Don’t Fall Away During COVID

This post is a sermon manuscript from Pastor Josh Moore’s recent message on Hebrews 3:7-19 (originally preached on October 11th, 2020 at Red Door Church in South Royalton, Vermont). You can view the sermon here on the church’s YouTube page.

What do the names Marty Sampson, Joshua Harris, Ryan Bell and Derek Webb have in common?

These are all well known Christian figures–we might call celebrities–who have publicly renounced their faith in recent years.  I’m sure there are many others.  

I’m sure some of you know people who were once walking with God and now are no longer.

We should pray for these people.  

But we can also learn something from their stories and from their stepping away from Christian faith. Something that we will see in our passage today (out of Hebrews 3).

Here is what I hope we will see: that just because someone appears to be walking solidly in the faith does not mean that they always will.  We cannot take it for granted that everything is okay with a person or even that everything is okay with ourselves for that matter.  As we will see today, the Christian community plays an active role in the believers’ lives and the believer has the responsibility to be actively involved in Christian community. 

We will see from Hebrews 3 just how important community is and we will hear a clear warning from the passage today, not to forsake it.

‘Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.’

-Hebrews 3:12-14

Oh how I long for each of you to make it to the end of the race.  To cross the line, to finish the race and to hear those much anticipated words from the Lord on that day: “Well done.”

Let’s look at our passage this morning.

God Uses the Wilderness to Test Us

This passage in Hebrews starts with a quotation out of Psalm 95 verses 7 through 11.  What I want us to do as we start out today is to quickly read Psalm 95.  This Psalm does something really interesting.  

The first seven verses talk about worship, the ones that are not mentioned in our passage today.  They say:

Oh come, let us sing to the Lord;

    let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!

Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;

    let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!

For the Lord is a great God,

    and a great King above all gods.

In his hand are the depths of the earth;

    the heights of the mountains are his also.

The sea is his, for he made it,

    and his hands formed the dry land.

Oh come, let us worship and bow down;

    let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!

-Psalm 95:1-7

But then in verse 8 we begin to hear something very different.  And this is the section that is quoted in Hebrews 3 this morning where it says:

‘Today, if you hear his voice,

    do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,

    as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,

when your fathers put me to the test

    and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.

For forty years I loathed that generation

    and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.”

Therefore I swore in my wrath,

    “They shall not enter my rest.”’

-Psalm 95:7d-11

The fact that these two passages are set side by side, the one about worship and the other section about having a hard heart and rebelling against the Lord is something we should pay attention to.

“Come let us bow down in worship” it says, then just two verses later, “Do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert.”

Some scholars believe that these two parts of the psalm belong to different psalms or different time periods because they are so different. If you just look at the themes it might be easy to draw that conclusion.  

But other scholars (wiser ones in my opinion) suggest that there actually is a logic here and that these two sections belong together.  One helpful writer that I was reading this week writes that it is:

‘a good thing to worship God, but acts and words of worship are acceptable only if they proceed from sincere and obedient hearts”

-Peter T. O’Brien quoting Bruce, The Letter to the Hebrews, 141.

Perhaps one of the point the Psalmist is trying to get across is that just because you have heard the voice of God and because you have seen great wonders like those put on display in the wilderness for Israel, you can still have a hard heart.  Moreover, just because you bow down in worship and kneel before the Lord, does not mean that you know Him.

And this is where testing becomes a useful tool in the hand of the Lord.  The Lord brings about tests–wildernesses–and begins to reveal what is really in our hearts.  The wilderness draws it out.  

And what did God find in the heart of Israel while they were in their wilderness as they left Egypt?

Hard hearts.

The Seriousness of a Hard Heart

Now I want us to pause here for a moment to think about this.  Look at verses 9 and 10 in Psalm 95.  It says:

‘when your fathers put me to the test

    and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.

For forty years I loathed that generation

    and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.”’

-Psalm 95:9-10

Many of you no doubt know what happened during that time–those 40 years.  These people witnessed the Lord lead Moses into Egypt and lift up his staff against Pharaoh and perform all kinds of wonders eventually leading up to their release from bondage.

They witnessed the parting of the Red Sea and the pillar of fire that guided them.  They saw the thunder and the smoke upon the mountain and witnessed proof after proof that God was there. They saw that He was awesome and mighty and that He loved them and was going to do what He had promised to them and to their fathers.

Yet, despite all of that, they continually went astray and did not know the ways of God, the Bible says.  

A hard heart is a terrible thing.  It blinds you to reality.  Even when God is right before your very eyes displaying his might and power, the hard heart still turns from Him.  We see this in the time of Jesus as well.  Jesus would heal the sick, raise the dead, confound the teachers with his answers and did many other wonders, yet those who were hard in heart still would not follow him or listen to him.

The bottom line is this: the hard heart is not a heart that seeks after God.  It is a prideful heart and a heart that trusts in itself and not in the Lord.  It does not listen to the voice of God but only to its own reasons and desires.  

The Scriptures says that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).  

So God is opposed to the person with the hard heart.

And it is in the wilderness that the hard heart is most clearly revealed.  It is in those times when things are not good.  When things are difficult.  When things are not going as you hoped or desired.  It is at those times when God often draws out what is in a person’s heart.

We are in a Wilderness

And at this present time we too find ourselves in a wilderness of sorts.  

Probably much like Israel after the Exodus many of us Americans thought that we were on our way to some great place just 6 or 8 months ago when the economy was strong and now, all of a sudden, we are in the wilderness.  Here we are in the middle of a desert and it doesn’t appear that we will be getting out anytime soon.

Could it be that God is testing us?  Could it be that the Lord is wanting to reveal what is in our hearts?  This prolonged situation which has gone on much longer than we ever anticipated has put our nation and our world to the test. 

What is God seeing?  What is being revealed about us?

As I said last week in the sermon I don’t think that COVID-19 is to blame for most of our problems.  Has it done damage–of course!  Many have lost their lives (I lost one of my aunts just two weeks ago to COVID-19) and it has brought entire nations to their knees, even our own.  Countless numbers have lost jobs and had to close businesses and we could go on about all the damage that COVID-19 has done.

But the greatest evil, far surpassing anything that COVID-19 has done, has been what has come out of us from within our hearts.

Tim Keller in his book The Prodigal God, tells the story about how a newspaper once posed the question 

“‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ the Catholic thinker G. K. Chesterton reputedly wrote a brief letter in response:

‘Dear Sirs:

I am.

Sincerely Yours,

G. K. Chesterton.’

-Quoted in Tim Keller’s book The Prodigal God, 46.

Could COVID-19 be a Gift?

He’s right.  We are what’s wrong with the world.  Not COVID (though COVID certainly has not made things better).

Or has it?

COVID-19: A GIFT?

If what G.K. Chesterton said is right, and we are the main problem with the world.  Could it be that COVID is a kind of gift or medicine?  Could it be that COVID is teaching us something deep and profound?  That God has stirred up this whole ordeal for our good?

If we are walking through this event with our eyes open then I think we will see that maybe this is in fact the case. 

How so? How has COVID been like medicine? In what way.

I think in the same way that Nobel Prize winner (in literature) Alexandr Solzhenitsyn saw prison as a gift and good medicine for his soul. He was thrown into Joseph Stalin’s corrective labor camps for eight years in the mid 1900s because he had made some disrespectful remarks about Joseph Stalin.

Later he would write about his imprisonment in a book titled The Gulag Archipelago.  In that book he says these amazing words:

‘I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!” I . . . have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!”’

The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 2, 617. As quoted by John Piper here: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/thank-you-lord-for-solzhenitsyn.

Solzhenitsyn saw prison as a gift, not because it made his life easier or because it was pleasant but because, in his words: his soul was “nourished” there.

I think that is the kind of effect that COVID can have for us if we will see it with the eyes of faith.

Right now, during this time, God is revealing things to us that we so desperately need to see. Many people today are seeing now more clearly than ever that the world is broken.  And that the solutions to that brokenness are not a particular political party or leader. We are beginning to see that freedom only goes as far as the people who are free. If the free people are not good, then the freedom will only lead to evil and destruction. I think we are seeing that play out very clearly here in America today. 

Our problems, in other words, are inside of us, they are in us.  They are us.  And COVID is drawing those things out once again.  

And I would venture to say that viewed this way, COVID is not harming us but helping us.

Because COVID is seeking to draw our attention up off this world and up onto the Lord–to help us see that there is something greater beyond this time and place.  

Do you believe that? 

Do you believe that for those who trust in Jesus Christ that there is something on the other side of this world that is greater?

I lost my grandmother to pancreatic cancer a month ago and my aunt died as a result of complications from COVID just a couple of weeks after that.  I miss them. I mourn their passing. But they both loved Jesus.  My grandmother made a remark to one of her daughters before she died that she wanted to go and get her hair done because she was going to see the Lord and wanted to look her best for her Savior. She loved Jesus as did my aunt Paulette. So while I miss them, I know that they are with God right now.  That is a rock solid hope in a time like this. 

And I want to ask you, do you believe that promise?  That if you believe in Jesus and put your trust in Him that you will be with God immediately after you die, forever in paradise? 

I’m concerned that some of us may have lost sight of that in the midst of the pandemic and all the other problems that we are facing.

Israel Lost Sight of the Promised Land

That is what happened to the Israelites. They lost sight of the promised land while they were in the wilderness.  

While we may think, “oh that’s Old Testament and that was way back then and has no relevance for us today,” the writer to the Hebrews, here in the New Testament thinks that it is very relevant for us.  

And in fact this passage before us today is a warning passage in which God wants us to be warned about these these things lest we suffer the same fate as they did.  

God had promised them a land, a place flowing with milk and honey, a place to rest and to call their own.  But that place was future and it required them to listen and obey to get there.  They had a wilderness to go through in order to get to the promised land.  

And, just to be blunt, they didn’t want to do that.  So they began to grumble and to turn against their leader and resist God.  They ignored his commandments and hardened their hearts.   

What was the result?  That entire generation died in the wilderness and never entered the promised land, the rest that God had promised them.

And God has done the same here in this present wilderness.  The promises that He has made to us in Christ are future.  We have grace now, yes, we are saved now, yes, we have relationship with God now and know the consolations of his love and joy, now–yes.  But the fullness of those things is future.

And if we are to fully enjoy those things we must not lose sight of the goal, the prize, the things that God has promised us in the future.  

COVID is helping us do that.  COVID is a daily reminder that this world is not our home and that here we have no lasting city but the city we seek is one that is future.  

The Danger of Falling Away

If you lose sight of that, your fate could very well be like that of that generation of Israelites that perished in the wilderness.  Look at verse 12:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 

-Hebrews 3:12

The book of Hebrews was written to Christians. When this verse was penned, the author had the entire congregation in mind. What this means is that he does not take for granted that every single person sitting in the pew is safe and secure in their faith. He doesn’t assume that warnings and cautions don’t have a place for the believer.  

Here in context this warning about falling away follows immediately after the story about the generation in Israel in the wilderness that rebelled against God and did not make it to the promised land.

Well, what’s he saying?  What is being implied here?  

Why would he warn Christians of the danger of falling away?

Because those warnings are actually part and parcel of how Christians finally arrive at their destination.  True Christians heed the warnings–they listen.

Just like all the kids who safely cross the road are the ones who listen and put into practice the warnings to “look both ways” and “wait until all the cars pass before you go” that were given by their parents.

Some Christians seem to think that just because true believers cannot really and finally fall away from the faith that implies that warnings are therefore superfluous and irrelevant.  But that is like saying that because you believe that your child is not going to get hit by a car that you don’t need to ever tell him to watch out for a car.  

That is faulty logic. It is in the warnings and in the cautions and the in teachings and even in the rebukes that the child learns how to avoid the cars and cross the road safely.  The warnings are a necessary part of the process.

So it is here. If you are a true Christian then you will heed the warning that is given to you today.  

Just to be Clear, What is the Warning?

What is the warning?  What exactly is the writer warning us about?

The essence of the warning is this: Christian, do not coast!  Do not put the car of your faith on autopilot!  Walking with God is a daily battle and you must be vigilant.  

Look at verse 13:

But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 

-Hebrews 3:13

Do you hear that last part of that verse there?  “That none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”

What does that mean?

Sin is a liar.  Sin is a deceiver.  Sin will tell you things like “just do it, it’s not a big deal, just this one thing and it will be okay.”  Or sin will make promises that it cannot keep.  It will tell you that there is life in disobeying God. That’s where it starts.  And often it is something seemingly innocent at the start–something that no one would think much of. 

Over time your heart becomes hardened and you begin to willfully, knowingly, outright do things that you never would have dreamed of doing before.  Sin deceived you and instead of giving you life it took you straight to the grave. 

Some of you think, “that would never be me!” I doubt any of the Israelites as they marched out of Egypt triumphantly having watched God deliver them with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm under the leadership of Moses–I doubt any of them was thinking that in just a short time they would be worshipping idols and grumbling and rejecting that very same God. 

But that is exactly what happened.  So be warned Christian. We are in a wilderness right now just as Israel was, do not let the deceitfulness of sin take hold of you, lest you fall away.

The Anecdote: Community

How?

How are we to do this?  Thankfully the writer doesn’t leave us in the dark.  He gives us an anecdote.  

Look back at verse 13 again with me:

But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 

-Hebrews 3:13

Notice how community is assumed here.  He takes it for granted that the believers are in community together.  And not a little community either.  He says “every day.”  Every day believers are to be in one another’s lives, exhorting one another.

The Greek verb here that is behind the word “exhort” is the Greek word parakaleo. This word has a wide range of meaning that ranges from warnings like we have here to reproof and even encouragement and comfort.

So the main anecdote here in context that the author gives us as an aid and preventative measure against being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin is being in regular Christian community.  

And by community I don’t mean a social club.  I mean rich, deep, intimate community.  The kind of community that doesn’t assume that you are going to be okay and that you can cruise to glory.  It doesn’t assume that you can see all of your own problems and fix all of your own problems.  It assumes that you are quite dependent on others, especially in your spiritual life.  Listen to what it says in Ecclesiastes 4:9-12:

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. “

-Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

I need you and you need me. I need you to tell me when I am straying.  I need you to help me when I fall down.  When I am discouraged or doubting or fearful or not walking in step with the gospel.  I need you.  And you need me to do the same for you.  

God means for us to be in fellowship with people who love us enough to say the hard thing and to rebuke us when we need it.  And at the same time he means for us to be with believers who can and will encourage us and remind us of God’s promises when we are struggling or discouraged.  Community is vital–it’s not an optional choice.

And this is precisely one of the main reasons why this COVID crisis is such a harsh wilderness. Yes, there is the risk of getting sick and physical suffering and dying, but perhaps the even greater risk is being cut off from Christian community.  

Brothers and sisters, we need each other, now more than ever.  I’m afraid that some of us may be slipping into a comfortable habit of watching online or keeping your distance from the gathering of believers.  

Folks there simply is no substitute for in person worship.  We are thankful for the online option, but it’s not the same.

I know that for some of you it may be necessary for now.  I understand that.  I just lost one of my aunt’s to this and there are others in my family back in North Carolina that are still fighting for their lives.  I know it’s deadly.  It’s for real.  It’s no joke.  

But I also know that these warnings are no joke.  And you are not strong enough to live like a maverick and do the Christian life on your own.  The writer of the inspired text here assumes that you need others in your life. You don’t know better than God.  He made you.  He knows what you need and here He tells us–be in community.  Exhort one another daily.

And then notice that phrase in verse 13: as long as it is called “today.”

As Long As it is Called “Today”

You know that it won’t always be “today”, right?  Verse 14 speaks of the “end.”  What is the end?

The end is one of two: (1) either the end of your own personal life or (2) it is that glorious day when the Lord Jesus will come back for all of His people, whichever comes first.

All of us will die or see the Lord Jesus return.  All of us will stand before him for judgment.  Later on in this book in chapter 9:27 the author will say these words: 

And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,

-Hebrews 9:27

You will stand before the Lord at the end.  

But the writer here in our passage today in verse 14 says that it is only those who “hold their original confidence firm to the end” who will be welcomed into the eternal rest that is offered to us in the gospel. 

That confidence is faith in the gospel, the good news about Jesus.  The good news that anyone who would repent of their sins–that means to turn from doing wrong–and put their faith in Jesus will be saved from the coming judgment of God and saved into eternal life and rest and joy and bliss in the presence of God forever.  No matter what you’ve done or where you’ve come from or who you are or were.  This offer is for you.  Jesus came for you.  Believe today.

And if you hold that simple faith, like a child, just resting in that promise until the end, you will immediately pass into the presence of God at the end.

But I need you if I’m going to make it to the end.  And you need me if you are going to make it.  We need each other.

Let’s pray.

Should I be Afraid of the Coronavirus?

Ed Welch is a counselor of over 30 years and a prolific author. He writes in his book “Running Scared”:

“Although I can be angry or melancholy, I am a fear specialist.  In this I have found that I am not alone.  Not everyone is a fear specialist, but there is no doubt that every single person who ever lived is personally familiar with fear.  It is an inescapable feature of earthly life.  To deny it is…well… to deny it.”

-Ed Welch in “Running Scared” (page 9)

All of us can relate to the feeling of being afraid. 

We could all enumerate countless examples of situations that create fear in us.  There are all the usual suspects like flying probably for some of you or standing on the edge of a cliff.  Maybe death or your finances.  Getting sick or growing old and getting dementia, losing your mind.  Maybe it’s the fear of losing someone close to you.  Maybe you fear rejection or what people think of you.

Or just turn on the news.  The pandemic, the upcoming election, protests, riots, unemployment, tensions with other nations.  There is no shortage of things to be fearful of today.

But should believers fear these things? Take the pandemic as specific example; should we fear it? As churches like ours around the country wrestle with how to open their doors again, different opinions are emerging. Some say, the need for the church to gather far outweighs the risks involved. Take John MacArthur’s church, Grace Community in California as one example. Other churches have begun to share negative re-opening experiences (like this one) that has some believers pausing and wondering if re-opening at all is possible or safe.

I think whether or not a church decides to re-open is a complicated issue and I am grateful for folks like Jonathan Leeman who have thought deeply about this topic. For just one example, see Leeman’s article “A Time for Civil Disobedience?” on the 9Marks website.

My purpose here is not to address that question but to talk about the question of whether or not Christians should be experiencing fear during this time or not. Should we be “concerned” about the COVID-19 virus or not? Or even further should we “fear” this thing and the effects that it has had and likely will continue to have on our churches, communities, and nation?

Let’s take a moment to think about what the Scriptures say about this topic.

Do Not Fear

Repeatedly the Scriptures say that we should not fear or that believers are not people who live in fear. Here are just a couple of examples:

“[B]ut whoever listens to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of disaster.”

-Proverbs 1:33

“[F]or God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”

-2 Timothy 1:7

In many places in the Scriptures fear is a characteristic of the wicked (see Job 15:24; 18:11; Rev. 21:8) or is judgment upon evildoers (Lev. 26:16; Deut. 28:65-67; Jer. 49:5). Those who follow God, however, are described as being delivered from fear (Prov. 1:33; Isa. 14:3; 2 Timothy 1:7). If you have a concordance, you can find, literally, dozens of other examples similar to these.

Despite the Scriptures commands not to fear, if we are honest, most of experience some kind of fear or concern related to this pandemic. Many of us are deeply concerned about losing a spouse or losing our job or becoming homeless or having to ask for help, especially those of us who are vulnerable in some way or live or work with someone who is vulnerable.  For some of us, these things may even keep us up at night.  Many of us must confess that to one degree or another, we are battling fears of what this virus could do or is doing to our churches, our communities and our world.

But is all fear sinful? Is it so black and white? Even Jesus felt some kind of “anguish” in the Garden and the Psalm writers dealt with fear: [1]

“When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.”

-Psalm 56:3

It appears that even some of the apostles dealt with fears in their earthly lives (see 2 Cor. 1:8-9 and 1 Peter 5:7).

Good Fear vs. Bad Fear

Is there a kind of fear that is good?

Luke 12:4-5 is a helpful passage when it comes to distinguishing between different kinds of fears:

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! 

-Luke 12:4-5 (ESV)

One unique feature about this passage is that it is one of the few places in the bible where we are told “to fear” (verse 5) and, at the same time, “not to fear” (verse 4 and later in the passage in verse 7b). 

What things are we told not to fear?

We are told not to fear those who can only harm our earthly lives. In context, Jesus is speaking to his “friends” (or disciples) and probably has the Pharisees, lawyers, and religious leaders of the day in view (see Luke 11:37-54 and Luke 12:1). The opposition at the time was rising and there would be consequences for those who continued to follow Christ. In other words, Jesus’ followers would be tempted to disobey Christ for the sake of not being harmed or killed by the religious leaders of the day. Jesus says that this kind of fear is bad. Why? Because it would lead us into disobedience of the one who can not only harm us in this life, but also in the life to come–God.

Bad fear, therefore, is fear that leads us to disobey God.

What is good fear? What things are we commanded to fear by Christ?

Verse 5 tells us that are to fear the Lord. And this teaching is in line with the Old Testament as well.

“It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear.” 

-Deuteronomy 6:13

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
    and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”

-Proverbs 9:10

The fear of the Lord leads to wisdom (also see Psalm 111:10 and Proverbs 1:7). It takes into account the fact that following death comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27) and that loss in this life is insignificant when compared to eternity (Luke 12: 13-21; 2 Cor. 4:17). Those who fear the Lord are heard by God (Mal 3:16), receive mercy from God (Psalm 103:11, 17), are blessed (Psalm 115:13) and have their desires fulfilled by God (Psalm 145:19). And it is this kind of fear leads us to do the things that God commands (see Proverbs 16:6). Therefore, this fear is a good fear.

So there is good fear and bad fear.  Good fear is that fear of God that longs to obey Him and looks to Him in faith, seeing Him as a caring Father (Psalm 103:13; Luke 12:22-34), trusting His promises.

Bad fear is the fear that leads us away from obedience.  It’s when the pressures of the world cause us to not believe God and cave.  Some say that fear was really the original sin that led Adam and Eve astray.  They feared being excluded from something; that perhaps the serpent was right and God was withholding some knowledge or blessing from them and so they ate of the tree.  This was bad fear because it lead Adam and Eve away from obedience to the command given to them by God (Gen. 2:15-17).

A Test Case

Now, with the good fear and bad fear framework in front of us, I want us to think about the COVID-19 pandemic.  Are you afraid?  If so, what exactly are you afraid of?  Perhaps you are afraid of getting sick and dying. Or, perhaps you are afraid of getting someone else sick and watching them suffer and possibly die.  Maybe you are a business owner and this whole ordeal has caused hardship to come upon you and you have anxiety about whether or not you will make it out.  Maybe, like me, you are a church leader and you are concerned about your people being isolated and the overall impact this crisis will have upon your church family. And we could list many other types of fears/anxieties that this COVID-19 situation has created.

Are these good fears or bad fears?  Which category do they fall in?

Each of you must ask yourself what is underneath those fears.  Let’s say you fear getting someone else sick, maybe a spouse or a loved one or a neighbor.  So you are very cautious and you wear your mask and sanitize regularly and keep your distance and only go out when necessary.  Now, if that fear is genuinely rooted in a deep love for your spouse or your friend or neighbor, and you believe that it is your obligation as a follower of Jesus to love your neighbor (Luke 22:36-40) and this is how you do it, then I would say that is healthy.  Why is it healthy?–because what is underneath it is a fear of God that creates a genuine love for people (see 1 John 4:7-8; 20-21) and a longing to obey his command to love (1 John 4:19).[2]

However, if after thinking it over a bit more you conclude that really the reason you are being so cautious is because you simply cannot fathom life without your spouse or your friend or your neighbor and you think that you would simply not make it through the pain of losing someone so close, then I would say your fear is ungodly.  If this is what motivates all of your precautions then you are not believing the promises of God.  You are not putting your ultimate trust in your heavenly Father.  Instead, you are laying up treasures upon earth and are trying to find life and security and meaning in the things of this world, all of which are things Jesus warned us about (see Matthew 6:19-21).

So I encourage you to think about your fears more deeply.  Some of you are absolutely terrified of this virus.  I want to ask you why?  Is it because you fear God or is it because you are afraid of other things?  The first is good, the second is not. 

I would wager if we are honest with ourselves and with one another that most of us would have to say that we have fears that fall into that second category–bad fears.  We are terrified of losing a spouse or losing our job or becoming homeless or having to ask for help. 

Let Fear Lead You to the Cross

Although those fears are not good, let us also remember the compassion and care of our Lord.  That he does not deal with us according to our sins (Psalm 103:10). Let us remember what the Psalmist did when he was afraid!–he put his trust in God.  What does Peter tell us to do when we are anxious?  Cast our cares upon God (1 Peter 5:7). 

Why?  Why run to God when we are afraid? Why cast our cares upon the Lord?

Because He cares for you!

Remember that God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Psalm 103:8-14). Remember that the same God whose judgment and wrath we are to fear is the same God whose “eye is upon the sparrow” (Luke 12:6-7). Remember that He took such pity upon us that He sent His only Son into the world to endure the horror of his judgment and wrath so that all who would put their trust in Him would receive eternal life (John 3:16). Remember that the Son, full of love and kindness, willingly, in obedience to the desire of the Father, “emptied himself,” left Heaven, took on flesh and suffered for those who were far off, enemies of God (Phil 2:1-8).

This is why the emblem of our faith is a cross.

When we look at the cross we should see the terrible judgment of God upon sin–our sins–and fear, but we should also see the infinite love and compassion of God.

Fear is not good if it leads us away from the Lord but fear can be a gift if it leads us to the cross.

End Notes

[1] For an interesting discussion on the Jesus’ “anguish” in the Garden of Gethesamene, see Denny Burk’s article: “If no doubt or fear…” https://www.dennyburk.com/if-no-doubt-or-fear-then-what-did-jesus-feel/

[2] This may sound a bit mechanical. I have phrased it this way to get my point across. I do also believe that if we are followers of Jesus we will love people sincerely and not just out of duty or obligation. The love of God creates within us a real, genuine, deep, love for people (1 John 4:7-8).

Why Explore Christianity First?

So you’re a non-religious skeptic and you’ve just received a flyer in the mail from a local church about coming to one of their Easter services.  You’re tempted to just throw it in the garbage.

Your mind says that you should explore this religion first before just rejecting it out of hand.  To reject it without having properly investigated its claims or at least going to a few church services, would be intolerant.  

But if you’re going to explore this whole religion thing, why start with Christianity?  Why not start with Islam?  Why not start with something like Confucionism?

Before looking at the other religions, it makes perfect sense to check out Christianity first. In fact there are five reasons why you should consider checking Christianity out first.

It Makes Good Sense to Start with Christianity 

The first reason you should start exploring Christianity before any other religion is it is falsifiable. In 1 Corinthians 15:14, we have a verse that is abnormal in comparison to other religious texts.

and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is without foundation, and so is your faith. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.

-The Apostle Paul

This is the toughest way to start a false religion. If I were going to start my own religion, I would set it up to where the divine knowledge is found in you. After all that would be subjective and there’s no real way to falsify that way of thinking. Many of the world religions have followed a similar line of thinking. Hinduism, Buddhism and especially Mormonism rely on experience. Islam is slightly different because its truth claims actually rely on objective fact, however, Muhammad never gave his followers a way to verify his own claims. The closest thing we have to evidence in the Qur’an is that Muhammad said the Qur’an is so beautiful when read aloud that its beauty is self-authenticating. But even that claim relies on a subjective way of thinking and therefore doesn’t work.

A second reason a sincere seeker after truth should start with Christianity before any other religious tradition is grace. Why not check to see if Christianity is true if the easiest way to heaven is just by grace through faith? In the other religious traditions, you have to work and work and you may not even get into heaven after that. You could spend a lifetime working your way to God and never succeed. While on the Christian view, you receive forgiveness for the sins you have committed against God by turning from those sins and placing your trust in Jesus.

In his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey relates a story about C.S. Lewis that I think is relevant. He writes:

During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods’ appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C.S. Lewis wandered into the room. ‘What’s the rumpus about?’ he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, ‘Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.'[1]

-Philip Yancey

A third reason you should consider the truth claims of Christianity first is that Jesus is the very focus of it. So many of the world’s religious groups have an opinion on Jesus Christ and Jesus even appears in the sacred writings of many faiths. When you look at the early traditions of some of the great world religions, they almost always have an opinion on Jesus (this is true of their modern adherents too). We’ll put aside the theological cults of Christianity that have Jesus in there in some form or another. Ancient Jewish believers described Jesus in the following way: He was the son of Mary;[2] had many disciples;[3] was a miracle worker;[4] claimed to be the Messiah;[5] was crucified on the cross;[6] and his followers reported he rose from the dead.[7] Jesus is even mentioned in the Qur’an more times than Muhammad and Muhammad is supposed to be more important than Jesus according to Muslims. According to the Qur’an, Jesus: was born of a virgin;[8] was to be revered;[9] was a prophet;[10] was a wise teacher;[11] was a miracle worker;[12] ascended to Heaven;[13] and in addition to that, Muslims generally believe Jesus will return in judgment.

But what about the varying views of Jesus within Hinduism? The variations within Hinduism are a product of the complex and divergent set of views within Hinduism itself and so for this reason, there is no one set of beliefs that all Hindus adhere to when it comes to the person of Jesus Christ. Hindus may see Jesus in one or more ways: a holy man, a wise teacher and/or a “god”.

Like Hinduism, Buddhism provides no singular unified view of Jesus although a number of Buddhists will describe Jesus in one or more ways: an enlightened man, a wise teacher, and/or a holy man. There are even some Buddhists who will talk about Jesus as if he and Buddha would have been close spiritual brothers had they lived in the same time period. While others will openly claim that the Buddha reincarnated as Jesus. These portraits given by the different world religions are merely shadows of the very center of the Christian faith. Why not just start with Jesus in the search for truth?

 A fourth reason to consider exploring Christianity first is because it has the best worldview fit. Let’s take evil and suffering in the world as an example. While Christianity readily admits that there is evil and suffering in the world, most if not all eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism deny evil exists. Evil is just seen as an illusion in these worldviews. Western New Age adherents have a similar view on evil. Their worldview, provided by their religious beliefs, does not fit with what is actually true in the real world.

A fifth reason to consider Christianity before any other religion flows from the fourth reason. In the Christian worldview, you live a non-compartmentalized life. You’re not a Christian on Sunday and an atheist the rest of the week. It’s because the Christian worldview actually corresponds to reality that you can be a Christian every day and you don’t have to change your worldview when interacting with the real world. Buddhists and Hindus have this problem. While denying evil, Hindus and Buddhists have to live a compartmentalized life; denying evil religiously while interacting and even acknowledging it in everyday life.

Methodologically speaking, this is not a way to determine that Christianity is true but merely a few reasons why a reasonable and sincere truth seeker should consider looking into Christianity first.

End Notes

  1. Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 45.
  2. The Toledot Yeshu
  3. The Talmud, b. Sanhedrin 43a
  4. The Talmud, b. Sanhedrin 43a; t. Shabbat 11.15; b. Shabbat 104b; The Toledot Yeshu
  5. The Toledot Yeshu
  6. The Talmud, b. Sanhedrin 43a; The Toledot Yeshu
  7. The Toledot Yeshu
  8. Qur’an 19:18-22
  9. Qur’an 4:171
  10. Qur’an 6:85; 3:49-51; 5:75
  11. Qur’an 57:27; 61:14
  12. Qur’an 2:87; 3:49; 3:46
  13. Qur’an 3:55; 4:159

Why Do Prayers Go Unanswered?

Matthew 7:7: Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.

John 14:13: Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

John 15:16: You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you.

John 16:23: In that day you will not question Me about anything. Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask the Father for anything in My name, He will give it to you.

Jesus evidently meant business when he said he would answer our prayers, which is really great! The problem arises when we pray for something to happen but it doesn’t happen. Every Christian has faced the dilemma of unanswered prayer at some point in their walk with God. Sadly, some folks who once believed even turn away from God because they pray for something they deem very important but it never happens.

Why would God not answer our prayers even if we pray in Jesus’ name?

Here are a few reasons that apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig gives in his book Hard Questions, Real Answers:

Contradictory prayers. One common sense reason that God cannot answer our prayers is because Christians pray contradictory things. Examples abound. Two guys praying they will marry the same girl. Thousands of people praying their favorite football team will win the game. Millions of people praying they will will the same $60 billion lottery. God couldn’t answer them all because they contradict each other.

Sin in our lives. One of the most basic reasons for unanswered prayer is unconfessed sin in our lives. Jesus’ promise of answered prayer presupposes that the Christian is living in the fullness and power of the Holy Spirit. The Christian who is living in unconfessed sin can have no confidence that his prayers will be answered.

Psalm 66:18: If I regard wickedness in my heart, The Lord will not hear.

1 Peter 3:7: You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.

Wrong motive. Many times our prayers go unanswered because of wrong motives. Often times our motives are selfish. Even though Jesus said: Ask and it will be given to you, James, Jesus’ half-brother, elaborates:

When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (James 4:3).

Self-centered prayer does not fall under Jesus’ promise. The correct motive for prayer should be God’s glory. This should be our motive in prayer: to request things of God, not for our selfish desires, but that His name might be glorified (John 12:28).

Lack of faith.* Jesus made clear that only believing prayer can be assured of an answer. He told his disciples: Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). James, speaking of someone’s prayer for wisdom, says:

When he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does (James 1:6-8).

It would not be right, however, to suggest that in every case, a person who has doubts in their heart cannot receive the answer they desire to their prayer. Take the man with the son with the unclean spirit in Mark 9. The man acknowledges his lack of faith and yet Christ still is willing to do what the man asked him to do.

Lack of earnestness. Sometimes our prayers are not answered because, quite frankly, we don’t really care whether they are. We casually pray in our prayer meetings for a request but then shortly after we forget about it. In the end we don’t really care. Read the prayers of the many prophets and biblical figures in the Bible. Were they flippant in their prayer requests? What about Jesus? Read Jesus’ prayers in the Gospels and determine for yourself if he cared at all for his prayer requests to God.

Lack of perseverance. Our lack of persistence may be one reason our prayers are not answered. We pray once and then we give up too easily. Some Christians believe that all you have to do is pray once and you’re done. But that is not a teaching of Jesus. Remember the parable Jesus told his disciples about the friend coming at midnight to borrow some bread from his neighbor. The neighbor wouldn’t get up at first but because the friend kept pounding on the door and wouldn’t give up, the neighbor gets up and gives him the bread (Luke 11:5-8).

Or recall the parable of the widow and the judge (Luke 18:1-8). The unrighteous judge did not want to grant the woman’s request but she kept pestering him so much that he would grant his request. The point of the parable is we should always pray and not give up (18:1).

Finally, and most significantly, our request must be in accordance with God’s will if it is to be granted. The apostle John highlights this in 1 John 5:14-15:

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us–whatever we ask–we know that we have what we asked of him.

As much as we may not like this at times, a big reasons our prayers often go unanswered is because God knows better than we do what ought to be done. We may believe we know the best way forward or the best solution to a thorny problem, but we are limited in time, space, knowledge, and insight. But the transcendent God sees the end from the beginning and knows what outcomes and solutions work together best for our good and for His glory. Sometimes it is for our own good for us not to have our prayers answered.**

Notes

*Be careful not to confuse this point with the teaching of some proponents of the Prosperity Gospel which says that blessing comes in proportional measure to your faith. The bible does not teach the Prosperity Gospel. Read this excellent article titled “‘Just Have More Faith’: How Bad Theology Hurts the Suffering” for a balanced perspective regarding the connection between faith and answered prayer.

**I borrowed heavily from the book, Hard Questions, Real Answers by William Lane Craig, Chapter 2 to write this post and I recommend reading that if people want a more in depth look at this issue.

Should Christians Submit to Earthly Authorities?

In the days of the Roman empire, when Christians were arrested and commanded to burn incense to the emperor or go to their death, countless Christians were thrown to the wild beasts. Brave young women like Perpetua and Felicity firmly believed that worship belonged to Jesus Christ alone, the one true living God and King, so they refused to offer sacrifices to the earthly kings of the day and paid the price with their lives.

The testimony of Perpetua (a summary can be read here or her full prison diary can be read here) has strengthened Christians of all stripes for centuries to be strong when facing persecution.

However, this kind of situation is hard for Christian Americans to fathom. America has long been a land where its citizens have enjoyed the freedom to practice their religion and worship as they desire without government intrusion and control.

Over time, these rights have created a sense of total autonomy and self-determination which have crept into many of the houses of worship across our land. We’ve conflated the idea of worshiping God alone and obeying God alone. The result, in the minds of many American believers today, is that if you are a religious person, no one but God has the right to tell you what to do. And with the very same vigor which Perpetua refused to offer sacrifice to the emperor, some believers today refuse to submit to earthly authorities.

But is this right? Is this understanding of authority biblical? Are Christians required to submit to earthly authorities?

There are a handful of places in the Scriptures that I think will help us to answer this question. Let’s start with the Gospels.

Jesus and the Earthly Authorities

Several weeks ago I preached a message on Luke 2:41-52 about the Boy Jesus at the Temple.

One of the most remarkable statements in that entire section can be found in verse 51:

“And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. “

-Luke 2:51

So right off the bat we see Jesus submitting to an earthly authority, namely, his parents. But why did Jesus submit to his parents?

First of all, it was not because they were perfect people. Not only does that Bible teach that all have sinned and fallen short (Rom. 3:23), but we see evidence of Joseph and Mary’s imperfect parenting in this very chapter of Luke. After discovering that Jesus was not with them after venturing probably a day ‘s journey from Jerusalem, they return to Jerusalem to discover Jesus in the temple conversing with the teachers of the day. Mary and Joseph are astonished at what the teachers in the temple are telling them about their son (v. 48). But Jesus is astonished at something else–that Mary and Joseph did not know that the Temple was where He would be (v. 49).

Yet, despite Mary and Joseph’s flaws, we find Jesus, the perfect Son of God, submitting to them. Jesus does not rebuke them harshly. He does not ignore their concern for his whereabouts. He does not argue with them. He does not use their ignorance or miscalculation as a reason to not submit to them.

Jesus, the perfect Son of God, submitted to them even when their judgment was flawed and limited.

Secondly, we know that Jesus did not submit to the earthly authorities of his time because he had no other recourse.

In another place in the Gospels, when Jesus is being dragged away by the chief priests and the elders of the people at Gethsemane (Matt. 26:47-56), Peter draws a sword and cuts off the ear of the servant of the high priest. Jesus then says to him,

“Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”

Matthew 26:52-53

Jesus had power to overcome the authorities that day, but he did not. He chose to submit to them, rather than summon down the angels and annihilate the authorities.

Again I ask, why?

All Authority Comes from God

Jesus himself gives us the answer in John 19 when he is on trial before Pontius Pilate:

“Pilate said to him, ‘You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?’ Then Jesus said, ‘You would have no power over me at all unless it were given to you from above.'”

John 19:10-11

In John 19, Jesus is speaking to a civil authority, but his comments can rightly be applied to all human authorities–parental (family), ecclesiastical (church), vocational (work) or otherwise. Authority is given to presidents, governors, parents and elders and the like, by God (see passages like Ephesians 6:2; Colossians 3:20; 1 Timothy 2:1-3; Titus 3:1; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 2:13-18; 5:1-5).

Jesus submitted to earthly authorities, because they were instituted and put in place by God himself–their authority was given to them by God. By being subject to them Jesus brought honor and glory to God. Broadly speaking, not submitting to these authorities was tantamount to not submitting to God (with some exceptions which will be addressed briefly below).

This is why Paul says in Romans 13:1-5

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

Romans 13:1-2

But surely we are not required to submit to the authorities in every case, are we?

What happens when an authority that is set up by God commands something that is contrary to what God would command? Jesus’ was able to submit to Joseph and Mary because they were not asking him to sin (at least not in the example mentioned above). Now that we live in the New Testament era we know that Jesus allowed the authorities to take Him away and crucify Him at the end because that was the Father’s plan all along (Acts 4:27-28). But how does this apply to us?

Godly Disobedience

If you take Romans 13:1-2 without looking at the canonical context (all of Scripture), this passage could be used to justify support of Hitler and the Nazi’s in WWII. But when we look at the whole Bible, we find examples of godly people not submitting to authorities when what was being asked of them was sinful.

Daniel 3 and the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image is a good example of godly disobedience. When the Babylonian officials blew the horn and demanded that everyone gathered at the dedication ceremony bow and pay homage to the image, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow down and worship. Their response to the king’s demand is worth quoting:

“[B]e it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

Daniel 3:18

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were right not to submit to Nebuchadnezzar’s commands in this instance because what he was asking was sinful–to obey would have been tantamount to sin itself (see Exodus 20:3-5).

Another remarkable biblical instance of disobedience to governing authorities can be found in Exodus 1. At this point in the Bible the Israelites had been living under Egyptian rule for several centuries. Over time they had become very numerous, so in verse 16 the king of Egypt commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all the baby boys born to the Israelites. But verse 17 says, “The midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.” If you read the verses following the decision of the Hebrew midwives, God honored their decision, even though they were not being subject to the civil authorities that God himself had placed over them.

There are New Testament examples of similar disobedience as well (see Acts 4 and 5 for example).

Clearly from these examples (and others), Paul’s remarks in Romans 13 cannot simply mean that Christians should always and in every case submit to the commands of the governing authorities. These stories reveal that there is a time when followers of God are obligated to object and disobey.

Something in Romans 13 needs to be qualified. I do not think that we need to qualify Paul’s statement (or Daniel’s in Daniel 2:21) that all authority is set up by God. Rather, John Piper suggests in a very helpful article tilted “The Limits of Submission to Man“, that Paul’s teaching in Romans 13:1-5 has in view a good government in which “doing good deeds will generally find approval and doing evil will generally be punished.” In other words, the government that Paul has in mind in Romans 13:1-5 is one that defines good conduct and bad conduct roughly the same way God does (see verse 3). Paul’s instructions therefore pertain to the case in which a person finds themselves subject to a good government that generally does what is right in the sight of God.

Conclusion

So what are we to make of all of this?

The Christian who says they are subject to no person but God alone is sorely mistaken, but so is the Christian who always submits to authority, even when that authority is asking them to sin.

To put it simply, when your leaders command you to do something that directly goes against the commands of God, you are to disobey them, no matter the consequences, like the Hebrew midwives, Daniel, Perpetua, and thousands of other Christians over the centuries. However, when the commands of your leaders (presidents, governors, parents, pastors, bosses) do not contradict the commands of God, you are to be subject to them because doing so is to be subject to God and brings honor and glory to Him.

How Could Jesus Be Tempted?

Could God sin?

If God has the potential to sin, then he would not be essentially or necessarily good. But God is necessarily or essentially good. He cannot be otherwise. This means that it is impossible for God to commit acts of evil and therefore God cannot even be tempted to do wrong just as it says in James 1:13:

“Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.”

The skeptic may ask in response: Wasn’t Jesus himself tempted in the wilderness? (Matthew 4:1-11). What about Hebrews 2:18 which says that since Jesus himself “was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.” Doesn’t this verse imply that Jesus could, in fact, have sinned? If Jesus could not have sinned then wasn’t he pretending to endure temptation?

The Bible certainly portrays the temptations of sin as real.  For some, this realistic portrayal of Christ’s temptations casts into doubt the doctrine of his divinity.  Yet, if we press his perfection (divinity), others suggest that Jesus could not have been fully human since “to err is human”.  This presents a problem since the historic church going back at least as far as the mid-5th Century at Chalcedon (modern day Turkey) has officially taught that Jesus is fully God and fully human.  

So how do we explain this apparent conundrum?

First, the ability to sin does not make a person essentially human. This should seem obvious to Christians because after we die we will go to heaven and heaven is a place without sin. So because of that, having the ability to sin may not be an essential attribute to being human. It is not an attribute that we must have in order to be human. Jesus, therefore, did not need to have the ability to sin to be fully human.

Second, when Jesus came to earth, he voluntarily set aside access to certain things; one item of knowledge he gave up was being aware of his inability to sin. The skeptic will often ask: If Jesus is God, why was he ignorant of certain things? As an example, he was ignorant of his second coming (Matthew 24:36). It appeared that Jesus’ knowledge was limited when he asked for the name of a demon in Mark 5:1-20. It could very well be the case that not only was he ignorant of the timing of his second coming, he was also ignorant that he could not ultimately deviate from the Father’s will.

Was Jesus able to sin? No. Why not? Because Jesus was not merely human. He is also God and therefore could do no wrong. At the same time, Jesus’ struggles and temptations were real. Even though Jesus was not able to carry out a sinful act as a result of temptation, for the temptation to be meaningful, he had to be ignorant of the fact that it was impossible for him to sin. This temporary ignorance was part of Jesus’ earthly mission.

Some Christians and skeptics alike might ask: How could Jesus know he was divine yet not know that he could not sin? However, we could ask the same thing about Jesus not knowing the time of his second coming: How could Jesus know he was divine (which would entail omniscience) yet not know this fact? If we understand it as Christ voluntarily limited access to this knowledge as part of his mission to earth, then we can affirm both that Jesus understood he was standing in the place of God and that he temporarily gave up access to certain truths about his capacities.

Third, since Jesus did not know he could not sin (being God), this made temptation very real for Jesus; although his being God would have prevented him from actually carrying it out, acting on the temptation seemed a possibility for Jesus. Let’s imagine a scenario that might make more sense of this: You enter a room and close the door behind you. You do not realize it, but the door immediately locks with a two-hour time lock. You consider leaving once or twice, but in the end you freely choose to stay in the room for the full two hours. After you read your Facebook feed and watched some Youtube videos, you decide to leave. By this time, the lock has automatically been released by the timer and you freely choose walk out the door only later finding out that you were incapable of leave during those two hours. Why did you stay in the room and not try to leave? Because you freely decided to stay. Would you have been able to leave? No. This is similar to what Christ had to go through when he took a human nature.

Christ freely chose by his human will to resist temptation; that is, his divine will did not overwhelm or impose itself upon his human will. This is the difference between being and knowing: In Jesus’ nature or being, it was impossible for him to sin; yet the temptation was very real to him because he did not know that sinning was impossible for him. Christ in his human awareness voluntarily limited access to his divine knowledge so that he could suffer real temptation; Christ did not know that he could not sin. Christ freely chose by his human will to resist temptation; that is, his divine will did not overwhelm or impose itself upon his human will.

Jesus lived his life in dependency on the empowering of the Spirit and, therefore, is an example for how we too can live victoriously over sin. Just as Jesus was “led by the Spirit” (Luke 4:1), we too as believers are to be “led by the Spirit” (Romans 8:14). Just as Jesus needed the Spirit’s empowering to rise above the limitations of human weakness and frailty, so too do we as believers need the Spirit’s empowering. His temptation was not artificial and his victory over it was real.*

*I borrowed heavily from the book, That’s Just Your Interpretation: Responding to Skeptics Who Challenge Your Faith by Paul Copan to write this post and I highly recommend reading the book for a more in depth response to this specific subject.

A Parable for Today

Sometimes I hear God speak in parables to me, not in words but in the things that surround me.  Recently I had one of those moments as I was mowing my lawn.  You see, I have one of those “typical” Vermont lawns that are a mix of four varieties of actual grass (none of which match), at least that many kinds of broadleaf weeds, some well-established clover, the perennial dandelions, a smattering of Indian paintbrush, an occasional nettle, and other things that I don’t even recognize.  And this lawn could be a source of frustration to me if I was a perfectionist who was obsessed with fertilizing and reseeding it, digging out everything that I thought did not belong, setting its exact limits and layout, and never being satisfied until it was uniform and manicured, a lawn that met all of my expectations and preferences.  But I am no longer that person.  I look at the lawn and I have a certain satisfaction in its variety and content…it always grows and needs frequent mowing, it is mostly green, there are very few bare spots, and it seems to tolerate seasons of both rain and dryness without dying out.

And it was at that moment that I recognized that what was true of my lawn, was true of my community, my nation, my world, my church.  None of these venues will ever fully meet my expectations, I will never find a uniformity of belief, or opinion, or lifestyle.  And that diversity could continuously vex my soul, or it could simply be the reality that I have to live in by the grace of God and to the best of my abilities, trying, as the Apostle Paul said, to live at peace with every person so far as that possibility is present in me.  As Jesus taught in the gospel, I cannot seek to justify myself by asking the question “And just who is my neighbor?”  I have no other option than to love each and every neighbor as I love myself, regardless of whether I agree with them, like them, or even have anything in common with them.  They do not answer to me anyway, they belong to Jesus and He has already warned us that there are wheat and tares growing up side by side but that this does not bother God as much as it seems to bother me.  I have come to realize that I no longer wish to be fighting a constant war with a world that Jesus came to save.  There will come a day when all things are made clear and when the final sorting out takes place, but that task is given to Jesus, not me.  My part is simply to love my neighbor as myself; in doing that I find that I find that I also love and honor God with every part of my life and being.

Why Are Christians So Divided?

Countless denominations cause many people today to associate Christianity with division and religious rivalry. The past lends some merit to this association.  Back in the 16th and 17th century, Europe experienced severe religious conflict, one would even say warfare, between Protestants and Catholics. Back then denominational differences were a matter of life and death.

This brings to mind the question: Doesn’t Jesus pray to his Father that his followers “may be one, even as We are” (John 17:11,22)? Doesn’t Paul write that “God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another” (1 Corinthians 12:24-25)? Though the early Jerusalem church “had all things in common” (Acts 2:44), what has happened to this ideal?

Denominations seem to indicate Christian disunity and thus diminish our witness for Christ in the world. But is this necessarily so? Does this call into question the validity of the truth claims of Jesus? How should we think about Christian denominations? Here are some considerations.1

First, not all who declare themselves Christians are true or consistent followers of Christ. A lot of things that have been done in the name of Jesus–the Crusades, the Inquisition, anti-Jewish persecution, neglect of social responsibility, hatred of homosexuals–hardly resemble the attitude of Christ or reveal the Spirit’s fruit (Galatians 5:22-23). Jesus has said in the Sermon on the Mount: You will know them by their fruits (Matthew 7:16). He also says later that “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Just because some people claim to be Christians, that doesn’t mean they are Christians. 

Second, denominations remind us of a common denominator–a “mere Christianity” that different Christian groups share. Think of it in terms of fractions instead of factions (Unfortunately I can’t claim this joke as my own) and the notion of the common denominator. You can have ⅕, ⅖, or ⅗ but the denominator is still the same – 5. When we recite the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed or read books by C.S. Lewis, we are reminded of the basic commonalities that Christians share–despite differences in secondary doctrines.

Third, denominations don’t imply disunity (just like uniformity doesn’t equal unity). Denominational affiliation is not division. Indeed, a spirit of unity and charity that goes beyond external labels is to permeate our dealing with fellow Christians. As an example, Paul chided the Corinthian church for its divisiveness: some aligned themselves with Paul, others with Apollos, some with Cephas (Peter) and apparently the “super-spiritual” ones with their nose in the air aligned themselves with Christ (1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 3:1-9). The problem was not doctrinal differences but prideful attitudes and an unwillingness to reconcile that Paul criticizes.

When Christians are dealing with other Christians, we should major on the majors and minor on the minors when it comes to biblical teachings. The church should be, as Kevin Vanhoozer writes, a commentary on God’s Word and a witness to Scripture that is lived before God and a watching world.2

 

  1.  More could be said in this post but I would encourage everyone who wants a more in-depth response to this issue, to consider reading When God Goes to Starbucks: A Guide to Everyday Apologetics (2008), by Paul Copan. That was the main resource I used to write this post.
  2.  Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 237.

How Do We Honor Christ in the Lord’s Supper?

In a previous post, we answered the question: “Why Do We Celebrate the Lord’s Supper?”

In this post, we want to answer the question: “How Do We Honor Christ in the Lord’s Supper?”  In other words, how do we come to the Table of Christ (or not come to the Table) in a way that brings honor and glory and praise to Christ?

As we saw in the previous post, the Supper was commanded by Christ (see Luke 22:19) and the early church took this command very seriously.  All faithful churches, down to this day, celebrate the Supper regularly.

If the Supper is so important, it is imperative for us to seek to understand how to celebrate it in a manner that honors Christ.  Below I’d like to offer a few thoughts:

The first way we may honor Christ in the Supper is by recognizing the true meaning of the Lord’s Supper.  Jesus said in 1 Cor. 11:24-26:

“‘This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’  In the same way, He took the cup also after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”

The Lord’s Supper is a solemn time in which believers remember the death of Jesus Christ for us.  The breaking of the bread and pouring out of the wine or juice should remind us of that solemn night at the Last Supper when Jesus was betrayed and eventually crucified.  As we hear the Words of Institution recited, as we see the bread broken and juice poured, as we taste of the body and blood of Christ, we look through these sensory experiences to the reality of Christ’s death and remember that this is more than an ordinary meal, but a commemoration of a horrific, yet glorious, event that took place some 2,000 years ago.  As we receive the elements of this sacrificial meal, we are tangibly reminded of our unbreakable union with Christ which was secured for us in the death that Jesus died.  In remembering the true meaning of the Supper, we honor Christ.

The second way we honor Christ in the Supper is by receiving the Supper in faith.  This goes beyond mere mental recognition of the meaning of the Supper.  A person may have an accurate understanding of what the Supper is and the purpose it serves, yet fail to believe that Christ actually does offer Himself for them personally.  Such a person is not benefited by the Supper, and Christ is not honored in their partaking of it.  Calvin puts it this way:

“Wherefore, let it be a fixed point, that the office of the sacraments differs not from the word of God; and this is to hold forth and offer Christ to us, and, in him, the treasures of heavenly grace. They confer nothing, and avail nothing, if not received in faith, just as wine and oil, or any other liquor, however large the quantity which you pour out, will run away and perish unless there be an open vessel to receive it. When the vessel is not open, though it may be sprinkled all over, it will nevertheless remain entirely empty.”1

The Word of God and the sacraments of the Church are only beneficial to those who receive them with faith (see for instance, Hebrews 4:1-2).  As we come to the Table, we should come with faith–as “open vessels”.  If our hearts are filled with doubts, let us pray the prayer of the father of the boy with the evil spirit in Mark 9:24: “I do believe; help my unbelief.”  We honor Christ in the Supper when we partake it in faith–even with the faith of a mustard seed.

The third way we honor Christ in our partaking of the Supper is by seeing our need for it.  People of faith recognize that faith itself is no shield from the world’s problems or dilemmas.  Needs don’t suddenly go away because a person believes.  In fact, faith often makes a person more aware of their neediness and fragility.  This awareness is manifest in the believer’s approach to the Supper.  For them, the Supper represents their need for regular nourishment, both physical and spiritual. By partaking of the Supper regularly we are reminding ourselves of our ongoing need for Christ and His forgiveness; we are receiving Christ’s offer of Himself for our sins again and again.  Howard Griffith writes:

“Why then did Jesus command his disciples to eat and drink, and to do so repeatedly?  So that they might have the assurance of sins forgiven.  The bread taken and eaten, the wine drunk, represent the application of salvation to believers, because Christ’s words gave them and continue to give them that meaning.”2

Being a Christian is more than a moment in time when we “prayed a prayer” and “surrendered”, it is an ongoing embrace of the good news of the gospel, that Christ offered Himself for us.  We honor Christ in the Supper when we recognize our ongoing need for Jesus as we come to the Table.

The fourth way we honor Christ in our partaking of the Supper is by respecting the boundaries of the Supper put in place by Christ Himself.  If faith is necessary to honor Christ in the Supper (as stated above), then it follows that those who have not received the Lord Jesus by faith should abstain.3  In 1 Corinthians 10:16 Paul says:

“Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?”

How can those who have not yet received Christ in faith “share” in His body?  In the words of Anthony Carter:

“Communion, or common union, is born out of union with Christ. Only those in union with Christ have fellowship with Him. They share in His body and His blood and are consequently united to Him (John 6:56). The unconverted has no fellowship with Christ. The unconverted has no union with Him. There is no promise of Christ’s abiding with him. He has no portion in the body of Christ broken or the blood of Christ shed. Consequently, there can be no sharing in the elements that signify the person and work of Christ for the church (1 Cor. 11:24). The converted, on the other hand, discern that such are the blessings of being united to Christ.” 4

But there is another group that should also abstain from the Supper: the unrepentant.  In 1 Cor. 11:28 and 29 Paul says:

“Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” (ESV)

Again, in the words of Anthony Carter:

“The Christian life is the examined life, the life that takes seriously the call to repentance and the promise of forgiveness (1 John. 1:8–92:1). Unfortunately, there are those who deny the grace of repentance by hardening their hearts and refusing to forgive or be forgiven. Those who refuse to acknowledge their sin, but harbor bitterness, malice, and hatred in their hearts, and refuse godly counsel toward reconciliation with God and others, and thus neglect the grace of repentance—let them refrain from the Lord’s Table. Otherwise, to eat and to drink in such a state is to call forth the disciplining hand of God (1 Cor. 11:32).”5

If we desire to honor Christ in the Supper we must honor the boundaries that Christ Himself has put into place.

The last thought I have for you is this: we honor Christ by making ourselves available to partake of the Supper as often as possible.  If all that I have said above is true, it is imperative that we make ourselves available to partake of the Supper.  It will nourish and enliven your faith.

If your church celebrates the Supper every week, missing a week here and there will present no major problem.  However, if your church only celebrates the Supper once a month or once a quarter, it is imperative, if at all possible, that you make every effort to be present.  Christ is eager to meet you there and to give you more of Himself.

  1. John Calvin, “The Institutes of the Christian Religion,” Book 4, Section 17.
  2. Spreading the Feast (P&R, 2015), 47-48.
  3. This point has not been controversial until recently.  In the 2,000 year history of the Church, I am personally not aware of any movement in the Church where non-believers were allowed to partake of the Supper, that is, until recently.  This should give us tremendous pause when we see some current day leaders in the Church opening the table to anyone and everyone.
  4. See the article “When Should You Not Take Communion?” at https://www.ligonier.org/blog/when-should-you-not-take-communion/. Accessed on 08/23/18.
  5. See the article “When Should You Not Take Communion?” at https://www.ligonier.org/blog/when-should-you-not-take-communion/. Accessed on 08/23/18.