A Farewell Address in the Upper Room
On the night before Jesus went to the cross, He had a lot of things to say to His disciples in the Upper Room. Matthew, Mark and Luke give some of the story like what Jesus said and did, but it is the Gospel of John, written 30 years later, that fills in a lot more of the details of what happened.
John spends five whole chapters sharing what Jesus taught that night – and it’s some powerful and critically important stuff. In chapter 13 we see Jesus wash the disciple’s feet, demonstrating the kind of humble, servant-hearted love His followers are supposed to have towards one another. Then, after predicting Peter’s denial and telling Judas Iscariot He knew what was up before Judas left to betray Him, Jesus gives a very long talk.
He tells them that He will be leaving them soon and that if there is one thing they need to remember once He’s gone is that He loves them and that the movement He has just instituted must be known for one thing: Love. John 13:34–35,
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
With that as the jumping off point, that Jesus is leaving and they need to love one another, He gets into the details of what that means. In chapter 14 Jesus speaks of where He is going – to prepare a place in heaven with God for all the people who follow Him. They’re confused, as usual, and want to know how to get to where Jesus is going what He’s talking about. Look at 14:6. Jesus tells them flat out how to get where He’s going and why He has the authority to say what He’s saying. He tells them that a relationship with Him is the only to God, because He is God Himself!
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him…. [then verse 10] I am in the Father and the Father is in me…”
This gives some comfort, but Jesus sounds pretty serious about leaving and the disciples are concerned that if Jesus leaves then everything they’ve been experiencing will stop. They’re worried they will once again be left alone, afraid, powerless under the thumb of the Pharisees and the Romans. They won’t know what Jesus wants them to do, and won’t be able to do anything of worth because He’s not there, and that they might fall back into old patterns of sin because they no longer have Him around. But Jesus isn’t done teaching yet and what He’s about to say will radically alter how they and everyone else perceives their relationship with God.
Even though Jesus is leaving, Jesus isn’t going to leave them alone. Look at what He says in John 14:15–20. I want you to notice the interplay, overlapping and distinctiveness of the persons, roles, and individuals in the Trinity:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”
Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit. It’s not that the Holy Spirit wasn’t around until that moment. We see the work of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, and we know that none of the disciples would be able to follow Jesus or understand even a tiny bit of what Jesus is saying if the Holy Spirit wasn’t working on them. But now, after Jesus dies, rises again, and leaves them after the ascension, the Holy Spirit will be with them in a new way.
The Helper: The Holy Spirit
Continue reading in John 14:25–31 where Jesus speaks of the work of the Holy Spirit and explains once again that He is going to be murdered by sinners, but they won’t be left alone:
“These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place you may believe. I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.”
Now we come to chapter 15 where we read the famous section about us being branches, Jesus the “true vine”, and God the Father “the vinedresser”. Jesus just said He is leaving them but will be sending the Holy Spirit. But look at how he words this. How can He say that they must remain connected Him if He’s going away? There’s a lot going on in this passage, a lot of imagery, and a lot of pointing to teachings we see in the Old Testament, but the core of the message to the disciples is this: Even though Jesus is about to die a terrible death and be buried in a tomb, they are not alone. They have each other, His love, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Then later, after Jesus has risen from the dead, He’s going to leave again, ascend to the right hand of the Father – and they still won’t be alone. He’ll still be with them.
So their natural question will be, “How do we stay connected to you while you are gone? How do we keep in contact with you when you’re not standing in front of us? How can we have access to your presence and comfort and answers and hope if you go away?”
Jesus answer is, “I know you can’t do anything without me. I’m the vine, you’re the branches. If you disconnect from me, you’ll die. I know that. What I’m telling you is how to remain connected to me. In fact, you need me more than you know.”
Look at what Jesus says in John 15:18–20,
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
Following Jesus isn’t going to be easy. Jesus says, “When I go away, not only will you have spiritual enemies, and Pharisees and Rome to deal with, but so much more. As you spread my message of love, the world is going to hate you for no reason – and they’re going to try to stop you, hurt you, and kill you.”
Left Alone and Afraid?
Now look at chapter 16, because it gets worse. John 16:1–4,
“I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me. But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you. I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me…”
How scary is that? “As you follow Me”, says Jesus, “it’s going to go from bad to worse. Even your friends, family and neighbours will hate you because of me.” I can just imagine the fear and desperation in their eyes. Remember, these guys are not strong men. They’re not military guys, great warriors or heroes. A very short time after this they are going to get to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus is going to be arrested. Do you know what most of the disciples do? They scatter! One guy is so scared when the soldiers grab his cloak, he tears it off and runs away naked. Peter puts up a bit of a fight and sticks around for a bit, but ends up denying Jesus a few hours later to save his own skin.
These guys are terrified. Do you know where the disciples are the first time Jesus appears to them after rising from the dead? They’re not preaching the gospel… they’re hiding in a locked room afraid that they would get the same treatment as Jesus!
So Jesus says this and these guys are freaking out. How do I know? Look back at chapter 16:4-6,
“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart.”
Of course, it had, right? Their teacher, leader, guide, protector, friend, Saviour, Messiah, and connection to God just said He was about to be killed, and would be leaving them alone very soon… and after that everything was going to go really sideways for them. And they knew everything Jesus said was the absolute truth.
“Jesus, if you leave, how will we be able to be with you? If you go, how will we connect with God? If you go, how will we not fall back into sin? If you go, who will protect us, teach us, guide us, show us what to do, where to go, how to live, and how to pray? How will we be able to defend ourselves against demons and enemies? If the whole world is against us, how will we have the courage and strength and wisdom to be able to share your message with others? How are we supposed to do anything without you, Jesus?”
Have you ever asked those questions? I have. Have you ever prayed that you could just see Jesus for a minute? That you could just hear His voice, feel His hand on your shoulder, sit at His feet, put your head in His lap? Just hear one encouraging message, one solid direction to tell you where to go, one proof of His love… right from His lips. Have you ever, after a trying day, or a difficult time of temptation, or a long battle, longed for the presence of Jesus – wished that He would come to you, or take you home, or just come sit at the end of your bed and tell you it’ll be ok?
I think all Christians feel this way. They long to be with Jesus because He is their friend, their God, their protector, their hope, and they not only want to know Him better but are also afraid of what life would look like without Him. Things get confusing or hard and they just want to hide behind Him like a child hiding behind their father’s pant leg or digging their face into his neck during a thunderstorm. I think anyone who knows Jesus, who have learned about Him and has learned to love Him, trust Him, believe in Him, knows the feeling of wanting to see, hear, and touch Jesus – and has had that moment of fear for what it would be like if Jesus left them alone.
I think all believers have faced that temptation to think that Jesus has left them, has abandoned them, is powerless to help them, or that He has forgotten them in their struggles, pain, temptation, and fear. And it’s a terrible feeling. I think that’s what the disciples felt.
It is Better That I Go
I want you to look at what Jesus says in verse 7.
“Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away…”
Jesus looks at the sorrow on the face of His friends, the ones He loves so much… the ones who long for His presence, and say, “It’s actually better that I’m going away….” That’s hard to hear, isn’t it?
Some of you grew up in homes where you had an absent father or mother – because they were gone or drunk or sick. Or maybe you were abandoned. Maybe you were abused. You longed for their love, protection, comfort, and help, but they weren’t there for you, or they hurt you. And it soured you on all kinds of relationships. In your loneliness and fear, you ran into the arms of people who hurt you. Then, in your hurt you closed off your heart from others; even from those who wanted to love you and help you, even from God.
Some of you even heard these words, “It’s actually better that I’m not there. It’s actually better that it turned out this way.” and those words didn’t bring comfort, they stung. It was like a slap in the face. “Better that you were gone? Better that I was alone? Better that you hurt me?”
Maybe, as you read these words of Jesus, you see them through that kind of lens, and it puts you on the defensive. One more person who is taking off on people they say they care about. Jesus is supposed to be all loving, all kind, all wonderful – and here He is seemingly ditching the people He just said He loved – and telling them that it’s actually better! How can that be? How can Jesus say, “it is to your advantage that I go away.”
Let’s read. John 16:7–15,
“Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”
Skip to verse 20,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
Jesus is speaking of His arrest, trial and crucifixion that would be coming within the next hours. The disciples would be in complete sorrow, utterly confused, totally lost. And Jesus knew they would forget everything He had been saying to them that night. He knew they didn’t understand – but He also knew that after He left, after He ascended into heaven, He would send the Holy Spirit to them, and He would remind them of exactly what Jesus said, teach them what it meant, and expand upon that teaching so they would finally understand and have hope.
Jesus said it was better that the Holy Spirit comes not because He was going to abandon them, but because while Jesus was on earth He could only be in one place at a time, only have one conversation at a time, only teach a group of people at a time, and not be able to walk beside everyone at once. But, the Holy Spirit would carry Jesus’ presence and Jesus ministry to the entire world at all times. The very presence of God, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, would then dwell inside believers.
Remember that verse from Ezekiel 36:26-27 last week? God says to His rebellious people,
“I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
What’s better: Having Jesus walk beside you, but you have a heart of stone that can’t understand what He is saying, and refuses to listen and obey – just like the Pharisees and followers and disciples couldn’t understand Jesus for the whole three years they were with Him – or having the Holy Spirit, the very presence of God dwell within you, changing your heart, mind, and soul to be more like Jesus’, and giving you the conviction and power to actually “cause you to walk in His statutes and be careful to obey His rules”? Which is better, the physical presence of Jesus without conversion, or the presence of the Holy Spirit in your heart after His gift of conversion?
Jesus says that in God’s sovereign plan, the way that salvation would come about would be that the Holy Spirit would not come in that new covenant power until Jesus died, rose again, and then ascended into heaven.
Listen to John 7:37-39,
“On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’’ Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”
Jesus said that not only would the Holy Spirit be with them, but He would go forth and “convict the world”, turning many who hate Jesus into faithful disciples. But, that life-giving water that comes from Jesus, that will flow out of Him into the hearts of believers, bringing life to all those who encounter it, would only come after Jesus had been raised from the dead and glorified after ascending into Heaven. There would be no outpouring of the Holy Spirit in a new way, no tearing of the temple curtain to expose the Holy of Holies, no expanding the Kingdom of God to the whole world, no new covenant power sent to believers to courageously spread that message if Jesus remained on earth in bodily form.
The doctrine of the Trinity says that the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one in the same and yet distinct – and none of this could happen – the conviction of the whole world, the empowerment of the disciples at Pentecost, the presence of God dwelling in all believers giving them spiritual gifts, making them part of the body of Christ, empowering them beyond their abilities, guiding them places they would never go, teaching things they could never learn on their own, and making them bear fruit in their lives beyond what they would ever imagine – if Jesus stayed on earth in physical form. That’s why it was better for Him to go. Not to leave His disciples alone, but so that He, God, could be with them in a new and better way they couldn’t experience if He didn’t. Jesus is not like us. He doesn’t take off. He is ever faithful and only does for us the things that cause us to grow closer to Him – even if we must be sorrowful for a short time.
This is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately as I’ve been trying to understand what it means to live in the Spirit, walk by the Spirit, and tap into the power and presence of God to be able to get through the challenges of life. I’ve been trying to figure out what it means to have the presence of Christ inside me, how to find hope in that, and how to connect with Him if He’s not standing in front of me.
Next week we are going to talk about what the ascension of Jesus and the consequential presence of the Holy Spirit means to Christians – and it’s so very important because understanding who the Holy Spirit is and how He connects you to Jesus is everything to a believer.
But I needed to go through this section of scripture first because I think it’s important that we understand that Jesus taught us how important the Holy Spirit is – so important that it is better for us that we have the Holy Spirit inside of us than Jesus Christ Himself walking beside.
That’s a big thought and we’re going to discuss it more next week, but let us make our application this: Let us thank God for not only our salvation through Jesus Christ, but for Jesus sending us the gift of the Holy Spirit. And let us pray that over the next couple weeks we will understand and learn to love Him more and more.
Chapter 1: The Beginning
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)
This is the start of our story. Notice how I said that it’s the start of our story. Not the beginning of The Whole story. Just our part. God is eternal, existing before there was either heaven or earth.
So God created the universe, the stars, the planets, our world, and everything on it. And He did it in steps. As we read the creation story we see that God is imaginative, powerful, orderly, and is really enjoying His work. We don’t know everything about the beginning of time, but we do know that it did not come together by random chance. Over and over again God creates and then looks at what He is doing and says that “it is good”. He likes what He sees. He made the skies, the oceans, the birds, trees, sun, moon… all of it. God, in an amazing process, formed all of creation out of nothingness… and then called it “good”.
And then, after everything else was created… He began His greatest work. God literally saved the best for last. He decided to create humanity. All of the rest of creation was a good thing… but this was going to be the best thing. God formed a man out of the dirt of the ground, like a potter lovingly moulding a clay sculpture in His own image, and then breathed life into them. And then He formed the woman from a part of Him, making them complimentary equals. He bestowed upon these two beings something unique in the world… a living spirit that reflected His own. Humanity was designed to bear God’s own image, to carry His divine breath inside us. We are the best thing He ever made, and He loves us very much.
And He took His two favourite creations, named Adam and Eve, and put them into a wonderful garden and gave them the task to spread His glory and make more images in the form of children that would stretch from that little garden to the whole rest of the world. A whole planet of image bearers in perfect relationship with their Creator. There was endless food, total comfort, no shame, no danger, no anger, meaningful work, and perfect love. Greed wasn’t a problem, relationships weren’t a problem, sex wasn’t a problem, disease wasn’t heard of, and best of all, these humans had the glorious privilege of walking and talking with God face to face. It was the best place ever and would only get better. But it didn’t stay that way.
Chapter 2: The Fall
Adam and Eve, with some help from the devil himself, decided that God’s plan wasn’t good enough. God had placed them where they would have everything they could ever need, but had only one rule: Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
In a world of delicious options, there was only one tree from which they weren’t allowed to eat. Can you imagine a world where there is only one bad choice? Everything else on the entire planet was a good, healthy, satisfying choice. There was only one bad one.
Many have asked why God would put that tree there at all. The answer is simply this: without it, there would have been no choice. In order for His creation to have free will and the ability to love, there must be options. To make love real, there must be a way to choose not to love. To make obedience real there must be a choice not to obey. To make trust real there must be a way to show one does not believe God’s Word. If there is to be a real relationship between creator and creation, rejection must be an option.
Adam and Eve made the other choice. When given the choice to love, trust and obey, they chose not to. They chose to believe God was holding out on them. They chose to take that which they were not allowed to have and which they had been warned would do them harm. That choice is called sin and it changed the whole of creation.
Chapter 3: Cast Out From Eden
The moment Adam and Eve decided to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, everything changed. At that moment something new entered the world called “sin”. God had warned them that everything would change, but they did it anyway. He warned them of the consequence of death coming through sin, but they did it anyway. They didn’t want only the knowledge of life, they wanted the knowledge of death too. They knew that once they ate it they would have a special knowledge which they didn’t have before – something God didn’t want for them, which would hurt them… and they ate anyway. Before that moment they only knew “good”… but after they fell to temptation, they now knew “good and evil”.
And since God is good, perfect and holy, and He can’t be in relationship with evil – He has no part with evil or evil-doers. In His love, He cannot let the infection of sin go untreated. In His justice, He cannot allow sin to go unpunished. Now, because of their choice, He could no longer communicate face to face with His beloved people because the white-hot furnace of His holiness would utterly destroy them. All because of the decision to sin.
As stewards of the world, and since the world was created for them, the sin not only affected them but the rest of the world as well. They were the pinnacle of creation and now that they had sinned all of creation was marred and effected – it’s like their sin bled inky blackness from them onto everything else in the universe.
Within moments of falling to temptation, we read of shame, anger, distrust, fear, blame… then weeds, toil, pain, frustration, heartache. Everything changed because of sin. God’s wrath and justice were at work, but in an act of divine grace, they were cast out of Eden so they would not eat of the Tree of Life as well and be trapped forever in their sinful state.
And, as God had promised, Adam and Eve would now know death. You see, death was something that wasn’t a part of God’s perfect design. But every choice has a consequence, and the consequence of disobeying the law is judgement. All humanity believes in some form of justice – it’s a carryover from being made in His image. A good parent, a good society, a good God, punishes wrong. And the punishment for sin is death.
All bad news, right? Well, even though it was all bad news, there was one glimmer of hope in the whole midst – the promise of salvation to come. Even in the midst of passing His judgement, God shares the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, promising Eve that one day, Someone born of women will finally do something to reverse all of their mess. That, one day, someone would come and do battle with the death and Satan (Genesis 3:15). Though it would be bleak for a while, and the consequences were dire, God’s Gospel said there was still hope.
Chapter 4: Noah
Even though humanity had fallen and was now outside the Garden of Eden, it didn’t stop them from “going forth and multiplying”. Adam and Eve were having children, and their children were having children, and the world was being populated.
Not only were people multiplying, but their sin was multiplying too. People were actually getting worse. The bible says that by the time of Noah things were really grim. It says in Genesis 6:5 that “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
Eight generations had gone by, and there were lots of people on the earth, and they were inventing new ways to be evil, corrupt to the core, completely disregarding their Creator and their fellow man.
The Bible says that God was grieved. He had such a great love for His people, but they had so completely turned their backs on Him and were doing such harm to each other that He was sorry that He had made them in the first place. As God, as Creator, it is His right to do whatever He wants with His creation, so He sent a flood to wipe them out, to wash away the wickedness which had gotten completely out of control.
But again we see the gospel of grace in the midst of judgement. There was a man named Noah who was Adam’s Great x8 grandson. God saved Noah and his family because they were the only family left who was listening to Him. Was Noah perfect? Did he earn salvation by being a good person? No, but He loved God and lived like God mattered. It was not that Noah was worthy to be saved, but that He was the only one listening to the message of salvation.
After the flood, God started over using Noah and his family to repopulate the world again. That’s what God does. He takes an impossible situation and adds justice, creativity, grace, love, and hope. Yes, humanity would fall again. Noah didn’t make it very far out of the ark before he and his family were sinning again. But even that pointed to Jesus.
We sometimes wonder why God doesn’t just wipe out all the bad people and just leave us good ones? It’s because we are all bad people! None are free from the effects of sin. Even the most righteous man on earth was not good enough to stay righteous for long. The problem of sin goes deep, very deep. Humanity has an internal problem, a depravity that goes to our very core. That needs to be dealt with. Sin isn’t just about good people who occasionally do bad things – it describes something broken inside of us that will always pull us away from God. A curse that needs to be lifted before we can get right with God.
And so, God set the rainbow in the sky, promising never to flood humanity again because He was about to put His full plan into motion.
Chapter 5: Abraham
Right around the death of Noah, a man named Abram was born. God’s gospel plan continues as He, in an act of amazing grace, chooses to show love to an obscure, pagan man, who neither knew Him nor followed Him. Abram wasn’t anyone special, just a guy who God decided to show love to, to give an invitation to, but who was willing to listen and obey. God says, “leave your country and your people and go into a different land.” and he does.
God then makes a promise to Abram – who was then a senior citizen married to a barren wife with no children – that he would have many descendants and they would become a great nation. In fact, God promises that the whole world would be blessed because of his family line. He would give them a special place to live and would take care of them. This was such a wild promise that the moment his wife Sarai heard it, she laughed out loud. God presses forward, changes Abram’s name to Abraham, Saria’s to Sarah, and gets to work.
This was a pretty good deal for Abraham, but he never gets to see the plan fully worked out during his lifetime. That doesn’t mean God didn’t keep his promise, though. Abraham did have 8 children, each becoming the father of different people groups. His second son, Jacob, would really see God’s blessings taken to another level as his children became the 12 patriarchs of the nation of Israel. It was these twelve families that would form the political and geographic system through which the rest of God’s plan of salvation for the world would be carried out.
Chapter 6: Joseph
Now, God needs to make sure that this family is taken care of, which is where we get the story of Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob. God, amazingly, uses the anger and jealousy of Joseph’s brothers, the terrible reality of kidnapping and slave trade, and years of wrongful imprisonment as the plan to save this one family from a terrible drought would hit the land. Most of us here know or have heard the story of Joseph.
His story was full of suffering. Though he was God’s chosen man, he went through some really tough stuff, but after a time, God used it to raise Joseph up to a position where he would not only be able to take care of His own people but to save Egypt and the surrounding lands from famine. Then, in Egypt, God prepared His people for the next phase of His plan.
Chapter 7: Moses
Jacob, Joseph and their family was down in Egypt and doing fine for a long time until a different Pharaoh came into power who didn’t know about what Joseph had done and didn’t remember the promises the previous administration had made to his family. Instead of being thankful, he started to fear Jacob’s growing family (who were now being called “Israelites” after the new name God had called Jacob). But instead of using diplomacy or communication, he suddenly decided to force the whole nation to be the slaves of Egypt. They were in slavery for hundreds of years, suffering, but still having many children.
One of these children was someone you know, a man named Moses. At exactly the right time in history, God worked some powerful miracles and used Moses as the person to lead His people out of Egypt as one, unified nation, ready to get back home to the land that God promised their father Abraham so many years ago — the “Promised land”.
Pharaoh tried to stand in the way of God’s deliverance, but after 10 plagues, he finally let them go. The final plague was another picture of God’s salvation plan, pointing to Jesus. The angel of death would come upon Egypt and the only way to be saved from the curse was to have the blood of a spotless lamb spread on the entrance of their home, and for them to hide behind that blood so death would pass them over.
But before they went to the Promised Land, God brought them to a place where He would make a covenant with them, a contractual agreement. He told them that as long as they would commit themselves to be His special people, trusting and worshipping Him alone, just like Adam and Eve were supposed to, He would take care of them. They would be victorious and well supplied.
God, in His grace, knowing that they would say “yes” to the contract, but because of their inherent sin problem would, within days, turn back to sin, gave them laws to live by so they would know how to worship Him, care for one another, and be different from the rest of the world. “I am the only God and worship me only. Don’t murder each other. Don’t steal from each other. Honour your parents.” All these rules were for their own good and intended to make sure that the relationships between Him and each other would be peaceful.
But God did something even better than the Law. He gave them a religious system by which they could temporarily deal with their sin problem and be able to approach God. This would be a bloody system, full of death. Not just one lamb, but many, many animals. It would culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the Day of Deliverance, the most important annual celebration of the year where the High Priest would symbolically place all of the sins of the nation on an animal and then kill it in the place of the people. The payment for sin is death. God had the right to destroy everyone who sins immediately, but instead, He allowed the shed-blood of an animal to stand in their place for a short period of time. It was temporary forgiveness and the sacrifices went on day after day, year after year.
All of this again pointed to Jesus, the one who would come and be the once-and-for-all, perfect sacrifice, to die in the place of sinners, making a way for us to have permanent forgiveness, restoring us back to the same relationship we had with God before Adam and Eve ate that cursed fruit.
So now, Israel was free from slavery, ready to take back the Promised Land, had a good leader in Moses, wonderful laws to protect them, God’s promise to care for them, and a system by which they could be in relationship with God… but of course, having good laws and good a religion didn’t actually fix the problem of sin. Just as wiping away all of humanity in a flood, leaving only one, good family didn’t solve the problem of sin, making a list of rules didn’t either.
The people were still under the curse of sin; their souls still bent away from God, and so wouldn’t and couldn’t obey the law. It wasn’t long before they turned from the law, their religion, and from God, and started praying to, worshipping, and putting their trust in created things instead of the Creator – even wooden and stone statues of their own making.
Even after being delivered from slavery by miracles, given more miracles on their journey to the Promised Land, given a good leader in Moses, give a Law written by God Himself – emphasized with thunder and earthquakes and even more miracles – it wasn’t enough to keep them from committing more sins and evil. Plus death still existed in the world. There was more that needed to be done.
Chapter 8: Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.
The next chapter is a sort of in-between time which you can call Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat, and it would last 1000 years. It was the time of the Judges, the Kings and the Prophets. In the time between the giving of the Law and the birth of Jesus the Saviour, a lot of things happened, but it seemed to keep to this endless cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.
As far as good things that happened: With God’s help they reclaimed the Promised Land, and divided it up amongst the 12 tribes. They built some great cities and became one of the richest civilizations in history, wrote Psalms and Proverbs, even took down the Tabernacle – the temporary tent of worship – and built a beautiful temple in the holy city of Jerusalem.
But it was more bad than good. They broke every law in God’s book over and over. They made idols, cheated and abused each other, broke the Sabbath, and even sacrificed their own children to demons. Throughout this time God kept raising up prophets to warn them about the consequences of their bad decisions, but they kept killing the prophets!
For a long time, God was the King of Israel, but eventually, they decided that they didn’t want God to be King anymore, but instead wanted to be like all the other nations and have a human king. This was like a slap in God’s face! He had always been their ruler, their Lawgiver, great judge, provider, the one to keep them safe and lead their armies — and now He wasn’t good enough. God’s chosen people, the one that he picked out from among all the others, the one that He had promised Abraham would be a great nation, once they had become one, turned their backs on Him, just like all those who had come before. Just like Eden.
Most of the kings were a mess of sin and selfishness, but God in His mercy kept sending prophets to show the way back to Him. Each of the prophets would remind the nation of God’s hatred for sin and how much He wanted them to come back to Him, warning them about the dangers of sin, and saying He would have to discipline them for their own good.
Then, since no one would listen, the prophets would keep talking about the Promised One who would finally come and end this cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat, once and for all. One who would finally obey. They spoke of the One who was promised to Adam and Eve, who would come through Abraham’s tribe, who would conquer evil, sin and even death. The coming of Jesus is spoken of in every book of the Old Testament.
This cycle went on for years… hundreds and hundreds of years… and all the while God was continuing to prepare the world for Jesus. Raising up nations, setting the stage for the birth of Jesus at exactly the right time. He was showing everyone, through Israel, that there was not one person who could obey Him, not one who would worship Him rightly. The prophets would fail, the priests would fail, the kings would fail, the heroes would fail, the people would rebel… the Law condemned everyone.
They needed one who would be called the Messiah, which means the “Chosen One”. He would be the one who would finally break the pattern. He would finally obey the law perfectly, love God and others perfectly, be the perfect prophet, perfect priest, and perfect king. He would conquer their enemies, bring justice to the oppressed, and lead people into a right relationship with God. He would be called the Christ, the Anointed One. And for years, Israel waited.
Chapter 9: The Messiah
God was waiting until the world was just right (Gal 4:4). Israel was at the pinnacle of their rebellion. The Romans had built a civilization that would allow the story of Jesus to travel throughout the world. God waited until just the right moment to send His greatest Gift to the world. But He surprised everyone by how He did it.
Consider the irony of how Jesus entered the world. Since the beginning of time, people were waiting for this One Person to come. This would be the most important person in history, the Saviour of the world. And when He finally came… almost no one knew. When the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus, finally arrived, He didn’t come as a mighty King on a white horse leading a huge army. He didn’t come in a bolt of lightning on a mountain, with a booming voice proclaiming the Judgement of God.
He came as a baby, a helpless infant. The Son of a virgin, adopted by a poor, Galilean Carpenter. Born in a stable, laid in a feeding trough in a tiny village. A nobody from nowhere.
No palace like King Solomon. No fanfare like King David. No blasts of fire like Elijah. The Chosen One came in so quietly that His presence went nearly unnoticed by almost all of those who were looking for Him. The Jewish scholars of the day (and today) are looking for a political leader, a military conqueror… but that’s not what they got… at least not yet.
His identity didn’t stay hidden forever. And what did God’s chosen people do when they finally found out their Messiah had come? What was humanities response to the Saviour?
Well, one of the first people to hear, when Jesus was only a couple years old, was King Herod, who immediately tried to murder Him. That would typify a lot of His life and ministry. Rejection and suffering would be the pattern of Jesus’ life.
Today is Palm Sunday. Today is the day that, 2000 years ago, the followers of Jesus laid palm branches and their cloaks at the feet of Jesus who was riding into Jerusalem, showing Himself to be the King of the Jews and the one foretold by the prophets. He was signalling His position as King, the one who they should submit to, listen to, obey. But they were celebrating something different. They thought this meant Jesus would conquer the Roman army, overthrow their political oppressors, set them up as the most powerful kingdom in the world. They were right to celebrate, but they were wrong about how Jesus would do it. And when He didn’t do things their way… their disappointment immediately turned to rage.
I can’t say it any better than the Deacon Stephen does to the Jewish Ruling Counsel right before they killed him. Stephen was standing before the very people who were supposed to teach Israel about the coming of Jesus! They were the ones who should have been the first to know, acknowledge and spread the news that God had sent the Messiah!
Stephen says to them: “You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you! Name one prophet that your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous one –The Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.” (Acts 7:51-53)
Humanity did it again! God Himself enters the world in human form. He sends His own beloved Son, 100% God and 100% man, the only One who could save us from sin and death. The perfect one to teach us how to live, love and worship properly. And what is our response? We condemn the Anointed One, the Messiah, the perfect Son of God, to the worst, most painful, agonizing, excruciating death imaginable… a Roman cross. We murdered God.
One would think that that would be the end of the story. Where do you go when there is no more hope left? How can an author finish a story when the hero is killed and buried before the villain is defeated? You can’t. The story must stop when the hero is dead, right?
For a moment, God’s pen lifts from the paper. The world looks bleak. There is no hope. The disciples are scattered. The Messiah is dead. The villain has won. Sin will reign forever.…
Chapter 10: The Resurrection
But our God is the greatest author of all. His pen stops for only a moment. He turns the page and begins the next chapter. The death of Jesus Christ would not be the end of the story. Three days after Jesus dies God writes something that turns the greatest defeat in history into the climax of His Epic tale. He turns dead silence into a loud crescendo! He turns ultimate tragedy into ultimate victory!
God flips all History on its head. In the story God is writing there are no mistakes. The One who was to be our Saviour… was supposed to die. His victory came because of His death. Suddenly all of the foreshadowing in the Old Testament makes sense. There can be no greater hero than One who would give His life for others. He would be the one to crush the serpent. He would be spotless lamb whose blood would save from death. He would be the final sacrifice of that religious system. His death would be the means by which we would be saved.
The Messiah’s mission was to defeat the greatest enemy of this world. Almost everyone thought that this meant that it would be a political, military, human enemy. But God, the great author, reveals that humanity’s greatest enemy isn’t any person or nation or empire… the greatest enemy in this world is sin. It was sin that needed to be conquered.
If sin was left unconquered, then humanity was doomed. Do you know the name of the place where love and grace are removed and physical and spiritual death reign forever? It’s called Hell. Sin puts us on a one-way path to Hell with nothing to stop it. That needed to be dealt with.
Not sickness, not poverty, not wrath or gluttony or lust or abuse. All of those are a result of sin and there was only one way to deal with sin. The flood didn’t work. The list of Laws didn’t work. The bloody sacrificial system didn’t work. Good kings didn’t work. Advancing civilization didn’t work. Because none of it dealt with sin. Sin needed to be paid for, dealt with, and destroyed.
And so God, in His grace, sent His Son Jesus, and then poured out the full measure of His judgement against sin on Jesus. We will never understand the full measure of the suffering Jesus took for those who would put their faith in Him. Jesus – the perfect human, the only One who did not deserve judgement, chose to take the punishment for anyone who would believe and trust in Him so we could be restored back to God.
But, just as in Eden, God offers a choice. God does not save everyone whether they want it or not. God does not force anyone to follow Him. Love requires a choice. So God offers a choice.
God does all the heavy lifting. He shows us He exists through creation. He shows us our sin through our conscience. He shows us his plan of salvation in the scriptures. He raises up people to share his plan of salvation. Jesus does all the work of obeying God’s law and dying for sin – and then He makes each of us an offer. Will you accept Jesus as your only Lord and your only Saviour?
Jesus is the ultimate hero as He walks out of the grave, conquering the greatest enemy ever. He defeats the effects of sin. He beats death. That weight of judgement that humanity had borne for thousands of years was placed on His shoulders, and He carried it, paid for it, and then extends his pierced hands and offers the freedom He bought with His own blood freely to anyone who would believe in Him.
As Romans 10:9-10 says, “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”
Chapter 11: The Denouement
Today, we are living in the denouement, the end of the great Epic. The story has unfolded, the villain has been conquered, the Hero has been lifted high, and His people are victorious. We are living in the days of epilogue before God brings His first story to a close at the Final Judgement. Every day gets us closer to the end of this story and closer to the next book, the story of eternity.
This Epic is the greatest message that can be known: That you were designed by a loving creator who gives you a hope and a purpose, and life is more than just food, money, sex, friends, and a career. That your instinct towards justice and desire for hope and peace can be fulfilled. That your decisions have eternal consequences. That you need not fear death and that even your most terrible suffering can be turned into great victories. That you are worthy of and can experience divine love, the cleansing of your soul, and be made into a new person. That God will never leave you, never forsake you, and because of the work of our Hero, Jesus Christ, you can live in His presence today and forever.
This is a great story because it is a true story. People have loved it so much and believed in the Hero so deeply, that they have died to tell it to others. I urge you, if you have not already, to accept the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, to read this story over and over in your Bibles, and to tell His story, this Epic, to as many people as you can.
I’ve decided that I don’t want to be stuck in Day 8 anymore, so we are going to do one more attribute and then move on. But before I do that I want to give you a few tools for you to use at home to better explain what we are going through on Sunday mornings here, which will explain these attributes and even more, likely far better than I can.
The first are two books on the holiness of God that I want to recommend to you. Holiness is an important concept that I simply cannot cover in one sermon, and understanding it will radically improve your relationship with God. They are modern classics, written in contemporary language, that you can get for a pretty good deal. The first is “Holiness” by JC Ryle and the second is “The Holiness of God” by RC Sproul. The Ryle book you can get free on Monergism.com and the Sproul one you can get from Amazon, but it’s also presented as a video series on RightNow. Matt Chandler has one too, and I’m sure it’s great.
In fact, if you go to the Beckwith Baptist Church page on RightNow Media, I recently created a playlist called “Heidelberg Helps” that covers in much greater detail a lot of the topics that I’m going through right now. You can use them in small groups or in your private study time.
If you’d also like a couple of books that are great summaries of Christian Theology, then I recommend getting either (or both of) “Essential Truths of the Christian Faith” by RC Sproul, “Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe” by Mark Driscoll, or the newest one, “Pilgrim Theology” by Michael Horton. Those get progressively longer, by the way. Essential Truths has 300 pages while Pilgrim Theology has 450. Or, if you want a good challenge, you can read one of my new favourite books, an abridged version of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion by Only Lane and Hilary Osborne. They took a 1000 page book and condensed it to less than 300 pages.
God in Relation to Man: Righteousness
Ok, let’s finish off Day 8. God’s Holiness in relation to man meant that God was set apart from us, different, special, pure, without any spot or stain, perfectly good. But where Holiness speaks of quality, Righteousness speaks of activity. Psalm 145:17 says, “The LORD is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works.” Holiness is who God is, Righteousness is what God does – His “ways”. The Hebrews word is the same as “road” or “direction”. God always goes the right way.
To be holy means God is perfect in who He is. To be righteous means God does right things. He cannot do wrong. To do wrong is counter to His nature. If God does it, it must be righteous because he can do no other. And because God is always righteous and right means He is also just. He cannot allow anyone to get away with unrighteousness. He cannot allow injustice to go unchecked in His universe. Therefore wrong actions, lawbreakers, moral failures, injustice, must be perfectly dealt with. It is contrary to God’s nature to allow wrong things, sinful actions, or sinful inactions, to go on forever without dealing with them. He must make the wrong things right. Certainly, God can choose to be patient with unrighteousness and evil, He can choose not to punish it immediately, but because He is righteous He must punish and correct evil. And conversely, righteousness and goodness must be blessed. (Ezekiel 18:20; 1 Peter 3:14). Galatians 6:7 says it this way, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”
Condemned in Our Unrighteousness
That’s a warning to us, an admonition: That our deeds are judged by God and our sin provokes His righteous anger. Knowing this, therefore, should compel us to seek after righteousness. Part of fearing God is fearing God’s wrath, judgement, and discipline. It means recognizing that sin is another way we are separated from God. So, as humans, our problem is not only are we stained by unholiness and therefore cannot stand in the presence of God, but we have also willfully done wrong things that God the Righteous Judge must punish.
The term “Righteous” is actually a legal one, usually, used by God towards people rather than the other way around. To be righteous means to be on the right side of the law, to be unrighteous a lawbreaker. If you’re following along, then you’ll know that this is what the whole first section of Romans is all about.
Turn to Romans 2:6-11. It says
“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.”
God is not partial to anyone. There is no race or gender or social status that he prefers. Because God is righteous His concern is whether or not you are holy or unholy, righteous or unrighteous, guilty or not guilty. But, as we learn in Romans, the problem is that everyone is guilty, right? Go a little forward to Romans 3:10-12,
“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.”
When we read the Law of God, as in the 10 Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, or the rest of scripture, we realize that we are lawbreakers and stand condemned. That’s what verse 19 says,
“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.”
No one can read the Bible and not think that they are a sinner. And, as we already learned when we talked about General Revelation, even without the Bible, our own conscience condemns us. We know we are unrighteous.
Made Righteous by Grace Through Faith
So what are we to do? If the warning is that we ought to fear God because we stand guilty before the One who must punish lawbreakers, then we’re in trouble. How can we get right before this righteous Judge?
Some might think that they can just start obeying the law and be ok? But that’s not how it works, right? If I steal something or murder someone I can’t just say, “Ok, I got it out of my system. I’m good now. It’ll never happen again.” No, I need to face the consequences of my actions. Justice demands that I pay for my crime. It would be morally wrong for a judge to let me get away with murder or not pay back when I’ve stolen because I promised not to do it again.
That means that no matter how much I obey from this point on, I’m still condemned. All those Bible rules we spend so much time talking about have no power to save — only to condemn. Look at verse 20,
“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
All the Law can do is show me where I’ve gone wrong and teach me what I’m supposed to do right. But it can’t save me from what I’ve already done wrong. Following rules can’t fix my unholiness or my unrighteousness.
How can someone be made righteous then? How can a sinner go from guilty to not-guilty without having to face the punishment for their lawbreaking? How can God be a righteous judge who doesn’t let anyone get away with evil, who punishes wrong, who defends the defenceless, who comes to the aid of those who are wronged, who makes everything right in the end… without sending every human being to Hell to pay for what they’ve done?
This is what almost drove Martin Luther mad. As a good catholic, a good monk, he knew that God was Holy, Righteous, Perfect, and Good. He knew that God must punish evil. And he knew that he was a sinner. The church was telling him that if he did enough good things – confession, confirmation, penance, visiting relics, prayers, service, tithing – that God would forgive him. And there’s a lot of religious today who teach the same thing. If you believe hard enough, do enough religious things, be nice, don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t litter, recycle your bottles, eat your veggies, give some money to people who need it – then God will be impressed and bless your life and let you into heaven. They see faith in God as transactional – I do something good for God, God does something good for me. And if I do enough good things, then I can kind of erase the bad things and God will just overlook them.
But here’s the problem that stuck in Martin Luther’s head. What if he didn’t balance it out properly? What if he wasn’t good enough? What if he forgot to confess something? What if he was supposed to do something but didn’t realize it? What if his confessions weren’t because he was really sorry for his sin, but because he was scared of being punished? Didn’t that disqualify them from even being confessions? What if he wasn’t sorry enough? What if he wasn’t good enough? What if he didn’t suffer enough? What if he enjoyed something too much? When he was a monk, Luther fasted and prayed so much that he weighed almost nothing and basically destroyed his innards for the rest of his life. Even the Augustinian monks who were known for being a very serious group– even the leader of the monastery – was telling him to chill out.
He would spend hours and hours in confession every day, pouring out everything he could think of, and then go out and do as many religious things as possible, and then come back and confess more. He never felt that he was good enough for God could ever look upon with any kind of grace or love.
But there is comfort. That Jesus Christ, through His work on the cross, has fully satisfied God’s requirements for righteousness and justice, and through faith in Him we can become righteous before God. What does that mean?
Keep reading in Romans 3:20–25,
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
That section is so critical to understanding how we can go from unrighteous to righteous in the eyes of God. If doing a bunch of good deeds cannot save us and the Law of God only has the power to shows us our guilt and unrighteousness, then what can be done? God is the perfection of righteousness, perfect in all He does, cannot do wrong, and is the source of all right and wrong. He, therefore, cannot allow anyone to get away with unrighteousness, lawlessness, moral failure. It is contrary to His nature to allow wrong things to continue and not be dealt with, to allow sin to go unpunished, to allow a wrong to go unrighted. He must make things right. That’s why the Bible says that righteousness comes from God.
So, here is God’s plan, and what saved Martin Luther’s soul. Humanity stood condemned in our unrighteousness with no way out. Then, God put Jesus Christ “forward as a propitiation”. In other words, God laid the punishment for our unrighteousness on Jesus. Something had to be done to pay for the sins. The fine needed to be paid. The jail time had to be done. The electric chair had to be sat in. Justice demands it. Every lie, theft, murder, rape, disobedience, disrespect, blasphemy, and everything else had to be made right. God’s perfect justice demands that the perfect punishment for sin must be handed out.
But who could do it? No human being could do it because every person has their own sin. The only one who could stand in the place of sinners would be one who could stand before the judge as not-guilty. So, God, Himself came. God sent His Son Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, to be born in human flesh, to live a perfectly righteous human life, to be perfectly obedient to God’s Law – but then to be unjustly tried as guilty, betrayed by humanity, nailed to a cross, and executed as a sinner for things He’d never done. On that cross, he not only faced the wrath of Rome and Israel but the full might of God’s wrath. Then, once He had paid the fine, done the time, he offered to trade himself for anyone who would believe in Him – regardless of who they are, where they’re from, or what they’ve done – “for there is no distinction”. There’s no sin that cannot be forgiven by God because of Jesus. All one must do is believe they are sinners and accept that Jesus took their punishment, died on the cross, then rose again in victory.
2 Corinthians 5:21 says it this way:
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
There is no work to do, no Law to follow – just a person to believe. So, how do you know you are saved? I ask you: Do you believe that Jesus was sacrificed on your behalf, facing the justice of God, taking the punishment you deserved, paying for the sins you have committed? Do you believe Jesus did everything necessary, that “it is finished”, and there is nothing you can do to save yourself? If so, then by that faith you are declared righteous. God places your sins on Jesus, counts them as paid for, and then sees and treats you as though you had lived the same perfect life Jesus did. In God’s eyes we become as righteous as Jesus. God is just and also the justifier.
Abraham Saved by Faith
Turn to Romans 4 and I want to read what is going on there. The question that Paul is answering here is “How was Abraham, who lived before Moses and the Law, before Jesus and the Cross, saved from his sins? Was it different back then? We know Abraham wasn’t perfect, he sinned just like anyone else, so was everyone before Jesus condemned? Or did God make allowances for sin because Moses hadn’t written the law yet? If salvation comes only by faith in Jesus, then how could anyone have be saved before He came?”
The answer for Abraham is the same as for us. Abraham was justified, made righteous, by His faith in the Word of God. Start in verse 20 where it speaks of Abraham’s faith:
“No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness.’ But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”
So, the Old Testament way of salvation was the same as the New Testament way: by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to God’s Word alone. Abraham was an unrighteous sinner like everyone else, yet in His grace, God chose to save him (Remember, Abraham did not choose God.) Abraham then responded to God’s invitation in faith, leaving his homeland to do what God told him to do. Throughout his life Abraham struggled with sin, making bad decisions and disobeyed God sometimes, but he always kept his faith and grew deeper with God as the years went by. It eventually culminated in his ultimate act of faith on Mount Moriah, when he believed God’s promise so much that he was willing to sacrifice the only human who could have fulfilled the promise, his son Isaac. It was an act of supreme faith.
Just as God chooses Christians out of the world, so he did with Abraham. Just as Christians cannot be justified or made righteous by obeying the law, neither was Abraham. Just as we believe in God’s Word and demonstrate that belief through obedience, so did Abraham. But what did Abraham believe?
Move back up to Romans 4:1-5,
“What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…”
He simply believed what God had told him. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh (John 1) and Abraham had faith in the Word of God. Abraham didn’t know the name Jesus Christ, but his salvation required a faith like ours. He was not justified by anything he did, not by works, otherwise he could have bragged that he saved himself. No, just like us, Abraham believed God’s Word, trusted that God would save Him, that God would provide, that God would bring forth the salvation of the world through his family line, and then demonstrated that faith by living a life that reflected those beliefs. He was the father of our faith.
Let me conclude with this. The admonition here is that we always keep in mind that God is right in all He does, meaning not only that He is trustworthy, but that He will make everything that has gone wrong right. He will punish sinners and fix everything that has gone wrong. It also means that for their own good, God will discipline any of his people that are headed toward sin. Therefore, we ought to take sin very seriously. We ought to pursue righteousness because Jesus said that God blesses those who do. (Matt 6:33)
But we also need to remember that even though God’s standard is absolute perfection, we cannot save ourselves by mere obedience or religious practice. The only way to be right with God is to believe that Jesus died on the cross for your sins. If you don’t believe that, then you are still in trouble, but if you do, that means that for believers, the pressure is gone. The pressure to perform has been taken away. The fear of whether or not we are good enough to get to heaven has been taken away. The worry as to whether or not God is punishing us for our sins is gone because we know Jesus took that punishment. It means knowing that you if you’ve asked forgiveness and believe in Jesus, no matter what you’ve done, how messed up you think you are, you are right with God. You have been declared righteous by God, and who has the power to reverse His decrees? No one. Jesus has done everything we need in order that you can be saved and made part of God’s kingdom, and there is nothing you can do to lose that (Rom 8).
The only question you must ask yourself when you feel like God is against you, when you feel unworthy of His love, when you are tempted to do something in order to impress Him enough to listen to you, is this: Do you believe that Jesus has done enough make you righteous before God? If the answer is yes, then rest in that, come before your Heavenly Father with confidence, and trust that Jesus work is enough.
If you’ve been following along, you know that we’re a little stuck in Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism and that a bunch of the sermons I’ve preached over the past while are actually one, long sermon divided up into more manageable pieces. It started with a quick review of the Heidelberg and the importance of theology and doctrine to our relationship with God, then moved on to talking about the attributes of God. We started with the most complicated, that being that God is Triune, and then moved into a discussion of what theologians call “General Revelation”, which is how we can know there is a God if we don’t have a Bible or prophets or anyone else to tell us – and that is through Creation and our Conscience.
That brought us to the problem of the Virtuous Pagan and showed us that General Revelation only has the power to condemn us – to show us that we are sinners and stand condemned before God. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that God did not leave us condemned. Instead, God gave us not only General Revelation, but “Special Revelation”, more information about who He is, what He wants, what happened to us, and how He is going to fix the problem. He did this in a few different ways. He spoke to prophets, gave people visions, performed miracles, and inspired others to write laws, prophecies, and teachings in a book we call the Bible. And most importantly, the most important of the Special Revelations is that we get to see who God is in the person of Jesus Christ.
Over the past couple sermons, we’ve been working through some of the attributes of God that God has presented in the Special Revelation of scripture. If you recall, we are breaking these attributes down into three sections. First, God in relation to the whole world. Second, God in relation to mankind. And third, God in relation to Himself.
We’ve already covered “God in relation to the world” where we talked about His Omnipotence, Omniscience, and his Omnipresence – or that He is All-Powerful, All-Knowing, and Ever-Present. Today we are going to move on to talking about “God in relation to mankind”.
But, as I said before, it is both boring and unhelpful to simply list a bunch of attributes and read the verses from which we learn them, so we are going to further divide the discussion into more helpful categories. That way we not only see what God has said about Himself but what it means to us as an admonition (or warning), how that brings us comfort, and how we see that attribute in the life of Jesus.
I apologize for this super-quick review, but if you want to catch up, I encourage you to read or listen to the other sermons. Also, stay around for Overtime after service and ask any questions you want. My hope here is to not only give you information to help you understand God but to inspire you to pursue a deeper, consistent and more meaningful relationship with your Heavenly Father, and for that, as I said last week, it’ll mean some homework for you.
God in Relation to Man: Holiness
The first of God’s attributes in relation to mankind is His holiness. This is such a critical attribute because it helps us understand a lot about who God is and how He works. Some theologians and commentaries even call this the “chief attribute of God”. More important knowing that He is all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present, or even that God is love, is that God is holy. This is an attribute we see repeated hundreds and hundreds of times in scripture.
In scripture, we hear the host of heaven saying, “Holy, holy, holy” of God in the Old Testament (Isa 6:3) and Jesus in the New (Rev 4:8). The primary meaning of the word “Holy” is to be separate, special, different, set apart. God is totally different than man, totally separate from man, because God has no sin, no spot, no stain, no darkness. He is perfect in his moral purity and completely separate from His creation. We see glimpses of His holiness in this world, but they are only reflections of Him, like seeing the sun through the clouds, or light seen from around a corner.
But occasionally in the Bible, God chooses something out from His creation and comes near to it – and that place is called “Holy”. It becomes holy because it has come in proximity to the Holy God.
Holy by Proximity
When God was creating the world, he rested on the seventh day and “made it holy” (Gen 2:3). When Moses came near the burning bush he had to remove his sandals because was now on “holy ground” (Exo 3:5). The High Priests robes and jewelry became “holy garments” because they were only used in the “Holy place”, the temple (Exodus 28). When Joshua and Israel crossed the Jordan River, they “consecrated themselves” or “made themselves holy” before they went into the “holy land” (Josh 3:5, Psalm 78:54). When David was hungry in 2 Samuel 21, the only thing he found to eat was the “bread of the Presence” or 12 loaves of “holy bread” which were only for the priests to eat (1 Sam 21:4-6). Jerusalem is called the “holy city” (Neh 11:1; Rev 21:10).
In Jerusalem was the “holy temple” (Ps 5:7) and inside the “holy temple”, separated by a huge, heavy drape in royal colours and embroidered with pictures of angels, so no one could see inside, was “most holy place” or the “holy of holies” where sat the Ark of the Covenant, the Mercy Seat, the very throne room of God on earth (Exodus 26:31-33).
The veil wasn’t just to make the room separate though, it was a form of protection. It was in the Holy of Holies that God would appear, and even then he was clouded because anyone who would see the holiness of God would die. Therefore there was a veil and the only person allowed in this holy room was the High Priest, and he could only come once per year, and that only after washing himself, putting on special clothes, burning incense so the smoke would cover his eyes, offering sacrifices to atone for his sins and the sins of the people, and bringing sacrificial blood with him. (Lev 16:2, Exo 28; Heb 9:7). It was a serious and dangerous meeting because God is so holy it is actually dangerous to us.
Consider it this way. There are a lot of things in the world today that we can take a little bit of, but too much will kill us, right? This Christmas I bought my dad what I think is a unique present for Christmas. We went to a special store in Manotick that has bags and bags of different kinds of imported ————. (Not sharing! Dad reads these blogs!) He likes it so I made him a gift-set. Then I read an article online that said too much ———– can kill people 40 and over. So, yeah, I sent my dad a potentially lethal Christmas gift.
Actually, a lot of things in this world are lethal. We can drink a glass of wine, but too much alcohol and we die. Salt makes food taste better and we need it to live, but too much can kill you. Same with water. If you drink too much water in one shot, you can die. Humans need to work in order to live and function in this world, but if we only work, all the time, giving up eating, relationships, and sleep, we’ll die.
It seems that humans need impurities because pure versions of things tend to harm or kill us. We couldn’t see or live without the sun, but if we stare at it, it’ll burn out our retinas and we’ll go blind – stay out in it too long and it’ll cook you and then give you cancer. We need air to breathe, but pure oxygen will kill us.
Sin Separates Us From God
This is why sinful humans cannot be in the presence of God, why sin separates us. God’s holiness does not mean He cannot be around sin, but that sin cannot be around God. This is a really important concept and one that a lot of people don’t understand.
Sometimes we get this view in our head that the reason that sin is a problem, and why sin separates us from God, is because our sin would somehow taint His holiness. That somehow God keeps us away because He’s afraid that if we get too close that we’ll mess Him up. Some people believe that when the Bible says that God is “too pure to look upon evil” that it means he can’t see us, can’t be near us, can’t tolerate our presence. That isn’t it at all. Not even close.
The reason that Adam and Eve were removed from God’s presence and kicked out of the Garden of Eden wasn’t merely as a punishment, and certainly so that they wouldn’t infect God, but because their sin made the presence of God lethal to them. The reason for the veil in the temple was so people who got a glimpse in wouldn’t die.
God isn’t like that pristine white couch that your grandma or your friend had that no one wants or is allowed to sit on because you’re going to get it dirty. “No, sin cannot be in the presence of God because whenever God draws near to sin, the raging inferno of His… holiness washes all sin away.” And that includes us.
Open up to Isaiah 6 and let’s read the call of Isaiah the prophet together:
“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.’”
Do you see what happened there? Isaiah has a vision of God and what is his reaction? Terror. So far all he’s seen is God’s entourage. He’s seen some angels, felt an earthquake, heard an announcement, and saw some smoke, and he is convinced he is going to die. Why? Because of his sin. And he wasn’t wrong! God hadn’t shown up yet and if He had, Isaiah would have been consumed by the holiness of God. So what does God do? He sends one of the seraphim to touch a burning coal to Isaiah’s lips, to burn away the impurity, to atone for the sin. And then Isaiah can stand in the presence of God.
That’s why no one can be in the presence of God unless their sins have been dealt with first. Just as the High Priest needed washing, clothes changing, and blood sacrifice before he could even walk into an area where there was a clouded version of the merest hint of God’s holiness and glory, so any human needs to have their sin dealt with before they could be in the presence of God. Not to protect God from us, but to protect us from God.
This is why “good people go to heaven” isn’t true. This is why “if I do more good things than bad, then I can go to heaven” doesn’t work. This is why doing religious things doesn’t get you any credit with God. This is why not everyone goes to heaven. Everyone has sinned (Rom 3:23) and therefore literally cannot withstand the presence of God. When their sin comes near the presence of holy God they will be like straw before a blast furnace, they will be utterly destroyed.
The only solution is for us to be as holy as God, without imperfection, without blemish, without sin, without any condemnation, to be as perfect as God is – otherwise we are literally toast.
But how can a human become that holy? By ourselves, we can’t. That’s why we need the blood of Jesus, the sacrifice of Jesus, to atone for our sins, to wash away our sins, to cleanse us from unrighteousness. We need Jesus, the God-man, to take the entirety of God’s wrath against sin, to stand before the blast furnace of God’s holiness as our propitiation, as our sacrifice, as our stand-in. We need Jesus, the only man to ever live a perfectly holy life, to take that wrath, to die the death we should have, take the punishment we should take, pay the price we should pay, and then live again to prove He has conquered sin once and for all and has the power to not only forgive us but to make us clean to.
The Torn Veil
When Jesus was on the cross, right when He died, Matthew 27:50-51 says, “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” At that moment, something fundamentally changed about humanity’s relationship with God. No longer would we only be able to be able to meet God behind a curtain in a human temple after a bunch of preparation and sacrifices. Now, because of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice, perfect atonement for sin, because He had done His work, there was no longer any need for a barrier between God and Man that could only be breached once per year by one special person. Jesus stood before the blast furnace of God’s holiness and wrath and through His sacrifice made a way for us to stand before God.
Turn with me to Hebrews 9:6-14. Here’s how it describes the difference between our relationship with God before Jesus and after,
“These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”
Now, there is no longer a “holy of holies” where God’s Spirit dwells and which we must travel to visit. Now, everyone who believes in Jesus becomes a Temple and has the Holy of Holies inside them and carries God with them everywhere.
Before He was crucified, Jesus prayed to God for this-this way in John 17:20–23,
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
1 Corinthians 6:17-20 says it this way,
“But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.… Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?”
Let me close with our admonition and comfort in knowing that God is holy.
The admonition here, the warning, is that knowing how Holy God is, and how fundamental to His nature holiness is, God’s people should be filled with reverence for God and hatred towards sin. We should not take God lightly, use His name callously, or pretend that God is like us because He is decidedly not like us. That should inform our worship and words. And we should not take sin lightly. We should be pursuing holiness in our lives, our conduct, and our words, because we know that sin put Jesus on the cross, separates us from God, and has caused every problem in our lives and this world.
1 Peter 1:14–16 says it this way,
“As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”
But the comfort here is that we are not left to pursue that holiness alone. In fact, we can’t. It is The Lord Himself, by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the blood of Jesus Christ, that or uncleanliness is taken away and we have the ability to pursue holiness. We can’t white-knuckle being holy. It must come from God. We must be dependent on Him (1 John 1:7).
Turn with me to Ezekiel 36:22–29. Listen to what God says there about what He will do and why:
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses.”
This is what Jesus did for all believers who call out to Him. This is what Jesus offers to all people who see their sin and hate it; all those who are sick of themselves, who are done trying to hide their sin or trying to impress God or others, but feel like garbage inside. This is what Jesus offers to those who know they need help beyond anything that this world has to offer; to those who feel guilty, shameful, used, worn, and afraid. He offers holiness and the ability to live a holy life in His presence.
The warning is that we must take the holiness of God seriously, that our sin condemns us, clouds us, and infects us and others through us – but the comfort is that God has offered to save us from ourselves, clean us up, and make us holy, if we are only willing to admit we are sinners, ask for his forgiveness, take ourselves off the throne of our life, and put Jesus in charge.
 ESV Study Bible (Isaiah 6:3)
 Brower, K. E. (1996). Holiness. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 477). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Last week I told you that the sermons over the past month have all really been one, long sermon divided up into more manageable pieces. We started with a quick review of what we’ve talked about so far in the Heidelberg Catechism and how studying theology and doctrine will lead to greater love for God. We then moved onto talking about the attributes of God, beginning with one of the most complicated, that being that God is Triune – that the one true eternal God has revealed himself to be three distinct persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We then moved on to what is called General Revelation where I said that “God wants to be known” and even without the Bible He has shown Himself to humanity in obvious ways.
If you recall, I quoted one commentary which said it concisely:
“From creation we can learn in general, that there is a God, and that He is omnipotent and all-wise; from conscience, that there is a holy and just God, who hates and punishes evil.” (Thelemann, O. An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. p. 86)
We studied Romans 1:18-20 which said it this way,
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.”
This led us to talking about the problem of the Virtuous Pagan and why, in the face of what God’s General Revelation has shown us in Creation and Conscience, all humanity stands condemned. General Revelation only has the power to condemn us – to show us that we are sinners and that we have sinned against God. That’s the bad news.
But the good news is that God did not leave humanity condemned. His revelations about Himself are not merely general, but specific, what theologians call “Special Revelation”. He has given us more information about who He is, what He wants, what happened to us, and His plan to fix the problem. He did this in a few different ways. He spoke to people and gave them dreams and visions. He performed miracles and appointed people to be His ambassadors on earth. He inspired people to write laws, prophecies, and teachings in a book we call the Bible. And most importantly, we encounter who God is in the person of Jesus Christ who is the very person of God in human flesh.
Today, what I want to do is go through some more of the specific attributes of God that He tells us about Himself in the Bible. Beyond what we learn in Conscience and Creation, into the Special Revelation we have in scripture that tells us who God is in a much more specific way.
We are going to break these attributes into three sections. First, God’s attributes in relation to the whole world. Second, God’s attributes in relation to mankind. And third God in relation to Himself.
However, it is both boring and unhelpful to simply list them and read the verses from which we learn them, so we are going to divide it into more helpful categories and then seek out not only what God has shown us about Himself, but what that means to us as an admonition (or warning), what it means to us as a comfort, and how we see it in the life of Jesus.
God in Relation to the World: Omnipotence
The first of God’s attributes in relation to the whole world, in fact, the whole universe, is that God is Omnipotent. This is from the Latin words OMNI, meaning “All” and POTENTIS meaning “powerful”. When we talk about a spice or a drug we talk about how potent it is, how powerful. God is Omni-Potent, all-powerful. Another good word is Almighty. Psalm 115:3 says,
“Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.”
To be omnipotent means that God has ultimate power, ultimate authority, and can do whatever He wants. He can create anything He wills and do anything He desires.
The story of Gideon from Judges 7 is a great illustration here. God calls a cowardly young man to lead an army against an invading nation. The enemy nation, the Midianites, had 135,000 soldiers and God told Gideon to raise an army to fight them. Gideon made the call and 32,000 people showed up. And here’s what happened,
“The LORD said to Gideon, ‘The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’ Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home and hurry away from Mount Gilead.’ ” Then 22,000 of the people returned, and 10,000 remained. And the LORD said to Gideon, ‘The people are still too many…” (Jdg 7:2–4)
And God whittles down Gideon’s army to 300 people to defeat Midian. Why did God do that? Verse 2 gives the answer. Because God wanted everyone to know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the situation was so lopsided that the victory had to have been a miracle and therefore the glory belonged to Him.
We see this in the life of Jesus, of course, in His miracles. He turns water into wine, makes those who are blind from birth see, calms storms with a word, multiplies a small lunch to feed thousands, and even raises the dead. Hebrews 1:3 says that it is by the power of Jesus that the whole universe is sustained
“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”
The admonition here, the warning, is that we should humble ourselves before God Almighty. Our greatest allegiance, our biggest fear, our largest concern should be what God thinks, what God desires, what God has to say. Jesus said it this way, “…do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28). This is why we sing so much about God’s power, might, and authority, because it is one of his chief attributes. When we worship, we are telling God his “worth” to us, meaning we are singing back to Him His own attributes and what they mean to us.
But if the warning here is that we ought to fear God above all else, the comfort is that because God is omnipotent, God is trustworthy and capable of helping and protecting us. He is not like humans or the petty ancient gods of old who grasp for power, are limited in their abilities, and are easily manipulated. If God wills it, it happens. Period. This is a comfort to us because that means that regardless of what is happening in our lives, no matter how difficult, God is in control of it, God has ordained it, God has allowed it, God can use it for His glory and our good.
This is one reason we are invited to and ought to pray to Him. He, above everyone else, is capable of helping. And He has promised to. One of the great mysteries of the Christian faith is that God invites us to pray and that through our prayers God makes things happen.
God in Relation to the World: Omnipresence
The second of God’s greatest attributes in relation to the world is that He is Omnipresent, meaning He is everywhere at the same time. This doesn’t mean that God is everything – God is not a tree, a mountain, a bug, a tidal wave – it means that God is everywhere. God is present everywhere in His creation at the same time, but is not part of His creation. God is at work in everything and in all places at the same time and there is nothing that can happen in this world that He is not present for. God is not like the ancient gods, restricted to temples or buildings or nations or peoples. There is nothing He does not see.
This also means that God cannot be circumscribed, or gone around. No one can draw a circle around God, or go behind His back. He also cannot be bound or tied down. His power and presence have no limit. He says in Jeremiah 23:23-24,
“Am I a God at hand, declares the LORD, and not a God far away? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the LORD.”
We see this most eloquently in Psalm 139:7–12. Turn with me there. Where the writer knows this and says,
“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.”
In the past I’ve called this the Rorschach psalm because how you read it will depend on your relationship with God. The fact that God is everywhere at once, seeing everything, will either fill you with fear and dread and guilt, or comfort and peace.
Omnipresence is a little strange to talk about when it comes to the life of Jesus. He was and is eternal God, containing all the attributes of God, but added to Himself the attribute of human flesh. Jesus, without losing any of His godhood, added humanity to Himself. These are the dual natures of Christ, both human and divine at the same time. So that means that Jesus didn’t lose his Omnipresence. We’ll get into that more when we hit Question 47. But we see Jesus claim this in His promise to believers in Matthew 28:18-20 when he says to his disciples,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Jesus has the authority of God and says that He will be with His disciples forever. That’s Jesus claiming Omnipotence and Omnipresence. But as I said, we’ll cover this more later.
So the admonition here, the warning, is to remember that we have no secrets before God. Our deeds, our sins are known to Him. We can hide from our friends, our spouse, our boss, we can even hide from ourselves, but we cannot hide from God. We may want to be like Adam and Eve and try to cover ourselves and hide, but it doesn’t work. God was there the whole time and saw everything. The warning is that we ought to live in that knowledge and it should temper our decisions.
But the comfort is that no matter where we are, God is always near. Over and over in the Old Testament and the New, God says to His people, “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.” (Isaiah 41:10, Jeremiah 1:8, Acts 18:10) God cannot be far off, ignoring you, turning His back on you, not understanding what you’re going through because it is contrary to His nature. He is Omnipresent and the knowledge of the presence of God, the nearness of God, the closeness of God is a comfort to the people who trust Him.
God in Relation to the World: Omniscience
The third of God’s attributes in relation to the world is that God is Omniscient. God is Omnipotent. God is Omnipresent. And God is Omniscient. OMNI, meaning “all” and SCIENTIA meaning “knowledge”. That’s where we get the word “Science”. When we do science, we are seeking to know something, to understand something, to come to conclusions about what it is, what it does, where it came from. God is OMNI SCIENTIA, Omniscient, All-Knowing. God knows everything that is past, present and future, in all places, that which is seen and which is unseen, even the most hidden thoughts in our heart before we even think them.
Look back to verse 1 in 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…. [Skip to verse 13]
For you formed my inward parts you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you.”
Again, this is a little complicated in the life of Jesus, because there were times when it says He didn’t know things (Matthew 24:36), but we also see that He had supernatural knowledge. Multiple times He demonstrates that He knows the thoughts and motivations of the people around him (Matthew 9:4, John 6:64, John 1:48.) John 2:24-25 says summarizes it like this, “… he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” In Revelation 2:23 Jesus gives a warning to one of the churches saying, “…all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.”
The admonition here is that we should be mindful at all times that God not only sees our deeds, but knows our thoughts and motivations. Proverbs 16:2 says, “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit.” Psalm 14:2 says, “The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God.”
There is no point on putting on a show for God or anyone else. There’s no reason to pretend to be better or worse than you are. There’s no point in convincing everyone that you’ve got it all together. There’s no point in going through a bunch of religious rituals if you’re secretly in unrepentant sin. God knows your heart and has rejected your worship. There’s no point in doing a bunch of good deeds and saying prayers and giving to charity if it’s done to impress others, no matter how great people think you are. God knows you’re just an arrogant show-off and you get no reward from Him for it (Matthew 6).
God knows where your heart is at when you walk into this building for worship. He knows the conversation you had in the car, the thoughts in your mind while you sit here and all the ways that you are comparing yourself to and judging others. He knows, so there is no point in pretending to worship, pretending to pray, pretending to listen, pretending to believe, pretending to be happy, pretending to be a Christian because it gains you nothing. It is the truth that sets you free.
In Hebrews, it says that we should be persevering in our faith because God knows what we’re all about and we see that every time we open up the word of God. Turn to Hebrews 4. It says in Hebrews 4:11–13,
“Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
So stop pretending.
But the comfort of this knowledge is this: God knows everything we need and want, everything we feel, knows exactly what to do about it, and is willing to help. There’s no need to pretend with God, so that means we can be honest with Him about what we want, what we need, what we’re afraid of and what we hope for. He cares about all of that and is willing to do everything possible to help us to become who we were created to be. Jesus says that God already knows everything we need (Matthew 6:32), and the Bible says that Jesus knows how we feel.
Continuing to read in Hebrews 4:14 we see that not only does God know everything about us and therefore can judge us perfectly, but that His knowledge motivates Him to help us! Hebrews 4:14–16,
“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.”
What allows us to pray, to come close to God when we are in need? The fact that Jesus not only perfectly knows everything we are going through, but has experienced it for Himself, and stands before God as our high priest, advocating on our behalf. This means that whatever is happening in our life, no matter how difficult or perplexing, is something God is doing to draw us closer to Him and teach us something – that along the way and in the end, God is not wasting anything and nothing is out of control. Or as Philippians 1:6 says it,
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
I know that’s hard to understand sometimes. Especially when things are very difficult and there seems to be no reason. But at that moment when we are feeling hopeless, it helps for us to remind ourselves about who God is, what He is like, and what that means for us. We say to ourselves and to God – bow your head with me… maybe this can be your prayer too…:
“Lord, things feel bad right now. Darkness and confusion about. But God, you are Omnipotent. You are all-powerful, meaning that nothing is beyond Your ability and nothing can happen to me without Your permission. God, you are Omnipresent, meaning that you are with me no matter what and you see everything that is happening to me. And You are Omniscient, meaning You knows what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen as a result. I’m limited in my understanding, limited in my knowledge, but God, You are not. I recognize that because of your perfection You have no reason to harm me because You gain nothing from it. So instead, at this moment I will look to Jesus, my High Priest, the one who knows me, loves me, and has been where I am – the God who prays for me and advocates for me. Jesus, it doesn’t feel very good right now. I’m scared, alone, afraid, anxious, worried, lost – I feel guilty, shameful, and dirty – I am at my wit’s end and don’t know what to do. But I trust you. You are bigger than my fear and my need and my sin. I trust your power, your knowledge, your wisdom and your love to do what is best for me. Please help me not only know you are here but to trust you through this.”
Imagine for a moment that you are sitting at home one night when you hear a weird noise outside your door, see a bunch of flickering lights, and then moments later hear a knock on your door.
You answer it and there stands an alien family from outer space – there’s an alien mom, alien dad, and a couple of alien kids. You look at them for a moment, not being sure how to react, when one of them says, “Hi! We’re on vacation and got a little lost. We were on our way to our favourite spot but got turned around. Then we noticed your planet had its lights on so we decided to stop by. We’ve got a few days left in our vacation and think it would be great for the kids to see a planet like this. But before we head off, we have a question for you: What’s this planet like?”
How do you answer that? That’s a huge question, with a thousand answers. Do you talk about how we do food and water? How we communicate? Do you start with the national and political and religious situations they should consider? Do you start describing mountains and valleys and sunsets, or do you start with the Seven Wonders of the World? Maybe you should start with the history of the planet, it’s location in the solar system, how life came to be, and why it looks the way it does? But where should they go first? What must they definitely see on earth before they leave? What should they definitely avoid? What warning signs should they look out for and what is the best place to go to understand our global culture? If you’re a farmer you’ll probably have one answer, if you’re a geologist another. If you are a politician you’ll prioritize some things, if you’re an artist you’ll mention something completely different.
But the earth is finite, right? Technically, eventually, you could summarize and describe everything they would need to know so they had a basic understanding of planet earth and could set out on their way – but what if they asked you to describe our solar system, or our galaxy – from the atomic level all the way up to the largest formations of stars and everything in between. That would be hard, right?
But again, those things are tangible, physical, measurable. With a good enough microscope and telescope, you could theoretically take a good crack at it and eventually come up with a description of everything in the known universe.
But what about God? He is infinitely more difficult to describe? Why? Because He’s not finite, He’s infinite. He’s not bound by time, He’s eternal. He doesn’t have limits and boundaries that we can mark off because He is all-powerful, ever-present, and all-knowing. He is literally unfathomable. And yet, it is our task as believers is to try to get to know Him. As I said before, from Christ’s words in John 17:3,
“…this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Theology is the science of studying God. RC Sproul, in his book Everyone is a Theologian says this:
“Theology is inescapable. Not everybody is a professional Theologians with a capital-T, but we are all theologians with a lower-case-t because we all have some view of who God is. And so, fundamental to living and walking as a Christian is clear understanding of the truth of God.”
Regardless of what else we do in this world, our jobs, our family, our struggles and victories, it all revolves around the greatest mission in life: to know God and to know Jesus. All those things – our studies, our work, our relationships – not only teach us about ourselves and this world, but they all come back to teach us about the One who created it and for whom it was created (Col 1:15-17).
That’s what we’ve been getting at for the past couple weeks. In the catechism we are studying, we are trying to get a “clear understanding of the truth of God” so that we can wrap our minds around who He is, what He’s like, and what that means for us.
In truth, the last couple sermons and this one are the same – just broken up over the weeks. It would have been overwhelming to try to answer everything that Day 8 wants me to cover. In Day 8, which covers questions 24 and 25 of the catechism, it is traditional to explain not only the answers to the questions but to give an outline of how we know there is a God in the first place and then spend time describing His most obvious attributes.
Over the past couple weeks I gave a quick review, discussed the first attribute of God found in the doctrine of the Trinity, and then I told you that we would move into talking about more of those attributes. So that’s what I want to do today. As I said about trying to describe earth to those alien vacationers, it’s an impossible task to complete, but there are many things that we can do to get a good start.
God Wants to Be Known
And a good place to start is that God is a person who wants to be known.
Sometimes people say that God is unknowable, too mysterious, too impossible to understand, and therefore they either give up trying or construct a version of Him that is easier for them to comprehend. In fact, I just used the word “unfathomable” to describe Him. But to be “unfathomable” doesn’t mean that we can know nothing about Him, it means we cannot know everything about Him. And, in fact, because of the limited capacity of our language, even the words we use to describe Him will fall short, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. Yes, God is invisible and infinitely complicated, but on the other hand, God is a clearly a person who wants to be known, who has chosen to reveal Himself and has demonstrated a desire to be known in a lot of different ways. Today we’re going to talk about the most general ways.
General Revelation: Creation
First, He makes Himself known in Creation. Romans 1:19–20 when speaking of those who refuse to believe in God it says,
“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”
Psalm 19:1–2 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”
Psalm 8:3-4 says, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”
The point here is that creation itself declares that there is a God. Theologians call this “General Revelation” as opposed to “Special Revelation” because it’s not specific. Examples of special revelation are things like the Bible, prophecies, miracles, the person of Jesus – but the world around us, the wonders and power of creation, is an example of “General Revelation”. No one can come to a saving knowledge of Jesus through “General Revelation”, but through it, they can understand some of the big concepts like God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature”. Meaning that everyone on earth, at some point in their life, looks at the world around them, the beauty, complexity, design, and usefulness and thinks, “Wow, there is something beyond me. Something self-existent that was before me, before everything, something beyond me that has the wisdom and power to create all of this.”
General Revelation: Conscience
But that isn’t the only source of General revelation. Coupled with the revelation of God in Creation is Him revealing Himself in our Conscience.
Let me read Romans 2:12-16 which speaks of how all mankind, not only those who have read the Bible, have fallen under the judgment of God. It says,
“For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”
The second General Revelation of the existence of God is that everyone on earth has a human conscience. Yes, this conscience is flawed and imperfect, but it is also universal. Thomas Aquinas called this the Natural Law. What it is is an argument that if there is a universal, objective, moral law to which all humanity agrees, then there must be a Universal Law Giver. There can only be an up and a down, a right and a wrong, if there is some sort of reference point. And that reference point cannot be something we all coincidentally just came up with. We cannot have the belief that this world is all about the “survival of the fittest” alongside the internal, universal moral imperative not to murder. Yet everywhere, regardless of religion, history, or culture agrees that murder is wrong.
I heard a quote this week that said:
“For the atheist, humans are just accidents of nature; highly evolved animals. But animals have no moral obligations to one another. When a cat kills a mouse it hasn’t done anything morally wrong. The cat is just being a cat. If God doesn’t exist, we should view human behaviour in the same way. No action should be considered morally right or wrong. But the problem is that good and bad, right and wrong, do exist. Just as our sense experience convinces us that the physical world is objectively real, our moral experience convinces us that moral values are objectively real. Every time you say, ‘That’s not fair. That’s wrong. That’s an injustice.’ You affirm your belief in the existence of objective morals.” In other words, the person who says that murder, terrorism, and child abuse is morally right is just as mistaken as the person who says that 2+2=5. (The Theology Forum)
Everyone that has ever existed, if they have the capacity for self-examination and self-awareness, has a moment when they see a glimpse of God’s divinity in Creation. It’s universal. Also, every human being has a moment when they realize that their thoughts, actions, and motives are somehow conflicting with what they know is right. Their moral behaviour doesn’t line up with their moral understanding. They inherently know something is right or wrong, not because that thought was written in some book or because their parents said so, but because something greater, something within them has said it was right or wrong. Then they do the opposite, breaking their conscience, creating within themselves guilt and shame.
Every human being has to deal with those two general revelations – and then they must do something about it. They see the vastness of space, the beauty of a sunset, the power of a storm, the birth of a baby and it triggers something primal in their soul. At the same time, they realize that there is something in them that compels them and everyone else, every society on earth, towards and away from certain behaviours. Somehow, even in secret where no one can see them, in their heart of hearts, they feel pride when they do good and guilt when they do wrong.
At that moment they are faced with a choice to either explore those feelings, those revelations, those divine moments. They are given the invitation to seek after that power, try to discover more about it, to find that moral lawgiver – or repress that thought, ignore it ever happened, deny that guilty feeling and repress it until it goes away, to refuse to believe that there is any being above themselves or any morality that should stop them from achieving their own desires.
That is a universal, human experience, and it is what Romans 1 and 2 are all about. In the words of one commentary I have, it says,
“From creation we can learn in general, that there is a God, and that He is omnipotent and all-wise; from conscience, that there is a holy and just God, who hates and punishes evil.” (Thelemann, O. An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. p. 86)
We just went through an election in Carleton Place and we were inundated with road signs with candidates’ names on them and pamphlets in the mail with pictures and slogans. Creation and Conscience are sort of like God’s signs, God’s calling cards, His invitations to know Him more. But what we cannot do is deny we have seen the invitation.
No human being will stand before God and say, “I never knew there was a being above me. I never knew the difference between right and wrong. I never felt that there was power or wisdom beyond myself.” Everyone will stand before God and say, “Yes, I knew in my heart that there was some kind of eternal power and divine nature beyond myself. I perceived it in creation. And I knew that throughout my life I was given the choice between right and wrong and I chose wrong time and again. I stand self-condemned. I chose to deny you, chose not to seek you, and chose to darken my heart so I could choose wrong, against my conscience, so I could have material things. I exchanged the pursuit of God for a lie of my own preference.”
Conclusion: The Virtuous Pagan
The bad news about General Revelation is that it only has the power to condemn humanity. Turn with me to Romans 1:18–25 and let’s read the expanded section of what we’ve been studying. It says,
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
The question often comes to Christians: What about the person who has never heard Gospel, never read the Bible, never heard about Jesus? What about the innocent person who grew up in a far-flung country that has never been visited by missionaries or whose tribe wouldn’t let them in? Surely God wouldn’t hold that against them? How could a good and loving God condemn someone to Hell just because they’ve never heard of Him? That’s unfair! This is often called the problem of the “Virtuous Pagan”.
This argument has even been used to say that it is actually cruel of Christians to send missionaries because perhaps God would have saved that person if they had never heard of Jesus. What if the missionary bungled the presentation or the person couldn’t understand the story. We should just leave them alone so that they can find God their way, shouldn’t we?
The Doctrine of General Revelation, as presented in the Bible disagrees. First, God has not promised salvation to everyone and has no obligation to save everyone. The fact that He chooses to save anyone is because of His grace, not because He has to. The Bible doesn’t present humanity as good, moral, wonderful little creatures that God sends to Hell for no reason. Instead, the Bible presents humanity as fallen, sinful, evil beings that have rejected God, rejected objective morality, and have chosen sin instead, making themselves an enemy of God.
Everyone in that has ever existed, in every country, language, and nation, will stand before God and be self-condemned (they will admit their guilt before God) for what they have known through General Revelation. No one will be able to argue that they deserve Heaven because of their own merit or because of their ignorance. Some will be even more condemned because they not only rejected God’s General Revelation through Creation and Conscience, but have actually read the Word of God, seen the Law of God, heard about the gospel of Jesus Christ, and rejected it too.
But the good news is that God has not left everyone condemned. He could have. But instead, God has revealed Himself and His plan of salvation to us and has invited us to be a part of spreading that message to others.
Next week we are going to move from talking about the General Revelations of God to the Special Revelations, and how we can know God better through them.
 Taken from ESV Study Bible note on Rom 1:19-20
 Thelemann, O. (1896). An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. (M. Peters, Trans.) (p. 86). Reading, PA: James I. Good, D. D, Publisher.
Our celebrity-obsessed culture struggles with understanding what it means to actually know someone. People seem to fall in love with, give their allegiance to, or utterly hate someone they’ve never met, simply because they’ve seen them in movies or on TV. Their agent and their publicist work hard to craft a certain public image for them, and there are many in the public that connect far too deeply with that image. They follow their every post, change their thinking to match, defend them at every turn, even cry at their funerals – but they don’t actually know that person – they only know the well-crafted public image.
As I’ve said before, getting to know someone takes time, effort, and risk. With families, friendships, marriages, or the people we work with, there always seems to be a little more that we can know about the people – and always room for surprises. You’ve probably experienced this. You think you know someone, have known them for years, and then they do something that completely surprises you. Your child, who used to need you for everything seems to suddenly grow up and now you need to actually schedule time with them because they have so many independent things going on. Your extroverted friend, who was always out, always staying up late, couldn’t care less about responsibilities somehow morphs into a mature adult. The person who you thought was rock solid in their faith and morals suddenly blows up their entire life when something terrible is exposed in them. Or the person, who you had pegged as a total screw-up, does something to completely change your view of them and all their idiosyncrasies are suddenly seen in a new light, and you are suddenly impressed by them.
The Apostles Creed
Last week I told you that we are entering a new section of the Heidelberg Catechism that is concerned with introducing us to the person, character, and attributes of God. It is framed by a study of the Apostles Creed. If you want to know more about that, visit my website and you’ll see the introductory sermons I preached on it. But to frame our discussion, and remind us of what it says, I want to read the Apostles Creed and then get into question 24 of the catechism. But first, a quick review:
If you recall, we got here from a discussion on what it means to have faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Heidelberg builds its arguments question upon question so I could go all the way back to question one as summary, but let’s just go back to Question 20. It was about how salvation works and who gets to be saved from the consequences of sin. It said, “Are all men, then, saved by Christ Just as they perished through Adam?” And the answer was “No. Only those are saved who by a true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all his benefits.”
So if only those who have true faith in Jesus are saved, then Question 21 follows up with the natural next question: “What is true faith?” and question 22 with “What, then, must a Christian believe?” That makes sense, right? If faith in Jesus is the only way to be saved from our greatest misery, then what does it mean to have faith and what are we supposed to believe?
The answer to question 22 is “All that is promised us in the gospel, which the articles of our catholic and undoubted Christian faith teach us in a summary.” Which leads to the next logical question, number 23, “What are these articles?” That led us to question 23 where we read the Apostles Creed, an ancient summary of the most essential parts of what Christians must believe to be saved, which the Catechism explains in detail for the next series of weeks. It says,
“I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son, our Lord; he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell. On the third day, he arose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic Christian church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.”
Getting to Know Someone
This leads us to question 24 which says, “How are these articles divided?” Before getting into the line-by-line discussion of the points of the Apostles Creed, Ursinus takes a step back and makes us look at the structure of the creed because it’s important. The answer is that the Apostles Creed is divided, “Into three parts: the first is about God the Father and our creation; the second about God the Son and our redemption; the third about God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification.” That’s critically important because it gives us an outline for our discussion on who God is.
When you meet someone for the first time there are a standard set of questions that everyone goes through, right? What’s your name? What brings you here? What do you do? They are standard, introductory questions and they give us a framework to work with. If the person says my name is “Bill Smith” or “Mary Johson” we move on to the next question. But if the person introduces themselves as “Thunderclap Nelson” or “Jürgen Schmidt” that immediately tells you something and you’ll probably dig a little further.
Once you know their name the next question tries to build some common ground. People usually start with either the weather – which everyone experiences and leaves very little room for argument – or builds that foundation on their common location: “What brings you here?” The background of that question is: Why are we in the same place? What common things do we have? What is the most basic foundation we can have for building this relationship? If you’re at a wedding and they say, “I’m a friend of the groom” you can start there. If you’re at a party and they say, “I came for the free food” that tells you something else.
The next, most common question, is “What do you do?”, right? Now that I know your name, and by extension maybe guess a little something about your ethnicity, history, and upbringing – and we’ve established a common thread for relationship – we both know the married couple, we’re both cheering for the same team, we both like the Fall weather – we usually ask what the person does for work? Why? Because it is more specific. It tells us how they spend their time, what they are interested in, what their skills are, gives us a peek into the kind of person they are.
If they say, “I’m a student” that tells you something. If they say, “I’m between jobs right now”, that tells you something else. If they say, “I’m a doctor”, that makes them see you in a certain light. If they say, “I work at a gas station, but I sell aromatherapy candles and dreamcatchers at local craft shows” that adds to the picture.
It’s the same thing when we look at the Heidelberg, the Apostles Creed, and the picture that God gives us of Himself in scripture. In the Bible He’s answering the same sorts of questions: This is my name. These are my nicknames. This is what I’m interested in. This is the work I do. These are my likes and dislikes. In the Bible God gives us the foundation upon which we can get to know and build our relationship with Him. And the Apostles Creed is a summary of what the Bible says. Who is God, what’s He like, what does He do? And it’s broken into three categories? Why? Because God presents Himself as a Triune being.
LD8b: The Trinity
That’s why question 25 is,
“Since there is only one God, why do you speak of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?”
The answer to which is
“Because God has so revealed himself in his Word that these three distinct persons are the one, true, eternal God.”
Why do Christians talk about the Trinity? Why do we say that the One, True God is three distinct persons? Because that’s what God has shown us in The Bible.
If you remember, I referenced Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” last week. He had a famous saying that is often repeated: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” That simply means that if you keep looking at the evidence and deducing what it means and what it can’t mean, then whatever you are left with must be what happened.
We see Trinitarian views of God all over scripture. In Genesis 1 we see God creating the world, but the Spirit of God as well, hovering over that which existed before creation (1:2). At Jesus’ Baptism in Matthew 3(:16-17) we see Jesus get into the water, the heavens open up, the Father Speak, and the Spirit of God descend like a dove.
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus prays to God the Father (John 17:1), but also does things that only God can do – He forgives sins (Luke 7:48), accepts worship (Matthew 2:11, 14:33, 28:9-10), commands demons (Matthew 8:28-34), and affects creation with a word by performing miracles like healing diseases and calming the storm(John 9, Mark 4).
The Gospel of John takes chapter after chapter to share what Jesus was teaching His disciples during the Last Supper, and it is incredibly Trinitarian. In Chapter 14 Jesus says that He is going to the Father to prepare a place and that no one can come there except through Him, but when Philip says, “Show us the Father”, Jesus replies
“Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (vs 9)
As His disciples grow more concerned about Jesus’ forthcoming death and ascension, Jesus comforts them by saying that when He leaves He will send the Helper, the Holy Spirit to be with them (John 15:26). Then He says something surprising,
“But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:6–7)
Jesus says that it is better for us that we have the Holy Spirit than Him standing right in front of us! But what does Jesus say at the end of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20, after He had died, rose again, and was about to ascend into Heaven and send the Holy Spirit?
“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Are these contradictions? Was Jesus confused? Did the authors of the Bible get it wrong? No. I have a video I want to show you that was just released by The Bible Project and lines up perfectly with what we are learning here – and says it much better than I can.
I know this is a lot to take in – and in truth, the church has been trying to figure this out, and has been arguing about for a very long time – but, the concept of the Trinity is true. To know the one, true God, to speak accurately about Him, to speak Biblically about Him, we must speak of Him as Triune. Why? Because that’s what the Creed says? No. Because that’s how God has introduced Himself to us. It’s how God has told us to relate to Him. And so, to deny the Doctrine of the Trinity is to deny what God has said about Himself, and is therefore wrong. It’s misleading. To invent new ideas about Him is sin and error.
In the same way that it would be wrong to make up stories about you, call you by a different name, or give false testimony about you, it is wrong to do that for God.
To know God as Trinity means that God is a God of relationship, of perfect love, and has been in relationship for Eternity. God is not alone and did not create us because He was lonely. God was always in perfect relationship and always will be. But He desires to share that eternal love with us by letting us get to know Him and be in relationship with Him. That is comforting because that means that God isn’t needy, isn’t fickle, isn’t distant, isn’t unable to understand what it means to love someone – it means God loves you because God is love and always has been.
The Trinity is one attribute of God, but there are more. And these attributes, these truths about God, not only tell us something about Him but something important about how we can relate to Him. And now that we’ve covered the attribute of the Trinity a bit, I want to get into more of those attributes next week.
I’m a fan of the mystery genre. I like shows and movies where the main character, or the team, has a big problem to solve and has to use problem-solving ingenuity and cool technology to try to figure out what happened. One of my favourites is when there’s a missing person that needs to be found within a certain time or something bad will happen. The gathering of clues and working the problem is interesting, but once that sense of urgency is added, it becomes so much more interesting.
When someone goes missing in these shows, it’s often up to at least one of the investigators to interview the family and friends to sift for clues in the missing person’s personality and habits in order to figure out what might have led to the situation in the first place. What was this person like? What were their habits? Who are their friends? Did they have any enemies? Were they under any special stresses? Did they meet anyone new?
Right now I’m re-reading, for the third or fourth time, the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and still loving it. Of course, he doesn’t have a team of investigators working with him when solving crimes, so he does all the interviewing himself.
Most times in the stories, the person with the problem comes into 221B Baker Street, sits down in front of the fireplace, Holmes sits back, closes his eyes and says, “Tell me what happened and spare no details.” Of course, for the sake of the story, the person usually has a very good memory of exact conversations and locations, but when they are done the great detective usually asks a few clarifying questions and says, “Ok, I’ll get back to you about this soon.” and invites the person to leave.
One of the best things about his friend Watson is his ability to stay quiet when Holmes is thinking because in a lot of the stories, Sherlock Holmes simply sits in one place – in his chair, a cab, a hotel room – and thinks. And Watson just sits there. Then, after a while, Sherlock with stand up, call Watson over, and say, “Let’s go, there’s only one thing I need to see before I know exactly what happened.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, at the beginning of the adventures says that there are three abilities that a great detective must have: The powers of observation, of deduction, and a great knowledge of past cases. Later, as he develops the character he adds two more: a good imagination and staunch determination.
I’ve actually mulled these over in my head quite a bit over the last couple years, and as I’ve been reading again. I think Doyle is absolutely right about these being necessary for a good detective, but I also think that they are also valuable for Christians who study theology.
The word Theology itself means simply, the study of God, right? To do theology is actually very much like a missing person case from those TV shows or a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Theologians, like detectives, search through the evidence around them to try to discover and understand all that they can about God – and that certainly needs the abilities to critically observe all the evidence, to be able to rightly deduce its meaning, and to have a vast and growing knowledge of history and philosophy and other studies. They need to be able to use their imaginations to put the immensity of trying to understand such eternal and sometimes paradoxical things together, and of course, the determination to keep working at it when it all seems too impossible to ever grasp.
But it’s worth it. There is something especially unique and pleasant about studying the person and the attributes of God.
The Joy of Studying God
Proverbs 9:10 says that
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”
Isaiah 26:3 says,
“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.”
Remember talking about Psalm 119:9-11 which says,
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word. With all my heart I have sought You; Do not let me wander from Your commandments. Your word I have treasured in my heart, That I may not sin against You.”?
You see the interplay between reading the Word and meeting God because even though Psalm 119 is a love song about the Bible, but it’s just as much a song about the joy of studying God, because it is through God’s Word that we encounter the person of God.
And it goes the other way too. As Psalm 14 begins, and which Romans 1 echoes and expands,
“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God.”
Part of what it means to be a Christian, part of the way we worship God, demonstrate our love for Jesus, and participate with the Holy Spirit is to try to “understand God”, to “seek after God”. What does that mean but to try to track him down? Like Sherlock Holmes following the evidence to solve the crime and discover whodunit, we follow the revelations of God to do the same – to answer questions like: Who created everything and why? What is the purpose of this world and what is my purpose as an individual? What is God like? What does He want? What does He expect of us?
That’s part of what we’re doing as we study the Heidelberg Catechism – we’re following the evidence, the apologetic, the arguments for not only whether God exists, but who He is, what He is like, and what that means for us.
It began where we must begin, with an explanation of why there is misery in our world and how that misery can be fixed. After all, mankind is nothing if not selfish and is constantly asking the question, “What do I get out of it?”. And so it starts with explaining our greatest problems and how those problems are only solved by Jesus Christ. It explains the depth of our grief and then presents Jesus as the exclusive answer.
But then it must defend that exclusivity, right? What makes Jesus special? Why Him? And what does it mean to have faith in Him alone? And once those questions are answered, presenting faith in Jesus as the only way of salvation, inviting people to become Christians, the author of the Catechism does what any investigator would do: starts digging into the specific details. In question 22 it asks, “What, then, must a Christian believe?”
As we move through the catechism the discussions become more and more specific beginning a line by line study of the Apostles Creed. It’s not enough to know the crime and whodunit. Remember, a good investigator, a good detective, a good theologian, must do more. They must observe as many details as they can, even to the minutia that no one sees. They must seek to deduce all they can about the means and motives behind what happened. They must meditate and study history so they can gain greater knowledge of how this has been seen in other areas of life. They must apply their imagination that they might try to experience what they are learning for themselves and understand it on a deeper level. And they must show the dogged determination to keep digging until there is no more gold to be mined from their study.
Studying Details Deepens Our Love
And that’s what Ursinus does in this catechism, especially in his commentary – and more-so those theologians who have come after. They dig and dig and defend and imagine and explain and apply all they can so that the Christians who are reading and listening can better discover the God they worship, the Saviour they follow, and the Spirit that abides in them.
Why though? Why do all this work? Sherlock Holmes is asked this question often too. He spends hours sifting through pieces of evidence, lays on the grass studying a footprint for what seems like far too long, speaks of the tiniest little things – like cigar ash or someone’s shoelaces – as though they are of the most immense value. And he is often mocked by other detectives for it.
That happens to a lot of theologians and studious Christians too. In fact, it happens to a lot of people that become fascinated with a subject. Perhaps you’ve had this experience. You find interest in something – doesn’t matter what it is: art, chemistry, weather patterns, history, fishing. And as you learn, you get more and more into the minutia, the details, the obscurity of the subject. But the more you learn about the details, the more they fascinate you, the more important you realize they are. But when you try to explain it, others mock or get bored.
An art student walks into a museum and looks at a painting. Everyone else sees simply a picture of a dish, or a face, or a meadow, appreciate the colours and a couple details and then walks away. But then the art student walks up and begins to become fascinated with the thickness of the paint, the intricacy of the brushstrokes, the changes of momentum and how the thickness of the paint interacts with the canvas and the light. They pull out a magnifying glass and ooh and aah over the smallest corner of the painting – and everyone around them thinks their nuts.
The average people can sit around and talk about historical events like 9-11 or D-Day or Napoleon’s conquests, but a history buff can spend hours talking about how incredibly important the invention of paper currency was. They can argue the importance of the sextant vs the astrolabe vs the compass to ancient mariners – and while everyone around them is wilting like flowers, they’re enjoying every second!
My point is that learning the minutia, the details, about something you love doesn’t get confusing or boring, it actually deepens your love for that thing. It works in relationships too. In a good marriage, the two are consistently learning more about the other. They study one another, ask the other questions about their history, their current interests, their pains and their plans. And after 20, 30, 40 years, because people are such intricate creatures, there are still surprises, still things to learn. And as that knowledge grows, so does the love. One way you can tell that someone loves you, or that you love someone, is by how many questions they ask you about yourself, or how much you want to know about them. And in the same way, one way you can tell that someone doesn’t care is using you, or has lost interest, is when they don’t ask you personal questions. Love makes a person want to know more.
So this pursuit, this study of God, isn’t just about amassing knowledge. It’s not about getting the right answers. It’s not even about being able to defend our faith when it’s attacked by doubts or unbelief. The greatest reason we study God is to deepen our love for God.
Certainly, in the study of God, we gain much. As the scriptures, we read said: we gain wisdom for life, knowledge of lofty things, a peace and security knowing God is trustworthy. We gain an appreciation for purity and righteousness and desire to do good. But more than all that, we gain a deeper, more intimate relationship with God.
Jesus, in the High Priestly Prayer He prayed before He was betrayed and arrested, began like this:
“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:2-3)
When Jesus came it was to save us from sin and death and give us a path to eternal life. We gain access to eternal life through faith and belief in Him. What must we believe? That’s question 22, right? We believe the gospel. What is the Gospel? The gospel is the knowledge of who God is and what God has done through Jesus. Which is why Jesus defines eternal life as the continuing and growing knowledge of “the only true God, and Jesus Christ”.
As God works in us to grow our knowledge of the gospel, so our faith in Him grows. As we submit to Him in prayer and study and our knowledge of who God is growing, our desire for and ability to worship grows. As we talk to Jesus and learn about Jesus, our humility and maturity and love for others grow. As we learn more about the work of the Holy Spirit within us, our peace and security and trust grow, our conscience becomes more sensitive, and we discover the purpose of our life.
And each of these new discoveries causes us to grow more in love with God. We learn to appreciate and embrace His justice, holiness, and discipline. We appreciate more and more His patience, grace, and fatherly heart. As we reflect on who He is, we see ourselves and everyone else around us for who we are – not only wretched sinners in need of grace but special works of art that were lovingly fashioned by a perfect Creator.
But this only comes if we are willing to learn. That growth only comes if we are willing to humbly admit that we don’t know everything about God, or the world, or ourselves. It means humbly coming before God’s general and specific revelations and trying to see what He wants to show us – not trying to bend it into what we want to see.
Next week, and for the next little while, we are going to get into a section of the Heidelberg Catechism that is going to be challenging – the introduction to the Trinity and the Attributes of God – and I want you to be prepared for it. I will try to teach it well, but I also need you to prepare yourself for it. I need you to till up the soil of your heart and be ready to listen to whatever God chooses to sow there by praying and asking God to help you learn and understand. I need you to try to appreciate the importance of these subjects and fight against the instinct to let it gloss over you because of its technicality. I ask you, over the next while, to cultivate within yourself those attributes of a good detective so that we can not only grow in the knowledge of God together but also grow in love for God and each other.
Please open up to Romans 10:9-17 and let’s read it together, and then I have a short video to show you:
“…because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’ So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
Quite a video, wasn’t it? This part of our study of the Heidelberg Catechism triggers me like crazy because it touches a passion of mine – that being the importance of knowing what you believe, why you believe that, and whether or not it’s true.
I know this sounds uncharitable and elitist or whatever, but that video drives me nuts. It’s a bunch of people who claim to be Christians, who say they attend church regularly but have no idea what they’re talking about. The interviewer didn’t ask any complex, theologically tricky questions either. Just simple ones: Will you go to heaven when you die? Can you trust the Bible? Is the church important? Are people basically good?
And they got them all wrong – as most people would in Canada and the US. It scares me, actually keeps me up at night, thinking that there are people here, that sit under my teaching, and would give similar answers to these people. It terrifies me to think that someone could sit in this church for a couple years and walk out each week thinking they are a Christian, but not actually have any confidence about what would happen to them when they die – and thereby has no hope when trials come, nor can give hope to others who they meet along the way.
That’s why I’ve written books, keep up a blog, have Overtime, teach classes, and make myself available during the week – so that everyone here can be, hopefully, crystal clear in what they believe, why they believe it, and whether or not it’s true.
And I’m not saying I get it right all the time. I wish I was more winsome and interesting and accurate so that you would hear what I’m saying with more clarity and comprehension. I know there are days that I don’t explain things properly or the sermon gets dry. I watch as the teens chat among themselves or draw or pass notes. I see the adults yawn and doze and stare blankly at me regardless of what I say. I see the same four people come to Overtime. I know the church is shrinking, the tithing is less, the ministries are drying up, and that I take some blame for that. And because of that, I feel more and more pressure to be more entertaining, more interesting, and constant wonder what I’m doing wrong that keeps people from being excited by Jesus and the Word of God.
This isn’t a chastisement, I promise. I’m not criticising you. If anything, I’m criticizing myself. As I said, it scares me to think that I could be pastor of a church for more than half a decade and that the people under my teaching would be in the same place – in knowledge, discipline, commitment, curiosity, service, financially, in repentance – as they were when I got here.
You want to know my greatest nightmare? What scares me the most? That if I were to die today and stand before God that He would say: “I know you tried, Al, but you failed your church. Instead of inspiring them towards love and good works, instead of discipling them to become greater followers of my Son, you bored them to death, lulled them to sleep, made Me look bad, and made the study of the scriptures feel mind-numbingly dreary. Your church grew no closer to me in your years than when you arrived. They don’t pray more, read more, know more, serve more, or repent more than they ever have. Your ministry was a waste of time.”
Now, I don’t think that’s true, but it scares me that I might be doing damage to the gospel. And it’s led me, many times, usually on Sunday evenings and Monday afternoons, to the brink of resigning and quitting the pastorate altogether. And I don’t say this so you’ll console me or pat me on the back. I feel your encouragement all the time. I simply say this because I want you to know that I am absolutely committed to helping you know what you ought to believe, why you ought to believe it, and whether or not it’s true. You keep me up at night! Because I believe that what we’re learning here at church are the most important things in the world. And if there is any way I can help you learn – any criticism you can give me or way I can improve so you can know God better – please let me know.
Faith that Leads to Salvation
Now, to our study: You can tell from the first word of our passage in Romans 10 that we’re jumping into the middle of an argument here. It starts with the word “because”, and there’s a whole lot going on behind that “because”, but we covered a lot of it over the past weeks, so I don’t want to get sidetracked by restating it all.
Hopefully you’ve been following along, but briefly, if you recall, as we’ve been going through the Heidelberg Catechism, we’ve been talking about man’s biggest problem (that being sin and death) and how Jesus the Mediator is the only possible hope for the salvation of humanity. [I just summarized four and a half hours of sermons.]
Last week we got into Day 7 of the study of the catechism which, in question 20, asks the question:
“Are all men, then, saved by Christ just as they perished through Adam?”
, or in other words, “Ok, how does salvation work, then?” The answer was,
“No. Only those are saved who by a true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all his benefits.”
And the next question, number 21, which we covered at the end of last week was
“What is true faith?”
If the only people who are saved are the ones who have “true faith”, then what is that? And the answer given was,
“True faith is a sure knowledge whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in his Word. At the same time it is a firm confidence that not only to others, but also to me, God has granted forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation, out of mere grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits. This faith the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel.”
[Just a side note to remind you of all the scriptural footnotes there that I’m not getting into but am hoping you are looking up on your own.]
So, what is “true faith”? Let me pluck out a few words there. “True faith” is “sure knowledge” and “firm confidence” in the Word of God and the Work of Jesus on the cross. Hebrews 11:1 says,
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Now, I ask you, the people in that video, did they have “sure knowledge”, “firm confidence”, “assurance”, and “conviction” in the promises of God? Not at all, right? They were like, “Gee, I hope so, maybe.”
So, follow my argument here. If the Bible says in Ephesians 2:8 that we are saved “by grace, through faith”, and in Romans 5:1 that we are “justified by faith” (Rom 5:1) in Jesus – and the definition of “faith” means having “assurance” and “conviction” in God’s promises as stated in the Bible, then are those people saved?
I can’t say I know the state of their hearts, because no man can, but Jesus says this in Matthew 7:15–16,
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits.”
Based on what they have said, I can say with fair confidence that they are probably not saved. Why? Because they don’t have confidence in the gospel.
That means, that even though they call themselves Christians, that they go to church two or three times a month – that their souls are destined for Hell. These are regular people. These are your friends who you think are Christians, who talk about God and prayer, who maybe come to your small group or sit next to you in church, who take communion with you, but who do not have a saving faith in Jesus because they do not believe the Word of God.
Does that make you sad and scared? Does it frighten you that people you know and love, your friends, family, children, parents, may look like sheep but are actually, what Jesus calls in Matthew 23:27-29, “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean…. on the outside [appearing] to people as righteous but on the inside… full of hypocrisy….” That scares me. I hope it scares you.
That’s why we need to get this right. That’s why we need to know what we’re talking about. That’s why we need to know what we believe, why we believe it, and why it’s true.
What, Then Must a Christian Believe?
And so, it follows in the Heidelberg, that if a Christian must have true faith, then we must ask question 22:
“What, then, must a Christian believe?”
Right? What is a Christian supposed to have faith in? Some would answer “Jesus” or “The Bible”, right? And they’re not wrong, but those are sort of general, right? What are we to believe about Jesus? And of course there are a lot of parts of the Bible that people have differences of opinion on, so which parts are the most critical?
For example, the New Testament, in five different letters, commands us to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (1 Peter 5:14; 1 Thess 5:26; 2 Cor 13:12). Is that as important as the commandment in Matthew 6:15 that “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”? Or, if someone were to come to you and ask you the question, “You’re a Christian, right? What do Christians believe?” it would be important to have a good answer, right? You can’t just say “I believe in Jesus”, because that’s really not specific enough. Atheists believe Jesus existed. ISIS members believe Jesus was a prophet. Even demons believe Jesus is God. And you can’t just sit them down and say, “Ok, let me read the entire Bible to you, starting in Genesis 1:1”. You need a summary, right?
So it’s important that we ask the question, “What, then, must a Christian believe?” and have a good summary of it. The answer to question 22 is:
“All that is promised us in the gospel, which the articles of our catholic and undoubted Christian faith teach us in a summary.”
So, Christians believe the “gospel”. Where do we find the gospel? In the “articles”. What does that mean? It just means “the parts of anything written down”. Then it says “of our catholic, undoubted, Christian faith…”. The word “catholic” doesn’t mean “Roman Catholic”, but simply means “universal”, held by and binding together all believers.
And what are those articulated, written down, summarized beliefs that all believers hold and have always held? That’s question 23. And the answer given is something very special. It’s something we call “The Apostles’ Creed” and it reads like this:
“I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son, our Lord; he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell. On the third day he arose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit; I believe a holy catholic Christian church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.”
The Apostles’ Creed
There have been a lot of creeds written over the centuries, and a lot of churches have many different creeds. In essence, as I said, a creed is merely a summary of what Christians believe. And a lot of churches, the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Reformed, and even older Baptist churches have recited The Apostles’ Creed for a very long time – almost 2000 years. The Apostles’ Creed has been the standard for a long time.
Sure, there are some churches and Christians that say things like “no creed but Christ” or “no creed but the Bible”, but they are misguided. All Christians are confessional. We all have summaries of our beliefs which we can state quickly. To say “no creed but Christ” makes no sense. What they usually mean is that they are rejecting any human attempt to claim that Christians must believe things that God doesn’t explicitly say in His Word. And for sure, that’s important. We are told not to add or subtract from the Bible (Rev 22:18-19). But a well-written creed isn’t mean to add or subtract anything, but simply to summarize. That’s why the counsels and theologians who craft them spend so much time arguing about the exact wording!
What makes the Apostles’ Creed so special? First, I have to say that the Apostles’ Creed wasn’t written by the Apostles’. It’s called that because it encapsulated what the Apostles’ believed. It was a type of “baptismal creed”, or a “catechism for new believers”. At their baptism they would be asked, “What do you believe?” or what is your “Rule of faith?” and they would rattle off a little creedal summary of the faith they held. It was essentially, a way to make sure that the person being baptized was a real Christian and gave them a chance to declare their faith publically.
When we do a baptism in our church today I ask you to give your public testimony but before we ever get that far – and you’ll know this if I baptized you – I sit down with you and ask you questions about what you believe. We talk about sin, Jesus, the crucifixion, the resurrection. Why? Because I want to make sure you are a believing Christian before I baptize you. Pastors have been doing that for a very long time. We want to make sure you know that baptism isn’t some magic ceremony that makes you a Christian, that reciting the creed isn’t some kind of magic incantation that makes God accept you. We want to make sure that your faith is a true faith.
They were doing this sort of testing right from the beginning of Christianity, even in the 1st and second century. You’ve probably heard of the Nicene Creed, right? In the third century, when a bunch of heretics and confusion started to enter the church – especially concerning whether Jesus was truly God and man at the same time – Emperor Constantine, in 325AD decided to get all the best and brightest theologians and pastors together to hash out the problem and write a short, clear summary of the most basic beliefs that Christians must have about Jesus as they appear in scripture. That became the Nicene Creed. But that creed wasn’t invented out of whole cloth. It was an adaptation, or rather a clarification, of a creed that had existed for a long time – called the Caesarean Rule of Faith. Most churches had their own creed around this time, but they were all pretty similar. In this case, the creed from Caesarea was used.
The Apostles’ Creed, though it’s difficult to date, even predates that. That’s one of the reasons it’s so special. It is considered to be the oldest, official church creed and takes it origins from around 140 AD, only a few decades after the last Apostles’ died.
One church historian says,
“… as the Lord’s Prayer is the Prayer of prayers, the Decalogue [10 Commandments] is the Law of laws, so the Apostles’’ Creed is the Creed of Creeds.”
But it’s not just its age that makes it special. It doesn’t really matter how old it is, how wonderful the words of a Creed are, how pithy it is written, or how many people agree with it. All that really matters is how much it agrees with scripture. And the Apostles’ Creed is special because it is a biblical document. The authors of the creed didn’t want to make anything up, so almost every word of it is a copy/paste from the Bible. That’s why so many theologians, from the early church fathers to John Calvin to modern times, have studied it and used it as a teaching tool for so long.
We are currently on what is called Lord’s Day 7 of the catechism, in question 23, and we are going to stay parked in the Apostles’ Creed until Day 22 and question 58! We are going to spend a long time in this document. The Heidelberg takes apart almost every single word of it, defends it from scripture, and then explains it’s importance to believers. Why? If you remember my summary of the history of the Heidelberg, it was because people’s theology and faith was all over the map – their knowledge was confused, their hope was lost, their unity in the Spirit under attack, the adults and preachers ignorant, the youth falling away from God – and they knew that what these people needed most was a solid framework to build their faith on so they could rediscover the gospel of Jesus Christ and find their hope in Him.
The passage we started with in Romans 10 ended, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” How do we build up faith? How do we make sure the people we know and love are saved? How do we build up our own hope during troubled and confusing times? By hearing the truth about the Word of Christ in the Gospel, in the Bible.
That passage says, “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” Which is great news, but then it says, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?”
People can’t be saved if they don’t believe. And they can’t believe if they don’t hear. And they can’t hear us if we are too afraid to talk because we don’t have confidence in our own faith, right? This is why I implore you to pray, read the word, study, and meet together. Because you are surrounded by people who need to know the hope that is within you – and they’re not going to come talk to me. They’re not going to come to church. And some of them believe lies. You have very words of life within you. I want you to have the confidence to share them – not because you feel guilty, but because you know they are true.
 Know the Creeds and Counsels by Justin S Holcomb pg 26.
I heard an ad on the radio for the Canadian Legion that started with something like, “Think of all the things you enjoy in life, like summer fun, going out with your family, kissing your kids goodnight. We can take these things for granted because a veteran didn’t. They fought so we could have the freedoms we enjoy without thinking every day. So thank a veteran and join the Legion.”
I think any right-thinking individual wouldn’t argue too much with that statement. We know that there are countries in the world that are still torn by war and oppression and that those powers have tried to export their ways onto free countries. And we know that many Canadian soldiers have gone to war with these evils to protect our freedoms and those of others around the world. I think that anyone with even a passing knowledge of just twentieth-century history would agree with that. The only ones that argue against it are the ones who simply don’t know their history books.
Along that same vein, I’ve found that the more a person studies the Bible, theology, and church history, the more they should be thanking God for the heritage of theological veterans that have come before us. We should be thanking God every day that we live where we do and when we do. We take so much for granted about what we know about God these days, especially in conservative churches like ours. But the truth is that the most fundamental things we believe about God, things which we talk about every day, even things that the average non-church going Canadian knows and speak as though they were patently obvious were once hard-fought battlegrounds.
But those hard-fought battlegrounds are slipping away more and more. There’s an old phrase; I don’t know who said it first, but I’ve heard it from many different people, and it says, “There are no new heresies, just old heresies dressed up in new clothes.” I read a similar thing from Albert Mohler who said, “False teachings emerge anew in every generation it seems, but inventing a new heresy is quite a challenge. After all, once every doctrine vital to Christianity has been denied, all that remains is a change in packaging.”
As one learns more about church history it becomes blatantly obvious all the so-called “new ideas” people have about God, Jesus, or the church, are not “new ideas” at all, just old heresies in new packaging.
Whenever I attend or watch a pastors conference someone always asks the keynote speaker the inevitable question, “What are the biggest problems with the church today?” and the answer never changes: People don’t know their Bibles.
Perhaps the best answer I heard was John Macarthur:
He said, in essence, that the weakness of the church is not a singular issue, it’s a holistic issue. Just as the AIDS virus doesn’t kill you, but weakens your immune system so that other diseases can kill you more easily, so the bland, vanilla, imprecise preaching of the Word weakens Christians and leaves them open to a thousand “heretical diseases” which can kill their soul. And therefore, the cure isn’t to treat the symptoms with a bunch of topical studies or fancy ministry packaging, but to get to the cause, to kill the virus by preaching and teaching the Bible with precision and clarity at all levels.
That means not only preachers that are extremely concerned for the accurate preaching of the Word, but elders who labour in their own realms of teaching. It means small group leaders choosing good, biblical material for their groups rather than merely interesting material. It means Sunday School teachers doing the work to make sure they know their Bibles well and are more interested in their children falling in love with the Bible than just being babysat and getting their craft done. It means parents doing the work to study the answers to their kids’ difficult questions so they can give good answers and ask “Did you read your Bible?” as much as they ask “Did you do your homework?”.
But that takes time, effort and energy – and reading, studying, learning, prayer, humility – which are things our society generally doesn’t do well. Which is why we are spiritually unhealthy, infected, and in danger.
Turn to Paul’s letter to the Galatians 1:6-12. He says,
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Paul was writing to the Galatians to combat the false, heretical teaching that had cropped up, that was corrupting people’s faith in Jesus, and was honestly shocked at how fast it had happened. He had preached to them the one, true, and pure gospel – the truth about Jesus – and he had just barely left town before they started believing dangerous lies – especially the like that Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t enough to save them, but that they also needed to follow all the Jewish laws too or God wouldn’t accept them. It was a dangerous, false teaching that struck at the heart of the gospel.
Paul’s argument there is threefold, right? First, there is only one gospel and many counterfeit ones, so don’t be fooled. Second, the gospel isn’t something that man came up with but was given to man by revelation from God. And third, anyone who preaches something different from the truth is an accursed heretic who is hurting the church.
When Christians use the word “heresy” or “heretics” need to be very careful. Heresy simply means to believe something that is wrong about the established doctrines, so technically, every time someone says something that departs from Biblical truth even a little bit its heresy, but that’s not how it’s used. When we say “heretic” or “heresy” we’re not talking about people who are still learning, who use bad analogies, or who are simply making mistakes because they’re still trying to figure it all out. We wouldn’t call a new Christian or the kids in the Sunday School heretics because they aren’t 100% accurate. Instead, the word “heresy” is reserved for teachers who purposefully distort biblical truth in such a serious way that they attack the very essence of the Christian faith.
Martin Luther was excommunicated by Rome as a heretic because he taught that Christians are justified by faith alone. Luther replied that the Catholic Church and the Pope were heretics because they had departed from a biblical view of salvation. But that wasn’t the case for all of the disagreements. The Reformers, and many churches today, still disagreed on lots of things, even important ones like the Lord’s Supper and Baptism and how the church is to be structured, but they didn’t label each other heretics, just as we don’t label most other protestant churches heretics – it’s just differences in interpretation.
That’s not to say there haven’t been dozens of important debates over the centuries which remain today. In fact, the more we learn about the Bible, Theology, and Christian history, the more we realize that there really is nothing new under the sun. The wrong theology that people have today are the same errors that people argued over, fought against, declared counsels to settle, and even shed blood over, hundreds of years ago. We really do stand on the shoulders of giants – and must of us don’t even know it. But sadly, a lot of those old theological victories are being forgotten.
I don’t want to go over the data again, but I want to remind you about a couple of important surveys conducted over the past couple years about the beliefs that Christians hold today which I’ve talked about before. The first is from Lifeway and the other is from Ligonier. I’ll link them on my blog if you want to read them, but the results are dismal. Lots of self-proclaimed Christians don’t believe in sin or hell and believe everyone is basically good and will go to heaven to see all their relatives. And the beliefs about Jesus are all over the place!
And people’s beliefs about Jesus are just as bad. Half believed God makes mistakes. A little over half believe Jesus isn’t God but was created by God. Less than half strongly agreed that Jesus rose from the dead. Only two-thirds of Christians say that Jesus death on the cross is the only way to remove the penalty of sin, and less than half believe that He’s coming back.
Where’s the good news in that message? If people are basically good, God doesn’t care about sin and accepts worship from other religions, and everyone goes to heaven anyway, then why even talk about Jesus? But also, if God makes mistakes and Jesus death wasn’t enough, then how can anyone be sure of their salvation? If the word of God isn’t true, then what should we believe? What about all the Bible verses where Jesus makes exclusive claims or talks about sin? What do we do with those? How can God be good and just if ignores sin? How can God be perfect and holy if He allows evil people into Heaven? Doesn’t God care what we say about Him? Is the Bible just a pile of human contradictions? Where’s the good news? Where’s our hope then?
As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:13-19,
“But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
I saw a great example of this on Instagram this week where I saw this comic: On one side there’s a man at a booth with a sign that says John 3:16 and a huge line of people in front of him. Next to him sits another booth that says, John 3:16-21. The joke is that a lot of people really like the message of John 3:16, but not so much when they read it in context.
Turn there with me. It starts with the famous verses:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Everyone loves that verse, right? But let’s keep reading,
“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.”
Hey, that’s pretty good, we can get onboard with that. Keep reading: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned…” Still good…
“…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.”
That’s not very inclusive, is it? What do we do with verses like with verses like these, or like John 14:6 where Jesus says,
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
or Acts 4:12 which says,
“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
Or the one that we talked about last week in 1 Timothy 2:5,
“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus…”
Those statements are either the gospel truth and the most important decision ever – or a lie. The only choice is to either believe them as the exclusive claim that Jesus is the only way to be saved, or to deny them, ignore them, or rewrite them so they say something that we prefer.
This is why we’re going through the Heidelberg Catechism. Not because it’s a divine document, but because it’s one of the greatest teaching tools to summarize the Biblical teaching about salvation through Jesus Christ in a way that people can learn. It’s a way for us to do what John MacArthur said: to learn and preach and teach the Bible with precision and clarity so we can combat that “spiritual AIDS” he was talking about. HIV may not have a cure today, but there is a cure for “spiritual AIDS”, right? There is a way to combat heresy, right? It is to commit to learning and teaching the Bible with precision and clarity. Especially about the question: “Who is Jesus Christ?” We must get that right because so much rides on that answer. Because with precise and clear teaching on Jesus comes hope, confidence, understanding, as Jesus called it, “Light”. If we are vague or wrong about Jesus, we’re in the dark, we lose hope, we are to be pitied – but if we get it right, then our faith, hope, strength, and confidence in the love of God will grow.
Heidelberg LD6: The Nature of Jesus
Take a look at the questions in today’s lesson from the Catechism. Recall a couple weeks ago when I gave that courtroom illustration talking about how Jesus was the perfect mediator between God and Man because he was both a perfect human and yet also God? Well, I got a bit ahead of myself because the structure of the catechism doesn’t really mention who that perfect mediator is until Question 18.
Remember, this document is meant to be an apologetic, a logical argument, teaching people the basics of theology, right? It’s designed to set up a problem and then show us why Jesus is the answer. First, it explains the misery of sin, why sin must be punished, and how we can’t save ourselves or wriggle away from God’s wrath. Then, when we understand our desperate position, it gives us a glimmer of hope: that there is one way we can be saved – if someone else takes our punishment. But (and this is where we were a couple weeks ago), that person would need to be very special and have very unique qualifications:
As question 15 said,
“He would need to be 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.”
That narrows the field, doesn’t it? And that reasoning is clarified in today’s questions, as Ursinus makes the case in Question 16 for why Jesus is the only one who fits the qualifications:
“Why must he be a true and righteous man?”
The emphasis here is on the “man”. Why does our perfect mediator need to be a human being?
“He must be a true man because the justice of God requires that the same human nature which has sinned should pay for sin. He must be a righteous man because one who himself is a sinner cannot pay for others.”
We covered this a little bit last time, but the answer here is simply that the only way to pay for God’s wrath against human sin is for a human to die, right? Equal payment is just. If someone owes you a toonie, you don’t accept a button. If someone is condemned to jail, he can’t send a picture of himself or his pet poodle.
But this mediator must not only be human but a perfect human. They cannot have any sin of their own to pay for, or they wouldn’t be able to die in someone else’s place, right? Again, we talked about this in the previous sermon.
Look at question 17:
“Why must he at the same time be true God?”
So we know why our perfect mediator, the one who can take our place, must be a human, but why must that person be God too?
“He must be true God so that by the power of his divine nature he might bear in his human nature the burden of God’s wrath, and might obtain for us and restore to us righteousness and life.”
Essentially, because no mere human is strong enough to handle the full wrath of God for all the sins of those who believe for thousands of years multiplied by millions or billions of people. Only one who had the power of God could do that.
Just saying that reminds us of how much Jesus loves us, doesn’t it? What a Saviour, to face that kind of agony for us when we have done nothing to deserve it.
Now to question 18:
“But who is that Mediator who at the same time is true God and a true and righteous man?”
Here we see that apologetic, logical progression of the questions: Ok, so if we agree to all that has come before, about the qualifications for the perfect mediator, then who fits those qualifications? Who has the power to save us from the wrath of God and cleanse us from sin?
“Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (1 Cor 1:30)”
We sure quoted that passage a lot during our study of 1st Corinthians, didn’t we?
And question 19 comes quickly on the heels:
“From where do you know this?”
And the answer:
“From the holy gospel, which God himself first revealed in Paradise. Later, he had it proclaimed by the patriarchs and prophets, and foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law. Finally, he had it fulfilled through his only Son.”
The only One who fits the bill, the only One who meets the qualifications is Jesus. The only one who fulfills the promise to Eve, to Moses, to Isaiah and Mary… the only One who fulfills all of the Laws and who was foreshadowed in all of the sacrifices and ceremonies of the Old Testament is Jesus!
But do you see how this all falls apart once we degrade our belief in the authority of the Word of God, ignore the clear teaching of scripture, and incorporate heresies and false teachings about the person and work of Jesus?
Let’s go back to question 1. Do you remember it? When you face trials and troubles and pains beyond your ability to cope with or comprehend, when you face death and guilt and shame and eternity, when you come to the end of yourself, when you are, as 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 says, “afflicted… perplexed… persecuted… and struck down…”,
“What is your only comfort in life and death?”
Your answer cannot be, “Me, my own strength.” Because it is spent. I can’t be “My medicines or my religion or another person” because they are not enough. Or worse, if you have been listening to false teachers or being lazy in your study, believing lies about Jesus, then when you come to the end of yourself and look for strength in the god you invented for yourself you will find it lacking and say, “He isn’t enough. I don’t know where my hope is. I’m not sure anymore. I have no hope.”
But the answer of a faithful believer, one who has done the work to be diligent and precise and humble in their learning says,
“My only and greatest comfort in life and death is ‘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 e also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.’”
Therein lies our hope – in the one and only Saviour Jesus Christ, whom we must know only from the true and infallible Word of God.
So, are you reading it? Are you studying it? Are you meeting with other believers to work out your faith with fear and trembling? If you are not, then you are going to be in trouble when trials come. But if you are strong in your faith, strong in your study, in your theology and understanding of the Word, strong in your knowledge of Jesus Christ, you will be able to echo the words of 2 Corinthians 4:8-10:
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed….”
Because you will know the One, True Jesus.
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.”
Please open up with me to 1 Timothy 4:6-16 and let’s read it together.
What we are about to read are the words of the Apostle Paul written either from prison, or right after he had been released from prison, and was writing in order to counsel his young co-worker Timothy about some of the issues that were arising in the church in Ephesus and how to deal with them – especially the false teachers. Paul tells Timothy that true Christianity is evidenced by a lifestyle that is shaped by the gospel – and that corrupt doctrine is corrupted Christianity and will be evidenced by a corrupt life.
The letter up until this point has been covering a bunch of theological and practical issues in the church, has addressed some of the lies that the false teachers have been spreading, and now, we read these words. Let’s read it together:
“If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.
Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
If you recall a couple of weeks ago I talked about Timid Timothy, Paul’s co-worker and God’s obedient, but pretty roughed up soldier, sent into the toughest areas to help the church. Paul would plant a church and then move on, the church would end up in some kind of trouble, and then Paul would send Timothy to help them get things straight. Even though Timothy was young, timid, and stressed out, he was also obedient and godly. He when where God wanted him and preached what God wanted him to say.
How though? How did Timid Timothy stay strong in the face of false teachers, church factions, violent mobs, and utter confusion? How did he stay uncorrupted when faced with so many lies, rumours, divisions, hurt and anger? We see how in this passage. He stood firm on the gospel. Paul’s command here to Timothy, which is also God’s command to all churches, is to keep it simple and stand on the foundation of biblical truth. Timid Timothy held tight to his doctrine and it was his strength. His opponents weren’t fighting him, they were fighting God.
The word doctrine is all over the section we just read, though it’s translated “teaching” sometimes. Paul says in verse 6 that Timothy was trained in “good doctrine” and then in verse 11 tells him to “command and teach” that doctrine to others. Verse 13 says to keep reading the scripture in public and to keep teaching its doctrines. And then, in verse 16 he says, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching [that word means “the doctrines”]. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
How could young Timothy help to save these hurting, messed up, false teacher infected churches? By keeping a very close watch on his personal behaviour (so he didn’t disqualify himself) and his doctrines.
The word “doctrine” itself simply means, “authoritative teaching”, and in the New Testament it’s used to describe the standard, orthodox teachings given in the Old Testament, by Jesus, and through His apostles. It’s shorthand for “The right teaching of God’s Word.”
In Mark 7:6-8 Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
In Romans, a book full of theological teaching, Paul says in his final greetings 16:17, “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.”
In the qualifications of the elders given to another co-worker of Paul’s, a young man named Titus, it says that an elder in the church must “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Titus 1:9).
Why? Because it is by the persisting in good doctrine, right teaching, right theology, right understanding of the Word of God that both themselves and their hearers would be saved.
Necessary Controversy in the Church
“But!”, I hear some people saying, “People aren’t saved by doctrine! They are saved by Jesus! We don’t need a bunch of doctrinal statements, theological arguments, and catechetical documents – we just need Jesus! Doctrine is for those hyper Calvinist and fundamentalist guys who hate and judge everything and everyone. Loving people don’t argue about doctrine.”
A lot of people hate the very idea of studying theology and doctrine because all they see are a bunch of excuses to nit-pick and argue. “The gospel is simple”, they say, “just believe in Jesus and you’ll be saved! Why complicate it with a bunch of other boring and hurtful stuff that just causes church splits and arguments?”
In a sense, I can see their point. I’ve studied a bit of church history and I’ve been part of a few churches in my time, which means I’ve seen a lot of really bad stuff come from fights about theology. And for sure, it’s terrible when Christians fight. It not only makes us look bad, but it doesn’t bring glory to God. We read Acts 2 and Acts 4 and wonder why we can’t be more like that. United under God, fellowshipping in each other’s homes, “of one heart and soul”. And I wish that were true, but the history of the church, even in the New Testament isn’t one of continuous, blissful, uninterrupted unity – it’s a continuous battle against division.
Just consider the letter to 1 Corinthians we just studied. They were split over everything! Which apostle was better, sexual morality, what to eat, what to wear… everything. Every letter sent to the churches in the New Testament deals with a problem where Christians were dividing over some issue or another.
But here’s the thing. Even though Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:10, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” he says later in chapter 11:19, “for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”
In other words, in God’s divine direction for the church, He has allowed and even ordained that there be controversies and arguments in order that the quality of each person’s spiritual life. Controversies, times where there are differences of opinion and disunity in direction, are a way for God to “test and approve” his church. It sounds weird, but controversy is actually necessary for a healthy church. You can know the quality of a person’s faith better, and your own, by how we face controversy. You can tell who is pursuing right theology and good doctrine by being forced to clarify it and argue for it. You can tell who is cut out for leadership, and who is just a poser, by seeing how they face controversy. You can see which people are genuinely in love with God and His church, and which are just along for the ride, by seeing what happens when controversy arises. And often in the church, those controversies are doctrinal.
That’s why the scripture commands us to “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the [doctrines]. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” Right doctrine is the difference between worshipping the right God and the wrong one, trusting the right Jesus or the wrong one, having confidence in your salvation or not. Right doctrine, a right understanding of God, is the difference between being able to passionately worship the one, true, God for all He is and what He’s done or just going through a bunch of religious motions because it makes you happy or you think you’re supposed to. It’s the difference between having a church that honours and preaches God’s wisdom that saves and inspires or honours and preaches man’s wisdom that condemns and ensnares. Right doctrine is the difference between raising up children that are actually Christian, actually faithful, actually able to know what they believe and why, or are just a bunch of good, religious hypocrites who have no true foundation and will fall away when left to themselves. Seeing God rightly helps us fear God, pursue righteousness, mortify sin, and do what we can to be in right relationship with Him and others. Right doctrine is the strength of the Christian church, of the Christian family, of the individual believer. Without good doctrine, we lose our way.
As Bad as it Gets
There was likely never a time when the church had lost their way worse than right before the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The church and almost all of Christendom was an absolute mess because so much false teaching and bad doctrine had taken over the church.
I won’t get into all the ways the Roman Catholic Church had corrupted the gospel, but the worse way was perhaps something called “indulgences”. It was, in short, a way for the church to sell people forgiveness. The pope was spending money faster than it could come in and needed to make lots of money fast, and came up with the idea that the church could grant people forgiveness for certain sins, even in advance, even for people who were dead, if they would give the church some money.
Church representatives would go from town to town selling indulgences to poor people, telling them that if they contributed to the church that their dead parent could get out of purgatory, and that it was their fault if they let their family member suffer. They would go to rich people and say, if you want to sin, just give us some money and we’ll make sure it’s ok with God. It was an absolute corruption.
My favourite story of this was when one of the most famous indulgence sellers, a man named Tetzel, was found by a nobleman named Hans von Hake who asked if he could buy an indulgence for a big sin he would be committing in the future. Tetzel asked for a bunch of money and then gave him the receipt which said that the church would forgive him for whatever he did.
Hans then waited until Tetzel was headed out of town, attacked him, and stole all of the money Tetzel had collected. When Tetzel became angry and started to threaten him with the torment of purgatory if he didn’t give the money back, Hans just waved his receipt in his face and said that this was the big sin he was planning to commit, so it was already forgiven!
That’s how big of a mess the church was in. That’s what the church was teaching and no one knew any better because almost no one had access to the Bible – and those given the task of preaching and teaching it, even in the seminaries and universities, didn’t bother to read it either. All that mattered was what the pope had said was true. But for a few exceptions, the Bible was all-but forgotten in the Christian church. In other words, (and though this is an oversimplification) no one was watching the faith and the doctrines closely – and it had led to moral chaos.
Most of you know what happens next because we just celebrated it last October. A bright, young monk named Martin Luther comes on the scene, starts to study the Bible, posts 95 problems he has with the church that he’d like to discuss – especially indulgences –that document is printed on the fairly new Gutenberg press and it’s sent all over the place, and it sparks the Protestant Reformation.
Zacharias Bär (Ursinus)
We know lots about Luther and Calvin and Wycliffe and the other fathers of the Reformation, but someone else that was incredibly influential during that time period, that a lot of people don’t know about, was a man named Zacharias Bär, later known as Ursinus. [Telling Ursinus’ story, for me, is extraordinarily complicated because God was doing so very much during that time, in so many places, but I’ll do my best.]
Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation by nailing the 95 Thesis to the Wittenberg Castle Door in Germany in 1517. He worked for 30 years, writing, defending, travelling, pastoring, and teaching the Bible all over Germany, sending his writings all over the world, dying in 1546. John Calvin, another giant of the Reformation was born in France 1509, became a Protestant in 1533, partly due to Luther’s influence, and published the first edition of his masterwork, the Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1538, something he would work on all his life until he died in 1564. [There were so many other important figures at this time, but let me stick to just those two giants.]
There are two main periods at the beginning of the Reformation: this first generation of Luther and Calvin where they plowed the dry, stony ground the church had become, tilled up the land so God’s healing rain could be accepted and make the land fertile again. It was these men that scattered the seeds of gospel truth onto this newly productive land, sprouting churches and new hope in Jesus all over the place.
When they died, a second generation took up the work of the first, but their task wasn’t to plant the seed, but to guard the ripening harvest and plucking out all the weeds that were growing that wanted to choke out the new growth. It is to the second period that Ursinus belongs.
Zacharias Ursinus was born Zacharias Bär in Breslau, Germany in 1534. He grew up poor, but showed an amazing aptitude for learning and was sponsored by a rich doctor to go to university in Wittenberg in 1550, when he was barely 16 years old. That was just 4 years after Luther died.
After reading about him for a while, I think I can safely say he was a lot like Timothy. Both were very young and timid, but bright and faithful. Both were chosen by an older, greater man, and thrust into the world to do great things. Both served memorably and courageously, even despite their natural predilection towards meekness. He studied under a man named Philip Melanchthon, a famous friend of Luther’s and staunch defender of the Reformation. Melanchthon became like a father to young Ursinus and brought him all over the Reformed world. At age 21 he went to a church conference in the city of Worms, one of the most famous places in Luther’s career, and was sent off from there with a glowing letter of recommendation to study under the greatest teachers in Germany, Switzerland, and France for a few years.
He met the biggest names in the Reformed world, even John Calvin himself, receiving a free gift of the copy of all his works, including the newly completed Institutes that Calvin had been working on for 23 years!
While Ursinus was traveling and learning, some difficult things were happening back in Germany. A man named Otto Henry, an Elector Palatine, a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire in one of the most important, most influential positions in the world, died in 1559, after only 3 years. Otto had been one of the key figures that had moved away from the Roman Catholic church and allowed Reformed thinkers and Protestant parties to hold some seats of power and influence in politics and the universities. But though he was a follower of Luther, and even had Melanchthon as an advisor, he was also a fence sitter who didn’t want to get into theological arguments, even trying to keep contacts with Catholicism to avoid conflict.
When Otto Henry died, Frederick III came into power. Frederick was no fence sitter. Even though he was born Catholic, he married a Lutheran woman who converted him to Christianity. As he studied, he became more and more reformed minded and eventually became convinced of the teachings of Calvin.
As he took up Otto’s important position, he took it as his main task to unite the varied protestant groups and sects that were under his rule. He wanted his people united, the church united, the theology and doctrines gone through, and everyone to be on the same theological page. And so he turned to the faculty of the University of Heidelberg to help him out.
He wanted some big names. Otto had asked Melanchthon to lead the University of Heidelberg, but he said no. Now Frederick wanted another big name, the renowned Peter Martyr Vermigli, who taught at the University of Zurich. Vermigli said he was too old and would, in fact, die only a couple years later. But he had an idea. He had recently met a young man, only 26 years old, that loved God, knew God’s Word and Reformed theology in and out, and was eager to learn and serve the church in whatever way he could. His name was Zacharias Ursinus.
And so, in 1561, at age 27, Ursinus moved to Heidelberg to work as the superintendent of a preacher’s seminary inside the University. He was to become one of the pillars of the Reformation. It is not an understatement to say that Ursinus was being asked to become the John Calvin of Heidelberg – an incredibly daunting and dangerous task.
But how would Frederick and Ursinus unite such a divided group of believers? The Protestant Reformation was still new. Luther had only been dead for 14 years. The ink was still wet on Calvin’s Institutes. Most people had only had the Bible in their own language for less than 30 years, and there were a LOT of ideas coming from all directions.
The more they studied, the more they realized was wrong with the Catholic Church, even the most basic parts like the Lord’s Supper. What even was it? Did it magically turn into Jesus’ actual body and actual blood when the priest blessed it? Or was it just a symbol? If you missed taking it could you be forgiven? Who could take it? How often? In some Catholic churches, the bread and wine were considered so holy that common people weren’t even allowed to touch it – they could only look at it on the way by and then the priest would eat it. And in some cities, when the Protestants invited people for the Lord’s Supper, people fainted when they touched the bread, riots broke out, churches and priests were hunted down and killed.
How would Frederick and young Ursinus bring all this together? The answer came from the scriptures and from Luther. They would hold onto the doctrines, they would command and teach the doctrines, and they would watch their lives and their doctrines closely. They would persist in it, for by doing so they would save both themselves and their hearers.
Luther said it this way when speaking about the use of force to try to make people convert to Christianity or change their theology: “In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no one by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take me as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise, I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”
The Heidelberg Catechism
And so, they would teach the word to people, especially the youth. Before Frederick came to power the young people were either neglected or were being miss-taught by individual pastors who were just making things up as best they could. What they needed was a catechism, a positive and uniform training in the Christian faith that would state the doctrines clearly and comprehensively.
It wouldn’t be a document for dusty theologians and arguing university professors, it would be one that the young, the novice, the unlearned, the preacher and the schoolmasters could read, understand, and use as a rule to go by in their private learning, schooling, and church instructions. It wouldn’t be something brand new but would use the best of the existing catechisms and teachings of the church, from the Apostles Creed written in 390 AD to what John Calvin had written only a few years before. It would be divided up into three simple, logical sections: The problem of sin, the way man is saved, and how we should thank God for that salvation. And though it would have 129 questions and answers, it would be broken down into 52 sections so pastors and teachers could complete it in just one year. And in those divisions, it would use the words of the Bible, the teachings of Jesus, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s prayer. There would be a shorter one for easy study and a longer one with hundreds of notes and commentary – and then years later an even longer version with even more notes and commentary.
It wouldn’t just be a textbook but would be a beautifully stated theology, a personal confession of faith. It would be personal because unlike many other catechisms that came before and would come after, Ursinus’ Heidelberg Catechism would be written in the first person.
Let me read you the first question: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” And the answer: “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.”
There is a beauty there, and power. We’re going to talk about that question this week, but what I really want you to walk away with this morning is the vitality and necessity of good doctrine, right theology, teaching and being trained in the Word of God, and what a gift it is to live in an age where we are overwhelmingly blessed with resources and good teaching.
And I want you to commit yourself to doing what 1 Timothy 4:16 says, to “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the doctrines.” as we study it together.
 Introduction to 1st Timothy: ESV Study Bible
 Luther, M., 2012. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Third Ed. Eds. T.F. Lull and W.R. Russell, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, pp.293-294.
 A lot of this is from Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, translated by Re. G.W. Williard, 2004, intro “Zacharias Ursinus and the Heidelberg Catechism
I’ve said a few times over the past years that one of the driving thoughts behind my life and ministry is that there is great comfort in good theology. I believe that with every fibre of my being and it informs every part of how I conduct myself as not only a pastor and teacher but a counsellor, father, husband, and friend. I honestly don’t believe that I myself am smart enough, clever enough, compassionate enough, wise enough, or experienced enough to be of much help to anyone on my own and therefore I do my best to point people to One who is greater than me. But to do that requires that I know Him, right?
What occurred to me this week was that the inverse of my little statement is also true. While there is great comfort in good theology, there is great discomfort in bad theology or theological chaos.
In Matthew 5-7 we read what we call the Sermon on the Mount, and in it Jesus covers a lot of ground. He teaches the Beatitudes where we encounter the upside down kingdom where the meek, the mourning, and the persecuted are in fact, blessed. He speaks of His mission to fulfill the Law of Moses and how His followers will conduct themselves in regards to it by teaching on God’s view of anger, lust, divorce, promises, revenge, money, prayer, worry, relationships, love, fruitful living, and salvation. And then at the end, in Matthew 7:24-27 Jesus gives this illustration:
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
That’s a powerful claim. Not only that the words of Jesus are sufficient to be the foundation of one’s entire life, but that anyone built on any other words are fools who will fall apart – and the next verses say as much. It says in verse 28,
“And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”
The scribes hemmed and hawed about what they were teaching, quoting various rabbis, footnoting everything they said, distancing themselves from the Word of God. Jesus spoke with divine, declarative authority. The message from Jesus was simple, as He declared more succinctly to his closest followers during His final hours in the upper room: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
In fact, Jesus says those kinds of declarative statements all throughout the Gospel of John. In John 6 He says, “I am the bread of life”, without whom, you’ll starve. In John 8 He says, “I am the light of the world”, without whom you will walk in darkness. In John 10 He says, “I am the door”, and if you don’t enter by me, you can’t be saved. In John 11 He says, “I am the resurrection and the life”, the only one with the power to raise the dead, and without whom you will be in everlasting death.
These are the declarative statements of a person who knows that He is the only way anyone can be saved. Who knows His way is the only one in which people can find real, lasting, eternal comfort. Who knows His message is the most important message that has ever or will ever be given, and that believing or disbelieving Him is the most important decision anyone will ever make. He wasn’t wishy-washy, He didn’t beat around the bush, He didn’t leave it open to interpretation, He was absolutely crystal clear: If you build your life on the foundation of me and my teachings, then when the floods and destruction of life comes, when chaos comes, when tragedy comes, when death comes, you will still live – if you don’t you’ll be destroyed.
That’s the message of Jesus, of the Apostles, and of the church for thousands of years. We preach Jesus, teach Jesus, proclaim Jesus, worship Jesus, pray to Jesus, and listen to Jesus. No one else.
A Constant Battle for Right Theology
But, in each generation there are always people who want to argue about it. There are always those who dispute and teach false doctrines about God. It has been this way for all time. When Satan challenged Eve, He didn’t just point at the fruit and say, “Wow, doesn’t that look good.” He challenged the Word of God. How did Satan begin the dialogue with Eve?
“He said to the woman, ‘Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?’” (Gen 3:1)
That’s a theological argument about the word of God, a twisting of it, and it required a defence. Then it says,
“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.’’” (Gen 3:2-3)”
What does Satan do then? He calls God’s character into question.
“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.’” (Gen 3:4-5)”
These are all theological arguments. What did God say? What is God like? What will God do? How will God respond? Can God be trusted? What does God really mean when He says…
And that’s how it’s been for all time. God makes a declarative statement, Satan or one of his agents twists the statement, calls God’s Word or character into question, and then tempts the believer to go another way. Then God raises up a prophet, a priest, a teacher, a missionary, a preacher, to declare the truth again and give the king, the people, the nation, the church a choice. Who will you believe?
We see this in Elijah and the Prophets of Baal. The king, due in large part to his pagan wife Jezebel, had lead him and most of the nation to turn away from God and worship demons named Baal and Asherah. Elijah proposed a contest where he and the false prophets would each create separate altars, pray for fire to come from heaven, and see who answers.
The false prophets prayed and danced and cut themselves all day long, but got nothing. And then it says this in 1 Kings 18 that Elijah called all the people together, soaked the altar with buckets and buckets of water, and then prayed,
“And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, ‘O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.’” (1 Kings 18:36–37)
The issue was theological. Who is the real God? What had God said? Who is God’s true servant who declares truth? What would God do? Why were the king and the people wrong and Elijah right?
And so it continues throughout history. Prophet after prophet calling the people back to the One, True God. Then Jesus comes and is constantly confronted with theological arguments by the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes – experts in the Bible, the Prophets, the Traditions, and the Law. Their truth claims versus His. Then Jesus establishes His church, and it takes all of 15 minutes for false teachers start to corrupt the apostle’s teachings. Paul would preach how Jesus is the Messiah foretold in the Jewish scriptures (which we call the Old Testament), how Jesus saves people by grace, and what Jesus expects of us – and then he’d leave to go plant another church and someone would come in and start teaching something else. They’d teach that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, that Jesus was just a good man, that the people needed to follow the Law of Moses and be circumcised, or that because Jesus saved them from all their sin it didn’t matter how they lived and they sin however they want.
Acts 17:10–13 gives a great summary of how this worked. It says,
“The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds.”
So here you have a great summary of Paul’s life. He would go somewhere to preach or plant a church, in this case, Berea. He would teach Jesus from the Old Testament in a local synagogue and see how they responded. Most of the time he was kicked out, but in Berea, they actually listened and then examined the Bibles to see if Paul’s theology and doctrine were right or not. As they studied the Bible their hearts were moved and a lot of people got saved. But as soon as that happened, as soon as good theology was declared, a group would rise up against it. This group would pull out all the stops to keep Paul from preaching. They would argue, mock, threaten, and lie to the local authorities to stop Paul from preaching about Jesus. Then Paul would either get beaten and locked up, or beaten and run out of town, and would then have to either write a letter, send another teacher, or wait until the heat died down to return.
Why was it so important that Paul come back though? Why not just cut his losses and try somewhere else? Because he knew that the only real source of comfort and joy and hope was Jesus. He knew that those who had decided to trust Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord were believing lies about Him. That meant their worship was corrupted, their leaders were corrupt, their church practices were becoming corrupt, and the message they were declaring to their neighbours wasn’t one that would save, but would ensnare. There is great comfort in good theology and there is great discomfort in theological chaos. And they were in chaos.
So Paul would come back and untwist all the bad theology, false doctrine, and harmful practices that had gotten into that church. In other words, He would call them back to their foundation in Jesus, call them back to the truth, back to good theology and doctrine.
We Must Teach
How would he do this? Through teaching. In Deuteronomy 11:18–28, as God is giving His Law, He says to the people of Israel,
“You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth. For if you will be careful to do all this commandment that I command you to do, loving the LORD your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him, then the LORD will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations greater and mightier than you. Every place on which the sole of your foot treads shall be yours. Your territory shall be from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River, the river Euphrates, to the western sea. No one shall be able to stand against you. The LORD your God will lay the fear of you and the dread of you on all the land that you shall tread, as he promised you. See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you today, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside from the way that I am commanding you today, to go after other gods that you have not known.”
You see how seriously God takes the teaching, understanding, and application of His Word, right? Teach your kids, remind yourselves, talk about this, because it is only when you are standing on the foundation of my word that you will see victory and blessing – and it is when you forget to teach it, lose my Words, and fall away that you will feel the curse. And so, the command is to teach and keep teaching.
In the New Testament there are two main words used for teaching: DIDASKO and KATECHEO. DIDASKO is the word for the authoritative teaching of doctrine, the declaring of divine truths, the Word of God. Jesus DIDASKO the people. Then Peter and the Apostles DIDASKO the church under the authority of Jesus.
But then, later in the New Testament a different word is used. It’s the word KATECHEO, from where we get our word Catechism. This word is different. It’s still teaching, but it’s not declarative – it’s the passing along of information. It’s repeating what’s already written down. It’s used when someone is reciting prepared lines on a stage or when an apprentice is being taught how to do something.
We don’t DIDASKO our children or congregations. We don’t declare divine truths with the authority of Jesus. We KATECHEO, we pass along what Jesus has already declared. We teach it in ways that the listener can understand. We explain the words one by one, we use examples and illustrations and personal stories to convey the doctrine in a way that all ages can understand. We teach the 4 year old, the 40 year old, and the 90 year old, about Jesus and the cross, but we do it using different words so they will understand.
Catechism For Comfort
This is something many modern churches have gotten away from – we no longer teach people the doctrines of the Christian faith. We live in a theologically illiterate age – people don’t know God or the Bible. According to one study in 2013 half of Canadian Christians believe the Bible has irreconcilable contradictions. Only 1 23% of Christian Canadians believe the bible is relevant to modern life. 64% of Canadian Christians believe that all the major world religions teach the same thing. Only 14% of Canadian Christians read their bibles at least once per week, and only 11% of Canadian Christians talk about the Bible outside of Sunday services.
And if I’m right that there is great comfort in good theology, and great discomfort in theological chaos, then that would explain why so many people, so many Christians, are in such a bad way – they neither know God, nor His goodness, nor His plan. They don’t know if they are saved, what God thinks of them, how to pray, why to pray, or if God is even listening. They don’t know how to conduct themselves when they are wronged, how to hold together a marriage, how to face suffering, what their life purpose is, or how to find it. Even among people who have called themselves believers for decades, there is very little true comfort and Christian hope, because there is very little knowledge of God. And it shows in generations of people who are increasingly spiritual lost, deeply anxious, more and more addicted and drowning in hopelessness. People are abandoning the faith because they do not know or understand the foundations of what they are supposed to believe.
This is why we must teach. And I’m not talking about Bible Trivia. I’m talking about the foundations of Christian hope. When your friends let you down, your spouse is hurting, your children leave, where will you turn? When you face suffering, loss, and death, how will you find meaning? When you are surrounded by bad news, spin, lies, and corruption, how do you know that things are going to work out? If you are stuck in habitual sin, continuously breaking God’s law, constantly feel guilty and ashamed, afraid of judgment, do you know whether or not God will forgive you? When are in need of guidance, purpose, resources, do you know what kinds of prayers God answers? If God isn’t answering your prayers, do you know why? What about your reason for living? Do you know why you are here? If you know these things, you may have comfort, if you do not, you will be in chaos.
When your child, your friend, your brother or sister, turns to you and says “why?” – “Why is this happening? Why should I trust God? Why shouldn’t I believe God hates me? Why should I get up in the morning? Why does the world feel so out of control? Why should I keep living? Why should I bother praying, reading the Bible, or going to church? Why don’t I feel any comfort from God?” What will you say?
Most don’t have an answer because they themselves have never been taught. Children turning to mom and dad and grandma and grandpa and asking huge questions about life, faith, suffering, eternity, relationships, morality – and they get trite, simplistic, and wrong answers. They come and ask for advice and the best that mom and dad and grandma and grandpa can do is say, “Maybe you should go to the doctor. Maybe you should see a psychiatrist. Maybe you should just quit or try harder.” Or worse, “Do whatever your heart feels is right. I just want you to be happy.” That is an invitation to disaster.
This is why we must teach, this is why we must teach, why we must catechize.
Heidelberg Next Week
So, next week we will be starting a one year series on the Heidelberg Catechism. I want everyone here to have the tools to be able to not only answer big questions for others but to be able to grasp how high and wide and deep is the love of God, and be firmly established in the Word of God. I want you to know what you believe, why you believe it, and why it should bring you comfort.
When I’m in my darkest places, at my most desperate moments, feeling like the waves are rising, the waters crashing, the darkness looming – I turn to Jesus. And then Satan attacks, asking me if I really believe all this nonsense, if Jesus is really real, if God really cares… and the only defence I have is the Word of God, the Doctrines of God, the Theology of God. And they bring me comfort because they re-establish me on the foundation of Christ.
I want that for you as your pastor. As Colossians 2:7-8 says, I want you to be “rooted and built up in [Jesus] and established in the faith…” not “[taken] captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”
That’s what I want for each of you, and so that’s why we’re starting that series next week. My hope is that you will follow along, do some homework and heart work, and that it will glorify God and build up His church.
The full audio version of our CT:LIVE Season 3 Finale Q&A! It’s a long one, but there’s lots of fun and answers to some awesome questions. Check Facebook for the contest winners.
New CT CarnivoreBob TheologyPants Ringtone!
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Unzip this folder somewhere on your computer (Download Drive, Desktop, etc.)
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Historically, Christians have been rightly concerned about the protection of human beings. They also support religious liberty. So what is the problem ith Motion 103? Is it merely Orwellian inspired PC “newspeak”? What does this motion actually target? Should Christians be worried about it?
Referenced Article: Actually, one needn’t be a hysterical bigot to have concerns with M-103
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Steve and Al sound a little weird in this episode as explore teaching theology to kids… with kids!
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Exciting News! My latest book “The Foundations: An Introduction to What a Christian Needs, Knows & Does” now available for download on your e-reader — and it’s FREE!
Click here to go to the download page to learn more:
Jesus, in John 10:10, says that He has come to give His followers an “abundant life.” His promise doesn’t mean a life filled with worldly riches that ultimately pass away, but true riches like joy, peace, purpose, character, adventure, and the knowledge that you are deeply loved. The joy that can be found in this abundant life is dependent upon your obedience to God and your willingness to submit to His will. It is my hope that this book will lead you towards greater worship, service, and knowledge and love of Him. If you have any questions or comments, you can get in touch with me here.
Here are the chapter titles so you can see what the book is about:
Part 1: The True Gospel
Spot The Difference
Sola Scriptura – Scripture Alone
Sola Gratia – Grace Alone
Sola Fide – Faith Alone
Sola Christus & Sola Deo Gloria – Christ Alone & The Glory of God Alone
Part 2: Growing At Church
What Makes a Christian a Christian?
What Makes a Church a Church?
Leaning on Your Leaders
Making Christian Friends
Making Love Your Priority
Part 3: Intentional Discipleship
First, A Warning
A Church You Can Brag About
Count the Cost
Building Endurance: Steps to Maturity
Part 4: Disciplines of the Heart
Preparing Your Heart With Psalm 51
From Repentance to Commitment
Part 5: The Four Core Christian Disciplines
Why to Study Your Bible
How to Study Your Bible
Church Attendance: Getting the Most Out of Sunday Service
Serving Others: Why Should I?
Serving Others: General Areas of Service
Serving Others: Spiritual Gifts
Tigger & Eeyore
Have you ever met a super-happy person? One of those folks that just seems to have a good attitude all the time, glowing about life, full of energy, optimistic about the future? I’ve met a couple of them, though not many. They’re awesome to be around because their energy is infectious.
- When you are down, this person will have a dozen ways to pick you up.
- When you are hurt they will bend over backwards to try to make you smile.
- They’re the ones who, when they see you frazzled, instead of saying, “Wow, keep up the good work!” say, “Wow, you look stressed out, maybe you need a vacation.” because they’re not driving by needing to produce things.
- These people have all kinds of hobbies and interests and are forever sharing them on Pinterest and Facebook and Instagram and inviting you over to see them, and giving them out as gifts.
- When you share bad news, instead of commenting, they share a funny meme or cat video. If we were to use a character from Winnie the Pooh to describe them, we’d pick either Pooh himself or Tigger.
Have you ever met one of these people? Are you one of these people? If so, thank you for being you.
I kind of wish I was, but I know I’m not. If I’m anyone, I’m Eeyore… maybe mixed with a little of Tigger’s confidence… and a little of Piglet’s fastidiousness. I’m not really that cheery of a person. Keep in mind I’m the guy who wrote a sermon a while back called “Life Sucks and then you Die” reminding everyone why there is suffering, evil and despair in the world. And just a couple weeks ago I tried to cheer everyone up from the 2016 downers by reminding us of Super-Volcanoes, the Ice Age, the Black Death, and the atrocities of the World Wars.
My kids often accuse me of being “Mr. Bad News” since for every silver lining they come up with I tend to find a cloud. I have to be careful at dinner time not to bemoan the fallen state of the world, and it takes work for me to find the bright side of things. And I definitely utter the words “Wow, people suck…” too often in front of my kids. It’s sort of become my unofficial motto now. I’m not proud of it, but every day I read or experience something that keeps proving it right.
The Whole Truth
I know, right? You come to church today, listen to an Advent reading on Love, sing uplifting Christmas songs, and want hear something akin to “Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night!” Maybe you’ve come to be cheered up with a positive message, reminded about all the wonderful things about this time of year. You want to hear a story with lowing cattle and a glowing baby laid in a bed of clean straw – the light of the world come to grant joy and peace and hope to lowly shepherds, prostitutes and tax collectors alike. You want me to tell you all about how Jesus is going to give you answers to your deepest questions, make your life abundant, repair your heart, and give you everything you need because He’s promised to. And I don’t blame you.
Everyone likes the cheery people. They flock to the Joel Osteens and Creflo Dollars of the world to hear uplifting messages about how God is going to make them happy, healthy, wealthy, and pain-free. But I can’t do that. I won’t, because it’s not the whole truth.
That’s the thing, there is some truth to the prosperity gospel message, but it’s not a whole truth. Does God care about you? Is He concerned about your daily needs? Does He promise healing? Will He give answers and freedom from tears? Yes to all of that! But the thing is, as true as those statements are, God is clear that it doesn’t usually happen the way we think it will – and it usually doesn’t happen when we want it to.
All of this confusion is an unmitigated mess that comes from a complete misunderstanding of the salvation that Jesus offers. At its heart is the false hope of the prosperity gospel touted by so many false preachers. And people are desperate to believe it – and always have.
From Adam and Eve to you and I, people have been trying to get things from God that we aren’t supposed to have and twisting His Word to fool ourselves into believing it’s a good idea. God will speak, and we will listen to half of what He says and then go with that. You’ve experienced that, right? Where you tell someone something in two parts, but they only take the first part?
This happens to every single person I know that has tried to make Kraft Dinner. I’ve heard the story multiple times. The kid is left alone with a box of Kraft Dinner and is brimming with confidence as they are now allowed to “cook”. They figure, “I’ve got this. I’ve seen it done a million times! Easy peasey!” So they fill a pot with water, put in noodles – and then turn on the element. Oh wait, how long do we cook it for? Dig the box out and look for the number. Oh, 7-8 minutes. Throw out the box. Then, add the cheese powder directly to the water, right? Now what else? Get the box out of the garbage again. Oh yeah, milk and butter. Toss some into the lukewarm water. Ok, it took 7 minutes just to that all that gunk to boil. “Oh well, I’m just following the directions!”, they figure. “The water does look kind of gross though – I don’t remember that.” Now what? Get out the strainer and pour it all into the sink. And what are they left with? Nothing anyone wants to eat. Oh well, that’s why God gave us ketchup, right?
We do that all the time with God’s word! We read part of it, close the book, and figure we can figure the rest out on our own.
No matter how many times I try to teach people about God’s promises they keep mishearing me. Maybe I’m not as good of a teacher as I think I am, but there are times when someone will come with deep questions I’ll say something like, “Pray, read the Bible and talk to your Christian friends and I believe God will give you answers.”, and I’ll try to explain what that means, but they hear “If you do this God is going to explain everything to you in detail and give you a perfect roadmap for your life.” That’s not what I said, and isn’t what the Bible says. God is under no obligation to give us detailed answers, but as we pray and read the Word, He will often help us learn to trust Him, His plan, and His goodness – even though we can’t see what He’s doing.
They’ll read or hear me say, “Following Jesus will give you an abundant life.” What do they hear? “Jesus is going to make your life like an adventure movie: heart-pounding excitement, dramatic romance, and you’ll always come out on top.” That’s not even close to what “abundant” means.
Someone else, with deep hurts, will hear, “God can repair your heart”. But they hear, “God will fix your relationships, make your marriage strong, keep your kids close to you, and give you lots of friends.” That’s not what I said, and isn’t what the Bible says either.
They read or hear a Christian teacher say, “Trust God to give you everything you need.” And too many people hear, “God will give you everything your heart desires because the desires of your heart are obviously what you need.” And then they blame themselves, Christians, the Bible, or God for not delivering on His promises. But again, it’s not God that is wrong. You’re just only listening to half of the truth.
Or, “God has given you good things to do and doing them will bring blessings to your life.” and they’ll hear, “Karma is real. Do good things and good things will happen to you. Do bad things and bad things will happen to you. God is all about balance.” That’s not what the Bible teaches at all.
Reading the Other Half
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the verses we’ve been looking at over the past few weeks, which are Isaiah’s prophecy about how Jesus the God-Man would come as a child destined to be our Great Saviour.
Isaiah 9:2’s gives the promise that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has
“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. You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil.” And that’s great! That’s what everyone wants, right?
And that’s great! That’s what everyone wants, right? Light, multiplied blessing, increased joy, harvest celebrations, glad hearts and spoils. But all of that requires something… it requires the next verses…
“For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire.” (vs 4-5)
In order to have a Great Deliverer, we must have something to be delivered from! God says that because our world has turned their back on Him, over and over, and preferred ourselves, sin and evil to Him and His light, we will walk in darkness. Because we have rejected Him as king, we will be overwhelmed with oppressors and experience great burdens. Our lives will be filled with war, our clothes covered in blood.
This is the flipside of faith in Jesus Christ – the admission of sin, guilt, and need. The admission that we are in trouble, that we cannot save ourselves, and that we need someone outside of this world, untouched by the effects of sin and death, to deliver us from them. Without that admission, there is no salvation, because we will not have acknowledged that we do, in fact, need a Saviour.
Let’s keep reading,
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder…”
Why? Because the government, no matter what country they are or what system they use, is going to be corrupted by sin. And even if, for one generation you get a ruler that does everything right, they are going to die. Jesus is our Saviour from corruption – but that requires us stop putting our faith in the belief that salvation will come from any world government – that all we need is the right leader, the right party, the right Prime Minister, and we’ll be saved. We must admit that we need a ruler beyond this world, and that is Christ.
“…and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…”
We need Jesus to be our Wonderful Counsellor because we are surrounded by a lot of awful counsellors who, no matter how hard they try, and how great their intentions are, cannot fully save us, will eventually leave us, will pass along false information, and sometimes simply get it wrong. Faith in Jesus requires us to admit that we are lost and confused, and put away our belief that the perfect earthly guru or emotional support system will solve all our problems.
We need Jesus to be our Mighty God because we are utterly weak and require divine intervention. To admit Jesus’ power is to admit our lack of it. We have to admit that we will never be smart enough or strong enough to pull ourselves out of the troubles of this world. We will never have the willpower to conquer all our sins. We will never be able to stop all the wars and hatred happening around the world and in our hearts. We require someone of perfect strength that never fails. We must admit our powerlessness and allow Jesus to be our Mighty God.
We need Jesus to be our Everlasting Father, because there is no perfect father out there. A lot of people in this world start out fatherless, abandoned by their dads before they were born. Many more have bad, ungodly fathers. And in the end, even if we have a great dad, unless we die first, we all eventually end up fatherless. We require someone who loves us, knows us, protects us, provides for us, and won’t ever leave us – and that’s Jesus. But, that means we have to stop believing that there is someone out there who can give us all that. We have to realize there is no girl or boyfriend, no wife or husband, no friend or coworker who can give us all that we need.
And, in the same way, we have to admit that we cannot be that for others! We are not the fount of all wisdom, the great defender, the perfect provider who knows exactly what our family and friends need – only Jesus is. And we have to point people to Him, not us.
Jesus Prince of Peace
And, we need Jesus to be our only Prince of Peace. As I’ve said, needing a Saviour means we need to be saved from something. If we need a Prince of Peace that means that we must be in the middle of war. And we are. I told you about the historical context of the Christmas story last week, but consider the trouble that Jesus’ coming into the world wrought.
Mary was chosen, not because she was perfect, but because she had found favour with God. She was a good woman who loved God. But what did Jesus bring her? Joseph thought she had cheated and almost divorced her. She ended up giving birth to her first child in a room intended for animals and laying him in a feeding trough. When she presented her baby at the temple, Simeon, a perfect stranger came up to her and said, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34-35). And he was right. Her son’s life would bring her much confusion and pain.
“Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34-35).
And he was right. Her son’s life would bring her much confusion and pain.
Then, within a couple years, Magi from the East mistakenly go to Jerusalem and inform the insanely jealous King Herod that there is a contender to the throne, and discover he was in Bethlehem, causing him to fly into a rage, killing all the boys in Bethlehem that were two years old or younger.
Meanwhile, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee the country to live as immigrant refugees for a few years in Egypt, only to return after Herod had died. Who knows the troubles they had there.
Jesus’s birth was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the one that would come and be the Prince of Peace, but those closest to Him certainly didn’t have Peace – at least not the way we would define it.
And there’s my point. If we only go half way, read it like a prosperity preacher, then we end up confused. Jesus brings Peace, but Mary, Joseph, everyone else closest to Him for the rest of His life, and Jesus Himself experienced great troubles and pain. Does that mean Jesus wasn’t the right guy? Or that we are wrong about how and when Jesus will bring Peace?
I believe that it’s the latter. It’s not Jesus who hasn’t fulfilled His promises, but we who are importing our own ideas, preconceptions, and selfish desires onto His promises.
The Hero Has Come
Think of it this way: Have you ever watched a movie where someone was kidnapped or trapped somewhere by the bad guy, and the whole plot of the film was to have the hero track them down and get them back? Whether it was a princess in a tower, a wife held by terrorists, or a daughter sold to slavery, the whole point of the movie was that the prince, husband, or dad, was doing everything they could to save their beloved from the hands of evil.
How did that movie make you feel? Nervous, scared, anxious, sad… but you kept watching, right? And then came that moment when the hero finally caught a glimpse of the one they were rescuing? What did you feel then? I bet you smiled. The guy has been through hell and back, followed clues and fought enemies just to get to the point where they can hide behind the box, or peak through the window, and get a glimpse of the one he has come to save. It’s in that moment we feel the mixed emotions of hope and anxiety, but we grin knowingly. We know that it’s going to have a happy ending, we just don’t know how.
The girl was still in danger, the attackers weren’t dealt with yet – but we feel a sense of joy and hope. Why? Because we know that the hero has finally come and justice is about to be served.
There’s often a moment in those movies where the hero and the victim secretly lock eyes without any of the bad guys noticing. The prince winks, the husband mouths “I love you”, the Father, “I’m here.” She nods without letting anyone else see. They share a brief but powerful moment, and we all know it’s going to be ok. Why? Because her hero is here. The bad guys are as good as done. Salvation has come.
That’s a joy moment. That’s a Jesus moment. Yes, the trouble is still there. She’s still technically kidnapped, under the power of the bad guys, but the hero has given the wink and it’s going to be all good. All that’s left is for him to make the final move.
Therein lies our Christmas joy and the meaning of Advent. Therein lies the whole story of what it means to be saved by Jesus. Right now we are still under the power of evil and life really is painful sometimes. Right now, we face the bad counsellors, weak wills, unfulfilling relationships, and the war of life. But the hero has come! All we’ve done is sat tied up, surrounded by evil while He did all the work. Jesus has come, has given us the wink, has said, “I love you, I’m here.” and even though we are looking into the faces of our enemies, surrounded by trials and trouble, we are already saved. Regardless how bad things have been, we are absolutely sure we are about to be free. Why, because we trust our hero to save us.
That’s the full Christmas story, the gospel story: We have looked around and seen our desperate need, and we have looked into the eyes of the only one who can save us. He has come, and is coming again to finish His work.
Whether you’re going into High School, College, University or Post-Grad, Pastor Al gives some important reminders to students returning to school this semester.
1. Guard your reputation.
2. Remember why you’re there.
3. Find a good church.
4. Keep your devos going.
5. Try to find balance.
How Can You Help Carnivore Theology?
1. Pray for us!
3. Record a question in your voice on our SpeakPipe page! (We love this the most!)
Listener Questions: Can We Know God? Should We Suffer More? How Different Should Christians Be? (Carnivore Theology Ep. 72)
We couldn’t find Chad, so we wandered down to the mailroom to look for him — and decided to stay and answer some questions: Can We Know God? Should We Suffer More? How Different Should Christians Be? If God Wore a Superhero Suit, What Would it Look Like?
How Can You Help Carnivore Theology?
1. Pray for us!
3. Record a question in your voice on our SpeakPipe page! (We love this the most!)
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about how important it is for us to realize that we don’t have the right, or the need, to make up things about who God is or what God wants, because He has already told us everything we need to know. All through scripture, we are taught that God didn’t leave us to try to figure out most things on our own, but instead chose to tell people what He wanted and then required us to obey.
And more than that, whenever people did start making things up, changing ideas about His will or His person, they were condemned and punished. Think about it.
God created the universe, designed the earth, populated it with everything necessary for an enjoyable and fruitful life, and then put Adam and Even in the middle of a garden. They were in perfect relationship with God and each other. They had meaningful work and a mission to carry out: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” God was the King of all, and had made Adam and Eve rulers of the earth. They had “dominion” over everything, and God had dominion over them. Everything was “very good” until Adam and Eve decided to believe false things about God and go against how God said they should live. (Genesis 1:28-31)
Satan’s argument started, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?’”. Of course not, and he knew it, but this opened up a dialogue with Eve based on challenging what God had revealed about how they should live. Eve answered, “…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.’” Already we see Eve giving God’s word a little alteration. God didn’t say that they couldn’t touch it. Either she or Adam had added that little bit to God’s instructions.
Now that the dialogue was open, and God’s Word was getting more pliable as the conversation went on, Satan continued with, “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.” He implies that God is holding out on them, that He can’t be trusted, that there is something better that God doesn’t want them to have, that His current revelation wasn’t good enough, and all they had to do was go outside of what God had revealed to them and they’d find something better than God wanted to give them. “God lied, Eve. He’s keeping you from the good stuff.”
Good for Food
The story continues, “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.” (Gen 3:6)
We see that both Adam and Eve were standing there, and both were complicit in this sin – but where did the temptation come from? It came from wanting to know more than God had revealed to them, and disobeying what God had told them to do.
In a very real sense, Adam and Eve had looked at the one, true religion – or way of relating to God – that God had designed and said:
“It’s not enough. It doesn’t meet my needs. It doesn’t give me what I want. It doesn’t explain enough. It doesn’t feel the way I want it to feel. So let’s invent our own version of this religion. One where we are still in the Garden, still able to walk with God in the cool of the day (Gen 3:8), but doesn’t have all the restrictions that this one does. After all, God is a God of love, right? Therefore, I’m sure it will be fine if we bend what He says. He wouldn’t just kill us, would he? There’s no death in this world! I could never worship a God who would kill someone just for eating a piece of fruit. I’ll invent my own version of God that is more open to other people’s opinions and isn’t so restrictive. Our god will be one that allows people to worship in a way that feels right to them. And if they want to worship God by getting to know Him better through eating that fruit, then they should be allowed! Let us throw off the shackles of the old rules, and embrace a new way of knowing God!”
Sound familiar? This is the world’s way of connecting to God. They come to a god of their own design, on their own terms. That thinking goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden.
In their own human wisdom they looked at the tree and thought, “Wow, that looks tasty, and safe, and not poisonous at all. Why would God prevent us from eating a tree that was “good for food”? God invented food, and God invented trees, and this tree looks “good for food”, so God must be ok with it, right? That’s called self-justification, or self-deception. If it looks good, feels good, tastes good, and makes sense to us, then it must be ok, right?
We do this all the time, even with Christianity: I like this song, so it must be a good worship song that God likes too. I like this church, so it must be one that God likes too. I felt a tingle during that worship service, so that means the Holy Spirit was there. I don’t like those verses in the Bible, so God must not like them either. Those people are the kind of people I like, so they must be closer to God. Worshipping at home feels better than organized religion, so God must be ok with me rejecting the church and inventing my own version of Christianity. I like how this preacher sounds, so I’ll listen to him. This book agrees with me and tells me what I want to here, so it must be right.
It’s all very tempting, isn’t it? It all looks “good for food”, and tastes right to us, so we believe it must be good. God had declared the whole world “very good”, and had declared that one tree bad. But Eve’s eyes looked upon it and declared it “good”. Self-deception.
A Delight to the Eyes
Eve also saw that the tree was a “delight to the eyes”. Notice how quickly she went from, “God said that tree will kill us if we touch it” to “my, what a delightful tree that I definitely want to touch and eat from.” What happened? James 1:14-15 describes it best,
“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.”
Something inside of her, and Adam, had changed. The tree was exactly the same tree as it was before she had started listening to the serpent, but her perception of it had changed. It now contained something she wanted, and in order to make it okay with herself, she altered her perception of it.
“Well, that tree’s not so bad. It’s actually a pretty tree. It’s quite delightful, actually. It’s a beautiful tree with beautiful fruit and it would be a shame for me not to take one. God provided this beautiful tree. He invented it. He makes all things beautiful, so why shouldn’t I take it? It’s not wrong to appreciate something that’s beautiful, is it. If God had wanted me to stay away, then He should have made the tree ugly and the fruit disgusting. It’s actually God’s fault that I’m even near this tree. He made it so nice. He made it make me feel good. He’s the one who is at fault here. Why say something is wrong, but make something so delightful?”
Remind you of anything?
We do this all the time with various sins – whether it’s addiction to drugs and alcohol, pornography and lust, money and possessions, gluttony, wrathful anger, or almost anything else. God tells us it’s wrong, and our conscience follows up in agreement. But then we find ourselves thinking it over in our mind and trying to justify how great it will be, and how it’s actually a good idea, and how it’s someone else’s fault that we’re doing it anyway. It’s the same every time.
But we also do this with our relationship with God. The One, True God, and all His revelations aren’t “delighting” us enough. Instead, God has us living through a time of trial, discipline, suffering, or even just plain boredom. God’s not being entertaining enough, He refuses to remove pain and discomfort, or distract us with pleasures, so we go off to find something that will. And those things are delightful. But God’s Word says that we need to be careful with them, to not idolize them, or to avoid them altogether… so what do we do?
A lot of people simply change or dismiss God’s Word. They don’t like what God has revealed, so they re-write part of the Bible, declare it irrelevant, or simply remove that part from the Book. Or, they go find – or even write – another book that will tell them that they want to hear. It happens all the time. God’s revealed truth isn’t delightful enough, so they go to Oprah’s book list and buy something there that will tell them what they want to hear.
God’s not giving them what they want, so they go read “The Secret” which tells them that there is no God, but instead there’s a universal energy force that they can manipulate to attract things to them that they like. They don’t like that Jesus said He’s the only way to be saved, and that Christians sometimes suffer, so they find a new age guru like Deepak Chopra who says that happiness isn’t found in any kind of god, but found inside ourselves through introspection and meditation. They don’t like that people go to hell, so they go read Rob Bell who says that everyone gets to go to heaven.
These books seem “good for food” and are a “delight to their eyes”, but they are a trap. They go against what God has revealed and lead us to temptation and sin.
Make One Wise
As Eve stood back and looked at the tree, her perception changing, her heart deceiving itself so she could take and eat, she came up with one more reason that it was a good idea. It would “make one wise”. Notice this wasn’t just a physical attraction anymore. And see how the poison of the temptation sinks deeper into the soul.
It started out merely looking “good for food”, it continued to become a “delight to the eyes”, but here we see that it wasn’t just tasty and pretty – it would give her something that God wouldn’t or couldn’t: special wisdom; knowledge God didn’t want her to have.
The implication here is that God had withheld something from her and Adam that she felt she needed to be complete. Yes, God had kept her in the dark about something, but it was to protect her. As it stood she only knew good – this tree would give her the knowledge of evil. But now she desperately wanted to know and all she had to do was reach out her hand and take a bit to see what God was withholding from her.
She felt God had refused an experience to her, but this would fill that gap and make her a more whole person. She had a curiosity that needed to be fulfilled, but God wasn’t giving her an answer. God’s revelation wasn’t enough for her. She needed wisdom and experience that was outside of what God had planned for her and Adam.
One commentary I have says that the fruit “appeared to her as a means for spiritual advancement.”[i] This tree was no longer just one of the many trees in the Garden, it was now, for her, the best tree in the Garden; there was more to be gained from this tree and its fruit than anything else the Lord God had provided.[ii]
Patterned Through Scripture
We see this pattern all the way through scripture, and it continues today. God tells us what He’s like, what He wants, and what He wants from humanity. We listen and follow for a little while, but then come up with our own ideas of what God’s like, what God wants, and what He wants from us – and then we forget about God and go after we like and want. We aren’t satisfied with what He has revealed so we invent something that sounds better to us.
Consider the story of Nabad and Abihu found in Leviticus 10. God had just spent a whole lot of time declaring exactly how He wants things to go when it comes to worshipping Him and offering sacrifices in the Tabernacle. He went into incredible detail, and after Aaron, Moses and the priests had followed every instruction, God showed up in power and consumed their offering, showing they did it right
But at the beginning of Leviticus 10 it says this:
“Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.”
What happened there was that they hadn’t followed what God had said about how to worship Him. This was a huge deal because this was the very infancy of the Jewish religion, the very beginning of learning how God wants to be worshipped. They needed to know how seriously God takes His Worship and His Word and what the penalty was for disobeying. It wasn’t just about getting the religion right, but showing that when they disobey God’s Word, they are sinning, and that sin leads to death.
To disobey God’s Word leads to the corruption of the individual soul, and if you are leader, the corruption of others. Some people think that they took the fire from the wrong place, burnt a different kind of incense, or even showed up drunk. Whatever the case, God demonstrated in no uncertain terms that He doesn’t mess around when it comes to disobeying what He says to do.
God wants His people to be holy as He is holy, and that means holding to the highest standards of conduct (Lev 19:2; Matthew 5:48). All through the Old Testament Law God reminds His people that they aren’t merely to obey the Law because it is right and good, but because they are His representatives to the world and are a reflection of Him.
Just as Adam and Eve were created to bear the image of God, so Israel would bear God’s image, and so do Christians today. All humanity bears God’s image, but we, God’s people, are meant to be the ones who do it best.
In the New Testament, we see that God hasn’t changed how He deals with humanity since the Garden of Eden. He created Adam and Eve to be His image bearers, gave them a place to meet Him in worship, gave them what they needed to be fruitful forever, and a mission to spread that message to the whole world, but they chose to reject Him and His Word, and it caused their destruction. Then He raised up the people of Israel to be His chose people, gave them the Temple as a place to worship, told them how to be fruitful forever, and told them to spread that message to the whole world, and they rejected Him and His Word, and it caused their destruction.
Today God is doing the same thing. After Jesus came to be the final sacrifice under the old system, He changed how things would look, but didn’t change God’s plan. Look at 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” That’s no different than the story of Nabad and Abihu, is it? And it’s not much different than the message given to Adam and Eve, or Israel: “This land is holy and you are holy. I will walk with you here if you follow my word and don’t eat of the tree. But if you sin, you will destroy God’s temple and will also be destroyed.”
Except now, the temple isn’t made of stone, it’s made of flesh. God’s temple is the people of His church – but He has the same standards and gives the same warning to us.
God’s Plan of Salvation
Listen to what is written among the final words in the final chapter of the final book of the Bible, because it shows how God’s message has been consistent from the start:
“The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” (Revelation 22:18-19)
The whole Bible is an invitation to be saved through Jesus Christ. The healing water is free for everyone. All who are thirsty for grace, peace, forgiveness, and life, the payment has been made for you by the blood of Jesus. And the Spirit of God and the Bride of Christ, the Church, extends the invitation to all to “Come!”
But, when you “come”, you must come God’s way. Don’t change God’s Word. Don’t invent new ways of coming. When Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
How Can We Know the Difference?
This is the crux of the problem that Paul is trying to address in the opening chapters of 1st Corinthians. This church had their beliefs all messed up and had imported all kinds of foreign, wrong, teachings about God and His will for their lives, and Paul was warning them that the path they had chosen didn’t bring more life, but death. They had fallen for the same demonic deception that Eve had.
They had looked at the teachings from other religions, philosophers, and things that just felt right to them, and saw they were “good for food”, “a delight to the eyes” and “was to be desired to make one wise”, and had taken a big old bite. Their pursuit of wisdom and knowledge had lead them to destruction because it had lead them away from the revelation of God.
But the question comes, how can we know the difference between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God? If all these things look good, feel good, and seem like wisdom, then how can we be sure which one is of God and which one is not? How do we keep from being deceived?
The Bible gives the answer in the passage we’ve been studying.
“…these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:10-16)
Jesus Christ, it said before in 1:30, is the “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” If we want to know the mind of God, we must be connected to Jesus. A “natural person” is someone who is trying to figure out God, the Universe, Eternity and Life, using their human wisdom and human strength, driven by their bodily appetites, their carnal knowledge, thinking the way an animal would, preferring the things that bring them the most pleasure. They will naturally go towards things that look “good for food”, and “delight the eyes”, and will be deceived by their own appetites.
But in contrast, a “spiritual person” – meaning one who has given their heart, soul, mind and strength over to Jesus to be redeemed, sanctified, renewed and made righteous – is listening to God’s voice, God’s Spirit, God’s Word, and God’s truth – and will see things differently.
Therefore I close with two encouragements. To those who are Christians here today, don’t succumb to the temptation to seek things outside of God’s Will and God’s Word, no matter how “good” and “delightful” they seem to you.
Instead, seek the “mind of Christ” by seeking the counsel of the Spirt of God and the Word of God. Read the living Word of God, the Bible, every day, praying as the Lord taught you, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done…. lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:9-13) As you do so, your natural self will wither and you will be able to “understand” the things that “are spiritually discerned”. Then you will be able to teach others.
I encourage you to go and pray the words of Psalm 51,
“God… you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart…. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.”
To those who are not Christians today, or who are not seeking the mind of Christ – those who are racked with doubt, fear, shame, anger, lust, and who’s faith is either dead or dying – those who have invented their own God, their own religion, and have rejected what God has revealed – I implore you to “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near.” (Isa 55:6) for “…now is the favorable time… now is the day of salvation.” (2 Cor 6:2) It profits you nothing to invent your own god and your own religion. Come to God as He has said you must come: humbly and on His terms.
[i] Lange, J. P., Schaff, P., Lewis, T., & Gosman, A. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Genesis (p. 230).
[ii] Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible: (p. 12). Peabody: Hendrickson.
If you’re on YouTube, then you’ve probably seen the “Try Not To Laugh” challenges where someone puts together a bunch of funny clips and you’re supposed to watch them with a friend and see who laughs first.
Well, I was watching some YouTube videos the other day and came across one where the people were doing the “Cringe Challenge”. This was a bunch of clips of really awkward, embarrassing and cringe-worthy moments that were happening to other people, that were meant to invoke empathy for that poor person. It worked.
The first was a video of a guy on a talk show trying to do a back-flip off a couch. It didn’t work and he full face-planted on the carpet. That wasn’t too bad. There were a couple others I got through without flinching, but the one that got me was the man at the outdoor concert who walked past a TV reporter over to a trough he thought was for washing hands – but it wasn’t. We all watched as he grabbed the urinal cake like it was soap, scrubbed up, dipped his hands in the pee, and started looking around for the tap… it wasn’t there. That got me.
There are a lot of things in this world that cause us to cringe – to get that inward feeling of embarrassment or disgust that ends up taking over a part of our body. Oftentimes it’s not something that physically happens to us, but something that happens around us that causes us to wrinkle our nose, clench our teeth, cross our arms, and take a step back. Even though nothing is physically touching us, we feel it nonetheless.
That’s how I feel about bad theology. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it, “I take great comfort in good theology.” I can’t remember if I heard that somewhere or if I came up with it myself, but for me, it’s a very true statement. I take great comfort in good theology. I could even switch it around to “good theology brings great comfort”. When I’m feeling sad, angry, confused, ashamed, prideful, or whatever, the thing that makes me feel better, or gives me answers, or guides me back to sanity, is good theology.
And actually, the opposite is true too. I am discomforted when presented with bad theology. It makes me cringe. Chances are, if you’ve been around me for any length of time, you’ve probably seen me cringe when someone goes off the theological rails. I can’t help it.
I was at a funeral a while ago where the speaker gave a message that almost put me into fits. It was full of wrong thinking, false assumptions, and unbiblical claims, and it made me really uncomfortable – to the point where Anita had to lean over and tell me to get control of myself. The words that were meant to bring comfort to the mourners were actually causing me pain. Why? Because they were false (or at least terribly misunderstood) claims about God.
I can’t remember exactly what they are – I may have blacked out at some point – but they said things like,
- “They’re looking down on you from heaven today.” – which has absolutely no biblical basis.
- Or “God needed another angel in heaven so He took them away.” – which is really, really bad theology.
- Or “They had accomplished all they were sent to do.” – which is probably not true.
- Or “Everyone here will see them again when they meet in Heaven.” – which was also probably not true. Each one of these phrases made me cringe.
Why? Because, as John Piper once said, “Bad theology will eventually hurt people and dishonor God in proportion to its badness.” It hurts people and dishonours God – and the worse the theology, the more the hurt and dishonour. Lying to people about sin, salvation, worship, and eternity doesn’t ultimately bring anyone comfort. Instead, it puts words in God’s mouth and causes people to put their hope in the wrong place.
Here’s the thing. Bad theology sounds comforting, but it isn’t – instead it leads to confusion and despair. Why? Because “Bad theology will eventually hurt people and dishonor God in proportion to its badness.” Let me add one more quote from JI Packer:
“Evangelical theology is precise and sharp, honed as a result of centuries of controversy reflecting the conviction that where truth fails, life will fail, too.”
Christians believe it’s important that we work hard to get what we say about God right! We have worked hard for hundreds of years, and spilt much blood, sweat, and tears, fighting for that “precise and sharp” theology, “honed” to reflect the truth, because we know that when we get it wrong, bad things can happen.
In case you’re wondering where we are in our Corinthians study, we haven’t left the passage we did last week – 2:9-12. If you remember, I said that God’s plan is a “revealed” one. Paul said to the Corinthians,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him – these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit.”
I’m still stuck on that word, “revealed”. That’s a critically important word and one I don’t want us to miss.
I’ve had a few conversations recently about why good theology is so important.
Some have talked about how divided Christians are and wondered if we really needed to split up over these issues.
- Others have asked about Catholics and Evangelicals, wondering if their Roman Catholic friends and relatives are part of the Christian family, and whether they need to evangelize them or not.
- Others have mentioned how meaningful they have found certain teachers, how much they’ve touched their lives, and wondered if them being different in a few areas is such a big deal.
- As a leadership team, we’ve had discussions about the theological direction of our own denomination and the liberalization of the churches within it, and wondered what we should do.
- We’ve talked same-sex marriage, race issues, Hollywood films, fallen celebrity pastors, the charismatic movement, the pope, women pastors, natural disasters, and more…
Each of these issues has deeply theological implications. And to even begin talking about them as Christians, we have to ask the same basic question: What does God say about this? What has God revealed about this? That’s what theology really is: it simply means to “Study God”. Biology is the study of living organisms. Archaeology is the study of ancient cultures. Bacteriology is the study of bacteria. Theology, is the study of THEOS, which is the Greek word for God.
When we are doing theology, we are studying God. It is our attempt to understand who God really is and what He wants. Yes, we will ultimately fall short, since our human capacities cannot possibly explain an infinite God, but it’s still our responsibility and privilege to try. He has given us His Word and access to the Holy Spirit and that is more than enough to understand everything He wants us to know about Himself and what He wants from us. We don’t have to make things up.
I want to park on this word “revealed” for a moment because I think it’s so critical for us to get this concept deep into our minds. Too often, when it comes to our thoughts about God, the church, human relationships, politics, religion, or any number of other things humans argue about, we tend to trust our feelings and our ability to comprehend the situation. Last week I warned about the dangers of pursuing human wisdom and trusting our own feelings, and I’m sort of continuing that thought, but adding that when we are confronted with this, we need to pursue what God has revealed.
Last week I emphasized the importance of humbling ourselves before God, getting on our knees, and allowing God to reveal His truth to us. This week, I want to reemphasize how important it is to realize that we don’t have the right to think whatever we want about God, and assume it’s right. In other words, we don’t get to make up our own ideas about what God is like, how His plan of salvation works, how His church operates, or how we relate to Him and His creation. Instead, as Christians, we come under the Lordship of Christ, and allow Him to reorient our thinking to His revealed truth.
Allow me to drive home this idea with some scriptures:
We’ve already seen in 1st Corinthians that God’s plan for our lives can’t be figured out without Him. (1 Cor 2:10, Eph 3:5), but I also want you to see that when Jesus talks about who can know God, He says in Luke 10:22,
“…no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
We require Jesus to intervene before we can know God.
When Paul talks about the core of the Gospel in in Romans 1:16-18, he says,
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”
We can’t know the righteousness of God or the wrath of God or the salvation that God offers (which is really the whole message of the Bible) unless God reveals it to us. We can’t understand what He expects of us, or what condemns us, or how to become free from condemnation unless He tells us first – through our conscience and the scriptures. Our sin causes us to suppress the truth, even when we are presented with it.
That’s why this is such a big deal. We’re dealing with massively important things here, and we want to get it right.
RC Sproul wrote a book a while back which was cleverly called, “Everyone’s a Theologian”. His point was that everyone has some ideas about God. Everyone has put some thought into it. C.S. Lewis put it this way,
“If you do not listen to theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones.”
Remember that JI Packer quote? It said: “Evangelical theology is precise and sharp, honed as a result of centuries of controversy reflecting the conviction that where truth fails, life will fail, too.” God is the giver of life and truth. Sin leads to death and Satan is the father of lies. We work hard as Christians to study what God has said about things because when we get it wrong, when “truth fails”, when we teach “wrong ideas”, we point people towards death. That may sound like I’m exaggerating, but I’m really not!
Examples of Dangerous Theology
I said before that I take great comfort in good theology, and that bad theology causes people harm – and worse than that, it dishonours God.
Let me give you a couple examples:
I’ll start with my funeral example. I heard a preacher say once, “I’ve never been to a funeral where the person in the casket went to hell.” What he meant was that it is really hard as a pastor to stand in front of a group of people at a funeral and know that the person in the casket had no discernable faith, showed no repentance, and gave no testimony of being a believer, and is likely in hell now. It’s tempting to avoid the subject of eternity, or even try to whitewash the situation by implying that maybe they were saved, or outright stating that God lets everyone into heaven because He’s so loving, or because as a religious official you have the power to save them by saying the right holy words.
But is that really the most comforting? It’s not what God says, not what scripture declares, and God is very serious about not being a false teacher, and the danger that comes to those who listen to them. Is it better for everyone in the room to believe God saves everyone no matter what? Is it more comforting for a victim to walk away believing that there is no such thing as divine justice – that wrong will never be punished? Is it kind to lie to someone about their eternal destination, and have them live their lives thinking their beliefs and actions don’t matter? Is it better to make everyone in the room put off the question, “What will happen to me after I die?”? I don’t think so.
In the 15th century, the Reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and William Tyndale worked against centuries of bad theology that had crept into the Catholic church as it got more political and corrupt.
- They had lost the understanding of how God saves people.
- They presented God’s grace as something that could be bought for money, or had to be earned through rituals and rites.
- They added books to the Bible.
- They told people that they didn’t have the right or ability to read the Bible, even keeping their own priests in the dark about what they were saying.
- They told people to say their prayers to dead people instead of Jesus, and that they would be heard better if they also paid some money for their prayer.
- They said that Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t enough and that God wouldn’t forgive them until they did penance, or suffered for their sin.
- They invented a whole new state after death called “purgatory” where Christians would have to go to be purged and punished for their sins, for thousands of years, before they could go to heaven, because Jesus’ death wasn’t enough – unless they or their relatives gave money to the church.
- They even refused to give Communion to believers because they taught that the elements were too special for common folk to handle.
These beliefs haven’t gone away, and cause millions of people to be not only confused, but abused by the church, and terribly worried about the state of their soul, every day.
Is it more loving for an evangelical to sweep all this under the rug? Is it right to pretend that all none of this matters and allow people to continue to believe lies about God, salvation, grace, prayer, and the Bible? Would it honour God most for us to ignore it and try to get along? I don’t believe so.
One last example, though there are many more, this one is fresh. I recently watched a “prayer” that was given by “Methodist” “Pastor” at the Democratic National Convention.He asked everyone to join hands, and then with eyes open, gesturing to the crowd the whole time, he prayed a prayer so skillfully vague that you could almost interpret it however you wanted. However, when you listen with discernment, and realize his context, you can see that it could never be addressed to the God of the Bible.
He asked everyone to join hands, and then with eyes open, gesturing to the crowd the whole time, he prayed a prayer so skillfully vague that you could almost interpret it however you wanted. However, when you listen with discernment and realize his context, you can see that it could never be addressed to the God of the Bible.
There was no mention of Jesus, of course, but instead he prayed to “the god of many names”, at least implying that all religions pray to the same God – which isn’t true.
He spoke of how he wanted God to allow love to overcome fear so we can work together with people “no matter their race, creed, sexual orientation, or colour”. He prayed that God might help humanity “end discrimination in all its forms.” which could be a prayer against racism and prejudice, but does he really think God wants people to stop discriminating altogether? To discriminate simply means to know the difference between good and bad, right and wrong. Was he asking God to get rid of all forms right and wrong?
In the worst part of his “prayer”, he claimed that God’s prophets and teachers taught us to build bridges to other faiths and not demonize them. And yet, all through scripture we are taught that there is One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism and One God and Father of all (Ephesians 4:5), and that it is the work of Satan and the demons to try to draw people away from that one faith (1 Tim 4). We are told that there are false teachers and demonic spirits in the world that will tell lies and lead people astray, and that we are to be discerning as to who we listen to (1 John 4:1). Jesus condemns false religious as dangerous, worthless, and a rejection of God (Mark 7:7-9), and warns that there will be many false Christ’s and false prophets that will lead people astray (Mark 13:22-23). In 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 we are told that those who present themselves as false apostles and prophets are literally serving Satan.
We are warned specifically not to tear down the walls that divide us from those who teach false things, who promote bad theology, or who worship God’s enemy! Now, we aren’t to take up the sword and harm people who don’t believe like us, but are to love them as much as we can – just as Jesus did – but we are certainly not to put aside our beliefs and join them.
In 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 we are commanded explicitly:
“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.’”
Let’s conclude with this: the whole point of this message is that God is very, very clear that He doesn’t want us messing around with what He says about Himself, or His Son, His Spirit, His Word, His Worship, His People, or anything else He’s revealed. He calls us out from the world to be His people, revealing to us a portion of Himself, and then fills us with the desire to know Him better.
But there are voices all around us, and within us, that tempt us towards taking an easier, more politically correct, more socially acceptable, more personally understandable, view of God. They tempt us to compromise and change what God has said so that faith is easier. They tempt us to alter God’s truth in an attempt to bring people unity and comfort. But it doesn’t.
Listen to the words of Galatians 1:6-10. Paul says to this church,
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
Who are we trying to please when we bend theological truths, ignore what God has said, and try to comfort people with falsehoods and misinformation? We’re trying to please man, which means we are not serving Christ.
In 2 Corinthians 5:20 it says,
“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.”
Ambassadors aren’t allowed to change the message! If God is “making His appeal through us”, then we had better get the message right! And to get the message right means that we need to realize and accept that sometimes what our hearts tell us is simply wrong. Sometimes what we think is right and best isn’t how it’s supposed to go. It means humbling ourselves before God and allowing Him to tell us how things go. It means admitting that sometimes we don’t know what we’re talking about and that we let our emotions and prejudices get in the way.
- How does He want to be worshiped?
- How does He want to be talked about?
- How did He design the church?
- What does He want us to do and not want us to do?
- How does He want us confront sin or comfort people?
God’s truth is a revealed truth. God is a God who reveals Himself. There is great comfort in good theology, and so I invite you to humble yourself and allow God’s Word and God’s Spirit to shape your thinking, instead of allowing the feelings within you and the voices around you to do it.
 A Godward Life Volume Two, pg. 377
 Keep in Step with The Spirit, pg. 173
Listener Questions (Omnipotence, Calvinism, Nudity, Backsliders & More) (Carnivore Theology: Ep. 60)
The guys wander into the mail-room and answer some listener questions:
– Can God create a rock so large he can’t lift it?
– Is Carnivore Theology overrun by Calvinists?
– What does the Bible say about nudity?
– How can a Christian remain calm while watching fellow believers slip deeper into the world?
– Grace or love?
Behind the Scenes Video:
How Can You Help Carnivore Theology?
1. Pray for us!
4. Share www.CarnivoreTheology.com with your friends. Sharing is caring!
5. Give financially: If you’d like to help us with our productiong costs, send us a financial gift through PayPal by clicking here. (We are not a registered charity, so you won’t get a tax receipt — but you will have the good feelings that come with helping out a friend!)
We talk with Tim Whitehead, the Executive Director of Galcom International (YouTube Link), a ministry that uses radio technology to communicate the Gospel message to people all around the world. They’ve installed over 120 Christian radio stations and distributed almost a million solar radios in 126 countries, helping local pastors spread the message of Jesus Christ to people all around there area. He has some amazing stories to share!
Behind the Scenes Video:
How Can You Help Carnivore Theology?
1. Ask us a question in your voice on our SpeakPipe page!
3. Share www.CarnivoreTheology.com with your friends. Sharing is caring!
4. Give financially: If you’d like to help us with our productiong costs, send us a financial gift through PayPal by clicking here. (We are not a registered charity, so you won’t get a tax receipt — but you will have the good feelings that come with helping out a friend!)
Every Christian wants to attend a “good church”, but we all seem to have different ideas of what a “good church” looks like. The guys take on this question and give a biblical perspective.
Behind the Scenes Video:
How Can You Help Carnivore Theology?
1. Ask us a question in your voice on our SpeakPipe page!
3. Share www.CarnivoreTheology.com with your friends. Sharing is caring!
4. Give financially: If you’d like to help us with our productiong costs, send us a financial gift through PayPal by clicking here. (We are not a registered charity, so you won’t get a tax receipt — but you will have the good feelings that come with helping out a friend!)
JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a worldwide, cultural phenomenon, beloved by many and hated by some. Christians can’t seem to agree on whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Carnivore Theology takes on the question: “Is Harry Potter Good or Evil?”
Behind the Scenes Video:
How Can You Help Carnivore Theology?
1. Ask us a question in your voice on our SpeakPipe page!
3. Share www.CarnivoreTheology.com with your friends. Sharing is caring!
4. Give financially: If you’d like to help us with our productiong costs, send us a financial gift through PayPal by clicking here. (We are not a registered charity, so you won’t get a tax receipt — but you will have the good feelings that come with helping out a friend!)
Our Hills Of Difficulty
I’ve been reading through The Pilgrim’s Progress – again – (a book I highly recommend) and was reminded how often the Christian life is described as a journey.
The Pilgrim’s Progress (click for a free copy!) is the story of Christian’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. To go from one to the other requires walking a long, strait, narrow road. All a pilgrim need do is walk straight. Simply don’t turn. But just because they are walking straight doesn’t mean they won’t come across problems.
In fact, that’s kind of the whole point of the book – the journey of the Christian life isn’t an easy one. Our faithfulness to walking the straight and narrow doesn’t deliver us from the problems of life – as the prosperity gospel preachers will tell you – but instead, a faithful Christian walk will often lead us to difficult places.
Yes, Christian saw some wonderful things, like the Interpreters House, the Cross at Calvary, the Palace Beautiful, the Restful Arbour, The Pleasant Meadow, The Delectable Mountains, and the Enchanted Grounds, and eventually the Celestial City — but to get there Christian’s path lead straight through places like the Slough of Despond, the Valley of Humiliation and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. He had to pass through Vanity Fair where he was arrested and his friend Faithful was killed. He went up the Hill of Lucre (or Dishonest Gain) and swam the Black River of Death. And all the way along he came across person after person who tried to tempt him to turn aside from the straight and narrow.
Near the beginning of his journey, Christian came to the Hill of Difficulty, placed there by The Lord as a test for the pilgrims. At the bottom was two roads that looked to go around the Hill of Difficulty, but the pilgrim was meant to stay on the straight road. So, the question was, would Christian turn away from the straight road to avoid difficulty, or would He trust the Lord of the Hill?
This is the motivation behind our Burning Questions series today. Over the past few weeks I’ve given the opportunity for everyone to submit personal and pressing questions that they want scriptural answers to. If you’ve been an Christian for any length of time then you know that along our journey we are inevitably going to come across tough times. Each person’s “Hill of Difficulty” is going to be a little different, and the temptation is always to avoid walking through that difficulty and try to circumvent it somehow.
These difficult times can be temptations, a great loss, something that we bring on ourselves, or something that just comes out of nowhere. But sometimes, as is the theme of this series, the difficulty is with an aspect of God, Theology, Church life, or the Christian walk that we just can’t understand or get past.
We, as a Church, are meant to walk together during those difficult times of temptation, loss, struggle and persecution – but we are also meant to share our theological struggles as well. It should be ok for us to say to one another, “I’m struggling with my faith today.” Or “I don’t understand this thing about God.” Or “My heart is getting bitter towards God because He allowed something to happen.” Or “I worry about my soul sometimes because I’m not sure if I’m saved.” Whatever the difficulty is, we are meant to walk together and seek to learn what God has said about such things so we can encourage one another.
I think of what Paul said to young Timothy about how he was to lead and encourage his church:
“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Tim 4:16)
We need to watch both – our life, as in our deeds and decision, and our doctrine, what we believe about God – because both are involved in our salvation and Christian walk. Paul said to the Colossians:
“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” (Col 3:16)
He reminded the congregation that they need to make sure that they are talking, singing, and encouraging each other with the “message of Christ”. To have it “dwell among them richly” means to have it be part of their everyday speech, to have it become part of their life. That way they don’t forget God’s love, are easily led astray, and can encourage others.
But the problem is that sometimes we get stuck. We hit a concept, a piece of theology, a bible verse, an activity, a temptation, a decision, a part of our life, that we just can’t get around. We hit the foot of the Hill of Difficulty and we are tempted to either quit and go back to the City of Destruction, or try to go around the Hill and ignore the problem – which solves nothing, because it nags at us and chips away at our faith.
My hope is that by answering some of these questions we can help one another press on past that hurdle, past that Hill, so we can move forward in faith together.
I received some really good questions that covered everything from how to live as Christians in a sinful world, to the doctrines of death, salvation and hell, to what makes a good church. But the question I want to answer today was one that really stuck out to me. It said this: “If God wore a superhero suit, what would it look like?”
Maybe that sounds like a strange question, but I loved it and want to take a look at it today – though, perhaps, not exactly in the way that the question-asker intended. It could be a fun mental exercise to try to pin down what God’s greatest attribute would be, and therefore what the crest on his super-suit would look like.
Would it be a heart because God is Love (1 John 4:16)? Would it be a dove because God is Spirit (John 4:24)? Would it be a Triquetra because He is triune (Matt 28:19)? Would it be a globe because He’s the Almighty Creator (John 1:3, Psalm 24)?
I think it’s a great question, but let me go at it from another angle.
The truth is that God has revealed Himself a lot of different ways. We see God manifest, or become apparent, quite a lot in the Bible. He came as a group of three people to Abraham in Gen 18. He came as an Angel to Hagar, Jacob, Moses, and Joshua. God walked in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, and when they sinned, they heard His footsteps – that implies He at least had feet. Later, God became a man who actually wrestled with the patriarch Jacob.
Some people call these Christophanies because they see it as Jesus coming to earth before He was born of Mary. Why do we think this was God or Jesus? Well, the big reason is that He accepts worship.
In Joshua 5:14-15 God says,
“‘I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come.’ And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, ‘What does my lord say to his servant?’ And the commander of the LORD’s army said to Joshua, ‘Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so.”
God is very clear that we are to worship Him alone, so let’s contrast that with Revelation 19:10 where the Apostle John falls down before an angel. It says,
“Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, ‘You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God.’”
But these Theophanies aren’t just God showing up as a man – more often God reveals Himself using forces from nature, teaching us about His power and His glory. He led the Israelites away from Egypt as a pillar of Cloud and Fire. When God came to Sinai the people heard thunder, saw lightning, smoke, fire and the sound of a trumpet.
Sometimes God’s presence was simply a blinding light – the Shekinah Glory of God – seen by Moses, Elijah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah. This was a light so dangerous that if humans saw it they would die – and so we read about the light being covered for people’s protection. Sometimes by clouds (Exo 24) or even by God’s hand as Moses was in the cleft of the rock waiting to see God’s back. We see a lot of these types of descriptions again in the New Testament, especially in the book of Revelation.
All of these Theophanies were meant to assure people of God’s presence with them, inspire a sense of awe and majesty, fear and reverence. It’s often associated with a divine revelation – God is about to say or do something, and so He shows up as fire, wind, lightning, or light to show people that they better listen because God is talking.
Jesus – God’s Greatest Revelation of Himself
Let’s go back to the question for a minute: “If God wore a superhero suit, what would it look like?”. Why do superheroes wear suits? A few reasons.
First, to conceal their true identity – Superman didn’t want to be Superman all the time, so he lived as Clark Kent. Matt Murdock didn’t want to be DareDevil all the time, so he pretended to be a blind lawyer named Matt Murdock. Batman was Bruce Wayne. concealing identity is one of the main reasons why superheroes have a suit.
Second, I think, is so they can show people what they’re all about just by looking at them. Thor is clearly a powerful demi-god that uses a hammer to smash bad guys. Spiderman is covered in webs. Batman wants people to be scared so he dresses as a bat. The flash has a lightning bolt. Captain America wears the American flag. Captain Canuck wears a better flag! All of these suits give a visual message of what the hero is all about before they say or do anything.
Now, God isn’t about concealing His identity – though obviously because He’s God we’ll never figure out the whole picture – He’s all about revealing Himself and His plan to us so we can know Him, love Him and fear Him. And God’s greatest, most personal, and most instructive revelation of Himself was when He came as the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ.
Puritan Theologian Thomas Goodwin said it this way:
“More of God’s Glory shall instantly shine forth in… the Man Christ Jesus, having the God-head dwelling in Him personally, than by making Millions of worlds… furnished with Glories.”
Another Puritan Theolgoian named John Owen said simply:
“The Glory of God is seen in the Face of Jesus Christ.”
That’s where I want to park for the rest of our time here, because that’s the best answer to the question. If God wanted to put on a super-suit, it would look like Jesus? Because Jesus is the perfect, yet mysterious, manifestation of God.
In 1 Timothy 3:16 (NIV) Paul admits that though He knows the Bible inside and out, has met Jesus personally, and understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ more than anyone, parts of it are still a mystery to Him because it’s so big. He says,
“Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great: He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.”
Confusion About Jesus
This was the biggest, most consequential, most important event in Human history – and therefore it has created a lot of excitement, controversy and confusion about it. Even when Jesus was on earth, walking among them, people didn’t quite understand what they were looking at. It’s one thing to see a pillar of fire shooting out of the Tabernacle of God, or a blinding light accompanied by peals of thunder – but the way Jesus came was so different.
He came as a person – a human. Yes, we just said that He did it a bunch of times in the Old Testament, but the coming of Jesus was different. It wasn’t a one shot, super rare, special revelation thing. He came as a baby, born to a human woman, had a family and friends, grew up to adulthood, and stayed for over thirty years. Unprecedented before or since. And it’s created a lot of confusion and a lot of debate.
Since the first century the church has been discussing the nature of Jesus, fighting heresy and writing creeds to answer the question: Who is Jesus?
Jesus was a study in contrasts and seeming contradictions. To get an idea of this, let’s read the first chapter of the Gospel of John:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
That’s John’s brief explanation of who Jesus was before He came as a human. He was with God, was God, created all things, and is the light of the world. Those are all divine terms. This is a special description of Jesus, written to make us think back to the book of Genesis, the very beginning, the “in the beginning” part, so that we understand that the story we are about to read about Jesus didn’t start in Bethlehem or Nazareth, or with John the Baptist – but way, way before. Keep reading.
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Next we see John address the confusion and controversy that Jesus created. He’s the Creator God coming into the world. Yet, He would be rejected. He came to serve and save, but He was murdered instead. He offered salvation, but not everyone would accept it. Keep reading, because this part is really important:
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. ”
That last line there super critical, so let’s read it again: “No one has ever seen God” meaning that no one has ever seen God and lived, and also that no one can fully understand Him.
“…the only God”, which could also be translated “the only One, who is God”…. “who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” Who is the only one, who is God, but is also at the Father’s side? If there is only one God, then how can God be at God’s side? That’s the whole point.
Jesus is the One who is God, who is with God, who is the Creator, is the Light, is at God’s side in the Trinity, and He is the one who makes God known. Jesus is the best revelation of God, and the best teacher of who God is – because He’s actually seen – and actually is, God!
That’s the big mystery that people can’t wrap their brains around, and that which spawned so many false theories and heresies about Jesus. It’s all there, but as Paul said, “Beyond all question, the mystery… is great…”
Contrasts of Jesus
Jesus was God, but as He walked the earth, He presented Himself in a very non-fantastic way. Isaiah 53 says:
“He had no beauty or majesty that we would be attracted to Him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire Him.”
When the Pharisees were confronting Jesus, they called Him every name in the book (John 8) – even calling him an illegitimate child, too young to teach, and a friend of sinners, and accused Him of working with Satan.
Instead of seeking worshippers and demonstrating His power, Jesus would escape to lonely places, refused public appearance and told people to keep His miracles a secret. He spoke in parables that could be misinterpreted. He wasn’t even from a decent town. When the Apostle Nathanael was first told about Jesus, his brother said, “We found the Messiah, His name is Jesus and He’s from Nazareth!” And Nathanael’s response was, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46)
The One who Created the universe and stood at God’s side allowed Himself to stand trial before a corrupt human courts, didn’t say a word when accused, was mocked, flogged, insulted, and then died alongside traitors.
But at the same time, Jesus commanded demons to go wherever He wanted them to, and they were terrified of Him. Jesus said that He is the One who fulfills all the scriptures, who wrote the Law of Moses and has the right to interpret it, who was with God before time, who will divide saved and unsaved, who can forgive sin, accept worship, prepare a place for us in Heaven and intercede for us before God. Jesus goes so far as to use God’s name as His own – John 8:58, “Truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM!” When they came to arrest Him in the Garden of Gethsemane, He said it again, “I AM He” and they drew back and fell to the ground.
People have a hard time with reconciling those things. They wrack their brains to come up with some kind of excuse why the Glorious One, the God of the Angel Armies, the Fairest of Ten Thousand, would condescend so radically and suffer so much. And their solution is to deny His true nature. They can’t wrap their heads around it.
To come back to our question, they won’t accept the super-suit that God choses to present Himself in. They reject it because they don’t understand it. So they fashion one of their own and try to cram Jesus into it. But it never fits what Jesus has revealed about Himself.
The HYPOSTATIC UNION
Theologians call this “The Hypostatic Union”. The word Hypostatic comes from the Greek word HUPOSTASIS which simply means “Nature”—the united nature of Jesus. It is most clearly used in Hebrews 1:3 where it says Jesus “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
Jesus has two natures, human and divine, inseparable and never in conflict. He is forever the God-man, two distinct natures in one person. Some confusion comes because there were times where we see that He limited Himself (or condescended) by getting tired, thirsty, and had to learn things as He grew up, obeyed human authority, was born and died. But then at other times He showed the power of His deity by raising the dead, reading people’s thoughts, or turning a kid’s lunch into a banquet for thousands. He always had access to His complete power – but He didn’t always use it.
Theologians have marveled at this forever. How can God be Triune? How can Jesus be both God and man? How can a person who is equal with God also be the “son of God” “conceived by the holy spirit” and born as a baby? The doctrine of the hypostatic union is an attempt to explain what is written in scripture, but is difficult to understand.
Basically, our understanding is that in His coming as a human, Jesus didn’t subtract from His divinity, but added something to Himself – He added humanity. One might think that Jesus subtracted from Himself when He came to earth, but that’s not quite the right way to see it. Jesus didn’t strip off His divinity; He added flesh.
Remember reading the first chapter of John where it said, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”? That term “dwelt” is a really neat word. It’s the word for “spreading the tent”, which is a picture of the Tabernacle in the Old Testament. Jesus became flesh and spread his tent, or went camping, or tabernacled, among us. His flesh was His tent. When you get into a tent you don’t cease to be who you are – you’re just in a tent. Jesus made His tent with us.
Back in the Old Testament, the God of the Israelites, after they escaped from Egypt, were commanded by God to create a really big tent where He would come and meet with them. It would be at the centre of the camp where the king would normally live. God would be their King and would have the big tent.
Jesus came as our king and instead of having a big tent, He put on flesh. God wasn’t less God when He was meeting with Moses, appearing as a cloud or fire, or having His presence rest on the Tabernacle. Showing Himself in a special way didn’t subtract from His Godhood. No, God merely added to himself some light, some cloud, some sound, some physical presence – so that we could see and interact with Him.
Think of it the way that we play with our children. I don’t use my full strength when I’m wrestling with Eowyn – maybe with Ethan, but not with Eowyn. I hold back. That doesn’t mean I don’t have access to it – it means I don’t use it. Or when I try to explain something to my kids, I don’t speak to each of them using the same language or amount of information. I don’t lie to them, and leaving out some details isn’t wrong. I’m just giving them information appropriate to their ages and maturity level. God does the same for us.
Or think of it as the Queen of England taking off her crown and going for a wander around London in one of her fancy hats. She’s no less the Queen when she’s not wearing her crown. Just because Jesus wasn’t making people drop dead because of His glory everywhere He went, doesn’t mean He wasn’t just as glorious – He added the flesh tent so that we could be in His presence the way He added the cloud or the smoke in the Old Testament.
Or another way. Think of when we make a phone call, facetime or skype a friend. We are not any less of ourselves because we can only interact by voice, or be seen as a head on a screen. They didn’t remove their head and send it to you… they simply used a contrivance in order to communicate with you. That’s what God does, and what He did in Christ.
The Gospel Implications
These truths certainly have implications for the Gospel and our salvation.
Jesus added a contrivance, a thing, a form to Himself, so that He could be with us, teach us, and be one of us. That way we would know that He can identify with us in our struggles (Heb 2:17; 4:15). But even more, He added flesh to Himself so that, as a human, He could pay the debt of human sin.
Only a human could die for another human, so Jesus chose to put humanity on Himself and lived as one of us so He could take the penalty that was leveled against us. He was the One and only human who never sinned, and therefore never deserved death – which means He’s the only one with the qualifications to trade or exchange His death for someone else’s. He didn’t have a penalty to pay, which made it possible for him to pay someone else’s.
I can only die for my sin, but Jesus can die for anyone’s sin because He has none. He can pay the penalty because He doesn’t owe anything. So God poured all of His righteous wrath against sin on Jesus – because Jesus wanted Him to. He wanted to die for us. And God chose to accept Jesus’ death on our behalf, finishing the work of salvation, making us right with God.
Jesus died in the place of any human being who would turn from their sin, accept Jesus’ gift of dying on the cross for them, and making Him Lord of their lives.
That’s why understanding the nature of Jesus is such a big deal. If Jesus wasn’t both God and Man, the gospel falls apart, and the testimony of scripture is wrong. So let’s work hard to understand this and put our faith in Jesus Christ, the God/Man who became flesh and dwelt among us so we might be saved through Him.
Last week we said that there were two main sins that the false teachers were leading the churches that Jude was writing to towards.The first was them teaching wrong things about who Jesus is and what He did. Theologians call this: Christology — the study of Christ. The second problem was that the false teachers were “perverting the grace of God into sensuality.” (vs 4) — in other words, they were teaching that since God forgives sin then Christians can sin without restraint! They could sin — and even should sin more — because it makes God’s forgiving grace look even better.
So the two areas that are being attacked in the church was their theology and their morality. Or — what they believe and how they live. How they think and how they act. I’m not sure there are two more important issues that people, especially Christians, have to get right than their theology and their morality!
There are a lot of important issues that we can talk about in the church — things like worship style, local and global missions, what kind of ministries we have, whether we do small groups or not, what to do during Sunday School, how important membership is, technological advances, how to deal with church discipline, divorce, alcohol, smoking… and, I’m sure, a million others. Churches have split over these issues, so obviously they are important in some regard. But, really, the two most important things we need to get right in our church is to be biblical in our theology and our morality. What we believe about God and the impact those beliefs have on our life.
And Jude (among other places in scripture) have some pretty strong things to say about Christians and churches that don’t their their theology and morality seriously.
The State of Evangelicalism in Canada
This is important to us today since we definitely live in an age where theology and morality have been sidelined — in the general culture, and even in the church. I’ve already given examples of Atheist Pastors and Popular False Teachers, so I’m not going to rehash that, but I did want to give you a quick example of what I mean about people who don’t care about biblical theology or biblical morality.
Just this May, a market research group called the Angus Reid Institute released a study where they looked at the theological and moral beliefs of Canadians who call themselves evangelical Christians. I’m not sure how they defined that, but let’s go with it anyway. Here’s a few stats from their report:
- 46% of Canadian evangelicals “disapprove of and do not accept” same-sex marriage. That leaves 54% that do accept it. (By contrast, 84% of all Canadians approve of same-sex marriage.)
- 54% of Canadian evangelicals “disapprove of and do not accept” a woman being able to obtain a legal abortion for any reason. So that means 46%, almost half, of evangelical Christians think there are good reasons to kill babies. (Compare that with the 81% of all Canadians who support abortion.)
- 38% of Canadian evangelicals believe we need to worry about our own country most and let the rest of the world take care of itself. So almost 2 out of 5 people who call themselves Christians would do away with global missions.
- When it comes to “religious people” — whatever that means:
- 18% of “approve and accept” people under 18 years old having sex.
- 40% of people who embrace religion agree that right and wrong is a matter of personal opinion.
- And 10% of religious people think that the growth of atheism is a good thing.
Theology and Morality is being thrown out the windows of evangelical churches. Instead of standing up for truth (or as Jude says, “contending for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints”), or as Jesus said, being “salt” and “light” in this dark world, Christians are becoming more and more like the secular world around us.
I was given a stark reminder of how worldly our churches have become as I read about the Ashley Madison leaks this week. If you haven’t heard about this, there is a site online that’s whole purpose is to connect married people who want to commit adultery. Their slogan is “Life is short. Have an affair.”
A while back their computers were hacked and just recently the hackers released a huge list of names of the people that were registered. Right now Calgary and Ottawa are fighting for top spot for most people registered in their respective cities. At one point it was reported that 20%, or 1 in 5, people in Ottawa were registered with the adultery site. That’s incredible.
My first reaction to this news was pretty callous. I though, “Good, let the philandering adulterers get publicly shamed.” I confess that wasn’t a very loving attitude. Jesus didn’t look at adulterers with judgement and anger, but with compassion. Compassion because of how many people are hurt when sexual sin is involved.
One result of this website’s user data being released has been that a whole bunch of church leaders, 400 in fact, were outed as people who committed (or wanted to commit) adultery, and will likely be resigning from their positions this week. This is going to have a heartbreaking effect on a lot of people, and ripple out a long ways. Plus, it gives the people who hate Christians yet another reason to call us hypocrites. Worse than that is that I also read that not only are people getting disqualified from ministry and divorced, but some may have even committed suicide.
This is why our view of theology and morality matters so much. Yes, sin will always be with us, and fools and failures will always happen, but you can’t tell me that if these people had a right view of God’s justice and mercy, and were seeking to live by His moral standards, that this would have happened.
We need to get these things right in our personal lives and our church. We need to talk about this all the time. We need to make sure that we study and live out biblical theology and biblical morality. Not only because we don’t want to bring shame to the name of Jesus, but because it protects our souls from harm! It’s a matter of self preservation.
Look again at verse 3. Jude says we need to “contend for the faith”. Other translations say: “defend the faith”, “continue your vigorous defence of the faith”, “compete for the faith”, “fight for the christian faith”, “persevere in the faith”, “agonize for the faith”.
Which faith? He says “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” The biblical, ancient, right and true faith that was given to us by the apostles and prophets chosen by God to deliver His message to us.
Men and women of the faith have been fighting this battle for centuries… millennia… and Jude urges us to pick up their sword and mantle and continue the fight. Sadly, most Christians aren’t.
Why Should I?
“Why should I?”, some of us ask. “I’m no theologian, I’m no judge, why should I take up the sword and mantle? It’s not my fight. It’s a battle between egg-heads who like to fight over bible words and crazy people who picket and petition on street corners. I’m not either of those.”
Let’s take a look at a big reason that Jude gives for why we all need to be involved in “contending for the faith”.
God Will Judge People Who Spread Falsehood
Look at verses 5-7 and see the biggest reason why — and it’s not warm and fuzzy: God is going to judge, condemn and punish — quite severely — those who believe, teach and spread falsehood about Him. If we really love people, then we need to warn them about the coming wrath against people who get theology and morality wrong.
“Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day—just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.”
Jude reminds his readers that Jesus isn’t just a great teacher that we can listen to some things and forget others, but is in fact, the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, eternal in His divine nature, and active in the world since the very beginning. Jude reminds them that what we believe about Jesus and God — our Christology and Theology — isn’t something that we come up with, but has been given to us in scripture. We don’t get to come up with our own ideas about God and Jesus, but must study what God has revealed about Himself.
I know this annoys people today, but it’s the truth. Making up a god of your own creation does you no benefit in this life or the next. It is for us to discover our Creator, not for us to invent one.
Jude’s warning gets more serious when reminds them that the same people Jesus saved out of Egypt were destroyed before they ever got to the Promised Land. Why? Because they failed to trust God, take Him at His word, they lost their faith, they forgot their theology, they forgot their morality — Jude says they “did not believe”. Just because they were out of Egypt gave them no right to stop obeying and trusting God. Just as believing in Jesus and going to church doesn’t mean we don’t have keep contending for our faith.
Jude’s next reminder is about “the angels”. Jude reminds them that even though angels were a special creation of God, they too lost their faith and rebelled against God’s authority. They were sent out of His presence and condemned to hell.
Next Jude lays down an example of the kind of power God wields against people who refuse to listen to Him. Sodom and Gomorrah were great cities with huge morality problems — especially condoning sexual sin. Jude reminds the readers that God wiped these people off the map — leaving only a smoking crater where these cities once stood. I read this week that during the first century a person could still see smoke rising from the site of where Sodom and Gomorrah once stood.
So Jude’s question is simple: Do you really want to spread lies, misinformation, and falsehood about this God? He destroyed the same Israelites He saved from Egypt because of their unbelief. He cursed the angels because of their unbelief. He utterly destroyed whole cities because they refused to welcome Him or live by His word. Jude says these stories of destruction “serve as an example” to us. Do you really want to be on the wrong side of this God? Better to get our theology and our morality right than mess with Him.
The examples continue throughout. In verse 11 we read, “Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion.”
People who teach and believe false theology and morality are walking the same way as Cain, who wanted to worship God on his own grounds, not by God’s command, and when his offering was rejected, he turned to murdering his faithful brother.
They rush into “Balaam’s error”. Balaam was a prophet who was willing to say whatever the enemy King Balak wanted him to, so he could get paid. Balak wanted Balaam to curse Israel, and it didn’t matter to Balaam what he said, because he was all about the money. He tried over and over to try to curse Israel, but God kept preventing him. Yet he stubbornly kept moving forward against God’s will. In the same way, people who don’t care about good theology and morality are usually more concerned with their money and comfort than God, others, or their own soul. They just stubbornly keep moving closer to judgement.
“Korrah’s rebellion” was against Moses. Korrah gathered 250 popular leaders to try to overthrow Moses and Aaron and change Israel’s worship practices. They didn’t care what God had said. They didn’t care that Moses was God’s man, that Aaron was His chosen priest. They wanted to do things their way, believe what they wanted to believe, come to God on their own terms. God’s response was to open up the earth and swallow up the men, their households and all their goods. And then, for good measure, God sent fire from the sky to consume them. (Num 16)
No Big Deal
Has Jude made the point clear about how serious God is about our theology and morality? So I ask you, do you take what you believe seriously enough?
Sometimes we think that the God of the Old Testament was mean and spiteful, but the God of the New Testament is friendly and loving. They are the same God. Jesus is the one who delivered the Israelites from slavery to Egypt, Jesus is the one who died on the cross to save us from slavery to sin and Satan. The God who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah is the same One who inspired David to write Psalm 23 and Paul to write 1 Corinthians 13.
God is very patient, and willing to let a lot go, but not forever. Judgement will come upon all, and I want to make sure I’m on the right side of Him when He comes. Therefore I study, pray and seek to live a moral life under Him. Could I do better? Certainly, but that’s the point — I want to do better and know more about Him. What about you? How seriously do you take your theology and morality?
This is no joke. God’s wrath is no joke.
Messed Up Numbers
In verse 17 we read Jude’s plea to the churches, and I want to read it in the International Children’s Bible so we all understand. It says:
“Dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ said before. They said to you, ‘In the last times there will be people who laugh about God. They will do only what they want to do—things that are against God.’ These are the people who divide you. They do only what their sinful selves want. They do not have the Spirit. But dear friends, use your most holy faith to build yourselves up strong. Pray with the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in God’s love. Wait for the Lord Jesus Christ with his mercy to give you life forever. Show mercy to people who have doubts. Save them. Take them out of the fire. Show mercy mixed with fear to others. Hate even their clothes which are dirty from sin.”
That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? I said at the beginning that there are a lot of things we can talk about at church, but there are two things that we have to get right: our theology and morality. That’s what he’s saying here too.
We shouldn’t be surprised that there are people who spread falsehood about God and Jesus and the Bible. Jesus warns us about that, as do the prophets and apostles. We shouldn’t be divided by them because we should be prepared enough to see them coming.
I’m passionate about this because of the reports I keep reading about how biblically illiterate North America is — and that’s incredibly dangerous. The Bible is how we learn about theology and morality — who God is, how we are saved by Jesus, and how we are to please Him. The Bible isn’t just God’s love-letter to us, it’s the message that tells us how we can avoid being judged as sinners and destroyed by fire. It’s the how-to so we can avoid Hell, so we better get it right! .
Just last year in the US people were asked how much they knew about the Bible. 81% said they felt pretty knowledgeable about the Bible — but:
- less than half could name the first 5 books
- half of them thought that John the Baptist was one of the twelve apostles.
- 22% said that Noah was married to Joan of Arc.
- 36% thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple.
In 2013 a Canadian study found that only 14% of Canadians read the bible at least once a month. The number was at 28% in 1998. Here’s the kicker: 67% of Canadians identify as Christians according to Stats Canada.
Those are some messed up numbers. How do you even know what a Christian is if you don’t read the Bible?
So Jude leaves us with some pretty clear things to do in order to combat false teaching and take our faith seriously. He says in verse 20 that [and I’m switching back to the ESV now]:
First: we need to “build ourselves up in our most holy faith”. The imagery of God building us up, and us building each other up, is all over scripture. We are seen as God’s temple, built on the foundation of Jesus Christ and His apostles, and are commanded to hold fast to the truth so that we are a good, strong place for God to reside. We need to stick to the strong foundation. This means we engage in personal bible study, corporate teaching, small groups, and exploration of what scripture says. Not just on Sundays, but everyday throughout the week.
Second: We need to “pray in the Holy Spirit”. I’m reading about prayer right now and know that I need to work on this too. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we speak in tongues or have some kind of charismatic prayer experience. What this means is that we are praying in harmony with what God the Holy Spirit wants us to pray about, rather than merely our own agenda. To get beyond the grocery list of topics on our mind, and discover what is on the mind of God. That’s where our faith will really grow.
Third: we need to “keep ourselves in God’s love”. In other words, this isn’t just about wanting to “flee the coming wrath” (Matt 3:7), but falling in love with the One who loves us. Romans 8:15, “…you received the Spirit of Sonship and by Him we cry ‘Abba, Father.’’. Beyond salvation is the knowledge of our adoption as the sons and daughters of God, and the love we have for our Father.
Jesus said in John 14, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments…. If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.” Keeping God’s word is “keeping ourselves in God’s love”. And we must know God’s word to keep it! If we don’t know God’s word, then how can we be living in it and loving Him as He has asked to be loved? To not be in God’s word is sin.
Fourth: we need to “save others by snatching them out of the fire”. When we come across a doubter who has been messed up by false teaching, let’s have mercy on them by telling them the truth and realizing we all believed lies at one point. When we see someone doomed to hellfire, we should have mercy on them by sharing the gospel.
And when we meet the false teacher, we should have mercy on them too, but also remember to fear God and give appropriate attention to the danger of speaking to that person. The word picture Jude uses of “hating even the garment stained by flesh” describes — and I’m not kidding here — soiled, poopy, underwear. His message is that we should show love because they are a human being made in the image of God, but treat everything around them the way we would treat a dirty diaper — hold our breath, keep it at arms length and toss it out.
Notice the action words in verses 20-23. “Building”, “praying”, “keeping”, “waiting”, “saving”. We are meant to be people of action, contending, fighting, for good, biblical theology and morality. Jesus is the only way, the truth the life. It is only by His name that we are saved. He has the words of eternal life. Let us not grow weary of doing the hard work of building, praying, keeping, waiting, saving and contending for our faith in Jesus Christ.
What can you do today, and this week, to build your faith and contend for the faith?
“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 1:24-25)
Same Truth, Different Problems
Today, again, for the third week in a row, we are going to be talking about the need for Christians to study, understand and fight for the truth. When I decided to preach the shortest books in the New Testament back to back, I didn’t realize how pervasive this theme would be during this series — though I probably should have considering it‘s a mega theme in scripture. It’s been interesting to see how, even at the beginning of the church, within only 30-40 years after Jesus left the Apostles, that false teachers had made their way into the church.
One would think that while the Apostles were alive that it would have been impossible to mess with the Gospel of Jesus, the understanding of how people are saved, who Jesus really is… all those big, important questions, and yet throughout their ministries the leaders in the church had to spend a lot of time teaching, contending, fighting and explaining the truth of Jesus to people. It’s not just today that people have a hard time understanding what the Bible says about Jesus. It’s not just today that people are making up things about Him. It’s not just today that false teachers are traveling from place to place, misusing the name of Jesus and promoting a false gospel so they can manipulate people for profit. Paul, Peter, James, Jude and the rest of the church leadership had to deal with this too.
Another thing that has been interesting are the differences we‘ve seen in these letters. They have similar themes, but important differences too. 2nd John warned us to watch out for the false teachers who aren’t part of our local body, but travel place to place spreading their poisonous teachings to many different churches. Then 3rd John warned us to watch out for the false teachers who rise to leadership positions local churches, but disqualify themselves by their ungodly lifestyles. And now, as we study the book of Jude, we see another warning. In today’s letter, Jude is going to talk about false teachers who are not public figures, not local leaders, but part of the congregation. Agents of Satan, who purposefully sneak into churches unnoticed so they can spread their toxic teaching from the shadows. Each one of these false teachers is deadly, but they all work in different ways.
Sickness and False Teachers
These different kinds of attacks on the truth remind me of different kinds of illnesses that attack our human body.
I see the travelling false teachers are kind of like having a fractured bone. Their presence isn’t as noticeable as a broken bone, but quite obvious for those who know what they’re looking for. The person limps around in pain, but can still hobble along. So they go to the doctor who sticks their foot in an x-ray machine to look inside and it’s pretty easy to see what’s wrong. They have a fractured bone.
It’s the same with these travelling false teachers. If we look a little more deeply at what they are saying, examine them using good tools, and they stick out pretty easy. It’s just that most people don’t bother to look too deeply, which is why they get away with it.
Having a corrupt local teacher or elder is more like getting cancer. It’s slow. It takes a while to grow big enough to become noticeable. It starts as a headache, a stomach ache, weight loss or fatigue. You say things like, “I think I’m getting the flu, or maybe I’m just tired, or maybe it’s my diet.” because you’re not totally sure what’s going on… but you know something’s not right. Eventually you get sick enough to go to the doctor and they start to do their tests. At first they can’t really figure it out, but after more and more searching, they come to the conclusion that, yep, things are really wrong with your body: it’s cancer.
A local false teacher is like that. They seem ok for a while after they take their position, but then things start to get weird. People are fighting more, divisions are happening between people that normally got along, volunteers are quitting, there’s more gossip floating around, meetings become more difficult, the elders deal with more and more distractions, and people start to leave. It’s hard to put your finger on it, because the symptoms are subtle, but you know something’s wrong.
By God’s grace that person finally sticks out, or someone with discernment comes in and points them out, but the trouble is the damage they’ve done at that point. A healthy church will do biblical church discipline and deal with the cancer, but sometimes churches don’t and the damage continues.
Now, the people Jude talks about, corrupting influence from within the congregation, are even more sneaky. Finding them is more like diagnosing Dementia or Migraines or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. You don’t know it’s happening, how long it will last, how to deal with it, what to take, what to blame, and no one seems to know how to fix it. It’s just there and it sucks.
That’s what these people are to the church. They sneak in, make friends, volunteer, show up, and seem like generally nice folks. They are so subtle in their destructive work that it’s almost unnoticeable. They don’t rise to positions of authority because that would mean having to go through a process that exposes their agenda. They just sit in the background, making the body sicker and sicker. Their presence becomes normal. The church isn’t healthy, but no one can put a finger on why.
The analogy breaks down because there is something we can do about it. The Bible gives some very clear instructions about making sure that we keep our eyes open for these kinds of people, that our spirits are soft towards the Holy Spirit, because, unlike the causes of a Migraine, these people can be found out and dealt with. That’s what we’re talking about today.
Let’s read Jude together:
“Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James, to those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ: May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you. Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day—just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.
Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones. But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.” But these people blaspheme all that they do not understand, and they are destroyed by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively. Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion. These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, 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.
It was also about these that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” These are grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires; they are loud-mouthed boasters, showing favoritism to gain advantage.
But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude ESV)
Who Was Jude?
The author of this letter identifies himself as Jude, another form of the Hebrew name Judah. Jude was another son of Mary and Joseph, and the brother of Jesus. He calls himself a “brother of James”, but a “servant of Jesus”, recognizing that his oldest brother wasn’t a special teacher, but was, in fact, the Son of God. This was a big step for him considering that at one point during Jesus’ earthly ministry His family considered Jesus to be crazy. Jude went from thinking His brother was crazy, to worshipping Him as Lord and Saviour, Creator of the universe. That’s a big step. He’s the “brother of James”, but the “servant”, or “bondservant” or “slave of Jesus Christ.”
That probably explains some of the passion we find in this letter. Jude had to work through a lot of things in his mind to get to that point, but once He did, He was rock solid. He helped those who believed in Jesus Christ to understand the truth about it, suffered under persecution for it, traveled for miles to plant churches dedicated to worshipping, serving and teaching about Jesus.
But now he’s getting reports back from some of these churches that they are no longer teaching the truth about Jesus. Their faith and practice are being contaminated in many ways. It’s theorized that Peter had read this letter from Jude when he wrote 2nd Peter because He deals with the same issues as Jude does — corrupting influences who have snuck into the church — which tells me that these guys were working hard against this wide-spread problem.
So who is Jude sending this letter to? This letter doesn’t have a specific address, but was meant to be circulated among the churches. It was like an e-mail that gets Ccd to the whole company. He wanted everyone to read this, because he had some extremely important things to say about these corrupting influences to everyone, because this problem is so widespread.
I find it very interesting that Jude writes this letter with language specifically for a church full of people who have a really good grasp of theology and the Bible. He is writing to people who now their stuff — and yet haven’t had the wisdom to be able to discover the people that are destroying them from within. I find that very ironic.
This was a church that knew their stuff. He used biblical and extra-biblical examples (meaning outside the canon of scripture), not even pausing to explain some of them because it would have been obvious. The church would either know the stories and the warnings right away, or they would have knowledgeable teachers who could explain it to everyone.
Look at verses 3-5. He seems disappointed and exasperated. It’s like he was saying, “C’mon you guys! You know this! I wanted to write to you a nice happy note about our shared salvation and how great it is to be saved by Jesus — but now I‘m worried that we don‘t even have that in common anymore. Now I have to write a totally different note urging you to turn back to the true Gospel!”
He feels this way because the core of the Gospel was being corrupted and there were two main problems. The first problem we can see in verses 3, 4 and 5. In verse 3 we read “Although I was very eager to right to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith…” In verse 4 we see that the “ungodly people“ are denying “our only Master and Lord Jesus Christ“. And in verse 5 we read, “Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people…”.
This church had forgotten something important about Jesus. Their Christology, their understanding of Jesus, who He was and how He saves us was getting messed up. That’s the first indictment against these guys, that they were messing with the story of salvation, telling people that there were either other ways to be saved, or that they needed to do more things than believe in Jesus to be saved.
But it wasn’t t not only that — as if that wasn’t bad enough — these sneaky snakes were causing another, big problem. This issue didn’t stop at beliefs, but affected people’s behaviour. What you believe about Jesus will invariably come out in your lifestyle. In verse 4 Jude says these people “pervert the grace of our God into sensuality.”
It’s going to take more than one week to address these two issues, so I just want to introduce them this week.
How to Corrupt a Church in Four Easy Steps
Once the story of salvation is messed up, it’s not that hard to convince people that they can lead whatever lifestyle they want. Once you can corrupt a person’s theology, you can corrupt their life. How? Look at verse 8. After laying down some serious warnings about what happens to people who deny Jesus as Saviour, Jude says,
“Yet, in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones.”
There’s your recipe for how to corrupt a church from the inside, and it’s what Jude is going to talk about for the whole letter. So to close today, I’m going to give you a step by step how-to for corrupting a church from the inside. Remember, we’re not talking about what’s coming from the pulpit, from the Sunday School teachers, the elders or the deacons. I’m talking about influences from people that attend the church, the congregation.
Step One: Get people to “rely on their dreams”.
Put differently, get people to put down their Bibles and start following subjective experiences instead. Get them to rely on personal visions, gut feelings, and dream interpretations. Then when someone argues with you, even from scripture, all you have to do is say, “I’ve received a new revelation from God” or “My spirit is telling me differently.”
Dream interpretation is a highly difficult and speculative thing. It’s not that it’s impossible for God to speak in dreams and impressions upon our spirit — He’s done so in the past — so these people rely on that to be their trump card, which they play all the time to great effect on some people.
- Should I cheat on my spouse or get divorced? Well, my gut-feeling says I should, and I just had a dream where I cheated and was pretty happy.
- Should I go into missions, or tithe, or serve, or visit, or… a million other things? Well, my feelings are mixed about that, and I haven’t really heard directly from God about it. I’ll keep praying until my feelings tell me what to do.
- Should I confess my sin to my friend, spouse, pastor? Well, I’m pretty uncomfortable about it, so I’ll wait for a sign from God before I do that.
- Hey, I woke up at 7:37 this morning! That must be a sign that I’m supposed to go on a missions trip.
- I saw this person three times in a week, that must mean I need to talk to them.
- I just feel that there is no way that the God I know would ever send anyone to hell. I know that He’s good and He love everyone, and I love everyone, and everyone should love everyone — so that means there’s no hell. And anyone who says differently is wrong because I feel it so strongly that it must be God who is telling me.
- I went into the church and there was foul smell, and then I saw a bat fly around and out the door. That must mean that we have demons in our church. Time to light incense and walk in a circle twelve times one way and seven times the other way while reciting the “Footprints in the Sand” poem over and over. That’s what I feel we need to do at our church.
Following our feelings, and trying to live out our Christian faith by subjective experience is very, very dangerous. God has given us His revealed word for a reason, and it covers all the ground we need to cover when it comes to what we are supposed to be doing.
Step Two: Encourage people to “defile the flesh”.
Put another way: convince people that being a Christian is about what happens in our hearts. It’s about a private relationship with God. It doesn’t have anything to do with how we live our lives. Or even better, convince them that since they are saved they don’t have to worry about their sin anymore. They can do whatever they want because God will forgive them over and over and over. They’ve already got their ticket to heaven, and they can’t lose it, so that means that they can live however they want! The can have their cake and eat it too.
It sounds terrible when you say “defile the flesh”, but what if we say it, “live in Christian liberty”? What if we say, God doesn’t think that porn is a big deal as long as you’re working on it? Or, God doesn’t care about same-sex marriage as long as we’re making sure they know we love them. Or, God is more concerned about your spiritual life than what you eat and drink and smoke and who you sleep with? Or, God doesn’t care if you cheat on your spouse because He’ll always forgive you? God doesn’t care about what you do when you’re by yourself?
If you want to corrupt the church, then first, get them to stop reading the Bible and second, teach them that their feelings — especially their strong sexual urges — are God given and natural, and therefore need to be expressed. Call anyone who disagrees judgmental, and then tell them that you have a new interpretation of scripture after having a dream. After all, God was the One who gave you those urges, right? Then everything you do with them must be ok.
That’s dangerous thinking, but it pervades our culture right now, doesn’t it? Sexual sin (in all its forms) is the norm for most men, and more and more women. And more and more churches are acquiescing to their congregations desire to be told it’s ok. “If you don’t go along with us, then we’ll just get a new teacher, new pastor, new denomination, that tells us we can do that.” That leads us to the next step.
Step Three: Get them to “reject authority“.
Once you have them listening to feelings and dreams instead of the Bible, and trapped in sexual sin, some people in authority might come in to try to put things back in order. Don’t let that happen.
For a long time churches had denominational leaders, bishops, and presbyters that had the authority to come into local churches when things started to go sideways. Even Baptist churches, known for their independence and congregationalist mindset were wise enough to set up associations with wise, seasoned regional representatives that would support the pastors and churches, and could be called upon to come in during times of crisis.
Today, that system is falling apart. New churches are being planted by men and women who don’t believe in structural accountability. Congregations are leaving their longstanding denominations left and right. They reject anyone who wants to tell them differently than they think. They arrogantly disregard any form of governance that tries to point them back to scripture or hold them accountable to their creeds, confessions and historical beliefs.
Not only do they deny the Lordship of the Lord Jesus and the authority of scripture, but they won’t allow anyone to come in — no matter how wise, experienced, or loving that person is. They don’t want to hear it.
I’ve experience this first hand, and I know a lot of other pastors that have to. They watch corrupting influences steer the church away from scripture, away from the gospel, and towards destruction, but it’s not an elder or a deacon — though sometimes that happens — it’s someone in the congregation who has come from a different church and has started to spread their poison.
The pastor tries to preach, but it doesn’t work. The Elders try to talk to them, but they won’t even come to a meeting. The Leadership Team gets together to talk it over, but what can they do? This person isn’t even a member. So they try to appeal to a higher authority — the bishop, the regional minister — but when they come in, the congregation doesn’t want to listen. They won’t hear it. How dare an outsider try to tell them what’s best for their church. How dare someone come in and try to tell them how they are supposed to worship God and read the Bible.
And so they get rid of the authorities above them. First they kick out the pastor because clearly they don’t know how to handle this situation. Then they re-elect new elders and deacons because the other ones supported the pastor and the denomination. Then the new pastor and leadership team decides that they should leave their old denomination and associations and go on their own.
One of them stands up and gives a passionate plea about a dream they have, about the feelings that have been hurt, and how the leadership team all agrees that they don’t want to be in a denomination full of churches that hate people. We‘re all about love after all. And the church splits, many leave, and the congregation goes it alone.
I’ve seen and read about this over and over and over. And it’s generated first by people in the congregation, not by corrupt pastors or traveling teachers. Which leads us to step four.
Step Four: Get the church to “blaspheme the glorious ones”.
There are some different interpretations on this passage.
Some think it means that they blaspheme, or mock, the good messengers of God, everyone from good teachers to God’s angels, thinking that they are wiser and more knowledgeable than all of them. They don’t just kick out the deacons, elders, pastors and denominational leaders — they mock them. They sit back and laugh at all the fools who, for generations, believed one way — until they came along and figured out the best way. How foolish those simple, backward, old-school people were.They do what the Pharisees did and attribute the work of the Holy Spirit and the Gospel of Christ as the work of the Devil. They demonize and attack the good churches and Gospel teachers, and encourage and support the bad ones.
Some think it means that they laugh in the face of Satan, believing that they are untouchable by any evil influence. They’re so holy, so right, so totally on God’s team that no evil force can touch them. Like Romans 1 says, they are so deceived that they believe that their evil is good. They completely misunderstand and underestimate the power of demonic temptation and never consider for even a second that they might be wrong.
Others think that this means that they show a total disrespect for the angels that are said to come during the time of the judgment at the end of the world. They are only worried about what happens today, how they feel today, what today’s interpretation is, what their body wants right now, and they have no thought to their future judgment.
I don’t think we have to necessarily choose any of these three interpretations because they all point to the same end. The church becomes so backward, so full of false teaching, that black is white, up is down, good is evil, evil is good, and demons are angels.
Congratulations, You’ve Corrupted a Church
If you follow these steps, then congratulations, you’ve corrupted a church. And the best part is that they’ll thank you for it! They’ll tell you how much more loved they feel, how much more free they are, how great it is to finally be accepted, how open their arms are, how there are no more arguments, and how much better they are than all the other churches. You’ll be their hero!
That’s why Jude wrote this letter. He was watching a church go down this slide. They’d already forgotten about Jesus, had lost their way theologically, and were on the way towards full-fledged heresy and damnation. And that broke his heart.
For the rest of the letter he begs them to fight for the truth. He warns them about God’s wrath against false teachers and sinners. He pronounces woes. He calls them names. He calls them dirty. He preaches scripture. He shouts to the faithful that are left to stand up and not be silent. And He calls upon God to work a miracle in this church so they can be spared.
I ask you to ask yourself some hard questions today:
- How seriously do you take the spiritual health of your church?
- How seriously do you take your personal faith and theology?
- How seriously do you take those who tell you to compromise in your battle with sin?
- How seriously do you take the truth about the Gospel Jesus?
This isn’t about opinions and options and side-issues. This is about the core of our beliefs. It’s about eternal life and hell. We need to take this seriously.
The 34th episode of “Carnivore Theology”.
Book Talk and Coffee in Church
Steve’s AWOL today so Chad and Al get to nerd-out on the books they’re reading lately, answer a SpeakPipe question, and promo Al’s book.
Al’s Book List
Chad’s Book List
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Today, we want to have an explanation of everything. We want to know how everything works, where it came from, what it’s doing, why it does it, and what it’s going to do next. Our society has an insatiable appetite for knowledge.
Sociologists study people so they can learn how we tick, how we think, how we spend, how we live, who we love, and what our priorities are, so they can determine how we are going to develop as a society. Psychologists study our minds so they can determine why we do what we do and feel what we feel. Archeologists study things left over from the past so they can learn how people lived then. Biologists study living things to see how they work. Geoscientists study the earth. Climatologists study the weather. Oceanographers study the oceans. Astronomers study space. We want to know how everything works.
We spent well over a billion dollars to send the Rosetta Probe to land on a space-snowball just so we could know what it was made of! That’s awesome, by the way.
And it’s not just scientists that are on a quest for knowledge. We all are. What do we say after the first bite of something new? “What is this?! What’s in it?!” Some people can’t live without knowing the weather, others start and end the day watching the news. Some can’t live unless they’ve checked their Facebook or Twitter feed to know what’s going on with their friends.
Theology & Philosophy
Not only do humans have great curiosity about the world, we also have a great desire to know what is beyond our world. We want to know where everything came from, what happens after we die, if our existence has purpose and meaning, if there is anything beyond this mortal realm.
Enter the theologians and the philosophers. The study of the nature of God is called Theology – “Theos” meaning God, “ology” meaning “to speaking about”, or “the study of”. Those who practice it are called theologians.
Philosophy is the study of existence, reason, beliefs, values and language. It comes from the words “philio” meaning “love” and “Sophia” meaning “wisdom” – the love of wisdom. Theology and Philosophy go beyond the realms of where pure science can reach, but they are no less important – in fact, there are many who would call them more important.
Philosophy has been called the “mother of all science” since before scientists can study anything they must consult philosophy to find a question worth answering and whether they are able to know anything at all. And to go one step above the mother of all science, Medieval universities called Theology the “queen of the sciences” – supreme above all, the source of all truth. One cannot know anything worth knowing unless they first know God and His Word. As Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge…”
For thousands of years theologians and philosophers have talked, debated, argued and studied everything beyond the physical realm – including God.
Too Much Knowledge?
Our insatiable desire for knowledge is a good thing. It’s a God given thing. Our love for knowing how things work has led to some amazing things. And our curiosity about God and the meaning of life, has driven some of the most important things ever done in this world.
But, like anything else, when it gets out of control, that desire leads to sin. Dedicating our life to the study of a singular object may be helpful to the world – but it can also be idolatry. When the knowledge gained by sociologists and psychologists is used to manipulate consumers so they will buy more junk, it’s sin. Wanting to know what our friends are up to is good, obsessing over gossip is sin.
And it’s the same with Theology. A desire to know God is wonderful and healthy, but the belief that we can know everything about God is sin. Spending our life pursuing a greater knowledge of Jesus and His Word is valuable, thinking we know everything about Him leads us to sin and error. Believing in the Holy Spirit and growing in the knowledge of spiritual things is of great benefit, believing we know how to manipulate the Holy Spirit because of our knowledge of Him is foolishness. And we’re going to talk a little bit about that today.
The Feeding of the 5000
Let’s read the story of Jesus feeding the 5000.
“The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.
Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.
And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.’ But he answered them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ And they said to him, ‘Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?’ And he said to them, ‘How many loaves do you have? Go and see.’ And when they had found out, they said, ‘Five, and two fish.’
Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.” (Mark 3:30-44)
This is a pretty familiar story. It’s told in all four of the gospels. But before we get into talking about what we can’t know – let’s talk about what we can. What does this passage tell us about Jesus?
I think the first thing we learn here is that Jesus has great compassion for people – even dumb, hardhearted, lost people who don’t have any idea what they are doing or why they are there. He has compassion on people who don’t plan ahead, but just want to be where He is. He has love in His heart for people who have no idea what He is doing, but just want to be there.
That’s what this crowd was like. The mission that Jesus had sent the Apostles on was apparently successful. Jesus was more popular than ever. No doubt many of these people had followed the disciples as they came back to Jesus. Stories of his miracles and great teaching had spread far and wide and He had literally thousands of people following Him around, some there to hear the teaching, many there to be healed from their illnesses.
But they don’t really understand Jesus. They think they do, but they don’t. In the same story told in the Gospel of John 6:14-15 it says, “After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”
He literally has to run away because they want to force Him to be something he’s not. They think they’ve got Him figured out. They think they know His mission, His plan, His power, and why He’s there. But they don’t.
But Jesus doesn’t get angry with them. Do you remember why he’s there in the first place? He’s trying to give his Apostles some rest from their missionary work. But this crowd goes rushing on ahead, hoping to head Jesus off. Now, Jesus could have sent them all away, but He didn’t. No, His heart overflowed with compassion for them because He knew how lost they were, how desperate they were for the presence of God.
He wasn’t just seeing their physical need for healing, it says inverse 34, “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” They needed more than physical healing – they were spiritually lost – and He has great compassion for them.
Sheep Without a Shepherd
“Sheep without a shepherd” is a very interesting phrase for Mark to use. It’s repeated a few times in scripture, and points specifically to Numbers 27:15-17 which describes the passing of the mantle of leaders from Moses to Joshua. It says,
“Moses spoke to the LORD, saying, ‘Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the LORD may not be as sheep that have no shepherd.’”
Moses desires God to raise up a leader for the people, because He knows that they are stubborn and rebellious, and if there was no godly leader, these people would turn from God in a heartbeat. They would need someone to lead them into the Promised Land who knew God and loved the people. They needed a shepherd! And God appoints Joshua to succeed Moses.
And Joshua leads them – but when He dies, what happens? They Israelites start to disobey, they don’t get rid of the Canaanites, they compromise their mission. Then, in only one generation, we see a generation come up that has completely forgotten Moses, Joshua and the Exodus from Egypt. Within one generation the sheep without a shepherd wander into idolatry and divide from one another. They stop following God’s law, growing more and more corrupt and evil (Joshua 2).
And the generation that stood before Jesus that day was no different. They too were sheep without a shepherd. Moses was long dead, as was Joshua. God had raised up prophets, priests and kings, most of whom either rebelled against God or were persecuted by their own people for speaking the truth. Now they were under a pagan king and those who were supposed to be their shepherds – the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Teachers of the Law – were mostly blind, foolish, hypocrites who erected more and more barriers between the people and God.
And it broke Jesus’ heart to see them this way. Wandering. Rebellious. Anxious. Fearful. Sick. Faithless. Hopeless. Lost.
Jesus Reveals Himself
Turn to John 10:7-13. In John 10 we Jesus calls Himself “The Good Shepherd”, contrasting Himself to everyone else. He knows His special place, and He knows how desperately people need Him to be their shepherd. Keeping with our theme today, these are things that He wants to make sure we know about Him. There are things that we must know about Jesus, that He reveals about Himself. Things that bring us hope and peace, and a greater understanding of who He is.
I am the Door
“Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (7-10)
This is the first thing that Jesus wants us to make sure we know about Him. Jesus is the only way to salvation. There are many pretenders, but they are all thieves and robbers. Many have come promising safe “pasture” and rest – but they were liars.
I’m certain, as He looks at the crowd of thousands before Him, He can see into the hearts of those who have tried so many different doors seeking salvation and rest for their souls.
They’ve tried to find salvation in power and wealth, but found only emptiness. They tried to make their own “abundant life” through food, sex, and worldly pleasure – but learned they are thieves that promise one thing but are really stealing their joy. He sees those who have tried to find rest through practicing religion, but found the yoke was too hard and there was no rest in manmade ways to get to God. He sees people who have tried to find their way to good pasture through gaining great knowledge or trying to control everything, but found that it only lead to them to despair as they could never gain enough.
And Jesus, the Good Shepherd says, “You are like sheep without a shepherd. You’ve had a lot of people promise a lot of things, and they’ve all failed. If you want salvation and rest then you have to become part of my flock, and the only way to do that is through Me, ‘I’m the door.’”
I am the Good Shepherd
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” (11-13)
This is the next thing that Jesus wants to make sure we know. Here we see Jesus differentiate Himself even further from the predecessors and pretenders.
He’s not like the shepherds who have come before. They were merely hired hands. They didn’t own or love the sheep like He does. Jesus isn’t like like the prophets, priests and kings that have come in the past –He is greater than them. Everyone else runs away when wolf comes – Jesus doesn’t. Even the greatest prophets failed the people.
Even the greatest Prophet, Elijah, who was part of the great battle with the Prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (Kings 18), was overcome by fear and went into a deep depression. Jesus isn’t like that. He doesn’t get depressed. He doesn’t succumb to fear.
Even David, the greatest king, the shepherd who defended his sheep from lions and bears with only a sling (1 Sam 17:34-37), fell and brought calamity on his people more than once. Jesus isn’t like that. Jesus doesn’t start out great and then fall to temptation and foolishness at the end. No, He is the Good Shepherd. When the wolves come, He fights for them to the very end of his life.
Solomon, the greatest wise-man of all time fell into lust and was led into idolatry, letting His people down and bringing calamity on them. Jesus is the perfection of wisdom and will never fall into sin, and no one will ever pay for his mistakes – because He doesn’t make any.
All who came before were pretenders – He’s the real deal.
When Jesus sees looks out to the crowds He sees lost people who need Him. People who have put their faith in so many other things and have been let down again and again. Lost sheep who need a Good Shepherd. And His compassion overwhelms His desire for rest, and so He gives of Himself even more.
A Strange Command
After a long day of teaching, it says “his disciples came to [Jesus] and said, ‘This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.’” (35-36)
They were saying, “Jesus, you’re tired, their tired, we’re very tired. You’ve done enough. It’s time for you to pull back and have that rest you were talking about. Besides, it’s a long walk back and they need to start if they’re going to get to eat. We know you really love teaching people, and that they need it, but it’s time to eat now.”
I think the disciples feel like they are doing him a favour by telling him the situation. Maybe He’s distracted. Maybe He’s too into His sermon to be hungry. Maybe He needs a little reminder about reality. But they didn’t need to. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He’s not going to forget to feed the sheep. He’s got it under control. But, sticking with our theme, they don’t know what He’s doing, and they’re not sure He’s got it under control.
His response, no doubt, surprises them, considering there were thousands and thousands of people there. “You give them something to eat.” Why would He say that? He wasn’t showing off. He wasn’t being snarky.
No, He was preparing them to open their minds to learn something greater about Himself. What He is about to do how He does it, was intended to speak volumes about Him. He about to declare something very specific about Himself.
He’s not just another prophet. He’s not just a great teacher. He’s not just greater than Elijah, or David, or Solomon. He’s the Messiah. He is God. He’s about to show them that He’s even greater than Moses. He’s the fulfilment of all of the prophecies that have come before – from God’s word to Eve (Gen 3:15), to Moses’ teaching that a prophet like him would come (Deut 18:15), to all the Messianic Psalms, all of the prophets from Isaiah to Malachi – He would fulfil them all and prove to them that He was greater.
He’s not one of the “hired hands”, He’s the Door, the Good Shepherd. And His statement, “You give them something to eat.” is meant to prepare them for what’s to come.
Jesus is Greater than Moses
Consider this: Jesus leads the people into a desolate place, just like Moses led the Israelites to the desert. Then all the people get hungry and start to complain. Why? Because they didn’t know what God was doing, didn’t trust Him, and didn’t trust Moses. They wanted to go back to Egypt!
Now who brings the complaint? Jesus’ own disciples come and say that perhaps they needed to go back and get some food or the people are going to starve in the wilderness.
Same issue. A total misunderstanding of who God is, what God is doing, and a lack of trust that Jesus has things under control. But what does Jesus do? He feeds them.
In Moses’ time it was manna and quail from heaven. For Jesus it was loaves and fishes. The first time the people were told they couldn’t keep any until morning, but when Jesus did it, there were baskets and baskets of leftovers!
When Jesus told his disciples to give the people something to eat, there was something deeper going on. He was asking them, “Do you know who I am? Do you trust me? Do you believe that with me all things are possible? Have you forgotten the power and miracles and provision you had during the mission you just came back from today? Knowing what you know about me, my Father, and what you’ve seen already, do you have the faith to feed these people?” And their answer was simply, “No… no we don’t.”
Jesus Defies Explanation
Something interesting happens a few verses later in Mark 6:52, and it’s tied to the feeding of the 5000. Look what happens after Jesus feeds the people. Read verses 45-52:
“Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’ And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”
Do you see? Jesus was showing them something very important, but they still didn’t get it. The miracle of the feeding of the 5000 was meant to teach them who He was. He was the Good Shepherd, the one Greater than Moses, Greater than Elijah, Greater than David, Greater than all who had come before. He showed His inexplicable power over nature. He went right over the rules of math – something we take as absolute and unchangeable – and made five loaves and two fish feed thousands and thousands. It was absolutely miraculous. Jesus showed His divinity to them.
But when they saw Jesus walking on the water, they were terrified. When He said, “don’t be afraid”, they still were. When He calmed the storm, they were “utterly astounded”. Why? Because they still didn’t understand who Jesus was.
They didn’t realize that Jesus was God, in control, had power over anything, and had great love and compassion for His people. Their hearts were too hard, their minds too closed. None of what Jesus was doing should have been surprising if they had figured out who Jesus was. But their minds and hearts, all of their reasoning powers for how the world works, wasn’t allowing them to grasp who Jesus was. He didn’t make sense.
Jesus the humble carpenter – can turn a thunderstorm into a nice day because He wants it to happen. Jesus, the wandering Rabbi, whose shoes are caked with dust, doesn’t just part the sea like Moses did – but can walk on water and cause others to do the same. Jesus the son of Mary, born in a stable can literally bend reality to His will and turn McDonalds Happy Meal into a feast that can feed a whole city.
That’d doesn’t’ compute because there are things about Jesus that we can explain – and then there are things that we just can’t.
Trying to Explain God
A lot of people struggle with this one, and it’s the point I want to close with today.
Many people want an explainable Jesus. One that they can understand and predict. We want to know why Jesus does things. We want to be able to predict His miracles, and maybe even figure Him out well enough to make Him do miracles for us. If we can figure out the formula for how to get miracles out of God, then we’ll have the upper hand.
We want a God that fits into our box. We don’t like not knowing things about something as important as our God. We want Him to behave according to our rules, and abide by our standards. We want him to be predictable – under our control.
But the truth is, just as there are things that we can know for absolutely certain about God, there are other things about Him that are absolutely inexplicable – they can’t be explained.
There are times that Jesus makes absolute sense to us and we know what He’s doing. But then there are times when He goes way over our heads, past our understanding, beyond our abilities, beyond our comprehension, and does something completely outside our ability to process.
Why does the universe seem like it’s billions of years old, yet the Bible seems to only say it’s thousands? Why did God create Satan if He knew He would fall? Why does God choose some for salvation and not others? Why do some people get miraculous healings, while others suffer for years and years and are only released from their pain by death? Why do earthquakes and tornados hit where they do? Why do some people get rich and others struggle their whole lives to make ends meet? Why did God take thousands of years to bring the Saviour, and why is He taking so long to come back again? Why would God create people if He knew some of them would be eternally punished in Hell? If He can do anything, and is perfectly good, then why doesn’t He end all suffering today?
These are huge questions, which we are not going to get perfect answers to. And some people can’t handle that. The disciples struggled with it too.
They had just come back from a successful mission where they had actually performed miracles, cast out demons, and taught powerfully. Then they sat down and saw Jesus feed over 5000 people with a few loaves of bread and a couple fish. Now they see Jesus walk on water and calm a storm without even speaking a word. That didn’t make sense – not at all.
Putting God on Trial
This is a huge, mega-theme in scripture. God does something amazing, and no one has any idea what God is doing, or why He’s doing it, and so they freak out. We see it in the Israelites after the Exodus and we see it among the disciples and followers who were there at the feeding of the 5000. And we see it today.
We are, so often, no different than them. We claim to believe in God, but when He does things that don’t line up with what we believe about Him, we don’t assume we’re wrong about Him – we assume God is wrong.
We are so used believing our own perspectives, ideas, and presumptions, that we think we’ve got Him all figured out. And then He does something we think He shouldn’t do – or doesn’t do something we think He should – our faith crumbles. Just like the Israelites, just like the disciples, we are “utterly astounded” that God did something outside of our little box.
So what do we do? We put God on trial. We demand He explain Himself. We demand He show Himself to us. “Why did you do that? You must answer me! Give me your reasoning, God! You owe me an explanation!”
But the truth is that it is not He who is on trial, it is us. He’s God. He has nothing He needs to answer for. It is we who must answer. (Read Job 38-42)
Jesus looks to us and says, “Do you believe I’m God? Do you trust me? Is it possible that I’m bigger than your explanations and reasoning? Are you God? Do you have faith in me?”
It is not God who is on trial – it is us. We do not have the right to contend and find fault with the Almighty (Job 40:1). We must take Him as who He says He is. It is not He who must conform to our image, but we who must conform to His. He doesn’t have to meet our standards, we must meet His. It is not He who has to explain Himself when we stand before Him one day – it is we who will stand under His judgement.
What amazing grace He gives us as we stand there thinking we can put Him on trial and ask Him to defend what He’s doing! What amazing patience He shows as we complain against Him for enacting His will.
The concluding questions are simple: Do you trust Jesus? Do you think you need to remind Him what’s going on, that somehow He’s forgotten how to care for people? Do you need Him to answer why the wind and the waves are so large? Is it ok with you that He is God and you are not?
The 17th episode of “Carnivore Theology”.
Are Christians Allowed to Be Competitive?
Let the games begin! Chad and Al let their competitive sides take over as they go head-to-head in a hot dog eating contest. But are Christians allowed to be competitive in life, sports and church? How competitive is too competitive?
And here’s the link to the behind-the-scenes YouTube video.
As Always, We Want Your Feedback
Please give it a listen and then give let us know what you think in comments section below, by e-mailing me, commenting on our Facebook page, or on Twitter! It would be great if you’d rate us on iTunes too! We’d also really appreciate if you’d pass them around to your friends. Sharing is caring!
What Makes Good Worship Music?
Worship music is a often debated and dividing issue in too many churches. What does the Bible really say about hymns, choruses and worship music?
Here’s the Podcast Audio:
Click here to download the episode in MP3.
And here’s the link to the Behind the Scenes YouTube video.
As Always, We Want Your Feedback
Please give it a listen and then give let us know what you think in comments section below, by e-mailing me, commenting on our Facebook page, or on Twitter! It would be great if you’d rate us on iTunes too! We’d also really appreciate if you’d pass them around to your friends. Sharing is caring!
Before you start, I encourage you to read the Christmas Story from Luke 2:1-20.
A Special Time of Year
Last week I invited you last week to take one of these books, called “The Purpose of Christmas” by Rick Warren. The reason that I did this was so that we could spend time together, here at church and at home during the week, thinking about the reason that we celebrate the season of Advent and Christmas.
The whole premise of this little book is to ask the question: Why do we spend so much time, money, energy and effort on this one day of the year? Why is this the big one? What makes Christmas so special?
That being said, over the past 40 years or so, Christmas has been losing some of its specialness. It’s still the biggest holiday, but it is now being challenged by Halloween as the biggest day of the year. Where even 50 years ago people would have felt an obligation to come into a church for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day – if only out of tradition – now less and less people bother. At one point the “Story of Christmas” was about baby Jesus in the manger, the shepherds and the angels, and now there are many, many more Christmas stories – Santa Clause is obviously the big one, but there’s also The Night Before Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, The Little Match Girl, A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker, It’s A Wonderful Life – and they are given equal, if not more, significance in people’s lives than the story of Jesus. (This DVD is titled “The Original Christmas Classics” — I’m pretty sure Jesus pre-dates Frosty as the “Original” Christmas story.) Many families would much rather sit down and read The Grinch who Stole Christmas than the Nativity Story.
And so, this year, I wanted us to ask ourselves the question, “What is the purpose of Christmas?” We are Christians, this is a church, and we know the Christmas Story. We talk about Jesus all year long, so what makes Christmas so special? Or perhaps, the better question I want us to be able to answer is this: “How can we make sure we have a purposeful Christmas and make it special?”
The Meaning of Christmas
Doing that – having a purposeful, meaningful, special Christmas – is sometimes harder than we think. And I believe the reason that it’s hard is because there are so many different ideas about the “True Meaning of Christmas”.
Rick Warren’s first chapter is entitled “A Time for Celebration”. His point is that one of the main purposes for Christmas is that it is an annual time that we have set aside to concentrate on celebrating — something. For hundreds of years people knew what we were celebrating, that the “true meaning of Christmas” was the incarnation of Jesus. But that’s just not the case anymore.
It’s not that people aren’t thinking about it. We’ve heard and read the phrase a million times in every movie, TV show and newspaper article at this time of year. Everyone is looking for the “true meaning of Christmas.” What is the “true meaning of Christmas”? But it’s almost as though they believe the there is no answer. Like so many other things now, there’s no “right answer” to the question because everyone gets to answer it for themselves. Truth is relative, meaning is relative. It’s like looking at an impressionist painting intended to allow each person can ascribe whatever meaning they want.
For some, the “True meaning of Christmas” is getting presents… not the noblest of causes, but at least their honest. For some it’s simply time off work and an excuse to spend money. For others, it’s all about getting together with family. Some believe the “true meaning of Christmas” is found in the rituals and traditions: baking cookies, turkey dinner, skating on the canal, decorating the tree, and remembering Christmases as a kid.
It’s easy to get caught up in that because they are all really good things! Christians are supposed to say that the “True meaning of Christmas” is the birth of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. If we are asked on the street corner, or in a mall whether we say “happy holidays” or “merry Christmas”, we will unabashedly – almost militantly – say, “Merry Christmas” because Christmas is all about Christ.
But in our hearts, in our homes, in our private times, and in our celebrations, it is so easy to get caught up in all the other things that come with Christmas – and push Jesus off to the side. I know I’m guilty of it.
And so, during this short Advent season, my hope and prayer is that each of us will be able to be purposeful about this Christmas season – that we will imbue it with special meaning – not in the secular sense, but in the sacred sense. That we would enjoy all of the rest of the good things in the season, but not allow them to dominate our thoughts – that we would keep Jesus at the centre of all that we are doing.
How to have a Purposeful Christmas
How can we do that? I believe, first and foremost, it comes through an understanding of what Christmas is really about. It comes from allowing the story of the incarnation of Jesus Christ to fill up our hearts so that there is much less room for other things to take it over. I believe that if we can remind ourselves consistently about the love Jesus showed for us, the grace given to us, the story of what Jesus did for us, that our Christmas will have more meaning.
What I’ve appreciated about this little book we are going through is how Rick Warren simplifies the message of Christmas for us so that we can not only understand it, but appreciate it. The whole of the book revolves around in on what the angels say to the shepherds, and the first chapter pulls out that first phrase: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
The big idea is that with all that comes with this season, we must remember the very core message of what we are celebrating: That “God loves you”, that “God is with you”, and that “God is for you”. If we are able to purposefully keep those things in mind: that celebrating Christmas reminds us that God loves us — that celebrating Christmas reminds us that God is with us — that celebrating Christmas reminds us that God is on our side — then we will be able to celebrate a Christmas full of meaning.
Little cost, little love. Big cost, big love.
John 3:16 says,
“For God so loved the world that he gave us his one and only son…”
The reason that we celebrate Christmas, and the coming of Jesus Christ, is because it is a demonstration of His love for us.
One of the ways you can tell how much you love someone, or are loved by someone, is what they are willing to give up for you. One might call this Sacrificial Love. It’s not always a fair equation, but I think it’s at least one of the ways we can tell. People who love you will show it by giving up their time for you, their energy, their reputations, their comfort, and even their money, because they value you more than whatever it is they are giving up.
If you want to show someone you love them, or wonder how much you really do care about them, just ask yourself how much you would be willing to give up. These could be good things: A mother sacrificing her career for her children. A soldier sacrificing his life for his country. A father sacrificing his health for his family. Or they could be not so good thing. A mother sacrificing time with her children so she can go out and party. A businessperson sacrificing their family so they can stay at work more. A gambler sacrificing his money so he can play the game. That’s a form of sacrificial love too.
Are you willing to put aside yourself and your wants for the sake of the other person, or do they always come after you? This is something that happens around Christmas all the time. We are constantly caught weighing out how much we really care about someone. Do I get them a gift, or a card, a phone call or a letter, a hug or a handshake? How long do I shop for this person’s gift? Are they someone I shop for at the dollar store, or someone I spend hours worrying about as I search online or walk malls looking for the perfect gift? And how much do I spend? (I know this is cruel, but it’s true) Is this a $5 relationship, or a $300 relationship?
And it’s not just about money – it’s also about our time, effort, & energy? Do I take time off of work to attend this person’s Christmas party? Are they close enough for us to spend Christmas dinner with, or are they more of an “I’ll see you after New Year’s” type friend? Do I travel through a snowstorm to make sure I’m at their house, or if the weather’s too bad do I stay home? What am I willing to give up for this person? What a person is willing to give up, whether it be time, money, energy, effort or anything else… I believe… is at least one indicator of how much love that relationship has.
Little cost, little love. Big cost, big love.
For the last part of our time here this morning I want to talk about what coming into the world cost Jesus, and I want to do it using three important theological words which describe those costs.
The first word is “Incarnation”. One continuing heresy that the church has taught against is something called Docetism which is the belief that God would never stoop to becoming a human. But the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus “incarnated” Himself. That word literally means “in flesh”. Jesus is and always has been God. When He came to earth, Jesus took the fullness of His deity, and not putting anything aside, added humanity to His deity, becoming the God-Man.
In many Christmas carols we use the word Immanuel, which means “God with us”. Jesus came to be God with us. John begins his gospel this way describing the incarnation:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.”
And then says in verse 14:
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
It was by Jesus by coming and dying in the flesh, as a human, one of us, that humanity was able to be saved. He had to be one of us.
The next word is tied to the incarnation. The next word is “Condescension”. God condescended, came down, stooped, to our level. 2 Corinthians 8:9 says it like this,
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
When we kneel down to a small child to get eye to eye, and use simple language to explain something so they can understand, we are condescending to them. That’s Jesus Christ did for us. He had the full glory and power and majesty of God, but chose to bring Himself down to our level and spoke in a way we could understand.
Which brings us to the third word, which is what I really want to park on because it makes the point so well. I said before that love can be measured by what a person is willing to give up for another. The third word is “Humiliation”. We don’t use this word very often, and when we do, it’s often given in a negative sense, but when Jesus came at Christmas, He humiliated himself.
To humiliate someone is to literally make them humble, or lower them in dignity. Most of us have been humiliated at some point in many different ways. This happens to me a lot when I try to play sports or board games with people. I walk in thinking highly of myself, confident in my abilities… and generally walk out humbled and lowered in dignity.
But Jesus’ humiliation was different. He wasn’t humbled by anyone. He humiliated himself. He chose to bring himself down in dignity. He chose how He would enter the world, what the circumstances would look like, who His parents would be, what His life would look like, and how it would end. It was His choice to be humiliated.
Philippians 2:5-7 capture this perfectly,
“Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”
Humility was a mega-theme in the life of Jesus. From the very moment He was born to his death on the cross, the life of Jesus was marked with humility. We have to remember where Jesus came from, and where He is now, to at least begin to appreciate the humiliation of His condescension and incarnation.
Remember, Jesus is God. Always has been and always will be. He’s no less than God. He is worshipped by angels, proclaimed in the highest, equal with the Father, all powerful, all knowing, all present, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, God.
And yet, he humbled Himself… humiliated Himself… condescended Himself to our level. There has never been any descent like that of Christ’s.
Just consider the choices that Jesus made when He decided to come into the world. He, the King of All, made Himself a subject of Herod – a cruel, despotic, corrupt ruler who would try to kill him as soon as he found out about Jesus.
Consider the circumstances of his birth. The Creator of the Universe, who spoke everything into being, decided to make himself a helpless baby. He deserved to have a royal welcome, the best medical care, silk sheets, a golden crib, a thousand nurses, on a hill, in the Holy City of Jerusalem. But no, Jesus gave all that up.
The place of His birth was no accident. He didn’t accidentally end up in a feeding trough – He placed Himself there. That’s where He wanted to be born. Why? To show us the depth of his love, and set for us the highest example.
As I said, greater cost equals greater love. He gave it all up for us. He didn’t keep one scrap of His glory. There are not many people one that can claim to have had a more obscure, dirty, humiliating birth as the Son of God. He gave it all up. If one of the ways we can know how much a person loves us is by how much they are willing to give up, then Jesus must love us very, very much. The whole story of Jesus’ birth sets us up for the paradox that is His life. Jesus consistently taught us that the way up is down.
“Blessed are the meek” (Matthew 5:5).
“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11).
“Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:4)
He didn’t give himself an attractive body that everyone would immediately love and trust. Instead, Isaiah 53:2 says,
“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”
What would we have done in his place? Set up some advantages, right? Made it a little easier. He didn’t. He humiliated Himself over and over out of love for us.
We would have chosen an easier life with more resources, good friends and a decent house. Isaiah 53:3 says,
“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
Throughout his life he was mocked because of how he was born. When people heard that he was from Nazareth they made fun of him. Some scholars even say that the Pharisees even mocked him for being conceived out of wedlock (John 8:19,41).
During His life He could have used His amazing teaching abilities, influence and power to get anything He wanted. He could have been the best salesman, politician, lawyer or celebrity ever known. Instead when someone asked him where he lived he answered them,
“Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”” (Matthew 8:20).
Celebrate the Love of Jesus
Why would Jesus do this? Why humiliate Himself? First, to teach us how to live… but also to prove His love for us. Much cost equals much love.
So my encouragement to you this week is to remember and celebrate that God loves you – He proved it in his Humiliation, God is with you – He came in his Incarnation and remains alive today, and God is for you – He provides for us Salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ.
I’ve seen some wonderful miracles throughout my life, and this past year has been even more amazing. Sometimes I get miracle and coincidence confused, but not this year — it’s been pretty obvious. I’ve been unemployed or underemployed for almost a whole year now, and even though it’s been financially tough, we have seen God show up and miraculously provide for us time and again.
He has been teaching me the paradox of being dependent on Him, while at the same time practicing wisdom and diligence. He’s been teaching me how important it is for me to back off and let Him act, provide, defend, etc. instead of stressing out, panicking, and doing something because I’m afraid and want to take control.
I’ve learned to sit back and say, “I wonder how God is going to solve this problem, because I’ll just make a mess of it if I try to fix it.” In other words, I’ve learned to trust in God’s Common and Special Grace.
Sometimes, with all the bad news floating around us, it’s hard to remember that His grace and provision is truly abundant. Theologians (who love to embrangle simple ideas in complicated language) talk about the good things that happen to humanity in two categories: Common Grace and Special Grace.
Common Grace (click here for a very embrangled definition) encapsulates all the good things that happen to everyone. As Jesus says in Matthew 5:45, “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Or, as John Murry of Westminster Seminary defines it: “Every favor of whatever kind or degree, failing short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.” It is the Common Grace that allows us to be alive, even experience joy and love, while in a condemned state (2 Peter 3:9). It is his Common Grace that provides for all humanity, even when we are completely undeserving.
Special Grace (click here for more embranglement) is that wonderful, amazing gift where God changes our hearts so that we may see our sin, turn from it, and accept Jesus as our Saviour. Without His Special Grace we would never see our sin for what it is, never hate our sin, and would therefore never turn from it. It is His Special Grace by which we are saved.
Take some time today to thank God for His Common and Special Graces. First, for the salvation of our souls in Jesus, but also for rain, sun, food, teachers, medicine, books, plants, cold water, smiles, loved ones, cotton… and any other good thing.
What about you? What did it miss? What Common Graces are you thankful for?