Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Mission, Message, and Methods of Jesus' Ministry – Matthew 4:12-25

How you begin something will affect the way you continue with it and finish it.  I’ve read of an Egyptian pyramid that was begun at an inclination of 54 degrees, but was discovered after the project had started that this was too steep; that if they kept building at this angle the pyramid would collapse under its own weight.  So they adjusted and the top section is built at a shallower angle of 43 degrees, giving it the final appearance and name of the Bent Pyramid.

This is true in ministry as well.  Like the builders of the Bent Pyramid, some of us have had to adjust the way we have continued in our ministry, on account of our frailty and ignorance and failing.  Sometimes, we are convicted of doctrinal error and have to correct it.  Sometimes we have to confess and repent of our sin.

But Jesus made no mistakes, he embraced no doctrinal errors, he committed no sins of omission or commission.  Therefore, the way he began his ministry set the tone for the rest of it to the end.  He needed no adjustments along the way.  So in some sense, as Matthew here introduces us to the ministry of Jesus, he is introducing us to the mission and message and methods that would characterize his ministry from beginning to the end.

As a shepherd of God’s people, passages like this are of great interest, for this is telling me of the “chief Shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:4), whose ways I ought to follow.  Ministries can be successful apart from Christ, but they will not be owned by God at the End unless they are patterned – as far as they can be –after the ministry and message of our Lord.  But these words ought also to be of great interest to every believer, whether or not they are involved in public ministry, for we are all on some level ministers of the Gospel (cf. Eph. 4:12), and therefore need to test our own lives by the life of our Lord.

In our text, we have the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee.  It is not the absolute beginning of his public ministry; according to John’s gospel, there must have been a significant time lapse between verse 11 and 12 of our text, for our Lord ministered in Judea a while before moving to Galilee.  These events are narrated by John in his gospel in the first 4 chapters.  Perhaps, the journey back to Galilee through Samaria that we read of in John 4 is the journey that Matthew refers to verse 12, when he says that Jesus “withdrew into Galilee.”

Nevertheless, in some sense Jesus’ ministry really did begin here.  Previous to this John the Baptist had attracted a large following.  Before this point many followed him, but now Jesus began to be more publicly noticed after the Baptist was put in prison, and we are told that “from that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (ver. 17).  

The place where our Lord chose to more formally launch his ministry is interesting.  He chose Galilee; in fact, he chose Capernaum in Galilee as his base of operations.  It is called “his own city” in 9:1, and according to 8:14, Peter lived here as well.  But Galilee was north of Judea and Jerusalem, and though in the first century many Jews lived there, yet it had a numerous Gentile population as well; in verse 15, in a quotation from Isaiah, it is called “Galilee of the Gentiles.”  In this place, far away from the Temple and the geographical heart of the Jewish religion, Jesus chose to begin his ministry.  Those who lived there are said to dwell in spiritual darkness and “in the region and shadow death” (ver. 16).  In fact, Jesus would end his ministry here as well (28:16, ff), for it was in Galilee that he gave the Great Commission before ascending to heaven.

In other words, Jesus began his ministry among the spiritually underprivileged.  And he would call as his followers, not scribes and doctors of the law, but relatively uneducated fishermen.   And I think Jesus did this on purpose to underline the fact that God can do things with people that we would never pick who were from places that we would never go.  In this we see the sovereign grace of God reaching out and changing and saving those least thought of in the eyes of men.  Let this be an encouragement to us: as God has placed us, let us faithfully labor according to his methods and with his means, and then expect the blessing of the Lord to accompany it.

The Mission of Jesus

The mission of Jesus Christ on the earth was to be a fisher of men.  We see this in his words to Peter and Andrew in verse 19: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  The apostles could only become fishers of men by following Christ, by learning from him – which of course implies that he is the Fisher of Men par excellence.  Interestingly, the only reference to fishing for men in the OT is in Jeremiah 16:16 in which men are being fished for judgment.  Our Lord, however, did not come for judgment but for salvation.  He came to rescue the perishing, to fish men out of the treacherous waters of sin and to put them on the dry land of God’s good grace.

This was the mission of Jesus, and it ought to be our mission as well.  What is the mission of the ministry of this church?  It is not to perpetuate a certain religious tradition.  It is to win souls.  It is to fish men and women out of the element of sin and disobedience to God, to bring them from darkness into God’s marvelous light.  What is the mission of my life?  Though God doesn’t call every believer to leave their jobs as he did the apostles, yet it is not wrong to see our mission in terms of fishers of men.  You may not have the audience of a C. H. Spurgeon, but God has put people in our lives that we ought to try to reach.  As Spurgeon himself put it, “The winds of providence will waft you where you can fish for men.” We often hear words like this and want to go to Africa when all God wants you to do is to reach your children and your co-workers and your friends.  (Though I would be delighted if some in our church felt God's call to go to Africa to serve Christ there!)  Be a light where God has placed you, be a fisher of men.

Now, we can’t be redeemers and we can save people from their sin.  We can’t offer a ransom for them or change their hearts.  How often we wish we could!  But this is God’s work.  However, God uses men and women to cast the net of the Gospel into this world and to bring sinners like ourselves into contact with the truth.  In that sense, we are fishers of men.  And as people are brought into contact with the truth empowered by the work of the Spirit in their hearts, they are changed.  Paul himself as one of “God’s fellow workers” (1 Cor. 3:9).  God worked in and through the message that he spoke to change lives.  

This is something that we can do.  Christ called Andrew and Peter and then James and John to this work.  “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  Christ does not call us to do something without providing the grace and power and strength to do it.  We may not feel like it.  But let’s not let our feelings drown out the voice of the promise of God: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).  I know I have often excused myself from obedience in this respect because I didn’t believe that I would do a very good job at it.  I didn’t think I had the resources.  But I do, and so does every Christian.  We have the promise of the presence of Christ, and that ought to be good enough for all of us!

But how do we get here?  Spurgeon once preached a message on this passage, entitled, “How to be Fishers of Men.”  In that sermon, he gives some really good practical advice on what this looks like for the believer.  The basic premise of his message was that if you want to be a fisher of men, then you must follow Jesus, for he says, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  Let me share with you a couple of his points (and I encourage you to find this sermon online and read it).

First, we are to “be separate unto Christ.”  The apostles had to leave their jobs behind to follow Christ.  They were to spend their days and nights in his presence, hearing his teaching, following his example.  Now, again, God does not call us to leave our employment, but in a way we see in the actions of the first disciples of a picture of Christ’s call for us to follow him in a life of separateness from the world.  He calls us to obedience and holiness.  

Peter himself would later put it this way: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” (1 Pet. 1:14-16).  Paul exhorted the Corinthian Christians similarly (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1).  We are called to be separate.

Unfortunately, we live in an age in which believers think that be different is just to be weird and that there is nothing to be gained by this.  Some seem to mistakenly think that grace not only covers our sins but also allows us to trifle with sin.  We would rather be hip than holy.  John Piper, who has seen this dangerous tendency take root in Western Christianity, is right when he says that “the worlds does not need more cool, hip, culturally savvy, irrelevant copies of itself.”  Spurgeon put it this way: “I believe that one reason why the church of God at this present moment has so little influence over the world is because the world has so much influence over the church.”

Second, we must not only be separate from the world, we must abide with Christ.  Though we cannot, like the apostles, literally follow Jesus around, yet we still have the promise of his abiding presence.  Jesus told his disciples to abide in him even as he was about to be taken from them in his physical presence (Jn 15:4).  We need to daily seek the presence of our Lord each day.  We need to hear his word in the Bible; we need to speak to him in prayer.  Cultivate the presence of God and you will be best fitted to be a fisher of men.  After all, it is only as we are with Christ that he can do anything with us!

Before passing onto the next point, be encouraged that though there is plenty here for us to do, the second part of verse 19 is all about what our Lord will do.  If we follow him, he will make us fishers of men.  We are not alone.

Also, this work of the Lord is to change us for the better.  Though Peter and Andrew had already embraced Jesus as the Messiah, they still had a lot of growing to do.  So Christ calls them, puts them in his service, and makes them into the apostles that they needed to be to lead an infant church through persecution.  Peter at the end was so unlike the Peter at the beginning!  Even so, we should take hope in the fact that the Lord is not through with us yet.  There is still so much room to grow and the Lord is at work to see that this happens.  Christianity is not only about what the Lord has made of us, it is also about what he will do with us and in us and through us.

The Message of Jesus

Our Lord’s message was very simple: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  In fact, it was the same as John the Baptist’s message (3:2).  We can summarize it this way: “Christ is King, therefore repent.”  Years later, Paul was still echoing this message: “Now [God] commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

You don’t have to be a theologian to understand this message.  You have to understand what sin is and that you are a sinner.  That is implied in the call to repent.  You have to understand that Christ is Lord and that sin is against him, and that I can only properly own him as my Lord as I turn away from my sin and obey him.  That is implied in the message of the kingdom.  You have to understand that Christ is Savior, for the message of the kingdom of heaven is that the King has come to rescue his people from his Enemy.  You need to understand that he saves us from our sins, from their guilt and corruption and everlasting consequences.  And God through Christ brings his people into his kingdom forever.  And that is the best news anyone can hear.

This is the same message that we need to be proclaiming today.  Not out of pride or self-righteousness.  We are all sinners ourselves.  We get up every morning needing to obey the command to repent.  So no, we don’t go out to give people the impression that we are calling them to repent because we are better than they are.  We are calling them to repent because it is through repentance that we find the mercy of God of which we are all in need.

We need to be all preaching this message with our lives and, as the Lord gives opportunity, with our lips.  But let us be more diligent to look for opportunities to share this precious news.

The Methods of Jesus

People need to hear the truth as well as see it.  Note the focus on preaching in this passage.  Verse 17 sums up the ministry of Jesus in terms of preaching.  Then, we see it again in verse 23: “And he went throughout all Galilee teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom.”  So when we talk about the methods of Jesus in ministry, let us never look past the importance of the word.  Deeds are good, but if they are not put in the context of the gospel, then they may have done no lasting good.  “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17).  Deeds without words are like general revelation; they may give a person some idea that God is at work, but that person still has not heard the gospel.  Deeds interpreted by words are better.

But Jesus didn’t go to the opposite extreme, either.  His was a ministry of word and deed.  He preached the gospel, and he healed people of very physical problems.  He didn’t make the argument that people’s souls were the only thing that needed to be saved.  He was the Great Physician – for soul and body.  In verse 23, Matthew follows up his description of Jesus’ preaching ministry with the fact that he was “healing every disease and every affliction among the people,” which he then describes in more detail in verse 24.

Clearly, we cannot exercise the kind of healing ministry that Jesus did.  After all, the purpose of these mighty works was to authenticate Jesus’ claims.  It was to show that he was the Son of God, the Christ.  I’m not saying God doesn’t work miracles like this anymore.  Far from it.  But it should not surprise us that there was a special glory attached to the ministry of our Lord in terms of his ability to heal and reverse the effects of sin and sickness.

However, as Jesus ministered to people’s physical needs, even so should we, as we are able.  After all, if we really believe in the resurrection of our bodies from the dead, we should have a higher view of the physical body than do those who have no such belief.  In other words, our ministry in these ways can not only authenticate our witness, but it also underlines in very concrete ways our belief in Christ’s promise to raise the dead.

My hope is that we will all know in the days ahead the joys of serving and following Christ, that we will learn in the school of Christ what it means to be a fisher of men, and then put that to practice in a world where God is still calling his elect out of every nation and kindred and language and people-group.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Tempted and Tried: Matthew 4:1-11

J. C. Ryle, in his Expository Thoughts on Matthew, says of what is commonly called the Temptation of Christ recorded in our text, “This is a deep and mysterious subject,” and we are disposed to agree with his assessment.  But on another level, this is a fascinating story.  In some sense, it is almost like watching a boxing-match between two famous opponents: in one corner, you have Jesus the Son of God, and in the other corner, you have Satan, the Prince of the World.  When the bell rings, the devil comes out swinging and Jesus parries his thrusts.  It goes on for three rounds like this until the devil is abruptly vanquished and gives up.  Jesus remains standing.  Then an angelic referee comes out and holds his hand up, announcing him as the victor.  (That's my attempt to put "and the angels came and ministered to him" in this boxing context.)

Now that’s an interesting story, but clearly this was meant to be more than just another interesting story.  There certainly was meant to be a take-away for the reader.  What is it?

When you come to a passage like this, you have to ask what the Gospel writer meant to convey to his audience in the narrative.  What is the function of this story in the Gospel of Matthew?  What is its purpose and message?  If we answer those questions correctly, then we stand a chance to appropriately apply that message to our lives in the 21st century.  

There are, I think, two ways of reading this text that are correct but incomplete unless taken together.  One way recognizes that the overarching theme of all four gospels is the redemption that Jesus the Son of God came to accomplish on the cross.  Since that is such a big deal to the Gospel narratives, we are surely right in seeing everything – including this story – as somehow underlining the meaning and importance of Jesus’ redemptive life and death.

In fact, the NT as a whole sees redemption in terms of Christ defeating the devil.  For example, in Hebrews 2:14-15, we read, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise took part of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”  In his letter to the Colossians, Paul describes Christ’s atonement in terms of a victory over demonic powers. He tells us that Christ took “the record of debt that stood against us” and nailed to the cross.  Then he says this: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:14-15).  Probably, by “rulers and authorities” Paul meant demonic rulers and authorities (cf. Eph. 6:10, ff.).

Thus, when Matthew penned this record of Jesus’ triumph over Satan in the wilderness, we should see it in terms of his victory over Satan for us.  We are slaves of the devil (Eph. 2:2-3), in bondage to him and to the death that this slavery brings.  What’s worse is that we cannot deliver ourselves.  But Christ can.  He defeated the devil in the wilderness and on the Cross.  He has rescued us from sin, death, and the dominion of the Evil One.  

But that is not the only way to read the narrative.  Another way to look at this text is to see it in terms of Christ’s example to us.  On this reading, we should see Christ as showing us the way to combat the devil.  After all, as a true man, Jesus is the ultimate embodiment of what it means to live in obedience to God.  And the tools Jesus used to turn away the tempter are just the tools that are given to us: the Word of God.  

Now some would say that such a reading would be illegitimate, because to do so would undermine the Biblical emphasis on the grace of God through Christ’s redemptive defeat of the devil by turning the narrative into a list of commands.  However, even in his redemptive work, Christ left us an example.  The apostle Peter tells us, “For to this [suffering for righteousness’ sake] you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21).  What’s interesting about this is that Peter saw no problem in pointing to Christ’s suffering for us as an example to us.  Paul also points us to Christ, not only as an object of faith, but as an example to imitate: “Have this mind among yourselves, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5).  

However, the problem would be whenever we take either one of these readings as the exclusive reading of the text.  We need both.  We need to see the grace of God in Christ’s suffering and being tempted and tried for us, and we need to see the grace of God in Christ’s pattern of obedience as an example to us.  Christ is the Law-Fulfiller, the Law-Keeper, the Law-Satisfier, and the Law-Giver.  He comes to us not only as Priest but as Prophet and King.

So as we look at this text together, I want to do so in a way that is faithful to both these readings of the text.  In particular, I believe what we are meant to take away from this text are at least three things.  First, we need to see that Christ has given us an example for us when we face temptation.  Second, we need to see that in the temptation, we are never alone.  Jesus, having endured temptation in his earthly ministry, is able to sympathize with us and to give us help and grace in time of need.  Third, we need to see that when we fail, when we – like Israel of old – do not pass the test, that Jesus has passed the test for us.  He perfectly obeyed God and became the only redeemer of God’s elect.  He is therefore to be both followed and believed.  He is our pattern of obedience and the object of our hope and faith in God.

Jesus Our Example in Temptation

There are at least three lessons that we can learn from our Lord as we watch him battle the devil.  

The first is that we need to recognize our enemy.  We read that “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (ver. 1).  The purpose of Jesus’ march into the desert was to be tempted by the devil.  Jesus knew who he was facing, and so must we.  “We would not be outwitted by Satan,” as Paul puts it to the Corinthians, “for we are not ignorant of his designs” (2 Cor. 2:11).  

In the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the British sent one of their top commanders, General Braddock, to quell French resistance in the interior of their American colonies.  However, Braddock didn’t understand his enemy.  Trying to fight in European style, his army was virtually annihilated when his enemy fought differently.  Several days after his first and only engagement in North America, Braddock died of his wounds.  His problem was that he didn’t really understand his enemy. 

We can have just as much trouble if we don’t understand that we are facing a real and powerful enemy.  It troubles me that some Christians don’t seem to want to acknowledge his existence or the danger we face in opposing him.  According to Scripture, the whole purpose of knowing about Satan is to defend against him, not to be amused about him.  Though we shouldn’t blame our sins on the Devil (“the Devil made me do it”), neither should we deny his very real role as the Tempter.

The devil is indeed a real enemy.  In the Bible he is known as the adversary, the accuser of the brethren, Beelzebub, Belial, the deceiver of the whole world, the great dragon, the evil one, the father of lies, the old serpent, the god of this world, the murderer, the prince of this world, the prince of the power of the air, the tempter.  In out text, the devil takes Jesus to “a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  And he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’” (ver. 8-9).  It is noteworthy that Jesus did not contradict the devil’s claim here.  It is in fact the case that he is the ruler of this present darkness (Eph. 6:12).  He takes people captive to do his will (2 Tim. 2:26).

He is wicked.  His purpose is to undermine the grace of God in your life.  As with Job and Peter, he would like nothing better than to get you to curse God and die.  

He is cunning.  He knows our weaknesses and knows how to attack us at our weakest link.  He’s been at this a long time.  He knows how to win.

He is powerful, for it takes the mighty power of God to resist him (Eph. 6:10-20).  His temptations are described as deadly, flaming arrows (Eph. 6:16).

He is untiring in his efforts.  He didn’t leave Job alone after his first attempt to overthrow his faith.  He came back. Though he departed from the Son of God, yet we read that he only did so “until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13).  Even with Jesus, the devil came back.  He won’t give up!

Second, we need to realize our vulnerability.  If he was so zealous in his efforts against the very Son of God, why do we think he will leave us alone?  So be aware of who you are facing!  Don’t let your guard down.  Peter tells us, “Be sober-minded; be watchful.  Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Pet. 5:8-9).

What’s interesting is that we are told that “Jesus was led up by the Spirit . . . to be tempted.”  Jesus was the Spirit-filled Son of God, and yet that didn’t make him immune from the devil’s attacks.  The trophies of Satan include his victories (temporary though they be) over such titans as King David, his son Solomon, Job, the apostle Peter.  In fact, Jesus expressly told Peter that “Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat” (Luke 22:31).  [How thankful should we be for the following words: “But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail”!]

There is never a time here on earth that we are safe – we must be constantly alert.  While in this life we never leave the battlefield.

Third, we need to resist our adversary.  How did Jesus do it?  He did it by a total commitment to the Father’s will over his life above all other things.  Thus, when the devil came to him tempting him with a piece of bread when it was God’s will for him to fast, Jesus responds by saying that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every world that comes from the mouth of God” (ver. 4).  That is to say, for Jesus, obedience to God was more important to him than bread.  His meat and drink was to do the will of the Father (John 4:34).  I’ve read people describe what it feels like to starve – certainly after 40 days of not eating Jesus must have been close to this place, if not there – and they say it is more intense and gnawing than any other desire in the human body.  It is indescribably awful.  But what Jesus says here is that though everything in his body was crying out for a piece of bread – and he certainly could have used his power to get it – yet obedience was more important even than that.  If we could even approach that kind of commitment, the devil would be hard pressed to turn us from the ways of God.

And yet, isn’t that the kind of commitment for which we are to aim?  The law of the Lord is more to be desired than gold and sweeter than honey (Ps. 19:10-11).  I think of the words of the psalmist: “My soul is consumed with longing for your rules at all times” (Ps. 119:20).

We see that same kind of commitment in the second and third temptations.  In the second (ver. 5-7), the devil tries to get Jesus to manipulate the Father into doing for him something that was not according to his will (under the guise that it was Biblical to do so).  To recklessly expose himself to death would have been to tempt God, and this Jesus refuses to do.  To tempt God, to try to manipulate him, is just another way to reverse the commitment to obedience by attempting to make God to obey our whims and desires.  In the third temptation (ver. 8-10), the devil tries to get Jesus to worship him instead of God.  In some sense, in this temptation the devil just dropped all pretense of what he had been trying to do all along: undermine Jesus’ devotion to the Father.  In a real sense, true obedience is really just the outflow of our worship of the living God.  The two inevitable go together: “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve” (ver. 10).

In all temptations, the devil plays on Jesus’ identity as the Son of God (which he was, and which the devil recognizes – the if is not an if of doubt but of assumption; it could be translated, “Since you are the Son of God…”).  He tries to get Jesus to feel as he made Adam and Eve to feel, that he deserved more than what God had given him, or that he could get what was rightfully his in a way that was against the will and worship of God.  In the same way, we are often tempted to think that as children of God, we deserve better.  We often want to believe that we don’t deserve the trial we are going through.  But it would be wrong.  Let us trust in a good and sovereign Redeemer.   Let us live by every word that comes from the mouth of God, for it will be shown to be sweeter than anything the world can give us now.

Our Lord not only defeated Satan by a wholesale commitment to the will of his Father, but also by a complete commitment to the Word of his Father, the Scriptures.  You see that in the way that Jesus answered the temptations of Satan: “It is written.”  Jesus took the Scriptures that Moses spoke to Israel about their sojourn in the wilderness (cf. Deut. 6:13, 16; 8:3) and applies the words to himself.  He arms himself with Scripture to repel the assaults of the devil.

If we would turn away the tempter, let us, like Jesus, know our Bibles and know them well.  Let us know it so that we cannot only recognize truth by its light, but also falsehood in its guise.  Let us apply its message to our hearts and lives.  Let us, like Jesus, recognize in it the authority of God himself so that it binds us to its obedience when the world calls us to forsake the way of righteousness.

Jesus our Help in Temptation

The author of Hebrews tells us this:

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.  (Heb. 4:14-16)

Texts like this are inexpressibly sweet and precious.  We need to remember that they have their anchor in texts like Matthew 4:1-11.  We are often tempted and tried, and in such times we need help, real help.  We need someone who is not only able to help, but who has been there so that he knows how to help – exactly where to apply the remedy and grace that is needed.  And Jesus fits the bill because he has walked the wilderness road and faced the devil’s snares.  

However, to really get the help we need from this text, we need to guard against wrong ideas about our Lord’s incarnation.  There is the temptation to think that because he is the Son of God, that fasting must have not been a big deal, or that he was able to go without food that long by a miracle.  Or that facing down the devil was for him not that big a deal.  However, all this would be wrong.  The real humanity of Jesus meant that the fasting was painful (otherwise, it’s hard to see why the devil would have tried to tempt him to turn a rock into a piece of bread).  It meant that the temptations he faced were real – though without sin.  He really had to resist them.  In fact, by never giving in he endured more from the temptation than one does by giving in to it.

When we face temptation, our text not only teaches us what we are to do, but that we should do so as we look to Jesus for help.  God’s grace in Christ is neither only past nor future.  It is past, present, and future.  It is here “in time of need.”

Thus, when we feel the power of the devil and our vulnerability, we need to remind ourselves that we are not fighting Satan alone.  We are to stand, not in our own power, but in the power of God:  “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might” (Eph. 6:10).  When we feel our commitment to obedience giving way in the face of temptation, we need to remember that Christ is praying for us that our faith fail not.  We can do nothing without him (Jn. 15:5), but with him we can do all things though Jesus who gives us strength (Phil. 4:13).

We rejoice in the doxology of Jude: “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever.  Amen.”  (Jude 24-25)

Jesus our Redeemer when we fail in Temptation

However, the greatest message of all from this text is that Jesus has done what we ultimately cannot.  Though we are called to endure temptations and trials (Jam. 1:12), yet the fact of the matter is that none of us will endure them like Jesus did.  He was tempted without sin – that is to say, he never sinned in the temptation, he never gave in.  And in doing so, by learning obedience in the things that he suffered, he became perfect and “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb. 5:8-9).  

Thus, our text is not only giving us a preview of Christ’s ultimate victory over Satan, but was in a real sense part of that final victory over Satan.  It was because he withstood the temptations of the devil that he was made a perfect high priest to atone for the sins of his people.

Our sins are stinking and hideous.  For every sin is in some sense a giving in to temptation, and our giving into temptation is to side with the devil.  When I sin (no matter what the sin is, no matter how seemingly insignificant to others), I take the side of the one who is behind all the death and misery and pain and suffering and injustice in the world.  And having done so, I have justly forfeited all right to eternal life and the fellowship of God.  I deserve the wrath to come.

How can someone like you and me be saved?  According to God’s word, we are saved by being united by faith to Christ who takes our place under the law of God and fulfilled it perfectly so that when God sees us, he sees not our moral sores, but the perfect righteousness of Jesus.  And then Jesus took our place under the wrath of God so that God’s perfect justice is satisfied by his atonement.  Being enemies, God makes us friends in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Monday, July 7, 2014

When God spoke from heaven: Matthew 3:13-17

We believe that the entire Bible is the word of God.  The Bible is our burning bush, and it behooves us to listen to what it has to say.  But there are differences in the ways God has spoken to men which are not equal in every way.  Equal in truth, yes.  Equal in authority, yes.  And yet, sometimes the manner in which God speaks points up the solemnity of what is said and the seriousness by which it is to be taken.  

For example, Paul puts a distinction between God’s words spoken by him and God’s words spoken by Christ (1 Cor. 7:10, 12).  The author of Hebrews puts a distinction between the “many times and in many ways” that God spoke by the prophets and the way he spoke to them by his Son (1:1-2).  In all cases, God spoke.  But there is a gravity and glory about the words of God coming directly to men through his Son as opposed to a human instrument like Paul or one of the prophets.

Thus, when God chooses to speak to men directly from heaven, I take it that what is being said is infinitely important and serious and solemn.  And, as far as I can tell, God only did this a few times in history.  One of the times is in our text.  The previous time was at Mount Sinai in the giving of the Law.  There we read:
And the LORD said to Moses, "Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever."
On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled.  Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain.  Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire.  The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.  And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Mose spoke, and God answered him in thunder.  The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain.  And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.  (Exod. 19:9, 16-20)
Then God gave the Law (20:1-17), at the end of which we see the people's response:
 Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die."  Moses said to the people, "Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin."  The people stood afar off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. (20:18-21)
The people weren't the only ones to be afraid.  Moses himself, according to Hebrews 12:21 is recorded to have said in response to God's appearing and speaking, "I tremble with fear."  It's very clear that God wanted it to be a big deal when he descended from heaven to earth to speak with men.  And it was so terrifying that the people begged God to speak to them by prophets instead of in this direct way.  And this is exactly what God did for the next 1500 years or so.

And then Jesus shows up at John's baptismal service and God speaks from heaven again.  And so I take it that we need to pause and to reflect upon these words from heaven.

The baptism of Jesus

The occasion of the message from heaven was the baptism of Jesus by John.  At first John tried to stop Jesus from going through with this, excusing himself on the basis that he was the one who needed to be baptized by Jesus, not the other way around.

Now there are perhaps a couple of things about this text that might confuse some people.  First, some might be confused by this because, according to the Baptist’s words in John’s gospel, he did not recognize Jesus as the Christ until after he had baptized him and the Spirit had descended upon him (John 1:31-34).  According to Matthew’s account, it seems like he knew Jesus was the Christ before he baptized him since he obviously recognized the superiority of Jesus to himself.

However, there need be no contradiction here.  John clearly knew Jesus before his baptism, but not as the Christ.  After all, their mothers were related (cf. Luke 1:36) and probably the families spent time together when Jesus’ family came to Jerusalem once a year.  John probably had heard the story about Jesus sitting in the temple, dazzling the teachers of the Law with his understanding and answers (Luke 2:41, ff).  So John knew that Jesus was a holy man who knew and lived the Scriptures as few others did.  Thus, when Jesus shows up to be baptized, John humbly recognizes the moral superiority of Jesus to himself and offers to be baptized by him instead.  Only after heaven opens and the Spirit descends on Jesus does John fully recognize that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (Jn 1:29).

Second, some might be confused as to why Jesus would need to be baptized.  After all, wasn’t John’s baptism a baptism of repentance?  Why, then, would Jesus need to be baptized if he was sinless?  Jesus helps us here when he responds to John’s hesitancy to baptism him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt. 3:15).  In other words, Jesus’ baptism was not part of a confession of repentance, but functioned as part of his obedience to God.   John’s baptism was not only a baptism of repentance, it also heralded the coming of the kingdom.  When Jesus submitted to baptism, he was identifying himself with the message of the kingdom, a message which he himself would soon take up (Mt. 4:17).

I can’t help from pointing out that this passage underscores the importance of baptism.  If Christ himself submitted to baptism in obedience to the Father, how much more should we who have believed in Christ obey his command to identify with him in the waters of baptism?  It was Jesus who said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:18-20).  Baptism is not optional; it is a part of our obedience to Christ.  If you truly believe in Christ and are not baptized, then you are in disobedience to God.  I will say to you what Ananias said to the apostle Paul after his conversion: “And now why do you wait?  Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).

At the same time, this text also corrects an unbiblical view of baptism that elevates it to a place it is not meant to hold in the Christian life.  Some say that baptism is important, not only because it is an act of obedience to Christ, but also because by it we are given new life.  But baptism is not regenerative.  Christ was not born again when he was baptized (he didn’t need to be), and for the others repentance was necessary before being dipped in the water (cf 3:8).  In other words, baptism does not effect our conversion, it witnesses to it.  So this text saves us from a view that ignores the importance of baptism in the Christian life as well as from a view that unduly exalts it.  

The witness of the Trinity

We are told that when Jesus was baptized, this amazing thing happened.  God the Father speaks from heaven.  “And behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Mt. 3:16-17).

In these two verses we have the Trinity.  In fact, according to John Gill, “The ancients looks upon this as so clear and full a proof of this truth, that they were wont to say; Go to Jordan, and there learn the doctrine of the Trinity.”[1]  The doctrine of the Trinity is this: God is one in essence but three in person.  This doctrine comes from the Biblical teaching on the unity of God and the fact that the Father, Son, and Spirit are all properly God and yet distinct from each other.  In our text, the Father speaks of and to the Son (so they are distinct from one another), and the Spirit descends from the Father to the Son (so he is distinct from both).  The Father who speaks is God; Jesus who is spoken to is the Son of God (and therefore God), and the Spirit who descends is the Spirit of God.

The fact that Jesus is here referred to as “My beloved Son” shows that he is God.  Some argue that Jesus never referred to himself as the Son of God (though this is not true, since he agrees with the High Priest that he is the Christ, the Son of God, in Matthew 26:63-64; cf. Mk. 14:61-62), so he is something less than God.  But surely the testimony of God the Father is enough!  He is the Son of God, and as the Son of God, he shares the same nature and attributes as the Father.  

One early creed puts it this way:

We believe in one God the Father All-sovereign, maker of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made, things in heaven and things on the earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh, and became man, suffered, and rose on the third day, ascended into the heavens, is coming to judge living and dead; And in the Holy Spirit.[2]

Thus, in the very act of speaking from heaven, God reveals one of the most profound and mysterious realities about himself in all of revealed truth.

The pleasure of God in his Son

But God the Father reveals more than just that Jesus is his Son.  He tells for all to hear that Jesus is his beloved Son, the Son in whom he is well-pleased (ver. 17).  

God is saying, “Look at my Son!  I love him and I love what he is doing.”  He is not just cheering his Son on.  He is doing that, but more than that, he is calling us to look at him and love him, too.  And God the Father parted heaven to say it.  We ought to listen! 

Later in the earthly ministry of Jesus, the Father had to do this again.  This time it was on the Mount of Transfiguration, where Jesus was revealed in all his glory as he spoke with Moses and Elijah (Mt 17:1-3).  As Peter woke up from his nap, he stammered around for something to say, and of course ended up by saying the wrong thing, putting Jesus on a par with Moses and Elijah (ver. 4).  Then this happens: “He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to him’” (ver. 5).  In other words, God was saying, “Stop looking at Moses and Elijah – look at my Son, listen to him!”  Jesus’ voice, above all other voices, is the one we should be listening to.  He, above all others, ought to have our attention and our affection.  

There is no better recommendation in the universe than this.  To ignore it is to sin.  Do you want a reason to love Jesus?  Then here it is: God the Father loves him.  If Jesus is an appropriate object of the Father’s love, then how much more is he worthy of our love and affection?

If you understand who Jesus is, you’re going to love him.  In him “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3).  All the attributes of God find their place in him in perfect harmony, because he is God.  “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For by him were all things created, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things where created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:15-17).  He is loving and kind and merciful and gentle and just and powerful and sovereign.  He is infinitely exalted and welcomingly approachable.  It is the blindness of our hearts that keeps us from seeing the glory of Christ, and once the blindness is removed, we cannot help but love him: “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing.  In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. . . . For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:3,4,6; cf. 2 Cor. 5:14).  

If you understand the Christian message, you’re going to love Jesus. Christianity proclaims salvation from sins to an inheritance of eternal fellowship with the living and eternal God through Jesus Christ.  This is the basic message of the gospel: that Jesus is the one who will save his people from their sins (Mt. 1:21).  To really believe that all my sins have been forgiven on account of what Christ has done – to recognize that I who should have been cast into the pit of hell forever, and that this would have been just, but that Jesus by the cruel death on the cross has rescued me from this – means that I cannot help but to love Christ.  “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed” (1 Cor. 16:22).  “Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible” (Eph. 6:24).

Moreover, if you know and understand the hope of the gospel, you’re going to love Jesus.  Our hope is in the age to come.  We don’t offer others – and we can’t offer – better health, or a better work situation, or a bigger paycheck, or a bigger house, or perfect children.  We don’t promise your best life now.  Why?  Because that’s not what the gospel promises.  We are not promised that if we walk with God we will start and end every day on top of the world.  Paul told the believers of his day that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).  In fact, life was so bad with Paul that he said, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19).  For Paul, suffering precedes glory (cf. Rom. 8:17).

But that was okay with Paul because he considered “the sufferings of this present time . . . not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).  In other words, what motivated Paul through the sufferings that he endured in the here-and-now was the promise of glory in the age to come.  Christians are heavily invested in the hope in the age to come.  Without it, Christianity is meaningless.

But what does this hope consist in?  Paul puts it this way in Romans 5: “Through him [Christ] we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (ver. 2).  We hope in the glory of God.  Thus, when Paul writes to Timothy, he describes the gospel as “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:11).  

What makes heaven so infinitely desirable – so desirable that it makes one who really believes in it to endure unimaginable sufferings in this present life so as not to fall short of it (Heb. 11:35) – is the glory of God.  Seeing, enjoying, and exulting in the glory of God is what makes heaven what it is.  

The glory of God is to a large extent tied up with his happiness.  That’s why Paul said “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God.”  “Blessed” means happy.  Paul was entrusted with good news, news about the glory of the happy God.  He is infinitely, perfectly, fully, and eternally happy.  When we “bless God,” we are not adding some joy to him, but simply saying what is in fact the case.  He is blessed.  Our only hope is to share in that blessedness, that happiness.  And that is what the gospel is about.

As John Piper has put it, “No one would want to spend eternity with an unhappy God.”[3]  If God was unhappy, there would be no glory to see and enjoy, and there would be no gospel to share and no hope to rejoice in.  That is to say, there would be no Christianity.  Our religion rests entirely upon the happiness of God and his willingness to let us in on it.  The hope of the one who follows Christ is to hear these words in the end: “Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Enter into the joy of your master” (Mt. 25:21).

But God’s happiness is wrapped up in the love he has to his Son.  This is what our text tells us.  Thus, what makes heaven glorious and what makes us ultimately happy forever is our participation in the love God has for his Son.  Jesus said it this way, “I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and love them even as you loved me” (Jn. 17:23).   Our happiness, our hope, the gospel, the glory of God, and the perfection of heaven – it is all wrapped up in God’s love to his Son.

Do you love him?  Then ask yourself this: Do I listen to him?  Is it his voice that I love to hear? (Jn 10:27)  Do I seek him in prayer and in his word?  Do I follow him?  Do I strive to obey him? (Jn 14:21,23-24)  May Christ claim our affections above all others, may the love of Christ control us!

[1] From his commentary on Matthew 3:17.
[2] This is the “Creed of Nicea” from which the Nicene Creed is derived.  It is quoted in John Piper, The Pleasures of God, p. 38.
[3] The Pleasures of God, page 26.

How to be blessed by the book of Revelation (Rev. 1:1-4)

I have heard it said that if you were to poll the average Christian on which book of the Bible they most want to study, the answer would be ...