Beware of Church (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7)

Big Idea: It’s dangerous to worship God, so guard your steps, listen well, do what you say, and hope in Christ.

This afternoon you’ve come to church. You may have fought with someone right before you came. You may have come on time; you may have come late. You may be thinking about what you’re doing for dinner. You may be able to relate to the people in this video. We look good when we arrived, and we’re on our best behavior, but what’s really going on in our lives when we show up to worship?

What may be surprising to you today is what this passage tells us: you’ve come to a dangerous place this afternoon. Please don’t tell our insurance broker, but this is a dangerous place. Pastor and author Eugene Peterson put it this way:

Sometimes I think that all religious sites should be posted with signs reading, “Beware the God.” The places and occasions that people gather to attend to God are dangerous. They're glorious places and occasions, true, but they're also dangerous. Danger signs should be conspicuously placed, as they are at nuclear power stations. Religion is the death of some people.

Did you hear that? Beware the God. You are coming to a dangerous place this afternoon. 

In the book of Exodus, Moses went up the mountain to meet with God. Think about the privilege that it would have been to meet with holy God. In the preparations for this meeting, the people were warned not to come near the mountain because of the danger. We read in Exodus 19 that the mountain was wrapped in smoke, and that God descended in fire, and that the entire mountain trembled. The sound was overwhelming. God warned the people to stay back from the mountain so that God didn’t break out against them. Even an animal approaching the mountain would have to be stoned to death. Beware the God!

Let me say it again: you are coming to a dangerous place this afternoon. It’s dangerous to worship God, so be careful. We’re especially in danger because many of us have had afternoons like the one we just saw on the film. You may have stayed up too late last night. You may have fought on the way here. Who knows what’s happened? It’s easy to come in here without adequately preparing for what’s going to take place.

This afternoon’s passage helps us understand the danger we face when we come to worship God together, and how we should act as a result.

Main Idea: Guard Your Steps

We’ve been studying the book of Ecclesiastes together. Ecclesiastes is a book of the Bible that’s intended to help us understand how to live wisely in the world. It’s probing the meaning of life and helping us understand where and how to find true meaning. He’s visited the courtroom, the marketplace, the highway, and the palace. Now he visits the temple and considers what happens there.

Listen to what the Teacher says about worshiping God. Verse 1 says, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.” There you have the core of what he’s going to tell us in this passage. He’s putting up a danger sign for us. He’s essentially saying:

Be careful…Think of what you are about to do. You are not just dropping in on a neighbor for a friendly chat. You are not just passing time with a friend. You are going to “the house of God.” You are going to the place where the almighty Creator stoops down to meet with you. “Guard your steps!” Think of Moses meeting God at the burning bush. God said to him, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). “Guard your steps!” (Sidney Greidanus)

What he’s doing is issuing a warning, and it’s one we probably need to hear. His warning is for those of us who are well-meaning and who show up for church, who like to sing a good song and hear a good sermon, but sometimes find it hard to pay attention. It’s for those of us whose thoughts wander, and who are full of good intentions, but who never quite follow through. The Teacher is warning us against sleepwalking through church. You don’t come to worship God half-awake and stumble your way through worship and then stumble out.

According to Derek Kidner, these words are for “the well-meaning person who likes a good sing and turns up cheerfully enough to church; but who listens with half an ear, and never quite gets round to what he has volunteered to do for God.” In other words, the Preacher is speaking to just about everyone who ever goes to church.

Did you see the video of the lady who was texting while walking though a mall? She walked out of a department store texting on her phone. She kept walking and she walked right into the fountain out of the store. A security video caught this, and they posted it on YouTube. She’s an example of how many of us spend our lives: half-present, not even aware of what’s going on around us.

Business guru Seth Godin writes:

Yes, you shouldn't text while driving, or talk on the cell phone, or argue with your dog or drive blindfolded. It's an idiot move, one that often leads to death (yours or someone else's).

I don't think you should text while working, either. Or use social networking software of any kind for that matter. And you probably shouldn't eat crunchy chips, either.

He’s saying: Don’t go through life half-present. I think the Teacher would add: Even if you do go through life half-there, don’t do this at church. Don’t text and worship. Don’t show up half-awake and stumble through what’s taking place here, because we come to meet with the God of the universe. This is not safe. It shouldn’t be approached casually.

What does this mean? The Teacher gives us two specific instructions on how we can guard our steps as we come to worship God.

First: Come prepared to listen to God and his Word.

Read verses 1 to 3:

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil.  Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool's voice with many words.

There’s something strange going on as we gather together. There’s an old book on writing called If You Want to Write that’s become a classic. The first chapter of the book is: “Everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say.” We’re steeped now in this way of thinking. Self-expression is huge. We tweet. We blog. We share our thoughts on Facebook. We’re used to speaking and telling others what we have to think.

The danger is that we’ll come to worship with this attitude as well. The Teacher essentially says in these verses that we should come to worship with the expectation that we listen more than talk. The picture is that of a worshiper walking into the house of God, the holy sanctuary. It would have been the temple in Jerusalem when this was written, but it applies to any place that is set aside for worship. The Teacher is telling us that there’s a right way and a wrong way to enter as we come to worship God.

The right way is to come with our ears wide-open. We come to sit and to receive what God has written in his Holy Word. As we worship, it’s time to read and preach the Word of God. Philip Ryken says, “Understand that whenever we go to worship, we enter the presence of a holy God who has gathered his holy people to hear his Holy Word.”

The wrong way is to come a little too quick to speak. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter.

The Teacher would agree. He cautions us not to be rash with our mouths, not to be quick to utter words before God. We should come prepared to hear what God has to say.

The reason he gives us is at the end of verse 2: “For God is in heaven and you are on earth.” In other words, remember the tremendous distance between God and us. God is in heaven; we are on earth. God is far superior to us. He is infinite; we are limited. He is Creator; we are created. His thoughts aren’t our thoughts; his ways are higher than our ways. Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “Knowing how widely the divine nature differs from our own, let us quietly remain within our proper limits.”

So we have to come to listen, to hear. I can’t tell you how important this is. Take what we’re doing right now. I’m speaking; you’re listening. It seems wrong for one person to do all the speaking - unless the person doing the speaking isn’t speaking for themselves. The only way it makes sense for one person to be speaking is if the person is speaking on behalf of someone else who does deserve to be heard. Thabiti Anyabwile puts it this way:

The Christian worship service is inherently dialogical.  The dialogue, however, involves a more important party than any living human.  The Lord of the Universe speaks during the service.  We have the wondrous privilege of being able to speak to Him as a community of saints.  When God speaks through the exposition of His word there certainly will be many reactions, but as our Sovereign speaks there should not be an interruption in favor of our pooling our comments and sharing our insights.  Our best wisdom is foolishness before God.  Better to first listen to the One who speaks, then talk with one another about it afterward. 

So I’d better come prepared to speak not my words but God’s. And all of us should come, guarding our steps, prepared to hear from God and his Word. Come expecting God to speak, and don’t interrupt. Respond, but don’t interrupt.

But that’s not all.

Second, the Teacher says, do what you say.

Read verses 4-6:

When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? (Ecclesiastes 5:4-6) 

In Bible times, people made vows to God, often in the context of public worship. The problem is that it’s much easier to make a vow than to keep it. The Bible is very clear that when we make a vow to God, we’re required to keep it. It’s much better to not make a vow than to make a vow and then not keep it. Deuteronomy 23:21-23 says:

If you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin. You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God what you have promised with your mouth.

That’s exactly what the Teacher is saying. God takes it very seriously when we make promises to him and then fail to keep them. It’s a dangerous thing to come into worship and make promises to God and then not keep them.

It’s dangerous thing to stand before God and to promise to live together as husband and wife “till death do us part.”

It’s dangerous thing to present our children before the Lord and vow to instruct them in the Christian faith and to lead them into Christian discipleship.

It’s dangerous to read a covenant in church and make vows before the Lord of how we will relate to each other.

It’s dangerous to pray and make commitments to God.

It’s dangerous to sing many of the songs we sing: “O Jesus, I have promised to serve thee to the end.” “Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold.” “Jesus, all for Jesus, all I am and have and ever hope to be.” “I will follow you all of my days.”

It’s dangerous to vow to give a certain amount to God and then renege. Verse 6 is about that. The Teacher seems to be referring to the vow that people made to pay a certain sum to the temple treasury. When they failed to come through, the priest or some other messenger would come and visit them to remind them of their vow. People might respond that their vow was unintentional, a mistake. The Teacher says that God isn’t fooled by our games. “Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?”

It’s a dangerous thing to make promises to God. So think carefully before you do. Guard your steps when you go into the house of God. Listen to his Word, and make sure you keep the promises you make before him. Don’t be a deadbeat worshiper.

All of this is capped off with verse 7: “For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear” (Ecclesiastes 5:7). It’s dangerous to worship God, so listen well and do what you say. Fear God. Instead of multiplying words, fear God. Fear is not cowering in terror. It’s recognizing that God is God, and that we’re to enter his presence with reverence and awe. Guard your steps as you come to worship him. God struck down seventy people because they looked into the Ark of the Covenant (1 Samuel 6:19). He struck down another for touching the Ark of the Covenant when it was about to fall (2 Samuel 6). In Acts 5 a husband and wife died for lying to the LORD. Our God is a consuming fire. We come to a God who is good, but he is not safe. 

Our Response

What we really need is what one person experienced with a tornado. You can talk about tornados and read about tornados. You can watch Twister dozens of times but not be changed. But what happens when you’re actually in a tornado? Don Ratzlaff writes:

[Since] last spring ... I look for tornadoes. ... One personal encounter with a power that before was only theoretical can make all the difference. You live differently after that. You respect the power. You live in awe of its presence and tremble to think of its potential. Above all, you live in profound humility because you recognize your inability to control it.

If all this for tornadoes, then what of the Almighty God? I am reminded of the quote from C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Mr. Beaver describes the might and majesty of Aslan, the lion-God. When he finishes, Lucy asks, "Is--is he safe?" Replies Mr. Beaver: "Safe? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King I tell you." This is our God: hardly safe but thoroughly good. We cling to the King in fear, but much too afraid to let go.

What happens when we experience God, when we get a glimpse of his other-ness, when we’re gripped with holy fear? It will change you.

Somebody paraphrased this passage:

How brazen and dishonest people are
with their religion. They will go so far
with it as suits their needs; so they attend
the services and sing the hymns, and when
they have to, give a little money to
the Lord. But do they live as one should do
who’s made a vow to God? Don’t kid yourself.
Among their friends their faith is on the shelf….

Remember, God knows everything.
He knows our hearts when we before him bring
our worship, and you can’t fool him. So take
a good look at yourself before you make
your next appearance before the Lord. And go
to listen, not to speak, for he will know
just what you need. Why, any fool can spout
a lovely prayer or sing a hymn about
his faith. His words are mindless, like a dream,
although to people looking on they seem
impressive. Not to God….

For words are cheap,
just like the dreams you have while you’re asleep.
God wants your heart, my son, not just a show.
Get right with him before you to him go.
(T.M. Moore)

Annie Dillard writes:

Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday afternoon. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.

Let me tell you a couple of ways that we need to respond.

First: we need a new reverence of God, a new sense of awe for what takes place here. We really need to raise the stakes and raise our expectations. We can’t afford to worship casually. We come to a God who is a consuming fire.

Second: we need to ground our confidence. Listen: the people could not approach God’s holy mountain. God told them to stay away. Moses himself trembled in fear before God. They had to kill even animals that approached the mountain. God is a consuming fire. But the writer to the Hebrews says we can approach God with confidence.

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)

It’s dangerous to worship God, so guard your steps. Listen well and do what you say. And most of all, put your hope in the great High Priest who makes it possible for us to approach God in worship.


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

Three Ways to Live (Ecclesiastes 4:7-16)

I want to introduce you to three type of people you will meet in Liberty Village. Although the passage we’re reading was written at least 2,400 years ago, it accurately describes people that you can go out and meet today right around here. Not only that, but it helps us think about what we want to do with our lives. It's a choice between three ways of living.

So let’s look at the three people we see in this passage, and all around us today. And let’s consider where we see ourselves in this picture.

First Person: The Hard-Working Professional

Here’s the first picture, found in verses 7 and 8:

Again, I saw vanity under the sun: one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business. (Ecclesiastes 4:7-8)

This person has a lot going for them:

  • They’re independent. They can live however they please.
  • They have a job, and a demanding one.
  • They have money.

In other words, this is the prototypical Liberty Village professional. Picture someone who has a great job, and who works long hours. Relationships have come and gone. But they’re doing okay. They have the condo. They have some money saved away. They can pretty much buy whatever they want. They’re not rich, but there’s enough money to buy some nice stuff for themselves. It’s a pretty good life overall.

You meet people like this around here every week. In fact, we praise this type of person. They know what they want. They make tough choices to get there. If you’re hiring, you’d gladly have this person working for you.

Yet there are problems with this picture. The Teacher examines this picture and finds two problems. The first is that success comes at a pretty steep price. Verse 8 speaks of a viscous circle: there’s no end to the toil. Why? Because they’re never satisfied. No matter how much they earn, it’s never quite enough. Last year’s bonus was nice, but unless you beat last year’s performance you’re not going to get a bonus this year, so you have to work even harder this year. So you’re caught in this treadmill of never having done quite enough. The carrot on the stick is always just slightly out of reach no matter how fast you run, so you keep running faster, but you never quite catch up.

You see this quite often. The stuff that we think will make us happy ultimately doesn’t. No job, no possession, no pleasure is enough to fulfill the desires of our heart. They work for a while, but Ecclesiastes hits the nail on the head: “his eyes are never satisfied with riches.” No matter what we have, it never fully satisfies our desires.

There’s another problem. This person is successful but solitary. Verse eight says that they have “no other, either son nor brother.” It doesn’t really bother them most of the time, but it’s only because they try to avoid thinking about it. Verse 8 says that they never ask, “Why am I doing this? Who is it all for?” The Teacher concludes with these words: “This also is vanity and an unhappy business.”

This is a big help. The Teacher is warning us not to do this with our lives. Don’t become a successful, solitary person, he’s saying. It’s just not worth it. You’ll end up enslaved to your work, never really satisfied, and you’ll have no-one to share it with.

Let’s pause here and take a minute to reflect. We live in a world in which we have to make choices. You can’t have it all. Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Perpetual devotion to what man calls his business is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.” I know that some of you are facing pressures at work and you’re making difficult choices. If you don’t keep up, there are others who will gladly take your place.

The Teacher is holding up a picture and asking, “Is this what you want?” Are you sacrificing your relationships for the sake of a career that will leave you successful but solitary? I like how Tim Keller puts it:

Sin isn't only doing bad things, it is more fundamentally making good things into ultimate things. Sin is building your life and meaning on anything, even a very good thing, more than on God. Whatever we build our life on will drive us and enslave us. Sin is primarily idolatry…

If you center your life and identity on your work and career, you will be a driven workaholic and a boring, shallow person. At worst you will lose family and friends and, if your career goes poorly, develop deep depression.

If you center your life and identity on money and possessions, you'll be eaten up by worry or jealousy about money. You'll be willing to do unethical things to maintain your lifestyle, which will eventually blow up your life.

This is the first type of person. It’s actually the default mode in our culture. And yet Ecclesiastes says that there’s a problem living this way. You can be a success and attain all your dreams, and it still won’t be enough. In fact, you’ll be enslaved, because success is an idol that always wants more.

So let’s look at the third person that we see in this passage.

Third Person: The Popular Person

I want to look now at the third person that the Teacher gives us, before we go back and look at the second. The first picture is of a successful, solitary person. The third picture is of a politically successful but solitary individual. It’s a little hard to untangle, but let’s see if we can understand the picture that he gives us in verses 13 to 16:

Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. For he went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor. I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who was to stand in the king's place. There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 4:13-16)

There’s some debate about the details of this picture. Here is, as best as I can see, what it means. There’s an old and foolish king who’s lost touch and who won’t take advice. For the sake of argument, let's call him Stephen. Perhaps he’s fired his advisors. I can think of a number of politicians who have done this. Once they reach the top they stop listening, and eventually they drift towards irrelevance. Everyone’s glad when they’re gone.

But then someone new and better comes along. He comes from nowhere. He was born poor. He captures the imagination of the people and inspires them to hope again. For the sake of argument, let's call him Justin. He’s immensely popular. “There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led.” Again, I can think of many examples of new leaders who have come to power and have inspired hope. Their popularity levels have been off the charts. It actually reads like the Canadian newspapers these past couple of weeks.

But the Teacher shows us where this leads. “Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him.” People are fickle. This new and better king will become yesterday’s news before very long. The Teacher is showing us that the life guided by wisdom, who rises from obscurity to the pinnacles of achievement, and who receives the adulation of millions - that life is also futile and useless in the end. The Teacher says it’s “also is vanity and a striving after wind.”

It’s like what the actor Jim Carrey said: “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer.” The Teacher would agree with that. You can attain the respect and admiration of the crowds, but in the end be left alone because your friends are not true friends. They’re just fans who will eventually move on to the next new thing.

Do you realize that the Teacher has just put the spotlight on two of the things that we value most: career success, and fame and popularity? George Harrison - one of the Beatles - said:

At first we all thought we wanted the fame. After a bit we realized that fame wasn't really what we were after at all, just the fruits of it. After the initial excitement and thrill had worn off, I, for one, became depressed. Is this all we have to look forward to in life? Being chased around by a crowd of hooting lunatics from one crappy hotel room to the next?

Maybe on a more personal level, the Teacher would caution us about building surface relationships that aren’t really true friendships. You can have a lot of Facebook friends without really having intimate connections. Don’t live to become a successful, solitary person, the Teacher tells us. And don’t live to become someone who lives for the acclaim of the people, because you’ll die as alone as the solitary person in the first picture. Neither one is really the destination you want to choose for your life.

So if success and popularity won’t satisfy, what will?

Second Person: The Person in Genuine Community

How, then, should we live? In the middle of these two negative pictures, the Teacher gives us a positive one. Read verses 9 to 12:

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

In contrast to the successful and solitary person, or the person who achieves temporary fame and acclaim, the Teacher offers us a picture of someone who is in genuine community. It’s the only one of the three pictures that doesn’t end with a pronouncement of vanity. This, the Teacher says, is what we should aim for. Genuine community is better than solitary success or popularity. It’s what we need in our lives.

The Teacher tells us four benefits of genuine community.

First, we’ll have a larger profit. “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.” Two people working together often produce more than twice what they’d produce alone. Not only that, but it’s a lot more fulfilling to share the rewards of hard work with another.

Second, we’ll find help in times of need. “For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” When you used to go swimming as a kid, you were probably told to use the buddy system. When they blow the whistle, you need to make sure that your buddy is okay. You can’t be responsible for everyone in the pool, but you can be responsible for your buddy. We need the same thing in life. We need others who have our back.

Third, we’ll have more comfort. “Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?” This one sounds strange to us. It’s not talking about a married couple. It’s probably speaking of the travel that took place on dangerous roads in the ancient Middle East. They would sleep outdoors at night. On cold nights, a single cloak would not be enough. You may not be comfortable with the thought of huddling under a pair of cloaks on the side of the road, and that’s okay. But you too have found comfort in community. You’ve experienced the warmth of friendship. You know what he’s talking about.

Finally, you have greater protection. “And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” When you’re alone, you’re vulnerable. When you’re in community, you have greater protection. Spurgeon said, “Communion is strength; solitude is weakness. Alone, the free old beech yields to the blast and lies prone on the meadow. In the forest, supporting each other, the trees laugh at the hurricane. The sheep of Jesus flock together. The social element is the genius of Christianity.”

Genuine community is better than solitary success or popularity. It’s what we need in our lives.

This Fall we’ve spent some time talking about our strategy as a church. As a church we want to do only three things, but we want to do them really well. One of those three things that we want to do is to build community. We want — we need — genuine community. Today’s passage has explained to us why this is so important. Success and popularity is nice, but genuine community is even more important. We need to know and be known.

Many of us are scared by this. Maybe you can relate to what one person said: “I was willing to trust Christ, but I was not ready to trust the body of Christ" (Nate Larkin).

I want to ask you honestly to answer four questions from this text:

  • Do you have someone in your life who is helping you be more productive spiritually?
  • Do you have a buddy who knows you’re down, who will notice when you’re in trouble, and who will pick you up when you fall?
  • Do you know what it’s like to find comfort in the friendships you have with other believers?
  • Do you have the protection that comes from being in this together rather than going at it alone?

There’s a limit to what you can do in life alone. It’s futile! Jesus invites us into community characterized by love. I never get tired of reading what Jesus said right before he offered his life for us:

No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (John 15:15-17)

Here’s an example of someone who did this:

One of the most important moments of my spiritual life was when I sat down with a longtime friend and said, "I don't want to have any secrets anymore."

I told him everything I was most ashamed of. I told him about my jealousies, my cowardice, how I hurt my wife with my anger. I told him about my history with money and my history with sex. I told him about deceit and regrets that keep me up at night. I felt vulnerable because I was afraid that I was going to lose connection with him. Much to my surprise, he did not even look away.

I will never forget his next words. "John," he said. "I have never loved you more than I love you right now." The very truth about me that I thought would drive him away became a bond that drew us closer together. He then went on to speak with me about secrets he had been carrying.

If I keep part of my life secret from you, you may tell me you love me. But inside I think that you would not love me if you knew the whole truth about me. I can only receive love from you to the extent that I am known by you. (John Ortberg)

I don’t want us to think that church is just this - sitting in pews and then leaving. Church is community. It’s loving. It’s costly love. We can get started by taking relational risks and just beginning to build strong connections with others in this room. It’s time to break through.

Here’s what you can do. You can become someone who pushes toward genuine community. If enough of us do this, it won’t take long before we infect this whole church with a taste of what it’s like. It begins with committing to more than attending services. It means getting plugged in to a small group. We were built for relationships like this in which we can drop the mask and find the community that we really need.

Choose your goals carefully. Don’t become a solitary, successful person. Don’t become someone who lives for popularity. Develop genuine community. Let’s begin by seeing Jesus who called us friends, and who called us to become friends who love one another.

Father, we want to be known. We want to drop the masks and stop pretending. But we’re scared. So I pray that you would help us today.

I thank you that the gospel frees us from pretending and brings us into community with you. I pray that you would help us enter into the relationship that you has provided for us through Jesus Christ, in which we can stop hiding from you. We can be fully known and accepted through the gospel, through what Jesus has done for us. We want this, and we long for this today. Thank you for Jesus, who have his life for us, who accepted us when we were at our worst, and who invites us into intimacy with you. I pray that all of us would receive that today.

And then I pray that you would help us enter into community here. It’s what we need more than success or popularity. We’re scared of it, and yet we need it. I pray that every person here would enter the freedom of dropping masks and finding safety and friendship with others. And I pray that this invitation would extend into our community. I pray this all in Jesus’ name, Amen.


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

You and the Church (Ephesians 3:1-13)

Big Idea: God uses unlikely people, and they get to be part of his church.

There is only one cause in all the world today that will still matter a bazillion years from today.  You can be involved, and on terms of grace.  You can bring your weakness to the table, and the risen Christ brings his Spirit to the table, and you walk away clothed with power from on high to promote a kingdom that has no end.

That’s how Ray Ortlund Jr. began a sermon recently, and it’s a good way for us to begin today.

We’re concluding a series today on the church. Over the past three weeks we’ve talked about our strategy as a church. God wants us to go deeper into the gospel, deeper into fellowship, and farther into mission. That’s it. Everything that we do is going to be one or more of these things. There isn’t anything that we will do that doesn’t fit into one of these categories. This is what God is calling us to be and do as a church.

Today I want to finish with one simple question: Will you bring your weakness, and be part of what God is doing through the church?

My sermon is simple today. I have only two points, and then I want to ask you if you’re going to play your part. Here’s my first point.

God uses unlikely people.

Read verses 1 to 7 again with me:

For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God's grace, which was given me by the working of his power. (Ephesians 3:1-7)

As Paul wrote this letter, he was probably under house arrest in Rome. If the average person had met Paul, they probably would have seen him as nothing more than a common prisoner waiting trial. But as you read this passage, you see that Paul understands that he is part of something much bigger. In verse 2 he talks about being a steward of God's grace. Paul sees himself as having a God-given role in making the gospel known to others, specifically to the Gentiles who hadn't heard it yet.

This gospel never ceased to amaze Paul. He's already told us that what the gospel is in chapter two. First: God has taken spiritually dead people and has made us alive by grace through faith. "But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved" (Ephesians 2:4-5). Second: God has already begun to unite all things together again in Christ, and he's begun in the church. He's done this by breaking through all the barriers that divide us to make us into a new humanity in Christ. He alludes to this again in this chapter, verses 5 and 6: God has revealed something now that nobody in previous generations understood. Sure, they understood that Gentiles would be included in God's plan. But nobody ever thought that Gentiles would one day be on completely equal footing before God. We are, Paul says in verse 6, "are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus."

In other words, Paul realized that he was part of something much bigger: part of the plan of God who created all things. Notice the change that it made:

He calls himself a "prisoner of Jesus Christ" in verse 1. Not a prisoner of Caesar, but a prisoner of Jesus. He could see that God, not Nero, was in control, and had put him right where he wanted him.

He said "on behalf of you Gentiles." Paul had been arrested because of his association with Gentiles. He could see that his suffering had a purpose. It wasn't just random. He was giving his life to a purpose that transcended his imprisonment.

He spoke of becoming a "a servant of this gospel by the gift of God's grace" (verse 7). Most of the time, I think we tend to talk about what we do for God. Paul didn't. He saw ministry not as his gift to God, but God's gift to him.

Then notice his humility in verse 8. He calls himself “the least of all the Lord's people.” This isn't false humility. Paul knew that he was in need of God's grace as much as any person who has ever followed the LORD.

Because Paul grasped the gospel and his part in it, he had confidence and hope even in the middle of trials. He knew he was part of something bigger, and it gave him hope even under house arrest. Understanding the gospel gives us confidence and hope in our trials.

We all need to live for something bigger than ourselves. Paul David Tripp writes, "There is woven inside each of us a desire for something more - a craving to be part of something bigger, greater, and more profound than our relatively meaningless day-to-day existence." That longing to be part of something more in your life - that's God given.

What is it? It's the gospel. Understanding the gospel allowed Paul to see his life completely differently. The same thing can happen for us. Instead of seeing ourselves as a teacher, or an entrepreneur, or a church planter, we can see ourselves servants working for Jesus Christ. When we suffer, we can see that even our suffering has a purpose. When we serve God, we can see the ministry as a gift from God rather than an obligation or something we're doing for God. And it will give us a humility, because we'll marvel that God has chosen us even though we are the least of all of God's people. Understanding the gospel gives us confidence and hope in our trials.

Here’s what I want you to know: You matter. You. Not extraordinary you. I’m talking about ordinary you. Let me quote Ray Ortlund again:

Don’t waste your life in the false peace of worldly comfort and small ambition and being cool.  Jesus is looking for gospel hooligans who want to get messy and relevant and involved.  He wants to use you for the advance of the gospel.  Don’t miss out.  Don’t settle for a life that won’t matter forever.  Do you want people to say at your funeral, “What a nice person,” and that’s it?  Your life can count for many people forever.  All he asks of you, all you can do, is keep listening to him moment by moment and then take your next step, whatever that might be.  You provide your weakness and need.  He provides his strength, his wisdom, everything.  And if we will together live that way on mission, we will experience what only God can do.

If you ever go to the south coast of England, I hope you get a chance to stare out over the English Channel and imagine what happened there in the spring of 1940. Hitler had the Allied Forces in a corner and was getting ready to invade Great Britain. His troops were closing in on the Allies in what was going to be an easy kill. Nearly a quarter million young British soldiers and over 100,000 allied troops faced capture or death, and the Royal Navy could only save a small fraction of this number.

But a bizarre fleet of ships appeared on the horizon of the English Channel. Trawlers, tugs, fishing sloops, lifeboats, sailboats, pleasure craft, an island ferry named Gracie Fields, and even the America's Cup challenger Endeavor, all manned by civilian sailors, sped to the rescue. The ragtag armada eventually rescued 338,682 men and returned them home to the shores of England, as pilots of the Royal Air Force jockeyed with the German Luftwaffe in the skies above the channel. It was one of the most remarkable naval operations in history. It didn’t involve warships and destroyers. It involved trawlers and pleasure craft. And for those few days they were more than trawlers and fishing boats, and they could put up with all kinds of trials because they had a purpose. You can have the same thing happen in your life. It's the gospel that gives us purpose that we're part of something much bigger even in our trials.

God can use you, friends. Don’t waste your life. Be part of what he is doing. And that leads me to my second point.

We get to be part of something huge: the church that God is building.

God uses ordinary people, but what he does with them is extraordinary.

Look at verses 10 to 11 with me. Not only did Paul see his life as part of something bigger, but he looked around and saw that as the mystery of the gospel was being revealed, God was accomplishing something that boggles our minds. He writes:

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:10-11)

This is going to blow our minds. The very existence of the church, Paul wrote, has a much higher purpose than we realize. It's an amazing thing that spiritually dead people are raised to new life, and that former enemies become family with each other within the church. This is such a big deal that it is the way that God has chosen to reveal his wisdom in its reach variety. Think for a minute of all the ways that God could show to angels and demons that he is wise. The human genome shows that God is wise. Scientists are unravelling all the ways that information is stored in our DNA that makes us who we are. It's amazing. The universe shows God's wisdom. I could think of many ways that God could choose to show angels and demons his wisdom.

But look at how God has chosen to reveal his wisdom: through the church. As somebody has said, the history of the Christian church has become a graduate school for angels. Demons thought they had Jesus killed once and for all. All of his followers were scattered. But he rose from the dead. But then he left. You can't expect much from a small group of followers who had never amounted to much. But then Peter - yes, that Peter - got up to preach, and thousands joined the church. Satan and demons threw everything they could at the church, but the church continued to spread all throughout the Roman Empire, so that this obscure, marginal movement became the dominant religious force in the western world for centuries.

John Stott says:

It is as if a great drama is being enacted. History is the theatre, the world is the stage, and church members in every land are the actors. God himself has written the play, and he directs and produces it. Act by act, scene by scene, the story continues to unfold. But who are the audience? They are the cosmic intelligences, the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. We are to think of them as spectators of the drama of salvation. Thus ‘the history of the Christian church becomes a graduate school for angels’

The very existence of the church is a sign to demons that their authority has been broken, and that their final defeat is imminent. God shows through the church that his purposes are being fulfilled and they're moving toward their climax. F.F. Bruce says that the church is "God's pilot scheme for the reconciled universe of the future." God has chosen to display his wisdom in all its dimensions through, of all things, us, his church.

You know what this means? As Liberty Grace Church takes shape, demons are getting schooled. We are a tangible reminder to demons that their authority has been broken, and that Jesus Christ is victor, and that he is on the move. The progress of the gospel will not be hindered. God is on the move, and he uses us — us! — as proof to the spiritual realm that his kingdom is victorious.

Because Paul saw his life as something bigger, and the church as something much bigger, he was able to write in verses 12 and 13:

In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.

Because of all of this, we have access to God that's unhindered by hostile powers. We can have assurance that our sufferings have a purpose, and are actually tied to our glory. Understanding the gospel gives us confidence and hope in our trials. We can know that even though we’re ordinary, our lives are part of something that is far from ordinary. This church, as God builds it, is part of God’s eternal purpose. It matters, and it will matter for eternity.

The church of Jesus Christ is the most important institution in the world. The assembly of the redeemed, the company of the saints, the children of God are more significant in world history than any other group, organization, or nation. The United States of America compares to the church of Jesus Christ like a speck of dust compares to the sun. The drama of international relations compares to the mission of the church like a kindergarten riddle compares to Hamlet or King Lear. And all pomp of May Day in Red Square and the pageantry of New Year’s in Pasadena fade into a formless grey against the splendor of the bride of Christ…Lift up your eyes, O Christians! You belong to a society that will never cease, to the apple of God’s eye, to the eternal and cosmic church of our Lord, Jesus Christ. (John Piper)

Most of us live with little to no awareness to the drama going on around us. Our lives, and this church, have cosmic significance.

Your gift may seem small. Your life may seem small. But it’s not. It’s part of something bigger, and it’s part of what God is doing in the world. Don’t ever think that God can’t use you. Your weakness and God’s power are a perfect match. How can you take part? We’ve just covered it. Go deeper in the gospel. Get deeper into community. Go farther into mission. Repeat.

We’ve covered and started a lot this past month. I want to ask you to do three things.

First, take this strategy card. Internalize it. Put it into practice. This isn’t just a piece of paper. It’s the DNA of our church. Help us translate this card into reality. Someone has asked a good question about church mission statements and strategies: It’s hanging on the wall, but is it happening down the hall? Let’s resolve to work this so it’s happening. We’re off to a good start, but let’s keep going. Master this. Work it. It’s what God is calling us to do.

Second, join this church. If you have been coming out, and you are a follower of Jesus Christ, we are asking you to commit to this church. We want you to identify with this expression of the church, and say, “I’m in. I’m committed.” I’ve given you a membership covenant today. I’d like to ask you to take it, read it, and to return it. You can be part of what God is doing in this church. “You can bring your weakness to the table, and the risen Christ brings his Spirit to the table, and you walk away clothed with power from on high to promote a kingdom that has no end” (Ortlund).

Finally — Would you believe that we are part of something bigger? You are, and we are together. It’s not because we’re anything special. It’s because God uses unlikely people, and they get to be part of his church. It isn’t just you and Jesus; it’s you and the church. Enter into what God wants to do with your life. Walk in weakness, obedience, and humility before him. And he will use you in ways you can’t even imagine for his glory. Don’t waste your life.


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

Vision: Mission (Colossians 4:2-6)

Big Idea: What’s it going to take to show and tell the gospel to resistant people? It’s going to take three things: prayer, life, and words.

Every month or so, around dinner time, I get an annoying call from a telemarketer. It’s always the same company, and they’re always trying to sell me the same thing: a furnace. And every time I tell them the same thing. I live in a condo. I have no use for a furnace. They always apologize, but then they call back the next month. They just won’t give up. No matter how many times they call, I’m just not in the market for a furnace.

I wonder sometimes if that’s how people feel about us. We’re here today as a church talking about our strategy. This weekend we’re celebrating our second anniversary. Two years ago we held our first service as a brand new church, and right now we’re replanting the church so that we’re as clear as possible about what we’re here to do.

Illustration credit: Seth McBees Napkin Theology'

Illustration credit: Seth McBees Napkin Theology'

And so we’ve talked about our very simple strategy:

Gospel — We exist to go deeper and deeper into the gospel — the good news that God has rescued sinners through the finished work of Christ. We want a gospel doctrine and a gospel culture. We want to keep coming back to Jesus and what he’s done for us. It’s how we begin the Christian life, and it’s how we grow in the Christian life as well.

Community — We also want to experience the kind of community that the gospel creates. The gospel always creates a community. We want to drop the masks and find safety here. Next week we’re beginning small groups, because we believe that the gospel creates community, and Christian growth necessitates community.

Mission — Our church is also about mission. We want people who’ve never heard of the gospel to hear it. We’re here because a lot of people have not heard the good news about Jesus, and we want to experience the beauty of relationship with Jesus.

As we think about missing today — of showing and telling the gospel — we need to face some questions. How do we share the gospel in a community in which many seem to be resistant? How can we share the gospel effectively, when it sometimes feels like we’re about as welcome as the furnace telemarketer? How can we — ordinary people like us — live on mission?

Here’s our problem. We live in what many call a post-Christendom culture. That means that church seems like it’s a fine option for some, but it’s not on the radar of most people. I have a friend who moved from Nashville. He told me that in Nashville, one of the first questions you’d hear is, “Have you found a church yet?” When they moved to Toronto, they discovered that you could be asked twenty or fifty questions when you moved in, but that wouldn’t be one of them. We’re not just dealing with unchurched people who may come back with the right programs or music; we’re dealing with resistant people who don’t think that Jesus or the church have anything to offer them.

I don’t want to overstate the case, because I believe that there are still many people who are open to the gospel. I believe that God is still at work in the lives of many people in this community. But we do have to face the reality that things have changed. Tim Chester and Steve Timmis say this:

If we could place people on a range of one to ten depending on their interest in the gospel, where one is no interest and ten is a decision to follow Christ, lots of evangelism assumes people are at around eight. We teach our gospel outlines. We teach answers to apologetic questions. We hold guest services. We put on evangelistic courses. We preach in the open air or knock on doors. All these are great things to do, but 70 percent of the population is at one or two. (Everyday Church)

Given this, how do we live on mission? How do we show and tell the gospel, sharing the gospel through our lives so that people are invited into community to hear about Jesus?

It’s going to be harder than before. In his book Honest Evangelism, Rico Tice says that people used to generally understand the gospel, so that when Billy Graham came to town, they were ready to be invited and to respond. But then things changed. People began to hold beliefs or objections that had to be dealt with before they could respond to the gospel. Some of the beliefs are: Christians are weird. Christianity is untrue. Christianity is irrelevant. Christianity is intolerant. So you had to work to deal with thee objections and build their trust. Now, things have changed even more. Our culture is defined by tolerance and permissiveness. People don’t engage with faith; they simply dismiss it. Jesus simply isn’t on the agenda; he isn’t even an option to be considered. People don’t think about why they disagree with Christianity; they just think it’s fine for you and not for them. As a result, evangelism takes time and effort. It’s rare to see a person become a Christian very quickly. Things have changed, and in some ways our evangelism has to change as well.

In fact, our evangelism has to change to be closer to what we read about in the Bible, because our situation is closer to the age of the apostles now than it was a few years ago. There’s lots of hope. In today’s passage, Paul is writing to the Colossians, and he gives three important clues about how we can share the gospel in a gospel-resistant culture. What’s it going to take to show and tell the gospel to resistant people? It’s going to take three things: prayer, life, and speech. We’re really going to need all three, because one or two alone probably won’t get the job done.

Let’s look at each one.

First: It’s going to take prayer.

Paul writes in verses 2-3:

Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. (Colossians 4:2-4)

If we’re going to share the gospel, it’s going to take prayer. “What opens the door, again and again, is prayer” (N.T. Wright). We have a role, but if we ever think that we can accomplish what God has given us to do without prayer, then we’re delusional. How do we show and tell the gospel when many people are resistant? Pray. It always begins with prayer.

One of the things I love about this command is that it’s so accessible. The Colossians were brand new Christians. They were just taking their first steps in the Christian life. Paul was an accomplished missionary who had been halfway around the northern Mediterranean preaching and planting churches. What could the Colossians possibly do to help him? Pray. Prayer isn’t a small thing in evangelism. Paul recognized that unless God opens the door, and unless God enables us through the Spirit, then we’re sunk. Prayer is essential to evangelism.

Notice that Paul doesn’t just say to pray. He says to continue steadfastly in prayer. This is especially important in contexts in which people are resistant, and opposition is expected. We simply can’t do this without prayer. The only way that we can plant this church evangelistically, and see people come to Christ, is if we devote ourselves to prayer.

Friends of mine went to Thailand and India this summer. They both have jobs here in Canada, but they see themselves as missionaries here in Toronto. Their passion is to see people come to know Christ in their neighborhood and workplaces. So they travelled to Thailand and India, and met missionaries there. They wanted to learn lessons about what effective missionaries do there, so that they could be more effective ministries here.

When I saw them a few weeks back, they were changed. They told me that the missionaries said, “We don’t understand what you Christians are trying to do back in North America. You are trying to serve God, but you’re doing it without prayer.” My friends told me that the main thing they learned is that if we are going to get the job done, especially in a resistant setting, it’s going to take prayer. Not just general prayer, but tactical prayer. We’re going to have to ask God to give us insight into particular situations, as well as to pray that he opens doors, and gives us clarity. How do we show and tell the gospel to resistant people? It begins with prayer.

Hudson Taylor, a missionary in China in the 1800s, had a mission station that was particularly effective. There was no accounting for it, because they other stations were equal in devotion and ability. Hudson Taylor was traveling and speaking in England, and after a meeting a man came up and began to ask him about that particular station. Then he began to ask many personal questions. It turned out that the man had been the college roommate of the missionary at that station many years earlier, and he had committed himself to daily praying for the work there. Hudson Taylor said, “Then I knew the answer.”

So pray. I encourage you to pray for individual people, to pray for evangelism in our church overall. I have a friend who walks into a coffee shop and prays that God would direct him to the right person. Pray! Our whole ministry must be bathed in prayer — and certainly our evangelism must be.

This is essential, but it’s not everything. What’s it going to take to show and tell the gospel to resistant people? Prayer, but something else too:

Second: it’s going to take our lives.

Paul writes: “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time” (Colossians 4:5). “Walk” is a term that refers to the way we live our lives. In other words, Paul is talking about lifestyle evangelism. He tells us that our lives should be compelling demonstrations of the gospel.

But then Paul says that the way that our lifestyles should be marked by wisdom toward outsiders. Paul wants Christians, a minority in a hostile environment, to engage others effectively in proclaiming the gospel. He wants ordinary Christians to demonstrate Christ’s teaching in their lives as they relate to others. It’s about living everyday life with gospel intentionality. Not only that, but he wants us to make the best use of our time. Time is short, and we shouldn’t squander opportunities to evangelize others.

In his book Saturate, Jeff Vanderstelt explains what this can look like. He says that our evangelism can’t be based primarily on church events, because then we’ll be too busy for relationships with people who don’t go to church. Besides, if evangelism is mainly about church events, then evangelism will only happen once or twice a week. Instead, Vanderstelt says:

It must involve everyday life. We need to see that life is the program, because people need to see what it means to follow Jesus in the everyday stuff of life.

We realized we needed to help our people see that life has a normal rhythm. All people everywhere are engaged in things that happen in rhythm— day in and day out. When we engage in these everyday rhythms with Jesus-centered, Spirit-led direction, mission can happen anytime and everywhere, and anybody can be a part of it. 

We needed to train people how to live everyday life with gospel intentionality, showing what it looks like to follow Jesus in the normal stuff. So we asked ourselves: “What are the everyday rhythms of life that everybody engages in everywhere? How can we engage in what is already going on? And how does our submission to Jesus change how we do it?” We knew that if we identified the everyday rhythms of life and trained people to engage in them in light of the gospel with the purpose of making disciples, they would be better equipped to be disciples of Jesus anywhere and everywhere.

Vanderstelt lists six things that we do regularly. All of these are opportunities for us to showcase the gospel in our lives:

  • Eat — “You’re already eating, probably three times a day. Don’t do it alone. Do it with others and watch Jesus join you at the table and change the meal.”
  • Listen — “Quiet your soul and listen to God. And close your mouth once in a while and listen to others. Do both together, and you will find yourself joining in with the activity of the Spirit…”
  • Story — “Know and rehearse God’s story, learn others’ stories, and consider how aspects of God’s story can bring redemption and restoration to theirs.”
  • Bless — Bless others, especially those who don’t deserve it. I heard this week from someone who feels under-appreciated at work. Rather than withdrawing or lashing out, she looks for ways to bless these people, and to treat them better than they deserve, just like Jesus has done for her.
  • Celebrate — Everybody celebrates. Join the celebrations around you, and make them better. Serve. Show people what Kingdom joy looks like.
  • Re-create — Use your hobbies and downtime as ways to connect with others, and to show what true rest in Jesus looks like.

“Live in such a way that it would demand a ‘Jesus explanation,’ Vanderstelt says. That’s exactly what Paul is saying. In our strategy card, we talk about living compelling and attractive lives marked by the gospel. In a resistant culture, that’s what it takes.

Listen: If you understand the gospel, and your life is being changed, then your life will be different. If you eat with others, really listen to others as you listen to the Spirit, if you bless your enemies, and if your life is marked by humility and joy, then it will stand out. Your life will demand a “Jesus explanation.”

What’s it going to take to show and tell the gospel to resistant people? Pray, and then live your life with gospel intentionality. But there’s one more thing that Paul tells us:

Finally: It’s going to take our words.

Colossians 4:6 says, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” I love what Paul says here. A lot of people think that when Christians talk with people who aren’t Christians, the tone is going to be harsh and judgmental. We’re going to have to set everyone straight. That’s not what Paul says, though. We’re to be gracious to others. It should also be seasoned with salt. That means that our speech to others shouldn’t be boring, but appealing to others. It should leave them wanting more.

I especially appreciate how verse 6 ends: “so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” There is no cookie-cutter approach. We’re going to get questions about the Christian faith. Some of them are going to be difficult, maybe even hostile. Paul tells us to grow in our ability to answer these questions, but in a way that makes the gospel attractive. One commentator puts it this way: Paul expects the Colossian church “to hold its own in the social setting of marketplace, baths, and meal table and to win attention by the attractiveness of its life and speech” (James Dunn).

I want to emphasize that this doesn’t mean that we have all the answers. Many times we can tell people that they have a good question, and that we’ll get back to them. That’s much better than bluffing our way through an answer that doesn’t cut it! It does mean that we are growing in our ability to answer questions and to share the gospel.

St. Francis of Assisi is sometimes misquoted, “Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.” There’s actually no record of him saying such a thing, which would be funny coming from a man who preached five times a day. He had no problem using words. Besides, as Paul tells us here, sharing the gospel will take our words. We can’t live out the gospel or be the gospel to others. We must speak the gospel. A godly, compelling life is important, but at some point we will need to also tell people about Jesus. So use your words. Be gracious and winsome, but speak of Jesus. Make him the hero. He is worth it.

Most of us are scared of evangelism. Most of us think we can’t do it. Not only that, but we’re overwhelmed in a culture that seems resistant, even hostile sometimes, to the message.

Today’s passage gives me hope. When Paul wrote this letter, he wrote in a setting that was even more hostile to the Christian message. As Paul wrote these words, he was in prison for the gospel, and yet he is full of hope. He writes to a group of new Christians and is full of hope that they will be able to share the gospel effectively. What’s it going to take to show and tell the gospel to resistant people? It’s going to take three things: prayer, life, and words. It may take time. But with God’s help we can do it.

God uses ordinary people like us. Many sociologists have now recognized that “most conversions are not produced by professional missionaries conveying a new message, but by rank-and-file members who share their faith with their friends and relatives” (David W. Pao). God can use us as we pray, as we live ordinary life with gospel intentionality, and as we point to Jesus with our words in as winsome a way as possible.

I want you to take the strategy card that we’ve given you. This is our entire strategy as a church. We want to go deeper in the gospel, deeper into community, and father into mission as a church. It’s not complicated. This is as accessible for all of us, and yet it’s deep enough that we could spend our entire lives doing this.

God wants to use you in a resistant culture to spread his gospel. I want to ask you to apply this today:

  • Pray — Who can you pray for? I have prayer cards, and I flip through them daily as I pray for people. Who can you pray for in your network of relationships? Could you also pray for us as a church, that God would grant us open doors, and that we would be bold to speak the gospel?
  • Live — How can you live your life with gospel intentionality? How can you walk wisely, making the most of every opportunity? How can you eat, listen, story, bless, celebrate, and recreate so that your life demands a Jesus explanation?
  • Speak — How can you speak the gospel? How can you make your faith an everyday, natural part of your conversations with other people? How can you ask questions, pray for opportunities, and then be ready for an opening?

Paul had every confidence that God could use ordinary, baby Christians in a resistant setting. I have every confidence that God can do the same though us. God is on mission, and he can use us as we show and tell the gospel through our lives.


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

Vision: Community (Romans 12:3-18)

Big Idea: Sunday mornings are good, but not enough. We also need to serve each other and to love each other.

Even though we are a new church, and even though we’re still small in number, we’re relaunching our church this month. We are going back to the very beginning and making sure that we’re clear on who we are, and what we’re all about. We’re doing this because it’s easy to forget.

When Charlene and I first got married, I was very clear what marriage was all about. But a couple of years in, I began to forget. She started to annoy me sometimes, to tell you the truth. I think I started to annoy her too. And so we had to go right back to the beginning and remind ourselves what marriage is all about. Remembering elevated us from seeing just today, and brought us back to the big picture. It gave us a picture of who we were supposed to be, by God’s grace. It reminded us of his calling.

It’s the same thing for us here as well. You are here because, at some point, you caught a vision of what a church plant could be. But it’s so easy to forget. It’s easy for me to forget! We need to remind ourselves who we’re supposed to be, by God’s grace.

So we want to relay the foundation, reset the DNA. We want to remind ourselves of why we’re here in the first place. Even better, I want to invite you into something. I want to invite you into something new and exciting. I’m not exaggerating when I say it could change your life, and it could change this community as well.

So last week we looked at the first part of our strategy: the gospel. It all begins here. We said that the gospel is the news that God made us and owns us, but that we rebelled against him. But God has initiated a rescue plan to save us through Jesus Christ, and all we have to do is to receive his finished work with empty hands, and then follow him. That’s the gospel. It’s central to our lives and our church. It’s not just how we become Christians, it’s how we grow in the Christian faith. We never outgrow the gospel.

As we said last week, we want to be a church that believes the gospel. But we want to be more than that. We also want to have a gospel culture. A church with gospel doctrine and a gospel culture is a beautiful and powerful thing. We looked at 1 John, and reminded ourselves that the gospel creates community, and that it also provides a safe place for sinful, messy people. If you weren’t here last week, let me tell you what this means: We want the gospel to shape the culture of this church, so that because we have Jesus in common, we have everything in common. The gospel creates a family, and that family is a place where we can drop the masks and stop pretending. We’re home.

We’ve given you a rack card today that explains our strategy. You’ll see that the gospel is the first piece of our strategy. We want you to go deeper in the gospel yourself, and to absorb a gospel doctrine and culture in your own life. As part of that, we want to encourage you to practice spiritual disciplines like worship, reading Scripture, praying, and repenting. We’ll return to these and help you unpack them in your lives. The result, as we do this, is that God will transform us through his Spirit so that are lives are compelling and attractive, and marked by the gospel. That’s what we’re aiming for in our lives.

So that’s the gospel. We will never move beyond it. We will keep returning to it over and over. It’s not the ABC’s but the A to Z of the Christian life.

But today we’re coming to the second part of our strategy: community. Here’s the problem. What do you think of when you think of church? We usually think of a couple of things, and here’s the first:

Building — When you ask most people about a church, they automatically think about a building. When we were kids, we learned the rhyme: “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple. Open the doors, and see all the people.” It’s ridiculous, because although we think of church as a building, the true biblical meaning of church is about as far from building as you can get. The early Christian church had no buildings. The early Christians were often persecuted and, as a result, they often met in secret in homes.There’s nothing wrong with having a building, as we do, but this is not the church. When we see this as the church, then church becomes compartmentalized and segmented as a tiny part of our lives.

But there’s another way that we usually think of church:

Service — A lot of people think of church as a worship service. For them, church means attending a service once a week. It involves sitting in rows and singing, and listening to a sermon. I actually think that worship services are important. Public worship and proclamation are important — but they are not what it means to be the church! 

In a book called The Trellis and the Vine, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne make a very good point:

Sunday sermons are necessary but not sufficient…Sermons are needed, yes, but they are not all that is needed. Let’s be absolutely clear: the preaching of powerful, faithful, compelling biblical expositions is absolutely vital and necessary to the life and growth of our congregations….Clear, strong, powerful public preaching is the bedrock and foundation upon which all other ministry in the congregation is built. The sermon is the rallying cry…

But then they quote Peter Adam, who says:

…While preaching…is one form of the ministry of the Word, many other forms are reflected in the Bible and in contemporary Christian church life. It is important to grasp this point clearly, or we shall try to make preaching carry a load which it cannot bear; that is, the burden of doing all that the Bible expects from every form of ministry of the Word.

Here’s the deal. If church = Sunday service for you, you’re not getting the whole package. You’re missing a huge part of what it means to be the church. You’re getting the all-inclusive without the meals. You’re getting the burger without the beef. It’s not enough. Church was designed to be more than what you’re experiencing so far. It’s not that the service is unimportant, it’s just that it’s designed to be more.

So let’s get practical. What’s needed beyond the worship service? I want to notice two things from Romans 12 that we need on top of coming together for public worship. It means that we make two practical commitments.

1. I am here to serve

Romans 12:3-8 makes one main point: everyone in the church is needed to serve everyone else. In other words, we all need each other! That’s why Paul begins in verse 3 the way he does: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3). Here’s the problem. When we overestimate ourselves, we think we don’t need the ministry of other believers. Paul calls out what’s behind our thinking that we don’t need the ministry of the body: arrogance.

As you know, the Jays have been playing really well lately. Third baseman Josh Donaldson is having an exceptionally good season. He’s on pace to have the best individual season by a position player in Jays’ history. Imagine today, as they’re playing Boston, if Donaldson said to the team, “Hey guys, I’m frontrunner for American League MVP. You guys take the day off. I’ve got this.” That would be extremely arrogant. We get that. Donaldson needs what the others on the team can do, and so do we. We need the ministry of others.

What does this look like? Verses 6 to 8 tell us:

Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Romans 12:6-8)

Paul says that all of us have gifts. The Holy Spirit empowers us in such a way that we’re able to help strengthen the church and help it to flourish. We all have a role. Every one of us is needed. He lists two broad categories: speaking gifts (prophesying, teaching, and encouraging), and serving gifts (serving, contributing, leading, and showing mercy).

God’s glory is revealed through his people — not just through some of his people, but in the diversity of gifts that he’s given his people. This means that we need your ministry. We need what God has prepared you to do in this church. We need more than the ministry of the few to the many; we all need what God has put you here to do. I like how Ed Welch puts it:

We were meant to walk side by side, an interdependent body of weak people. God is pleased to grow and change us through the help of people who have been re-created in Christ and empowered by the Spirit. That is how life in the church works. (Side by Side)

Let’s get very practical. What does this look like? It means that we need community so that we have the time to serve each other. We need enough time so that we can encourage each other, teach each other, contribute to each other in practical ways, and show mercy to each other. That’s more than a meeting. It’s a way of life.

This is the way the church moves forward— through mutual love and care. Such expression of love was less obvious in the Old Testament, when people relied on kings, leaders, and prophets, but when the Spirit was given at Pentecost— everything changed. Suddenly, ordinary people had extraordinary impact. (Ed Welch)

That’s the first commitment that we must make as we come together. I am here to serve. That’s very different from the attitude, “I’m here to be served.” God has brought you here because you have a contribution to make. The Lord has given spiritual gifts to every Christian in this room. Find your gift. Embrace it by faith. Use it with the strength that God supplies, so that God will get the glory and you and your church will get the joy. I am here to serve, and you are too.

There’s one other practical commitment I find in this passage:

2. These people are here to be loved.

Serving each other is one thing. Paul ups the ante in verses 9 and on:

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. (Romans 12:9-13)

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. (Romans 12:15-16)

Here’s what Paul says church life looks like: genuine love. Treating each other like family. Outdoing each other in showing honor. Never hesitating in our eagerness to love each other. It means praying for each other, contributing to each other’s financial needs, and inviting strangers into our homes. It means identifying with each other’s joys and sorrows. It means that we never look down on another person in the church, and that we never think more of ourselves than we do of anyone else.

Who wouldn’t want to be part of a community like that? All of these are the practical outworking of what Paul said in verse 9: “Let love be genuine.” If you get that right, everything else flows out of that. God commands what we should feel for each other. And God shows us what this would look like if we lived it out.

In her off-beat memoir, journalist and writer Heather Havrilesky reminds us how community (whether in a family or a church family) implies carrying one another's burdens. Havrilesky writes:

We weren't meant to suffer alone! We weren't meant to … escape the indignity and frustration of asking for help, for needing help, from someone who might not always enjoy giving it, someone who gets on our nerves, who has never made much sense to us, someone whom we break down and bicker with occasionally. We were meant to lean on each other, as messy and imperfect as that can be, to be capable when we can, and to allow the world to take care of us when we can't. It won't be all bad. Or it will be. But at least we'll have each other.

That’s what Paul is talking about. He’s talking about breaking through the barrier of polite relationships to something much deeper — to genuine love. He’s not talking about sitting in rows. He’s talking about turning our chairs towards each other, and opening our homes and our lives.

And it’s a beautiful thing. By God’s grace, it can happen. By God’s grace, it must happen. It’s simple, but it will take God’s power to keep these two commitments: I am here to serve, and these people are here to be loved.

I have to confess that there was a time that I didn’t think this was really possible. But now I not only think it’s possible. In fact, I was reading a book on this one time, and I put it away because I thought it was a pipe dream. Not anymore. I think it’s absolutely necessary. It’s what God wants for our church. I’m all in on this. This is the type of community that God wants us to have at Liberty Grace Church.

You may have never realized how crucial the local church is to your walk with Christ. 

We think that this kind of living, this kind of biblical Christianity, requires small groups. We believe that this is pie-in-the-sky theory if the we do not have a web of deepening, regularly-nurtured personal relationships. We need a way for Romans 12:3-18 to become a regular, personal, relational reality.

You’ve been given a rack card today. It illustrates our mission and our strategy as a church. I want you to keep this card. I’d encourage you to stick it on your fridge, or tuck it in your Bible as a bookmark, or download a copy for your phone or tablet. It’s so important.

Our whole strategy as a church is here. We’ve already covered the first: that we go deeper in the gospel, and that we practice spiritual disciplines by God’s grace, so that our lives are compelling and attractive, marked by the gospel.

Today we are at the second strategy. It’s the strategy of community: to do life together, to participate in public worship, small groups, and hospitality. The result will be safe and engaging Christian community. All of this is a reflection of the gospel. It’s only possible because we see what Jesus has done for us, and because our lives are being transformed as a result.

I have two ways for you to respond.

First: I invite you to memorize Romans 12:10 with me: “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10). Let’s internalize this and let it get under our skin.

Second: This week, you will receive an invitation to a small group, starting the week after next. It will be messy at the beginning. We’re just beginning to figure this stuff out. But by God’s grace, we’re going to do this. I want you to respond, and to join a small group community in which you can live out these two practical commitments: I am here to serve, and these people are here to love.

In his book The Pastor, Eugene Peterson describes his wife Jan's understanding of what it means to be a pastor's wife. As I read Peterson's words, I was struck with how apt the description was not only for pastor's wives but for all Christians as they enter fully into the life of the body of Christ.

And so, I would like to modify Peterson's words slightly and substitute church member for pastor's wife. See if you don't think this is a good description of what life in the church should be:

Being a church member is a vocation, a way of life. It means participation in an intricate web of hospitality, living at the intersection of human need and God's grace, inhabiting a community where men and women who don't fit are welcomed, where neglected children are noticed, where the stories of Jesus are told, and people who have no stories find that they do have stories, stories that are part of the Jesus story. Being a church member places us strategically yet unobtrusively at a heavily trafficked intersection between heaven and earth.

That’s where I want to live. That’s what I want this church to feel like. Will you join me?


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

Vision: Gospel (1 John 1:1-10)

Big Idea: The gospel is central, because the gospel creates community and safety.

Today we begin a four-week series on the vision of Liberty Grace Church. It’s a chance for everyone hear to put their finger on the heartbeat of the church and to feel its pulse. In a sense, we’re relaunching the church starting today. We’re re-laying the foundation, resetting the DNA. We want to go right back to the very beginning and ensure that we’re clear on the basics. Within these four weeks, we’re launching two new phases of our ministry as a church: small groups, and membership. You’re going to hear about both over the next few weeks.

vision facebook.jpeg

When we talk about the vision for this church, we’re talking about something that’s far bigger than what we can accomplish. We’re talking about what life would be like if Jesus came to Liberty Village. What we’re talking about can only happen as an act of God, and we believe that God wants to do it. By God’s grace, we can be a church that turns our community upside-down. That’s what happened in the book of Acts, and it can happen today. We want to be a church in which real people are loved and accepted, where lives are being transformed, and in which we see God at work. We want to be characterized by an abundance of what only God can give us: an abundance of love, an abundance of humaneness, an abundance of gentleness, beauty, peace, and joy. No posing or pretending, only honesty and safety combined with God’s power. We want Jesus to be the talk of this community, and for Jesus to be big in people’s eyes. This is something that only God can do, but we believe he has done it throughout history, and he wants to do it through us as we return to the core of what it means to be a church.

And we want to begin today by explaining what lies at the heart of Liberty Grace Church. When you strip it all back, there are three things that matter most: Gospel, Community, and Mission. And it begins today as we look at the cornerstone of our vision: the gospel. So let’s look at this. If we get this right, everything else flows out of this. If we get this wrong, then nothing else matters.

What is the gospel? It is news about what God has done through Jesus Christ. We can summarize the gospel in four basic truths.

One: God made us. In the beginning, God — a personal, all-powerful God — created the universe. He created us to live joyfully in his presence, humbly submitting to his gracious authority. God created us. God owns us. We owe him everything. We were created to enjoy God, to find our satisfaction in him, because he made us for himself.

Two: We resist God. We rebelled against God. We resent his claims. We went our own way, and invented our own gods. We attempted to kick God off his throne, and put ourselves in his place. As a result, we suffer the punishment of our rebellion. We deserve his just wrath for wanting to eliminate him.

Three: God initiated a rescue plan. Instead of rejecting us, he acted to rescue us. He began by choosing a nation to display his glory in a fallen world. He continued his rescue plan by sending his own Son, Jesus, to live the truly human life we’ve never lived and to die the guilty death we don’t want to die. “God loves touchy, defensive sinners” (Ray Ortlund). He sent Jesus to reconcile us to God, and to create a new community of grace. He has begun to make everything new again, and to restore what sin has broken.

Four: Our only part is to receive, with empty hands, all that Jesus is. God calls us to repent of our sin and turn towards him for forgiveness, and then to follow him.

The gospel is at the center of our church, because Jesus is at the center of our church. Jesus and his gospel are an endless resource, not just as the way to become a Christian, but as the way to live every single day. As Scotty Smith says, there’s not more than the gospel, there’s just more of the gospel. You can dive deep down into the gospel for a lifetime and never hit the bottom. It’s an endless source of life and joy for us. It’s at the center of our church, and it has to be at the center of our lives.

That’s it. It’s simple to explain in four points, but deep enough to explore for the rest of your life. God made us. We resist him. God has rescued us through Jesus. Our only part is to receive, and then to follow.

I’ve just explained the gospel to you. For the rest of this sermon, I want to explain what will happen if we really get the gospel as a church. The gospel isn’t just something to believe; it’s something that transforms. It’s something that will have a radical effect on us, and on the community around us. I want to think about that with you today. I want to imagine with you what it will look like for the gospel to grab hold of us and become something that isn’t just something we believe, but something that shapes the way we operate as a church.

In his book The Gospel, Ray Ortlund says:

Gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture. The doctrine of grace creates a culture of grace.

When the doctrine is clear and the culture is beautiful, that church will be powerful. But there are no shortcuts to getting there. Without the doctrine, the culture will be weak. Without the culture, the doctrine will seem pointless.

Amazing things happen, though when you have both a doctrine of grace and a culture of grace. When you have the gospel embodied in a church culture, amazing things begin to happen. I want to look at two of them today. What happens when a church embodies the gospel in its culture?

First: it creates a community you won’t find anywhere else in the world.

You and I are relational beings. You were made for relationships with other people. The problem is that our relationships often fall short of what we really desire. You and I have experienced the pain of loneliness and alienation, of not finding the community and support we were looking for. This can happen in church, too. A church can be one of the loneliest places.

But when a church has both a gospel doctrine and a gospel culture, amazing things begin to happen. I want you to see this in this passage. 

In 1 John 1, John the Apostle, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, and an eyewitness of his life, helps us understand why Jesus is so central to who we are as a church. Because he was an eyewitness, he begins with the historical facts about Jesus. Listen to what he says:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you… (1 John 1:1-3)

In these first three verses, John gives us a gospel doctrine. John here gives us the content of the gospel, which is so important. John makes two important points:

Jesus was an actual person — John says that Jesus was an historical person. John heard him; he saw him; he touched him. Jesus was an actual human being in history, known and observed by eyewitnesses like John. Jesus was a real man who really lived, really died, really rose again from the grave. John and his fellow disciples really saw, heard, and touched him, both before and after he died. 

Jesus was God - But that’s not all that Jesus was. Jesus was an historical person, but he was also so much more than that. According to John, he is also “that which was from the beginning,” “the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.” These go beyond categories based on physical observation. John is stating that Jesus, the man that he knew firsthand, was nothing less than God. When Jesus was born, God himself came to earth. The one who was with God at the very beginning of creation is also the word of life, eternal life embodied in the flesh. John is going beyond the historical facts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and is telling us the significance of them. Jesus the man is nothing less than God. He is the source and substance of eternal life.

That’s John’s message, and it’s our message too. We really are all about Jesus, who really lived, who was really God, and who is the source of eternal life for all who believe. When God became man, he became the measure of all things. If you know Jesus, you know the creator of the universe, the one who invented life, the Word of Life. That’s who Jesus is. It’s the gospel doctrine that we want to hold as a church. It’s all about Jesus.

But look at what John says this gospel doctrine does. In verses 3 and 4, John says:

…that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:3-4)

What did you think John would say? “…That which we have seen and heard we proclaim to you, so that you may…” have the right doctrine, or know the right things about God, or have a personal relationship with God. All of those things are important., but they’re not what John says. Here’s what he does say. He says that he proclaims these things to us so that “you may have fellowship with us” and that “our joy may be complete.”

Here’s what John says: The gospel creates a new community. When we understand who Jesus is, it brings us into fellowship with other Christians, but it’s not just with other Christians. It’s with God as well. There’s nothing like it. When you get the gospel, you are brought into a relationship with others, and God is in the middle of that relationship as well.

John uses the word fellowship. That sounds like of flaccid to us. It doesn’t have a lot of punch. We think of fellowship as being food and light conversation. The word goes a lot deeper than that. It involves a close association based on common purpose. It involves the deepest of relationships, a deep sharing of things in common. But the fellowship that John talks about goes horizontally and vertically. It’s with God and with others.

The great preacher C. Campbell Morgan says that fellowship is partnership with God and with each other. “… fellowship with God means we have gone into business with God, that His enterprises are to be our enterprises.” It means we share mutual interests, devotion, and activity. When we’re in fellowship with God and others, “his heartbeat becomes our heartbeat, his mission becomes our mission, his goals and plans become our goals and plans. We love what he loves, desire what he desires, hate what he hates, and will what he wills. The Christian life should be an ever-deepening fellowship with God that creates and reproduces within us the mind of Christ” (David Allen).

When we get the gospel, God begins to create a culture in which people who previously had nothing in common all of a sudden have everything in common, because they have Jesus. When we get the gospel, we get a family. We become part of something much bigger than ourselves. In fact, it’s so big that we go into business with God himself and become his partners.

And not only that, but we get joy too. John says, “And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:4). Here’s the logic: the proclamation of the gospel leads to the creation of a new community, and the new community leads to joy. Joy is more than just happiness. Joy is a condition of genuine satisfaction intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, regardless of circumstances. John doesn’t just say that we will have joy; he says that our joy will be complete. It will overflow. Joy will be abundantly supplied to us.

Friends, this is why the gospel is so important. When we get the gospel, that gospel creates a community that is unlike any other on earth. It creates a place where people are welcomed, in which we really care for each other, and in which there’s acceptance, forgiveness, generosity, and love. There’s nothing quite like it. It brings us into relationship with each other, and also with God. You become business partners with God, intimately related to every other believer in Jesus Christ. You don’t have to measure up or pretend or earn it. It’s yours in Jesus Christ. Not only that, but you get joy. What an offer!

Francis Schaeffer wrote:

One cannot explain the explosive dynamic, the dunamis, of the early church apart from the fact that they practiced two things simultaneously: orthodoxy of doctrine and orthodoxy of community in the midst of the visible church, a community which the world could see. By the grace of God, therefore, the church must be known for its purity of doctrine and the reality of its community. Our churches have so often been only preaching points with very little emphasis on community, but exhibition of the love of God in practice is beautiful and must be there.

In other words, we need more than the gospel taught. We need the gospel embodied. And when the gospel is embodied, and when it creates a community of joy, watch out!

We didn’t start this church just to start another church. The world doesn’t need a church, not a church that is built on what we can do. We started this church because we believe the proclamation about who Jesus is. We believe that it’s creating a radical new community that brings joy that can’t be found anywhere else. When we have a doctrine of grace and a culture of grace, beautiful things begin to happen.

The reason that the church grew like it did in the book of Acts is because it was a community that couldn’t be explained by anything else than God. The joy, the depth of the relationships, the forgiveness, the humility, and the acceptance gave people a taste of what happens when Jesus comes to town. It’s what we want to see happen here as well. When we get the gospel right, it will create a radical new community, and it will give you a joy that you can’t find anywhere else.

But that’s not all. Not only does the gospel create a community you won’t find anywhere else in the world, but:

Second: The gospel creates safety for messy, sinful people.

In verse 5, John makes a simple but deep theological statement about God:

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)

It’s a simple statement about God. With God, there is no dark side. When John says that God is light, he’s saying that God is beautiful and pure. “God is light” means that God is completely pure, spiritually perfect, morally excellent. There’s no darkness with God at all.

The problem, of course, is us. God is light, and there’s no darkness in him, but there’s plenty of darkness in us. John 3:19 says, “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19). There’s something in us that knows what is good, but is drawn to what’s wrong. I love the illustration that Tony Reinke gives in his book Newton: On the Christian Life.

Imagine a Christian sitting down with a blank page and pen. He begins to write out his perfectly scripted life, explaining how he would love others, how he would structure his prayer life, or how he would [build a beautiful Christian family]. But indwelling sin and Satan crouch at his elbow, disrupting every pen stroke and messing up every word and sentence as our Christian friend tries to write the script.

At every point in the Christian life [our own flesh] and Satan jab our elbow, and our pen skids across the page as our perfect plan is reduced to scribbles. This is a metaphor of the Christian life with indwelling sin. Yet the biggest problem is that sin is not at our elbow—our sin is in us!

That’s a great image. God is light, and God is perfect, but we can’t even draw a line straight. What do we do when God is perfect, and we are not? What hope is there for people like us before a holy God?

John continues, saying that when we walk with God, we will experience real change:

If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:6-7)

When we believe the gospel, God begins to transform us, so that our lives begin to be light, just as he’s light. Some people believe that because God is so gracious, it doesn’t matter how we live. We can trust in the gospel and then go on living however we want. But John says that’s not the case at all. Sin matters! Don’t ever think you can follow Jesus and then live your own way. The gospel transforms us, and a sign that we get the gospel is that we begin to see our lives transformed. We begin to see change taking place in our lives.

But we will continue to struggle. You see that in verses 7 to 10:

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:7-10)

John has just finished saying that we need to walk in the light; that our lives need to show transformation. But then John tells us the two things that will happen when we do this: we’ll have fellowship with one another, and Jesus will cleanse us from all sin. When our lives begin to be transformed, our relationship with other believers will begin to go deeper. Not only that, but Jesus will cleanse us from our sins. Obedience leads to deeper relationships, and it also leads to deeper cleansing.

I want you to notice that the walking and the cleansing are both in present tense. This is a big hint to us that walking in the light doesn’t mean that we become sinless. What John is saying is that the gospel will begin to change us, and bring us into deeper relationships with other believers, but we will continue to sin. But Jesus will continue to cleanse us. We’ll continue to walk in the light, continue to grow, continue to go deeper in relationship, continue to sin sometimes, but Jesus will cleanse us. We can always draw upon the finished work of Christ, not just at the moment of conversion but moment by moment.

John goes on further. John goes on saying that we can’t deny that we sin. The gospel gives us safety to confess our sins, and to know that we can receive ongoing forgiveness from God.

Do you see what John is describing here? He’s describing a Christianity in which the gospel is really changing us, in which we’re really growing deeper with each other. But he’s also describing a Christianity in which we can be real about our sins. We can bring them to the light, knowing that our sins are a present reality, but his grace is a present reality as well. We don’t have to pretend. There is safety for imperfect people because we have a perfect gospel.

I recently read this book by Nate Larkin called Samson and the Pirate Monks. Larkin began to really struggle in his life, but he hid his struggles. He couldn’t figure out how to be honest about the mess in his life. As a result, he continued the downward spiral and couldn’t pull out of it.

But one day he went to church and sat under a pastor named Scotty Smith — a pastor who’s coming next June to speak at Liberty Grace, by the way. Listen to what happened as he attended this church and begin to experience not just a gospel doctrine, but a gospel culture:

Barely four months later I would be listening to the gospel in a church where it was safe to admit brokenness, where the pastor talked about his own sin in the present tense and celebrated the mercy of God every Sunday. Here I would hear about the covenant of grace and the steadfast love of our heavenly Father. I would be reminded week after week that I am an adopted son of God, no longer an orphan, and that my Father never disowns his own. Finally—and this was the greatest miracle—it was in this church where I would meet many of my future comrades, the men whose friendship God would use to radically rearrange my life.

Larkin began to come to life again. He began to experience real change, because he encountered the safety of a community where God’s grace was real, and where he didn’t have to cover up over his struggles anymore.

Here’s how it works. The early Methodists, during the First Great Awakening, started organizing people int small groups. John Wesley, their leader, gave this instruction: “…that each person, in order, speak as freely, plainly and concisely as he can, the real state of his heart, with his several temptations and deliverances, since the last time of meeting.” Simple and doable. We want to be a church where we take sin seriously, and in which we’re seeing our lives change, but also where we’re free to talk about sin in the present tense, and celebrate the mercy of God every Sunday. We want to be able to share the real state of our hearts, both our temptations and deliverances, and to stop pretending and posturing. That’s what real Christianity is like.

Friends, that’s why our church’s vision begins with the gospel. We want a gospel doctrine, but we desperately want a gospel culture. We want the gospel to create a community that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. We want a gospel culture in which we’re being transformed, but in which we’re also safe to admit our struggles, and to reveal the true state of our hearts.

Let me quote Ray Ortlund one more time:

In this new kind of community, which only the gospel can create, desperate sinners coming to Christ have nothing to fear. They are finally safe. They can open up about what’s really going on in their lives. They can find healing for the past and hope for the future. This new kind of church feels like heaven on earth. And the way to get there is not by slick packaging but by gospel rebuilding. It’s what the doctrine is for – building a new kind of community to compel the attention of the world.

Three applications this afternoon.

First, do you get it? God made us. We resist him. God has rescued us through Jesus. Our only part is to receive, and then to follow. So simple, and yet so profound. It will change our life. I urge you today, if you haven’t, to embrace this gospel today. There’s nothing better that you could receive.

Second, are you with me? Are you serious about being a church that has both a gospel doctrine and a gospel culture? I desperately want what John describes in this passage. I want the gospel to create a fellowship you can’t find anywhere else. I want it to bring us joy. I want to come out of hiding and find safety to confess sins, and to find purification. Let’s commit to this. I want what only the gospel can produce. Let’s pray about this. Let’s work at this. Let’s not settle for talking about the gospel. Let’s see what happens when the gospel becomes the operating system of a church.

Finally, let’s buckle in. For the next three weeks we’re going to be talking about what building a gospel culture looks like. Spoiler alert: we’re starting small groups and membership this month. Please come back. Please consider what part God wants you to play in this church. If you can’t come out one week, listen to the sermon online, or read it. This series is going to be important as we consider the type of church we want to see take shape here in Liberty Village.

“When the doctrine is clear and the culture is beautiful, that church will be powerful.” Let’s pray and work for a doctrine of grace and a culture of grace, and then see what God does in this community for his glory.


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

You Had One Job (Luke 19:11-27)

Big Idea: Your one job until Jesus returns is to faithfully invest everything he's given you.

One of the funniest Twitter accounts I've seen is @_youhadonejob. The description is "You had one job and messed it up, plus more funny pics and vids." Some of them are PG, but a lot of them are funny. Here's are some samples:

"You had one job" is a meme that calls attention to the blunders people make while on the job. It began with the movie Oceans Eleven, in which somebody bungles their job and ruins a heist. Since then, it's taken off, as shown by Google Trends:

Here's the point of the meme. When you have been given one job to do, don't blow it. And if you do blow it, then prepare to be ridiculed or worse.

Suppose for a moment that this wasn't just a meme. Suppose there is actually one job — just one — that's been assigned to you, and you will be held responsible for how you've done it. I'd want to know what the job was. I'd want to know what was at stake, and I'd also want to put my best efforts towards doing that one job well.

That’s exactly what we have in front of us. In this story, Jesus is giving us the one job that we’re responsible to do. He gives us a story that helps us understand what this job is. And he gives us the three possible outcomes that are possible. There are only three, and no more. And then he tells us what we can expect based on these outcomes.

So let’s look at each of these.

First, there’s one job that we’ve been given to do.

The facts of this story are pretty easy to understand. A nobleman has to travel on business. While he’s away, he calls ten of his servants, and he gives them all a relatively small amount of money: about 100 days’ wages. He gives them simple instructions: “Engage in business until I come” (Luke 19:13). Everything that follows in this parable flows out of these simple details.

Of course, there’s always more than meets the eye at first glance. We read in verse 1 that Jesus was around Jericho when he told this story. Some think that Jesus was near the palace of Herod Archelaus when he told this story. Archelaus was a ruler who had lived right around there, and had traveled to Rome to receive the imperial blessing of his rights to rule over Judea. The Jewish embassy opposed him, and Archelaus took his revenge on them. This was part of their recent history. It would be just like if I said, “There was this president who bugged the White House, who tried to coverup the break-in of an office complex, and he had to resign in disgrace.” You would know what I was talking about.

Why does Jesus tell this story? It’s actually brilliant. The parallels really fit. As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, he realizes that people expect him to take the throne and become king. But Jesus knows that’s not what’s going to happen, at least the way that people expect. He is going to die. Then he’s going to rise again. Then he’s going to leave in order to be given a kingdom, and one day, eventually, he’ll return as the rightful king. 

In the meantime, Jesus is gone for a long time. In his absence, we are his servants, and he’s entrusted something to us. Our one job is to use what he’s given us while waiting for him to come back, so that we can give an account to him when he returns.

If you hear only one sentence this morning, I want you to hear this: Your one job until Jesus returns is to faithfully invest everything he's given you. Notice:

It’s all his. The nobleman gives each of the servants ten minas, or the equivalent 100 days’ wages. He asks them to use it to engage in business while he’s gone. Who owns the money? He’s given it to the servants, but it still belongs to him. In the same way, Jesus has given us many things, and he’s told us to use it to engage in business while he’s gone. But who owns what he’s given us? He does. We don’t own anything; it’s all his. In his excellent book Master Your Money, Ron Blue helps us understand this important idea:

God owns it all…God has the right to whatever He wants whenever He wants it. It is all His, because an owner has rights; I, as a steward, have only responsibilities. I may receive some benefits while maintaining my responsibilities, but the owner retains ownership…Every single possession that I have comes from someone else—God. I literally possess much but own nothing. God benefits me by sharing His property with me. I have a responsibility to Him to use it in a way that blesses and glorifies Him.

While this is true of your money, it doesn’t end there. It applies to everything else in your life too. It applies to “our gifts, our influence, our money, our knowledge, our health, our strength, our time, our senses, our reason, our intellect, our memory, our affections, our privileges as members of Christ’s Church, our advantages as possessors of the Bible” (J.C. Ryle). This is radical. You own nothing. You only manage it on behalf of God.

By the way, you can either see this is scary, or it can set you free. When you realize it belongs to him, it completely changes your attitude towards your entire life. I love the story of John Wesley, the circuit riding preacher back in the 1700s. A man frantically rode his horse up to John Wesley, shouting, “Mr. Wesley, something terrible has happened! Your house has burned to the ground!” Wesley thought for a minute and then replied, “No. The Lord’s house burned to the ground. That means one less responsibility for me.”  Wesley got it. He understood that God is the owner of all things, and we are simply his managing it for him.

Notice also:

It’s not much. Ten minas wasn’t exactly a lot of money to invest. It was not enough to buy a house. Did you read this week of the dilapidated house in The Beach that sold for a million? This amount of money wouldn’t even cover the downpayment for that. If you won this amount of money in a contest, it wouldn’t be enough to change your life. And yet, the servants were expected to do something with it.

I love what Spurgeon said about this passage:

“Not much,” you will say. No, he did not intend it to be much. They were not capable of managing very much. If he found them faithful in “a very little” he could then raise them to a higher responsibility. I do not read that any one of them complained of the smallness of his capital, or wished to have it doubled. Brothers, we need not ask for more talents, we have quite as many as we shall be able to answer for…You say, “It is not much.” The Master did not say it was much, on the contrary, he called it “very little”; but have you used that very little? This should go home to your consciences. You have been treated as confidential servants, and yet you are not true to your Lord. How is this?

Let’s never complain that God hasn’t given us much, or think we’re off the hook because we only have a little. You’re responsible to use whatever he’s given you, no matter how little it is. The stakes are high, even for the little amount he’s given you.

Notice another thing:

He’s given us freedom in how we use it. I love this. The nobleman says, “Engage in business until I come.” There are no detailed instructions, no binding instructions. There’s only one simple principle: make a profit. Do you realize that God has given you this freedom as well? He’s given you everything that you have, even if it’s not much, and he’s given you one job to do: make a profit with what he’s given you on his behalf. Invest everything you have to bring returns to Jesus. You have almost complete freedom on how to go about doing this. I love the advice that John MacArthur gives in his book Found: God’s Will. He says you can know what God’s will is for your life with absolute clarity. Do you want to know what it is? Be saved, Spirit-filled, sanctified, submissive, and suffering. After that, do whatever you want! You have freedom in how you invest what he’s given you, and whether you want to become an artist or a teacher or a pastor or an accountant. That’s up to you. The only binding instruction is that you use everything he’s given you to make a profit for Jesus. That is the one thing that you’re supposed to do with your life.

This is really the most important message of the sermon today, so I want to be as clear as possible. Your one job until Jesus returns is to faithfully invest everything he's given you. God has been generous to us. He’s entrusted us with resources. He’s given us families, education, careers, possessions, and time. But none of them belong to us. All of it belongs to God. Jesus has gone away, but he’s coming back. In the meantime, he expects us to wisely use whatever he’s entrusted to us, and to make a profit with it for him.

Let this sink in. You have only one job: to faithfully invest everything he’s given you to bring a profit for Jesus. It’s all his anyways. You’re just a servant managing what’s his. Your job is to engage in business while he’s gone.

So that’s our one job. Let’s look at the three outcomes that are possible in our lives.

Second, there are only three possible outcomes.

So we have only one job: to faithfully invest what he’s given us. And there are only three possible outcomes. Not four, not two. Every one of us is in one of three categories today. Here they are, and here’s what Jesus says about each of them.

Category One: Rebellious — “But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’” (Luke 19:14). This category isn’t hard to figure out. Some people refuse to bow to Jesus as king. This is the category of outright rejection of Jesus, and the results are deadly. When the king returns in verse 27, look what happens. “But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me” (Luke 19:27).

What is Jesus teaching? Some people will openly reject him. There is no neutrality; you are either for him, or against him. Jesus offers forgiveness for those who are opposed to him, but if they spurn that opportunity, there will be judgment. The essence of sin is the rejection of God’s authority. In his grace, Jesus offers to forgive rebels, but if we refuse that forgiveness, the consequences are dire. God will judge those who rebel against him and refuse the grace that is offered by Jesus.

Category Two: Faithful — Then there’s a second group of people. In verse 16, one servant reports that his mina has made ten minas more. He’s made a 1000% profit. Impressive! The nobleman says, “Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities” (Luke 19:17). The nobleman’s response comes in three ways: commendation (“Well done, good servant!”), reason (“Because you have been faithful in very little”), and promotion (“you will have authority over ten cities”).

This is repeated with a second servant. He comes and reports that he’s made five minas more, a 500% profit. He’s put in charge of five cities.

Here’s the principle: When Jesus returns, he will judge our faithfulness. Those who are found faithful will be rewarded generously. This is an interim period in which we are called to serve him, and how we handle what we’ve been given now will determine what’s entrusted to us in eternity. Again, Charles Spurgeon comments:

Jesus has made us kings and priests, and we are in training for our thrones … If we are faithful here, we may expect our Master to entrust us with higher service hereafter; only let us see to it that we are able to endure the test, and that we profit by the training. … If you live wholly to him here, you will be prepared for the glories unspeakable which await all consecrated souls. Let us go in for a devoted life at once!

So those are the first two possible outcomes. Those who reject Jesus will be judged; those who are faithful will be rewarded.

I think we can live with that, but what’s surprising is that there is a third category of people.

Category Three: Negligent — “Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow’” (Luke 19:20-21). This guy played it safe. The nobleman told him to engage in business and make a profit, but he just kept the money in a napkin. He probably figured that if he made a profit, the nobleman would keep it; if he lost money, he would be held responsible. He was so paralyzed by fear that he did nothing. No risks, no initiative. He had one job, but he didn’t do it. He thinks, “I can’t be active, but I can at least be a conservative. I can preserve the Christian tradition. I can submit to a church wedding and send my children to Sunday school. I can take a Christian point of view. I can wrap my religion in my handkerchief and conserve it” (Helmut Thielicke).

I have to be honest: this third category scares me the most. It’s possible to read the Bible everyday, go to church every week, and live for yourself. It’s possible to take everything that God has given us and basically live as if we are the point of life.

I quoted Ron Blue earlier, who said that everything we have is God’s, and that we are supposed to use it all for him. Let me tweak what he said now and give you the perspective of this negligent servant:

I know God owns it all…but God is not here right now. I may as well use it as I see fit. Sure, God is the owner, but it’s in my bank account, right? I may as well live for today, because time is short. God benefits me by sharing his property with me, so I may as well use it to make the best life for myself now, because you only go around once.

Listen to what the nobleman says to him:

He said to him, ‘I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas.’ And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!’ ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. (Luke 19:22-26)

Jesus says: use it or lose it. Your one job until Jesus returns is to faithfully invest everything he's given you. Don’t blow it, because the consequences for you will be disastrous.

I want to spend a few minutes and think about what this means for our lives.

I was thinking about how to apply this. This is weird, and it’s going to tell you how my brain works, but I was thinking of an egg sorter I saw at the Canadian National Exhibition the other week. The eggs run on a conveyer, and then they’re put down on a scale that weighs each egg. If it’s heavy enough, it goes down the chute. If not, it goes to the next scale, where it’s weighed again — extra large, large, regular, and so on.

What I found interesting is that the eggs aren’t measured by size. They’re measured by weight. An extra-large egg doesn’t mean that the shell is large. It means that the insides are large. Each egg is weighed, and at egg is sorted according to its substance, not just its looks. An egg that looks extra-large may end up being regular, because you can’t measure the weight of an egg by the size of the shell.

And so I began to think about our lives being sorted one day. I began to imagine standing before Jesus and having our lives weighed — how we used what he gave us. I imagined being sorted into three categories — faithful, negligent, and rebellious. And here’s the scary part. I pictured us being placed on the faithful scale, waiting to see if our lives tipped the scale. And I imagined the scale not tipping at that point, and us being passed on to the next scale, where we finally tripped the weight: negligent. Yes, a believer in Jesus Christ. Yes, someone who lived a good life, and wasn’t openly disobedient and rebellious. But, at the same time, someone who lived pretty much for themselves, who didn’t live as if they had one job: to faithfully invest everything that God has given for God, not just for themselves.

And then I imagined what we’d hear. Not “Well done, good servant!” Not words that indicate that we’ll get a promotion from managing 100 days’ wages to managing cities. I imagined hearing Jesus condemning us, asking why we took what was his and used it for ourselves. I imagine him asking why we weren’t faithful; why we didn’t engage in business on behalf while he was gone. What has God given you? And how could you “engage in business” for Jesus until he returns?

What Jesus is talking about here is not salvation. He’s talking about a wasted life. Here’s what’s striking to me. This servant didn’t openly rebel. It wasn’t like he openly rejected the nobleman. But his priorities were no different from the rebels. His life wasn’t shaped by the mission of the nobleman. It’s possible to look like a faithful servant, but live like a rebel. In the end, Jesus warns us that it’s not just the rebels who will be judged. It’s also those who didn’t do the one job that he gave us to do.

Listen to these words from David Platt as we close:

God is the owner, and we are stewards.

This means every breath you breathe, the mind you have, every single thing you possess ultimately comes from God, and He has expectations for how your breath, your mind, and your possessions are to be used. Which means we must be focused. We’re stewards. We must work diligently and responsibly with every single thing God’s entrusted to us. We want to be faithful to do what He calls us to do with the resources He’s given us to do it. We want to work hard. We want to work wisely with everything we have—our time, talents, our mind, our money—everything, knowing that He’s coming back soon, and we want to be ready. We want to be ready for the day.

When you and I—just think of it, this is sobering—you and I will stand before God to give an account for how we have stewarded all that He has entrusted to us. And on that day, it will not matter at all what anyone in this world thought of us. It won’t matter how many people called us great. It won’t matter if 10,000 people were at our funeral, or no one was at our funeral. It won’t matter what the newspapers or history books say or don’t say. The only thing that will matter, the only thing that will matter, is what God—who gave these things to us—says on that day.

Father, everything we have is yours. We don’t own anything. We don’t own our time, our money, our jobs, or anything. It’s all yours. And we realize that one day soon we will stand before Jesus and give account for everything he’s entrusted to us. On that day it won’t matter what anyone else says to us. We want to hear from Jesus: “Well done, good servant.”

Today, Jesus has reminded us that there are only three categories of people. For anyone who recognizes themselves as a rebel today, who hasn’t bowed the knee before Jesus and acknowledged him as king, may they do that today. Jesus is the only king who died for his rebels, who joyfully gave his life so that rebels could be forgiven, not judged. The essence of sin is rebellion. Thank you for sending your Son for rebels like us so that we could be forgiven, and become his servants.

Father, help us to realize we have one job until Jesus returns: to faithfully invest everything he's entrusted to us. The greatest danger is that we look like servants, but live like rebels; that we don’t engage in business until he comes. So help us. Right now, reveal areas of our lives in which we are not engaging in Jesus’ business until he comes back. Thank you that you haven’t given us detailed instructions. You have given us a lot of freedom to figure out how to invest what we have. There’s no cookie-cutter approach, but there’s a clear mandate. Help us as we think about how to do this in our lives.

Help us to use everything we have in your service, to live for you, not us; for then, not now. I pray for the Spirit’s help as we do this. In Jesus’ name, Amen.


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

Our Fear and God's Beauty (Psalm 27)

Big Idea: What’s the best way to deal with distracting fears? By coming face-to-face with God, and seeing his beauty.

When I saw the preview of the video on Facebook, I couldn’t resist watching. The title: “Will it make it? Car attempts to board ship using a plank.” The video, which is just under two minutes long, shows a driver edging a pickup truck over two planks onto a container ship. The whole reason I watched it, of course, is because I was expecting the planks to snap, and the truck to plunge into the water. It’s horrible, I know. Spoiler alert: the truck makes it. I can relate to a couple of comments on the video: “This has got to be the most stressful video we have ever watched!” “I would have lost a lot of money betting on the outcome.”

While it’s interesting to watch a video like this, it’s much more disturbing to watch people go through similar experiences. In the past few months alone, it seems like I’ve watched the real-life equivalent of the video as people go through unbelievable difficulty.

  • I’ve watched my half-brother deal with the last stages of his life until he passed away on June 23.
  • I’ve talked to people who are going through major crises in their lives — personal betrayal, the disintegration of key relationships, piled on top of the trauma of past wounds.
  • I’ve encountered people who are struggling through things like mental illness and cancer.
  • And then I get glimpses of the everyday burdens that people are carrying. They aren’t extraordinary; they’re just chronic stresses that wear you down.

The question I want to ask is this: Can Christianity really bear the weight? Is Christianity really rated for the kinds of problems and trials we’re going to go through? Or is it going to snap under the weight of real life and leave us drowning?

So today I want to look at a psalm with you. The psalms are helpful, because in the psalms we encounter faith that wrestles with God in the complexities of real life. You won’t find any cheap slogans or platitudes in the psalms. You will find raw emotion and honesty. D.A. Carson says, “There is no attempt in Scripture to whitewash the anguish of God’s people when they undergo suffering. They argue with God, they complain to God, they weep before God. Theirs is not a faith that leads to dry-eyed stoicism, but to a faith so robust it wrestles with God.”

The psalms give us permission to stop pretending that everything is okay. They give us the ability to ask real questions about whether God is enough as we face big problems. The psalms take us past a greeting-card version of Christianity to something that is real, gritty, and honest.

This morning I’d like to look at Psalm 27 with you. It’s a psalm that deals with one overarching struggle that many of us deal with: fear. Rather than denying our fears, or telling us that we shouldn’t be afraid, it gives us a pathway to bringing our fears before God. It shows us that Christianity can bear the weight of our fears. It’s good news for those of us who are afraid, or who struggle with anxiety or fear.

Psalm 27 been called “one of the best-known and most comforting psalms in the Psalter” (James Montgomery Boice). But it’s also a confusing psalm, because it’s hard to tell exactly what kind of psalm it is. It’s hard to tell if it’s a psalm of confidence, or a psalm of struggle and lament. It’s too messy to fit in categories. One thing is for sure: I can relate to this psalm. Maybe you can too.

This psalm asks an important question: What’s the best way to deal with our fears? And through this psalm, we find a roadmap for navigating through our fears — even the fears that you may have brought with you today.

First, acknowledge that you face distracting fears.

In verses 1 to 3 we read three powerful verses:

The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
When evildoers assail me
to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and foes,
it is they who stumble and fall.
Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war arise against me,
yet I will be confident.
(Psalm 27:1-3 ESV)

We don’t know a lot about when this psalm was written, but we know from the inscription that it was written by David. It’s difficult to know exactly what is going on in David’s life as he writes this psalm, but it’s clear that he has problems. We read about evildoers who assail him, who want to eat up his flesh. They are adversaries and foes. He speaks of an army that encamps against him. Later on he talks about parental abandonment (verse 10) and false witnesses that are breathing out violence against him. It’s possible that when David wrote this psalm, he was on the run from King Saul, who was chasing him with armies and threatening his life. It brings to mind events like this one, described in 1 Samuel 23:26: “Saul went on one side of the mountain, and David and his men on the other side of the mountain. And David was hurrying to get away from Saul. As Saul and his men were closing in on David and his men to capture them…”

Let’s begin by acknowledging what we might miss as we look at this psalm: there is not a hint of denial in this psalm. David honestly lists everything that is coming up against him, and he acknowledges his fear before God. This psalm gives us permission to name our fears. I’m concerned that one of the barriers many of us face is that we don’t honestly admit our fears before God. Psalm 27 gives us permission to do this. Begin with honesty. List what has you afraid before God. He can handle it. The place to start is by being real with what’s really on our hearts this morning.

Psalm 27 first became real to me five years ago. If you had asked me six years ago if I struggle with fear, I would have told you no. Five years ago I took an extended break in the summer. During that time I began to recognize patterns of fear in my life that I had never admitted to myself before. I began to recognize anxiety in my life. It was permeating everything, but I wasn’t even aware of it.

That summer, for the first time, I found freedom in admitting my fears before God as I began to memorize Psalm 27 and let it sink down into my soul. But I couldn’t begin to let this psalm speak to me until I looked in the mirror honestly and admitted that I felt afraid. I admitted for the first time that I felt that I had enemies who were against me. In my life, they weren’t literally going to assail me, and eat up my flesh, but it sure felt like it.

I wonder if David begins here in writing this psalm for Israel because he knows that we’re going to relate to what he feels. When you read about evildoers assailing you, eating up your flesh, adversaries and foes, armies encamped against you, wars arising against you, some of you know exactly what that feels like. But it may be that some of you haven’t been honest with yourself or with God about how you feel. David is handing you a present this morning. He’s giving you permission, maybe for the first time, to be honest about your fears, and to name them, and to even bring them up in worship.

This is good news, because according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, mental illness indirectly affects all Canadians at some time through a family member, friend or colleague.

  • 1 in 5 of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime.
  • 1 out of every 12 adults will experience major depression at some time in their lives.
  • It is estimated that 10-20% of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder – the single most disabling group of disorders worldwide.

Then there are those who will never be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder, but who still struggle with the reality of fear. Fear comes naturally to us. “Fear is natural to us. We don’t have to learn it. We experience fear and anxiety even before there is any logical reason for them” (Ed Welch). You don’t have to teach a child how to be afraid. Nobody has to teach children about monsters under the bed.

David begins by giving us permission to name what’s got us afraid. Ed Welch says, “Rather than minimize your fears, find more of them. Expose them to the light of day because the more you find, the more blessed you will be when you hear words of peace and comfort.”

So let’s begin today by acknowledging our fears. Stop pretending. God can handle you being honest. Don’t come to God pretending to be something that you aren’t. He wants you to come real and raw. Don’t minimize what you’re going through. Name it. He welcomes your honesty.

Second, pursue the surprising way to deal with your fears: to come face-to-face with the beauty of God.

Honestly, this surprises me. The psalmist begins by inviting us to name our fears and be honest with them. There’s no denial of them. But then he gives us a surprising way to deal with our fears.

You know, we try a lot of ways to deal with our fears. Denial is one way, and it doesn’t work. In an article in The Atlantic magazine, Scott Stossel shares openly about his lifelong attempts to deal with the anguish of anxiety. From an early age he's been what he calls been “a twitchy bundle of phobias, fears, and neuroses.” Stossel writes: “Even when not actively afflicted by acute episodes [of anxiety], I am buffeted by worry.” Stossel adds, "Here's what I've tried [to deal with my anxiety]:

individual psychotherapy (three decades of it), family therapy, group therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, rational emotive behavior therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, hypnosis, meditation, role-playing, interoceptive exposure therapy, in vivo exposure therapy, self-help workbooks, massage therapy, prayer, acupuncture, yoga, Stoic philosophy, and audiotapes I ordered off a late-night TV infomercial.

And medication. Lots of medication. Thorazine. Imipramine. Desipramine. Chlorpheniramine. Nardil. BuSpar. Prozac. Zoloft. Paxil. Wellbutrin. Effexor. Celexa. Lexapro. Cymbalta. Luvox. Trazodone. Levoxyl. Inderal. Tranxene. Serax. Centrax. St. John's wort. Zolpidem. Valium. Librium. Ativan. Xanax. Klonopin. Also: beer, wine, gin, bourbon, vodka, and scotch.

Here's what's worked: nothing.

Let’s look at what David does with his fears. As we’re going to see, it’s not an easy three-step formula. It’s more complicated than that. David holds his fears in one hand, and with the other he begins to reach out for God. He begins to see God as his light and his salvation, the stronghold of his life. Don’t deny your fears. Don’t even do anything with them right away except to acknowledge them. Then begin to look at God.

David continues this process in verses 4 to 6:

One thing have I asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
and to inquire in his temple.

For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will lift me high upon a rock.

And now my head shall be lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the LORD.
(Psalm 27:4-6)

What’s going on in these verses? Is David just switching topics from his fears to worship? No, he’s actually showing us the way to handle our fears. He’s still facing all of his fears, but something begins to change. He sees the beauty of God. The best answer to our fears is a preoccupation with the beauty and glory of God.

Here’s how it works. Five years ago, I mentioned that I realized that I was struggling with fear. As I began to admit those fears to myself, I began to realize that those fears had a lot to say. Ed Welch says:

Listen to your fears and you hear them speak about things that have personal meaning to you. They appear to be attached to things we value…To deeply understand fear we must also look at ourselves and the way we interpret our situations. Those scary objects can reveal what we cherish. They point out our insatiable quest for control, our sense of aloneness. (Ed Welch)

Our fears begin to show us what we’re grasping, what we’re trying to keep that we are afraid will be taken away from us.

When I did this five years ago, I realized that what I wanted to grasp really wasn’t worth worrying about. I was all afraid, basically, about some people who were unhappy with me. As I brought these fears before God, and began to gaze at his beauty, I realized that compared to God’s beauty, the worst-case scenario wasn’t so bad. It didn’t change the situation. My circumstances didn’t change. I still had to go back and deal with the problem. But I began to change. I held the fears in one hand, and reached out for God’s beauty with the other, I eventually managed to drop the fears and use both hands to reach out for God. There were times that I was tempted to pick those fears up again, but I found that God’s beauty was the best solution to my fears. It was only when I found something more captivating than my fears that I was able to let go of my fears and reach for what’s better.

I need to be honest, though. Sometimes our fears will speak, and they will sound pretty reasonable. If you have cancer, it’s not so unreasonable to fear death. If you are losing your marriage, of course you’re going to be afraid. But then what David says to do is even more important. Ed Welch says, “Beauty is just what worry needs. Worry’s magnetic attraction can only be broken by a stronger attraction, and David is saying we can only find that attraction in God himself.” The stronger and more powerful the fear, the stronger and more powerful the antidote must be. The only antidote strong and powerful enough is the beauty and presence of God.

I love what Augustine teaches us here. Augustine taught that any and every created thing is good in itself. “All life, potency, health, memory, virtue, intelligence, tranquility, abundance, light, sweetness, measure, beauty, peace—all these things whether great or small … come from the Lord.” The problem, according to Augustine, is when we take good things and make them bad by becoming absorbed with them, and we begin to love them more than God himself. Our tendency is to set our deepest affections on something that God has made, rather than God himself. No matter what it is — our marriage, our children, our jobs, our health — we will end up disappointed, because that thing can never take the place of God. We will never find the fulfillment we seek from that part of creation. We will always expect more from it—no matter how good or noble or innocent—than it can ever deliver. When it fails to deliver, or when it looks like it will be taken away from us, we get scared.

What’s the solution? It’s to reorder our affections so that we look for ultimate meaning in the only place where it can be found: in God himself. It’s only when God becomes our first love that we can love other things property, putting them in their rightful place, as opposed to what we want to make them. In other words, our love for God will prevent us from being consumed by less important things.

David realizes something profound in this psalm: everything that we want to cling to is a reflection of what we ultimately desire, and that’s God. I love how Tim Keller paraphrases David:

“God’s home is the home I’ve been looking for in every home I’ve ever built. God’s beauty is the beauty I’ve been looking for in every bit of music, in every bit of art, and every bit of romance I’ve ever had. God’s face is the face I’ve been looking for in every encounter and relationship I’ve ever had. This is what life is about. I’ve found it. If I have this, I really have the only home possible. If I have this, I have the only safety possible.”

You see, he says, “I’m going into the house of the Lord.” I’ll take a minute, and I’ll show you how he does it. “I’m going into the house of the Lord. I’m going to gaze on his beauty. For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling, the only home there is. He will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle, the only hiding place there really is. All their hiding places, all of their shelters, and all of their efforts to get away from the battles of life are futile.”

Let’s make this real. What’s got you afraid? Don’t deny your fears. Let your fears point you to something that you’re grasping. Then realize that whatever you’re grasping is really a pale reflection of what you really want: the beauty of God. It’s only when we gaze at God’s beauty that we can let go of the things that we’re clinging to, and begin to reach out to God with our whole lives.

David’s situation hasn’t changed. He’s still got enemies all round him. But when he sees God’s beauty, David changes. What’s the best way to deal with distracting fears? By coming face-to-face with God, and seeing his beauty.

There’s one more thing we need to see in this psalm.

Even when we see God’s beauty, we need to work (and pray) this beauty into our lives.

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? We’ve seen the problem: our fears. We’ve seen the solution: God’s beauty. Now go and do it! But Psalm 27 doesn’t let us away with this. In verses 7 to 14, the tone of the psalm changes. It goes from talking about God to talking to him. It goes from affirmations to prayers. It goes from confidence to entreaty. People have really wrestled with this. How can David sound so confident in verses 1 to 7, and then he seems to struggle through the rest?

It’s actually not that hard to understand. James Montgomery Boice says:

What we have here is an unfolding of two closely related moods by the same inspired author, put together like two movements of a symphony. And the point is that these two apparently opposing moods are also often in us, frequently at the same time or at nearly the same time. Don’t you find that you are often both confident and anxious, trusting and fearful, or at least that your mood swings easily from one to the other? I do. It is part of what it means to be a weak human being.

In other words, it’s not just enough to see God’s beauty one time. It’s not the panacea for all of our fears. We have to keep looking. We need to keep admitting our fears. We need to keep coming back to God. Because David is still in the middle of the mess, he has to keep looking at God’s beauty. It’s the only way that we’ll be able to keep our fears in check, and keep God’s beauty foremost in our eyes.

That’s why David ends the psalm in verse 14 by instructing us:

Wait for the LORD;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the LORD!
(Psalm 27:14)

It’s like we have to devise ways to keep reminding ourselves of what is true until we really get it. Martin Luther talked about the work that it takes. He said that the gospel is the good news of what Jesus, the Son of God, has done for us: that he has suffered and died to deliver us from sin and death. This is the truth of the gospel, and the principal article of Christian doctrine. “Most necessary it is, therefore, that we should know this article well, teach it unto others, and beat it into their heads continually.”

It’s almost like we have to do what one guy did. He set up his cell phone with an unusual password—pro nobis. A friend asked him what pro nobis meant and why he chose that for a password. He told his friend it was Latin and it meant “For Us” and then he suddenly started choking up. Why would those two Latin words cause so much emotion?

He composed himself and then explained that after walking through deep personal pain, true healing came when he learned that God is "for us"—or the Latin phrase pro nobis. He said that after his parents' divorce, a season when he assumed that God didn't care or that God had given up on him, he finally found hope through those two simple words. When he decided to believe that God was pro nobis, that God had even sent Christ to die for him, he could then decide to lay down his life for others.

We can’t just tell ourselves once and then be done. We have to remind ourselves daily. You can’t just look at God once and have all your fears put in their place. It’s not a quick fix. So wait for the Lord. Keep gazing at his beauty. Keep admitting your fears. Keep applying these truths. Because loving God most comes so hard to us, keep at it. Keep admitting your fears to God. Keep gazing at his beauty. Keep waiting for these truths to sink deep into your soul.

Todd Billings is a seminary professor who has been diagnosed with incurable cancer. He speaks of how this psalm has helped him.

On many evenings, when I was trying to settle my energetic mind, I lay down on the living room floor and repeated the following words from the opening of Psalm 27…This prayer was hard work. I had to repeat these words many times for them to become my prayer. Gradually, my mind would focus, tense muscles would release, and I was brought into a place that was not just the story of my cancer, my steroids, my chemo. By the Spirit, I was led into God’s presence with my fear, with my anger, and with my hope being recentered on life with God, to “dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.” The fight with cancer was not repressed or left behind: “though an army besiege me . . . though war break out against me.” But in praying the Psalms— in soaking in its words— I was moved toward trust, and even hope. “My heart will not fear . . . even then I will be confident.” In the busyness of day-to-day life, I was not always in touch with my fear, anger, and need for hope during this time on chemo. But praying this psalm both put me in touch with these realities of my life and helped those realities to be reframed as I moved to trust in the Lord and his promises. (Rejoicing in Lament)

I don’t know what you’re going through, but I know this: We don’t have to deny our fears. The psalms give us permission to name them. More than that, Psalm 27 helps us understand the things we’re grasping, the fears underneath our fears. It helps break worry’s attraction by replacing it with a stronger attraction: a desire to see God’s beauty. And then it reminds us that this isn’t a simple formula. Life is messier than that. We need to continue to work these truths into our lives, continue to seek God’s beauty.

When I saw that truck driving on the planks into that ship, I thought it was going in the sea. But when I see us bring our fears to God, I see that our God can bear the weight of everything we bring to him. I see that God’s beauty is enough. God invites us to come to him with our fears, and he reminds us that he is for us. If you need evidence for this, look to the cross. “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)

So look to him. Bring him your fears. Gaze on his beauty. Keep preaching the gospel to yourself. God is for you, and that is enough.


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

The Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8)

Big Idea: The key to surviving our current mess is to pray to God, who is eager to hear from us and to set things right.

Full video available from Modern Parables

In one of my workouts this week, I did an exercise called the Dumbbell Flye EQI. You lie down on a bench, hold a pair of barbells, and then lower them to your side and then hold it for a minute. I set the timer on my phone, and started the exercise. It was fine for a while, and then my arms began to shake, and it seemed like the minute was lasting forever. I eventually gave up and looked at my watch, only to discover that the alarm had already gone off, but the phone was on silent. No wonder it felt like more than a minute. It was. This happened for all four sets, which makes you think that maybe my brain needs even more of a workout than my body.

Sometimes it feels like life is like that. Take a difficult situation — an illness, a crisis, a grief, a trauma. And then hold that position indefinitely. Every time that you think that relief is in sight, it’s not. It goes on, and on, and on. The pain is unbearable, and relief is nowhere in sight. And you thought you were done? Repeat another set. We’re just getting started.

Does that feel a little like your life? I see all kinds of problems around me — family, job, money, mental health, grief. Some of the problems seem like they would be too much even for an moment. And yet these problems seem to go on for years. How can we survive the pain when there seems to be no relief in sight?

That’s exactly the issue that Jesus confronts in the story that we’ve just been reading, and the video that we just watched. The question is: How can we survive the difficulties of life with our faith intact? Like the widow, how can we keep going when things get really hard? This story gives us three insights that help us answer this question.

First, it helps you understand where you are.

When we went on vacation with family, my brother-in-law programmed this GPS with the wrong address. At the end of his trip, the GPS took him down a small, paved road. Then the road turned into an unpaved road. Finally, the road became an even smaller, rougher road, and the GPS said, “You’ve arrived at your destination.” We had picked a gorgeous vacation rental home. My brother-in-law looked around and saw fields. It was far less than he had hoped for. He sat there trying to figure things out, until he realized that he’d entered the wrong address, and they were over two hours away.

During the two hour drive to where they were supposed to be, I can imagine the kids in the car saying, “You said there’d be a pool!” “Where’s the nice house you promised?” “This vacation sucks!” My brother-in-law could have replied, “We’re not there yet! Of course it’s not fun yet. Wait until we arrive.”

In a way, that’s what Jesus is doing in this story. To understand this, we need to see what he was talking about right before he hold the story of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. In Luke 17, the religious leaders were asking him when the kingdom of God would come. The kingdom is what we experience when God is in charge. It’s what it’s like when God runs the show. When Jesus asks when this kingdom would start, Jesus replies, “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21). Jesus is saying that when he came to this world, God’s kingdom came to the world too. In Jesus, God has already begun to set things right again. It’s why Jesus went around healing people and forgiving sins. Jesus has already begun to set things right, and it’s amazing.

But have you taken a look around lately? It’s not so amazing. People are still getting sick. Relationships are still breaking part. Crime is still taking place. Injustice still seems to get the upper hand. God still seems distant much of the time. Our prayers still seem to go unanswered, and faith still sometimes seems more like a fairy tale than reality.

Wherever you are in your spiritual journey, isn’t it true that you have questions of God? Isn’t it true that you sometimes struggle with doubts, and that you even have big questions about why God is allowing some things to happen? Why is that? If Jesus said that the kingdom of God is among us, why does it seem like things are such a mess?

That’s the question Jesus is answering with this story. He’s dealing with the seeming contradiction between the fact that the kingdom of God is already a reality, and that things are still such a mess. At the end of Luke 17, he compares our time to the time of Noah. I don’t know if you remember the story of Noah building the ark in the Hebrew Scriptures or not. God told Noah to build an ark, saying that he was going to set things right in the world again. Noah did, but he had to wait a long time for God to set things right. When I say a long time, I’m talking about decades going by. Decades, and then more decades. I have a hard time lining up at Metro sometimes; I’m really not used to waiting for decades. In the meantime, life went on as it always did. People woke up and went to work. They cooked meals and they cleaned up. People were born, and people died. I’m sure that Noah was sometimes confused and impatient during this waiting period — and so are we.

That’s why we can relate to this widow so well. This widow is in a tough spot. She’s a victim of injustice, and there’s no relief in sight. In the video we just watched, the widow says, “I’m tired. I am so tired. It’s hard work. I don’t know if I can do it. I just don’t know.” Can you relate? It’s why Luke introduces the parable by telling us the problem that the parable is meant to address: that we will be tempted to lose heart, to get discouraged. I used to think that Luke was speaking about the discouragement that we experience in our prayer lives, but not anymore. I think Luke — and Jesus — are talking about the discouragement that we face in everyday life, when things get hard, and when there’s no relief in sight. The danger is so real that Jesus finishes this parable wondering if he will find faith on the earth when he comes back. Life is so tough that it can it can knock it right out of you.

Before we look at how the parable addresses this problem, I want to make sure that in giving us this story, Jesus is helping us understand where we are. He’s helping us understand why we feel so frustrated with life sometimes, and why we’re sometimes tempted to give up. Some of you are in the middle of this right now. Life is a mess, and you may feel like you’re barely hanging on.

If that’s you, you need to understand that Jesus anticipated this. Jesus knew it would be hard in this in-between period. He knew we’d be tempted to give up, and that we’d feel like the widow in this story. It’s because the kingdom of God is here, but it’s not completely here yet, and we’re stuck waiting in this mess.

How do we keep going when it’s so hard, and when we’re tempted to give up? The first insight from this story is that it’s supposed to be hard right now. Don’t be surprised. It’s supposed to be feel like this.

But there’s more. There’s another insight that Jesus gives us that will help us.

Second, it helps you understand what God is like.

What did you think of the judge in the video? You probably had a hard time liking him. Right from the start, he’s yelling out the window at the widow. Then you see him ignoring her for days, yelling at his staff, and generally acting like an idiot. There’s even a hint in the movie that a “donation” to the court house will move things a lot faster. He’s shady, to say the least.

The judge in the video, of course, is based on the judge in Jesus’ story. Jesus describes him as being a judge who doesn’t fear God, or respect man. He doesn’t care about God’s laws, and he has absolutely no compassion for people. The guy is a corrupt jerk. He’s unloving, evil, ungracious, merciless, and unjust. The widow has no chance of getting justice from him. She’s in trouble, and she knows it.

In the end, though, the widow wears him down. He decides to give her justice after all, not because he cares about justice, but because he wants her off his back.

At the end of the video, you’re left wondering if the point of the parable is that God is like this judge, and that we have to wear him down. It doesn’t help that we have a built-in tendency to doubt God’s goodness. The heart of our rebellion against God is that we aren’t really sure he’s good, and we’re not really sure we can trust him. Paul Tripp says:

In moments of suffering, it’s tempting to allow yourself to doubt the goodness of God. You'll reason with yourself that somehow, someway, this moment of suffering is evidence that God is less than who He has depicted Himself to be.

Suffering will tempt you to doubt God's goodness and kindness. Suffering will tempt you to doubt His faithfulness and love. Even though you may never speak this aloud, your theology will bring God into the court of your judgment and accuse Him of being unloving and unfaithful to His promises.

Here's why doubt is such a deadly trap: as soon as you begin to question the character of God, you'll quit running to Him for help because you don’t go for help to someone whom you no longer trust.

The point of Jesus’ parable is not that we should think of God like this judge. That’s actually the very opposite of the point of this story. The point of this story is that we should understand that God is nothing like the unjust judge. In verse 7, Jesus says, “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?” (Luke 18:7)

Jesus is saying that when you become God’s child:

  • You don’t ever have to wonder whether God cares about you and your predicament. He knows, and he cares.
  • You don’t have to wonder about whether God hears you or not. God does hear you. He’s eager to hear from you. He loves to hear from you.
  • You don’t ever have to wonder what God thinks of you. “You are the center of your heavenly Father’s affection” (Paul Miller). He cares for you. He is for you.
  • You don’t ever have to wonder if God will give you justice and do right. You may need to be patient, but you can be confident that God hears you, and that God cares for you.

I want you to hear this today: God is for you. God isn’t like the unjust judge at all. It’s true that sometimes you can get justice even from an unjust judge. How much more will a loving, gracious God hear us and answer us with lovingkindness? Take heart. God is for you. His judgments towards you are based on his goodness and his love for you. So come to him, believing that he’s for you, and believing that he cares.

This is why Luke says the point of the parable is that we should pray. If we really believe that God cares about our struggles and our mess, and that he’s good and eager to hear from us, then we’ll come to him messy, honest, and struggling. He loves it when we come to him like this. One of my favorite books on prayer, A Praying Life, says this:

The criteria for coming to Jesus is weariness. Come overwhelmed with life. Come with your wandering mind. Come messy.

What does it feel like to be weary? You have trouble concentrating. The problems of the day are like claws in your brain. You feel pummeled by life.

What does heavy-laden feel like? Same thing. You have so many problems you don’t even know where to start. You can’t do life on your own anymore. Jesus wants you to come to him that way! Your weariness drives you to him.

Don’t try to get the prayer right; just tell God where you are and what’s on your mind. That’s what little children do. They come as they are, runny noses and all. Like the disciples, they just say what is on their minds.

…In order to pray like a child, you might need to unlearn the nonpersonal, nonreal praying that you’ve been taught.

When you get honest about how messy life is, and clear about how much God cares, it will revolutionize your prayer life. It may be the only thing that keeps you going when things get really tough.

So far we’ve seen that this story gives us insight into our times, and into God’s character. There’s one more insight that will help us.

Finally, it reminds you of who you are.

Jesus told this story in the context of an ancient, patriarchal society. Back then, women needed to be joined to a man in order to be protected. Widows were one of the most overlooked and potentially oppressed groups around. There was no easy way for them to provide for themselves. The widow in this story is very vulnerable.

We sometimes feel like the widow. It sometimes feels like the whole world is against us, and we’re barely hanging on. But through this parable, Jesus reminds us that we are nothing like the widow.

  • The widow was helpless, with no one to defend her. Those in the kingdom of God have a helper. God himself has promised to defend us.
  • The widow has no husband. She is alone. Those in the kingdom of God are married to God himself. He loves us. His heart is for us. We will never be alone.
  • The widow faces insurmountable odds. She isn’t sure that the judge will give her justice. Those of us in the kingdom of God never have to wonder if God will give us justice. We know that God will do right in the end.

We tend to forget who we are. We are not helpless. God knows us, and we are his.

And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:7-8)

I began this sermon talking about the stupid Dumbbell Flye EQI exercise. Eventually I did give up and look at my phone to see how much time had gone by.

The problem with our lives is that they’re hard, and we’ll be tempted to give up, but we can’t check the timing. We don’t know how long. We’re stuck in the in-between, and Jesus tells us it will be hard.

But then he reminds us: God cares. God is deeply invested in us. He wants us to pray and let him know what we’re going through. Even though it seems that he’s distant or absent, he isn’t. He’s good, he’s gracious, he’s loving, and he cares. The key to surviving our current mess is to pray to God, who is eager to hear from us and to set things right.

I don’t know where you are in your relationship with God. I do want to assure you tonight that he cares. He cares so much that he gave his Son to bring us back into relationship with him so that we could be his children, and so that we could have access to him. Come to him tonight. Enter into that relationship, and come to the one who cares so much about you.


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)

Big Idea: If you ignore the poor now, God will ignore your supposed faith later.

Purpose: To demonstrate the dangers and obligations that come with our wealth.

Sometime this week you passed two very different people.

The first person lives just across the road in the Toy Factory Lofts just one street over. He’s got a beautiful place there. He drives a car that’s worth more than what your parents paid for their house. His loft is 3,100 square feet, plus a 700 square foot rooftop terrace. He has a gourmet European kitchen, top of the line appliances, exposed bricks and beams, 15 foot windows, 21 foot ceilings, and all the premium finishes. He’s got a stunning southern exposure for maximum sunlight, a gas connection for his barbecue, and a custom designed walk-in closet and ensuite. He eats meals everyday that you only get to enjoy when you go out to a really nice restaurant. He’s got a pretty nice life for himself.

The second person you passed lives a little further away, just about a kilometer, in a derelict long-stay hotel on King Street. He pays about $700 a month in rent for a dingy room with maid service that comes once a week. Many of his neighbors are on disability or low-paying jobs. Some of them struggle with addictions or mental illness. One of his neighbors only clears $656 with his welfare check; he makes up the difference in rent by collecting bottles and saving up tax refunds.

What do you think about these two very different people? One lives the Liberty Village dream; the other lives the Liberty Village nightmare. They pass each other on the streets sometimes, and they live close to each other, but that’s about all they have in common. What do you think about these people? More importantly, what does Jesus think about these people?

We don’t have to wonder, because in the parable that we just read, Jesus tells us exactly what he thinks of two people who are just like the ones I described.

The first isn’t given a name, but we’re told that he’s rich, “clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day” (Luke 16:19). He’s wearing the finest and most delicate linen known in the ancient world. The average diet back then consisted of soup, bread, and fruit. But this man eats feasts every single day. He has everything that you could want. He’s the ancient version of the man living in the $2 million loft in the Toy Factory.

And then we’re introduced to a poor man. Interestingly, Jesus gives him a name. He’s the only person to be given a name in any of Jesus’ parables, besides Abraham, who also appears in this parable. We read, “And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores” (Luke 16:20-21). He’s obviously very sick. It even seems that he can’t even move. He’s hungry, and he’s reduced to wanting to be a scavenger for food scraps, but he can’t even get that. Dogs are licking his sores. Don’t think of a cute puppy; think of ravenous street mutts.

Jesus gives us the extremes of wealth and poverty in his day. Not only that, but one lives in ceremonial purity, while the other wastes away in filth. Back then, many in Jesus’ audience would have seen riches as a blessing for obedience, and suffering as a punishment for sin. One person has it all, and the other person has nothing. The rich man has what we want; Lazarus has everything that we want to avoid.

I want you to see what Jesus is doing here.

One of the most personal and private areas of our lives is our money. You can talk about a lot of things, but when you get to talking about somebody’s financial situation, watch out. If you want to test this out, try walking up to someone after the service and saying, “I was just wondering: how much money do you make a year?” Or, “How much of a raise did you get last year anyway?” We keep our finances private, and most of us don’t even talk to our own families about it. But Jesus is putting our money on the table as something that he wants to talk about. It’s the theme of the entire chapter.

One of the most intimate areas of our financial lives are our financial dreams. We just got back from vacation, and at the end of the vacation we stayed at a beautiful house just north of Montreal. It was huge and had the pool, hot tub, landscaping. While we were there, we talked about the Porsche 918 Spyder. It’s called the Porsche 918 because they only made 918 of them, and they each cost about a million. I have to admit that I could get pretty interested in all of that. I like five star hotels. I like gourmet dinners. I like nice cars. And so do you. I don’t know what your particular financial dream is, but I know that you have one.

Jesus wants to talk about our money. Not only that, he wants to talk about our financial dreams. And he has three things to say to us in this story.

First lesson: Don’t limit your financial dreams to this life.

Now, this is a very interesting parable for a few reasons. One of them is that this is the only parable that Jesus told where the action continues into the afterlife. We read:

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. (Luke 16:22-23)

Notice that the poor man dies, but Jesus doesn’t say anything about a burial. He was probably thrown in a pauper’s grave. The rich man also dies, but he gets a burial, most likely one that befits someone of his wealth and stature. If you had to measure their lives at this point, you’d say that Lazarus lived and died a poor man, and that the rich man lived and died well.

But Jesus shows us that there’s more to life than this life, and that this changes the financial equation completely. You can be rich in this life, and poor in the next. Conversely, you can be poor in this life, and rich in the next. The poor man, Lazarus, dies, and he’s carried to Abraham’s side. Luke uses an interesting word for carried. The word has the sense that something is being put in its right place. In other words, it’s like Lazarus is carried to where he belonged in the first place. He dies, and he gets the royal treatment. He’s in the seat of honor at a feast. He was never invited to a feast in this life, but he’s escorted by angels to a feast in the next one. He was bankrupt in this life, but a billionaire in the next.

But look at what happens to the rich man. He is in Hades — in Hebrew tradition, the place of the dead — and he’s in torment. “The rich man, once healthy and wealthy and enjoying nothing but the finest in life, now suffers the worst torment in death, his last two requests denied” (David E. Garland).

What Jesus shows us here is this: it’s okay to have financial dreams, but make sure that your dreams will make you rich in eternity. If you’re not careful, you will enjoy all that this world has to offer. You may even reach the top 1% in terms of wealth, and yet be completely bankrupt in the next life.

If you believe that this life is all that there is, then go crazy. Accumulate all the wealth you can. Buy the nicest house or condo. Live the dream. But if you believe what Jesus says here, then go crazy in a different way. Accumulate all the wealth you can in the next life. Live not for here and now, but for eternity. Build your portfolio so that you’re truly rich, not in this life, but in the next. Live the dream of being rich with God. Nobody put it better than Jesus:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)

A couple of years ago I came across this quote by Randy Alcorn, and it’s stuck with me ever since:

Financial planners tell us, “When it comes to your money, don’t think just three months or three years ahead. Think thirty years ahead.” Christ, the ultimate investment counsellor, takes it further. He says, “Don’t ask how your investment will be paying off in just thirty years. Ask how it will be paying off in thirty million years.”

If you get this — really get it — then it changes everything. Whatever you treasure now, you’ll treasure forever. If you treasure money and wealth and status, then you will get that for eternity, but it won’t be worth anything in eternity. If you treasure God, you’ll get that both now, and for eternity, and it’s worth anything. Be careful what you want, because you’ll get it — but worldly wealth won’t be worth anything in the next life at all.

Second lesson: Choose your identity carefully.

I mentioned something before: this parable is unusual because Lazarus is given a name. There’s no other parable in which this happens. In every other parable Jesus ever tells, nobody has a proper name. It’s always a sower, a shepherd, a man, a widow, a Samaritan, or something. There’s never anyone with a proper name. But here, one character is given a proper name. It has to be significant. Jesus does this for a reason.

What’s the significance? Lazarus has a name that means “God is my help.” It was a name that had a rich history in the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s a good name, one that you’d want for your son if you lived back then. But what else does this name mean? It means that “though unrecognized by people, the person and fate of Lazarus is known by God” (Darrell Bock).

On the other hand, the rich man is given no identity other than his riches. Who is he? He has no real identity except his riches, and now his riches are gone. They’re no good to him anymore. Tim Keller puts it well:

The reason the rich man doesn’t have a name is that’s all he is. He’s a rich man, or he’s nothing. He has built his life on his wealth so that if his wealth is gone, there’s no one there…

Lazarus had nothing, and he had a self; he had a name. Lazarus went through the most incredible change of all, death, which is a very big change, and he was still him. Interesting. The rich man is different. Why? He doesn’t have a name….

That’s the reason why Jesus says if you build a self on anything but God, you don’t really have a self; you don’t have something that’s there no matter what. There’s not a you that’s there, a sustained core identity, a sustained core self that’s there no matter what the situation, no matter what the circumstances; you’re gone. If you build your life on anything but God, you don’t really have a name. You’re just a rich man.

There’s a problem especially with money. Randy Alcorn says:

Seeking fulfillment in money, land, houses, cars, clothes, boats, campers, hot tubs, world travel, and cruises has left us bound and gagged by materialism—and like drug addicts, we pathetically think that our only hope lies in getting more of the same.

When you build your identity on money, then it’s a never-ending quest to get more money. But the more you get, the more you want. It’s never enough. There’s a big danger in basing your identity on money.

Let me ask you: Who are you? You are you really? There’s a danger if you define yourself by your career, your accomplishments, your wealth, your reputation, or your family. If any of those are taken away, then you will lose your identity. There is only one identity that will last. You may be a lot of things in this life, but the one think that really matters is that God knows you, and that you are in relationship with God. That’s the only identity that truly matters.

There’s one final lesson that Jesus has for us.

Third lesson: If you have money, be generous.

If you are here today, you are probably rich. You don’t feel rich, but you are. If you are anywhere near the average income in Toronto — which isn’t that high by Liberty Village standards — then you are in the top 1% of the richest people in the world by income. You may not have the wealth that the rich man in this story did, but you and I are rich.

When the rich man enters eternity, it becomes clear that he knew who Lazarus was. He calls him by name. His attitude hasn’t changed, either. He still acts entitled. He wants Lazarus to run errands for him, coming to bring him water. He doesn’t get it. He wasn’t generous to the poor in this life, and his attitude still doesn’t change in the world to come.

He’s suffering. He suffers so much that he wants Lazarus to go back and warn his brothers. But Jesus says that it won’t do any good. They have the Scriptures; if they won’t believe the Scriptures, then they won’t believe someone who comes back from the dead either.

What’s interesting in this passage is that Jesus ties the way they live to their spiritual condition. He’s saying that there’s a direct correlation between self-absorbed, self-indulgent people, and those who lack any spiritual life. If you live for yourself, then that will show up in the way you use your money. It’s a good barometer of your spiritual life as well. 1 John 3:17 puts it bluntly: “But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17)

But the opposite is true. When you see what Christ has done for you, then you’re free to be generous with others. If you know how generous Jesus has been with you, by giving his life for you, then you will be generous in giving to others. When Paul was encouraging a church to be generous, he reminded them of the generosity of Jesus. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Here’s what I think Jesus is telling us through this parable: If you ignore the poor now, God will ignore your supposed faith later. So don’t ignore the poor.

A team of researchers in the States has discovered that $30 to $50 billion a year could meet all the essential human needs around the world. “Projects for clean water and sanitation, prenatal and infant/maternal care, basic education, immunizations, and long-term development efforts are among the activities that could help overcome the poverty conditions that now kill and maim so many children and adults.”

That sounds like a lot of money — $30 to $50 billion dollars. But then they calculate that if church members in the United States alone increased their giving to 10% of their income, then there would be more than $65 billion per year for overseas ministries, as well as $15 billion a year for local needs, on top of maintaining current congregational programs and building projects. The problem is that the average evangelical gives only 2-4%. Ron Sider says:

For Christians in the richest nation in history to be giving only 2.43 percent of their income to their churches is not just stinginess, it is biblical disobedience—blatant sin. We have become so seduced by the pervasive consumerism and materialism of our culture that we hardly notice the ghastly disjunction between our incredible wealth and the agonizing poverty in the world. Over the last 40 years, American Christians (as we have grown progressively richer) have given a smaller and smaller percent of our growing income to the ministries of our churches. Such behavior flatly contradicts what the Bible teaches about God, justice, and wealth. We should be giving not 2.4 percent but 10 percent, 15 percent, even 25 to 35 percent or more to kingdom work. Most of us could give 20 percent and not be close to poverty.

Scripture after Scripture tells us to be generous with what we have. This is especially important because we have, relatively speaking, so much. Jonathan Edwards, the famous philosopher and preacher, said, “Where have we any command in the Bible laid down in stronger terms, and in a more peremptory urgent manner, than the command of giving to the poor?”

So these are the challenges for us in this parable:

  • Don’t limit your financial dreams to this life, because if you do, you’ll be poor in the next life.
  • Choose your identity carefully, because the only identity that truly lasts is your identity in Jesus.
  • If you have money, be generous, because a generous heart reveals that you know the generosity of Jesus.
  • If you ignore the poor now, God will ignore your supposed faith later.

We’ve covered a lot today. This is heavy stuff. This isn’t the kind of sermon where you can finish up and say, “Well, I’m glad I have all that figured out.” But I’ll tell you what will help you know if you’re on the right track or not. Craig Blomberg says:

The point, however, is not the percentage of one’s giving but one’s attitude. Does a parable or a sermon like this make you ask yourself, ‘How can I do more?’ or do you start to do a slow boil and get upset with the preacher (or perhaps even with Jesus) for having raised the topic in so pointed a fashion?

This is the real test that will get down to the heart level. If you leave today wondering how you can be more obedient, you’re on the right track. If you leave today feeling defensive and possessive, it’s a sign that Jesus’ message isn’t getting through, and that you’re in serious danger.

Blomberg continues:

He has been phenomenally generous in giving us eternal life, and when he has blessed us with material abundance on top of that, how can we not share generously from it if his Spirit truly dwells in us and guides us?” When we see what Jesus has done for us, why would we build our identity on money rather than on him? Why wouldn’t we be generous with others?


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

God's Party (Luke 14:1-24)

Subject: Who will eat at the party God is throwing?

Complement: The surprising people who respond to his invitation.

Big Idea: God is throwing a party and everyone is invited, but the people who respond aren’t the people we’d expect.

If you ask me what my major was in college, I could tell you truthfully that I majored in awkwardness. In fact, I met my wife at an awkward Halloween party. Ask me for details sometime.

I’m not alone. Many of you have experienced major awkwardness in your lives as well. Some of you still are! Buzzfeed has listed some common awkward social situations, and they’ve even given each situation an awkward score:

  • The person wearing the same clothes as you at a party — 45% awkward
  • The person who traps you for a chat that you don’t want to have — 66% awkward
  • Attempting a handshake, hug, or kiss, and having the other person choose something different — 86% awkward
  • Saying goodbye and then leaving in the same direction — 53% awkward
  • Having to introduce someone when you can’t remember their name — 97% awkward

Everyone can relate to these, right? There’s nothing quite so cringe-inducing as a really awkward situation.

You may have missed it as we read today’s passage, but what we have in front of us is Jesus in the middle of a very awkward situation of his own making. You could legitimately call this story “Jesus the awkward dinner guest” — but the awkwardness is for a purpose.

Let me walk you through the story and look at the layers of awkwardness.

One — Jesus is invited to the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, and they’re watching him carefully. That’s the first level of awkwardness. You know what it’s like when you’re invited into a hostile situation — the Pharisees did not like Jesus — and they are watching you, hoping that you mess up so that they can jump on you.

Two — Then Jesus heals a man who has dropsy, or what we’d call edema today. It’s the accumulation of excess fluids throughout the body. I love how Charlie Boyd captures the awkwardness of this situation:

Folks, may I have your attention for a minute please? Old Waldo here has a real bad back—hurts him worse than a toothache. So if it's okay with you all, I'm just going to plop him up here on the table and do a little healing on him? … Uh, Mrs. Smithenheimer, would you be so kind as to move the roast down there to the other end? Waldo's a pretty big boy, you know. There…up you go Waldo. Just lay back—careful now—don't get your shoelaces in the mashed potatoes.

Jesus heals this man in the middle of the meal and sends him on his way, and does this on the Sabbath, which was another source of tension. This party was getting intense.

Three — But then Jesus makes it even more awkward. He notices how people chose positions of honor, and then gives an extended speech telling off the guests. He tells them off for picking the best spots, and tells them instead to choose the lowest places instead.

Four — When he’s done insulting the guests, he turns his sights on the host. He tells the host to stop inviting those who can reciprocate, and tells him to invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind instead. By now, everyone had been deliberately insulted by Jesus at this party. This was about 96% awkward. But we’re not done yet. There’s one more level of awkwardness to come.

Five — You know how people say things to try to break the awkwardness? Someone at the dinner party tried to do this. I can imagine everyone sitting there in stunned silence. What do you say when Jesus has just ripped everybody apart at the dinner party? He makes a valiant but failed attempt to save the situation. “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” I can almost hear him adding, “Could you please pass the relish?” He’s trying to defuse an awkward situation. It doesn’t work, though. It just sets Jesus off on another story that ramps up the awkwardness even more!

What am I trying to tell you here? As Jesus is about to launch into a story that has important lessons for all of us, we’re meant to sense that Jesus is upending the way we normally think and act. Jesus isn’t a socially insensitive party guest. We’re meant to see that the Kingdom of Heaven is radically different than the way that we operate, so much so that we tend to see it as a little inappropriate, a little bit socially awkward. The way that God operates is so contrary to the way that we think that we tend to see it as weird, even a little bit embarrassing. We don’t know how to react. It was true in Jesus’ day, and it’s true for us today. The Kingdom of God is different from how we think and act, and that includes those of us who are religious people too.

At this critical moment of awkwardness, of the Kingdom clashing with the way we normally think and act, Jesus tells us a parable. It’s important that we look at it. A third of Jesus’ teachings were in the form of parables. The parables give us glimpses into the way that God operates, which is very different from the way that we operate. If we pay attention, these parables will upend the way we normally think and turn our world upside-down.

There are three sets of characters involved in this parable, and each of the parties has something to teach us. So let’s look at the parable that Jesus told at the height of this awkwardness at this dinner party, to see what we learn about God and about ourselves.

God is throwing a lavish party.

The first party we need to look at is found in verses 16 and 17, and this party tells us something about God. Read what Jesus says in verses 16-17:

But he said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ (Luke 14:16-17)

Jesus is responding to the guy who just tried to save an awkward situation by saying, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” and he does so by teaching us something about God. Here’s what he teaches us: God is throwing a party, and he is inviting many. Later on in this story, we’re going to see just how many people are invited to the party that God is throwing.

I don’t know what picture you have in your mind when you think of God. I find that many of us are likely to think of God as stern and serious. But Jesus compares God to a man who is about to throw a lavish party, a banquet with great food and plenty of libations. In fact, Jesus is giving us a glimpse of the party that God will one day throw, to which we’re all invited.

Throughout Scripture, God is pictured as a someone who loves to throw parties, who loves to delight us with good food. God is a party-loving, party-throwing God. It’s pretty stunning. David Gooding says:

The metaphor of feasting, as distinct from merely eating a meal assures us that no true potential appetite, desire, or longing given us by God will prove to have been a deception, but all will be granted their richest and most sublime fulfillment.

That’s God. He’s planning a party, and we’re invited. He won’t just give us enough to sustain us. It’s going to be lavish. A good banquet is more than just good food. A good party fills your belly and fills your soul as well. It satisfies your hungers, including the hunger of your soul. A good party brings joy. God loves to throw parties for his people.

You see this all throughout the Bible. In Deuteronomy 14, God told his people to take 10% of their money and hold a giant party every year to which everyone was invited. “Spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household” (Deuteronomy 14:26). Imagine spending 10% of our gross national product on an annual party. That would be a party! That’s a window into what God’s Kingdom is like.

God continues this theme throughout Scripture. Psalm 23 says:

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
(Psalm 23:5)

Isaiah 25 says:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
(Isaiah 25:6)

Isaiah 55 says:

Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
(Isaiah 55:1)

The first miracle we read about in the Gospel of John is Jesus turning water into wine. That’s no accident. Miracles aren’t just tricks; they are signs that point us to what the Kingdom of God is like. In Jesus’ first miracle, he turned a mediocre party into a great party.

This isn’t an isolated theme. This is such an important theme in Scripture that pastor and author Tim Chester points out that the first act of rebellion against God was one of rebellion. But then he says:

Against this backdrop of food-gone-wrong, God promises a feast. Again and again in the Bible salvation is pictured as a feast with God. When God leads the Israelites out of Egypt, the leaders of the people are invited up to Mount Sinai to eat and drink with God (Exodus 24:9–11). The rescue from slavery in Egypt – the defining act of Israelite identity – is itself commemorated in a meal, the meal of Passover. At the high point of Israelite history, in the reign of Solomon, we are told ‘the people of Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand on the seashore; they ate, they drank and they were happy’ (1 Kings 4:20). Even when things begin to unravel, God promises another meal on a mountain, ‘a feast of rich food for all people’ (Isaiah 25:6–8). On this occasion death itself will be on the menu and God will swallow it up. This is an eternal feast that no one need ever leave. Jesus provides a foretaste of this feast when he feeds the five thousand. Here is a feast which need never end. Indeed there’s more food at the end than there was at the beginning. It’s a pointer to the fulfillment of God’s promise: that one day we will feast forever in his presence. 

This is the first thing we see. God is planning a celebration at the end of the age, and it will be lavish. We are invited. God’s invitation is to a party, and we are all invited. The party God is talking about is not now. It is the Great Banquet that will take place when Jesus returns at the end of the age, and when he sets up his Kingdom on this earth. But we’re supposed to live now like the Kingdom’s come. Our lives should reflect what the Kingdom is like.

So far, so good. We learn an important lesson about God. But there are two other sets of characters in this parable. Let’s look at them. Let’s learn what this parable says about us. It tells us two things.

Not everyone you’d expect to participate in the party will be included.

When you throw a party, what kind of person do you think will show up? I’ve been around a long time now, and I’ve noticed that when teenage girls throw a party, teenage girls show up. When 8-year-old boys throw a party, 8-year-old boys show up. When board-gamers throw a party, really smart people show up.

Who shows up when God throws a party? You would think that it would be the religious people, the preachers, pastors, and church members. But that’s not what happens. Listen to what Jesus says in this story:

And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ (Luke 14:17-20)

Back then, things worked a little differently. It was the custom back then to send out invitations, and then count those who accepted the invitations and prepare a party based on the number who had RSVPed saying, “I’m coming.” So all the people we read about in this passage had said that they were coming. They’ve all been invited to the party, and they’ve all said that they’re coming. But back then a second invitation went out when the party was ready. The servant would go out and tell them, “Hey, the party is ready. Come and join us!” And when that happened, all those who had said they were coming gave the lamest of excuses. We read them, and they sound reasonable, but they really aren’t.

First excuse — If you’ve bought a field, you’ve already inspected it. The trees, the paths, the water levels, the stone walls — you would know about all of that before you bought the property. It’s like saying, “Hey, I just bought some land in Florida, and I need to go check it out.” It’s an obvious lie, and an insult to the party host.

Second excuse — The same with the five yoke of oxen. It’s like saying, “Hey, I’ve just just bought this used car over the phone, and now I’m you going to the used car lot to find out what kind it is, how old it is, and whether or not it will start.” So again, this is an excuse, and it’s an insult.

Third excuse — The last excuse is just as bad, maybe even worse. “I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.” Being newly married really wouldn’t preclude someone from attending a party. Besides, if you were going to get married and didn’t want to come, you wouldn’t have accepted the first invitation.

Craig Blomberg, a leading scholar on the parables, says:

What all three share is an extraordinary lameness. They are meant to strike the hearer as ridiculous and to point out the absurdity of any excuse for rejecting God’s call into his kingdom. At the level of the story the rejections are just barely conceivable.

That’s just the point that Jesus is making. When God throws a party, what kind of lame excuse are you going to come up with that keeps you away? To accept the invitation, and then insult God by prioritizing stuff or people, is absurd. It would be like being offered tickets to the front row of the World Series, or a box seat to the Four Tenors, and saying you could go, but then that day saying, “Oh, man, I’m really sorry, but I need to wash my hair.” A preoccupation with stuff that really doesn’t matter keeps them away from the party, and Jesus is telling us that this is what can happen to us too.

Kent Hughes puts it like this:

Jesus offers the kingdom, a perpetual feast of peace, a feast of help, guidance, friendship, rest, victory over self, control of passions, supremacy over circumstances—a feast of joy, tranquillity, deathlessness, Heaven opened, immeasurable hope—salvation. Yet, people turn their backs on this feast, preferring a visit with their possessions and affections.

What do you think about this? Is it happening with you?

Remember: Jesus tells this story at the dinner table full of religious people. The point is clear. Jesus is telling the religious that they are missing out on God’s party. They are choosing to miss out. Some of the people who go to church regularly, who even lead churches, are missing out on the party.

God is throwing a party and everyone is invited, but the people who respond aren’t the people we’d expect. A lot of those who are invited to the party aren’t going to be there, not because they weren’t invited, but because they excluded themselves. According to Jesus, some of the people we think will be there, won’t be. God has invited us to his place for dinner.

What excuse will you use to get out of it?

So we’ve seen two of the three sets of characters so far: God, who loves to throw parties, and religious people, who are in danger of missing out on the party altogether. There’s one more set of people to look at in this passage, and we learn something important from them.

God is lavish in his invitation to the party, and unexpected people are going to make it in.

Look what the party host does when the invited guests don’t show up:

So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’” (Luke 14:21-24)

The host has invited guests, and he’s been publicly snubbed. His standing in the community has plummeted. So the host does something different. He no longer invites the respectable people of the community, the people who can pay him back. He invites those who would never make anybody’s party list. He invites those who could never pay him back. “In the reign of God, the outcast will no longer be cast out” (David Garland). One commentator says that “this householder will include anyone among his table guests—that is, no one is too sullied, too wretched, to be counted as a friend at table” (Joel Green).

I can picture Jesus looking his guests in the eye when he finishes in verse 24: “For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet” (Luke 14:24). His dinner guests — religious people — are excluding themselves from the party that God is throwing, and are doomed for judgment, but the party is going on, and the most unexpected people are going to attend.

What does all of this mean? God is throwing a party and everyone is invited, but the people who respond aren’t the people we’d expect.

“Hear me,” Jesus says, “God isn’t like you think he is. God loves parties, and he loves it when everyone’s invited. Right now the Messiah, God’s servant, is sitting right in front of you, sending out the Father’s second invitation. Come! The party is about to begin.”

If we were having this dinner with Jesus, here’s what I think he would say to us.

First — Don’t be one of those who respond to the first invitation and then miss out on the party. What in your life is keeping you from God’s invitation? What excuses are you giving God for why you’re not available? What a tragedy to be invited to the party that God is throwing and to miss out for no reason. Jesus tells us that some people we think will be at the Great Banquet won’t be. Don’t be one of those people.

Second — I think Jesus is telling us to be a reflection of his Kingdom. When people come in here for the first time, I want them to be able to say, “I felt welcome!” no matter who they are. I want them to get a sense that we are a contagious community of grace, a safe place for messy people, a little bit of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Let’s invite people. Let’s go out of our way to make them feel welcome when they show up. This parable is about the radical and lavish hospitality of God, and I pray that this church will also be known for its radical and lavish hospitality to anyone. Think of the last person you would ever expect to attend God’s party. Think about whatever label you’d slap on them. They’re invited too, so go and invite them.

Third — You’re on the guest list. No matter what you’ve done, or what you haven't done, no matter how many times you have failed and messed up, no matter what label someone has slapped on you, you are invited to God’s party. “Grace means there’s no such thing as ‘unworthy.’ Grace means you’re invited to the party no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done” (Charlie Boyd). Jesus died for your sins so that you could be forgiven, and there’s an invitation with your name on it. 

Jesus wants you to know that all of you are invited, not because you deserve it, but because God loves you, and has graciously opened up his home to you. But the invitation is not just for you. It’s for anyone — anyone! — who wants to come, and who can’t repay.

Won’t you come?


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

How Can We Know What Happens After We Die?

Big Idea: How do we know what happens when we die? By listening to someone who’s come back from death.

As we’ve gone through this series, both Nathan and I have wondered at times how we got stuck with some of the topics. Two weeks ago I spoke on hell. Today I speak on death. Nathan is the guy who speaks on sex, and I’m the guy who speaks on death and hell. Go figure!

But tonight’s topic is an important one. Like many of us, I’ve had to wrestle with the question of death. A few weeks ago, on June 23, my half-brother passed away. That makes you confront again the question of what happens when we die.

I remember one cold February up in Stouffville when I stood beside the grave of a friend and led the committal service as her pastor. I remember having a distinct thought as I waited for everyone to get ready: Either I am about to share the best news possible about death, or I’m about to perpetrate one of the worst lies possible on some of the most vulnerable people. It’s as simple as that. Either Christianity has something valuable to say on death, or it’s the worst kind of lie. There’s really no in between.

Mike Wittmer, who’s written my favorite book on death — did you know I had a favorite book on death? — says this: “If death was no big deal, then there would be no reason to be a Christian.” The reason that Christianity packs such a punch is that it deals with death, which is in the end our last enemy, and one that we will all face.

So what happens when we die? Is Christianity true? How can we know what to believe? This is important, because we’re either going to hear reliable information today that changes everything, or Christianity simply isn’t worth our time.

And to answer this question, we first have to acknowledge how awkward it is to talk about death. It’s one of the reasons that this sermon is awkward. We don’t like to think about death. We spend a lot of our lives without really thinking about death. At funeral homes, many pay their respects and get as far away from the coffin as possible. We embalm to conceal the appearance of death. We use euphemisms to avoid acknowledging the reality of death. We no longer have graveyards, but cemeteries and memorial parks. We avoid making wills because we don’t want to think about our own death. You certainly don’t bring the subject of death up at a dinner party. But it’s important to break through the discomfort and talk about it, because we can’t avoid it no matter how hard we try.

Mike Wittmer says:

You are going to die. Take a moment to let that sink in. You are going to die. One morning the sun will rise and you won’t see it. Birds will greet the dawn and you won’t hear them. Friends and family will gather to celebrate your life, and after you’re buried they’ll return to the church for ham and scalloped potatoes. Soon your job and favorite chair and spot on the team will be filled by someone else. The rest of the world may pause to remember— it will give you a moment of silence if you were rich or well known— but then it will carry on as it did before you arrived. “There is no remembrance of men of old,” observed Solomon, “and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow” (Ecclesiastes 1: 11).

You are going to die. What a crushing, desperate thought. But unless you swallow hard and embrace it, you are not prepared to live.

It’s important, then, to sidestep the discomfort of death and think about it, because it’s inevitable, and unless we face its reality, we really aren’t prepared to live.

So what happens when we die? There are really only three theories. One is extinction: that we cease to exist. Another is that we come back in some other form, as in reincarnation. The third and final view is that we continue to exist as ourselves. Which one is true?

To answer this question, people try to look at things like past life memories and anecdotal evidence. There’s a lot of talk about near death experiences, in which someone claims to have died, gone to heaven, and returned. I don’t find those helpful, though. There’s no way to judge the validity of those experiences. Earlier this year a publisher pulled the book The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, a New York Times bestseller, after he recanted his story. “I did not die. I did not go to Heaven,” he said. “I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention.”

So how do we get any reliable information? I believe that answer is Jesus. Jesus provides reliable information on death, because of who he is — God become man — and because he actually conquered death. When you want to find out what somewhere is like, ask someone who’s been there. And when you want to find out what death is like, ask the person who’s not only been there, but has conquered it, who has dragged death to the grave.

So let’s consider this afternoon: What did Jesus teach us about death? He said a lot, but I want to summarize it today by saying that Jesus taught three things: Death is an enemy. Death is not the end. And death will die.

First: death is an enemy.

You hear a lot of things about death. In The Lion King, Simba’s father says, “You see, it’s all part of the circle of life. There’s nothing unusual about death. It’s just the next step of growth. It’s just the next stage of life.” Not true! Others say that death is sleep, or going into a harbor. In 1910, King Edward VII of England caught a cold,  developed bronchitis, then pneumonia, and was dead within a week. His funeral was preached by Henry Scott-Holland, the canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral, who uttered these words:

Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room … Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute unbroken continuity. What is death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am waiting for you for an interval. Somewhere very near. Just around the corner. All is well. Nothing is past; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

The problem with these words? They are a denial of the severity of death. Death is a huge deal. It is wrong. In John 11, Jesus stood beside the grave of his friend, and he read these powerful words:

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. (John 11:33-35)

When it says that Jesus was deeply moved and troubled, these words are pretty powerful. It means that Jesus experienced anger, outrage, emotional indignation. What got Jesus so worked up? Was he just grieving for a friend? New Testament scholar D.A. Carson says: “His inward reaction was anger or outrage or indignation,” and then he suggests that his anger was a mix of anger “with the sin, sickness and death in this fallen world that wreaks so much havoc and generates so much sorrow,” and the unbelief of those around him who treated death as if there is no resurrection. In other words, Jesus didn’t see death as neutral, or just part of life. Jesus was indignant at death.

Let’s get rid of the idea that death is just part of life, or it’s a good thing. Death is unnatural. In 1 Corinthians, Paul says, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). It’s an enemy. Theologian Millard Erickson says:

Death, then, is not something natural to humans. It is something foreign and hostile. Paul pictures it as an enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26). And there is little doubt that God himself sees death as an evil and a frustration of his original plan.

Death is not good. Mike Wittmer once attended the funeral of an infant who had died in a tragic accident. The pastor offered the usual words of comfort: “We can rejoice, for this child is better off than we are. He isn’t really dead. He is more alive than he’s ever been, safe in the arms of Jesus.” Although there’s truth in those words, they don’t reflect the ugliness of death, or acknowledge that something horrible has happened. The grieving father stood up, and…

with quivering voice declared that no parent should ever have to bury their child. He pointed out that every death is ultimately the result of sin, and that when he held his dead son in the hospital, he thought he saw the face of sin. The mask of sin had been ripped away and he saw sin for what it is, the enemy that will one day steal from us everything and everyone we have ever loved. The father didn’t try to make us believe that all was well, but from the depths of despair he raised a fist of defiance. “People tell me that someday I will make peace with Jack’s death,” he said. “I will never be at peace with death. Scripture tells me that one day I will be at peace, but only when death is no more. I will not be at peace until I see my son again.”

That is the Christian view of death.

Death is not natural. It’s an enemy. That’s the first thing that Jesus teaches us.

Second, death is not the end.

The debate about what happens after we die is not a new one. The Sadducees, one of the major groups constituting Palestinian Judaism, did not believe that the soul continued to exist after death, or that people suffered punishments or received rewards after they died. They believed that the soul and the body perished at death. We don’t have to wonder what Jesus thought of this, because he told us. When they tried to trap Jesus by asking him a question about the resurrection, trying to trip him up, Jesus scolded them: “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matthew 22:29). He then began to teach about the resurrection.

What did Jesus teach? He taught that when the body died, the soul did not. “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell,” he said (Matthew 10:28). He told a story, a parable, in Luke 16 about a rich man who died, as well as Lazarus, a beggar. Jesus described both of them as continuing to exist, one in heaven, and one in Hades, a place of torment. When he was dying on the cross, he told a criminal who was being crucified beside him: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Jesus repeatedly spoke about the afterlife. Most clearly, he said this to Martha, the brother of Lazarus, at his tomb:

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:23-26)

Jesus says here that he will raise the dead on the last day. The believer, even though he or she dies, will nevertheless come to life at the resurrection. In one sense, even though they die, they in some sense never die.

The New Testament develops all of this. You can summarize its teachings like this: upon death, believers go immediately to a place and condition of blessedness in God’s presence, and unbelievers enter an experience of misery, torment, and punishment. The body dies and disintegrates, but the soul lives on. But that’s not even the end. That’s just our souls. In John 5, Jesus said:

Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. (John 5:28-29)

Christ will raise our bodies from the dead when he returns, he says. Wayne Grudem explains what it will be like:

“Imperishable” means that they will not wear out or grow old or ever be subject to any kind of sickness or disease. They will be completely healthy and strong forever. Moreover, since the gradual process of aging is part of the process by which our bodies now are subject to “corruption,” it is appropriate to think that our resurrection bodies will have no sign of aging, but will have the characteristics of youthful but mature manhood or womanhood forever. There will be no evidence of disease or injury, for all will be made perfect. Our resurrection bodies will show the fulfillment of God’s perfect wisdom in creating us as human beings who are the pinnacle of his creation and the appropriate bearers of his likeness and image. In these resurrection bodies we will clearly see humanity as God intended it to be.

How do we know what happens when we die? Listen to Jesus. Jesus was not ambiguous. When the body dies, the soul continues to live. The body, too, will be raised to life again one day. How do we know what happens after death? Jesus told us.

There’s one more thing we learn from Jesus on what happens after we die.

Third, death will die.

This is the best news of all. Not only does Jesus promise resurrection, but he also promises to kill death. Death will die. The evidence for this is his own resurrection. I love how the spoken word artist Propaganda puts it:

His righteousness, His death, functions as Payment

Yes. Payment

Wrote a check with his life but at the resurrection we all cheered cause that means the check cleared

When Jesus rose from the dead, it showed us that he had triumphed over death. Death is defeated. Through death he destroyed “the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). One preacher puts it this way: “The Christian teaching is the death of death in the death of Christ, the shaking of shaking in the shaking of Christ, the demise of demise in the death of Christ, the destruction of destruction in the destruction of Christ” (Tim Keller).

The poet George Herbert said, “Death used to be an executioner, but the gospel has made him just a gardener.”

This is the best news of all. Jesus “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). I heard of someone who attended the funeral of a child in Chicago in which the pastor shocked the mourners by glancing down at the coffin and interrupting his eulogy with the sudden exclamation, “Damn you, death!” Catching himself, he quickly added, “Not God— it's death I'm damning. And God, too, has promised to damn it.” That’s exactly what is happening as a result of the cross. Death is being damned, and death will die.

How do we know what happens when we die? By listening to someone who’s come back from death. And that person tells us that death is an enemy, that death is not the end, and that death will die. Because Jesus lives, all those who trust in him will live too.

I can’t think of a better way to close this sermon than to close with the last paragraph of Mike Wittmer’s book on death. I told you it was good. Listen to what he says:

You are going to die. Take a moment to let that sink in. You are going to die. Death is the final enemy you will ever face, and Satan has saved his largest scare for last. But fear is no match for faith. Do you believe that Jesus swam the sea of death, scattered “the king of terrors” (Job 18: 14), and has now returned for you? Then climb on His back, and He will carry you. Here comes the fight of your life. Prepare to win.

Father, thank you for showing us what happens when we die. I pray that every one of us would realize that we will die, and then climb on his back, because he will carry us. I pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

How Can A Loving God Send People to Hell?

Big Idea: Why should be believe in hell? Understand that the Bible teaches it, deals with our objections, and calls us to respond.

We’re in a series on the difficult questions that people ask about Christianity, and today we’re at one of the toughest. Today’s question: How could a loving God send people to hell? It’s a great question, and it’s one that’s even being asked by Christians. Francis Chan, a pastor and author, wrote a book on hell and began by confessing: “Part of me doesn’t want to believe in hell.” Around the same time, another pastor came out and implied that he actually doesn’t believe in hell. I spoke to someone last year who told me that if Christianity is true, then it’s a tragedy, because Christianity teaches hell. Some people think that it reflects a primitive view of God who must be appeased by pain and suffering. It is, I think, one of Christianity’s most offensive doctrines.

I agree with C.S. Lewis, who said of the doctrine of hell, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power.”

So we need to look at this question: how can a good and loving God send people to hell? Before we go on, I have to admit that I approach this topic with some trepidation. I don’t like talking about this topic. Ravi Zacharias, a Christian apologist, said:

[Hell] is sobering. When I was asked by Dr. Billy Graham to deal on this theme, I was not sure I was qualified. It is one of the most solemn truths in all of the Word of God. As I prayed and studied, I was reminded of what Robert W. Dale once said: "The only man I can listen to preaching on hell is D. L. Moody, because I have never heard him talk of it without breaking down and weeping."

I am not sure I’m qualified to teach on this topic. It is a solemn one. It is an emotional one. But we have to face the questions honestly, including the difficult ones. So let’s do that as simply as possible. Here’s what I want to cover with you today:

  • First, that the Bible clearly teaches that hell is real.
  • Second, that the Bible deals with our intellectual challenges to hell.
  • Third, that the Bible calls us to respond to its clear teaching on hell.

Let’s look at the first point as we consider this difficult question:

First, the Bible clearly teaches that hell is real.

I’ve already mentioned Francis Chan. In his book on hell, he wrote this:

Part of me doesn’t want to believe in hell. And I’ll admit that I have a tendency to read into Scripture what I want to find—maybe you do too. Knowing this, I’ve spent many hours fasting and praying that God would prevent my desires from twisting Scripture to gratify my personal preferences. And I encourage you to do the same. Don’t believe something just because you want to, and don’t embrace an idea just because you’ve always believed it. Believe what is biblical. Test all your assumptions against the precious words God gave us in the Bible.

Good advice. If we had a sermon on what we wanted to believe, it would be a very short sermon. There’s probably nobody here who enjoys the thought of hell. If you do, then maybe there are other problems! Hell is terrifying and upsetting. I can certainly see why people struggle over the idea of hell, and try to find a way to believe that it’s not true.

The main problem is that we’re not at liberty to decide whether hell exists based on whether we like it or not. We need to look at what the Bible teaches, and according to Scripture, hell is real. Jesus himself is clear about hell. Jesus is the embodiment of love, and yet he mentions it again and again. Hell is mentioned twelve times in the gospels, and that’s not including the references to “eternal punishment,” “the fiery furnace,” and the place where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus talked about the day of judgment (Matthew 10:15). He said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36). He spoke clearly and often about judgment and hell, including these passages:

[Explaining a parable] The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. (Matthew 13:39-43)

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. (Matthew 25:31-32)

It’s not just Jesus, either. Paul never used the word hell, but he spoke of the fate of the wicked more than any other New Testament writer, saying that the wicked would perish and be destroyed when they face the wrath of God. One author says, “Paul made reference to the fate of the wicked more times in his letters than he mentioned God’s forgiveness, mercy, or heaven combined” (Francis Chan). One of Paul’s clearest passages is when he describes:

…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, (2 Thessalonians 1:5-9)

It’s not just Jesus and Paul. It’s also Peter, Jude, John, and the writer to the Hebrews. Every New Testament author makes reference to judgment. Whatever you and I think about hell, there is no question that the Bible teaches about it over and over again. There have been attempts to soften the teaching, but the teaching is so clear that it’s difficult to do so. Again, Francis Chan says:

I would love to think, as some have suggested, that the Bible doesn’t actually say a whole lot about hell. I would love to stare at my friend’s face when he asked that question we all fear— “Do you think I’m going to hell?”—and say “No! There is no such place! Jesus loves you and wants to heal your pain and turn your sorrows into gladness!”

But the New Testament writers didn’t have the same allergic reaction to hell as I do. Perhaps they had a view of God that is much bigger than mine. A view of God that takes Him at His word and doesn’t try to make Him fit our own moral standards and human sentimentality. A view of God that believes what He says, even when it doesn’t make perfect sense to us.

So the Bible is pretty consistent and clear in what it says. But what about our objections to hell? As we think about this, we’re going to see:

Second, the Bible deals with our intellectual challenges to hell.

In my experience, most people don’t really dispute that the Bible teaches that hell is real. The evidence is pretty overwhelming. But we don’t like it. We have our objections to the idea of hell. Specifically, there are three common objections: hell is an overreaction; hell is unloving; and hell is unfair. Let’s look at each of these.

The first objection is that hell is an overreaction. Why can’t God simply forgive? How can any sin deserve everlasting destruction? If God is just, how can he punish like this? The problem with this view is that it underestimates the severity of sin and the holiness of God. As someone put it:

Hell only seems harsh when we don’t see how infinitely serious it is to rebel against God. And it only seems harsh when we don’t realize how infinitely holy God is; in other words, how entirely perfect, how completely true, how utterly good and how profoundly beautiful God is. He is infinitely worthy of our love; and we love anyone, anything, but him. (If You Could Ask God One Question)

Sin is far more serious than we realize. We get glimpses of this as we see the consequences of sin — as we watch relationships destroyed, lives taken, and bystanders devastated. We know this when we hear about a teenager killed for a cell phone, an employee killed at an espresso bar, or a marriage broken apart by infidelity. We see the severity of sin, and we’re nowhere as holy as God. Theologian Wayne Grudem explains why it’s an even bigger deal to God than it is to us:

We realize from experience that sin is harmful to our lives, that it brings pain and destructive consequences to us and to others affected by it. But to define sin as failure to conform to the moral law of God, is to say that sin is more than simply painful and destructive—it is also wrong in the deepest sense of the word. In a universe created by God, sin ought not to be. Sin is directly opposite to all that is good in the character of God, and just as God necessarily and eternally delights in himself and in all that he is, so God necessarily and eternally hates sin. It is, in essence, the contradiction of the excellence of his moral character. It contradicts his holiness, and he must hate it.

You see, our sin is ultimately an affront to God, and therefore a very big deal. A middle school pastor once explained how this works. Suppose a middle school student punches another student in class. What happens? The student is given a detention. But suppose during the detention, this boy punches the teacher. What happens? The student gets suspended from school. Suppose on the way home, the same boy punches a policeman on the nose. What happens? He finds himself in jail. Suppose some years later, the very same boy is in a crowd waiting to see the President of the United States. As the President passes by, the boy lunges forward to punch the President. What happens? He is shot dead by the secret service. In every case the crime is precisely the same, but the severity of the crime is measured by the one against whom it is committed. What comes from sinning against God? Answer: everlasting destruction. Hell is not an overreaction. Hell makes perfect sense when we realize how infinitely serious it is to rebel against a perfectly holy God. The Psalmist writes:

For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
evil may not dwell with you.
The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;
you hate all evildoers.
You destroy those who speak lies;
the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.
(Psalm 5:4-6)

The second objection is that hell is unloving. How could a loving God send people to hell? Here we have to realize that the “statement – ‘God is love’ – doesn’t mean that God loves everything” (If You Could Ask God One Question) For instance: God doesn’t love cruelty. He doesn’t love injustice or murder. He doesn’t love lying. He hates these things. It would be unloving for God to love sex trafficking or genocide. God’s judgment of evil isn’t incompatible with his love; it is an expression of his love. Becky Pippert puts it this way:

Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it…. Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference…. God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer… which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being. (Hope Has Its Reasons)

Miroslav Volf, a Christian theologian from Croatia, used to reject the concept of God's wrath. He thought that the idea of an angry God was barbaric, completely unworthy of a God of love. But then his country experienced a brutal war. People committed terrible atrocities against their neighbors and countrymen. The following reflections, from Volf's book Free of Charge, show that we actually need God's wrath:

My last resistance to the idea of God's wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry.

Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators' basic goodness? Wasn't God fiercely angry with them?

Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God's wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn't wrathful at the sight of the world's evil. God isn't wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.

There’s a danger in overemphasizing the love of God at the expense of his other attributes. God is love, but he is also holy and just. These attributes don’t contradict each other; they are part of the same being. Don’t domesticate God or sentimentalize him. Timothy Stoner writes:

What we need to make clear with our bumper stickers and culture-current writings is that the love that wins is a holy love. The love that won on the cross and wins the world is a love that is driven, determined, and defined by holiness. It is a love that flows out of the heart of a God who is transcendent, majestic, infinite in righteousness, who loves justice as much as He does mercy; who hates wickedness as much as He loves goodness; who blazes with a fiery, passionate love for Himself above all things. He is Creator, Sustainer, Beginning and End. He is robed in a splendor and eternal purity that

He’s that kind of God. It’s why God could say of himself:

The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty… (Exodus 34:6-7)

One of the biggest ways that hell reveals the love of God is that it helps us understand what Jesus offers us. Now you know how much God desires you. “If you don’t believe in hell, you’ll never know what Jesus did for you. If you don’t believe in hell, you have a sentimental God at best” (Tim Keller). It’s only when you understand hell that you understand the love of God as well: that Jesus was willing to bear your sins, to go to the cross, to save you from what you deserve. It’s only when we see hell that we see the magnitude of the cross. “it is only because of the doctrine of judgment and hell that Jesus’ proclamation of grace and love are so brilliant and astounding” (Keller).

So hell is not an overreaction once we see the seriousness of sin and the holiness of God. And it’s not unloving; in fact, it’s part of his nature. It’s an expression of the God who “burns—and yes, smokes in the ferocity of His infinite, holy love” (Stoner). The question shouldn’t be if a loving God would send people to hell; it should be how a loving and just God could allow any sinful person into heaven.

There’s one more objection, and it’s that hell is unfair. Even if hell isn’t an overreaction, and even if hell isn’t unloving, isn’t it unfair that people suffer for eternity for the wrong that they have done? The picture is of people trapped in hell for eternity trying to get out, and God ignoring their cries. But that’s not the picture that the Bible presents at all. Jesus told a parable, a story, about a rich man in hell in Luke 16. Commenting on this story, New Testament scholar D.A. Carson notes that as far as he could see, in Scripture “there is no hint anywhere that people in hell genuinely repent.” In other words, there is nobody in hell trying to get out. Carson says:

Hell is not filled with people who are deeply sorry for their sins. It is filled with people who for all eternity still shake their puny fist in the face of God almighty in an endless existence of evil, and corruption, and shame, and the wrath of God.

C.S. Lewis challenges us in our objections to hell. “In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do?’ To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start …? But he has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what he does.”

In the end, most of our objections to hell are not based on any intellectual contradictions, but rather our distaste for the idea of hell. I get that. Hell is not something that we enjoy thinking about. But distaste does not mean that something is untrue. There are plenty of things that I find distasteful, that are nevertheless true. Hell is a hard reality, but it is not an overreaction. It is not unloving. It is not unfair. It’s just hard.

There’s one more thing we need to see today. We’ve seen that the Bible teaches hell, and that the Bible deals with the intellectual challenges that we have to hell. But there’s one more thing we need to see, and it’s perhaps the most important:

Third, that the Bible calls us to respond to its clear teaching on hell.

We are not talking today about an abstract concept, or an interesting debate topic. We are talking about something that the Bible takes seriously, and we’re asked to take it seriously as well. The reason that Jesus spoke so often about hell is that he wanted to warn us. He is warning people of a clear and present danger. He speaks clearly and bluntly, but it’s because he wants us to hear him. When the danger is a life or death one, that’s what we do. And it’s what Jesus does when he speaks on this topic. He wants us to understand, and he wants us to respond.

British evangelist Rico Tice says, "Loving people means warning people." He illustrates with the following personal story:

I was once in Australia visiting a friend. He took me to a beach on Botany Bay, so I decided I had to go for a swim. I was just taking off my shirt when he said: "What are you doing." I said: "I'm going for a swim." He said: "What about those signs?" And he pointed me to some signs I'd not really noticed— Danger: Sharks! With all the confidence of an Englishman abroad, I said: "Don't be ridiculous— I'll be fine." He said: "Listen mate, 200 Australians have died in shark attacks— you've got to decide whether those shark signs are there to save you or to ruin your fun. You're of age—you decide." I decided not to go for a swim.

[Many of the words about hell found in the Bible] are all straight from Jesus' lips. And they're a loving warning to us. The reason Jesus talked about hell is because he does not want people to go there. The reason Jesus died was so that people wouldn't have to go there. The only way to get to hell is to trample over the cross of Jesus. That is a great motivator for our evangelism.

There are actually three ways that we can apply the Bible’s teaching on hell.

First, we can let go of our need for revenge. Because there is a hell, we can know that the universe is just, that God keeps accurate records, and that he will render just judgment. A friend of mine says, “A soft view of hell makes hard people” (Chris Brauns). This is what helps us switch from being angry at our enemies, to actually praying for them. I mentioned Miroslav Volf earlier. After witnessing the atrocities in Croatia, he said:

My thesis is that the practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance…My thesis will be unpopular with man in the West…But imagine speaking to people (as I have) whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned, and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit…Your point to them–we should not retaliate? Why not? I say–the only means of prohibiting violence by us is to insist that violence is only legitimate when it comes from God…Violence thrives today, secretly nourished by the belief that God refuses to take the sword…It takes the quiet of a suburb for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence is a result of a God who refuses to judge. In a scorched land–soaked in the blood of the innocent, the idea will invariably die, like other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind…if God were NOT angry at injustice and deception and did NOT make a final end of violence, that God would not be worthy of our worship.

This is amazing. The only way, he says, to not pursue revenge is to trust that there is a God who will judge justly in the end. Paul wrote to slaves who were being mistreated and said, “For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality” (Colossians 3:25). Paul wrote: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19).

Second, we can live our lives with urgency and holiness. The reality of hell and judgment should change how we live. Paul said that “knowing the fear of the Lord” he persuaded others (2 Corinthians 5:11). Peter said, “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness…” (2 Peter 3:11). Francis Chan writes, “We have become dangerously comfortable—believers ooze with wealth and let their addictions to comfort and security numb the radical urgency of the gospel,” he writes. “In light of this truth and for the sake of people’s eternal destiny, our lives and our churches should be—no, they must be!—free from the bondage of sin, full of selfless love that overflows for neighbors, the downcast, and the outsiders among us. In other words, we need to stop explaining away hell and start proclaiming His solution to it.”

Preparing this message reminded me why we’re here as a church. What we do matters. Penn Jillette of Pen and Teller fame is an atheist, but he said this about evangelism:

I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life. … How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? … If I believed beyond the shadow of a doubt that a truck was going to hit you, and you didn’t believe it and that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point at which I tackle you.

Finally, we can run to Jesus and worship him for what he’s done for us. The Bible teaches that everyone will live forever in one of two places: with Jesus on the New Earth, or cut off from God in hell. Scripture says that hell is horrible, a place of eternal punishment, destruction, banishment, and suffering. The Bible uses figures of speech like fire and worms, which are figurative. John Calvin noted that Scripture can only use things from our experience to communicate something we’ve never seen or heard. “So as bad as fire, worms, and gnashing teeth seem, the reality of hell is much worse” (Mike Wittmer).

Most people think they’re not bad enough to deserve hell. But we’re like the drunks who are surprised when we’re pulled over by the police officer. We are all natural-born sinners in rebellion against God. But God has not left us to stumble on our way to hell. He sent his Son Jesus to live without sin, obeying where we did not. He offered his perfect life in our place at the cross. If we confess our sins and put our faith in Christ, then God credits his righteousness to us, and we are received righteous because of his Son. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

In other words: “Jesus went to hell so we don’t have to” (Michael Wittmer).

Respond to this today. Repent and turn to Jesus. It’s the best and most important thing you could ever do.

Earlier on I quoted C.S. Lewis, who said this about the doctrine of hell: “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power.” But here’s the rest of what he said: “But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason.” Dorothy Sayers, another famous Christian, claimed, “We cannot repudiate Hell without altogether repudiating Christ.”

We began by asking how a loving God could send people to hell. If there is no hell, then it cost nothing for God to forgive you. But because there is a God who is both holy and loving, it cost him everything to save you. It shows the extent of the love of God — that God is not just a sentimental being who loves everyone without cost and overlooks sin, but a God who sent his Son to pay the ultimate price, so that he could be both loving and just, and so that we could be forgiven.

Father, this is a hard topic. It should be hard. But it’s an important topic. I pray that we would push through the discomfort and see the clear teaching of Jesus and Scripture on this topic. I pray that it would drive us to live with urgency and holiness, and to run to Christ who experienced hell so that we don’t have to. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

What About Other Religions?

Big Idea: How can Christianity claim to be exclusively true? Because our relationship with God is not based on sincerity, morality, or religion, but on Jesus himself.

It came up at the book club in Liberty Village the other week: “What makes you think that Christianity is better than any other religion?” It’s a great question. There are billions of people on this earth, and many — most — aren’t Christian. Many haven’t even heard of Christianity. And yet Christians claim that Christianity is true, and by extension, that other belief systems aren’t true. How can Christians claim such a thing?

If you’re looking for one of the offensive parts of Christianity, you’ve found it. It seems arrogant to say that Christians are right and everyone else is wrong. It also sounds intolerant. It may even sound dangerous. If you look through history, wars — including religious wars — have been fought by those who think they’re right and that others are wrong.

At the beginning of his book The Reason for God, Tim Keller lists some of the objections that people have to the exclusivity of Christianity:

“How could there be just one true faith?” asked Blair, a twenty-four-year-old woman living in Manhattan. “It’s arrogant to say your religion is superior and try to convert everyone else to it. Surely all the religions are equally good and valid for meeting the needs of their particular followers.”

“Religious exclusivity is not just narrow— it’s dangerous,” added Geoff, a twentysomething British man also living in New York City. “Religion has led to untold strife, division, and conflict. It may be the greatest enemy of peace in the world. If Christians continue to insist that they have ‘the truth’— and if other religions do this as well— the world will never know peace.”

Exclusivity is offensive. So we need to answer the question I was asked honestly: “What makes you think that Christianity is better than any other religion?” Or, to put it differently, How can Christianity claim to be exclusively true?

To answer this question, I want to look at a fascinating encounter that Jesus had with a religious man. We just read about it from John 3. As we look at this question, I want to look at three things we notice in this passage: how we normally think we’re in, why this view is wrong, and what Jesus offers instead. Let’s begin by looking first at how we normally think we’re in with God.

How We Normally Think We're In with God

The question of which religion is best really comes down to a set of assumptions. In my observation, here are the most common things I hear when we talk about faith and what religion is best:

  • All religions are basically the same.
  • Each religion sees part of the truth, but no religion can see the whole truth.
  • In the end, you can’t know what’s right and what’s wrong. You can only take your best guess.
  • What really counts is your sincerity and your morals.

In other words, what really counts is trying your best. As long as you try your best, and you’re not an idiot about it — you don’t lead an immoral life, and you aren’t an arrogant idiot towards people of other faiths — you’re golden. The most important thing is to try your best, and to live tolerantly with others who are also trying their best as well.

If you want to push someone a little, you can ask, “Really? You think that all religions are the same? You think that Branch Davidians or religions that require child sacrifice are equally right?” And then most people would say no, that they mean that all major world religions — Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism — are basically the same, or at least all valid. The problem is that it’s hard to make this argument when you look at the facts. An introductory comparative religions class, or even a five-minute Google search, will cure you of that belief. They’re not only different, but they contradict each other. Hindus acknowledge multitudes of gods and goddesses. Buddhists say there is no deity. Christians believe Jesus is a human being and is also God, while Muslims say the notion of any human man being worshiped as God is blasphemous. Even Buddhism, which many think is much more open, flexible, and tolerant than Christianity, has its hard edges of exclusionary doctrines and beliefs. When the Dalai Lama was asked whether only the Buddha can provide "the ultimate source of refuge," he replied:

Here, you see, it is necessary to examine what is meant by liberation or salvation. Liberation in which "a mind that understands the sphere of reality annihilates all defilements in the sphere of reality" is a state that only Buddhists can accomplish. This kind of moksha or nirvana is only explained in the Buddhist scriptures, and is achieved only through Buddhist practice.

The view that all religions are basically the same is meant to be inclusive, but ends up being condescending to people of all faiths. It’s just as condescending as telling a dedicated NDP member that deep down, his beliefs are just the same as Stephen Harper’s beliefs. That’s not inclusive, that’s just rude and it completely ignores the facts. Any reasonable person would have to conclude that there are actually significant differences between the major world religions when you look at them honestly.

So the normal way of thinking that all religions are the same just doesn’t work. Once we acknowledge that there are real differences, we’re left with either thinking that the differences matter, or that they don’t. The view that the differences don’t matter is one that I’m guessing most people hold. It’s the view that all religions, despite their differences, are equally valid paths to God. This is the view that existed when most of the Bible was written. Certainly it’s the view that was around when Jesus was alive. The Romans in Jesus’ day had all kinds of time for religious beliefs. The only religious belief they couldn’t stand is the belief that one view is right and that the others are wrong. When the early Christians refused to worship other gods and take part in sacrifices, that caused major problems.

Before we look at the problem with this view, I want to pause to point out that the view that all views are valid is itself a religious view. It’s actually a truth claim that’s as exclusive and dogmatic as any truth claim Christianity makes. In other words, if you argue that all paths to God are valid, then you are claiming that your view of faith is valid, and that all opposing views are false. It doesn’t solve the problem of competing belief systems; it simply adds another one. It’s saying that your Enlightenment Western individualistic faith assumptions about human nature and religion are privileged over other views, and even that you have a right to impose these views on others. Tim Keller makes a really good point when he says:

Everybody has a take on spiritual reality which is based on a set of religious assumptions, based on faith. Everybody thinks their take on spiritual reality is better, and other people should adopt it, and the world would be a better place. Therefore, everybody has a set of exclusive beliefs. Everybody has a set of exclusive beliefs!…Don’t say, “Oh, Christians, you have exclusive beliefs, but I don’t.” You don’t know yourself. You may not think you do, but you do. Everybody has exclusive beliefs. Therefore, the real question is which set of exclusive beliefs produces the most peace-loving, reconciling, inclusive behavior. That’s what you want to know.

So there we have it. There’s no escaping the fact that everyone claims to have the truth. Christians do, and so do Western Enlightenment individuals who claim that all paths are equally valid, that all paths lead to God. The real question is which claim is right. So what I want to do is to look at the story at John 3, which is going to tell us a couple of things. It’s going to tell us the problem with the view that all paths lead to God. It’s also going to show us a better way, one that is going to be challenging for everyone here, regardless of whether you are a Christian or not.

What Jesus Thinks of Our Way to God

John 3 is a fascinating look at our attempts to find a path to God. In John 3, we meet a good test case for the theory that all paths lead to God. The guy we meet is remarkable. He’s Nicodemus, and he’s introduced as a ruler of the Jews and a teacher of Israel. He was a Pharisee, someone who was meticulous about obeying God. Sometimes the Pharisees are regarded as the bad guys now, but everyone back then would have seen the Pharisees as one of the good guys So this man is religious. He’s also a distinguished teacher. It’s possible that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of 70 men who had authority over every Jew on earth, and the greatest teacher in Jerusalem at the time. This is a very devout and religious man who is sincere about his faith and known for being a good guy. He’s the perfect case study for the idea that all paths lead to God. If Nicodemus can’t make it in, we’re all in trouble.

In the chapter we have before us, Nicodemus comes to Jesus one night and initiates a conversation. This is, in essence, a collision of a good person who is very sincere and righteous, and Jesus. What happens when a good, moral, upright, religious person meets Jesus? Will Jesus affirm him and encourage him, or will Jesus challenge and confront him?

When Nicodemus approaches Jesus, he addresses Jesus as Rabbi. He’s off to a good start, because he’s showing respect to Jesus. His first words to Jesus are complimentary. For someone who is a leading religious figure in Jerusalem, he’s being very respectful, even deferential, to Jesus. But Jesus cuts him off and gets right to the heart of the matter. Jesus says something that as been misunderstood throughout the years, but something that is crucial if we are going to answer this question. Look at what Jesus says to him:

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)

This is the part that’s caused a lot of problems and misunderstanding. If you ask people what “born again” means, you get the idea that it’s a certain type of Christian. Some claim to be “born again Christians” and if you’re like me, the people you think about who fit that label are the people you invite to a party if you want to shut it down. But that’s not at all what Jesus means by the term.

So what does he mean? What he means is this. Nicodemus has a lot going for him: knowledge, gifts, understanding, position and integrity. He’s the equivalent of a Buddhist bodhisattva, a Catholic Cardinal, or a Protestant Billy Graham. If all roads lead to God, Nicodemus is at the very front of the road. But Jesus says that all of this — his knowledge, his gifts, his standing, his obedience — counts for exactly nothing. You have to admit that Jesus is not discriminatory here. This applies not just to people who identify as Buddhists, Muslims, or Hindus. He applies it to people who identify as Christians as well. We all have the same basic standing: zero.

Jesus says that we need to be born again. What does this mean? To be “born again” means that we receive from God nothing less than a completely new life: a completely transformed, completely forgiven life. Here’s the amazing thing: even a man like Nicodemus needs this. In order for Nicodemus to be accepted by God, God must completely remake him from scratch. Nothing less than than a completely new beginning can put right all that’s wrong with us. Basically, we’re a write-off. Nothing is salvageable. John Calvin put it this way: “By the term born again He means not the amendment of a part but the renewal of the whole nature. Hence it follows that there is nothing in us that is not defective.” There’s nothing in us that hasn’t been corrupted by sin.

When we got married, my mother gave us a clock. It was a beautiful clock with a pendulum. A few years after we got it, the batteries leaked and the clock stopped working. The mechanics of the clock were all corroded by that acid. We took it in to get fixed, and there was nothing they could salvage. The whole insides of that clock had to be replaced. That’s exactly what Jesus is saying. From the outside, we look okay. But inside, corrosion has taken place. We don’t need a minor tweak. We need every part of us that’s been corroded to be changed. We don’t need an upgrade; we need a completely new heart.

This is a little bit depressing, but it’s also encouraging as well. What this means is that we’re all on equal ground. “The most pulled together, accomplished person and the person whose life is the biggest failure come to God as equals” (Tim Keller). Being sincere, moral, and religious doesn’t help. Our relationship with God is not based on sincerity, morality, or religion. It can’t be. We need to be completely remade from the inside out. Christians can’t claim a higher moral standing.

So let’s summarize. All religions aren’t the same. They are contradictory. And, according to Jesus, our relationship with God is not based on sincerity, morality, or religion. You could take the leading followers of any religion, including Christianity, and all of them have the same standing before God: zero — until we’re remade from scratch. This leads us to the last thing I want to look at:

What Jesus Offers

What do we do about this situation? There are pretty much two answers to this question in this passage. I wish we had time to look at it completely. But the answer to these questions is at the core of the good news that I want to give you today. Here are the two things:

First: We can’t do anything about it ourselves. This is the hardest thing to accept, and it’s also what sets Christianity apart from every other religion. It’s inherent in the phrase “born again,” and it’s repeated when Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). We need a new beginning, a new birth that cleanses and renews to our very core. We can’t do this. God has to do it for us. Tim Keller says:

Therefore, everybody, the best and the worst, come equally and need the grace of God. If they’re going to be saved, if they’re going to have a relationship with God, if they’re going to be born again, it has to be God’s grace, God’s intervention, God’s power. You can contribute nothing. That’s what that term means.

Babies do not contribute anything. They don’t bring themselves about. They don’t get born because they’ve planned on it. It all has to do with what the parents have done. It has nothing to do with what they do. Therefore, you are saved by grace. That’s the first key, because understanding salvation by grace and experiencing God’s grace always go together.

I want you to understand this today. Christianity is not about you making yourself a better person. It’s not about getting your act together. The only thing you bring to God is your need, but that’s exactly what God wants from you.

Second: The way that we’re changed is by looking to Jesus. Jesus says something strange in verses 14 and 15: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). Jesus referred to an unusual story from Hebrew history (Numbers 21:4-9). God’s people grumbled, and God sent poisonous snakes as a punishment. But God also provided a way out: a bronze serpent (representing God’s punishment for his people’s sin) that Moses put on a pole. No matter how badly they were bitten, no matter how many times they’d been bitten, no matter how sick they were, they just had to look in faith and live.

Jesus says in this passage that he is that new provision for our sin; that he would be lifted up, and that whoever looks in faith at his provision for their sin would live. How do we get new hearts? How are we completely made new? By looking in faith to Jesus, who was lifted on the cross. “The radical change, the new birth, is possible only when he takes our infected natures upon himself, bears the venom, and imparts a new nature to us” (Kent Hughes).

We began by asking the question: How can Christianity claim to be exclusively true? And the answer is this: Because our relationship with God is not based on sincerity, morality, or religion, but on Jesus himself. You don’t need enlightenment. You don’t need improvement. You need a Savior. Jesus is that Savior, and he invites you to look to him and live.

Father, thank you for Jesus. We thank you today that he diagnosed our condition perfectly. I thank you that he has also provided a way for us to be made new. The new nature comes on the basis of the work of Christ for us.

The Scriptures say:

Turn to me and be saved,

all the ends of the earth!

For I am God, and there is no other.

(Isaiah 45:22)

So we turn to you today, we look at Jesus, because you are God and there is no other. Help us to do this today. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

How Can We Know There Is a God?

Big Idea: How can we know God exists? Through creation, Scripture, and most of all, his Son.

The vast majority of Canadians still believe that God or a higher power exists, but the number of people who don’t believe in God is on the rise. In 1975, when Canadians were asked if God or a higher power exists, 6% said, “No, I definitely do not.” The numbers stayed the same, right at 6%, in 1985 and 2000. In 2015 they did this study again, and found that the number doubled. Now 13% of Canadians assert that there is no God or higher power. They are still a small number, but they are growing.

But there’s another group, and those are the people who are less dogmatic, but still skeptical. Angus-Reid says that you can divide Canada up into three groups. One group embraces Christianity or other faiths. A second group — almost as bit as those who embrace faith, and growing — are those who reject it. And then there’s a third group that considers themselves somewhere in-between.

Those are the statistics, and then there are the people that we meet. In my experience, it’s not hard to find an atheist or agnostic in Liberty Village. I’ve encountered many people who are open to the existence of God, but I’ve also encountered many who flat-out call themselves atheists.

So let’s ask the question: How can we know there is a God? What proof do we have that God exists? This is a big question, and it has huge implications for our lives. Let’s nail down the question so that we’re really clear: “Is there a Supreme Being that deserves our worship and gives meaning, purpose, and direction to the universe and to human life?” (What’s Your World View?)

And I want to begin by acknowledging that what I will offer falls short of absolute proof. The philosopher Alvin Plantinga believes that there are no proofs of God that will convince all rational persons. Instead, we have literally dozens of good arguments for God’s existence. Taken together, the accumulated weight of these arguments is formidable. In other words, there cannot be irrefutable proof for the existence of God, but there are many strong clues for his reality and existence. We see his fingerprints all over the place. Instead of looking for proofs, one person suggests, we should look for clues, and there are plenty of them.

So today, let’s look at signposts or proofs that point to God’s existence. Actually, they point to something better than God’s existence. They point to a real, personal God who has revealed himself to us, and has taken a personal interest in us. The three signposts are general revelation, the revelation of Scripture, and Jesus. Let me explain.

First, we have the signpost of general revelation.

I could spend hours on this one alone, so let me be as quick and clear as possible. There is a preponderance of evidence that leads people everywhere — in all different cultures and throughout all of history — to conclude that God exists. Calvin Plantinga argues that you don’t need to argue for the existence of God, because this belief is properly basic. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t good arguments for God’s existence. He outlines quite a few in a paper called Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments (PDF). Here are just four.

Cosmological — One of the evidences for the existence of God is that anything exists at all. Why is there something rather than nothing? The law of causality teaches us that every finite thing is caused by something else. Therefore, the universe has to be dependent on something outside of itself. But what? Logic would argue that there has to be something or someone outside of nature — a supernatural, non-contingent being. That’s one clue for the existence of God.

Teleological (watchmaker) — Then there’s the fact that everything is so finely tuned in this universe. “For organic life to exist, the fundamental regularities and constants of physics— the speed of light, the gravitational constant, the strength of the weak and strong nuclear forces— must all have values that together fall into an extremely narrow range” (Tim Keller). It’s like there were a large number of dials that all had to be tuned to within extremely narrow limits, and they were. It seems extremely unlikely that all of this would happen by chance. Any time we see a complex design, we know that it came from the mind of a designer. So it is with the universe. How could our intelligent minds arise out of pure mindless matter without the help or direction of some preexisting intelligence? The most common counterargument is that there are an infinite number of universes, and we just happen to be in the one that is hospitable to organic life, where everything just happened to go right. While possible, it seems less likely. If you were being killed by a firing squad, and 50 soldiers stand 6 feet away at you and shoot at you and you survive, it’s technically possible that all 50 soldiers happened to miss you at the same point. You couldn’t prove that they all conspired to miss you. But which would be the simpler explanation? The design of this universe is a signpost that there is a God who is behind it all.

As I mentioned, there are dozens of these arguments. Let’s just give two more.

Moral — If you took a poll on any number of issues, we would all agree that some actions are immoral. Human beings believe that moral standards exist, and that they are external. For instance, we would agree that human rights exist — that every human being has inherent dignity, and should be treated as such. Why should we believe such a thing? Some argue that it’s because of natural law. The only problem is that natural law is the exact opposite of this. Nature thrives on violence and predatory behavior, and the survival of the fittest. Writer Annie Dillard lived for a year by a creek in the mountains of Virginia expecting to be inspired and refreshed by closeness to “nature.” Instead, she came to realize that nature was completely ruled by one central principle— violence by the strong against the weak. There’s no natural reason to stand up for human dignity, nor is there an evolutionary one. We don’t defend human dignity because it gives us an evolutionary advantage; we don’t defend human rights because it works, but because it’s right. There has to be a basis for morality outside of ourselves, or else all we have is preferences. It makes sense to think there could not be such objective moral facts unless there were such a person as God who, in one way or another, legislates them. It’s very hard to argue how anything can be objectively good or bad if there’s no God to serve as the ultimate standard of goodness.

Beauty — Let’s just look at one more clues: beauty. You’ve experienced this when you see or hear something beautiful. We are moved, inspired, and awestruck by things like nature and art. In the presence of great beauty, we have hope, and we feel that there’s meaning in life, that there is such a thing as truth and justice. There are two explanations. One is that beauty — and love, for that matter — is nothing but a neurological hardwired response to particular data. Or it could be that music, love, and beauty exist not because of its survival value, but because it is part of the very nature of God himself. Beauty and love exist because God himself is beautiful, and because God himself loves.

That’s just a small sampling of the clues in creation, in general revelation, that point to God. When we see them, we realize that none of them are conclusive. None of them are slam-dunk arguments that will convince the most hardened skeptic of the existence of God. There are counterarguments, and much has been written on both sides of the issue. But the evidence is compelling. There are so many clues that point to the reality of God.

If I came home one day and found the door open to my place, and Charlene’s purse on the table in our hallway, and then heard the music she likes to play in the living room, and then heard her voice, all of these would be clues that Charlene was home, even though I hadn’t yet seen her. It is possible that there are other explanations. There may be all kinds of random things that would make it possible for me to experience all these things, but it would be highly unlikely. The most probable explanation for this phenomenon would be to follow the clues and to conclude that Charlene is at home.

In the same way, when we see all these clues — the existence of contingent creation, the intricate design of all things, the sense of rightness and morality, and the beauty and love that surrounds us — it makes sense to follow these clues to where they point: to a God who is behind all that we see. And that’s exactly what the Bible teaches. Romans 1:19-20 says:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:19-20)

Somebody has called this “God’s cosmic eloquence.” God speaks eloquently through what he’s made. He’s done this so powerfully that “all persons everywhere have a deep, inner sense that God exists, that they are his creatures, and that he is their Creator” (Wayne Grudem). Some manage to suppress this, but you can’t escape it. Signposts of evidence point us to the existence of God. But there’s even more.

Second, we have the signpost of the revelation of Scripture.

We don’t just have the signpost of general revelation, because that would only be enough to convince us that there is some higher power. It wouldn’t be enough to tell us what he’s like. So God has gone further. He’s given us another signpost, which is the signpost of his revelation through Scripture.

A few minutes ago, we read the passage from the book of Hebrews: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets…” (Hebrews 1:1). This teaches us something profound. Any relationship, any knowledge of another person, is based on self-disclosure. The only way that you can get to know another person is if they are willing to be known. You can tell things about them, but you can’t really know them until they open up and reveal themselves to you. For one thing, unless someone reveals themselves to you, you have to guess what they’re like, and the guesses can be really wrong. I once wrote for a Christian newspaper in Winnipeg and regularly corresponded with the associate editor there. One day I meant the senior editor, and we got talking about what the associate editor was like. Having corresponded with her for some time, I’d constructed a mental image of what she was like — her personality, her looks, the whole deal. It gave the senior editor a good laugh, because I had guessed completely wrong. It’s the same way with God. If all we had was the signpost of evidence, we would have to guess what God is like, and our guesses would probably be wrong. God has to reveal himself in order for us to know him.

This passage says that this is exactly what God has done. He has revealed himself in many ways to instruct the prophets. 

God’s people have always had more than the eloquence of the heavens, for they have had the prophets. “In the past,” says the writer, “God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways” (v. 1)—literally, “in many parts and many ways.” God was very creative in how he spoke in ancient times. God appeared to Abram in human form, and to Jacob as an angel. God spoke to Moses at Sinai in thunder and lightning and with the voice of a trumpet. He whispered to Elijah at Horeb in “a low whisper” (1 Kings 19:12). Ezekiel saw visions and Daniel had dreams.

Not only that, but when God’s prophets spoke, they used all kinds of methods. Some gave direct oracles from God. Others used questions and answers. Others performed bizarre symbolic acts. Others preached signs. God has been very eloquent in how he has spoken in revelation. Canadian theologian J.I. Packer says:

Christianity…is a religion that rests on revelation: nobody would know the truth about God, or be able to relate to him in a personal way, had not God first acted to make himself known. But God has so acted, and the sixty-six books of the Bible, thirty-nine written before Christ came and twenty-seven after, are together the record, interpretation, expression, and embodiment of his self-disclosure…

God has spoken. He’s given us the signpost of evidence, and he’s also given us the signpost of revelation, contained in Scripture. He’s self-disclosed himself to us.

Before we move on, when have to ask an important question. How do we know that the Bible is from God, rather than just a great piece of literature? If you’re like me, you’re going to be skeptical about accepting claims from people who claim to have heard from God. You just don’t accept that blindly. Actually, there are many compelling reasons to believe that the Bible is God’s self-disclosure, that the words of Scripture are God’s words. Unlike any other book, the Bible offers specific predictions that were written hundreds of years in advance of their literal fulfillment. One person has counted 1817 predictions in the Bible, 1239 in the Old Testament and 578 in the New, 27% of the Bible. They are specific and predictive. “The Bible is filled with specific predictive prophecies that have been literally fulfilled,” writes Norm Geisler. “This is true of no other book in the world. And it is a sure sign of its divine origin.”

There are many other clues that the Bible is divine: the fact that it is written over 1,500 years by people from diverse backgrounds, yet it speaks with a unified message; that “no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference” (Nelson Glueck); that millions of lives have been changed in a supernatural way from this book; that Jesus affirmed that it is God’s Word, and more. Norm Geisler concludes:

The Bible is the only book that both claims and proves to be the Word of God. It claims to be written by prophets of God who recorded in their own style and language exactly the message God wanted them to give to humankind. The writings of the prophets and apostles claim to be the unbreakable, imperishable, and inerrant words of God. The evidence that their writings are what they claimed to be is found not only in their own moral character but in the supernatural confirmation of their message, its prophetic accuracy, its amazing unity, its transforming power, and the testimony of Jesus who was confirmed to be the Son of God.

Having read all kinds of books, I can tell you from my personal experience that there is no book like Scripture. There’s nothing else that compares to it. It, along with the evidence we see around us in general revelation, are two compelling signposts that God exists. He’s made himself known. But there’s one more signpost, and it’s the best of all.

Third, we have the signpost of Jesus himself.

In the Christian view, the ultimate evidence for the existence of God is Jesus himself. The other week Nathan mentioned the Russian cosmonaut who went to space and reported that he hadn’t found God. C.S. Lewis responded that this is like Hamlet going to the attic and looking for Shakespeare. If there is a God, he would exist outside of creation, and we wouldn’t expect to find him here — unless, of course, he entered creation, unless the playwright entered the play. “Christians believe he did more than give us information. He wrote himself into the play as the main character in history, when Jesus was born in a manger and rose from the dead” (Timothy Keller).

This is the ultimate signpost. Hebrews 1:1-3 says:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,

You have the evidence of creation. You have the evidence of revelation. But the climax of revelation is Jesus. In fact, Jesus himself said that if you’ve seen him, you’ve seen the Father (John 14:9). Jesus repeatedly claimed to be God. He’s so compelling. If you’re wondering if there is a God, I would encourage you to pick up a Bible and look at the life of Jesus. He was no ordinary man. Read about him. Be amazed by him. There is nobody else like him.

Jesus once told a story that I find fascinating. The story is about a man who planted a vineyard and gave it to tenants to look after it while he went away. When harvest came, he sent a servant to get some of the fruit from the vineyard. Listen to what happened:

And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.(Mark 12:3-9)

This story is simple, but it packs a punch. It’s a story about the signposts that God has given us. He repeatedly sends people. But eventually he sends his own Son, and we killed him. The question comes down to us today: What will we do with the ultimate signpost? What will we do when we see Jesus, who is God himself, the ultimate signpost pointing us to the reality and existence of God?

We began today by saying that there is no ultimate proof of God, but there are plenty of clues. A friend of mine (Deric Bartlett) tweeted something that summarizes this point well:

He makes a great point.

We could spend all day looking at signposts, but in the end we have to admit that signposts can only go so far. Jesus once told another story that spoke of the limitations of signposts. In the story, a rich man dies who doesn’t know God. He wants to send a warning back to his brothers so that they don’t make the same mistake that he did. Listen to what Jesus said:

And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” (Luke 16:27-31)

That’s the problem. We can have all the evidence in the world, and still have a heart that’s unwilling to see what’s right in front of us. Our ultimate problem isn’t an evidence problem; it’s really a heart problem.

I encourage you to look at the evidence. There are signposts everywhere that God exists. But the evidence is only the evidence. I gave you the example earlier of coming home and experiencing all the evidence that Charlene is at home. It would be a shame if I spent all the time examining the evidence that Charlene was home, and in the process missed Charlene. Look beyond the evidence to the person — to a God who not only exists but is reaching out in love to you, who gave his Son for you, who is present with us today. 

Don’t settle for the evidence; settle only when you have God, when you see what Jesus has done for you. Let’s pray.

We thank you for all the signposts that point us to you. Thank you for your eloquence in speaking through creation, through Scripture, and most of all through Jesus. Thank you for the eloquence of the cross, that Jesus loves us enough to not only write himself into the story, but to take our sins upon himself so that we could be brought back into relationship with you.

Help us to see the evidence, but most of all, help us to see you. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

Why Are Christians Such Jerks? (Zechariah 7:1-8:3)

Why Are Christians Such Jerks? (Zechariah 7:1-8:3)

Big Idea: Why are Christians jerks? Because not all of us are real, none of us are perfect, and all of us are in process.

Have you ever tried typing in a phrase in the Google search-bar? As you type it guesses what question you’re trying to ask using their uber-secret algorithm. Look what happens when you type, “Why are Christian…”

That’s right. The first guess is, “Why are Christians so mean?” followed closely by “Why are Christian movies so bad?” That’s kind of depressing, but I get it. “Christianity has an image problem,” write the authors of UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity and Why It Matters. The authors conclude that non-Christians don't like Christians, especially evangelicals. Only 3% had a good impression of Evangelicals. People in their study viewed Christians as hypocritical, too evangelistic, antigay, gay, sheltered, political, and judgmental. Furthermore, attitudes toward Christians have become increasingly negative over the past decade. They write: “modern-day Christianity no longer seems Christian.”

This is hard to read. It seems that we do have an image problem. We have to deal with this problem. Tim Keller suggests that there are three things to deal with:

  • The issue of Christians’ glaring character flaws. If Christianity is true, why aren’t Christians living better than non-Christians?
  • The issue of war and violence. Why have so many Christians supported war, injustice, and violence over the years?
  • The issue of fanaticism. Why do there seem to be so many smug, self-righteous fanatics within Christianity?

There are many Scriptures that we could look at to answer these questions, but I want to look at one passage of Scripture as we try to answer them.

Zechariah gives us in interesting insight into these questions. For one thing, this passage shows us that this is not a new problem at all. Zechariah served after God’s people returned from exile in Babylon. Things were supposed to be looking up, but inner transformation hadn’t taken place.

Here’s the situation. A group of people arrived to inquire whether they should continue to fast in mourning for the destruction of the temple. When they had been taken captive to Babylon, they had started a number of annual fasts, two of which are mentioned in the text. But the people were now restored to their land, and the temple was partially rebuilt. Should they still celebrate the fasts?

In response, God asks a haunting question:

Say to all the people of the land and the priests, When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat for yourselves and drink for yourselves? (Zechariah 7:5-6)

In other words, who were you fasting for? Were you fasting for yourself, or for God? Here’s another way to put it: what was your motivation? Self-interest, or true worship of the one living God?

C.H. Spurgeon, a famous preacher in London, once told a story:

Once upon a time there was a king who ruled over everything in a land. One day there was a gardener who grew an enormous carrot. He took it to his king and said, “My lord, this is the greatest carrot I’ve ever grown or ever will grow; therefore, I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” The king was touched and discerned the man’s heart, so as he turned to go, the king said, “Wait! You are clearly a good steward of the earth. I want to give a plot of land to you freely as a gift, so you can garden it all.” The gardener was amazed and delighted and went home rejoicing. But there was a nobleman at the king’s court who overheard all this, and he said, “My! If that is what you get for a carrot, what if you gave the king something better?” The next day the nobleman came before the king, and he was leading a handsome black stallion. He bowed low and said, “My lord, I breed horses, and this is the greatest horse I’ve ever bred or ever will; therefore, I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” But the king discerned his heart and said, “Thank you,” and took the horse and simply dismissed him. The nobleman was perplexed, so the king said, “Let me explain. That gardener was giving me the carrot, but you were giving yourself the horse.”

That relates really closely to what God asks in this passage. When you practice your faith, are you giving God something, or are you giving yourself something? The question is left hanging, implying that a lot of people think they are worshiping God, when really they’re motivated by self-interest.

But Zechariah goes on after giving us this very challenging question. He tells us two things that we need to understand if we are gong to talk intelligently about this question of why so many Christians are jerks. Here’s what he tells us:

First, God desires true transformation. Read verses 9 and 10:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart. (Zechariah 7:9-10)

This is so important. God wants us to be changed. He wants us to be characterized by lives of character and obedience and kindness. Notice that God goes even farther: he wants this to be internally driven. He mentions our hearts. That’s where the real change has to take place. Until our hearts are changed, nothing on the outside will change.

Second, God does this by his grace. Read the first few verses of chapter 8:

And the word of the LORD of hosts came, saying, “Thus says the LORD of hosts: I am jealous for Zion with great jealousy, and I am jealous for her with great wrath. Thus says the LORD: I have returned to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the LORD of hosts, the holy mountain. (Zechariah 8:1-3)

What will change our hearts? We can’t. We need someone else to do it for us. In chapter 8, God gives his people a great promise. He will come among his messy, hypocritical, stubborn people and dwell among them. God’s transforming presence will change his people. That is the hope that we have. We can’t change ourselves, but God has promised to live and dwell among us.

So we see three points in this passage, then, as we ask why Christians fall short of where they should be. There are really three things we need to consider:

  • Not all of us are real
  • None of us are perfect
  • All of us are in process

First: Not all of us are real.

In answering the question of why Christians can be jerks, we have to begin with the presupposition that not all Christians are the real thing. That’s where Zechariah begins when he records God asking, “Was it for me that you fasted?” I think Zechariah would ask us: Are you coming to church for God, or for yourself? What’s your real motive?

Let me put it a different way. Why are so many Christians jerks? Because not everyone who says that they are a Christian is actually a Christian. This is where we have to begin: with our incredible tendency towards self-deception.

This is so much the case that Jesus’ greatest problem was religious people. Jesus was not a big fan of religion. In The Reason for God, Tim Keller writes:

His famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7) does not criticize irreligious people, but rather religious ones. In his famous discourse the people he criticizes pray, give to the poor, and seek to live according to the Bible, but they do so in order to get acclaim and power for themselves. They believe they will get leverage over others and even over God because of their spiritual performance (“ They think they will be heard for their many words”— Matthew 6: 7). This makes them judgmental and condemning, quick to give criticism, and unwilling to take it. They are fanatics.

In his teaching, Jesus continually says to the respectable and upright, “The tax collectors and the prostitutes enter the kingdom before you” (Matthew 21: 31). He continuously condemns in white-hot language their legalism, self-righteousness, bigotry, and love of wealth and power (“ You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness…. You neglect justice and the love of God… You load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them…. [You] devour widows’ houses and for a show make long prayers”— Luke 11: 39-46; 20: 47). We should not be surprised to discover it was the Bible-believing religious establishment who put Jesus to death. As Swiss theologian Karl Barth put it, it was the church, not the world, who crucified Christ.

Think about this. Jesus says that religion is potentially damaging, so much so that the people that were looked down upon as immoral have an advantage over religious people when it comes to entering the kingdom. Jefferson Bethke wrote a spoken word piece called “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” that unpacks this:

Now Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums

See, one's the work of God, but one's a man-made invention

See, one is the cure, but the other's the infection

See, because religion says "do"; Jesus says "done"

Religion says "slave"; Jesus says "son"

Religion puts you in bondage, while Jesus sets you free

Religion makes you blind, but Jesus makes you see

And that's why religion and Jesus are two different clans

Now let’s make this personal. One of my favorite preachers was a man named Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. He was a Member of the Royal College of Physicians and headed for a prestigious medical career, but he couldn’t shake the conviction that God wanted him to become a preacher. After two years of wrestling, he gave up his medical career and became a pastor of a small church in Wales. It was only then that his wife, Bethan, experienced God’s grace in a profound way and became a follower of Jesus Christ.

You can be a pastor or a pastor’s wife, a churchgoer for all your life, and a teacher, and still not know Jesus. I wonder today if you’ve experienced God’s grace in a profound way? Not if you’re a religious person. I’m wondering if you have realized that your only hope is not how good you are, but about how good Jesus is. Have you encountered his grace? Is he your only hope in life and death?

One of the reason why Christians are such jerks is that not all faith is genuine. Not everyone who calls himself a Christian really is a Christian.

Second, none of us is perfect.

We’ve seen in Zechariah first that not all faith is genuine. But now we see that true faith calls for a response. Zechariah writes:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart. (Zechariah 7:9-10)

What this means is that if there is a problem with Christians acting like jerks, it’s not because they are too Christian. It’s that they are not Christian enough. The biggest rebuke of jerky Christians comes from the Bible itself, which calls us to something more. It calls us to genuine kindness and mercy, for treating others with love. Not only  that, but it calls for all of this at the heart level. God is not interested in outward observance. He is interested in us changing from the inside out. As Keller writes:

The typical criticisms by secular people about the oppressiveness and injustices of the Christian church actually come from Christianity’s own resources for critique of itself. The shortcomings of the church can be understood historically as the imperfect adoption and practice of the principles of the Christian gospel…To give up Christian standards would be to leave us with no basis for the criticism.

What is the answer, then, to the very fair and devastating criticisms of the record of the Christian church? The answer is not to abandon the Christian faith, because that would leave us with neither the standards nor the resources to make correction. Instead we should move to a fuller and deeper grasp of what Christianity is.

We only have to think of a few historical examples to get the difference that true Christianity makes. One of the deepest stains in history is the African slave trade. Historian Rodney Starke says that it was Christians who first came to the conclusion that it was wrong as they head their Bibles. It was Christians like William Wilberforce who led the charge to abolish it against all odds.

Another example is the Civil Rights movement. One historian argues that it wasn’t a political but a spiritual movement — that actually, the Civil Rights movement was really a revival, a reawakening of genuine faith in God. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the church back not to revoke Christianity, but to return to Christianity:

There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators"' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide. and gladiatorial contests…If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.

We could go on and give more historical examples. The point is not that Christians actually aren’t that bad. In fact, many times they are. Many times Christians have totally blown it and made a huge mess of things. The reason they have been so wrong, though, is not because they have had too much Christianity, but because they haven’t had enough. What we need is more of Jesus, not less of Jesus, because true faith calls for genuine love for others.

Even today we need to stop talking about Christians out there who have failed, and instead think about our need to become holier. We need to be changed. What attitudes do we have that don’t reflect the heart of Christ? In which ways are we not loving God and our neighbor as ourself? “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart” — that’s the fruit of real faith. We need more of that, not less.

Third, all of us are in process.

Let’s summarize so far. Why are Christians such jerks? That’s assuming that Christians are jerks, but let’s concede the point that there’s some truth to the question. So far we’ve looked at two reasons. One is that not all of us are real. Not everyone who says that they’re a Christian is a Christian. The second reason is that we none of us are perfect. We don’t measure up to biblical standards. Real Christianity stands up against mistreatment of others. Real Christianity loves. Real Christianity looks like Jesus. We need more of that, not less.

But there’s one final reason why Christians sometimes act like jerks. It’s because of the very nature of the Christian faith itself. It’s this: we’re in process. Christians aren’t people who have pulled themselves together and have reached a higher moral plane. Christians are people who are weak, messy, and imperfect, but have encountered God’s grace — something that all of us desperately need. In Zechariah 8, Zechariah shows us where real transformation takes place. It doesn’t take place as God’s people make themselves better by their own efforts. It takes place as God himself moves in.

Thus says the LORD: I have returned to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the LORD of hosts, the holy mountain. (Zechariah 8:3)

That’s our only hope. Our hope is not that we are good people. Our hope is that God is among us as messy people changing us from the inside out. Again, Tim Keller says:

Christian theology also speaks of the seriously flawed character of real Christians. A central message of the Bible is that we can only have a relationship with God by sheer grace. Our moral efforts are too feeble and falsely motivated to ever merit salvation. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, has provided salvation for us, which we receive as a gift. All churches believe this in one form or another. Growth in character and changes in behavior occur in a gradual process after a person becomes a Christian. The mistaken belief that a person must “clean up” his or her own life in order to merit God’s presence is not Christianity. This means, though, that the church will be filled with immature and broken people who still have a long way to go emotionally, morally, and spiritually. As the saying has it: “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.”

Surprisingly, in this chapter we have the good news, the gospel, in a nutshell:

  • We have a tendency to deceive ourselves. This is a universal problem that strikes everyone, religious or not.
  • God’s standards are higher than we can ever achieve. He wants us to love in a radical way from the inside out.
  • Our only hope of overcoming our self-deception and having our hearts changed is for God to come and to radically change us.

That’s it. That’s the gospel. We — all of us —are self-deceived and can’t measure up, but Jesus has come, has taken our sins at the cross. Jesus has not lowered the standards for us. In fact, he said, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). God wants to radically change us, and the way that he does this is by not only forgiving us but giving us new life. The only way we can live lives that please him is by encountering his grace and by being transformed by his Spirit.

So why are Christians such jerks? Because not all Christians are real Christians. Because nobody measures up to God’s perfect standards. And because we are all sinners, but Christians are in the process of being transformed by God’s grace. We’re still in process.

Why are Christians jerks? Because not all of us are real, none of us are perfect, and all of us are in process.

Let me conclude with some more of that spoken word piece by Jefferson Bethke:

Religion is man searching for God; Christianity is God searching for man

Which is why salvation is freely mine, and forgiveness is my own

Not based on my merits, but Jesus' obedience alone

Because He took the crown of thorns, and the blood dripped down His face

He took what we all deserved—I guess that's why you call it grace

And while being murdered, He yelled,

"Father, forgive them; they know not what they do."

Because when He was dangling on that cross, He was thinking of you

And He absorbed all your sin, and He buried it in the tomb

Which is why I'm kneeling at the cross, saying, "Come on, there's room"

So for religion—no, I hate it; in fact I literally resent it

Because when Jesus said, "It is finished," I believe He meant it


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

Fulfill Your Ministry (2 Timothy 4:5)

Big Idea: Keep your head, endure suffering, share good news, do whatever it takes, and repeat.

Late one afternoon Alistair Begg was meeting with a number of pastors. He wistfully quoted a passage that I want to look at with you this morning in this final session: “As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:5)

He said, “I increasingly find that verse to be the anchor point for all of my days. I wake up on a Monday, and say, ‘well, what will I do now?’ Then I say, ‘Well, I think I’ll try to keep my head, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, and discharge all the duties of my ministry.’ And when I am lifted up by a little encouragement, which sometimes comes, I say to myself, ‘Well, what shall I do?’ The answer is keep your head, endure hardship, and so on.”

He paused, then went on, “And when the waves beat on me and I feel just like running away to the hills somewhere, what should I do? ‘Well, Alistair, just keep your head, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, and discharge all the duties of your ministry.’”

Then he concluded, “So, that’s a word in season for us to take away and think of.”

As we get to the end of our sessions together, we’re also getting to the end of Paul’s life. In verses 6 to 8 he says:

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:6-8)

But before he’s gone, he leaves Timothy — and us — simple instructions on ministry. Ministry is simple. It’s not easy, but it’s also not complicated. As Paul passes the baton to Timothy, he leaves four simple instructions for Timothy and for us to follow. All we have to do is wake up every day and repeat the very same things. Nothing more than that. Here they are:

First: In your ministry, keep your head.

The first thing Paul says is this: “As for you, always be sober-minded…” (2 Timothy 4:5). Literally, it’s means to be clearheaded in every situation. Keep an unruffled alertness. Sober up. Stay free from the controlling influence of emotions and or desires in such a way that you are clearheaded and reasonable. Shoe presence of mind.

What amazes me about this instruction is how low the bar is set. As Paul is about to leave, his first instruction is pretty much to say, “Keep your sanity.” But as you think more about it, that’s not such an easy thing to do in life or ministry. Timothy’s about to lose his mentor. Empire-wide persecution is already underway. Precisely because people are unstable in mind and conduct, we must remain levelheaded. Show presence of mind in all situations.

Earlier on I mentioned the work of Edwin Friedman. His theory is that churches are family systems, and that anxiety spreads throughout the system naturally. If you’ve ever seen this, you know it’s true. The second church I pastored had severe anxiety about money. Money was never an issue, but there was always this anxiety in the air about the budget, about whether we’d have enough money to get through. Everyone in the church caught this anxiety like the cold. It’s like this.

As I was preparing to go on sabbatical a few years ago, one of my ministry friends — one of the best pastors I know — introduced me to the work of Friedman and the idea of becoming a non-anxious presence. Friedman writes:

To the extent that leaders . . . can maintain a non-anxious presence in a highly energized anxiety field, they can have the same effects on that field that transformers have in an electrical circuit. (Edwin Friedman)

In other words, tame your reactivity. Don’t catch the anxiety that’s in the system. Keep your head. Charles Stone elaborates on Friedman’s picture of a leader as a transformer:

A leader is like a transformer. By her responses, she can either defuse an emotional setting like a heated board meeting or can act like a step-up transformer by reacting and increasing anxiety, thus causing lots of not-so-cool sparks, as did Pastor John. Through a calm presence with emotional people, a leader can act like an emotional step-down transformer, decreasing the group’s anxiety by letting it pass through her without getting zapped. (People-Pleasing Pastors)

I’m struck with how similar this is to what Paul is saying. When others around you are losing their head, keep yours. Don’t get sucked into the anxiety and lack of clear thinking around you. Know what triggers you to lose your perspective, and what makes you begin to lose your head in ministry. There are all kinds of things we can do to keep clear heads in ministry — take breaks, get counseling, have safe friends, learn how to regulate your emotions. But I will tell you this: if you can keep a clear head in ministry, you will be miles ahead. It really is a game-changer.

This is not a lofty thought. Keep your head in ministry. Don’t allow yourself to be “under the influence” of the chaos around you. This is really good advice, though. It’s priceless.

Second: In your ministry, endure hardship.

If you’ve ever done marriage counseling, you’ve probably experienced the number one issue in couples that are about to get married. They are completely naïve about the challenges of married life. Most of them have this idea of the happiness of marriage, but not many of them have an idea about the hardships they’re experience in marriage.

When I was about to propose to Charlene, I happened to take a marriage counseling class at seminary. I was pretty excited about it until the first class. The man stood up in class and said, “Marriage is a steel trap.” That got my attention. He talked about his own second marriage after his wife had died. Within weeks of getting married, he realized he had made a huge mistake. They decided that they couldn’t separate so soon after the wedding, though, so they decided to stay together for a respectable amount of time before calling it quits. In that time they developed a healthy relationships and built a marriage that lasted. But this guy stood up and disavowed me of the notion that marriage would be easy. He said that marriage is potentially the best and most satisfying relationship you will ever experience, but at the same time it is the hardest and most frustrating relationship you will ever experience.

We need the same realistic picture of ministry. Ministry is hard, painstaking work. It’s supposed to be. That’s why Paul says, “Endure suffering.” Literally: endure every kind of suffering. So on top of keeping our heads, we’re also supposed to endure hardship. Don’t be surprised when ministry gets hard. That’s completely normal. If it’s not hard, at least some of the time, you may be doing it wrong.

One day I asked my brother — a firefighter — what the most stressful part of his job was. He looked at me for a while. He said, “Honestly, Darryl, I can’t think of anything.” Besides telling me that my brother is maybe not completely in touch with the realities of his life, I understand that his job is a little different than mine: union wages, lots of time off, the ability to check out when the shift is over. Apart from the running into burning buildings part, it’s a pretty sweet gig.

But that’s not ministry. The late Peter Drucker, one of the leading management authors and consultants of the twentieth century, once told a pastor friend that he viewed church leadership as the most difficult and taxing role of which he was aware. It’s rewarding, but suffering is involved. There are long hours. It’s all-encompassing. One pastor said:

Most people in our church have a life that is like a stool with three legs. They've got their spiritual life, their professional life and their family life. If one of these legs wobbles, they've got two others they can lean on. For us, those three things can merge into one leg. You're sitting on a one-legged stool, and it takes a lot more concentration and energy. It's a lot more exhausting. (Resilient Ministry)

So expect suffering. “If the apostle Paul knew fatigue, anger, and anxiety in his ministry, what makes us think we can avoid them in ours?” (Ajith Fernando). As one pastor says, “There’s no such thing as a faithful ministry that is not costly. A painless ministry is a shallow and fruitless ministry” (John MacArthur).

I’ve been running more lately. The coaching program that I’m following has an interesting approach. It’s built on cumulative fatigue:

The idea of cumulative fatigue serves as an underlying foundation of all of our training plans. Cumulative fatigue comes from a slow buildup (but not to the point of overtraining ) of fatigue via the days, weeks, and months of consistent training …Put simply, we’re looking to simulate running tired. (Hansons Half-Marathon Method: Run Your Best Half-Marathon the Hansons Way)

When I’m out on a longer run, and I’m feeling tired, that’s when I know the program is working. I’m supposed to feel that way. The same thing applies in ministry. When you’re feeling tired, and when you’re feeling that ministry is hard, then you know you’re doing it right. Keep your head and endure hardship, Paul says.

But that’s not all:

Third, in your ministry, share the gospel.

Paul says, “Do the work of an evangelist.” That’s a very confusing phrase. Does that refer to a particular office within the church? An article I read years ago said that Paul uses the term evangelist to refer to what we’d today call a church planter. I love that idea. I have no idea whether it’s accurate or not, but I love it. Philipp is called “Phillip the evangelist” in Acts 22:8, and Paul refers to evangelists in Ephesians 4.

I can’t be dogmatic about whether Paul is referring to a particular office or not, although I think so. Maybe it’s the role of pioneering and establishing new gospel works by someone who isn’t an apostle. Whatever Paul meant, I think it’s a good reminder of what we’re all about. The Jerusalem Bible says, “Make the preaching of the Good News your life’s work.” That’s exactly what we are called to do.

The problem is: it’s the very thing that we can easily stop doing if we’re not careful. One of the reasons I moved to church planting was that I became very concerned about how easy it was not to do evangelism if we’re not careful. Eugene Peterson writes:

American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries. Their names remain on the church stationary and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, their calling. They have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries…

The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns–how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.

Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping, to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same. The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepreneurs; while asleep they dream of the kind of success that will get the attention of journalists.

I have no interest in being a religious shopkeeper, and I hope you don’t either. So, Paul says, resist the urge to drift into other things. Make the sharing of the gospel your life’s work.

By the way, it’s a lot of fun. I’m finding that people outside of the church are often a lot more real and a lot more fun than the church people I’m used to hanging around. I don’t know if I’m supposed to say that, but it’s true. I’m not a great evangelist, but it sure beats being a religious shopkeeper. We’ve moved into an area where there are hardly any Christians, and we have to make our ministry about sharing the gospel. And we’re doing so in a very cynical community in which Christianity isn’t even an option that they’ve considered. Last week we went to a local pub and invited people to come out and ask anything they wanted, no questions barred. My coworker Nathan has started a board-game group to get to know people in the community. We’re trying everything we can to get to know people, be real with them, and to do the work of an evangelist. One person said, “When I evangelize, I'm simply trying to describe people's deepest concerns and show how Jesus addresses them.” Don’t lose this from your ministry. Everything will try to squeeze it out, but we can’t let that happen.

Keep your head, endure suffering, share good news, and one more thing:

Fourth: In your ministry, do whatever it takes.

I love this. Paul says, “Fulfill your ministry.” This means to accomplish something thoroughly and completely. Leave nothing on the table. Give it everything you’ve got. Bring it to completion holding back nothing. Stay at it until the task is completed.

Earlier on I mentioned Charles Simeon, the pastor of Trinity Church, Cambridge, England, for 49 years. He was asked one day by how he had surmounted persecution and outlasted all the great prejudice against him in his 49-year ministry. He said:

My dear brother, we must not mind a little suffering for Christ's sake. When I am getting through a hedge, if my head and shoulders are safely through, I can bear the pricking of my legs. Let us rejoice in the remembrance that our holy Head has surmounted all His suffering and triumphed over death. Let us follow Him patiently; we shall soon be partakers of His victory.

When Simeon was approaching 60, he decided to retire. He went to what he thought was his last visit to Scotland. His voice had been bad; he had been through the wringer. But while there, he had an encounter with God. He felt that God actually said to him:

I laid you aside, because you entertained with satisfaction the thought of resting from your labour; but that now you have arrived at the very period when you had promised yourself that satisfaction, and have determined instead to spend your strength for me to the latest hour of your life, I have doubled, trebled, quadrupled your strength, that you may execute your desire on a more extended plan.

At sixty years of age, Simeon renewed his commitment to his pulpit and the mission of the church and preached vigorously for 17 more years, until two months before his death. He gave himself with all his might to the work till he died.

One of the people influenced under Simon’s ministry was Henry Martyn, a young man who went to India and who served only a few years before dying at the age of 32 of a fever. Simeon had a portrait of Martyn hanging in his dining room. Often, with friends there for dinner, he would look at the likeness and say, “There, see that blessed man! What an expression of countenance! No one looks at me as he does; he never takes his eyes off me and seems always to be saying, ‘Be serious. Be in earnest. Don’t trifle. Don’t trifle.'” Then, smiling at the portrait and gently bowing, Simeon would add, “And I won’t trifle. I won’t trifle.”

That’s it. In the end, ministry isn’t all that complicated. It’s not easy, but it’s not complicated either. Stay calm. Endure suffering. Tell the good news. Do what’s required. Repeat. What do I do today? The same thing as yesterday. Keep at it and repeat to the end.

I love what Billy Graham said:

Every generation is strategic. We are not responsible for the past generation, and we cannot bear full responsibility for the next one; but we do have our generation. God will hold us responsible as to how well we fulfill our responsibilities to this age and take advantage of our opportunities.

You are strategic, and your work is important. Life is short. As someone’s said, “The years will fly by like the fence posts on a farm road in Illinois as you drive along—years quickly become decades” (Kent Hughes). We need you to play your role. Live every day as one who will give account. Get on with your work, because your work is important.

Keep your head, endure suffering, share good news, do whatever it takes, and repeat. Keep your head, endure suffering, share good news, do whatever it takes, and repeat. And in the end, you’ll find that you’ll be able to say:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7-8)

Let’s pray.

Lord, may we be faithful in the daily tasks of keeping our sanity, enduring suffering, sharing good news, and doing whatever it takes. We don’t ask for glory. We’re not even sure that we could handle glory if we got it. But we pray for lives and ministries that matter. We want to reach the end and say that we’ve fulfilled our ministry, that there was nothing more to give. We don’t want to trifle. We want to fulfill our responsibilities and take advantage of our opportunities.

So help us. Thank you for every person who’s here. Encourage them in their ministries. May each one of us hear the words that we long to hear: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21). We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

How Will You Measure Your Ministry? (2 Timothy 2:14-26)

Big Idea: How will you measure your ministry? Measure it by your teaching, your character, and your relationships.

When the members of the class of 2010 entered business school, the economy was strong. Students saw their post-graduation ambitions as limitless. Just a few weeks later, the economy went into a tailspin. They’ve had to recalibrate their worldview and their definitions of success.

In the spring of 2010, Harvard Business School’s graduating class asked HBS professor Clay Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, to address them. What’s interesting is that they asked him to apply his principles and thinking not to their careers, but to their personal lives. He shared with them a set of guidelines — strongly influenced by his faith — that have helped him find meaning in his own life. On the last day of class, he asks his students three questions:

First, how can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career?

Second, how can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness?

Third, how can I be sure I’ll stay out of jail?

The last question isn’t meant tongue-in-cheek. He says that he knows many colleagues who have taken shortcuts and ended up sabotaging their careers.

The talk was fascinating. It’s available on the Harvard Business Review website, and later became a book called How Will You Measure Your Life? One of the things that gave Christensen such clarity was his own illness. “This past year I was diagnosed with cancer and faced the possibility that my life would end sooner than I’d planned,” he said. “Thankfully, it now looks as if I’ll be spared. But the experience has given me important insight into my life.” He concludes his article:

I have a pretty clear idea of how my ideas have generated enormous revenue for companies that have used my research; I know I’ve had a substantial impact. But as I’ve confronted this disease, it’s been interesting to see how unimportant that impact is to me now. I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched.

I think that’s the way it will work for us all. Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people. This is my final recommendation: Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.

This brings a sharp issue in focus for us: How will we measure our ministries? The parallels are striking.

First, the spiritual economy for the church is in a tailspin. When we started Liberty Grace Church, I ended up being invited as a guest on Toronto’s number one morning radio show. The basic gist of the conversation was this: Why in the world would anybody start a church in downtown Toronto? It’s ridiculous.

Nobody is interested in church. As Rico Tice says in his new book Honest Evangelism, people used to generally believe “in a Creator God, the notion of sin, and in the truth that Jesus is God’s Son.” When people heard the gospel, many were ready to respond.

By the 1990s, people were hardening against Christianity. It was harder to get them to come to a special service, or to hear a visiting evangelist. Some blocks (objections to Christianity) had to be removed first before the gospel could gain a hearing. In particular, Tice describes four: Christians are weird; Christianity is untrue; Christianity is irrelevant; and Christianity is intolerant. When people met Christians, saw the way that they lived, and heard answers to their intellectual issues, trust would build. People would then sometimes be willing to give the gospel a hearing.

Now, Tice says, “people are on a totally different road.” Our culture is now defined by tolerance and permissiveness. People no longer engage with faith in order to accept or reject it. They simply dismiss it out of hand. As a result, it’s a lot harder. Tice says:

Research suggests that when people put their faith in Christ, on average it’s taken two years from the point when they came into meaningful contact with a Christian who witnessed to them — and that time period is growing. Witnessing is a long-term commitment to invest in a relationship, to pray tirelessly, and to speak the gospel over and over again, patiently and persistently. It is a journey of gospel conversations. It really does take effort.

Second, many of us are questioning the old metrics of ministry. Christensen said:

I have a pretty clear idea of how my ideas have generated enormous revenue for companies that have used my research; I know I’ve had a substantial impact. But as I’ve confronted this disease, it’s been interesting to see how unimportant that impact is to me now. I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched.

Fifty years ago, many churches had signs posted within the building showing weekly numbers on them: worship service attendance, Sunday School attendance, offering total, and even how many people brought their Bibles. I would argue that although these numbers aren’t the best gauge of our success, its still important to keep a scorecard. What should we count, though? Conversions? Baptisms? Or other metrics like the number of people who are serving, the number of people in small groups, the number of people being trained into leadership?

I think about this occasionally back home. I go running from our community right through downtown Toronto, and run by the old site of a prominent old church in Toronto called St. John the Evangelist [Garrison] Church. The church began in 1858 and served the community, originally serving the soldiers and families associated with nearby Fort York. Later on it served residents who worked in local factories. The church became a leader in social outreach, and by 1931 it ran the largest free medical clinic in Canada. It ministered to pilots and staff from the nearby Royal Norwegian Air Force training camp during World War II. After the war, the congregation dwindled. By 1963, the church was demolished and replaced by a multipurpose building. That building was demolished in 1985.

A plaque on the site reads, “All that remains here of the church is the cornerstone of the 1893 building, on the ground below.” The cornerstone of their church building became a memorial stone. Of all the things that made this church look great in its day, nothing remains today except for a slab of stone in a park. Anything more than that is known to God, and it will be revealed in time (1 Corinthians 4:1-5). 

That phrase “All that remains…”: got me thinking. What will remain in our churches long after we're gone? Certainly not bricks or any of the things you notice at first. I pray that the bricks, stones, and activity won't tell the whole story. I pray to God that there will be more that remains.

So I want to spend some time thinking about what will matter most at the end of our lives. I think 2 Timothy 2 may help us as we look at what matters. How will we measure our ministries? There are three. They’re almost like a stool. If you have one or two of these, you’re not going to be successful. All three are absolutely vital. If you have all three of these, I am going to suggest that you have a ministry that matters.

How will we measure our ministries? We’ll measure them in three areas: our teaching, our lives, and our relationships.

First, measure your ministry by your teaching.

Kevin Vanhoozer has written a couple of great books called The Drama of Doctrine and Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. They’re incredibly helpful in helping us understand the importance of doctrine in the church — not as something divisive or as an impediment to love and unity but as a vital tool in directing the Church into the venture of living wisely to the glory of God. “Christian doctrine directs us in the way of truth and life and is therefore no less than a prescription for reality,” he says. 

Doctrine is instruction about God and direction for playing one’s role in the same drama of salvation that lies at the heart of the Scriptures. Doing theology according to the Scriptures means displaying our understanding of what God is doing in the world and of our place in it. It’s all about doing the will of King Jesus amid the kingdoms of this world. If dramatics is the study or practice of acting in plays, then theodramatics is the study or practice of acting in God’s royal theater.

According to Vanhoozer, we are part of a great drama. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the primary players, but we are called to participate as well. The Bible functions “not as a book filled with propositional information” but “as a script that calls for faithful yet creative performance.” And the task of theology is to “study the playscript and prepare it for performances that truthfully realize its truth.”

What are pastors?

Pastor-theologians exist to help disciples learn and play their parts in a fitting manner. Here catechism resembles theatrical rehearsal, where would-be disciples not only learn their lines but also new reflexes, thus enabling them spontaneously to glorify God and do the right thing, precisely because they understand the nature and telos of the drama of redemption and their place in it. Pastor-theologians are dramaturges (workers of drama) charged with preparing the company of the baptized to put feet on their doctrine, walking the way of Jesus Christ with not only theoretical but also practical understanding. The dramaturge is the person who makes drama work by helping the actors better to understand the (trans) script and play their respective parts. It is the dramaturge’s responsibility to research the play, keep it historically accurate, think about the playwright’s intent, and study the play’s production history. In sum: the pastor-theologian teaches people of faith to speak and act with right understanding.

I love this image of doctrine and our role. It helps me understand why Paul focuses so much on the importance of doctrine and teaching in this passage. Our role is to help our people learn and play their parts in a fitting matter in the greatest drama going. That’s a pretty cool job description. Our job is to get to know the plot, keep it accurate, and help our people play their parts well. That’s a job description I could get excited about.

But according to Paul, there’s a way we can botch our role in helping people to live their role well within God’s theodrama. That’s by messing up our doctrine. Paul is brutal when he describes the results of this. He says that when we get our doctrine wrong, we end up spreading gangrene among God’s people:

But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some. (2 Timothy 2:16-18)

Gangrene is a potentially lethal condition. It involves the decay of tissue that takes place when the blood supply is obstructed by injury or disease. It’s an ugly and deadly condition.

He also compares people who teach bad theology to bedpans:

Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable.(2 Timothy 2:20)

Paul’s talking about cheap vessels that would have been used for garbage or human waste. Some of them were so cheap that they would have been thrown out with their contents. When our doctrine goes wonky, we actually damage the body of Christ. We’re in danger of spreading an ugly and deadly disease. We become useless and disposable. God’s people are not prepared to play their roles faithfully in the cosmic theodrama.

On the other hand, good doctrine matters. That’s why Paul writes in verse 15:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)

Paul says to work hard, to work very hard. And the thing we’re to work hard at is presenting ourselves before God as a apprentice. As N.T. Wright says:

Such a person, particularly a young person in training like Timothy (though, God knows, all of us preachers and teachers are still in training), must think of their work as if they were an apprentice coming up to a qualifying examination. ‘Present yourself before God as one approved’ (verse 15): in other words, figure out what standards of knowledge, expository skill, historical and literary judgment, and above all spiritual understanding, are required for the job, and make sure you possess them. Then you will be an ‘unashamed workman’.

It’s why our preaching matters. Vanhoozer says:

The sermon, not some leadership philosophy or management scheme, remains the prime means of pastoral direction and hence the pastor's paramount responsibility…The sermon is the best frontal assault on imaginations held captive by secular stories that promise other ways to the good life. Most important, the sermon envisions ways for the local congregation to become a parable of the kingdom of God. It is the pastor's/director's vocation to help congregations hear (understand) and do (perform) God's word in and for the present.

The result? Vanhoozer says, “Doctrine gives disciples directions for what really matters: for making the most of their place and time, living with others to God in ways that lead to human flourishing and divine glory.”

This is the first leg of the stool, and it’s critical. It’s also countercultural today. Other things are important, but Paul says this is crucial. Don’t spread gangrene throughout the body of Christ. How do you measure your ministry? Measure it by how well you’re helping your people learn their parts in the divine drama. That requires that you work hard at your role as a teacher.

But that’s not all.

Second, measure your ministry by your character.

Paul writes in verse 22:

So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. (2 Timothy 2:22)

It’s not just our teaching that matters. It’s also our lives. Paul is continuing to develop his image of the kind of objects that people have in their house. I read a book last year that said that you should put everything you own through a test. If you absolutely need it or absolutely love it, keep it. Otherwise, toss it. I haven’t quite succeeded in doing this, but I love the idea. It would end up with a ton of stuff being thrown out.

As Paul thinks about these two categories of stuff — the valuable stuff made out of gold and silver that you’d use for special occasions, and the less honorable stuff made out of cheaper material — he thinks of the things that would keep Timothy in the first category. How do we maintain ourselves as “a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21)? Here’s one way: we need to watch our lives. We need to flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace.

Flee youthful passions. We immediately think of sexual sins here, but Paul doesn’t actually specify one type of sin. He’s probably referring to a whole list: things like impatience, harshness, the love of debate, self-assertion, self-indulgence, selfish ambition, headstrong obstinacy, arrogance, and more.

John Stott writes:

But we are to recognize sin as something dangerous to the soul. We are not to come to terms with it, or even negotiate with it. We are not to linger in its presence like Lot in Sodom (Gn. 19:15, 16). On the contrary we are to get as far away from it as possible as quickly as possible.

Sometimes flight is the best strategy. Don’t fight your youthful passions. Run away from them.

On the other hand, pursue holiness. Paul lists four positive qualities we’re supposed to pursue: righteousness, faith, love, and peace. Run away from immature behavior; run towards holiness and the qualities that characterize purity of heart.

Our lives matter, and they matter significantly. In my mind, Joe Stowell wrote one of the most important books last year on any topic. It’s called Redefining Leadership: Character-Defining Habits of Effective Leaders. He writes:

Warning! If you believe leadership is ultimately measured by how well you can deliver the goods, then in the end you will fail in your calling as a leader … While outcomes are not unimportant in the story, the affirmation is about the character of the steward that produced the outcomes.

The kind of person you are and how you navigate your leadership is at the core of long-term effectiveness, he says. Your character matters. Stowell talks about character-driven leaders, “whose exemplary lives influence and empower those within the sphere of their authority to achieve great outcomes personally, spiritually, communally, and organizationally.”

I want to pause here and think about what this looks like. Every single one of us here is vulnerable. There are a set of youthful sins that we tend to run towards if we’re not careful. One friend of mine — Scott Thomas, author of The Gospel Coach — breaks the major categories of sins that tempt us into four categories: power, approval, comfort, and security.

  • If we crave power, we’ll crave positions of power. We’ll succumb to anger and we’ll thwart other leaders. We’ll demand that we get our own way.
  • If we crave approval, we’ll take criticism badly. We’ll be proud and envious and we’ll live for the recognition of others.
  • If we crave comfort, we’ll feel like ministry is a burden. We’ll complain, and people will tire us out.
  • If we crave security, we’ll be overbearing. We’ll be inflexible, impatient, irresponsible, and we’ll hide our weaknesses.

Here’s the bottom line: We need to know where we’re vulnerable. We need to know our weak spots. We need to run away from those weak spots because they will kill us and our leadership if we don’t.

How do we measure our ministries? We measure them by our ability to help others learn their part in the theodrama. We also measure our ministries by the degree that we’re character-driven leaders who are learning to run away from our sins and to run towards purity of heart. None of us has arrived here. This is an ongoing pursuit. Character always has to overshadow talent.

There’s one more measure of your ministry:

Third, measure your ministry by your relationships.

Paul concludes in verses 24-26:

And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:24-26)

As Paul closes this section, he closes with a set of relational qualities. They’re a set of qualities that seem admirable. What’s hard is when they meet the realities of ministry. As Charles Simeon put it, “The work of the ministry is arduous in the extreme, not only on account of the labors in which a pastor has to engage, but on account of the opposition he meets with from those whose welfare he seeks.” He should know. When he became pastor of his church, opponents harassed Simeon by locking the family-owned pews, forcing those who wished to hear the new minister to find standing room as best they could. When Simeon brought in benches, church council members tossed them out into the churchyard, but he was undeterred. Relationships in ministry are hard. People attack!

When I was a seminary student years ago, I read Marshall Shelley’s book Well-Intentioned Dragons. It was my first real insight into what a pastor can experience in real ministry. Shelley describes the various types of personal attacks you’ll endure over the course of your ministry. It was a scary book to read a couple of decades ago, but it’s become even scarier now. He’s added a new chapter called “Electronic Warfare.” Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and other social media have magnified the ways that dragons can come after us.

How do we respond to the attacks of dragons? Shelley suggests two things: creating a healthy culture in the church where that type of attack is rare. Because that’s not always possible, he also suggests a second approach: to build a healthy board. Dragons will exist, and they will drive us crazy. But Shelley writes:

The goal in handling dragons is not to destroy them, not merely to disassociate from them, but to make them disciples. Even when that seems an unlikely prospect.

The most important thing in handling dragons is not to become one ourselves. That’s why what Paul writes is so important. Our ministries must be measured by how well we treat people, including the difficult ones. Be kind to them. Be gentle but firm. Look to disciple your enemies. Your ministry is measured by your relationships, even with those who are the most difficult in your ministry.

In this sense, ministry is no different than anything else. A study attempted to define the good life by tracking the lives of nearly three hundred Harvard men. The study began in 1937, and it followed them for over 70 years. George Valliant directed the study for four decades, and when asked, “What have you learned from the study?” he replied, “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” Paul would list a couple of other things, but there’s no question — relationships matter. How we relate to others is a measure of our ministry, and a measure of our life.

How will you measure your ministry? Measure it by your teaching, your character, and your relationships. That’s a pretty good list.

I don’t think God measures success the same way we do. From a worldly perspective, a lot of the people in Hebrews 11 don’t really seem that successful. Successful people don’t get mocked and scourged. They don’t get chained in prison. They aren’t stoned to death, sawn in two, or beheaded. They aren’t destitute, afflicted, and ill-treated. They don’t wander in deserts or live in holes in the ground.

Except that the Bible calls these people successful. The world was not worthy of them (Hebrews 11:38). The same is true of many pastors. They will never appear to be successful to most people, but they will be successful in God’s eyes.

So how will you measure your ministry? A friend of mine recently met with the search committee of a church. They asked him how he would measure success if he came to that church. You would have expected him to list things like attendance, growth, conversions, and more. He didn’t. He listed five things:

  1. Jesus saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
  2. The best possible marriage.
  3. His children following Jesus, and the knowledge that he had served as the best father possible.
  4. A good bunch of friends.
  5. The knowledge that he had equipped a team to do the work of ministry.

Those things — the approval of Jesus, loving others, and building into people — those are the measures of success in ministry.

How will you measure your ministry? Not by accolades or popularity. Not by your prominence. Measure it by your teaching, your character, and your relationships.

At the beginning of this talk, I mentioned Clay Christensen’s lecture. He said:

Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people. This is my final recommendation: Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.

Let’s pray.

Father, we want to live for that. We don’t want to make the mistake that Stephen Covey talked about so often: of climbing the ladder of success only to find that it’s leaning on the wrong wall. We don’t want to build renowned churches and gain great reputations, but then discover that in your eyes we’d blown it in the areas that matter most.

I pray for each of these three areas. I pray for our teaching. Help us to prepare people to play their roles in the story, making the most of their place and time. Help us to guard our lives. We are all vulnerable. And help us in our relationships, especially with those who are hardest to love.

I pray that we will live our lives so that we’re living for what matters most in the areas of teaching, character, and relationships. And I ask for your Spirit’s help because we can’t do this ourselves. I also thank you for the forgiveness and cleansing that is ours through Jesus when we have failed. Thank you that our failures are not the end.

Help us, Lord, I pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

The Main Thing (2 Timothy 2:1-13)

Big Idea: Your work is to multiply disciples. So pay the cost as you’re strengthened by God’s grace.

One of the hardest things in any role is a lack of clarity about what we’re supposed to be doing. According to the Harvard Business Review, it’s a serious problem:

Poor organizational design and structure results in a bewildering morass of contradictions: confusion within roles, a lack of co-ordination among functions, failure to share ideas, and slow decision-making bring managers unnecessary complexity, stress, and conflict.

If this is true in business, it’s also true in the church. When I candidates at the second church that I pastored, I was handed a three-page job description with 19 duties and even more sub-points. It even broke it down into a tidy 40 hours:

  • 20 hours a week to pulpit preparation, preaching/teaching
  • 5 hours a week to associate pastor relationships and cooperative team planning
  • 5 hours a week to personal leadership interaction and development
  • 10 hours a week to leadership, family counseling, hospital, and home visitation

I never had a single week that looked anything like that. The bewildering demands of ministry keep anything from being as neat. On the other hand, there wasn’t a chance that I would be able to fulfill three pages and multiple points of job descriptions.

What is most important in ministry? While roles vary, I want to suggest that it’s important to have clarity about the main thing in ministry. So I want to look at 2 Timothy 2 with you today. In fact, I want to look at three things: what it’s all about, the cost, and what it will take.

What It’s All about: the Multiplication of Disciples

First, what it’s all about. Paul writes in 2 Timothy 2:1-2:

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

Here we have one of the simplest descriptions of the central task of ministry: the multiplication of disciples. Paul describes four generations of multiplication:

  • Paul had it
  • Timothy heard it from Paul
  • He’s told to entrust it to others, to faithful men
  • They are to teach it to others as well

Imagine if this was common. Imagine if it was normal within the church to be able to spot four generations of gospel multiplication. That which we’ve received, we are also to pass on to others, who will pass it on to others, and so on. N.T. Wright says:

The gospel which must be handed on is the most revolutionary message ever heard … Handing on the tradition safely is the only way to make sure that the next generation, too, is summoned, whatever it costs, to follow the radical gospel of King Jesus.

What does this look like? Admiral William H. McRaven, ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, gave a commencement speech at the University of Texas at Austin on May 17, 2014. He spoke to 8,000 students. Listen to what he said:

That great paragon of analytical rigor, Ask.Com says that the average American will meet 10,000 people in their life time.

That’s a lot of folks.

But, if every one of you changed the lives of just ten people—and each one of those folks changed the lives of another ten people—just ten—then in five generations—125 years—the class of 2014 will have changed the lives of 800 million people.

800 million people—think of it—over twice the population of the United States.  Go one more generation and you can change the entire population of the world—8 billion people.

If you think it’s hard to change the lives of ten people—change their lives forever—you’re wrong.

I’ve been thinking about that. According to Ed Stetzer, the percentage of self-identified Christians had fallen 10 percentage points, from 86 to 76, since 1990. It also showed that the “Nones” – those who claim no religious affiliation – rose from 8 to 15 percent in the same time period. He says, “As the trend continues, we will see the ‘Nones’ continue to grow and the church lose more of its traditional cultural influence. Christians will likely lose the culture wars, leading to difficult times ahead for us.”

But we also face a great opportunity. Growing Health Churches has just around 180 churches. If we took Paul’s command seriously, and 5 people from every one of our churches asked God if they could reach 10 people with the rest of their lives with the gospel — just ten — and then this process was repeated, in just six generations we will have reached 800 million people with the gospel. Go one more generation, and we will have changed the entire population of the world.

It begins here: with the simple multiplication of disciples. You and I will only ever reach a limited number of people, but that’s okay. If you reach a few, and then they reach others, and so on, we will have done our job.

And so that’s what I want my ministry to be about. You can forget about the three pages of job descriptions. I want to multiply the gospel to the next generation, so they can do the same, and so on. At its core, this is the heart of ministry: making disciples, who will make disciples, and so on.

But there’s a cost.

The Cost: Enduring Hardship

Why don’t we do this? Paul is realistic about what it will cost. He writes in verses 3-7:

Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (2 Timothy 2:3-7)

Paul uses three images. If you had lived in this day, you would have been connected in some way to one of these professions. Each of these professions involves suffering. Each of these professions tells us something about what it takes if we are to multiply disciples within our ministries.

Soldier - A soldier’s life involves endurance and focus. Last year I got into watching Downton Abbey. One of the episodes revolves around one of Lord Grantham’s missing cufflinks. It sounds gripping, doesn’t it? But at the start of season two, Matthew, one of the characters, is at war in a foxhole. It’s the Battle of the Somme in which more than a million men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. Bombs are going off. Cufflinks no longer matter when you’re at war.

And that’s what Paul is saying here. We’re at war. If we are going to multiply disciples, we are going to have to realize that we’re no longer in peacetime conditions. Spurgeon said, “When you sleep, remember that you are resting on the battlefield; when you travel, suspect an ambush in every hedge.” Again, “The present world is the battlefield; Heaven is a place of complete victory and glorious triumph. This present world is the land of the sword and spear; Heaven is the place of the white robe and the shout of the conquest.”

Being a soldier during wartime is no picnic. It wasn’t when Paul wrote to Timothy, and even today it’s far from a day at the spa. The elements of war are unforgiving, unpredictable, and uncomfortable. Much is demanded and little is given in return. To exist and succeed in this type of environment, the soldier must be able to consistently endure hardship without complaint and always remain focused on his task.

Once a battle begins, the soldier is in it until his job is done. He can’t take a break because he is hungry or tired. There’s no time off. No sick days. He can’t let his mind wander, and he can’t be distracted by the chaos around him. (Stephen Graves)

But that’s not the only image. We’re not just like soldiers.

Athlete - A soldier’s life involves discipline and obedience. Talent is not hard to find, but it is not enough. If you want to compete, there are rules to be followed. I ran a 10K recently, and saw someone take a shortcut at the turnaround loop. They never went all the way around they pylon. The race staff stopped them and made them come back and do it right. If you take a shortcut of even a few feet, they don’t know that you ran the full course, and you’re disqualified.

It’s like that with athletes. If you don’t follow the rules, you’re suspended or disqualified. And it’s like that with making disciples as well. It involves discipline. It involves daily obedience in the small things so that our lives line up with what we’re trying to do.

Ultimately, discipline in any area is really just a series of choices. For athletes, it’s about saying no to the burger and yes to the grilled salmon. No to a late night out; yes to the early morning film session. For the rest of us, the choices may not be so cut and dried, but discipline is still about consistently making the small right decisions that make up a life or career of right choices. (Stephen Graves)

But there’s one more image:

Farmer - A farmer is all about hard work and patience. Kent Hughes writes:

The farmer’s life involved: 1) early and long hours because he could not afford to lose time; 2) constant toil (plowing, sowing, tending, weeding, reaping, storing); 3) regular disappointments—frosts, pests, and disease; 4) much patience—everything happened at less than slow motion; and 5) boredom.

Sounds like a pastor’s life, doesn’t it? Early and long hours, constant toil, regular disappointments, and much patience. I once told someone that the only part of this that I don’t experience is boredom, but then he told me that he does.

If we are to multiply disciples, this is what it will take. The ministry of the gospel requires strain, struggle, and diligence. Ajith Fernando writes:

If the apostle Paul knew fatigue, anger, and anxiety in his ministry, what makes us think we can avoid them in ours?…Tiredness, stress, and strain may be the cross God calls us to. Paul often spoke about the physical hardships his ministry brought him, including emotional strain (Gal. 4:19; 2 Cor. 11:28), anger (2 Cor. 11:29), sleepless nights and hunger (2 Cor. 6:5), affliction and perplexity (2 Cor. 4:8), and toiling—working to the point of weariness (Col. 1:29).

Paul adds at the end of this passage: “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 3:7). Don’t rush over this. Consider what it will cost if you make the multiplication of disciples the center of your ministry. It will take endurance, focus, discipline, obedience, hard work, and patience. That’s why we often don’t multiply disciples. Consider the cost. It’s worth it.

A few verses down, Paul says, “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:10). I think I’m there. It will take this sort of willingness to suffer if we are to multiply disciples. When we get to this point, we’re getting close to being ready for this to happen.

But then Paul says to draw on God’s help. It’s the only way that we’re going to be able to continue focusing on the main thing. We’ve looked at what our ministries should be all about: multiplying disciples. We’ve looked at the cost: suffering. There’s one more thing that Paul says:

What It Will Take: Being Strengthened by Grace

This passage is sandwiched by the gospel. If we are going to do this, it will be because we get the gospel. Paul says in verse 1: “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus…” (2 Timothy 2:1). It’s in the present tense. Keep being strengthened by the grace that’s in Christ Jesus. We cannot manufacture the endurance, focus, discipline, obedience, hard work, or patience we need. The only way we can do this is if we are drawing on God’s grace. It’s our only hope.

And then Paul ends with a summary of the gospel in verses 8 to 13. Think about Jesus! He says. This is the good news: Jesus Christ is the predicted, long-awaited Messiah. He has been raised from the dead. He lives. He fulfills the Old Testament messianic prophecies. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords. As the risen Lord, all authority in heaven and earth is his. He is victor. He is all-powerful. Paul clings to this. It’s the reality that gives him strength. 

Even better, Paul reminds us that although our role is important, we are not ultimately the hope. In verses 11 to 13 he says:

The saying is trustworthy, for:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;

if we endure, we will also reign with him;

if we deny him, he also will deny us;

if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

for he cannot deny himself.

(2 Timothy 2:11-13)

Paul ramps up the pressure in the areas of conversion, endurance, and apostasy. In a succession of statements, we’re called to do our part, expecting that God will respond appropriately. The first two promise divine blessings; the third stops me in my tracks with its severe warning. Disowning Christ has eternal consequences.

Not good.

The problem is that I know my track record. I would never want to deny Christ, but I get nervous when something as important as this is left up to my track record, which is spotty at best. That’s why Paul’s next line is so surprising and relieving:

…if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

for he cannot deny himself.

(2 Timothy 2:13)

Paul breaks with the act-consequence pattern. There’s some debate about what he means. Some take it as a warning: God will be faithful in denying those who deny him. While that is possible, it sounds more like a note of hope to me: because God is who he is, he remains faithful despite our weakness. Apostasy is one thing; our faltering weakness is another.

This is not theory. This is the story of my life. I am often unfaithful; despite this, God persists in his faithfulness to me. Samuel Rutherford wrote in the 1600s:

Often and often, I have in my folly torn up my copy of God’s covenant with me; but, blessed be His name, He keeps it in heaven safe; and He stands by it always.

Our obedience is important. Our confidence, though, is ultimately not in our obedience, but in the faithfulness of the God who guards us. That’s good news indeed

This isn’t for the faint of heart? Actually, it is for the faint of heart!

Do you feel burdened, exhausted, and weak? Don’t resent your weariness, but take heart because of Christ! In your weakness you have an opportunity to exalt Christ in everything because he is exalted over all things. (Gloria Furman)

The only way that we’re going to be able to pay the cost to multiply disciples is if we’re strengthened by God’s grace. So root yourself in the gospel. Think about Jesus. It’s the only thing that will keep you going in the challenges of ministry.

I still get confused about my role at times. Now that I’m a church planter I think it’s even worse. I’m bivocational. I don’t have a lot of admin support. I’m a fundraiser, a preacher, a leader, a pastor, an administrator, a cleaner, and more.

I wear a lot of hats, but in the end there’s one hat to rule them all. I want to be all about multiplying disciples. If I fail at that, I fail at everything. So I want to pay the cost and suffer. I want to endure everything for the sake of those who haven’t yet heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. In order to do that, I want to strengthen myself in the grace that’s in Christ Jesus.

Let’s pray.

Father, give us this single-minded focus. We are about a lot of things, but our work is to multiply disciples. So we want to pay the cost as we’re strengthened by the grace that’s in Christ Jesus.

So I pray that you would help us do this. Help me in Liberty Village, Toronto. Help each of these brothers and sisters to do it in their communities. I pray that at the end of our lives, there will be some disciples who are making disciples because we made it our focus to disciple them. And I pray this would ripple throughout generations to come. I pray this all in Jesus’ name. Amen.


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

The Most Difficult Thing in Ministry (2 Timothy 1:15-18, 4:9-18)

Big Idea: How do we deal with relational pain in ministry? Expect it, prepare for it, and bring it to the Lord.

An article came out a couple of weeks ago called “How to Destroy Your Pastor.” The author talked about the three times that he wanted to quit ministry. Once was when he had to dedicate a tiny baby who had passed away after being born three months premature. The second was when his wife was diagnosed with cancer. But the time he most seriously considered quitting took place in the living room of a church member. He writes:

He and I had been in almost constant conflict over the course of two years. I was at his house to try to figure out what the problem was, and how we might fix it. With my head in my hands, I poured out my heart to this man I considered my brother in Christ, sharing all the woes and fears that I had faced that year: the break-ins at my home, my wife’s cancer diagnosis, our meager attendance at church. My voice choked with emotion, I confessed to him, “I really could use a break, you know?”

He looked at me, and with a flat voice dripping with contempt, muttered, “You are just so ... emotional.”

Speechless, I stared at him. I realized then that he didn’t see me as I saw him, as a brother in Christ. I was his enemy, worthy only of his derision, not his compassion. As he met my stare with a stony one of his own, I pledged to myself, “That’s it. I quit.”

He thought that his experience was unique, but then he started talking to others:

But as I spoke with other pastors, I realized that this narrative was an altogether common one. In conversation after conversation, fellow pastors told me their horror stories of how they too had faced poisonous and unwavering criticism from a single individual or, more commonly, a single faction of people. And this criticism had been so unrelenting that many of these pastors had left their congregations or the ministry altogether, sometimes both.

Of course he’s not alone. Every single one of us could get up and tell similar stories. The subtitle of the article this pastor wrote captures the truth well: “What threatens pastors most is not the attack that comes from outside the church, but the criticisms of cliques from within.”

A few years ago, Christianity Today published an excellent article by Ajith Fernando, who’s with Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka. Things are so bad over there that they’re doing prison ministry, figuring that they may as well improve prison conditions before they end up in them. Fernando’s article was called “To Serve Is to Suffer,” and I found it interesting what he wrote:

Several people have sympathized with me, saying it must be hard and frustrating to serve in a country wracked by war and hostile to evangelism. Indeed, we have suffered. A few months ago, one of our staff workers was brutally assaulted and killed. But I think the biggest pain I have experienced is the pain I have received from Youth for Christ, the organization for which I have worked for 34 years. I can also say that next to Jesus and my family, Youth for Christ has been the greatest source of joy in my life.

He goes on to say that the pain we experience from people is entirely avoidable. “We can avoid pain by stopping the relationship or moving on to something more ‘fulfilling.’ But what do we lose?”

I think these articles are right. The biggest source of pain most of us will experience in ministry is relational pain. What threatens us most is not the attack that comes out of the church, but the criticism and betrayal we experience within.

That’s exactly what we see as we look at 2 Timothy. Paul’s greatest pain doesn’t come from his Roman captors. It’s not hard to sense his pain and joy in relationships as you read verses 15-18:

You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes. May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me earnestly and found me—may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day!—and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus. (2 Timothy 1:15-18)

You sense the same thing in chapter 4:

Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (2 Timothy 4:9-18)

It’s not too hard to piece things together, although we don’t know all the details. Paul has served for years in Asia. He has many friends as well in Rome. At his preliminary hearing, though, nobody has the courage to stand with him.

This is not an unfamiliar story. I’ll never forget the first time I experienced this myself. I was pastoring my first church. One of the deacons and his wife had become good friends. After a while, we started to notice that things were awkward. We would enter a room, and they would get up and leave. We could never figure out what the issue was, but it was clear that something was wrong.

One night we had a deacons meeting at the church. I can still remember where I was sitting. He came in and didn’t even sit down. I think I asked him if he was going to sit, and he got right in my grill and started yelling at me. I didn’t know if he was going to punch me or not. He spent a few minutes yelling a couple of inches from my face before turning around and storming out of the church. To this day I don’t understand everything that happened.

It’s not even close to the last time we’ve dealt with this issue. I bet we could open the floor right now and compare stories. “You think that’s bad? I can beat that one!”

I want to look at this passage today and think about how we can deal with the relational pain of ministry. As I think about it, there are at least three things that we can learn.

First: Expect it.

The classic marketing book Never Eat Alone was just revised. It has a pretty good formula in it:


If that is the case, then we have a pretty good shot at being successful. Because ministry is all about meeting people, and we are creating something significant together, we have an amazing shot at success.

But the statistics I shared earlier paint a different picture. 70 percent of pastors say they do not have a single close friend. I haven’t yet a pastor yet who hasn’t experienced hurt from the relational nature of ministry.

“The most difficult thing I have found in Christian ministry is opposition from people I thought were friends, or at least colleagues, fellow-workers,” says N.T. Wright. I don’t think there’s a pastor around who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. This is the very stuff of ministry. Kevin Miller of Leadership Journal writes:

If there were a binding contract to sign before entering ministry, the fine print would include: "The undersigned acknowledges that the pastoral ministry may be hazardous and subject the undersigned to expressions of animosity, including but not limited to calumny, slander, misrepresentation, and betrayal."

I mean, look at Paul. He had a network. “He had people who were his life, people on whom he depended, people to whom he delegated responsibility, people in whom he trusted, people who were faithful, people who were unfaithful, people who were friends, people who were enemies, people who were old friends in his life, people who were new friends, people who were consistent, people who were inconsistent, people who were always ready to volunteer, people who were never ready to volunteer. They were all a part of his life” (John MacArthur).

Paul had the “people you meet” part of the success equation down. He’s spent years working in these churches. He’s in Rome, where he had built a significant network.  At the end of Romans he had listed mention 33 names, 24 of whom were in Rome. What makes this even more impressive is that Paul had never been to Rome! He’d poured his life into people.

He’d also done some amazing things with these people. Alan Hirsch and Mike Frost talk about communitas, is the community, the brotherhood, that is born out of an adventure, an ordeal, a challenge or a mission. If anyone had this, it was Paul. I can’t imagine the depth of the relationships that he built while traveling through the Roman empire planting churches.

But now, at the climax of his ministry, and when he needed his network the most, that network had let him down. It was a fairly complete collapse — “all who are in Asia turned away from me…” (2 Timothy 1:15). But even a betrayal of a large number of people has some recognizable faces that come to mind. Paul mentions a few: Phygelus, Hermogenes, and Demas — even through there were more than these.

I’m guessing that the betrayal of Demas may have been especially heartbreaking. Paul mentions him elsewhere as a fellow worker (Philemon 1:24) and associate of Luke (Colossians 4:14). Those of us who’ve been let down by our coworkers know how bad that feels.

We need to expect that ministry will involve relational pain. C.S. Lewis wrote:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Expecting it gives us a great advantage. It makes the second thing we can do possible:

Second: prepare for it.

Let me talk about the text, and then talk about our lives. As I read Paul in 2 Timothy, I notice a few things:

  • He feels the pain of betrayal. This makes him human. It’s a relief, actually, because we don’t have to live in denial. Betrayal sucks and it hurts.
  • Although he feels the pain, he still has it together. He’s not relationally disengaged. He’s reaching out and mentoring Timothy, and you still get a sense of optimism even in the middle of the most brutal of circumstances. He’s obviously not falling apart even when people have let him down.
  • I also notice that he does a good job of mentoring Timothy to be prepared for betrayal himself. He repeatedly calls on Timothy to endure suffering, to ignore irreverent babble (2 Timothy 2:16), to confront difficult people. His advice at the end of chapter 2 is a crash course on how to deal with difficult people while keeping your head.

In other words, Paul has done some of the work necessary to stay relationally connected without being destroyed when relationships go awry. It’s work that all of us have to do.

When I entered ministry, I’d done a pretty good job with my first point: expect relational pain. But I had not prepared for it. I had no plan for how to survive the relational pain when it happened. In 2010 I took a Sabbatical and really began to learn about how to be prepared for this stuff — a little late, but better than never. I began to read the work of Edwin Friedman, a Jewish Rabbi, family therapist, and leadership consultant who writes about family systems theory. He writes about how to self-regulate emotions in the face of reactive sabotage. The well-differentiated leader, he writes: not an autocrat who tells others what to do or orders them around, although any leader who defines himself or herself clearly may be perceived that way by those who are not taking responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny

... is someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about

.... is someone who can separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence... is someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing.

This is hard stuff. But there’s an increasing amount of really good material out there on the topic. One of the best new books I’ve seen is by a pastor in my denomination in London, Ontario — a guy we’ve stolen from the States. His name is Charles Stone, and his book is called People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval-Motivated Leadership. He summarizes Friedman’s work, by the way, so if you’re going to buy one book, this is the one.

Stone writes about the problem of being unprepared to deal with relational complexity in the church:

Seminary taught me about sound theology, effective evangelism, sermon preparation, discipleship methods and much more. But I didn’t learn how to deal with my own emotionality or that of others in the church. I didn’t learn how my brain contributes to my anxiety or how I fit into emotional processes. What do I do when the board treats me unfairly? How do I handle nasty rumors? How should I respond when I get an angry email or a scathing unsigned letter?

The problem? “An unhealthy response to anxiety, whether it’s ours or someone else’s, will suffocate, constrict and limit our energy, passion, drive and leadership.”  But there is a solution. He gives some great advice on how to understand our own past and he culture of our church, clarify your values, understand emotional triangles, practice self-care, tame reactivity, and more. It’s a great resource for anyone in ministry.

If the most difficult thing in Christian ministry is opposition from people we thought were friends, or at least colleagues, fellow-workers, then we need to prepare ourselves to deal with this. We need to mentor our younger pastors on how to deal with this. We need to confront each other about our people-pleasing tendencies. Expecting it gives us an advantage, because we’ll go ahead and prepare for it. In his book The Art of Pastoring, David Hansen says we only really have three options when we’re caught in what he calls “transference hell” — when people project their unresolved junk onto us, which they will do. Here are our only three options:

  1. Leave the ministry;
  2. Stay in the ministry but stop loving people (and become a religious hack); or
  3. Grow up.

“The last option is the toughest,” he writes. “But growing up brings a remarkable reward for pastors: they become…a whole person.”

So expect it. Prepare for it.

Finally: Take it to the Lord.

This sounds like the part of the talk when I get all super-spiritual on you. It would be easy to sing, “We should never be discouraged. Take it to the Lord in prayer.” I’m not going to do that. I don’t want to pretend that our relationship with Christ can ever take away the pain of being hurt and betrayed. I think about some of the friends I know who’ve really been chewed up by churches. No matter how much you expect it, and how much you prepare for it, it still really bits.

I don’t want to get super-spiritual and minimize the pain. But I do think there is something we can learn from Paul about taking this pain to the Lord. I trust a man who’s experienced the pain of betrayal, and has still managed to stay healthy. I love what Paul says in chapter 4:17-18, because I don’t think it’s a platitude. I think what he says here is real:

But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (2 Timothy 4:17-18)

In the middle of all of this pain, Paul had a sense of God’s presence. He felt God’s strengthening. He still held on to the mission that God had given him. Even though he knew that he would die, he still knew that even then he would be safe. Tim Keller notices that that phrase “the Lord…strengthened me”  is a phrase that usually means to nurse and bind up wounds. God doesn’t just stand by us, but he cares for us and heals us.

We just finished marking Easter. There is some hope in knowing that when we are betrayed, we are in very good company. It’s also great to know that no matter where we stand with others, we know where we stand with God. Ron Edmondson, a pastor in Kentucky, writes this:

You have to be confident in your calling. Ultimately our calling as pastors is not to a church, or even a church’s vision statement, but to a person: the person of Christ. When I consistently remind myself of who I am in Christ, I can focus my attention on pleasing Him instead of pleasing every member of my church. It’s a daily discipline, but this perspective allows me to better navigate through all the demands placed on me, discerning which ones help accomplish the mission of the church and which ones are merely a distraction.

Dan Allender reminds us that if we lead, we will at some point serve alongside of Judas and Peter, maybe more than once. Judases will purposefully betray us; Peters will deny us, even when they think they are incapable of doing so.

The most difficult thing in Christian ministry is opposition from people we thought were friends, or at least colleagues, fellow-workers. We need to expect this, prepare for it, and ultimately experience the knowledge of God standing by us, strengthening us, and rescuing us.

I often tend to think that the people I serve need to change. What I’m discovering is that the person who needs to change the most is me. I need to grow up. Problem people aren’t going away, so I need to learn how to stay emotionally and spiritually healthy around them. I need to be honest about the pain. I need to rest in God’s presence and healing even when I’ve been hurt.

In Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership, Gary McIntosh and Samuel Rima use a compost pile to illustrate the work of the Holy Spirit. Just as time turns garbage into something useful, the Holy Spirit takes our broken places, failures and unhealthy traits to transform them into traits more like his. How do we deal with relational pain in ministry? Expect it, prepare for it, and bring it to the Lord, trusting that he’ll make something useful out of it.

Lord, Thank you that you know about the pain of betrayal. Thank you as well that you stand with us and strengthen us in the middle of that betrayal. I pray that you would bind up the wounds that some of us are carrying here even today. Thank you that you make something useful out of our garbage, our broken places, and our failures. Do this now. I pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.