Sunday, February 26, 2023

The Vision of the Risen Christ (Rev. 1:9-20)

“You have to go find yourself.” “You need to discover who you are.” Have you heard that before? I bet you have, and I bet you’ve heard it more than once. The funny thing about this is that if you had said something like this to someone a hundred years ago, they would have looked at you like you had sprouted horns or were growing a tail or something. Such a statement would have been utterly incomprehensible to our forefathers, not because they were stupid, but for the simple reason that they already knew who they were!

So what is meant by that? “Go find yourself,” they say. Well, it is the motto of a culture that has elevated self-sovereignty over everything else. The primary value of our time is the freedom of the self. And so, according to the world, you get to decide who you are. It comes out in phrases like, “You can be whatever you want to be,” an obviously false statement. It comes to us in its most extreme form currently in the transgender movement, in which people are told that even their DNA is not a constraint on their personal identity as male or female.

I find that particularly interesting because it used to be the case that in common parlance DNA referred not only to biological realities, but also to the essential core identity of something, like that of a business or organization or group. You would hear people talk about the DNA of some organization, and what they meant by that was the essence of that organization, what it was, what is was about, what it stood for. But now, we want to divorce our identity from our DNA (which determines whether we are male or female) because according to the values of secular humanism, human freedom must have no objective or external constraints. Our culture is actually advocating the idea that there is no such thing as a real, objective essence to the human being.

This is a fragile identity. It’s fragile because it means that our identity is ultimately founded on how we feel about ourselves, on our emotions. To let the foundation of your identity rest on that may at first feel freeing, perhaps even dizzyingly so, but it is also results in an incredibly brittle identity. To rest your identify on how you feel about yourself is like building your house on quicksand. There is nothing fixed or firm or objective about that at all. For what are your feelings fixed upon? You have already rejected everything objective; there is nothing there upon which to hang your feelings. They are hanging on nothing; they exist on thin air.

Is it any wonder then that the modern man in the modern world is so confused and anxious and depressed? How can it be that people who walk around with supercomputers in their pockets wrestle with despair? But they do. It is amazing to me that despite the amount of power that we possess today, the modern man and woman can find no rest for their souls. There is a reason for this; and I think the fundamental reason for this has to do with our rejection of God’s sovereignty over us, replacing it with the pursuit of ultimate personal freedom and independence from God.

So one of the things I want to do in my message today is to offer a Christian alternative to the self- sovereignty which is preached by the elites and entertainers and educators of our post-modern world. For the identity of a Christian doesn’t hang in thin air. Rather, it is defined by who Jesus Christ is. And that is good news. For the message of Christ to us is the same message to John: “Fear not” (Rev. 1:17). And we can be confident that this is not a message which will change because he is “the first and the last” (11, 17), the one who “was dead; and behold, I am alive forevermore . . . and have the keys of hell and death” (18). Whereas the world cannot ultimately find freedom from fear, or at least has no rational basis for it, the Christian does. The security of our identity doesn’t hang on the flimsy film of personal feeling, but upon Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8).

That is where these verses come in. Jesus Christ is revealed to us in these verses (Rev. 1:9-20). In these verses, we have the beginning of the first of four visions which will determine the contours of this book. This is the vision of the risen Christ, beginning in 1:9 and going on to the end of the third chapter. In this vision, Jesus comes to John in his glory as the resurrected Son of God and commissions him to write this book that we are reading. Then in chapters 2 and 3, he will speak to the churches in Asia: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.

What does this have to do with our identity as Christians, you might ask? Well, John begins by defining his audience who are Christians in Christian churches, and the point I want to make is that this identification is determined by who Jesus is. In other words, in these verses we have Biblical confirmation that if you’re a Christian, you don’t look for personal meaning, you don’t find yourself like the world does, by looking inward. Our identity is not shaped by our feelings; rather, our feelings are meant to be shaped by our identity in Christ. The Christian doesn’t look to himself or herself – the Christian looks to Christ. This is the Christian alternative that I am talking about.

In these verses we have three things. First of all, we have The Question: What is a Christian? We will see the answer to that in verses 9-11. Then we have The Tension: how can we presently belong to God’s kingdom and yet be called to endure with patience through tribulation? This tension of course arises from the answer to the question of what the Christian is, for a Christian is defined by tribulation, kingdom, and endurance in verse 9. I have been saying that the modern quest for personal identity is fragile. But how about the Christian’s? Is our identity in Christ robust enough to endure through the worst that this world has to give us? (And we’re going to see, as we go through this book, that we are called to expect the worst from the world!) But then we have The Solution: the glory of the risen Christ resolves the tension, for he entered into glory through suffering, and he calls on us to do the same. More than that: we can be sure that we will enter into glory because we are united, not to a defeated Christ, but to a victorious and living Christ, the one who is the first and the last. We will see that in verses 12-20.

All of this book flows out of this vision. This is why it is first. You cannot understand any of the book of Revelation if you don’t see it as a vision anchored in this reality, that Jesus is not dead but that he is risen and has the keys of death and hell. And so those who are united to him by faith will also conquer death and rise victorious over death, hell, and the grave.

With that being said, let’s now look that these three things: The Question, The Tension, and The Solution.

The Question: What is a Christian?

John writes in verse 9, “I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.” What is a Christian? In this and the following verses a Christian is defined by the following things.

First of all, the Christian is a member of the family of God. Notice how John begins: “I John, who also am your brother and companion.” Here is the great apostle, and yet he does not advertise himself in that way. Rather, he identifies with them. And he reminds us that the Christian is a member of a family. God is our Father, and Christ is the firstborn among many brethren (Rom. 8:29). We in turn are brothers and sisters in Christ. No matter what the world thinks about us, no matter if they reject us, the church ought always to be a welcome and loving place for the followers of Jesus.

Unfortunately, this is not always so, and it is a sad commentary on the church that we are too often at each other’s necks when we ought to be at each other’s feet. What a terrible witness this is! Instead of pushing each other away, we ought to be embracing one another. Unity in the family of God is a given, but we often don’t act like it. We need to therefore remember this. We need to endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3). We are to be companions, fellow-laborers, and fellow- burden bearers. Are we? Do we? Do we receive each other as Christ received us to the glory of God (Rom. 15:7)?

How do we keep the unity of the Spirit though? What does this look like concretely? Here is where the doctrine of the church is so important. It is very easy to say, “Yes, I agree that we should be unified with other believers,” and yet when it comes to the local church, the local church can look like an evening at the fights. And we can become weary and want to disengage ourselves from the church. But before you do that, consider what our text has to say to that.

Where is Jesus here? He is “in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks” [or rather, lampstands] (Rev. 1:12-13). What are the lampstands? They “are the seven churches” (20). We’ve already made an argument from the significance of the number seven that these churches are meant to be representative. Now it’s important that we understand how they are representative. They are not representative in the sense that they describe the progression of church history, as if Ephesus represents the apostolic era and Laodicea the period of time immediately preceding the Second Coming. They are in the order they are in because all seven churches lay along an ancient postal route in Roman Asia, and they are listed in the order in which you would have met them along that route. In other words, their order has everything to do with geography and nothing to do with history! Rather, they are representative in the sense that this group of churches stands for the church as a whole in every place and in every age.

So when the text says that Jesus is in the midst of the lampstands, it is not just saying he was present with these churches, but that he is present with the church in every age (cf. Mt. 28:20). Jesus is present in the church. If you want to experience the presence of Jesus, you should seek it in the church. Now I believe in the idea of the universal church. But you should not divorce the church universal from the church local. These churches represent the universal church, and yet they are also specific local congregations. This means that if Jesus is so committed the local church, so should we. It is simply misguided and unbiblical to detach ourselves from the local church.

Consider also – looking ahead a bit – that of the seven churches, only two are not rebuked for sin. And yet Jesus is in their midst! I want to be where Jesus is, don’t you? He is knocking at the door of Laodicea; he is calling for Ephesus to repent. Let us not be so quick to give up on the church. Let us not be so quick to become discouraged by the church. We pursue the unity of the Spirit in the context of real relationships with real people (sometimes difficult people!) in real churches. What is a Christian? He or she is both a member of God’s family and a member of God’s church.

Next, he describes three common realities that every Christian experiences. Are you a Christian? Then can you identify with John in these three things?

The Christian is someone who is enduring tribulation: “your . . . companion in tribulation.” The entire NT witness agrees. “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). “And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch, confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:21-22). “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12).

I don’t doubt that the tribulation in verse 9 refers at least partly to persecution for the sake of the gospel. This is how it appears to be used most of the time in Revelation (cf. 2:9-10; 7:14). Here, in 1:9, John refers to the fact that he has been exiled to the island of Patmos “for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.” In other words, it appears that the Roman authorities didn’t like the fact that he preached the gospel and so they banished him to this rocky little island in the Aegean Sea off the western coast of Asia Minor.

But tribulation comes in many flavors. Physical sickness, depression, and trials in the family and business are just a few of the ways we can endure tribulation. Here’s a list from the apostle Paul, not all of which are directly related to persecution: “in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not?” (2 Cor. 11:23-29).

This bottom line is this: we shouldn’t think that because we are going through difficult times that God is against us, or that we must have messed up really badly somewhere. Not at all: this is the road every Christian must take. It is in the way of tribulation that we find sanctification and nearness to God. More holiness is gotten through severity than through softness.

The Christian is someone who is entering a kingdom: “your companion . . . in the kingdom . . . of Jesus Christ.” I say entering because the kingdom of God is both present and future. We are already in a kingdom (Rev. 1:6) but we are also in the process of entering a kingdom (Acts 14:22). God’s kingdom comes in its fulness, and our experience of this kingdom, after the return of our Lord in the Second Coming and resurrection of the just and the unjust. Right now we may not look like much, but consider that our Lord said that there is coming a day when “the righteous shall shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Mt. 13:43).

Brothers and sisters, remember this: you are not only members of a family, but you are royal children, sons and daughter of Almighty God. Do you believe that? “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God” (1 Jn. 3:1)!

The idea of a kingdom evokes images of privilege, power, and prosperity. Kings and queens are not wanting for many things. They have the most advantages. They have the most freedom. They have the most pleasures. And this is the word that is used to describe the Christian. And it is important to understand that we are not only in a kingdom, the kingdom of God, but we reign with him: “And he that

overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations: And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my Father” (Rev. 2:26-27). The life that is granted to the believer is called a “crown of life” (2:10; cf. 2 Tim. 4:8).

It is true that the fulness of this is to come. The crown of life is not granted yet. But it already belongs to the sons and daughters of the Most High. I am reminded of the advice that was given to Elizabeth I, when she had to hold the crown during her sister Mary’s coronation: “It will not seem so heavy when it sits on your head.” Right now we have the heavy task of holding a crown for others. But be of good cheer: it will not feel so heavy when it sits on your head – and if you belong to Jesus, it will!

Third, the Christian is someone who is exhibiting patient endurance: “your companion in the . . . patience of Jesus Christ.” The word translated patience here is rendered in the ESV as patient endurance. It’s the idea of perseverance. A Christian is someone who is persevering in the faith of Christ. This is important because, as our Lord put it, “he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved” (Mt. 24:13).

It’s called endurance because the Christian is not only defined by the reality of the kingdom but also by the reality of suffering and tribulation. Again, Acts 14:22 put these things together: we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom. Endurance is the thing that connects present suffering with eternal glory. Not that our endurance merits the kingdom and the glory. But endurance is the fruit of God’s grace in bringing us out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of his dear Son (Col. 1:13, 23).1

Now I think it is important to note here that all three things – tribulation, kingdom, and patience – are defined by Jesus Christ. The tribulation that we endure is the tribulation of Jesus Christ. The same with the kingdom and the patience. The Christian is not someone who has just had a hard life. Or just because you have high hopes for the afterlife does not make you a Christian. Just because you don’t give up when things get hard doesn’t make you a Christian. None of these things makes a person a Christian. Fundamentally, what makes a person a Christian is that they belong to Jesus Christ. And the way they show that they belong to him is by faith in him, embracing him as their Lord and Savior, and by repentance of sins. They show it by taking his name upon themselves in baptism. They show it by identifying with his people, the church. A Christian is a follower of Jesus Christ as he is presented to us in the New Testament, in the gospel.

The Tension: how do you hold the kingdom and the tribulation and patience together?

The tension here is a tension throughout Revelation. On the one hand, God reigns (cf. 11:15-17). But on the other hand, so do the dragon [Satan] and the beast [nations and states under Satan’s control] (13:1- 2). Because the beast reigns, the saints endure tribulation and persecution, even to the point of martyrdom (cf. 12:17; 13:7-10). But because God reigns, the saints are members of an eternal kingdom. Now the question is really this: how do you hold these two things together in your head as you are going through tribulation so that you endure to the end? That’s the tension. How does the promise that you are kings and queens of an eternal kingdom keep from letting the suffering you are enduring cause you to deny the faith? For, as we have said, the kingdom comes in its fulness in the future. But the suffering is in the present. The future can look so far away at times that it does not appear worth it to remain faithful to Jesus. I mean, after all, if God really does reign, why doesn’t he give us the kingdom now? It’s questions like that which can be so unsettling to our faith. That’s the tension that I’m talking about. It’s the tension between the present and the not-yet, between the tribulation which we have now and the kingdom which comes later.

The solution to this is found in the vision we have of Christ in verses 10-20.

The Solution: the Vision of the Risen Christ

Before we look at the details of this vision, I want to briefly pause and observe when and where John saw it: “I John . . . was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ. . . . I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet” (9- 10). John didn’t see this vision as he was luxuriating on the beach at an oceanside resort while on vacation getting some much-needed rest. In fact, I’ll be honest with you; in all my reading of church history, I read about some pretty remarkable encounters that people have had with the Lord, and none of them – none! – happened when they were enjoying a barbeque with friends. Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying vacations and barbeques are bad, far from it! But I am saying that the place where people meet God in a life-changing way is almost always in the context of some kind of suffering. And that is where John was, exiled away from those he loved most. There is some evidence that Patmos at that time was a penal colony. But it was in that place that he had this incredible vision that has blessed the church for two thousand years.

My friend, let’s not short-change God. You might think that you need to get out of whatever trouble you are in right now in order to get to a place where you can get alone with God and get right with him and experience personal revival. But John was “in the Spirit” on Patmos, on a penal colony, in exile. He was a companion with all who suffer tribulation. It was precisely here that the apostle was taken by the Spirit to a place where he was able to meet with Jesus Christ in all his resurrected glory. Maybe the Lord has put you in a difficult place so that you too can truly meet with him.

Let’s also notice when this happened. It was “on the Lord’s day” (10). Now some folks think that this is a reference to the day of the Second Coming. They argue that the language of the “the day of the Lord” is synonymous with “the Lord’s day.” And since “the day of the Lord” is a reference to that final day of days when Jesus returns and makes all things right, that must be what John is referring to here. In other words, the Spirit has put John in a time-capsule, so the speak, and they have traveled through time to the last day.

That’s not what John is talking about. For one thing, the word used here, kyriakos, is never used in the Bible – not even in the Septuagint – to refer to the Day of the Lord. For another, we know for certain that the early church from about the middle of the second century on uniformly used this very language to refer to the first day of the week when our Lord rose from the dead. That is what is being referred to here. This is the first day of the week, the day on which Jesus was resurrected. The church has from the beginning recognized the significance of this day. This is the day on which the church has met for worship from the start. Perhaps the reason John tells us the day here is to inform us that he was, whether alone or with others, worshipping the Lord, and it was then that God met with him. May we have the same expectation of meeting the Lord on his day!

But what did he see? What we will see is that John saw Jesus Christ who revealed himself to John and to us as a Prince and a priest who was defined by matchless purity, unequaled power, and incomparable perfection. First of all, we are told that he heard something, “heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet” (10). He “turned to see the voice that spake with me” (12). After turning, he sees seven golden lampstands and in the middle of the lampstands “one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the waist with a golden girdle” (12).

This is a description, first of all, of a Prince (cf. Rev. 1:5). I say that because of this phrase, “one like unto the Son of man.” This is the language of Daniel 7:13-14 – “I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.” The Son of man is a king whose kingdom is eternal and indestructible.

But this is also the description of a priest. The garments worn by this Son of man were priestly garments (Rev. 1:13).2 This, along with several other features, also points us to the heavenly being that Daniel saw in Dan. 10. Many of the features of Christ here are identical, or similar, to the features of the one the prophet saw. The difference is, however, that Daniel saw a vision of the preincarnate Christ; John sees a vision of the resurrected Christ. We should expect this, because Jesus didn’t come out of nothing – he is the expectation of OT hope and the parallels between Daniel 10 and Revelation 1 show this.

The features that follow in verses 14-16 show us that Jesus Christ is not only risen but that he is risen in purity, power, and perfection. First of all, consider how the purity of Jesus is communicated in this vision. Fire and light are often in the Bible associated with purity. Jesus is incomparably pure, he is perfectly holy, and this is seen in a number of his qualities. For example, we are told that “his eyes were as a flame of fire” (14) – his gaze is penetrating, so that no one is able to hide their sin or escape his judgment. We are told that “his feet [were] like unto find brass, as if they burned in a furnace” (15), so that he is able to crush the serpent’s head and all his enemies. We are told that “his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength” (16), reminding us of Paul’s description of God who dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16).

We see the power of Christ in the “voice as the sound of many waters” (15). When you see pictures of tsunamis and the power they possess, and when you realize that Christ is the one who created the oceans, and that this is communicated in the overpowering sound of his voice – you get an unmistakable picture of power. You see it also in the picture of a sharp, two-edged sword coming out of his mouth (16), “that with it he should smite the nations” (19:15). You see it in the fact that he holds in his hand “the seven stars” (16). (By the way, this shows that this is not meant to be a literal description; these are figures of speech that are communicating very important realities.)

In all these things, we behold perfection. The one whom John beholds is not someone who is in danger of dying. Indeed, he tells John, “I am the first, and the last, I am he that liveth, and was dead: and, behold, I am alive forevermore . . . and have the keys of hell and death” (17-18). There is no weakness in him, no imperfection either of character or ability.

This is a divine figure. We must not miss that. Now in the King James Version, Jesus addresses himself to John as “Alpha and Omega, the first and the last” (11; cf. 17). Most modern versions omit the phrase “Alpha and Omega” in 1:11. However, they all include this self-description of Jesus in 22:13. In other words, whatever the manuscript evidence is for the inclusion or exclusion of this phrase in 1:11, the fact that everyone agrees it is included in 22:13 means that this is how our Lord understood himself. And since the Father announces himself to us in this same way in 1:8, we have indisputable proof that Jesus understood himself as possessing the divine attributes of self-existence, immutability, and eternity. The Son of Man is the Son of God, co-equal and co-eternal.

You also see this in 1:14, where John sees that “his head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow.” How is that significant? Remember Daniel 7? There the “Ancient of Days” – clearly a description of God, and OT version of the “Alpha and Omega” – is described in this way: “the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool” (Dan. 7:9). The fact that Jesus is described in this way means that this is not just a description of a heavenly created being, but of someone who shares fully in the divine nature of the Ancient of days.

Now how does this vision solve the tension created by the definition of the Christian as a suffering king? How can we be kept from giving up on the future kingdom because of present suffering? The tension is solved because of the fact that the Christian belongs to Christ. He represents us to the Father, and he upholds us by his Spirit. We are connected to him and to his resurrection life like branches are connected to the life of the vine (Jn. 15:1-7).

And that means two things. It means that if we are followers of Jesus, we should expect suffering. For who is Jesus? He is the one who “was dead” (18). He is the one who washed us from our sins “in his own blood.” He achieved his victory through suffering, and he calls on those who follow him to do the same. This does not mean that we are meant to redeem ourselves or others, as Christ did. It simply means that following Christ means death to oneself, death to the world, even to the point of losing one’s physical life in this world. Suffering is not something to surprise us; it is something to be expected.

But the reason why we can do this is because Jesus didn’t just die. He rose from the dead. He conquered death. Again, he achieved his victory through suffering. Suffering is no proof that we are on a fool’s errand. If we belong to Jesus, it is the path along which we endure to eternal life. This is the point of the phrase, “I am alive forevermore . . . and have the keys of hell and death” (18). To have the keys means to have authority over. If you belong to Christ, death cannot have the last word. It cannot have authority over you. It no longer reigns over us; indeed, through Christ we reign over death. As the apostle Paul writes, “That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 5:21).

And this reality is communicated in all the features displayed in John’s vision of the risen Christ. This is the picture of the divine, powerful, eternal, holy, victorious, and sovereign Lord. This is not the picture of a defeated Christ; it is the picture of the one who has conquered. And because we belong to him, not because of our goodness but because of his grace, we can have supreme confidence that we will conquer with him and in him.

By the way, this is still a proper picture of Jesus for us. For “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive forevermore, Amen” (Rev. 1:18). The Jesus who John saw is the Jesus that we worship and serve today. He is the same today as he was then. He is the same unchanging and unchangeable.

He is risen. And he is risen for the church. He walks in the midst of the churches, the lampstands. And he holds in his hand the seven stars which “are the angels of the seven churches.” We’ll consider in our next message what the angels are. But for now we note their connection to the churches. Christ died for the church. He loves the church. He is coming again for the church.

And please hear this, he rules history for the church. It’s not like we have to wait until the end of history for Christ to reign. Brothers and sisters, he is reigning right now. This is the point of the command: “Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter” (19). Now some take this to be a basic outline for the book of Revelation. “The things which thou hast seen” is supposed to be chapter1, “the things which are” refers to chapters 2-3, and “the things which shall be hereafter” chapters 4-22. I doubt that such a neat outline is meant by this. I think rather the point is this: Revelation is a prophesy that deals with past, present, and the future. The point I want to make here is that Jesus speaks just as easily about the future as he does about the present and the past. Do you know why? Because he is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. He rules history, and he rules it for the church.

So, brother and sister, what Jesus said to John applies equally to all who belong to him: “Fear not.” Fear not the present and fear not the future. Fear not past failure or future uncertainties. Fear not your sins and fear not death. Be not afraid but be strong and courageous! Why? Why not? Look who your Lord is! Look where he is, what he has done, look who he is!

But this of course applies only if you belong to Jesus. Where are you this morning? When it comes to the person of Jesus Christ, the gospel both invites us and warns us. For sinners who need a Savior, it invites: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt. 11:28-30). “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son” (Rev. 21:6-7). But for rebels who persist in their self- sovereignty, it warns: “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death” (Rev. 21:8). Oh may we respond to the invitation and heed the warning!

There’s another verse that I think dovetails nicely with the triple definition of the Christian here in Rev. 1:9 – it is Rom. 12:12: “Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer.” We rejoice in hope because of the kingdom. This in turn fuels our endurance in tribulation. And one of the chief ways we endure is by continuing in prayer.

According to Mounce, in the LXX, in every case but one, the word podhvrhV referred to the robes of the high priest. Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, Revised (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1998), p. 58.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Our Gentle Savior: Matthew 12:14-21

There are two ways to overcome opposition. One way is to crush those who oppose you. The other way is to convince those who oppose you. One way is to force compliance; the other is to change the heart. Of these two methods, history reveals that the first is by far the most popular. It certainly brings about the quickest results. Winning battles is in some sense easier than winning hearts and minds.

Now God has the absolute right to crush all who oppose him. The universe is his realm; he is the King over all. When we sin, we are not simply messing up, we are putting ourselves in opposition to God. We are rebels against God’s holy, just, and good government. He would be completely just and good and holy to put an end to our rebellion by condemning us to eternal judgment.

And the fact of the matter is that there is coming a day when this will happen to all who refuse to lay down their arms and submit to Christ. There is coming a day, according to the last book of the New Testament, when all will be judged: “And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:12- 15). A day is coming when mercy and long-suffering will no longer be available. A day is coming when it will be everlastingly too late to turn to God. On that day, all God’s enemies will be finally and definitively defeated.

But that day has not come yet. Right now mercy is still extended to all who will receive it. And though we all ought to be looking for the Second Coming of our Lord, yet at the same time we ought also to be thankful for God’s long-suffering, since “the Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). God’s long-suffering is the reason why those of us who have believed have not perished.

In our Lord’s time, people were waiting for the Messiah. But they weren’t looking for a merciful Messiah and they missed the fact that the Messiah was not only a conquering King but also a suffering servant. They wanted a Messiah who would crush all opposition. And so when Jesus came and did not fit that bill, they rejected him. In the end, they killed him. At this point in Matthew's gospel, the conspiracy to kill Jesus begins: “Then the Pharisees went out, and held a council against him, how they might destroy him” (ver. 14). The irony is, however, that though they wanted a conquering king, what they needed was the suffering servant. They rejected him for being the very thing that they needed the most.

You see, though we look around and see only enemies external to us – people, most of all, who make life difficult and miserable and unbearable for us, or circumstances that we wish were different – the fact of the matter is that our worst enemy is staring at us in the mirror every morning when we brush our teeth. The real opposition in our lives that needs to be defeated is not someone or something outside of us, it is the opposition that lies in our own hearts and minds and affections and thoughts. It is the sin within, not just the evil without, that needs to be crushed. This is what our Lord tried to get the people in his day to see: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (Jn. 8:32). But they didn’t get it, because to them, they didn’t see the chains forged by sin that wrapped around their hearts: “They answered him, We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?” And so our Lord tells them the truth about sin: “Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin” (33-34). We are all the servants to us until the Son makes us free (36).

Which means that what we really need is mercy and grace and long-suffering. We don’t need a Christ who has come to destroy his enemies, but a Christ who has come to save his enemies. We need grace just as much as we need justice. And that is what our text this morning is about. It tells us that Jesus Christ came with great compassion and long-suffering. And this is something worthy of our meditation and which should call for the joy of our hearts. As Calvin put it, “When Christ is thus pleased to condescend to our weakness, let his unspeakable goodness be embraced by us with joy.”

The first way that Matthew points us to the gentleness and compassion of Christ is first, by reminding us of his healing ministry (ver. 15-16). By pointing to his healing ministry, Matthew reminds us of those whom society could not help and in many ways had cast off. Jesus healed them all. However, it was not only what he did, but how he did it that underscored his compassion. Our Lord knew that at the end of the day, “the hour” for which the Father appointed him meant death for him so that his people could be saved. The temptation to short-circuit the path to the cross was constantly before him. The easiest thing in the world for our Lord to do – especially in light of the conspiracy and rising opposition of the religious leaders – would have been for him to leverage his popularity (note Matthew’s comment that “great multitudes followed him” in verse 15) in order to avoid persecution and the horrible death of the cross. He certainly could have done it. And yet he never did. Instead, he quietly withdrew and charged those he healed to not make him known and waited for the hour to come (15-16). His love for his people led him to reject the easy path and willingly choose the path to the cross.

The second way that Matthew points us to the gentleness and compassion of Christ is by pointing us to the prophet Isaiah in verses 17-21. Here he is quoting from Isaiah 42:1-3, which is about the Suffering Servant. In doing so, Matthew proves that this is not a version of the Christ that he or others have made up; this is the authentic Christ.

Isaiah’s picture of the Messiah was way out of step with many of the current ideas in our Lord’s day of what he was supposed to be like. And yet, though many rejected this notion of the Christ, he is the one the Father had chosen (18). Note that God through the prophet says essentially the same thing three different ways: “I have chosen this one.” Instead of a king who will crush all who oppose him, and especially the Gentiles, the God of Israel anointed his Servant, who would proclaim justice to the Gentiles (18) and in whose name the Gentiles would hope (21). Here was someone who would not cry aloud or quarrel in the streets (19), and who would deal gently with the weak (20).

What I want to do in the remainder of this message is to meditate with you on the gentleness of Christ, and what it means to you and me.

First of all, it is the gentleness of Christ that opens a door of mercy for us. We live in a time when everyone thinks that they are owed something. And when it comes to God, things are no different. We tend to think that God owes us a good life here and a perfect one hereafter. People can’t imagine a God who would send a person to hell.

But the fact of the matter is that God doesn’t owe us anything. God doesn’t even owe us the opportunity to be saved. He would be perfectly just if he took every sinful human being and consigned them to everlasting destruction. And that’s all of us. So why is anyone saved?

Salvation is possible because of the grace and gentleness of God in Christ. I say gentleness as well as grace, because this is the perfect description of the way God holds the door open for us. God does not come to us in anger, he comes to us in the Gospel. He pleads with us: “We pray you, in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God!” (2 Cor. 5:21). He reasons with us: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as scarlet, though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isa. 1:18). He invites us: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). He doesn’t force us kicking and screaming against our will into the kingdom; rather, he changes our hearts so that we willingly receive eternal life. He is gentle. No wonder our Lord underlined his invitation with the words, “for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest for your souls” (Mt. 11:29).

The apostle Paul is a perfect example of this. Here was a man who was a persecutor of the church. He hated Jesus and all of his followers. He had nothing but disgust for Christianity. And yet notice the way in which the Lord confronts him on the road to Damascus. He does not rail at him for all his sins, but asks him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” That question does not exude anger; it conveys compassion for Saul the persecutor. That’s gentleness. And it opened the door of mercy for him. Many of us can testify to the same experience.

Second, it is the gentleness of Christ that he does not hold our sins against us. Once we are saved, and justified and forgiven, the battle for sin has in one sense on begun. The greatest of saints have committed the greatest of sins. One of our problems, I think, is that we can forget how loathsome sin is. We can forget that sin is an offense to God. We can become hardened in our hearts toward the Savior. And we can backslide, sometimes for long periods of time. Instead of bearing fruit that glorifies God, we produce brambles that cause others to stumble.

And we shouldn’t think that God just overlooks this. These things really are grievous to him. God can have “somewhat” against us (cf. Rev. 2:4). And yet, the Scriptures plainly say that if we confess our sins, God will forgive them (1 Jn. 1:7). It doesn’t matter how many times we come to him in genuine repentance, God forgives. This is incredibly difficult for many of us to understand and to grasp because we are all willing to forgive a certain number of times, and then forget it! But our God is a God of grace and meekness, and for that we ought to be exceedingly thankful.

Jesus does not hold grudges against us. He is not bitter against his people because of their past sin, no matter how great it is. If we repent and in our heart we turn away from that which has grieved him, he will receive you again. Think about the church at Laodicea. Our Lord said that their sin was so bad it made him want to throw up (Rev. 3:16). They were “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). And yet – our Lord still affirmed his love for them: “As many as I love, I rebuke, and chasten: be zealous therefore and repent.” Then he says this: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he will me” (Rev. 3:19- 20). It’s important for you to realize this because if you don’t believe that, it will keep your from coming back to him. Look, your sin will not keep Christ from receiving you as long as you are willing to let go of your sin. It is not how bad our sins are that keep us from Christ; it is how badly we want to keep our sins that keeps us from Christ.

Third, it is the gentleness of Christ that he is long-suffering towards us. Perhaps you may think that though you may not sinned so greatly, yet because you have sinned for so long that the Lord will not forgive you or love you or receive you. Perhaps you have reasoned that you have been away from the Lord for so long that there is now no way to come back. But my friend, that is not so.

Consider the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). It is the story of a man who leaves his father and goes into a “far country” to waste his father’s inheritance in wicked living (13). We are not told how long he was there, but it was long enough for him to spend everything; it was probably a long time. It was only after he has come to the bottom of the barrel that he realized his foolishness. Now it is an unfortunate fact that many people have fathers who would never receive such a son back. And in fact this son wasn’t so sure: “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants” (18-19). But the father was willing to receive him with his whole heart. In fact, he had been looking for him to come back (20, ff). Our Father is just like that. In fact, this parable was meant to illustrate the joy that is in heaven when one sinner repents (7,10). Praise God for his long-suffering towards us!

Finally, it is the gentleness of Christ that orders the events of our lives in order to grow us in grace. David referred to this in 2 Sam. 22:36, when we wrote, “Thou hast also given me the shield of thy salvation: and thy right hand hath holden me up, and thy gentleness hath made me great.” Now that’s interesting when you consider who wrote that. David didn’t spend his life in a penthouse. He spent a lot of it in caves and on the run. In many ways, he had a difficult life. And yet, according to 2 Sam. 22:1, this psalm was written near the end of David’s life, after all the difficulties had come. This was from the perspective of someone who wore the scars of a lot of battles (literally and figuratively). And yet when he looks back over his life, he sees the gentleness of God leading him along.

We need to realize that, especially when we are in the heat of a battle. We need to realize that God guides us, even in the hard times, with gentleness. He knows exactly how much we can handle. And his grace always comes in to bear us up in our difficulties: “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way of escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Cor. 10:13). God is holding us in the palm of his hand. He will never leave us or forsake us! A bruised reed he will not break and a smoking flax he will not quench (Mt. 12:20).

So what shall we say to this? How then shall we live? Well, I think the first appropriate response is that which is indicated in verse 21 of our text: “And in his name shall the Gentiles trust (hope).” If this is our Savior, then let us hope in him. He is meek and lowly. He is not harsh or bitter or angry; he is loving, and compassionate, and long-suffering and inviting. We can come unto him and we ought to come unto him. Our greatest need is not power to overcome our difficulties; our greatest need is to surrender to the gentleness of our Lord and Savior who does for us what we cannot do. He forgives our sins, he frees us from sin’s power, and he redeems us from the power of death. Let us hope in him!

But then of course this ought to affect the way we live. It ought to affect the way we interact with others. And so it should come as no surprise when we are confronted in the New Testament with the command to become meek and gentle people. For example, Paul instructs Timothy, “But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes. And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all me, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:23-25). He tells Titus that believers are “to speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers, but gentle, shewing all meekness unto all men,” reminding us of the redemptive reasons why this must be so: “For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But after that the kindness and love of God our Savior toward man appeared. . . .” (Tit. 3:2-4). The apostle James writes that “the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (Jm. 3:17).

Let us so trust in Christ, and so look to him, that we become more like our Savior.

Friday, February 17, 2023

Jesus the Lord of the Sabbath: Matthew 12:1-13

Many of us at one time or another have struggled with how to apply the Fourth Commandment to our lives: “Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy.” There are a number of problems. One problem is that, strictly speaking, the Sabbath Day is the seventh day of the week, not the first. So there is the question of whether or not Christians should keep Sabbath on Saturday or Sunday. There are many Christians, even to this day, who are emphatic that you are violating the Sabbath if you do not rest from all work on Saturday. Others uphold what they call the Christian Sabbath and argue that Christians should observe the Sabbath Day on the first day of the week, since that is the day on which Jesus was raised, and it is pretty clear that it was on that day that the early church regularly got together to worship (cf. Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2).

Then there is the question of how to observe the Sabbath Day. Are Christians supposed to rest entirely from all work on that day? Others say that the Sabbath Day has been fulfilled in Christ and that we are no longer under the obligation to literal, physical rest one day a week. They would claim that the Sabbath regulations hold the same sway over Christians as do the ceremonial regulations of the law. In fact, many would put them in the same category.

Of course, the whole problem boils down to the fact that the Fourth Commandment is, well, the Fourth Commandment. Since it is pretty clear that all the other nine commandments are still in force, why would the Fourth Commandment be any exception? The argument is that though the ceremonial law is no longer in force, the moral law is. And the moral law is summarized in the Ten Commandments. Just as the prohibition to commit murder transcends covenantal discontinuities, so also does the prohibition to violate the Sabbath Day. Or does it?

Looking at passages such as the one before us is incredibly helpful in getting a proper perspective on the Sabbath Day. Remember that the context is the increasing opposition to Jesus, his disciples, and their ministry. Here, the Pharisees accuse Jesus’ disciples of breaking the Sabbath (ver. 2). Our Lord’s response is instructive to the current debate, because he answers on two levels. On one level, he argues convincingly from the Law that his disciples had in fact not violated the Sabbath. So the accusation was false for that reason alone. But Jesus makes another argument, one which I think sheds much light on the issue of Sabbath observance. He argues that he is the Lord of the Sabbath. I think it is important for us to understand exactly what he means by that in order to really come to grips with our place in Sabbath observance. In effect, he is arguing that he is the fulfillment of the Sabbath, as he is of the whole Law. The Law is to be interpreted in reference to Christ, to whom the Law points.

I don’t think it is coincidental that this passage comes on the heels of Matthew 11:28-30, where Jesus invites the weary to find rest in him. Essentially, in that passage our Lord is telling people that he is the one in which the Sabbath finds its ultimate fulfillment. The Sabbath pointed through physical rest to the rest that we find in God. We see the same thing going on in Hebrews. When the author of Hebrews exhorts his readers to enter into rest, he is obviously referring to finding rest in Christ (Heb. 4:1). But then he goes on to interpret this rest in terms of the Sabbath, of entering into God’s rest (Heb. 4:4). After explaining that this rest should not be interpreted in terms of the inheritance of the land of Canaan (Heb. 4:5-8), he concludes that “there remaineth therefore a rest for the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his. Let us labor therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief” (Heb. 4:9-11). To fail to believe is to copy the example of the unbelieving Israelites who did not enter into the land of Canaan (Heb. 3:19). But in this context, it is not a failure to believe the promises to enter into the land of Canaan, but a failure to “hold fast the confidence and rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end” (Heb. 3:6), a hope that is centered in Christ as the Apostle and High Priest of our profession (Heb. 3:1, cf. 3:14). To keep the Sabbath, according to the author of Hebrews, is to firmly trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior, to find one’s rest in him.

I think Matthew juxtaposes these two passages because he wants us to see that the Pharisees didn’t see this. The problem is deeper here than misinterpreting a passage of Scripture. The problem is their failure to recognize the Messiah for who he was. This was the fundamental problem. But it inevitably led to other problems, including misinterpreting the Sabbath observance. In fact, they had replaced even the physical rest that the Sabbath had promised for the good of man with burdensome regulations. These regulations did not come from God’s law but had accrued over the years as men added to God’s simple command. Carson notes that “the Jewish rules of conduct about Sabbath were extremely detailed; and it was wryly admitted that ‘the rules of conduct about Sabbath . . . are as mountains hanging by a hair, for [teaching of] Scripture [thereon] is scanty and the rules many’.”1 Far from giving people rest, they made men weary and heavy laden. R. C. Sproul explains: “Where God has left people free, the rabbis had put them in chains. They had multiplied prohibitions for the Sabbath to an astonishing degree. For example, in trying to define what it meant to go beyond necessary labor on the Sabbath, they decreed that it was a sin to untie a knot on the Sabbath. If someone accidentally knotted his sandal laces, he had to leave them knotted until the Sabbath was over because untying them would be unnecessary work. In another example, they said that if a person tore a garment, he was allowed to sew one stitch, but no more.”2

You can see this in the accusation that they put to our Lord. As the disciple go through the corn fields, and found themselves hungry, they “began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat” (12:1). This offended the Pharisees: “But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do on the Sabbath day” (12:2). They saw the actions of the disciples as a violation of the Sabbath commandment. But what was really wrong with this? There is nothing in the Fourth Commandment that forbids people who are hungry with picking up something to eat, whether from the field or from the cupboard. What it forbad was regular work and the carrying on of a trade. It’s important to note that one of the reasons given for the commandment in Deut. 5:14 was so that “thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou.” One can see the stupidity of the reasoning of the Pharisees in that picking a head of corn would hardly have been considered as work and wearisome labor to such servants!

How does our Lord answer these accusations? He answers them with two examples from Scripture and a quotation from Hosea 6:6 (which he has already used against the Pharisees in Mat. 9:13). In each of these examples, our Lord does more than just answer his accusers; he tells us something about himself. But he also tells them about themselves. In particular, the Pharisees went wrong with the Sabbath because they had three things wrong: they had a wrong attitude toward the Law, a wrong view of Christ, and a wrong approach to people.

The Example from David (3-4): A Wrong Attitude toward the Law

Our Lord’s reference to David comes from 1 Sam 21, which tells the story of David’s flight from King Saul. As he was fleeing, he came to the house of God, at that time located in the tabernacle at Nob. Having left in haste, having no time to carry provisions with him, he asked for bread. But there was no bread, except the Bread of the Presence. The problem was that this was holy bread, meant only for the priests to eat (Lev. 24:5-9). Unless you were a priest, you weren’t supposed to have it. In fact, our Lord acknowledges this when he says that David “entered into the house of God, and did eat the showbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which with him, but only for the priests” (4).

Now it’s important to follow our Lord’s argument here. The Pharisees had accused him of breaking the Sabbath, of breaking the Law of God. But the fact of the matter was, so did David. He broke the letter of the Law by eating the sacred bread. However, the Scriptures do not cast aspersions upon David for so doing. In fact, the priest himself evidently saw no problem with David and his companions eating the bread, since it was the only bread there. Our Lord’s argument seems to be: if David broke the Law and got away with it, why can’t he? In other words, if the Pharisees were consistent, they would have to condemn David along with Jesus. This example, therefore, was meant to point out to them the fact that their whole approach to the Law had to be wrong.

What was there approach? I think one of the reasons they had gone wrong was that they had made the Law an end in itself. The Law no longer became a mirror which pointed to greater realities. Instead, as the apostle Paul put it, the Law became a veil upon their heart (2 Cor. 3:13-15). They didn’t see the Sabbath as an invitation to God’s rest; rather, they saw the Sabbath as another thing to do to improve their spiritual resume. And if you turn religious duties into entries in a resume, you are going to start trying to make each duty look more impressive. And that’s where a lot of extra-biblical practices come from. There is a lesson here for all of us. The Pharisees haven’t been the only ones to get caught in this trap. There are many practices in the lives of a lot of believers that have no real root in Scripture, and yet they have been elevated to the level of Scriptural authority because these believers have become focused on building a spiritual resume instead of pleasing our Lord and seeking to walk in fellowship with him. It is so easy to miss the Master for the means.

Incidentally, the current controversies about the Sabbath are no different. Regardless where you come down on the issue, it is possible to miss the whole point by missing the main point. The main point of the Sabbath laws was to point people through physical rest to rest in Christ. Whether you believe that a person should literally physically rest one day of the week, or whether you believe the commandment is no longer binding in a literal sense, if you are more concerned about building a spiritual resume than you are with resting in Christ, you have already lost, even if you have the right position. Getting the Sabbath right does no one any good if they are not seeking the presence of the Lord. What are you doing? Are you trying to build a spiritual resume or are you seeking to please the Lord?

The Example of the Temple Priests (5-6): A Wrong View of Christ

The second example our Lord refers to the work the temple priests had to perform on the Sabbath. They obviously had to carry on their own work, including offering sacrifices, which was a lot of hard labor (5). And yet the priests remained blameless. The Law itself therefore provided for exceptions. The lesson: the Sabbath commandment was not meant to be absolute.

However, our Lord’s point is more than that there are exceptions to every rule. He goes on in verse 6 to say, “But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple.” What he is saying here? He is referring to himself, and he is basically saying that since temple service superseded the Sabbath laws, and since he [the Christ] is greater than the temple, he has the right to set aside the Sabbath laws as well. Carson writes, “The authority of the temple laws shielded the priests from guilt; the authority of Jesus shields his disciples from guilt.”3

His first argument is that the Pharisees had indeed misinterpreted the Sabbath commandment. The disciples are innocent (7) because they had in fact not broken the law at all. But the second argument goes further and says that even if the disciples, like the priests in the temple on the Sabbath, have broken the law, they are still not guilty because our Lord’s authority has precedence over the authority of the Sabbath regulations. He has the right to set it aside because he is the Christ.

Now this does not mean that Jesus is revoking his previous statement in the Sermon on the Mount to the effect that he had not come to destroy the law or the prophets but to fulfill (Mt. 5:17). For our Lord’s claim to have the right to set aside the Sabbath laws rests in his role as the one who fulfills the law. Sabbath observance can no longer hold the same place in the life of the church now that Christ has come.

This is in fact the argument that the apostle Paul makes in his letter to the Colossians. Against the backdrop of our Lord’s triumph over evil upon the cross, he writes this warning to the believers there: “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon or of the Sabbath days: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ” (Col. 2:16-17). This is the passage that convinced me that the Sabbath observance is in the same category as the ceremonial laws which passed away with the coming of Christ; for this is exactly the way the apostle categorizes the Sabbath laws. Some people try to get around this by claiming that the “Sabbath days” under consideration here was not the weekly Sabbath, but other Sabbath observances. However, this does not hold up in this text. Note the progression: “holyday” – this is a reference to the yearly holy days, like Passover; “new moon” – this is a reference to the monthly holy days; finally, “Sabbath days” – this is a reference to the weekly holy days, the seventh day of every week. The apostle says that such days are shadows but Christ is the reality to which they faintly point. We have Christ the one in whom we find true rest, Paul says, so don’t let someone judge you about Sabbath observance.

Incidentally, I agree that the other nine commandments in the Decalogue remain binding upon all men. But this is not because these are in the Ten Commandments; it is because every single one of them are reinforced in the New Testament by our Lord and his apostles. I do believe that the moral norms of the law of God are binding; but the way we find out which laws belong to the category of unchanging moral norms and which belong to the category of the ceremonial which pass away is by allowing the New Testament to help us interpret the Old Testament. The New Testament tells us which commandments are binding upon the conscience, and which have passed away with the coming of Christ.

However, that being said, there is still a sense in which the Fourth Commandment is still binding upon men. It is not binding in the sense that it still requires us to literally rest one day a week. But it is binding in the sense that it calls us to find our rest in Jesus Christ. We keep Sabbath when we rest in Christ. And we are commanded to rest in him! This is what the author of Hebrews meant when he wrote, “There remaineth therefore a rest [sabbatismos, keeping of Sabbath] to the people of God” (4:9). He was not arguing that these Jewish Christians should keep the Sabbath Day holy (which they already did); he was arguing that they should find their rest in Jesus (from whom they were wavering). They can cease from their works, because Christ has worked for them (4:10). They are the new creation, complete in Jesus.

Jesus our Lord is greater than the temple because he is the one to whom the temple pointed. Just like the Sabbath. The tragedy was not so much that the Pharisees were legalistic with their Sabbath observance. The tragedy was that in their Sabbath observance they missed the one to whom it pointed, and in so doing took rest and turned it into work. We have to be careful that we don’t do the same thing.

The Hosea Passage (7-13): A Wrong Approach to People

Our Lord then quote the prophet Hosea: “But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless.” Not only was the Pharisees’ approach to the Law wrong, not only was their view of Christ wrong, but their approach to people was wrong as well. This is in some sense inevitable, because if your view of Scripture is wrong and your view of Christ is wrong, it will affect the way you interact with people. It just goes to show that theology has inevitable practical consequences. Those who tell you that theology has no bearing upon life need to contemplate passages like this one.

The Pharisees got so bogged down in the details of the Law that they missed the big picture; that the Law was meant to train them to love the Lord their God above all things and then to love their neighbor as themselves. Hosea spoke to this truth in his day. In those dark and declining times, people went through the motions of religious service when their hearts were far from God and cold towards their fellow man. What Hosea and the other prophets pointed out was that no amount of religious service made up for their sins against others. Even so, our Lord tells his interlocutors that they should have been able to see that their view of the Sabbath was wrong because it was not in line with the priorities of Scripture itself. In the parallel passage in Mark, our Lord says, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:27). As Sproul puts it, “Jesus’ point in saying that the Sabbath was ‘made for man’ was that it is a gift from God to His people, a gift to keep them from wearing out their bodies, their animals, their servants, and their fields.”4 Instead, the Pharisees had made it into something that was a burden for people. Because they didn’t have a heart for people, their religion became a stumbling block for people instead of the help to them it was meant to be.

Our Lord’s response clearly outraged the Pharisees, because they went out and tried to find a way to trick Jesus into a situation in which it would be easy to level an accusation at him (10). They found this in the case of a man who had a withered hand. In general it was agreed by the rabbis that it was okay to heal on the Sabbath when one’s life was in danger. But this did not apply here, and so they felt that here they were on solid ground: it was clearly against the rules to heal this man.

But once again, the Pharisees were wrong because they didn’t keep the priority of mercy before their eyes. Our Lord argues that it is right to do well on the Sabbath (12). He gives an analogy between this man and sheep (11). Such was the hardness of heart that they accorded more pity to an animal than they would have to a man! As if to make his point, Jesus heals the man (13).


In verse 8, our Lord makes a shocking statement: “For the Son of man is Lord of the Sabbath day.” At the end of the day, the reason why the Pharisees went wrong, and why so many go wrong today, is because they got Jesus wrong. They didn’t understand that Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. He is the one to whom the Sabbath points. He stands over the Sabbath. He is greater than the Sabbath ordinance, just as he is greater than the temple. And this does not just apply to disputes about the Sabbath day. It applies to everything. No matter how much else we get right, we will inevitably go wrong if we get Jesus Christ wrong.

1D. A. Carson, Matthew 1-12 (EBC), page 279.
R. C. Sproul, Mark (St. Andrew’s Expos. Comm.), page. 52.
Carson, page 282.
Sproul, page 52.

Rejection and Invitation: Matthew 11:16-30

Who is Jesus? This is the main question that the evangelist Matthew is helping us answer. He wants us to see that Jesus is the fulfillment of Old Testament history and prophesy, that he is the one who brings to ultimate fulfillment the promises given to Abraham, and that he is the one who will reign on David’s throne and usher in the Messianic kingdom. He is not just a prophet, he is the Son of God.

This means that Jesus is your King and my King. It means that our lives are lived under the auspices of his sovereign rule. It means that he has ultimate authority over our lives and that every word we speak, every decision that we make has to be weighed in light of his will and word. It means that we should bend the knee to Christ as King now, just as all the world will do so at the Final Day.

But it also means that Christ is King no matter what people think of him. Jesus is not just King for those who accept this fact. This is objective reality, just as gravity is objective reality. The Law of Universal Gravitation does not just work for those who choose to accept it; it is in force whether you like it or not.  At the same time and in the same way, Christ always rules. There is no person who is able to claim exemption from his rule. A failure to believe in him is not an out. Rejecting Christ because you don’t believe in him is like walking off a cliff because you don’t believe in gravity.

There is therefore an awesome responsibility that is laid upon every person who has come in contact with the gospel, the responsibility to own the Lordship of Christ over their life. And there is an awful culpability for those who do not. If Christ is who the gospels say that he is, then it is no light matter to reject him as Lord over your life.

The text before us has much to say about the responsibility and consequences of accepting and rejecting Jesus as the Christ. Remember that the overarching theme of these chapters (11-13) is the increasing opposition and hostility to Christ. I think one of the functions of our text is to give an explanation for this. Why was he rejected? And why is he still rejected by so many today? The text helps us to see why this happens, in verses 16-19. In these verses, our Lord tells us something about the depth of our depravity. However, our depravity – awful and enslaving as it is – is still no excuse for the willful rejection of the Son of God. So in the following verses (20-24), we are told something about our responsibility.

However, this is not the whole story. Really, if the text ended at verse 24, this would be depressing indeed. But there is more to the story than our sin and rebellion. In fact, left in our depravity, we would never take one step toward Christ. The entire human race would be condemned (and justly so) with the cities in which Jesus preached and healed. What then is the counterpoint to our sin? Note that in verse 25, we read, “At that time, Jesus answered and said . . . .” Answered what? Although some point out that this phrase is a Hebraism, I think nevertheless that there is significance to the fact that in this text, our Lord is said to be giving an answer. And the answer that he is giving is an answer to the question posed by rejection. How can you go on in the face of such rejection? Do you quit?

By the way, this is not an academic question meant for our Lord alone. Missionaries in hard places have often had to ask the question if their ministry is worth it when they are faced with little fruit. Many of the most famous missionaries in history, like William Carey and Adoniram Judson, went years before they saw a single convert. In those years, they often had opportunity to give in to the doubts and fears of failure that no doubt filled their minds and hearts. What did they do? Well, if you read their biographies, you will find out that what kept them going in the hard times was their confidence in the sovereignty of God. And it is this truth that our Lord turns to in this text (verses 25-27). In fact, our Lord does the very same thing in John 6 in the face of overwhelming rejection (a chapter that ends with many going back and walking no more with him).

Now God as sovereign does not have to save anyone. He is beholden to no one. “Who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed again?” (Rom. 11:35). And the fact that God is not dealing with innocent humanity but with sinful humanity – and we must remember that sin is not to be thought of merely in terms of messing up or making our lives and the lives of others miserable, but in terms of the rejection of God’s rightful ownership of our lives, treason against our King – then it should surprise us, not that some people are condemned, but that anyone at all is saved. And yet, surprising though it is, our sin is met with God’s mercy. In a text that begins with sin and rejection, it is delightful to see it end with an invitation from our Lord to weary sinners – an invitation that is all of grace from beginning to end, an invitation to find rest and salvation (verses 28-30).

Thus, in light of who Jesus is, this text tells us something about four great truths. It tells us something about the depth of our depravity (16-19), it tells us something about our responsibility (20-24), it tells us something about God’s sovereignty (25-27), and it tells us something about God’s undying mercy (28-30).

The depth of our depravity (16-19)

We often measure wickedness by how it affects other people, especially those we consider innocent. However, the sin that is underneath every other sin that has ever happened in the world is the sin of Adam and Eve in eating the forbidden fruit. What was so bad about that? Eating fruit leads to death? I dare say that most people can’t even fathom that. But that is because we don’t consider that what makes sin so bad is that every sin is fundamentally and at its root a rejection of God. This is the poison that bears the fruit of murder and adultery and lying and greed and every other evil that has been committed in human history. So we should not measure sin primarily in how it affects my neighbor, but we should measure it in terms of our rejection of our Maker and King.

What the opening verses of our text tells us about human depravity is that we are so enamored with our sin and so hostile to God, that we will find any excuse to reject him, no matter how implausible that excuse is. Men love darkness rather than light – they don’t reject it because the dark has better claims upon them than the light – they reject it because they love it and they hate the light (cf. John 3:18-21). I was talking to someone the other day who told me that even if it could be proven that the God of the Bible existed, they wouldn’t want to worship him. You see, that’s the problem. Behind all the intellectual objections to the claims of Christ is the love of sin and autonomy. The apostle Paul put it this way: “But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost, in whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them that do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them” (2 Cor. 4:3-4).

Our Lord likens this situation to children playing games in the market place. He says that his generation is like that disagreeable playmate who refuses to play with the others, no matter what are the terms of the invitation to play. They ask them to play a wedding game, and they are rebuffed. So they ask them to play a funeral game, and they are rebuffed (16-17). In the same way, God had been calling out to that generation. He sent them John the Baptist, who came neither eating nor drinking, who came in the way of the ascetic, and he was rebuffed and rejected on account of his manner of life. So our Lord came eating and drinking, and he was rebuffed and rejected for manner of life. Note that though it is the message that is being rejected (both John and Jesus preached the same message), yet the reasons that are given have almost nothing to do with the message and everything to do with the messenger (18-19). The reason for this is that they just don’t want to hear the message at all, and so they reject the preacher as a way to justify their excuse for not listening.

Unfortunately, all too often the church has given people a reason not to listen to its message. All too often our sin and hypocrisy make the gospel of grace look cheap and fake. But it is also true that the reason why people are so ready to use the sins of the church as a reason for rejecting its message is because they just don’t want to hear it. In the end, it is just an excuse. They are so in love with their sin that they don’t want to be bothered. And so they look for quick and easy excuses to wiggle out of their responsibility.

However, the fact of the matter is that there was no reason to reject Jesus or John. Jesus was perfect, and John was a holy man. For the generation of Jesus, it was just one big excuse. This is how Jesus explained it at the end of his ministry: “If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin: but now have they both seen and hated both me and my Father. But this cometh to pass, that the word might be fulfilled that is written in their law, They hated me without a cause” (Jn. 15:24-25).

But that does not mean that our generation is off the hook. The facts of the gospel are there for all to see, especially for those who live in the West. In the end, according to our text, God sees the rejection of Jesus as based on weak excuses if not open hostility.

The shocking nature of sin is seen in the sinner’s rejection of numerous appeals from God himself for the good of their own soul because they just love sin that much. Paul put it this way, in talking about the antichrist, “whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thess. 2:10-12).

The excuses we give are made easier because so many people give them. When most of the people rejected John and Jesus, it was easier to turn a deaf ear. And yet, “wisdom is justified of her children” [some manuscripts put “works” instead of “children,” but the meaning comes out the same]. What our Lord is saying is that the truth of the gospel preached by John and Jesus [the children of wisdom, in this context] will be shown to be right in the end. Right is not decided by the majority. Even if most in our day reject the gospel, that is meaningless in the light of eternity.

The extent of our responsibility (20-24)

If their (and our) rejection of Jesus was just based on excuses, then that implies that they were responsible for receiving him and his message. They (and we) are culpable when we don’t. How culpable? In these verse, we are told. Here, our Lord pronounces woe against the cities in which most of his might miracles were performed and yet rejected his ministry. He mentions three: Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, all in Galilee. In these verses, Jesus pronounces a woe, gives an explanation for the woe, and then makes a comparison. He does this twice. To announce a woe is to give a solemn warning of impending doom.1 Here the impending doom is that which will be executed on the Day of Judgment (22, 24). “You shall be brought down to hell” (23) is a good summary of the doom they are to expect. There is nothing more sobering than the reality of what are Lord is saying here.

What is going to bring them down to hell? And what would bring anyone down to hell? Matthew explains the reason for the woe: “Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not” (20). I think it is very important to see this, especially given the prevalence of easy believism in our day, the idea that all you have to do to get saved is to say a prayer and accept some facts about Jesus. Jesus came preaching a message of repentance – a call to turn from sin and to turn to God in faith – and this is what they had rejected (cf. Mat. 4:17). They had not turned from sin.

The miracles were not meant to wow them. They weren’t meant to entertain them, as Herod later sought for them. They weren’t even primarily meant to meet physical needs. They were meant to be megaphones in their ears to wake them up to the reality of their need of repentance. These people didn’t wake up. They barely opened their eyes, yawned, and then went back to sleep. And the next time they opened their eyes, they opened them in hell.

My friends, these verses tell us that God gives you many opportunities to repent, even though he doesn’t owe that to you. The Lord “is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). Paul talks about the riches of God’s goodness and forbearance and longsuffering that lead men to repentance. But there is a limit. The miracles won’t go on forever. When you with hardness and impenitent heart despise that, you are treasuring up for yourself wrath (Rom. 2:4-5). There is a time when the barren fig tree gets pulled up by the roots. Are there pointers in your life, places in which God has been trying to wake you up, and yet you have ignored it? Wake up! Repent before it is too late.

Repentance is necessary. You aren’t saved by orthodoxy. Not that orthodoxy is unnecessary. It takes a proper grasp of the truths of the Bible to understand your need of repentance. It takes a Biblical view of God, sin, and salvation to move the heart to change. But it is possible to be doctrinally sound and go to hell. You need repentance. You not only need a change of mind, you need a change of life that is grounded in a change of heart and will.

These people had so much. Capernaum was exalted to heaven by the presence of the Lord. It was the headquarters of Jesus’ ministry. And yet they mostly ignored his claims. The same could be said of the West. We have had so much. We have been so blessed. The Bible is so accessible. And yet so many walk away. So many go on sleeping. The implications of our text are sobering in light of the frittering away of our opportunities.

The triumph of God’s sovereignty (25-27)

If this will not wake people up, what will? It is scary to think that the miracles of the Son of God left so many sleeping away in their sin, deaf to the call of God to repent. This is why the words of our Lord in the following verses are so encouraging. They underline the reality that men do not have the last word: God is sovereign. His kingdom will prevail. In light of this, despite the fact that so many had rejected him, despite the fact that his miracles had left many in their sins, Jesus rejoices (cf. Luke 10:21). He praises God: “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight” (25- 26). Hear what our Lord is saying: he is saying that in the end the reason why his message fell on deaf ears was not because his ministry was unsuccessful. It is because God the Father willed it to be so: it was good in his sight. It was not because Jesus was not clear enough in his preaching, it was because God hid it from them. Now he didn’t hide the hearing of the gospel from them, because many of these people no doubt heard Jesus’ preaching; what was hidden from was saving insight into the gospel that would have led to saving faith and genuine repentance.

Some people have a problem with this idea of God hiding saving insight into the gospel from people. They say it isn’t fair. But you have to realize that fairness on God’s part doesn’t require him to save anybody. God is not dealing with innocent people; mankind is under sin and condemnation. Everyone. No exceptions. “There is none good, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). If God chose, he could have left everyone in their sin. He could have left all of us in our blindness and hardness. God didn’t have to save anyone!

These words are even more significant, given the comparison our Lord had just made between pagan cities and the cities of Galilee. He claims that God has contingent knowledge, that God knows what would certainly have happened given a certain set of circumstances. He says that if the cities of Sodom and Tyre and Sidon had seen the miracles, they would have repented. God knew this, and yet he did not send them those miracles, which he could easily have done. Instead, he left them in their sin. In the same way, he has left the cities of Galilee in their sin. This was not in spite of the plan of God, but because of the plan of God.

God hides the gospel from some, but he reveals the gospel to others; that’s our Lord’s point in the next verse (27). He is neither surprised nor defeated by the sin of man. Jesus doesn’t just rejoice because it’s according to God’s plan to hide the truth from some; he also rejoices because it’s also according to God’s plan to reveal the truth to others. Knowing God – Father and Son – is eternal life (cf. Jn. 17:3). And according to our Lord, he chooses to reveal this knowledge to some and not to others: “neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him.” The word “will” in this verse translates a word which refers to “decisions of the will after previous consideration.”2 Those who have saving revelation are chosen to receive this saving revelation. Note the emphasis upon the sovereignty of this choice: “to whomsoever the Son will reveal him.” No one knows the Father except those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

What does it mean to know the Son and the Father? It is eternal life, it is to be saved. It is therefore to be indwelt by the Spirit, and to exhibit the fruits of the Spirit in your life. All of this is therefore the consequence of Christ’s choice. The text implies that God’s choice of us precedes our choice of him and is what makes it saving. Again, this is exactly what our Lord said in John 6: “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. It is written, and they shall be all taught of God. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me” (6:44-45).

Why does God choose to do this? The Scriptures don’t give us a complete answer, and it is wrong for us to pry into the decisions of the Almighty. The secret things belong to God (Deut. 29:29). However, we do get a hint in verse 25, when our Lord says, that God has hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them unto babes. In other words, God has chosen those so that it is obvious to all who gets the glory. Babies can’t do much. Human babies are powerless apart from the intervention of others. Jesus is saying that God reveals the gospel to those who are powerless in the eyes of the world. Of course, in truth every person is powerless in the sight of God. And God does sometimes save those who are powerful in this world. But it is not God’s normal way of operating: he loves to save those whom the world despises and whom the world rejects and counts as worthless. Paul put it this way: “For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: that no flesh should glory in his presence” (1 Cor. 1:26-29).

The sweetness of God’s mercy (28-30)

It is in light of both human sin and God’s sovereignty that our Lord gives this invitation. Our sin makes this invitation necessary; God’s sovereignty makes this invitation possible. Left to ourselves, no one would ever come to Christ. It is only those who by the grace of God have had their eyes opened to their miserable condition in sin that will take advantage of the offer of grace. It is those who know that they “labor and are heavy laden” who will see any reason to come to Christ.

And this invitation is so important for us to hear. For when we begin to see the ugliness of our sin and we begin to become tired and weary of our sins, it is precisely then that we begin to wonder if God will have anything to do with us. Many people get to this point in their experience and then spends months, if not years, spinning their wheels because they think that for Christ to accept them they have to be good enough. Now I do not want to imply that repentance is not necessary. But repentance does not merit God’s favor. Good works do not make you acceptable to God. Only Christ can do that.

Jesus does not tell you to clean yourself up first before you come to him. The hymn puts it well: “All the fitness he requireth is to feel your need of him.” Do you feel that you are a sinner? Then Jesus says, “Come unto me.” Are you tired of your sins? Then the Savior says, “Come unto me.” Do you feel powerless and helpless? Then our Lord says, “Come unto me and find rest.”

Our Lord then says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me: for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Coming to Christ is not an invitation to libertinism. You cannot come to Christ rightly unless you take his yoke. You cannot have him as Savior unless you also have him as your Lord.

And yet, the invitation to take his yoke is not an invitation to replace the bondage to sin with bondage to Christ. Sin’s bondage is a miserable one and its only reward is death. But our Lord’s service is sweet. Even as we take his yoke we find rest. Service to Christ is true rest; it is in him that we truly find our Sabbath.

It is my responsibility this morning to invite you to Christ, to come and take his yoke. It is also a great and an exciting privilege. Sinner! Come to Christ and find rest!

1 D. A. Carson, Matthew 1-11 (EBC), p. 273.


The Seals of the Scroll (Rev. 6)

Most of us have experienced disillusionment as the result of false promises of help. Perhaps this is one reason why the whole Charlie Brown ...