Monday, January 30, 2017

Miracles and Might: Matthew 8:1-4

The Sermon on the Mount is one of the great sermons of all history, and it has certainly been a great blessing to me to have gone through it.  But thank God that our Lord did not just come with words.  We need truth, for it is by the truth that men are set free, but we need more than truth.  For the problem is that we are not only lacking in understanding, but that we are also sinful.  And sin has made us morally blind and spiritually dead.  You can speak to a dead man until you’re blue in the face, but you aren’t going to get anywhere until that dead man is made alive.  We need resurrection.  We not only need truth brought to us, but we need power exercised for us and upon us. 

Evidently Matthew understood this, for he now proceeds from the words of Jesus to the works of Jesus, from the demonstration of the authority of Christ in his teaching (Mt. 7:28-29) to the demonstration of the authority of Christ in his miracles.  In the next two chapters (8-9), Matthew gives us a tour of at least 10 distinct miracles of Jesus, along with summary statements that mention his power exercised in the behalf of the multitudes who followed him.  Along with the Sermon on the Mount, these two chapters summarize for us the works of our Lord.  Between chapters 5 and 9, Matthew is giving us a synopsis of the ministry of Jesus Christ.  In 5-7, we see the teaching and preaching aspect, and in 8-9, we see the healing aspect of it.  This is not an arbitrary outline of the material, for we know that the Evangelist meant for us to see it in this way.  For in 4:23, we have this summary statement of the ministry of Jesus in terms of teaching and preaching and healing, and then in 9:35 you have another summary statement of his ministry in the same terms.  In other words, these are bookend statements and in between them we are meant to see this wonderful overview of the ministry of our Lord in terms of preaching, teaching, and healing.

And tucked between these episodes of power, we also have two paragraphs that deal with the issue of discipleship (8:18-22; 9:9-13).  In fact, it has been popular to see the overall structure of these two chapters in terms of three miracles – discipleship – three more miracles – discipleship – three more miracles (in this scheme, the two miracles mentioned in 9:18-26 are considered as one).  This is probably too simplistic, but it does point to an important truth.  Remember that immediately before the Sermon on the Mount, you have the call of the first disciples, Peter and Andrew, and John and James (4:18-22).  Jesus had called them to follow him, to become his disciples.  This call immediately follows the first mention of the preaching ministry of Jesus and precedes the first exhibition of the preaching ministry of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.  In chapter 9, on the other hand, you have the call of Matthew himself that comes in the context of the miracle-working ministry of Jesus.  The truth that all of this points to is this: that the ministry of Jesus Christ, whether considered in its aspect of teaching or considered in its aspect of healing and working wonders, is meant to bring men and women to the obedience of faith.  Our Lord’s words are not merely to be admired, they are to be obeyed.  Even so, our Lord’s works are not merely meant to be wondered at, they are to bring us to a deep and abiding faith in the one who words can still a storm.  Both the words and the works of Jesus are meant to draw us to be his disciples.

It is clear that the miracles of Jesus were meant to authenticate his claims to be the Son of God and Savior of the world, and thus to bring men and women to faith in him as such.  This is made explicit in Matthew’s account of the palsied man in 9:1-8.  There Jesus tells the scribes that the reason he was going to heal the man with palsy was so “that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins” (9:6).  Here, Christ’s power to heal authenticated his claim to forgive sins.  And as the scribes themselves put it, “Who can forgive sins but God only?” (Mk. 2:7).  So surely one of Matthew’s reasons for exhibiting before us the miracle-working power of Christ is to hold up to faith the authority and the power of Christ.

All this leads to some obvious questions.  How can miracles function in this way for modern man?  It may have been well and good for a pre-scientific era, but surely we cannot expect miracles to have the same affect upon us.  And if that is the case, does this mean that the whole point of Matthew 8-9 has been rendered null and void?

What can we say to these questions?  To answer them, we need to understand why people reject miracles today as a vehicle for conveying truth about Jesus.  Why do people reject the possibility of miracles?  I think the main reason people do so is because they have bought into the philosophy of scientism.  Scientism is the belief that knowledge can only be obtained through science.  According to its proponents, everything has to be explained by purely natural causes.  But this is problematic because such reasoning rests on faulty logic.  Now it is true that scientific knowledge rests on an assumption of natural causes.  And this is because science can only test for natural causes.  But it is faulty logic to then say that because science can only detect natural causes that there can be no other kind of causality.    The philosopher Alvin Plantinga rightly says that this “argument . . . is like the drunk who insisted on looking for his lost car keys only under the streetlight on the grounds that the light was better there.  In fact, it would go the drunk one better: it would insist that because the keys would be hard to find in the dark, they must be under the light.”[1]
Scientism itself cannot be right because it cannot be tested by the scientific method.  Timothy Keller explains, “There would be no experimental model for testing the statement: ‘No supernatural cause for any natural phenomenon is possible.’  It is therefore a philosophical presupposition and not a scientific finding.”[2]  The irony is that those who embrace scientism do so out of a desire to promote true knowledge (as opposed to “religious fiction”).  But the problem is that end up doing to the opposite because they fail to understand the limitations of science.  And by trying to make science into something it is not, I believe that they will end up doing disservice to the scientific program in the long run.

Another reason why people don’t believe in the miracles of the Bible is because they don’t believe they can trust the Bible.  For example, some people have rejected any belief in the Biblical miracles because they don’t think they can trust the text of Scripture.  They’ve been told that our translations are just translations of translations, and so on.  Others think they can’t trust the historicity of the events recounted in Scripture.  They are just legends, passed on from generation to generation while acquiring more and more fictional residue that the real accounts have been buried under a mound of mythical accruements. 

To give full answers to these objections would take me too far afield, but these objections have been answered again and again with good and sound arguments.  For example, F. F. Bruce’s little book The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? deals with the trustworthiness of the text of the NT documents.  He shows that they are authentic documents that were not written hundreds of years after the fact, but either by eye-witnesses or by people who got their information from eye-witnesses.  On the other hand, the historicity of the events of the Bible have been dealt with in numerous books as well.  One recent book that deals with both objections in a succinct and winsome fashion is Timothy Keller’s book The Reason for God.  As regards the historicity of the events of the NT, one argument that has been convincing for me is the fact that the apostles and early Christians were willing to die for the faith of Christ.  Now, some would say that this is not a good argument because people from other religions are willing to die for their faith as well.  However, there is a difference.  A Muslim may die for Mohammed because he really believes Islam to be truth.  But the apostles and the early Christians knew that what they were preaching was either a lie or the truth.  If it were a lie, you would have an example of multitudes of people dying for a lie with their eyes wide open.  It’s hard for me to believe that so many would be willing to die for what they knew was a lie.

However, even if we establish that the text of the Bible is trustworthy, and even if we establish that the events of the Bible, including the miracles, are historical events, in some sense this still doesn’t make faith any easier.  In fact, the Bible itself recognizes this.  At the end of Matthew, after Jesus has risen from the dead (one of the greatest of all miracles), and after he had revealed himself to many in Galilee, we have this sentence: “And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted” (Mt. 28:17).  This is amazing.  Here you have people who are looking at the resurrected Christ – and they doubt.  If this text tells us anything, it proves that miracles can’t create faith.  One thinks of the Rich Man from Luke 16 who went to hell, who begged Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers.  Do you remember Abraham’s response?  He told him, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.”  To which the Rich Man responded, “Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.”  And then we have this damning indictment: “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead” (Luke 16:29-31). 

At the end of the day, the problem of the human heart is so desperate that even a man raised from the dead will not suffice to turn us from our self-centeredness and orientation away from God.  There is something more fundamentally wrong with us than merely a failure to believe in the miracles of the Bible.  Now it is good and right to try to answer objections that are often raised against the Bible – and we need people to see that we are not theological ostriches who stick their heads in the sand whenever anyone raises an objection.  We need to be willing to consider their objections and to answer them with honesty and humility.  But we also need to realize that the main problem with unbelief is not a lack of miracles.  It is a problem of a deep hostility to God.  It is the problem of sin.  Seeing miracles isn’t going to convert anyone.  We don’t need to see a miracle, we need to experience a miracle.  That is the problem.

So why did Matthew write these chapters?  If seeing a miracle by itself won’t do anything, what’s the point?  Well, there are several reasons why the content of these chapters are still important.

First, they are important because, although seeing miracles doesn’t (by itself) create faith in the unbelieving, it does build up the faith of those who do believe.  An example of this is John the Baptist.  In chapter 11 of Matthew we find John the Baptist in prison because of his bold witness to the truth.  However, as he languished in prison doubts began to creep in.  Perhaps he thought, along with many of his contemporaries, that the Christ was supposed to be a conquering hero.  But here he was in prison while Jesus just went around and preached.  So we read this: “Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, and said unto him, ‘Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?’” (11:2-3).  Do you remember the response of Jesus?  He replied, “Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached unto them.  And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me” (11:4-6).  It’s obvious that the miracles of Jesus were meant to strengthen the faith of this great man of God.  Even so, as the Holy Spirit inspired these words to be written and preserved for the church of today, we should remind ourselves of the power of Christ and let that be an encouragement to our faith.  We do not serve a weak Lord but the Son of God who has all power in heaven and earth.

This leads to the second use of the record of our Lord’s works of power.  They not only build up our faith, they lead us to worship.  We see this in Matthew 28:17.  Those who saw Christ fell into two categories: those who worshipped and those who doubted.  The miracles of Jesus beg us to consider who Jesus is.  He is not only the one who made all things (Jn. 1:3), and who upholds all things by the word of his power (Heb. 1:3), but he is also the one who puts things right.  He brings healing and life to a sick and dead world.  He did not come to do a magic act, and his miracles were not just performed to dazzle and wow.  They each had a purpose.  He came to heal the sick, to put back to rights what sin and evil and disease had made wrong.  He came to give a preview of what he will do when he comes again, when we will hear the words: “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5).  And if we really believe these things, how can we not worship him?

All of this is illustrated in the first miracle recorded in Matthew 8.  Evidently, Matthew did not record his miracles in chronological order.  This becomes especially apparent when you compare the various miracles recorded in these two chapters with the parallel texts in Mark and Luke.  Really, verse 1 goes with the previous verses in chapter 7, and notes the great crowds that followed him throughout his ministry.  The miracle in verses 2-4 doesn’t necessarily happen right after this.  The fact that Jesus wants to keep it a secret (v. 4) indicates that he didn’t do it in the presence of the great multitudes mentioned in verse 1.  But as we’ve already noted, the structure of Matthew’s text is not governed by chronological as by thematic concerns.  The point is not to tell us in what order things happened, as to display the power of our Lord through several examples of miracles in this chapter and the next.

The first example of healing is given in verse 2-4.  It is noteworthy that Matthew begins here; it is the healing of a leper.  R. C. Sproul explains that, “In the ancient world, there were seventy-two diseases of the skin under the broad heading of leprosy.”[3]  Today, when people refer to leprosy they usually mean Hansen’s disease, which in Jesus’ day the Greeks called elephantiasis.  We don’t know what particular version of leprosy this man had.  But whatever he had, it was a terrible thing in Jesus’ day to be a leper.

To be officially categorized as a leper, you had to have been diagnosed by the priest.  Once you were diagnosed, you were ostracized from society, unable to enter Jerusalem, and unable to participate in the religious life of the Jews.  You had to cover your face and warn people of your uncleanness.  You were not allowed to come within fifty paces of another person.[4]  Leprosy in that time was also incurable, and was considered a death sentence.  For example, when Naaman came to the King of Israel to be cured of his leprosy, the king cried out, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man doth send unto me to recover a man of his leprosy?” (2 Kings 5:7).

This man had seen the priest.  The sore had turned white (cf. Lev. 13:3), and so he had been declared a leper.  From that point on, he had lived the painful and tragic and lonely and hopeless life of a leper.

But then he heard of Jesus.  Mark says that he came “beseeching him, and kneeling down to him” (Mk. 1:40); Matthew says that he came “and worshipped him” (v.2).  The word for “worship” can mean nothing more than to show respect, as in kneeling.  We don’t know how much this leper understood about the person of Jesus, but he did at least know one thing: this man Jesus, whoever he was, could heal lepers.  And so he came to Jesus with the request: “Lord [Sir], if thou wilt, that canst make me clean.”

I think the manner of his request is instructive to all of us.  He came with faith for he said, “thou canst make me clean.”  There was no doubt in his mind that he could be healed.  He did not doubt for a second.  But coupled with faith was real humility, for he prefaced his request with, “if thou wilt.”  This is the way we need to bring our needs before God.  It is not faith to demand anything of God just as it is not doubt to submit our wishes to God’s wise and loving providence.  “If thou wilt” ought to preface all our requests. 

To this Jesus responded in two ways, both full of meaning.  First of all, he touched him.  Now it was unlawful to touch a leper, for to do so was to make yourself ceremonially unclean.  But Jesus “put forth his hand, and touched him.”  Can you imagine how this made the leper feel?  He had never been touched by anyone since he had been diagnosed as a leper.  Jesus did not have to touch him, as the next miracle makes abundantly clear (8:5-13), so he did this for a reason: to not only to show compassion by bringing physical healing to the man but also to show compassion by letting him know that he was accepted and befriended by none other than Jesus himself.  Mark brings this out more clearly by saying, “And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him” (Mk. 1:41).

Second, Jesus said, “I will; be thou clean.”  He healed the man with a word and a touch: “And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.”  This disease which was deemed incurable was completely healed.  This disease which was looked upon as a death sentence was revoked by the Great Physician.  He was not just made a little better, he didn’t just reduce the symptoms.  He fully healed the man. 

Jesus then told the man to go to Jerusalem and perform the rites necessary to be officially cleansed (v.4).  According to the Law of Moses, to be cleansed you had to go to the priest and offer a sacrifice, so our Lord tells him to do this.  His presenting himself to the priests would be “a testimony unto them” that he had in fact been cleansed.  After a period of time, when it was clear that the symptoms were gone, the priest would pronounce him clean.  But many have been baffled as to why Jesus also told the man to tell no one else about the healing.  I think the reason is quite simple: to spread the fame of Jesus far and wide, especially when many people had misconceptions about the ministry of the Messiah, would only hamper his ministry with the curious thrill seekers who would get in the way of ministering to those who had real needs.  Mark’s comment makes this clear: “But he went out, and began to publish it much, insomuch that Jesus could no more openly enter into the city, but was without in desert places: and they came to him from every quarter” (Mk. 1:45).  Zeal for the Lord that is contrary to his word is disobedience nonetheless.

Now all this has a great lesson for us.  For we, too, are lepers.  We are infected with a disease that no one can cure and which cuts us off from fellowship with God and his people.  It’s not a physical disease, although sometimes it has physical manifestations.  It’s called sin.  The ugly selfishness that is inherent in sin separates us from others, from family and friends and co-workers.  But ultimately it separates us from God. 

How can we be cured?  We cannot cure ourselves.  Others can only declare us clean or unclean, but they cannot cure us, either.  Nor can we be cured by merely seeing a cure take place in someone else.  We need to experience a miracle.  The only one who can produce that miracle in us is Jesus Christ.  And he came to do precisely that.  He could have stayed in heaven, but he did not.  Instead, He came down, became flesh, and touched us with his hand.  He took our uncleanness upon himself and by doing so heals our spiritual leprosy.  Is this not a mighty miracle?  As Calvin rightly put it, in his comment on this text, “What we indolently read, and coldly pass by, cannot be duly weighed without great astonishment.  The Son of God was so far from disdaining to talk to a leper, that he even stretched out his hand to touch that uncleanness.”

What then should we do?  My friend, the Son of God passes by.  He is able to cure you of your leprosy.  He can take away your sin.  He can purge your guilt and unloosen the shackles that it has placed upon your heart.  Call out to him, ask him to heal you.  And don’t be surprised if you hear him say, “I will, be thou clean!”

[1] Quoted in The Reason for God by Timothy Keller (Dutton: 2008), p. 86.
[2] Ibid, p. 86.
[3] R. C. Sproul, Mark, (Reformation Trust: 2011), p. 33.
[4] Ibid, p. 33.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Solid Rock or Sinking Sand? Matthew 7:24-29

Recently, I had a conversation with a colleague about students who retake a course because they failed it the first time.  His theory is that it is actually harder for many students the second time around.  (In my experience I have found this to be almost always true, so I was very interested to hear his theory!)  The reason he gave is this: many students who are taking a class the second time tend to confuse seeing a concept again with understanding that concept.  In other words, they mistake familiarity with comprehension.  And as a result, they don’t tend to study as hard as they should and end up repeating the same mistakes all over again.

What our Lord describes here in these verses is a similar phenomenon in a religious context.  What he is saying is that many people mistake hearing truth with embracing it and living it out in their lives.  As a result, they fail, except in this case it is not just a test or a college course but the judgment of God. 

Verses 24-27 are a parable that illustrates the previous verses (v. 21-23).  And we saw that these verses, along with 15-20, act as a warning to those who are convinced, at least on some level, that the right thing to do is to go through the strait gate and along the narrow way (13-14).  There are two dangers.  One is the danger of false prophets who convince people they are on the narrow way when in reality they are leading them along the broad way.  The other danger is self-deception.  There are people who have convinced themselves because they have an intellectual embrace of certain truths, or because of their zeal for truth, or because of things they have done for the kingdom, that they are saved.  But they are not, and the proof that they are not saved lies in the fact that they are not living a life of obedience to God.  The parable before us this morning illustrates the same thing.  It is not enough, says our Lord, to simply hear the truth; you must obey it, you must do it.

This is something that the apostle James emphasizes (cf. Jam. 1:22-27):  “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (v. 22).  Note that James, along with our Lord, is not talking about people who hear the word of God and then immediately discard it.  He is not talking about the irreligious.  Those people are deceived, but on a different level.  Rather, both James and our Lord are talking about people who are deceived into thinking that they are “religious”: “If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain” (26).  In other words, here is a man who can talk the talk, but who does not walk the walk.  And they are deceived.  If I may use a crude analogy from the food laws of the OT, we might say that such a person chews the cud but does not split the hoof – and therefore is unclean in the sight of God!

In fact, every apostle in the NT, following our Lord, says the same thing.  If you are living in disobedience to God, you have no right to call yourself a disciple, and you have no right to claim the promises of God as belonging to you.  Thus, the apostle John: “My little children, let us not love in word, neither is tongue; but in deed and in truth.  And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him” (1 Jn. 3:18-19).  The apostle Paul tells us that it is a flat contradiction to be a baptized believer and yet to live in sin (cf. Rom. 6).  The apostle Peter says that if we call on the Father – in other words, if we profess to relate to God as his children – then we ought to “pass the time of your sojourning here in fear” (1 Pet. 1:17).  We ought to be holy, as God is holy (v. 14-16). 

Now we must be clear that this is not the same thing as saying that you are saved by your obedience.  The Bible is absolutely clear that we are saved by grace apart from works (Eph. 2:8-10).  We are justified by faith apart from works (Rom. 3-5).  To be justified is to be accepted as righteous before God, to be freed from condemnation.  But that means that to be justified by faith apart from works is just another way of saying that we are saved by faith apart from works. 

But some people make a false deduction from this truth.  They want to say that because we are not saved by our works, then works must have no place in salvation at all.  However, as our Lord’s own teaching demonstrates, this cannot be right.  Those who have lived in disobedience to the Father’s will – even if they called Jesus “Lord” – will not be saved (Mt. 7:21-23). 

The right way to look at this is to say that though works are not the basis of our salvation, they are the evidence that we are saved.  Using the analogy of verses 16-20, when our Lord talks about good trees and bad trees, we would say that the fact that the tree is itself good is what guarantees the fruit to be good.  The quality of the fruit does not make the tree good; it’s the other way around.  In the same way, our good works do not make us saved, but they show that we are saved.  This is why the NT talks about judgment according to works and salvation by grace.  We are judged according to our works, not because good works are what make us worthy before God, but because they demonstrate that we have been made worthy by Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 5:10-11, 14-21).

Why are good works the evidence that a person is saved?  It is because faith in Christ is not just an intellectual apprehension of certain facts.  It is that, but it is more than that.  The apostle Paul in the epistle to the Romans, in which he waxes most eloquently about the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone, begins and ends with a reference to “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26).  In other words, faith by its very nature produces obedience.  To the Galatians, he writes, “For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love” (Gal. 5:6).  Faith works!  And it works by love “which is the bond of perfectness” (Col. 3:14).  Love is not just some superficial sentiment, but that in which the law of God is summed up (Mt. 22:37-40).  The Galatian passage is even more compelling as to the relation of faith and obedience when you consider the parallel passage in 1 Corinthians: “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God” (1 Cor. 7:19). 

Why does faith produce obedience?  There are at least two reasons.  One reason is that you cannot separate faith in Christ from love to Christ.  In John 6, our Lord says that a person believes in him when they come to him to find the deepest needs of their soul satisfied in him: “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (v. 35).  Such a person does not walk away from Christ (v. 66).  Rather, they confess with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.  And we believe and are sure that thou are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (68-69). 

The other reason is that faith is no mere work of men.  Faith is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8), the work of God in the heart and soul.  As our Lord put it, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn. 6:44).  It is the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart, and being the work of the Spirit who is holy, he recreates our heart so that we now long for holiness (cf. Rom. 8:1-9).  In the language of the promises of the New Covenant, it is God writing his law on our hearts (cf. Jer. 31:33; 32:40).

We can sum it up like this: we are saved by grace, but the grace of God does not leave a person unchanged.  It radically transforms him/her and begins the process of sanctification whereby a person becomes more and more like Jesus Christ in their character, listening to his words and following their instruction.

So our Lord is illustrating the necessity of obedience.  And the necessity of it is illustrated in the parable in the results of obedience and disobedience.  In Palestine, you had the creek beds that would stay dry for most of the year.  But once or twice a year, the rains would come and these creek beds would temporarily become raging torrents.  And any house that did not have a sound foundation would simply be washed away.  Our Lord says that those who hear and do his words have a solid foundation for their life; whereas those who hear but do not obey his words do not have a solid foundation for their life.  Eventually, their hopes will be washed away and ruined.

Now what was our Lord referring to by the rain, floods, and wind that beat upon the house?  And to what is he referring when refers to the fall of the house? 

First of all, I think it’s important again to point out that those who are under consideration here are those who hear the words of Jesus.  These are people who claim to be Jesus’ disciples.  Some commentators point out that in the parable there is no distinction between the houses, except for the foundation which you cannot see.  In other words, there is not a lot of obvious difference between the two houses, and what difference there is, is hidden.  In the same way, our Lord is saying that there will be a lot of people who on the surface look like his disciples.  They hear his word.  They are in church, and they may even participate in it as members.  And they do a lot of things that make even real disciples think they are one of them.  Thus, the house which undergoes the raging of the storm is this person’s profession of faith in Jesus Christ, and the claim to be his disciple.  And the question is, will his/her profession stand the test of time?  That is the problem that I think these verses are addressing.

I point this out in order to say this.  Jesus is not describing the openly rebellious and saying that those who outright reject the claims of Christ will have the rains and winds of life beating down upon them so that they become miserable and dejected and hopeless in this life.  These are not the people Jesus is addressing.  And the fact of the matter is that many people who reject Christ are going to be perfectly happy about their life.  They don’t get it when Christians tell them that they can never be happy until they believe in Jesus.  They don’t understand this, because to their mind they are perfectly happy.  Many Christians don’t seem to be as observant as the psalmist: “For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.  For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek.  They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.  Therefore pride is their necklace” (Ps. 73:3-6, ESV).  Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t think you can experience true joy and peace apart from Christ.  But if you don’t know Christ, then your understanding of joy and peace is limited to your experience out of Christ.  And most people, thinking this is all that there is, are perfectly happy with that.

Also, I’m not saying that there isn’t going to be ruin for those who openly reject the claims of Christ.  According to the Scriptures, there most certainly is going to be.  But that’s not the point of these verses.  Rather, Jesus is saying that if you claim to be a Christian, but you are not, then your profession of faith is going to come crashing down at some point, and with it all the hopes that went along with that profession.

It could happen in this life.  We’ve referred to the parable of the sower, to the seed sown on rocky ground.  Our Lord said that these are like “the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself [no foundation!], but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” (Mt. 13:20-21, ESV).  If your faith is shallow, if it does not go down into the heart so that you love Jesus as Lord and Savior, then you will not endure when the storms of life come.  It is the reality of such persecution that could cause apostasy and the devil who is ultimately behind them that caused Peter to write, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world” (1 Pet. 5:8-9).  [We know he is referring to suffering persecution here, because of what he says in verse 10.]

Of course, the storms don’t necessarily have to come in the form of persecution.  They could also come in the form of temptation and seduction.  I think of Demas, of whom the apostle wrote: “Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world” (2 Tim. 4:10). 

On the other hand, an example of someone whose foundation went deep, whose faith was real, is the Biblical Job.  According the book of Job, the whole point of Satan’s experiment with Job was so to prove that Job’s faith was fake: “Doth Job fear God for nought?” (Job 1:9; cf. 2:4-5).  But Satan’s experiment did not work:  “Then said his wife unto him, Dost thou still retain thine integrity? Curse God and die.  But he said unto here, Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh.  What? Shall we not receive good at the hand of God and shall we not receive evil?  In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:9-10).  And even though Job’s faith came close to breaking, it never did.  He came forth as gold.  Why?  Because Job was someone who really feared God.  His faith was real.

Now this doesn’t mean that believers don’t ever waver.  Abraham lied to save his skin.  Peter denied Christ.  Job wavered for a time and said some things that bordered on blasphemy.  But these men repented and the overall trajectory of their lives was one of faithfulness.  They were not like the people who followed Christ for food and when he demanded the devotion of their hearts, turned around and followed him no more. 

But the ultimate storm that is coming is the storm of the judgment of God.  Clearly, this is what our Lord is referring to in the previous verses (21-23), and, as we’ve noted, these verses (24-27) are a parable explaining and illustrating those.  The fact of the matter is that even those whose faith is fake and shallow, it may not be discovered this side of the Day of Judgment.  As the apostle Paul put it to Timothy, “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of other appear later” (1 Tim. 5:24, ESV).  Some things will remain hidden now, but the day is coming when the hidden things of darkness will be brought to light (cf. 1 Cor. 4:5).

And this judgment is inevitable.  The storm came upon both houses.  Even so, we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.  A person may be able to fool men, but he or she cannot fool God.  Men look on the outside, but God sees the heart.  He knows whether your faith in Christ is mercenary or not.  He knows whether or not you truly love Christ.  He knows whether or not your faith is mere words or whether it is something that has transformed your life into Christ-likeness.

“And great was the fall of it.”  Our Lord does not merely say that the house fell, but that its fall was great.  It is ruined.  Even so, there will be literally nothing more horrible than the realization of self-deceived people on the Day of Judgment that their faith was worthless.  There will be no remedy then, no turning back the clock and starting over.  The day of grace had come and past.  “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (Jer. 8:20).

And yet what grace that we have such warnings as this!  Why did our Lord utter them?  Was it not to keep us from being a hearer but not a doer?  Was it not to warn us off of a false faith and a useless salvation?  And we of all people need to hear them.  We have heard the words of Christ.  Now the question is, will you be a doer of the word?  Will you apply them to your life?  Will you not only acknowledge the authority of Christ, but will you bow your heart to his authority?

This sermon ends with the response of the people who initially heard it: “And it came to pass, when Jesus had finished these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (28-29).  Of course, it is one thing to recognize that one speaks with authority, and it is another thing altogether to really accept that authority.  Do you accept that authority?  Do you call him, “Lord?”  Then should we not pray that God will help us to strive with all our might to obey these great and mighty words?  May he help us to do so!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Counterfeit Religion: Matthew 7:21-23

One of my favorite documentaries to watch is the BBC’s Planet Earth.  For me, it is a chance to revel in the grandeur of God’s creation.  But it is also a chance to remind myself that the world in which we live is marked by sin and its effects and that “the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now” (Rom. 8:22).  There is coming a time, according to the prophet Isaiah, when the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, but not yet (cf. Isa. 65:25).  I am reminded of this in a particular episode of the documentary which followed some elephants on their migration.  They document how that, during the migration, an elephant calf had been separated from its mother.  Alone in a desert and desperate for water, it was trying to follow the trail of its mother.  However, the narrator clues us in to the heartbreaking reality that the elephant calf is going the wrong way.  It is following the tracks of its mother, but in the wrong direction.  It thinks it is getting closer to its mother and water when it is actually getting further and further away from her.  We never really find out what happens to the elephant calf, but there is probably little doubt as to its end.

In a similar way, our Lord reminds us here in this text that there are a lot of people (“Many will say to me”) who think they are in the right way – the narrow way – but who really are in the broad way that leads to destruction.  This is another reason why there are few that find the narrow way.  It is not just that many openly and brazenly reject the strait gate in favor of the wide gate, but that some people actually think they have found the strait gate and entered it when in reality they have done exactly the opposite.  They have false peace.  They think they are saved when they are not.

Perhaps one explanation of this phenomenon can be traced to the fact of false prophets.  They come pretending to speak for God, when they are really leading people astray.  And the tragedy is that not only are the people lost, but they think they are saved because they have been assured by someone who claims to be speaking the truth.

Jesus’s words, however, point to something far more sinister and disturbing as the root cause of false peace.  It may be true that we have been duped by false prophets, but it is always true that the ultimate explanation behind any unconscious hypocrisy is self-deception.  We are so easily pleased as to what are true evidences of a genuine work of God in the soul, or what are true signs that we have really turned from our past sin to God.  And therefore we rest in things that are not the marks of a work of God in the heart.  I think it is significant that our Lord describes those who enter in by the narrow gate as “those who find it” (v. 14).  In other words, they who enter into the way that leads to life don’t just stumble onto it; they are looking and seeking for it, and they find it.  They are earnest and deliberate in their search, and so they are not so easily fooled by false prophets and false peace.

Another reason why it is so easy to be self-deceived lies in the fact that the flesh and the devil can mimic almost anything that God does.  It is not the same thing, but it looks a lot like it.  We’ve already seen this with reference to false prophets and false apostles.  Jesus tells us that they come to us as wolves in sheep’s clothing.  And we noted how that the apostle Paul says that they come as ministers of righteousness, but that this should not surprise us because Satan himself comes to us as an angel of light.  During the Great Awakening in the 18th century, when religious revival swept the land, there were not only a lot of genuine converts to Christianity, but it produced a lot of false converts as well.  This is one of the reasons why the theologian and pastor Jonathan Edwards who was contemporary with the Great Awakening and experienced both its ups and its downs, wrote his book Religious Affections.  He wrote in the preface to that book: “’Tis by the mixture of counterfeit religion with true, not discerned and distinguished, that the devil has had his greatest advantage against the cause and kingdom of Christ, all along, hitherto.”  If it can happen in revival, it can happen anytime.  And it does.  This is why our Lord speaks these words and why it is necessary for us to be able to distinguish counterfeit religion from true.

Unfortunately, we are living in a time when it is not very popular to say such things.  As soon as you suggest that someone who calls himself a Christian may in fact not be a Christian, or may not be saved, you are called a legalist or a heretic or worse.  We are told, “Once saved, always saved,” and this is interpreted to mean that a person who has made a profession of faith should never question their salvation. 

However, this is an unbiblical position.  We are in fact told to examine ourselves, to see whether we are in the faith (1 Cor. 11:28).  The apostle Peter tells us that we are to make our calling and election sure (2 Pet. 1:10).  Now it is true that we are not to so look inward that stop looking at Christ.  We are not to replace faith in and love for the Lord with continual introspection.  But neither can we get around the clear and repeated Biblical injunctions to test ourselves and our position with respect to God.  And the reason is that false professors of religion are just as real as false prophets.

But what about “once saved, always saved?”  I’m not disputing this fact.  Yes, it is gloriously true that none of God’s people will be lost.  Our Lord himself said, “My sheep hear my voice, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (Jn. 10:27-30).  And yet, we must balance this assertion of eternal security with the fact that all those who are saved are also those who hear Jesus’ voice and follow him.  In other words, it does no good to simply claim to belong to Jesus.  One must also follow him.  These are those who will never be snatched out of the Father’s hand.  This is what Jesus is trying to say in our text.

This is why I think the older theologians were wiser when they talked about the eternal security of the believer.  They did not use the slogan “once saved, always saved;” instead, they talked about the final perseverance of the saints.  In other words, they said that all the saints would persevere to the end and be saved.  Note that they didn’t just say that only those believers who persevered to the end would be saved (though that’s true as far as it goes); they said that all believers would persevere to the end and be saved.  So they really did teach the eternal security of the believer.  But they taught it in such a way that they did not detach it from the importance of a life of obedience to the Lord. 

However, some would argue that if it’s possible to have made a profession of faith in Christ and yet be lost, then assurance of salvation is impossible.  In other words, they would argue that it is wrong to warn people who claim to follow Jesus to examine themselves and to make their calling and election sure because this undermines assurance of salvation.  How could one, they argue, join Paul in Romans 8 in such heights of assurance if it is possible to be deceived?

To this I would say that in the final analysis, assurance is not something that we give ourselves.  That is the mistake of so many. To them, assurance is something like the number at the end of a sum, and as long as you’ve done the sum correctly, you can be sure the sum is correct.  But if you go back to Romans 8, and look closely at verses 14-17, you will note that assurance is something that is given to us by the Holy Spirit, and that he gives this assurance to those who are walking in the Spirit (Rom. 8:13-14).  In fact, you are not meant to have assurance, even if you are a child of God, if you are in sin.  One of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to convict us of sin and to drive us back to Christ and obedience to him when we go astray.  But this is not going to happen if you are in sin and simultaneously happy in your salvation.  One of the means to drive us back to Christ is the absence of assurance.  In fact, I would argue that if you are living in sin and okay with it, then you are probably not saved.  This is exactly what happened to King David when he sinned; he tells us that when he withheld confession and repentance that he was given no rest until he did so (cf. Ps. 32:2-5).  Thank God that this is so; it is part of his Fatherly discipline of his children.

So our Lord is telling us to examine ourselves here.  He is telling us that it is very possible to achieve great attainments in religion and yet be lost.  And we need to listen carefully here in order that we, too, can distinguish between true and counterfeit religion, and so that we may not end up with false peace.

Following our Lord in the text, let us consider those religious attainments which are not sufficient evidences of saving faith.  Then we shall consider what it is that is the true mark of someone who belongs to Christ and who shall be saved in the end.

What are some things that we might associate with saving faith, but which in and of themselves are insufficient evidence that one is saved?  As we look at the text, the very first thing we notice about those whom our Lord is describing is that they are orthodox in their belief: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord, will enter into the kingdom of heaven” (21).  Note that they call Jesus, “Lord, Lord.”  Some have argued that the word “Lord” (Gk. kyrios) here could mean nothing more than “sir,” and indicates a politeness with respect to Jesus but not a recognition of his lordship.  However, given what Jesus says in the parallel passage in Luke 6:46 (“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”), the use of “Lord” here is a recognition of sovereignty over life.  Jesus is not addressing himself to people who have rejected his claims, but to those who recognize them as his by right. 

What Jesus is saying is that on the Judgment Day, among those who will be rejected by Christ as having no right to enter into eternal life, will be those who during their lifetimes claimed to believe in Jesus as Lord.  In other words, it is not enough to believe the right things about Jesus Christ, if such belief has no effect upon your life.  The Bible does recognize the category of false faith; this is what James 2 is all about.  If your faith in Jesus is nothing more than an intellectual affirmation of certain truths about him, then you do not have saving faith.  After all, as the apostle James himself puts it, even the devils believe and tremble (2:19).  Is it not obvious that Satan has to be a better theologian than even the most orthodox theologian? He has to know all there is to know about God.  And yet, it has no effect upon him except to harden his stance of rebellion against God.

This is not to say that it is not important to believe right things about Jesus.  The wrong conclusion to arrive at here would be to say that all the matters is behavior, or that you can believe whatever you want to as long as you are nice to your neighbor.  However, since we are saved by faith in Christ (cf. Rom. 10), and faith has an intellectual component to it, certain truths must be affirmed.  As Paul puts it, we must confess with our mouths Jesus as Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead (Rom. 10:9).  The problem is that faith is not just intellectual affirmation - it also involves the affirmation of the affections and the will.  Having saving faith means that I not only recognize certain things about Jesus but that they are so real to me that they change my life.  It’s why Paul said, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).

The second thing we notice about these people our Lord is describing is that they are not only orthodox, but they are zealous.  They come to him, saying, “Lord, Lord.”  There is this double affirmation, indicating warmth and zeal on their part.  It is possible to be both orthodox and zealous in our orthodoxy and yet be lost.  This reality ought to give all of us pause.  Jesus is not just describing people who are orthodox but who care nothing about the truths that claim to profess.  Here are people who are active and involved in their church and the religious community – and excited about it.  And yet they are lost.

It is possible to get excited about the things of God and yet to do so for the wrong reasons.  In the parable of the sower, Jesus mentions the one who corresponds to the seed sown in rocky ground, who “hears the word, and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” (Mt. 13:20-21).  Here is someone who receives the word of God with joy, and yet falls away (does not persevere to the end!) and is lost.

How can this happen?  Well, one can receive the word with joy because it was part of their upbringing.  There is a nostalgia about the truth and religion and service in the church.  It was part and parcel of their childhood and they carry with them many joyful memories of it.  They are zealous in the work of the Lord, not because they really love Jesus Christ, but because they love these happy memories and want to hold on to them.

Or it can happen that a person loves the truth of God for its systematic and orderly nature.  They love to study Scripture and the word of God because its systematic nature satisfies some need within.  And yet they do not love the God of the Bible.  For them it is merely an object of study; they love the study of theology for its own sake, not because it brings them face to face with the living God.  There is no fellowship with God in it.  And yet they are excited about the Bible without ever truly becoming excited about the God of the Bible.  Do you think this is not possible?  It most certainly is: the Pharisees in Jesus’ day were a prime example of this.  In fact, Paul himself puts him in this category in the days before he met Jesus (cf. Phil. 3:4-6).

This is the key: why are we doing it?  Are we zealous for Christ because we love Christ, or are we zealous for Christ because religious work is just something that fills a need within?  Is working for God an end in itself or is it a means to a far more superior end: to know Christ and to make him known?

And this brings us to the third characteristic of these people: they did great works for the Lord.  They will profess to him at the Last Day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many might works in your name?” (22). Note the repeated emphasis on “in your name.”  They were very busy for Christ!  And not only this, but they accomplished great things in his name: prophesy, casting out devils, might works and miracles. 

Now think about it.  Here were people who cast out demons.  There is no reason to think that they are lying.  Judas Iscariot himself is an example who did this.  Jesus said elsewhere that Beelzebub didn’t cast out Beelzebub, and that the casting out of demons was proof that the kingdom of God had come near.  So what this mean is that one can participate in a genuine work of God – a work of God that is pressing back the boundaries of the kingdom of Satan – and yet be lost.  What you do for the kingdom of God is no proof that you are in it.  You can be very busy and accomplish great things for the Lord and yet be lost in the end.

The failure to realize this is one reason, I think, that so many people get bogged down in the interpretation of Hebrews 6.  There we read of people who “have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (4-5).  But we are then told that these people have fallen away, and that it is impossible to renew them to repentance (6).  Now some, when they come to this, think that here is clear evidence that people can lose their salvation.  But, as the context proves, this is not a description of people who were saved in the first place (7-9).  They don’t see this because they mistakenly think that verses 4-6 must refer to saved people and that the evidences in verses 4-5 can only belong to the saved.  But Judas is a person who experienced every one of these things and yet was lost.

Think of Balaam.  Here was a man who prophesied in the name of the Lord, and even prophesied of the coming of Christ.  But it is obvious from the testimony of Scripture that this man was a false prophet.  Or think about those that Paul describes in 1 Cor. 13: “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1-3).  You can do all this and yet be nothing!

We are deceiving ourselves if we are resting upon any of these things as sure signs that we are saved.  Orthodoxy in itself does not save; nor does religious zeal, or busyness for Christ, or an impressive resume of accomplishments in the kingdom of God. 

What does our Lord say is the ultimate evidence of saving faith?  It is doing “the will of my Father who is in heaven” (21).  And the final reason why people are lost: “And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (23).  What we need to ask ourselves is this: Am I obeying Christ?  Does he really rule my life?  Is he Lord of my life in fact not just in word?

There is a chorus of voices in the Christian world that tells us that works have no place in salvation, and this is just wrong.  It is true that we are not saved by our works (Eph. 2:9), but, as C. H. Spurgeon is said to have put it, neither are we saved without them (Eph. 2:10).  We are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.  Works do not form the foundation of our justification.  But good works issue of necessity from a heart that has been renewed by the Holy Spirit.  Good works are the evidence that we are saved.  They form the fruit that demonstrate that we are a good and not a corrupt tree.

And the essence of good works comes down to nothing more and nothing less than obedience.  And obedience comes down to how we apply God’s Word in our lives.  The will of the Father is declared in the Bible, in Scripture.  It is called “iniquity” or “lawlessness” (Gk. anomia) because it is against the law of God revealed in his word.  Are we taking Scripture seriously?  It is easy for us to be very strict in questions of theology. But what about those parts of Scripture that touch our lives?  What about self-control?  What about prayer?  What about the way we treat our spouses, our children, our neighbors and friends? 

There is nothing more terrible than the possibility of being among those to whom our Lord will say: “Depart from me, ye that work iniquity: for I never knew you.”  Jesus is not saying that he never knew about them – he is saying that he never was in a loving relationship with them.  They had never come to Christ to be saved, in faith and repentance.  And so, as Matthew Henry put it, those who will not come to Christ to be saved must depart from him to be damned.

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 ...