By Grace Alone

October 19, 2017

[As we approach the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, consider one of the key points of the Reformation: We are saved by God’s grace alone. Here is a shortened and edited version of my sermon on Galatians 1:6-12 on this theme, preached April 29, 2007. You can listen to the sermon at this link – Coty]

What really angers you? Think about a time recently when you’ve been ticked off. What prompted that reaction?

When did the apostle Paul become most upset? Scripture records several such times. But the beginning of Galatians displays some of his greatest anger.

All of Paul’s letters to churches begin by stating who they are from, whom they are to, and then calling on God for a blessing of grace and peace to the church. This is usually followed by a statement thanking God for the people of that church, or praising God for the blessings He has given to that Church or to His people in general. (See, for example, Romans 1:8, 1 Corinthians 1:4, 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, and Ephesians 1:3.)

But Galatians is different. After calling for grace and peace, Paul cries out:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel (Galatians 1:6)

Paul is angry – and he minces no words. What has angered Paul?

Remember, in Corinth the church was tolerating a man who was sleeping with his father’s wife. And when they came together for a meal around the Lord’s Supper, some were getting drunk. But even to Corinth, Paul says, “I give thanks to my God always for you.” Paul is angrier with the Galatians than with the Corinthians.

What makes Paul most upset?

The loss of the Gospel.

The Gospel was so precious to Paul that its distortion troubled him deeply. God’s glory in the Gospel is so precious to Paul that he found the perversion of the Gospel most disturbing.

Look at Paul’s summary of the Gospel in Galatians 1:4-5. The overarching theme is obvious: GOD gave Himself, GOD delivers, all according to GOD’s will, to GOD’s glory forever. God is at the center. The Gospel is all about God – His glory, His holiness, His mercy, His love. If we change the Gospel, we desert God. And Paul could not stand for that.

Let’s see how Paul elaborates on that point in verses 6-12.

The True Gospel: Called by God’s Grace

Having stated the Gospel in his intro, Paul keeps reminding his readers of its central points:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ (Galatians 1:6)

Paul could have simply said: “so quickly deserting God.” But instead he highlights the Gospel itself. The one they are deserting is:

  • The one who called them
  • The one who spoke to them with life-giving force
  • The one who miraculously touched them, when they were His enemies
  • The one whose grace and mercy are their only hope
  • The one who displayed that grace in sending Christ Jesus to die for their sins.

Paul will elaborate on this summary of the Gospel a few verses later:

[God] who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles. (Galatians 1:15-16)

The apostle’s point: There is only one Gospel. It is all about God. It is all about His grace – not our works! So be overwhelmed by that grace!

What is at Stake: Deserting God

In verse 6, Paul says the Galatians are deserting the One who called them by grace.

I think Paul’s readers were absolutely shocked by that accusation. They probably thought:

“Deserting God? Paul, we’re not deserting God – we’re trying to know Him better! These other teachers came and provided us with an alternative way of thinking. They said circumcision and the traditional Jewish ceremonies would lead us into a deeper, fuller understanding of God, into things we didn’t know before. How can you possibly say that we are deserting God?”

In that context, Paul then refers to God as the one “who called you in the grace of Christ.”

Paul emphasizes: “The Gospel is about God’s GRACE. Add ANYTHING to God’s grace, and you have left the Gospel. You have deserted God.”

Thus he says they are “turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one” (Galatians 1:6-7).

There is only one Gospel.

Another teacher might label his message a gospel – but it’s not. Any message other than salvation by God’s grace through faith in Christ apart from works of any kind is not Good News. Any “Christ plus” gospel is a false gospel – and to follow such a false gospel is to abandon God.

Thus, Paul calls such false teachers those who “trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:7).

By adding to faith in Christ works that we have to do – even Old Testament ceremonies – these teachers are changing the Good News into Bad News. They are turning their backs on God’s offer of Himself freely to all who believe – and thus they are changing the Gospel of God’s grace into a way to make yourself acceptable to God. This is indeed flipping the Gospel on its head. This is abandoning God.

What does Paul then say about those false teachers who are leading these Galatians astray?

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:8)

To be accursed is to be eternally condemned (NIV), to be condemned to hell (NET).

These folks who look so kind, so friendly, so warm, so engaging, inviting you to a deeper knowledge of God – these lovely people deserve hell, because they are leading God’s people astray.

So Paul says, “Even if I myself came back and preached another Gospel, you should say, “Paul, go to hell for that teaching! Don’t lead us astray from the one true Gospel!”

He imagines the most glorious possible being – an angel appearing to them. And even if this angel should preach something other than salvation by grace through faith in Christ, they should say, “Angel, go to hell!”

The GOSPEL is authoritative. Not the individual. Not even an angel

As Martin Luther writes concerning these verses:

Paul subordinates himself, all preachers, all the angels of heaven, everybody     to the Sacred Scriptures. We are not masters, judges, or arbiters, but witnesses, disciples, and confessors of the Scriptures, whether we be pope, Luther, Augustine, Paul, or an angel from heaven.

Paul continues:

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:11-12)

There is not one gospel according to Paul, another according to Peter, and another according to John, with each stating the result of his own philosophical speculations on the nature of reality, and how man can be put right with the ineffable sovereign power. No. Paul says Jesus Himself revealed this Gospel to him – and that this is the same Gospel He lived before the twelve disciples, the same Gospel that they continue to preach. There is one Gospel, from God, not based on the authority of any man, but revealed and put into effect by God Himself.

This is GOD’s gospel – so anyone who preaches another is NOT representing God.

Thus the false teachers, despite their speaking of grace, faith, Christ, and salvation, are teaching the opposite of the true Gospel. For it is God’s grace that saves us – nothing else. That is the only possible Good News. As Philip Ryken writes:

Not everyone who calls himself a Christian serves Christ, and not everything called the gospel is the gospel. It is not mere words that save; it is the realities of the one true gospel that save.

Our salvation comes about only by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone to the glory of God alone.

The Temptation: Aim First to Please Men, not God

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)

Paul’s opponents may have been claiming Paul did not tell these Gentile believers to be circumcised because he was trying to please them. They may have argued: “Paul himself is circumcised, and he even circumcises men himself on occasion.”

Was Paul a man-pleaser? Should we be man-pleasers?

Pleasing men in and of itself is not wrong.

On non-essentials we are right to remove barriers to the Gospel, as we subordinate our personal and cultural preferences to communicate the Gospel more effectively. Paul did that (1 Corinthians 9:22-23, 1 Corinthians 10:33). But we must never change the Gospel in order to please men.

Notice in verse 10 that Paul admits that he used to try to please men – when he was a Pharisee. He implies that his opponents are now acting like he did when he was a man-pleaser.

In what ways were Paul’s opponents – and we ourselves – tempted to please men rather than God? Perhaps so that:

  • We might get along with those in power by submitting to another man’s authority or reasoning
  • We might fulfill our own natural desire to take credit for our salvation, for being master of our fate
  • We might accomplish an important but secondary goal, such as unity or kindness,

Conclusion

What is central for you?

Are you aiming in your life for popularity? For others to think highly of you?

My friends, the central goal of the church of Jesus Christ is

  • Not about marketing,
  • Not about church growth
  • Not about making money
  • Not about gaining political power
  • Not about attaining great health
  • Not about self-esteem
  • Not about building better families
  • Not about ending poverty
  • Not about ending abortion
  • Not about ending racial discrimination

If we make any of these the central goal of the church – even those that are good, biblical goals – then we have no Gospel at all. We have become man-pleasers of one type or another. We are putting ourselves, or some other group of people, at the center – not God.

If we do that, we are not making just a little adjustment to the Gospel. Instead, like the Galatians, we are deserting God; we are distorting and destroying the Gospel.

The church of Jesus Christ exists to herald the message of the Gospel: Your creator God made you for a purpose – to show what He is like, to marvel at who He is. Yet you have despised Him, treasuring attainments and objects in this world more than Him. You deserve His wrath and condemnation. But God in His grace sent His Son Jesus to die on the cross for your sins, to pay the penalty you deserve. You can be put right with God – you can be part of his intimate family – if you will have faith in Christ, if you see Him as your treasure, your hope, your joy.

The church of Jesus Christ exists to proclaim and to live out this Gospel radically in our lives as we, overflowing with forgiveness, overflowing with grace and mercy, become His humble servants, loving God, loving man, and rejoicing in the grace of Christ that we know we don’t deserve.

Is this central for you? Not a ticket to heaven after you die – but is this what you are most passionate about, what drives you?

There is only one hope for the world. There is only one hope for YOU: The Gospel of God’s grace.

So believe and be saved: By Grace alone. Through Faith alone. In Christ Jesus alone. To the glory of God alone.

 

 

Whoever Loves God Must Also Love Whom?

August 15, 2017

Many have condemned both the violence and racial hatred evident in Charlottesville last weekend. Praise God. Russell Moore’s op-ed piece in the Washington Post is an especially strong and biblical example of such condemnations.

Yet I am always concerned when Christians together condemn others for sinning in a way that does not tempt them.

Why?

Because I know my own heart. I know that if I am in a group in which all think the same way, our joint condemnation of others subtly tempts me to glow inwardly, thinking: “We’re not like them!” We very easily slip into such pharisaical, self-righteous attitudes – and self-righteousness is a deadly sin.

Furthermore, such self-righteousness has increasingly infected our political realm. Instead of political dialogue, arguing with evidence and studies about what type of policy can best serve the American people, so much of our politics today – on both the left and the right – is taken up with self-righteous condemnation of those who differ with us.

How should we then live within the church to combat these attitudes?

In this regard, consider what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 15:5-6:

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul is writing about differences in the church on disputable matters of doctrine and practice, as well as the ethnic differences between Jews and non-Jews. In these verses, he says that when, despite our differences, we live in supernatural harmony with each other, we glorify God. That is: overcoming our natural inclinations to despise and reject those who are different from us and instead truly loving each other glorifies God.

Now, this is the purpose of the church: To glorify God. Therefore, harmony across our many differences is a key way that we fulfill the purpose of the church. Being diversity-loving, aiming to express love across our differences, is thus not optional for a biblical church; it is a necessity.

Paul continues: “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).

This is pivotal: Paul says that since such harmony is key to fulfilling the purpose of the church, we must welcome one another as Christ welcomed us.

My friends, how did Jesus welcome you?

  • Because you were like Him?
  • Because you shared some common interests?
  • Because you were in the same life situation?
  • Because you had something to offer him?

No! You were repugnant to Him. You could not have been more different. You had absolutely nothing to offer Him. But He loved you with a love that surpasses knowledge. He accepted you as you were, on the basis of His death on the cross – not on the basis of anything in you.

That, then, is the way you are to welcome other believers – especially those who disagree with you on disputable matters and those from different ethnicities.

This passage has clear implications for racial harmony; there is absolutely no place for racial hatred or discrimination in the church of Jesus Christ.

But the importance of welcoming one another extends well beyond race to every area of difference. We are to live in great harmony with everyone in the church of Christ.

So think: Who in the church do you have problems getting along with? What type of person would you least like to sit down with for a long conversation, or have over to your place for a meal? Are you willing to welcome this person as Jesus Christ welcomed you?

My friends, not to welcome this person as Jesus welcomed you is to fail to love your neighbor as yourself. It’s thus a sin. It makes God look less glorious than He really is.

Consider what the Apostle John says:

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:20-21)

Whoever loves God must also love whom? Every brother or sister in Christ!

  • Your brother who is black, your brother who is white,
  • your brother who is fat, your brother who is skin and bones,
  • your brother who is poor, your brother who is rich,
  • your brother who is socially awkward, your brother who is smooth and debonair,
  • your brother who is highly educated, your brother who never finished elementary school,
  • your brother who doesn’t listen to music less than 200 years old, your brother who doesn’t listen to music more than 6 months old,
  • your brother who is a great athlete, your brother who can’t throw a ball 10 yards,
  • your brother who is politically liberal, your brother who is politically conservative,
  • your brother who is a genius, your brother who is unable to learn to read.

Whoever loves God must also love his brother – whoever that brother might be. If we are to be diversity-loving, if we are to be a biblical church, you must love those who are hard for you to love. For some of us the hardest person to love is someone of another race. For others, the hardest person to love will be different in another way. But: when God’s glory is overarching everything, when God’s Word is permeating and saturating everything, when prayer is supporting everything, when joy in Christ is motivating everything, then we will not only tolerate but we will also pursue diversity. We will love across the barriers that naturally divide us.

And such love is completely inconsistent with self-righteousness.

So, yes, by all means, we together condemn racial hatred and violence. But may such public sins lead us to search our own hearts to see how we are failing to love those different from us. Ask yourself: What people are hardest for me to love?

Answer the question. Then step out and do a practical act of love for them – for the glory of God.

[Part of this devotion is taken from the sermon, “How Can the Church Fulfill Its Purpose?” preached January 8, 2006. Text and audio are available.)

 

The Disobedient, Reluctant Ambassador and the Sovereign, Merciful God

July 21, 2017

The Apostle Paul tells us that we are ambassadors for Christ as God makes His appeal to others through us (2 Corinthians 5:20).

What happens when we fail to fulfill that role? What happens when we are disobedient and don’t speak of Him? What does God do in that case?

The book of Jonah tells us of a man called by God to be His ambassador to a people group that he hates. He is disobedient to the command. What does God do?

Let’s first of all look at four different ways that Jonah disobeys God, one way from each of the four chapters of the book.

God’s Disobedient, Reluctant Ambassador

God gives Jonah three commands in Jonah 1:2-3: Arise! Go! Cry out!

But how does Jonah respond in the next few verses? He does arise, but instead of going to Ninevah, he goes down again and again: down to Joppa in verse 3, down into the ship in verse 5, down into the hold of the ship in verse 5 – and then down into the sea in verse 15.  God tells Jonah to go one direction, to engage in cross-cultural ministry, and Jonah goes completely in the opposite direction.

It is easy for us to laugh at Jonah, and to judge him for failing to obey God. But who were the Assyrians? A cruel, ruthless, and powerful people – the major threat to Jonah’s country at this time. Less than 50 years after the time of Jonah this same Assyria will come and destroy the northern Kingdom of Israel.

Think hard now: What group of people do you dislike the most? What people frighten you, annoy you? What people would you least like to go stay with for several weeks? They are your Ninevites.

So how might we characterize Jonah’s disobedience in chapter 1? This is direct, defiant disobedience. God tells him to do one thing; he does exactly the opposite.

So now God gets the attention of His disobedient prophet by sending a storm and having the sailors throw him into the sea. Jonah thinks this is the end – but God appoints a great fish to come and swallow him. Jonah knows that God has spared his life miraculously.

So in chapter 2 Jonah prays. But does he repent? Read Jonah’s prayer (Jonah 2:1-9). What do you think? Does Jonah repent?

Amazingly, after God has performed miracles both to punish him for his disobedience and to save him, Jonah says not one word about repentance. He thanks God for saving his life, and he ends with the great cry, “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” – but he never acknowledges that he was in the sea needing God to save him because of his own disobedience. Furthermore, while salvation does indeed belong to the Lord, the Lord is interested in the salvation of all people groups. Jonah is interested only in the people of Israel.

So Jonah’s disobedience in chapter 2 is a failure to repent.

Chapter 3 provides further evidence that Jonah has had no change of heart. He now comes up with a new way to express his disobedience.

Do you remember the three commands God gives Jonah in 1:2? “Arise, go, call out.” Note that in Jonah 3:2 God repeats those three commands. Does Jonah obey these commands this time? In chapter 1, he arises, but he does not go where God commands and never calls out. This time he obeys the second command: He arises and goes to Ninevah. And he does eventually call out. But  what does he say? Does he say, “Ninevah has defied the Lord God. Now repent! Or God will overthrow you!” No, that is not what he says. He gives no reason for God’s anger and he provides no opportunity for repentance. Indeed, he does not even mention the Name of the Lord! (Jonah 3:3-4)

Is this what God told Jonah to say? The next chapter clearly shows that God intended for the Ninevites to repent at the preaching of Jonah. That being the case, wouldn’t God have instructed Jonah to hold out the possibility of not being destroyed upon their repentance? Indeed, although the Old Testament is full of proclamations of judgment on disobedient nations, in every case there is a clear reason given for God’s judgment. Jonah’s preaching stands in stark contrast to that heritage. We must conclude that Jonah is preaching only part of the message God gave him.

In chapter 3, therefore, Jonah is displaying perfunctory obedience. Perfunctory obedience is when you obey in a grudging manner – you don’t want to obey and you don’t obey from your heart. Instead, you just go through the motions and, in actuality, are disobeying.

So Jonah has disobeyed God directly, he has failed to repent, and he has subsequently obeyed only in a perfunctory manner. Chapter 4 highlights one more way that Jonah disobeys God. In Jonah 4:1-3, Jonah is angry because God grants repentance to the Ninevites and does not destroy the city. Indeed, Jonah accuses God of being “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2).

So Jonah is saying that God is too merciful! He is angry at God for forgiving the sins of the Ninevites. He did not want to come to Ninevah and be the source of blessing for these people. And he always thought that God might grant them repentance – that is why he didn’t want to come.

So Jonah is angry at God for fulfilling His character and displaying mercy to the Ninevites. But remember: in chapter 2 Jonah praises God for being merciful! He cries out, “Salvation is from the Lord!” So Jonah wants God to be merciful to him and to his people – he just doesn’t want God to be merciful to others. He fails to see God’s heart for ALL nations.

So we can summarize Jonah’s sin in chapter 4 as a lack of faith in God’s Word. God’s Word says that He has a heart for all nations – indeed, God’s command to Jonah was further revelation on this topic.

Thus, God uses Jonah as His ambassador, even though he is reluctant and even though he sins again and again and again.

The Sovereign, Merciful God

But although Jonah is prominent throughout the book, the main character is God, not Jonah. This book shows God’s loving persistence in bringing the lost people of Ninevah to Himself – and also His loving persistence in bringing the reluctant prophet to Himself.

What does God do in order to bring the Ninevites to repentance?

  • He calls Jonah.
  • He sends the storm.
  • He sends the great fish to save Jonah.
  • He causes the fist to vomit Jonah on the shore – and not on any shore, but on a shore from which he can walk to Ninevah.
  • He calls Jonah again.
  • He changes the hearts of the Ninevites.

What is the lesson in all this? Psalm 67:3-4 provides it: “The peoples must praise you, O God; all the peoples must praise you! The nations must be glad and sing for joy.”

God will bring the nations to Himself – despite their hardness of heart, despite the inadequacies of His ambassadors. God has begun a good work in this world and He will, He must complete it. Why? Because of His passion for His glory. Habakkuk 2:14: “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”

God’s desire to glorify Himself is at the root of His bringing the nations to Himself. He has stated that this must come about, and just as He performed miracle after miracle to bring about the repentance of the Ninevites, just as He brought about that repentance despite the sin and attempted sabotage of His chosen ambassador, God will one day bring those from every tribe and tongue and people and nation to Himself. It must happen.

Do you see how this is a great comfort? God gives us the privilege of being His agents in this great task – He chooses to work through us – but the outcome is certain. We cannot fail. Whatever our weaknesses, whatever our failings, God will break down all opposition and will bring the nations to Himself.

But God is just as intent upon bringing His errant ambassadors to Himself! Consider how He treats Jonah in chapter four. Jonah has just stated how disappointed he is that God has not destroyed Ninevah. Now, in the midst of his pity party, he says, “Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:3).

Despite all his best efforts, Jonah has accomplished the task God set before him. God could have responded, “OK, Jonah, if that’s how you feel, ZAP!” And Jonah would be dead.

But God doesn’t do that. Instead He exerts the same loving persistence, the same sovereign mercy in bringing His prophet to Himself as He exerted for the Ninevites. Consider all He does just in chapter 4:

  • He sends a plant to sprout up and give Jonah shade.
  • He sends a worm to destroy the plant.
  • He sends a scorching east wind.

This leads Jonah to become even angrier, as he is upset about the death of the plant.

God then confronts Jonah with impeccable logic in Jonah 4:9-11: Jonah had nothing to do with bringing the plant into existence, and such a plant at most lives only a few days. But because it served a purpose for him, Jonah “pities” it, being sorry that it dies. But God created the Ninevites and had dealt with this city for hundreds and hundreds of years. Now at last the city is fulfilling the purpose for which He created it: to glorify God. Should He not pity them? If Jonah has any reason to pity the plant, God’s reasons for pitying the Ninevites are much greater.

So God pursues Jonah as He pursues the Ninevites: relentlessly, persistently, sovereignly, mercifully, until all opposition fails. God cares about us as individuals and pursues us until we come to Him; and God cares about us as peoples, and pursues peoples until all the peoples praise Him.

Jonah had no love for the Ninevites. Jonah had no desire to see God glorified through the praises of the Ninevites. So Jonah’s heart was not united with God’s heart.

What about you? Is your heart more like Jonah’s or God’s?

Don’t be disobedient. Don’t be reluctant. Don’t just give God perfunctory obedience. He is gracious and merciful to every type of person – even to those you intensely dislike, even to those who frighten you.

But know: Our God is sovereign. And He is merciful. In that sovereign mercy He sent His Son. And through that Son, He will bring all the nations to Himself. And He will bring to repentance all His reluctant ambassadors.

That is our hope. And that is our joy. Praise His Name!

(Much of this is taken and edited from a sermon preached March 16, 2003 – the first sermon I preached on a Sunday morning service at DGCC. You can read that sermon in its entirety at this link.)

Commit Yourself to God Daily!

May 25, 2017

[In Sunday’s sermon, I quoted from Charles Spurgeon’s sermon #2644, preached June 25, 1882, on the idea of committing ourselves to God. Spurgeon spoke on three texts: Luke 23:46, Psalm 31:5, and Acts 7:59. Here is a longer excerpt from that sermon, before and after the passage I quoted. You can read Spurgeon’s sermon in its entirety at this link – Coty]

May God bring us into such a state of mind and heart that there shall be no struggling to keep our life, but a sweet willingness to let it be just as God would have it—a yielding up of everything into His hands, feeling sure that, in the world of spirits, our soul shall be quite safe in the Father’s hands. . . . When God calls us to die, it will be a sweet way of dying if we can, like our Lord, pass away with a text of Scripture upon our lips, with a personal God ready to receive us, with that God recognized distinctly as our Father and so die joyously, resigning our will entirely to the sweet will of the ever-blessed One. . . .

My second text is in the 31st Psalm, at the 5th verse. And it is evidently the passage which our Savior had in His mind: . . .  “Into Your hands I commit my spirit: You have redeemed me, O Lord God of Truth.” It seems to me that THESE ARE WORDS TO BE USED IN LIFE, for this Psalm is not so much concerning the Believer’s death as concerning his life.

Is it not very amazing, dear Friends, that the words which Jesus uttered on the Cross you may still continue to use? You may catch up their echo and not only when you come to die, but tonight, tomorrow morning and as long as long as you are alive, you may still repeat the text the Master quoted, and say, “Into Your hands I commit my spirit.” . . .

That is to say, . . . let us cheerfully entrust our souls to God and feel that they are quite safe in His hands. Our spirit is the noblest part of our being; our body is only the husk, our spirit is the living kernel, so let us put it into God’s keeping. Some of you have never yet done that, so I invite you to do it now. It is the act of faith which saves the soul, that act which a man performs when he says, “I trust myself to God as He reveals Himself in Christ Jesus. I cannot keep myself, but He can keep me and, by the precious blood of Christ He can cleanse me. So I just take my spirit and give it over into the great Father’s hands.” You never really live till you do that! All that comes before that act of full surrender is death! But when you have once trusted Christ, then you have truly begun to live. And every day, as long as you live, take care that you repeat this process and cheerfully leave yourselves in God’s hands without any reserve. That is to say, give yourself up to God—your body, to be healthy or to be sick, to be long-lived or to be suddenly cut off. Your soul and spirit, give them, also, up to God, to be made happy or to be made sad, just as He pleases. Give Your whole self up to Him and say to Him, “My Father, make me rich or make me poor, give me sight or make me blind. Let me have all my senses or take them away. Make me famous or leave me to be obscure. I give myself up to You—into Your hands I commit my spirit. I will no longer exercise my own choice, but You shall choose My inheritance for me. My times are in Your hands.”

Now, dear children of God, are you always doing this? Have you ever done it? I am afraid that there are some, even among Christ’s professing followers, who kick against God’s will and even when they say to God, “Your will be done,” they spoil it by adding, in their own mind, “and my will, too.” . . .  Let us each one pray this prayer every day, “Into Your hands I commit my spirit.” . . .

Notice, dear Friends, that our second text has these words at the end of it—”You have redeemed me, O Lord God of Truth.” Is not that a good reason for giving yourself up entirely to God? Christ has redeemed you and, therefore, you belong to Him. If I am a redeemed man and I ask God to take care of me, I am but asking the King to take care of one of His own jewels—a jewel that cost Him the blood of His heart!

And I may still more especially expect that He will do so, because of the title which is here given to Him—”You have redeemed me, O Lord God of Truth.” Would He be the God of Truth if He began with redemption and ended with destruction—if He began by giving His Son to die for us and then kept back other mercies which we daily need to bring us to Heaven? No, the gift of His Son is the pledge that He will save His people from their sins and bring them home to Glory—and He will do it. So, every day, go to Him with this declaration, “Into Your hands I commit my spirit.” No, not only every day, but all through the day! . . .

David said to the Lord, “Into Your hands I commit my spirit.” But let me beg you to add that word which our Lord inserted—”Father.” . . . That is a sweet way of living every day—committing everything to our Heavenly Father’s hands, for those hands can do His child no unkindness.

 

Unto You is Born . . .

December 9, 2016

How do you respond to Christmas?

  • Not to materialism, ads, crowded malls, TV specials, and fake Santas;
  • Not to performances of Nutcracker and Messiah and Dickens’ Christmas Carol;
  • Not even to caroling and Christmas Eve services.

But how do you respond to the story of the birth of Jesus?

Consider: How does a four-year-old respond to Christmas?

Most four-year-olds have only the vaguest memories of the previous Christmas, but they remember enough to be thoroughly excited.  All is fresh and wonderful and magical and delightful.

Can you recapture that wide-eyed response – to the true story of Christmas?

As we walk through Luke’s account of the first Christmas, put yourself in the place of someone who has never heard it before. Imagine yourself a traveler in Judea in the first century. You hear the story from a shepherd. All is new. All is fresh. How do you respond?

Let’s look at Luke 2:1-21 under 3 headings:

  • Action
  • Proclamation
  • Response

Action

The first action is taken by Augustus, emperor of Rome – seemingly the most powerful man in the world. He commands that all in the Roman Empire be registered for taxation. Among the Jews, this meant that the male head of each family would have to return to the town of his ancestors, Bethlehem.  So Joseph must travel with pregnant Mary.

Understand: Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem only because of the command of Caesar Augustus. Surely this is an unwelcome inconvenience for Mary, to take a several-days journey while pregnant.

But they had to go – for God had said through the prophet Micah that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2-5). So God uses Caesar Augustus to get Mary to Bethlehem, in fulfillment of prophecy.

Don’t pass over this incident. Marvel at the sovereignty of God.                Augustus had his own reasons for calling for this tax registration. He did what he thought would secure his own reign and build up his power own power. He had no idea that the most important effect of his registration concerned the new-born king who far surpasses him in power and might.

As Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” And God turned the heart of Caesar Augustus in order that Mary gave birth in Bethlehem.

The second action: Mary gives birth to her son, wraps Him in cloths, and lays Him in a manger – a feeding trough for cattle (Luke 2:6-7). Unlike in most popular accounts, Luke does not say she gave birth the night she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem. But the birth does take place as prophesied. The child is born. The son is given. And the government will be upon His shoulders. He is the long-awaited Messiah. He is the conquering King.

Yet this magnificent birth takes place in a far from magnificent setting: Within the prophesied city, yes, but not in a palace, not even in a house.

Traditionally, Mary gives birth surrounded by animals – “the friendly beasts.” But we don’t know that. All we know is what Luke tells us: There was no room for them in the normal place travelers would stay, so stayed elsewhere. Either there was an animal’s feeding trough in the place where they stayed, or, needing some resting place for the child, Joseph found an unused manger, cleaned it out, and carried it to where they stayed.

So a young girl, a virgin, gave birth to a tiny, crying baby and put him in a feeding trough.

Meanwhile,

  • the emperor gave commands,
  • armies marched,
  • politicians connived.

They all thought they were very important men of action.

But the most important event  – the most important event to that point in all of history – took place when that young girl gave birth. The Messiah is born.

Proclamation

God has planned this event since before the beginning of time. And so now He proclaims it, telling others the significance of what just happened. He sends a large number of angelic messengers to announce the birth of the long-awaited Messiah.

  • He could have sent them to Caesar Augustus, but doesn’t;
  • He could have sent them to King Herod,  but does not;
  • He could have sent them to the High Priest or the chief priests, but He avoids them.

Instead, God chooses to send His messengers to a group of poor shepherds herding their flocks in the middle of the night.

Picture the scene: The night is dark – exceptionally dark to our eyes, for of course there are no electric lights anywhere. There is not even any glow from Bethlehem or Jerusalem. They’ve collected the sheep and goats so they can guard them from predators, and have kindled a fire in their midst. It is dark. Quiet. No sound of cars or trains. Perhaps a dog barks in the distance. The only sound is the low murmur of their conversation.

Then: Flash! A tremendously bright light!  An Angel, blazing brightness, mighty in strength, overwhelming in power, appears in front of them. They are blinded, hardly able to see anything. In the midst of their surprise and fright, the angel speaks: “Fear not! For behold, I proclaim to you a good and great joy that will be for all the people.”

Why is this is so good, so joyous?

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord!”

Why did the angel say, “Unto you”? He could have truthfully said, “For a Savior, Christ, the Lord is born this day!” But he adds, ‘Unto you.”

He adds the phrase because that’s what makes it joyous! Unto you! Unto all the people!

  • Not just to the rich and powerful
  • Not just to the Pharisees and Sadducees
  • Not just to the chief priests and the scribes

But to you shepherds! To all the people, young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick, strong and weak! The prophecy in Isaiah had been, “Unto us a child is born,” so the angel says: This child is born unto you!

So this is the long-awaited day, the day when there would be no more delay. The child is born. At last.

But who is this child? How does the angel describe Him? With three words: Savior. Christ (or Messiah). And Lord.

Realize: The normal Jewish teaching at this time did not consider the Messiah to be divine. He was clearly a descendant of David. With great power He would restore the Kingdom of Israel. So they thought of Him as a Savior in that sense: He would deliver them from their earthly enemies, their earthly oppressors.

But throughout the Old Testament, God Himself is termed the Savior, or the “God of my Salvation.” And God saves not only from earthly enemies, but also from spiritual enemies – and even death itself.

So in the Old Testament God is Savior, and the Messiah is Savior.

But the angel doesn’t only call the child Savior and Messiah. He also calls this child Lord.

This word is not usually associated with the prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament. Rather, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament used in Jesus’ day, this same word translated “Lord” is used in place of Hebrew name of God (Jehovah or Yahweh).

So is the angel then saying: “God is Savior; the Messiah is Savior. God is Lord; the Messiah is Lord. Therefore the Messiah is God”?

Since the word “Lord” can also be used of a king or a prominent individual, we can’t be definitive. Nevertheless, there is a strong hint in the angel’s words: “This is the Messiah that you have expected, that you have hoped for – but He is greater than you ever imagined! This Messiah is Savior – He will save you from a far greater enemy than the Romans. This Messiah is Lord – not just an earthly king, but Immanuel, God-with-us, Yahweh, God Himself.      This child born unto you is God Almighty.”

Picture the shepherds at this point: Overwhelmed with fear and surprise at the angel’s appearance; astounded and confused by the angel’s words; knowing they are at the center of a great event. And then the angel says something preposterous: “This will be a sign for you. You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

That might have been the greatest surprise of the night! That these angels would appear to poor shepherds to announce the Messiah’s birth is quite surprising. But the long-awaited Messiah – wrapped up like a common poor infant, placed in a feeding-trough?

But as if to underline that this is the greatest news the world has ever heard, so that shepherds see that being a baby in a manger does not diminish His glory, a huge number of angels now suddenly appear, praising God: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased.”

Indeed, God’s is bringing the highest glory, the deepest praise to Himself through the birth of His Son. And He promises peace among those with whom He is well-pleased. Not a general “goodwill toward men.” But peace with God for those who are His people, for those who are His treasured possession, for those who are the true Israel.

In the same prophecy in which Micah names Bethlehem as the place of the Messiah’s birth, he says, “He shall be their peace” (Micah 5:5). And so the angels say: “The time is now! The child is born unto you! God’s peace is here! God’s glory shines forth! The Messiah, the Savior, the Lord is with you!”

Response

The shepherds are the first to respond. They say, “We’ve got to get to Bethlehem, now! We’ve got to see what God has told us about.” So they go as fast as they can.

It must take a while – where are they to find a baby lying in a feeding trough? But they succeed. In some nondescript place, they find Mary, and Joseph, and the infant Messiah.

The shepherds excitedly tell Mary and Joseph all that happened, all the angels said. “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20).

So how do the shepherds respond?

  • Not with pride “Aren’t we special! God sent his angels to us!”
  • Not with marketing savvy: “Let’s see if we can get a book contract for the story!”
  • Nor with skepticism: “How can that poor little baby be David’s heir?

Instead, the shepherds respond with joy.  With faith. They give glory to God. They tell others – not to make a buck, but to share this great good news.

What about Mary? What is her response?

Verses 18 and 19 contrast Mary’s response with the response of those who heard the shepherds’ story: “And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:18-19).

Those who hear the shepherds wonder at the news. The word translated “wonder” can imply surprise, or even being disturbed. So for most who hear the news, the shepherds’ report becomes an interesting tidbit of news:  “Did you hear what old Joe said happened last night?” “And I heard from Sarah that . . .” The news sparked conversation. It made life interesting for a while. Each person wanted to be the first to let others know of this strange report. But like most news stories today, after being a topic of conversation, of concern for a  while, life goes on. People forget about it. They don’t talk about it any more. Oh, they have some vague recollection of the story. But it has no real impact on their lives. They have no change of heart, no deeper understanding of God.

Mary’s response was different. She took all this to heart. She turned them over and over in her mind. She didn’t understand them, but more and more she sees that her conception of her baby, this Messiah, needs to grow.

Indeed, her question is: “What child is this who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping?”

And that’s your question too: Who is this child? What is your response?

  • Can you respond like a four-year-old – with wide-eyed wonder at the good and great joy?
  • Can you respond like the shepherds – with faith and excitement, praising God, telling others?
  • Can you respond like Mary – pondering these truths, treasuring them up, thinking about them over and over?

How we need all three responses!

For this is the joyous news, the greatest of all joys!

  • Unto you has been born a Savior, the Messiah – the Lord!
  • Unto you – lost in sin, dead in rebellion, doomed to destruction;
  • Unto you – mockers of God, violators of His Law, idolaters at heart;
  • Unto you  a child is born.
  • Unto you a son is given.

This Child Himself will be your peace. This Child will be your entryway to God. This child will die to pay the penalty for your sins, if you only believe in Him, if you only see Him for who He is: Your Savior, Your Messiah, Your Lord.

Unto you is born this day a Savior!

God orchestrated all events for centuries so that a Roman emperor would issue a command bringing an unknown young girl from Nazareth to Bethlehem. God enabled her to give birth in humble surroundings, yet sent His majestic army to proclaim the great joy. And similarly God has brought you to the point where you have heard this story, this great joy.

Unto you a child is born: So glory to God in the Highest! Praise Him!

How will you respond?

 

(This is a shortened and edited version of a sermon preached December 18, 2005 at Desiring God Community Church. The audio is available here.)

 

 

 

At Last! The Psalms!

October 7, 2016

This Sunday we begin a multi-year sermon series on the book of Psalms. If our Lord is willing, over something like 75 sermons, we’ll cover the entire book from “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked” (Psalm 1:1) to “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:5). Most weeks, as on October 9, we’ll consider more than one psalm. We’ll also break up the series into groups of about 15 sermons, returning to Romans to complete that series after the first set of psalms, and interspersing other New Testament series with the remaining psalms.

Why the book of Psalms?

At one level, it’s about time to consider it! While we read Scripture from this book almost every Sunday, only a handful sermons at DGCC have taken any of the psalms as their text.

At another level, the book of Psalms fits well with where we are in our preaching. Both Fred and I have focused in the past several months on key doctrines of the faith – who is God, what is man? How are we not condemned before Him? Where is the world headed? The psalms help us to see and to live out what must follow from such doctrines – the emotions, the affections, the praise, the crying out – as we live life in a sinful, fallen world.

Furthermore, when you read the psalms – personally, in your family, or in corporate worship – you are linking yourself with followers of God over the last three thousand years. Over centuries and millennia, these psalms have expressed and shaped the affections and emotions of God’s people. We pray that God will do the same with us – that our prayers might be shaped by these psalms and our attitudes might become more consistent with biblical doctrine as we hear and speak and live out these psalms.

Let’s look at seven forms that this expressing and shaping of emotions takes (modified from Mark Dever’s similar list in The Message of the Old Testament):

Praise: We proclaim the greatness of our God to all peoples and, indeed, to all creation, citing who He has proclaimed Himself to be:

Oh sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth! 
Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. 
Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!  
For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods. 
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the LORD made the heavens. 
Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. 
Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength!
Psalm 96:1-7

Remembering: We remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness to His covenant, especially as shown in the history of His people:

When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
indeed, the deep trembled.
The clouds poured out water; the skies gave forth thunder;
your arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lighted up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
Psalm 77:16-20

Thanksgiving: Giving thanks in the psalms is not private, between an individual and God. Rather, thanksgiving in the psalms is always a form of public praise. Whether the psalmist is thanking God for assisting him personally or for helping the people, the thanksgiving praises God for such acts:

Some were fools through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities suffered affliction; 
they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death. 
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. 
He sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction. 
Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man! 
And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of his deeds in songs of joy!
Psalm 107:17-22

Trust: Praising God for who He is, remembering His covenant love and faithful deeds, and thanking Him for His work on our behalf all serve to deepen our trust in Him. So the psalms call upon us to trust Him always, especially in the midst of trials and difficulties:

Now I know that the LORD saves his anointed;
he will answer him from his holy heaven with the saving might of his right hand. 
Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. 
They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright.
Psalm 20:6-8

Honest Lament:  Yet while we are in such trials and difficulties, God often seems distant and confusing. We cry out and don’t see an answer; we ask God to intervene, and don’t understand how He is at work. Many psalms reflect this confusion, this darkness; indeed, more than one-third of the psalms contain a lament. One author says there is so much lament in the psalms to “show that the experience of anguish and puzzlement in the life of faith is not a sign of deficient faith, something to be outgrown or put behind one, but rather is intrinsic to the very nature of faith” (R.W.L. Moberly, as quoted by B Waltke et al, The Psalms as Christian Lament, p. 1). Often these laments sound similar to Job’s cries:

O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me? 
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless. 
Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me. 
They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together. 
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness.
Psalm 88:14-18

Love for and Obedience to God’s Law:  We delight in God’s revelation of His character in His Law, and strive to follow it by His grace, knowing that in following Him we find true life, true joy.

Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day. 
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. 
I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. 
I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.
I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word. 
I do not turn aside from your rules, for you have taught me. 
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! 
Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.
Psalm 119:97-104

Repentance: Though we love His Law and strive to follow it, we often fall short. So we turn from our sin, confessing that God rightly condemns us and seeking forgiveness by His grace and mercy.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! 
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
Psalm 51:1-4

May God be pleased to express and shape our affections and emotions through this great book, and so continue to transform us into His people who live to His glory among all the nations.

 

Preparing for Suffering

June 17, 2016

Five days ago Omar Mir Siddique Mateen walked into the Pulse Bar in Orlando and killed 49 people. Not one went to that bar last weekend thinking, “I’m going to die tonight”

Imagine that your brother, your sister, your friend, your classmate, or your next-door neighbor were among those killed. How would you respond?

We rightly shrink in horror from that heinous crime.

But in the four days since the Orlando terrorist attack, about 170 other people have been murdered in the US; about 6400 have died of cancer, about 6700 of heart disease; about 100 were killed by drunk drivers.

Then on Tuesday, also in Orlando, two-year-old Lane Davis was dragged underwater by an alligator and drowned. Lane’s father, wading into the water, didn’t have an inkling that there was any danger to the boy.

Imagine that Lane was your brother, your nephew, your grandson, or your son. How would you respond?

In the days since that tragedy, approximately another 200 little boys and girls under five years of age have died in the US.

In this rich and predominantly peaceful country, we can live under the illusion that death is something strange, something unusual – something we can avoid, we can put off indefinitely if we drive carefully, eat well, and exercise diligently.

But death is all around us. Tragedies happen. All the time.

Furthermore, in the years ahead, unless Jesus returns in the next few decades, every one of us will die. Some will know they are dying. Some won’t. Some will die swiftly and painlessly. Others will die horribly. But we will all face death. It is certain.

So shouldn’t we prepare for it? Shouldn’t we learn how to approach the tragedies that will undoubtedly come in this life – so that we will be prepared both to help others in the midst of such crises, and to endure them biblically ourselves?

This Sunday we begin a short sermon series on the book of Job. We have been making our way through Paul’s letter to the Romans for more than a year, and still have much to cover in that great epistle. We’ve come to one of the best-known verses in all of Scripture:

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. Romans 8:28 NAS

What a promise! What comfort! And how great is the God who can make such a promise!

And yet, a dear friend who had recently suffered horrible tragedy once told me, “If one more person quotes Romans 8:28 to me, I’m going to kill him!”

What led others to misuse this great verse, so that it was not a comfort but a barb?

I believe the problem was a lack of understanding of the lessons of the book of Job – lessons that the Apostle Paul knew well, indeed, that he assumes the readers of Romans know.

In Job, we see a good man – kind, generous, loving, dutiful, pious, and upright – lose his goods, lose his children, and lose his health, all in a few days. Then his friends come and make matters worse. Buffeted by all this tragedy, Job deeply questions the goodness and justice of God.

In this book we learn about some of the causes of pain and suffering in this life; we learn of the hatred of our enemy, Satan; we learn of the majesty and sovereignty of God, even over Satan; we learn some of God’s purposes, as well as the nature of genuine faith.

So through this book, we can gain a solid and necessary foundation for understanding Romans 8:28 and following.

Through this book we can become genuine comforters, instead of the “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2) who tormented Job and my friend.

And through this book, we can prepare for the tragedies that undoubtedly await us in the years ahead.

So join us. And may God’s Word build us up and equip us, so that in the day of trouble we might look to Him in the full confidence of faith.

How Much is Jesus Worth?

March 24, 2016

If you could become any one of these four people, which would you choose?

  • (a) The richest, most successful businessman in the world;
  • (b) The most popular, most attractive movie star in the world;
  • (c) The president of the United States;
  • (d) An aids orphan in a slum.

Which do you choose?

Some of us might have a hard time choosing between a, b, and c; but would anyone pick d?

Let me change the question: You now have the same four choices, except: if you choose a, b, or c, you do not know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. If you’re the aids orphan, you do.

Which do you choose now?

Is the choice hard?

Do you see what I’m asking? How much is Jesus worth? Is knowing him worth more than all of Bill Gates’ fortune? Is knowing Him worth more than all the fame or power of a movie star or a president?

This is the central theme of Mark 14:1-25: How much do we value Jesus? The passage is like a play: there are four main characters or groups of characters, all revolving around Jesus, all assessing Jesus’ worth. The characters are:

  • The chief priests and their associates
  • An unnamed woman
  • Judas
  • The other disciples

The passage divides itself into five scenes. We’ll briefly clarify or elaborate on a few points in each scene, then compare and contrast some of these characters, drawing out lessons for ourselves.

Scene 1: Mark 14:1-2. The Chief Priests and Associates

At this time, Passover was the most widely-attended Jewish festival. At least a few hundred thousand Jews came from afar to celebrate. The chief priests want to arrest Jesus, but since many of these attendees thought highly of Jesus, they want to move on the sly, stealthily, and to take Him into custody after the feast.

Scene 2: Mark 14:3-9, Jesus, the Disciples, and a Woman

Picture the scene: Jesus and his disciples, possibly with other guests are eating at the home of Simon the Leper — presumably a former leper whom Jesus had healed. This house is in Bethany, a couple of miles outside Jerusalem, where Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, live. As is the custom in this time and place, they are not sitting down to eat but reclining, lying with their feet away from the table, resting on their left arms, using their right hands to eat. The table is short, perhaps a foot high.

During the meal a woman enters the room carrying an incredibly expensive jar of perfume. She not only opens the jar, but breaks it, filling the room with its aroma. Then, rather than putting a small amount on Jesus, she pours the entire jar on him.

John tells us the identity of the woman: Mary, the sister of Lazarus. He also tells us that she does not stop at his head, but pours the perfume on his feet, and wipes those feet with her hair.

The plant that produces nard was grown only in the Himalayas, and so the perfume is very expensive. If the stated value of three hundred denarii is accurate, this would be about $15,000 in the US today. Nard was literally a gift for a king.

Some rebuke Mary for this “waste,” saying the profits from its sale could have been given to the poor. But Jesus accepts this offering, saying it prepares His body for burial.

Scene 3: Mark 14:10-11, Judas and the Chief Priests

Judas goes to the chief priests, and offers to betray Jesus. They are delighted. Judas can help them find Jesus in a private place, so they can arrest Him where there are no crowds to start a riot.

Matthew tells us the amount of money they offered him: 30 pieces of silver, likely worth about $5000 for us. The chief priests pay Judas about one-third of the value of the nard Mary poured out on Jesus.

Scene 4: Mark 14:12-16, Jesus and the Disciples, Preparing for the Last Supper

With all the crowds gathered in Jerusalem for Passover, finding a place to eat the celebratory meal is a real problem. Although they have been in Jerusalem almost a week, the disciples have made no arrangements for a room.

Jesus, however, had graciously prepared details ahead of time. Presumably during His last visit to Jerusalem, Jesus made arrangements for a room to be available for this special meal. He then works miraculously, arranging that when the designated disciples arrive in the city they will see a man carrying a jar of water (an unusual event in these times). They do so, and prepare for the meal.

Scene 5: Mark 14:17-25, Jesus and His Disciples: The Last Supper

Jesus and the disciples wait until they can move under the cover of darkness to the upper room. Here, while they are eating, Jesus breaks the news that one of the twelve disciples will betray Him. Twice before — in Mark 9:31 and 10:33 — Jesus has said that He will be betrayed. But the disciples had not understood, and clearly did not think that one of the twelve would be the betraying agent. They cannot believe this – clearly the eleven have no suspicions of Judas – and each one asks Jesus if he is the betrayer.

In this culture, to be betrayed by one “who is eating with me,” who “dips with me in the bowl” was considered particularly treacherous. To eat with someone implied friendship, trust, and an obligation to help and protect. So by speaking of their eating together, and saying that the betrayer is “one of the twelve,” Jesus is emphasizing the enormity of the evil of what is happening.

Jesus then institutes the Lord’s Supper, saying the bread is His body, and the cup is the blood of the covenant.

The Characters: Jesus

Now let’s turn our attention to the characters. We will look first at Jesus, and then draw some comparisons and contrasts with the others.

Mark clearly presents Jesus as in control of the situation. Jesus is not surprised by anything that happens. The chief priests are trying to move secretly, on the sly, but Jesus knows their plans and arranges matters so that His arrest does not take place until He has finished His other work. Judas thinks he is fooling the others – and he succeeds in fooling his fellow disciples. But Jesus knows of the betrayal, and lets Judas know that He knows. Jesus is well-prepared for this momentous last meal, making arrangements ahead of time.

But most importantly, Jesus presents Himself as precious through the institution of the Lord’s Supper. There are two aspects his preciousness to unpack here. First:

(1) The Lord’s Supper signifies that Jesus pays the penalty for our sins

When offering the cup, Jesus says “this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many.” Jesus here identifies himself Old Testament sacrifices, whose blood, we are told in Leviticus 17:11, was poured out on the altar “to make atonement for your souls.” Paul later makes an explicit parallel between Jesus and the Passover lamb, stating “Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7).

What does this mean? As the author of the book of Hebrews writes, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” God is a just God; He is the moral authority in the universe. He makes sure that every wrong is paid for, exactly as it deserves. And each of us sins in many ways. Most fundamentally, each of us fails to praise God as we He deserves; instead, we dishonor Him by our actions, our inaction, our thoughts, and our words. But Jesus, the perfect, unblemished lamb, offers His life to pay the penalty for all our sins, enabling us to enter God’s presence spotless and pure. This is what we act out and celebrate when we partake of the Lord’s Supper. This is how precious Jesus is.

But there’s even more:

(2) The Lord’s Supper signifies that Jesus lives within you

Given that Jesus pays the penalty for all our sins, we should respond by living out lives that honor and glorify Him. But how can we do that, since we are so prone to selfishness, self-centeredness, and other forms of evil?

Jesus says the cup is His “blood of the covenant.” Jeremiah prophesied that, in the new covenant, God would put His law within His people, on their heart (Jeremiah 31:33). So God’s law will not be something external, rules that His people will have to live up to. No. His law will be on their heart, within them, and they will have true intimacy with Him.

So Jesus gives us this wonderful picture: We are to eat His flesh, and drink His blood; we are to have His life within us, always. Remember, God had commanded the Israelites not to drink any blood of any kind, and to drain all the blood from an animal prior to cooking its meat. For the life is in the blood, and that serves to make atonement for their souls (Leviticus 17:11). So when Jesus tells us to drink His blood, He tells us to have His life within us. Christ in us, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). So by the power of the living Christ within us, we not only can stand before God with our sins paid for; we also are transformed eventually into His likeness, as He lives out His life in us.

So we are to drink up Jesus’ life, we are to consume Him, for, as Jesus says in John 6:55, “My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.” This is the lesson for us: Feed on Him, devour Him, get all our sustenance from Him, value Him above all else, desire Him more than anything, glorify Him with our money, our time, all that we are. Jesus is the most precious of all.

Reactions to Jesus by the Other Characters

How do the other characters react to this most precious One? The woman, Mary, is central here. All others are in contrast to her.

Mary vs the Chief Priests

The chief priests pay money to destroy Jesus; Mary gives much more money to anoint Jesus for burial.

Mary vs the Disciples

The disciples have had much more instruction from Jesus than Mary ever had. Jesus had even prophesied to them about His death at least three times. Nevertheless, they act completely unprepared for His death. They do not act as if they expect anything to happen; they don’t even make any preparations for their last Passover meal together.

On the other hand, Mary surely does not understand all that is happening, but knows that she will not have Jesus with her much longer. Despite not having heard Jesus’ prophecies about His death, she knows that He will die, and knows that Jesus is more precious than anything else imaginable. So she gives up what is most valuable to her – this jar of nard, perhaps a family heirloom – to prepare His body for burial. She demeans herself even to the point of rubbing His feet with her hair, knowing that Jesus is the most precious of all.

Mary vs Judas

Judas is one of these disciples, one of the intimate circle that Jesus has loved and taught. Judas has traveled with Jesus for three years, and has heard those prophecies about His death. Judas has even been empowered by Jesus to perform miracles when He sent the disciples out two by two. But now, Judas sells the most precious person in the world. For $5000, Judas gave up the source of all true life.

Mary has had much less contact with Jesus, but values Him above all else. She gives up three times what Judas received for betraying Him, in order to honor Him and acknowledge Him as precious.

But there’s another contrast between Judas and Mary. In Mark 14:21, Jesus says, “Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!” This verse proclaims both God’s sovereignty and man’s accountability. God is sovereign; He foretold Judas’ betrayal 1000 years previously. And He arranged events so that all would take place according to His good, perfect, and wise plan. God is in control.

Yet Judas chooses to betray Jesus, and is responsible for that choice. For what he does, the name “Judas” becomes the name of a traitor.

What is the contrast with Mary? She too was part of God’s plan, acting out the preciousness of Jesus for all the world to see. She too made a choice. Her name too will live for all time: “Wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 14:9).

So why are these scenes together? Why does Mark put the story of Mary’s anointing of Jesus right next to the story of the Last Supper?

Mary lives out the picture of the Lord’s Supper. Mary is feeding on Jesus, showing that she values Him above all else – and this is what Jesus pictures for us in the Lord’s Supper.

Conclusion

Are you sold out to God? Or are you just sold out? Mary was sold out to God. Judas was sold out. Just as Esau sold his inheritance for lentil stew, Judas sold his soul for $5000.

That seems incredible to us — but what’s your price? Do you have a price?

  • Physical punishment for yourself?
  • Physical punishment for your family?

While many of our brothers and sisters around the world and in the history of the church have to ask that question, for us the prospect of physical punishment or death for proclaiming the preciousness of Jesus seems abstract, unreal. So ask yourself this question: Is your price a steady job and a nice income and a nice house and a nice car and college for the kids?

Good things, all: But are you devoting yourself to these goals more than you are devoting yourself to following Jesus? Is the pursuit of these things, is your plan to achieve all these things, standing in the way of your making a radical, life-changing commitment to God? Standing in the way of your expressing you wholehearted devotion to Jesus, like Mary?

Instead, are you more like Simon’s dinner guests: calculating, “Oh, that’s too much to give to Jesus! We’ll give him our worship on Sunday, and a tenth of our income (maybe); that should be enough. But, Hey! What I do with the rest of my money and the rest of my time, that’s up to me.”

Are you sold out to Jesus and the gospel? Or are you only playing at church?

You don’t owe Jesus only a tenth of your income. You don’t owe him only your worship on Sunday. You owe him everything! You owe Him your entire life!

But this is not some onerous debt you have to repay, which hurts each time you make a payment! For when you yield to him, when you give up these pseudo-successes and pseudo-pleasures the world offers, when instead you feed on Him, and drink Him up – you find the real love, joy, and peace the world so much longs for. You get to know the most precious, the most beautiful, the most loving person in the world. And as you get to know Him, and as you see Him and learn more and more of Him, as you drink Him up, you become like Him.

So do that! Drink him up! Feed on him!

Taste and see the goodness of the Lord – and enter in to the joy of His presence.

So, yes, I would rather be a poor aids orphan in a slum – and know Jesus – than the richest man in the world, and not know Him. I know that that’s the right choice. I don’t always act consistently with that knowledge, but I know it’s right.

What about you? Is Jesus more precious to you than anything in this world?

[This devotion is a shortened and edited version of a sermon preached July 30, 2000. You can read the entire sermon here.]

Christmas and Missions

December 24, 2015

What does Christmas have to do with missions?

Biblically, missions should never be far from the center of our Christmas celebrations, for two reasons:

  • First, Jesus is the greatest example of a cross-cultural missionary. For missions concerns crossing cultural boundaries. We, the church of Jesus Christ, must send missionaries cross-culturally if we are to fulfill the task our Lord gives us: Bringing worshipers from every tribe and tongue and people and nation to Him. And, think: Who crossed the greatest cultural divide ever? Jesus Himself! He came from the glory of the throne-room of God into the womb of a woman, and then into a feeding trough for cattle. What an example!
  • Second: Jesus is more than an example. Jesus became man in order to purchase for His own possession ONE people made up of all the peoples of the earth. He came so that all will see that NO CULTURAL BARRIER will keep people from God. He came so that God will be praised in EVERY language. He came so that the purpose of the creation of every people group would be fulfilled: To glorify God.

So for a true believer in Jesus – as opposed to someone who is simply a cultural Christian – Christmas should be a time of particular focus on the task that Christ gives His church – the task similar to our Lord’s cross-cultural journey, the task made possible by His incarnation: Crossing cultural barriers, going even to hard, resistant peoples – even when that is uncomfortable and dangerous – for God’s glory, for our joy, for the joy of those peoples.

Thus, one of our primary objectives at Desiring God Church is to lift our eyes! To help us all to see this worldwide vision of God!

So many think that Christianity is about having a place to unwind on Sundays, a place to make friends, a place where you will learn to be a better husband or father or wife or mother; a place that will teach your children to respect you; a place that might make you look more respectable; and/or a place that will provide you with a death insurance policy, so that when you die you won’t go to hell.

I hope if you’ve attended Desiring God Church even one Sunday, you no longer think that way – if you ever did.

I have nothing against making friends, or learning to be a better marriage partner. I have nothing against teaching children the truths of God’s Word, and helping parents to love their children and raise them. We do indeed try to make DGCC a place where all those happen. I don’t even have anything against unwinding – though I don’t think listening to me preach helps anyone unwind.

But we are about something much greater than any of these:

  • Our mission is to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.
  • Our mission is to go ourselves and to help others go to make disciples of ALL NATIONS, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey all that Jesus commands us.
  • Our mission is to fill the earth with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Our vision is thus not small and achievable. Rather it is huge and biblical.

How do you respond to such a vision and mission?

Your first response is probably, “I can’t fulfill that personally! And we can’t even fulfill that corporately!”

That’s right. You can’t. We can’t.

But don’t stop with that response and despair!

Ephesians 3:20 says God is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.”

That is, God is so great, so mighty, so creative, that our best efforts at imagining what He is able to do are far beneath His capabilities.

And, with that in mind, think: He not only COMMANDS us to make disciples of all nations; He guarantees that HE will bring that about THROUGH us. Similarly, He not only COMMANDS us to be the light of the world; He guarantees that He will fill the earth with the knowledge of His glory as the waters cover the sea.

And what else that we can’t imagine might God do?

William Carey was born in 1761 into a poor family in England. He had little schooling, having been apprenticed to a shoemaker from the age of sixteen.

But God called him to Himself during those teen years. From that early age, Carey began to study the Bible voraciously. He then began to preach. For several years he served as pastor in tiny churches, while still supporting himself and his family through shoemaking.

In 1792, the 31 year old Carey – still unknown, still serving in small churches – preached at a meeting of Baptist ministers. His text was Isaiah 54:2-3:

Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.  For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities.

Do you see the picture?

Your tent is set up. It seems sufficiently big for those who take shelter in it. But even though it doesn’t look like it now, you’re going to need a much bigger tent! So pull up the stakes, and get stronger ones! Place them much further away! Lengthen the cords that attach the tent to the stakes! Sure, this will be disruptive, difficult, and unpleasant – but do it! Why? “You will spread abroad!” Your offspring will possess the nations! You will multiply greatly!

Carey was preaching to pastors from a few small Baptist churches in an insignificant section of England. They had thought their only task was ministering to their people and evangelizing their villages. Instead, Carey said : Yes, you have a task here. Do it well! But God is also calling you to target all the nations! And he continued: “Expect great things from God! Attempt great things for God!”

So these ministers took up a collection, and a couple of years later sent Carey off to India as a missionary. He experienced many years of frustration and difficulty and tragedy. But in the end he was the translator or publisher of Bible translations into 40 different Asian languages; some of his translations are still used today (even by some of us at DGCC). Carey is rightly called the father of modern missions.

As Ruth Tucker writes, “Carey’s life profoundly illustrates the limitless potential of a very ordinary individual. He was a man who, apart from his unqualified commitment to God, no doubt would have lived a very mediocre existence.”

I don’t want to live a very mediocre existence. You don’t want to live such an existence either.

So we put Carey’s words in the DGCC vision and values statement:

Each person [is] encouraged to expect great things from God and to attempt great things for God, as God develops the gifts He gives to each believer.

Expect great things from God – because even in our weakness, He is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all we ask or imagine! We do not have a millionth of the passion for God’s glory that He does! So imagine how God might use us for His glory!

And then, expecting great things from Him, step out! Attempt great things for God, by His power.

William Carey had to leave his beloved congregation, his beloved England; he even had to override the protests of his wife. It was hard. But he trusted God. He stepped out. And God used Him far beyond his greatest dreams.

Just so, we must step out.

But how can you step out – when you’re shackled by the customs of your culture? How can you think outside the box, and expect great things from God, and then attempt great things for God?

That only happens when you move toward fulfilling not only the Great Commission, but also the Great Commandment.

Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, strength. And we won’t disciple all nations unless we love God; we won’t spread a passion for God unless we experience that passion for God. As John Piper says, “You cannot commend what you do not cherish.”

So how do we go about raising our affections for God?

How do we come to love God more than we love our ease and comfort – more than we love our jobs and salaries and four bedroom houses – more than we love our health insurance and retirement benefits – more than we love our Toyotas and Hondas? Indeed, how do we come to love God more than we love our fathers and mothers, more than we love our sons and daughters (Matthew 10:37)?

If we are to love God, we must KNOW Him. We must know what He is like. And as we come to know him better, we should love Him more.

Beth and I will celebrate our 36th wedding anniversary next week.

When we first married I thought I loved her. And I’m sure, in a sense, I did.

But that love pales in comparison to the love I have for her today.

For in the last decades I have come to know her much more deeply than I knew her before our marriage.

  • I have watched her six times as she gave birth to our children
  • I have seen her discipline and love and raise those children
  • I have seen her faith and steadiness in times of crisis
  • I have partnered with her in teaching and counseling others, and thus seen and heard the wisdom God has forged in her
  • I have been the recipient of her love and care year after year
  • I have seen her hurt, and weeping, and overcome
  • I have seen her support and lift me up, even when I took our family in challenging directions
  • I have seen her deep and solid faith in God in all circumstances.
  • I have seen her sin – and I have heard her confessions
  • I have seen her forgive me, by God’s grace, time and again

I know her now in a way I could not have known her 36 years ago.

And so, I love her today much more profoundly.

In the same way, we deepen our love for God by coming to know Him better and better. Thus, if we are to fulfill the greatest commandment, we must strive to know Him! As the Apostle Paul writes,

I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. . . . I want to know Christ (Philippians 3:8,10)

Hosea is even more explicit: “Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD” (Hosea 6:3).

So, my friends: Make that your goal in 2016. Aim to know God – through prayer, through His Word, through others in the church, through loving your neighbor. Aim to love God more as you know Him better. And as you love God more, your passion for His glory will multiply.

Then pray: “Lord God! What does loving you with all my being mean in my life? Open my eyes! Help me to dream God-sized dreams! Use me for your glory!”

In light of that prayer, ask yourself: “What is God calling me to do? As I expect great things from my beloved God, what should I attempt for Him?”

Don’t be satisfied with comfort! Love God above ALL. And dream about how you might glorify His Name

  • Among the nations overseas
  • Among the nations in Charlotte
  • Among the urban poor
  • Among unwed mothers
  • Among needy children
  • Among academic elites
  • Among your neighbors and colleagues and fellow students

Follow the cross-cultural example of the Christ of Christmas!

Spread the news of the salvation bought by the baby in the manger!

Imagine. Dream. And then let’s step out together in 2016 to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.

(Much of this is taken and edited from a sermon preached 12/12/2004, “Christmas and the Great Commandment.” Text and audio are available.)

 

Why Does God Save Anyone?

December 17, 2015

In this Sunday’s sermon, we will consider the link between the baby born in the manger and the call to missions. What is that link? What does Jesus becoming man, becoming Immanuel – God With Us – have to do with our making disciples of all nations? The link is partly explained in Revelation 5:8-14, which we will read during the service.

In the opening verses of the chapter, John, the author of Revelation, sees God sitting on His throne, holding a scroll. An angel asks, “Who is worthy to open the scroll?” But no one is found worthy. This leads John to weep. But an elder tells him not to weep, for there is One who is worthy: The Lion of the tribe of Judah. John looks up to see the lion- but instead sees a Lamb, looking as if it has been slain. The Lamb takes the scroll. Praise then erupts in the throne room of God.

These words of praise are well-known to many of you. To help us see why God saves anyone, I’m going to quote those words incorrectly. Without looking at your Bibles, see if you can identify what is wrong:

“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10, modified)

That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? There is no obvious heresy in those modified verses.

However, that modification leaves out the most important part of our redemption. That modification leaves out the main point of the incarnation, the main point of the cross, the main point of the resurrection.

Here is how it really reads, with the previously left out words in bold:

“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10)

The point of redemption is not primarily to save us from hell.

The point of missions is not primarily to save people groups from hell.

The point of evangelism is not primarily to save our neighbors from hell.

The point of redemption, the point of missions, the point of evangelism is to purchase a people FOR GOD, a people who will live TO HIS GLORY, a people who will DELIGHT IN HIM ABOVE ALL ELSE, and MAGNIFY HIS name.

The incarnation is not primarily about you.

The cross is not primarily about you.

The resurrection is not primarily about you.

The incarnation, the cross, and the resurrection are primarily about GOD.

Indeed, if we are to leave out any words from Revelation 5:9, we should leave out the word “people.” For that word is not in the original language. The middle of verse 9 reads, literally:

“You ransomed for God by your blood from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

The word “people” is clearly implied – it’s right to include that word in our English versions. But the Greek shows even more clearly than the English versions that GOD is the focal point of our redemption!

And Revelation 5 is not alone in this regard. All the great texts on redemption make this clear – if only we would open our eyes!

  • Consider Ephesians 1:7: “In him we have redemption through his blood.” Is redemption then about us? No, for Paul begins by saying, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and he goes on to say that this redemption is “to the praise of his glory.”
  • Or consider Romans 3:25-26: “This was to show God’s righteousness. . . that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Redemption is to show GOD’s righteousness. Redemption was not accomplished because of how special man was. Rather, redemption displays God’s righteousness.
  • Or consider the closing words of Romans 11, as Paul wraps up the great doctrinal section of his letter: “From him and through him and to him are all things, to him be the glory forever!” He is the center!

So: God’s eternal plan of redemption is not primarily about saving man from sin. It is primarily about bringing glory to God. The Gospel is God-centered, not Man-centered.

So be careful not to talk about it in a man-centered way! Christ did not ransom people just to ransom them from hell. He ransomed people FOR GOD. He sends us out on mission FOR HIM.

Know that if you are ransomed, you are ransomed for HIM.

If you are not yet ransomed: Yes, He offers to save you from hell. But He doesn’t stop there. He saves you FOR GOD – so that your life will be lived for Him. He will love you, hold you, wipe away your every tear. You will find your joy in Him, and in nothing else. He saves you so that you might fulfill the purpose of your creation: To glorify Him.

So remember this Christmas season: Christ became man FOR GOD. Jesus died on the cross FOR GOD. Jesus rose from the dead FOR GOD. We make disciples of all nations FOR GOD. And you too can be saved – FOR GOD.

 

(Much of this devotion is taken from a sermon on Revelation 5:9-13 preached Easter Sunday, March 27, 2005. Text and audio are available.)

Next Page »