Today we continue a series through the Gospel of Mark. Throughout the first four chapters of Mark, Jesus has been growing in popularity. This man, Jesus, had brought a new kind of teaching, a teaching ‘with authority’ (1:27); he had cast out demons; he had healed Peter’s mother-in-law, a paralytic and many others who were sick. Mark records the reaction of the crowds:
This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:12)
But there was also a growing opposition. More and more, Jesus was coming into conflict with the teachers of the law, the Pharisees. This all came to a head in the latter part of chapter 3. The Pharisees came together to accuse Jesus of being in league with Satan. They were so persuasive that even Jesus’ own family were convinced that, at the least, Jesus must be out of his mind (Mark 3:21).
Not all the opposition was human in origin, either. Two weeks ago, Tim recounted an incident from the end of Mark 4 where Jesus and his disciples are out in a boat and a huge storm arises, threatening the swamp them. Even nature seems against him! Yet Jesus rebukes wind and waves and they submit to his command. The disciples ‘were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”‘ (Mark 4:41).
Which brings us to Mark 5. In this chapter, Jesus demonstrates his authority over evil and oppression; sickness; and even over death itself.
As they get out of the boat, Jesus and his disciples are approached by a man ‘with an evil spirit’ (v. 2). Mark is at pains to emphasise the power of this evil spirit: in spite of many attempts it cannot be bound, let alone subdued,1 by any human effort; it names itself ‘Legion’, a picture of military strength in numbers. Afraid of his strength, the people of his village had driven him out, with the result that he was living in the local cemetery. In other words, he was as good as dead.
Reading about evil spirits prompts an almost contemptuous response in many today. ‘That’s just how they described people with schizophrenia, and other kinds of psychosis.’ Yet we ought not to jump to conclusions. C. S. Lewis once wrote,
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.2
Possibly this man would receive a particular medical diagnosis today, and would be treated and, perhaps, medicated, accordingly. But I would certainly not want to say that all who have mental health issues are possessed; nor would I want to say that all who are possessed will manifest mental health issues.
Nevertheless, there are two factors that confirm Mark’s analysis of this man’s situation. Firstly, he had been driven into isolation, cut off from anyone to show him compassion or care for him. This, to me, is one of the signs of evil at work. The second sign is found in verse 5: ‘Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.’ That tendency towards self-harm is a strong indicator of an evil spirit trying to deface the image of God found in him.
Many people today find themselves in similar straits, often totally unaware of the path they are on. Sometimes it comes in the form of an addiction: drug and alcohol addicts find themselves increasingly isolated as they hurt the people who love them, even as they are destroying their own health. Adulterers and porn addicts devalue human sexuality and damage their capacity for meaningful relationship. But sometimes it can be addictions to more ‘respectable’ things that isolate and harm: wealth; power; beauty; success. Sometimes it is ‘lonely at the top’ because of all the people stepped on in getting there. Sometimes the relentless pursuit of physical perfection pushes people away rather than attracting them.
What is it in your life that isolates you from others, that causes them to push you away or you to push them away? Human beings are made to be in relationship. What is it that causes you to denigrate or damage the image of God in you or in others? Is your head often filled with thoughts of failure, of self-loathing, of worthlessness? These things may or may not be a sign of spiritual oppression, and you will require wise and godly counsel to discern and address the root causes. That was what this man needed, but instead his community drove him out.
Then, one day, he met Jesus… and everything changed.
Not far from there, a man named Jairus was getting frantic as he watched his daughter dying in front of him. He was a man of wealth, influence, and standing in his community, but nothing he did seemed to make any difference. He had called in the best doctors, all of whom had looked grave, shaken their heads, hemmed and hawed and eventually admitted they had no idea what was wrong let alone how it could be fixed. For twelve years he had delighted in his daughter: held her in his arms, nursed her when she was sick, laughed and cried, danced and played, and now… it was all going to end. This had come out of nowhere and there was nothing – nothing – he could do about it.
Perhaps you can relate? What is it in your life that has rendered you powerless? Perhaps you have stood where Jairus stood, watching a loved one clinging to life with a desperate but failing grasp. The cause may be different – cancer, car accident, or catastrophe – but the emotional trauma is off the charts. Perhaps it is not a life under threat but a suddenly broken relationship – with a spouse, with a parent, with a child, with a friend – and you feel utterly helpless to do anything to restore it. For some the crisis might be financial – sudden unemployment, a fire destroys your home – and you don’t know how you’re going to get by. If you have stood in any of these places then you know something of the despair that Jairus must have felt.
Then, one day, Jairus met Jesus… and everything changed.
Amongst the crowd that day was a woman who ought not to have been there. Unlike Jairus, the last twelve years had not been spent in blissful family life but in increasing desperation, trying to find someone who could help her with her problem. You see, for twelve years she had bled from her uterus – if not constantly then at least considerably more often and more heavily than was to be expected. As a result she would have been constantly weak and in pain. If that was not bad enough, she was also considered ‘unclean’ because of the blood3, meaning that she could not engage in the religious life of her community, nor could anyone touch her without themselves being rendered ‘unclean’.4 That is why she ought not to have been there in that crowd that day. Yet she was desperate. So she forced her way through the crowd.
Is this where you find yourself today? I know there are some in this church who suffer from chronic illness that means they are often unable to worship with us on a Sunday morning. For others it is the infirmity that comes with old age that gets in the way. Or maybe you feel isolated from your church and your community because you have children whose special needs consume so much of your focus there is little time for anything else? Perhaps your job means you are in a different city each week and so never get to really settle into a church community. Do you long to connect with people but, for whatever reason, you just can’t? Then you know something of this woman’s desperation.
Then, one day, she met Jesus… and everything changed.
At one level, these three people are just about as different as could be: two lived on the fringes of society, the other was a respected citizen; two were men, the other a woman; two were Jews, the other a gentile; only Jairus was wealthy, though the woman may once have been so.5 If they had anything in common, it was their utter desperation and helplessness.
Nor is there any common pattern in the way they were delivered from their maladies: one was healed with a word, one was healed with a touch, and one was healed with a word and a touch. Certainly all three had to exercise faith, but at different times. Jairus exercised faith before the act (in coming to Jesus, and in believing his words), and he exercised it on behalf of his daughter (who could no longer do so for herself). The woman’s greatest act of faith was not so much in her touch as in her coming forward in response to Jesus’ query. And it is doubtful whether or in what sense the demoniac exercised faith at all during his healing; his expression of faith came afterwards in his desire to follow Jesus, and in his going back to his village to bear witness.
Trying to read the gospels in order to discern a ‘method’ for ministry is ultimately futile. Mark seems to be deliberately undermining any attempt to categorise Jesus as a magician by showing that there is no fixed ‘method’. Even the ‘incantation’, talitha koum, – a common feature of magic stories – turns out to be nothing more than a gentle instruction to ‘get up’ in the girl’s native tongue, and is followed up with an instruction that she should be fed.
It is sobering to realise that many of the things Jesus did defy commonly accepted mission methods. What was he doing in gentile territory, pig-farming land, amongst the tombs? Evangelism ‘ought’ to be done where there are concentrations of people, not one-on-one in the wilderness with a crazy person. But Jesus had a divine appointment to free this man at this time from his oppression. Why would you allow such a man to then go and preach on his behalf. Surely, given his history, he would have little credibility. In fact, in the Gospel of Mark, this healed demoniac becomes the first missionary-preacher sent out by Jesus, a Gentile sent to the Gentiles,6 at a time before Jesus trusted even his own disciples to go out on their own.7 As Mark McCrindle said when he preached on this passage a couple of years ago, he was ‘a most unlikely ministry candidate’!8
By contrast, church marketers would have cheered at the approach of Jairus. Here at last was somebody influential, somebody who could really catapult Jesus into the stratosphere of religious opinion and popularity. Why would Jesus stop mid-stride and ask an apparently nonsensical question (‘Who touched me?’) and risk offending the very person who could get him places? Because he is about loving people rather than ‘getting places’. He calls the woman out, not to get ‘the credit’, still less to embarrass her, but so he could call her, ‘Daughter’ and bring her peace (v. 34). Why does he forbid Jairus and his family from telling anybody about the girl, when he had already commissioned the healed demoniac to go and spread the good news? Perhaps because it would take Jairus away from his family to do so, whereas the gentile man was being sent back to his.
The only constant through all three episodes is Jesus himself. At some point, all three found themselves at the feet of Jesus, begging for his help, his compassion, his mercy. And in each case he gave it… though, according to the Law, he had reason not to. You see, touching a gentile, or a woman with her period, or a dead body would all result in the one who touched being made unclean. They themselves would then be ineligible to participate in any kind of religious services, or to enter the temple. ‘Many teachers avoided touching women altogether, lest they become accidentally contaminated.’9 This is probably why the woman came forward ‘trembling with fear’ (v. 33); she feared that she had contaminated this rabbi, and was about to be publicly rebuked in front of the whole crowd.
But that is not the way Jesus saw it. You see, he knew something none of them knew: his purity would swallow up their impurity. And this was so because of what he was about to endure on the cross. Jesus could deliver the man from that evil spirit because he himself would endure all the devil’s wrath and yet emerge victorious. Like Moses before him, he commanded the waters – be still! – then used it to dispose of a hostile enemy, bringing about a new exodus and a new freedom. Jesus took that man’s oppression upon himself and, in so doing, freed the man.
Similarly, although the woman’s blood was a contaminant according to the Law, blood was also the only means prescribed by the Law for cleansing the altar and taking away sin. Jesus himself would soon offer his own blood as the ultimate detergent.10 In describing her suffering, Mark uses the metaphor of a scourge or whip (μάστιγός, vv. 29. 34); he will use the same word again in Mark 10:34 where Jesus prophesies his own literal flogging at the hands of the Romans. Jesus took on her suffering as his own and, in so doing, delivered her from it.
Finally, Jesus was not afraid to touch the girl because he knew that her death was no more significant than the sleep he proclaimed it. As one writer puts it,
The keys of death were hung on the inside of Christ’s tomb. From the outside, Christ could do many wonderful works, including raising a twelve-year-old girl and two men from the dead – only to die again (Mark 5:41-42; Luke 7:14-15; John 11:43-44). If any were to be raised from the dead, never to die again, Christ would have to die for them, enter the tomb, take the keys, and unlock the door of death from the inside.11
Friends, I don’t know your situation. Perhaps you are facing an immediate crisis like Jairus; or ongoing suffering like the woman; or, perhaps scariest of all, you don’t actually know you have a problem, until you are face to face with Jesus. Whatever the case, you have a choice to make, a response to give. Will you, like the villagers, try and drive Jesus away, the way they had previously driven away the man he healed? Because the tragic irony is that the one who is strong enough to expel ‘Legion’ from the area will allow himself to be driven away… for a time. Will you, like the professional mourners at Jairus’ door, scoff at the words of Jesus? Or will you, like Jairus, like the woman, and like the man, fall at the feet of Jesus and ask for his mercy?
Come and meet Jesus… and everything will change!
Edwards, James R. The Gospel According to Mark. Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.
English, Donald. The Message of Mark : The Mystery of Faith. Leicester, England ; Downers Grove, Ill., U.S.A.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1992.
Garland, David E. Mark. Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
Keener, Craig S. The Ivp Bible Background Commentary : New Testament. Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters. Sixtieth Anniversary ed. London: HarperCollins, 2002.
Piper, John. The Passion of Jesus Christ : Fifty Reasons Why He Came to Die. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2004.
- ‘Mark’s description is more fitting of a ferocious animal than of a human being; indeed, the Greek word for “subdue,” damazō, is used of taming a wild beast in James 3:7.’ James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 154-55.
- C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: HarperCollins, 2002), ix.
- Lev. 12:7; 15:19–24; 20:18.
- Lev. 15.19.
- She could once afford ‘many doctors’ (v. 26).
- Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, 160.
- Donald. English, The Message of Mark : The Mystery of Faith (Leicester, England ; Downers Grove, Ill., U.S.A.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1992), 111.
- Sermon preached 3/3/13, http://www.wphcc.com/sermons/transformed-by-christ/#
- Craig S. Keener, The Ivp Bible Background Commentary : New Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 148.
- David E. Garland, Mark (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 229.
- John Piper, The Passion of Jesus Christ : Fifty Reasons Why He Came to Die (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2004), 100.
Over the last 7 weeks we have been sharing together in the book of Zechariah. On behalf of the LORD, Zechariah issued a call for repentance coupled with a promise:
This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the LORD Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the LORD Almighty. (Zech 1:3)
The rest of the book, and particularly chapters 9-14, elaborates on the promise of the LORD’s return using many powerful images: the LORD will be a good shepherd, who cares for his flock rather than taking advantage of them; he will be a ruler, a judge and a deliverer. Perhaps most powerfully of all, Zechariah pointed to a king who was to come:
Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit. (Zech 9:9–11)
Well, fast forward some 500 years and there was indeed a king in Jerusalem, King Herod. This king had poured vast amounts of time and energy into the rebuilding of the temple – 46 years, according to the Pharisees of Jesus’ day – with the result that it was more than twice the size of the Solomon’s Temple. True, he was not a Davidic king (he wasn’t even a Jew by birth), but he had done the work of a Son of David in building the Temple, just as the first Son of David, Solomon, had done before him. And he was acceptable to the Romans and therefore enjoyed a relatively long and prosperous reign.1
Was this the king that Zechariah had spoken of?
Matthew gives us our first clue that all is not well with this king in Matthew 2. Three men arrive in Jerusalem to ask after ‘the one who has been born king of the Jews’ (Matt. 2:2). Matthew records that, ‘When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him’ (Matt. 2:3). You see Herod had not been born king; he had been made king, rather unexpectedly, by the Roman Senate, and had assumed the throne with a Roman army at his back. If, now, someone had been born king, then his own security was placed in doubt. It is his actions that follow that put the question beyond all doubt. For Herod plotted to find and eliminate this new threat, ultimately killing all children under the age of 2 in Bethlehem and its surrounds. This is hardly the action of one ‘righteous and having salvation’ (Zech. 9:9)! It is a tragic irony that Jesus and his family escaped persecution and death by fleeing into Egypt, suggesting that Herod was even worse than the Pharaoh who put Israelite children to death in the days of Moses. Herod was a Pharaoh-like king, rather than a king after God’s own heart as a Son of David ought to be. He is not the king Zechariah prophesied.
So the question lingered: ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews’?
Fast forward another 30 years. Once again, we find a city in uproar:
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” (Matt 21:10)
It is this question that we want to answer this morning.
The king of peace
The Galileans who arrived at Jerusalem with Jesus certainly thought they knew the answer. Many of them had witnessed Jesus’ ministry in their home towns, had seen the sick healed, the possessed exorcised, and even the dead raised. Moreover they had heard his teaching, teaching delivered with an authority beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 9:8; Mark 1:27; Luke 4:36). And now, here he was entering Jerusalem for one of the biggest festivals of the year, Passover, when the population of Jerusalem would temporarily swell to more than 6 times its normal size;2 surely this would be an ideal time for him to proclaim himself king?
Imagine their delight, then, when they see this same Jesus riding into Jerusalem, perhaps the only one riding amongst that throng of people. And he was riding a donkey just as Solomon, the first Son of David, also rode to his coronation (1 Kings 1:38).3 So they got on board, throwing their cloaks and branches on the road to form an impromptu ‘red carpet’ to welcome the king. And they shouted: ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ and ‘Hosanna in the highest!’
‘Hosanna’ is a plea for God to deliver,4 so ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ is a way of begging God to deliver by the hands of his anointed king. In fact, this is exactly what God was going to do, but it would not be in the way most of them anticipated. They would have expected Jesus to lead a revolt against the Roman authorities in the city, and to take the throne as king of the Jews.
But that was not Jesus’ plan. In fact, he carefully chose his actions to show that that was not the kind of king he intended to be – at least, not at this time. He rode into Jerusalem, not as warrior king mounted on a war horse or chariot, but as a king coming in peace and riding on a donkey. Matthew emphasises this by only partially quoting Zechariah 9:9:
This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: “Say to the Daughter of Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, [righteous and having salvation], gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” (Matt. 21:4-5)
By omitting the words ‘righteous and having salvation’ Matthew places additional emphasis on Jesus’ gentleness. He returned to Jerusalem to bring peace rather than war.
On one level, the crowds were exactly right. They had rightly recognised the true king, the Son of David, the Messiah. Yet they missed the significance of Jesus’ actions, so caught up in their own vision of what Jesus ought to be doing that they missed what he was actually doing. They had listened selectively to what the Old Testament said about the Messiah, hearing about the king who would conquer but not the shepherd who would be struck; the judge who would deliver, but not the one who would be pierced. The difference between their expectation and reality perhaps partly accounts for the evaporation of their enthusiasm over the next week. Doubtless at least some of the same voices crying ‘Hosanna!’ would soon be crying ‘Crucify!’
Isn’t this something we are guilty of as well? We get so caught up in our plans for what God ought to be doing that we miss what God is actually doing. Take Romans 8, for example: We read promises like, ‘[I]n all things God works for the good of those who love him’ (Rom. 8:28) and ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ (Rom. 8:31) and ‘[I]n all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us’ (Rom. 8:37), but we skip over ‘present sufferings’ (Rom. 8:18), a creation groaning in the pains of childbirth (Rom. 8:22) and people groaning inwardly waiting for the redemption of their bodies (Rom. 8:23).
Friends, as you seek to answer the question ‘Who is this?’ take the time to read the whole of Scripture, to see the whole picture of what God is doing – lights and shades, colours and greys. Don’t try to filter out the dark bits, the bits that don’t fit with your vision of the world, that don’t match with your plans. For we find God at work just as much in the darkness as in the light. The picture of Jesus spans the whole spectrum from shadow to sunlight, and it is a glorious picture indeed. At his first coming, Jesus would be struck, he would be pierced, he would be crucified upon a Roman cross; yet in the midst of that apparent defeat he conquered sin and darkness and death.
The prophet from Galilee
Listen again to Matthew’s words:
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” (Matt. 21:10)
The whole city was ‘stirred’, just as they were ‘disturbed’ when the Magi arrived back in chapter 2. The question then was, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?’ And the answer now ought to be, ‘This is the one born king of the Jews’. But it wasn’t.
You see, not everyone was so impressed by Jesus as the crowd from Galilee. In fact, being a Galilean followed by a bunch of Galileans was not a thing to inspire credibility when it came to religious matters. As best I can tell, it would be like a bunch of Parramatta Eels fans showing up, claiming to have a premiership team: a claim to be viewed with deep distrust! Can anything good come out of Parramatta?5 Look into it and you will find that a premiership team does not come out of Parramatta!6
So, if not the king, who did they think he was?
The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matt 21:11)
You can almost hear the scorn: the ‘prophet’ from Nazareth. The crowds outside the gate were proclaiming him king, but in the city it was a more sophisticated, urbane, and even cynical bunch. A ‘better class of people.’ They were not going to be taken in by the claims of a back-woods rabbi claiming to be a king. They knew where true power lay, and it was not with a man on a donkey.
Friend, if you are not a Christian I know how easy it can be to do this. It is easy to allow our prejudice to make us miss the truth. Perhaps you think, ‘He’s just another religious nut, and religion is the source of trouble not the solution.’ This is one of the hallmarks of the so-called ‘New Atheism’, trying to equate science, progress, and sophistication with abandoning religion. Or perhaps you question his relevance: ‘Jesus lived 2000 years ago and a long way from here. What could he say that is relevant to me today?’ Even some apparently positive prejudices, such as ‘Jesus was a good man; a good moral teacher,’ become an excuse to relativise Jesus’ claims and treat him as just another voice among many.
But I urge you not to allow your prejudices to lead you to dismiss Jesus too quickly. No, put those things aside and take the time to consider his claims about himself, and the evidence he offers for those claims. Make sure you are engaging the real Jesus, not some stereotype or second-hand picture of him. Look carefully at what he says about the world – that it is broken and sinful, that it needs saving. Then look at the solution he offers – his own sacrificial death to endure the punishment for sin, his resurrection life as the promise of a new life and a new world for all who believe in him. With those in mind, you must then consider his call upon you – abandon your attempts to save yourself and your world (because, frankly, they are not working) and trust instead in his work on your behalf. Jesus knows what he is talking about and his invitation is sincere. And if you want more evidence of his faithfulness and ability to deliver on his promises, keep listening: again and again we will see Jesus delivering on the promises of God given through Zechariah more than 500 years before!
Put your trust in him today.
The priest who rules the courts
Well, if the ‘sophisticated’ Jerusalemites didn’t think much of him, it is clear that Jesus did not approve of their actions either.
Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’” (Matt. 21:12–13)
Many who journeyed to Jerusalem would have found it more convenient to purchase livestock for sacrifice than to have to bring it on their journey. Similarly, certain types of coins were unacceptable for paying the temple tax because they bore images of other gods, so pilgrims would need to change their local currency for money that was acceptable. Arguably, these were important services; but they did not belong inside the temple courts. This is especially true insofar as they prevented people from engaging in the true purpose of the temple: prayer. Can you imagine trying to worship amidst the cooing of doves and clinking of coins, not to mention the vociferous bartering that would inevitably accompany such transactions?
Of particular note is that this was going on in the Court of the Gentiles, the only part of the temple that Gentiles were permitted to enter. It was meant to be a place for the nations to come and meet with God. Yet here it was, chock full of merchants, traders, and their customers, leaving little or no space (let alone peace!) for its intended purpose. In driving these people out, then, Jesus was beginning to fulfil the promise in Zechariah 2:11:
Many nations will be joined with the LORD in that day and will become my people.
He was also exercising the authority promised in Zechariah:
If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you will govern my house and have charge of my courts. (Zech. 3:7)
This is a conditional promise. The condition is to ‘walk in [the LORD’s] ways and keep [his] requirements’. Jesus fulfilled that condition through his life of perfect obedience to his Father, and obedience that extended all the way to death on a Roman cross and beyond. Because of that obedience, because he fulfilled the condition, God has fulfilled the promise by granting him authority over all things (cf. Eph. 1:10, 22; Phil. 2:9-11).
As Jesus heals the blind and the lame, we see that he also fulfils the requirement of Zechariah 7:9-10:
Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.
The chief priests and teachers of the law would have excluded such people from entering the temple, assuming that their physical maladies were symptoms of a deeper spiritual malady. But Jesus’ solution is to heal them inside and out. Remember the promise in Zechariah 13 that Dr. Petterson pointed us to last week?
On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity. (Zech. 13:1)
Jesus is, once again, the fulfilment of this promise. He fulfils it in part through physical healing; he completes it through his sacrificial death on the cross.
Friends, Jesus is committed to seeing you come to the Father in prayer and in worship. He has done everything to make it possible. He drives out those who put profit ahead of praise. He heals the broken and the sick. Ultimately he died on the cross so that you might be made cleansed and holy. And if that weren’t enough, he got up out of the grave to invite you to come. Come to the Father!
The judge who renders judgment
Matthew recounts a strange event the following morning:
Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.
When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matt 21:18–22)
There is much that could be said about this, but we only have time to focus on one aspect. When fig trees grew leaves, it was normally a sign that their fruit was ripe. This fig tree, however, had leaves but no fruit. From a distance it looked as though it was healthy and productive, exactly what a hungry traveller needed; get up close, however, and it was a complete disappointment. So Jesus pronounces a curse upon it, with devastating results.
The disciples are fascinated by the power implicit in Jesus’ judgment; it takes effect immediately. And Jesus takes the opportunity to teach them a lesson about prayer and faith. Yet he may also hint at a larger judgment, a judgment upon the very mountain on which they stood, the Temple Mount, and by extension the temple built upon it. Herod’s temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world, much admired for its architecture and finery. If Zechariah’s contemporaries could have seen it they would have been astounded and probably thought that this was God’s promised temple, the glorious Jerusalem promised through Zechariah. But Jesus had demonstrated that it was all ‘leaf’ and no ‘fruit’ – no justice, no righteousness, no healing, no prayer.
Ultimately, by his own sacrifice in laying down his life, Jesus would destroy this temple, and replace it in three days with a new temple – his own resurrection body (John 2:18-22). And it was Jesus’ promise to do this that was quoted against him at his trial (Matt. 26:61) and mockingly hurled at him as he was dying on the cross (Matt. 27:40).
In a sense, Jesus could be seen as the exact opposite of the fig tree. He was the ‘fruit’ without the ‘leaves': the judge who submitted to false judgment; the high priest who was sacrificed rather than making sacrifice; the king who came to be executed rather than crowned. He endured all that was thrown at him for the sake of those who scorned him. He fulfilled all of the conditions so that we might receive all of the promises!
Do you remember that right at the start of Zechariah, God made a promise: ‘Return to me… and I will return to you’ (Zech. 1:3)? That is an astonishing promise; but the gospel message goes one better. The gospel says ‘I, Jesus, have returned to you so that you may return to me.’
The return of the king
One final thing. Many of you would have recognised the title we gave to our series in Zechariah, ‘The Return of the King’ as the title of the third volume in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The King spoken of in that book is the mysterious ranger, Aragorn, known to some as ‘Strider’. There is a point in the novel where Aragorn’s right to be King of Gondor is made plain to everyone – by his courage, his sword, his healing, and his ability to command the loyalty even of the dead. Yet he faces opposition from the Steward of Gondor, the one supposed to be caretaker in his absence. So, rather than being crowned straight away he goes off to fight what appears a hopeless battle against the dark lord, Sauron. In the end, it is his faithfulness in the face of such impossible odds that allows his companions to destroy the source of Sauron’s power.
In Aragorn, Tolkien has gifted us with a magnificent picture of Christ. And, like Aragorn, Jesus will one day return to claim his rightful crown.
Come Lord Jesus!
Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus; an Investigation Into Economic and Social Conditions During the New Testament Period. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969.
- Some 37 years, 34 in Jerusalem.
- Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus; an Investigation Into Economic and Social Conditions During the New Testament Period. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), 84.
- The word used for Solomon’s mount is pered, ‘mule’, which is the offspring of a stallion and a donkey. So, in a sense, Jesus’ ride was even humbler than Solomon’s, containing not even a trace of the warlike stallion.
- NIDNTT, s.v. ὡσαννά.
- cf. John 1:46.
- cf. John 7:52.
Few authors are as consistent in their message over a long period of time as John Piper. For nearly 4 decades, Piper has been working out a theology that emphasises the glory of God with laser focus and crystal clarity. His latest offering, Walking in the Light, is no exception.
In this work, Piper identifies three areas of human existence – money, sex, and power – that can be used to either uphold or detract from God’s glory. He works this out in the terms of Romans 1:23, with each holding potential for an exchange of the glory of God for a lie. Where God is most valued, he will never be exchanged for things of lesser value such as influence, a salary, a spouse etc. Thus, they can be used in service of God. However, where they are valued more highly than God, an exchange is made, with something perceived to be lesser value (God) exchanged for something perceived to be of greater value (sex, money, power).
The key, then, to appropriate appreciation of power, sex, and money lies in properly appreciating the glory and worth of God, particularly as appreciated in the person and work of Christ. Piper uses the analogy of a solar system set up to orbit around the moon rather than around the sun; the solution is to restore the sun (the Son!) to the centre, live in ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Cor. 4:6).
Piper’s analysis seems sound, and it is refreshing to have an approach that does not flee too quickly to labelling everything ‘idolatry’ (even though that is what it is), but dwells on the implications of that (God is neither valued nor glorified). I highly recommend this short book to Christians at all stages of their journey.
Why are you here? What made you decide to get up and come to West Pennant Hills Community Church this morning? Was it because that is what you do and have always done on Sundays? Perhaps you are trying to reconnect with your Christian roots? Or are you looking to find God? Are you hoping to become a better person? Perhaps you made a New Year’s resolution to get to church more. Or do you just like hanging out with a bunch of fun, attractive, perfect people? (I have some bad news for you…)
As we open the book of Zechariah, we find a bunch of people in Jerusalem who were probably wondering why they were there. Some 70 years before, Jerusalem had been utterly destroyed. But now the pagan king of Persia, Cyrus, had given permission for any Israelites living in his empire to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:1-5). In response, some 5000 people (Ezra 2:64-65) returned to Jerusalem and began work on the temple (c. 537 B.C.). Yet when they arrived I suspect that many of them began to have second thoughts. Here was a ‘city’ with no walls, surrounded by hostile nations of whom they were afraid (Ezra 3:3). As they laid the foundation for the temple, they sang of the LORD,
He is good; his love to Israel endures forever. (Ezra 3:11)
But they must have wondered whether that was actually true? After all, the prophet Ezekiel had spoken of the LORD leaving the temple (Ezek. 8-11); though he also spoke of a future return (Ezek. 43) they saw no evidence around them to suggest that this had, in fact, taken place. Was God still angry with them?
This doubt, combined with the opposition they faced from the surrounding peoples (Ezra 4:4-24) resulted in work on the temple stopping. For nearly 20 years, the foundations of the temple that they had laid stood as a witness to a broken dream. They had returned to Jerusalem, but it had not really turned out to be what they expected. So, instead, they focused on providing for themselves, trying to make ends meet, planting and harvesting, raising children, and generally trying to keep their heads down and out of trouble.
Then, in about 518 B.C., two prophets started preaching in Jerusalem. The first, Haggai, chastised the people for abandoning the work on the temple:
This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the LORD. “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the LORD Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with his own house. Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the oil and whatever the ground produces, on men and cattle, and on the labor of your hands.” (Hag. 1:7–11)
The second prophet was Zechariah, and it is his message that we will spend the next 6 weeks considering. Where Haggai’s focus is on the rebuilding of the temple, Zechariah seems intent on a more wholesale reform. And he starts by calling the people to repentance.
A call to repentance (Zech. 1:1-6)
The LORD was very angry with your forefathers. Therefore tell the people: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the LORD Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the LORD Almighty. Do not be like your forefathers, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.’ But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the LORD. Where are your forefathers now? And the prophets, do they live forever? But did not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your forefathers? (Zech. 1:2–6)
Zechariah’s message is very simple: God was angry because your ancestors failed to turn from their ‘evil ways and practices’ (1:2, 4-6) and they ended up in exile in Babylon. Now you have the same choice they had, don’t make the same mistake (1:3-4)!
Zechariah records their response:
“Then they repented and said, ‘The LORD Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as he determined to do.’” (Zech. 1:6)
Repentance is a theme that looms large in Zechariah’s message, where it can essentially be seen as a two step process, a turning from and a turning to.1 The Israelites were called to ‘turn from [their] evil ways and [their] evil practices’ (Zech. 1:4). But what were they called to turn to? Surprisingly, it is not to ‘good ways and good practices’ like we might expect. They were not called to turn to something, but rather someone.
‘Return to me,’ declares the LORD Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the LORD Almighty. (Zech. 1:3)
Zechariah sounds this note often. Repentance is an ongoing process, not a one-time event, and Zechariah knows that we will need food for the journey. This he furnishes in the form of 8 visions that keep our focus firmly on the LORD and his love for his people. We will look at the first three visions today.
First vision: a world at peace (Zech. 1:7-17)
The first vision starts in verse 7, and shows a world at peace:
On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo.
During the night I had a vision — and there before me was a man riding a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses.
I asked, “What are these, my lord?” The angel who was talking with me answered, “I will show you what they are.”
Then the man standing among the myrtle trees explained, “They are the ones the LORD has sent to go throughout the earth.”
And they reported to the angel of the LORD, who was standing among the myrtle trees, “We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace.” (Zech. 1:7–11)
On first reading, this seems to be a comforting vision. Who doesn’t want a world ‘at rest and in peace’? But this is probably not how the inhabitants of Jerusalem saw it.
For the first two years of his reign, the emperor Darius had been busy suppressing rebellion in various parts of his kingdom. Perhaps this was the opportunity for the people to set up their governor, Zerubbabel – who was of the line of David – as a king on David’s throne? But about the time Zechariah first began to prophesy, Darius had finally crushed all those opposed to him, and peace reigned throughout his empire. Any hope of successfully breaking away from the Persian empire seemed crushed. Israel had been promised a king of their own, a Messiah, who would rule over them. Was that promise still valid after their failure and exile?
Can’t you hear the doubters: ‘Why am I here? If we are going to continue as subjects of the empire, why not do it somewhere else, some place where there is calm instead of conflict, and prosperity instead of poverty? Why not live in a city that actually has walls and schools and hospitals and employment and broadband and pubs and good roads and comfortable houses… ‘
The angel of the LORD voices the complaint that underpins these doubts, and receives an astonishing answer:
Then the angel of the LORD said, “LORD Almighty, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and from the towns of Judah, which you have been angry with these seventy years?” So the LORD spoke kind and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.
Then the angel who was speaking to me said, “Proclaim this word: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion, but I am very angry with the nations that feel secure. I was only a little angry, but they added to the calamity.’
“Therefore, this is what the LORD says: ‘I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuilt. And the measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem,’ declares the LORD Almighty.
“Proclaim further: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the LORD will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.’” (Zech. 1:12–17)
The LORD says that he is ‘jealous for Jerusalem and Zion’ (1:14), and that he will ‘return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there [his] house [that is, the temple] will be rebuilt’ (1:16). This is nothing less than the reversal of Ezekiel’s dreadful vision of the glory of the LORD departing the temple (Ezek. 8-11). Though that first temple had been destroyed, it would be rebuilt and the LORD would return to it with mercy. And it will be the presence of the LORD that will make all the difference, for he is the LORD Almighty! Things will go well for the ones whom the LORD Almighty loves.
Conversely, things will go very badly for those with whom the LORD Almighty is angry… which brings us to the second vision.
Second vision: powerful enemies (Zech. 1:18-21)
Then I looked up — and there before me were four horns!
I asked the angel who was speaking to me, “What are these?” He answered me, “These are the horns that scattered Judah, Israel and Jerusalem.” (Zech. 1:18–19)
Horns in the Bible are often a symbol of strength, especially arrogant strength. Picture a bull with its head up, daring you to chance its horns. That there are four horns may be symbolic of opponents on all sides – the four points of the compass. The people in Jerusalem had some significant enemies, who were directly opposed to the rebuilding of the temple and of Jerusalem in general.
And so the doubters find their voice again: ‘Why am I here,’ they might have said, ‘where I and my family are in danger?’
But the LORD has a plan for these enemies. Zechariah’s vision continues:
Then the LORD showed me four craftsmen.
I asked, “What are these coming to do?” He answered, “These are the horns that scattered Judah so that no one could raise his head, but the craftsmen have come to terrify them and throw down these horns of the nations who lifted up their horns against the land of Judah to scatter its people.” (Zech. 1:20–21)
There is a clear contrast here: though Judah is surrounded by bulls intent on destruction, the LORD has prepared craftsmen intent on construction. It is also significant that craftsmen had significant roles in the construction of both the Tabernacle2 and Solomon’s Temple,3 so their appearance again at the building of this new temple would have been tremendously encouraging.
Third vision: slow progress and meagre results (Zech. 2:1-5)
Zechariah’s first two visions focused on the peace in distant nations and the hostility in Jerusalem’s immediate surrounds. But his third vision, the last one we will consider this morning, looks to what is happening within Jerusalem:
Then I looked up — and there before me was a man with a measuring line in his hand!
I asked, “Where are you going?” He answered me, “To measure Jerusalem, to find out how wide and how long it is.” (Zech. 2:1-2)
Again the doubters are out in force: ‘Why am I here? Nothing seems to be happening, everything is going so slowly. You just promised that the LORD’s house would be rebuilt and the measuring line stretched out over Jerusalem (Zech. 1:16); but I see only a foundation instead of a house, and the measuring line over Jerusalem is not returning impressive results. We don’t even have a wall to keep us safe from our enemies!’
We feel the force of these doubts today, don’t we? We want to be part of God’s work here on earth, we want to see the kingdom advancing, we want to see people coming to the Lord, we want to see revival in our time… but it all seems so slow. There are still so many who do not yet know about Jesus. Like the people of Zechariah’s day, we need to look at the situation again, through the LORD’s eyes:
Then the angel who was speaking to me left, and another angel came to meet him and said to him: “Run, tell that young man, ‘Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of men and livestock in it. And I myself will be a wall of fire around it,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will be its glory within.’ (Zech. 2:3–5)
You see, God measures based on his presence, not outward appearance. In one blow Zechariah undermines the two things that had traditionally made Jerusalem so distinctive, its wall and its temple. Remember that when David first captured Jerusalem, the Jebusites boasted, ‘You will not get in here; even the blind and the lame can ward you off’ (2 Sam. 5:6). Yet David did capture that city in spite of its formidable walls; and the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the walls entirely. Yet now the LORD promises that he himself would be a wall of fire – able to expand out to accommodate more men and livestock, yet impossible to break down or pass through. Similarly, though Solomon’s temple had been the glory of Jerusalem, with people coming from all over the ancient world to see it, it too had been destroyed. Yet the LORD promises that he himself will be the glory within.
And this brings us back to the heart of the matter. For the doubt that underlies all the other doubts is this: Is God still angry with us? For the Israelites, God had demonstrated his anger through the exile; was returning to Jerusalem enough to secure again his favour? What about rebuilding the temple and reinstating the temple sacrifices? Would that be enough to placate God? They had tried all of these things, yet it did not seem to be ‘working’. They were still subject to foreign powers, surrounded by hostile neighbours, and stalled in their own efforts to rebuild the temple. Those were not the ‘signs’ of the LORD’s favour, surely!
Why are you here? Perhaps you are here to try and secure God’s blessing? Or perhaps this is where you refuel, gain new energy to go out and evangelise your colleagues, or be a better parent, or fight off temptation.
These are good things… but they are not primary things. They are not first things. Because repentance is not about turning from doing that to doing this instead. Repentance is about turning to relationship. Judah returned to Jerusalem; but the LORD says, ‘Return to me… ‘ We come to church to gain wisdom and encouragement in how to serve the LORD; but the LORD says, ‘Return to me… and I will walk that path with you.’ We meet with pastors and elders seeking help in overcoming sin and brokenness; but the LORD says, ‘Return to me… and I will provide the help that you need.’ The LORD desires repentance that leads to relationship, not just proximity or service.
The trouble is that we really suck at this kind of repentance. We’re not comfortable entering into relationship with God because we sense our inadequacy. Deep down we know that we don’t really deserve this kind of blessing … and we are right. We don’t deserve it. So, like the prodigal son, we come up with a plan to earn back our Father’s favour: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ (Luke 15:18–19). We secretly think, ‘Restored relationship is too good to be true,’ … but there we are only half right. It surely is good, but it is also true!
It is true because Jesus Christ repented on our behalf.
Did you ever wonder why Jesus needed to be baptised by John the Baptist? The Apostle Paul said that ‘John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance’ (Acts 19:4). Jesus had no personal need of repentance, for he never sinned and never broke relationship with his Father. But he repented as our representative – like Moses representing the people to God on Mount Sinai and repenting of their sin with the golden calf, though he himself had not sinned (Ex. 32:30-32) – and thus we receive the benefit of that perfect and lasting repentance.
Jesus is the perfect penitent. He returned to Jerusalem, but he did it in company with and obedience to his Father. Jesus returned to cleanse and pronounce judgment on the temple (Matt. 21:12-13, 18-21), but to him it was not a symbol of national pride or divine favour but ‘my Father’s house’ (Luke 2:49) as it had been since his youth. His goal was not the temple of God but the God of the temple. Jesus returned to Jerusalem knowing he could have had peace as a respected rabbi elsewhere, knowing that returning he would face hostility, torture and death. But remember his words, ‘not as I will, but as you will’ (Matt. 26:39). His repentance was always oriented upon his relationship with his Father.
As a result our imperfect repentance is gathered up into Jesus’ perfect repentance. The Father commands, ‘Return to me,’ and it is only by the representative repentance of the Son that we are able to do so. He repents on our behalf because we are not able to do it ourselves. This is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ as the representative of mankind before God, whose perfect penitence covers over our imperfection. With Jesus, it is no longer simply ‘Return to me,’ but ‘Return with me.’
What does this mean for us – for you and for me?
For those who believe in Jesus it means we must live lives that reflect this kind of repentance, repentance oriented on relationship. Repentance is not something we do once and tick off our ‘To Do’ list, because any relationship involving one or more sinful people will require a continual attitude of repentance to continue. Husbands and wives, is this the repentance you practise in your marriage? Parents, do you teach your children just to say ‘sorry,’ or to go further and seek restored relationship? When conflict arises at work do you seek reconciliation or simply to ‘live and let live’? In the church, do we practise repentance toward one another, so that we may ‘keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (Eph. 4:3)? This is the kind of repentance that will constantly remind us of our need to repent before the LORD, and to prize relationship with him. It is also the best advertisement to those who do not yet know Jesus of the kind of relationship that he wants to have with them.
For those who have not yet believed in Jesus, today is the day when you need to repent and return to your Father by trusting in Jesus. Zechariah’s urgency in the remainder of chapter 2 is directed at you:
“Come! Come! Flee from the land of the north,” declares the LORD, “for I have scattered you to the four winds of heaven,” declares the LORD.
“Come, O Zion! Escape, you who live in the Daughter of Babylon!” For this is what the LORD Almighty says: “After he has honored me and has sent me against the nations that have plundered you — for whoever touches you touches the apple of his eye — I will surely raise my hand against them so that their slaves will plunder them. Then you will know that the LORD Almighty has sent me. (Zech. 2:6–9)
Those who remain unrepentant face disaster, for a day is coming when the Lord will return regardless of whether we do or not. But the results will be vastly different depending on whether or not we have repented and entered into relationship with him. Jesus spoke of that day and warned that there will be many who seek blessing on that day because of the many good things they had done – after all, hadn’t they returned to Jerusalem and built the temple, the church? But on that day Jesus himself will say, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matt. 7:23). On that day, the opportunity for repentance will be gone; no longer will it be ‘Return to me,’ but, ‘Away from me.’
Is this you? Perhaps, even now, you are thinking of some reason why you cannot or should not repent today. ‘I just need to succeed in my job, or raise my family, or care for my parents.’ Jesus says, ‘Return to me, and we will do those things together.’ ‘But you don’t know what a mess I’ve made of my life – my addictions, my violence, my debts, my broken relationships.’ Jesus says, ‘Return to me, and we will face those things together.’ There are no excuses.
Friends, Jesus left his throne in heaven to enter into a broken and sinful world. And by his presence he transforms them to be something new and beautiful, a new creation, a new kingdom that encompasses all nations.
“Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,” declares the LORD. “Many nations will be joined with the LORD in that day and will become my people. I will live among you and you will know that the LORD Almighty has sent me to you. The LORD will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land and will again choose Jerusalem. Be still before the LORD, all mankind, because he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.” (Zech. 2:10–13)
The promises to Israel – that they would be God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule – are fulfilled with the return of the king. Jesus Christ, the God-Man, left heaven and came to earth; will you return to him?
Will you pray with me?
Father, we acknowledge that we are guilty of looking at what the world has and wanting it for ourselves. We see those around us who are successful, attractive, and influential, and we think, ‘I wish I was more like that.’ Yet in so doing we overlook the fact that they are far from you. Jesus said, ‘What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?’ (Mark 8:36) Lord, we repent of our materialism and covetousness. Fix our eyes firmly on Jesus, our greatest treasure, who comes to us in mercy, and who will one day return once more to bring overflowing prosperity and comfort (Zech. 1:17).
In our earthly relationships, Lord, we are guilty of avoiding conflict to maintain a pseudo-‘peace’. We have the opportunity to speak your name but draw back because it might cause us trouble. We avoid being known as Christians, for fear of either ‘rocking the boat.’ Or perhaps we worry about the standard of conduct we will be held to as ambassadors of Christ, a standard we feel unwilling or unable to uphold. Forgive us, Lord, and drive us back to the cross and the empty tomb. Jesus returned to Jerusalem knowing that it would bring him suffering and death, yet he also knew that it was the way to eternal peace in the presence of God. Teach us to trust in him and to follow his path – the way of suffering and death that leads to life.
Forgive us also, Lord, of our habit of measuring the work of the kingdom by the standards of the world. We find it all too easy to measure our church according to numbers – how many attend, how much is raised, how many are sent – and lose sight of your presence (or lack thereof) in our midst. Let us not be like the elder brother so caught up in the numbers – an inheritance squandered – that he missed the joy of his father in welcoming his lost brother home. Give us hearts that rejoice in every person who turns to Christ.
Finally, Lord, for those who have decided to embark upon this life of repentance, we pray that you would draw them deep into relationship with yourself. May they be filled with an insatiable desire for more of you in every aspect of their life. Let them always look to Jesus as both the exemplar and the enabler of the life they are to live.
Boda, Mark J. Return to Me : A Biblical Theology of Repentance. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2015.
On his journey to faith, and even for some time after he became a believer, C. S. Lewis struggled with the Biblical commands to praise God. Was God like the man seeking reassurance of his own virtue or wit; or the woman who requires constant affirmation of her beauty or intelligence? Does God need reminding of his power and might? Or does he just want to make sure his generosity and philanthropy are known by all?
Worst of all was the suggestion of the very silliest Pagan bargaining … More than once the Psalmists seemed to be saying ‘You like praise. Do this for me, and you shall have some.’ … It made one think what one least wanted to think. Gratitude to God, reverence to Him, obedience to Him, I thought I could understand; not this perpetual eulogy.1
Lewis only overcame this difficulty when he realised that it is when we enjoy something that we spontaneously overflow with praise. Lovers praise their beloved and parents their children. We praise athletes, restaurants, musicians, cars, art, food, weather, actors, authors, holiday destinations, coffee, tradesmen… we live in a cacophony of praise! In Lewis’ own words,
I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment… It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed.2
More than that, we avidly invite others to join in that same praise: ‘Wasn’t that awesome? Isn’t she lovely? Does it get any better than this?’
In Psalm 103, we find David delighting in his God, and inviting others to join in doing the same. These invitations echo out in ever-widening circles, starting with his own soul and eventually encompassing the whole of heaven and earth.
1. Praise the LORD for his blessings to you
The first invitation David gives is to his own soul:
Praise the LORD, O my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
– Psalm 103:1–5
Why does David feel the need to summon his soul to praise? In spite of being one of the most prolific praisers in the entire Old Testament, David had his ‘up’ days and his ‘down’ days much like we do. No doubt, some days he sprang from his bed with a song on his lips;((e.g. Ps. 56:16; 92:2.)) other mornings, however, saw him hard pressed, on the run and fearing for his life.3
Perhaps that is your experience as well? Perhaps you woke up this morning eager to meet with God’s people and proclaim together his greatness, goodness, glory and grace. But maybe your enthusiasm was muted, crowded out by sickness, sorrow or sin. Even at Christmas time, traditionally a time of great joy and praise to God, there will be some who find it difficult to rejoice, as they contemplate the empty place at the dinner table or the uncertainty of the year ahead.
Whatever your starting point, David models for us a right response: praise the LORD! In inviting us to praise, he is neither naive, nor unsympathetic. After all, David himself endured great trials throughout his life: he lived on the run from Saul and, later, his own son, Absalom; several of his children died before he did; and the psalms are full of his desperate prayers for deliverance from his enemies. Yet in this psalm, he invites his soul to consider his blessings rather than his trials. He does not ask for anything but focuses on benefits already received.
Chief among these benefits is the one he mentions first: God has revealed himself (v. 1). Wherever you see LORD in all uppercase, this represents God’s covenant name, the name by which he chose to reveal himself to Moses and hence to Israel. This is the ‘holy name’ which David’s ‘inmost being’ must praise. David uses this name nine times in this psalm.4 There can be no mistake about which God David praises: ‘Praise Yahweh, O my soul… Praise Yahweh, O my soul… Praise Yahweh, you his angels… Praise Yahweh, all his heavenly hosts…. Praise Yahweh, all his works… Praise Yahweh, O my soul’.
By revealing his name to Israel, God placed himself in a special relationship with them, what we call a ‘covenant’ relationship. And this relationship carried with it many benefits. David wrote elsewhere, ‘For the sake of your name, O LORD [Yahweh], forgive my iniquity, though it is great.’ (Psa 25:11). Centuries later, the prophet Ezekiel would write, ‘You will know that I am the LORD [Yahweh], when I deal with you for my name’s sake and not according to your evil ways’ (Ezek 20:44). Note the close connection between the name of the LORD, Yahweh, and forgiveness.
The name of the LORD is also closely associated with healing. Yahweh spoke to David’s son, Solomon, and promised that ‘if my people, who are called by my name [Yahweh], will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.’ (2 Chr 7:14). Similarly, the prophet Malachi promised, ‘But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings’ (Mal 4:2). Is it any wonder that David praises Yahweh for healing and forgiveness received in his name?
In verse 3, David mentions Yahweh ‘redeeming [his] life from the pit’. Perhaps he has in mind a literal pit, such as that in which Joseph’s brothers tossed him, and from which he was ‘redeemed’ for the price of twenty shekels, or like when the Israelites under Saul hid in caves and pits and cisterns to escape the Philistine army (1 Sam. 13:6). Elsewhere in the psalms, however, this same language is used to describe death itself.5 Either way, what is certain is that the pit is not a good place to be… and that Yahweh redeems his people from it. Praise the LORD!
In place of whatever destruction is to be found in the pit, David says he has been ‘crowned’ with ‘love and compassion’. Rather than death, he received not only life but life lived in the love and favour of God: he overcame his enemies, he was raised king (literally crowned!) over all Israel, he married and had children, and he lived to see his son crowned king after him.
2. Praise the LORD for his patience with his people
Then, from verse 6, David starts to consider the blessings of God to his people. Yahweh revealed himself not just to Moses but to the people of Israel (v. 7). Yet Israel consistently disappointed him. Repeatedly through their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, they demonstrated the disobedience, idolatry, and lack of faith in Yahweh’s provision. Moses warned them of the consequences that would follow if they kept on like this in his final sermon before they entered the Promised Land, saying,
See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse— the blessing if you obey the commands of the LORD your God that I am giving you today; the curse if you disobey the commands of the LORD your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known.
– Deut. 11:26–28
You see covenants are not all about blessings; they also come with obligations, and failure to meet those obligations results in curse rather than blessing. Yet, in spite of this warning, Israel continued in their disobedience, earning the curse6 of the LORD many times over. David himself had committed adultery and murder. They all stood accused and under God’s wrath. Yet, astonishingly, David can write,
The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
– Psalm 103:8–10
David himself was witness to this in a very graphic way. He once ordered that a census be taken of his fighting men (2 Sam 24), though was later conscience-stricken saying, ‘”I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, O LORD, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant.”‘ (v. 10). God gave him a choice of punishments: three years of famine; three months of fleeing his enemies; or three days of plague. David chose the plague, saying, ‘”Let us fall into the hands of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into the hands of men.”‘ (v. 14). Indeed, Yahweh demonstrated his mercy by relenting before the destruction of Jerusalem was complete (v. 16).
Are we not in the same boat? If God were to repay us according to what we have done, who of us would escape judgment? Yet God is patient with us. How can this be so? Why does God refrain from pouring out the curses promised by Moses for those who are disobedient?
David attributes this mercy to Yahweh’s love for his people.
3. Praise the LORD for he loves those who fear him
David describes this love using a series of analogies:
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
– Psalm 103:11–13
In Hebrew thought, heaven is unimaginably far above the earth; so it is with Yahweh’s love. Can anything be further from the east than the west? Yahweh removes transgressions that far from us. Is there a greater compassion than a parent’s for a child? That is the compassion Yahweh has for those who fear him.
What is even more astounding, Yahweh offers an eternal love to those who are only temporary. Usually our love is in proportion to the amount of time we spend with someone: casual acquaintances get only a little love, whereas our family gets a lot. From Yahweh’s vantage point as eternal God, the years that I spend on earth are like bumping into a stranger on a train. Yet in that relative instant, he pours out his love upon me, upon you, upon us, upon our children and upon our children’s children!
On the other hand, Yahweh’s love is not indiscriminate. It is offered to those ‘who fear him’ (vv. 11, 13, 17), ‘who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts’ (v. 18). And this presents a problem because, as we have already seen, Israel was notoriously bad at doing any of these things. How can Yahweh’s love be said to be ‘everlasting’ if it is only for those who ‘fear’, ‘keep’ and ‘remember’ – as Israel often did not? What if we can’t meet the covenant obligations and so incur – again! – the covenant curses?
This problem is answered by Jesus Christ. Jesus was the only one who ever feared Yahweh perfectly throughout all of his life, who remembered Yahweh’s covenant and obeyed his commands. You see, Yahweh was so determined to demonstrate his faithfulness in delivering the rewards of the covenant that he took upon himself the requirements of the covenant also. According to Paul,
[N]o matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. (2 Cor 1:20)
The promises of Yahweh to his people are ultimately and fully given to Christ as the fulfiller of the covenant. All that remains for us is to speak the ‘Amen’ – ‘I agree’, or ‘let it be so’ – to the glory of God.
When we realise that, the language of this psalm becomes even more significant. ‘As far as the heavens are above the earth’, that’s how far Jesus came to demonstrate the love of Yahweh. The Father withheld compassion from his one and only Son – in Gethsemane and on the cross – in order to show compassion to us. Jesus took away our sins, not just from east to west, but all the way down into death. Yahweh treated Jesus as our sins deserved, repaid him according to our iniquities. No longer does Yahweh accuse, because the curse has fallen on Jesus instead of on us. It is not our faithfulness to the covenant but Jesus’ that guarantees the covenant blessings. Paul would later write that,
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” (Gal 3:13)
The curse fell on Jesus and we are redeemed from the pit.
4. Praise the LORD for his kingdom is over all
But there is another fundamental problem: how can we who are not descended from Abraham and so not part of this covenant in the first place lay claim to these promises?
Once again, the tension is resolved in Jesus. The very next verse from Galatians 3 reads,
He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Gal 3:14)
Christ met the requirements of the covenant, endured the covenant curse on behalf of we who could not… and offers us the covenant blessings that are his by right. In fact, he proclaims a new covenant, one in which the only covenant obligation is to repent of our sins and trust in Jesus himself to work in and through us by his Holy Spirit.
And this new covenant is guaranteed. In ancient times, a covenant lasted only as long as the king who made it, and only within the borders of his realm. But this king, King Jesus, rules a kingdom that is ‘established… in heaven’, and that ‘rules over all’ (v. 19) and so his covenant is not bound by race or place. Nor is it a covenant limited by time, for this king has risen from the grave, and lives for eternity past, present and future! Jesus is able to guarantee the covenant blessings for us because he is sovereign over all time and space.
As a personal aside, the fact that Jesus both fulfils the covenant obligations and guarantees the covenant blessings is tremendously encouraging to me. Earlier this year my Gran passed away, and this psalm was one of the readings she selected for her funeral. My Gran was one of the godliest women that I have ever known. Yet if my hope of seeing her again in eternity rested upon her ability to fulfil the obligations of the covenant – let alone my own poor ability to do the same – it would be a slender hope indeed. But the glory of the gospel is that it does not depend on her, or me. It depends on Christ, and is therefore a sure and certain hope.
There is only one covenant requirement: repent of your sin and put your trust in Jesus. As you do, you gain access to blessings seen only in shadow in the earlier covenant. Everyone who believes in Jesus receives eternal life (John 3:16), and his love remains on them literally ‘from everlasting to everlasting’ (v. 17). Friend, I beg you to receive it as the good news that it is and respond: turn away from your sins and turn to Jesus. He will bestow his many blessings upon you according to his goodness, mercy and wisdom. He will be patient with you, for he himself knows what it is like to live in a wicked world, to be tempted, and to feel weakness (Heb 4:15).
Conclusion: Praise Jesus because he is the LORD
Let’s close by considering the movement of the psalm: David starts with the individual, then Israel as a chosen people, and finally climaxing in the proclamation that, ‘The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.’ (Psa 103:19) As Christians we recognise that climax in the distinctive work of Jesus Christ on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. It is an accomplished fact, a completed work. Yet we must also remember Jesus’ parting words to his disciples that echo so closely what David is doing in this psalm: ‘you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). As followers of Christ we have the responsibility to declare Jesus Christ throughout the whole world, starting with our own heart. As Lewis wrote, that praise not only expresses but completes the enjoyment; and that joy naturally overflows into an invitation to others to share it with us.
David knew the LORD -Yahweh, which means ‘I-am-who-I-am’, or ‘I-will-be-who-I-will-be’ – and he couldn’t help but praise him and call his nation and, indeed, all creation to praise him. As we approach this Christmas season, let us remember that we know our Lord by another name – Jesus, Yeshua, ‘Yahweh saves’, Immanuel, ‘God with us’ – and let’s proclaim him in our praise!
Please pray with me:
We praise you Lord Jesus, for you are the Lord over all creation. As high as the heavens are above the earth, that’s how far you came to demonstrate your love, not just to those who fear you but on your enemies (Rom. 5:8)! Though eternally crowned with the love and compassion of your Father, you set aside that crown and were born as a human child to a humble family.
Lord, we delight in your name. Before your birth Isaiah prophesied your coming, saying that ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel’ (Isa 7:14), which means ‘God with us’. He also named you, ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’ (Isa 9:6). The angel who appeared to Joseph instructed him to name you Jesus – ‘Yahweh saves’ – because you would ‘save [your] people from their sins’ (Matt 1:21).
And having lived a perfect life you did exactly that – saved us, your people, from our sins. You redeemed our life from the pit by going there in our place, and so you ensure that we no longer stand accused because our sins are blotted out forever. By rising to new life you proclaim that your sacrifice on our behalf has been found acceptable and is ‘from everlasting to everlasting’. And we know that God has exalted you to the highest place, and given you the name that is above every other name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:9-11).
Therefore we delight to bear the name of ‘Christian’ – those who belong to Christ. As the Apostle Peter declared, ‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).
Praise the Lord Jesus, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name!
Lewis, C. S. Selected Books. London: HarperCollins, 2002.
My six-year-old son, Aedan, talks himself into believing things. Most recently, he has decided he is getting a particular toy for Christmas, a toy called a GUP. It is amusing to listen to him speaking his thoughts aloud. It starts out as, ‘It would be really good if Mummy and Daddy bought me the GUP for Christmas.’ He then proceeds to talk about the ‘benefits’ of this particular GUP. Convinced that he has made his case, he starts talking about it as an accomplished fact: ‘When I get the GUP for Christmas…’
A master of subtlety my son is not!
In the same way, the Jewish people had talked themselves into certain expectations about the promised kingdom of heaven. In particular, they believed that the arrival of the kingdom would end the oppression of the Roman Empire, that all their enemies would be crushed, and that they would live as rulers. Even Jesus’ own disciples were not immune: James and John wanted to sit at Jesus’ right and left, ruling and reigning with Jesus (Matt. 20:21; Mark 10:37).
So, in Matthew 13, Jesus starts to correct their expectations. First, he tells the Parable of the Sower and the Soils, to show that there will be a variety of responses to the kingdom. In this parable, Jesus shows that even opposition will serve God’s purposes.
The sower permits weeds in his field…
The story Jesus tells is a simple one. A farmer sows good seed because he wants a good harvest. But this farmer has an enemy, an enemy who wants to harm and destroy. So, this enemy sows bad seed, weed seed, amongst the good seed.1 In the early stages, these weeds look much like the wheat that the farmer is expecting. It is only once the heads start to form on the wheat that the farmer’s servants realise what has happened. So they run to their master and ask him what they ought to do. What will he decide?
It is the farmer’s decision, for it is his field and his crop. He could, if he chooses, send his workers in to pull out the weeds. Now that the wheat has heads it can be distinguished from the weeds. But the roots are so tangled this will be a lengthy and arduous process, and much of the wheat will be trampled. Perhaps he would be better off burning the lot and starting again?
According to Jesus’ interpretation, the field represents the world (v. 38). This world is filled with ‘sons of the evil one’ (v. 38) – weeds. And the sower is the Son of Man, Jesus himself. He is making a staggering claim to be the owner of the world; the ultimate decision about how the world should be dealt with lies in his hands.2 Many books and movies will present the struggle between good and evil, heaven and hell, God and Satan as a fight between equal but opposite forces. But that is not Jesus’ perspective. The reality is that the enemy will do his best to destroy and harm, but the ownership and the authority lie with the Lord Jesus.
I think most of us would like to be in Jesus’ position. We’d love to sit on the judge’s bench – even if only for a day! – and clear up some of the evil people in our life. This person is wrong, that person needs to be dealt with. If only we had the power, we’d sort them out. But the truth is that we are not in any way qualified to do so. Actually, we are all weeds and deserving of judgment. We belong in the dock, not on the bench. It is only Christ who has both the qualifications and the authority to judge.
Well, the sower makes his choice. He does not choose to destroy life on the earth, as he did in the days of Noah (Gen. 6-9). Nor does he separate out his people, as he did when he brought the Israelites out of Egypt (Ex. 1-15). He could have done these things, but he had already demonstrated that these approaches don’t work: Noah had barely stepped off his ark when he got himself drunk (Gen. 9:20-23); and Moses was still receiving commandments on the top of the mountain as the Israelites were already breaking them at the bottom (Ex. 32:1-8; cf. Ex. 20:3)! No, these plans were no good, and a better plan was required.
So, rather than dividing or destroying, separating or starting again, the sower chooses to allow the wheat and the weeds to grow up together. Jesus is clear that the sower does not plant the weeds – ‘an enemy did this’ (v. 28) – but he does permit them to continue to live and grow.3
Brothers and sisters, this is hard but we ought not to shy away from this truth. God has chosen to permit evil people to enter our lives. He has permitted the continued existence of adulterers and abusers, drug-dealers and drunk-drivers, paedophiles and pornographers. He has allowed murderers, warmongers, sexual predators… and even people who drive slow in the fast lane! And not because he was lacking in options. After all, he could unmake the world the same way he made it – with a word. But he has chosen instead to allow the ‘sons of the kingdom’ to grow in the midst of the ‘sons of the evil one’, the wheat in the midst of the weeds.
Why? The answer Jesus gives in this story (though it is not the only answer) is that it is for the sake of his crop.
… for the sake of his crop…
When the servants come to the farmer to ask if they should remove the weeds, he answers, ‘No… because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them’ (v. 30). Removal of the weeds would hurt the crop more than leaving them there, and it is the crop that the farmer cares about.
How can this be so? I want to give you just a few of the many ways in which the presence of ‘sons of the evil one’ actually proves beneficial for the ‘sons of the kingdom’.
The first and most important is that we are given opportunity to repent and believe (Rom. 9:22-24). None of us are born as good seed; we all start out as weeds. In the beginning there was only one good seed,4 only one Son of the kingdom, and that was Jesus himself. And the sons of the evil one put him to death in the most breathtaking act of evil the world has ever seen. God permitted Judas to betray Jesus to the Jewish authorities, permitted those authorities to hand Jesus over to Pilate, and permitted Pilate to sentence Jesus to death on a cross. Jesus died at the hands of evil men and women, and God allowed all this to happen.
Yet, in a stunning reversal, the Son of the kingdom who died was raised to life and crowned King of the kingdom! God was using what Judas, the Jewish authorities and Pilate intended for evil to bring about good.5 If evil were not permitted then there would be no kingdom for there would be no King.
What is more, God used this very act of evil to open the door for the sons of evil to become sons of the kingdom. In this parable, the farmer spares the weeds for the sake of the wheat. But the amazing thing is that God did not spare the Seed, his only Son; instead, Jesus was permitted to suffer in order that the weeds might become wheat. The Son of the kingdom suffered the fate reserved for the sons and daughters of evil – death and destruction – so that those sons and daughters might enjoy the future promised to the good seed – life and glory in the presence of God. John Calvin called this the ‘wondrous exchange’.6
But this exchange is not automatic. Weeds can only become wheat if they repent and believe. ‘Repentance’ means that you stop running away from God, stop fighting against him and turn to him instead. And ‘belief’ means that you trust in Jesus Christ and what he has done for you instead of what you think you can do for yourself. Weeds cannot produce heads of wheat, no matter how hard they try; they need to be transformed in the wondrous exchange.
None of this could happen without God’s patience, which gives us the opportunity to repent and believe. If you are not a Christian, this is the point of this morning’s message for you. We love you and we’re glad you’re here, but we wouldn’t be loving you if we didn’t tell you the truth. In God’s eyes, you are a weed and you do not belong in his field. Instead, you belong in the fire of judgment and destruction. We all do! But Jesus died so that you could choose to be wheat instead, and he rose from the dead to tell you that the choice is yours. Will you choose to remain a weed on the path to destruction? Or will you choose to trust in God’s promise of salvation for all who repent and believe? I beg you to choose wisely, and to choose today, for time is running out.
Christian brothers and sisters, it is also important for us to remember that God’s patience has a purpose. You were a weed, and now you are not; have a little compassion for those who still are. The only difference between the weeds and wheat is that the latter have chosen to trust in the work of Christ. That colleague or relative or acquaintance or neighbour who makes your life difficult may well be a weed today; but tomorrow they may be a brother or sister! So encourage them, show them how life in the kingdom is better than ‘life’ outside it and pray that they will repent and believe in Christ before it is too late.
So the first reason for God’s patience with the weeds is so that they may become wheat. But he also uses the weeds to strengthen the wheat by building their character (Rom. 5:3-5). When a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, it must struggle its way out of the cocoon. The very struggle is what builds the strength it will need to fly. If you were to ‘help’ it emerge by cutting open the cocoon, it would never develop that strength and so would never fly. In the same way, Christians must wrestle with the presence of evil people in the world because that is how they grow in Christian character. It is in loving the unloveable that we grow in love. Our joy is put to the test only when we face great sadness. I used to think I was a patient person, but then I had kids and now I am having to develop whole new levels of patience!
This week, then, when someone cuts you off, or lets you down, or yells at you, or embarrasses you… ask God if he is trying to teach you something. Do you need to grow in patience? or peace? or gentleness? Is your joy weak and in need of strengthening? Instead of asking that God remove that person, ask that he would grow in you what you need to love them.7
So, God is patient with the weeds in his field so that they may become wheat, and also so that the wheat will grow stronger. Finally, the presence of evil people around us drives us to trust God for our comfort, and in the process be made able to comfort others (2 Cor. 1:3-5). When we are faced with challenging people and challenging circumstances, that is when we turn to God in desperation. God wants us to do this, because that is how we learn to trust him. But it is often also the means by which he provides comfort to others. The best people to comfort the abused are those who have survived abuse; the best people to comfort war veterans are other veterans; the best people to comfort those whose kids and grandkids drive them nuts are other parents. God puts challenging people in our lives to make us dependent upon him. When we do, we learn and we grow… and God gives us opportunities to show and tell others what we have learned and from whom we have learned it.
Take some time today to reflect on how God has used the weeds in your life to make you trust him more; how he has provided for you when you did; and who you might share these things with.
I have given you three reasons from Scripture why God has chosen to allow weeds to remain in his field: to give opportunity to repent; to build character; and to make us able to minister to others. There are many other reasons, but hopefully these are enough to convince you that God’s choice to allow evil people to exist and to flourish in the world is not arbitrary, but is actually for our good.
… but only until the harvest.
Yet, even if we agree and accept all this, it is still natural for us to wonder with the psalmist, ‘How long, O Lord?’ (Ps. 79:5).8
Jesus answers this question as well, speaking in his parable of a harvest day.
‘Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’ (Matt 13:30)
God is patient, but he will not remain so forever. There is a day coming, which Jesus calls the ‘end of the age’ (v. 40), when this state of affairs will come to an end. On that day, the wheat and the weeds will meet very different fates. By the time the harvest comes, it is abundantly clear what is wheat and what is weed. So the harvesters will go through the kingdom and ‘weed out… everything that causes sin and all who do evil’ (v. 41). God is utterly opposed to evil and evil people, and he will not put up with them forever. Instead, he will bring judgment upon them in the form of a ‘fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (v. 42). Christians call this hell – an eternity of conscious torment and suffering, separated from the presence of God. It is a terrible fate, and not one that I would wish on anyone. Once again, if you are not a Christian I urge you to repent and believe today, to trust in Jesus Christ today; God’s promise of salvation is available today but there is nowhere in Scripture that promises salvation will still be available on that day.9
The fate of the wheat will be very different. Jesus says that they will ‘shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father’ (v. 43). They will be brought into his barn, the place that he has prepared for them. The sons and daughters of the kingdom will live as sons and daughters of the King, enjoying his presence forever.
Jesus permits weeds in his field for the sake of his crop… but only until the harvest. At that time, whether by demonstrating his justice toward the weeds or his mercy toward the wheat, the Lord will be glorified.
Let us pray:
Father, we are amazed by your wisdom, your mercy and your grace. Thank you that you allowed your Son, the one good Seed, to suffer at the hands of evil men and women, so that those very same men and women could be offered the chance to come into your kingdom. We humbly and gratefully take up your offer to leave behind our life as sons and daughters of the evil one to become sons and daughters of the kingdom. Help us to live in a way that is consistent with our humble state: offering to others the same grace, mercy and patience that we have been given; receiving the people in our lives as character-builders rather than characters to be rid of; and sharing with those around us the love and comfort that we receive from you.
We pray for the many who do not know you – including, perhaps, some in this room – who continue living the life of weeds. Though they thrive and flourish, they are oblivious to the coming harvest day and the fate that awaits them. Lord, open their eyes before it is too late. Let them see that it is better to live the sometimes hard life of wheat among weeds now, than to suffer the fate of weeds on that day. Draw them to yourself, so that they will trust in the work of Jesus Christ and take advantage the ‘wondrous exchange’ made possible by his death on the cross, and confirmed by his resurrection from the dead.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Trans. by Henry Beveridge. Accordance electronic ed. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845.
France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007.
Payne, Phillip B. “Jesus’ Implicit Claim to Deity in His Parables.” TrinJ 2 (1984): 3–23.
- This was sufficiently common that Roman law dealt specifically with the crime of sowing such weeds as an act of revenge. R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007), 525.
- In the Old Testament, it is the LORD who plants (Ezek. 17:23, quoted in the immediate context of Matt. 13:32); here it is Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is putting himself in the place of God as establisher of the kingdom. cf. Phillip B. Payne, “Jesus’ Implicit Claim to Deity in His Parables,” TrinJ 2(1984), 5.
- cf. Job 1-2.
- σπέρμα is singular here, though it is typically taken as a collective noun. But might it not also be reflective of a singular Seed? cf. Paul’s similar argument in Gal. 3:16.
- cf. Gen. 50:20.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 4.17.2. cf. 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13.
- cf. 2 Cor. 12:9.
- cf. Isa. 6:11, ‘Then I said, “For how long, O Lord?”’. This is Isaiah’s response to the judgment pronounced in Isa. 6:10, and quoted in the immediate context of this parable (Matt. 13:14-15).
- cf. Heb. 4:7.
Last week, Stephen Trew reminded us that we have entire industries devoted to making us dissatisfied with our lives. Advertisers and marketers would have us believe that without their product we are incomplete and unfulfilled. The message is subtle but persistent: ‘You will look better in these sunglasses.’ ‘This seminar will make you fabulously rich.’ ‘Have a holiday and leave your worries behind.’ As a result, we are constantly on the lookout for something that will give us an edge, constantly suspicious that the secret is out there if only we knew where to look, and constantly jealous of those doing better than we are.
Sadly, things are not always better in the church. This week marks 25 years since I became a Christian. During my quarter century following Christ, I have seen many fads come and go, fads that promised a path to a better, brighter, fuller, deeper, more satisfying faith. As a new Christian, it was the so-called ‘Toronto Blessing’, a revival characterised by spiritual manifestations which, it was hoped, would sweep across the world. In high school, I remember earnestly desiring (and being encouraged to desire) to speak in tongues in order to enjoy a fuller and deeper relationship with God. At uni I was told that the best Christians worshipped at a particular church, went to Bible study twice a week and shared their faith on the library lawn in their spare time. More recently, it has been about the preachers that I podcast, the books that I read, my stance on social issues etc. Real Christians, I am told, do these things.
Does this sound familiar to you?
It would have sounded familiar to Paul. In fact, it seems that this is exactly what was going on in Colossae, with outsiders trying to convince the Colossians that the real Christian life required them to do certain things. Whilst it is difficult to decipher all the specifics of what they were proposing, the broad outline seems clear enough. So this morning we will consider Paul’s responses to:
- radical religion (vv. 16-17);
- ecstatic experiences (vv. 18-19); and
- pandering to principles and powers (vv. 20-23).
Radical religion (vv. 16-17)
‘Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.’ (Col 2:16)
The threefold pattern of annual festivals, monthly New Moon celebrations and weekly Sabbaths was a common way of referring to Jewish religious practices found throughout the Old Testament,1 and Sabbaths were a distinctively Jewish practice. This leads us to suspect that the outsiders were ‘judging’ the Colossians in regard to their failure to observe Jewish customs. Real Christians, after all, must obey the Law.
However, it probably wasn’t just the Law as Jews would have recognised it. Whilst the Law prescribed many foods it has almost no regulations on what Israelites may drink. The major exception was in relation to Nazirite vows (Num. 6:2ff.).2 This was a ‘vow of separation to the LORD’ (Num. 6:2), usually voluntary and for a fixed period of time.3 Whilst under this vow the man or woman making the vow was prohibited from eating or drinking anything that came from grapes, including wine (Num. 6:3-4). It is possible that the outsiders were advocating this kind of dedication as a permanent way of life to attract God’s special blessing or favour. Or perhaps they were using it as evidence of their own super-spirituality. They were not just following the Law as it applied to them, they were going out of their way to follow all of the Law. They would isolate some minor practice from the Law and make it central. Law 2.0 if you like.
Modern day equivalents might include those who advise praying the prayer of Jabez in order to obtain God’s blessing:
‘Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request.’ (1 Chr. 4:10)
Others advocate not drinking alcohol, eating fish on Fridays, not playing sport on Sundays and so on. There is even a group who encourage the so-called ‘Daniel diet’, only eating vegetables and drinking water, as Daniel and his companions did (Dan. 1:11-16).4
By themselves, these practices are not necessarily bad. After all they say vegetarians live, on average, 8 years longer than meat-eaters.5 Similarly some people are wise to avoid alcohol because of health or addiction problems it may pose. Elsewhere, Paul allows these as matters of conscience.6
But if the purpose in eating or not eating, touching or not touching, doing or not doing is to please God, to manipulate God, to attract God’s blessing, or simply to be ‘super-spiritual’, then Paul says that is entirely the wrong track. Here is his response:
‘These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.’ (Col. 2:17)
This week we will celebrate Bethea’s birthday. A month or so before she was born, as a Father’s Day present, Katrie printed out an ultrasound picture to go with photos of our other 2 kids. I still have that ultrasound on my desk, but these days I don’t look at it so often. That’s because Bethea has arrived, and I have gotten to know her smile, her enthusiasm, her bright eyes, her hugs. I have held her as she slept, watched her learn to walk, fed her endless ‘straw-babies’ and listened to her sing songs from Frozen. Some of these were things I might have guessed from the ultrasound, but at best they were only shadows; now that she is here, I am entranced by the real thing.
According to Paul the festivals, the sacrifices and Sabbaths prescribed in the Old Testament were all pictures that pointed to the coming of Christ. They were reminders that God had so ordered the world that there was an appropriate time for everything; in particular, they were reminders that there was a time coming when the promised Messiah, Jesus, would be revealed. Now that the Messiah had arrived, there was no longer a need for these reminders. Similarly, the food and drink restrictions pointed to a need for purity before a holy God, a purity that now comes by Christ rather than by what we eat and drink.
Radical religion that judges based on food and drink, days and dates does not make you ‘super-spiritual'; it makes you super-silly, like a father so engrossed in an ultrasound that he misses baby’s first words.
Ecstatic experiences (vv. 18-19)
Paul moves on to address another supposed avenue of ‘super-spirituality’.
‘Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize.’ (Col. 2:18)
Once again, the specifics of what Paul is targeting here are difficult to reconstruct at this distance. But in some ways that is a good thing, as it makes us slow down and look carefully at what he is saying, rather than dismissing it with a shrug and saying, ‘That’s not a problem here.’
So, what does Paul mean when he talks about ‘worship of angels’? Some have suggested that the Colossians were being encouraged to participate in the worship that the angels offer toward God, seeing great visions like Isaiah did (Isa. 6) of the LORD on his throne and angels in attendance upon him. If this is the case, then the goal was probably the experience and feeling closer to God.
We see the same thing today, when people shop around for the church that has the best ‘worship’, or who go from conference to conference seeking the spiritual high that indicates to them the presence of God. We see books in Christian books stores purporting to describe visits to heaven during near-death experiences, or claiming special insight and knowledge of the events that will accompany the end of the world and so on. For me as a teenager, it was being told that I needed my own ‘prayer language’, that I must pray in tongues in order to connect more fully with God. It was choosing the right camps to go on, the right youth leaders to hang out with, the right events and conferences to attend and so on.
Once again, these things are not necessarily bad, but motives matter. Paul’s diagnosis of what is going on in Colossae is damning:
‘Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.’ (Col. 2:18b-19).
Unlike the ‘radical religionists’, Paul says that those peddling ecstatic experiences are ‘unspiritual’, ‘puffed up… with idle notions’. Worst of all, they ultimately result in separation from Christ, the Head, and thus are at risk of death if not rapidly reattached. We know of people who have had limbs amputated, but it is never the limb that goes on to live a happy and healthy life! The tragic irony is that by following this path to a ‘fuller life’, they were actually moving closer to death; on the other hand, it is by connection to Christ that growth and fullness occurs, ‘as God causes it to grow’.
If that were not bad enough, it seems that the newcomers were ‘disqualifying’ others along the way. Perhaps they were claiming special knowledge of God’s will based on their ‘visions’, their special ‘spiritual understanding’ as the basis of ‘disqualification’.
The image is a sporting one. Some will remember the 20km walking event at the Sydney Olympic Games, when Australian athlete Jane Saville was disqualified as she entered the stadium for violating the rules of the competition. Her amazing performance was rendered pointless because of the judge’s decision.
We are right to be suspicious when we see people converting their experiences into cash or spiritual authority. When someone sets themselves up as a judge we ought to take a close look at what they are saying, and see if it matches up with what we find in the gospel of Christ. How silly it would be if Jane Saville had allowed herself to be disqualified by a spectator, or because of something that was not in the rules, such as the brand of shoes she wore, or the amount of water she drank.
Seeking after ecstatic experiences does not make you ‘super-spiritual'; it makes you super-susceptible to being cut off from the Head, that is Christ.
Pandering to principles and powers (vv. 18-23)
However, it is also possible that the worship was offered to the angels themselves.
Part of the cultural and religious background in the region was that misfortune was considered to emanate from malicious spirits,7 the so-called ‘powers and authorities’ or ‘basic principles’. So if a crop failed, or a child died, or a war loomed, this was because the spirit in question had brought it about. The solution, it was thought, was to invoke by name the angel with power over that spirit. So, for example, in Acts 19, seven men went around Ephesus casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and throwing in Paul’s name for good measure (Acts 19:13-16). Similarly, many amulets have been found bearing various ‘powerful’ names, some of them from Jewish religion (Yahweh, Michael), often right alongside those from pagan religions (Isis, Artemis etc.).
If this is the right reading, the Colossians were being encouraged to put their trust in these angels as they had before they came to Christ.
Invoking angels also involved purifying oneself by fasting in order to prevent the malicious spirit from gaining power over your flesh, and to avoid offending the angels through ‘impurity’.8 These kind of ‘human commands and teachings’ reflect an attitude at least as old as Eve. She (and perhaps Adam before her) obviously felt God’s one command (‘don’t eat the fruit from the tree’, Gen. 2:17) was not enough, expanding it instead to ‘don’t eat… and don’t touch’ (Gen. 3:3).
We live in a world that seems hostile toward us. Some of our worries would be recognisable to the Colossians: war, famine, disease. Others, however, are exclusively ours: cancer, financial crisis, terrorism, global warming, interest rates, nuclear war. Wherever we look, our health and happiness are under threat. The future looks anything but rosy.
The accuracy of this perception depends on where you stand in relation to Christ.
If you do not yet believe in Christ, then the picture is genuinely this bleak. Because if you are not in Christ then you are actually in bondage to these malicious powers and principles, captives of a ‘hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ’ (v. 8). Your only hope is in obeying the rules, but this is the false hope of a ‘hollow and deceptive philosophy’.
But we are so glad you are here today, because the good news for you is that it doesn’t have to be this way. There is a true hope for you that doesn’t depend on how well you obey the religious rules, finding the right angels to deal with your problems, or treating your body harshly to achieve spiritual purity. As Paul has already told us in verse 15, Christ has triumphed over these very ‘powers and authorities… by the cross’. Jesus Christ is the ‘head’, that is the ruler, ‘over every power and authority’. And he invites you to join him, to die with him to the ‘basic principles of this world’ (v. 20) and then to be raised to new life with him. You need no longer live in servile fear, but can experience the fullness that is found only in Christ (v. 10). You no longer have to fear those malevolent powers – lone wolf gunmen, paedophiles, unemployment, bushfires, bullying. Though no less hostile you will be walking with Christ, who closely limits their power. He is your protection. Listen to Paul’s assurance to the Romans:
‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Rom 8:38–39)
That is truly good news, and I urge you to act on it today.
Christian brothers and sisters, I have good news for you too. For that ‘love of God that is in Christ Jesus’ is not just for our eternal salvation but also for our day to day. The reference to ‘false humility’ (v. 23) suggests that the argument went something like this: ‘It is good that you have trusted in Christ for your salvation; but we don’t bother him with the little stuff, because the angels can handle that’.
But we don’t serve a God who deals with the big stuff but avoids the nitty-gritty. He wants to be our first port of call in all things, he wants us to bring our joys and our sorrows directly to him. We have no need of protectors. We have no need of other mediators between us and him – no angels, no saints, no priests – for we have one mediator, Jesus Christ, who sits at the right hand of the Father interceding for us (Rom. 8:34). So when your child is sick go to Jesus first; when your marriage is in trouble go to Jesus first; when disaster strikes go to Jesus first. In his wisdom, he may then provide doctors and counsellors and emergency services to help you. Or he may say, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Cor. 12:9). Either way, you can trust him to care for you as a Father cares for his child.
Similarly, when sin and temptation strike the answer is not some program of ‘harsh treatment of the body’ (v. 23) where you eat only turnips, or beat yourself with whips, or move into a monastery and live in silence. Though these things may ‘have an appearance of wisdom… they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence’ (v. 23). Once again, the answer is Christ and recognising that in him you have died to sin (v. 20) and been raised with him (3:1). But more on that next week.
Radical religion, ecstatic experience and pandering to powers and principles promise much: they promise to make us ‘super-spiritual'; they promise us a ‘full’ life. But in the end they are found to be not full but ‘hollow and deceitful’ (v. 8). ‘Super-spirituality’ turns out to be merely pseudo-spirituality. ‘Closer’ to Christ turns out to be ‘cut off’ from Christ. These things do not make you a real Christian, merely a deceived Christian. The fullness we desire is found only in Christ, in whom is all the fullness of God. It is only in him that we can be satisfied.
Therefore, do not let anyone ‘judge’ (v. 16) you because there is only one judge, Jesus Christ; do not let anyone ‘disqualify you for the prize’ (v. 18) for it is God himself who has ‘qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light’ (Col. 1:12); do not submit to the rules of defeated powers and authorities for Christ, who is the head over all such authorities (v. 10), is your sovereign now (Col. 1:13).
In closing, and in light of all we have learned in this series so far, I want to pray over us the prayer that Paul offered for the Colossians back in Col. 1:9-14.
God, I pray you would fill us, West Pennant Hills Community Church, with the knowledge of your will through all the spiritual wisdom and understanding found in Christ, in whom we find and receive your fullness. I pray this in order that we may live a life worthy of the Lord Jesus, and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work; growing in the knowledge of God, knowledge received in full through Jesus; being strengthened with all power according to Christ’s glorious might, so that we might have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to you, Father, the one who has qualified us to share in the full inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.
And Father, if there are any here today who have not yet been rescued from the dominion of darkness, and brought into the kingdom of your Son, Jesus, whom you love, I pray that you would meet them today, that you would call them today, that they would turn to you today in repentance and faith, trusting you to bring them redemption and forgiveness of sins through your Son, Jesus Christ.
Arnold, Clinton The Colossian Syncretism : The Interface Between Christianity and Folk Belief At Colossae. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996.
Bruce, F. F. The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1984.
- e.g. 1 Chr. 23:31; Neh. 10:33; Ezek. 45:17; Hos. 2:11.
- F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1984), 114.
- The exception being Samson, who was under a Nazirite vow from before conception for his entire life, by command of the LORD (Judg. 13:5). However, over the course of his life Samson violated every one of the Nazirite regulations: drinking wine (inferred from his giving a wedding feast in Judg. 14:10ff.; cf. Num. 6:3-4); not only approaching dead bodies (Judg. 14:9; cf. Num. 6:6-7) but killing men (Judg. 14:19; 15:15; ) and allowing his hair to be shaved (Judg. 16:17-19; cf. Num. 6:5).
- 8 miserable, baconless years!
- Rom. 14:5-6; 1 Cor. 10:23-33.
- Clinton E. Arnold, The Colossian Syncretism : The Interface Between Christianity and Folk Belief At Colossae (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), passim.; Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, 112.
- Arnold, Colossian Syncretism, 233.
|16 Μὴ οὖν τις ὑμᾶς ⸀κρινέτω ἐν βρώσει ⸁καὶ ἐν πόσει ἢ ἐν μέρει ἑορτῆς ἢ νεομηνίας ἢ σαββάτων·||Therefore let not anyone you in eating or in drinking or in regard to a feast or a new moon or sabbaths;|
|17 ⸀ἅ ἐστιν σκιὰ τῶν μελλόντων, τὸ δὲ σῶμα τοῦ Χριστοῦ.||which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance [is] of Christ.|
|18 μηδεὶς ὑμᾶς καταβραβευέτω θέλων °ἐν ταπεινοφροσύνῃ καὶ θρησκείᾳ τῶν ἀγγέλων, ⸀ἃ ἑόρακεν ἐμβατεύων, εἰκῇ φυσιούμενος ὑπὸ τοῦ νοὸς τῆς σαρκὸς αὐτοῦ,|
|19 καὶ οὐ κρατῶν τὴν κεφαλήν⸆, ἐξ οὗ πᾶν τὸ σῶμα διὰ τῶν ἁφῶν καὶ συνδέσμων ἐπιχορηγούμενον καὶ συμβιβαζόμενον αὔξει τὴν αὔξησιν τοῦ θεοῦ.|
- Do not let anyone judge you based on religious observances (16-17)
- Do not be dazzled by religious visions (18-19)
Col 2:17. The body which casts the shadow is Christ. But in what sense?
|20 Εἰ ⸆ ἀπεθάνετε σὺν Χριστῷ ἀπὸ τῶν στοιχείων τοῦ κόσμου, τί ὡς ζῶντες ἐν κόσμῳ δογματίζεσθε;|
|21 μὴ ἅψῃ μηδὲ γεύσῃ μηδὲ θίγῃς,|
|22 ἅ ἐστιν πάντα εἰς φθορὰν τῇ ἀποχρήσει, κατὰ τὰ ἐντάλματα καὶ διδασκαλίας τῶν ἀνθρώπων,|
|23 ἅτινά ἐστιν λόγον μὲν ἔχοντα σοφίας ἐν ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ καὶ ταπεινοφροσύνῃ ⸆ °[καὶ] ἀφειδίᾳ σώματος, οὐκ ἐν τιμῇ τινι πρὸς πλησμονὴν τῆς σαρκός.|
Walker, Jeremy. Passing Through : Pilgrim Life in the Wilderness. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015.
Christians are pulled in two directions in how they interact with the world: on the one side, there is the tendency to conform to the world; on the other to completely isolate themselves from the world. Faithful Christian witness requires that we chart a course between these two extremes. Jeremy Walker has written this book to “help us to navigate between the Scylla of isolation and the Charybdis of emulation” by recovering our self-conception as pilgrims.
After two introductory chapters laying out the problem (ch. 1) and the proposed solution (ch. 2), Walker spends the balance of the book exploring different aspects of the pilgrim journey and the ways in which Christians must understand and engage with the world. Each of these chapters has a three-fold structure: (1) scriptural framework; (2) summary thoughts; (3) specific counsels. Part (1) of each chapter lays out specific scriptural texts that relate to the chapter theme. This is by far the strongest part of this book, for Walker’s exegesis is always solid and often insightful. Part (2) seeks synthesise this exegesis into a more complete picture, though often does little more than repeat the comments from individual texts with different illustrations.
For me, the great disappointment was part (3) of each chapter. Walker seems to leave the ‘specific’ out of ‘specific counsels’, settling instead for generalised imperatives. Whilst reviewers ought not to criticise a book for something it is not, I cannot help but feel that this was a missed opportunity for identifying how Christians ought to engage with specific aspects of today’s post-Christian culture. Instead, Walker settles for illustrating his comments by regurgitating Bunyan, WWII anecdotes etc. I think the closest he comes to addressing ‘modern’ concerns is speaking of abortion in his chapter on respecting the authorities, and Roe v. Wade is 42 years old this year!
The overall effect of Walker’s repetition and generality is that of a guest who has outstayed his welcome, continuing to advocate points long since accepted at the expense of developing and applying them. I confess I groaned when I discovered there was one more chapter to read. Nevertheless, his exegesis is very good, and I will be making note of some of his illustrations for future in my own preaching.
Last week we started a new sermon series looking at the ways the Holy Spirit enables us to live a life that not only observes but fulfils the law. He describes this kind of life in terms of ‘freedom':
‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.’ (Gal 5:1)
Christians are set free from the need for continual perfect obedience to the law of God because of the finished work of Jesus Christ, which in turn brings about the gift of the Holy Spirit to those who put their trust in him. Christians are free in the truest sense.
But ‘free’ is probably not the word that springs to mind when the world thinks about Christianity, probably because they have different expectations about what ‘freedom’ means. Consider these common definitions:
- President Roosevelt spoke in 1941 of ‘freedom of speech everywhere, freedom of worship everywhere, freedom from want everywhere and freedom from fear everywhere’;1
- Rolling Stones sang: “I’m free to do what I want any old time / I’m free to do what I want any old time / So love me hold me love me hold me / I’m free any old time to get what I want”;
- Every year, thousands of teenagers complete their HSC and go off on ‘Schoolies’ vacations to celebrate their newfound ‘freedom’.
Although this was probably one of his earliest letters, Paul was already a seasoned pastor by the time he wrote Galatians. He knew that when you tell people they are ‘free from law’ some just want to go out and break all the laws that previously bound them… just because they can! But what if there is no law to start with? For gentiles such as the Galatians, the limitations on morality prescribed by the laws of the Roman Empire were minimal. Blood and brutality in the circus, paedophilia, homosexuality, slavery, orgies… pretty much anything went. Were the Galatians ‘free’, then, to continue life as they had before?
According to the Apostle Paul, we must understand that freedom is either good or bad depending on the nature of the one set free. He describes two very different natures, the sinful nature and the spiritual nature. And each nature has its own set of desires that are completely opposite to one another and therefore in conflict (Gal. 5:17).
On the one hand, we have what Paul calls the ‘sinful nature’. He does not spell out the desires that emanate from the sinful nature, but let’s see if we can infer them from the acts and behaviours that Paul lists as characteristic of the sinful nature:
‘The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.’ (Gal 5:19–21)
These acts fall into a couple of broad categories. ‘Sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery’ are all acts of sexual self-gratification. Pornography, adultery, masturbation, sexual fantasies, prostitution, molestation – all of these things are about how it feels for me, my needs and desires, what I can get out of it.
Idolatry and witchcraft, on the other hand, are about spiritual self-determination. Idolatry is the worship as ‘god’ of anyone or anything other than the triune God revealed in Scripture. I may call it ‘god': such as Allah, Mother Nature or Buddha. Or it may simply take the place of a god in my life, as I offer it my time, energy and money in worship: work, family, wealth, sport, health, beauty or whatever. I choose a ‘god’ that serves my needs and desires. Similarly, witchcraft is an attempt to coerce the spirit world into doing my bidding, so that I get what I want.
Next comes ‘hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy’. Here the goal is self-exaltation. In any group, what I want to be first and most important. It’s my opinion that matters and you’d better listen to me and join my side or else.
Finally, ‘drunkenness’ and ‘orgies’ are about self-indulgence. In this category we might put addictions of all kinds: drugs, alcohol, gambling, food, entertainment, sport, fitness or whatever. It’s all about the rush as your horse crosses the line first or the guilty pleasure of that block of chocolate after a bad day or the euphoria as you get high. It’s about the way it makes you feel.
Self-gratification, self-determination, self-exaltation, self-indulgence; do you see the pattern? Where the sinful nature is dominant, everything flows towards the self. It is about what I can get, what is due to me, my needs, my desires. And the worst of it is that we are all born with a sinful nature. It pervades our sexuality and spirituality. It is the ever-present but never-welcome shadow across our relationships. Its siren-like call draws us onto the rocks of substance abuse and addiction. When you snap at your kids over breakfast or talk about your colleague behind their back or blow your savings on the pokies that is your sinful nature at work.
And yet you are still responsible – for it is you doing those things. You cannot disavow your sinful nature, for it is part of you. More than responsible; you are culpable. Every single one of those acts carries a death sentence – as Paul wrote to the Romans, ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Rom. 6:23) – and you and I have earned that wage over and over and over again.
The sinful nature also encompasses the effects of the sins of others against us. According to some Australian statistics 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men are sexually abused before the age of 16.2 In other words, in a room of 50 adults, we might estimate 12 people to have been victims of sexual abuse. We could cite similarly disturbing figures in relation to domestic violence,3 robbery4 and so on. Though each survivor will have their own unique response to both the sin and the sinner, there are common themes: anger; sorrow; anxiety; depression; shame. Though they are not the ones to have sinned, nevertheless the sins of someone else have brought brokenness to their life.
The sinful nature has a lot to answer for.
In stark contrast is what Paul calls the ‘fruit of the Spirit’:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Gal. 5:22–23)
The desires of the sinful nature focus exclusively on the self, but the fruit of the Spirit embraces God and others. The love grown by the Holy Spirit is love for God and love for others. The joy grown by the Spirit is joy in God that overflows toward others. We serve a patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, merciful, and self-controlled God, and so we manifest those qualities to everyone around us as witnesses of his work in us.
We will look at the fruit in more detail over the next two weeks. But for now, it is enough to note that this is a much more attractive list than the last one! That is the kind of world we wish we lived in, the kind of life we wish we lived. And we are meant to think so. It is like one of those Jenny Craig posters that show before and after photos with the caption ‘I lost 30kg in 16 weeks’. We are meant to be amazed at the difference and – crucially – to ask the question, ‘How can I do the same?’
So, how do we move ourselves and our world from perpetrating the acts of the sinful nature to exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit? I want to share with you two plans that don’t work, and one that does.
The first plan is the one put forward by the advocates for the Jewish law. ‘Even if Paul is right and the law can’t help you become a Christian,’ they would say, ‘you still need the law to avoid immoral behaviour and live a life pleasing to God once you are a Christian.’
This is a pretty common response in modern-day Australia as well. We look at issues like global poverty, sex trafficking, domestic violence, drunkenness, welfare cheating and drugs and we say, ‘We need better laws; our government should do something.’
Another popular plan – now as then – involves the will. You need to resolve to control your temper, speak kindly, go to the gym, give up alcohol, stop looking at pornography and so on. And then discipline yourself to follow through on these resolutions come what may. You must be like Boxer, the cart horse from Orwell’s Animal Farm, whose solution to every adversity was, ‘I will work harder.’ And so we enrol in twelve-step programs, seek counselling, change our diet, read the latest research and generally invest all our efforts towards improving ourselves.
These plans might work if the problem was simply our actions that need changing. But Paul says it’s bigger than that; it is a question of desires.
For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. (Gal. 5:17)
Desires by themselves are not bad. C. S. Lewis wrote that,
[I]t would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.5
One of the tragic ironies of the sinful nature is that it longs for the fruit of the Spirit, but it settles for counterfeit versions instead. We seek love and find lust; we desire peace and settle for apathy; merriment and drunkenness substitute for joy; and so on. We want the fruit but we want it on our terms. We want to be in control. So we ‘agree to disagree’ instead of seeking reconciliation, otherwise we might have to admit we’re wrong. We choose ‘gods’ we can control – work, family, hobbies – to offer our ‘sacrifices’ of time and money, rather than submitting to a God who might ask more of us than we are ready to give.
Law and will are not very good at dealing with desire. The best they can do is to invoke some deeper desire, usually either a desire for respect or to avoid punishment. They cannot by themselves eliminate the sinful nature, only contain its symptoms. A study done some years ago found that nearly 60% of smokers undergoing surgery for heart disease continue to smoke after their procedure.6 Their symptoms were dealt with, but not their nature or desires. And its the same when we try to treat the sinful nature by applying law.
Further, both plans rely on us for fulfilment, and that is bad for two reasons. First, anything that we can do we can also undo. I’m sure that many of us have gone on a diet, only to find ourselves drifting back into old eating habits and gaining weight again. If my deliverance from the sinful nature relies on the continued application of my will then what happens when I inevitably screw up?
Second, anything we do is tainted by our sinful nature. A friend of mine carefully prepared a baking tray ready for baking. However, in the process of taking out the garbage his wife managed to drip ‘bin juice’ into the baking tray. I can’t imagine there was a vast quantity of ‘bin juice’; yet just a little was enough to spoil the effort!7 Would you drink a glass of water with just one drop of poison in it? Would you wash your dishes in a muddy puddle? So it is when we try to cleanse ourselves of our sinful nature by the exercise of our sinful nature.
Are you doomed, then, to a life where ‘you do not do what you want’ (Gal. 5:17b)? Not at all! For though any plan that depends on us is doomed to failure, there is a plan which is completely dependable. You see God was not surprised by the sinful nature. It is not as though he saw Eve committing the first sin and thought, ‘Whoops, didn’t see that coming.’ Rather, even before the creation of the world,8 God had a plan ready, and that plan was to send his Son, Jesus.
Jesus lived a life of perfect obedience to God; there was no sinful nature within him. Yet the world rejected and killed him. They crucified him, killing him in the most painful, shameful way they knew how. And, though he could have set himself free,9 Jesus endured the mocking, the beating, the agony and, ultimately, ‘became obedient to death – even death on a cross’ (Phil. 2:8). Because he knew what they did not: that cross was the only way that we might be delivered from our sinful nature.
Paul puts it like this: ‘Those who belong to Christ have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires’ (Gal. 5:24), and it is on the cross of Christ that it has been crucified.
Do you ‘belong to Christ’? You can, you know. He invites you to come to him, to give up the pretence of being able to deal with your own sinful nature and instead trust him to deal with it. Remember, ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Rom. 6:23), and so your sinful nature must die; if it is not crucified on the cross of Christ then you will die with it.
Unfortunately crucifixion, whilst a certain death, is also a lingering death.10 Sadly, we do not immediately achieve sinless perfection when we turn to Christ; in fact, we will not be perfect until Jesus makes us so at his return. Too often, we hang around at the foot of the cross, to pity our sin, to long for its release. We need to learn to leave those sins there. We have crucified the flesh; we are never going to draw the nails.11 The apostle wrote in another of his letters,
For if you live according to the sinful nature you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (Rom. 8:13-14)
Or, to put it another way, if you are not crucifying sin, sin is crucifying you!12 As Christians, we must not tolerate the acts of the sinful nature in our lives – whether or not they are included in the list Paul gives here. The desires of the sinful nature are in fierce, pitched battle with the desires of the Spirit. Just as we are reliant upon Christ for our salvation, we depend upon the Spirit in the fight against the sinful nature.
Paul says we must ‘walk in step with the Spirit’. The image is a military one – marching with the Spirit, following the Spirit’s leading and orders. So how do we ‘walk in step with the Spirit’ in this battle against the sinful nature?
Firstly, the Spirit helps us by convicting us of our sin. Sometimes we are too close to our sinfulness to see it for what it is. But the Spirit lives within us and is intimately aware of our sin. He shows us in the Bible how our thoughts and actions, our sins of commission and omission, fall short of what God requires. When he does, our response must be to take it back to the cross of Christ, confess it and repent of it. It is progress, rather than perfection, that characterises the life of the Christian.
What is the Holy Spirit showing you today? Is your mind flooded with the thoughts and attitudes of the sinful nature? Anger? Resentment? Envy? Cynicism? Apathy? Is he convicting of things that you ought not to have done, words you ought not to have spoken? What about things that you should have done but have not? Are there relationships where you ought to be seeking forgiveness and reconciliation?
We are granted freedom in the Spirit to continually crucify the sinful nature upon the cross of Christ. We ‘walk in step with the Spirit’ by confessing and repenting of those things which he shows us spring from the sinful nature.
Secondly, the Spirit helps us in the battle by replacing our sinful nature with a new, spiritual nature. He gives us new life, life in the Spirit after the death of the sinful nature. As I said last week, we are like a man with a broken spine. He needs a surgeon to deal with the brokenness within him; but he also needs someone to teach him to walk again, to walk with him as he mends, to push him when he needs encouragement and stop him when he needs to rest. Jesus Christ has granted us the freedom to walk the way we were always intended to walk. He has provided the means by which the sinful nature may be crucified. But he has also sent the Holy Spirit to teach us how to live in the light of that freedom and actually walk!
And as we walk, the fruit of the Spirit will manifest in our lives. Where the Spirit of God is, the fruit of the Spirit will grow. It may start small at first, but it will keep growing. And it will encompass all of the items in the list to some extent or another. The sinful nature is sometimes able to imitate one or two of these fruit, but never in any kind of balance. For example, some people seem happy and bubbly and are good at meeting new people, but are very unreliable and cannot keep friends. This is not real joy but just being an extrovert by nature. Some people seem very unflappable and unbothered but they are not kind or gentle. That is not real peace, but indifference and perhaps cynicism. It enables you to get through the difficulties of life without always being hurt, but it desensitises you and makes you much less approachable.13
But while the fruit grows naturally where the Spirit is, it would be a mistake to think that we are entirely passive in this process, for Paul also talks of walking in step with the Spirit.14 We rely upon him to provide the direction and depend upon him to sustain us as we walk, providing all that we need to do so, but in the end we must walk. We are dependent, yes, but not passive.
So, when the Spirit shows us the good work that we ought to be doing – caring for refugees, sharing the gospel with coworkers, feeding the homeless, teaching our children about Jesus, serving the church – we must act. We will have much more to say over the next two weeks about how that walk looks, particularly the ways in which it shapes our relationships with God and with other people.
In God’s grace, and by the completed work of Christ, we are granted freedom in the Spirit to turn from the sinful nature and instead walk in step with the Spirit. You have a choice: will you walk with him today?
Father God, I want to pray for all those among us struggling with the sinful nature… that is, I want to pray for all of us! Some here are captives of sin. Though they desire to do good, they find they cannot for they are held captive by their pride, anger, lust, apathy, ambition and addiction. Father, show us your mercy by delivering us from this captivity. Lead us to the foot of the cross where your Son died so that our sinful nature might be crucified with him. Proclaim to us the freedom to walk in step with your Holy Spirit, and so become more and more like Christ.
Others here are victims of sins not their own: violence, abuse, hate, neglect, bullying, conflict. Father of compassion and God of all comfort, comfort us in all our distress and brokenness. Lead us to the foot of the cross where your Son suffered all the anger, disgrace and shame that a sinful world could throw at him, so that just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so too our comfort might overflow.15 Grant us a new life, life by your Holy Spirit, life free from resentment, guilt or shame, for those things have been crucified with Christ.
Please God fill my brothers and sisters in Christ with the knowledge of your will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. May they live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of you, being strengthened with all power according to your glorious might so that they may have great endurance and patience. Let them joyfully give thanks to you, the one who has qualified them to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. Praise you Lord God that you have rescued them from the dominion of darkness and brought them into the kingdom of the Son you love, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.16
Keller, Timothy J. Galatians for You. Epsom, Surrey: Good Book Company, 2013.
Lewis, C. S. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
Owen, John, Kelly M. Kapic, and Justin Taylor. Overcoming Sin & Temptation. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2006.
Stott, John R. W. The Message of Galatians. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984.
- Cited in John R. W. Stott, The Message of Galatians (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984), 139.
- e.g. http://www.aic.gov.au/publications/current%20series/facts/1-20/2013/2_profiles.html
- C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 26.
- “Most Smokers Continue to Light up after Heart Surgery,” American Heart Association, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1998/11/981112075613.htm.
- cf. ‘“A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough” (Gal. 5:9).
- 1 Pet. 1:20.
- Matt. 26:53.
- Stott, The Message of Galatians, 151.
- Stott, The Message of Galatians, 152.
- cf. John Owen: ‘[B]e killing sin or it will be killing you.’ John Owen, Kelly M. Kapic, and Justin Taylor, Overcoming Sin & Temptation (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2006), 50.
- Timothy J. Keller, Galatians for You (Epsom, Surrey: Good Book Company, 2013), 141.
- Stott, The Message of Galatians.
- 2 Cor 1:3-5.
- Col. 1:9–14.