DashHouse.com

The Blog of Darryl Dash

This blog is about how Jesus changes everything. He changes:

Our relationship with God

Our relationship with others

Our vocations - how we live and work in this world

Our ministries

This blog exists to explore some of the ways that Jesus changes everything. It provides resources and articles that will help you think about the ways that Jesus can change every part of your life.

The Lord himself invites you to a conference concerning your immediate and endless happiness, and He would not have done this if He did not mean well toward you. Do not refuse the Lord Jesus who knocks at your door; for He knocks with a hand which was nailed to the tree for such as you are. Since His only and sole object is your good, incline your ear and come to Him. Hearken diligently, and let the good word sink into your soul. (C.H. Spurgeon, All of Grace)

Says Who? (Galatians 1:10-24)

It’s not always safe to admit it in a place like this, but some of us have occasionally wondered if this Christianity thing is all true or whether it’s just a human invention. I thought about this as I read the story of Frederica Mathewes-Greene. She had a very strong faith at an early age. She wanted to go into the ministry when she grew older. But when she turned 12 or 13, she had a crisis of faith.

When I was 12 or 13, I began to doubt the entire Christian story. I felt almost as if I'd had somebody try to cheat me. They had fed me this long, complex story about virgin birth, born in a manger, died on a cross, came back to life. It just sounded preposterous to me. I thought that it was something that no normal, sane person could be expected to believe, and I'd been made a fool.

She began to consider atheism, agnosticism, and various other religions. She was really sure that she wanted to reject Christianity, but she really didn’t know what to believe. She eventually chose Hinduism because it seemed to be the most intriguing and colorful of all the different world religions.

I can relate to this because I too had a strong faith as a child. But I remember reaching a point where I began to ask, “Is this for real? Do I just believe this because it’s my mother’s religion?” You discover that there are lots of people who are willing to help you doubt Christianity. As comedian Ricky Gervais put it:

I used to believe in God. The Christian one that is. I loved Jesus. He was my hero.

[But later on] I was sitting at the kitchen table when my brother came home...I was happily drawing my hero [Jesus] when my big brother Bob asked, "Why do you believe in God?" Just a simple question. But my mum panicked. "Bob," she said in a tone that I knew meant, "Shut up." Why was that a bad thing to ask? If there was a God and my faith was strong, it didn't matter what people said.

Oh ... hang on. There is no God. [My brother] knows it, and [my mom] knows it deep down. It was as simple as that. I started thinking about it and asking more questions, and within an hour, I was an atheist.

Is this whole thing a human invention? That’s the question we have to wrestle with, because if it is we’re wasting our time. If it isn’t, then everything changes.

In fact, that is the very question that this morning’s passage deals with. The question of the passage this morning is quite simple: Where did Christianity come from? Is it a human invention?

Let me tell you a little bit about what’s behind this passage. The apostle Paul is writing to churches that he’s planted. He had visited their area - south-central Turkey - and had told them about Jesus Christ. In particular, he had told them about Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, who had died in the place of sinners so that all could become part of God’s people. This was a radical message. You didn’t have to be one of Abraham’s descendants to be included; Jesus opened the way for everyone.

But Paul is no longer on the scene. And some other teachers had come in, and they were saying something like this: “We’re well connected with the church, and we need to tell you that Paul did not give you the whole story. He’s given you the gospel on the cheap. Gentiles can become part of God’s people through faith in Christ, but you still have to obey the law of Moses.”

All of a sudden you have two competing versions of the gospel. The problem with two competing versions of the gospel is that you’re now in the realm of human opinion. We’re then left with something that’s very subjective. “Is Paul right? I don’t know, what do you think?” If Christianity is something subjective, then pretty soon we’re left wondering whose version of Christianity is really right.

Look, here’s the deal. You’re in a Fellowship Baptist church this morning. There’s a whole other Baptist denomination in our city that’s different from us. That’s not to mention all the other Baptists. And Baptists are only part of the picture. You have independent churches, and all kinds of other denominations as well: Anglicans, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, AGC, Alliance. And those are only the Protestant denominations. You also have the Roman Catholic church and the Orthodox church. And those are only the Christians. You also have other religions: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism. And you also have atheism and agnosticism, not to mention the custom-made, do-it-yourself belief systems. Who’s to say we’re right?

Don’t feel guilty asking these questions! These are the very questions that you should be asking. The good news is that Paul is going to help us sort this out. He’s going to tell us three things about the Christianity this morning. First, it’s not a matter of human opinion. Second, it didn’t originate from any human source. Finally, he’ll help us understand why there are so many churches despite the fact that there is only one gospel.

Here’s the first thing we need to know:

One: The gospel is not a matter of human opinion.

This is so important. If we don’t understand what Paul says here, we won’t have any confidence in the gospel, because who’s to say which gospel is right? Who knows whether Paul is right, or his opponents? Who’s to say that the gospel we preach is right? Paul helps us get past this problem, because the first thing he tells us here is that the gospel is not a matter of human opinion. It’s not a debate between different scholars and denominations.

Look at verse 10 with me:

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

There’s a very important lesson in this verse. When it comes to the gospel, how much does human approval matter? Paul tells us here: it counts for nothing. Remember: Paul is countering the charge that he is preaching a gospel that’s catered to a particular audience. Paul defends himself by saying that you can’t cater the gospel to a particular audience without losing it altogether. You face a choice: please God by sticking with the gospel, or displease God by tweaking the gospel? You can’t do both. Paul is saying that human opinion doesn’t even factor into the gospel he’s preaching, because his concern is fidelity to what God has revealed. Human opinion about whether or not people like the gospel doesn’t even enter into it.

Read what Paul says in verse 11:

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man's gospel.

Paul says that the gospel is not a matter of human opinion. The gospel did not come from anyone’s opinion, including his own. You could translate last part of verse 11, “The gospel I preached is not of human origin.” Literally, it’s not from flesh and blood. Jesus once said to Peter, his disciple, “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).

Paul is saying that the gospel is not a matter of human opinion, because it doesn’t come from any human. What’s more, human opinion doesn’t even factor into it, because you can’t please God if you’re concerned about tweaking the gospel to please others. C.S. Lewis said it well: “Christianity must be from God, for who else could have thought it up!”

Here’s what it means: we don’t get a vote on what the gospel is, because the gospel doesn’t originate from any human being. The gospel is not something that changes according to the poll numbers. The gospel is not a matter of human opinion.

Two: The gospel comes from God himself, not from any human source.

We’ve seen Paul hint at this already. If Paul says that he didn’t get the gospel from any human source, where in the world did he get it from? If it didn’t come from church councils or secret meetings of key leaders in the church, how does Paul even know what the gospel is? Look at verse 12:

For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

This is shocking. Paul was not somebody who was going along trying to figure out what the gospel is. On the contrary, verses 13 and 14 detail his life before he encountered Jesus Christ. He was determined to wipe out the church. He hated the gospel and he wanted to eradicate the church. He was a young and rising star in Judaism and had absolutely no interest in the gospel at all.

But something happened, according to verses 15 and 16. It’s not something that happened as a result of some fluke or coincidence, according to Paul. It happened because God intended for it to happen before Paul was born. It wasn’t a matter of Paul’s doing; it is completely because God took the initiative. By the way, that’s exactly how God works in our lives too. If you’ve responded to the gospel and put your faith in Christ, it’s not the result of some fluke or coincidence. God set you apart from before you were even born, and he took the initiative.

But then Paul tells us where he got his understanding of the gospel. Read verses 12 and 15 16 together:

For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ...But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me...

Acts 9 tells the story. Paul was on his way to Damascus when Jesus Christ appeared to him. It wasn’t a vision; Jesus himself appeared. Paul saw the risen Jesus Christ on the Damascus road, and “the gospel in all its glory and beauty was disclosed to him” (Thomas Schreiner). Paul didn’t get the gospel second-hand or third-hand; he got the gospel right from Jesus Christ himself.

I was sitting with some friends a while ago discussing a fairly famous incident that had taken place among some prominent people years ago. I began to wonder out loud what some of the famous people involved in the incident would say now. I had some guesses because I’ve read books about the incident. One of my friends said, “It’s interesting you should ask that. I asked that person the very same question when he was at my house a few months ago, and here’s what he said.” It really ended the conversation. We could guess what someone said; my friend could tell you because he had heard directly from that person.

We can sit around and wonder, “What do you think the gospel really is?” Paul could say, “Well, when Jesus stopped me in my tracks and changed the direction of my life and ministry, this is how he explained it to me.” It really does kill the debate. Paul’s opponents were questioning whether or not Paul had the gospel right; Paul could say that he got it directly from Jesus himself. The gospel really isn’t a matter of what we think. Why? Because Paul got the gospel directly from God, directly from Jesus Christ himself, not from any human source. Not only that, but God appointed Paul to preach this gospel, so that Paul is acting as a messenger on behalf of the originator of the gospel, so that when we hear the gospel from Paul, we’re hearing it from someone appointed by God to proclaim that very message. We can have confidence that what Paul says about the gospel is a message from God himself.

Think of the confidence that this gives us. We come not to hear what I think about the gospel. Paul’s got it right. Who cares about what I think the gospel is about? We come to open the Word of God together, to read the words of someone who got the message directly from Jesus Christ himself. That is why we’re here. It’s not a subjective judgment of what you or I think; it’s about “our common salvation...the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). It’s a gospel that comes directly from God himself.

You may be thinking, “Well, that’s great, but how do you account for all the different denominations that are out there? If there’s one gospel, then why are there so many different churches?” Great question, and one that leads us to the last thing that Paul tells us in this passage.

Three: The church doesn’t create the gospel; it’s created by the gospel.

I need to unpack this a little as we come to the end of this passage. What Paul says is that the church doesn’t create the gospel; it’s created by the gospel.

Remember that Paul’s opponents were saying that Paul got the gospel wrong. Part of their argument seems to have been that they were well-connected to the Jerusalem church and so they had the official version, like the authorized version of the gospel. Paul actually makes a strange counterargument in this section. You’d think he’d argue that his version of the gospel is especially sanctioned by the most important people in Jerusalem, by the apostles who knew Jesus Christ personally. Instead he makes a completely different argument. He says that he’s only had limited contact with the apostles and those in Judea. It’s not like his gospel contradicts theirs; they know him and they’ve compared notes. It’s just that Paul didn’t get the gospel from them. He got the gospel directly from Jesus, and it lines up with their gospel very well.

So in verses 18 to 20 he says that he’s relatively unknown to the apostles. He’s spent very little time with them. And in verses 21 to 24 he says that he’s relatively unknown by the church in Judea. They know only of him by report. In other words, Paul’s credentials don’t come because he’s been approved by some official body. His credentials come from God himself. The church didn’t create the message that Paul is preaching; in fact, the church doesn’t create the gospel; the gospel creates the church. The church is the product of the gospel, not the originator of the gospel.

That means that some in the church will get it wrong, like Paul’s opponents. That’s why there are so many denominations. It’s not because the gospel is in confusion and the church can’t agree. We’re going to see in the next chapter that some of the pillars of the church themselves can get confused about the gospel. Over the past two thousand years the church has had lots of opportunities to get confused about the gospel. But there is this thing called the gospel. It’s the plumb-line that the church can use to bring us back into alignment with the gospel. That’s why we keep coming back to the Word. I guarantee that we as a church will get all wonky and drift from time to time. That’s what my car does too, by the way. Do you know what I do with my car? I take it in for a wheel alignment. Do you know what we have to do as a church? We need to continue to bring ourselves into alignment with the gospel. That’s our job: to bring our lives and ministries back into alignment with the gospel that never changes.

Two implications for us this morning.

First: It gives me a lot of confidence to know that the reason we’re here isn’t because of some cleverly invented stories created by the church years ago. I remember wondering years ago if I could believe the gospel, or whether it was some fairy tale I needed to reject. It’s very unsettling to wrestle wit this question. I’m sure many of you have wrestled with it as well. It does me good to consider what Paul says in this passage. The gospel, the news that Jesus Christ died for sinners so that we could be saved, is not a human invention. Nobody could make this up. I love the hymn: “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!” Cling to this message. It’s a message from God. Realize the duty we have to guard the good deposit of the gospel that’s been entrusted to us.

Second: This morning I urge you to respond to this message. You may have been wondering if this is something for you. I hope that you will wrestle with what we’ve talked about and see that the message of Jesus Christ is not an invention. It’s good news that comes directly from God, and that demands a response from us.

I began this sermon talking about Frederica Mathewes-Greene, who wanted to go into the ministry but who one day decided that the whole thing is preposterous at the age of 12 or 13, and who eventually chose Hinduism. Let me give you the rest of the story:

[What ultimately led me out of Hinduism] was a strange experience. I was with my husband on our honeymoon, hitchhiking around Europe. He was an atheist who had been assigned in one of his classes to read a gospel. And he kept saying, "There's something about Jesus. I've never encountered anyone like this before. I know that he's speaking the truth. I'm an atheist. But if Jesus says there's a God, there must be a God."

It was a very scary experience for me, because I didn't want him to be a Christian. He was not ready to make a full commitment to Christ at that point, but he was curious and wanted to study more...

She began to feel her heart drawn toward Christ. She began reading the Bible. Gradually she came closer to the point of placing her faith in the gospel she had chosen to reject so many years earlier.

Gradually we were able to come into faith. It was several months later that a friend of ours said, "Well, have you ever given your hearts to Jesus? Have you ever asked Jesus to be your Lord?" You have to picture that both of us grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, him Episcopalian, me Catholic, and our response was, "We're not Southern Baptists." Our association with that kind of talk is that you have to be Southern Baptist for Jesus to be your Lord.

He said, "Actually, it's for everybody."

We said, "Well, you know, we're in graduate school."

"No, even for you."

So the three of us knelt down together and prayed and asked Jesus to be our Lord, having no idea what that would mean but wanting so much to find out.

I’d love nothing more than for you to do the same thing: to come to faith in Jesus Christ who died for you. Let’s pray.

Don’t Lose the Gospel (Galatians 1:1-9)

A few years ago I was sitting in a cabin at a camp on one of the bunks. I was playing with my wedding ring, which is something you do when you’re fidgety. Suddenly the ring went flying off of my finger and across the cabin. I was on the top bunk and couldn’t see exactly where it landed. Remember, it’s a cabin. There are holes in the floorboards and little cracks where the sheets of plywood meet. I jumped down and began a frantic search for that ring. I’m happy to say that I found it, and it’s on my ring finger this morning.

What’s the worst thing that you’ve ever lost? A ring? A passport? Your wallet or purse? Do you remember the feeling of panic as you realize that something valuable has gone missing? Sometimes what you lose is replaceable. Other times it’s not − a family heirloom, like your grandmother’s wedding ring passed down to you. There are some things that you just don’t want to lose.

This morning I’d like to talk about not just the things that are hard to lose, but some of the things that are fatal to lose. This morning, right now, you’re breathing at a rate of somewhere around 12 to 18 breaths a minute. If you lose your ability to breathe, you have only minutes left. Right now, your heart is beating every second. Some of you are really fit so your heart is taking the odd second off. Some of you are sitting beside somebody you really like, so your heart is beating a bit faster. But if you lose your heartbeat, you only have seconds to live.

You see, there are some things that you hate to lose, like a wedding ring. And there are some things that are fatal to lose, like your breath or heartbeat. But this morning we’re going to see that there are some things that are fatal to lose, and one of them, according to the passage we’re about to read, is the Gospel.

But let’s back up a second. Let me introduce the book that we’re about to look at together. This morning we’re beginning to look at Galatians, a book written to a group of churches planted by the apostle Paul on his first missionary journey. They’re in what we would call today south central Turkey. Paul had come to this area a few years earlier, an area full of the worship of local gods and goddesses with a smattering of monotheistic Jews. This quirky guy, the apostle Paul, came to town, and began to teach that there is one God, and that this one God had unveiled his plan for the world through a Jewish man named Jesus. He was executed by the Romans, but Paul argued that God had raised Jesus from the dead. And now God is building a new family with no divisions between different racial groups. Paul has taught this, and people have believed. And by the time Paul moves on, churches have started all over the area filled with people who have accepted the good news of this Jesus Christ.

But now a few years have passed. Others have come in who claim to know a little more about Jesus. They have said something like this: Paul is a good man, but he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. Paul, they say, has some funny ideas. He’s muddled. We’ve talked to the real authorities, and here’s the real scoop. You need a little bit more if you’re going to be a good Christian. Yes, you need to believe the gospel, but there’s more. It’s Jesus plus something else.

Paul gets wind of this, and that’s where we find ourselves as we start this letter. I want you to notice two things before I tell you why this is important to us this morning.

First: Paul is ticked. Have you ever received an angry letter in the mail? You have to use oven mitts or tongs to hold the letter? This is one of those letters. Now, don’t misunderstand. Paul hasn’t blown his lid. This isn’t a letter that he’s going to regret having written later. No, this is a reasoned and well-thought out letter. But make no mistake: Paul is ticked here. Letters like this usually begin with a prayer of thanksgiving for the recipients. Paul skips that and gets right down to business, and he doesn’t mince any words. He’s very honest about the problems with a Jesus plus something else approach.

Second: Paul goes to great lengths in verses 1 and 2 to establish is authority. Here’s why this is important. I’m a pastor, and I sometimes get love letters from people. Actually, some of them aren’t full of a lot of love. One of the first things I do is to look at who wrote the letter. If it’s anonymous, I honestly don’t pay too much attention to it. I still read it, but it doesn’t come with a lot of authority. But if it’s written by the chair of our elders, I pay a lot more attention. Paul writes, and he’s not just any schmo. He is “an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father.” He is an apostle hand-selected by God and by Christ. He is writing with divine authority here. What’s more, he writes with “all the brothers who are with me.” Paul isn’t some lone ranger who’s off by himself. Paul’s coworkers are united with him and what he teaches. He has credibility among the leaders of the church. Paul is someone that they need to pay attention to.

Here’s why this is important. We need to receive this letter as one that comes with divine authority. This is not somebody’s opinion; this is the apostolic message handed down to us, and we had better pay attention. Here’s another reason why we need to pay attention to this message: because we face the same danger that the Galatians faced, which is a lack of clarity on the gospel. And if we lose the gospel, it’s not like losing a ring or a passport. It’s a fatal loss. If we lose the gospel, we lose everything.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “What is this gospel that you’re talking about? If it’s so important, then define it.” And, “Come on, get real. How can you say we’re in danger of losing the gospel?” Both are good questions, and both are actually the questions that Paul answers in this passage.

Here’s what he does in this passage. He says two things: the gospel has content, and don’t lose it by adding to it. By looking at what Paul says I’m hoping we’ll grasp the gospel, and then we’ll grasp the very real danger we face of losing the gospel by adding to it.

So let’s look at the first thing that Paul says:

First: the gospel has content.

Read verses 1 to 5 with me:

Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers who are with me,

To the churches of Galatia:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Haddon Robinson, a renowned Christian leader and professor of preaching, says something very sobering:

We don't preach the gospel! As I listen to some preachers, if I were an outsider, I honestly wouldn't know what I was to respond to…We want to reach people, but the clear terms of the gospel are seldom enunciated. It's probably an exaggeration, but I don't think in my lifetime I've heard twenty messages that I would say were clear gospel messages. If you didn't know any jargon, didn't have any religious background—if you came to church and wanted to know how to have a relationship with a holy God—the sermon would not tell you.

Think about that. That scares me as a preacher. It’s very easy to be unclear about the gospel, and to do a bad job of communicating it. So Paul’s going to do us a very big favor in this passage. He’s going to define it for us. He’s going to give us a gospel nutshell. What do I mean? Martyn Lloyd Jones, a great preacher from the last century, observed that there are “thirty or forty gospel nutshells” in the Bible, and this is one of them. Verses 3 to 5 give us a snapshot of the gospel, or the gospel in a nutshell:

Here it is. Three parts to what Paul says:

What Jesus did - He “gave himself for our sins” in verse 4. The word “for” here means “on behalf of” or “in place of.” The heart of the gospel is right here: what Jesus Christ did at the cross. He gave his life in our place. He was our substitute. At the cross, Jesus suffered and died in the place of sinners so that they could be forgiven of their sins. This is the heart of the gospel. The gospel takes us right to the cross.

What the Father did - Verses 1 says that God the Father “raised him from the dead.” Verse 3 says that we have “grace” and “peace” from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The gospel is also the good news that God the Father accepted what Jesus accomplished for us at the cross. When God the Father raised Jesus from the dead, it was evidence that he accepted Jesus work and that a new age has dawned. As a result, we have grace (God’s unmerited favor) and peace (God’s blessing of well-being) in our lives.

Finally, why he did it - Verses 4 and 5 say, “to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” God’s intention was to rescue us, to deliver his people from this present age in which there is evil and opposition to God. And he did all of this ultimately for his glory. “God’s glory and honor and praise are displayed supremely in Christ and the cross…Indeed, God will be praised forever because of his saving work in Christ” (Thomas R. Schreiner).

I hope this is clear. I’ve heard interviews with pastors in which they’ve been asked to define the gospel. Many of them fumbled around and really didn’t have a clear answer. Some of them actually had a wrong answer, like the golden rule (to love others as yourself) or the Great Commandment (to love God and your neighbor as yourself). That’s not the gospel; that’s law. It’s good; it’s just not the gospel.

The gospel is the news that Jesus gave himself for our sins; God has accepted his work so that we could be saved, and that we have grace and peace to his glory. The gospel is the good news of what Jesus Christ did for us at the cross. The worst person can be completely forgiven and made right with God through the substitutionary death of Christ at the cross; we must respond by trusting in what Christ has done for us. The gospel has content, and this content takes us right to the cross.

But then Paul tells us something that we need to know:

Don’t ever add to the gospel, because if you do you’ll lose it completely.

Don’t ever add to the gospel, because the gospel plus is no gospel at all. You can add to your house and you won’t lose it. You may actually improve it. You can add to your education, and you’ll just have more education and more degrees. But don’t ever add to the gospel, Paul says, because if you do, you’ll lose it completely, and losing the gospel is fatal to churches and to individuals.

Read verses 6 to 9:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

What’s the problem? There were some people in this church saying that Paul’s gospel was incomplete. It was good as far as it goes, but you have to add something to it. In their case, they were adding obedience to the Mosaic Law and covenant. They wanted people to become Jewish and to obey Jewish laws like circumcision. But Paul says they’re not simply adding to the gospel; they’re deserting it. Look at the words Paul uses: deserting, distorting. He says that they’re turning to not just a slightly wrong version of the gospel but to a different gospel, one that’s contrary to the correct one, one that is no gospel at all. Paul goes so far to say that if anyone - even an apostle, even an angel - comes preaching a different gospel, let them be accursed. What’s shocking is that accursed is the harshest possible term you could ever imagine. It mean to be finally condemned and destroyed. If anyone preaches a different gospel, Paul says, let them be irrevocably punished by God and completely wiped out.

What Paul is saying here is very important for us to hear. He’s given us the gospel very clearly. Now he says that if we ever add to that gospel, then we completely lose it. Any gospel that makes anything else other than the what Jesus did at the cross the basis of our relationship with God is deadly. If anyone tells you it’s the gospel plus your behavior or the gospel plus doing something else, then they’re telling you a false gospel. We’ve got to be clear on the gospel, or else we’ll lose it completely.

Two applications for us this morning.

Do you know how easy it is to drift? I’ve told you before about swimming in the ocean when there are strong currents. I look and see our beach umbrella and think, “Okay, I’m good here.” I look up a few minutes later and I’ve drifted hundreds of feet down the beach. I’ve drifted with the current. The same thing can happen so easily in our churches and in our lives. Thomas Schreiner writes:

The clarity and the truth of the gospel could easily be lost. So many other things may clutter our minds, hearts, and lives that we may forget about the gospel, thinking all the while that we have not strayed from it. In our churches we may begin to concentrate on what it means to be good parents, to have a good marriage, to form meaningful relationships, and to make an impact on the world (all good things of course!), so that we slowly and inadvertently drift from the gospel of free grace.

It’s so easy. The gospel is accepted —> The gospel is assumed —> The gospel is confused —> The gospel is lost. I hope you realize this morning how easy it is to drift from the gospel. Remember the beach umbrella? I knew I’d drifted when it was no longer in front of me. I’m suggesting that we use the cross of Christ as our marker. Any time that it’s not right in front of us, any time it’s not front and center, let’s just assume that we’ve drifted and that we’d better get back urgently, because to drift from the gospel is to lose it altogether.

Second, I want to ask you if you are clear on the gospel yourself. Do you understand that the heart of the good news is not that you must be a good person, or that you must try harder, or that your good deeds must outweigh your bad deeds? Do you understand that coming to church and being a good person or even being a Sunday school teacher or deacon or pastor does not make you a Christian? The gospel is the good news that Jesus has taken our place, that he has given himself for us, so that we could be delivered and have grace and peace to the glory of God. This morning you can look to the cross for the first time and put your trust in the one you took your place. That is the gospel. That is our hope.

The gospel has content, and that content is the cross. Don’t lose it by adding to it.

The Harvest is Plentiful (Matthew 9:35-38)

Before we go any further, welcome back! It’s been a long time since I’ve seen many of you. It’s good to see you again, and I’m ready to get going this Fall. It begins with a message that I’ve been waiting to give for some time now.

In November 2010, a wedding party in Australia, was unexpectedly called into action right after the wedding ceremony. While they were posing for pictures on a scenic ledge, a woman unrelated to the wedding fell into the water and started drowning. Dressed in his tuxedo, the best man jumped in and brought the woman back toward shore. Then the bride, a trained nurse, waded into the water and started administering CPR. By the time the Surf Life Saving volunteers had arrived, the woman had regained consciousness. But according to one safety official, "[The victim] was very lucky that the bridal party was there and they acted quickly and got her to the shallows." After the daring rescue operation, the drenched but heroic best man and the bride happily rejoined the wedding reception and continued with the festivities.

That’s the picture I want you to keep in mind this morning. We're dressed up for a party (celebrating worship), but at the same time we're also prepared to dive into mission, even when it's inconvenient and dangerous. This morning I want to look at a passage of Scripture in which Jesus challenges us to look out and to take a specific action.

Today I’d like to talk to you about something very specific. It’s a dangerous thing to talk to you this morning, because a response is going to be required. In just a few minutes, you are going to be confronted with a choice, a response you’re going to be asked to make. There’s a lot riding on this response, not only for you but for this world as well. So this is a scary time. There’s a lot riding on the next few minutes.

A Pivotal Passage

The passage we’re going to look at this morning is a hinge passage, a pivotal passage. What’s a hinge passage? A hinge is the swing point between two objects. A hinge holds together two objects. And the passage we’re looking at today holds Jesus’ ministry together with our ministry. That’s why the Scripture we’re going to look at today is so important, because it’s all about us having a similar ministry to Jesus.

So let me read the passage for you, and then let me lead you to the response that Jesus requires from us.

We read in Matthew 9:35-38:

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

As I said, this is a pivotal point in the book of Matthew. Up until now, it has been all about Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has been traveling all throughout Galilee, teaching and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom. Not only that, he’s been healing diseases and casting out demons. Epileptics, paralytics, and even a mother-in-law have been healed! Jesus has calmed a storm. The blind have received sight. A young girl has been raised from the dead. The mute are speaking again. As the crowds watch this, they rightly say, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel” (Matthew 9:33). That’s what you call an understatement. Can you imagine what it would have been like to see this? It would have been extraordinary. That’s all of what has been happening up until the passage that we just read.

But something happens right afterwards. Up until now it’s all been about Jesus ministering in power. But a strange thing happens after the passage that we just read. In Matthew chapter 10:1 we read, “Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” So what’s happening here?

We’re right at the moment when Jesus makes the switch from preaching and teaching and healing himself, to commissioning his disciples to go out to preach and teach and heal. What’s going on here is that Jesus is about to commission his followers to do what he’s doing. He preached; he’s about to get them to preach. He’s taught with authority; he’s about to send them out to teach with authority. He’s driven out evil spirits and healed all kinds of diseases and sicknesses; he’s about to get them to drive out evil spirits and heal all kinds of sicknesses and diseases.

So you have a before and after picture, and in between you have this section. So what does this tell us? It tells us that whatever happens here is critical for us to have the same type of ministry that Jesus had. If we are to be doing the same type of thing that Jesus did, then what takes place in this pivotal passage is extremely important. So let’s look at what takes place in this passage that is so important to having the same type of ministry that Jesus did.

A Window into Jesus’ Heart

The first thing that this passage does is that it gives us a bit of a window into the heart of Jesus. If we’re to have the type of ministry that Jesus had, it’s going to be because our heart is becoming like the heart of Jesus.

We read in verse 36, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them.” The compassion of Jesus is a theme that keeps coming up in the book of Matthew. Matthew 14:14 says, “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” In chapter 15:32, Jesus said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat.” In chapter 20:34 we read, “Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes.” What we discover is that compassion is at the heart of Jesus.

Compassion is a pretty strong word here. You would think that the reason for Jesus’ compassion would be because of the sicknesses that he’s encountered. Everywhere he turns, there are people blind, epileptic, paralyzed or even dead. That is certainly worth our compassion. There are a few days every year that I can barely listen to the radio. It’s the days that they have a telethon to raise money for The Hospital for Sick Children. I’m filled with compassion and I can barely take it when I hear the stories of the sicknesses of these children. It makes sense to be moved with compassion when we encounter the sick.

But what moves Jesus here isn’t the physical illnesses that he’s encountered. Verse 36 says, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” What moved Jesus - and what doesn’t move me as much as it should - was the great spiritual need of the people. Their lives had no center, their existence seems aimless, and their whole experience was one of futility.

You see, the prophet Micah had written:

But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.
(Micah 5:2, quoted in Matthew 2:6)

God had said through Ezekiel: “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd” (Ezekiel 34:23). But the situation, as Jesus saw it, was close to what the prophet Ezekiel had prophesied earlier in the same chapter: “My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them” (Ezekiel 34:6).

As a result, Jesus saw the people as harassed, confused, bothered, and unable to help themselves. And this, even more than the illnesses that he saw, moved him with compassion.

I said earlier that if we are to serve like Jesus served, we must have a heart that is becoming like the heart of Jesus. This means that we begin to feel compassion for those we encounter who have not been placed under the great Shepherd Jesus Christ. It means that we look around us and see people the way Jesus does, and feel compassion for them the way that he does.

Two Responses

But that’s not really the heart of the challenge that is ours this morning. I said that this would be a dangerous talk, and it is. This is a pivotal passage, and it’s all about bridging the gap between Jesus’ ministry and ours, so that we have the same kind of ministry that he had. I’d love to have the compassion that Jesus had, but that’s not what Jesus talks about. Jesus speaks to the disciples at this pivotal moment and gives them something to believe and something to do. And as we read this passage today, we are likewise given something to believe and then something to do.

First, we’re given something to believe. Jesus says in verse 37, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” What does he tell us to believe? Jesus switches metaphors here from shepherding to farming. And what he tells us is that the harvest is ready. In other words, people are ready to receive the good news of the kingdom. The problem isn’t that people are unready to receive the good news; the problem is that we aren’t ready to tell them. “The workers are few.” Imagine a farmer with fields ready to be harvested, but workers who are AWOL or non-existent. Jesus looks around him and he sees people who are helpless and harassed and ready to hear the good news of the gospel. The problem is that there’s nobody to tell them.

So let me ask you: do you believe that the harvest is plentiful? The harvest is plentiful all around us. Do you believe that? Jesus gives it to us as something for us to believe. One of the greatest lies of the devil is to convince us that people aren’t interested, that it’s a waste of time to tell them. The harvest is plentiful. God has prepared them. There are many yet to be reached with the gospel of the kingdom, and there’s an urgency. They’re ready to hear. This is what he tells us to believe. Do you believe it?

A recent book captures the urgency of evangelism very well, and calls us to respond. It’s:

  • theologically urgent because of what God has revealed, including the truth that there is a heaven and hell
  • spiritually urgent because people are utterly spiritually lost apart from Christ
  • physically urgent because death is coming for all, and with it the opportunity to respond to the gospel will be past
  • statistically urgent because the vast majority of people in our community have not yet heard the gospel or been invited to respond to it
  • strategically urgent because God has chosen to use the church as his strategy of reaching the lost
  • personally urgent because each of us must respond

He’s given us something to believe - that people are ready. Now he gives us something to do about it. Wouldn’t you expect that Jesus would say, “So get out there and tell them!” But that’s not what he said. Surprisingly, he said, “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Why would Jesus tell us to pray instead of doing something? It’s not like Jesus is against action. In the very next chapter, remember, he’s going to instruct his twelve disciples, and then send them out to preach and teach and do the things that he’s done. But he knows that before we have the ministry that he has, we must have the same prayerful reliance on the Father that he does. Before we have the compassion of Jesus, we must have the connection with the Father that Jesus has.

Warren Wiersbe says, “When we pray as He commanded, we will see what He saw, feel what He felt, and do what He did. God will multiply our lives as we share in the great harvest that is already ripe.”

It’s one thing for us to go and do. It’s another thing altogether to plead with God that he would raise up people - either through conversion or growth - who are ready to go; to pray that God would give them a spirit for the work, call them to it, and give them wisdom and success. Matthew Henry said, “It is a good sign God is about to bestow some special mercy upon a people, when he stirs up those that have an interest at the throne of grace, to pray for it.” God is up to something when we begin to pray like Jesus commands in this passage.

It’s when I consider that I was one of these lost sheep, and that I came to know the Great Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep, that I begin to be motivated to pray. It’s as I look at the cross and see the Shepherd willingly lay down his life for me so that I could become his sheep that I begin to think that the least I can do is pray for others.

And when we start to believe that the harvest is plentiful and pray that he would send out workers, you never know if we may become the answers to our own prayers - that we would be the workers commissioned by the Lord of the harvest himself.

So two questions, and the stakes are high for both you and for the world. Will you believe Jesus when he says that the harvest is plentiful? And will you pray, beginning today, that God would raise up people - maybe even you - to do his work?

This morning I’d like you to respond. First, I invite you to respond to the free offer of salvation given to you in Christ. It may be that you’re here this morning, and you’ve never done so. Today is your day to come, to respond to the One who gave his life as a sacrifice for your sins.

But I’d also like you to respond on behalf of those who don’t yet know Christ. Today the invitation is to first believe that the harvest is plentiful. And then the invitation is to pray. We can begin that God would raise up new evangelists within his church, but be careful. The answer to that prayer may be you. We can pray in particular for people we know who are part of the harvest, that they may come to know Christ.

Let’s do what Jesus asks us to do right now.

A Psalm of Praise (Psalm 8)

Well, given that it’s Labour Day weekend, and that school starts in a couple of days, I thought it might be fun to start with a quiz this morning. So here it is. It’s a multiple choice question with only two options.

The question: What is worship?

A. Songs that we sing (sometimes badly) in church before the pastor gets up to preach
B. Something so powerful that, even when done by infants, is used by God to slay his foes

Which one is it? If I was honest, I’d have to say that I normally think of worship in terms of A. Worship, we think, is something we do on Sunday mornings after the announcements and before the sermon. We have worship teams and a worship budget. We’ve had worship pastors. Some weeks it goes well, other weeks we sit too close to someone who doesn’t know how to sing, and we make a note to ourselves to sit somewhere different the next week. For a lot of us, worship is this sometimes enjoyable, sometimes okay time of singing songs to praise God before the pastor gets up to speak.

Until I put up the choices, none of us would have said B. If I asked you coming in what worship is, I bet none of you would have said that worship is so powerful that even when done by the person who has the least competent worshiper packs a punch that’s big enough for God to use against his enemies. But that’s what this psalm says. Read verse 2:

Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.

What does that mean? “Out of the mouth of babies and infants…” Here the psalmist is talking about the age of children when they’re helpless and completely dependent on adults. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to sing with kids that age. It sounds fun until you do it. It reminds me of what one author said about primary school concerts, thinking of his music teacher:

The audience exploded into applause as our conductor and teacher, Mr. Martin, walked in. Parents regard band teachers with a combination of awe and respect, the way you might a war hero. How could any human being spend eight hours per day enduring the acoustic violence created by fifty children playing their instrument all at once?..In the hands of the untalented, a clarinet is a lethal weapon. There are states that allow the sale of automatic weapons but ban the use of clarinets at school concerts. (Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir...of Sorts)

That’s kind of what it’s like to worship with kids. You don’t do it for the quality. If someone tells you that you sound like a baby when you worship, it’s probably not a compliment.

“Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes to still the enemy and the avenger.” This means that God chooses to use the weak and pathetic worship of his people as the means of triumphing his most powerful enemies. The praise of the weakest Christian, this psalm is saying, is stronger than all the strength of God’s most powerful enemies. If we could invite the most strident atheists and line them up here, and then invite our preschoolers to come in and sing a song over here, this psalm says that the atheists wouldn’t stand a chance. The worship of God’s people, even when done poorly, is stronger than all of God’s enemies. God “brings onto the field of battle the poor and spirit against the arrogant hordes of wickedness in order to slay their intolerable pride in the dust.”

I don’t know what that does to you, but that makes me want to worship more than I do. It makes me want to worship poorly even, because it’s not the worship of the eloquent that God needs It’s worship period, even done by people like me.

And so having shown us what our worship does, the psalmist gives us big reasons why we should worship. So this morning it’s pretty simple. Worship is about the most important thing we could ever do: point one. When you worship and you’re weak, you’re still stronger than when you’re doing anything else at full strength. That’s point one. Point two: so worship. David doesn’t waste a lot of time developing theories of worship. He just says that it’s important, and then leads us in worship, giving us two really big reasons why we should worship.

So this morning: I give you permission to worship as I preach. This isn’t a lecture on worship. This is going to be a practice session. We’re going to begin and end as David does: “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” That’s how David begins and ends this psalm. The LORD, our Lord, has a majestic name, not just in where he is worshiped, but in all the earth. He alone is worthy of our worship. Our ultimate purpose is to bring him praise because he is supremely worthy.

Then David gives us two reasons why we should praise God in this psalm. The first is for the staggering enormity of his creation. The second is for his surprising care for humanity. Let’s look at both.

First, praise him this morning for the staggering enormity of creation.

David may have been inspired by looking up one night into the sky and marveling at what God had created. We went camping a couple of years in a remote spot. One night in particular we went out and lay down on the beach. I’ve seen stars before, but never before like this. We lay there for over an hour and we weren’t bored for a minute. It was far better than any entertainment I can think of. When you get a glimpse of what God has created, and the beauty of what he’s done, you can’t do anything but praise him. So David writes in verses 1-4:

O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

Most pastors don’t have to preach a passage like this with an astrophysicist in the room, so Barth, forgive me if I make any mistakes here. David didn’t know what I’m about to tell you. He simply looked and saw the glory of God reflected in the skies. I hope you get a chance to look into the sky and do the same thing. It’s hard to do in the city, but I hope you get to do it sometime and somewhere. It’s staggering.

...If the Milky Way galaxy were the size of the entire continent of North America, our solar system would fit in a coffee cup…This vast neighborhood of our sun - in truth the size of a coffee cup - fits along with several billion other stars and their minions in the Milky Way, one of perhaps 100 billion such galaxies in the universe. To send a light-speed message to the edge of that universe would take 15 billion years. (Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?)

What’s more, none of this was hard for God. As somebody’s said, “All this vast, enduring monument to the creative power and art of God is but child’s play to the divine creator - spun off the tips of his finger without even breaking a sweat.”

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It is truly staggering. So often I lose perspective. My life and my concerns seem so huge. Then I realize that I am one of 6.8 billion people on this earth. And this earth is just a relatively tiny planet in a vast solar system. And this solar system is just a small part of our galaxy. And our galaxy is just one of 100 billion such galaxies in the universe. How could you not praise the God who created all of this, and who holds it together, and is Lord over all? So praise him! Say with David, “How majestic is your name in all the earth!”

The enormity and the beauty of God’s creation is one of the ways that he displays his glory. Francis Collins is a scientist. He headed up the Human Genome project and has all kinds of credentials. He’s a world famous scientist, but he was also an atheist. After a long period of searching, which included grilling a pastor and reading C.S. Lewis, Collins finally came to Christ after watching the beauty of creation. This is Collin's description of that life-changing encounter:

I had to make a choice. A full year had passed since I decided to believe in some sort of God, and now I was being called to account. On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God's creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ. (The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief)

David would like this, I think. Take a walk outside in a remote place, look up, and worship the God who created all of this. Look at the beauty of what he’s created all around us, and then bow down and surrender your life to him. And realize as you do this that the praise of the weakest person is stronger than the most powerful of God’s enemies. Praise him for the staggering enormity of creation. And then:

Second, praise him for his surprising care for humanity.

The explorer William Beebe wrote about what happened when he used to visit Theodore Roosevelt at his home:

... At Sagamore Hill, Theodore Roosevelt and I used to play a little game together. After an evening of talk, we would go out on the lawn and search the skies until we found the faint spot of light-mist beyond the lower left-hand corner of the Great Square of Pegasus. Then one or the other of us would recite: "That is the Spiral Galaxy in Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It consists of one billion suns, each larger than our sun."

Then Roosevelt would grin and say: "Now I think we are small enough! Let's go to bed."

That’s the thought process that you go through as you grasp the enormity of what God has created. Who are we? We’re nothing. We’re small. David reflects this as he considers what God has created. Look what he writes in verses 3 and 4:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

Great question. If God is to be praised for the vastness of what he has created, where does that leave us? Why would God pay any attention to what’s going on in a tiny corner of the universe? But he does. David goes on, and what he says next is basically commentary on Genesis 1:26-28, which is an account of when God created humanity. Look at what he says in verses 5 to 8:

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

Despite our size in the universe, David says, there is something utterly unique about us. If you created a continuum of every creature that’s ever been created, from bacteria all the way up to angels, we would be right next to angels. We’re not even far below, the psalmist says. Out of all that God has created, it is men and women alone who have been made in his image and crowned with glory and honor. We have a unique role within the universe. We’ve been given dominion over all that he’s made.

This summer we visited Rideau Hall, the home of the Governor General of Canada. Canada has a monarchy. We have a Queen. But the Queen does not live in Canada, so she has appointed a Governor General who represents her in Canada and acts on her behalf. When the Governor General is appointed, he or she has an audience with the Sovereign before being sworn in before being seated on a throne. That’s a pretty good picture of what the psalmist is talking about. This world is part of God’s kingdom, but God has chosen humanity to have dominion over his kingdom here on earth. We have been given his image and have been charged with the responsibility of acting on his behalf. It is an amazing thing.

Here’s the thing that amazes David. Out of all that God has created, God is mindful of us. He does care for us. It causes David to worship, and it causes me to worship too. What an amazing God. We live on a speck of dust in all that God has created, and yet he’s chosen to crown us with glory and honor. He’s given us his image. He’s mindful of us, and he cares.

When you put this all together, it leads you to worship. When you realize that the praise of the weakest Christian is more powerful than the strength of God's most powerful enemies, it leads us to worship. When you see the vastness of what God has created - the beauty of the milky way, the knowledge of the vastness of the universe - it makes you want to worship. When you think that out of all that God has made, that he’s zeroed in on us, it makes you want to worship.

But there’s more. Hundreds of years after David wrote this psalm, God himself became a man and lived on this speck of dust. Not only was he mindful of us, not only did he care for us, but he became one of us. And out of infinite love he offered up his life for us so that we could be made right with God.

Did you know in the New Testament that this psalm is quoted many times in reference to Jesus? Here’s the reason. Verse 6 says that God has put all things under our feet. We know that because of sin, not everything is under our feet. We’re not in control of this world. We had a tornado in Goderich and then a thunderstorm a couple of couple of nights later that reminded us of that. But when Jesus became one of us, he became our forerunner, and everything is already at his feet. He’s already been crowned with glory and honor. Hebrews 2 quotes this psalm and then says:

But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:9)

We have not fulfilled God’s plan to put everything under our feet, but there is one who is singlehandedly fulfilling God’s plan on our behalf, and that is Jesus. I love how Dale Ralph Davis puts it:

That is the point of Hebrews 2. It says: Psalm 8 is not a pipe dream. We don’t yet see it full-blown. But we see Jesus — one man is already reigning! And that is the assurance that redeemed man, his brothers and sisters, will one day rule as well. “He has made them a kingdom, priests, to our God, and they shall reign on earth” (Rev. 5:10). How can you doubt your royal future when the Man Jesus has already begun enjoying it? The Way of the Righteous in the Muck of Life: Psalms 1-12

So two things: First, surrender your life to this great God. Put your trust in Jesus who has done this for you. Second, say with David:

O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!