“I can resist everything except temptation.” Oscar Wilde wrote the play, “Lady Windermere’s Fan”, and it’s a great example of not making too many assumptions when you don’t have all the information. It turns out that Lady Windermere thinks her husband is having an affair. The woman she thinks he’s cheating on her with turns out to be a model of virtue, as is her husband. And the man that she enlists to help her prove her husband’s supposed unfaithfulness, Lord Darlington, winds up being a man who no one would ever ask for council when it comes to ethical concerns. He has no real ethical principles. At one point he says, “Life is too complex for hard and fast rules.” “Situational ethics” is his creed. Everything is flipped on its head. And in one conversation with Lady Windermere, as they are discussing the suitability of “hard and fast” rules, that is when he tells her, “I can resist everything except temptation.”
Contemporary ethics treat temptation more like a joke than a threat, much like Oscar Wilde does in the words of Lord Darlington. But if we truly understood the nature of temptation, it would prove itself to be no joke but to be the poison it actually is.
Scripture has much to say about temptation, to include how destructive giving in to it can be. Temptation makes its first appearance in the garden, in the very beginning, in Genesis 3. The tempter, later identified to be Satan, the devil, the dragon, that ancient serpent, presents a compelling argument for why obedience to God’s word is not in their best interest. Up until the entrance of Satan into the garden, Adam and Eve had lived in perfect obedience to God. They lived by faith, which is living in obedience to the revelation given to us by God.
It’s mind-boggling to think that the simple presence of Satan did nothing to bring about a curse or human sin. When Satan presented his vision of God’s unfair, unnecessary limits on human experience, Adam could have resisted and continued to live by faith—living in obedience to the revelation given to us by God. It was only when Adam was faced with temptation and began to believe the word of the tempter over the word of the Creator that God issued a curse on the land for his disobedience and lack of faith.
This makes Jesus overcoming the temptations he faced in the wilderness all the more meaningful. As we’ll see, the temptations Jesus faced from Satan were intentional and targeted; they weren’t random. Since the fall of man, through the history of Israel, up until the time of Christ, all people everywhere were held under the power and curse of sin.
The apostle Paul writes, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come” (Romans 5:12-14).
There are two men under whom all of humanity is placed. There is no equivocation, no gray area, no third way, no comprising. You are either in Adam and dead in your sins or in Christ and alive in the Spirit. Where the first Adam, a type or a shadow of the one who was to come, faced temptation and caved to the false promises of the enemy, the second Adam, Jesus Christ, faced temptation and believed the word of the Father.
Jesus overcame Satan’s temptation by living faithfully to God’s revelation.
If faith is living according to and trusting in God’s revelation in his word, then living according to every temptation is thinking that I have a right to whatever I want. While that’s the mantra of these last days, it stands in stark contrast to the biblical worldview. Caving to desire is the path to destruction. It is the way of rebellion against God. That was the way of Adam. But the way of Christ is glad obedience and submission to the word of the Father. And in that glad obedience, Christ did what Adam would not do and what none of us are capable of.
4:1-4, The Temptation to Satisfy Self
Jesus began his public ministry with his baptism. As Jesus came up out of the water, “the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:16b-17). Seemingly immediately, Jesus is led out into the wilderness by God the Spirit with the express purpose of being tempted by Satan.
The wilderness is a repetitive theme in Scripture. Adam and Eve are cast out into the wilderness, east of Eden, after the fall. Jacob, one of the patriarchs, wrestles with God in the wilderness. Moses and the Israelites are sent into the wilderness for forty years because of their idolatry, but it is in the wilderness that they will receive the teaching of God and build the tabernacle for worship. And now, Jesus is sent into the wilderness, so we should expect to see Jesus faced with the same struggles.
As Israel fasted in the wilderness for forty years and proved faithless, as Moses fasted for forty days and nights, so Jesus fasted for forty days and nights and proved faithful. It’s little wonder Satan’s first temptation was food. Satan says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” You might ask yourself, “What’s the problem? Why shouldn’t Jesus feed himself? Doesn’t Jesus miraculously create food at other times?” Yes, Jesus does make food, but never for himself. Anything miraculous that Jesus does is done for the benefit of others.
Jesus’s response shows his absolute devotion to the Father. He says, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (v.4). This is not the first time these words have been spoken in Scripture. Jesus is quoting from the book of Deuteronomy 8:3. That book is a look back at the time spent wandering in the wilderness. Moses is reviewing that period as the Israelites are about to end it and enter into the promised land for the first time.
As the Israelites were first learning to live in the wilderness, they began to hate it. They had just been set free from slavery in Egypt after 430 years. They were finally their own people, being formed into their own nation, given their own laws. They were no longer slaves in Egypt. But people are never satisfied. They quite literally just crossed the Red Sea, witnessed the Egyptian army drown in the water, and they begin to complain about…the quality of the food. They are not living by faith, trusting that God would fulfill his promises to them, even though they had just participated in the greatest act of deliverance the world had known.
Moses then remembers this event and interprets it for the children of those who had grumbled in the desert. Even in their grumbling, their outright complaining against their Redeemer, God feeds them. He sends them food from heaven. When they see it, they ask, “What is it?’, which is the word “manna”, hence, manna from heaven. They knew it came from God, but they weren’t sure exactly what it was.
And Moses tells them in Deuteronomy 8, “The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers. And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (vv.1-3).
They ate bread from heaven that day, and the next day, and until the end of their forty years in the wilderness. God never stopped supplying their need. Sometimes, like he did with Israel, he will let you hunger so that you know how fleeting physical hunger really is and how far more essential is your spiritual hunger. And so Jesus fasted for forty days, not even eating manna from heaven, but relying entirely on God’s provision—whatever it would be. Jesus proved himself to the the faithful Israelite.
Sometimes we can’t see past our need for food so we neglect our most important need—the word of God. Of course we need food, and our heavenly Father knows what we need before we even ask. “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing” (Matthew 6:25)? If you live your life, if you make decisions, if you plan your days ahead of time, believing that you have a right to whatever you want, you are easily destroyed by temptation. If you trust in the provision of God at every step in the wilderness, even if it’s in contrast to what you want, you have rule over your sin.
4:5-7, The Temptation to Protect Self
All of these temptations are ultimately a single thinly-veiled attempt by Satan to prove God is untrustworthy. But in a fallen world that’s full of threats and dangers, we are prone to run from God and take matters into our own hands instead of running toward God in childlike dependence and trust, hence why Satan tempts Jesus to throw himself down from the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he says for the second time, “throw yourself down.” If Jesus really was God the Son, then what better place to prove it than the temple.
Satan somewhat changes his tactics. Since Jesus is quoting Scripture, so will he. He uses Psalm 91 to justify his charge that Jesus should test God in his ability to provide for his people. The full passage from the Psalm reads, “For he will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone” (vv.11-12). It’s difficult to know if Satan knew the passage as well as he should have, because the very next verse reads, “You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot” (v.13). This is the very condemnation made by God to the serpent in the garden of Eden. The promised Redeemer would crush the serpent’s head with his foot. So yes, God promises to guard his people, but he also promises to destroy the enemy.
Satan tempts Jesus by telling him to prove that God will protect him. It’s not enough that God has said it; you need to test him and be sure yourself. It’s not enough that God will care for us in the way he knows to be for our good and his glory; you need to force God’s hand to work to your benefit. There is perhaps no greater, clearer rebuke of the prosperity or the health-and-wealth gospel than this, which preaches that with just your word, with enough faith, God will do whatever you ask. His greatest desires for you are more money, better situations in life, more status and power, less strife, no enemies, and quick and painless recoveries from illness—you know, just like the crucified Jesus. God’s glory and his jealousy for his own name plays no role in their belief. Jesus only died to break the curses of all those things. There’s no cross to bear, no temptation to overcome, and no place for death and resurrection. Men and women like Stephen Furtick, Joel Osteen, Kenneth Copeland, Paula White, Todd White, Creflo Dollar, Joseph Prince, Joyce Meyer, and many other vipers like them should be marked and avoided. It’s not just television preachers anymore. It’s all over the internet, and it takes biblical discernment and a willingness to to call evil evil to turn away from them. They sound more like Satan than Satan, and their messages have sent as many people to hell as Satan.
Jesus responds to Satan again with the word of God. Again quoting from Deuteronomy, Jesus likens the attitude and ungratefulness of the wandering Israelites to the voice of Satan. “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (v.7). When the Israelites had left Egypt when they were grumbling about their food, they also grumbled about their water. Because they didn’t have it yet, they gave up trust in God to give it to them at all. They didn’t have what they needed when they wanted it, so the only natural conclusion was that God was withholding it from them. When Moses has to deal with the grumbling Israelites again, he asks them, “Why do you test the LORD?” (Exodus 17:1-2). The people were planning to stone Moses because they were so angry. But again, like with the manna, God provided out of his mercy toward them. God even did so in a miraculous way. Moses struck the rock, and water poured out. And as Moses is later retelling this story to the children of the wilderness wanderers, he tells them, “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6:16). Jesus, though, makes no demands upon the Almighty. Every step of the way, he lives by faith.
The child of God makes no demands of God. In Luke 17, Jesus tells a parable of unworthy servants where he says, “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (vv.7-10).
Our duty is to receive the word of God and respond to it in faith and repentance. It’s true, Jesus paints a complex picture of what it means to be a child of God. We surely are his children who have access to his very throne, but we are not his equals who speak to him as though we can make demands of our Creator and Father.
Jesus is tempted to satisfy himself apart from God, he is tempted to protect himself on his own terms, and now he faces:
4:8-11, The Temptation to Glorify Self
The temple itself was built on Mt. Zion, so it was elevated above the rest of the city. Now Satan takes Jesus beyond the temple to another high place. Like the wilderness, high places held special meaning in Scripture. Most often, high places were areas where people offered unwarranted sacrifices beyond the temple, or where God had ordained sacrifices to be offered. These places were considered to be nearer to the heavens, thereby nearer to God. The good kings had to repeatedly tear down these altars on the high places that Israelites had made. There was one place to go and offer your sacrifices if you were an Israelite. The high places, beyond the temple, were unsanctioned and idolatrous.
So now, Satan takes Jesus to a high place and tells Jesus that if he will worship Satan there, then all the kingdoms of the earth will be his. It’s difficult to consider the idea that Satan would actually be able to give Jesus anything, nevertheless several kingdoms. By no means is Satan’s an absolute power, but it is a power, temporary it may be, exercised only by God’s permission.
We read in 1 John 5:19, “We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” Paul writes in Ephesians 2:1-2, “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.” And he writes again in 2 Corinthians 4:4, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
We should not think for a moment that Satan has any power over us, but we shouldn’t be so naive to think he exercises no authority at all. And what he offers to Jesus on the mountain is only a temporary, fleeting kind of kingdom. This world is passing away. But Christ’s kingdom, the one prepared for him by his Father, is eternal. The apostle Peter reminds us, “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:10-11).
Satan can offer us nothing that is not a mockery of the goodness of God. It is a forgery, nothing like the real thing. Our fallen disposition or nature tempts us to move into idolatry and worship anyone or anything except our Creator. But Jesus again turns our focus back to Scripture, himself quoting Deuteronomy one more time, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (v.10).
Satan may offer a counterfeit kingdom, but his power and authority is itself a childish imitation of Christ’s power as God the Son. In a single word, Jesus says to Satan, “hypagō”, “Be gone”, and Satan has no other option but to leave. Whatever authority or power Satan has over this world, he has no power, no authority, and no ability to withstand the command of God. Jesus was under no compulsion to heed the words of Satan. But with just a word, Satan had no option but to heed the word of God the Son. We’re told in verse 11, “Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.”
The miracles that Jesus performed showed that he had all power over nature, the body, and evil spirits. If Jesus cast a demon out of someone, he didn’t put in a request and wait for an answer. The unclean spirit could not resist the word of God. In the same way, Satan could not resist Christ’s command to leave him. We can be assured that all temptations, all evil spirits, all works of the devil, are squarely under the sovereignty of God.
Temptation is all around us. God told Cain after murdering his brother, “sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). So often, what must change is our minds. From a changed way of thinking comes a changed belief, and changed behavior follows. To think we deserve to have every impulse and desire satisfied immediately will inevitably lead us to self-destruction. Do we even need to comment on how such a way of thinking runs amok today?
What was Jesus really offered in these temptations? If he turned the stones to bread, he could have impressed people with his ability to provide. If he had bobbed off of the top of the temple, he could have impressed people with signs and wonders. If he had accepted the kingdoms of the earth, he could have impressed people with with his royalty.
But Christ came and died not to impress but to save. Jesus regularly told those he healed and exorcised not to tell anyone about what he had done for them. He was not going to distract from his true mission—to seek and save the lost. He would not seek a kingdom that was not from his Father. Jesus did indeed provide for his people, he did many signs and wonders to prove his divinity, and he did of course assume a throne in his ascension. The book of Matthew ends by confirming that Jesus did truly inherit all authority in heaven and on earth. But the book of Luke also tells the story of the temptations of Jesus, and he ends with this important note: “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13).
One of the greatest dangers when it comes to temptation is to think that it goes away. Temptation was not gone. Satan was not done. This passage seems to have been in James’ mind when he wrote, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). Cain had to be told to rule over sin in Genesis 4, and James had to repeat a similar command thousands of years later. We need to hear that truth as much today as in the past.
Do not get tired or complacent in the fight against the common temptations of lust, greed, and anger. Be prepared every day to fight against pornography, covetousness, and rage. Each morning, commit to taming your desires, having just one more degree of mastery over your appetites, and seeking the holiness of God. Don’t be fooled into thinking that temptation has been mastered or erased.
Don’t get lulled into thinking that the Christian life is lived in an armchair, just waiting to die or for the second coming. The fact that you are justified by Christ’s righteousness and his righteousness alone motivates the believer to seek to put your sin to death, knowing that in Christ’s death you, too, died. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you” (Colossians 3:5). You will be tempted until the day you die, but because of Christ’s perfect righteousness, no temptation will come upon you that you cannot bear, and no temptation will come upon you that will be able to take you away from his hand.
When you live in a small town, maybe especially when your family has lived there for a few generations, you really form an attachment to the place. You have roots. You can live in a big city and have roots, but there’s a difference in knowing 80% of the population vs. 10%. You have a deeper desire to see things get better, not worse. You’re more willing to volunteer if you’re dedicated to a location. You have ownership.
There’s even a trend now of population increase in rural areas. The Census Bureau showed that between 2010-2020, cities exploded. But between 2020-2021, rural populations increased more than urban populations for the first time in a century. Data is just data, and it always has to be interpreted, which is what makes drawing conclusions so difficult. But people talk with their feet. There is a definite trend toward going smaller.
Having multiple generations in a town makes raising children easier. It makes forming a livelihood easier. It should take the stress of daily striving a little easier. You have some support always on hand. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and when those things are missing, you realize how quickly they can be taken for granted.
And we are not the first generation to notice that. People have always cared about their families, where they came from, and what life was like before them. Up until about the age of 12, we idealize everyone and everything. Then as we become more self-aware and aware of the sins and faults of others, we grow nostalgic, not for the way things were, but for the way we understood them. So we can apprehend why we get sentimental for the past, why we romanticize it, and why we want to learn more about it. We can understand the desire for a more bucolic, pastoral way of living.
Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus Christ. Matthew’s not being nostalgic, he’s not romanticizing the past, and he’s not a grumpy old man who wants to tell the kids how much better things used to be. In a stroke of divinely inspired genius, Matthew presents the entire gospel in a single sentence--
“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”
Matthew then expands on that gospel sentence in what might be misconstrued as an usual way. He talks about fathers and their sons. “Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,” on and on. For our King James fans, “Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob, and Jacob begat Judah and his brothers,” on and on.
What could possibly be the point of doing a 23-and-Me when we’re trying to understand the gospel? Do we really need to start with an ancestry of Jesus? What could Matthew be doing?
If you know much about the Bible, you know that genealogies are common. They’re all over the Old Testament, and they make brief appearances in the New Testament, as well. Both Matthew and Luke make them important parts of the early sections of their gospels. Luke goes into even greater detail, going all the way back to Adam. So what’s the point of tracing Jesus’ lineage through all these fathers and sons? Matthew is practically screaming at us:
God is the keeper of his covenant.
God made important covenants with both Abraham and David, the two men around whom this genealogy is centered. A covenant is an oath guaranteed with blessings and curses. When we get married, we make a covenant to stay together in sickness and in health, riches and poverty, for better or worse. We know that if we break the covenant without cause, there are consequences. We might not pronounce blessings and curses when we enter a marriage covenant, but the biblical covenants definitely do.
Christ is the centerpiece and organizing principle, or simply, just the reason, of Scripture, around which all of the Bible is written. And the covenants are the means by which we understand who Jesus is, which is why Matthew identifies Jesus as the Christ, the son of David and the son of Abraham. There are many covenants in Scripture which progressively reveal God’s plan of redemption.
When Adam fell, God promised to bring about redemption by sending an offspring from Eve who would crush the serpent’s head who deceived her. The next covenant, the covenant with Noah, made the promise that the earth would remain until God had accomplished all his redemptive plan. The covenant with Abraham promised a nation who would bring about the seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head and bless the whole world in doing so. The covenant with Moses gave that nation laws by which they would be governed. If they were faithful, they would stand in the land. If they broke the covenant, they would be exiled. Spoiler alert: it only took a few hundred years to be kicked out. The covenant with David further identified the seed of the woman as a king who would rule forever. The new covenant with Christ brought the covenant of Moses to an end but brought about an expansion by grafting the branches of the nations into the vine of Israel, thereby giving birth to Christ’s church as Abraham’s spiritual children.
So why did Matthew see this genealogy as necessary to start his gospel? It’s essential to see God has never stopped fulfilling his promises. Jesus is the promised son of Abraham, the seed of the woman who would bless the world. Jesus is the promised son of David, the king of the whole world. Matthew was also initially writing to the Jews, which the first verse makes clear. Throughout the whole gospel, Matthew is regularly quoting or alluding to the Old Testament, where the promises of God began.
The Jews of Matthew’s day had misunderstood the Old Testament prophecies by holding to certain expectations of what this promised seed of the woman, the Messiah, would be like. They wanted a conqueror to push the Romans out of their land and re-establish the theocracy, or where they were independent and ruled by God and a king from the line of David. Jesus was a stumbling block, a rock of offense. If they had only considered the facts of Jesus’ life, they would have seen and understood how he was exactly who God had promised. But more than once, Jesus accused their religious leaders of not knowing the Scriptures and the power of God.
By rooting Jesus deep in Israel’s history, back to David and further to Abraham, we cannot conclude that Jesus is a surprise on the scene. Jesus is not a random accident. He’s fulfillment. In our nation, where we don’t inherit offices (ideally), it can be difficult to wrap our heads around the importance of tracing Jesus’ line back hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s not only fascinating but important. If the skeptics of today would only consider the ridiculous odds of Jesus tracing himself back not just a few generations but to the founding of God’s people, they would lose much of their enthusiasm. Phenomenons are unaccounted for; they come out of nowhere. But that’s not Jesus. He’s from the Godhead who writes history and arrived at the fullness of time, “declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things not yet done” (Isaiah 46:10).
Scripture itself is that record of God fulfilling his purposes in Christ. God has had a plan and purpose to give a kingdom to the Son before the foundation of the world. If that’s not a wonderful story, I don’t know what is. That means that this world is not about me. It’s not about you. You and I have no thrones to sit on. There is one throne in the cosmos, and it belongs to Christ. It always has and it always will. In a world bent on idolizing ourselves, Matthew takes a wrecking ball to our inflated sense of self with the words, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”
Throughout the books of Moses, the history books, the books of wisdom, and the writings of the prophets, God repeats his promise to redeem us through the seed of the woman, Jesus Christ. As Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 1:20, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him.”
That’s not just some promises, not just the promises to Abraham or to David, but every promise of God. Every covenant promise is a glowing sign, a blaring speaker, reminding us that God is fulfilling everything through Christ. God will send deliverance through him.
That promise was first made in the garden immediately after the fall of man. The first man and woman ate the forbidden fruit, being deceived by the serpent into believing they could be like God. They were already his image and likeness, but they were all too easily convinced that wasn’t enough. So they gave in to the temptation to sit on a throne of their own making. When they realized their sin, their guilt and shame, they hid like children. God called them out of hiding to deal with them. Instead of dying, they were shown mercy and covered by God’s gracious gift of animal skins.
God punished them, but he cursed the serpent who deceived them. He said to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). That promise would be the first declaration that God redeems the lost, loves his enemies, he raises the dead. “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3). That covenant promise is then expanded upon with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and finally brought to fulfillment in Christ.
The author of Hebrews begins by saying, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Through dreams and visions, the words of the prophets, angelic messages, and in many ways, God declared the gospel message before the incarnation of Christ. But now that we have the revelation of Jesus Christ, God’s plan of redemption has reached its culmination. In these last days, we wait for his return to bring an end to this age, separate the righteous from the wicked, and inherit the kingdom from the Father while his enemies are made his footstool.
The Covenant with David
God makes a covenant with David in 2 Samuel 7. He promises many things. God will make David’s name great, he will make sure Israel lives peacefully, he will discipline David when he sins, but David’s offspring will reign after him. The covenant promise ends with God saying, “Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16b).
David’s sin was great, as was his offsprings’, and they did earn God’s discipline. Nations did invade the land and remove the people, taking many into exile. But God’s promise is a covenant promise which he will not break. The prophets are told of a descendant of David who would return to the throne and reign forever. Isaiah describes the lineage of David like a tree that’s been cut down after the king’s sin removes the people from the land. All that’s left is a stump. But there’s still life in the tree, and a small shoot starts to rise up. He writes, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse (David’s father), and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1).
The angel Gabriel tells Mary, the mother of Jesus, “And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).
Then Jesus himself tells John at the end of Revelation, “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” (Revelation 22:16).
The son of David reigns now and forever. It is a promise.
The Covenant with Abraham
The covenant with Abraham is found in three places: Genesis, 12, 15, and 17. God promises to take this one man and turn him into a great nation, turn his name into a great name, and to make him a great blessing to the whole world. Then, Abraham’s offspring will go into slavery before they are rescued miraculously and taken to the promised land. Lastly, God promises kings will be in Abraham’s offspring.
Paul the apostle tells us later, "Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, 'And to offsprings,' referring to many, but referring to one, 'And to your offspring,' who is Christ" (Galatians 3:16).
The covenant with Abraham was the narrowing of all mankind to set our sights on a single descendent from Abraham who would fulfill all God’s promises. There would be one who would bring an end to the curse, rescue his people from slavery to sin and death, bring in his people from a multitude of nations, and take them to the heavenly country.
The three major world religions all claim to have their roots in this promise. Of course, Judaism claims that Abraham was their patriarch, which he was and is. But the Judaism of today looks nothing like first-century Judaism. Islam also claims Abrahamic lineage.
But Paul again writes in Romans 9, “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ That means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring” (vv.6-8).
If you’ll remember, Abraham and his wife Sarah were unable to have children. But God promised them nations and kings and land. So God made another promise, that they would bear a single son, who would be Isaac, through whom those things would come. Abraham grew impatient and bore a child, Ishmael, with Sarah’s servant.. But there would be no messiah from that natural offspring. Through Isaac would come the fulfillment of that great promise.
Abraham has physical descendants, but he also has spiritual descendants. Not all who belong to Israel are Abraham’s spiritual offspring. Those spiritual offspring are born again through Christ. In Romans 11, Paul uses the imagery of Israel as the root of a tree, and individual branches have been broken off in order to make room for wild olive shoots, you and me, to be grafted in. Israelites who did not believe in Christ were removed, or broken off like branches. And Gentiles, wild olive shoots, were grafted in to become a part of the same root, to be nourished by the root like the natural branches.
In the book of Revelation, there are instances where the author John hears something, but when he turns to look, he sees something else. It’s supposed to show us both sides, to fill out our understanding of the truth. For instance, in chapter 5, he is told about a roaring lion, and the root of David, and a conquering king, but when he turns to look, all he sees a gentle lamb that appears to have been slain but is alive. Jesus is the lion of Judah, the son of David, the king, but he is also the lamb who was slain.
But in chapter 7, for our purposes, John hears of 12,000 people saved from each of the 12 tribes of Israel, or 144,000 people. But when he turns to look, what does he see?
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10).
These are Abraham’s spiritual descendants, the children of the promise. In that way, there is no Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. For all are one in Christ Jesus, the son of Abraham, the son of David, through whom we receive the redemption of our souls.
Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. God is the keeper of his covenants. He has promised redemption for all those who place their faith in Christ. And as surely as Christ is the son of both David and Abraham, so are all those saved who rest in him.
We even see Gentiles in his genealogy. And not just Gentiles, but women, who were not often used to prove a certain lineage. The fathers represented the family line. But all these women were written into history by God at moments that wound up to be major turns.
Tamar was a prostitute who disguised herself and slept with her father-in-law as a way of getting back at him. The children from that illicit activity would be the forefather of Boaz, who would marry Ruth.
Ruth was a Moabite Gentile who made herself very available to Boaz, basically wore him down, and married in to the Jewish line. Their descendent would be king David who had an affair with Bathsheba.
Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah, who was one of David’s most loyal soldiers. David couldn’t hide his affair or the child that came from it, so he had Uriah killed in battle. That child also died, but David and Bathsheba’s son Solomon would eventually take the throne and continue the line toward Jesus.
One line running between all these women is the suspicion and questions around their childbearing. But we get to the last woman in the genealogy, Mary. Matthew makes sure there is no question or suspicion surrounding the birth of Christ.
There are two ways of reading this genealogy. The first way is to see a selective reading of history that really does quite little for the Christian message. Why would it possibly matter who begat who?
But the second way of reading this genealogy is to see God’s hand of providence throughout the entire line. Most of these men and women screwed up and sinned and worshiped idols every chance they got. But that did nothing to halt God’s purpose. Even in the midst of murder, adultery, and scheming, God remains sovereign. The only way to read this one is to see God’s hand of grace and power all along the way.
So maybe on this Father’s Day, a special word to the men. God keeps his promises. This means if you are following him and leading your family into greater devotion to him, and even when you don’t, then you will see God’s grace and power all along the way. So don’t get discouraged when things fall apart, when children make you doubt your sanity, when things aren’t easy with your wife, and when your job disappears. All along the way, God’s grace and power to preserve you are at work.
You can only imagine what each of these individuals thought throughout their lives about their circumstances. Abraham didn’t quite believe God’s word so he took matters in his own hands. Did this mess up God’s plan? Judah slept with a prostitute who he couldn’t even pay and found out he just fathered his own grandchildren. How could God set that right? Rehoboam split Israel in two. How could God reunite two kingdoms of people who hated each other? Israel went into exile for generations of idolatry. Why would God do anything good for them?
God’s jealousy for his own name and his grace and mercy toward us lead us toward Jesus Christ. Every step and every generation is in God’s hands. He keeps his covenants, now and forever.
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.
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.
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.
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.