Member's Ministry: Speak Truth (Eph 4:11-16)
Sermon Audio: https://qbc.org/sermons/686616--members-ministry-speak
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. – Eph 4:11-16
Public protests devolved into riots; tensions over police brutality and racial hostilities boiled over; the American people felt uneasy as a bellicose president attempted to use his position to steamroll over those who opposed him and intimidated the media into only giving him positive press. The year is 1968 and Lyndon B. Johnson is stuck in the mire of Vietnam, steadily losing support for the war as the days go by. The landscape of America had been rocked and reeled by the advent of French existentialism and postmodern philosophies that had been imported into its universities, questioning the very idea of objective truth, identity, or meaning in life. The creation of teenage culture just a decade earlier had devolved into the sharp cultural divide between youth and their parents, creating suspicion and distrust in one another. These together gave rise to young people questioning many of the moral systems of their parents, bringing about the sexual revolution of the 60’s and alternative political ideologies which sought to radically correct the failures of past generations. You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone, because the times they are changing.
In 1965 news reporters from CBS stationed in Vietnam showed footage of US troops using flamethrowers and zippo lighters to torch thatch-roofed villages of non-combatants while Vietnamese women and children wailed in the background. Public support of Vietnam began to plummet and university students began to organize protests against the war. American journalists, up to this point, had never questioned or sought to undermine the American government in a war effort, but more and more often younger journalists sought to make it clear that they found the American war in Vietnam to be wrong. There was one journalist, however, who sought to keep personal evaluations out of his news reports, whose aim was to tell America “the way it is…”. Walter Cronkite, the CBS news anchor from 1962-1981, was known as “the most trusted man in America.” Seen as a paragon of impartiality and objectivity, Cronkite’s nightly news broadcasts rarely ever involved his personal commentary. Thus, when Cronkite traveled to Vietnam in 1968 and returned to report on the status of the American war effort, the country eagerly looked to hear from “Uncle Walter” on what was really going on. Cronkite himself had been frustrated with the cynicism of younger reporters and wanted to see for himself whether or not the Vietnamese offensive was as morally problematic and pyrrhic as they claimed.
Cronkite’s report spent the majority of time interviewing generals, soldiers, and recounting the military strategies, remaining typically impartial and objective in his reporting. However, at the very close of the program Cronkite noted that he, unusually, was going to give his own “subjective” opinion. He famously noted that “from his vantage point” the only conceivable outcome of continuing to fight in Vietnam was to arrive at a bloody stalemate, thus America must negotiate for peace. Lyndon B. Johnson, after watching Cronkite’s report, switched off the TV and told an aide, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” And he did. Support for the war bottomed out and a few weeks later LBJ made a news announcement that all bombing would cease in Vietnam and, much to everyone’s surprise, that he would not be seeking re-election as President.
As we look at the turmoil in our country, the upheaval and division, we lack a unifying voice like Cronkite. There is no one who can tell our country “the way it is.” At least, no one we all will listen to. Postmodernism has only soured into a more vitriolic, angered force—you have your truth and I have my truth, but if you don’t affirm my truth then you are a danger to me. Trust in institutions like the government, media, and universities have only sunk lower. And the rise of information technologies coupled with social media platforms have given us oceans upon oceans of information with little wisdom in how to navigate it well. Like a toddler dumping over a bucket of BB’s, the internet scatters millions of data-points before us—some of them reliable, many not—and we have to try to discern who to listen to. A piece of objective, peer-reviewed, well-researched journalism can pop-up on our Facebook feed right next to a meme that makes wild, baseless accusations. And both will be seen in the same medium, giving them both an air of similar credibility. Add on to this that our society has emphasized feelings as a source of truth, and we are left with simply choosing what to believe based on what we want to believe. So logic, evidence, reason matter far less than emotional anecdotes, outrage, and fear. Truth, therefore, is in the eye of the feeler, and there are as many “truths” as there are people.
What does this have to do with our text? I am bringing all of this up to show that our current cultural location has presented a grave, grave danger for the church. Far more dangerous than any political outcome, revolution, or upheaval, the demise of Truth presents an existential crisis for our faith. Truth in the capital “T” sense—not the personal, subjective idea of “my truth,” but the Truth; truth that is regardless of who affirms it, regardless of whether or not we like it, Truth that is true for all peoples of all cultures in all places. Scripture teaches us that the church, and therefore the Christians who comprise the church, live and grow through Truth.
Give a plant water, and it grows. Give God’s people the Truth, and they will grow. More specifically, give them the truth spoken in love to one another, and they will grow in every way into Christ.
Sifting through our befuddling times, growing in wisdom and discernment, knowing who to listen to and who to ignore is a much needed task for Christians today. We dishonor God and hurt people when we champion things as “true” that are actually false. But long before we can enter into the puzzling exercise of doing that, we need to be trained by the schoolmaster of God’s eternal, unchanging Truth: God’s Word. While there may be a cacophony of contradictory voices screaming for your attention and your belief today and you are overwhelmed about who to listen to, here in this Sacred Book we need not be left wondering who to listen. Here, in these pages we can meet our Savior and listen to Him. And as we do that, we will be better equipped to face this ever-shifting world with the solid, unshifting bedrock of Truth under our feet. And this task, this ministry, is a ministry for us all.
Paul begins this section by explaining that God has given gifts to the church through specific offices: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,” Eph 4:11-12. A few verses prior to this we are told that upon Jesus’ ascension to Heaven He has given the church gifts (Eph 4:8). These gifts given from Jesus Himself are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. While we would hold that some of these offices are no longer functioning in the post-apostolic church, we can notice the common denominator among all of these offices: they all have a gift in speaking God’s Word. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers all are charged with bringing God’s Word to His people. This is important because it helps us understand how they are supposed to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry.” Christians are prepared for the work God has given them by receiving God’s Word from the pastors that Jesus has given them as a gift.
So, my role as your pastor and any other pastor here is to so speak God’s Word to you that you become competently prepared to fulfill the work of the ministry that God has given you here in this church. This is why I devote the lion share of my time in preparing to teach God’s Word. If I do not, then you will be unprepared for your work: “building up the body of Christ.” As we noted last week, this text assumes that “the work of the ministry” is actually carried out by the members of the church, not just the pastors. Perhaps that seems odd to you: isn’t that why we pay you? Isn’t it your job to do the ministry? But, alas, the Bible says otherwise.
But I want you to think about this from another angle. This is true not just because the Bible explicitly says so, but also because it makes sense in why it produce the healthiest disciples. If you were to attend a workout class where the instructor stood up and showed everyone how to do the exercises, how to lift the weights, and then sent everyone home without having them doing the exercises at all, would they be getting any healthier? Wouldn’t it be better to have your instructor show you how to do the exercises and then put the weights in your hand and say, “Okay, now you do it.” It will certainly be more difficult, but it will also make you stronger, healthier than the other class who just watches their instructor workout. The design of the ministry in the New Testament is a ministry that is led by the pastors who are equipping the saints, but is finally accomplished by the members themselves picking up the weights and doing the work themselves.
This is why we are considering this for these four weeks. Members of the church can fulfill the work of the ministry through their love, speaking, praying, and giving. But here in Ephesians, Paul is going to highlight “speaking.”
You’re work is defined as such: “building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” Eph 4:12-13. The last two statements, “mature manhood, to the stature of the fullness of Christ,” are, in many ways, simply parroting the call to “build up the body of Christ”—to make it stronger, more mature, to look like Jesus. It is the phrase in the middle that helps shed considerable light on what that actually looks like: “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.”
What should you be prioritizing as a member of this church? Unity. Earlier in Eph 4:1-3 Paul defined “unity” as the defining marker of what it means to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling of Christ.” But, this isn’t a “unity at all costs” kind of unity. It is a unity “of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” Our unity flows from a unity around God’s truth. The “faith” here refers to the objective content of our faith; what we believe in,namely, the knowledge of the Son of God. So our unity is not a unity that comes from arriving at the lowest common denominator in our doctrine or watering down the truth and shaving off the sharp edges so that we can stretch our tent as widely as possible. Our unity is a unity that is found in truth.
But, dear friend, I hope you see this danger. If our aim is to preserve the unity of our church, and that unity comes from our shared convictions of truth, then that means that we need to be discerning enough with knowing where to draw those lines of doctrine and where not to. In other words, there are doctrines that we will divide over, but that does not mean that we divide over every doctrine. So, that means that you need to know your Bible well enough to know when a doctrine is central enough that it must be fought over, and when it is just something that we can simply disagree on but maintain our unity together. This is the intent of our Statement of Faith. It is a collection of doctrines that we require for membership in the church because it includes what we have deemed to be central to our faith and unity as a church. If you’re wondering what doctrines are important enough to divide over, it might serve you to read through that statement. Also, it might help you to go back through the video series we did on conscience last year.
So, what is the work of the ministry? Building up the body until we reach the unity of faith and knowledge of the son of God, till we are mature, till our life reflects Christ’s life. And how do we do that? Look down to verses 15-16, “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love,” Eph 4:15-16.
This looks like speaking truth in love to one another. This phrase (speaking truth in love) doesn’t primarily refer to telling someone an inconvenient or uncomfortable fact in a kind way; it isn’t the equivalent of “with all due respect” (“Hey man, I’m just trying to speak the truth in love, but your breath smells terrible”). “Truth” here is referring to God’s Truth, right doctrine. As we will shortly see, it is set in direct contrast with false doctrine in verse 14 that destroy people’s souls. It is when we speak robust, Biblical, orthodox doctrine to each other, that the whole church grows. This shows us that we cannot think that doctrine is some arid, boring, dead thing that inflates your brain but does little else. The Bible teaches us that God’s truth brings life, growth, vitality. We can throw away the false dichotomy of a warm heart or rigorous intellectual life. Our handling of right doctrine, our speaking of it to one another, is the vigor and lifeblood of growth in the church.
But this assumes two things are necessary: (1) you must speak these truths to one another, (2) and it must be done in love.
These truths were never meant to simply be understood, believed, and then kept to ourselves. What good is it for a doctor to receive his years of training, his understanding of ailments, his medical equipment, only to be brought before the sick and dying and remain quiet, do nothing? God’s truth was never intended to be kept safe and secure in the quiet museum of our minds, but was intended to be raked through the mud in the rough and tumble of life. It must be used or God’s people will not grow. This means that we are willing to prioritize other people’s good over our own comfort. It may feel awkward and uncomfortable to speak truth to another person—but we aren’t waiting for things to feel easy, we are trying to be obedient to our Lord in our work of the ministry.
But, of course, this cannot be done without love. Of course, speaking the truth to another is a display of our love for them. If our love for this person is lacking in our heart, if it is not evident, not communicated, then the truth may cause them to wilt, not grow. This is why we need to strive to build the relational bridges of love now so that when the time comes to drive the truck of God’s truth over that bridge, it is strong enough to bear the load. So this is why we ought to strive to practice hospitality, be faithful in our small group attendance, share meals together, pray for one another, so that our hearts can be knit together in love.
So, if a brother begins to wander off into sin, we pursue after them and speak the truth of the gospel, reminding them of God's grace and of the need for repentance.
If a sister is struggling with assurance of her salvation, we speak the truth of the eternal security that is found in her being predestined from before the foundations of the world.
If our child is questioning why God lets bad things happen, we speak the truth in love to them, reminding them of God's good and (sometimes) mysterious sovereign purposes.
What happens if we fail to carry out this task? Look back to verse 14: “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” So, we need to speak the truth in love to one another, build one another up in Christ until we reach the unity of the faith, we need to do the work of the ministry because, if we do not, we will remain children in the faith who are susceptible to making a shipwreck of our souls. The image Paul gives us is of a small boat bounced around by the waves, blown about by every crosswind, and behind those forces are deceitful, cunning people who are looking to take advantage of you. Friends, do you see the dire consequences of what happens if we fail to do the work of the ministry? People’s souls are on the line!
Notice, that we are told that it is “human cunning” and “craftiness in deceitful schemes” that empowers this false teaching. This tells us that false teaching that wants to make a shipwreck of your faith doesn’t presentitself as something dangerous. It is “crafty,” the word used to describe Satan in Eden (Gen 3:1). Satan made his temptation to Eve sound attractive, plausible, wise. So, young people, be warned: there are a thousand ways that the world wants to trick you, wants you to believe its lies, and they will advertise almost all of them in positive, attractive, even moral ways. But if the only concept of “false teaching” you have in your mind is of something that looks bad from the get-go, there will be a great deal that will sneak past you. But how can you guard yourself from that? Read your Bibles and be intimately connected into the life of the church where other people will speak God’s truth to you in love.
Friends, while the tempest of misinformation and information swirls around us, while we see a lack of a unifying voice to make sense of current events, what can we do?
1. Make first things first. I may not be able to know with confidence what news stories are reliable and which aren’t, but in God’s Word I have something that is unquestionably reliable. So I will set my heart and my mind primarily on this Truth. Phil 4:8 tells me that I should set my mind on what is “true”—so God’s perfect, inerrant truth should be what dominates the majority of my mind and heart. So, friend, read your Bible.
2. Create an alternative to the world. As the world fractures and splits, the Church provides an alternative community.
a. Here, when we speak the truth in love to one another it means that we reject the idea that Truth is a personal creation, but an objective reality that exists outside of us that we submit to—regardless of whether we like it or not.
b. Thus, when we speak the truth in love to one another we grow in humility because we learn that sometimes we are wrong and need to be corrected.
c. When we speak the truth in love to one another we are showing that a deep love for one another can be displayed in speaking truth. Speaking truth is not something we reserve for crushing our opponents, but for loving our brothers.
d. When we speak the truth in love to one another we demonstrate that we know that we are responsible for one another. When one of us begins to walk into sin, when one of us begins to struggle, we do not “cancel” them, we do not condemn them, we lovingly go after them.
When we create a community like that, that is built on an ecosystem of love and truth, then we are met by the misinformation of our age, we will be far better prepared because: (1) we’ve lived our lives in connection with people who are different than us, so we understand that our perspective is sometimes limited, (2) we know that Truth isn’t dependent on our feelings or preferences, (3) we’ve been humbled by our own sin and know that we have certainly been wrong before, so that gives us pause before brashly asserting our own interpretation, (4) and we have been discipled by the Biblical pattern of wisdom, which exhorts us to be slow to speak, quick to listen, patient in evaluating evidence, willing to examine a matter fully, check sources, and in detail before pronouncing a verdict.
Member's Ministry: Love (1 John 4:19-5:3)
Sermon Audio: https://qbc.org/sermons/683599--members-ministry-love
We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3 For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. – 1 John 4:19-5:3
We are taking a brief break from our sermon series in Mark to reflect on our church’s mission statement and specifically, over these next four weeks, how the members of our church can functionally pursue that mission. Ephesians 4 explains: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,” (Eph 4:11-12). This teaches us that God gives pastors to the church so that they may equip the members of the church to do the work of the ministry. So, the assumption of the Bible is that every member of the church has a ministry—they are, in a way, the ministers. What is that ministry? It is summarized by “building up the body of Christ,” and further expanded upon by everything else Paul says through verse 16. But what I want to drill into is this idea of each member’s ministry.
What is your role in “creating a covenant community who worships Christ above all”?
Your responsibility could be summarized with four verbs: love, speak, pray, give. Today we will be focusing on “love”.
If you are exploring Christianity or are new to Christianity I wonder if you have considered the centrality of “love” to our faith. So central, in fact, that if one lacks love they prove that they are not actually a Christian. Listen to what John says just a few verses earlier in his letter: “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him,” 1 John 4:16. God is love, therefore it is impossible to have an authentic encounter with God without also being confronted and transformed by His divine love. In Paul’s famous teaching on love from 1 Corinthians 13 (which we read earlier in the service) we learn that love is the integral component of all of our Christian life. If we know everything there is to know about the Bible, if we can manifest the most spectacular display of spiritual gifts and power, if we are the most devout of Christians—willing to sell everything we own to give to the poor, even to die for the faith—but lack love, all of it is pointless. Paul literally calls it the most important of all of the traits of a Christian (1 Cor 13:13; cf. Gal 5:22). If Christians should be defined by anything, known for anything, it should be our love (John 13:35).
Love looks like a response
John explains, “We love because God first loved us,” 1 John 4:19. We love because He first loved us. If you reverse the order of that sentence—God loves us because we first loved—you lose Christianity. In the way that moon reflects the sun, our love (for God and for others) is a reflection of God’s love for us. If you are not a Christian here today and are wondering how Christianity works, you should know that (unlike other religions or worldviews) Christianity doesn’t fundamentally begin with you and your performance. In traditional, conservative cultures, your status and identity are contingent on you accepting the traditions and identity the wider community / parents place on you. In a progressive, liberal culture, your status and identity are contingent on you throwing off the shackles of tradition and finding out who you want to be for yourself, forging your own identity and personhood. Both of these will require you to adopt particular values, political commitments, and ideologies in order for you to continue to maintain your identity and your status. The common denominator in all of these, however, is that all of this is ultimately up to you, begins with you, and is about you.
Christianity begins with God and what He has done to make you His own, to give you an identity and a status. Our love of God is not first and foremost a feeling we have mustered up, it is not a lifestyle and set of values we have adopted—it is a response. We love because He first loved us. John makes this even more explicit just a few verses earlier, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another,” 1 John 4:10-11. What is love? John begins by explaining what it is not. It isn’t that we loved God. In fact the Bible explains that our natural disposition towards God is one of enmity, hostility—we don’t naturally want God in our life. Our sin has so darkened the eyes of our soul that when the light of God is revealed we prefer the darkness. John explains, “The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil,” John 3:19. We don’t love God; we loved darkness. We loved our sin. Our heart’s posture is that of Satan in Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.” Leave us alone to our misery and wretchedness—at least we feel like we have some semblance of control here.
And it is there, in that pit of darkness, in our waywardness that God stoops down and loves us, loves you. It appears baffling that God would do such a thing, but so it is. In Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, Les Misérables, the main character, Jean Valjean, spends years in prison for attempting to steal a loaf of bread. Upon his release he wanders from town to town but is shunned as a pariah. He is finally shown hospitality and kindness by a priest who provides shelter and food for him. In the middle of the night, however, Valjean decides to rob the unsuspecting priest and run off to town to sell the church’s silverware. The priest is then woken up by the authorities who explain that they have just apprehended Valjean trying to hock the items in town. The priest, however, welcomes Valjean like an old friend and explains that the silverware was a gift and quickly hands the church’s silver candlesticks as well to a thunderstruck Valjean, explaining he could get at least 200 franks for them. Valjean is left speechless. At the moment when he is dead-to-rights guilty, when he flagrantly abused the kindness of an old man (a priest, nonetheless!), and is caught red-handed, he is received with love, with grace. This becomes a catalyst for change in Valjean’s life, leading him to spend the rest of the book showing this same kind grace and love to his friends, family, and enemies. Love, the kind of love the Bible describes, only is produced out of a response.
In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and gave His Son up to be a propitiation, a payment, for us. When we were in darkness, loving our sin, hating God, God broke in—not to pin to us to the wall with our guilt, not to read us the long list of judgment that was now finally going to be doled out upon us, not to finally let the hammer fall—but to shower us with love. To send His only Son to pay the debts of our sins, to wipe away our guilt. Friend, now if you will turn to Christ and believe in Him and submit to Him, you can experience that love, that forgiveness, that welcome, right now. If you want to know more about what that looks like, feel free to talk to one of our elders here or your friend or family who brought you here today.
So, how does God love us? He loves us despite our sinfulness; He doesn’t love us because it is convenient or easy, but in a way that is costly; He loves us consistently.
John continues, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought to love one another,” 1 John 4:11. This love that God shows us has implications for how we treat one another.
Love looks like family
John makes some staggering claims here: “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him,” 1 John 4:20-5:1. What is John saying?
Love of God necessarily leads to loving your brother. “Love” here is directed vertically and horizontally.
Who is your “brother”? This is a title used specifically in the New Testament to address other Christians. This is not the same thing as loving your “neighbor.” Your neighbor is anyone and everyone that the Lord puts in your life. “Brother” is referring specifically to others (men and women) who have been adopted into the family of Christ (cf. Rom 8:14-17). Everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. If anyone claims to love God but hates his brother, he is a liar. You cannot see God, but you can see your brother who is made in the image of God, and is being conformed day by day into the image of Christ (Rom 8:29). If you cannot love these people that you see, how do you suppose to love an invisible God that you cannot see? (cf. 1 Pet 1:8). Friends, if we want to create a covenant community who worships Christ above all, this is telling us that it is impossible to worship Christ above all if we don’t love each other.
What does it look like to love your brother? Again, John helps us a little earlier in his letter: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth,” 1 John 3:16-18. In a day where we tend to think of love primarily as a feeling that happens to us, John shows us that love should look like concrete actions. Our lives should not be these hermetically sealed off capsules, keeping our time, our money, our food, our homes, our resources to ourselves. Rather, there should be a kind of permeability to them—we are aware of each other’s needs and abundances. This assumes that the lives of those who have truly experienced the love of God are lives that are marked by openness, generosity, humility, and willingness to be inconvenienced for others.
Of course, brotherly love includes feelings of love as well. Paul exhorts us: “Love one another with brotherly affection,” Rom 12:10. There should be a warmth of affection between fellow Christians, between church members. This should always be our aim. But our hearts often follow our actions.
When a brother or sister comes into our church let’s not make them feel like they have to earn the right to be loved, to be welcomed. Let’s not tell our more introverted, quiet members that they are less valuable because it is easier to engage with the outgoing ones. Let’s aim to have a life that is open to our brothers and sisters.
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35
Love looks like holiness
John concludes by rounding out our understanding of love with a look at the law: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome,” 1 John 5:2-3.
This is fascinating. Earlier John wanted to show that you could not love God unless you loved other Christians, but here John says that you cannot love other Christians unless you love God and keep His commandments. So, this means…
1. That my personal relationship with the Lord and obedience to His commands has a direct effect on my ability to love you all well. According to the Bible, we cannot compartmentalize our lives into “private and public” or “sacred and secular.” What we do while we are alone affects what we do when in public.
2. That if another person’s definition of love requires me to break God’s commandments, like giving approval of what God hates or joining them in their rebellion, then no matter what, it isn’t loving. 1 Corinthians 13 explains that love, “does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth,” 1 Cor 13:6.
3. Love of God naturally spills over into a desire for holiness. John explains that this is the love of God: that we keep his commandments. Jesus explained: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” John 14:15. If we find a painful lack of obedience to God’s commandments in our life, that likely means that there is a lack of love. God’s commandments are not burdensome—they are a delight! Because they bring more intimacy with the Lord, greater clarity to see Him.
The Beauty of God and the Mission of the Church (1 Sam 4:1-11)
Sermon Audio: https://qbc.org/sermons/680821--christs-church
1 And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.
Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines. They encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. 2 The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle spread, Israel was defeated before the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. 3 And when the people came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” 4 So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
5 As soon as the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded. 6 And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” And when they learned that the ark of the LORD had come to the camp, 7 the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. 8 Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. 9 Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.”
10 So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel fell. 11 And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died. – 1 Sam 4:1-11
The most important relationships in our lives are covenantal, and less important ones are contractual.
A covenantal relationship puts primary emphasis on the relationship itself; a contractual relationship puts the emphasis on the actions, the output. In a covenantal relationship, our main focus is on the other person, in a contractual relationship our main focus is on what benefit we can get from it. And we must discern which relationships in our lives should be covenantal or contractual.
But what about our relationship with God? Is our relationship with God primarily focused on God Himself, or is it focused on what God has to give us? Is it covenantal or contractual?
In the book of 1 Samuel we see story after story after story of what happens when people assume that their relationship with God is contractual. The story of our text today is simply illustrative of this bigger picture.
Why Am I Preaching on This?
Perhaps you are wondering why I have decided to preach this sermon. As we approach the end of 2020 and look forward to what God has in store for us in 2021 I want to take some time to calibrate our church’s expectations and unify us together in the mission that God has given our church: to create a covenant community who worships Christ above all. The end of the year is a time where we reflect on making new decisions, changes we want to make to our lives. And it is no different for a church. Emerging from 2020 and looking forward to what the future holds for Quinault can create an air of anticipation. This last year was shrouded by so much frustration…being unable to meet for months, Zoom calls, quarantining, cancelled small groups, seeing ones we love be put into isolation, not being able to have pastors make home visits on our members, seeing loved ones grow sick, and seeing many hopes and dreams of what we wanted the last year to be to go up in flames—all of that creates a collective sense of “ugh, let’s hope next year is better.”
But, perhaps the Lord knows what He is doing in giving us what He did in 2020. While we were unable to gather for a few months, in the last year we have been able to spend the majority of our Sunday’s together, singing, praying, and listening to God’s Word read and preached. We have been able to grow in our efforts to pray more regularly for one another through our prayer guides and membership directory. When I arrived here one year ago today, our church had 38 members. In the last year we have added 20 new members, which is more than a 50% increase. We have seen three brothers and sisters be baptized. We have seen new discipleship opportunities for men and women through men’s and women’s studies that started this Fall. We adopted a new Statement of Faith, and amended our membership covenant as well as our by-laws. We voted to support a new set of missionaries working in Bible translation, and ended the year coming in $10,000 over our expenses which we will use to install a new lighting system in our auditorium. And not to mention all of the tiny ways the pressure of the last year has caused us to lean more on the Lord, pray more, be more transparent with one another, reach out to one another for help, and practice hospitality more than we normally would have. We have much to be grateful to God for in the last year.
But what should we expect for the next year? While the exhaustion and frustrations of 2020 can lead us to an anticipation of “Man, let’s just do something,” so too can the blessings of 2020: “Should we anticipate that God is going to increase our membership by another 50%? Should we declare that God will baptize even more or balloon our budget to new heights? What do we do with this momentum?”
This, of course, isn’t only a question for our church. What should your family anticipate for the next year? What would you like to have happen in your marriage? In your parenting? In your day-to-day war against sin? We want to see real change in our lives, we want to see change in our church, we want to see healthy, positive steps be taken in 2021. I want to see our church grow in its different ministry opportunities in reaching out to the community around us; I want to see a culture of evangelism and hospitality take hold in our church; and I want to see new opportunities for discipling our children take shape. But how do we bring that about? How do we approach this new year?
Here is what I want to emphasize to our church: there is nothing more important for our church, for yourself and your families, for the next year than to prioritize your relationship with the Lord. Surely you have all heard of this from some podcast or leadership book, but if you take a jar and a handful of larger rocks and a good deal of smaller pebbles and place the smaller pebbles in first and then try to put the larger rocks in afterwards, the rocks won’t fit into a jar. But if you put the big rocks in first and then pour the smaller rocks in around the larger rocks, then, surprisingly, all of the rocks will fit into the jar. That analogy is used often to explain why you should prioritize first and foremost the big tasks in your life—because you will be able to fill in the small tasks around them. While that might be true for productivity and scheduling, it is certainly true for the Christian life.
If we focus on the things that are to flow out of our relationship with the Lord (our evangelism, church growth, marriages, parenting, etc.) over our relationship with the Lord itself, we will suddenly find that we have no room for God in our lives. And we will wind up being like those that Paul warns of, “having an appearance of godliness, but denying its power,” (2 Tim 3:5). We may even begin to treat God as if we were in a contractual relationship with Him rather than a covenantal relationship, like we commune with God only to get what we want from Him. This is the warning of our text today.
The Cautionary Tale of Israel
The book of 1 Samuel is a picture of what two different relationships with God look like: a covenantal and a contractual. Those in a contractual relationship with God (Eli, his sons, most of Israel, Saul) use God to get what they want, to bring about the changes and results in their lives that they desire. Those in a covenantal relationship (Hannah, Samuel, and David) want God Himself; they are those “after God’s own heart,” (1 Sam 13:14).
The book explains how God has risen up Samuel to replace the wicked sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, who have used their positions as priests to forcefully rob others from the offerings given to God and to sleep with the women who were trying to worship at the tabernacle (1 Sam 2:12-17, 22). We are simply told that, despite the fact that they are priests of God, “they did not know the Lord,” (1 Sam 2:12). How shocking: men who are intended to be mediators between God and men, to help others know God more clearly and worship Him more rightly, they don’t even know God. They have no relationship with Him. They are simply using God as a free ticket to money, food, and sex.
These two sons are set in direct contrast with the son of Hannah, Samuel. Hannah opens up the entire book of 1 Samuel with her prayers for a son. She is barren and wants a son more than anything. But she promises God that if He will give her a son, she will give Him back to God by devoting him to work in the tabernacle under Eli. God grants her request and gives her a son, and Hannah faithfully follows through with her promise. What does this tell us? God is Hannah’s highest priority. She offers up her son, the thing that she loves and desires most, to God. Samuel is an icon of contrast with Eli’s wicked sons, who use God to get what they want. One is a picture of a covenant relationship, the other of contractual relationship.
Sadly, most of Israel has followed the model of Eli’s sons. 1 Samuel occurs directly after the book of Judges. The time of the judges is a bleak one for Israel. Israel descends into a kind of moral perversion that is unparalleled in the Old Testament, making Sodom and Gomorrah look junior varsity in comparison. The constant refrain we are told over and over again is that, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).
Our text today, 1 Samuel 4, is a story that takes place before any of the kings have arisen and right as the sons of Eli and Samuel have been contrasted with each other. We are told of the Philistines arising to wage war against Israel. Earlier, God foretold that Israel would face enemies in the Promised Land, but He also promised that He would help them in their battles so long as they remained faithful to the covenant that they had entered into with God at Mt. Sinai. Every Hebrew there at that battle would have known that promise and they would have know of the great and famous stories of God’s deliverance from past enemies, where God would part seas and send fire from heaven to consume their enemies. That would have been a great comfort as the foot soldiers prepared to fight.
However, much to their surprise, the Hebrews were spectacularly defeated, leaving nearly four thousand men dead (1 Sam 4:2). “And when the people came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies,” 1 Sam 4:3. They acknowledge that it is Yahweh Himself who has defeated them; they know something is wrong—the Philistines shouldn’t be able to defeat them. Didn’t God promise He would help them? Ah, that’s the problem! We forgot the Ark!
The Ark of the Covenant was a small box that God had commanded Moses to construct while up on Mt. Sinai. It held the tablets of God’s commandments and was to be kept inside of the holiest place in the tabernacle. It represented God’s presence, acting as a sort of footstool of God’s heavenly throne (it was where heaven and earth met). No one was ever allowed to touch the ark or they would be struck dead, so priests would carry it on poles that supported it. It had previously been carried into battle during the siege of Jericho, so why not bring it out now? “So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God,” 1 Sam 4:4.
Now, of course, the problem is not that the ark has been missing. The problem is that the nation of Israel has rejected God (1 Sam 8:7); they are all like Hophni and Phinehas and their presence with the ark is symbolic of what all of Israel’s standing before God is like: they do not know the Lord. But still, the arrival of the Ark brings a great deal of encouragement: “As soon as the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded,” 1 Sam 4:5. No one present second guessed that the arrival of the Ark was a sure sign that God was going to bless them, no one stopped to consider that perhaps the problem was that the nation had violated the covenant that the Ark contained. No one even said that they needed the Lord Himself—what do they need? The ark of covenant! We don’t need God, we just need His firepower. The box rolls into the camp like an Abrams tank rolling in to reinforce the front. Israel isn’t the only one who interprets it this way; so do the Philistines.
“And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” And when they learned that the ark of the LORD had come to the camp, the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness,” – 1 Sam 4:6-8.
The Philistines know what Yahweh has done to the Egyptians in the Exodus. They think that the god (or gods) of the Hebrews is now walking among them, so they are trembling in terror. This really seems to be working! The troops are heartened, the enemy is left quaking in their boots—what more could you ask for?
Only, this time, Israel suffers a defeat so severe that it utterly breaks the spirit of the nation. “So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel fell. And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died,” 1 Sam 4:10-11. Their defeat here is over seven times worse than the causalities from the first battle, plus Eli’s sons attending the ark are killed, plus the Ark itself is lost! The connection between heaven and earth, the footstool of God’s throne where His presence was made manifest…has been lost. When Eli hears this news he falls over and dies immediately (1 Sam 4:18).
Why would God let Israel lose so painfully? Why would He let a bunch of pagan Philistines march off with the Ark of the Covenant? Does this mean that the Philistine’s god (Dagon) is more powerful than Yahweh?
God is not a Genie
The Israelites viewed the Ark of the Covenant with the eye of superstitious folk-religion, not of faith. They did not know the Lord of the Covenant that the Ark was intended to represent. God was simply a force, a talisman of energy that they could appropriate for their own end. But God will not be batted around like some toy. He is not a tool we hold in our hands—we are held in His hands! Do you remember when Joshua was confronted by the angel of the Lord before the battle of Jericho and he asked him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come,” Joshua 5:13-14. God is not another player on the field who chooses a “side” to be on. It is we who have the choice: are we on God’s side or not?
As you look forward to the next year and think of what you want to have happen, what resolutions you want to make—maybe you want to lose ten pounds, pick up gardening, or maybe you want to simply be more intentional in your relationships, maybe you want to spend less time on your phone—whatever it is, we should be cautious of treating God like a means to those ends, like we are in some kind of give-and-take, contractual relationship with Him: Okay God, I will give you my time and attention if you will help me become more self-confident, if you will help me grow my business.
We can even pursue spiritual goals this way. We can want to get rid of sin in our life or become more faithful in our spiritual disciplines, but pursue those things without actually pursuing God Himself. We should ask ourselves why we want to grow in those things—maybe you want to remove that habitual sin in your life not so much because it is keeping your from further intimacy with the Lord, but more because you are just embarrassed by it and it is making life more difficult.
Tim Keller helpfully summarizes the dilemma this way: “Religious people find God useful. Christians find God beautiful.” Is God primarily useful to you? Or beautiful? Do you desire Him, or what He has to offer you?
This temptation is present for our church as a whole as well. Why do we want to see our church grow, to see people become disciples of Christ, why do we want to create a covenant community who worships Christ above all? If our answer is anything other than: we want to see God and we want as many other people
God is not whatever you want Him to be
It is normal and natural for people treat God as useful. This is the ethos of our day: everybody needs something that helps them get along in life. Life is hard and we need something to give us purpose, meaning, something that helps us deal with demons we all fight. So, whatever “religious” pursuit floats your boat, go for it! For some people that is traditional religion, for others it is found in a more self-guided experience, and for others it is found in (fill in the blank). All that matters is that we find something that works for us. But, of course, this assumes that (1) God is ultimately unknowable, and (2) what is most important is our felt-needs being met.
But what if God wants to speak to us? What if He wants us to quiet our soul’s constant yammering and to reveal Himself to us? And what if that overwhelms and transcends every man-made conception we had of Him? God is not a pool of energy, He is not some distant and aloof grandfather, He is not a calculating lawyer waiting to twist the screws to you for every fault and transgression: He is the covenant Lord who wants to enter into a covenant relationship with you. Not because you have anything special to offer Him—He just wants you. And He has sent His Son to pay for your sins, to take your penalty, so that you may be forgiven.
God has revealed Himself, made Himself known, and He has not done so primarily to take our natural, worldly desires and satisfy them, shape-shifting into whatever form of a deity or higher power we want Him to be. God has revealed Himself so that we might have a covenantal relationship with Him, to love Him, to know Him. And, to be sure, when we love God for God, then there will be a great change in our life, in our marriages, in our homes, in our church. If we “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you,” Matt 6:33.
So, friend, as you look to the New Year, and as you look to your life, to our church, and think about everything you want to change, where you want to see growth, know this: there is nothing more important than prioritizing your relationship with the Lord. This should be the goal of everyone in this room: I want to know God more in 2021. Ask yourself: do I view God primarily as useful? Or as beautiful?
Christmas: The Humility of God
Christmas is a revelation of the heart of God. At Christmas we enjoy many things: time together as a family, traditions, good food, wonderful music, the nostalgia of shared memories. I, for one, love getting to see the electric joy beaming on my children’s faces as they unwrap presents. It is a wonderful, wonderful season. But, all of those good gifts are the leaves and branches that shoot forth from the trunk and roots of the tree of Christmas celebration: the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. And with the arrival of Jesus Christ, we are given a profound disclosure of the God’s heart for weak people like me, like you.
You can tell a great deal by what someone is willing to be inconvenienced for. You can see a parent’s love for their child by their willingness to sit on metal bleachers in the dead of winter to watch a football game. You can see a church member’s love for one another when they carve out time in their hectic schedule to share a meal. But you can tell even more about someone by seeing what they are willing to suffer for. A parent’s love glimmers at that pee-wee football game, but it shines forth when a parent lays down their life so their child may live.
And at Christmas we see a disclosure of what matters most to God as we see what He is willing to be inconvenienced for, what He is willing to suffer for. What do we see matters most to God? The proclamation of the angels in Luke 2 reveal this: His glory being seen in our joy being spread. This is what God is willing to suffer for, be humiliated for. Glory, joy, suffering.
Let’s briefly consider these three elements in the Christmas story.
After the angel of the Lord explains what is going to happen, suddenly an entire heavenly host of angels appears, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14). This is what Christmas is about: God wants the world to see His beauty, His power, His goodness. And, as we considered a number of weeks ago in our first Advent sermon, sometimes God fixes the situation in such a dire, troubling way that when He comes in salvation, He looks all the more glorious. But what is His glory displayed in most? As the heavenly host praise God and ascribe glory to Him, their next breath is spent on declaring “Peace on earth.” Which brings us to the second major element: joy.
The angel of the Lord explains, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people,” Luke 2:10. The “good news” (gospel) of Christianity is a message of joy! God’s glory is not see in the display of His esoteric wisdom, or arcane philosophies. God doesn’t make the centerpiece of His praises abstract platitudes or systems of morality. It isn’t even in the display of raw power or vindictive judgment on enemies. God’s glory is seen in its proclamation of joy to all the peoples. The gospel is an announcement of great joy. This is what brings our God “glory in the highest.” How does this come? It comes through what our God is willing to suffer.
It is astonishing to ponder how far our God was willing to stoop to come down to us. I wonder if you remember the criticism George W. Bush received during Hurricane Katrina. The President had been away on a month long vacation at his ranch in Texas when Katrina hit. Deliberately trying to avoid the news, Bush was not made aware of the disaster for several days. When he realized the magnitude of how severe it was, he ended his vacation and decided to go back to Washington, but on his way back Air-Force One flew over New Orleans. Famously, a photographer snapped a picture of the President peering through the window of his private jet to look upon the havoc and destruction that lay below. The picture, many critics said, was a symbol of the President’s posture towards to plight of the victims: detached, distant, indifferent. I am not intending to make any evaluation of how our President handled that crisis, but it is a fitting analogy for how many people feel God relates to their problems. A distant onlooker peering over the rim of creation on us and our problems.
But Christmas is a direct refutation of that. God has come down! He has entered into this world, waded into the muck, and has identified Himself with us. But consider how low God was willing to go to identify with us in our most humble of estates, in our most weak and fragile form.
- Jesus could have come down as a full-grown man, but He didn’t. He came as a baby. A weak, helpless, crying baby. I have a one year old at home right now and am constantly struck by the idea that, once, Jesus was this small, this helpless, this dependent.
- Jesus could have been born in a large city of importance, like Jerusalem, but He wasn’t. He was born out in the country in the small town of Bethlehem.
- Jesus could have been born into a family of wealth or power. But He was born into poverty, to poor parents.
- Jesus could have been born in a palace, or at least a comfortable, safe room. But He wasn’t. He was born in a lowly manger, where animals live.
Even the announcement of Jesus’ birth is shocking. The arrival of the birth of the Messiah is, quite literally, the most important proclamation in the world. Jesus has come, God has taken on flesh, and now the opportunity for salvation has come, the New Creation is arriving and a heavenly host of angelic emissaries are here to praise God and announce this climactic moment of historical significance to….a few shepherds? Why not send these angels to kings, princes, dignitaries, why not go to the Biblical scholars of the day, to the important, to the “people who matter”? Why reveal this truth to just a handful of blue-collar nobodies out in the middle of nowhere?
Because this is the way of the Messiah, the Word made Flesh. His ministry, His life, His work is not to be characterized by the usual patterns that the world tell us matters. Jesus has not come to win victory for His people through the regular means victory is achieved. No, the joy that He is laboring for to display the glory of God is not a joy that comes from the well-worn path of man-made joy, and man-centered glory. Jesus has come, Christmas has happened, so that Good Friday would occur, so that Easter could happen.
The “good news of great joy” that is for “all the peoples” is that this infant will grow, living a spectacularly law-abiding life, but will one day die a horrific, sin-atoning death so that our sins could be forgiven. As Joseph was told, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins,” Matt 1:21.
So, as you celebrate Christmas this year remember:
1. Jesus has come so that our eternal joy would be secured through the forgiveness of our sins. This is the greatest gift.
2. Consider the humility of our God. Reflect on the depths to which God has gone, the humiliation He has endured to secure your salvation. Let that drive you to actively imitate this humility. Be wary of overlooking something that seems “beneath you.” What are the “mangers” and “shepherds” in your life? Where are you tempted to discredit God’s work because something is too small, too mundane, and too feeble? As J.I. Packer reminds us: “Our God is a God for the weak. Weakness is the way.”
In closing, reflect on these words from the song “Lower Still” from My Epic.
Look, he’s covered in dirt
The blood of his mother has mixed with the Earth
and she’s just a child who’s throbbing in pain
from the terror of birth by the light of a cave
now they’ve laid that small baby
where creatures come eat
like a meal for the swine who have no clue that he
is still holding together the world that they see
they don’t know just how low he has to go
Look now he’s kneeling he’s washin’ their feet
though they’re all filthy fishermen, traitors and theives
now he’s pouring his heart out and they’re fallin’ asleep
but he has to go lower still
there is greater love to show
hands to the plow
further down now
blood must flow
all these steps are personal
all his shame is ransom
oh do you see, do you see just how low, he has come
do you see it now?
no one takes from him
what he freely gives away
beat in his face
tear the skin off his back
Lower still, lower still
strip off his clothes
make him crawl through the streets
Lower still, lower still
hang him like meat
on a criminal’s tree
Lower still, lower still
bury his corpse in the Earth
like a seed, like a seed, like a seed
Lower still, lower still
Lower still, lower still…
The Earth explodes
she cannot hold him!
And all therein is placed beneath Him
and death itself no longer reigns
it cannot keep the ones he gave himself to save
and as the universe shatters the darkness disolves
he alone will be honored
we will bathe in his splendor
as all heads bow lower still
all heads bow lower still
A New and Glorious Morn (Luke 1:67-79)
Sermon Audio: https://qbc.org/sermons/677037--a-new-and-glorious-morn
67 And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,
68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
72 to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
74 that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
- Luke 1:67-79
Why do Christians want to share their faith? Why are we evangelistic? Why not be content in simply teaching our children, maintaining our traditions and keeping our conversations with our neighbors to the weather and the Seahawks? Even more puzzling, why do we send Christians to go to other communities, nations, uprooting their families and planting them in wholly unknown and sometimes hostile places, all just to share the gospel with others.
Two years ago a 26 year-old American, John Chau, paddled a kayak to the secluded North Sentinel Island in the Indian Sea, though it was illegal to do so. His aim was to preach the gospel to the Sentinelese people, who had no contact with the outside world and were known to be very violent towards outsiders. Chau was killed shortly after landing on the island. Many news outlets reported on the incident, wondering why one earth a young man would so carelessly throw his life away. Many even considered his desire to preach Christianity to these natives as a vestige of colonialism, and thus profoundly harmful—why would you try to rob someone of their cultural heritage by converting them?
Why do Christians want to convert others?
That was a question a young Charlotte Moon contemplated, nearly 175 years before John Chau set out for the North Sentinel Island. Growing up in a wealthy family with strong Baptist convictions, ‘Lottie’ was given opportunities for education that most young women did not have access to. Standing only at a mere four foot three inches, Lottie’s stature was small (her feet could not touch the floor when she sat in chairs), but her intellect was large. By the age of 17 she was proficient in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian. But her heart was indifferent to the Lord, to the Church, to the entire Baptist conviction of evangelism and missions. A travelling evangelist and preacher was coming through her town one December and Lottie’s friends, aware of her spiritual state, pled with her repeatedly to go. Reluctantly, she agreed, but explained that she would only go in order to mock what was happening. But, that night, 162 years ago today, Lottie was born again.
Though she had many teaching opportunities in front of her, Lottie, a young single woman, decided to travel to China in order to share the gospel with unreached Chinese people. Life in China was difficult and people were often resistant to Lottie’s message. After four years, the small team of missionaries that had arrived in China had dwindled—several had died, more had simply abandoned the work—leaving only four missionaries left in the whole of their region. “This troubled Lottie. Why, she asked, did one million Southern Baptists only have one man and three women witnessing to thirty million souls?” And in time, more help would come. But Lottie remained in China for the next 39 years, converting and baptizing thousands and thousands, and suffering profound difficulties, isolation, depression, physical attacks, hunger, and persecution.
Why? She wrote, “[A Christian] should ask himself not if it is his duty to go to the heathen, but if he may dare stay at home. The command is so plain: ‘Go.’” There is something about the Christian faith that propels us forward, to speak to our neighbors, to send missionaries to unreached peoples, to go. And in our text today we will see that one of the central elements of Christmas centers on this reality. In Zechariah’s song, he recounts how God has sought to bless all nations through the birth of Christ. This is one of the reasons why Lottie Moon sought to create an offering gathered once a year by Southern Baptists at Christmas to support international missionaries around the globe. The birth of Jesus is good news for all people—we simply must go and tell it to them.
In our text today, we are going to be taken down a winding path through the Old Testament that might seem odd or unfamiliar. But I have been always helped by CS Lewis’ thought from his essay The Weight of Glory: “If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know.” As we walk through the first half of this song and find ourselves puzzled and we are tempted to just skip by the parts that bore us, perhaps that is a sign that these are the exact places we need to be focusing the bulk of our attention to.
God’s Promise to Abraham
The first half of Zechariah’s song (The Benedictus) centers on what God has promised His people, Israel. The song winds through the history of the Old Testament, tugging on the major threads woven through the Old Testament. These threads point forward to a future fulfillment and Zechariah is praising God because with the arrival of John and Jesus, these promises are now fulfilled.
1. Zechariah explains that God has “visited and redeemed His people,” (Luke 1:68). “Redemption” is the language used in the Bible to refer to people who were slaves, but have been liberated from their captivity, purchased. It is used most often in the Old Testament to refer to the deliverance of the Hebrews from their Egyptian slavery in the book of Exodus. What happened at the Exodus? God’s people were slaves under the sentence of death, but God single-handedly and miraculously saved them by grace, redeeming them from death by the blood of a spotless lamb. After saving them, He made them into a new people, gave them a law, and promised them a land where they would dwell with God in peace and rest. But, God’s people didn’t obey God’s law, so they were removed from the land, sent into exile. But the prophets of Israel foretold of a day when God would again perform a great act of redemption, a new kind of Exodus that would surpass the old in its magnitude (eg. Isa 43). This is what Zechariah is saying has happened now.
2. Zechariah continues to explain that God has also “raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David,” (Luke 1:68). “Raising up a horn” is a symbolic metaphor for strength and victory, as in when an animal with horns conquers another animal with horns; the animal that wins the battle raises its head, while the one that loses walks away with a lowered horn. Here we are told that God has raised up a horn of salvation specifically from the “house of His servant David.” This is referring to the messianic promise that God had made to David that he would have a descendant who would sit on His throne forever (2 Sam 7). Psalm 132 is a psalm dedicated to this promise. In it the psalmist records, “There I will make a horn to sprout for David; I have prepared a lamp for my anointed,” Ps 132:17. Zechariah is blessing God because now the descendant of David, the horn, has arrived; the kingdom will be reestablished, God’s enemies will be taken care of, and the people of God will find rest. This is why so much of Zechariah’s song speaks of being delivered from Israel’s enemies and serving God without fear (Luke 1:71; 74).
3. Finally, Zechariah rejoices that God’s covenant with Abraham is being fulfilled, “to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days,” Luke 1:72-75. Abraham is the father of Israel—literally. In Genesis 12 God chooses Abraham (then Abram) and commands him to leave his country and promises him three things: (1) he will become a great nation, (2) He will have a land that God has promised Him, and (3) all of the families of the earth will be blessed through Him (Gen 12:1-3). In Genesis 15, however, Abraham is now an old man and has no children. How is he supposed to father an entire nation? God formally enters into a covenant with Abraham, reiterating this promise (which is repeated again in Gen 17, and 22). But it is only in chapter 22 where we see God take an “oath”—Zechariah highlights God’s covenant and oath in his song.
Genesis 22 is the famous story of Abraham offering up Isaac, the promised heir through whom God pledged the multitude of Abraham’s descendants would come, for sacrifice upon God’s request. Before Abraham goes through with the sacrifice, God stops Abraham: “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided,” Gen 22:12-14.
And then, God speaks again to Abraham, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice,” Gen 22:16-18. God swearing by Himself is the oath, and the rest of the promises that He recounts are the blessings of the covenant God has made with Abraham. Now, Zechariah is saying that we can sing and rejoice because God has fulfilled this oath and covenant with the advent of Jesus Christ, with the result that now we are (1) delivered from our enemies and thus can (2) serve the Lord without fear, (3) in holiness and righteousness.
Exodus, David, Abraham. All of these rush together into this moment: the advent of Jesus. How does Jesus fulfill these expectations?
Jesus has come to bring about the new Exodus, the greater Exodus, to deliver and save His people from their slavery to sin and death, to make them a new people, give them His law, and lead them to the final Promised Land: the New Heavens and New Earth. He is the truer and greater spotless lamb, the Passover sacrifice, whose blood covers us and redeems us once for all from the Destroyer.
Jesus is the son of David and the truer and greater David. He is the unassuming, unexpected king of Israel, a man after God’s own heart, who slays the giant of sin and Satan, through surprising and humble means (His own death on the cross). Through His death and resurrection He has now ascended to Heaven and has taken His seat on His throne where He rules as the king over all creation, manifesting His kingdom on earth through His church, as we await the final consummation of His kingdom at His return.
Jesus is the fulfillment of the covenant and oath that God made to Abraham when He stayed his hand from sacrificing Isaac. God made the oath with Abraham because, “you have not withheld your son, your only son,” (Gen 22:16). Now, God will not withhold from us His son, His only son. Jesus is the truer and greater sacrifice that is offered up instead of Isaac, offering Himself for His people on the cross so that we would not perish but have everlasting life, that we may be declared holy and righteous. And now, through Jesus’ work, His people are now commissioned to go to the ends of the earth and spread this good news to all nations, till the people of God are as numerous as the sands on the seashore or the stars in the sky (which is why the gospels spend so much time recording Jesus’ interactions with non-Jewish people, demonstrating that salvation is not for ethnic Israel alone).
This is what is leading Zechariah to rejoice, to sing, to praise God. Israel’s great hope, great expectation has arrived. But what is most important to Zechariah?
The Tender Mercies of God
After recounting the numerous ways God is fulfilling what the prophets beforehand have prophesied, Zechariah then turns to his baby boy and prophesies over him: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,” Luke 1:76-77. John is to be a trailblazer to clear the way for the Lord, the Messiah Himself. John will be a teacher who will point people towards salvation—and what is this salvation? The forgiveness of sins.
Why would God forgive our sins? Why would He save us? We are told, “because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace,” Luke 1:78-79.
Why are we forgiven? The mercy of God. We are not saved out of the obligations of God. He doesn't owe use forgiveness. Perhaps it is tempting to assume that forgiving is just God's job: Of course I am forgiven, isn't God just eager to have my attention? Isn't that kind of taken for granted? We are not saved because God owes us anything--it is sheer mercy.
Further, we are not saved because we have slogged it through a tough time, punched the clock, knuckled down and scraped together some spiritual entrée that would please the Lord. We have not created something appealing that has bent God's gaze our direction and earned a pardon on our sins. We are saved by wholly undeserved, unmerited, doesn't make sense, mercy.
But friends, we aren’t even just saved by God’s mercy. We are saved because of His tender mercy. The Greek word for that is splanchna (σπλάγχνα), and it literally refers to someone’s internal organs—it is where we derive the English word “spleen” from. In the ancient world people believed that the guts were the seat of the most powerful and sympathetic of all emotions, especially compassion. Here Zechariah recognizes that God’s mercy towards His people is profoundly deep, heartfelt, powerful, tender. God is not just putting up with us; He isn’t just tired of listening to us complain and He knows if He will forgive our sins He can finally get some peace and quiet because, after all, He has much more important things to attend to. No, His heart is tender toward us. Ponder these three passages from the Old Testament that reveal God's heart towards sinners like you and me:
“How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender,” Hos 11:8. At the height of Israel's sin and spiritual adultery, God still cannot fathom casting His people off. His heart is warmed as He thinks of His children. Our sin doesn't cause God's heart to become brittle and cold, but tender and warm.
I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul. – Jer 32:41. What was the last thing you did with "all your heart and soul"? What was the last thing you did that expended every drop of sweat, blood, and tears to accomplish? This is the intensity with which God works towards doing good to His covenant people. His heart is not indifferent towards us, He is not mechanically shelling out forgiveness to a faceless mass of people. He is thrilled to work good for His children!
15 “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me. – Isa 49:15-16. Think of the attachment a mother feels towards her newborn child. These, according to Isaiah, are an imperfect reflection of God's more perfect affection for His children. Mother's may forget. God never will. He will not abandon you, He will not cast you aside--you are engraved on the palm of His hand. This is God's heart towards you.
You see friends, our salvation--the forgiveness of sins--flows from God's tender mercy. It is stunningly beautiful, and scandalously given to any and all who come to Christ. This is why Zechariah compares it with a sunrise. In the same way sunlight spills across a dark, cold morning, bringing light and warmth, so too does God's mercy beautifully spill out towards all persons who will put their faith in Christ. There is no darkness so dark that the light cannot overcome. And there is no sinner too far from God that He cannot be reconciled.
This is why we go. This news is just too good not to be shared. God has promised that through His people all families of the earth will be blessed. The new exodus has global implications. The new David is a King who will rule and reign over all nations, not just Israel. So we go to the ends of the earth and we share the gospel with our neighbors and we support missionaries and pray that God's Kingdom would come and His will would be done, here on earth as it is in heaven. We want people to see and know that there is a God who is gracious and merciful, who will forgive their sins and save them from destruction.
A thrill of hope
A weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks
A new and glorious morn