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Easter [2006]: Overcoming Doubt (John 20:1-10, 19-20, 24-31)

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April 16, 2006

Easter Sunday

In our study of First John last Sunday we looked at the subject of assurance of salvation. The enemy of assurance is doubt, and so I thought it would be helpful on this Resurrection Sunday to take a look at the problem of doubt and how to overcome it.

Every thinking person sometimes wrestles with doubt. That is true not only for thinking Christians, but also for atheists and agnostics. Sometimes they wonder, “What if I’m wrong? What if there really is a God? What if there is life after death and I have to stand before God?” And, every thinking Christian sometimes wonders, “What if Christianity is not true?” For some, the doubts are relatively minor and fleeting. For others, the doubts are deep and disturbing. But wherever you’re at on the spectrum, if you’ve been a Christian for very long, you have gone through times when you struggled with doubt.

While there are many different sources of doubt (we’ll look at some in a moment), there is one answer that undergirds them all. I have often come back to it when I am working through my doubts. The apostle Paul said that the entire Christian faith rests on this single foundation, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Cor. 15:13-19). If that fact of history is true, then our faith has a solid footing in spite of difficult matters that we may never understand fully in this life. But, if Jesus Christ is not risen from the dead, then the strongest faith in the world is useless, because it rests on a faulty foundation. In Paul’s words (1 Cor. 15:17), “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.”

If you want to examine a subject, it’s best to go to an expert. The most famous expert on doubt is the man whose name is always linked with it, Doubting Thomas. Perhaps it’s unfair that he has to wear that label, since all the apostles doubted the resurrection of Jesus at first (Mark 16:11; Luke 24:10-11). But, Thomas was the last holdout, so he gets the title. His story shows us that…

To overcome our doubts, we must rest upon the reality of the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

Thomas was what I would call a sincere doubter. Not all doubters are sincere. Some use their doubts as a smoke screen to hide behind their sin, which is the real issue. If one area of doubt is cleared up, they will quickly duck behind another, because they don’t want to submit to the Lord. These people do not need more evidence to believe. They need to turn from their sin.

But some doubters are sincere. They truly believe in Christ, but they are plagued by honest questions. They are submissive to God and want to do His will, but they can’t just close their eyes and take a leap of faith. They need evidence to clear up the doubts. Thomas was that kind of sincere doubter. His story reveals that…

1. Sincere doubt can arise from multiple causes.

There are many causes of doubt. I am going to limit myself to exploring some of the causes of Thomas’ doubts. Perhaps you can relate to these sources of doubt as well.

Some Reasons For Thomas’ Doubts:

A. Personal failure coupled with our personality may lead to doubt.

All of the disciples had failed Jesus on the night of His arrest and trial. Most notorious was Peter, who denied the Lord three times. All of the eleven had promised Jesus their loyalty, but they all deserted Him when He was arrested.

Thomas, along with Peter, had been outspoken in his loyalty to Jesus before the crucifixion. In John 11:16, when Jesus wanted to go to Bethany, near Jerusalem, to raise Lazarus from the dead, the disciples objected that it was too dangerous. But Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” He was a pessimist, but at least he was loyal to the point of challenging the others to be committed to the point of death. But then he had joined the others in running away when Jesus was arrested. That failure led Thomas into depression and doubt.

It wasn’t just Thomas’ failure, but failure coupled with his personality, that led him into deep doubts. Peter had failed in a big way, too. But Peter was a buoyant, optimistic sort who felt badly about his mistakes, but who could bounce back more quickly. But Thomas was a conscientious, loyal, but gloomy type who did not commit himself to something lightly. To commit himself to Jesus and then go back on his word affected Thomas deeply.

We’re all wired differently and so it’s important to know yourself so that you can be on guard against your areas of weakness. Usually, by the way, our areas of greatest strength are also our areas of greatest weakness. A man such as Thomas, who is loyal and conscientious, who takes commitments seriously, is also more prone to depression and doubt when he fails.

B. Disappointed expectations may lead to doubt.

A second factor that caused Thomas such deep doubts was the disappointment and shock he felt as he watched Jesus die. Even though Jesus repeatedly told the disciples in advance that He would be crucified, it didn’t sink in. When Thomas saw the badly mangled body of Jesus on the cross, it sent him into shock. His emphasis on the wounds of Jesus (John 20:25) shows how deeply it affected him. The bloody holes in Jesus’ hands and feet, the gory spear wound in His side, and Jesus’ disfigurement from the scourg­ing and the crown of thorns, haunted Thomas in the week after the crucifixion and fed his doubts.

In the same way, whenever we face deep disappointment and shock because of some tragedy or unanswered prayer or something that doesn’t go as we had expected, we’re vulnerable to doubts. You begin to think, “If God is a God of love, then why did this happen? Why didn’t He answer my prayers?” Before long, you’ve joined Thomas in doubting the Lord.

C. When God works in ways that we do not understand, it can lead to doubt.

Thomas lacked understanding with regard to the Lord’s departure (see John 14:5). On the night before the crucifixion, Jesus told the disciples that He was going to prepare a place for them and that He would come again to take them to be with Him. He told them that they knew the way where He was going. But Thomas wasn’t the type to keep quiet if he didn’t understand. So he blurted out, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?”

I’m glad he asked because Jesus’ reply was, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (14:6). But if you put yourself back into that situation, with all of the confused emotions of that night, and with the disciples’ still limited insight into Jesus’ death and resurrection, you can see how Thomas would still be confused about what Jesus had meant. He lacked understanding, which led to doubt.

John 20:9 states, “For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.” In fact, none of them understood why Jesus had to die, let alone rise from the dead. Jesus rebuked the men on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:25-27), “And He said to them, ‘O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.”

Many of our doubts stem from the same cause: we do not understand the Scriptures. Frankly, there are many hard teachings in the Bible, some of which we won’t resolve until we are with the Lord. We have to trust God, even when we don’t understand. In John 6:60, many of those who had followed Jesus turned away when He taught some hard things. Jesus even asked the twelve if they would go away also. Peter gave the great answer (John 6:68-69), “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.” I have come back to that answer many times when I have struggled with doubt due to a lack of understanding. If Jesus is who He claimed to be, where else can I go?

D. Separating ourselves from fellow believers, especially when we are depressed, can deepen our doubts.

Thomas was not with the other disciples when Jesus first appeared to them. We don’t know for certain why he was gone, but a likely reason was his depression. The last thing he wanted at a time like that was to be around other people. So he wandered off by himself to brood over the horrible events of the previous few days.

Then to add to his misery, when he finally did see the others, they told him that they had seen the risen Lord! How would you feel if you missed church because you were depressed and doubting and we all told you, “Hey, you really missed a blessing! It was the greatest church service in the history of FCF!” Great! That really encourages you, doesn’t it! But even though other believers may irritate us, the fact is, we need them. Whenever we separate ourselves from the fellowship, we make ourselves vulnerable to doubt.

I’ve not covered all the causes that cause us to doubt. But whatever the source of your doubts, the solution is the same: to come back to the basic fact of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. If that is true, then even though you may not understand everything, with Thomas you still must bow and acknowledge Jesus to be your Lord and God.

2. To overcome our doubts, we must rest upon the reality of the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

A. The resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is a reality.

Many books have been written to substantiate the historic validity of Jesus’ resurrection. But let me briefly mention four reasons in John 20 that prove Jesus’ resurrection to be true history, not a myth or wishful thinking.

(1) The empty tomb substantiates Jesus’ resurrection.

One incontrovertible fact, with which both the disciples and the Jews agreed, is that the tomb was empty. If not, when the disciples began proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus a few weeks later (which was the central point of their preaching), the Jewish leaders could have simply marched to the tomb, produced Jesus’ dead body, and the disciples would have been laughed out of town. But clearly they couldn’t do it because the tomb was empty.

There are several ways to account for the empty tomb. Jesus’ enemies could have stolen the body. But they had no motive for this. It was to their advantage to leave it right where it was, which is why they had Pilate put the Roman guard and seal on the tomb. If they knew where the body was, they could have produced it and silenced the disciples’ preaching.

Another possibility is that the Roman guards stole the body. But again, they had no motive to do so. They weren’t concerned about this Jewish religious trial. The Jewish leaders, who were scrambling for ways to explain away the resurrection, didn’t accuse the soldiers of taking the body or of allowing it to be stolen.

A third possibility is that the disciples stole the body. The Jewish leaders tried to promote this theory by bribing the Roman soldiers (Matt. 28:11-15). But there are many reasons the disciples could not have moved Jesus’ body. The tomb was secured by the Roman guards. The soldiers wouldn’t have fallen asleep on watch, because the penalty was death. The stone at the tomb was large and heavy. Even if the soldiers had been sleeping, the noise of a group of men moving the stone would have awakened them. Besides, the disciples were too depressed and confused to try anything like grave robbery in front of a Roman guard. Even if, through bribery, they had managed to remove Jesus’ body, they would not later have risked their lives to preach the resurrection.

Nor would they have suffered beatings and threats if it had been confirmed that someone else had taken Jesus’ body, which was the first thought of the women who visited the tomb early that morning (John 20:2, 15). All we know of the character of the witnesses as well as the fact that they did not yet understand the Scripture that Jesus must rise again from the dead (John 20:9) militates against them knowingly promoting a hoax. The empty tomb is a solid piece of evidence that God raised Jesus bodily from the dead.

(2) The grave clothes substantiate Jesus’ resurrection.

Mary Magdalene didn’t look very carefully when she first came to the tomb. She saw the stone removed and assumed that Jesus was gone. So she ran to tell Peter and John, who ran to the tomb. John got there first and stood at the entrance looking in. Peter, in his usual blustery manner, went right in and saw (20:6, Greek = “to gaze upon”) the grave clothes. Then John entered, saw (Greek = “to see with understanding”) and believed.

The presence of the grave clothes proves that the body was not stolen. In their haste, grave robbers would have taken the body, grave clothes and all. If for some reason they had wanted to strip the body, the clothes would have been strewn all over the tomb. But Peter and John saw them left in an orderly fashion, as if Jesus had passed right through them. Remember, these were not men wishing so fervently for a resurrection that they perhaps saw what they wanted to see. These were men who did not understand or believe at first. The evidence convinced them, even as their testimony of the evidence should convince us.

(3) The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus substantiate His resurrection.

John lists four appearances of Jesus after His resurrection: To Mary Magdalene (20:11-18); to the disciples except Thomas (20:19-23); to the disciples, including Thomas (20:24-31); and, to seven of the disciples, by the Sea of Galilee (21:1-25). Paul mentions several other appearances, including one to over 500 at one time (1 Cor. 15:6-8). J. N. D. Anderson, formerly Professor of Oriental Laws and Director of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies at the University of London, wrote (Christianity Today [3/29/68], pp. 5, 6.),

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.

The varied circumstances of the appearances and the different personalities of the witnesses militate against hallucinations or visions. Whether Thomas actually put his hand in Jesus’ wounds is not stated, but Jesus made the offer and Thomas was convinced (John 20:27). The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are a strong evidence of His bodily resurrection.

(4) The changed lives of the witnesses substantiate Jesus’ resurrection.

As already mentioned, John calls attention to the fact that none of the witnesses was expecting a resurrection. Mary Magdalene thought that someone had taken Jesus’ body (20:2, 15). The disciples were fearful and confused. Thomas was depressed and doubting. But all were transformed into the bold witnesses of the Book of Acts because they became convinced that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. They were so convinced that the resurrection was true that many of them went on to martyrs’ deaths.

So there are solid reasons to believe that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a real, historical event.

B. The risen Lord works with us to bring us from doubt to faith in Himself as Lord and God.

I’m so glad that Jesus didn’t remove Thomas from being an apostle because of his doubts! It’s helpful to see how the risen Lord brought Thomas from doubt to faith.

First, it is instructive that the Lord picked a time to appear to the other disciples when Thomas was not there. He could have waited until they were all together. Perhaps He wanted to let Thomas hit the bottom before He revealed Himself, so that Thomas would come to a deeper appreciation of his need for Christ. Sometimes He allows us to go through a time of struggle to show us our own weakness and our need to depend totally on Him.

Second, Jesus came to Thomas when he was back together with the other disciples. He was teaching Thomas his need for the body. He did not intend for us to separate ourselves from one another. He wants us to learn and grow together.

Third, Jesus confronted Thomas’ unbelief and challenged him to believe. Jesus’ words (20:27) reveal that He knew everything that Thomas had said when he was alone with the other disciples; “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” He wants us to know that we’re really never apart from His presence, even if we are not aware of it. He confronts us for not believing in such a Person who knows our secret thoughts.

Fourth, Jesus pointed Thomas to Himself as the object of faith. He did not exhort Thomas to believe in the unseen God, but in the visible, risen, touchable Lord Jesus. If you are struggling with doubts, read the gospels and ask the crucial question: “Who is Jesus Christ?” Read about His miraculous birth, His penetrating teaching, His amazing, but documented miracles, and how He fulfilled many Old Testament prophecies. When Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God,” Jesus did not rebuke or correct him for overstating things. Rather, He commended Thomas’ correct perception and faith (20:28-29). No devout Jew could have done that unless, as Thomas proclaimed, Jesus truly is Lord and God.

Jesus also gave further confirmation of His resurrection to Thomas and some other disciples by the Sea of Galilee (21:1-23). After that event, John wrote (21:24), “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true.” There is adequate evidence to believe.

Fifth, note that Jesus promised blessing to all who did not see Him, and yet believe (20:29). That applies to every one of us. John goes on to say (20:30-31), “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” If you will believe in the risen Lord Jesus Christ, you will have eternal life in His name.

Conclusion

Does the evidence about Jesus’ resurrection clear up all our doubts about God and the Bible? No, nothing this side of heaven will do that. But it does provide a solid basis for intelligent faith in those times when we struggle with doubt. Jesus alone is the risen Savior. He wants each of us who have not seen Him to be believing, not unbelieving. He wants each of us to recognize that He, our Lord and God, died in our place, taking the penalty we deserved for our sin. He wants us to join Thomas in believing worship, proclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”

If you wait to trust in Christ until all of your doubts are cleared up, you will go to your death alienated from the Savior. There is more than adequate evidence to support a reasonable faith that Jesus Christ is the risen Savior. The question is, Will you focus on who Jesus is and trust in Him as your Savior and Lord?

Application Questions

  1. How can a person know whether his doubts are sincere or whether they are just an excuse? Are sincere doubts sin?
  2. Is biblical faith a “blind leap”? If not, how does it differ?
  3. Is it possible to live without faith in something? Are materialistic humanists purely rational? How can we witness to them?
  4. Why is it crucial to base our faith in the fact of Christ’s resurrection rather than on our personal religious experience?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.

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

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

Easter [2007]: Hard Hearts, Powerful God (Matthew 27:57-28:20)

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April 8, 2007

Easter Sunday

Sometimes those who do not believe in God will say, “Just show me a miracle and I will believe.” The story is told of the noted atheist, Robert Ingersoll, who delivered one of his speeches attacking the Christian faith. When he was done, he pulled his watch from his pocket and said, “According to the Bible, God has struck men to death for blasphemy. I will blaspheme Him and give Him five minutes to strike me dead and damn my soul.”

Many in the crowd gasped at his audacious statement. Then there was silence as one minute went by. By two minutes, the crowd was growing anxious. At three minutes, a woman fainted. At four minutes, Ingersoll had a sneer on his face. At five minutes, he snapped his watch shut, put it in his pocket, and said, “You see, there is no God, or He would have taken me at my word.”

The story was later told to Joseph Parker, a British pastor, who said, “And did the American gentleman think that he could exhaust the patience of God in five minutes?” (Adapted from Paul Tan, Encyclopedia of 7,700 Illustrations [Assurance Publishers, 1979], # 334.)

But what if God had struck Ingersoll with a heart attack that stunned, but didn’t kill him? Do you think that he would have abandoned his atheism and believed in Jesus Christ? I think not. Because at the root of unbelief is the hatred of God and the love of one’s own sin. All the evidence in the world isn’t enough to persuade those who love their sin to give it up and submit to God.

We see this with the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day. When they wickedly put Him on the cross, it wasn’t enough to do that despicable deed. In addition, they taunted Him (Matt. 27:42), “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe in Him.”

But, would they have believed in Him if He had at that moment miraculously freed Himself from the nails and come down from the cross? The answer is given in Matthew 28:11-15; when they heard the testimony of the guards about the earthquake, the angel, and the empty tomb. They did not fall down in fear and say, “We were so wrong! Now we believe!” Rather, they paid the guards to spread a false story, so that no one would come to believe the truth of the resurrection. All the evidence in the world is not sufficient to change the minds of the unbelieving. The problem goes far deeper. Matthew’s account of the burial and resurrection of Jesus teaches us four lessons:

1. The fallen human heart is far harder than we imagine.

I heard about a prominent Christian leader who said that if you give him 15 minutes with anyone, he could get that person to make a decision for Christ. Other than being rather arrogant, that statement reveals a woeful misunderstanding of the hardness of the human heart! If you think that salvation is simply a matter of giving people the evidence or presenting a winsome four-point outline of the gospel and urging the person to make a decision to invite Jesus into his heart, you do not understand what you’re up against.

Paul describes the hardened hearts of sinners this way (Eph. 4:18-19): “being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness.” Our text shows us that…

A. The fallen human heart is so hard as to reject and crucify the sinless Savior.

Although Jesus went about doing good and healing the sick and teaching people the ways of God, He was a threat to the power and position of the Jewish leaders. And so they arrested Jesus, trumped up obviously false charges against Him, spit on Him, beat Him in the face, and mocked Him. They were not even satisfied when Pilate scourged Him, which was a hideously torturous punishment that left a man’s back shred into ribbons of flesh. Because the Jews did not have the right of capital punishment (or they would have stoned Him), they insisted that Pilate condemn Him to die a horrible, cruel death on the cross.

They had plenty of evidence that Jesus was their Messiah. He performed many miracles, including opening the eyes of the man born blind and raising Lazarus from the dead (John 9, 11). He powerfully taught from the Scriptures that they claimed to revere. He invited them to examine the Scriptures, to see that they testified of Him. But they refused because their hardened hearts loved darkness rather than light.

Now, they add to their sins by calling Him a deceiver (27:63). Wanting to prevent anyone from believing in Christ, they ask Pilate to secure the tomb so that the disciples would not steal the body and then proclaim a resurrection. Matthew is using irony to show that they were the deceived ones! They, who had seen Lazarus after Jesus had called him to life from the tomb, thought that they could stop the mighty power of God to raise Jesus from the dead by placing a guard and a seal on the tomb! What a picture of the spiritual hardness of sinful hearts!

B. The fallen human heart is so hard as to suppress the clear evidence regarding Jesus Christ.

As I said, all of Jesus’ ministry bore witness to the fact that He was the promised Messiah. Even the events surrounding His death fulfilled specific Old Testament prophecies. Psalm 22 describes a death by crucifixion, even though that form of execution would not be invented until centuries later. Jesus cited that psalm in His cry (27:46), “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Even if they hadn’t yet made the connection, that should have driven them back to reread that psalm and connect it with Jesus. The darkened sky, the torn veil in the temple, the earthquake, the reports of resurrected people appearing all around Jerusalem, and even the testimony of the pagan soldiers (27:45-54), all bore witness to who Jesus truly was.

Then Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man, buried Jesus in his own tomb (27:57-60). That should have caused any Jew that knew the Old Testament to go back to Isaiah 53, which describes in amazing prophetic detail the death of Messiah as the sacrificial lamb. It reads (53:9), “His grave was assigned with wicked men, yet He was with a rich man in His death….” Seeing Jesus crucified between two criminals, and yet buried in the rich man’s tomb, the Jewish leaders, who knew Isaiah 53, should have repented and believed in Jesus. Yet when the guards reported the empty tomb, they responded by bribing them to cover up the facts!

C. The fallen human heart is so hard as to accept readily the flimsy excuses that dismiss the resurrection of Jesus.

The Jewish leaders don’t even stop to think about the implications of what the guards are reporting. Instead, they immediately go into damage control mode, concocting a silly story that the disciples had come and stolen the body while the guards were sleeping (28:13)! If the guards were sleeping, how would they know what had happened? Besides, grave robbery was a serious crime, punishable even by death. Would the depressed disciples be bold enough to break the seal, move the heavy stone, and attempt a serious crime under the noses of these supposedly sleeping guards? Would not their efforts have awakened at least one guard? And then would they, knowing that the resurrection was a hoax, have proclaimed that Jesus is risen, even at the risk of being beaten, imprisoned, and possibly killed?

Actually, the Jewish leaders’ attempt to suppress the evidence inadvertently provided us with further evidence that the resurrection is true! Their story is so full of holes that it is laughable! They couldn’t deny the plain evidence of the empty tomb. But, they weren’t really looking for evidence to believe. They were fabricating excuses to continue in their unbelief. They knew that if Jesus was really risen, then they had to repent of their sins and they would lose their position of prestige and power over the Jewish people.

The soldiers also were willing to brush aside the things that they had seen with their own eyes and to spread lies because they got paid off to do so. What sinners won’t do for a little bit of money! The soldiers had felt the earthquake, they had seen the heavy stone moved, they saw the angel, whose appearance was like lightning, and they saw the empty tomb, but they denied it all for a bribe! That reveals to us the true reason that people reject Christ:

D. The real reason that people reject Jesus Christ is not a lack of evidence, but rather that they do not want to submit their lives to Him as Lord.

Sir Edward Clarke wrote (in John Stott, Basic Christianity [IVP, 1971], p. 47; cited by John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Matthew 24-28 [Moody Press], p. 314):

As a lawyer I have made a prolonged study of the evidences for the events of the first Easter Day. To me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the High Court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling. Inference follows on evidence, and a truthful witness is always artless and disdains effect. The Gospel evidence for the resurrection is of this class, and as a lawyer I accept it unreservedly as the testimony of truthful men to fact they were able to substantiate.

Cliff Knechtle writes of a conversation that he had with a university student who claimed that the Bible was packed with mythology, even though he admitted that he had never read it. Knechtle challenged him to read both the Book of Isaiah, which contains prophecies concerning Christ, and Matthew, which records the fulfillment of those predictions.

Knechtle thought that he’d never see him again, but the next day, he approached Knechtle and said, “I read Isaiah and Matthew. It was interesting literature. I think it speaks the truth.”

“That’s great!” said Knechtle. “Are you ready to trust Christ for eternal life?”

The student replied, “No way. I have a very active sex life. I know that Christ would want to change that. I don’t want anyone to change that.” (Cliff Knechtle, Give Me An Answer [IVP], pp. 88-89, told by Lee Strobel, Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary [Zondervan], p. 113.)

If you think that you have intellectual reasons for why you can doubt the truth of Jesus and His resurrection, you need to get honest with yourself and go deeper. Your real reason for rejecting Christ is that you don’t want to give up your sin. Your heart is far harder than you ever could imagine!

But perhaps we who have believed in Christ are smugly thinking, “Yes, the hearts of unbelievers are really hard, aren’t they!” But before we congratulate ourselves, we should notice:

2. Even the hearts of believers are harder than we imagine.

A. The fearful disciples are conspicuously absent from the first part of this narrative.

The glaring question that begs an answer in chapter 27 is, “Where were the disciples?” You have Joseph of Arimathea and (according to John 19:39) Nicodemus, both of whom were on the Council, but disagreed with the decision to put Jesus to death. Up to this point, they had been secret disciples. But, now they come out of hiding to give Jesus a proper burial. But, where were the rest of the disciples? They were in hiding out of fear for their lives.

Even though Jesus had repeatedly predicted His own death and resurrection, the hearts of the disciples were prevented from understanding what He meant. It just didn’t fit with their idea of a Messiah. Even the faithful women who came to the tomb on that first resurrection Sunday didn’t expect to find it empty.

Before we say to the disciples, “For shame, for shame!” we need to look at our own hearts. How often I have been foolish and “slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25)! In spite of the clear evidence of Scripture, my hardened heart often struggles with doubt!

B. Some who saw the risen Jesus were still hesitant to believe.

Matthew 28:16-20 reports Jesus’ appearance to His followers in Galilee. This is probably the appearance to more than 500 at one time, which Paul reports (1 Cor. 15:6). If this were a fabricated story whose purpose was to sell the readers on the resurrection, surely the author would have omitted the last part of Matthew 28:17: “but some were doubtful.” The Greek word used may mean not that they denied the resurrection, but that they were hesitant to believe. It probably does not refer to the Eleven, who had already had several encounters with the risen Savior, including the famous incident with doubting Thomas. But, even so, the inclusion of that phrase makes the reader wonder, “Why would some be hesitant to believe?” D. A. Carson (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan, 1984], 8:594) explains that Matthew…

… may be using this historical reminiscence to stress the fact that Jesus’ resurrection was not an anticipated episode that required only enthusiasm and gullibility to win adherents among Jesus’ followers. Far from it, they still were hesitant; and their failure to understand his repeated predictions of his resurrection, compounded with their despair after his crucifixion, worked to maintain their hesitancy for some time before they came to full faith. Jesus’ resurrection did not instantly transform men of little faith and faltering understanding into spiritual giants.

This should give those of us who have trusted in Christ encouragement and hope. Certainly, we should confess our doubts as sin and strive against them, in that they reveal the lingering hardness of our hearts. Yet at the same time, we can be encouraged that the Lord patiently bears with our weaknesses and spiritual struggles. As David proclaims (Ps. 103:13-14), “Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him. For He Himself knows our frame, He is mindful that we are but dust.”

Thus far we’ve focused on the hardness of the human heart. If we stopped there, we all would despair. But this account of Jesus’ resurrection also shows us the mighty power of God:

3. The power of the living God is far greater than we imagine.

We see first that…

A. God has the power to accomplish His sovereign purpose.

Even though all the powers of hell tried to keep Jesus in the tomb, they could not succeed. The Messiah had prayed prophetically (Ps. 16:10), “For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.” Peter cited that psalm of David in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, pointing out that David’s tomb was still in their midst. Rather than writing of himself, David was looking ahead to the resurrection of Christ, to which all of the apostles were witnesses (Acts 2:25-32).

That God permits the wicked to carry out their evil schemes, for which they are responsible, and yet He uses those very schemes to fulfill His sovereign purpose, is a demonstration of His great power. The most evil deed in the history of the human race was to kill the sinless Son of God on the cross. Yet, in doing this, they were not thwarting God’s predetermined purpose, but rather, carrying it out and even fulfilling specific prophecies in doing so (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). In this resurrection story, the evil scheme of the Jewish leaders to spread a false rumor about the disciples’ stealing Jesus’ body backfires on them, as God uses it to provide greater evidence to any thoughtful reader that the resurrection is true.

In Ephesians, Paul argues that it is nothing less than this same mighty power of God that raised Jesus from the dead that raises sinners from spiritual death to eternal life (Eph. 1:19-20; 2:1-6). If God leaves you in your hardness of heart, there is not a glimmer of hope that by your own power you can open your blind eyes to see the truth about who Jesus is. But, His power is greater than our weakness. His grace is greater than all our sin. Don’t look to anything in yourself. Rather, look to God, who raised Jesus from the dead, and cry out to Him to give life to your spiritually dead soul.

B. The risen Jesus Christ claims to have all authority in heaven and on earth.

Jesus said (28:18), “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” Either Jesus is a deluded megalomaniac or He spoke the truth. If He spoke the truth, then He has the authority to grant eternal life (as He claimed, John 5:24-26) or to cast into hell (John 5:27). I strongly urge you to cry out to Him to have mercy on your soul. Like the blind beggar (Mark 10:46-52), keep calling until you’re sure that He has granted your request.

There is a third evidence of God’s mighty power:

C. The risen Jesus Christ claims that He will be with His obedient disciples always, even to the end of the age.

As they go, proclaiming the good news of His triumph over death and sin, Jesus promises (28:20), “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Again, either He is a deluded megalomaniac, or He is God, because no mere man could make such an amazing claim! His resurrection backs up the truthfulness of His claim. His promise is a great comfort to every follower of Jesus. Even if they kill us, as they killed Him, we know that nothing can “separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39). How should we respond?

4. We should be quick to believe, to worship, and to obey all that He has commanded.

Rather than making up excuses to remain in our sin or being hesitant to believe in spite of the evidence, we should be quick to believe. If you need to, pray with the man whose son needed healing, “I do believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

We should be quick to join with the disciples in worshiping the risen Savior. It is significant that Jesus welcomed and did not rebuke the worship of the disciples. If Jesus were a mere man, even if He were a great prophet, surely He would have been horrified to have people falling down before Him in worship. Yet, clearly He receives and commends such worship (see John 20:27-29).

And, we should be quick to obey all that He has commanded us (Matt. 28:20), including His command to make disciples of all the nations. To seek first His kingdom and righteousness means that we will not spend our time and money as the rest of our self-centered American culture does. If Jesus is risen, then we must be radically obedient to His kingdom commands.

Conclusion

Because God’s power is greater than our hard hearts, we should be quick to believe, worship, and obey the risen Savior.

The noted historian and Oxford professor Thomas Arnold wrote (cited by MacArthur, ibid., p. 314; from Wilbur Smith, Therefore Stand: Christian Apologetics [Baker, 1965], pp. 425-426):

The evidence for our Lord’s life and death and resurrection may be, and often has been, shown to be satisfactory; it is good according to the common rules for distinguishing good evidence from bad. Thousands and tens of thousands of persons have gone through it piece by piece as carefully as every judge summing upon a most important case. I myself have done it many times over, not to persuade others but to satisfy myself. I have been used for many years to study the histories of other times and to examine and weigh the evidence of those who have written about them, and I know of no one fact in the history of mankind which is proved by better and fuller evidence of every sort, to the understanding of a fair inquirer, than the great sign which God has given us that Christ died and rose again from the dead.

The evidence is not lacking! The question is, will you believe it, worship the risen Christ, and obey the commands that His rightful lordship place on your life?

Application Questions

  1. If unbelief is rooted in the love of sin rather than in the lack of evidence, should we provide evidence when we witness?
  2. How should we advise a person who seems to be struggling with sincere doubts?
  3. Why is it helpful to understand the hardness of the human heart before you attempt to witness for Christ?
  4. Why is the deity of Jesus Christ essential to His being the Savior? Why is any lesser view not only inadequate, but damnable?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, 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, Easter, Resurrection, Soteriology (Salvation), Worship (Personal)

Easter [2008]: The Risen Savior’s Questions (John 20:11-18)

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March 23, 2008

Resurrection Sunday

A Vietnamese pastor was thrown into prison, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves. The family’s home was taken, so that the destitute wife and children were forced to live on an open balcony, exposed to the drenching rain. And yet, she was full of joy in the Lord for His comfort and care. She wrote,

When we experience misfortune, adversity, distress and hardship, only then do we see the real blessing of the Lord poured down on us in such a way that we cannot contain it….

I do not know what words to use in order to describe the love that the Lord has shown our family. I only can bow my knee and my heart and offer to the Lord words of deepest thanks and praise. Although we have lost our house and our possessions, we have not lost the Lord, and He is enough. With the Lord I have everything. The only thing I would fear losing is His blessing!

She concluded, “As far as my husband is concerned, I was able to visit him this past summer. We had a 20-minute conversation that brought us great joy….” (Cited by Richard Swenson, Margin [NavPress], pp. 188-190.)

That dear woman has the kind of hope in the midst of overwhelming trials that we all need, although few of us experience it. I confess that often in my minor trials, I’m prone to complaining. So I need—we all need—joyous hope in the Lord to sustain us through our trials. We need hope that is rooted in reality, not in wishful thinking or positive thinking. We need hope that will sustain us in the most difficult times.

The news of Jesus’ resurrection brought hope to people who were overwhelmed by despair and grief. You see the deep disappointment in the words of the men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:21). Concerning the crucified Jesus, they said, “But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel.” “We were hoping….” But their hopes had been dashed.

The disciples were engulfed by gloom. They had left everything to follow Jesus, pinning all of their hopes on Him as the Messiah. But now, He was dead. On top of the shock of watching Jesus’ grisly death on the cross, Peter was wrestling with his own failure in denying the Lord. All of the disciples were guilty of abandoning Him and fleeing in fear.

We also see grief and despair in the tears of Mary Magdalene. The Greek word used to describe her weeping means loud, uncontrollable wailing. She was despondent that not only had Jesus died, but now they had taken away His body so that she could not give Him a proper burial.

It was to people overwhelmed by such a dark cloud of grief that the fact of Jesus’ bodily resurrection broke in with life-changing hope. The fact that Jesus is risen and ascended into heaven, soon to return for His own, can break into your life with genuine hope in the midst of your worst trials, if you will learn the lessons from this story.

It is significant that Mary Magdalene was the first person to whom Jesus revealed Himself after His resurrection (Mark 16:9). She was not an especially important person, and she was a woman. In that culture, women were not considered reliable witnesses in court. You would think that the Lord would have picked some men as the first witnesses of His resurrection. I probably would have picked Peter, or maybe John. If you wanted to pick a woman, most would have picked Mary, the mother of the Lord, or perhaps Mary of Bethany, who anointed Him just before His death. But Mary Magdalene was first.

That fact is even more arresting when you recall that Mary had a rather seamy past. Jesus had cast seven demons out of her (Luke 8:2). Seven is the biblical number of perfection, so perhaps we are to understand that Mary was under the total domination of satanic power. While there is no biblical evidence for the commonly held belief that she had been a prostitute, we can surmise that a woman under demonic power did not have a puritanical past. Jesus had rescued her from a horrible life of sin.

The fact that the Lord revealed Himself first to Mary Magdalene shines a ray of hope for every person struggling with sin and guilt. If the Savior rescued this insignificant, demon-possessed woman from her life of sin and chose her to be the first witness of His resurrection, then He can save you from your sin and use you to bear witness of Him to others! This story teaches us that…

Sorrows are turned to hope when we seek the risen Savior.

The background of the story is in verses 1-10. Mary had been to the tomb and discovered that the stone was taken away. She ran to Peter and John and excitedly reported (20:2), “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” Peter and John immediately ran to the tomb. John got there first, but just looked in. In his usual blustery fashion, Peter entered the tomb and discovered the grave clothes without Jesus’ body. Probably at this point, John believed that Jesus was risen (20:8), but Peter was still wondering about what had happened (Luke 24:12). But neither man understood yet from the Scriptures that Jesus must rise from the dead (John 20:9). After viewing the empty tomb, both men returned home.

Meanwhile, Mary Magdalene had arrived and she remained by the tomb, weeping. She wanted to find Jesus, although at this point all she expected to find was His corpse. In her thinking, someone had added insult to injury by robbing the grave.

In this state of confusion, she stooped and looked into the tomb, where she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet of where Jesus’ body had been lying. They ask Mary (20:13), “Woman, why are you weeping?” Jesus will repeat the same question and add another (20:15), “Whom do you seek?” Neither Jesus nor the angels were asking those questions to gain information for themselves! Rather, they wanted Mary (and us) to think about the implications of those questions, because in doing so we will learn how seeking the risen Savior will turn our sorrows into hope. So let’s explore these questions:

Why are you weeping?

1. We weep because of sorrow, but we need to process these sorrows in light of Jesus’ resurrection.

The point of this repeated question was to get Mary to process her sorrow in light of the fact that Jesus was now risen. Yes, watching the crucifixion had been indescribably traumatic. You have to work through the emotional shock of such an event. But, Mary was now weeping from sorrow because the tomb was empty, whereas that fact should have caused her to weep for joy! Mary’s experience reveals three reasons why we often go through sorrow, which we need to process in light of Jesus’ resurrection.

A. Disappointments cause sorrow, but we must process them in light of Jesus’ resurrection.

Mary was deeply disappointed, first by the shock of the crucifixion, but now by the fact that she wanted to finish embalming Jesus’ body. She was thinking, “If only God would let me know where they laid Him, I could finish embalming His body!”

So often, we’re just like Mary. We’re disappointed because we don’t know what we think we need to know to do what we think we need to do. We’re disappointed because God isn’t working as we think He needs to work. It seems that His promises aren’t true! But from God’s perspective, we’re asking the wrong questions and trying to accomplish the wrong tasks! We need to process our disappointments in light of the risen Savior’s love and care for us. We often don’t understand His sovereign perspective.

B. The evil deeds of evil men cause sorrow, but we must process these deeds in light of Jesus’ resurrection.

Mary thought that evil men had triumphed over God’s sovereign purposes. They had killed Jesus and now they had stolen His body. Twice she laments (20:2, 13), “they have taken away my Lord….” It’s an ironic complaint. If He is the Lord, no one could take Him anywhere without His consent! If God gives His angels charge concerning Messiah to guard Him in all His ways (Ps. 91:11-12; Luke 4:10-11), then surely God would not permit the crucifixion and then allow the body to be stolen against His sovereign will.

We often suffer needless sorrow because we forget that God is sovereign and that evil men can’t do anything to thwart His eternal purpose. Years ago, I heard a tragic story of a 28-year-old woman in California, who went to the mall one evening to buy a wedding present for a friend. She and her family were committed Christians, heavily involved in the cause of world missions. That night the mall was almost empty. Two evil men abducted this godly young woman and raped and murdered her. It was a senseless, brutal crime that snuffed out a life that had great potential for God’s kingdom.

While that woman’s husband and parents will wrestle all of their lives with unanswered questions of why God allowed this, I contend that there is no comfort apart from the facts of God’s sovereignty and Jesus’ resurrection. If those facts are true, then someday God will work it all together for good (Rom. 8:28). Although evil men crucified Jesus, they were only inadvertently fulfilling God’s sovereign purposes (Acts 4:27-28).

C. The death of a loved one causes sorrow, but we must process it in light of Jesus’ resurrection.

Of course we grieve when we lose a loved one. In many cases, we will feel the loss every day for the rest of our lives. It’s not wrong to weep over such losses (John 16:20). But the Bible says that although we grieve, we do not grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). The hope that Jesus is risen and that He is coming again to take us to be with Him and with our loved ones who have died in Him, sustains us through our tears. While we may never understand why God allowed a loved one to die, we can know, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His godly ones” (Ps. 116:15). Whatever our loss, we must process our sorrow in light of the sure fact that Jesus is risen. Because He is risen, His promises are true! Those promises give us hope in our sorrow.

Perhaps the risen Lord is asking you the same question that He asked Mary: Why are you weeping? Maybe, like Mary, you’re inclined to think, “That’s a dumb question! Lord, don’t You see what they have done? I’m weeping because they….” The Lord gently says, “Wait a minute! The tomb is empty because I have risen. Now, why are you weeping?”

But, there is a second important question that the risen Lord asks Mary (20:15): Whom are you seeking?  He asks it even before she has a chance to answer the first question, because the answer to why she is weeping is found in the answer of whom she is seeking.

2. If we will seek the crucified, risen, and ascended Savior, He turns our sorrows into hope.

Clearly, Mary was seeking a dead Lord (20:13, 15). Her devotion to Jesus is commendable, but really, what good would it have done for Mary to haul off the body of a dead Jesus and add a few more embalming spices? A dead religion that dresses up the corpse of a dead prophet does no good! Only a living Savior who has triumphed over the grave offers hope for our sorrows.

A. We seek the crucified Savior.

Mary knew that, of course. But she had forgotten that Messiah’s death was prophesied in the Scripture hundreds of years before He came. We don’t have time to read the entire chapter, but Isaiah 53 predicted Jesus’ death in miraculous detail. It says (53:5-6), “But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. 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.”

David is equally explicit in Psalm 22, which begins with the haunting words that Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” It goes on to describe in detail a death by crucifixion, hundreds of years before that was a known means of execution.

Jesus Himself said that He came to this world to lay down His life for His sheep (John 10:11-18). If you do not know Jesus Christ, crucified for your sins, you do not know Him at all. You must come to God as a guilty sinner and trust in Jesus as the only perfect sacrifice. If you trust in His shed blood, God will forgive your sins because of what Jesus did on the cross.

B. We seek the risen Savior.

Just as the Scriptures predicted that Jesus would die, so they predicted His resurrection. In Isaiah 53, the prophet goes on to tell of how the One who was pierced through for our transgressions would also divide the booty with the strong. A dead Messiah who stayed in the grave could not do that! Only a risen Savior could.

In Psalm 22:22, after describing death by crucifixion and talking of God’s deliverance, Messiah proclaims, “I will tell of Your name to my brethren” Only a risen Savior could do that! Note Jesus’ words (John 20:17), “go to My brethren….” It is significant that this is the first time Jesus refers to the disciples as His brethren. Why did He do that? Clearly, He said this to fulfill Psalm 22! He is telling Mary to proclaim to His brethren that God has not left Him in the tomb. He is risen and He will ascend to His Father!

C. We seek the ascended Savior.

Jesus told Mary (20:17), “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.’” This verse raises questions that I can only touch on here: Why does Jesus ask Mary to stop clinging to Him, when He accepted the touch of the other women on resurrection morning (Matt. 28:9) and He invited Thomas to touch Him a week later (John 20:27)? Why does He mention His ascension?

Merrill Tenney explains (The Expositors Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 9:191), “He was not refusing to be touched but was making clear that she did not need to detain him, for he had not yet ascended to the Father. He planned to remain with the disciples for a little while; she need not fear that he would vanish immediately. Ultimately he would return to God, and he urged her to tell the disciples that he would do so.” Also, the fact that Mary was clinging to Jesus shows that He was not a phantom. He was raised bodily from the dead and He ascended bodily into heaven, and He will return bodily in power and glory.

Note also that Jesus both links and yet distinguishes His relationship with the Father and theirs. Christ by nature is eternally the Son of God, whereas we are only sons of God by adoption. He by the incarnation as the Son of Man could call the Father, “My God.” We can only do so by grace through faith in Christ as our Mediator. But, in our deepest sorrows, it is a great comfort that we have access to the Father through our risen Lord Jesus Christ!

These two questions, “Why are you weeping?” and “Whom are you seeking?” raise two further questions. First, What results from seeking the risen Savior? The answer to this question is stated in my second main heading, and so I include it here:

D. When we seek the risen Savior, He turns our sorrows into hope.

Mary’s gloom was turned to joy when the Lord spoke one word: “Mary!” Her eyes may not yet have recognized Jesus, but her ears knew that voice! Jesus said that He is the good Shepherd, who calls His sheep by name. He knows each one and they know Him (John 10:3-5, 14, 27). He still seeks individuals. He still calls His sheep by name. You can take your sorrows to Him and have a private audience with the good Shepherd who knows your name.

And, He calls us His brethren! As I said, this is the first time Jesus has called the disciples His brethren (fulfilling Ps. 22:22). But it is instructive to note that when He sent this word to them, they were still reeling from their failure and guilt. Although Peter had failed most prominently, all the disciples had abandoned Jesus and fled in fear. Although Thomas is the most well-known for his doubting, all the disciples ridiculed the early reports from the women about the resurrection (Luke 24:11).

Yet it was these men that had failed and sinned that Jesus calls brethren. When they heard that word from Mary, I can imagine them asking, “What did He call us?” When she affirmed it, their sorrow would have been turned to hope.

Perhaps in your sorrow, you have doubted the Lord or even denied Him. If you will seek Him as Mary did, you will hear Him call your name and your sorrow will turn to hope.

Finally, How shall we seek the risen Savior?

3. Seek the risen Savior honestly, diligently, personally, and obediently.

*Seek the risen Savior honestly. Don’t try to cover your tears or get yourself together first. Mary didn’t. Jesus knows your every struggle. Come to Him just as you are, tears and all.

*Seek the risen Savior diligently. Mary was the first at the tomb and she stayed after everyone else had gone home. The Savior rewarded her desire to find Him. Later, Thomas was not with the other disciples when Jesus appeared, so he had to wait a week. Probably, he was too depressed to be around others, but he missed the Savior. Maybe you’re depressed, but don’t let that keep you from showing up where you might find the Savior. Seek Him diligently and you will find Him.

*Seek the risen Savior personally. Note verse 13, “my Lord.” The closeness of Mary’s fellowship with Jesus comes through in the way she recognized Him the instant He spoke her name. The only way you will ever find hope in your sorrows is to seek Jesus personally. There is no group plan. Your mate’s seeking Him won’t do for you. You must seek Him yourself. You don’t have to be anyone special—maybe just a demon-possessed girl from an insignificant town—for Him to save you and turn your sorrow into hope.

*Seek the risen Savior obediently. He isn’t an Aladdin’s genie, to meet your every wish. He won’t necessarily solve all your problems the way that you think He should. He is the Lord. He commands and His servants must obey. When Jesus told Mary to stop clinging to Him and go to His brethren, I’m sure that she would rather have stayed right there with Jesus. We don’t know whether He vanished before she left, but if He didn’t, it would have been difficult to obey His command. Leave this encounter with the risen Savior to go to a bunch of depressed men who wouldn’t believer her anyway? But, Mary obeyed.

Often, when you seek the Lord, He will not grant your request directly. Instead, He will command you to do something you may not want to do at first. But as you obey Him, He will turn your sorrow into hope.

Conclusion

During World War II, a secret message got through to some American prisoners in a German concentration camp that the war was over. But it would be yet three days before that word got to their German captors. During those three days, nothing changed in terms of their hardships in the prison. But their attitude changed from despair to hope. They knew that they would be released because the Allies had won the war.

Whatever your sorrows or trials today, you can have hope because Jesus won the victory over death. He has risen and He asks you the same questions that He asked Mary: Why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking? If through your tears, you will seek the risen Savior, He will turn your sorrows into hope. But you must seek Him honestly, diligently, personally, and obediently.

Application Questions

  1. How can we know whether our grieving is proper or excessive? Where are the limits (biblically)?
  2. Some, in an attempt to comfort the grieving, say that God was not sovereign over the tragedy. Why does this false teaching rob us of comfort, rather than give us comfort?
  3. Why does everything in the Christian faith rest on the bodily resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:12-19)?
  4. When we have failed the Lord badly, how can we be assured of His forgiveness and restoration?

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: Discipleship, Easter, Resurrection, Soteriology (Salvation), Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Easter [2009]: From Death to Life (Luke 15:1-2, 11-32)

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April 12, 2009

Special Easter Message

You may wonder what the parable of the prodigal son has to do with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is the normal subject for an Easter message. I grant that you will not find Jesus Christ, His death, or His resurrection in the story. It is there implicitly, because the story of the prodigal son (which, as Tim Keller and others have pointed out, should really be called “the prodigal sons” or “the prodigal God”) is about the essence of true Christianity. And true Christianity rests on the substitutionary death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:1-19). We can only be reconciled to the Father through Him (John 14:6).

But in this short parable, Jesus does not go into many of the theological aspects of salvation. This does not mean that these truths are not essential. Rather, Jesus was making one main point and so He does not cover the gamut of theology here. That point is that God joyously welcomes repentant sinners into His presence.

What drew me to this well-known parable as our text for this Easter Sunday is the sentence that the father of the prodigal repeats twice. He first states it as his reason for throwing a party (15:24), “for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” Then he repeats it in his plea to the older brother to come in to the celebration (15:32), “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.” So it’s a story of great joy because a sinner has been changed from death to life. And as we know (even though it’s not explicitly in this story), such a change in any person is only possible because Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised again to life.

The chapter begins by noting that many tax collectors (notorious scoundrels) and sinners were listening to Jesus, but the scribes and Pharisees were grumbling (Luke 15:2), “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Jesus responds to their accusation by telling three stories. The first two are about a shepherd who finds his lost sheep and about a woman who finds a lost, valuable coin. In both stories, the lesson is the same, that there is great joy in heaven over one sinner who repents (15:7, 10).

Then Jesus tells the story of the lost son, which really is about two lost sons. When the first lost son returns home again, we again see the theme of great joy because this lost son has been found. But then Jesus concludes with the angry response of the older brother to the father’s joy. By doing so, Jesus skillfully confronts His critics, the Pharisees, by painting them into the picture and leaving them to consider the question: “Will you rejoice as God does when a dead sinner is brought to life, or will you remain alienated from the Father as you now are?”

The story in its cultural setting:

Before we draw some lessons, we need to understand the dynamics of the story in its cultural setting. (I’m relying here on many of the insights of Dr. Kenneth Bailey, who lived for many years in the Middle East and studied this parable from the perspective of Middle Eastern culture [on “Expositapes # 2,” from Denver Seminary, no date]. Also, I’m drawing from Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God [Dutton], who also acknowledges his debt to Dr. Bailey.)

The parable begins with what Jesus’ audience would have considered a shocking incident: a young man asks his father to give him his share of the family estate. In that culture, when the father died the oldest son would have received two-thirds of the family estate and other heirs would have gotten one-third (Deut. 21:17). Sometimes a father might voluntarily divide up his property to his sons before his death. But it was unthinkable for a son to ask his still-healthy father to give him his share of the inheritance! It was an act of great disrespect towards the father. In essence, the boy was saying, “I don’t care about you and I don’t want anything further to do with you. You might as well be dead as far as I’m concerned. I just want your money!”

Also, in that culture the inheritance would consist primarily of the family land, handed down from generation to generation. It normally would have been sold only under dire financial straits, and then to a kinsman. But to sell the family property, take the proceeds and move out of the Promised Land to a distant Gentile country was shocking. People in the village would have wondered, “What’s going on in that family for this boy to do such a terrible thing?” It would have shamed the father and it would have made the boy a social outcast should he ever return.

And so the father’s response would have shocked Jesus’ audience. Normally, a Middle Eastern father would have slapped such an impudent son in the face. Then he would have driven the son out of the family and disinherited him. But the father didn’t do that. He simply complied by dividing his wealth between his sons. Without anger, the father endures this terrible humiliation and the pain of a son who rejects his love and wants to get as far away from him as possible.

Next, the younger son takes the money from selling the land (to sell it quickly, he probably only got a pittance of what it was worth), moves to a distant country, and squanders everything with loose living. Jesus does not stipulate whether such loose living involved prostitutes. That is the angry accusation of the older brother (15:30) and it may have been true. But we don’t know for sure.

Then two things happen: due to his own stupidity, the boy runs out of money. And due to God’s providence, a severe famine hits the country where he is living. But he is not yet low enough to return to his father and admit his mistakes. Rather, he attaches himself to a citizen of that country and is assigned what would be the worst job in the world for a Jew, to feed the pigs. The young man became so hungry that he was tempted to eat the carob pods that he was feeding to the pigs. He now hits the bottom!

Hard times have a way of making a man think more clearly! So the young man comes to his senses. He thinks about his father’s hired men. They all have more than enough bread, but here he is, dying of hunger (15:17). So he comes up with a plan. He recognizes that he has sinned against God (“heaven” is a figure of speech for God) and against his father. So, he determines to go to his father, confess his sin, and ask his father to make him as one of his hired men. Perhaps he is thinking that this arrangement would allow him someday to pay back the money that he had squandered so that the family could recover the sold land.

So, he gets up and heads for home. The young man would have been humiliated to show his face in the village, but he goes anyway. The father sees the boy coming from a long ways off. This can only mean that many times each day the father scanned the road to see if his wayward son might be coming home. When he saw his son, the father felt deep compassion for him. This caused him to do something else that would have been shocking to Jesus’ audience: he ran to the boy! In that culture, patriarchs did not run. It was undignified. To run, you had to pull up your ground-length robe and expose your bare legs, which was disgraceful. Boys might run and young men might run, but older men did not run. But this father throws aside his dignity and runs to his son.

When he gets to him, the father ignores the son’s stench, falls on his neck and tenderly kisses him. This would have been completely unexpected and shocking. In that culture, a wayward son might have been grudgingly permitted to come back into the village, but he would have been humiliated and scorned. The father would have been unavailable or distant and aloof. When David allowed his murderous son Absalom to return, he refused see him for two years (2 Sam. 14:24, 28). Then, when the boy did see his father, he would be made to grovel. The father coldly would have set forth the demands that the boy would have to fulfill to earn his restoration to the family. There would not be any show of affection. But this father hugs and kisses his son.

The son begins his rehearsed statement of confession, but he leaves off the part about becoming one of his father’s hired men. I think that he was interrupted by his father’s commands to the servants to bring the robe, the ring, and the sandals.

The father tells the servants (15:22-23), “Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate.” The best robe would have been the father’s own robe, worn only on the most important occasions. The robe, the ring, and the sandals all showed that the boy was being welcomed back, not as a hired hand or as a disgraced son who now needed to earn his way back into the family. He is welcomed back with full acceptance. He stumbled home barefoot and smelling like the pigsty, but the father effusively welcomes him in an outburst of undeserved, unexpected, joyous love. Then he kills the fattened calf, hires a band, calls in the whole village, and throws a party! What a scene!

If Jesus had ended the story here, His pharisaic audience would have shrugged it off. This story went against not only many of their cultural standards, but also against their religious ideas. No self-respecting earthly father would have done what this father did. And surely, God is not like this, is He? God doesn’t welcome filthy sinners into His holy presence, does He? He accepts those that keep His commandments, but He has nothing to do with sinners! We have to earn God’s favor, don’t we?

But Jesus doesn’t end the story there. He concludes by telling us about the other lost son, the older brother. He comes in from the field and as he approaches the house, he hears music and dancing. Rather than going in to check it out for himself—he may have feared that this would happen—he calls one of the servant boys and asks him what’s going on. When he explains the situation, the older brother is incensed and refuses to go in. The culturally proper thing would have been for him to go in, scowl at his no-good brother, and by his dour countenance show everyone how much he disapproved of the party. Later, in private, he could have confronted his father.

But instead, he humiliates his father in front of all the guests by refusing to go in to the party. Again, the father does something unexpected: he goes out and tenderly pleads with his older son, showing the father’s love for this son as well. But the older son is just plain rude. Rather than respectfully addressing him as “father,” he says (15:29), “Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends.” This is a shocking outburst. He’s saying, “Look, you owe me big time! I’ve never done anything to wrong you and yet you haven’t even given me a goat, much less a fatted calf, so that I could have a party with my friends.” He’s accusing his father of being unfair. He’s insulting his father of being prodigal (extravagant) by spending his wealth on this no-good son of his (he won’t call him his brother!).

The father responds with gentleness to this rude assault on his honor. He says (15:31), “Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.” He has always had access to the father’s goods, but he has been so distant from the father that he has never utilized these abundant resources. The older brother’s self-righteousness and anger have prevented him from experiencing the father’s abundant bounty and from the joy of welcoming back his repentant brother. All he can do is sit outside and sulk and miss the party. The father ends with this appeal (15:32), “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours [not, “my son”!] was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.”

We could draw many lessons from this profound parable, but I want to zero in on just one. Maybe it will shock you!

True Christianity is essentially not a matter of moralism, but rather of being alive to the Father.

I can only hit some highlights:

1. Both sons were dead to their father, but only one came to realize it.

There are two ways to be dead or lost or alienated from the Father. One way is to be like the younger brother—to walk away from the Father’s love and move to a distant country.

A. The younger son was dead to the father through open rebellion and loose living.

He rejected the father’s values. He wanted freedom to explore other ways to live. He was tired of the narrow-minded religious mores. He felt restricted by the family’s religious heritage. In modern terms, he didn’t like going to church every Sunday and missing out on all the fun that he could have partying with the world. So by his open rebellion and loose living, he cut himself off from this incredibly kind, gracious, loving father. But,

B. The older son was dead to the father through self-righteous moralism and using the father for his own selfish purposes.

You’ll miss the point of the story if you do not see that there are two dead sons, in terms of their relationship to their father. This “good” son at home didn’t love the father any more than the prodigal son did while he was in the distant country. He was lost precisely because of his own “goodness.” He was proud of the fact that he always did his duty. His pride made him feel that the father owed him something. He had rights that he had earned and if the father didn’t give him those rights, then he had a right to be angry! And, he didn’t cherish the love of the father. He just wanted to use the father to get what he wanted, his own party with his own friends and his own inheritance. He didn’t care about his father.

But true Christianity is not a matter of using God to get what you want, but rather of loving God because of who He is. True Christianity is not a matter of being an unhappy, dutiful son, but rather of joyfully receiving and enjoying the undeserved love and extravagant bounty of the Father. True Christianity is not at its heart a matter of moralism, but of being alive toward God, in a close loving relationship with Him, experiencing the joy of His grace. But how do you become alive to the Father?

2. To become alive to the Father, you must come to see your own desperate need for His extravagant love and grace, turn from your sin, and return to the Father.

The younger son finally, in his degraded condition in the pigsty, came to see his need for his father. He realized that because his father was a kind and generous man, even the hired men had it better than he did. And so, recognizing his need and his father’s goodness, he left the distant country and his rebellious way of life and returned to the father. He left his so-called “friends.” He left his attempt to make it on his own in the distant country. He left his loose ways. He returned to the only one who could help him—his gracious father.

The younger son did not make up excuses for the terrible things that he had done. He didn’t blame the father for being too strict or blame his religious upbringing. He didn’t blame his legalistic older brother, even though the older brother may have been one reason he took off. Rather, he openly confessed that he had sinned against God and against his father. And, he returned to his father just as he was.

The older brother, however, was blind to his alienation from the father. He didn’t see his need for his father’s extravagant love. He didn’t need his grace because he felt that he had earned his place in life. He was a dutiful son! The father owed him a few things! His unawareness of his sin caused him not to see his need for the father’s grace. “Just give me what I deserve!”

Many who grow up in the church are like the younger brother. They reject their godly upbringing and wallow in our immoral culture, trying to find happiness in sin. But there are also many like the older brother. They keep the rules, but they don’t love the Father. They don’t enjoy His grace. They don’t know His joy.

How can you tell if you’re an older brother? Are you angry with God? Do you feel that He is unfair towards you? Are you proud of your dutiful obedience? Do you think that God has not treated you as well as you really deserve? Do you despise and want nothing to do with those who are down and out because of their sin? Do you want God to judge them? If you see yourself in any of these questions, you may be an older brother! Like the lukewarm church of Laodicea, you need to see your true condition, that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked (Rev. 3:17). Also, you need to see what happens when you see your need and return to the Father:

3. When you see your need and return to the Father, He welcomes you with joyous acceptance.

True joy is not found in the distant country, partying with your worldly friends. True joy is not found slaving in the fields for God, while you’re angry and bitter because you think that He doesn’t treat you rightly. True joy is found when you see how selfish and proud and sinful you have been and you return to the Father in true repentance and brokenness. He joyously welcomes every repentant sinner to His banquet table!

It cost the Father dearly to provide the way of reconciliation for alienated sinners. Just as the father of the two sons bore humiliation and shame to be reconciled with them, so the heavenly Father sent His Son to bear the shame our sins on the cross. Just as the father of the two sons freely gave of his wealth, so the heavenly Father gave the most costly gift, His own Son. As you grow in your awareness of how much it cost the Father to welcome you into the family, it will not make you want to move to the distant country and live apart from the Father. It will not make you want to stay outside the party and sulk about how mistreated you’ve been. You’ll want to obey the Father joyously because of His abundant kindness towards you. But the motive for your obedience is not duty. It is the delight of being alive toward God.

Conclusion

If you were to ask people on the street what it means to be a Christian, most of them would say that it means believing in Jesus, going to church, and trying to be a good person. They view heaven as a reward that you earn. But they just described the joyless older brother! They have no concept of Christianity as a joyous relationship with a kind, gracious, and accepting Father, who at great cost sent His own Son to pay the penalty for our sins. They have no experience of the joy of knowing the risen Savior. They don’t realize that true Christianity is not essentially a matter of moralism, but rather of being alive to God in Christ.

You are either dead towards the Father or alive towards him. You may be a dutiful, moral church member, but you’re angry at God and alienated from Him. You’re either in the party with the Father or outside without Him. There’s no in between. Jesus ends the story without giving the response of the elder brother. It’s an open invitation to all religious older brothers who are proud of their morality, but alienated from the Father. Respond now to the Father’s costly, extravagant love and come in to the party!

Application Questions

  1. Did the older brother have a right to be angry with the father? Wasn’t the father’s treatment of the younger brother unfair to the older brother?
  2. Does your past look more like that of the younger or older brother? What dangers does this alert you to?
  3. How can an older brother grow to appreciate God’s grace? How can a younger brother avoid abusing it?
  4. Is there a danger in over-emphasizing God’s lavish grace? Why does a proper understanding of grace lead to obedience?

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: Easter, Resurrection, Soteriology (Salvation), Spiritual Life

Easter [2010]: Why Be a Christian? (Acts 3:11-26)

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April 4, 2010

Easter Sunday Message

Why be a Christian? Why not be an agnostic or an atheist? Why not live to pursue all of the sexual pleasure that you can get? Why not live to get rich, so that you can enjoy the good life? Why not be a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Muslim? Or, why not join the Baha’i religion, which combines the best from all of the world’s religions? Why be a Christian?

I was reared in a Christian home, so I never really thought about any other options until I got to college. As a philosophy major I was hit with all of the different paths in life that you can take. I had to decide whether I would follow the faith of my parents or whether any of these other options were the way to go.

As I thought about it, I realized that the answer to the question, “Why be a Christian?” (as opposed to anything else) centers in the answer to the question that Jesus asked His disciples (Matt. 16:15), “Who do you say that I am?” If Jesus is who He claimed to be and if the apostolic witness to Jesus is credible, then He is the eternal God in human flesh. I must trust in Him and submit all of my life to His rightful lordship. Everything centers on who Jesus is and what He came to do. And those facts confronted me with who I was, namely, a sinner who stood guilty before the holy God.

Peter’s second sermon in Acts deals with these matters. God had just used Peter and John to heal a man who had been lame from birth. A crowd quickly gathered, amazed at what had happened. Peter delivered this sermon, summarized here, that God used to save 2,000 souls (Acts 2:41; 4:4). Since he was talking to “men of Israel” (3:12), Peter used language and concepts that Jewish people could understand. I’ll try to explain his thought so that you can see how his message relates to you. To sum it up:

You should be a Christian because Jesus Christ is the only exalted Savior and Lord who will rescue you from God’s judgment if you will repent of your sins.

You must understand who Jesus is as the only exalted Savior and Lord. You also need to understand why He came to this earth, namely, to rescue sinners from God’s judgment. And, you must understand what you must do to escape from God’s judgment, namely, repent of your sins.

1. Jesus Christ is the only exalted Savior and Lord.

Peter’s sermon is full of the Lord Jesus Christ. Any reflection on his message confronts us with the crucial question, Who is Jesus Christ? Is He a mere man who had some good moral teachings? If so, I’m free to adopt whatever of His teachings I find helpful and ignore the rest. But if He is the only Savior and Lord, prophesied of in the Old Testament, crucified in accordance with God’s plan, but risen from the dead as He predicted, then He is also the coming Judge of the whole earth. This risen Christ imposes some inescapable claims on every life. You can ignore Him at your own peril, or follow Him as Savior and Lord. But everything hinges on Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”

A. If Jesus is the only exalted Savior, then He alone should be exalted.

Peter begins his sermon (3:12) by deflecting the glory for the miracle away from John and him, as if they had either the power or piety to make a lame man walk. Rather, Peter says (vv. 13, 16), “It was God who glorified the name of His servant Jesus by healing this man.” And in the same way, only God can save anyone from sin and judgment through Jesus Christ. I can’t save anyone by my preaching or my powers of persuasion. You can’t save yourself by your own determination or good works. Only God can save you and He does it through His risen, exalted servant, Jesus Christ. That way, He gets all the glory.

B. Jesus Christ is the only exalted Savior and Lord, who died for sinners, was raised from the dead, and is coming again to judge the world.

First, we’ll consider who Jesus is and then what He came to do.

(1) Who is Jesus Christ? He is the only exalted Savior and Lord.

Peter uses numerous titles that apply to Jesus, but they are all summed up in the phrase, “the name of Jesus” (3:16): “And on the basis of faith in His name, it is the name of Jesus which has strengthened this man whom you see and know; ...” Peter is referring to what happened as recorded in verse 6, “In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—walk!” Jesus’ name stands for everything that He is. To the Jews, “the Name” was a way of referring to God. They would not even pronounce His name, “Yahweh.” Peter here exalts the name of Jesus.

Jesus comes from the Hebrew name, Joshua, which means, “Yahweh saves.” The angel told Joseph to name Mary’s son Jesus, because “He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Jesus also points to our Lord’s humanity, since he was given that name at His birth, having been miraculously conceived in Mary through the Holy Spirit (see Luke 1:30-37).

Peter also refers to Jesus as the Servant of “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (3:13). The word “servant” is used in the Greek version of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, where the prophet predicts that the coming Servant would be “pierced through for our transgressions” and that the Lord would cause “the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (53:5-6). As the Lord’s Servant, Jesus did not come to do His own will, but rather to submit fully to God’s will, especially to offer Himself for our sins.

Peter also calls Jesus “the Holy and Righteous One” (3:14). Jesus was without any sin. He fulfilled what the Jewish sacrifices typified. In 1 Peter 1:19, Peter refers to Jesus as the “lamb unblemished and spotless,” who shed His blood to redeem us from our sins. Because Jesus was sinless, He could offer Himself as the substitute for sinners, without needing to make atonement for His own sins. “Righteous One” focuses on the fact that Jesus always obeyed God (Isa. 53:9; John 8:29, 46).

Peter also refers to Jesus as “the Prince of life” (Acts 3:15). The word “prince” means leader, author, or originator (see Heb. 2:10; 12:2). As the Prince or Author of life, Jesus originates life, both physically and spiritually. Just prior to raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus told Martha (John 11:25-26), “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.” Then He pointedly asked Martha the question each of us must answer, “Do you believe this?”

Peter refers to Jesus as God’s Christ, appointed for you (Acts 3:18, 20). “Christ” and “Messiah” both mean “Anointed One.” Jesus was not a self-appointed Christ. God appointed Him as His Anointed One. As such, He fulfills the many Old Testament Messianic prophecies (e.g., Psalms 2, 16, 22, 110).

Peter also shows (3:22) that Jesus is the prophet whom Moses predicted in Deuteronomy 18:15 (see John 1:21, 25; 6:14; 7:40). Not only that, Jesus was the one of whom all the prophets, from Samuel onward, had spoken (Acts 3:24). While Samuel himself made no recorded prophecy about the Messiah, he anointed David as king and spoke of the establishment of his kingdom through his descendent, which was fulfilled in Jesus (1 Sam. 13:14; 15:28; 28:17; 2 Sam. 7:12-16).

Furthermore, Jesus is the seed of Abraham through whom all the nations of the earth shall be blessed (Acts 3:25). Peter concludes (3:26) by stating again that Jesus is God’s Servant, whom He raised up (in the sense of 3:22, “appointed”) and sent to bless them by turning them from their wicked ways. Thus Peter, speaking to his Jewish audience, has shown Jesus to fulfill God’s promises to Abraham, Moses, and David.

The point is, Jesus Christ is unique in all of history. He fulfilled over 300 Old Testament prophecies, written hundreds of years in advance. As I mentioned in a recent message, the statistical odds of anyone fulfilling just eight of these prophecies is astronomical. It would be like covering the state of Texas two-feet deep in silver dollars, marking one, and having a blindfolded man pick that one (Peter Stoner, Science Speaks [Moody Press], pp. 99-112). And that’s just eight prophecies. If you take all 300, the odds defy comprehension. If Jesus is the exalted, risen Lord and Savior who is coming again to judge the earth, then you cannot ignore Him!

(2) What did Jesus do? He died for sinners, was raised from the dead, and is coming again.

Jesus died on the cross. After showing who Jesus is—God’s Servant, the Holy and Righteous One, the Prince of Life, the Christ, the Prophet, and the seed of Abraham—Peter’s audience should have realized that while they killed Jesus, at the same time He laid down His life willingly. They were responsible for their sin of putting Jesus to death, and yet, at the same time, it had been announced beforehand by God’s prophets “that His Christ would suffer” and now God had fulfilled His word (3:18). As Isaiah 53 shows, God’s servant would bear the sins of His people. The apostles themselves did not understand this clearly until after the resurrection, when Jesus explained to them that the Christ had to suffer these things before He entered into His glory (Luke 24:26, 46).

The cross of Christ is the main thing that you must consider with reference to the question, “Why be a Christian?” The Bible clearly states, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Since we all have sinned, we all deserve God’s punishment. The death spoken of is not only physical death, but also what the Bible calls “the second death,” which it describes as eternity in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14). On the cross, Jesus bore that awful penalty for all who will repent of their sins and trust in Him.

The cross humbles our pride, because it robs us of the glory of being our own savior. It also humbles us by showing that we aren’t pretty good people who just need a little boost from God to get into heaven. If we were, then Christ died needlessly. We are sinners, alienated from God and unable to do anything to save ourselves. If Christ had not died for us, we would be eternally lost.

Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven. Neither death nor all the powers of hell could hold down “the Prince of life” (3:15)! Peter testifies that God raised Him from the dead, “a fact to which we are witnesses” (3:15). If Jesus’ body had still been in the tomb or if the Jewish leaders knew the whereabouts of Jesus’ body, Peter and the other apostles would have been laughed out of town for making such a claim. The fact that Peter could boldly declare this and 2,000 people that day believed it proves that the resurrection was a historic event, not an imaginary tale. Jesus was raised bodily from the dead. This is the central fact of Christianity, without which everything else falls to the ground (1 Cor. 15:12-19).

Jesus is coming again to fulfill God’s promises to Israel and to judge all who reject Him. If Peter’s audience wondered, “If He is raised, where is He?” Peter explains (3:19-21), “Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time.”

Jesus is now in heaven, but He will return and fulfill God’s promises to Israel. But, if the Jews wanted Messiah’s kingdom to come, they needed to accept Jesus as the Messiah. You can’t have the kingdom without accepting the King! And if they doubted that Jesus is the predicted Messiah, then read the prophets! As I said, Jesus fulfilled the many Old Testament prophecies about Messiah as no one else could do.

The “times of refreshing” have both an immediate and a long range fulfillment for those who repent of their sins and trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Immediately, He floods your life with all the blessings of salvation. Your sins are forgiven. You receive new life. You enter into a relationship with the living God. As His child, you are invited into His presence to receive grace to help in all your needs. And, long range, you have the promise of a glorious eternity with Christ in a new heavens and new earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13)!

But there is also a sober note of warning. When Jesus comes, “every soul that does not heed” [obey] Him “shall be utterly destroyed from among the people” (3:23). He will come again as the Savior of those who believe in Him, but as the fearful Judge of those who disobey Him. You’re either on one side or the other.

Thus Peter shows us who Jesus is: the exalted Savior and Lord; and what Jesus did: He died on the cross for sinners, was raised from the dead, and is coming again, either for salvation for those who obey Him or judgment for those who do not. But we need to explore this theme of sin and judgment a bit deeper:

2. Jesus came to rescue sinners from the penalty of their sin before they face God in judgment.

Peter is not diplomatic! He hits his audience squarely with the terrible sin that they had committed in crucifying Jesus. At the outset (3:13), he nails them for disowning Jesus when Pilate would have released Him. The word “disowned” means “to deny.” He repeats it in verse 14, where the word “you” is emphatic (3:14-15): “You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, but put to death the Prince of life, the one whom God raised from the dead.” What a horrible thing, to kill God’s sinless servant and instead ask that a murderer be freed! Peter is showing how they were opposed to God Himself. And he is showing how stupid it is to oppose God. You can kill His servant, but God has the power to raise Him from the dead. The point is, you can’t oppose God and win!

While the Jews in Jesus’ day literally killed their Messiah, we’re all guilty of the same crime. Charles Spurgeon pointed out, “Every sin in the essence of it is a killing of God” (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 14:198). Our sin put Jesus on the cross. If you do not repent of your sin and trust in Jesus as your Savior, that sin will condemn you at the final judgment.

Please understand: Jesus didn’t come and die on the cross to help you reach your full potential or to feel better about yourself or to have a happy family. He didn’t have to die to do any of that. He died to save you from the penalty of your sin by offering Himself as your substitute.

Ray Comfort illustrates this by picturing a guy on an airplane. The stewardess comes by and asks him if he would like to put on a parachute. She assures him that it will really make his flight more comfortable. He’s skeptical, but finally he puts on the parachute. But it doesn’t make his life more comfortable. He can’t lean back in his seat. It is heavy and the straps chafe his shoulders. It’s giving him a headache. The other passengers are laughing at him. Finally, in disgust he takes it off and throws it away.

But what would change this picture? The pilot comes on the intercom and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve lost power in all our engines. You’re all going to have to jump out of the plane at 10,000 feet. The stewardess is coming around with parachutes.” The parachute is not to make your flight more comfortable, but to enable you to make the jump without dying.

Christ did not die on the cross to make your life more comfortable. Following Him may make your life more difficult! But He died on the cross so that you can survive the jump. Trusting in His shed blood as the payment for your sin means that you are acquitted of your guilt before God’s holy throne of justice. Without Christ, you’ll have to make the jump without the parachute!

Perhaps you’re wondering what Peter means (v. 17) when he tells his audience that he knows that they and their rulers acted in ignorance. It’s a difficult verse, in that the Jewish leaders, at least, seemed to know full well what they were doing. Peter is not saying that their ignorance absolved them of guilt, because he goes on to exhort them to turn from their sins before they faced God’s judgment. Rather, he seems to be reflecting the Hebrew concept of unintentional sins of ignorance as opposed to sins of willful defiance (Num. 15:22-31; Lev. 4:2; 5:18; 22:14). For sins of ignorance, an offering was available to remove guilt (Heb. 9:7). But to turn defiantly away from the light that you received upped your guilt and left you without hope.

This means that unless you turn from your sins and trust in Jesus Christ today, you made a huge mistake by coming to church on Easter Sunday! You have exposed yourself to more of God’s light than you had before. This leaves you with more guilt on judgment day than if you had never heard these things! That’s bad news! But, I have some good news to leave with you:

3. Jesus will rescue you from God’s judgment if you will repent of your sins.

After Peter’s indictment of his audience, you would expect him to say, “God is going to judge you for crucifying Jesus,” and walk off and leave them. That’s what they deserved. But rather, he exhorts them (3:19), “Repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away.” If they would repent, God would send Jesus to bring times of refreshing and to restore all things (3:19-21), a reference to the millennial kingdom. There will be a major revival among the Jews just before the return of Christ (Zech. 12:10; 14:9; Matt. 23:39; Rom. 11:26). Peter tells them that God sent His Servant Jesus “to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways” (3:26). Sin never results in blessing. Turning from sin to Christ opens the door to true and lasting blessing.

If God is so gracious as to offer forgiveness and His kingdom blessings to those who crucified His Son, then surely He offers grace to every sinner who will repent. The apostle Paul was the chief of sinners, but he says that he found mercy, so that in him as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life (1 Tim. 1:15-16). God sent His Servant Jesus to bless you, by turning you from your wicked ways!

What is repentance? It is a change of mind that results in a change of one’s entire life. It means to turn to God from your sin. Spurgeon (ibid., p. 195) said, “Repentance is a discovery of the evil of sin, a mourning that we have committed it, a resolution to forsake it. It is, in fact, a change of mind of a very deep and practical character, which makes the man love what once he hated, and hate what once he loved.”

Have you repented of your sins? Have you fled to the risen Lord Jesus Christ as your only hope of being rescued from God’s judgment? Has He wiped away your sins and blessed you by turning you from your wicked ways?

Conclusion

So why be a Christian? It all comes back to who Jesus is and what He did when He came to this earth. If Jesus is the exalted Savior and Lord, who was crucified for our sins, raised from the dead by God’s power, and coming again to judge the earth, then you need to repent of your sins ASAP!

Discussion Questions

  1. Why does everything about Christianity rest on who Jesus is? How can we know that the apostolic witness to Jesus is true?
  2. Why must the gospel center on the conviction of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8), rather than on how Jesus can make you happy?
  3. Is it okay to appeal to felt needs (other than forgiveness) in presenting the gospel? Cite biblical examples.
  4. Is repentance a one-time action at the beginning of the Christian life, or an ongoing matter? How does it differ from faith?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

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

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

Easter [2011]: Hope for All Sinners (Mark 16:7)

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April 24, 2011

Special Easter Message

This message is a modified rerun from Easter, 1998, but it’s a rerun worth giving again, because in this verse God offers hope to all sinners. So if you haven’t sinned since 1998, this message is not for you. But if you have sinned or failed God in any way, you might want to listen. Our text is God’s message of hope for all sinners.

Mark’s record of the resurrection inserts two short words that offer hope to all who have failed God: “and Peter” (Mark 16:7). The angel at the empty tomb told the women, “But go, tell His disciples and Peter …” Why did the angel add, “and Peter”? I’m sure that the risen Lord told him specifically to include those words. Peter, who had miserably denied the Lord! Peter, who had boasted of his allegiance to Christ, but then denied Him three times!

“And Peter”—How those words rang in Peter’s ears! You can be sure that the angel said those words. Peter couldn’t have forgotten the scene. The women had reported to the disciples the news of the resurrection. There was Peter, slumped in the corner, in the gloom of depression. But at the words, “and Peter,” he perked up. “What did you say? Are you sure that the angel said, ‘and Peter’? Tell me again! Were those his exact words?”

Scholars affirm that Mark’s Gospel was written largely under Peter’s influence. Picture Mark, quill in hand, writing, “Go, tell His disciples.” There’s Peter looking over his shoulder, saying, “‘And Peter!’ Mark, my son, don’t forget to write, ‘and Peter!’” Remember, this is the same Mark who had failed Paul on the first missionary journey. Yes, you can be sure that the words are accurate. Those two short words say to us:

The risen Savior offers hope to all who have failed God.

From Peter’s life, I offer three insights on how the risen Savior can turn our failures into hope.

1. Failure cannot be hidden from the risen Savior’s gaze.

Since Adam’s first sin, the automatic human reflex to failure has been to try to hide from God. It’s irrational; it’s impossible; but we still try to do it. But, please observe:

A. Jesus knew about Peter’s failure before it happened.

Jesus had predicted Peter’s denial prior to the event (Mark 14:29-31). Peter had insistently denied that he would do such a thing. But that which surprised Peter was no surprise to the Lord. Jesus knew Peter better than Peter knew Peter. And He knew about all your failures and sins before He saved you.

B. Jesus noticed Peter’s failure when it happened.

Luke’s Gospel records the awful scene when Jesus was enduring the mock trial while Peter, in the courtyard outside, was denying Him. While Peter was still speaking, a cock crowed. Then Luke adds the chilling words, “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter” (Luke 22:61). What a look that must have been! It communicated more than words ever could do! Both love and reproof were bound up in that look. Peter went out and wept bitterly. I wonder if we would fall into sin if we knew that the Lord is always watching.

C. Jesus noticed Peter’s failure after it happened.

This is indicated in our text by the words, “and Peter.” The Lord didn’t act as if Peter’s failure had never happened. He didn’t just brush it under the rug, as we tend to do. He acknowledged Peter’s failure after the fact by those words, “and Peter.”

We can’t hide our failures from the risen Savior’s gaze. He knows more about us than we know about ourselves. He knows every rotten thought we have before we think it. He knows every awful thing we say before we say it. He knows how we will fail Him next week and next year. He knows our failures as we are committing them. He doesn’t overlook them and He doesn’t want us to overlook them. He wants us to confess our sins, not cover them.

Has the Lord ever reminded you that He is watching even as you are committing some sin? I read a story about the revivals in Ethiopia during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Food was scarce because of the war and the plundering by soldiers. One Ethiopian Christian had to leave his family to find work. He was coming home after a year with his entire year’s wages of $25 when some robbers took his money. Angry, he shelved his Christian testimony and went to the house of a powerful witch doctor named Alemu, to get him to put a curse on the robbers.

For years Alemu had confined himself to the darkness of his house, not bathing or cutting his hair. As soon as the Christian man entered his house, Alemu sensed that a spiritual power was present. Before the man could speak, Alemu demanded the name of his god. Embarrassed, the Christian started to explain that he had come to ask for a curse to be put on the men who had robbed him. But Alemu was not interested. He only wanted to know about the spiritual power that had entered his house.

So, very embarrassed, the Christian man recovered his senses and told Alemu about Jesus Christ. When he told him that Jesus had been raised from the dead, Alemu became greatly excited. It was the simple answer he had sought so long—there was someone greater than Satan. He became a believer and went on to start a church and to become its leader (Raymond J. Davis, The Winds of God [SIM], pp. 19-20).

Even if we think that we get away with our sin at the moment, the Lord will not let us forget it later. He has ways of bringing it to our attention until we deal with it. So the words “and Peter” tell us that failure cannot be hidden from the risen Savior’s gaze. We’re only fooling ourselves if we think that we can hide it. We need to turn from it and confess it to the Lord immediately. That is always the first step to recovery when we’ve failed.

You may be thinking, “The news that I cannot hide my failure from the risen Savior’s gaze doesn’t fill me with much hope.” But hang on! The words “and Peter” also show us:

2. Failure cannot separate us from the risen Savior’s love.

I can say that because…

A. Peter’s failure was as bad as any failure can be.

I don’t mean to dump on poor Peter. It just as easily could have been you or me. We all would have blown it just as badly if we had been in the same situation. So I’m not criticizing Peter as if he was worse than we are.

But it would be hard to conceive of a way of blowing it worse than Peter did. He had spent three years almost constantly in the presence of Jesus. He had heard Jesus teach. He had seen Him perform miracles. He was in the inner circle of the twelve. He had been in the room when Jairus’ daughter was raised from the dead. He had seen Jesus in His glory on the Mount of Transfiguration. And if Jesus ever needed the support of human friends, it was during the dark night of Gethsemane and the events that followed.

To make matters worse, Peter knew that the last words Jesus had heard him speak were words of denial during Christ’s moment of need. It is an awful thing to live with the memory that your last words in the presence of a loved one were not what you wanted them to be. Peter spent a dark Saturday with the memory that the final words Jesus heard him speak were words of awful denial.

By including Peter’s example in Scripture, the Lord shows that there is hope for us even at our worst moments of failure! Some of you may know Christ as Savior, but you have done something awful. You are ashamed to tell anyone. You feel as if you can never face the Lord or His people again. But those two words, “and Peter,” show us that there is no failure that can separate us from the risen Savior’s love. Even though Peter’s failure was as bad as any…

B. Christ’s love was greater than Peter’s failure.

God’s love is always greater than our failures. Note three things about our Lord’s love for Peter that apply to us:

(1) Christ’s love sent Him to the cross to secure forgiveness for our sins.

John 3:16 declares, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” We must understand that God’s great love alone is not enough to forgive our sin. To forgive sinners and at the same time maintain His justice, the penalty for our sin had to be paid. Peter’s forgiveness, as well as ours, is free to us, but very costly to God. While Peter was denying Christ, Christ was dying for Peter’s sins. “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

To experience God’s love and forgiveness, you must turn from your sin and put your trust in what Christ did for you on the cross. If you will believe in Jesus Christ as the One who bore your sins, God promises that you will not perish, but have eternal life.

(2) Christ’s love deals personally and privately with every sinner.

The Lord did not embarrass Peter by dealing with his sin in front of the other disciples. True, the other apostles knew about Peter’s sin and so eventually the Lord restored Peter in front of them (John 21:15-17). But first the Lord met privately with Peter to deal with his sin in a private and personal manner.

We learn this from two verses. In Luke 24:34, the disciples tell the two men from Emmaus, “The Lord has really risen, and has appeared to Simon.” The other verse is in Paul’s defense of the resurrection where he states that after the Lord was raised from the dead “He appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve” (1 Cor. 15:5). We know nothing more about this meeting. It must have taken place sometime early on that first Easter Sunday, perhaps just after Peter ran to the empty tomb. The actual words exchanged were too intimate to be included in the Bible. But in that private meeting, the Lord and Peter were reconciled.

That’s how you must deal with God. No one else can deal with God on your behalf. You must meet privately and personally with the Lord. You must confess your sin directly to Him and personally experience His forgiveness. If there is a need for public restoration because the sin was public, that may follow. But the primary thing is for you to meet alone with the Lord, because all sin is primarily against Him. His love is such that He deals personally and privately with each sinner.

(3) Christ’s love is based on grace, not human effort.

The Lord did not say, “Peter, you blew it badly! We’re going to work out a system of penance where you can work off your sin over time. If you really try hard and get it together, maybe I’ll take you back.” God’s grace doesn’t operate that way. Penance is not a biblical concept. Grace is!

God’s grace is unmerited favor. That means that you cannot do anything to deserve it. You cannot earn it by good deeds. You cannot get more of it by extra effort. You cannot qualify for it by making promises for the future. If you do anything to merit it, then it’s something God owes you, not grace.

The only proper response to grace is to receive it. This very moment, if you will honestly turn to God in your heart and say, “Lord, I have sinned against You. I don’t deserve Your mercy. I realize that Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty I deserve. I ask for Your forgiveness”—He will forgive all your sin. His cleansing will sweep over you like an ocean wave.

Our human pride grates against the idea of God’s grace. We like to think that we got on God’s good side because He saw something worthwhile in us. If God accepts us according to merit, then we can feel that we’re just a notch above others who aren’t “in the club.” But grace humbles us because the only way we can receive it is when we realize that we don’t deserve it.

But, because God’s love operates upon the basis of grace, it means that there is hope for every sinner. There is hope for you, no matter how great your sin. No failure, no matter how bad, can separate us from the risen Savior’s love if we will turn in repentance and faith to Him.

We’ve seen that our sin and failure cannot be hidden from the risen Savior’s gaze. Our sin and failure cannot separate us from the risen Savior’s love. Finally …

3. Failure does not exclude us from the risen Savior’s service.

A system based on human merit would have removed Peter from being an apostle, or at least would have demoted him to the lowest rung of the apostolic ladder. But God often takes those who have failed the worst and makes them trophies of grace for all to see. It was Peter who preached on the Day of Pentecost when 3,000 were saved and the church was founded. Two observations on how God uses our failures in His service:

A. God uses our failures to teach us.

A story is told about a promising junior executive at IBM who was involved in a risky venture and lost over $10 million for the company. When IBM’s founder, Tom Watson, Sr., called the nervous executive into his office, the young man blurted out, “I guess you want my resignation?” Watson replied, “You can’t be serious. We’ve just spent $10 million educating you!” (In Christianity Today [8/9/85], p. 67.)

The Scriptures are abundantly clear that Peter’s education through failure was not wasted. One reason he failed was his pride: “Even though all may fall away, yet I will not” (Mark 14:29). But years later he wrote, “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another” (1 Pet. 5:5). Failure teaches us humility!

In the garden Peter failed to watch and pray with Jesus. But later he wrote, “Be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer” (1 Pet. 4:7).

Peter hastily tried to defend the unjust arrest of Jesus by swinging his sword at Malchus. But later he wrote, “But if when you do what is right and suffer for it, you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God” (1 Pet. 2:20).

Peter got caught off guard and denied the Lord in front of a servant girl. But later he wrote, “Always [be] ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). Peter learned through his failure.

When I say that there is hope for those who have failed, I’m not implying that we should abuse God’s grace by not turning from our sin. Grace doesn’t mean that we discard the need for holiness or the God-given standards for Christian leadership (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9). But God often uses our failures to teach us so that we grow in obedience to Him. If, like Peter, we will learn from our failures, then the Lord will use us in serving Him.

B. God uses our failures to teach others through us.

When the Lord predicted Peter’s failure, He told him, “And you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). Later the Lord told Peter, “Shepherd My sheep” (John 21:16). The Lord uses repentant, restored sinners to restore and strengthen other sinners.

Have you ever thought about how Peter must have felt about preaching in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost? There were undoubtedly those in the audience who had heard Peter deny the Lord on the night of the betrayal. Peter could have said, “I can’t ever preach before these people. They know my past.” But restored sinners must go to those who are not right with God and tell of the abundant grace of the Lord Jesus. The fact that God has restored you can bring great hope to those who may have known of your past sins.

Conclusion

The good news is that the risen Savior offers eternal life and forgiveness of sins to you, no matter how badly you have failed God. But you must personally receive His offer of love by faith.

On New Year’s Day, 1929, Georgia Tech played the University of California in the Rose Bowl. In that now infamous game, Roy Riegels recovered a fumble for California. Somehow he became confused and ran 65 yards in the wrong direction. One of his teammates went after him and tackled him just before he scored for the opposing team. When California attempted to punt, Georgia Tech blocked the kick and scored a safety which was the ultimate margin of victory.

That strange play came in the first half, and everyone watching the game was asking the same question: What will Coach Price do with Roy Riegels in the second half?

The men filed off the field and went into the locker room. They sat down on the benches and on the floor. But Riegels put his blanket around his shoulders, sat down in a corner, put his face in his hands, and cried like a baby.

Usually a coach has a lot to say to his team during half time. But that day, Coach Price was quiet. No doubt he was trying to decide what to do with Riegels. Then the timekeeper came in and announced that there were three minutes before playing time. Coach Price looked at the team and said simply, “Men, the same team that played the first half will start the second.”

Everyone got up and started out, except Riegels. He didn’t budge. The coach looked back and called to him again. Still he didn’t move. Coach Price went over to where Riegels sat and said, “Roy, didn’t you hear me? The same team that played the first half will start the second.”

Riegels, his face wet with tears, looked up and said, “Coach, I can’t do it to save my life. I’ve ruined you, I’ve ruined the University of California, I’ve ruined myself. I couldn’t face that crowd in the stadium to save my life.”

Then Coach Price reached out and put his hand on Riegels’ shoulder and said, “Roy, get up and go on back; the game is only half over.” And Riegels went back, and those Tech men would later say that they had never seen a man play football as Roy Riegels played that second half.

Perhaps you have never failed in as colossal a way as Roy Riegels did. Thankfully our failures are not usually performed in a stadium before thousands of watching eyes. But each one of us at some time has badly failed God. The apostle Paul certainly had. He wrote, “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all” (1 Tim. 1:15).

Peter might argue with Paul about who was the biggest sinner. But neither would argue about how wonderful God’s amazing grace is toward all who have failed. The angel’s words, “Go, tell His disciples and Peter,” say to us, “The game is only half over.” The question is, will you accept the risen Savior’s pardon and go out and play the second half?

Application Questions

  1. Are some sins too terrible for God to forgive? Give biblical support. What is the unpardonable sin?
  2. Will grace—unmerited favor—lead to loose living? Why/why not? See Romans 6.
  3. Does grace mean that God removes the consequences of our sins (Gal. 6:7)? If not, how is it grace?
  4. Read Luke 17:9-17. How does a person appropriate God’s forgiveness? How can a person miss it?

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: Easter, Failure, Resurrection, Soteriology (Salvation)

Easter [2013]: Defeating Doubt (John 20:1-10, 19-20, 24-31)

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March 31, 2013

Easter Sunday

Every thinking person sometimes wrestles with doubt. That’s true not only for thinking Christians, but also for atheists and agnostics. They sometimes wonder, “What if I’m wrong and there really is a God?” And every thinking Christian sometimes wonders, “What if I’m wrong and Christianity is not true?” For some, the bouts with doubt are short and relatively minor. For others, the doubts are deep and disturbing. But wherever you’re at on the spectrum, if you’ve been a Christian for very long, you have gone through battles with doubt.

The sources of my struggles with doubt vary. Sometimes it stems from wrestling with certain difficult theological issues. At other times the problem of unanswered prayer has tripped me up. And I’ve had to face doubts related to the age-old problem of suffering: Why would a good and all-powerful God allow His people to die in the prime of life, while the wicked prosper? How can a loving God allow sweet little children to suffer?

While there are different biblical answers to all of these sources of doubt, there is one answer that undergirds them all. I usually come back to it when I’m struggling with doubt. The apostle Paul said that the entire Christian faith rests on one foundation, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Cor. 15:13-19). If that fact of history is true, then our faith has a solid footing in spite of matters of doubt which we cannot, perhaps ever in this life, fully resolve. On the other hand, if Jesus Christ is not risen from the dead, then the strongest faith in the world is useless, because it rests on a faulty object.

The evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us a solid footing in times of doubt.

If you want to study a subject, it’s best to go to an expert. The most famous expert on doubt is a fellow whose name is always linked with it: Doubting Thomas. His story is told in John 20:24-29. Not all doubters are sincere, but Thomas was what I would call a sincere doubter. Some use their doubts as a smoke screen to hide behind their sin, which is the real issue. If one area of doubt is cleared up, they will quickly duck behind another, because they don’t want to submit to the Lord. These people do not need more evidence to believe; they need to repent of their sin.

But some doubts are sincere. The sincere doubter is truly a believer in Christ. He doesn’t want to doubt, but he’s plagued by honest questions. He is in submission to God and wants to please Him, but he can’t just close his eyes and take a leap of faith. He needs evidence to clear up the doubts. Thomas was that kind of sincere doubter. I maintain that …

1. All thinking people go through times of sincere doubt.

There are many causes of doubt, but I’m going to limit myself to exploring some of the causes of Thomas’ doubts. I can relate personally to some, but not all, of them. Perhaps you will relate to them also.

Some Reasons For Thomas’ Doubts:

A. Personal failure coupled with Thomas’ personality triggered his doubts.

All of the disciples had failed Jesus on the night of His arrest and trial. Most notorious was Peter, who denied the Lord three times. All of the eleven had promised Jesus their loyalty, but they all deserted Him when He was arrested.

Thomas, along with Peter, had been outspoken in his loyalty to Jesus before the crucifixion. In John 11:16, when Jesus wanted to go to Bethany, near Jerusalem, to raise Lazarus from the dead, the disciples objected that it was too dangerous. But Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” He may have been a pessimist, but at least he was loyal to the point of challenging the others to be committed to the point of death. But then he had joined the others in running away when Jesus was arrested. That failure led Thomas into depression and doubt.

It wasn’t just Thomas’ failure, but failure coupled with his personality, that led him into deep doubts. Peter had failed in a big way, too. But Peter was a buoyant, optimistic sort who felt badly about his mistakes, but who could shrug it off and bounce back more quickly. But Thomas was a conscientious, loyal, but gloomy type who did not commit himself to something lightly. To commit himself to Jesus and then go back on his word affected Thomas much more deeply than Peter’s failure affected him.

We’re all wired differently and so it’s important to know yourself so that you can be on guard against your areas of weakness. Usually, by the way, our areas of greatest strength are also our areas of greatest weakness. A man like Thomas, who is loyal and conscientious, who takes commitments seriously, is also more prone to depression and doubt when he fails.

B. A lack of understanding led to his doubts.

Thomas lacked understanding with regard to the Lord’s departure. On the night before the crucifixion, Jesus told the disciples that He was going to prepare a place for them and that He would come again to take them to be with Him. He told them that they knew the way where He was going. But Thomas didn’t understand, so he blurted out (John 14:5), “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?”

I’m glad he asked because Jesus’ reply was (14:6), “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.” But if you put yourself back into that situation, with all of the confused emotions of that night, and with the disciples’ still limited insight into Jesus’ death and resurrection, you can see how Thomas would still be confused about what Jesus had meant. He lacked understanding, which led to doubt.

Some of my battles with doubt have been due to a lack of understanding on doctrinal matters. I’m not going to share specifics, because if it’s not a problem for you, I don’t want to lead you into doubt by bringing it up! But, frankly, there are many hard teachings in Scripture, some of which we won’t resolve until we’re with the Lord. We have to trust God, even when we don’t understand.

In John 6:60, many of those who had followed Jesus turned away when He taught some hard things. Jesus even asked the twelve if they would turn away also. Peter gave the great answer (John 6:68-69), “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.” I’ve come back to that answer many times when I’ve struggled with doubt due to a lack of understanding. Jesus is the truth. Where else can I go?

C. Deep disappointment and shock over suffering contributed to his doubts.

A third factor that caused Thomas such deep doubts was the disappointment and shock he felt as he watched Jesus die. Even though Jesus repeatedly had told the disciples in advance that He would be crucified, it didn’t sink in. The disciples had expected the Messiah to be a conquering King. A crucified Messiah wasn’t their expectation. When Thomas saw the badly mangled body of Jesus on the cross, it sent him into shock. His emphasis on the wounds of Jesus (John 20:25) shows how deeply it affected him. The bloody holes in Jesus’ hands and feet, the gory spear wound in His side, and Jesus’ disfigurement from the scourging and the crown of thorns, haunted Thomas after the crucifixion and fed his doubts.

In the same way, whenever we face deep disappointment and shock because of some tragedy or something that doesn’t go as we had expected, we’re vulnerable to doubts. Years ago, a pastor friend who was my age was struck down with cancer. As I stood by his bedside the night he died, along with his grieving wife and two sons, I couldn’t help wondering, “Why, Lord? This is one of Your servants. He still has many good years left. His family is young. Why should he die so young, when so many wicked people live long, healthy lives?” Perhaps you’ve lost a loved one or faced a personal tragedy. It’s a short step from there to being right where Thomas was, to doubting the Lord: “If God really exists and is a God of love, then why is this happening?”

D. Isolation from fellow believers fueled his doubts.

A fourth reason for Thomas’ doubts was his isolation from other believers. We don’t know for certain why Thomas was absent from the other disciples that first Sunday when Jesus appeared to them. But a likely reason was his morose disposition. The last thing he wanted at a time like that was to be around other people. So he wandered off by himself to brood over the horrible events of the previous few days.

Then to add to his misery, when he finally did see the others, they told him that they had seen the risen Lord! How would you feel if you missed church because you were depressed and doubting and we all told you, “Hey, you really missed a blessing! Jesus appeared to us last Sunday!” Great! That really encourages you, doesn’t it! But even though we’re often bugged by other believers, the fact is, we need them. Whenever we separate ourselves from the fellowship, we make ourselves vulnerable to doubt.

I’ve not covered all the causes we have for doubting God or the Bible. Perhaps you have other things that have shaken your faith. But whatever the source of your doubts, the solution is the same: to come back to the foundational fact of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. If that is true, then even though you may not understand everything, you still, with Thomas, must bow and acknowledge Jesus to be your Lord and God.

2. The evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus is solid.

I can’t give all the evidence for the resurrection in one message. Many books have been written on the subject (see Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict [Campus Crusade for Christ], Vol. 1). But there are five reasons in John 20 that verify Christ’s resurrection to be true history:

A. The empty tomb verifies Jesus’ resurrection.

One incontrovertible fact, with which both the disciples and the Jews agreed, is that the tomb was empty. If not, when the disciples began proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus a few weeks later (which was the central point of their preaching), the Jewish leaders could have simply marched to the tomb, produced the dead body of Jesus, and the disciples would have been laughed out of town. But clearly they couldn’t do that because the tomb was empty.

There are several ways to account for the empty tomb. Jesus’ enemies could have stolen the body. But they had no motive for taking His body. It was to their advantage to leave it right where it was, which is why they had Pilate put the Roman guard and seal on the tomb. If they knew where the body was, they could have produced it and silenced the disciples’ preaching.

Another possibility is that the Roman guards stole the body. But again, they had no motive to do so. They weren’t concerned about this Jewish religious trial. The Jewish leaders, who were scrambling for ways to explain away the resurrection, didn’t accuse the soldiers of taking the body or of allowing it to be stolen.

A third possibility is that the disciples stole the body. This was the theory the Jewish leaders tried to promote by bribing the Roman soldiers (Matt. 28:11-15). But there are many reasons the disciples could not have moved Jesus’ body. The tomb was as secure as the Roman guard could make it. The soldiers wouldn’t have fallen asleep on their watch, because the penalty was death. The stone at the tomb was large and heavy. Even if the soldiers had been sleeping, the noise of a group of men moving the stone would have awakened them. Besides, the disciples were too depressed and confused to try anything like grave robbery in front of a Roman guard. Even if, through bribery, they had managed to remove Jesus’ body, later they would not have risked their lives to preach the resurrection if they knew it to be false.

Nor would they have suffered beatings and threats if it had been confirmed that someone else had taken Jesus’ body, which was the first thought of the women who visited the tomb early that morning (John 20:2, 15). All we know of the character of the witnesses as well as the fact that they did not yet understand the Scripture that Jesus must rise again from the dead (John 20:9) militates against them knowingly promoting a hoax. The empty tomb is solid evidence that God raised Jesus bodily from the dead.

B. The grave clothes verify Jesus’ resurrection.

Mary Magdalene didn’t look carefully when she first came to the tomb. She saw the stone removed and assumed that Jesus was gone. So she ran to tell Peter and John, who ran to the tomb. John got there first and stood at the entrance looking in. Peter, in his usual blustery manner, went right in and saw (20:6, Greek = “to gaze upon”) the grave clothes. Then John entered, saw (Greek = “to see with understanding”) and believed (20:8).

The presence of the grave clothes proves that the body was not stolen. In their haste, grave robbers would have taken the body, grave clothes and all. If for some reason they had wanted to strip the body, they would have left the clothes strewn all over the tomb. But Peter and John saw them left in an orderly fashion, as if Jesus had passed right through them. Remember, these weren’t men who wished so much for a resurrection that they perhaps saw what they wanted to see. These were men who did not understand or believe at first (20:9). The evidence convinced them, and their testimony of the evidence should convince us.

C. The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus verify His resurrection.

John lists four post-resurrection appearances of Jesus: To Mary Magdalene (20:11-18); to the disciples except Thomas (20:19-23); to the disciples, including Thomas (20:24-31); and, to seven of the disciples, by the Sea of Galilee (21:1-25). Paul mentions several other appearances, including one to over 500 at one time (1 Cor. 15:6-8). J. N. D. Anderson, who was Professor of Oriental Laws and Director of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies at the University of London, wrote (Christianity Today [3/29/68], pp. 5, 6),

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.

The varied circumstances of the appearances and the different personalities of the witnesses militate against hallucinations or visions. Whether Thomas actually put his hand in Jesus’ wounds is not stated, but Jesus made the offer and Thomas was convinced (John 20:27). The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are a strong evidence of His bodily resurrection.

D. The changed lives of the witnesses verify Jesus’ resurrection.

As I already said, John calls attention to the fact that none of the witnesses was expecting a resurrection. Mary Magdalene thought that someone had taken Jesus’ body (20:2, 15). The disciples were fearful and confused. Thomas was depressed and doubting. But all were transformed into the bold witnesses of the Book of Acts because they became convinced that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. They were so convinced that the resurrection was true that many of them went on to martyrs’ deaths.

E. The unique person of Jesus Christ verifies His resurrection.

Study the Gospel accounts of who Jesus was, of what He taught, of the miracles He performed, of the prophecies He fulfilled. On more than one occasion He predicted His own death and resurrection (John 2:19-22; Luke 9:22). His encounter with doubting Thomas shows that His purpose was to bring Thomas into a place of full faith in His deity (20:27). When Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God,” Jesus did not rebuke or correct him for overstating things. Rather, Jesus commended Thomas’ correct perception and faith (20:28-29).

A merely good teacher, especially a devout Jewish rabbi, would never accept such worship from a follower. Everything in the Gospel accounts about Jesus’ person and teaching militates against His being a charlatan or lunatic. The only sensible option is that He is who He claimed to be, the Lord God in human flesh, the Christ of Israel, the eternal Son of God. He offered Himself for our sins and God raised Him bodily from the dead. He wants those of us who have not seen Him to believe in Him (20:29).

Conclusion

In Loving God ([Zondervan], pp. 61-70) Charles Colson has an interesting chapter titled, “Watergate and the Resurrection.” He makes the point that with the most powerful office in the world at stake, with all of the privileges of power, with the threat of imprisonment, ten men in the White House could not hold together a conspiracy for more than two weeks. He then applies his experience in the Watergate cover-up to modern criticism of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection—that the disciples were mistaken, that it was only a myth or that Jesus’ followers conceived a plot to cover up His death. He concludes (p. 69):

Is it really likely, then, that a deliberate cover-up, a plot to perpetuate a lie about the Resurrection, could have survived the violent persecution of the apostles, the scrutiny of early church councils, the horrendous purge of the first-century believers who were cast by the thousands to the lions for refusing to renounce the Lordship of Christ? Is it not probable that at least one of the apostles would have renounced Christ before being beheaded or stoned? Is it not likely that some “smoking gun” document might have been produced exposing the “Passover plot”? Surely one of the conspirators would have made a deal with the authorities (government and Sanhedrin probably would have welcomed such a soul with open arms and pocketbooks!)....

Take it from one who was inside the Watergate web looking out, who saw firsthand how vulnerable a cover-up is: Nothing less than a witness as awesome as the resurrected Christ could have caused those men to maintain to their dying whispers that Jesus is alive and Lord.

Does the evidence about Jesus’ resurrection clear up all our doubts about God and the Bible? No, nothing this side of heaven will do that. But it does provide a solid basis for intelligent faith in those times when we struggle with doubt. To whom else will you go? Jesus alone is the risen Savior. His desire for each of us who have not seen Him is that, like Thomas, we would “not be unbelieving, but believing” (20:27). He wants each of us to recognize that He, our Lord and God, died in our place, taking the penalty we deserved for our sin. He wants us to join Thomas in believing worship, proclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”

If you wait to trust in Christ until all of your doubts are cleared up, you’re not an honest doubter. Rather, you’re using your doubts as an excuse so that you can hold onto your sin. If you don’t repent, you’ll go to your death alienated from the Savior. There is more than adequate evidence to support a reasonable faith that Jesus Christ is the risen Savior. The question is, Will you lay aside your doubts, which serve only as excuses, and trust in Jesus as your Savior and Lord?

Application Questions

  1. How can a person know whether his doubts are sincere or whether they are just an excuse? Are sincere doubts sin?
  2. Is biblical faith a “blind leap”? If not, how does it differ?
  3. Is it possible to live without faith in something? Are materialistic humanists purely rational? How can we witness to them?
  4. Why is it crucial to base our faith in the fact of Christ’s resurrection rather than on our personal religious experience?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.

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

Related Topics: Assurance, Discipleship, Easter, Resurrection, Soteriology (Salvation)

What the Bible Says About Abortion

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January 25, 2004

Special Message

Thirty-one years ago this past Thursday, on January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in the infamous Roe v. Wade decision. As Christians, we need to remember that what is legal is not necessarily moral in God’s sight. Morality is not determined by popular or judicial opinion, but by what the Bible says. So I want us to look at what the Bible says about abortion. I could (and have, in a public school classroom) argue against abortion without reference to the Bible. It is a human atrocity. But since most of you accept the Bible as God’s inspired Word, I want to explain what it says on this important subject.

Some who call themselves “evangelicals” argue that since the New Testament does not directly address the matter, we should not be dogmatic about it. They say that it is a “difficult moral issue,” where we need to allow room to differ and not impose our personal views on others. Many evangelical pastors refrain from speaking on the subject because it is controversial and potentially divisive. And many pastors dodge it because they have drifted from the Bible as the source of absolute moral truth.

Christian pollster George Barna recently reported that only half of the country’s Protestant pastors have a biblical worldview, which he defined as believing that absolute moral truth exists, that it is based upon the Bible, and having a biblical view on six core beliefs (the accuracy of biblical teaching, the sinless nature of Jesus, the literal existence of Satan, the omnipotence and omniscience of God, salvation by grace alone, and the personal responsibility to evangelize). Southern Baptist pastors ranked highest, with 71 percent holding to a biblical worldview. Among other Baptist pastors, it fell to only 57 percent. Other denominations ranked much lower.

I believe that the Bible gives us God’s absolute moral standards that apply to every culture and every age. Furthermore, the Bible warns that God will judge every person based on His righteous standards (Acts 17:31; Rev. 20:11-15). We cannot plead ignorance as an excuse for disobedience or apathy (Prov. 24:11-12). God holds us accountable to the standards of His Word, whether we know those standards or not. We dare not be uninformed!

Also, our consciences need to be informed by Scripture, not by popular opinion or slogans. I have found professing Christians who have been influenced by the popular pro-abortion rhetoric. For example, the slogan, “Pro-family, Pro-child, Pro-choice” makes perfect sense to some, or it wouldn’t be plastered on bumper stickers. But stop and think, “What is the choice that they are advocating?” The answer is, the choice to kill your baby! So that bumper sticker is about as logical as saying, “I’m pro-women, pro-rape”! It is utter nonsense!

Another bumper sticker reads, “Against abortion? Don’t have one.” That assumes that abortion is a personal preference, not a moral issue. Imagine a bumper sticker, “Against rape? Don’t commit one”! That’s fine if rape is just a preference, but if it is a heinous crime, that’s ludicrous! Another slogan says, “Keep your laws off my body!” In other words, “We can’t legislate morality.” But we do have laws against rape, incest, child abuse, theft, and murder. Those are moral issues, all of which stem directly from the Bible! One of the main purposes for law is to protect the innocent and the weak. Laws about abortion relate directly to these matters.

Before we look at what the Bible says about abortion, let me briefly comment on what abortion is and on what the Supreme Court decision was all about. Abortion is the extraction or expulsion of the immature human fetus from the mother’s womb with the intent to end the life of that fetus prior to natural birth. Fetus is a perfectly good medical term, as long as you remember that it refers to a developing human baby. But you will never hear abortion advocates speak of it as a baby or child. Sometimes they even call it the “product of conception,” or a piece of tissue! Have you noticed how often the news refers to anti-abortion activists (not pro-life activists), and refers to those advocating baby-killing as pro-choice or defenders of abortion rights? How did we ever come to think that we have an inherent right to kill our children?

Of course many abortion advocates argue that it is not a human baby that they are killing, but science is against them. Before conception, there is not a new human life. But at the moment of conception, there is a new life, possessing 46 chromosomes, distinct from both the mother and the father. Genetically, the baby is not the mother’s body! By 21 days, the first heartbeats have begun. At 45 days, brain waves can be detected. By the ninth and tenth weeks, the thyroid and adrenal glands are functioning. By 12 or 13 weeks, he has fingernails, sucks his thumb, recoils from pain, and has his own unique fingerprints. The only things that developing life needs to become what we are, are time and nurture.

What was Roe v. Wade all about? By a vote of 7-2, the U.S. Supreme Court held that until a child in the womb is viable (capable of sustaining life outside the womb) or “capable of meaningful life” (the court reckoned this to be six or usually seven months), the mother’s desire for an abortion should take precedence over the baby’s right to life. For the last two or three months, the court said that the state may protect the unborn, but that it must allow an abortion if the life or health of the mother is threatened. The court defined her “life or health” to mean her physical, emotional, or psychological health, her age, her marital status, or the infant’s prospects of a distressful life and/or future. In other words, a woman can kill her child in the womb legally for any reason right up to the moment of birth!

According to former Surgeon General,  Dr. C. Everett Koop, the most common reason for abortion is convenience. Only three to five percent of all abortions performed are for reasons of rape, incest, the possibility of a deformed child, or severe threat to the life of the mother. In the U.S., one out of every six women who have an abortion describes herself as an evangelical Christian (Newsweek [5/1/89], p. 31). In other countries, such as China and India, where male babies are favored over female babies, the abortion and infanticide of girls has led to a severe shortage of brides for young men.

Now let’s consider what the Bible says about abortion:

Since God is the creator and sustainer of human life, we should value and protect the lives of all innocent humans.

By saying “innocent humans,” I am allowing for the authority of the state to exercise capital punishment and to wage war for national defense. Being pro-life does not require us to be against capital punishment or to be pacifists. For sake of time, I cannot deal with those topics in this message. I want to present five lines of biblical evidence for valuing and protecting unborn children.

1. Human life is unique in that God created us in His image.

In Genesis 1:26, God distinguished humans from the rest of the animal creation. Only of man did God say, “Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.” He appointed man to rule over the other creatures on earth. By the way, apparently before the Flood, man was vegetarian, but after the Flood, God ordained the eating of meat (Gen. 9:3-4). The animal rights movement erroneously puts animal life on the same plane as human life. That concept stems from Hinduism, not from the Bible.

The Bible clearly affirms that human life is not the product of impersonal chance plus time. Man did not evolve from lower forms of life. God directly created man in His image, which means that we have the capability of rational thought, personality, and moral responsibility. Someone may argue that this is simply a matter of faith. I would say that it is a matter of reasonable faith. The view that something as complex as human life is the product of pure chance is a matter of unreasonable faith, because there is simply no evidence or other example of such complexity arising from random chance.

Also, even the most ardent evolutionist behaviorally affirms that human life is distinct from animal life. Imagine Mr. Evolutionist driving along when he encounters a squirrel in the road, still writhing from being hit by a car. He slams on his brakes, jumps out of his car, and frantically dials 911 on his cell phone. “I’d like to report an injured squirrel! If the paramedics get here quickly, they may be able to save him!” But, alas, they are too late! The man sits by the squirrel corpse, sobbing, until the mortuary arrives. He will never forget this tragic scene.

Ludicrous? Yes, but change the squirrel to a human baby and that scene would be truly horrific. Why? Because we all recognize that people are distinct from animals. The reason, according to the Bible, is that people are created in God’s image; animals are not.

2. The Bible forbids us from shedding innocent blood.

The Bible clearly commands, “You shall not murder” (Exod. 20:13). As already mentioned, the Bible does not forbid all killing, such as in capital punishment by the government, national defense, or personal defense. But murder is forbidden. The Bible uses the phrase “innocent blood” about 20 times, and always condemns shedding innocent blood. God chastised the Jews for shedding innocent blood when they sacrificed their children to the idols of Canaan (Ps. 106:38). As John Piper argues, “Surely the blood of the unborn is as innocent as any blood that flows in the world” (Brothers, We are Not Professionals [Broadman & Holman], p;. 222).

3. Pre-natal human life is fully human and thus precious to God.

Consider a few of the many biblical passages:

A. God superintends life in the womb (Ps. 139:13-16).

David is affirming in poetic language that God superintended his formation in the womb (also, Job 10:8-12). The Bible repeatedly affirms that God’s providence governs everything from the weather (Ps. 148:8; Job 37:6-13), to animals’ food and behavior (Ps. 104:27-29; Job 38:39-41; Jonah 1:17; 2:10), to seemingly random events, such as the rolling of dice (Prov. 16:33). Surely if God governs these relatively minor things, then He also governs the formation of people in the womb. The Lord tells Moses, “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes him mute or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exod. 4:11). So even birth defects, which science attributes to freak occurrences in nature, are under God’s direct superintendence for His sovereign purposes!

There are so-called bio-ethicists that are consistent in applying their evolutionary bias to human life, but their conclusions are horrifying! For example, James Watson, one of the discoverers of the double helix structure of DNA, suggested in 1973, “If a child were not declared alive until three days after birth, then all parents could be allowed the choice only a few are given under the present system. The doctor could allow the child to die if the parents so choose and save a lot of misery and suffering. I believe this view is the only rational, compassionate attitude to have” (cited by Francis Schaeffer & C. Everett Koop, Whatever Happened to the Human Race [Revell], p. 73).

In 1978, Watson’s partner, Francis Crick, said, “… no newborn infant should be declared human until it has passed certain tests regarding its genetic endowment and that if it fails these tests it forfeits its right to live” (ibid.). Peter Singer, who incongruously is professor of bio-ethics at Princeton, argues that if a child is born with hemophilia, to allow the parents to kill him so that they could replace him with a normally healthy child may be morally right (cited by Piper, ibid., p. 217, note 3)!

B. The Bible ordains the penalty of life for life when the life of an unborn child is taken (Exod. 21:22-25).

The earlier edition of the NASB had an unfortunate translation that slanted the reader toward one of two possible interpretations, but not to the best one. The updated edition has corrected the problem. The earlier edition read, “And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him….” The translators added the word “further” and they interpreted the Hebrew, “her children come out,” as, “she has a miscarriage.” The implication would be that to kill the fetus is only punishable by a fine, nothing more.

The updated edition reads, “… so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury….” As the following verses (23-25) make clear, if there is an injury, then the offender must be penalized, life for life, eye for eye, etc. These are the same penalties as in offenses against adults (Lev. 24:20). The Hebrew verb translated “to depart” or “come out” (Exod. 21:22) refers to a live birth in 11 separate Old Testament passages. It never refers to a miscarriage, although in one text (Num. 12:12), it refers to a stillborn. There is another Hebrew verb that is used for miscarriage. So the most likely meaning of Exodus 21:22-25, based upon verb usage, as well as the Old Testament high regard for pre-natal life, is that the baby in the womb has as much value as an already-born person.

C. The Bible affirms the distinctiveness of individuals in the womb, thus showing that they are fully human.

We won’t take the time to look up each reference, but consider the following examples:

*Jacob and Esau were distinct individuals in the womb (Gen. 25:23; Rom. 9:11-12).

*Samson’s mother was not to drink wine, because her son was to be a Nazirite, who would abstain from alcohol (Judges 13:3-5).

*Jeremiah and Paul both acknowledged that God formed them in the womb and knew them by name (Jer. 1:5; Gal. 1:15). Isaiah 49:1, 5 affirms the same thing about Messiah.

*John the Baptist recognized Jesus while both were still in the womb (Luke 1:35-36, 39-44)! This is an amazing text! Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy when Mary conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit. Mary went to visit Elizabeth before John was born. Thus Elizabeth would have been in her last trimester, while Mary was in her first trimester. Yet John recognized Jesus in those early months of Mary’s pregnancy! I think that this is the strongest passage that a baby in the womb in the first trimester is a person created in God’s image. We are not free to take the life of such a child just because it is not convenient to have a baby!

We have seen that human life is unique in that God created us in His image. The Bible forbids us from shedding innocent blood. Pre-natal human life is fully human and thus precious to God.

4. To view babies as inconvenient to the point of killing them is to violate Jesus’ view of children.

As I mentioned, about 95 percent of all abortions are done for convenience. A girl gets pregnant through out-of-wedlock sex. Neither she nor her boyfriend are ready for the responsibility of being parents. It would be an economic hardship, or it may require interrupting her education. An abortion is a convenient way to dispose of the whole problem.

In Luke 18:15-17, people were bringing their babies to Jesus so that He could touch them. The disciples rebuked the parents. Jesus had better things to do than to bless babies! It was a great inconvenience! But Jesus rebuked the disciples and welcomed the children. The Greek word for infant in Luke 18:15 is the same word Luke uses for the infant in Elizabeth’s womb (1:41, 44). God shows His great love for us by calling us His children (1 John 3:1). Surely, we should have the same attitude as Jesus towards our children from the time of conception onwards!

But what about an “unwanted” child, whose birth would be an extreme hardship? What about a baby conceived by rape or incest? What about a deformed baby, who will suffer all his life and never be normal? Wouldn’t it be the lesser evil to abort these babies and spare them and the parents a life of hardship and pain?

5. To kill babies in the womb in an attempt to avoid suffering is to try to dodge God’s purposes for suffering.

The Bible is clear that in this fallen world, God ordains suffering for His wise and good purposes (Rom. 8:28). Sometimes we suffer as the consequences for our own sin (Heb. 12:3-11), which can include the hardships associated with having a baby out of wedlock. (Sometimes it may be wise for an unwed mother to give up her baby for adoption, but even that is a painful consequence of sin.) Sometimes we suffer on account of other people’s sins (Gen. 50:20). This would include the hardship of having a baby conceived through rape or incest. Sometimes we don’t know the reason that God permits suffering, except that He wants to display His grace and power through our weakness (2 Cor. 12:7-10).

To abort because having a child would cause emotional or economic duress is always wrong. To argue that it is better to kill a deformed child in the womb than to allow him to live is an affront to the thousands of people born with severe handicaps, but who live meaningful and productive lives. It is an affront to the many families that love and care for such children. On rare occasions, there may be the difficult dilemma of performing an abortion to spare the mother’s life. But even then, the goal should be to preserve the lives of both the mother and the child, if possible.

Conclusion

Much more could be said if we had time. There are other biblical arguments against abortion. There is mounting evidence that many women who choose abortion suffer severe long-term emotional and physical problems.

I want to conclude by suggesting some action points. Some of these are things that every Christian can and should do. Others are things that only some will be called to do. But at some level, all of us need to come to the defense of unborn children.

(1) We can pray about the situation. It is ultimately a spiritual battle (Eph. 6:10-12). Pray for pro-life judges to receive Senate confirmation, especially to the Supreme Court. Pray for the horrors of abortion to become obvious to our self-centered culture. Pray for Christians to get involved in the pro-life cause.

(2) We can vote for pro-life candidates. Don’t vote for pro-abortion candidates. You ask, “Are you a one-issue voter?” I grant that being pro-life does not qualify a person as a good political leader. But being pro-abortion should disqualify anyone from public office. For example, if a candidate said, “I believe that black people should not hold public office,” that one issue should disqualify the candidate from office. Why doesn’t favoring killing babies disqualify a candidate? The person who favors abortion is an immoral person!

(3) We can write our legislators and the newspaper to support the pro-life cause. Hold them accountable!

(4) We can support the pro-life cause with our money and time. Godly women are needed to counsel young women with problem pregnancies, so that they choose life for their babies. Godly families that are able should consider taking in such young women and helping them carry their babies to term. There are many ways to get involved.

(5) Our church should discipline any members who advocate abortion, perform abortions, or obtain abortions in disobedience to being counseled about God’s truth on the matter. It is a national tragedy that two of our former Presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both claimed to be Southern Baptists, but were pro-abortion. Their churches should have disciplined them publicly.

In conclusion, I want to speak to any who may already have had an abortion or who may have urged someone else to have an abortion. Perhaps you did it in ignorance, but now you realize that you committed a serious sin in God’s sight. The great news of God’s Word is that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). The apostle Paul, who persecuted the church and was responsible for the deaths of many innocent people, wrote that, and then claimed, “among whom I am foremost of all.” Paul found God’s forgiveness and mercy at the cross. No matter how great your guilt, if you will turn from your sin and trust Jesus Christ as the one who bore your sin on the cross, God will pardon all of your sin and credit the righteousness of Jesus to your account (Rom. 4:4-5).

Discussion Questions

  1. Does being pro-life mean that all forms of birth control are wrong? Are some forms of birth control wrong? Why?
  2. How would you answer someone who said with reference to laws against abortion, “I don’t believe you should be able to force your religious views on others?”
  3. Should Christians practice civil disobedience to protest the current abortion practices? Give biblical support.
  4. Should Christians support “compromise” legislation, such as banning abortion except for rape, incest, or severe deformity? Why/why not?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, 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, Christian Home, Christian Life, Cultural Issues, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry

Why Baptism Matters

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June 28, 2009

Special Message

In 1998, John MacArthur preached a sermon, “Baptism: A Matter of Obedience” (http://www.biblebb.com/files/MAC/ BAPTISMAC.HTM), in which he said:

[Baptism] is not a particularly popular subject today—it’s not of great interest in the evangelical community; it’s been years since I’ve seen any new book written on baptism or any book emphasizing baptism or any series of messages or any preacher or teacher emphasizing baptism…. The interest in baptism has sort of gone away—sad to say, in many cases.

He adds, “It’s amazing how many people who proclaim Christ and confess Christ, have never been properly baptized.”

I confess that when you search for my sermons by topic on our church web site, only one on baptism pops up: “Why We Do Not Baptize Infants” (from Sept. 8, 1996). I also have an article on the web site, “Baptism: Some Common Questions Answered.” I have many other sermons that touch on the subject of baptism, especially from the Book of Acts. But because my normal method is to work through books of the Bible verse by verse, I have not preached any messages dealing exclusively with baptism, except for the one mentioned. But it is helpful at times to see how Scripture treats a particular topic. So I thought it would be warranted, in light of the baptism today, to speak on, “Why Baptism Matters.” The main idea that I want you to understand is that…

Baptism matters because it is the necessary result of genuine saving faith.

We live in a day when over one-third of Americans claim that they have been born again, but very few of them live any differently than the rest of the population. These professing Christians may have “invited Jesus into their hearts” or gone forward in response to an evangelistic appeal. The follow-up counselors explained to them that they had just received Christ and the Bible promises eternal life to all that receive Him. So they assure them that they are now eternally secure in Christ.

But are they? Maybe, but maybe not. The real issue is, has God changed their heart? Has He raised them from spiritual death to spiritual life through the power of the Holy Spirit? If there is genuine spiritual life, there will be evidence of it. There will be a longing to know Christ better through God’s Word. There will be a new hatred of sin and a desire to please the Lord in everything. There will be a new love for others, especially for other believers.

While these changes grow over time, with many struggles and setbacks, there will be an overall progress of growth in obedience to the Lord, stemming from a changed heart. If the person has no desire to obey God, his faith was not genuine saving faith. C. H. Spurgeon put it (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, [Pilgrim Publications] 23:225), “But if you have a faith which never touches your heart, a faith which never causes you to rejoice or mourn, a faith which neither makes you hate sin nor love the Lord Jesus, I charge you shake off your faith as Paul shook the viper from his hand, for it is a deadly faith…. Only the living faith which works upon the heart and influences the desires and the affections can be the faith of God’s elect.”

We are saved by grace through faith alone, but saving faith is never alone. It always results in a life of obedience to Christ (see Eph. 2:8-10). As 1 John 2:3 says, “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.” And one of His important commandments is that we confess our faith in Christ through water baptism. I want to show you from the Book of Acts how closely baptism was connected with saving faith as an act of obedience. Then I’ll tie everything together in outline form.

Let’s begin just before the Book of Acts with the Great Commission, which Jesus gave just before His ascension. He said (Matt. 28:18-20), “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Note that it is impossible to obey the Great Commission and neglect baptism. It is an integral part of Jesus’ final command to His disciples. Frankly, that’s a bit surprising, because Jesus did not emphasize baptism during His earthly ministry. But He puts it right there in the context of making disciples and teaching them to observe His commandments. That fact alone should convince us that baptism is important. Let’s see this from the Book of Acts.

Note Acts 2:38, the conclusion of Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. In response to the question from the crowd, “What shall we do?” Peter said, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; …” (For a more thorough treatment of these verses, see my sermon, “How to Receive God’s Forgiveness,” [11/12/2000].) Peter was not saying that baptism brings forgiveness of sins. In the very next chapter, he says (Acts 3:19), “Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away,” but he does not mention baptism at all. Many verses (e.g., Acts 10:43; 16:31) show that our sins are forgiven through faith (or repentance), apart from baptism.

But the point is, there was a close connection in the minds of the apostles between belief and baptism. The idea of an unbaptized believer is foreign to the New Testament. Faith in Christ brings forgiveness of sins. Baptism is the outward act that demonstrates the inward faith. Consider a few other passages in Acts, noting that the order is always belief, then baptism:

Acts 2:41: “So then, those who had received his word were baptized; …”

Acts 8:12: “But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike.”

Acts 8:36-38: “As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” [And Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’] And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him.”

While verse 37 [in brackets] is missing from the earliest Greek manuscripts, its insertion in later manuscripts shows what the church held to be the necessary qualification for baptism.

Acts 10:44, 46b, 47, 48a, which records Peter’s experience with the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house: “While Peter was still speaking these words [the gospel], the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message…. Then Peter answered, ‘Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?’ And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”

Acts 16:30-34, which recounts Paul’s experience with the Philippian jailer and his family: “And after he brought them out, he said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household.”

Advocates of infant baptism use this text to support their view (which shows how hard up they are to find any verses for their view!). But the text says that those in the jailer’s household heard Paul speak the word of the Lord (which implies that they were old enough to understand it), and that not only the jailer, but also his whole household, believed the gospel. For our purposes, the point is that Paul’s instruction included Jesus’ command to be baptized, which they obeyed.

Acts 18:8: And Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with his whole household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized.”

In Acts 19:1-5, Paul met some men who had received John’s baptism, but didn’t know about Jesus. When Paul told them about Jesus, their response was (19:5), “When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.”

I’ve gone through all of these references to show that there was a clear pattern on the part of those who responded to the preaching of the gospel in the Book of Acts, namely belief followed by baptism. The apostles were following the pattern that the Lord gave them in the Great Commission: make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to observe all that He commanded them.

Now I want to tie all of this together and draw some principles in outline form to show why baptism matters:

1. Baptism is distinct from saving faith.

In baptism, a person confesses his or her faith in Christ. But saving faith is distinct from baptism, and it is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ that saves, not baptism.

A. Saving faith is your personal response to Christ’s sacrifice for your sins.

Paul summarizes the gospel message (1 Cor. 15:3-4), “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” Or, as he gives his own testimony (1 Tim. 1:15), “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.” The point is, Christ didn’t die to help us have better self-esteem! He didn’t die so that we could have happier marriages or more successful careers. He died for our sins. If you take sin out of the picture (as many popular TV preachers do), then Christ didn’t have to die. And, you do not have any good news.

The Bible is clear that our sins have alienated us from God. If we die in our sins, we will spend eternity separated from God, paying the just penalty for our sins in conscious torment in hell. But the good news is that Jesus, the eternal Son of God, came to earth to bear the punishment that we deserve. He lived a perfectly righteous life, so that He had no sin of His own to atone for. Being fully human, His death could atone for human sins. But He was also fully God, so that His death had infinite value. As Paul put it (2 Cor. 5:21), “He [God] made Him [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

But does that mean that all people then are saved from God’s righteous judgment? No, it is only those who believe the good news about Jesus’ death and resurrection on their behalf who are saved. As we have seen (Acts 16:31), “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”

But it is crucial to understand that saving faith is not just mentally agreeing with the facts about Jesus. Rather, saving faith involves repentance, or turning from your sin. You cannot turn toward God without turning from sin. It also involves renouncing any trust in your good works to save you. Instead, you entrust your eternal destiny entirely to what Jesus did on the cross for you. You believe that He paid the penalty which you deserve. The difference between mental assent and genuine faith is the difference between saying that you believe a plane will fly and actually getting on the plane. You really trust the pilot and the plane only when you get on board.

So the question is, “Have you gotten on board with Jesus Christ as your only hope for heaven?” Have you turned from your sin and from trusting in your own good works and instead trusted in Jesus alone to deliver you from God’s judgment? If so, one of the first signs of it should be baptism. Why? Because …

B. Baptism is the outward confession of the inward reality of saving faith.

I often use the analogy of a wedding ring to illustrate this. My wedding ring does not make me married. I could have gotten married without a ring, or I could wear a ring, but not be married. My marriage is based on the commitment which Marla and I made to each other. But my wedding ring is an appropriate symbol of the unseen truth that I am married to Marla. It tells the women of the world, “I am not available! I am committed to my wife.” Baptism is the public confession that says, “World, I am no longer available. I am now committed to my Bridegroom, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

We’ve replaced this in our day with altar calls, where to confess your faith in Christ, you go forward. But altar calls are not in the Bible. They came into the evangelical world through a heretic named Charles Finney. He did not believe in the substitutionary atonement of Christ. He viewed salvation as a human decision, which anyone could make. So he invited people to come forward, where they could declare their decision for God. But the New Testament way to confess your faith is not to go forward. It is to be baptized in obedience to Jesus’ command. Baptism is distinct from saving faith. It is the outward confession of the inward reality of saving faith.

2. Baptism is the necessary result of saving faith.

A. True faith results in obedience.

We’ve already seen this. James 2:26 puts it, “Faith without works is dead.” If someone claims to have believed in Christ, but there is no change in his heart so that he wants to obey Christ, he needs to go back and examine his heart, to see if he is truly saved.

But you may wonder, “How long should it take for faith to result in obedience? How much time should elapse between a person’s trusting in Christ and his being baptized?”

The Book of Acts indicates that it shouldn’t be too long. Baptism seems to have been one of the first evidences of faith in Christ. With all of the false professions of being born again in our culture, perhaps it is advisable to make sure that a person really understands what it means to be saved. There should be some evidence of the new birth.

A woman in my church in California wanted to be baptized, but she was living with a man out of wedlock. They had been together twelve years and had an 8-year-old daughter. She asked me what she should do. It was a dilemma, because if she married the man, she would be entering into marriage with an unbeliever, which is forbidden. But if she left him, she would be breaking up what in effect was a family, removing her daughter from her father. After much counsel, I advised her to legalize what was in effect already a marriage. But the man would not agree to this. He was proud of living together “without a piece of paper.” At that point, her only option if she wanted to follow Christ was to leave him. She did and then I baptized her. Her faith in Christ led her to make the difficult decision to obey Christ rather than to live in sin.

In the case of children who want to be baptized, the child should give some clear evidence of being truly born again, both in terms of understanding and behavior. He should be old enough to grasp something of the significance and meaning of baptism, and old enough to remember the event as a definite commitment to Jesus Christ. The reason he should want to be baptized is not because his friends have gotten baptized! He should want to do it in obedience to Christ. True faith results in obedience.

B. Baptism is a matter of obedience to Christ.

Jesus Himself submitted to baptism, in obedience to His Father. In so doing, He identified Himself with those whom He came to save. He set the example for our obedience in baptism. And, as we saw in the Great Commission, Christ commanded baptism for all that follow Him. We cannot willfully neglect baptism and at the same time claim to be His disciples.

Someone may object, “But I’m a shy person. I could never get up in front of all those people!” Can you imagine a bride telling her fiancé, “I really love you, but I’d just be too embarrassed to stand in front of all those people and confess that I love you”? Jesus said (Matt. 10:32-33), “Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.” Jesus said (John 14:23), “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word.” If you love Christ because He has saved your soul, then you will want to let everyone know it. Obedience to Christ’s command to be baptized is an initial way to confess that you love Him.

3. Therefore, baptism really matters.

  • Baptism matters in your relationship to God.

It tells the Lord that you love Him and are willing to obey Him. In some cultures, you can say that you believe in Christ and you may be ridiculed or ostracized. But if you get baptized, you’re marked for death! Although we don’t face this, your baptism should be saying, “Lord, I’m willing to forsake everything, even my own life, to follow You!”

  • Baptism matters to the church.

It greatly encourages others in the church to see you make a public confession of your faith in Christ. It’s like going to the maternity ward, where you look through the window at all those new little lives. It fills you with joy and hope over the miracle of new life. It encourages us to see the transforming power of the gospel. Even if you’re not a recent convert, you owe it to us! Your obedience will encourage us to obey Christ, even when it’s hard.

  • Baptism matters to those outside the church.

Baptism can be a powerful witness of the saving power of Jesus Christ. This is especially true when a young person gets saved and begins to live in obedience to Christ in his home. Rather than sassing his parents, he cheerfully obeys them. Rather than complaining about helping around the house, he looks for ways to help. His baptism shows that the difference in his life is because he now follows Jesus Christ.

Many semi-religious, unbelieving parents have their children baptized as infants as a magic protection plan. They think that being baptized insures that the child will go to heaven. They may say to their child, “We baptized you as an infant. Why do you need to be baptized again?” If he lovingly, sensitively explains from the Bible the true meaning of baptism, backed up by his changed life, it can be a powerful witness to them.

  • Baptism matters to you.

It is a public testimony of your faith in Jesus Christ. It pictures that you are totally identified with Him in His death, burial, and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-6) and that He has washed you from your sins (Acts 22:16). It symbolizes your separation from the world and your union with Christ, your Bridegroom. Later, you will be tempted to go back to the world. Your love for Christ may grow cold. But you can look back to your baptism and say, “I knew then the reality of Christ. I can go back to Him again and He will welcome me, because I belong to Him.”

Conclusion

The most important question from today’s message is, “Have you truly repented of your sins and trusted in Christ alone to save you from God’s judgment?” If not, why not? But if so, the next question is, “Why do you delay?” Be baptized as a public confession that you have trusted in Christ as your Savior and Lord!

Application Questions

  1. If you encountered a professing Christian who said, “Jesus is my Savior, but I’m waiting to follow Him as Lord,” what would you say? What Scriptures would you use?
  2. What factors might warrant holding off after conversion on baptism for a time?
  3. Should baptism by immersion be a requirement for church membership? Why/why not? Support with Scripture.
  4. Some groups teach that baptism is necessary for salvation. Is this a serious heresy? Why/why not?

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: Basics for Christians, Christian Life, Discipleship, Ecclesiology (The Church), Faith, Soteriology (Salvation)

Dealing With Sinning Christians: An Overview of Church Discipline (Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13)

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August 13, 2006

Special Message

Years ago, I read about a pastor who became involved immorally with a married woman in his congregation. They each divorced their respective mates and then were married to each other in the church of which he was the pastor. The congregation turned out en masse for the wedding, giving open support.

That tragic story reflects the dominant mood in the American church today, that we should show love and tolerance to those who fall into sin. That mentality is behind the push to accept practicing, unrepentant homosexuals as church members and even as pastors. Even among churches that would not condone these things, there are very few that practice biblical church discipline towards those who persist in sin. Pastor John MacArthur reports (foreword, A Guide to Church Discipline, by J. Carl Laney [Bethany House, 1985], p. 7) that a leading pastor once told him, “If you discipline church members, they’ll never stand for it, and you’ll empty the place. You can’t run around sticking your nose into everyone’s sin.”

If you’ve ever attended MacArthur’s church, you know that that pastor’s advice was not prophetic! The place is not exactly empty! But neither was that pastor’s advice biblical. Following his counsel would put us in disobedience to the words of the Lord Jesus and the apostle Paul. Scripture is clear:

The church must practice biblical church discipline toward professing Christians who persist in known sin.

Perhaps no verse is so taken out of context and misapplied as Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” If you keep reading, in verse 6 Jesus says, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine….” In verse 15 He adds, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” To obey those verses, you must make some fairly astute judgments! You must judge that a person is a dog or a swine or a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 5:12, Paul tells the church that they are responsible to judge those within the church. Practicing biblical church discipline does not violate Jesus’ command, “Judge not.”

I realize that for some of you who do not have much background in the Bible, this topic will sound as if we’re trying to revive the Salem witch trials or the Inquisition. But the Bible is our standard for faith and practice and it has much to say about this subject. While I cannot be comprehensive, I want to give an overview of biblical church discipline. We will consider the purposes of church discipline, the problems that require church discipline, and the procedure for church discipline.

The purposes for church discipline:

We may consider these purposes in four directions:

1. Toward God, church discipline vindicates publicly His honor and holiness.

God’s holiness is a dominant theme in the Bible. It means that He is totally apart from and opposed to all sin. In the Old Testament, God told His people Israel (Lev. 19:2), “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The New Testament repeats that command (1 Pet. 1:15-16). Peter refers to the church as a holy priesthood and a holy nation (1 Pet. 2:5, 9).

Because of this, when God’s people sin, He will disassociate Himself from them and take them through severe discipline if they do not repent and deal with the sin in their midst. You see this often in the Old Testament (e.g., the story of Achan, Joshua 7), and also in the New Testament. In the messages to the churches in Revelation 2 & 3, the Lord repeatedly warns that if they do not deal with their sins, He will set Himself against the church and even remove that church’s lampstand. God would rather have no testimony in a city than to have His name mingled with sin.

2. Toward the church itself, church discipline restores purity and deters others from sinning.

In 1 Corinthians 5:7, Paul commands, “Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened.” Leaven (yeast) is a type of sin. If you put a small amount of yeast in flour, it spreads throughout the entire lump (5:6). Paul is saying symbolically what he also (5:2, 13) states plainly, that the church needed to remove the sinning man so that the purity of the church would be restored and the sin would not spread any further.

You can see this principle in a family. If the parents do not consistently and impartially discipline a defiant child, very soon the other children learn that there are no consequences if they disobey their parents. The sin of the first child spreads to the others. The same thing happens in a classroom with a teacher who does not enforce discipline. Soon the entire class is out of control. On the government level, if the authorities do not enforce the laws, the whole country soon devolves into anarchy.

In the local church, God has given authority to the elders (Heb. 13:17). Part of their responsibility is to uphold God’s standards of holiness and do all that they can to keep the church doctrinally and morally pure. For example, take a single Christian woman who knowingly disobeys Scripture by marrying an unbeliever. If the elders do not deal with her sin, other single women in the church, who have been waiting on the Lord for a Christian husband, will be tempted to date and marry unbelievers. The biblical standard that believers should only marry believers would be diluted and sin would spread through the church.

If we don’t uphold God’s standards of holiness, it doesn’t take long for the church to become just like the world. Although the city of Corinth was infamous for its sexual promiscuity, this sin went beyond what the pagans practiced (1 Cor. 5:1)! But, it didn’t shock the Corinthian church! They were actually boasting about their acceptance and love toward this man who was intimate with his stepmother (5:2)! The woman was probably not a believer, or Paul would have told the church to remove her as well. But he says that they should have mourned and removed this man from their midst. Sin in other professing Christians should cause us to mourn, not to be tolerant. God would rather that a local church be pure and small than that it be big, but tolerant of sin in its midst.

3. Toward the world, church discipline displays God’s standards of holiness and draws a line between the church and the world.

To attempt to attract people from the world into the church, today’s church seems bent on showing the world, “See, we’re just like you are. We’re normal folks. We watch raunchy movies and TV shows, just as you do. We have marital problems and get divorced just as frequently as you do. We won’t judge sexual immorality of any kind, because we’re tolerant people, just as you are. Come and join us!”

But Scripture is clear that the church is to be distinct from the world by being separated unto our God, who is holy. I’m not talking about adding legalistic rules for things that are not in the Bible, but rather about being a people who are captivated by the beauty of God in His holiness, so that we willingly distance ourselves from this corrupt world. As 1 John 2:15 puts it, “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”

Toward God, church discipline vindicates publicly His honor and holiness. Toward the church itself, church discipline restores purity and deters others from sinning. Toward the world, church discipline displays God’s standards of holiness and draws a line between the church and the world.

4. Toward the offender, church discipline conveys biblical love and seeks to restore the sinner.

Some wrongly think that love is opposed to discipline. But the Bible is clear that we cannot love our brothers and sisters in Christ if we do not deal with their sins in the way that God prescribes. Because God loves us, He disciplines us so that we may share His holiness (Heb. 12:6, 10). Because sin destroys people and relationships, to be indifferent toward someone who is sinning is really to hate that person.

Also, as we’ve seen, sin is like yeast that spreads throughout the whole lump of dough. It’s like a contagious disease. If it isn’t checked, it will infect others. That’s why James (5:19-20) says, “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” Love seeks to turn a sinner from his sin.

The goal in church discipline is never vindictive. We are not seeking to punish people or to throw them out of the church. Our aim is to restore the offender. In Galatians 6:1, Paul writes, “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” “Looking to yourself” implies that you, too, could fall into sin. So, do not be self-righteous or condescending. “Gentleness” does not mean weakness, but strength under the control of God Spirit. Whether we sharply rebuke (Gal. 2:11-14; Matt. 16:23; Titus 1:13) or gently appeal should be determined by what we think will be the most effective in restoring the sinner to obedient fellowship with God.

Some will ask, “But what if it doesn’t work?” The answer is, we need to be obedient to God and leave the results to Him. There is no biblical guarantee that it will work every time. Jesus said (Matt. 18:15b), “if he listens to you, you have won your brother.”

The problems that require church discipline:

First, I will give the principle and then comment briefly: We should deal with any professing believer who associates with this church and is knowingly and rebelliously disobeying the clear commandments of Scripture.

  • The person must be a professing believer.

Paul had written a now lost letter in which he told the church not to associate with immoral people (1 Cor. 5:9). Now he clarifies that he did not mean unbelievers, but rather a “so-called brother” who is immoral or covetous or an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or a swindler (5:11). He states (5:12) that it is God’s business to judge those outside of the church, but it is the church’s responsibility to judge those within the church. Our first step should be to make sure that the sinning person understands the gospel. Sometimes the problem is that the person is not truly born again.

  • The person must associate with this church.

Our church constitution and by-laws spell out that by joining this church, you are submitting to the process of church discipline. But, also, if someone attends this church regularly and especially if he is involved in any church ministry, we must practice church discipline. The testimony of this church is at stake, and the world doesn’t check to see if the person is an official member.

  • The person must be knowingly and rebelliously disobedient.

This calls for discernment. Paul writes (1 Thess. 5:14), “And we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” We should not encourage the unruly, but admonish him. We should not admonish the fainthearted or weak, but encourage and help them. Sometimes, a newer believer is in sin due to ignorance of God’s Word. He is weak. But, if he continues defiantly in the sin after you show him what the Word says, he then becomes unruly.

I find the analogy of child rearing helpful here. If my three-year-old was acting like a three-year-old, I tried to help him learn how to behave in a more mature manner. But I didn’t discipline him for being three. But when your three-year-old is defiant, you must deal with his rebellion. If a believer is overcome by a sin, but is repentant and wants help, you help him. But if he says, “I have a right to do as I please,” he is defiant and needs discipline.

  • The person must be disobeying the clear commands of Scripture.

You don’t discipline someone for areas on which the Bible has no clear commandments. Drinking alcoholic beverages is not grounds for discipline; drunkenness is. Watching movies is not grounds for discipline; watching pornographic movies is. Scripture contains many lists of sins (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 4:25-5:6; 1 Tim. 1:9-10; 2 Tim. 3:2-5; etc.). We may summarize these as:

  1. Violations of God’s moral commandments (1 Cor. 5:10-11; 6:9-10; 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:3-5).
  2. Unresolved relational sins, such as gossip, slander, anger, and abusive speech (Matt. 18:15-20; Eph. 4:25-31; Gal. 5:19-21; Col. 3:8).
  3. Divisiveness in the church (Rom. 16:17-18; Titus 3:10; 3 John 9-10).
  4. False teaching on major doctrines (Gal. 1:8-9; 1 Tim. 1:20; 6:3-5; 2 John 9-11).
  5. Disorderly conduct and refusal to work (2 Thess. 3:6-15; 1 Tim. 5:8).

How do we deal with those who persist in such sins?

The procedure for church discipline:

The Scriptures give the following steps:

1. A private meeting (Matt. 18:15).

“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.” Usually it is better to go in person (rather than talk over the phone), unless there are concerns for physical safety or propriety. Do not put yourself in a potentially compromising situation with the opposite sex.

Your objective is not to “set him straight” or to “get things off your chest” by letting him know how wrong he is. Your aim is to get him to listen so as to win him back to the Lord. The Greek word translated “show him his fault” is a legal term that means to convince in a court of law. The best way of convincing someone of his sin is to take him to Scripture. Your opinion really doesn’t matter. God’s Word is the authority.

Jesus says that if you have knowledge of your brother’s sin, then you (not the pastor) are the one to go to him. While you should pray before you go, you should not call 15 people to have them pray. That just spreads gossip. You may need to seek godly counsel, but limit the circle of knowledge to those who can help.

Also, check your own heart first, to make sure that you’ve taken any logs out of your own eye (Matt. 7:3-5). You are not exempt from temptation and sin, so look to yourself (Gal. 6:1). Check your motives. If you are going to try to prove that he’s wrong and you’re right, you’re going for the wrong reason. You should go in obedience to God, with the aim of restoring your brother to God and to those he has wronged.

Make sure that you get the facts. If someone tells you about someone else’s sin, tell the informant to go directly to the sinning person in line with these guidelines. Do not go to someone on the basis of hearsay or gossip, unless you are going to find out the facts. Go in gentleness (strength under control) and wisdom. Sometimes, there is a need for sharp rebuke (Titus 1:13; 2:15), but usually the best course is a brotherly, heartfelt appeal (1 Tim. 5:1-2). If the sinning person knows that you genuinely care for him, he will be more likely to listen and respond positively.

How many times should you go to the person before going to the next level? Scripture does not say. If the person repents, the discipline process stops there. You have won your brother. The exception to this would be a situation where the person’s sin is publicly known. For example, if a woman gets pregnant out of wedlock, she (and the man, if he is in the church) needs to make a public confession, so that the church can openly forgive her and support her in having her child. Or if a Christian man is convicted of a crime that is made public, even if he repents, he needs to ask the church to forgive him for dishonoring the name of Christ.

2. A private conference with witnesses.

If the person does not listen to you, Jesus says to take two or three witnesses (Matt. 18:16). These may be others who know of the problem or it may include church leaders. The point is to strengthen the reproof and to cause the offender to realize the seriousness of the situation. Your goal is to bring the sinner to repentance and restoration.

3. A public announcement to the church.

Although Christ does not specify, other Scriptures indicate that this step should be administered through the church leaders, who have authority over the church (Heb. 13:17). Before an announcement is made to the church, the leaders should make an effort to contact the offender and warn him that his sin will become public knowledge on a particular date if he does not repent before that time.

If the sin has to be made public, the church should be instructed in how to relate to the sinning person. Church members should no longer fellowship with the person as if there is no problem. Paul says not even to eat with such a one (1 Cor. 5:11). He tells the Thessalonians not to associate with such a one, but then adds, “And yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (2 Thess. 3:14-15). This shows that all contact is not forbidden, but we aren’t to relate on a normal, buddy-buddy level that ignores the person’s sin. Any contact must communicate, “We love you and we want you back in the fellowship of the church, but we can’t condone what you’re doing and we can’t accept you back until you genuinely repent.”

4. Public exclusion from the church.

The Lord says that the final step is, “Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer” (Matt. 18:17). Paul says, “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves” (1 Cor. 5:13; also, 5:2). It seems to me that Paul combines steps 3 & 4, mentioning the man’s sin before the church and excluding him from the fellowship at the same time. If someone’s sin is damaging the reputation of the church, he needs to be removed from the fellowship quickly.

5. Public restoration when there is genuine repentance.

Sadly, some love their sin more than they love Christ and they will not repent. Others do not repent and find another church that accepts them in spite of their sin. That is too bad. Churches should not welcome those who are under the discipline of another church. But some will repent, which involves godly sorrow over their sin (2 Cor. 7:8-10) and restitution where appropriate (Philemon 18-19). A person’s deeds should reflect repentance (Acts 26:20).

If the person expresses genuine repentance, then the church should be informed and the person should be forgiven and accepted back into the fellowship (2 Cor. 2:8). Of course, there should be a time of proving before a repentant person is put into positions of ministry or leadership. Also, the restoration process should include some training or discipling to help the person grow and avoid the sin in the future.

Conclusion

The church is not a fellowship of sinless people. We are a fellowship of forgiven sinners who, by God’s grace, are pursuing a life of holiness and obedience to our Lord. We dare not fall into spiritual pride by thinking that we are better than a member who has fallen into sin. Paul says that our response to sin in a church member should be to mourn (1 Cor. 5:2).

But if we do not deal with those who refuse to repent of sin as the Lord commands, His church will soon blend in with the world and the salt will lose its savor. The Lord warns that He will come and remove our lampstand (Rev. 2:5). So we must practice biblical church discipline toward professing Christians who persist in sin.

Application Questions

  1. How do you know when to confront a sinning Christian? Since we’re all sinners in process, what sins need confrontation?
  2. What should a church do if a member who is close to another member under discipline refuses to break fellowship?
  3. How should family members relate to a sinning family member who is under church discipline?
  4. How would you answer the objection that church discipline will drive people away and that we can’t minister to people who leave our church?
  5. In light of the possibility of a lawsuit, is church discipline advisable in our day? Why/why not?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.

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

Related Topics: Church Discipline, Discipleship, Ecclesiology (The Church)

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