Revelation #21: THE END OF GRACE


Last time we saw the glorious hope we have in Jesus. We saw the joy and wonder of our future in heaven if we trust Jesus. This time, God is presenting the alternative. If we finally decide we want to continue to control our own lives, this horror will be the end result. And yet, in God’s mercy, he doesn’t yet send human beings to the abyss. He gives them a foretaste of the horror, in the hopes that they will repent, and instead find the joy we talked about last time.

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Revelation #21.  Revelation 8:1-9:21

If you remember, the second part of Revelation introduced us to the seven seals. Six of the seals were broken, but the section ended before the seventh. We began a new section with a new heavenly vision, and now,  the seventh seal is finally broken open. Remember, John has just described a multitude without number praising God. Earlier, he described other events that were loud with music and singing and praising. But when the seventh seal is broken open, there is silence for what seemed like about thirty minutes. After all of the glory and music and praise, the silence must be shocking, and awe-inspiring. Imagine even one-hundred thousand people standing silently together for thirty minutes. In my mind, the silence must be just as amazing as the praise.

This awe-inspiring silence serves to emphasize the importance of what has just happened. The final seal is open. The preparations are over. God’s judgment will begin in earnest.

After the silence, trumpets are given to each of seven angels. These seven trumpets represent the next stage in God’s plan to bring about the end of the world. However, before the angels blow their trumpets, something else happens:

3Another angel, with a gold incense burner, came and stood at the altar. He was given a large amount of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the gold altar in front of the throne. 4The smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up in the presence of God from the angel’s hand. 5The angel took the incense burner, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it to the earth; there were rumblings of thunder, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake. 6And the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to blow them. (Rev 8:3-6, HCSB)

Here, the incense mingles with the prayers of the saints, and goes up into the presence of God. By the way, in the New Testament, the word “saints” means: “Everyone who has surrendered in trust to Jesus Christ.” In other words, if you are a true Christian, you are, by the New Testament definition, a saint. This is because the word “saint” just means “holy one.” And if we surrender our lives in trust to Jesus, then the holiness of Jesus is imparted to us. So we truly are “holy ones,” if we are in Jesus. Therefore, if you are a Christian, and you see the word “saint” or “saints” in the New Testament, it is talking about you, and other Christians.

So, this passage in Revelation gives us a dramatic picture of our prayers. They aren’t in a big pile in a sorting room somewhere. Our prayers are right in the face of God. They have his attention. He breathes them in. He smells them.

There is something else too. I think we are supposed to see a connection between the prayers of the saints, and God’s work on earth. The prayers go up with the incense. Then, in that same incense burner that was used to bring the prayers to God, fire is placed, and it is hurled back to earth. This is a symbolic picture. It shows us that as the saints pray for God to bring about the end of the pain, suffering, and cruelty of the world, God responds to the prayer. His action is connected to our prayers.

The seventh seal is open. The prayers of the saints are being heard. The next stage in God’s plan to bring history to an end has begun. Let us now examine the first four trumpets.

 7The first angel blew his trumpet, and hail and fire, mixed with blood, were hurled to the earth. So a third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up.

 8The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain ablaze with fire was hurled into the sea. So a third of the sea became blood, 9a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.

 10The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from heaven. It fell on a third of the rivers and springs of water. 11The name of the star is Wormwood, and a third of the waters became wormwood. So, many of the people died from the waters, because they had been made bitter.

 12The fourth angel blew his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them were darkened. A third of the day was without light, and the night as well. (Rev 8:7-12, HCSB)

 We need to constantly keep in mind that Revelation is written in language that is highly symbolic, and not literal. I think that if we start speculating about volcanoes and asteroids and whatnot, we will easily get distracted from the main points. With that in mind, what are we to make of these four trumpets? If we simply pay attention, we can see some patterns. In the first place, with the initial four trumpets, God is bringing about disaster upon the natural world. First, the land is affected – the trees and the grass. Next, the sea experiences disaster. The third trumpet affects fresh water. The fourth trumpet strikes the sky. From this we can deduce that before causing any harm directly to human beings, God will try to get their attention through natural disasters. I believe that this is an expression of God’s mercy.

God is willing even to damage his own creation if somehow it will help human beings to repent and turn to him. Later on, it shows explicitly that these judgments truly are meant to try and get people to repent:

21And they did not repent of their murders, their sorceries, their sexual immorality, or their thefts. (Rev 9:21)

In fact, it is because God is merciful that he starts by striking creation, and not directly striking humans. There is another thing of which to take note. These judgments are slowly increasing in severity. During the time of the seals, God’s judgment affected only one quarter of the world (Revelation 6:8). But now, things are getting more serious; one third of the earth is affected.

However, since natural disasters will not cause people to repent, the next step is to actually hurt human beings directly. And so John sees this:

13I looked again and heard an eagle flying high overhead, crying out in a loud voice, “Woe! Woe! Woe to those who live on the earth, because of the remaining trumpet blasts that the three angels are about to sound! ” (Rev 8:13, HCSB)

God is not happy that he has to do what comes next. And yet, it is the fault of the people who refuse to acknowledge that God is trying to get their attention through natural disasters. So, you might say, God will take it to the next level, but only reluctantly.

The next trumpet is the “first woe,” and it releases some of the forces of evil against human beings. I want to make sure, once again, that we understand there is a great degree of symbolism here. First, a “fallen star” unlocks “the shaft of the abyss.” Smoke comes out of it, and out of the smoke come the most remarkable looking locusts. I think it is obvious that the abyss stands for hell, or the abode of demons. When Jesus encountered a man who was oppressed by many demons, the following exchange took place:

30“What is your name? ” Jesus asked him. “Legion,” he said — because many demons had entered him. 31And they begged Him not to banish them to the abyss. (Luke 8:30-31, HCSB, italics for emphasis)

The “abyss” then, is the home of demons. John clearly conceives of the abyss the same way in the book of Revelation. The terrible ‘beast’ rises from the abyss (Revelation 11:7), and it is back to the abyss that Satan and his demons are sent (Revelation 20:3). This is made perfectly clear in verse 11.

11They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit. His name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon. (Rev 9:11, ESV2011)

In the Bible, the name Abbadon means “destroyer” and it is always connected with death and hell. With that in mind, the locust-creatures that John is describing are not necessarily creatures of flesh and blood. They are most certainly demonic, and the description of them may be more about their demonic attributes than any actual physical appearance. So the fact that they are like armored horses communicates that ordinary people have no hope of standing up to them, or defeating them. John’s readers would have been well-acquainted with scorpions and their stings, so that aspect would communicate the kind of pain that these creatures can inflict; and also that though painful, it will not cause death. Because everything is so symbolic, it is possible that it is deep emotional pain, rather than physical pain. The other aspects of the description might just be to communicate that these are horrible and fantastic demonic monsters.

Let us also understand something else: none of these demonic creatures has any power except that which God permits them. Many translations say that “power was given them…” but the Greek word is actually “authority” (9:3, and 9:10). God is still in control. God himself does not strike or torture human beings, but he allows these demonic creatures to come out and to afflict people. They only have authority as permitted them by God. Also, this affliction is for five months. I am not sure that this is supposed to be taken literally. I think “five months” symbolizes that this will be for a limited period of time, and that time will have a definite ending.

With this terrible pain, God is, in a sense, allowing the people to have a taste of what is waiting for them if they continue to reject God, and refuse to repent. It is also important to see that God does not permit these creatures to kill anyone yet, but only to torment people. In addition, God will protect those who belong to him:

4They were told not to harm the grass of the earth, or any green plant, or any tree, but only people who do not have God’s seal on their foreheads. (Rev 9:4, HCSB)

The fact that some who have God’s seal are still on earth at this point indicates that it is unlikely that the rapture will occur before this. In addition, this shows us how fluid and flexible the “timeline” of Revelation is. We saw the people sealed on earth. Then we saw them as the victorious multitude in heaven. Now they are back on earth in the middle of these terrible events. I say again, it is simply not helpful to try and apply a rigid timeline to Revelation. Such a thing is not the purpose of the book.

The sixth trumpet represents the “second woe.” Since so many people will continue to refuse to repent, they will suffer increasingly devastating consequences. All of this is in the hope that some people will come to repentance, and join the glorious multitude in heaven. So far, God has prevented demonic forces from actually killing people. But now, with the sixth trumpet:

From the four horns of the gold altar that is before God, I heard a voice 14say to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels bound at the great river Euphrates.” 15So the four angels who were prepared for the hour, day, month, and year were released to kill a third of the human race. 16The number of mounted troops was 200 million; I heard their number. (Rev 9:13-16, HCSB)

The four angels have been bound, which seems to indicate that they are demonic. They cannot get out by themselves; they must be released by the authority of God. The mounted troops are also almost certainly meant to be demonic. Some commentators see these horses as a description of modern warfare. So, they say, John would have known nothing of gun powder, and so the fire, smoke and sulfur that comes from their mouths could be John’s naïve description of tanks and artillery.

That could be the case, however, it is clear that the true forces behind the death and destruction are demonic. So, even if you wanted to say that this is a description of modern warfare, you must still admit that the cause of it is demonic forces that are released for the end times.

Some people believe that all of this describes a particular war that will be fought in the middle east, because the angels were bound at the great Euphrates (the Euphrates river is in Iraq).

I think the Euphrates is symbolic, like most of Revelation. The ancient city of Babylon was situated on the River Euphrates. In Revelation, “Babylon” is a symbolic name for the center of power for those who have rejected God, the place where the pride of human beings holds sway. So, the demonic forces which kill one third of humankind are centered in the place where humans are at the height of their arrogance and pride, the center of defiance against God – wherever that may be.

So what do we get from all this?  What can we “take home” from these chapters that will make a difference next Wednesday morning at coffee break?

Last time we saw the glorious hope we have in Jesus. We saw the joy and wonder of our future in heaven if we trust Jesus. This time, God is presenting the alternative. If we finally decide we want to continue to control our own lives, this horror will be the end result. And yet, in God’s mercy, he doesn’t yet send human beings to the abyss. He gives them a foretaste of the horror, in the hopes that they will repent, and instead find the joy we talked about last time.

It is unpopular to talk about hell these days. Some people even think that avoidance of hell is not a legitimate motivation for coming to Jesus. And yet, God is willing to give people a taste of that to help them repent. We need to be honest about it: the alternative to God is torment and horror. It is not wrong to understand that clearly. It is not wrong if that is the thing that starts you on your journey toward faith. If you truly become a person of faith, your fear of hell will eventually turn into a love for Jesus.

Also, we have a very clear picture about how God’s attitude toward unbelievers will change. Right now, we are in a period in history when God is restraining his judgment. He appeals to human beings on the basis of grace, kindness and love. But the time in which he does this could end at any moment, and then we will enter a time when he appeals to human beings on the basis of his wrath against sin. These verses in Revelation are a pictorial representation of what Paul wrote to the Romans:

4Or do you despise the riches of His kindness, restraint, and patience, not recognizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? 5But because of your hardness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed. (Rom 2:4-5, HCSB)

Right now, God is approaching us with kindness. But if we don’t take advantage of this, and turn to him, it will harden our hearts, and we will instead find that we have stored up his wrath. Paul restates this again in his second letter to the Corinthians:

1Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. 2For he says, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (2Cor 6:1-2, ESV2011)

Now is the favorable time, now is the day of salvation. Our Revelation text shows us what will happen when the favorable time ends. Now is the time to come to the Lord, now is the time to receive the seal that protects us from God’s judgment. Don’t hesitate; to do so will only make it far worse for you in the end. For those of us who already have surrendered their will to Jesus, now is the time to tell others of the love and grace of God. We are in a period of grace. Revelation 8-9 shows us what it looks like when this period ends. Now is the time to tell the world. Now is the time to tell your friends.

In addition, now is the time to continue to encourage one another, now is the time to build a foundation, and to keep building on it for a lifetime. Say “yes” to God now, in all things, so that we don’t harden our hearts.

12Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. 15As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” (Heb 3:12-15, ESV2011)

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today.

Revelation #7 WHO’S ON FIRST?


Nothing – absolutely nothing, should come before God in our lives. What is your first love, really? Jesus is clear here – it should be Him. If Jesus is your first love, He should have first claim on your time, energy and resources of all kinds. This message shows you how much we need to repent, and promises how much we gain when we do.

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Revelation #7. The Letter to the Ephesian Church, part 2. Rev 2:1-7.

I want you to know that it is my hope and prayer that you always get more out of any given Bible passage than my sermon notes alone can offer. Sermons, in whatever form, should just be the icing on the cake for disciples of Jesus Christ. Our bread and butter, so to speak, ought to come from our own regular study of scripture, guided and assisted by teaching from sermons. Remember that “you reap what you sow” is a scriptural principle. If you put in fifteen minutes each week, reading the sermon notes during a hurried dinner without cracking the Bible, expect to learn and grow accordingly. If on the other hand, you spend twenty minutes or so with the sermon notes one day, and twenty minutes the next day with the scripture passage, and perhaps review them both on a third day, you can expect much more benefit from it all. Depending on the passage, you might spend twenty minutes or so each day for the entire week simply going over the verses and sermon notes for that week.

I know that some of you will automatically respond with “that is totally unrealistic.” Well, as it happens, that response relates to our sermon today. The basic question that arises from Revelation 2:1-7 is this: What place does Jesus have in your heart?

Last time we talked about the things for which Jesus praised the Ephesian church: an intolerance for Christians who sin openly and without repenting, and an intolerance for false teachers. In addition, they bore up under opposition, hostility and hard labor with endurance and grit. These are important examples that we too, should follow.

But we ended, more or less, with verse three (and a peek ahead to verse 6 also). In verses 4-5, Jesus tackles a problem with the Ephesian church.

The church at Ephesus had a rich spiritual heritage. Paul had spent about a week there early on, but the church there was most likely founded by Priscilla, Aquila and Apollos. When Paul came there to spend some time, a few years later, there was already an established community of Christians. Paul spent two years there (Acts 19:10). After Paul left, Timothy, his protégé, spent many years in the city as one of the leaders of the church there. At some point, the apostle John also arrived and took up residence, training the next great Christian leader, who became the wise old martyr, Polycarp.

In short, the Ephesian church had one of the richest theological traditions of any early Christian church, having been home to no less than six remarkable first-generation Christian leaders, including two genuine apostles and their two protégés. At the time of Revelation, their doctrine was still strong. Their endurance was good. But they had lost something:

4But I have this against you: You have abandoned the love you had at first. 5Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place — unless you repent. (Rev 2:4-5, HCSB)

Most commentators, myself included think that “first love” refers to love for Jesus himself. All other loves spring from that. Though the Ephesians were convinced of the truth of the gospel, they had begun to let the love seep out of their commitment of faith. They were zealous for truth, but apparently not particularly zealous for Jesus himself, or for other Christians.

They were committed to Jesus, certainly, but they were far more committed to the ideas of faith in him, than to Him personally. They were missing the emotional and spiritual relationship that Jesus Christ desires with his people. It is no mistake that in speaking to these people Jesus emphasized that he was the one who “walks among the seven golden lampstands.” The lampstands, as you remember from 1:20 are the churches. The point that Jesus is making that he is actually with his people. The Ephesians needed to remember the importance of God’s presence with them, and to fall in love with Jesus all over again.

Just as it is possible to become fiercely committed to the idea of marriage while at the same time neglecting your spouse, it is possible to be committed to truth, while neglecting your relationship with Jesus. Frankly, I see it all the time in people who are conservative and have been Christians for a long time. Sometimes I even recognize it in myself. For a short time I attended a seminary where students were not allowed to announce unauthorized gatherings for prayer, but they were welcome to announce keggers (parties involving lots of beer). Their doctrine was good, but clearly something was wrong with their first love.

Jesus calls the Ephesians (and us) to repent, and to love Him above everything and everyone else. He wants us not just to be faithful and true, but to be actively engaged in relationship with him. He says very clearly that the church or Christian that does not continue in this relational aspect of faith will cease to be the church. The lampstand will be removed (2:5).

This first love message is deep and far reaching. In fact, it is nothing less than the first of the ten commandments. When Jesus was still on earth, someone asked him about the most important commandment:

36“Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest? ”

37He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38This is the greatest and most important command. (Matt 22:36-38, HCSB)

Nothing – absolutely nothing, should come before God in our lives. What is your first love, really? Jesus is clear here – it should be Him. If Jesus is your first love, He should have first claim on your time, energy and resources of all kinds. This brings us back to the beginning of these notes: if you think it’s unrealistic to spend an hour or two learning more about Jesus over the course of a week, how likely is it that he truly is your first love?

If you give to the mission of Jesus out of what is left over after you have spent your money on everything else first, does that really reflect that Jesus is your first love?

If you invest an hour or so a week in Christian community, and the other 167 hours in other things, can you truly say that you love Jesus more than you love anyone (or thing) else?

If you go through your day, doing things you have to do to make a living and take care of your family, and Jesus is not a part of how and why you do those things, how could you claim that you love Him more than anyone else?

Obviously, we can’t all be monks, and just sit in a monastery worshipping Jesus all day. Most of us need to work, and raise kids, and invest ourselves in our communities. But the way we do all that changes when Jesus is our first love. The motivations for what we do change. And when he is truly first, we are willing and able to say “no” to some things (even good things) in order to say “yes” to more time spent with Him in prayer and Bible reading, “yes” to more time and energy invested in a community of his people, “yes” to more concrete actions that advance the kingdom of God.

A few years ago, I knew a good Christian family who was having trouble with one of their children. So they invested more time in sports teams and events, thinking to teach him character and teamwork. Their investment in sports caused them often to say “no” to investing in worship and Christian community. There were many other factors involved, but needless to say, the sports strategy failed. The child became alienated from the family and from God. However, even if their strategy had succeeded in helping the child, their choice clearly communicated that Jesus was not the first love in that family.

I bet a lot of you think I’m talking about you. Actually, I doubt if any of you reading this knows whom I am speaking of, but I do know that it strikes close to home for a lot of people.

Remember, Jesus said this:

37The person who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; the person who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38And whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. 39Anyone finding his life will lose it, and anyone losing his life because of Me will find it. (Matt 10:37-39, HCSB)

This is hard to say, and hard to hear. But Jesus very clearly calls the Ephesians to repent. He also calls us to repent. Repentance means we stop doing the things that we shouldn’t be doing, and start making choices that reflect Jesus as our first love. We won’t be able to do these things perfectly, but we are called to a lifestyle of repentance. Even when we fail, we continue on the repentance road.

We might need to repent of putting a career ahead of Jesus, or a relationship, or even family (see above). We might need to repent of putting entertainment above Jesus, or alcohol, or food or other substances. Sometimes it is money. Sometimes it is even loving Christian doctrine more than loving Jesus. But the message of Jesus is clear: He will not stand for anyone or anything to rival Himself in our affections. He must be our first love.

I want to add one more thing. This isn’t just about some “litmus test.” I don’t want to be legalistic. But as we go through Revelation, we will find that God’s plan will force all human beings to make a choice. Pressure, persecution and hardship will get more and more extreme. The message of Revelation is terrific news for people who are totally sold out for Jesus, who have put all their eggs into the one basket of faith in Jesus Christ; in other words, for those who have Jesus as their first love. But for those with divided loyalties, the truth of Revelation will crush them between a rock and a hard place. If you read this, and Jesus is not your first love, it will sound either boring (because you don’t really believe it), or terrifying; perhaps it will even sound like bad news. If you have this reaction as we go on, hear what the Spirit says: Repent!

We need to repent not just so that we can feel good about ourselves, or “to be a better person.” No! We need to repent, or we will be destroyed and the light of our lampstands will be removed! Jesus is uncompromising about this. Read it again:

4But I have this against you: You have abandoned the love you had at first. 5Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place — unless you repent. (Rev 2:4-5, HCSB)

Jesus offers forgiveness and restoration for those who repent. There is only one unforgiveable sin, and that is to refuse and malign the work of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31-32). In other words, the one thing that will keep you from forgiveness is if you are not willing to repent. If we do repent, however, we have forgiveness and new life.

7“Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. I will give the victor the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in God’s paradise. (Rev 2:7, HCSB)

The Garden of Eden held a “tree of life.” Adam and Eve sinned before they ate of it, and then they were driven out of the garden, before they could eat it and gain eternal life as sinners. Jesus is telling us that if we repent, his forgiveness is so complete, that He will so thoroughly remake us without sin, that we will be able to eat of the tree of life. This is nothing less than the promise of eternal life in paradise.

Matthew Henry puts it this way, in the slightly archaic language of his own generation:

They shall have that perfection of holiness, and that confirmation therein, which Adam would have had if he had gone well through the course of his trial: he would then have eaten of the tree of life which was in the midst of paradise, and this would have been the sacrament of confirmation to him in his holy and happy state; so all who persevere in their Christian trial and warfare shall derive from Christ, as the tree of life, perfection and confirmation in holiness and happiness in the paradise of God; not in the earthly paradise, but the heavenly.

Let us “have an ear” and listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.


jesus teaching in temple

We need to understand that Jesus didn’t welcome sinners simply because they were sinners – he welcomed them because they humbly recognized that they needed forgiveness, repented, and put all their hope in Him. They let him change their lives. They submitted to his authority.

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Matthew #75. Matthew 21:23-27

I trust that you have noticed as we’ve gone through Matthew 21, that there are certain themes running throughout the chapter. One, is that Jesus is becoming very deliberately confrontational towards the religious leadership in Jerusalem. He is doing so in order to force them to make a choice about him, a choice which he knows will end in his own crucifixion. A second theme is that even though Jesus is doing this in order to fulfill his mission to die for the sins of the world, everything he says and does is righteous. In other words, he is not wrong to confront the religious leaders in the way that he does. I think it is appropriate to take this even a step further, and say that not only is it not wrong, it is good and righteous. The things that he says to them need to be said. They are part of his mission, not only in the sense of forcing the religious leaders to make a choice, but also in that his words are truth that needed to be spoken, and later written down by his apostles. What I mean is, if we did not need to hear the same words today, the Holy Spirit would not have inspired Matthew and the other apostles to remember them.

During this second day of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus was found teaching in the temple. It is as he is teaching that the chief priests and elders – that is, the religious leaders – confront him and ask the question of the day: “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority?”

These are the people who feel a certain amount of ownership of their own religion, and religious observance. Jesus entered the temple, and let little children sing praises to him. He caused a riot, driving out the money changers and livestock merchants. The feeling of the religious leaders is that he has come into their place, and is acting as if he owns it. Why does he get to decide that the moneychangers shouldn’t be there? Where does he get off, teaching that the people of Israel were not fulfilling the purpose for which God created them?

One thing we should know is that already by this point in history the Jewish people had begun to develop the habit of teaching by quoting “authority.” Suppose, for instance a rabbi (which simply means “teacher) was discussing the Sabbath. The rabbi might say: “The great Rabbi Hillel used to say about the Sabbath that the chief purpose of it is rest for the soul.” The rabbi would then go on discussing Hillel’s ideas, and perhaps offering quotes from other rabbis with different ideas, and maybe finally adding his own thoughts. Rabbis most definitely did not say things like: “This is what I think about the Sabbath.” They always quoted others; that is, they taught in reference to other “authorities.”

This was not how Jesus taught at all. Earlier in Matthew, we have a great deal of Jesus’ teaching, and we see that sometimes Jesus would even go out of his way to show that he was not quoting authorities. For instance, in the sermon on the Mount, several times, he said “You have heard it said…, But I say to you…”

So the religious leaders in Jerusalem are offended by Jesus’ style of teaching, in which he seems to regard himself as the authority, and also by the way he seemed to treat the temple as if it was his own house. By confronting him while he is teaching, the religious leaders are trying to expose him in front of those he is teaching. They’re trying to remind the listeners that he is not quoting authorities.

Jesus turns the question back on them. He asks, “Where did John’s baptism come from? From heaven or from men?”

I think it is likely that many people knew that John the Baptist, before his death, had endorsed Jesus. It is unclear how many people knew that they were relatives, but many of Jesus’ disciples had started out by following John the Baptist. In a way, this is a big endorsement of the ministry of John the Baptist. Jesus is saying that John’s ministry came from the same source as his own.

This caused a big problem for the religious leaders. Many people have forgotten it now, but John the Baptist sparked a movement that lasted for more than a generation. At this point in time, John, and his ministry, were still a very big deal. John the Baptist represented a significant religious and cultural movement within Judaism.

So, the elitist leaders are afraid to say “John the Baptist was not legitimately sent by God,” because they know that will make a lot of people very angry, and they might lose their power over the people. But if they say, “John was from God,” then they would have to explain why they didn’t listen to what John said about repentance, and even more importantly, what John said about Jesus.

Like the politicians they really are, the religious leaders give an evasive answer: “We don’t know.” So Jesus responds in kind: “If you won’t answer about John’s teaching, then I won’t answer about mine.”

Has it ever occurred to you to wonder why Jesus didn’t just answer them directly? Why wouldn’t he just say: “My authority comes from God”? Before this, he was trying to lay low and finish training the disciples, and so sometimes he was evasive or enigmatic. But at this point, he knows he has less than a week to live. Why not just come out and say it? I can imagine that perhaps Jesus wanted to make sure he wasn’t arrested until after he had eaten the Passover with his disciples. Even so, directly saying “My authority comes from God” would probably not have made them arrest him much faster than they did. As it turned out, they arrested him in secret, since they were afraid of the support he had from the ordinary people. I doubt it would have happened any differently if he had answered them directly at this point. So why did he take this approach with them?

I can think of one possible reasons. First, he may have done this in order to expose their own internal dishonesty. Rather than just answering the question, he made them think. His question forced them to become aware of the choice they were making about him, and what was going on in their hearts. They couldn’t pretend they were defending the sacredness of their own religion, or the temple. They had to decide: “Are we going to accept Jesus as sent from God, or not? Does God’s authority even matter to us in this case?”

They understood that if they accepted his authority as from God, they would have to listen to him and obey him. His question made them face that, and decide.

In all of this section of Matthew – almost a quarter of the book – Jesus often sounds harsh and confrontational. As I have said, there is a practical purpose to this, in that it led to his crucifixion. But we need to realize that these words are still relevant today. When people were humble, repentant and desperate, we see Jesus being gracious, loving and compassionate. But when he encountered people who wanted to live their own lives, who rejected his authority, he made them face their true attitudes, often by speaking in ways that seem harsh to us. Jesus still presents people with a choice today: Will you accept his authority in your life, or will you hedge your bets, stall, or evade the question?

These days, we still have religious hypocrites who reject the real work of Jesus in their lives. What I see here in the Southeastern USA, is that a large number of people attend church and claim to be Christians, but in reality, they live their lives however they please. They often don’t wield religious power, but they claim, to one degree or another, that they are people of faith in Jesus. However, when they are confronted with something that Jesus says through the scripture, like: “Don’t get drunk,” or “Don’t gossip and slander,” or “Don’t have sex outside of marriage,” or “Don’t pursue money or wealth,” they are like the religious leaders Jesus confronts. Their internal attitudes are: “Nobody has the authority to tell me how to live my life,” or, “Is that part of the Bible really even relevant anymore?”

When I read these verses in Matthew, I am reminded of a similar attitude toward the authority of God and his word to his people.

1Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the wild animals that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You can’t eat from any tree in the garden’? ”

2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit from the trees in the garden. 3But about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, God said, ‘You must not eat it or touch it, or you will die.’ ”

4“No! You will not die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5“In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:1-5, HCSB)

From the beginning, Satan has been casting doubt on the authority and reliability of what God said. Like with Adam and Eve, like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, he tempts us to listen and agree when the serpent whispers: “Did God really say that? Do you really have to pay attention to it? Actually, God is just trying to hold you back. You’ll be better off if you don’t pay attention.”

Some people read these parts of the gospels and think, “Jesus is taking down religious people. Go Jesus!” But the problem with these leaders is not that they are religious, but that they have rejected the authority of Jesus in their life. There are plenty of people in the workplace, in bars, at the gym, in our families, who are not religious, but who reject the authority of Jesus in their lives. They are just as proud and stubborn as the religious leaders during Jesus’ time.

We need to understand that Jesus didn’t welcome sinners simply because they were sinners – he welcomed them because they humbly recognized that they needed forgiveness, repented, and put all their hope in Him. They let him change their lives. They submitted to his authority. Unlike the religious leaders, they did not say: “Where do you get the authority to tell me how to live?” Instead, they said: “I need you, your love and forgiveness. Take my life and do whatever you want with it.”

Obviously, no one is perfect. Even those of us who generally are sincere about our faith often fail to live as Jesus wants us to. They key is what happens when Jesus confronts us about it through the scripture, or other believers who are sharing scriptures. Do we hedge, and say, “Do I really have to accept the authority of Jesus [through the Bible] in this matter?” Do we listen to the serpent? Or do we say, “I’m sorry Lord! Forgive me. You have the right to every part of my life.”

I don’t think we need to be afraid every minute that we might be rejecting the authority of Jesus. The religious leaders probably were not thinking consciously about what they were doing, but Jesus, by his question, drew their attention to it. He made sure that they understood the choice they were making. He will do the same for us – if we have a problem, He will make it clear.

Perhaps he is using this scripture passage, and this sermon, to make something clear to you right now. Is there some area of your life where you are tempted to reject the authority of Jesus? Is there some way in which you are saying, “Do I really have to pay attention to that part of the Bible?”

Before we close I want to remind us again that He is merciful and gracious, and loves to show compassion to those who humbly repent and receive him. With that in mind, let him speak to you about these things right now.



The kingdom of Heaven is still at hand. The Lord still wants to work more fully in your life. We can still help prepare the way and welcome him in by repentance. The Holy Spirit does the work, all he needs is our willingness.

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 5

Matthew #5 . Chapter 3:1-10

I want to remind you that when I preach, I am really trying to do two things. First, I want to make sure we understand the basic background of passage, and the basic meaning of it. Second, I am always “listening” to see what the Holy Spirit might want to say to us through it. Sometimes I focus more on the first thing, and sometimes more on the latter. I guess my point is, I doubt that any single thirty-minute-teaching can capture everything there is to capture about a bible passage. So, I assume that in some ways I am leaving some things out that might be said about any bible passage. Just keep it mind – there’s always more to learn, even from bible passages you know pretty well.

At this point, Matthew skips from the early childhood of Jesus directly to his adulthood. Luke tells us that John the Baptist was the son of Zechariah the priest and his wife Elizabeth. Elizabeth was related to Jesus’ mother, Mary, and in fact, Mary spent some months with her while they were both pregnant. According to Luke, John responded to Jesus, even when they were both unborn babies.

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. (Luke 1:39-44, ESV2011)

Because their mothers obviously had a close relationship, it is almost certain that John and Jesus knew each other as children. Certainly, by the time they were adults, before John began to preach, John knew Jesus personally (Matt 3:14), and believed he was the Messiah.

John’s father was a priest, descended from Aaron. This meant that John would have been technically eligible to serve as the high priest. Instead, however, he went into the wilderness of Judea and began to preach. It’s hard to pin down exactly where he was. In the Old Testament, “the wilderness of Judea” referred to an area south and east of Jerusalem, in the vicinity of the Dead Sea. However, it records that John baptized people in the Jordan river, which is north of the Dead sea. Most likely, John wandered around for a little bit.

Not much is said here, but John’s ministry was very remarkable in many ways. The journey from Jerusalem to the Jordan river where John preached was extremely rough. To go from Jerusalem to listen to John would have involved a round trip of several days, and it included very hard travel and the danger of bandits along the way. And yet, his preaching was so compelling that many people made the trip to hear him. Jewish historian Josephus records that John began a significant movement that lasted even into the 100’s AD. Obviously, many of his followers missed his message about Jesus as the Messiah, and started their own sect of Judaism. John the Baptist was a very big deal. Matthew’s concern, however, is not with John himself, but his role in preparing people for the Messiah, Jesus.

Matthew says:

3 For he is the one spoken of through the prophet Isaiah, who said:

A voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

Prepare the way for the Lord;

make His paths straight!

This is the eighth fulfilled prophecy that Matthew refers to. Besides reinforcing his theme of fulfilled prophecy, Matthew shares this to explain that John’s remarkable ministry was all aimed at preparing people to receive the Messiah when he arrived.

How, exactly, did John prepare people to receive Jesus? Matthew says the basic message was: “Repent, because the Kingdom of Heaven has come near” (3:1). That’s a very brief summary, of course. I think the idea was that John preached that God wanted to do something for people personally, that he was drawing near to His people. The appropriate response to the presence of God is realize how we’ve strayed away from him, and turn back to him, away from our sins and wanderings.

The people responded by confessing their sins, and being baptized to show that they were repenting. By the way, the New Testament makes a distinction between the baptism of John, which was for repentance, and baptism into Jesus (see Matthew 3:11; Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38; Acts 19:4; Romans 6:3).

When the religious leaders came to see John, and to be baptized by him, he had some harsh words for them. As I mentioned earlier, John was enormously influential and popular with ordinary Jewish people. Most likely, the religious leaders came to be baptized by him in order to gain popularity with the “regular folks.” But John saw through that, and castigated them for it.

His response to them made two basic points. First, he told them to “produce fruit consistent with repentance. (verse 8).” In other words, “if you are truly repentant, act like it.” Second, he warned them not rely on their ancestry as Jews to do them any good with God (verse 9).

Let’s stop here for this time, and try and unpack what the Lord might say to us through this text.

First, is the Kingdom of Heaven near? I believe since the coming of the Holy Spirit in about 30 AD, the Kingdom of Heaven has always been near to anyone willing to receive it. If you are reading this and you have never turned your life over to Jesus, he is coming to you right now. He wants to shower you with his own real presence, with grace, joy and a new start on life. The way to receive that is the same way shown in this text: to repent. To repent means to turn back, to go a completely different way. If you can read these words, it is not too late for you to repent. Jesus can handle whatever horrible thing you’ve done, whatever you’ve left undone, and even whatever terrible thing was done to you. But you need to drop it, to turn away from it, and turn to Him.

Many of you reading this blog have already repented and turned to Jesus, and received him as your Lord and your salvation. That’s wonderful. But for us who have done that, Jesus is still at hand. He still wants to show up in our lives in greater and more profound ways. He wants to give us even more grace, more joy, more peace, a more abundant life in Him. To receive these things from him, our path is the same: repent!

Let me give you an example. Suppose there is a Christian man who wants more of Jesus in his marriage. He is not happy with his marriage. He is unhappy with his wife. Jesus wants to come into this part of his life – the kingdom of heaven is near. Now, the Holy Spirit, working in this man, shows him that he often makes cutting remarks to and about his wife. The Holy Spirit is calling him to repent. Repentance is not saying “Yeah, I know that’s wrong. It’s just hard because she never does what I want. Sorry.” It is isn’t even saying “I admit that I do that, and I admit that it’s wrong.” To repent is to fully own the fact that you have been wrong, with no excuses, and then to turn away from it, for all intents, forever.

Now, our turning away forever almost never happens perfectly. In the case of the man with the unhappy marriage, he commits to turning away from cutting down his wife. Suppose normally he makes an average of six cutting remarks each day. When he first repents, he is so sincere that for a week, he makes none. But after a while, he loses some of his focus, and he goes back to making some cutting remarks, but maybe now only three each day. The Holy Spirit reminds him again, and he renews his repentance and consciously relies on the Holy Spirit to help him, and he gets it down to two cutting remarks each day. He realizes he needs help, and so he asks a Christian friend to pray for him about this, and to hold him accountable by asking him about it regularly. Now, the man usually does not make any cutting remarks to or about his wife at all. As time goes on, prompted by the life of Jesus inside him, he begins to actually compliment and encourage his wife. From time to time, he still slips and makes a nasty comment, but it is no longer a habit, and for the most part, he has become kind and encouraging to his wife. Within a year or two, his attitude is transformed, and he and his wife are closer than they have been for years.

I think that is a realistic picture of what the fruit of repentance looks like. Sometimes Jesus transforms us dramatically in a single moment. But a lot of the time, what is actually happening is that we are “working out our salvation” (Philippians 2:12). What I mean is, the Lord uses gradual transformation like this to strengthen our hearts and minds and to make us more like him. When you repent you are on a new path. You may not walk the path perfectly, but you are no longer going the old direction. Your your progress, however slow, however often you might fall down, is in the new direction, toward Jesus.

I want to make something clear however. A lot of people admit their sins, but do not really repent of them. A lot of people feel, in the heat of a moment, that they want to do better next time, and even resolve to do so, but they do not fundamentally commit to going a different way forever. If you are a Christian, and have struggled with the same thing over and over again, and you don’t seem to make any progress, ask the Lord to show you if you have truly repented in that area of your life. If the bible says you need to repent, or if the Holy Spirit shows that you need to repent, then make a decision to turn back from that (action, habit, attitude) forever. Don’t worry about whether you will fail again at times: make the commitment to turn away from it forever, and invite the Holy Spirit to give you the strength to keep that commitment.

John the Baptist had some very harsh words for religious people who did not really want to repent, but only wanted to pretend to do so to look good to other people. Unfortunately, there are still a number of people who take this approach. Let me say with John the Baptist: Give it up. Pretending to repent without really doing it is pointless, and it will not save you or help you in any way.

I will add that people who pretend are the ones that typically give Christians a bad reputation. So you are hurting not only yourself, but others too.

The good news, it is never too late to truly repent, not as long as you are still alive. Jesus wants to come to us; some of you for the first time, others in new and deeper ways. How do you need to prepare for him? Where can you make the way more straight for him through repentance?


I want to briefly make you aware of our situation. This ministry (Clear Bible) until recently was supported by our local church. However, we have had some changes there, and we are now a house church. Today, we have about 8 families. Our church cannot fully support me financially any longer.

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 Some of you may have noticed that I am also a novelist. Often, people have misconceptions about authors. Most of us, including me, make a part-time income through writing, and no more. In other words, we aren’t “raking it in” somewhere else. Now, we trust the Lord to provide, and I don’t want you to give out of guilt or fear. I just don’t want you to get the idea that your donations will only be an “extra” for us somehow.

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