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?


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:

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 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.

Washing Your Hands Isn’t Enough

The following post is Pastor Josh’s sermon manuscript from August, 16th, 2020. The text he preached from was Matthew 15:1-20 which is copied below (out of the ESV).

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”

-Matthew 15:1-20


To start our message today I want to bring up an ongoing issue in our home. 

Some of you who are parents will no doubt understand what I’m talking about here.

Here’s the issue: we make rules, but there are sometimes differences about how those rules are interpreted.  So take for instance, “no jumping on the couch.” 

Some of our more obedient ones in our home, take this rule as implying that there should be no standing at all on the couch… because if you stand, then you are inevitably going to jump or make a bouncing motion that resembles jumping.  So the “no jumping” rule also means “no standing on the couch.”  This additional rule was added to help people obey the no jumping rule.  Because if you are standing on the couch, you are probably going to be tempted to jump.

Some of our other little ones like to stretch the boundaries.  They think that this rule means that you can basically do anything on the couch that you want to, except jump.  You can run.  You can cartwheel.  You slam your brother or sister… Just so long as you are not jumping. This group will passionately insist that they were obeying the literal letter of the law and not being the rule breakers that the other group says they are.

Who is right? 

I think most of us would say that both groups are right about some things and wrong about some things. 

The Tradition of the Elders

As silly as this example that I’ve chosen this morning might seem, it actually is not too far from the way things were in Jesus’ day. 

For instance, take Sabbath observance.  God commanded that we work six days and that the seventh day be given to rest.  What does it look like to obey the Sabbath?  Is absolutely all work forbidden? Can you leave your house on the Sabbath day?  Can you perform a good deed on the Sabbath day? 

Much like the couch example in my home, there were respected and pious Jewish scholars who came up with their own interpretations about what Sabbath observance meant and over time these interpretations became a tradition.  This is what Jesus refers to here in verse 2 when he says the “tradition of the elders.” 

One example that I stumbled across in my study this past week dealt with the situation where someone wanted to give a gift to a poor person on the Sabbath day.  Given the command in Exodus 16 where it says that a person is not to leave their home on the Sabbath day, how would you give a gift to a poor person in need?  How can do this good deed without leaving your home and thus breaking the Sabbath command?  In the Mishna, which is a Jewish holy book, where much of this teaching is recorded, it wrestles with how exactly this transaction can happen. 

Leon Morris writes:

“If the householder stood inside his house and put his gift outside or if the poor person, standing outside, reached inside and took up the gift, in either case there was a transgression because a person had carried something out of a house on the Sabbath.” 

-Leon Morris in his commentary The Gospel According to Matthew, (PNTC, Eerdmans), p. 388

So these Rabbis came up with a solution. Morris continues:

“Neither person should cross the boundary carrying the gift.  But if the poor man stood outside and reached his hand inside and if the householder than placed his gift into the poor man’s hand, the poor man could withdraw his hand and neither had transgressed.  The same result of course was obtained if the householder stood inside and held his hand containing the gift outside so that the poor man, standing outside, could simply receive the gift… In this case there is no transgression: neither man has carried the burden across the line.” 

-Morris, Matthew, 388.

If you do this for the entire Pentateuch, those first five books of the bible, what you have is the “tradition of the elders.”

Now of course, here in our passage before us today, Jesus is not taking issue with their understanding of the Sabbath (though he does do that in other places), here he is taking issue with their teachings about the washing of hands. 

But maybe you’re asking what’s with the washing of the hands?

Hand Washing: Not About Hygiene

Now at the time, washing of hands was not something that was done for personal hygiene, it was done to prevent a person from becoming ceremonially unclean.  What that basically means is that these washings were to prepare a person to enter into God’s presence.  It was a way of acknowledging that a person was not worthy to be in the presence of the perfect Creator.  These washings were symbolic–not hygienic. 

We do these kinds of things all the time.  When I open the door for my wife, it is a symbolic act of love and respect and honor.  It’s not something I do because I don’t think that she is incapable of opening the door.  I do it to recognize that she has a special place in my life and as an act of service and love to her.  It’s an acknowledgment of something.

And so too these ritual washings were not actually about removing dirt or removing bad things from a person (they weren’t actually doing anything).  It was a symbolic acknowledgment that one was sinful and dirty and unworthy of entering into the presence of God which was a clean and holy and special place.  If one was to enter into the presence of the Creator, one must be clean.

In the book of Exodus (30:17-21) it was required for priests to wash their hands (and their feet) when they were ministering at the altar. In other words, washing of the hands was a ritual done at the altar to prepare the priest for his priestly service. If a priest failed to do this, he would be considered unclean and thus unable to minister at the altar.

But the tradition established by these ancient Jewish interpreters took this law and extended it to all people and into the realm of daily life requiring people to wash their hands before they eat.

In the Mishnah which is one of the places where these traditions are recorded, there is an entire section devoted to these laws that is just titled “hands.”  It talks about how this spiritual uncleanness can only be removed by running water so it must be poured over the hands and it discusses which parts of the hands are involved.  Some argue it’s up to the wrists while others believe only fingers are in view.

At first these many teachings were useful but over the centuries as more and more teachers added their contributions, some of whom were less wise, it had become an unhelpful and burdensome body of teaching. 

For most common people, all of this was just too much. 

So Jesus here in this story is going to address this group that has come all the way out to Galilee to speak to him about his disciple’s failure to wash their hands before eating.

This is Important

Now to us, on the surface, we see all of this as somewhat ridiculous.  Hair splitting nonsense.  We probably at first glance look at something like this and struggle to see the significance.  But if we are to really appreciate what is happening here, we must try and understand how this would have been perceived at the time. 

This was a very serious matter to pious Jews.  And there are a few things that Matthew records for us that give us indicators of just how serious this was.

Observe a few details with me in verses 1 and 2.

Notice how it says that the Pharisees and scribes came from Jerusalem.  In rural Galilee, to have religious leaders from Jerusalem, the holy city, the capital, would have been quite the ordeal. Their appearance would have been very noticeable and they would have been viewed by the locals as people of great authority.  Today, it would probably be something of the equivalent of a bunch of government officials from Washington coming to South Royalton to confront someone right on the street.  You know everyone would be out there with their smartphones out recording and taking pictures and it would be all over Facebook.  

Notice also that it says that they came to Jesus.  One commentator writes that it was not as though they came for a pastoral visit and happened to bump into Jesus.  No, they came with the exclusive purpose of confronting Jesus.  The fact that they would come so far outside of the capital to speak to Christ, tells us a little bit about the reputation of Jesus and also maybe just how opposed to Jesus they were.

Now finally observe with me in verse 2 that their critique is of Jesus’ disciples, not directly of Jesus himself.  “Your disciples break the tradition…” they say.  Of course, the critique of the disciples would indirectly be a kind of accusation directed at Jesus because he would have been the one teaching them to not regard the traditions of the elders.  This was more serious than just an occasional transgression of the tradition—someone accidentally not washing their hands for one reason or another or just some laziness…  (Just too tired at the end of the day to get up off the couch and wash your hands before shoveling down the pizza…)

Because Jesus was teaching his disciples to break the tradition, this was no accident, this was a systematic, principled practice.  So in the history and culture of the time, this was a serious infraction and we must try and keep the seriousness of this in front of us as we talk about something that to 21st century modernized people on the surface looks like a waste of breath.

So this was a big deal.

How Does Jesus Respond?

And Jesus’ response here is going to help us to see why all of this is so important.  Let’s look at how Jesus responds to their question in verses 3 through 6:

He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 

-Matthew 15:3-6

Notice in this response that Jesus totally ignores the handwashing issue—he makes no reference to it at all. Instead, Jesus goes much deeper.

Jesus wants to show them that in their zeal to help people obey God’s law, they end up breaking that very same law.  And he doesn’t point out how they do that exactly in the case of handwashing but instead uses this other example about honoring one’s father and mother. 

Why does he do that?

Well some suggest that Jesus does this because the command to honor one’s father and mother, was greater and more weighty than these minor regulations about the washing of hands.  Some rabbis would have even considered this command to be one of the most significant in all of the law.

So Jesus here is using the argument of the greater to the lessor and showing how the Pharisees need to stop pointing the finger at others for minor infractions and start looking at their own lives and how they have broken serious commands of God.  And in the history and culture of the time it would have been expected that a child care for their parents in their old age—this was a part of what it meant to honor them.  But what the Pharisees did was allow people to dedicate money to God that would have been used to care for their aging parents… and then the parents suffer. 

Morris writes:

“The tradition about the rash vow is honored, but the commandment of God is not kept.”

-Morris, Matthew, 393.

So what has happened is the Pharisees are enforcing laws that actually allow people to participate in the breaking of God’s laws.  The result is that they care more about the laws of men than they do the laws of God.  Which is more important?  God’s laws or man’s laws?

Some of us are so guilty of this too.  Oh how we look down at others for minor infractions and yet all the while are not fulfilling the more significant, weightier matters of God’s law.  We scoff because of the clothes someone wears or because of the music someone listens to or because they shop at Starbucks or vote in a way that irritates us.  Yet all the while, we are neglecting prayer and we are being unfaithful to our spouse or harboring hate in our hearts towards our neighbors. Oh, how guilty we are of this too.

Jesus says in verses 7, 8 and 9 that when we do that we are hypocrites:

You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

-Jesus in Matthew 15:7-9, quoting Isaiah 29:13

And Jesus says that is exactly what is happening here in this instance with the hand washing.

How so?

Real Defilement Comes from Within

Jesus is now going to explain to us how the tradition of the elders was not helping people to obey God but was actually leading people into disobedience.

So, back to the couch example from the beginning of the sermon. Those kids who want to create new laws like “don’t stand on the couch” to help the other kids obey the “don’t jump on the couch” rule, actually end up creating more problems in the end. Fights are breaking out and people are getting angry and other things that are more important are being ignored.  The intention might be good at first but the end result is really bad.

And I want you to listen carefully because this is where the rubber meets the road for us too.  This is not just about what was going on in that time and place, this has to do with us also.

Look at verses 10 and 11 now.  This is kind of a transition moment in the passage.  Jesus has been addressing the Pharisees and now he calls the common people up to talk to him.  Far from being an irrelevant triviality, this is something that everyone needs to know:

And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 

So before I get into the meat of what Jesus is saying here, let me quickly talk about this word “defile.”  That’s not a word that we use today very much.  It’s an archaic sounding word.  Most of us probably think about pollution or something when we hear that word.  You know like a factory dumping chemicals into a river.  That’s polluting or defiling the river.  It’s no longer pure and clean.  And that’s actually pretty close to the biblical meaning as well.

To defile here in this text is speaking of making something impure and unfit for God. So a person that is defiled cannot come before God and cannot touch anything that is dedicated to God until they have performed the necessary purification rites. Those might be washing or waiting a certain amount of time or presenting a particular animal to the priest to be sacrificed.

Okay, so now, with that in view, what is Jesus saying in verses 10 and 11? 

He’s saying that it’s not things like food and unclean hands and such that make us unfit for God.  It’s the stuff that comes out of the heart. 

Defilement was not something that happened from the outside of oneself but was something that originated on the inside of a person.

Think about the implications of that for a moment. 


Jesus continues in verses 15 and following:

But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”

-Matthew 15:15-20

This would have been mind-blowing to the Jews of the day.  This is so different from the common teaching and practice of the day that Peter can’t even get his mind around it.

Maybe most concerning of all is that everyone does these things.  Everyone has committed at least one of the sins on that list.  If you haven’t you are way better than I am. 

And what this means is that we are all defiled, all of us are unfit for God.  All of us are unclean.  All of us have fallen short of God’s standard are not worthy to be in his holy presence. 

And no hand washing can take away the uncleanness in our hearts.  Just as eating with unwashed hands does not defile, neither does pouring water over the hands and wrists clean off the evil deeds that you and I have done.

How Does a Person Become Clean in the Sight of God?

But if we can’t just wash our hands or present an animal to the priest to be sacrificed.  What can we do?  How does one become clean?

We need a more powerful agent.  Something that goes deeper than water.  Our sins are like scarlet which cannot be washed away with mere water.  We need something greater.  The Old Testament prophets foretold a way that God would somehow remove the stains of our sins.  Isaiah 1:18 says:

“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:

though your sins are like scarlet,

    they shall be as white as snow;

though they are red like crimson,

    they shall become like wool.

-Isaiah 1:18

But how?  How is this dirt and sin to be cleansed?

Not through rule keeping and rituals.  Not through a perfect obedience to all the commands of God and doing the right things.  God has made another way. 

There’s a great hymn that says it well:

There is a fountain filled with blood

Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins

and sinners plunged beneath that flood

lose all their guilty stains.

-Cowper, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”

A modern rendition of that hymns says

        Hallelujah fountain full of love for us

        Poured out on us

-Shane & Shane

This same Jesus who taught that mere washing with water would not prevent one from becoming unclean went on to offer his life as a sacrifice for you and for me, in love.  And anyone who would put their faith and trust in Him will be cleansed from their sins and granted eternal fellowship with God.

So God is inviting you into relationship with himself today and the way is not through washings and rule keeping, it’s through Jesus. 

If you haven’t already I invite you to put your faith in Jesus Christ today.


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…”

[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 “Must” the Christ Rise from the Dead?

In John 20 we read the eye-witness account of the first moments after Mary Magdalene discovered that Jesus’ had risen from the dead. She was the first to come to the tomb and when she arrived she found the tomb open and his body missing. She runs and tells Peter and John and then they run to see the spectacle for themselves.

In verses 8 and 9 we read the very interesting words:

“Then the other disciple, [John], who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

-John 20:8 and 9

At this moment something clicked for those that we are the tomb that day. Verse 8 says that John went in and saw and believed. What did he believe?

From what follows in verse 9 we gather that he believed that Jesus had risen from the dead. For John (and eventually the others too), the reason for the missing body was not that someone had relocated it (see John 20:3), but that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

I find the way verse 9 is worded quite interesting. Why “must” Jesus rise from the dead?  That is the topic that I want to take up for a few moments here.

Why the Christ Must Rise

The first reason is stated right in our passage today:

Because the Scriptures say so.  Scripture cannot be broken.  If God says something is going to happen, it’s going to happen, otherwise God is a liar. Those of you who were with us for our Good Friday service will remember us reading the account of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  When the soldiers and Judas and the religious leaders came to take Jesus into custody, one of the disciples cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest.  And then Jesus said these words in Matthew 26:52-54:

“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? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?

-Matthew 26:52-54

Jesus was going to die and rise again because that is what God himself had said would happen. Period. “The grass withers and the flower falls, but the word of our God will stand forever.”  What God says will happen, happens.

Old Testament prophecy pointed towards the resurrection of the Christ.  One place that the New Testament itself interprets for us in this way is Psalm 16:10 which says:

For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
    or let your holy one see corruption.

-Psalm 16:10

Peter points out in his sermon in Acts 2 that this Psalm was written by David, yet David both died and was buried. Peter says that:

“Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.”

Acts 2:30-32

Another place we see this is one we looked at this morning at our sunrise service when we read the story out of Luke 24.  When Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead he says:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’”

-Luke 24:44-47

So, the first reason that the resurrection had to happen was because God Himself, in Scripture, had spoken that it would happen.

The second reason that the resurrection must happen is because it insured several things for us:

Three things it’s going to insure for us.  The restoration of our hearts, the restoration of our righteousness, and the restoration of our bodies.

#1. The restoration of our hearts.  Back in the garden when Adam and Eve sinned, death entered the world and overtook all of us.  Our hearts became hard, filled with fear and shame and sin.  But because of the resurrection of Jesus, all who put their faith and trust in Him are given new hearts.  Our hearts become what they were intended to be in Eden.  Take 1 Peter 1:3 for instance:

“According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…”

Here Peter says that we are born anew, that we are given new life, through the resurrection of Jesus.  If it were not for the resurrection of Jesus, we would still be spiritually dead; our hearts would be lifeless, filled with sin.  The cross paid our debt and satisfied the judgment of God, but it is the resurrection that grants us new spiritual life in Jesus. It is essential if we are to have and experience the same resurrected life that Jesus has.

#2. The second thing that the resurrection insured for us is the restoration of our righteousness.  All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.  We’ve all done things worthy of death.  If we are to be with God forever in Heaven, we must be righteous for God is righteous and perfect. 

But sinners cannot just take a bath to get the sin off.  We need new hearts, which as we just saw, the resurrection accomplishes that.  But we also need a formal declaration of righteousness.  A fancy word for this would be justification.  Justification means to be declared not guilty or to be declared righteous.  We need all those things that we’ve done to be erased and we need a new record or resume.  And in the resurrection of Jesus we get exactly that. 

In Romans 4:25 it says that Jesus:

“…was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”

-Romans 4:25

When Christ was raised up from the dead it was God the Father giving His approval of the work that Christ had accomplished in living and dying for His people. 

Wayne Grudem (whose systematic theology was very helpful to me on these points), writes:

“By raising Christ from the dead, God the Father was in effect saying that he approved of Christ’s work of suffering and dying for our sins, that his work was completed, and that Christ no longer had any need to remain dead.  There was no penalty left to pay for sin, no more wrath of God to bear, no more guilt or liability to punishment—all had been completely paid for, and no more guilt remained.  In the resurrection, God was saying to Christ, ‘I approve of what you have done, and you find favor in my sight.’”

-Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 615.

This is significant for us because all of us who believe in Jesus are united to Him and raised up with Him it says in Ephesians 2:6.  If we are united with Christ and raised up with Christ, then God’s declaration of approval of Christ is also his declaration of approval of us!  It is a restoration of our righteousness.

We could not stand in God’s presence without this restoration.  And because God wants us to be with Him, and because He loves us and desires us, this was a necessary part of bringing us home to be with Him for eternity.

#3.  And the third thing it insures for us is the perfect restoration of our bodies. 

Now I don’t know about you, but there are days when I am just fed up with this body.  My joints ache, I have allergies, I’ve had several surgeries in my life to fix problems, my eyes are only getting worse and my hair is starting to fall out.  And compared to many, I’m doing okay.  That’s not to speak of cancer, diabetes, and all sorts of horrible illnesses than many of you out there are dealing with.  Right now, of course, there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who have been or are sick with the Covid-19 virus. 

Who will deliver us from these bodies of death?

Jesus will.

Now, when those who have put their faith in Christ are raised from the dead, they will not have the same body that they had before, they will be given a new, resurrected body.  I don’t think that means we will look different or have all the features that we’ve longed for, but we will have a perfect version of our current bodies. 

So take Lazarus for instance.  When Lazarus was raised, which we looked at a couple of weeks ago together, he got his old body back.  Granted it was healed, but it was still weak, sinful, mortal, decaying, body.  It wasn’t a new, resurrected body like the one that Jesus had when he was raised and the one that we will have when we are raised up on the last day. 

Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15 that Christ is the “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (v. 20).  The first fruits are those first crops that are harvested.  And the first crops give an indication of what the rest of the harvest is going to be like.  So Jesus here is the first fruit and he shows us what the rest of the harvest is going to be like.  His resurrected body is like the one that each of his followers will receive on that glorious day. 

In the words of a beautiful song written by Sandra McCracken:

We will feast in the house of Zion
We will sing with our hearts restored
He has done great things, we will say together
We will feast and weep no more

-Sandra McCracken

In that day, all because of the death and the resurrection of Jesus, all those who put their trust in Him will have their hearts restored, their righteousness restored and their bodies restored.  God will do it. 

And just as the Scripture could not be broken in regards to Christ’s own resurrection, so too, He will be faithful to His promise to raise us up on that great day when He returns. 

This is good news people.  In fact, this is the best news you will ever hear. 

“…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

-Romans 10:9

It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or failed to do.  This is a second chance.  This is the offer of a new life, a life lived in the same resurrection power that Christ lived in.  I invite you and encourage you to believe. 

Holy Saturday: A Reflection

Among Holy Week celebrations and observances, Saturday of Holy Week is often overlooked or forgotten.  There are no “special” events planned on Saturday—we move from the spectacle of Jesus crucifixion on Friday, right into the jubilee of Easter morning.  For many of us Saturday is a day of hunting for eggs with the children or simply another day to get ready for Easter Sunday breakfast, Easter services and time with family.

But there is a treasure for us on Saturday if we are willing to receive it. 

This treasure only comes in waiting and in silence.  To appreciate Easter, we must begin to enter into the moment with the disciples and to ponder the fact of the death of the Son of God.  This moment is captured well by the song “Buried in the Grave” by All Sons and Daughters: 

There was a day we held our breath
And felt the sting of bitter death
When all our hopes were buried in the grave

Our eyes awake, our hearts were torn
Between our faith and what we knew
Before our King was buried in the grave

And grace was in the tension
Of everything we’ve lost
Standing empty handed
Shattered by the cross

-All Sons and Daughters, “Buried in the Grave”

It would have been tempting to stay busy and to distract themselves from the pain.  But we read in Luke 23:52-56:

This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments.

On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.

Luke 23:52-56

The Scripture says that after the Lord’s death they laid his body in a tomb and then his followers rested according to the commandment.  They could have pushed through with all the various activities that one would expect at the time of death but they pause and observe the Sabbath.  They take the time to be still and quiet.  No doubt they spent much time that day in prayer and in reflection.  Maybe for some there was a sense of anticipation as they recalled the Lord’s word that he would rise again on the third day.  Again, All Sons and Daughters captures this in their beautiful song “Buried in the Grave”:

All we have, all we had
Was a promise like a thread
Holding us, keeping us
Oh from fraying at the edge

All we knew, all we knew
Was You said You’d come again
You’d rise up from the dead

-All Sons and Daughters, “Buried in the Grave”

The Saturday of Holy Week is an opportunity for us to take time to do likewise—to pray and to reflect and to anticipate–with the goal of truly appreciating all that the resurrection of Jesus means for us.

(Below are a few thoughts about praying on Holy Saturday.)

The Vigil of Easter

Holy Saturday has two moods.  The first is the keeping of vigil with its longing and waiting for the breaking of the new day.  It is a day in which no candles or fire  are kindled for the light of the world lies in the tomb.  It is a day without music and singing, for sorrow chastens and sobers us for a time.  Often our churches have their altars covered with black cloth.    Proverbs 13:12 summarizes well the two-fold emotion of this night,

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”  

-Proverbs 13:12

The second theme is, therefore,  the joyful anticipation of tomorrow.  Though we sorrow in the moment, we remember Jesus’ promise that He will rise again in victory.  It is traditional to keep vigil through the night of Holy Saturday reading through twelve Old Testament readings that foreshadow the deliverance found in Jesus Christ. 

At sunrise on Resurrection morning, we rejoice to know that death could not hold Jesus Christ in its power.  As darkness gives way to light, we receive the daily parable that it must ever be this way in the Kingdom

“Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.”

-Psalm 126:5

“Most assuredly I say to you, that you will weep and lament…and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy…now you have sorrow, but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you..”

-John 16:20, 22  

“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”

-Psalm 30:5

Our prayers on Holy Saturday, therefore, have these two moods throughout: sorrow and joyful expectation. Here is a suggested pattern for your prayer time: Begin with a season of mourning over your sin and over the reality of death and darkness in our world. Take some time to repent and be still before God in silence. Then pray for the sick, the dying, the orphan, the widow and for those who are lost.

Then move into the second mood of Holy Saturday, joyful expectation. In this season of prayer we lift prayers up to the Lord knowing that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are heard (1 John 5:14) and can receive the grace and help that we need (Heb. 4:14-16). Pray for the unreached people of the world, your local churches, your leaders, and for your family and children. Pray in the confidence that God loves you and that you one of His beloved children (1 John 3:1). Pray with confidence, knowing that death has been defeated and that God is working all things together for your good and the good of all who love him (Romans 8:28).

(Below are a few categories for spending time in prayer on Holy Saturday.)

Prayer Categories for Holy Saturday (and Scriptures references)


-The sick and the dying (2 Cor. 1:8-11; Heb. 4:16; James 5:15-16)

-Spend time repenting of your sins and of your nation’s sins (Psalm 51; Isaiah 60:5; James 4:9; 5:16; 1 John 1:9).

-Our neighbors and the lost in our area (Matthew 9:35-37).

-For the poor and downtrodden, the orphans and the widows (Psalms 68:5; Matt. 5:1-11; 12:19-21; James 1:27).


-Give thanks for all that God has done! (Psalm 100; Philippians 4:6-8).

-Our nation’s leaders (Psalms 2:10-11; Rom. 13:1; 1 Tim. 2:1-2)

-Local leaders and servants—police, fire, rescue. Hospitals, nurses, chaplains, teachers, and elected officials.

-The unreached peoples of the world (Utilize Global Prayer Guides that were handed out in church at the start of the New Year)

-Local churches (Luke 11:2; Rom. 15:5-6; Eph. 4:13; 6:18-20; Col. 1:9-10)

-Our pastor and elders and deacons (1 Kings 3:9; Psalms 145:14-15; Prov. 3:5-7; 1 Cor. 15:58; Col. 1:9-10; 2 Tim. 4:7)

-Our children and grandchildren (Deut. 6:4-9; Matt. 22:37; John 10:27-28; 1 Cor. 10:31; Heb. 12:5-6).

Red Door and Covid-19

Every day I read headlines about the indelible mark that the Covid-19 virus has left upon the world. It seems as though no part of the world has been left untouched. Sports and graduations have been cancelled, many have been laid off of work or furloughed. the world economy is reeling and political leaders have taken unprecedented steps to try and stave off another Great Depression. Not to mention over 60,000 deaths and over a million reported cases of the infection (at the time of this article). This will be a year most of us will never forget.

Like everyone else, Red Door Church has been making adjustments to this situation and we wanted to pass along some of that information to you.

First of all, our building is closed until this crisis passes over. Not long ago Vermont’s Governor, Phil Scott, gave a “Stay at Home” order to all those who were not deemed essential workers and he put a ban on gatherings larger than 10. That order lasts until April 15th, but I expect it to be extended.

Second, we are holding online prayer meetings each week. This week and the week before we hosted two and we will likely host at least one this coming week as well. Our other leader boards are also meeting virtually to avoid spreading the virus.

Third, we are increasing our Facebook Live presence. We started doing Facebook Live last summer and it was well received but it was only for the sermon portion of our services. Since the C19 outbreak, we have decided to do a more complete service on Facebook Live, with a time of prayer, announcements, and a little music in addition to the sermon. This will likely be temporary at least until we can make more needed upgrades to our sound and video equipment which we are planning on having installed this summer (if the Lord wills and the C19 virus doesn’t preclude travel for the team from NC that is coming up to help). Here’s a glimpse at what we are doing for Holy Week on Facebook Live this year:

Palm Sunday service at 10am

Monday morning devotion at 9am

Tuesday morning devotion at 9am

Wednesday morning devotion at 9am

Maundy Thursday service at 7pm

Good Friday service at 12pm

Saturday Morning children’s Easter story

Easter Sunrise service at 7am

Resurrection Sunday Service at 10am

Fourth, we are ramping up our efforts at our local Food Shelf. Our church oversees the South Royalton Area Food Shelf and since the C19 outbreak we have seen an increase in need. The challenge has been how we meet that need without endangering our volunteers and the families we are seeking to help. Thankfully the Vermont Food Bank has been passing along helpful info to local food shelves about how they can be more creative in safely helping neighbors during this crisis. At our food shelf here’s some of what we’ve been doing: (1) extra cleaning, (2) wearing masks and gloves, (3) not allowing the public into the building, (4) making deliveries, (5) and only allowing volunteers to serve who are healthy and have not been exposed (to their knowledge) to the virus. We are actively working on more solutions as we speak.

Fifth, the elders of Red Door Church created a Holy Week worship booklet that is available to families on our church website (we also mailed out about 75 of them). The vision behind this booklet is to allow families to engage in worship, prayer, and learning, while at home and away from the gathered body of Christ. The booklets contain reflections, scripture, songs and hymns, and maps and other materials for Holy Week. Those who have internet access are encouraged to tune in and use the booklet in conjunction with the Facebook Live services (or tune in to YouTube later in the week if they are not on FB). I recently did a short video that talks about these booklets and you can download the booklet here on our website.

Sixth, we have ordered 250 face masks for our community. Some in our church have been making masks and distributing them to local organizations, like the food shelf and other places. These 250 will be given away to those who need to be out to shop or to do other essential business.

Finally, we are simply seeking to remain connected with another. We know that community is essential to life, especially the Christian life, and we are striving to be in regular contact with our people. The writer of the book of Hebrews reminds us of how critical it is to remain connected and to exhort one another every day so as not to fall away (Heb. 3:12-15). And, as that same writer reminds us later, we must strive to keep our eyes fixed upon the Lord Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith so that we will not grow weary or disheartened (Heb. 12:1-3). Community is essential if we are going to make it through this trying time, so we are making efforts to be in regular contact with our people.

Blessings to you all! May the Lord be with you during this time.

What is Lent?

Since becoming a Christian in college I have not attended a church that observed Lent (to my recollection), at least not while they were observing it.  I have been active primarily in non-mainline Presbyterian, Baptist, or Independent circles and I gather that these traditions generally do not practice Lent and its attendant days and rituals.  Even in seminary (I went to a non-denominational seminary, but most of the students were in the conservative arm of the Presbyterian church), I recall hearing very little about this season of the church calendar.

So when my church here in South Royalton began to talk about “Ash Wednesday” and Lent back in 2014, I had some homework to do.  Thankfully others in the church have helped.

It appears that the exact origin of the practice is unknown though some ancient documents suggest the practice goes back almost to the time of the apostles (if not all the way back to them).  Various writings from the 3rd and 4th century speak of a season of fasting prior to the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Eusebius records a letter in his History of the Church from St. Irenaeus (d. 203) to Pope St. Victor I, commenting on the differences of Easter practice that existed between the Eastern and Western church.  Therein St. Irenaeus makes reference to the fact that a season of fasting had been celebrated in preparation for Easter since the time of “our forefathers” (making reference to the apostles).  1  Today this season of fasting and self-denial lasts forty days in most traditions where it is celebrated (for a long time there was actually a period of 63 days in which preparations for Easter were made beginning with what is called “Septuagesima Sunday“.

The choice of 40 days seems to have stemmed from the story told to us in the Gospels of Luke, Mark, and Matthew, where Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert, being tempted by the Devil. Those who participated in Lent were to fast, as Jesus had, for 40 days, and then return to the community to celebrate the Easter feast and/or to be baptized. 2

Forty days are marked by Lent from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday.  Because Sundays have always been marked as occasions to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, we do not include Sundays in the 40 day count. The other days are days marked by special prayer, fasting, self discipline in striving against sin, and sacrificial giving. The Church has always prescribed the three-fold discipline of prayer, fasting and almsgiving (Matthew 6:1-24) as strong weapons in the fight against self-centeredness and indulgence.  Forty is a sacred number being made up of 4, the symbol of the earth, multiplied by 10, the symbol of the complete judgement of God. Forty days marked the deluge which cleansed the earth in the time of Noah; forty years the wandering of the Jews in the wilderness to purge their unbelief; forty days the fasting and warfare of Jesus in the wilderness against Satan. 3

If you want to learn a bit more about the Christian calendar and seasons like Lent, Pastor Josh wrote a brief article for the Christian Research Institute last Spring (2019) and did a Postmodern Realities Podcast with them as well, which you can listen to here.

  1. Fr. William Saunders, “History of Lent,”  Accessed on 3/5/2014.
  2. Robert Pannier, “Catholics: History and Meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent,”  Accessed on 3/4/2014.
  3. I am indebted to Russell Rohloff of Bethel, Vermont, for the insights and wording in this last paragraph.

What is Pre-Evangelism?

What is pre-evangelism?  Pre-evangelism is the tough work of tearing down objections and obstacles to a sincere hearing of the Christian message of the gospel.  Some persons have walls in their minds and hearts that simply will not allow them to give an open ear to the claims of the Christian faith.  When we do pre-evangelism, we may not be “sharing the gospel” with someone, but we are doing the necessary work of helping them clear hurdles that stand in the way of really hearing the gospel.

A few weeks ago I was reading an excellent book entitled Prelude to Philosophy by Mark W. Foreman.  In the forward, J. P. Moreland, a well-known Christian philosopher and theologian, writes these very true and powerful words which mention the important work of pre-evangelism. It’s a long quote, but it’s worth the 3 minutes it will take you to read and digest it:

“[O]ur culture is in deep trouble.  And while the causes of our malaise are varied, a core problem is the general inability of the American people to think carefully about things that really matter.  And the church of Jesus Christ, which is called to be the pillar and support of the truth, is just as anti-intellectual as the broader culture.  There is a straightforward application of the church’s anti-intellectualism for the body of Christ’s ability to affect the world for Jesus.  To see this, consider the fact that a person’s plausibility structure is the set of ideas the person either is or is not willing to entertain as possibly true.  For example, no one would come to a lecture defending a flat earth because this idea is not part of our plausibility structure.  We cannot even entertain the idea.  Moreover, a person’s plausibility structure is a function of the beliefs he or she already has.  Applied to outreach, J. Gresham Machen got it right when he said:

‘God usually exerts that power in connection with certain prior conditions of the human mind, and it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favourable conditions for the reception of the gospel.  False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel.  We may preach with all the fervour of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here or there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.’

If a culture reaches the point where Christian claims are not even part of its plausibility structure, fewer and fewer people will be able to entertain the possibility that they might be true… This is why a vibrant intellectual life is so crucial to evangelism.  It empowers the church to be able to create a plausibility structure in a person’s mind, ‘favourable conditions’ as Machen puts it, so the gospel can be entertained by that person.  To plant a seed in someone’s mind in pre-evangelism is to present a person with an idea that will work on his or her plausibility structure to create a space in which Christianity can be entertained seriously.  If this is important to evangelism, it is strategically crucial that local churches think about how they can address those aspects of the modern worldview that place Christianity outside the plausibility structures of so many.1

Churches should labor to teach and train their people to do pre-evangelism.  This is not purely an intellectual exercise, but it is no less either.  Every church can play a role in this great task, even if it’s doing something as simple as supporting ministries like Ratio Christi who focus exclusively on the important work of pre-evangelism, or attending and supporting events like next year’s Why Jesus? in Bangor, ME.

  1. Mark W. Foreman, “Prelude to Philosophy: An Introduction for Christians” (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014), 9-10. The bolded text is my emphasis.

Before Jesus said “Follow Me”

Matthew 4:12-23

“Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.”


The Calling of the First Disciples

What made these men follow Jesus?  Why would they leave it all behind so quickly?  How could someone just up and follow and complete stranger?

At first glance, it would be easy to assume that Peter, Andrew, James and John, at the very first sight of Jesus, got up and left their families and businesses behind.  But there is more to the story.  

In John 1:35-42, we read that Andrew (Peter’s brother), was down listening to John the Baptist preach one day when Jesus showed up on the beach and John shouted “Behold, the Lamb of God!”  Andrew wanted to know more about Jesus so he followed him home and spent the day with him.  

After spending the day with him, Andrew had become convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, so he took Peter to meet him (see John 1:41-42).  After they meet, Jesus gives Peter a new name, which basically means “Rock.” At this point, Peter is likely very intrigued by Jesus.  The word begins to spread to others who Jesus also calls to follow him (see John 1:43-51).

Luke’s account gives us even more information.  Luke tells us that before this day in Matthew 4 when the disciples left their nets, Jesus had been performing miracles in Capernaum where Andrew and Simon lived (see Luke 4:31-37). Undoubtedly, they knew he was a great miracle worker and had observed them with their own eyes.  We know from Luke 4:38 and 39 that one day after teaching and healing in the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus entered the home of Simon Peter and healed his mother-in-law who was ill with a high fever (see Luke 4:38-39). Peter had been blessed personally by the healing work of Jesus.

If we continue on in the Gospel of Luke we find in the very next chapter (5) Luke’s account of this text in Matthew 4. Luke tells us that Jesus actually got into the boat with Simon Peter and performed a miraculous catch of fish.  After all of this, Peter is overcome. He says to Jesus, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8).  

Of course, Jesus doesn’t depart but instead calls them to follow him and he will make them fishers of men.  The rest is history. The disciples followed Jesus and went on to make more disciples and the world has never been the same.  

Follow Me

What we see at first glance in this passage doesn’t give us the full picture.  Jesus had been working in the lives of these men for some time before this moment that we see in Matthew 4. He had conversed with them, spent time with them, revealed his glory and even met personal needs.  

I would wager that such is the case with almost every true follower of Jesus.  Before he calls us to “follow him”, Jesus is present in our lives loving, working, and teaching us.  Sometimes what is needed for us to see it is not the great catch of fish but merely the eyes of faith to see his fingerprints all around us on our lives. 

Pray that God gives you those eyes today.