Revelation #38: The Danger of Superficial Grace

business care clean clinic
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It is our job to warn those who reject Jesus, but not to condemn them. On the other hand, when we tell people there is no judgment for sin, we are treating their brokenness superficially. We are misleading people that God loves, people whom he wants to repent, and that makes him angry. In Jesus alone is the perfect balance of grace and judgment.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Revelation Part 38

Revelation #38. Revelation 19:11 – 21. The Danger of Superficial Grace

I appreciate your patience with these sermon notes. I know I am not producing them as fast as before. The truth is, even as I write this, I am in severe pain, sick to my stomach, and I just generally feel awful. I will not allow all that to stop me, but sometimes I simply can’t help from slowing me down.

With the praise in heaven offered at the beginning of this chapter, and the announcement of the marriage of the Lamb, we have officially entered the second-to-last section of Revelation. I am not quite so sure of my own accuracy in dividing up this part of Revelation, but even if I get the chiastic structure somewhat wrong, we can still receive much simply from the text itself. In any case, I call this section: “The Seven-Part Victory of Jesus.” Today, we will cover the first part of the victory of Jesus, which is the first defeat of Satan, covered in verses 19:11 – 20:3.

In the second section of the book of Revelation, we had the seven seals. The first seal was a rider on a white horse. Our analysis of the text showed that that rider represented the gospel going out into all the world. It was an indication that we presently live in a time of grace, a time when no one is being judged for their sins. Instead, God has been appealing for people to repent, and receive the grace that is in Christ Jesus. Now, in the sixth (and connected to the second) section of Revelation, we have a new rider on a white horse. Listen to the description of this rider. He is:

called Faithful and True, and He judges and makes war in righteousness. 12 His eyes were like a fiery flame, and many crowns were on His head. He had a name written that no one knows except Himself. 13 He wore a robe stained with blood, and His name is the Word of God.

Along with the vast majority of commentators throughout history, I believe that this rider represents Jesus. Since no human being is perfect, no human being could judge and make war in righteousness. The description of his eyes matches that of the description of Jesus in the first part of the book of Revelation. But the clincher is the last part: he is called the word of God. Remember, this book of Revelation was transmitted to us through the apostle John. Listen to what John says about Jesus and his gospel:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
9 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) 16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:1-18)

So, it is crystal clear that “the word of God,” means Jesus.

In our text today, Jesus has another name, which no one knows except himself (verse 12). I think we are told this in order to remind us that Jesus, being in very nature God, is far beyond our comprehension. We will never be able to fully understand him, and we certainly cannot control him, or judge him. I believe it says that his clothes are dipped in blood to remind us of the sacrifice that he made for us, and for all people.

These things are very important for us as we consider this text. The first white horse came to signify a time of grace, when God’s offer of forgiveness through Jesus Christ is given to all the world, and his judgment is withheld. But now judgment is coming and it is coming through Jesus Christ himself.

We have seen all the way through the book of Revelation that time and time again, people are given opportunities to repent. But this text tells us that there will come a day when that time really is over. God’s patience is vast, and he takes no pleasure in the death of the unrighteous.

11 Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11)

But in order to bring his people into a place of eternal joy and eternal safety, he must, at last, judge those who reject him. Revelation clearly depicts these two truths: that God is reluctant to condemn anyone, but that there will come a day when he will indeed do so, in order to usher in the new heavens and new earth for those who have not rejected him.

Again, it is Jesus himself who is sent to do the judging. I believe the reminder of his sacrifice (his clothes dipped in blood), and the fact that he has a hidden name, are there to make his right to judge all the more compelling. He is God, we are not, and we can never truly know him, or put him in a box. Also, the fact that he himself shed his own blood for us and suffered the torment of hell for us, makes his right to judge indisputable. He has already taken this terrible judgment upon himself. But if we refuse to let him do that, there is no alternative. We will have to own the judgment for ourselves, which means we become objects of God’s wrath.

This is very important, because Christians seem to be confused about judgment, and the confusion cuts two different ways. On the one hand, some people seem to think that it is their job to bring judgment and condemnation on those who are not Christians. Obviously, this text shows us that that is wrong: it is the right of Jesus, and Jesus alone. I think the following analogy might be helpful:

Imagine that you have a friend who regularly cheats on her taxes. You have another friend who happens to work for the Internal Revenue Service. You know for a fact, from your IRS friend, that sometime soon the government is going to crack down on tax fraud. Sooner or later, if your friend continues her pattern of cheating on taxes, she will get caught, and she will go to prison. Now, it is not your job to catch her, nor to throw her in prison. But what you can do – and what you should do, if you really love your friend – is to warn her about the coming judgment. You aren’t bringing legal proceedings against her, you are not trying to have her thrown in prison; those things are not your job.

However, many Christians seem to be handing out condemnation tickets to non-Christians whom they do not like. But that is not our job; we have no right to do such a thing. What we can do, and should do, is to warn our non-Christian friends about the coming judgment, and to appeal to them to receive the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ instead, while there is still time. There’s a big difference between warning, and condemning. There is a very large difference also, between those who claim to be Christians, and those who do not. If someone claims to be part of the body of Christ, and under the authority of Jesus, and yet they are continuing in a long-term pattern of blatant sin, we do have the right to talk to them. The judging of those who are not believers is not our task. The apostle Paul helps to clarify this. Below, When Paul says “bears the name of brother” we need to remember that most Jesus-followers called each other brother and sister. The word “Christian” was still not widely used. So “brother” means “Christian.” :

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)

So it is not our job to judge those who are outside the body of Christ. We are only to warn. And even when it comes to judging those within the body of Christ, Jesus and the apostles gave very specific criteria. It is not a matter of anybody and everybody going around condemning people. There is a very clear process for church discipline. It is mostly a matter for the church leadership, and only in rare cases does it involve everyone in the church.

There is another error that Christians make that this text corrects. Many, many Christians these days seem to think that there is no final judgment at all. They say things like: “It’s all about love. Love conquers all. All we have to do is love. Period.” In a way, they are right. But love is much bigger than they seem to realize. For love to be real, there must be an alternative; and the alternative to loving God is evil. Therefore, as part of his love, Christ brings true, final and complete judgment upon those who reject his loving salvation. Remember the name that no one knows? We cannot put Jesus in a box. Very often, those who want to say that Jesus is only loving, and never judges, are putting him in a box of their own making. This text is crystal clear, for those who reject Jesus, there is a thorough and terrible judgment awaiting.

When we tell people – whether Christian or not – that there is no judgment for sin, no penalty for rejecting the grace offered in Jesus, we are acting as false prophets. Jeremiah spoke about people like this:

14 They have treated My people’s brokenness superficially,
claiming, “Peace, peace,”
when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14)

When we tell people there is no judgment for sin, we are treating their brokenness superficially. We are misleading people that God loves, people whom he wants to repent, and that makes him angry.

Isaiah also saw that people did not like to talk about the fact that one day God will indeed judge the earth:

9 For these are rebellious people, deceitful children, children unwilling to listen to the Lord’s instruction.
10 They say to the seers, “See no more visions !” and to the prophets,“ Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions. 11 Leave this way, get off this path,
and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!” (Isaiah 30:9-11)

People in the time of Isaiah didn’t want to hear about a God who holds people accountable for their sins. Neither do people in 21st century. But we are not acting truly lovingly if we hide the truth.

Paul warned Timothy about people like this, who will go looking for people to affirm their ideas, and avoid those who tell them the truth about God as revealed in the Bible.

I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and because of His appearing and His kingdom: 2 Proclaim the message; persist in it whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching. 3 For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new. 4 They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths. (2 Timothy 4:1-4)

We do no one any favors by hiding the truth. This book of Revelation is as much holy Scripture as any of the Gospels. And, honestly, you cannot read the Gospels, paying attention, without seeing that Jesus judges everyone based upon how they respond to himself. The message of shallow love; love that only affirms and never confronts, is not the message of Jesus. It is true that the Holy Spirit appeals to all people, inviting them in love into salvation through Jesus. But the reason for God’s passionate desire to be reconciled to people is that if they refuse, they will face terrible judgment, and that judgment will come from Jesus Himself. John captures both God’s love, and his judgment, perfectly. But we need to read past the first, very familiar part, and on to the end, in order to get the complete picture.

16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:16-18)

So what we do with this? What does it mean for us, as we engage in real Christian community, go to work, spend time with our families, and so on? For me, it is always good to remember the difference between warning, and condemning. Warning someone about a coming disaster is an act of love. When we appeal to people to repent of their sins, and escape judgment, our love for those people should be evident. The less loving my warning sounds, the more likely it is that I am leaning towards condemning someone.

This passage, for me, is still a reminder of the grace of God. Jesus has not yet come as an avenging warrior. We are still in a time of grace. We have seen throughout the book of Revelation that God gives opportunity after opportunity to all people, in the hopes that some might repent, receive his grace, and escape the coming judgment. If there was no coming judgment, all of that would be sort of silly; even pointless. But the fact that there is a coming judgment makes God’s grace shine all the more clearly.

This passage also reminds me that the time of grace will one day have an end. For every single person, that end is no farther off than the end of their mortal lives here on earth. Those who preach love, and no judgment whatsoever, are false prophets; they are treating people’s brokenness superficially. This is not loving at all.

Finally, the purpose of the coming judgment is so that God can bring his people into a new heavens and a new earth; a perfect world without sorrow, hatred, or fear. The end goal of judgment is a glorious, loving future with God.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you about all this now.

LOVING OBEDIENCE…OBEDIENT LOVE. JOHN 15:9-12

Loving Obedience

In the Bible, the opposite of rules is not “no rules.” It is loving relationship. It is a completely different paradigm.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download John 15:9-12

Single Sermons. Loving Obedience. John 15:9-12

 9“As the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you. Remain in My love. 10If you keep My commands you will remain in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commands and remain in His love. 11“I have spoken these things to you so that My joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. 12This is My command: Love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:9-12, HCSB)

This is a stunning passage of scripture. We could spend weeks finding new and wonderful things in these few verses alone. I don’t have weeks, so let’s see if we can break off a digestible portion of this wonderful part of God’s word.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. It’s easy to drift over this quickly, but just stop for a minute and listen. How does the Father love Jesus? In the first place, he is the heavenly Father. His love has no limit. His love has no flaws. The Father has loved Jesus eternally. Here on earth, our love is hampered by our limited capacities. It is corrupted by our sinful flesh. Sometimes, loving others is a lot of work. At times, we lose patience with those we love; we get irritated with them; we become frustrated, or just plain weary. None of those things are a factor in the way the Father loves Jesus. Therefore, none of those things are a factor in the way Jesus loves us.

In fact, Jesus offers us the same experience of love that He has as a member of the Holy Trinity.

God is a Trinity – that is, He is one God, and yet he exist in three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is something here that is beyond the grasp of human imagination (incidentally, the doctrine of the Trinity is one of the best arguments that Christianity is not made up by people – human beings would have come up with something more understandable). Between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit there is a constant flow of love and joy. Jesus tells us “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” He is, amazingly, offering us the kind of daily experience of love and joy and grace that He himself has. His own experience of the Father’s love is deep and abiding. It is not something that goes away, and it is something that sustained Him and influenced Him every weary day of His time on earth. I’m reminded of what Paul wrote to the Ephesians:

14For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:14-19, ESV2011)

We need the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, strengthening us, in order to even begin to understand the love that Jesus Christ has for us. It is beyond our ability to know completely, it is abundantly far more than all that we could ask or think. The unfathomable, unlimited love of Jesus for us is the bedrock for everything else in our lives. Particularly, it is the foundation upon which the rest of this text is built. We’re going to talk about what it means to keep the commandments of Jesus. But we cannot begin to understand what this means without the foundation of his all-surpassing love for us.

Abide in my love. “Abide” is not a word that we use very often anymore. Some good synonyms might include: remain, dwell, rest-upon, stay, be, exist-in. We are to dwell in the love of Jesus. We are to rest upon it, to exist continually in it.

Everything in our entire lives ought to be built on one foundational fact: that God loves us. If we get that fact wrong, there will be a host of other things in our lives which we will get wrong, and many things will not make sense. This is not to say that when we truly grasp by faith that God loves us, everything makes sense, and nothing ever goes wrong. But if we build our lives on any other basis than the love God has for us, sooner or later the uselessness and hopelessness of it all will come crashing in.

For many of us, there have been times, perhaps brief periods, when we have truly understood how much God loves us, and those times stand out as high points in our walks of faith. But much of the time, though we know it with our minds, we find it hard to believe that God truly delights in us. On Monday morning at 8:30 when the boss is upset and you’re still smarting from the fight with your spouse, it seems difficult to feel God’s love, and almost impossible that His love should make a difference in your situation.

In John 15, Jesus is inviting us into an abiding experience of His love. He appears to be offering a life wherein most of the time, we will be conscious of God’s love for us, and that love will make a real difference in our daily experiences. Jesus did not simply come down from heaven, hand us a one way ticket redeemable upon our death, and say, “See ya when you get there.” No in His invitation to abide, He is offering a life that is different in quality, right here and now. And the central fact affecting the quality of our lives is meant to be His affection for us.

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. Now we hit the difficulty. Many times when we read this phrase after the other two we think, “Aha! I knew it was too good to be true. Now the other shoe has dropped. Sure, God loves us: but only if we obey his commands, only if we can be good enough to earn his love.”

As we look at these verses, it is important for us to understand the concept of “paradigm.” A paradigm is a way of looking at the world. Paradigms tells us how to interpret our experiences. We all have paradigms, and use them every day. Think about it. The color green does not actually mean “go” and red does not mean “stop.” But in the driving paradigm, we interpret those colors to indicate those things.

When it comes to obeying God, and keeping his commands, it is common to find two different and extreme views,. The first view says, “Jesus died to forgive us [this is true]. His death took away the power of the law to condemn us [also true]. Therefore, once I’ve prayed the sinner’s prayer and ‘gotten saved’ I can go off and live my life however I please [this is not true].”

The second view goes like this: “Even the New Testament – after Jesus’ death and resurrection – tells us we need to obey God [true]. It says we should be holy and righteous people [true, but we need to understand this in the proper way]. Therefore not only should we try to live sinless lives, we actually can do so [not true]. Therefore, if we sin, we may not be true Christians [really not true].”

The underlying problem with both of these approaches is the paradigm. They both view our faith as set of rules. One way thinks we have to follow them; the other way thinks we are free from them. But the paradigm in both cases is about following rules. Both ways of understanding the scripture are legalistic, because they view obedience to Jesus as something to do with the law.

However, in the Bible, the opposite of rules is not “no rules.” It is relationship. It is a completely different paradigm.

In the book of John, Jesus relentlessly pushes the idea that real life only found in a daily faith relationship with Him. In fact, that is the central message of the entire New Testament. What Jesus says here in John 15:10 about keeping his commands can be properly understood only in the context of relationship with him. And in fact, that is true of any verse about obedience in the entire Bible. The paradigm is not rules and laws, but rather, relationship.

Marriage (the way God intends it to be) is supposed to be the strongest and most enduring voluntary relationship we have with another person. That is why the Bible often uses marriage as an illustration of our relationship with the Lord (Ephesians 5:25; Isaiah 54:5, 62:4-5; Jeremiah 3:15, 31:32; Hosea 1:2, 2:19-20; Revelation 19:7-9). That’s also why I often use it as a sermon illustration. It is applicable once again here.

What brings a husband and wife together? Does the man sign up to follow rules laid down by the woman, then, if he follows those rules correctly, they get married? Of course not. They are brought together by love. But what about after the marriage? Do they say, “I know love brought us together, but we are married now, and from here on our marriage will based on fulfilling the rules we have for each other.” Ridiculous.

So, if marriage is not based on rules, does that mean that I am free to go have an affair if I want? Also ridiculous. Why? Because there are certain things that destroy love, and destroy relationships, and having an affair is one of those things.

I think one of the biggest problems we have in marriage is that we fail to see how our actions affect the love between us. We don’t realize (or we pretend not to) how our actions have the potential to either help or harm the relationship. So when a wife wants her husband to quit going out to bars with his buddies, it isn’t that she’s trying to base their relationship on rules. What she’s really trying to say is “when you do that, it injures the love we have between us. It hurts me and it hurts our relationship.” When the husband says, “I’m looking for more from you in our physical relationship,” he isn’t trying to say that he only loves her because of what happens in the bedroom. He’s saying, “This helps to build my love for you, and therefore it helps our relationship.” These aren’t rules. They are relationship builders (or relationship busters). Because I am married, my behavior conforms to certain standards. These are not rules I follow – I live this way because I love my wife.

It will put tremendous pressure on a marriage if one or both spouses start looking at behavior toward each other as rules, instead of actions that affect the quality of love.

Jesus is telling us today, it’s the same with him. He uses the language of “commands” and “obedience” because there is supposed to be submission on our part to the Lord. But what it is all about is relationship. Listen clearly: “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love….You are my friends if you do what I command you.” He’s saying, “this is all about our relationship. If you love me, your behavior will reflect that. If you know that I love you, your behavior will show that also.” John writes about this more in his letters:

For this is what love for God is: to keep his commands. Now His commands are not a burden, because whatever has born of God conquers the world. This is the victory that has conquered the world: our faith. (1 John 5:3-4)

And this is love: that we walk according to his commands. This is the command as you have heard it from the beginning: you must walk in love. (2 John 6).

In other words, “keeping his commands” is all about that faith-relationship of love we have with Jesus. You should be able to tell I love Kari, not only because of the ring around my finger, but also because of how I behave with regard to her. You should be able to tell I love Jesus, not just because of a cross around my neck, but because of the way I behave with regard to Jesus.

Let me suggest one more thing. I don’t always feel like listening when Kari wants to talk. I don’t always feel like being kind or encouraging. I don’t always feel like helping her with things or doing her favors. But sometimes I do those things even if don’t feel like it, because the more I do, the closer we become; and the closer we become the more I actually want to do those things. Also, of course, the closer we are, the more I enjoy and treasure our relationship.

What I’m saying is, I choose to behave in such a way that I become closer to my wife. In the same way, obedience is a pathway to intimacy with God. The more we live as he asks us to, the easier it is to continue to make choices that increase our closeness to him. The more we obey, the more we learn to love Him, and our satisfaction and fulfillment – and our joy – grows.

When we remember that Jesus said this about keeping his commands in the context of abiding in Him it is impossible to doubt that he is talking about how we are behave in relationship with him. Basically, he is saying, “this is how to grow in my love and stay living in me. This is how you and I get closer.”

So what are the commands that Jesus wants us to keep? What are these things that help us grow closer to Jesus? In John chapter 6, some came to Jesus, wondering about this.

“What can we do to perform the works of God?” they asked.

Jesus replied, “this is the work of God: that you believe in the One he has sent” (John 6:29)

Another time, some experts on Jewish law came along and asked, “What’s the most important commandment to obey?” Jesus summed it all up when he said:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

In other words, to obey is to act in love. This exactly what we have been learning. Love for God and neighbor is obedience, and obedience to these commands (which really sum up all of the commandments) demonstrates love for God and neighbor. If I love my neighbor, I will not steal from Him. If I love God, I will listen to Him and His will for my life. If I love God I won’t sin, because that hurts him. If I love my neighbor, I won’t sin, because that hurts her.

Now, in reality, I don’t always love perfectly in action. From the way I talked about marriage, you might think I’m the perfect husband. Not even close. Sometimes, not only do I not feel loving, but I don’t act in a loving way either. That’s true in my relationship with the Lord, and with others also.

But we need to realize this: through dying on the cross, rising again and sending the Holy Spirit, Jesus has made it possible for anyone to keep his commands. There are people who believe we can attain perfect behavior in this life. They are mistaken, and they take a very poor approach to understanding the Bible. But the power of Jesus’ death on the cross is such that when we fail, forgiveness is available to us, and we can continue as if we never failed to obey Him. While we don’t reach perfect behavior, through Jesus, our Spirits are counted as perfect by God. Because we are in relationship, not under law, we repent, receive the love and grace and forgiveness God has made available to us, and so continue on in obedience. Through Jesus’ work, it possible for us to be in, and to stay in, right relationship with Him.

When I hurt Kari, or vice versa, it doesn’t mean divorce. Instead, we come to each other honestly, talk it over, ask for, give and receive forgiveness, and then move on. Remember, marriage is supposed to be a reflection of God’s relationship with us, and that is exactly how it works with the Lord.

Spend a few minutes now, reflecting on what the Lord is saying to you.

REVELATION #23. THE WITNESS OF CHURCH AND WORD

Two Witnesses

By ancient Jewish law, it required two witnesses to establish something in a court of law. When there are two witnesses, something is established as certainly true. God will not judge the world without first giving solemn witness to the truth of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. The world may reject that idea, but God will make every effort before he brings the final judgment.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Revelation Part 23

Revelation 23 #  Revelation 11:1-14

We are still in the interlude between the sixth and seventh trumpets. We have considered how the seven thunders discourage us from making timelines, and instead, encourage us to trust the Lord beyond what we can understand. We have seen John’s call to “eat” God’s Word, and considered what that means for us. The interlude continues:

1Then I was given a measuring reed like a rod, with these words: “Go and measure God’s sanctuary and the altar, and count those who worship there. 2But exclude the courtyard outside the sanctuary. Don’t measure it, because it is given to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for 42 months. (Rev 11:1-2, HCSB)

You know I am not a fan of the most popular ways of interpreting Revelation these days. I will say, however, that this text is one place where, on the surface, it appears to support that method. This text makes it seem like the believers on earth at this point are all Jews, because the outer courtyard is for Gentiles, and it is given over to be trampled, while the sanctuary, where John is told to count those who worship there, is open only to Jews. So, it seems to support the idea of all Gentile Christians being “raptured,” and the conversion of many Jews during the last days. Many people believe that this means that at some point, the Jews are going to rebuild an actual temple in Jerusalem.

However, this idea does not stand up under serious Bible scholarship. In the first place, when the word “sanctuary” (Greek: naos) is used of the Jewish temple it means the inside of the temple, or “The Holy Place,” where only priests can go, and even then, only one at a time. In fact, most priests only entered the sanctuary once in an entire lifetime. So, if this refers to the Jewish temple, and John is told to measure those who worship in the sanctuary, he would find only one person there at a time. This makes it highly unlikely that the text refers to a literal sanctuary in the literal Jewish temple. But the truth is, this word “sanctuary” is used many times to refer to the church (which includes both Jews and Gentiles), and also to individual believers:

16Don’t you yourselves know that you are God’s sanctuary and that the Spirit of God lives in you? 17If anyone destroys God’s sanctuary, God will destroy him; for God’s sanctuary is holy, and that is what you are. (1Cor 3:16-17, HCSB, bold and italics applied for emphasis)

19Don’t you know that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20for you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body. (1Cor 6:19-20, HCSB, bold and italics applied for emphasis)

And what agreement does God’s sanctuary have with idols? For we are the sanctuary of the living God, as God said. (2 Corinthians 6:16 HCSB, bold and italics applied for emphasis)

19So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, 20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. 21The whole building, being put together by Him, grows into a holy sanctuary in the Lord. 22You also are being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit. (Eph 2:19-22, HCSB)

By the time John wrote Revelation, there was no literal Jewish temple – it was destroyed in about 70 A.D.. There is no explicit prophecy in Revelation that describes the rebuilding of the temple. You have seen the verses above, and there are more like them. It is far more likely that in John’s vision, the sanctuary meant “God’s people, the church.”

In this case, what are “the outer courts?” There are several possibilities. One is just that this is  a symbolic picture showing that God’s people will be oppressed and in danger (the trampling of the outer courts), but God knows who belongs to him (John measures and counts them), and they will be kept safe until they are brought into the New Heavens and New Earth. Personally, I think that’s the best and most likely meaning here.

One nuanced version of the same idea might go as follows. Christian theology has always made a distinction between the invisible church (which is the true church; those who truly have surrendered to Jesus) and the visible church – the congregations that we can see and count with our own eyes, which contain people who are not true Christians. We can’t see the true church, because we don’t really know what is in the hearts of other people, thus the “invisible church.” The church we can see in the world contains some people who aren’t truly followers of Jesus, including some clergy, and others who claim to be leaders. So the true church is that in the sanctuary, as measured by John. The “outer courts” are those who appear to be believers, but are not. So, the external church may appear to be trampled. This might mean that many people who call themselves Christians (but are not true believers) will choose to leave the church during this time.

By the way, let’s deal with the time measurements here. The outer courts are trampled for 42 months; the two witnesses prophesy for 1,260 days; they will lie dead in the streets for 3 ½ days. 42 months is the same as 1,260 days, if you count each month as 30 days. This is also the same as 3 ½ years. Sometimes, the same period is also described as “a time, times and half a time.” Remember that seven is the number of God’s perfect work? 3 ½ is, of course, half of seven. Here in Revelation, there appears to be a kind of symmetry about this number. When it is described as “1,260 days,” it refers to a time when God’s people are kept safe (11:3, and 12:6). When it is “42 months” it describes the limited time when authority is given to the powers of evil to apparently triumph (11:2, and 13:5).

So, for half of God’s perfect timing, the outer courts are trampled. For the other half of it, the two witnesses testify, and nothing can stop them. These times are obviously not literal (not every month has 30 days), but we are meant to understand that together, these two pieces make up one “unit” of God’s perfect work and will in the world. The main point is that God has set a specific time limit on these things, and He remains in complete control of all of it.

I also want to point out that it is hard to tell exactly when these time periods will occur. We’ve already seen that Revelation seems to be not very linear, and it is not susceptible to creating timelines. I favor the idea this takes place before the final judgments begin, and it is one more chance for people to repent before it is too late.

Now, on to the two witnesses. This is one of the more puzzling places in Revelation, the Bible’s most puzzling book, and accordingly, there are many different theories about these two. Some say they are two literal people. Many think they are Elijah & Moses, since Elijah had power to call down heavenly fire, and to cause drought; while Moses had power to turn water to blood and to strike the Egyptians with many plagues. Other people think these are Elisha & Enoch (both of whom ascended to heaven supernaturally), or, Elijah & Elisha.

If taken symbolically, there are also many options: The Law & the Prophets; The New Testament & the Old; The Law & the Gospel; The Church & the Bible; The Bible & the Holy Spirit; The Gentile Church & the Jewish Church.

I’m somewhat partial to the idea of these two as representing the Church and the Bible. I think it makes a good deal of sense. Jewish law required that any testimony must be established by at least two witnesses. What are the two witnesses to the Father, Son & Holy Spirit? What proclaims to the world the truth of God and of the Lamb? I can think of two things: the Church, and the Bible. This also makes sense, since the measuring of the sanctuary seems to be about the church. However, I don’t claim to know for sure.

John also says that they are “the two olive trees and two lampstands.” Though we don’t use other books of the Bible to create a timeline, it is important to “cross reference” when we study the Bible. Cross-referencing means that we look at related verses in other books to help us understand things. John, as a student of the Old Testament, was familiar with the prophet Zechariah. These two witnesses remind me of the following passage in Zechariah:

2He asked me, “What do you see? ”

I replied, “I see a solid gold lampstand there with a bowl on its top. It has seven lamps on it and seven channels for each of the lamps on its top. 3There are also two olive trees beside it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.” 4Then I asked the angel who was speaking with me, “What are these, my lord? ”

 5“Don’t you know what they are? ” replied the angel who was speaking with me.

I said, “No, my lord.”

 6So he answered me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by strength or by might, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD of Hosts. (Zech 4:2-6, HCSB)

So the “lampstands,” and “Olive trees,” show us that these two witnesses are infused with the power of God’s Holy Spirit. We believe that the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit, that is, he caused human beings to write down the words of the Bible. We also believe that the Holy Spirit is at work today in individual believers, and in communities of believers. That is another reason why it makes sense to me to think of these two witnesses as the Church, and the Bible.

When we put this together it seems to flow. For a time it will seem like the church is being trampled, yet the true church will persevere, and be protected by God. And then, before that final trumpet is sounded, the church, and God’s Word (the Bible) will together provide an unfailing testimony to those who survive the great disasters of the first six trumpets. I think their special powers indicate that nothing will be able to stop them from saying what must be said, from giving the testimony that will leave all people with no excuse for rejecting God.

Once again, this is an indication of God’s mercy. In this pause before the final trumpet, God will make sure that everyone has had a chance to hear and understand. Everyone will have a chance to repent.

Notice also that the two witnesses wear sackcloth. Sackcloth symbolizes an attitude of repentance, and sorrow over sin. So the church is not rejoicing that people are being judged, and that more judgment is to come. The sackcloth shows us that God, and his people, are sad that so many will continue to reject him. In our culture today this is not a troublesome concept. I think most of us do feel great sorrow at the thought of the future that awaits those who reject God. But during the time in which the book of Revelation was written this might not have been so. Christians were violently oppressed and persecuted. It would have been easy for John’s readers to feel a kind of self-righteous satisfaction at the thought that the world would be judged and condemned. The fact that these two witnesses wear sackcloth is a warning against unrighteous anger and being happy about the fate of those who reject God.

One of the major themes of the book of Revelation is that God is making all things right. Therefore, at a certain point, the testimony of the two witnesses will be complete, and it will be time for God to continue the process of making all things right. And so, John writes:

7When they finish their testimony, the beast that comes up out of the abyss will make war with them, conquer them, and kill them. (Rev 11:7, HCSB)

This is the first mention of “the beast,” and it certainly doesn’t tell us much. He comes out of the abyss, that is, he comes from hell, and is a servant of Satan. It seems to me that the “beast” is either an individual, or an entity (like a government, or a military), but probably an individual. We will discuss the beast more in the coming chapters.

The fact that the peoples of the world rejoice over the death of the two witnesses is an indication that during those last days not many people will repent. The witnesses will leave them with no excuse, but very few will take the opportunity given by their testimony.

Even so, the text tells us that after they lie dead in the streets for 3 ½ days, they are raised and taken up into heaven. If I am right, and these witnesses represent the church and the Bible, then this could be a symbolic representation of what is popularly called “the rapture.” In fact, there are some who believe that it is, and thus believe that the rapture takes place after 3 1/2 years of tribulation. However, it is far from clear who these witnesses are for certain, and whether or not their resurrection represents a rapture. In addition, I still think it is unlikely that 3 ½ years is supposed to be taken literally. It may simply mean that after a certain point, the witness of the church and the Bible is removed from the world; that the church and the Bible will no longer be able to influence the people of the world. Also, we have already seen how Revelation switches forwards and backwards in time (remember the opening of the sixth seal describes what seemed to be the end of the entire world), so it is difficult at best to place these events in time. This could be happening at the very end. At any rate, there are still several places ahead of us in Revelation that portray the saints in the middle of the tribulations going on in the world.

The resurrection of the two witnesses appears to have more of an effect than their testimony alone. The miracle is accompanied by an earthquake that kills 7,000 (clearly a symbolic, rather than literal, number), and many people gave glory to  God. “Giving glory to God” isn’t necessarily the same as repentance. James writes:

You believe that God is one; well and good. Even the demons believe that – and tremble with fear. (James 2:19, NET)

So, this may not mean that people truly repent and surrender their hearts to Jesus. Acknowledging that God is God is a good step, but it isn’t the same thing as trusting Him with your whole being.

This is a confusing section of the Bible. But I want us to pause and listen to how the Holy Spirit might want to use it in your heart and life today. He may want to feed your soul; he may want to confront your sin; he may want to give you hope and encouragement. Let’s look for these things.

As with several other places in Revelation, the incident about the measuring of those in the sanctuary tells us that God knows his own people, he has not forgotten them. Let’s make it personal: God knows you. He has not forgotten you. Even though you may feel like you are being trampled outwardly, he’s got you.

Perhaps another lesson for us is to think of the church in this world as both the true, “invisible” body of believers who have truly surrendered their hearts to Jesus, and also the outwardly “visible” church. The visible church contains many people who are not truly Christian. Often times, the visible church looks like a mess; it may look like it is being trampled. But the Lord knows those who are truly his, and there is more going on than we can see. Perhaps you need to remember this, if you are frustrated with your church at the moment.

Another thing we might need to hear is that there truly is enmity between the people of God and the world. We are in the world, but we are not of it. Our home is in another place, our citizenship is in the world to come. If we are wholeheartedly for Jesus, it will bring us into conflict with the world. Chapter eleven depicts this graphically. Jesus told us that this was so:

18“If the world hates you, understand that it hated Me before it hated you. 19If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of it, the world hates you. 20Remember the word I spoke to you: ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will also keep yours. 21But they will do all these things to you on account of My name, because they don’t know the One who sent Me. (John 15:18-21, HCSB)

This is not an excuse for us to hate the world back (remember, the witnesses wore sackcloth) but there are times when we will have to make choices that those in the world will not understand or approve of. We might be mocked, or criticized. We might even lose a job, or at least promotion opportunities. Remember, we belong to a heavenly kingdom.

It could be that your lesson is to realize that you are a part of the great witness to God’s truth in this world. Your life, the way you live, the way you treat people – this is part of the witness of God to the world. Now, that may lead you to repentance: most of us mess up in this area time and time again. But it is the power of God that witnesses through you. Surrender yourself to him to allow him to do that, and trust him to do it.

Maybe you need to hear again this message of God’s grace. In order to make all things right God must do away with sin. That necessarily involves destroying those who will not repent of their sin, but even so, God will continue to go to extreme lengths, even up until the very end, in hopes that some few more might be saved.

Take a few minutes to meditate and pray, and see if the Holy Spirit has something else to say to you right now.

GRACE: FREE TO US, COSTLY TO HIM

crucifixion

God’s grace is free to us, but it was not free to Him. It was very costly. It is free in the same sense that a diamond is free to the girl who is getting engaged. It is freely given, but it cost the giver a great deal. And like the diamond engagement ring, it is offered not just as a trinket, but as an invitation into a lifelong relationship that will change the course of our future forever.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Matthew Part 97

Matthew #97  Matthew 27:11-50

[This is a slightly longer message than usual. Be prepared, if you are listening, to take 35 minutes or so. If you are reading, please be ready for just a few more words than normal.]

At this point, I want to consider the extreme suffering of Jesus – all of which was for us. Some of you will read this long after I post it. In “real time,” as I write, it is only a few weeks until Christmas. This may seem like a weird topic to cover during this season of joy and goodwill. But consider this: I have already mentioned that in Jesus’ life on earth, every single moment that included physical or emotional pain, was suffering on our behalf. Even a stubbed toe was suffering that Jesus did not have to experience, but that he endured for our sake. So, in a way, his atonement for our sin began with his birth.

Of course the atonement could not be complete without his death. He came into the world for exactly this purpose: to die, to receive in himself what we deserved. Let’s consider what that meant for him, physically, spiritually and emotionally. As always, many other sermons might be preached on these same verses. I am choosing to focus on just the one thing, although I do think it is the most important thing in this text. By the way, even if you don’t normally “share” things online, I think this would be a good one to share.

Jesus was killed by torture. There is really no other way to say it. It began with three beatings during the course of about eighteen hours. First, Jesus was taken to the high priest’s house – and you can bet they weren’t gentle in the taking. Most likely they pushed him and perhaps even struck him on their way there. After the mock trial, he was surrounded by an angry mob, and beaten with fists (Matthew 26:67-68; Mark 14:65; Luke 22:63-64). At least some of the blows were to his head. This kind of beating alone would probably put most of us in the hospital, at least overnight. Picture an LA street gang finding the member of a rival gang alone, and deciding to teach him a lesson. You can imagine several people holding the poor man up, while others took turns punching him. It is possible that Jesus sustained a concussion from this, and certainly he received multiple bruises; possibly even broken ribs or teeth. Remember, there was no pain medication in those days.

Next, they took him to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who did not live in Jerusalem, but was there to try and keep the peace during the Passover festival. A standard Roman response to suspected trouble makers was to have them “scourged.” Pilate had this done to Jesus. In common language, this means he was whipped – that is, beaten with an instrument designed to inflict pain on human beings. Instead of one “tail” to the whip, it had several strips leather. At the end of each strip was fastened rocks or bits of glass or even pieces of lead. So each strike of the whip caused multiple gashes, laying open the flesh, and bruising the muscles as well. Most probably Jesus was given the 39 lashes, which had been known to kill people occasionally. Remember, Jesus had been beaten up by a mob, just hours earlier. In addition to his other injuries, Jesus certainly lost a lot of blood from the whipping, and perhaps sustained more broken ribs. Between these two beatings, the overall physical shock to his body was enormous. Coming so close together, there is no doubt that many men would have died from the combination of these two traumas.

After that, Jesus was turned over to the Roman cohort for crucifixion. Before they did their job, however, the entire cohort had fun mocking him; a cohort was made up of about 500 brutal, hardened soldiers. They jammed a crown made of thorns on his head. They took a staff most likely made out of a cane stem (something like bamboo, but smaller in diameter) and gave it to him, and then took it away and used it to beat him over the head. This cane rod would probably not have created any serious injury, unless it was used to strike Jesus on the face, and thus open up cuts on his cheeks. Even so, they were likely hitting the crown of thorns, driving thorns into his head, and the direct blows themselves would have been very painful.

But all that stuff – physical punishment which could easily have killed many men – was only preliminary to the suffering which killed the Son of God. After these severe beatings, they strapped a big beam to his back and made him carry it a mile or two. The beam was likely equivalent to a 4”x4”, perhaps six or eight feet long. Considering what he had been through, it was no wonder he needed help. When they got to the place, they put metal spikes through his hands, into the crosspiece. Though tradition pictures these as going through the palms of the hands, it is more likely that they put the spikes through his wrists between the two bones of the forearm, so that the flesh would not tear away and drop him from the cross. Either way, that alone would have been painful beyond belief. His legs were slightly bent, and then they pressed his feet, one on top of the other, and drove a spike through them into the upright beam of the cross. Tradition pictures a kind of triangular piece of wood for his feet to rest on, but this is doubtful. Then they raised it up.

At this point, Jesus had two choices. He could let the weight of his body hang from his wrists, tearing away at the flesh, and rubbing on bare bone. Or he could straighten his legs, and push up against the spike driven through his feet, inflaming the wounds there, and grinding against broken metatarsals and tendons. Each movement probably drove splinters into his raw, lacerated back. If he had an itch, he couldn’t even scratch it. If he had to go to the bathroom, it would be right there in front of everyone.

Over time, victims of crucifixion spend more and more time hanging from their arms, since pushing up on the spike through the feet was intensely painful, and required effort. As Jesus’ body weight pulled on his arms, and kept them above shoulder-level, his lungs gradually began to fill with fluid, and breathing became difficult. The only relief for this came from thrusting against the spike in the feet. By pushing himself up this way, he could straighten his body and breathe more freely. But the pain was such that no one could endure this for long. It also required strength and energy. He was undoubtedly weakened by his beatings to start with, and as his body grew weaker through this torture, he got less and less air. In this position, fluid also collected around his heart, putting pressure on it. As a result the organs slowly got less blood and oxygen.

Incidentally, this was why, late in the day, they broke the legs of the other men who were crucified alongside Jesus. By breaking their legs, it became impossible for them to straighten up and get air, and so they died more rapidly.

Jesus was taken to the Roman governor early in the morning. He was put up on the cross before noon, possibly as early as eight or nine in the morning. He endured this suffering until it killed him, about eight hours later. It killed him, either by filling his lungs with fluid and suffocating him, or by the pressure of the fluids surrounding his heart, which could have caused it to stop.

This was actually a relatively short time for death by crucifixion. When we read the gospels, we find that Pilate was surprised when he heard that Jesus had died by late afternoon. But then, most people being crucified were not beaten three times within hours before they were put on the cross.

But the suffering wasn’t only physical. He also went through emotional and spiritual agony.

First, he endured the anticipation of suffering. He knew, long before what happened, what was waiting for him. When I have some special event approaching in the future, anticipation is almost half the joy of it. I enjoy the feeling of looking forward to a good thing coming. But the reverse is also true. If you know about something you dread that is coming up, part of the negative experience is anticipating what you don’t want to go through. It is clear that Jesus knew about his approaching suffering, and that he dreaded it. That is why he said hours before he experienced any physical torment:

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:36-39)

He also experienced humiliation. He was the King of the Universe, the very One whom everyone around him professed to worship. And yet, in order to accomplish his purpose, he had to allow them to mock him, to spit on him, to humiliate him as if they were right and he was wrong. There was a physical aspect to the humiliation as well. It is a terrible experience to be a man, and be struck, and yet not be able to strike back. Also, they almost certainly stripped him completely naked when the put him on the cross, again a humiliating experience.

In addition, Jesus experienced abandonment. All his followers ran away and left him to his fate. His faithful lieutenant, Peter, denied him publicly. But even worse, he was abandoned by God. 2 Corinthians 5:20 says this:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

God the Father abandoned Jesus the Son in a way that he has never abandoned any human being, ever, nor ever will. The bible teaches us that if we choose to reject God’s grace through Jesus, then ultimately God allows us to do that. In other words, God doesn’t reject us, but he gives us the freedom to reject Him. If we choose that, we will experience what it is like to be without God – but it will be our doing not His. He does not willingly forsake us. But in the case of Jesus on the cross, it was the opposite. Jesus never turned away from the Father. He followed him obediently, and perfectly to the end. But when the Father made Jesus into sin – for our sake – He turned away and abandoned him. He had to, if Jesus indeed took our sin on himself. This is why Jesus cries out:

46About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Elí, Elí, lemá sabachtháni?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt 27:46, HCSB)

Now, I want us to consider something. When I think about the horrible suffering that Jesus experienced, it’s hard to contemplate. But there are many other things in this life that are hard to contemplate as well. For instance, it is hard to contemplate the horror of rape. It is hard to truly grasp the awfulness of murder. We don’t like to think this way, but even the sins which we think aren’t so bad are so far removed from God’s holiness that they are as fully horrific to God as the suffering Jesus experienced. The extremity of Jesus’ suffering shows us the extremity of our sin. All this is the depth of God’s love for us. This is picture of the true horror of our sin. This crucifixion is the gulf that would exist between us and God if Jesus had not taken our place.

The cross is also justice for sin. This is what makes forgiveness possible. We can’t just wave our hands and say “it doesn’t matter.” When we hurt others, it matters. When we offend God, it makes a difference. There are a lot of people who like to say, “It’s OK to do whatever you like, as long as you don’t hurt anyone.” But what if you hurt God? He has told us, in the bible what matters to Him, what drives a wedge between us and him. Why is it OK to hurt him, but not anyone else? A sin that is only against God is just as much a sin as something which hurts another person.

Jesus, by his suffering, has endured what sin deserves – all sin. I can forgive the person who did something horrible to me because there was punishment and suffering for the evil that was done. It was made right, and justice was done for that sin, to Jesus, on the cross.

23For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. 25God presented Him as a propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. 26God presented Him to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom 3:23-26, HCSB)

No other faith takes sin or forgiveness seriously enough. You can’t just wave your hand and say, “it doesn’t matter,” as Buddhism does. One reason Buddhist monks dedicate their lives to separation from the world and to meditation is that you have to concentrate very hard and remain very isolated to believe that the suffering caused by sin in this world doesn’t matter.

You can’t say, “You’ll make it up next time you’re re-incarnated,” as Hinduism does. Since nobody is perfect, all you would do is rack up more “karma-debt” with each new life. Even Islam and Judaism say, essentially: “Well, you do your best, and God forgives the rest.” But why? On what basis can God allow un-holiness into his holy presence? If he could do such a thing, it means that God isn’t really holy, and therefore that moral standards are not actually real; in short, that anything goes. We like “anything goes” if it means we can do whatever we want, but it becomes intolerable when someone else can do whatever they like to us with no consequences. If there is no moral standard, we live a world of senseless brutality, and all kindness and love mean nothing. Even what think of as moral good is meaningless. If nothing is evil, nothing is good either.

That is why it was necessary for sin to be accounted for. Justice must be done. Sin must have consequences. If not, there is no such thing as goodness or grace. If not, we cannot survive in the presence of a holy God. It is only through this extreme suffering of Jesus that sin could be dealt with. The Lord has made a way to take away the power of sin, and still allow goodness and grace and love to flourish.

There is one more thing about the cross. Scripture tells us that there is a mysterious spiritual truth: when we trust that Jesus did this for us, it was not only he who died there. We too, died with Jesus to sin.

Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life. For if we have been joined with Him in the likeness of His death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of His resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that sin’s dominion over the body may be abolished, so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin, since a person who has died is freed from sin’s claims. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him, because we know that Christ, having been raised from the dead, will not die again. Death no longer rules over Him. For in light of the fact that He died, He died to sin once for all; but in light of the fact that He lives, He lives to God. So, you too consider yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.  (Rom 6:3-11, HCSB)

This cross that killed Jesus also killed our sin. This is now also our death. This is why we can be free from guilt – our sins were punished with this severe and just punishment. About a year ago, I was speaking with a murderer. I mean it, this man was just released from prison after doing time for murder. He was marveling at the fact that he could be forgiven. It was this horrible crucifixion death that punished his terrible sin of murder, and he is putting his faith in Jesus that this is so. He doesn’t need to feel guilt anymore, because his murder was paid for – not by his ten years of prison time, but by the death of Jesus. I think when we feel guilt, it is usually because we have not considered how fully our sin was punished on the cross. The extreme suffering of the Perfect Man was enough for you, for me, for the world.

As we consider all this, I want us to be very aware of one thing. God’s grace is free to us, but it was not free to Him. It was very costly. It is free in the same sense that a diamond is free to the girl who is getting engaged. It is freely given, but it cost the giver a great deal. And like the diamond engagement ring, it is offered not just as a trinket, but as an invitation into a lifelong relationship that will change the course of our future forever. A single woman doesn’t accept a diamond ring from the man she loves and then go on in her life without him, except for maybe occasionally remembering him fondly. No, the diamond is not just a gift – it is an invitation to a new life. When she accepts that gift, she also accepts that invitation, and enters a new relationship, a relationship that is strengthened and reaffirmed daily as they make their lives together. The acceptance of that gift is life-changing.

What Jesus did for us on the cross – the grace that God offer us – is far more precious than any diamond ring that ever has, or ever will, exist. It should not be received any less casually than a marriage proposal. To receive this gift is also to accept the invitation to a new life. It is to give your life to Jesus, to commit to Him for forever, to live in a daily relationship with him. It is life-transforming.

If you’ve never received that gift, never really accepted that invitation to a new life, now is the time. Pause and do it now. There are no special words, just your willingness and acceptance and surrender to God’s love.

Let us thank him for that gift today!

WHY WOULD A LOVING GOD SEND ANYONE TO HELL?

hell

OK, the part about hell is a little ways into the message. But here’s a teaser: The essence of love is choice. For love to be real there must be an alternative to it, some other choice that could be made. It is that choice, choosing a person when you don’t have to, that is the essence of love.So what is the alternative to loving God?  What would it be like to be completely separate from the loving Creator of the universe, to be apart from every good, loving, holy thing that exists in the universe? That alternative is what we call “hell.” Hell exists precisely because God is truly loving. If there was no hell, there would be no true love.  

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Matthew Part 89

Matthew #89  Matthew 25:31-46

We considered the parable of the sheep and the goats last time. There are still a few things about the text that I would like to talk about. I realize that when we read this parable, it will naturally raise a number of questions about things that are really outside the scope of the text alone. The two that stand out to me are these: “Do good works get us into heaven?” And, “Is hell real?” Since those related questions are pretty important to the Christian faith, I want to look at them before we move on from this text.

At first reading, the passage makes it sound like people will get into heaven based entirely upon how they treat the poor and needy. As we learned last time, we need to refine that to “poor and needy fellow Christians.” Even so, that still leaves us with the problem that it looks like we get into heaven based upon our own good works. Is it true? Did Jesus really teach that we enter heaven based upon what we do?

Now, I did refer to the answer to this question when we talked about the parable of the talents. But even if you already know the answer, I think it is helpful to go through the process, so that as you do, you “practice” interpreting the Bible.

First, let’s look at a possible answer from the text itself. Consider verse 34:

34Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. (Matt 25:34, ESV2011)

We tend to read over such things quickly, but there is something startling here. The sheep are invited to enter “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” This makes it sound like these people were chosen for the kingdom long before they did any good works; in fact, before they were born.

When we study difficult things in scripture, it is helpful to look at other verses that address the same subject. With that in mind, let’s consider what Paul writes in Ephesians (I’ll italicize parts, for emphasis):

4For He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love 5He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will, 6to the praise of His glorious grace that He favored us with in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:4-6 HCSB)

Now, this brings up another difficult subject, that of predestination. I don’t intend to get into that just now, but my point is, Jesus said that the kingdom was prepared for his own people (the sheep) from the foundation of the world. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and passing on to us and explaining the teaching of Jesus, says the same thing. So the sheep could not be chosen, or saved, by anything they did. Their salvation was given to them first, long before they did anything. Their actions simply reflected the fact that they belonged to that kingdom.

So the kingdom was given to them by grace, not by any works they had done. But they did their good works because they already belonged to the kingdom. This reminds me of another verse from Ephesians:

8For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — 9not from works, so that no one can boast. 10For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them. (Eph 2:8-10, HCSB)

The good works that the sheep did were prepared ahead of time for them by God, just like the Kingdom they were invited to enter.

Let’s make sure we have all of this very clear. The New Testament teaches that we cannot earn our salvation. We are forgiven for our sins, restored to a healthy, joyous relationship with God, and given eternal life, only because of the work Jesus has already done for us. We receive those gifts only by God’s grace, through trusting Jesus Christ, not through any works that we do. Here are some of the verses which teach this clearly. I’ve italicized parts of them, for emphasis:

We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens, so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast. (Eph 2:3-9, HCSB)

Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By one of works? No, on the contrary, by a law of faith. For we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. (Rom 3:27-28, HCSB)

He has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began. This has now been made evident through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who has abolished death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. (2Tim 1:9-10, HCSB)

He saved us — not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. He poured out this Spirit on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that having been justified by His grace, we may become heirs with the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:5-7, HCSB)

Yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified. (Gal 2:16-17, ESV)

So we have these many, clear verses telling us that salvation is a gracious gift, not a reward for good works. But then we have this passage here in Matthew, and several other passages in the New Testament, that seem very concerned with how we behave:

I say then, walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I tell you about these things in advance — as I told you before — that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, we must also follow the Spirit. We must not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. (Gal 5:16-26, HCSB)

20If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen. 21And we have this command from Him: The one who loves God must also love his brother. (1John 4:20-21, HCSB)

14What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can his faith save him?

15If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it?

17In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself. 18But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I will show you faith from my works. 19You believe that God is one; you do well. The demons also believe — and they shudder.

20Foolish man! Are you willing to learn that faith without works is useless? 21Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?

22You see that faith was active together with his works, and by works, faith was perfected. (Jas 2:14-22, HCSB)

Forgiveness and salvation are offered to us as God’s free gift in Jesus Christ. We don’t earn it in any way. But we also need to understand this: a true, living faith will result in good works. A true living faith will express itself in love for fellow-Christians. A true and living faith will fight against sin in your life.

If you continue to live in an ongoing pattern of sin, or if you do not love your fellow Jesus-followers, it may be because you do not have true faith in Jesus Christ. As James says: What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Faith without works is not real faith.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that when you are a Christian, you just can’t help yourself from doing good works, and you should sit on your hands until the impulse to do good overtakes you. Good works often require self-discipline. They aren’t always enjoyable. Sometimes you must make yourself do them even when you don’t feel like it. But the point is, you do them because you love and trust Jesus, not because you think they will earn you special points with God. You do them because it is in you to do them (even if that “in you” looks like self-discipline). And it is in you to do them because your faith is real. Again, particularly in this passage of Matthew, the good works we are talking about is to love, and do good to other Christians.

Now, there is an important contrast between the fate of the sheep and that of the goats. The place of the sheep was prepared for them from the foundation of the world. But the place to which the goats were sent was not originally intended for them. Listen to what Jesus says:

41“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matt 25:41, ESV2011)

There is the contrast. The kingdom of God’s people has been prepared “for you” from the foundation of the world. The eternal fire was prepared “for the devil and his angels.” In other words, though people will be sent there, God intended it originally for the devil and demons, not for human beings. I want to tread lightly here, since we are touching on some very profound subjects. But I think we should understand this: God’s desire is for all people to be saved.

3This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. 7For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle ( I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. (1Tim 2:3-7, ESV2011)

Although this is God’s desire, many, many people thwart God’s desire, and he allows them to do so. Clearly, in this parable, as well as many other points throughout the gospels, Jesus thinks of hell as a real place into which some human beings will go. Just in case you aren’t sure, consider these other verses, just from the book of Matthew alone (there are more in the other gospels, also):

13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matt 7:13-14, ESV2011)

If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell!  (Matt 5:29-30, HCSB)

Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.  (Matt 10:28, HCSB)

The rest of the New Testament also affirms the teachings of Jesus about hell. Even so, recently it has become unfashionable to believe in hell. The endlessly repeated question is this: “If God is so loving, why does he send some people to hell?”

That question reveals our huge cultural misunderstanding of love. Love is not something you “fall into.” Love is not something you “can’t help.” The essence of love is choice. If you know someone has no choice but to “love” you, you do not feel loved at all. You feel loved when you know the other person has the alternative not to love you, but does anyway. Think about it: Forcing someone to love you is technically impossible. The very idea of forcing is antithetical to love. For love to be real there must be an alternative to it, some other choice that could be made. It is that choice, choosing a person when you don’t have to, that is the essence of love.

So, God doesn’t have to love us. We don’t have to love God. But what is the alternative choice to God’s love, and loving him back? What does rejecting God mean? What would it be like to be completely separate from the loving Creator of the universe, to be apart from every good, loving, holy thing that exists in the universe? That alternative is what we call “hell.”

Hell exists precisely because God is truly loving.

If there was no hell, there would be no true love.

And now we are back to the parable of the sheep and the goats. The exact difference between them is that the sheep exhibited the love of God in action to fellow Jesus-followers, and the goats did not do so. Their actions revealed their inner choices about God’s love.

Let’s make sure we have this all straight:

  • Salvation is a free, unearned gift of God, offered in the context of love.
  • Those who reject that gift, who choose not to love God, will go to hell, which the New Testament teaches is a real place, or state of being, that is utterly separated from God and all goodness.
  • Those who receive God’s salvation in faith will express it by loving their fellow Christians.
  • Those who do not love their fellow-Christians are shown, by that lack of love, to not have true faith.

 

I think we have plenty to chew on for this time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE ONCE AND FUTURE PROPHECY

destruction of Jerusalem

Our passage today contains a remarkable feature: a specific prophecy which we know was fulfilled as Jesus predicted. Read on to learn how we know, and what it means for us today.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Matthew Part 84
Matthew #84  Matthew 24:1-14

Our passage today contains a remarkable feature: a specific prophecy which we know was fulfilled as Jesus predicted. Jesus tells his disciples that the temple will be destroyed, even while some of those alive at the time (“this generation”) are still living. In fact, between 35 and 40 years after Jesus spoke these words, the Jewish nation rebelled, and the Romans responded brutally, utterly destroying the temple in 70 A.D., slaughtering thousands, and sending a large number of the remaining Jewish people into exile in other countries. Some of you have heard about the Jewish Battle of Masada: that took place shortly after 70 A.D., and was part of the same brutal Roman response to the Jewish rebellion.

So Jesus predicts a specific event within a specific timeframe, and we know that that event did indeed occur within that timeframe. This is just one of hundreds of reasons we can trust that the Bible is reliable, and that the words of Jesus are true.

Perhaps you know someone who is skeptical about this. I would like to spend a little time responding to such skepticism, because it speaks to the reliability of the Bible and therefore, the assurance of our faith. A skeptic might say: “Someone just went back and put in this prophecy after the temple had already been destroyed. Or perhaps, Matthew didn’t even write this until after the temple was destroyed.”

First, let me say that the skeptic starts with absolutely no evidence in support of either idea. The only reason to hold the opinion that the book of Matthew was either changed, or written after the destruction of the Temple, is because the skeptic has already decided she doesn’t believe in miracles like predictive prophecy. In other words, with regards to this subject, skepticism is a matter of belief, not evidence.

Let me explain further, starting with the first objection: the idea that the book of Matthew was edited later on. We have many hundreds of ancient copies, and partial copies, of the book of Matthew. They are all virtually exactly the same. In other words, there is no evidence whatsoever that someone went back and “edited” Matthew’s gospel, or indeed, any part of the New Testament. No “early copy” of Matthew exists; all of the copies are the same. Thus, there is absolutely no evidence that what Matthew wrote was changed in any way, at any point in history.

Now, let’s consider the second idea: Was the book of Matthew written after the destruction of the temple? New Testament authors did not provide dates on their manuscripts; I often wish they had. In the absence of exact dates, we have to take what we know of history, and compare it to what is written, and then speculate about whether it was written before or after a particular historical event. In the case of Matthew, we find that in many, many places, he writes about issues that would have been either unimportant, or would require more explanation, after the destruction of the Temple. Here are just a few:

23So if you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matt 5:23-24, HCSB)

The “altar” in this case, is the altar in the temple. If the temple was already destroyed, it would have been strange for Matthew to include these words of Jesus; certainly he should have offered some explanation. After 70 A.D. it would not be safe for him to assume that his readers knew what he was talking about.

Here is another, one which we considered quite recently:

16“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever takes an oath by the sanctuary, it means nothing. But whoever takes an oath by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by his oath.’ 17Blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that sanctified the gold? 18Also, ‘Whoever takes an oath by the altar, it means nothing. But whoever takes an oath by the gift that is on it is bound by his oath.’ 19Blind people! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? 20Therefore, the one who takes an oath by the altar takes an oath by it and by everything on it. 21The one who takes an oath by the sanctuary takes an oath by it and by Him who dwells in it. 22And the one who takes an oath by heaven takes an oath by God’s throne and by Him who sits on it. (Matt 23:16-22, HCSB)

Again, if the temple had already been destroyed, it is surprising that Matthew would have included these words without explaining them. There are, of course, principles here that apply to all generations. Even so, if the temple had been destroyed before he wrote this, it is strange that Matthew neither mentioned it, nor explained the practice in order to make the principle more clear. Now consider this one:

4For God said: Honor your father and your mother; and, The one who speaks evil of father or mother must be put to death. 5But you say, ‘Whoever tells his father or mother, “Whatever benefit you might have received from me is a gift committed to the temple” — 6he does not have to honor his father.’ In this way, you have revoked God’s word because of your tradition. (Matt 15:3-6, HCSB)

Again, no comment about the status of the temple, and no explanation of the practice in question. If Matthew wrote after 70 A.D., he would have been writing primarily for Gentiles who would not have understood these sorts of things. As it is, the entire book of Matthew reads as if it was written for Jews, or at the very least, people very familiar with Jewish culture and practices, including those that involved the temple in Jerusalem.

There are several others, however, I will include just this one more:

24When they came to Capernaum, those who collected the double-drachma tax approached Peter and said, “Doesn’t your Teacher pay the double-drachma tax? ” 25“Yes,” he said. When he went into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, “What do you think, Simon? Who do earthly kings collect tariffs or taxes from? From their sons or from strangers? ” 26“From strangers,” he said. “Then the sons are free,” Jesus told him. 27“But, so we won’t offend them, go to the sea, cast in a fishhook, and take the first fish that you catch. When you open its mouth you’ll find a coin. Take it and give it to them for Me and you.” (Matt 17:24-27, HCSB)

After 70 A.D. (when the temple was destroyed), the Romans taxed their subjects to maintain the temple of Jupiter, in Rome. If that was happening at the time Matthew wrote, he surely would have made some sort of comment, or explained the situation further.

We know that the book of John was written about 20 years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. John explains many things to his readers about Jewish customs; Matthew offers no such explanations. All of this is powerful evidence that Matthew wrote before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.. The evidence against that conclusion is merely the baseless belief of someone who does not want to accept the supernatural. In other words, nothing credible suggests that Matthew wrote his book after this prophecy of Jesus was fulfilled.

There’s another important thought. Jesus seems to be talking both about the destruction of the temple, and of the nation of Israel, in 70 A.D., and also the end of time. If Matthew wrote all this after the destruction of the Temple, he would have known that the other things mentioned by Jesus were not fulfilled at the same time, and, if he was writing after the fact, trying to make it look like Jesus prophesied accurately, he surely would have left out these other words of Jesus which did not necessarily happen until later on, or have not even happened yet.

Let’s look more carefully at the text. I have spoken before about the “telescoping” nature of prophecy. In other words, a prophet may jumble together predictions of the near future, predictions of the far-off future, and predictions of the end of the world. From a distance (that is, from the prophet’s perspective) it may look like all these things will happen at the same time; it is like looking at a distant range of mountains, where all the peaks and ridges look almost like cardboard cutouts standing next to each other. Now, some people may object that in this passage we are not dealing with an ordinary prophet: this is Jesus. How could Jesus be confused about which things will happen sooner, and which things will happen at the end of the world? The answer comes in Matthew 24:36.

“Now concerning that day and hour no one knows — neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son — except the Father only. (Matt 24:36, HCSB)

Part of the deal with Jesus coming to earth, is that he laid aside his own power, and chose to live like any other human being: completely dependent upon the Father. In this case, the Father chose not to reveal the date of the end of time to Jesus while he was still on earth. So, through the Father, Jesus understands that some of these things will come upon the generation of those who are alive while he is speaking. He understands that some of them will come at the end of time. But, because he limited himself to only what the Father showed him, and because the Father did not show him the exact date of the end of time, even Jesus cannot tell for sure when each of these things will be.

So Jesus prophesies the destruction of the temple, and also events that presumably have not even occurred yet by 2016. I think he shares these things together because they have a common theme. The things that will come on the generation to whom he speaks, and the things that will come at the end of the world, are connected theologically. We are not meant to assume that they are connected chronologically.

This is the theological connection: the judgment of God upon those who reject him. First, judgment on the people who were alive when Jesus still walked the earth (whom he calls “this generation”), and second, the judgement at the end of the world upon all those who reject God. Jesus lumps them together because they are both about God’s judgment upon those who reject him.

Let me say a quick word about that judgment: It – is – optional. The whole Bible is very clear that if we repent, and turn to Jesus in trust and humility, he will forgive us and reconcile us to God, and give us eternal life. You don’t have to experience his judgement, or the punishment of hell. If we repent and trust, he graciously forgives us, comforts us and brings us into His kingdom.

I think there are several very important things that we need to hear from this passage. First, Jesus says this:

“Watch out that no one deceives you. 5For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and they will deceive many. 6You are going to hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, because these things must take place, but the end is not yet. (Matt 24:4-6, HCSB)

There is always a certain element of Christianity that seems ready to declare that the end of the world has come. Jesus tells us here not to jump to such conclusions. In fact, as I have already pointed out, in verse 36 Jesus says that no one knows the day or the hour. So one thing we should get from this passage is to not be alarmed, and to understand that we cannot build a timeline for the end of the world.

A second thing that we should pay attention to is that Jesus describes the kinds of things that will happen before the end of the world. The types of events he describes indicate that we are getting near to the very beginning of the end, not that we are at the end. He says there will be:

  • wars
  • famines
  • earthquakes
  • persecution
  • hatred towards his followers
  • betrayal, hatred and strife
  • false prophets
  • lawlessness
  • many people who fall away from him

When we experience these things we should not be surprised, and we should not feel that God has abandoned us – he told us these things were going to happen. It should be a comfort to know that even when these terrible things happen, God is in control, he is not forgotten us, and he will work all of this to the good of his own plans, and to our own good (Romans 8:28). He tells us that there will be deliverance and salvation for those who endure to the end (v. 13).

Finally, he says that the good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the world as a testimony to all nations and then the end will come. Have you ever thought of it like this? If you want the bad things in the world to come to an end, if you want Jesus to come back soon and take us all to be with him in the new heavens and new earth, the only way we can help that happen more quickly is to proclaim the good news of the kingdom in all the world.

We’ve covered a lot of ground, but just to summarize: 1. This shows us that Jesus and the Bible are reliable. 2. Don’t be deceived into thinking the end of the world is here just because others say so. 3. Don’t be alarmed by the events which Jesus mentions. They are part of the plan. Our part is to endure to the end, to hold on to Jesus through it all. 4. If we would like these difficult events to be shorter, we should assist those who are proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom.

As you take time to pray about these things, please also take time to pray for this ministry. Pray for wisdom and encouragement. Pray for financial provision. Pray that the Lord uses these messages to their full potential in the lives of those who need them. If, as you pray, you feel led to help us financially, you can click on the word “donate” at the top of the page, and it will explain how you can do that. But before giving financially, please pray for our needs, and whether or not He wants you to give. God loves a cheerful giver, and so do we!

Thank You!

WOE, IS ME!

woe

The Pharisees and religious leaders. They are bad and wrong, and by pointing out exactly how so, Jesus is warning us about other leaders like them. He is also warning us about becoming like them ourselves. In other words, Jesus, as God-the-Son, is expressing his very real, and thoroughly righteous anger against sin. Let’s consider how the Holy Spirit might want to speak to us through these ‘woes.’
To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Matthew Part 82

Matthew #82.  Matthew 23:13-36

We are in the middle of a long rant that Jesus makes against the religious leaders of his time. Frankly, when I just read through quickly, I don’t get a lot out of this portion of Matthew. The Pharisees are bad, Jesus is mad, end of story, right?

Whenever I encounter a piece of scripture that leaves me cold, like this, I often find it useful to pause and ask some questions. Why exactly does Jesus rant and rave like this? Is he just angry? Is he just venting? What is the purpose of this section of scripture – why did the Holy Spirit preserve these words of Jesus for Christians throughout the ages?

As I do that with this particular passage, I think the Spirit can show us several things.

First, there is the straightforward issue of the behavior of the Pharisees and religious leaders. They are bad and wrong, and by pointing out exactly how so, Jesus is warning us about other leaders like them. He is also warning us about becoming like them ourselves. In other words, Jesus, as God-the-Son, is expressing his very real, and thoroughly righteous anger against sin. Let’s consider how these woes might affect us as well.

Jesus points out seven or eight areas where the religious leaders are in deep trouble. He begins each one with the phrase: “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”

First, let’s talk about the word “woe.” It can mean: “trouble, sorrow and distress.” There is often an element of sorrow associated with this word, both in Greek and in English; it can be a lament, like “Alas!” So, in Matthew 24:19, Jesus says:

“Woe to pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days! Pray that your escape may not be in winter or on a Sabbath.”

But I think here, in this passage, Jesus is adding a sense of warning and judgment with it. The “woe” upon the pregnant women and nursing mothers was not because of anything they did. But here, Jesus clearly connects each woe to the behavior of the religious leaders. I still think he speaks with sorrow; I don’t think he is happy about it. Even so, clearly, he is enumerating their sins, and pronouncing that they will experience trouble and sorrow as judgement for them.

The first woe and sorrow (in verse 13) is because they refuse to enter the kingdom of heaven, and stop others from entering in. This is Jesus’ core issue with the Pharisees. They warned people against the only way of salvation, which is Jesus himself. Instead, they believed that they did not need him. Specifically, they taught (and obviously believed) that they could earn their salvation by behaving well. In a more general sense, this woe applies to anyone who leads others to believe that they can be saved by any other path than repentance from sin, and trust in Jesus. So Paul reiterates this woe in the first chapter of Galatians:

6I am amazed that you are so quickly turning away from Him who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — 7not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are troubling you and want to change the good news about the Messiah. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than what we have preached to you, a curse be on him! 9As we have said before, I now say again: If anyone preaches to you a gospel contrary to what you received, a curse be on him! (Gal 1:6-9, HCSB)

Make no mistake. Christianity has always insisted that Jesus Christ is the only way to forgiveness, reconciliation with God, and eternal life:

5“Lord,” Thomas said, “we don’t know where You’re going. How can we know the way? ” 6Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. 7“If you know Me, you will also know My Father. From now on you do know Him and have seen Him.” (John 14:5-7, HCSB)

 11And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12The one who has the Son has life. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have life. 13I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1John 5:11-13, HCSB)

11This Jesus is the stone rejected by you builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people, and we must be saved by it.” (Acts 4:11-12, HCSB)

The Pharisees and Scribes rejected Jesus, and therefore rejected salvation, and led others to do so as well. Today, Christians must remember that our core belief is grace, forgiveness and salvation through Jesus Christ alone. We don’t have forgiveness or life because “God is love, and just wouldn’t send anyone to hell.” That lie is just as bad as anything the Pharisees taught: Woe to anyone who tells it! We are not saved because we “have lived a good life, and tried to do the right thing.” We are not forgiven because we “aren’t worse than anyone else.” Sin is much more serious than that. We aren’t forgiven because we make sacrifices, or take mission trips, or because we “speak the words of truth.” We are saved through Jesus Christ alone, and we receive that salvation by grace when we repent and trust him. Woe to anyone else who teaches otherwise!

The second woe is found in verse 15. Some of you may not have verse 14 in your Bibles: it will skip from 13 to 15. Verse 14 is actually one of those places where there is a dispute about the original manuscript of the New Testament. The oldest and best manuscripts do not contain it. The textus receptus (which is the source for the King James version of the Bible), does contain it, as do some other later manuscripts. I think the best evidence suggests that this was not originally part of the book of Matthew. This is one example of why I am not a fan of the King James version. Even so, I’d like to point out that whether you leave verse 15 in, or take it out, it does not change very much at all; certainly it changes no Christian doctrine. This is considered a major variant, and once again we see that even major variants are actually extremely minor. We can have great confidence that the New Testament we read today is, in fact, what was written by the apostles.

In any case, I will move on to verse 15, where Jesus pronounces judgment upon the religious leaders for converting even non-Jews to the belief that they can earn their way into God’s favor, and eternal life. This is very much like the first woe, the main difference being who gets led astray: Jews, or non-Jews. For our purposes, it is a warning that if we get people to join our church, but do not teach them that forgiveness, life and salvation are found only in Jesus, given to us by grace through faith, we would be better off not bringing the new people in the first place.

The third woe is described in verses 16 through 22. Basically, Jesus is giving an example of how the teachers of the law, and Pharisees twist and undermine God’s word. Many times I have given you the example of the Sabbath, and how they added their own laws on top of the commands of God. Here, Jesus is referring to the way that they do mental gymnastics in order to benefit themselves in the matter of taking oaths. They argued that certain kinds of vows were not binding, and made fine distinctions that sounded intellectual, but were completely against all common sense.

These days, we don’t often make vows, particularly not religious vows. I made vows when I was married, and when I was ordained as a pastor. However, even in those cases, I did not swear by or on anything; I simply said: “I will, and I ask God to help me.” So the practice of swearing by (or on) something is no longer a big issue, at least not in Western culture. True, some folks might say something like: “I swear by my mother’s grave.” I don’t think anyone takes them seriously. Even so, I think we can learn something from this particular woe. The underlying issue is that the teachers of the law and the Pharisees were playing games with the truth. As Jesus points out, clearly, if you swear by the altar in the temple, really, you are swearing by God. But the religious leaders came up with all sorts of obscure reasoning to avoid that obvious, common-sense conclusion.

I think that today this woe could refer to the way some people treat the Bible. Unfortunately, I have many times read Bible commentaries that tried to say that certain verses mean the exact opposite of what they clearly say. Now, you know that I’m all for thoughtful, scholarly Bible interpretation. Not all Bible verses are obvious in meaning. Even so, there are many people today, whom I can only call false teachers, who twist the words of the Bible, play games with the truth, and do mental gymnastics in order to eliminate the plain, common sense meaning of God’s Word. What they are doing is not careful interpretation, but rather, twisting the obvious truth. I think Jesus would say to them: “Woe to you!”

The fourth woe is essentially captured by Jesus’ words in verse 24:

24Blind guides! You strain out a gnat, yet gulp down a camel! (Matt 23:24, HCSB)

The religious leaders spent a great deal of energy on relatively trivial matters, while ignoring the more important things. Notice that Jesus says that the trivial things are, in fact, good to do; but the important things should have first priority. I want to try and finish the woes in this sermon, so I won’t go into this one in great depth, but there are many, obvious applications for it. Woe to the church that is more concerned about the color of their carpet than about the homeless population all around it. Woe to the leaders who police the kinds of clothes people wear, and ignore the lust in their own hearts. I could spend all day on this one, but I believe you will be able to think of your own examples without too much effort. I do want to point out that this particular woe contains much of what really turns people off about churches and Christians. I think it’s good to know that Jesus hates it when people focus on minor things, while neglecting the things that are most important to true faith.

The fifth woe, found in verses 25-26, is much like the one before it. The religious leaders are concerned about looking good. They are focused on outward appearances, while they ignore the filth inside of their own hearts. Probably, Jesus is referring to the Jewish tradition of ceremonially washing cups. Mark records a different instance, where Jesus spoke about this at greater length. After discussion about ceremonial washing with the religious leaders, Jesus said this to his disciples:

18And He said to them, “Are you also as lacking in understanding? Don’t you realize that nothing going into a man from the outside can defile him? 19For it doesn’t go into his heart but into the stomach and is eliminated.” (As a result, He made all foods clean.) 20Then He said, “What comes out of a person — that defiles him. 21For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, 22adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, promiscuity, stinginess, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness. 23All these evil things come from within and defile a person.” (Mark 7:18-23, HCSB)

The sixth woe, is also similar. This time, Jesus describes them as whitewashed tombs, which look good on the outside, but inside are filled with rotten flesh and bone. I’m going to get personal for a moment. I don’t want to be offensive, but I do want us to get the full impact of the words of Jesus here. Here in the Southeastern USA, we have a somewhat religious culture. Even in areas where the culture at large is not particularly Christian, some churches can have a religious culture within their community. I personally know many people who are like these whitewashed tombs. They go to church and they talk a good talk. As far as the people that they go to church with know, these are wonderful Christian folks. But during the week they have affairs, they do drugs, they get drunk, they run businesses that are dishonest, they cheat people, and they are stingy and miserly. Of course, everyone struggles with sin. I’m not talking about Christians who have surrendered their lives to Jesus, but who sometimes fail and fall. I’m talking about people who pretend; people who talk the talk, but do not let Jesus have any real influence in their lives. Jesus says to such people: “Woe to you!”

Finally, Jesus says: “Woe to you who reject God’s messengers!” (verses 29-34). That is what this seventh woe is all about: rejecting those whom God has sent, and rejecting his message through them. In the Western world, thankfully, people do not kill, crucify, or whip Christian teachers and preachers. However, I think it is important for us to remember that this still happens regularly in other places in the world. And even in the Western world, often times those who seek to be vocal about their faith in Jesus are treated with contempt and derision. As one small, and relatively insignificant example, I offer Tim Tebow, former NFL quarterback. Tebow had a year or two as a starting quarterback in the NFL. It was his habit to kneel down as a sign of humility, and praise to the Lord, whenever his team scored. That may or may not be a silly thing; but it was relatively harmless. However, Tebow received a huge amount of criticism for this, and for his outspoken faith. In fact, he received more negative media coverage than many NFL stars at the time who were accused of things like drunk driving, drug possession, assault and rape. Woe to a culture that is more concerned about a public expression of Christian faith than about crimes that deeply hurt others!

Let me say another thing about mistreating God’s messengers. I will admit that this one feels a little personal with me, but that does not make it untrue. I also want to say that I am not complaining, and for the most part I have been very blessed to not experience too much of what I’m about to share with you. Even so, it is shameful – I can think of no better word – the way that many Christians and churches treat their pastors and teachers. Of course there are some bad pastors, and bad leaders, just as there are bad bartenders, truck drivers and school teachers. Even so, many of the pastors who are mistreated by their congregations have good hearts, pure motives, and have done no wrong. Sometimes people direct hateful and hurtful words towards them for doing and saying what they believe God wants them to do and say. Sometimes people slander them. Sometimes people try to run them out of a job, for no reason other than that the pastor has threatened their sense of personal power within the congregation. Sometimes pastors are threatened after teaching something unpopular that the word of God says. Quite often, pastors are underpaid, and it is unusual to find anyone who cares, in most churches, whether or not a pastor is being appropriately compensated. Almost all the time at least some people are critical of their pastor, without doing the least thing to help him.

When I look at these seven woes spoken by Jesus, I think of it as an extreme measure he is taking in order to bring the religious leaders to repentance.

Let me try and illustrate what I mean. About a year ago, I began to have constant pain in one of my kidneys, like I was having a kidney stone. After a long and difficult time, doctors finally determined that some of my nerves have been damaged by frequent kidney stones. I sat down with a pain specialist, and he outlined a number of steps to help me deal with the pain that I still have.

First, we will try a very safe, well-tested, inexpensive medication that has very few side effects. If that works, great! If not the next step is to try a second medication. The second drug is more expensive, and has not been tested for as long as the first. It has more side effects and risk factors. If the second drug works, great! However, if not, there is another step, involving directly stimulating the nerve. This is a more invasive procedure, with greater risks. There is another step after that, and another. Each new step is more drastic, increasingly invasive, and carries greater and greater risk. The final step involves “killing” the nerve that serves my kidney.

When Jesus confronts the religious leaders during these last few days of his life, he is taking the final and most drastic step in trying to bring them to repentance, faith, and salvation. He lived among them, letting his life be a testimony, but that was not enough. He gave them his preaching and his teaching, but they did not respond. He showed them miracles, and the power of God, but they turned away. And so now, he is directly confronting them with their sin. It is their last chance, and he says that if they do not take it, judgment will come upon them. He will “kill” the problem, if it can’t be fixed any other way.

In fact, he says: “I assure you, all these things will come on this generation.” I want to point out two things about this. First, it was literally fulfilled among those who heard Jesus say these words. Jesus was crucified sometime around 30-35 AD. In 70 AD, while that generation still lived, the Romans utterly crushed the Jewish people, slaughtering huge numbers, destroying the temple, and sending the Jews that survived into an exile that lasted almost 2000 years. That generation of unbelieving Jews was indeed judged.

Second, because of how Jesus said it, these words are also for us. Whether or not we are judged as a group, when it comes to the end of our life, when our “generation” passes, we will stand before the judgment seat of God. This is true of every generation that reads Jesus’ words. Let his words sink in. They are drastic, yes. But they are spoken in order to ultimately lead is into the grace of God by driving us to Jesus as our hope, life and salvation.