Member's Ministry: Pray (1 John 5:14-15)
Member's Ministry: Pray (1 John 5:14-15)

Marc Sims • January 19, 2021

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And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. – 1 John 5:14-15

In 1883 a bright young man from London was invited to attend a prayer meeting held by the famed Hudson Taylor, the pioneer of China Inland Missions. The young man was in the midst of contemplating his own future and wondered whether or not the Lord would call him to become a missionary to China. But, upon arriving at the prayer meeting, the young man found Mr. Taylor to be somewhat underwhelming:

His appearance did not impress me. He was slightly built, and spoke in a quiet voice. Like most young men, I suppose I associated power with noise, and looked for physical presence in a leader. But when he said, "Let us pray," and proceeded to lead the meeting in prayer, my ideas underwent a change. I had never heard anyone pray like that. There was a simplicity, a tenderness, a boldness, a power that hushed and subdued me, and made it clear that God had admitted him to the inner circle of His friendship. Such praying was evidently the outcome of long tarrying in the secret place, and was as dew from the Lord.

This last Summer, as we reflected on John 15 and the benefits of union with Christ, we reflected on this quote from Hudson Taylor: “It little matters to my servant whether I send him to buy a few cash worth of things, or the most expensive articles. In either case he looks to me for the money and brings me his purchases. So, if God should place me in serious perplexity, must He not give much guidance; in positions of great difficulty, much grace; in circumstances of great pressure and trial, much strength? No fear that His resources will prove unequal to the emergency! And His resources are mine, for He is mine, and is with me and dwells in me.” 

God has promised to supply everything we need for life and for godliness; He has promised that if we seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, then we don’t need to worry about our food and our clothes. He has given us every resource we need! And for Taylor, this brought about a radical kind of peace: “I am no longer anxious about anything, as I realize this; for He, I know, is able to carry out His will, and His will is mine. It makes no matter where He places me, or how. That is rather for Him to consider than for me; for in the easiest position He must give me His grace, and in the most difficult His grace is sufficient.” This is what is available for every Christian and one of the primary ways we can draw this blessed benefit up into our souls is through prayer. In prayer we pour out our hearts before God, and in God we find the resources we need.

We want to reflect on prayer today as we think about how the members of this church can fulfill the work of the ministry that God has given them to create a covenant community who worships Christ above all. As Samuel the prophet is making his farewell address to the nation of Israel, exposing their sin and charging them to uphold God’s Law. At this, the nation of Israel wails and laments their sin, but Samuel responds: “Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way,” 1 Sam 12:23. Friends, far be it from us friends that we should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for each other. So, let’s consider the power and resource of prayer we have at our fingertips (and prayer closets) and how this can help the members of our church fulfill the mission of our church. 

Let’s look at our text once again: “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him,” 1 John 5:14-15. 

This text tells us that: (1) God hears us, (2) God answers us, and (3) this makes us confident.

God Hears

In the book of Genesis, Hagar is taken advantage of by Abraham and Sarah. The patriarch and matriarch of our faith lacked faith in God’s plan to give them a son, so Sarah forced her servant Hagar to bear children for her—a wicked thing to do. However, after Hagar became pregnant Sarah was inflamed with anger and jealousy and chased Hagar away. While languishing in the desert, the angel of the Lord appeared to a downtrodden Hagar and promised that God would care for her and her soon-to-be-born son, telling her, ““Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the LORD has listened to your affliction,” Gen 16:11. The name “Ishmael” in Hebrew means: “God hears me.” Our God is a God who hears.

We all long to be heard. One of the great frustrations in relationships is when it feels like you are not understood, like the other person isn’t listening to you. This is especially true when the person who isn’t listening to you has authority and power over you. Children, doesn’t it feel frustrating when it feels like your parents don’t listen to you? One of the great frustrations of our political moment is that it feels like politicians—who hold this massive amount of power in our society—are disconnected from the people they are meant to represent. Imagine what it would be like if the mayor of our city were to knock on your door today and say, “I would like to hear what you have to say about this issue.” How shocking would that feel? You care about my opinion? My problems? Imagine how much more shocking it would be if it were the governor of our state? The president of our country? What would you do if the most powerful person alive today were to sit down and ask you, “Tell me what’s bothering you?”

But friends, in prayer we don’t simply have some fallible, fallen human being who has been elected to some temporary position of power whose plans and efforts can be flawed or thwarted who wants to lend us their ear. We have the omnipotent, infinite, omniscient, eternal God who rules as the sovereign Lord over the cosmos who hears us. It would be staggering for the president to stop by your house for lunch today because, ultimately, you aren’t important enough to matter to him, he doesn’t have the time for you. But that isn’t true of our God! Our God is not limited, He is the Lord of time, so His schedule isn’t too busy to listen to you pour out your pain, your trivialities, your joys, your frustrations.

But, most importantly, because a Christian has been united to Christ by faith, we now stand in Christ and are therefore now sons of God! So our prayers now have just as much right to be heard by the Father as Jesus’ prayers did—this is why Christians have traditionally closed their prayers “in Jesus’ name.” Perhaps something that is prohibiting you from prayer is the thought that you are not worthy or that because of your sins God shouldn’t listen to you. There is some measure of truth to that. The Psalms tell us that if we cherish iniquity in our heart, the Lord will not listen to us (Ps 66:18). 1 Peter warns husbands that if they do not live with their wives in an understanding way their prayers will be hindered (1 Pet 3:7). If you have excused your sin, decided to live with your sin, and justify it rather than repent and forsake it, then your heart and mind will be clouded and prayer will feel like you are pushing through a dark wall. But, if you have repented of your sins, acknowledged what they are, and asked God to forgive you, then your prayers are heard by the Father! Just as much as Jesus’ prayers were heard!

God Answers Us

1 John doesn’t merely say that God hears our prayers, but, “...if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him,” 1 John 5:15. If God hears us, we have what we have asked for. What an astonishing promise!

Do you know the story of Elisha at Dothan? In 2 Kings 6 a Syrian army is marching towards the city of Dothan where Elisha and his servant are staying. When everyone wakes up the city is surrounded by horses and chariots of a very, very powerful army. But Elisha is utterly unworried. His servant begins to panic, asking Elisha what they are to do and Elisha prays and the servant’s eyes are opened and suddenly he is aware that the mountains around them are filled with horses and chariots of fire, a heavenly army that far outnumbers the Syrians. Elisha prays again for the Lord to blind the enemy and the entire Syrian army is struck blind. Boom! God heard Elisha’s prayer and answered it. We read that story and think: That’s what I’m talking about! But, why are so few of my prayers answered like that?

Well, long ago, in that same city of Dothan, Joseph, one of Jacob’s twelve sons, arrives to check in on his brothers. When he arrives, however, they apprehend him, throw him into a pit, and then sell him into slavery, where he languishes and suffers unfairly for years (Gen 37). Same city, same God, but why in one does God immediately grant a request and shows up, but in the other He is totally silent and let’s His people suffer?

The clue is found in verse 14 of 1 John: “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us,” 1 John 5:14. According to his will. So, what was God’s will for Joseph? Well, of course, it was through his suffering and difficulty that he was eventually exalted to the position of authority in Egypt whereby he was able to then provide his administrative help to prepare for a great famine, and thereby saved millions of lives—including the lives of his very brothers who sold him into slavery. Certainly Joseph prayed several times for God to deliver him from his trials, from his imprisonment, from his suffering, and as days pooled into months and months pooled into years, Joseph didn’t get the answer he wanted. But, of course, he had no idea what God was doing in positioning Joseph to be in the final position that he would arrive at. If God had simply granted Joseph’s request to be delivered early on, millions of people, including his own family and father, would have died.

This is why our prayers are not like a genie in a lamp where God automatically grants our every desire. Because God loves us, He grants us what lies in accordance with His plan. This is why Paul explains in Romans, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words,” Rom 8:26. Tim Keller calls this the “safety valve” of prayer. There are many times where we do not know what the right thing to prayer for is, but God’s Spirit helps us by interceding for us in our prayers. Keller explains, “God will always give us in prayer what we would have asked for if we knew everything that God knew.”

George Macdonald, C.S. Lewis' hero, once wrote a children’s story called The Princess and the Goblin about a young princess who lives in a castle that is surrounded by mountains filled with goblins. Above her room, in the tower of the castle, lives the princesses’ fairy godmother. The fairy godmother gives her a ring that is attached to an invisible thread that only the princess can see. The godmother promises that anytime she is lost or in danger she can follow the thread and it will lead her to safety. One night, the princess thinks she hears a goblin in her room. So, she quickly grabs the invisible thread and begins to follow it out of her room. However, instead of going upstairs to her fairy godmother, the thread leads in the opposite direction, out of the castle itself. The princess trusts her godmother, so she follows the thread up till it leads to the very cave where the goblins live. Terrified, she panics and contemplates going back, but realizes that when she attempts to go back the thread disappears. The only option she has is to go forward into the cave. Upon arriving in the cave, however, she finds it deserted and discovers that her best friend, a young boy, has been trapped by the goblins and is being held prisoner. She frees her friend and continues to follow the thread back to the castle and to her fairy godmother. 

The moral of the story: sometimes God’s will for our life does not look like what we thought it would look like, and so often our prayers can look like they are simply going unanswered. But we need only to trust the thread of God’s will as it leads us forward and continue in prayer. And if you are struggling with how to trust God when it feels like there is no way forward, consider our Savior. The book of Hebrews tells us, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence,” Heb 5:7. Jesus’ life was a life marked by prayer, and He prayed with fervor “to him who was able to save him from death” and He was heard. 1 John just told us that if God hears us we know that we have the requests of what we asked. But was Jesus spared from death? Well, yes and no. When Jesus is praying the Garden of Gethsemane and asks the Father to take this cup away from Him, He closes by saying, “but nevertheless not as I will, but as you will.” But Jesus’ request to be spared is manifestly denied. Jesus’ “thread” led to the cross, to the ultimate death, where He would go to bear the wrath of God for the sins of His people. And because Jesus did that, no matter where God’s will guides us, we know that we will never have to face that kind of judgment—God’s thread will never lead us to the outpouring of his wrath upon us and the eternal destruction, so we can rest assured and trust Him.

But, Jesus’ thread also shot through the grave into the resurrection! Jesus’ was spared the finality and victory of death because He overcame them! So, He was spared ultimately from death, even if the victory came through death. So now, as we follow our great captain, we know that God’s will sometimes leads through scary, difficult places, but we know that the biggest, scariest problem has been dealt with, and we know that no matter what happens, on the other side of this life awaits resurrection hope.

So we pray with confidence.


How are we to pray if the future of God’s will for us is mysterious? We pray with confidence. We know that when God hears us, whatever we ask according to His will will be granted to us. This is why it so important to let God’s word guide us as we pray—look at how Jesus and the apostles prayed and use that as a template for how you ought to pray. We may not know precisely what God has in store for our lives in the future, but we know with certainty that it is God’s will that we grow in our sanctification, that we bear the fruit of the Spirit, that we be conformed to the image of Christ. There is no uncertainty about those truths, and those truths are the realities that will matter most in eternity. And we know that if those things are God’s will and we ask them of God, we will have what we have requested. 

I ask great things; expect great things; shall receive great things. - "Voyage" from Valley of Vision

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Member's Ministry: Speak Truth (Eph 4:11-16)
Member's Ministry: Speak Truth (Eph 4:11-16)

Marc Sims • January 14, 2021

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And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. – Eph 4:11-16

Public protests devolved into riots; tensions over police brutality and racial hostilities boiled over; the American people felt uneasy as a bellicose president attempted to use his position to steamroll over those who opposed him and intimidated the media into only giving him positive press. The year is 1968 and Lyndon B. Johnson is stuck in the mire of Vietnam, steadily losing support for the war as the days go by. The landscape of America had been rocked and reeled by the advent of French existentialism and postmodern philosophies that had been imported into its universities, questioning the very idea of objective truth, identity, or meaning in life. The creation of teenage culture just a decade earlier had devolved into the sharp cultural divide between youth and their parents, creating suspicion and distrust in one another. These together gave rise to young people questioning many of the moral systems of their parents, bringing about the sexual revolution of the 60’s and alternative political ideologies which sought to radically correct the failures of past generations. You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone, because the times they are changing.

In 1965 news reporters from CBS stationed in Vietnam showed footage of US troops using flamethrowers and zippo lighters to torch thatch-roofed villages of non-combatants while Vietnamese women and children wailed in the background. Public support of Vietnam began to plummet and university students began to organize protests against the war. American journalists, up to this point, had never questioned or sought to undermine the American government in a war effort, but more and more often younger journalists sought to make it clear that they found the American war in Vietnam to be wrong. There was one journalist, however, who sought to keep personal evaluations out of his news reports, whose aim was to tell America “the way it is…”. Walter Cronkite, the CBS news anchor from 1962-1981, was known as “the most trusted man in America.” Seen as a paragon of impartiality and objectivity, Cronkite’s nightly news broadcasts rarely ever involved his personal commentary. Thus, when Cronkite traveled to Vietnam in 1968 and returned to report on the status of the American war effort, the country eagerly looked to hear from “Uncle Walter” on what was really going on. Cronkite himself had been frustrated with the cynicism of younger reporters and wanted to see for himself whether or not the Vietnamese offensive was as morally problematic and pyrrhic as they claimed.

Cronkite’s report spent the majority of time interviewing generals, soldiers, and recounting the military strategies, remaining typically impartial and objective in his reporting. However, at the very close of the program Cronkite noted that he, unusually, was going to give his own “subjective” opinion. He famously noted that “from his vantage point” the only conceivable outcome of continuing to fight in Vietnam was to arrive at a bloody stalemate, thus America must negotiate for peace. Lyndon B. Johnson, after watching Cronkite’s report, switched off the TV and told an aide, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” And he did. Support for the war bottomed out and a few weeks later LBJ made a news announcement that all bombing would cease in Vietnam and, much to everyone’s surprise, that he would not be seeking re-election as President.

As we look at the turmoil in our country, the upheaval and division, we lack a unifying voice like Cronkite. There is no one who can tell our country “the way it is.” At least, no one we all will listen to. Postmodernism has only soured into a more vitriolic, angered force—you have your truth and I have my truth, but if you don’t affirm my truth then you are a danger to me. Trust in institutions like the government, media, and universities have only sunk lower. And the rise of information technologies coupled with social media platforms have given us oceans upon oceans of information with little wisdom in how to navigate it well. Like a toddler dumping over a bucket of BB’s, the internet scatters millions of data-points before us—some of them reliable, many not—and we have to try to discern who to listen to. A piece of objective, peer-reviewed, well-researched journalism can pop-up on our Facebook feed right next to a meme that makes wild, baseless accusations. And both will be seen in the same medium, giving them both an air of similar credibility. Add on to this that our society has emphasized feelings as a source of truth, and we are left with simply choosing what to believe based on what we want to believe. So logic, evidence, reason matter far less than emotional anecdotes, outrage, and fear. Truth, therefore, is in the eye of the feeler, and there are as many “truths” as there are people.

What does this have to do with our text? I am bringing all of this up to show that our current cultural location has presented a grave, grave danger for the church. Far more dangerous than any political outcome, revolution, or upheaval, the demise of Truth presents an existential crisis for our faith. Truth in the capital “T” sense—not the personal, subjective idea of “my truth,” but the Truth; truth that is regardless of who affirms it, regardless of whether or not we like it, Truth that is true for all peoples of all cultures in all places. Scripture teaches us that the church, and therefore the Christians who comprise the church, live and grow through Truth.

Give a plant water, and it grows. Give God’s people the Truth, and they will grow. More specifically, give them the truth spoken in love to one another, and they will grow in every way into Christ. 

Sifting through our befuddling times, growing in wisdom and discernment, knowing who to listen to and who to ignore is a much needed task for Christians today. We dishonor God and hurt people when we champion things as “true” that are actually false. But long before we can enter into the puzzling exercise of doing that, we need to be trained by the schoolmaster of God’s eternal, unchanging Truth: God’s Word. While there may be a cacophony of contradictory voices screaming for your attention and your belief today and you are overwhelmed about who to listen to, here in this Sacred Book we need not be left wondering who to listen. Here, in these pages we can meet our Savior and listen to Him. And as we do that, we will be better equipped to face this ever-shifting world with the solid, unshifting bedrock of Truth under our feet. And this task, this ministry, is a ministry for us all.


Paul begins this section by explaining that God has given gifts to the church through specific offices: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,” Eph 4:11-12. A few verses prior to this we are told that upon Jesus’ ascension to Heaven He has given the church gifts (Eph 4:8). These gifts given from Jesus Himself are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. While we would hold that some of these offices are no longer functioning in the post-apostolic church, we can notice the common denominator among all of these offices: they all have a gift in speaking God’s Word. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers all are charged with bringing God’s Word to His people. This is important because it helps us understand how they are supposed to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry.” Christians are prepared for the work God has given them by receiving God’s Word from the pastors that Jesus has given them as a gift.

So, my role as your pastor and any other pastor here is to so speak God’s Word to you that you become competently prepared to fulfill the work of the ministry that God has given you here in this church. This is why I devote the lion share of my time in preparing to teach God’s Word. If I do not, then you will be unprepared for your work: “building up the body of Christ.” As we noted last week, this text assumes that “the work of the ministry” is actually carried out by the members of the church, not just the pastors. Perhaps that seems odd to you: isn’t that why we pay you? Isn’t it your job to do the ministry? But, alas, the Bible says otherwise. 

But I want you to think about this from another angle. This is true not just because the Bible explicitly says so, but also because it makes sense in why it produce the healthiest disciples. If you were to attend a workout class where the instructor stood up and showed everyone how to do the exercises, how to lift the weights, and then sent everyone home without having them doing the exercises at all, would they be getting any healthier? Wouldn’t it be better to have your instructor show you how to do the exercises and then put the weights in your hand and say, “Okay, now you do it.” It will certainly be more difficult, but it will also make you stronger, healthier than the other class who just watches their instructor workout. The design of the ministry in the New Testament is a ministry that is led by the pastors who are equipping the saints, but is finally accomplished by the members themselves picking up the weights and doing the work themselves. 

This is why we are considering this for these four weeks. Members of the church can fulfill the work of the ministry through their love, speaking, praying, and giving. But here in Ephesians, Paul is going to highlight “speaking.”


You’re work is defined as such: “building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” Eph 4:12-13. The last two statements, “mature manhood, to the stature of the fullness of Christ,” are, in many ways, simply parroting the call to “build up the body of Christ”—to make it stronger, more mature, to look like Jesus. It is the phrase in the middle that helps shed considerable light on what that actually looks like: “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.”

What should you be prioritizing as a member of this church? Unity. Earlier in Eph 4:1-3 Paul defined “unity” as the defining marker of what it means to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling of Christ.” But, this isn’t a “unity at all costs” kind of unity. It is a unity “of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” Our unity flows from a unity around God’s truth. The “faith” here refers to the objective content of our faith; what we believe in,namely, the knowledge of the Son of God. So our unity is not a unity that comes from arriving at the lowest common denominator in our doctrine or watering down the truth and shaving off the sharp edges so that we can stretch our tent as widely as possible. Our unity is a unity that is found in truth. 

But, dear friend, I hope you see this danger. If our aim is to preserve the unity of our church, and that unity comes from our shared convictions of truth, then that means that we need to be discerning enough with knowing where to draw those lines of doctrine and where not to. In other words, there are doctrines that we will divide over, but that does not mean that we divide over every doctrine. So, that means that you need to know your Bible well enough to know when a doctrine is central enough that it must be fought over, and when it is just something that we can simply disagree on but maintain our unity together. This is the intent of our Statement of Faith. It is a collection of doctrines that we require for membership in the church because it includes what we have deemed to be central to our faith and unity as a church. If you’re wondering what doctrines are important enough to divide over, it might serve you to read through that statement. Also, it might help you to go back through the video series we did on conscience last year.

So, what is the work of the ministry? Building up the body until we reach the unity of faith and knowledge of the son of God, till we are mature, till our life reflects Christ’s life. And how do we do that? Look down to verses 15-16, “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love,” Eph 4:15-16. 

This looks like speaking truth in love to one another. This phrase (speaking truth in love) doesn’t primarily refer to telling someone an inconvenient or uncomfortable fact in a kind way; it isn’t the equivalent of “with all due respect” (“Hey man, I’m just trying to speak the truth in love, but your breath smells terrible”). “Truth” here is referring to God’s Truth, right doctrine. As we will shortly see, it is set in direct contrast with false doctrine in verse 14 that destroy people’s souls. It is when we speak robust, Biblical, orthodox doctrine to each other, that the whole church grows. This shows us that we cannot think that doctrine is some arid, boring, dead thing that inflates your brain but does little else. The Bible teaches us that God’s truth brings life, growth, vitality. We can throw away the false dichotomy of a warm heart or rigorous intellectual life. Our handling of right doctrine, our speaking of it to one another, is the vigor and lifeblood of growth in the church. 

But this assumes two things are necessary: (1) you must speak these truths to one another, (2) and it must be done in love. 

These truths were never meant to simply be understood, believed, and then kept to ourselves. What good is it for a doctor to receive his years of training, his understanding of ailments, his medical equipment, only to be brought before the sick and dying and remain quiet, do nothing? God’s truth was never intended to be kept safe and secure in the quiet museum of our minds, but was intended to be raked through the mud in the rough and tumble of life. It must be used or God’s people will not grow. This means that we are willing to prioritize other people’s good over our own comfort. It may feel awkward and uncomfortable to speak truth to another person—but we aren’t waiting for things to feel easy, we are trying to be obedient to our Lord in our work of the ministry.

But, of course, this cannot be done without love. Of course, speaking the truth to another is a display of our love for them. If our love for this person is lacking in our heart, if it is not evident, not communicated, then the truth may cause them to wilt, not grow. This is why we need to strive to build the relational bridges of love now so that when the time comes to drive the truck of God’s truth over that bridge, it is strong enough to bear the load. So this is why we ought to strive to practice hospitality, be faithful in our small group attendance, share meals together, pray for one another, so that our hearts can be knit together in love.

So, if a brother begins to wander off into sin, we pursue after them and speak the truth of the gospel, reminding them of God's grace and of the need for repentance.

If a sister is struggling with assurance of her salvation, we speak the truth of the eternal security that is found in her being predestined from before the foundations of the world.

If our child is questioning why God lets bad things happen, we speak the truth in love to them, reminding them of God's good and (sometimes) mysterious sovereign purposes.


What happens if we fail to carry out this task? Look back to verse 14: “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” So, we need to speak the truth in love to one another, build one another up in Christ until we reach the unity of the faith, we need to do the work of the ministry because, if we do not, we will remain children in the faith who are susceptible to making a shipwreck of our souls. The image Paul gives us is of a small boat bounced around by the waves, blown about by every crosswind, and behind those forces are deceitful, cunning people who are looking to take advantage of you. Friends, do you see the dire consequences of what happens if we fail to do the work of the ministry? People’s souls are on the line!

Notice, that we are told that it is “human cunning” and “craftiness in deceitful schemes” that empowers this false teaching. This tells us that false teaching that wants to make a shipwreck of your faith doesn’t presentitself as something dangerous. It is “crafty,” the word used to describe Satan in Eden (Gen 3:1). Satan made his temptation to Eve sound attractive, plausible, wise. So, young people, be warned: there are a thousand ways that the world wants to trick you, wants you to believe its lies, and they will advertise almost all of them in positive, attractive, even moral ways. But if the only concept of “false teaching” you have in your mind is of something that looks bad from the get-go, there will be a great deal that will sneak past you. But how can you guard yourself from that? Read your Bibles and be intimately connected into the life of the church where other people will speak God’s truth to you in love.


Friends, while the tempest of misinformation and information swirls around us, while we see a lack of a unifying voice to make sense of current events, what can we do? 

1.     Make first things first. I may not be able to know with confidence what news stories are reliable and which aren’t, but in God’s Word I have something that is unquestionably reliable. So I will set my heart and my mind primarily on this Truth. Phil 4:8 tells me that I should set my mind on what is “true”—so God’s perfect, inerrant truth should be what dominates the majority of my mind and heart. So, friend, read your Bible.

2.     Create an alternative to the world. As the world fractures and splits, the Church provides an alternative community. 

a.     Here, when we speak the truth in love to one another it means that we reject the idea that Truth is a personal creation, but an objective reality that exists outside of us that we submit to—regardless of whether we like it or not. 

b.     Thus, when we speak the truth in love to one another we grow in humility because we learn that sometimes we are wrong and need to be corrected. 

c.     When we speak the truth in love to one another we are showing that a deep love for one another can be displayed in speaking truth. Speaking truth is not something we reserve for crushing our opponents, but for loving our brothers.

d.     When we speak the truth in love to one another we demonstrate that we know that we are responsible for one another. When one of us begins to walk into sin, when one of us begins to struggle, we do not “cancel” them, we do not condemn them, we lovingly go after them.

When we create a community like that, that is built on an ecosystem of love and truth, then we are met by the misinformation of our age, we will be far better prepared because: (1) we’ve lived our lives in connection with people who are different than us, so we understand that our perspective is sometimes limited, (2) we know that Truth isn’t dependent on our feelings or preferences, (3) we’ve been humbled by our own sin and know that we have certainly been wrong before, so that gives us pause before brashly asserting our own interpretation, (4) and we have been discipled by the Biblical pattern of wisdom, which exhorts us to be slow to speak, quick to listen, patient in evaluating evidence, willing to examine a matter fully, check sources, and in detail before pronouncing a verdict.

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Member's Ministry: Love (1 John 4:19-5:3)
Member's Ministry: Love (1 John 4:19-5:3)

Marc Sims • January 05, 2021

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We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.

1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3 For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. – 1 John 4:19-5:3

We are taking a brief break from our sermon series in Mark to reflect on our church’s mission statement and specifically, over these next four weeks, how the members of our church can functionally pursue that mission. Ephesians 4 explains: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,” (Eph 4:11-12). This teaches us that God gives pastors to the church so that they may equip the members of the church to do the work of the ministry. So, the assumption of the Bible is that every member of the church has a ministry—they are, in a way, the ministers. What is that ministry? It is summarized by “building up the body of Christ,” and further expanded upon by everything else Paul says through verse 16. But what I want to drill into is this idea of each member’s ministry. 

What is your role in “creating a covenant community who worships Christ above all”? 

Your responsibility could be summarized with four verbs: love, speak, pray, give. Today we will be focusing on “love”. 

If you are exploring Christianity or are new to Christianity I wonder if you have considered the centrality of “love” to our faith. So central, in fact, that if one lacks love they prove that they are not actually a Christian. Listen to what John says just a few verses earlier in his letter: “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him,” 1 John 4:16. God is love, therefore it is impossible to have an authentic encounter with God without also being confronted and transformed by His divine love. In Paul’s famous teaching on love from 1 Corinthians 13 (which we read earlier in the service) we learn that love is the integral component of all of our Christian life. If we know everything there is to know about the Bible, if we can manifest the most spectacular display of spiritual gifts and power, if we are the most devout of Christians—willing to sell everything we own to give to the poor, even to die for the faith—but lack love, all of it is pointless. Paul literally calls it the most important of all of the traits of a Christian (1 Cor 13:13; cf. Gal 5:22). If Christians should be defined by anything, known for anything, it should be our love (John 13:35).

Love looks like a response

John explains, “We love because God first loved us,” 1 John 4:19. We love because He first loved us. If you reverse the order of that sentence—God loves us because we first loved—you  lose Christianity. In the way that moon reflects the sun, our love (for God and for others) is a reflection of God’s love for us. If you are not a Christian here today and are wondering how Christianity works, you should know that (unlike other religions or worldviews) Christianity doesn’t fundamentally begin with you and your performance. In traditional, conservative cultures, your status and identity are contingent on you accepting the traditions and identity the wider community / parents place on you. In a progressive, liberal culture, your status and identity are contingent on you throwing off the shackles of tradition and finding out who you want to be for yourself, forging your own identity and personhood. Both of these will require you to adopt particular values, political commitments, and ideologies in order for you to continue to maintain your identity and your status. The common denominator in all of these, however, is that all of this is ultimately up to you, begins with you, and is about you. 

Christianity begins with God and what He has done to make you His own, to give you an identity and a status. Our love of God is not first and foremost a feeling we have mustered up, it is not a lifestyle and set of values we have adopted—it is a response. We love because He first loved us. John makes this even more explicit just a few verses earlier, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another,” 1 John 4:10-11. What is love? John begins by explaining what it is not. It isn’t that we loved God. In fact the Bible explains that our natural disposition towards God is one of enmity, hostility—we don’t naturally want God in our life. Our sin has so darkened the eyes of our soul that when the light of God is revealed we prefer the darkness. John explains, “The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil,” John 3:19. We don’t love God; we loved darkness. We loved our sin. Our heart’s posture is that of Satan in Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.” Leave us alone to our misery and wretchedness—at least we feel like we have some semblance of control here.

And it is there, in that pit of darkness, in our waywardness that God stoops down and loves us, loves you. It appears baffling that God would do such a thing, but so it is. In Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, Les Misérables, the main character, Jean Valjean, spends years in prison for attempting to steal a loaf of bread. Upon his release he wanders from town to town but is shunned as a pariah. He is finally shown hospitality and kindness by a priest who provides shelter and food for him. In the middle of the night, however, Valjean decides to rob the unsuspecting priest and run off to town to sell the church’s silverware. The priest is then woken up by the authorities who explain that they have just apprehended Valjean trying to hock the items in town. The priest, however, welcomes Valjean like an old friend and explains that the silverware was a gift and quickly hands the church’s silver candlesticks as well to a thunderstruck Valjean, explaining he could get at least 200 franks for them. Valjean is left speechless. At the moment when he is dead-to-rights guilty, when he flagrantly abused the kindness of an old man (a priest, nonetheless!), and is caught red-handed, he is received with love, with grace. This becomes a catalyst for change in Valjean’s life, leading him to spend the rest of the book showing this same kind grace and love to his friends, family, and enemies. Love, the kind of love the Bible describes, only is produced out of a response.

In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and gave His Son up to be a propitiation, a payment, for us. When we were in darkness, loving our sin, hating God, God broke in—not to pin to us to the wall with our guilt, not to read us the long list of judgment that was now finally going to be doled out upon us, not to finally let the hammer fall—but to shower us with love. To send His only Son to pay the debts of our sins, to wipe away our guilt. Friend, now if you will turn to Christ and believe in Him and submit to Him, you can experience that love, that forgiveness, that welcome, right now. If you want to know more about what that looks like, feel free to talk to one of our elders here or your friend or family who brought you here today.

So, how does God love us? He loves us despite our sinfulness; He doesn’t love us because it is convenient or easy, but in a way that is costly; He loves us consistently.

John continues, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought to love one another,” 1 John 4:11. This love that God shows us has implications for how we treat one another.

Love looks like family

John makes some staggering claims here: “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him,” 1 John 4:20-5:1. What is John saying?

Love of God necessarily leads to loving your brother. “Love” here is directed vertically and horizontally.

Who is your “brother”? This is a title used specifically in the New Testament to address other Christians. This is not the same thing as loving your “neighbor.” Your neighbor is anyone and everyone that the Lord puts in your life. “Brother” is referring specifically to others (men and women) who have been adopted into the family of Christ (cf. Rom 8:14-17). Everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. If anyone claims to love God but hates his brother, he is a liar. You cannot see God, but you can see your brother who is made in the image of God, and is being conformed day by day into the image of Christ (Rom 8:29). If you cannot love these people that you see, how do you suppose to love an invisible God that you cannot see? (cf. 1 Pet 1:8). Friends, if we want to create a covenant community who worships Christ above all, this is telling us that it is impossible to worship Christ above all if we don’t love each other.

What does it look like to love your brother? Again, John helps us a little earlier in his letter: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth,” 1 John 3:16-18. In a day where we tend to think of love primarily as a feeling that happens to us, John shows us that love should look like concrete actions. Our lives should not be these hermetically sealed off capsules, keeping our time, our money, our food, our homes, our resources to ourselves. Rather, there should be a kind of permeability to them—we are aware of each other’s needs and abundances. This assumes that the lives of those who have truly experienced the love of God are lives that are marked by openness, generosity, humility, and willingness to be inconvenienced for others. 

Of course, brotherly love includes feelings of love as well. Paul exhorts us: “Love one another with brotherly affection,” Rom 12:10. There should be a warmth of affection between fellow Christians, between church members. This should always be our aim. But our hearts often follow our actions. 

When a brother or sister comes into our church let’s not make them feel like they have to earn the right to be loved, to be welcomed. Let’s not tell our more introverted, quiet members that they are less valuable because it is easier to engage with the outgoing ones. Let’s aim to have a life that is open to our brothers and sisters.

“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35

Love looks like holiness

John concludes by rounding out our understanding of love with a look at the law: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome,” 1 John 5:2-3. 

This is fascinating. Earlier John wanted to show that you could not love God unless you loved other Christians, but here John says that you cannot love other Christians unless you love God and keep His commandments. So, this means…

1.     That my personal relationship with the Lord and obedience to His commands has a direct effect on my ability to love you all well. According to the Bible, we cannot compartmentalize our lives into “private and public” or “sacred and secular.” What we do while we are alone affects what we do when in public. 

2.     That if another person’s definition of love requires me to break God’s commandments, like giving approval of what God hates or joining them in their rebellion, then no matter what, it isn’t loving. 1 Corinthians 13 explains that love, “does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth,” 1 Cor 13:6. 

3.     Love of God naturally spills over into a desire for holiness. John explains that this is the love of God: that we keep his commandments. Jesus explained: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” John 14:15. If we find a painful lack of obedience to God’s commandments in our life, that likely means that there is a lack of love. God’s commandments are not burdensome—they are a delight! Because they bring more intimacy with the Lord, greater clarity to see Him.

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The Beauty of God and the Mission of the Church (1 Sam 4:1-11)
The Beauty of God and the Mission of the Church (1 Sam 4:1-11)

Marc Sims • December 27, 2020

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1 And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.

Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines. They encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. 2 The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle spread, Israel was defeated before the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. 3 And when the people came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” 4 So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.

5 As soon as the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded. 6 And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” And when they learned that the ark of the LORD had come to the camp, 7 the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. 8 Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. 9 Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.”

10 So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel fell. 11 And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died. – 1 Sam 4:1-11

The most important relationships in our lives are covenantal, and less important ones are contractual.

A covenantal relationship puts primary emphasis on the relationship itself; a contractual relationship puts the emphasis on the actions, the output. In a covenantal relationship, our main focus is on the other person, in a contractual relationship our main focus is on what benefit we can get from it. And we must discern which relationships in our lives should be covenantal or contractual. 

But what about our relationship with God? Is our relationship with God primarily focused on God Himself, or is it focused on what God has to give us? Is it covenantal or contractual?

In the book of 1 Samuel we see story after story after story of what happens when people assume that their relationship with God is contractual. The story of our text today is simply illustrative of this bigger picture. 

Why Am I Preaching on This?

Perhaps you are wondering why I have decided to preach this sermon. As we approach the end of 2020 and look forward to what God has in store for us in 2021 I want to take some time to calibrate our church’s expectations and unify us together in the mission that God has given our church: to create a covenant community who worships Christ above all. The end of the year is a time where we reflect on making new decisions, changes we want to make to our lives. And it is no different for a church. Emerging from 2020 and looking forward to what the future holds for Quinault can create an air of anticipation. This last year was shrouded by so much frustration…being unable to meet for months, Zoom calls, quarantining, cancelled small groups, seeing ones we love be put into isolation, not being able to have pastors make home visits on our members, seeing loved ones grow sick, and seeing many hopes and dreams of what we wanted the last year to be to go up in flames—all of that creates a collective sense of “ugh, let’s hope next year is better.” 

But, perhaps the Lord knows what He is doing in giving us what He did in 2020. While we were unable to gather for a few months, in the last year we have been able to spend the majority of our Sunday’s together, singing, praying, and listening to God’s Word read and preached. We have been able to grow in our efforts to pray more regularly for one another through our prayer guides and membership directory. When I arrived here one year ago today, our church had 38 members. In the last year we have added 20 new members, which is more than a 50% increase. We have seen three brothers and sisters be baptized. We have seen new discipleship opportunities for men and women through men’s and women’s studies that started this Fall. We adopted a new Statement of Faith, and amended our membership covenant as well as our by-laws. We voted to support a new set of missionaries working in Bible translation, and ended the year coming in $10,000 over our expenses which we will use to install a new lighting system in our auditorium. And not to mention all of the tiny ways the pressure of the last year has caused us to lean more on the Lord, pray more, be more transparent with one another, reach out to one another for help, and practice hospitality more than we normally would have. We have much to be grateful to God for in the last year. 

But what should we expect for the next year? While the exhaustion and frustrations of 2020 can lead us to an anticipation of “Man, let’s just do something,” so too can the blessings of 2020: “Should we anticipate that God is going to increase our membership by another 50%? Should we declare that God will baptize even more or balloon our budget to new heights? What do we do with this momentum?”

This, of course, isn’t only a question for our church. What should your family anticipate for the next year? What would you like to have happen in your marriage? In your parenting? In your day-to-day war against sin? We want to see real change in our lives, we want to see change in our church, we want to see healthy, positive steps be taken in 2021. I want to see our church grow in its different ministry opportunities in reaching out to the community around us; I want to see a culture of evangelism and hospitality take hold in our church; and I want to see new opportunities for discipling our children take shape. But how do we bring that about? How do we approach this new year?

Here is what I want to emphasize to our church: there is nothing more important for our church, for yourself and your families, for the next year than to prioritize your relationship with the Lord. Surely you have all heard of this from some podcast or leadership book, but if you take a jar and a handful of larger rocks and a good deal of smaller pebbles and place the smaller pebbles in first and then try to put the larger rocks in afterwards, the rocks won’t fit into a jar. But if you put the big rocks in first and then pour the smaller rocks in around the larger rocks, then, surprisingly, all of the rocks will fit into the jar. That analogy is used often to explain why you should prioritize first and foremost the big tasks in your life—because you will be able to fill in the small tasks around them. While that might be true for productivity and scheduling, it is certainly true for the Christian life.

If we focus on the things that are to flow out of our relationship with the Lord (our evangelism, church growth, marriages, parenting, etc.) over our relationship with the Lord itself, we will suddenly find that we have no room for God in our lives. And we will wind up being like those that Paul warns of, “having an appearance of godliness, but denying its power,” (2 Tim 3:5). We may even begin to treat God as if we were in a contractual relationship with Him rather than a covenantal relationship, like we commune with God only to get what we want from Him. This is the warning of our text today.

The Cautionary Tale of Israel

The book of 1 Samuel is a picture of what two different relationships with God look like: a covenantal and a contractual. Those in a contractual relationship with God (Eli, his sons, most of Israel, Saul) use God to get what they want, to bring about the changes and results in their lives that they desire. Those in a covenantal relationship (Hannah, Samuel, and David) want God Himself; they are those “after God’s own heart,” (1 Sam 13:14).

The book explains how God has risen up Samuel to replace the wicked sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, who have used their positions as priests to forcefully rob others from the offerings given to God and to sleep with the women who were trying to worship at the tabernacle (1 Sam 2:12-17, 22). We are simply told that, despite the fact that they are priests of God, “they did not know the Lord,” (1 Sam 2:12). How shocking: men who are intended to be mediators between God and men, to help others know God more clearly and worship Him more rightly, they don’t even know God. They have no relationship with Him. They are simply using God as a free ticket to money, food, and sex. 

These two sons are set in direct contrast with the son of Hannah, Samuel. Hannah opens up the entire book of 1 Samuel with her prayers for a son. She is barren and wants a son more than anything. But she promises God that if He will give her a son, she will give Him back to God by devoting him to work in the tabernacle under Eli. God grants her request and gives her a son, and Hannah faithfully follows through with her promise. What does this tell us? God is Hannah’s highest priority. She offers up her son, the thing that she loves and desires most, to God. Samuel is an icon of contrast with Eli’s wicked sons, who use God to get what they want. One is a picture of a covenant relationship, the other of contractual relationship.

Sadly, most of Israel has followed the model of Eli’s sons. 1 Samuel occurs directly after the book of Judges. The time of the judges is a bleak one for Israel. Israel descends into a kind of moral perversion that is unparalleled in the Old Testament, making Sodom and Gomorrah look junior varsity in comparison. The constant refrain we are told over and over again is that, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).

Our text today, 1 Samuel 4, is a story that takes place before any of the kings have arisen and right as the sons of Eli and Samuel have been contrasted with each other. We are told of the Philistines arising to wage war against Israel. Earlier, God foretold that Israel would face enemies in the Promised Land, but He also promised that He would help them in their battles so long as they remained faithful to the covenant that they had entered into with God at Mt. Sinai. Every Hebrew there at that battle would have known that promise and they would have know of the great and famous stories of God’s deliverance from past enemies, where God would part seas and send fire from heaven to consume their enemies. That would have been a great comfort as the foot soldiers prepared to fight.

However, much to their surprise, the Hebrews were spectacularly defeated, leaving nearly four thousand men dead (1 Sam 4:2). “And when the people came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies,” 1 Sam 4:3. They acknowledge that it is Yahweh Himself who has defeated them; they know something is wrong—the Philistines shouldn’t be able to defeat them. Didn’t God promise He would help them? Ah, that’s the problem! We forgot the Ark! 

The Ark of the Covenant was a small box that God had commanded Moses to construct while up on Mt. Sinai. It held the tablets of God’s commandments and was to be kept inside of the holiest place in the tabernacle. It represented God’s presence, acting as a sort of footstool of God’s heavenly throne (it was where heaven and earth met). No one was ever allowed to touch the ark or they would be struck dead, so priests would carry it on poles that supported it. It had previously been carried into battle during the siege of Jericho, so why not bring it out now? “So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God,” 1 Sam 4:4. 

Now, of course, the problem is not that the ark has been missing. The problem is that the nation of Israel has rejected God (1 Sam 8:7); they are all like Hophni and Phinehas and their presence with the ark is symbolic of what all of Israel’s standing before God is like: they do not know the Lord. But still, the arrival of the Ark brings a great deal of encouragement: “As soon as the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded,” 1 Sam 4:5. No one present second guessed that the arrival of the Ark was a sure sign that God was going to bless them, no one stopped to consider that perhaps the problem was that the nation had violated the covenant that the Ark contained. No one even said that they needed the Lord Himself—what do they need? The ark of covenant! We don’t need God, we just need His firepower. The box rolls into the camp like an Abrams tank rolling in to reinforce the front. Israel isn’t the only one who interprets it this way; so do the Philistines.

“And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” And when they learned that the ark of the LORD had come to the camp, the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness,” – 1 Sam 4:6-8.

The Philistines know what Yahweh has done to the Egyptians in the Exodus. They think that the god (or gods) of the Hebrews is now walking among them, so they are trembling in terror. This really seems to be working! The troops are heartened, the enemy is left quaking in their boots—what more could you ask for?

Only, this time, Israel suffers a defeat so severe that it utterly breaks the spirit of the nation. “So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel fell. And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died,” 1 Sam 4:10-11. Their defeat here is over seven times worse than the causalities from the first battle, plus Eli’s sons attending the ark are killed, plus the Ark itself is lost! The connection between heaven and earth, the footstool of God’s throne where His presence was made manifest…has been lost. When Eli hears this news he falls over and dies immediately (1 Sam 4:18).

Why would God let Israel lose so painfully? Why would He let a bunch of pagan Philistines march off with the Ark of the Covenant? Does this mean that the Philistine’s god (Dagon) is more powerful than Yahweh?

God is not a Genie

The Israelites viewed the Ark of the Covenant with the eye of superstitious folk-religion, not of faith. They did not know the Lord of the Covenant that the Ark was intended to represent. God was simply a force, a talisman of energy that they could appropriate for their own end. But God will not be batted around like some toy. He is not a tool we hold in our hands—we are held in His hands! Do you remember when Joshua was confronted by the angel of the Lord before the battle of Jericho and he asked him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come,” Joshua 5:13-14. God is not another player on the field who chooses a “side” to be on. It is we who have the choice: are we on God’s side or not?

As you look forward to the next year and think of what you want to have happen, what resolutions you want to make—maybe you want to lose ten pounds, pick up gardening, or maybe you want to simply be more intentional in your relationships, maybe you want to spend less time on your phone—whatever it is, we should be cautious of treating God like a means to those ends, like we are in some kind of give-and-take, contractual relationship with Him: Okay God, I will give you my time and attention if you will help me become more self-confident, if you will help me grow my business. 

We can even pursue spiritual goals this way. We can want to get rid of sin in our life or become more faithful in our spiritual disciplines, but pursue those things without actually pursuing God Himself. We should ask ourselves why we want to grow in those things—maybe you want to remove that habitual sin in your life not so much because it is keeping your from further intimacy with the Lord, but more because you are just embarrassed by it and it is making life more difficult. 

Tim Keller helpfully summarizes the dilemma this way: “Religious people find God useful. Christians find God beautiful.” Is God primarily useful to you? Or beautiful? Do you desire Him, or what He has to offer you?

This temptation is present for our church as a whole as well. Why do we want to see our church grow, to see people become disciples of Christ, why do we want to create a covenant community who worships Christ above all? If our answer is anything other than: we want to see God and we want as many other people

God is not whatever you want Him to be

It is normal and natural for people treat God as useful. This is the ethos of our day: everybody needs something that helps them get along in life. Life is hard and we need something to give us purpose, meaning, something that helps us deal with demons we all fight. So, whatever “religious” pursuit floats your boat, go for it! For some people that is traditional religion, for others it is found in a more self-guided experience, and for others it is found in (fill in the blank). All that matters is that we find something that works for us. But, of course, this assumes that (1) God is ultimately unknowable, and (2) what is most important is our felt-needs being met.

But what if God wants to speak to us? What if He wants us to quiet our soul’s constant yammering and to reveal Himself to us? And what if that overwhelms and transcends every man-made conception we had of Him? God is not a pool of energy, He is not some distant and aloof grandfather, He is not a calculating lawyer waiting to twist the screws to you for every fault and transgression: He is the covenant Lord who wants to enter into a covenant relationship with you. Not because you have anything special to offer Him—He just wants you. And He has sent His Son to pay for your sins, to take your penalty, so that you may be forgiven.

God has revealed Himself, made Himself known, and He has not done so primarily to take our natural, worldly desires and satisfy them, shape-shifting into whatever form of a deity or higher power we want Him to be. God has revealed Himself so that we might have a covenantal relationship with Him, to love Him, to know Him. And, to be sure, when we love God for God, then there will be a great change in our life, in our marriages, in our homes, in our church. If we “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you,” Matt 6:33. 

So, friend, as you look to the New Year, and as you look to your life, to our church, and think about everything you want to change, where you want to see growth, know this: there is nothing more important than prioritizing your relationship with the Lord. This should be the goal of everyone in this room: I want to know God more in 2021. Ask yourself: do I view God primarily as useful? Or as beautiful?

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Christmas: The Humility of God
Christmas: The Humility of God

Marc Sims • December 23, 2020

Christmas is a revelation of the heart of God. At Christmas we enjoy many things: time together as a family, traditions, good food, wonderful music, the nostalgia of shared memories. I, for one, love getting to see the electric joy beaming on my children’s faces as they unwrap presents. It is a wonderful, wonderful season. But, all of those good gifts are the leaves and branches that shoot forth from the trunk and roots of the tree of Christmas celebration: the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. And with the arrival of Jesus Christ, we are given a profound disclosure of the God’s heart for weak people like me, like you.

You can tell a great deal by what someone is willing to be inconvenienced for. You can see a parent’s love for their child by their willingness to sit on metal bleachers in the dead of winter to watch a football game. You can see a church member’s love for one another when they carve out time in their hectic schedule to share a meal. But you can tell even more about someone by seeing what they are willing to suffer for. A parent’s love glimmers at that pee-wee football game, but it shines forth when a parent lays down their life so their child may live.

And at Christmas we see a disclosure of what matters most to God as we see what He is willing to be inconvenienced for, what He is willing to suffer for. What do we see matters most to God? The proclamation of the angels in Luke 2 reveal this: His glory being seen in our joy being spread. This is what God is willing to suffer for, be humiliated for. Glory, joy, suffering.

Let’s briefly consider these three elements in the Christmas story.

After the angel of the Lord explains what is going to happen, suddenly an entire heavenly host of angels appears, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14). This is what Christmas is about: God wants the world to see His beauty, His power, His goodness. And, as we considered a number of weeks ago in our first Advent sermon, sometimes God fixes the situation in such a dire, troubling way that when He comes in salvation, He looks all the more glorious. But what is His glory displayed in most? As the heavenly host praise God and ascribe glory to Him, their next breath is spent on declaring “Peace on earth.” Which brings us to the second major element: joy.

The angel of the Lord explains, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people,” Luke 2:10. The “good news” (gospel) of Christianity is a message of joy! God’s glory is not see in the display of His esoteric wisdom, or arcane philosophies. God doesn’t make the centerpiece of His praises abstract platitudes or systems of morality. It isn’t even in the display of raw power or vindictive judgment on enemies. God’s glory is seen in its proclamation of joy to all the peoples. The gospel is an announcement of great joy. This is what brings our God “glory in the highest.” How does this come? It comes through what our God is willing to suffer.

It is astonishing to ponder how far our God was willing to stoop to come down to us. I wonder if you remember the criticism George W. Bush received during Hurricane Katrina. The President had been away on a month long vacation at his ranch in Texas when Katrina hit. Deliberately trying to avoid the news, Bush was not made aware of the disaster for several days. When he realized the magnitude of how severe it was, he ended his vacation and decided to go back to Washington, but on his way back Air-Force One flew over New Orleans. Famously, a photographer snapped a picture of the President peering through the window of his private jet to look upon the havoc and destruction that lay below. The picture, many critics said, was a symbol of the President’s posture towards to plight of the victims: detached, distant, indifferent. I am not intending to make any evaluation of how our President handled that crisis, but it is a fitting analogy for how many people feel God relates to their problems. A distant onlooker peering over the rim of creation on us and our problems.

But Christmas is a direct refutation of that. God has come down! He has entered into this world, waded into the muck, and has identified Himself with us. But consider how low God was willing to go to identify with us in our most humble of estates, in our most weak and fragile form.

-       Jesus could have come down as a full-grown man, but He didn’t. He came as a baby. A weak, helpless, crying baby. I have a one year old at home right now and am constantly struck by the idea that, once, Jesus was this small, this helpless, this dependent. 

-       Jesus could have been born in a large city of importance, like Jerusalem, but He wasn’t. He was born out in the country in the small town of Bethlehem.

-       Jesus could have been born into a family of wealth or power. But He was born into poverty, to poor parents.

-       Jesus could have been born in a palace, or at least a comfortable, safe room. But He wasn’t. He was born in a lowly manger, where animals live.

Even the announcement of Jesus’ birth is shocking. The arrival of the birth of the Messiah is, quite literally, the most important proclamation in the world. Jesus has come, God has taken on flesh, and now the opportunity for salvation has come, the New Creation is arriving and a heavenly host of angelic emissaries are here to praise God and announce this climactic moment of historical significance to….a few shepherds? Why not send these angels to kings, princes, dignitaries, why not go to the Biblical scholars of the day, to the important, to the “people who matter”? Why reveal this truth to just a handful of blue-collar nobodies out in the middle of nowhere?

Because this is the way of the Messiah, the Word made Flesh. His ministry, His life, His work is not to be characterized by the usual patterns that the world tell us matters. Jesus has not come to win victory for His people through the regular means victory is achieved. No, the joy that He is laboring for to display the glory of God is not a joy that comes from the well-worn path of man-made joy, and man-centered glory. Jesus has come, Christmas has happened, so that Good Friday would occur, so that Easter could happen.

The “good news of great joy” that is for “all the peoples” is that this infant will grow, living a spectacularly law-abiding life, but will one day die a horrific, sin-atoning death so that our sins could be forgiven. As Joseph was told, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins,” Matt 1:21. 

So, as you celebrate Christmas this year remember:

1.     Jesus has come so that our eternal joy would be secured through the forgiveness of our sins. This is the greatest gift.

2.     Consider the humility of our God. Reflect on the depths to which God has gone, the humiliation He has endured to secure your salvation. Let that drive you to actively imitate this humility. Be wary of overlooking something that seems “beneath you.” What are the “mangers” and “shepherds” in your life? Where are you tempted to discredit God’s work because something is too small, too mundane, and too feeble? As J.I. Packer reminds us: “Our God is a God for the weak. Weakness is the way.”

In closing, reflect on these words from the song “Lower Still” from My Epic.

Look, he’s covered in dirt

The blood of his mother has mixed with the Earth

and she’s just a child who’s throbbing in pain

from the terror of birth by the light of a cave

now they’ve laid that small baby

where creatures come eat

like a meal for the swine who have no clue that he

is still holding together the world that they see

they don’t know just how low he has to go

Lower still

Look now he’s kneeling he’s washin’ their feet

though they’re all filthy fishermen, traitors and theives

now he’s pouring his heart out and they’re fallin’ asleep

but he has to go lower still

there is greater love to show

hands to the plow

further down now

blood must flow

all these steps are personal 

all his shame is ransom

oh do you see, do you see just how low, he has come

do you see it now?

no one takes from him

what he freely gives away

beat in his face

tear the skin off his back

Lower still, lower still

strip off his clothes

make him crawl through the streets

Lower still, lower still

hang him like meat

on a criminal’s tree

Lower still, lower still

bury his corpse in the Earth 

like a seed, like a seed, like a seed

Lower still, lower still

Lower still, lower still…

The Earth explodes

she cannot hold him!

And all therein is placed beneath Him

and death itself no longer reigns

it cannot keep the ones he gave himself to save

and as the universe shatters the darkness disolves

he alone will be honored

we will bathe in his splendor

as all heads bow lower still

all heads bow lower still

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A New and Glorious Morn (Luke 1:67-79)
A New and Glorious Morn (Luke 1:67-79)

Marc Sims • December 22, 2020

Sermon Audio:

Sermon Manuscript:

67 And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,

68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has visited and redeemed his people

69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us

in the house of his servant David,

70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

71 that we should be saved from our enemies

and from the hand of all who hate us;

72 to show the mercy promised to our fathers

and to remember his holy covenant,

73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us

74 that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,

might serve him without fear,

75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people

in the forgiveness of their sins,

78 because of the tender mercy of our God,

whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high

79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

-       Luke 1:67-79

Why do Christians want to share their faith? Why are we evangelistic? Why not be content in simply teaching our children, maintaining our traditions and keeping our conversations with our neighbors to the weather and the Seahawks? Even more puzzling, why do we send Christians to go to other communities, nations, uprooting their families and planting them in wholly unknown and sometimes hostile places, all just to share the gospel with others.

Two years ago a 26 year-old American, John Chau, paddled a kayak to the secluded North Sentinel Island in the Indian Sea, though it was illegal to do so. His aim was to preach the gospel to the Sentinelese people, who had no contact with the outside world and were known to be very violent towards outsiders. Chau was killed shortly after landing on the island. Many news outlets reported on the incident, wondering why one earth a young man would so carelessly throw his life away. Many even considered his desire to preach Christianity to these natives as a vestige of colonialism, and thus profoundly harmful—why would you try to rob someone of their cultural heritage by converting them? 

Why do Christians want to convert others?

That was a question a young Charlotte Moon contemplated, nearly 175 years before John Chau set out for the North Sentinel Island. Growing up in a wealthy family with strong Baptist convictions, ‘Lottie’ was given opportunities for education that most young women did not have access to. Standing only at a mere four foot three inches, Lottie’s stature was small (her feet could not touch the floor when she sat in chairs), but her intellect was large. By the age of 17 she was proficient in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian. But her heart was indifferent to the Lord, to the Church, to the entire Baptist conviction of evangelism and missions. A travelling evangelist and preacher was coming through her town one December and Lottie’s friends, aware of her spiritual state, pled with her repeatedly to go. Reluctantly, she agreed, but explained that she would only go in order to mock what was happening. But, that night, 162 years ago today, Lottie was born again.

Though she had many teaching opportunities in front of her, Lottie, a young single woman, decided to travel to China in order to share the gospel with unreached Chinese people. Life in China was difficult and people were often resistant to Lottie’s message. After four years, the small team of missionaries that had arrived in China had dwindled—several had died, more had simply abandoned the work—leaving only four missionaries left in the whole of their region. “This troubled Lottie. Why, she asked, did one million Southern Baptists only have one man and three women witnessing to thirty million souls?” And in time, more help would come. But Lottie remained in China for the next 39 years, converting and baptizing thousands and thousands, and suffering profound difficulties, isolation, depression, physical attacks, hunger, and persecution.

Why? She wrote, “[A Christian] should ask himself not if it is his duty to go to the heathen, but if he may dare stay at home. The command is so plain: ‘Go.’” There is something about the Christian faith that propels us forward, to speak to our neighbors, to send missionaries to unreached peoples, to go. And in our text today we will see that one of the central elements of Christmas centers on this reality. In Zechariah’s song, he recounts how God has sought to bless all nations through the birth of Christ. This is one of the reasons why Lottie Moon sought to create an offering gathered once a year by Southern Baptists at Christmas to support international missionaries around the globe. The birth of Jesus is good news for all people—we simply must go and tell it to them.

In our text today, we are going to be taken down a winding path through the Old Testament that might seem odd or unfamiliar. But I have been always helped by CS Lewis’ thought from his essay The Weight of Glory: “If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know.” As we walk through the first half of this song and find ourselves puzzled and we are tempted to just skip by the parts that bore us, perhaps that is a sign that these are the exact places we need to be focusing the bulk of our attention to.

God’s Promise to Abraham

The first half of Zechariah’s song (The Benedictus) centers on what God has promised His people, Israel. The song winds through the history of the Old Testament, tugging on the major threads woven through the Old Testament. These threads point forward to a future fulfillment and Zechariah is praising God because with the arrival of John and Jesus, these promises are now fulfilled.

1.     Zechariah explains that God has “visited and redeemed His people,” (Luke 1:68). “Redemption” is the language used in the Bible to refer to people who were slaves, but have been liberated from their captivity, purchased. It is used most often in the Old Testament to refer to the deliverance of the Hebrews from their Egyptian slavery in the book of Exodus. What happened at the Exodus? God’s people were slaves under the sentence of death, but God single-handedly and miraculously saved them by grace, redeeming them from death by the blood of a spotless lamb. After saving them, He made them into a new people, gave them a law, and promised them a land where they would dwell with God in peace and rest. But, God’s people didn’t obey God’s law, so they were removed from the land, sent into exile. But the prophets of Israel foretold of a day when God would again perform a great act of redemption, a new kind of Exodus that would surpass the old in its magnitude (eg. Isa 43). This is what Zechariah is saying has happened now.

2.     Zechariah continues to explain that God has also “raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David,” (Luke 1:68). “Raising up a horn” is a symbolic metaphor for strength and victory, as in when an animal with horns conquers another animal with horns; the animal that wins the battle raises its head, while the one that loses walks away with a lowered horn. Here we are told that God has raised up a horn of salvation specifically from the “house of His servant David.” This is referring to the messianic promise that God had made to David that he would have a descendant who would sit on His throne forever (2 Sam 7). Psalm 132 is a psalm dedicated to this promise. In it the psalmist records, “There I will make a horn to sprout for David; I have prepared a lamp for my anointed,” Ps 132:17. Zechariah is blessing God because now the descendant of David, the horn, has arrived; the kingdom will be reestablished, God’s enemies will be taken care of, and the people of God will find rest. This is why so much of Zechariah’s song speaks of being delivered from Israel’s enemies and serving God without fear (Luke 1:71; 74).

3.     Finally, Zechariah rejoices that God’s covenant with Abraham is being fulfilled, “to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days,” Luke 1:72-75. Abraham is the father of Israel—literally. In Genesis 12 God chooses Abraham (then Abram) and commands him to leave his country and promises him three things: (1) he will become a great nation, (2) He will have a land that God has promised Him, and (3) all of the families of the earth will be blessed through Him (Gen 12:1-3). In Genesis 15, however, Abraham is now an old man and has no children. How is he supposed to father an entire nation? God formally enters into a covenant with Abraham, reiterating this promise (which is repeated again in Gen 17, and 22). But it is only in chapter 22 where we see God take an “oath”—Zechariah highlights God’s covenant and oath in his song. 

Genesis 22 is the famous story of Abraham offering up Isaac, the promised heir through whom God pledged the multitude of Abraham’s descendants would come, for sacrifice upon God’s request. Before Abraham goes through with the sacrifice, God stops Abraham: “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided,” Gen 22:12-14.

And then, God speaks again to Abraham, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice,” Gen 22:16-18. God swearing by Himself is the oath, and the rest of the promises that He recounts are the blessings of the covenant God has made with Abraham. Now, Zechariah is saying that we can sing and rejoice because God has fulfilled this oath and covenant with the advent of Jesus Christ, with the result that now we are (1) delivered from our enemies and thus can (2) serve the Lord without fear, (3) in holiness and righteousness.

Exodus, David, Abraham. All of these rush together into this moment: the advent of Jesus. How does Jesus fulfill these expectations?

Jesus has come to bring about the new Exodus, the greater Exodus, to deliver and save His people from their slavery to sin and death, to make them a new people, give them His law, and lead them to the final Promised Land: the New Heavens and New Earth. He is the truer and greater spotless lamb, the Passover sacrifice, whose blood covers us and redeems us once for all from the Destroyer.

Jesus is the son of David and the truer and greater David. He is the unassuming, unexpected king of Israel, a man after God’s own heart, who slays the giant of sin and Satan, through surprising and humble means (His own death on the cross). Through His death and resurrection He has now ascended to Heaven and has taken His seat on His throne where He rules as the king over all creation, manifesting His kingdom on earth through His church, as we await the final consummation of His kingdom at His return.

Jesus is the fulfillment of the covenant and oath that God made to Abraham when He stayed his hand from sacrificing Isaac. God made the oath with Abraham because, “you have not withheld your son, your only son,” (Gen 22:16). Now, God will not withhold from us His son, His only son. Jesus is the truer and greater sacrifice that is offered up instead of Isaac, offering Himself for His people on the cross so that we would not perish but have everlasting life, that we may be declared holy and righteous. And now, through Jesus’ work, His people are now commissioned to go to the ends of the earth and spread this good news to all nations, till the people of God are as numerous as the sands on the seashore or the stars in the sky (which is why the gospels spend so much time recording Jesus’ interactions with non-Jewish people, demonstrating that salvation is not for ethnic Israel alone).

This is what is leading Zechariah to rejoice, to sing, to praise God. Israel’s great hope, great expectation has arrived. But what is most important to Zechariah?

The Tender Mercies of God

After recounting the numerous ways God is fulfilling what the prophets beforehand have prophesied, Zechariah then turns to his baby boy and prophesies over him: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,” Luke 1:76-77. John is to be a trailblazer to clear the way for the Lord, the Messiah Himself. John will be a teacher who will point people towards salvation—and what is this salvation? The forgiveness of sins. 

Why would God forgive our sins? Why would He save us? We are told, “because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace,” Luke 1:78-79. 

Why are we forgiven? The mercy of God. We are not saved out of the obligations of God. He doesn't owe use forgiveness. Perhaps it is tempting to assume that forgiving is just God's job: Of course I am forgiven, isn't God just eager to have my attention? Isn't that kind of taken for granted? We are not saved because God owes us anything--it is sheer mercy.

Further, we are not saved because we have slogged it through a tough time, punched the clock, knuckled down and scraped together some spiritual entrée that would please the Lord. We have not created something appealing that has bent God's gaze our direction and earned a pardon on our sins. We are saved by wholly undeserved, unmerited, doesn't make sense, mercy.

But friends, we aren’t even just saved by God’s mercy. We are saved because of His tender mercy. The Greek word for that is splanchna (σπλάγχνα), and it literally refers to someone’s internal organs—it is where we derive the English word “spleen” from. In the ancient world people believed that the guts were the seat of the most powerful and sympathetic of all emotions, especially compassion. Here Zechariah recognizes that God’s mercy towards His people is profoundly deep, heartfelt, powerful, tender. God is not just putting up with us; He isn’t just tired of listening to us complain and He knows if He will forgive our sins He can finally get some peace and quiet because, after all, He has much more important things to attend to. No, His heart is tender toward us. Ponder these three passages from the Old Testament that reveal God's heart towards sinners like you and me:

“How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender,” Hos 11:8. At the height of Israel's sin and spiritual adultery, God still cannot fathom casting His people off. His heart is warmed as He thinks of His children. Our sin doesn't cause God's heart to become brittle and cold, but tender and warm.

I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul. – Jer 32:41. What was the last thing you did with "all your heart and soul"? What was the last thing you did that expended every drop of sweat, blood, and tears to accomplish? This is the intensity with which God works towards doing good to His covenant people. His heart is not indifferent towards us, He is not mechanically shelling out forgiveness to a faceless mass of people. He is thrilled to work good for His children!

15 “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me. – Isa 49:15-16. Think of the attachment a mother feels towards her newborn child. These, according to Isaiah, are an imperfect reflection of God's more perfect affection for His children. Mother's may forget. God never will. He will not abandon you, He will not cast you aside--you are engraved on the palm of His hand. This is God's heart towards you.

You see friends, our salvation--the forgiveness of sins--flows from God's tender mercy. It is stunningly beautiful, and scandalously given to any and all who come to Christ. This is why Zechariah compares it with a sunrise. In the same way sunlight spills across a dark, cold morning, bringing light and warmth, so too does God's mercy beautifully spill out towards all persons who will put their faith in Christ. There is no darkness so dark that the light cannot overcome. And there is no sinner too far from God that He cannot be reconciled.

This is why we go. This news is just too good not to be shared. God has promised that through His people all families of the earth will be blessed. The new exodus has global implications. The new David is a King who will rule and reign over all nations, not just Israel. So we go to the ends of the earth and we share the gospel with our neighbors and we support missionaries and pray that God's Kingdom would come and His will would be done, here on earth as it is in heaven. We want people to see and know that there is a God who is gracious and merciful, who will forgive their sins and save them from destruction.

A thrill of hope

A weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks

A new and glorious morn

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A Weary World Rejoices (Luke 1:46-55)
A Weary World Rejoices (Luke 1:46-55)

Marc Sims • December 15, 2020

Sermon Audio:

Sermon Manuscript:

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.

For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

50 And his mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

51 He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;

52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones

and exalted those of humble estate;

53 he has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

55 as he spoke to our fathers,

to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

-       Luke 1:46-55

Cornelia was a brave, cheerful Dutch woman. Her father was a remarkable clockmaker, well-known throughout all of the Netherlands and Cornelia, being a single woman her whole life, not only lived with her father, but took up the trade of clockmaking herself. Cornelia and her father, Casper, were joined also by Betsie, Cornelia’s sister who ran the home while Casper and Corrie ran the clock shop below. Their home was filled with warmth, laughter, and love, but most of all it was marked by their deeply devout Christian faith, which led them to regularly read the Bible, pray, and apply these truths to every part of their life. They cared for the poor and the hungry, often opening their home to those were in need. Cornelia even ran a school for mentally handicapped children through their church. And, when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in WWII, they heroically worked to help and hide Jews from being deported to the concentration camps. 

Profoundly influenced by the Darwinian notion of “survival of the fittest” and Nietzsche’s concept of the ubermensch, Nazi ideology had no concept of caring for the weak, the feeble, the downtrodden. Quite the opposite, they believed that it was through exterminating these lower classes that a more pure, resilient, and fit race would emerge to bring about the next thousand year empire. So, Jews, cripples, the mentally handicapped, homosexuals were systematically, efficiently, and ruthlessly expunged from the gene pool. To care for the weak was to choose to slow the process of evolution from happening and deny the German people from inheriting the burden of their terrible and glorious destiny. So, when Corrie, Casper, and Betsie ten Boom were discovered to be helping Jews, they were quickly arrested. 

The three of them were separated and shipped off to a prison that housed conspirators working against the Reich. After months of solitary confinement, Corrie was summoned to an inspection by a German Lieutenant who promised Corrie help if she would give him information about the “work” she was been doing. Corrie eagerly told the Lieutenant about what she did for her community, carefully avoiding saying anything about her work to hide Jews, before launching into a spirited explanation of her school for children who are mentally handicapped. Corrie recounts the Lieutenant’s reaction in her memoir, The Hiding Place:

“What a waste of time and energy!” he exploded at last. “If you want converts, surely one normal person is worth all the half-wits in the world!”…true National-Socialist philosophy, I thought…And then to my own astonishment I heard my own voice saying boldly, “May I tell you the truth Lieutenant Rahms?... The truth, Sir…is that God’s viewpoint is sometimes different from ours—so different that we could not even guess at it unless He had given us a Book which tells us such things.” I knew it was madness to talk this way to a Nazi officer, but he said nothing so I plunged ahead. “In the Bible I learn that God values us not for our strength or our brains but simply because He has made us. Who knows, in His eyes a half-wit may be worth more than a watchmaker. Or—a lieutenant.” – The Hiding Place, “The Lieutenant” 

Corrie’s courage in the face of peril is heartening. Where does courage like that come from? Certainly it comes from the help of the Spirit, whom we are told will give us words to speak when we are brought before authorities on account of our faith in Christ (Luke 12:11-12). But it also comes from the teaching of the “Book” that offers a “viewpoint” that is “different from ours.” In the Bible we find that what God values in men and women is very different than what the world values: God looks to the low, the despised, the humiliated, and opposes the proud. While we balk at the morals of Hitler and their murderous empire, our world still runs on value system that finds God’s upside-down kingdom baffling. While so many today say that they too care for the weak and disadvantaged, nevertheless we still love geniuses, superstars, entrepreneurs, billionaires, politicians and witty satirists who use their intellect to shame and embarrass others. We are infatuated with power, beauty, and pride. And in a day where we are told that the highest virtue one can attain is pride—pride in our true, “authentic” selves, focusing on loving and caring and embracing self—the idea that God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble is just as confounding. 

In our text today we learn that it is the lowly, not the exalted, that God looks to; it is the powerful, not the weak, who should fear; and this should provide great joy for the weak and weary.

Structure of the Song

Mary’s famous song of praise bursts forth in response to her conversation with Elizabeth where  Elizabeth confirms what Gabriel told Mary (Luke 1:39-45). Mary’s song is broken up into three parts: (1) How God has treated her, personally, (2) How God treats people in general, and (3) how God treats His covenant people. All of it centers on God and His actions in the world to exalt the lowly, to bring low the exalted, and to give great joy to His people.

The Lowly Exalted

Mary emphasizes God’s desire to show His favor on the humble and lowly. Mary opens the song, ““My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant,” (Luke 1:46-48), and then later explains in verse 52, “He…has exalted those of humble estate.” The word for “humble estate” (ταπείνωσιν) refers to a state of humiliation that comes from poverty (James 1:9-10) or a low social status (Rom 12:16). It is used to describe the lowly state of our earthly bodies compared with the heavenly body we will inherit (Phil 3:21), and the humiliation Christ experienced when He was denied justice by being wrongfully put to death (Acts 8:33). It is a word that is used for those who are on the bottom of the ladder, the nameless, faceless nobodies that the great ones of our day pass by without a thought: the cashier clerk, housemaids, servers, immigrants, and homeless.

But, with that, it also refers to a kind of unpretentiousness, gentleness that is radically “others” focused; what we call “humility.” James tells us that, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble,” James 4:6. Jesus Himself describes His own heart this way: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls,” Matt 11:29. “Lowly” is the same word for “humble.” What is Jesus saying? He is saying that He is not overly “puffed up” on his own puffed-up ego; He isn’t too important for you. He doesn’t have somewhere else to be, He isn’t checking his watch as you talk to Him. His heart is gentle and lowly. He is not haughty and arrogant.

So, which of these meanings of “humble estate” does Mary refer to here in her song? Is she talking about her economic and social situation, or her humility? I think she is likely referring to both. It is possible for the poor and hungry to still be in the grips of pride, to be hardened by arrogance. I’ve met homeless men and women who wore their difficult life like a badge of pride, believing that it showed how resilient and strong they were. But, on the whole, usually the wealthier and more powerful you are the more you are prone to a proud, self-sufficiency. You don’t need help, you can go it alone because, in the words of Flannery O’Connor, you’ve, “always had a little of everything, and the God-given wit to use it right.” And this makes it really difficult for you to see any need—even for God. 

God may seem like a nice counselor to consult from time to time, or a helpful spiritual supplement to fortify your life with so you feel better about yourself—but He is not your Savior, not your Lord, not your one boon of hope that is holding you up and without Him everything else in life would dissolve like soap before the fire. No, you have your comfortable home, respectable career, exciting weekend adventures with your family and a thickly padded retirement awaiting you. Without the Lord in your life, there would be a certain sadness, but nothing fundamentally lost. It is no wonder that Jesus explains that it is easier for a camel to shrink down to the size of a sewing thread and pass through a needle than for a rich man to enter into heaven (Mark 10:25) and no wonder that the Bible often speaks about wealth more like a danger and curse than anything else (Luke 6:24; James 1:9-11; 2:5; 5:1-6; 1 Tim 6:9).

It is much harder, on the other hand, for the poor to be under this delusion. They don’t have the liquor of wealth to intoxicate them. So their hearts are sobered to see their inability, their need, their helplessness. And this prepares their heart to see their more profound state: their poverty before God. Jesus explains: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Matt 5:3. What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? It is to realize your spiritual bankruptcy before God, to see your total need in the same way that someone who is economically poor realizes their financial need. But it is most often those who have gone through serious financial poverty who are more willing to see their spiritual poverty. 

This is why Christianity has always flourished among the poor and the downtrodden. James teaches us that God has specially chosen the poor, “Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?” James 2:5. Again, this isn’t because being poor inherently makes you righteous or more holy than wealthy people—it is only to say that those in the low places are often quicker to realize their true need than those in the high places. And it is these people, those of humble estate that are going to be exalted.

Application: few of us are 'poor.' What are we to do with this?

Christianity is not a religion that is basically an economic plan for the poor or one that excoriates the bourgeoise in favor of the working class. This is the failure of liberal Christianity. They assume that what the Bible teaches about the poor is limited to fiscal aid and economic relief plans. They fail to see that the reason the poor are highlighted is because their circumstances in life have opened up their hearts to realize their true plight—their spiritual poverty before a God who is rich in holiness—while the rich and famous of this world are blind to it. Financial circumstances are not the end goal, simply a means of either hindering or helping us see our spiritual state before God. The wealthy are in danger like the Laodiceans, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked,” Rev 3:17. Wealth in the Bible often is attached to more than just finances, but was threaded into social standing, integrity, and favor from God. The Laodiceans (and us today) were seduced into assuming that their own comfortable position in life made them less dependent on the Lord and it blinded them from seeing their real dilemma.

As a child I grew up relatively 'poor.' We lived in trailer parks and manufactured homes when I was young and then bought an old, old home in Kennewick. I remember the surprise when I would go over to friend’s homes who lived in what felt like mansions and would always take notice when they had name-brand clothes and over-the-top snacks that my parents said we couldn’t afford. I remember the deep shame I would feel when these friends would then come over to my house and see our stained carpet, dated furniture, and off-brand cereal. It made me uncomfortable to know that this person saw what my life was like compared to their own, like the stark difference between our financial situation would make them want to stop being around me. This is how the poor typically feel around the wealthy, and it is worth thinking about how the Bible describes ourselves as poor, and God as rich (2 Cor 8:9).

What the Scriptures are teaching us is that the kind of stratification that we naturally feel among each other is but a dim shadow of what our state is before God. God is infinitely beyond us, but not just in material wealth, but in the wealth of His character, His holiness. We are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” We are “poor in spirit.” Our main dilemma isn’t how much money we have in our bank account or what our 401K’s look like. Our main dilemma is where we stand before this awesome God. But the poor in spirit are blessed, because, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich,” 2 Cor 8:9. Jesus left the “wealth” of heaven to become “poor”—meaning, Jesus’ holiness and righteousness did not keep Him away from us when He saw our wretchedness and sinfulness. Rather, He was compelled to come down, become a man, and become “poor”—Jesus took on our spiritual poverty, our sinfulness, on the cross. So, now, we who are poor can become rich—we can be clothed in the righteousness of Jesus. It doesn’t matter what your income in this room is, whether you make a six-figure salary or you are hovering around the poverty line, all of us have access to these heavenly riches in Christ. And these matter infinitely more than earthly riches. 

The High Brought Down

“And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty,” Luke 1:50-53. Why is so much of Mary’s song aimed at the powerful in the world being brought down? Later on in Luke, Jesus is going to explicitly condemn the wealthy, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation,” Luke 6:24. And then Jesus warns, 

“Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” 16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, 17 and he thought to himself, What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ 20 But God said to him, Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” – Luke 12:15-21

What did Jesus tell that parable? What’s wrong with building barns? Is this telling us that savings accounts and retirement plans are wicked?

No, I don’t think so. Jesus is warning of the seductive danger of assuming that “one’s life consists in the abundance of possessions.” 

Wealth, power, popularity, beauty, a winning personality, education, etc. can seduce you into thinking this life is the life that really matters and you don’t need God. This is something we should all be warned of, lest God say to us: "Fool." What we need is to realize our deep, deep need and total reliance upon God.

Mary’s Rejoicing

Mary realizes several things all at once: (1) her spiritual poverty, her lowliness, (2) God’s might, power, and glory, and (3) God bending all of that might, power, and glory towards exalting and loving her and all who fear God. This leads her to burst into rejoicing. The very fact that her response is in the form of a song is itself instructive: mere prose will not capture her delight in God. She reaches for poetry to form the words to exult God. 

Mary explains, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” Luke 1:46-47. For the rest of the song God is the subject of all of the verbs (except vs. 48b, referring to the generations who will call Mary blessed). Mary is rejoicing in who God is and what He does. God is the subject of her praise and worship. 

If you want to discern what in your life may be seducing you into a form of self-sufficiency and pride, what may pull your heart into a state that says, “I don’t really need God,” just ask yourself: what does your soul magnify? What does your spirit rejoice in? It could be wealth. It could be your intelligence. It could be your athletic ability or your body. It could be your own virtue and religiosity.

Friends, if rejoicing in the Lord feels really difficult now, could it be that your heart is actually set on magnifying something else?

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A Thrill of Hope (Luke 1:26-38)
A Thrill of Hope (Luke 1:26-38)

Marc Sims • December 08, 2020

Sermon Audio:

Sermon Manuscript:

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. - Luke 1:26-38

What feels impossible for you? My children are currently in love with superheroes; they love to see people do what is normally impossible for human beings to do: shoot lasers out of their hands, fly through the air, lift inhumanely heavy objects over their heads. Luckily they are still young enough (and I am still young enough) that I can pick them up and fly them around, pretending that they can zoom across our living room. We love the idea of being able to transcend limitations, to imagine to do the impossible. And while there is a childlike wonder in all of us that the best of fairytales draw out, the “real world” has taught us that there is no such thing as superheroes and that fairytales are just that—fairy tales, myths. They are nice forms of escape from the drudgery of real life—paying taxes, lower back pain, receiving disappointing news—but nothing more. Before C.S. Lewis was a Christian he was in a conversation with J.R.R. Tolkien about the ancient Norse myths that they both loved. Though Lewis adored these ancient stories, he admitted that they were merely, “lies breathed through silver.” They are great tales, but fundamentally not true. 

The real world rather harshly disabuses us of our childlike notions of wonder at the impossible made possible. Of course, from early on we learn that men can’t run faster than speeding trains or leap over buildings in a single bound. But in time the world cools our eagerness for much, much more important possibilities: will the world always be broken the way it is? Will the brutal and strong always crush the weak? Will I be left alone to fend for myself? Will I ever change?

We know that beauties don’t really fall in love with beasts, and beasts don’t magically change into princes. We know that overcoming evil isn’t as simple as a slaying a dragon or breaking a spell. We know that when the hero sacrifices himself, there is no magic that will bring him back, no matter how hard a princess or companion cries over him, and evil princes often rule without any righteous kings to return to depose them. This is why Lewis said that they were lies, even if they are breathed through silver. You want those to be true—we want to believe that evil will finally be overcome, that our beastliness can be changed to beauty, that death will not have the final word. We want to see justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream, to see all of creation be reenchanted and cured from the dreary pall that lay over it. But wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true, right? What is life? Shakespeare bleakly tells us: “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound of fury, signifying nothing.” There is no magic, there is no grand united purpose for everything that happens, there is no happy ending—just meaningless sound and fury.

Is that true? Well, it should serve as a caution that it is a guilt-ridden, crazed Macbeth who is slipping into total insanity who tells us this. Tolkien, on his part, disagreed with his friend Lewis. He believed that the great myths that so quickly captivate our imagination and hearts because they tap into fundamental truths—what he referred to as the “true myth” of Christianity. These great myths of old and their fairy tales capture the wonder, beauty, and power over the impossible that we find in the Christian faith, where we see good really does triumph over evil, sinners are transformed into saints, and death is finally defeated through the hero’s sacrifice. Of course, Tolkien admits, the Bible is not naïve about the bleak and dark realities of the world, of our own human nature—in fact, it is more frank about these than even the darkest philosopher. But it is against these dark and brooding colors that God paints the dazzling portrait of salvation. And at the center of this painting lies a plan that is birthed out of impossibility: the arrival of the Messiah through at the most difficult time, to the most unlikely of people, in the most impossible of ways.


The gospel of Luke opens with the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, a married couple who echo the story of Abraham and Sarah. They are elderly and without children when an angel, Gabriel, shows up to inform Zechariah that his barren wife will conceive and bear a son in her old age. This son will be a new kind of Elijah who will prepare the way for the Lord. Six months later, Gabriel is sent to the tiny town of Nazareth ( Luke 1:26). Nazareth is never mentioned in the Old Testament nor in any contemporary or rabbinic literature. It was a very, very small village, which apparently had a slightly negative reputation locally (John 1:46). But there, in that tiny town, was a relative of Elizabeth (perhaps a niece?), named “Mary.” We are told that she is, “a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David,” (Luke 1:27). At that time, Jewish women were pledged to be married at a young age (as young as 12, some scholars say). Betrothals were similar to what our engagements are today, but were legally binding and could not be broken off easily. This is important for us to know for the story because it tells us that (1) Mary was unmarried, yet had a legal tie to the lineage of David through Joseph, and (2) she was likely very young, probably a teenager. Gabriel is going to reveal himself to this young teenage girl and emphasize three things: her status before God, the birth of the King and the Kingdom, and how this king will come. In all of these, however, God wants to drive home the point: “Nothing will be impossible with God,” Luke 1:37.

The Virgin Birth

Gabriel announces to Mary, “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus,” Luke 1:31. Mary’s first response is understandably incredulous: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (lit. “since I have had no sexual relations with a man”) Luke 1:34. Every now and then someone tries to trot out the idea that the word “virgin” in verse 27 (parthenos) maybe doesn’t mean “virgin”, but just a young woman, or someone who gets pregnant upon the first time they have intercourse. While that is simply not true, the context of verse 31 makes this unquestionable. Mary is still unmarried, she has never had a sexual encounter with a man, so she has never even had the opportunity to conceive. The shock of Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary is precisely because she is really a virgin. The whole point here is that something is being announced that is humanly impossible (cf. Luke 1:37).

Gabriel responds, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God,” Luke 1:35-37. The previous story of Elizabeth conceiving in her old age is extraordinary and displays God’s power to overcome what is nearly impossible (an elderly birth)—here, however, this is beyond extraordinary. This is literally, humanly impossible, but what is impossible with man is possible with God (cf. Mark 10:27). The Holy Spirit will overshadow Mary and she will be found pregnant with, literally, the Son of God. And, while this is certainly the most eye-popping of the three announcements, it is not the most profound. Far weightier and significant is the identity of who this son, Jesus, will be.

The Coming King

Earlier, Gabriel explains that this son named Jesus, “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end,” Luke 1:32-33. Gabriel gives five descriptors of Jesus: (1) he will be great, (2) called Son of the Most High, (3) given the throne of his father David, (4) reign over Israel forever, and (5) he will have an eternal kingdom. These five descriptions make the identity of Mary’s child undeniable: He will be the long awaited for Messiah! Israel has eagerly anticipated the coming King, the son of David, who would return to redeem Israel from exile and establish the kingdom of God. 

In the Old Testament, the adjective “great” when ascribed to someone without any other descriptor is almost always (two exceptions) used to describe God alone, but here we are told that Jesus will be “great,” just like God is described. Further, in 2 Samuel 7 foretold of how the sons of David would have God as their father, and they would be His sons (vs. 14) and how David’s throne over Israel would be established forever (vs. 13, 16). But Gabriel doesn’t want to only attach Jesus’ identity to the expectation of the coming Davidic king, but also to the book of Daniel. The title “Most High” is the most common title for God given in the book of Daniel and the book is also the only other place in the entire Bible we meet the angel Gabriel (Dan 8:16; 9:21). In Daniel we are told of a “Son of Man” who is co-equal with God who receives an eternal kingdom that will never end (Dan 7:13-14) in which all of God’s enemies are destroyed (Dan 7:9-12). So here we have a weaving together of divine, Davidic, and Danielic expectations.

This is the child that Mary is to give birth to. 

While in Mary’s day there appears to be little understanding of who this Danielic “Son of Man” was to be or that the Messiah was to be divine in any way, there was a very strong, robust expectation of the Davidic King coming. But this is precisely what would have made Gabriel’s announcement so eyebrow raising. Israel had not had a king sitting on David’s throne for nearly 600 years. They had been brutally dominated by pagan nations, had there temple destroyed, and were currently living under a tenuous oversight of Rome. For Mary to be told that the Messiah was coming who would establish the kingdom of God would have felt almost impossible. 

Even the great prophecy of a virgin giving birth to a child who will be called Immanuel would have been surprising. In Isaiah 7:14 we are given this hallmark prophecy: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (which means, ‘God with us’).” But, like most Hebrew prophecies, this has both a “near” and “far” fulfillment. Jesus’ birth is the “far” fulfillment (cf. Matt. 1:23). But the immediate fulfillment has to do with dire, dire circumstances. The nation of Israel has separated into two kingdoms and the northern kingdom has joined forces with the nation of Syria to come and destroy the southern kingdom, where Jerusalem is (Isa 7:1-2). The sign of a virgin conceiving and bearing a child named Immanuel was not a sign of tender peace, or a Thomas Kinkade scene of serenity. Not to the nation of Judah it wasn’t. Isaiah goes onto explain that Immanuel, “God with us,” is a sign that these enemies that are arrayed around them are going to be utterly destroyed. “Be broken, you peoples, and be shattered; give ear, all you far countries; strap on your armor and be shattered; strap on your armor and be shattered. Take counsel together, but it will come to nothing; speak a word, but it will not stand, for God is with us,” Isa. 8:9-10. 

So, when Mary is told that though she is a virgin, she will conceive and bear a child, and Matthew’s gospel tells us that this child is to be called “Immanuel,” (Matt 1:23) God with us, one can only imagine just how incredible this would have sounded to her. Immanuel is coming? Does that mean then that God is going to totally destroy all of Israel’s enemies? Even Rome, the invincible, savage, crushing Rome? This would have been hard for any Jew to imagine happening. 

Of course, one could see why so many Jews misunderstood the nature of Jesus’ coming. Jesus did come to destroy Israel’s oppressors and enemies, He came to deal with their most deadly problem—He just disagreed with everyone about what their biggest problem was. While most Jews assumed that Rome was the enemy who needed to be vanquished for their exile to end, Jesus know that it was their unforgiven sin, their unrighteousness before a holy God, that was their greatest need. So Jesus did not come to establish a military coup against Roman legions—He came to suffer, to die, to forgive. But the effect of this work was no less consequential. In fact, it was infinitely more consequential than any earthly kingdom a military leader could have established. But God taps into their felt longing for national independence to say to them, Your desire to have Rome removed is just a dim reflection of your far greater need.

Nevertheless, while Mary humbly accepts this truth, it still would have seemed so marvelous, so beyond-belief given the history, that it would have seemed impossible. But, that still wouldn’t have seemed like the only impossible thing.

Finding Favor

When Gabriel first announces himself, he greets Mary like this: “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28). What sounds like an overwhelmingly positive greeting disturbs Mary, “But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be,” Luke 1:29. Why would Mary by troubled? 

Could it be that she is troubled by seeing an angel, something that often fills people with fright in the Old Testament (cf. Dan 10:2-9)? Perhaps, but Luke specifies that she is specifically troubled by “the saying,” what Gabriel said to her, not his appearance. Maybe it is the saying “the Lord is with you,” that she is troubled at, as if Gabriel is announcing to her that she is already pregnant with “the Lord,” so he is literally “with” her. But later when Gabriel explains how Mary is to conceive when she is a virgin, he uses future-tense verbs describing something that is going to happen, but has not yet occurred. Further, the phrase “the Lord is with you,” was a common phrase that simply meant: God is a present help to you (much in the same way we might tell someone, “God be with you”).

This must mean that the saying she is troubled at the greeting she receives: “Greetings, O favored one.” This is what troubles Mary. ‘O favored one’? Three times in the book of Daniel, the angel Gabriel explains to Daniel that he is “greatly loved” by God—maybe that is what this is evoking here. But what is surprising to us (and to Mary) is that we are given no reason for why Mary is favored by God. Throughout the Old Testament we are told of individuals who “find favor in God’s eyes” (Gen 6:8; Ex 33:17), but what is surprising is that in all of those we are almost never given a reason for why these people are favored by God. While these people usually are faithful to Yahweh, we are often told of their many, many flaws. Noah, for instance, is said to have found favor with God, yet his story ends in his drunkenness, a sordid affair with one of his sons, and cursing in anger. Moses is described as finding favor with God, yet doesn’t trust God and dies outside of the promised land as a consequence. Even Mary, as we saw earlier in Mark’s gospel, will go on to a season of doubting Jesus is who He said He is, to the point of even thinking that He had gone insane (Mark 3:21, 31-35). Finding favor with God doesn’t seem to be equivalent to being accepted into the honors program in God’s eyes.

As we will see next week as we look at the Magnificat, Mary knows that she has nothing special about her to warrant the honor God has given her, there’s nothing that has earned the favor of God. So why would God favor her? Well, to “find favor in someone” comes from the root word χαριτόω “to show grace.” Even the very word χαῖρε, “Greetings,” Gabriel uses comes from this same word for “grace.” God has chosen Mary not because of her merit or superiority, but simply because of His grace. And this disorients Mary…what could this mean?


Marvel at God’s Power

If you take some time to consider God’s plan for the arrival of the Messiah, it seems like He was doing everything He could to make it seem as improbable and impossible as possible!

-       God waits for nearly six hundred years of the nation of Israel being in exile, being almost totally wiped off the map before He sends the Messiah. He doesn't send the Messiah when Israel is at the pinnacle of its power (David, Solomon) but when it is at its lowest.

-       He does not come in power, but weakness. Not as a military commander, but as a baby.

-       He is born to a poor, unwed teenage girl from a town so small it would not have even appeared on a map.

-       This girl is a virgin, so she cannot conceive naturally.

-       Her betrothed husband nearly divorces her on discovering the pregnancy (Matt 1:19).

-       At the time of Jesus’ birth, there isn’t even the safety and comfort of a room for the delivery, but he is born in a stall for livestock, and shortly after his birth he is nearly killed by a murderous Herod.

It is like God is doing everything He can to show that, “Nothing will be impossible with God.” No matter how stacked the odds are against God, He always wins. Nothing is impossible for Him. And since God is the sovereign Lord over history, this means that He is working to make events happen as they do--He is intentionally make the circumstances more dire. But, why? So He can show His marvelous power in the face of what is normally impossible for men. When one of the Harlem Globetrotters blindfolds himself and is still able to play the game, what is he demonstrating? His superior athletic prowess--his ability is so great that he can do what normal people cannot do. And God is so set on displaying the power of His mighty arm that He will choose the most unlikely, impossible of circumstances simply to demonstrate His superior wisdom, power, and grace.

So, dear friends, I ask you again: what feels impossible to you? Do you believe that you have an omnipotent Lord who is not limited? Let's not dishonor God by hedging our bets as we pray. Let's not subtly teach ourselves and our families that there are just some things that really are impossible for God. In Mary's story we see something that feels personally, nationally/socially, and physically impossible be overcome by God's power. Maybe you are left thinking that God could never restore your family, never could heal your marriage, never could bring your wayward children back home. Friend, remember: nothing is impossible for God.

Wait Patiently

Maybe you have believed in God, believed that nothing was impossible for Him, but nothing has happened. You believe that God can heal sickness, restore what is broken, change our nation--but as you look around, it looks like God still isn't doing anything. What are you to do then?

Well, if God desires to shine brightest in the darkest of nights, then that means there are times where God may be letting us sit in darkness for some time, waiting to respond till the moment that makes His grace look the most superior. Certainly there were faithful Jews living in the period of exile, wondering why God was so silent, why He seemed to heed their prayers so little. Little did they know that when the fullness of time would arrive, Jesus Christ would arrive. Friend, maybe you are waiting in a season of stillness where it does not seem like God is answering your prayers "Presto!". And I encourage you to wait, God will sustain you and He will deliver you.

Respond like Mary

“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” – Luke 1:38. There are two ways to respond to the gracious call of God. One is to deny that you are worthy of it because you are too sinful, and the other is to assume that your goodness has earned it. Mary simply receives God's grace, accepts that she has been favored by God. That is what we need if we are to persist in seasons of waiting. We need to simply receive God's favor, the status He has bestowed on us in Christ. This way when walking through the valley of the shadow of death, we will know that we aren't doing so because God has abandoned us or doesn't care--we know that He cares for us an infinite amount because of the grace we have received in Christ.

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Jesus and Goodness (Mark 10:17-22)
Jesus and Goodness (Mark 10:17-22)

Marc Sims • December 03, 2020

Sermon Audio:

Sermon Manuscript:

17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

Mark 10:17-22

Would you consider yourself a good person? If so, why? Maybe you look at what you do for others, your care for your children, your spouse. Maybe it is because you care for the environment, volunteer or donate money to charities, or go to church.

I wonder what your moral evaluation would be of someone described like this:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone…! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.

So Charles Dickens describes “Ebenezer Scrooge” in his beloved story, A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is a miserly, old creditor whose obsession with money has driven out any other space in his heart for love, laughter, or mercy. The story describes how he is visited by three ghostly specters in the night, each with a lesson. The first is the spirit of Christmas-past, who shows Scrooge where he went astray as a young man. The second is the spirit of Christmas-present, who shows Scrooge what his greed has caused him to currently miss out on. And the last, the ghost of Christmas-future, shows his grim and ignominious future, if he will not change his ways. Scrooge, returned to the present, is cut to the heart and overwhelmed with gratitude at an opportunity for a second-chance. He becomes jolly, generous, and begins to use his wealth to help the poor.

The story of Ebenezer is a heart-warming story about the dangers of wealth and the joys of generosity. In our text today we read of another famed story of a man of great wealth who is confronted about his plight and warned of the grim future that awaits him lest he repent. The man does not appear by any means to be as cold and calculating as Scrooge, but is entwined in the icy grip of wealth nonetheless. But, unlike Dickens’ happy Christmas Carol, this man does not take advantage of this opportunity but walks on to the dark future set out before him.

While it is easy to see that Scrooge is a cruel, bad man and most certainly not a good man, it is more difficult to see in this story. The young man appears sincere, pious, even humble—and yet, Jesus, the great doctor of the soul, is going to diagnose that this man, like an Ebenezer Scrooge, as someone else who is not a good man. How could that be? Jesus will show us in our text by revealing the source, standard, and problem of goodness.

The Source of Goodness

As Jesus is about to set out on “his journey” (towards Jerusalem) he is interrupted by a man running to him and falling in front of him, pleading, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). Here we are just told that he is a “man” but in Matthew’s account he is referred to as a “young man” (Matt 19:20) and Luke refers to him as a “ruler” (Luke 18:18), which is where the title “rich young ruler” comes from. This young man likely knows that Jesus often does not stay in one city for very long so he literally runs to Jesus, desperate to hear from this “Good Teacher” about the most pressing question he has on his mind.

 His question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life,” should not necessarily be read as an assumption that he is trying to earn his own salvation by his good works, not anymore than the Philippian jailer who falls before Paul and says, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). That assumption may be in his heart, but we cannot know for sure. What we appear to have here is a genuine, earnest, even desperate man, eager to obtain eternal life. What is “eternal life”? It doesn’t merely mean to live forever, but refers to the quality of life as well as quantity. Eternal life is the life that persists through the grave (quantity) but is also life that is qualitatively superior to this current life—what Jesus describes as “life to the full” (John 10:10).

Jesus’ response is surprising, “Why do you call me ‘good’? No one is good except God alone,” Mark 10:18. What does that mean? In all of the Jewish literature we have from the 1st and 2nd century, we have no instance of a student referring to a rabbi as “good teacher,” so it is a peculiar title to be used and Jesus seems to emphasize that. Jesus isn’t denying that He is “good.” He simply asks the man why he called Him good, since no one but God is good. Jesus knows that this man certainly is not aware of His true identity, so by his use of the word “good” he likely reveals that his definition of “good” does not match Jesus’. I doubt Jesus walked around His whole life, slapping the wrist of anyone who ever used the adjective “good” to describe anything but God (cf. Luke 6:45). So why does He make a point of it here? 

Because Jesus can see into the hearts of men and can pin-point their biggest dilemmas, can hone in on what are their biggest obstacles to receiving Him as Lord. As we will see, this young man, in a way, assumes that he is a fairly good person and Jesus wants him to see that he isn’t.

I wonder if you have ever heard anyone defend why they believe they are a good person before. Almost everyone you talk to believes they are a good person, and they might even believe that most people are generally good. Maybe you aren’t a Christian here today and you have assumed that you, more or less, are a good person! I’m guessing, however, that you would admit that there are some people out there who are not good: murderers, kidnappers, dictators, the “Hitler’s” and “Jeffrey Dahmer’s”. In fact, probably one of the assurances you may have that you are a good person is the fact that you aren’t like those people. You aren’t an Ebenezer Scrooge! But the problem is that we all have a sliding scale of what defines “bad” and “good”. There are the extreme’s that are easy to comfort ourselves with, but what about the many, many issues that so many of us are divided over? About half of Americans today believe that by their ardent defense of conserving our national identity and tradition, they are a “good” person, while the other half believe that by liberating ourselves from that identity and traditions, they are a “good” person. There is a great deal of talk about ‘justice’ today. The great movement of our time is a movement to root out social injustice, which of course, is something I as a Christian care deeply about. But it does not take long to realize that how we define the term “justice” can result in radically different outcomes.

So, how do we know who is right? 

Where Does Morality Come From?

If two people lay sticks of different lengths next to each other, and passionately claim that their stick is in fact the proper length of a yard, how are you to know with certainty which one is correct? Well, I need to go find an official yardstick to lay down next to them to judge. And friends, if we need this for something as simple as a measurement, how much more do we need this for our morality, for our own understanding of goodness? So let’s examine common ideas of where our idea morality comes from: 


“Don’t let anyone tell you who you are supposed to be.” If you believe that morality is something you personally create, what right do you have to tell anyone else that what they are doing is “wrong”? Is rape wrong? Is torture wrong? Is racism wrong? Well, if all morality is “in the eye of the beholder,” all you can say about those things is that “they are wrong for you,” but you cannot foist your own moral standards on anyone else, at least not with any legitimate reason for them to listen to you. You can bludgeon them over the head and force them to accept your standards through pressure and intimidation or deceit, but you cannot say to the, “That is evil, that is wrong.”


If you believe that morality is something that is simply the by-product of popular consensus then you will always be a prisoner to your own cultural values. If I am a white man living in the South during Jim Crow and I burn a cross in a black man’s yard, am I doing something wrong? If so, why? Wouldn’t that be me acting in accordance with my own cultural values? Sure, other cultures may disagree with it (for example, the black man), but I am simply responding to the morality that has been created by the popular consensus around me—can I even be held morally responsible for my actions?

Christianity, in contrast, teaches that our understanding of “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “bad” come from God Himself. Thus, the standard of morality is unchanging and objective. Regardless of what time or culture you are in, what is right and wrong do not change. Thus, Christians have the resources to call other people to repentance—because the standard is not our own personal creation. We also have the ability to criticize the sub-cultures and wider cultures we are a part of when they deviate from God’s norms—because the standard is not a byproduct of our culture. 

Why is our world in the state it is in? When Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident, gave a speech in 1983 about why all of the horrific calamities, war-crimes, and cruelties of the 20th century happened, he simply stated, “Men have forgotten God. That is why all this has happened.” And friends, as we look at our country and our community and are baffled by the anger, by the rage, by the violence, we can diagnosis the problem similarly: “Men have forgotten God.” Men, of course, pay God lip-service, claim they are doing His work, but they all are not looking to God as the source of their morality. We are as the book of Judges describes, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” Judges 17:6. 

The Standard of Goodness

We get a jarring glimpse of God’s standard for goodness in Jesus’ pithy comment: “No one is good except God alone.” God is not only the source of goodness, but He is also the standard of “good.” And we see that He alone meets this standard. But, the rest of Jesus’ interaction with the rich young ruler paints in this abstract truth. Jesus exhorts the man, “You know the commandments: Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother,’” Mark 10:19. Jesus is quoting from the second half of the ten commandments, the section that emphasizes how one treats other people.

The young man eagerly replies, “And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth,” Mark 10:20. If the man is telling the truth, that is an astonishing claim. Perhaps he is exaggerating some, maybe, were he to be forcibly literal he would say, “Teacher, on the whole, all these I have pursued sincerely from my youth.” Some people interpret this man’s response as a blatant claim of self-righteousness, that he is lying. But Jesus does not respond to the man the typical way he responds to self-righteous religious people (see Matt 23). So, were the man wholly hypocritical we would expect Jesus to be more severe—but Jesus isn’t. So, we can assume that this man was genuinely pious, sincere, and devout. 

“And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me,” Mark 10:21. The man asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life and Jesus gave him directions on how to follow Him—following Jesus is the path to eternal life. But there is something blocking his path to Jesus—His wealth. And Jesus, loving this man, is giving him an opportunity to set that weight aside and embrace eternal wealth in knowing Him.

What should draw our attention now is the reality that despite the fact that this man allegedly has kept the second-half of the ten commandments his entire life—a remarkable feat—it still is not enough to gain eternal life. Jesus tells the man: you lack something. No one is good except God alone. The man himself is obviously aware that his own righteousness is not enough, otherwise he never would have approached Jesus to ask Him this question in the first place! But Jesus takes what has been lurking in the back of his mind and pulls it forward, front and center: here is your problem, here is where you lack. You see, because God is the source of goodness, that means that He also is the standard of goodness. And what is God’s standard? Well, how good is God? He is perfect. 

As you think about your own “goodness” in light of God’s standard, the question that arises is this: do you measure up? 

“Yea, yea, I know that I’m not as good as God, but come on! Nobody is! I’m still a good person!”

Really? How good are you? And is it enough? Maybe we can admit that no one can be as good as God, and we simply set the standard at: be as good as you can be. Let's take into account that we are limited, finite creatures with flaws; we aren't perfect. Let's lower the bar to just "doing our best we can do." Even still, is there anyone in this room who believes that they have honestly lived their lives doing the best they could do? Can anyone admit that even in this week they have always tried their hardest to do what is right, and say no to what is wrong? Even when we grade on a curve, we still fall short.

Maybe,” you think, “God will realize that we all are blowing it and He will just cut us some slack. At least I am trying!” But, friends, if we can acknowledge that there is such a thing as “bad,” that there are some people who are definitively and without excuse “not good,” then that means that we believe that there is a line drawn somewhere that separates the “good” from the “bad.” Jesus certainly believes that, He affirms that there is a distinction between “good” and “evil.” But, because God is the source and standard of goodness, He gets to determine where that line is drawn. And friends, His standard is unyielding: perfection. And James tells us, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it,” James 2:10. Even if we could hypothetically keep 99% of the law and only fail 1% of the time, we are still guilty of breaking the law. God's goodness, His perfection is a serious problem for us.

The Problem of Goodness

How does the man respond to Jesus’ offer? “Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions,” Mark 10:22. The man, rather than seeing the value of heavenly treasure is absorbed with the idea of giving up earthly ones. So, like a child playing with mud pies who ignores a holiday to the beach, he forsakes his opportunity at eternal life in order to make his temporal one more comfortable. But remember friends, this is no hedonist or indulgent sinner. This is a respectable, moral, law-abiding Jew who is eager to seek the kingdom of God. If this man is unable to measure up, what are we to do? Chaucer said, “If the gold rusts, what shall the iron do?”

The next time we look at this passage we will delve more deeply into why this man was unable to take Jesus up on his offer, but for now it is illustrative to show us that the from one angle God’s goodness presents a serious problem for us. Paul Washer, an evangelist known for shocking audiences with arresting truths, once opened up a sermon by asking, “Do you know what the most terrifying reality in all of Scripture is? It is that God is good.” God is good? Why would that be terrifying? That sounds like great news, why would that be bad in any way? “Because,” Washer goes on, “we are not.” When you see the totality of the holiness of God, the perfection of it, and the beauty of it, the constancy of it, it will shine a searching light on just how far short we have fallen from that same standard.

If we are at work and have to give a presentation on something and the person who goes before us does a phenomenal job and we know that there is no way we can measure up to them, doesn't that leave us feeling anxious and embarrassed? If we show up at a party dressed casually and are shocked to discover that this was a black-tie affair, aren't we ashamed at our appearance? We hate having our imperfections set aside someone else's seeming perfections. But dear friends, if these social faux pas leave us feeling ashamed, what will we do on that last day when the spiritual cataracts fall from our eyes and the veil of this world is pulled back and there sits the holy, beautiful, and terrifying God in all of His majesty? What fig-leaves will you reach for to cover your own sin before the blazing eyes that see all? What will you do?

The Answer of Goodness

What sets Christianity apart from every other world religion is in the answer it gives to this problem. Far from keeping "goodness" an abstract ethical concept or mere list of religious rules to follow, "goodness" in Christianity comes down and becomes a human being. When the rich young ruler calls Jesus the "good teacher" he speaks better than he knows. Only God is good, and Jesus is good because Jesus is God. In Christianity, "goodness" is not merely an unreachable goal that stays far away from sinners like us, residing in heaven. Goodness takes on human flesh and dwells among us. And when He draws near to people who are not good, He isn't repulsed, He isn't annoyed. His heart warms to them, He is drawn in, He is patient. Jesus' goodness doesn't separate Him from us, but compels Him to draw close. And even more than that.

Jesus' goodness drives Him to die on a cross, to pay for the sins of His people who failed to meet His standard. Jesus' goodness leads Him to suffer the consequences that we deserved, so that we who repent and turn to Christ in faith can now be treated as if we were good, righteous. Romans tells us, "For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us," Romans 5:6-8. It is while we were weak, sinful, wayward...not good, that Christ died for us.


  • The first step in the path towards eternal life is to recognize that we are not good. We must be disenfranchised with our own morality--we need the loving reminder from God that only God is good. We have to see our need, otherwise we will never see our Savior.
  • The second step in the path is to follow Jesus. We must (1) realize our own sin and then (2) turn to what Jesus has to offer for us as the remedy to our sin.
  • If you are already a Christian, you should be encouraged to remember that God did not choose to save you because He thought you were impressive. Jesus wasn't looking for the best and the brightest to pull together an all-star team. He was looking for weak and wounded sinners who knew that they were totally without hope apart from Christ. So, remember, your inclusion in God's family never resided in your own goodness but in God's love. God is not impressed with you; He just loves you, and that is far, far better.

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Jesus and Divorce (Mark 10:1-12)
Jesus and Divorce (Mark 10:1-12)

Marc Sims • November 24, 2020

Sermon Video:

(Sermon is from 17:30-1:06:39)

Sermon Manuscript:

1 And he left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again. And again, as was his custom, he taught them.

2 And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” 5 And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

10 And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” – Mark 10:1-12

My wife and I have recently sought to change some things about our diet. I have a family history of diabetes and other problems related to diet, so we thought it would be wise to consider some changes we could make. Which is weird for me because I hate diets. I love rich food, I love fatty foods, and I really, really hate diets. But I also don’t want to get diabetes. So, here we are. But we aren’t zealots about it. I’m not lovingly counting each spinach leaf I eat each day. And if we are invited over to someone’s house and they serve us some delicious meal that is technically off-limits for us, we will happily indulge. Paul told the Corinthians that when they go over to someone’s house they should eat whatever is placed in front of them without raising any questions (10:27), so we are just trying to be Biblical! Our diet isn’t that important to us. We will follow it as a general rule, as much as we can, but when it becomes too difficult we cheat. And we are happy with that.

But I wonder how many people in our city today think about their faith like that. It’s a nice lifestyle to live by, generally. But where it becomes too obtrusive, too cumbersome, we can simply set it aside. While that might be a fine framework to have for a diet, does that work for the Christian faith? Can we set aside our convictions, the commands of Scripture when they appear to be inconvenient?

If you are a Christian, you cannot do this for two reasons:

1.     Christ is your King. You are not at liberty to decide which commands apply to you and which don’t. If I were to leave church today and go steal one of your cars, I would not be able to tell the police officer, “Yes, I know this is technically illegal, but I don’t want to believe that law applies to me.” The law dictates what is legal or illegal, regardless of my own preferences. But Christ is not running some representative democratic government that enshrines laws based on popular opinion or has His power restrained by a system of checks and balances. He is the sovereign emperor of all the cosmos who does according to His will and none can stay His hand or say to Him, ‘What have you done?’ (Dan 4:35).

2.     Christ is your Savior. If Jesus were only your King, that would be terrifying news. But, wonder of wonders, your King is also your Savior. Jesus left His heavenly throne to become a man, to become humiliated, abused, harassed, and killed; to take the punishment and judgment your sins deserved. Now, all who are weak are weary, porn-addicts and prostitutes and liars and self-righteous Pharisees, all can come and have their entire slate wiped clean, expunged totally. But this forgiveness produces love for the One who has paid so great a price, and this love constrains and compels us to want to obey our Lord.

Paul explains these two realities well, "You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body." 1 Cor 6:19-20. You are not your own, Jesus is your King. But He has bought you with a price--the price of His own life. He is your gracious, gentle Savior just as much as He is your mighty Lord.

Today, we will be pressing in to one of the most personal and difficult of teachings of Jesus, a teaching that will not let us approach it with a posture of convenience. Today we will think of Jesus' teaching on divorce and marriage. And while other teachings might be able to skim along the surface of life, marriage and divorce burrows down into our very hearts. How you treat your spouse reveals a great deal about who you really are. And in that, and in how we respond to this teaching, we will discern what we really believe about Jesus being our Savior and King. Will we submit to Him, even when it is difficult? Even when it is hard?

Here is one approach to marriage and divorce:

“Your marriage can wear out. People change their values and lifestyles. People want to experience new things. Change is a part of life. Change and personal growth are traits for you to be proud of, indicative of a vital searching mind. You must accept the reality that in today's multifaceted world it is especially easy for two persons to grow apart. Letting go of your marriage —if it is no longer fulfilling —can be the most successful thing you have ever done. Getting a divorce can be a positive, problem-solving, growth-oriented step. It can be a personal triumph.” So writes John Adams and Nancy Williamson in their book Divorce: How and When to Let Go. 

What does the Bible teach about divorce? Today we will be examining Jesus’ teaching on divorce, but before we begin I want to speak a pastoral word of encouragement. I know that many people in this room have either experienced a divorce first-hand, or have had someone in their family experience a divorce. I know that each story is extremely personal, often complicated, and comes with a great deal of baggage. My job today is to unpack what Jesus wants us to know about divorce and marriage in general. But what this teaching looks like applied to each of our individual lives and stories requires wisdom—this is one of the reasons God gives elders to His church. The Bible doesn’t give us detailed explanations of what to do in every case, every scenario—it gives us iron-clad, clear commands that need finesse, wisdom, and grace in sifting through the intricacies of life to discern how to apply them. Divorce is complicated and painful. If at the end of this sermon you feel at a loss of what to do with your experience of divorce or someone close to you, please seek out one of our elders to help in whatever way we can.

What Does Jesus Teach About Divorce?

 “And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Mark 10:2. The Pharisees are hoping to trip Jesus up by ensnaring him in a long-standing debate that had been raging in Judaism for sometime about the grounds of divorce. Jesus responds with a question, “He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away,” Mark 10:3-4. 

The one place in the whole of the Old Testament that mentions divorce—what the Pharisees are referencing here—is Deuteronomy 24:1-4. In Deut 24:1 we are told that a man can write a certificate of divorce to a wife if he “finds some indecency in her.” There were two major interpretations of this: one stated that the “indecency” found in a wife was her participating in an illicit affair of some sort, the other believed that the “indecency” was anything that the husband simply did not like about his wife. So, for the first, a divorce was permissible only on grounds of adultery, while the other viewed divorce as being permissible on any grounds whatsoever, with one Rabbi even advocating that a man could divorce his wife if he simply found another woman more beautiful. 

Jesus definitively sides with the more conservative reading of Deuteronomy, that divorce is only permitted in cases of adultery. But notice how Jesus first responds, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate,” Mark 10:5-9. Divorce was a concession due to the “hardness of heart,” but it was never a part of God’s original design. Jesus is saying we cannot have a cavalier view towards divorce, assuming that it is just a normal part of life and marriage. 

We cannot be continually checking the dip-stick of our own happiness in marriage and assume that if our levels are low for long enough we can evolve beyond our covenant of marriage. There are some instances where, due to the hardness of heart, due to the effects of sin, where someone chooses to make the costly decision of divorce—but this should be a rare, reluctant decision. We don’t undertake the pain of chemotherapy or amputation unless circumstances are dire. The human body was not designed to have limbs chopped off or be poisoned by radiation—it is only exceptional circumstances that might lead us to do so. So it is with divorce.

When is a divorce permissible?

In Mark, Jesus is approached by His disciples asking him to explain this teaching on divorce more fully. He responds, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery,” (Mark 10:11-12; cf. Luke 16:18). It would appear that Mark and Luke teach that divorce and a subsequent remarriage is never permissible. However, Matthew’s account has Jesus explain, “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery,” (Matt 19:9; Matt 5:32).  Why don’t Mark or Luke include the exception clause here like Matthew does? This is likely because Mark and Luke assume that everyone already knows that divorce on the grounds of sexual immorality was already permissive. The debate of the day was not over whether or not adultery was a legitimate grounds for divorce—everyone knew that it was legitimate—it was over whether smaller issues were legitimate. So, Jesus teaches that on the grounds of sexual unfaithfulness, a divorce can be permitted.

The apostle Paul echoes this teaching in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 7:10-11), and adds, “To the rest I say (I, not the Lord),” [by this, Paul is simply saying that Jesus did not speak on this issue, but he is still speaking authoritatively as an apostle of God], “that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him,” 1 Cor 7:12-13. In the Corinthian church, many people have come to faith who were previously wrapped up in different forms of pagan beliefs. Some of these people were already married when they were converted and now were uncertain about what to do with their spouse who didn’t believe. Paul does not advocate that they get a divorce, but remain as they are (cf. 1 Cor 7:27). The key phrase here is whether or not the unbelieving spouse “consents to live with” the other. In Roman society, “Divorce was instantaneously effective whenever one party renounced the marriage,” (Stein, BECNT, on 1 Cor 7:15-16). Unlike Jewish society, if one member no longer wanted to be married there were no legal barriers preventing the divorce from happening. So Paul explains, “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved,” (1 Cor 7:15a). Thus, Paul advocates that abandonment by a spouse provides a second permissible ground for divorce. 

What about abuse? In all cases of abuse we would advocate for the endangered spouse to be separated from the abuser for a time and for the elders and any necessary authorities to be brought in to discern what is happening. Further, while this is somewhat contested today, I believe that in some cases of unrepentant abuse the abusive spouse has created a dangerous, unsafe home for the spouse and children and has thus not “consented to live with” the other spouse, because to continue to live with them poses a threat to the life of the spouse and children and thus there could be legitimate grounds for both divorce and remarriage in cases of abuse. 

Pressing into the specifics of this is where the need for pastoral oversight and shepherding is needed. Dear friend, if you are in an abusive relationship, if your spouse has threatened you with violence, used violence, used their physical stature to domineer over you and intimidate you, you need to tell an elder here. If your spouse has used emotional manipulation, blackmail, or gaslighting to coerce you to do what he or she wants, you need to tell an elder here. Sin thrives in the darkness, it wants to remain hidden. If your marriage has soured into this, it does not necessarily mean that the only option is divorce, but this is why God has given you shepherds. Let us serve you. And this is why, not only for cases of abuse, but for any reason for pursuing a divorce, our membership covenant requires all of our members to first seek out an elder and speak with them before pursuing a divorce. 

A divorce is a terribly costly act to take. And while there are exception clauses, a Christian is never commanded to divorce; it is something that in a few instance is permitted, but is by no means the default answer. In summary: aside from unfaithfulness and abandonment, Christians are not permitted to seek a divorce. If we seek a divorce for any other reason (falling out of love, irreconcilable differences, etc.) we are sinning. And if we remarry after pursuing an illegitimate divorce, we are committing the sin of adultery.

God’s Design for Marriage

You do not learn to fly an airplane by following the instructions for making a crash landing; you will not be successful in war if you train by the rules for beating a retreat. The same is true of marriage and divorce. The exceptional measures necessary when a marriage fails are of no help in discovering the meaning and intention for marriage. Jesus endeavors to recover God's will for marriage, not to argue about possible exceptions to it. His opponents ask what is permissible, he points to what is commanded. – Edwards, PNTC

“But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate,” Mark 10:6-9. Jesus goes back to the creation story of Genesis to find the blueprint for marriage. He cites Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 before adding His own commentary, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.

Marriage is…

1.     One man + one woman

a.     Notice that Jesus cites Genesis 1:27, “God made them male and female,” before citing Genesis 2:24. Genesis 1:27 doesn’t have anything to do with marriage, so why would Jesus cite that? To show that the design of marriage necessarily is heterosexual. If anyone ever tells you that Jesus never addressed the issue of homosexuality, this would be a good place to go.

2.     The most important relationship

a.     Gen 2:24, A man leaves his father and mother to take his wife. No other relationship in a person’s life is of more importance than their marriage.

3.     Intimate

a.     Hold fast to your wife. One flesh.

b.     Sexual union is the unique expression of marital intimacy, the full and total union of two people physically. But it is just a representation of what has happened with the whole life—total transparency, Gen 2:25, “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”

c.    A husband and wife should enjoy regular times of sexual intimacy. 1 Cor 7:3-5, “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”

4.     Permanent

a.     Mark 10:9, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

b.     Never use the word “divorce” in your marriage. We never want to give our spouse the impression that our presence is contingent or temporary.

c.     Marriage is hard, but that doesn't mean that its wrong. John Piper’s “the first 25 years are the hardest”

5.     A Picture of the Gospel

a.     Christ and the Church, Eph 5:31-33, "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband."

b.     Marriage is meant to reflect the ecosystem of love and grace we find in the gospel. Whenever we are thinking of the thing that bothers us most about our spouse, “How has Christ treated me?” 

c.     “Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Col 3:13

If you have had an affair, an illegitimate divorce, there is forgiveness. There is hope, there is healing. You have not committed the unpardonable sin. 

Are you considering a divorce? Dear friend, count the cost. Divorce is a painful, painful step that comes at a high cost. But friend, also consider the beauty of what marriage could be. Your marriage now may be at a dry place, but the Lord can help. Stay faithful, seek the Lord, keep in step with Spirit, reach out to the church for support and wisdom, and see what God can do with your marriage.

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