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Sermon — John 1:4,5 “Christ the Light”

8 Jan

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.

           As we begin our new year with the theme “you are the light of the world,” we must remember we can only be the light of the world because Jesus is the light of the world. Though we were made in God’s image and are loved by Him, because of humanity’s fall into sin we must acknowledge that in us is darkness. We are born sinful, selfish in inclination and we show in our daily actions our tendency toward living in darkness. We have already this day probably sinned in thought or action or word. Without Jesus, we have no lasting light to give, we tend to spread darkness instead. So as we think about ourselves as the light of the world in 2019, we must remember that being the light of the world is only possible through faith in Jesus Christ. As we turn from sin and trust Him to save us from sin and self, He begins to change us, He begins to shape us, He begins to make us like Himself: holy, loving, faithful, and true. No one can be the light of the world apart from the saving grace of the One who is the light of the world. In creation, when light was given, the formless and void universe began to take shape. So with us, when the light of Christ comes into our life, He begins to change us and shape us and make us His own, so that we then become the light of the world. And if we are to be the light of the world in 2019, we must focus on the light of Christ within us rather than our earthen vessels and our feet of clay. Instead of obsessing over looks or finances or success or politics or comfort or all the other things of this life, let us look unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. Our scripture text shows us the way of life and light. The alternative is darkness and death. Without Jesus, that’s all we get in the end . . . darkness and death. But light has come into the world. And it shines in the darkness, even today. And by grace through faith, we have life, abundant life that rings out to eternity.

          In Him was life. He who is the way, the truth, and the life has life in Himself, which He gives to all who believe. And how does He give this life? Through giving up His own life. His death brings us life. His facing darkness gives us light.

He is the light. The light of the world, who forgives the darkness of all who believe. Go with me for a moment to the cross. The end and the beginning. The light shines in the darkness. Never did the light shine as it did in this darkness. George Herbert’s words came to me as I meditated on these things, from his poem, The Sacrifice . . .

O all ye who pass by, behold and see;

Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree;

The tree of life to all, but only me:  Was ever grief like mine?


Lo, here I hang, charged with a world of sin,

The greater world o’ th’ two; for that came in

By words, but this by sorrow I must win:

Was ever grief like mine?


Such sorrow as, if sinful man could feel,

Or feel his part, he would not cease to kneel.

Till all were melted, though he were all steel:

Was ever grief like mine?


But, O my God, my God! why leav’st thou me,

The Son, in whom thou dost delight to be?

My God, my God ——

Never was grief like mine.


Shame tears my soul, my body many a wound;

Sharp nails pierce this, but sharper that confound; Reproches, which are free, while I am bound. Was ever grief like mine?


Now heal thy self, Physician; now come down.

Alas! I did so, when I left my crown

And fathers smile for you, to feel his frown:

Was ever grief like mine?


In healing not myself, there doth consist

All that salvation, which ye now resist;

Your safety in my sickness doth subsist:

Was ever grief like mine?


Betwixt two thieves I spend my utmost breath,

As he that for some robbery suffereth.

Alas! What have I stolen from you?  Death.

Was ever grief like mine?


A king my title is, prefixt on high;

Yet by my subjects am condemn’d to die

A servile death in servile company:

Was ever grief like mine?


They give me vinegar mingled with gall,

But more with malice: yet, when they did call,

With Manna, Angels food, I fed them all:

Was ever grief like mine?


They part my garments, and by lot dispose

My coat, the type of love, which once cur’d those Who sought for help, never malicious foes: Was ever grief like mine?


Nay, after death their spite shall further go;

For they will pierce my side, I full well know;

That as sin came, so Sacraments might flow:

Was ever grief like mine?

But now I die; now all is finished.

My wo, mans weal: and now I bow my head.

Only let others say, when I am dead,

Never was grief like mine.

The man of sorrows, the Son of Man, the Son of God at the close of an earthly life of perfection, compassion and spiritual power has been shamelessly betrayed, falsely convicted, ridiculed, insulted, and brutally beaten. He is stretched upon a cross and viciously nailed there. He is hanged between two thieves. He who never so much as had a sinful thought is treated as a common criminal. The light of the world is being horribly mistreated, really beyond our imagining. Yet words of forgiveness and care come from His lips. And as the light of the world sacrifices Himself for our sakes, in the strange symmetry of God’s wise plan, darkness falls over the earth and the God-Man is God-forsaken. But the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it.

The light has come and shines in the darkness, even the darkness of His own death. But if the light that shines in the darkness is finally extinguished on the cross, no matter the magnitude of the sacrifice, we are left without hope and without God in the world. If the cross is the end, death wins. But on the third day, with the breaking of the day, with the dawning of the light, the stone is rolled away, the Son has risen, the One who was dead is raised to life as the light of a new day dawns. Why? Because the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. What all the forces of evil hoped for on the cross came to naught as Jesus was raised in victory. The light could not be extinguished. He rose not as a flickering candle on a stormy night. He rose not as he came, a tiny baby born on a dark night illuminated by a wondrous star. No, He rose on the early morn as the blazing sun on the horizon of history, illuminating the world, bringing a new day. “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” This risen Christ is our hope. And His is a hope that shines. He didn’t have just this moment, just these few years on earth to shine. No, the light shines in the darkness. Present tense. When we look at Jesus in His perfect life, His atoning death, His glorious resurrection, His victorious ascension, and His eagerly-awaited return, how can we say anything about Him other than what He said in John 8:12, “I am the light of the world”?

The good news is that what happened on that first Easter morn is the spiritual experience of all who truly trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins and their reconciliation with God. Light has dawned and life has come. Death has been defeated and darkness flees. Can’t you identify with Charles Wesley’s hymn And Can it Be? “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night. Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light. My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth and followed Thee. Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou my God woulds’t die for me?” Our hearts were enlightened through Jesus’ saving grace and the Spirit’s eye-opening work. So often when we talk about our salvation we say, “I saw the light” or “the lightbulb came on.” Suddenly things I have heard for years made sense. And not only in our salvation but now in our daily life, light has come. We have been delivered from the domain of darkness into His marvelous light and are now urged to walk in the light. And even now we shine like lights in the world as we hold out the Word of life. And in the end, when we are glorified, one day, we are going to shine. Matthew 13 – “The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” The Father, the One who loved us so much that He gave His only Son in death to make those living in death and darkness His very own sons and daughters. This is the gospel. God makes His enemies not only His friends but His very children through the sacrifice of His Son. God made us and loves us. But because of sin, we are in darkness. Yet in God is no darkness at all. So He sent His beloved Son Jesus to walk through the darkness of the cross, to pay the penalty for our sins, to take the judgment we deserved. Through faith in Jesus, light enters our hearts.

Light and Life to all He brings, Ris’n with healing in His wings. Mild He lays His glory by, Born that men no more may die, Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth.” This is the good news we are called to share with others. Not the light of ourselves or our goodness, but the light of the gospel, the good news that God delivers us from the domain of darkness and transfers us into the kingdom of His beloved Son. Of course, we share more than words, but our acts of love are empowered by and point to Jesus because the adequacy is from God and not from ourselves and the glory belongs to God and not to us. He gets the glory and we get the blessing of walking with Him as His children. And when darkness veils our eyes for the last time and we never wake again in this world, we know as sons and daughters of the King that we enter a new and endless day. We know in the end . . . Revelation 21 . . . And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.24 By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25 and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.

This year, we are going to try to do a hymn of the month. Sometimes it may be a familiar hymn and sometimes a new hymn, but we will try to sing it each Sunday of the month. This month, we will be singing a great hymn from Stuart Townend and Keith Getty. This hymn so fits the message this morning that I decided to move Victory in Jesus to another week.

In Christ alone, my hope is found,

He is my light, my strength, my song;
This Cornerstone, this solid Ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My Comforter, my All in All,
Here in the love of Christ I stand.

In Christ alone! – who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe.
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied –
For every sin on Him was laid;
Here in the death of Christ, I live.

There in the ground, His body lay,
Light of the world by darkness slain:
Then bursting forth in glorious day
Up from the grave, He rose again!
And as He stands in victory
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me,
For I am His and He is mine –
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand:
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ, I’ll stand.

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. Amen. Let’s stand together and sing.



Death Undone — Mark 16:1-8

7 Jan

Our scripture text is Mark 16:1-8 . . .

When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

 On this last Sunday of the year, as we have remembered those who have passed away in 2018, I thought it appropriate to consider today a theme from Mark’s gospel which will lift our spirits and fill us with hope if we will hear it. It is the theme of resurrection. Christmas is over, so now we enter the period we call winter without much to look forward to except entry into a new year, a new year filled with high aspirations but likely to end with shattered dreams, unforeseen challenges, and unexpected twists. Call me a cynic, but it is the nature of life in a fallen world: nothing ever quite works according to our expectations. Some may counsel us in light of this fact to abandon our expectations, or at least to lower them. But when I look at the scriptures, I am compelled to a new vision, a higher one, a deeper one. It is a vision that rings true to our hearts. But we have an annoying tendency to choose what is false and temporary over what is eternal. In the end, unless we see the deeper and higher reality of resurrection, we’re unlikely to end up anywhere in this life but frustrated and flummoxed and in the life to come we are absolutely certain to find ourselves in an eternity of misery. So I come here this morning to urge you to cast your anchor into the rock of resurrection and not the sands of this life. I come to exhort you to bank of what is to come rather than what is. I come to encourage hope in place of anxiety and holy awe in place of self-obsession.

Resurrection is everywhere but we seldom see. Or if we see we do not consider. We see it in every sunrise if we have eyes to see. The earth’s rotation in relation to the sun gives us a daily glimpse of light from darkness, of life from death. We see it in the seasons, as the tilt of the earth and its revolution around the sun produces those distinctive cycles of decay, death, and rebirth. Resurrection is seen in nature, as in the life cycle of the butterfly, cocooned a plain caterpillar, emerging a splendid beauty, some even called monarchs, another word for those who reign.

          What did those women see, on that first resurrection day? Were they looking for life? Certainly not. They were expecting death and decay. That’s why they went to the tomb with spices, to preserve the body in death. We’re often not looking for resurrection when it is right in front of us, because so often life has beaten us up and torn us down. We live in a world of suffering, and many of you who walked that path of suffering with your loved one in 2018 have the scars to show, scars that will heal in years rather than days. And in that suffering, you may be straining to see resurrection. You, like the women, may be occupied by death rather than life. You are trying to figure out how you will go on from here, what life looks like without your loved one. You believe in resurrection, it’s just not much on your mind right now. You’re not a lot different from those ladies at the tomb on Sunday morning, who would have affirmed the general spiritual principle of resurrection but couldn’t imagine it in the here and now.

The fact is, like these ladies, for many of you not only is resurrection not much on your mind, you’re not particularly well-equipped to deal with the problems of everyday life right in front of you. There’s a big stone in the way for the women, sealed up and heavy. There’s no way they’re moving that thing. They are going to need help. They are talking to each other, expressing their anxiety about the stone, just as we so often in our helplessness share our anxieties with one another. What is around the corner? What fearful thing will face me tomorrow? We have all learned from being in this body of believers that we are not able to control the future. A church member that is one day a vibrant part of the congregation is the next day struck with some disease or faces some other terrible tragedy. We are not very well-equipped to face the present with all its uncertainty. So we fear. And we share our fears with each other if we don’t bottle them up. But whether suppressed or expressed, these worries claw away at us and “what-if’s” rule the day. And so we go out at the dawn of a cold and dark new year, with just enough light to see, maybe feeling that all is lost, just trying to make defeat palatable, wondering how even that will be done.

Who will roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb? Who will be here for me now that my loved one is gone? What will happen to me if my health declines? How will I cope if my children forsake God? What of the future of our country, the future of our church? All these questions of the present overwhelm us so that we don’t see the rising of the sun. Like an endless stream of cloudy days blocking the light, the storms obscure our view. Are we left here alone? Who will move the stone?

We walk the dusty path with the women, step by step to the tomb. And we find the heavy stone, the insurmountable object, has been rolled away. But when did the women see it? Mark makes it very clear – “and looking up” – they saw the stone rolled away. Hope comes from looking up. What is impossible for men is possible for God. How do we face a world where all seems lost? We come to the empty tomb. And what do we find there? The stone has been rolled away. The stone wasn’t rolled away so Jesus could get out, it was rolled away so we could look in. And as in the case of the veil of the temple, torn from top to bottom, so it is with the empty tomb – the way of access to God has been opened. The stone has been rolled away. Worries and fears of this life are rendered powerless by the power of God, who raised Christ from the dead. Jesus the Nazarene, a real human being in a real time and place, who was crucified, has risen. The One who gave His life to save His people from their sins has won the victory.

“Thine is the glory, risen, conqu’ring Son; endless is the vict’ry Thou o’er death hast won. Angels in bright raiment rolled the stone away, kept the folded grave-clothes where Thy body lay.

Lo, Jesus meets us, risen from the tomb. Lovingly He greets us, scatters fear and gloom; let His church with gladness hymns of triumph sing, for the Lord now liveth; death hath lost its sting.

No more we doubt Thee, glorious Prince of life!! Life is nought without Thee; aid us in our strife; make us more than conqu’rors, through Thy deathless love; bring us safe through Jordan to Thy home above.”

This is the ground of our hope. If only for this life we have hope, we are to be pitied above all men. I heard this week that the oldest living man in the United States, aged 112, had passed away. And we think, what a long life. Yet it is just a blip on the radar of time. It is just a vapor. Most of us in this room have lived a lot more years than we have left to live. If only for this life we have hope, we are to be pitied above all men. But what if I told you there was life beyond life? And what if I told you that this empty tomb on the first Easter morn was its proof? This is what the Bible has promised all along. This is what nature pictures for us every day of our lives. This is the reality that can carry you through a hundred storms and safely through to the other side. The alternative is a bundle of anxieties, a collection of empty pleasures, and an eternity of deathly anguish apart from the giver of life. Do you have ears to hear? Do you have eyes to see? If your soul is dull to these things, cry out to God right now, ask Him to reveal His risen Son to you. Look up. Look to Jesus.

For those here who are trusting in the risen Savior Jesus today, would you follow the call of the angel? Would you now make it your life’s work to go and tell? As the women were charged to tell the disciples and Peter, will you tell everyone around you, even the ones like Peter who have turned away from the Savior, will you tell everyone this good news?

You see, this is the good news we have to share with the world. Our message is not family values. Our message is not God and country. Our message is not social justice. Our message is not theological knowledge. Our message is not sentimental, warm feelings. Our message is not religious ritual. Our message is not following traditions or chasing after trends. Our message is the EMPTY TOMB! Our message is the RISEN CHRIST! It is the only truth worth living for and it is the only truth worth dying for. This is the good news we have to share with the world. Don’t get sidetracked by questions about Cain’s wife or the ark or sexual morality. Keep this issue of the dying and rising Christ front and center. That’s what the New Testament does and that was part of the secret of the massive success of the early church. They didn’t get sidetracked from the gospel message. The good news gave them life. The good news gave them hope, even in the midst of persecution. And they shared it with others freely and fearlessly because they found life in it. Does your faith in Jesus bring you life and hope? You who closed the eyes of your loved one this year, your hope is found in these words of Jesus, “Because I live, you will live also.” If your loved one trusted Jesus, they are raised to life with Him. They are eternally in His presence, where there is fullness of joy. And you have the assurance of joining them through faith in Christ. This is our message, this is our hope, this is the anchor that will hold. He is risen, just as He said. Amen.




Life in the Father’s House: A Meditation on Luke 15:11-32

28 Oct

Ours is a day of disconnection and uncertainty. We are more connected than ever through technology but also more isolated and lonely than ever. There seems to be no unifying purpose to life and where there is no purpose there is no hope. So it is in view of these realities that we turn to Luke 15 today in search of hope.

Luke 15 (New American Standard Bible) . . . 11 And He said, “A man had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. 13 And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living.14 Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. 17 But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’ 20 So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; 23 and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. 29 But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; 30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’”

May the Lord bless the reading of His Word.

I think in this room today there may be many younger brothers and sisters and many older brothers and sisters which line up with the sons in this story. The younger brother is the one we call the prodigal son, the wasteful one. But the fact is both brothers were lost. The younger brother is just more obvious about it. He’s done with his family. He wants his share of his father’s estate, about 1/3 of his father’s possessions. This is something that wasn’t supposed to come to him until after his father’s death so basically he is telling his father that he wishes the father dead. And his father gave him his inheritance. He went far away and wasted his life, spending all his money on fleeting pleasures and ending up in poverty. He has to go feed pigs on a farm. No one helps him. No one is there for him. He chose the path of independence and now he is living with it. He is longing to eat pig slop he is so hungry. And then the Bible tells us in verse 17 that he came to his senses. He realizes out here on his own he is worse off than even the lowliest hired hand on his father’s estate. So he comes up with a plan. He will go back and apologize to his father and ask to be made a servant.

There is another brother. He asks for nothing. He serves faithfully. He keeps all the rules. He is an achiever. He’s got what it takes to get the job done. He’s the kind of guy you want to work with. But don’t cross him. He’s got a mind like a steel trap and he doesn’t suffer fools. He remembers what his younger brother did, how he dishonored the father, how he went away to live for himself. He’s not going to do that. He’s going to be good. He’s going to make his way with the father by being the exact opposite of his prodigal brother. He’s going to measure everything and make sure he’s doing it right.

These two men illustrate two ways people try to find their way in life. Timothy Keller says some people try to find life by being very bad and some try to find life by being very good. I don’t know which side you lean to. Maybe you are a person who just never quite fits in. You are a little rebellious and you like it that way. You don’t see why everybody is so uptight and you don’t see why we all can’t just have a little fun once in a while. Maybe your pursuit of pleasure has led you into some rocky relationships or put you in some tough spots but at least you lived, you know. Some of you may be trying to find life through pleasure.

Others here may be consummate elder brothers. You are convinced that playing by the rules is the way to go and you’re not real patient with people who don’t play by the rules. You’re convinced that if more people just had the self-discipline and drive that you have that the world would be a better place. In the end, your hard work and determination puts you just a cut above everybody else, especially above those foolish people who spend their money on lottery tickets and beer. Some of you here may be trying to find life through performance.

Everyone who tries to find life through pleasure will be ultimately disappointed, as will those who seek life through performance. Why? Because both are self-centered and both are alienated from the father. The younger brother saw no value in the ways of the father, so he went away and wasted his life. The older brother saw value in the father’s ways, but saw following them as a path of exalting himself, of thinking highly of himself. His place in the father’s house was not rooted in a loving relationship with his father but in how he could build a track record with his father to make him feel good about himself.

Are you trying to find life through the pursuit of pleasure or through performance? Thinking about yourself is important. But thinking about the father in this story is far more important, because the father here is clearly a picture of God.

The perceptions we have of God in our culture are accurately reflected in this picture of the father. We tend in our culture to think of God as a little outdated, a little behind the times. We think of Him as old and not really with it. Both brothers thought they were smarter than the father. But what we find in Luke 15 is a father completely in control of his faculties. We find one who knew the hearts of his sons through and through. More importantly, the father knew his own heart, a heart that beat with love, mercy and compassion.

The father didn’t wait for words of confession from the prodigal son. The father ran for him and embraced him and kissed him before he even said a word. The text even implies that the father was looking for him, as it says that he saw the young man “while he was still a long way off.” The young man’s confession, while nice, is almost ignored by the father, who immediately sets into motion the full restoration of this son to his status in the family. The son gets a robe and ring and shoes and a party not because he is deserving but because the father is gracious. “My son was dead and has come to life, he was lost and has been found.”

The first verse of Luke 15 tells us that many tax collectors and sinners were gathering to hear Him. These words must have been like sweet music to their ears. They had all come out of a Jewish background. We would compare them today to people who had been in church as children. Many of you probably grew up in this church or one like it. But now you only come for funerals because of shame or because you feel judged. These tax collectors and sinners had a connection to the family of God but they turned away. They went their own way. And Jesus is telling them here, the Father welcomes you home. Come home. You’ll be received. You’ll be restored. And we’ll all rejoice. The Father says the same thing to you today if you identify with that prodigal son. It isn’t first and foremost about getting back into church as some sort of religious duty. It is first and foremost about coming home to your heavenly Father through repentance and faith.

The older brother needed salvation too. He was confident he was in the father’s house but he was really just as selfish as the younger brother, but in a different way. When he learns of the father’s acceptance of the younger brother, he is infuriated. He will not go in, he will not have anything to do with the party or with his father. He is deeply wounded because the father reached out a healing hand to his prodigal brother.

But I want you to note what happens. His father goes to him and begins pleading with him. The father doesn’t show compassion only to the miserable sinner, he also shows it to the insufferable “saint.” He shows it to the pleasure-seeker and the performer, to the one who thinks he finds life through being very bad, and to the one who thinks he finds life through being very good. Because both brothers need what the father can give: grace. Both the younger brother and the older brother need to know the same thing: through the father’s love I am accepted, through the father’s love I have a home.

The father won’t let the older brother go without reaching out to him. And when the older brother tries to distance himself from the family, accusing the father of killing the fattened calf for this “prodigal son of yours” the father won’t let him get away with it. No, son. “You have always been with me, and all I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.” You are brothers who are both in need of my grace and that is what binds you together, that is what makes you family. It is as if the father tells us, “My love for you, not your lack of love or your dutiful love, is what makes all the difference. You have both blown it, and the only thing that will make it right is if I set it right through an act of my own compassionate will.”

You see, there was another group of people that day there listening to Jesus besides the tax collectors and sinners. It was the Pharisees and teachers of the law. The consummate elder brothers. The dutiful ones. And they weren’t even listening well. Luke 15:2 tells us they were grumbling about Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them. But I am sure that some of them, when Jesus told his story about God’s outrageous grace, were listening very intently. And I am sure they heard in his words an indictment of their lives. The one who were so busy looking down on everybody else had their own issues. Life is not about being very bad or being very good. It is not about pleasure or performance. Life is about coming home to the Father’s house. Whether you’ve been away for a long time or whether you’ve been around the whole time, you need to come home today. He is waiting for you. He is looking for you. He is pleading with you. He has paid the price for you through the perfect life and atoning death of His Son Jesus. Come home. Drop the need to have it all together. Drop the urge to tear it all apart for the thrill of it. Come home. Tax collectors and sinners are welcome. Pharisees and teachers of the law are invited. Everyone in between is welcome. Let the truth of St. Augustine’s famous quote ring in your hearts today, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”

John 14 “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.” Thomas *said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?” Jesus *said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.

So let’s celebrate today. Let’s celebrate a God who so loved us that He gave His only begotten Son that we might have eternal life. Let’s celebrate because we were dead and have been made alive, were lost and have been found. Let’s celebrate that God loves Pharisees and sinners, elder brothers and younger brothers and He invites us today to enter into the fullness of life that is found in Him.

Sermon: Philippians 4 — Principles of a Healthy Church

25 Jun

Philippians 4 – Principles of a Healthy Church

Introduction – I’d never really thought of Philippians 4 as being a chapter about church life. There are many great verses here that we celebrate as individuals (be anxious for nothing, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, my God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory) but these verses were written to the church body at Philippi. They are to be walked out in the context of a church community. And I believe that to the degree they are walked out here at West Hickory, we can be a healthy and flourishing local church. Of course that means that individuals must take up these things and walk in them, but we walk as individuals in the midst of a community of believers because as Paul says elsewhere, “we are members one of another,” “we are the body of Christ, made of many different parts,” and “we are God’s holy temple being built up brick by brick for His glory.” So what directives does Philippians 4 give us for Church Life?

The Practices of a Healthy Church . . .

  1. Gospel-Focus (4:1). What is it? All Paul had talked about to this point. 1:21; 2:4-8; 2:13; 3:10-14. How do we have it? Consistent hearing of gospel preaching and teaching (Preaching, Ephesians study tonite, Sunday School, summer studies, personal Bible reading, memorizing/meditating on Scripture, discussing things of God with members, family devotions, books)
  2. Relationally Unity (4:2-3). What is it? A spirit of mutual warmth and high regard for one another without any hint of animosity or bitterness. How do we have it? Flows from the gospel (those forgiven forgive). Release or Reconcile.
  3. Happy Humility (4:4-5). What is it? A spirit of joy and gentleness that characterizes those who are walking in the love of Jesus. How do we have it? The Gospel (Eternal life, forgiveness, adoption, new life, the Spirit, the Word, blessing upon blessing, yet all undeserved). How can we help but be happy and humble? Awareness of God’s Person and Presence (in the Lord, the Lord is near). Awareness of Others, Regard for them (Let your gentleness be known to all).
  4. Prayer-Saturation (4:6-7). What is it? A spirit of anxiety-killing, fear-destroying prayer without ceasing to the God who saved us and calls us to a life of holiness and usefulness in His kingdom. How do we have it? The Gospel (Jesus death has opened the way to access to God and Jesus intercedes for us, as does the Spirit). Really praying together. Relating to God. 9am Prayer Time. Prayer Days. Revamping Our Prayer List. Stop and Pray as we talk. Pray always in all ways (praise, intercession, confession).
  5. Thinking and Doing (4:8-9). What is it? An approach to life that values setting the mind on what is godly and good while also valuing walking in what is godly and good. How do we have it? The Gospel (Jesus, the greatest theologian was the greatest servant). Set your mind on things above. What do you think about when no one is around? Talk with one another about the things of God. Small group Bible study. But remember to know is not enough (James). Everyone is a theologian but true theology always overflows into service.
  6. Compassion (4:10). What is it? A heart that is concerned for others and for the work of God’s kingdom. How do we have it? The Gospel (God so loved the world). Do not center your life on your own agenda but yield to God’s agenda (Not my will but yours be done). Be interrupted for the glory of God. Care about more than what’s in it for you. Ask how you can glorify God in a situation.
  7. Contentment (4:11-13). What is it? A wholehearted trust in our Sovereign God that enables us to be satisfied in Him not our circumstances. How do we have it? The Gospel (We have all we need because our eternity is secure and our life here is abundantly blessed). We lean on our sovereign Savior and know that He is enough. We lean on each other through encouragement. Sometimes we need less advice and more listening and encouragement.
  8. A Mission-Mindset (4:14-15). What is it? A desire to be involved in God’s world-transforming work in the gospel. How do we have it? The gospel (God so loved that He sent His Son). Outward focus (get out of the bubble). Don’t focus on dollars or attendance but on what God is doing to change lives. See the world in need as an opportunity not an obstacle.
  9. Generosity (4:16-19). What is it? A heart that delights to give of money and time to the kingdom of God. How do we have it? The Gospel (For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son). As Jesus is your great treasure hoarding for yourself will become distasteful and investing in His kingdom will become a delight.

The Results of a Healthy Church  . . .

  1. Stability (4:1). Psalm 1 People.
  2. Peace (4:2,7) from God and with one another. What everybody wants but almost nobody seeks in the right way.
  3. Christ’s Protection (4:7). Jesus promises to guard those things which are most precious in life (my heart and mind).
  4. God’s Presence (4:8). If God is for us who can be against us. Also contentment and freedom from anxiety springs from God’s presence with us (Hb. 13:5-6).
  5. Bringing Blessing to Others (4:1, 10). It is more blessed to give than receive.
  6. Ability to Deal with Ups and Downs (4:11-12). Everyone has emotional ups and downs but wouldn’t it be nice to live free of debilitating days.
  7. The Strength of Christ for Every Need (4:13). Its more than a slogan on a t-shirt, it is a reality. Fear not I am with you be not dismayed for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will support you with my righteous right hand.
  8. Receiving the Blessing of God (4:17). Blessing on God’s terms is always better than what we could come up with.
  9. Pleasing God (4:18). Paul says elsewhere, “we make it our aim to please God.” It is not a denial of the gospel to please God. God delights in the praises of His people and God delights in healthy local churches.
  10. The Supply of God for Every Need (4:19). God knows the needs and He will meet them. We can trust Him.
  11. A Life for God’s Glory (4:20). The chief end of humanity will be fulfilled in us as we become the healthy church God intends us to be.

Conclusion – No local church is perfect but every local church body can become more faithful to living out the gospel in their life together. That’s what we want to do here at West Hickory. As I look over the practices of a healthy church in Philippians 4, I see seeds of all of those things at West Hickory. But I also see much room for progress and growth. I truly believe that if we as a people were largely marked by the 9 practices in Philippians 4, we would see the results that emerge from this chapter as well. So when there is weakness, instability, fearful anxiety, open rebellion, and relational conflict, we know that Christ still has a lot of change to bring among us. I want to submit to that change and pursue it. If you do too let’s ask God to do His good renewing work in our midst. Let it begin today as we become, by His grace and power, a healthier church, bearing good fruit for the glory of God and the blessing of the world.



Sermon — 2 Corinthians 10:3-6 “Warfare for the Mind”

3 Jun

          The old cliché is true: “Whatever gets your mind gets you.” Paul knew this and that is why he consistently urges us to set our minds on things above and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. This is also the reason that Paul in 2 Corinthians acknowledged that a big part of his ministry in the local church was to wage warfare for the minds of his hearers.

          Don’t be naïve, everyone else around us is battling for our minds. Advertisers are battling for your mind. Schools, whether public or private or home, are all waging warfare for the minds of children. Politicians want to sway our minds with persuasive words. Scholars attempt to shape culture by shaping thinking. Interestingly in our information age at the same time we have been bombarded by more and more people trying to shape our thinking, we have been counseled by our popular culture for the last 50 years to “turn off our minds, relax and float downstream.” We have been told, “Don’t worry, be happy.” We have been told to enjoy life and don’t waste time thinking. We have “amused ourselves to death.” So we live in a world where there is a double-edged sword of intense external efforts to shape our minds combined with an internal emphasis on feeling over thought which makes it easy to conform us to the latest thoughts and ideas. Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 10:3-6 come like a clarion call to a Christianity that has become apathetic, ineffective and in many cases even immoral precisely because it has exchanged the principles of this passage for nostalgia, sentimentality and emotionalism. We have done precisely the opposite of what Paul urges in this passage. And the results have been devastating. Hear the Word of God in 2 Corinthians 10 and you will hear our marching orders as the people of God . . .

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.

Now as we said last week, in 2 Corinthians Paul’s ministry is under fire, in part probably because he called out the church in Corinth for their toleration of open immorality and in part because he criticized them for their practices as a church, which tended toward disorder and favoritism rather than the kind of order that brings the widespread use of the gifts of the whole body which builds up, or edifies, the church. Paul had brought his critique from a heart of love, but we all know that critique is not easy to take and our first response is often to become defensive. It seems the church in Corinth had some of this defensiveness so some among them began to criticize the apostle Paul. They criticize his methods and his person. One of the criticisms they bring against him is that he is really bold in writing but in person he is weak and unimpressive.

Paul makes it clear in this passage that he does not intend to be weak or apathetic when it comes to this minds of his hearers. Instead he tells us that he is engaged in a war. And so he wages war in verse 3, takes up weapons of warfare in verse 4, tears down strongholds in verse 5, and prepares to punish rebels in verse 6. Many of us read this kind of passage and the book of Acts and conclude that Paul was a loud, brash, combative person. But the Corinthians do not seem to think this way about Paul. Nor do we catch this idea among the Ephesians, with whom Paul spent two years. On a personal level, Paul seems to have not been outwardly impressive. His ministry was not sustained by the power of his personality or charisma but by the power of God.

Paul acknowledges here that he “lives in the flesh.” By this he does not mean what his accusers meant, that he was living by his own wits and power, living sinfully, or that he was using manipulation or his own abilities to sway people. Instead, when Paul says he lives in the flesh, he is just acknowledging what he has already said, that he lives in a physical clay vessel that is subject to weakness. Later he will talk about the thorn in the flesh, some kind of physical trial that troubled him. But though Paul lives in a body that is subject to the effects of a fallen world, he does not war according to the flesh. Here Paul is saying that though he lives in a fallen world, he does not use the tools of a fallen world to wage his battles. He has already spoken of these things in chapter 4, when he says we don’t live in the dark, we don’t manipulate or use craftiness, we just openly tell the truth about Jesus and thus we have a clear conscience. Paul wants the victory of God to touch everyone but he won’t use methods to get people in the door that compromise the truth of the gospel. He is not interested in gathering a crowd so much as he is interested in making disciples. Paul has told us that his adequacy comes from God. Since Paul’s power is from God, he will fight according to God’s rules of engagement. The good news of this passage is that Paul has an arsenal of weapons through his union with Christ which are far more powerful and effective than anything he could come up with on his own. In today’s church circles we are on the lookout for the latest method or plan and we seem to think our plans are more important than God’s power to the blessing of a ministry.

Through the rest of the passage, Paul illustrates his calling to battle for the minds of his hearers through the imagery of ancient warfare. He says his ministry is one of destroying defensive strongholds, taking captives and punishing rebels when the city is secured. Paul in himself is weak and unimpressive. I am not sure if we were with him in a crowd if we could pick him out as being in any way distinctive. But in Christ Paul is mighty. And so should it be for us too.

Paul’s warfare imagery is distasteful to many in our day, especially in church. We think church should be nice and things should be peaceful. But shouldn’t we remember, on this Memorial Day weekend above all, that peace is so often only secured through resistance to the enemies of peace? And as it is physically, so it is spiritually. Paul’s aim is to wage warfare for the sake of his hearers.

Because Paul’s weapons are not fleshly but spiritual, Paul is confident that he can tear down the strongholds in the lives of his readers. The strongholds here are “speculations and lofty things” and these things are “set against the knowledge of God.” So the strongholds are ways of thinking that stand as a kind of resistance to the truth of God. Since Paul has made it clear throughout his writings that the focus of his preaching is Christ and Him crucified we can safely assume that Paul is saying here that strongholds are those thoughts and ideas and ways of thinking that are set in opposition to the good news of salvation in Jesus by grace through faith. Now Paul is not specific about what these stronghold ways of thinking are because these ways of thinking can be quite varied. Some people have strongholds that are thoroughly religious. They think that their religious activity or devotion makes them right with God. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who resist the truth about Jesus through atheism, the insistence that there is no God. Others trust in science. Others have strongholds of materialism or pleasure. Still others trust in the stronghold of activism or politics. In Paul’s day, people trusted in credentials and influence and impressive speaking ability. But as Paul said in Philippians 3:4-8, all these kinds of things were like rubbish to Paul in comparison to knowing Christ. Still, these strongholds, though they have no ultimate value, do have a very strong pull on us in the present time. That’s why they are strongholds. A stronghold physically speaking is a defensive protection. It is a fortress or a bulwark intended to provide protection from an attack. In this way, this is such a powerful picture for the way we live. Our false ways of thinking are like strongholds to us, they give us a sense of security and protection against the truth of the gospel. Why would people want a sense of protection against the gospel? Well, people are worldly, people are drawn to love the world and self and that’s why the Scriptures so often call us to reject worldliness. Non-believers certainly try to erect strongholds against the truth of the gospel but so do professing believers. We can fall very easily into worldly thinking, making the measure of our lives our bank accounts or our homes or our achievements and compromising basic Christian truth in order to keep an outward peace with the world around us that is really nothing more than simple cowardice on our part.

Paul says, “No! We must attack these strongholds.” Why? So that we can conquer people and build a kingdom for ourselves? No! The warfare we wage is for the glory of God and the good of those who are locked into strongholds of unbiblical thinking. Since our adequacy is in God we don’t come from a position of superiority to tell people how wrong they are but we do fight the good fight of the faith and we do face down false ways of thinking. This is not just work for Paul or for pastors it is for all the people of God. And the first step is to remove our own planks of stinking thinking about God and life and truth and to align ourselves with the truth of the Word of God.

Paul had effective weapons in this battle and so do we. Paul mentioned these weapons specifically in Ephesians 6 when he talks about the armor of God. The Word of God and prayer are the weapons with divine power to tear down strongholds. The world will not be impressed by these things. But just as David’s sling when he faced Goliath didn’t look impressive but was effective, we will find that when we wield the Word and prayer in dependence on God that God will make His mark against the strongholds that grip the lives of those we love.

Perhaps Paul had in mind Proverbs 21:22 when he wrote this text . . .

A wise man scales the city of the mighty

And brings down the stronghold in which they trust.

So spiritual warfare is a part of our calling as believers. We attack with the Word of God and prayer against all the ideological and philosophical and religious strongholds people hide in because in their hiding from the truth of God they only do harm to themselves. Any militancy on the part of a Christian must be grounded in love for Christ and love for people. The goal is not to get society to adopt a Christian perspective by force, it is to lovingly confront what is false and graciously proclaim what is true.

I think this passage, along with Ephesians 6, has a great deal to teach us about spiritual warfare. I think often we have been taught that spiritual warfare is our direct entry into power encounters with demons and through prayer we cast out this demon or oppose that demon and for most Christians it just sounds so strange and scary that we don’t approach such things. But notice in this passage that the strongholds are not demons. Spiritual warfare is not about chasing demons it is about opposing the doctrine of demons which trickles down into the ways of thinking of people all around us. John MacArthur says, “Our enemy has formed, from demon sources, ideologies and we assault those ideologies. Yes, ultimately they are doctrines of demons. Yes they come from seducing spirits through hypocritical liars who build these great edifices to human wisdom and demonic doctrine. But we assault the system, we don’t chase the spirits. Scripture indicates right here that our war is for the destruction of fortresses. They are not demons, they are human demonically inspired ideologies set up in defiance of God.”

“Listen, there’s only one way, there’s only one way to destroy error and that is with truth. Now you know what the weapons are. The only way you can take wrong thoughts and make them right is to replace error with truth. So when you look at Ephesians 6 and you see the soldier who is the Christian soldier, and you see him with all of his clothing and then it says he has one weapon, that weapon is a sword which is the Word of God…the Word of God. You don’t fight the spiritual warfare with a bunch of anti-demon formulas whispered at them or shouted at them. You don’t fight the spiritual warfare with some kind of magical incantations. The spiritual warfare that you fight is an ideological warfare that is fought at the level of the mind and when you find people ensconced and entrenched in the great fortresses of these ideologies, you assault them with the truth. That’s what we’re all about. That’s what we do.”

So taking up this pathway of spiritual warfare against the strongholds of people all around us inside and outside the church, we don’t just teardown the strongholds we take captives. The verb here where it says we are taking every thought captive means literally to take a prisoner with a spear. It means to take a prisoner with a spear. We smash the fortress to the ground, went in and put a spear in the back of the prisoners and marched them out. We see the miracle of God’s work here, the miracle all of us who are saved have experienced. We see God taking one who has all sorts of barriers set up against the knowledge of God brought to a place of obedience to Christ. We have here the picture of a person taken from a place of resistance to the knowledge of God to obedience to Christ. They didn’t even want to know God and now they are brought to a place where they desire to not just know but obey. That is a miracle of grace. Only God could do that. But let’s be clear. God has chosen in large part to carry out His work in the world through His redeemed people. Paul believes wholeheartedly in God’s sovereign power to save but he is also absolutely convinced that God has called him to proclaim the gospel and that a part of that proclamation is to speak in opposition to ways of thinking that are contrary to the gospel of grace.

There is an irony here. Paul speaks this language of conquest and capture but in doing so he is pointing the way to freedom. The only way to be free from the snares of the devil is to be conquered and captured by Christ. Everyone serves someone, either self or Satan or the Savior. I know which one of those three is the only One worth serving. I hope you do too and that you are ready to lay down and forsake any kind of foolish stronghold that has captured your imagination to walk with Jesus.

Now when we come to verse 6, after all this language of battle and victory, it just sounds mean. Why is Paul ready to punish disobedience and why is he waiting until their obedience is complete? Probably what Paul is doing here is an act of mercy. When the church in Corinth makes their stand on the Lordship of Christ rather than worldly wisdom then Paul will act to punish remaining disobedience, particularly from false teachers. In other words, Paul is trying to spare people from punishment if they will align their lives to the Lordship of Christ. But he will not spare from punishment those who will not turn away from the false fortresses set up against the knowledge of God.

What this passage makes clear to me is that there is a real battle for the mind and that we as Christians should be people of a renewed mind who are fighting for others to have a renewed mind. Christianity is not just another option for life among many. There are pieces of truth in all kinds of ways of living, but only one way is the embodiment of truth, rooted in a Savior who is the way, the truth and the life.

Paul was hated for the stand he took. And so it will be for us, even in the church. “Why be confrontational? Why draw lines in the sand over issues of biblical truth?” There is a way to be confrontational that is wrongheaded and arrogant and mean-spirited. We’re not interested in that. We’re not interested in proving ourselves right. We’re not against people. We are not trying to conquer people we are standing instead against the false and harmful ideas that people hold. We are interested instead in offering the gospel of Christ to a world that is hiding behind all sorts of false teaching. We are intent on showing in our actions and words that the way of obedience to Christ is the way of life and strength and peace.

All true Christian ministry involves a battle for the mind (which by the way is one of the reasons that teaching and preaching is so central in the life of a healthy church). It is necessary and essential to demolish false arguments so that the path to obedience to Christ might be opened to us. But these false arguments are not demolished by our ingenuity or our wisdom or our methods. Instead the Holy Spirit works through the Word and prayer to use us as God’s army of truth.

Warren Wiersbe says, “Simply because Paul did not use carnal methods and exert the power of a “strong personality,” the believers thought he was a weakling! His weapons were spiritual, not fleshly. Like all of us, Paul “walked in the flesh” (that is, had all the weaknesses of the body), but he did not war after the flesh by depending on fleshly wisdom, human abilities, or physical prowess.

There was disobedience in Corinth because Christians were believing lies instead of the truth of God’s Word. Paul warned them that he would smash their arguments and false doctrines and bring their hearts and minds to the place of obedience. Church problems are not solved simply by changing the constitution, revising the church program, or reorganizing a board, but by confronting people and problems with the Word of God.”

So in closing, what do we do with this passage, as individuals and as a church?  First, we must address our own hearts. Do I understand the gospel, what God has saved me from, what God has saved me for, how I am saved? Am I walking in light of the truth of the gospel? Are there any areas in which I am listening to false strongholds of human philosophy and worldly thinking? For example, am I good with following Scripture except when it comes to my sexual morality, in which case I listen to the world? Or am I good with God’s truth about honesty but not willing to submit to God’s truth about anger? So the first step this morning is to humble ourselves before God and evaluate whether there are strongholds of worldly thinking in our own hearts and to repent of any thinking that is out of step with God’s Word.

Second, what lies are we as a church listening to? Are we given to traditions or trends or to biblical truth? Are we willing to forsake ways that are false when their untruth is made clear? Are we willing to take a hard look at what is really biblical over what is just preference? What strongholds do we need to demolish within the walls of our church? Apathy, pride, worldliness, self-centeredness and lack of love?

Third, do we believe in the sufficiency of prayer and the Word through the power of the Holy Spirit to guide our life and ministry? It is not as if we have nothing to do but pray and read the Word. We make plans, we do things, but what is our compass? What is our guide?

Fourth, what is the place of demolishing strongholds in the work of evangelism? Are we willing to be bold and at the same time humble? Do we love people outside the walls enough to reach out to them with the truth of God and lovingly point out ways they may be building their lives on shaky foundations?

Finally, do we have the courage to live by the guidance of God’s Word in a world that more and more rejects the truth of God? Are we willing, like Jesus and the apostles, to bear the scorn of a world that despises God’s Word?

Each one of us must reckon with these questions in our hearts. And then we must come together to discuss these things. I would encourage you to talk about these questions with your spouse, with your friends, with your Sunday School class, with your pastors. Let’s not let any more time slip away where we are not giving serious attention to taking every thought captive. After all, “whatever gets your mind gets you.”

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. 


Sermon — Matthew 3:1-6 — The Pathway to Revival

15 Oct

In America, there have been two Great Awakenings in our history: one in the 1700’s and one in the 1800’s. These were times of special spiritual revival that swept over our land and left our culture changed. There have been other outbreaks of revival here and there in our history but nothing as sustained as those two Great Awakenings. I think most of us would agree that we as a nation are in need of revival again. Not just an emotional stirring, but a deep work of the Holy Spirit that changes our lives and our community. Our year verse for 2015 was Psalm 51:12, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and uphold me with a willing spirit.” This verse is a plea for revival because revival is about recapturing our joy in the Lord and re-establishing deep fellowship with Him. When He is changing us, He uses us to bless others. Spiritual fruitfulness comes when we are walking with God. But often for us there is a roadblock to that walk that keeps revival far from us. The passage we’re going to look at today is all about that roadblock. Turn with me to Matthew chapter 3. We’ll be looking at verses 1-6.

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea,

Many years have passed between the end of Matthew 2 and the beginning of Matthew 3. Jesus is now an adult. Matthew is not writing a biography with every detail of Jesus’ life at every stage. He is writing a selective history with a focus on the years when Jesus was most active in ministry. Verse 1 answers three questions: who?, what?, and where?

Matthew starts not with Jesus as an adult but with John the Baptist. John was a relative of Jesus, his mother Elizabeth was related to Jesus’ mother Mary. John became well-known for his ministry of baptizing people, so that even the Jewish historian Josephus makes note of John in his history of the Jews and calls him “John the Baptist.” So baptizing was John’s calling card, because the way he was baptizing people was so unusual.

The “what” in verse 1 is preaching. John is first and foremost a preacher. This word for preaching is connected to the word for announcing. John is a herald of the coming King, Jesus.

The “where” in this verse is the wilderness. This is where John spent his life and this is where he ministered. And there’s probably some meaning in that, although Matthew doesn’t come right out and tell us. John is walking in the way of prophets like Elijah, who ministered from the wilderness. But maybe John also ministers in the wilderness as a way of calling the Jews away from everyday life. I know for me I see life a lot more clearly when I get out in nature. The quiet of the land takes me away from everyday concerns and helps me focus on what really matters. The deserted wilderness with its quiet rolling hills would have been a strong contrast to the Temple in Jerusalem, with all its busyness and religious activity. Maybe the wilderness was part of the message. Get away from the hypocrisy of the religious leaders with their false worship. Get away from the power games and the use of God for self-advancement or self-aggrandizement. Come to this desolate place. See clearly. See that your own hearts are dry and dirty. In need of water to quench your thirst and water to clean you up.  In the city with all its hustle and bustle you can’t hear the message you most need to hear . . .

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

John’s message is simple but so profound. “Repent.” This word points to a total change of life and perspective. I see my true standing before God, I turn away from my sinful ways and I trust God for power to follow Him. And this was John’s message. And this is the roadblock to revival, our failure to repent. This message of repentance was a shocking message a message like the ones the prophets had given hundreds of years before. The reason it was shocking is because most of the Jews felt like they were secure. They were the seed of Abraham, the friend of God. The Lord had entered into covenant with them. They lived within a few miles of the Temple, the very center of Jewish religious life. And in the busyness of their lives and trying to get by in day-to-day life most people in Judea and the surrounding areas had assumed they were right with God because of this heritage and this background. And so there is a shocking sense to John’s message. Right from the start he is warning people that their religious heritage is not enough. He is telling them that if they are going to experience the coming kingdom of heaven, they have to repent. And so it is for us, if we would experience salvation, we must repent. Trusting in Jesus is about leaving and following, about turning away from sin and turning to Christ. Saying no to sin and yes to holiness. And yet many times people in church live in unrepentant sin and comfort themselves with the same kinds of things the Jews used for comfort. “I’ve gone to church all my life.” “I am a member of this church or that church.” “I was baptized in 1973.” “I read my Bible once in a while.” “I prayed a prayer when I was ten.” Am I saying we’re saved by works? No way. What I am saying is what the Bible says. A good tree produces good fruit and a rotten tree produces rotten fruit. We don’t seek to honor God in order to be saved, we seek to honor God because we are saved. And this honoring of God has to do with our hearts, with what we love and hate. It has to do with our affection for God versus our attachment to sin. So all these markers like walking the aisle or being baptized or joining the church or being involved in this or that in church, its all just rubbish if we don’t have a heart that hates sin and loves God. So John’s message is basically, “Wake up!” Stop making excuses.

Most of you who are tuned out right now are tuned out because you love your sin more than you love God. And you say, “No, I love God, it’s just you’re too boring or the music is too old-fashioned or the pews are too uncomfortable or somebody made me mad or the preacher didn’t talk to me enough.” And I just want to say to all of that, bull. If you’re tuned out right now, if you have no enthusiasm for God, no desire to worship Him, no joy in being here, the problem is 99 times out of a hundred that you love your sin more than you love God. Repent.

Why repent? Because the kingdom of heaven is at hand. What is this kingdom of heaven? It is God’s decisive action in the world to establish His rule. There is one sense in which God has always reigned. He created everything, He sustains everything. Yet there is another sense in which He people rebel against God and His reign. We try to build our own kingdoms and we can do a pretty good job of building a kingdom that looks pretty impressive on the outside. But the foundations are shaky, the structures are unstable and the story of history is simply the story of the passing of one kingdom after another. It will happen to America too eventually. We are a young nation. But there will come a time when our nation will be covered over by the sands of time. It happens to all earthly kingdoms, both personal and national. We spend so much time in our lives building our own kingdom or wealth or fun or family or friends or status that we fail to see that in the end our little kingdoms all crumble and we are soon forgotten. Most of us will only be remembered by a very few people, and truly known by even fewer.

This issue of kingdoms was something Daniel spoke about in the second chapter of his book. King Nebuchadnezzar had this dream about a statue made of four different materials: a head of gold, a chest of silver, thighs or bronze, and legs of iron, with feet mixed with iron and clay. And Daniel interpreted his dream. And here’s what Daniel said,

Daniel 2:b you are the head of gold. 39 Another kingdom inferior to you shall arise after you, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over all the earth. 40 And there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron, because iron breaks to pieces and shatters all things. And like iron that crushes, it shall break and crush all these. 41 And as you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it shall be a divided kingdom, but some of the firmness of iron shall be in it, just as you saw iron mixed with the soft clay. 42 And as the toes of the feet were partly iron and partly clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle. 43 As you saw the iron mixed with soft clay, so they will mix with one another in marriage, but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay. 44 And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever, 45 just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. A great God has made known to the king what shall be after this. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure.”

Nebuchadnezzar was the leader of the Babylonian Empire. Then came the Persian Empire, symbolized by the chest and arms of silver. Then came the Greek Empire, symbolized by thighs of bronze. And finally the Roman Empire, the legs of iron. Yet even in Rome, there was the beginning of breakdown, as the Empire in its expansion became weak and diluted, like iron mixed with clay. There were four world Empires that ruled from the time of Daniel to the time of Jesus: Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. Then, the kingdom comes. That stone not made with human hands comes and breaks apart the statue, making it like chaff to be blown away by the wind. And the stone becomes a great mountain and fills the whole earth. This is the picture I believe John is referencing when he says, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” With the coming of Jesus we have God’s decisive action to bring the kingdoms of the world to nothing and to establish His reign over all. He will judge those who continue to rebel against Him and He will save those who believe. And He will do it all through His cornerstone, Jesus. Of course, the fullness of this reign and judgment is not going to happen not at the first coming, but at the second coming. But the point John is making is that with the coming of Jesus, God’s kingdom has entered into the world in a new way. Something decisive has happened, not out of line with what God has already done in the Old Testament, but as a fulfillment of what God has promised there. So the call to repentance is a call to not be left in the dust of the Savior but to be gathered to Him and to reign forever with Him in a kingdom that will not be shaken and that will not fade away. This is how high the stakes are when it comes to Jesus. It is the difference between earthly good and eternal life and earthly emptiness and eternal damnation. John wakes us up to the reality that what we talk about here on Sunday morning and what we do in our lives day-by-day is not a joke and it is not optional. We don’t play around with these things. We don’t try on the kingdom like a new sweater. We don’t say, “Let’s change the message so we can get a few more people in the door or keep the ones we already have.” We don’t back down not because we want to be stubborn but because the stakes are eternal. And we don’t water down because we don’t want to give people false assurance like so many of the Jews of John’s day had. We preach repentance and faith for salvation. Because we are part of a kingdom. And the King demands the allegiance of His subjects. Therefore repent.

There is no doubt that repentance is the key to revival. Not just sorrow over sin or sadness at being caught but a deep-down, gut-wrenching recognition of our sinfulness that results in our calling out to God for mercy and for power to live a holy life. Repentance is John’s message because he wants to see revival. Do you want to see revival? Be careful. Make sure your real heart is not, “I want to see us have more people, new members, so we can feel like the church is going well.” Watch out. Watch out that your heart is not more for West Hickory Baptist Church than for the kingdom of heaven. I’m talking to myself too. It’s so dangerous. No, we want to see revival because we want spiritual life and growth. Why be half-hearted? This is why God so hates the lukewarm. If these truths are touching your heart today, go for it. Don’t hold anything back. Believe the good news and walk with Jesus. Let go of your need to succeed or to possess or to control. Believe the good news that there is a King and you’re not Him. Repent, the kingdom is here. But John is not the King. Look at verse 3 . . .

For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,

     “The voice of one crying in the wilderness:

     ‘Prepare the way of the Lord;

make his paths straight.’ ”

I love Matthew’s insistence of sticking close to Scripture, don’t you? He’s always looking for connections to what God has said before. He doesn’t use the word “fulfilled” here, he seems to reserve that for words about Jesus. Yet he clearly thinks Isaiah 40:3 speaks about John. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.” This verse reminds us of the passion of John. He is crying out in the wilderness. I am afraid that our own sin, the hard knocks of life and lack of affection for God has robbed us of our passion. I want to be like John the Baptist. I want to be passionate for Jesus. I know that there are lots of personalities in this room but there is no personality that keeps you from being passionate for Jesus. You may express it a little differently than me but by all means express it. Cry out to God in prayer and cry out for God in the world around you.

Verse 3 also reminds us of the necessity of repentance. John calls us to prepare the way of the Lord and make straight His paths. How do we do that? Through repentance, through turning away from our sin. The book of Joel contains the great promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit which was fulfilled in Acts. But right before the Spirit is promised in chapter 2, we read these words, “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. The promise of the pouring out of the Spirit follows a call to repentance. And with our year verse from Psalm 51, restore to me the joy of your salvation, remember that Psalm begins with David’s deep confession of his sin. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your love, blot out my transgressions. Against You, You only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” So it is here in Matthew as well. Repentance prepares us to receive God’s blessings.

Finally, verse 3 teaches us that John is only a forerunner to the true King. John’s role is preparatory. He is a messenger of the King. His ministry is meant to point to the King. How easy it would have been for John to make the ministry all about Him. We will see in this passage that he was wildly popular. Yet he was also incredibly humble. What a warning to all Christians, especially pastors and teachers, to remember that we are just messengers of the King. I get concerned when I see churches today that are recognized more for their Senior Pastor than for Jesus. I get concerned today when I see the culture of celebrity that surrounds so many Christian figures in our time. I can’t help feeling like Jesus is getting obscured. And it can happen in small places as well, where some person in the church, pastor or otherwise, can put themselves on a pedestal. But how dangerous is this focus on men and women. How careful we must be to keep Jesus first in our hearts. Verse four shows us John remembered who was King, not only by his words but also by his lifestyle.

Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.

Many who have studied this passage have made note of John’s simple lifestyle. His highest concern was proclaiming Jesus. R.C.H. Lenski says, “His very appearance was a stern sermon. It was a call to all those who made food and drink, house and raiment their chief concern in life to turn from such vanity and to provide far more essential things. He was a living illustration of how little man really needs here below—something we are prone to forget. And by drawing people out into the wilderness John made them share a bit of his own austere life. Men left their mansions, offices, shops, their usual round of life, and for a time at least gave their thoughts to higher things.” And John stood in stark contrast to so many of the religious leaders of his day, especially the Sadducees, who tended to live luxurious lives. How about us? John’s simplicity should challenge us as we consider how much stock we often put in having this thing or that thing. They are just things. The new car, the computer, the new phone, the new outfit, the new book, the good meal. They are just things. John got along just fine in the wilderness eating bugs and honey wearing a scratchy suit of camel’s hair. Would we be OK with that? Or would we fall apart if all our props were taken away? Oh, this is challenging. We know Jesus said, “You can’t serve two masters. You can’t serve God and money.” And you know, it doesn’t really matter how much or little you have. It matters what you do with what you have, whether God has your heart or money has your heart. John shows us that a kingdom focus leads away from an obsession with possessions.

John was not only making a statement about single-minded devotion to God by his lifestyle, he was also again acting like a prophet. We read of the description of Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8 They answered him, “He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.” And he said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.”

The prophet Malachi had said in Malachi 4, Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. Most Jews believed that the prophet Elijah, who had been taken up to heaven, would come back. But Jesus, in Matthew 11, gives us a different perspective. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. So Jesus is telling us, Elijah has come, the kingdom is here, repent and believe the good news.

This new prophet, coming some 400 years after the close of the Old Testament, was making quite an impression. Look at verses 5 and 6 . . .

Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

People from the regions all around are going to John. It is possible that John baptized thousands of people. It seems like the Holy Spirit is moving in this passage and I say that not because of how many people are going to John but because of what they are doing when they go to him. They are being baptized in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. The baptism was amazing in itself. The Jews had nothing like this in their experience. There were ritual washings in the temple and things like that. Where we find a parallel to what John is doing is among Gentiles who wanted to become Jews. Throughout history many non-Jewish people, in seeing the religion of the Jews, have desired to become Jews themselves. These Gentiles were allowed to become Jews through three steps: being circumcised, offering a sacrifice in the Temple, and being baptized. This baptism symbolized repentance and cleansing and entrance into the people of God. So what is so amazing here in verses 5 and 6 is that the Jews are submitting to baptism, something normally reserved for Gentiles. So they are admitting through baptism that they are no better than Gentiles, that they too need to be forgiven, inwardly changed and living with a heart of faith if they are going to be part of God’s family. So it is an amazingly humble thing they are doing here, especially since most Jews were taught to look down on Gentiles. And yet great crowds willingly submit to baptism, confessing their sins. What a joy! Visible and verbal signs of repentance. John’s mission is being accomplished. The way for the King is being prepared.

This morning, is your heart prepared for the King? Or has your heart grown cold because of obsession with the things of this world? Or has your heart grown dark because it is focused on sin? Is your heart hard because of bitterness toward others or even toward God? Is your heart calloused because you have repeatedly ignored the saving Word that comes to you? John’s message was so simple, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” My message is simple too, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is here.” Jesus has come. He has lived a perfect life. He has died on the cross in the place of sinners, the perfect, acceptable sacrifice. He has risen from the dead, defeating death and sin. He has ascended to heaven where He reigns and intercedes for us. He is coming again to judge all people, bringing home His own and damning those who have rebelled against His reign. If your heart is not singing over these truths, if your life is not bearing the good fruit of love, joy, peace and all the rest, repent. Maybe you need to repent and believe for the first time, maybe you’ve never trusted in Jesus to save you. There may be children here or young people or maybe even some older people for whom that’s true. Turn to Jesus today. There’s no age requirement for the kingdom. If you have understood what Jesus has done for you repent, turn away from your sin and trust in Jesus to save you. Just call on Him right now. And then, when we start to sing in a minute, come up here to the front and share with us what you have done. God would be honored through that. Maybe today you know you are a Christian. You have trusted Jesus to save you, but you have drifted. Your heart is not right. Today is the day to come home. Today is the day to re-align your heart to the heart of God. Today is the day for revival to sweep your heart. I want to say to everyone this morning, we may hope for more from our life as a church. And we may make plans or have ideas of how things can be better. Everyone does and most people’s plans for the church are more about what would make them comfortable and happy than what would honor God. But what I am calling us to today is not comfortable. The call to repentance will hurt, because it is an admission that we have been falling short. And the call to repentance will cost us something, because repentance means a change of life. But the call to repentance is worthwhile, because repentance is the gateway to revival.

Sermon — Matthew 2:1-12 — “The Wise Men of Worship”

10 Oct

There are really three main responses people have to Jesus: apathy, opposition or worship. In our world we see all three of these responses regularly and in fact probably all of these responses are present in this service this morning. Only one response is right and the wise men show us the way. Turn with me to Matthew chapter 2 . . . 

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

As we come to verse 1 we find that time has passed since the account we looked at last week from Matthew 1:18-25. Jesus has now been born. Matthew doesn’t give us the details of His birth, we have to go to Luke to find that story. Matthew focuses instead on the circumstances around Jesus’ birth, the people and places important to the story. We see Bethlehem of Judea highlighted. Bethlehem, the name means “house of bread,” the hometown of King David, prophesied in Micah as the birthplace of the Messiah and in fact the place where Jesus, the bread of life, was born. We see Herod the King highlighted. It was in his day that Jesus was born. Herod reigned 33 years in Judea. He was a descendant of Esau, an Edomite, thus he was looked upon by many Jews as a less than desirable king, since he was not from the family line of Jacob, of the people of Israel. Herod was a wicked king. He was deeply paranoid, putting one of his wives and at least two of his sons to death. He also accomplished much, building great works in Jerusalem and re-building the temple into a glorious structure, a project he began but would not live to its completion. Herod died within a year or two of Jesus’ birth.

And then we find these wise men from the east. Matthew tells us to behold them. He is clueing us in to their significance by telling us to sit up and pay attention. These wise men were from the east and that is about all we know for sure about them. The Greek word behind the English words “wise men” is the word magi and this word has a broad range of meanings. The best way to understand the magi is to say they were seeking wisdom and using the methods of their culture (seeking signs in the heavens) to do so. They were not fortune telling astrologers but they were not exactly scientific astronomers either. They were from the east. This means they could have been from anywhere east of Judea. Most likely they were from Babylon. The reason I say this is that they seem to have some knowledge of the Old Testament, in that they come to Jerusalem seeking wisdom about this sign in the heavens they had seen. They are connecting this star with the Messiah when they say, “Where is the one born king of the Jews. We saw His star when it rose and we have come to worship Him.”   The people of Judah had, about 500 years earlier, been taken captive to Babylon. It is there that the story of Daniel takes place. And it is there that the Scriptures Israel had received from God were preserved by a people in exile. We find something very interesting in Daniel 2:48. It says, Then the king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon. Daniel had been chief over the wise men centuries before. The Hebrew Scriptures had been in Babylon during that time. Could it be that these wise men from the east were men from Babylon who’d seen the wisdom of the Scriptures and connected the appearance of this star to what they knew of the God of Israel and His promise of a Messiah, a great King? Because of the importance the exiled Jews placed on the law of God, the wise men would have been especially exposed to the law, the first five books of the Old Testament. And in those books there is the prophecy of Balaam, found in Numbers 24:17, where we read, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;” And so these Gentile wise men from Babylon come in response to the Word of God and the sign they have seen, to Jerusalem. God’s heart for the nations shines through from the very beginning in the gospel of Matthew and here it is again. God goes to special lengths to show the nations the glory of His Son’s coming. These verses show us what a great and sovereign God we serve. God used the worst of circumstances, the exile of Judah to Babylon, to prepare the way for the star to be seen centuries later. God used Daniel and the other Jews in the exile in ways they couldn’t have imagined to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. In Judah’s darkest hour, God was bringing together His saving plan. Maybe He’s doing the same here at West Hickory or in your life right now. Praise our sovereign God, who rules in and through all things!

The wise men see the star, and they come to worship the Messiah. But when Herod hears this news, there is a very different response.

 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him;

This verse seems to indicate that Herod came to the knowledge of the wise men second hand, they did not come directly to him but that he heard of it because the city had been stirred up by the arrival of the wise men. And when Herod heard it, he was troubled. What a different response than that of the wise men. The reason on one level is obvious. Herod is the king of the Jews. This one born the king of the Jews was a threat to his throne.  Herod was feeling threatened, threatened enough to lash out to eliminate this rival to the throne, as we will see next week. But Herod also feared this one born king because he understood that the wise men were not pointing merely to a king, but to the Messiah. Herod doesn’t seem to know much about the Messiah but the one thing he did know was that the Messiah would be a world changer. For the person in control change is a great threat. Everyone in Judea knew that Messiah would bring change and most people wanted that change, except Herod. The people wanted to be out from under Roman domination and out from under the thumb of the wicked Herod, so they were stirred up just as Herod was but not for the same reason.

Herod was troubled by the threat of a new king, even the Messiah, on the horizon. The people of Jerusalem were threatened probably by what Herod might do to any movement that arose in support of this Messiah King. So Herod was troubled by the news of the Messiah and the people were troubled by Herod’s possible response to this news. The next passage we will look at shows us that the people had good reason to be worried. But don’t miss the contrast here: the Gentile magi travel over land 800 miles to worship the Messiah King while Herod and the people of Jerusalem are upset at the thought of such a King.  He came to His own and His own received Him not, even from the beginning. Herod shows us more of his worst qualities in verse 4 . . .

and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.

Herod does what any politician in the same boat would do, he calls together a committee of experts to get more information. He gets together the chief priests and the scribes, who were not just copyists of the Scriptures but were also experts in the contents of the Scriptures. And Herod asked them where the Christ was to be born. Notice that Herod asks about the Christ, so it is clear that he thinks the wise men, in talking about the one born king of the Jews are not just talking about a rival to the throne but are talking about the promised Messiah. Herod knew Messiah had been promised, but he knew none of the details. A prophecy that had been given 400 years earlier and was widely accepted by Jews to prophesy the birthplace of the Messiah, was totally unknown to the king of the Jews, Herod. So not only was Herod paranoid and power-hungry, he was spiritually ignorant. He had to call the religious leaders together for a basic fact about the Messiah. The wise men too had a degree of spiritual ignorance, for they seem unaware of this prophecy. But the difference is that the wise men were seeking to know the Messiah while Herod had no interest in the Messiah until He became a threat. Ignorance is not a problem as long as you are seeking to know the truth. Those who seek the Lord will find Him. Jeremiah and James and numerous other places tell us this: seek and you will find.

Herod wants to find so that he can destroy, so he listens to the answer in verses 5-6 . . .

 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet“ ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ”

The scribes and chief priests knew the answer right away. The Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. The prophet Micah foretold it. A ruler to shepherd the people would come from Bethlehem. You might think that doesn’t sound like the Messiah but just like an ordinary king. But Micah goes on to say in chapter 5, “His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity… And He will arise and shepherd His flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD His God. And they will remain, because at that time He will be great to the ends of the earth.” That definitely sounds like the Messiah. It even sounds like John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word.” And notice, “He will be great to the ends of the earth.” And what do we see here? We see wise men from the ends of the earth coming to worship Him. It really is the reverse of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, whether in Exodus or in Daniel or in other places, faithful Jews like Moses or Daniel overcome foreign magicians and wise men by the power of God. But here in Matthew 2 the roles are reversed, it is the foreign wise men who prove superior to the Jewish religious leaders and their king.

Herod is focused on the whereabouts of the Messiah, the wise men are focused on worshiping the Messiah. I think this has a great deal to teach us. We ask all kinds of questions in our lives. And that is good. We need to understand what is going on and questions are a good way to do that. We even ask questions of God. What? Why? How? Where? When? These are all real questions we ask of God and people in the Bible ask them at times. But the most important question we can ask God is Who? Who are you? If we know the Who of life so many other questions get answered. Don’t expend all your energies on why’s and how’s. Ask a lot of who questions and then seek out their answers in the Scriptures and prepare for your life to be transformed as you come to know God better and better each day.

We see in verse 7 that Herod is still asking the wrong questions . . .

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared.

This time Herod wants to know when and his religious leaders can’t give him that answer, he has to get it from the wise men, who received the sign of the star. Only they can give him the info he wants. So he calls them secretly. The secret meeting was all part of his plan. Like a good politician, Herod is planning several steps ahead. He will call the wise men secretly and find out when they had received this sign. Then he can determine how old the child was. He does all this secretly so that he is not seen giving an audience to these wise men which might be seen as an endorsement of what they are saying. The secret meeting allows Herod to distance himself from the wise men’s claims of the Messiah while also allowing Herod to get key information to deal with the child born in Bethlehem.

 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”

Matthew doesn’t give us the reply of the wise men to Herod, but we assume that they told him something about when they had seen the star. So he sends them to Bethlehem on a careful search and tells them to let him know what they had found so that he too may worship this child. Of course, Herod had no intention of worshiping Jesus, he wanted Him dead. The wise men may or may not have known Herod’s true intentions, but his actions point toward evil from the beginning. He is interested in information about Jesus for his own purposes. He is not interested in worshiping Jesus. After all, if the Messiah has been born, why doesn’t Herod go check it out himself, or at least send a party to search on his behalf? And the religious leaders, the priests and scribes, why aren’t they involved? We have here the ultimate contrast. The Gentile wise men, with little knowledge but a great heart, search to the end for the Messiah with the goal of worshiping Him. The Jewish religious leaders, with great knowledge but a dead heart, don’t search at all for the one reported to be their Messiah. They have no desire to worship the one the very Scriptures predicted would be their Savior. In thinking about this I was reminded of Jesus’ later words to the religious leaders in John chapter 5, “You search the Scriptures because you think you have in them eternal life but you refuse to come to me to have life.” May we not be a people like the religious leaders, filled with knowledge but ultimately apathetic, with no desire to worship Jesus. The other contrast is King Herod, who had little knowledge and a dark heart, plotting to eliminate the Messiah when he found Him. So for us, let us not be like Herod, hostile to Jesus, seeking to shut Him out of our lives. These are the ways people respond to Jesus: apathy, hostility or worship. Which of these characterizes your life today? Any of these three responses is possible, but only one is good. The wise men show us the way . . .

After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.

After hearing Herod the wise men go straight to Bethlehem and Matthew tells us to behold, check it out, the star they had seen moves to rest over the place where the child was. This movement shows us that lots of the popular explanations for what the wise men saw, the conjunction of planets or a supernova or a comet are probably wrong. Like God led the Israelites through the pillar of cloud and fire in Exodus so here He leads the wise men through the star. God’s guidance supernaturally goes before them in the star. Again, I can’t answer all the how questions but I can answer the who question: Jesus is there. And these Gentiles are going to worship Him. And the reason they are going to worship Him is God’s sovereign grace. They were pagans. They looked to the earth for signs and searched for wisdom anywhere they could find it. But when God was pleased to reveal Himself to them they followed. And what knowledge they had they believed and literally walked in. God chose them and they followed and so they provide a great model for us of what it is to live as a godly man or woman. And the religious leaders provide us such a horrible model. Don’t worry about how much you know about God, just seek to live what you already know, and God will reveal more to you day by day. The lengths God goes to bring us to Himself are amazing. He moved the heavens so that these men could know Jesus. He moves in powerful ways to reveal Himself to us still.

And when He reveals Himself, our response is the same as what we see in verse 10 . . .

10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.

Those who should have rejoiced at the coming of the Messiah shrugged their shoulders while the unexpected ones, the wise men from afar, rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. You can’t pile up your joyful words much more than that, can you? I want to recapture that joy, don’t you? I want that this year. This is our year verse, Psalm 51:12 “Restore to me the joy of your salvation. And sustain me with a willing spirit.” The wise men have both. Joy in Jesus and a desire to follow Him. Real worship is nothing less than true joy in God. We see Christ as so great and so worthy and so good and so lovely that we are overwhelmed with desire to praise Him. Our hearts overflow with His praise. If that’s going to happen we have to have a laser-like focus on Jesus. Fix your eyes on Him. If you’re focused on all that’s wrong with your life or all the ways you fall short you’ll never have that joy. But if you’ll focus on His sufficiency and His power, joy will overflow in your life and you really won’t be able to keep it in. And you won’t be able to help going one step further. Look at verse 11 . . .

11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

Now many people think this verse means that the wise men came to Jesus not when he was a baby but when he was a young child. It is probably true that he was more than six weeks old because he was dedicated in the temple at that time and Joseph and Mary offered turtledoves for Him. If the wise men had arrived earlier they would have probably used some of the gold they received from the wise men to pay for a lamb to sacrifice as an offering of dedication. The world translated “child” here in Greek can be used of a child up to two years old and is not normally used of a newborn. The fact that Herod would later kill all the boys in Bethlehem two years old and under doesn’t tell us much because Herod would have likely gone overboard killed a wider range than he had to just to be safe. And the fact that they are in a house doesn’t tell us much either, since it is very likely that Jesus was born in a house in Bethlehem as ancient houses often housed the family and the animals much as our houses might have a house and a garage. Jesus was probably born in the attached stable of a local family, likely a relative. So I think Jesus at this point is probably somewhere between 40 days and one year old.

What is really significant here though is what the wise men do with this child: they worship Him. They see Him and they fall down and worship. There is a place for rejoicing with exceeding great joy and there is a place for falling on your face in reverent awe. Notice this awe is reserved for the child. They see the child with Mary his mother, but they worship the child. They don’t worship Mary. They worship Him by falling before Him and they worship Him by opening their treasures and presenting them gifts. Gifts worthy of a king: gold, frankincense and myrrh. The fact that there are three gifts leads many people to assume there were three wise men, but the Bible never says there were three. There were at least two, but that’s all we know for sure. And contrary to the song, “We Three Kings,” the magi almost certainly were not kings.  

The magi had followed hundreds of miles the guidance of God they had received. And now they come to their destination. And their destination is not a place but a person. They are a great model for us of perseverance, of faith, of obedience. They are like the queen of Sheba in 1 Kings 10:1-13 who came with her entourage to visit King Solomon. A foreign dignitary visited the son of David, king of the Jews, offering homage and gifts. Now these foreign dignitaries, these wise men, have visited the son of David, the true and better King of the Jews. And Matthew will quote Jesus later in 12:42 in speaking of Himself, saying, “Something greater than Solomon is here.”

Isn’t it an amazing thing that here at the beginning of Matthew the nations come to the child Jesus but in the end of Matthew the risen Jesus sends His children out to the nations with the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations! I love that.

Lots of significance has been given to the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Some people say that God sovereignly provided these gifts so that Joseph, Mary and Jesus could be supported financially when they had to escape to Egypt. That is certainly possible. Others say that each gift has a symbolic meaning: the gold stands for Jesus as king and the frankincense for Jesus as God since incense was used for worship in the temple and that the myrrh pointed to Jesus’ death as myrrh was used for embalming bodies. It’s possible that this is the meaning of the gifts but Matthew doesn’t tell us anything about their significance, except that they were the treasures of the wise men. The focus for Matthew is that these were gifts worthy of a King and that the wise men, on seeing Jesus, recognized Him as the Messiah-King and gave freely and joyfully to Him.

So for Matthew, the wise men are a model of discipleship: God reveals Himself and draws us, we follow and believe, we rejoice and bow down, we offer ourselves freely and joyfully to our Lord and Savior. And the final aspect of this discipleship is seen in verse 12 . . .

12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

Those who follow God as His disciples can count on God’s continuing guidance and protection. Like Joseph before them, the magi receive a dream warning them not to return to Herod. This was no small thing in that day, to disobey a king. The consequences could be deadly. But having been warned by God the magi chose not to go back to Herod. They returned instead to their own country. The great truth we see here is one we also see in Acts and at several other points in the Bible: we must obey God rather than men. It is clear that the magi were more awed by God than by Herod.


So as we close this morning, have you found yourself in this story? Are you like Herod, threatened by Jesus and hostile toward Him? Are you apathetic like the religious leaders, having the Word and the good news and refusing to respond? Or are you like the wise men, ready and willing to follow the light the Spirit gives, ready to worship Jesus with joy, ready to give all your life to God as He leads you, confident that He will protect you and see you through? There’s really only one good alternative, isn’t there? Those who are hostile toward Jesus end up enraged and scheme to take Jesus down but they always fail. Even when they nail Him to a cross He rises again. And in our day attempts to shut up or shut out Jesus will fail. Hostility only leads to heartache and alienation from God. Those who are apathetic put all their hopes in this life only to eventually be disappointed when circumstances go bad, as they always will. Apathy leads only to aimlessness and depression and alienation from God. But there is a good alternative. Believe in the King. Trust in the Savior. Rejoice in God’s goodness. Bow in worship. Give your life to the King. Our destination is not a place but a person, not a growing church but a glorious Savior, not a career but Christ, not family but faith in Jesus. Turn to Him today. If we all turn to Him today and keep our focus on Him, He will bring renewal to our church and we will see conversions and we will see discipleship happening because He will lead us. If in 2015 you want to be a wholehearted worshiper of Jesus, come to the front as we begin to sing. Take your stand for Him today. Come as we sing, pray for yourself and others, if you don’t want to be apathetic or hostile to Jesus, if you want your heart to sing His praise all through this new year, come as we sing.

Sermon — Matthew 1:18 — The Genesis of the Earthly Life of the God-Man

9 Oct

We have seen how the genealogy pointed to the fact that Jesus was a great King, the greater David who would reign forever. So the genealogy tells us who Jesus is and the account in Matthew 1:18-25 tells us how and why He came. We are going to look at the first aspect of that account this week. In future weeks we’ll look at Joseph’s role and at how this text fulfills Old Testament prophecy. This morning we’re looking at the genesis, or beginnings, of the earthly life of the God-man. This message breaks into three parts. The first part is the first sentence in verse 18 where we will talk about the issue of genesis, or beginnings. In the second part we’ll focus on the earthly life of Jesus from the second sentence in verse 18. Then we’ll conclude this morning by looking at the last phrase in verse 18 and reflecting on Jesus’ nature as fully God and fully man.

Matthew 1:18 then is about “the genesis of the earthly life of the God-Man.”

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

We see first . . .

The GENESIS     (1:18a).

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.

In this first sentence the Greek word genesis is used for birth. It was a common word for birth but there were other options as well. I believe Matthew used it on purpose as a Jew writing to Jews to show the parallel between the coming of Jesus and God’s work in creation.

In Genesis, we read those wonderful first words, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form and void and darkness was spread upon the face of the deep and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light and there was light.” And then in chapter 2, when the account of the creation of man is given, God breathed into Adam the breath of life.

Now we know if we’ve read our Bibles that the gospel of John picks up the parallel between Genesis and Jesus. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. In Him was light . . . the light shines in the darkness.” So John shows one aspect of Jesus’ relation to creation, namely that as God He was there and was instrumental in the formation of the universe. So on one level Jesus never had a beginning, He is eternal God. But on the other hand, Jesus, in coming to earth, had a beginning as to His human origin and this is what Matthew addresses. Like John, Matthew connects Jesus to the creation account in Genesis but in a more subtle way. Matthew shows us that the actual birth of Jesus had many connections with the creation account in Genesis. First, we see in the word genesis that as God created the world in the book of Genesis now He is bringing the new creation through the birth, the earthly genesis, of His Son. Second, as the Spirit moved over the face of the water and was instrumental in bringing shape to the creation, so the Spirit is involved in the virgin birth. God does not tell us exactly how it happened, only that it happened. As in the creation account there is some mystery about how the Spirit was involved but no doubt that He was involved, so it is with the Spirit at the birth of Christ. And as the Spirit gave life to Adam in chapter 2, so the Spirit gives life to Jesus in the womb of Mary. Matthew intends for His readers to see this connection to Jesus and this new work of creation.

We are also reminded through this reference to the book of Genesis of the reason why Jesus came: Adam and Eve tempted by the devil sinned against God and brought a curse on humanity, leading to our separation from God and His eternal judgment of humanity. But even there, in Genesis 3:15, God made a promise to do something about the problem of sin. God says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel.” This is fascinating because even back in Genesis God promises that He will deal with the problem of sin. This is called in theological circles the protoeuangelion, the first gospel, because it is the first hint in the Bible that God is going to do something to deal with the problems sin has caused. And doesn’t it show the grace of God that He doesn’t wait at all to disclose the fact that He is going to do something about sin? He is going to do something to crush the head of satan. And did you notice what He is going to do? He is going to bring an individual man (notice “He” will crush your head) and He is going to bring that individual man through the woman. One of Eve’s descendants, a woman, is going to have a child who will crush the head of Satan. Now Adam had been the one whom God had instructed about obedience, Adam had been the one who was initially held responsible for the sin, but now Adam is not in the picture. It is through a woman that the Savior would come. And then when we get to Matthew, what do we find with regard to Jesus? Joseph, though an honorable man, has nothing to do with the coming of Jesus into the world. Instead, the Holy Spirit overshadows the woman Mary and she carries this baby and gives birth to the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15, the Messiah Jesus. Did you notice in verse 18 how he is called Jesus Christ? That name Christ is not His last name, it is a title, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Messiah, the Savior. So in Genesis, God promises saving seed from a woman and in Matthew, God delivers that seed through a woman.

As Matthew’s readers reflected on the fall of humanity in Genesis and read through this passage, another connection would become clear. In Genesis, a man is born who would succumb to sin. Adam would rebel against God and plunge the human race into condemnation. We have all inherited Adam’s sin nature and all follow Him in our rebellion against God. But in Jesus what do we have? Look down at the angels words in verse 21, “you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” So in Adam we have one who gave in to sin but in Jesus we have one who saves from sin. This reminds me of the great contrast set forth in Romans 5, where Paul compares Adam and Jesus . . .

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

We see secondly in verse 18 a focus on the phrase . . .

Of the EARTHLY Life (1:18b).

When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child . . .

There are three aspects of Jesus’ earthly life which are worth noting here. First, the birth of Jesus was miraculous. Mary became pregnant before while still a virgin. She had been betrothed to Joseph but they had never had had sexual relations, nor had she been with anyone else in that way.

Betrothal was like engagement but was a stronger commitment. Usually marriages were arranged by parents in the Jewish world of the New Testament, so Mary and Joseph were set up with one another and betrothal was usually for about a year until the marriage ceremony could be held. You had to legally be divorced after you were betrothed, so it was not just a matter of breaking an engagement, it was a legal thing. But here she is pregnant as a virgin. This is clearly miraculous.

It is also mysterious. The Bible does not give us much detail about how Jesus was conceived and there are few details of the actual birth of Jesus. There is much mystery surrounding the birth of Jesus. How could Mary conceive a son in such a miraculous way? How could Jesus be fully human and fully divine? There are many mysteries in the Bible which are mysteries even though they are clearly taught in the Bible. We can’t fully understand the Trinity for example, but we believe it because the Bible teaches it. I view the virgin birth in this way. I can’t understand exactly how it happened but it is clear that it did happen, so I believe it.

Finally, the earthly life of Jesus in His birth is misunderstood. Obviously, a young woman (and Mary was probably about 14-16 years old) being pregnant without any sexual contact would be hard for others to believe. The text seems to say that Mary didn’t trumpet her pregnancy but that she was “found to be with child” meaning that she had started to show and was probably somewhere in the second trimester when Joseph discovered her pregnancy. There are indications later in the text that Joseph was disturbed about Mary’s pregnancy, and who wouldn’t be? He dealt with her kindly, but this had to have been a very difficult experience for him. He surely would have felt that Mary had betrayed him because a virgin birth seemed impossible. And for Mary, this would have been a very difficult experience as well. In spite of the fact that she knew her child was from God, it must have been hard for Mary knowing that she was going to be thought of poorly by many people around her and that perhaps her betrothed Joseph would reject her.

Isn’t it amazing that these three themes are a pretty good description of Jesus’ whole life? Miraculous, mysterious, misunderstood. You could trace that as a theme pretty effectively all through the gospels. I even think it is a pretty good description of life as a follower of Jesus. True Christian living is miraculous, mysterious and misunderstood.

So Matthew 1:18 is about the genesis of the earthly life of Jesus. And finally the last phrase . . .

Of the GOD-MAN        (1:18c).

from the Holy Spirit.

The baby born in Bethlehem is fully human and fully divine. He is the Son of Man and the Son of God. It is an amazing thing to think that Jesus came into this world as a baby. He cried, he did all the things babies do. The Christmas songs make it sound like everything was perfectly calm but the birth of Jesus was not the sanitized, serene picture portrayed by most nativity scenes.

In becoming human, Jesus took on the limitations of humanity. He had to grow and develop. He grew tired. He felt the range of human emotions. He became hungry. As a baby he was dependent on His parents. He learned as He grew up, growing in wisdom and stature, in favor with God and man, as we read in Luke 2. Jesus’ humanity was so complete that many of those closest to Him, like His half-brothers and those of His hometown, did not at first recognize Him as God.

Jesus was fully man and so is personally familiar with our struggles, our ailments, our trials. We have a Savior who knows what it is like to suffer as a man.

At the same time, Jesus was fully God. Matthew will show us throughout his gospel how Jesus is God. He has power over demons, He has power over nature, He has power over disease, He has power over the forgiveness of sins, He has power over death. So when we see Jesus’ miracles, it is no surprise. Jesus is God. Of course He can walk on water, He created water!

Jesus is the God-Man. Is He fifty-fifty? No. He is fully human and He is fully God. How is this possible? We can’t fully explain it. But we believe it because the Bible clearly teaches it. Jesus’ natures as God and as Man are unified. He can be an acceptable sacrifice for us because He is a human being, fully identified with those He came to save and He can be an effective sacrifice for us because He is God, perfect in all His ways.

As David Platt says, “The incarnation is the most profound mystery in the whole universe. This mystery is encapsulated in what Matthew writes about the virgin birth of Jesus. There are, after all, other ways Jesus could have come into the world. On the other hand, if He had come without any human parent, then it would have been hard for us to imagine or believe that He could really identify with us. On the other hand, if He had come through human parents – a biological mother and a biological father – then it would be hard to imagine how He could be fully God since His origin would have been exactly the same as ours. But God, in His perfect wisdom and creative sovereignty, ordained a virgin birth to be the avenue through which Christ would come into the world.”

So this morning as we recover from the celebrations and the presents and the family and the food, let us not forget that in Jesus we’ve already received our greatest gift. Have you received Him? Do you know Him? No matter your age today, no matter what your Christmas was like, you can finish the year in a wonderful way by bowing your heart to Jesus. Maybe today is a day for you to begin again. No matter who you are or what you have been through, I call you this morning to trust in Jesus this morning and begin following Him today.

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