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Christmas [2008]: The Question You MUST Answer (Luke 2:10-11)

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December 21, 2008

Special Christmas Message

A four-year-old boy and his family were sitting outdoors enjoying lemonade and cookies when a bee started buzzing around the table. The boy was very upset and his mother tried to calm him. “Nathan, that bee is more afraid of you than you are of him,” she said. “Look how much bigger you are. Besides, if that bee stings you, his stinger will fall out and he’ll die.”

Nathan considered this for a moment and then asked, “Does the bee know that?” (Adapted from Reader’s Digest [06/93], p. 20.)

That was a good question! There are important questions in life that we need to ask and answer correctly: “Is there a God?” “How can I know Him?” “Is there life after death?” “Do heaven and hell exist?” “If so, where will I go when I die?” “How can I know for certain that I’m right about the answers to these questions?”

At the root of all these important questions is a crucial question that every person must answer. In fact, every person will answer this question, either now or at the judgment. But if you wait to answer it until the judgment, it will be too late! You will answer it correctly there, but the answer will condemn you to an eternity in hell without God. So you need to answer it correctly now!

The question you must answer and respond to correctly is, “Who is Jesus Christ?”

The correct answer to this question will answer all of the questions I just asked: “Is there a God?” Jesus came to reveal the Father to us. “How can I know Him?” You can only know God through His Son Jesus Christ. “Is there life after death?” Jesus tells us authoritatively how to go to heaven and avoid hell. “How can I know for certain that I’m right about the answers to these questions?” Are the accounts about Jesus and His claims true or false? Is there adequate evidence to believe these accounts? Especially, is there historically valid evidence that Jesus arose bodily from the dead? The apostle Paul did not hesitate to hang the entire Christian faith on the answer to that one question (1 Cor. 15:14, 17).

You will have times when you struggle with doubts that stem from difficult questions: How can a loving God permit the terrible suffering and injustice in the world? How can God be three persons and yet one God? How can certain biblical accounts that seem to contradict each other be harmonized? These and many more questions may trip you up. But if you come back to the correct answer to the question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” it will be the bedrock to stand on as you work through your doubts and questions.

You will also have times when you are strongly tempted to sin. How can you resist? It seems like sinning will bring you happiness and pleasure. If you forget who Jesus is, you will probably succumb. But if you remember who He is, you will be able to withstand the temptation.

You will also have times when you will go through difficult trials. It will seem as if God has forgotten you. You won’t understand why these things are happening. In your grief, you will be confused. But coming back to this crucial question will give you perspective to sustain you through your trials.

So the correct answer to this question determines how you think and how you live. It determines where you will spend eternity. Thus it is not surprising that the answer to this question is the major focus of each of the gospel narratives. John, for example, plainly states that he wrote his gospel (20:31), “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” Arguably, the identity of Jesus is the focus of the entire Bible. But for sake of time, I want to examine this question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” in the context of Luke and then zero in on the words of the angel to the shepherds.

Luke hits the matter of Jesus’ identity early and then throughout the book. Luke begins his gospel by telling his original reader, Theophilus, that he has researched these matters carefully (Luke 1:1-4). He claims to write this account so that Theophilus will know the exact truth. In other words, Luke is writing an accurate historical account. This is not fiction!

First, Luke gives the account of the birth of John the Baptist, the prophesied forerunner of the Messiah. Then he follows with the visit of the angel to Mary. He revealed to Mary both the miraculous means of her conception and the identity of her offspring (Luke 1:35): “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.”

We will come back to the angel’s announcement to the shepherds. But just after Jesus’ birth, both Simeon and Anna bore witness to the fact that this child was the Lord’s Christ, the Savior, and the redeemer (Luke 2:26, 30, 38). When the crowds wondered if John the Baptist might be the Christ, he denied it and stated that he was not fit to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals because Jesus was far mightier than he (Luke 3:16).

Even Satan tacitly acknowledged Jesus’ identity when he challenged Him (Luke 4:3), “If You are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Again he taunted from the pinnacle of the temple (Luke 4:9), “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here.” He was trying to use the truth to camouflage his temptation. At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, the demons also recognized that He is “the Holy One of God” and “the Son of God” (Luke 4:34, 41). Although they were not and could not be subject to Him, they still knew the truth about who He is.

When Peter experienced the miraculous catch of fish, he instantly recognized that Jesus is the holy Lord and that he had no basis to be in His presence. He cried out (Luke 5:8), “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” When Jesus forgave the paralytic’s sins (prior to healing him to prove His authority to forgive sins), the Pharisees grumbled (Luke 5:21), “Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?” Who indeed?

Later, when John the Baptist was in prison, he struggled with doubts. He sent messengers to Jesus asking (Luke 7:19), “Are You the One who is coming, or do we look for someone else?” Jesus sent back the reply, based on a Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 35, (Luke 7:22-23), “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the gospel preached to them. Blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” Jesus’ miracles and teaching revealed His identity.

Later, when Jesus was having dinner with a Pharisee, He forgave the sins of the woman who anointed His feet. The other guests grumbled (Luke 7:49), “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” Luke repeats the same crucial question after Jesus calmed the storm. The disciples fearfully asked (Luke 8:25), “Who then is this, that He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey Him?” Later, Herod heard about the miracles that Jesus was performing. He worried that maybe John the Baptist had risen from the dead. So Herod said (Luke 9:9), “I myself had John beheaded; but who is this man about whom I hear such things?” He asked the right question, but he never answered it correctly!

Later, Jesus asks the twelve (Luke 9:18), “Who do the multitudes say that I am?” After they give some of the incorrect answers, Jesus pointedly asks (Luke 9:20), “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responded with his confession, “The Christ of God.” Yet even then, the disciples had many erroneous notions about who Jesus was. They did not understand that the Christ had to suffer before He entered into His glory (Luke 24:26). The ultimate confession comes from God the Father, who testified at Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:22), “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.” And, again at Jesus’ transfiguration, the Father testified (Luke 9:35), “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!”

If we had the time, we could work our way through the entire Gospel of Luke (as well as the other Gospels) and see the words and deeds of Jesus, all of which testify to His identity. After His resurrection, Jesus explains to the disciples that all of Scripture testifies to Him (Luke 24:27, 44).

But I want to focus briefly on Jesus’ identity as the angel proclaimed it to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:10-11), “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” This is a unique statement, in that the word “Savior” is only used two other times in the gospels. In Luke 1:47, Mary said that she “rejoiced in God my Savior.” It occurs once in John (4:42). Other than that, “Savior” in the Gospels only occurs here at Jesus’ birth. Also, the words “Christ the Lord” translate a Greek expression found nowhere else in the New Testament (Leon Morris, Luke [IVP/Eerdmans], p. 85). It is literally, “Christ Lord.” So the angel’s pronouncement should arrest our attention.

1. Jesus is fully human.

Luke, who probably interviewed Mary, gives more detail to the miracle of the virgin birth than any other New Testament author, explaining that the Holy Spirit performed this miracle in Mary’s body (1:34-35). In this unique way, God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus. Jesus was born in the city of David, which is Bethlehem. Luke will go on to show that Jesus grew up as a boy, gradually attaining maturity (2:40-52). Luke also traces Jesus’ physical genealogy all the way back to Adam, showing that Jesus was descended from David (3:23-38).

All of these historical details mean that the Christmas story is not a legend, but rather is a true account of the life of a real man. It is based on the eyewitness testimony of credible people. We need to emphasize this in our day. So many legends, such as Santa Claus, have become intertwined with the Christmas story that people lump them all together and forget that the birth of Jesus Christ as reported in the Bible is true history.

Some may ask, “Who cares if it’s history or not? The story about Joseph and Mary, the Christ child, the angels, the wise men, the shepherds, and the manger, is a heartwarming tale that children love to hear. It helps everyone focus on peace on earth for a few days every year. So what difference does it make whether it’s really true or not?”

It makes all the difference in the world! If it’s just a heartwarming legend, you can choose to believe or disbelieve it, based on how it makes you feel. It’s a completely subjective decision, binding on no one.

But if the story actually happened as Luke reports, then the birth of Jesus confronts every person with objective facts that cannot be shrugged off as personal opinion. The fact that these events happened means that God exists and that He truly broke into human history in the birth of Jesus in fulfillment of many prophecies. The fact that God sent Jesus as a Savior implies that people without the Savior are alienated from God and desperately need to be reconciled to Him through the forgiveness of their sins.

These facts mean that you don’t just believe in Jesus because it makes you feel warm and happy inside, or because He helps you face life’s problems or because you like the Christian traditions. It means that you believe the Christian message because it is true. Even if it brings you persecution and death, you cling to it because it is authentic history. Jesus came to earth as a man to bear our sins.

2. Jesus is the Savior.

The angel tells the shepherds that this good news of great joy for all people is that a Savior has been born. The name “Jesus,” revealed to Joseph by the angel (Matt. 1:21), means, “Yahweh saves.” Jesus did not come as a nice man offering a new philosophy about life. He did not come as a great moral teacher, offering some helpful insights on how to live a happy life. He came as the Savior!

A number of years ago, a toddler fell down a narrow well. Her mother went looking for her as soon as she realized she was missing and was horrified to hear her daughter’s voice coming from this deep, dark shaft. Fire fighters and other rescuers soon swarmed on the scene. News media arrived and for hours the attention of the nation was riveted on the desperate attempt to rescue that little girl before it was too late.

That little girl didn’t need anyone to give her some ideas on how to live a happy life. She was doomed if someone didn’t save her from death. The most important news that that desperate mother could hear in that situation was, “The rescuers have saved your daughter!” When someone is lost and within hours of death unless they are saved, the only news that matters is that a savior has come who can rescue that doomed person.

The good news that a Savior has been born who is Christ the Lord is the best news in the world, because it deals with the most important issue of all, namely, where you will spend eternity. If you die and do not have Jesus Christ as your Savior, you will spend eternity under the judgment of a holy God (John 3:36). But in His mercy, God sent Jesus to save us from our sins!

3. Jesus is the Christ.

“Messiah” is the Hebrew and “Christ” is the Greek word for “Anointed One.” It refers to Jesus as the Anointed King and Priest, who brings God’s salvation to His people. In the Old Testament, the only two office bearers to be anointed were the King and the High Priest. Jesus brought both of these offices together in one person. The title, Christ, especially focuses on the fact that Jesus is the One who fulfilled all the Old Testament prophecies about the promised Savior. He alone is able to reconcile sinful people to God through His sinless life, sacrificial death, and bodily resurrection. He is coming a second time, not to offer salvation, but to judge the world and reign in righteousness. Since Jesus is God’s Anointed One, we dare not ignore or reject Him!

Thus Jesus is fully human. He is the Savior. He is the Christ.

4. Jesus is the Lord.

The title means that Jesus is God. What a mystery, yet true: The man Jesus, born in Bethlehem, is God in human flesh! A mere man could not have died for the sins of the human race. If He had been an angel or some super-human being, He could not have borne human sins. But as the sinless God-man, He alone could bear our sins.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons say that Jesus is the Savior, but they deny that He is God. But we must interpret Lord in light of its use in the Old Testament and in light of its context in Luke. In the Old Testament, the Lord clearly is Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob! It is used over 6,000 times in the Septuagint to translate “Yahweh” (Darrell Bock, Luke 1:1-9:50 [Baker], p. 218). It refers to Jesus’ sovereignty and deity.

Luke uses the same word in 1:43, where Elizabeth refers to Mary, who is carrying Jesus, as “the mother of my Lord.” She also adds that Mary was blessed because she believed the word spoken to her by the Lord (1:45). In the next verse (1:46), Mary breaks into praise, exclaiming, “My soul exalts the Lord.…” When Elizabeth gives birth to John, everyone heard that the Lord had displayed His great mercy toward her (1:58). As the child grew, Luke states that the hand of the Lord was with him (1:66). When Zacharias broke into praise, he blessed the Lord God of Israel (1:68). In 2:9, Luke says that the angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. He uses it in 2:23 to refer to “the law of the Lord” and “holy to the Lord.”

If Lord means something different in verse 11 than it does in these many other references in chapters 1 & 2, surely Luke would have clarified it. The angel means that Jesus, born to the virgin Mary, is none other than God in human flesh. The Savior had to be man to bear the sins of humans; but He also had to be God so that His sacrifice had merit before God’s holy throne. Only Jesus is that unique Savior.

So the correct answer to the crucial question that you must answer is, “Jesus is fully human, He is the Savior, He is the Christ, and He is the Lord God.” But, you can answer that question correctly and yet go to hell. As we’ve seen, the devil and his demons know the correct answer to that question, but they are not saved.

5. You must respond to Jesus as your Savior and Lord with personal faith and submission.

The angel announces that this good news of the Savior’s birth is for all the people (2:10). But then he gets personal (2:11), “there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” You must respond personally by trusting Jesus as the only one who can save you from God’s judgment and by submitting to Him as your Lord.

Use these shepherds as an example of how you should respond. They didn’t say, “Wow, that was really some experience, seeing all those angels,” and sit there the rest of the night with their sheep. They didn’t sit around discussing theology after the angel spoke to them. They didn’t say, “Thanks for the news, but we’ve always believed this,” and stay where they were at.

No, they responded to the news by believing what God had revealed to them through the angel. Their faith was demonstrated by their going straight to Bethlehem to see it for themselves and then to return glorifying and praising God (Luke 2:15, 20). And what did they see? “Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger” (Luke 2:16). No halo. No angels hovering there. Jesus didn’t look like a Savior. No palace. The place looked and smelled like a barn, because that’s what it was. They could have scoffed and stumbled over it, as many do.

What about you? Will you scoff or stumble over the simple but profound message that the baby Jesus, born in Bethlehem, whose birth was announced by the angels to these simple shepherds, is Christ the Lord, a Savior born for you? Jesus didn’t leave heaven and come to this earth and go through the suffering of the cross just to give you a boost or a few tips on how to have a happy life. He knew that you desperately need a Savior. He alone can save you from the penalty of God’s wrath because of your sins. But, how will you respond to this good news?

Conclusion

So the crucial question that you must answer and respond to correctly is, “Who is Jesus Christ?” One day, everyone will get it right. The apostle Paul says (Phil. 2:10-11) that “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

But some will bow on that great day in terror as they hear the Lord say (Matt. 25:41), “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.” They responded too late to the question we all must answer, “Who is Jesus Christ?”

But you can respond correctly right now! You can welcome Jesus Christ as your Savior from God’s judgment. You can bow before Him now as your Lord. Then on that day you will hear Him say (Matt. 25:34), “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Application Questions

  1. What would you say to the person who said, “If Jesus works for you, that’s great, but that’s not my thing”?
  2. Why is it crucial to affirm the full humanity and full deity of Jesus Christ? Can a person be saved who denies Jesus’ deity?
  3. How does answering the question about Jesus’ identity affect how we think and live?
  4. Is it necessary to feel lost in order to get saved? How can we share the gospel with those who don’t feel lost?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christmas, Christology, Soteriology (Salvation)

Christmas [2009]: Skeletons in Christ’s Family Closet (Matthew 1:1-17)

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December 20, 2009

Special Christmas Message

If you know much about your ancestors, it is likely that you know of a few skeletons in your family closet. The phrase refers to family members whose shameful ways and deeds the family would rather remain hidden from public view.

I don’t know much about my ancestors. I can’t even name my great-grandparents. But I do know that one of my great-grandfathers spent twenty years in the Indiana State Penitentiary on a murder charge. My dad has told me that he may have taken the rap for his son. But either way, there are some skeletons in our family closet!

The Bible doesn’t keep the door shut on the skeletons in the family closets of its heroes. Even when it comes to tracing the ancestry of the Messiah, shows us the unsavory characters in the family line. The list includes (and even highlights) an adulterer who murdered his lover’s husband to cover up the misdeed. There are idolaters, liars, and a man who committed incest with his daughter-in-law, whom he thought was a prostitute (which says something about his lack of morals). Another woman in the list was a prostitute. And, there is a notoriously wicked king who burned his sons to death as offerings to a pagan idol. It’s a rather motley crew to produce the Savior of the world!

Matthew sets forth this tainted lineup as he traces the ancestry of Jesus the Messiah. In all honesty, it seems like a dull way to begin a book, much less to launch the New Testament! I doubt if any editor today would accept such an opening for any book. Most of us probably just skip these sections when we read through the Bible. Perhaps we wonder why God would take up space in the Bible with this boring list of difficult to pronounce names of people who lived thousands of years ago, half-way around the world. How is it relevant to us?

I suggest that this list of names is quite relevant for us. For one thing, all of these people lived for a short while and died. So the list reminds us that we, too, will not live forever. Whether we die relatively young or live for a century, death and judgment before the God who knows all of our deeds is inevitable. And so the most relevant issue for each of us to be clear about is, “where will I spend eternity?” And, “how can I be sure of this?” You don’t want to be wrong on such an important matter! You need to be sure that you have Jesus Christ as your Savior.

Christ’s genealogy shows that God sent a Savior for sinners and that He fulfilled His promises in Jesus Christ.

1. God sent a Savior for sinners.

This list includes a broad spectrum of people. Some we know about, but others we know only by their names here. There are kings and commoners. Oddly for the patriarchal Jews, there are some women on the list. Also, oddly for a Jewish genealogy, three of those women were Gentiles, the fourth was married to a Gentile, and three were notorious for immorality. The list is obviously not fabricated, because no religious Jew would have put together a list like this if he were trying to impress his readers with the pedigree of the Messiah.

But everyone on the list shares something in common: whether they were relatively good people or notoriously bad, they all were sinners who needed a Savior. In Romans 1-3, Paul argues that everyone, whether pagan Gentiles or religious Jews, are guilty before God as sinners. He sums it up (Rom. 3:23), “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And so everyone needs a Savior. Even the godly virgin Mary, mother of the Messiah, acknowledged her need for a Savior when she prayed (Luke 1:47), “And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” She goes on to say (Luke 1:54-55) that through the One in her womb, God has remembered His mercy to Abraham and his descendants. Good people do not need God’s mercy. Sinners need His mercy. Jesus is the Savior of sinners who cry out for God’s mercy.

Let’s look at the four other women (apart from Mary) in the list and see how each of them teaches us something important about God’s salvation as provided in Jesus Christ.

A. Tamar: The salvation that Christ brings is for sinners.

Tamar’s story (Matt. 1:3) occurs in one of the most sordid chapters in the Bible, Genesis 38. Judah, her father-in-law, had taken a Canaanite wife, who bore him three sons. Judah took Tamar, a Canaanite woman, as a wife for his first son, but that son was evil in the Lord’s sight and the Lord took his life. Judah then told his second son to go in to Tamar to conceive an heir for his deceased brother. When that son dodged his responsibility, the Lord killed him. Judah then promised Tamar that when the third son grew up, she could be married to him. But he either forgot or ignored his promise. Tamar then disguised herself as a prostitute, hiding her face under a veil. Not knowing that it was she, Judah had relations with her and she became pregnant with twins, Perez and Zerah. Perez was in the line that led to Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:3).

Tamar’s history illustrates that Jesus is the Savior of sinners. He deliberately associated with the tax collectors, who were notorious scoundrels. Matthew, the author of this gospel, was one when Jesus called him. Jesus was known as the friend of sinners (prostitutes and others, Matt. 11:19). When the religious Pharisees expressed their disgust with this, Jesus replied (Matt. 9:12), “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.” He added (Matt. 9:13b), “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” He did not mean that some are righteous enough to get into heaven on their own. Rather, He wanted the Pharisees to see that they were sinners who needed a Savior every bit as much as the tax collectors and prostitutes did.

You may think, “But I’m not as sinful as a prostitute or a swindler! I have my faults, but I’m not a terrible sinner!” Be careful! That was the mistake of the Pharisees. Their self-righteousness caused them to reject the Savior whom God sent. The angel who told Joseph that Mary had conceived through the Holy Spirit added (Matt. 1:21), “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” To benefit from the reason that Jesus came, you must recognize in the first place that you have sinned against the Holy God and that all of your good deeds will not atone for your sins. You need a Savior and Jesus is that Savior. But, how do we obtain this salvation?

B. Rahab: The salvation that Christ brings comes to sinners through faith.

Rahab (Matt. 1:5) has come down to us in biblical history with the epithet, “the harlot.” Just as we can’t think of Thomas without thinking of “doubting,” so we can’t think of Rahab without thinking, “the harlot.” Like Tamar, she was a Canaanite woman, excluded from God’s covenant people. She lived in Jericho. She knew that the city was going to be destroyed and she believed in the God of the Hebrews, that “He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath” (Josh. 2:11). So she hid the Hebrew spies and pleaded with them to spare her life and the lives of her family.

In the great New Testament chapter on faith, we read (Heb. 11:31), “By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace.” But James 2:25 states, “In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” There is no contradiction. James is making the point that genuine saving faith is not merely intellectual assent. The demons have that kind of faith, but are not saved. Rather, saving faith always results in a life of obedience. Rahab proved that her faith was genuine by her obedience in risking her life to protect the Hebrew spies.

The balance between Hebrews and James regarding Rahab is especially important in our day. Many have been told that if they believe in Jesus as their Savior, they will receive eternal life and go to heaven. That is certainly true, but in many cases, these people do not understand what it means to believe in Jesus. It does not mean just to agree that He is your Savior, but then to go on living as you’ve always lived. Genuine saving faith always includes repentance for your sins. If you truly believe in Christ, you will live in obedience to Him. As 1 John 2:3 states, “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.” The fact that Rahab is listed here as the wife of Salmon shows that she turned from her life of prostitution. By faith in God’s promise, she experienced His salvation. By His grace, she even became an ancestor of the Savior.

C. Ruth: The salvation Christ brings is for Gentiles condemned by the law, but redeemed by grace.

Like Tamar and Rahab, Ruth was a Gentile. She was a Moabite and thus outside of God’s covenant people. Unlike Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba, Ruth was a moral woman. She was married to a Jewish man who died. When her mother-in-law decided to return to Israel, out of love Ruth chose to go with her. She made the great confession (Ruth 1:16b), “Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.”

But as a Moabite woman, the Law of Moses excluded Ruth from the people of God (Deut. 23:3). As such, she is a type of those who are good, moral people. They are not flagrant sinners. But they are still under the curse of God’s holy law. James 2:10 says, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” That condemns everyone, even those who are as good as Ruth was. Work your way through the Ten Commandments, interpreting them on the heart level as Jesus did (Matt. 5:21-30), and you will see that you stand guilty before God on every count!

How, then, did Ruth find her way into the genealogy of Christ? I cannot relate the story in detail here, but the short Book of Ruth tells how Ruth found grace and love in the eyes of a man who was her kinsman-redeemer. Boaz paid the price of redemption and took Ruth, the Moabite woman, as his bride. It’s a beautiful picture of how Christ, our Redeemer, paid the price of our redemption with His own blood. As a result, we Gentiles, who formerly were excluded from God’s people and, even if we were good people, were condemned by His law, were brought into His family as His chosen bride (Eph. 2:11-22)!

Thus Tamar shows that the salvation Christ brings is for sinners. Rahab teaches us that this salvation is received through faith. Ruth illustrates that God’s salvation is for Gentiles condemned by the law but redeemed by His grace. That brings us to…

D. Bathsheba: The salvation that Christ brings is sufficient to preserve His people in spite of their sins.

In the Greek text, Matthew 1:6 does not name Bathsheba, but refers to her as “her of Uriah,” a way of alluding to her and David’s sin of adultery. Probably Bathsheba was a Jew (1 Chron. 3:5). As such, she and David remind us of the fact that even believers can fall into gross sin. While we should never justify or excuse such sin, Bathsheba’s place among the ancestors of Christ shows us God’s grace in preserving His elect, even when they sin (Luke 22:31-32). We have the assurance (Phil. 1:6) that “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”

These four women illustrate from different angles the great news that God saves sinners. If you have failed terribly, God sent the Savior for you! Maybe you don’t just have skeletons in your family closet. Maybe you are the skeleton! This genealogy invites you to come to Jesus and ask Him to save you from your sins. If you have trusted in Christ as Savior, but have fallen into serious sin, this genealogy invites you to turn back to Christ, experience His forgiveness, and walk in fellowship with Him again. In Christ, God sent a Savior for sinners.

2. God fulfilled His promises in Jesus Christ.

His name is stated in verse 1, “Jesus Christ”; again in verse 16, “Jesus … who is called the Messiah”; and, in verse 17, “the Messiah.” The name “Jesus” means “Yahweh saves.” “Christ” means “Anointed One” (Hebrew, “Messiah”) and points to Jesus as God’s anointed Savior and King. Apart from this first chapter and one other time, when the mocking Pilate refers to “Jesus who is called Christ” (27:22), Matthew does not use the name Jesus Christ again. The title “Christ” is only used rarely. Otherwise, Matthew simply uses “Jesus.” Alexander Maclaren (Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker], on Matt. 1:1-16, p. 6) suggests that the purpose is “to assert and establish, at the very outset, His Messianic, regal dignity, as the necessary supposition to all that follows.”

The fact that we have here a genealogy of Jesus Christ (1:1) establishes an important truth: our faith is rooted in history, not in myth or legend. Matthew was writing primarily to first century Jews, who kept detailed genealogical records. If Matthew had fabricated this, the Jews would have challenged him on it. Granted, there are some difficult problems with the genealogy: Matthew arranges it into three groups of 14 each, but the third group only has 13 names. Various solutions have been suggested, but as yet, none are completely satisfactory (D. A. Carson, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 8:68). Also, there are difficulties trying to harmonize the genealogies in Matthew and Luke (ibid., 8:64-65).

A major part of our problem in trying to resolve these difficulties is that being 2,000 years removed from the gospel writers, we lack their sources. But Luke begins his gospel by stating his careful historical research (Luke 1:1-4). The fact that there are harmonistic problems between the gospels shows that the writers were not in collusion, fabricating a story to look good. They were eyewitnesses of the ministry of Jesus or they interviewed eyewitnesses. So even if we can’t resolve every minor problem, we can trust the integrity of the record. And a major point of Matthew’s genealogy is that we are dealing with a real person, descended from the royal line of David back to Abraham.

Joanne Shetler spent years in the Philippines with the Balangao people, translating the Bible into their language and trying to tell them the good news of the Savior. But it was slow going. One day Ama, a man who had “adopted” her as his Balangao daughter, picked up an English New Testament from her desk, opened it to this genealogy on page one of Matthew, and stared at it. He could read enough English to realize what he was seeing. Amazed, he asked her, “You mean this has a genealogy in it?”

She said, “Yeah, but just skip over that so you can get to the good part.”

But his eyes were still riveted to the page. “You mean this is true?” he asked, as he struggled through the list of names.

Shetler got some shelf paper and wrote the genealogy from Adam to Jesus, from the ceiling down to the floor. Ama took it all over the village, explaining, “We always thought it was the rock and the banana plant that gave birth to people. But we don’t have their names written down. Look, here are all the names—written down!”

The Balangaos loved Matthew’s written genealogy. It proved the Bible was true. Ama came to believe in Christ as his Savior. He became an enthusiastic evangelist, church leader, and Bible translator. When the Balangao New Testament was finally dedicated, he got the very first copy (from And the Word Came with Power, Joanne Shetler with Patricia Purvis [Multnomah Press], pp. 81-82).

Matthew makes two main points with his genealogy:

A. God fulfilled His promise: Jesus is the son of David.

Matthew lists this first, above the fact that Jesus is the son of Abraham (1:1). Also, his three divisions may be summarized as: the origins of David’s kingdom (2-6a); the rise and decline of David’s kingdom (6b-11); and, the eclipse of David’s kingdom (12-16). At the moment of despair, when it would seem that God’s promise to David that his heir would occupy the throne forever was lost, Jesus the son of David, the promised Messiah was born!

We cannot say for certain why Matthew groups the genealogies into three groups of 14. It may have been a mnemonic device. He deliberately leaves out several generations of kings to achieve the number 14. It may be significant that in Hebrew, the name David adds up to 14 (“D” = 4, “V” = 6; 4 + 6 + 4 = 14). D. A. Carson suggests (p. 69), “And if the third set of fourteen is short one member, perhaps it will suggest to some readers that just as God cuts short the time of distress for the sake of his elect (24:22), so also he mercifully shortens the period from the Exile to Jesus the Messiah.”

Note one other feature: Matthew is tracing Jesus’ legal right to the throne through Joseph. But he makes an important shift in verse 16. Up to this point, he has said, “So and so was the father of so and so,” etc. But when he gets to Joseph, he changes that formula and states that Joseph was “the husband of Mary, by whom Jesus was born.” “Whom” is feminine in Greek, showing that Joseph was not the physical father of Jesus. (Matthew goes on to explain the virgin birth more fully in 1:18-25.) If Jesus had been the physical descendant of Joseph, He would have been barred from the throne of David by a curse on Jeconiah (Jer. 22:30; Matt. 1:11-12). But since Jesus was not the physical descendant of Jeconiah through Joseph, but rather his legal descendant, he qualifies as the legitimate son of David, heir to his throne. Jesus is the Messiah!

B. God fulfilled His promise: Jesus is the son of Abraham.

Jesus is not only the son of David, but also the son of Abraham (1:1). This takes us back to the covenant that God made with Abraham 2,000 years before Christ, where He promised Abraham that through his seed, all the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:1-3). There are preview glimpses of this through the Gentile women in the line of Christ. As we’ve seen, three of the four women listed were Gentiles, and the fourth was married to Uriah the Hittite, a Gentile. This shows us that Jesus, the son of Abraham (Matt. 1:1), brings the blessing of Abraham beyond Israel to the nations. This comes to its fullness when Jesus, at the end of Matthew, commands His disciples to go and make disciples of all the nations (28:19). God is moving all of history to fulfill His covenant promises to Abraham and to David. Jesus, the son of David, will return in power and glory to reign on David’s throne. Jesus, the son of Abraham, is blessing the nations as the gospel goes forth around the world.

Conclusion

So this genealogy of Jesus the Messiah should give us great hope as we think on His birth. His first coming represented the fulfillment of a 2,000-year-old promise to Abraham and a 1,000-year-old promise to David. His Second Coming will fulfill the repeated New Testament promises that He will come to judge the earth. Although it seemed to Israel that God’s promises to Abraham and to David might never be fulfilled, they were fulfilled in God’s perfect timing. Although it may seem that Jesus’ promise to come again may never be fulfilled, it will be fulfilled just as He said.

The question is, are you ready for that day? Have you turned from your sins and put your trust in Jesus as your Savior and Lord? The stories of Tamar, Ruth, Rahab, and Bathsheba show us that God’s mercy extends to all sinners who will repent and trust in Christ. The genealogy of Jesus as the son of David, the son of Abraham, shows that God keeps His covenant promises. Today is the day of salvation. Tomorrow may be the day of judgment. Come to Christ while you may!

Application Questions

  1. Someone says, “It’s nice that you believe in Jesus, but I’ve got my own spiritual beliefs.” How could this genealogy address this faulty line of thinking?
  2. Some people like certain “positive” TV preachers because they do not mention sin. Can we avoid the sin issue and still have the gospel? Why/why not?
  3. How could you use this genealogy when witnessing to a Jew? To a Gentile?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christmas, Christology, Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation)

Christmas [2011]: God of Mercy, God of Judgment (Luke 1:46-55)

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December 25, 2011

Special Christmas Message

We live in a day of cafeteria Christianity, where churchgoers think that they’re free to go down the line picking what they like from the Bible, but rejecting or at least ignoring the rest. “I like God’s love, grace, mercy, and kindness. Yes, give me a large helping of those! But I don’t care for His holiness and justice, thanks.”

When people do that, they’re creating an idol, a god of their own liking. But the Bible reveals God as He is, not as we may want Him to be. Being a Christian means that I must embrace and submit to God as He has revealed Himself, not to some modified version of God that is more to my liking.

Today we’re going to be instructed by a teenage Jewish girl who knew God well beyond her years. Our text is Mary’s hymn of praise in response to Elizabeth’s recognition through the Holy Spirit that Mary was expecting the promised Messiah. In this hymn, Mary extols God for His great mercy, but also for His righteous judgment. Her theme is similar to Paul’s theme that we’ve just studied in Romans 9. Although she was probably only 15 or 16-years-old when she spoke these words, Mary had a deep understanding of who God is. From her we learn an important truth:

We should glorify God for His mercy in salvation and for His judgment on the proud.

To correct some widespread false teaching, the Bible is clear that the virgin Mary was not immaculately conceived. She is not the “Queen of Heaven” or “Co-Redemptrix” with Jesus. We are not to pray to her. She cannot obtain or impart salvation to anyone. The Bible is clear that Mary is not to be elevated above any other believer. But at the same time, we should not react to the erroneous veneration of Mary by neglecting to learn from her.

1. We should glorify God for His mercy in salvation.

To glorify God means to extol Him for His attributes and His actions. It is to make God look as good as He really is. Thus,

A. We can only glorify God to the extent that we know Him.

Mary’s hymn brims with information about the attributes of God. But it’s not dry, academic information. Mary exults in God as she considers what He has done in choosing her to be the mother of the Savior. She calls Him “God my Savior” (1:47), which implies that Mary knew she was a sinner; none but sinners need a Savior. Implicit in the term “Savior” is the fact that we are lost and alienated from God because of our sin. We don’t just need a little boost from God to set things right. We don’t just need a few tips on how to succeed in our families or businesses. Savior is a radical term that implies that we are helplessly, hopelessly lost unless God in His mighty power intervenes to rescue us.

Mary refers to God’s power when she calls Him, the “Mighty One who has done great things for me” (1:49). She is referring to the miracle of the virgin birth. She adds, “He has done mighty deeds with His arm” (1:51), referring to His scattering the proud, who would scoff at the notion that they needed a Savior. God is mighty in mercy to the humble, but mighty in judgment toward the proud.

Mary further teaches that God’s name is holy (1:49). His name refers to His person, the sum of His attributes. To be holy means to be set apart. In this context, it refers not only to God’s absolute moral righteousness, but also to His being set apart as the only sovereign authority over people (Darrell Bock, Luke [Baker], 1:152). Thus He is to be held in highest esteem and to be feared.

Thankfully, Mary does not leave us with just these attributes of God, or we would not dare to approach Him! She goes on to emphasize God’s mercy: “His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him…. He has given help to Israel His servant, in remembrance of His mercy” (1:50, 54). Mercy refers to God’s compassion due to our misery as sinners. His mercy is on those who recognize His holiness and bow in reverence before Him. His mercy caused Him to send the Savior.

In addition to His mercy, Mary adds that God “has filled the hungry with good things” (1:53). God gives good things to His children. After instructing us to ask, seek, and knock in prayer, Jesus concluded (Matt. 7:11), “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” Salvation from God’s judgment is the best gift of all.

In line with this, Mary shows that God is faithful to His covenant promises: “He has given help to Israel His servant, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his descendants forever” (1:54-55). Even though 2,000 years had elapsed since God’s promises to Abraham, God had not forgotten. What God has promised, He will fulfill in His time.

In giving instruction on how we can magnify the Lord, Charles Spurgeon encourages us to ponder the attributes of God:

Begin with his mercy if you cannot begin with his holiness; but take the attributes one by one, and think about them. I do not know a single attribute of God which is not wonderfully quickening and powerful to a true Christian (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 51:308).

Thus Mary teaches us to know God as He has revealed Himself in His word, so that we can glorify Him. Also,

B. We should especially glorify God for His great mercy in salvation.

Understanding God’s mercy and grace is fundamental to a relationship with Him. We are saved by God’s grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9). As we received Christ Jesus the Lord, so we are to walk in Him (Col. 2:6). His mercy and grace should permeate our daily walk with Him. Note three things about God’s mercy:

God’s mercy is a sovereign mercy. Mary mentions God’s mercy to Abraham and his offspring (1:55). There is only one reason that Abraham became the father of our faith: God sovereignly chose him. Abraham was a pagan man from an idolatrous family in a pagan land when God called him (Josh. 24:2).

Why didn’t God call Abraham’s whole family? Why didn’t God choose people already living in the land of Canaan? Why did God choose the descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob to be His people? Why not Ishmael? Why not Esau? Why not the Europeans, Asians, Africans, or North and South Americans? We don’t know why. All we know is that God chose Israel because of His sovereign purpose (Deut. 4:37; 7:7; 9:4; 10:15). As Paul cites God’s word to Moses (Rom. 9:15), “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.” Paul adds (Rom. 9:16), “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” If you have tasted the Lord’s kindness in salvation, glorify Him for His sovereign mercy.

God’s mercy is a covenant mercy. God made a covenant with Abraham and repeatedly reminded him and his descendants of that covenant as the basis of His dealings with them. God’s new covenant assures us that we have permanent forgiveness through Christ’s blood (Heb. 8:10-12). If He has begun a gracious work in you, you can be assured that He will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6), not because of your performance, but because of the promise of His new covenant in the Lord Jesus Christ.

God’s mercy is a benevolent mercy. “He has filled the hungry with good things” (1:53). God is a loving Father who will tenderly do that which is good for His children all the days of their lives. Though we often face difficult trials, and even death, we can know that the Good Shepherd is with us even in the valley of the shadow of death. He has prepared a place for us in heaven where “He shall wipe away every tear from [our] eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Rev. 21:4). Hallelujah!

When we contemplate the nature of our God and His great mercy towards us in Christ, we will join Mary’s song, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.”

But, perhaps you’re wondering, “How can we know that we are the objects of God’s great mercy?” Mary gives us some signs:

2. The objects of God’s mercy have experienced evidence of His salvation.

Mary mentions at least five characteristics of those who have received God’s great mercy.

A. The objects of God’s mercy know Him personally as Savior.

Mary calls God “my Savior” (1:47). It’s very personal. Mary was from a Jewish home. The Jews were God’s chosen people. She easily could have thought, “We’re good Jewish people. We keep the Sabbath and follow the commandments. That’s all I need.” But even though she was a moral young woman from a religious family, she knew that she was a sinner who needed a Savior. She had personally trusted in God and His Messiah as her Savior.

It’s not enough to know God as your parents’ Savior. It’s not enough to belong to your parents’ church. Christ must be your Savior. That means that you see yourself as a sinner who has broken God’s holy law. You stand guilty and condemned before His righteous justice. There is nothing you can do to deliver yourself. All you can do is cast yourself on His mercy and trust in Jesus as the One who bore your penalty on the cross. When you do that, you will come to know God in Christ as your Savior.

B. The objects of God’s mercy seek Him in His Word.

Mary’s hymn of praise is full of Scripture. It’s similar in many ways to Hannah’s song of praise (1 Sam. 2:1-10), but there are also citations from the Psalms and references to other portions of the Old Testament. Although she was a young girl in a culture that tended to restrict Scriptural training to boys, Mary knew the Bible. We’ve already seen that she knew a great deal about God’s attributes. She knew what God had done in the history of His people, and what He had promised to do in sending His Messiah.

Peter exhorts us (1 Pet. 2:2, 3), “Like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.” I gained some painful insight into that verse when I was a young father. I made the mistake of taking our newborn into my arms when I was not wearing a shirt. She saw my nipple, and even though it was surrounded with hair, it looked good enough. She latched onto me, thinking that she would get the milk she craved. I discovered that a newborn goes after her mother’s milk with a vengeance! Have you tasted the Lord’s kindness? Go for the milk of His Word.

C. The objects of God’s mercy are filled with praise and joy.

There is probably not any special distinction between “soul” and “spirit” (1:46, 47). What Mary means is that from the depths of her innermost being, she was exalting God and rejoicing in Him. She was worshiping God in truth, since her words came right out of Scripture. But she was also worshiping Him in spirit, since her praise came out of her heart (John 4:24). Her entire being was caught up with the majesty of God and His mercy, as expressed in this song.

It’s no accident that the longest book of the Bible (Psalms) is a song book. God loves to hear the praises of His people. He wants us filled with joy as we think about what He has done for us. Heaven is filled with praise and joy. The saints gather before the throne and sing, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5:12). The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Those who have received His mercy are filled with praise and joy.

D. The objects of God’s mercy have a big view of God and a little view of themselves.

We’ve already seen Mary’s big view of God. But note also that she refers to “the humble state of His bondslave” (1:48). She mentions that God has “exalted those who were humble” (1:52). The word means “lowly.” She also states that those who have received God’s mercy fear Him (1:50). Without exception, those who have encountered the living God are awed by the greatness of His splendor and terrified because of their own shortcomings and sinfulness in His holy presence. John Calvin explains (The Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster Press], 1.1.2),

It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself. For we always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy—this pride is innate in all of us—unless by clear proofs we stand convinced of our own unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and impurity. Moreover, we are not thus convinced if we look merely to ourselves and not also to the Lord, who is the sole standard by which this judgment must be measured.

The more we see how great God is, the more we will sense our own sinfulness, which will lead us to magnify all the more His abundant mercy toward us in Christ.

E. The objects of God’s mercy are satisfied with God.

“He has filled the hungry with good things” (1:53). This refers primarily to spiritual, not physical, hunger. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). They will be satisfied in God, yet they will still hunger and thirst for more of Him.

The prerequisite for being filled is to be hungry. If you’re filled with your own self-righteousness, you’re not spiritually hungry. If you think that you’re a basically good person, and that God might be a nice accessory to help you reach your goals, you’re not hungry. Truly hungry people are not cool, confident, have-it-together sort of people. Hungry people are desperate. They know that they will perish if they don’t find food soon. Spiritually hungry people recognize their desperate spiritual condition and cry out, “Save me, Lord, or I perish!” God fills such hungry souls with “good things,” namely, with Himself. They are satisfied with Him and yet they always long for more of Him.

It would be great if everyone acknowledged his need for God’s mercy, as Mary did. But her song not only glorifies God for His mercy, but also for His judgment.

3. We should glorify God for His judgment on the proud.

This part of Mary’s song is out of sync with our tolerant, “judge not,” immoral culture. But we ignore it to our peril!

A. God will judge the proud, the powerful, and the rich.

God judges the proud. Mary describes these as “proud in the thoughts of their heart” (1:51). Pride is a heart attitude of self-sufficiency. The proud person thinks that he doesn’t need God. Pride is the original sin that brought Satan down. He appealed to Eve’s pride, that she could be like God, and she fell. Pride is at the root of all our sins. The Bible declares, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet. 5:5). Suffice it to say, you don’t want God as your opponent! So fight your pride on the thought level every day!

God also judges the powerful. “He has brought down rulers from their thrones” (1:52). Mary is not referring to faithful rulers who humbly serve God and their people, but to arrogant rulers who wield their power for their own advancement, with no regard for the people they rule. God will be glorified in bringing judgment against such powerful, self-centered despots (Rom. 9:17).

God also will be glorified when He judges the rich: He “sent away the rich empty-handed” (1:53). Mary is referring to the selfishly rich, who live lavishly with no concern for the needy (Luke 12:15-21; 16:19-31; 1 Tim. 6:17-19). But she is also referring to those who think that they are spiritually rich because of their own righteousness, when in fact they are spiritually poor. If they do not repent of their self-righteousness, they will face God in judgment.

If you’re not living with every area of your life under the lordship of Jesus Christ and with a view toward the day when you must give an account, you need a reality check! God will be glorified, either in saving you or in judging you. Make sure that it is the former, not the latter! There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). But there is the “terrifying expectation of judgment” (Heb. 10:27) for those who cast off Christ’s lordship.

B. We should glorify God for His powerful triumph over all who resist Him and reject His mercy.

Mary emphasizes God’s powerful judgments on these people: He scatters the proud (1:51), brings down the rulers (1:52) and sends the rich away empty-handed (1:53). What frightening words! God does not just ignore such people or leave them alone. He actively scatters them, brings them down and sends them away empty-handed! You may ask, “Why does God do this? Doesn’t He desire that all people be saved?” Yes, He invites all to come and receive His mercy, but they must come on His terms, not theirs. He doesn’t negotiate a compromise with sinners. Either we bow before Him as Lord or He will actively bring us down in judgment.

Conclusion

Maybe you’re thinking, “This doesn’t sound like a warm, fuzzy Christmas message, where we all gather around the manger and adore the baby Jesus, while the angels sing, “Glory to God in the highest.” But judgment is a part of the Christmas story, from the lips of Mary herself. She glorifies God for His mercy in sending the Savior for all who will humbly receive Him. But she also glorifies God for His judgment on those who proudly reject Him.

You can’t pick and choose which attributes of God you like, and ignore the rest! God isn’t operating a religious cafeteria! You come to Him His way, as a guilty sinner needing a Savior, or not at all. If you repent of your pride and selfishness and sin, and come to the cross, He will pour out His tender mercy on you. If you proudly cling to your own righteousness and self-sufficiency, God will send you away empty. And if God sends you away empty, you’re absolutely empty! You don’t want to go into eternity empty, without God’s mercy!

D. L. Moody said, “Christ sends none away empty but those who are full of themselves.” The church at Laodicea professed to be a Christian church. Things seemed to be going fairly well there, from their perspective. They said, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing.” God’s perspective was a bit different: “You do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” (Rev. 3:17). The Lord told them to repent. He also told them, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me” (Rev. 3:20).

That offer still stands. If you will repent of your sin and cry out to Jesus Christ to save you, God will pour out His tender mercy on you. Then you will be able to sing Mary’s song, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.”

Application Questions

  1. Discuss: One of the main problems of the church today is that we do not know God as He has revealed Himself.
  2. How can a lukewarm Christian develop a deeper hunger for God?
  3. Since we’re often blind to our own pride, how can we spot it and fight against it?
  4. To what extent should the church try to cater to the felt needs of our lost society?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Christmas, Soteriology (Salvation), Worship (Personal)

Christmas [2012]: How to Receive Good Things from God (Luke 1:53)

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December 23, 2012

Special Christmas Message

A question that I often ask people who come to me for counsel is, “Do you want God’s blessing in your life (or in your marriage, or with your kids)?” I’ve never had anyone say, “Nah! I’m not interested in that!” We all need and want God’s blessings. We all want to receive good things from God. He made us; He alone knows what we need most. As a loving Father, He is ready to give His children the best gifts.

But He does not give His gifts indiscriminately. Both in the Bible and in our experience we see that some receive the blessings God offers while others go away with nothing. So we would do well to understand clearly how to receive good things from God so that we are not among those who miss out on the best gift of all.

The virgin Mary was a young woman who was uniquely blessed by God. In reference to her being chosen to be the mother of our Lord, she exclaimed (Luke 1:48b-49a), “For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for me.” What a great thing to know, that future generations would count you blessed because God has done great things for you! In Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55, called the Magnificat, from the first word in Latin), she tells us how to receive God’s blessings. In another message, I covered the whole song. Today I’m going to focus only on verse 53: “He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed.” This verse tells us how to receive good things from God:

God satisfies the spiritually hungry with good things, but He sends the self-satisfied away empty-handed.

This is a basic spiritual principle that runs throughout Scripture. It is often expressed as God exalting the humble and humbling the proud (Luke 1:51-52). Dozens of verses emphasize this truth, but let’s look at just a few.

Mary’s song is similar to Hannah’s song (1 Sam. 2:1-10), which expresses her praise after God answered her prayer for a son. God wanted to give Hannah a son because Israel needed a prophet to speak God’s word to His people. Hannah’s rival, her husband’s other wife, had many sons and daughters, but Hannah was barren because God had closed her womb (1 Sam. 1:2, 4, 5). Closing Hannah’s womb may seem like a strange way for God to provide her with a son. Yet that’s often the way God works. He promised Abraham and Sarah a son, but He waited until after they were well past childbearing years to give them Isaac. The principle is that God brings us to the end of ourselves, where we have lost our proud confidence in our own ability. Then we cast ourselves completely on the Lord and He provides to show us His grace. Note how 1 Samuel 2:5-7 expresses this theme:

Those who were full hire themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry cease to hunger. Even the barren gives birth to seven, but she who has many children languishes. The Lord kills and makes alive; He brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and rich; He brings low, He also exalts.

The same theme governs Psalm 107. It shows four vignettes of people whom God put in impossible situations so that they would come to the end of themselves, call out to God, and then praise Him for His lovingkindness when He delivered them. In the first line of our text, Mary cites from Psalm 107:9, “For He has satisfied the thirsty soul, and the hungry soul He has filled with what is good.” Jesus taught the same truth in the Beatitudes, where He said that those who mourn would be comforted, the hungry would be filled, and the meek would inherit the earth (Matt. 5:3-12). Paul expressed the same principle when he said (2 Cor. 12:10b), “When I am weak, then I am strong.” His weakness forced him to rely on the Lord’s strength.

The reason I emphasize this principle at the outset is that it runs counter to what most people think, that “God helps those who help themselves.” That familiar “verse” is not in the Bible! It’s based on human pride and runs counter to the biblical principle that God helps those who come to the end of themselves and cast themselves upon Him. I often read or hear the popular view that you’ve got to believe in yourself to succeed. Sadly, many Christians buy into this false idea. But Scripture pointedly states (Jer. 17:5), “Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength, and whose heart turns away from the Lord.” To believe in yourself is to turn away from trusting in the Lord!

Trusting in God does not mean that we sit around and do nothing. But it does mean that before we do anything, we must recognize our own inability and rely on God for His grace and strength, so that He gets the glory. That’s the principle Mary expresses in Luke 1:53. Let’s examine the first half of the proposition:

1. God satisfies the spiritually hungry with good things.

Luke 1:53a: “He has filled the hungry with good things.” Mary is not speaking primarily of physical hunger or riches. She is speaking metaphorically of the spiritually hungry and the spiritually rich, or self-satisfied. Mary clearly saw herself as spiritually needy. She was not born without sin. She recognized God as her Savior (1:47), implying that she was a sinner (Matt. 1:21). God didn’t choose Mary to bear His Son because she was without sin. She mentions her humble state (1:48) and God’s mercy (1:50). Mary was a spiritually hungry woman whom God had sovereignly blessed because of His mercy. Note four things:

A. The ones God satisfies are marked by spiritual hunger.

That is the qualification to receive from God—to be spiritually hungry. As Jesus said (Matt. 5:6), “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Righteousness refers to God’s holiness as personified in Jesus Christ. In reference to the Christian, it refers both to justification—to be declared righteous before God, which happens the moment we believe in Christ; and, to sanctification—to live righteously before God, which is progressive over a lifetime and is never perfected until we stand before Him. Jesus was referring to the needy person who has a deep desire to be like Him, to live a holy life in thought, word, and deed. That person will be satisfied.

There are many people, even many professing Christians, who desire happiness, but not righteousness. If God can make them happy, they’ll follow Him; but if not, they’ll look elsewhere. A couple who attended the church I pastored in California professed to be Christians. The wife suffered chronic back pain. When I heard that they were going to a Science of Mind “healer,” I talked to the husband about the spiritual danger. He replied, “My wife is in pain; we’ll go where she can get relief.” They stopped coming to the church. Truth didn’t matter to them. The living God didn’t matter. They just wanted relief wherever they could find it. I’ve known other professing Christians who walk out on their marriages or get involved in immorality because they’re seeking happiness, not holiness. They’re grabbing momentary happiness wherever they can find it, but they’re forsaking God, who alone can satisfy their hunger for time and eternity.

Commenting on “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Martyn Lloyd-Jones says (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount [Eerdmans], 1:74), “I do not know of a better test that anyone can apply to himself or herself in this whole matter of the Christian profession than a verse like this. If this verse is to you one of the most blessed statements of the whole of Scripture you can be quite certain you are a Christian; if it is not, then you had better examine the foundations again.”

Of course every true child of God is aware of many shortcomings in this regard. We’re all easily led astray by the selfishness that dwells within our hearts. We have to fight it constantly. But if the pattern of our lives is that we violate God’s holy standards to pursue happiness through sin, then we’re fooling ourselves to call ourselves Christians (1 John 2:3-5).

Mary says that God fills the hungry with good things. To be hungry is to be aware that you have a desperate need. Relieving hunger is not a luxury; it’s a matter of survival. Probably none of us has ever faced physical starvation. Starving people aren’t interested in new smart phones or computers, unless they can somehow sell them to buy food. Hungry people have one focus—where to find food. It consumes their whole existence from the time they wake up until the time they go to bed. They need food.

That’s how we should hunger for God! Do you feel desperate to have your sins forgiven and to come to know God? If you’ve had your sins forgiven at the cross, do you now sense that whatever else in life you have, you must know God? The ones God satisfies are marked by spiritual hunger.

B. God alone can satisfy our hunger.

The “He” of verse 53 is God. He alone is able to meet our deepest needs. If we want to be satisfied, then we must seek God alone for the fulfillment of our spiritual hunger. He made us; He understands us thoroughly. He alone can meet the deepest needs of every human heart. So if we recognize our hunger, we must seek God to fill it.

To seek elsewhere is to seek that which can never completely satisfy. As the Lord speaks through Isaiah (55:2-3), “Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in abundance. Incline your ear and come to Me.” God alone can satisfy the hungry heart.

David knew this. He was in the Judean wilderness, running for his life, either from King Saul or, more likely, from Absalom his son, who led a rebellion against him. If I were in that situation, I probably wouldn’t be writing songs or if I were, the theme would be, “God, get me out of here right now!” But at just such a time, David wrote (Ps. 63:1), “O God, You are my God; I shall seek you earnestly; my soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” As he seeks God there in that barren wilderness, with his enemies in hot pursuit, David exults (63:5), “My soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness, and my mouth offers praises with joyful lips.” He knew what it meant to be satisfied with God alone, even though his life and his kingdom were threatened with extinction.

Beware of seeking satisfaction apart from Jesus Christ. Satan offers all sorts of subtle temptations that seem to fulfill your needs, but they aren’t centered in Jesus Christ. They satisfy temporarily, but ultimately they do not nourish. The one who fills up on them will starve. It’s as if you were physically hungry and you came to me for food. Suppose that I had perfected a process for infusing the taste of steak and potatoes into cardboard. It tasted great, but it was nutritionally worthless. If you ate it, you would enjoy the taste and it would fill your stomach. But you would starve to death. That’s what happens to anyone who seeks to be satisfied with anything other than God.

We’ve seen that the ones God satisfies are marked by spiritual hunger. Also, God alone can satisfy our hunger. Third,

C. God satisfies the hungry.

I’m focusing here on the word “filled.” It’s in the past tense (Greek, aorist) because Mary is quoting from Psalm 107:9 (106:9 in the LXX) which looks at how God has met the needs of those who have called out to Him. It points to His characteristic way of dealing with all who seek Him. He satisfies them or fills them full (the meaning of this Greek verb). It means that God doesn’t just give partially; He meets our needs fully. It’s the same word used in the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:12), where it says that after everyone was filled, they picked up 12 baskets full of leftovers. Everyone ate until they were satisfied, a feeling that many of us can identify with at this season of the year!

Of course there’s a sense in which we are both satisfied and yet still hungry in Jesus Christ. We who have tasted of God’s banquet in Christ are satisfied in the sense that the longing of our soul has been met. Our sins are forgiven; we enjoy peace with God; we have the joy of the Holy Spirit; we’re ready to meet the Lord. In all of that and in much more, we’re satisfied. And yet in another sense, as long as we’re in this body, we will be hungering and thirsting to know more of God, to experience more of what He has provided for us in Christ. Since God is infinite, we can never exhaust the delight of knowing Him.

D. God satisfies the hungry with good things.

God satisfies the hungry with good things, not with Twinkies. God fills you with Himself, the source of all that is good and beautiful. “The good things” of our text does not refer to what our society calls “the good life.” Mary wasn’t referring to material prosperity, to a life of freedom from suffering, or to a feeling of self-fulfillment. She was not preaching the “prosperity gospel”! She was referring to the satisfaction of the soul in God Himself, which transcends circumstances. God is the ultimate good thing!

Many years ago a great monarch, Shah Abbis, reigned in Persia. The Shah loved his people. To understand them more clearly, he would mingle with them in various disguises. One day he went to the public baths dressed as a poor man. There in a tiny cellar he sat down beside the man who tended the furnace. He talked with the lonely man as a friend and at meal time, he ate some of his coarse food. In the weeks that followed, he visited the poor man often until the man came to love him dearly.

Then one day the Shah revealed his true identity to the poor man. The Shah waited, expecting the man to ask some favor or gift from him, but the commoner simply gazed in astonishment. Finally, he said, “You left your palace and your glory to sit with me in this dark place, to partake of my coarse food, to care whether my heart was glad or heavy. On others you may bestow great riches; but to me you have given a much greater gift—yourself. I only ask that you may never withdraw the gift of your friendship.”

Friendship with God in Jesus Christ is what truly satisfies the soul! Mary affirms that God fills or satisfies the hungry soul with good things, namely, with the ultimate good thing of knowing Him. All that I’ve said thus far is to try to explain and apply the first half of this verse. But we must look briefly at the second half:

2. God sends the self-satisfied away empty.

Mary says (Luke 1:53b), He “sent away the rich empty-handed.” This is startling! It’s a shocking reversal of the natural order! In this world, the rich are the full; the hungry are the empty. But in God’s order, the rich are the empty; the hungry are the full. Note three things:

A. God sends away the self-satisfied.

By rich, Mary means those who have no felt needs before God. She may have in mind those who were the proud, self-proclaimed spiritual leaders in Israel in her day. When God picked a family for His Messiah to be born in, He didn’t pick the family of the chief priest or of one of the leading rabbis. He went to a poor, unknown carpenter and his wife in Nazareth. Those in Jerusalem who thought that they were spiritually “rich” were overlooked.

The surest way to receive nothing from God is to be satisfied with where you’re at. The Pharisees didn’t see themselves as needy sinners before God. They saw themselves as righteous because of their good works. They saw themselves as better than “the sinners” (John 9:34). But they didn’t see themselves as God saw them! They were “proud in the thoughts of their heart” (Luke 1:51), and their pride blinded them to their true spiritual condition.

The church of Laodicea was like that. They had become lukewarm and complacent about spiritual things. Their view of themselves was (Rev. 3:17), “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing.” God describes them a bit differently (Rev. 3:17): “You are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” How would you describe yourself spiritually? God sends away the self-satisfied, who do not see their true need before Him.

B. God actively sends them away.

How startling! The text doesn’t say that God ignores the rich or that He gives them nothing. It says that He actively sends them away. What a frightening thought, that God would send a person away! You may wonder, “Why would God do this? Doesn’t He want everyone to come to Him?” Yes, but they must come on God’s terms, not on their terms.

Many years ago a Newsweek cover story (12/17/90, pp. 50-56) reported on the baby-boomers who were coming back into church now that they realized the need for religious values for their kids. But the article made it clear that these self-confident people are coming to God on their terms, not on His. “They don’t convert—they choose.” They want to know, “What’s in it for me?” They’re picky consumers, shopping for churches they like that offer services they want. The message to the churches is, “If you want to grow, you’d better cater to the customers’ needs.”

A similar article in Time (4/5/93, pp. 44-49) observed, “Increasing numbers of baby boomers who left the fold years ago are turning religious again, but many are traveling from church to church or faith to faith, sampling creeds, shopping for a custom-made God.”

You can custom-make an idol. But you can only come to the living God on His terms or not at all. His terms are that you recognize your sin and that you cannot save yourself. You must see yourself as hungry and starving unless God intervenes. He isn’t in the business of working out deals with self-confident young urban professionals. He actively sends the proud away.

C. God sends them away empty-handed.

What despair, to be sent away by God empty-handed! If God sends you away empty-handed, you have absolutely nothing. Paul expressed the same truth by saying that such people have no hope and are without God in the world (Eph. 2:12). What good are material riches in this life, if you spend eternity in that place Jesus described, “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48)? What good is passing pleasure or romance in this life, if you spend eternity in the place Jesus described as “outer darkness,” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 25:30)? The worst thing that could happen to anyone is to be full of the passing pleasures of this world, but to be empty-handed when you stand before God at the judgment.

Conclusion

What’s the solution? How can we avoid having God send us away empty-handed? D. L. Moody said, “Christ sends none away empty but those who are full of themselves.” To the church at Laodicea, God said that they needed to see their true condition as He saw them and to repent—to turn from their sin to Him. It was to that church that Jesus said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me” (Rev. 3:20). And best of all, He brings the dinner! He will truly satisfy the hunger of anyone who acknowledges his true spiritual need and who seeks Him.

Don’t seek happiness or fulfillment or pleasure in the things of this world. Seek God! Hunger after God and His righteousness and He promises that He will fill you with good things.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can a Christian develop a deeper hunger for God?
  2. What is the proper balance between seeking God Himself versus asking Him to meet our physical and emotional needs?
  3. To what extent should our evangelistic approach try to meet the felt needs of lost people?
  4. Can a person who professes to believe in Christ, but who lives in disobedience, be assured of his salvation? Why/why not?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christmas, Soteriology (Salvation)

Easter Messages

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These Easter messages were preached at Flagstaff Christian Fellowship through the years. Audio and manuscripts are available for each lesson (excepting audio for 2001).

Four additional Easter messages may be located in other message series: 

Related Topics: Christology, Easter, Resurrection

Easter [1993]: Why the Resurrection Matters (1 Corinthians 15:1-19)

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April 11, 1993

Special Easter Message

A man named Jones took his car to the mechanic for repairs. Jones ignored the signs posted in the garage that told customers to keep out of the working area. He kept looking over the mechanic’s shoulder, getting in the way. The mechanic had had a rough day, and he was getting frustrated. Finally he took Jones by the shoulder and led him out of the working area. He said, “Let’s play a game.” He drew a circle on the floor with a piece of chalk and said, “The rules of the game are that you stay inside this circle while I fix your car. I’ll bet you can’t do it!” “It’s a deal,” said Jones.

The mechanic went back to the car, but before he went back to work, he glanced up at Jones, Who had a silly grin on his face. The mechanic thought, “I’ve had it with this dumb yokel.” He felt like he had to relieve his tension. So he picked up a sledgehammer and smashed it into the fender of Jones’ car. He looked over at Jones, who was cracking up with laughter, still inside the circle.

That made the mechanic angrier yet. He smashed the car two more times with the hammer, and looked over again at Jones. Jones was doubled over with laughter, but still inside the circle. The mechanic was furious with rage. He started smashing Jones’ car all over with the hammer. Jones was rolling on the floor and holding his sides from laughter, but still inside the circle. The mechanic couldn’t believe it. He went over to Jones and said, “Why are you laughing while I’m smashing your car?” Jones got control of his laughter long enough to reply, “While you weren’t looking, I stepped outside the circle three times!”

You say, “Jones was crazy!” You’re right. Jones was crazy. He was taking seriously something meant to be taken lightly, and he taking lightly something that was rather serious. But many who would laugh at Jones and call him crazy are doing the same thing on a far more serious matter.

Let me explain: The Bible proclaims the fact (which we celebrate today) that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, and that He appeared to a great number of witness over a 40 day period, giving many convincing proofs of His resurrection. Then He ascended bodily into heaven. The Bible also affirms that this risen Lord Jesus some day will return to judge all the living and the dead on the basis of their response to Him (Acts 10:42; 17-31).

That’s serious! What you do with the risen Christ now will determine where you spend eternity. Eternity means forever! Jesus said, “What will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:26).

And yet most people spend the bulk of their time and efforts trying to gain the things of the world, which will perish, while neglecting their own souls and the souls of others, which are eternal. They are doing just what Jones did—they are taking seriously something that isn’t very important, and taking lightly something that is really quite serious.

If Jesus Christ is truly risen from the dead, it’s the most important fact in all history. Tremendous consequences hang on your response to the resurrection. It’s extremely important on this Easter Sunday and every day of your life that you understand why the resurrection of Jesus matters so that you take it seriously. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-19 Paul shows us why the resurrection matters.

1. The resurrection matters because it is true (15:1-11).

The resurrection is not a religious myth, which coincides with springtime to inspire us with hope and positive thinking. Rather, it is an historic fact that Jesus of Nazareth rose bodily from the dead. It was a physical, not just a “spiritual” resurrection. To be sure, Jesus arose with a resurrection body, which has different properties than our earthly bodies, as Paul explains (15:35-49). But it was a body that could be seen and touched, that could eat and drink.

There are people in our day who say, “Well, if it helps you to believe in things like the resurrection, that’s fine. If it’s true for you, that’s great. But it’s not true for me.” But they misunderstand the nature of verifiable truth. The resurrection of Jesus Christ isn’t something that’s true for some, but not for others. It’s like the law of gravity. You don’t have to believe that gravity is true for it to be true. It is true, whether you believe it or not. And it makes a great deal of difference whether you believe it or not if you’re standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and decide to jump off! Even so, it makes a great deal of difference whether you believe in the truth of the resurrection.

How can we know that the resurrection wasn’t just the invention of Jesus’ early followers? Paul is not exhaustive, but he lists a few evidences for the resurrection in 15:1-11.

A. The is the evidence of the prophetic Scriptures (15:4)

The Scriptures prophesied that the Messiah would be raised from the dead. In his sermon on the day of Pentecost, Peter quoted from Psalm 16 and showed how David referred to Christ: “You will not abandon my soul to Hades, nor allow Your Holy One to undergo decay” (see Acts 2:24-32). In our text, Paul refers to Christ’s resurrection as the “first fruits” (15:20, 23). In the Old Testament, the first fruits were presented to God on the day following the Sabbath after Passover (Lev. 23:9-14). Since Jesus the Passover lamb was lamb was slain on the Jewish Passover, His resurrection on the day after the Sabbath fulfills this scripture.

Other Old Testament Scriptures, when read in their context, clearly refer to the death and resurrection of Christ (Ps. 22:22ff. with Heb. 2:12; Isa. 53:10-12; Jonah, with Matt. 12:38-41).

Jesus Himself predicted on a number of occasions that He would be killed and raised up on the third day (Matt. 16:21; 17:9, 23; 20:19; 27:63; John 2:19). Since the Scriptures are accurate on hundreds of other prophecies, and since Jesus Himself is not known to lie, these prophecies lend weight to the fact of the resurrection. It was not a story that was made up after the fact by a bunch of dejected disciples. The death and resurrection of Jesus were in accord with God’s eternal plan.

B. There is the evidence of eyewitness testimony (15:5-8).

Paul lists a number of people who saw the risen Savior. None of these were expecting a resurrection, especially not Paul. The sheer number of witnesses argues against the possibility of hallucination. The moral integrity of the witnesses—men who gave the world its highest moral teaching—precludes the possibility of fabrication. To doubt the resurrection of Jesus you have to say that all of these witnesses were deceived or deceivers.

C. There is the evidence of changed lives (15:9-11).

Paul mentions his own transformation as exhibit A. He had been a persecutor of the church of God, but now he was pouring out his life on its behalf. We also know that Peter and the other apostles were transformed from depressed, fearful men after the crucifixion to joyful, courageous witnesses after the resurrection. It is hard to explain that change and their willingness to suffer for Christ even unto death, if they knew the resurrection to be a hoax.

And then there is the evidence of the changed lives of those who have believed through the witness of the apostles. The Corinthians had believed (15:11) and were transformed (6:9-11). Millions of others in every century and culture have testified to the life-changing power of the risen Savior.

The evidence is solid. We must begin by realizing that the resurrection matters because it is an historical fact: thus we must take it seriously.

2. The resurrection of Jesus matters because apart from it, the Christian faith is worthless (15:12-19).

The Corinthians were not rejecting the resurrection of Christ per se, but there were some that were saying that there is no such thing as the resurrection of the dead. Paul is showing them the logical consequences of the wrong belief. If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised (15:13), and if that’s the case, a number of other things follow, which make the entire Christian faith worthless:

A. The Gospel is worthless (15:14a, 15).

“Our preaching is vain” (= “empty”). There is no substance to the gospel if Christ is not raised. Christianity may have some nice moral platitudes, but it simply takes its place among other powerless religions and ethical systems if you remove the living Lord Jesus.

Worse that that, all the New Testament writers would be lying if Christ is not raised. If they lied about something as crucial as that, how could you trust them as teachers of ethics? So you must throw out the entire Bible if Jesus Christ is not raised from the dead, because it would discredit those who wrote the Bible. Thus…

B. Believing the gospel is worthless (15:14b, 17).

Apart from the reality of the resurrection, faith is no good. Have you ever heard, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe”? That’s absurd. That’s faith in faith. Faith is only as good as its object. You can believe with all your heart that your car will fly. You can drive it over the edge of the Grand Canyon at 80 miles per hour, firmly believing that it will fly. But your believing it doesn’t make it true. If your car had been designed to fly, then believing that fact would be necessary for you to benefit from that feature. But faith is only as good as its object.

Why is it worthless to believe in Jesus if He is not raised from the dead? Because we have a sin problem. God is absolutely righteous and cannot accept us into His presence if we have any sin. Christ died on the cross as the substitute for our sins (15:3). If He is not risen, then His death is no different than any other death, and faith in Him is worthless. We would still be in our sins (15:17). Jesus must in fact be risen if our faith is to be of any effect with regard to our sin problem.

C. Hope beyond the grave is worthless (15:18).

Paul says that if Christ is not risen, then those who have fallen asleep (died) in Christ have perished. There is no ground for believing that your departed loved ones who had put their faith in Christ are in heaven, if Christ is not raised.

You hear a lot of false ideas about death. Many people have invented a god just a bit better that they are. Their theory about eternal life is, “If a person does the best he can and helps others and is a good person, then he’ll make it to heaven.”

Hear me carefully: Such an idea is diametrically opposed to the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament. Such thinking grossly underestimates the absolute holiness of God and the awful sinfulness of the human heart. It assumes that a person can be his own Savior, with just a little boost from God. Nothing is farther from the truth, and nothing could insult what Christ did on the cross more than that kind of thinking. If men and women can save themselves, do you think that Jesus Christ would have laid aside the splendor of heaven, taken on human flesh, endured the suffering He did at the hands of sinners, and died upon the cross?

The only reason He went to the cross is because that is the only way the justice and righteousness of God could be satisfied. It is the only way sinful people can be saved. If Jesus didn’t die on the cross for our sins and rise again on the third day, triumphant over the forces of evil and death, then there is no hope beyond the grave! Hope based on human theories about God and eternity is worthless. Our hope for eternal life for us and for our loved ones can only be built upon the death and resurrection of the sinless Savior who bore our sins.

Thus if Christ is not risen, the gospel is worthless; believing the gospel is worthless; and hope beyond the grave is worthless.

D. Your suffering and toil are worthless (15:19).

Have you ever thought, “Even if Christianity is not true—there is no God and nothing beyond this life—I would still want to be a Christian because of the good life it brings me now”? I have. Where else can you find a way of life that brings you as much joy and happiness as Christianity?

But we forget one factor, and we minimize another, when we think like that. We forget that we are not facing persecution on account of our faith. Paul was. If there is no God and no eternity, then why suffer for your faith? If Jesus is not risen, then why endure persecution? And we minimize the fact that we are called to live sacrificially and work hard for the cause of Christ. We American Christians are too soft. Biblical discipleship as Jesus presented it is costly. It involves giving of yourself, your time, and your money. It’s not the easy road. That’s why Paul says, “If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most to be pitied” (15:19).

What’s the bottom line if Jesus is not risen? Paul gives it in 15:32: “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” In other words, live for yourself and for pleasure now, because that’s all there is. As Peggy Lee sang a few years ago, “If that’s all there is my friend, then break out the booze and have a ball.”

I’m concerned that some of you may be thinking, “I believe in Jesus and the resurrection,” and yet, if you were to stop and examine your lifestyle, you would find that it is described by verse 32. You are living for yourself, or perhaps for yourself and your family. Your goal in life is to pursue personal comfort, pleasure and affluence. Your dream is to get a little nicer house, a newer car, and a few other trinkets to make life more enjoyable.

And God? The church? They fit into that scheme. To the extent that God and His church make you feel good and increase your happiness, you get involved. But in the final analysis, the controlling value in your life is personal happiness. But that’s how a person lives if the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not true! A person who truly believes in the risen Savior seeks first His kingdom and righteousness.

Be careful! If you claim to have been a Christian for a long time, but Christ and His kingdom are not central in your life, you may have believed in vain (15:2, 10)! If the grace of God and the fact of the risen Christ are a reality in your life, then, like Paul, you should be denying yourself and following Jesus, no matter how hard that may be. Paul labored hard for Jesus Christ as a result of his meeting with the risen Savior (15:10).

“But,” you say, “that was Paul, but I’m not Paul.” True, but look at 15:58. Paul’s conclusion, in light of the fact of the resurrection of Christ and His coming back (which stems from His resurrection, 15:50-54) is, “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.” That’s written to the whole church in Corinth—and in Flagstaff. Every believer—not just full time Christian workers—but every Christian, as a result (“therefore”) of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is to be involved in the work of the Lord. Work for the Lord is not in vain. It is the only source of true fulfillment.

Is the goal of your life to seek first the risen Savior’s kingdom? Or is it to work for your own happiness and fit in the Lord’s work when it’s convenient and doesn’t interfere with your happiness? Does the resurrection of Jesus Christ matter to you this morning? Or, like Jones, are you serious about something that really isn’t very important in the light of eternity—the things of this world: and not serious about something that is really quite important—the eternal destiny of your soul and of other souls for whom Christ died?

Conclusion

The resurrection of Jesus Christ matters because it is true and apart from it, the Christian faith is worthless.

A few years ago there was a TV game show called, “Let’s Make a Deal.” The contestants often had to choose between a prize that was visible to them or another prize which was concealed behind a curtain. The visible prize was usually a nice item, like and expensive stereo or TV set. Sometimes the unseen prize turned out to be an impractical gag gift, such as 10,000 boxes of toothpicks. But at other times the person chose the visible gift and discovered to their horror that they had passed up, behind the curtain, a new car worth thousands of dollars. Whenever that happened, you felt with the contestant that awful feeling in the pit of your stomach that comes from making a major wrong choice.

Each person here faces a far more serious choice: You can live for the things your see in this world and miss the unseen eternal prize or you can let go of the things of this world and pursue the eternal reward. God has told us in His Word that the eternal prize behind the curtain far outweighs any temporal prize you can pursue. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the sure evidence that what He taught is true. It is the central fact of history. If you base your life on it, you have a sure hope for time and eternity. If you pursue anything else, it will ultimately result in futility. Don’t be like Jones! Don’t take seriously something that doesn’t matter and take lightly the truth that matters most of all! Jesus is risen! You can build your life on that fact!

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you answer the person who said, “If Christianity works for you, that’s fine; but it isn’t for me”?
  2. Are those who claim to be Christians but who are living for self and this world “believing in vain” (15:2)? What does that mean?
  3. Why is it important to base your faith on truth rather than on “what Jesus can do for you”?
  4. Does 1 Cor. 15:58 mean that a Christian can’t pursue a “secular” career? How does it apply?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1993, All Right Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Easter, Faith, Resurrection, Soteriology (Salvation), Spiritual Life

Easter [1994]: What To Do If The Resurrection Is True (Acts 17:30-34)

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April 3, 1994

Easter Sunday

A woman who works for the Internal Revenue Service was responsible to communicate with delinquent taxpayers. On one occasion, to get in touch with a man, she had to call Anchorage, Alaska, and was patched through to a ham operator in the Aleutian Islands. Two hours later the ham operator raised the taxpayer’s home base and from there reached him at sea with his fishing fleet. After identifying herself as being with the IRS in Utah, there was a long pause. Then over the static from somewhere in the North Pacific came: “Ha! Ha! Come and get me!” (Reader’s Digest, [10/82.)

A lot of Americans shrug off the idea of God’s judgment like that delinquent taxpayer shrugged off the IRS. I suppose they would agree that someday there will be a day of reckoning, but that seems far, far away. So they ignore it and go on about their lives.

These same folks would probably view Easter as an innocuous spring holiday. If you said the word “Easter” and asked them to tell you what words popped into their mind in association with it, you might hear things like resurrection, Sunrise Service, hope, springtime, flowers, Easter lilies, new clothes, Easter egg hunts, Easter bunnies, dinner with family and friends. It would never occur to them to connect Easter Sunday and God’s judgment on their sin. Easter has such a positive, upbeat connotation. Judgment has such a negative, unpleasant connotation. They don’t seem to go together.

But the Apostle Paul made just such a connection. In Acts 17:30-34, he is concluding his sermon to the philosophers in Athens. Paul takes a logical approach. He is saying,

If the resurrection is true, then judgment is a certainty; if judgment is a certainty, then repentance is a necessity.

The message of Easter is that Jesus Christ is risen bodily from the dead. Paul says that if Jesus is risen, then He is the judge of the whole world. This puts a demand on every person--each one must turn to God from sin (“repent”).

1. If the resurrection is true, then judgment is a certainty.

The whole thing hangs on the assertion that ...

A. The resurrection is true.

This is the foundation of Christianity. Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless ...” (1 Cor. 15:17). Christianity is not built on religious speculations, but on the revelation God has given of Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. The authenticating proof that Jesus is Lord and Judge is that God raised Him from the dead.

The proofs of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ are many and they have withstood the attacks of critics for almost 2,000 years. I can’t go into detail, but I briefly mention some of the proofs:

(1) The empty tomb--This fact is not disputed, even by critics. If the tomb had not been empty, when the disciples started preaching the resurrection of Jesus, the Jewish leaders would have marched to the tomb, produced the body, and the disciples would have been laughed out of town. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, there are several explanations of the empty tomb, none of which are plausible:

--Jesus’ enemies stole the body. But, they had no motive for doing so, and they would have produced it to quench the disciples’ preaching if they had known where it was. Besides, the tomb was guarded to prevent any theft of the body.

--The Roman guards stole the body. But they had no motive to do so. They didn’t care about this Jewish religious trial. If they had stolen the body, they could have sold it for a lot of money to the Jewish leaders, but that didn’t happen.

--The disciples stole the body. This was the theory the Jewish leaders tried to promote (Matt. 27:63-66; 28:11-15). But, the Roman guards would have prevented this. They would not have risked their lives (the penalty for not properly standing their watch) for a bribe. The disciples’ couldn’t have moved the heavy stone and stolen the body out from under the noses of the guards.

Besides, the disciples were too depressed, confused, and fearful to pull off a daring grave robbery. And if they had, would they have gone out and preached the resurrection, even with threats against their lives? In fact, the initial thought of the women and disciples was that someone had taken the body (John 20:13, 15). If they had confirmed that fact, they wouldn’t have preached as they did later on.

(2) The post-resurrection appearances--There were numerous appearances of Jesus to many of His followers in a variety of situations over the 40 days between His resurrection and ascension into heaven. These many witnesses could not possibly have fabricated their story. J. N. D. Anderson wrote:

The most drastic way of dismissing the evidence would be to say that these stories were mere fabrications, that they were pure lies. But so far as I know, not a single critic today would take such an attitude. In fact, it would really be an impossible position. Think of the number of witnesses, over 500. Think of the character of the witnesses, men and women who gave the world the highest ethical teaching it has ever known, and who even on the testimony of their enemies lived it out in their lives. Think of the psychological absurdity of picturing a little band of defeated cowards cowering in an upper room one day and a few days later transformed into a company that no persecution could silence--and then attempting to attribute this dramatic change to nothing more convincing than a miserable fabrication they were trying to foist upon the world. That simply wouldn’t make sense. (Cited by Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, p. 233.)

Anderson’s quote leads to a third proof:

(3) The changed lives of the witnesses--None of this depressed, confused, fearful band were expecting a resurrection. And yet they were all transformed into bold, committed witnesses who gave their lives to preaching that Jesus was raised from the dead. Paul himself was transformed from a vicious persecutor of the church and hater of Gentiles to the dedicated apostle to the Gentiles after he saw the risen Jesus Christ on the Damascus road.

That’s just a quick overview of some of the evidence for the resurrection. Maybe you’re thinking, “Well if the evidence is so convincing, why don’t more people believe it?” The answer is: People refuse to believe in the resurrection because it has moral implications. If Jesus is risen, He is Lord. If He is Lord, then I have no right to continue rebelling against God by running my own life. The main issue in unbelief is never intellectual; it is always moral. If Jesus is risen, then I must turn from my sin, because He is going to judge the world. If the resurrection is true, then ...

B. Judgment is a certainty.

Paul notes three certainties (17:31) with regard to the judgment: A certain day, a certain standard, and a certain Man.

(1) A Certain Day--God “has fixed a day ....” We look around and see wickedness going unpunished and think that sinners get away with their sin. But the court date is set in heaven: God has a certain day when He will judge the world! If we ask, “Why does God wait?” the answer is, “Because He is patient and merciful. He is giving those who have sinned against Him an opportunity to repent” (2 Pet. 3:9).

At the Mount Saint Helens visitor center in Washington, a film tells the story of the awesome eruption of that volcano in 1980. It shows the now famous longtime resident at Spirit Lake, an old man named Harry Truman, who disbelieved the warnings that the mountain was about to blow. He’s famous now, but dead and buried under hundreds of feet of lava, because he made the fatal mistake of thinking that just because that mountain had never erupted in his many years of living there, it never would.

Many people make that eternally fatal mistake when it comes to the warnings of Scripture about God’s judgment. Paul points out that God “overlooked the times of ignorance.” Perhaps you have been ignorant of the demands of God’s absolute righteousness; you haven’t been aware of your own sin; you haven’t known about God’s means of forgiveness. If He had judged the world before now, you would have been lost. But don’t wait--the day is certain!

(2) A Certain Standard--“He will judge the world in righteousness.” Many think that God will grade on the curve, that only the scum of the earth will fail. Just last month I heard on National Public Radio about a recent Gallup Poll in which 60 percent of Americans say they believe in hell, but only four percent think there’s a good chance that they will go there. We don’t think we will go to hell because we compare ourselves with other people and we don’t stack up too badly. We assume that God grades on the curve, so everything will be okay.

Years ago, when poet Robert Frost taught at Amherst College, he detested semester exams and grading, but since it was mandatory, he complied. But he made the tests as easy as he could. Once he asked only one question: “What good did my course do you?” and requested brief replies. One student wrote, “Not a dam bit!” “Did you pass him?” asked a friend. “Yes,” said Frost, “I gave him a 90.” “Why not 100?” the friend asked. “He left the ‘n’ off damn.”

Many think that God will be an easy grader, like Robert Frost. Unless we’re horribly bad people, the judgment won’t be any sweat. But God’s standard is His own character--absolute righteousness! That character is reflected in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. Many people think that they live up to this standard. But have you ever thought about how impossibly high that standard is?

Take the first commandment: Can you look at your life and honestly say that you have not in the past and you do not now have any gods before the One True God? Or take the simple “Golden Rule”: Can you say that you always do unto others as you would have them do unto you? If not, you’ve broken the two commands that sum up God’s holy standard: You have not loved God with all your heart and you have not loved your neighbor as yourself. God’s certain standard is His own righteousness. Unless you somehow satisfy that standard, you have much to fear when that certain day of judgment comes around!

There is a certain day and a certain standard.

(3) A Certain Man--“Through a Man whom He has appointed.” That may seem strange--usually we think of God as the judge, not man. But the final Judge is both. The Lord Jesus Christ is the eternal God who took on human flesh through the virgin birth. Jesus said that the Father had given all judgment to Him, the Son, so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father (John 5:22-23). Jesus Christ is both the perfect standard for judgment, in that He lived a perfectly righteous life; and, the perfect Judge, who in His deity knows the very thoughts and intentions of our heart. Every wrong thought we’ve ever had will be exposed to His gaze!

Thus, since the resurrection is true, judgment is a certainty. And if you say, “All I ask is that God be fair with me,” you don’t realize what you’re saying! If God is fair, you will go straight to hell, because you have violated His righteous standard many times over. If you went into a court of law, even in our lenient justice system, with thousands of counts against you, how do you think you would fare? Never ask God for fairness. Every one of us, because of our sin, stands guilty many times over before God’s righteous standard.

What should we do? Should we run from God? Should we try to hide? Should we try harder? No, God has offered a remedy for our guilty condition:

2. If judgment is a certainty, then repentance is a necessity.

“God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent.” The word “declaring” should be translated “commanding.” It’s a word of authority, not just a helpful hint. Repentance may sound like an outmoded term. But if God is commanding “all everywhere” to repent, then we had better be clear on what it means! “All everywhere” is fairly comprehensive. It includes religious people, even decent folks who attend Easter church services. None of us are exempt from the requirement to repent.

The Greek word comes from two words meaning “to change one’s mind.” But the Bible is clear that repentance is more than intellectual--it means to turn to God from sin. It is a total change of orientation. If I were driving to Phoenix and “repented,” it means that I would turn around and drive back toward Flagstaff. All of us, because we’re sinners, live for ourselves. We run our lives with the goal of pleasing ourselves. To repent means that we turn from self and sin to God. Instead of thinking that our own efforts will put us in good stead on judgment day (which is the ultimate in pride!), we turn from our works to God’s provision for sin in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who bore the penalty for us. Instead of living for ourselves, we now live to please God.

Repentance is not separate from faith, but is actually a vital part of genuine faith (17:30, “repent”; 17:34, “believed”). Repentance and faith are the two sides of the coin of conversion. In order to turn to God for forgiveness, you must believe that what He says is true: That you have sinned and that Jesus Christ died for your sins. If you truly believe that, your life will be drastically different than before. You can’t hold onto your sin with one hand and reach out for God’s salvation with the other.

In his excellent book, Faith Works (Word, pp. 74, 75), Pastor John MacArthur writes,

The Western church has subtly changed the thrust of the gospel. Instead of exhorting sinners to repent, evangelicalism in our society asks the unsaved to “accept Christ.” That makes sinners sovereign and puts Christ at their disposal. In effect it puts Christ on trial and hands the judge’s robes and gavel to the inquirer--precisely opposite of what should be. Ironically, people who ought to be concerned about whether Christ will accept them are being told by Christians that it is the sinner’s prerogative to “accept Christ.” This modified gospel depicts conversion as “a decision for Christ” rather than a life-transforming change of heart involving genuine faith, repentance, surrender, and rebirth unto newness of life.

MacArthur goes on to quote A. W. Tozer, who wrote:

The trouble is that the whole “Accept Christ” attitude is likely to be wrong. It shows Christ [appealing] to us rather than us to Him. It makes Him stand hat-in-hand awaiting our verdict on Him, instead of our kneeling with troubled hearts awaiting His verdict on us. It may even permit us to accept Christ by an impulse of mind or emotions, painlessly, at no loss to our ego and no inconvenience to our usual way of life.

The Bible is clear that there is a false kind of faith, a mere intellectual agreement with the gospel that does not include repentance. Such “faith” does not save.

In the early 1950’s notorious gangster Mickey Cohen attended a meeting where Billy Graham was present. He expressed some interest in the message, so several who were there, including Dr. Graham, talked to him about spiritual matters. But he did not respond until some time later, when another friend urged him to invite Jesus Christ into his life. He professed to do this, but his subsequent life gave no evidence of repentance. When his friend tried to confront him on this, Cohen protested, “You didn’t tell me that I would have to give up my work and my friends!”

He had heard that so-and-so was a Christian entertainer, and another was a Christian actress, and another was a Christian politician. He thought he could be a Christian gangster and continue to run with his pagan friends in his pagan way of life! (Adapted from J. Edwin Orr, Christianity Today [1/1/82], pp. 24, 25.)

That is not saving faith! I must recognize that I am guilty before God’s standard of absolute righteousness. Also, I must understand that I can never earn God’s forgiveness by my own good works. I can’t help God out, since I deserve only His wrath because of my sin. But God, being rich in mercy sent Jesus Christ to die for my sins, thus maintaining His justice, but also enabling Him to extend a free pardon to every sinner who will take it. So I turn to God from my sins to receive that pardon. As a result, I seek to live the rest of my life to please the God who so loved me and gave Himself up for me. That’s saving faith!

Conclusion

Paul saw three different responses to his message that day. Some began to sneer (17:32). They didn’t believe in the possibility of a resurrection of the dead, which means they didn’t believe in God who alone is able to raise the dead. I hope not, but it is possible that some of you are scoffing at what I have said. I urge you not to shrug off this most serious matter! Others procrastinated. They said, “We shall hear you again concerning this” (17:32). But so far as we know, they never got that chance. The text says that “Paul went out of their midst.” They missed the opportunity to repent and believe. I urge you not to put off repenting and believing, since you may not get another chance!

But some joined Paul and believed (17:34). That is what I urge you to do—to join us who believe by believing yourself in the good news that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God offers a pardon for your sins. Having overlooked your time of ignorance, God is now commanding that you should repent. That’s what you need to do because the resurrection of Jesus is true!

Discussion Questions

  1. Some say, “I’d be a Christian even if there’s no resurrection of the dead, because it’s such a good life.” The apostle Paul disagreed (1 Cor. 15:12-19). Why?
  2. Why is it fatal to think that we’re good enough to merit heaven?
  3. Why is “inviting Jesus into your heart” or “accepting Jesus as your personal Savior” an inadequate presentation of the gospel?
  4. Some argue that to call sinners to repent is to add works to faith. Why is this not so?

Copyright 1994, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Confession, Easter, Resurrection, Soteriology (Salvation)

Easter [1995]: How To Get Right With God (Romans 10:9, 10)

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April 16, 1995

Special Easter Message

A couple of years ago when we stopped by Zion National Park on our family vacation, we rented tubes for the kids to float down the Virgin River. It was great fun for them. Since I had sprained my ankle the day before, I sat on the bank with my ankle in the cold water, watching them float by. They finally prevailed on me to give it a try, and since it looked kind of fun, I limped upstream and launched off. What I didn’t realize is that some of the rapids could be kind of tricky to navigate, and I ended up getting dumped in the swift current a couple of times, which didn’t do my ankle any good!

I’d like each of you to picture yourself floating down a river. Some of you are in inner tubes, floating lazily along in the calm parts, enjoying the excitement of the rapids when you get to them. Others of you are going in more comfort, in a boat. Back at the place where you rented your tube or boat, there was an ominous warning sign that read, “WARNING! All who go down this river face the risk of going over a fatal waterfall, often without immediate notice. The company assumes no liability.” That sounded kind of scary, but since so many others were renting tubes and boats and having so much fun, you shrugged it off by thinking, “That’s probably just a disclaimer so the company won’t get sued.” So you launched off.

The river I’m speaking of is the river of life. Every one of us is floating down it, some just with the basics, some in style. The trip is generally enjoyable. Some get dumped in the rapids, but come up sputtering for air and get back on board. But every once in a while you see someone who hits the rapids, goes under, and never comes up. It troubles you for a while, but you figure, “I’m still floating and enjoying the ride.” So you put it out of your mind and keep cruising along. Once in a while you remember that warning sign back at the start and wonder what hidden dangers might be lurking around the next bend, but usually you shake the thought and keep floating along.

Suddenly you notice that the current has gotten much stronger. You’re moving quite rapidly downstream. And, you notice a noise that keeps getting louder and louder, until you can’t hear anything else. You see some who are trying desperately to paddle upstream, but it’s not doing them any good. Some others are simply yelling, “Help! Save me!” But you’ve heard from some others who were floating down the river that going over the falls is not all that bad. It’s just part of the natural cycle of things, and no one really knows what’s on the other side. So just accept it.

When it comes to floating down the river of life and facing the inevitability of death and of standing before God, the best advice you can get isn’t the philosophy of someone else heading downstream, who thinks that the falls aren’t all that bad. Nor is it best to follow the example of those who are rowing for all they’re worth to try to escape the inevitable or to deal with it in their own strength. Rather, what you need is someone who has already experienced the falls, who knows for sure what is on the other side, who can tell you how to get ready for it. You need someone with a sure word on how you can be ready to face God.

Jesus Christ is uniquely qualified to tell us what to expect in death and when we face God. He claimed to have come to this earth as one sent by God the Father. He died and was raised from the dead, and was seen in His resurrection by many reliable witnesses. He spoke authoritatively about how we can get ready to face the falls that surely lie ahead on the river of life.

One of those witnesses who saw the risen Lord Jesus was a man who formerly had been bitterly opposed to Him. After his encounter with the risen Christ, the apostle Paul later wrote that the entire Christian faith hangs on the truth of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. He said, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). That statement implies that our sins are a problem that need to be dealt with before God, and that they are in fact dealt with in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the text before us (Rom. 10:9, 10), that same apostle tells us how believing in the risen Lord Jesus gets us right with God.

We get right with God by believing and confessing that Jesus is the risen Lord.

In the context, Paul is talking about his deeply felt concern for his fellow Jews who needed to be right with God, but who in fact were mistaken on this most crucial matter. When Paul says that his prayer to God is for their salvation (10:1), we need to understand what that word salvation means. It is not a mild term. It does not mean that folks need to change their course slightly or that they need a little boost from God to help them cope. The only people who need to be saved are those who are hopelessly lost or in grave danger, who cannot deliver themselves. So when the Bible talks about the need for salvation, it is referring to a desperate situation where, if God does not intervene, those needing salvation will be eternally lost.

As Paul has shown earlier in the Book of Romans (chap. 3), every person, from the raw pagan to the most religious person on earth, is under God’s just condemnation for his sin and is desperately in need of God’s salvation. The pagan may not even realize the trouble he’s in. He’s just floating through life, enjoying the trip, not thinking too much about the falls ahead. The religious person may realize the impending problem, but he’s confident that by his own good works and efforts, he can solve it. But Paul has shown that both types are in big trouble, because they have sinned against a holy God.

In the case of the religious type, Paul acknowledges that they have a zeal for God, but it’s not according to knowledge (10:2). Contrary to popular opinion, it does matter what you believe. You can be as sincere as the day is long in believing that your car will fly you across the Grand Canyon. You believe it so sincerely that you drive your car toward the rim at 90 miles per hour. Your sincere belief will plunge you to your death, because it is not based on the truth. You can sincerely believe that because you’re a good person, you will get into heaven, but if that is not the truth, you will plunge into destruction.

The Jews were sincere in thinking that their good deeds along with their Jewish birthright (after all, they were God’s chosen people) would make them right with God. The fallacy in their thinking was, they didn’t understand God’s righteousness, nor did they submit to it (10:3). That is precisely the error of many “good” people in our day: They underestimate the absolute righteousness of God. They fail to see that God is so holy that even the most righteous person on earth would be consumed if he stood before Him, just as a spaceship would be consumed if it attempted to land on the sun. They overestimate their own righteousness by mistakenly thinking that their good deeds can qualify them for heaven. So Paul wrote these verses to show how people who think they’re pretty good, but who really are heading for the falls, can get right with God--get saved. (It also applies to those who know they’re in big trouble, who know they need to be saved.)

1. To get right with God, you must recognize that you’re wrong before God.

The Apostle Paul formerly thought that he was right with God. He was zealous in his practice of the Jewish faith. As a Pharisee, he was meticulous in keeping the Jewish rituals and ceremonies. He says he was “... a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness of the Law, found blameless” (Phil. 3:5, 6).

But like many who are religious, Paul mistakenly thought that righteousness is an outward matter of keeping a bunch of rules and regulations. He took great pride in his ability to do all these things. But in reality, God’s law is a matter of our hearts before Him. His holy standards, rather than justifying us, actually condemn us. The very first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exod. 20:3) convicts us all, because none of us have always put the living and true God in His rightful place in our hearts. The entire law, summed up in the two great commandments, to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbor as we do in fact love ourselves, does not exonerate us. It condemns us by revealing how far we fall short of God’s perfect standard.

So God’s law reveals His own perfect righteousness as well as the extent of our sin. It tells us of God’s judgment that we face because of our sin. Until this dawns on us, we won’t recognize our need of salvation. We’ll just cruise down the river thinking that things are fine, not recognizing the falls ahead. So the first step in getting right with God is to realize that, even if you’re a good person, a religious person, you’re wrong before Him.

2. To get right with God, you must recognize that you can never get right with Him by your own efforts.

This was the problem with the Jews of whom Paul is writing in these verses. They thought they could get right with God by keeping His law. In 10:5, Paul quotes Moses to show, “If you want to be right with God by keeping the law, then you’ve got to keep it perfectly. You’ve got to live by it entirely.”

The problem is, no one, not even the most religious person on earth, can do that. God’s law isn’t just an external matter. Even if it were, it would be virtually impossible to keep. But it’s a matter of the heart, and no one can do it. We’ve all pushed God aside and done what we’ve wanted to do. We’ve all had selfish, hateful, greedy, and lustful thoughts. And no amount of self-reformation can cure the problem or balance out the scales of God’s justice, because God has decreed that the wages of our sin is death. We’re all in that swift current, heading toward destruction, and it’s impossible by our own good works to row against it. Unless God intervenes, we will face His just condemnation for our sins. So if we realize that we are wrong before God and that we can never get right with Him by our own efforts, then we must look elsewhere for an answer. That answer is what Paul calls, “The righteousness based on faith” (10:6).

3. To get right with God, you must recognize that Christ has done for you what you could never do for yourself.

Jesus Christ perfectly fulfilled God’s holy law and satisfied, in His death, the penalty of the law that we all deserve. Thus, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (10:4). This verse means that when you stand before God someday, either you must present to Him the righteousness of Jesus Christ, in whom you are trusting for right standing before God; or, you can present your own “righteousness,” which isn’t going to cut it!

Verses 6-8 are a bit confusing. Without going into detail, Paul is quoting somewhat loosely from Deuteronomy 30:12-14 to show that even under the law, salvation by grace through faith was readily available to the Jews. Since no one, not even Moses, could perfectly keep the law, God has always graciously offered to justify the person who has faith in God’s provision for his sins. As Moses wrote of Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, “He believed in the Lord, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6).

Thus, to get right with God you must first realize that you’re wrong before God. Second, you must realize that you can never get right with God by your own works. Then, you must realize that Jesus Christ has done for you what you could not do for yourself, namely, He has made His perfect righteousness available to you by faith. How do we lay hold of Christ’s righteousness on our behalf, so that we can be saved?

4. To get right with God, you must believe and confess that Jesus is the risen Lord.

In verses 9 & 10 Paul explains how we can avail ourselves of the righteousness based on faith. Verse 9 states the principle, following the order of the quote from Deuteronomy in verse 8 (mouth, heart); verse 10 explains verse 9 in its logical order (believing first, then confession).

A. You must believe that Jesus is the risen Lord.

To get right with God, you must believe in your heart that God has raised Jesus from the dead. This encompasses, of course, the fact that Jesus died and the purpose for which He died. As Paul states (1 Cor. 15:3), “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” He was the fulfillment of what the Jewish sacrificial system pictured and pointed toward, namely, that for sins to be forgiven, there must be the shedding of blood, and that God accepts the blood of a proper substitute. Thus Jesus is the Lamb of God who shed His blood as the necessary payment to satisfy God’s justice. You must believe in this crucified and risen Jesus.

God put His stamp of approval on Jesus’ substitutionary death when He raised Him from the dead (Rom. 1:4). If He had not been raised, He could not save anyone from their sins. Thus Paul here mentions the resurrection, not to the exclusion of Jesus’ death, but because it includes His death and proves that it was acceptable to God as the just penalty for our sins.

Paul says that you must believe this truth of the resurrection. Faith is not some vague, nice notion that “for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows.” Faith has specific content regarding what God has revealed about Jesus’ death and resurrection. At the same time, faith is rooted not just in some religious ideas, divorced from verifiable history. Rather, biblical faith is rooted in the historical fact of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. So, the kind of faith that results in “righteousness” (right standing with God) and “salvation” (being delivered from God’s judgment) is based on a well-established historical fact, not on religious speculation.

To be saved, you must believe this truth in your heart. Biblically, the heart is not just the seat of the emotions, but refers to our whole person--intellect, emotions, and will. Thus biblical faith is more than just intellectual assent, although it includes that. It involves committing your total person, indeed, your eternal destiny, to the crucified, risen Lord Jesus as your only hope of right standing before God.

A lot of people believe in Jesus as the risen Savior in the same way they believe that seat belts in their car save lives. They believe in the concept, that it’s true; but they never buckle up. That kind of belief in seat belts doesn’t save you in the crunch. And mere agreement with the notion that Jesus is the risen Savior doesn’t save you from God’s judgment. You must personally avail yourself of what Jesus did for you when He died on the cross and was raised from the dead, so that you are counting everything in this life and in eternity on Jesus’ sacrifice (and it alone) being sufficient to put you in right standing before God. That’s what it means to believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead.

B. You must confess that Jesus is the risen Lord.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Wait a minute! I thought that we are saved by grace through faith plus nothing. Isn’t confession adding something to faith?” But those who argue in this manner do not understand the nature of genuine faith. We are saved by grace through faith apart from works, but faith that saves always results in works that give evidence of the authenticity of the faith. Thus Jesus promised that everyone who confesses Him before men, He will also confess before the Father in heaven, but whoever denies Him before men, He will deny that person before the Father in heaven (Matt. 10:33).

What is it that we are to confess? That “Jesus is Lord.” This means that the man (Jesus) is Yahweh, God (Lord). The word “Lord” points to His absolute sovereignty as the rightful ruler of this universe. It includes the personal aspect as well, that He is my Lord or Sovereign, with the right to rule my life. The idea that you can accept Jesus as your Savior without accepting Him as your Lord is absurd. To confess Jesus as Lord is to confess Him as your Lord.

One of the first ways a person should confess Jesus as Lord is by being baptized. The act of baptism is a public confession that a person has believed in Christ as Savior and Lord and pictures being identified with Jesus in His death, burial, and resurrection. Then we go on confessing Jesus as Lord by living a life pleasing unto Him and by bearing verbal witness as we have opportunity (1 Pet. 3:15).

In verse 9, Paul says that the result of confessing and believing in the risen Lord Jesus is, “You shall be saved.” But in verse 10, he distinguishes the results by saying that we believe, resulting in righteousness, and we confess, resulting in salvation. He is looking at the fact that confession, both initially and ongoing, verifies and confirms the inner faith we have in Christ, and he is focusing on the future aspect of salvation, especially, as mentioned by Christ, our future deliverance from God’s judgment when He confesses us before the Father because we have confessed Him on this earth (see 1 Pet. 1:9; Matt. 10:32-33).

Conclusion

Some people were touring a mint where coins are made. They came into the room where cauldrons were filled with molten metal. The tour guide told them that if a person were to dip his hand into water and then have someone pour the hot, liquid metal over his hand, he would not feel any pain or suffer injury. Then, turning to a couple, he suggested that perhaps they would like to prove the truthfulness of what he had just said. The husband quickly replied, “No, thanks, I’ll just take your word for it.” But his wife eagerly said, “Sure, I’ll give it a try!” She thrust her hand into a bucket of water and then held it out as the molten metal was poured over it. Just as the guide had said, it harmlessly rolled off. The guide turned to the husband and said, “Sir, you claimed to believe what I said, but your wife truly believed.”

Do you claim to believe that Jesus is the risen Lord, or do you truly believe, as evidenced by the fact that in your heart you are trusting in Christ alone to deliver you from God’s judgment? Is your faith revealed in a life that confesses that Jesus is Lord? If so, then you are right with God and need not fear facing Him some day.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we help a person who senses no need for salvation to see his true condition?
  2. Someone says, “I believe God is loving and wouldn’t judge any sincere, good person.” How would you respond?
  3. Why is the belief that people are basically good and that their good deeds will save them so offensively wrong before God?
  4. What verses show that the idea that “Jesus is my Savior but He’s not my Lord” is dangerously flawed? (Try 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Eph. 5:5-6 for starters.)

Copyright 1995, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Confession, Easter, Resurrection, Soteriology (Salvation)

Easter [1996]: The Most Important Question In The World (Mark 8:27-33)

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April 7, 1996

Special Easter Message

If you could receive the answer to any question, what would that question be? That’s another way of asking, “What is the most important question in the world for you?”

If you’re young and single, that question might be, How can I be popular? Or, How can I get a particular boy or girl to like me? If you’re facing graduation the question may be, What career should I pursue? Whom shall I marry? For those who have been married a few years, it might be, How can I have the kind of fulfilling marriage I long for? How can I properly raise my children? Or, How can I find a satisfying job? For those further along, it might be, How should I plan for retirement? What should I do with the final years of my life?

All of these are important questions. But none is the most important question you could ask. The reason is that the answer to all of these questions ultimately rests on your answer to another question: Who do you say Jesus is? You may be thinking, “That’s an abstract, irrelevant theological question if I ever heard one!” But, what you think of Jesus will determine whether you receive or reject Him as your Savior and Lord. If Jesus truly is the Lord and Savior, and you recognize that and follow Him, then you have a basis for answering all of the other fundamental questions in life. If you have not grasped the meaning of that most basic question, then you have no consistent basis to grapple with all of life’s other pressing questions. Also, your relationship with Christ affects not only your life on this earth, but your eternal destiny. So,

The most important question in the world is: Who do you say Jesus is?

Jesus put that question to His disciples as they traveled near Caesarea Philippi, about 25 miles north of the sea of Galilee. Jesus was seeking to bring the disciples to a more clear knowledge of who He is: the Messiah (Christ, = “Anointed One”) sent by God. In one sense, they had believed that from the beginning. When Andrew first told his brother Peter about Jesus, he said, “‘We have found the Messiah’” (John 1:41). But they still were confused about what that meant. Jesus had brought them to this point of outward confession. But, they still had a ways to go.

Mark 8:31 is a hinge verse in this Gospel. The first half of Mark emphasizes Jesus as the Son of Man who came to serve; the second half emphasizes that He came to give His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). From this point, Jesus began to teach the disciples about His coming death and resurrection. Three times in chapters 8, 9, and 10, Jesus tells the disciples that He is going to be killed and raised from the dead (8:31; 9:31; 10:33, 34), but the disciples didn’t get it. Jesus follows each of these predictions of His death with a call to discipleship, to self-denial and servant-hood. Mark wrote his gospel initially for suffering Christians in Rome. If they were going to endure persecution and be faithful to the Lord Jesus, it was crucial that they understand who Jesus truly is as He revealed Himself. The matter is just as relevant for us if we want a faith that remains strong, even through trials. So I want to explore with you some of the ramifications of this most important question, “Who do you say Jesus is?”

1. The question has an objectively correct answer.

I mean, only one answer is correct. It is not, “Jesus, however you conceive Him to be.” A person may say, “For me, Jesus is always accepting and loving.” One popular TV preacher says he likes Jesus because He is always a positive person. But Jesus isn’t whatever you want Him to be. There is a single correct answer to the question. And that answer is not based on subjective feelings or personal opinions, but on objective truth.

This is important to affirm because we live in a day when people think that spiritual truth is not objectively true. Rather, they see it as existentially true. They do not view spiritual truth in terms of propositional revelation, where God has spoken to us in the Bible in language we can understand. Nor do they see spiritual truth in terms of verifiable history, centered in the historical Jesus of Nazareth, whose teaching, miracles, death and bodily resurrection are reported in the New Testament by eyewitnesses.

Rather, our generation views spiritual truth in terms of each person’s experience of it. As such, it is not verifiable. If it’s true for you, then it’s true. If your spiritual experience is different from mine, one is not necessarily right and the other wrong, even if they contradict one another. They can both be true, according to the existentialist view of truth, because spiritual truth is determined by personal experience, not by objective, verifiable means.

The way this filters into the church is that people are encouraged to “invite Jesus into their hearts.” They are promised that He will help them with their problems. But in many cases they have no idea who Jesus really is or what He came to this earth to do as revealed in the Bible. But, they prayed or walked the aisle. Maybe it was even accompanied by tears. At first, they felt better and thought their problems would go away. But then, some problems got worse and they didn’t understand why Jesus wasn’t “working.” So they fall away. At the heart of this sort of defection is a faulty concept of the nature of spiritual truth, especially concerning the person of Jesus Christ. The person who professed to believe never knew who Jesus really is.

Thus it’s important at the outset to affirm that the question, “Who do you say Jesus is?” has one correct answer and many incorrect or partially correct answers. It is not just a matter of personal opinion or preference, where any answer is as good as the next. A wrong answer can be eternally fatal!

2. The question divides people.

This is always the case with objective truth. It divides people into opposing camps. Like Peter and the disciples, you may have to go against public opinion to arrive at the correct answer concerning Jesus.

I wonder if you’ve ever thought about how difficult it must have been for the disciples to commit themselves to Jesus as the Christ. For centuries, faithful Jews had been waiting and looking for God’s promised Messiah. Many lived and died without seeing that hope fulfilled. Sometimes prophets came on the scene, raising hopes that they might be the Messiah. But they died and the people kept waiting. Then, suddenly this young carpenter from Nazareth began preaching and performing miracles. Could He be the one? He certainly didn’t fit everyone’s image of what Messiah would be like. But the disciples committed themselves to Jesus as that long-awaited Messiah.

Remember, they didn’t have 1,900 years of church history to confirm their faith, as we do. They were the first ones to say, “This is the One!” And they had to say it in the face of public opinion that didn’t agree with them. This fact is underscored by the contrast between Jesus’ first question, “Who do people say that I am?” and His second question, “But who do you [emphatic in the Greek] say that I am?”

The disciples had to stand against three public currents to affirm their conviction that Jesus is the Christ. First was the Roman government, which didn’t care if Christians worshiped Jesus as long as they also affirmed Caesar as Lord. But the disciples insisted, “No, Jesus is the only Lord!” That narrow view cost many of them their lives. In the same way, if you take your stand with the disciples in affirming Jesus as the only way to God, you will have to go against the pagan culture of our day. People don’t mind if you hold your personal beliefs in Jesus, just so that you don’t contend that He is the only way! That’s too narrow and dogmatic. I saw a bumper sticker that said, “If you’re against abortion, don’t have one.” The idea is, “You can have your personal views of morality, but don’t tell me that my behavior is sin. If you want to believe in the Bible, that’s your privilege, but don’t judge me for my beliefs!”

The disciples also had to go against the opinions of the Jewish religious crowd, who had varying notions of who Jesus might be. Some heard His powerful preaching against sin and thought of John the Baptist. Others saw Jesus’ miracles and were reminded of the powerful prophet, Elijah. Others thought He might be another of the prophets. All of these were perhaps flattering, but inadequate, ideas of who Jesus really was. The disciples had to stand apart from the Jewish religious crowd to affirm Jesus as Messiah and Lord.

In a similar manner, you may have to go against the Christian crowd of our day. Many who call themselves Christians have ideas about Jesus which fall far short of affirming Him as Lord and Christ. Some see Jesus as the all-tolerant, loving One, who never speaks against anyone’s sin. They seek to get their denominations to affirm sins such as homosexuality and abortion. Others use Jesus to endorse their worldly views of feminism or politics. Still others mix Jesus with some brand of pop psychology. You have to stand against these popular views of Jesus to confess Him truly as Lord and Christ.

The third, and most formidable, group the disciples had to oppose was the Jewish religious leaders (8:31). The disciples were not formally educated in the Hebrew Scriptures; these men were. The disciples had no public influence; these men were the recognized leaders in Israel. They were the interpreters of Moses, the guardians of the Jewish law. Who did this bunch of uneducated fishermen think they were to go against the common judgment of this august body of scholars?

You will often have to join the disciples in pitting your view of Jesus against the religious scholars of our day. Even some who call themselves evangelical deny the trustworthy nature of all Scripture. They interpret Jesus in light of the most recent “scholarship,” which invariably comes from men with an anti-supernaturalistic bias. One flagrant example is the recent “Jesus Seminar,” where a bunch of supposed scholars got together and voted on which sayings of Jesus were authentic. How did they determine this? They begin by assuming the gospels to be myth unless proven otherwise. From there they proceed with other dubious assumptions combined with pure subjectivism. Using their methods and assumptions, we could probably conclude that the members of the Jesus Seminar really didn’t say what they claim to have said! This question, “Who do you say Jesus is?” divides people. You must take your stand with the disciples.

3. The question has deepening levels of correct understanding.

Peter’s answer, “You are the Christ,” is certainly correct. But, Peter had a different conception of what that meant than Jesus did. Peter meant, “You are the promised Anointed One who will sit on David’s throne, subduing the nations under Israel’s feet.” That is quite correct when understood of Messiah’s second coming. But, in regard to His first coming, the more correct answer was, “You are the One Anointed by God to be crucified as our sin-bearer and raised from the dead by the power of God.” Jesus had to fulfill Isaiah 53 and other Scriptures which point to Messiah’s bearing the sins of His people before He would reign on David’s throne. Peter was correct, but he needed to come to a deeper level of correct understanding.

There is even a deeper level of correct understanding revealed here: “You are the crucified, risen Christ who is the Sovereign Lord.” Jesus’ prophecy (8:31) makes it plain that He did not die as a helpless victim. The Jewish leaders who crucified Him did not thwart God’s plan for Jesus to reign on David’s throne. They were guilty of the terrible sin of crucifying their Messiah, but at the same time, Jesus willingly offered Himself as the sacrifice for our sins. He was in sovereign control, even in His death. Peter later grasped this as he preached on the Day of Pentecost, “This Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (Acts 2:23).

One of the beautiful things about the Christian life is that you grow into deeper and deeper levels of understanding about the infinite, unfathomable, sovereign person of Jesus Christ. Do you know Him as your Savior? That’s great! You start there. But don’t stop there! There’s much more! If I could pick one place in history to return to, it would be to join those men on the Emmaus road that first resurrection Sunday, when the risen Lord Jesus, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures (Luke 24:27). All the seminary educations in the world could not compare with that one experience!

So, begin with knowing Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed One of God, the Savior. But go on discovering all that He is as the Sovereign Lord of the universe. The joy of the Christian life is growing to know our Bridegroom more intimately.

4. The question reveals the state of our hearts.

This point is revealed by the Lord’s strong warning that the disciples tell no one and by Peter’s subsequent rebuke of Jesus and Jesus’ rebuke of Peter. Peter’s notion of Messiah meant power and dominion, not suffering, rejection, and death. So, when Jesus began to speak plainly about His coming death, it jarred Peter so much that he took Jesus aside to rebuke Him. But Peter’s rebuke drew from Jesus the strongest rebuke He ever gave to one of His followers: “Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (8:33).

I think Peter was truly concerned about Jesus. He didn’t want Jesus to die. But his mistake was that he didn’t see things from God’s perspective. He wanted Jesus to spare Himself, not realizing that if He had done so, the cross, which secured our redemption, would have been subverted. It was the same temptation Satan put before Jesus when he showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and said, “All these things will I give You, if You fall down and worship me” (Matt. 4:9). So Jesus met Peter’s temptation the same way He met Satan’s: “Begone, Satan!”

The disciples were in sympathy with Peter, which is why Jesus addressed His rebuke so they all could hear (Mark 8:33). And that explains His strict prohibition that they tell no one that He was the Christ (8:30). Both the disciples and the Jewish people were looking for a political Messiah who would put a chicken in every pot and a donkey in every stable. But Jesus wasn’t sent by the Father to make everyone happy, so that they could go on living self-centered lives. He came to deal with the fundamental problem of the human race: sin. The essence of sin is our stubborn self-will that says to God, “I’ll run my own life, God. Just help me feel good when I need You.” The cross, where the Lord of Glory took the penalty we deserved, was the only divine solution for our sin problem.

A. B. Bruce said it well: “For the whole aim of Satanic policy is to get self-interest recognized as the chief aim of man” (The Training of the Twelve [Kregel], p. 180). For Jesus to have avoided the cross would have been for Him to seek His selfish interests. Satan would have triumphed. But Jesus came to do the will of the Father. That’s why He said, “The Son of Man must suffer” (8:31). He came to glorify the Father by being obedient, even to death on the cross. The “must” was the necessity of obedience to the Father’s will above all else.

So you can see how your answer to the question, “Who do you say Jesus is?” reveals the state of your heart. If your Jesus is an Aladdin’s Genie whom you use to make you feel good, then your heart is in bondage to self and sin, not subject to Jesus as Lord. You actually are following the Jesus Satan tried to establish, not the Jesus sent by the Father. The Jesus sent by the Father was delivered up on account of our sins and was raised so that we could be right with God (Rom. 4:25). We who follow Him are also to die to ourselves and live to God (2 Cor. 5:15).

Through the trials we encounter, God is seeking to break us of our sinful self-will and make us subject to His will. Instead of living to please ourselves, He wants us to live to please Him. So when He challenges our will, if we submit to Him, we grow to be more like Jesus. If we resist His breaking process, we’re setting our minds on the things of man, not of God.

So tell me what kind of Jesus you follow and I’ll tell you where your heart is at. The Jesus of the Bible is the Christ of the cross. If anyone wishes to follow Him, he must deny himself and take up his cross (8:34). He is the risen Lord to whom all must submit. Until we understand that, we haven’t grasped the primary reason Jesus came to this earth.

Conclusion

What’s your answer to Jesus question: “Who do you say that I am?” You may be standing with the multitude, saying, “Jesus is a fine example, a great teacher. But He is not the Sovereign Lord of my life.” That is a terribly mistaken answer. You may be standing with Peter, saying correctly, “You are the Christ,” but not understanding the sort of Christ He really is. That’s an improvement over the first answer, but it is inadequate. You must stand with Jesus who came as God’s Anointed to bear your sins, who was raised in triumph over sin and death, who calls us to follow Him in obedience to the will of the Father. As Peter later preached, “God has made Him both Lord and Christ--this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). If you stand there, ready to do God’s will no matter what the cost, you have correctly answered the most important question in the world: Who do you say Jesus is?

If Jesus is not your sin-bearer and your Lord, I encourage you to read the Gospels with the prayer, “God, show me who Jesus is. If You show me that He is my Savior and Lord, I will follow Him.”

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you answer the person who said, “If Jesus works for you, that’s great, but He’s not for me”?
  2. Is it right to appeal to a person to believe in Jesus for the temporal benefits they will receive?
  3. What expectations of Christ did you have which He has not fulfilled? Were they biblical expectations?
  4. Discuss: “The whole aim of Satanic policy is to get self-interest recognized as the chief aim of man.”

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Easter, Resurrection, Soteriology (Salvation)

Easter [1997]: Hope For Troubled Hearts (Luke 24:13-35)

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March 30, 1997

Easter Sunday Message

If you have lived for very long at all, you have been disappointed by God. I am not implying in any way that God was somehow at fault. He is perfect in all His dealings with us. But because of our limited understanding and perspective, we felt as if God let us down. It may have been through the untimely death of a parent, a child, a mate, or another loved one. Maybe it was through a painful divorce that took place in spite of your fervent prayers against it. Perhaps you lost your job and were gradually worn down as every door slammed shut in your face. Maybe it’s a personal matter that you have prayed about for years, but God has not answered. Whether major or minor, we all have had times when we were disappointed by God.

That is exactly where two weary travelers were at as they trudged along the dirt road from Jerusalem to Emmaus on that first Resurrection Sunday. Jesus tragically had been crucified and His disciples were confused and shocked. It seemed like a colossal triumph for the Jewish religious leaders and a sad defeat for this great man in whom they had put their hopes. As these two travelers walked along talking about these things, a stranger caught up with them. He was really not a stranger--He was the risen Lord Jesus--but the text states that “their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him” (24:16). The passive voice of the verb suggests that God had closed their eyes from recognizing Jesus. There were some lessons about trusting in the written Word of God which these men needed to learn before their eyes were opened to recognize the living Word who was present with them.

Jesus asks the two men (or, it could have been a man, Cleopas, and his wife) some questions to draw them out. Remember, whenever the Lord asks questions of someone, it’s not because He is lacking knowledge! He wants the men to reveal their need so that they are ready for what He wants to teach them. They reveal their deep disappointment both by their sad demeanor (24:17) and their plaintive words, “But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel” (24:21). Even the fact of the empty tomb, which should have given them great hope, just added to their disappointment. “We were hoping ....” These men had been disappointed by God!

The Lord does two things with these men before He opens their eyes to see who He is: He rebukes their lack of faith in the Scriptures, which spoke of Him; and, behind their faith was a lack of knowledge, which He supplies by explaining to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. You cannot properly believe in that of which you’re ignorant. But, knowledge alone is inadequate; it must be coupled with faith in Jesus Christ. These two elements, then, are the key to replacing disappointment in God with hope:

If you have been disappointed by God, you will find hope by knowing and believing in the risen Savior.

1. If you have been disappointed by God, you will find hope by knowing the risen Savior.

These two men from Emmaus knew more about Jesus than most of us do, because they had personally heard Him teach, had seen many of His miracles, and probably had witnessed the crucifixion. But even so, their knowledge of Jesus was lacking in some crucial areas, which the Lord graciously began to supply.

The men knew that Jesus was “a prophet mighty in deed and word in the sight of God and all the people” (24:19). That assessment of Jesus was correct in so far as it went; it just did not go far enough. Jesus was not just a prophet; He was the Prophet, the one predicted by Moses (Deut. 18:15) who was the fulfillment of all that Moses and the other prophets wrote about. Just as the prophets in the Old Testament spoke for God, so did Jesus, only more so. They were mere men who could only speak the word of the Lord as He chose to reveal it to them. But Jesus was God in human flesh, one with the eternal Father. The apostle John referred to Jesus as the eternal Word. Just as our words reveal our unseen thoughts, so Jesus, by His words, His works, and His Person, revealed the unseen God (John 1:18).

Of Himself Jesus proclaimed, “My teaching is not Mine, but His who sent Me. If any man is willing to do His will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God, or whether I speak from Myself. He who speaks from himself seeks his own glory; but He who is seeking the glory of the one who sent Him, He is true, and there is no unrighteousness in Him” (John 7:16-18). Not even the greatest of the Old Testament prophets could make such bold claims! Yes, Jesus was “a prophet mighty in deed and word in the sight of God and all the people,” but He was more than a prophet; He was the very Word of God, one with the Father, who said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

The men from Emmaus also had partial knowledge when they stated, “We were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel” (24:21). Luke is using irony, since through the cross Jesus had in fact redeemed, not only Israel, but people from every nation. But these men were thinking of the Jewish hope that God would send His Messiah who would deliver Israel from all her enemies and usher in an age of prosperity and blessing.

Jesus had said of Himself that He came “to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The Greek noun translated “ransom” is related to the verb, “redeem,” and means the release of something or someone held captive by the payment of a price, or by a substitutionary offering (see Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross [Eerdmans], chap. 1). Paul uses the verb with reference to Christ when he says that He “gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14). Peter uses the same word when he says, “Knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18-19).

This concept of Jesus Christ offering Himself as the redemption price for our sins has several implications. First, it shows us that God demands that the just penalty for sins be paid. In His absolute righteousness, God cannot just dismiss the charges against us. The wages of sin is death, eternal separation from God. The penalty must be paid or God is not just.

Second, it shows us that we are in great need. Without a Redeemer, we are in bondage to sin, unable to free ourselves. If left unto ourselves, we would face God’s just judgment and eternal condemnation for our many offenses against His holiness. You may be oblivious to your need, but that does not diminish the fact or the urgency of your condition before God. The very words the Bible uses--Savior, lost, redeemed--are extreme words.

The imagery that would have come to the mind of a person living in biblical times when the word “redeem” was mentioned would have been that of slavery. The slave was in a horrible situation. He was a piece of property to be used for the purposes of his master. He could not do what he wanted with his life. He was totally at his master’s mercy, even if the master decided to work him to death or to kill him in anger. As such, the slave was desperately needy and helpless. His only hope was that a wealthy benefactor would pay the price of redemption and then grant him his freedom. Even so, if you are outside of Jesus Christ, you are enslaved to sin, hopelessly lost, and unable to do anything about your desperate situation.

Third, the idea of Jesus as the Redeemer shows that He offered His own blood as the necessary sacrifice for the sins of all who will trust in Him. When Jesus, beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, explained to these men the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures, He no doubt began with God in the garden shedding the blood of the animals so that Adam and Eve could be properly clothed in His holy presence. He told them that Jesus was the seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). He explained how the ram caught in the thicket which God provided so that Abraham could spare Isaac pictured His sacrifice for sinners. He took them through the sacrificial system of Israel, and showed them how it all pointed forward to Him. No doubt, among many other Scriptures, He took them to Isaiah 53:6-12:

All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth. By oppression and judgment He was taken away; and as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living, for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due? His grave was assigned with wicked men, yet He was with a rich man in His death, because He had done no violence, nor was there any deceit in His mouth. But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, and the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand. As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; by His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities. Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, and He will divide the booty with the strong; because He poured out Himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors.

No doubt Jesus explained how the Christ had first to suffer death as the guilt offering for His people, and then enter into His glory through the resurrection. It must have been the most marvelous conversation in all history, to hear Jesus explain the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures!

Jesus would have explained how He was not only the crucified Redeemer, but, also, He was the risen Redeemer! The Scriptures had predicted both His death and resurrection. But also He had predicted His own rising from the dead after three days before it all came to pass. These two men seemed to remember something of the significance of “the third day” (24:21), but they didn’t get it quite yet. The empty tomb should have tipped them off, especially when accompanied by the testimony of angels who reminded the women, “Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again” (24:6-7). But these men were not expecting the crucifixion, much less a resurrection, and they were hesitant to believe the testimony of a bunch of impressionable women!

The point is, these men who were disappointed by God needed a fuller knowledge of who Jesus Christ is as revealed in the Scriptures. Did you notice the repetition of the word “all” in our text? These men were “slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken” (24:25). Jesus, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets ... explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (24:27). They had believed in the part of the Scriptures that foretold Messiah’s glory, but they had overlooked the parts that tell of His suffering.

We’re so much like them. We love the parts of the Bible that promise blessings, but we somehow don’t notice all the parts that talk about suffering. A few years ago, I was going through a time when I was being slandered and unfairly criticized. As I was reading through the Psalms during that time, I noticed for the first time the many references that David made to his being slandered. Those references had been there all the dozens of times I had read the Psalms before, but I didn’t notice them until I was in that situation. And, I realized, many of those references about David were really speaking about the Son of David, Jesus Christ, who was maligned more than any man. So in my time of trial, I came to know more of Christ through reading the Word.

So if you find yourself disappointed by God, get into your Bible and ask God to reveal more about the Lord Jesus to you as you read. “Since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted” (Heb. 2:18). If you have been disappointed by God, you will find hope in knowing the risen Savior more deeply.

2. If you have been disappointed by God, you will find hope by believing in the risen Savior.

Faith is built on proper knowledge. Biblical faith is not a blind leap in the dark. You would be foolish to believe in something you know nothing about. If you do not know what the Scriptures say about the Lord Jesus Christ, read your Bible and ask God to open your eyes to the truth. As Jesus said (John 7:17), if you are willing to do His will, you will know of the teaching whether it is of God or whether Jesus was just speaking on His own authority. But then, once you know, you must commit yourself in faith to the person and work of Jesus Christ.

We often excuse unbelief as a common weakness, but the Lord views it as a terrible sin for which we are responsible. Jesus here rebukes these men quite strongly: “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe ...!” He often confronted the disciples with the words, “O you of little faith” (Matt. 6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8). When we doubt God and His word of promise to us, we are calling into question His love, His faithfulness, and His power.

The apostle John argues, “If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; for the witness of God is this, that He has borne witness concerning His Son” (1 John 5:9). He is pointing out the common fact, that we believe in sinful, fallen men every day of our lives. When you ate your breakfast this morning, you did not run a chemical analysis to make sure that it had not been poisoned at the food processing plant. When you drive your car, you trust that the mechanic has not sabotaged your brakes. When you deposit a check in the bank, you trust that the teller is not going to put your money in her account, or that the bank isn’t depositing it in a secret Swiss bank account. We trust men every day; shouldn’t we trust God?

The sin of unbelief is also seen in that we are much more prone to trust in ourselves than to trust in the living God. If you ask people, “Why should God let you into heaven?” the vast majority will reply that He should let them into heaven because they are basically good, sincere people and that they believe in Him. The bottom line is, they are trusting in their own goodness, sincerity, and even in their own belief, but they are not trusting in Jesus Christ alone for right standing before God. But the Bible makes it clear that even the best of us have nothing in ourselves to qualify us for heaven. We must renounce all faith in ourselves and trust in Jesus Christ alone to be saved from hell. And yet we sinfully persist in faith in ourselves rather than faith in Christ.

The British preacher, Spurgeon, pointed out that the sin of unbelief is seen in that we are more prone to believe Satan than we are to believe in God. Satan comes and whispers in your ear that the Bible is not true, or that God is not loving and merciful, that He doesn’t care about you and your problems, and you are quick to believe those lies rather than to trust in God’s provision in Jesus Christ (Spurgeon’s Expository Encyclopedia [Baker], 15:69).

The testimony of these dejected men from Emmaus is only one of many witnesses to the truth of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. God has given us solid evidence on which to rest our faith. It is not only foolish, but it’s a sin for which we are liable, if we reject the witness of God and instead believe in ourselves or in the lies of skeptics. If you have been disappointed by God, you will find hope by putting your trust in the risen Savior.

Conclusion

I want to conclude with four observations and applications:

(1) The Lord is near to you in your disappointment even though you do not know it--Be encouraged! These men on that dusty road thought that Jesus was dead and gone, when in fact, He was the one walking with them as they talked, though they did not recognize Him at first. When you’re disappointed or discouraged, you may think that the Lord is a million miles away, but if you are one of His flock, even though you are being faithless and do not see Him, He is there with you. He has promised never to leave us or forsake us.

(2) The Lord is ready to listen to your troubles--Tell Him! Jesus drew near to these men and asked questions in order to get them to talk about their disappointment. Even though God knows all our needs, He invites us to pour out our hearts before Him: “Casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:7).

(3) The Lord may have to rebuke before He heals--Be receptive! These men could easily have taken offense at Jesus’ strong rebuke and said, “Who does this man think he is, to call us foolish and slow of heart to believe?” But instead they were receptive, and as a result they were greatly blessed. Spurgeon says that when the Lord rebukes us, we should see it as His love, scarcely disguised, and reply, “Master, say on.” He says that if Jesus calls us foolish, we should wonder that He doesn’t say something worse about us (ibid., p. 60)!

(4) The Lord is waiting to be entreated by you--Ask Him to come in! As these men and Jesus approached their village, we read that Jesus acted as though He would keep going farther (24:28), but these men urged Him to stay with them, and He did. It was only then that their eyes were opened to see that it was the risen Lord at their table. Even though you may not see clearly, and the Lord must open your eyes to the truth--you cannot do it yourself--perhaps your heart, like the hearts of these men, has been burning in you even as I’ve been speaking. It is the Lord, though you did not recognize Him at first. He wants you to entreat Him to come into your life, to stay with you. When you entreat Jesus to come into your heart as Lord and Savior, He will open your eyes to see who He really is.

If you have been disappointed by God, it is not because God has failed. The solution is to know and believe in the risen Savior. Pour out your troubles to Him. Get into your Bible and learn more of Him. Entreat Him to abide with you. “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13).

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is unbelief such a serious sin? How can we avoid it?
  2. What would you say to a person who said, “I just can’t believe all those myths in the Bible”?
  3. Why is biblical faith not a leap in the dark? How much knowledge must a person have in order to believe?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Easter, Resurrection, Soteriology (Salvation)

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