FV Discussion on Monday

Quite a goodly list of people are lined up to discuss the Federal Vision on Monday. Hosted by De Regnis Christi, an RPCNA pastor, this discussion will feature Douglas Wilson, John Muether, and Richard Lints.  

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Apologies

My apologies for posting so many sermons all in one day. I got rather behind. I realize this will mean less exposure for each sermon. So be it. I am going on vacation starting Monday to go to my brother’s wedding in Atlanta. Posting might be a tad sparse, although I will have some internet access.

What You Are

Ephesians 4:20-24

Audio Version

Sir Isaac Newton was a very brilliant scientist who lived from 1643 to 1728. Among his many contributions to science were his laws of motion. The first law of motion states that an object at rest will stay at rest unless some outside force acts upon it to change it. In other words, a ball will go nowhere unless someone picks it up and throws it. This is Newton’s first law of motion. It is an excellent analogy to what happens in the spiritual realm. A soul at rest in its depravity and sinfulness (spiritual death) will stay in that state of depravity unless some outside force acts upon it. If, however, that outside force does act upon it, that soul will become alive and will live and move in the presence of God.

Last week, we saw how we were, what we were like before our conversion to Christianity. There was hardness of heart, darkness of mind, alienation from God, and a givenness to sin. Paul now contrasts what we were with what we are now. He says, “But you have not learned Christ in this way.” What fellowship does light have with darkness? What fellowship does a hard heart have with a living heart that is tuned to the heart of God? What fellowship does adoption have with alienation? And what fellowship does the Holy Spirit have with a person given over to sin? These are the questions of our text.

Verse 20 is unusual, in that we are said to have learned Christ. The NIV says “know Christ,” but a more literal translation would say “learn Christ.” Normally, we learn some thing about someone, or we learn some kind of knowledge, or we learn how to do something. Here, however, we are said to learn a person, Christ Jesus. This learning of Christ Jesus is in direct contrast to the style of living that is opposed to Christ, that dark, unenlightened, alienated-from-God existence that we used to have. If we have learned Christ, then things are different.

The NIV translates verse 21 well. Paul does not mean to instill doubt in the minds of the believers in Ephesus as to whether they had actually heard the truth. They heard the truth about Jesus, that He was crucified, buried, resurrected, and ascended into heaven. That truth about Jesus has the most profound consequences for our lives.

Notice the close connection between learning about the truth of Jesus, and learning about the truth of the necessity of putting off the former life. If Christ is crucified and resurrection and ascended into heaven, and we have that new life in Christ, particularly the Holy Spirit, then we need a change of clothes, and a change of life.

Paul tells us to put off our old way of life. This metaphor is that of putting of old worn-out useless clothes, and putting on instead clothes that fit, that are useful, and that are beautiful. That is the metaphor that Paul uses here. The old way of life is like a worn-out garment that will not keep out the wrath of God from a person. Literally, Paul calls the old way of life “the old man,” or “the earlier man.” Paul uses this language quite a bit in his letters. The old man is that naturally evil, depraved sin nature that we have by virtue of being descended from Adam. It is closely connected to the old age of the world. The old age and the old man go together.

But now, something different has happened. There is a new age, brought in by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. All things are being made new, starting with the human heart. That is the new man. The new man and the new age go together. Of course, we are not using the term “new age” to refer to “New Age Philosophy,” which is basically pagan mysticism. Rather, we are using the term as the Bible does, which refers to the new age that Jesus’ resurrection has ushered in. The spiritual world of fallen human sinners is changing one life at a time. That is part of the new age.

This new age is characterised by a renewed mind in the believer. That is what verse 23 says. A lot of people think that our minds, and what we think are somehow neutral. As we saw last week, that is not so. In our natural state, our minds are darkened. Nothing is neutral. In the new age, a believer’s mind is renewed to do what it was always intended to do: think about God, giving praise, honor, and glory to God. That is what the renewed mind is supposed to do. That is what we can now do by the power of the Holy Spirit residing in us. That is putting on the new man, as we put on the new clothes of Christ’s righteousness, our inner man is being renewed. We have been newly created, as it were. We are new creatures, created in righteousness, and holiness, as Paul says in verse 24.

So here is the question: have you put on that new man? Have you been renewed in the spirit of your mind? Have you put off the old man?

Now remember, these things happen in two ways. The first way is a definite, one-time occurrence, where we become believers. That is our conversion. It is darkness to light, death to life, old man to new man. However, there is more to it than just that. There is also the struggle in the Christian life. Yes, we have put off the old man and put on the new man. But, in another sense, we are still putting off the old man, and putting on the new man. The second sense in which we do this is a continual process throughout our lifetimes by which we become more and more holy. Is that happening to you? Are you becoming more holy or less holy? Do you enjoy the things of God more over time or less? This is a vitally important issue for Christians. We do not need an apple to fall on our heads, as Newton did, to understand this law of spiritual motion. The old man acts like gravity, trying to drag us down. The Spirit acts like a trampoline, trying to keep us in the air, in motion, constantly going in one direction. These two forces in our lives are opposite. Fortunately for the believer, they are not equal. You know, Newton’s third law of motion says that for every motion, there is an equal and opposite motion. If you were in space, and pushed against someone else who was exactly the same weight you were, then you would both move. You would move in opposite directions. However, it does NOT work like that in the spiritual life. The Holy Spirit is more powerful than our old man, our old way of life. The Holy Spirit’s motion in our lives causes the old man to move. And that should be an encouragement for us. We were taught Jesus Christ. We have the new man, if we but trust in Jesus. We have been made new. We have the perfect righteousness of Christ. And we are being renewed so that our own righteousness is becoming greater and greater.

Therefore, we should be what we are. We have seen this before in Ephesians. We were dead in sins and transgressions, but now we have been made alive. Therefore we should live as people who are alive and not dead. The world will tell us that living as Christians is dull, boring, and pretty much dead. The reality is that the world is wrong, and that a life enslaved to sin is real death and slavery. We often hear about how bad slavery was in the Civil War. But as bad as the descriptions are, and as bad as it often was, that is nothing compared to the slavery that we have under sin. That is the very worst kind of slavery there is. And countless people are enslaved to it. But what is even sadder is that they do not acknowledge that they are enslaved. They do not even see it. They are blind to their own blindness. But we have been enlightened not because we are so bright, or so worthy, but because God decided to exercise His grace and change us. Therefore we ought to live as people of the light, and not as people of the darkness.

What We Were

Ephesians 4:17-19

Audio Version

1. If I like it, it’s mine. 2. If it’s in my hand, it’s mine. 3. If I can take it from you, it’s mine. 4. If I had it a little while ago, it’s mine. 5. If it’s mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way. 6. If I’m doing or building something, all the pieces are mine. 7. If it looks just like mine, it’s mine. 8. If I saw it first, it’s mine. 9. If you are playing with something and you put it down, it automatically becomes mine. 10. If it’s broken, it’s yours. Sound familiar? These are the toddler property laws that govern every toddler’s claims to toys, food, or just about everything else. It is evidence of our inherent depravity. Now, depravity is a long word. It means our sin nature. It means that our hearts are inherently evil. That is not a popular message to hear, and yet it is true. David tells us that in sin did his mother conceive him. That means that from his earliest existence, he was a sinful creature. Paul, while acknowledging this depravity very clearly here, calls us to abandon that depravity. We cannot do that on our own. But if God changes the heart, then we are able. This sermon might be somewhat dark. But there is always light in the Gospel of Christ.

Paul starts out with a very solemn statement: “I tell you this, and insist on it.” Literally, he is a witness for what he is about to say. In other words, he wants us to listen up, because what he is about to say is very important.

What he says is that our walk must look a certain way. In saying this, he is resuming what he was going to say at the beginning of the chapter. There, he said, “Walk worthy of the calling you have received.” But then, as so often happens in Paul, he interrupted himself to talk about the one body, and the one Head of the body, and the gifts He has given to the church. The implications of the context are that God has given many things to the church so that we can walk in such a manner. Now Paul returns to that idea here in verse 17.

Paul says that the Gentiles are futile in their thinking. Lots of people today believe that education is the answer to all our problems. If only we can get our schools to be better, then our social problems would simply go away. This is wishful thinking, since they believe that education is somehow neutral, and that our minds in our thinking are somehow neutral. The problem is that the heart influences the mind. If the heart is evil, then the thoughts will be as well. There is no escaping this conclusion from Scripture. Paul clearly says it here: Gentiles are futile in their thinking. The word “futile” here means “unable to accomplish the goal for which it was intended.” To illustrate, if you own a combine that was manufactured to harvest grain, and the combine is broken beyond repair, then you have a “futile” combine. That is, it would be worse than useless to try to use that combine for harvesting grain. It cannot achieve the end for which it was made. The same is true of our minds. Our minds were intended to know God. That is the highest and best knowledge to which we can attain. But our sin in Adam prevents us from knowing God as we ought. Our minds are futile without Christ. Paul is using the term “Gentiles” here to mean “heathen,” not “people who are not Jews.” In other words, Paul is taking over a Jewish form of expression, and changing its meaning from a physical marker (someone who was not a Jew) to a spiritual marker (someone who is not a Christian). So these “Gentiles” have futile minds that cannot know God. Why can’t they know God? Because they are alienated by their culpable ignorance.

Many people also want to say that since they are ignorant of the law of God, that therefore they ought to be let off the hook. But such is not the case. Their ignorance is a willful ignorance. Paul describes it as an ignorance that is due to the fact that they have hardened their hearts. It is a lot like Pharaoh, who hardened his heart so that he would not know the Lord, the God of Israel. They have hardened their conscience to the point where sin no longer bothers them. I sincerely hope that none of us are in that state where sin does not bother us anymore. If that is where you are, then beware! You have a hard heart, and your only hope is in Jesus Christ to change your hard heart into a living heart of flesh.

Notice that Paul says that such people are alienated from God. That means that they have no relationship with God. Obviously, you have to know someone to have a relationship with that person. And if you are willfully ignorant of that person, then you can have no relationship with that person. Knowledge of a person and relationship with that person go together. You cannot have the one without the other. This is especially true of God. How much do we know of God? Do we know that He is one God in three Persons? Do we know that all three persons have acted together to procure for us life and salvation? Do we know that He is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, glory, holiness, goodness, mercy, and truth? Do we know what He has done for us? Do we know that out of His pure love, He sent a Savior for us that we should no longer be darkened in our understanding, but might know the only wise God through Jesus Christ, the Son?

If we do not know God in this way, then what verse 19 says will apply to us. We will lost all sensitivity. That is, our consciences, which tell us what is right and wrong, will become dull. Then we will give ourselves over to all kinds of impurity, sensuality, and greed. Paul does not give us an exhaustive list of sins here, but we have the idea: people without good consciences are willing to engage in any and every sin. They are given over to it. Romans 1 tells us the same thing, only there it is even more scary, since it is God who gives them over to their reprobate minds. The reward of sin is more sin, and the culmination is death. In that process, the conscience slowly withers and dies away. As someone else has said, “She won’t listen to her conscience. She doesn’t want to take advice from a total stranger.” The trouble with the advice, “Follow your conscience” is that most people follow it like someone following a wheelbarrow–they direct it wherever they want it to go, and then follow behind. In such a way, people suppress the truth in unrighteousness, as Paul tells us in Romans. We have not thus learned Christ, as Paul will go on to tell us in verse 20.

The point here is that we have to face our own depravity squarely in the face, and not deny it as most people do. We have to acknowledge the fact that we are sinners in the sight of God. We must look at the worst person in the history of the world, and say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” It is only then, when we have faced our own depravity, the bad news, that we can go on to see the good news of Jesus Christ. To say that we really aren’t all that bad is to say that Jesus really didn’t need to come. And that is blasphemy. Christ died to save sinners. And we should not be blind to our own depravity. Satan wants to blind us to that fact, but our conscience must show us that we are sinners.

As I said, this is a somewhat darker sermon today. I make no apology for that, since it is precisely the same tone that our Scripture passage has. That darkness should make us yearn for the light of the pure Gospel.

So, do not stifle your conscience. Instead, you should make it stronger by a careful study of God’s law. That will always make the conscience stronger. Then your conscience will convict you of sin, and direct you back to your Savior, Jesus Christ. And, as Paul says later in the passage, we are to put off our old selves, and put on Christ. It is a continual act as well as a one-time act. When we become Christians, we put on Christ in a one-time act. However, there is also a sense in which we must continually put on Christ. We must continually put to death the old man that is dying and as good as dead within us. And we must put on the new man, the Holy Spirit working in our souls. Then we can say, “There, because of the grace of God, go I into heaven.”

Persecution

Matthew 10:17-23

Audio Version

When the emperor Valens threatened Eusebuis with confiscation of all his goods, torture, banishment, or even death, the courageous Christian replied, “He needs not fear confiscation, who has nothing to lose; nor banishment, to whom heaven is his country; nor torments, when his body can be destroyed at one blow; nor death, which is the only way to set him at liberty from sin and sorrow.” And hear this poem by Amy Carmichael, a bit overstated, but with important truth nevertheless: “Hast thou no scar? No hidden scar on foot, or side, or hand? I hear thee sung as mighty in the land, I hear them hail thy bright ascendant star, Hast thou no scar? Hast thou no wound? Yet I was wounded by the archers, spend, Leaned Me against a tree to die; and rent By ravening beasts that compassed Me, I swooned: Hast thou no wound? No wound, no scar? Yet, as the Master shall the servant be, And, pierced are the feet that follow Me; But thine are whole: can he have followed far Who has no wounds nor scar?” What Jesus says to His disciples is true of us as well. True followers of Jesus will be persecuted in some fashion in their lifetime. It was probably worse for Jesus’ twelve disciples than it will ever be for us, although there are no guarantees. The point of what Jesus is saying here is that Jesus is with them in the midst of persecution, and therefore they should take courage, and be wise.

Jesus says that the disciples are to be on their guard. This implies that the disciples should flee persecution if they can do so. Persecution and the so-called martyr complex are not good things. They are evil things. Jesus implies that when He says that it is on His account. The same kind of people who would kill Jesus and hand Him over are the same kind of people who will persecute the disciples. There will be corporal punishment: flogging was an immensely painful punishment that involved a whip of several strands of leather, or sometimes even bits of metal attached to the ends of the leather. Jewish law required that 40 lashes be the maximum penalty. Being good Pharisees, they didn’t want to run the risk of going beyond that, so they usually made it 39 lashes. Paul received the “40 minus 1” five times in his life.

It is important for us in our day and age to be aware of the persecuted church, and to be praying for those who are being persecuted. Ray Vander Laan, who does the video series that we saw for family night last year, said that when the persecuted church suffers, we all suffer, even if the suffering does not directly affect us. We are all part of the same body of Christ. Even if we may be a leg, and it is the arm that suffers, the leg feels it too. I’m sure you know well that if one part of you hurts, then that’s just about all that the body can think about at the time.

Jesus tells us not to worry about what we might have to say if we are arrested for being a Christian. The Lord will give us what to say. This verse has sometimes been twisted to mean that the preacher never needs to prepare what he is going to say. He should just rest on the Lord that the Lord will give him what he needs to say, and that he should’nt prepare at all. Well, that is not what this passage is teaching. This teaching is talking about being arrested for the Christian faith. What is happening is that the people who are being arrested are worrying about what to say. They wonder if they will have the words that will be honoring to God when crunch time comes. Jesus assures such people that they will have the words to say. It will be at that time that the Spirit will work in that person’s life so that they will have the words to say. Don’t worry about that. Only be concerned with being faithful to God in the times of persecution.

The persecution can often be fierce. Brother betrays brother, even to death, and family relationships are torn apart. Christianity divides people. It is also true that Christians are united together. However, Christianity also divides. How many families since the beginning of the New Testament era have been torn apart by a non-Christian rejecting the Christian! This is the best illustration of the fact that all men will hate Christians because of Jesus. All men, including family. But Jesus states that those who stand firm to the end will be saved. Briefly, how are we to understand this verse? Scripture uses the word “salvation” to mean two basic things: the moment of conversion, and the whole of the Christian life. Jesus plainly means the latter here.

Verse 23 has been described by many people as the most difficult verse in the entire New Testament, as to its meaning. If Jesus is talking about the Second Coming, then we have the problem that He was talking to His disciples. If we say that Jesus is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., then we have the problem that Jesus hasn’t mentioned anything about such a judgment anywhere in the context. I think that Boice says something very reasonable when he says that we ought to understand it as a general principle that we will always have work to do, and that we will never finish all that could be accomplished before Christ comes. I agree, and I think the passage has three main applications. Christ “came” at His resurrection. In that sense the disciples did not finish going through the cities of Israel before Christ was resurrected. Secondly, it could also apply to the destruction of Jerusalem. This would be Christ coming in judgment. Thirdly, it can also apply to Christ’s Second Coming. We will not finish our work before Christ comes again. That should not discourage us. It should rather encourage us, since we know that times are urgent, and therefore we should work hard. But also, Christ is not going to delay His coming if we do not get absolutely everything done that we might have gotten done.

So, the principles that we can glean from this are these: persecution will come. We can count on that. We should not pursue persecution, nor should we be afraid of persecution. Jesus is going to say just a little bit later that we are to fear God rather than men, since men cannot kill our souls. No matter how badly the persecution gets, we can be assured that it will never take our soul. Our soul is safely in the hands of Almighty God. Secondly, do not worry about what you will say if you are arrested. It might very well happen one day, you know. America is becoming less and less a Christian nation, and more and more pagan and atheistic. The Spirit gives special help to those who are persecuted. You need not worry about that. Only be faithful. Thirdly, pray for the persecuted church that they will hold fast and seal with their blood what they teach with their lips, as John Hus said of himself. Fourthly, and lastly, our work is to share the good news of Christ crucified to every last tongue and nation. We should be encouraged to that work by the idea of Christ’s Second Coming, not discouraged by it.

Growth in Truth and Love

Ephesians 4:14-16

Audio Version

In a small village that was popular for tourism because it was picturesque, but still very small, a man once walked up to an old man of the village and asked him, “Were any great men born here?” The old man answered, “Nope. Only babies.” We are all born babies in life, and we are all born babies in our spiritual lives as well. People do not become spiritual mature over night. And some people grow slower than others. But Paul is telling us the importance of growth for the Christian life. If we grow in truth and love, then the church will accomplish its mission, and we will be safe from false teaching and the deceptions of men.

It is very important to see how Paul says this, and what feeds into it. The NIV has “then” at the beginning of verse 14. A slightly more literal translation would have “in order that.” The purpose or goal is told to us in our passage. But, we ask, the goal of what? There is a strong connection with what has gone before. This verse is dependent on verse 11, which says “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophes, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.” So, the reasons why God gave those kinds of people to the church are to prepare God’s people for works of service, to attain unity in the faith, and to become mature. The reason I am here is to help us all grow (including myself) to a greater maturity. Becoming mature means that we are no longer infants in the faith. There is nothing wrong with infants. We all start there. But so many Christians are content to stay in a perpetual state of infancy. They hear some new teaching or doctrine, and it gets them excited. They want to run with that new teaching or doctrine. But here’s the problem: new doctrine has another word for it: heresy. We stick with the old doctrines. Scripture doesn’t change. Yes, our understanding of Scripture might become better, but still the point is that Scripture does not change. One example is the New Perspective on Paul. This new idea says that Judaism was really a religion of grace, not a religion of works, like the Reformation said it was. Therefore, Paul was not really reacting against a Jewish religion of works, but was rather reacting against the Jews being so narrow and unaccepting. The result of this is that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is changed rather dramatically. Ironically, works are part of justification, according to the New Perspective on Paul, even though they won’t claim that they are doing that. This is something that I have studied so that the old Reformation truths will prevail in our two churches here, and that we will not be blown around with new doctrine like that.

But here is the question: how do we stop being infants? Well, first of all, we have to realize how immature we all are. It will not do to say that we are not infants, and that therefore we have nothing more to learn. Nothing is more sad than to see a person who is older reject learning and instruction, because they think they have arrived. We have never arrived until we go to be with Jesus. The people who have it right here are those people who never stop learning their entire lives. They are never so sure that they are mature. Instead, they are constantly desiring to learn more and more.

Paul introduces two metaphors that help explain what spiritual infants are like. First up is the metaphor of waves. Waves are dangerous. People would know what Paul is talking about, since they lived on the Mediterranean Sea. A ship that is dealing with high waves is going to have a hard time staying on course. The second metaphor is wind. We understand this one in North Dakota. Something has to be quite firmly tied to the ground in order to withstand a North Dakota wind. A spiritual infant is anything but firmly grounded. That is not a fault. It is merely the way things are. One does not become a Christian and simultaneously mature in the faith, contrary to what many people might say. As you know, small children are easily blown about as well. They will believe whatever they are told. They are formable. They change their minds easily, depending on what influences them. It is really quite scary to be a parent in this regard. You have to be so careful in terms of what influences you allow your children to interact with. I fear that we often underestimate the degree of influence that TV, peer groups, and other people have on our children. We make a great mistake if we measure the degree of influence that TV has, for instance, by how much it affects us. It has a great deal more influence on a child than it has on us, as almost all their life experiences have a more profound effect on children than they have on adults. Children, you need to be aware of this as well, and seek to find good influences, good friends, especially church friends. Flee those bad influences. Don’t watch so much TV. Children are often like wet cement. Everything that is dropped on wet cement will form an impression. Adults are not so much like that. Their cement has already hardened. Usually by about the age of 18, our characters are fairly well set, and our cement is hardened. This is a good analogy for what happens in the Christian life as well. What influences do we allow into our spiritual lives? Most of general “evangelical” influences that are out there today in terms of radio preachers, TV preachers, and even most books, are simply not helpful. They are often shallow and wrong. There are good teachers out there today, of course. But don’t feed your spiritual life with junk food. Don’t watch “spiritual TV.” Instead, dig deep into the means of grace. Study the Word. That is the single most important thing to growth in the Christian life. If you want to be spirituall mature, really mature, then you must read and study the Bible. You must ask those difficult doctrinal questions about the existence of evil, the two natures of Christ, God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, the way of salvation. What does baptism mean? What does faith mean? What is justification? What is sanctification? What is the Atonement? If these things are things you do not know about, then it is time to learn more. A great place to start is the confessions of the church. Memorize some of the questions from the Heidelberg Catechism. Read a question or two from the Catechism, and discuss it with your family when you do devotions. The Heidelberg Catechism is so much richer and rewarding than most devotional material that comes out in this day and age. Or take one article from the Belgic Confession. Discuss its meaning, and look up the proof texts. I will say this: merely coming to church on Sunday is simply not enough for spiritual maturity. One day a week in God’s house is crucial. But in and of itself it is not sufficient to counteract all the evil influences that will be thrown your way during the week. You need daily interaction with the things of God.

Believe me, there are people out there who want nothing more than to corrupt the sheep. They want to destroy the sheep. Recently, a man named Richard Dawkins wrote a book about atheism. His express goal is that everyone who starts reading the book as a Christian will end up an atheist when they put down the book. This book is on the bestseller charts, and everyone is talking about it. Atheism, the belief that there is no God, is a wind of doctrine that has been blowing for some time now. We need to be rooted in the teaching of Scripture so that atheism will not blow us off course. We need to know the doctrine of justification, so that the New Perspective will not blow us off course.

Now, we need to be very careful even here. Every teacher makes errors. Every teacher will not be as faithful to the Scripture as ought to be. But we cannot always know someone’s motivation. Not everyone who teaches a false doctrine does so because he hates the sheep and is deliberately trying to deceive them. We need to know only these two things: first, there are people out there who are trying to destroy the sheep; secondly, we cannot always know who they are. That means that the only way we can discern truth from error is to know the truth. The truth will set you free, as Jesus told us. It is really quite confining not to know the truth. It means that such a person will be a slave to every doctrine that comes down the pike. They will change their mind when the next persuasive teacher comes along. That is a miserable way to live, and it is exceptionally dangerous to live the Christian life that way. Don’t be like that. Grow instead in knowledge of Scriptural teaching.

Being mature also means that we speak the truth in love. Maturity has a danger to it as well, and that danger is pride. Pride will say, “I know more than you. So bow down to me.” What is our example? It is Christ. Christ is the anchor that will enable us all to stand firm in the truth, not blown about by every wind and wave of doctrine. Christ is the farthest thing from being deceptive, crafty, scheming, or cunning. Christ instead spoke the truth in love. The truth that He spoke was about Himself. It is his sacrifice on the cross, His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of which we must speak the truth in love. We speak about Christ so that the bodey may grow, so that more people may come into the church, believing Christ.

One interesting thing that we must note here is that we have to love someone quite a bit merely to say anything at all about Jesus. After all, is it not a lack of love that keeps us silent when we should speak? Is it not a lack of love that keeps us inactive when we should be active, inhospitable when we should be inviting? Of course, the passage also refers to the manner in which we speak the truth. We do not bludgeon people with God’s truth. That might be hypocritical or worse. Instead, we seek to apply the Gospel to where people are hurting in an effort to help them see the solution. We empathize with people as much as we can. If we haven’t been in that situation before, we can still use our imaginations to see what it is that they are going through. And this goes for fellow believers, as well as our discussions with unbelievers. This is what it means for each one of us to be doing our work. Every Christian, no matter how young or old, it is our duty to grow. It is our duty to become spiritually mature. Do not relish spiritual infancy. As I said, we all start there. But it is criminal negligence to stay there, when there are so many good resources available for growth in the Christian faith.

Sheep, Serpents, and Doves

Matthew 10:16

Audio Version

What an interesting mixing of metaphors Jesus gives us in this passage. He tells us that we are to be like sheep, serpents, and doves. How in the world can all those things be true of us at the same time? Well, to answer that question, we must ask what the point of comparison is for each one of these three animal metaphors.

First, Jesus tells us that He is sending us forth like sheep among wolves. This is a really loaded comment, actually. First of all, the Jews loved to think of themselves as sheep, and Gentiles as wolves. So, for Jesus to call the Jews wolves is a complete reversal of the normal expectation. Secondly, the statement is startling because normally we don’t send sheep out into the midst of wolves. Wolves love to eat sheep, and so sending sheep deliberately into the pathway of wolves seems like a very foolish thing for Jesus to do, a very foolish thing indeed. However, Jesus knows what He is doing. Although the leopard cannot change its spots, God can in fact turn a wolf into a sheep. And, in fact, the idea here is that sheep are to be greedy for other people to be turned into sheep. Nothing less than that is the mission of Christ’s disciples to the lost house of Israel. Remember that we are still talking about the mission on which Jesus is to send His disciples. They are not to overburden themselves with useless possessions. They are accept hospitality when offered, and press that advantage, when it means that certain people are more receptive to the Gospel than others. Jesus encourages his disciples that even if they are rejected, they are still doing their duty, and that such rejection, although painful, will be judged on the Final Day of Judgment. We need to remember such things. It is in this sense that we are sheep being sent out into the midst of a pack of wolves. Jesus is saying that even if the wolves were to eat the sheep, that is not the end of the story. There is a resurrection, and a judgment, at which the believers will receive their glorified bodies. Then the wolves will receive their proper reward for being wolves.

The world thinks that in order to survive in a “dog-eat-dog” kind of world, you need to be as ferocious as a wolf. Jesus, on the other hand, tells us that the way of the wolf is the way of the world, and not the way of His kingdom. The way of the kingdom is not the violence of wolves. The people in the time of the Crusades would have done well to ponder this text more seriously. You cannot bring in the kingdom of God with fighting. Our only weapon is a Spiritual weapon, the Word of God. That is all that we need for our warfare.

Next, Jesus tells us that we need to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. Now, this is strange. I thought the entire Bible was telling us not to be like Satan, and here we have a direct command from God to be as wise as serpents! What is going on here? Well, we have to take the twofold statement together. The wisdom or craftiness of a serpent without the innocence of the dove will result in malicious cunning that will be all out for itself. However, the innocence of the dove without the craftiness of the serpent will result in naivete, which will be unable to cope with the situations in which one finds oneself. And, of course, all too often we actually reverse the two images: we have all the craftiness of a dove, and all the innocence of a serpent! Not good.

Now, Jesus does agree with the world that it is a dog eat dog world out there. He does, after all, tell us that He is sending us into the midst of wolves. However, what we should be like is something completely different. In short, we should be like Jesus. This whole section of text is telling us that we should be like Jesus. Jesus did not pile up for Himself treasures on earth. He did not worry about what He was going to say when He was arrested. Jesus went wherever the message was heard, and spent more time with those who were receptive. At the end of this passage, Jesus will explicitly tell us that it is sufficient if the disciple is like the Master. We will be persecuted like the Master, and we will be rejected just like the master. We have a wolfish field on which to work.

But this raises an interesting question: didn’t Jesus just tell the disciples that they were only to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel? How come He is now telling them that they were going to go into the midst of wolves? The answer to that question lies in a distinction. The wolves are plainly the Jewish leaders who wanted nothing to do with Christianity, and were militantly opposed to it. The sheep are the general populace, many of whom will in fact come to faith.

So there is an additional factor of wisdom here: we are to have enough wisdom to be able to tell who are the wolves and who are the lost sheep. For this passage does not apply to the disciples only. It applies to us as well. We are to be wise. There are certain people out there who want nothing so much as roasted Christian for breakfast. These people not only do not want to believe the truth of the Gospel for themselves: they want actively to persecute Christians for their faith. Sheep who are wise will know enough to run from such people. It is no use spending loads and loads of time on them. By all means, share the Gospel with them. However, if we discern that they really are wolves, then we should seriously consider using our talents in more promising areas. Sheep are more likely to be convincing to other sheep. That is, we are more likely to win converts to the Christian faith through our cunning innocence, portraying Christ crucified to those who are already somewhat receptive. We have looked at this in recent weeks, the theme of receptive people. We are to find them first, and spend the most time with them. The others we are to pray for that God would soften their wolvish hearts, and start to make them more like sheep.

Of course, Jesus talks of Himself as a Lamb that is led to the slaughter. The Bible speaks of Jesus as a sheep that before its shearers is silent. This is important for us to understand. We are sheep because of the sacrificial blood of the Lamb of God. Christ’s blood carries with it a new kind of DNA, sheep DNA. As it washes over us, cleansing us from sin, it also changes us from not being a sheep to being a sheep. And we as sheep are to be so excited about being sheep, that we are to go out and seek to make more sheep out of people, recognizing, of course, that it is God who is doing the real work of conversion.

So, to sum up, we are to be like sheep that are simultaneously wise and innocent. We are to be sheep that are like serpents and doves, all at the same time. We are to follow our Shepherd, who is also the Lamb of God; we are to have the situational wisdom that serpents have. They know when to strike, and when to retreat. Thirdly, we are to have the innocence of doves. We are to be transparently honest. Anyone should be able to look at our lives and see that God is at work. That doesn’t mean that we have to be perfect in this life, although we should strive for that. It does mean that we repent, and turn from sin, turning to the blood of the Lamb, who takes away the sins of the world.

The Purpose of Ministers

Ephesians 4:11-13

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The pastor teaches, though he must solicit his own classes. He heals, though without pills or knife. He is sometimes a lawyer, often a social worker, something of an editor, a bit of a philosopher and entertainer, a salesman, a decorative piece for public functions, and he is supposed to be a scholar. He visits the sick, marries people, buries the dead, labors to console those who sorrow and to admonish those who sin, and tries to stay sweet when chided for not doing his duty. He plans programs, appoints committees when he can get them, spends considerable time in keeping people out of each other’s hair. Between times he prepares a sermon and preaches it on Sunday to those who don’t happen to have any other engagement. Then on Monday he smiles when some jovial chap roars, “What a job–one day a week!” Now, it is always difficult to preach on such a text. The chief difficulty is in explaining the text in such a way as to avoid giving the impression that I am blowing my own horn. I would not choose such a text if I were not going straight through a book of the Bible. This is the single greatest advantage of preaching through books of the Bible: we are forced to look at uncomfortable passages of Scripture and have them change us. We must look at the entire counsel of God.

The chief point of this verse is that God gives people to His church for the building up of the saints. The point is not that we are to give all honor and praise to the minister. Rather, we are to give all honor and praise to the Giver of the minister. Verse 11 tells us this when it says that it is He who gives these various men to the church. To whom is the “He” referring? Well, we have to look at the previous verse to answer that question. It is the One who descended, and has now ascended, as is seated at the right hand of the Father on high. He is the One who gives gifts to the church. You will remember from last week that the reason Jesus gives gifts is that He is the returning conquering hero. Verse 8 quotes Psalm 68, saying that God is giving gifts to men. So here in verse 11, Paul narrows his focus to the church. Jesus gives gifts to the church. And in this case, Paul has people in mind. He tells us this so that we will thank God for His good gifts to us. Do we thank God for the gift of the apostles and prophets? That is, do we thank God for His Word? Do we thank God for the apostle Paul, and the Prophet Jeremiah? These, and all other writers of the Scripture are people for whom we are to thank God. These categories are not difficult to understand. Next is evangelists. We are to thank God for evangelists, those who go out to proclaim the goodness of God, and the salvation that we have in Christ Jesus. Evangelists share the good news of Jesus Christ crucified, resurrected, and ascended for our sake. Do you thank God for that great gift to the church?

Last in this short list of gifts are shepherds and teachers. Shepherds, or pastors, are those who minister to sheep. Again, this is not a difficult concept here. We know what pastors are. Or do we? The illustration with which we started today is one indicator that not all people know what a pastor is to be or to do. A pastor is to feed the flock, and tend them. Feeding the sheep from the Word of God, and tending to their wounds, leading them to good pastures, defending them against wolves, and pouring out his energy on behalf of the sheep. He is to visit, pray for, teach, lead, protect, and guide the sheep. Here is a very important principle for understanding the work of a pastor: no one is sufficient for the task. You show me a man who thinks he is sufficient for the task, and I will show you a man who does not understand the nature of the ministry. The only way a person can be effective as a pastor is if he gets a lot of grace from God. I myself am surely not sufficient for the task. I do not visit people as much as I should, for instance. My sermons are never as good as they could be. I could be more efficient with my time. How should the congregation respond to inadequacy? Well, if pastors need a lot of grace from God, and prayer is a means of grace, then the first and foremost response of the congregation to a pastor’s inadequacy should be prayer for him. Rather than blaming the pastor for his inadequacies (when every pastor is inadequate in some way or other!), we should be praying that God will provide, that God will give more grace. Pastors can never see fruit on their ministry unless it be practically drowned in prayer, his own prayers and the prayers of the people. We need to be churches of prayer. Then ask yourself if there is any way you can help. Is there something the pastor is doing that could be done by someone else? Maybe you can ask the pastor for him to visit you, and schedule a visit, rather than expecting the pastor to make all the effort in scheduling. It doesn’t have to be for a meal. I am trying to have 5-6 PM be a time when I go out and visit people. It is right before supper, so that people are not pressured into preparing supper. But it is not easy to schedule. There is no need to feel that you are imposing on me if you ask me to visit you. I will be only too delighted to come. I hardly ever refuse invitations. The point is that these ideas can be a better way to make use of what God has given to the church. Different pastors have different skills, and different levels of experience, different family situations, and so on. Let’s work with what we have, and try to help that be better.

Paul tells us in verses 12-13 what the purpose is for these gifts of God to the church. The purpose for workers in the kingdom of God is for full-grown disciples who will work in the vineyard themselves. Notice here that verse 12 tells us that the church exists for works of service. That is, the church is to do the work of ministry. My job as a pastor, in relationship to the church’s mission, is one of equipping. There is more to my calling than that, of course. But with regard to the works of service, my calling is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. I am to pour out my energy into the people of God, so that you who are the people of God, will do the work of ministry. The work of ministry is not done by the pastor alone. In fact, this passage indicates that the pastor is not the primary person doing the works of service. Of course the pastor is a servant of the church and of the community. Of course, the pastor needs to be a witness for Christ in his community. But the bulk of that kind of work needs to be done by the congregation. So, why do you come to listen to sermons? Why Sunday School? Why Bible studies? The purpose of them is so that the people of God may grow into workers for God’s vineyard. If our purpose is to come on Sunday morning, get our shot of religion for the week, and then go home and forget about God the rest of the week, then we have misunderstood the nature of the Christian life, and the purpose of pastors. My purpose is to equip you, the saints, for the work of ministry. And we all need to recognize that fact, because how we view the sermon, for instance, will change how we listen to it. If the sermon is your dose of religion in an otherwise godless life, then it really isn’t going to do much for you. But if you see it as your opportunity to learn from God’s Word, be convicted of sin, throw yourself on Jesus’ mercy, and learn how to do the work of ministry, then you will profit much more from the sermon. I have it on good authority that someone even took notes on a recent sermon. Now, I have to warn you about such practices. If you take notes, then the next step is that you might remember the sermon during the week. You might even listen to the sermon with your Bible open. If you take notes, you might find yourself praying about how the Lord would use that sermon in your life. Oh yes, it is very dangerous to start taking notes on sermons. You never know where it may lead. Some people even have journals where they store sermon notes from years past even, so that they can revisit what they have learned, and review, and they wind up with a commentary on the Bible compiled from sermon notes. As I said, very dangerous territory, we are talking about here.

The result of what God does through ministers is the spiritual maturity of the congregation. That is the goal. That is what Paul says. The congregation will have knowledge of the Son of God. That is, they will know what their Bibles say about Jesus. They will have unity in the faith, not arguing over petty things, or getting easily offended. Rather, we will have the full measure of the fullness of Christ. Remember, it is God who does the building. He provides the tools. He provides the people.

I will close with this light-hearted illustration: Not long ago a well-meaning group of laymen came from a neighboring church to se me. They wanted me to advise them on some convenient and painless method of getting rid of their pastor. I’m afraid, however, that I wasn’t much help to them. At the time I had not had the occasion to give the matter serious thought. But since then I have pondered the matter a great deal, and the next time anyone comes for advice on how to get rid of a pastor, here’s what I’ll tell him: 1. Look the pastor straight in the eye while he’s preaching and say “Amen” once in a while and he’ll preach himself to death. 2. Pat him on the back and brag on is good points and he’ll probably work himself to death. 3. Rededicate your life to Christ and ask the preacher for some job to do, preferably some lost person you could win to Christ, and he’ll die of heart failure.

How Will You Receive the Gospel?

Matthew 10:11-15

Audio Version

There have been, are, and always will be only two possible responses to the Gospel. One is that of hospitality. By God’s grace, you invite the Gospel into your heart and life, into your family’s lives as well. You allow the Gospel to do its perfect work in your life, so that you may be mature, not lacking anything, and even more importantly, that you may be saved. The other reaction is that of inhospitality, rejection, and scorn. You refuse the Gospel’s message of love, even when you know that it is the only way to eternal life. How will you receive the Gospel?

You know, the best illustration of this is Sodom and Gomorrah, mentioned in our text. The angels came to Sodom and Gomorrah to see how corrupt the cities were. Sodom and Gomorrah did three things: firstly, they were terribly inhospitable to the three angels. Secondly, they rejected the message. Thirdly, they tried to change the truth of God into a lie by attempting to mock the angels, attempting to bring humiliation upon them. God judged Sodom and Gomorrah for their sexual sin, make no mistake. But the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah extended beyon merely sexual sin. The most important sin of all was that they rejected God by rejecting His messengers. In our call to worship tonight, we heard that the feet of those who bring good news are beautiful. Why in the world would someone reject something that beautiful? Only someone who is lost eternally will reject such a thing.

In our passage, Jesus is continuing to give His disciples those instructions which they will need to carry our their missionary work to the lost house of Israel. He told them not to worry about their clothes or about money, or about housing. He told them that God would prepare the way for them. Notice, however, the priorities that Jesus gives the disciples. He instructs them to inquire about whether there are worthy people in the city. Now, it is easy to misunderstand this command of Jesus. Jesus does not mean worthy in the sense of instrinsic worthiness, someone worthy in and of himself. Rather, he is talking about someone who is open to the Gospel. They can only be that kind of worthy if God has made them so. Jesus is not teaching that some kind of preparation is needed to believe the Gospel. Rather, He is teaching that there are people who are more open to the Gospel than others, and that it is God who has made them more open, and that those people should be the disciples’ first concern. So it is with us as a church. To whom should we witness first? Well, we should inquire about those who are most interested in the Gospel. These people may not be the best citizens of our country. On the contrary, many of those who are most worthy of the Gospel (in the sense of the word that Jesus uses here) are those whom the world would call least worthy. Those people who are at the bottom of society, the drug addicts, prostitutes, murderers. Those are quite often the people who have been prepared by God to hear and believe the Gospel. We have a state penitentiary close by in Bismarck. Have you thought about going there to witness for the Gospel to the inmates there? You might be surprised at what could happen. Of course, one must be careful. Prisons are not the safest places to be. However, the ministry opportunities are almost endless. And surely there are people even closer who are in roughly the same state. Those who welcome our attention should be visited more and more. It may be a while before such people come to faith. We must not become discouraged. It is all too easy to say, “Well, that person has refused me once, so now I get to shake the dust off my feet, and go to the next town.” Oftentimes, that follows after only a half-hearted attempt to share the Gospel. Of course, our biggest problem is sharing the Gospel at all. But we must persevere in this if we are to see any fruit. Oftentimes it is the constant barrage of the Gospel that weakens an unbeliever’s defences such that eventually he sees that it is a loving thing that we are doing for them.

Verses 12-13 tell the disciples how to greet all houses in which they stay. The word of blessing was considered to be something that came out of a person’s mouth and it had something of a separate existence from the person. Jesus is assuming this of His disciples. Their peace will rest on the worthy house. If the house is not worthy, then the peace will somehow boomerang back to the disciples. We find this statement odd today. The point here is that peace from God will rest on those who receive the Word of God in the right way. The definition of who is worthy in this context has to do with those who receive the Gospel. That is what makes a home deserving of blessing. And, of course, they can only be receptive to the Gospel if God has made them receptive to the Gospel. However, the command still stands that we receive the Gospel. The responsibility for refusing the Gospel does not lie with God. It lies squarely on our shoulders.

Jesus instructs his disciples that if the town does not receive the Gospel, then, on their way out of town, they are to shake off the dust of their feet against the town. Now, to understand this instruction, we have to understand Jewish customs of the time. Every time a Jew returned back to his own land after being in a Gentile area, he would shake off the dust of his feet. He didn’t want any pagan, Gentile uncleanness to enter the promised land of Israel. So, what the disciples are saying when they shake off the dust of an Israelite town that rejected the Gospel, is that that town is no better off than a pagan/Gentile town. Indeed, given the fact that the punishment for such an Israelite town will be worse than Sodom and Gomorrah, Jesus is telling his disciples that such an Israelite town is much worse than Sodom and Gomorrah. Their sin is much worse. Hence we learn that rejection of the Gospel is the most heinous sin that any person can commit. Any sin can be forgiven by the Gospel except ultimate, final rejection of the very means of forgiveness. Beware how you react to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If ultimate rejection of the Gospel carries such a price, then we should fear any kind of rejection of the Gospel as a terrible sin. Such rejection includes, but is not limited to, saying that this message is so very good for someone else to hear, but I don’t need to hear it; saying that such and such a text really doesn’t say what it obviously does; rejecting the word of truth because of some fault in the messenger (the disciples were, after all, fallen men themselves, as the Gospels demonstrate very well); being inattentive to the Gospel as preached; and twisting the Gospel words to mean something else. These are all terrible sins to commit against the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Fortunately, for all these sins that fall short of the glory of God, but also fall short of complete, final rejection, there is forgiveness in Jesus Christ. He Himself is the subject of this Gospel. He is the sum and substance of the Gospel promises. Believe in Him, therefore, that He has died to take on Himself the guilt of your sin, and to clothe you instead of your own guilt, rather the righteousness of Christ. Repent and turn from your rejection of the Gospel, and you can and will be healed.

That is why the judgment is terrible against those who will not receive the Gospel in obedient faith. Jesus says that if a town does not receive the Gospel, its judgment will be worse than Sodom and Gomorrah. You remember Sodom and Gomorrah, I trust. They were two cities noted for their extreme sinfulness, their rejection of the messengers of God, and their inhospitality. And yet, Sodom and Gomorrah did not hear of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, they will not be punished as severely as those today will be who reject the Gospel. Incidentally, this verse proves that there are degrees of punishment in hell. So, this is a solemn warning not to refuse the Gospel of grace, but rather to believe it always.