“I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord.”-Philippians 3:8 Spiritual knowledge of Christ will be a personal knowledge. I cannot know Jesus through another person’s acquaintance with him. No, I must know him myself; I must know him on my own account. It will be an…
This sermon is a hard and harsh one, and understandably so. And this is one of Charles Spurgeon’s earlier sermons, so it is perhaps a bit “rougher around the edges” than some later ones, after he has spent years experiencing the grace of God amidst the peaks and valleys of life. But I read it because I find it immensely relevant, because God’s justice is a subject that must be discussed if the gospel is to have true meaning.
The justice of God is such a hard subject to talk about, and it is one that is unfortunately neglected in many places. The simple reason is that there are many who fancy themselves teachers of the flock who believe, for one reason or another, that to speak at length on the holiness of God and His wrath against sin somehow dishonors the work and life of Jesus, or maims the testimony of God’s love. But I want to take a few moments here and refute that idea, and speak to why it is just as important to do exactly what Brother Spurgeon here has done and speak boldly to the truth of the coming punishment for sin.
Firstly, because it is a reminder that though tragedy continues to infect our world, it is not so simple to look at death in any form or fashion today and say “This right here, this is God’s punishment for sin.” Though death came into the world through sin and was defeated at the cross along with sin, tragic death is a reality of life in this sinful world and not something you can necessarily use to draw a straight line from Sin A to Death B.
It was a little over a year ago that a man shot up a nightclub in Orlando, and I wrote a few blog posts discussing issues related to that. I also read a sermon based on a text that was read in this sermon, Luke 13:1-5:
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Now let’s be clear: Jesus is not saying that if you repent, you will not die. He is calling the hearers to prepare their hearts lest they experience their own tragedy, and denying the superstition of the day that said that one could clearly see who had sinned, by what ill befell them. Jesus called His disciples to serve the brokenhearted, the sick and needy, the widows and orphans. He commanded them to lift up the ones who were laid low, and to make themselves low to serve the ones who desperately needed it most.
All of that is tied in to the fact that God is a God of justice, just as much as He is a God of mercy. He is a God of wrath against sin, as much as He truly is love. And all of you who feel the deep pain of injustice in our world, I would point you to this truth: firstly, because there is absolutely hope of justice. Secondly, because if you seek that justice apart from the truth of God, then all will you do is create a new injustice in place of the old, one stamped with your image and one that will be burned up on the day of judgment as a structure built out of straw and twine. And finally, because if you cannot right an injustice in your time but must endure, you can endure knowing that perfect justice will be done on the Day of Judgment.
Charles Spurgeon was a man who despised the injustices of his day and preached boldly against them. Indeed, this sermon was recommended to me by someone as a sermon that upset Southern slave owners, perhaps because they felt the barbs of conviction pricking very deeply. Of slavery Spurgeon once said,
By what means think you were the fetters riveted on the wrist of our friend who sits there, a man like ourselves, though of a black skin? It is the Church of Christ that keeps his brethren under bondage; if it were not for that Church, the system of slavery would go back to the hell from which it sprung…But what does the slaveholder say when you tell him that to hold our fellow creatures in bondage is a sin, and a damnable one, inconsistent with grace? He replies, “I do not believe your slanders; look at the Bishop of So-and-so, or the minister of such-and-such place, is he not a good man, and does not he whine out ‘Cursed be Canaan?’ Does not he quote Philemon and Onesimus? Does he not go and talk Bible, and tell his slaves that they ought to feel very grateful for being his slaves, for God Almighty made them on purpose that they might enjoy the rare privilege of being cowhided by a Christian master? Don’t tell me,” he says, “if the thing were wrong, it would not have the Church on its side.” And so Christ’s free Church, bought with his blood, must bear the shame of cursing Africa, and keeping her sons in bondage.
If you’ve listened to this podcast for more than thirty seconds, you know Spurgeon preached boldly and unapologetically against the evils of sin in his day and for repentence and faith in the grace of Jesus Christ. My brothers and sisters, we must do the same. We must be balanced and biblical in our judgments, we must model mercy and pour out love on those who hate us, but we must remember that love and truth are equal partners in the worship of the One True God. Therefore we must preach the truth about the evils of our time, not because they win us political points (because often they won’t), not because we love to shame our neighbors (because apart from the grace of God we join in that shame), but because we love God and we love our neighbors, and we desire most deeply to see them know Christ and live.
Next episode: a special observance of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
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I want to say thank you to everyone who has had kind words and continued prayers for me as I have been working through the divorce and all of the personal fallout that has been involved. I want to especially thank Alex Humphrey of The Rugged Marriage and his wife Rachel, and I definitely recommend subscribing to their podcast if you don’t already. They were a tremendous encouragement to me, along with many others in my church and around me who have helped counsel me through this.
I debated exactly how I wanted to deal with the ongoing podcast, and I decided I want to just jump back into it with both feet. I have a few reasons: firstly, as I have said before, this exercise is as much a devotional for me as it is a desire to minister the gospel to others, and it does my heart good to be sitting under the teaching of a man like Charles Spurgeon in this manner, who himself was under a great deal of weight on his heart.
Secondly, I want to have my say, for whatever it’s worth, about what I see happening in the world and the way others are talking about it. I invite dialogue, although I do require good behavior. I will be saying things here that many will disagree with. If you can disagree with me respectfully, I will publish and engage with your comments as best I can. If you can’t engage with someone who disagrees with you without treating them as subhuman, I would suggest not wasting your time here. Not because I hate you, but because if even the most fundamental foundation needed for discussion is absent and all you can do is snark and meme your way through a rant, you and I will not be getting very far.
Loving your neighbor, loving your enemy
I want to point out something very important about the concept of loving your neighbor, and to do that I want to look to Scripture:
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”–Luke 10:25-37
The first thing I want to point out about this: this is a command. I’m not exactly breaking new exegetical ground here, but it is common for people to handle moral issues in the context of “Well, I may do X, but that guy, he’s a real jerk!” We do that with everyone from our literal neighbors to people in the public eye we will probably never meet. So, I want to do exactly what Charles Spurgeon did here: I want everyone to take this command and say to everyone, it is pointing squarely at you. It points at me and you, reader, and each one of us will have to stand before God and account for our obedience to it.
Yet it seems that the primary emotion being demonstrated by many right now is fear, with a healthy backing of anger. You have fearful liberals and fearful conservatives, fearful radical progressives and fearful alt-rightists who are so convinced that the other is going to destroy them and everything they hold dear. There is no love for God or for neighbor in their thinking, but there is the thought that “As soon as the other guy is taken down a peg, or removed, or whatever, then the world will be sunshine and butterflies, the poor will have food and the oppressed will be free.”
I have news for you, my friends. Fear and love are enemies. “Perfect love casts out fear.” And if you are a Christian and your reaction to another person who is outside of your camp is fear and anger, if it’s looking for a way to build a compound to hide in rather than to understand and engage with your neighbor, to serve their needs and love them where they are, then I have to put it to you that you are disobeying Jesus, and you need to repent and adjust your heart. I have seen Christians behaving absolutely shamefully towards other Christians–and if your reaction to these words is defensiveness or finger-pointing then I guarantee that yes, I am talking about you.
But there’s no one I’m harder on in this regard than myself. I am always looking to hold my thoughts and actions against the standard of righteousness here, and I am wanting. Yet I do not despair, for two reasons: firstly, because I know that Christ’s sacrifice is enough to cover every sin I have, and that His righteousness will be mine on that day of judgment; and secondly, because I know that God is working in my life through the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit to change me, bit by bit, into the image of Christ. I want that, I want to represent Him in love and peace and joy through all things. My friends, I pray that for each of you, you will know the desire for holiness in God in that simultaneous ache of longing and satisfaction of having Jesus.
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I want to again thank all of you who have been patient through this last hiatus, and especially for those of you close to me who have been actively praying for and ministering to me during this time. This was not a “I’m just really busy” hiatus. I mentioned in the last episode that there was some turmoil ongoing, and unfortunately it ended in the worst possible way: my wife and I are no longer married. I have no intention of divulging more information than that, but to answer the questions I know many of you concerned will have: yes, this is the end of a process that involved church elders and it is something that was not entered into lightly in any way. I will not say more than that, out of respect for privacy. Those of you who do know us, I appreciate your constant prayers and the loving support that you all have shared through this.
I’ve waited to continue this podcast and blog until after everything was officially finalized. I plan to move forward continuing to trust God in my darkest times, continuing to pray for Jessica, and continuing to rely on the support of His people. I am particularly grateful for the godly men and women who have gathered around me to minister to me through all this.
The fact is that this has been a deeply tragic event for me, and I have struggled with understanding it and with my own emotions, both in trying to figure out exactly how I should feel and think, as well as finding constructive ways to work through my deeper feelings. I have been hurt down to my deepest parts, and I have lost my partner. The pain I have had to endure, the sadness and anger, has been of a kind I can scarcely hope to describe meaningfully.
But as Paul said in 1 Thessalonians, I do not grieve as a person who has no hope. Through all of this, God has held me steady and been true to His promise to provide a way of escape from the temptation to sin. I picked this sermon because the chapter it is from, Lamentations 3, was a strength to me in this dark time. It is a reminder that even though God ordains the darkness, it ultimately serves to the purpose of greater joy when the light comes.
I won’t say that the light has reached me yet, at least in this matter. I will say that God is good, and God is gracious, and I will trust Him with each new step in life. To my listeners who have similar struggles, I would say to you: Do the same. Trust in the goodness and mercy of God.
I have had a few people talk with me about this that clearly expected me to have become embittered towards Jessica in particular, and towards the institution or concept of marriage in general. But I have no intention of letting a root of bitterness grow down into my heart towards either, for several reasons: Firstly, because that would be an incredibly selfish position to take, that would make my marriage all about what I want and what I get out of it, rather than glorify God or honor my wife even in the aftermath of all this; secondly, because I am aware of the ways in which my own sinfulness has contributed to this regardless of other circumstances and such an attitude would be completely unrepentant and un-Christian on my part; and thirdly, because I have not become a different person as a result of this. I still desire to represent Jesus with the way I live and work and speak. I still want to grow in love, and in the grace and knowledge of God–even more now, I would say. I still want to put my sin to death.
On a purely personal level…this has been the most tragic time I’ve walked through in my life. I am deeply grateful to those who have gathered around me during this time, to hold me up in my weakness, to remind me of my true strength in Jesus, and to pour out love onto one who was feeling deeply unloved. But this has been the darkest moment of my life, and I have had to continually turn to prayer and to the strength of my brothers and sisters to help me deal with the enormous weight I have felt upon my shoulders. I have been wrestling day by day with the myriad ways I have sinned and contributed, and having to drag it to the foot of the cross each time. There has been no time for self-pity.
All of this may seem very vague in a sense to many, and honestly it should. Those who need to know more details of my and Jessica’s personal lives know them. To the rest of the world, I would simply ask for prayer. I intend to press forward into Jesus regardless of anything else.
To those listening who are facing darkness, for whom hard times come hard and fast, and who are feeling the weight of despair on their shoulders: I want to urge you, do not hesitate. Do not hide in the dark, because there you will only find more of what afflicts you. Turn to Christ, and run to Him. Make yourself and your struggles known to His people, to those who can love you and gather close to minister to you in those times. The reason the Scriptures are so full of good texts to apply to suffering is because suffering is something that all humans have in common as long as we live in this world. Trust the goodness of God even in your darkest times, and do not hide your struggles. Drag them to the light! Leave them at the foot of the cross, and do it every day! Trust to the renewed grace of God every morning, and never believe that God is tired of you, or that His church has better things to do. This is what it is for: to weep with those who are weeping, and rejoice with those who are rejoicing. We are called simply to trust Him in all things, and that is all I can do in this time of deep pain.
Thank you for being patient during my extended, unannounced absence here. I won’t get into a lot of specifics, I’ll just say: it’s been a little crazy, and even the hour or two it takes to create one of these has been precious time that had to be directed elsewhere. I am very grateful to those of you who have been praying for my wife and I as we’ve passed through a rather trying time.
And it’s actually what led me to pick this sermon, as the concept of joy, and more specifically the source of joy and its object, has really been on my mind lately. When things are frustrating beyond reason, when it looks like darkness is all around or when things are simply out of your hands completely…what does it mean to obey a command like “Rejoice in the Lord always?”
I wanted to take a look at the whole passage:
“A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” So some of his disciples said to one another, “What is this that he says to us, ‘A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’; and, ‘because I am going to the Father’?” So they were saying, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We do not know what he is talking about.” Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, “Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me’? Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”–John 16:16-24
And there’s another passage that came to mind as well:
And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.–Luke 12:22-34
What I see is that we have two sides of the same coin: Do rejoice in God, do not fear. And I look at my life, I look at my thought process and the way I look at the way my heart quakes before uncertainty, or how quickly I can get angry when my best-laid plans are upset…and I find myself having to continually go to God and confess my great deficiency in this area. I want to be able to lead my wife in such a way that demonstrates my complete trust in His providence. I am a guy who can’t do anything except wake up in the morning, praise God for new grace, and go forward to see what the day holds.
And so we have the dual command: rejoice, and do not fear. Praise God in all circumstances and times, because God is king of all; because God is the Author of our lives and faith; and because He has extended us mercy and grace far beyond our greatest understandings. Do not fear, because God ordains all things, even the bad things, for the sake of His glory and our good; because when we look to God in even our most sorrowful and agonizing times He uses those to create in us a lasting and life-giving joy; and because in the eternity to come when we see Jesus and know Him fully, the darkest hours will not compare to the true fullness of that joy.
But it still is not unusual for us to look at our own troubles, our own fears, and feel like we are different. “My circumstance is unique. You may be able to just cast your fears away like nothing, but you can’t understand what it’s like for me.” And you know, that is true in a sense, at least halfway: I can’t understand what your life is like, because it’s not my life. I only have my own existence and my own testimony.
But to say that you are somehow so troubled and beyond help that you should cling to your troubles, that you should not obey this command with all urgency, is to be disobedient. And that’s what I have to preach to myself: if you do not loosen your hands, give up this idol, this fear, this control over your life, what you’re saying is that God is not truly God. You’re really God, and you know best. I think we all know exactly how that will end.
So Mr. Spurgeon’s cry from Scripture is one that I utter often, and that I think is very appropriate for every believer to have at hand: “I believe, help my unbelief!” I find myself even now, crying out to God those words. I worry about what is to come, I buck against the fact that I cannot take situations in my hands and fix them to perfection and I have to trust God. So I ask God to forgive my unbelief and fear, and I rejoice in the fact that in Christ I have a great high priest who both can sympathize perfectly with me, as well as has perfectly and completely covered my sin. I want to rest in the throne room of God as a man who is made perfect by the completed work of Jesus, and I want to lead my wife lovingly by the hand behind me to joy. I want to be a man that raises whatever children God blesses us with to become lovers of God, to see their own hearts filled with the overflowing joy of the Spirit ministering to them. And I can rejoice in the fact that God hears my prayers, and that His perfect wisdom and mercy will be administered in exactly the right way.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.–Romans 8:28
Check out the debate between Dr. James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries, and Brother Joe Ventalicion from Iglesia ni Christo. INC is an Arian cult that began in the Philippines, and they bear some resemblance to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in certain areas–namely, that Jesus is a created being rather than God, and denial of the Trinitarian nature of God.
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.-1 Timothy 1:15
There is so much that could be said about this verse. It is, perhaps, one of the phrases of Scripture that could be said to best describe the whole of a Christian’s confession and walk: the command to listen and believe, the confession of faith in the one hope any man has in this life or the next, coupled with the cry of insufficiency and guilt. It seems that the Gospel is always that dual cry–I am unworthy, I am a sinner, I hope in Christ alone!
And hope is what I want to talk about a little here, in the context of everything that we’ve been going through lately. I started working on this episode over a week ago and it’s taken me a while to have the time to finish everyone and do the editing I needed to do. In that time, the US inaugurated a new president, that president has begun to take actions in his new office, and the reactions I have seen in the media and amongst my friends have been…well, I don’t think “shocking” is the right word. But I think words like “disappointing” and “frustrating” are up there.
It is not my intention to support or attack Donald Trump. Neither is it my desire to discuss the ins and outs of particular political issues. What is my desire, is to speak firstly to my brothers and sisters in Christ on both sides of this issue, and then to my friends who are not of the body of Christ.
My brethren: come on, guys.
I don’t mean to make light of this or act like it’s no big deal, because it is. This life, this world is real, and everything we do has consequences. You, I and Trump will stand before God to account for our lives and how we used what He has given us. At the same time, I feel that both Trump supporters and detractors within Christianity have forgotten something very important: namely, the source of our hope. This is true no matter which side you find yourself on. I have seen his detractors absolutely lost, awash in despair and fear–and these are Christians. Yes, my friends, I know many of you believe that supporting a liberal political agenda in certain areas automatically makes you a heretic who would just as soon attend a Unitarian Universalist church as believe in the God of the Bible, but it has been to my great blessing in my time living here in Denton to get to know many men and women who I disagree with on particulars of law and government, and who worship the one true God with me every week.
And at the same time, I see Trump-supporting evangelicals who are being very unloving and unkind to those who are not, by posting nasty memes and jokes, attacking and fighting extensively online, and in general not displaying an ounce of the grace they have been shown by our King. That is inexcusable, and deserves rebuke. You are living as though the hope you have in this life and for the future of this country lies solely in the hands of Donald Trump. Let me assure you right now: that is untrue, and if you truly believe that, you are hoping in something foolish. Not because Trump is or isn’t good, but because he is another sinful human who will ultimately only be able to accomplish what God allows him to.
Put not your trust in princes,
in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.
When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;
on that very day his plans perish.
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord his God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry.-Psalm 146:3-7
We do not hope in a man who is going to be dead some day. We don’t hope in a man who is dead already. Nor do we simply hope in some kind of theoretical idea that may or may not actually be true or realistic. We hope in Christ, and Christ alone.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.-1 Peter 1:3-9
So am I saying that we should just give up on caring about politics? No, certainly not. But we need to be very careful that as Christians, we do not engage this debate as unbelievers who have no hope beyond this life. We can engage each other in love, we can show tenderness, mercy and even, yes, weakness, knowing that even if what we go through leads to suffering, it is suffering that leads to greater joy. We ought to follow our consciences, we ought to make our cases boldly and with truth in hand, recognizing that ultimately both the left and the right in this country have at their core a humanist line of thinking that believes, “If I use the power of government in just the right way, I can perfect man at last. We can be free from pain and want, we can live perfect comfortable lives and be happy forever.”
Ultimately, neither will be able to achieve their goal, as long as that hope is based in humans and not in Christ alone. When Christ is King, all other things fall into place perfectly, rest and work and pain and joy all function in their right way, until the time comes for Jesus to set all things right, to wipe every tear and judge every injustice. We cannot, and should not, use the tactics of secular humanists, because those tactics insult the truth of the Gospel. I would be talking for hours here if I detailed this more, but I want to move on to my friends who have not believed the Gospel.
My message to you is not largely different, except that I do not bring with it an expectation that you will hope a certain way. Rather, I bring an invitation, a command even: repent, of your sins, your fears, and your faithlessness, and believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He alone is King, and Savior, and Friend to all who are hurting and in need. Do not rage against the truth. Do not fear the One who made you. I am calling you to let go of your foolish ideas of autonomy for yourself, and realize that you are much more “you” that you could ever be when you are with your Father, who made you and knows you.
This too shall pass, for good or ill. Trump will leave office one way or another, and someone else will be there. If God is willing, this country will see another day and will repent of the wickedness that is spread across the land in so many hearts. I sincerely hope, because of the hope I have in Jesus, that you will be one who turns in faith in our living hope, Jesus Christ the Son of God.
On a purely personal level, the 46th Psalm is one of my favorites. But this psalm, and this sermon, speak to the day to day struggles as well as the major traumas that we all experience in one way or another, and it is eerie in particular how much the last section of this week’s sermon reminds me of the fears so many of us have about our current political climate: unrest, violence, wars and rumors of wars, uncertainty. But for most people these kind of fears are almost theoretical until they produce real, present fruit.
I know people who are facing down the possibility of losing their jobs, fearing what will happen if they suddenly are unable to continue providing for their families. I know some who are facing down illness, in themselves and in family, that threatens livelihood and life itself. And I know people who have suddenly, with no control at all, found themselves thrust deep into personal turmoil, feeling like the world is pulling them deeper down into drowning depression and dread. No matter the cause, there is a whole world of strife, fear, and frustration that stands in the way of our joy.
This is why it is crucial for the believer to understand that the nature of his relationship with Jesus extends beyond the simple matter of salvation and going to heaven. So many of us hear about Jesus Christ as though the transaction that occurs here is “I intellectually assent to the idea that Jesus died on the cross and rose again, therefore I will go to heaven when I die.” But that is such a shallow understanding of who Christ is, and who we His church are in relationship to Him, that it’s no wonder so many believers struggle to find hope even as they hold the greatest hope there could ever be.
We stand upon the Rock of Ages. Think about the parable Jesus told about the houses, one built on rock and one on sand:
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”-Matthew 7:24-27
The storm will come. The earth will give way. The mountains will someday be thrown into a wild and tempestuous sea. But those who have lives that stand rooted on Jesus Christ can and will endure all of this–not by their own strength, not by their own wisdom, but because they have real hope in the eternal God who has made us. Even our greatest sufferings, even our final sufferings, will ultimately serve for our good and for His glory.
I want to thank everyone for their patience as I got back online, and especially everyone who has reached out to encourage me in the last month or so. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, damage to my computer kept me “off the air” and I was forced to put everything for the podcast on hold.
I want to start off looking at the larger context of the passage for today. Everyone has heard John 3:16, even a large number of my non-Christian friends probably have at least a rough idea what it says if they don’t have it involuntarily memorized. But I want to take a few minutes to dive deep into the passage from what I would say is probably my favorite book of the Bible:
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 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. 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. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”-John 3:1-21
Jesus unveils the truth to Nicodemus: life is not gained from God by adhering to the law. Entering the kingdom of God, being adopted as a child of God and following after Christ, is something that happens through renewed life. Our life is not renewed by our own doing, but it is renewed by the grace and gift of God. The Spirit moves as God wills and brings life to spiritually dead rebels by God’s grace, not man’s will. Moreover, that life is gained by looking upon the Savior, Jesus Christ, made a curse for us. Jesus refers to Numbers 21 when God punished the rebellious Israelites in the wilderness by sending serpents to bite them. The only way to survive was to look upon an image of a serpent, made of bronze, which Moses held up before them on a staff. Those who looked at the serpent would live, those who would not look died.
This was not to call them to worship snakes, but rather it was a shadow of the work of the Messiah: Jesus took on the curse of death, willingly choosing the most humiliating and painful death one could imagine. And those who look upon His curse, find covering for their sins in His death, and hope in His resurrection.
So now the verse itself: I love Spurgeon’s preaching here, but I would have to disagree with him on his emphasis on the word “so.” The phrase “God so loved the world” is not an expression of degree or amount, but rather an expression of method: “God loved the world in this way: by sending His Son.” Yet it does not detract from the degree of God’s love by pointing this out. This is something I want to really focus on. This time of year, as so many gear up to celebrate Christmas, we in the US get a lot of people arguing about “keeping Christ in Christmas” and such things. But even with that, we tend to really miss the point in such debates. The point is not simply about “baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger, and gee aren’t babies cute,” although for a lot of people that’s about as far as it goes.
The Son, the perfect second Person of the Trinity, to not come down as simply a glowing unstoppable Judge who could rightfully have set all things to right, cast the entire human race into hell and restored creation to perfection. As Paul puts it in the passage from Philippians 2 called the carmen Christi,
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.-Philippians 2:5-11
In John 3, and most especially in that well-known 16th verse, Jesus talks about what it is we are truly celebrating when we commemorate Christmas: it isn’t about presents, it isn’t about how sad it was that Mary and Joseph were in a stable, or any of the other distractions that are ever present during the holidays. He is talking about the miracle of the incarnation, and its great purpose: salvation for those who believe. “Whoever believes,” the original phrase is πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων, “all those believing.” That is the way one identifies the people of God: belief in Christ, in His person and work. And Jesus specifies further, those who do not believe are already under condemnation, but belief is rescue from condemnation.
The book of John goes on to discuss all of this much further, and I hope over the course of time that I’m given to do this podcast that I can walk through all of it. But for now I will simply have to say: this passage produces worship in me, because it is a powerful testimony to the truth that God will save His people and has paid for our sins completely through the work of Jesus. When we think of the coming Christmas celebration and we hear people tell the Christmas story, don’t think “Oh, it’s so magical, a little baby being born and it’s such a pretty night and hey, that star is nice.” Think, “This is the coming of God to be with His people, to demonstrate love in a way we could never have shown or understood apart from Christ, and to save us!” Hear this truth, my friends. Believers, draw strength from this and know that God is moving to complete the work begun here. Unbelievers, hear these words and repent, turn to know and love the One who made you and calls you by name. In Christ is peace, rest, and love; apart from Him is only condemnation and death. Embrace the peace of Christ, and celebrate this advent season the most powerful and loving deed we could ever know: the coming of the Son of God.
Sermon text here.
This week’s song: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God by Jarod Grice
For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all, at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of those realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body you have prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written off me in the scroll of the book.'”
When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifices for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.—Hebrews 9:24-10:14
I don’t normally start out with such a long passage, but I thought it was necessary in light of my reasons for choosing this sermon and in light of what we are remembering when we call October 31 Reformation Day. For some, the idea of such a day is simply a historical occurrence, when a monk named Martin Luther brought what was essentially a call for the academic equivalent of a football game to the public’s attention. Luther wasn’t trying to set the world on fire, and he wasn’t even trying to criticize the Pope (at that time, at least). He was trying to bring challenges to public debate on very important issues. But what those 95 theses became as they spread across Germany was the spark that lit the fuse on a powderkeg piled up on Rome-controlled Europe by godly men like Jan Huss and William Tyndale, men who saw the truth of Scripture even in the face of a Roman Catholic Church that was (and still is) trying desperately to obfuscate it for their own power’s sake.
And that brings me to the reason that I wanted to read this particular sermon on the 499th celebration of the beginning of the Reformation: there were many issues that were debated over and that served to demonstrate the rot at the foundation of the Catholic Church. But the very root of it, and the issue which was foundational to the Protestant return to biblical theology, was the completeness of Jesus Christ’s work on the cross in paying for sin on behalf of His people. Rome taught, and continues to teach at least as its official dogma, that Christ essentially made a way for us all to have right standing before God, but that the way we truly achieve that standing is through participation, for our entire lives, in the sacraments of the church. Even then, that is not sufficient in Rome’s view, for all but the purest of saints do not go directly to heaven after death, but instead go to purgatory to endure satispassio, the suffering that is part of atoning for sin.
The sale of indulgences was one of the major issues that led to Luther’s actions. Indulgences were (and are, though today they are not given the same way they were in his day) a “get out of purgatory but not for free” card, or at least a way to cut the time of relatives there shorter. But Scripture makes no such claims about Christians and their sins. It is why I chose this sermon, and why I chose to use such a large passage of Scripture: Hebrews, by its testimony to the completed work of Jesus on the cross and His place seated at the right hand of the Father, completely repudiates the idea that there is any longer any sacrifice or suffering for sin on behalf of those for whom Christ worked. It is, in fact, an insult to Christ as Savior to say that you believe you need to add anything to what He did. The author of Hebrews makes it clear: Jesus paid the price, completely and utterly, and there is no work left to be done. Paul takes this argument on fully in his writings to both the church of Rome and the church of Galatia, and if you haven’t taken the time yet to read those books, you should. The truth of the gospel of Jesus, that we can rest completely in His work and that in Christ, there is no fear of any judgment but only peace with God, is life to us, and is the message I want to bring through this episode.
The Reformation began as a man standing upon the convictions of his conscience, that he would not be convinced of anything but what Scripture pointed to, and that he would trust fully in the strength of God in the face of governments and church leaders who threatened life, limb and livelihood. I wanted to read this sermon because it is important for us to remember this truth, and just as much it is important for us to prepare to do the same thing. The world echoes the same lies it did in Luther’s day and that it has since sin first cracked the world’s joy and fractured our relationship with God in the garden: you can have your own way, because the real source of wisdom and goodness is you. You can do what you want, because ultimately your heart is the arbiter of good.
But yet we continue to find, as we run after this mythical realm of perfect peace coexisting with everyone pursuing the natural desires of their hearts, that all we find there is sadness, heartbreak, and ultimately death. Our hearts cannot bring us happiness, all they will do is hand us a broken cup to try to satisfy our thirst. In the end, we as Christians cannot agree with what the world wants, because we know it ends in death and hell. We want to see those around us set free from these lies, and find the truth, because in that truth is life as it was truly intended for us by our Maker.
So no matter the human orthodoxy demanded of us, the believer ought to reject it, and stand on his conscience and the convictions of God’s own Word. God has worked perfectly in the sacrifice of Christ to pay for our sins, and all those who trust in Christ have, right now, perfect union with Jesus and right standing as holy before God, able to go to Him in prayer for everything. If you do not know Jesus, if you do not trust Him, then I urge you to do so right away. Go to the Bible and read, see the words of God to His people, and find healing there. If you do know Jesus and trust Him, then let me remind you: do not fear anything the world threatens in the face of our rejection of their sinful desires. God is faithful, and even death itself cannot separate us from Him, but in all things we can rejoice and live lives to His glory.
Sermon text here
This week’s song: Truly You Are the Son of God by the Loverlies
I want to start by reading the fuller context of our verse this week, from Romans 8:31-39:
What then shall we say? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake, we are being killed all the day long;
We are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This passage is about hope. Where do we place our hope? I actually decided to read this sermon several weeks ago, but between my life being extremely busy right now and the ongoing production of the Morning and Evening podcast, I have had less time lately to produce regular sermon episodes. But it is oddly fortunate that I should end up reading a sermon on this passage the week that we spend time recalling the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. I do remember where I was, and what I was doing, and more than that I remember how I felt afterwards. I wanted to put my hope in American might, and American goodness, and certainly now I realize that was foolish in many ways.
I recommend listening to John Piper’s sermon from that week, which is, not coincidentally, also on this same passage from Romans. He reminds his listeners who are still reeling from the shock of the attack, that they cannot put their hope in anything that is here on earth, because it will ultimately fail them. The words painted on the side of his church—“Hope in God”—have never rung more true, and the reason why is etched plainly in the lives of so many saints before us who have endured suffering for the sake of Christ: His love is unstoppable, irresistible, and perfectly sufficient for all things.
My fellow American Christians, I think it is safe to say that many of us feel very frustrated as we see a culture that has, for centuries, endured and enjoyed great bounty courtesy of a society informed and structured largely according to the Christian worldview if not according to submission to Christ, surrender that worldview en masse and replace it with evil, selfishness, and insanity. There is a tendency to fear, both losing one’s place, as well as losing “the culture war.” My brothers and sisters, the only war that really matters is already won. The Victor stands at the right hand of God now, waiting for the time when His enemies will be made a footstool for His feet. Meanwhile, we here continue, no matter who is elected president and no matter who is allowed into your public bathroom, to have the duty and joy of serving our fellow man as ambassadors from the living God, as ministers of reconciliation come to bring the call to repent and turn to Christ, to find that true and neverending, never-damaged love. Brethren, let us embrace that, though the world should hate us, though our flesh should fail us, though the devil should assault us, let us know that God is truly God and move forward in obedience and love.
Recommended this week:
Spurgeon’s Sermons app