Knowing God (1 Corinthians 2)
The Scriptures only know two types of people—those who are natural and those who are spiritual. And Paul, in this letter, is writing to those who know Christ and are therefore rightly called spiritual. He also calls them “the mature”. Those who are spiritual, those who know Christ, are mature. Who is the spiritual and mature person? It is the person who knows God. This is the search the whole world is on. How do we know God? How do we get to him? What is the right way?
Maybe a better way of framing the same problem would be, Why are some churches empty but religious bookshelves crowded? Why is TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter full of pastors and gurus who have thousands of followers? Because everyone is searching for something, and it’s usually called personal fulfillment. Sometimes it’s presented as a search for God. But are people looking for the true God to bow down and worship or the best god to give them all they want? The church obviously wants people to know the one, true God. But our primary task as God’s people is to worship and adore the Son. From that paramount task flows a desire to see the lost be saved, as we once were, to worship and adore Jesus Christ just for who he is. So how does that happen? How do people come to know God? There’s a lot of noise and nonsense and pandering when it comes to this question. And Scripture presents an entirely different answer than the world. Scripture teaches:
Knowing God begins with God knowing you.
Clarity on what the gospel is means cutting through all the noise and confusion about how God is to be known. The gospel is not that you can be a better person. The gospel is not five secrets to a great vacation. Unless both people are red-hot on-fire for the Lord, the gospel may or may not fix your relationship with your kids or your spouse or your parents. In fact, Jesus says that people will be divided over him. So we can’t believe a more palatable adaptation of the gospel that gives good advice but doesn’t raise dead men to life.
Paul, here in 1 Corinthians, emphasizes that we don’t seek God on our own. Sure, we want what God can give us, but that is not the same thing as seeking God himself. We want what God can give us, and what we want is what we want, not what he says is good. One does not necessarily lead to the other. We’re spiritually dead. That’s why the Bible turns seeking God totally on its head. Knowing God begins with God knowing you. Because this is such a remarkable shift from the normal way of seeking after God, Paul starts by saying:
vv.1-5. The gospel needs clarity, not color.
The Corinthians had a strong start as a church. Many people were converted in the early days, and the church grew. Acts 18 tells us the story of Paul and his crew planting a church there. There was a sizable synagogue of Jews in Corinth, so the church started as mostly Jews. But Corinth was full of people like military veterans and freed slaves. There were some wealthy people, but it’s primarily what we might think of as working-class. What really made Corinth stand out is that it was just under 100 years old. It was destroyed and then rebuilt under the Romans. So it was a relatively up-to-date kind of city. Like shiny new things often do, it drew a lot of people from all walks of life very quickly.
Here’s a quick overview of both 1 an 2 Corinthians: church politics, sexual immorality, believers suing each other, divorce and remarriage, watering down the gospel, worship wars, denying the resurrection, gender roles, and celebrity pastors. Essentially, it’s a church full of non-stop brushfires here and there, some bigger than others. The unifying factor between these problems is a lack of gospel clarity, which Paul focuses on in the beginning to set the tone for the rest of the first letter. Gospel clarity will maybe not entirely preserve us from falling into the same traps as the Corinthians, but it will help us see that we live between two worlds and two ages—the flesh and the spirit, this age and the next. Christians are constantly negotiating between these two ends. The flesh and the spirit are at war. This age and the next have overlapped. That is our challenge. These letters could quite literally be written to any church in the 21st century. And they should be received as such.
Corinth’s problem is that because of a lack of gospel clarity, division has formed among the believers. The letter starts out by Paul saying, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1:10). That’s the bottom line. And what are they dividing over? Who the most eloquent preacher was. Now, are some preachers more eloquent than others? Sure. It’s not bad to want to be persuasive and articulate. In fact, Paul will later tell them where to focus their persuasive abilities. But dividing over things like that is symptomatic of something darker: living like the present age from which you’ve been saved.
The Corinthians had been applying the wrong metric to ministerial success. They had been using a bad definition of the church’s ministry. This is touchy, because it’s not uncommon to see this today, as well. There is nothing wrong with theatrical lights, trendy clothes, and millions of dollars poured into production. But is it possible churches can do all that, not to communicate the gospel with greater clarity, but to resemble entertainment culture?
Here’s the point—this is what Corinth had done. Instead of venerating actors and actresses, the Roman Empire’s version of a Hollywood celebrity was the expert speaker who could razzle-dazzle with words. That was entertainment. Mel Brooks was not far off with the stand-up philosopher. Like people gathering for movies or plays today, people gathered to be entertained by the way someone was able to string words together and be interesting on a certain topic. Think Shakespearean Ted-Talks.
Paul warns the Corinthians that defining ministry by popular standards is not only wrong but unsustainable. And nobody is immune from this temptation. He says in 1:22, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom”. Everybody wants more. We think the power of persuasion is in the flash, the sound, the circus. Maybe we know we shouldn’t say it, but sometimes we think we need to dress the gospel up a bit before people will listen. Will anybody believe a message that sounds impossible if we don’t set it to music? If we don’t have flashing lights? If we don’t have a spit and polished social media presence?
But Paul says, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:1-2). This is a simple, straightforward approach to gospel ministry that Paul extends to us. The Corinthians had lost the fire in their belly for the pure gospel, so they thought worldly approaches would get that excitement back. Paul, on the other hand, describes his time in Corinth with the words “weakness,” “fear,” and “trembling.” Paul didn’t break out the big guns when he preached. He didn’t try to entertain the Corinthians with popular tactics. He was certainly eloquent and persuasive. But he didn’t use the phony maneuvers of his age. He didn’t use worldly wisdom to communicate God’s truth. Why? “So that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (2:5). Paul didn’t dress up the gospel because it stands on its own. That’s the wisdom of God, and:
vv.6-9. Godly wisdom always leads to Christ.
There is a kind of self-congratulatory pride that goes along with doing things in a way that looks impressive but has no substance. You might get the impression that Paul cares little for intelligence and wisdom. “Don’t worry about the deep things of God; in fact, those things don’t matter much at all. They just cause problems.” But on the other side of things, there is also a kind of self-congratulatory pride in ignorance. Some say they like to keep it simple as a way of masking theological laziness. Remember that in Hebrews 6, the author commends the believers to expand upon elementary doctrine and move on to maturity. This refusal to grow as a believer in our knowledge of God leads to disobedience and pride.
So Paul is not saying that wisdom and knowledge is useless. He is saying, however, that the source of wisdom is what makes the difference. “Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away” (2:6). Earthly wisdom will pass away, so what is it? How do we avoid it? Earthly wisdom is any so-called knowledge, philosophy, or movement that puts man at the center of it. In today’s context, it’s any worldview or theology that wants to keep faith and practice in a little bubble away from the public. The wisdom of this age believes God, if he exists, to be nothing but a distant mind who cares little for this world. But it can also be any worldview that views Christ as anything less than the incarnate God. Paul even says that the rulers of this age crucified Christ because they did not have this wisdom. This pretty well lumps together both the Romans such as Pilate and Herod as well as the Jewish leaders such as the priests and scribes. The line connecting them all is that they refused to see the Lord as the Son of God who came to offer himself on their behalf. If they had known the Scriptures and the power of God, they would have seen Jesus for who he truly was.
The wisdom of God, the wisdom that Paul is preaching, is “a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (2:7). Literally, a secret is a “mystery” and hidden wisdom. We think of mystery as Sherlock Holmes solving a riddle with clues. But biblically, a mystery is truth that is something God determined in eternity past that is revealed perhaps in fits and starts but then only finally and fully in Christ. It is the mystery that through Christ, Jew and Gentile are reconciled. The reconciliation of two peoples is the evidence of God’s work of redemption in the world. But it is a mystery which needs to be revealed. Even after his resurrection, in Acts 1, the disciples ask Jesus when he will restore the kingdom to Israel. Jesus essentially responds with, “Wrong question.” Even Peter, his lead disciple, will later need a radical vision from heaven of clean and unclean animals being eaten together for it to finally click that Jews and Gentiles are no longer separated. In fact, if you read it as a whole, huge swaths of Paul’s letters deal with the misunderstandings of how Jews and Gentiles now relate to each other under the same Lord Jesus Christ.
This mystery is not something we can find out on our own. Men and women with darkened hearts do not seek Godly wisdom. So:
vv.10-13. Godly wisdom is not discovered but revealed.
If this is a mystery, if it is secret and hidden, how do we know it? You can’t imagine the good that God has done for you in Christ, and it’s that which “God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (2:10). We know this mystery because God has revealed it to us. It was revealed first to prophets of Israel. Peter tells us, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:10-12).
It was then revealed to the apostles. Jesus tells them in John 14:26, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
Then from the apostles, this mystery was passed on to us in all of Scripture. Peter again tells us, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:16-21).
God has revealed himself and his mystery, which is Christ crucified. To the world, it is still a mystery, but not to the church. Paul makes the comparison of a person and his inner thoughts. The only person who really knows what I’m thinking is me. The only person who really knows what you’re thinking is you. The only person who really knows what God is thinking is God. It’s such an obvious statement, but Paul’s point is that for us to know God’s thoughts and think God’s thoughts after him, he must reveal his thoughts to us. And he has done so by his Holy Spirit, “that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (2:12).
What the prophets and apostles knew were taught by the Spirit. This mystery of Christ, that he unites all men into one new covenant people, has now been revealed. But only the spiritual understand it. Now Paul is not making a distinction between believers, as if there are ordinary Christians and then super-duper “spiritual” Christians. “Those who are spiritual” refers to those indwelled by the Spirit, who can now understand spiritual truths.
During WWII, the Axis Powers encoded their messages to each other. The codes changed all the time, and they got more and more complex as the war went on. But the American military employed about 10,000 women who worked as codebreakers. These women intercepted Axis messages and did the impossible task of interpreting the ever-changing encrypted missives of evil. Because the women were able to crack the codes, generals were able to keep troops out of harm’s way and keep the Allied Forces one step ahead. Without these codebreakers to interpret what the enemy was saying, the Axis messages remained impossible to understand.
The Spirit of God is the person who interprets the word of God and makes darkened minds understand the deep things of God. The Spirit is who made Paul’s preaching so powerful. The Spirit is who brought salvation to Corinth. The Spirit is who opens blind eyes and softens hard hearts. The gospel is a mystery; it is a message the world cannot understand but must be revealed. You have come to understand and believe the gospel for no other reason than the Spirit of God resides in you. No one can boast about the salvation the Father decreed, the Son achieved, and the Spirit applied. Salvation is entirely a work of God, from start to finish, and:
vv.14-16. The spiritual person has been brought from death to life.
Now we really get to the crux of how we know God. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (2:14). There is a darkness to the unbeliever’s mind that the unbeliever cannot naturally overcome. No one who the Scriptures call a Christian made themselves a Christian. That is a work of the Spirit. Knowing God begins with God knowing us. It is the Spirit of God who transforms the one who is dead in their sins to the one who is alive in the Spirit.
There is immeasurable grace and mercy from God to sinners. Speaking of such great love, Paul writes in Ephesians 2:1-10, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
The grace of God is spiritually discerned. As he calls all believers “spiritual” who are born of God, so also spiritual discernment is entirely from God. The spiritual person is one who possesses the Holy Spirit, and spiritual discernment is knowledge of God that comes from the Spirit. That is only known by those who are first known by God. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
The natural person does not slowly become spiritual. We are dead in our trespasses and sins; there is no spiritual life in us. Dead men don’t raise themselves. People who are alive can be persuaded. People who are dead need resurrected. Sometimes it’s thought of as a little morbid, but I wish more churches had their own cemeteries. They’re not only a good reminder of where you’re headed, but they’re a good reminder of where you were. The gospel goes into the graveyards, calling dead men to wake up, to have faith in the risen Lord, and come to him in repentance.
Does that glorious truth brings you joy and comfort? Then you are a spiritual person, a born-again believer, a Christian. Does the gospel seem silly and worthy of ridicule and mockery? Then you are still in your natural state and not a spiritual person. How often do we hear the cliche, “I’m spiritual, but not religious”? Most people wouldn’t identify themselves like that, but it is no less true of many. The apostle Paul would tell you, “You are actually quite religious. You have your own rites and rituals. Even if you wouldn’t call it this, you’re quite superstitious. But spiritual you are not.”
Knowing God begins with God knowing you. Being a spiritual person is the most reasonable kind of person you could be. Being known by God is the only way to know him. That is why the gospel needs clarity, not color. Paul’s straightforward approach to the gospel meant he didn’t try to be the most impressive preacher by worldly standards. He dared not distract from the gospel with a show. He could have left a mark in Corinth in a lot of ways, but Paul stayed focused on Godly wisdom, which stays focused on Christ and him crucified. We must never deviate from the central message of Scripture. We must behave and speak in such a way that people leave our presence not being impressed with us but captivated with the God who saves. There is only one way to know God. It begins with him knowing us. And as he calls us to know him, we see his glory, his mercy, his justice, and his love in the person and work of Jesus Christ. God has revealed himself to us through the Son, in order to bring us from death to life.
This world deeply wants to be spiritual, but aside from being known by God, they best they’re going to get is religious. Scripture totally flips spirituality and knowing God on its head. It’s not some vague notion about hope or faith. Biblical spirituality is being red-hot for the glory of God. It is never deviating one bit from Christ and him crucified. Godly wisdom always directs you to Christ. And what love must this be, if even while we were sinners, if even while we didn’t care to know him, he loved us. Knowing God begins with him knowing you.
I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up
and have not let my foes rejoice over me.
O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.
Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints,
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment,
and his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
As for me, I said in my prosperity,
“I shall never be moved.”
By your favor, O Lord,
you made my mountain stand strong;
you hid your face;
I was dismayed.
To you, O Lord, I cry,
and to the Lord I plead for mercy:
“What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and be merciful to me!
O Lord, be my helper!”
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
you have loosed my sackcloth
and clothed me with gladness,
that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!
Every Sunday, we gather to celebrate the resurrection of Christ from the dead. The first Christians did exactly that—they gathered for worship on the day that Christ rose from the grave to memorialize his victory over sin and death and to highlight the expectation of his return. The words we read, the songs we sing, the prayers we pray, all these are focused on one, single thing, what one Puritan called “the death of death in the death of Christ.”
In John 10, we read, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may pick it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father” (vv.17-18). In ancient days, in eternity past, the Father and the Son formed a binding agreement to redeem the people of God. God the Son came to earth to become the Son of David, the anointed one of God’s people.
In the Psalm you heard read this morning, Psalm 30, David is calling the people to sing this song with him at the dedication of the temple. David of course did not see the building of the temple, because that was left for his son Solomon to do. But David looked forward to the house of God, where God would dwell among his people and bless them. In this Psalm, David looks back and remembers God’s mercy. It is this mercy that has saved David from the grave, from death, from the penalty of sin. It is a psalm that knows the power of God to raise the dead to life. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
Resurrection is the constant hope of God’s people.
This psalm was written because David had come face-to-face with death on more than one occasion. Whether he was running from Saul, fighting the Philistines, or bearing the consequences of his sin, David was aware of just how flimsy this life can be. Everything can change in a moment. But the constant in this world is the sovereignty of God. Over his sin, over his life, over his death, David knew God was the one who bore him up at every turn; because if David was left to his own devices, he would fall into sin every chance he got. There would be no eternal rescue. David’s great hope was that the grave would not hold him. There was another side to the grave. And the only passage to that other side was the sheer mercy of God.
Whatever the specific life-threatening experience David is writing about, we don’t know. There were plenty to choose from. But he looks back on the provision of God during that time. David’s enemies would not get the upper hand, the final say. At the time that David prayed for God’s providential help, he received it. David even describes his experience as death, as going down to Sheol. But God would not abandon his soul to the grave; he would live again. Even if David is speaking in metaphor in his time, he does so because he believed in the ultimate reality of resurrection. Resurrection is the constant hope of God’s people, old and new covenant alike. David would die one day, and his death would be like everyone else’s. The true Son of David would truly go down to the grave, and he would die on behalf of his people.
David fears death not only for himself but for God’s name. Should David be defeated by his enemies, should David lose his throne, wouldn’t the covenant God made with David be brought to shame? Where would Israel’s hope be if there was no line of David to bring about the messiah? David’s enemies would of course be glad to see an end to God’s promises. But David had faith that a descendent would have his throne and redeem God’s people, because God had made that promise. The messiah’s enemies might rejoice in his death, but they would not get to hold on to that sentiment very long.
We know too well the mockery that Christ faced as he hanged on the cross. The priests, the soldiers, and the thieves all blasphemed the name. They formed quite the team. And if you had asked them over the course of the next few days, they would have been of one accord that they had succeeded in quieting Jesus and his disciples. But God quiets the voice of his enemies. We learn to pray as in Psalm 3, “Arise, O LORD! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the check; you break the teeth of the wicked” (v.7). God overcomes all those who blaspheme his name. In the death of Christ, paradoxical as it may seem, God’s enemies are declawed. Their teeth were broken. Their death warrant was signed. “Victory” is the name of the game.
David was saved from Sheol, and the Son of David was restored to life from the same. Where David could not defeat his enemies, his Son, the Christ, would be the first to not only go to the grave but leave it behind in victory over his enemies.
David calls for the people at the dedication of the temple to praise God for the brevity of his anger and the longevity of his blessing. David’s sin was egregious, and God was rightfully angry at David. David let his lust have full reign, and after committing adultery, he tried to trick Bathsheba’s husband to think he was the father. When that didn’t work, Uriah had to die. David became a conspirator to murder. As a consequence of all this, the child of his adultery died. God was right to be angry at David, the king, the one who was to lead his people in covenant faithfulness to the law of Moses.
David earned the anger of God. But God extended mercy to David, as well. God did not take the throne from David or his posterity. However, the Son of David willingly and voluntarily took on the cup of God’s anger and wrath. It was an innocent man who gave up his life in place of ours. No one has felt the wrath of God like the Son of God did at the crucifixion. He received no mercy but received the fullness of the penalty we accrued through our idolatry, our lust, and our greed.
But because of the nature of his sacrifice, his perfect righteousness, he could pay for that debt in a moment of time. He did not need to suffer forever. When he rose from the grave that Sunday morning, there was joy like never before. The debt is paid, God’s anger and wrath have been satisfied, so now we enjoy his favor and blessing for eternity. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”
As king, David became proud. He had wealth like we can’t imagine. Those things were blessings to David, but those gifts can become traps if we’re not careful. David said to himself, because of his great wealth, “I shall never be moved.” He didn’t say that because he had wealth and prosperity; he said that because he trusted in his wealth and prosperity to sustain him. Self-sufficiency is a dangerous place for a child of God. David became like a strong mountain—immovable and strong, like an impenetrable fortress. He thought he was the captain of his own ship. Everything he did he did in his own power. For someone who started out so humble, for someone who was taken from the sheep pen, he became so proud.
But in an act of mercy, God hid his face from David. God was not being cruel to David, but he was showing David where all the blessings of life come from. He was showing David where every breath, every day, every moment of joy comes from. Scripture often speaks of God’s presence as his blessing. To remove himself, or to hide his face, is to replace blessing with wrath. When God was with David, he was like an immovable mountain. Nothing could overcome his fortress. But when David turned from God, God turned his face from David to let David see that his own strength is nothing compared to his Creator’s. Strength does not come from the self but from the Creator.
Even if God hid his face from David for a brief time, the presence of God was still in the temple, in the holy of holies, lifted above the cherubim. God was not far. In the crucifixion of Christ, we see the veil delineating the holy place from the common place being ripped in half. That veil or curtain was there to keep impure people, those who were not priests, from even catching a glimpse of God’s glory and presence. But now, God was no longer there, and that was no longer the holy of holies. The true most holy place would be raised in three days.
When God hid his face from David, David experienced dismay. This is a phrase that, again, reminds the people of the presence and blessing of God. Jesus quoted Psalm 22 on the cross, which begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We often take that to mean that God rejected Jesus or hid his face. But verse 24 says that God did not hide his face from his anointed, specifically from the one crying out, from the one speaking in this Psalm, which Jesus speaks on the cross. So did the Father literally turn his face from the Son at the crucifixion? No, he did not. The Trinity—Father, Son, and Spirit—remains fully intact. But the turning of God’s face is a very biblical way of describing the wrath of God. And as he died, Jesus received the full cup of God’s wrath against your sin and my sin.
David cried out, “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit?” David was a man like you and me. Sinners. Idolaters. Unclean. David was correct; there was no profit in his death. There was no benefit. There was no advantage. There definitely was no redemption. David did not want to die. Whatever life-threatening experience David was facing was something that he knew would bring shame. The Son of David prayed in the garden before his arrest that he would not have to face what was coming. But regardless of whatever pain and mockery he would face, regardless of the life-threatening experience he would face, he would rather fulfill his Father’s will than run from the shame and contempt it would bring. Christ’s death would be profitable for his people; they would be redeemed, saved from wrath, and made fit for God’s kingdom.
Just as David was shown mercy and God turned his mourning to joy, so Christ was taken from death to life. He died an agonizing death, was taken to Sheol where he freed the captives, and ascended to heaven to the right hand of Majesty where he reigns until his enemies are his footstool. God loosed David’s sackcloth and clothed him in gladness; the Father loosed the Son’s burial cloths and clothed him in majesty.
It’s fitting that this was a song of David written for the dedication of the temple. The temple housed God’s special presence among his people. It was there that God took up residence and blessed his people. Jesus said that there would be a time when every stone that made up the temple would be torn down and a new temple would be built in its place. Early in the gospel of John, when Jesus cleanses the temple and removes the impurities, those watching ask him what kind of sign he can give that proves he has the authority to do this. He tells them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). John interprets this for us, saying, “But he was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:21). Christ is the cornerstone of a new temple, a temple of living stones offering living sacrifices, the church, the temple of the Holy Spirit.
Christ did rise from the dead, and he did build a new temple. On that first Lord’s Day, the women went to the tomb where Jesus used to be. They don’t know what to expect, but they at least expected to find Jesus just as they left him. When they see the stone has been rolled away, when they run to get Simon and John, they are still confused as to what’s just happened. Simon and Peter run back to the tomb with the women, but then they just go home. Mary Magdalene stays at the tomb and weeps. Where is he? Who did this to him?
But two angels show themselves to her and explain that her mourning is about to be turned to joy. John tells us that she turned around and saw Jesus. But even then, she mistakes him for a gardener. Thinking he may have some information on what happened, she asks if he took the body. Jesus then calls her by name, and she immediately is given the grace to recognize Jesus for who he is. He gives her a task, to go to the disciples and tell him that he will be ascending to the Father. The cornerstone has been laid and the temple is being built. Mary tells them, “I have seen the Lord.”
As David hoped to be brought up from Sheol, so we have that same hope. We have been restored to life, and so we sing praises and give thanks to his holy name. In this life, we may weep for a moment, but the joy that comes with every morning will one day be our eternal experience. On Resurrection Sunday, we announce like Mary that we have seen the Lord. He is not in the tomb but on the throne. We have had our sackcloth of mourning removed and have been clothed in his righteousness, all so that, like David, we would sing his glory now and forever.
Christ the King (Luke 23:32-43)
There are all kinds of debates these days about the nature of the founding of America. Was it primarily religious? Was it political? Was it just about taxes? Was it just about representation But beyond the complexities of the founding of a nation, there is no debate about facts and figures. America declared independence on July 4, 1776. The Constitution was enacted as our founding document in 1789. There are 50 states. We have a national bird. We have three branches of the federal government. Every state has a governor. If someone were to ask us about America, we could relatively easily describe it to them. We could give them all kinds of facts and figures about the Federalist Papers, the revolution, the declaration of independence, and important dates.
Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom of God would be established. After all, Jesus preached the coming of the kingdom. Jesus says to the Pharisees, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20b-21).
When Jesus is asked to describe the establishment of his kingdom, he knows that the people are asking questions they’re not ready to have answered. They already had expectations for how a new kingdom would look, and they need to change those expectations. Nations and kingdoms have a king, they have militaries, they have houses or parliaments, they have government projects, all kinds of ordinary things. But Jesus tells these Pharisees that if you are just looking for the ordinary things any kingdom, you’ll be greatly disappointed.
I think this explains a lot of the various responses to Jesus and the things he said. When I read the account of the two thieves who were crucified beside Jesus, I can see no explanation for what happened apart from divine sovereignty, of God turning a heart of stone to a heart of flesh. One criminal could see the kingdom of God, but the other could not. One criminal saw a king dying for the salvation of his people, but the other did not. Why is that? Because the kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed.
But from the very beginning, the gospels have presented Jesus as nothing less than the cosmic king of the universe who deserves praise and adoration from all people. Luke makes clear that Jesus has the right lineage to be from the house of King David, so he has the rightful claim to the throne in Israel. The angels that speak to the shepherds announce that Jesus will be king for all people, not just Israel. Matthew presents the wise men from the east looking for the one who was born king of the Jews. At no point in Scripture is Jesus presented as anything less than the king of all the whole world who will welcome citizens from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people. But in the words spoken to the thieves on the cross, we see that:
Christ is king of the highest heavens and the lowest depths.
To some, the very notion of a king over the whole universe is a silly fantasy. The gospel is a myth. Jesus was a momentary figure in history whose life was snuffed out by a few soldiers who did that kind of thing regularly. Jesus wasn’t even on Rome’s radar. In fact, it’s his insignificance that best explains the response of those who have the authority to permit crucifixions. Pilate doesn’t understand why everyone is so up-in-arms about Jesus. He doesn’t know what to do, so he sends Jesus to another local ruler, a man named Herod. Herod winds up being just as confounded about why this man matters so much. There’s so much mist and confusion surrounding Jesus that Pilate finally authorizes his crucifixion just to have it behind him.
But are we surprised that people are confused about Jesus if his kingdom is not seen with human eyes? But what if his kingdom is larger than just what is visible to the human eye? Christ is king of the highest heavens and the lowest depths.
vv.32-34: The goodness and mercy of Christ is never more clear than at the crucifixion.
In the previous passage, Christ’s cross was temporarily carried by another man, Simon of Cyrene. There is no relationship to Jesus that does not involve a cross. Whether or not Simon knew Christ at that moment is unclear, but we do not know Christ if we do not know of his cross. In this passage, we see two criminals now on their own crosses for their own crimes. Their actual crime is unknown to us, but if they were crucified they must have been considered a real threat to the empire. Crucifying people together was an even greater shock to the eyes than a single person. It showed that Rome had no problem ending the life of anyone and everyone who threatened to disrupt good Roman society.
You have maybe heard more times than you care to remember just how horrendous crucifixion really was. “Agony” maybe begins to describe it. And yet, the gospel writers, all four of them, refuse to go into the gruesome detail that seems to be so interesting to us. Here in Luke, all we read is, “There they crucified him.” No notes, no word-pictures, no gory details. The story jumps from Jesus walking along the street to being mocked on the cross. We don’t need to focus on just how gruesome it was. We need to see that as Jesus hanged there, he never doubted the goodness of God.
Jesus does not address anyone on the ground or on the other crosses at first. The first person that Jesus addresses is his heavenly Father. Despite his impending death, Jesus never loses his trust in the Father. He knew that on the other side of the grave was a heavenly throne and a sanctified people. It was for the joy set before him that he endured the cross. Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Jesus would endure anything, any amount of suffering, any method of execution, to satisfy divine justice. He would have the full cup of God’s wrath poured out on him on behalf of the elect, that he might have a purified people to give to his Father.
Jesus does not pray to be taken down. He does not pray to have his pain satiated. He prays instead that those watching and those who nailed him to the crossbeam would be forgiven this great sin. He taught his disciples to do exactly what he is doing now. In Luke’s recording of the beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets” (Luke 6:22-23). Jesus is being executed for blasphemy, having his name spurned as evil. He is taking these people to the Father in prayer. There is no love like his.
Jesus has already been stripped down earlier as he was beaten beforehand. In this same chapter, verse 11, the soldiers place Jesus is royal clothing, or “splendid clothing”, to show how ironic it is that the so-called king of the Jews has no soldiers of his own to guard their king. But again, the kingdom of God is not observable to the naked eye. Even as he prayed in Gethsemane, an angel came and ministered to him to strengthen him. He could have called down 10,000 angels to remove him from the cross and bandage his wounds. Instead, for the joy set before him, for the kingdom of God, Christ took the wrath of God on himself.
vv.35-38: You can be close to Jesus but far from the truth.
The religious leaders mock him, the soldiers mock him, and one of the thieves on the other crosses mock him. Luke is pulling heavily from Psalm 22 to show that what is taking place is in direct fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Psalm 22 is a Psalm about one who is suffering at the hands of evil men, all the while praising God for his provision. Psalm 22:7 says, “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads.” Luke has already pulled from Psalm 22:18 in how the soldiers dressed Jesus and took his clothes. It says, “They divide my garments among them; and for my clothing they cast lots” (Psalm 22:18). The church saw just how much of the crucifixion was prophesied in the Old Testament.
Jesus is mocked by the religious leaders telling him to save himself. He helped so many people, but all of a sudden, he’s too weak to do anything. “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One” (Luke 23:35). Little do they know that Jesus is God’s chosen one, as made evident in his transfiguration. When Jesus is on the mountain, speaking with Moses and Elijah, God the Father speaks out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him” (Luke 9:35). Luke is just shining a light on the irony of everything they’re saying. They’re so close to Jesus but so far from the truth. The religious leaders were Bible experts, you could say. But how much of it did they choose to ignore because of how much Jesus threatened their lifestyle? You can know every word of the Bible, but if you do not know the Lord of the Bible, you do not understand what you are reading.
The soldiers are also mocking him. They offered him sour wine, which was a typical drink soldiers took with them as they went about their day. It would stay clean and drinkable. Knowing that Jesus is not coming off that cross alive, they’re not offering it out of kindness to a dying man. It’s a taunt. Not only that, but it also looks back at the Psalms. Psalm 69 is another psalm about God’s anointed one suffering in the hands of evil men. Verse 21 says, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.”
What’s perhaps most incredible is that both of these psalms, Psalms 22 and 69, both begin with the anointed one waiting on God to act, both describe the agony of the anointed one, and both end with the anointed one trusting that God will save him from the hands of his enemies. Jesus goes to the cross in anguish, but he stays up there because he knows that it is not the end. Christ knows that:
vv.39-43: The suffering of the saints ends in the presence of God.
In the third act of mockery, now one of two soldiers just wants Jesus to let him live. “If you’re who you say you are, then do your thing and get us off of here.” How is that any different from what the Pharisees have said? Actually, how is that any different than what Satan has said? In his wilderness temptations, Satan waited until Jesus was exhausted and starving and told him to turn stones to bread to feed himself. Satan then showed Jesus global power and authority and said it could be his if he would just worship Satan. Satan then takes Jesus to the top of the temple and tells him throw himself down. If he’s the Son of God, then angels will save him. What Satan tempts Jesus with is autonomy. Satan tells Jesus that the whole world has been delivered to him, and he can offer Jesus everything. Satan in fact is called the god of this world and the prince of the power of the air. But Jesus denies Satan all three times, showing that he will not deviate from the redemptive plan of God. Satan tells Jesus to throw himself down watch the angels save him. The thief tells Jesus to get himself down and save the thief as well. There is a way of looking at Jesus that only wants what he can give. Having Jesus get you off of your own cross is not the gospel. Having Jesus suffer and die on his cross while you bear your own cross beside him—that’s the gospel. Instead of seeing the cross the gateway to the kingdom of God, this criminal slanders God’s divine plan of redemption.
The other criminal, appointed to eternal life, tells the other criminal to mind who he is talking to. Jesus is innocent while they hang there for good reasons. Even if crucifixion is an awful way to die, this criminal knows it’s better than his miserable life of sin and rebellion deserves. This criminal asks that Jesus remember him when he enters his kingdom. The thief asks Christ for mercy and sees him as the doorway into the kingdom. Everyone else is asking, “What kingdom?” But those who have been given faith, paradoxically, can see the unobservable kingdom.
Merciful Jesus tells the second thief, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (v.43). Jesus’ ministry of redemption did not end at the cross. This raises the question, where exactly did the soul of Jesus go when he died? Where is paradise? If he was truly dead, as the church confesses, until the third day, where was he?
The doctrine of the descent of Christ affirms that upon his death, Christ descended to the realm of the dead as every human did, up until that time. He declared victory over sin and death to the spirits in prison and released the captives. Understandably, sometimes there is some discomfort about this because of certain language that has been used, such as in the creeds. The apostles’ creed says, “He descended to Hades”, or as most English versions say, “He descended to hell.” “Hell” really means the grave. But sometimes we use the word “hell” to mean where evil people are in torment forever. And obviously, we do not affirm that Christ went to hell to suffer. That is far from what Scripture teaches.
But if Christ went to paradise, where did he go? Many Psalms, as we have already seen, which speak about the suffering of God’s anointed one also speak of him descending to Sheol, or the Hebrew word for the realm of the dead. As Hebrew culture eventually came in contact with Greek culture as Jews spread throughout the Greek-speaking world before Jesus’ time, Hades became another common word meaning essentially the same thing as Sheol. It’s where every soul went upon death.
But the Scriptures also speak of Sheol or Hades or Hell as if it had distinctive levels, kind of an upper and lower section. For example, when the prophet Isaiah taunts the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14, he tells the king that he will go down to Sheol, even to the “far reaches of the pit” (v.15). The Psalms and Proverbs speak of this pit and give it the name Abaddon, which means “destruction”. Proverbs 15:11 compares Sheol and Abaddon when it says, “Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the Lord.”
Now, in no way should we go from these clear passages to enormous speculation about the nine levels of the inferno. Instead of overreacting to that egregious error, we should simply correct it. While the Old Testament may not spend an inordinate amount of time on the afterlife, we should never say that it was not clear.
As we move on in to the New Testament, there is no change or contradiction. There is still one realm of the dead yet division of that one place into “rooms” or “compartments”, you might say, of comfort and torment. This is perhaps no more clear than in the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
If you’re not familiar with the story, a rich man refuses to address the needs of a poor man named Lazarus at his doorstep. Once both of them die, the rich man goes to Hades in torment while Lazarus is carried by the angels to a place called “Abraham’s bosom” or “Abraham’s side”. Lazarus is comforted there and is with other saints. Lazarus and the rich man can clearly speak to each other. In fact, Abraham himself speaks to the rich man who is in torment. The rich man wants someone to rise from Abraham’s side to find his brothers and warn them of their impending fate. But central to the story is that the two places are not interchangeable, no one can cross from one place to the other, and both are considered to be in the heart of the earth.
In addition to the gospels, the apostle Peter teaches the descent of Christ in 1 Peter 3:18-22, which says, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.”
Ironically, this is a passage often used to teach that baptism is necessary for salvation. What it really teaches is that as Christ went to the prison, IE Sheol, Hades, Abraham’s side, or paradise, so baptism corresponds to that. Baptism is descent into the water and is a symbol of death to self. Coming up out of the water is a symbol of new life in Christ, which he achieved in his resurrection.
The apostle Paul speaks of Christ’s descent in Ephesians 4. He says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth [Literally, the lower regions OF the earth]? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)” (vv.8-10). Christ freed from the grave the righteous saints who died before his once-for-all sacrifice and led those captives free into heaven. That’s why Paul can now say, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil. 1:23). All the dead in Christ are now with him rather than Sheol or Hades.
In his descent, Christ proclaimed to the captives that he had won the victory over death and Hades. It is not the word for preaching, in the sense of gospel preaching aimed at the salvation of souls, but proclamation of victory over the forces of evil. Those in Abaddon, in the deepest recesses of the pit, are reserved for destruction and eternal torment. When Jesus tells Peter that he will build his church, he includes the fact that the gates of Hades will not prevail. In his descent, Christ opened the gates to Hades and proclaimed his triumph and took those at Abraham’s side with him to the court of heaven. As Jesus speaks to John in Revelation 1, he says, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (v.17b). The keys are his because he has all authority over the highest heavens and the lowest depths.
The days are finally getting warmer. If you go to Lowe’s or Menards you already see patio furniture and grills on display. My family loves the state parks, and it’s about this time of year that they start getting busy. We’ll start spending more time outside. We’ll barbecue more. You’ll start treating your pools before long.
But in Indiana, one of the sure signs that spring has sprung is tornado season. It’s basically become a meme these days, but a true Hoosier hears the sirens and safely gathers his family into the middle of the house with water and flashlights, right? Absolutely not. He gets off the couch, heads out on the front porch with no shoes, and says, “Man, it’s lookin’ bad.” Everyone who grew up in the ‘90s or earlier can’t help but think, “Cow. ‘Nother cow. No, I think that was the same one.”
People have different responses to sirens. But whatever you do when you hear it, whether you get in your truck and pretend you’re chasing twisters or whether you have a duffel bag for every person in your family loaded with MREs and batteries, you ignore a siren at your own peril. It’s when we hear the sirens that we realize that what comes next is going to be a disaster. In the last few years, we’ve seen some really horrendous tornadoes and the wreckage they leave behind. The sirens are a big help, but even then, sometimes it’s too late. Not everyone can get to safety in time. And those who are left to face it head-on are stuck to deal with the aftermath.
The gospel of Luke presents Jesus Christ as someone who was always in total control of the events surrounding him. You’ll never read about Jesus being surprised. Jesus is not at the mercy of soldiers and zealots. We see this truth as clearly as ever in today’s passage. After an act of treason by one of his disciples, after an embarrassing arrest, after a sham trial, after being beaten and stripped naked, Jesus is now walking through the streets of Jerusalem to the place where he’ll die. And he’s in control?
In this scene, Jesus gives one of his most dire warnings to the people of Jerusalem. One of the things that the contemporary church could learn from Jesus is to just be direct and not beat around the bush. There are true followers of Jesus, true disciples, who are mourning that their teacher is being treated like a terrorist and executed. Is that not a reasonable response? After all, Jesus drew real crowds of thousands when he taught. He was welcomed by a throng of people in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus had enough close disciples that he could send seventy of them to preach on his behalf. Jesus had real, loving disciples during his lifetime. So seeing a group of mourning people as he is walking to his death is no surprise.
Yet many of them scattered out of fear. To the ones who were left, to the mourning women he addresses on the way, he tells them to stop their crying and think about their future. What is happening to him is unbearable, but what will happen to them is nearly as bad. Jesus is not the first man to be crucified, and won’t be the last. But because of the hardness of heart of the people of Jerusalem, because they have turned their hearts toward themselves and not toward the one who could save them, judgment is near. And when God’s judgment comes upon them, it will be better to be crushed by a mountain than to bear the wrath of God. Even as he’s walking to his death, he warns us:
It is better to die in Christ than to live in judgment.
Jesus has sounded this siren dozens of times. He told of the coming destruction on Jerusalem and the temple so many times that every gospel author records some version of it. The wrath of God may be an uncomfortable doctrine, but we ignore it at our own peril. If Jesus is even sounding the alarm as he bears his cross on the way to his execution, then we cannot ignore the siren.
As a culture, we like to think we can postpone the inevitable. Medicine has come so far, sanitation has come so far, security has come so far, that there can’t possibly be anything coming down the pipeline that could be that bad. Surely tomorrow will be just like today. Threats about the end of the world, overpopulation, the environment, have all proven ridiculous or at least highly inflated over and over. So even as the church, it’s easy to get comfortable in the way things are and suppose that things will always be like they are now.
But when Jesus says that the wrath of God is all too real and not to be neglected, he tells us that it is better to die in Christ than to live in judgment.
Jesus has gone through a sham trial, has been beaten and flogged, and now he’s being forced to carry his own cross to the site of his execution. Luke goes into the most detail about what Jesus faced leading up to his execution. If you found yourself in a place that had never known a Christian or the church but you had access to Luke’s gospel, you might think that Jesus was about to be released. Pilate declared Jesus to be innocent of his charges three separate times. Pilate says, “I find no guilt in this man” in verse 4, “Nothing deserving of death has been done by him” in verse 15, and “I have found in him no guilt deserving death” in verse 22. Clearly, Jesus is about to be freed. Nobody is executed just because of a mob, right?
But instead of releasing an innocent man, Pilate lets politics win the day and sends Jesus to be crucified. Jesus has already been beaten and flogged, but that’s not enough for the religious leaders. They have formed an unruly mob that will only rest, they think, once Jesus is dead and buried. So Jesus is now walking with Roman soldiers, who will be his executioners, to the place of the skull, Calvary, or Golgotha. Luke doesn’t spill a lot of ink on this macabre display, but what he says communicates a lot.
It’s hard to wrap our heads around the kind of treatment that someone sentenced to crucifixion would face. Not only would they be nailed or tied to a cross and left to asphyxiate, but they would be beaten half to death beforehand. The whole purpose was to treat the criminal as less than a dog, something undeserving of life. Violence was a show of strength, of who was really in charge. The crucifixion of Jesus, in this regard, was no different. And after being beaten and spit on, the crucified would carry their cross, or at least the upper beam where their hands would be nailed or tied, to the execution site. This made sure that everyone who wanted to see the dead man walking could. If the crucifixion wasn’t humiliating enough, now you’re carrying your own cross. Imagine a death row inmate being forced to carrying the needle that will inject the poison into their own body. It’s utterly humiliating, morbid, and debilitating.
The Roman soldiers regularly executed criminals or insurrectionists. Their job depended on getting the man sentenced to death to the execution site. It doesn’t matter what kind of shape he’s in, but Jesus needs to at least be alive when they arrive at Calvary. And after being beaten like he was, the likelihood of that drops with every step. That’s probably why the soldiers choose someone from the onlookers to finish carrying the cross of Christ the rest of the way. Jesus, as a man, is simply unable to do so anymore. The man they choose was named Simon from Cyrene, an ancient city in Africa. He seems to be a Jewish man living away from Jerusalem at the time, as it says he was coming in from the country. To be a traveler in Jerusalem during the Passover, one of the busiest times of the year, means he was more than likely there as a Jew to celebrate the Passover. “The country” was just the area surrounding Jerusalem that could accommodate a large number of travelers. Simon, perhaps unwittingly, shows us that there is no relationship to Jesus that does not involve a cross.
Did Simon know anything about Jesus? Had he heard of Jesus in the preceding 3 years of public ministry? Did Simon even know whose cross he was carrying? We simply don’t know. We don’t know if Simon considered himself a disciple. He may have been in the crowd as an onlooker, or he could be one of those who were mourning Christ’s death. For this to be our introduction to Simon, so close to the end of the book, it seems like Jesus is someone who is unknown to Simon. But we do know that it was not the last we would hear of him. In the gospel of Mark, we’re introduced to Simon in the same place in the timeline of the crucifixion. In Mark 15:21, there is seemingly a throw-away comment that Simon is the father of Alexander and Rufus. That might not mean much to us, because we don’t know who Alexander and Rufus were. It would seem strange that Mark would include something that does nothing for the story if the original readers did not know the people. Mark’s original readers knew of Alexander and Rufus, and quite possibly Simon if he was still alive. It’s as if Mark was saying, “If you need to corroborate anything I’m saying, you can still talk to the kids of the guy whose footsteps splashed in the blood of Jesus.” Alexander and Rufus may have been fellow Christians in the church to whom Mark was writing. If you’re looking for them, there are all kinds of notes here and there that show the gospel authors were going out of there way to present the gospel as a historically accurate and reliable message.
We’re told a great multitude followed him. This isn’t referring to discipleship but just the fact of a huge crowd. People follow true crime and courtroom shows almost like they’re addictions, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus drew a crowd. Like in life, as he gathered a crowd in his teaching, in his death, he attracted a lot of attention. These people seem to be very different from the mob Judas and the priests gathered together. You might think of this crowd as similar to the crowd that waved palm branches as he rode a donkey into the city nearly a week earlier. What has happened to their victorious king? Riding on a donkey instead of a horse was a sign of victory and peace, that the fight was over. Victorious kings do the crucifying; they don’t get crucified.
But Jesus is turning all of that on its head. Instead of destroying his enemies, Christ the King is dying in their place. He is redeeming men and women from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people. Christ is submitting himself to the punishment we incurred through our rebellion. We rightly earned God’s wrath, and in the greatest act of mercy imaginable, God turned that wrath back on himself. The debt was paid because God paid it. It is better to die in Christ than to live in judgment.
We understand somewhat why there were people mourning and lamenting his execution. Luke notes that there was a multitude of people and of women who were mourning for him. You would think that Jesus would have a difficult time speaking at all, after all he’s gone through, but as he passes by these women he addresses them. He says to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and your children.” How could he say that? He’s the one who will be dead in a few hours, and he tells the women to mourn for themselves. Why is that?
Because Jesus knows what’s to come. His death is only the beginning. Jesus’s death inaugurates the new covenant. His death satisfies the old covenant. The only way to know God from that time forward is to know Jesus Christ. There is no more need for a Levitical sacrificial system once Christ entered the heavenly tent and offered his blood once for all. There is no more need for a brick-and-mortar temple once the church becomes the temple of the Spirit of God. There is no more need to worship in any one place, on this or that mountain, because God’s people will from that time forward worship him in spirit and in truth.
Jesus goes on to say that there will be a time when death will be preferable to living. He says in essence, “You think what they’re doing to me is bad? What will happen to the people who let this happen?” Jesus is calling back to the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah prophecies abut the crucifixion, even this very moment of the women mourning over Jesus. Through Zechariah, God said, “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” (12:10-11a).
It’s staggering that anyone would miss the connection. God clearly says that the people of Jerusalem will have pierced God himself. They will look on him, whom they have pierced. Jesus Christ is God the Son, co-eternal with God the Father and God the Spirit, equal in power and authority.
The prophet Hosea speaks of God’s punishment on Israel for their idolatry. God says to the people, “Thorn and thistle shall grow up on their altars [meaning that the altars will be decimated and unusable], and they shall say to the mountains, ‘Cover us,’ and to the hills, ‘Fall on us’” (Hosea 10:8). When God judges the people for their rebellion and idolatry, it will be better for a mountain to crush them or for a hill to collapse and smother them than to endure God’s judgment. It will be easier for the women who never had children because they won’t have to see their children endure the pain and misery.
Jesus uses a proverb to give some added weight to his words. “If they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” If you’ve ever tried to burn freshly cut wood, you know it’s hard to get started and it doesn’t stay lit. When wood is green, it’s full of moisture. Have you tried to saw through wet wood? It’s just about impossible. You usually have to kiln dry wood before it’s any use to you. Jesus compares his life being snuffed out to green wood being burned. The lives of the people in the crowd are dry and easily burned to ash. His point is that if an innocent man can be treated like this, what should guilty people expect?
Jesus is speaking primarily about Jerusalem, hence “daughters of Jerusalem”. This is not the first time that Jesus spoke about the destruction that Jerusalem would soon face. Jesus predicted that the temple and city would fall within a generation after his life. After Jesus entered Jerusalem at the beginning of the week, he weeped over the city and said, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:42-44).
When Jesus hears his disciples talking about how beautiful the temple is, he says to them, “‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’ And they asked him, ‘Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?’ And he said, ‘See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, “I am he!” and, “The time is at hand!” Do not go after them. And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once’” (Luke 21:6-9).
Both the city and the temple would be nothing but a memory within a generation. The Jewish-Roman wars went well into the second century, but they started in AD 66, just over 30 years after the crucifixion. Several other so-called “messiahs” tried to push out Rome. But you don’t go up against an empire and survive to tell the stories if you’re just a man. By AD 70, after barely four years of fighting, Rome plundered the temple and started taxing the Jews to support the temple of the Roman god Jupiter. Not only did the Jews no longer have a temple for their God, but they were now paying for the upkeep of the temple of pagans. Jesus’ warning proved true.
It is better to die in Christ than to live in judgment. The warning of certain destruction also comes with a signal of hope. The end of the old covenant meant the beginning of the new, which itself meant the fulfillment of the promise of the forgiveness of sins. If the blood of bulls and goats did not take away sins, then the blood of the Lamb of God would. And through Jesus comes the forgiveness of sins. Those who die in Christ from now on will be with him and will not face the judgment of condemnation.
If you know well enough to take action when the weather sirens sound, how much more should you know to take action when Christ warns of the coming wrath? So let me make the call clear. Jesus warned of the destruction of Jerusalem multiple times, and it happened just as he said. A few chapters earlier, when Jesus has a much longer teaching on the destruction of Jerusalem, he ends with a general plea for staying spiritually alert in every generation, even long after the city and temple are destroyed. He said, “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 20:34-36).
Since the day Christ sat down at the right of Majesty, he has been at the very gates. Your greatest concern today is not the “cares of this life” but of your own soul and the souls of your family. Each one of us will stand before the Son of Man. As you stand before him, are you clothed with your own rags or with his righteousness? To die in Christ is to be freed from bondage to sin and death. And only in Christ are we spared from judgment. Hear his warning today. It is better to die in Christ than to live in judgment.
Paul needs Timothy to know how to deal with the elders who have been teaching different doctrines. The church flounders when it has leaders who are permitted to get away with anything. Now again, the church is more than its pastors. If you look at most of Paul’s letters, they are written to churches, not pastors. The pastors were to read aloud and explain these letters to the churches. So it’s not always the case that if a pastor sins that the church will implode. But there is a lot working against a church whose leadership is setting a bad trajectory. The church that ignores when pastors teach false doctrine do implode. Poor leaders will run off good people and exasperate the ones who stay. When a pastor teaches false doctrines, he must be removed and replaced. When a pastor no longer focuses on the gospel but instead becomes an activist, he must be removed and replaced.
Because the fact is that nature abhors a vacuum. Paul give us good reasons why an elder might be to be removed. But what do you do after that? In this case, a vacuum of leadership will be filled by someone. If the wrong people are leading, or if there is no one qualified to put in place to lead, someone will rise up and take that spot. There will not be a vacant office for long. So, instead of just hoping that a warm body raises their hand, as the church, it is required of us to fill leadership roles with qualified men. We should hold our leaders to the standard set forth in Scripture. And when we do that, we can face whatever comes our way. There’s nothing a purified people and qualified leaders can’t handle. And a purified people have to trust their pastors. But what kind of pastors should the people trust and honor?
Honor elders who honor the gospel.
If a leader cannot be charged with any wrongdoing, then he’s not trustworthy. And by that I mean that if the culture of the church is such that the man up front is the holy man who is not to be questioned, then the chances of the rest of the church being healthy are pretty slim.
But on the other hand, a healthy church also honors its leaders. It may seem strange to have a pastor speak of how important it is for the church to honor its pastors, but the point is not to inflate anyone’s ego. For Paul, it’s not about the person but about what they teach and how they live. Whoever stands behind the pulpit regularly and oversees the administration of the church should be honored, regardless of who it is. Honoring someone doesn’t mean ignoring their imperfections. It doesn’t mean to think they’re irreplaceable. Every irreplaceable person eventually gets buried beside another irreplaceable person.
The biggest problem the church in Ephesus was facing was elders or pastors who were teaching different doctrines. Anything that pulls the focus from Scripture and the Christ of Scripture is a different doctrine. Because when you start to have this sense of, “We need to appeal to as many people as possible, so let’s just focus on a few things instead, just focus on the widely acceptable things, just focus on conversion and not real, deep, abiding discipleship,” then people will be prey for any kind of doctrine or ideology that actually has the backbone to standup for itself. And usually, it’s not what honors God. Elders that keep the focus on bringing the gospel to every area of life are to be honored. Those who teach anything else, in word or deed, those who neglect the responsibility of the office, should be removed. And Paul tells Timothy and us just how that should look. Honor elders who honor the gospel.
17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”
First, one of the principles guiding what Paul says is that leading the people of God into greater maturity takes great effort. Pastors should put forth as much effort as any profession. Pastors spend time with the Scriptures and pray for clarity and understanding. The Bible is a foreign book, and we need to take the necessary steps to get it right. Then a pastor must bring the clarity that he now has to his people and let the Spirit do his work.
The teacher Apollos from Acts 18 was commended for his teaching but also corrected in some pretty significant ways. For him, it was a matter of accuracy in the things of God, not out-right heresy. One sign of a good pastor-teacher is his willingness to be corrected and amend his ways. And that’s what Paul hopes to see happen there in Ephesus. Let the elders who have taught different doctrines be confronted clearly, and give them a chance to fix it. If they do not, go public in hopes that they change their ways.
To rule well means to be set over and care for a certain group of people. In Scripture, it doesn’t refer to a scepter but a rod and a staff. Ruling well, or leading well, sometimes requires the rod, or the tool used to guide a flock of sheep. "This is where we’re going.” The rod also defended the flock against wolves. It was like a billy club. It’s the tool used for guidance and defense. But the staff is a long, thin stick used for when gentleness and safety are the main concern. The curved, rounded end could save a lamb by dragging it out of a hole. It wouldn’t hurt the sheep, but neither would it let the sheep get away. A staff was used for guiding sheep into a pen for safety and rest.
Both of them are for the sheep’s good. In the most famous Psalm, Psalm 23, King David thanks God for using both rod and staff with him. The LORD is David’s shepherd, and the shepherd’s rod and staff are a source of great comfort, not anxiety. In the hands of the Good Shepherd, we are both defended against evil and guided into righteousness. In a similar way, all under-shepherds lead or rule well by using the right tool for the right time. There’s a time to announce direction and a time to lead gently into the pen. There’s a time to use the rod to defend against wolves and a time to find and comfort the ones who have gone astray.
Under-shepherds, pastor-teachers who rule well, should be honored for doing so. In the next verse, he makes clear that involves fair compensation for their labors. That doesn’t mean the church should seek to make its pastors wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. It simply refers to making sure its pastors can devote their time to teaching, preaching, visiting and praying with the sick, counseling, and general oversight of the church. All church elders should be honored for their office, but those who labor in teaching and preaching more so, which refers to honest work earning an honest wage.
Paul uses one Old Testament passage and one New Testament passage to buttress his point. He’s not just using quaint, Old Testament sayings to say pay your pastors. He’s saying that the Old Testament still has authority for the church. He quotes Deuteronomy 25:4, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Oxen were once used to stomp on the grain so that it broke open and was usable. Oxen were then allowed to graze as they tread the grain. Their service wasn’t done out of the generosity of their big, oxen hearts.
But interestingly, Paul quotes Jesus in Luke 10:7, “The laborer deserves his wages.” This means Paul knew about the words of Jesus, apparently as they were put together by Luke, by the time he writes to Timothy. There are those who argue that the Bible was put together over long periods of time, the traditional authors are not the real authors, and is therefore not trustworthy in what it says. But for Paul to quote the New Testament, while it was still being inspired and written, it came together a lot earlier than many think. The Bible is trustworthy in what it says.
The church in Ephesus was in the middle of a battle for the truth. The elders were responsible for taking care of the flock, but it seems as though at least a few of them had abdicated their duty. He reminds Timothy that the church is always in a battle for the truth. Elders are always in a state of defense, always on the lookout for the latest offense. We should be able to help you cut through the murky middle and practice discernment. People need answers, and if the church doesn’t give them, then someone outside the church will. And that’s how false teaching enters a church.
19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.
Second, “Thou shalt not bear false witness” applies to everyone. The immediate context for Paul and Timothy was a group of elders, or pastor-teachers, who have swerved from biblical doctrine. You should not stand idly by while doctrine is being watered down or while the lines between church and world are being erased. And when we become convicted that something is wrong, we can become so emboldened that we take immediate action without thinking too much about it. In our crusade for righteousness, it’s easy to overlook the fact that elders charged with false teaching should be able to give an answer. If what they say is true, then we stand corrected. But if what they say is wrong, then they should fix it or be removed.
If an elder has swerved from sound doctrine, then he should be approached with gentleness and respect. Here, we’re moving in to church discipline, of which elders are not exempt. Paul again uses Old Testament patterns for the church. He pulls from Deuteronomy 19:15 when he says that if only one person brings a charge against an elder, then it’s an unqualified charge. This is when we think of grudges, resentment, or just flat-out proving a point. And that’s not something the church should ever entertain.
If there are multiple eyewitnesses to a sin committed by an elder, then it’s appropriate and necessary to speak to that elder. Nobody wants to be charged with wrongdoing by hearsay. In Matthew 18, Jesus also pulls from Deuteronomy 19:15 and gives us a clear sequence of events to deal with offense. If a charge is true, then you approach your brother alone. Don’t make a scene because of a possible offense. Most of church discipline ends right here. Whenever you confront a person in love and win them back, you’ve practiced church discipline. But if the offending party, in this case the offending elder, does not listen to you, then it’s time to bring more people with you. This is not a mob but a group of witnesses who can corroborate what you say. Should the story not end there, then it’s time to bring it before the other leaders and members of the church and remove the elder.
Paul says here that for those who persist in their sin, rebuke them in the presence of everyone. “Rebuke” simply means to make your charge public. Not on social media, not among your friends, but among the members of the church in an organized setting. Rebuking an elder is perhaps the time to show the most restraint, to fully insist on church order. We’re not burning witches but doing the heartbreaking work of dealing with unrepentant people. Are we acting out of zeal for our own self-righteousness or zeal for God’s glory? You should only make it public if you have addressed him in private more than once.
The desired outcome is that the people have a genuine fear of sin. Again from Deuteronomy 19:20, which says, “And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you”, Paul pulls out the general equity, or the principle, from an Old Testament law. The law is not a condition of the new covenant made by Christ, but it does still serve a function. As the law showed the people their sin, so the law still shows us the severity of our sin.
We see a perfect example of this in Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. The first Christians were selling property they owned in order to have funds readily available to help those in need. You can imagine that people were given all kinds of applause for doing so. So a husband and wife, Ananias and Sapphira, sold some property. The money was theirs to do with as they pleased. There was no command to sell your stuff and give it away. But their sin was lying about it. They gave only a portion of the money to the church, but they said they gave all of it. All they wanted was the acclaim and recognition that others had received while still keeping their money. Peter knew what they had done and approached them about it. Both Ananias and Sapphira died for their sin. The result? “And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11).
Woe to us if think we can sweep anything under the rug, if we can keep anything from God—especially those called on to lead God’s people. There should be a healthy fear of sin both in ourselves and in the church. When sin is public, it brings shame on us. But that’s not bad. Godly fear should prevent any further sin. We lose sight of the gravity or weight of our sin when we refuse to deal with it.
21 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality. 22 Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure. 23 (No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.)
Third, discernment and impartiality are necessary for healthy church life. Paul plays by the same rules, and he has his own witnesses. Before God the Father, God the Son, and the heavenly court of angels, Paul urges Timothy to be impartial in his judgments, in two ways. One, do not be hasty in condemning an elder without many witnesses and corroborating evidence. Two, do not be hasty in ordaining someone an elder. By making someone an elder without testing him first, you participate in his sins.
God himself is the impartial judge, and our judgments should be like his to the best of our finite ability. Paul has said earlier in Romans 2:11, “For God shows no partiality.” Back in Judah, hundreds of years before Christ, King Jehoshaphat appointed judges all around Judah and told them, “Now then, let the fear of the Lord be upon you. Be careful what you do, for there is no injustice with the Lord our God, or partiality or taking bribes” (2 Chronicles 19:7). Discernment and impartiality are necessary for righteousness in the body of Christ. In the case that some of the elders would be removed for their teaching, it would be necessary to replace them. Timothy is to take the lead on this. He should seek men who meet the qualifications, and he should also show due diligence in his selection.
Paul tells Timothy to keep himself pure, then there is a short, almost throw-away sentence about Timothy not drinking only water but drinking a little wine. It seems a little out of place at first glance, but somehow it must be tied to purity. In the ancient world, drinking only water and avoiding alcohol was a typical practice of an ascetic. Ascetics were people who avoided worldly pleasures as a way of attaining a higher spiritual state. Instead of taking a vow of abstinence, they were proud of their lack of self-indulgence, which is itself a form of self-indulgence. The humble-brag is an old, old sin.
But back in chapter 3, not being a drunkard is a necessary qualification for both elders and deacons. So it seems most likely that Timothy had given up drinking wine because there were those who were abusing wine by drinking too much of it and those misunderstanding their office by being ascetics. We should not jet off to extremes just to avoid being called extremists. There is no law against avoiding certain things for your own good. That is a matter of conscience. All things are lawful, but not everything is beneficial. In keeping himself pure, Timothy should not harm himself or set a poor example for the flock.
24 The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. 25 So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden.
Lastly, even when we fail to make the right decision every single time, nothing is hidden from God’s sight. We should try as hard as we can, but we should know that we will never get every action right. We should absolutely seek to keep the church pure. However, mistakes are unavoidable. Not every sin will get caught, and not every decision will be right.
In the case of elders, who live extremely public lives, some sins are so obvious that church discipline is purely procedural. A pastor caught in adultery should be removed. A pastor caught stealing from the church should be removed. A pastor who teaches anything contrary to the word of God should be removed. Our sins go before us to judgment, meaning that God is the ultimate judge on the last day. There is coming a day when Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. The day of Lord will bring salvation for his people and judgment for his enemies. To shy away from that truth because some consider it dangerous is to do great evil to those who are perishing.
If judging sin in the present, as faulty as our judgments can be, should cause great fear among the people, how much more fearful should we be of the perfect judge who knows all things? We are hiding nothing from him. Even more fearful are the sins which aren’t evident to others and only come to light on the last day, sins for which we have never repented.
There are those good deeds which are well-known. If judgment of sin brings about fear, then acknowledgment of good deeds should bring about joy. We’d be lying if we said we didn’t enjoy recognition, but the Christian knows that that is not the right motivation. We live to glorify God in all we do, especially our good works. But in the same way our sin is known fully only to God, so are our good deeds, even if imperfectly executed. The righteous judge sees our sin as well as our acts of worship. The judge of all the earth will do what is right. He rewards those who diligently seek him. There will be nothing hidden from his eyes at the final judgment.
It seems as though Paul has spent an inordinate amount of time on the issue of pastoral leadership, but this isn’t even his final word on the matter. If Paul has this much to say in 1 Timothy and in his other letters, then we should heed his words. We should honor our leaders, but only those who honor the gospel. As important as oversight is, perhaps the most important thing elders can do is teach their people and always shine a light on the gospel of Christ and him crucified. Those are the only elders we should honor. Ministry requires great effort in discipling a church toward maturity so that we are not swayed by every shifting wind. So we must not bring spurious charges against leadership and waste resources and effort. This requires a great deal of wisdom, discernment, and impartiality, ultimately, because God is the impartial judge.
He sees our inner life, the things that no one else sees. This calls for confession of sin and faith in Christ. Only in his name do we find salvation. His perfect life made him the acceptable substitute for our sins and rebellion. God received Christ’s blood in the heavenly temple once-for-all. Therefore, we are spared from being cast away from his presence. The righteous judge accepted the perfect righteousness of Christ, counting it as ours. So we confess Jesus is Lord with our lips and believe that truth in our hearts. This is the gospel we preach. This is the gospel we honor.
Popular (1 Timothy 1:1-7)
I am sure that everyone here has seen or is at least quite familiar with “The Wizard of Oz.” It was a special effects masterpiece in its day. If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember the musical “The Wiz” with Michael Jackson and Diana Ross from the 70’s. Now pretty much any high school drama team performs it regularly.
In the mid 90’s, Gregory Maguire wrote the book “Wicked” about the generation in Oz before Dorothy arrives. Then about 10 years later, it was turned into a Broadway musical. The book is quite dark, and it focuses on the nature of good and evil and whether they stem more from nature or nurture. But the musical is a cotton-candy version of the same story.
The musical focuses on two ambitious woman who meet in college with very different ideas of how best to defeat the evil they see around them. The woman who becomes the wicked witch is given the name Elphaba, and the good witch goes by Galinda. Elphaba is more intent on facing reality with all its wrinkles and darkness, accepting it for what it is, and is a misunderstood heroine who wants to expose the wizard for the wicked man he is. Galinda, on the other hand, is a well-to-do, widely accepted young woman who likes to enjoy the perks of the system from the inside. Galinda wants to help Elphaba by encouraging her to do what it takes to become popular. If she’ll dress differently, use the right words, and get to know the right people, you…will…be…popular. Just do what Galinda says, no questions asked, and Elphaba will get what she wants in the end. However, Elphaba isn’t interested in being popular but in doing the right thing. Being popular is just a distraction from the truth.
Christians often face the same temptation. Parts of culture are outright hostile to the faith and want to see it dismantled. But in the main, what culture wants is to see little changes here and there to supposedly help the church keep up with the times. And the human condition is to want to be popular and accepted by as many people as possible. The world is all too willing to tell us what we will have to give up to make us popular.
In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he says some very unpopular things. In Paul’s day, what he said was unwelcome. Today, what Paul says is hateful, benighted, bigoted, chauvinistic, and intolerant. Many people today, even in the church, want to take Paul’s words and, as Peter says, twist them as they do the other Scriptures.
What will not happen is us shaping the Scriptures to our liking. We must be shaped by the Scriptures. Do we give lip-service to the authority of Scripture until we have something to disagree with? Any church that creeps away from the words of Scripture is a church on its way out. Paul is adamant that Timothy organizes a church that, above all things, guards the gospel. Timothy is called to put the church in order, and the ordering of the church is one very important and highly visible way of guarding the gospel. God would have his church ordered perhaps a little differently than you or I would. The point of the church is not to reflect you and me, nonetheless the world, but to reflect him. The church is to be a worshiping community of priests, every last one of us. From the cultural mandate of Genesis 1, to the covenantal call of Abraham, to the great commission given by Christ, the church is to be the steward of God’s rule and reign over all creation. Therefore, we are not at liberty to govern ourselves according to our own design. This is Christ’s church, not ours.
Starting with myself, I must admit my sinful nature, which is being killed day by day, still wants to be in the center of things. We want our will to be the driving force of the universe. We want a world fashioned after our likeness. We don’t mind an impersonal god, as long as he thinks like us. So before we even know what the book says, because it is Scripture, we must be willing to submit ourselves to it and thereby submit ourselves to God.
It might surprise us what’s in this little letter. Things that we might think are a non-issue, or settled, Paul says to take a second look. What we might dismiss, Paul says to reconsider. What culture says is good may not be so good when you peer under the hood. As Paul says elsewhere in Romans 1:21, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” The natural man does not know God and must therefore be taught by God who he is. And God has given us Scripture to learn how the church must be ordered to preach the risen Christ and guard the gospel of the kingdom of God. So we shouldn’t expect to naturally agree with everything we read. We should expect to be confronted in our unbelief. But God loves his people and does not leave us to our own devices. So in these first seven verses of 1 Timothy, we find that …
Teaching doctrine is loving people.
We have all been impacted by outside forces that want to frame the way we view the world. We have all been told the way to be acceptable and popular. Sometimes these views need to be confronted with the word of God and brought into accord with divine truth. Paul is going to address matters of human sexuality, the character of leaders, and men and women in ministry. The wider culture holds nothing back when it speaks on all of those issues, and unless we’re intentional about the authority of Scripture, that Scripture is the final authority in all these matters, that Scripture settles all disputes as the highest authority, then we will be prone to let culture’s voice speak louder than God’s. And that’s not how we love God or each other. Teaching doctrine is loving people.
1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope, 2 To Timothy, my true child in the faith: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
Point 1: Christian doctrine has a divine source.
Paul clearly meant this letter to be read aloud in worship and expounded by the pastor-teachers. Paul and Timothy were extremely close and had worked together as pastors and missionaries for years. Paul considered Timothy to be a son. He calls Timothy a true child in the faith. But Paul wasn’t the one who ministered to Timothy when he became a Christian. Timothy grew up in a loving home where the word was taught to him, at least by his mother and grandmother, as we’re told in 2 Timothy. Paul and Timothy pastored in Ephesus for a time. Paul had other work to do, so he continued traveling and acting as a missionary around the Mediterranean. But Timothy was someone Paul trusted so much he would be comfortable leaving him behind in Ephesus to continue the work left to do.
So it is odd that Paul introduces himself to Timothy as an apostle. Of course Timothy knew Paul was an apostle. There’s no need unless Timothy is not the entirety of the intended audience. Paul is ensuring that the church in Ephesus accepts Timothy as their pastor, as their teacher, and as someone that they should trust in choosing who will hold leadership positions alongside him. Timothy’s authority is not absolute; pastors aren’t dictators. Pastors don’t rule by fiat. But there is an authority of teaching and oversight vested in pastors, and the Ephesian Christians should know that Paul the apostle has chosen Timothy and entrusted him with a lot of responsibility in this young church. So clearly, it’s important that the church know and understand what kind of leaders they should have.
Paul the apostle tells us that his apostolic office was not chosen by him but commanded him by God. He did not wake up one day and think, “Today’s the day I start being persecuted.” He was literally knocked to the ground by the Lord and given a commission the old Paul would have wanted nothing to do with. He was present for the first Christian martyr, the deacon Stephen. We’re told he held the coats of those who stoned him, which might also imply he was the ringleader. But Christ gave Paul a new commission. Instead of the great persecutor of the church, he would be the humble planter of many churches. Paul wasn’t given a choice; he was given a commission. There was no rejecting it or coming to different terms. He was knocked down from his pedestal, went down into the waters of baptism, and was raised to new life in Christ. Paul now lived and breathed the gospel. So he is passionate about the church guarding this gospel for which so many have lost their lives. Paul gave his life preaching the gospel he received from Christ. Teaching doctrine is loving people.
3 As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, 4 nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.
Point 2: Christ is the center of all doctrine.
The perennial problem for every church is straying from the core message and truth of Scripture. The difficulty lies in that every generation has their own version of it, so it can be difficult to trace a clear line. Most of the time, it’s an ancient heresy or heterodox position repackaged as something novel. But there is a thread running through all of them: Christ is not enough. Some are more subtle than others, but it’s there all the same. Here are two contemporary examples:
In the prosperity gospel, Christ giving himself up for our sin is replaced with God existing to meet your needs and glorify you. Jesus’ death was just an example of what God is willing to do for you, if it has any noteworthiness at all. If you can hide what the Bible says behind false promises of health and wealth, you can make people do anything and give you any amount of money.
In one of the newest spiritual, so-called “Christian” movements, the new apostolic reformation, the Holy Spirit vesting the written word of Scripture with his authority is replaced with mystical power and centralized leadership in the man at the top. If you say God gave you a mandate to heal diseases, cast out demons, and teach new revelations he has given you, then you don’t need to teach what he’s said in Scripture.
But again, the thread in all of these deceitful movements is that they displace Christ as the center of all doctrine. From Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, Christ Jesus is the point. He is the thesis of Scripture. He is the culmination of all that God has said and done. He is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Every covenant of the Old Testament is a movement toward the new covenant made in Christ’s blood.
Maybe in no other place is that truth made more explicit than in the book of Hebrews. Hebrews has been called the greatest commentary on the Old Testament. In that book, the author goes to great lengths to show how everything that came before Christ was a shadow of Christ. Before Christ came, all you had to go off of to know what God would do was based on those shadows. Once Christ came, you no longer had to look at the shadow to get a sense of what he actually looked like. We look at him! Christ is better than the angels because the angels worship him. He is better than Moses because Moses was God’s servant but Christ is God’s Son. He is better than the priesthood because his priesthood is eternal. And he is better than any old covenant because his covenant dealt with sin once and for all.
In Paul’s other letters, he warns about people creeping in and teaching false doctrine. They want to usurp the leadership in place. But we don’t get that sense in 1 Timothy. Paul tells Timothy to charge certain persons from teaching different doctrine. It seems as though Paul is talking about Timothy’s fellow teaching pastors of the church. There are those who have not necessarily started teaching contradictory truths, or heresies, but they have started focusing on things that distract from the gospel. This makes sense since Paul goes into greater detail about leadership qualifications in the next few chapters.
The examples Paul gives of different doctrines are myths and genealogies. This supports the idea that they are pastors who have lost their way and not outside pagan influencers, because they are at least trying to make connections to the Bible. Myths are those ideas that usually lack all truth. They might be used to support a doctrine, but they are not themselves true. Therefore they shouldn’t be taught. This was extremely common among the Jews of the first century and well into the next few hundred years. They developed a bunch of background stories for biblical characters or filled in the holes of what is in Scripture. They thought they were helping, but all they were doing is burdening people with myths that are completely unnecessary and might actually not be true. Myths about all the famous Bible characters developed, from Adam, to Moses, to Enoch. Today, we see this in shows like The Chosen. Holy imagination is still imagination. People who watch TV but don’t read the Bible are easily persuaded. Any time we perform something from Scripture, whether it be a video Bible story in Sunday school or an Easter cantata, it better be the words of Scripture. Otherwise, we’re dealing with the same kind of myth that Paul was in the first century.
But what really stands out here is genealogies. The Bible is full of genealogies, and Paul says they’re bad? Not exactly. Unlike myths, genealogies have a good purpose. They are notoriously long and often glossed over in our reading plans, even by yours truly, but they have a grand purpose. They are there to show God’s consistent covenantal faithfulness across generations. The genealogies of Genesis date from creation to God’s selection of Abraham. The genealogies of 1 Chronicles show that not one of God’s elect was lost in the Babylonian captivity. And the genealogies of Matthew and Luke show that the life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Christ has been the plan of God all along. So used rightly, the genealogies comfort the believer and give evidence of God’s lovingkindness.
But that’s not the only way they have been used. All too often, genealogies were used to corroborate their myths. And later, Paul will address how these teachers have understood and taught the law of God. It’s not that the law was bad, but how the teachers used the law was wrong. In the same way, how the teachers used the genealogies was wrong, even though they were good. Any doctrine that leads away from Christ, or pulls focus from him, is a dangerous doctrine. Teaching doctrine that is centered on Christ is how we love people.
5 The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
Point 3: Doctrine should form the whole person.
One of the great questions every believer must ask themselves, both regularly and perhaps especially at times we receive the Lord’s Supper, is “Do I really believe all this? Do I really believe all these doctrines? How can I know? Have I really been changed into someone who loves God and his people? Because it doesn’t always feel like it.”
Now because it doesn’t always feel like it, we’re told to examine ourselves. There will be evidence, or fruit, in the Christian’s life. Much or meager, there will be fruit. In verse 5, Paul tells us what the grand, over-arching theme of our doctrine is: love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith. He is applying this well-established rule as a guide for us.
Saying that love is the greatest of all the Christian virtues is nothing new for Paul. He has said early in 1 Corinthians 13, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (v.13). Love is the highest of all virtues. And of course, Jesus tells his disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). That is the goal to which we attain, the kind of love modeled for us in the substitutionary death of Christ.
But what makes up love? What are its components? A clean or pure heart, an unbothered conscience, and an unfeigned faith.
What makes our hearts pure? King David knew. He writes in Psalm 51, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me" (v.10). It is God who creates new hearts. God cleans the heart. Apart from him our hearts deceive us time and time again. David was incapable of changing himself. Sure, he could exercise and get in shape, he could color his hair, he could change his clothes. But all that exterior stuff is of far lesser value than the interior work on the heart that only God can do. Jesus tells us in John 6:63, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.” So God must act first if we are to have love from a pure heart.
But what about our conscience? If you’re anything like me, your conscience still bothers you. It’s a sign that the Spirit is at work when my sin bothers me. It’s not just a fear of getting caught that everyone feels but a grief over the rebellious nature of my sin. How can I have a good, clean, undefiled conscience? Your conscience is both a blessing as well as a tool of the enemy. The enemy says to us, “If you know what you did, then of course God knows what you did, and he told you not to do it. So how can you ever think you’ll be a good person?”
A good conscience is not a conscience unaware of your sins and disobedience. A good conscience is the result of repentance. Repentance is confession of our sins and a desire to pursue holiness because God is holy. Repentance is not a one-and-done deal. Repentance is the Christian lifestyle. Repentance is the pursuit of holiness. Martin Luther, the German reformer, nailed his famous 95 theses to the doors of the Wittenberg castle in 1517. It was meant to be a list of topics for debate in the university held in the cathedral. The first thesis was this: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent,” he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” A good and clean conscience does not come from perfection but from turning from sin and pursuing holiness each and every day, and more precisely, especially when we fail.
But love has a third component: a pure heart, a good conscience, and lastly, a sincere faith. That word “sincere” means to hold to the faith once delivered to the saints without hypocrisy. Whether or not you have a sincere faith is answered by questions like, “Is God just a conversation piece for you? Does God owe you anything for your good deeds? Do you give any thought to obedience outside of Sunday morning?” There are those who see Christianity as just worship attendance and little else. But if you seek to give the Lord everything, if his Word is the answer to your questions regardless of whether you like it or not, your faith is without hypocrisy. And just because your faith waivers, that does not mean your faith is not sincere. The tallest skyscrapers move the most in the wind. It’s the one-story, insignificant buildings that are destroyed by the wind. That’s because there’s nothing to them! Their foundations are in the dirt. But why do those tall buildings not fall over? How can they stand up to the wind? Because their foundations go deeper than a one-story house. They go all the way down to the bedrock.
So how do you build your foundations all the way down to the bedrock, past all the sand and dirt and clay? You build your life on the words of Christ. He tells us, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7:24-27). Your faith can waiver if it’s built on rock. The rock is what makes it secure. So when your faith waivers, don’t think of it as weak. When buildings move with the wind, they’re actually showing how strong they are. They’ll still be standing when the wind stops. When your faith waivers, look to the bedrock. Remember his life, his death, his resurrection, and his exaltation. He will not let you falter to the point of turning from him.
6 Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.
Point 4: Deserting doctrine leads to more misunderstanding.
Few things are as dangerous as someone holding a gun and not looking where they're aiming. “Swerving” here is a term from the archery world, meaning to aim carelessly. It’s like going to the gun range and putting blinders on. It’s deadly. When you don’t know what you’re aiming at, people die. Paul says that these pastor-teachers have aimed carelessly at the law of God. Instead of using the law of God biblically, they are making up their own ways. They don’t know how to use it. The law of God shows us our sin and calls us to repentance. It also shows us the perfect righteous standard God expects. It was only ever executed perfectly in one man, Christ Jesus. So by putting our faith in him, we are counted as righteous, as if we fulfilled the law. If we don’t get that right, we’re treading on dangerous ground. If we don’t understand it was fulfilled in Christ, we risk misunderstanding a host of other doctrines. We will inevitably get the atonement wrong. We will get the church wrong. We will get the whole notion of covenant and faithfulness wrong. One way or another, everything is tied to the law of God. And it’s when we get the law wrong that we misunderstand many other doctrines.
This is one way teachers get students. When they don’t understand the important things, they dress them up in order to give an appearance of understanding. Jesus often charged the Pharisees with something similar. They understood the letter of the law, but they did not understand that he was the fulfillment of the law, even though he proved it many times in public. You can spout off all the $1 words you want, but if you don’t see them as pointing you to Christ, you are like the Pharisees and these pastors in Ephesus. This doesn’t mean everyone goes to Bible college to get a proper education. In fact, theological education should primarily take place in the church. That was the failure of these pastor-teachers. They didn’t understand the Scriptures themselves, so they padded their sermons and lessons with nonsense.
Teaching doctrine is loving people. This is especially true when the doctrine is unpopular and considered intolerant, as we’ll see. Our doctrine comes from God, not man. It came through apostles and prophets, but it’s source was always God. And all of our doctrine ultimately points us to Christ. Christ is the thread going through every page. Sometimes we need help to see it, but it’s there. And when we see Christ on every page, every part of us is changed. Good doctrine is for the mind, of course, but it’s also for the heart and soul. What starts in the mind must eventually change the things we love. And if we neglect the fact that Christ is the culmination of God’s plan, we’ll radically misunderstand other doctrines as well. Without Christ, we have no doctrine. The most loving thing we can do for ourselves and others is to live lives in accordance with the law of God. Teaching doctrine is loving people.
Christ the King (Matthew 2:1-12)
It’s an odd circumstance that as Christians, we should avoid conspiracies that play fast and loose with the truth, all the while many people treat the Scriptures as one massive, worldwide conspiracy. If you want to know what’s wrong with the world, you just need to search the internet for “when Jesus was born”. You’ll wonder how people can possibly afford that much tinfoil. You’ll find all kinds of baseless accusations that the birth narrative of Christ is just an updated Christian version of any number of ancient birth narratives of pagan gods. The point of doing that is to take away the exclusivity and miraculous claims surrounding the birth of Christ.
Jesus was born of a virgin? So was Horus, they say.
Jesus was resurrected? So was Osiris, they say.
But if we simply stick with the Scriptures, even if in God’s providence he only painted with broad strokes, it’s not hard to pin down to a general time frame. John the Baptist is the older cousin of Jesus by six months. If John was conceived soon after his father’s time serving as a priest in the temple, as Luke’s gospel tells us, then John would have been born around the time of the Passover festival. Mary went to visit John’s mother, Elizabeth, when Elizabeth was six months pregnant and Mary was recently pregnant. This would put Jesus’ birth likely in the early fall of the next year, during the feast of booths. This would account for why the city of Jerusalem was so busy that Joseph and Mary had to stay outside the city, in addition to a mandatory census by Rome. Festival times were good times for taking a census and paying your Roman taxes. But even now, we’re moving into speculation. It’s hard to say much more than “wintertime seems the unlikeliest option.”
Regardless of the perspective you take on when Jesus was born, there is no doubt that what we are told is true. Because all we have is broad strokes, it’s of a secondary nature, anyway. The gospel of Luke jumps right from the shepherds greeting Jesus in the manger seemingly within days of his birth to Jesus being presented in the temple weeks later. From there, Luke jumps again about twelve years to Jesus staying behind in the temple and asking questions of the teachers.
But Matthew includes this special meeting by the wise men roughly two years into the life of Jesus. Only two gospels record the birth of Christ, and only Matthew records the coming of the wise men. So what is Matthew saying by spending time, spilling ink, and taking up space with these magi? Well, one of the things we have to keep in mind is that while the Bible is made up of many books and two testaments, we have one story. Matthew isn’t telling a random story that’s disconnected from what came before and after. The Bible is not a bunch of randomly splattered paint on the wall but an epic story with several threads finely woven together. It is divine revelation of how things really are, how God has ordered things this way and his purpose for this world. The wise men may only appear for a few verses, but they are a vibrant reminder of an important part of the purpose of God in salvation. In the coming of the wise men we see that:
Christ the King rules heaven and earth.
The wise men go to the Jews asking for information on where they can expect to find the Messiah, the king of the Jews. The sad part is that they know exactly where to look. They may not have the latitude and longitude, but they know the town, Bethlehem, which is really just a wide spot in the road. And no one goes with them. These men who have traveled this far and stirred up all this excitement in Jerusalem are Gentiles, non-Jews, who seek the Son of God when the people of God do not. God’s plan has always been to include people beyond the boundary of Israel, because he is the king of heaven and earth. The prophets speak of the nations coming to Mt. Zion, or Jerusalem to worship God.
Zechariah says that ten Gentiles will tug on the robe of a Jew and ask to be allowed to go with them to worship. Jesus will say later in Matthew 8:11, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” God has plans for this world, and the wise men from the east are a sign that God’s will is being accomplished, because Christ is also their king, the king of heaven and earth.
First of all, we need to know who these magi are. What do they do? Where do they come from? The magi were intelligent men who served in the king’s court in Persia. They served as advisors to the king. In that day, astronomy and astrology were not seen in so stark of terms as science versus superstition, especially in non-Jewish cultures where magic was practiced. So usually, the magi were well-acquainted with the stars since many ancient cultures believed the stars were divine. One of the duties of these advisors were to be something along the lines of a dignitary on behalf of the king for major events. The birth of a new king, so close to Persia, was a big enough deal to send someone. So to nail down precisely how much superstition these men believed in is difficult, and it’s really not the point. In fact, they seem to have been almost as familiar with the Hebrew Bible as the Hebrews. They knew there would be a Jewish king born around this time, and they got that information from Scripture. Keep in mind that the Jews were in exile in Babylon, which was then conquered by Persia. So foreign imperial courts were well acquainted with the Jewish people. It was a Persian king, after all, Darius, who sent the Jews back home with his money to finish rebuilding their temple and city. It really is incredible to see God’s hand in all of it.
There’s no reason not to take this story as literal, even with all the miraculous parts like following a moving star. Jews and Christians rejected the kind of people the magi were because they practiced magic, and that was explicitly condemned in the Mosaic law. In Acts 8, a man named Simon Magus, Simon the magi, is condemned for practicing magic. So to put someone so disreputable in the story as such an important character would only be done if it actually happened. These magi are important to the story, but they’re not heroes.
This miraculous star which the magi followed is just that—miraculous. People in every generation are fascinated with the sky. We make up all kinds of stories for things we see up there. When Caesar died, there was a comet in the sky, so Augustus Caesar said that the comet was Caesar’s soul rising to the heavens. Of course, the Roman emperors by this time believed themselves to be divine and sons of the gods. So the shooting star, which was supposedly Caesar’s soul, was divine.
But in truth, the sun, moon, and stars serve the one, true God. I don’t think you necessarily have to believe that Matthew is trying to make a connection between Jesus and Caesar, because I don’t. I do, however, believe that the God who created that star is commanding it to serve a specific function to draw these men from the east to himself. It was definitely a good way to get their attention. That star was not a god. That star served God. In the beginning, God made the stars, and he made this one to show lost sinners the only place where salvation was to be found. These magi weren’t heroes, but neither were they idiots. They knew what starting and stopping looked like. If the star moved, they moved. If the star stopped, they stopped. They were able to follow it not just to a city but to a house.
When the wise men stopped in Jerusalem, they wanted to speak to the current reigning king, King Herod. Few people in history can top the paranoia and wickedness of this particular Herod. He slaughtered his own family because he thought they were a threat to his throne. He thought this way in part because wasn’t even a Jew. He was a Idumean, which just means he was a descendant of Esau. Jacob and Esau were brothers and sons of Isaac. God would establish the covenant he made with their grandfather Abraham though Jacob, not Esau. So the Jews in Jerusalem now have a man on the throne who has absolutely no claim to it. As paranoid as he already was, you can imagine how much worse it got when some ambassadors show up at his doorstep asking to see the real Jewish king.
So why aren’t the Jews glad to know a rightful heir to the throne of David has been born? Why are they as troubled as Herod? Wouldn’t they want a real Jew as the king of the Jews and not a foreigner? Herod was a threat to the Jews because of his erratic behavior. There was no telling what he would do if there was an uprising to dethrone him. Guarding his station in life knew no limits. As far as the Jews were concerned, they just said, “Better the devil you know…” You don’t have to get very far into the book of Matthew to see that the Jews resist Jesus at every turn. By the time of his crucifixion, they’re willing to have Caesar, someone even more foreign to them than Herod, as their ruler.
Herod is in panic-mode, so he brings in some real Jews, the priests and scribes, his own version of the magi, to find out more about where this supposed king would be born. This would actually be the Sanhedrin, the group of Jewish leaders who would also have a hand in planning the death of Jesus. These leaders give Herod an answer that comes from both history and prophecy. The location of Jesus’ birth is just one of the prophetic expectations which confirm he is who he said he is. They quote Micah 5:2 first, which says, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” The location of your own birth would be something that a fraud would have no control over. But if he’s God, then he has complete control over such things.
Now doesn’t Micah say the opposite of what the Sanhedrin said? Micah says that Bethlehem is too little to matter. But here the experts say that Bethlehem is by no means too little. The prophet Micah is looking forward to hundreds of years in the future and is saying how unbelievable it is that the Messiah would come from Judah, even though he will. Now that the leaders know he has been born, they speak from their own vantage point in history: Bethlehem may have been the smallest but it certainly wasn’t unimportant. Matthew is just making a point by restating it a certain way. He is helping us see its fulfillment. It’s less of a direct quote and more of a fulfillment.
Matthew also has the Sanhedrin pulling from 2 Samuel 5, which says, “In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was you who led out and brought in Israel. And the Lord said to you, ‘You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel’” (v.2). In that passage, all of Israel is gathering together to coronate David as king. Again, it’s not a direct quote, but Matthew is showing how all the threads of Scripture come to a point to prove Jesus Christ is the promised son of David. Here’s how they’re connected: David is the original covenant king of Israel, and Micah says that God will keep his covenant with David by himself providing a king for Israel.
Herod is now going to hatch his conspiracy. He pulls the magi aside and tells them to do him a favor and bring back all the information they can about this new king. Herod knows if he goes with the magi, it will look like a sign of weakness in him paying homage to the man who should have his throne. He also cannot send any soldiers, even if they were commanded in secret to kill the new king, because it would raise too many eyebrows. But sending some diplomats would be expected. The next best thing is to have the wise men do his dirty work and feed him information.
As the wise men continue to follow the star, it stops moving over the house where Jesus is staying. It could be that they lost track of the star but were able to see it again once they got to Bethlehem. That’s probably why it mentions their joy at seeing the star again once they got to Bethlehem. They acted on the information they had received from the priests and scribes. The magi acted in faithfulness to the revelation they had been given. Can the same be said of us? Literally everyone in Jerusalem was armed with the same revelation, the same Scripture. But the only ones to act upon it were these Gentile, imperialist, Persian astrologers. And the only reason is that God was directing them.
Saying that the wise men were not at the manger is popular because of Herod commanding that all boys two-years-old and younger be killed. Herod had no idea when Jesus had been born, just that he had. In fact, no one he has spoken to knew when Jesus had been born. Just look at the Old Testament and you’ll find that the Jews had no problem giving exact dates for festivals, births, death, and the coronation of a new king. If the exact date of Jesus was necessary for anyone to know, we would. But not one of the four gospels has that information.
Herod is probably just hedging his bets based on the minimal information the wise men gave him. When the wise men leave, that’s when Joseph has a dream where an angel tells him to go to Egypt for the rest of Herod’s life. Then Joseph has another dream while in Egypt saying its safe to return to Israel, and the angel directs them again to Nazareth. It’s perfectly okay to leave your magi in your nativity set.
From the very beginning, Matthew is showing us how contrary the way of this world is to the way of God’s kingdom. These dignitaries have no problem going to a house in the middle of nowhere and giving luxurious gifts to some of the poorest people they’ll ever meet. These were highly educated and respected members of Persia’s upper class and probably the priesthood. But when they meet the king of the Jews, they place their forehead on the ground and worship.
By saying that they worshipped the child, it’s clear that they took him to be divine. Were they monotheists? Hardly. Again, they’re not heroes. But they see the child and worship him. Worship may not be a physical posture, like it was in the Persian world. They would bow and put their foreheads on the ground as a sign of complete obedience. But worship is still a posture of the heart, that of a living sacrifice. Is God your greatest joy? Do you actively read his word to learn how to be obedient to him? Are you willing to face persecution and mockery for Christ’s name? Is being hated by this world okay with you as long as you have Christ? “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).
What the wise men gave Christ were gifts for royalty; they’re precious and extravagant. Frankincense was burned in worship. Gold is always of the highest value. Myrrh was an exotic spice few people could get their hands on. These are gifts fit for a king. It reminds you of when the Queen of Sheba came to visit King Solomon and brought him all kinds of extravagant gifts (1 Kings 10:1-10). These wise men do what the Jews will fail to do throughout Jesus’s earthly ministry—they recognize the cosmic divinity and royalty of Christ. Later in the book of Matthew, Jesus will even pull from the story of the Queen of Sheba to illustrate this. The Queen of Sheba recognized the greatness and wisdom of King Solomon and gave him extravagant gifts because of it. Now, one greater than Solomon is here, that is, Christ (Matthew 12:42). What will they do about him? Will they fall down and worship, or will they crucify him?
Psalm 72 looks forward to a royal son who would bring about the fullness of the kingdom on the earth. King Solomon wrote, “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth! May desert tribes bow down before him, and his enemies like the dust! May the kings of Tarshish and the coastlands render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him” (Psalm 72:8-11)! Solomon and Christ both receiving extravagant gifts show that one greater than Solomon had arrived.
The magi did what they came to do, and now it’s time to leave. Like Joseph, they’re warned in a dream to go home a different way than they came to avoid Herod’s insanity. God has the entire plan orchestrated. He sends his word at just the right time, and it accomplishes his purpose. Since the beginning of creation, God has brought all things under his sovereign control. From the star, to the dreams, to the wickedness of King Herod, God has finely tuned this world to bring about his desired ends.
It shouldn’t surprise us that God sent for some Persian wise men to be some of the first to worship Christ the Lord. God has always drawn lost sinners to himself. Even beyond the boundaries of Israel, God has called those from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people. The Persians, who once oppressed the Jewish people, are now coming to worship the king of the Jews. There is in fact coming a day when there will not be a single person who does not recognize the royalty of Christ. Those in Christ will praise God for his mercy, and those outside of Christ will look at God with nothing but contempt for his righteous judgments.
It’s fitting we are celebrating the birth of Christ on a Sunday, the day of the week when we also celebrate the resurrection of Christ. His resurrection brought about a new creation even in the midst of this one. Paul tells us that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17. Christ became a man, took on human flesh, the form of a servant, all to live a sinless life so that the sacrifice of that life would satisfy divine justice. He was born of a virgin through the work of the Holy Spirit so that he would not bear the stain of sin with which we are all born. He would be God and man, divinity and flesh, and still to this day, the God-man Christ Jesus is interceding for us at the right-hand of God. Therefore, as we go to our homes and thank God for his many gifts, may we fall to the ground in worship as the wise men and praise him for his indescribable gift.
“For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Jesus had just cast a demon out of a man, and the Pharisees saw it take place. Instead of being amazed at Jesus, they instead belittle Jesus, saying he received his power not from God but from the devil. Jesus never lets these accusations cloud his thinking, so instead he clearly affirms that his power is from the Holy Spirit. It’s the Pharisees who are speaking evil, and it’s because they have hard hearts. For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, Jesus tells them.
That’s just an illustration of the fact that God cares deeply about our words and our thoughts. And that means that he cares about our hearts, because our words are simply the heat that comes from the fire within our hearts. Whatever kind of fire you have in your heart, whether it’s a controlled fire used for good things like safety or cooking, or a chaotic fire used to kill and destroy, your words will not betray what’s in your heart. As heat is the overflow of fire, so words are the overflow of the heart.
This is true in both our prayers to God and our conversations with others. So if we believe that we should be evangelistic in our world, we should start by making sure we have a deep and abiding understanding of the gospel. We need a good understanding of the basics of the faith. Proverbs 19:2 tells us that “Desire (or zeal) without knowledge is not good.” We should have a deep knowledge of the things of God so that when we do speak the good news to those around us, we are speaking from both knowledge of God and experience of his goodness.
And I don’t mean to speak in vagueness. Do you know the ten commandments? If you were pulled into a windowless van and your kidnappers said the only way you could be freed is if you correctly wrote down the ten commandments, would you make it out alive? Do you know the Lord’s prayer, not just for points, but to be the way that Jesus taught us to pray? Could you trace the storyline of Scripture from creation, to cross, to new creation?
As he closes his brief letter, Paul is concerned that the Colossians might lose steam in their prayer life. They have a desire to see others know the Lord as their Savior, but where does that start? Do you just send people out with brochures to walk the streets? Or, is your witness begun before you leave the house?
The depth of your witness is tied to the height of your prayers.
Paul has written about what the redeemed life looks like. He describes the new self. In Colossians 2:20, he tells us that if we have died with Christ to the spiritual powers of this world, then we should not be bound to any other kind of untouchable tradition. Then in Colossians 3:1, he tells us that if we have been raised with Christ, then we should seek a heavenly way of living. That means putting some things to death, like sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness or idolatry.
He then leads directly into how the new life in Christ changes the home. Wives submit to their husbands. Husbands sacrifice themselves for their wives. Children obey their parents. Fathers encourage their children. And while it’s not as common today, slaves or bondservants obey their masters. Masters treat their servants justly and fairly.
Now, Paul extends the realm of the new life both deeper and broader. And in both directions, our words must be clear and gracious. In going deep, we need not just more knowledge about God but a clarity about God. God should not be a fuzzy, shapeless being who has a general tie-in with the world, but the Almighty, eternal, invisible, personal creator of all things. Who God is should be the defining mark of your prayers. And as we go broad in our witness, to our families and friends, we should be able to present a compelling, clear picture of the darkness of sin and the light of Christ.
First, Paul commends regular prayer.
v.2: Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.
This is how the letter started, and it’s how the letter ends. After he introduces himself in chapter 1, the letter itself begins in verse 3 with the words, “We always thank God…” The Christian always has something to be thankful for. Gratitude is a wonderful medicine. Many of us walk around as though we had a black cloud hovering over us at all times. Gratitude toward God for his daily provision, however much or meager, is more than we deserve. So we are thankful. Today, if you are deep in grief and all you have to be thankful for is your salvation and nothing else, then you have the same glorified future as every believer, the same Redeemer as every believer, and the same Spirit as every believer.
“Steadfastly” describes a firm and unwavering commitment to prayer. While that means dedicating time for prayer, it goes beyond that to mean paying attention to what you’re praying for. Many people keep a prayer journal so that they remember to pray for certain things in the future or what they have prayed for in the past. Philippians 4:6 tells us to pray for everything. Nothing is out of bounds in prayer. Pray for yourself, the church, and the world. Pray for the growth of the kingdom. 1 Timothy 2:2 tells us to pray for those in authority. Pray for your leaders, both in the church and in the government. Once you start to see how much Scripture calls us to pray and on whose behalf we should pray, prayer becomes less of a daunting task.
We pray with a steadfast approach, bringing everything to God in prayer, then Paul tells us also to be watchful in prayer. What’s the difference? “Watchful” carries the sense of guard duty. The whole purpose of a guard at the gate is to keep his eyes open on behalf of others. When used as a metaphor in how we pray, it describes prayer as how we stay alert and awake in the Christian life. In Matthew 24 and Mark 13, when Jesus is teaching about the end of the age, he uses the same language of staying alert and awake, or being watchful. When the Lord returns, we should be excited and joyful, but we should not be surprised. We should be waiting actively.
When Jesus is praying in the garden at Gethsemane, right before he is arrested, he is being watchful in prayer. He tells the disciples that are with him, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Mark 14:38). Being watchful in prayer is putting a guard at the gate of our heart and mind. The doctrine of sovereignty stands guard, reminding us that God has ordained these very circumstances. The doctrine of providence stands guard, reminding us that God has a purpose for everything. The doctrine of the atonement stands guard, reminding us that God loves his enemies and provided a substitute for us. Being watchful in prayer moves us from not knowing where to start to having prayer filled with truth and assurance. Let your doctrine stand guard over your prayer.
Paul calling us to thankfulness in our prayers is a helpful qualifier to what watchfulness looks like in reality. We do not pray to God out of a sense of fear that he won’t answer us or anxiety that he won’t hear us, but we pray out of a thankfulness for his provision and his promises. That lends a new confidence in our prayers. Whatever we face, the one to whom we pray possesses the unsearchable riches of Christ (Ephesians 3:8).
Paul then asks for a specific prayer request.
v.3: At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison--
Paul began the letter by saying how much he had been praying for the Colossians, and now he’s calling for the Colossians to pray for him and his team. If Paul knew that God possessed all things and controlled all things, then it makes no sense to pray to anyone else. It only makes sense to bring every need to God, even the ones about himself. Jesus teaches as much in Matthew 6. Without even mentioning prayer, Jesus mentions all the mundane necessities of life, like food and clothing. But then he says, “For the Gentiles seek after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:32-33).
But take note of what Paul is asking for prayers about. He is praying that through him, the gospel might make its way to every place and every people. This is one way you seek the kingdom of God before anything else. Jesus gives his people priorities in prayers. The Lord’s prayer begins, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” You pray to God about God before you bring your needs to him. It’s not because your needs are not important, but your needs are indeed secondary to his glory. That’s not easy to hear in our self-indulgent age, but making the leap to living a life that seeks the kingdom of God first is the clear call for every believer. Christianity is self-denial, not self-indulgent.
Paul even mentions what the gospel has gotten him—a stint in prison. No contemporary theory of self-affirming belief would ever adopt a belief system that expects such debasement. When we are thinking of what discipleship looks like, we must be discipling people to be willing to endure prison and persecution. There were pastors in Canada recently who refused to stop ministering to their people because of lockdowns that went against the commands of Scripture to continue meeting and so faced arrest. The threat of prison was extended to many American pastors and church members, as well. There was such a backlash that they were eventually released and cleared. But do you think that’s the end of it? And I don’t mean that in political sense; I mean that Jesus says that we should expect to be hated by this world on account of following him. That doesn’t mean funny looks and jokes about us behind our backs. That means prison and persecution. A sentimental faith does not preserve you in prison and persecution. A deep abiding knowledge and experience of the gospel is required to stand up against a world that will hate us.
Focusing on discipleship has never been more important because of that. The fact is we do live in a different day, and many churches seem to be unaware of it or ignoring it out of fear. So instead of teaching the Bible and the things of God, they play games. Here's one example of how I know this to be true. This past Friday, we had a booth at the Mistletoe Market as outreach and an act of goodwill to our community. We handed out information about our church along with a summary of the gospel and information about how to get in contact with us. We also had a Bible Christmas quiz just for fun. The five-question quiz was designed with elementary kids in mind, so the questions were along the lines of, "Who followed the star to see the baby Jesus?" Two pastors from churches in our town got that question wrong. One is a fluke; two is a problem. Another young man who was very proud that he went to Bible college got two questions wrong on an elementary Christmas trivia game. Nobody else got more than three questions right. But every kid from Mt. Pisgah who played it got every question right. And that was just Christmas Bible trivia. I can't imagine how much Tylenol PM I would have had to have taken to sleep if we had real doctrinal questions.
Every two years, LifeWay and Ligonier, two Bible curriculum publishers, join together and survey thousands of Americans who claim to be Bible-believing evangelicals about what they believe. If you want to spend an afternoon lamenting in sackcloth and ashes, just Google, "The State of Theology 2022". You'll wonder in amazement at the patience of God.
I say this to encourage you, because there's something going on in our homes and in this church that is putting the Bible in the hearts of minds of even our youngest children. Don't get discouraged. Don't give up. Fight the good fight. Don't let naysayers cloud your thinking. Pushback on the pushback. Stay focused on discipling your children.
Note, also, that Paul does not pray to be let out of prison. Wouldn’t that be your first request if you were unfairly imprisoned? Instead Paul is content with having a prison ministry, whether it’s short-term or for the rest of his life. Paul tells the church at Philippi, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (4:12-13). The circumstances might not need changed; they might need redeemed. This is a great example of the doctrine of sovereignty standing guard in your prayers. Paul did not pray to be let out of prison as if he was there by mistake. Soldiers arrested Paul, but God sent him to prison. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, but God sent him to Egypt. The Romans pierced Jesus’ side, but God put him on the cross. Let your doctrine stand guard over your prayers.
The fact of the matter is, Paul knows that it’s his preaching that landed him in prison to begin with. If he does get out, is a real man like Paul going to stop preaching and take up chess? No; Paul is a realist. And because of that, Paul will preach wherever he is. So once that door is opened for the word to do its work, whether it is to the public or the prison guards, Paul wants this word to have one important trait.
v.4: that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.
When doctors talk to each other, they can use all the jargon they want. But when they’re talking to you in the consultation room after your spouse has just had surgery, you need to hear the truth on your level, as someone without an M.D. You want the doctors to talk clearly to you, using words you both understand. Robb and I are in the hospitals a lot, so people think we know a lot of medical jargon. I just look at them and nod my head. I know three medical terms, and one of them is band-aid.
But this is not the sense Paul means here. What the word “clear” means is “to reveal what was hidden.” It’s often used to describe what happened when Jesus performed a miracle—he “revealed” his glory. Jesus also came to “reveal” God’s name to us. Jesus “revealed” himself to his disciples after his resurrection. Our works will be “revealed” at the judgment seat at the end of the age. It carries the sense of all things becoming clear. There’s no mistake.
Paul’s ministry as the apostle to the Gentiles was to reveal that there is one God, from whom every nation on earth descends, who had sent his Son to atone for the sins of his people, and who would one day return and judge the living and the dead. This is how Paul says he “ought” to speak. That’s not an ethical requirement for Paul, like he ought to love his family or pay his taxes. It’s speaking of the divinely appointed course for Paul’s life. Preaching is his duty. That’s what preaching is—the proclamation of the plan of God set forth before time which is fulfilled in Christ.
You don’t need a pulpit to preach. But this also reminds us just exactly what the gospel is. Sometimes we can skirt around the gospel without ever getting to the heart of it. We can make the gospel out to be “Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” all the while we can’t make our mortgage payment, our kid has cancer, and my job is downsizing. If that’s what we get people in the door with, then it’s just the bait-and-switch. When we present the gospel, whether it’s in worship or around the table, we must focus on the eternal plan of God fulfilled in Christ.
The simple gospel is what leads Paul to go on to say,
v.5: Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.
Paul wrote bespoke letters to all the churches in which he ministered. The Corinthians had all kinds of problems surrounding order in the church’s worship. Things were out of control, and there was no church discipline being done on unrepentant people. The Galatians had essentially forgotten the gospel completely and were in danger of becoming an apostate church. In Colossae, as we’ve seen throughout the letter, there have been groups trying to combine their own pagan teaching with Christian doctrine and practice. So Paul has been cleaning off the glass so they see the gospel more clearly this whole time.
When you’re in the minority, as these Christians were, it’s tempting to gain some credibility with the majority by giving just an inch. There were many bigger religious groups in Colossae, so you can understand the urge to mix and match doctrines so you didn’t seem so off the wall. But we’re not just called to walk among outsiders but to “walk in wisdom” toward outsiders. That means we have to keep our Christian identity even while others might mock us for not adopting an identity like theirs.
Carl Trueman recently wrote an article saying that there was a time when you could be a Christian and believe in the supernatural and still have any job you wanted. You could believe the whole Bible, all the miracles and morals, and even if people thought you were superstitious, as long as you got along, you didn’t lose your spot in society. I don’t know of anyone who has lost their job because they believe in the resurrection. You would still be invited to your neighbor’s home for dinner parties. Your kids could still play with their kids.
But the situation we find ourselves in today is different. You can still hold to all the supernatural claims of Scripture, but if you dare to hold to an orthodox Christian sexual ethic, there are those who actively seek to take away your livelihood. Maybe it’s not you today, but I recently heard of a Christian web designer who was sued for not making a wedding website for a couple whose lifestyle is outside the bounds of biblical morality. She’s not the first and won’t be the last. The Colossians were tempted to give an inch, and so are we. We must walk in wisdom, and where Scripture is unambiguous, so must we be.
But wisdom is not only clarity about the truth. Paul gives us one more description of how we ought to speak.
v.6: Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you out to answer each person.
Words that are wise are both clear and gracious. When we see such slander against the church and the Lord from the wider culture, it can be difficult to hold back and be gracious with our response. But what this actually does is serve to force us to trust even more in the sovereignty of God. After all, it’s never been our speech, our evangelism, or our witness that has brought about conversion in anyone. That is always and only a work of God. Our duty, as Paul has already pointed out, what we ought to do, is be gracious when we speak.
Gracious speech does not take slander personally. As when Jesus was charged with serving Satan when he cast out demons, he did not let those accusations cloud his thinking. He was always under control. Gracious speech is also seasoned with salt. This does not mean entertaining but invigorating and stimulating speech. One of the key areas we’re focusing on in our child and student discipleship on Sunday nights is apologetics, or the defense of the faith. We want them to be able to answer questions like, Why is the resurrection not only plausible but the obviously true scenario? How do other world religions contradict themselves while Christianity stays remarkably consistent?
One of the primary purposes of speech seasoned with salt, or apologetics, is to shape culture and make the Christian worldview a competitor in the minds of the people. That’s the notion behind speech that has been seasoned with salt. As salt adds flavor to bitter food, so biblical truth adds life to our neighborhoods. That’s precisely what Paul did as he traveled around the Mediterranean. He brought the Christian message, the gospel, to bear on every possible issue. His letters reflect that as he wrote on everything ranging from philosophy to ethics. Paul addressed marriage from a gospel perspective. Paul wrote on business ethics from a gospel perspective. Paul taught on charity from a gospel perspective.
The depth of your witness is tied to the height of your prayers. To see the world come to Christ, to see our neighbors repent and be baptized, we must be clear on the gospel message. We must know the basics of the historic Christian faith. It must be seared deep into our hearts and minds. Our prayers must be rooted in Scripture and God-exalting above all else.
First and foremost, we declare the preeminence of Christ. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of the cross” (Colossians 1:15-20).
As most things do, Christmas celebrations, traditions, and practices, change over time. Baptists are the descendants of the Puritans, and in the 16th and 17th centuries, Puritans were fed up with what Christmas had become in both the wider culture and the church. Christmas had become an excuse for drunkenness and immorality. So many churches decided that, when combined with the fact that scripture nowhere teaches that we should celebrate either the birth or death of Christ in any particular way, but rather that every Sunday is to be a celebration of the resurrection, it was time to put an end to all of the excess that had been practiced in the name of Christmas. So for decades, there were no celebrations of anything that we would recognize as Christmas in many places in England and America.
In our own culture, we can see the need for pulling back from the excesses we see all around us. As we move into the Advent season and we consider the first coming of Christ, we should take note of how the gospel writers introduce us to him. Matthew begins with a genealogy for Jesus, Mark with John the Baptist, Luke begins with John the Baptist’s parents, and John begins with Christ’s presence in eternity past. John is determined for us to understand and believe that Jesus is God and that everything comes from him. The Advent season must also begin there—Jesus is God, and everything comes from him.
John is concerned with the mystery of the incarnation. We may not think of it as a mystery because it is so familiar to many of us. We know that Jesus came from heaven to the earth to take on a human nature in addition to his divine nature. Maybe to some of you, it’s entirely new, so the word “mystery” fits quite well. Maybe in addition to “mystery” you’re also thinking of “confusing”. But the truth is, as we come up to the Christmas season, if we don’t understand the incarnation from John’s perspective, we might lose sight of the real meaning of Christmas. John is far more concerned that we understand regeneration, or what it means to receive Christ and how it takes place.
John’s first step in teaching us about the second birth is to show how Jesus is the eternal creator of life. Before creation, the Father, Son, and Spirit had a perfect, personal communion for eternity. They were in need of nothing outside of themselves. The Word is how John describes Jesus, as we’ll see. “The Word” is not just a choice for John but is used consistently in the Old Testament to describe God’s authority and power. God often speaks of his word going out and doing something, as in Isaiah 55:11, where he says, “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” God’s word has power and purpose. It is not weak and ineffectual but strong and successful.
But the most astounding thing John says is that the powerful and purposeful word of God was already present before creation. Not only was this Word with God, but the Word was God. It’s absolutely a mystery, but we cannot ignore the fact that Scripture teaches one God in three persons. When it comes to creation, God the Father created all things through the work of God the Son. What the Father decreed or willed, the Son spoke and set in motion. When we read about God speaking all things into being in Genesis 1, we should understand those words to be the words of Jesus Christ. The words “Let there be…” are the first recorded words of Christ in Scripture. There is nothing that exists that predates Jesus Christ or was created by any other being. Professor Joel Beeke wrote, “Christ was ancient when the galaxies were born.”
John the Evangelist throws all kinds of shade on any philosophy or world system that tries to control you by turning you into an overrated collection of cells whose meaning must be built on the shifting sand of culture. Calling you a cosmic accident, as the dominant worldview does, renders your life meaningless. But Christ made everything and everyone just by his voice, and therefore you have been given the gift of life. You are not here on accident, no matter the circumstances that brought you here. Your very life is due to the fact that Christ gave you the light of life. In the same way that God spoke, “Let there be light,” and there was light to move the darkness out of the way, Christ continues to shine in the darkness. That darkness is the spiritual darkness of life lived in ignorance of and rebellion before God. But here we read a glorious promise: the darkness has not, and will not, overcome it. Literally it means that the darkness has not comprehended or understood the light. Darkness does not overcome light, but light overcomes darkness. And Christ, the true light, in his perfect life and substitutionary death, has overcome the darkness. As he spoke all creation into being, so he also speaks his people into new creation.
John the Evangelist then moves on to John the Baptist. John the Baptist was an important person in that he was a transitional figure into the new covenant era. There were prophecies in the book of Malachi that the prophet Elijah would return before the first coming of Christ. Malachi 4:5-6 reads, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” Instead of destroying his people, he will save them. But here is the problem—Elijah will mark the beginning of this event, but he has been gone for some time, taken into heaven on chariots of fire. How is he going to come back?
Scripture goes to great pains to show us that John the Baptist has fulfilled the type of one like Elijah. If you remember the story of Elijah calling down fire from heaven on a group of false prophets, he prays that God would turn the hearts of his people back to him (1 Kings 18:37). Malachi says this new Elijah, John the Baptist, would actually do what was promised. Matthew and Mark note that John the Baptist dressed like Elijah (Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6). Elijah’s ministry ended and transitioned to Elisha’s at the Jordan River. John the Baptist’s ministry ended and transitioned to Christ’s at the Jordan River. Elisha wanted a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, and then John says that Jesus has the Spirit of God without measure. The details are important, but don’t get lost in them. All this is to show beyond a shadow of a doubt that John the Baptist was not the light but was sent by God to be a witness about this light, who is the eternal Christ, God the Son.
John the Evangelist again shows how the types and shadows are giving way to the real thing. Isaiah 49:6 says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” This is one of the “servant songs” in Isaiah, when Isaiah is directly prophesying about Jesus being the true Israelite, the one who acts on behalf of Israel, to draw the world to God. In an incredible fulfillment, this servant would not be just a man but God the Son descending to our realm, taking on the form of a servant by being born as a man. By Christ “coming into the world”, he was coming as the servant of God and the true light.
But the state of man is naturally darkness rather than light. Even though he made everything through the power of his spoken word, the world rejected him. Not only that, but the very people or nation to which he was born hated him. The ones who were blessed with the covenants and the law were the first ones to say they would rather crucify him than obey him. This goes to show that it doesn’t matter what kind of lineage you have. Just because you can claim a good heritage, that doesn’t mean you are right with God. Many, if not most, in the nation of Israel thought that because they could trace their family tree back to a man named Abraham that God owed them something. But it’s these people who would rather see this servant die and embrace the darkness than actually do what God required of them.
But God has always had a reach beyond Israel. Both within and without Israel, there would be those who were the spiritual descendants of Abraham. And John tells us that those who believe in Jesus were not born from flesh and blood or our own will but by the will of God and God alone. This eradicates any notion of devaluing and reducing salvation down to nothing but a decision you make. How prideful do you have to be? You were saved because God chose you based not on anything in you but on the mercy he had in himself. You were born again by the will of God and God alone. No family tree and no human effort makes a dent in God’s choice.
John’s point is that no one can presume God’s mercy because of where you come from, what you’ve done, or how good you think you are. No one can presume God’s mercy because your parents are Christians, you went to all the church outings, or you consider yourself a spiritual person. This should, though, be a great and lasting comfort to you who are in Christ. God’s will is unchanging. To those he has adopted into his family he promises never to cast aside.
Now the gospel requires a response. But that response is faith. Faith is the recognition that God has done the work only he can do, of turning a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, and responding in loving obedience and trust in Christ’s finished work. If you trace your salvation back to a moment in time when you made a decision, you will always have a lingering doubt about the sincerity and validity of that decision. When the enemy throws seeds of doubt your way and accuses you, you won’t have a leg to stand on. But if you trace your salvation back to the will of God, those doubts, though you may still face them from time to time, are grounded not in your will but in the eternal, merciful, and gracious will of God.
John keeps returning to the incarnation and how awesome it is. The Word, the preexistent Christ who predates everything, the one who spoke all things into being, willed to be born of a woman and live among us. And in the God-man, we have seen the glory of God in ways that no one before could imagine. Moses was given a glimpse of God’s glory on the mountain as God passed by. Peter, James, and John were given a glimpse of God’s glory on the mountain at the transfiguration. We’re reading eye-witness accounts of Christ’s life and God’s glory.
Christ came into the world full of grace and truth, or rather, steadfast love and faithfulness, which define God’s character and fidelity to the covenants he made when he gave Israel the law. So if the coming of the law was good and God was faithful to it, how much better is God in the flesh? The law was a gift to Israel to regulate their lives around God’s constant demand for perfect holiness. Christ came to fulfill the law and God’s constant demand for perfect holiness. The law was also gracious because it showed us who God was. But John writes that in the coming of Christ we have received grace upon grace. God displayed his grace toward fallen, rebellious sinners in the coming of Christ in ways the law did not.
The Son is the best revelation of the Father. If you want to meet with God, you will never again to any temple but to the Son. No one has ever seen God. Moses, Peter, James, and John were shown glimpses, but they never saw the fullness of God, or they would have died. But in Christ, we know God. John tells us that Christ has spent eternity at the Father’s side, which reflects a nearness that no one else has. The word for “side” is literally “bosom”, which means “the one who is nearest to God’s heart.” God has not left us wondering who he is; he has shown us exactly who he is by sending us the nearest and dearest person to him. Then by John 14, Jesus will tell his disciples, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”
So really, the question is not, “Have you seen the Father?” but, “Have you seen the Son?” There is no other way to know God than to know Jesus.
A few weeks ago, we had a two-night book review and some study sessions on the doctrine of perseverance, or eternal security. Closely related is the doctrine of assurance. It was great to see so many of us come to terms with the fact of salvation. I grew up in a good church, but there was one elderly woman in particular, who I remember very well, who struggled with perseverance and assurance of salvation her entire life. She would talk to the pastor all the time, always trying to understand why she struggled like she did. For her, perseverance and assurance weren’t hypotheticals; they were at the center of the fight.
Now I do believe that in general, a Christian can and should know that he or she is a Christian. And the reason that Scripture speaks about making our calling and election sure is because people do struggle with it. Otherwise, what need would there be for such commands? There are all kinds of intense, dense theological treatments of perseverance and assurance. Those are always helpful, because we need to get the mind and the heart aligned. But what about day-to-day struggles with belief? What about when we’re struggling in the moment?
Many of our day-to-day struggles with belief come from outside forces. We doubt because we’re given some contradictory information about things like creation, evidence for Jesus, any number of things. But I would offer that more often than not, we doubt because we’re reminded of our many sins and failures. The enemy lobs accusations against us. “God could not possibly save me if he really knew everything I’ve done. If he really saw inside my heart and knew what I was capable of or even just what I wanted to do, I’d be lost forever.” Sometimes, we just see how great other Christians are doing, how humble they are, how smart they are, how service-oriented they are, and we feel like we fall far too short.
But Paul argues in the strongest possible terms against that kind of thinking. We may have fears and doubts, but Paul wants us to have the strongest minds possible. We need to keep the fact of the gospel in the front our minds at all times. Whenever any other teaching or worldview attacks us, we must fight back with a clear articulation of the finished work of Christ.
In Colossians 2:1-5, which you heard last week, Paul does not want anyone want to get persuaded away from the gospel or have a false teacher bring divisiveness into the church. He knows that leads to doubts and fears. He is encouraging the people to keep a strong backbone against arguments against Christ. He desires that every Christian reaches “all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ” (2:2). Persevere in that truth. Be rooted, built up, and established in faith. The truth should result in unending thanksgiving.
So how do we get there? Paul doesn’t say that to reach full assurance that we need to climb some mountain, go on some pilgrimage, give everything we have to the poor, become a hermit, have visions, or keep certain holidays. Paul teaches many things in this passage, but I want to focus on the truth that to reach full assurance, we remember our baptism.
Our baptism represents in the simplest terms the whole Christian message—death to self and life in Christ. Baptism is not a box you check from which you move on, but it is to be a lifelong reminder of what Christ has done on your behalf. Key to that is remembering what Christ has done, not what you did. Baptism does not do anything to earn your salvation or keep your salvation. It is an act of public obedience which identifies you with the risen Lord.
And when there are so many deceiving ideas and wicked spirits that are actively trying to lead you astray, you never move beyond needing to remember your baptism. It’s a critical component of your assurance. We don’t want to move into either extreme error, saying that baptism doesn’t matter all that much or that baptism is necessary for salvation. But when Paul is arguing for the church to stay on track with the gospel, he does so by directing our minds back to baptism.
At any stage of the Christian life, it is possible to be snatched away by deceptive ideas. Paul calls these things “elemental spirits”. “Elemental spirits” or “elemental principles” is the same word in Galatians 4:3,9, to which Paul says we were once enslaved. What Paul is referring to here and in Galatians is the religious practices of the Jewish people and the religious instincts of all people. Elsewhere, Paul speaks of the Mosaic law as a guardian, keeping God’s people within bounds until the time of their freedom, the time when Christ would come and make peace between God and redeemed humanity. The coming of Christ is likened to a coming-of-age ceremony. The principles in themselves are good and not condemned, but they were temporary by God’s design. Continuing to adhere to them as necessary is condemned.
But even beyond that, Paul is probably referring to what Jesus and others called “the traditions” (Isaiah 29:13, Mark 7:5ff). These were rules and regulations created by the Jewish religious leaders, whether priests, scribes, or teachers, that were in addition to the actual law of God. Sometimes they were well-intentioned, acting like guardrails to protect you from even getting close to breaking God’s law.
In addition to those laws, there was another set of traditions that they believed originated with Moses that had never been written down. This was the oral tradition, supposedly passed down from one generation to another. Eventually, once the Jews were scattered in the generation after Christ, these traditions were finally written down. This eventually become known as the Talmud.
So you can see that we are already a couple of degrees removed from true Judaism. We see it in the church, don’t we? We know the essentials of the gospel, and we don’t dispute them. But we become convinced that we need to protect the gospel, not by proclaiming it, but by adding to it. Before you know it, there are all sorts of traditions and untouchable customs that, if we’re not careful, become as important to us as the gospel.
Paul hasn’t called out a single teacher or a single group of people in the book. He’s aware that this threat can come from just about anywhere. These are the perennial threats to the church. Empty philosophies threaten your assurance by condemning you for not returning to the way things were before Christ.
Do not become prey for bitter, vengeful wolves who want to see you lose the ground you’ve gained in your spiritual maturity. It was not an immoral or secular teaching that threatened them; that would have been easy enough to dismiss. It was a blend of Christian truth, Jewish rituals, and the religious instinct present in every Gentile; or, as you’ve heard before, syncretism. It was not (and does not) just coming from one place. Since the Colossians were primarily Gentile and not Jewish, it was especially easy to convince them that Jewish rites and rituals were central to the Christian faith since that was the forerunner of Christianity. That’s why Paul does not specifically refer to Judaism but to elemental, or religious, spirits in general. But when certain theologies or philosophies have a Christian flavor to them, or when they use Christian language, discernment becomes difficult but all the more important.
When you’re introduced to any teacher, ministry, or movement, you judge them based on what they say about Christ. Do they teach or believe that Jesus was God in the flesh, that he died and rose again for our justification, that he sits at the right hand of God, and that he’ll come again to judge the living and the dead? If not, you run.
Paul tells us, “For in him, the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority” (vv.9-10). If Christ is God, by definition, all other elemental or spiritual powers are not. Back in chapter 1, Paul wrote that “By him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (v.16). Christ is God, and all other earthly and spiritual powers were created by him and receive their authority from him.
Our enlightened, reasonable minds have a hard time making peace with the spiritual realm. As Christians, we also don’t want to believe in Casper or see a demon hiding behind every bush. But Scripture does not hide from the fact that there are unseen spirits and a whole supernatural realm which exists beyond our comprehension. We shouldn’t fill in the gaps with Hollywood, but neither should we act like it doesn’t exist. People may pretend that they don’t think angels and demons and spiritual beings have any role to play in our world like our unenlightened ancestors, but people are as equally weighed down by fate. Maybe it’s not the spirits in the sky determining my destiny, but it’s fixed nevertheless. But here is the point from Paul—Christ is God and these spirits are not. Fate does not have a place in Christian theology.
In Acts 2, when Peter is preaching to the crowd, he tells them that Jesus was handed over to evil men “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). That’s not fate; that’s sovereignty. God has ordained the order and purpose of this world, and he will see it through. Therefore, do not worship the spiritual beings or seek spiritual power from them. Whatever pre-Christian history the Gentile Christians in Colossae had with the spiritual realm should be reinterpreted to see Christ as the head of all of it. Christ retains his preeminence over all creation, seen and unseen. As the preeminent Christ, there is no fate, only providence.
It is always a beautiful day when we see a new believer get baptized. We have seen people under 10 and over 80 place their faith in Christ and receive baptism. Paul urges the Colossian Christians, and us today, that we are to be kept from giving in to deceptive theologies and philosophies by looking back at our baptism.
For Jews, circumcision was required as the sign you were in the covenant b/t God and Israel (Mosaic law). Newborn Jewish males were brought in on the 8th day of life. Converts were circumcised immediately. It was a condition of the old covenant, not the new. Christians have received the circumcision that matters, that of the heart, which is the inward purity earned for us by Christ.
Old Testament law also required circumcision of the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6). B/c Christ has done the spiritual work of heart circumcision, those who are in Christ are the true inheritors of all God’s promises.
That initiated you as an Israelite into the nation. W/o it, you were cast out. You were brought in to the body. In baptism, you are also initiated into a new body, as already being a believer, of which Christ is the head, as already mentioned in 2:10. The church is now a people made up of both Jews and Gentiles, a body on earth whose head is Christ in heaven.
Baptism is a sign of what kind of life the Christian must live. We die to our selves and live in hope of the resurrection, of which Christ is the first-fruits, or the promise. That’s what Paul means by saying that we have been buried with Christ in baptism and raised with him in faith. If we baptize those who cannot articulate that, then we essentially baptize the children of believers. If the church is made up of only regenerate men and women, which is the distinctive Baptist doctrine or what makes us Baptist, then it is not a trifling matter to be discerning before administering baptism and who we welcome into fellowship. That’s not to say make a person run through a gauntlet of diagnostic tests or go to Bible college before we baptize them, but can they articulate not just their faith but the faith once delivered for all to the saints? Have they confessed that Jesus is Lord? Do they understand, at whatever stage of life they are in, what baptism is? It is a cruel mistreatment of anyone to encourage them to be baptized before they have a confession of faith and give them a false sense of security.
And as man dies once, baptism happens once. Christ ordained the Lord’s supper to be the ongoing memorial activity of the church, not baptism. Communion is also the time for introspection and judging yourself. What does it represent if you get baptized every time you feel the need to rededicate yourself? Christ has not offered himself repeatedly but once, as the author of Hebrews tells us that Christ did not “…offer himself repeatedly, … 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” (9:25-26). Christ died once for sins, and he was raised once for our salvation. That is how perfect and complete his sacrifice was. So then, we are baptized at the beginning of our Christian life, and we remember our baptism and the sacrifice of Christ that made it possible, in communion. What do you do when you struggle to persevere in faith? What do you do when deceptive philosophies take root in your mind? You remember your baptism and that it represented you being buried with Christ, in whose powerful name you were also raised. Baptisms are normally public acts before the church so that when you see others being baptized, you are drawn to remember your own.
When God sees those who are in Christ, he applies the things that are true about Christ to be true about us. Those who have sinned will die for their sins, but those whose sins have been dealt with will be given new life. If Christ was given new life, so will you. If Christ was raised from the grave, so will you. If Christ died with committing no sins of his own, you will be justified as if you committed no sins of your own. “All” applies to sins, not us. All of our sins have been forgiven.
It’s not at all fair that Christ’s righteousness is applied to us as if it was our own. Some of us are so cranky and uncooperative and harbor an enormous amount of bitterness. Some of us would rather we live by our own righteousness so at least life is fair and we don’t owe anybody anything. But when we read Paul’s words as he describes what God did for us through the cross, if we have any life in the Spirit whatsoever, we will be crushed.
You owed an enormous, unpayable debt before your creator. If we had a good understanding about the depth of our depravity, of what Jesus died for, we wouldn’t need to talk about much else. But instead of being crushed under the weight of our sin, God instead crushes us under his mercy. He didn’t just give us a loan or take a little off the top; he didn’t wink and say it’s not a big deal; he didn’t just give us a fresh start. Christ absorbed the full debt into himself, the full weight of God’s wrath and justice, so that the debt would be cancelled. Every time the Jews disobeyed the law and every time the Gentiles violated their God-given conscience, the mountainous record of debt simply got larger. But the entirety of it was nailed to the cross and declared to be cancelled.
In Paul’s day, a victorious general would march back into the city through the gates with all his soldiers, the war trophies, and the prisoners of war. He would lead them through the city streets so that everyone would be able to see and appreciate the cost of battle. The enemy’s weapons have been be taken, and the enemy has been overcome and brought to shame. When God nailed the record of debt to the cross, he cut the feet out from under all charges coming at you from the enemy. God has won the victory over sin and death through the spotless sacrifice of Christ.
Because of Christ’s finished work, therefore, “let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” What Paul is describing here are many of the things that made Judaism distinctive: kosher laws and their festival calendar, which the Sabbath was the most common and most important. There were no kosher laws when it came to drinks, so for Paul to mention them here is to show that there were those who were adding laws to God’s law. This is sometimes called “asceticism”, or an extreme form of self-discipline. If it is a personal decision, then Scripture has no law against. But we must remember that Christ did declare all foods clean more than once. To enforce these rules on others, or to even use them to show how righteous you are, is to cast doubt on the salvation of others.
While we don’t have many struggles with the dietary or kosher laws today in the church, there is disagreement about the Sabbath, or the day of rest. Did the apostles move the Sabbath to Sunday, or do we still keep a Sabbath at all? Should it still be Friday evening into Saturday morning? While that’s something to flesh out in detail, it does stand out that Paul here says to not let anyone judge you because of how or when someone else keeps the Sabbath. If Christ has brought us into our Sabbath rest, as the book of Hebrews tells us, then we must make sure we’re not importing undue emphasis on a certain day of the week.
Elsewhere, Paul tells Christians to check their liberty. Do not abuse it at the expense of your brothers and sisters. But at times, in this passage for instance, Paul has to remind Christians that your liberty is a good thing. You are free to devote yourself to keeping certain practices when it comes to the spiritual life. But they are to be settled between you and the Lord, not anyone else. To obligate other Christians to practices that were by their nature transitional from one age to the next, no matter how spiritual they might sound, is to return to slavery. The food laws, the festivals, and the Sabbath was to be a shadow of things to come. These things, the food and festival laws, were shadows of Christ, not the real thing. Once the real thing had come, once Christ came in the flesh, those things which foreshadowed him were no longer necessary.
Paul tells us not to let anyone pass judgment on us in those things, and now he tells us not to let anyone disqualify us from other things: asceticism, worship of angels, and ecstatic visions. These things were grouped together, in short, because they were seen by some as evidence of existing on a higher plane. You had special knowledge if you disciplined your body in a particular way, if you worshiped with the angels, and if you had experienced special, ecstatic visions. But these things do not make you a higher class of Christian; in fact, when Paul mentions that he experienced his own ecstatic vision in 2 Corinthians 12, God sent Paul a messenger from Satan to keep him from being puffed up about it. As awesome as that certainly was, it did not make Paul a better Christian than anyone else.
Some people talk about themselves as if their humility is what makes them so great. “I’m humble, that’s why I’m better than you.” Christian humility, though, is almost unconscious. In no way can you take pride in your humility. Don’t let anyone disqualify you, don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not a true believer, because you have not experienced what they have. You turn your mind back to your baptism and be reminded that Christ died for you.
How do we keep humble and yet have the assurance of faith? How do we persevere in such a way that we don’t take pride our works but in the work of Christ? Paul says in v.19 that those who insist on a higher class of Christianity are detached from the head, who is Christ. What we don’t want to do is make perseverance and assurance out to be something only a higher class of Christian has, which is exactly what Paul is working against. You don’t have assurance and persevere by holding to a stricter set of rules, by claiming greater humility, or by having visions.
How do we persevere? By holding fast to the head! Abiding in Christ! He will never leave us or forsake us. He holds on to us even as he tells to hold on to him. In holding fast to the head, we are nourished and knit together. We persevere even as we are preserved. Christ has done the inner work, and we respond in faith. In our baptism we were buried with him, and we were raised with him through faith. And we can look back at our baptism and see the goodness of God in preserving us all the way from that day to this day. If he has not failed us since, he will not fail us yet.