The Training and Instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:1-4)

In September of 2006 George Barna released a sobering study. Following interviews with more than 22,000 adults and 2,000 teenagers from across America, he revealed that the majority of twentysomethings who are raised as Christians subsequently abandon the faith. He found that:

...most twentysomethings disengage from active participation in the Christian faith during their young adult years—and often beyond that. In total, six out of ten twentysomethings were involved in a church during their teen years, but have failed to translate that into active spirituality during their early adulthood.

Another survey by LifeWay found that “Seven in 10 Protestants ages 18 to 30 — both evangelical and mainline — who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23.” Still another study (from Church Communication Networks) said that up to 94 percent of Christian teens leave the church within a few years of leaving high school.

This is alarming! Writing on these studies, local pastor and blogger Tim Challies says, “Each of these studies appears to show that Christians are doing a very poor job of reaching the children in their midst.” The most important thing we can do for our kids is to introduce them to Jesus Christ, and to his transforming power. It’s vastly more important than anything else we can do as parents. But the statistics say we’re doing a bad job of this.

So this morning I want to look at a familiar passage of Scripture. My intent this morning is not to tell you anything you don’t already know. I want to remind you of some things. More important than that, I want to encourage you who are parents to make this a priority in our lives.

So let’s read the passage, and then let me make some applications. The passage is Ephesians 6:1-4. Paul has been applying the amazing truths of what God has accomplished in Jesus Christ to families. The gospel, he says, changes our marriages and our families. And in chapter 6 he turns our attention to parenting. He says:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Three things this morning. First, an assumption. Second, a transformation. Third, an obligation.

An Assumption

It’s important to begin with an understanding of what Paul is assuming in this passage. Paul does not begin with practical parenting advice. We’re jumping in at the end of the book. Paul is now applying what he has said earlier about the gospel. He’s spent most of the book explaining what God is up to in this world. He’s explained God’s eternal plan to choose and adopt us, to exalt Jesus Christ, to take spiritually dead people and make them alive, to reconcile Jews and Greeks to become one people. You cannot apply chapters 4-6 of Ephesians until you understand chapters 1-3 of Ephesians. All that Paul is doing in this passage is unpacking what he’s said earlier about the gospel.

So here’s the assumption: before you can apply what he’s about to say about parenting, the assumption is that you have been changed by the gospel. In other words, you can’t pass on what you don’t have. Tim Challies, again, touches on this in his comments about the sobering statistics I just read to you:

Looking at the evangelical landscape in the United States (where these studies were performed) and in Canada, I see that the majority of children, and probably the vast majority of children, are raised in churches where what they hear is a false gospel or a gospel that has been emptied of all that makes it the power of God for salvation. We should not be at all surprised that children abandon this kind of a counterfeit gospel as soon as they are able to. I would do the same.

Shortly after my son was born a friend gave me this little bit of wisdom: “Kids are amazing bull–- detectors.” A bit crude, but the point was well-taken. Through 11 years and 3 children I’ve seen that this is exactly the case, though I do not express it in quite the same way. Children are amazing at unmasking hypocrisy; they are not easily fooled. You may fool them for a moment, but not for a lifetime. They will believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy and Jesus when they are young. Sooner or later, though, they need evidence that these characters truly exist.

This is so true. One of the reasons, humanly speaking I became convinced of the truth of the gospel is because I saw it clearly displayed in my family. Our kids have a powerful ability to know whether we’re dragging them to church because it’s something we think we should do, or whether it’s real in our lives. They know how our faith is real even by how we talk. Think of this example. C. John Miller writes in his book Outgrowing the Ingrown Church:

I once overheard a visitor to one of our services tell this story to a young father. He said, “This morning you brought your child to be given over to the Lord. I did that once too. But let me urge you from the bottom of my heart, don’t do to your child what I did to mine. As he grew up, he listened to me criticize the pastor year after year. As a consequence, I turned off my boy to the church and to ministers, and today he is far from God.”

It goes both ways too. The kids of pastors can tell by the way their parents talk if this is real or not.

So let me begin by saying that Paul is making an assumption here. The assumption is that parents must be transformed by the gospel themselves so that it’s real in their lives before they can pass it on to their children. I don’t want to make this assumption this morning. So let me ask you: is it real? Are you truly a Christian? Is your heart this morning warm towards God? Do you marvel that Jesus Christ has died for your sins? This is where it starts. Your kids will be able to tell whether it’s real in your life or not. The assumption is that you can only pass on to your kids what you yourself possess.

A Transformation

Secondly, in this passage we also see a transformation. In that day, the rights of fathers were staggering. Men in general had a lot of rights, but children could change all of that. They tied you down. They were considered a nuisance. They were expensive, inhibited sexual promiscuity, and made easy divorce a lot harder. As a result, many in that day did not want children. But even if you did have children, the father’s rights would be almost unlimited. A father could sell his children as slaves. He could make them work in the field, even in chains. He could punish them how he liked, and could even inflict the death penalty on them. And this power extended over the life of his children no matter how long they lived. A Roman son never came of age. His father had rights over him as long as the father lived.

When a child was born, the child would be placed before the father. If the father stooped and raised the child, the child was accepted and raised as his. But if he turned away, the child was rejected and literally discarded. Sometimes the baby would be picked up by those who trafficked in infants; and raised to be slaved or to work in brothels. Other times they were left to die. One Roman father wrote to his wife, “If - good luck to you! - you have a child, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, throw it out.”

And then Paul comes along and, like Jesus, elevates the value of children in an extraordinary way, so that fathers have a sacred responsibility to their children. Paul says in this passage that fathers have responsibilities to their children. This is so important today because fathers do still sometimes go AWOL on their children. Fathers can tend to be passive. But Paul lays on us dads here the obligations we have to our kids. He refuses just to talk about rights; he reminds us that there’s a transformation in our relationship that leaves us with very clear obligations.

But he also transforms things from the children’s perspective. Why should a child obey the father? Not because of the father’s rights, but because it is pleasing to the Lord. Paul brings God into the relationship.

This means that our parenting is no longer a private issue between us and our kids. Paul teaches us there that parenting is a spiritual obligation. We are responsible before God as fathers. We don’t have a whole bunch of rights; we have a spiritual obligation before God to do our part.

There’s an assumption that the faith we’re trying to pass on is real in ourselves. And there is also a transformation in our relationship so that we see ourselves as fathers before God. We’re no longer passive or able to parent as we please. Our kids are on loan, as it were.

So my second question is this: Do you see parenting - particularly fathering - as a sacred duty before God? The way that you father is an issue with which God is concerned. There’s a transformation in our parenting relationship because God is very concerned.

Remember the stats I quoted at the start of this sermon. If these are true, and if we aren’t doing our job as parents, we need to step up. We need to be doing our job. We are failing our kids and failing God if we don’t.

An Obligation

Finally, there’s an obligation here. Verse 4: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

Parents usually go wrong in one or two ways. Some parents are too strict. Paul addresses this in the first phrase: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children.” It’s significant, but the way, that he mentions fathers here. Don’t let anyone tell you that parenting is a mother’s job! But then Paul corrects a mistake that is common in parenting: that parenting can be so strict that children are exasperated and crushed by the demands. Paul doesn’t want this. He wants an atmosphere of grace in which our kids are allowed to flourish.

The distinguished painter Benjamin West tells the story of one day when his mother went out, leaving him in charge of his younger sister. While she was out, he discovered some ink and decided to paint his sister’s portrait. When his mother came back there was an awful mess. She walked in, said nothing about the ink stains all over. She picked up the paper on which he had drawn the portrait and said, “Why, it’s Sally!” and then she stooped and kissed him. Benjamin West said, “My mother’s kiss made me a painter.”

Paul says, in essence, “Don’t err by being too strict and exasperating your children.” Once again, this comes back to the gospel. If you get that you are loved by God because of his sheer grace, that grace will begin to affect your parenting. There’s a great new book out called Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus. The author says that we sometimes give our kids the wrong impression that God is only pleased with us when we’re good. She writes:

Grace, or the free favor that has been lavished on us through Christ, ought to make our parenting radically different from what unbelievers do. That’s because the good news of God’s grace is meant to permeate and transform every relationship we have, including our relationship with our children. All the typical ways we construct to get things done and get others to do our bidding are simply obliterated by a gospel message that tells us that we are all (parents and children) both radically sinful and radically loved. At the deepest level of what we do as parents, we should hear the heartbeat of a loving, grace-giving Father who freely adopts rebels and transforms then into loving sons and daughters. If this is not the message that your children hear from you, if the message you send them on a daily basis is about begin good so that you won’t be disappointed, then the gospel needs to transforming your parenting too.

But then he confronts the other way that parents go wrong: by being too lenient. “Bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”

Training is a word that refers to discipline. Some parents err by not being disciplined appropriately. Paul has already said not to be too harsh, but here he says not to go to the other extreme and let your children do whatever they want either.

But Paul doesn’t stop there. He also mentions the instruction of the Lord. What does this mean? A lot of us want our kids to learn about the Lord. That’s why we bring our kids to church and to Sunday school. But Paul here says that the primary responsibility for this belongs in the home. It is ultimately the parent’s job - ultimately, according to Paul, the father’s job - to instruct children in the way of the Lord.

A pastor - formerly a youth pastor - complained that parents would often call him in frustration, wanting him to do something to fix their teenagers. He grew increasingly frustrated, because for years these parents had been teaching them that church and the Lord come somewhere on the list after sports and school and everything else. For years, these parents had been teaching their kids that God is not a high priority. These parents had been instructing their children, but not in the way of the Lord.

Paul says that it’s our job to instruct them in the Lord. This means making the Lord a priority in our schedules, and also in our home lives. This means that your kids will know whether your faith is genuine or not. They’re more likely to be excited about the Lord if you are excited about the Lord.

It also means that we will learn family worship. Most parents today don’t take the time to read the Bible, pray, and worship with their children. In 1647, Christians were so concerned about this that they raised the alarm and said, “If we don’t start worshiping at home, we’re going to lose our kids!” And they were right. So they instructed pastors and elders to begin inquiring about family devotions. If they found out that a father was not leading his children in family worship, they would talk to him privately. If he didn’t respond, they would actually begin church discipline against him.

Were they fanatics? Maybe - or maybe they were just on to something. Maybe they knew that parents are responsible for disciplining children, and instructing them in the Lord, and that failure to do so is catastrophic. We should care about our children’s relationship with the Lord just as much as we care about any other area of their life. It’s more important than almost anything. It’s got to be a priority.

Listen: I can’t tell you how important this is. And the statistics say we’re not doing a good job of it. The most important thing we can do is to be transformed by the gospel, and then to introduce our kids to the gospel that has changed us so radically.

Three questions:

  • have you been transformed? is the gospel real in your life?
  • will you see your fathering and parenting as something that is a sacred responsibility, something with which God is very concerned?
  • what will you do to fulfill your obligation to parent in a way that is both dripping with grace, and that is taking deliberate action to train and instruct your kids in the ways of the Lord?

Let's pray.

Father, may the gospel become real in our lives. I pray that we would be so transformed by your amazing grace that our kids can’t help but know that the gospel is real. I pray that we would take our responsibility seriously, as a sacred trust from you. I pray that our relationships would drip with grace because we’ve experienced your grace. And I pray that every parent here would take specific action to train and instruct our kids in the ways of the Lord. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

The Gospel Applied to Parenting (Ephesians 6:1-4)

This morning we're beginning the final chapter of the book of Ephesians, and we're covering a topic that is very appropriate for Mother's Day: parenting. As Paul writes his letter, he is applying the gospel to every part of life. We've been looking for two weeks at how Paul applies the gospel to marriage, and today we come to how Paul applies the gospel to children, and then to parents. This is a very practical and necessary lesson for all of us - as we're going to see, even for those of us who don't have young children anymore.

What in the world does the gospel have to do with parenting? According to Paul, everything. The gospel is what God has done through Jesus Christ at the cross, which is the culmination of history. Paul has explained in the first few chapters how God has reconciled all creation to himself and is creating a new people to himself in the church out of people who were formerly enemies. This is why Ephesians is so relational. In fact, somebody has said that Ephesians is essentially a book about relationships: our relationship with God, and then our relationship within the new humanity he is creating. God is not just reconciling people to himself; he is also creating a new people here and now. Paul says that the way that we relate to each other as the church is a demonstration of his wisdom to angelic beings. When angels want to see how smart God is, they look at the church, at the way that we care for and relate to each other as people who would otherwise have nothing in common with each other.

So the gospel changes our relationships. As we live under the influence of the Spirit, it changes our most intimate relationships - not only in the church, but also in our homes. The best way to transform your marriage, your relationships with your parents or children - any relationship - is to be transformed by the gospel. Understand what Christ has done in making dead people spiritually alive, and it changes everything.

So today isn't for anyone. You can't write a parenting book for everyone based on this passage, because it's really for people who have been transformed by the gospel and are living in the power of the Spirit. But if you have been changed by the gospel, then the gospel is going to change the way that you relate to both your parents and to your kids.

Now, I want to pause here and say that what I want to do is preach what Paul says, not what I think about parenting. A lot of pastors have been humbled in preaching this text. I never knew so much about parenting as before I was a parent. Now that I've been a parent for over 14 years, I'm starting to learn what I don't know. Today I really don't want to talk to you based on my own experience as a parent, because I am well aware of where I have failed as a parent. I hope that by God's grace I have also succeeded as a parent in many ways, but let's not hear me talk about parenting today. Let's hear from the Lord through the apostle Paul.

I also want to say that this passage is going to be challenging. This is an in-your-face passage. I hope that you will be challenged as we look at this passage, and also encouraged that with the Spirit's help, you can make the changes necessary in your own life to put this passage into practice.

Let's look first at how this passage uncovers our sins. Then we're going to look very briefly at how the gospel shapes the relationship of kids to parents, and parents to kids.

First, let's start by looking at how this passage uncovers our sins.

Sometimes when people study Ephesians, they think that Paul is reenforcing traditional family values of that day. They think that Paul is just echoing what was common in that day, and that now things have changed so we don't have to listen to him anymore. But if you look a bit more carefully, you begin to understand that Paul is actually uncovering the sins of parents in that day. And not only this, but he's uncovering the sins of parents today as well.

What specifically does Paul uncover? In that day, the rights of fathers were staggering. Men in general had a lot of rights, but children could change all of that. They tied you down. They were considered a nuisance. They were expensive, inhibited sexual promiscuity, and made easy divorce a lot harder. As a result, many in that day did not want children. But even if you did have children, the father's rights would be almost unlimited. A father could sell his children as slaves. He could make them work in the field, even in chains. He could punish them how he liked, and could even inflict the death penalty on them. And this power extended over the life of his children no matter how long they lived. A Roman son never came of age. His father had rights over him as long as the father lived.

When a child was born, the child would be placed before the father. If the father stooped and raised the child, the child was accepted and raised as his. But if he turned away, the child was rejected and literally discarded. Sometimes the baby would be picked up by those who trafficked in infants; and raised to be slaved or to work in brothels. Other times they were left to die. One Roman father wrote to his wife, "If - good luck to you! - you have a child, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, throw it out."

And then Paul comes along and, like Jesus, elevates the value of children in an extraordinary way, so that fathers have a sacred responsibility to their children. Paul revolutionizes the relationship between children and parents. You'll remember that Jesus did the same as well, welcoming them when the disciples tried to turn them away. He warned that it would be better to be drowned with a millstone tied to your neck rather than to cause a child to stumble. He said that we have to become like children ourselves. The gospel completely overturns the culture's views on children, completely turns them upside down.

I know that you are probably thinking that you're glad we are more progressive today, that we finally understand the value of children. If that is what you are thinking, you are both right and wrong. In fact, we not only face the danger that Paul corrected in this passage, we face a new one too. As much as we recoil against seeing children as impediments to the lifestyle we desire, and the barbaric treatment of children, this happens today as well. This is why we can't be smug. We still decide whether or not we're going to have children based on how well the children will fit into our lives. This is still an issue today, in which children are seen as something that will interfere with our lives. This is still very much an issue today.

But not only do we suffer from this, but we also suffer from the opposite as well. We also end up idolizing our children. It's strange: we don't want children until they will fit into our lives, but once we have children, we face the very real danger of centering our lives on them. An idol is a good thing that we make an ultimate thing. It's anything we look to apart from Jesus in order to be happy. And today we face the very real danger of turning our kids into idols, of looking to them for our ultimate happiness. Not only does this lead us away from loving God above all, but it ultimately crushes our kids. It places a weight on them that they simply can't bare.

The good news is that Paul not only uncovers these sins, but he gives us hope. Let's look at what he does.

So let's look at how the gospel transforms the relationship of children to parents.

Paul says in Ephesians 6:1-2:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. "Honor your father and mother"--which is the first commandment with a promise-- "so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth."

Here Paul gives us a general principle and an application of this principle. This principle, when we understand it, corrects both traditional and modern views of children and parenting. It's something that the Ephesians needed to hear at a time when they undervalued children, and it's something we need to hear today when we both undervalue and overvalue children.

What is the underlying principle? It comes from the fifth of what we call the ten commandments - "Honor your father and mother." What does honor mean? John Calvin said it really involves three things: reverence, obedience, and gratitude. Reverence means that we respect our parents with our hearts, honoring them appropriately. Honoring them means something even more practical: that we support them in practical ways, even financially. Paul says this in 1 Timothy 5:

But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God...Give the people these instructions, so that no one may be open to blame. Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Timothy 5:4-8)

This is very strong language - not at all an optional thing. We have a responsibility to care for our parents, even our grandparents, in practical ways, including financially, as well as housing, health care, mental stimulation, and emotional support.

What about "obey"? Paul gives this as an application of the principle that we honor our parents, and it's going to look different depending on our age. The word Paul uses in verse 1 is usually for little children living at home. When you're a child, it really does mean obey. But as you grow, the Bible teaches that you do leave your parent's home and form a home of your own. In Genesis it says that you are to leave father and mother and cleave to your wife. There is a bit of a change in the way you relate to your parents. As an adult, obedience means more an attitude of general submission, faithfully listening to the wisdom that your parents have.

I hope you see how this is a challenge to both traditional and modern views of family. In Paul's day, the traditional view said that you obey your father because your father has all the rights and you have no choice. Paul says no to this. You obey and willingly submit to your parents because it is right, because it is pleasing to the Lord, and because things generally go well with you when you do. Obedience to God leads to blessing.

It also challenges modern views of family. Today we teach our children that submission to authority is a bad thing, and to challenge others and to think for themselves.

Paul says that both the traditional and modern views are wrong. Children are to honor their parents as part of their duty to the Lord. This means obeying when you're young, but even when you're older it means showing respect and appreciation for your parents, as well as looking after them, not only on Mother's Day but all year long. When we do this, things go well.

The difficult part comes when this is costly, and it can be costly in two specific ways. For some of us it's costly because our parents may not have been what we had hoped for. Some of our fathers, for instance, were not the fathers we would have liked. Paul says that we are still to find ways to show them respect and honor, not because we agree with them and not because we want to ignore all that they did wrong, but because this is right and pleasing to the Lord.

It's also costly because it takes time and money. I keep telling my mother not to get old. So far it's working. But there may come a day when honoring her costs in some very practical ways. I keep telling my kids to get ready for when I'm old. It's going to be a doozy!

What gives children the desire to honor imperfect parents, to care for them even at great cost? The gospel does. The gospel gives us the ability to forgive the sins of our imperfect parents, because we see how much we have been forgiven. It gives us the selflessness to care for our parents at great cost because we see how much Christ has sacrificed for us. It lifts us out of our selfishness, so that the way we treat our parents becomes a reflection of our love for the Lord.

But Paul's not done here in this passage.

Let's look at how the gospel transforms the relationship of parents to children.

Paul says in verse 4: "Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord."

Parents usually go wrong in one or two ways. Some parents are too strict. Paul addresses this in the first phrase: "Fathers, do not exasperate your children." It's significant, but the way, that he mentions fathers here. Don't let anyone tell you that parenting is a mother's job! But then Paul corrects a mistake that is common in parenting: that parenting can be so strict that children are exasperated and crushed by the demands. Paul doesn't want this. He wants an atmosphere of grace in which our kids are allowed to flourish.

The distinguished painter Benjamin West tells the story of one day when his mother went out, leaving him in charge of his younger sister. While she was out, he discovered some ink and decided to paint his sister's portrait. When his mother came back there was an awful mess. She walked in, said nothing about the ink stains all over. She picked up the paper on which he had drawn the portrait and said, "Why, it's Sally!" and then she stooped and kissed him. Benjamin West said, "My mother's kiss made me a painter."

Paul says, in essence, "Don't err by being too strict and exasperating your children." But then he confronts the other way that parents go wrong: by being too lenient. "Bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord."

Training is a word that refers to discipline. Some parents err by not being disciplined appropriately. Paul has already said not to be too harsh, but here he says not to go to the other extreme and let your children do whatever they want either.

But Paul doesn't stop there. He also mentions the instruction of the Lord. What does this mean? A lot of us want our kids to learn about the Lord. That's why we bring our kids to church and to Sunday school. But Paul here says that the primary responsibility for this belongs in the home. It is ultimately the parent's job - ultimately, according to Paul, the father's job - to instruct children in the way of the Lord.

A pastor - formerly a youth pastor - complained that parents would often call him in frustration, wanting him to do something to fix their teenagers. He grew increasingly frustrated, because for years these parents had been teaching them that church and the Lord come somewhere on the list after sports and school and everything else. For years, these parents had been teaching their kids that God is not a high priority. These parents had been instructing their children, but not in the way of the Lord.

Paul says that it's our job to instruct them in the Lord. This means making the Lord a priority in our schedules, and also in our home lives. This means that your kids will know whether your faith is genuine or not. They're more likely to be excited about the Lord if you are excited about the Lord.

It also means that we will learn family worship. Most parents today don't take the time to read the Bible, pray, and worship with their children. In 1647, Christians were so concerned about this that they raised the alarm and said, "If we don't start worshiping at home, we're going to lose our kids!" And they were right. So they instructed pastors and elders to begin inquiring about family devotions. If they found out that a father was not leading his children in family worship, they would talk to him privately. If he didn't respond, they would actually begin church discipline against him.

Were they fanatics? Maybe - or maybe they were just on to something. Maybe they knew that parents are responsible for disciplining children, and instructing them in the Lord, and that failure to do so is catastrophic. We should care about our children's relationship with the Lord just as much as we care about any other area of their life. It's more important than almost anything. It's got to be a priority.

Paul says that the gospel changes families. Maybe today you've been challenged as a child - even a grown child - about honoring your parents. Perhaps you've been challenged as a parent. You may be too harsh. Or you may be too lenient. You may not be teaching your children about the Lord. You may be neglecting meeting as a family around his Word on a regular basis. Some of you may have to go out of here and repent and make some specific changes.

But this morning I would fail in preaching this text if I did not bring us back to the gospel. The gospel is not that we are worthy and therefore deserve blessing, but that we have sinned and failed and need forgiveness. And better yet: we have received it. The gospel is the good news that before the foundation of this world, God chose his people to be holy and blameless before him. The gospel is the good news that God takes people who are spiritually dead and saves them because of his great love. The gospel is the good news that although we all had imperfect fathers, and many of us are imperfect fathers, that we have a heavenly Father who has made provision for our greatest needs through what Christ has accomplished for us.

Today we move from our inadequacy to the perfection of Jesus, trusting in the power of the gospel to reverse the effects of sin and change us so that we can become who we were meant to be. In invite you to come to the Table this morning and find all that you really need.

The Hearts of the Fathers (Malachi 4:4-6; Luke 1:17)

We've been in a series the past few weeks called Far As the Curse is Found. We've been looking at the promises found in the Hebrew Scriptures of someone who would one day come, and as the hymn says, make his blessings known far as the curse is found.

So we've seen that Jesus' birth is:

  • the promise of a descendent of Eve who would destroy all the works of Satan
  • a sign that God is in control and has not abandoned this world
  • the arrival of the king we've always longed for, the king who will reign over the entire world and will never let us down

Today we're going to look at one more prophecy, and it's a surprising one. At the time this was written, it really seemed that all the old prophecies were just a big pile of hurt. The Jews had now returned from exile. The prophets had encouraged them to rebuild the temple that had been destroyed. They promised God's blessing. God promised that the rebuilt temple would be greater than the former temple; that God himself would return in mercy; that entire nations would turn to the Lord and become his people; and that there would be a new day of peace and prosperity.

But eighty years had passed. The temple was rebuilt, and it wasn't anywhere near as good as the previous temple. God had given them glowing promises, but these predictions must have seemed like a mockery. The economy was tanked. The land wasn't fruitful; there was drought, pestilence, and crop failure. The kingdom was a fraction of what it had been under David and Solomon - maybe 20 miles by 30 miles. That's just about twice the land mass of Toronto - not exactly small, but not exactly a great kingdom either. And there was only a population of about 150,000 people. And instead of nations flowing to be taught at Jerusalem, the nations were in control of Israel. They were no longer an independent nation, and there was no longer a Davidic king. God really didn't seem to be present in Jerusalem, and instead of spiritual vitality things seemed, well, dead.

In other words, all the things that we've talked about - that Satan's works were going to be destroyed, that God was in control, and that a king would come to set things right - none of them had happened. There was every reason to be discouraged. They may not have been in exile anymore, but they might as well be. All the promises had not yet come true.

It's in this context that we receive another promise of how God will set things right. In the middle of this hopelessness, Malachi prophesies that the Day of the Lord will come. The Day of the Lord, by the way, means the day that God will settle accounts and will finally triumph. It will be the day that God finally settles things. But Malachi says that before this day will come, he will send Elijah the prophet (Malachi 4:5). This is why today, Jews still leave an empty chair at Passover in the hope that Elijah will come. They still pray that the prophet Elijah will return.

And read in verse 6 what Elijah will do when he comes. I think you'll find something surprising in what it says: "He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse" (NIV). Did you read that? He said that before God ultimately triumphs, he will send a messenger who will turn the hearts of fathers to their children.

Now let's pause here and fast-forward a few hundred years. Right before Jesus was born, an angel appeared to a priest named Zechariah. The angel explained that he and his wife would have a child named John. Listen to what the angel said:

Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (NIV)

So here's what the angel is saying. That messenger, Elijah - the one who is going to come before the Day of the Lord, before God's final triumph - is now being born, an d his name is John the Baptist. You see, it's not literally Elijah who comes back; it's somebody else just like Elijah. And before God triumphs, this prophet is going to do two things:

  • turn the hearts of the fathers to their children
  • and turn the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous

I kind of saw the second one coming. I don't have a hard time thinking that a prophet would have something to say to the disobedient. But I wasn't expecting anything about the relationship of fathers and children. So what I want to do today is to look at just two things: first, to look at the scope of what God is doing in sending his Son; and secondly, to look at how we live in response.

The Scope of Redemption

Why did Jesus come? We've already seen some of the answers. It's much bigger than we usually think. He came to save sinners from their sins. Jesus himself said, "The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost" (Luke 19:10). This was very big news to the people who were drawn to Jesus, and it's still good news today. For two thousand years now, people's lives have been changed by Jesus. He lived the perfect life that we didn't. He bore our sins at the cross. He died the death that we should have died, and he rose again to give us new life. And in what's called the great exchange, he gave us all of his righteousness, and in exchange took all of our sin. He's made this available to anyone who comes to him and believes. This is why Jesus came.

I don't want to minimize this at all. I don't know how you could minimize something like that anyway. But I do want to say that there's more. It's much bigger than that. Jesus came to redeem and restore all of creation. Neil Plantinga puts it best:

At their best, Reformed Christians take a very big view of redemption because they take a very big view of fallenness. If all has been created good and all has been corrupted, then all must be redeemed. God isn't content to save souls; God wants to save bodies too. God isn't content to save human beings in their individual activities; God wants to save social systems and economic structures too...

Everything corrupt needs to be redeemed, and that includes the whole natural world, which both sings and groans...The whole world belongs to God, the whole world has fallen, the whole world needs to be redeemed - every last person, place, organization, and program; all "rocks and trees and skies and seas"; in fact, "every square inch," as Abraham Kuyper said. The whole creation is "a theater for the mighty works of God," first in creation and then in re-creation. (Engaging God's World)

That's why we've been doing this series. The Old Testament is full of the reasons Jesus came, and we've been looking at them. It's huge. He came to destroy the works of Satan, to be a sign that God hasn't abandoned the world, and to reign in power as the king who brings peace to this world. Everything that sin has wrecked, Jesus came to fix. As the carol says, "He comes to make His blessings flow, Far as the curse is found."

If that's how big it is, then Malachi and Luke help us remember how small it is. It's also about the hearts of fathers toward their children. Before Jesus came, God sent a messenger to begin to prepare people for what Jesus was going to do, and this messenger had such an influence on people that the very nature of relationships within the family was changed. When people are changed vertically (with God), it also changes their relationships horizontally, with each other. It would revolutionize the way people lived in their homes. Fathers would awaken to their parental responsibilities and re-prioritize their lives.

The message of John the Baptist was that God was intervening in history. The long-awaited dominion of God, a dominion of peace and justice, was breaking into time and space. God is on the move, and preparations are necessary. What God is doing is as big as setting the world right again, and as small as changing a father's heart so that he cares for his children again. It's as big as the whole world, and as small as an individual family.

How Should We Live?

I want to close by asking how this should change our lives. John the Baptist asked people to prepare for the coming of the Lord. We live on the other side of the cross, and we have an advantage: we know the grace of Jesus Christ. We've been enabled by the Spirit to obey. Through Christ we've learned about God as a Father who cares for his children, and we've received grace so that we can care for ours.

In Roman times, when Luke wrote this, fathers were much stricter than mothers. They were known to often be excessively harsh.

In our day, fathers tend to be absent more often than mothers. We can be so busy with our lives that we effectively ignore our children, giving them the leftovers. Even when we're home, we're not really home. Our minds are always on the next email or meeting.

Sometimes we can be too harsh. Paul talks about the danger of exasperating our children, making them feel like they can do nothing right. We can be emotionally distant, expressing nothing but disappointment and disapproval.

We serve a God who is restoring the entire world, defeating the works of Satan. He will one day banish all diseases and death. But even now he's changing father's hearts so that they really care for their children, and are no longer distant or harsh. This is exactly what can happen in your family, not just this Christmas but always.

So let me pray for you right now. Let me pray that you will know Jesus, and not just know him but everything that he has come to do. We look forward with anticipation and hope to all he will do. I pray that you will know him this Christmas. And as he changes us, I pray that he will turn our hearts (not just our actions) to our children. Let's pray.