humiliation”. God humiliates them.
Sin, by its nature, loves darkness, and so do sinners. This is why Jesus and the Bible talk so much about darkness and light. We read in Ephesians 5:11-13, “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…”
What’s the first line of our passage in Isaiah? “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”
Problems, fears, temptations, and sin shrivel when they are exposed to the light, which is why Satan works overtime to make you afraid to share your temptations with others, make you feel like you are alone so you never share your struggles, make you believe there is no one you can trust, and gives you a thousand reasons why you should keep your troubles and sinful habits a secret. He ingrains hypocrisy into each one of us until wearing our mask feels more natural than not. He can’t take away a Christian’s salvation, He can’t turn a child of light back into a child of darkness, but He works overtime to convince them to keep as much of the darkness in them as possible – and then convinces them that they need to keep that darkness a secret.
But sometimes, as an act of mercy and divine discipline, God refuses to let us keep it in the dark. He forces it into the light. Someone catches us in the act. Someone hacks in and exposes our internet history and what sites we’ve signed up for. We get sick and someone goes through our personal belongings. We have a breakdown in public. Or as someone else tries to get free, they exposes our own dark secrets.
And we feel deep shame, regret, fear, and humiliation. That isn’t God punishing us. That’s our Wonderful Counsellor helping us to bring light into a dark place. Sometimes the only way to break through our fear and stubbornness and addiction is to drag us kicking and screaming into the light so everyone can see who we really are and what we’ve been hiding. As long as it’s a secret it has power over you, but once it comes to light, it loses its power and you can get help and healing. Jesus came to shine light into the darkness.