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.
“For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Jesus had just cast a demon out of a man, and the Pharisees saw it take place. Instead of being amazed at Jesus, they instead belittle Jesus, saying he received his power not from God but from the devil. Jesus never lets these accusations cloud his thinking, so instead he clearly affirms that his power is from the Holy Spirit. It’s the Pharisees who are speaking evil, and it’s because they have hard hearts. For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, Jesus tells them.
That’s just an illustration of the fact that God cares deeply about our words and our thoughts. And that means that he cares about our hearts, because our words are simply the heat that comes from the fire within our hearts. Whatever kind of fire you have in your heart, whether it’s a controlled fire used for good things like safety or cooking, or a chaotic fire used to kill and destroy, your words will not betray what’s in your heart. As heat is the overflow of fire, so words are the overflow of the heart.
This is true in both our prayers to God and our conversations with others. So if we believe that we should be evangelistic in our world, we should start by making sure we have a deep and abiding understanding of the gospel. We need a good understanding of the basics of the faith. Proverbs 19:2 tells us that “Desire (or zeal) without knowledge is not good.” We should have a deep knowledge of the things of God so that when we do speak the good news to those around us, we are speaking from both knowledge of God and experience of his goodness.
And I don’t mean to speak in vagueness. Do you know the ten commandments? If you were pulled into a windowless van and your kidnappers said the only way you could be freed is if you correctly wrote down the ten commandments, would you make it out alive? Do you know the Lord’s prayer, not just for points, but to be the way that Jesus taught us to pray? Could you trace the storyline of Scripture from creation, to cross, to new creation?
As he closes his brief letter, Paul is concerned that the Colossians might lose steam in their prayer life. They have a desire to see others know the Lord as their Savior, but where does that start? Do you just send people out with brochures to walk the streets? Or, is your witness begun before you leave the house?
The depth of your witness is tied to the height of your prayers.
Paul has written about what the redeemed life looks like. He describes the new self. In Colossians 2:20, he tells us that if we have died with Christ to the spiritual powers of this world, then we should not be bound to any other kind of untouchable tradition. Then in Colossians 3:1, he tells us that if we have been raised with Christ, then we should seek a heavenly way of living. That means putting some things to death, like sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness or idolatry.
He then leads directly into how the new life in Christ changes the home. Wives submit to their husbands. Husbands sacrifice themselves for their wives. Children obey their parents. Fathers encourage their children. And while it’s not as common today, slaves or bondservants obey their masters. Masters treat their servants justly and fairly.
Now, Paul extends the realm of the new life both deeper and broader. And in both directions, our words must be clear and gracious. In going deep, we need not just more knowledge about God but a clarity about God. God should not be a fuzzy, shapeless being who has a general tie-in with the world, but the Almighty, eternal, invisible, personal creator of all things. Who God is should be the defining mark of your prayers. And as we go broad in our witness, to our families and friends, we should be able to present a compelling, clear picture of the darkness of sin and the light of Christ.
First, Paul commends regular prayer.
v.2: Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.
This is how the letter started, and it’s how the letter ends. After he introduces himself in chapter 1, the letter itself begins in verse 3 with the words, “We always thank God…” The Christian always has something to be thankful for. Gratitude is a wonderful medicine. Many of us walk around as though we had a black cloud hovering over us at all times. Gratitude toward God for his daily provision, however much or meager, is more than we deserve. So we are thankful. Today, if you are deep in grief and all you have to be thankful for is your salvation and nothing else, then you have the same glorified future as every believer, the same Redeemer as every believer, and the same Spirit as every believer.
“Steadfastly” describes a firm and unwavering commitment to prayer. While that means dedicating time for prayer, it goes beyond that to mean paying attention to what you’re praying for. Many people keep a prayer journal so that they remember to pray for certain things in the future or what they have prayed for in the past. Philippians 4:6 tells us to pray for everything. Nothing is out of bounds in prayer. Pray for yourself, the church, and the world. Pray for the growth of the kingdom. 1 Timothy 2:2 tells us to pray for those in authority. Pray for your leaders, both in the church and in the government. Once you start to see how much Scripture calls us to pray and on whose behalf we should pray, prayer becomes less of a daunting task.
We pray with a steadfast approach, bringing everything to God in prayer, then Paul tells us also to be watchful in prayer. What’s the difference? “Watchful” carries the sense of guard duty. The whole purpose of a guard at the gate is to keep his eyes open on behalf of others. When used as a metaphor in how we pray, it describes prayer as how we stay alert and awake in the Christian life. In Matthew 24 and Mark 13, when Jesus is teaching about the end of the age, he uses the same language of staying alert and awake, or being watchful. When the Lord returns, we should be excited and joyful, but we should not be surprised. We should be waiting actively.
When Jesus is praying in the garden at Gethsemane, right before he is arrested, he is being watchful in prayer. He tells the disciples that are with him, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Mark 14:38). Being watchful in prayer is putting a guard at the gate of our heart and mind. The doctrine of sovereignty stands guard, reminding us that God has ordained these very circumstances. The doctrine of providence stands guard, reminding us that God has a purpose for everything. The doctrine of the atonement stands guard, reminding us that God loves his enemies and provided a substitute for us. Being watchful in prayer moves us from not knowing where to start to having prayer filled with truth and assurance. Let your doctrine stand guard over your prayer.
Paul calling us to thankfulness in our prayers is a helpful qualifier to what watchfulness looks like in reality. We do not pray to God out of a sense of fear that he won’t answer us or anxiety that he won’t hear us, but we pray out of a thankfulness for his provision and his promises. That lends a new confidence in our prayers. Whatever we face, the one to whom we pray possesses the unsearchable riches of Christ (Ephesians 3:8).
Paul then asks for a specific prayer request.
v.3: At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison--
Paul began the letter by saying how much he had been praying for the Colossians, and now he’s calling for the Colossians to pray for him and his team. If Paul knew that God possessed all things and controlled all things, then it makes no sense to pray to anyone else. It only makes sense to bring every need to God, even the ones about himself. Jesus teaches as much in Matthew 6. Without even mentioning prayer, Jesus mentions all the mundane necessities of life, like food and clothing. But then he says, “For the Gentiles seek after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:32-33).
But take note of what Paul is asking for prayers about. He is praying that through him, the gospel might make its way to every place and every people. This is one way you seek the kingdom of God before anything else. Jesus gives his people priorities in prayers. The Lord’s prayer begins, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” You pray to God about God before you bring your needs to him. It’s not because your needs are not important, but your needs are indeed secondary to his glory. That’s not easy to hear in our self-indulgent age, but making the leap to living a life that seeks the kingdom of God first is the clear call for every believer. Christianity is self-denial, not self-indulgent.
Paul even mentions what the gospel has gotten him—a stint in prison. No contemporary theory of self-affirming belief would ever adopt a belief system that expects such debasement. When we are thinking of what discipleship looks like, we must be discipling people to be willing to endure prison and persecution. There were pastors in Canada recently who refused to stop ministering to their people because of lockdowns that went against the commands of Scripture to continue meeting and so faced arrest. The threat of prison was extended to many American pastors and church members, as well. There was such a backlash that they were eventually released and cleared. But do you think that’s the end of it? And I don’t mean that in political sense; I mean that Jesus says that we should expect to be hated by this world on account of following him. That doesn’t mean funny looks and jokes about us behind our backs. That means prison and persecution. A sentimental faith does not preserve you in prison and persecution. A deep abiding knowledge and experience of the gospel is required to stand up against a world that will hate us.
Focusing on discipleship has never been more important because of that. The fact is we do live in a different day, and many churches seem to be unaware of it or ignoring it out of fear. So instead of teaching the Bible and the things of God, they play games. Here's one example of how I know this to be true. This past Friday, we had a booth at the Mistletoe Market as outreach and an act of goodwill to our community. We handed out information about our church along with a summary of the gospel and information about how to get in contact with us. We also had a Bible Christmas quiz just for fun. The five-question quiz was designed with elementary kids in mind, so the questions were along the lines of, "Who followed the star to see the baby Jesus?" Two pastors from churches in our town got that question wrong. One is a fluke; two is a problem. Another young man who was very proud that he went to Bible college got two questions wrong on an elementary Christmas trivia game. Nobody else got more than three questions right. But every kid from Mt. Pisgah who played it got every question right. And that was just Christmas Bible trivia. I can't imagine how much Tylenol PM I would have had to have taken to sleep if we had real doctrinal questions.
Every two years, LifeWay and Ligonier, two Bible curriculum publishers, join together and survey thousands of Americans who claim to be Bible-believing evangelicals about what they believe. If you want to spend an afternoon lamenting in sackcloth and ashes, just Google, "The State of Theology 2022". You'll wonder in amazement at the patience of God.
I say this to encourage you, because there's something going on in our homes and in this church that is putting the Bible in the hearts of minds of even our youngest children. Don't get discouraged. Don't give up. Fight the good fight. Don't let naysayers cloud your thinking. Pushback on the pushback. Stay focused on discipling your children.
Note, also, that Paul does not pray to be let out of prison. Wouldn’t that be your first request if you were unfairly imprisoned? Instead Paul is content with having a prison ministry, whether it’s short-term or for the rest of his life. Paul tells the church at Philippi, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (4:12-13). The circumstances might not need changed; they might need redeemed. This is a great example of the doctrine of sovereignty standing guard in your prayers. Paul did not pray to be let out of prison as if he was there by mistake. Soldiers arrested Paul, but God sent him to prison. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, but God sent him to Egypt. The Romans pierced Jesus’ side, but God put him on the cross. Let your doctrine stand guard over your prayers.
The fact of the matter is, Paul knows that it’s his preaching that landed him in prison to begin with. If he does get out, is a real man like Paul going to stop preaching and take up chess? No; Paul is a realist. And because of that, Paul will preach wherever he is. So once that door is opened for the word to do its work, whether it is to the public or the prison guards, Paul wants this word to have one important trait.
v.4: that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.
When doctors talk to each other, they can use all the jargon they want. But when they’re talking to you in the consultation room after your spouse has just had surgery, you need to hear the truth on your level, as someone without an M.D. You want the doctors to talk clearly to you, using words you both understand. Robb and I are in the hospitals a lot, so people think we know a lot of medical jargon. I just look at them and nod my head. I know three medical terms, and one of them is band-aid.
But this is not the sense Paul means here. What the word “clear” means is “to reveal what was hidden.” It’s often used to describe what happened when Jesus performed a miracle—he “revealed” his glory. Jesus also came to “reveal” God’s name to us. Jesus “revealed” himself to his disciples after his resurrection. Our works will be “revealed” at the judgment seat at the end of the age. It carries the sense of all things becoming clear. There’s no mistake.
Paul’s ministry as the apostle to the Gentiles was to reveal that there is one God, from whom every nation on earth descends, who had sent his Son to atone for the sins of his people, and who would one day return and judge the living and the dead. This is how Paul says he “ought” to speak. That’s not an ethical requirement for Paul, like he ought to love his family or pay his taxes. It’s speaking of the divinely appointed course for Paul’s life. Preaching is his duty. That’s what preaching is—the proclamation of the plan of God set forth before time which is fulfilled in Christ.
You don’t need a pulpit to preach. But this also reminds us just exactly what the gospel is. Sometimes we can skirt around the gospel without ever getting to the heart of it. We can make the gospel out to be “Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” all the while we can’t make our mortgage payment, our kid has cancer, and my job is downsizing. If that’s what we get people in the door with, then it’s just the bait-and-switch. When we present the gospel, whether it’s in worship or around the table, we must focus on the eternal plan of God fulfilled in Christ.
The simple gospel is what leads Paul to go on to say,
v.5: Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.
Paul wrote bespoke letters to all the churches in which he ministered. The Corinthians had all kinds of problems surrounding order in the church’s worship. Things were out of control, and there was no church discipline being done on unrepentant people. The Galatians had essentially forgotten the gospel completely and were in danger of becoming an apostate church. In Colossae, as we’ve seen throughout the letter, there have been groups trying to combine their own pagan teaching with Christian doctrine and practice. So Paul has been cleaning off the glass so they see the gospel more clearly this whole time.
When you’re in the minority, as these Christians were, it’s tempting to gain some credibility with the majority by giving just an inch. There were many bigger religious groups in Colossae, so you can understand the urge to mix and match doctrines so you didn’t seem so off the wall. But we’re not just called to walk among outsiders but to “walk in wisdom” toward outsiders. That means we have to keep our Christian identity even while others might mock us for not adopting an identity like theirs.
Carl Trueman recently wrote an article saying that there was a time when you could be a Christian and believe in the supernatural and still have any job you wanted. You could believe the whole Bible, all the miracles and morals, and even if people thought you were superstitious, as long as you got along, you didn’t lose your spot in society. I don’t know of anyone who has lost their job because they believe in the resurrection. You would still be invited to your neighbor’s home for dinner parties. Your kids could still play with their kids.
But the situation we find ourselves in today is different. You can still hold to all the supernatural claims of Scripture, but if you dare to hold to an orthodox Christian sexual ethic, there are those who actively seek to take away your livelihood. Maybe it’s not you today, but I recently heard of a Christian web designer who was sued for not making a wedding website for a couple whose lifestyle is outside the bounds of biblical morality. She’s not the first and won’t be the last. The Colossians were tempted to give an inch, and so are we. We must walk in wisdom, and where Scripture is unambiguous, so must we be.
But wisdom is not only clarity about the truth. Paul gives us one more description of how we ought to speak.
v.6: Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you out to answer each person.
Words that are wise are both clear and gracious. When we see such slander against the church and the Lord from the wider culture, it can be difficult to hold back and be gracious with our response. But what this actually does is serve to force us to trust even more in the sovereignty of God. After all, it’s never been our speech, our evangelism, or our witness that has brought about conversion in anyone. That is always and only a work of God. Our duty, as Paul has already pointed out, what we ought to do, is be gracious when we speak.
Gracious speech does not take slander personally. As when Jesus was charged with serving Satan when he cast out demons, he did not let those accusations cloud his thinking. He was always under control. Gracious speech is also seasoned with salt. This does not mean entertaining but invigorating and stimulating speech. One of the key areas we’re focusing on in our child and student discipleship on Sunday nights is apologetics, or the defense of the faith. We want them to be able to answer questions like, Why is the resurrection not only plausible but the obviously true scenario? How do other world religions contradict themselves while Christianity stays remarkably consistent?
One of the primary purposes of speech seasoned with salt, or apologetics, is to shape culture and make the Christian worldview a competitor in the minds of the people. That’s the notion behind speech that has been seasoned with salt. As salt adds flavor to bitter food, so biblical truth adds life to our neighborhoods. That’s precisely what Paul did as he traveled around the Mediterranean. He brought the Christian message, the gospel, to bear on every possible issue. His letters reflect that as he wrote on everything ranging from philosophy to ethics. Paul addressed marriage from a gospel perspective. Paul wrote on business ethics from a gospel perspective. Paul taught on charity from a gospel perspective.
The depth of your witness is tied to the height of your prayers. To see the world come to Christ, to see our neighbors repent and be baptized, we must be clear on the gospel message. We must know the basics of the historic Christian faith. It must be seared deep into our hearts and minds. Our prayers must be rooted in Scripture and God-exalting above all else.
First and foremost, we declare the preeminence of Christ. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of the cross” (Colossians 1:15-20).
As most things do, Christmas celebrations, traditions, and practices, change over time. Baptists are the descendants of the Puritans, and in the 16th and 17th centuries, Puritans were fed up with what Christmas had become in both the wider culture and the church. Christmas had become an excuse for drunkenness and immorality. So many churches decided that, when combined with the fact that scripture nowhere teaches that we should celebrate either the birth or death of Christ in any particular way, but rather that every Sunday is to be a celebration of the resurrection, it was time to put an end to all of the excess that had been practiced in the name of Christmas. So for decades, there were no celebrations of anything that we would recognize as Christmas in many places in England and America.
In our own culture, we can see the need for pulling back from the excesses we see all around us. As we move into the Advent season and we consider the first coming of Christ, we should take note of how the gospel writers introduce us to him. Matthew begins with a genealogy for Jesus, Mark with John the Baptist, Luke begins with John the Baptist’s parents, and John begins with Christ’s presence in eternity past. John is determined for us to understand and believe that Jesus is God and that everything comes from him. The Advent season must also begin there—Jesus is God, and everything comes from him.
John is concerned with the mystery of the incarnation. We may not think of it as a mystery because it is so familiar to many of us. We know that Jesus came from heaven to the earth to take on a human nature in addition to his divine nature. Maybe to some of you, it’s entirely new, so the word “mystery” fits quite well. Maybe in addition to “mystery” you’re also thinking of “confusing”. But the truth is, as we come up to the Christmas season, if we don’t understand the incarnation from John’s perspective, we might lose sight of the real meaning of Christmas. John is far more concerned that we understand regeneration, or what it means to receive Christ and how it takes place.
John’s first step in teaching us about the second birth is to show how Jesus is the eternal creator of life. Before creation, the Father, Son, and Spirit had a perfect, personal communion for eternity. They were in need of nothing outside of themselves. The Word is how John describes Jesus, as we’ll see. “The Word” is not just a choice for John but is used consistently in the Old Testament to describe God’s authority and power. God often speaks of his word going out and doing something, as in Isaiah 55:11, where he says, “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” God’s word has power and purpose. It is not weak and ineffectual but strong and successful.
But the most astounding thing John says is that the powerful and purposeful word of God was already present before creation. Not only was this Word with God, but the Word was God. It’s absolutely a mystery, but we cannot ignore the fact that Scripture teaches one God in three persons. When it comes to creation, God the Father created all things through the work of God the Son. What the Father decreed or willed, the Son spoke and set in motion. When we read about God speaking all things into being in Genesis 1, we should understand those words to be the words of Jesus Christ. The words “Let there be…” are the first recorded words of Christ in Scripture. There is nothing that exists that predates Jesus Christ or was created by any other being. Professor Joel Beeke wrote, “Christ was ancient when the galaxies were born.”
John the Evangelist throws all kinds of shade on any philosophy or world system that tries to control you by turning you into an overrated collection of cells whose meaning must be built on the shifting sand of culture. Calling you a cosmic accident, as the dominant worldview does, renders your life meaningless. But Christ made everything and everyone just by his voice, and therefore you have been given the gift of life. You are not here on accident, no matter the circumstances that brought you here. Your very life is due to the fact that Christ gave you the light of life. In the same way that God spoke, “Let there be light,” and there was light to move the darkness out of the way, Christ continues to shine in the darkness. That darkness is the spiritual darkness of life lived in ignorance of and rebellion before God. But here we read a glorious promise: the darkness has not, and will not, overcome it. Literally it means that the darkness has not comprehended or understood the light. Darkness does not overcome light, but light overcomes darkness. And Christ, the true light, in his perfect life and substitutionary death, has overcome the darkness. As he spoke all creation into being, so he also speaks his people into new creation.
John the Evangelist then moves on to John the Baptist. John the Baptist was an important person in that he was a transitional figure into the new covenant era. There were prophecies in the book of Malachi that the prophet Elijah would return before the first coming of Christ. Malachi 4:5-6 reads, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” Instead of destroying his people, he will save them. But here is the problem—Elijah will mark the beginning of this event, but he has been gone for some time, taken into heaven on chariots of fire. How is he going to come back?
Scripture goes to great pains to show us that John the Baptist has fulfilled the type of one like Elijah. If you remember the story of Elijah calling down fire from heaven on a group of false prophets, he prays that God would turn the hearts of his people back to him (1 Kings 18:37). Malachi says this new Elijah, John the Baptist, would actually do what was promised. Matthew and Mark note that John the Baptist dressed like Elijah (Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6). Elijah’s ministry ended and transitioned to Elisha’s at the Jordan River. John the Baptist’s ministry ended and transitioned to Christ’s at the Jordan River. Elisha wanted a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, and then John says that Jesus has the Spirit of God without measure. The details are important, but don’t get lost in them. All this is to show beyond a shadow of a doubt that John the Baptist was not the light but was sent by God to be a witness about this light, who is the eternal Christ, God the Son.
John the Evangelist again shows how the types and shadows are giving way to the real thing. Isaiah 49:6 says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” This is one of the “servant songs” in Isaiah, when Isaiah is directly prophesying about Jesus being the true Israelite, the one who acts on behalf of Israel, to draw the world to God. In an incredible fulfillment, this servant would not be just a man but God the Son descending to our realm, taking on the form of a servant by being born as a man. By Christ “coming into the world”, he was coming as the servant of God and the true light.
But the state of man is naturally darkness rather than light. Even though he made everything through the power of his spoken word, the world rejected him. Not only that, but the very people or nation to which he was born hated him. The ones who were blessed with the covenants and the law were the first ones to say they would rather crucify him than obey him. This goes to show that it doesn’t matter what kind of lineage you have. Just because you can claim a good heritage, that doesn’t mean you are right with God. Many, if not most, in the nation of Israel thought that because they could trace their family tree back to a man named Abraham that God owed them something. But it’s these people who would rather see this servant die and embrace the darkness than actually do what God required of them.
But God has always had a reach beyond Israel. Both within and without Israel, there would be those who were the spiritual descendants of Abraham. And John tells us that those who believe in Jesus were not born from flesh and blood or our own will but by the will of God and God alone. This eradicates any notion of devaluing and reducing salvation down to nothing but a decision you make. How prideful do you have to be? You were saved because God chose you based not on anything in you but on the mercy he had in himself. You were born again by the will of God and God alone. No family tree and no human effort makes a dent in God’s choice.
John’s point is that no one can presume God’s mercy because of where you come from, what you’ve done, or how good you think you are. No one can presume God’s mercy because your parents are Christians, you went to all the church outings, or you consider yourself a spiritual person. This should, though, be a great and lasting comfort to you who are in Christ. God’s will is unchanging. To those he has adopted into his family he promises never to cast aside.
Now the gospel requires a response. But that response is faith. Faith is the recognition that God has done the work only he can do, of turning a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, and responding in loving obedience and trust in Christ’s finished work. If you trace your salvation back to a moment in time when you made a decision, you will always have a lingering doubt about the sincerity and validity of that decision. When the enemy throws seeds of doubt your way and accuses you, you won’t have a leg to stand on. But if you trace your salvation back to the will of God, those doubts, though you may still face them from time to time, are grounded not in your will but in the eternal, merciful, and gracious will of God.
John keeps returning to the incarnation and how awesome it is. The Word, the preexistent Christ who predates everything, the one who spoke all things into being, willed to be born of a woman and live among us. And in the God-man, we have seen the glory of God in ways that no one before could imagine. Moses was given a glimpse of God’s glory on the mountain as God passed by. Peter, James, and John were given a glimpse of God’s glory on the mountain at the transfiguration. We’re reading eye-witness accounts of Christ’s life and God’s glory.
Christ came into the world full of grace and truth, or rather, steadfast love and faithfulness, which define God’s character and fidelity to the covenants he made when he gave Israel the law. So if the coming of the law was good and God was faithful to it, how much better is God in the flesh? The law was a gift to Israel to regulate their lives around God’s constant demand for perfect holiness. Christ came to fulfill the law and God’s constant demand for perfect holiness. The law was also gracious because it showed us who God was. But John writes that in the coming of Christ we have received grace upon grace. God displayed his grace toward fallen, rebellious sinners in the coming of Christ in ways the law did not.
The Son is the best revelation of the Father. If you want to meet with God, you will never again to any temple but to the Son. No one has ever seen God. Moses, Peter, James, and John were shown glimpses, but they never saw the fullness of God, or they would have died. But in Christ, we know God. John tells us that Christ has spent eternity at the Father’s side, which reflects a nearness that no one else has. The word for “side” is literally “bosom”, which means “the one who is nearest to God’s heart.” God has not left us wondering who he is; he has shown us exactly who he is by sending us the nearest and dearest person to him. Then by John 14, Jesus will tell his disciples, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”
So really, the question is not, “Have you seen the Father?” but, “Have you seen the Son?” There is no other way to know God than to know Jesus.
A few weeks ago, we had a two-night book review and some study sessions on the doctrine of perseverance, or eternal security. Closely related is the doctrine of assurance. It was great to see so many of us come to terms with the fact of salvation. I grew up in a good church, but there was one elderly woman in particular, who I remember very well, who struggled with perseverance and assurance of salvation her entire life. She would talk to the pastor all the time, always trying to understand why she struggled like she did. For her, perseverance and assurance weren’t hypotheticals; they were at the center of the fight.
Now I do believe that in general, a Christian can and should know that he or she is a Christian. And the reason that Scripture speaks about making our calling and election sure is because people do struggle with it. Otherwise, what need would there be for such commands? There are all kinds of intense, dense theological treatments of perseverance and assurance. Those are always helpful, because we need to get the mind and the heart aligned. But what about day-to-day struggles with belief? What about when we’re struggling in the moment?
Many of our day-to-day struggles with belief come from outside forces. We doubt because we’re given some contradictory information about things like creation, evidence for Jesus, any number of things. But I would offer that more often than not, we doubt because we’re reminded of our many sins and failures. The enemy lobs accusations against us. “God could not possibly save me if he really knew everything I’ve done. If he really saw inside my heart and knew what I was capable of or even just what I wanted to do, I’d be lost forever.” Sometimes, we just see how great other Christians are doing, how humble they are, how smart they are, how service-oriented they are, and we feel like we fall far too short.
But Paul argues in the strongest possible terms against that kind of thinking. We may have fears and doubts, but Paul wants us to have the strongest minds possible. We need to keep the fact of the gospel in the front our minds at all times. Whenever any other teaching or worldview attacks us, we must fight back with a clear articulation of the finished work of Christ.
In Colossians 2:1-5, which you heard last week, Paul does not want anyone want to get persuaded away from the gospel or have a false teacher bring divisiveness into the church. He knows that leads to doubts and fears. He is encouraging the people to keep a strong backbone against arguments against Christ. He desires that every Christian reaches “all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ” (2:2). Persevere in that truth. Be rooted, built up, and established in faith. The truth should result in unending thanksgiving.
So how do we get there? Paul doesn’t say that to reach full assurance that we need to climb some mountain, go on some pilgrimage, give everything we have to the poor, become a hermit, have visions, or keep certain holidays. Paul teaches many things in this passage, but I want to focus on the truth that to reach full assurance, we remember our baptism.
Our baptism represents in the simplest terms the whole Christian message—death to self and life in Christ. Baptism is not a box you check from which you move on, but it is to be a lifelong reminder of what Christ has done on your behalf. Key to that is remembering what Christ has done, not what you did. Baptism does not do anything to earn your salvation or keep your salvation. It is an act of public obedience which identifies you with the risen Lord.
And when there are so many deceiving ideas and wicked spirits that are actively trying to lead you astray, you never move beyond needing to remember your baptism. It’s a critical component of your assurance. We don’t want to move into either extreme error, saying that baptism doesn’t matter all that much or that baptism is necessary for salvation. But when Paul is arguing for the church to stay on track with the gospel, he does so by directing our minds back to baptism.
At any stage of the Christian life, it is possible to be snatched away by deceptive ideas. Paul calls these things “elemental spirits”. “Elemental spirits” or “elemental principles” is the same word in Galatians 4:3,9, to which Paul says we were once enslaved. What Paul is referring to here and in Galatians is the religious practices of the Jewish people and the religious instincts of all people. Elsewhere, Paul speaks of the Mosaic law as a guardian, keeping God’s people within bounds until the time of their freedom, the time when Christ would come and make peace between God and redeemed humanity. The coming of Christ is likened to a coming-of-age ceremony. The principles in themselves are good and not condemned, but they were temporary by God’s design. Continuing to adhere to them as necessary is condemned.
But even beyond that, Paul is probably referring to what Jesus and others called “the traditions” (Isaiah 29:13, Mark 7:5ff). These were rules and regulations created by the Jewish religious leaders, whether priests, scribes, or teachers, that were in addition to the actual law of God. Sometimes they were well-intentioned, acting like guardrails to protect you from even getting close to breaking God’s law.
In addition to those laws, there was another set of traditions that they believed originated with Moses that had never been written down. This was the oral tradition, supposedly passed down from one generation to another. Eventually, once the Jews were scattered in the generation after Christ, these traditions were finally written down. This eventually become known as the Talmud.
So you can see that we are already a couple of degrees removed from true Judaism. We see it in the church, don’t we? We know the essentials of the gospel, and we don’t dispute them. But we become convinced that we need to protect the gospel, not by proclaiming it, but by adding to it. Before you know it, there are all sorts of traditions and untouchable customs that, if we’re not careful, become as important to us as the gospel.
Paul hasn’t called out a single teacher or a single group of people in the book. He’s aware that this threat can come from just about anywhere. These are the perennial threats to the church. Empty philosophies threaten your assurance by condemning you for not returning to the way things were before Christ.
Do not become prey for bitter, vengeful wolves who want to see you lose the ground you’ve gained in your spiritual maturity. It was not an immoral or secular teaching that threatened them; that would have been easy enough to dismiss. It was a blend of Christian truth, Jewish rituals, and the religious instinct present in every Gentile; or, as you’ve heard before, syncretism. It was not (and does not) just coming from one place. Since the Colossians were primarily Gentile and not Jewish, it was especially easy to convince them that Jewish rites and rituals were central to the Christian faith since that was the forerunner of Christianity. That’s why Paul does not specifically refer to Judaism but to elemental, or religious, spirits in general. But when certain theologies or philosophies have a Christian flavor to them, or when they use Christian language, discernment becomes difficult but all the more important.
When you’re introduced to any teacher, ministry, or movement, you judge them based on what they say about Christ. Do they teach or believe that Jesus was God in the flesh, that he died and rose again for our justification, that he sits at the right hand of God, and that he’ll come again to judge the living and the dead? If not, you run.
Paul tells us, “For in him, the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority” (vv.9-10). If Christ is God, by definition, all other elemental or spiritual powers are not. Back in chapter 1, Paul wrote that “By him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (v.16). Christ is God, and all other earthly and spiritual powers were created by him and receive their authority from him.
Our enlightened, reasonable minds have a hard time making peace with the spiritual realm. As Christians, we also don’t want to believe in Casper or see a demon hiding behind every bush. But Scripture does not hide from the fact that there are unseen spirits and a whole supernatural realm which exists beyond our comprehension. We shouldn’t fill in the gaps with Hollywood, but neither should we act like it doesn’t exist. People may pretend that they don’t think angels and demons and spiritual beings have any role to play in our world like our unenlightened ancestors, but people are as equally weighed down by fate. Maybe it’s not the spirits in the sky determining my destiny, but it’s fixed nevertheless. But here is the point from Paul—Christ is God and these spirits are not. Fate does not have a place in Christian theology.
In Acts 2, when Peter is preaching to the crowd, he tells them that Jesus was handed over to evil men “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). That’s not fate; that’s sovereignty. God has ordained the order and purpose of this world, and he will see it through. Therefore, do not worship the spiritual beings or seek spiritual power from them. Whatever pre-Christian history the Gentile Christians in Colossae had with the spiritual realm should be reinterpreted to see Christ as the head of all of it. Christ retains his preeminence over all creation, seen and unseen. As the preeminent Christ, there is no fate, only providence.
It is always a beautiful day when we see a new believer get baptized. We have seen people under 10 and over 80 place their faith in Christ and receive baptism. Paul urges the Colossian Christians, and us today, that we are to be kept from giving in to deceptive theologies and philosophies by looking back at our baptism.
For Jews, circumcision was required as the sign you were in the covenant b/t God and Israel (Mosaic law). Newborn Jewish males were brought in on the 8th day of life. Converts were circumcised immediately. It was a condition of the old covenant, not the new. Christians have received the circumcision that matters, that of the heart, which is the inward purity earned for us by Christ.
Old Testament law also required circumcision of the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6). B/c Christ has done the spiritual work of heart circumcision, those who are in Christ are the true inheritors of all God’s promises.
That initiated you as an Israelite into the nation. W/o it, you were cast out. You were brought in to the body. In baptism, you are also initiated into a new body, as already being a believer, of which Christ is the head, as already mentioned in 2:10. The church is now a people made up of both Jews and Gentiles, a body on earth whose head is Christ in heaven.
Baptism is a sign of what kind of life the Christian must live. We die to our selves and live in hope of the resurrection, of which Christ is the first-fruits, or the promise. That’s what Paul means by saying that we have been buried with Christ in baptism and raised with him in faith. If we baptize those who cannot articulate that, then we essentially baptize the children of believers. If the church is made up of only regenerate men and women, which is the distinctive Baptist doctrine or what makes us Baptist, then it is not a trifling matter to be discerning before administering baptism and who we welcome into fellowship. That’s not to say make a person run through a gauntlet of diagnostic tests or go to Bible college before we baptize them, but can they articulate not just their faith but the faith once delivered for all to the saints? Have they confessed that Jesus is Lord? Do they understand, at whatever stage of life they are in, what baptism is? It is a cruel mistreatment of anyone to encourage them to be baptized before they have a confession of faith and give them a false sense of security.
And as man dies once, baptism happens once. Christ ordained the Lord’s supper to be the ongoing memorial activity of the church, not baptism. Communion is also the time for introspection and judging yourself. What does it represent if you get baptized every time you feel the need to rededicate yourself? Christ has not offered himself repeatedly but once, as the author of Hebrews tells us that Christ did not “…offer himself repeatedly, … for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (9:25-26). Christ died once for sins, and he was raised once for our salvation. That is how perfect and complete his sacrifice was. So then, we are baptized at the beginning of our Christian life, and we remember our baptism and the sacrifice of Christ that made it possible, in communion. What do you do when you struggle to persevere in faith? What do you do when deceptive philosophies take root in your mind? You remember your baptism and that it represented you being buried with Christ, in whose powerful name you were also raised. Baptisms are normally public acts before the church so that when you see others being baptized, you are drawn to remember your own.
When God sees those who are in Christ, he applies the things that are true about Christ to be true about us. Those who have sinned will die for their sins, but those whose sins have been dealt with will be given new life. If Christ was given new life, so will you. If Christ was raised from the grave, so will you. If Christ died with committing no sins of his own, you will be justified as if you committed no sins of your own. “All” applies to sins, not us. All of our sins have been forgiven.
It’s not at all fair that Christ’s righteousness is applied to us as if it was our own. Some of us are so cranky and uncooperative and harbor an enormous amount of bitterness. Some of us would rather we live by our own righteousness so at least life is fair and we don’t owe anybody anything. But when we read Paul’s words as he describes what God did for us through the cross, if we have any life in the Spirit whatsoever, we will be crushed.
You owed an enormous, unpayable debt before your creator. If we had a good understanding about the depth of our depravity, of what Jesus died for, we wouldn’t need to talk about much else. But instead of being crushed under the weight of our sin, God instead crushes us under his mercy. He didn’t just give us a loan or take a little off the top; he didn’t wink and say it’s not a big deal; he didn’t just give us a fresh start. Christ absorbed the full debt into himself, the full weight of God’s wrath and justice, so that the debt would be cancelled. Every time the Jews disobeyed the law and every time the Gentiles violated their God-given conscience, the mountainous record of debt simply got larger. But the entirety of it was nailed to the cross and declared to be cancelled.
In Paul’s day, a victorious general would march back into the city through the gates with all his soldiers, the war trophies, and the prisoners of war. He would lead them through the city streets so that everyone would be able to see and appreciate the cost of battle. The enemy’s weapons have been be taken, and the enemy has been overcome and brought to shame. When God nailed the record of debt to the cross, he cut the feet out from under all charges coming at you from the enemy. God has won the victory over sin and death through the spotless sacrifice of Christ.
Because of Christ’s finished work, therefore, “let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” What Paul is describing here are many of the things that made Judaism distinctive: kosher laws and their festival calendar, which the Sabbath was the most common and most important. There were no kosher laws when it came to drinks, so for Paul to mention them here is to show that there were those who were adding laws to God’s law. This is sometimes called “asceticism”, or an extreme form of self-discipline. If it is a personal decision, then Scripture has no law against. But we must remember that Christ did declare all foods clean more than once. To enforce these rules on others, or to even use them to show how righteous you are, is to cast doubt on the salvation of others.
While we don’t have many struggles with the dietary or kosher laws today in the church, there is disagreement about the Sabbath, or the day of rest. Did the apostles move the Sabbath to Sunday, or do we still keep a Sabbath at all? Should it still be Friday evening into Saturday morning? While that’s something to flesh out in detail, it does stand out that Paul here says to not let anyone judge you because of how or when someone else keeps the Sabbath. If Christ has brought us into our Sabbath rest, as the book of Hebrews tells us, then we must make sure we’re not importing undue emphasis on a certain day of the week.
Elsewhere, Paul tells Christians to check their liberty. Do not abuse it at the expense of your brothers and sisters. But at times, in this passage for instance, Paul has to remind Christians that your liberty is a good thing. You are free to devote yourself to keeping certain practices when it comes to the spiritual life. But they are to be settled between you and the Lord, not anyone else. To obligate other Christians to practices that were by their nature transitional from one age to the next, no matter how spiritual they might sound, is to return to slavery. The food laws, the festivals, and the Sabbath was to be a shadow of things to come. These things, the food and festival laws, were shadows of Christ, not the real thing. Once the real thing had come, once Christ came in the flesh, those things which foreshadowed him were no longer necessary.
Paul tells us not to let anyone pass judgment on us in those things, and now he tells us not to let anyone disqualify us from other things: asceticism, worship of angels, and ecstatic visions. These things were grouped together, in short, because they were seen by some as evidence of existing on a higher plane. You had special knowledge if you disciplined your body in a particular way, if you worshiped with the angels, and if you had experienced special, ecstatic visions. But these things do not make you a higher class of Christian; in fact, when Paul mentions that he experienced his own ecstatic vision in 2 Corinthians 12, God sent Paul a messenger from Satan to keep him from being puffed up about it. As awesome as that certainly was, it did not make Paul a better Christian than anyone else.
Some people talk about themselves as if their humility is what makes them so great. “I’m humble, that’s why I’m better than you.” Christian humility, though, is almost unconscious. In no way can you take pride in your humility. Don’t let anyone disqualify you, don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not a true believer, because you have not experienced what they have. You turn your mind back to your baptism and be reminded that Christ died for you.
How do we keep humble and yet have the assurance of faith? How do we persevere in such a way that we don’t take pride our works but in the work of Christ? Paul says in v.19 that those who insist on a higher class of Christianity are detached from the head, who is Christ. What we don’t want to do is make perseverance and assurance out to be something only a higher class of Christian has, which is exactly what Paul is working against. You don’t have assurance and persevere by holding to a stricter set of rules, by claiming greater humility, or by having visions.
How do we persevere? By holding fast to the head! Abiding in Christ! He will never leave us or forsake us. He holds on to us even as he tells to hold on to him. In holding fast to the head, we are nourished and knit together. We persevere even as we are preserved. Christ has done the inner work, and we respond in faith. In our baptism we were buried with him, and we were raised with him through faith. And we can look back at our baptism and see the goodness of God in preserving us all the way from that day to this day. If he has not failed us since, he will not fail us yet.
Arthur Brooks wrote in the Atlantic about three years ago the article, “Your Professional Decline is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think.” It sounds dire, but it’s good medicine every now and then to face the facts. Now the ministry isn’t a “profession” in the sense that pastors or ministers keep working their way up some ladder. And success is defined differently in different sectors. Success in ministry is defined, for example, by what Jesus commends the seven churches for in Revelation: patience, enduring slander, holding to your confession, love and faith, not soiling your spiritual garments, and holding fast to Christ. That’s how you measure ministry.
But the point of that article was to examine why most people begin to stagnate in their professional life in their 50s. Doesn’t that seem early? But it comes for us all. Everyone thinks they’re the exception, but statistically you’re not. Most people begin to feel stuck, like they’re behind, or like they can’t produce anything as great as they did in the previous 20 years. He tells quite a few compelling stories about how well-known people, both in the arts and the sciences, reported feeling like they were slipping and that anything they contributed didn’t really change the game anymore or move their career forward. Entrepreneurs are in their 20s and 30s, not in their 40s and 50s.
And he asked the question, “Is that it? Is that all there is? Do we retire and play golf? Do we freeze to death in Maine or burn alive in Florida?” What he discovered was that the people who continued to have an impact past the normal period of professional decline were those who embrace it and begin to think more about the future and other people than themselves. He gives the example of someone who did it well, of Johann Sebastian Bach, the Baroque composer of the early 1700s. Nobody compared to him. Bach is Baroque music. He wrote real cantatas for the church every week. But once Baroque music’s popularity began to fade, his son Emmanuel Bach found himself in a similar position of greatness but in the classical style of music. But Johann stayed relevant, not by continuing to write music that didn’t impress anyone anymore, but by writing about the art of music and teaching others. He wrote about how fulfilled he was in his later years by supporting the next generation of musicians and tending to his own spiritual life.
Joseph was just 17 when we met him in Genesis 37. Even with his ups-and-downs, he had a stellar career as the food czar in his 30s and saved untold numbers of people from death and disaster. But do you know long that career lasted? Fourteen years. Now as we say farewell to him in Genesis 50, he’s 110 years old. Ninety-three years have passed between him being sold into slavery and him dying as second-in-command in Egypt. He’s blessed with knowing his great-great-grandchildren. For just under a century, he’s lived in Egypt. But if Joseph is about 30 when his brothers and father move to Egypt, and he dies at 110, then Moses skips about 80 years of this man’s life. Surely he didn’t hit the links and move to Del Boca Vista.
Scripture is actually very clear that Joseph’s final years were spent preparing the people for the exodus.
Nothing about Joseph’s life was wasted. He didn’t become irrelevant because he was old. He made way for those coming up behind him, but he spent the last half of his life reminding his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren about the promises of God. And he didn’t just remind them, but he discipled them in his old age to expect God to fulfill his promises themselves. There is significant difference between passing on information and teaching someone to obey.
So what’s happened up to this point, between him becoming the czar of food distribution last week to his death this week?
So about 60 years pass between the end of chapter 49 and the beginning of 50. Then Genesis 50:22 reads, “So Joseph remained in Egypt, he and his father’s house. Joseph lived 110 years.” It’s not that these years have no significance, but their significance comes in how absolutely normal they were. The entire second half of his life was spent with his family, settling them in Egypt, but preparing them for the exodus.
Egypt was temporary, but it was also always a part of the divine plan.
God told Abraham, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years” (Genesis 15:13). The whole purpose of getting the Israelites out of the promised land was to show God’s patience toward the pagans already living in it. God tells Abraham that the sin of the pagans living in the land is not yet complete, meaning that he’s not destroying them for just a few sins. As they continue in rebellion, he’s patient. But one day, they will be removed to make room for the sons of Israel.
We know very well how Joseph’s faith was tested during the first half of his life. It was eventful; he needed to rely on God and the assurance that he would fulfill his promises. But he needed to rely on God’s promises all the same in the latter half of his life. He knew that there would be a return to the land God had promised to Abraham. The only promise concerning Egypt was that they wouldn’t stay more than a few generations.
Joseph tells his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Genesis 50:24).
For Joseph, everything hinges on God being unchanging.
We’ve rehearsed those promises throughout the last few weeks, so just in summary, God promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations, that kings would come from him, that he would have land and that land would increase, and his heritage would be a blessing to the world. And Joseph knew that Egypt was not where that promise would take root. Joseph must make sure that his family doesn’t get too comfortable in Egypt.
And that’s the whole point of the second half of Joseph’s life. He’s not the food czar when there’s no famine, he’s not next in line to become the Pharaoh, he’s just Joseph. He’s dad, grandpa, great-grandpa, and great-great-grandpa. When Scripture speaks about Joseph, they don’t always focus on the early parts of his life. Some do, of course, such as Psalm 105:16-22, “When he summoned a famine on the land and broke all supply of bread, he had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave. His feet were hurt with fetters; his neck was put in a collar of iron; until what he had said came to pass, the word of the Lord tested him. The king sent and released him; the ruler of the peoples set him free; he made him lord of his house and ruler of all his possessions, to bind his princes at his pleasure and to teach his elders wisdom.”
But the next passage moves on to say, “Then Israel came to Egypt; Jacob sojourned in the land of Ham. And the Lord made his people very fruitful and made them stronger than their foes. He turned their hearts to hate his people, to deal craftily with his servants” (vv.22-24). So even here, the point of Joseph’s life is to get Israel to Egypt for protection but then to get them out by turning Pharaoh’s heart against them.
The primary focus is on Joseph being used by God to prepare his people for an exodus. We read in Hebrews 11:22, “By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones.” There’s no mention of slavery, injustice, betrayal, restoration, prison, dreams, royalty, a new family, any of that. It’s about the final days of Joseph. And what about his bones? Egyptian burials were ornate. The process of mummification was intense. It took 70 days to totally embalm a body. And unlike his father, Jacob, Joseph isn’t buried. Once the family buried Jacob in Canaan, they all went back to Egypt. Once Joseph died, his body was placed in a coffin and left with the family. Joseph was left unburied and not taken to Egypt because the presence of his bones was a reminder that they will be buried, but they will not be buried here.
Egypt was not a nation of yokels. There are some ideas, but the fact is no one knows how the pyramids were built or how they’ve lasted this long. There is evidence that there were plans for a second Great Sphinx that was never finished. The biological expertise of embalming was unrivaled. The Egyptians had astronomers. It seems as though Egyptians are to blame for mathematics. This was the culture that gave Joseph his status, his dominion, his authority, his wealth, and his wife. But all these things weren’t enough to make Joseph an Egyptian. Sometimes we think that we have to disavow all worldly pleasures to truly be a Christian. While many things of this world are truly traps, many are not. Joseph enjoyed the best this world had to offer.
But none of it owned him. By enjoying the things of this world while looking to the country that was to come, he showed us how to keep from being held hostage by trinkets. Before reminding us of Joseph, we read in Hebrews 11:13-16, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”
From age 17 on, Joseph never saw the things promised. He only knew of them from afar. Even then, Joseph was not just satisfied with the land of Israel. That’s not all he saw laying ahead. Looking back, Hebrews tells us that what Joseph and the others actually desired was a heavenly city prepared for them by God. In a nation as prosperous as ours, what bigger barrier to discipleship is there than the illusion of security? It’s not easy. We turn our minds to the things above, where true security lies.
Jesus tells a parade in Luke 12:16-21, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
No amount of money compares to the riches of God. There is no amount of stuff in this world, as good as it is, that compares to the riches of God. The things of this world can be so deceiving, so Paul tells us in Colossians 3:1-2, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”
Maybe especially those of you in the latter half of your life, are you living a life that serves as an example to the next generation to obey all things Christ commanded? Are you living a life that expects the heavenly city prepared by God? Do you realize the opportunity you have? Are you spending your life preaching the right things? The main thing? We determine to know nothing among our families and neighbors and nations but Jesus Christ and him crucified. Our violin has one string. But a Stradivarius, even with a single string, still sounds better than a dime store fiddle with four strings.
Joseph says to his brothers and to his whole family, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Genesis 50:24).
For the one expecting the heavenly country, death loses its grip.
Grief and fear are not opposites. We can grieve the loss of the ones we love while not fearing death ourselves. As a chaplain, especially when it comes to believers, I’ve seen enough people in the last days of their lives to know that those who are about to die usually welcome it while it’s the people beside the bed who are at a loss. That’s not to make light of the pain of it. It is to say that for the one who knows death is imminent, and for the one who knows that the heavenly country awaits him, fear is the last thing on his mind.
In the upper room, Jesus says to his disciples, “You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come’” (John 13:33). The disciples are understandably upset that their teacher says he’s leaving without them. Soon after in John 14:1-4, Jesus then says, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.”
When Thomas, one of his disciples, then comes back and says that no, actually, we don’t know the way, Jesus corrects Thomas’s misunderstanding of a physical place by saying, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). So where is Jesus going? To the Father. How do we get to where he’s going? Through the Son.
A few verses later, still in the upper room, Jesus uses the same words and clarifies what he’s talking about when he says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home (or place, as in v.2) with him” (John 14:23). On into chapter 15, Jesus tells them, “Abide (the same word as place) in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (John 15:4).
Jesus ascended to the Father to present his once-for-all sacrifice. Jesus prepared our place in the heavenly country by taking our place. By dying and being raised, Jesus prepared a place for us. And through the indwelling presence of the Spirit, the Father and the Son then make their home with us. And the ultimate goal, the heavenly country to which Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and all the Old Testament saints looked, is the eternal state when God dwells among us, when he is our God and we are his people, when every tear has been wiped away and death is no more.
Joseph’s final years were spent preparing the people for the exodus, showing them how to look forward to the heavenly city. Are you living your days out in this city looking forward to the heavenly city?
Scripture commands us against forming images of God, made clear in the second commandment. That command is based on God’s jealousy for his own glory, because there is no other like him. Those Israelites who broke the law were punished for generations afterward. But those Israelites who faithfully kept from building idols of God or any kind of depictions of him were blessed throughout the generations. Even today, Jews and Christians refuse to portray God in any kind of art. Movies like “An Interview With God,” that claim to actually be made by Christians, should be understood as blasphemous violations of the second commandment, no matter how sweet they might intend to be.
But there’s no command against portraying other characters in the Bible. People know that there’s always a draw to the epic stories in Scripture. Charlton Heston played Moses in “The Ten Commandments”, and that movie won all kinds of awards for special effects. “The Prince of Egypt” is a fan favorite, a kids’ movie about Moses growing up in Egypt. The cinematic masterpiece “Noah”, that came out a few years ago, starring Russel Crowe, drew more on the book of Enoch than the book of Genesis. “Jesus Christ Superstar” is somehow more about Judas and Mary Magdalene that Jesus. It seems like every Easter there is some new production on cable TV about the life of Jesus.
And of course there’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”, the musical about the life of Joseph. There have been dozens of novels written about Joseph.
Joseph’s story, like Moses’ and many others from Scripture, resonate because of their great struggle. There’s betrayal, murder, lying, family drama, all the makings of a great Agatha Christy novel. So surely that is not the point. If that’s what we focus on, if that’s all the story we tell, then what do we do with the fact that God is not mentioned until the end of Joseph’s life? Is God’s word primarily concerned with being relatable? A good story? What if God has a higher purpose for the life of Joseph? What if we should look beyond Joseph and see him in the grand scope of all that God is doing?
All of history is God’s history, and we are not the point. God loves us dearly; he proved as much by ordaining his Son to die in history so that the greatness of our sin would be overshadowed by the greatness of his holiness. God is arching history toward his desired ends, and we see a snapshot of that in the dreams that Joseph was given. God cares immensely that we see all of creation is under his sovereign care. God cares immensely that we see all of redemption history is under his sovereign care. Joseph is a microcosm of God’s greater plan that points forward to the finished work of Christ. Joseph is one stop between creation and redemption.
All of history works for our good and God’s glory.
God’s plan of redemption is older than you. God’s plan of redemption is older than this church. It’s older than Joseph. It’s older than creation, as Paul says in Ephesians 1:4, “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” We should take comfort in the fact that God is not reacting but providentially moving history forward to his desired ends.
That means the betrayal we face, the mockery for our moral and ethical standards, the rejection for not obliging the cultural revolution, cannot be seen as anything detrimental to our redemption and God’s kingdom. All things work together for the good of those who love the Lord. Or as Joseph will later tell his brothers, the ones who tried to sell him into slavery for money, play him off as dead, and lie to their father about it, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20).
Joseph’s story doesn’t appear in Genesis until well over halfway through. Often chapters 1-11 are called prehistory, meaning world history before God began working through the life of Abraham. That’s the turning point for when we start to see the promise of the nation of Israel. Not only will Abraham not see that promise fulfilled in his lifetime, but it will be over 400 years after Joseph that the promise is fulfilled. But God is in control of the direction of history, so his promises come true regardless of the length of time.
Abraham’s son was Isaac, whose son was Jacob. Jacob would be renamed Israel, and his twelve sons would become the namesakes of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jacob began to work for his uncle Laban and fell in love with one of his daughters, Rachel. If Jacob worked for Laban for seven years, he could marry Rachel.
However, Rachel was younger than her sister Leah, and it was customary to marry off the older daughter first. Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Leah. Jacob loves Rachel so much that he is willing to work for another seven years just to marry her as well. Jacob has no sons, and Leah is seemingly the only one who has an easy time getting pregnant. Just so Rachel can say that she has her own children with Jacob, she lets him sleep with her servant, who gives him two sons. Not to be outdone, Leah does the same thing, and gives him two more sons through her servant. Rachel does then get pregnant twice, giving birth to Joseph and Benjamin, the two youngest of Jacob’s sons. In Genesis 30, Rachel prays that God would add another son to her family, and she gives birth to Joseph. So Joseph’s name means “may he add”, as a way of being reminded that Joseph was a special blessing to a previously barren woman.
Isaac had two sons: Jacob and Esau. Isaac was in general a good father, but he did what many parents do and played favorites. He favored Esau, the burly, bruiser outdoorsman. While Esau is out hunting a wild animal to feed his father, Jacob is making soup with his mom. Isaac wanted a relationship with Esau. Isaac’s favoritism and preferential treatment of Esau caused a lot of friction between Jacob and Esau, as you can imagine. At one point, Esau said he was going to murder Jacob, so Jacob left and went to live with his uncle Laban, which brings us full circle to where he meets Rachel and falls in love with her. All of history works for our good and God’s glory.
But that also makes you wonder why Jacob so easily fell into the trap of playing favorites with his children. He knows firsthand the kind of pain it causes. He knows firsthand how it ruptures families. But Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, and Joseph was the firstborn from Rachel. So when Rachel finally conceived and gave birth to a son, it was easy for Jacob to have a tender spot for Joseph. And then especially when Rachel died giving birth to her second son, Benjamin, Joseph was a constant reminder of the wife he loved.
The Coat, vv.1-4
Joseph was son number 11, but he was treated like the firstborn. As the firstborn son of the woman Jacob loved, the woman he wanted to marry first, Jacob simply may have decided to give the birthright to Joseph. And in giving him the special coat, that seems to be exactly what has happened. Traditionally, it’s translated as a coat of many colors. That’s the hard part of turning Hebrew into English. Really the word implies a coat of great length, meaning sleeves to the wrists and a robe to the ankles. This wasn’t a coat you wore while spending your days and nights with the sheep. It was probably highly decorative, because that kind of coat was reserved for the eldest son, the leader of a tribe, or the king of a nation. This word is also used in 2 Samuel 13 for the coat king David gives his daughter Tamar. It represented a noble person of great purity in that passage. So not only will Joseph be a leader, but he’s actually a good person, which makes it even worse for the brothers. If there was any doubt among his older brothers that he was the heir-apparent, they doubted no longer.
But was it just that Jacob played favorites? Or did Joseph’s brothers forfeit certain rights by the way they lived their lives? Rebuen committed adultery with his father’s concubine. Levi and Simeon went on a slaughtering spree in an act of vengeance. These weren’t well-rounded, self-controlled individuals we’re talking about.
As a young man, Joseph is being trained as a shepherd with his brothers. Shepherds were like sailors. They spent all their time away from civilization, stuck with a few other shepherds and a bunch of dirty animals. They lived outdoors and moved their flocks from place to place, looking for new ground to graze. Shepherds weren’t known for their high level of decorum. They weren’t gentlemen. That kind of isolation has a way of depriving a man of his manners. You could read “Lord of the Flies”, or you could spend a weekend with some shepherds and get the same impression.
But at age seventeen, Joseph witnesses the wicked lives his brothers are leading out there in the fields, isolated from humanity, only influenced by each other. It would be easy to peg Joseph as tattle-tale since he goes back home and tells their father about how they’re living. We can assume there was some kind of consequence for their actions, especially since they shepherded as a family. They represented their father and the rest of their family. There’s nothing here to make us think that Joseph was just a snot-nosed brat. Even at seventeen, we see a man of integrity, doing the hard thing. Joseph’s first responsibility was to his father, not turning a blind eye to sin. Even when the people he worked with took the low road, Joseph retained his character.
It’s after Joseph gives this bad report on the lives of his brothers that we’re told just how much Jacob loves Joseph. It’s impossible to hide favoritism, especially in a family. The brothers know how Joseph gets all the preferential treatment. And even though it’s not Joseph’s fault, they hate Joseph for it. They can’t act out against their father and his sins without being charged with being disrespectful. So, they expend their mental and emotional energy on hating their brother. They hated him so much that they couldn’t even speak peacefully to him. Every interaction was a fight. Every conversation turned angry.
This is what envy looks like. Sometimes it’s directed at the right person, sometimes it’s not. The brothers were envious of Joseph not because of Joseph’s inherent greatness but because of the way their father treated him. So they felt envy and jealousy when they see Joseph have success and get praise from his father. They also feel a great deal of satisfaction later on in the story when they see him suffering as they shove him into a pit and leave him to die. They did all of this because they truly felt they were righteous in doing so. It was the right thing to do, to balance the scales, to show their father his own sins, to get what they deserve.
The dreams, vv.5-11
And if that wasn’t bad enough, the family dynamics only get worse from there. Joseph is given two dreams from God. It’s not as if Joseph is infatuated with himself and has these visions of one day coming to power and oppressing his family. These dreams are prophetic. Joseph receives a prophetic message from God. Regardless of how his brothers and father react to the dreams, they come from God.
His first dream is of him and his brothers being in the field binding sheaves of wheat. This was probably familiar enough. They were farmers and shepherds. So far, so good. But the sheaf that Joseph made stood up on its own. The sheaves his brothers made went to Joseph’s and bowed down to it. Now, did the brothers get angry because they didn’t understand the dream? No. They got angry because they did understand it. Their father has already elevated the eleventh son to first place. They already expect Joseph to be the one who receives the birthright and the majority of their father’s estate. They already expect Joseph to have charge of the family. And they hate him for it. There’s a little play on words here, because Joseph’s name means, again, “May he add”. And verse 8 literally says that they added hate upon hate to Joseph. This dream isn’t what made them hate Joseph; it’s just one more insult as far as they’re concerned.
But that’s not the end of it. Favorite-son Joseph has another dream. This time, it’s not just about a field. Now Joseph’s dream is about intergalactic, space power. In this dream, Joseph is still Joseph, but now, the heavenly beings are bowing down to him. The sun, the moon, and eleven stars bow down to him. His brothers can’t take it anymore. Joseph has to go.
But his father is less ready to kick Joseph out. He’s still his firstborn, as far as he’s concerned. At first, Jacob is a little upset, as well. Will Jacob have to bow down to one of his sons? And Rachel, who is already gone by this point, how exactly will she bow down to you? The brothers are jealous and ready to get rid of him. But at least Jacob, we’re told, “kept the saying in mind” (37:11). He gave it some thought and didn’t just dismiss it in anger and jealousy.
The point is this: Joseph didn’t always get the warm-and-fuzzys, even from those who said they loved him. Joseph’s dreams confronted their pride. Pride is the root of many sins. Even back to the temptation of Adam and Even in Eden, the serpent fanned the flames of pride by telling them that God was holding back knowledge from them. Didn’t they deserve to know?
It wan’t as though Joseph sought out the gift of a kingly robe. It was a gift from his father. He was a shepherd. He spent his days in the filth with his brothers. That’s how he knew of their wickedness. He would not stand for their wickedness. Their father has a right and a responsibility to know what’s going on his own fields. How many of Christ’s parables teach as much?
Shepherding was a common image used for the kings of Israel. God tells King David that “you shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel” (2 Samuel 5:2). Shepherding a people means to rule and reign over them. A shepherd knows when to push the sheep and when to let them graze. He knows when to be firm and authoritative and when to be gentle and lowly. All of this is ordained by God to prepare Joseph for the work that lies ahead.
Joseph has no idea that he’s about to be sold as a slave by his own brothers. But in receiving his dreams, he gets a word of comfort. Consistently throughout Scripture, having something repeated is a confirmation. Later, when Joseph is in Egypt but stuck in a prison unfairly, Pharaoh receives two different dreams about an upcoming famine in the land. He tells Pharaoh, “the doubling of Pharaoh's dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about” (Genesis 41:32). Joseph has plenty of experience in dreams, and it has prepared for a time such as this. All of history works for our good and God’s glory.
Little did his brothers know that when they poked fun at him, asking, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” that they were simply confirming they understood the meaning of the vision from God. And instead of looking forward to that day, instead of trusting that the goodness of God would be what was best, the hate in their heart exploded. The natural inclination of man’s heart is to hate the things of God, to hate the word of God. Turning the heart from stone to flesh is a supernatural work of God and God alone. It’s not something Joseph can do for them. It’s not something the brothers can do on their own.
It’s not something your parents can do for you, and it’s not something you can do for your kids. It’s not something a preacher can force on anyone. Regeneration is a work of God. You raise children in the Lord, to know the things of God, and you leave saving faith in God’s hands. You don’t hesitate to talk about the goodness of God with friends and family, but only God can regenerate, or make new, the human heart. Until God does the hard work of regeneration, we are like the brothers, dead in our sin.
Throughout the Old Testament, there will be men like Joseph who inspire hope that one better than Joseph is coming. There is a deep-seated need for a messiah, for a rescuer, for a mediator between a holy God and sinful people. As the book of Hebrews tells us, the things that came before Christ were simply copies and shadows of the real thing. The real thing, the real person, is Christ. And God gave his people tastes and types of what he would do in the person and work of Christ.
God promised Abraham that there would come a nation from whom the messiah would come. In Joseph’s day, the nation was just these twelve brothers, but they were the beginning of Israel. The sons of Israel hated Joseph; the nation of Israel hated Jesus. Joseph was the favored son of Jacob; Jesus was the favored son, the only begotten son, of God. Joseph was given the robe of a king that would eventually be covered in animal’s blood to corroborate a lie about Joseph’s death; Jesus was given a kingly robe as way of being mocked, and his own blood soaked the robe. Joseph would ascend to the second highest position in Egypt and save his brothers, the sons of Israel, from death and famine; Jesus would ascend to the Ancient of Days and save his brothers, all who confess his name, from the curse of sin. All of history works for our good and God’s glory.
And if all history is under God’s command, then the generations of disfunction in your own family will ultimately be used for your own good. It’s okay to ask how. Lots of people go through unmentionable evil, often at very young ages. Joseph himself faced the death of a parent, attempted murder by his family, and the slave trade, all as a teenager. It’s one thing to ask God why you must endure the evils of this world; it’s another thing to cast God as evil himself and claim God has done wrong by you. The righteous men and women of Scripture suffer immensely. And when they do, they do not curse God but instead seek him all the more.
Job was tormented by great loss, his friends and support system were utterly useless, and he never cursed God. Any self-pity he felt for his poor life was eradicated when he was forced to reckon with the incomprehensibility of God. Esther was herself taken away as an exile from her homeland and faced a potential holocaust, but she put on a brave face and took action. She was unsure of herself and knew that the chances of success were slim-to-none, but she was was going to be faithful to God over against her instinct of self-preservation. These examples and many more show that it is possible, even if the result of days, weeks, months, and years of hard work, to change your perspective, grow into greater maturity, and to trust God with our past, present, and future.
All of our lives leave an indelible impression on who we become. When we come face-to-face with the evil of this world, and we feel as though there’s nothing to do about it but wallow in self-pity, the gospel reminds us that there is the God-man Jesus Christ who stood on the shore and reached his hand out to us as we were sinking.
There is no greater evidence that all of history works for our good and God’s glory than the incarnation of Jesus. In Christ, we see the foreordained plan of God to shed his own blood and take it into the heavenly temple on our behalf. In the atonement, we see our greatest good, that of being reconciled to God. In the atonement, we see God’s greatest glory, that of redeeming his own enemies. And the work he began in us, he will see to completion. The world will mean much for evil, but God will mean it for good. All of history works for our good and God’s glory.
All too often, the church can have little more than these vague notions of her purpose and reason for existence. What are we doing here? What’s the purpose of gathering together every week, or multiple times a week? Why do we devote so much time to teaching the Bible? Why do we think it’s worth spending money on this or that?
And it’s incredible how often Scripture mentions the second coming and how the church grounds her hope in that. Our hope is not in anything vague or nebulous, but in the life, death, resurrection, exhalation, and return of our Lord.
Our blessed hope, the second coming of Christ, reinvigorates the church with purpose. Why do we say “No” to ungodliness, in ourselves, our families, and our society? Because we have a hope that Christ reigns in the heavens now and will rule on the earth one day. Why do we practice self-control? Because we have a hope that Christ reigns in the heavens now and will rule on the earth one day.
Most of the time, lessons or sermons on the second coming of Christ focus almost entirely on the order of the events. That’s important. When you’re planning a wedding, one of the most common images used to describe Christ’s return, it’s easy to think so much about the schedule, what comes next, making sure all the parts of the ceremony and reception happen at the right time, that you lose sight of that fact that you’re getting married.
I definitely have my thoughts about how the second coming takes place. And I think you should, too. Fence-riding isn’t a virtue. When it’s about something as important as this, what Paul calls our blessed hope, then that takes it out of the realm of “matters of indifference” or opinion. We’re talking about the person and the event that moves us to live the way we do. Besides the resurrection, the second coming is the most consequential event in all of history.
While it’s an important doctrine, I do believe in extending some charity to others when there are differences in interpretation. Some views definitely have a few more loose bolts than others, and some of them, in my humble opinion, had a few left over, but when you look at the early church creeds, across the board, their primary focus was simply that Christ is returning. Both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed are emphatic that Christ will come a second time to judge both the living and the dead. The Nicene Creed does go on to say that once he has returned, his kingdom will never end.
The second coming motivates believers to wait actively and patiently for Christ. We wait actively by living obediently, building institutions, and preaching boldly. We wait patiently by trusting his promise will come true.
Titus was a young pastor in the Roman city of Crete. Paul writes to Titus reminding him that he left Titus in Crete to put the finishing touches on the church and to establish church leadership, or overseers. “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5).
Crete was a rough place, and Titus has his work cut out for him. Cretans didn’t have a good reputation, and even today, to call someone a Cretan is to say he’s vulgar and offensive, gross and disgusting. Paul quotes one of Crete’s own authors to Titus. “One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, and gluttons.’ This testimony is true” (Titus 1:12-13a). Imagine going to plant a church in New Orleans on the last day of Mardi Gras; that’s Crete every day of the week.
But Crete had another claim to fame, that of being the place where Zeus was born. Zeus was the Greek god of the sky and leader of the pantheon. “God” in that context is quite loose, because Zeus was a human who achieved divine status. And once he became a god, he was good to his former fellow humans. He took care of them, blessed them, and taught them the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, courage, and self-control). But the Greek myths also taught that Zeus died in Crete.
Paul planted a church in this city and then left Titus to act as a pastor and train future pastors. Paul and Titus would preach the gospel, not of a man becoming god, but of God becoming man. And not only did the God-man Christ Jesus teach his people and bless them, but even though he died, he rose from the dead, and, most importantly, is coming again.
These verses are actually all one long sentence. It’s one idea with a few important parts: Christ came once to bring salvation (vv.11, 14); Christ taught us what godly, virtuous living really is in between his appearings (v.12); and we are to ground our hope in Christ’s return (v.13).
Before Paul arrives at the second coming, he spends the first part of chapter 2 outlining the importance of sound doctrine and personal holiness. Older men should teacher younger men; older women should teach younger women. Bondservants should submit to their masters so that their confession of faith isn’t undone by their bad behavior.
There’s a consistent theme of self-control through this section. Paul outright calls for older men to practice self-control. Older women should practice self-control when it comes to wine. Young women should be self-controlled when it comes to their families. Young men should be self-controlled when it comes to everything. Scripture often speaks into our weaknesses, so how much more teaching on self-control do you think we might actually need?
The point of being self-controlled is that our lives match up with our teaching. How many preachers and teachers have been undone because they couldn’t practice what they preached? How many scandals in the secular world are rooted in someone’s lack of self-control? Self-control is perhaps the greatest observable evidence that we’re born again.
You will be a slave to what controls you. Proverbs 16:32 says, “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” The real warrior is the one who can defeat his own passions, who controls his desires. When Paul is writing about the way we should approach the Christian life, he writes in 1 Corinthians 9:27, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
The Christian must master his passions.
Why is this such a common New Testament theme? Why is it tied to waiting on the Lord to return? Because there is a certain way of living that is demanded of those who confess Christ as Lord and Savior. The law of Christ is the call to holiness between his advents.
We can’t make the mistake of confusing personal holiness for legalism. Personal holiness is walking worthy of your calling. It’s recognizing that when Christ called us to obey him, he wasn’t giving us a way of salvation but a way of living. He is the way of salvation, not our works. But legalism demands obedience as the way of salvation. It’s a cruel distortion of the gospel. It’s either Christ-alone or Christ-plus-works. Anything added to the finished work of Christ is another gospel altogether. If you’re striving for greater obedience to Christ out of love for him, that means you’re a disciple. If you’re striving for greater obedience to win Christ’s love for you, that means you need to revisit the doctrines of grace.
But if you’ve been a Christian longer than the car ride here, you know it’s not an easy calling. The weight of sin is heavy. But Titus 2:11-12 begins to lift that weight. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.”
Without the grace of God, living a self-controlled life is impossible. God’s grace does not only spare us from God’s judgment, but it also makes possible personal holiness. Grace brings salvation, but grace also trains us to do two things: to disavow sinful pleasures and to choose holy joy. Without the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God, the presence of God’s grace in our lives, we will never be able to live a life worthy of his calling on us. Apart from the Holy Spirit, we just don’t want holiness bad enough. We don’t love God as we should. Grace doesn’t only assure forgiveness. Grace also assures faithfulness and perseverance.
I want to give you one example of why that’s not unimportant. In 1909, Cyrus Scofield published the Scofield Reference Bible. It’s the first Bible that we’d recognize as a study Bible. It became incredibly popular, and it’s still published today. The Scofield Reference Bible was published with the intent of teaching a new framework for interpreting the Bible called “dispensationalism”. It became the de facto way of understanding the Bible for many. Scofield was contributing to the popularity of the theology developed by a man named John Nelson Darby. Darby taught that there were two distinct people of God, Jews and Christians, and they would have different covenants and two different destinies. The Jews would be on the earth forever, and the church would stay in heaven forever. Since there are two people of God, there are certain books of the New Testament that don’t have any meaning for the church, they said.
That was the early 1900’s, and by the 1980s, dispensationalism had developed and fine-tuned a doctrine called “Lordship salvation”, which led to the Lordship controversy. For many who had once held to dispensational theology, this was enough for them to abandon it completely. “Lordship salvation” said that because of dispensationalism’s understanding of the nature and future of the church, a person could claim Christ as Savior but not as Lord. Let me repeat that: you could believe that Jesus saved you from hell, but that could have no impact on your life. That’s a distinction that the Bible does not make.
If you’ve heard of salvation as a “ticket punch” or a “lifeboat”, this is its root. Jesus could be your Savior and save you from hell, but it was possible to live as though you never believed that, to not live as through Christ was your Lord and master, and you could be what even they called a “carnal Christian”. You could live as a person still in bondage to the flesh, not the Spirit. They recognized that many people filled a pew on Sunday mornings but lived like pagans Monday through Saturday, and they needed a way to explain it. Instead of recognizing that some people who fill the church are not true disciples, they tried to explain it by radical misinterpretations of Scripture.
Jesus, on the other hand, said the exact opposite on more than one occasion. “If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15). “[Teach] them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). Imagine the influence Lordship salvation had on a whole generation of people where it was heavily implied that they could like Jesus for what he could do for them, and they didn’t have to obey him.
We wonder why so many Christians cave to whichever way the wind blows. We wonder why some churches water down the gospel to nothing but “Jesus loves you” and see explosive growth. It’s easy to say that Jesus has been good to you but then live however you want. That’s an easy sell. But you will know them by their fruit. Self-control, obedience to the commands of Christ, living in the power of the Spirit, is the evidence that you belong to him. And it’s only possible by the grace of God.
We are not, of course, perfect as we will be when the Lord returns. That’s why Paul reminds us that we we must practice these things “in the present age”. Waiting for Christ to return makes us strive for increasing personal holiness, not cheap grace. We can’t live as though Christ isn’t coming again to judge the living and the dead. Ultimately, what will matter on that day is that we are found in him. But the evidence that we are found in him is that we live, by the grace of God, in greater conformity to our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.
As Paul often does, he reminds us that the gospel is the motivation for personal holiness. Jesus is the one “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (vv.13-14).
The first thing Paul says about Christ is that he “gave himself for us”. Christ was for sure treated with all the hatred and vitriol that wicked men could muster, but by saying that Christ gave himself, we’re told to focus on the foreknowledge and plan of God. Christ did not walk on to the earth not knowing what he was called to do. The Father and the Son were in complete agreement about the plan of redemption. Jesus taught his disciples repeatedly that the Son of Man would be handed over to violent men to be killed by them, but that he would also be raised from the dead on the third day. Jesus was a willing participant in our redemption, for which he laid down his life.
Christ’s death was a substitution for our own. But it wasn’t just that Christ was innocent and we are not. There were plenty of innocent animals that had been sacrificed in the temple, but the blood of bulls and goats did not take away sins. God did not die on the cross, but God paid the debt we owed him on the cross. He paid it himself. Christ being both God and man is an indispensable component of our salvation.
We’re told Christ accomplished two things, for one purpose. Christ redeemed and purified us in his death and resurrection. By being redeemed, we are no longer under the oppressive weight of sin. Part of the weight of sin is the recognition of its consequences, both in this life and the next. We have been redeemed, or freed, from lawlessness. In our natural state, we will sin because it’s who we are. The old saying goes, “We’re not sinners because we sin. We sin because we’re sinners.” But Christ has given us a new heart that not only hates sins but seeks holiness. We don’t love God perfectly as we one day will, but we certainly love God more than the dead person we once were.
By being purified, we are now marked out as being righteous. The image is of washing a piece of clothing stained with dirt or blood. If you stain your favorite shirt, you scrub and scrub and scrub. You actually read the washing instructions on the tag. By his perfect obedience, Christ removed the stain of sin so that when God the Father looks at us, he no longer sees the stain of sin but the glowing righteousness of his Son.
In redeeming and purifying us, Christ purchased for himself his own people. The nation of Israel was and still is God’s chosen people. Paul makes very clear in Romans 11 that there is still a promise of salvation for a remnant of those who are descended from the twelve tribes. But God’s promises to Abraham, and after him to Israel, made very clear by the apostles, culminated in Christ.
God promised Abraham land. In Romans 4:13, Paul argues that Abraham was not just to inherit the land of Israel but the whole world. In Hebrews 11:10, we’re told that Abraham was looking forward to the city with foundations built by God, which will culminate in the new city that descends from heaven, whose foundation is marked by the names of the twelve apostles.
God promised Abraham that his covenant would be established with his seed, which Paul shows us in Galatians 3:16 was not all of Israel but Christ in particular. This promise came before God established Israel and gave them his law. But it would be one Israelite in particular, who perfectly fulfilled the law, to whom Abraham was looking.
God promised Abraham blessing and that he would be a blessing. From Abraham’s family would come Jesus. Paul tells us that it was Christ who ascended and gave gifts to men (Ephesians 4:8) and that Christ has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:3).
As the culmination of God’s plan of redemption and the fulfillment of his promises to Abraham, Christ has purchased us, or brought us into his fold, his flock. The consequences of our redemption and purification is that we “are zealous for good works.” We seek to live in a manner that honors the one who purchased us, redeemed us, and purified us. We dare not think of Christ’s work as “cheap grace”. The cost of our redemption was his own life and three days in the grave.
Early in the book of Revelation, Jesus is referred to as the Word of God and the one who is faithful and true. About halfway through, we’re introduced to the unholy trinity: the beast, the false prophet, and the dragon, or Satan. Then at the end, John sees the one who is faithful and true riding on a white horse, and he is called the Word of God. On his robe is written, “King of kings and Lord of lords.” An army of angels dressed in pure white are following him.
At that time, an angel announces that the beast and the false prophet are about to be destroyed. They’re cast into the lake of fire and are never heard from again. Those who fought alongside and served the beast and false prophet are killed. Another angel is in possession of a key to an abyss, or a bottomless pit, and a chain. He binds Satan temporarily, for 1,000 years. Satan has had his three-and-a-half years, now Christ will have his thousand.
The first of two resurrections take place. John sees thrones in heaven alongside the souls of those who had served Christ instead of the beast. The saints who had died are brought to life in order to reign with Christ for that thousand years. The Son of David sits on his throne on the earth and the goodness of creation is emphasized. When the appointed time comes, Satan is released, and he begins his deception again, gathering together a massive army against God’s people. But before a single arrow can be fired, fire from heaven keeps all wickedness from entering the city. Finally, the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, joins his fellow traitors in the lake of fire forever and ever.
The fact that judgment is about to take place makes the earth itself flee in terror. A series of books are opened in order to judge the lives of the dead. But then another book is opened—the book of Life. The names of those in that book are preserved through judgment for the new heaven and new earth.
A beautiful city comes down from heaven to the new earth, like a bride coming down the aisle. In this city, God will dwell permanently. The gates of this city never close, and the nations are free to enter into God’s presence without fear. Nothing unclean, no sin, will ever enter the gates. The one seated on the throne, Jesus Christ, can finally say to John, “It is done.” The fruit from the tree of life, which we were kept from eating in the garden of Eden, is now free for the taking. With no fear of sin and death, the tree of life is now a blessing and not a curse.
“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”
In our circles of friends, we all have those who are more competitive than others. Some of us are laid back and easy going, but there are some of us who just have this innate need to go one step further, to finish ahead of the rest. But actually, I think each one of us are pretty competitive, just in different areas. Maybe you don’t care about having the fastest mile, but you’re as self-driven as they come and always trying some new harebrained idea.
Competition is generally a good thing. It keeps us moving. It pushes you into trying just 1% harder today than you did yesterday. Competition among friends urges you to push the boundary of your best.
But there are other kinds of competition. What about when there’s more at stake than bragging rights? What do you do when you come across competing interests? What do you do if you’re going out for a new job along with a few other people? What do you do when one party tells another what they can and can’t do? What happens when the family, the church, and the state have competing interests? Who gets to decide how a family orders itself? How a church worships and ordains leadership? How the government fulfills its responsibilities?
It might not surprise you that we would not be the first Christians to ask these questions. We’re not even the first people to ask these questions. When the Jews were living in exile in Babylon and then Persia, they were forced to reckon with a religious identity in a foreign land. “How do we worship God in the midst of a people who would vehemently disagree with us on the nature of God and how to worship him?” That impacted the way they ordered their families, because for the Jews, their religion was finely woven into every area of their lives. How would they relate to a government, and an empire, that would never demand worship of the one, true God of all their people?
The doctrine of “sphere sovereignty” is a great help in this matter. That name may not be very old, but the ideas are quite ancient and can be traced directly to the Scriptures. Before sphere sovereignty, you had versions of it like “two-kingdom” theology, where everything was divided between the kingdom of God, or the church, and everything else. The doctrine of sphere sovereignty argues that there are three primary spheres with authority invested in each of them by God. The spheres must interact with each other, but none can undermine the authority of another. The three spheres are the family, the church, and civil government, which could be a democracy, parliament, an emperor, or a king. Each of these spheres are directly addressed in the Scriptures and are given responsibilities and authority over those within its sphere. This is the benefit of sphere sovereignty. God is a God of order, not chaos, which is the purpose of investing authority at various levels.
Sphere sovereignty is not a political theory, like conservatism or liberalism. Sphere sovereignty comes from a distinctly biblical understanding of an ordered universe as created by God. You can see the roots of sphere sovereignty at creation, and you see the importance of recognizing these three important spheres throughout redemptive history. This morning, we’re going to see how the Scripture organizes one of these spheres, where spiritual authority lies in that sphere.
But first, it might be good to get a grasp on this word “authority”. It’s one of those words that can make people cringe if they have a certain understanding of the word. In a lowercase “L” liberal society, we value personal autonomy and independence. No one here wants to give any of that up. It’s not a contradiction to hold to some conservative principles when it comes to the place of institutions and human nature while simultaneously valuing a high level of personal freedom. But we must understand that what makes human flourishing possible, this side of Revelation 22, is a rightly ordered authority, not the absence of authority.
Scripture, in no few words, does not advocate either anarchy or tyranny. God created the cosmos from chaos, two Greek words that respectively mean “order” and “disorder”. Anarchy is the absence of divinely appointed authority, and tyranny is the outcome of the centralization of earthly authority. There will, absolutely, be a one-world-order one day, but until Christ has put all of his enemies under his feet and hands the kingdom over to the Father, no earthly power is capable of handling that kind of authority without destroying the people under that authority.
We’re not going to do justice to any of the three spheres in one day, so we’re going to focus on the foundation of the spheres, the place where God has vested the most authority—the family. The family must be rightly ordered if we are to hope for a righty ordered society, not just a church and a government. God gives universal truths about the family early in Scripture, and then he gives some specific commands concerning the relationship of the family and the church. In the coming weeks, I’ll be blogging on the church and civil government, to kind-of play catchup. I think the best way to do these three spheres justice is to give them their own space.
Scripture begins by placing the primary authority over an individual at the family level. It’s quite telling that God did not give Adam a friend, a roommate, or a child to care for. God spoke everything into existence, except the man, so it would have been no more taxing on God to create an entire civilization at once. But God instead, in his divine wisdom, created a husband and a wife.
He gave that husband and wife responsibility. They would exercise dominion not over each other but over everything else. In creation, you have complete equality between man and woman. But there is a difference. When it was still only Adam, we’re told, “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’” (Gen. 2:18). Still, Adam is not given a friend, a roommate, or a child, but a helper.
Being a “helper” is not a subordinate position taken on its own. The Hebrew word is ezer, and several times, God is called the ezer, or the helper, of his people. So it is not in the nature of the woman herself that we find a lesser being than the man. When it comes to her relationship to the world, she is on equal footing. When it comes to her standing before God, she is on equal footing.
We find a special responsibility in the man only because of the order of creation, not because of any incompetence in the woman. When the apostle Paul is giving instructions on church order in 1 Timothy 2, he says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (vv.12-13). The point for now is that Paul bases his doctrine of the church not in the inherent ability of either the man or the woman but in the order in which God created them both. Creation will be the root doctrine of much of how we understand the authority of each of these spheres. The order of creation is a centering truth for the believer. It will serve as a sort-of living parable throughout the family, the church, and government.
And that order of creation has application in the family. Paul writes, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Eph. 5:22-27).
In no sense do we see male headship in the family as tyrannical. Husbands and fathers do not have an autocrat or despot as their model but Jesus Christ, who died for us. Anything less than him fails to live up to the standard set before us. So when we see husbands abuse and leave their wives, we rightly doubt any confession of faith they may have made. We rightly tell the woman to seek shelter elsewhere. The church sacrifices to protect her and the children. In the same vein, when we see wives abuse and leave their husbands, we call her to repentance and reconciliation, as we would a husband.
But there are godly men out there who work regular jobs, who understand the home is their responsibility, who teach their kids, and who volunteer in the church. And those men should be supported by other godly men and women. There are godly women out there who practice a quiet piety, who support their husbands, who raise their kids, and who give of their time and other resources in the church. And those women should be supported by other godly men and women.
There is no call for mutual submission here, where the wife submits to her husband and a husband submits to his wife, though that’s a common misconception. We have turned the very idea of submission into something despicable and hated, when it was Christ, in his flesh, who submitted to the will of the Father in order to purchase our salvation. Wives and mothers model the very behavior that won our salvation. That’s precisely why Paul can say that by a wife’s example, some husbands may come to know the Lord (1 Cor. 7:16).
Headship and submission are good things when both are held in the proper relation. The relationship of a husband and a wife is supposed to be unlike any other relationship in all of creation. It is supposed to be an image of God’s love for his people. We should not turn male headship into permission for abuse, and we should not turn female submission into a lower class of citizen. Shortly after Paul commends wives to submit to their husbands and husbands to love their wives, he writes, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32). Whether you are a man or a woman, a husband or a wife, you are playing a part in presenting the gospel to the world simply by having Christ at the center of your marriage.
This is increasingly true when the average age of marriage is increasing. So young people, do not postpone marriage out of principle. Don’t think your career matters more than the single most important institution in human history. Don’t think your 20s are just about finding your true self, whatever that means. Don’t fall for the popular misconception that youth is wasted in marriage. When Jesus is reinforcing the creation mandate for the family in Matthew 19, his disciples begin to think that marriage is just too difficult and should be avoided. Sound familiar? “The disciples said to him, ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.’ But he said to them, ‘Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given (Matthew 19:10-11). Marriage is not the special calling; singleness is the special, rare calling. Apart from a calling from God, seek a godly spouse. If you’re single, glorify God in your calling. If you’re married, glorify God in your calling.
Not all marriages include children, but most do. Those men and women who are barren or struggle with infertility have a difficult calling in life, but the One who called you to it is capable of preserving you within that calling. And those difficult, often tragic, circumstances simply confirm the fact that marriage is designed to include children. The (painful) exceptions prove the rule.
The cultural mandate of Genesis 1 includes children. Children should never be excluded from the plans of a married couple. God opens and closes the womb, no doubt, but in principle, no Christian marriage should deny that children are a blessing designed to come from marriage. That doesn’t outright negate any kind of family planning, because that’s wholly different from telling God, “No, thanks.”
It’s no coincidence that in Matthew 19, immediately after the discussion about marriage, people brought their children to Jesus to be blessed. We do not hinder children in marriage, and we do not hinder children in coming to Christ. The family and the church are intertwined in ways we may not notice at first. Children are welcome to participate in the life of the church, even if they are not yet believers, in the same way an unbelieving spouse is welcome to participate in certain facets of the life of the church.
We read it all the time, but for good reason. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is the standard-bearer passage when it comes to the responsibility of parents to raise their children to know the Lord. It says,
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
The family bears the brunt of the responsibility in discipling children. That’s clear from the references to sitting in your house, walking with children throughout the day, laying down, rising up. Those are familiar and familial duties. Parents and anyone raising children should seek to make the Scriptures as familiar to your children as their favorite YouTube videos. Family discipleship should be a natural part of life, not an exceptional part.
You don’t have to spend an hour every evening reading the Bible to your children, but do you read any? Do you memorize any part of it? Do you try? How many of us can say the ten commandments right now from memory? At the book exhibit in the lobby, there are catechisms for free, called “Truth and Grace”. They include simple questions and answers, the Lord’s Prayer, the ten commandments, the creeds, and more, all in one place. Don’t feel like you need to reinvent the wheel. We aren’t the first people to see the need to have some help in training our children to know the Lord.
The book of Proverbs was quite literally written as a father giving instruction to his son. It opens by saying, “Hear, my son, your father's instruction, and forsake not your mother's teaching, for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck” (Prov. 1:8-9).
The Scriptures are full of wisdom when it comes to teaching your children. Not only does the Bible command teaching your children, but the Bible models it, as well.
Having said that, don’t fool yourself into thinking that salvation is your responsibility. Salvation is of the Lord, not mom and dad. Teach them, fulfill your parental duty, and leave salvation to the strong arm of God. That’s not permission to give them an option about worship and discipleship, but it is to remind us that we don’t act as God in our families.
As Baptists, we know that baptism is not salvific, that it doesn’t cause salvation, but we often act like it does. We gotta get them baptized before high school, before they go off to college, we say. It’s subtle, and well-intentioned, but baptism is not a magic charm that keeps people from falling away. We do not baptize out of fear or concern but out of obedience. In the same way that circumcision was the sign and seal of the old covenant, Paul says so the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit is the sign and seal of the new covenant. Baptism follows the indwelling presence of the Spirit. Baptism apart from being taught all that Christ commanded is how people get a false sense of security. Baptize out of fear, and you might very well be the millstone around their neck. You don’t baptize your children just to hedge your bets.
Instead, we should disciple children, nurture them in the Lord, and tell them that baptism is something that a true disciple does in order to show the church their confession of faith, and that baptism serves as a single, one-time event that reminds you throughout your life of your death to sin and life in Christ. Believe me, these children are quite capable of understanding that.
Ezekiel writes, “The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die” (18:1-4).
The Israelites had developed this theology that children will be responsible for the sins of their parents, and God tells the people to think again. The fathers eat the grapes, and the children taste the sourness, that’s the metaphor. There are consequences for our sins across generations, of course, but you are no more responsible for your child’s sins than your children are responsible for your sins.
Bridge Between Two Worlds
The family, rightly ordered, is the cornerstone of any society, even in ways that the church and government are not. This institution is only fractured and restructured to serve its own destruction. A husband’s first responsibility is his wife, and a wife’s first responsibility is her husband. A husband loves his wife by leading her into deeper discipleship in the Lord, and a wife loves her husband by submitting to godly leadership. So husbands, be a husband worth submitting to. Wives, be a wife worth leading. As Paul tells us in Ephesians 1, live a life worthy of your calling.
As parents, we work together as families to nurture our children in the Lord. There’s nothing wrong with seeking their happiness, as any good parent would do. But happiness is not holiness When he’s teaching the crowd about the goodness of God, Jesus says, “Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matt. 7:9-10). A good parent is joyful in seeing their children happy.
But how much more important is holiness than happiness! There is no command to make your children happy; there are plenty of commands to raise them to fear the Lord. Children aren’t pushed away from the faith when mom and dad didn’t make them happy; they’re pushed away when mom and dad are different people at home than they are at church.
It is no small thing that Jesus teaches us to pray to God as our Father. Our Father knows what we need before we ask him. He loves us and provides for us. Though it was less common for the Jews to call God Father, many Psalms and some of the prophets speak of God as if he were a loving, caring, and present father.
When Jesus is praying to his Father in his high priestly prayer of John 17, he ends by saying, “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:26). The Father loves the Son, and that eternal, perfect Trinitarian love, he has shared with us through the Son, by sending him to give himself as the payment for our debt of sin. God absorbed the debt we owed him into himself so that he might be glorified and that we might know the love the Father, Son, and Spirit share within themselves.
The family is an imperfect, yet sufficient glimpse of that love. So it is no small matter to protect the family, raise up godly husbands and wives and fathers and mothers, and train children in the things of God.
Near the end of the book of Acts, the apostle Paul is charged by his fellow Jews with upsetting the good order of civil society, or of disrupting the peace. By preaching the sufficiency of Christ, he’s overturning the necessity of the Jewish law and its binding authority on the people. It’s a religious matter, but the fear was that it would lead to a complete breakdown of order. Since that’s a civil and not a religious charge, he’s sent to the Roman authorities. When he arrives in front of the local governors, he could have lied down and been content to let them have their way with him and keep quiet. Instead, he took every advantage of his Roman citizenship and demanded that the authorities listen to his side of the issue.
When it comes a weighty matter such as the sanctity of life, Christians should demand to be heard. There is no shame in it. There is no disparity between living a peaceful and quiet life and standing up for the truth that even nature teaches, namely, that all of life is valuable, above all, human life. There is no incongruity between being peaceful toward those who live lifestyles that contrast with yours and living according to the clear word of God. It’s not insensitive to be firm and clear while recognizing the pain brought about by the situations that all-too-often have ended in abortion.
Because at some point, your core convictions move from theory to practice. Christian ethics, to have any substance or mean anything at all, have to move from the heart to the public. You’re not going to spend your whole life inside four walls. You’re going to stand for something. What we want you to stand for is the sacred nature of every human life.
Every human life is a new creation of God.
This matters because the biblical worldview and the contemporary worldview are built on two entirely different foundations. That can be why it is so hard to communicate to those who hold to a different worldview than you.
The biblical worldview understands that God has revealed the value of human life based on the mandate to have dominion over the world. That dominion is not inherent to who we are, but it is given by God himself. If we did not bear this image of God, we would rightfully be called animals and would have every right to treat each other as animals. But because God has raised us up, breathed the breath of life into us, and made us to be the sign of his rule and reign over all creation, every human life is of infinite, principled value.
Since that truth is a declaration of God, that means that nothing anyone of any lesser authority than God says or does removes that value. If a man and woman have a child, from the moment of that moonlit night, there is God-given value. If a person has any kind of physical or mental inability, there is God-given value. If a person reaches a stage where they can no longer care for themselves as they deserve, there is God-given value.
The contemporary worldview sees people as commodities under the guise of caring for people, which is a brilliantly wicked move. Abortion and euthanasia are couched in political terms, which is a tactic of the enemy to make it seem as though theological arguments don’t really address the issue and are not to be heard in public. Politics is always down stream from theology. The fact that that has been reversed for so many people is the source of much of the church’s division in our day.
So using the imago dei and the sanctity of life as a case study for actively applying these core convictions of the Christian life is a way for us to check ourselves. Issues such as abortion have been in the public discourse for decades now, and it’s not as if the overturning of Roe v. Wade is the end of it. Abortion has often overshadowed other issues that paved the way for it to be such a central issue. No-fault divorce and permitting sex outside of marriage (which used to just be called fornication), both of which arrived during the heyday of the generation that thinks my generation is causing all the problems, laid the groundwork for the dissolution of the family we see today.
Instead of actually protecting women in abusive marriages and giving them a dignified way to protect themselves, no-fault divorce swung the gates open to make ending a marriage just expensive, not unthinkable. Instead of honoring the marriage bed, sex outside of marriage was framed as the way to real liberation and knowing your authentic self, so the consequences of sex outside of marriage had to be squashed, IE, children. Feminism began with Christian women who wanted to vote, not be judged by the color of their skin, and have a bank account without their father’s permission. By the middle of the 20th century, second-wave feminism gave women the right to an abortion. These things escalate quickly.
Yoram Hazony, a Bible scholar and Jewish philosopher, shows how the philosophers who made all of that possible had no business telling anyone else how to construct a stable society. John Locke had no children. Rene Descartes’s had a daughter with a woman who was not his wife and never married her or took care of either of them. Jean-Jacques Rousseau gave his five children away, born from a mistress, to an orphanage when they were all still infants. These are the people, living around the time of the American founding, who thought children were nothing more than a burden and influenced popular thought about the sanctity of life. The free-love and abortion movements were given the intellectual ammunition they needed by men we might refer to as scumbags.
Were women disproportionately burdened with caring for children? Of course they were, when sexual liberation and no-fault divorce were prioritized over self-control and covenantal marriage. It was the cultural permission for people to prioritize a fleeting moment of excitement and fathers to abandon their responsibilities.
Now we must say that none of the sins just mentioned should be held over the head of anyone who’s repented of them. There is not still a little condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus; there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. The only unpardonable sin is the the refusal to repent.
For those who have undergone an abortion, divorce, fornication, if you have spoken the truth to your heavenly Father in repentance, you do not stand condemned before him or before his church. There are a host of issues to work through, such as grief and forgiveness, but those issues are worked out through your lifetime; that’s sanctification. Be patient with yourself since your Father in heaven was. The gospel of Matthew says that Jesus fulfilled a prophecy from Isaiah 42:3, which says, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” When Jesus sees a brittle branch, he doesn’t break it off but nurtures it. He doesn’t burden his people but is compassionate toward them. His yoke is easy, and his burden is light. If your spiritual light is more like a smoldering candle, the Lord does not command you be brighter but sends you the comforter. In dealing with those things in your past, do not be more callous to yourself than your Redeemer.
Some may hold to a position that fits more within the zeitgeist than Scripture, and it may be that that’s simply because you’ve never been taught the revealed truth concerning the image of God and the sanctity of life. Maybe you’ve never read the passages that teach on this, and the picture of the good life the world teaches seems sensible to you. It’s never easy to do a complete 180 in your beliefs, but if you are going to obey all that Christ taught, then you must hear what he taught.
But for those who adamantly refuse to submit to the revealed word of God on these heavy issues, you are treading on dangerous ground. The notion of who qualifies as human and deserving of life is not on the same level as who gets baptized and when, or the train schedule of the end-times. We’re talking about life and death, sense and reason, truth and lie.
In speaking about the new city, the eternal state, John says that some people don’t make it in. “Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev. 22:15).
Paul says, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
And again, “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21).
Now that’s a heavy to start a sermon, no question about it. I have yet to see a mug with Revelation 22:15 on it. But there is one reason Scripture gives us many more warnings about denying the truth: continuing in unrepentant sin assures you that you will not inherit the kingdom of God. The warnings are the grace of God to persevere and calls to repentance.
For those who are in Christ Jesus, you stand pardoned of all your sin, as if you are as righteous as he who died for you. For those continuing in obstinate defiance, today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart.
This morning we’re going to hear from the word in a few places about this critical truth. And from the very beginning, the Scriptures are clear that human life is unlike any other kind of life. Every human life is a new creation of God.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
There are two important words in this passage: “image” and “likeness”. Those words meant something to the original hearers of Genesis, and they’re referring to two different attributes. In the ANE, these words did not refer to physical appearance or resemblance. Kings were said to be the image of the local god or goddess. The king was thought to have reigned on behalf of the local god, or a new king could reign on behalf of a different locally known god.
Every king had a statue made that reflected the supposed appearance of the god in whose image, on whose behalf, the king reigned. Think of the pagan god Dagon in the Old Testament. That’s what idols were. These kinds of statues with inscriptions have been found all over the Middle East. The way the king behaved, the actions the king took, were in line with the desires and whims of the god the people worshiped. The king was the evidence that the local deity had some kind of authority in the area. “Image” and “likeness” were the words they used to describe this relationship of deity to humanity. Based on the relationship the king had with the god, the king had a certain relationship to the people he ruled.
Moses, the author of Genesis, was inspired to say that the image of the one, true God is not some lifeless, soulless statue but a living, breathing being who has been placed in God’s temple as all the evidence that is necessary to show that God not only exists but rules supremely over all things. Human life is the greatest evidence of the existence of God.
Being made in God’s image means that humans are in a unique position among all creation as kings and queens under God. Being made in God’s likeness means that we share certain attributes with God; there are attributes we do not share, like eternity. But there are attributes of God that we do share with him, such as love and a desire for justice. Mankind is made in God’s likeness in terms of our ability to relate to God as sons. Mankind is made in God’s image in terms of our authority and rule over creation.
“Kingdom” is the center of the creation story. All of creation is God’s kingdom, not just one locale, as if he was some puny god known to the pagans. And humans are his image inside of creation, not stone or wood that needs carving. By virtue of being human, and not an animal or some inorganic material like the idols, you are given the same royal status that the first humans were given. There are no insignificant kings and queens.
If you follow the debate on abortion, you have inevitably come across all the many ways that the world wants to tell us that Christians have misinterpreted Scripture. I’ve heard all kinds of arguments, things as goofy as since the ancient Israelites often didn’t name the child until he or she was a month old, or that they didn’t circumcise until the eighth day, they didn’t believe that a person was a person until they were well outside his or her mother. That is absolutely unfounded and intellectually dishonest, pulling passages out of context as if it was their job. Part of the sanctity of life debate is addressing this kind of willful ignorance so that the truth shines even brighter than the fabrications of those with a debased mind. One such example of a butchered Old Testament passage is Exodus 21:22-25.
When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman's husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
The argument goes that one word was mistranslated 300 years before the life of Christ, and bad theology was the chaotic aftermath. This was actually a claim made by two contributors to the Washington Post in an article from last October called "An ancient mistranslation is now helping to threaten abortion rights". We shouldn’t smear anyone, but this is why the intellectual life is important. We should be aware of and understand the arguments that people make against the truth, and like Paul before Felix, make a clear defense.
Instead of reading the original language, those who hold to such a position argue that once the words were translated, the whole sense of the words were lost. But when you return to the Hebrew, or you read a more word-for-word translation, the emphasis is unmistakable: if the child in the womb is killed by something that happens outside the woman’s body, the one who did the harm is culpable of murder. “But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life”, not life for clump-of-cells, not life for possibility-of-life. Regardless of the smoke and mirrors and mental gymnastics of contemporary people, Scripture is emphatic that what is in the womb, regardless of the length of time it has been in the womb, is to be assumed to be alive except in tragic cases of stillbirth or miscarriage.
There are two situations mentioned in this passage. If two men are fighting and a pregnant woman gets caught in the crossfire so that labor is induced but the child is fine, then the father of the child can basically sue for damages. No loss of life, no capital punishment. The word for harm, ‘āsôn, is the same word for hurt and evil. But the Scriptures recognize that all kinds of harm can befall a person in the womb, up to and including the loss of life. “Life for life (it’s even the first one), eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” on and on.
Because it is alive, it is to be guarded against any outside force. Life in the womb is worthy of protection. And if the person inside his or her mother’s womb is a person, if he or she dies, it is considered murder and worthy of the death penalty of whoever caused it. The Hebrew word translated as “life” here is “nefesh”, which always means nothing less than the part of you that makes you alive; it’s often read as “soul”. This is the word that is argued to have been mistranslated to mean the opposite of what it has always meant. This is not scholarship or journalism; this is gaslighting. We must be discerning when we hear such slanderous claims against the word of God. When you come across arguments that some component of historic theology has been wrong up until the newspaper got ahold of it, you’d be right to be skeptical.
For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.
This verse is nearly a cliche for a reason. It goes beyond the fact that God makes each one of us and insists that life in the womb is a cause for awesome reverence. The word “fearfully” means just that—reverential fear. We should stand and be astonished that God does not just work by natural processes but is involved in the creation of every human life. He could have just set the gears in motion and stood back to let nature take its course. But instead, the picture here is of God sitting down at his loom, installing the thread, and going through the same effort to make you as he did to make Adam and Eve.
Pregnancy is a special intervention of God’s providence. If we dare to think of that life in the womb as anything less than worthy of equal protection, then we have a reason to fear the judgment of God. The God who laid the foundation of the earth, who gives the animals their strength, who sets the boundaries of the ocean, who will send fire and plagues and war at the end of the age as judgment on a wicked world is the same God who carefully forms every child piece by piece in his or her mother’s womb.
Pregnancy is not just a natural process. God is involved at every level. You do not interfere with the maker’s work without incurring the wrath of the maker. Can you imagine listening to Beethoven compose his ninth symphony, ripping the sheet music out of his hands, and cutting it up? Can you imagine walking on to the site of a new home construction and setting fire to it while the crew is raising the walls? How much more execrable is rending apart the special creation of God in a mother’s womb?
Bridge Between Two Worlds
There are a thousand more things to say about the sacred nature of human life. There are many more passages that have something to contribute to this doctrine. There is much to say about helping and having compassion on those women who had horrible things done to them that resulted in pregnancy. But it boils down to this: will you do the hard work of understanding the will of God revealed in Scripture, or will you let the shifting winds of culture set your agenda? Christians should not only make political arguments. That sends the message that even though we are a theological people, we believe that politics will win the day. When in fact, we believe that our Lord will win the day, not any earthly power. We do not shy away from giving the world theological arguments.
But neither should we retreat from political activity. We should hope and pray for devout Christian mayors, governors, representatives, senators, and presidents who behave by biblical principles, not politically-advantageous motivations. Politics is downstream from theology, so with right theology we will develop right political ideas. There are divinely revealed obligations of any secular government, one of which is the protection of the innocent. To abdicate that responsibility is to start down a path of God’s judgment and of relinquishing authority.
The argument that you cannot legislate morality is perhaps the surest sign that a person has the mental capacity of a stag beetle. That’s exactly what legislation is—what is permitted and what is not permitted. Why is what is not permitted punishable? Because it goes against some moral sense. There is a reason for every act of legislation; that reason conveys someone’s sense of morality. Every act of legislation has a reason behind it, which is precisely what ethics and morality are all about.
Be discerning when people argue for abortion as healthcare and then advocate for legislation for abortion on-demand. It is not both. They think they can get abortion on-demand if they frame it as abortion-as-healthcare.
Abortion advocates talk about the difficult decision of abortion in order to garner sympathy. Abortion is only a difficult decision if it carries moral weight. If it’s the moral equivalent as having a mole removed, then it’s not a difficult decision.
Christians are often charged with being pro-birth, not pro-life. Some say that we stop caring for children after they’re born, which is a symptom of support for the patriarchy, which is the sin de jure. If progressive people had a modicum of self-awareness, they would recognize that their ideology was the reason Christian adoption agencies are being shut down or being forced to shut down because of a lack of funding. When Christians are told that they cannot conduct business according to biblical truth, the very source of Christian ethics, which in this case means believing that two men or two women do not constitute a marriage and are therefore not in the right situation to raise children by depriving the children of a mother or a father, then they are forced to close. Abortion advocates then argue, “What about single parents? Do you take their children away?” The exception proves the rule. Children being raised by single parents, whether a mom or a dad, are statistically always in a more difficult situation than children raised by a mom and a dad. They need support and mercy from the church, not to have their children removed.
Now there are politicians publicly advocating that pregnancy care centers, whose foundation is almost always in the church, be shut down across the country. One of two thing is true, and I don’t know if either one is to be preferred: either they are willfully ignorant of what takes place in pregnancy care centers, or they are so given over to wickedness that they do know and yet still would rather have abortion be the default way of dealing with unwanted or unintended pregnancies. Holding either of those positions is a moral disqualification from serving the public.
But at its foundation, the sanctity of life is not a political problem; it is theological. Do we see ourselves as the greatest evidence of the existence of God? Do we understand that life in the womb is worthy of protection? Do we see pregnancy as a special intervention of God’s providence? There is grace and forgiveness for all who call on the name of the Lord and repent of their sins. But the church must stand firm on the foundational truth that, without exception, God made every human life.
Every human life is a new creation of God.