Monday, March 28, 2011

With Christ in the Garden

C. S. Lewis wrote over 50 books on a wide variety of topics. Thanks to the labor of some of his friends, we have today several volumes of letters, essays, and poems in addition to his many books. There is seldom a subject I am researching on which I can’t find a great quote by Lewis. He always wanted to write a book on prayer, because he saw the great need for a better one than was available. So, he set out to write that book, but quickly abandoned the effort for some unknown reason. Ten years later, he published a different book, a collection of letters written in a fictitious dialogue between two friends on several issues, a good bit of it centering on the subject of prayer. So, he entitled the book, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. In that exchange, Lewis hints at perhaps why the earlier book was abandoned. He says, “however badly needed a good book on prayer is, I shall never try to write it. Two people on the foothills comparing notes in private are all very well. But in a book one would inevitably seem to be attempting, not discussion, but instruction. And for me to offer the world instruction about prayer would be impudence.” So, in Letters to Malcolm, Lewis can offer his ideas on prayer, not as instruction, but as if his reader were eavesdropping on a friendly conversation. Near the end of the book, he confesses, “by talking at this length about prayer at all, we seem to give it a much bigger place in our lives than, I’m afraid, it has.” Think for a moment about Lewis’s statement. Isn’t that the case with most of us? We talk more about prayer than we actually pray? We tend to make it seem like it has a bigger part of our lives than it actually does.  So he goes on to say, “Well, let’s now at any rate come clean. Prayer is irksome. An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome. When it is over, this casts a feeling of relief and holiday over the rest of the day. We are reluctant to begin. We are delighted to finish. While we are at prayer, but not while we are reading a novel or solving a cross-word puzzle, any trifle is enough to distract us.” Do you find that this is the case?

In our passage today, we find Jesus Christ on His knees with His Father agonizing in prayer in the face of death. Let the reality of this sink in. Jesus Christ was God in the flesh, fully divine and fully human. Skeptics and critics of the Christian faith who mock the doctrine of the Trinity often turn to this very passage to ask if Jesus was schizophrenic, just talking to the voices in His head in the garden? The relationships between the persons of the Trinity are mysterious. God is One, and He exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Not three Gods, but three distinct persons in one Triune Godhead. That’s a nearly unexplainable complexity, but we accept this reality about God because He has revealed it about Himself to us. And these three persons have perfect fellowship among themselves within the singular Godhead. The Father, Son, and Spirit are not different in nature as if one was greater than the other, but each is different in function. The theologians call this Intertrinitarian Functional Subordination. There is a willful submission on the part of the Son to the Father, and on the part of the Spirit to the Son. And God the Son, in the darkest hour of His earthly existence, is driven to prayer with God the Father.

Consider what the circumstance of this prayer is. In mere moments of time, Jesus will be betrayed by one of His own disciples, abandoned by the rest, unjustly condemned, physically tortured, and ultimately murdered in the most “cruel and unusual” form of capital punishment humanity has ever contrived. He is in the grove at the foot of the Mount of Olives known as Gethsemane. That word is Hebrew, and means “olive press,” the device by which olives were crushed by massive stones to produce olive oil. It is fitting that Jesus is in this place at this time, when He is consciously aware of the crushing weight under which He is being afflicted – the weight of the sins of humanity—the weight of my sin; the weight of your sin; the weight of every human sin ever committed by every human being who ever lived. And in the intensity of this moment, in the very face of death, God the Son is driven to prayer with God the Father.

Now, this being so, it is reasonable to make draw some preliminary conclusions. First, if Jesus Christ, who is the divine Son of God, a coequal, coeternal person of the Triune Godhead, needs to pray to His Father, then surely you and I need to all the more. And secondly, the circumstances in which Jesus turns to the Father in prayer are infinitely more severe than any circumstance ever faced by any other person. Therefore, in the midst of our own hardships, we must surely turn to God in prayer as well.

Mark describes Jesus in v33 as being very distressed and troubled. The Greek words used here are rare in the New Testament, and rightly so. The experience of Jesus at this moment is unprecedented and unsurpassed in human existence. Jesus said at this moment in v34, “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death.” Notice here that the “death” of which He speaks is not His death on the cross. He speaks of the burden of His present grief as being nearly fatal. So great is the intensity of the pressure of this present hour, that it threatens to crush His very life. The reality of bearing the weight of the sins of humanity and being cut off from His Father as He bears the wrath of God on our behalf is a soul-crushing agony.

Have you ever found yourself in the midst of a great difficulty, distressed, troubled, grieved with an intensity that we deem it inescapable and fatal? My point here is not to draw parallels between Jesus’ experience and our so-called Gethsemanes. You and I will never face a Gethsemane. Jesus faced it for us. Our miseries and calamities in life, regardless of their severity, will always pale in comparison to this one. Though we deserve to be pressed to death in a thousand Gethsemanes, by God’s grace, Jesus has been pressed in Gethsemane for us. My point is rather to set forth the example of Jesus in His response to this hour. The greatest man, indeed the God-man, faced the greatest horror of history, and responded to it with prayer to His Father. Therefore, we, the lesser-beings that we are, can face our lesser-trials, in the same way. How shall we pray in the midst of life’s darkest hours? We find several patterns of prayer in this horrific episode from the life of the Lord Jesus that serve as a model for us as we pray through our own lives’ devastations. There are six of these patterns seen here.

I. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray with intensity (v35)

In most of the artwork I have seen depicting Jesus at prayer in Gethsemane, He is clothed in sparkling white linens, kneeling before a rock with His hands folded as He looks upward to God. This is not the picture I see in the description here in this text. Jesus proceeded a little beyond His disciples (Luke tells us, about a stone’s throw).  And there He “fell to the ground and began to pray.” His concern was not for decorum or posture. The weight of the burden on His soul buckled His knees and He collapsed upon the dirt of that garden. Matthew tells us that He fell on His face! And laying in the dirt, He began to cry out to the Father. Luke tells us in his Gospel that, due to the agony of the circumstances, “He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.” Now one may say that this is impossible to sweat blood, but remember two things. First, Luke is a physician, and he knows what is and is not medically possible; secondly, he says that His sweat became “like” drops of blood. NT Scholar Darrell Bock writes that this is a depiction “of Jesus’ emotional state as so intense that He perspired profusely as a result. The sweat beads multiplied on His body and fell like flowing clumps of blood and dropped to the earth.”

We often picture ourselves at prayer the way artists have pictured Jesus in Gethsemane. We envision that we must come before the Lord in clean clothes, in a comfortable posture, and reverently whisper our concerns to Him in a calm state. I believe that it is owing to this false notion of what prayer must involve that we do not more often carry our concerns to God. We feel like we have to clean ourselves up and calm ourselves down before we can talk to the Father. We don’t learn that from Jesus. What we see here is that there comes a time when all we can do is collapse before Him on our face in agony and cry out with sweat drops precipitating off of our bodies like clots of blood as we beseech the Father in intensity. In life’s darkest hour, we can pray in this way and know that God is not offended by our posture or our perspiration. He welcomes us to pray with intensity.

II. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray with intimacy (v36)

As Jesus cries out in prayer, He calls upon “Abba! Father!” It is nearly unprecedented in all religious literature to address God in such terms. Until Jesus came and began to speak of God as Father, rarely would anyone presume to address God this way. But Jesus not only spoke to His Father this way, He even instructed His disciples to address God this way in prayer. What are the first words of what we commonly call “The Lord’s Prayer”? “OUR FATHER.” But here, even more intimately, Jesus calls Him Abba. This is more intimate still. At the end of a long day, there is one word I long to hear more than any other. Almost without fail, the sound of my key sliding across the tumblers of the door lock at hour home is accompanied by two little voices calling out, “DADDY!” Whatever I have been through in the day fades as I drive home knowing that this will be the first sound I hear. That is what the word Abba is like.

Biology can make a man a father. It is intimacy that makes him a daddy. And this is the kind of relationship Jesus has with His Father, and it this kind of relationship which He has made possible for us. Through the suffering of Jesus and His resurrection, those who receive Him are made to be the children of God. And Paul says in Romans 8 that we have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” In the darkest hour of life, Jesus is not praying to an impersonal force beyond the galaxies. He is talking to His Dad. And His Dad is the Daddy of all who have come to Him by faith in the Son. So you and I need never feel as if we have no one or nowhere to turn in the darkest hours of our lives. We can call out to God as a Daddy who loves us and is there for us at all times.

The Christian life is lived in the context of a spiritual family. We do not live it alone. We have a Father, a Daddy, who loves us. And we have brothers and sisters in this family. But sometimes those brothers and sisters fail us. Sometimes when we need them most, they aren’t there for us. Jesus understands that. He knows that the whole world is out to get Him, and as He goes to pray, He tells His disciples in v32, “Sit here until I have prayed.” He says in v34, “Remain here and keep watch.” But three times, He returns to find that they have fallen asleep at the very moment it seems that He needs them most. Like Peter, James, and John, our brothers and sisters will let us down. I will let you down. But Daddy never fails. In the darkest hour of our lives, though brothers and sisters fail us, our hope is not in them, it is in this Father who welcomes us to come before Him and cry out to Him intimately as our Daddy! We will not find Him asleep when we need Him most. We are never abandoned, never orphaned, never alone. Father is there for you, and you can come running into His arms crying out “Daddy!” in the darkest hour of your life just as Jesus did!

III. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray with confidence (v36)

As Jesus prays, notice His words: “All things are possible for You.” He is confident that there is no situation which is out of God’s control, and there is nothing His Father cannot do. He is not ashamed to state the concerns of His heart to His Father, because He knows that God is able to do something about it. There is no question whether God can. The answer to any question that begins, “Can God …” is, “Yes!” God can. Unless it is sin, or something utterly ridiculous (like, creating a rock too big for Himself to lift), anytime the question is “Can God …?” the answer is “God can …!” All things are possible for Him.

As I was growing up, I had a grandfatherly figure in my life that I affectionately called “Daddy Harrison.” He called me “J. R.” Daddy Harrison was a retired truck driver, a hard but tender hearted man. Daddy Harrison built every house he ever lived in, rebuilt every car he ever owned, grew or killed everything he ever ate, and fixed everything that was ever broken. No formal education, but he was the most brilliant man I ever knew. I spent the first half of my life in awe of him. He used to let me mess around with stuff in his shop and tinker along side of him. And one day, we were working on something, and I broke it. But I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I just said, “Daddy Harrison, I need you to fix this.” It was the first time (and the only time) I saw him scratch his head and say, “J. R., I don’t think I can fix that.” In my mind, I had thought that everything was possible for Daddy Harrison, but on that disappointing day, I saw that there were some things even he couldn’t fix.

Sometimes, when we face the dark hours of life, we forget that our Heavenly Father has never said, “I don’t think I can fix that.” He has never scratched His head wondering what to do about something. He has never seen an impossibility. And so just as Jesus did, when He was facing a much darker hour than we will ever know, we too can say to our Father, “All things are possible for You!” We can pray in confidence knowing that our circumstances have not taken by surprise or exceeded His ability to intervene. Some of you this very moment are facing intense darkness in your lives. Can God do anything about it? He can. We can pray with confidence in the darkest hour of our lives.

IV. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray with boldness (v36)

Sometimes, I think in genuine humility and piety, we mask our concerns in prayer and resort to vague expressions of reluctant indifference. We say things like, “Oh Lord, here’s the situation, and we just want your will to be done, whatever that is,” and never come right out with our own request. I am not criticizing that; I think the motive is good. But you will notice in our text that Jesus did not pray this way. In v35, we read that He was praying that if it were possible, the hour might pass by Him. He knew the hour was coming. He had foretold the disciples repeatedly that this hour was coming, and now it was upon them. And in His humanity, Jesus asks the Father if there may be any other way, so that the hour may pass by Him. As He cried out to the Father in the darkest hour of His life, He said, “Remove this cup from Me!”

What is this cup of which Jesus speaks? It is a recurring image in the OT prophets which depicts the judgment of God. That cup, which all of us deserve to drink for our sins, has been taken from our hands and handed to Jesus to drink on our behalf. It is this cup of which Jesus spoke when He rebuked the presumption of James and John, saying, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” Indeed they are not. No man can bear his own sins, much less the sins of all humanity. But Jesus will, and in the hours prior to drinking that cup, He boldly says to the Father, “Remove this cup from Me!”

You and I will not, cannot, drink that cup, but Christ has taken it for us. And in His darkest hour as He utters this bold prayer, we learn from His example that we can make any request we desire to God. It does not always mean that God will answer in the way that we want Him to, but there is no request that we cannot bring before Him. He wants us to bear our hearts desires in His presence. And so in the darkest hours of our lives, we can pray with boldness as we make our requests known to Him.

V. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray in surrender (v36)

As Jesus asks the Father to take the cup away, He also expresses His humble submission to the primacy of the Father’s will. “Yet not what I will, but what You will.” He has made His request, and now accepts that the Father’s will may not involve the removal of the cup, but the drinking of it to the dregs. But Christ’s surrender is not a stoic acceptance of fate, it is a willing embrace of the Father’s will. Jesus’ will to obey the Father is greater and stronger than His will to avoid suffering.

Though this hour of Jesus’ life was far darker than any hour that you and I will ever face, we can pray through our seasons of darkness in the same way. As Sinclair Ferguson writes, “It is not necessarily wrong to ask for something which God does not intend to do, so long as our hearts are prepared to submit to His will.” With boldness we make our requests known, but in surrender we acknowledge that the Father’s will is superior to our own. There is no such thing as an unanswered prayer, but we must acknowledge that sometimes the answer is “No.” And just as every earthly parent realizes that it may be destructive to grant every wish of our children, so the Father must sometimes say No to His children for their own good, for the good of others, and for His own glory to be made manifest. And so we pray in surrender to His will, knowing that this is the sweetest surrender we could ever make. In the world’s eyes, surrender equals defeat. But in God’s eyes, our surrender is our victory, for as we embrace His will we do so in confidence that His will serves a far greater purpose than our own.

By embracing the Father’s will, Jesus foregoes His own comforts and accepts the suffering that must come in order to provide salvation for the world, and to be crowned with the glory of the resurrection. We can all rejoice that the Father did not let this cup pass from Jesus. Because Jesus embraced the suffering of the cross on our behalf, we have the promise of redemption, restoration, and resurrection. As we pray in surrender to the Father’s will, our finite understanding may not be able to fathom His purposes. But we embrace His will knowing that He is good and that He loves us. He doesn’t give His children serpents when they ask for fish; He doesn’t give stones when we ask for bread. If He gives something different than what we’ve asked for, then what He gives is better. And if His will involves a season of suffering, we know that in the end, He is working all things together for the good of them who love Him and are called according to His purposes, and that He is bringing glory to Himself through our circumstances. What we want may be good, but what God wills is best. So even as God welcomes us to come boldly to the throne of grace, and to clearly state our petitions before Him, we can pray in surrender and say as Jesus said, “Yet not what I will, but what You will.”

VI. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray with persistence (v39)

As Jesus returned to prayer after finding His disciples asleep on the job, it is intriguing to me that that the text says He was “saying the same words.” Repeatedly, the Lord Jesus spoke to the Father about letting the hour pass and removing the cup. This was not just vain repetition of meaningless words, like Jesus warned against in Matthew 6 when He instructed His disciples how to pray. There Jesus had said, “When you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” There are some who have memorized certain forms of prayer and repeat them over and over again, but without any conscious reflection at each moment of what they are saying. And immediately after Jesus said this about meaningless repetition, He taught the disciples a model of how to pray in the words that we commonly call “The Lord’s Prayer.” And the ironic thing is that many have allowed that prayer to become a “meaningless repetition,” praying it while giving no thought to the words they are expressing. No, Jesus wasn’t just repeating a canned formulaic prayer in His persistent prayer here, even though He was “saying the same words.” Rather, He was praying as one who understood that God is sometimes moved by faithful persistence and perseverance in prayer.

In Luke 18:1-8, we read a parable that Jesus told to His followers in order to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart. In that parable, He tells of a judge who did not fear God and did not respect man.  And in the same city, there was a widow who needed the protection of the law from an oppressor. And Jesus says that this widow kept coming to the judge, saying, “Give me legal protection from my opponent.” For a while the judge was unwilling to respond to her requests, but after a while, he finally gave in. He said, “Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, otherwise by continually coming she will wear me out.” Now the point of that parable is that if this unrighteous judge will respond to this widow in this way, Jesus says, “will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them?” But then He says, “when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?" In other words, will He find that people had enough faith to be that persistent in their prayers?

Jesus demonstrates persistence in prayer as He returns to solitude with His Father and prays, “saying the same thing.” Are we persistent in our prayers? Are we afraid to be persistent, thinking, “Well, I prayed about it once, so I guess I am done with that”? If Jesus taught us to be persistent in prayer, and demonstrated persistence in prayer in the midst of life’s dark hours, then we need not fear God turning a deaf ear to our persistent pleas. It may well be that God’s delay in answering is a test of our faith and our willingness to persist. Whatever the case, there is no shame in bringing the same request to the Lord in prayer time and time again until He makes His answer clear. In fact, there may be shame in not doing so. We can pray with persistence as we face the dark hours of life. Jesus did, and we can follow in His example.

As we conclude, let me say a few final thoughts. First, none of us will ever face an hour in life as dark as Gethsemane. But, we will all face dark hours of varying severity. It may well be that you are just coming out of a dark season, or that you are in the midst of one, or that you are about to enter one. But when the darkness falls in our lives, how will we respond? My friends, if Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God, needed to pray through His own season of darkness, then may I suggest to us today that there is no other way for us to face ours. We have the words of the sleepy eyed witness, the Apostle Peter, in 1 Peter 2:21, as he says, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.” And Peter says that Christ’s example includes this, that while suffering, He kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously. In the midst of the darkest hours of our lives, we can fall on our faces before a Father who loves us and pray intensely, intimately, confidently, boldly, surrenderedly, and persistently and trust that if He does not change the circumstance, He will change us in the midst of the circumstance, and bring good to us, blessings through us, and glory to Himself as a result.

Oh what peace we often forfeit; Oh what needless pain we bear. All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!

Monday, March 21, 2011

With Christ at the Table (Matthew 26:20-30)

Find the audio here 
Matthew 26:20-30
With Christ at the Table

I was talking to a friend the other night and he was asking me what I was currently preaching on, and I told him that I was going to spend the next six weeks moving from the Last Supper to the Empty Tomb as a spiritual preparation for Easter. He said, “You know if you weren’t Baptist, you would call that Lent.” To which I said, “But I am Baptist, so ‘lent’ only describes that stuff that forms in your pockets and collects in your dryer.” But in the larger Christian world, the 40 days prior to Easter, beginning on Ash Wednesday (which was March 9), make up the season of Lent, a time of introspection and repentance, preparing oneself for the celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ. Usually this is accompanied by fasting, which is why you hear people speak of “giving something up for Lent.” Following the Reformation tradition, most Baptists have just given up Lent. But you can call this season Lent if you want to, or you can call it “the weeks before Easter.” The point is that over the next few weeks we are going to be looking at the events leading up to the Cross and the Resurrection and considering the great gift of salvation that has come to us through Jesus Christ. I am calling this series, “With Christ Through Easter.”

We begin today by looking at the final Passover meal that Jesus shared with His disciples. Each of the four Gospels sheds light on different aspects of the final meal, but here in Matthew, the narrative revolves around two startling announcements made by the Lord Jesus. These announcements serve to frame in the minds of the disciples the events they will witness over the coming hours and days. Without the information that Jesus imparts to them at the table, everything that unfolds in the hours and days ahead would seem to the disciples to be a grand cosmic accident. It would seem as if God had fallen asleep at the wheel of the universe and rammed the whole thing into wall. But Jesus is careful to tell them that what they are about to witness is all part of God’s perfect plan to redeem humanity.

I. At the table, Jesus announces history’s most spectacular sin (vv20-25)

What is the worst sin ever committed in this history of humanity? I imagine that question could strip up a rousing discussion around the table at the coffee shop, don’t you? When we consider the many heinous atrocities that have been committed in history, it might be hard to single one out. After all, if we understand the whole of Scripture, balancing the Old Testament Law with the Sermon on the Mount and other expressions of New Testament ethics, wouldn’t we be inclined to say that sin is sin? If lust is tantamount to adultery and hatred is murder committed in one’s heart, then the sins I have committed are as foul as anyone else’s. When we fully grasp the holiness of God, we can’t escape the conclusion that all human sin is equally worthy of divine wrath. Yet it does seem that one sin in history stands above the rest. As John Piper has written: “The most spectacular sin that has ever been committed in the history of the world is the brutal murder of Jesus Christ, the morally perfect, infinitely worthy, divine Son of God.” Jesus Christ came into the world to save humanity from sin. And how did humanity respond? We killed Him. Jesus was God in the flesh, and we murdered Him. And the murder of Jesus Christ was the culmination of many evil acts, but as Piper writes, “probably the most despicable act in the process of this murder was the betrayal of Jesus by one of his closest friends, Judas Iscariot.”[1]

On a mission trip some years ago, I was introduced to playing dominos. I had owned a set of dominos for most of my life, but I never knew anyone actually played a game with them. I thought the only thing you could do with dominos was stand them up in a line, and flick the first one over and watch them all fall down in a chain reaction. Many events in the world occur like those dominos falling down. What causes the last domino to fall? The next-to-last domino falls into it. But the whole chain of events starts with the flicking of the first domino. And many events occurred leading up to the death of Jesus, like a long line of dominos falling into one another. But only one of those events is said in Scripture to be the direct result of Satan’s influence. And that is the betrayal of Jesus by Judas.

Judas was hand-picked by Jesus as one of His disciples. They didn’t volunteer, they were chosen. When Jesus chose the twelve, it wasn’t a lottery or random selection. The Bible tells us that He spent the night in prayer over it (Luke 6:12-13). Over the next three years, Judas would spend nearly every moment of his life together in close, intimate fellowship with Jesus. He would witness the miracles and hear the teaching. He was even entrusted by Jesus with a significant position among the disciples. He was the keeper of the money, the treasurer if you will. At this last supper Judas was seated so close to Jesus that they could have their hands in the same bowl at the same time. And it was there at the table that Jesus announced, “One of you will betray me.”

Now the most remarkable thing, to me, about this passage is the reaction of the disciples. Notice, not a one of them says, “I bet He’s talking about Judas.” Verse 22 says that they were deeply grieved, and they each one began to say to Him, “Surely not I, Lord?” These men had a long way to go in their understanding of spiritual matters, but one thing they knew for certain was that the capacity for unthinkable evil was present in each of their own hearts. Are you aware of this about yourself? If I were to say, “Later today, someone in this room will commit an unthinkable sin.” What would your reaction be? Would you begin to look around suspiciously trying to figure out who it might be? Or would you say to yourself, “It would not be beyond me to do such a thing in a moment of weakness. I pray that it will not be me.” I can remember in 1995 being in a preaching class with about eight other men, and the professor said, “Men, look at the man on your left and look at the man on your right. If statistics hold true, then in ten years only one of you will still be in the ministry.” To the man, each of us considered it a very strong possibility that he could be speaking directly to us. And time has proven it true. Out of that group of about nine men, I am one of maybe only three who are presently still in the ministry. Not all of those who have gone another way have been disqualified by egregious sin, but some have. And the lessons I have learned from the fall of some of my brothers in ministry is this: if you think you stand, take heed lest you fall. “Lord, is it me?” is a question that anyone who understands the wickedness present in every human heart must be willing to ask.

Jesus identified the betrayer in verse 23, saying, “He who dipped his hand with Me in the bowl is the one who will betray Me.” Judas Iscariot is the betrayer, and Jesus knows it. Now, we might ask, “Why did Judas do what he did?” There are layers in the answer that the Bible offers. There are primary and secondary causes. But Luke’s Gospel tells us that “Satan entered into Judas” (22:3). Does that give you pause? Do you wonder, as you contemplate that statement, if you could be going about your business in life, loving Jesus and serving God with right motives and sincere integrity, and find yourself suddenly and unwittingly the pawn of Satan for the purpose of evil? I would say that the answer to that question is likely, “No.” But when it comes to Judas, we aren’t talking about someone who is loving Jesus and serving God with right motives and sincere integrity. Judas had given Satan some raw material to work with in the scheme to destroy Jesus. John 12:6 says that he was a thief. As the keeper of the money box for the disciples, Judas used to pilfer the money for himself. And as Jesus began to disclose to His disciples that the Father’s plan was not for Christ to establish a political reign in Jerusalem, but rather to suffer and die to redeem humanity from sin, Judas suddenly realized that he was not about to become the Secretary of the Treasury of the next great world empire. Because Judas loved money more than he loved Jesus, Satan put it into his heart to strike a deal with the Pharisees and scribes. Betraying Jesus offered more financial profit for Judas than following Him did. And for thirty pieces of silver, the equivalent to about four-months’ salary for an average worker of that day, he arranged to be the agent of betrayal. So, there is no “devil made me do it” excuse that can relieve us of responsibility for our moral actions. The devil can make someone do unthinkable evil, but only when the seed of evil is already present in the desires of an individual’s heart. This is exactly what James 1:14 says: “Each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.” Satan entered into Judas and used him to commit history’s most spectacular sin. But he entered in through the open door of Judas’s own evil desires.

Now, two theological questions emerge as we think about humanity’s most spectacular sin. First, why would Satan desire for Jesus to go to the cross? The death of Jesus and His resurrection are the fatal blow to Satan’s head that was prophesied in the first preaching of the gospel in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:15). And Scripture seems to be clear that Satan knew this. Satan’s temptations of Jesus recorded in Matthew 4, Mark 1, and Luke 4 seem to be aimed at diverting Jesus from the cross. When Jesus began to teach His disciples that He must go to the cross, Peter rebuked the Lord and said that this must not happen. But you recall that in that moment (Matt 16:21-23), Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan.” It is not in Peter’s best interest for Jesus to avoid the cross, but it is in Satan’s best interest. All talk of Jesus escaping the cross originates in the heart of Satan. So, why would he want this betrayal to happen? Hear what Piper says here:

Satan saw that his efforts to divert Jesus from the cross had failed. Time after time Jesus kept the course. His face was set like flint to die (Luke 9:51, 53), and Satan concluded that there was no stopping him. Therefore, he resolved that if he couldn’t stop it, he would at least make it as ugly and painful and as heartbreaking as possible. Not just death, but death by betrayal. Death by abandonment. Death by denial (Luke 22:31-34). Death by torture. If could not stop it, he would drag others into it and do as much damage as he could.[2]

So, that is one very compelling answer to the theological question of why Satan prompted Judas to commit history’s most spectacular sin. But there’s another important theological question:
Did Jesus know that Judas would do this? And of course He did. Each of the four Gospels records that Jesus announced the betrayal beforehand at the table. So, why did He choose Judas anyway? Why did He not stop Judas somehow? And to answer that question, we move to look at the second announcement at the table.

II. At the table, Jesus announced humanity’s most spectacular salvation (vv26-30)

The first announcement set the stage for humanity’s most spectacular sin. The events that will take place within the next few hours, as Judas comes into the garden with an entourage of armed soldiers, and betrays Jesus with a kiss, must not be seen as a surprise or accident. But rather, these events are furthering a divine plan to save humanity from sin that originated in the heart of God from the beginning. In God’s instructions to Adam in the Garden of Eden, there was a penalty for sin spelled out. You remember what it was? Do not eat from the fruit of this tree, “for in the day that you eat from it, you will surely die” (Gen 2:17). So, though Paul says, “the wages of sin is death” in Romans 6:23, it was not Paul who came up with the idea that the wages of sin is death. That idea comes from God. Now, when Adam and Eve sinned, did death occur? I agree with those who carefully articulate that at that very moment, the spiritual death of humanity occurred in Adam and in Eve, but what about physical death? Was there a physical death “in the day” that they ate “thereof”? After all, we are told in Genesis 5:5 that Adam lived a total of 930 years. But on the day that they sinned, did physical death occur? And the answer is “yes.” In Genesis 3:21, we read that the Lord God made garments to cover Adam and Eve. What were they made of? Fig leaves? No! The Bible says that the Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. Now, where did that skin come from? It seems very obvious that there was a sacrifice made, and the skin of that animal that was offered as a sacrifice became their covering. So from the beginning, from the very first sin, we see the Lord enacting this principle that a sacrificial substitute can be offered as an atonement for sin. And we have good reason to believe that Adam and Eve got it! They understood this, because apparently they taught their children this. We see Abel in Genesis 4 bringing an offering of the firstlings of his flock to God as an offering, and God was pleased with that offering.

Generations later, the people of God find themselves enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years. When Moses confronted Pharaoh with the demand to “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let my people go,” Pharaoh increasingly hardened his heart against the Israelites. Therefore, in order to shatter his hardened heart, God sent a series of ten plagues upon the land of Egypt, each one increasing in severity. In the tenth and final plague, God declared that He was going to take the life of every firstborn male child in every household of Egypt. But Israel would be spared this judgment, so long as they kept God’s instructions to sacrifice a lamb. The meat of that lamb would be eaten with unleavened bread in a last supper before they fled Egypt. And the lamb’s blood was to be smeared on their doorposts. And the Lord promised, “'The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live; and when I see the blood I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” This is the origin the name Passover. And it happened just as the Lord said it would. And in the Law, the Lord instructed His people to have an annual meal commemorating this event to continually remind them of what He had done for them. And the Law set forth other seasons and circumstances of sacrifice, in which blood was shed, death was doled out, to provide redemption, to provide atonement, to provide a covering for sin.

Jesus and His followers observed three Passover meals together. But it was in this final one that Jesus completely redefines the significance of the Passover meal. Henceforth, for those who believe in Him, it will be a reminder, not of the deliverance of the nation from Egypt, which was sealed by the blood of a lamb, but of the deliverance of humanity from sin, which was sealed by the blood Christ. At this table, Jesus would make it clear to His followers just what John the Baptist meant when he pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

He takes the bread, and He blesses it, and He breaks it, and He gives it to the disciples and says, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And then He takes the cup, with its deep red fruit of the vine, and He says, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.” These two visible symbols, the bread and the cup, accompany and illustrate the announcement that all of those sacrifices and all of that blood was pointing forward to what was going to happen just hours later as Jesus died on the cross.

The murder of Jesus is the final domino of a long line of events, a chain reaction that included Satan’s exploitation of Judas’ love of money, the plot of the religious leaders to rid the world of Jesus, the sins of humanity going all the way back to the Garden of Eden, and every animal sacrifice ever offered. But who flicked the first domino? What was the catalyst that caused the chain reaction that culminated in God-Incarnate being nailed to an instrument of torturous execution? The whole thing flows forth out of God’s infinite love and amazing grace, and His sovereign plan to rescue humanity from sin. Everything that took place leading up to and including the crucifixion of Jesus happened in explicit fulfillment of prophecies that God had revealed over centuries. Notice in verse 24 that Jesus says, “The Son of Man is to go, just as it is written of Him.” In the verse 31, Jesus quotes Zechariah 13:7 which speaks of the striking of the shepherd and the scattering of the flock. Psalm 118 is referenced in Matthew 21:42, saying that evil men would reject the Messiah. John 15:25 points to Psalm 35’s promise that He would be hated without cause. John 19:34-37 harkens back to Psalm 34:20 and Zechariah 12:10 which speak of Him being pierced and His bones being left unbroken. In John 13:18, Jesus cites Psalm 41:9 about the one who ate bread with Him lifting up his heel against him. In Matthew 27:9-10, there is reference to Jeremiah 19:1-13, which is also similar to Zechariah 11:12-13, and which speaks of thirty pieces of silver being the price of the blood money. And Jesus Himself announced to His disciples numerous times that when they came to Jerusalem, He would be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, condemned to death, handed over to Gentiles, tortured and killed, and that He would rise from the dead (e.g, Mark 10:33-34). You see that God was spelling out the events that would take place at the pinnacle of human history as Jesus made His way to the cross. They were taking place in accordance with His sovereign will. Isaiah 53 had announced that it was the Lord who would lay upon the Messiah the iniquity of us all; that it was the will of the Lord for Him to be crushed and put to grief. And in Acts 2, as Peter preached the great sermon of Pentecost, he proclaimed that the people of Israel nailed Jesus to a cross by the hands of godless men (implicating Jew and Gentile alike in the murder of Jesus), but that Jesus had been delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God. In Acts 4, as the early church’s leaders prayed, they spoke to God saying, “in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.”

So you see, when Jesus announced at the table that His body would be broken just like the bread, and His blood would flow like the juice of crushed grapes, He was announcing the culmination of redemptive history was at hand. God’s sovereign plan to redeem humanity from sin had reached its climax in the imminent death of Jesus on the cross. His was the final and full sacrifice for the sins of humanity. And with His announcement of these things also comes an invitation: “Take and eat,” “Drink from it, all of you.” You have been invited to participate in this glorious redemption, this spectacular salvation, and be rescued by the amazing grace of God from your state of sin.

Just as God ordered Israel to regularly observe the Passover as a reminder of their redemption from bondage in Egypt, so Christ has ordained for His Church to regularly reenact this covenant meal. As we take the bread and drink the cup, we remember that we have been redeemed from slavery to sin. And the New Testament instructs us to examine ourselves as come with Christ to the table. Is Christ the supreme love in your life? Have you committed yourself to Him by faith as Lord and Savior? Or are you just hanging around with Him and His people, not unlike Judas, while your heart remains far from Him? You will notice as you read the Gospels that it was not until Judas left the room that Christ shared these symbolic elements with His disciples. This is not a meal for everyone. The symbols are reserved for those who have participated in the reality. The reminder of His sacrifice is served to those who have received His salvation. So today, I would invite you to examine yourself, and if you have never personally received the gift of salvation that Christ has purchased for you with His own blood, then today you can. You can acknowledge to God that you are a sinner, and that you turn from that life of sin claiming Jesus as your Lord and your Savior.

[1] John Piper, History’s Most Spectacular Sin (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2008), p5.
[2] Piper, p9.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Is it dead? Or is it just pining?

How do you know when something is dead? Seems a simple enough question, doesn't it? Just the very thought of asking a question like that causes me to think of the old Monty Python sketch about the dead (or is it just pining for the fjords?) parrot:

This came to mind recently when a dear brother and fellow pastor emailed me with a question: "How do you measure whether or not the Spirit is moving? What standard do you use to determine whether your church is alive or dying?" Below is my response to his question:

What is a dead church? I mean, not "dead" as defined sociologically or denominationally, but theologically, what does it mean for a church to be dead? I'm not sure we've seen many good descriptions of that. I would say that as we think toward what a dead church is, it would include some of these characteristics: loss of love for God and the brethren; absence of biblical authority; absence of the gospel; man-centered, rather than God-centered, worship (I am talking "substance" not "style"); lack of concern for the lostness of the community and the nations; lack of any involvement in fulfilling the Great Commission. I am sure that list is not exhaustive. But I do think that an exhaustive list could be compiled using Scripture as our guide. I think there would be a finite set of characteristics that would indicate that a church is DEAD.

So then, how do you know if your church is dying? Is it moving in a direction toward those things? If it is not, then it is not dying. If it is moving toward the direction of the antitheses of these marks, then I would say it is not only alive, but actually healthy and getting stronger.

The problem is that people are looking at the wrong guages. Numbers and emotionalism do not a healthy church make. In fact, using just the few characteristics I have outlined above, I know of some large (and ever growing) churches who have excellent music and mind-boggling programs, but which, by theological definitions, are dead. And on the flip side, I know of some where barely more than 12 gather, but those 12 love God, love one another, submit to His word, worship in Spirit and truth, and fervently attempt to share the Gospel with their community and the nations. The "experts" would say that church is dead because they don't have a praise band and they aren't baptizing new people every month. Theologically speaking, that church is NOT DEAD. Now, might that church be closed down because of finances or other reasons in the next 6 months? It might. Then can we say it died? Perhaps, but not in the tragic sense, rather in the glorious sense of martyrdom. That church went to its "grave" being faithful to its Gospel-centered convictions, and refused to compromise for the sake of institutional survival. In that case, we do not pity them in their "death," we celebrate their glory and mourn that such a faithful body is longer with us. Additionally, the "closing down" of an institution or facility does have to be the "death" of a church. Many churches are so institutionally minded that the loss of their property results in the disbanding of the church by default, but no one said that this had to happen or that a church had to own property or a building. They could continue on in another venue or under other circumstances.

Now, I can anticipate someone saying that if a church was that faithful, that committed to the gospel, that concerned about lostness, etc. then there is no way it should have ever had to shut its doors. I'm just not sure we can prove that. It seems that we have seen examples in history of missionaries who have faithfully labored for decades with no visible fruit in the field. And we celebrate those men and women and say, "What faithful servants to endure so much and see so little fruit from it!" Why could we not say the same about a church? After all, Jesus' promise is that THE church will endure forever, not necessarily any particular local manifestation of it.

After some further reflection, I added more to this conversation:

When it comes to determining the death of a church, who gets to decide? I remember sitting in Epistemology class in seminary discussing the concept of "Critical Realism," an epistemological framework that admits in surprising and humble honesty that there is no "bird's eye view" of reality. We can't examine a state of affairs with complete and total detached objectivity, because we are in it, and we are affected by it. I think that has a bearing on this discussion.

A church is a gathering of flawed people. Simul iustus et peccator. How do I evaluate that with complete detached objectivity? I am also simultaneously righteous and sinful. Depravity affects my own judgment. And it affects the judgment of all those who would define "dead church" for us. It seems to me that there is only One who can objectively evaluate the situation, and if we aren't using His criteria to measure our churches, then we are using broken guages. So our task is not primarily to evaluate the church, but to understand the Word, and then to allow the Word to evaluate the church. And when we do that, we are probably all in worse shape than we imagine! But, we see throughout the NT that God uses imperfect churches to carry out His perfect will. Good thing, because if He is going to use churches at all, imperfect ones are all He's got to work with!

So, what do you think? How do you know if a church is dead? Or dying? Or just pining for the fjords?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Like Breaking Off Flowers From Their Roots to Replant Them

I received my printed edition of new issue of The City, the Journal of Houston Baptist University, in the mail this week. I encourage you to have a look at this periodical, the entirety of which can be viewed online at The articles are always engaging and relevant. One of my favorite features is the first page, which always contains some classic piece of Christian writing on an important subject. This issue was no exception. The initial piece was by Huldrych Zwingli, a segment entitled "Of the Clarity and Certainty or Power of the Word of God," from Essays & Sermons of Huldrych Zwingli published around 1522. A full reproduction of this classic excerpt follows:

THE WORD OF GOD IS SO SURE AND STRONG that if God wills, all things are done the moment that He speaks His Word. For it is so living and powerful that even the things which are irrational immediately conform themselves to it, or to be more accurate, THINGS BOTH RATIONAL AND IRRATIONAL are fashioned and dispatched and constrained in conformity with its purpose. The proof may be found in GENESIS 1: "And God said, Let there be light; and there was light." Note how alive and strong the Word is, not merely ruling all things but creating out of nothings that which it wills. With God there is NO SUCH THING AS PAST OR FUTURE, but all things are naked and open to His eyes. He does not learn with time or forget with time, but with unerring knowledge and perception He sees all things present in eternity. It is in time that we who are temporal find the meaning and measure of longness or shortness. Yet what seems long to us is not long to God, but eternally present. If you think that God often fails to punish a wicked individual or nation, suffering their arrogance far too long, you are completely mistaken, for note they can never escape Him. THE WHOLE WORLD IS BEFORE HIM, WHERE THEN CAN THEY HIDE FROM HIS PRESENCE? Most certainly He will find them. And if you think that He does not punish or save according to His Word you are quite wrong. HIS WORD CAN NEVER BE UNDONE OR DESTROYED OR RESISTED. Oh you rascals! You who are not instructed or versed in the Gospel pick out verses from it without regard to their context, and wrest them according to your own desire. It is like breaking off a flower from its roots and trying to plant it in a garden. But that is not the way: you must plant IT WITH ROOTS AND THE SOIL IN WHICH IT IS EMBEDDED.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Is there any bad news in the good news?

I am holding my tongue about the Rob Bell issue for the most part. I don't mind telling you that I haven't read the book Love Wins. I would read it if I didn't have to purchase it. Unfortunately I think all the pre-pub hype about the book has only stimulated more interest in it, and it will sell wildly, leading the author and publishers to think that the world needs more hamster-cage liners like this. I don't want to add to that. But if you want to send me a free copy, I will read it and chime in on it. Suffice to say that when every like-minded scholar whom I respect and learn from consistently are in lock-step agreement that the book's contents are heretical, I will not likely differ from them (though I did differ from some of them on The Shack, but here I think I would not). But like The Da Vinci Code and other books that have stirred up the waters in recent years, I can give thanks that this one also forces a difficult subject to the top of the agenda in public discourse. This time, one of those subjects is hell, and that of course is part of a larger discussion on the Gospel and what we believe about it.

The word "Gospel", we all know, means "good news." And it is not just good news, but the best news imaginable, that God has reconciled us to Himself in the cross of Christ. The miracle of justification, that a wretched sinner such as I can be covered in the perfect righteousness of Jesus, still brings me to pieces when I meditate upon it. It is unfathomably GOOD NEWS. But I want to ponder the question, "Is there any bad news contained within this good news?" Some would say, "Of course not. God is love and a loving God gives every story a happy ending, so there's no bad news at all. All roads lead to the same place. Or maybe just one road does and we are all on it whether we know it or not. Or maybe some roads lead to a bad place, but it is not going to last long and then it will be over and the only flames that will last forever are the ones at the big campfire in the sky where we will all hold hands and sing 'Michael Row the Boat Ashore' for eternity."

On the flip side, there is the position that says, "Of course there is bad news inherent within the good news." I have said this very thing for years. It goes something like this: "The bad news is that we are sinners, and because God is holy He must punish sin. And if we don't come to Christ, we will spend eternity in hell." That is not just bad news, it is like a trifecta of bad news, isn't it? For almost 20 years, I have said that this is all very bad news. But today I'm thinking that I have been wrong. Not wrong in the sense that I no longer believe these things and I'm going to don some hipster specs and stand out in the cold and make a video about how we are all going to heaven. No, I still believe what I believed before. We are all sinners, and a holy God must punish sin, and if we do not personally turn to Christ in repentance and faith, then there will literally be an eternity of hell to endure. I'm just not sure that any of that is bad news. In fact, I think it is all good news. I'm not sure there is any bad news in the good news.

I think more than ever as I get older that the fact that God punishes sin is not just "un-bad", and not just "good." It is what we long to wake up every morning and read about in the newspaper. The more hurt and brokenness we see in this world, the more we want to know that God is going to do something about it. We want to know that He is holy, He is just, He is righteous, and He is good. In fact, I think more than longing for more evidence that God is loving, we want to see more and more evidence that God is holy and good. After all, the atheist's strongest argument is what? The problem of loneliness? No, the problem of evil. The atheist thumbs his nose at Christianity, not because there is no apparent answer for all the unloveliness or lovelessness in the world, but because there is so much evil in the world and it appears from our vantage point at the moment that God is not the least bit concerned or involved in it. There is a hunger in the human heart to wake up tomorrow morning and read in the news that God has done something about the unspeakable horror that we read about in today's paper. And the Bible tells us that He will. The Bible assures us that God is holy and He is not turning a blind eye toward sin. All sin is going to receive the full justice it deserves, one way or another, directly from the hands of a righteous Judge and King.

But is this good news? After all, if ALL sin is going to receive the full justice it deserves, then that must mean MY sin will as well. And it most certainly means that, but it isn't bad news. It is good news. Because the reality is not that God WILL pour out this judgment, but rather that He HAS poured out this judgment. It happened when Christ died on the cross. He became the substitute for every sinner on the cross, and bore every sin there. And that includes you. And it includes me. So is it bad news that you are a sinner? Only if no one ever loved you enough to tell you. It is glorious news because if you are a sinner, then you are the very person Jesus came to save. I often say, "We have good news for sinners, and nothing to offer anyone else." If you are too proud to confess that you are a sinner and that your sins deserve a just condemnation from a holy God, then I just don't know what to tell you. But if you will confess that, then I can point you to a Savior who died for you, who wore your sins as He bore the wrath of the righteous Judge, so that you might wear His perfect righteousness in exchange.

So, then, is there a place of eternal torment called hell where unrepentant unbelievers will perish forever. Certainly. The Bible makes this so abundantly clear that one has to engage in hermeneutical yoga to avoid that conclusion. No one was clearer about it than Jesus Himself. But is it bad news? Is it bad news even for the ones who will end up there? I am inclined to think that it is not bad news, not even for them. I think even the fact that there is an eternal hell where the unrepentant and unbelieving will be tormented forever and ever is in itself "good news" because it assures us of the holiness and justice of God. And it drives home how awesome His mercy must be to save me from that end. And one of the amazing things about this is that even in hell, those people will realize that this all really amounts to good news.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Receiving God's Word: Nehemiah 8:1-12

This year, 2011, marks the 400th Anniversary of a significant event in Christian History and indeed the history of the world. To fully understand the significance of it, let me ask you some questions:

1) How many of you brought your own copy of the Bible to church today?
2) How many of you own multiple copies of the Bible?
3) How many of you own multiple English versions (KJV, NIV, NASB, ESV, etc.) of the Bible?

Do you understand that 400 years ago, you would have not likely been able to say “yes” to those questions? Do you understand that it took brothers and sisters in the Christian family dying so that you could have what you have today? Do you understand that many people in other parts of the world still do not have in their language what you have in your language today? And you have it, in large part because of what happened 400 years ago. So I want to pursue two questions today: (1) How did you receive the Word? (2) How do you receive the Word? Those are two different questions. The first one deals with historical events that led to you possessing a copy of the Word of God in your own language and being able to hear it taught and preached in your own language. The second deals with what you do when you read it, hear it, or study it. The first, how DID you receive the Word, is historical; the second, how DO you receive the Word, is deeply personal.

The book of Acts describes how Christianity spread from Jerusalem to Rome. While this was going on, the Roman Empire was expanding ever-outward, and by the end of the first century, nearly all of the British Isles were under the control of Rome. In time, Christianity became the dominant religion of the Empire, and as such it began to spread to the far reaches of Roman control. By the middle of the 600s Christianity was becoming established in the British Isles and it is widely believed that Caedmon, a herdsman, monk, and poet, was the first to render any portion of God’s Word into the Anglo-Saxon tongue we now call “Old English.” His work was more paraphrase than translation, but he cracked open a door that would take nearly 1,000 years to open wide – that of translating the Word of God into English.

Over the next few centuries, leading up to the 900s, several others would translate and paraphrase portions of the Bible, including all four Gospels, the entire Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, Esther, and a few other portions, into Old English. But all of these attempts to put God’s Word into the language of the Anglo-Saxon peoples had been based upon the Latin Bible, the Vulgate, which was the official Bible of the Catholic Church. That means it was a translation of a translation. There had been no attempt to translate the original Greek and Hebrew Scriptures into the common tongue of Britain to this point. To complicate matters even more, within a short time all of these versions became virtually obsolete as English evolved from “Old English” into “Middle English” following the Norman Invasion of 1066.

The Middle English period saw far fewer attempts to put the Word of God into the language of the English-speaking people. Most notably, Ormin paraphrased the Gospels and Acts around 1200. In the 1300s the Psalms would be translated from Latin into a few regional English dialects. But other attempts were few and less notable. The Catholic Church certainly did nothing to encourage translation efforts. They had a twofold reason for keeping the Bible in Latin. They claimed that they desired to prevent laypeople from misinterpreting the Bible, and thus they sought to protect the church from doctrinal error. But the greater factor was that by keeping the reading and interpreting of the Bible reserved only for the learned, they could maintain control over the people. In that day, clergy were among the most well educated people of society. If a person wanted to know what the Bible said, they had to ask the priest. Most of a person’s Bible knowledge came only from what they learned in church services, and even then biblical exposition as we know it today was rare. Since the printing press had not yet been invented, copies of the Bible, even in Latin, were rare and expensive, being handwritten manuscripts often illuminated with extravagant artwork in the margins. You would not have owned a single private copy of the Bible unless you were extraordinarily wealthy, and to own multiple copies would have been unthinkable. If you had access to a Bible at all, it would have been in Latin. There were no complete English Bibles at this time. But all of this would soon change with the rising of a new star on the horizon.

John Wycliffe was born in 1320, nearly 200 years before Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the Wittenburg Church door. Wycliffe came to be known as “The Morning Star of the Reformation” because he spoke out boldly against the moral degradation, political abuses, and theological errors of the Catholic Church from the parish priest all the way to the top – the Pope himself. This put Wycliffe at enmity with the Catholic Church, and led to the issuing of five papal bulls, official documents of public rebuke, against him. Wycliffe surrounded himself with men known as The Lollards, a group of travelling preachers who went throughout the English countryside preaching the truth of the Bible in the common language of the people. Wycliffe translated the New Testament from the Latin Vulgate into English in 1380 and oversaw the completion of the Old Testament prior to his death in 1384.

Wycliffe’s influence so outraged the Catholic Church that in 1401, some 17 years after his death, an official persecution was launched by the church against all of Wycliffe’s followers. In 1408, the “Constitutions of Oxford” were published, which banned Wycliffe’s writings and made the translation of the Bible into English a crime punishable by the charge of heresy. In 1415 Wycliffe was officially declared by the church to be a “stiff-necked heretic.” His books were ordered to be burned, and in 1428, Pope Martin V ordered that his remains be exhumed from the grave and burned. But Wycliffe’s writings and influence continued to spread, and all the more as new innovations over the coming century fueled the fires of reformation.

Gutenberg’s printing press came into being around 1450, during the height of the Renaissance. Soon the world was filled with books, and many ancient classics became easily accessible. New emphasis was placed on the study of classical sources of information. As a result of these developments, Hebrew and Greek manuscripts which predated the Latin Vulgate became available to the scholarly world. An Englishman named William Tyndale had been classically educated at Oxford and Cambridge during this period, and his knowledge of Greek and Hebrew enabled him to begin the first translation of the Bible into English directly from the ancient original languages. When news of his efforts became known, controversy began to swirl and threatened to bring the project to a halt. But Wycliffe was resilient. He vowed that he would continue so that one day a common boy driving a plow would be more knowledgeable of the Scriptures than the scholars of the Catholic Church. Wycliffe fled from England to the European continent and continued his work, completing the New Testament in 1526, and working gradually on the Old Testament. Before it was finished, Tyndale was condemned as a heretic, kidnapped and imprisoned. In 1536, he was strangled and tied to a stake where he was burned to death. It is said that as he was engulfed in flames, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!”

Tyndale’s imprisonment and subsequent death fanned the flames of public demand for an English Bible. In 1534, before Tyndale died and in the same year of the finalization of England’s break from the Roman Catholic Church, English church leaders gathered at Canterbury to demand King Henry VIII to authorize an English translation of the Bible for his newfound Church of England. The following year, Henry allowed the publication of the Coverdale Bible, the first complete Bible in English. Miles Coverdale had been Tyndale’s assistant, and his Bible was for the most part a slight revision of Tyndale’s. Coverdale had omitted many of the critical marginal notes that Tyndale had included in his Bible, making it more acceptable to the church’s officials. Coverdale’s Bible became a favorite of Queen Anne Boleyn, which may have also had something to do with its fast fall into disfavor soon after her execution in 1536.

Another of Tyndale’s assistants, John Rogers, also sought to publish an English Bible around the same time. Out of fear of persecution, he used the pseudonym Thomas Matthew and published with the King’s permission a revision of Tyndale’s and Coverdale’s Bibles in 1537. Though a better translation than Coverdale’s, “Matthew’s Bible” as it had come to be known, was not popular because of its close association with Tyndale and its many marginal notes which some deemed to be inflammatory against the established Church. Just a year after it was published, a royal injunction was passed that forbade the importing of or printing of English Bibles with any notes or prologues that were not explicitly authorized by the King. When the Catholic Queen Mary came to the throne in 1553, Parliament reinstituted many of the old restrictions that had had been in place in Wycliffe’s day, and as a result, Rogers became the first of Bloody Mary’s many Protestant martyrs. But even before his death, his Bible had been eclipsed by another revision overseen by Coverdale. This Bible was known as the Great Bible and it was the first English Bible to bear the Archbishop of Canterbury’s endorsement for use in all of the churches of England.

During Bloody Mary’s reign, many English Protestants, including Miles Coverdale, fled to continental Europe to escape persecution and martyrdom. A favorite city of refuge for many of them was Geneva, where John Calvin was pastoring, preaching, teaching, and reforming a city and a culture to the glory of God. Here John Knox and other exiles from the British Isles were being equipped to carry the Reformation back home to England, Ireland, and Scotland. Several of these exiles in Geneva were preparing an English Bible based strongly on Tyndale’s work. The most notable feature of the Geneva Bible was the ample supply of footnotes, which were strongly flavored by the teachings of John Calvin. The Geneva Bible became the preferred version for the Puritans, and found its way even into the writings of Shakespeare. The Geneva Bible was the Bible brought to America by the Pilgrims, but because of its strongly reformed annotations, it was not viewed highly by Queen Elizabeth.

In order to keep the Geneva Bible out of the Churches of England, a new revision of the Great Bible was produced in 1568 called The Bishops’ Bible. By all accounts it was not as good of a translation as the Geneva Bible (which was banned and had to be smuggled into the country), and so in spite of it being mandated for use in the churches, it did not find a wide audience with the people of England. A growing divide between the Anglican Church and its Puritans threatened national security and stability, and the issue of Bible translation was a contributing factor in the divide. The newly crowned successor to Elizabeth, King James I was determined to have a unified church. He summoned church leaders in 1604 for the Hampton Court Conference to discuss a petition that had been presented to him with 1,000 Puritan signatures calling for reform in the Anglican Church. At this conference, the Puritan John Reynolds suggested that a new English Bible, authorized by the king and translated without a bias or hidden agenda, could bring unity to the Church. Though the King was not sympathetic to Puritans, he wasted no time in appointing a team of 47 scholars to begin work on a new authorized English version of the Bible. Their task was not to create something new, but to build on what had been done before, and to standardize the Bible for all English speaking people. The final product, which we call the King James Version of the Bible, was published in 1611, 400 years ago this year.

As is now evident to all English speaking people everywhere, the King James Bible accomplished the goals that it set out to meet. Within a relatively short time, it surpassed all previous versions in popularity and acceptance. It became THE BIBLE of the English speaking world, virtually without rival for nearly 300 years. Today the King James Version remains immensely popular because of its beautiful language and familiar wordings. Even among those who, like myself, prefer newer English versions, passages are often memorized from the King James, and its influence and importance for the English speaking Church is never undervalued. It is widely recognized as a high-water mark in the history of English literature, yet literary beauty was never the aim of its translators. In their very lengthy preface to the original edition, they make it abundantly clear that their primary goal was to produce a faithful and accurate translation of the Scriptures, based on the best Greek and Hebrew texts available to them at the time, which would be understandable to the most common reader, in their words, “understood even of the very vulgar.” This goal won the King James Version a wide audience, which in turn led to a standardization of the English language as the Bible became the measuring rod of spelling, grammar, and style. The widespread influence of the King James Version also brought the English language into its own among the languages of the world. No longer a secondary language of vulgar and unlearned people, English was now felt to be good enough to communicate the Word of God to the masses, and therefore credible enough to stand on its own two feet in other realms of society as well.

Today, there are many who insist that the King James is still the best choice of Bible for English speaking people to read. However, I cannot go along with those who insist that it is superior to all other English versions available in our day for a number of reasons. First, and most importantly, is the issue of accuracy. Make no mistake, the scholars behind the King James Version made a very accurate translation of the best Hebrew and Greek manuscripts that they had access to 400 years ago. But today, we have access to manuscripts that are far older and far more reliable than the ones that those scholars had. Additionally, the study of these ancient languages has progressed by exponential leaps and bounds over the last 400 years. Therefore, when a team of translators makes use of the tools available to them today, they are able to produce a more accurate English translation in 2011 than was possible in 1611.

Of second importance is the issue of clarity. The fact remains that we simply do not speak the same kind of English that was spoken 400 years ago. This is not simply because we are more ignorant of great literature in our day. We must keep in mind that the King James translators were not aiming for literary greatness. They were aiming for accuracy and clarity, such that the Word of God could be understood by the most common man in the English speaking world. Frankly, the most common man in the English speaking world has not spoken the language of the King James Bible for a couple or three centuries. Consider, for example, Proverbs 11:15, which reads in the King James text: He that is surety for a stranger shall smart for it; and he that hateth suretyship is sure. I would imagine that there aren’t many of us here today who would readily recognize that this verse is a warning against co-signing for loans. And so, as Alister McGrath has written, “When a translation itself requires translation, it has ceased to serve its original purpose.” There are a handful of newer translations that are faithful to the original text while being simultaneously understandable to the modern English speaker. And these two hallmarks must be our standard for choosing a translation of the Bible today. It must accurately reflect the wording of the best available Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, and it must be understandable to the average person. I have used for many years the New American Standard Bible because it places a high premium on both. There are others that also aim to meet both of these standards. Some modern versions will emphasize clarity at the expense of accuracy, while others are driven by financial or other less than noble aims. We must acquaint ourselves with the foundational principles behind the various English versions that are available and make wise choices based on these twin priorities of accuracy and clarity. We must also recognize that the English language is constantly evolving, and we must never make the mistake that so many have made with the King James – to canonize one particular translation as the all-time standard. Additionally, we must ask ourselves, is there a need today for yet another English version of the Bible when so many of the world’s unreached peoples do not have a single copy of the most minute portion of God’s Word in their own language? According to the SIL Ethnologue, some 4,400 of the world’s 6,900 languages have no portion of Scripture available. In 2,500 of these languages, the work of Bible translation has not even begun. The Church of the English speaking world needs to say to the publishing industry, “Please do not give us another English Bible until the ones we have no longer serve their purpose. Please focus your efforts and resources on bringing God’s word to those who are today like we once were – those with no portion of the Bible in their heart language!”

Now, I hope that it has not escaped your notice that I have not spent any time at all unpacking the text which I began by reading. I have attempted to answer the question, “How did we receive the Word of God in our language?” I would like to close by returning to Nehemiah 8 and answering the question, albeit briefly, “How do we receive the Word of God?” Meaning, since I have a copy of the Scriptures in my own language which is accurate and clear, what should my response to this Word be?

You must understand that the people of Israel in Nehemiah’s day were very much like the English speakers leading up to 1611. They simply did not speak the language that the Bible was written in. Their Scriptures were written in Hebrew, but they had not been speaking that language for some time. Most of their knowledge of Scripture came from the teachings of the rabbis, and some of that was only loosely based on Scripture. As the exiles who had returned to Jerusalem from Babylon to rebuild the city and its temple were called into a sacred assembly by Nehemiah and Ezra, we see that they “asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel.” In other words, they desired to hear God’s Word. This, then, suggests to us the first response that we should have to the Word: we should desire it. The people of Israel understood that now, for the first time in most of their lives, they could hear openly and directly the very words that God had spoken to them, and they longed for it. Friends, is there a hunger in your life to hear from God? Do you awake with a yearning to know the truth that God has spoken? Do you come to church hungry with an appetite that can only be satisfied by hearing this divine truth? This desire should issue forth in a demand to whoever stands in this pulpit, “Bring the Book!” We have not gathered to hear a man’s opinion. We have no lack of that. What we need is to hear from God, and this book is the only sure revelation that can declare His words to us. So, first of all, since we have the Word in a language we can understand, we should desire it.

Secondly, we see in the passage that we should give attention to the Word. In vv 2-3, we see that the crowd consisted of all the men, women, and children who were able to understand the Word, and that as it was read aloud, “all the people were attentive to the book of the Law.” What has your attention this morning? Are you worried about the traffic you may face as you exit or to the events that will transpire across the street over the next few hours today? Are you concerned about what you will be served for lunch? Are you preoccupied with your work schedule for the week ahead? Are you attentive to the whispers and notes of your neighbor in the pew? Or does the Word of God hold an unrivaled priority in your attention? And this goes not only for the hour you spend in the sanctuary on Sunday. Where is your attention during the remaining 23 hours of this day, and the remaining days of the week? The Psalmist says that the righteous man delights Himself in the Word of God and meditates upon it day and night. It is necessary for us to give attention to many matters as we go through life, but our foremost attention must always be anchored to the truth of God found in this book. It becomes not only our primary focus, but also the lens through which we see all else in the world. Only by giving God’s Word the attention that it demands can we rightly give attention to anything else in life.

Third, we find that there is a reverent appreciation for the Word. In verse 4 we see that there was a wooden podium constructed for the very purpose of delivering the Word of God to the people, and as Ezra opened the Word, everyone stood up. Now, it would be a mistake for us to obey the letter of this word and neglect the spirit of it. This passage does not intend to teach that we must always have a large pulpit for preaching, or that we must always stand when the Word is read. I know of churches where that is the practice, and I have no objection to it, but I think that misses the point. The point is, when the book is opened, do I realize in my heart that something of eternal significance is about to happen? Am I aware that I am about to encounter the very truth of God? My posture is far less important than my perspective. The issue is not whether I am standing, but whether I am giving reverent attention to the Bible as it is being read and proclaimed, and whether or not I appreciate the opportunity I have to hear it. The same goes for when I open it to read privately. Do I approach it no differently than the sports page of the daily paper or the latest piece of fiction on the bestseller list? Or is my heart called to attention by the reality that this is God’s Word, and do I appreciate the awesome privilege I have to encounter His truth for myself in my own language?

Then we notice in verse 6 that as the Word is proclaimed, Ezra “blessed the Lord the great God. And all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen!’ while lifting up their hands; then they bowed low and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” Essentially, what we are seeing here is that the people are drawn into the worship of God by His truth. The exercise of hearing the Word is not merely academic. They are not merely listening to the words of a book or an educational lecture. They are encountering the Lord, the great God, who is worthy of our devotion, our worship, and our praise! This is about more than just information, it is about a transaction. You have not come to this place, I trust, to hear words. You can go anywhere and hear words. You have come to this place, at this time on this day to meet God. And when you open your Bible at home, it is not just because you can’t reach any other book on the shelf. It is because you know that through the words of this book you are transported into the presence of God Himself, who both desires and deserves our worship. So the issue is not “what you got out of it,” but what you gave to God in it. Do the truths of God’s Word bring you face to face with Him, where you can worship Him in hearty agreement with what He has spoken, saying “Amen, Amen!”, which means, “I agree! I agree!”, as you bow before Him?

Then notice in verses 7 and 8 the emphasis on understanding. The leaders explained the law to the people while the people remained in their place. They read it, they translated it, they gave the sense of it, with the outcome being that the people understood it. I don’t know of a better definition of expository preaching in all the Bible. Preaching that pleases the Lord is this kind of preaching: it includes the reading of the Word, the translating of the Word, the explanation of the Word, and the giving of the sense of the Word. But you notice that the process of preaching does not stop with the preacher. It entails a responsibility on the part of the hearer, who must apply himself or herself diligently to understand the Word. And they stayed put until they understood it. They were not watching the clock. There is no hint of that at all anywhere in this text. They were not going to leave until they understood what God had to say to them. And so, on a Sunday morning in church, or a Tuesday evening at home, whenever I am brought into contact with God through His word, the task is not complete until I have understood what it is that God is saying in this text, and how it applies to my life. Nothing else on my agenda today or any other day is more important than that I understand what God has spoken to me from His word.

Then finally, notice that there is a response of the will to the Word of God. Verse 9 says that the people were weeping when they heard the words of the Law. Have you wept before the Word of God? When we hear the truth of God’s word it cuts us. It points out to us in one fell swoop both the inestimable holiness of God and the utter depravity of my personal condition. I am left in ruin by what I see and hear in this Word, for I am brought face to face with the inescapable reality that I am a helpless sinner who is utterly deserving of condemnation by the holy and righteous God who made me and before whom I will stand in judgment. But though the Word of God brings us to ruin, it does not leave us there. The leaders spoke to the people in verse 9 and said, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” In verse 10 they say, “Go, eat and drink, and share with others … do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” This same word that cuts us with conviction of our sin also announces to us the grace of God that is our hope and joy. Yes we are sinners who are separated from God. But rejoice in that God has spoken to us to call us back to Himself through repentance and faith. He has not left us to perish in sin! He has spoken words of grace to us! He has proclaimed to us that there is salvation for sinners; there is good news because of His mercy. And subsequent generations of God’s people would come to understand that this good news is found only through the Lord Jesus Christ. He has come to bear our sins for us, and to die the death that we deserve so that we might have life in Him. Weep for your sins! Indeed, mourn over them. But do not stop there. Cast your sins upon Christ and His cross, and know the joy of His saving grace. Yes, rejoice in that God has spoken to rescue us from perishing! The day in which we hear this great news is a holy day, and a day of celebration.

And that brings us to the final response: joy. Rejoice and be glad for you have understood the words which have been made known to you. Verse 12 says that the people went away celebrating that God has spoken to them, and they have understood Him. John Wycliffe’s corpse was burned to powder after his death; William Tyndale was tied to a stake and burned alive; John Rogers was killed; Miles Coverdale and countless others were forced into hiding and paid a costly price. Why? So that today you could open a book and hear God speak in your native language. Because of the sacrifices of these dear brothers and many more, you can hear, and understand, and know that a greater sacrifice than all of theirs combined has been offered to save you from sin. They did what they did so you could know what Jesus did, so that you could read it and hear it for yourself, and understand it and believe it. Rejoice and be glad that you understand this! Give yourself fully to Christ! Trust Him to save you from sin and follow Him in new life through His grace! And devote the rest of your days to doing what Ezra and Nehemiah did, what Wycliffe and Tyndale, Rogers and Coverdale did – live to make known to others this truth that you now understand! And if God should so will it, die for that cause as well.

I once heard Howard Hendricks say something that changed the trajectory of my life and ministry. He said that there are only two things on this planet today that will last forever: the Word of God and the souls of men. Why on earth would you want to invest another minute of your time in things that will not matter for one second beyond your lifetime? Live and die for the things that will matter for eternity – get this Word into the soul of another person. Nothing else is really worth living, or dying, for.