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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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:

SUCCESS IN LIFE = (THE PEOPLE YOU MEET) + (WHAT YOU CREATE TOGETHER).

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:

...is 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.

Start With Why (2 Timothy 1:5-14)

Big Idea: How do we get through tough times in ministry? Start with why.


I’d like to ask you to open your Bibles to 2 Timothy 1. While you do so, I want to tell you how honored we are to be with you. I want to thank Tim and Gilbert for the invitation to be here. I’m praying that this will be the most freeing, welcoming, non-posing and pretending conferences you’re going to attend this year. We’ve been looking forward to being here with you, and we’re excited about what God may want to do over the next couple of days.

Late last Fall I was on a conference call with a group of pastors, and what happened has haunted me ever since. During the call, one of the pastors who, by any measure, has been effective let us know that he felt like a failure. I still remember the pain in his voice as he talked about the struggles he's facing in his ministry.

And he’s not alone. I attend an annual retreat every May with about 40 pastors from all over North America, all from very different ministries of all different sizes. At the start of every retreat, we go around the table and talk about what’s happened since the last time we were together. It’s fascinating. Every year about half the room is a mess. It’s never the same people, but it’s always about half the room. It doesn’t make a difference whether they’re from a big church or a small church, or from what part of the country. It’s only a matter of time before everyone is one of the 50% going through a tough time.

This morning, I am speaking to a group of people I deeply respect. I have no idea what your stories are, but I know some of you came today ready to quit. I know. I’ve been there. A few years ago it hit Charlene and me that we’d spent over twenty years in ministry, which would be pretty close to a life sentence in some prisons. Ministry hasn’t always felt like a prison term, but it has sometimes. I’ve been close to burnout. I know discouragement in ministry. I’ve been there.

I also know what it’s like to experience not so much a full-blown crisis, but what I like to call a low-grade fever of pastoral discouragement. Do you know what I’m talking about? Nothing is going really bad, but nothing is going really well either. I love what John Ames says in Marilyn Robinson’s brilliant book Gilead about his sermons:

So often I have known, right here in the pulpit, even as I read these words, how far they fell short of any hopes I had for them. And they were the major work of my life, from a certain point of view. I have to wonder how I have lived with that.

Man, do I know what that’s like. Everything in ministry — even the good things — still fall short of the hopes that I had for them. After some time that can get discouraging and wearying. Some of us came today tired — not ready to quit, just tired. I’ve been there too.

I also know what it’s like to be encouraged. The other week someone I pastored years ago posted this on my Facebook page:

Pastor Darryl! I know I said it before but I wanted to say it again: You really impacted my life in the past by sharing the gospel to me.I have never been the same and Jesus has completely transformed my life for ever and ever and ever! Only Jesus can take a life and make something new with it! To HIM be all glory, all praise and all honor! you stay blessed and keep on preaching! those were great years at PLBC! May Jesus continue to bless you, Charlene and all your family and your congregation!!!

I know what it’s like to want to quit. I know what it’s like to be discouraged and tired. I know what it’s like to be encouraged and excited about the next round of ministry. And I pretty much bounce between these emotions.

Here’s what I believe: pastoring is one of the best callings or vocations out there, but we also deal with a unique set of vocational pressures. The statistics tell us that 70% of churches are declining. Most of us determine our self-worth by how well the church is doing numerically. Chuck Lawless recently listed the twelve most frequent burdens that pastors face:

  1. Declining church growth.
  2. Losing the support of friends.
  3. Grieving a fall.
  4. Sensing that the sermon went nowhere.
  5. Losing vision.
  6. Being lonely.
  7. Dealing with unsupportive staff.
  8. Remembering failures.
  9. Dealing with death recurrently.
  10. Facing personal jealousies.
  11. Balancing family and ministry priorities.
  12. Responding to criticism.

And while very job is hard, the occupational hazards of being a pastor are well documented:

  • 80 percent of pastors (and 84 percent of their spouses) are discouraged in their role as pastors.
  • For every 20 pastors who go into ministry only one retires from the ministry.
  • 50 percent of pastors say they are unable to meet the demands of their job and are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.
  • 25 percent of pastors have been forced out or fired from their ministry at least once.
  • 70 percent of pastors say they do not have a single close friend.
  • Denominational health insurance agencies report that medical costs for clergy are higher than for any other professional group.
  • Additionally, the Alban Institute published a report finding that of their sample group, 62 percent of pastors reported having little spiritual life.

It’s no wonder that Paul Tripp calls pastoring a “dangerous calling.”

My hope in the sessions that I have today and tomorrow is to be as honest and encouraging as possible about the challenges of ministry. But I want to begin by saying how honored and grateful I am to be here with you. I’m praying that you feel like you’re in good company whether you’re encouraged or discouraged today, and I’m also praying that we will be relieved of the pressure to pose or pretend. So let’s pray, and then let’s get into it.

Father, we thank you for the privilege of serving you. We echo what Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 1:12:  “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service…” (1 Timothy 1:12). We never want to lose sight of the privilege we have in serving you.

But we also know that many of us came here today feeling tired, weary, unappreciated, discouraged. We thank you that because of the gospel, we don’t have to pose or pretend. We thank you that we already measure up in Jesus Christ. We have nothing left to prove because everything that needed to be proved was proved by Christ as Calvary. We also thank you that you are the mighty friend of sinners, the ally of your enemies, the defender of the indefensible, and the justifier of those who have no excuses left, and that you welcome us here today.

So encourage my brothers and sisters today. Help us now as we look at your word. We pray this together in Jesus’ name. Amen.


You may have watched the movie Unbroken about Louie Zamperini, a juvenile delinquent-turned-Olympic runner-turned-Army hero. Or you may have read the book. Zamperini crashed into the ocean during World War II and spent 47 days adrift before being captured by Japan. As a POW, he was then severely beaten and mistreated by someone who would later be included in General Douglas MacArthur's list of the 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan. As I read the book and watched the movie, I asked myself: What would cause someone to stand up under all that suffering and persist to the end?

I want to ask the same thing about the Apostle Paul. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul talked about some of his sufferings:

Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:23-28)

That’s a partial list written ten years before the letter we have in front of us. It’s not even a complete list of everything Paul suffered. By the time we get to 2 Timothy, Paul is “bound with chains as a criminal” (2 Timothy 2:9), abandoned by his friends, and facing death. It appears that Paul was executed shortly after writing this letter. Tradition says that he was beheaded soon after writing this letter. This isn’t the relatively comfortable house arrest we read about at the end of Acts. This is brutal.

This is why I want to look at 2 Timothy with you today. I want to ask the question: What would cause someone to stand up under all of that suffering and persist to the end? I figure that if Paul discovered something that would give him what it takes to go through beatings, shipwrecks, jail, and the desertion of friends, then maybe it’s something that will help us get through elders meetings. Whatever Paul had was field-tested, and it was enough to get him through to the end.

I love what Paul does, by the way, because it meshes so well with what we’re learning elsewhere. Simon Sinek wrote an excellent book in 2009 called Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. It’s a great book. Sinek says:

Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do. When I say WHY, I don’t mean to make money— that’s a result. By WHY I mean what is your purpose, cause or belief? WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?

When most organizations or people think, act or communicate they do so from the outside in, from WHAT to WHY. And for good reason— they go from clearest thing to the fuzziest thing . We say WHAT we do, we sometimes say HOW we do it, but we rarely say WHY we do WHAT we do.

But not the inspired companies. Not the inspired leaders. Every single one of them, regardless of their size or their industry, thinks, acts and communicates from the inside out.

I think Paul would agree with that. Begin with what we do, and we’re going to get discouraged pretty fast. If we’re going to last, it’s not going to be because of what we do, but why we do it.

Sinek continues:

People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it…Instead of asking, “WHAT should we do to compete?” the questions must be asked, “WHY did we start doing WHAT we’re doing in the first place, and WHAT can we do to bring our cause to life considering all the technologies and market opportunities available today?”…when a company clearly communicates their WHY, what they believe, and we believe what they believe, then we will sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to include those products or brands in our lives.

What we need most of all today is not to focus on what to do. Don’t get me wrong: that has its place. It’s just not enough. What we need to focus on, if we’re going to beat the stats that I just mentioned, is why we do what we do. That’s the only thing that will sustain us in the long run.

In this passage, Paul mentions two things that will sustain us. Here they are:

First, remember your call..

Paul writes in verses 5 to 7:

I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Timothy 1:5-7)

Why did you get into ministry in the first place? I didn’t have any illusions that it would be easy. I watched the pastor I had as a kid. My uncle was a pastor in California as well. I knew ministry would be tough. I remember my mother taking me for a walk and warning me that I was in for a world of hurt if I entered the ministry. She was thrilled to support me if that was what I did, but she wanted me to know that it wouldn’t be easy. I had no illusions that it would be easy, and it hasn’t been.

So why did I become a pastor? Let me ask you that question: Why did you become a pastor? It’s worth recapturing that why.

There are two areas in particular to remember as you think about your calling.

Remember who influenced you to follow Jesus. You are a follower of Christ, and in pastoral ministry, because of someone else’s influence on your life.

I don’t know who it was for you. For me, it was my grandmother, a saintly old woman with osteoporosis who was married to one of the most colorful and crusty men to have ever lived. I don’t know how it would be possible to watch her life and not believe that there is something to Christianity. I am a Christian in part because I could not believe that Jesus is not real after watching her life.

Then there’s my mother. I watched my mother deal with the incredible stress of escaping an abusive marriage, getting a job, and raising four children on her own. My mother wasn’t perfect, but I knew that she was not faking a relationship with God. If you want to find out whether someone’s faith is genuine, put them in that kind of test. Kids have amazing smell detectors, and they know if something passes the test or not, and my mother’s faith more than passed the test.

Then there was my Sunday school teacher, a man named Don Taylor. He had his quirks. He spoke loudly. There was nothing cool about him. Every year we would get promoted to the next grade, and so would he. I knew two things about Don Taylor. He loved God, and he loved us. I had compelling reasons to follow Christ, because there were great examples of faith all around me.

Timothy’s faith was deeply rooted. It went back to some of the earliest influences on his life. Paul clearly expects that this will be an encouragement to Timothy in the current pressures of leadership. In fact, Paul returns to this theme later. In chapter 3 he writes:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:14-15)

You’re a follower of Jesus Christ because someone influenced you. They were probably quirky and flawed, but they are evidence of God’s grace in your life. Remember them. Think about them. But that’s not all:

Remember the beginning of your ministry. In his famous commencement address at Stanford, Steve Jobs talked about the Whole Earth Catalog. He said:

On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

Thank you all very much.

I love that. Stay hungry and stay foolish. That’s a lot harder than it seems. When I think about the start of my ministry, that’s exactly what I had. I was hungry and I was definitely foolish. As time goes on, it’s easy to lose both of those. It’s easy to begin to coast and to lose a bit of the holy foolishness that should characterize our lives.

That’s probably why Paul tells Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.” The second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy, means that unless we fan our early gifts and calling back into a flame, they will die, and we won’t even know it. Donald Guthrie writes:

Every Christian minister needs at times to return to the inspiration of his ordination, to be reminded not only of the greatness of his calling, but also of the adequacy of the divine grace which enables him to perform it. Indeed, every Christian worker engaged in however small a task requires assurance that God never commissions anyone to a task without imparting a special gift appropriate for it.

It’s not even that we need new gifts. It’s what we think we need, but it’s not. I heard the story of someone in Texas who loved sugar in his coffee, so he took not one, not two, but three teaspoonfuls of sugar. As the waitress watched, he said, "Ma'am, we're going to need more sugar for this table." This Texas waitress looked at Andy and said, "Listen, bud, before I give you more sugar, you stir what you got." There's a lesson there: You don’t need more. Stir what you’ve got. Use your gifts.

You know a lot more than when you started. You have a lot more experience. You know what mistakes to avoid. But you’ve probably lost some passion. Paul tells us to go back to our calling. Again, Simon Sinek says start with why — not what, but why. Remember why you got into ministry in the first place. Think about your influences, and return to the inspiration of your ordination and the gifts and passions God gave you then.

There are two things that will sustain us, Paul says. The first is to remember our call. The second is:

Second, Remember your gospel.

It’s interesting that in a book that is probably Paul’s most personal, he includes one of the richest descriptions of the gospel that he ever wrote. Even in prison, he announced a royal message — a gospel — that closed with the Roman empire of his day.

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. (2 Timothy 1:8-14)

The appearance of Jesus, Paul says, beats the appearance of Caesar any day. Jesus, not Caesar, is the Savior and rescuer we’ve been waiting for. Through him, death has been defeated. N.T. Wright comments:

When you realize what the Christian gospel is all about—the resurrection of Jesus as the unveiling of God’s power, and the call of God to you here and now, putting that power to work in your own life, bringing the promise of your own resurrection in due course—then your entire world of values is turned upside down. You will be ashamed of some of the things you were formerly proud of, and proud of some things which previously would have made you ashamed. That is what Paul wants to happen to Timothy.

I’ve been pastoring for 25 years now. There were a lot of years of my ministry that weren’t characterized by what Paul talks about here. It’s not that I ever denied the gospel, but I also wasn’t living out of its power.

I came across a book called The Heart of a Servant Leader about a Jack Miller, Reformed pastor and seminary professor who quit the ministry because he was so discouraged. He spent the next few weeks too discouraged to do anything but cry. His daughter writes:

Gradually during those weeks it became clear to him that the reason for his anger and disappointment was his own wrong motivation for ministry. He realized that instead of being motivated only by God’s glory, he was hoping for personal glory and the approval of those he was serving. He said that when he repented of his pride, fear of people, and love of their approval, his joy in ministry returned, and he took back his resignations from the church and the seminary.

Instead of quitting ministry he took his family on an extended sabbatical to Spain and spent his time there studying the missionary promises of God through the whole Bible…As he studied, he was captured by the vastness of God’s promise to fill His kingdom with people from every tribe and nation. He also realized in a new way that the promise of the Holy Spirit’s help, comfort, and encouragement was not just for the disciples of long ago; it was for every Christian. He went back to the United States full of hope, not in his abilities, but in the power of the Holy Spirit to be with him, to change his heart, and to use him to bring all kinds of people into the kingdom of God.

This marked a turning point in Jack’s life and ministry. Not only did he go back to work with a renewed sense of purpose, he also had a new freedom to live and work only for God’s glory.

What Jack Miller has taught me is that if I don’t live out of the gospel as I pastor, I will become tired quickly, and full of anger and bitterness. When we live out of who Jesus is, and what he has done, then the world’s values are turned upside down, and we are free to live out of his resources rather than ours. Something happened to Paul when he thought of this, even though he was locked up in chains. Remember your call, but then remember the gospel as well. They will sustain you. They are both ways to focus on the why of what you’re doing.

Ministry is tough. As we’re going to see later today, it’s supposed to be tough. What will sustain us through the tough times?

I know for myself that the times I’ve struggled most in ministry have not been the times that my circumstances were tough. Don’t get me wrong — those times have been hard. But the times I’ve struggled most are when I’ve haven’t started with why. Right out of the gate, 2 Timothy asks us to go back and ask not WHAT should we do, but WHY did we start doing WHAT we’re doing in the first place, and WHAT can we do to bring this cause to life? Remember why you started. Don’t let the fire go out on your calling; fan it back into flame. Take a look back at the cross and resurrection as the unveiling of God’s power, the reversal of all its values, and the source of power for the ministry we have before us.

I’m so grateful to be here with you today. Like you, I want to be reminded that the only way we’ll get through tough times in ministry is to start with why.

Unbreakable (Romans 8:28-39)

Big Idea: God’s purposes and God’s love for us are unbreakable.


“I have some bad news.” That’s what our daughter, Christy, told us on Friday night when we got back from the Good Friday service. My mind began to go through all the things that could have gone wrong before she told us what had happened: she broke her glasses. I was relieved, actually. Glasses can be replaced. I’m actually surprised her glasses have lasted as long as they have!

But, her glasses are broken. It’s a reminder to us that important things break. Cars break. As we know in Liberty Village, elevators break. But it’s not just stuff that breaks: relationships break. Bones break. In an 8K race I ran yesterday, a guy right behind me took a tumble. A few days ago, there was a fatal accident on the highway just outside our condo. We are fragile creatures, and life is rough to say the least. Even entertainment — movies like Unbroken and TV shows like the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt  — alludes to the fact that life can be unbelievably hard, and that surviving is something that we can’t take for granted.

It leads us to the question: is anything really unbreakable? Glasses are fragile. Our stuff is fragile. We are fragile. Life is fragile. Is there anything that we can count on that cannot be broken?

In fact, there is. And it’s what Easter Sunday is all about.

For the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at Romans 8. It’s such an important passage. Ray Ortlund, Jr. Says, “Paul’s letter to the Romans has the potential to transform the church in our generation, as it has in the past,” and I agree. In the book of Romans, we find one of the most profound presentations of the gospel message, or what God has done in Jesus to make us right with him. Someone else said:

If the Epistle to the Romans rightly has been called 'the cathedral of Christian faith', then surely the eighth chapter may be regarded as its most sacred shrine, or its high altar of worship, of praise, and of prayer … Here, we stand in the full liberty of the children of God, and enjoy a prospect of that glory of God which some day we are to share. (Charles Erdman).

We’ve been seeing from the book of Romans what we have in Jesus Christ. If you are in Jesus Christ, there is no condemnation for you. None. If you are in Jesus, you are now indwelt by God himself. He comes and lives within you. If you are in Jesus Christ, you are adopted. God doesn’t just forgive you; he adopts you. He takes you into his family. This is even better news than being forgiven. As J.I. Packer says, “To be right with God the judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is a greater.” Not only that, but you are heirs. You will inherit everything that God has promised to you.

All of this is good. Actually, all of this is amazing. But there’s a problem. You can be forgiven, indwelt, adopted, and made an heir, and still feel like you’re at risk, that you’re fragile, and that God’s control over your life is fragile. You can still feel like God could reach the end of his patience with you and decide to give up on you. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over 25 years of pastoral ministry it’s that life can be brutally difficult, and that you and I will face events and tragedies that will threaten us and make it seem like everything in our lives is breakable. Paul even alludes to this in verses 18 to 25 as he talks about our present sufferings. Don’t let anyone tell you that you won’t suffer. Life is brutally hard, and it will sometimes seem like everything around you can break. We need something that is field-tested, that will survive whatever life can throw us including layoffs, breakups, crises, illnesses, and even death. Is there anything that is unbreakable in our lives?

Yes. In the middle of life’s difficulties, there are two things that will not break no matter what happens. According to this passage, God’s purposes for us and God’s love for us are unbreakable.

Let’s look at both of those.

First, God’s Purposes for you are unbreakable.

Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

This is a very hard verse to believe. It’s a great verse, but I almost cringe when I hear it because it’s thrown around like a panacea in the hardest of circumstances. But here is what Paul is saying. God has a purpose for you, and that purpose is that you be conformed to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29) and that he complete the work that he has begun in your life until you are finally and completely saved. If you are in Jesus Christ, that is God’s purpose for you. It’s a pretty amazing thing. Ray Ortlund Jr. says that it’s like looking at an artist’s magnum opus. God has begun work on us and is fashioning us into what he wants us to become. It’s about:

…being changed from what we are right now, with all our struggles and failures, and being liberated into the glorious image of God’s Son in resurrection immortality forever. Not bad. Do you realize that, if you are in Christ, you are God’s personal project? He has undertaken to make you glorious.

And amazingly, Paul says that God is working everything together in order to accomplish that purpose. This means that God is at work in every circumstance of our lives with the ultimate goal of completing that work in us. There is not a single thing that can ever happen to us that will not accomplish God’s good purpose in our lives to make us into who he wants us to be. “God’s love employs the worst of life for his loving purpose” (Ray Ortlund). Even your sins. Everything, including evil and tragedies! The Bible is saying that all things in your story — not some things, not just the nice things, but all things in your story — are being used by God to fulfill his great purpose of redemption. It’s what theologians call the providence of God. The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 asks, “What do you understand by the providence of God?” and answers:

Providence is the almighty and ever-present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty – all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.

As one theologian put it, “God’s unstoppable purpose in calling believers to salvation cannot be frustrated, and thus he employs all things to bring about the plan he had from the beginning in the lives of believers” (Thomas R. Schreiner).

What does this look like? The best illustration I’ve seen comes from author Philip Yancey:

In high school, I took pride in my ability to play chess. I joined the chess club, and during lunch hour could be found sitting at a table with other nerds poring over books with titles like Classic King Pawn Openings. I studied techniques, won most of my matches, and put the game aside for 20 years.

Then, in Chicago, I met a truly fine chess player who had been perfecting his skills long since high school. When we played a few matches, I learned what it is like to play against a master. Any classic offense I tried, he countered with a classic defense. If I turned to more risky, unorthodox techniques, he incorporated my bold forays into his winning strategies. Although I had complete freedom to make any move I wished, I soon reached the conclusion that none of my strategies mattered very much. His superior skill guaranteed that my purposes inevitably ended up serving his own.

Perhaps God engages our universe, his own creation, in much the same way. He grants us freedom to rebel against its original design, but even as we do so we end up ironically serving his eventual goal of restoration.

If I accept that blueprint — a huge step of faith, I confess — it transforms how I view both good and bad things that happen. Good things, such as health, talent, and money, I can present to God as offerings to serve his purposes. And bad things, too — disability, poverty, family dysfunction, failures — can be redeemed as the very instruments that drive me to God.

I said that this is the best illustration I found, but that’s not completely true. The best illustration I can find is the cross. On Good Friday we remembered that Jesus was betrayed, illegally convicted, mocked, beaten, and executed. It was the most horrible thing that could ever happen: we killed God the Son. But in the ultimate example of God working all things together for our good, he took “the most horrible thing that ever happened” and turned it into “the most wonderful thing that ever happened" (Paul David Tripp). His death became our salvation.

What this means is that everything that happens to you — everything, including the really hard things — will be used by God to accomplish his purposes in your life. In the end, if you have trusted in what Jesus did at the cross to accomplish your salvation, you will be glorious. John Donne, an English poet who lived almost 500 years ago, put it this way: “I shall be so like God, as that the devil himself shall not know me from God, so farre as to finde any more place to fasten a temptation upon me, then upon God; not to conceive any more hope of my falling from that kingdome, then of God’s being drivern out of it.” God’s purposes for you are unbreakable.

But that’s not all:

Second, God’s love for you is unbreakable.

In his book By Grace Alone, Sinclair Ferguson identifies four major "fiery darts" Satan uses to unsettle believers and rob them of their assurance and peace in the gospel:

  • Fiery Dart 1: "God is against you," Satan says. "He is not really for you. How can you believe he is for you when you see the things that are happening in your life?"
  • Fiery Dart 2: "I have accusations I will bring against you because of your sins," Satan argues. "What can you say in defense? Nothing."
  • Fiery Dart 3: "You can say you are forgiven, but there is a payback day coming—a condemnation day," Satan insinuates. "How will you defend yourself then?"
  • Fiery Dart 4: "Given your track record, what hope is there that you will persevere to the end?" Satan asks.

Will any of these things remove us from God’s love? Is God’s love for us fragile? Paul answers with three assertions in verses 31-39, all of which have to do with Easter:

Since God is for us, no one can successfully oppose us. Paul writes:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 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 8:31-32)

When he was growing up, the late author Brennan Manning had a best friend named Ray. The two of them did everything together: bought a car together as teenagers, double-dated together, went to school together and so forth. They even enlisted in the Army together, went to boot camp together and fought on the frontlines together.

One night while sitting in a foxhole, Brennan was reminiscing about the old days in Brooklyn while Ray listened and ate a chocolate bar. Suddenly a live grenade came into the foxhole. Ray looked at Brennan, smiled, dropped his chocolate bar and threw himself on the live grenade. It exploded, killing Ray, but Brennan's life was spared.

Years later he went to visit Ray's mother in Brooklyn. They sat up late one night having tea when Brennan asked her, “Do you think Ray loved me?” Ray’s mother got up off the couch, shook her finger in front of Brennan's face and shouted, “What more could he have done for you?” Brennan said that at that moment he experienced an epiphany. He imagined himself standing before the cross of Jesus wondering, Does God really love me? And the answer coming back: “What more could he have done for you?”

The cross of Jesus is God's way of doing all he could do for us. The evidence of God being for us is supremely manifested in the giving of his Son. And now that he has given us the greatest gift (his Son), he will surely give us everything else that we need (32).

No one will ever bring a charge against the elect. Paul writes:

Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. (Romans 8:33-34)

There are a lot of bad things people can say about us that are true. Anyone who knows me well could stand up and deliver charges against me: faults in my character, things that I should have done that I didn’t do, careless things I’ve said, and more. All of these charges are true, but none of them can stick. Why?

If accusations are brought against us, we need not fear, for the charges are silenced by the upraised, pierced hands of our Intercessor. If we are to be condemned, it will have to be over Christ’s dead and now resurrected body, which actually is the basis of our salvation!” (Kent Hughes)

This passage says that God no charges will stick against us, because God dealt with them all on Good Friday, and has declared us to be not guilty. No one will condemn us on the day of judgment. Not only will God not condemn us, but Jesus will defend us against any charge. No accusation against us will prevail.

Finally: Nothing and no one can successfully separate us from God’s love in Christ. Paul writes:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39)

Paul looks around at anything and everything that can separate us from God’s love. He throws out every worst-case scenario out there that could threaten God’s love. Death will not pull me away from God’s love. Neither will anything in this life, nor cosmic spiritual powers, nor anything in time. No disappointment, no neurosis, no disease, no broken romance, no financial crisis, no mental illness will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. God’s love for you has no outer limit.

There is very little in this life that can’t be broken. Everything around us is fragile. But the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ mean that two things are true: God’s purposes for us are unbreakable. God’s love for us is unbreakable.

I told you my daughter’s glasses broke. I went to the optometrist yesterday. We bought insurance for the glasses, but it had already expired. But they said, “Don’t worry, we’ll look after it.” Broken, cracked, smashed — but guaranteed. They weren’t going to let anything happen that they weren’t going to cover.

Two thousand years ago, a man died for us. A few days later he rose from the dead. All of this was to tell us: God will stick up for us. God will provide for us. God justifies us. His purposes for us will not fail. God loves us. God’s love is loyal, generous, just and eternal. If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, this is his love for you today. If you are not, then come to him today — to the one whose purposes and love are truly unbreakable.

Adopted (Romans 8:12-17)

Big Idea: Adoption gives us a new identity, experience, and destiny.


So here’s how things work around here. Every week we get up here and say something really important. Most weeks we will tell you that what we’re talking about is important, probably more important than anything we’ve talked about other weeks. After a while, you start to roll your eyes, because every week we keep saying that tonight’s topic is one of the most important things. And yet you keep coming back.

Tonight, we’re going to repeat the process. Except what we’re going to talk about actually is one of the most important things we could ever grasp. That isn’t just my opinion. Renowned Canadian theologian J.I. Packer agrees. He writes:

You sum up the whole of New Testament teaching in a single phrase, if you speak of it as a revelation of the Fatherhood of the holy Creator. In the same way, you sum up the whole of New Testament religion if you describe it as the knowledge of God as one’s holy Father. If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all. For everything that Christ taught, everything that makes the New Testament new, and better than the Old, everything that is distinctively Christian as opposed to merely Jewish, is summed up in the knowledge of the Fatherhood of God. “Father” is the Christian name for God. (Knowing God)

So today, we’re talking about something very important. It is, as Packer says, the sum of the whole of New Testament teaching. It is the summation of the New Testament, and the test of how well you understand Christianity.

But it’s even more than that. I really appreciate what Packer says: it’s not just knowing it, but experiencing it. It’s how much we make of the thought of being God’s child; it’s being controlled in our worship, prayers, and whole outlook on life.

So today, I want to look at this. Specifically, I want to look at three things that we learn in this passage. It tells us that we have three new things: a new identity, a new experience, and a new destiny.

First, we have a new identity.

Listen to what Paul says in verse 14: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”

Don’t miss this. What Paul is saying is for those who have encountered Jesus Christ, there is a completely new identity. In other words, not everybody is a child of God. Some people teach that, and in a sense it’s true. When Paul spoke in Athens, he quoted one of their poets: “For we are indeed his offspring” (Acts 17:28). What Paul means is that we are all related. Every human being was created by God in his image. But that’s not what Paul is talking about in Romans 8. In Romans 8, he is distinguishing between two types of people: those who are children of God, and those who aren’t. Not everyone has this privilege. If you have encountered God’s grace through Jesus Christ, then you have a completely new identity: you are a child of God. The gospel of John says, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).

What does it mean to be a child of God? Billy Graham’s daughter Anne Graham Lotz told a story that helps us understand. Billy Graham is the famous evangelist who has preached to millions of people all around the world, and who now lives in North Carolina. People come to visit him in his home. They drive up the long drive and come to the gate. They knock on the gate and say: “Billy Graham, let us in. We've read your books; we've watched you on TV; we've written to you; and we want to come to your house.”

And she says that her father says: "Depart from me, I don't know you. You're not a member of my family, and you've not made any arrangements to come."

But Anne Graham Lotz says that when she drives up that same driveway and knock on the gate, she says, “Daddy, this is Anne, and I've come home.” The gate is thrown right open, and she goes inside, because she is her father's child. Although he is a lot of things — evangelist, legend, author, confidante to presidents — to her he is Dad. Her identity changes everything, and puts her on a completely different footing with her father.

That’s what Paul is saying. If you are in Jesus Christ, then Father is now the name by which you call God. Nobody ever called God Father before Jesus came along. If you are in Jesus Christ, you’re now part of God’s family. You are his children, his own sons and daughters and heirs. You can approach him with boldness. You have an in with God. You have privileges. You can approach God without fear and know that he has a fatherly concern for you. “This is the heart of the New Testament message” (Packer).

What does this mean? The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way. We now:

…enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God; have His name put upon them, receive the Spirit of adoption; have access to the throne of grace with boldness, are enabled to cry, Abba, Father, are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by Him, as by a father; yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption, and inherit the promises, as heirs of everlasting salvation.

There’s so much here. We now have new privileges. We now have God’s name upon us. We can now approach God with boldness. God now cares for us, protects us, provides for us, and corrects us. He will not revoke our adoption. We now receive all that he has promised us as heirs. We could spend weeks exploring all of this.

I know I keep quoting J.I. Packer, but what he has written on this subject is so good. Packer says that this is the highest privilege that the gospel offers. It’s even better than our justification, by which he means it’s even better than God’s forgiveness of us. Why is this so? Justification, he says, is definitely necessary, and it definitely meets our deepest spiritual need. But adoption is even higher, because of the rich relationship with God that it signifies. You see, we could be forgiven by God, but that would still not necessarily mean that God loves us. It doesn’t imply any deep relationship or intimacy. A judge can pardon you, but that doesn’t mean that he has to like you. In fact, a judge can set you free and still absolutely hate you.

But that’s not what God does. God justifies us. He forgives all of our sins. But then he does something unbelievable. He brings us into his family. He loves us, and he becomes our Father. Our relationship becomes one of closeness, affection and generosity. “To be right with God the judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is a greater” (Packer).

The good news that we offer this community — the good news that we need ourselves — is not just about forgiveness. It’s not just about the afterlife. It’s far better than this. It’s that we can have a new relationship with God through Jesus in which we enjoy all the privileges of becoming God’s children. He offers his love and all the rights and privileges that come with being his children.

It’s unbelievable, but that’s not all:

Second, we have a new experience.

It’s one thing to have a new identity. It’s another thing to experience it. If you look carefully at what Paul says in this passage, he’s not content to let this hang in the air like a theory or a concept. Paul gets real with this truth. Look at what he writes:

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God… (Romans 8:15-16)

This is not meant to be a theory. It’s meant to be an experience in two different ways.

First, it changes us from a spirit of slavery to a spirit of sonship. We no longer relate to God from a position of fear or a position of servitude. We’re children now. This gets personal. Paul compares two ways of thinking about God. One is about fear, dread, and inadequacy. Have you ever felt insecure in a relationship? You know how awful that is. Paul contrasts that with a second way of thinking about God: not fear, not dread, not inadequacy, but intimacy. It leads us to address God in the most intimate terms, as a child would address his or her father.

Second, it’s also experienced within our spirits. We inwardly sense that we are God’s sons. In Hebrew culture, the testimony of two witnesses was required to establish truth. Paul says that we have this here. The two witnesses are the Holy Spirit, who bears witness with our own spirits. You were meant to experience this inward assurance that you are loved by God. It’s a personal touch from God in the depth of your being. I don’t know if you have ever experienced this. I hope you have. There have been times when I’ve had a strong and powerful sense of my relationship with God. We were meant to experience this. It’s not reserved for the elite. It’s for all of us.

David Martyn Lloyd-Jones says if you want to get an idea of what it’s like, picture a man walking along a road with his little boy, holding hands. “The little boy knows that this man is his father and that his father loves him. But suddenly, the father stops, picks up the boy, lifts him up into his arms, embraces him, and kisses him. Then he puts him down, and they continue walking. The boy is no more a son when he is being embraced than he was before. The father’s action has not changed the relationship; it has not changed the status of the boy; but oh, the difference in the enjoyment.” That’s what we’re meant to enjoy with God.

I hope you get a sense of how amazing this is. If you are in Christ, you are justified. That alone is amazing. He has forgiven all of your sins. He has cleansed you from all unrighteousness. But it gets even better. Not only has he done this, but he has adopted you and given you a new identity as his own child. You are his; he is yours. You can approach him in confidence and intimacy. But it gets even better than this. It’s not just a theory but it’s meant to be an experience.

How do you get this? Ask God for it. Charles Spurgeon said:

Thank him for little grace, and ask him for great grace . He has given you hope, ask for faith. And when he gives you faith, ask for assurance. And when you get assurance, ask for full assurance. And when you have obtained full assurance, ask for enjoyment. And when you have enjoyment, ask for glory itself. And he will surely give it to you in his own appointed season.

I heard a story this week of a man who owned a sheep ranch. He couldn’t make enough on his ranching operation to pay the principal and interest on the mortgage, so he was in danger of losing his ranch. With little money for clothes or food, he had to live on government subsidy.

One day a seismographic crew from an oil company came into the area and told him there might be oil on his land. They asked permission to drill a wildcat well, and he signed a lease contract. They found a huge oil reserve, and he became a multimillionaire. The day he purchased the land he had received the oil and mineral rights. He’d been rich from that day. Yet, he'd been living on relief. A multimillionaire living in poverty. The problem? He didn't know the oil was there even though he owned it.

Many Christians live in spiritual poverty. They are entitled to all the privileges and benefits of being God’s adopted sons, but they are not aware of their rights. They live like orphans rather than living off the rich reserves of grace that are theirs.

I love what Spurgeon said. “Ask for enjoyment.” Ask God to make his love real to you. Meditate on the gospel. Purse the means of grace. Flee from sin. If you are in Christ, you have the identity of his child. Ask him for the enjoyment of that privilege. Live in light of who you really are.

We’ve said that this is revolutionary. We’ve seen that this is the heart of the Christian message, and that it gives us a new identity and a new experience. But there’s one more thing that it gives us:

Third, we have a new destiny.

Paul says in verse 17: “…and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). He may have saved the best for last. Paul’s talked about our present enjoyment of the benefits of adoption: that we have a new identity, and that we can experience that identity here and now. But in this verse he paints the future for us. Now that we’re adopted, we have an inheritance coming our way. Paul’s going to spend the rest of the chapter talking about this, so we won’t go into depth, but we’ll spend just a few minutes talking about it today.

When God adopts us, we become heirs. “Your eternal happiness hinges on this one thing: Are you a child of God?” (Ray Ortlund). If you are, you are richer than you can imagine. You have an inheritance coming to you that is unbelievable. God will wipe the tears from our eyes. We will be like Jesus. We will experience life better than we’ve ever imagined. I love what Mike Wittmer writes about the new earth that we will enjoy:

So the new earth will be an exciting, interesting place to be. We will be always growing, always learning more about ourselves, the world, and God. We will never bottom out and become bored, for we will never know as much as God knows. There will always be some new joy to discover, some place to visit or revisit, some new dish to create, a new flower to breed, a new song to sing, a new poem to write, a new golf club to try out, a new lesson to learn and then pass on to someone else, some person to know more deeply, something new in our relationship with God. And this stretching and growing will go on forever…Nothing will be more satisfying than dwelling with our Father on the earth we call home, enjoying the well-rounded, flourishing lives he intended for us all along. Our next life will look an awful lot like this one, lacking only the suffering that arises from sin. (Heaven Is a Place on Earth)

Doesn’t that sound great? This is the inheritance that awaits the children of God. Amazingly, it’s all ours because it’s all Christ’s, and we are co-heirs with him. Because he inherits it, we will too.

But Paul does add a condition. He says, “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” It’s odd for Paul to mention suffering at this point. He was on a roll. I was feeling pretty encouraged until Paul brought this up. Why does Paul bring this up?

I believe it’s because Christianity is real about our problems. You are adopted, and you get to experience that adoption, and you even get to inherit all things, but that doesn’t exempt you from suffering. The gospel enables us to face up to the hard realities of this world rather than denying them. Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). Suffering is common. It’s actually part of the Christian life.

Peter and John were jailed. Stephen was killed. Paul himself was imprisoned, beaten, shipwrecked, starved, threatened, and exposed to the elements. And what was true of these early preachers soon became true of their followers as well. They were ridiculed, hated, abused, and eventually martyred for their faith in great numbers. In addition, they endured the many disappointments, deaths, deprivations, and disasters common to all human life in a fallen and extremely sinful world…Suffering is as common to God’s people today as in New Testament times. (James Boice)

Paul is not saying that suffering is how we earn our status as children, or gain our inheritance. He is saying that it’s proof that we are God’s children. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who explores this line of thought extensively in his study of Romans 8:17, says, “If you are suffering as a Christian, and because you are a Christian, it is one of the surest proofs you can ever have of the fact that you are a child of God.” But we can’t miss what Paul says in the next verse: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). This is how J.I. Packer puts it:

And throughout our life in this world, and to all eternity beyond, he will constantly be showing us, in one way or another, more and more of his love, and thereby increasing our love to him continually. The prospect before the adopted children of God is an eternity of love.

This is what this passage tells us. We are adopted, and it changes everything. It gives us a new identity. It gives us a new experience, here and now. And it gives us a new destiny. Knowing this sustains us even when things get really tough here and now.

I want to close by saying two things. First, if you are here today and don’t consider yourself to be a Christian, we are so glad you are here. We are honored to have you. I want you to understand that this is what Christianity is all about. It’s not a set of rules. It’s not about rituals. It’s about adoption. This is the whole of the New Testament teaching. It’s the test of if you understand Christianity. As you consider the claims of Christ, I want you to see that the heart of Christianity is a God who adopts unworthy people and calls them his own. You’re invited. This is open to anyone who comes to Jesus Christ and confesses him as Lord.

Second, I want to speak to those of you who are followers of Jesus Christ. It is my great privilege to tell you that you have not just been forgiven; you have been adopted. You can now approach God with boldness. God now cares for you, protects you, provides for you, and corrects you. He will not revoke your adoption. You now receive all that he has promised you as heirs, a fellow heir with Jesus. And this isn’t just head knowledge. He wants you to experience this.

I want to close with great advice from J.I. Packer:

The immediate message to our hearts of what we have studied in the present chapter is surely this: Do I, as a Christian, understand myself? Do I know my own real identity? My own real destiny? I am a child of God. God is my Father; heaven is my home; every day is one day nearer. My Savior is my brother; every Christian is my brother too. Say it over and over to yourself first thing in the morning, last thing at night, as you wait for the bus, any time when your mind is free, and ask that you may be enabled to live as one who knows it is all utterly and completely true. For this is the Christian’s secret of—a happy Life?—yes, certainly, but we have something both higher and profounder to say. This is the Christian’s secret of a Christian life, and of a God-honoring life, and these are the aspects of the situation that really matter. May this secret become fully yours, and fully mine.

No Condemnation (Romans 8:1-2)

Big Idea: What can God do for sinners like us, fighting but too often failing? He removes all condemnation.


Skye Jethani relates a story about holding a series of meetings with college-aged students. The topics ranged across the spectrum—doctrine, hell, dating—but each conversation had three rules: be honest, be gracious, and be present.

On one night the students wanted to discuss habitual sins. Although they struggled with a variety of sinful behaviors, they all agreed on one thing: God was extremely disappointed with them. One student said, “My parents were students at a Christian college in the early '90s when a revival broke out …. They were on fire for God. And here I am consumed by sin day after day.” Often through tears, many other students shared similar stories about how they believed God must be disappointed with them.

After listening to their stories, Jethani asked, “How many of you were raised in a Christian home?” They all raised their hands. “How many of you grew up in a Bible-centered church?” All hands stayed up. And all of them agreed that God was extremely disappointed with them. Maybe you can relate.

I want to ask a question tonight: What can God do for sinners like us, fighting but too often failing? Or to put it differently: What does God think of you today? Not the cleaned up, airbrushed version of you, but the real you. I wonder if I asked you, “Do you feel that God is disappointed in you?” how you would answer.

Because the reality is: We have to answer this question. All of us here today are strugglers, every single one of us. So the question is a legitimate one: What can God do for sinners like us, fighting but too often failing?

To answer this question, I want to look at a great passage of Scripture: Romans 8. It’s such an important passage. Ray Ortlund, Jr. Says, “Paul’s letter to the Romans has the potential to transform the church in our generation, as it has in the past,” and I agree. In the book of Romans, we find one of the most profound presentations of the gospel message, or what God has done in Jesus to make us right with him. Someone else said:

If the Epistle to the Romans rightly has been called 'the cathedral of Christian faith', then surely the eighth chapter may be regarded as its most sacred shrine, or its high altar of worship, of praise, and of prayer … Here, we stand in the full liberty of the children of God, and enjoy a prospect of that glory of God which some day we are to share. (Charles Erdman).

We’re going to spend some time leading up to Easter looking at this great chapter in the book of Romans as we wrap up our series on our identity in Christ. But here’s the thing: Paul begins Romans 8 with the very dilemma we’re talking about. What can God do for sinners like us, fighting but too often failing? In chapter 7, he gives a profound description of what it feels like to be fighting but failing:

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:15, 18-19, 24-25)

There’s been a ton of debate about what Paul is talking about here. Is he talking about his experience before he was a Christian, his experience as a Christian, or is he speaking about Israel’s experience? We can’t be sure, but we can say this: this is, to some extent, the experience of every Christian. Anyone who has seriously followed Christ has known something of wanting to obey Christ, but feeling frustrated, and feeling like a failure. We want to do good, but we end up doing the very thing we did’t want to do. We want to please God, but the power to do so is out of our grasp. I know that I can relate.

Given this struggle, Paul says two things. First, he says the answer to this dilemma is Jesus. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25) When we come to the end of ourselves, and realize our need of Christ, we are in a very good position indeed. We’re exactly where we need to be. Notice what Paul doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “Wretched man that I am! What must I do?” He says, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me?” The answer has to come from outside of ourselves, and that answer is Jesus. If you feel like you don’t measure up, then the answer isn’t to try harder. The answer is to look outside of yourself to Jesus and all that he brings us. We’re going to talk about this in the coming weeks.

But Paul also says a second thing, and it’s what I want to look at today. In Romans 8:1-2, Paul says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2). What can God do for sinners like us, fighting but too often failing? He removes all condemnation. Is God disappointed in you because you struggle? No. He has provided a Savior, and he has removed all condemnation.

Let’s ask a few questions about this passage. What does it mean? On what basis? And what difference does this make?

First: What does it mean?

It’s important to understand what Paul means, because this is one of the most important truths of the Christian faith. To really understand this, we have to understand the what, who, and when.

What — Here’s what Paul means. It’s a legal term. Paul doesn’t only mean that we aren’t condemned. It’s stronger that that. It means that we are completely free from any debt or penalty. Not only are we not under condemnation, but it doesn’t even exist anymore. It is gone forever and cannot exist for us. No charge against us can stand; no one can condemn us.

Now, it’s not because we don’t deserve to be condemned. Paul has just built a case that we’re all guilty before a holy God. There’s not one person — religious or not — who escapes. Nobody measures up to God’s standard. Nobody can stand before God boldly with our record exposed. We’re all in big trouble on our own, and should be concerned with God’s condemnation — except that Paul says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Here’s what it means: “If you are in Christ Jesus, there is no valid reason why you should ever again experience fear or apprehension about your relationship with God or your eternal destiny” (Sam Storms). This is amazing! As the hymn says:

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine…

That’s the what. You deserve condemnation, but that condemnation doesn’t even exist for you anymore. It’s gone.

Who — Who does it apply to? Paul does not say Christians are free from condemnation because they are sinless, but because they are in Christ. This is not for everyone; it is for sinners who are in Jesus Christ. When we are in Christ Jesus, everything changes. To be in Christ means that we are in an actual relationship with Jesus Christ in which all the benefits of his life and obedience are ours, because we’re united with him. Paul says that once we are united in Christ, in this relationship with him, then there is no longer any condemnation for us. It’s gone, and it can never come back.

When — And here’s the when. It’s present tense. It’s not later when we get our act together. It’s right now in the middle of the struggle.

Not when we get older. Not when we get more mature. Not when we overcome all sinful habits. Not when we get past being hurt by others. Not when all our bills are paid. Not when we get a new job. Not when we learn more of the Bible. Not when people start treating us nicely and with respect. Not when we get the praise and public adulation we think we deserve. Not when our enemies stop persecuting us. Not when the wrongs against us have been put right. Not when we’ve been vindicated. Not when we stop making fools of ourselves in public. Now! (Sam Storms)

I hope you can see how important this is. In fact, Dr. Marytn Lloyd-Jones said, “If you have got hold of this idea you will have discovered the most glorious truth you will ever know in your life.” In fact, he says, “Most of our troubles are due to our failure to realize the truth of this verse.” The problem for a lot of us is that we live a lot like the students I mentioned at the start of this sermon. We assume that our standing with God is based on our performance. To put it in theological terms, we base our justification (our standing before God) on our sanctification (our growth in holiness). This puts us in a precarious position. Lloyd-Jones describes what it looks like if we don’t get this truth:

They seem to think of the Christian as a man who, if he confesses his sin and asks for forgiveness, is forgiven. At that moment he is not under condemnation. But then if he should sin again he is back once more under condemnation. Then he repents and confesses his sin again, and asks for pardon, and he is cleansed once more. So to them the Christian is a man who is constantly passing from one state to the other; back and forth; condemned, not condemned. Now that, according to the Apostle, is a wholly mistaken notion, and a complete failure to understand the position. The Christian is a man who can never be condemned; he can never come into a state of condemnation again. ‘No condemnation!’ The Apostle is not talking about his experience, but about his position, his standing, his status; he is in a position in which, being justified, he can never again come under condemnation. That is the meaning of this word ‘no’. It means ‘Never’.

You don’t have to be perfect. Jesus was perfect for you. If you are in Christ, there is no condemnation, even though you continue to struggle. This is a truth that can change your life as you grasp it. You can personalize it. “There is therefore now no condemnation for _______.” Fill in your name and live in light of this reality.

But that’s not all. We need to understand Paul’s reasoning behind this declaration.

On what basis?

On what basis is there no condemnation? The answer may surprise you. Look at verse 2:

For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:2)

You could read that over a few times and not understand that completely, so let’s try to understand what he’s saying.

Paul contrasts two laws: the law of the Spirit of life, and the law of sin and death. We used to live in a way that was controlled by sin and death. You know what that’s like: controlled and dominated by sin, and unable to change despite your best intentions. Here’s the thing: we think that we control our choices, but Paul is saying that apart from Christ we’re actually not in control. We’re under the law and domination of sin and death. The problem with sin and death is that it’s deadly. It produces all the wrong things in our lives. As long as we continue to live under the domination of sin and death, we’re in trouble. We’re condemned.

But Paul says that when we came to Jesus, something happened. Now, “the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus.” You’ve been liberated through the Holy Spirit. You’re under new management now. Sin has been kicked out as your boss, and the Holy Spirit has taken over. “It is God’s Spirit, coming to the believer with power and authority, who brings liberation from the powers of the old age and from the condemnation that is the lot of all who are imprisoned by those powers” (Douglas Moo). This is great news. Not only have you been forgiven, but God himself has taken over management of your life so that you are no longer controlled by sin and death. The Spirit has liberated you, and you are not under the control of sin like you used to be.

I walked by a store the other day. It had a sign outside that said “Under New Management.” If you are in Christ Jesus, you could put that sign on your life as well. You are not condemned, and the reason is because God has not only dealt with the penalty of your sin, but he has also broken the power of sin and taken over your life. It is the Spirit of God who provides victory, and that Spirit is the possession of every true child of God. Even when you struggle — and you will — you are still under new management. You’re no longer condemned, and you’re no longer under the power of sin. We forget this sometimes, but this is our new reality, and it changes everything. Talk about encouraging. You no longer have to fight sin on your own. You’re now under the control of the Holy Spirit, who is changing you from the inside out.

In other words, the basis of verse 1 is not us. It’s not about our worthiness or sinlessness. The basis of verse 1 is what God has done for us. What can God do for sinners like us, fighting but too often failing? He removes all condemnation. Not only that, but he sets us free from the power of sin, and puts us under the control of the Holy Spirit. If you are in Jesus Christ, this is true of you. It’s an astounding truth.

But I want to make this practical. So let’s close by asking:

So what?

As we close this sermon, we have to ask what this means for us today. There’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. So what? Because of this truth, there are two things that are true of us, and both of them are amazing.

First, this can be yours.  The great news about the gospel is that it’s available to anyone who’s desperate enough to want it. You don’t have to get your act together. God’s grace is available to you now. “All you need, to qualify for all that blessing, is to be a sinner in Christ, not a rehabilitated sinner, not a tidied-up sinner, but the sinner you are in Christ. Jesus said he came not to call the righteous but sinners (Matthew 9:13). He has no interest in good people. He attracts bad people. We are bad people. But if we are in Christ, we have God's grace right now while we are bad” (Ray Ortlund). So take this today. Jesus will welcome you and take away all condemnation. This can be yours today.

Second, the pressure is off. You can relax. You can rest assured that you are accepted before God with nothing to prove.

Remember those students I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon? Every one of them agreed with one thing: God was extremely disappointed with them. The person who led the group reflected on the experience and wrote:

I did not blame the students for their failure. Somewhere in their spiritual formation they were taught, either explicitly or implicitly, that what mattered was not God's love for them, but how much they could accomplish for him. (Skye Jethani)

The great news is that we can be freed from the feeling that God is disappointed with us. There is no condemnation. What matters is not how much you can accomplish for God, but how much God loves you in Jesus Christ, and that is secure. Don’t be surprised when you struggle. But in the middle of that, don’t doubt God’s love for you. One of my friends posted on Facebook this week: “List of things that can separate you from God's love:” and then nothing. The list is empty. If you are in Christ, you are secure. There is no condemnation. It doesn’t even exist anymore. You are secure.

This means we don’t have to prove ourselves. We don’t have to be sensitive to criticism. We don’t need to lack confidence and joy in our prayer and worship. I meet people all the time who don’t feel good enough, that they measure up. The truth is that we don’t measure up, but we don’t have to feel condemned. Because the objective reality is that there is no condemnation, we can make that our subjective reality as well.

Nobody says this better than Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones:

Would you like to be rid of this spiritual depression? The first thing you have to do is to say farewell now once and forever to your past. . . . Never look back at your sins again. Say, "It is finished, it is covered by the blood of Christ." That is your first step. Take that and finish with yourself and all this talk about goodness, and look to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is only then that true happiness and joy are possible for you. What you need is not to make resolutions and to live a better life, to start fasting and sweating and praying. No! You just begin to say, "I rest my faith on him alone, who died for my transgressions to atone. (Lloyd-Jones)

Here’s a test for if you get this passage. Matt Chandler says:

The litmus test of whether or not you understand the gospel is what you do when you fail. Do you run from God and go try to clean yourself up a bit before you come back into the throne room, or do you approach the throne of grace with confidence? If you don't approach the throne of grace with confidence, you don't understand the gospel. You are most offensive to God when you come to him with all of your efforts, when you're still trying to earn what's freely given.

As Ray Ortlund says, if you are in Christ, you are a righteous sinner. It's not an either/or, it's a both/and. Even as you struggle, there is no condemnation. Let this truth sink deep into your soul.

Finally: This truth frees us to serve. We’re not just set free from condemnation. We’re set free to serve. It’s not just freedom from condemnation; it’s also freedom to live in a new way. We’re going to look at this in coming weeks. We’ve been set free, and it’s a glorious freedom.

You may think that this truth may cause us to sin more. If there’s no condemnation, then why not do whatever you want? It’s actually the opposite. Sam Storms points out that nothing paralyzes us like guilt and shame. If you want a recipe for living in bondage, that’s it right there. This passage sets us free from all of that. It helps raise us beyond self-help. It’s a much better way than formulas or willpower. I love what Storms says: “When you feel beautiful before God, you feel powerful before sin.” If you want to be set free from sin, lean into the truth of this verse. See how God sees you in Christ. Grasp what he’s done for you, and you’ll experience freedom.

I want to close by talking about a scene from the 2011 movie Moneyball. Moneyball is about Billy Beane, the manager of the Oakland As, trying to assemble a winning team. Ultimately during the 2002 season, the Athletics win an unprecedented 20 consecutive games, setting the American League record. Despite all their success, the A's lose in the first round of the postseason.

As Beane sits alone in the clubhouse, the general manager attempts to convince him that he "won pretty big." Seeing that he is unconvinced, his GM invites Beane to the video room. Brand has cued up a segment of tape for Beane to watch—a clip about a player named Jeremy Brown, a catcher from their minor league baseball team, the Visalia Oaks.

Here’s what happens in that video. The catcher is at bat. He hits a fast ball and and sends it deep into the center. The catcher rounds first, and is about to do what he’s never done before. He’s going to round first and head to second. But he stops. He stops and crawls back to the security of first base. He clings to first base like a frightened child clings to a teddy bear. It’s his nightmare. “They're laughing at him,” says Beane. And they were laughing at him.

But the general manager explains why they’re laughing at him. “Jeremy's about to find out why; Jeremy's about to realize that the ball went 60-feet over the fence. He hit a home run, and he didn't even realize it.” Beane stares at the screen as Jeremy finally discovers that the ball went out of the park and then jubilantly rounds the bases for home.

This is a picture of what Romans 8:1-2 tells us. We don’t have to cling to first base. Christ has already hit the home run that brings us home. His righteousness has been credited to our account, and we are now at peace with God. We don't have to live in fear, carefully crawling back to and then clinging to first base. Instead, we can jubilantly run the race as we head confidently toward home. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

Called, Loved, Guarded (Jude 1:1)

Big Idea: In Jesus, we are called, loved, and guarded.

Purpose: To understand, in tough times, that our identity is in Jesus rather than in anything else.

If someone asked you, “Who are you?” how would you respond? I suppose the answer would really depend on the context.

In a job interview, you may respond with a list of your business accomplishments, your skills, and your education. This week I attended a meeting in which someone stood up and gave a verbal curriculum vitae. It sounded a little bit like the alphabet — CA, CPA, CFA, CPA (Delaware), CGMA. He is CFO of an equity firm that manages $3 billion in investments. He sits on many corporate boards as well. It worked, too. When this man spoke, he had credibility because of his accomplishments. Who are you? You could answer with your professional experience. Many people do.

Who are you? You would answer that question differently on a dating site. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Cornell University found that 80% of online daters lie about their height, weight or age. People lie about all kinds of things: their income, hobbies, lifestyle, and even their pictures. Some respondents said that photographs were the single most deceptive element of the person’s profile — some unintentionally misleading, thanks to poor camera quality and lighting, but others purposefully altered through digital editing. Who are you? On a dating website, or even on social media, that answer may be different.

But let’s go a bit deeper. What if I asked you to consider who you are at your core. How would you answer? Would you answer in terms of your career, your relationships, your personality, your lifestyle? It’s an important question to answer, because whatever we base our identity on will become really, really important to us. 

  • If you center your life and identity on your spouse or partner, you will be emotionally dependent, jealous , and controlling. The other person’s problems will be overwhelming to you.
  • If you center your life and identity on your family and children, you will try to live your life through your children until they resent you or have no self of their own.
  • 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.
  • If you center your life and identity on pleasure, gratification, and comfort, you will find yourself getting addicted to something. You will become chained to the “escape strategies” by which you avoid the hardness of life.
  • If you center your life and identity on relationships and approval, you will be constantly overly hurt by criticism and thus always losing friends. You will fear confronting others and therefore will be a useless friend.
  • If you center your life and identity on a “noble cause,” you will divide the world into “good” and “bad” and demonize your opponents. Ironically, you will be controlled by your enemies. Without them, you have no purpose.
  • If you center your life and identity on religion and morality, you will, if you are living up to your moral standards, be proud, self -righteous, and cruel. If you don’t live up to your standards, your guilt will be utterly devastating. (Tim Keller, The Reason for God)

Who are you? Your answer has consequences. It’s important that we be able to answer this question well — really well — if we are to really live.

And so, this morning, I want to look at one of the smallest books of the Bible, at one of the most overlooked parts of this small letter. I want to look at the salutation or greeting of the letter, the “Dear so-and-so” section. That doesn’t sound so promising, but I guarantee you: if you get what’s written in this passage, it will change your life. It will give you an identity that is so secure that you’ll know who you are for sure. It will be more important to you than all your accomplishments, your status, or anything else.

So first, let me tell you about Jude. It’s one of the shortest books in the Bible. It’s tucked away right between the epistles of John and the book of Revelation. Somebody’s said that it’s a book that’s been treated with “benign neglect.” “Rarely the text for a sermon, even in the university or seminary classroom it is often given only brief treatment at the end of a course on the General Epistles, perhaps as part of the last lecture on the final day of the course” (P.H. Davids). But it’s an important book, in part because of the author. The author is Jude, a servant of Christ and the brother of James. He identifies himself with someone who must have been well known to the recipients of this letter, probably James, who was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. James was not only a leader in the church, but the apostle Paul refers to him as “James the Lord's brother” (Galatians 1:19). We read in Mark 6:3 that Jesus had brothers named James and Jude. So it’s possible — some would say probable — that this book was written by Jude, the younger brother of Jesus Christ.

What’s interesting is that as Jude begins this letter, he majors on identity. Look at what he writes:

Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James,

To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ:

May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you. (Jude 1:1-2 ESV)

If somebody asked Jude, “Who are you?” his answer wouldn’t be, “Half-brother of Jesus.” His answer would be, “Servant of Jesus Christ.” Being a half-brother to Jesus would be a pretty cool identity, don’t you agree? You’d have some stories to tell. But there’s something even better than being half-brother to Jesus: being a servant of Jesus. Now that is what you call an identity! So Jude begins with a clear sense of who he is, but then he says something about our identity as well.

Usually when you begin a letter, you identify the recipients by name or location, like “To the church of God that is in Corinth.” But that’s not what Jude does here. He writes, “To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ.” Who are you? If you are in Jesus Christ, Jude says that you are three things: called, beloved, and kept. If you get these, it will change your life. Let’s look at each of them.

First, in Jesus we are called.

That’s our first identity. If you are in Jesus Christ, you are called. It’s important to see that this is the main heading, the umbrella term to describe who we are in Jesus Christ. The other two phrases — loved and guarded — flow out of this one. Whoever you are, it starts with this: you have been called. That’s why it’s important to understand what Jude means by this term.

What does it mean to be called? The word means just what you’d think it does, except maybe a bit stronger. It appears ten times in the New Testament. It means that you’ve not just been called, but summoned.

Just steps away from where we’re meeting tonight is the Ricoh Coliseum, home to the Toronto Marlies, top affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs. On the roster of that team are 27 players, 24 of whom are under contract to the Leafs. At any moment, any of those players can be summoned by the Leafs. In fact, the Leafs are doing so badly that at any moment, you may be summoned to play for the Leafs! The point is: young athletes spend their whole lives dreaming of being called to play at the pro level. When that call comes, you don’t hesitate. You go. You have been summoned for the opportunity of your life.

So what does Jude mean when he says that we’ve been called? Called by whom and to what? What it means, at its simplest level, is that if you are in Jesus, it’s because the God of the universe has chosen you. The Bible teaches that we have been chosen and called by God. The Lord of the universe, decided, even delighted, to be in relationship with you. You’ve been chosen for a special relationship with him.

Even more than that, it’s a summons. It’s not an optional call. Years ago I mustered the courage to call Charlene and ask her out on a first date. The thing is, she could have said no. It was completely up to her how she responded. I’m glad she said yes, but it was her choice. It’s not that way with God. When God calls, God is very persuasive. God works in such a way that, without violating human will, his call reaches its target and accomplishes its purpose.

In his love for us God acts like a hound-dog, intense and focused as he pursues the hunt. That image comes from Francis Thompson, a 19th century British poet who wrote "The Hound of Heaven." Although Thompson was a follower of Christ, he struggled with poverty, poor health, and an addiction to opium (which in those days was sold as an "over-the-counter" medication). In the depths of his despair, Thompson described his flight from God: "I fled him, down the nights and down the days. I hid from him, and under running laughter. I sped … from those strong feet that followed, followed after [me]." But Thompson also knew the unrelenting love of Jesus, the hound of heaven. In the poem Jesus pursues Thompson with "unhurrying chase, and unperturbed pace, deliberate speed, and majestic instancy [or urgency]." He hears the feet of Jesus beating after him as Jesus calls, "All things betray those who betray me."

In a recent biography of John Stott, the late British preacher, Stott refers to Thompson's poem. According to Stott, he owes his faith in Christ not to his parents or teachers or even his own decision, but to Jesus, "the hound of heaven." Stott writes:

[My faith is] due to Jesus Christ himself, who pursued me relentlessly even when I was running away from him in order to go my own way. And if it were not for the gracious pursuit of the hound of heaven I would today be on the scrap-heap of wasted and discarded lives.

That is the teaching of the Bible. Over and over again it says that if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, it’s because God has chosen you. 2 Timothy 1:9 says that God “saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:9). You are part of God’s plan. He chose you before you were even born. You were the object of his affection before anybody even knew you would exist. God’s people are so because of God’s choice. God is the initiator, the first pursuer, the lover. Not only that, but God didn’t choose you because you deserved it. He chose you just because. It’s not based on your behavior or your performance; it’s based on his choice.

This is meant to comfort us. Then, as now, a lot of things were going really wrong. It was easy to look at circumstances and wonder if things were really okay or not. The church was small. There was all kinds of false teaching around. There were the normal pressures of everyday life. In the middle of this, Jude could say: you are the chosen ones.

This should also encourage you if you are here tonight wondering if you could be one of those who are chosen. If you are feeling drawn to God in any way, it is evidence that God is at work in your life. He is pursuing you. I love the story that Tim Keller tells at the end of his book The Reason for God:

During a dark time in her life, a woman in my congregation complained that she had prayed over and over, “God, help me find you,” but had gotten nowhere. A Christian friend suggested to her that she might change her prayer to, “God, come and find me. After all, you are the Good Shepherd who goes looking for the lost sheep.” She concluded when she was recounting this to me, “The only reason I can tell you this story is— he did.”

So that’s the first part of our identity. We are called. This is the foundation for the next two descriptions that Jude is going to give us. It begins with this: that the God of this universe has summoned you to be his own. But that’s not all.

Second, in Jesus, we are loved.

If you’re in Christ, it’s because God chose you before you even deserved it. But that’s not all. Jude calls them “beloved in God the Father.” It’s a simple phrase, but there’s lots to unpack there. What does it mean to be beloved in God the Father? Not loved by, but loved in. It means that God loves us as we are in him. Somebody’s compared it to a child picked up into a father’s arms and experiencing the father’s love while he or she remains there. It means that are position is in God, and that we are perfectly loved when we are there.

There’s something else to notice that you can’t see in the English. It’s the tense of the participle beloved: it’s in the present tense. In other words, it’s about the present experience of this love. There’s a big difference between having been loved (past tense) and being loved (present tense). Jude says that right now, right here, you are loved by God. Every Christian can say, present tense, “I am loved by my Father.” You are the object of his permanent and unchanging love. God’s love is unlike human love. It is, as John Piper says, the only love in which the honeymoon never ends.

God says his joy over his people is like a bridegroom over a bride. He is talking about honeymoon intensity and honeymoon pleasures and honeymoon energy and excitement and enthusiasm and enjoyment. He is trying to get into our hearts what he means when he says he rejoices over us with all his heart.

And add to this, that with God the honeymoon never ends. He is infinite in power and wisdom and creativity and love. And so he has no trouble sustaining a honeymoon level of intensity; he can foresee all the future quirks of our personality and has decided he will keep what's good for us and change what isn't; he will always be as handsome as he ever was, and will see to it that we get more and more beautiful forever; and he infinitely creative to think of new things to do together so that there will be no boredom for the next trillion ages of millenniums. (The Pleasures of God)

There’s something to add to this. Why does God love us? Simply because he chooses to. It’s not because we’re worthy; it’s because of his sovereign choice to do so. Deuteronomy 7:7-8 puts it this way:

It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:7-8)

This takes the pressure off. I used to ask Charlene, “Why do you love me?” and she would reply, “Just because.” I used to be disappointed with that answer. I wanted her to tell me she loved me for my sense of humor or my personality or something like that. One day she explained that loving me just because is far better, because it’s far less conditional. That’s like God’s love. He doesn’t love you because you’re worthy; he loved you even when you were unworthy and unloveable. He loves you simply because he has chosen to, and his love for you is permanent and in the present tense.

God will do anything within his good will for his people. He is favorably disposed towards you. Jesus went all the way to the cross for you when you were unloveable; how much more will he do for you now that you are in Christ. God looks upon you — right now —with all the love that he has for his own Son Jesus Christ. You are loved.

Karl Barth was regarded as the greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth century. Someone once asked him, “Professor Barth, you have written dozens of great books, and many of us think you are the greatest theologian in the world. Of all your many ideas, what is the most profound thought you have ever had?” Without a second's hesitation, the great theologian replied, “Jesus loves me.”

This is one of the most profound truths that we could ever grasp. What does it mean? It means that even when things go wrong around us, and they will, it is never because God has stopped loving us. “God is love to us—holy, omnipotent love—at every moment and in every event of every day’s life” (J.I. Packer).

Who are you? You are called, which means you’re loved. There’s one more description:

Third, you are guarded.

“To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ.” What does it meant to be kept? We live in a hostile age. There are all kinds of obstacles and enemies to our faith. In fact, Jude writes in this letter to address some dangers to which some in the church had succumbed. How can we make it through? Is our confidence in our ability to white-knuckle it to the end? No. Jude says that we are guarded. God not only began my Christian life, but he is also protecting me. He himself guards us and keep us safe in a hostile age. Again, Jude uses the present tense. We are currently being guarded. We are being held firmly, watched, and kept. We are objects of his permanent, watchful care.

This is good news for those of us who know that if it’s up to us, we’ll blow it. Jesus said in John 10:28, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” A literal translation of that verse would be something like, “They shall not, repeat, shall not ever perish in the slightest.” Jesus is emphatic that we are protected and guarded.

John Bunyan lived in the 17th century in England and wrote a classic allegory on the Christian life. He imagined this dialogue between a Christian and Christ:

“But I am a great sinner, you say. ‘But I will never cast you out,’ says Christ. But I am an old sinner, you say. ‘But I will never cast you out,’ says Christ. But I am a hard-hearted sinner, you say. ‘But I will never cast you out,’ says Christ. But I am a backsliding sinner, you say. ‘But I will never cast you out,’ says Christ. But I have served Satan all my days, you say. ‘But I will never cast you out,’ says Christ. But I have sinned against light, you say. ‘But I will never cast you out,’ says Christ. But I have sinned against mercy, you say. ‘But I will never cast you out,’ says Christ. But I have nothing good to bring with me, you say. ‘But I will never cast you out,’ says Christ.”  (John Bunyan, Works.  Style updated)

We are safe. We are protected. We have nothing to fear if we are in Jesus Christ.

All of these truths are ours. They are for anyone who understands that “God, through the perfect life, atoning death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, rescues all his people from the wrath of God into peace with God” (Ray Ortlund). It’s for all of us who receive the truth that the gospel is good news for bad people, that Jesus has done everything necessary for us to be made right with God. There’s nothing left to be done. Jesus has done it all.

All of these three things are meant to be taken together. It’s not like a bullet list; it’s like a single, multifaceted identity. If you have trusted in Jesus Christ, this is who you are today: you are chosen and called by God, loved (present-tense) by him; and you are guarded. You will see that there’s even a past-present-future dimension to this: in the past, he chose you; in the present he loves and guards you; in the future you will be kept and presented safe before him.

What’s the take-away from this morning? Ray Ortlund says:

This is what we need: to know that we’re called, loved, and guarded. It’s what Liberty Village needs as well: to know that they can be swept up into the love and protection of God.

Earlier this year I told you we’re going to spend the year on two things:

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. (2 Timothy 2:1-2)

This is the first part, the identity part: being strengthened by the grace that’s in Christ Jesus. It’s only when we get our identity right that we’ll be able to go to the next part, which is being used by God to entrust the gospel to others.

Today, receive what God says is true of you. Bask in it. If you haven’t yet come to Jesus, do so today. Who are you? In Christ, you are called; you are loved; you are guarded. That’s who you are. There’s no better identity in the world.

Father, thank you. Thank you so much. We can’t begin to express the gratitude that is in our hearts as we recognize who we are in Christ. I pray that you would take these objective truths and make them experientially real for us today. Flood our hearts with gratitude that we were chosen by you before anyone even knew us. May we know, right now, that we are loved with an intensity that has not and will not diminish, and that is based on your unchanging character. Thank you that we are guarded and protected, that right now you are watching over us. All of these things and more are true because of Jesus. May this be our identity, for our joy and for your glory. We pray these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.

What Makes You Happy? (Genesis 29:15-35)

Big Idea: We’re all frustrated in our search for happiness, until we find our happiness in God.

Everyone wants it, but not everyone has it. Books have been written about how to get it. Many people would consider trading money and health for it. What is it? Happiness.

Surprisingly, though, for something that everyone wants, we can’t even agree on what happiness is. Just look at some of the definitions of happiness:

  • Happiness is to love and to work. (Freud)
  • Happiness is a warm puppy. (Charles Schulz, of Charlie Brown fame)
  • Happiness is like obscenity. We can’t define it, but we know it when we see it. (US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart)
  • Happiness is the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile. (Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of the book How of Happiness)
  • Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony. (Mahatma Gandhi)
  • Happiness doesn’t depend on any external conditions, it is governed by our mental attitude. (Dale Carnegie)
  • Happiness is the interval between periods of unhappiness. (Don Marquis)

We make many of the decisions in our lives based on what we think will make us happy, but there is a problem. According to Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, we are bad at predicting what will make us happy in the first place. The things we think will make us happy don’t, and sometimes the things we don’t think will make us happy do.

I have good news and good news for us tonight. The good news is that happiness is a worthy goal. This may surprise you, because some people seem to think that God is a cosmic killjoy. No, he made you for joy. He hardwired you for happiness. There is an enemy to your happiness, but it is not God. Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). There is an enemy of your happiness, but it is not God. God created you for happiness. Jesus came to restore our happiness. I love what John Piper says:

If you want to try your hand at stoicism, forget the Bible. It has little for you. Scripture does not support the idea that our motives are more pure the less we are pursuing our own interested happiness…God blatantly entices us to seek happiness, joy, pleasure…We’re supposed to want pleasure.

I told you I have good news and good news. Here is the other good news: the Bible has a lot to say about how we can be happy. You can get opinions on happiness. You can get scientific research on happiness. Both of those will probably be helpful. But you can get something even better: you can learn what your Maker and Designer says about your happiness. You can learn about happiness from the One who not only made you, but who is actively pursuing your happiness this very day.

So let’s look at what the Bible says. Today we’re going to be looking at an obscure and ancient passage. Before we look at it, I want to explain why we’re doing this. There are two reasons, actually. The first is that I want you to be happy. Blaise Pascal was right when he said:

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

Since you were made to be happy, and you want to be happy, I would love to help you on this quest.

But there’s another reason. It’s because we are talking this year about how we can be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, so that we can entrust the gospel to others. Happiness has to do with both of those. One of the ways I like to think about our church is that we are in the joy business. Someone might say, “Are you bringing religion to Liberty Village?” I want to tell them, “No. Actually, we’re bringing joy to Liberty Village.” There’s a verse in the book of Acts that describes the spread of the gospel into the city of Samaria: “So there was much joy in that city” (Acts 8:8). I want the spread of the gospel to look like that in this community. As our church grows, I want people to say, “There was much joy in Liberty Village.”

I want to help you be happy. I also want this church to be “fine purveyors of joy since 2013.”

So let’s look at this passage and learn how we can be happy. We’re going to see three things. The first of them is this:

We’re all on a search for happiness.

I love the honesty of the Bible. As we look at this passage, we’re going to see that the time and the geography are different, but our hearts are the same. Let me introduce you to some of the characters, because one thing is for sure: they are all on a search for happiness.

  • Jacob — Who is Jacob? Jacob is grandson of Abraham. Years before, God had appeared to Abraham and said, “Do you see this world? Do you see the mess around you? I’m going to fix it. The way that I’m going to do this is through your family. One of your descendants will save the world.” Sure enough, at an advanced age, Abraham has a child, and the rescue plan is underway. Things get messed up pretty soon, though. Abraham’s son Isaac has twins, Jacob and Esau. Normally, the firstborn would be seen as the one through whom God would keep his promise. He would be the line to the one who would save the world. But God turns this upside-down and picks the second born child, but Isaac completely ignores this and picks the first. The result is devastation in the family. Esau, the firstborn, becomes proud; Jacob, the second born, becomes a liar and a deceiver. Both of them are looking for happiness, but one does it through power, and the other through manipulation. By the time you get to this story, Jacob’s life is over. He has no faith. It’s all ruined. He has no money. He has no place. It’s all over. He’s on a quest for happiness. He’s used deception, but he’s failed.
  • Laban — Laban is the second main character in this story. He’s a businessman who hires Jacob and realizes that Jacob is really good at what he does. Laban has two things that he’s looking for. He wants more success in his business, and he wants to look after his family. We’re going to meet his daughters in a minute, but he’s got at least one problem in his home. He’s got a daughter that he wants to marry off, but he’s having problems doing so. The other thing that you need to know about Laban is that he’s also a deceiver, except he’s had more experience than Jacob. He’s been at it a lot longer. He’s good at exploiting the weaknesses of other people to get what he wants.
  • Leah — The next character in this story is Leah. Leah is the daughter of Laban. We read in verse 17, “Leah's eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance.” This doesn’t mean that Leah needed glasses. We’re actually not sure what it means exactly: the word means that her eyes were more tender. Maybe she had some kind of eye problem: cross-eyes or protruding eyes or some kind of eye disorder. In this story we read that Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah, but that Jacob never loves her the way that she desires. Here is Leah, who is not as beautiful as her sister, and who never receives the love that she wants. She’s on a desperate search for happiness, but she doesn’t find what she’s looking for.
  • Rachel — The final character is Rachel. Rachel becomes Jacob’s second wife, but Jacob loves her most. Rachel’s problem is in verse 31: she’s barren. She can’t have children. She has her husband’s love, but she can’t have children. In this culture and in most traditional societies, motherhood is perceived as the crowning joy of a woman’s life. It’s even worse when you are married to the same person as your sister, and she keeps having babies. By the way, a lot of people get confused about the Bible’s teachings on polygamy. It describes it, but it never approves of it. Every time it describes a polygamous relationship, it describes how bad it is, and how much pain it causes for everyone involved. You see that here. This is a very painful scene to watch.

I hope as you look at this passage that you see yourself. I do. We are all somewhere in the story, looking for happiness. Some of us are like Jacob. We’ve had all these plans, but we’ve been cheated out of them and we have lost almost anything. Some of us are like Laban. We’ve had success, but we are still wanting more. We manipulate people and events to try to get what we want. Some of us are like Leah: we are looked over in favor of others, and we look to something — our children, our careers, our accomplishments — to make us happy. Some of us are like Rachel. We have so much going for us, but we don’t have what we long for the most. Everyone is on a search for happiness. This is an accurate picture of the frustration that all of us feel at times: longing but frustrated. We’re all on a search for this happiness. You could sit at the corner of Lynn Williams and East Liberty tonight and watch people, as long as you had a warm parka, and you’d find the same thing: we’re all motivated to find happiness. Our actions are being driven by this pursuit. Everything that we do is driven by our desire to be happy. It’s true of all of us.

So that’s the first thing we see. We’re all on a search for happiness. But here’s the second thing we see.

This search leaves us perpetually unsatisfied.

Notice what happens in this passage. Almost everyone gets, at some level, what they want, but they’re all left unhappy.

  • Jacob gets the wife that he wants, but he also gets out-deceived, and he ends up also having to marry someone that he didn’t want. He gets what he wants, but he also gets more than he bargained.
  • Laban gets the business success that he wants, and he also manages to get both of his daughters married, but he also sows the seeds of division within his family. He gains what he wants, but he does it in such a way that he loses what he wants most. He’s like a lot of men I’ve met: they have achieved everything they wanted, but in the process, they’ve also lost what is more important to them at the same time.
  • Leah gets almost everything she wants. She gets the husband, and she gets the children. But she still doesn’t get what she wants the most. We’re going to look at her in depth in a second.
  • Rachel gets the husband, but she doesn’t get the children she wants, and she’s still left frustrated.

You could almost say this: Be careful for what you wish for, because you’ll probably get it, and you still won’t be happy.

I want to look at Jacob and Leah in particular. It’s tragic. Here is Jacob saying, “Finally, I’m going to have happiness in this life. Finally, I have Rachel!” But behold in the morning it was Leah. Verse 25 says, “And in the morning, behold, it was Leah!” There is a very interesting little commentary written by a commentator, Derrick Kidner. He puts it this way. Derrick Kidner says, “But in the morning, behold, it was Leah. This is a miniature of our disillusionment, experienced from Eden onwards.” In the morning, it’s always Leah. In the morning, it’s always less than what you hoped for. It doesn’t matter what it is. Marriage, career, accomplishments, wealth — in the end, you can get it, but it always delivers less than what you’d hoped for. It’s never what you had expected. Tim Keller says:

Every time you get started into a relationship, every time you move into a marriage, every time you get into a job, every time you get into a new project, any time you get into some new pursuit and you think, “This finally is going to make my life right,” I want you to know in the morning it’s always Leah. You go to bed with Rachel; in the morning it will always, always be Leah.

Nobody put it better than C.S. Lewis who said, “Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise.”

The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers.

I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. […] The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but [it, the thing we thought was going to be in the center of it always] has evaded us. (C.S. Lewis)

You really see this in Leah’s case. Notice in verses 31 to 35 that she has a series of children. It’s tragic. She names her first child Reuben. Rueben means, “See, a son.” She says, “Because the LORD has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me” (Genesis 29:32). She thinks that now that she has a son, she will be seen and loved. She has another son and names him Simeon, which means heard. She thinks that now that she’s had a second son, she will be heard. She says, ““Because the LORD has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also” (Genesis 29:33). She has a third son and calls him Levi, which means attached. She thinks that now that she’s had a third child, that Jacob will be attached to her. She says, “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons” (Genesis 29:34). She keeps on having children, each time thinking that the next child will give her the happiness that she wants.

Tim Keller summarizes this lesson by saying, “All life here is marked by cosmic disappointment.” That’s an important lesson to learn. We are all searching for happiness, but we can never quite find it. It’s a major theme of the Bible. We were made for happiness. We’re hardwired for happiness. Yet everything in this world ultimately leaves us feeling empty and hollow, even if we get what we want. Your job, your marriage, your children, your career, accomplishments, and wealth — all of them will give you some happiness, but none of them will give you the satisfaction that you really want. You’ll wake up in the morning and you’ll always be disappointed.

There’s one more thing to notice in this passage, though. It points us to the solution to the problem that we all want happiness, but we are all unsatisfied because we can never find it. Here’s the last thing we see in this passage.

Happiness can ultimately be found in only one place.

There’s a dramatic turn in this passage. The one thing about stories is that there’s usually someone who changes in the story, and in this case it’s Leah. The circumstances don’t change, but Leah changes. Look what happens in verse 35:

And she conceived again and bore a son, and said, “This time I will praise the LORD.” Therefore she called his name Judah. Then she ceased bearing. (Genesis 29:35)

Every time Leah has a son, she thinks that she will finally find happiness. This time, something changes. This time she has a son and she calls him Judah, which means praise. This time she stops looking to her children to make her happy, and instead she says, “I’m going to praise the LORD.”  Leah finally looks to the only place we can find true happiness. She looks away from circumstances, away from accomplishments, away from all the things that we think will make us happy, and instead she looks to God. She stops having children, because she doesn’t need to keep using her children as a way to get the happiness that she wants. “She took the deepest, deepest, passionate desires of her heart away from her husband and put them on the Lord” (Tim Keller).

Here’s the thing we need to understand: no person, no job, no accomplishment, no amount of money can bear the burden of godhood. All of them will snap under the weight of our expectations and leave us disappointed. There is only one place we can find the happiness we want, and that’s God. One pastor tweeted this recently:

There is only one place to find the happiness we’ve been looking for, and that happiness is ultimately found in God.

There’s an important caveat here. I think this passage is teaching us something profound. It’s to look to God instead of other things for happiness. But I’d go even further. Ultimate happiness isn’t even found when we look to God for happiness; it’s when we look to God for himself. It’s ironically when we stop looking for happiness that we find it. Happiness isn’t even found in looking to God for happiness; it’s found when we look to God to be God. Notice that nothing changed here except for Leah. “Leah’s was a bad situation, which God did not completely change. But God changed Leah. He gave her grace to live in a less-than-perfect situation” (James Montgomery Boice).

If there is nothing in this world that can ever truly satisfy you, then satisfaction must be beyond this world. If there’s nothing in this world that will ever satisfy me, then it means I am made for something beyond this world. C.S. Lewis said, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

David Murray is author of an upcoming book called The Happy Christian, asks a great question. He says, “What would a Christian definition of happiness look like? Is there such a thing as Christian happiness? If so, what would it include?”

Here is his answer, and it’s a great one:

I believe there is such a thing as Christian happiness, quite distinct from any other kind of happiness, but the problem is that it is so multi-layered and multi-dimensional that it’s probably impossible to define it in one sentence. Believe me, I’ve tried. Consider even just the following sample sources of Christian happiness.

  • God is our perfect Father.
  • We know Jesus as our Lord and Savior.
  • The Holy Spirit is sanctifying and empowering us.
  • Our sins are forgiven.
  • God lives in our hearts.
  • We are justified and adopted into God’s world-wide and heaven-wide family.
  • Everything is working together for our good.
  • God is our guard and guide
  • We have all the promises of God.
  • Jesus has prepared a place for us in heaven and will welcome us there.

How do you put all these rich ingredients into one simple recipe? But if you’re going to force me into a short one-sentence definition, then I’d say: Christian happiness is the grace of loving and being loved by Jesus who gave his life for me. That to me is the sum and summit of it all.

We desperately want you to be happy. We want happiness to spread throughout Liberty Village. This evening it begins with this question: Where are you looking for happiness? You’ll be disappointed if you look anywhere but to God. I want us to be the happiest people in Liberty Village, because we have come to experience God as our perfect Father; Jesus as the Savior who gave up his life for us; the Spirit as an active presence in our lives. I want us to know the joy of our sins forgiven, of knowing that he has given us a family; that he is working all things together for our good; that he has prepared a place for us; that he loves you more than you could know, just as you are.

Let’s pray.

Father, we are all on a quest for happiness. Forgive us for looking to good things in this world to make us happy. Our careers, our families, our money, accomplishments, and pleasures can never bear the weight of our happiness. We were made to find our joy in you.

Thank you that you are our perfect Father, that Jesus is our Savior; that the Holy Spirit is with us. Thank you that our sins are forgiven; that you are at work in our lives; that we are your children. I pray that all of us would experience these realities tonight, maybe some of us for the first time. I pray that all of us would say with Leah, “This time I will praise the LORD.” I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The God Who Sings (Zephaniah 3:14-20)

Big Idea: The God who punishes sin is the God who has taken away your judgments; he lives among you; he loves and delights in you; he gathers all those who are weary and worn out. 


Tonight we are covering one of the most important issues we need to settle in our lives. I’d like to say that this is an issue that we settle once, but in my experience it’s an issue we need to return to on a regular basis. I can’t overemphasize how important an issue this is.

The issue is this, and it comes in the form of two questions: What do you think God things about you, and what can you do about it? So first: What do you think God thinks about you? Is he happy with you? Is he disappointed? Does he put up with you? And the second question is equally important: What can you do about it? How can you influence what God thinks about you?

These questions are huge in our lives, because what we think about God determines almost everything about your lives. These questions get at some of the deepest and most significant parts of ourselves, but often they are questions that we return to again and again because they are so significant.

To answer this question, let’s look at the book of Zephaniah, and we’ll look at what someone has called the Gospel of Zephaniah. To begin with, I won’t blame you too much if you’re not familiar with Zephaniah. Zephaniah is what is called a minor prophet in the Bible. Minor doesn’t mean insignificant; minor means that the prophet’s book was a smaller one rather than a larger one like Isaiah or Jeremiah. The problem that we face when we read one of these minor prophets is that the message is sometimes discouraging. The late preacher James Boice said:

I do not know if your experience in studying the Minor Prophets has been the same as mine, but I suspect it has, at least in this respect: the prophets’ reiterated message of coming judgment is oppressive, so that any serious attempt to understand and apply it often leaves a person depressed. I have felt this particularly in my study of Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Micah, and Nahum. I feel it also in the greater part of the Book of Zephaniah.

So we often ignore these prophets, but their message is important.

So who was Zephaniah? Zephaniah was a prophet who served during the reign of Josiah, around 640–609 B.C. If you know anything about Israel and Judah’s history around this time, you could summarize it like this: it was bad, and it kept getting worse. By the time Zephaniah came around, Israel had already been exiled, and Judah wasn’t far behind. But then King Josiah came along and was made king when he was eight years old. And just 18 years later, they found the Scriptures in the Temple, and Josiah led the spiritual renewal of the nation. Zephaniah 1:1 says that this word of the Lord came to Zephaniah in the reign of Josiah, so we know that this was a time of darkness in Judah’s history, but also with some hope that things were going to change for the better.

So what do we learn from Zephaniah? Two things, and here is the first:

God is as angry at sin as we think he is.

If you read the first two-thirds of the book of Zephaniah, you probably wouldn’t like it. Remember what I said about the prophets being depressing? That’s exactly what you find in Zephaniah. It leaves us discouraged.

In fact, here’s what Zephaniah looks like:

  • Chapter 1 — God is going to judge the nation of Judah
  • 2:1-3 — Repentance is still possible
  • The rest of chapter 2 — God is going to judge all the nations around Judah
  • 3:1-7 — God is going to judge Jerusalem

Somebody’s summarized the message of most of the book of Zephaniah as this:

One of the most awesome descriptions of the wrath of God in judgment found anywhere in Scripture appears in the opening verses of Zephaniah. The totality of the cosmos shall be consumed in his burning anger. The very order of creation shall be overturned. (O. Palmer Robertson)

So this is bad. The first part of Zephaniah — the majority of the book of Zephaniah — is exactly what we were afraid of: that God is angry at sin, and that we are in his crosshairs because we are sinners, and it’s only a matter of time before we and the rest of the world are in a lot of trouble.

I want to pause here for a minute to consider this, because this is really hard for us to accept. A lot of people today have a hard time accepting that God really could be that harsh. We accept a loving and merciful God, but we hate the idea of a God who could judge and hold us responsible for what we’ve done wrong. Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist, put it this way:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Dawkins is not one for understatement, but I get his point: we struggle with a God who is angry at sin, and who spends most of this book warning us about the judgment that’s going to come because we are so bad. What do we say to this?

Becky Pippert is an author and teacher, and Nathan and I got to hear her in Toronto this past December. I love how she responds to this issue. She does a great job helping us understand why the wrath of God is not a petty explosion, but an aspect of his who he has to be.

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. (Pippert, Hope Has Its Reasons)

Pippert then quotes E. H. Gifford, “Human love here offers a true analogy: the more a father loves his son, the more he hates in him the drunkard, the liar, the traitor.”

She concludes:

If I, a flawed, narcissistic, sinful woman, can feel this much pain and anger over someone’s condition, how much more a morally perfect God who made them? God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer of sin which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.

I’ll put it this way: I injured my Achilles Tendon two weeks ago. The first physiotherapist I saw told me that it really wasn’t that serious, and that I could continue running, but should just cut back a little. That was what I wanted to hear, because I have a goal, but it just didn’t sound right. I went to someone else yesterday who did a much more thorough job examining me, and he said something different: if I keep running, this temporary injury will become a chronic one. My best hope of recovery is rest, and then I can get back to running in a few weeks.

The same with us. We want to hear that our sin is not that serious, and that God isn’t that concerned with it. The reality is that our sin is far worse than we could imagine, and that God in his holiness and love sees that our sin must be dealt with. We must face the severity of our sin if we have any chance of recovery. And we must see that God is not a sentimental God who thinks that sin is no big deal. As one person puts it:

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 is blinding. He rules, He reigns, He rages and roars, then bends down to whisper love songs to His creatures. (Timothy Stoner, The God Who Smokes)

We don’t serve a sentimental God. We can’t domesticate him. We serve a God who “is so full of passion and blazing emotion that He burns—and yes, smokes in the ferocity of His infinite, holy love.” God is as angry at sin as we think he is.

But there’s more:

God is over-the-top in his grace to sinners who deserve only judgment.

A few minutes ago I quoted someone who summarized the message of the first part of the book of Zephaniah:

One of the most awesome descriptions of the wrath of God in judgment found anywhere in Scripture appears in the opening verses of Zephaniah. The totality of the cosmos shall be consumed in his burning anger. The very order of creation shall be overturned.

Here’s what he says about the part that we’re going to focus on (3:9-20) for the rest of this message:

One of the most moving descriptions of the love of God for his people found anywhere in Scripture appears in the closing verses of Zephaniah. God and his people attain heights in the ecstasy of love that are hard to comprehend. (O. Palmer Robertson)

The reason I want to look at this passage tonight is because it gives us the gospel of Jesus Christ. Remember the other week, if you were here, what I said? I want to major this year in being strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 2:1) so we can do what he has called us to do (2 Timothy 2:2). This passage is huge in strengthening us in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. It is the gospel of Zephaniah. We need to know how seriously God takes sin, and then we need to see how God gives his over-the-top grace to weary, worn out, scattered people. We need to see how God overcomes our guilt and shame. We need to revel in this passage. The famous preacher C.H. Spurgeon said, “This passage is like a great sea, while I am as a little child making pools in the sand which skirts its boundless flood.”

So what does this passage say? It tells us to rejoice, and to sing (Zephaniah 3:14). He piles up every available expression to tell us to rejoice. That’s an odd thing to say after reading about God’s judgment. It’s because we see that God is a complex person. He is a God of judgment and wrath, but we also see:

The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
(Psalm 103:8-9)

Rejoice. Why? Because God has done a litany of things for us. Zephaniah wrote these words over 600 years before the birth of Jesus, but they all point us to what Jesus has accomplished for us. These things can only ultimately be true because Jesus has accomplished them. Hear the good news of Jesus Christ, the gospel of Zephaniah:

He has taken away our judgments and dealt with our enemies (Zephaniah 3:15).

What do you do when you realize that you are a far greater sinner than you had realized, and that God is far more angry at sin than we could dream? Rejoice! Because God has taken away our judgments and dealt with our enemies. He has dealt decisively with both our guilt and our shame. Scotty Smith says that guilt says, “I broke the law,” and shame says, “I am broken.” Guilt says we have done something wrong, and shame says there is something wrong with us. And God has dealt with both.

The LORD has taken away the judgments against you;
he has cleared away your enemies.
The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst;
you shall never again fear evil.
(Zephaniah 3:15 ESV)

The astounding thing is that God did not compromise his holiness in order to deal with our sin and our guilt. God is both holy and merciful at the same time. Jesus doesn’t only judge evil, but he also takes the hell and judgment himself for us on the cross. Because Jesus bore our sins, there is no longer any judgment against the person who trusts in him. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Our sins, past, present, and future, have been dealt with at the cross. Sing aloud, and rejoice! The God of holiness has dealt with our sins, and he has taken away the judgments against us.

He is in our midst, so we no longer have to fear (Zephaniah 3:15).

Not only has God taken away our judgment, but God is now with us.

The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst;
you shall never again fear evil.
(Zephaniah 3:15)

On several occasions, King Abdullah II of Jordan has disguised himself and mingled with his subjects. His rationale for this unorthodox approach is to better understand and serve his people. Taking the character of an ordinary old Arab man, he has appeared in public with a fake white beard, wearing the traditional Jordanian kufiah, and the Arabic white dress. While so disguised, the king walked around two government buildings without security and was not noticed. While waiting in a long line, he engaged people in conversation and listened to their point of view.

Such incognito appearances have marked the 42-year-old monarch's reign since he assumed the throne in 1999. He disguised himself as an old man previously while visiting a hospital. Another time, he circulated around Amman behind the wheel of a taxicab. Still another time, he passed himself off as a television reporter trying to cover a story at a duty-free shop.

Jesus does even better than King Abdullah. He didn’t just visit us; he became one of us. He understands everything we go through. He has also promised that he is always with us. He is with us. We never have to fear any evil.

He loves and delights in his people (Zephaniah 3:17).

This is the part that gets me the most.

The LORD your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.
(Zephaniah 3:17)

I heard the story of a wedding in a very formal church. The bride began to walk down the aisle. The groom was supposed to wait beside the minister for the bride to arrive at the front. Instead, the groom broke all decorum and went running down the aisle to meet his bride. He was so full of joy, but the minister thought that he was going to get fired. That is a good picture of God’s joy in saving us. “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5). John Piper says:

We must banish from our minds forever any thought that God admits us begrudgingly into his kingdom, as though Christ found a loophole in the law, did some fancy plea-bargaining, and squeaked us by the Judge. No way! God himself, the Judge, put Christ forward as our substitutionary sacrifice, and when we trust him, God welcomes us with bells on. He puts a ring on our finger, kills the fatted calf, throws a party, shouts a shout that shakes the ends of creation, and leads in the festal dance. (John Piper)

God rejoices over us; he exults over us with loud singing.

He will gather all of us who are weary and worn out (Zephaniah 3:18-20).

I think I’ve told you before about the way Ray Ortlund opens services at Immanuel Nashville. He says something like this:

To all who are weary and need rest;
To all who mourn and long for comfort;
To all who feel worthless and wonder if God even cares;
To all who are weak and fail and desire strength;
To all who sin and need a Savior —
This church opens wide her doors with a welcome from Jesus,
the mighty friend of sinners,
the ally of his enemies,
the defender of the indefensible,
the justifier of those who have no excuses left…

I have a friend who started attending Immanuel Nashville after being really beat up. He was hurting and jaded. As Ray spoke these words, he leaned over to his wife and said, “Bull.” They couldn’t even make it through the first service without leaving for a while. But they came back, and they stuck around, and they discovered that this church had a place for hurting people like them. They learned the importance of what Ray Ortlund teaches: that we all need Gospel + safety + time. A lot of gospel, a lot of safety, and a lot of time.

Zephaniah ends with a note of hope for the hurting, for the weary, for the hurting.

I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival,
so that you will no longer suffer reproach.
Behold, at that time I will deal
with all your oppressors.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you in,
at the time when I gather you together;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes,” says the LORD.
(Zephaniah 3:18-20)

I asked you at the beginning, “What do you think God things about you, and what can you do about it?” Here’s the answer: God rejoices in saving you. He delights in saving you. And what can you do about it? You can receive it. You can rejoice in it. You can let that reality change everything about you.

We’re going to spend time thinking about what God has called us to do. We’re going to spend lots of time doing this. But as I heard someone say this week, “Being more accomplishes more than doing more” (Will Mancini). Today we’re beginning by doing what Paul commanded Timothy to do in 2 Timothy 2:1: “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus…”

So:

Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
(Zephaniah 3:14)

For your holy God, the God who punishes sin, has taken away your judgments; he lives among you; he loves and delights in you; he gathers all those who are weary and worn out.

Three Things for 2015 (2 Timothy 2:1-13)

Jonathan Dodson is a church planter in Austin, Texas. If you don’t know Austin, it sounds a lot like Toronto. It’s called a weird and wired city, full of technology, but also very diverse, creative, and not at all religious. A popular bumper sticker there says “Keep Austin Weird.”

Dodson did what we’ve done here. He packed up his family and moved to start a new church in this city that wasn’t asking for a new church. They knew that they wanted to do more than recycle Christians. They wanted to reach people who did not know Jesus in a city in which 76% of people say that they find the gospel of Jesus Christ unbelievable. They planted a church to reach not just unchurched but resistant people.

In their first year of ministry, they saw exactly one person come to know Christ. Even that success was short-lived. Soon after he professed his faith and for the next four years, it looked as this first convert had walked away from his new faith. “One person in a city of 1.7 million? In one year? Not a great start,” Dodson writes.

They started to see more traction. But still, it was slow. Dodson writes:

Still, after two years of ministry in Austin, we had only baptized one new disciple. We had gone to Austin hoping to reach hundreds, if not thousands of people. One person. I was discouraged. I felt like I was failing.

I want to pause here to say that I relate so strongly to Dodson’s story. We have moved into a gospel-resistant culture with great hopes of making a difference. By God’s grace, I think we are making a difference. But it is slow, painfully slow. While we have many stories of relationship, of sharing the gospel, of seeing people hunger and explore the claims of Jesus Christ, and of building credibility, our growth as a new church has been slow. There were times last year that I got pretty discouraged, wondering how many people would even show up at our worship service, wondering if we would see the fruit we’ve been praying for. I’m encouraged to read Dodson’s story because I can relate to it so strongly, especially when he asks:

Were we doing enough? Did our “conversion rate” justify the costs, personal and financial, that we had made in planting the church? Was it worth it to relocate our family and deal with the intense spiritual warfare we were under? Most of all, I wondered: If I was leading our church correctly, equipping our people well, shouldn’t we be seeing more results? Was I doing something wrong? (The Unbelievable Gospel)

I want to explore this a bit tonight. I want to look tonight at a vision for 2015 that does a few things: that takes into account where we are, that reminds us of why we’re here, that gives us the resources that we need to take our next steps as a church, and that sets us on the right track for what we need to be doing. I want to be as clear as possible about the next steps I believe God is asking us to take as a church. And I want to pray that these things, as we put them into practice in the coming year, will make a real difference in what our church looks like.

So let me tell you what I believe God is calling us to. Three things, all found in the passage we read tonight: 2 Timothy 2:1-13.

First: Strengthen yourself in the gospel.

We see this in verse 1, and again in verses 8-13:

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 2:1)

Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! 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. 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 2:8-13)

Notice where Paul begins and ends. We would begin with a list of actions to be taken and steps that we should follow. Not Paul. Paul begins and ends with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Rather than take steps, and think of things we need to do, Paul tells Timothy to ground himself in what Jesus has done. Don’t begin with what we have to do; begin and end with what Jesus has done, and live there.

This is crucial, and I propose that we begin here. This year, let’s major in being strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus. I think I’ve told you about Jack Miller. He was a pastor and seminary professor who quit the ministry because people just weren’t changing. He went to Spain and there encountered the gospel of Jesus Christ in a new way. He knew the gospel already, but the gospel went down into a deeper level in his life and completely changed him. He was strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus. He returned to Pennsylvania, asked for his old jobs back, and saw more fruit in his ministry in the next year than he had in all of the years up to that point. The ripple effects of that transformation are continuing today through the lives of the people that he touched.

Before we can change the community, we need to be changed by the gospel. Before we can see Liberty Village transformed, we need to be transformed. That’s why Paul starts here. One of the greatest things we can do this year is realize that we can do nothing, because Jesus has done it all for us. Why is this so important?

  • Because this is where the power comes from — from Jesus Christ.
  • Because this will help us deal with our idolatries and need to prove ourselves. There’s a vast difference between ministering out of gratitude for the gospel versus ministering out of insecurity, idolatry, and a desire to prove ourselves.
  • Because the gospel takes the pressure off. We can begin to serve out of freedom rather than out of compulsion and duty.

So Paul begins and ends here. Count on Christ. Look at Christ. Major on Christ. Dwell in that grace. Stop trying to earn God’s approval. Let the gospel become so big that there’s no room for the idolatries that occupy your heart.

A look at the gospel is enough to keep Paul going through beatings, imprisonment, and possible death. Even though Paul is in prison, he knows the gospel and the Word of God is not bound. They can lock Paul up, but they can’t lock the gospel. The gospel is Paul’s motivation. Because of what Jesus has done, Paul can endure all things so that others may share in the salvation that is in Christ Jesus in eternal glory. He ends with the call to be faithful, but even there he ends with the reminder that even when we are faithless, God is faithful. Our confidence isn’t ourselves. Our confidence is in God. He will get the work done. He chooses to use us, but he doesn’t need us. It’s ultimately up to him. He is our confidence.

So I propose that this is where we start this year. We are going to major even more on the gospel of Jesus Christ, because I need it, and you do too. We need this church to not just preach gospel doctrine, but be shaped by a gospel culture. I want us to learn what Richard Lovelace says: that most people’s problems are just a failure to be oriented to the gospel—a failure to grasp and believe it through and through; that the key to both individual and corporate renewal is a continual rediscovery of the gospel.

So that’s the first of three things I believe God is calling us to this year. The second is this:

Second: Multiply yourself.

Paul says in verse 2 one of the clearest and most important commands. It’s predicated on strengthening yourself in the gospel.

…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. (2 Timothy 2:2)

If you’re like me, you wonder how you are going to make a difference in the lives of other people. How are we going to see the gospel spread in Liberty Village? How are we even going to see lives change within this church?

Paul gives us the strategy we need here. It’s a simple one, but we can’t ignore its power. In this simple verse, Paul unlocks a strategy that has the potential to transform more people than we can comprehend.

He gives four generations of the gospel. It goes from Paul, to Timothy, to faithful men, who will then be able to give it to others also. That’s four generations. What Paul is saying is this: remember how someone entrusted the gospel to you? Do the same to someone else. Even better, train them how they too can entrust the gospel. The results will blow your mind.

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. He spoke to 8,000 students. The average person will meet 10,000 people in their lives.

But if every one of you changed the lives of just 10 people, and each one of those folks changed the lives of another 10 people—just 10—then in five generations, 125 years, the class of 2014 will have changed the lives of 800 million people.

Now, we don’t have 8,000 people here tonight. But I’ve done the math.  If 12 people in this church reached 10 people, then in five generations, we will have reached 120,000 people. In six generations, that’s over a million people. All it would take is in the course of your life that you invest your life and the gospel in just 10 people.

The question I want to ask this year is: how can we actually do this? Why are we so scared of evangelism? Who are the “faithful” people in our lives to whom we can entrust the gospel? How can we turn this from a theory to something that’s happening? Sometimes I can relate to the name of a blog, “Jamie the Very Worst Missionary.” I feel like staring one myself: “Darryl, the very worst evangelist and church planter.” 

I propose that this year be first the year of strengthening ourselves in the gospel, and secondly the year of entrusting the gospel to others. I want to spend a lot of time this year exploring this and praying for this.

But there’s one more. I want this to be the year of being strengthened in the gospel, and the year of entrusting the gospel to others. These will be too major themes that will keep coming up over and over again. But there’s one more thing that Paul mentions:

Three: Prepare to pay the cost.

In verses 3 to 7, Paul tells us what this will cost us. If we major in the gospel, and in entrusting that gospel to others, it will come at a cost. It won’t be easy. Paul compares the cost of gospel ministry to the cost of three professions that were common in that day: a soldier, athlete, and farmer.

How is gospel ministry like being a soldier? It takes endurance and focus. In the first season of Downtown Abbey, a whole episode revolves around a missing cufflink. That’s what you can worry about in peacetime. In the second season, they’re at war. They are in foxholes worried about avoiding bombs and staying alive another hour. You have a whole set of other priorities in wartime.

Paul says that Christian ministry is warfare.

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)

Spurgeon said, “When you sleep, remember that you are resting on the battlefield; when you travel, suspect an ambush in every hedge.” He said, “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.” Understand that if you devote yourself to going deeper in the gospel and entrusting the gospel to others, it will be hard. You’re going to war.

But that’s not the only image. There’s also the image of an athlete.

How is Christian ministry like being an athlete? It takes discipline and obedience. I’m training for a half marathon right now. Tomorrow I have to go out and run 16km according to my training schedule. I’m learning that if I am going to run the half marathon on March 1, it requires that I make certain choices today that align with that. Talent and desire isn’t enough; it takes discipline and obedience.

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)

If we are to go deep into the gospel, entrusting the gospel to others, it will take discipline. It will take showing up. It will take doing the work.

But there’s one more image, and it may be my favorite out of the three.

How is Christian ministry like being a farmer? It takes hard work and patience. In his commentary on this passage, Kent Hughes describes the life of a farmer. 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 a lot like ministry! The ministry of the gospel requires strain, struggle, and diligence. It involves suffering. 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 says in verse 7, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” He doesn’t want us to rush on. He wants us to really think about the cost of what he’s saying. Don’t get into this thinking it won’t cost you. It does cost a lot, but it’s worth everything.

So that’s it for tonight. If you want to know what this next year is about, it’s simply about three things:

  • strengthening ourselves in the gospel
  • entrusting the gospel to others
  • being prepared to pay the cost — which takes us back to number one, being strengthened in the gospel

We’re going to talk about Jesus a lot. We’re really going to unpack what it means to evangelize and disciple others. We’re going to ask hard questions about why it’s so difficult. We are going to keep coming back to the gospel so that when it gets hard, we’ll have what it takes to carry on.

But that’s enough for today. What I want to do is to pray now, and ask for God’s help as we look ahead to the coming year and all that God wants to do.

Father, we are in a great area. But it’s also an area in which many find the gospel unbelievable. And we have sometimes wondered how it could be that the gospel could make a difference in this community, and if you will use us.

Tonight we want to begin by thanking you for what you have done in Jesus. He is everything. Thank you for the grace that we have in Christ Jesus: that we have been completely accepted in him. He has paid the price so that we can be made right with God. He has done everything necessary. He lived the life we couldn’t live, and died the death that we should have died, and now we live with his forgiveness and power. Help us to keep coming back to that over and over this year.

I pray that you will help us as we consider what it means to entrust the gospel to others. We want to see the gospel spread throughout the community. We want you to use us. But we are uncertain and scared. We pray for your help as we look at this in the coming year. Take the pressure off so that we can live out of our gospel identity and be freed to share your love as we should.

Father, this will be hard. You’re calling us to count the cost, like soldiers, athletes, and farmers. But it’s worth it because of the gospel.

Do your work in us this year. We pray it in Jesus’ name and for his glory, Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

[Read John 12:20-36]

This is God’s holy Word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did Jesus accomplish by his death?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Jesus, this is how the world operates:

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

You see this everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. God has acted.

Matthew 1:18-20 says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(which means, God with us).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love how Tim Keller puts it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have to apply this in two ways this evening.

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

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

The Big Story: Creation (Genesis 1)

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

We Need to Know the Storyline

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

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

The Storyline in Four Parts

Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration

What Creation Teaches Us

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

1. Something about God

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

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

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

2. Something about the World

It is good.

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

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

Part of this good is our enjoyment of God.

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

3. Something about Us

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

We have purpose. We are ruling on his behalf.

How Creation Fits with Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus exposes religious pretension.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus replaces it with something better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what he's saying is this:

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Verses 23 to 25 lay it out for us:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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