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.
One of the difficulties, as well as one of the joys, of a lifetime of Christian discipleship is being confronted with your own shortcomings. It might be a failure to understand a key doctrine, or it might be a failure to live up to clear, biblical morality. What you once thought you knew like the back of your hand suddenly becomes a fog because of some new information. The way you once lived, thinking it was good and right and true, now seems to be at odds with reality.
One example of this is that of the rich, young ruler. We read about a young man who was clearly a first-born people-pleaser. This man’s whole identity was wrapped up in pleasing other people by keeping a close eye on how well he obeyed the law. He was meticulous when it came to obedience. It’s very difficult to be this kind of person, but it’s kind of the person we all like. They’re trustworthy. You know they’ll be where they should be when they should be. He’s likable. He’s ever going to offend anyone by saying the wrong thing.
You know someone like this in your own family or friends. You like them, but their inability to do anything wrong probably grates on you. Because you know that they do all the right things, but just the fact that they never do anything wrong makes you question what’s really under the hood. Nobody is this perfect.
This kind of guy gets his own personal interaction with Jesus in the story of the rich young ruler. He’s confronted with his own shortcomings when everyone else besides Jesus is just so proud of him. This is the guy who dads want dating their daughters, who we want in charge of things, who we want to throw into leadership, but Jesus doesn’t pull any punches. People pleasing isn’t going to get this guy as far as he thinks. Being in a position of power isn’t going to save this man.
This kind of person is found on both sides of the biblical aisle. Those who hold to a biblical morality and ethics can become proud of it. They live lives of strict adherence to a principled code of ethics and biblical doctrine, as we should. But it’s possible to make meeting the demands of the law the way of salvation.
Those who hold to a social gospel and spend their days arguing for progressive cultural changes can become proud of it. They think they’re actually making a difference in someone else’s life, so they sleep easy. But cultural changes do not deal with the effects of sin in the inner man.
This man’s whole life is rooted in forming an identity, described as someone who never strays or steps out of line, who supposedly takes the law of God more seriously than others. But the correction that Jesus offers is not to form an identity based on anything you do, but to see Jesus for who he is and the identity he gives you.
This man who has kept all the laws since he was a child still has no peace. He still doubts that he’ll one day inherit eternal life. Just not breaking the rules does not necessarily lead to any kind of assurance. But that’s the point. For many of us, there’s a place where, if it’s touched, we recoil. Some things are easier to give up than others, or to repent of than others. But there are other identity markers, where if we’re confronted, we refuse to give it up, and we walk away sorrowful and sad like this man. But in the gospel, we lose our fear of losing our identity
Losing everything for Jesus means inheriting everything.
At certain times, everyone needs a soft correction. And that’s exactly what Jesus offers this man. We’re told that when Jesus looked at this man, he loved him. There were plenty of people with whom Jesus was angry, but that’s not mentioned here. There were plenty of people with whom Jesus was frustrated, but that’s not mentioned here. Jesus took pity on this man. He loved him.
When we’re prone to make what we do the foundation of our faith and assurance, it won’t be long before we’re knocked off our pedestal. There were Pharisees who believed their performance was what made them a good person. Good works were a performance to get the admiration of others and eternal life from God. Jesus had little patience for performances.
But with this young man, Jesus sees a man struggling with his faith. The young man desperately wants to take care of it himself. So if you’re someone who isn’t performing your faith to get the applause of others, but you’re struggling to see what real faith is, this tragic story calls us to consider the kind of salvation that Jesus offers and how it’s infinitely better.
Before this man approaches Jesus, Jesus is teaching in public. The crowd was bringing children to Jesus so they could see him and he could bless them. His closest disciples thought the children were a distraction or a hindrance to what Jesus was trying to do. But when he sees what’s going on, we’re told that Jesus was “indignant”, or angry. Children were a major audience for Jesus. He never turned them away. That’s why Jesus responds to this attitude of children being a bother by telling the disciples, “Let the children come to be; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:14-15).
It’s only after this that this man, described in other gospels as the rich, young ruler, approaches Jesus with a question about the way into eternal life. First, Jesus says,
vv.17-19: To inherit eternal life, look to the Scriptures.
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’”
This man runs ahead of the crowd to get to Jesus, and he calls him “good teacher.” Why does Jesus answer the man the way he does? “Why do you call me good?” Is Jesus rejecting the man calling him good? Wouldn’t that mean Jesus is rejecting being equated with God?
It’s interesting that nowhere else is Jesus called “good” by anyone else. “Good teacher” wasn’t a common title for a rabbi, and there’s no record of it inside or outside the Bible. What this man is doing is trying to flatter Jesus. He’s a people pleaser. We’ll find out soon that he’s an outstanding, law-abiding citizen. He’s a rich man. You don’t get rich without having a strong mind and being self-motivated. He’s young. Most young men have to be taught to respect their elders, which he does. He’s a ruler, which means he probably holds an office in one of the local synagogues. He’s a respected person trying to shower respect on someone else to get his respect, as well.
But Jesus says that only God is good. Right off the bat, Jesus basically tells this rich young man, “You don’t really know who God is. All the things you do, you do for yourself.” And Jesus never says, “Don’t call me good, cause I’m not good.” Without saying too much, he just tells this man that only God is to be called truly good.
Moving beyond that, Jesus turns this man’s mind to the Scriptures by quoting from the ten commandments. It’s telling that Jesus only quotes commandments 5 through 10, which are the commandments that have to do with the relationships between people. Commandments 1 through 4 are all about the relationship of man to God. So Jesus has told this man that he has a misguided doctrine of God. And he’s about to call into question the motivations behind his adherence to the commandments about men.
The thing about the law is that many of them are easy to do, but none of them are easy to do for the right reasons. Not murdering someone is easy, but how many of us have had some kind of deep desire to hurt someone else? Most people won’t commit adultery, but how easy is it to train your eyes and your mind to refuse to look at him or her, this or that? He had amassed a tremendous amount of wealth, and it had blinded him to everything that was underneath the law. So Jesus tells him,
vv.20-22: To inherit eternal life, leave this life behind.
And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
This young man assures Jesus that everything Jesus just told him that he needs to do, he has done. It was common for a Jewish male to be considered an adult around age 13, and from that point on, he would be accountable for keeping the law of Moses. So what this man is saying is that as long as he’s been accountable, he’s never broken the law. It’s an incredible statement, but it’s not unusual. The apostle Paul says something similar when he’s giving an account of his Jewish pedigree in Philippians 3. He says that he was “blameless” when it came to all that the law demanded.
And this amazing statement comes next. “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” He sees a man struggling. This man is so good at keeping the law and yet so bad at loving God and loving others. If he really knew what the law required, he would see that he has never really loved God as he should. He would see that he never really loved his neighbor as he should. In Romans 7, Paul demolishes the argument that anyone can truly keep the law. In fact, when the law was given, sin came to life, because now there were names for the sins we had committed. And before the law was given, the sins that we committed, even without specific laws and names for those sins, were all committed because no one has ever loved God as he deserves, which is the foundation of all sin.
Jesus is asking this man, “Do you really love God? Do you really not idolize anything? Do you really find your only comfort in this life and the next in the promises of God? Or do you actually feel comfortable because of your wealth? Because of your attempt at being a law-abiding citizen? Is your security in the things you have and the things you do?”
The one thing this man lacked was the only thing that matters: unconditional, unmatched, unwavering love of God. And the barrier was what he did and what he had. So Jesus tells the man to give it all away as a way of proving to the man where his allegiance really was.
If you were in this man’s shoes, and you asked Jesus the way to eternal life, what would he tell you to do? Would he tell you to give it all away? What does giving it all away look like for you? Where’s the bone of contention? What’s the unrecognized idol? Is it the comforts of money and wealth? Is it name recognition? Is your good works? What makes you get defensive? What specifically would Jesus call out as what you need to give away to inherit eternal life? What is it that, if you were asked to do it, would immediately stop you in your tracks and say, it can’t be done?
Now to be clear, Jesus is not adding anything to the finished work of salvation. He’s not saying that there’s anything that you and I must do to inherit eternal life. He’s making a point to the man and to us. Eternal life is a gift. If God was supreme in his life, if love of God surpassed any creature comfort, then how would anything in this world compare to God? It’s not that this man could not be saved, or that his salvation depended on his own sacrificial generosity; that actually misses the point. Because immediately, Jesus says that…
vv.23-27: To inherit eternal life, God must give it.
And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”
“All things are possible with God” is one of those lines that’s used for all kinds of purposes. But when Jesus says it, he’s talking about the impossibility of salvation. No amount of money, generosity, or good deeds will ever merit your salvation. The difficulty with wealth is its capacity, or potential, to blind us to that reality. Wealth offers comfort, ease, and security, none of which are any great evil. Wealth also offers more chances for sacrificial generosity, which Scripture always commends. Perhaps in ways that other temptations do not, money has potential to ruin us.
But then, Jesus expands beyond the wealthy and says that it is difficult for anyone to enter the kingdom of God! The rich man was simply a jumping-off point. And clearly, Jesus is speaking to those who will enter the kingdom. He calls them his children, and in the previous passage, Jesus just blessed the children who came to him. You must enter the kingdom as a child, with a child-like disposition, with dependence not on money or works, but on God alone. He’s saying to them, “Remember what I said about how the kingdom belongs to children? Then come to me like a child, with empty hands, nothing of any worth of your own, but in joyful love and trust.”
All this time, the disciples thought they were shoe-ins for the kingdom. They thought they got it. But when Jesus says it’s easier for a camel to shove itself through the eye of a needle, all of a sudden, they realize entrance into the kingdom isn’t achieved the way they had expected. When they ask, “Then who can be saved?”, the relief comes when Jesus says that God gives it, and that’s the only way to be granted eternal life, or entrance into his kingdom. Then Peter pipes up again. So Jesus tells them,
vv.28-31: To inherit eternal life, live for Christ now.
Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Peter speaks for the group as the lead disciple. The young man has just made something of a fool of himself, so to contrast themselves with the man, Peter reminds Jesus just how much they have left behind to be disciples.
The usage of saying the reward will be a hundredhold in this time and in the age to come sounds an awful lot like the parable of the soils where Jesus says that when the seed is planted in good soil, the harvest is thirty-, sixty-, or a hundredfold. But here it’s not just the harvest at the end of the age, but both present and future blessings. There is nothing you will lose or give up now that will not be returned to you and multiplied graciously in the age to come.
What’s incredible is that it’s not just things, but people, as well. When you confess that Jesus is Lord, you inevitably place some distance between yourself and those who do not. That distance isn’t meant to be cruel or mean, but the things of God are foolishness to the heart that rejects him. It’s completely natural. You may want to share your faith with your family and friends, but they may not want to hear it, and that causes some distance. Now with God, all things are possible, so that distance is not a barrier for him.
Jesus says that in confessing him as Lord, you leave behind your old self, your house, your family, your land. That’s precisely what has always been required of those who pursue righteousness. God told Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2). Lands, siblings, and everything you know. Come out of your old ways and into God’s kingdom.
But that doesn’t mean a life of ease. When we enter into God’s kingdom, into eternal life, we gain a new family, new brothers, sisters, mothers, one Father, as well as a new land, one that waits for us in the age to come. We are a part of a new kingdom, but until that kingdom comes in its fullness, we will face persecutions. We will be mocked. We will be abandoned by those who once loved us. We’ll be re-classed. But are you willing to give it all away and follow him? Are you willing to lose your great life to inherit eternal life? Or will you walk away sorrowful, because what you have is so great?
This passage is often preached to show the merits of altruism, or the extreme selflessness that forces you to sell everything you have to give it away. One of many problems you now have is that you’re a pauper and starving your family.
When Jesus quotes from the ten commandments to this rich, young official, he doesn’t even bother quoting any of the commandments about obeying and loving God. Why is that? Because this man worshiped an idol. He didn’t worship the one, true God. If Jesus had listed the four commandments about obeying God, the man could not have said that he had kept the laws since his youth. Sure, he gave his sacrifices, his tithes, and he went to the festivals. But keeping a chair warm is not the same as a heart that’s warm toward God. So instead of a direct attack, Jesus actually gets to the heart of the matter and tells this man to take his idol and toss it into the fire. He tells him to take his many possessions, sell them, and give away the money.
When we’re confronted with the truth about our idols, we will get defensive. Sometimes that looks like ignoring what we have just learned and going away sorrowful. Sometimes that looks like outbursts of anger. But losing everything for Jesus means inheriting everything. There is nothing in this world that’s worth ignoring Jesus Christ. Losing everything for Jesus means inheriting everything.
How do you sway people to a new perspective in an age when we tolerate every perspective? When every point-of-view and idea is said to have equal value and weight, what can the church do to continue to present the life, death, and resurrection of Christ as the most important fact in history and Jesus Christ as the only way to the Father?
There’s one approach that says, “Just work harder. We gotta get the message out there. If every minute isn’t spent doing something for the kingdom, then you’re not spiritual and might not even be a Christian.”
The opposite approach isn’t to throw your hands up and ask who cares but to say, “God has decided who is saved and so there’s nothing for me to do. God will sort everyone out at the last day.” But that almost sees God as writing a tragedy and disregards clear command to make disciples.
There’s no debate that the insistence on tolerance in our culture has made evangelism difficult. Not only do we as individuals have to know the Bible, but we have to think about presentation. Are we being too soft? Are we going too hard? Do we know enough about who we’re talking to to get through to them?
How does the church make sense of all that the Bible teaches about presenting the gospel to the world? Do we work harder? Do we give up? Well, if the gospel is the good news about what God has done and not what we do, then the way we present that good news should be in line with that foundational truth.
Salvation is not based on my power to persuade but in God’s promise to save.
We’re reading today from Mark 4 where Jesus tells several parables, all of which have to do with the mystery of what happens when a seed is planted in the ground. Each of the three parables reflect on sowing, growth, and a harvest way more grand than what was to be expected. And in general, all the parables that Jesus told, in whichever gospel we find them, are ultimately centered on the kingdom of God.
So when a parable comes up about planting a seed and watching it grow, we connect it to the person and work of Jesus, who has brought the kingdom of God to earth. The very presence of Jesus and the good news of what he’s accomplished is the seed that is planted and which will eventually bring about a harvest in the age to come, when every eye will see him and every knee will bow.
Since we’ll be looking at several parables today, we need to be clear on what a parable is. A parable teaches truth through concrete pictures instead of long, wordy essays. It doesn’t focus on the abstract; it stays grounded. But by using a common, everyday kind of experience to teach about the kingdom of God, Jesus was able to actually hide the truth from those who had no interest in hearing it. Why do you think Jesus pulled his disciples aside to explain the parable of the sower? Because it wasn’t for the crowds; it was for the disciples. After the parable of the sower, Jesus tells his disciples,
“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’” (Mk. 4:11-12)
A parable stretches your thinking. You can take it at face value and miss the point, or you can ruminate on it, read it through the whole of Scripture, and let it show you something about the kingdom of God.
In the first and longest parable, the parable of the sower, Jesus explains that this parable is key to understanding all of the rest. If you don’t know who sows the seed, what the seed is, and who’s in charge of the harvest, you’ll come to all sorts of conclusions about salvation and the kingdom of God that don’t come from the Bible.
Jesus had no problem teaching the crowds, but he did expect them to listen to him and put in some effort to understand what he said. By calling them to listen, he urges them to pay close attention and go beyond a superficial answer. He demands a response.
In this parable, it’s often assumed that the sower is the lone Christian and the seed is the gospel. But as Jesus tells the parable, we are not to think that the sower is careless in where he scatters the seed. Is he wasting his efforts by scattering seed where there are thorns and rocks? Of course not! No farmer wastes anything. He scatters intentionally.
When people walk along the path, thorns and weeds might get squashed, but they’re still there. And they choke the good seed. And like all weeds and thorns, they don’t need much, if anything, to grow, and they will choke the life out of what you want to grow. And when he scattered seed on the rocky soil, he’s not being careless there, either. The rocks are beneath the soil which aren’t obvious. The farmer is intentional in everything he does.
When the kingdom of God, in the person of Christ, came into the world, it was not without its obstacles. Jesus was betrayed by a disciple, the religious leaders plotted his murder, he died an agonizing death. But those obstacles are offset by an enormous harvest. The kingdom was not hampered one bit. With the kind of harvest mentioned here, 30-, 60-, and 100-fold, how can you even consider the seed that fell on the path, thorns, and rocks waste at all?
With such an impressive harvest, the point can hardly be that some seed fell in some bad areas. The point of the parable is this: The coming kingdom of God will be more glorious than any obstacle it faces now. God is planting seeds right now which will result in the fullness of an unimaginable harvest later.
When Jesus explains the parable to his disciples, he says as much. The word is sown, like a seed, everywhere. But some will hear it and have it taken away by Satan. Satan is the accuser. And there will be those who stand accused of their sin and find no mediator, no substitute, no savior, in Christ. They are those who reject Christ flat-out.
The rocky soil are those who think that Jesus can do a lot for them, maybe they really enjoy being with other Christians, but otherwise they never put down any roots in the faith. They don’t know what they believe or why. And just like a plant with no roots, as long as the weather is fair, there won’t be a lot of problems. But as soon as water gets scarce or a storm comes, as soon as Christians begin to be mocked for their faith or are forced to take an unpopular position culturally, they fall away. They default to being in the majority.
The thorny soil are those who hear the gospel of Jesus but aren’t wiling to die to themselves. Their identity comes from others’ opinions of themselves, from the comfort that money affords, or from the general ease of life that comes along with going wherever the wind takes you. And suddenly, the gospel is asking too much of you.
But be assured that the seed will bear fruit. There might be soils that aren’t conducive for farming, but when the seed falls on good soil, there is no holding it back. The return on investment can only be thought of as divine.
Throughout the Old Testament, the harvest is always thought of as something that takes place at the end of the age, when the new creation breaks in and does away with the old. In the book of Revelation, and angel with a sickle comes and harvests the earth. In Joel 3:13, we read, “Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the winepress is full. The vats overflow, for their evil is great.” And here we’re given the assurance that no matter the appearance of things right now, when that takes place, those who receive the word and bear fruit will be ushered in to the kingdom of God as sure as a seed bears fruit when planted in good soil.
And when explaining this parable, Jesus also says that a lamp is not meant to be hidden. Why do you turn on a light when you enter a room? So you can see what you need to. It only makes sense that Jesus is himself the lamp that has been lit and has been preached to the whole world. Jesus is insisting that the point of the parable is the revelation of the kingdom of God, both now and at the end of the age. The seed is sown and grows into an unimaginable harvest that far outpaced the normal growth of seed, and there will be a revealing of Christ’s glory and majesty that, even though it might not seem like a normal, man-made kingdom that we expect, will be greater than we might ever expect, and it will be eternal.
And because the future revealing of the kingdom then will be the deciding factor in the eternal state of everyone who’s ever lived, understanding the point of these parables is critical today. Depending on the reception of the seed that is sown, depending on the response to the person and work of Christ, you have a corresponding share in his kingdom. Those who respond with joy and obedience will receive a greater share in the harvest than they expected. Those who respond with coldness or just continue living as if it’s not the ultimate reality or that they will deal with their sin on their own will receive less than they think they deserve. What you receive in the coming kingdom of God depends on whether you are living in the kingdom of God today.
In his next parable about the kingdom of God, Jesus teaches about the inherent power of the kingdom. If you called that parable the parable of the sower, you’d call this parable the parable of the seed. Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
Now the focus is on the power of the seed that gets released as it is scattered. When a farmer sows the seed in the ground, plenty of time passes between the sowing and the first signs of growth. And then even more time passes between the first signs of growth and the final state. Christ might return at any moment, but that any moment might way farther away in time than any of us think. But regardless of the time in-between sowing and harvest, the power is still at work. It is not an insignificant period of time.
And what does this farmer do after sowing the seed in the ground? Does he work himself ragged and live a life riddled with anxiety about his seed? Does he dig the seed back up to check on it and replant it? Of course not. He goes to bed. He wakes up. He goes to bed. He wakes up. The ability of the seed to grow depends not one iota on the work and anxiety of the farmer.
The farmer knows that he must sow the seed in the sowing season, but when it comes to how the seed grows, “he knows not how.” Friends, we need to understand that the power to bring about regeneration resides not in our power to persuade but it God’s promise to save. If we live our lives thinking that it’s up to us, that if we say the wrong thing, that if we have a moment of fear and hesitation, and if we have obstacles to talking to people, then they’re doomed forever, then we have an unbiblical view of evangelism. A lot of modern evangelism books and popular thoughts sound like customer retention manuals rather than the revealed, totally-sufficient word of God.
When you read the book of Acts and learn about how the gospel spread, it took place by Christians bringing people into their homes and hosting a Bible study. An apostle would go to a place, preach for a time, move on, and leave the church in the hands of the elders and the congregations. There were no church buildings. Before Christians had buildings to gather in regularly, they met in homes or in public. There were no sanctuaries, no programs, and no seminaries. Christian homes were the sanctuaries, programs, and seminaries. The first Christians knew the gospel that they believed well enough to preach it to people in their spheres of influence. And because of that, the church exploded. Now, are sanctuaries, programs, and seminaries bad? Not at all. But they are secondary to the simple, scalable preaching of the gospel. The power is in the gospel message about the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, not any one thing the church does, however much it supports that message.
Because who harvests the ripe grain at the right time? The same one who sowed it. It is God who sows, and it is God who harvests. It will take place at the perfect time. The seed follows its appointed course by the one who sowed it. The harvest is certain, regardless of the time it takes for the seed to grow and become ripe. The harvest is certain because of the power in the seed itself. The harvest is irresistible. It is certain. And it is coming.
Jesus tells another parable like the first two. “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Jesus here focuses our attention to the contrast between the size of the seed and the size of the shrub or the tree. There’s no time spent talking about the growth. It just happens, again, by the power built in to the seed. Jesus says the kingdom is like what happens to the mustard seed. It seems to have an insignificant beginning, but when it is full-grown, there is more than enough strength in its branches to provide and protect all of those who find themselves there. It is nourishing. It is comforting.
The day will come when the glory of the kingdom of God will finally and fully be the undoing of every other kingdom that stands against it. That began in the ministry of Christ and the apostles, and it will conclude when Christ comes again.
These parables have remarkably little to say about the actual casting of the seed. That’s not to say it’s not important, but Jesus is emphatic that the power lies in the seed itself—the gospel. That means you should do what you can to present the gospel message to those in your circles, but the paradigm shift for many of us is if our definition of evangelism is rooted in “How to Win Friends and Influence People” or the Bible.
Jesus can simultaneously command us to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18) and leave the harvest in the sovereign hands of God. The best way that you as an individual, day to day, can make disciples of all nations is to be faithful where you are and be clear about the gospel you profess to believe. Pray for those you have the ability to influence. If God has placed you in your family, in your workplace, in your community, then he has also placed the Holy Spirit in you to present the gospel there. So what does it mean to share the gospel and trust God for the harvest?
Simply share the simple gospel, not just your testimony. The gospel is what God has already accomplished. When you read the presentations of the gospel throughout Scripture, one of the key themes that comes up nearly every single time is the history of God working among his people. Stephen, in Acts 7, does just that. He summarizes the Old Testament in a single chapter. So you don’t need to have an exhaustive knowledge of every Israelite king or exact dates, but can you present Jesus Christ as the culmination of everything that God has done to redeem his people?
We also don’t need to pressure people into saying they made a decision that they didn’t actually make. Emotion is not evangelism. Faith and repentance come from God, not emotional frenzy. One sign of true Christian experience is reverence for the things of God, not bouncing off the walls. If you have to froth someone up to get a response, then they will have a short-lived experience, as promised in the seed sown on the path.
Don’t evangelize like it depends only on you and on this single moment. Evangelize like God sows the seed and the harvest will be greater than you can imagine. The apostle John tells us in Revelation 7:9-10, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
The sovereignty of God in salvation is a doctrine worth dying for, because the only other alternative is that it’s up to me and you. Christ is the good shepherd. We’re his sheep. He was the one who was pierced for our transgressions, the one who bought with his blood people from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people, and he bore our sins on the tree.
The sovereignty of God in salvation is also a massive comfort to believers. Salvation is not only possible; it is decided. It is finished. It is a reason to fall to our knees and worship. Untold numbers of believers from the whole world, from all ages and places, will worship God for their salvation. Because it is him and him alone who works salvation for his people. We go into the world to make disciples, without qualification, but we do so knowing that the harvest is coming, and the one bringing about the harvest has all the power do to so.
“All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this: one day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, “Oh, why can’t you remain like this forever?” This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.”
That’s how J.M. Barrie began his most famous book, “Peter Pan.” You see in the short interaction between Wendy and her mom themes that set up the rest of the book. Growing up is not so much a loss of innocence but a realization of the rock-like hardness of the world. It’s a cautionary tale about treating others as if they are replaceable. Heartache is an unavoidable and necessary part of this life. At some point every one of us has a moment where we realize that what’s behind us is behind us and what’s ahead of us is a mystery. For Wendy, while doing something as innocent as picking flowers, she realized, “Two is the beginning of the end.”
Now in my humble opinion, two might be a little young for your first existential crisis. But at least for Wendy, the age of two was both just another day and the beginning of a new way of understanding the world around her.
Mark begins his gospel saying that the coming of the Son of God had a firm beginning. But he also says that it’s just another day in the long line of days. There were prophecies about this gospel long before the gospel came in human flesh. But when the gospel came, it was a new beginning.
But to get to an understanding of that that doesn’t delve off into sentimentalism or self-help, we have to understand what a gospel is. Before “gospel” came to mean an apostolic theological biography about Jesus Christ, “gospel” was already an extraordinary word that was used to announce the arrival of someone great and how it brought about an entirely new situation in life. “Gospel” means “joyful tidings” or “good news”. It was used to announce the elevation of a man to the role of emperor. A “gospel” would bring about a day of celebration, honoring this new era that a new emperor had inaugurated.
The apostles undermined this idea that any ordinary man had actually ushered in a new situation that’s really, in any significant way, different than the current one. Every new emperor makes the same promises, starts the same wars, carries on the same problems. But when these inflated egos, these self-infatuated people made themselves out to be so important, the apostles announced the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The gospel is that God is pleased with his Son.
The sentimentalism I mentioned would be reducing the gospel to being primarily about us. The news that is good is that the prophets said there will come a man who prepares God’s people for the arrival of God’s Son. Too often we turn that around to say that Jesus is preparing himself for us, as if we are the treasure from heaven. John called the people coming out to be baptized a brood of vipers, snakes rubbing their bellies on the ground looking for vermin to eat. When it came to Jesus, he said he wasn’t even worthy to be the servant who takes his shoes off. So if we get the gospel wrong, if we make it primarily about our well-being, our contentedness, our success, our satisfaction, our marriages, our children, our little kingdoms, we will not make it about Jesus. We will be content to be pleased with ourselves when God is pleased with his Son.
In calling this the “beginning” of the gospel, Mark makes no mistake that it is God who initiates redemption. The beginning started totally outside of us, almost in spite of us. The gospel begins and ends with Jesus Christ. And right away, if we have any notion that the gospel is about us, we’re lovingly corrected. The gospel is about Jesus Christ, who he is and what he did, as God’s only begotten Son. This is what the church preaches, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. It’s possible to lose how much that means.
Yes, God loved the world, but he loved it in this way: he gave his only begotten Son so that the world might crucify him, because that’s what people do. Jesus Christ, as the perfect, sinless Son of God was able to redeem such a lost and dying world. The gospel is about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified by wicked men that he came to redeem.
Mark says the way we understand the gospel is through the OT prophets, mainly Isaiah. If you were to look at the most common quotes of the OT by the apostles in the NT, you’d see how important Isaiah is to them.
The quote is a mixture of Exodus, Malachi, and Isaiah.
In Exodus 23:23, God sends an angel/messenger ahead of the people to lead them into the promised land, but they will first pass through the wilderness. In Isaiah 40:3, the messenger there announces the second exodus through the wilderness to final deliverance. In both, the main idea is of God sending someone ahead of the people to lead them to and through the wilderness so he can meet them there. There are same three components each in Exodus, Isaiah, and Mark: the herald, the Lord, and the wilderness.
Enter John the Baptist. His arrival and ministry is the most important event in the life of Israel in nearly 400 years. In the 400 years between the final prophet of the OT and the advent of Jesus Christ, there were wars between Jews and Romans, insurrections, diasporas, and the gospels completely ignore them all. The only matter of any real consequence is what fulfills OT prophecy, because that is the charted course of God’s plan.
Many thought the role of prophet had ended because of the absence of a prophet for so long. But Moses promised a prophet like him in Deut. 18:15, and that had yet to be fulfilled. No other prophet had led Israel out of exile, through the waters, and into the land of promise. But John has arrived, declaring that that final prophet, one like Moses, is about to begin that great work.
John’s introduction is brief, but it makes two big points: John’s ministry itself is the fulfillment of prophecy, and John’s ministry was preparatory for the prophet like Moses. He will spend his ministry in the wilderness, and the wilderness will be an incredibly important component of making sense of who he is, what he’s doing, and who comes next.
It’s difficult to understand how important baptism was to Jews before this time. There were plenty of commands for ritual cleansing, especially for priests. This often took the form of a simple bath before doing their priestly duty. Ritual purity was symbolic of God’s perfection and our imperfection. But what John was doing was explicitly about repentance, not just ritual purity. We also know that it became a tradition to baptize every Gentile who converted to Judaism, in addition to circumcision, but it was not a biblical command to do so. What John was doing was definitely unique: calling people to repentance, then performing a purity ritual proving that repentance results in purity. It was so unique that he became known even his own day as John the Baptizer, or the Baptist.
The prophets often describe repentance as “turning to the Lord” (esp. Hosea, Amos, and Isaiah). They also described repentance as something that creates a way through the wilderness (EG, Isaiah 43:19, “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”). We find ourselves in the wilderness, and it is in the wilderness that God provides a way. In a future time, the people will find themselves in the wilderness, and God will provide a way through. And that’s about to take place. John is calling for people to come out to him in the wilderness, repent and be baptized, and wait for the Messiah.
When Moses led the people out of Egypt, they necessarily had to go through the waters, miraculously moved out of their way so they could walk on dry land into the wilderness. That water separated them from Egypt. John is calling for that kind of separation again, to come out through the waters into the wilderness, to wait for the Savior.
John is even described as someone who lives in the desert, in the wilderness. If I ask you to think of Daniel Boone, wandering around the Appalachian Mountains, you have in mind a coon-skin cap, unkempt, leather boots, whatever the stereotypical look would be of a pioneer. That’s Mark’s point; John is the standard desert wanderer, doing what desert wanderers do: eating whatever he can find, including bugs and wild honey, and wearing animal skins as clothes.
The prophet Elijah was also a desert nomad at times, and 2 Kings 1:8 says he wore animal skins and even a “belt of leather around his waist”, just like John is doing. There were prophecies that Elijah would return and be the messenger who prepares the way for the Messiah, and Mark makes explicit that John shares in the ministry of Elijah and is fulfilling what the forerunner of the Messiah would do. Later in chapter 9, when the disciples ask Jesus about that prophecy, Jesus said to them that Elijah had come, he was mistreated, and put to death, just like John was. Jesus says that John was Elijah.
John’s whole preaching ministry is summed up as “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (v.8)
John at least recognized Jesus as the one who was to come at his baptism, if not before. Remember, John was still in Elizabeth’s womb when he kicked with joy when Mary visited her with Jesus in her womb. Usually saying that someone would come after you meant that they followed you while you led, but here John says that he’s not even worthy to take off this guy’s shoes. It might be that some servant’s tasks weren’t that embarrassing, but bending down to take off someone’s shoes was something most servants were spared from. Every Jewish master recognized that each servant had at least that much dignity. And John says the job that even the lowest of the low don’t have to do is above him compared to who is coming after him.
But the most amazing part is what John says about baptism. Repentance is good; ritual purity is good. But the Messiah will bring a baptism that’s even better; he will give the very Spirit of God to indwell his people, saying that they will be baptized by the Spirit.
In Isaiah 63, God says that during the time of the wandering in the wilderness, after the exodus, God sent his Holy Spirit to guide them, by the Spirit he divided the waters and guided his people through it. And through the Spirit’s leading, God gave the people rest in the land. With all of that in the background, with all of that in their own history, John says that the people should be excited and prepared for this to happen again.
Then Jesus himself, the one that John has been preparing the people for, comes to be baptized by John. If the people are being called out by John to repent and be baptized, that begs the questions, is Jesus repenting of anything? Isn’t he sinless? Of course, so you’re only baptized for repentance if you’re repenting of something. But in submitting himself to baptism, he is identifying himself with Israel and as the one whose sinlessness will be the salvation of Israel. It’s because he had no sins of his own to atone for that he can bear the burden on behalf of his people.
Contrast verse 5 and verse 9: all the people are coming out to be baptized, from Jerusalem and all Judaea. But now, a single Israelite comes out to be baptized. Jesus should not be seen as just one out of hundreds or thousands who went to John and were baptized. Jesus must be seen as the true Israelite, the one who represents all of those who are Israelites inwardly, whether you are a Jew or a Gentile.
To clarify even further that Jesus’ baptism was unique, nobody else got a voice from heaven or the Spirit coming down as a dove. As Jesus came up out of water, a voice and a dove came down out of heaven. In Isaiah 64, Isaiah prays that God would open the heavens and come down out of them (v.1). That request was answered in real time at Christ’s baptism. The Son went through the waters of baptism, the Father opened the heavens, and the Spirit same down to rest on the Son. In Isaiah 32, Isaiah prophecies that the Spirit of God would one day be poured out on God’s people. And in anticipation of that, the Spirit is poured out on the Son, the one who stands in place of his people. Jesus’ whole ministry would be one described as substitutionary. Before he carried our sins to the cross, he identified with sinners in his baptism.
When the voice calls Jesus his Son, the Father is identifying Jesus as the one who has eternally been with the Father. Apart from being our Messiah, Jesus has always been the Father’s Son. At no point did Jesus become God’s Son. The voice simply says, “This is my Son.” Everything else that we will read in Mark only makes sense if Jesus is the eternal Son of God who substitutes himself in the place of sinners.
Bridge Between Two Worlds
We should not neglect what the gospel does for us, and in the coming weeks we’ll see more of it, but of primary importance is who the gospel is about, and it’s about Jesus Christ and him crucified. There’s a good reason Mark begins in this way. If that’s not central, the church offers nothing in terms of help that’s any better than the rest of the world. You have credentialed therapists who will do better than any pastor and palladiums that bring better entertainers than any event we can offer. What the church does offer is the call to repent and be baptized, to confess with your mouth and believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth.
The gospel is not something you hear one time and move on from. Every morning I need to be reminded that God is pleased with his Son, and therefore there is nothing left for me to do. Every time some I fall short, every time someone reminds me I fall short, I need to be reminded that God is pleased with his Son, who he is and what he did, and therefore the church’s salvation is a matter of fact.
If we’re not clear on repentance and baptism, anything else we say or do is just good advice and hot takes. The gospel is that God is pleased with his Son. Is that the support beam for everything we say and do? And because God is pleased with his Son, then everything the Son came do to has been accomplished. The lost he came to save will be saved. The dead he came to raise will be raised. The kingdom he came to rule he will rule. God is pleased with the church because the church belongs to his Son. Where does our confidence come from? We are in union with the Son, the and Father has accepted everything the Son has done. The gospel is a new beginning for anyone who believes.
Matthew 28:1-10 (ESV)
1 Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” 8 So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”
The fallen human mind will go to any lengths to arrange the facts in such a way that it seems impossible to believe that Jesus Christ really rose from the dead. Such people have developed theories, such as the swoon theory, which says the Jesus was simply almost dead when he was placed in the tomb. But the tomb, carved out of a rock, was just the right temperature to resuscitate him back to health, and it only took two good night’s sleep to bring him back from the brink after what he just endured. Such theories are baseless and rely on enormous presumptions.
Roman soldiers were not like contemporary American soldiers, where the army, especially, is like a little world of its own and has all sorts of missions, from defense to goodwill to infrastructure. Roman soldiers were not exactly peace-keepers. They were professional killers. They were the arm of the emperor that swooped in to your homeland, said that by the power of the emperor that you were now a Roman, and any dissenters were publicly made an example. That’s why Scripture makes it clear that Jesus was pierced through the heart. Jesus was already dead. That’s why Scripture says that the soldiers didn’t need to break Jesus’ legs, which usually ended the crucified’s life almost immediately. Jesus was already dead. Roman soldiers were anything but bumbling idiots when it came to killing someone.
Joseph and Nicodemus were in possession of Jesus’ body for hours and started the burial process, which would have to be finished later because of the time of day it was. They were the ones responsible for placing Jesus in a tomb. Not only do we have two witnesses to seeing Jesus dead up close, but we also have the soldiers who took his dead body off of the cross. Their livelihood depended on doing their job, which on that day meant killing this man. If anyone made sure he was dead, it was these soldiers. If anyone saw the dead body up close, it was Joseph and Nicodemus.
Pilate had a giant stone rolled in front of the tomb and had it stamped with the Roman seal, which was a threat to anyone thinking about moving the stone. A guard was placed there, as well. If you broke the seal, that tomb might as well have your name engraved on it. There was no getting in or out of the tomb without a lot of people being involved. And as we all know, a lot of people can’t keep secrets.
This perfectly explains the surprise the women found when they arrived at the tomb. No reasonable person who was actually present the day of Christ’s crucifixion had any notion that Jesus was anything but dead.
It’s early Sunday morning, light is just starting to shine, and the women are on their way to finish the burial process that Joseph and Nicodemus started three days earlier. Their only hope is that the guards will move the stone for them out of mercy. It’s a long shot, but they might as well take that chance.
Now Christ’s resurrection is not the only one taking place right now. But it is the promised one. Just a few verses before this, we’re told that after his resurrection, many tombs were opened and people walked out. Matthew 27:51-53 says, “And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”
An earthquake opened their tombs, but Christ’s tomb is different. An angel descends and opens the tomb himself. Pilot’s rock and signature seal only mean something for those in a lesser place of authority. But for the Son of God, those things are meaningless. His authority extends to every place and every person. Pilate and the soldiers are firmly under his authority. Man makes his plans, and the foolish don’t consider the things of God. These guards have every reason to be afraid.
It doesn’t seem as though there were only two or three, but maybe many more soldiers guarding the tomb. The group is just called a “guard,” and Pilate orders them to “make it as secure as you can.” No one, maybe especially Pilate, is going to let the body go anywhere.
It’s almost humorous that the ones assigned to guard the tomb “became like dead men.” They have no idea that the body they are guarding has already left the tomb. No amount of security is going to keep the living Lord inside a tomb meant for a dead man. If these were the same men who took Christ off of the cross, then they’re already a little shaken. The centurion and those who were with him at the crucifixion said, “Truly, this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54). They knew that what was going on around them proved Jesus to be more than a normal revolutionary, the kind of person Rome put to death regularly.
Various gospels mention different numbers of angels present, but Matthew simply mentions the angel who moved the stone. So the angel now speaks to the women. The angel did not come to let Jesus out but to let the women in. The guards had every reason to be afraid, but not Christ’s disciples. The angel tells the women, “Do not be afraid.” Angels always have to calm down the people they’re speaking to. But it’s not just the angelic visual that has them scared. Later on, Jesus will also tell the women to not be afraid.
Only God’s enemies should afraid of the empty tomb. Only those who believe or wish Christ was still in the tomb should be fearful. The disciple of Christ has no fear of death. We should not fear that Christ is not in his tomb, because he is on his throne, "For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25).
He tells the women that their intentions were noble, but don’t bother. He told you that he would rise, but all conditions point to the contrary. God commands the eyes of faith, but he also allows us to hear from the eyewitnesses who saw the empty tomb. Christ teaches about his death and resurrection at least three times in the book of Matthew. The women, as well as all the disciples, should have known better. But staring death in the face has a way of stripping us of all our faith.
The angel tells the women that Jesus “who was crucified” is no longer there. This leaves no room to doubt that Jesus was truly dead when he was placed in the tomb. Jesus was not drowsy; he was dead. But that same Jesus “is not here, for he has risen, as he said.” And then the women are told, “Come, see the place where he lay.” His resurrection is as real and as certain as his physical death. The women are not simply told to believe what the angel says, but in God’s mercy they are permitted to see inside the tomb as evidence of his absence. We are not told to take the resurrection on blind faith. But like how the women were told to take a peek inside the tomb, we are given four gospels, “the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).
Modern theologians have tried to say that the resurrection of Jesus was simply a spiritual resurrection in the hearts of the apostles. It’s a way to undermine the resurrection as false, not supernatural, but easily explainable. The apostles were apparently willing to die, many as martyrs, all because Jesus lived in their hearts, but not in the heavens.
But the angel gives Mary a command, which is to “go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead.” He was not just alive in their hearts but alive at the right hand of the Father. He is “risen from the dead.” He rules and reigns even now, until all of his enemies are his footstool.
Just like in his death and resurrection, the angel tells the women that Jesus goes ahead of them into Galilee. In life and death, Jesus Christ is our shepherd and leads us where we are to go. He sends his sheep nowhere that he has not been himself. We go to our graves in peace because Jesus has already been there. We fall asleep on this earth and wake up in God’s presence, because Jesus is already there. We go through the valley of the shadow of death, we go to green pastures, and everywhere in between, not on our own, but following our great shepherd.
There is no debate about the fact of the resurrection. If his resurrection was simply spiritual, then “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Our resurrection is completely based on whether or not Christ was resurrected. Our faith is pitiable if Christ is not ruling and reigning in his body in the heavens. What hope do we have for the future if he’s still dead?
Jesus was no ghost. He tells his disciples, “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39). His resurrected body was recognizable but noticeably different from the body he had before. The point is that he was truly living again and was not simply living a spiritual existence. The resurrection is no metaphor.
The women were obedient to the word they had received, and “they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.” Fear and joy mark the Christian life. This is not a feeling of terror at an evil, vengeful god, but of coming face-to-face with the supernatural reality of the defeat of an enemy. We can’t help but feel a little fear when we realize that we are coming up to the scene of a great military victory over sin and death.
But the companion of biblical fear is joy. We may be awestruck at the resurrection, but it should also cause us to see that Christ’s victory over sin and death has inaugurated his kingdom on the earth.
Not only do the women get to see and hear from an angel of the Lord, but Christ himself appears to them, as well. “And behold, Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.’”
Jesus says, “chairō,” which is literally, “hello.” It’s the familiar greeting for a friend. As those who are in union with him, he is pleased to call us brothers and friends. There is no more hostility between those who are born again and God the Father, all because of the work of Christ.
He is our friend, but we worship him. The women fall and grab at his feet. This is an act of worship. We may be friends, but he’s the one who paid the debt; he’s the first one who has been raised to new life by the Father. That’s the only appropriate response to coming in touch with the resurrected Christ. Fall at his feet in worship.
Jesus even calls the disciples “his brothers”. These are the same men who scattered when the threat of death became all too real. This is the same Peter who denied ever knowing him three times in a single evening. But no longer are these men enemies, traitors, or cowards. They are brothers to the risen Lord. Gethsemane was the end of their old relationship, and Galilee will be the beginning of their new relationship.
And if you know Christ as the risen Savior, you are his friend and his brother. You could have denied ever knowing him before, you could have been a traitor, you could have sold him for money, you could have pierced his side. That is Gethsemane. But now, we are told to meet him in Galilee. There we will see him. We will see him as the firstborn of the new creation, calling us to leave behind our sinful ways, take up our own crosses, and follow him.
Why are they sent to Galilee? Why are they not sent to Jerusalem, the home of the temple, God’s special presence among his people? For one, we’re never told that God filled the second temple with his presence as he explicitly did in the first temple. And besides, Jesus said that he would rebuild the temple in three days. The new temple surpasses the old by every standard. Wherever Jesus goes, there’s the temple. Wherever Jesus goes, there is the special presence of God among his people. And when Jesus says that he is with us always, even to the end of the age, he is not making some sentimental gesture. He’s assuring us that wherever he sends us, he is there, the very presence of God. He sends the Spirit to not just live among us, but inside us. We no longer go to the temple. Everywhere we go, because the presence of the risen Christ is there, there is the temple of God. He didn’t tell his disciples to meet him at the tomb. He goes ahead of us and tells us to follow him.
People will go to any lengths to cast doubt on the resurrection. The only story that makes sense of the facts is that Christ is risen, just as he said. The only response that makes sense is to fall at his feet and worship him.
There is a great benefit from having four gospels, the four accounts of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. The benefit comes surprisingly in their differences. Matthew includes an enormous amount of description about the actual process of Christ’s crucifixion and the women at the tomb on the third day. Mark doesn’t describe much about the crucifixion itself but more about what took place around Jerusalem when he died. Mark ends his gospel by saying that Jesus was resurrected and that the women were frightened. John probably gives the most information about the crucifixion, and he spends a chapter and a half describing some of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances.
Luke's gospel, however, fits pretty much in the middle. If you’re new to Christianity, it’s a great place to start. It is simple and to the point. Luke describes the crucifixion in a single sentence: “There they crucified him” (23:33). And Luke tells us about more how much mockery Jesus faced as he died on the cross. And as Jesus pays the price for our sins, he says some incredibly important, deeply theological truths.
This is where much of the antagonism toward Christianity comes from. Why did Jesus have to die? Was the crucifixion at the hands of evil men, or did God kill Jesus? If Jesus dying was the plan all along, how is that not just as evil as the evil we see and hear about every day?
But a right understanding of the crucifixion does not pit justice against mercy. Instead of pouring out justice on those who deserve it, Scripture tells us that God bore the brunt of justice upon himself. If we make too much separation between Father, Son, and Spirit, we end up saying horribly wrong things like “God died on the cross”, or God the Father killed God the Son. You might hear that from popular preachers, or on the History channel after midnight, or on a National Geographic or Time Magazine special Easter edition, but that’s an ancient heresy called “patrapassianism”, which says that God the Father shared in the crucifixion and therefore suffers. It sounds powerful, but it says the opposite of what we read in Scripture.
Jesus died at the hands of evil men, Jesus died by the foreordained will of God, and Jesus was not a victim. All of those things must be upheld with conviction. And the two words that Jesus speaks from the cross recorded in the gospel of Luke clarifies much of this for us.
Jesus saved us by not saving himself.
The life, death, and resurrection of Christ is the centerpiece of the Christian faith. If we don’t know how we are saved, how can we know if we’re saved? What are we saved from?
Just a day before Jesus is crucified, he’s eating the final Passover and the first Lord’s Supper with his disciples. This leads to a dispute between the disciples about which one of them will the greatest leader be in God’s kingdom. Jesus puts an end to that, and takes them out to the Mount of Olives to pray. While he’s praying, Judas brings the angry mob that arrests Jesus and takes him to the Jewish court for a sham trial, charging Jesus with blasphemy. The Jews can’t kill Jesus, so they pawn the dirty work off on the Romans. Jesus is taken before Pilate and Herod, but no one has a charge that will stick. So if you squint and hold your tongue just right, you can charge Jesus with being an insurrectionist. To appease the crowds, Pilate permits Jesus to be crucified.
While he’s carrying his cross to outside the city gates, Jesus sees that some people, especially some women, are mourning what’s happening to him. He says to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!” Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (23:29-30).
The crucifixion of Jesus is going to inaugurate the end of the Jewish system. That will not be the end of the Jewish people, just the system that they used to glorify themselves. And that will be made evident beyond dispute when the temple is destroyed within a generation. Rome will not go easy on the Jewish people. In fact, they’ll be scattered across the world shortly after the crucifixion. God will judge the people who perform the most evil act of human history: killing the God-Man Jesus Christ.
That doesn’t stop the people from mocking him as he hangs on the cross. As he is is placed on the cross, there are two other people, two criminals, who are being crucified, as well. Their exact crime is not described, but their punishment is. Only insurrectionists and rebels were crucified. They were considered something like enemies of the state. It was a statement about Roman authority. You did not even pretend to go against Rome’s commands, or crucifixion was your immediate punishment. Most likely, these criminals weren’t just thieves but dangerous, violent men.
Crucifixions were public so make sure the maximum number of people, the most foot traffic, would pass by on the way in and out of the city. Most were crucified nude, so along with the worst pain imaginable, you also have all sense of dignity stripped away, as well. Unless this was how you wanted to die, it was the best deterrent against opposing the Roman monster. But no Roman citizen could be crucified, so it was always a punishment for those under foreign rule.
The first words of Jesus on the cross are, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (23:34). Imagine that you have just been nailed to a cross because of fearful religious leaders and wicked Roman government power, and the first thing you do is ask for divine forgiveness for them. Why can the church say that Jesus was not a victim? Because for Jesus, this humiliation and physical torture in no way jeopardized his place in the Godhead or his relationship to the Father.
Jesus gladly came to do the work of redemption. The book of Hebrews tells us that it was “for the joy that was set before him [that he] endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus’s ministry has been about showing and telling the people about the redemptive love of God, and that is why he taught often about forgiving our enemies. You were once an enemy of God, and he has forgiven you.
Earlier Jesus said to his disciples, “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). Instead of demanding justice from those who have hurt you, turn justice back on yourself and pay what they owe you. Why? Because how else can you describe what God has done through Christ?
Jesus Christ is God, the second person of the Trinity. Instead of demanding that you and I do anything for our redemption, God himself turned justice back on himself and demanded nothing from you but faith in what has been accomplished. So when you are hurt, taken advantage of, ignored, or suffering injustice, do not think for a moment that God turns a blind eye to injustice. God cares deeply about injustice; but instead of making demands of others, absorb that injustice. Pay it yourself. You are never more like Christ then when you pay the debt of another.
To keep the humiliation going, not only is Jesus stripped of his clothes, but the Roman soldiers in charge of him cast lots for his clothes. It was normal for soldiers to share whatever people who would be crucified brought with them to their arrest. Psalm 22 prophecies about this very moment, saying, “They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots” (v.18).
It’s an absolutely careless procedure. There’s no will, no executor, no probate, just blind luck about who gets what. The final affects are of so little value that at best it’s a little bit of fabric. But by fulfilling a prophecy that’s several hundreds of years old, it simply highlights that every detail of what is going on is in no way anything less than a component of the covenant of redemption, the agreement between the Father, Son, and Spirit to redeem fallen mankind. Not a moment of this surprises God nor goes against his divine purpose. By having nothing to leave behind besides what he was wearing underscores the humiliation of the crucifixion, but it also highlights the extreme measure of divine foresight into that day.
Psalm 22 plays a major role in understanding how much of the crucifixion was revealed beforehand. In the same passage that says people will cast lots for his clothes, it also foretells of the mockery Jesus faced. Verses 7-8 say, “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ’He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’”
“Mock” and “scoff” are the same Greek word, and it’s the kind of word you’d use to describe something less than human. It’d be like calling someone a dog or a worm. It’s disgusting, or something you want to get away from. It’s essentially a “curse” word.
The people are literally quoting Scripture as they’re mocking the one to whom the Scriptures say will be mocked by the people. They are rehashing every Messianic role: he saved others, he is the Christ, he is God, he is the Chosen One. And still, they can’t see what their words say. When we say that sin blinds us, this is what we mean. In chapter 18, Jesus tells his disciples that the Son of Man will delivered over to the Gentiles, mocked, treated shamefully, spat upon, flogged, and killed (vv.32-33). And here it is, before their very eyes.
The soldiers offer him sour wine, which would have been a common drink for the soldiers. It might have a small numbing effect to help ease the pain, but Luke’s main point is that it’s a part of the mockery Jesus is facing. Not only is the crowd mocking him, but the soldiers are, too. “The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (Luke 23:36-37). The kind of drink he’s offered just compounds the humiliation of his death. But it also proves another element of the divine plan. Psalm 69 is a prayer for God to save this suffering man, and says, “for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink” (v.21).
The irony is thick. Their mockery of Jesus just emphasizes that they don’t understand how he’s in control. The soldiers tell Jesus to save himself, but Jesus saved us by not saving himself. “If you are who you say you are, prove yourself.” But that’s just the way that Satan thinks. At Jesus’ temptation, Satan said to Jesus, “If you are who you say are, turn this stone to bread. If you are who you say you are, jump off this temple and let the angels save you.” He was who he said he was—the suffering servant, the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world by dying for the world, who does not give in to the demands of evil men.
The people have mocked Jesus, the soldiers have mocked Jesus, and now one of the criminals mocks Jesus. “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (23:39). This criminal makes the same mistake that so many make today. Many are willing to say that there is something special about Jesus, that he might be a great man who faced an unjust death. But he doesn’t care whether Jesus was innocent or not. There’s no fear of God. It’s not about redemption; it’s about safety, or prosperity, or health. It’s about anything other than what Jesus really is. The first criminal doesn’t say, “It’s so sad that you’re innocent but here with us!” He doesn’t say, “Don’t worry, you’ll be vindicated when this is all over!”
No, he has the same misguided approach to Jesus that so many today do: they want what Jesus can give them without having Jesus as Lord. He wants off the cross and thinks Jesus can help. Why do so many seem to be true seekers? Because every sensible person wants what Jesus can offer, but few want it with Jesus. God is the only true seeker. He finds us, saves us, and keeps us.
But the second criminal is different from the first. He calls out the insincerity of the first by saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (23:40-41). There is no explanation for the second criminal’s perspective apart from divine mercy. This man at least understands that what he’s enduring is the natural consequence of what he’s done. Like it or not, he’s here because of his own doing.
The first criminal sees Jesus as a ticket punch, a get-out-of-jail-free card, a quick solution to his pain. But the second criminal sees himself as a sinner and Jesus as a Savior. There is no sinner’s prayer, no invitation, no discipleship class, no baptism, and no vote by the deacon board; all there is is a petition for mercy. Go to Christ with nothing but your sin and he will come to you with nothing but mercy.
The second criminal simply says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42). He recognizes that Jesus’s suffering and death is not a contradiction but his only hope. Jesus does in fact have a kingdom; he is the king who stands in the place of his people. He represents us before God. He represented this reprehensible violent murderer before the Father. And if your faith is in him, then Jesus Christ also represents you before the Father.
This is the moment that Christ’s reign began. Otherwise, what comes next makes little sense. In response to this criminal’s request, Jesus replies, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (23:43). Christ is entering into his kingdom, and this criminal will be a citizen.
“Paradise” is God’s garden, the same word used for the garden of Eden of the beginning and the garden of the new creation yet to come. It is better than this, but it is not our great hope. Like Titus 2:13 tells us, our great hope, our blessed hope, is that Christ would return to this earth and bring his kingdom with him. It is better to be with the Lord than to be in this body, but if you can imagine it, even better than that is the paradise of the new creation, where righteousness reigns, temptation, sin, and death are defeated, Christ is our temple and our light, and God dwells among his people forever.
Jesus saved us by not saving himself. And he saved us from enduring what he did on the cross. He did not only go through the physical suffering, which the gospels barely mention at all, but instead they focus on the mockery from the people and the fact that he endured the absence of the Father’s presence, total separation from God’s grace, which is the very definition of hell. He did not just save us from pain, but he saved us from eternity apart from God.
The two criminals represent two responses to the crucifixion. One way is to want the nice things that we hope God can give us, all while having this misguided view of who God is and what happened at the crucifixion. The other way is to do nothing but receive divine pardon, make no case for your own worthiness, and trust that what Christ did on our behalf is sufficient reason to enter into his kingdom.
Work on the statue of David started in 1464. The city of Florence commissioned several large statues for the cathedral in the city. Two sculptors worked on the statue, one after the other, but neither get very far. And both had their contracts terminated. As they worked on the statue, both of them complained that the marble Florence had purchased had too many imperfections and it wouldn’t ever stand up under its own weight. Between the two of them, by starting at the bottom, only a portion of David’s legs were sculpted. So for 25 years, David laid in the stone, on his back, out in the elements.
In comes Michelangelo. He’s 26-years-old, the highest-paid artist of his day, and the city officials offer him a contract to finish the statue. And in just over two years, he finished what has become maybe the most famous statue in the West. Most paintings of David show him in his most famous story, when he fights Goliath. And they show him either holding or standing over Goliath’s head. But Michelangelo decided to show David before he confronts Goliath. He’s calm, cool, and collected. He’s carrying his slingshot over his shoulder, but it’s not the focus. It’s barely visible. He presents David as clever, not just as a fighter. David won a battle with a giant, and now his statue stands 14-feet fall in the Galleria dell’Accademia.
David comes along at a rough time in Israel’s history. They have not been a nation all that long. God has made a covenant with the people, and their blessings depend on their faithfulness to the covenant. When the people are unfaithful, God permits neighboring nations to come and attack them. But when that happens, he also sends a person called a judge to act as a sort of temporary prophet-king to lead them out of an invasion. Judges didn’t have successors like a king. The book of Judges is the miserable history of how often God sent judges to bring the nation back from the ledge.
The prophet Samuel comes along as the final judge, and the people are now demanding a king instead of just a temporary judge. God is to be their king until he appoints a human king for the people, which he had promised to Abraham as far back as Genesis and again to Moses. But instead of waiting on the providence of God, they demand a king right now. Samuel speaks to God on behalf of the people, and God assures him that the people are not rejecting his leadership but God’s kingship.
God will provide a king for the people. God sends a man named Saul to Samuel, and God makes it clear to Samuel that he will be the first king of Israel. But he will be a king “for the people.” Saul is a great leader until he has a few losses and becomes paranoid. Under Saul, the Philistines constantly attack Israel, and there are few victories. Essentially, Philistia controls the land of Israel, and it’s almost as if they’re back in Egypt under the oppression of a foreign power. Samuel is raised up almost as a Moses, who will be instrumental in bringing peace back into the land. God removes his Spirit from Saul and sends Samuel out to find the man who will replace Saul one day. Instead of Saul being a king “for the people”, David will be a king “for me”, or for God.
David’s life shows us the providence of God. Providence is God’s guiding hand over the affairs of this world. David is introduced to us as a very young man, but God has already a will in place for David’s life. He would be a shepherd, a king, a keeper of the covenant, a general, a musician, and a psalm writer. He would also be an adulterer and a conspirator in a murder. He’s complex, to say the least. But through it all, David’s life is a shining example of how God lovingly guides and directs his people into a righteousness not of their own but that which is a gift.
Recently, a pastor and a professor at Ukraine Baptist Theological Seminary made the news because he moved his family out of Ukraine for their own safety and then went back by himself to minister with other pastors to shepherd their people. People don’t do that because they’re good in their heart. People do that because they know in their heart that God is in control and guiding the affairs of this world so that the gospel is preached to the nations, and no matter what world events may take place, everything serves the good will of our heavenly father. So of course we pray for relief for those under attack, but we simultaneously trust God, who guides and directs the affairs of this world.
Samuel is grieved over how Saul has performed. He was a great man, but once his ego was shattered through failures, he never recovered. And from this point on, it would only get worse. Saul’s a character study in how greatness can destroy a man of low character. Saul makes sacrifices that he’s not authorized to make because he gets impatient and can’t wait for Samuel any longer. He gets jealous of David and tries to kill him. But he still was a great strategist. And seeing someone with so much capability ruin themselves was tough on Samuel. He’s grieving not just the downfall of the first king of Israel but that the first king of Israel would fail so badly. Is this the best Israel has to offer?
God tells Samuel to get up and take action. There is another man to whom God will give the throne after Saul dies. Samuel is sent to Bethlehem in Judah, which should not surprise a man who teaches the Scriptures. In Genesis 49, as Jacob is dying and blessing his sons who would become the twelve tribes of Israel, he says that “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of all the peoples” (v.10). There was always meant to be a king in Israel, and he would be a descendent of Judah.
When Samuel goes to Bethlehem, he will meet a man named Jessi, and one of Jessi’s sons will be the next king of Israel. This time, instead of the people demanding to have a king, God will choose to give them a king. God tells Samuel, “For I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Now it’s not that God did not choose Saul, because he orchestrated how Saul and Samuel met. But in his providence, God will at times permit the sinful behaviors of his people play out as a disciplinary tool. The people were unfaithful in searching for a king that would serve in God’s role, and God said to them, “Thy will be done.”
Samuel is afraid of Saul in his paranoid state. If Saul finds out that another king has been anointed, there is little doubt in Samuel’s mind that he’ll be imprisoned or, more likely, killed. So God provides a good reason to make the journey, making a sacrifice, and as a judge and prophet he would have done this anyway. When he arrives in Bethlehem, he will invite Jessi’s family to the meal that would follow the sacrifice of the heifer. When he passes through Saul’s land, he won’t raise suspicion.
Sometimes there is a fine line between careful planning and deceit. But there is also wisdom in knowing how much to say, the way to say it, and what doesn’t need to be said right now. Samuel does not need to lie about what he is doing, but at the same time, God has already rejected Saul as king.
The first people he meets in Bethlehem are the town elders. They seem flustered by Samuel’s unannounced visit, and they ask, “Do you come peaceably?” That seems like an odd question for a prophet, but Samuel’s reputation as a no-nonsense judge and prophet precedes him. Just a few months earlier, chapter 15 tells us, Saul failed to destroy all the people of the Amalekites, taking some of them as slaves and imprisoning their king, King Agag. Samuel is at his whit’s end with Saul, so Samuel went up to Agag and took his lunch. He took his sword and chopped him into pieces. Suddenly a little curiosity about Samuel’s surprise check-in doesn’t seem to be so uncalled for. But he assures them that he comes in peace and invites them to the feast after they ceremonially purify themselves.
The sacrifice takes place, and the meal is about to begin. Samuel is looking Jessi’s sons up and down to see which one is God’s choice. Naturally, he starts with the oldest son, Eliab. The oldest son has the birthright, he’ll inherit the most from the family, he’s carrying the most responsibility among his brothers, and he’s likely the strongest from his brothers. But you know what you do when you assume. Looks are deceiving. God says to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (v.7).
How often our instincts lead us down the wrong path. If Eliab had been anointed for the way he looked, he would have been as bad or worse than Saul. When Saul was anointed king, the people liked him because of how tall and handsome he was. But in his heart, he was a paranoid, ego-driven man, obsessed with power. His failures simply shown a light on his heart. There might be many reasons that our instincts guide us toward the physically attractive, but at the end of the day we’re told that for whatever reason we strive toward those things, those features do not a king make.
Physical strength is good, and a clean appearance is good manners. But those exterior attributes can be accomplished apart from good character. Only the LORD can see who we truly are. The things we hide from others are open before God. Nothing is hidden from his sight. We might fool others for a time, but if we are just fooling others, we might very well be the judgment on those people from God as Saul was.
One of God’s attributes is that he is a perfect judge. He is impartial, judging only against his own standard of holiness and perfection. And as he knows the innermost parts of who we are, he does not make mistakes in his judgment. In Hebrews 10, when the author is speaking of God’s perfect judgment, it’s then that he writes, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (v.31).
We do not fear God because he is unjust, but because he is just. And even though we often downplay our sinfulness or mischaracterize it as moral failures or mistakes, God sees us as we are, fully exposed before him. Jesus tells us, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37). Nothing is hidden from his view. That both humbles us and encourages us, because he will not misjudge us. And if we are found in Christ, then we have already been judged. The judgment that Paul writes of, that I will endure at the end of the age, is to determine whether or not Christ died for me or if I will die for me. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3 that the judgment for Christians will simply expose whether our works were done in faith or not.
How do we judge people? What’s the natural way? We hear their words, and we read between the lines. We look at their appearance. We ask questions like, “Do they look right for the job?” We ask for resumes and CVs, we ask for character references, because you and I can’t look at a person and know their heart or their intentions. This makes us prone to make mistakes in judging someone, and it makes prejudice possible. We can’t know everything, so we have to make some assumptions.
But not so with God. Psalm 139, which is famous for telling us that God knits us together in the womb, also says, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways” (vv.2-3).
This is why the providence of God should matter so much to us. You and I are physically and spiritually incapable of guiding the affairs of this world because we are spiritually and physically incapable of understanding not only our own hearts but the hearts of other people.
God both raises up and tears down nations, which we are seeing in our own world today. God moves the hearts of the kings as he providentially moves his will forward. This is also why the church is free to make judgments about good and evil. We can look at world events, and we can look at what people and whole nations do, and without apology say that it is good or evil. We do not need to understand why things happen the way they do, because we do understand that there is one above us who does understand with perfect knowledge.
Eventually Samuel sees seven of Jessi’s sons. He knows that he is there to anoint the next king of Israel, but God has rejected every one of Jessi’s sons so far. There must be another. Because David is the youngest and the smallest, he’s not even considered by Jessi worth calling in from the fields. He’s out with the sheep keeping them safe. It’s almost prophetic, because “shepherd” will become a key attribute of the kings of Israel. Even before he’s made a king, he’s learning what it takes to be a shepherd, what it means to lovingly guide and direct those prone to wandering, knowing when to use your words and when to use your stick. He could learn that in obscurity, or he could learn that during his time as king. How much better off was both he and Israel by him learning to be a shepherd before taking office.
David is anointed now, but he will not become king for years. He still has the normal amount of growing up to do. Being shoved into a place of prominence before you’re ready is a dangerous place to be. It’s a good and noble thing to desire a high office, but to have an office without character is a recipe for the full catastrophe. God will often keep us in places of little to no recognition to guard us against an even greater fall once we are recognized. The day of small things is not a bad place to be if you desire the day of great things. It is in the day of small things that our hearts learn the things of God, where humility is learned, cultivated, and practiced. Without learning humility, greatness is a curse. This was the hard lesson that Saul learned, and David will himself struggle with it throughout his life.
David is anointed for greatness at this young age in front of his brothers, even if they’re unclear as to him being anointed as a future king. And even David is said to be ruddy or have a red complexion, to have beautiful eyes, and handsome. So dashing good looks do not prohibit you from greatness, but neither do they qualify you.
Then we read that the Spirit of God “rushed” on David. The language around the behavior of the Spirit is always exciting. You never read about the Holy Spirit sneaking into someone’s heart or slyly entering after a courteous introduction. The Spirit rushes on Saul, and he rushes on David. The Spirit falls at Pentecost. The Spirit is not just a force, but he always shows up in force. The Spirit is fully a part of the Trinity. The Spirit is a person. He is co-eternal with the Father and the Son and shares equal ultimacy with them both. The Spirit is as fully God as the Father and the Son.
The Spirit is always the agent of redemption. Whether before or after Christ, the Spirit is the one who applies the redemption that Christ bought with his blood to individuals. If the Spirit applies the blood of Christ to the church who looks back to him in faith, then the Spirit also applied the blood of Christ to the faithful within Israel who looked forward to him in faith. The difference is that in the old covenant, God lived among his people in the temple. The new covenant surpasses the old in that the Spirit of God now lives in us, because we are in Christ, who is himself the new temple.
And because God had always planned to place a king on the throne in Israel, God will make a covenant with David when he becomes king, promising that there will always be a son of David on that throne, that he will have an eternal kingdom. From that time on, when David fell short, the faithful looked forward to a time when a future son of David would be perfect and bring the people into right worship and perfect obedience to the covenant.
Providence is God’s guiding hand over the affairs of this world. From the beginning, God structured the kingdom of Israel to prepare the people for the son of David who would make a new covenant and lead his people into a right relationship with God where everyone would know him. David was a foreshadowing of Christ in so many ways. The prophet Samuel anointed David, John baptized Christ. The Spirit rushed on David, the Spirit descended on Christ. David was chased by Saul, Christ was chased by Herod. David was rejected by his people, Christ was killed by his people. God restored David after his sin, the Father resurrected the Son after his death.
In all the ways that David points us to Christ, perhaps his sin does it just as well. When we look to David, we can’t help but feel frustration at how he misses the mark over and over. That in itself draws our attention to our own sin and our own frustrations in the sins that remain. But where David would fall short as a king, the new son of David surpasses the old.
The prophet Jeremiah writes about the coming son of David who would redeem us when he writes, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness’” (Jeremiah 23:5-6).
David looked forward to a future son who would accomplish everything the law demanded. No longer do we seek after a righteousness of our own, because Jesus Christ himself is our righteousness. Providence is God’s guiding hand over the affairs of this world. From before David knew he would be king, during his time of preparation, and through all of his successes and failures as the primary covenant-keeper in Israel, God was working all things to bring about our redemption. He continues to work to that end, culminating one day in the restoration of all things.
Weeds grow when you clear land. Weeds are nature’s way of protecting itself and combatting erosion. If you don’t protect the topsoil, it will easily wash away when it rains. That’s why you’ll see weeds where you’ve never planted them; in cracks in your driveway and sidewalk; even breaking through your plastic barriers. They grow quickly and easily. They require no maintenance. Just planting what you want doesn’t clear away weeds. You have to remove the weeds to protect what you want. You can spray for weeds one year, and you are guaranteed to have to do it again the next year.
In the same way that weeds are the part of nature we don’t want and can’t get a handle on, sin continually creeps up in places we thought we had it under control. Sin grows in the little places we never imagined it, the cracks and crevices. We think we have one sin mastered only to find out that it goes by many names. To put it more clearly, sin is our nature’s way of trying to reclaim our hearts and minds.
We all too easily get comfortable with our besetting sins instead of engaged in a fight with them. Sometimes winning a fight looks like standing your ground and getting a few good swings in. Sometimes winning a fight looks like turning the other direction to drain your enemy of its power. Without exception, Scripture tells us to flee sexual immorality. That means not engaging on any level. We don’t engage on the mental level, with fantasy. We don’t engage on the emotional level, through intimacy. And we don’t engage on the physical level, with proximity.
In the life of David we see a man who already struggled with sexual immorality and then isolated himself from his normal routines. And by struggled with sexual immorality, I mean he gave in to it over and over. The struggle is good and not the sin. One some level, every one of us struggles with sexual immorality. But instead of putting up a fight, David let things happen to him. He isolated himself, he turned fearful, then vengeful, and finally, it turned him into a horrible callous man.
Sin grows in barren isolation. Righteousness grows in biblical community.
God cares about sin because he cares about righteousness. Only in Christ is righteousness achieved, and it’s not by us conquering sin. Christ conquered sin through his obedience even to death. The prime example this hope is David’s life, as far back as him fighting Goliath. The covenant made at Sinai came with blessings and curses. The curses were that when the people defected, became faithless and disobedient, God would send in foreign nations to rule over the people until they repented and turned back to the Lord. Goliath was a Philistine, and the Philistines were there in Israel as the judgment of God.
Why did God send in David? Because God sent one man to do for the nation what the nation would not and could not do for themselves, namely, remove the instrument of God’s judgment. David stood to represent the nation, in between God and the people, and to destroy the enemy. David is a shadow or a foretaste of what the people needed even more than freedom from the tyranny of foreign powers: freedom from the tyranny of sin. During his reign of king, David would push the Philistines out of the nation.
But David would let the people down time and time again. Looking at Saul, we see that good looks and physical strength is no guarantee of leadership ability. Looking at David, we see that starting well is no guarantee of godliness. Every time he sinned, every time he took a new wife, every time he stayed behind, he showed the people that he was not the expected messiah who will save the people. Every time he failed, the expectation for God to send one who would replace even this beloved king grew more and more.
David is anointed king of Judah in 2 Samuel 2 then king of Israel in 2 Samuel 5. Already there are major divisions between north and south, but the kingdom won’t split for a couple of more generations. Samuel anointed David king back in 1 Samuel 16, but he was a young man. Not until Saul dies is he the rightful heir of the throne. The Philistines are finally removed from Israel at the end of chapter 5. God cuts the covenant with David in chapter 7, that he will have an eternal descendent on the throne. Then David has many military victories in chapters 8-10. Now in chapter 11 successful, boastful, entitled King David is isolated, fearful, vengeful, and callous.
vv. 1-5 First we see David as an isolated man.
Spring allowed the roads to be clear for military travel. Wartime was spring through harvest. We’re told that the Israelite army going up to Rabbah was a siege work, which meant that this would have been an extended time of military action, not some quick skirmish or a single battle. This might go on the entirety of the war-fighting season. Since the king had many responsibilities, there may have been times when the king stayed behind, especially if this was intended to be almost a year. But v.1 does say that the kings did typically go out with their armies, so it seems that it was expected that David would go, even for an extended period of time. Either way, whether it was normal or disreputable, David is now isolated.
In the afternoon, many people would take a nap in a cooler place to rest up from the heat. He takes a stroll to his roof, which as the king’s house, would have likely been the highest point in the city. It would have been easy for him to see quite a distance.
Bathing on the roof would not have been abnormal. Generally, you’d be shielded from the view of everyone below. But from his perch, David doesn’t look away. His sin is not that he saw her but that he kept seeing her. Seeing her turned in to fantasizing about her. Fantasizing about her turned into finding out about her. Turning around would have gone a great distance in preventing what’s about to happen, but instead, he let his eyes draw him in. His eyes fed his mind. His mind fed his heart. And out of his heart came many kinds of deceit.
Scripture does not even try to make Bathsheba complicit. No context implies that she’s enticing David to do what he will do. We’re not even told that she’s unclothed. There are places in the world where people bath publicly, such as in India, and they do not completely undress to do so. All we’re told about Bathsheba, beyond her bathing on the roof, is that her father is Eliam and her husband is Uriah.
Eliam is among David’s mighty men, 30 men of courage who who have followed David to hell and back in battle. Eliam’s father is Ahithophel, who is one of David’s counselor, much like a cabinet member. It could have been that when he saw Bathsheba, he wasn’t close enough to recognize her face but close enough to recognize her beauty. While we don’t know if he knew who she was before seeing her and calling for her, he intimately knew her father and grandfather. David himself would have been about fifty-years-old by this time.
David sent for her through messenger, then we’re told that he took her and she came to him. And to prove that there was no chance her husband was the father of this forthcoming child, we’re told that she was bathing to achieve ceremonial purity, because she had finished her monthly cycle. The child that will be born to David and Bathsheba is undoubtedly David’s.
David has a history of sexual sin. Unfortunately, Bathsheba fits right in with David’s inability to have much self-control. David had an ongoing problem with sexual sin. David already had multiple wives: Ahinoam, Abigail, Maccah, Haggith, and Eglah are listed specifically in 2 Samuel 3. In chapter 5, there are so many more wives and concubines that they’re not even named. Kings were prohibited from polygamy in Deuteronomy 17:17-20. So even for all the good he did, he failed to obey the law perfectly. Taking Bathsheba was just the next step.
David already had wives and concubines, so why did he need Bathsheba? David was isolated. His appetite could go unchecked with little to no accountability. Like all appetites, they might be satisfied for a short while, but they always come back. Without even a little self-control, our appetites becomes our god. The apostle Paul says of those who reject the truth in Philippians 3:19, "Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”
vv. 6-13 Then we see how frightened David is.
Joab is David’s military general and would be in charge of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. Uriah is from the Hittite people and is probably a soldier-for-hire. However, he seems to have made the change to an Israelite, because Uriah means “Yahweh is my light”. He would fight for David’s army, for Israel, and in turn David would provide for all of his needs. And we’ll see that Uriah is heavily contrasted with David in terms of his character.
There would really not be much of a reason for David to call Uriah to get an update on the siege. It’s already raising suspicion in Joab’s mind. But David is frightened, so he starts scheming. He brings Uriah home, hoping that he will do what married couples do after being apart and think the child Bathsheba is carrying belongs to him. To compound David’s adultery, now he’s tricking another man into raising his own child. When we have no self-control, we turn to self-protection. When we break God’s law, we look to shift the blame. Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent. And if David can, he will shift responsibility to Uriah.
Knowing that you’ve sinned is not the same as confessing that you’ve sinned. David clearly knows what he’s done, because he’s scared. And his fear, instead of leading him to repentance, has instead led him to concocting a scheme to cover up his adultery.
There was precedent for soldiers not to sleep with their wives before or during battle. They were to stay focused on the task before them. Uriah is not going to indulge himself while his fellow soldiers are fighting away from their own families, many of whom will never return. He also has great reverence for the ark of God, which he says is also just dwelling in a tent. So instead of going to his home to be with Bathsheba, which David told him it was alright to do, he stays the night at the entrance of the palace instead. He stays in the servants’ quarters. We’re supposed to contrast Uriah’s integrity, a gentile, with the integrity of the fallen Israelite king.
David finds out and has Uriah stay an extra day. David gets Uriah drunk, hoping that without his senses he’ll go home and find Bathsheba. But even off the wagon, Uriah has more integrity than David and refuses to go home. So David, instead of repenting, now has to find a new way to keep Uriah from finding out about what he as done.
vv. 14-21 Because David is isolated and frightened, he turns vengeful.
Desperation makes us do horrible things, all in the name of not getting caught. How much sooner can things move on, even if it hurts, if we confess our sins to those who we’ve offended? The weight of sin is unbearable if it goes unconfessed. It makes us stupid. And in his desperation, David turned into the kind of person we all have inside of us—a vengeful person.
In his sinful stupidity, somehow it makes sense to David that Uriah has to die. That will fix everything. Everyone will think the child is Uriah’s since he was in town for a couple of days. So David sends Uriah back to Joab saying that Uriah should be put in the front of the fighting for the sole purpose that he is killed. Not only is he to be put in the front ranks, but when the fighting gets started, have everyone else back away from him. Make him a target, David says.
Joab sees through David’s plotting. Instead of having Uriah be the only casualty, the men stay together and many of them are killed in battle. Uriah’s death would simply be lumped in together with the body count. So Joab sends a messenger back to David tell him about the mass losses.
Joab knows that David will ask for more than a body count. He also knows that something is amiss. Joab knows a woman is involved. And as commonplace as polygamy might have been among other pagan kings, he knew that it was not allowed in the law for the Israelite kings. Somewhat prophetically, Joab knows that David, in his anger about the great losses, will wonder why Joab had the army so close to the wall. It was well-known Israelite history that one of their greatest black-eyes was when Abimelech died at the hands of a woman who rolled a rock on his head from her roof. Abimelech was one of Gideon’s sons, and he killed all of his brothers in order to make himself a king even before Israel had kings. But the people hated him, and one woman took it upon herself to take him out.
David may not have actually said this, but Joab half expects him to. It’s thick with irony. A woman on a roof was the downfall of a very proud man in time of the judges. And a woman on a roof was the downfall of a very proud man in the time of the kings. David failed to practice self-control and failed to be obedient to the law of God. It is his failures that have turned him into a vengeful, old man.
vv. 22-27 David has manipulated people’s lives, and the only way to mask the truth is for him to turn callous.
Joab’s messenger arrives in Jerusalem to tell David the bad news. More soldiers died than he expected. It was a slaughter. Walking up to a city wall was like walking up to a tank. Soldiers perched on the top of the wall could shoot down at the soldiers below with nothing to stop them. They were like sitting ducks. Joab expected this to infuriate the king.
However, David is so relieved that Uriah is dead, that his problem is solved, that he shows no remorse for sending so many men to their deaths. He was prepared to lose one man, and if other soldiers died to make that happen, then so be it. The message he sends back to Joab is, “Do not let this matter displease you, for the sword devours now one and now another. Strengthen your attack against the city and overthrow it.” Basically, he says to Joab, “What are you gonna do?”
Sin and sin’s coverup when you’ve been found out will necessarily lead to repentance or callousness. Eventually, David will admit his sins and repent. But for now, he’s doing what sinners do and basking in the peace of getting away scot-free.
Sin also sends us into hiding. This whole time, David has stayed in his house. Even while Bathsheba mourns for her husband’s death, David stays home. Sin isn’t just grown by isolation, but it keeps us isolated, as well. Every time David is mentioned, where is he? He’s holed up in his palace, safe and sound, while everyone else is suffering for his sin.
The story is far from over, however. David brings Bathsheba into his house, but the story takes a turn. Up until now, God has not been mentioned. But once God is mentioned, it’s not good news for David. Everything is not okay. “But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD.” From start to finish, this is David’s sin. Sure, later on, down the road, Bathsheba proves to be a schemer herself, but this is on David.
One of the prophets in David’s time was Nathan. God sends Nathan to David to call David out on his sin. Nathan gives David a story about a rich man who steals a poor man’s lamb to feed a guest. He asks David, “What should be done to this thief?” And of course, David says that the rich man should restore what he stole and then die. Famously, Nathan says to David, “You are the man!”
Nathan goes on to say that because, as king, he has led Israel astray through his example, the child born to David and Bathsheba will die. We should not say that our sin will lead to the death of our children, but in this instance, it did. From this point on, David is changed. When his child is born, he is sick. He dies before he is even named. When the attendants tell David of his son’s death, he actually stops his mourning and goes to the ark to worship. When they ask him why he has stopped mourning when many would have just begun, he is assured that in the life to come, he will see his son again.
The grace of God turned a man like David, an adulterer and conspirator, into a man who hopes in the resurrection of the dead. What is our blessed hope? Is it to never die? Or is it to die to this frail, sinful body and be raised incorruptible?
Jesus died that we might die, which graciously removes the weight of this sin-ridden body. Jesus lived the perfect, obedient life that when we live again, we will be sinless and stain-free, as he is. The return of Christ, which brings with it the resurrection of the dead, is our blessed hope.
David did some horribly wicked things. But those wicked things were the very sins for which Christ died. The vile things that you and I have done are the very sins for which Christ died.
Once restored in community, David wrote Psalm 51 as a confession of his sin before God. In it, he writes, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice” (vv.7-8). Confession and repentance brings about both brokenness and gladness. Brokenness in that we have failed at sinless perfection, and gladness in that we are purged of our sins by the blood of Christ. What is it that pleases God? “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (v.17).
Sin grows in barren isolation. Righteousness grows in biblical community. If you’re isolated, find biblical community. So many sins begin in isolation. Earthly tactics do not do away with the power of sin. In Colossians 2, Paul says rules like “Do not taste, do not touch” do not guard against the indulgence of the flesh. So what does? “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). Sin is defeated in biblical community.
Those who turn to Christ in faith and repentance are never turned away. Bring your sin, your evil deeds, you good deeds done with selfish motives, and confess that Christ is Lord. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart.
If you were asked to write down what happened in creation, you’d probably write down things like God speaking, light and darkness, sun and moon, plants and animals, people. God made everything from nothing. Debates over the age of the earth. I believe the universe was created at a mature state so everything that needed to operate could and would.
But if the creation story is building toward something, then it stands to reasons that man and woman were the culmination of creation. We are made in the image of God, special creations of God designed to be his regents and stewards of creation. But it wasn’t the creation of mankind alone that put the finishing touch on creation.
What made creation “very good” was marriage.
If we detach marriage from its roots, we’ll be prone to do whatever we want with it. We’ll think of it as an institution that’s just a bunch of traditions that should change with the times. Creation was not considered complete or very good until the first marriage took place. We can no sooner change marriage than we can alter the laws of nature. We can certainly pretend to do so, but playing with the facts doesn’t change them.
Up until now, creation has been deemed good by God. The phrase “And God saw that it was good” appears four times. Then at the end of day six, we read, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” Day six is when God made the animals that walk on the earth and mankind, both man and woman. Once man had a compliment in the woman, only then was creation very good. Only when man had a compliment in the woman was God finished with the work of creation.
Chapter 1 of Genesis is a summary statement of the what God did in the six days of creation followed by a Sabbath day of rest. Beginning in 2:4, the tape rewinds and the narrator spends a good deal of time focusing on the creation of mankind, both man and woman. We get more details about the special nature of humanity. Chapter 1 tells us that we are the image of God in his temple of creation. Chapter 2 describes the garden where mankind would live and man’s role in tending the garden, which takes place entirely on the sixth and final day of creation.
Mankind’s job is to multiply and maintain dominion over all of creation. So verse 18 says that God knew it would not be good for man to be alone, or to be the only one of his kind. All of the animals have their compliments, male and female, so man should, as well. Plants reproduce on their own with their seeds. But for whatever reason, God did not create man and woman in the same way he did the animals and plants. When he made the animals, there were male and female. Even they were made from the ground, like the dust from which Adam was made. When he made the plants, they were created with their seeds already in them. But man and woman were created independently of each other.
We should’t read verse 18 as if God didn’t realize at the beginning that it was not good for man to be alone. It’s simply a statement of fact. It is not good for man to be alone, God formed all of the animals from the ground, and he had Adam name the animals. But none of those animals were intended to be a compliment to Adam the way the animals had their compliments.
After making the man, God gave him his orders to maintain the garden and not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Those are his obligations. God also had Adam begin the naming process of the animals. It’s possible in the beginning there were fewer kinds of animals, not the huge number of species we have today. So Adam could have only been naming the animals for a few hours, not weeks and years. All it says is that God sent Adam the animals to see what he would call them, and whatever he named them, that was good enough. God had delegated that naming authority to man. At least that much transpired between the formation of the man and the woman.
And as Adam wrapped up his naming duties, he realized what God already knew. None of these animals were like him. He alone carried the image of God. He was a sentient being with a will and emotions. He had divinely appointed authority over these animals. They were part of his stewardship and dominion. They served him, not vice versa. He was given dominion, not them. He became acutely aware of his special place in creation but also of his loneliness in creation.
Man had no helper. The important word there is “helper.” It’s the Hebrew word “ezer,” which just means “one who helps.” What this word doesn’t carry is the idea of the helper being less than the one who is being helped. “Ezer” is used to describe God many, many times, and God is not less than the one he is helping. God is called our “Ebenezer,” meaning our “rock of help.” He is our strong place when the sand is ever-shifting. A “helper” is not inferior to the helped. That would have been a different word. The woman will not be a servant or a slave but a helper.
What will this new person help Adam do? What was the command given to the man? God told the man to multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. On his own, one man is wildly insufficient to do all of that. Some species of animals might reproduce in themselves, but mankind does not. Some tasks might be a one-man job, but reproducing and subduing is not. Man and woman will have a natural interdependence built into their relationship.
In the same way that Adam did not have a role in his own creation, neither will the woman. In fact, Adam’s only role in Eve’s creation is completely passive. God put Adam to sleep and got to work. Traditionally we read that God took a rib from Adam, but that word we translate as “rib” is really just “side.” God opened up Adam’s side, took some of Adam’s flesh and bone, and with that material formed the first woman. Adam was made from the dust, and Eve was made from flesh and bone.
Eve’s creation is special in another way. Up until now, God has “formed” or “shaped” the various components of creation. It’s pottery language. God is described as a potter taking the otherwise useless lumps from Genesis 1:2, where the earth is already present but formless and empty, and molding it into what we see today. But with the woman, he “builds” her. Some Bibles say “made,” but it’s literally “built.” She shares in the man’s strength. She’s made for work, just like the man. We’ll see later that differences between the two are plentiful, but they share the same essence. The woman is strong, but her strength comes from his strength. The order of creation will matter throughout Scripture, to Christ and his apostles, and to his church, but the dignity of the man and woman are completely equal.
Adam wakes up to find that he has a companion. Immediately he recognizes that she is no beast; she is no bird. She is his other half. He tells her, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” This is definitely a poem, because there is so much wordplay going on here.
“Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” shows us what she is like. She is in essence just like the man. She will be his family. Of course Adam knew what God had done with his side, taking the nucleus of the woman and building her. Other animals were also made of flesh and bone, but the woman is built out of his. She does not belong to him, but she is intimately tied to him.
“Flesh and bone” will continue to be a common phrase throughout Scripture. Being another’s “flesh and bone” is to be in a covenant with that person. In weakness and in strength, flesh and bone, you will remain one flesh, committed to each other, in sickness and in health, until death do you part. It is a saying implying unending loyalty. In 2 Samuel 5, David is being anointed king over Israel. The people come to him and say, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh. 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.’ So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel” (2 Samuel 5:1-3).
The tribe of Israel looked back at the creation story, saw Adam making a covenant with Eve, and used the same language to make a covenant with their new king. When Adam tells Eve that she is his flesh and bone, he is committing himself to her in a lifelong covenant of care and protection.
If there was any doubt that this was absolutely a marriage, verse 24 settles it. Moses writes that because the woman was made from the man, a man will leave his parents’ home and begin a new home with a woman. In marriage, the flesh and bone are reunited. It’s a radical statement, because the same thing cannot be said about any other relationship. Even childbirth is a separation of flesh and bone. In friendship, there is no union of flesh and bone. God did not finish creation with friends or children. Only in the divinely ordered marriage is there a reunion of the flesh and bone that God himself separated at the building of the woman.
Men, we do not leave our father and mother and never speak to them again. We leave them in the sense of responsibility to them. You simply cannot care for two families at once as they need. But as the main caregiver and protector of the relationship, your priority is the care and protection of your wife. Why else is the woman not commanded to leave her parents? As God built the woman from the man, the man bears the responsibility of building the family. A family’s strength is found in proportion to the man’s initiative.
Men, husbands, fathers; take the initiative and stop the things that are keeping your family away from Lord’s Day worship. You are in charge, not the coaches. Nothing benefits a family spiritually like worshiping together with the church and in the home. Worship is a good reason to miss other things. Relax and recharge with your family after worship. Take charge of your family’s schedule. Find a time that works for everyone to pray with your family and read the Bible. You also don’t stop leading your wife when the children leave the home. You continue to prioritize the things of God at every stage of life. A family’s strength is found in proportion to the man’s initiative.
What, then, does the woman bring to a marriage? She brings help in being obedient to the command of God. The same command given to Adam and Eve is given to us. We are all, male and female, men and women, husbands and wives, told to be fruitful and exercise dominion. Wives, you bring a strength to the marriage that men do not. I’ve seen my wife give birth, and she’s seen me suffer through tummy troubles. We are not the same.
Note that while gender roles are a brute fact of creation, there is no sense in which there is to be any subjugation of women by men. Men do not subjugate women; tyrants do. Moderns have created this straw-man argument that Christians think all a woman can do is raise children and manage a household. First of all, who are they to belittle that? Is there any greater privilege than teaching children who God is and what he did for them? Is there any joy like seeing a child finally read a page out of a book when you’ve been working with them for weeks on how to read? Is it easy to keep a running list of who’s going where and what everyone needs? Don’t we pay managers six-figures to do that?
And if a wife helps her husband by being employed, so be it. There is nothing unlawful about it. Sometimes a second income is all but necessary. Some women are simply called by God to be titans of industry. The woman of Proverbs 31 is such a woman. Women were some of Christ’s main benefactors. Lydia, from Acts 16, is called out as a businesswoman who was converted along with her family and supported the church financially. Women: help your families as you feel led and as it pleases the Lord.
The passage ends with a beautiful line, that they “were both naked and were not ashamed.” In the first marriage, we see a principle for all future marriages. Most especially in that relationship, there should be a complete absence of shame and fear. Marriages after the fall are never entirely untroubled, but Christian marriages should be marked by peace and joy. We should learn to be comfortable in our own skin with this one other person. It should be the most natural relationship in the world.
And because of that, the best advice for the young and unmarried is to get married young. Getting married and raising children is the most civilizing thing in the world. Don’t put it off out of principle. There is this false narrative that you have to get your life sorted out and get settled before you get married. By that they mean you need this much money, be this far along in a career, yada, yada, yada. That is a complete 180 from the truth. How much better would those things be, how much easier is life, with a companion and a helper? Your boss will post a job opening the moment you get fired, quit, or die. Your family can’t replace you. Adam and Eve knew each other for a few minutes. Adam woke up and proposed.
Paul does of course call for some people to remain single as he was. But that is a special case. The normative call for all Christians is to marry and have children. One theologian said it like this: marriage shows the glory of the gospel; singleness show the sufficiency of the gospel.
Every marriage will carry with it certain troubles, all of which are common to marriage. Don’t think that because you have found “the one” that you will avoid those troubles. But if Christ is the center of your marriage, those troubles, while still quite persistent, will take place among the peace and joy of a Christian marriage.
Bridge Between Two Worlds
The New Testament does not change a thing about the creation of the man and the woman. There is no reinterpreting or rounding off the edges to fit contemporary taste. It is the creation story that gives Christ and his apostles their theology of what marriage should be.
Paul says in Ephesians 5 that wives should submit to their husbands and husbands should love their wives. It’s pretty widely understood that God commands into our weaknesses.
At the fall, God cursed the woman and said that Eve’s desire would be for her husband, meaning that she would desire his place and resent his leadership. Her husband was supposed to rule over her; the curse would be that she would resent it. Childbirth would be painful, not enjoyable. Two natural parts of womanhood, childbirth and submission to a Godly husband, would become points of contention instead of sources of joy. Paul says to redeem those things. He reminds us that even when living with imperfect sinners, the call for wives to submit to their husband’s leadership is still there.
At the fall, God cursed Adam by making work, the thing he was supposed to do anyway, a terribly difficult task. He did this because Adam listened to Eve instead of God. Adam knew better, but because of his weak leadership, because he did not protect his wife from the serpent’s deceit, he would have to work even harder at squeezing out an existence. And because of how hard he would have to work to get results, he would be tempted to resent his wife. So Paul tells us husbands that in spite of our own curse, the command to love your wife is still primary.
But before God cursed the man and the woman, he cursed another. The serpent who deceived the woman received the worst of all three curses. He would be the lowest form of life on land. The offspring of the serpent would not be little baby snakes but all those who reject the gospel. God tells the serpent that he “will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heal.”
The real enemy would never be your husband or your wife but the one telling lies to you about God. There is where the real strife comes from. But the promise of God is that there is coming a certain offspring, one in particular, who would put an end to all of that enmity and strife. The Father of Lies would be defeated by the Son of God, but it would give the appearance of a loss. Satan would bruise the heal of Christ, which would appear to be fatal. But the Son of God would deliver the final blow, not just bruising Satan’s heal, but crushing his head. It would be decisive.
By taking our sin upon himself, Christ begins the unraveling of all of sin’s curses, even the ones related to marriage. He was perfect and without any of his own sin. Though he died and gave the appearance of victory for Satan, it was a quiet, surprise defeat. On the third day, he rose from the dead and showed the enemy, the offspring of the serpent, that God has power over sin and death and every curse. In his resurrection, he purchased our salvation from the curse and God’s wrath once and for all.
The curses and the difficulties that every husband and wife carry into a marriage are part of the package. But Christ has overcome them all. When a husband takes the initiative in a God-honoring manner, when a wife submits to a God-honoring man, and both submit themselves to the Lord, marriage shows us the power of the gospel. The curse is defeated, and it was defeated by Christ, who died for his bride, the church.
George Santayana was a professor at Harvard who said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Winston Churchill popularized the idea by saying, “Those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it.”
Mark Twain, in his typical whit, said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
The Corinthian Christians had a problem. Groups broke off into factions and were raising themselves above other believers. This resulted in sexual impurity and lack of doctrinal clarity, especially about the resurrection. Corinth was the Las Vegas of its day. The only rule was to do what made you feel good. You could live as if there were no consequences. Christians struggled with that way of living, but Paul brings the gospel to bear on that lifestyle
Corinth was the crossroads of the Roman Empire. It was a melting pot of nationalities and religions, not unlike America. The people coined a term, “korinthiazesthai”, meaning, “to act like a Corinthian”. It was a slur used to say that someone was a drunk or acting like a total skeezball.
All believers live in the tension between who we used to be and who we are in Christ. We need explained to us why we can’t think the same, behave the same, or live the same. The gospel must be brought to bear on every part of our lives. Paul does that here by pulling from examples of God’s people from the past. Paul teaches us this:
Learn from the past to be faithful in the present.
Coming up on the new year, many of us are making resolutions. We want to break bad habits and start new ones. Maybe we want to start a plan of reading your Bible, praying more, family worship, or not missing Lord’s Day worship. These are all good things. Some of us will join a gym, read a book every month, visit family more, finish that degree, move up to a craftsman, or buy a house.
It’s easy to get lazy in our Christian maturity in the same way we can get lazy in our resolutions. We must always be learning to be obedient. Maybe nobody is really calling us on it. “Are you reading your Bible regularly? In Bible study? Praying daily? Missing worship? Giving from your income?” How many times have you asked someone those questions?
Today is the day to get our spiritual act together, not tomorrow or next week/month/year. The Corinthians had gotten sloppy or careless in their faith. They made a confession with their mouths but not with their actions. And it’s not as if they weren’t good, church-going folks. The actions that called in to question their confession were actually the religious things they were doing, so Paul shines on a light on that problem and gives them the solution. Learn from the past to be faithful in the present.
Paul went to Corinth on his second missionary journey. You can read more about that in Acts 15-18. He would have written 1 Corinthians around AD 50.
Chapters 1-4 are about spiritual maturity, chapters 5-7 are about sexual and marital purity, and chapters 8-10 are all about personal liberty. Paul pulls mainly from the example of eating meat sacrificed to idols. After a sacrifice, the temple would sell the meat in the meat market. This raised the question, could Christians buy this meat? Paul’s answer is yes, a Christian can eat meat sacrificed to what amounts to nothing. But for weaker brothers and sisters it was a conscience issue, and they couldn’t do it. Paul says that eating meat sacrificed to idols is not a sin, but he isn’t going to form a tradition that’s binding on all Christians or fall on his sword for something as silly as deli meat. “You can eat it, but don’t make someone eat it."
Don’t let other people determine your conscience, and don’t determine someone else’s conscience on matters such as these. The goal is to bring all people to maturity in Christ, not set the lowest common denominator Christianity. There are just as many commands about growing in your faith and increasing in knowledge as there are about not harming another’s conscience. There is no virtue in a weak conscience, and there is no virtue in making someone stumble. We have a right, because of the knowledge we have, to eat and drink as we please, as long as we give thanks for it. But we do not have a right to bind the conscience or harm the conscience of someone with weaker faith.
But he starts with something of a strange word picture about the exodus, going through water, baptism, and rocks. “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.”
We have plenty of examples of those who lacked all self-awareness and self-control, primarily looking at Israel crossing of the Red Sea with Moses and then them having their physical needs being met by manna and water. Paul does this by saying this was a forerunner of what you do in baptism and communion;
He also calls the Israelites “our” ancestors. Corinthian Christians weren’t Jews, so what’s his point? The church stands in continuity with Israel. Abraham is our forefather as well. So is Moses, David, and all the others. The church is grafted in to Israel; we are not replacing Israel, and we are not completely separate from Israel.
Passing through the Red Sea was like baptism. Our second birth is followed by a baptism, and Israel's rescue from Egypt was followed by a baptism. They were delivered from slavery, and so are we: slavery to sin and death. Their baptism was in the cloud and the sea, above and below, almost as if the imagery of being immersed meant something. Now that’s not Paul’s point, that immersion is the proper mode, but we can say that the image he does present is of total covering, or water from all sides
Paul then speaks of spiritual food and drink. Israel was supplied with real food and drink, manna and water. They were divinely supplied with real material, and it’s clear he’s saying that the same thing is true for Christian communion. The elements don’t change into something else, but Crossing the Red Sea and the manna and water point to a spiritual truth: God supplied/supplies the way and mean of salvation.
Paul is more concerned about the source of the water than the water itself. For Israel, it was the rock, yet the rock was Christ in some mysterious way. For us, it is not so mysterious that Christ is the one who supplied his own blood, which the cup symbolizes.
Paul is emphasizing that Christ serves as the one who nourishes our body and spirit, who he says in Colossians “is our life." The continuity between Israel and the church means the church is in the same danger of idolatry as the Israelites were. This is the point he’s building up to.
Think about Israel’s failures: God was displeased with most of them. Because of their idolatry, God struck down those many in the wilderness. This is referring to response of the report from the spies. The people believed the report of the ten against the report of the two. They feared the people in the land so they didn’t go in. God said all those over twenty-years-old, except the two spies who were courageous, would die in the wilderness. He didn’t kill them immediately but let them live natural lives. Only their children would be able to enter the promised land.
Here is his point: all of Israel had all the same provisions that we have, and many of them rejected those provisions and turned instead to idols. If these were written down for our instruction, then we need to hear the same warning
It is possible to be baptized carelessly and receive communion carelessly. That doesn’t mean you do—and people who are concerned about receiving both of those ordinances rightly means the preponderance of evidence is that you do. The Spirit is who moves you to have spiritual concerns. Those who think lightly of them or do them flippantly, or those who think they are magic and have saving power in themselves, are those who need to take heed of Paul’s words. Those who think that they can baptize their children and it have some magic effect need to take heed of Paul's words. God did not tolerate the idolatry of the Israelites. We should not be under the illusion that he will tolerate ours. The episodes of the Red Sea and manna and water were examples for our instruction.
“Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did."
Paul does not want what happened to Israel to happen to the Corinthians or to us. Repeating those sins lead to the same judgments. Paul gives four examples.
First is idolatry. “Do not be idolators as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. (v.7).’” Paul brings up the story of the making of the golden calf, when Moses went up the mountain and the people got impatient and scared (Ex. 32:6). God saved them some slavery in Egypt, took them out to make a covenant with them, to protect them and provide for them. And as Moses is receiving the terms of the covenant, they hit their heads and start collecting gold jewelry to make an idol. This the greatest miracle of the Old Testament, and they revert to old ways in a matter of days. Idolatry is believing any being other than God has ultimate authority. It's like having a spiritual awakening or mountain-top experience, going to bed, and waking up the next day like it never happened. We can all say we’re guilty of that. Time passes and we forget. Our little idol-factories get back to work.
Second is sexual immorality. As a reminder, chapters 5-7 are all about it, which follows chapters 1-4, which are all about spiritual maturity. Where you find spiritual immaturity, you will find sexual immorality. “Do not be idolators as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. (v.7).’” That word for “play” likely has sexual immorality in the context. It's more like “revelry.” The people made the golden calf, ate in its presence, then likely did what was normal in ancient cults, which was something like ritual prostitution. He’s also referring to Numbers 25 where Israelites were sexually immoral with Moabites. God struck them down. Also, this has been a specific temptation for the Corinthians. Both letters that we have mention cases of sexual immorality in the church; it’s important for Paul to speak clearly about its importance.
Third is testing, as in testing Christ, or putting him to the test. In Numbers 21, God had been providing manna. The people grumbled, saying it wasn’t good enough. They even call it “loathsome food”. God sends serpents to bite and kill them, but God has Moses make a bronze serpent. The people can fix their eyes on that bronze serpent and live. The people were testing God by their complaining or grumbling about his provision, but the point is the testing, as if they were challenging God to judge them. By grumbling about the food, they were testing God’s patience. For the Corinthians, by their sexual immorality and involvement in ritualistic cults in social situations, they were testing Christ, as well. He even says the Israelites were testing Christ, which further ties the Old Testament people of God to the New.
Fourth is grumbling. In Numbers 14, the people are grumbling about Moses and his leadership. They want to find a new leader and go back to Egypt, the land of slavery from whence they came. God sends a plague and strikes down many of the Israelites for their grumbling. The people have constantly complained about the God who made promises generations before them, performed miracle after miracle, saved them out of slavery, and provided all the food they needed. Their response is to complain about it, make idols, and sleep around. Grumbling is thinking that God has done wrong to you. That God allowed any survivors is a testament to his mercy.
In v.6, Paul said these things happened as an example for us. He repeats himself in v.11. Their reason for being included in Scripture is clear: to warn us about the same kinds of temptation toward idolatry, which has many forms. These passages were not written down for them, but for us. It means they’re not just morality stories. The temptations we face were foreshadowed by Israel. We’re the people “on whom the end of the ages has come.” The resurrection of Christ was the pivot point of history. History has a goal, a point, a terminus, and a purpose, all focused on Christ. The Old Testament points toward the fulfillment of history in the new people of God, the “people of the end.” The Old Testament is our book.
Here’s the summary of it all for Paul: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” Spiritual maturity is the goal, but there are real temptations out there toward idolatry and all of its forms. There are plenty of Old Testaments examples of its problems. They thought they could get baptized, receive communion, and then be free from the struggle that comes with following Christ. But that struggle is full of joy, because there is only the struggle if you are his.
The Corinthians were trying to be Christian while participating in the cults of the day, in a day when everybody was a part of a cult. Paul is always ready to warn the people of the danger they could be in, but he is also always ready to encourage them in their struggle: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
This is a mind-blowing statement. Every temptation you feel is not as strong as it could be. Every temptation you feel can be overcome. In an act of mercy God restrains temptation in your favor. Temptations still come our way and act as trials, but they cannot overcome us. We will never finally and fully be tempted away from our initial confession of faith in Christ as Lord. God has proven himself faithful time and time again, and that is our reason to endure.
In your weakness, he will show how strong he is. When you fail, he will not. When you sin, he will forgive you. When you are tempted, he will provide a way of escape. But he doesn't say he will remove the struggle. One of the greatest tricks of the enemy is to make a believer think life should be easier than it is. The new birth is the beginning of spiritual warfare, not the end.
All the temptations you feel are the temptations that everyone else feels in varying degrees and expressions. It’s freeing to realize that I’m not the first to struggle with this or that sin but am one of many who needs the church community of which I’m a part to hold me accountable and remind me of my forgiveness in Christ.
So how do we take heed lest we fall? Where did Paul take his examples? From Scripture.
You need to be in Scripture regularly. All you need to read Scripture is a time, a place, and a plan. Read specific passages that address common temptations, especially it seems, sexual immorality and idolatry.
We often treat the Bible like a library book: take it off the shelf, borrow it, read it once, then take it back. The Bible is ordered systematically and is meant to be read systematically. If these things were written down as an example and instruction for us, it is on us to read those examples. Make a resolution to be in Scripture, our example and instruction, regularly.
All of your temptations are common to man, so get around other people. Common temptations are put to death in community. Discipleship groups function as Bible reading groups, and it’s natural that a little accountability will be built in to being in a community. Make a resolution to have a group of like-minded people who hold you accountable spiritually and bring you in contact with God’s Word.
God has proven himself faithful time and time again, and that is our reason to endure. He will see us through to the end. What he began in us he will bring to completion. The way out that God provides will be equal to the temptation. Temptations that come our way are not designed to be our undoing but our means of maturity, of growing into greater Christlikeness.
In the new year, resolve to soberly assessing your faith, not to be fearful, anxious, or condemned (because there is no condemnation for those in Christ), but to be totally committed to keeping your eyes on the One who died to give you faith. Feed that desire to be more and more obedient in all your ways. Learn from the past to be faithful in the present.