Bible Reading Blog — Psalm 73

21 Mar

Today’s journal is from Psalm 73, a psalm of Asaph.

73 Truly God is good to Israel,
    to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
    my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant
    when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

For they have no pangs until death;
    their bodies are fat and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
    they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
    violence covers them as a garment.
Their eyes swell out through fatness;
    their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice;
    loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against the heavens,
    and their tongue struts through the earth.
10 Therefore his people turn back to them,
    and find no fault in them.
11 And they say, “How can God know?
    Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
12 Behold, these are the wicked;
    always at ease, they increase in riches.
13 All in vain have I kept my heart clean
    and washed my hands in innocence.
14 For all the day long I have been stricken
    and rebuked every morning.
15 If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
    I would have betrayed the generation of your children.

16 But when I thought how to understand this,
    it seemed to me a wearisome task,
17 until I went into the sanctuary of God;
    then I discerned their end.

18 Truly you set them in slippery places;
    you make them fall to ruin.
19 How they are destroyed in a moment,
    swept away utterly by terrors!
20 Like a dream when one awakes,
    O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms.
21 When my soul was embittered,
    when I was pricked in heart,
22 I was brutish and ignorant;
    I was like a beast toward you.

23 Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
    you hold my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
    and afterward you will receive me to glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

27 For behold, those who are far from you shall perish;
    you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.
28 But for me it is good to be near God;
    I have made the Lord God my refuge,
    that I may tell of all your works.

I almost always think of purity in terms of sexuality, but here the purity is seen in not envying others. Purity of heart toward others means not comparing and living in jealousy. This is a thing that will make me stumble, in the sense of falling away from a life of trust in God. Sermon on Mount: pure in heart will see God. One tied up in envy and keeping up with the neighbors won’t be pure in heart, won’t be close to God. Purity of heart is a Psalm 86:11 thing (“unite my heart to fear your name”). James talks about the undivided heart. Mary and Martha (“you are busy with many things but one thing is needful”). A divided heart is the ultimate misery (“I wish you were either hot or cold”). Purity of heart links right up with Mt. 6:25-34. If God has my undivided attention and allegiance, I won’t be consumed with worry over my life’s circumstances.

Today’s psalm is by Asaph, yesterday’s was by the sons of Korah, the day before a psalm of David. Yet all concern to some degree this issue of envy of the prosperous wicked. This is a universal problem.

Asaph is deeply discouraged but he thinks his way through the discouragement by focusing on truth about God and drawing near to Him.

vv. 21-24 are such a grace note. God is so good to us.

25 and 26 are well-worn verses to many Christians, but the context of the psalm brings them fresh meaning. Where do I find life? In stuff, in prosperity, keeping up appearances or keeping up with others? NO. I find life by taking the long view, considering heaven and earth. The God I long to worship for eternity is to be my desire here. Otherwise, will I really want to be in heaven? If I didn’t want to worship God here how much will I want to worship God there?

My flesh and my heart may fail. My energy and emotion will not always be tuned in to God, especially when challenging circumstances come.

God is the strength of my heart (sustaining power for today)

and my portion forever (my future hope)

The old hymn Great is Thy Faithfulness: “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow”

Knowing God gives us what we most need (strength to get through today’s suffering and the hope of a better tomorrow).

This psalm ends with mission but the mission is built on a foundation of relationship with God. Kind of like the difference between being given a tour of a battleship by a tour guide vs. being given a tour by a person who was on the crew in the battle.

Lord, my heart and my flesh fail way too often. I already feel the creeping anxieties of this day. Please help me see with the eyes of this psalm. Help me see that you are enough for today and that in you I have eternal hope. Free me from thoughts of envy or comparison. Help me in times of discouragement to look to you. Thank you for holding my hand through my brutish and bitter days. Let my walk with you today overflow in love to others. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Bible Reading Blog — Psalms 49

20 Mar

Yesterday, I urged you to journal along with your Bible reading for our 2018 church Bible reading plan. Today, I want to share another entry from my own journaling. Again, I am not claiming to have all the answers here, just trying to get you thinking about what might be useful for you.

Today’s Psalm — Psalm 49

49 Hear this, all peoples!
    Give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
both low and high,
    rich and poor together!
My mouth shall speak wisdom;
    the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.
I will incline my ear to a proverb;
    I will solve my riddle to the music of the lyre.

Why should I fear in times of trouble,
    when the iniquity of those who cheat me surrounds me,
those who trust in their wealth
    and boast of the abundance of their riches?
Truly no man can ransom another,
    or give to God the price of his life,
for the ransom of their life is costly
    and can never suffice,
that he should live on forever
    and never see the pit.

10 For he sees that even the wise die;
    the fool and the stupid alike must perish
    and leave their wealth to others.
11 Their graves are their homes forever,
    their dwelling places to all generations,
    though they called lands by their own names.
12 Man in his pomp will not remain;
    he is like the beasts that perish.

13 This is the path of those who have foolish confidence;
    yet after them people approve of their boasts.  Selah
14 Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol;
    death shall be their shepherd,
and the upright shall rule over them in the morning.
    Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell.
15 But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol,
    for he will receive me. Selah

16 Be not afraid when a man becomes rich,
    when the glory of his house increases.
17 For when he dies he will carry nothing away;
    his glory will not go down after him.
18 For though, while he lives, he counts himself blessed
    —and though you get praise when you do well for yourself—
19 his soul will go to the generation of his fathers,
    who will never again see light.
20 Man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish.

This psalm kind of seems like the flip side of Psalm 23 (the Lord is my shepherd — green pastures, restoration, anointing, overflowing, love, goodness and mercy, a home with God) — Here in Psalm 49 it is death and judgment and emptiness and darkness. The diff. is a life of trust in the Lord vs. a self-dependent life. The person in Ps. 49 is all about me, trying to lay up treasures on earth and acting wickedly to do so.

This psalm is for everybody to remember (see vv. 1-2). Must mean this is a pretty common temptation for us (to envy those who have wealth).

“Man in his pomp” repeated in this psalm, is a good description of the person who rejects God.

Is there anyone I am jealous of right now? (Other pastors with more outwardly prosperous churches maybe)

Lord, keep me from self-centered living and from envying those who live in this way and prosper materially in this life. Give me enough vision to see beyond the temporary to the eternal. Open my eyes to any areas of envy that need to be confessed and work contentment into my heart. Amen.


One Final Note: I want to encourage you to stay away from commentaries and Study Bible notes when you are doing your daily Bible reading. I do not reference commentaries when I read in the morning. Commentaries have their place, but you should first try to wrestle with the meaning of the text yourself. If you come across something you don’t understand, write out what you don’t understand and then wait a day or two before you look it up in a commentary. Sometimes God will bring other Scriptures to your mind that will help you understand. In any event, be judicious in your use of commentaries and Study Bibles so that you don’t shortcircuit the process of prayerfully thinking through the text.



Bible Reading Blog — Psalm 37

19 Mar

We have made it a goal as a church this year to read through a chapter of the Bible each day, five days a week and then to preach the sermon on Sunday from something in those five chapters we read. Another aspect of the reading plan that has been encouraged but not talked about as much is journaling. Here we want to write down our thoughts about the Scripture passage we read as a way to remember. Journaling is a very helpful thing to do as you read through the Bible. I want to share with you my journal this week in the Psalms to give you an idea of what I am talking about. I will paste the Scripture for the day in the space below and share my journal entry at the bottom of the page. I am doing my journal in a Word document on my computer but you might use a physical journal with pen and paper just as well.  In a journal entry I am seeking to interact with the text and how it applies to my life and the lives around me and what it teaches me about God and His ways. It is pretty raw and I may be wrestling with issues in my journal that I haven’t fully resolved and that’s ok. Taking up this practice of journaling will allow you to see your thought patterns and your weak spots. So in addition to reading your Bible in 2018, I encourage you to journal. Here is my entry for today. I don’t give it to you as a perfect example or as something you should mimic, but just as a possible way you can use journaling to meditate over the things you read . . .

Psalm 37 

Fret not yourself because of evildoers;
    be not envious of wrongdoers!
For they will soon fade like the grass
    and wither like the green herb.

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
    dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the Lord,
    and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord;
    trust in him, and he will act.
He will bring forth your righteousness as the light,
    and your justice as the noonday.

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;
    fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,
    over the man who carries out evil devices!

Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
    Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.
For the evildoers shall be cut off,
    but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.

10 In just a little while, the wicked will be no more;
    though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there.
11 But the meek shall inherit the land
    and delight themselves in abundant peace.

12 The wicked plots against the righteous
    and gnashes his teeth at him,
13 but the Lord laughs at the wicked,
    for he sees that his day is coming.

14 The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows
    to bring down the poor and needy,
    to slay those whose way is upright;
15 their sword shall enter their own heart,
    and their bows shall be broken.

16 Better is the little that the righteous has
    than the abundance of many wicked.
17 For the arms of the wicked shall be broken,
    but the Lord upholds the righteous.

18 The Lord knows the days of the blameless,
    and their heritage will remain forever;
19 they are not put to shame in evil times;
    in the days of famine they have abundance.

20 But the wicked will perish;
    the enemies of the Lord are like the glory of the pastures;
    they vanish—like smoke they vanish away.

21 The wicked borrows but does not pay back,
    but the righteous is generous and gives;
22 for those blessed by the Lord shall inherit the land,
    but those cursed by him shall be cut off.

23 The steps of a man are established by the Lord,
    when he delights in his way;
24 though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong,
    for the Lord upholds his hand.

25 I have been young, and now am old,
    yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
    or his children begging for bread.
26 He is ever lending generously,
    and his children become a blessing.

27 Turn away from evil and do good;
    so shall you dwell forever.
28 For the Lord loves justice;
    he will not forsake his saints.
They are preserved forever,
    but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.
29 The righteous shall inherit the land
    and dwell upon it forever.

30 The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,
    and his tongue speaks justice.
31 The law of his God is in his heart;
    his steps do not slip.

32 The wicked watches for the righteous
    and seeks to put him to death.
33 The Lord will not abandon him to his power
    or let him be condemned when he is brought to trial.

34 Wait for the Lord and keep his way,
    and he will exalt you to inherit the land;
    you will look on when the wicked are cut off.

35 I have seen a wicked, ruthless man,
    spreading himself like a green laurel tree.
36 But he passed away, and behold, he was no more;
    though I sought him, he could not be found.

37 Mark the blameless and behold the upright,
    for there is a future for the man of peace.
38 But transgressors shall be altogether destroyed;
    the future of the wicked shall be cut off.

39 The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord;
    he is their stronghold in the time of trouble.
40 The Lord helps them and delivers them;
    he delivers them from the wicked and saves them,
    because they take refuge in him.

Journal for March 19, 2018

Memory verse for March is Psalms 37:1-4 (need to work on these this week to make sure I can do them on Sunday).

I love 37:4! Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.  Parallel to Mt. 6:33.

I don’t think I have too many evildoers in my life right now. It is all more subtle than that. David had people who were out to bring him down, even kill him. He was very aware of the dangers of life. Not sure how to approach this psalm. Maybe spiritually? (The devil prowls like a roaring lion looking to devour).

Big emphasis in this psalm on inheriting the land through trusting in God. Parallel to Sermon on Mount (blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth). The connection of meekness to faith is key. Meekness not = mild-mannered or reserved does = submissive and trusting toward God.

Could Christian application to inheriting the land here also be spiritual? Hebrews 11 and 12, we don’t seek an earthly city but a city from above. That seems to be a difference between OT and NT covenants. OT has all these physical traits (law, temple, Jerusalem, promised land, priestly garments, sacrifices, etc.) which find their fulfillment in the NT through Christ, so that we come to God through Him and not through these physical means. Does this shape how I read psalms like this?

At the same time, even the land promises here have a sort of future tone. Forever is often repeated word in Ps. 37.

Lots of Commands in this passage — Fret not (repeated several times), be not envious, trust in the Lord, do good, delight yourself in the Lord, Commit your way to the Lord, be still before the Lord (I have trouble with that one), wait patiently before Him, refrain from anger and forsake wrath (interesting this follows being still and waiting patiently, I often see a connection between being with Jesus and being less angry), Turn away from evil and do good,  Wait for the Lord and keep His way, mark the blameless and behold the upright.  If I walked in these things today, I’d have a pretty good day even with rough circumstances.

Lord, work in Me that I will trust you and not be overwhelmed by the evil in the world and people that might be against me for whatever reason. Be with my church family today. So many of them are in workplaces where there are evildoers and some are in homes where they have a spouse that doesn’t trust you, or kids that have gone astray. Be near them today and give them strength. Grant us all strength to walk in the good things of this passage (trust, commitment, patience, waiting, doing good, rejecting evil, forsaking anger). Thank you that your purposes will stand in the end and we can have life with you through your Son Jesus. Amen.

Friday Night Ramblings

2 Mar

A few random thoughts on a Friday evening . . .

  • Good fiction and good biography share the common trait of compelling narrative. We seem to be wired for story. Interesting that so much of the Bible is story (and the whole book has an overarching storyline).
  • Reading poetry is a wake-up call for those enmeshed in the information age.
  • I believe most of us would lose weight and feel better if we gave up sugar and simple carbs.
  • I believe giving up sugar and simple carbs is for many of us as difficult as a two pack a day guy quitting smoking.
  • Doing the hard things early in the day is often wise.
  • I would prefer to listen to a “secular” song that grapples with life and reality over a “spiritual” song that is empty or lacking in biblical content.
  • For modern day “spiritual” music that is not lacking in biblical content, I don’t think you can do much better than Andrew Peterson.
  • I admired Billy Graham. Never met him and only heard him once in person. I like the fact that the good news about Jesus went out in his death as it had in his life.
  • Why can’t we look at school shootings in a holistic way instead of running to our ideological corners to defend what we care about or destroy what we detest? Why not instead come together and work together, leaving nothing off the table, using an evidence-based approach to develop policies that will save lives.? We can’t prevent evil behavior but is there a way to protect people while also upholding personal freedom?
  • My favorite movies of the last few years (in no particular order) . . . Lion, Fences, Les Miserables, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Rogue One, LaLa Land, Hidden Figures, Doubt
  • My favorite movies of all time . . . To Kill a Mockingbird, Jaws, On the Waterfront, A Face in the Crowd, A Few Good Men, Shawshank Redemption (TV version), In the Heat of the Night, Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, The Natural, Lord of the Rings Trilogy
  • With all that said, I am not a huge movie person. I may go to two movies a year and don’t watch many on TV.
  • Fiction I enjoyed (but didn’t read until after the age of 40) . . . Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jayber Crow, Hannah Coulter, P.G. Wodehouse books (hilarious).
  • If I could only have one style of music to listen to for the rest of my life I think I would choose the singer-songwriters of the 70’s (James Taylor, Carole King, Bread, Cat Stevens, etc.).
  • Why do some people think being against abortion is only a religious issue? I’d be against it based on the science alone.
  • How many of the decisions we make are rooted in our idolatries? (scary thought)
  • You’re always going to let people down, and they are always going to let you down. When it happens, gratitude is better than bitterness.
  • Jesus is great and He is good. He is full of grace and truth. In His cross we find a firm place to stand and a soft place to fall. We find in His perfect life not only a model but His very righteousness accounted to us through faith. We find in His death on the cross the only way to be delivered from the righteous wrath of God against sin. We find in His empty tomb the proof that He is who He says He is and that as He lives, so will we. This is my hope. I pray you will find life and hope in Him too, the way, the truth and the life.

Be Thou My Vision

7 Jan

Definitely in my top ten favorite hymns, this hymn will open our morning worship service on this first Sunday of 2018. Let these lyrics encourage you today . . .


Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art;
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tow’r:
Raise Thou me heav’nward, O Pow’r of my pow’r.

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heav’n’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

Prayer Days 2018

7 Jan

This year we are happy to be bringing back to our church a practice I first learned at Columbia Bible College years ago, a quarterly Prayer Day. A couple of times each semester classes would be called off for the day and the whole campus would be called together for a day of prayer. This was done in a variety of ways but the focus was on calling on God. This is a practice we want to take up this year as a church.

Our first Prayer Day will be Friday February 2nd. That night at 7pm, we plan to gather together in the sanctuary for an evening of Prayer. John Whaley, US Director of the Rooftop ministry (, will be our guest and he will lead us as a congregation to seek God.

Our second Prayer Day will be on the National Day of Prayer, Thursday May 3rd. That evening, John Whaley will again be with us but we will be meeting at 7pm at Penelope Baptist Church with several other area churches to pray together for God’s working in our lives.

Our third Prayer Day will be on Friday, August 17th, as again we will gather at the church for an evening dedicated to prayer.

Finally, on Sunday evening, November 4th, we will join again in prayer at the church in preparation for our Missions Conference the weekend of November 9th and 10th.

If you are a member of West Hickory Baptist Church, we urge you to come join us for each of these Prayer Days. If you are in the Hickory, NC area, we also invite you to come pray with us. If you go to another church, keep going and support the work God is doing there, but we want to invite you to come pray with us on these days.

For more information about West Hickory Baptist Church, see

Bible Reading 2018

7 Jan

This year we are doing a Bible reading plan at church that starts tomorrow. The plan is to read through several books of the Bible at the pace of one chapter per day, five days a week. The goal is not to get through the whole Bible but just to really listen to what God says through His Word each day. Each member is encouraged not only to read the selected Scripture for the day but to write d own the things in the passage that are noteworthy to them. The hope is that over the course of the year we will see our lives being shaped by daily time with God in His Word.

Here are the quarterly Points of Focus . . .

WINTER 2018 — God’s Wisdom for Life — January through March

Here we will be reading through Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon and a few selected psalms.

SPRING 2018 — God’s Power for Life — April through June

In these months we will be focused on Paul’s epistles, reading from Romans through 1 Thessalonians.

SUMMER 2018 — The Story of God’s People — July through September

During the summer we will reading Old Testament history, from Joshua through 1 Samuel.

FALL 2018 — The Story of Christ and His Church — October through December

In these months we will begin with the gospel of Luke, followed by its companion book Acts, and we will finish the year with the gospel of Mark.

If you’d like to join us, begin tomorrow with Proverbs 1 and read one chapter per day, five days a week. For January, you should have read from Proverbs chapter 1 through chapter 20 by the end of the month. Don’t forget to journal the things God is showing you as you read.




Gentle Encouragement for Parents at Christmastime

7 Dec

Christmas is a time that can really bring families together. But in reality there is often relational strife, unmet expectations, disappointments, stress, anxiety, and just a feeling of being burned out and broken at this time of the year. If you identify with any of that, I have a few simple tips for you that may help you make your way through the season with Jesus at the center and your sanity intact.

First, Christmas is a great time to start (or re-start) Family Devotions. Called by many names (Family Devotions, Bible Time, Family Worship) the practice of gathering your children at a set time each day to read Scripture and pray is an important part of the spiritual life of the family. There are many reasons not to do family devotions (schedules, busyness, etc.) but the benefits far outweigh the challenges. It doesn’t have to be complicated. For example, this year our family is listening to a short Advent devotional from and praying for missions in preparation for the Lottie Moon Christmas offering. It’s nothing complicated. But it is very meaningful.

Second, bring your family to church at Christmas. There are lots of unique opportunities and special services at this time of year, from cantatas to dinners to candlelight services to the regular Sunday morning and Sunday evening services of the church. I think at Christmas you ought to get your family in church every time the doors are open. I believe this because you need a respite from the hustle and bustle of the season. I believe this because you need to re-focus at a time when so many things are clamoring for your attention. But most of all I believe this because your children are watching you. If you set aside church attendance because of the rush of the holiday season, what does that say to them about the importance you place on worship? And as a side note, if you have extended family staying with you this holiday season, don’t let them keep you from church. Show your children that you place a high priority on worshiping God and let that be your testimony to your extended family too. It is not socially inappropriate to tell family staying with you on Saturday night, “We are going to church tomorrow morning. We would love to have you join us, but if you decide to stay here there are things for breakfast for you in the fridge and we’ll be back around noon.” Don’t leave it to them. Have a conviction about the importance of worship and stick to that conviction. You might think I am just saying this because as a pastor I have skin in the matter of church attendance. But my conviction is that weekly worship with a local body of Christ should be a non-negotiable in the life of a believer, unless they are providentially hindered. I am not saying this is a set-in-stone thing or that you are a bad person if you disagree with me, but I do throw it out there for your consideration.

Third, give special attention to cultivating your marriage during the Christmas season. The holidays are a strange mix of frenetic activity and empty time, of well-worn traditions which break the daily routines of life. The holidays are a time that can push couples apart unless they are especially mindful of each other. Serve one another in the frenetic times. Connect with one another in the empty times. Enjoy traditions together, even if they are not your thing. Try to make sure your spouse’s life is made easier because of your genuine sacrificial love and service. Spend some time every day talking together, but guard your heart and your words. In social settings, let your words be full of grace toward your spouse, or else let them be few. Let the wife or husband you are in private be the same as the spouse you are in public, provided that you are seeking to be a godly husband or wife. If you are just living for yourself, let Christmastime be a time that leads you to repentance as you remember that God so loved that He gave. Let Christmas be a time that binds you together rather than breaking you apart.

Finally, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Seek to enjoy this season for what it is rather than for what you hope it will be. Don’t be discouraged when things go wrong, because they always will in a fallen world. Enjoy the journey and don’t spend the whole season waiting for that one favorite thing you always do. And don’t forget those who are struggling with grief and hardship at Christmastime. Maybe the best medicine for your own soul will be to help somebody else.

I do not write these things as one who has mastered them. They are just principles I think are helpful for everyday living that I am striving to see at work in my own life. I hope you find something here that helps you enjoy this time of the year.

Sermon — Matthew 5:1-3

17 Nov

We begin today to take a look at some of the most profound words ever spoken: the Sermon on the Mount. The next three chapters of Matthew which we are planning to study give us the core teaching of the kingdom, what it looks like to be a disciple of Jesus.

Jesus is at the height of His popularity as He begins the Sermon on the Mount and He takes this opportunity, when people are interested in Him, to teach about His kingdom. Jesus died for our sins and rose again on the third day. This is a fact, revealed in Scripture, happening in history and planned by God before the foundation of the world. It is the most important event that has ever taken place. But the death and resurrection of Jesus will not be real to you, it will not be precious to you, it will not make one bit of difference in your life unless the first verse in the Sermon on the Mount is true in your life. So let’s look at the beginning of Jesus’ great Sermon together.

We see in verse 1 that crowds are gathering and Jesus goes up on a mountain and His disciples gather to Him and He begins to teach them. And Jesus utters these words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Here’s the key. Here’s the key to the whole thing. If you don’t have this, you have nothing, if you have this, you have everything. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Why talk about this on Easter? Shouldn’t we be celebrating our risen Savior? Shouting for joy at His triumph over death? Yes. But what I want to say to you today is that many, many people, even some here today, have no excitement about Jesus’ empty tomb. Their lack of excitement is not because their life is hard. It is not because they doubt the truth of the Easter story. It is not even because they have just heard the story so many times before. Many, many people are not excited at all by Easter for one simple reason: they are not poor in spirit. That’s the connection. That’s why I talk about this today, because unless your life aligns with Matthew 5:3 you can’t really appreciate or even hope in the risen Christ. Matthew 5:3 is not only the key to the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, it is the key to our very life with God. That’s why it is worth talking about on this Easter Sunday. So let’s look at it for a few minutes together.

Blessed. The state of being happily favored by God. The state of joy and contentment that flows from living in the presence of God. This is not a shallow happiness nor is it the result of something good in us. It is a gift of grace, this blessedness. Many professing Christians are without this blessedness because they have ignored Matthew 5:3. There is a condition to this blessedness. Blessedness flows to the “poor in spirit.” If we are going to be blessed, we must be poor in spirit.

Jesus wasn’t the first to say this. We read in Isaiah 66; But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. When God says He will look to this one, He means that He will regard them with favor and blessedness. And who is that one? The one who is humble and contrite in spirit and who trembles at the Word of God. Blessed are the poor in spirit.

So Isaiah lets us in on what it means to be poor in spirit. It is not a lack of courage, it is a sense of our utter spiritual bankruptcy and our unending need of God’s grace if we are to know Him and grow in Him. It is the opposite of the proud Pharisee in Jesus’ story in Luke 18 who goes to the Temple to pray to himself, “God I thank you that I am not a sinner.” It is not self-confidence, nor is it a lack of self-confidence. To be poor in spirit means to be confident in God.

The world we live in worships at the altar of self-esteem and self-expression. Anything goes if it’s what I feel. The most important value is sincerity. But the Christian says with Jesus, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

Now everything around you and in you will fight this. The advertising world and the world of entertainment will hold up beauty and wealth and intelligence as the marks of honor and worth in our world. The pressure to achieve will outstrip all other values in the minds of many, so that if my grades are good enough or my job pays well enough or my volunteerism is noble enough or my children are sweet enough then I will be worthy, a cut above all the losers out there who just can’t quite get it together as well as I can. Or if I don’t think they’re losers, maybe I just pity their lack of enlightenment or ability. And when I fall into that way of thinking, I am walking right beside the Pharisee on the road to destruction, whether I am as religious as the Pharisee or not religious at all. You see, the people in our culture who yell the loudest about how mean all the Christians are so often act more like Pharisees than any Christian I know, because their focus is all on self, filled with pride and self-assurance. We love to boast in our accomplishments, which is why the linebacker does a happy dance when he sacks the quarterback even if his team is down 35-0. Blessed are the poor in spirit. If you get that, you’ve got it all, if you don’t, you’ve got nothing. As soon as you get away from your spiritual bankruptcy, you lose sight of your need of Christ. As soon as you lose sight of Christ, He ceases to be precious to you and you begin to lose the experience His power in your life. This can happen to Christians and non-Christians alike. Sometimes the more you come to know as a Christian, the more you come to rely on what you know rather than relying on Christ. Blessed are the poor in spirit.

Now let me be clear. To be poor in spirit does not mean that Christians are a bunch of underachievers who aim for mediocrity. Some of the greatest thinkers and greatest achievers in the world have been and are today strong Christians. Human achievement works on a different level, so that a God-hater may have a great voice or athletic ability, or a sharp mind, just as a God-lover may have these things. So I’m not saying Christians should aim low. We should strive for excellence to the glory of God. But here’s the thing — your excellence or lack of excellence does not define your worth in the sight of God and to hope in excellence or beauty or success or money is a surefire way to spiritual ruin. So do your best, the Bible urges us toward excellent effort in all things. But don’t lean on what you have or how you look or what you can do. Lean on Jesus. The person who is poor in spirit does not think too highly of herself and she does not think too lowly of herself. She really has just stopped thinking of herself much at all. Instead she is looking away from herself and to Jesus. “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness, I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus name.” This is the freedom God intends us to have, a place where we can strive for holiness and for excellence without ever thinking of these things as a way to earn favor with God. We are already blessed because we look to God alone for our life and salvation. He is our God, so our track record of good works or our money or our work ethic never becomes our God, because He is our God. Blessed are the poor in spirit.

Oh, I want you to get this, because if you get it, you’ll understand the gospel and if you don’t, you’ll miss the gospel. The good news of the gospel is seen in the message of Easter: God brings life from death. As God raised Jesus from the dead so through the death of Jesus God makes us who were dead in our sins alive in Christ. We are saved by grace through faith, it is the gift of God, not what we do but what He has done, not our righteousness but the righteousness of Christ. Blessed are the poor in spirit. There is no way into the kingdom of heaven but this. There is no one in the kingdom of heaven who is not poor in spirit. Why? Because you can’t truly encounter God through Jesus Christ and not come away humbled. We see this when the prophet Isaiah saw the glorious vision of God in Isaiah 6 and his response was, “Woe is me! I am ruined. I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips and my eyes have seen the king!” What happened to Isaiah when He saw the glory of God? Blessed are the poor in spirit. The same happens to us when we see the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world dying and rising for sinner’s gain.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts it this way. “The Christian and non-Christian belong to two entirely different realms. My immediate reaction to these Beatitudes proclaims exactly what I am. If I feel they are harsh and hard, if I feel that they are against the grain and depict a character and type of life which I dislike, I am afraid it just means I am not a Christian. If I do not want to be like this, I must be “dead in trespasses and sins”; I can never have received new life. But if I feel that I am unworthy and yet I want to be like that, well, however unworthy I may be, if this is my desire and my ambition, there must be new life in me, I must be a child of God, I must be a citizen of the kingdom of heaven and God’s dear Son. Let every man examine himself.”

My question for you this morning is which song are you listening to? Are you listening to the late John Lennon’s song called God, which ends with a long list of things he doesn’t believe in . . .

I don’t believe in Bible
I don’t believe in tarot
I don’t believe in Hitler
I don’t believe in Jesus
I don’t believe in Kennedy
I don’t believe in Buddha
I don’t believe in mantra
I don’t believe in Gita
I don’t believe in yoga
I don’t believe in kings
I don’t believe in Elvis
I don’t believe in Zimmerman
I don’t believe in Beatles
I just believe in me
Yoko and me
And that’s reality

That is one choice. Many people take that road. Jesus calls it a broad road that leads to destruction.

But there is another song out there . . . “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” “Just as I am without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me, and that Thou bidst me come to Thee, O Lamb of God I come. Yea, all I need, in Thee to find, O Lamb of God, I come.” Blessed are the poor in spirit.

Sermon — Matthew 3:7-12 — The Gospel: Comfort and Warning

18 Oct

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” I remember one time when I was a youth leader having a yard sale. Yard sales usually make very little money for the amount of time you have to put into them. So here I was with a yard sale at another church. And the people of the church brought all their stuff and we filled up the church fellowship hall and then people started coming. Before we started I noticed a big ceramic frog sitting on a table. I chuckled. It was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen. Big round bright green frog with a cartoon face. I said to one of the youth, “There’s no way anybody’s going to buy that frog.” Well, you probably know how the story ends. Somebody bought the frog during the first fifteen minutes of the yard sale. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. And you know, that’s the way I think the gospel is to people. To some people, it’s worthless. To others, it is the greatest treasure in the world. Of course, in reality, it is the greatest treasure in the world, not because of how we feel about it but because God has made it so. The worth of all things is defined by God, not by us. Still, though, we often reject God’s view of things. Sometimes we even reject God’s view of things while still being very religious. There’s a whole category of people today who say, “I’m spiritual” but they totally reject what God has said about the realities of life. They are making a god in their own image and feeling good about it. And that is not unlike what the religious leaders of the Jews: the Pharisees and Sadducees, did. And this is why John the Baptist addressed them when they came out to see him. He wanted to call them away from their false image of God and themselves to a true and real repentance and faith. And so he points them to the comfort and warning found in the good news of the kingdom. This morning we’re going to look at Matthew 3:7-12.

 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Wow, John, that’s kind of harsh! Calling these guys the offspring of snakes! Yet again, John is basically saying what we said last week, “Wake up!” The Pharisees and Sadducees were religious leaders, and as such they were the most likely to put their security in their own religious activities and not really consider the condition of the hearts before God. Have you ever wondered how preachers can fall into affairs and all kinds of terrible sin? It happens way more than we’d like to admit. And I think the reason it happens is because preachers, in bringing the Word of God week by week, sometimes lose the wonder of knowing God. We become inoculated against the very things we preach week by week. The condition of our hearts does not match the content of our words. The one thing all preachers and teachers must focus on most is their own heart. If I do not cultivate a heart of repentance and faith I am a sitting duck for hypocrisy. And so are you. This was the chief problem both John and Jesus had with the religious leaders: their inward life bore little resemblance to their outward life.

The Pharisees and the Sadducees were very different people. The Pharisees were numerous and popular, viewed as the upstanding, godly people of their day. They cared about the law of God and even built a fence around the law, coming up with additional regulations that were supposed to keep you far from breaking God’s law but which actually became a law unto itself that degenerated into legalism and formalism and self-righteousness and hypocrisy. Jewish heritage was all-important to the Pharisees. They saw their lives of purity as the key to national revival in Israel and the rule of God overcoming the rule of Rome. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were considered more liberal in their standards, rejecting the traditions of the Pharisees but also rejecting some truths that were clearly from God, like the reality of a future resurrection and a future judgment and the reality of angels and spirits. They were too sophisticated for such beliefs and they often cultivated a lavish lifestyle and sought cultural power.  They were respected because of their position and power and people in Jesus’ day, even as in our day, often considered a rich person blessed by God and a poor person cursed.

These Pharisees and Sadducees were coming to John’s baptism probably to check it out, maybe even to see if there was some way they could exploit John’s popularity for their own ends. John sees right through them and gives this stern warning.

John associates these religious leaders with the offspring of snakes. By calling them offspring John is probably connecting them to the corrupt priests of the Old Testament who persecuted the prophets. So John is saying the leaders of his day are just as bad as the leaders of yesterday. The religious leaders appear to be the cream of the crop but because of their hypocrisy they lead others away from spiritual life. In this way, they are like that original serpent, the devil, who led Adam and Eve away from spiritual life with the promise of a new and better life. Jesus will go on to make this association directly, calling the religious leaders children of the evil one.

John not only called out the religious leaders for their true identity, he also talked about the wrath to come. This would have struck a nerve with the Sadducees in particular, as John was making clear, contrary to their beliefs, that a judgment was coming, God’s wrath was going to be poured out. The way to get out from under that wrath is found in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.  Repentance and faith. Sadly, the religious leaders had neither. They were self-assured. This is why John gave them such a harsh message. The old cliché is right: “Good preaching comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” Consistent with the preaching of the New Testament, we find a holy boldness in confronting unrepentant people and compassion for those who repent. And both actions are loving, because without repentance no one will believe and be reconciled to God. If I saw my child in danger in the middle of the road with the truck bearing down on them but didn’t want to upset them by speaking to them harshly, I would not be loving them, I would be hating them. Having my child upset because I yelled to them, “Get out of the road!” is worth it, because that yell saved them from death. In the same way, a strong message of repentance to a self-assured people can be life-giving. John goes on to point to the weaknesses of the Pharisees and Sadducees in order, starting with verse 8 . . .

 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.

This must have cut the Pharisees deeply. They were the pure ones, the examples of virtue for the whole nation, yet John says their fruit is rotten. Fruit in keeping with repentance is about recognizing our sin and turning to God in humble faith. The Pharisees were about recognizing the sin in others and trumpeting their own so-called acts of righteousness. Much like the fig tree with leaves but no fruit, the Pharisees had the outward appearance of spiritual life but there was no inward reality. The fruit of repentance for us is to walk in the light of the Lord, as we read in Ephesians 5:8-11, for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. So John’s first challenge, primarily to the Pharisees, is that their apparently fruitful lives are not so fruitful after all. His second challenge to them comes in verse 9 . . .

And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.

John goes after the Pharisees next on the matter of their heritage. Don’t trust in your hypocritical works and don’t trust in your heritage as children of Abraham. The people coming to be baptized were getting this. They were recognizing that they needed hearts of repentance and faith not merely blood relation to Abraham if they were to be the people of God. So they adopted the approach of the Gentile convert to Judaism by being baptized. “We’re just as needy as the Gentiles, we’re not trusting in Abraham’s bloodline.” This was an attack on everything the Pharisees stood for because they though salvation was theirs by right through their being part of the covenant people of God and here comes John saying what Paul will basically say in the book of Romans, “A Jew is not a Jew outwardly, but from the heart.” The heart is all-important. The kingdom is at hand. If you are going to get in on it, you have to repent. It’s really very similar to the discussion Jesus had with the Pharisee, Nicodemus, “You must be born again.” Everything you’ve been relying on will do you no good.

Isn’t it interesting that John doesn’t hold back from giving the bad news? I mean, we are so tempted to hedge on things like God’s judgment and hell because we don’t want to make anybody mad. We shouldn’t preach hell with a smile on our face, we shouldn’t want anyone to go there but we must be willing to warn people that hell is a reality with which we must reckon. So many times we want to get to the good news before we’ve really laid out the bad news. But that approach just leads to a bunch of unrepentant people professing Jesus with their lips and denying Him with their lives. Until we feel the weight of our sin against God and the reality of His judgment against sin, we will not be compelled to repent. And without repentance, there can be no true enjoyment of the good news.

So this is John’s message to the Pharisees: Don’t trust in your track record, and don’t trust in your heritage. Repent. In verse 10, I believe, he turns his attention back to the Sadducees . . .

10 Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

The Pharisees were legalists, holding onto heritage and self-righteousness to make their way with God. So they needed to be warned that their works were not as good as they thought and their blood relation to Abraham was no guarantee of being in God’s family. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were worldly. They were about acquiring wealth and influence, they were very much focused on this life. So they needed a wake-up call about the true nature of reality, which John begins to give them in verse 10.

The ax is at the root of the trees. The root. That’s an unusual way to cut down a tree, unless you’re trying to be totally rid of a tree. Then you go at the roots. But here there is no stump, it is roots and all. Proud Sadducees, all your energies have gone into this life, building up your own little world of influence, making for yourself a legacy, but now the ax is coming down on the roots of that life, it’s all going to be taken from you and cast into the fire. There’s still time. The ax is there but it’s not swinging yet. So repent.

To bear good fruit is to live a life of repentance and faith. To bear bad fruit is to live a life of pride and self-reliance. Good fruit leads to life, bad fruit leads to damnation. So John is pleading with the Sadducees not to merely live for today, but to think about the future, to consider their destiny. In verse 11, he warns them of the coming of the King, a coming that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

John makes a comparison between himself and the one to come: Jesus. John makes it clear that there is a stark difference between himself and Jesus. John is not worthy of to be Jesus’ lowly servant. Jesus is far more powerful than John. And Jesus will bring a very different kind of baptism than John, not a baptism of water for repentance but a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire.

The comparison John makes is amazing because by earthly standards John is incredibly powerful and the Holy Spirit is with him. It is obvious that John was highly sought after by the people, deeply courageous in speaking the truth to the powerful and totally willing to give his life to the purposes of God. Jesus Himself would later say, “Among those born of women no one has arisen who is greater than John.” Yet here John says in comparison to Jesus he is not worthy to be the lowliest household slave. There can only be one reason why such a great man as John would say what he says here about Jesus. It can only be that Jesus is not a mere man. John is not speaking with false humility, he is just recognizing how much greater Jesus is than he is.

The same truth is clear when John talks about the Holy Spirit. It is clear that the Holy Spirit was active in the ministry of John. There is no way all those people would have gone out into the wilderness to be baptized if the Holy Spirit had not been working. I mean, it’s easy to get people to come out for a show. That’s true in church life and in life outside the church. Put together a show and people will come out. But John’s ministry was not a show. The people who came out were not coming out as spectators. John was calling them to an action, baptism, which would crush all their pride as Jews. Since baptism was one of the ways a Gentile converted to become a Jew, John’s ministry was a humbling and costly ministry to those Jews who participated in baptism. They were basically admitting that they were no better than Gentiles, that they too were in need of baptism. So John was not doing something that would have been naturally appealing to people. So for his actions to receive such a favorable response from the people is a sign that the Holy Spirit is at work.

And yet John says that the One who is to come is far mightier than John. He says He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. So this coming One, Jesus the Messiah, will bring the work of the Holy Spirit to a whole new level. And of course we know the rest of the story: Jesus, dying for our sins, rising from the dead, ascending to heaven, on the day of Pentecost sends the Holy Spirit and He fills the believers there and all believers since. So John is not saying, before Jesus, no Spirit, after Jesus, the Spirit. He is instead saying, before Jesus: the work of the Spirit prepares the way, after Jesus: the fullness of the Spirit at work in God’s people.

And this is what the prophet Jeremiah had said would happen when the Savior came, “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. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

So there is great comfort in John’s words because there is a great Savior coming who is going to deal with the sin the people are repenting of. It’s not enough to repent. That’s a starting point but repentance in itself doesn’t save us. Sin must not only be acknowledged and regretted and turned away from it must also be dealt with. And we, as sinners, cannot save ourselves from our sins. We need a Savior. Jesus has come to be that Savior. And when He saves us, he gives us freedom from God’s wrath, freedom from sin’s power over us, the promise of eternal life, the presence of the Holy Spirit and a thousand other gifts of grace. So John’s ministry, as powerful as it was, was limited. It was a preparatory, foundational ministry. Repent in order to prepare your hearts for the salvation that is coming. But if the salvation had never come the repentance would have been utterly meaningless. But salvation has come, full of grace and truth.

But I also believe John has given us a warning here, because not only will Jesus baptize with the Holy Spirit, he will also baptize with fire. Now this fire baptism has been debated through the years. What does John mean, he will baptize you with fire? And the reason it is debated is because fire in the Bible is used to illustrate both judgment and purification. Sometimes fire illustrates how God will bring judgment on a non-believer and sometimes fire is used to illustrate how God will refine or purify a believer. So which is it here? That is the question that people have discussed through the years. When I first started studying this passage I thought John was talking about the refining fire the Holy Spirit would bring in the lives of believers. But I now think the context of the passage points strongly to the fire Jesus brings here being the fire of judgment on unbelievers.

Jesus will bring the Holy Spirit to those who repent and believe, like the ones here who are coming for baptism. But He will bring the judgment of fire to the unrepentant and unbelieving, like the Pharisees and Sadducees who have come to see John. If you look at verse 10, you see a reference to fire, and it is the fire of judgment. If you look in verse 12, you see a reference to fire, and it is the fire of judgment. So here in verse 11, it seems that consistency would lead us to say that this fire too that Jesus brings is a fire of judgment.

 John MacArthur explains how this view of the baptism of fire being judgment in this passage is backed up by the prophecy of Malachi. He says, “It had been predicted by Malachi that the Messiah would purify the nation.  He predicted it.  He predicted that when He came He would come with fire, that He would purify.  But listen to me.  Listen to Malachi 3:1 “Behold I will send my Messenger he shall prepare the way before me”…that’s John the Baptist…”and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant…”  Now, what happens when He comes?  “…who may abide the day of His coming?  And who shall stand when He appeareth?”  Listen to this. “For He is like a refiner’s”…what?…”fire…And He shall sit like a refiner and purifier of silver…purify the sons of Levi, purge them like gold and silver…”  Now, this tells us that He’s coming to purify the nations.  But how?  By just removing the dross, just cleaning them up a little bit?  No.  Chapter 4, it tells us how, verses 1 to 3.  “…the day cometh that shall burn like an oven and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly shall be stubble…the day that cometh shall burn them up…”  In other words, this isn’t just purification; this is consummation…shall burn them up, see.  The fire predicted in chapter 3 is described in chapter 4 of Malachi as that which burns up, consumes the wicked like stubble.  And, beloved, John the Baptist, 400 years later, picked right up where Malachi left off and he says, Israel, He’s coming and He’s coming for salvation and He’s coming to baptize you with the Spirit, but if you reject Him, He’ll come with the baptism of fire, just as Malachi said it 400 years ago.”

Now you might say, “Well, I thought Jesus in his first coming did not come to bring judgment but salvation. And there is certainly truth to that, He came to save. But Jesus also by His very nature makes neutrality impossible: you must reject Him or receive Him. And this makes His coming, while a glorious gift of grace, also divisive. Jesus even says in Luke 12:49 “I have come to send fire on the earth . . . do you think I have come to bring peace on earth? No but rather division. From now on houses will be divided, family member against family member.”  So with his words about the ministry of Jesus, that He would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, John is comforting the afflicted (promising the repentant that they would have the Spirit) and afflicting the comfortable (warning the Pharisees and Sadducees that a fearful fiery judgment was coming). And verse 12 says that judgment is coming soon.

 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

The ax is at the root of the tree, the winnowing fork is in His hand. Words of warning. The winnowing fork is used to toss the grain into the air as a way to separate the good wheat from the chaff, the debris that is gathered along with the wheat when it is harvested. This verse is talking about the future judgment. Jesus will gather His people but the unbeliever will be like chaff that will be burned with unquenchable fire. The amazing comfort is in the security of the wheat being gathered into the barn. Nothing can touch it. It is safe and secure. And it is all gathered. And so it is for all who repent and believe. We are safe in the presence of God and forever can enjoy Him and one day will be gathered with Him forever. The grace of this passage cannot be overstated. For those who repent and believe there is the promise of salvation and a fruitful life and the Holy Spirit and the final gathering into the presence of the Savior, forever safe and secure. But the horror of this passage can also not be overstated. For those who reject Jesus the Savior, there is the reality of damnation, a fruitless life, the fire of judgment marking a person as chaff, worthless, only to be thrown out and burned with unquenchable fire. Unquenchable. Forever safe or forever damned, that is the picture Jesus is giving us here. Judgment and salvation will be thorough, no one will escape. And judgment and salvation will be right. There will be no mistakes. No wheat will be thrown out, no chaff will be retained. There will be no mistakes in separating believer from unbeliever.

This passage is a word of comfort to those who know they have nothing to offer God but empty hands of faith. It is a joy to those who are burned out, beat up and broken. All we need to do is repent and believe. Turn away from sin and turn to God.

But this passage is a terribly fearful passage for the secure. For those who feel like they have it all together, for those to whom outward appearance is everything. Our danger as churchgoers is that we never come to the waters to repent but we only come to observe. Our danger is that we never personally give ourselves to the life of the kingdom even as we are there watching it all unfold in other people’s lives. Our danger as churchgoers is that we become Pharisees or Sadducees, either leaning on our own righteousness or just writing off the reality of God’s judgment as being something not realistic. Trying to bring in the kingdom through our own wits and willpower or denying the kingdom altogether and just trying to build our own little kingdoms of wealth and fun and success. And John comes to us today and says, come to the One who is now here. Come to Jesus. He will forgive and restore and give you new life. The alternative is to go your own way and in rebellion face a fruitless life and a Christ-less eternity of punishment.  Isaiah 45:22 says, “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth. For I am God and there is no other.” Some today criticize hell. They act as if God is saying, “Love me and if you don’t I’ll send you to hell forever.” They don’t understand that we God’s judgment as the fruit of a faithless life. It is not arbitrary but is an expression of His holiness against sin and rebellion. As Christians, we do not celebrate hell but we dare not deny it. Our job is to offer hope to the hopeless and warning to those who are trusting in their own righteousness while at the same time making sure we don’t become hopeless or self-righteous ourselves. This is our message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is here.” That’s good news. 


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