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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read verses 7 to 12 with me:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So first, let me tell you a story.

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

God had promised Abram:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does this story mean for us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel Alarm (Galatians 4:8-20)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look at verses 8 to 11:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second: Sound the gospel alarm out of love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me give you an example. The psalmist wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

First: The law was never meant to replace grace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read verse 15:

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

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

But go on. Verses 16 to 18 say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The law was given to lead us to Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me tell you why this is an important question. One of my pastor friends went to see a famous chef in Toronto recently. Somebody asked him a question about what it was like to be on TV and to have published books that are read by millions of people. He said that it’s frustrating. Why? Because all these people are watching his TV show, and reading his books, and they’re still not eating well. They’re still eating garbage food that’s not healthy. All these people are hearing his message, but they’re not changing. My pastor friend leaned to his wife and said, “I know how he feels.”

That’s the problem, isn’ it? We know what it takes to become a Christian, but we’re not always growing as much as we’d like. We need to know not just how to begin the Christian life, but how to change.

Here’s the most common answer to that question if we’re going to be honest, and it’s the mistake that Paul is confronting in this passage. A lot of us act as if we’re saved by grace through faith, but then it’s up to us to grow. We believe we get into the Christian life by God’s grace, but then it’s up to us. It’s like we get to the middle of the tightrope and say, “I think I’ll take it from here.”

This is a crucial question, because we need to know how we grow. So let me walk you through this passage. We’re going to see three things in this passage.

  • First: that the entire Christian life is based on faith, not performance
  • Second: that this is the way it’s always been
  • Third: that there could be no other way

First: The entire Christian life is based on faith, not performance.

Paul begins this passage by saying, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” He’s saying, “Are you completely out of your mind? What in the world are you thinking?” He’s looking at the Galatians, and he’s incredulous. Here’s the issue, according to the rest of verse 1, right down to verse 3:

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

What Paul identifies here is actually one of the greatest issues we have to face. This is absolutely profound. Paul is talking about when the Galatians first heard the gospel and became believers. The power of the Holy Spirit was clearly at work in their lives. The Bible clearly teaches that, when we become Christians, at conversion, the Holy Spirit is poured into our hearts, and that those who are genuine Christians have the Spirit living within them. The Holy Spirit is God’s seal and guarantee that he will complete his work (2 Corinthians 1:22).

So here’s his question: How did you become a Christian and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit? The answer that they would give is, “I became a Christian and received the Spirit because I heard the gospel message with faith.” The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ has made a way for us to be accepted by God through his death and resurrection. To use the tightrope analogy, you became a Christian not by thinking you could cross over that chasm by yourself, but by placing your trust in Christ to do what you couldn’t do for yourself. Did they receive the Holy Spirit because they were circumcised, or kept the works of the law? No! The Holy Spirit never takes up residence in our lives because we’ve cleaned ourselves up and because we’re good enough. No, the Holy Spirit entered our lives when we heard and received the gospel message by faith. We are not saved by doing, Paul says. We’re saved by hearing. We don’t become Christians by doing anything to earn God’s acceptance. We become Christians when he hear the gospel preached and place our faith in Christ.

Given this, Paul then asks, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” The answer of course is, “Duh, no.” What Paul is saying is this: Continue in the Christian life the same way you started: by grace, not performance. Anything else would be ridiculous. It would be foolish to start one way and finish another. God had promised in the Old Testament:

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

Now that God has kept this promise, and given us the Holy Spirit to live within us and change us from the inside-out, it would be foolish to think we could improve on this with a new strategy. It would be utterly foolish to think we reject the Holy Spirit and rely on our own steam to get the job done.

Here’s the main question. Are we saved by the Spirit and faith, and then we move on to progressing in the Christian life through works and human effort? Absolutely not, Paul says. We are saved by the Spirit and faith, and then we progress in exactly the same way. We progress by the Spirit working in our lives, and as we in faith return to the gospel message and put our full and complete trust in Christ in every area of our lives.

I like how John Piper puts it:

The essence of the Galatian heresy is the teaching that you begin the Christian life by faith, and then you grow in the Christian life by works, that is, by drawing on powers in yourself to make your contribution to salvation. One modern form of the heresy is: "God helps those who help themselves." … Faith is the only response to God's Word which makes room for the Spirit to work in us and through us. Flesh, on the other hand, is the insubordinate, self-determining ego which in religious people responds to God's Word not with reliance on the Spirit but with reliance on self. It can produce a very rigorous morality, but it nullifies grace and removes the stumbling block of the cross.

I hope you can see that the essential mark of a Christian is not how far you have progressed in sanctification, but on what you are relying to get there. Are you striving for sanctification by works? Or are you striving for sanctification by faith?

There could be some confusion here, so let me clarify. Paul is not saying that we should passively sit and do nothing while we wait for God to change us. This is not passive at all. The issue here is how we’re going to change. And Paul says that the power to change doesn’t come from ourselves; it comes from the Spirit. It still takes effort, but it’s grace-driven effort.

This is so important. Verse 3 is one of the most important verses for the Christian life. I love how Thomas Schreiner says:

As Christians we need to relearn the gospel every day. We are prone to wander, as the old hymn says, and hence we may act as if a spell has been cast over us. The Christian life is a battle to rely on the gospel, and even as Christians we are inclined to look to ourselves and trust in our own achievements rather than relying solely on the cross of Christ. In our counseling and our preaching and our teaching we must summon people over and over to the cross of Christ and call them to look away from themselves and focus on Christ. We may slowly drift from the gospel, just as the Galatians did. The problems Paul addressed in Galatians remind us all that the Christian life cannot be lived on autopilot, that there is a daily struggle to grasp the gospel.

That’s the principle that we have to grasp. You continue the Christian life the same way that you started it: by grace through faith and the power of the Holy Spirit. We grow by grace.

Paul also shows us:

Second: This is the way it’s always been.

This gets to the heart of one of the biggest mistakes we make when we’re reading the Bible. It’s one of the reasons we have the wrong idea about how to grow in the Christian life. If you ask most people what the Bible is about, they’ll tell you it’s about how to live a good, moral life. It’s about how to be a good person. If you ask about the stories of the Bible, many will tell you they’re stories that show you how to be a good person. The Bible becomes a how-to book that provides examples of people we should imitate.

There’s a problem with this approach though. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Bible is all about. You see that in this passage as it relates to Abraham, who is the father of the Jewish people, and to whom many of the most important promises were made. Paul writes: “…just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’”. This is so important. When we look at Abraham’s life, what should we learn? You could focus on Abraham as an example of good works. He picked up and moved when God told him to. He was ready to give up his son when God asked him to. Was Abraham saved because of his good works? Is that the lesson we’re supposed to take away from his life? No, Paul says. Paul was saved exactly the same way that we were saved. He was saved by grace through faith. And through faith, he was counted righteous before God.

The term Paul uses is an accounting term. I went to the bank the other day with a check. The check was from someone who normally doesn’t write checks to me, and the amount was large enough that they were nervous about it. She told me she’d have to put a hold on the check, and that it would take days to clear. I asked her to check with the manager. She did, and she came back, and she typed all these things in the computer. I’d love to know everything she was typing; it looked like she was writing a novel. Then she smiled and handed me the receipt. That money was reckoned to me. It was deposited to my account.

That’s what happened to Abraham, Paul said. Abraham was not saved by depositing his good works, even though he did some good things. No, he was saved when by grace he trusted God. His faith was counted to him as righteousness. Paul is saying that Abraham was saved exactly the same way that we were, by God’s grace, not by his own righteousness. God has always operated this way. There are not two ways to get to God. There is only one way, and it’s through faith, and not through good works.

That’s why we need faith if we’re going to belong to Abraham’s family. Remember, Paul is writing to Gentiles who are being pressured to be circumcised, to become Jewish, if they want to be saved. Paul writes:

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Do you see that? Twice Paul says, “It it those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” He’s saying that it’s not circumcision that makes you a spiritual child of Abraham. There are many people who are circumcised who are not part of God’s family. It is faith that makes us part of Abraham’s family, and the recipient of the promises made to Abraham. Our right standing before God comes from believing what God has given us in Jesus Christ. We are not saved by what we do; we’re saved by believing in God. There is only one way of salvation.

Continue in the Christian life the same way you started: by grace, not performance. That’s the way it’s always worked.

One application: if this is the story of the Bible, we need to change the way we read the Bible! The Bible is not a book full of heroes we should emulate. God is the hero. Abraham and every other person we call a hero is actually a recipient of God’s grace. This completely changes the way we read Scripture. Instead of seeing them as people who were good enough, we can begin to see them as people who trusted God. And we can begin to see how this worked out in their lives. The Bible communicates that we grow through our faith, and it does so from start to finish.

There’s one more thing we need to see in this passage if we’re going to get the message:

Third: There could be no other way.

This is why it’s so important to get this through our heads. If we try to live the Christian life by our own strength, we’ll only end up condemned. We’ll never measure up. There is no way we can live on our own strength and succeed.

In verses 10 to 14 he contrasts two ways of trying to get God’s approval. One way is to try to keep the law. The problem is that God has pronounced a curse on all who break his law.

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Galatians 3:10)

That is a huge problem. Our efforts to keep God’s law always fall short. God pronounces a curse on all who fail to keep all that the law requires. Deuteronomy 27:26, “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.” When the Levite priests said this to the people, the people responded, “Amen” or “so be it.” But that leaves us in big trouble. Those who don’t do everything required by the law are cursed. No one does everything required by the law. Therefore, trying to earn God’s approval through keeping the law leads to a curse.

This isn’t very good news! At least not until Paul finishes his thought in verses 13 and 14:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

We’re under a curse. The only way for that curse to be removed is through what Christ accomplished at the cross. Jesus became cursed in our place. He received our curse so that we could receive his blessing. We have all the blessings of being Abraham’s spiritual dependents through Christ. Nothing else is necessary.

It begins with the cross. It all begins when we hear the gospel message of what Christ accomplished on the cross. It continues the same way. We don’t progress in the Christian life by pulling ourselves up by our own effort. We continue the same way we began; through faith and the power of the Holy Spirit. This is how we grow in the Christian life; not under our own steam, but through Spirit-enabled working out of what Jesus did for us at the cross.

If you’re like me, you’re sometimes frustrated by the lack of progress that you see in your own life. Do you ever feel disappointed with yourself? Do you ever find yourself not living up to your own intentions? Do you ever get frustrated with your lack of growth?

Here’s the key. Stop trying to improve yourself. The way you grow is the same as the way you became a Christian. We need to relearn the gospel every day. Again, Thomas Schreiner says:

Focusing on our sinfulness could depress us and discourage us, but God does not intend for us to live with a constant feeling of failure and condemnation. Our sins should drive us to the cross of Christ, where the full payment was made for our sins. God’s love, therefore, becomes exceedingly precious in the way we think and feel in our everyday lives. We acknowledge our sins daily, but we cling to the cross of Christ as the means by which we are forgiven. Hence, when Satan accuses us, we remind ourselves that we are free from all guilt and condemnation (not because we are so good, but because God is so loving and forgiving).

Continue in the Christian life the same way you started: by grace, not performance. Remember that it's always been this way. If you try to live according to your own strength, it will only lead tho condemnation. Live the rest of your Christian life the way you started, through continual trust and dependance in the Holy Spirit and a continual focus on the cross as you live to please him.

In Line With the Gospel (Galatians 2:11-21)

You may have heard on the news about a teacher who bought a lottery ticket in the summer. He had bought the July 8 ticket at a Shell gas bar on Dupont St. in Toronto, put it on his fridge and took off for a summer vacation with his girlfriend, backpacking in Europe and “counting my pennies,’’ oblivious to the fact he had millions of dollars waiting for him at home. It wasn’t until he was back teaching at school that he decided to check a stack of tickets at a grocery store. At first he thought he’d won $21,000 and that made him pretty happy. Then he talked on the phone with lottery spokesman who said, no, it was $21.4 million. He dropped the phone. “I was frozen. I couldn’t believe it,’’ he said. He played hooky Tuesday to pick up his prize.

I really like that image of something that’s worth $21.4 million dollars hanging on the fridge. It sits there for months as just a piece of paper. But eventually it’s recognized as something of value, but not enough value to change one’s life. But it’s only later that the full value of that ticket is realized, and everything changes.

Today we’re coming to one of the most important passages in the book of Galatians. The apostle Paul has been writing about the value of the gospel and how it changes everything. I want you to think of a similar picture. For many of us, we’ve picked up the gospel at some point in our lives, but some of us have put it on our fridge and basically forgotten about it. We’re living our lives counting pennies. The truth of the gospel - that Jesus Christ has made a way for us to be accepted by God through his sacrificial death - is hanging there on our fridge, but we haven’t seen its value. It hasn’t yet become real to us in any way.

But I hope that some of us have reached the stage where it’s starting to get real for us. There was a point that the teacher thought that his ticket was worth $21,000. That may be the case for some of us with the gospel. When you win $21,000, you can have some fun, but you don’t go changing your life. You can buy a car or a new HDTV, but you’re probably not going to quit your job. Some of us have the gospel, and it’s been a nice addition, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed everything about our life.

Today’s passage is about getting to the next level, where the gospel isn’t something just hanging on our fridge, or something that we think is valuable but not life-changing. This passage is about getting to the next level so that we realize that the gospel changes everything. This is a hard level to reach, and we’re going to see how easy it is today to not be there. But my goal today is that you’ll see how important it is.

The message of this passage is this: Don’t just believe the gospel. Cash it in so that you live in line with the gospel. And in this passage we’re going to see two things. First, we’re going to see how easy it is to believe the gospel, but not live in line with it. And then we’re going to see that we must convince ourselves of some key facts so that we don’t just believe the gospel, but that we live in line with it.

First, thought, we see this in the passage in front of us:

It’s easy to believe the gospel, but live like we don’t.

Remember when the teacher thought he had a $21,000 winning ticket instead of a $21.4 million dollar ticket? That’s the stage I’m talking about here. It’s easy to know the gospel, and in fact to be a believer in Jesus Christ, and even to be a leader in the church, and not live fully in line with what the gospel is. Paul shows us this in verses 11 to 14:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

So here’s the situation. We’ve already read of one meeting that took place between Peter and Paul. Paul visited Jerusalem, which has Peter’s home turf, and there they agreed that they were on the same page when it comes to the gospel. We are accepted by God on the basis of Jesus and his finished work, and nothing else. You don’t have to add anything to the finished work of Christ at the cross. They both agreed with this, and they also agreed that this applies equally to everyone.

Now we read of a second meeting that takes place, this time on Paul’s home turf. Peter has come up to Antioch, which has a healthy population of both Jews and Gentiles. If there’s ever a city that has to deal with how the gospel applies both to Jews who keep the Jewish law and Gentiles who don’t, then Antioch is such a city. And it’s here in Antioch that Peter faces a problem. He’s previously eaten with Gentiles. This was a huge deal if you were Jewish. The dietary laws were incredibly strict, and Peter flaunts them knowing that the dietary laws of the Old Testament no longer apply. But now Peter gets some pushback. Some people come and pressure Peter to eat separately and to keep the Jewish dietary laws, and Peter does. Remember, Peter is a key leader in the church. All of a sudden the barrier that Jesus has torn down between Jews and Gentiles is being built again. Peter absolutely believed the gospel, but in his behavior he was acting as if he didn’t.

So look what Paul does. He confronts Peter publicly to his face. This was such an important issue that Paul doesn’t deal with it privately. Paul gets to the heart of the issue in verse 14: “But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel…” This is the crux of the issue. You have the truth of the gospel: that we can only be accepted by God on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done for us at the cross. Then you have the challenge of walking straight in line with the gospel. You can believe the gospel, and yet live like you don’t, Paul is saying. The picture Paul uses is that of walking straight. You know that when an officer suspects you may be drunk, they sometimes make you walk on a straight line. Paul is giving us a gospel sobriety test. He’s asking us to look at how we live to see if we are walking straight in line with the truth of the gospel. And in Peter’s case, he isn’t, and it’s causing tremendous damage.

Think about this. Peter is one of the leaders in the church. If anyone gets the gospel it’s him. And yet he doesn’t fully get it. This shows us how hard it is to fully bring ourselves in line with the gospel. The best of us get it, and at the same time we really don’t. This passage shows us how hard it is for us to really bring our lives - everything, the way we think, feel, and act - in line with the profound truth of the gospel. Tim Keller says, “Christian living is a continual realignment process of bringing everything in line with the truth of the gospel.”

That’s the first thing we see in this passage. It’s so easy to believe the gospel, but live like we don’t. Even the most mature Christian can lose his or her grip on the gospel and begin to walk out of line. We can do this with ourselves: we are continually tempted to become our own savior and lord rather than trusting Jesus as our Savior and Lord. We can believe that we have to earn God’s approval rather than understanding that our approval has already been won based on what Christ has done for us. And we can do this like Peter did with other people: to begin to create divisions based on non-gospel issues, and to begin to force others to conform to standards that have nothing to do with the gospel.

This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges we face: of believing the gospel in our heads, but not really working out all of the implications of the gospel in our lives. It’s easy to believe the gospel, but live like we don’t.

So what does Paul do here? What Paul does in the rest of the chapter, beginning in verse 15, is to tell us one thing:

Convince yourself of some key facts so that you don’t just believe the gospel, but that you live in line with it.

What Paul does here in the rest of the chapter is to tell us how to not just believe the gospel, but to actually walk straight in accordance with the truth of the gospel. He’s telling us how to take the ticket off of our fridge and actually cash it in so that we receive it’s full value. This is really the theological heart of Galatians. There’s so much here that we could spend months talking about it, but let’s focus on the big picture and make sure we understand the broad outlines of what Paul is saying.

How do we move from just believing the gospel to living in line with it? Three things.

First, get it through your head that nobody is accepted by God based on his or her own performance. This gets to the heart of the issue. The problem we have in living in line with the gospel is that we have a really hard time believing that we are completely accepted on the basis of what Jesus has done rather than what we have done. We live like we have to earn God’s approval, rather than really believing in the depths of our being that Jesus has already done this for us. So Paul says in verses 15 and 16:

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

So here’s the fundamental problem that we have. Everyone wants to be justified before God. To be justified means to be declared innocent by God when we stand before him at our judgment. Every single person here wants to stand before God on that day and hear, “Not guilty. This man, this woman, is innocent.”

Now here’s how it works. Most of us understand, at some level, that we are justified before God based on what Jesus Christ has done at the cross. We’re declared righteous not because we have lived perfect lives, but because Jesus has lived a perfect life and paid the penalty for our sins at the cross. But we still live as if we have to earn God’s approval. That’s the very truth that Peter was compromising when he refused to eat with the Gentiles. He was living as if the old rules still mattered, even though he believed that we’re saved by what Christ has done. We keep on slipping back into religion, of thinking that it’s up to us. So the first thing we have to do is to beat into our heads that nobody is saved by what they do. The only hope that we have, no matter who we are, is what Jesus Christ has done. Nobody will stand before God one day and be vindicated based on their own righteousness. Not Peter, not Paul, not Billy Graham. Nobody. We have to beat this into our heads. Nobody is accepted by God based on his or her own performance. That’s the first step we have to take in order to truly live in line with the gospel; stop trying to earn God’s approval through your own effort.

Second, realize that when we try earn God’s approval through our own performance, we’re sinning. Here’s where it gets really serious. It’s not just wrongheaded to think that we can earn God’s righteousness. It’s actually sinful. When we try to live as if we have to earn God’s approval, and when we make others think they have to do certain things on their own to earn God’s approval, we’re not just making a mistake. We’re sinning. Read what Paul says in verses 17 to 19.

But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.

Let’s see if we can make sense in this. Paul is saying that all of us want to be justified, and we have now come to realize that in order to be justified before God, we have realized that we are all sinners. There’s no advantage to being Jewish or religious; everybody is a sinner apart from Christ’s work at the cross. So what happens when we realize this? What happens when good religious people start hanging out with people who are sinners? Does that make Jesus complicit in sin? When religious people start realizing that they’re no better than unwashed sinners, doesn’t that somehow contaminate us? Paul says no. He actually says that when we try to keep the barrier up between us and everybody else, we’re sinning. When we think that some are saved by pure grace, but that we’re saved by grace plus our efforts, then we’re sinning in two ways.

One, we’re sinning by bringing back a set of standards that no longer exists. If Jesus has done away with the law, it’s a sin to bring it back. We’re rebuilding what has been torn down. We’re trying to stay married, as it were, to something that has died. This is complete stupidity, and it’s stupid.

Second, we’re sinning because the standards we’re trying to bring back will condemn us. The problem is that if we try to justify ourselves by our performance, we’ll end up condemned by the very standards we’re trying to bring back. It’s like the politicians who work at passing strict new laws and then end up getting busted by the very laws they’ve created a few years later. Paul says that the very standards we’re trying to bring back are the standards that are going to end up condemning us.

So when we lose the gospel and begin to earn God’s approval through our own efforts, we’re not just wrong, we’re sinful. We try to do this all the time, and Paul says to stop. Don’t make the sinful error of trusting in your own righteousness rather than trusting in what Jesus Christ has done for you at the cross.

That’s what Paul has been saying so far. How do we not just believe the gospel, but live in line with the gospel? Realize that nobody is saved by his or her own performance, and realize that to even try is sinful.

Finally, get the order right. This is so important. J. Gresham Machen pointed out that the real issue in this passage is the order in which things happen. It’s the logical order, not so much a matter of timing as logic. Here’s how it goes. Paul is saying that things go in this order: You put your faith in Christ; you’re accepted by God; then you do good works. The false teachers are putting the order this way: You put your faith in Christ; you do good works; then you are accepted by God. Which is it? It seems like such a small difference, but it makes all the difference in the world. Do we put our faith in Christ and find acceptance and then do good works, or do we believe and do good works and then get accepted by God? Paul says that it’s the first. We simply put our faith in Christ - our complete surrender and trust - and then we’re justified before God and begin to do differently. Look at what he says in verses 20-21:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.

Here’s what he’s saying. We don’t believe in Christ and then try our best to live pleasing lives, and then we’re accepted. That would be foolish. No, what we do is that we put our faith in Christ. We come to the cross and see what he’s done. At that point we’re not only justified and accepted, but we become so wrapped up in what Jesus has done that we die with him and then Christ begins to live in us. And when we obey it’s not because we’re trying to earn God’s approval; it’s because Christ is living within us. We can’t take any credit for what we’re doing; it’s all because we’re living by faith, and that makes all the difference in the world. John Piper puts it this way:

You don't attain the benefits of the gospel by doing a little moral clean-up job on your life. You attain forgiveness and joy and peace and power through daily reliance upon Jesus Christ who loved you and gave himself for you. But that faith, when it is genuine, creates a rhythm of life that is in step with the truth of the gospel.

Paul is saying that one of our greatest problems is that we believe the gospel, but we live as if it wasn’t true. We believe that we’re saved by faith in Jesus Christ, but we live as if we need Jesus plus our own efforts in order to be saved. Paul is telling us to take that ticket off the fridge and cash it in, to not just believe that we’re saved by grace through faith, but to live that way too. And it will make all the difference in your world.

Look, even Peter got it wrong. Even Peter needed to be corrected here. Maybe you do too.

That teacher had a ticket on his fridge. At first he didn’t even know he had a winner, and he was living on pennies. Then he realized that he had a winning ticket, but he didn’t know how much it was worth. Then he found out what he had, and he dropped the phone in astonishment.

The same thing happens with the gospel. I hope you’ve taken the gospel and realized that you have something valuable there. But some of you think it’s only $21,000 when it’s really worth much more. $21,000 doesn’t change your life; it just let’s you have some fun. The $21,000 gospel doesn’t change your life. But you have a gospel of infinite value that changes everything. Don’t just believe the gospel; live in line with it. Understand that we all stand equal as sinners, and that nobody can earn God’s approval based on our own righteousness. Celebrate the right order: that we can put our faith in Christ, and then be accepted by God, and then have the very life of Jesus Christ living in us so that we’re completely new people. That’s the good news that can completely change your life.

Jesus Plus Nothing (Galatians 2:1-10)

I was telling somebody this week that this is an example of a passage that I never would have chosen to preach unless it was part of a series. When I began to look at it this week, I honestly wondered what I was going to say about it. Tim Keller says that he’s never heard this passage read at a wedding, and he’s never seen anybody cross-stitch their favorite verse from this passage. But as I’ve looked at it this week, I’ve realized that this passage has a very important message for us. I’m glad that we’re being challenged to wrestle through it.

So here’s the problem. Some people were arguing that in order to be accepted by God, you needed Jesus plus something else. In order to be accepted by God, you need to put your faith in Jesus Christ and what he has done for us. But you also need to [fill in the blank]. In this case, they said that you needed to be circumcised according to the Old Testament Jewish laws. In Acts we read a description of the issue:

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1)

But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5)

Notice the common ground. At first glance this doesn’t look too serious. They absolutely believed that it was essential to respond in faith and repentance to Jesus Christ. They would agree with Paul and others that the gospel is of great importance. They would probably agree with a lot of the formulations of the gospel that we talk about. So it would be easy to look at this and to say that it’s not really a big deal. No need to create a fuss; there’s a lot of common ground.

On top of that, the church was growing. Churches were springing up all over the Roman empire. The last thing that you need when you’ve got momentum is to interrupt things with a great big theological debate.

But notice in this passage that this is a big deal to Paul. Paul says that the idea that you need Jesus plus something else in order to be accepted by God is actually a very serious issue that threatens the very freedom of the church. He uses very strong language here. For instance, look at verse 2:

I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. (Galatians 2:2)

Paul had been ministering for fourteen years at this point, and he says that what’s at stake threatens to invalidate everything that he’s worked for. It’s not like Paul thinks that he could have been wrong about the gospel. He already told us that he got the gospel directly from Jesus, so he’s not really worried that he’s got it wrong. But he knows that if the church splinters into groups, and if the Jerusalem apostles send out an edict saying that Paul’s gospel was untrue, then it would invalidate a lot of his ministry. It would do a great deal of damage to the church, not because the Jerusalem leaders disagreed with him, but because it was possible that they could have caved into the pressure and made the wrong call.

Paul also says that adding something to Jesus in order to be accepted by God is something that takes away our freedom, and actually robs us of the truth of the gospel. Read verses 4 and 5:

Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery—to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.(Galatians 2:4-5)

What’s at stake here is freedom and truth. You don’t get any more basic than that. Paul is saying that if you get this issue wrong, three things happen:

  1. A great deal of ministry to real people is going to be undone
  2. We are going to lose our freedom and become slaves
  3. We are going to exchange the truth for a lie

So this is kind of a big deal. There’s a lot at stake here. This is why this is such an important deal for us as well, even though most of us wouldn’t have recognized it as such before we started looking at this. If we add something to Jesus in order to be accepted by God, ministry is undone, we become slaves, and we lose the truth for a lie.

We're tempted to believe we need Jesus plus something else to be accepted by God. This damages ministry and makes us slaves who believe lies. We can’t go there.

Two Examples

This can sound very academic, but it’s not. Paul gives us two examples of how this plays out. The first and most obvious example is Titus. Read verses 1 to 3:

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. (Galatians 2:1-3)

Paul shows a lot of wisdom here. It’s one thing to discuss abstract theological issues; it’s another thing to see how they apply to real people. Paul brings Titus so that everyone knows they’re talking about people. When you’re debating whether you need Jesus plus something else, that is not a debate that only matters to armchair theologians. We’re talking about something that’s going to affect Titus. In fact, it’s an issue that affects everyone here as well.

Titus was one of Paul’s coworkers. He played a major role in churches like Corinth. Paul later writes to him and calls him “my true child in a common faith” (Titus 1:4). Paul brings Titus with him as a case study, a test case. Titus has trusted in Christ. He’s resting in God’s work. Is Jesus enough, or does Titus need something else in order to be accepted by God? Is Jesus enough? Everything was riding on the answer.

And here’s what happened. They didn’t force Titus to be circumcised. They agreed with Paul that Jesus is enough. They agreed with Paul and endorsed his ministry. That’s the first case study here.

The other example is actually a little more subtle, but you see it if you look carefully at this passage. In Jerusalem you have Peter, the disciple of Jesus Christ who spent three years with the Lord. Jesus called him a rock and appointed him to feed his sheep. Peter preached a sermon in which three thousand people responded and were added to the church. Then you have James and John, key leaders in the church. They had spent all kinds of time with Jesus. On the other hand, you have Paul who’s met Jesus only once, who had almost no contact with the Jerusalem church, and who in fact had opposed the church.

Here’s the question: Is there any ranking before God? There’s no doubt that Peter, James, and John had prestige and status. But look at what Paul says in verse 6:

And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me. (Galatians 2:6)

Paul is reminding us again that when we stand before God, nothing apart from Jesus matters. Our rank, our status, our reputation, and our accomplishments don’t do anything for us. The only thing that we have that impresses God is that we are in Christ. We can’t add anything to what Jesus has done, even if you are close personal friends with Jesus. With God there is no partiality. The gospel is the grounds of our acceptance with God; nothing else matters. Hear that again: The gospel is the grounds of our acceptance with God. Nothing else matters.

Paul was able to raise the issue with the leaders in Jerusalem, and the result was that they were unified around the gospel that they hold in common. And now Paul is writing this letter to make sure that the Galatians know that you don’t need anything other than Jesus to be accepted by God. It’s a message that is vitally important for us here today as well.

Why This is Important to Us

Would it surprise you if I told you that this is a very important message for us today as well? When I began this sermon, I admitted that this is probably nobody’s favorite passage. As I said, I doubt that anyone has ever cross-stitched, “But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised.” But this is a problem that we continue to face all the time. We’re continually tempted to believe that we need Jesus plus something else in order to be accepted by God.

I came across a really good book last year with a really great title: Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don't Have to Do. The author talks about the anxiety many of us feel:

Sometimes the Christian life can get to be like that: trying to live like Christians just seems to add one more layer of anxiety to our lives. We have our work, our families, our friends to worry about, and then on top of that we worry about getting our Christian lives right. And if being a good Christian is at the center of our lives, then this worry can settle into the depths of our hearts and turn everything we do into something to be anxious about.

I know what he’s talking about. I am continually hearing from people who feel like they’re doing the Christian life wrong. They have this ongoing sense that they’re a disappointment to God and that they’re not measuring up. They have this sense that you come to Jesus Christ and he gives them eternal life, and then says, “Go, make something of yourself now!” And ever since then God has been watching and shaking his head in disappointment. They may even have the idea that one day God will accept them in heaven, but only because he has to. He won’t be happy about it, because he’s pretty disappointed by what they’ve done with their lives ever since they became Christians.

Phillip Cary, the author of the book I just mentioned, tells us what the problem is. It’s not that we’re not trying hard enough. It’s not that we have to do better. The problem is theological. He says:

It’s about bad theology, the kind of theology that, when it’s preached and taught and made part of our lives, makes us worried and miserable. The good news is…it’s not in the Bible and you don’t have to believe it…What the gospel of Christ does is give us Christ, and that is enough. We can let everything else be what it is - hard work, worthwhile work, works of love, and heartaches that come with all of that. And we can let our feelings be what they are, whatever that may be. What matters is Jesus Christ, and the gospel tells us that all is well on that score: that we are our Beloved’s and he is ours.

You know our problem? Many of us are trying to add something to Jesus in order to be accepted by God. We do this all the time, and it kills us. It makes us anxious. It robs us of our freedom and turns us into slaves. Whenever we look to anything other than Jesus for our acceptance before God, we’ve lost our grip on the gospel and we’re believing a lie. This is not some obscure problem that Paul faced hundreds of years ago; this is the problem that we all face everyday.

I think I’ve told you before about Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who pastored in London in the last century. People would often come to him with problems. He was very good at trying to get to the heart of their problems. Sometimes he would ask them, “How do you know that you’re a Christian?” Do you know what they would answer many times? “I’m trying!” That would set off alarm bells in his head. What they were saying is, “I think I’m a Christian because of Jesus plus my efforts.” They were trusting in something else other than the finished work of Jesus Christ for their salvation. They were making the very same mistake we read about in this passage.

John Gerstner said, “There is nothing that separates us from God more than our damnable good works.” When we put our faith in our good works, it separates us from God. The famous preacher George Whitefield said:

Before you can speak peace in your heart, you must not only be made sick of your original and actual sin, but you must be made sick of your righteousness, of all your duties and performances. There must be a deep conviction before you can be brought out of your self-righteousness; it is the last idol taken out of our heart. The pride of our heart will not let us submit to the righteousness of Jesus Christ. But if you never felt that you had no righteousness of your own, if you never felt the deficiency of your own righteousness, you cannot come to Jesus Christ. There are a great many now who may say, Well, we believe all this; but there is a great difference between talking and feeling. Did you ever feel the want of a dear Redeemer? Did you ever feel the want of Jesus Christ, upon the account of the deficiency of your own righteousness? And can you now say from your heart, Lord, thou mayst justly damn me for the best duties that ever I did perform? If you are not thus brought out of self, you may speak peace to yourselves, but yet there is no peace.

One story, and then one challenge for you this morning. It’s a goofy story, but it makes a very good point.

A man was standing at the gates of heaven waiting to be admitted. To the man’s utter shock, Peter said, “You have to earn a thousands points to be admitted to heaven. What have you done to earn your points?”

The man replied, “I’ve never heard that before: but I think I’ll do alright. I was raised in a Christian home and have always been a part of the church. I have Sunday school attendance pins that go down the floor. I went to a Christian college and graduate school and have probably led hundreds of people to Christ. I’m now an elder in my church and am quite supportive of what the people of God do. I have three children, two boys and a girl. My oldest boy is a pastor and the younger is a staff person with a ministry to the poor. My daughter and her husband are missionaries. I have always tithed and am now giving well over 30% of my income to God’s work. I’m a bank executive and work with the poor in our city trying to get low income mortgages.”

“How am I doing so far?” he asked Peter.

“That’s one point,” Peter said. “What else have you done?”

“Good Lord…have mercy!” the man said in frustration.

“That’s it!” Peter said. “Welcome home.”

Do you get it? We will never be able to achieve God’s approval by trusting anything else but what Jesus Christ has done for us. All that’s needed is Jesus, and that is enough. At the cross Jesus did everything that was needed in order for us to be made right with God. Jesus is enough. Depending on Jesus plus something else is a lie that kills and that robs us from the truth of the gospel.

Two questions for you today.

When you look at others, how do you see them? The problem is that some in the church were looking at Gentiles who believed in Jesus but hadn’t been circumcised, and saw them as deficient. It’s the same problem that we face today when we look at someone who’s trusted in Jesus Christ but looks or acts differently than us. We have a tendency to judge them based on external factors, when in reality Jesus is enough. There’s no favoritism with God. Do you get that? The newest Christian with tattoos and nicotine stains and all the wrong stuff stands beside the most mature believer who’s a pillar of the church. Before God there’s no difference. The grounds of their acceptance is Christ. Depending on anything else is deadly.

One other question: Are you sick of your damnable good deeds? Have you gotten rid of the last idol to be taken out of the heart, which is the idol of self-righteousness? Have you realized that God does not accept you based on how well you’re doing, but that he accepts you purely on the basis of what Christ has done?

Jesus plus nothing equals everything. Jesus plus anything else is slavery, and it will kill you.

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.”


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!

A Prayer When Slandered (Psalm 7)

I would like this sermon this morning to be a practical one. I want to address a problem that all of us are going to face eventually. You may be facing it right now. The problem is slander.

Three preachers were on a fishing trip when they began to discuss various topics to pass the time. One preacher said he thought it would be nice if they confessed their biggest sins to each other and then prayed for each other. They all agreed, and the first preacher said that his biggest sin was that he liked to sit at the beach now and then and watch pretty women stroll by. The second preacher confessed that his biggest sin was that he went to the horse racing track every so often and put a small bet on a horse. Turning to the third preacher, they asked, "Brother, what is your biggest sin?" With a grin, he said, "My biggest sin is gossiping."

That’s not what I’m talking about. Gossip is a serious problem, but it’s different from slander. Sometimes people will say negative things about us. When they do, we have to admit that they’re right. In fact, sometimes they don’t know the half of it. Dealing with accurate criticism or the problem of people who repeat unsavory details of your life is a problem, but it’s not the problem I want to talk about this morning.

No, the problem I want to talk about is the problem of slander. Slander is when someone makes an untrue and unjust accusation against you. It’s a false and malicious statement that damages your reputation. The problem with slander is that you can’t address the issue they’ve raised against you. If someone says that I stole their car and I did, I can return the keys and apologize. But if someone says that I stole their car and I didn’t, then I can’t return the keys. You can’t repent for what you haven’t done. But the damage of the accusation can stick and do all kinds of damage.

Quite a while ago, two people I know well were victims of slander. Serious accusations were raised against them. These accusations were so serious that they tainted their names. Their protestations of innocence only made them look like they were unwilling to take responsibility. The accusations were investigated and found to be untrue, but not before they did tremendous damage. That is the nature of slander. It’s deadly, and it’s very difficult to know how to respond when it happens.

The psalm we’re looking at this morning deals with this very topic. We read at the top of the psalm, “A shiggaion of David, which he sang to the Lord concerning the words of Cush, a Benjamite.” We don’t know the particular situation it’s talking about, but we discover pretty quickly that David had been slandered. David even describes how damaging this is. He says in verses 1-2:

O LORD my God, in you do I take refuge;
save me from all my pursuers and deliver me,
lest like a lion they tear my soul apart,
rending it in pieces, with none to deliver.

Slander is not some benign non-issue that you should just shrug off. David says here that it’s serious. Look at the image he gives us. He doesn’t say that the slanderers are like annoying flies buzzing around his ears. No, he compares them to lions that could tear his soul apart. David is a hunted man here. He is in serious trouble.

So what should we do when we’re slandered? Buckle your seatbelts, because David shows us how to do four things.

First, lay yourself before God.

Read verses 1-5:

O LORD my God, in you do I take refuge;
save me from all my pursuers and deliver me,
lest like a lion they tear my soul apart,
rending it in pieces, with none to deliver.
O LORD my God, if I have done this,
if there is wrong in my hands,
if I have repaid my friend with evil
or plundered my enemy without cause,
let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it,
and let him trample my life to the ground
and lay my glory in the dust. Selah

David begins by laying himself out before God. He begins with full disclosure. There’s something to be said sometimes for playing your cards close to your chest. You don’t want to disclose everything to everyone. But when David is the victim of slander, he goes running to God, and he doesn’t hold anything back. He lays down his cards before God.

Look at how David begins: he says that he’s found refuge or shelter in God. Men go to ridiculous lengths to assert their independence. The ideal man, according to some, never goes to the doctor, never takes medicine, never asks directions, and never has an emotion (only allergies). When they suffer, they suffer alone and barely admit it. They certainly don’t need a refuge. David isn’t that kind of ideal man. David shows us that the ideal man is someone who recognizes that he needs a shelter, a refuge. Don’t miss that David doesn’t say, “I’m now going to take refuge in you now that I’m in trouble.” He actually says that he’s taken refuge in God before the trouble hit. We can learn from that. Don’t wait until you’re in the middle of trouble to find your refuge in God. Admit your need for God, and take refuge in him now.

Then David lays two things before God in verses 1-2. Full disclosure. First, he lays out the danger that he’s in. We’ve already seen this. David is helpless. Even having found refuge in God, he feels that he’s in real danger. He doesn’t sugarcoat the situation. He doesn’t put the best spin on it. He simply lays out the facts and his vulnerability before God.

But then David lays out a second thing before God: he lays open his heart for examination. This is one of the hardest things to do. David lays out his conscience before God. He’s examined it as best he can and, as best as he can tell, it’s clear. But he lays it before God as well and says that if the slanders are true, and if the accusations are accurate, and if he’s done wrong, then let God take the side of his accusers, and let David suffer the consequences. “He realizes that he stands under God’s gaze and knows that God will know him truly” (Dale Ralph Davis).

I was recently on the receiving end of some pretty severe criticism. It’s always difficult when this happens, because you want to learn from the criticism. As I thought about it over a few days, I realized that there were some things I could learn. But my immediate impulse was to be defensive, to withdraw into myself. David doesn’t do that. He turns to God who is his refuge. He lays out his danger before God, and then invites God to examine his heart. He shows us that when we’re slandered we can lay ourselves out before God in complete honesty, inviting him to examine the situation including our hearts.

So David begins by showing us that when slandered we can lay ourselves out before God.

Second, ask God to act.

Read verses 6-9:

Arise, O LORD, in your anger;
lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies;
awake for me; you have appointed a judgment.
Let the assembly of the peoples be gathered about you;
over it return on high.
The LORD judges the peoples;
judge me, O LORD, according to my righteousness
and according to the integrity that is in me.
Oh, let the evil of the wicked come to an end,
and may you establish the righteous—
you who test the minds and hearts,
O righteous God!

We’re going to run into this type of prayer a few times in the psalms. Does this bother anyone? David asks God to unleash his fury upon David’s enemies. Some people say, “Well, that doesn’t sound very Christian. Why can’t David be more forgiving?” It seems unfair to ask God to rise up in anger and judge people who have wronged us.

But let’s think about this. People say, “How could a good and loving God be filled with wrath?” But at the same time we recognize that there are all kinds of good reasons to be filled with wrath. This past week you’ve read about the rioting in England. Prime Minister David Cameron came on TV and said, “Well, let’s not get angry here. Hooligans aren’t bad people.” No, he got angry. He promised to ensure that every looter was caught, brought to court, and sentenced, and that "phony human rights" concerns would not get in the way. “The whole country has been shocked by the most appalling scenes of people looting, violence, vandalizing and thieving," Cameron said at the beginning of his statement to what appeared to be a full house of parliamentarians sitting on long rows of green benches. "It is criminality pure and simple. And there is absolutely no excuse for it." That’s entirely appropriate. If he had stayed on vacation and hadn’t come back and done something about the crisis, then he wouldn’t have been doing his job. People expect him to act and respond to injustice.

That is exactly the same with God. When injustice is taking place, it would be a travesty to think that God was sitting by and doing nothing. It is entirely appropriate for God to take notice of wrong and to act, and that’s exactly what David is asking God to do. David is asking God to take note and to respond appropriately. Becky Pippert makes the point that the more that you love somebody, the more you care, the more you get angry when they’re the victim of injustice. She then says, “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.” It’s like C.S. Lewis put it: “The absence of anger, especially the sort of anger which we call indignation, can, in my opinion, be a most alarming symptom.”

In other words, we can actually find hope in God’s anger. When you’re being battered and pursued, when it looks like people are out to get you, and you can’t do anything about it, you can find hope in the fact that God sees and that God will set things straight. N.T. Wright puts it this way:

The word judgment carries negative overtones for a good many people in our liberal and post-liberal world. We need to remind ourselves that throughout the Bible God's coming judgment is a good thing, something to be celebrated, longed for, yearned over. It causes people to shout for joy and the trees of the field to clap their hands. In a world of systematic injustice, bullying, violence, arrogance, and oppression, the thought that there might come a day when the wicked are firmly put in their place and the poor and weak are given their due is the best news there can be. Faced with a world in rebellion, a world full of exploitation and wickedness, a good God must be a God of judgment.

So it’s entirely appropriate for us to ask God to act and to set things straight. So lay yourself out before God. Don’t play your cards close to your chest. Lay the situation out before God clearly. And then ask God to act. Say, in effect, “Are you seeing this? Do something!” Ask God to act justly to set the situation right.

Third, remind yourself of who God is.

Notice the change in verse 8. Up until now David has been speaking to God. In verses 8 to 11 he switches and talks about God as well as to God. What’s happening here? Somebody’s said it’s as if he’s seen God in his mind rise up and take action. It’s as if as David is praying that he senses God has heard, and has risen up in answer to his prayer. It just could be that David shifts his focus. He begins to focus on God.

We travelled to New York back in July. New York has to be one of my most favorite cities. You have this sense as you’re walking around what’s happening on the ground. You go through different parts of the city. In some places it’s so packed you can barely move. In other places it’s quieter and more businesslike. Wherever you are, you get the sense of what the city is like in that place, knowing that it could be very different a block over.

But then one day I went to the Top of the Rock, the top of the Rockefeller Plaza. From the 70th floor things look very different. You can see the city in a way that you can’t see from the ground.

That’s what happens in this psalm. David has been at street-level dealing with slander. Then in verses 8 to 11 he gets a very different perspective as he’s elevated, as he gets a larger picture of who God is. He says:

The LORD judges the peoples;
judge me, O LORD, according to my righteousness
and according to the integrity that is in me.
Oh, let the evil of the wicked come to an end,
and may you establish the righteous—
you who test the minds and hearts,
O righteous God!
My shield is with God,
who saves the upright in heart.
God is a righteous judge,
and a God who feels indignation every day.

See David’s focus here? His focus is on a God who judges the peoples. The picture David has is that God is sovereign over all the earth, and that nothing happens without his knowledge our outside of his control. What’s more, David sees God as one who brings an end to evil, and who establishes the righteous. He is not without emotion. He is a good, David says, who feels indignation every day.

What we really need, David shows us, is a vision of God. We need to get off the street level to where we can see the bigger picture, when we can remind ourselves of who God is and how it relates to what we’re going through. A few years ago Timothy Stoner wrote a book with a funny title: The God Who Smokes: Scandalous Meditations on Faith. I was so put off by the title that I almost never read it. But title, The God Who Smokes, is actually a reference to God as a consuming fire, God as one who has a holy and passionate love and anger. He writes:

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 what we need. We need to see God for who he is: the most majestic, magnificent, glorious, stunningly beautiful being in the universe. He alone is worthy of honor, glory, and praise. He is astonishingly beautiful and utterly majestic. He is right. As we get this picture of God, things will start to look very different at street level.

This plays out as David looks back at those who are slandering him. David turns from gazing upon God to the slanderers, and he says:

If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword;
he has bent and readied his bow;
he has prepared for him his deadly weapons,
making his arrows fiery shafts.
Behold, the wicked man conceives evil
and is pregnant with mischief
and gives birth to lies.
He makes a pit, digging it out,
and falls into the hole that he has made.
His mischief returns upon his own head,
and on his own skull his violence descends.

As David’s perspective changes, he sees the slanderers differently too. Before they looked like lions that were about to devour him. Now they look very differently. They look like victims of God’s imminent justice. They actually look kind of pathetic: like someone who falls into the whole that he dug for someone else. He lays a booby-trap but sets it off himself. It may take some time, but their evil will destroy themselves.

Years ago Paul Allen - a former youth pastor here - told me something I’ll never forget. He said, “Sin always overplays its hand.” Here’s what he meant: sometimes it looks like sin has the winning hand. But sin always gets too cocky and takes things too far. That’s exactly what David sees here. The slanderers won’t ultimately be victorious. In fact, they’ll suffer God’s judgment. Even if they don’t, they’ll do themselves in.

The thing that makes all the difference is that David gets a view of God. He lays himself before God, asks him to act, but then sees God for who he is, and it changes everything.

Finally, praise Him.

That’s the thing. Once you’ve seen God for who he is, you have to praise him. David starts this psalm in crisis, but he ends this psalm in praise. Verse 17 says:

I will give to the LORD the thanks due to his righteousness,
and I will sing praise to the name of the LORD, the Most High.

David doesn’t just theorize about God. He gazes on him and worships him. I know a Bible scholar who attended a meeting of academics who study the Bible. They can talk about Scripture endlessly, but only as a theory. Many of the them study Scripture, but don’t believe in God. One troubled person heard about this meeting. She was going through a hard time and wanted to speak to someone about God. If she talked to most of the people at the conference, they wouldn’t have been able to help her. But she found the Bible scholar I knew, and he was able to help. Why? Because he knew about God, but he also knew God. There's a big difference between knowing about God and actually knowing him.

That’s what David shows us here. David doesn’t just rehearse facts about God. That won’t do anything. David thinks about God, and can’t help but bow before him and worship him. He starts this psalm as a wounded man. He gets a glimpse of God. And that leads him to bow down before God. He starts this psalm with a whimper but he ends this psalm singing.

What should we do when slandered? Lay yourself before him, ask him to act, remind yourself who he is, and then praise him.

Two things this as we close.

First, I don’t know what you’re going through. But I invite you to leave street level and to glimpse God. See who he is. Don’t just look at him; worship him. Take in his beauty. Let him move you. I guarantee you that things will look different at street level once you’ve done this. Take the steps that David’s showed us in this psalm. Lay out your situation before him; ask him to act; remind yourself who God is, and then praise him.

Second, remind yourself of God’s justice. Remind yourself that God is a consuming fire. Remind yourself that God’s justice. Then look in amazement at the cross, where Jesus took the justice that we deserved. Remind yourself that God is just - but that God has satisfied his justice in Jesus for all who trust him. Throw yourself at his feet and worship him.

A Prayer for Dealing With Sin and Guilt (Psalm 6)

We all struggle with sin. There’s an old term that I can relate to: besetting sin. To beset means to harass, to constantly trouble or attack. So a besetting sin is one a sin that continually trips us up and troubles us and leaves us feeling defeated. As somebody has written:

In the life of every individual, there is a "besetting" sin that can tower like a mountain between the individual and God. This is "the sin which doth so easily beset us", and it differs according to the person. What is a besetting sin to one person may not trouble another at all. Sometimes this sin, or persistently assailing evil, is quite obvious to others, while in other cases it is hidden in the heart and known only to the individual and God. In either case, it is perplexing and harassing, and, if allowed to linger and grow, it may end in tragic moral failure. Practically every believer wrestles with an habitually assaulting sin, even those whose service to Christ is of outstanding quality.

I don’t know what your besetting sin is. But I know how it feels to feel defeated and guilty and full of shame as a result of sin. I came across this description of what it feels like. It’s written by people who struggle with pornography, although I think the same words could be written by those who struggle with other sins. In his book Closing the Window: Steps to Living Porn Free, Tim Chester shares the following quotes from men who have struggled with the guilt and condemnation that comes from viewing pornography:

"It's made me want to hide from God .... It makes me doubt my salvation, and then the depression comes and with the depression comes temptation to sin again."

"I feel crap about myself. I don't feel worthy to serve God. And I don't believe I can break the habit."

"I feel dirty and unable to approach God after looking at porn .... So often I feel unable to come to him in repentance, even though I know my sin is already dealt with."

"I couldn't talk with God about my problems. My picture of him was that he would accept me if and when I had 'scrubbed up' enough."

So here’s the question. What do you do when you’re at this point of having failed God again? What do you do when you want to hide from God in shame, doubt your salvation? When you feel like crap and that you can’t approach him because of your guilt?

In this psalm, David shows us what we can do. When you’ve sinned, he says, get honest with God, plead with God and then rest in his forgiveness.

First, David teaches us, get honest with God.

David writes in verses 1-3:

O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath.
Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing;
heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled.
My soul also is greatly troubled.
But you, O LORD—how long?

This psalm has traditionally been classified as one of seven penitential psalms found in the Psalter. A penitential psalm is one in which the psalmist confesses sin, expresses sorrow for that sin, describes the effects of guilt, and requests and celebrates God’s forgiveness. Don’t forget that the psalms are not just private correspondence between the psalmist and God. They’re placed here to teach us how to pray when we are in the same situation as the psalmist. So the implication is that we need to be taught what to do when we sin. The assumption is that we’re going to need this. There are times that we’re going to be caught in sin.

Ed Stetzer, a pastor and researcher in the States, writes of the time that his family moved from New York City to Florida. They lived in a house that grandfather owned. Because the house was in a rural area, it wasn’t serviced by the city sewer system. That meant it had a septic tank. The septic tank system worked fine most of the time, but occasionally there were problems. On such an occasion, Stetzer’s grandfather would do what any old and wise man would do. He asked Stetzer to meet him in the yard. He’d bring a metal bar to pry open the lid, and he’d bring a shovel to pry out whatever was stuck in there. One day his grandpa thought it would be funny to act like he was going to push him into the septic tank. And it was funny, at least until he lost his balance. Before he knew it, he was standing knee deep in sewage. That’s a pretty good picture of the situation that David’s in as he writes this psalm. So how do you pray to God from the middle of the septic tank?

Well, David does three things. First, he’s honest about his situation. He asks God not to rebuke him in anger or discipline him in wrath. Notice that David doesn’t deny that he deserves a rebuke and discipline. Clearly he does. David tacitly admits that he’s sinned against God and that he’s the septic tank, so to speak, because he put himself there. He shows us that we don’t have to clean ourselves up before we approach God. We can pray to him even when we’re in the middle of the septic tank of our sin.

Second, David is also honest about what he’s feeling. He talks about being frail and weak. He says that his bones are shaking. He’s terrified and wants to know how long his suffering will continue. His soul is troubled. David is not doing well here. He’s dealing with the effects and consequences of sin. Some people think that he’s literally sick here. I think he’s describing the anguish of his guilt in very dramatic terms. Psychologists talk about the negative effects of guilt. We know this. David is experiencing God’s displeasure and the shame and guilt that come from sin, and he’s honest with God about what it feels like. It’s like what one person’s said about sin: “Sin will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you're willing to pay” (Steve Farrar).

But then notice that David asks God for mercy. He asks God not to rebuke him in anger; not to discipline him in wrath. Notice what David doesn’t say. He doesn’t ask God not to rebuke or discipline him. Spurgeon writes:

The Psalmist is very conscious that he deserves to be rebuked, and he feels, moreover, that the rebuke in some form or other must come upon him, if not for condemnation, yet for conviction and sanctification...He does not ask that the rebuke may be totally withheld, for he might thus lose a blessing in disguise; but, “Lord, rebuke me not in thine anger.”...So may we pray that the chastisements of our gracious God, if they may not be entirely removed, may at least be sweetened by the consciousness that they are “not in anger, but in his dear covenant love.”

Now listen. Some of us are struggling with guilt. We are in the middle of the septic tank. David shows us that we can approach God even when we’re dealing with the crushing effects of sin. We can cry out to God even when we’re experiencing all the guilt and shame of our failure. This is so important because when we’re in this state, the last thing we want to do is to come to God. We want to hide from him, like Adam and Eve did, because we’re ashamed. When you’ve sinned, David teaches us, the first thing to do is to get honest with God. But that’s not all.

Second, plead with God.

Some of you have kids who do this all the time. Sometimes I think that kids show signs of becoming great case lawyers in the future. You know that if a child wants something, they will come up with arguments and then present those arguments with great force before his or her parents. Did you know that this is what we are to do with God? David is caught in the middle of sin. But he doesn’t hide from God. He’s honest with God. But then he pleads with God. Again, let me quote Spurgeon:

The ancient saints were ordering their cause before God. As a petitioner coming into court does not come there without thought to state his case on the spur of the moment, but enters into the audience chamber with his suit well prepared, having also learned how he ought to behave himself in the presence of the great one to whom he is appealing, so it is well to approach the seat of the King of Kings as much as possible with premeditation and preparation, knowing what we are about, where we are standing, and what it is which we desire to obtain...The best prayers I have ever heard in our prayer meetings have been those which have been fullest of argument. Sometimes my soul has been fairly melted down where I have listened to the brethren who have come before God feeling the mercy to be really needed, and that they must have it, for they first pleaded with God to give it for this reason, and then for a second, and then for a third and then for a fourth and a fifth until they have awakened the fervency of the entire assembly.

We need to learn how to do this, especially when we are dealing with sin and guilt. David pleads with God using three arguments here.

First, he pleads on the basis of God’s character. In verse 4 he says, “Turn, O LORD, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love.” The word for “steadfast love” is one of my favorite words in the entire Bible. It means God’s unchanging covenant love. It’s a devoted love that promises to never let go no matter what happens. David doesn’t build an argument on his own character; he builds an argument based on God’s unchanging character and his covenant promise of love. God delights when we do this, when we plead with him based on who he is and what he has promised to do.

Second, he pleads with God on the basis of the praise that he wants to bring God. This is interesting. In verse 5 he says, “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” David is not giving a full-blown theology of the afterlife here. What he’s saying is that while he is alive, he lives to praise God. But when he’s dead he will no longer be able to do this. Graveyards are quiet places. David wants the opportunity to praise God’s name. By the way, this gives us a hint as to one of the main reasons we live: to bring praise to God. God delights in being exalted. David pleads on the basis that his restoration would allow him to continue to live and to praise his great God.

Finally, he pleads on the basis of his suffering. David says in verses 6-7:

I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eye wastes away because of grief;
it grows weak because of all my foes.

What is this? Is this just complaining and whining? Somebody journaled through the psalms and wrote, “What is it with these psalmists anyway? They’re such a bunch of whiners!” Well, it can seem that way, but David is doing more than whining here. He’s again making an assumption about God’s character. The assumption is that God cares about what David is experiencing, even if it is a result of his sin. He’s presuming on God’s compassion and care for his people.

He is making an assumption about the mercy of God. He is assuming that all of this really matters to God and that Yahweh will be touched with pity over his condition. He assumes that our misery arouses God’s mercy, touches God’s heart. A prayer like this assumes that the Father is like Jesus - always going around being moved with compassion.

So David teaches us that when you’ve sinned, get honest with God, and then plead with God. Argue with him. Lay hold of God’s character and reputation and his care for you, and then build on that. Use arguments in prayer. Make a case to God based on who he is and what he’s promised. Because we know what Christ has done for us, plead based on Christ having paid the penalty in full for your sin at the cross. Trust that he is interceding for you as well.

When you’ve sinned, get honest, and then plead your case. But there’s one more thing.

Third, having done all of this, rest in his forgiveness.

I love how David ends this. Listen to what he says in verses 8-10:

Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.
The LORD has heard my plea;
the LORD accepts my prayer.
All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled;
they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment.

Some churches regularly hold a time of confession as part of their worship services. Together the congregation confesses sin to God. For instance:

Dear friends in Christ, here in the presence of Almighty God, let us kneel in silence, and with penitent and obedient hearts confess our sins, so that we may obtain forgiveness by his infinite goodness and mercy.

There has never been a time when I’ve lacked things to confess at that moment. After a time of confession, the officiant then stands up and says something like this:

Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through the Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen.

I need that. I need not just the confession but the assurance that God has heard my confession and forgiven my sins, and that I’m cleansed and ready to go.

That’s what happens in this psalm. Having come to God, acknowledged his sin, and pleaded his case, David know shows us the assurance that we can have. Prayer lays hold of God and his forgiveness so that we receive the mercy that we need. David says, “The LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.”

Today you can come to God and get real about your situation. You don’t have to hide from him. You can tell him exactly what you’ve done and how it’s made you feel. You can then plead with him based on his character and his promises. And then you can leave this morning knowing that God has heard your prayer and has pardoned your sin.

But then you can also deal with your enemies. David has some enemies in mind here who aren’t letting him forget his sins. But we can also deal with Satan, the accuser, who tries to unsettle us and rob us of our assurance and peace in the gospel. In his book By Grace Alone: How the Grace of God Amazes Me, Sinclair Ferguson identifies four major "fiery darts" Satan uses to unsettle believers:

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.

But we can respond, “Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.”

Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, writes of an encounter he had with Satan.

Satan, either in reality or in a dream, appeared in the depth of the night, and addressed him in the following terms: "Luther, how dare you to pretend to be a reformer of the Church? Luther, let your memory do its duty - let your conscience do its duty: you have committed this sin - you have been guilty of that sin; you have omitted this duty, and you have neglected that duty: let your reform begin in your own bosom. How dare you attempt to be a reformer of the Church?

Luther, with the self-possession and magnanimity by which he was characterized, (whether it was a dream or reality, he himself professes not to decide,) said to Satan - "Take up the slate that lies on the table, and write down all the sins with which you have now charged me; and if there be any additional, append them, too." Satan, rejoiced to have the opportunity of accusing, just as our blessed Lord is rejoiced to have the opportunity of advocating, took up a pencil, and wrote a long and painful roll of the real or imputed sins of Luther.

Luther said, "Have you written the whole?" Satan answered, "Yes, and a black and dark catalogue it is, and sufficient to deter you from making any attempt to reform others, till you have first purified and reformed yourself." Luther said, "Take up the slate and write as I shall dictate to you. My sins are many; my transgressions in the sight of an infinitely holy God, are countless as the hairs of my head: in me there dwelleth no good thing; but, Satan, after the last sin you have recorded, write the announcement which I shall repeat from 1 John 1:7,"The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin." Luther in that text had peace; and Satan, knowing the source of his peace, had no more advantage against him. (Rev. John Cumming, 1854)

A hymn puts it this way: “Well may the accuser roar, of sins that I have done; I know them all and thousands more, Jehovah knoweth none!” When you’ve sinned, get honest with God, plead with God and then rest in his forgiveness.

We started out this morning talking about the shame and weight of sin, of how people feel when they’re caught in besetting sin. I gave the example of people who said:

"It's made me want to hide from God .... It makes me doubt my salvation, and then the depression comes and with the depression comes temptation to sin again."

"I feel crap about myself. I don't feel worthy to serve God. And I don't believe I can break the habit."

"I feel dirty and unable to approach God after looking at porn .... So often I feel unable to come to him in repentance, even though I know my sin is already dealt with."

"I couldn't talk with God about my problems. My picture of him was that he would accept me if and when I had 'scrubbed up' enough."

Without condoning the sin of viewing porn, Tim Chester offers the following words of hope to people who are struggling with pornography, and for all of us who are struggling with any sin:

Jesus lived God's welcome to sinners. He embodied God's mercy. He was known as the friend of sinners. The religious people didn't like it, because it turned their proud systems of self-righteousness upside down. But Jesus sat down to eat with prostitutes, adulterers, and porn addicts .... On the cross, God treated Christ as a porn user .... [Paraphrasing 2 Corinthians 5:21], "God made Jesus, who never looked with lust, to be a porn addict for us, so that in him we might become sexually pure."

Or, to put it differently, using the words of the guy who fell in the septic tank and who was standing neck-deep in sewage:

I am forever thankful the waste wasn’t any deeper that day. I could easily have been submerged rather than knee deep. But consider Christ, who was not knee deep and not even submerged, but who actually ingested the sin of mankind. (Ed Stetzer)

Because of Christ and what he’s done, we can stand before God and know that he’s heard our prayer. When you’ve sinned, get honest with God, plead with God and then rest in his forgiveness.

A Prayer for Tight Spots (Psalm 4)

We’re spending some time this summer going through some of the early psalms. Today we come to Psalm 4, and I’m going to call this one a psalm for tight spots. The reason why is because of what David says in the first verse of this psalm: “Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have given me relief when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!” The middle phrase in this verse, “You have given me relief when I was in distress,” could literally be translated, “In a tight corner, you have made room for me.” We don’t know what situation David was facing when he wrote this psalm, but we do know that he was in a tight spot. In fact, it’s almost better that we don’t know what situation David was facing. In a way it doesn’t matter. This is a psalm for any of us who are finding ourselves in a tight spot of some kind.

You know what a tight spot is. I’ve driven through some tight spots recently. Have you ever driven through a narrow space, watching your side-view mirrors so that you don’t lose them? You know what it’s like to be in a tight spot. Maybe you’ve been stuck at some point in your life. You thought you could wedge your body through a space that turned out to be a little too small. Well, then, you’ve also been in a tight spot. I picture someone walking through a narrow rock formation that’s hardly big enough to squeeze through. There’s no room to maneuver or turn. There’s nowhere to go. I hate the feeling of being constricted and squeezed. But that’s exactly the situation that David faces as he writes this psalm.

Some of you know exactly what David is talking about. It could be that right now you’re in a tight spot in your life. I don’t know what that tight spot is, but you feel hemmed in and trapped. You don’t have a lot of options for getting out. You feel constricted, restricted, closed in, with nowhere to turn. You love the picture of being given room to move, as David says in this psalm.

So the question is: what do we do when we find ourselves in a tight spot? What do we do when we’re hemmed in with nowhere to turn and nowhere to go? David teaches us how to respond in this psalm. How do we respond when we’re in a tight spot? With confidence, honesty, and peace, he says. Let’s look at each one.

First, when you’re in a tight spot, respond with confidence to God.

Confidence is almost too tame a word to describe verse 1. You could call it gutsy confidence. You can call it audaciousness or boldness. Whatever you call it, David is incredibly bold in addressing God as he faces his tight spot. Read what he says:

Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!
You have given me relief when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!
(Psalm 4:1)

What I find amazing about this verse is how David approaches God. He comes with a bold confidence in God. He’s bold in approaching God. He basically says, “Listen up! Hear me!” He demands an active response from God. He does not come as someone who is unsure of God. He comes with a bold expectation that God will hear and respond.

There are two concepts here. One is the expectation that God is willing to hear David’s prayers. David has no doubt that even when he’s in this tight spot that God can and should turn his ear and listen. Bill Hybels, a pastor near Chicago, talks about his father who was a very busy man. He traveled all over the world. To get through to him, you had to go through his staff first. But he had a private number that rang the phone right on his desk without having to go through any intermediary. Only a few select people, including his children, had that number. He still remembers the number to this day: 345-5366. No matter how busy he was, they could call him any time on that direct line.

Hybels says, “No one's voice sounds sweeter to God than your voice. ‘Hello, Father.’ There's nothing going on in the cosmos that would keep him from directing his full attention to your conversation or your request.” David got that. David had an bold expectation that God would hear him. He had the audacity to say, “Listen up, God!” and to expect that God would actually listen.

But there’s more. There’s also a confidence that God would not only listen but answer. He approaches the God who has made space for him in tight spots before and prays, “Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!” You know that there’s a type of listening that seems sympathetic but is anything but. If you tell me your problems this morning, I can nod and say “uh huh” as you speak. You might walk away thinking that I’m a great listener. That’s important, but I really haven’t helped you. David is approaching God. He definitely expects God to be a good listener, but he’s looking for more. He expects God to answer his prayer, to come through again and help him out of this tight spot. David has a bold confidence in God, that God would listen and that God would answer his prayer.

Tim Keller tells the story of Alexander the Great, who supposedly had a leading general whose daughter was getting married. Alexander the Great said that he'd be happy to contribute to the wedding. He said that he knew it would be expensive, so just ask for something. The general wrote out out a request for an enormous sum, a ridiculous sum. When Alexander's treasurer saw it, he brought it to Alexander and said, "I'm sure you're going to be cutting this man's head off now for what he's done. The audacity of asking for something like this! Who does he think you are?" Alexander said, "Give it to him. By such an outlandish request, he shows that he believes that I am both rich and generous." He was flattered by it.

God desires prayer that is bold, even shameless, in coming to him. When you read the prayers of the Bible, they're bold. They argue with God. Jesus talked about it as asking, seeking, and knocking. N.T. Wright says:

[Jesus] is encouraging a kind of holy boldness, a sharp knocking on the door, an insistent asking, a search that refuses to give up. That's what our prayer should be like. This isn't just a routine or formal praying, going through the motions as a daily or weekly task. There is a battle going on, a fight with the powers of darkness, and those who have glimpsed the light are called to struggle in prayer...

That’s the first thing we see in this psalm. Are you in a tight spot? The way to respond is first to come to God with a bold confidence and expectation that he will hear you and answer your prayer. Don’t come passively. Come boldly and expect God to hear you.

But that’s not all:

Second, respond with honesty to those who are in error.

So here’s the thing that I’ve discovered: most tight spots have to do with people. David begins by talking to God, but in this psalm he also turns his attention to the people who seem to be causing him grief. So he says in verses 2-5:

O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame?
How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah
But know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself;
the LORD hears when I call to him.
Be angry, and do not sin;
ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah
Offer right sacrifices,
and put your trust in the LORD.

This is kind of unusual. Many of us are used to psalms in which the psalmist speaks to God. You may not have realized that sometimes the psalmist speaks to others besides God in the psalms as well. By the way, the songs we sing in our corporate worship should do the same. It’s entirely appropriate to sing to God, but there’s also a time in which we should sing to each other. Paul called this “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Ephesians 5:19). There’s a place for singing to God; there’s also a big place for addressing each other in the songs we sing, and in the psalms.

So what people does David address? In verse 2 he says “O men.” The word that David used seems to refer to those of elevated social rank. So whatever situation David is facing, he’s not just talking to ordinary Joe. He’s talking to people who are in positions of influence and power.

And what does he say? Three things. First, he tells them off in verse 2. “O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame? How long will you love vain words and seek after lies?” “How long?” implies that David is running out of patience. They’re dragging his name and reputation through the mud, and David has had enough. But then he indicts them. He doesn’t just focus on the damage they’re doing to his name and reputation. He charges them with loving vain words and seeking after lies. They’re delusional. They love what is empty and worthless. They don’t just engage in worthless activity; they actually hate it. There is a time to look at someone and to tell them that what they’re doing is harmful and empty. David has no problem doing this in this psalm.

Second, he reminds them that God responds to the faithful. Remember that David’s name is being dragged through the mud. His honor has been turned to shame. It probably looks like everyone has abandoned him. But David reminds his enemies that God has not turned his back. He says, “But know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself; the LORD hears when I call to him.” You may have heard about a couple driving down the street in Vancouver. They look to the side of the road and see a couple of hitchhikers. The guy is dressed like Bono of U2. They pull over, and sure enough it is Bono and his assistant. Turns out, he and his assistant had gone out for a walk when it started to rain, just before they happened upon them. Bono and his assistant sat in the back with the couple’s dog. Bono isn’t accustomed to sticking out his thumb at the side of the road, but no matter where he is he’s still Bono. Nothing’s changed even if he’s stuck on the side of the road.

Contrast this with a story from a couple of hundred years ago. Thomas Jefferson went to a Baltimore hotel to ask for accommodation. He was in working clothes and splattered with mud. The proprietor looked him over and said, “We have no room for you, sir.” Jefferson left. A friend soon came in and told the proprietor that he had just turned away Thomas Jefferson, the Vice President of the United States and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He thought he was dealing with a dirty farmer. But just because someone thought he was a dirty farmer didn’t change who he really was. “The weapon against slander is to remember how God regards you, to hold on to what he has said about you...Those who despise us may regard us as a step above scum but that does not alter the fact that we are covenant ones whom Yahweh has set apart for himself” (Dale Ralph Davis).

So David says to them, in essence, that he might not look like much to them. He may look like a hitchhiker on the side of the road, or like a dirty farmer. But God knows who he is. He is God’s. God has set him apart for himself. God hears his prayer.

But finally, David calls for repentance from his enemies. Verse 4 says, “Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD.” It’s actually hard to translate the first part of verse 4. “Be angry” is actually “Tremble with fear.” I know this is hard to believe, but one time I got in trouble in school and was sent down to the principle’s office. I don’t remember trembling with fear in the school playground, but as I got closer to the principle’s office I became a little more concerned. Here David hauls them into God’s office and says that they should tremble with fear and stop sinning. They’re in an untenable position rebelling against God. He tells them to ponder their situation on their bed, to get right with God, and to offer right sacrifices to God, and to trust him.

So David does three things here as he speaks to his enemies. He indicts them. He reminds them (and himself) that God hasn’t abandoned him; God knows him no matter what they think. And he calls them to realize they’re in deep weeds, and to get right with God.

Canadian humor writer Phil Callaway recently accepted the challenge to live for a year without telling a lie or fudging the truth. He chronicles his journey in his new book called To Be Perfectly Honest: One Man's Year of Almost Living Truthfully Could Change Your Life. No Lie.. He says:

I've always avoided confrontation. I golfed with a man for years whose marriage was falling apart and I didn't once summon the nerve to say, "Hey, what's happening?" Some of us are terrified of offending others, but I don't know one single leader who can't point to someone who offended them with the truth about themselves. It can be transforming.

In his Focus on the Family magazine article entitled "The Problem with Nice Guys," Paul Coughlin insists Christians must avoid passive and aggressive extremes, opting instead for assertiveness. He offers the following example from pop culture to illustrate what Christian assertiveness looks like: “Three major personality types are found among the judges of the popular reality TV show American Idol. Passive Paula Abdul is gracious but not always truthful. Aggressive Simon Cowell is truthful but rarely gracious. Assertive Randy Jackson is often truthful and gracious. Be like Randy.”

When you’re in a tight spot, there may come a time for you to be honest with the people in your life who are problems. One of the best things we can do sometimes is to go to others and call them on their behavior; remind them of who we are in God; and call them to repentance. That’s what David does in this psalm. He’s in a tight spot, so he responds in confidence to a God who hears him, but then he also responds in honesty to the people around him.

Finally, when you’re in a tight spot, having spoken to God and others, find your peace in God.

David’s already reminded us of who he is in God. He finishes this psalm by contrasting two ways of relating to God. Read verses 6 to 8 with me:

There are many who say, “Who will show us some good?
Lift up the light of your face upon us, O LORD!”
You have put more joy in my heart
than they have when their grain and wine abound.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.

There are two ways of relating to God. The first way is dependent on circumstances. People say, “Who will show us some good?” There’s maybe a bit of crass pragmatism here. “What’s in it for me?” This way of relating to God is highly circumstantial. When things are good, then God is good. When things are bad, then things aren’t so good with God. This type of relationship depends on good times, when “grain and wine abound.” We’ve all been here, haven’t we?

But there’s a different way of relating to God. This way of relating to God doesn’t depend on circumstances. David says “You have put more joy in my heart than when they have their grain and wine abound.” He then says he’s able to go to bed at night and sleep well despite all the problems. Why? The end of verse 8 explains why: “for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.” David ultimately finds his safety in God. This is enough for him. He has a deep peace despite the circumstances. Ravi Zacharias said, “Faith is confidence in the person of Jesus Christ and in his power, so that even when his power does not serve my end, my confidence in him remains because of who he is.”

One of the most moving examples of this for me is the story of Nicholas Ridley. He was a British clergyman caught in controversy in England in the 1550s. The was scheduled to be burned at the stake in Oxford for his faith. The night before his execution his brother offered to stay with him in his last hours. But Ridley refused. He said he was going to bed, and that he was going to sleep as soundly that night as he ever did in his life. That’s exactly what David says in verse 8: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.”

Three applications for us this morning.

One: please realize who you are in Jesus Christ. If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, then you can have the same confidence that David enjoyed no matter what circumstances you face. You can know that God has set you apart for himself; that God hears you when you call him. This will enable you to know for sure who God is even in the middle of horrible circumstances. You may want to even post some of this psalm where you can see it this week to remind you of who you are in Christ; to know that you’ve been purchased by his blood; that he has set you apart and that he cares about you. If you don’t know God through Jesus Christ, then I encourage you to pursue this. Make this a priority in your life. God invites you to come into a relationship with him. He’s sent his Son to provide the way for this to be possible. Pursue God as he pursues you. I’d love to talk to you about this if you’re interested.

Second: God may be calling some of you to a new level of honesty. It may be that you need to speak to some people in your life as David did in this psalm. Tell them the truth about what they’re doing and how this relates to God. You need to work through how to do this. I’m not saying to get all preachy. You can figure it out. But some of us are too scared to really speak honestly to others. David shows us that we can, and sometimes we should.

Finally, this morning, come to God boldly with whatever you’re facing. He wants to hear from you. And take confidence from the fact that he does, and then sleep well tonight knowing that God makes you dwell in safety no matter what’s going on around you.

How do we respond when we’re in a tight spot? With confidence in God, honesty to others, and then peace.

A Prayer When Facing Enemies (Psalm 3)

This morning I want you to take a moment and to think of the darkest moment you’ve ever experienced in your life. This isn’t something that I ask you to do lightly. For some of us it’s very painful to even think about. Some examples:

  • a period of depression
  • the end of a relationship with someone - a spouse, a parent, a close friend
  • the loss of a job
  • a financial crisis
  • the death of someone close to you
  • a betrayal
  • the news that someone close to you is going through a crisis of their own - a divorce, a depression, or a significant health crisis

Now let me ask you: how many songs did you have to sing during this period of crisis? I’ve noticed that there are some songs that you can sing in some periods of crisis. I actually have some songs in my iTunes library that are perfect for almost any kind of mood. There are good breakup songs, good angry songs, good sad songs. There are hymns that bring us comfort. Sometimes there is a song that we can sing that can be a big help to us when we’re going through a crisis.

But sometimes there aren’t songs that can do justice to the depth and severity of a crisis. This is especially true in church. If you flip through our hymnbook, or go online to read the lyrics to many of the songs we sing, you will find songs on almost any topic, but you won’t find many that give voice to hearts that are in severe pain. This is a problem, because we need songs that we can sing when we’re in crisis. We need songs and words that give voice to our pain, especially in the darkest moments of our lives.

That’s where the Psalms come in. We have all kinds of psalms in the Bible. We have psalms of praise and thanksgiving that point to who God is and the wonderful things that he’s done. But that isn’t all of life. “Life is not all cool breezes and beautiful birds” (George Guthrie). So there are other kinds of psalms, including the psalm we’re looking at this morning. It’s a psalm of lament. David Howard, a professor of Old Testament, says:

Laments are the psalms where David or the other psalmists are pouring out their hearts to God, being honest about the fact that life, at time, stinks! The psalmist has just experienced some trouble, sickness, or the persecution of enemies. He may have some people who hate him. I think the church is greatly impoverished because we don’t mine the lament psalms for truths that are there and the way they can open up new avenues of approaching God in times of great stress and sadness in our lives.

So let’s look at this psalm of lament, because you’re going to need it. You may not need it today, but you’re going to need it soon enough. I want to set up this psalm for you before we look at exactly what David says in this psalm as he goes through a very difficult period in his life.

So here’s a little bit about this psalm. I’ve mentioned that Psalm 1 and 2 are kind of gateway psalms. They set up the rest of the collection of psalms for us. Psalm 1 asks us to examine our lives to make sure that we’re part of the congregation of the righteous. Psalm 2 gives us a macro view of what’s going on in the world, and what God is doing about it. Now we get past the gateway and right into the psalms, and notice what happens. I love what Dale Ralph Davis has written:

You first go through the double doors of the Psalter - Psalms 1 tells you to settle your commitment and Psalm 2 to get a clear view of the kingdom. Then what? You walk into trouble (Psalm 3).

That tells you something, doesn’t it? It doesn’t take very long in the psalms or in life before we find ourselves neck-deep in trouble. That’s the nature of the world, and the psalms are very honest about it.

If you look at the top of the psalm, you find that this is one of 14 psalms that are directly linked to an event in David’s life. It says: “A psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.” A little bit of background: 2 Samuel 15 and 16 tells of the time when David’s own son rose up against him and stole his father’s throne. Absalom became immensely more popular than David, and David had to flee for his life. David’s trusted counselor turned against him. He was brutally mocked and everything was taken away from him. It’s hard to picture a worse moment in David’s life. Not only did he lose everything, but his own son betrayed him. 2 Samuel 15:12 says, “And the conspiracy grew strong, and the people with Absalom kept increasing.”

This is why this is important to us. This psalm gives us a model for how we can pray to God when we are going through the darkest moments of our lives. In this psalm, David is going to give voice to his desperate situation. Then he’s going to show us two things that we can turn to to help us in our darkest moments.

David shows us how to give voice to our suffering.

In verses 1 to 2, David describes his situation honestly to God. He doesn’t pretend that things are okay. There’s no need to pretend with God, by the way. God isn’t dishonored by our honest admission that things aren’t okay. Sometimes Christians have the crazy idea that we have to pretend with God. The psalms teach us the importance of being brutally honest with God about the situation we’re facing. They teach us that it’s okay to come before God and to be honest about our struggles.

Listen to what David writes:

O LORD, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
many are saying of my soul,
there is no salvation for him in God. Selah

So here’s the brutal situation David faces: an abundance of enemies who are rising up against him. Not only does he have a bunch of enemies, but they say that God has no interest in saving him. Remember that this is God’s anointed king. They are saying that God has turned his back on David. You can see why they said this. It sure looked like it. God had anointed David as king, but now it looked as if God had turned his back on David, and the enemies against him were accumulating. They’re moving in for the kill, and they believe that God has abandoned him.

We need to see what David does here. For all intents it looks like God has abandoned David. But David turns directly to the God who supposedly has abandoned him. He doesn’t gloss over his troubles. He pours out his heart to God. “Prayer is the way we slog our way through troubles” (Dale Ralph Davis).

Here is one of the most important lessons from the Psalms. Philip Yancey writes of a Catholic sister who counsels troubled women. They’re displaced homemakers, abused wives, women returning from college after years away. They’re going through anger and hurt. Some spiritual counselors tell them, “Bear it up; keep smiling; suffering makes you strong.” But not the psalms. The Psalms teach them how to express the rage that some try to repress.

They do not rationalize anger away or give abstract advice about pain; rather, they express emotions vividly and loudly, directing their feelings primarily about God. The 150 psalms present a mosaic of spiritual therapy in the process. Doubt, paranoia, giddiness, meanness, delight, hatred, joy, praise, vengefulness, betrayal - you find it all in the Psalms. Such stewing of emotions, which I once saw as hopeless disarray, I now see as a sign of health. From Psalms I have learned that I can rightfully bring to God whatever I feel about him. I need not paper over my own failures and try to clean up my own rottenness; far better to bring those weaknesses to God, who alone has the power to heal. (The Bible Jesus Read)

David shows us in this psalm, as he does in many others, how to give voice to our suffering. He honestly describes in verses 1 to 2 that he has a growing number of enemies, and that it looks to almost everyone that God has turned his back. David teaches us that we can be honest with God about the troubles that we’re facing.

But then David shows us that there are two things about God that we can rely on even in the middle of our suffering.

The first thing about God we need to know in the middle of suffering is that God has not abandoned us.

Do you remember the way that David’s enemies saw things? “There is no salvation for him in God,” they said in verse 2. Well, David knows otherwise. David knew better than to think that God had abandoned him. He says in verses 3-6:

But you, O LORD, are a shield about me,
my glory, and the lifter of my head.
I cried aloud to the LORD,
and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah
I lay down and slept;
I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.
I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around.

Here David demonstrates something that we need to do if we’re going to survive our problems. The person who put it best is Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure:

Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them but they are talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you…The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself…You must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world..That is the essence of the treatment in a nutshell.

That’s exactly what David does. We have emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. We don’t have direct control over our emotions, but we do have control over our thoughts and behaviors. What David does here is to honestly acknowledge his emotions, but then to begin to work on what he knows to be true. He reminds himself of God. Specifically, he reminds himself about four things about God and his character.

God protects. David says, “But you, O LORD, are a shield about me.” A shield is a defensive weapon. If you have a shield, you’re able to deflect the attacks of the enemy. Soldiers would hold a small round shield, big enough to provide protection but small enough to allow movement. But David goes even further. He says that the LORD is a shield about him, not just in front of him, but all around him. David says that God is his complete protection. When we’re under attack, we can remind ourselves that God is our protection. He is our shield.

God is enough. David says that God is his “glory”. What does it mean that God is his glory? David was king. Kings had a glory that nobody else had. They had public dignity, recognition, honor. But now David was on the run, and he had lost his glory. Actually, David says, he hadn’t. He had temporarily lost almost everything, but he never lost his glory, because God, David says, is his glory. We all get meaning from something in life. You can lose your career. You can lose popularity and acclaim. If you get glory from anything other than God, you can and will lose your glory. David says that God is his glory. He’s lost the glory of his kingdom to Absalom, but he has all the glory that he needs in God himself.

God restores. David says that God is the “lifter of his head”. You don’t need this one explained. You know what it means to hang your head. In war, those who were conquered would lay on the ground while the conquerers put a foot on their necks. David says that God has lifted his head again. God has a way of restoring his people even in the middle of impossible situations.

Finally, God is accessible. God answers from his holy hill. David had fled Jerusalem. He’d left the site of the tabernacle. He couldn’t go there to pray and to ask God for help. But David says that his prayers get to God’s holy hill just fine even though he can’t be there. God hears prayers even when we’re nowhere near church. God is accessible no matter where we are.

This is a picture of God that can help us in the middle of life’s difficulties. God protects. God is enough even when we lose everything. God restores. And God is accessible. He’s present to help no matter where we are or what we’re going through.

What’s significant is what happened to David as he remembered all of this. Read verses 5 and 6 again.

I lay down and slept;
I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.
I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around.

Nothing had changed in this situation. Absalom was still out to get him. He was still surrounded by enemies. They still thought they had him beat. David was still in the middle of a huge mess. But in the middle of that mess David said, “I know my God.” We can experience the same thing. We can continue in the middle of our mess and still look at thousands of our enemies and sleep well at night because we know who God is, and that he is in control. David reminds us that God has not abandoned us in the middle of the mess, and that makes all the difference.

There’s one more thing:

The second thing about God we need to know in the middle of suffering is that God will set things right.

Do you know the problem when enemies rise up against us? It often looks like they’re getting away with it. As David wrote this psalm, Absalom was still increasing in popularity. It still looked bad for David. If you asked David for his plan for how we was going to get his kingdom back, he didn’t have a plan. It often looks like this. Someone steals from us; we don’t have a hope of getting that money back. Someone slanders us; they will probably never apologize. Someone betrays us; they often seem to get away with it.

But David sees past the immediate. Look at what he says in verses 7 and 8:

Arise, O LORD!
Save me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
you break the teeth of the wicked.
Salvation belongs to the LORD;
your blessing be on your people! Selah

This sounds harsh at first. But it’s so important that we need to pay careful attention to this. Do you know what happens when there’s no justice, when nobody puts a stop to evil? People take things into their own hands. Vigilante justice. The only way that this is prevented is if we know that there is justice, and that evil will be stopped, and those perpetrating the evil will be held accountable.

Here David says that he knows he doesn’t have to take things into his own hand. Why? Because he knows that God will look after it. David knows that God will take care of all of David’s enemies. Because of this, David is free from having to take matters into his own hands. He leaves the vengeance to God.

One website says this about those who wrong you:

1. Get mad....then get even. It's justice, plain and simple.

2. Revenge is healthy. Don't listen to those mealymouths who tell you otherwise. You're teaching people to behave better. At the same time you're getting icky poisonous feelings out of your system once and for all. What could be healthier?

4. Revenge is excellent self-therapy. It's far cheaper than a therapist and much healthier than pigging out on a box of donuts.

6. Always aim your revenge where it hurts the most. Go right for the jugular.

7. Let your creativity blossom. Don't go for cliches like slashing tires. Yawn. Be original. Enjoy yourself. Give your mark an experience they'll never ever forget.

9. If you have to do something you're not proud of, be sure to cover your tracks well.

David wouldn’t approve of this list, and the Bible doesn’t either. Paul writes in Romans 12:19, “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.’” Do you see that? The reason we don’t have to get revenge is because God will repay. As someone’s said it, “A soft view on hell makes hard people.” When Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Nazis, and shortly before he was hung, someone asked him how it was possible to feel love for such evil people. Bonhoeffer replied, “It is only when God’s wrath and vengeance are hanging as grim realities over the heads of one’s enemies that something of what it means to love and forgive them can touch our hearts.”

Let’s review. We need songs that give voice to our troubles. The psalms help us learn that we can be honest with God even in the middle of our difficulties. This is so important. We need to learn the lessons of these psalms.

This morning you’re invited to come to God just as you are, and to lay out what you’re going through before him. God can handle your honesty. But also gave the courage to preach to yourself. Remind yourself of who God is. Most of all, remind yourself of who you are in Christ. You have a Savior who died to save you, to make you right with God. Remind you that if you have trusted in Christ, you’ve been adopted. You are now God’s own child. You never have to worry about God abandoning you. He has said that he will never leave you and forsake you.

Then see that God is a God who judges. You don’t have to judge your enemies, because God will do a better job of judging evil then we ever could. But look to the cross and see that this is where perfect justice and mercy meet, where God repays evil, but where forgiveness is extended to all those who want it.

When facing crisis, turn to God who has your back and who saves you from your enemies. Let’s pray.

The World That’s Been Promised to the King (Psalm 2)

I don’t know how you got to church today. Some of you drove. Some of you took transit. Some of you walked. I bet nobody arrived here today the way that Ian Morgan Cron arrived to church one day when he was a child. A friend had given his family an old rusty car that could comfortably hold two people. One day they piled seven people into the car on the way to church. As they were driving up a steep hill, hoping they could make it all the way to the top, tragedy struck.

...The seven of us were a nanosecond away from cheering when there was a loud thump, followed by my father yelling...My father’s seat had fallen through the rusted bottom of the car. It was dragging along the pavement, shooting sparks up into the wells of the backseat, threatening to light our socks on fire. My father’s rear end was inches from the ground. The collapse of the seat had shot his legs upward, so that his kneecaps now nearly touched his face, and he was holding down his black bowler lest it be damaged. He looked like a fat kid shoved butt first into a wastepaper basket.

“Pull over, Anne! Pull over!” he demanded...

“Jack, hold on,” she said to my father...

At the bottom of the hill, my mother careened right. An eighth of a mile later, we lurched up in front of the church, more or less in one piece...The seven of us, sweaty and shaken, slowly began peeling ourselves out of the smoking vehicle. It took my brothers several attempts to pull my father out of the car as bemused parishioners gawked and snickered. (Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me)

Nobody arrived to church quite that way, but it sometimes feels like it. Sometimes it feels like we barely make it here, and when we do, our dignity is more or less gone. That’s one of the reasons we’re looking at the Psalms this summer. Psalms teach us how we can have faith in the middle of the mess of life.

Today we come to Psalm 2, the second gateway psalm. If you were here a couple of weeks ago you’ll remember that I said that Psalm 1 is a gateway psalm. There are two checkpoints, so to speak, at the beginning of the psalms.

Psalm 1 deals with the most urgent personal matter: you must know that you’re part of the congregation of the righteous. You need to know where you’re going and what you’re doing. Before you go any further, you need to get this settled. It’s the only way that you’re going to flourish and live well, Psalm 1 says. Psalm 1 takes the camera lens and zooms into your life and asks you to take a close look.

Now we get to Psalm 2. Psalm 2 says that you need to get a big view of things. If you’re to have faith in this messy world, then you need to know where history is going. You must see the whole show; you must understand what God is doing. Psalm 2 zooms back out and gives us a wide-angle view of what’s going on in the world.

We need both psalms. To live well and faithfully, we need to settle the matter of our relationship with God. We need to come to faith in Jesus Christ. But then we also need to see the big picture of what God is doing. I love how Alasdair MacIntyre put it: “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” Psalm 2 helps us see the big story so we can make sense of our places in that bigger story. It’s an important psalm; it’s the psalm that’s quoted most often in the New Testament.

So here’s what this psalm is going to do. It’s going to give us a macro view of the world, and it’s going to answer four questions:

  • What’s wrong with the world?
  • How does God respond?
  • Whom does he send?
  • What should we do?

First question: What’s wrong with this world?

Psalm 2:1-3 says:

Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”

As we speak, rebels are advancing their front lines as they get closer to Tripoli, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's stronghold. A multinational force is assisting with airstrikes and a naval blockade. They’ve created a no-fly zone so that Gaddafi can’t attack the rebel forces. Gaddafi has vowed to "die a martyr" if necessary in his fight against rebels and external forces. You could say that the whole world has risen up against Gaddafi. A State Department official has said, “The guy is getting increasingly lonely, increasingly isolated. His days are numbered. We are confident that his days are numbered.” It’s a war zone, with the whole world rebelling against the reign of this despot.

Psalm 2 presents us with this kind of picture. The whole world is united in rebellion, except not against a despot like Gaddafi, but against God. The psalmist knew that God had promised to bless the world through Israel. Their God, Yahweh, was not some tribal god, but God of all the earth, and God’s purposes for Israel and Israel’s king were global. There’s only one problem. Not everyone was excited about this plan. Psalm 2 pictures a gathering of the world’s most powerful leaders. They’ve decided they’ve had enough. They’re taking their stand (v.2) which is a phrase that means they’re preparing for battle. They want nothing to do with Yahweh or the nation of Israel. They are in open rebellion against God and his people. To rebel against God’s king is to rebel against God himself.

So this presents a very real problem. This psalm pulls back the curtain and shows us a world that’s in open rebellion against God. You just have to look around to see that this is a very accurate description of what’s going on today, thousands of years after this psalm was written. Things haven’t changed. It’s true at a micro level, and it’s also true at a macro level. Ever since Genesis 3 we’ve been chafing at God’s rule over this world and doing everything we can to live as if we’re in charge.

In fact, some contemporary philosophers have admitted that this is at least part of the reason why they’re not so excited about God. Thomas Nagel, an atheist who authored a popular introduction to philosophy titled What Does It All Mean? wrote: "I want atheism to be true ... It isn't just that I don't believe in God, and, naturally, hope that I'm right about my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that." The 20th-century ethics philosopher Mortimer Adler (who was baptized quietly at age 81) confessed to rejecting religious commitment for most of his life because it "would require a radical change in my way of life, a basic alteration in the direction of my day-to-day choices as well as in the ultimate objectives to be sought or hoped for.” You could repeat this over and over. This world is set in opposition to God’s rule. We want nothing to do with God. We would much rather be in charge ourselves.

By the way, this is one reason why sin is so serious. We sometimes think, “What’s the big deal about one little sin?” The reason sin is so serious is because it’s not just a sin - a lie or a thought. Every sin is an act of treason against God. It’s shaking our fist at God and saying, “I choose to rebel against you and your rule. I will do it my way, thanks.” John MacArthur puts it this way: Every sin is “an act of treason against the Sovereign lawgiver and judge of the universe.”

This helps us understand what’s wrong with us and with the world. What’s wrong with us? We have treasonous hearts. We are natural-born rebels against God and his rule, every one of us. What’s wrong with this world? We live in a world in which the nations rage and the people plot against God. We live in the middle of a war zone.

That’s what’s wrong with the world. The world is in open rebellion against God and his rule. It’s also what’s wrong with us. We are rebels ourselves. So here’s the second question.

Second question: How does God respond?

In verses 4-5 we see God’s response to this open rebellion against him:

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury...

So how does God respond to this situation? What is God doing about this problem of the world rebelling against him? If you want to get personal, what is he doing about us? We’re rebels too, so what’s God doing?

Verse 4 gives us God’s response: God laughs.

You get the picture? God is not fazed! The mighty politicians, the dictators in their military fatigues, the terrorists with their bomb loads strapped to their backs - God is unimpressed. If you have imbibed a western sentimental view of God as the great soupy softie in the sky, then you will not understand this picture of verse 4. In fact, it will likely ‘offend’ you. But the psalm implies that nations may strut out their nuclear bombs - it only convulses the Almighty in laughter! To think that a few swaggering sovereigns could destroy God’s kingdom with such trifles! After you hear the kings in verse 3, you need to see this picture of the laughing God in verse 4, in order to get re-focused on the truth. (David Ralph Davis)

By the way, this gives me tremendous comfort. God is not wringing his hands in heaven trying to figure out what to do. He’s not sweating it out on the other side of the cosmic chessboard trying to avoid a checkmate. He’s firmly in control. He laughs at our attempts to rebel against him. He is not fazed by this world’s rebellion against him. He is very much in control.

But then there is a second response, in verses 5 and 6. God speaks against them in wrath; he terrifies them in his fury. This is a far scarier picture. I read an interview this past week with pastor and author Francis Chan. He just came out with a book called Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity, and the Things We Made Up. He’s studied Scripture to really see what it says about God’s judgment. He said this about what Jesus taught about judgment:

As I reread the Gospel passages, Jesus' words are much harsher than I remember. There's a tone in some of the things that he said that are really difficult to stomach, and he says things in a way that I would not have.

Because we in America read certain passages over and over to the neglect of others, we start to believe that Jesus had a friendly tone all the time. And that there isn't any wrath or anger or judgment. When you read it all like you are reading it for the first time, you walk away going, "Wow, he was pretty hardcore."

Here's what I had to repent of: I had felt the need to soften a lot of Jesus' statements, because in my arrogance I think, "Okay Jesus, I'm not going to say that like that. Trust me, people will like you more and be more willing to accept you if I say it like this." Obviously I've never said that to God. But that's the attitude I've taken, and it made me sick. Who in the heck do I think I am? To think that I can make God more palatable or attractive if I try and change the tone in which he says some things. I know people say, "Well it's just cultural this or that." That's garbage. People back then had a much deeper reverence for God than we do. Especially the religious community. Yet it's to those people whom he speaks so harshly.

What in the world would he say to us today? I don't think it'd be a softer message. I had to come before God and say, "Lord I feel sick." And I confessed to Mark [Beuving, who edited the book] and Preston [Sprinkle, the coauthor] as we were working on the book, "I confess to you guys, I confess to the church, I know I have backed away from certain things because of my arrogance. I thought I could attract more people to Jesus by hiding certain things about him." I had to confess my arrogance.

Let’s avoid this mistake - one that I’ve made as well. Let’s let God speak for himself. Psalm 2:5 says, “Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury...” We do not want to be on the receiving end of God’s wrath and fury. The Bible has plenty to say about this topic right from the beginning. To rebel against God is to incite his wrath and fury.

This creates a big problem for us as well, by the way. When Paul wrote to the Romans, he spent the first three chapters establishing one point: every single person, regardless of religious background (Jew or Gentile), is under the judgement of God. We are all rebels. Both Jews and Greeks, he writes, are under sin, and therefore under judgment. This is a serious problem because God will “he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury.”

But there’s more. We’ve seen what’s wrong with the world: it’s in rebellion against God. We’ve seen God’s response: God laughs, and he is angry.

Third question: Whom does he send?

Look at verses 6-9. Verse 6 is God speaking:

“As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”

Verses 7 to 9 the King speaks at his coronation:

I will tell of the decree:

The LORD said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.”

Now, you need to understand that this psalm could have ended in verse 5 with God’s wrath and fury. That would be a pretty depressing way to end the psalm. In fact, that’s the way that things ended up with the angels who rebelled against God. God laughed at their rebellion and judged them. End of story. That’s how it could have ended with us as well.

But God responds to the world’s rebellion against him by installing a King. Verse 6 speaks of the Davidic kingdom, one that will rule from Zion. Verses 7 to 9 describe this King’s reign in three ways:

  • It’s legitimate - The King is God’s own Son. In 2 Samuel 7:14, God promised to raise up David’s offspring, and he told David, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.” A king has legitimacy because of the bloodlines. Here this psalm says that the promised King will have every right to rule because he is God’s own Son.
  • It’s worldwide - Verse 8 says, “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” Zion then was a puny 11 acres of real estate on the southern edge of Jerusalem. 11 acres isn’t very big. Zion was a “tiny, banana-shaped hill in a provincial backwater called Judah” (Dale Ralph Davis). But God says that the King who reigns in Zion will rule over the whole world. It will be an international, worldwide kingdom.
  • It’s forceful - Verse 9 says, “You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.” This rule, God says, will be a forceful one. Because this Kingdom is present in a world that’s in open rebellion against God, this rule must be a powerful one.

God responds to this rebellion with laughter and wrath. But he also responds by appointing a King with worldwide sway and overwhelming force. That is what is happening in this world. It is what God is doing in this world.

Who is this King? On one level, it’s those descendants of David who sat on the royal throne in Jerusalem. But their kingdom ended long ago. The nations of Israel and Judah were conquered and exiled. If you go to Jerusalem today, you will not find a descendent of David sitting on the throne.

I mentioned earlier on that Psalm 2 is the psalm that is quoted most often in the New Testament. There’s a reason. This psalm points to a greater King. In Mark 1:11, God said to Jesus at the start of his ministry, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” In Hebrews 1:5 we read that this psalm ultimately applies to Jesus. In Acts 4, as the early Christians faced persecution, they quoted this psalm as a description of the rebellion against God in the context of a King with worldwide sway and overwhelming force.

Jesus is the King to whom this psalm ultimately points. This is the big picture of the world: it is in open rebellion against God. God is responding with laughter and anger. But he also responds by sending his Son Jesus as King of the world, one who rules the entire world with overwhelming force. His is a Kingdom that will never end. The world -this rebellious world - has been promised to a King.

One last question: What should we do?

Verses 10 to 12 say:

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

It’s so important to see the ending to this psalm. God has given us a bird’s-eye view of history this morning. This is the history of the world in 12 verses. But it’s not meant to be just a history lesson. This psalm ends with an invitation. The psalmist ends by speaking to the kings and rulers described in verse 2. They’re given an opportunity for mercy. He calls on them to recognize reality and to be wise, to come to their senses. They’re invited to kiss the Son. Kissing is a sign of homage. They’re invited to become servants and to submit to the reign of this king, to totally and completely submit to him.

The choice is clear for rebels. Verse 12 couldn’t make it any clearer. Submit to him. Pay homage to him. If you do, it says at the end of verse 12, you’ll be blessed as you take refuge in him. I love how verses 11 puts it: rejoice with trembling. There’s a sense of joy in submitting to the King, but it’s a joy tempered with a holy fear of God. That’s the first choice. Or: refuse to submit. Continue as a rebel. If you do, his wrath will be kindled. You will face the wrath and fury we read about in verse 5. We’ll be broken with the rod of iron and be dashed in pieces, as verse 9 says. Those are the only two options.

That’s the message of this psalm. The totality of this world can be summed up in a sentence: The whole world has been promised to the Messiah. Live accordingly.

How do we live accordingly?

Two things.

One: You need to take the invitation of this psalm very seriously. The message is one of warning: you are a rebel, and Jesus, the King, will deal with rebels. But there’s an invitation to submit to Jesus. The invitation is one that stands. Jesus in mercy offers forgiveness and mercy to all who want to find refuge in him. There’s a warning and an invitation in this psalm. Take the invitation while the King still offers his mercy. Jesus is the King who dies to extend mercy to rebels; receive mercy while he still offers it freely.

Two: We live in the middle of rebel activity. When you live in the middle of rebels, you begin to think that things are looking pretty bad for the other side. We need to see from this psalm that God is very much in control. I think this psalm was written, at least in part, to let God’s people know that God is in control. All is well with this world. We can go to sleep at night knowing that this world has been promised to the King, and he is in control.

I told you how Ian Morgan Cron arrived at church with his father. Sometimes it seems we arrive here in pretty much the same condition: crammed in way too tight, falling, so to speak, through the bottom of the car. That’s life. But we come this morning to Psalm 2 this morning, and it tells us that this rebel world has been promised to the King, so live accordingly. Submit to the King, and rest well knowing that his reign is sure. Let’s pray.

The Congregation of the Righteous (Psalm 1)

This morning we’re beginning a fairly brief look at a small portion of Scripture that’s widely appreciated, but I’ve never done much preaching on it. Over the summer, I’m going to be looking at some of the psalms. In particular, I’ll be looking with you at the first few psalms. We’ll probably only have time to look at the first seven or eight if all goes well.

One of the reasons I want to look at the psalms with you is because they’re so important. Abraham Lincoln said of the Psalms: “They are the best. I find something in them for every day of the year.” Martin Luther called it “the Bible in miniature.” It’s the Bible’s longest book. It’s more quoted in the New Testament than any other Old Testament book. It’s probably the most popular book in the Old Testament, if not the whole Bible.

But that’s not the only reason I want to look at them with you. Most of the Bible contains teaching about God, or words of God to us. The Psalms are primarily human words to God or about God, rather than God’s words for us. However, they are also God’s word to us. Psalms provide a model for us. They teach us how to praise God, how to relate honestly to him, and how to reflect on what he has done for us. They invite us to enter into the experience of the psalmist. They address the mind through the heart. They cover every sort of experience and emotion we could have: praise, thanksgiving, but also doubt, depression and despair. It’s an incredibly valuable part of the Bible that helps us understand how we can encounter God in the middle of the mess of life. We need to know how to relate to God not just in the good times, but in every type of circumstance. The Psalms are going to help us with this.

Today, in particular, I want to look at Psalm 1. It’s hard to know where to begin with the Psalms because there are 150 of them. You could even break the Psalms down into sections. For instance, there are five books within the book of Psalms. Book one is considered to be Psalms 1 to 41. They’re all on different kinds of topics and themes. You could begin anywhere.

It’s important, though, for us to look at Psalm 1 first, because Psalm 1 is kind of a gateway to the rest of the Psalms. It’s not just randomly selected as Psalm 1; it’s put first because it’s a great introduction to everything that follows. In fact, if you were to open a handwritten medieval manuscript of the Psalms, chances are that you would discover this psalm - the first - written in ink without any number. It’s meant to be an introduction to the whole Psalter rather than just another psalm.

If you go to the airport, you can hang out anywhere you’d like in the concourses. But eventually you will reach a checkpoint. To go any further, you need to have pass through. They check your documentation and make sure that you belong on the other side of that gate. You either have to be traveling, or you need to be an employee of the airport. That’s what the psalmist is doing here. You are invited to join the psalmist on the other side of Psalm 1. But before you get there, you need to pass through the checkpoint here. The psalmist raises a matter of supreme importance. He wants to be as clear as possible before we go any further.

Here’s the message that he’s going to give us in this first psalm: Nothing is more important than belonging to the congregation of the righteous. Before you can talk about the Lord as your shepherd (Psalm 23), or about forgiveness (Psalm 51), worship (Psalm 100), or the mercies of God (Psalm 103), you need to start here. You need to make sure that you belong to the congregation of the righteous.

And to make his point, the psalmist is going to answer three implied questions in this psalm. So remember his point: Nothing is more important than belonging to the congregation of the righteous. Here are the implied questions he’s going to answer. One: what does it look like to belong to the congregation of the righteous? Two: what are the results of living this way? Three: what is the final destiny of those who live in the congregation of the righteous?

First question: What does it look like to belong to the congregation of the righteous?

Psalm 1:1-2 says:

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.

So here we begin with a description of what it looks like to belong to the congregation of the righteous. I want you to notice three things about this description.

The first is the very first word of the psalm: blessed. It’s one of those words you hear mainly in church or when someone sneezes. Part of the problem when you hear a word like blessed is that you don’t really know if it’s something that you want for yourself. We have a church near our house, and sometimes you see men and women wearing black robes walking around the neighborhood. Is that what it means to be blessed - to live in a church and wear black robes all day? It reminds me of the cartoon. Someone asks a man, “Are you a pastor?” and he replies, “No, I just look this way because I’m not feeling well today.” That’s the very thing that most of us would like to avoid. We’re really not sure that we want to be blessed, so right away we’re kind of wondering whether this is a good thing or not.

But we need to understand that this isn’t what the word blessed means here. The word really could be translated, “Oh, the happiness…” It’s about the joy that comes from God-given security and prosperity. It’s happiness that comes from well-being and rightness. He is the man or woman who enjoys God’s blessing. The Psalmist is saying that there is a path to happiness that is unique and that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s found in belonging to the congregation of the righteous, of knowing God’s smile upon your life. When you have this blessedness, you don’t need to go looking anywhere else. You have God’s smile; that is enough. So that’s the first thing you notice here. Joining the congregation of the righteous isn’t sentencing yourself to misery; it’s actually the path to true happiness.

Nobody’s captured this better, by the way, than John Piper. He’s coined a term: “Christian hedonist.” A hedonist is someone who pursues pleasure. You may be surprised by this, but Piper argues that we all should be pleasure-seekers. The only thing is, we need to realize that the true path to pleasure-seeking is to join the congregation of the righteous and to seek the blessing that comes from God. As the philosopher Blaise Pascal put it:

There once was in man a true happiness of which now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present. But these all are inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God himself.

So the psalmist is going to describe to us the path to true happiness, to true satisfaction and joy. Someone’s said, “The psalmist saith more to the point about true happiness in this short Psalm than any one of the philosophers, or all of them put together; they did but beat the bush, God hath here put the bird into our hand” (John Trapp).

Then notice the negative picture of what those in the congregation of the righteous do not do. They don’t walk in the counsel of the wicked; they don’t stand in the way of sinners; they don’t sit in the seat of scoffers. In other words, the righteous person is different. Many of us, I’m sure, watched the Stanley Cup finals a couple of weeks ago. You noticed the same thing that I did: the teams generally played better on their own ice than they did in the other team’s rink. A 2011 Sports Illustrated article found:

Home field advantage is no myth. Indisputably, it exists …. Across all sports and at all levels, from Japanese baseball to Brazilian soccer to the NFL, the team hosting a game wins more often than not.

You may be surprised why this is true. It’s not just the impact on team performance. The article says it’s the influence of the crowd on the referees:

Officials' bias is the most significant contribution to home field advantage. In short, the refs don't like to get booed. So when the game gets close, they call fewer fouls or penalties against the home team; or they call more strikes against visiting batters. Larger and louder fans really do influence the calls from the officials. The refs naturally (and often unconsciously) respond to the pressure from the crowd. Then they try to please the angry fans and make the calls that will lessen the pain of crowd disapproval. In the end, the refs' people-pleasing response can have an impact on the final result of the game.

Do you notice that? It’s not the cheers of the home crowd that makes a team do better. It’s the boos of the crowd that make a refs afraid to make a bad call. The psalmist notices the same thing. He says that the more we play on the other team’s ice, the worse it’s going to go for us. It’s usually a subtle thing. The more we’re taking our cues from people who don’t know and love God, the more we’ll be playing so that we don’t here their boos. It’s not usually an obvious thing. As Dale Ralph Davis says:

It may come in a rather bump-a-long fashion from teachers or friends or family - our spouses; it simply suggests that if you don’t think this way, you will not be thought sharp; if you don’t act this way, you will not be ‘cool’; if you don’t laugh at what we mock, we don’t want any part of you. Verse 1 is not merely description but warning, a sort of Old Testament Romans 12:2: ‘Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould’ (Phillips).

It reminds me of the 106-year-old who was asked what she likes about her age. She replied: no peer pressure. The psalmist acknowledges that we’re all taking our cues from somewhere; he says that if you’re part of the congregation of the righteous, you’re not taking your cues from people who aren’t living for God.

So where are you taking your cues if you belong to the congregation of the righteous? The cue is actually from delight, in verse 3. This is important. It’s not a grin-and-bear-it type of approach. It’s again a delight. You know what it’s like to choose something not out of willpower but delight. I was out the other night with a friend. I hadn’t seen Charlene all day. As I dropped him off, he invited me to come into his house for a while. I had two alternatives: to visit with my friend, which would have been an ok thing to do; or to go home and see my wife and kids, which would have been an awesome thing to do. I made the choice that gave me the most joy: I said thanks, but I’d better get going. I didn’t do it out of obligation; I did it out of joy. That’s what the psalmist is saying here.

What leads him to renounce all the ‘appeals’ of verse 1? To turn and walk away from it all? The pursuit of pleasure! He does it because he cares more for his pleasure than for his pressures! ‘But his delight…’ Note that last word. You are going to take your signals from somewhere, and he takes his from the torah of Yahweh rather than from the counsel of the wicked. (Dale Ralph Davis)

That’s what it means. To belong to the congregation of the righteous involves finding delight and joy in God’s Word. It’s not an obligation; it’s a continual source of delight. It’s a regular and consistent part of our life: we meditate on it day and night. J.I. Packer defines meditation:

Meditation is the activity of calling to mind, thinking over, dwelling on, and applying to oneself the various things one knows about the works and ways and purpose and promises of God.

It is an activity of holy thought, consciously performed in the presence of God, under the eye of God, by the help of God, as a means of communication with God.

Its purpose is to clear one's mental and spiritual vision of God, and to let his truth make its full and proper impact on one's mind and heart.

It is a matter of talking to oneself about God and oneself.

It is, indeed, often a matter of arguing with oneself, reasoning oneself out of moods of doubt and unbelief into a clear apprehension of God's power and grace.

That’s what we do when we belong to the congregation of the righteous. We find our happiness in God; we take our cues from him and from his Word rather than from the wicked; we continually apply his Word to all of our lives.

Second question: What are the results?

What does it look like when we do this? Verses 3-4 say:

He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

You know that the best way to communicate something is often through a picture. You can describe something, but it helps to see it. Here the psalmist gives us two pictures. The first picture is of those who belong to the congregation of the righteous. The second picture is of those who belong to the congregation of the wicked.

First: what does it look like to belong to the congregation of the righteous? When the psalmist wrote this, people knew how hard it was to grow a tree. The climate in Israel was dry. The only way that something like a tree could thrive is if it had a constant supply of water. Vegetation flourished around natural streams or canals. So he gives us a picture here of a tree that’s planted close to the banks of a river. The roots reach down and draw nourishment from the water. That is a great picture, the psalmist says, of the person who belongs to the congregation of the righteous. He or she is like that tree, drawing nourishment from God himself. You could capture the picture here in two words: stability and vitality. Stability, because the tree is planted securely. It’s healthy and it’s not going anywhere. We live in an old neighborhood. Some of the trees were there before any houses were around, and some of those trees are probably going to be there after the houses are torn down. That’s stability. But there’s also vitality: fruitfulness, leaves that don’t wither; prosperity. The psalmist says that those in the congregation of the righteous have a stability and a vitality that you can’t find anywhere else.

It’s a contrast, by the way, to what the life of the wicked looks like. The picture there is of chaff. If you had some grain back then, you’d want to separate the lightweight and useless chaff - the husk of grain. You’d put the what on the floor. Horses would tread on it and separate the grain from the husks. You’d then take a fork or shovel and throw the grain into the air. The grain is heavier, so it would fall to the ground. The useless chaff would be blown away with the wind. The psalmist says that this is what it’s like to belong to the congregation of the wicked. If you are part of the wicked, then you’re not characterized by stability and vitality. You’re characterized instead by dry, dusty, windblown impermanence. You could use the words rootlessness and ruin.

You don’t always see this. Sometimes it doesn’t look this way. This, of course, doesn’t mean that those in the congregation of the righteous never have problems. They do. But it means that there’s a stability and vitality in the lives of those who have found their joy in God that you can’t find anywhere else. It reminds me of the book of Ecclesiastes, which we studied earlier this year. Apart from God, there’s impermanence. I can take you to believers who are in their 70s and 80s - some of them are here - and who have been through very trying times, but they are stable and vital because their roots have stayed connected to the source of nourishment that has sustained them their entire lives.

That’s what it looks like to belong to the congregation of the righteous: to take our cues from God rather than the wicked, and to delight in his Word. And that’s what the results are: stability and vitality. There’s one more question.

Third question: What is their destiny?

You may have heard that they came out with a study this week. Harvard University researchers found that the type of foods we choose to eat may have a bigger impact on weight control than portion sizes. They found that if you eat certain types of foods, even in small quantities, you will gain weight over time. For instance, for every additional daily serving of potatoes people ate, they gained more than 1 1/4 pounds over a four-year period. There is a trajectory to these things. Over time, you will see that present decisions lead to long-term results.

Here’s what we see in this passage. There are long-term implications to whether you are part of the congregation of the righteous, or whether you join the wicked. Verses 5 and 6 say:

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.

This is why this psalm is so serious. This is not some game we are playing. The psalm asks us to consider what we will do when the end comes.

As you know, William and Kate are in Canada this week. There are all kinds of preparations to get ready for them. You can bet that a host of people right now are working hard to get everything ready so that when the moment comes, every event will be ready.

The psalmist says that some will not be ready for the time when the judgment comes. It’s a scary picture for the wicked. They will have no justification (they won’t stand); they won’t have any communion with those who are righteous; nor will they remain (they will perish). In contrast, God knows the way of the righteous. This is ongoing. It doesn’t mean that God just has some knowledge of the righteous. He continues to know them; he sees every step they take, every twist and turn. It means that God is intimately and personally concerned with the steps that they take.

That is why the psalmist begins here. There is nothing more important than understanding that before you can enter into the rest of the psalter, you know where you stand. There are really only two ways to live. There’s no middle ground. You can choose to be blessed by taking your cues from God and delighting in him; if so you’ll have stability and vitality, and God will know you. Or you can choose the path of the wicked, which is choosing rootlessness and death and judgment. It’s that stark. That’s where the psalms begin.

So let’s close here by asking you to examine your life. There’s nothing more important. Nothing is more important than belonging to the congregation of the righteous. But then I want to remind you that in all of history there has only ever been one person who has met the ideal of the godly person represented in the psalm. This is good news for us. The reality is that the best among us falls short. The good news is that we have a Savior who can transform us into the type of people we read about in this psalm. He is able to take us regardless of our past and forgive us of our sins, and transform us so that we can be people who delight in God’s Word and who are planted like these trees. I invite you this morning to join the congregation of the righteous - to discover the joy that comes as we enter into the psalter. Nothing, the psalmist says, is more important than belonging to the congregation of the righteous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Assumption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Obligation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three questions:

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

Let's pray.

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

How to Fight (Jude 1:17-25)

Some of you, like me, can remember when the seatbelt law came into effect. Some people had a hard time accepting the law that you have to wear seatbelts. One man, a New Zealander named Ivan Segedin took it to an extreme. The police ticketed him 32 times over five years for failing to use his seat belt. Even though this was costing him big money, he refused to buckle up.

Finally, instead of obeying the law, the man decided to rely on deception. He made a fake seat belt that would hang over his shoulder and make it appear that he was wearing a seat belt when he wasn’t. His trick worked. He didn’t get anymore tickets. But then he had a head-on collision. He was thrown forward onto the steering wheel and killed. His fake seat belt couldn’t save him.

If there’s a moral to this story, it’s this: When tested, what’s fake won’t save you.

We’ve been looking at the book of Jude. Jude wanted to write a letter to the church about our common salvation. He wanted to major on what’s real about our faith: the story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who became man, and who died for our sins and rose to give us new life. But Jude knew there was a problem. He’s writing to a church that has fake seatbelts in use. He’s writing to a church that’s left this common salvation, this faith once for all delivered to the saints, and has instead substituted fake teaching. If you haven’t been here, I hope you’ll take a chance to read the entire book. Jude’s explained why this is a problem we need to be concerned about.

By the way, this is not just a problem for them. Charles Colson, president of Prison Fellowship, says, “Most Christians do not understand what they believe, why they believe it, and why it matters.” For two years, Colson asked mature believers to name the fundamentals of the faith. Most of them, he says, looked surprised and perplexed. They came up with a short list. Colson has stopped in the middle of some of his speeches, and asked the audience, “What is Christianity anyway?” At one church in the Bible belt, there was silence for what seemed to be a full minute before three or four painful answers. Colson concludes, “Our ignorance is crippling us.”

Remember: when tested, what’s fake won’t save you. So today we come to the end of Jude. Jude has been explaining why it’s so important that we don’t accept false teachings. But Jude doesn’t spend all of his time condemning false teachers. Today he’s explaining to us how we can respond to false teachings. He says we need to take three steps to hold on to what’s real. Here’s the first:

1. Don’t be surprised by false teachers.

Throughout this letter, you get the impression that Jude is not conveying new information. He’s reminding us of something. For instance, in verse 5 we read: “I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it…” (Jude 1:5). Then we read in verses 17-19:

But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” (Jude 1:17-19)

What he’s saying is that we need to remember that this is to be expected. Don’t be surprised. We have been adequately warned. For instance:

I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. (Acts 20:29-30)

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons… (1 Timothy 4:1)

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. (2 Timothy 3:1)

I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. (2 Peter 3:3)

All throughout the New Testament, we’re warned that in the last days - the days between Jesus’ death and resurrection and his coming again - false teachers and scoffers will periodically appear. It is expected. Not only that, but they won’t come from out there. They will arise from within the church. Scripture consistently warns us to expect this and to guard against it, because it’s going to happen. Jude says: don’t let it surprise you.

The other day I was at home when I heard someone at the door. I had just made myself very comfortable, which is usually when I hear someone knock at the door. So I got up and grumbled and opened the door to see who was there. I didn’t recognize him at first, which made me squirm when he kind of grunted at me and pushed past me to enter the house before I invited him in. He was already in my house when I remembered who he is, and that Charlene had told me he was coming at that very time. If I was smart I would have called to remembrance that he was expected, and that he was going to come into my house whether I invited him in or not.

Jude is saying something similar. False teaching is coming whether you’re prepared for it or not. You can get comfortable and be unprepared when it comes. But if you’re smart, you’ll remember that you’ve been told to expect it, and you’ll be prepared to deal with it when it comes. Don’t be surprised, he says, by false teaching.

2. Keep yourselves in God’s love.

This is fascinating. How should we respond when the false teachers come? We know they’re coming. Do we go on the defensive, building moats and walls so that the false teachers can’t get in? Do you go on the offensive, attacking at the first sign of false teaching? There is room for this, but the first thing he says is this: keep yourselves in the love of God. Secure your own spiritual position. Before you can address the false teachers or the false teaching, make sure that you are secure. He writes:

But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. (Jude 1:20-21 ESV)

I want you to notice a few things here.

First, there’s only one command here: “keep yourselves in the love of God.” He then describes some steps we can take in order to keep ourselves in the love of God: building ourselves up in our most holy faith; praying in the Holy Spirit; waiting for Christ’s return. We’re to do these things in order to keep ourselves in God’s love. By the way, it’s a good description of some of the things that we need to build into our lives if we’re going to keep ourselves in God’s love. We do well to devote ourselves to growth in the faith, to prayer, and to live in light of Christ’s return.

Second, this is not a command to individuals; it’s a command to a church. He doesn’t say to keep yourself in the love of God; he says to keep yourselves. I need this reminder. We don’t do this alone. We are responsible to do this together. One of our main purposes as a church is to keep ourselves in the love of Christ.

There’s one more thing I want you to notice. Jude addresses his letter in verse 1 to “To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ.” If you are a Christian, you are somebody who’s called, and who’s kept for Jesus Christ. You’re being guarded and kept by and for Jesus Christ. But here in verse 21 he says, “keep yourselves in the love of God.” Which is it? Are we kept, or do we keep ourselves? Yes. God has done everything we need in the Christian life; we need to respond. God keeps us; we keep ourselves in what God has done for us in Christ. It’s a beautiful picture of the Christian life. God has done it all: we need to keep ourselves firmly planted in what God has done.

What he’s saying, essentially, is to keep yourself anchored to how God has loved you in Jesus Christ. “Moving ahead in the Christian life often involves looking to the past…The foundation must be secure before the building can go up. We can never grow away from our roots; we can only grow through them” (Douglas Moo). The best thing we can do in a world of fakes is to make sure that we have what is real. The best antidote to false teaching is for us to continually be keeping ourselves in God’s love, to continually be growing into the truth. So don’t be surprised; secondly, keep yourselves in God’s love.

3. Reach out to those who are going astray.

Finally, Jude gets to how to respond to the false teachers and those who are being led astray by them. He’s spoken honestly and directly about the danger. Having been reminded to expect that false teachers will come, and having been encouraged to keep ourselves in God’s love, Jude now tells us what we are to do with the false teachers. He divides them into three groups and says:

And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh. (Jude 1:22-23)

There are three groups we need to be concerned with:

First, he addresses those who doubt. He’s probably talking about some in the church who have started to be swayed by the false teaching. They’re wavering in their commitment to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. They have doubts about the Bible, about the Christian faith. They have questions. They want to know if the Bible is true, if we can trust what we’ve received. Jude says: have mercy on these people. Be helpful to them. Build relationships with them. Your relationship with them should be characterized by mercy. I’m sure you can think of people who fit into this category. You have the opportunity to invest in their lives if you have mercy on those who doubt.

Second, he addresses a second group. He says, “save others by snatching them out of the fire.” These people, it would seem, have gone further down the road with the false teachers. They’re in danger of judgment, characterized by fire. Some have been so influenced by false teaching, Jude is saying, that they are teetering on the edge of hell. We need to snatch them and save them before it’s too late.

When we encounter someone who has departed the faith, we can’t just give up on them. God does restore people. One pastor had a friend who walked away from the Christian faith and began living a very immoral lifestyle. He went and visited his friend. Afterwards he was so drained that afterwards he pulled out this verse and with tears in his eyes reminded himself that God still does save wayward sinners, and that his counsel still might bear fruit in his friend’s life. Jude calls us to do this. When people walk away from the faith, they’re in danger of judgment. Contend for them. Save them by snatching them out of the fire.

Then there’s one final group. He says, “to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.” By the strength of the language it seems like Jude is talking about the false teachers themselves. They’ve abandoned themselves to false teaching, but they’re not beyond redemption. Jude says to show mercy to them. Pray for them. Treat them kindly. But also be cautious. Be on guard. He talks about the garment stained by flesh. He’s talking about the clothing worn closest to the body. This is pretty graphic. He’s talking, in essence, about clothing that’s been stained with human waste. Show mercy to them, he says, but be cautious. As one person put it:

One is working on the edge of the fire, so to speak. Not only are those being rescued at risk, but the rescuers are endangering themselves. Sin is deceitful enough that those trying to help others could themselves get trapped. That is no reason not to “show mercy,” but every reason to have fear. (Peter H. Davids)

When responding to false teaching, you need to do some triage. Your response will differ depending on which type of person you’re dealing with. Reach out to those who are going astray, but be wise in how you do so. Pay attention to the danger that you could be in as you reach out to those who are going astray.

We really need this book. We need this because he’s addressing an ongoing problem. We will face the same issue that Jude addresses. We need to be able to recognize false teaching, and to know how to respond. Today he’s reminded us how we are to respond to false teaching. Don’t be surprised. Secure your own position by keeping yourselves in God’s love. And then reach out to those who are going astray. This, Jude says, is how we’re to respond when we encounter false teaching.

Let me remind you why this is so important. We can’t afford the luxury of fake seatbelts. Remember: when tested, what’s fake won’t save you. We need what’s real. We need the real gospel, but we also need to know what to do when we encounter what’s false.

What I love about Jude is that he finishes by tethering us to God. At the end of the book he reminds us that, although we have a role to play, our hope is not in our ability to hold on to God, but in God’s ability to hold on to us. At the end Jude reminds us that although we have every reason to doubt ourselves, we have no reason to doubt the one in whose love we are kept. So Jude closes with a benediction that tells us that God accomplishes for us, and what we offer him in response.

First, what God accomplishes for us: “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy…” Then, what we offer to God in response: “…be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” Here we have, in the middle of the danger that we too could stumble, the assurance that God is able to keep us from stumbling. We have assurance that God is guarding us. As Paul said: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

We face a danger, and the danger is real. When tested, what’s fake won’t save you. But there is someone who’s real, and when he grabs on to you you’re safe forever.

What’s the Big Deal? (Jude 5-16)

I woke up a couple of weeks ago with tingling in my left arm. I was thinking that it was probably nothing. I slept on it funny or something. But I’ve heard of people who ignore signs like this. I quickly checked Google, that source of reliable medical knowledge. It said:

Is your left arm tingling? Do not neglect the sign! Tingling in left arm may be a warning sign of something serious, therefore, is not worth neglecting…

Following are some possible causes for tingling in left arm and hand.

When the left arm or hand tingles, and at the same time if you experience pain in your jaw as well as chest, it is a major indication of an oncoming heart attack. You are advised to immediately rush to the doctor.

Left arm tingling can also be a stroke symptom. Stroke is a medical condition in which the brain activity ceases due to insufficient supply of blood to the brain.

Just to be safe, I called my doctor. My doctor told me to get to the hospital emergency room immediately. So, I spent the rest of the day waiting to find out that the tingling in my arm was not caused by anything serious. But I was told that it’s very good that I took the warning signs seriously.

It is very easy to ignore warning signs like a tingling arm, and not realize that the tingling could be a sign that something very dangerous is happening. Tingling may only be tingling, but it could also be a sign of something much worse.

This morning we’re looking at a book in the Bible called Jude. It’s the second-last book in the Bible, located right before the book of Revelation. And Jude has told us that there’s something tingling, something that’s a problem that needs to be addressed. Jude says:

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 3-4)

Here’s the problem. Just like I’m tempted to say, “What’s wrong with a little tingling?” the church was tempted to say “What’s wrong with a little false teaching?” Picture that somebody you know and like starts teaching something that you think is wrong. It would be easy to ignore. You could say:

  • She’s really nice. I mean, how can you criticize someone who does so much and who has such a good heart?
  • Who am I to judge? I’m sure that my theology is off at some points. It would be arrogant to suggest that their position is wrong.
  • Why waste time arguing over theology? There are much more important things we should be worried about, like the poor and the victims of tornados.

But Jude writes to say: Don’t ignore the tingling! The implied question he’s answering in this passage is, “What’s wrong with a little false teaching?” I mean, who really cares about fighting over what we believe? And Jude answers with three reasons why we can’t ignore false teaching. He’s not talking about minor differences, by the way. He’s talking about major departures from “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” And he says that there are three reasons that we should care about this.

He’s writing this because we are tempted to say it doesn’t matter. We’re tempted to turn a blind eye to this issue and pretend that nothing is wrong. Jude gives us three reasons why it matters.

Here’s the first reason:

False teachers are rebels against God.

Why should we care about false teaching? We should care about false teachers because of who they are. And who are the false teachers? The answer is surprising. I want to answer that the false teachers are really nice people who are just a little bit wrong. But Jude answers by showing us that the false teachers are the latest in a string of rebels against God.

Let me give you some examples. In verses 5 to 7 he gives three examples from the Old Testament of evildoers:

  • The Israelites God rescued out of Egypt. God saved them out of Egypt, but they never got to enjoy the delights of the Promised Land because they refused to believe God.
  • The angels - probably a reference to a puzzling passage from Genesis 6 - who rebelled against God and were condemned by him.
  • The rebels in Sodom and Gomorrah, who were guilty of sinning against God, and who were completely destroyed by God.

You don’t get any better examples of God’s judgment than these three. This is serious! But notice what Jude does. He’s not giving a history lesson. He’s attaching these three events to the false teaching taking place in Jude’s day. In verse 8 he says, “Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones.” Do you see what he’s saying? In verse 10 he again identifies these people with the rebels against God, except he gives three more examples and pronounces a woe to them:

He says they’re like Cain, who thought he could get away with it (verse 11). Cain was the son of Adam and Eve, the one who committed the first murder when he killed his brother Abel. It’s not a compliment to be compared to Cain. In what way are false teachers like Cain? One Jewish commentary says that Cain believed he could get away with whatever he liked because:

There is no judgment, no judge, no reward to come; no reward will be given to the righteous, and no destruction for the wicked.

In other words, these false teachers think they can teach whatever they’d like and get away with it.

Then he says they’re like Balaam the self-indulgent. Balaam was an Old Testament prophet for hire. He’d say anything you’d like if you paid the right money. He was guilty of laying aside God’s Word and teaching something else for his own personal benefit.

And then he says they’re like Korah the rebel. Korah was a leader of a mutiny against Moses. He was a teacher who rejected what God had said about authority. God judged him by swallowing him alive. We read in Numbers 16:

And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. (Numbers 16:32-33)

Has anyone ever told you, “You remind me of…?” You are waiting to hear how they finish the sentence. You want them to say the name of someone wonderful, someone handsome or beautiful, someone accomplished and appreciated. You don’t want to hear that you remind them of their cousin who’s in jail, or some rogue character who never amounted to much.

That’s what Jude is saying in this passage. These false teachers remind him a lot of some of the worst rebels in Old Testament history. David Helm writes:

So in the body of this letter we find Jude stepping through layers of time, grabbing hold of historical events and examples in groups of three, and pulling them into the present day and applying them in the first person - and all of this under divine authority…These guys are those guys! Ancient archetypes are walking in our world. They have come to life again - only they go by different names.

We need to think about this for a minute. Jude is telling us that these guys that he’s pointed to are still probably around today. This is sobering. “What’s the big deal about false teachers?” we ask. Jude takes us through a rogue’s gallery of false teachers and says that this line of rebels lives on, and it’s a big deal to God.

But then he gives us a second reason why false teaching is a big deal:

False teachers will be judged.

I remember being in a park at the end of my street as a kid. There were some older kids there. I should have been afraid of them, but I wasn’t, because my older brother was a lifeguard at the pool. I provoked them thinking I could get away with it because my big brother would come to my defense. I still remember when he didn’t step in. I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted and that there would be no consequences.

You get the impression that the false teachers Jude writes about were doing the same thing. Let me give you one example. It’s a puzzling one. Verses 9 and 10 say:

But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.” But these people blaspheme all that they do not understand, and they are destroyed by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively.

It’s not clear to most of us what he’s talking about. He’s quoting here from a story that would have been well-known to his readers, but that isn’t from the Bible. We do this all the time; we quote from a story that’s well-known in order to make a point. In this story, Michael, the archangel, tried to bury Moses’ body. The devil opposed the burial on the grounds that Moses was a murderer. Even Michael, an archangel, did not dare go toe to toe against the devil on his own authority. There’s a word for you if you take on the devil on your own strength: stupid. Even Michael the archangel, who is way more powerful than us, would not dare to do anything except by God’s authority. Michael knew his place. He knew that if he attempted anything but by God’s power he was sunk. Yet these false teachers didn’t know their place. They somehow thought that they had authority and power apart from Jesus Christ. The minute we think that we have a leg to stand on apart from Jesus, we are in very serious trouble.

So Jude is being very clear. These false teachers are rebels just like the ones we read about in the Old Testament. And God will judge, just as he did the desert generation, the angels who sinned, and Sodom and Gomorrah.

If we believe in judgment, it changes everything. Charlie Peace, a notorious thief and murderer in England in the 1800s, listened to a sermon on the day that he was going to be executed. The preacher was talking about heaven and hell. He said, "Sir, if I believed what you and the church of God say, and even if England were covered with broken glass from coast to coast, I would walk over it on hands and knees and think it worthwhile living just to save one soul from an eternal hell like that." You may not believe what Jude is saying about judgment, but if you do, it changes everything.

I want to be honest. I don’t want to believe in hell. But as Mike Wittmer writes, “Jettisoning hell also demands that we reassess the sinfulness of humanity.” In order to believe that we don’t face judgment, we have to believe that we’re not so bad or that God isn’t so holy. And once we believe that we’re not so bad or that God isn’t that holy, then we start to think that maybe Jesus didn’t have to pay the penalty for our sins at the cross. Pretty soon we’re just like the false teachers Jude talks about. Pretty soon we think we can handle Satan on our own strength. The minute we think we can stand on our own without Jesus, we’ve joined these people that Jude is warning against.

Jude is answering the question, “What’s so bad about false teaching?” And he’s saying that false teachers are rebels, and that false teachers will be judged. There’s one more thing.

False teachers are a danger.

Jude writes in verses 12 and 13:

These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.

Jude is saying two things here. First, he’s saying that these people aren’t helping the church at all. They’re waterless clouds. They’re fruitless trees. They’re like stars that keep changing their course so that you can’t navigate according to them. These people promise a lot, but they don’t deliver.

But it gets worse. These false teachers actually do harm. “These are hidden reefs at your love feasts.” We’re having a potluck after our service today. Back then the church held the communion service in the middle of a potluck-type meal. Jude says that these false teachers are dangers to the community. Hidden reefs under water sink ships; you don’t want to go anywhere near them. These teachers are dangerous to have around.

This is hard. I’m sure that the people who got this letter were surprised. These false teachers were probably very nice guys. What’s so bad about a little false teaching? Jude says it’s a serious problem. These false teachers are rebels; they’re going to be judged; they’re dangerous. False teaching is a very big deal.

This past week one of the most wanted war criminals in the world was arrested. He was living in plain sight in a tiny Serbian village. I’m betting that few people would have guessed that the person living next door is accused of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.

Jude is telling us that false teachers don’t look evil. They’re probably really nice. We’re going to be tempted to think, “What’s the big deal?” But Jude says that false teachers are the rebels we read about in Scripture. They’re going to be judged. And they’re dangerous to us as well.

One of our greatest needs as a church is to see that what we believe matters. It is a dangerous thing to lose our grip on the gospel.

That’s why Jude writes:

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 3)

So see the dangers of false teaching. Don’t say it’s not a big deal. It is a clear and present danger. But also: See what Jesus has done. Grasp the good news of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. Delight in it. Even today remind yourself of what Jesus Christ has done in offering his life for sinners, and being raised again so that we can live. Contend for the gospel.