Fall to the Ground (John 12:20-36)

Big Idea: Jesus is compelling not because of what he accomplished in his life, but because of what he accomplished in his death.

Purpose: To show the beauty of the cross, so that people will be drawn to Jesus.

In the next few minutes, I want to open an important passage of Scripture that helps us understand why we're here tonight. It's found in John 12. It's just days until Jesus is crucified, and in this passage Jesus sets his sight on the cross, and helps us understand why it's so important that he died.

The Sunday before Jesus died, something happened that made Jesus announce that it was time for him to die. Not only did he announce that it was time for him to die, but he explained the meaning of his death. Let’s read the passage together, and then consider what it means for us.

[Read John 12:20-36]

This is God’s holy Word.

We are gathered here tonight, over a thousand of us, in memory of someone who accomplished shockingly little with his life.

Think about it. Most times, when we remember the life of someone famous, we are able to list their accomplishments:

  • Abraham Lincoln was a self-educated lawyer who rose from poverty to become the President of the United States, leading it through one of its greatest crisis and abolishing slavery.
  • Albert Einstein developed the general theory of relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.
  • Nelson Mandela was a revolutionary who became the first black President of South Africa, and who led the country to dismantle apartheid.

Unlike Lincoln, Einstein, and Mandela, Jesus accomplished shockingly little with his life. Think about Jesus’ accomplishments, or rather, his lack of accomplishments:

  • He had no military, political, or financial power.
  • The only followers he scraped together are peasants.
  • He was executed in his thirties, probably at the age of 37.
  • He was penniless when he is killed. His only possession, a robe, was taken away from him when he was killed.
  • At the very end, he was abandoned by his friends and by God himself.

And yet despite all of that, he has become the most influential figure in the history of the world.

Tonight, in the few minutes that we have, I want to ask why. Why is Jesus, who accomplished so little with his life, so compelling?

We don’t have to guess what the answer is, because Jesus tells us himself. Here's what Jesus tells us. It’s very simple, and it’s in the passage that we just read.

What Jesus tells us in this passage is this: Jesus is compelling not because of what he accomplished in his life — as great as it was — but because of what he accomplished by his death.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not denigrating Jesus’ life. Jesus lived a sinless life. He taught and performed miracles. But if Jesus had not gone to the cross, his life would have counted for nothing. If Jesus hadn’t have died on the cross, his life would be a footnote in history. In this passage, Jesus says that if he didn't die, his life wouldn’t have accomplished its purpose. He would have failed in his mission and his life would have had very limited impact. There would not be millions of people around the world who have been completely changed by him. The reason that Jesus is compelling is not because of what he accomplished in his life, as great a life as it was; it’s because of what he accomplished by his death.

You may be thinking, what did Jesus accomplish by his death? Jesus tells us in this passage. There are three things that Jesus accomplished by his death that make him so compelling:

  • By dying, Jesus revealed the operating system of the universe
  • By dying, Jesus brought God glory
  • By dying, Jesus judged the world and defeated the devil

Let’s look at each of these, and how we should respond.

What did Jesus accomplish by his death?

1.    By dying, Jesus reveals the operating system of the universe (24-26)

You may have seen the video going around called “Kids react to Walkmans.” These kids are handed a Sony Walkman from thirty years ago, and they have no idea what they’re holding. They think it’s a walkie talkie or something so old that it’s running IOS 4. They’ve never seen a Walkman, and they’ve only heard about cassette tapes. They have no idea what to do with it. They know the “operating system” of iPads or anything else you could throw at them today, but they don’t know what to do with an ancient device like a Walkman.

It’s the same when I get together with some of my friends. I used to be a Windows user; now I use a Mac. I have no idea how to use Windows anymore, no matter how much Julian or Joe to help me. The thing is: operating systems matter. No matter what computer or device you have, you need to know how to use it.

It’s the same in this world. To live well, we have to live according to the operating system of the universe. The problem is: What is the operating system of the universe? Our news cycles are full of stories of killings, identity theft, and political maneuvering. Our lives are full of the stress of making a living and, in the end, in making a life that will have been worth living. In order to live well, we need to have an idea of how this world operates, but it’s not always clear what that operating system is. We need to have it revealed to us.

In his book The Call of Jesus, Derek Worthington describes the default operating system of post-Christian spirituality. The operating system has three components to it:

  • a distant God who is far-off, detached, remote, and inaccessible, and not involved with our daily lives;
  • ourselves as the ones who have authority in our lives; since God is far-off; it’s up to us to make things happen;
  • consumerism as the path to fulfillment; the way to a good life is to buy goods and services that make us happy

That’s how most of us live. We believe in God, but that he’s distant. We take charge of our own lives, and live to consume. “We are our god. The market, our sanctuary. Our religious practice is buying; consuming. Retail therapy.” We live according to this operating system, but it never delivers the happiness that it promised.

But that’s where the cross comes in. The cross shows us that this is not the operating system of the world. Jesus shows us the true operating system of the universe in verses 24-26:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.

According to Jesus, this is how the world operates:

  • You have a God who is not distant. You have a God who is present in the person of Jesus Christ, and who is very involved in our lives.
  • You have a God who then pushes us out of the position of control in our lives. God is God, and we aren’t; we take action, but only under his sovereignty and control.
  • The path to fulfillment is not consumption; it’s self-giving love seen most clearly in Jesus, who offered up his life in service and love.

You see this everywhere.

You see this in agriculture. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). The purpose of a grain of wheat is that it dies, germinates, and produces a great crop. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma one of the best writers on food and agriculture, devotes a whole chapter in his book Cooked to the importance of dying in agriculture and food. Whether you’re talking about fermentation or plants and animals in general, there’s a whole lot of life that comes from death.

You see this in movies. In Armageddon, the character played by Bruce Willis tries to stop an asteroid from destroying earth. They prepare a nuclear bomb to blow the asteroid apart, but something goes wrong. The character played by Willis has to stay behind and manually detonate the bomb, giving up his life so that others can live. You see this in movies all over the place. You see this in Gravity: George Clooney’s character gives up his life so that Sandra Bullock’s character can live. Harry Potter’s mother offers her life to save Harry. Dumbledore says to Potter, “Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love.”

You see this in life. Mindy Tran is 5-foot-1 and 130-pounds. In other words, she’s a lot smaller than the one-ton Honda Accord that she drives. But when that car has her two-year-old twins in it, and that car begins to roll towards traffic, she didn’t think twice. She grabbed onto the car and was pinned under the right axel, stopping the car before it hit the traffic. She suffered a fractured pelvis, severe injuries to her legs and a separated left shoulder. She is unable to walk, and months of rehabilitation lie ahead. The newspaper that reported the story editorialized at the end: “What better role model could they have, once they are old enough to truly understand, than a mother who was willing to lay down her own life to preserve theirs?”

Most powerfully, you see this at the cross. The reason that this is the operating system of the universe is that it is the operating system of God himself. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, tells us that his whole purpose is to fall to the ground and die, to lay down his life so that others could live. At the heart of the universe is a God who willingly lays down his life for us. When Jesus died for us, he revealed that self-giving love lies at the heart of the universe. At the heart of the universe is a Savior who willingly went to the cross for you. “On the cross Christ wins through losing, triumphs through defeat, achieves power through weakness and service, comes to wealth via giving all away” (Tim Keller).

This makes Jesus different from anyone else. Jesus died willingly in our place so that we could live. Most kingdoms do anything they can to protect their king. This is even true in chess. When the king falls, the kingdom is lost. Therefore, the king must be protected at all costs. When the Allies invaded Normandy on D-Day, June 1944, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill desperately wanted to watch the invasion from the bridge of a battleship in the English Channel. U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower was desperate to stop him, for fear that the Prime Minister might be killed in battle.

When it became apparent that Churchill would not be dissuaded, Eisenhower appealed to a higher authority: King George VI. The king went and told Churchill that if it was the Prime Minister's duty to witness the invasion, he could only conclude that it was also his own duty as king to join him on the battleship. At this point Churchill reluctantly agreed to back down, for he knew that he could never expose the King of England to such danger.

King Jesus did exactly the opposite. With royal courage he surrendered his body to be crucified. On the cross he fell to the ground and died so that he could bear much fruit, so that we could live. He says that we can stake our lives on this: that he died so that we could live. He reveals this as the operating system of the universe. C.S. Lewis says:

In self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm not only of all creation but of all being. For the Eternal Word also gives himself in sacrifice. When he was crucified he “did that in the wild weather of his outlying provinces which He had done at home in glory and gladness” from before the foundation of the world…This is not a…law which we can escape…What is outside the system of self-giving is…simply and solely Hell…that fierce imprisonment in the self…Self-giving is absolute reality.

The cross shows us that self-giving love is at the heart of God. It’s at the heart of the universe he created. And he calls us to live this way too.

Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. (John 12:25-26)

Do you want to know the way to make your life count? Lay it down as Jesus did. George Müller, a man who cared for over 10,000 orphans in England during his life, was once asked, “What has been the secret of your life?” He replied, “There was a day when I died, utterly died — died to George Müller, his opinions, preferences, tastes, and will; died to the world, its approval or censure; died to the approval or blame even of my brethren and friends — and since then I have only to show myself approved to God.” Dying is a daily requirement for spiritual vitality. The way to be rich is to be generous. The way to power is to serve. The way to real influence is to not seek influence. The way up is down. The pathway to glory is through death. Jesus’ dying for our salvation is also a pattern for our imitation.

Jesus is compelling not because of what he accomplished in his life — as great as it was — but because of what he accomplished by his death. And in this passage, he explains what his death accomplished: by dying, he gave us life. There was a debt to be paid: God himself paid it. There was a penalty to be borne: God himself bore it.

But that's not all. There's something else that Jesus accomplished by his death. At the cross, Jesus reveals the operating system of the universe. But Jesus accomplished something else that made his death so compelling:

2.    By dying, Jesus brought God glory (27-28)

We’re a little late, but we've become fans of Downtown Abbey. We’re only in season two; don’t tell us what happens. One of my favorite characters is John Bates, valet to Lord Grantham. John Bates has an estranged wife who shows up one day threatening to reveal something that would dishonor Lord Grantham and his family unless Bates quits. Bates willingly takes the fall to preserve the honor of the Grantham name.

There is something compelling about paying the price for the sake of the other. We’ve already seen that this is what Jesus does at the cross: he dies to reveal his self-giving love for us. This is the very nature of God. But there’s more. We read in verses 27 and 28 that Jesus dies not just out of self-giving love for us, but out of a desire to bring glory to his Father. Read verses 27 and 28: "Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? But for this purpose I have come to this hour." You get a sense here of how daunting the cross is to Jesus. In a few days, Jesus would bear the world's sins and suffer separation from his Father. As he looked ahead, he understood that he would be paying an infinite cost for our sins. As he looked ahead to the cross, he stumbled. He knew this would not be easy.

So what kept him going to the cross? When the way gets hard, it's always important to go back to why, and that's exactly what Jesus did here. His sacrificial death has always been the primary purpose of his mission to the world. The whole reason he came is the cross. It was his destiny, his burden, his pursuit. We've already seen one reason why: because his death reveals the self-giving love of God that’s at the centre of the universe. But there's more.

What other reason did Jesus have in going to the cross? Jesus tells us in verse 28: “‘Father, glorify your name.’” Jesus is totally committed to the glory of God. He will do whatever it takes to bring that glory about, even to die. God's glory is the principle that controlled his life and ministry. Why did Jesus go to the cross? Because the cross would bring God glory.

What happens next is amazing. For only the third time in Jesus' ministry, God speaks audibly. God the Father affirms what God the Son says: that the cross is a powerful demonstration of the glory of God. You want to see the glory of God? The birth of a baby shows the glory of God. The beauty of mountains displays the glory of God. The beauty of the stars on a clear, dark night displays the glory of God. But the cross shows you more of God's glory than all the stars and mountains. When you look at the cross, you see the very glory of God.

This is the irony of the cross. The cross is an instrument of torture and disgrace. As he went to the cross, Jesus was beaten, mocked, stripped, and humiliated. The cross was not just designed to execute; it was designed to humiliate. The irony, though, is that the cross becomes a means to glorify God. Isaiah 52, written hundreds of years before, speaks of Jesus:

Behold, my servant shall act wisely;
he shall be high and lifted up,
and shall be exalted.
(Isaiah 52:13)

Jesus will be glorified. Jesus picks up up this in verse 23: “And Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’” How will he be glorified? Jesus tells us in verses 32-33: “‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.:” (John 12:32-33)

How is God glorified? How is Jesus going to be high and lifted up? By being mocked, stripped, and nailed to the cross. If you want to see the glory of God, look at the crucified Savior. If you want to see the glory of God, look at the God who is wiling to die for you. The death of Jesus Christ is the supreme manifestation of the glory of God.

How does the cross show God's glory? The cross reveals the holiness of God. It demonstrates his righteousness. It reveals that God could not simply ignore or overlook sin. Sin has a cost, a real cost, and someone had to pay it. God would be unjust if he did not judge evil. The cross shows us the holiness of God who is righteous and who has to deal with sin.

But the cross also reveals the love and mercy of God. At the cross, we see both the holiness and the mercy of God. When the living creatures and elders worship Jesus in heaven, they look to the cross. They say:

Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.
(Revelation 5:9-10 ESV)

Jesus is so committed to God’s glory that he is willing to give up his life and die. The cross reveals the glory of God like nothing else, because it reveals his holiness and his mercy, and the extent of his self-giving love.

Jesus is compelling not because of what he accomplished in his life — as great as it was — but because of what he accomplished by his death. Jesus' death reveals that self-giving love is at the heart of the universe, and it also brought glory to God. But's not all:

3.    By dying, Jesus judged the world and defeated the devil (31)

Just over a year ago we moved into a condo. I was so excited to move into our condo. The real estate listing said the unit is huge, stunning, includes many upgrades. I looked over the listing this week and couldn’t find anything negative about your place at all. It sounded great! And make no mistake about it: we love it.

The only problem is that the management company keeps sending us these letters asking if the deficiencies have been corrected yet. The seller never mentioned any deficiencies. So I contacted the seller, and he couldn't remember any deficiencies. I contacted the management company, and asked them to tell me what's wrong with our place. I heard nothing back. Eventually I got an email back from the management company, and eventually an inspector showed up with a binder with all the details. All I wanted is two things: for someone to tell me what's wrong, and for someone to make it right. I needed someone to to tell me the deficiencies in our place, and for someone to correct those deficiencies.

It turns out that this is exactly what Jesus does for the world. Jesus says in verse 31. Listen to what the death of Jesus does. It's two things. First, it reveals what's wrong with the world. When the world exercised judgment on Jesus by sending him to the cross, it judged itself. When Jesus comes to the world and the world rejects him, it reveals what's wrong with the world. In the murder of Jesus, evil is exposed in its most extreme form. The worst about us is revealed. It exposes our deficiencies. "The cross is a judgment on the way the world thinks, on the values of the world, on the very epistemology of the world, the way the world knows and thinks" (Tim Keller). That's why there is no hope for those who reject Jesus, because the cross is a judgment on those who reject him.

But it's not enough to expose deficiencies. The deficiencies need to be fixed. And at the cross, this is what Jesus does. Jesus says that the world is judged, and the prince of the world is cast out. In this present world, in its fallen state, the ruler is Satan. Ephesians 2:2 calls him the prince of the power of the air. At the cross, he thought he had achieved his greatest victory. Think about it: Satan had Jesus on the cross. Satan had succeeded in killing Jesus. But what looked like Satan's triumph was in fact his defeat. Colossians 2:15 says, "He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him." When Jesus was glorified, "lifted up" on the cross, Satan was dethroned. The death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus mark the end of Satan's dominion, and brings his defeat. It's like a lot of Leafs games I've watched: the defeat has already happened; it's just that the clock is running out. At the cross, Jesus administered the death blow that will ultimately still the movements of Satan.

That's why Jesus is so compelling. Jesus lived a great life. But we're here not because of what Jesus accomplished with his life. That's why when the Greeks come looking for him, he says that it's time to go to the cross. He understands that if the nations are going to come to him, he must finish the work he set out to do. The world awaits; if he's going to be the Savior of the world, he has to die.

We're here because of what he accomplished with his death. At the cross, Jesus died to bring us life; he died to bring God glory; Jesus died to reveal what's wrong with this world and to fix it.

That's why Jesus says in verse 32, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  You see, the cross isn’t just true; it’s beautiful. It’s not just factual; it’s beautiful. When you see the cross, 

If you want to see something beautiful, look to the cross. Look at Jesus, who deserved love, glory, wealth, crowns, songs, choruses, pageantry, and delight. Look at him who gave all of that up and went to the cross; who fell into nothingness so that you could fall into his delight, so you could fall into his honor.

R.A. Torrey said, "Preach any Christ but a crucified Christ, and you will not draw men for long." But look at a crucified Christ and you will see the sheer beauty of what he's done — what he's done for you.

But a response is needed. Jesus says in 35-36:

The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.”

The light will not always be available. There is a finite, limited time in which each individual has an opportunity to respond to Jesus. After that comes the darkness. One's response to the light decisively determines one's judgment for eternity. If you want to walk with certainty, you should act at once. We have a limited time; looked to Jesus who died to give you life; who died to bring glory to God; who died to defeat evil, and who draws all people to himself.

Jesus accomplished shockingly little with his life from a human level, but he accomplished everything with his death. "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit...And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." It could be today that you are being drawn by Jesus tonight. Look to him tonight and be drawn to Jesus by the beauty of the cross.

Father, thank you for Jesus. Thank you for a God who would give up riches and glory and honor and go to the cross to die so that we could live, so that you could be glorified, and so that evil could be defeated.

We see the beauty of the cross tonight — not just the truth of the cross, but the beauty of the cross. Draw all of us to Jesus tonight. Our prayer is that as we see Jesus lifted up on the cross, that you would draw all people to him. So draw them to Jesus right here, right now. We pray this in Jesus' name, Amen.

The Big Story: Rescue (Matthew 1:18-25)

Big Idea: God has acted by coming among us in person to rescue us.

In his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, author Donald Miller describes the ingredients of a great story. He defines the essence of a story as “a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.” Every story has these ingredients:

  • a character
  • who wants something
  • who overcomes conflict
  • and who gets it

This month, as we lead up to Christmas, we’re looking at story. It’s a huge goal: we’re looking at not just a story but the story, the story of the whole world. It’s a story that involves every one of us, but it’s bigger than us. And that’s the reason why we’re looking at the story. In order to play our role in the story, we need to understand two things. First, we need to understand that the story is bigger than us. It’s not about you. This isn't discouraging; it means that your life is part of something much bigger. But it also means that we need to understand the bigger story if we are to play our part in that story well.

So for the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at the story that the Bible tells us. We’ve seen:

  • a character — God, a good and all-powerful God who is at the centre of the story of this world, and who is intimately involved with the story even today;
  • who wants something — We see a God who made this world to be good, and who made us in his image so that we could live in relationship with him and act as his representatives in this world;
  • who overcomes conflict — We’ve seen that humanity rebelled against God, and as a result sin entered the world and has brought death, shame, and alienation

And today we’re at the point in the story in which we ask: What is God going to do about it? How in the world is God going to respond to a world that is no longer good, and to a people who are in deep rebellion against him?

I want to show you a picture that captures a bit of this tension. Almost every year we go camping in Restoule, just south of North Bay. On the way to the campground we pass this broken-down house. Every year it gets a bit worse. Every year I wonder if it will even be there. It was once a new house. People lived there. You can still see the fridge. I often wonder what happened to the house, and when the people moved out, and who will eventually take action to deal with the mess.

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And this is the story of this world as well. We have seen that this world is broken. Paul David Tripp compares our world to a broken-down house:

Every single room has been dirtied and damaged by sin. Not one part of it shines with anything like the pure glory that was so evident when it was first made. Sin has left this world in a sorry condition. You see it everywhere you look. (Broken Down House)

This is the world we live in. Last week, Nathan explained how this world got to this story state. For thousands of years, this has been our story. From Genesis 3 to the end of the Hebrew Scriptures, we’ve seen God’s commitment to rescue his people. But we’ve also seen disappointment after disappointment. The people that God chooses mess up on a continual basis. Even the greatest of them are, at best, very flawed individuals. The nation that God chooses through which he will bless this world has the odd high note among story after story of rebellion, idolatry, and dysfunction. It gets downright depressing. By the time we come to the passage we read this evening, it’s been thousands of years, and the world is still a mess, and the people God has chosen are in captivity with little hope of things getting better.

What is God going to do with this mess? What’s what we’re going to see today. In the passage that was read for us a few minutes ago, we’re going to see three things:

  1. God has acted.
  2. God has acted by coming among us in person.
  3. God has acted by coming among us in person to rescue us.

1. God has acted.

Matthew 1:18-20 says:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

This is the setting for the greatest birth to take place in history. It’s stated as plainly as possible, and the details are easy to understand. In that day, betrothal was a firm commitment, usually taken a year before marriage, in which the girl remained with her family. It was considered at the point of betrothal that the first step of marriage had already been taken. It would take a divorce to break off a betrothal.

Matthew takes us to this very young couple who live in northern Israel. The young woman, Mary, is found to be four months pregnant. Her betrothed husband, Joseph, could take drastic action. Under the laws of that day, her pregnancy would be considered adultery, punishable by death by stoning. But instead of punishing her, he decides to show discretion and compassion. But then he has a dream that shows him that Mary isn’t guilty of adultery; that this is a supernatural birth. Are you following this? In a few verses we have:

  • a virgin getting pregnant
  • an angel appearing to a man
  • and a claim that God the Holy Spirit has brought about the conception

This led one famous clergyman to say, “I very much doubt if God would arrange a virgin birth.” And you can understand why. It’s a preposterous story — unless it’s true, and the gospels say it is true. And the fact that it’s true means something very significant for us today.

Let me tell you why it’s true. Before we moved to Liberty Village, our dog had never been in an elevator before. The first time I took him in, he was a little confused. You go into this little box. The door closes. A few minutes later, the door opens, and you’re in a different place It’s bizarre. If dogs were smart enough to reason, they may have a real problem with this. The dog may say that it goes against all the laws of nature. But you may get a dog who suggests that there is such a thing as engineers who have understood how to build a device that operates using ropes and pulleys and technology. The other dog may respond that he has never met such an engineer and has no reason to believe that such a thing exists. The elevator is there a result of evolutionary processes, the skeptical dog might say.

What I’m getting at is this: a woman giving birth supernaturally is preposterous as long as you have a worldview that excludes God. But if the story we’ve described is true, and there is a God who is the all-powerful creator, then the supernatural birth of Jesus is not only possible, but it’s the best possible news we could imagine. I love how Owen Strachan puts it:

The virgin birth, you see, is not incidental to our faith. It shows that God must initiate the salvation of humanity. We could not undo our sin; God alone could rescue us. The virgin birth is not an odd blip in the history of the person and work of Jesus; it is a thunder-clap from heaven, God initiating his rescue plan. Salvation, the Lord is saying, is his work. He alone can carry it out; he alone will carry it out. We have no part in getting ourselves saved; we cannot undo the curse, not even one percent.

That’s the good news of what God has done. God created the world, and it was good. We sinned, and this world became a broken place that we could not fix. But now, in the birth of Jesus, God has taken decisive and dramatic action.

Most weeks we recite the words of the historic creed, which includes these lines:

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary…

There’s lots that you could say about these words. One of my theology books spends almost 20 pages explaining why it's important and what it means. The important thing for us to understand tonight is this: God has acted. Something had to be done about this mess that we’re in, and God has taken supernatural action to deal with what is wrong with this world.

So God has acted. The second thing we see in this passage is:

2. God has acted by coming among us in person.

There are at least two references in this passage to the Hebrew Scriptures. One of them is found in verses 22-23:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”

(which means, God with us).

This is amazing. One of the names given to Jesus is Immanuel, which means that God is with us. What the Bible is saying is stunning: that when Jesus was born, it was nothing less than God coming right where we are. We asked the question earlier: What is God going to do with the mess the world has become? If you look at the picture of the broken-down house again, let the truth of what happened at Christmas sink in: God moved in. He moved into the mess. He didn’t condemn it and start over. He didn’t write it off. He entered it.

C.S. Lewis put it well. One view of God is that he is impersonal. That’s not hopeful for us. Another view of God is that he is a subjective God of beauty, truth, and goodness inside our own heads. That’s a little better. But then there is a view that God is “Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband – that is quite another matter.” He says: “Supposing we really found him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still supposing he had found us? So it is a sort of Rubicon. One goes across; or not. But if one does, there is no manner of security against miracles. One may be in for anything.” If God is real, and he is active and in pursuit of us, then the miracle of the virgin birth is not only plausible, but it is good news. He is active and in pursuit of us.

That's what we mean by the Incarnation: God moves in. “He comes in our flesh. He comes into our humanity, into our vulnerability, into our history, into our reality” (Tim Keller).

Theologian James R. Edwards tells a story about two Italians and two Germans who were climbing the 6,000 foot near-vertical North Face in the Swiss Alps. The two German climbers disappeared and were never heard from again. The two Italian climbers, exhausted and dying, were stuck on two narrow ledges a thousand feet below the summit.

The Swiss Alpine Club forbade rescue attempts in this area (it was just too dangerous), but a small group of Swiss climbers decided to launch a private rescue effort to save the Italians. So they carefully lowered a climber named Alfred Hellepart down the 6,000 foot North Face. They suspended Hellepart on a cable a fraction of an inch thick as they lowered him into the abyss.

Here's how Hellepart described the rescue in his own words:

As I was lowered down the summit … my comrades on top grew further and further distant, until they disappeared from sight. At this moment I felt an indescribable aloneness. Then for the first time I peered down the abyss of the North Face of the Eiger. The terror of the sight robbed me of breath. …The brooding blackness of the Face, falling away in almost endless expanse beneath me, made me look with awful longing to the thin cable disappearing about me in the mist. I was a tiny human being dangling in space between heaven and hell. The sole relief from terror was …my mission to save the climber below.

That is the heart of the Gospel story. We were trapped, but in the person and presence of Jesus, God lowered himself into the abyss of our sin and suffering. In Jesus God became "a tiny human being dangling between heaven and hell." He did it to save the people trapped below—you and me. Thus, the gospel is much more radical than just another religion telling us how to be good in our own power. It tells us the story of God's risky, costly, sacrificial rescue effort on our behalf.

I love how Tim Keller puts it:

The doctrine of the incarnation is, through the womb of Mary, that world we all know about came in. Through the pitiless slab, the pitiless walls of the world, God punched a hole, and he punched the hole…and he came in.

The ideal became real. The impossible became possible. The supernatural became natural. The metaphysical became physical. More than that, the powerful became powerless. The invulnerable became vulnerable. The unapproachable became huggable. The immense became a single cell. The unassailably remote became God with us. That’s the incarnation. There is nothing like that. Nobody has ever made a claim like that.

This is the incredible great news of Christmas: that God has responded to the sin and brokenness of this world by coming among us in person. The greatest privilege, the thing we were made for, is God’s presence. Our sin made that impossible, but God has taken action to fix that, and he has come in the flesh. He is Immanuel, God with us.

What is God going to do with a broken world? We’ve seen that he has acted; we’ve seen how he’s acted — by coming among us as a person. There’s only one more thing we need to see today, before we respond in worship. We need to see why he did this.

3. God has acted by coming among us in person to rescue us.

What was the reason that Jesus came to earth? We read the answer in verses 20-21:

But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

That’s the important phrase: “he will save his people from their sins.” We’ve seen that there is a lot wrong with this world. The problems are endless: sickness, war, poverty, environmental devastation, crime, relational breakdown, death. Underneath all of these problems is our deepest problem, and that problem is sin.

Next week, Nathan is going to tell us how the story ends. We began tonight by talking about the ingredients of a good story: that there is a character, God, who overcomes conflict — our sin and rebellion, in order to get something — the restoration of this world, including the restoration of our relationship with God. And the way to get there was for God to send his Son to become one of us.

Our biggest problem is the gap between us and God, a gap that is a result of sin. Humans cannot by our own moral effort counter our sins in order to elevate ourselves to God’s level. The gap is far too wide; the damage is far too severe. If the gap is going to be bridged, it has to be bridged in some other way.

The only way for the gap to be bridged was for God to come down to us. And that's exactly what happened at Christmas: God bridged the gap by sending Jesus to become one of us. We needed someone who was human so that he could represent us; we needed someone who was God because only God could lift us out of our mess. Jesus Christ became fully human, and at the same time was fully God, and was perfectly qualified to rescue us from our sins. That’s what he did at the cross; all of our sins were given to him, and he bore them all. All of his righteousness was offered to us, so that we could be made whole.

Because God became human, we can become his children.
Because God left his palace, we can be lifted out of our poverty.
Because he was torn, we can be mended.
Because he was broken, we can made whole.
Because Jesus died, we can truly live.

I have to apply this in two ways this evening.

First, when we see what Jesus has done for us in launching a rescue mission, and becoming one of us, how could we not join his rescue mission? We believe that Jesus is still in the business of moving into messes and bringing his life and healing and salvation. At the end of the book of Matthew, the one who is called Immanuel, God with us, says to us that he is with us as we go into the world and make disciples. The whole reason that we are here as a church is because we are his representatives on his mission to bring healing and life to this world. There is no better way for you to spend your life than in participating in Jesus’ ongoing rescue mission in this world.

Secondly, you’re invited. The angel said, “He will save his people from their sins.” I wonder if you would put your name in there: Jesus will save you from your sins. In great love, Jesus came down for your sake. He entered your mess so that he could rescue you and bring you new life. Come to him this evening and hear the good news that Jesus came to rescue you.

The Big Story: Creation (Genesis 1)

Big Idea: Creation teaches us that God is sovereign and active; this world was made good; and we have a purpose.

We Need to Know the Storyline

You may have heard the news that Gwyneth Paltrow confessed to struggling to make sense of Iron Man 3 after reading the script. "I find it difficult to follow the plot on paper - who's getting shot off of what, who's bad, who's good - it all gets very confusing.

This is how many of us live our lives. We are part of a bigger storyline. It is crucial that we understand the overall plot, and our part in it.

The Storyline in Four Parts

Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration

What Creation Teaches Us

We learn three things that are crucial for living well as part of the storyline:

1. Something about God

“It is no surprise that God is the first sentence of the Bible.” (Derek Kidner). This story, this book, is about God, and it is impossible to understand life apart from Him.

God exists (to not believe in God is as much an act of faith); is sovereign (not a single atom outside his control); God is active.

“God is not a character in your story. You are a character in God’s story.” (Justin Buzzard)

2. Something about the World

It is good.

Think of your favorite food. Steak perhaps. Or Thai green curry. Or ice cream. Or homemade apple pie. God could have just made fuel. He could have made us to be sustained by some kind of savory biscuit. Instead he gave a vast and wonderful array of foods.

Food is a central experience of God's goodness …. The world is more delicious than it needs to be. We have a superabundance of divine goodness and generosity. God went over the top. We don't need the variety we enjoy, but he gave it to us out of sheer exuberant joy and grace. (Tim Chester)

Part of this good is our enjoyment of God.

“Human history is the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.” (C.S. Lewis)

3. Something about Us

We were made in the image of God. Out of all the religions and belief systems in the world, only the Bible teaches that we were made in the image of God. “You are the result of the attentive, careful, thoughtful, intimate, detailed, creative work of God.” (James Hufstetler)

We have purpose. We are ruling on his behalf.

How Creation Fits with Christmas

Today’s theme: Peace. We live in a world where God often seems distant and powerless; the world doesn’t seem good; where we are unsure of our dignity and purpose. He came to restore peace.

“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
Luke 2:14)

The Ritual and Reality (John 2:13-22)

Big Idea: Jesus exposes religious pretension and replaces it with himself.

Purpose: To expose our tendency to replace reality with ritual, and to see Jesus as the answer to this problem.

When I was a child, we had this picture of Jesus hanging in the Sunday School room at my church. As I remember, the picture was of Jesus as a shepherd holding a sheep. He had light brown hair and blue eyes, and he looked like a very gentle and serene man. I can’t remember all the details, but I can remember the feeling from the picture that Jesus is a very peaceable type of man who probably never raised his voice or got upset.

This view of Jesus seems to be a popular one. A hymn about Jesus has these words, “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, look upon a little child…” Theologian N.T. Wright states that many popular depictions of Jesus portray him as: “a hippy peace-child, a delicate flower of a man, a dew-eyed first-century Jewish Gandhi. Why would anyone want to hurt Him? Maybe because He’s so annoyingly precious; but that’s not the story of the gospels.” Instead, Wright says, we should be looking for a “crucifiable” Jesus, a Jesus who does something so provocative as to make the religious leaders of the day murderously hostile.

And that’s exactly the Jesus we find today. We’ve been looking at the Gospel of John, and today we come to the first public event that takes place in John’s gospel.

Don’t miss that: this is not a random event. This is Jesus going to Jerusalem, the center of religious and political life. This is Jesus in the spotlight for the first time in the Gospel of John. We’re going to see that Jesus is not who we expect. In particular, we are going to see two things, and the first is this:

Jesus exposes religious pretension.

That’s the first thing we’re going to see in this passage: Jesus exposes religious pretension.

I love watching movies, and I certainly love watching movies that involve James Bourne or 007. Quite often these movies involve a chase scene through a crowded market, usually on a motorcycle. In those scenes, tables get knocked over. People jump out of the way at the last minute. Things get destroyed, and general mayhem takes over. One of the reasons that I love watching these movies is because it’s so chaotic, so unbelievable. I expect that kind of ruckus from James Bond or James Bourne, but not from Jesus.

But here we see Jesus entering the Temple, what someone called the “beating heart of Judaism” (Wright). This was the center of everything: of worship and music, politics and society. It was the place where Israel’s God had promised to live in the middle of his people. It was the focal point of the nation.

And we see Jesus choosing one of the most important times: Passover, the holiest and most important religious celebration commemorating when God delivered the nation of Israel from captivity in Egypt. And mayhem ensues.

In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father's house a house of trade.” (John 2:14-16)

This is not the Jesus we expect! When this happens, there are Roman troops stationed in the Fortress Antonio overlooking the temple in case there are any problems. And yet Jesus takes deliberate, calculated action. He goes and makes a whip of cords. He comes back and drives the merchants out of the Temple. People are running. Animals are all over the place. Money is flying. Tables are being knocked over. What is going on here?

We’d better be careful to state what’s not going on. This is not Jesus just losing his temper or having a hissy fit. Jesus does not need an anger management course. To dismiss this as the impulsive act of someone with a temper problem would be to miss the whole point of what is happening in this passage. There is anger here, but it is a righteous anger, not an impulsive one. There’s much more to the story than a simple temper tantrum.

John has already told us his thesis: that this is God himself in flesh entering the Temple. You even see a hint of that in verse 17, where the disciples remember a psalm about a righteous sufferer who is consumed with zeal for God’s house. In other words, Jesus enters the Temple as God himself in the flesh, and is filled with righteous anger against what he sees.

And the thing that he judges is religious pretension. He has no time for the religious games going on, for religious hucksters. What has him so angry? It’s the corruption of true worship. It’s that ritual had replaced reality; that religion had become a front for greed. The place that was supposed to represent God’s holy presence had instead become a profit center. Jesus is the enemy of religious pretension.

I guess there are a couple of concepts we have to get our minds around tonight as we think about this. One is the idea that God gets angry; the other is the idea that God, in Jesus, hates religious pretension. In other words, religion can actually be a dangerous thing when it is not genuine worship. You could put a warning label on religion just like you see on a bottle of toxic chemicals. Eugene Peterson said it best: “Religion is the death of some people.”

One of the best things I’ve ever read on both of those topics is in a book with an unusual name: The God Who Smokes. No, it’s not about God lighting up a cigarette. It’s about a God who is…

…so full of passion and blazing emotion that he burns – and yes, smokes in the ferocity of his infinite, holy love that compelled him to give it all away for his Bride. And he who gave it all for us is worth giving ourselves completely to.

The author writes of God’s desire that we not substitute religious pretension for true worship in these words:

God really believes that he is the most worthy, most majestic, magnificent, glorious, stunningly beautiful being in the universe. And he is fixated on the certainty that only he deserves worship – that to him alone belong honor, glory, and praise forever and forever. With red-rimmed, stinging eyes and burning hair, all we can say is – he is right. He is astonishingly beautiful, utterly majestic and perfect in the symmetries of justice and righteousness, knowledge, and wisdom. He is as hypnotically compelling as a surging forest fire and ten times as dangerous. He is out of control – ours, not his.

That's the picture we see in this passage: a God who believes that there is such a thing as true worship; who believes that religious pretension is the enemy of what we need most, which is true worship; and who burns with passion and a desire to overturn religious pretension.

Let’s put it a different way. God wants true worshipers, and he is against everything that becomes a substitute for true worship, even if that substitute is religion. Religion can be a substitute for what we need most, which is a relationship with the true and living God. Chad Walsh said these words:

I suspect that Satan has called off his attempt to convert people to agnosticism. After all, if a person travels far enough away from Christianity, he or she is always in danger of seeing it in perspective and deciding that it is true. It is muchness safer, from Satan's point of view, to vaccinate a person with a mild case of Christianity so as to protect him from the real disease.

It’s a little like this time that I was talking to Charlene. I had my back turned to her and went on for quite a while. I thought we were having a really good conversation. Eventually I turned around and saw that Charlene had long left the room and I didn’t even know it. That’s what is happening here: they are going through all kinds of activities directed to a God who has long stopped paying attention to all of their religious rituals and performances.

As Flannery O’Connor said, one of the best ways to avoid Jesus is to avoid sin. One of the best ways to avoid Jesus is to be religious. Or, as someone else has said, there are two ways to avoid God: irreligion and religion. Religion is just as bad as irreligion. Both are dangerous, because both lead us away from a genuine relationship with God. Jesus is not calling us to religion. Jesus has no time for religion. Jesus has no time for religious pretension. He reserved some of his hardest words and actions for religious people. Ritual can replace reality, and it’s deadly. Jesus calls us to something completely different, which we are going to see in a minute.

What was taking place in the Temple was all the outward activity with none of the genuine reality. The motives had become mixed: it was much more about what they could get from the Temple rather than responding in grateful joy to what God has done. Religion, quite frankly, can be a way of avoiding Jesus. Jesus hates religious pretension.

Jesus replaces it with something better.

This passage is not just about Jesus hating religious pretension. Jesus replaces religious pretension with something far better.

You see this in verse 18. The Jewish leaders ask Jesus for his credentials: what sign does he offer for taking this radical action? It’s a fair question. It’s a way of asking what right he has to clear the Temple like he did.

Listen to what Jesus said in response in verse 19: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The religious leaders were incredulous when they heard this:

The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” (John 2:20)

As they spoke these words, they were standing in what is known as the Second Temple. It had been standing for centuries, but Herod had been working on rebuilding it for decades, and the work still wouldn’t be completed for another thirty-some years. It was a project that lasted over eighty years and involved over ten thousand workers. He did such a good job that he made it even more magnificent than even Solomon's original Temple had been. It ranked among the world's wonders of the day. Even when Jerusalem was attacked and destroyed in 70 CE (A.D.), the commander of that attack tried to spare the Temple from destruction because of its beauty. Listen to what Jesus' disciples said about the Temple: "Teacher, look at these tremendous buildings! Look at the massive stones in the walls!" (Mark 13:1). Josephus, one of the most famous historians of that day, wrote that his Temple project was "the most glorious of his actions...sufficient for an everlasting memorial of him." Herod was a lavish builder of cities and projects, and that has to go down as one of his greatest accomplishments.

So how could Jesus say that they could tear the Temple down, and he would rebuild it in three days? Two things. First, he’s saying that they’re destroying the Temple by their abuses.

When you desecrate the worship of my Father with your white-washed greed, you destroy what this temple is, and you expose it to the wrath of God. It will indeed be destroyed. And that happened 40 years later when the Romans leveled it in A.D. 70. (John Piper)

They’re killing the Temple by their actions, he says. They’re destroying it.

But there is a deeper meaning. He is referring to himself as the Temple.

Just like you kill worship in the temple with your consumerism and materialism, you will kill me. I and my Father are one. If you destroy his house, you destroy me. If you treasure money more than my Father, you will treasure my destruction—and buy it with 30 pieces of silver. (Piper)

Jesus says: Let me give you the sign that I have the authority to condemn the Temple. You are going to kill me, and when you destroy me, I will raise it up again.

So what he's saying is this:

First, that Jesus is the new Temple. We don’t need a building anymore to represent God’s presence on earth. We don’t need the Temple anymore because Jesus is now the connecting point between us and God. In a month we are celebrating Christmas and singing about Emmanuel, God with us. Authentic worship is not be attached to Jerusalem or any other place. It is attached to Jesus. There is no pilgrimage to Jerusalem. There will only the movement of the heart from money and religion to Jesus Christ. Jesus asks us to turn away from religion to himself.

Second, he’s saying that the resurrection is the ultimate authentication that he is who he says he is. Jesus says, “You want proof that I have the right to condemn religious pretension? Just wait until you kill me and then I raise myself up in three days.” The real question for all of us is whether the resurrection really happened or not. Pay attention to this question. If it did, then we need to pay attention to Jesus. If Jesus really did come back from the dead as he said here, we need to pay attention to him, because he is no ordinary man.

That’s what we learn here. Jesus condemns religious pretension, and he replaces it with himself. Jesus is the alternate to the ritual of religion. Jesus is the way of connecting with God. And he gave his life willingly for you so that you could be in relationship with God. Jesus is the way of connecting with God.

Conclusion

This isn’t just a story about some hypocritical religious leaders a long time ago. It’s really our story too. At the end of this passage we learn that the problem isn’t just out there; the problem is within everyone of us as well.

Verses 23 to 25 lay it out for us:

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.

This is amazing. Even among those who trusted Jesus, there is something that is not trustworthy. Jesus knew that even among those who believe, there is something fundamentally wonky. We are prone to get it wrong. Even among those who have true faith in Jesus, there is the possibility that we will ritual will replace reality.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that despite the fact that Jesus knows this about us, he loves us. I love what John Piper says about these verses:

You always have a person who is willing to love you, knowing absolutely everything about you. The reason I say he is “willing to love you” is that Jesus has a special covenant love for those who trust him.

Christianity is not about becoming better people. It’s not about becoming a better version of ourselves through self-improvement. It’s about looking outside of ourselves to the only One who has the power to change us from the inside-out. It’s never about following a set of rules or becoming the best we can be. It’s about looking to Jesus, the only One who is worthy of our trust.

The ground of our hope is never that we will get it right, individually or as a church. The ground of our hope is that there is someone who knows us, who knows how unreliable we can be, and who has come to give himself for us. He is the reality. He invites us to come today to him and trust him.

Jesus exposes our misunderstanding and disobedience and replaces it with something better. Let’s come to him and cast ourselves upon him today.

Overflow (Luke 6:27-38)

It's my privilege to be with you today. On behalf of the Executive of the Toronto Association of the Fellowship, congratulations on celebrating 60 years of ministry. We rejoice with you that God has been faithful these past 60 years, and we pray that God will continue to bless this church in the years to come. We pray that the best years of Wilmar Heights Baptist Church are still to come.

Have you ever had this happen to you? I went to Starbucks recently and ordered a Venti decaf coffee. When it came to me, I looked in the cup and saw that they had left room for cream. Not just a little room; they'd left a good inch or so at the top. I may as well have ordered a smaller size, because that's all I got. I drink my coffee black, so that inch of space at the top is wasted space.

Sometimes when this happens I have the gumption to ask them to fill it all the way up to the top. This time I didn't, so I went over to the milk and filled the rest of the cup up with milk. I don't even drink my coffee with milk in it, but I figured that I'd better get my money's worth anyway.

This morning I want to ask you, individually and as a church: How full do you want God to fill your cup? Do you want God to fill up your cup leaving lots of empty space, or do you want God to fill up your cup right to the top? The reason I'm asking this is because the theme of this coming year for your church is overflow. It's the prayer of your leaders that God would pour out his blessings on this church to such an extent that there isn't enough room to hold all the blessings. In particular, your leaders are praying that God would bless the evangelistic ministry of this church so that people who are currently far from God become followers of Jesus Christ. That's a prayer that's worth praying, and on this anniversary we're asking God to bless the evangelistic impact of this church.

As I prepared for this morning, I kept coming back to a passage of Scripture that speaks of overflow. It's found in Luke 6:37-38:

Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.

Did you catch that? The image is of someone going to the market to buy some grain. You give the merchant some money, and then you hold out your container to be filled with that grain that you've just purchased. Some merchants are going to be stingy. They will fill your container almost to the top and hope that you will accept this and walk away. But that's not what happens in this case. In this case, Jesus speaks of a merchant who gives you a good measure. But he doesn't stop there. He presses the grain down in order to fit more in there. But then he goes even further. He shakes the container to try to settle the grain so he can fit even more in. Have you ever seen the label on a cereal box, "Contents may settle"? It's so that you don't complain that you got a half-empty box. In this case the merchant shakes that container so that everything settles so he can put even more in.

But he doesn't stop there. We then read that the grain is running over. The merchant is so interested in giving you grain that it actually begins to spill over. As you're holding the container, it begins to run into your lap. In those days you may go home holding your cloak as a container so that it can hold the rest of the grain. How do you like that image? How do you like this as a picture of God's generosity and blessing on your life and as the life of the church?

Today I want to ask what it will take for Wilmar Heights to experience that kind of blessing. This passage tells us. This passage gives us three characteristics of people whom God blesses extravagantly. I'm going to give you these three characteristics and then summarize them in one over-arching characteristic, and then ask you to respond.

How can we overflow with God's blessing? Three ways:

One: Rather than hating your enemies, love them.

Look at verses 27 and 28 with me:

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also...

Does anyone here have any enemies? I bet that somebody’s face just entered your mind. Can you think of anyone you’d hate to meet in the supermarket? Is there anyone who’s hurt you so badly that you think about them almost every day, even though they hurt you a long time ago?

I don’t think of myself as someone who normally has enemies, but a couple of things happened this month that made me realize that I do. Last Saturday I attended a graduation. It was a great occasion, and I enjoyed it. After the service I was walking through the foyer when I locked eyes with someone who hurt me a couple of years back. I don’t think I harbor any grudges, but as I looked at his eyes it all came back. I kept on walking because the last thing I wanted to do was to engage in a conversation with him. I didn’t think I had any enemies, but then I realized that I did.

I recently got an email alerting me to the fact that my name had shown up on a website somewhere. I followed the link and began reading what someone had written about me. It was horrible. The worst part was that whoever wrote it hadn’t signed their name. I knew from what was written that it was one out of about a dozen or so people, but I had no way of knowing who it was. The next time I was with that group of people, I remember looking at them. Is it you? Could it be you? I began to imagine ways that I could find out who was responsible and give them what they had coming. I don’t think that I have enemies, but these two recent events reminded me that I am sometimes tempted to hold grudges and resentment against people who have wronged and hurt me.

What do we do when someone hurts us? Jesus says here: love your enemies. Later on, in verse 37, he says, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Do you believe that?

In 1993, a young man was shot to death during an argument. The young man was an only child. The killer was only 16, but was tried as an adult and sentenced to just over 25 years. The killer was eventually released and moved back into his old neighborhood - right next door to his victim’s mother. Listen to what the news story says:

How a convicted murder ended-up living a door jamb away from his victim’s mother is a story, not of horrible misfortune, as you might expect – but of remarkable mercy.

A few years ago Mary asked if she could meet Oshea at Minnesota’s Stillwater state prison. As a devout Christian, she felt compelled to see if there was some way, if somehow, she could forgive her son’s killer.

“I believe the first thing she said to me was, ‘Look, you don’t know me. I don’t know you. Let’s just start with right now,’” Oshea says. “And I was befuddled myself.”

Oshea says they met regularly after that. When he got out, she introduced him to her landlord - who with Mary's blessing, invited Oshea to move into the building. Today they don't just live close - they are close.

Mary was able to forgive. She credits God, of course - but also concedes a more selfish motive.

"Unforgiveness is like cancer," Mary says. "It will eat you from the inside out. It's not about that other person, me forgiving him does not diminish what he's done. Yes, he murdered my son - but the forgiveness is for me. It's for me."

N.T. Wright puts it this way:

Think of the best thing you can do for the worst person, and then go ahead and do it ... Think of the people to whom you are tempted to be nasty, and lavish generosity on them instead.

Do you want to overflow with God’s blessing? Then forgive extravagantly. I could spend an entire sermon or more on this one point, but there’s even more.

Rather than holding on to possessions, give them away.

Jesus says in verses 30 to 34:

Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount.

And then he says in verse 38: “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”

Do you believe this? Are you beginning to see how impossible this is? Maybe this is the reason why we’re not overflowing right now. Most of us aren’t living like this! I was recently having dinner with someone. I even paid for the dinner. I’m trying to eat healthy, so I didn’t order fries, but they did. I thought I would help myself to some of their fries, and it didn’t go well. I began to think, “What a nerve! I’m the one who bought this dinner in the first place!”

One of the greatest tests we face is how generous we are with our stuff. We can fake a lot of things, but it’s hard to fake this one. Here Jesus commands us to live with radical generosity: giving extravagantly and generously without any thought of how it will benefit us. The Bible calls for radical generosity on our parts: to our families, to other believers, to the ministry of the church, to those who aren’t Christians, and even to our enemies.

Let me give you a test that I’ve been using recently. I heard a sermon recently that talked about tipping. I hated it. The guy said that if you are a Christian, you should be tipping with radical generosity. Here’s what he said:

For example, radical generosity – people who tip waiters way beyond what they deserve – requires a gospel explanation. Go to the same restaurant regularly, and even if they’re having a terrible day and their service reflects that, blow them away. Give them an amazing tip. Do that a few times. Eventually they’re going to realize that something’s different about you – because nobody tips according to bad service, they only tip if they got something good for it. But the gospel tells us: we got something good that we don’t deserve for our bad service. That’s gospel-tipping… it gives me an opportunity to talk about the gospel. (Jeff Vanderstelt)

What about if they give you bad service? How should you tip then? Well, how did God treat us when we were undeserving?

Since I heard this message, I’ve been working on my generosity. Last Sunday I took the family out for lunch. When it was time for the bill I pulled out my iPhone and figured out 15% of the pretax amount. That’s what I used to give. I was tempted to write that number down, but instead I gave more, and it hurt. It’s revealing that I have a stingy heart. It reveals the hold that money still has on my heart. I’m working on it.

Do you want to overflow with God’s blessing? Then instead of hating your enemies, love them. Instead of holding on to your possessions, give them away.

There’s one more way that Jesus says that we can overflow with blessing:

Rather than always looking at what is wrong with others, see what is wrong with yourself.

Look at verse 37: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

This is one of those verses that is frequently misapplied. This verse does not mean that we should never notice the faults of others. How do we know this? In just a few verses, Jesus is going to tell us to observe the fruit of people’s lives, because we can discover their true natures when we observe their behavior. Jesus is not telling us to be undiscerning or to not evaluate others.

Here’s what Jesus is condemning: he’s condemning a harsh, judgmental attitude that is always finding fault with others. Jesus is telling us not to usurp God’s place in judging and condemning other people. Don’t always be critical and find fault. Show mercy to others even when they don’t deserve it.

This was illustrated for me last week with the horrible news story of a former pastor being charged with the murder of his wife. How do you respond to that? I have no idea whether he is guilty or not. The courts will eventually decide that. But I can tell you the reaction of two of the most godly people I know. One wrote this:

Another, a pastor friend, expressed interest in going to visit him in prison. Understand; neither one is being naive. Neither one pretends to know the facts of the case. But both are slow to rush to judgment. Both recognize that we should be slow to rush to judgment, and that we should show undeserved grace to even those who are guilty. After all, Jesus points out, we are in need of grace and forgiveness ourselves. Show the mercy you want to receive from God. Nobody here could withstand God’s scrutiny if he didn’t show us grace.

How can we live with God’s blessing? By loving our enemies rather than hating them; by giving away our possessions instead of holding on to them; see what’s wrong with yourself rather than looking at what’s wrong with other people.

If we live this way, Jesus says, “it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” Do you want radical love? Then love others radically. Do you want radical generosity? Then love others radically. Do you want radical grace? Then extend radical grace to others. If we live that way, Jesus says, we will overflow with his blessing.

I hope you can see this morning that nobody here is capable of living this way. This is like saying you’ve got to run a marathon in half an hour, or setting the high-jump bar at twenty feet and telling you to give it your best. The only thing that gives me hope is verses 35 and 36:

...your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

Do you realize what this passage is describing for us? Jesus is describing the characteristics of God himself. Loving? God extends his love to enemies. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Generous? “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). Gracious? “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:12).

There’s been only one person who has ever kept these commands to extravagantly love, give, and extend grace: it’s Jesus. And I’m convinced that the only way to see these qualities develop within us is to keep coming back to what God has done for us. How can we overflow with God’s blessing? By living in light of God’s extravagant grace. Let me say that again: How can we overflow with God’s blessing? By living in light of God’s extravagant grace. The more we see what Jesus has done for us, the more we’ll be prepared to love others. And the more we see Jesus, and the more we extend grace, the more God will pour out his grace upon us until we’re overflowing.

God is not a stingy God. God doesn’t pour the cup until it’s 3/4 full and then stop. God has lavished his love, his gifts, and his grace upon us. And Wilmar Heights, God wants that love, that giving, that grace to be reflected in the way that you live and serve. I pray that this would be a church that overflows with God’s blessing, because this is a church that lives in the light of God’s extravagant grace.

Tested (Luke 22:39-46)

Today I'd like to talk to you about something that's a little difficult. I'd like to talk to you about testing.

I want to begin in Ikea. Right away I know that some of you men think you know where I'm going with this. You think that I'm saying that going to Ikea is a test. Yes, it is a test. If you can go to Ikea with your wife and shop for an hour or so and not get in a fight, then I congratulate you. You have a very healthy marriage. You should actually consider leading a seminar on how to maintain a healthy marriage. I take my hat off to you.

But that's not quite what I want to talk about. In Ikea they have a chair. The chair is like a lot of Ikea stuff: layers of wood glued and pressed together. They want to show you how strong this chair is, so they have a testing machine that pushes a 220 pound weight on the seat, and a 70 pound weight on the back, 50,000 times.

Or take the CN Tower. Years ago my wife and I went to the restaurant up there for our anniversary. Afterwards we went to the observation deck. If you've been there, you know that they have a glass floor 1,100 feet off the ground. It was a bitterly cold night, and I swear that the floor creaked when I stepped on it. Granted, I had just finished eating dinner, but it wasn't the sound that I wanted to hear. I did some research and discovered that it's five times stronger than the required weight-bearing standard for commercial floors. If 14 large hippos could fit in the elevator and get up to the observation deck, the glass floor could withstand their weight. And yet it creaked when I stood on it. Go figure.

Every day of our lives we encounter roads and seats and bridges and floors that have been tested to bear a certain load. And we should be grateful that this is the case. I'd hate to find out the hard way that a bridge wasn't engineered to hold the weight of the car that I'm driving.

But this morning I want to talk to you about the spiritual weight load. How much are you engineered to carry? This is an important question, because you're going to be tested. I know, because we've been in a period of testing recently ourselves. Some of you have been too.

For some of you, the test is going to be like the Ikea chair. It's not going to be a heavy weight, but it's going to be a repetitive one. Push, push, push, 50,000 times. It's not the heaviness of the testing, it's the persistence of the test that is going to leave you feeling like it's been enough.

For others of you, it's going to be like the 14 large hippos jumping on a piece of glass. It's going to be the weight of the testing. I've been reading a book called Wednesdays were Pretty Normal: A Boy, Cancer, And God. It's about a two-year-old boy who came down with cancer. That's a heavy test. For some it's not the repetition; it's the weight of a trial like this that can overwhelm you.

So I'd like to look at a story in Scripture about testing today. It's found in Luke 22. Let me set the scene for you. It's the night before Jesus is taken to the cross. Jesus knows that he is about to be betrayed and arrested. This is an intense period of testing for both Jesus and the disciples. We know this, because Jesus begins and ends this passage by saying to his disciples, "Pray that you may not enter into temptation" (Luke 22:40, 46). The word there is a word that's used for testing, for discovering the nature of someone or something. Jesus and the disciples are going through a severe period of testing together, and he emphasizes the need to pray during this period of severe trial.

This is a watershed moment. This is when we find out what Jesus and the disciples are made of. The consequences are huge at this moment. A lot is at stake. If Jesus doesn't pass this test, everything falls apart. What we're seeing in the garden is huge.

So here's the question. What do we learn about Jesus and about us when we enter a time of testing? Two things.

First: We learn that we can't pass the test.

In this passage we first learn something important about ourselves. This is very important information. This is make or break stuff here. It's critical to learn this, because if you don't you will live your entire life under an illusion. It's an illusion that has the power to crush and destroy you. So let's look at what we learn about ourselves in this passage.

Look at verses 39 and 40 with me:

And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

Do you ever ask someone to do one relatively simple thing, realizing that it may be difficult to do more than that, but one should be manageable? Parents, do you ever ask your kids to clear the table when you go out? Then you come home and the table's full of dirty plates and food that you have to throw out. Or at work you delegate one thing to someone else while you cover the rest, and you come back and it's not done at all.

In this passage Jesus gives the disciples one thing to do, and it's not even that hard. They're under tremendous stress. Jesus has told them that he's going to be betrayed by one of them. He's turned to Peter and told him that he, Peter, is going to deny him. They know that tensions are swirling. And Jesus tells them that he wants them to do just one thing: to pray. It's not even that hard. He gives them an easy prayer too: Pray that they won't enter into temptation. Pray that they won't be tested. Jesus is essentially telling them, "Look, do just one thing. We're entering into the crucible of testing. Would you please pray that you will be spared from more testing. I have to go through this, but pray that you'll be spared." It's amazingly easy. It's like asking to be exempted from an exam at school. Jesus tells them to do one thing, and that's to pray that they get out of the time of testing.

But look what happens. Read verses 45 and 46:

And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

Notice two things here. One, they flunk. Jesus gives them one thing to do, and they fail. This is the watershed moment, the climatic point in the Gospel of Luke so far, and they're asleep. Not their finest moment. Translation: they have revealed what they are able to handle under testing, and it's not very much.

But notice something else. Notice that they get off relatively unscathed. For one thing, Luke kind of gives them an excuse. He says they were "sleeping from sorrow." Luke seems almost sympathetic in reporting what happened. Even Jesus goes pretty easy on them. He gives them a mild rebuke, but he's much more restrained than I would be.

You see, Jesus and the disciples were entering the crucible of testing. They were about to discover what they're made of. And what we learn about the disciples is important, because what's true of the disciples is true of us as well. Here's what he learn: We don't stand up very well under testing. We generally fail the test. You push us 50,000 times, and we'll probably snap at some point. You put us under the weight of a huge test, and we probably won't do very well. Here's what we learn in this passage: We are incapable of passing the test on our own.

This is so important because, frankly, a lot of us are trying. And we're continually disappointed that we don't. I'm reading a book by Steve Brown these days. He tells the story about a man named Clarence who had a frog named Felix. Clarence worked at WalMart, but he had dreams of getting rich, so he decided he would teach Felix the frog to fly. Who wouldn't pay to see a flying frog?

The frog wasn't that excited. "I can't fly, you twit. I'm a frog, not a canary!"

Clarence wasn't impressed. "That negative attitude of yours could be a real problem. We're going to remain poor, and it will be your fault."

So they got to work. Clarence explained that their building had fifteen floors, and that each day Felix would jump out of a window, starting with the first floor and eventually getting to the top floor. After each jump, they would analyze what worked well and tweak the process in preparation for the next floor.

Felix tried his best, but things didn't go to well. THUD! He tried different strategies, and even tried a cape, but the result was the same. THUD! On the seventh day, the frog said, "You know you're killing me, don't you?" And that day Felix the frog took one final leap and went to the great lily pad in the sky.

Steve Brown, who tells this story, was once a pastor. After relating to the story, listen to what he said:

A number of years ago, I realized that I was, as it were, trying to teach frogs to fly. Frogs can't fly. Not only that, but they get angry when you try to teach them. The gullible ones will try, but they eventually get hurt so bad, even they quit trying. And let me tell you a secret: the really sad thing about being a "frog flying teacher" is that I can't fly either.

Do you hear that? Steve Brown is telling us the same thing that this passage is telling us. We cannot pass the test. No matter how hard we try, no matter how much effort we make, when tested, we are found wanting. Church is not a good person telling good people how to be good, as Mark Twain put it. Church this morning is a broken person person telling broken people that they're broken. We flunk the test! We get a glimpse of ourselves in this passage, and it's important for us to see this, because it will save us a lifetime of trying to fly out windows when we were never made to fly.

This passage reveals what happens to us when we're tested. We cannot pass the test.

But that's not the whole story. We've seen what's true of us: We can't pass the test. But then:

Second, see that Jesus was severely tested, and that that he passed the test.

Read verses 41-44 with me:

And he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

Do you realize the severity of the test that Jesus was going through? First, he was abandoned. His closest friends were standing apart from him asleep, and he was alone, completely alone, to face the greatest trial of his life.

Not only was he abandoned, but he realized what he was about to face. He prays about the cup of suffering that he was about to taste. The cup in Scripture is used to refer to God's wrath.

Jesus was facing something that nobody else in history has ever faced. From eternity he had enjoyed perfect communion with the Father, a relationship of absolute intimacy and love. But at the cross Jesus was for the first time cut off from his Father. At the cross Jesus would take on our sin and bear the wrath of God. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he experienced a bit of that and it put him into shock.

New Testament scholar Bill Lane writes, "Jesus came to be with the Father for an interlude before his betrayal, but found hell rather than heaven opened before him, and he staggered."

Centuries ago Jonathan Edwards said:

The thing that Christ's mind was so full of at that time was...the dread which his feeble human nature had of that dreadful cup, which was vastly more terrible than Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace. He had then a near view of that furnace of wrath, into which he was to be cast; he was brought to the mouth of the furnace that he might look into it, and stand and view its raging flames, and see the glowings of its heat, that he might know where he was going and what he was about to suffer. This was the thing that filled his soul with sorrow and darkness, this terrible sight as it were overwhelmed him...None of God's children ever had such a cup set before them, as this first being of every creature had.

In the Garden, Jesus had a foretaste of what it would be like to be abandoned by God, the relationship that was infinitely more intimate and valuable than any relationship we could lose. If Jesus hadn't have been abandoned by God like this, we would have to be. It was either him or us.

In the dark, when nobody else was looking, he experienced the abandonment of his friends, he also began also to experience the cup of God's abandonment of him, the full weight of the wrath of God that weighed upon him.

Notice how he struggled under that load. In fact, an angel was sent to strengthen him, but it only led to greater intensity and struggle in his prayer. This is the peak of Jesus' struggle. After this you never get any sense of internal struggle in Jesus as he's arrested and tried and as he goes to the cross. But here he struggles. He's tested, and the struggle is intense, far more intense than what the disciples went through.

And notice: Jesus passes the test. It's like the disciples go through a minor test and they fail. And Jesus goes through the most intense test that anyone in history has endured. It's so intense that even Jesus receives strengthening. But he passes the test. He asks if there is another way, but he submits to his Father's will and moves forward in obedience.

Here's what Luke is telling us: Where we fail, Jesus succeeds. Where we fail the test, Jesus passed. Despite the fact that Jesus is tested far more severely than the disciples, he passes the test, and the disciples don't.

But wait. There's one more thing we need to look at. Why does Jesus tell them to pray, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation"? This was bothering me as I thought about it this week. Jesus didn't tell them to pray that they would be able to stand up to the time of testing. He asked them to pray that they would escape the time of testing.

As I was wrestling through this, it finally came to me: Jesus knew that they couldn't pass the test. Jesus knew that they had no hope of standing up to the crucible of testing that he was going through. Jesus knew that he would be arrested, tried, and killed. This was his God-given vocation; this was what he was sent to do. He also knew that he would go alone into the hour and the power of darkness. He would go, but he would not take them down with him.

Then it hit me: Jesus knew that he was not only passing the test, but he was passing the test for them. You know that this passage is telling us? Jesus passed the test that we failed, but he did it so that we could pass even though we failed. On the cross, Jesus bore the weight of our failure. On the cross, Jesus passed the test on our behalf. His obedience was credited to our account, so that we passed through Jesus even though we failed.

Do you know what that means? It means that we don't need to become flying frogs to please God. It means we acknowledge that we cannot withstand the test on our own strength. But it also means that we can have complete confidence in the one who has already passed the test for us. "The Bible's purpose is not so much to show you how to live a good life. The Bible's purpose is to show you how God’s grace breaks into your life against your will and saves you from the sin and brokenness otherwise you would never be able to overcome" (Tim Keller).

On the same day, Rebecca Pippert attended two very different events: a graduate-level psychology class at Harvard University and a Christian Bible study adjacent to Harvard. She offered the following observations on how the two groups addressed (or failed to address) their faults, problems, and sins:

First, the students [in the graduate-level psychology class] were extraordinarily open and candid about their problems. It wasn't uncommon to hear them say, "I'm angry," "I'm afraid," "I'm jealous" …. Their admission of their problems was the opposite of denial. Second, their openness about their problems was matched only by their uncertainty about where to find resources to overcome them. Having confessed, for example, their inability to forgive someone who had hurt them, [they had no idea how to] resolve the problem by forgiving and being kind and generous instead of petty and vindictive.

One day after the class, I dropped in on a Bible study group in Cambridge. [The contrast] was striking. No one spoke openly about his or her problems. There was a lot of talk about God's answers and promises, but very little about the participants and the problems they faced. The closest thing to an admission [of sin or a personal problem] was a reference to someone who was "struggling and needs prayer."

"The first group [the psychology class] seemed to have all the problems and no answers; the second group [the Bible study] had all the answers and no problems."

Do you know what really happens when we understand what Jesus has done for us? We can be like the first group and be completely honest about our problems. But we can also have confidence because we realize our confidence isn't in ourselves, but in Jesus who passed on our behalf.

A minister used to tell his people, "Cheer up, you're worse than you think." Think about it. He was telling them to cheer up despite the fact that they're failing the test, because they don't have to pass anymore. Jesus has passed.

I was at the gym on Friday, and I noticed that the guy beside me had a t-shirt on that said, "Ernst and Young. I passed!" It made me want to get a t-shirt that said, "Jesus and me. I failed!" But then I'd have to add that Jesus passed the test that we failed, but he did it so that we could pass even though we failed.

Tim Keller often prays this prayer which captures it well: "Lord Jesus Christ, I admit that I am weaker and more sinful than I ever before believed, but, through you, I am more loved and accepted than I ever dared hope." I invite you to come this morning in your failure, in your weakness, in your brokenness, and admit all of this in complete honesty, and then to revel in the fact that you're loved anyway because of what Jesus endured when he passed the test on your behalf.

Why Plant Churches? (Romans 15:14-21)

I want to take you back to a recent evening in our lives that marked an ending for us, and a beginning. I want to take you there so I can ask you a question that was asked about us that night.

The night was January 15th. On that night we marked the end of almost 14 years of ministry at Richview Baptist Church in Toronto. We had one of our two kids while we were there. We had spent some of the best years of our lives while I pastored at Richview. On that evening we were saying goodbye to our church family. My library was in storage. I remember very clearly the feeling of leaving the keys on my desk and closing the door to my study for the very last time, knowing that the next morning I’d begin work on converting a room in my basement into my new study.

That evening, someone who loves us and who has appreciated our ministry asked an question about our plans to leave Richview and to begin a church plant. The question was asked quietly: Does Toronto really need another church? Another way of putting the question is this: Why bother with church planting when Toronto already has so many churches already?

It’s a great question. In fact, it’s a question that I’ve asked many times in the past as well. Toronto has so many churches that are plateaued or in decline. Why start a new church? Why not put a moratorium on church planting and just focus on revitalizing existing churches? Does Toronto really need a new church? It’s a great question, and there’s a great answer as well.

In the passage we have before us this morning, the apostle Paul is concluding his letter to the Roman church. His letter is one of the high points of theological insight within Scripture. As he gets to the end of his book, he tips his hand about the reason that he’s writing. After all, he didn’t start the church in Rome and he had never visited it. Paul gives the answer in this passage. In Romans 15:14-16 he says that he wants to remind them of what they already know, because he’s an apostle to the Gentiles, and they’re a predominantly Gentile church.

But then he begins talking about his church planting ministry. In this passage Paul gives us three reasons why church planting is so important. So this morning I want to simply do what Paul does in this passage. Let me give you three reasons why church planting is important, and then let me do what Paul does as well. Let me challenge you to see how you can play a role.

So let’s look at three reasons why we need to plant churches. And then let me tell you how you can be involved in one of the greatest ministries that we have before us at this time.

Why plant churches?

One: Plant churches as an act of worship.

Look at verses 14 to 16 with me:

I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:14-16)

There are many ways that you can think of church planting. Close your eyes and picture what comes to your mind when you think of a church planter. Here’s what I think of: a 20-something young guy with an edge and a Mac computer who likes to blog and hang out at coffee shops. That’s the image that many people have of a church planter. Or maybe you think of church planters that you know. I think of guys like my church planting friends Dan, Joe, Paul, and Tim. I don’t know what image you have of a church planter, but I will bet it’s not the image that Paul gives us here.

Here’s the image that Paul gives us. He gives us the image of a Jewish priest offering a sacrifice to God. But the priest isn’t offering an animal sacrifice or using a knife. Instead, Paul gives us a shocking image. He pictures the church planter as a priest using the gospel as the tool, and the new Gentile believers as the offering. Remember that Gentiles were forbidden to enter the temple. But here Gentiles are in the temple, and they’re being offered as an acceptable sacrifice because they have been made holy by the Holy Spirit. It’s a jarring image, and it’s worth chewing on for a long time I think.

Why plant churches? The first reason Paul gives us is a doxological one. We plant churches as an act of worship to God. We plant churches because we want to fulfill our priestly ministry of offering to God people who were far away from him, but who have been sanctified by the Holy Spirit and who are now acceptable sacrifices of worship to him. Church planting is an act of worship. It’s like what John Piper said, if I could adapt what he’s said:

[Church planting] is not the ultimate goal of the Church. Worship is. [Church planting] exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not [church planting], because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, [church planting] will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever.

Worship, therefore, is the fuel and goal of [church planting]. It’s the goal of [church planting] because in [church planting] we simply aim to bring the nations into the white hot enjoyment of God’s glory. The goal of [church planting] is the gladness of the peoples in the greatness of God. “The Lord reigns; let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!” (Ps 97:1). “Let the peoples praise thee, O God; let all the peoples praise thee! Let the nations be glad and sing for joy!” (Ps 67:3-4).

But worship is also the fuel of [church planting]. Passion for God in worship precedes the offer of God in preaching. You can’t commend what you don’t cherish. Missionaries will never call out, “Let the nations be glad!” who cannot say from the heart, “I rejoice in the Lord…I will be glad and exult in thee, I will sing praise to thy name, O Most High” (Ps 104:34, 9:2). [Church planting] begins and ends in worship.

We have our eyes on a neighborhood in Toronto. And I own a Mac and I’ll probably hang out in coffee shops in that area, and I may even work on my blog. But the image that I have in my mind as I move into that area is that of a priest. I want to go in as a priest in that area and offer God an offering of people who have been transformed by the gospel and the Holy Spirit. That’s the first reason why church planting is so important. It’s an act of worship to God. It’s so that we can offer the sacrifice of transformed lives to God in worship.

But there’s a second reason why we should church plant:

Two: Church planting is strategic.

Read what Paul says in verses 17 to 19:

In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ… (Romans 15:17-19 ESV)

Paul seems a little confident in this passage. We’re not used to hearing somebody talk about being proud of their work for God. And in verse 19 Paul makes an audacious claim: that he’s fulfilled his ministry by planting churches in a circle or arc from Jerusalem all the way to Illyricum. This is a huge area, from Jerusalem all the way to what we would call Albania today. It’s just northeast of Italy. We read later on that Paul is even planning to branch out further to Spain. Paul says that he’s fulfilled his ministry throughout this vast area. How is this even possible? There were only a small number of churches.

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Here’s what I think Paul means. He means that churches had been planted in key population centers so that those churches could carry out the work of evangelism themselves. Paul believed that by planting churches in cities, those churches would continue to grow and spread and influence the entire regions surrounding those cities. Paul’s own distinctive ministry of starting foundational and strategic churches had been fulfilled, and the name of Christ would soon be heard throughout its borders. This is exactly what happened. It reminds me of the pioneers. As soon as they were close enough to see the smoke rising from a neighbor’s house, they knew it was time to move on and populate a new area.

Tim Keller puts it this way:

Paul's whole strategy was to plant urban churches. The greatest missionary in history, St.Paul, had a rather simple, two-fold strategy. First, he went into the largest city of the region (cf. Acts 16:9,12), and second, he planted churches in each city (cf. Titus 1:5- "appoint elders in every town"). Once Paul had done that, he could say that he had 'fully preached' the gospel in a region and that he had 'no more work' to do there (cf. Romans 15:19,23). This means Paul had two controlling assumptions: a) that the way to most permanently influence a country was through its chief cities, and b) the way to most permanently influence a city was to plant churches in it. Once he had accomplished this in a city, he moved on. He knew that the rest that needed to happen would follow.

Keller concludes:

The vigorous, continual planting of new congregations is the single most crucial strategy for 1) the numerical growth of the Body of Christ in any city, and 2) the continual corporate renewal and revival of the existing churches in a city. Nothing else--not crusades, outreach programs, para-church ministries, growing mega-churches, congregational consulting, nor church renewal processes--will have the consistent impact of dynamic, extensive church planting.

If you want to see Ontario transformed, here’s what we need to do. We need to go to key urban centers like Toronto and plant churches. They’re like beachheads. It’s the most strategic thing we can do. And those church plants are not only going to have an influence on those cities. Like it or not, what happens in the city influences the entire region as a whole. And if churches are planted in places like Toronto, it’s going to have a strategic influence on a much larger area than we realize.

That’s why we need to church plant. Church planting is an act of worship, but it’s also strategic. It’s so strategic that Paul believed that churches planted in major population centers would be enough to spread the gospel in that entire region. That’s the second reason why church planting is so important.

Church planting is an act of worship. Church planting is strategic. There’s one more reason why church planting is important:

Three: Church planting is evangelistic.

Paul writes:

…and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else's foundation, but as it is written,

“Those who have never been told of him will see,
and those who have never heard will understand.”
(Romans 15:20-21 ESV)

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Here’s a map of Toronto that has our current Fellowship churches. Notice that there are entire areas - particularly downtown - where we don’t have any churches. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t churches there. It must means that we don’t have any churches in those areas.

What struck me is that many of these areas are ones that are exploding with growth. The population of Toronto has grown by 9% in the last five years. Condos are springing up all over the place in locations where we just don’t have any churches. Paul said it was his ambition to preach the gospel where it hasn’t been preached. We have this opportunity right in Toronto.

The opportunity we have before us is one that goes back all the way to Isaiah 52:5. Paul quotes it in verse 21:

Those who have never been told of him will see,
and those who have never heard will understand.

Why church plant? Because I have the opportunity of participating in something that started a long time ago. Those who have not yet been told of the Lord must know. People who have never heard the gospel must understand. Church planting is a means of evangelizing areas where Christ is not yet named, and that includes huge parts of Toronto.

Charles Simeon said:

Who that knows the value of his own soul, must not pant after the salvation of the souls of others? And who, that knows his obligations to God, must not long to serve God in a way so acceptable to his mind, and so conducive to his glory? Let me not, then, call you to this work in vain. If there be any who are by education and by grace fitted for personal exertion in that field of labour, let him, like the Prophet, stand forth, and say, “Here am I: send me.” If it be only in a subordinate manner that you are able to assist in this good cause, still let it be seen that your heart is in it, and your labour according to the full extent of your ability. In your contributions, be liberal after your power: and in whatever way you can be useful, “give yourselves to the work” with cheerfulness, and persevere in it with diligence. Certainly, if ever united exertions were called for, it is now, when God is so evidently prospering the work, and putting honour on those who are engaged in it — — — “Come then, all of you, to the help of the Lord:” and “whatever your hand findeth to do, do it with all your might.”

So that, Paul says, is why he’s a church planter. He’s a church planter because church planting is an act of worship. He’s a church planter because church planting is strategic. And he’s a church planter because church planting is evangelistic.

But then Paul does what I have to do as well. Paul enlists the Romans and enlists their help in what he’s doing. He says in verse 24: “I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while” (Romans 15:24). And he asks them to pray for him as well. Douglas Moo says, “Paul here hints at one of his main purposes in writing Romans: the need to get help from the Romans for his projected Spanish mission.” He wants Rome to be the base of his support for his mission in Rome.

You see, although Paul has planted churches all throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, he’s not done yet. He still wants to go even farther, to far edge of the Mediterranean, and spread the gospel there as well. Paul’s not done planting churches as long as there are still more population centers that need the gospel.

You see, church planting is about more than a church planter. You need people praying. You need bases of support. You need all kinds of people taking all kinds of roles.

I saw this picture recently:

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Deck Hands Needed

Live Aboard
Low Pay
Long Hours
Good Food

Permanent Crew Space Available
Opportunity of a Lifetime

It reminded me of the quote from Sir Ernest Shackleton, from the advertisement he used when recruiting men for his expedition to Antarctica in 1914:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.

That’s the adventure of church planting. It’s worth it because it’s an act of worship, and because it’s strategic and evangelistic. And it’s why you should consider partnering in planting churches as well.

Blessed Are the Persecuted (Matthew 5:10-12)

This morning we’re coming to the last of the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are part of the sermon that Jesus preached in his famous Sermon on the Mount. Jesus began by pronouncing blessing on surprising categories of people, people we normally don’t think of as blessed: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the spiritually hungry, and so on. Many of these Beatitudes jar us, but we’ve come to see their beauty and even welcome the upside-down nature of the kingdom of heaven that is breaking into this world through the ministry of Jesus Christ.

But today we come to the least favorite Beatitude of all. It’s a Beatitude that, if we’re honest, we don’t like to think about very long. In Matthew 5:10-12, Jesus said:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

This past week I read that Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani faces imminent execution for charges of abandoning Islam and refusing to recant his Christian faith. The 34-year-old husband and father of two may now be executed at any moment without warning, according to a new and apparently final trial court verdict. Nadarkhani is now approaching 900 days separated from his wife, his two sons, and his church. And Jesus is saying that he is blessed?

Charlene and I once attended a meeting at our son’s school. The room was packed with parents. The topic was a contentious issue in which Christians are out of step with society. I wasn’t threatened with prison or overtly persecuted, but you could feel the tension in the room against anyone who would hold a view on the matter that was out of step with the prevailing view. I went home that night rattled, and I wouldn’t even call that persecution. Are we really blessed when this happens?

So I have some questions about this Beatitude, and you may too. My two main questions are this: What does Jesus mean? And how does this work? So let’s follow these questions and try to see if we can come up with some answers that make sense, before we consider how this can show up in our lives today.

So the first question is this: What does Jesus mean?

What does Jesus mean when he says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted…Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account”?

We should first look at what Jesus doesn’t mean.

Does anyone here have a bucket list? A bucket list is a list of things you want to do before you kick the bucket. People have created lists with all kinds of goals: to own a Ferrari, to visit exotic locations, to parachute, and more. I read one person’s bucket list which included this unusual goal: “To fight off a bear,” followed by this comment, “That might end my bucket list for sure right there.”

So here’s what Jesus isn’t saying. He isn’t saying that we should add “experience persecution” to our bucket list. This is not a command from Jesus to go out and look for persecution. So rest easy: I will not be telling you to go out tomorrow and try to look for ways to be persecuted at work and at school. I won’t be telling you that unless your neighbors hate you, you’re obviously doing something wrong. That’s what he’s not saying.

But don’t get too comfortable, because this Beatitude hints at something that Jesus says repeatedly elsewhere: We may not aim to experience persecution, but those who are part of his kingdom will experience it. So don’t look for it, don’t aim to experience it, but know that it’s coming. Jesus said, for instance:

You will be hated by all for my name's sake… (Matthew 10:22)

Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. (John 15:20)

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

The Apostle Paul later wrote:

For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake… (Philippians 1:29)

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted… (2 Timothy 3:12)

Jesus’ kingdom has arrived and is breaking into history here and now. As his kingdom breaks into this world, there is a clash of two kingdoms. And as those two kingdoms clash, members of Christ’s kingdom will inevitably get caught up in the clash.

We just finished watching The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy again. If you’ve ever watched the movies or read the books, you’ll remember that there is a clash of kingdoms between the dark lord Sauron and the hobbits and everyone else. There are some pretty spectacular battles as these rival kingdoms clash. At one point, Sam asks, “I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?” For Frodo and Sam to understand what’s happening to them, they have to understand the bigger picture, and that picture includes a clash of kingdoms.

The same thing applies to us. If you have come under the kingship of Jesus, you’ve fallen into a larger story. And that story is the story of a clash of kingdoms. So Jesus isn’t saying that we should go looking for persecution, but he says that we will experience it as citizens of his inbreaking kingdom.

In fact, Jesus gives us the reasons we’ll be persecuted. It will be for righteousness’ sake. But he also says that people will say false things about us. When persecuted, they probably won’t say, “I’m persecuting you because you are such a good, righteous person.” Early Christians were charged with being immoral, atheists, and enemies of the state. They were charged with being immoral because they kept talking about loving their brothers and sisters. They were charged with being atheists because they refused to worship the Roman gods. They were charged with being enemies of the state because they said that Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord. None of the charges were true. When persecuted, the charge will always be something else. You won’t be charged with being righteous, but you may be accused of being intolerant or disloyal or not a team player.

This is actually an important part of what it means to be on mission. If you’re not on mission, you probably won’t be persecuted. You’re not persecuted for retreating from the world; you’re only persecuted as you engage it. Sri Lankan missionary Ajith Fernando said this a couple of years ago:

The West is fast becoming an unreached region. The Bible and history show that suffering is an essential ingredient in reaching unreached people. Will the loss of a theology of suffering lead the Western church to become ineffective in evangelism?…Christians in both the East and the West need to have a firm theology of suffering if they are to be healthy and bear fruit.

This message is especially relevant for us as we think about God’s call to join him on mission. That mission entails suffering. The suffering may not be as severe as it is in other parts of the world, but it will happen. We may face rejection and hatred as we tell others about Jesus. We may be fired because we refuse to follow dishonest practices that are routine at work. We may face hostility because people think we’re intolerant. The more we are on mission, the more likely it is that we’ll experience persecution.

Jesus isn’t saying that we should go looking for persecution, but he is saying that we will experience it. And when we do, he’s saying that we can consider ourselves blessed. I love how N.T. Wright puts it: it’s a “summons to live in the present in the way that will make sense in God’s promised future, because that future has arrived in the present in Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus is saying we can live in line with his kingdom even when it leads to a clash with rival kingdoms, and we can consider ourselves blessed even when persecuted. That’s what he is saying: we can be blessed even when persecuted. That’s what it means.

This leads to my second question: How does this work?

I get the idea of what Jesus is saying. My real question is how this works. How is it possible to face suffering and persecution and to know that I’m blessed even as I’m persecuted? How is it possible to rejoice when people are persecuting me on his account?

Jesus tells us how. He says that we’re to think about two things.

First, think about what we have coming to us. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched a marathon. One thing strikes me as I look at runners who are in the middle of a marathon: they don’t look happy. I’ve never seen a runner at the 20-mile mark of a marathon smiling. They just don’t look very happy. If you ask me, I probably look a lot happier on the sidelines sipping my Starbucks and eating a brownie. If you ask them why they are putting up with the obvious pain and the strenuous effort they’ll tell you: it’s because of what’s coming at the end. They’re going to experience something at the finish line that I never will. They will receive a medal. They’ll have their picture taken as they cross the finish line. And they’ll hear the applause that I’ll never hear as I don’t run.

That’s kind of the image that Jesus gives us. Why would anyone choose a life that could lead to being persecuted? Why would we put up with that when we could be kicking back now? It’s not because it looks fun. It’s because of payoff that’s coming at the finish line. You see, a runners aren’t smiling at the 20-mile mark, but they are at the finish line. The hope of what’s coming is what keeps them going.

The only way to find blessing even under persecution is to remember there’s something even more valuable than a persecution-free life. When we’re captivated by what we gain, we’ll know that we’re blessed even when we’re persecuted.

Let’s put it another way. A few years ago the first iPad came out. I thought I’d wait until it came to Canada but I gave up and drove to Buffalo to buy one. Three, actually, but that’s a longer story. I got my iPad home and absolutely loved it. If somebody said, “Would you give up your iPad?” I’d answer, “Absolutely not!” But then something happened. The second generation iPad came out. Suddenly I was willing to give up my iPad because something better than the iPad generation one came out. On March 7 this will be repeated again, because the rumor is that a third-generation iPad is coming out. I’m only willing to trade what I value when something of even greater value comes along.

That’s what Jesus is saying. There isn’t a person in this room who doesn’t value comfort. If I came and asked you, “Are you willing to give up a persecution-free life?” not many of us would say, “Sure!” The only way to be willing to suffer is if we value something even more than we value our comfort. But when we give something up for the kingdom, we give nothing up at all.

It’s like if you had a million dollars in the bank, but you needed a 61¢ stamp, but you were too cheap to buy the stamp. That would be ridiculous. In this passage, it’s as if Jesus is comparing the persecution and suffering to the 61¢, but the payoff as enormous. You can’t compare the million dollars to the price of a stamp.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a leading physician in England who became a pastor. When we became a pastor he took a 90% cut in pay and took a big step down. Someone once asked him about the sacrifice he made to become a pastor. Lloyd-Jones said, “I gave up nothing; I received everything.”

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…” Jesus tells us that we can rejoice when we’re suffering as we think about what we have coming to us.

Elisabeth Elliott, whose husband was martyred, said:

We have proved beyond any doubt that He means what He says--His grace is sufficient, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. We pray that if any, anywhere, are fearing that the cost of discipleship is too great, that they may be given to glimpse that treasure in heaven promised to all who forsake.

So think about what you have coming to you. But there’s more. Jesus says to think of one more thing when we suffer:

Second, think of the company you’re keeping. Jesus says in verse 12, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

At first glance, this sounds ridiculous. Jesus is saying that when we suffer, we should rejoice because we’re joining a long line of people who have suffered for the kingdom too. You too can be like them. Take the prophet Jeremiah. He was called the weeping prophet. He was shunned, rejected, imprisoned, beaten, and persecuted for fifty years. When he complained to God one time, God told him it would get worse. Tradition says that he was eventually stoned to death in Egypt. Jeremiah once said:

Why did I come out from the womb
to see toil and sorrow,
and spend my days in shame?
(Jeremiah 20:18)

Jesus says that when you’re persecuted, you can rejoice, because you’re joining a long line-up that includes people like Jeremiah. Jesus says we should rejoice because of this. How does this possibly work?

But I saw a picture recently that helped me understand it. Here it is:

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Deck Hands Needed
Live Aboard
Low Pay
Long Hours
Good Food
Permanent Crew Space Available
Opportunity of a Lifetime

Who would sign up for this? I think I would. It reminded me of the quote from Sir Ernest Shackleton, from the advertisement he used when recruiting men for his expedition to Antarctica in 1914:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.

When you suffer, you are joining a long and growing list of people who have risked everything for Jesus. It’s a privilege for us to be counted in their number. We can join some of those that the writer to the Hebrews talks about:

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (Hebrews 11:32-38)

We get to join the company of all those who have suffered for his name, including the 150,000 Christians who are martyred for their faith every year. We get to join people like the Iranian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, and be counted in that number.

Listen to how this has worked itself out in practice. Listen to how people through history have been able to rejoice when experiencing persecution because they remembered the rewards and the company they were keeping.

Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. (Acts 5:41)

And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20:22-24)

Listen to some examples from history.

When a woman was taken out into the arena to be killed by the beasts, she said, "This is my day of coronation."

In December 1666, Hugh MacHale was given four days to live and then marched back to the prison. On the way back to the prison he saw a friend and said, "Good news; wonderful good news! I am within four days of enjoying the sight of Jesus, my Savior!"

James Guthrie woke up in the condemned cell on the morning of his execution. His servant was weeping, and he said, "Stop that at once. This is the day that the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it."

Listen to two example from recent history. Before he died a missionary named Jim Elliott said, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

Missionary Karen Watson went to Iraq and knew she might die. That's why she left a letter with her pastor before going to Iraq. She went to provide humanitarian relief in the name of Jesus—but she was gunned down in the country she came to serve. The letter began, "You're only reading this if I died." It included gracious words to family and friends, and this simple summary of following Christ: “To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, his glory my reward.”

Youcef Nadarkhani, the Iranian pastor, wrote to his congregation and said, “[The true believer] does not need to wonder for the fiery trial that has been set on him as though it were something unusual, but it pleases him to participate in Christ's suffering because the believer knows he will rejoice in [Christ's] glory.”

All of these rejoiced as they suffered because they remembered their reward and the company they keep.

But I’ve left the best example for last this morning. That example is the one who spoke these words: Jesus. In fact, Jesus is the embodiment of all the Beatitudes. Jesus chose to leave his place of safety. He chose the path of suffering. He “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). When we see what Jesus did for us, we will know that it’s more than worth it to suffer for his sake.

I don’t wish suffering on anyone. I certainly don’t wish it for myself. But it is part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, especially as we live on mission. It’s worth it because of what we’re going to receive, and because of the company we’re keeping when we suffer. And it’s worth it because Jesus was willing to suffer for us so that we could be part of his kingdom, a kingdom that will never end.

What Matters Most (Galatians 6:11-18)

Every Tuesday night I teach a class. Last Tuesday was the first class of the term. I began to emphasize how important the subject of my class is, and why it’s really important. One of the students raised his hand and very tactfully reminded me that every teacher says that their subject is the most important. How, he asked, is he supposed to reconcile all the claims about what matters most?

By my calculations, I’ve preached five or six hundred sermons here, and now this is my last. I’m sure that over the years I’ve said that this is most important or that is most important. But by God’s grace my last sermon as your pastor actually does end on what is most important. I’m not just saying that as pastors do. Pastors lie all the time when they say, “This is the most important point.” They don’t mean to, but they’re lying. That’s not what I’m doing today. This actually is the most important thing. It is the thing that is most important for me to leave behind as I conclude my ministry here.

Notice how important it is. We’ve been studying the book of Galatians together since September. Up until now, Paul has dictated the letter through a scribe. But now look at what he says: “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand” (Galatians 6:11). Paul now takes the pen in his own hand and pens the conclusion to this letter.

Now let’s pause here. Paul often concludes his letter by signing his own name. It’s like a signature. That way the recipients know that the letter really is from him. But this time Paul doesn’t just sign his name. He writes a conclusion and summary of the entire book. Notice that he does so in large letters. Why the large letters? Some people guess that it’s because of Paul’s bad eyesight. That’s possible. But it’s also possible that Paul is taking the pen in hand at the end of this letter and underlining and highlighting his central message. It’s the only time in any of his letters that he provides a concluding summary of his book in this way.

Let me tell you why this is important. One reason is that Paul thinks it’s important, and that’s a pretty good reason. But let me tell you also that it’s important because what he is going to say will make or break this church. What he says in this conclusion will make or break your life, actually. This is vitally important. There is really nothing that is more important than this.

So without further introduction, let’s get to what he says. What he says is this: What’s most important is that you avoid false gospels, and instead boast in the cross. What is most important for you individually, and you as a church, is two things: that you avoid the false gospel of self-salvation, and that you instead boast only and exclusively in the cross.

First: Avoid the false gospel of self-salvation.

The first thing that Paul says as he picks up his pen is that he warns us. He warns us against a tendency that we all have. He warns us of a danger that can and will seep into our churches. The danger is this: that we will want to contribute something to our salvation. The danger is that we will try to add to the gospel, and by doing so will actually subtract from the gospel and end up destroying our souls. It’s not that we try to blatantly replace the gospel. We simply add to it. And adding to it destroys it.

A.W. Pink once said, “The greatest mistake made by people is hoping to discover in themselves that which is to be found in Christ alone.” Or as Tullian Tchividjian says, "The most dangerous thing that can happen to you is that you become proud of your obedience." Think about that. Our greatest danger, our greatest mistake, is that we look to ourselves and our obedience rather than to Jesus Christ.

How does Paul say this? Look at verses 12-14:

It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh.

Paul says that there is a counterfeit gospel that will seep into our lives and into our churches. It is one of the greatest dangers we face. The counterfeit gospel is that we think we have to contribute to our own salvation, to our own acceptance with God, through our own efforts. All through Galatians, Paul has been warning against this danger. It’s a clear and present danger, and one that seems to be built right into our hearts.

Have you ever driven a car that’s out of alignment? The whole time you’re driving, the car wants to veer over here. You spend all of your time trying to keep the car on the road. The danger that Paul is talking about is the same. Our hearts are out of alignment and continually want to veer off toward self-salvation. It takes a lot of focus to resist this drift and to keep our eyes on the road.

The danger is that we will try to “make a good showing in the flesh,” Paul says. The danger is doing something external that contributes to our salvation. It’s doing something that, we think, adds to what Jesus has done in order to earn acceptance with God. In Galatians it’s circumcision and keeping the Old Testament law, but we have our own versions as well. John Ortberg writes:

The church I grew up in had its boundary markers. A prideful or resentful pastor could have kept his job, but if ever the pastor was caught smoking a cigarette, he would've been fired. Not because anyone in the church actually thought smoking a worse sin than pride or resentment, but because smoking defined who was in our subculture and who wasn't was a boundary marker.

As I was growing up, having a "quiet time" became a boundary marker, a measure of spiritual growth. If someone had asked me about my spiritual life, I would immediately think, Have I been having regular and lengthy quiet time? My initial thought was not, Am I growing more loving toward God and toward people?

Boundary markers change from culture to culture, but the dynamic remains the same. If people do not experience authentic transformation, then their faith will deteriorate into a search for the boundary markers that masquerade as evidence of a changed life.

This is the danger: that we will pick some external behavior as our contribution to our salvation. And slowly, without even realizing it, we begin to trust in our own righteousness rather than in the finished work of Christ at the cross.

What’s the problem with this? There are two problems. First, Paul says that the motivation is all wrong. The other day, Charlene and I were dividing duties. One of us had to drive one of our kids somewhere and one of us had to help the other one with homework. I didn’t really want to go for a drive, but when the options were laid out that clearly — drive or homework — I started looking for my keys. Paul sees the options here as gospel on one hand — trusting Jesus Christ alone for salvation — or some external self-salvation project, and he instantly recognizes that many of us will do anything we can to avoid trusting in Jesus Christ alone. With the Galatians, there was pressure to get Gentiles to measure up to the Jewish law to please Jewish Christians who wouldn’t understand. But there is something within all of us that balks at trusting in Jesus Christ alone. Our motivation is wrong. Our motivation is to avoid the harsh truth that there is nothing we can contribute in order to be accepted by God.

There’s a second problem. Paul says that those who are pushing for works-righteousness can’t themselves keep the standard they’re arguing for. “For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law…” We hear about this over and over again. A politician who battles corruption passes new laws, and within a few years is convicted of the very laws that he enacted. A pastor rails against a certain sin, and it eventually comes out that he’s secretly been practicing that sin for years. The irony is that the very people who argue for self-salvation are the very same people who don’t measure up to their own standards, because none of us do. The churches that have the strictest standards that you need to follow in order to measure up are also the churches that are filled with the biggest hypocrites, because none of us can keep the standards that we set in order to save ourselves.

Please hear me. The greatest danger this church faces is that it will veer off, without knowing it, to a false gospel. Will Willimon said, “Unable to preach Christ and him crucified, we preach humanity and it improved.” We’re always tempted to substitute a message of self-improvement and self-salvation for the gospel. But this is a false gospel. As Tullian Tchividjian puts it, the only thing that you contribute to your salvation is the sin that made it necessary. That’s it. We have nothing but need.

At the end of his letter, Paul picks up his pen to emphasize the importance of avoiding the false gospel of self-salvation. Avoid trying to earn God’s approval through your own righteousness.

What does Paul say we should do instead?

Boast exclusively in the cross.

Not only should we avoid the false gospel of self-salvation, but we should also boast exclusively in the cross. This is what's most important. Paul writes:

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. (Galatians 6:14-15)

Last Sunday I woke up with an incredible sense of urgency. I began thinking of all the sermons I’ve preached here. I can relate to what a preacher said in the novel Gilead:

I think every day about going through those old sermons of mine to see if there are one or two I might want you to read sometime, but there are so many, and I'm afraid, first of all, that most of them might seem foolish or dull to me.

There is not a word in any of those sermons I didn't mean when I wrote it. If I had the time, I could read my way through fifty years of my innermost life. What a terrible thought.

I had a dream once that I was preaching to Jesus Himself, saying any foolish thing I could think of, and He was sitting there in His white, white robe looking patient and sad and amazed. That's what it felt like.

Well, perhaps I can get a box of them down here somehow and do a little sorting. It would put my mind at ease to feel I was leaving a better impression. So often I have known, right here in the pulpit, even as I read these words, how far they fell short of any hopes I had for them. And they were the major work of my life, from a certain point of view. I have to wonder how I have lived with that.

At the end of more than thirteen years, I think back over all the things I’ve said to you, and all the things that I wish I had said. I wish I could go back and make one thing clear so that it is the great theme of my preaching from beginning to end: that our only confidence, our only boast, our only hope is the saving work of Jesus Christ at the cross. Spurgeon said, “The best sermon is that which is fullest of Christ.” He said, “Preach Christ, always and everywhere. He is the whole gospel. His person, offices, and work must be our one great, all-comprehending theme.”

To understand this passage, we need to understand three things.

First, we all boast in something. We all boast in something: in some accomplishment, some characteristic, some relationship. We all boast in something. We’ve all been reading about Kim Jong-il recently. Jong-il, North Korea's "Dear Leader," was presented as larger than life by the media of the Stalinist state.

Reportedly, Kim took daily intensive memory training that involved memorizing huge amounts of information. Kim was quoted as saying, "I remember all computer codes and telephones that workers are using now."

At a meeting in 2002, North Korean officials said they were impressed when Kim recalled all of their phone numbers with "lightning speed."

Kim's memory was not the only amazing attribute he claimed. He wrote operas, piloted jet fighters, and produced movies. While those skills are believable, North Korean propaganda stretched credulity when it stated Kim's golfing prowess. The story goes that the first time he ever played a round of golf, North Korea's leader shot 11 holes-in-one.

We laugh at all of that. We shouldn’t. Kim Jong-il’s boasts are an extreme version of what we all do. We look to some accomplishment, some talent, to validate our importance, to say that we measure up. The boasts are ridiculous, but we all do it.

Boasting is more than bragging. It is, according to John Stott, “to boast in, glory in, trust in, rejoice in, revel in, love for” something. “The object of our boast or ‘glory’ fills our horizons, engrosses our attention, and absorbs our time and energy. In a word, our ‘glory’ is our obsession.”

Everybody boasts in something. It could be your popularity, intellect, appearance, influence, income, or job performance. It could be your religious accomplishments. We all boast in something. We all boast in something.

But we also need to understand something else. Our boasting, our obsession, our identity, should ultimately come from one place only: the cross of Jesus Christ. Paul says, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is strange. Today we think of the cross as something noble and beautiful. In Paul’s day, it was the ugliest thing possible. You couldn’t mention the cross in polite society. The Romans considered the cross to be “degrading, disgusting, despicable, detestable, and disgraceful” (Phil Ryken).

But Paul says that this is his boast. Paul looked at the cross and saw that God loved us enough to send his Son to die for us. He looked to the cross and saw his salvation. Christ has paid the full price for our salvation. We’ve been forgiven and justified. God’s wrath has been turned away, and we now stand innocent before God.

Don’t boast in anything else. Boast only in the cross. But there’s a problem. You can’t boast in the cross and yourself at the same time. If you glory in the cross, you have to stop trusting in your own merits and trust in Christ alone. "Only if we have humbled ourselves as hell-deserving sinners shall we give up boasting of ourselves, fly to the cross for salvation and spend the rest of our days glorying in the cross.” (John Stott)

So understand that we all boast. Then understand that it only makes sense to boast in one thing: the cross. And then understand what it does to us. When we boast in the cross, it changes everything. Paul says that the world has been crucified to him. The cross completely changes what we value and care about. Tim Keller puts it this way:

The gospel changes what I fundamentally boast in – it changes the whole basis for my identity. Therefore, nothing in the whole world has any power over me – I am free at last to enjoy the world, for I do not need the world. I feel neither inferior to anyone nor superior to anyone, and I am being made all over into someone and something entirely new.

The gospel completely changes what we boast in. It completely changes our identity and values. When the cross grips us, we begin to see it as the only thing that truly matters.

Friends, Paul wants us to get this. At the end of his letter he takes a pen in his hand. He wants us to get what matters most. And this is what he says: don’t you ever think it’s up to you to measure up. Put all of your confidence, all of your boasting, in what Jesus has done for you. If you’re going to brag about anything, brag about Jesus and his saving work.

So that’s it. Paul concludes his book with a few simple words:

For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.

From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen. (Galatians 6:15-18)

Here’s what he’s saying. This is all that matters. From now on, he says, let’s not have any more confusion about the gospel. Let nobody bother me with false versions of the gospel, he says. But he’s glad to be part of the people of God who get the gospel, and he prays that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ would be with the Galatians as they avoid false gospels and boast in the cross.

I imagine Paul looking at the scroll. Having pointed to Jesus, his job is done. He puts the pen down and gives the nod to his scribe for the letter to be delivered.

Having brought your attention to our great Savior, I can say that I’ve done what I’ve been commissioned to do. My only desire is that you would see Jesus. My only desire is that you would glory in the cross; that Christ would be your greatest joy and your deepest glory. And, having done this, my job is done. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.

The Gospel and Relationships (Galatians 5:26-6:10)

One of the most influential people in church history is someone you probably don’t know. His name as Simeon the Stylite. He was the first of the Desert Fathers. Around 423 A.D. he constructed a short pillar on the edge of the desert. He climbed on top of that pillar and lived on it for the next six years. He had many visitors come and visit him. Probably some of them came because they thought that he was out of his mind living on top of a pillar like that. The hermit explained that he was simply a Christian who wanted to commune with God in solitude, free from worldly distractions. Living on top of the pillar was his way of trying to do this.

We’re coming to the end of Galatians, and one of the issues we have to deal with is what it looks like to be transformed by the gospel. The reason I bring up Simeon is because we need a picture of what it looks like to be transformed by the gospel. No disrespect to Simeon, but I think Paul offers us a better picture.

Paul has been making hammering us with the gospel. Let me give you his message so far in two nutshells:

First, Jesus plus nothing equals acceptance with God. That’s it. Never add anything to Jesus, because you can’t add to Jesus without subtracting from him. Jesus plus nothing equals acceptance with God. That is the gospel.

Second, when you get the gospel, you’ll be free. But freedom isn’t living however you would like. Freedom is living in the power of the Holy Spirit to love and serve God and others.

That’s everything that he’s covered up to this point. But we still need to figure out what it looks like. What does it look like when you really get that it’s Jesus plus nothing, and when we use our freedom to love and serve others? That’s what Paul is going to show us today.

Let me give you one sentence that captures what Paul is going to tell us: The gospel frees us to love others. Did you get that? We need a picture of someone who has been transformed by the gospel and who understands the message of Galatians. Paul gives us one, and it’s not somebody living on top of a pillar for six years. It’s not a lot of things. It’s this: it’s a picture of being freed by the gospel to love others. Specifically, Paul gives us two broad categories of what this looks like. First, he says, the gospel frees us to love others spiritually. Second, he says, the gospel frees us to love others financially.

First, the gospel frees us to love others spiritually.

Read Galatians 5:29-6:5 with me:

Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load.

Notice what Paul assumes here.

First, he assumes the Christian life is going to be lived in relationship with others. I love some church services. I love feeling like I’ve entered heaven’s throne room and communed with God. And then some Sundays I get out into the foyer, and within minutes of having been in the heights of communion with God, I’m dealign with someone who cuts me off in the lineup for coffee. Paul is saying that the Christian life isn’t about living alone on the top of a pillar on the edge of the desert with just God and me. The Christian life is lived in community.

Second, he assumes that this is going to be challenging. Notice what he says: don’t be conceited. Don’t provoke. Don’t envy. Why does he say these things? Because those are the things we’re all tempted to do when we’re relationship with others. If the Christian life is going to be lived in relationship, these are the issues we’re going to face. We’re going to be tempted to think we’re better than others. We’re going to be tempted to set them off. We’re going to be tempted to envy what they have. These are the dangers we face in relationships.

Third, the people we’re in relationship with are going to have problems. And when they do, we can’t say, “Their problems aren’t my problems.” That’s why Paul says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). Here’s what Paul is saying: my sin is not just my business. Your sin is not just your business. Instead of being arrogant or irritating or envious of others, we are to look out for each other. And when we become aware of someone else’s sin, we should speak privately and gently to them in order to restore their fellowship with Christ.

Fourth, do so from a position of humility. Paul stresses here the importance of keeping your own affairs in order before God, watching the condition of your own soul. Why? You are not in isolation. You are not better than anyone else. You too may fall, and when you do you will drag others with you. Paul says, “For each one will have to bear his own load.” There’s a paradox here. Paul says that when it comes to others, their problems are your problems and you should offer help. But when it comes to yourself, you must take responsibility for your own actions.

What does the gospel look like when it’s fleshed out? It looks like this: loving others spiritually, making their problems our problems, all the while keeping watch over our own lives so that we don’t negatively influence others.

For fifteen months journalist Sebastian Junger followed a single platoon of U.S. soldiers stationed in a dangerous part of Afghanistan. Living and working in the midst of a war zone made Junger realize how much the soldiers had to rely on each other. What you do or don't do as a soldier affects everyone else in your platoon. Junger writes:

Margins were so small and errors potentially so catastrophic that every soldier had a kind of de facto authority to reprimand others—in some cases even officers. And because combat can hinge on [small] details, there was nothing in a soldier's daily routine that fell outside the group's purview. Whether you tied your shoes or cleaned your weapon or drank enough water or secured your night vision gear were all matters of public concern and so were open to public scrutiny.

Once I watched a private accost another private whose bootlaces were trailing on the ground. Not that he cared what it looked like, but if something happened out there—and out there, everything happened suddenly—the guy with the loose laces couldn't be counted on to keep his feet at a crucial moment. It was the other man's life he was risking, not just his own …. There was no such thing as personal safety out there; what happened to you happened to everyone.

Do you want to know what gospel-transformed living looks like? It looks like loving others spiritually.

Second, the gospel frees us love others financially.

Here’s where it gets even more convicting. Verses 6 to 10 say:

Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.

I told you that it gets even more convicting. The main idea of these verses is captured in verse 10: do good to all people, particularly to other believers. This sounds good until you realize that the good he’s talking about is to support others financially, caring for their practical needs in everyday life. Paul says in verse 6 that we’re to do this with our teachers, those who preach the gospel, so that they can be set free from having to raise money and instead can invest their time and energy in ministry. But he also applies this in general to others, especially believers in verse 10. We’re to do this as we’re able. God doesn’t expect more from us than what we have; but whatever we have, we are to use in service for others.

As one person puts it:

Christians, therefore, are particularly bound to do good to one another. Every poor and distressed man has a claim on me for pity, and, if I can afford it, for active exertion and pecuniary [financial] relief. But a poor Christian has a far stronger claim on my feelings, my labors, and my property. He is my brother, equally interested with myself in the blood and love of the Redeemer. I expect to spend an eternity with him in heaven. He is the representative of my unseen Savior, and He considers everything done to this poor afflicted brother as done to himself. For a Christian to be unkind to another Christian is not only wrong, it is monstrous. (John Brown)

I know what you’re thinking, because I’m thinking it too. How is this possible? This is so radical and demanding. How am I ever going to have enough for my own needs? My bank account is always going to be empty because I’m giving sacrificially to others? Paul says three things.

In verse 7 he says, in essence, this is where the rubber hits the road. God isn’t fooled by spiritual pretenses. This is really where the gospel has to free our hearts. God knows the motivations of our heart when it comes to money.

Second, he says that this is an issue of sowing and reaping. There are two ways of living. One is to sow to the flesh. This is about living in a way that’s selfish and stingy, and the result is that we reap corruption. The other way is to live according to the Spirit, freely loving and serving others, and if we do this we’ll reap generosity and spiritual life. Which do you want in your life? Whatever you sow, that’s what you’re also going to reap.

Third, he says that we will be rewarded. “In due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” One day we’ll receive God’s well-done for how we’ve used our resources to help others.

One man (Gerald May) wrote:

I sat briefly with an old dollar bill in my hand, feeling its softness, wondering where it had been. What other hands had grasped it or given it? What human toil had earned it, spent it, earned it again? What small human needs had it fulfilled in its time? Was it once stolen, lost, found? Had anyone ever noticed it?

For a moment, money seemed almost like breath, like the air that circulates among us all, continuously given and received, linking us in a deep, spiritual intimacy with God and one another. We are all familiar with how money can be an idol; how it so easily becomes a substitute for God, encouraging our attachment by promising security, happiness, and power. ... But could money really be an icon ... a vehicle for seeing and being seen by God?

The gospel, Paul says, frees us to help others financially.

You may have been wondering, as I was, where Paul was going with all of this talk about the gospel. What does it look like when the gospel gets hold of your heart and really changes you? What does it look like when you get the fact that Jesus plus nothing equals acceptance with God? What does it look like when you understand that freedom is not living however you’d like, but that it’s living in the power of the Spirit to serve and love? Paul tells us here. The gospel frees us to love others. It frees us to love others spiritually by restoring them. It frees us to love others financially by living generously.

You can’t fake this. The law is powerless to bring about what Paul is talking about here. Only the Spirit can take our hearts and change us from the inside out so that we’ll want to live this way. It’s only when we see the gospel and are joined with Christ that any of this is even possible.

Notice where it all begins in verse 1. It’s a single word: brothers. I would do stuff for my brothers that I wouldn’t do for anyone else. Well, that’s what the gospel has made us: brothers and sisters. There’s a whole theology in this one word. Josh Moody writes:

We are united in our fallenness, covered with dots and marks, but also now united in our reception of grace. Until we realize just how bad, scarred, broken, and in need of restoration we all are, and just how much grace we have received…

The Christian community, rightly and truly understood and experienced, is an outpost of heaven on earth, where we are all brethren with a common Father, all restored by a common Savior, and all seeking to restore each other. May we be increasingly a part of, and foster, a grace-filled community.

A New Year’s Plan: Consider and Act (Psalm 90)

A man went in for his annual checkup and received a phone call from his physician a couple of days later. The doctor said, "I'm afraid I have some bad news for you." "What's the news?" the man asked. "Well, you have only 48 hours to live." "That is bad news!" said the shocked patient. "I'm afraid I have even worse news," the doctor continued. "What could be worse than what you've already told me?" the patient stammered. "I've been trying to call you since yesterday."

That’s not a message that any of us want to hear, especially at the start of a new year. The first day of a new year is a day of optimism. But we all do ourselves a service if we remember that our time here is limited. All of us have a limited number of New Year’s Days. They may seem endless, but they’re not. One of the wisest things we can do at the beginning of the year is to live in light of this perspective.

If you go on Google Earth, you can see a picture of the whole earth spinning in space, as if you were looking at earth from a spaceship. Then, slowly, it finds your location, and it feels like you’re flying through space towards where you are. First you see your country, then your province, then your city, and then your street. Sometimes when you move to a new location, it’s still stuck in your old one, so you can press a button at the bottom that says “Find Me.” It will send you back in the air, shift you to your new location, and then zoom back in so you can see where you are.

What I want to do is to press the “Find Me” button in our lives today. To do this we’re going to use Psalm 90. The first day of a new year is a perfect time to think about where we are right now, and to chart a course for moving forward.

Psalm 90 is going to ask us to consider two things, and then to take two actions. That’s it. So let’s get going.

First: Consider two things.

This psalm has 17 verses. 11 of the 17 are spent getting us to consider two realities. In order to take the action prescribed in verses 12 to 17, we need to take in the realities this psalm presents us in verses 1 to 11. Before we can navigate to where we want to go, we need to understand where we are right now.

Notice that this psalm was written by Moses. It was written in the wilderness during the 40 years that Israel was wandering in the dessert. Some two or three million people left Egypt; a whole generation of people had to die as they made that 40-year trek. There would have been constant funerals. As Spurgeon said, you could track the progress of the nation by the graves they left behind. In the middle of this, Moses reflects on two realities that were true then, and they’re just as true today. It’s ironic that to find our location today, we need to turn to something written thousands of years ago. But there’s no better place to turn.

Psalm 90 wants us to find our current location by understanding two things.

First: God is eternal. Verses 1 and 2 say:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

Think about this. Moses zooms out to consider time. A couple of years ago, the Art Gallery had an exhibit on King Tut and Egypt. I remember walking through the exhibit, marveling at the age of what I was seeing. Some of the exhibits are over 4,000 years old. I couldn’t help but think about Moses as he grew up in Egypt.

We think Moses is old, but back then Moses zooms out and says helps us see time from another perspective. Before Egypt, before there were any mountains, before there was even an earth, God was God. God has no beginning. He was God before the mountains were brought forth. He is God from everlasting to everlasting, with no beginning and no end. God exists from eternity and to eternity.

Not only that, but enormous periods of time are insignificant to God. Read verse 4:

For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.

This is amazing. A thousand years ago, the Normans hadn’t invaded England. Vikings were establishing small settlements in North America. A Chinese artisan invented ceramic movable type printing. It was still the middle ages. It was a vastly different time from now. Moses reminds us that a thousand years ago to God is like yesterday to us. In light of God’s eternality, a thousand years is like a day to him.

Moses wants us to grasp the eternality of God. Consider this as we begin 2012. The past year has gone fast for a lot of us. Nobody here knows what the next year is going to bring. But God stands outside of time, and a thousand years is insignificant to him. For people living in tents in Moses’ day, or for people living in homes today, God can be our dwelling place in all generations, because God never changes.

Second: Your life is short and difficult. Moses next invites us to consider our lives. In contrast to God, who is eternal, Moses says two things about our lives. First, he says that our lives are short. Verses 5 and 6 say:

You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.

A human life - even the longest of human lives - is insignificantly brief. It’s like a watch in the night, a flood, a dream, or some grass that sprouts in the morning and dies at night. When I lived in North Bay one summer, they had these things called shadflies that would come out. They were everywhere. You couldn’t drive your car without turning your windshield wipers on. But these shadflies live for only one day. In parts of the world, they’re called one-day flies. The psalmist says that this is a picture of our lives. Our lives are brief. God is eternal, but we’re only here for a fleeting moment, and then we’re gone.

Not only that, but Moses says that our lives are hard as well. Read verses 7 to 11. The point that Moses makes is that our lives are hard, and they’re hard for a reason. Why? Because of God’s anger. Remember why so many were dying in the wilderness. They had rebelled against God after the spies had returned from Canaan, saying that they could not enter. God said, “I, the LORD, have spoken, surely this I will do to all this evil congregation who are gathered together against Me. In this wilderness they shall be destroyed, and there they will die” (Numbers 14:35). They were living and dying in tents in the wilderness as the consequence of sin. We’re not living in tents and dying in the wilderness, but life is still unbearably hard. We are still dealing with the results of human sin, and the mess it has made in this world. We are still dealing with God’s righteous anger against human rebellion, high treason against his reign.

So consider this today. This goes against how most of us think most of the time, which is exactly why we need to hear it. Consider these two things, and you’ll be much better for it. Consider that God is eternal, and that your life is short and hard.

Secondly, take two actions.

Nobody really wants to be told that God is eternal and that your life is short and hard, unless it’s for a reason. And in Psalm 90 it is for a reason. This psalm is meant to get us to take action. Specifically, two actions.

First: Number your days. Verses 10-12 say:

The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Andy Stanley tells the story of a man who bought 1,300 marbles on his 50th birthday. He figured that, if he lives to be 75, he would have about a 1,300 Saturdays left. So every Saturday he goes and takes a marble out of that jar and throws it out. It’s a reminder to him that time is fleeting, and that he only has a short time left.

I don’t know what you need to do, but how will you remind yourself to number your limited days? To remember that your life is short? Steve Jobs once said:

Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.

Second: Seek God’s mercy. Read verses 13 to 17:

Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands!

In light of the brevity and difficulty of life, Moses asks for three things:

First, pray that God would relent in his anger. Look at verse 13. This is really a prayer for the gospel. This is a prayer that God’s anger would not be the final word, that God would not pay us as we deserve. It’s a prayer that God would show us grace. It’s a prayer that has been answered in Jesus Christ, who bore the punishment for our sins and has given us grace upon grace. If you haven’t put your trust in him and his gospel yet, then do so today. Thank God that he has already answered this prayer in Jesus Christ.

Second, pray that we would be satisfied by God. This is one of the best prayers you could ever pray. Our hearts were meant to find their ultimate delight in God. I love how John Piper puts it: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Or, as C.S. Lewis put it, “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing." You’ve just come through Christmas. Christmas has all this build-up. It promises that we will find happiness in gifts and family and food. And every year we’re a tiny bit disappointed as we come out of Christmas, because as good as these things are, they’re not enough to really satisfy us. So pray this year that you will find your heart’s deepest hungers met in God, because he is the only one who can truly satisfy.

Finally, pray that God’s favor would rest upon your life. Pray that God would show you his favor in the coming year. Ask for God’s blessing on your life, that God would establish the work of your hands. Without his help, you can do nothing.

There is no better way to begin 2012 than by considering two things: that God is eternal, and that our lives are short and hard. And then there’s no better way to respond than by numbering your days and praying for God’s mercy on your life. God’s eternal, and you’re not. So make the most of your limited time, and seek God’s mercy.

The With-Us God (Matthew 1:18-25)

Most Christmases, when it’s time to read the Christmas story, I end up reading the story from Luke. It’s familiar to us, and it has a real beauty to it. I’m not used to reading Matthew’s version, but it’s really too bad. Matthew is written from Joseph’s perspective. It’s short and it’s full of meaning.

Today what I want to do is to look at the Christmas story. Here’s what I want us to see from this passage: Jesus is the unexpected, miraculous with-us God who saves us from our sins.

First: Jesus is unexpected.

Can you see the surprise in this passage? Back then, you wouldn’t date and get engaged and get married like we do today. Your parents would find a spouse for you. How would you like that? And then you would enter into a binding agreement before witnesses that you would marry this person. This would be called betrothal, and once you were betrothed you were in between. You weren’t married yet, but the only way you could end the betrothal would be through divorce. And then a year later you would actually get married.

In this passage we read that Joseph was betrothed to Mary. His parents had arranged the marriage. They had already committed to get married, probably a year down the road. And now all of a sudden before they’re married, Joseph discovers that Mary is four months pregnant. He’s surprised, to say the least. He has a choice. He can marry her as planned and ignore the fact that she’s pregnant and that he’s not the father. He can make this a public matter, and Mary will be disgraced and maybe even stoned to death. Or he can deal with the matter quietly and divorce her. He chooses to do the last when an angel appears to him and stops him in his tracks.

Do you see here: Jesus is unexpected. Jesus is not the result of any human initiative. Nobody thought Jesus up. God took the initiative completely to bring about the birth of Jesus Christ to save his people from their sins.

Jesus has been surprising people ever since. He was unexpected, and he continues to show up unexpectedly in people’s lives even today. I love when Jesus shows up unexpectedly, as he has in many of our lives. We weren’t looking for him. He hadn’t even crossed our minds. But then, through the strangest of circumstances, God takes the initiative and shows up in the middle of our lives. It may be that Jesus is unexpectedly showing up in your life even this morning.

So Jesus is unexpected.

Second: Jesus is miraculous.

Read verse 20 with me:

But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:20)

This is incredible. This would have been a surprise to anyone back then, just like it is to us today. God the Holy Spirit came upon Mary, not as the biological father, but as the all-powerful God who was able to do the miraculous. Jesus is not like the rest of us who were born in the normal way. Jesus was born miraculously. Jesus is not just unexpected; he is also miraculous.

In his work The Person of Christ, Donald Macleod writes:

The virgin birth is posted on guard at the door of the mystery of Christmas; and none of us must think of hurrying past it. It stands on the threshold of the New Testament, blatantly supernatural, defying our rationalism, informing us that all that follows belongs to the same order as itself and that if we find it offensive there is no point in proceeding further.

Why is it important? David Mathis gives us four reasons:

  • It highlights the supernatural nature of Jesus’ birth.
  • It shows us that we need a salvation that we can’t bring about ourselves.
  • It shows us that God takes the initiative.
  • It hints at the fully human and fully divine natures united in Jesus’ one person.

Wayne Grudem writes:

God, in his wisdom, ordained a combination of human and divine influence in the birth of Christ, so that his full humanity would be evident to us from the fact of his ordinary human birth from a human mother, and his full deity would be evident from the fact of his conception in Mary’s womb by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus’ birth was completely unexpected. It was also miraculous. God took the initiative and did the impossible, just like he takes the initiative and brings about a salvation that we can’t achieve ourselves.

Jesus is unexpected; Jesus is miraculous.

Third: Jesus is God-with-us.

Read verses 22-23:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us).

This is absolutely shocking. The angel says that Jesus’ name is Immanuel, which means God-with-us, or the with-us-God. Matt Woodley writes:

It means that Jesus is God with us as he swims in Mary’s amniotic fluid, wiggles in the manger’s straw, feeds the hungry and heals the sick. Jesus is God with us as he takes the bread in his hands and says, “This is my body broken for you.” Jesus is God with us as he hangs from a cross, gasping for breath and shouting, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” He descends into our messy world, standing in solidarity with human sufferers, plunging ever deeper into our pain and apparent abandonment.

Back then, Greeks could never have thought about God taking on a body. One Greek philosopher sarcastically asked, “How can one admit (God) should become an embryo, that after his birth he is put in swaddling clothes, that he is soiled with blood and bile and worse things yet?”

Even today, people struggle with this. A Muslim professor says that he can’t comprehend that God would become small, tiny, and weak. Kenneth Cragg, a scholar on Islam, says that although Muslims have a “great tenderness for Jesus” and they find the nativity story “miraculous,” they still see the incarnation as simply an impossible concept.

But we see here that Jesus is God-with-us. Jesus is God coming to us first as a fetus, then as an unplanned pregnancy, then as a baby, and later a twelve-year-old boy, and then later as a teacher, and then as a condemned criminal stripped naked on the cross, and then as the risen and ascended Lord. The writer to the Hebrews says:

Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:17)

Matt Proctor puts it this way:

Here's the point … God himself has felt what we feel. In the Incarnation, he chose not to stay "completely Other." He got down at eye-level, and in the Incarnation, God experienced what it's like to be tired and discouraged …. He knows what it's like to hurt and bleed. On the cross, Jesus himself prayed a psalm of lament: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1).

In your pain, you may be tempted to say, "God, you have no idea what I'm going through. You have no idea how bad I'm hurting." But God can respond, "Yes, I do." He can point to your wounds and then to his own and say, "Look: same, same. Me too. I have entered your world, and I know how you feel. I have been there, I am with you now, I care, and I can help." That is what Christmas is all about.

Jesus is the unexpected, miraculous with-us God.

Finally: Jesus saves us from our sins.

We learn in verse 21 exactly what Jesus came to do: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” In Jesus we have the solution for our sin problem. Jesus came to live the perfect life that we couldn’t live. And then we went to the cross and bore our sins. And he rose from the dead to give us new life. Jesus is the solution for our sin problem Jesus came to save us from our sins.

You know what it’s like to have someone visit you when you’re not ready. Mike Silva describes when this happened to him:

Most people would be a little embarrassed to have unexpected company when their house was a mess. My family was staying at a hotel in Nigeria, West Africa, one time when I heard a knock on the door. I opened it and found a smiling Nigerian gentleman ready to clean our room.

I was so embarrassed! My family had travel bags, curling irons, and crumpled clothing sprawled across our unmade beds. Wet towels were all over the bathroom floor. I apologized profusely, but the young man replied graciously, "No problem, sir. For this reason I have come, to put your things in order."

The Bible says this is exactly what Jesus Christ came to do for us. To put our lives in order! He doesn't demand that we first straighten up our mess. Instead, He offers to clean up for us.

Jesus came into our world to save us from our sins, to clean up the mess we couldn’t clean ourselves. This is the reason that Jesus came.

Friends, this is what Christmas is all about. Jesus is the unexpected, miraculous with-us God who saves us from our sins.

After returning home from a long tour, Bono, the lead singer for U2, returned to Dublin and attended a Christmas Eve service. At some point in that service, Bono grasped the truth at the heart of the Christmas story: in Jesus, God became a human being. With tears streaming down his face, Bono realized,

The idea that God, if there is a force of Love and Logic in the universe, that it would seek to explain itself is amazing enough. That it would seek to explain itself by becoming a child born in poverty … and straw, a child, I just thought, "Wow!" Just the poetry … I saw the genius of picking a particular point in time and deciding to turn on this … Love needs to find a form, intimacy needs to be whispered … Love has to become an action or something concrete. It would have to happen. There must be an incarnation. Love must be made flesh.

In Jesus Christ, love found a form. In Jesus Christ, love became something concrete. At Christmas, love was made flesh. Jesus is the unexpected, miraculous with-us God who saves us from our sins. It’s the reason we celebrate Christmas today.

The Book of the Genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:1-17)

Of all the ways to start a book, this isn’t one of them. “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham…” I mean, come on. At the start of a book, you have to grab the reader.

Here’s how you start a book. Here’s the first line from Tolkien’s The Hobbit. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” See? Only ten words, and you’re hooked. Another famous book begins with the author’s daring escape from the brutal prison Devil’s Island. Right away you’re in the middle of the action. You can’t wait to see what happens next.

So why does Matthew begin the Christmas story with a genealogy? I bet that many of you are tempted to skip verses 1 to 17 and go right to verses 18, which says, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” But that would be a mistake. The beginning of the Christmas story in Matthew has an important lesson for us. Three of them, actually. Here they are, and then I’ll take you through each one.

  • The birth of Jesus is a new beginning.
  • The birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises.
  • The birth of Jesus includes all of us.

I got all of that from a genealogy? I did. And I hope you’ll see how I did soon as well. So here it goes.

First: The birth of Jesus is a new beginning.

Matthew is a skilled author, and he knows exactly what he’s doing in verse 1 when he begins, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ.” We’re supposed to read that and think, “This sounds familiar somehow.” In the Greek, the first two words are biblos geneseos which we translate “the book of the genealogy” - but they are also the Greek title for Genesis. Genesis is the Old Testament book that refers to the creation and beginning of all things. So Matthew plants these words here because he wants us to do a double-take.

What does this mean? Matthew wants us to begin reading his book with a sense of déjà vu. He wants to take us all the way back to the beginning and see his book, beginning with the birth of Jesus Christ, as a fresh start and a new beginning.

I went to the mall the other day. Part way through my trip I realized that I had dropped something. What I’d dropped is worth about $100. I began to retrace my steps. I went to mall security and all the stores I’d been in to see if I could find it. But it was gone. I went home feeling good about what I’d bought, but also wishing that I could rewind back to the beginning and be more careful and not lose something that was pretty valuable to me.

Have you ever wished that you could hit the pause button on your life and rewind and go back to the beginning? Have you ever wished you could have a do-over?

Matthew is saying in this verse that this world has two beginnings. The first one took place a long time ago in Genesis 1 when God created the heavens and the earth, and everything was good. But we know how that story ended up. In Genesis 1 and 2, everything is really good. But in Genesis 3, sin enters the world, and then there’s nothing but trouble from Genesis 4 to 11 and beyond.

Do you ever wish that we could pause history and rewind back to Genesis 3 and undo all the damage that sin has brought in the world? There’s good news, Matthew says. That is exactly what the birth of Jesus does. It’s a new beginning. In Matthew 1 the world begins anew. We get to start all over again. We had creation; now in Jesus, we have re-creation. The original creation, which is damaged, flawed, and broken, is now being restored and transformed in the person of Jesus Christ.

That’s the really great news Matthew is telling us. The birth of Jesus is a new beginning. It means that the slate is wiped clean.

And so for all of us who are longing to start again, who are longing for a fresh start, and who are longing for everything in this world to be put right, the birth of Jesus is what makes this possible. I don’t know what has happened in your past, but the birth of Jesus marks a new creation. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). The birth of Jesus is a new beginning for all of us, and for the whole world.

Second: The birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises.

So picture this. You get an envelope in the mail. You open up that envelope, and you find a single piece of paper printed on really nice paper. It has someone’s name and contact information, followed by headings that say “Employment History,” “Education,” and “References.” What do you have? You’d recognize it as a résumé. It’s what we write when we’re trying to give a potential employer some basic information about ourselves.

Picture someone two thousand years ago getting that same piece of paper. They would probably look at it strangely as they tried to figure out what in the world it’s all about.

That’s really what’s happening as we read the genealogy. Matthew’s readers would have been very familiar with this form, and they would have understood its purpose. They would have been captivated by what Matthew wrote. In the ancient world, genealogies did a couple of things.

First, they grounded you in history. I was in England one time when I came across a monument for where the missionary Augustine of Canterbury met King Ethelbert of Kent in 597. It’s one thing to read about it in the history books; it’s another thing to realize that it happened right here. That’s what Matthew is doing as he gives us the genealogy. He’s saying that the story of Jesus is grounded in history. He’s descended from particular people who really lived. It’s not a made-up story. It really happened in time and space.

But the genealogy also served another purpose. Back then it functioned as a kind of résumé. It would tell you who a person is and where they came from. It established your heritage, your inheritance, your legitimacy, and rights. It would establish your legal claim to certain rights and properties that had been passed down through the generations to you. The closest thing I’ve experienced is when I sat with someone at a seminary breakfast in Boston. I asked the person how long they’d lived in Boston; he replied that King George had granted them the land back in the eighteenth century. It was important for him to be able to trace things back. It established who he was and what he was entitled to.

In this genealogy, Matthew traces Jesus’ bloodline to two specific people. What’s interesting is that promises were made to both of them. What Matthew is doing here is showing that Jesus is the legitimate heir and fulfillment of the promises made to these two particular people, promises that looked like they had been lost forever. Not only does Matthew include them in the genealogy, but he underlines them in verse 1 so that we don’t miss them. “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”

What does it mean that Jesus was the son of David? David was the greatest king in Israel’s history. God had promised David, “And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). God had told David that his descendants would reign forever. That seemed like madness. Israel had no king. Herod was king when Matthew wrote this, and he sure didn’t like the thought of anyone else claiming to be king. You sure didn’t go around bragging about being part of a royal family. But that’s what Matthew does here. He says that Jesus is a son of David. That’s a claim to royalty. Matthew is saying that Jesus is qualified to be the king promised to David, the king whose throne is established forever.

But there’s more. He’s also the son of Abraham. God had promised Abraham:

And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3)

Here, Matthew is saying that Jesus is qualified to be the fulfillment of this promise to Abraham. Jesus is the one who fulfills the promise to be a blessing to the whole world. Matthew is making sure that Jesus’ résumé states clearly who he is qualified to be: the promised king, the one who will bless the whole earth.

Matthew is saying that Jesus is the fulfillment of two thousand years of God’s promises. All the promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Paul wrote, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

You thought that this was a boring genealogy? It’s nothing of the sort. It’s already told us that the birth of Jesus is a new beginning, and the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. But there’s more.

Third, the birth of Jesus includes all of us.

My grandfather used to talk about being descended from pirates. I have no way to know whether this is true or not, but I kind of hope so. The truth is that all of our family trees have some shady characters. But Matthew goes out of his way to include shady characters in this list.

On one hand, you have kings on this list. That’s pretty cool. Matthew is saying that the story of Jesus includes those who have power and prestige and position.

But Matthew gives us the other side as well. It’s clear in reading this list that Matthew has been selective in terms of the people he includes. He leaves some in, and he leaves some out as well. So it’s striking that he included some people that most would have left out. Most ancient genealogies didn’t include women, unless they were famous great women. But Matthew lists four women who are prominent and anything but great:

  • Tamar in verse 3 - In Genesis 38 we read that Tamar acted as a prostitute and tricked her father-in-law into making her pregnant so that she could continue the line of her husband.
  • Rahab in verse 5 - She was a prostitute and a foreigner who courageously rescued the Hebrew spies.
  • Ruth in verse 5 - She was another foreigner, a Moabite under the Old Testament curse against Moabites found in Deuteronomy 23: “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the LORD forever” (Deuteronomy 23:3). She was a descendent of the incestuous Lot.
  • Uriah’s wife in verse 6 - She was the woman involved in David’s scandalous affair and cover-up.

So in this list you have great people, but you also have people with a past. You have men, women, adulterers, prostitutes, heroes, and Gentiles. Jesus is Savior of them all. Right from the start, Matthew is telling us that Jesus is immersed in the gritty and seamy side of fallen humanity. No matter who you are, people like you are already part of Jesus’ story. Right from the start, God chooses the most sinful, broken, and unlikely people - people like you and me.

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther preached a sermon and said:

Christ is the kind of person who is not ashamed of sinners—in fact, he even puts them in his family tree! Now if the Lord does that here, so ought we to despise no one … but put ourselves right in the middle of the fight for sinners and help them.

That’s great news. Christ is the kind of person who is not ashamed of sinners.

The genealogy tell us that the birth of Jesus is a new beginning and the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. It also tells us that Jesus is not ashamed of sinners.

Friends, don’t let this genealogy fool you. Don’t think it’s the boring prelude to the exciting stuff that’s going to come later. This is story-telling at its best. Right from the beginning, Matthew wants us to understand that the birth of Jesus marks a new beginning. The birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. The birth of Jesus is good news for all kinds of people, people like you and people like me.

Two responses this morning. First, be amazed. It’s amazing to think that God would give us a fresh start, that he would begin to undo all that’s wrong in the world. It’s amazing that he would choose to do this by sending his Son as a baby to be born in Bethlehem. It’s amazing that he would choose to fulfill all the promises he’s made through Jesus. And it’s amazing that he would choose to include messed-up people in all of this. Yet that’s what he’s chosen to do. Worship him this morning. Marvel again that God would choose to do something this amazing.

Second, join the story. I hope you’ve put your faith in Christ. I pray that you’ve had that fresh start through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I really pray that you’ve seen all of God’s promises reach their fulfillment in Christ. And I pray that you’ll realize that this story includes you, no matter how unlikely a person you may be.

In his commentary on this passage, Matt Woodley writes:

One day in a hole in the Milky Way called planet Earth, among an odd group of people, Jesus the Messiah came to his people. It’s a true story that reads like fiction. What adventures, dangers and delights will Jesus encounter? And if we follow him, what adventures shall befall us? Where will this Gospel of mercy lead us? Hold on, we’re in for the tale — and the adventure — of our life.

True Freedom (Galatians 5:13-26)

Every year Macleans comes out with its list of top Canadian University. You can read the reviews and all the rankings that go along with them. And every year other publications come out with their own reviews of universities based on very different standards. They are lists of the top party schools. If you’re wondering which Canadian schools have made the list, by the way, I know of two: McGill University, in Montreal and the University of Western Ontario,in London, Ontario, are the only Canadian schools to have made the list.

Here’s how it works. Before you go to university, you are not free. If you live at home, you probably have these things called rules. It seems that no matter how old you are, if you live at home, you live under certain conditions and rules enforced by these things called parents.

But one day many of you will pack the car, and you will arrive at university where you have freedom. There is nobody to tell you to go to bed anymore. You can decide when to get up and when to go to bed, or whether to go to bed at all. You can decide how many classes to attend and how many to skip. All the rules and restrictions that were placed on you as a minor are now no longer in place. You now have freedom.

The question is: how do you use the freedom? Do you use the freedom to party and have a great time? Or do you use the freedom to pursue the best possible education? Or do you fall somewhere in the middle? Freedom from rules is only one side of the picture. You have to ask yourself not just what you’re free from, but what you’re free to do on the other side of that freedom.

This morning, that’s exactly the issue that we’re going to look at. It’s not just an issue for university students. It’s an issue for every single person here as well.

Ever since September, we’ve been looking at the book of Galatians. Somebody’s called it the Magna Carta of the Christian life. It says that we’re free. We are no longer obligated to keep the law in order to be accepted by God. We are set free from keeping the law as a means of salvation. We do not have to add anything to what Jesus has done in order to be accepted by God. Jesus has paid the entire price.

But there’s a problem, and I know that some of you have seen the problem, because you’ve talked to me about it after the service. The problem is this. If we don’t have to obey in order to be accepted by God, does that mean we can live any way we want? If it’s “Jesus + nothing = acceptance with God,” then what’s to stop us from living a life of debauchery and evil? If we’re not under the law, what should guide our conduct? That’s the question we’re going to try to answer this morning from this passage.

I want to show you three things from this passage. First, I want to show you what true freedom isn’t. And then I want to show you what true freedom is. And then I want to show you what we can do with this knowledge.

First: Let’s look at what true freedom isn’t.

Ali was a young man with little money and no wife. This was all the incentive he needs to take the ninety-minute bus ride from his village to Baghdad. As soon as he arrives, the 21-year-old Iraqi heads straight to Abu Abdullah's. There it costs him only $1.50 for 15 minutes alone with a woman.

The room is a cell with a curtain for a door, and Ali complains that Abu Abdullah's women should bathe more often. But Ali sees the easy and inexpensive access to women as a big improvement over the days when Saddam Hussein was in power. The dictator strictly controlled vices such as prostitution, alcohol, and drugs. The fall of the regime gave rise to every kind of depravity. In addition to brothels, Iraqis have their choice of adult cinemas, where 70 cents buys an all-day ticket, and the audience hoots in protest if a non-pornographic trailer interrupts the action.

Referring to all the newly available immoral activities, Ali grins and says, “Now we have freedom.”

Some people, reading Galatians, think that this is what Paul is talking about. We are not under the law, so we now have freedom to do whatever we’d like. Paul knows that this is what some are going to think he’s saying, so in this passage he makes it clear. He says in verse 13: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”

And then, in verses 19 to 21 he makes it even clearer. This is what freedom is not about. He writes:

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)

I think it’s going to help to make a list. Here’s what the Christian life is not about. The Christian life is not about keeping the law. It’s not about keeping a series of rules. Why not? Well, we’ve looked at this. Paul said back in Galatians 2:16, “By the works of the law no one will be justified.” Later on in Galatians 3:10 he says, “All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse.” In verse 3 of this chapter he says that keeping part of the law obligates you to keep the whole law. So the Christian life isn’t about keeping the law. It doesn’t work. Nobody is good enough. It’s a losing proposition. The message of the Bible isn’t that you should be good, and God will accept you. That’s an unbiblical message right from the pit of hell.

But we need to make a second column here. Let’s call this license. License means living any way that I please. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a liberty of action, especially when excessive; disregard of law or propriety; abuse of freedom.” This is freedom without responsibility. It’s trusting in God’s grace and then living however they please.

D. A. Carson, a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, used to meet with a young man from French West Africa for the purpose of practicing German. Sometimes they’d had enough, so they would go out for a meal together. He learned that this man had a wife in London training to be a medical doctor, while he stayed in Germany to learn the language. He also learned that once or twice a week this man disappeared into the red-light district of town to pay money and have his woman. Eventually he got to know this man well enough that he asked him what he would do if he discovered that his wife was doing something similar in London.

“Oh,” he said, “I’d kill her.”

Carson challenged him. “That's a bit of a double standard, isn't it?” Carson asked. “You told me you were raised in a mission school. You know that the God of the Bible does not have double standards like that."

The man gave Carson a bright smile and replied, “Ah, God is good. He's bound to forgive us; that's his job.” Or, as someone else put it, “God is a great forgiver; I am a great sinner; what a great combination!”

That’s not what Paul is talking about here. Notice what he says. “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh.” The flesh does not mean your body. The flesh means your fallen, sinful nature. Do not use your freedom from the law as an excuse to live any way you’d like, and to indulge your sinful nature, Paul is saying.

Then he makes it very clear what he’s talking about in verses 19 to 21. He gives us a list of vices. These are what come naturally to our fallen human nature, and it’s not a pretty list. It doesn’t take a genius to realize where all of this comes from. Some of them are behaviors: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, sorcery, drunkenness, and orgies. A lot of people pat themselves on the back and feel pretty good about themselves at this point. They’re not guilty of these. But then Paul gets to what someone calls “respectable sins,” sins that don’t look as bad, sins that we tolerate: anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions. Many churches won’t put up with orgies, but they’ll put up with anger and division. Paul puts them on the same list.

Then he says, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Wait a minute! I thought that it was “Jesus + nothing = acceptance with God.” Now you’re telling me that if you trust in Jesus and do these things that you’re out? Yes, Paul says. Why? Because good works aren’t the basis of our acceptance with God, but they are a result of it. If Jesus is truly in our lives, then he will transform us so that this list doesn’t characterize our lives. As somebody’s said, God accepts us the way we are, but he doesn’t leave us there. And if this list characterizes your life, it’s a sign that you really haven’t experienced the grace of God in your life.

You see, true freedom doesn’t mean that we live however we’d like. This isn’t true freedom at all. Jesus said in John 8:34, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” If you use your freedom from the law as an opportunity to sin, you’ve just entered a different kind of slavery. You’re no longer a slave to the law; you’re now a slave to sin.

These two lists, by the way, are the two ways to be lost. One is the religious way: to live according to rules and the law. This isn’t what it means to be a Christian. It’s dangerous, because it looks like you’re good, but you’re not. The other way to be lost is to indulge the sinful nature and to do whatever you’d like. Paul says that neither of these are what he’s talking about. Neither one is true freedom. Both of these are forms of slavery. True freedom is not doing whatever we please.

Let’s look at what true freedom really is.

If true freedom isn’t about indulging the sinful nature and doing whatever we’d like what is it? Read verses 13 and 14:

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14)

Later on, Paul gives us a description of the type of things we’ll notice in our lives as we live by the Spirit’s power in true freedom. He writes in verses 22 to 23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

What is true freedom? True freedom is not about satisfying selfish desires. True freedom expresses itself in serving and loving through the Spirit.

We have these three columns. One is law; the second is license. Let’s make a third column and call it true gospel freedom. And let’s notice two things about this true gospel freedom.

One: It begins in the heart. It’s inside-out. Paul talks about love. He says that this is the fulfillment of the whole law. In an sense, every command is basically a version of this. Want to love your neighbor? Don’t kill him! Don’t steal his wife! Don’t lie to him. Every command is really about loving your neighbor. But you can keep all the commands and still not really love your neighbor from the heart. That’s why the law isn’t enough. That’s why we need the gospel; the gospel gives us a new heart so that the change comes from the inside-out. We’re free from the law as an outward observance; instead, we end up with love that springs from our hearts from the inside-out. It’s really about a renovation of the heart that comes through the Spirit.

Second: it’s the work of the Spirit. Notice the fruit of the Spirit in verses 22 to 23. Notice that it’s called the fruit not of the disciple. It’s the fruit of the Spirit. This is what the Spirit produces in our life as we yield to him. True freedom is experiencing the Spirit’s power as we are transformed from the inside out. John MacArthur the Spirit’s provision of fruit to a man on a ladder picking fruit, and dropping it into the basket below. The only way to receive the fruit is stand under the ladder with the basket ready. The only way to receive the fruit of the Spirit is to stay close to the Spirit and to trust that he will give us the fruit of the Spirit in our lives as we depend on him.

This is true Christian freedom. It’s not about indulging our sinful nature. True freedom expresses itself in serving and loving through the Spirit, not in satisfying selfish desires. You see, the law becomes something good when we’re transformed by the Spirit. Spurgeon put it this way:

What is God’s law now? It is not above a Christian — it is under a Christian. Some men hold God’s law like a rod, in terror, over Christians and say, “If you sin you will be punished with it.” It is not so. The law is under a Christian for him to walk on, to be his guide, his rule, his pattern….Law is the road which guides us, not the rod which drives us, nor the spirit which actuates us. The law is good and excellent, if it keeps his place.

So let’s look again. We’re not under the law. We’re also not free to indulge the sinful nature. Instead, we’re free to love and to be changed through the power of the Holy Spirit.

To put it differently, we don’t obey God in order to be accepted. But we do obey as a result of being accepted. Having been accepted, give God your all. As the song says: love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.

What do we do with all of this?

Nice theory, but what do we do with this? Three things.

One: keep the gospel central. Remember: Paul’s point is that we truly change as we encounter the gospel. So stand firm in the freedom that is yours in Christ. Don’t move on from that. That is the basis of our justification, but it is also the foundation of your growth in holiness. Dwell there. Keep returning to what Christ has done. Make that the major theme of your life.

Two: Paul tells us in verse 24: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Here’s what this means: You have been crucified with Christ. When this happened, your sinful nature was dealt a fatal blow. Your sinful desires are still there, but they are mortally wounded. They no longer rule and reign over you. So remember they’ve been dealt a fatal blow. Consider them dead. Don’t administer first aid. Don’t put it on life support. Consider it dead. Whatever sins you struggle with: remember that they were dealt a fatal blow at the cross. Remember that they’re as good as dead, and treat them that way, because that’s what they are.

Finally: verse 25 says, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” Have you ever marched in formation? I used to in a boy’s club I had joined. The leader puts his left foot forward; you do as well. You march as one together. We saw this in August in Ottawa. We stayed by Parliament. We thought we’d sleep in. Every morning we’d hear this marching band. We’d look out and we’d see these soldiers marching right past our hotel room on the way to the changing of the guard. It started to get old the third day; we’d rather sleep in. But I did notice that they were in lockstep. That’s what Paul says we’re to do here. Keep in step with the Spirit. Stay in formation; depend entirely on him. Keep up with his commands, and march side by side with others who are following him as well.

This is freedom. If you want freedom in playing the piano, you practice. It’s the only way you can sit down at a piano and be able to play whatever you want. If you want a fish to be free, don’t break the aquarium and release the fish to the air so it can be free. It needs the water to be free. The same thing is true for the Christian. Freedom does not mean the absence of any restrictions. It means the right kind of restrictions. It means that we’re set free to love through the transforming power of the Spirit and to be changed from the inside out.

No law, no license, but love through the Spirit. That is true Christian freedom. True freedom doesn’t mean indulging the sinful nature; it means changing through the Spirit’s power.

Stand Firm In Your Freedom (Galatians 5:1-12)

I used to think that I was an easy child to raise. Looking back I now realize that I was a parent’s nightmare. I’ll give you just one example. I used to always get lost. I was once banned from all school trips for the remainder of the year because I got lost from the group. My mother would take me shopping, and she’d turn around and I’d be gone. That by itself would be annoying. What made it worse is that a few minutes later my mother would hear this announcement in the store: “Would a lost mother please report to the customer service booth.”

I couldn’t seem to get through my head two fundamental rules. One: don’t get lost. When you’re out with your mother, stand by your mother. I also seemed to forget a second important rule: If you get lost, stay in one place. You’re much easier to find then. My mother would continually remind me that I needed to stand firm when lost, and if I did this she would find me before very long.

We’ve been going through Galatians together. Paul says in this passage: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

There are two parts to what he says here. One is that if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you are free. You’re free from the penalty of sin, from the power of sin, from the law as a system of salvation. You’re free form superstition and from all that enslaves you. John Stott does a good job of explaining what this freedom is all about. It’s not the freedom to do whatever we want. It’s John Stott defines true freedom: "freedom from my silly little self in order to live responsibly in love for God and others.”

Paul says we’re free, and he says this emphatically. He literally says that it’s for freedom that Christ has freed us. Freedom is both the verb and the noun. Jesus’ whole mission was to free us. Paul tells us in the clearest terms that in Jesus Christ we have been freed.

But then he says, “Stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Do you realize that this is one of the most important tasks that we have as followers of Jesus Christ? What is it? To simply stand firm. He’s saying what my mother said to me. Whatever you do, don’t get lost. Don’t wander off, Paul is saying, from the freedom that is yours in Jesus Christ. Stay in one place. One of the biggest tasks in the Christian life is to guard against wandering off from the freedom that has been won for us through the saving work of Jesus Christ. You’re free, emphatically free. Now stand firm in that freedom and don’t wander off.

Paul mentions a specific way that we can tend to wander off. It’s what we’ve been talking about as we’ve worked through the book of Galatians, and we come to it again today. He says at the end of verse 1, “Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” What’s he talking about? In those days, slavery was a very real thing. It’s not the same type of slavery as we think of from North American history, but it was still bad. If you were a slave and then became a free person, you could buy property. You could schedule your own activities. You could earn and spend and live however you wished. It would be unthinkable to return once again to slavery. Yet Paul says that’s exactly what happens when we depart from the freedom we have in Christ.

When Paul talks about the yoke of slavery, he’s talking about the Old Testament law. Paul gets very clear in this passage that the issue the Galatians were facing is circumcision. Some people were teaching that it wasn’t enough to have faith in Christ’s saving work. You also need to keep some of the Old Testament law. In other words, you’re saved by trusting Jesus plus by keeping God’s law.

Think about this for a minute. This doesn’t sound so bad at first. It actually sounds very reasonable when you think about it. In fact, it’s hardwired in our nature. How do you become a Christian? We can all agree that it begins by realizing that you have sinned against God and violated his standards. And we can agree that it involves trusting in what Jesus Christ has done for us: that he lived a perfect life, and that he bore the punishment for our sins at the cross. He took our sins and gave us his righteousness. So far, so good.

But it would also seem reasonable to say that on top of trusting Christ, you also have to contribute something to your salvation. That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But do you see what Paul says here? When we do this, we’re doing exactly what I did as the world’s most annoying kid. We’re getting lost. We’re departing from the freedom that Christ has won for us. In fact, we’re allowing ourselves to become enslaved to a yoke of slavery. It’s deadly, and Paul says we can’t let it happen. Tullian Tchividjian says, “It’s not that Christians seek to blatantly replace the gospel. What we try to do is simply add to it.” And this is fatal.

Don’t get me wrong. Paul isn’t saying that it’s wrong to obey Christ. We’re going to see that obeying Christ is essential. What he’s warning us against is thinking that we contribute to our salvation through our obedience. Again, Tchividjian writes, “The most dangerous thing that you can happen to you is that you become proud of your obedience.” Think about that. The most dangerous thing that can happen to you is that you trust in your own obedience rather than in the perfect work of Jesus Christ.

This is so important. Stand firm in your freedom, Paul says. Don’t budge from the freedom you have in Christ.

That’s all fine, and I hope you agree. But Paul doesn’t just leave it there. In the rest of this passage he gives us two ways that we can stand firm in the freedom we have in Christ. Let me give you the two ways, and then let’s look at each of them. Stand firm in your freedom by realizing what’s at stake, and by rejecting those who want to enslave you.

First: Stand firm in your freedom by realizing what’s at stake.

I’m reading a book right now about an expedition to the top of Everest that went horribly wrong. In ordinary life, you can take some wrong steps and things don’t go too badly. On the top of Everest they realize what’s at stake with every step they take. One wrong step, one careless move, and you could be killed, and you can take some people with you too. There’s a lot at stake when you take one wrong step at the top of Everest.

In this passage, Paul wants us to realize what’s at stake when we take a “Jesus + something else = acceptance with God” understanding of the gospel. What’s at stake? Three things:

Christ and his work will be of no value to us. Read verse 2: “Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.” This is shocking. If we trust in Christ plus our own obedience, we lose all the benefits of trusting in Christ. This is not a minor issue. The story that helps me understand this is that of a man who got a baseball autographed by Babe Ruth. The man realized that the signed baseball might be valuable, so he decided to sell it. But he was worried because he could see that the signature on the baseball was faded. He decided to try to make that autograph clearer, so he took out that baseball and carefully traced over the letters with a marking pen: “BABE RUTH.” By trying to add to what Babe Ruth had done, he destroyed what Babe Ruth had done. By the time he had finished, he’d taken something priceless and turned it into something worthless.”

That’s exactly what we do to Jesus’ work when we try to add to it. “His finished work cannot be refinished; it can only be destroyed” (Phil Ryken). As the Puritan William Perkins said, “He must be a perfect Savior, or he is no Savior.” It’s either Jesus Christ in his perfection or our own works. There is no middle ground. If we trust in our own obedience, we deface the work of Christ. Jesus and his gospel will be of no value to us.

We become debtors to God’s entire law. Verse 3 says, “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.” Let me try to explain what he’s saying here. I have a thing for mustard. For instance, I love the hot and sweet mustard that comes with Hickory Farm gift boxes. The problem is that you can’t buy that mustard unless you buy a gift box. You can buy the mustard, but you can’t buy it by itself. It’s a package deal.

That’s what Paul is saying here. You can’t pick and choose from the law and add a bit of obedience. It’s a package deal. Once you try to pick up a bit of the law, you have to pick up the whole thing. You can’t pick and choose.

The problem is that if you pick up God’s law, you become a debtor. Gamaliel II was an old Jewish rabbi who lived around the time Galatians was written. One day he was reading Ezekiel, which talks about a man who “is righteous and does what is just and right” (Ezekiel 18:5). When he finished reading, he began to cry, saying, “Only he who keeps all these requirements will live, not he who keeps only one of them.” He realized that he could never meet the perfect standard of obedience required in God’s law.

The minute you begin to rely on your obedience, you become obligated to keep the entirety of God’s law. The problem is that nobody, except for Jesus Christ, can keep God’s law. So we become hopeless. We become debtors to God’s law with no hope of repayment.

We're cut off from the grace of Christ. Verse 4 says, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” If you try to justify yourself before God based on your own obedience, then you cut yourself off from God’s grace.

Why is this? Because grace and self-justification are mutually exclusive. You have to choose. The minute you try to accomplish your own salvation, you’re removing yourself from the grace and mercy of Christ.

What’s the alternative? Galatians 5:5-6 says:

For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

This is what it means to follow Christ. Instead of relying on our own obedience, we wait for God to give us righteousness by faith. It means looking to Christ instead of to ourselves. We’re waiting for God’s final verdict of righteousness on the last day. One day God will appear and declare us righteous based on the finished work of Jesus Christ. That is a whole lot better than relying on our own righteousness! This is really what matters. The issue isn’t circumcision or keeping the law; the issue is whether our faith is in Jesus Christ rather than in ourselves.

This is how you stand firm in your freedom: you realize what’s at stake. This is an Everest issue. When you take a step away from the freedom that’s yours in Christ, you’re taking a step that could be spiritually fatal. When you say that it’s Jesus plus something, then Christ is of no value, you become a debtor to the entire law, and you’re cut off from the grace of Christ. One of the ways that we stand firm in our freedom is to realize what’s at stake if we don’t.

So get clear on this. Realize that this is not a minor issue. Stand firm in your freedom because you realize what’s at stake if you don’t.

Second: Stand firm in your freedom by rejecting those who want to enslave you.

Read verses 7 to 12 with me:

You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!

Paul doesn’t mince words here. He speaks very clearly of the danger that comes from people who teach what God doesn’t. This teaching doesn’t come from God, Paul says. “This persuasion is not from him who calls you.” And it’s dangerous. There are four problems with these people:

They're meddlers - Paul uses the image of someone who cuts you off in a race. The Galatians were running well; these false teachers have cut in and tripped them up, and now they’re in danger of being disqualified.

They’re not God’s messengers - They’re not teaching what’s true. They’re teaching false doctrine.

They contaminate the gospel - Paul uses the example of leaven. Bread doesn’t rise unless it has yeast. It only takes a little yeast to do the job. Paul here is saying that it only takes a pinch of law to thoroughly contaminate the gospel. This is why doctrine is so important. It only takes a little bit of heresy to do a lot of damage.

They misrepresent Paul - They seem to be misrepresenting Paul, saying that he teaches circumcision as well. Paul challenges this and says that nothing could be further from the truth.

The good news is that Paul says they won’t succeed. “I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view,” he says. But in the meantime, these people are causing all kinds of problems.

There is great danger in believing what is not true about God and his gospel. A lot of difficulties in the Christian life come from not believing what’s true about God and his gospel. Paul is clear that we will continue to face false teachers. We have to take this seriously. One of the ways that we can stand firm in the faith is to reject anyone who tries to pull us away from the truth of the gospel.

A.W. Pink once wrote, “The great mistake made by people is hoping to discover in themselves what is to be found in Christ alone.” Don’t ever let anyone lead you to look away from Christ to look at yourself. Look at what he has done. He is our only hope for freedom.

In the last days of the Civil War, the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia, fell to the Union army. Abraham Lincoln insisted on visiting the city. Even though no one knew he was coming, slaves recognized him immediately and thronged around him. He had liberated them by the Emancipation Proclamation, and now Lincoln's army had set them free. According to Admiral David Porter, an eyewitness, Lincoln spoke to the throng around him:

"My poor friends, you are free—free as air. You can cast off the name of slave and trample upon it …. Liberty is your birthright."

In a similar way, Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Stand firm in your freedom by realizing what’s at stake, and by rejecting those who want to enslave you.

The Gospel and Two Sons (Galatians 4:21-5:1)

Just when you think you’re through the hardest part of Galatians, you get to what someone says is one of the most difficult passages not just in Galatians, but in the New Testament! This is a difficult passage for a lot of reasons:

  • It’s sordid.
  • Paul’s interpretation raises all kinds of interpretive issues.
  • It seems somewhat harsh.
  • It’s foreign to us, and it really seems to be far removed from the way we think.

As a result there have been all kinds of studies done on this passage. People read it and get kind of confused. And it’s easy to miss the main point of this passage because we get caught up in all the details, so that we miss the point.

But I want to most of these issues today. What I want to do is this: I want to tell you a story. Then I want to tell you why this story matters to us. And then I want to tell you how this story prepares us for communion this morning, which we’re going to celebrate together right after the sermon.

So first, let me tell you a story.

So here’s the story. But I need to warn you that it is one of the most troubling stories found in the entire Bible. There are worse stories, but this one definitely rates up there somewhere.

God had promised Abram:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

When God made this promise to Abram, Abram was 75 years old, and his wife Sarai was just a little bit younger by about ten years (Genesis 17:17). You don’t start a family when you’re 65 and 75 years old! But God had made this promise. And he repeated it later. In Genesis 15 Abram was starting to doubt this promise. He said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless…” and God answered, “Your very own son shall be your heir” (Genesis 15:2-4). But years went by. Ten years later there were still no children. Picture if I was childless. Picture that I waited another 40 years, and that you talked to me one day. You ask me if I have children, and I say, “No, but any day now I expect that my wife and I are going to start a family.” It’s hard not to see that Abram was beginning to wonder how God’s promise was going to be fulfilled with the clock ticking, and with no discernible progress even though a decade had gone by.

They say that God helps those who help themselves, so at the age of 85, that’s exactly what Abram did. In those days there’s evidence that it was sometimes customary to use a surrogate mother. Abram was 85, but that’s not too old to be a father. So Sarai arranged for her servant Hagar to bear a child on her behalf. Abram basically says, “I’m going to help God out by taking matters into my own hands. I’m going to make my own contribution to God’s promises.” The result, of course, is disaster. Abram married Hagar. Hagar bore him a child. Sarai hated it and treated Hagar harshly, and Hagar ran for her life with her son Ishmael.

Later on - about 15 years later - Sarai does indeed have a child. We read in Genesis 21:

The LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. (Genesis 21:1-3)

So you have these two children with a lot in common:

  • Both are sons of Abraham. They both had the same biological father.
  • Both were circumcised.
  • Both grew up in the same home.

But there were some pretty big differences between these two children as well:

  • One was the result of human scheming; the other was the result of God fulfilling his promise.
  • One was born a slave because his mother was a slave; the other was born free, the heir of a free woman.

You have this really weird story of two sons. It’s a very disturbing story with all kinds of hurt and family dysfunction. It reminds us, by the way, that the Bible is not full of great stories of great people who earned God’s approval because of their greatness. It’s a record of broken people who messed up repeatedly and are recipients of God’s great grace.

So that’s the story. Now I want to ask:

What does this story mean for us?

If you remember, Paul is writing in Galatians about what it means to be accepted by God. Some were teaching that you need Jesus plus your own obedience in order for God to accept you. Paul was arguing that acceptance by God requires Jesus plus nothing else. Every time you add to the gospel, Paul says, you subtract from it. You destroy it.

Why does Paul bring up this ugly story from Abraham’s life? One of the big issues that Paul is dealing with is that some were teaching that you have to keep Old Testament rules and regulations to be accepted by God. Only by keeping God’s law could you be considered one of Abraham’s offspring. So you see this come up over and over again in Galatians. Paul keeps dealing with the question of who is a true child of Abraham. In other words, who is it that is fully accepted by God? In the passage we have before us, he uses a form of argument that would have been used by rabbis in his time. In other words, Paul uses the argument being advanced by his opponents and turns it on his head. In doing so, he shows us that the story of Abraham’s two sons has a much greater meaning for us as well.

What Paul shows us is that there are two ways to relate to God. He’s been telling us about these two ways all the way through Galatians. One is Jesus plus nothing. The other is Jesus plus something else. In this passage he tells us that these two ways can be understood through the story of Ishmael and Isaac. These two sons show us two ways to relate to God, and what happens depending on which we choose.

One way relies on the flesh; one relies on the promise (Galatians 4:23). These two sons are perfect examples of the two ways we relate to God. Both ways have the same end in mind. Both want the blessings that God has promised. One way is to take matters into our own hands. Abraham decided he would help God out by relying on his own efforts to accomplish God’s purpose, and the result was disaster. Paul says that this is a good example of what happens when we rely on our own efforts to win acceptance with God. It’s really no different than when Abraham took Hagar as his wife so that he could create his own heir. It wasn’t what God had in mind, and it didn’t accomplish the purpose that God intended.

On the other hand, Isaac represents the other way to relate to God: to rely on what only God can do; to realize that we have nothing to offer God but our inadequacy. All that Abraham and Sarah had to offer God were old bodies that were far beyond their ability to produce the life that was promised to them. It was impossible. There was nothing in them that was capable of producing life. And that’s exactly the way that God designed it. Ishmael represents what we can do on our own efforts, and it’s a mess; Isaac represents what only God can do by his grace, and it’s amazing.

One way is slavery; the other way is freedom (Galatians 4:25-26). Paul actually says that the two ways of relating to God are also represented by the two sons. Both Ishmael and Isaac had the same father. But Ishmael was born to a woman who was a slave, and so he was born into slavery. Paul says that is exactly what happens when we try to add to what Jesus has done through our own efforts. We become slaves. We take things into our own hands, but what we produce is enslaved because we are enslaved. So we never get the freedom that we long for.

This is the irony of those who try to earn God’s approval through their own efforts. No matter how hard you work, you’re still enslaved. You never know whether you’ve done enough. You’re always left wondering if you’ve obeyed enough or whether you’ve repented enough. You’re never quite sure if you’ve measured up to God’s expectations. You’re enslaved. Whenever you think you need to earn your standing with God, you end up enslaved just like Ishmael. You never taste the freedom that God intends.

But that’s not the way it is with Isaac. Isaac was born into freedom. He was the result of only what God could do. Paul is saying that when we rely on God’s gracious gift of salvation through Jesus Christ alone, we are spiritually born into that same freedom. There’s no going back. It’s much better than Ishmael’s situation. When we receive God’s gracious gift of salvation, we receive a freedom that can’t be taken away.

We also see that there’s hostility between these two ways (Galatians 4:29-30). This is so important. What do we see here? Ishmael couldn’t stand Isaac. He persecuted Isaac because he couldn’t stand that Isaac had freedom when he didn’t. Paul said that this is just like today. People who are trying to earn God’s approval through their own efforts can’t stand all this talk about grace. It makes them angry. That’s what was happening with the Galatians, and it’s happening today. Grace sounds outrageous, and it makes people angry. It especially makes people angry who are adding something to Jesus. They can’t stand people who rely only on Christ and nothing else.

But it goes both ways. Paul says that Ishmael has to be kicked out because Ishmael isn’t compatible with Isaac. Do you see what he’s saying? He’s saying that this has to be dealt with. You can’t permit people to stay in a church and teach that you need Jesus plus something else in order to be accepted by God.

But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” (Galatians 4:30)

You can’t have a church that teaches both. Isaac and Ishmael are incompatible with each other. You can’t have a church that preaches and denies the gospel at the same time. Grace and legalism are hostile to each other. They’re like oil and water.

Paul is pulling out all of the stops to tell us that there are two ways to relate to God. One is through our own efforts. But this makes a mess of things, and it leaves us enslaved and hating grace. The other way is to realize that we can’t do anything to contribute to what God has promised. We have nothing to offer God but our inability. And God chooses to keep his promises to people like this by fulfilling his promise as a gracious gift. And this way leads to freedom, and there’s nothing like this.

I have three applications for us as we come to the end of this sermon.

First, realize why Paul is saying this. There’s a story that’s been told numerous times of the great Reformer, Martin Luther. In the church that he was pastoring, preached the gospel to his congregation, week after week after week after week. His people wondered why they couldn’t move on. Surely we get the Gospel by now, Pastor! Why do you keep preaching the gospel every week? His answer: “Because every week, you forget it.”

We never move beyond the gospel because the gospel is what saves us. It’s not just the beginning of the Christian life; it’s the middle and the end as well. That’s why Paul keeps circling back and reminding us of the gospel. He uses every tool in his disposal to help us see the gospel and its beauty as opposed to trying to earn our standing with God on our own. All we bring to God is inability; he gives us everything we need as a gift through Jesus Christ.

Second, see the promise of verse 27. Paul quotes Isaiah 54:1 in verse 27.

For it is written,
“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear;
break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than those of the one who has a husband.”
(Galatians 4:27)

This is the upside-down nature of the gospel. Those who are barren, like Sarah, those who have nothing but need, receive all that God has promised. Sarah was barren. There was no way that she could produce the child that had been promised to her. But God kept his promise. In Isaiah’s time, Isaiah was prophesying that Israel would return from its barrenness and flourish once again. And now Paul is writing to Gentiles who had nothing to offer, and he’s saying that it’s just like God to give everything to those who have nothing. If you come empty-handed this morning, with nothing to offer to God but your need, then you’re in a good position to receive the blessings of the gospel found in Christ.

Finally, heed the warning of Galatians 5:1. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” This is the whole reason that Paul wrote. Don’t ever go back to trying to earn your acceptance with God through your own effort. Embrace the freedom that is yours in the gospel, and never look back.

We’re not saved by what we do; we’re saved by relying on what only God can do. Anything else is slavery.

The Gospel Alarm (Galatians 4:8-20)

If you went to the Clarke’s house, you would meet their dog Shadow. You would quickly come to realize that Shadow is a people-dog. Shadow is very happy to see you when you go to visit. If you ever feel that nobody cares about you, you should go visit their house, because you will quickly realize that this dog doesn’t even know you, but still thinks the world of you.

But one night last week, Jonathan came home late. And that evening, Shadow was anything but welcoming. Shadow sounded the alarm that somebody was coming up the driveway, and let the whole household know.

Question: Why did Shadow sound the alarm? What happened to Shadow’s friendliness?

Parallel question: We’ve been in Galatians, and Paul is clearly agitated. You’ll remember that the issue is what it takes to be accepted by God. Paul is saying that it’s Jesus plus nothing. Others are saying that it’s Jesus plus something else. It doesn’t take long to realize that Paul is agitated over this issue. He basically says that he’s ready to beat up an angel who preaches that we need Jesus plus anything else to be saved. So here’s the question: Why is Paul sounding the alarm? This morning’s passage gets to the heart of this question. And it’s important because we’re going to see why we need to sound the alarm as well whenever the gospel is lost, whenever anyone adds anything to Jesus in order to find acceptance with God.

So here’s the big idea. I’ll give it to you and then we’ll unpack it. Sound the gospel alarm because of what’s at stake, and because of love.

First: Sound the gospel alarm because of what’s at stake.

Look at verses 8 to 11:

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.

In these few verses Paul tells us what’s at stake. This is so important for us to see, because we don’t easily see what’s at risk when we add something to Jesus in order to be accepted by God. So Paul gives us three pictures in these verses. He gives us a picture of what we’re like before Christ. Then he gives us a picture of what we’re like when we trust Christ. Then he gives us a picture of what we’re like when we add something to Christ in order to be accepted.

Before Christ - Paul says, “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.” This is a very insightful description. Paul says that before Christ, we’re enslaved to false gods. He’s talking about their pagan idol-worship. He doesn’t name their false gods, but they would have known the various gods worshiped in the temples. But Paul says something radical. Worshiping anyone or anything other than God through Christ is slavery. He says in 1 Corinthians 10:20:

No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. (1 Corinthians 10:20)

This is our before picture. We’re all by nature worshipers. We’re hardwired to attribute ultimate worth to someone or something bigger than ourselves. It could be a religion. It could be anything: a hobby, a political system, a philosophy, a sport, a job. Everyone worships someone or something bigger than themselves and looks for ultimate meaning.

Paul says that two things are true about all of our worship before we come to Christ. First: it’s demonic. That’s shocking, but think about it. The demons know we’re built to worship, and they’re delighted if we worship anyone or anything other than Christ. They really don’t care what it is as long as it’s not God. Second: it’s enslaving. Whatever we worship other than God will enslave us. Tim Keller says, “If anything but Jesus is a requirement for being happy or worthy, that thing will become our slavemaster.” David Powlison puts it like this:

“[Your] idols define good and evil in ways contrary to God's definitions. [They spin out a whole false belief system.] They establish a locus of control that is earth-bound: either in objects (e.g. lust for money), other people (e.g.‘I need to please my father’), or myself (e.g. attainment of my personal goals). Such false gods create false laws, false definitions of success and failure, of values and stigma. Idols promise blessings and warn of curses for those who succeed or fail [their standards]. ‘If I [make enough money], I will be secure. If I can get these certain people to like and respect me, then my life will be valid.’....”

Let’s just pause here because this is so important. This is the picture of everyone who does not know Jesus Christ. We’re all worshipers. We all look to someone or something other than God for our ultimate meaning. And we’re all enslaved to whatever that is. The demons love for us to worship, as long as we’re worshiping someone or something other than God.

When we trust Christ - But then Paul gives us a picture of what happens when we come to know the power of the gospel. He says, “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God…” Before, we didn’t know God. When we heard the gospel, we came to know God. Know doesn’t mean just head knowledge. It means to know personally and relationally. It’s the knowledge that comes from friendship, not from reading a set of facts.

But I love what Paul says here. He does say we came to know God, but then he stops himself and says, “or rather to be known by God.” This reminds me of the ending of Tim Keller’s excellent book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. A woman prayed “God, help me find you,” but she never seem to get anywhere. One day a friend told her to try praying, “God, come and find me.” And he did. God finds us more than we find him. Before we ever knew God, God knew us. God chose us. We became the objects of his love. We know God because God knew us first. He loves us and graciously chose us to be his own.

So that’s the before picture: enslaved to false gods. Then we have the gospel picture: knowing God because he first knew us. Then we have one more picture.

When we add something to Christ - He writes, “…how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” Don’t miss what Paul is saying here. Paul is saying that adding anything to Jesus in order to be accepted by God is another form of idol-worship. This is shocking! Trying to earn God’s approval by our own efforts is no better than paganism. Justification by works is just as demonic and enslaving as idol-worship.

What Paul is saying is that there are two ways to be lost. There are two ways to reject God, and the demons are happy with either one. One way to reject God is to worship idols and look for our ultimate meaning and satisfaction in anything other than God. The other way to be lost and enslaved is to be religious and to base our acceptance on anything other than Jesus.

Do you see what Paul is saying? He’s saying that there are a lot of people who think they’re Christians who are no better off than idol-worshipers. He’s saying that the demons are quite happy if we come to church and read our Bibles and be really good people, as long as we’re basing our acceptance on our good behavior rather than on the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ. It’s demonic and it’s enslaving, and the demons are thrilled with this version of Christianity. Nobody’s put it better than Michael Horton:

What would things look like if Satan actually took over a city? The first frames in our imaginative slide show probably depict mayhem on a massive scale: Widespread violence, deviant sexualities, pornography in every vending machine, churches closed down and worshipers dragged off to City Hall. Over a half-century ago, Donald Grey Barnhouse, pastor of Philadelphia's Tenth Presbyterian Church, gave his CBS radio audience a different picture of what it would look like if Satan took control of a town in America. He said that all of the bars and pool halls would be closed, pornography banished, pristine streets and sidewalks would be occupied by tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The kids would answer 'Yes, sir,' 'No, ma'am,' and the churches would be full on Sunday ... where Christ is not preached.

Do you see what’s at stake? We’re in danger of embracing something that looks like Christianity but is basically just a Christian version of paganism. Why should we sound the gospel alarm? Because when we get fuzzy on the gospel, when we begin to trust our own performance, when we lose sight of the cross, it’s actually more dangerous than when we were pagans because we don’t even realize what’s going on.

Paul is saying that there are two ways to be demonically enslaved. One is to reject Christ and Christianity and find ultimate meaning in worshiping something or someone else. But the other way is to attend church and sing hymns and worship God but trust in something other than Christ in order to be accepted by God. If you do this, you’re just as lost, and the demons are just as happy.

There’s only one way to avoid being demonically enslaved: to put your hope in Jesus and nothing else for your salvation; to look to Christ and the cross as your only hope. This is why Paul sounds the alarm. There’s so much at stake. It’s why we have to sound the alarm as well.

There’s a second reason why we need to sound the gospel alarm.

Second: Sound the gospel alarm out of love.

The next few verses are some of the most intimate and painful verses to read in all of Paul’s writings. In these next verses Paul sound the alarm not just because of what’s at stake; he sounds the alarm because he loves the Galatians. We see that one of the reasons we need to speak up is because he loves the Galatians and he wants them to experience the gospel in all its dimensions.

To go back to Shadow: it’s sometimes hard to see much love in a bark. A bark can be annoying. That’s why they sell bark collars. People get tired of hearing dogs bark. When we first moved into our current house, the dog next door would sometimes bark well into the night. We repeated a phrase when we heard the dog bark a lot: Shoot the dog. We never did, but we seriously thought about it. Barking isn’t always welcome, and it’s hard to see much love in a bark. It’s the same with Paul. Paul has raised the alarm, and it may have been hard at first to see Paul’s heart. But in this passage he opens his heart, and we see nothing but love. Love is the reason that Paul is so concerned about the Galatians losing the gospel.

You see Paul’s love for the Galatians in three ways in this passage. You actually get a beautiful picture of what ministry is like from this passage. It applies whether you’re a pastor or a youth leader or a Sunday school teacher.

Ministry involves entering people’s worlds. “Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are” (Galatians 4:12). Paul was a Jew, a Pharisee. He was very committed to the law. But the Galatians were Gentiles. To reach them, Paul became as they were, free from the Mosaic law. Paul, even though he was Jewish, became like a Gentile, and now he’s amazed that they as Gentiles are trying to live like Jews. But here you see the lengths to which Paul was prepared to go to reach them. He entered their world and lived in it. You can’t minister from a distance. You need to get close enough and enter into their lives.

Ministry involves reciprocity. You see in verses 13 to 15 that the relationship became a mutual one. The Galatians received Paul and cared for him. They were prepared to sacrifice for him. They loved him. They welcomed him with joy, and his presence gave them a blessing. You see that. Ministry is highly relational. Not only did Paul serve the Galatians, but the Galatians also served him.

Ministry involves anguish. You see this in verses 16 to 20. The false teachers wanted to benefit from the Galatians so that they could receive flattery in return. When you need someone to need you, then you can’t give them what they really need. In contrast, Paul was willing to give the Galatians what they need even if caused him anguish — and it did. In verse 19, he compares what he’s feeling with the anguish of childbirth. Paul, a man, compares himself to a mother who’s giving birth to them for the second time. I’m certain that most mothers here would say that one birth per child is about all that you can take. As wonderful as your children are, you don’t want to give birth to any one of them more than once. But Paul’s saying that it’s almost like going back to the beginning, going through all that pain again. He finds himself in anguish and perplexed because of what is going on.

I like what somebody said about writing. Writing is simple; you just open a vein and bleed. The same is true about parenting. It’s incredibly simple. You just have a child and then devote the next 40 or so years of your life sacrificing everything for them. Simple. Paul would say the same thing about ministry. All that it takes is entering their world, loving and being loved, and being in anguish for their sakes.

Paul is concerned because of what’s at stake, but he’s also concerned because he loves them. Paul wants the best for them. I’m glad that he included this part of the letter because it gives us a window into his heart.

I’m glad this passage came up, because it really gets to the heart of why I wanted us to look at Galatians this Fall. This passage really gets at the heart of why we’re spending so much time going through this book.

First, there’s so much at stake. I hope you see the importance of the gospel. I hope you understand that there are two ways to be lost. One is to reject the Christ and the gospel. The other is to appear to accept it, but then to add to Christ. Both are demonic. Both lead to enslavement. The devil is delighted with both. I hope you are seeing that the gospel is different from either option. Whenever you add anything to Jesus, you subtract from him. I hope you are getting the importance of the gospel, which is that Jesus has done everything necessary for us to be right with God. He is the only basis of our acceptance with God.

Second, I hope you know how much I love you. That’s my concern. I’ve been here 13 years. What Paul says, I think I can say. We have a history. I’ve sacrificed for you; you’ve sacrificed for me. I’ve been in anguish many times over you. That’s why I care.

If you want to know why I’m barking mad about the gospel, those are the two reasons why. I’m sounding the gospel alarm because of what’s at stake, and because of love.

The Law and the Promise (Galatians 3:15-25)

I want to take you back a number of years. I was a fairly new and inexperienced pastor in my first church. One day we had a couple show up. They were from another church, which they said was legalistic. They wanted to know if we were a church that believed in grace and didn’t believe in the law.

Talk about a gift! It’s always exciting to get new people out to church. I assured them that we were a church that believed in grace, and that we wouldn’t put up with legalism.

A while later it came out that the male in the couple was engaged in some sin in his life. I confronted him about it, and he was aghast. He said, “I thought that this wasn’t a legalistic church!” They left the church and I never saw them again. I think they went to a new church and complained about me.

But as a young pastor, it made me think. Here’s the issue: if we are saved by grace through faith, then what is the law of God all about? What’s up with the 613 commands of the law in the Old Testament? More practically, does it mean that we can live however we please from now on? You get the idea: if the gospel is Jesus plus nothing is all we need, then we really don’t need the law. We may as well chuck it and just live by grace. There’s a lot of confusion over this issue, and I have to admit that it’s easy to end up muddled over this issue.

Let me give you an example. The psalmist wrote:

Oh how I love your law!
It is my meditation all the day.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is ever with me.
(Psalm 119:97-98)

So the law is good. We should meditate on the law. It can make us wise. It should always be with us. But then you have what we’ve been reading in Galatians that seem to be pretty negative about the law. So we’re left confused. Is the law a good thing, or a bad thing?

Well, this is not a new question. And it’s not just an abstract discussion for us as well. The guy who came up to me at my first church got this wrong, and it led him into sin and confusion. He completely dismissed the value of the law. But you can also make the opposite mistake and become legalistic in your thinking. John Piper says:

Legalism is a greater menace to the church than alcoholism…Alcoholics are in a tragic bondage. And we must do all we can to help. But legalism is more subtle and more pervasive and, in the end, more destructive. Satan clothes himself as an angel of light and makes the very commandments of God his base of operations. And the human heart is so inveterately proud and unsubmissive that it often uses religion and morality to express its rebellion.

So what about the law? Is the law important to Christians or not? Paul answers this question by telling us two things in this passage. We need to understand both if we’re going to get it right. First, he says that the law was never meant to replace grace. Second, he says that the law does have a purpose in the Christian life: to lead us to Christ. So let’s look at each of these. What I want to do is to explain what Paul says, and then tell you what it means for us.

First: The law was never meant to replace grace.

Here’s the question Paul was dealing with in this first section in verses 15 to 19. The implied question is this: Why all these years did God require Israel to follow the law and to be circumcised? It seems like a pretty major change. All of a sudden Paul comes along and says that you need Jesus plus nothing else in order to be accepted by God. That’s fine, but what about the entire Old Testament? What do you do with Moses who received the Ten Commandments directly from God? It seems like they have a pretty convincing argument here. And if they’re right, then we have a pretty big problem here, because it would seem that we need Christ plus the law in order to be accepted by God. Paul’s entire argument would come crashing down, and we would be put back under the power of the law once again.

The question is really about when God began to come up with a way to save people who are sinners. There’s actually a bit of a legal question here.

Years ago my father loaned one of my brothers some money to buy a house, to be repayable to his estate upon his death. Because of the nature of the agreement, we got together and agreed how things were going to be handled. It’s one of those situations in which it’s better to avoid any possible confusion right up front. So we drafted a one-page agreement on how this was going to be handled. We filed it away in a safe place. We knew that one day we would all have to pull out this binding agreement. If somebody tried to make something up, we could all point to this piece of paper and say, “Look! We’ve already decided how all of this is going to happen.”

That’s essentially what was happening with the Galatians. Paul was talking about grace and faith. Some were pulling out what they thought was a binding agreement between God and his people, and the binding agreement basically said, “Keep the law! Be circumcised!” They thought they had Paul backed into a corner.

To top it off, covenants are unbreakable. Once a covenant is made, you can’t go back and just change it.

So what is Paul going to do? How is he going to answer this?

Read verse 15:

To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified.

Just stop there for a minute. You can picture some of Paul’s opponents, the Judaizers, nodding, and saying, “Uh huh! Even Paul agrees that the law given to Moses can’t be annulled or added to once it’s been ratified.” It really looks like an airtight case at this point.

But go on. Verses 16 to 18 say:

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.

This is amazing. Look at what Paul does here. He gets us to agree that if God makes a covenant, that it’s a binding one. Then he reminds us that the covenant we need to pay attention to is not the covenant with Moses (the law) but the covenant with Abraham. What’s the covenant with Abraham? In Genesis 22, God said to Abraham:

I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice. (Genesis 22:17-18)

So what’s Paul’s point? Paul actually has three points:

First: The promises of grace made to Abraham come before the requirements of the law, and they can’t be changed. Paul is actually arguing that God gave Abraham the gospel long before he ever gave Moses the law. So the gospel is not something that Paul just invented. The gospel has been there all along, all the way back to Abraham.

Second: The promises of grace have been all about Jesus right from the beginning. This is mind-blowing. What did God promise Abraham. That by sheer grace, “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” Paul notices here that offspring is singular. What Paul realizes is that before God ever gave us the law, God gave us a promise: that a singular descendent of Abraham would bless every nation in the earth. God’s whole plan right from Abraham’s day was to send one person who would bless all nations. Do you see what Paul says in verse 16? “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.” God’s intention all along was to save us not by the law, but through the gracious gift of his Son. This isn’t new, Paul says. The gospel goes all the way back to Abraham.

Third: the law is subordinate to God’s promise to bless the world through Abraham. Why? Because it was given first, and can’t be annulled. Also, in verse 20, because the promise to Abraham was given directly by God to Abraham, whereas the law was given through intermediaries. The promise, therefore, is in every way superior to the law. The law has always been subordinate to grace. That’s the way it’s been right from the beginning.

Look, this seems hard to follow, so stick with me for a minute. The question is an important one: Is our relationship with God based on the law, which we break, or is it based on the free gift of grace that comes from God? Paul says it’s always been about the promise of grace. It’s always been about grace, not by the law. This is not a New Testament invention. It’s been that way right from the beginning. It’s always been about Jesus; it’s always been about being accepted by God on the basis of grace through faith.

This makes all the difference in the world to us. Almost everything we do in life is based on performance. If you go to school, you get grades based on your papers and tests. If you work, you get reviews and you get measured against standards. We’re hardwired to judge ourselves based on performance. Brett Favre, holder of many NFL passing records, three-time MVP, and 10-time all-pro, Super Bowl XXXI champion, said, “You're only as good as your last pass.” That’s the way we are tempted to live. But Paul tells us that it was never meant to be this way.

Here we see the sweetness of the gospel from which we derive great comfort. We are not right with God by our obedience but by our faith in God’s promise…The law says: Do this. The gospel says: Accept this…The devil wants to discourage you and tell you that you can never be right with God because of your failures. But the gospel says that we are right with God because of God’s promise of life in Christ. (Thomas Schreiner)

Or, as Philip Ryken put it, “Salvation in Christ does not rest on a law that we inevitably break; it rests on a promise that God cannot break.”

Let me give you an example of how we can apply this. A student came to a Christian professor at a university. He confessed that he was a practicing homosexual. “I feel like a slave,” he said. The professor responded, “You are a slave.” He began to teach him about how to gain freedom from sin through Jesus Christ.

The student loved this. But one thing held him back: he really believed that he wasn’t good enough for God. How could God forgive him for everything that he had done? He said to the professor, “First I must become a Christian like you. Then God will love me.”

The professor replied, “I’m no better than you are, except for the love and power of God. He loves you now as you are.” Do you see that? God does not deal with us based on our performance, but on the basis of his promise. No matter who we are, no matter what we have done, we hold on to the promise that God made before the law. Pull out the irrevocable promise that God made before he gave the law, that points to Jesus Christ, and remind yourself that it cannot be broken. Salvation is by God’s grace. We don’t have to work to receive it.

So that’s the first thing that Paul is telling us. The law was never meant to replace grace. Grace always comes first. It’s been that way right from the beginning.

You can picture what some people are thinking. If this is the case, then what good is the law? Why did God give us the law then in the first place? Paul answers this question in verses 19 to 24.

The law was given to lead us to Christ.

Let me see if I can explain this. Paul says, “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions…” Several years ago they built a high-rise hotel in Galveston, Texas, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. They sank pilings into the gulf and built the structure out over the water. When the hotel was about to have its grand opening, someone thought, What if people decide to fish out the hotel windows? So they placed signs in the hotel rooms, "No fishing out the hotel windows." Many people ignored the signs, however, and it created a difficult problem. Lines got snarled. People in the dining room saw fish flapping against the picture windows. The manager of the hotel solved it all by taking down those little signs. No one checks into a hotel room thinking about fishing out of the windows. The signs, though well-intentioned, created the problem. That’s what happened with the law. In a sense it provokes us.

Let me put it this way. I have some allergies. Every couple of years I have to go to an allergist. They put some different irritants on my skin and then prick my skin with a needle. They’re trying to provoke a reaction in me. Why? Because provoking an allergic reaction is the only way to reveal what allergies I have. That’s very similar to what the law does. It pricks our skins and causes a reaction that reveals the condition of our sinful hearts so that we can see what’s wrong with us. Martin Luther said:

The true function and the chief and proper use of the Law is to reveal to man his sin, blindness, misery, wickedness, ignorance, hate and contempt of God, death, hell, judgment, and the well-deserved wrath of God.

That’s why Paul gives us two images here. First, he says, the law is like a prison in verse 22. The law can’t make us right with God. It can only imprison us. But in prison we begin to long for freedom. We begin to long for a Savior. The law helps us recognize our need of Christ.

The other image he gives is in verses 24 and 25. This one needs a bit more explanation. In wealthy Greek families back then, children were raised by guardians or pedagogues. This pedagogue would serve as the child’s protector and disciplinarian from the age of six to adolescence. Drawings usually depict the pedagogue holding a rod or a cane to administer punishment. The relationship was often very close, but it was disciplinary, and it was temporary. One great writer said, “When a boy ceases to be a child, and begins to be a lad, others release him from his ‘pedagogue’ and from his teacher; he is then no longer under them, but is allowed to go his own way.” In the same way, Paul says, the law was needed for discipline on a temporary basis until Christ came.

So the law isn’t contrary to the gospel. The law anticipates the gospel. It helps us realize our need for the gospel. It isn’t opposed to grace; it actually leads us to grace. That’s why we still need to know God’s law. John Stott said:

Not until the law has bruised and smitten us will we admit the need of the gospel to bind up our wounds. Not until the law has arrested and imprisoned us will we pine for Christ to set us free. Not until the law has condemned and killed us will we call upon Christ for justification and life. Not until the law has driven us to despair of ourselves will be ever believe in Jesus. Not until the law has humbled us even to hell will we ever turn to the gospel to raise us to heaven.

For two summers, the Chicago Cubs showed us what this looks like. They first traded for Vance Law and started him at third base. A few months later, they brought up first baseman Mark Grace from the minor leagues. So they had Law and Grace, right next to each other in the batting order. They even had them in the right order: Grace came first, and then Law. They stood in opposite corners on the baseball diamond, holding down first and third base. “Opposing batters would smash the ball to third, where Law would knock it down and throw it over to first for the out…Law to Grace to retire the side.”

Philip Ryken says, “Law and grace are not opponents; they are teammates working together for the salvation of God’s people. The law leads to grace, which can be found only in Christ.”`

That’s why if someone came up to me today and said, “Do you believe in grace?” I’d say, “Yes!” I’d tell them that grace is where it all began all the way back to Abraham. I’d say that salvation does not rest on a law that we inevitably break; it rests on a promise that God cannot break.

But then if they asked me if I was opposed to the law, I’d say, “Absolutely not!” The law is designed to lead us to Christ. It provokes us so that we realize what we’re really like, and then it drives us to Christ. It can’t save us, but it drives us to someone who can.

The law wasn’t meant to replace grace; it was meant to lead us to Christ.

Finish the Way You Start (Galatians 3:1-14)

In 1859, the famous tight-rope walker Charles Blondin traveled to Niagara Falls. He stretched a three-inch wire over the gorge. There, suspended on this wire, he walked 1100 feet from one side to the other. He did this a number of times: blindfolded, in a sack, pushing a wheelbarrow, on stilts, sitting down midway while he cooked and ate an omelet and standing on a chair with only one chair leg on the rope.

But that’s not all. He also carried a man on his back over that tightrope. This must be one of the best examples of trust ever placed by one human in another. It’s either brave or stupid. Blondin carried his manager on his back from one side of the Falls to the other. I don’t care if it was his manager; that goes beyond an honest day’s work.

Imagine if halfway across the manager had said to Blondin, “Look, I appreciate that you’ve taken me this far, but I really don’t trust you anymore. I think I’ll do the rest myself. Let me down, and I’ll take it from here.” Can you imagine? He’d be a dead manager from that point on. Having been carried that far, why in the world would he think that he could get the rest of the way across by himself?

It sounds ridiculous, but that is the very situation that Paul addresses in this passage. This is possibly one of the greatest misconceptions about the Christian life. I hope you’re clear that you’re accepted by God based only on Jesus and nothing else. I hope that if you’ve been with us so far, you’ve got that. But I sense that there is a lot of confusion going on. Once we’re Christians, how do we grow? How do we get the rest of the way? Having been justified (declared righteous before God), how are we sanctified (made holy)? There’s a lot of confusion and debate over this issue.

Let me tell you why this is an important question. One of my pastor friends went to see a famous chef in Toronto recently. Somebody asked him a question about what it was like to be on TV and to have published books that are read by millions of people. He said that it’s frustrating. Why? Because all these people are watching his TV show, and reading his books, and they’re still not eating well. They’re still eating garbage food that’s not healthy. All these people are hearing his message, but they’re not changing. My pastor friend leaned to his wife and said, “I know how he feels.”

That’s the problem, isn’ it? We know what it takes to become a Christian, but we’re not always growing as much as we’d like. We need to know not just how to begin the Christian life, but how to change.

Here’s the most common answer to that question if we’re going to be honest, and it’s the mistake that Paul is confronting in this passage. A lot of us act as if we’re saved by grace through faith, but then it’s up to us to grow. We believe we get into the Christian life by God’s grace, but then it’s up to us. It’s like we get to the middle of the tightrope and say, “I think I’ll take it from here.”

This is a crucial question, because we need to know how we grow. So let me walk you through this passage. We’re going to see three things in this passage.

  • First: that the entire Christian life is based on faith, not performance
  • Second: that this is the way it’s always been
  • Third: that there could be no other way

First: The entire Christian life is based on faith, not performance.

Paul begins this passage by saying, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” He’s saying, “Are you completely out of your mind? What in the world are you thinking?” He’s looking at the Galatians, and he’s incredulous. Here’s the issue, according to the rest of verse 1, right down to verse 3:

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

What Paul identifies here is actually one of the greatest issues we have to face. This is absolutely profound. Paul is talking about when the Galatians first heard the gospel and became believers. The power of the Holy Spirit was clearly at work in their lives. The Bible clearly teaches that, when we become Christians, at conversion, the Holy Spirit is poured into our hearts, and that those who are genuine Christians have the Spirit living within them. The Holy Spirit is God’s seal and guarantee that he will complete his work (2 Corinthians 1:22).

So here’s his question: How did you become a Christian and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit? The answer that they would give is, “I became a Christian and received the Spirit because I heard the gospel message with faith.” The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ has made a way for us to be accepted by God through his death and resurrection. To use the tightrope analogy, you became a Christian not by thinking you could cross over that chasm by yourself, but by placing your trust in Christ to do what you couldn’t do for yourself. Did they receive the Holy Spirit because they were circumcised, or kept the works of the law? No! The Holy Spirit never takes up residence in our lives because we’ve cleaned ourselves up and because we’re good enough. No, the Holy Spirit entered our lives when we heard and received the gospel message by faith. We are not saved by doing, Paul says. We’re saved by hearing. We don’t become Christians by doing anything to earn God’s acceptance. We become Christians when he hear the gospel preached and place our faith in Christ.

Given this, Paul then asks, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” The answer of course is, “Duh, no.” What Paul is saying is this: Continue in the Christian life the same way you started: by grace, not performance. Anything else would be ridiculous. It would be foolish to start one way and finish another. God had promised in the Old Testament:

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

Now that God has kept this promise, and given us the Holy Spirit to live within us and change us from the inside-out, it would be foolish to think we could improve on this with a new strategy. It would be utterly foolish to think we reject the Holy Spirit and rely on our own steam to get the job done.

Here’s the main question. Are we saved by the Spirit and faith, and then we move on to progressing in the Christian life through works and human effort? Absolutely not, Paul says. We are saved by the Spirit and faith, and then we progress in exactly the same way. We progress by the Spirit working in our lives, and as we in faith return to the gospel message and put our full and complete trust in Christ in every area of our lives.

I like how John Piper puts it:

The essence of the Galatian heresy is the teaching that you begin the Christian life by faith, and then you grow in the Christian life by works, that is, by drawing on powers in yourself to make your contribution to salvation. One modern form of the heresy is: "God helps those who help themselves." … Faith is the only response to God's Word which makes room for the Spirit to work in us and through us. Flesh, on the other hand, is the insubordinate, self-determining ego which in religious people responds to God's Word not with reliance on the Spirit but with reliance on self. It can produce a very rigorous morality, but it nullifies grace and removes the stumbling block of the cross.

I hope you can see that the essential mark of a Christian is not how far you have progressed in sanctification, but on what you are relying to get there. Are you striving for sanctification by works? Or are you striving for sanctification by faith?

There could be some confusion here, so let me clarify. Paul is not saying that we should passively sit and do nothing while we wait for God to change us. This is not passive at all. The issue here is how we’re going to change. And Paul says that the power to change doesn’t come from ourselves; it comes from the Spirit. It still takes effort, but it’s grace-driven effort.

This is so important. Verse 3 is one of the most important verses for the Christian life. I love how Thomas Schreiner says:

As Christians we need to relearn the gospel every day. We are prone to wander, as the old hymn says, and hence we may act as if a spell has been cast over us. The Christian life is a battle to rely on the gospel, and even as Christians we are inclined to look to ourselves and trust in our own achievements rather than relying solely on the cross of Christ. In our counseling and our preaching and our teaching we must summon people over and over to the cross of Christ and call them to look away from themselves and focus on Christ. We may slowly drift from the gospel, just as the Galatians did. The problems Paul addressed in Galatians remind us all that the Christian life cannot be lived on autopilot, that there is a daily struggle to grasp the gospel.

That’s the principle that we have to grasp. You continue the Christian life the same way that you started it: by grace through faith and the power of the Holy Spirit. We grow by grace.

Paul also shows us:

Second: This is the way it’s always been.

This gets to the heart of one of the biggest mistakes we make when we’re reading the Bible. It’s one of the reasons we have the wrong idea about how to grow in the Christian life. If you ask most people what the Bible is about, they’ll tell you it’s about how to live a good, moral life. It’s about how to be a good person. If you ask about the stories of the Bible, many will tell you they’re stories that show you how to be a good person. The Bible becomes a how-to book that provides examples of people we should imitate.

There’s a problem with this approach though. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Bible is all about. You see that in this passage as it relates to Abraham, who is the father of the Jewish people, and to whom many of the most important promises were made. Paul writes: “…just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’”. This is so important. When we look at Abraham’s life, what should we learn? You could focus on Abraham as an example of good works. He picked up and moved when God told him to. He was ready to give up his son when God asked him to. Was Abraham saved because of his good works? Is that the lesson we’re supposed to take away from his life? No, Paul says. Paul was saved exactly the same way that we were saved. He was saved by grace through faith. And through faith, he was counted righteous before God.

The term Paul uses is an accounting term. I went to the bank the other day with a check. The check was from someone who normally doesn’t write checks to me, and the amount was large enough that they were nervous about it. She told me she’d have to put a hold on the check, and that it would take days to clear. I asked her to check with the manager. She did, and she came back, and she typed all these things in the computer. I’d love to know everything she was typing; it looked like she was writing a novel. Then she smiled and handed me the receipt. That money was reckoned to me. It was deposited to my account.

That’s what happened to Abraham, Paul said. Abraham was not saved by depositing his good works, even though he did some good things. No, he was saved when by grace he trusted God. His faith was counted to him as righteousness. Paul is saying that Abraham was saved exactly the same way that we were, by God’s grace, not by his own righteousness. God has always operated this way. There are not two ways to get to God. There is only one way, and it’s through faith, and not through good works.

That’s why we need faith if we’re going to belong to Abraham’s family. Remember, Paul is writing to Gentiles who are being pressured to be circumcised, to become Jewish, if they want to be saved. Paul writes:

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Do you see that? Twice Paul says, “It it those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” He’s saying that it’s not circumcision that makes you a spiritual child of Abraham. There are many people who are circumcised who are not part of God’s family. It is faith that makes us part of Abraham’s family, and the recipient of the promises made to Abraham. Our right standing before God comes from believing what God has given us in Jesus Christ. We are not saved by what we do; we’re saved by believing in God. There is only one way of salvation.

Continue in the Christian life the same way you started: by grace, not performance. That’s the way it’s always worked.

One application: if this is the story of the Bible, we need to change the way we read the Bible! The Bible is not a book full of heroes we should emulate. God is the hero. Abraham and every other person we call a hero is actually a recipient of God’s grace. This completely changes the way we read Scripture. Instead of seeing them as people who were good enough, we can begin to see them as people who trusted God. And we can begin to see how this worked out in their lives. The Bible communicates that we grow through our faith, and it does so from start to finish.

There’s one more thing we need to see in this passage if we’re going to get the message:

Third: There could be no other way.

This is why it’s so important to get this through our heads. If we try to live the Christian life by our own strength, we’ll only end up condemned. We’ll never measure up. There is no way we can live on our own strength and succeed.

In verses 10 to 14 he contrasts two ways of trying to get God’s approval. One way is to try to keep the law. The problem is that God has pronounced a curse on all who break his law.

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Galatians 3:10)

That is a huge problem. Our efforts to keep God’s law always fall short. God pronounces a curse on all who fail to keep all that the law requires. Deuteronomy 27:26, “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.” When the Levite priests said this to the people, the people responded, “Amen” or “so be it.” But that leaves us in big trouble. Those who don’t do everything required by the law are cursed. No one does everything required by the law. Therefore, trying to earn God’s approval through keeping the law leads to a curse.

This isn’t very good news! At least not until Paul finishes his thought in verses 13 and 14:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

We’re under a curse. The only way for that curse to be removed is through what Christ accomplished at the cross. Jesus became cursed in our place. He received our curse so that we could receive his blessing. We have all the blessings of being Abraham’s spiritual dependents through Christ. Nothing else is necessary.

It begins with the cross. It all begins when we hear the gospel message of what Christ accomplished on the cross. It continues the same way. We don’t progress in the Christian life by pulling ourselves up by our own effort. We continue the same way we began; through faith and the power of the Holy Spirit. This is how we grow in the Christian life; not under our own steam, but through Spirit-enabled working out of what Jesus did for us at the cross.

If you’re like me, you’re sometimes frustrated by the lack of progress that you see in your own life. Do you ever feel disappointed with yourself? Do you ever find yourself not living up to your own intentions? Do you ever get frustrated with your lack of growth?

Here’s the key. Stop trying to improve yourself. The way you grow is the same as the way you became a Christian. We need to relearn the gospel every day. Again, Thomas Schreiner says:

Focusing on our sinfulness could depress us and discourage us, but God does not intend for us to live with a constant feeling of failure and condemnation. Our sins should drive us to the cross of Christ, where the full payment was made for our sins. God’s love, therefore, becomes exceedingly precious in the way we think and feel in our everyday lives. We acknowledge our sins daily, but we cling to the cross of Christ as the means by which we are forgiven. Hence, when Satan accuses us, we remind ourselves that we are free from all guilt and condemnation (not because we are so good, but because God is so loving and forgiving).

Continue in the Christian life the same way you started: by grace, not performance. Remember that it's always been this way. If you try to live according to your own strength, it will only lead tho condemnation. Live the rest of your Christian life the way you started, through continual trust and dependance in the Holy Spirit and a continual focus on the cross as you live to please him.

In Line With the Gospel (Galatians 2:11-21)

You may have heard on the news about a teacher who bought a lottery ticket in the summer. He had bought the July 8 ticket at a Shell gas bar on Dupont St. in Toronto, put it on his fridge and took off for a summer vacation with his girlfriend, backpacking in Europe and “counting my pennies,’’ oblivious to the fact he had millions of dollars waiting for him at home. It wasn’t until he was back teaching at school that he decided to check a stack of tickets at a grocery store. At first he thought he’d won $21,000 and that made him pretty happy. Then he talked on the phone with lottery spokesman who said, no, it was $21.4 million. He dropped the phone. “I was frozen. I couldn’t believe it,’’ he said. He played hooky Tuesday to pick up his prize.

I really like that image of something that’s worth $21.4 million dollars hanging on the fridge. It sits there for months as just a piece of paper. But eventually it’s recognized as something of value, but not enough value to change one’s life. But it’s only later that the full value of that ticket is realized, and everything changes.

Today we’re coming to one of the most important passages in the book of Galatians. The apostle Paul has been writing about the value of the gospel and how it changes everything. I want you to think of a similar picture. For many of us, we’ve picked up the gospel at some point in our lives, but some of us have put it on our fridge and basically forgotten about it. We’re living our lives counting pennies. The truth of the gospel - that Jesus Christ has made a way for us to be accepted by God through his sacrificial death - is hanging there on our fridge, but we haven’t seen its value. It hasn’t yet become real to us in any way.

But I hope that some of us have reached the stage where it’s starting to get real for us. There was a point that the teacher thought that his ticket was worth $21,000. That may be the case for some of us with the gospel. When you win $21,000, you can have some fun, but you don’t go changing your life. You can buy a car or a new HDTV, but you’re probably not going to quit your job. Some of us have the gospel, and it’s been a nice addition, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed everything about our life.

Today’s passage is about getting to the next level, where the gospel isn’t something just hanging on our fridge, or something that we think is valuable but not life-changing. This passage is about getting to the next level so that we realize that the gospel changes everything. This is a hard level to reach, and we’re going to see how easy it is today to not be there. But my goal today is that you’ll see how important it is.

The message of this passage is this: Don’t just believe the gospel. Cash it in so that you live in line with the gospel. And in this passage we’re going to see two things. First, we’re going to see how easy it is to believe the gospel, but not live in line with it. And then we’re going to see that we must convince ourselves of some key facts so that we don’t just believe the gospel, but that we live in line with it.

First, thought, we see this in the passage in front of us:

It’s easy to believe the gospel, but live like we don’t.

Remember when the teacher thought he had a $21,000 winning ticket instead of a $21.4 million dollar ticket? That’s the stage I’m talking about here. It’s easy to know the gospel, and in fact to be a believer in Jesus Christ, and even to be a leader in the church, and not live fully in line with what the gospel is. Paul shows us this in verses 11 to 14:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

So here’s the situation. We’ve already read of one meeting that took place between Peter and Paul. Paul visited Jerusalem, which has Peter’s home turf, and there they agreed that they were on the same page when it comes to the gospel. We are accepted by God on the basis of Jesus and his finished work, and nothing else. You don’t have to add anything to the finished work of Christ at the cross. They both agreed with this, and they also agreed that this applies equally to everyone.

Now we read of a second meeting that takes place, this time on Paul’s home turf. Peter has come up to Antioch, which has a healthy population of both Jews and Gentiles. If there’s ever a city that has to deal with how the gospel applies both to Jews who keep the Jewish law and Gentiles who don’t, then Antioch is such a city. And it’s here in Antioch that Peter faces a problem. He’s previously eaten with Gentiles. This was a huge deal if you were Jewish. The dietary laws were incredibly strict, and Peter flaunts them knowing that the dietary laws of the Old Testament no longer apply. But now Peter gets some pushback. Some people come and pressure Peter to eat separately and to keep the Jewish dietary laws, and Peter does. Remember, Peter is a key leader in the church. All of a sudden the barrier that Jesus has torn down between Jews and Gentiles is being built again. Peter absolutely believed the gospel, but in his behavior he was acting as if he didn’t.

So look what Paul does. He confronts Peter publicly to his face. This was such an important issue that Paul doesn’t deal with it privately. Paul gets to the heart of the issue in verse 14: “But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel…” This is the crux of the issue. You have the truth of the gospel: that we can only be accepted by God on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done for us at the cross. Then you have the challenge of walking straight in line with the gospel. You can believe the gospel, and yet live like you don’t, Paul is saying. The picture Paul uses is that of walking straight. You know that when an officer suspects you may be drunk, they sometimes make you walk on a straight line. Paul is giving us a gospel sobriety test. He’s asking us to look at how we live to see if we are walking straight in line with the truth of the gospel. And in Peter’s case, he isn’t, and it’s causing tremendous damage.

Think about this. Peter is one of the leaders in the church. If anyone gets the gospel it’s him. And yet he doesn’t fully get it. This shows us how hard it is to fully bring ourselves in line with the gospel. The best of us get it, and at the same time we really don’t. This passage shows us how hard it is for us to really bring our lives - everything, the way we think, feel, and act - in line with the profound truth of the gospel. Tim Keller says, “Christian living is a continual realignment process of bringing everything in line with the truth of the gospel.”

That’s the first thing we see in this passage. It’s so easy to believe the gospel, but live like we don’t. Even the most mature Christian can lose his or her grip on the gospel and begin to walk out of line. We can do this with ourselves: we are continually tempted to become our own savior and lord rather than trusting Jesus as our Savior and Lord. We can believe that we have to earn God’s approval rather than understanding that our approval has already been won based on what Christ has done for us. And we can do this like Peter did with other people: to begin to create divisions based on non-gospel issues, and to begin to force others to conform to standards that have nothing to do with the gospel.

This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges we face: of believing the gospel in our heads, but not really working out all of the implications of the gospel in our lives. It’s easy to believe the gospel, but live like we don’t.

So what does Paul do here? What Paul does in the rest of the chapter, beginning in verse 15, is to tell us one thing:

Convince yourself of some key facts so that you don’t just believe the gospel, but that you live in line with it.

What Paul does here in the rest of the chapter is to tell us how to not just believe the gospel, but to actually walk straight in accordance with the truth of the gospel. He’s telling us how to take the ticket off of our fridge and actually cash it in so that we receive it’s full value. This is really the theological heart of Galatians. There’s so much here that we could spend months talking about it, but let’s focus on the big picture and make sure we understand the broad outlines of what Paul is saying.

How do we move from just believing the gospel to living in line with it? Three things.

First, get it through your head that nobody is accepted by God based on his or her own performance. This gets to the heart of the issue. The problem we have in living in line with the gospel is that we have a really hard time believing that we are completely accepted on the basis of what Jesus has done rather than what we have done. We live like we have to earn God’s approval, rather than really believing in the depths of our being that Jesus has already done this for us. So Paul says in verses 15 and 16:

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

So here’s the fundamental problem that we have. Everyone wants to be justified before God. To be justified means to be declared innocent by God when we stand before him at our judgment. Every single person here wants to stand before God on that day and hear, “Not guilty. This man, this woman, is innocent.”

Now here’s how it works. Most of us understand, at some level, that we are justified before God based on what Jesus Christ has done at the cross. We’re declared righteous not because we have lived perfect lives, but because Jesus has lived a perfect life and paid the penalty for our sins at the cross. But we still live as if we have to earn God’s approval. That’s the very truth that Peter was compromising when he refused to eat with the Gentiles. He was living as if the old rules still mattered, even though he believed that we’re saved by what Christ has done. We keep on slipping back into religion, of thinking that it’s up to us. So the first thing we have to do is to beat into our heads that nobody is saved by what they do. The only hope that we have, no matter who we are, is what Jesus Christ has done. Nobody will stand before God one day and be vindicated based on their own righteousness. Not Peter, not Paul, not Billy Graham. Nobody. We have to beat this into our heads. Nobody is accepted by God based on his or her own performance. That’s the first step we have to take in order to truly live in line with the gospel; stop trying to earn God’s approval through your own effort.

Second, realize that when we try earn God’s approval through our own performance, we’re sinning. Here’s where it gets really serious. It’s not just wrongheaded to think that we can earn God’s righteousness. It’s actually sinful. When we try to live as if we have to earn God’s approval, and when we make others think they have to do certain things on their own to earn God’s approval, we’re not just making a mistake. We’re sinning. Read what Paul says in verses 17 to 19.

But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.

Let’s see if we can make sense in this. Paul is saying that all of us want to be justified, and we have now come to realize that in order to be justified before God, we have realized that we are all sinners. There’s no advantage to being Jewish or religious; everybody is a sinner apart from Christ’s work at the cross. So what happens when we realize this? What happens when good religious people start hanging out with people who are sinners? Does that make Jesus complicit in sin? When religious people start realizing that they’re no better than unwashed sinners, doesn’t that somehow contaminate us? Paul says no. He actually says that when we try to keep the barrier up between us and everybody else, we’re sinning. When we think that some are saved by pure grace, but that we’re saved by grace plus our efforts, then we’re sinning in two ways.

One, we’re sinning by bringing back a set of standards that no longer exists. If Jesus has done away with the law, it’s a sin to bring it back. We’re rebuilding what has been torn down. We’re trying to stay married, as it were, to something that has died. This is complete stupidity, and it’s stupid.

Second, we’re sinning because the standards we’re trying to bring back will condemn us. The problem is that if we try to justify ourselves by our performance, we’ll end up condemned by the very standards we’re trying to bring back. It’s like the politicians who work at passing strict new laws and then end up getting busted by the very laws they’ve created a few years later. Paul says that the very standards we’re trying to bring back are the standards that are going to end up condemning us.

So when we lose the gospel and begin to earn God’s approval through our own efforts, we’re not just wrong, we’re sinful. We try to do this all the time, and Paul says to stop. Don’t make the sinful error of trusting in your own righteousness rather than trusting in what Jesus Christ has done for you at the cross.

That’s what Paul has been saying so far. How do we not just believe the gospel, but live in line with the gospel? Realize that nobody is saved by his or her own performance, and realize that to even try is sinful.

Finally, get the order right. This is so important. J. Gresham Machen pointed out that the real issue in this passage is the order in which things happen. It’s the logical order, not so much a matter of timing as logic. Here’s how it goes. Paul is saying that things go in this order: You put your faith in Christ; you’re accepted by God; then you do good works. The false teachers are putting the order this way: You put your faith in Christ; you do good works; then you are accepted by God. Which is it? It seems like such a small difference, but it makes all the difference in the world. Do we put our faith in Christ and find acceptance and then do good works, or do we believe and do good works and then get accepted by God? Paul says that it’s the first. We simply put our faith in Christ - our complete surrender and trust - and then we’re justified before God and begin to do differently. Look at what he says in verses 20-21:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.

Here’s what he’s saying. We don’t believe in Christ and then try our best to live pleasing lives, and then we’re accepted. That would be foolish. No, what we do is that we put our faith in Christ. We come to the cross and see what he’s done. At that point we’re not only justified and accepted, but we become so wrapped up in what Jesus has done that we die with him and then Christ begins to live in us. And when we obey it’s not because we’re trying to earn God’s approval; it’s because Christ is living within us. We can’t take any credit for what we’re doing; it’s all because we’re living by faith, and that makes all the difference in the world. John Piper puts it this way:

You don't attain the benefits of the gospel by doing a little moral clean-up job on your life. You attain forgiveness and joy and peace and power through daily reliance upon Jesus Christ who loved you and gave himself for you. But that faith, when it is genuine, creates a rhythm of life that is in step with the truth of the gospel.

Paul is saying that one of our greatest problems is that we believe the gospel, but we live as if it wasn’t true. We believe that we’re saved by faith in Jesus Christ, but we live as if we need Jesus plus our own efforts in order to be saved. Paul is telling us to take that ticket off the fridge and cash it in, to not just believe that we’re saved by grace through faith, but to live that way too. And it will make all the difference in your world.

Look, even Peter got it wrong. Even Peter needed to be corrected here. Maybe you do too.

That teacher had a ticket on his fridge. At first he didn’t even know he had a winner, and he was living on pennies. Then he realized that he had a winning ticket, but he didn’t know how much it was worth. Then he found out what he had, and he dropped the phone in astonishment.

The same thing happens with the gospel. I hope you’ve taken the gospel and realized that you have something valuable there. But some of you think it’s only $21,000 when it’s really worth much more. $21,000 doesn’t change your life; it just let’s you have some fun. The $21,000 gospel doesn’t change your life. But you have a gospel of infinite value that changes everything. Don’t just believe the gospel; live in line with it. Understand that we all stand equal as sinners, and that nobody can earn God’s approval based on our own righteousness. Celebrate the right order: that we can put our faith in Christ, and then be accepted by God, and then have the very life of Jesus Christ living in us so that we’re completely new people. That’s the good news that can completely change your life.