I’ve been slowly wending my way through Kenneth Latourette’s wonderful History of Christianity: Beginnings to 1500. I began the book at the year 500 A.D., finished it, and have now circled back to the beginning to fill in the gap. I came across this observation from him just this morning:
Christians know they should be united, but they often are not. Because we are what we are, the quarrels are often about secondary issues―disagreements over how to express Christianity. The disagreements are rarely about the trinity, the Gospel, two-nature Christology, or original sin. It’s a sad disconnect, and it’ll never go away as long as we’re east of Eden.
Recent circumstances in my congregation make me read Latourette’s comments with sadness. We’ve had six people leave our church in the past two months because we had a wedding as the worship service on a Sunday morning.
I was told it was blasphemous to “usurp” the “proper” worship service.
I was told it was a “poor testimony” to unbelievers to see a wedding on a Sunday morning.
I was criticized for allowing decorations to be put up which “covered the cross” behind the pulpit … even though that cross is only two years old, and for 37 years there was nothing on the wall behind the pulpit.
I was told it was wrong for me to move our Wednesday evening bible study and prayer meeting to another room inside the building so we could stage wedding decorations in a convenient place.
I was told I allowed the building to be made to “look like a bar” because there was subdued lighting.
One (now former) member told me she didn’t believe I had made “Godly decisions” and thus no longer trusted me.
Another (now former) member suggested that, because the folks who did the lighting had the word “dragon” in the company name, we had somehow colluded with Satan (cf. Rev 12).
One (now former) member pointed his finger at me angrily during a public meeting and said I was wrong to remove the American flag from the platform for the wedding. I now plan to never return that flag to the platform.
Another (now former) member said I did not preach the Gospel, and suggested I received poor training.
Another (now former) member suggested I was wrong to point out during a recent sermon that Bob Jones University has a legacy of evil racism, and that the university didn’t drop its inter-racial dating ban until 2000. He explained Bob Jones University “had reasons for those policies.”
I was heavily criticized for allowing the wedding party to hold a private reception inside the church building afterwards, during which time they danced. I was told I allowed the building to be desecrated.
In short, my decision to hold a wedding for two church members as the worship service on a Sunday morning has prompted an exodus of six people. In each case, I interpret the wedding as the “final straw” and the trigger for a decision which was inevitable. I attribute it to three factors; the first two are often intertwined but are not quite the same:
I do not model an “America exceptionalism” brand of Christianity.
I do not hold to a second-stage fundamentalist philosophy of ministry which sees holiness as synonymous with a culturally conditioned and scripturally suspect set of external behaviors.
I believe a church which fails to plan and execute corporate evangelism is derelict in its duties. Results are God’s business, but the responsibility to spread the Gospel is ours. This is non-negotiable. Thus a church which is purely insular is a useless social organization. One (now former) member complained that I spoke about the Gospel too much.
Local churches will always struggle to “make real” Jesus’ heart for unity. For me, this is a particularly sad blow because one of our congregation’s three “platforms” is to build community and love one another. This is a frequent emphasis in my sermons and teachings. Unfortunately, it isn’t yet a reality in our congregation. Like many churches, ours is small. Morale will suffer. It ought not to be this way. It makes me so sad, because I don’t know what these people think Christianity is. What have they been doing all their lives? How many others (in my congregation and yours) think the same way?
We have a bi-monthly theology class with interested folks from my congregation. Right now, we’re considering the doctrine of sin. This might seem dry as dust, but it’s not. If you read the notes, below, perhaps you’ll see why. I’ve included short-ish excerpts from the teaching session if you want the Cliff Notes version in the meantime!
Kind of a big deal …
This question “what is sin” answers one of the “big questions” of life. Everybody has these big questions, and they’re usually variations on these five:
Origins: How did we get here? How did the world get here? What are we as human beings? How can we be sure we know anything about reality at all? What’s the purpose of life? Is there a Creator and Sustainer, or is life just random chance and accident?
Suffering: What’s wrong with the world and with us? What are good and evil? Who defines these terms? Why does the world hurt people? Why do we hurt each other? What happens when we die? Why do we die?
Hope: Is there a solution to suffering? Will there be justice? What is justice? What basis do we have to look forward to some “better day?”
Rescue: How is this hope, whatever it is, achieved? What are its effects? Does it bring justice? Is this redemption individual, corporate, or both?
The End: How will everything end? What will it be like? When will it happen? What will happen?
So, this isn’t an academic consideration—it shapes and defines how we understand the world, ourselves and God in many ways:
God: If sin isn’t so serious, then we’ll tend to think of God as the smiling, perhaps senile grandfather. He’s indulgent. He forgives. He forgets. But, if sin is indeed quite serious, then we’re more likely to see God as pure, righteous, and holy.
Ourselves: If sin is a matter of grading on a curve, then “goodness” is about how we compare ourselves to each other. We aren’t so bad, after all! None of us is Ted Bundy! But, if there is no curve, but a moral standard set by God, then we’re supposed to reflect God’s image and are held to His standard. This means we’re all in serious trouble.
Salvation: What we think about sin shapes how much “trouble” we’re in. If we’re basically good, then we don’t need much supernatural intervention. Maybe just a push, now and then. But, if we’re criminals without hope, then we do need a divine intervention!
The Church: What we think about sin shapes what we think the Church is here to do. If we’re basically “good people” in our natural state, then the Church exists to be positive, to be caring, to show love via mercy ministries (e.g. In His Steps). But, if we do need that divine intervention, then the Church is here to show and tell the Gospel and bridge-build towards the Gospel as we interact with our communities.
Society: What we think about sin shapes how we understand politics, and our society. If we’re basically good, then we solve problems in our world by fixing unwholesome environments. If we need a divine intervention, then we see that nothing will really be solved until people’s hearts are changed by the Gospel. The ultimate hope is then in Jesus’ second coming and His establishment of the new community.
What is sin?
I’ll start with a brief survey of how some folks in the Church have answered that question.
The text we’re using for theology class, Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, offers this: “sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature.” This is a standard definition, no doubt derived from the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith. Notice that Grudem captures three categories; actions, thoughts, and nature.
Here’s the Belgic Confession, Art. 15:
We believe that, through the disobedience of Adam, original sin is extended to all mankind; which is a corruption of the whole nature, and an hereditary disease, wherewith infants themselves are infected even in their mother’s womb, and which produceth in man all sorts of sin, being in him as a root thereof; and therefore is so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn all mankind. Nor is it by any means abolished or done away by baptism; since sin always issues forth from this woeful source, as water from a fountain: notwithstanding it is not imputed to the children of God unto condemnation, but by his grace and mercy is forgiven them. Not that they should rest securely in sin, but that a sense of this corruption should make believers often to sigh, desiring to be delivered from this body of death.”
Note the emphasis on sin as a status, an infection that has spread to all people.
Here is the Church of England’s 39 Articles, Art. 9:
Original Sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is ingendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in the Greek, “Phronema Sarkos”, which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh, is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized, yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.
Now, we turn to the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith, Art. 6, which explains sin is a “corruption of nature” (6.5):
By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation (6.2-3).
Finally, we have the Lutherans in the Augsburg Confession (1630), Art. 2:
… since the fall of Adam all men who are born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin. That is, all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mother’s wombs and are unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God. Moreover, this inborn sickness and hereditary sin is truly sin [that is, there is actual individual guilt] and condemns to the eternal wrath of God all those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit.”
Sin is actually three different things at the same time, like layers of the same onion. We’ll go from the most obvious example of sin to its most fundamental essence:
Sin as lawlessness
Sin is lawlessness (1 Jn 3:4)—failing to follow God’s laws. It means breaking God’s law by what you do or don’t do; e.g. “thou shalt not kill” (Ex 20:13) and “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well” (Jas 2:8-9). It also means breaking God’s law by what you think; Mt 5:27-28: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Sin as a controlling disease
But, as the survey of various confessions makes clear, sin is also a disease that owns, controls, and shapes people—“it infects our personal ‘control center’” and produces “guilt and pollution.” One excellent controlling passage is Romans 6:1 – 7:6, which you can read through and note at your leisure.
This means that, as a hereditary disease, sin controls us. We’re its slaves, and it corrupts all our affections. It’s a “total act” that involves all of our beings, because it springs from the heart (Prov 4:23; Mt 12:33-37). “The heart of man is evil … It is the Headquarters of the General Staff, not the office of some lesser official … the whole man rebels against God, ego totus, and in this rebellion all the individual powers of his body-mind economy are mobilized.”
It’s shape comes from our environmental and social nexus and is always evolving, mutating, expanding, shape-shifting—it can be “baked in” even to the level of the structural fabrics of our society (e.g. racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism, ageism, religious hatred, ecological pollution, genocide).
Indeed, experience shows is daily how evil ‘infects’ society, spreading from one person to another, and perhaps involving them in it against their will. The power of the ‘infection’ is as great in the moral sphere as it is in physical epidemics. We ought to be aware of the fact—and remind others of it—that evil spreads to institutions and conditions, ‘infects’ them, and then breeds further evil, which, in turn, ‘re-infects’ the lives of human beings as individuals. Further, it is evident that the evil which is incorporated in asocial institutions, and the evil which becomes a mass phenomenon, waxes great and assumes demonic forms, which, as a rule, are not found in any individual evil. Evil which takes the shape of social wrong, or is incorporated in institutions, or as a mass phenomenon, is worse than evil in any individual form, in isolation.”
All this is why we must be “born again” (Jn 3:5-7), because we need a new mind and new heart (cf. Ezek 36:25-26)—the Spirit must “wash” us clean (Titus 3:5) and “cleanse” us from this disease. Union with Christ (pictured by the object lesson of believer’s baptism) breaks that metaphysical slavery and sets us free.
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
Sin as cheating on God and rejecting His community
Largely following Stanley Grenz, with an assist from Emil Brunner and Millard Erickson, I believe the most basic essence of sin is infidelity to God and His plan for community. Other suggestions are (1) rebellion and apostasy, (2) selfishness, (3) a privation or absence of goodness, or (4) displacement of God. These are good options. Still, infidelity and rejection of community seem to strike at the heart of “sin.”
God made us to be in community with Him and each other. By sinning, our first parents rejected His community (just as Satan had done), and so God had to expel them from Paradise (“he drove out the man,” Gen 3:24).
The bible’s story is God choosing and rescuing a community for His kingdom—we’ll only have peace and purpose in our lives when that relationship is fixed by pledging allegiance to Jesus. Sin is the great “problem” that stands in the way; lawlessness caused by a controlling force that has ruined our hearts and minds.
This isn’t an impersonal, legal crime, but a personal attack and rejection—infidelity, adultery (cf. Hosea 1-3), a hurtful treachery (Hos 6:7; Isa 48:8; Jer 3:1-2, 8-10, 20, 5:11; Ezek 16:15f). There’s a reason why God so often frame this treachery as “adultery.” It’s the ultimate betrayal, the most personal and hurtful betrayal imaginable. It’s why God chose to use it when He expressed His anger.
So, “sin” is fundamentally about saying “no” to God’s community; “cheating on Him” and thus destroying our relationship with Him (fear of Him; Gen 3:10), with each other (Gen 3:7, 16), and with the natural environment God gave us (Gen 3:17-19)—the world God gave us is no longer our friend.
For fun, I’ll also throw in a video of the free-ranging discussion we began during our last class on the question “why did God allow Adam and Eve to sin? This is one of the trickiest questions of the Christian faith. It all comes down to providence, and HOW God controls this world. In this video, the other pastor in my congregation lays out some options, we look at scripture, and then have a free-ranging discussion about the topic. If you want to know the answer to this question, read Article 13 from the 1619 Belgic Confession of Faith:
We believe that the same God, after he had created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune or chance, but that he rules and governs them, according to his holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment; nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed.
For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner even when the devil and wicked men act unjustly. And as to what he doth surpassing human understanding we will not curiously inquire into it further than our capacity will admit of; but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God which are hid from us, contenting ourselves that we are disciples of Christ, to learn only those things which he has revealed to us in his Word without transgressing these limits.
This doctrine affords us unspeakable consolation, since we are taught thereby that nothing can befall us by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father, who watches over us with a paternal care, keeping all creatures so under his power that not a hair of our head (for they are all numbered), nor a sparrow, can fall to the ground, without the will of our Father, in whom we do entirely trust; being persuaded that he so restrains the devil and all our enemies that, without his will and permission, they can not hurt us.
Here is our free-flowing discussion on the topic. Next time, we’ll narrow things down and see what the Church has taught and believed about this difficult subject.
 Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1952), p. 96.
 I am following Grenz’s excellent work, here (Theology, pp. 187-188).
 Brunner, Creation and Redemption, pp. 90-93. For rebellion alone, see Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, vol. 6 (Waco: Word, 1984), pp. 246f.
 Henry Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), pp. 246-247. “… all the forms of sin can be traced to selfishness as their source.”
 John of Damascus, Orthodox Faith 2.4, in NPNF 2.9. “For evil is nothing else than absence of goodness, just as darkness also is absence of light,” (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1899), p. 20. See also Augustine, where he explains trying to discern the cause of evil is like trying to “see darkness” or “hear silence.” We don’t know it by perception, “but by absence of perception,” (City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson [reprint; New York: Penguin, 2003], 12.7, p. 480.
 Calvin, Institutes, 2.1.4; “hence infidelity was the root of the revolt.”
 “The sinful destruction of community has been the human predicament from the beginning. The transgression of our first parents led to the unmistakable disruption of community. Their act brought alienation or estrangement where once had been only fellowship. The innocent transparency in the presence of each other they had once known gave way to shame (Gen 3:7). In addition, Adam and Eve now feared the face of God who had lovingly created them (v. 10). And they now experience the bitter reality that the world around them was no longer their friend (vv. 15, 17, 19),” (Grenz, Theology, p. 188).
The Bible tells us that, even though Abel is dead, his faith still speaks to us. Well, Zechariah is dead too, but God still speaks to us through his words.
God’s message for us, through Zechariah, is “return to me, and I’ll return to you!” (Zech 1:3). That’s the message of his entire book. It’s a message for covenant people to be more faithful to Him.
We might object, “But I haven’t left God!” That’s what Zechariah’s audience thought, too.
We might think, “This is for other people! It’s not for me!” Well, that’s what they thought, too.
It’s what we always think—and we’re always wrong.
Zechariah begins his book with an introduction:
In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo, saying,
In order to express what’s happening in Zechariah’s day, I’ll ask and answer a few questions.
When is Zechariah preaching? Well, it’s about 519-520 B.C.
Where does Zechariah fit into the big picture of Israel’s history? For all practical purposes, the Babylonians conquered Judah in the last decade of the 7th century B.C. Jerusalem went through a brief period of passive resistance, but eventually rebelled and the Babylonians arrived in force to take the city. Jerusalem fell in 586 B.C. The Babylonians carted prisoners off into exile throughout this entire period. There they stayed for a long time.
About 18 years before Zechariah’s ministry, in 538 B.C., the Persian king Cyrus let a large delegation return to Jerusalem to re-build the temple (Ezra 1).
17 years before, in about 537 B.C., Daniel died in exile in Babylon. I’m certain he would have wished to return, but he couldn’t.
Zechariah begins preaching in about 520-519 B.C., along with Haggai.
Three or four years later, in 516 B.C., the returned exiles finally completed the temple.
50 years after Zechariah’s ministry began, in the 470s, the events in Esther take place.
70 years on, sometime in the mid 440s B.C., Nehemiah arrives from Persia and sets himself the task of re-building the walls of Jerusalem.
90 years later, in the early 430s B.C., Malachi’s preaching ministry begins.
What’s going on in Israel right now? Well, you have desolation, destruction, and ruin. The city has lain vacant lo these 90 years or so. What do you think will happen to a city left empty for that long? It’s why I chose this picture to express something of the mess the exiles inherited when they arrived:
Foreigners occupy the land and the Israelites have no autonomy at all. Stale dates on paper make us forget that 90 years means a lot of water under the bridge. Think on it. Transport yourself to 1930 …
Mickey Mouse cartoons first appear in newspapers.
Herbert Hoover is President
Al Capone is active in Chicago
It’s illegal to produce, import, transport or sell alcohol!
How about a real example; one closer to home? Consider the 1930 census data for a residence near my church, in Olympia, WA. Specifically, 118 Cushing St. Here’s the actual page from the 1930 census to which I’ll be referring:
At that address in 1930, there lived Andrew and Ido Lillis. They were both immigrants from Finland, and their native language was Swedish. Ido was a homemaker, and Andrew was a laborer at the “Verneer Plant.” They had two children. The son, Lawrence (age 22), worked with his father as a fellow laborer at the “Verneer Plant.” The daughter, Edith (age 17), stayed home with her mother.
The burning question on the 1930 census was “do you have a radio set?” I must report the Lillis family did not own such a device!
Here is that very same address, today:
But, the catch is that structure from the picture was built in 1937. The home that census worker visited in 1930 is gone! I say all that to say this—90 years is a lot of water under the bridge. Things change. Entire generations live and die. Many people in Jerusalem don’t know, care or remember what used to be.
What’s Israel’s job? It’s pretty simple; (1) build a temple for God to be with them, and (2) start over by following the law because they love Him—don’t make the mistakes their fathers did! Well, what were their mistakes? We ought to know that, so we can avoid repeating them. Zechariah tell us:
The LORD was very angry with your fathers …”
This doesn’t sound good—nobody wants the Lord to be angry with them. What did their fathers do? Why did they go into exile in the first place? Isaiah has some hints for us. I’m reaching for Isaiah here because Zechariah alludes to him two years later in his ministry (Zech 7:7).
Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins.
God doesn’t want Isaiah to hold back. He obviously has a serious problem with his people. He explains:
Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness, and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God.
The problems seem to be externalism and fakery. God now mocks what the people ask him:
‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
They want to know why God is “ignoring” them when they pray, when they fast, when they bring sacrifices. So, God tells them why:
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist.
There’s no brotherly love. No real covenant community.
Fasting like yours this day, will not make your voice to be heard on high.
When there’s no obedience, God ignores us.
Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?
Of course not! God sees through externalism. If we really love God, we want to do what He says. Isaiah tells them to start showing love to their brothers and sisters; to show brotherly love to one another in the community (a la John the Baptist). God explains what will happen if they obey:
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
None of this is news to many Christians. But let me ask you this—will God one day say speak to our grandchildren and say, “I was very angry with your fathers?”
We want to instinctively respond, “No, because we’re not like them!”
is that really true?
do you think Isaiah’s audience were a bunch of people who self-consciously hated God and wanted to be free from Him?
did they think God was angry with them?
or, did they think God was just fine with them?
did they deceive themselves?
Is the Lord angry with us? We want to reply, “I’m not like them, even if other Christians are!” But, God is dealing with groups, here. The churches in Revelation weren’t all full of “bad” people, you know. Sometimes the righteous suffer because of the sins of the larger group. Our individualism won’t save us.
So, I ask again—is the Lord angry with us? Let’s see what Zechariah has to say:
Therefore say to them, Thus declares the LORD of hosts: Return to me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts.
God says they’ve left Him behind, and they don’t even know it! How have they done that? It’s an important question, because right now (today!) we’re doing variations on the same thing. How have the folks in Zechariah’s day “left” God? Ezra and Haggai tell us how.
Ezra tells us they didn’t listen to God, and then rationalized their sins away. The first wave of exiles returned and built a makeshift altar to worship God “for fear was on them because of the peoples of the lands,” (Ezra 3:3). They re-instituted proper worship and laid a new temple foundation (Ezra 3:8-13). They rejected help from the syncretistic locals (Ezra 4:3), who then discouraged them, made them afraid, and bribed officials to hinder their work (Ezra 4:4-5). So, they stop working on the temple.
Haggai then weighs in. He and Zechariah practically began their preaching ministries together. What does God think about their failure and their rationalizations? By the time Zechariah and Haggai roll up on the scene, it’s been 16 years—what does God think about this?
Well … God isn’t happy. Even worse, God doesn’t care about their reasons.
Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?
What can they say to this? Not much. They had good reasons for being afraid. For being worried. For being scared. But, God doesn’t care. The time is never “right” to do what God wants. He told them:
Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD
No matter what we think, we only honor and glorify God when we do things His way. And, in Zechariah and Haggai’s day, His way is to have a temple in which to dwell among His people. So, we do things His way or He takes no pleasure in us. We do things His way or we don’t honor Him.
God doesn’t care about our excuses. They might be real excuses, but He still doesn’t care. He wants us to get moving because He promises to help us along the way. The rest of Zechariah is full of encouragement to do just that. God has power over their circumstances.
He has power over ours, too.
But, now another question crops up in our minds as we mull this over. When you think about the real pressures Zechariah’s folks are facing, and the real obstacles in their way, and the fact that they’re probably not cartoon characters who self-consciously hate God … how did they “leave” Him in the first place?
Looking at what Ezra and Haggai said, it seems to go something like this:
Do not be like your fathers, to whom the former prophets cried out, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.’ But they did not hear or pay attention to me, declares the LORD.
This sounds so simple, so easy. Well, when Jeremiah tried to preach truth to Israelites, a mob of priests and angry folks seized him and declared he must die (Jer 26:7-11)! We read this and think, “what idiots!”
We forget that we’re very good at seeing ourselves in the best possible light— sometimes a very false light. The Pharisees didn’t think they were hypocrites—why not? How does this rationalization work? How do we deceive ourselves?
You stop looking to Him to figure out His standards. You make your own standards—even with good intentions.
Then, you begin to drift away, all while thinking God’s happy with you. With no guardrails, you begin to edge off the road and into the ditch.
Eventually, God’s word sounds strange and offensive to you. But, you’ve been without it for so long that you can’t see that.
So, when you do hear the real truth again, or a call to repentance, or a call to faithfulness … you get angry!
So, you see, the messenger is always the bigot, the hater, the fundamentalist, the intolerant one, the legalist—we’re the “righteous” ones!
So, when we read Zechariah’s words, what do we think about them? He told his people their fathers “did not hear or pay attention to me,” (Zech 1:4). Will we hear or pay attention to God?
If we skip the introspection and immediately scoff and say, “Whaddya mean!? We’re all fine here!” then we’re making their same mistake. Can any of us bring our lives before the Word of God and say with a straight face that there are no problems? Can any of us really hear God say, “Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds,” then look inside our hearts and minds, and say, “I’m good! Nothing to see, here!”?
Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever?
Well, of course not! So, who should you listen to? Whose example is the best?
But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your fathers?
They certainly did. Their fathers refused to listen, for whatever reason, because of whatever rationalization, because of whatever excuse. So, God did just what He said He would—He brought discipline!
God isn’t speaking to unbelievers, but to believers—to covenant people. If you’re a Christian, then you’re a covenant member and God is speaking to you just as surely as He spoke to Zechariah’s audience.
Picture that ruined building again:
As Zechariah’s audience surveyed a landscape that looked quite a bit like this, then thought about their duty to build a newer, cruder temple, they might have thought, “God isn’t here! Not in all this mess!” But, He is there … and He’d like to be there more often.
So, too, we Christians might look at our lives, which may look a bit like that picture. Ruined. Scarred. Messy. In need of some extensive renovation. Disobedient. We might mutter to ourselves, “God isn’t here! Not in the mess that’s my life!” But, He is there … and He’d like to be there more often!
So they repented and said, ‘As the LORD of hosts purposed to deal with us for pour ways and deeds, so has he dealt with us.’”
Eventually, some of their fathers repented, in the end—will we?
Zechariah’s message is deceptively simple. It’s a warning against externalism. So, return to God, and He’ll return to you. God says, in effect:
If you love me, then act like it—because I love you! Prepare your hearts to meet me, because first I’m gonna build my house, and then I’m gonna go to my house, and I want my people to serve me with right and loving hearts!
If you’ve a covenant member, a Christian, then your job is to consider how you’ve left God, and then return to Him—He’s full of mercy! But, how do you do that, exactly?
You do it by asking yourself two questions:
What is one way in which I’ve left God?
How will I return to Him today?
Zechariah spoke in general terms in this message. He meant for his people to raise their eyebrows, and consider their own lives. Whoever you are, there is at least one way in which you’re not being faithful to God. What is it? How will you return to Him?
Remember, we do things His way or He takes no pleasure in us. We do things His way, or we don’t honor Him. Remember the steps-towards self-delusion that Ezra and Haggai taught us:
we choose to disobey (Hag 1:2-4)
then, we rationalize our choices (Ezra 3, 4)
and God doesn’t accept this—He sends His word to us to rip our pious cloaks away (Hag 1:4)
so, He takes no pleasure in us (Hag 1:8),
because we dishonor Him (Hag 1:8),
so we must return to Him
So, I ask again:
What is one way in which you’ve left God?
How will you return to Him today?
Remember, it’s always the deceptively “simple things” that God cares about. Two years later, Zechariah will go on to chastise the people for their lack of brotherly love (Zech 7:8-10). These might seem like “little things,” but they’re actually the most important things.
What is “the thing” in your life? Zechariah says, “you guys don’t have to respond like our fathers did!” And neither do we. He told his people, “you guys don’t have to be self-deceived like they were!” And neither do we.
I say it again—God is speaking into our hearts and souls just as surely as He spoke to those folks in Jerusalem in 519 B.C. Zechariah says, “If you won’t hear God, then He won’t hear you!” And it’s the same for us.
So, again, I offer this challenge from this passage:
What is one way in which you’ve left God?
How will you return to Him today?
But, it’s harder than that. Answer the “how” question to the fourth level. Answer it four times in order to get a “real” answer.
Let’s say I decide I’ve “left” God because I don’t show the right kind of love to my wife that scripture commands. I want to fix that. So, here goes:
Level one. “I’ll show better love to my wife.” This is cute, but worthless. There’s nothing specific here. It’s a well-meaning bit of nothingness, like a bite of cotton candy. That’s not good enough. I have to ask myself “yeah, and how will I do that?”
Level two. “I’ll show better love to my wife … by listening to her more.” That’s also cute. It’s only a bit less worthless than the first attempt. But, at least I’ve now identified a target. I can show better love by listening more. Great. So, what does that mean, exactly?
Level three. “I’ll show better love to my wife … by making dedicated time to talk with her more.” Getting better, but there’s still way too much wiggle room. What does that mean?
Level four. “I’ll show better love to my wife … by scheduling a 30-minute walk with her 2x per week and never breaking it.” Now we’re talking. Something specific, measurable, realistic … and real.
We each need to “return to God” in some way. What’s your way? How will you do it? Be specific! Answer the question four times in order to get a real answer that’ll actually mean something.
If we return to Him, then He’ll return to us.
 The exiles found themselves in a much-reduced geo-political situation. Even perhaps 130 years later under Nehemiah’s governorship, “Judah comprised an area covering roughly nine hundred square miles,” (Thomas V. Brisco, Holman Bible Atlas [Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998], 171).
Peter has just made an important confession; that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One (Mk 8:27-33). How do you sum up what this office means? It’s common to see Christ as the prophet, priest and king. Millard Erickson shifts the emphasis from office to function, and presents Jesus as the revealer, ruler and reconciler.
Because Jesus does these things; because He reveals
God’s message, will rule over all creation and reconciles any and everyone who
comes to God through Him, how should you follow Jesus? That’s what this passage
(Mk 8:34 – 9:1) is all about.
Then, after Jesus summoned the crowd, along with His disciples, He said to them, (Mk 8:34).
Jesus’ lessons on discipleship aren’t just for “super
Christians.” Jesus invited apostles and the
crowd to listen. If you’re a Christian, this message is for you!
If someone wishes to be following me, he must deny himself, then pick up his cross, then keep on following me (Mk 8:34).
If you’re a Christian, what does Jesus say a faithful
life looks like? What do you have to do to be the kind of Christian Jesus can
Here it is:
Pick up your cross
Keep on following Jesus; don’t turn back!
What do these mean!?
This mean God is on the throne in your life; not you.
It means you aren’t in charge of your life, God is. Your life isn’t your own (1
Cor 3:16; 6:19-20). If you’re a Christian, then Christ is your Lord (Rom
14:8-9); do you live like it? The issue is motivation and drive; what gives
your life meaning and purpose – your status in union with Christ, or something
Christ died so that “those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised,” (2 Cor 5:15). Do you live your life in service to Jesus? The point is that your purpose in life isn’t to please yourself, or to pursue your own goals – it’s to please God!
Does that mean that, in order to be a faithful
Christian, you have to sell everything you have and move to Antarctica and
preach the Gospel to penguins? Or, does it mean you have to live on top of a
mountain alone, with your wi-fi, so you can be close to God?
No! You don’t need to become a monk; you just need to
view your life in the proper perspective. What give your life purpose and
meaning? This is a question that goes to motivation, and only you and God know
what motivates and energizes your life. If you’re a Christian, it ought to be
God. If you’re a Christian, your overriding drive should be to please Him, and
serve Him with your life – wherever He’s put you. You aren’t your own, He
bought you with a price – do you live for yourself, or for the One who for your
sake died and was raised?
Does this mean your job is pointless? No! It just
means you need to have the proper perspective about your job. There’s honor in working hard to provide for your
family, and God gave you the gifts to do the job you do – it’s not an accident
you have the job you do, or that you’ll get the next job you’ll get! It just
means your job isn’t your life; it doesn’t define you – your relationship with
Jesus Christ defines you (1 Pet 2:9-10). That’s the inspired blueprint for how
you ought to think of yourself, if you’re a Christian. You’re a priest for God,
saved so you can show and tell the message of the Gospel to the people God has
put you around.
Who is on the throne in your life?
You must pick up your cross
This was the cruelest, worst form of capitol
punishment in the Roman world. People took hours to die. They were often left
to die on their crosses along the roadsides, as a warning to others, where
birds and dogs would eat and pick at them as they died! So, what did Jesus mean
He meant you had to be ready to be considered the
worst of the worst by the same people who would kill Him (Jn 15:18-19). Condemned
prisoners were made to carry the cross-beam of their own crucifixion cross to
the execution site (Mk 15:21); Jesus meant you had to be willing to figuratively
pick up your cross and march to your own death, if need be (1 Pet 4:12-13).
The Roman Emperor Nero infamously blamed Christians
for a massive fire in the city of Rome. Contemporary accounts tell us Nero
crucified and burnt Christians alive in Rome. These are the same people Mark
probably wrote his Gospel to.
Real faith means that, if necessary, you’re willing
to suffer and die for your Savior, for the sake of the Gospel. That means Jesus
and His Gospel ought to be the most important things; everything else
(including your life) fades far into the background (Phil 3:8).
Who is on the throne in your life?
You must keep on following Jesus!
The Christian faith isn’t a once and done event; it’s
not something that stops. A faith that isn’t living, active, and bearing fruit
is a faith that’s either in serious trouble, or non-existent (read 1 John). You
need to keep on denying yourself. You
need to keep on carrying your cross
Why does Jesus say all this?
Because, if he keeps desiring to save his life, he’ll lose it. But, if a person would lose his life for my sake and the Gospel’s, he’ll save it (Mk 8:35).
If a person keeps trying to “save his life,” it means
Jesus and the Gospel aren’t the most important things in his life. If that’s
you, it means your own desires are more important. You’d rather save your life,
then potentially lose it by following Jesus. It means everything about the
“here and now” is more serious and more important than the great God and
Savior, Jesus Christ
If that’s you, then you’re actually losing your life.
You have no spiritual resurrection, the wrath of God abides on you (Jn 3:36),
and one day your chance for salvation is gone. One psalmist asked, “what man
can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of
Sheol,” (Ps 89:48)?
The answer is that God can, through Jesus, and you
frittered it away because you valued the things of this world over the things
of eternity; the temporary over the permanent, the fleeting over the
Is this you? Do you desire to save your life? Solomon
said everything in this world is transitory, momentary, fleeting, impermeant – there’s
of lasting significance there to hold onto! Wisdom, great possessions, sex, money,
living for pleasure, your work and career – all of them are fleeting and transitory.
Whatever you’re hold onto instead of Jesus, whatever you’re not willing to let
go of for Jesus, that thing will not be there for you in the end.
The only way you can save your soul is to be willing
to lose it for Jesus and His Good News. If you’re a Christian, this means your
rescue from sin your reconciliation with God, Jesus’ perfect, substitutionary
life and death, His miraculous resurrection, your adoption into God’s family
from the kingdom of darkness, your status as a brother or sister whom Jesus is
not ashamed to call by name – all of these should be the most important things
in the world to you. How can wisdom, sex, possessions, money, living for
pleasure, or the idol of a career compare to these things?
Whose stamp do you bear and what’re you going to do
about it? Is your faith the driving,
motivating factor in your life, the thing that gives you purpose and fuels you?
Or, is it an add-on; something affixed to the tail-end of your life with dollar
Who is on the throne in your life?
For, how does it benefit a man to be gaining the whole world and be losing his life!? (Mk 8:36)
After all, what would a man give in exchange for his life (Mk 8:37)?
Everything! Anything! The moon! So, have you? Have
you made the decision to deny yourself? Have you made the decision that Jesus
and the Gospel are worth picking up your cross for? Have you made the decision
to keep on following Jesus, day by
day, week by week, month by month, year by year?
These aren’t things you do to get salvation; they’re things a genuine Christian will want to
do because of salvation; they’re the fruit of spiritual life. Apple tree produce
apples. Orange tree produce oranges. Mexican restaurants produce nachos. A
Christian likewise ought to do the things Jesus said
Now, Jesus backs up and lays it all out for us:
This is what I mean – if someone is embarrassed about me and my words in this adulterous and sinful age, then the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in the Father’s glory, [and] with the holy angels,” (Mk 8:38).
What does this mean? Here’s what it means:
If you won’t
deny yourself for Jesus,
If you won’t
take up your figurative cross and be prepared to suffer and die for His sake
and the Gospel’s sake,
If you won’t
keep on following Him, or at least have the honest
desire to keep on following Him for the remainder of your life
Then Jesus looks at you and says:
This guy is embarrassed
This guy is ashamed
This guy is embarrassed
about my message, about what I said!
This guy is ashamed
about my message and what I said!
It means Jesus looks at you and says:
This guy isn’t ashamed about his greed, but he
is ashamed about me!
This guy isn’t ashamed about his loving his
career more than anything in the world, but he is embarrassed about how nobody
comes to the Father, but through me
This guy isn’t ashamed of the Gospel, as long as
it stays a secret part of his life
If that’s you:
Jesus says, “I’ll be ashamed of you when I come
back, full of power and glory, along with the holy angels, to set everything
He’ll look at you and say, “I never knew you!”
He’ll look at you and say, “I don’t know who you
He’ll look at you and think, “This is sinful
guy; a criminal!”
He’ll look at you and think, “This guy is
unfaithful to the God who created him, just like so many other people – he’s a
He’ll look at you and say, “I’m embarrassed that
you claim to belong to me!”
He’ll look at you and think, “I’m ashamed of
Consider the contrast. A life lived for yourself, for your own ends, for your own transitory dreams, all so it can go into the trashcan at the end of your life? Or, a life lived in service to God through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, using and channeling your gifts and abilities for His glory, having (perhaps) that same career, but with the right motivations, having (perhaps) the same money, but with the proper perspective, willing to suffer loss and perhaps die for the sake of the Gospel, and seeing Jesus return in power, glory and honor, and welcoming you with open arms and a great smile, by saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master,” (Mt 25:21).
Jesus will return one day, with power and glory,
accompanied by the holy angels – and what value will “whatever else” be for
Then Jesus said to them, “I’m telling you the solemn truth, that there are some people standing here who will not taste death until they see God’s kingdom coming in power,” (Mk 9:1).
As a way to encourage His disciples to take the
longer view, to have the proper perspective, to see Him as he really is and
(thus) to count everything as loss compared to Him, Jesus will lift the curtain
a bit and show them a taste of His glory, power and honor … in the next passage
If Christian churches expected people to follow Jesus
with the same passion and fervor He told us to have, then churches would be
smaller, and the people left would be more zealous for Christ and the Gospel. If
you’re a Christian, you need to follow Jesus with the same all-consuming
passion He said you must have!
Who is on the throne in your life?
Choose to follow Jesus. Choose to put Him on the throne in your life. Choose to keep on following Him, just like He said
 I addressed this issue in a sermon from Mark 8:27-33, preached on 30 December 2018, entitled “Jesus is the Christ, But What Does That Mean?” You can find the audio, video and sermon notes at https://bit.ly/2R0IZt0.
 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed.
(Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 780ff.
 See Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians, 5:1-5.
Whatever else this quote means, this much is certain – the Apostle Peter presents a Christianity that’s much more serious and much more God-centered than the typical “Gospel + church” pitch we’re used to seeing in the United States.
How does God expect His people to live? This is an old question, but the answer isn’t any less relevant. King David asked the same thing, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away:
Psalm 15:1 O LORD, who shall sojourn in thy tent?
Who shall dwell on thy holy hill?
His opening line is rhetorical. David knows the answer. But, the question itself is worth mulling over for a moment or two. Who can live in God’s tent? Who has a place in His house? Who has, as it were, a seat at His family dinner table? As Israelites and the Gentile proselytes came to Jerusalem three times per year, and began the climb up the “holy hill” to God’s city, who among them had an eternal home with the Lord?
David is not asking for the identity of all the people who belong to God; he wants to know what kind of people belong to God. What do God’s people act like? What motivates their heart and infuses their soul? To quote the great philosopher Jerry McGuire, what “completes” them?
At this point, the reader has to make a decision – is David explaining how a man becomes a child of God, or is he describing how a child of God will want to live? That is, is his answer prescriptive (e.g. do this, and become a child of God) or descriptive (e.g. a child of God will want to do this)?
The Scripture teaches us David is being descriptive. Man cannot earn his way to salvation, or else Christ wouldn’t have had to come in the first place (Galatians 2:21).
Psalm 15:2 He who walks blamelessly, and does what is right,
and speaks truth from his heart;
David locates the desire for righteous and holy behavior in the heart. Outward conformity is meaningless and cheap. We all know people who are frauds. They speak and act one way, but we know it’s an act – because we’ve seen the mask slip.
No; a man who belongs to God will want to walk blamelessly, and he’ll honestly try to do it. He won’t do it to earn salvation or buy favor from God; he’ll do it because he loves the Lord and wants to do what He says (Deuteronomy 6:4; Mark 12:28-30). This last bit is critical – an ungodly man can be morally upright. There are plenty of decent, “moral people” who have good manners. David isn’t talking about this.
To borrow a legal phrase, God doesn’t recognize behavior that is the fruit of a poisonous tree. A child of God will love God, and this love produces a real desire for loving obedience. A child of Satan (i.e. somebody who is not a Christian; see Ephesians 2:1-4) has no love for God, and therefore his actions don’t flow from that love. The motivations are different, therefore the moral weights of each action are different, too.
A co-worker named Cynthia knows you like Lee Child’s novels featuring Jack Reacher, so she snags an old paperback from a used bookstore and gives it to you for a birthday present.
Your wife gives you the same birthday present later that day, when you return home
You received presents from both women; identical presents. Which one carries more weight? The one from your wife, of course. Why? Because the relationship is clearly different. You’re in a covenant relationship with your wife; whereas Cynthia is the nice 65-yr old grandmother from work.
In a similar way, God weighs the believer’s actions differently than the unbeliever’ actions. In fact, in God’s case, the unbeliever’s actions have no moral value whatsoever, because they’re not being done out of loving obedience.
Psalm 15:3 who does not slander with his tongue,
and does no evil to his friend,
nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor;
It’s fascinating how David’s descriptive proofs for a child of God focus so much on action. There is much to be commended about a focus on internal motivation as a check against rote legalism. After all, we don’t want to be hypocrites, going through the external motions while our hearts are harder than stone.
But, David (and God!) don’t let us off so easy. The other side of the ditch is just as treacherous. It’s so easy to excuse external conformity with pious appeals to “the heart,” isn’t it? A man claims to be a Christian, but has lived like a reprobate for years. “Oh,” he says, “I love God! I want to serve Him, honest!” At some point, every Christian needs to be honest with himself – where is the fruit?
David expects there to be fruit. Period. A godly man doesn’t slander, doesn’t betray his friend and doesn’t slander and reproach his neighbor. In other words, he seeks to be holy, because God is holy (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:14-15).
Psalm 15:4 in whose eyes a reprobate is despised,
but who honors those who fear the LORD;
who swears to his own hurt and does not change;
This bit is particularly interesting. A godly man will despise a reprobate (i.e. a vile person, a flagrant sinner). This is somebody who is nominally part of the Old Covenant community, but lives in complete rebellion against God. David says Israelites should despise this person; have contempt for him. In contrast, a godly woman will honor those who reverently fear the Lord.
What’s the purpose? It’s likely about shame. There is something to be said for peer pressure. But, doesn’t this concept go completely against our modern church culture? We prefer to love people to death, even when they deserve contempt, rebuke, or censure. In short, we’re wimps.
To be sure, David isn’t saying we should hate everybody who sins; we’re not on witch hunts for non-conformists. But, if you have somebody who (1) is a professing believer, (2) who is a reprobate; a vile and habitual rebel, and (3) he refuses to try to conform to God’s word, (4) then you need to take action – once all lesser means have failed. The man is hardened in his perversity and his rebellion is deliberate and calculated.
Part of this action is for the rest of the covenant community to have open contempt for the offender, and shower honor on those who honestly love the Lord.
Psalm 15:5 who does not put out his money at interest,
and does not take a bribe against the innocent.
He who does these things shall never be moved.
Isn’t is fascinating how sin so often revolves around money? In my experience in law enforcement and regulatory investigations, people do wrong for three reasons – money, sex and power. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Christian; these three temptations are universal. Godly people will fight against these urges; thus we have David’s warnings against shady business practices. To be sure, sometimes we’ll lose against these urges. But, the general trajectory of our personal lives should be trending towards more Christlikeness, not less.
This is a short little psalm; five whole verses. Yet, it sums up an entire theology of the Christian life. Who will dwell with the Lord, and dwell in His tent? The one who proves his love for God by concrete action. What kind of action? All kinds; but this psalm gives us a good start.
This isn’t an ethic that an unbeliever can have, because only a believer’s actions flow from his love for the Lord. This was one of Jesus’ points in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s David’s point here, too.
I’m begging you – because you’re foreigners and temporary residents here, keep far away from the worldly lusts which are doing battle against the soul.
Always keep your whole way of life pure among the unbelieving nations, so that as they speak evil about you as though you’re criminals, because of your good deeds (which they’re watching) they might give honor to God on that day when He returns to judge the world.
Submit yourselves to every human authority for the Lord’s sake, whether to [the] emperor as one who governs, or to [the] officials who are being sent by him to punish evildoers and praise those who do right.
Because this is God’s will, that by doing right you’d silence the ignorant slander of foolish men — like freed slaves, and not like those who’re wearing this freedom like a cloak of wickedness, but like God’s slaves.
Respect all men. Love the family of believers. Always have fearful reverence for God. Always respect the Emperor.
Peter told us last week that we ought to be Holy, because God is holy. Today he tells us why it’s so important – why He cares about it so much. Last week, we saw that Peter said:
“Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance: But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy,” (1 Peter 1:13-16).
Today, he continues . . .
And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear:
Peter basically says we should never take God’s mercy and salvation for granted. He writes,“if you call upon the Father” (e.g. if you’re saved and a believer) then pass your temporary stay here on this earth with fear!” Why does Peter say this? Peter tells us “because God judges every man according to His deeds, and doesn’t play favorites!”
Peter is telling us we should have a loving respect and fear for God. Not the fear a dog shows to a cruel master, but the kind of loving fear and respect a small child has for his father. Fear and respect not based on threat of punishment, but based on not wanting to disappoint or upset our Heavenly Father. If we have this fear, and we ought to have it, we’ll never take His grace for granted. I don’t think anybody would be ok with taking a gift from a friend while stabbing him in the back at the same time. In the exact same manner, no Christian should ever think it’s acceptable to claim to be a Christian while at the same time deliberately living in sin and not caring – being unrepentant about it. That’s more than hypocritical – it’s sinful
You may wonder, what does Peter mean when he says that God doesn’t play favorites when He judges? After all, Jesus said that if we’ve been called by God, drawn by the Holy Spirit and saved, that nobody can pluck us out of His hand!
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand,” (John 10:27-29).
Is Peter saying that if we don’t live like holy people, we’ll be damned? Scripture doesn’t lie or contradict itself, so it’s not saying that! But, Scripture does say that if God has to discipline so that we grow, He’ll do it:
“Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin. And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness,” (Hebrews 12:4-10).
A whole lot was said here – let’s focus on just a few of them. First, we’re wayward children who have been saved from hell. Second, God is our Heavenly Father. Third, what kind of Father would He be if He didn’t discipline His children? No father should let his kids run around like wild animals – a good father teaches, rebukes and trains his kids!
So far so good, but what’s the point of God’s discipline? To be mean? To be petty? To get a few laughs? Not at all; we just saw the writer of Hebrews compare our earthly fathers with our Heavenly Father; “[f]or they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness,” (Hebrews 12:10). This means that God disciplines believers to help us grow and make us a holier people. The writer of Hebrews went on:
“Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby. Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees; And make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed. Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord,” (Hebrews 12:11-14).
God trains us by discipline. He tells us to pursue holiness – to strive after it, day in and day out. The writer of Hebrews’ point, and Peter’s point, is that if we don’t take our obligation for personal holiness seriously, then we’re making a big mistake. God will discipline us, like disobedient children. If we have this flippant, “who cares” attitude, then we’re in serious spiritual danger. Peter tells us that everybody who calls on the Father should pass their temporary time here on earth in loving, reverential fear – trying our best to please our God and Savior, not wanting to disappoint Him!
That leads us to another question or two (or three!):
Why is it so bad to disappoint God?
Doesn’t He know we’re sinful?
Isn’t He willing and waiting to forgive us when we fall short?
Is Peter trying to tell us that we have to be perfect? Who’s perfect, anyway!?
God doesn’t expect you to be sinless and perfect. God does expect you to get up every day and try your best to fight against sin and temptation because you love Him. He’s saved you, given you the gift of the Holy Spirit (your new Helper), and given you a goal-post to shoot for – to be like Christ! He will not accept the fact that we’re sinful people as an excuse for keeping unrepentant sin in your life. Keep struggling, and keep on struggling until we die or Christ returns to take believers home, whichever comes first.
Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers;
But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot:
Peter’s going to remind us of something very important to make his point. If you’re a believer, you’ve been redeemed by Christ – it was His sacrifice and death on the Cross that paid the price for your own sin. His blood was precious, because Christ is God, and that blood was shed for you. He entered into His own creation and lived a sinless life. An animal brought for sacrifice to atone for sins in the OT had be perfect. Christ was sinless and perfect, and was sacrificed like a lamb without blemish and without spot – for you. You weren’t redeemed by worthless things like silver or gold, but by Christ’s death.
What does this mean? What does this have to do with why we ought to try to be holy people? It’s simply this – Christ has set you free from sin, so why are you tolerating unrepentant sin in your life?
“What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s,” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
If you’ve been set free from sin, and given the gift of the Holy Spirit (and if you’re saved, you have!) . . .
Then why do we tolerate sin in our lives?
Why don’t we dedicate time and effort to actually changing the way we live our lives to be more Christ-like?
Why are we so lazy?
Peter says you were redeemed “from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers . . .” We were rescued and bought by Christ’s blood from the road to hell we were on. He’s talking to Gentiles who never knew God or the Hebrew Scriptures, and he’s telling them, “you were redeemed from the worthless actions and attitudes you learned from your parents!” If we’ve been redeemed and set free from something, then we ought to act like that’s true.
Do you realize that you’ve been set free from the sin that weighs you down?
Do you realize that you can have victory over it?
God calls us to be holy people, He’s set us free from sin and death by Christ’s sacrifice, and given us a Helper in the Holy Spirit. We can overcome sin. It takes daily discipline and effort. It takes a real conviction, real repentance, real daily instruction in righteousness and real determination. But, we’ve been redeemed by Christ Himself, and we can do it. I challenge you to make a list of things you need to change in your life. I want you to realize that Christ died to set you free from those sins. I want you to realize that, by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, you can have victory over those sins.
Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you,
Who by him do believe in God, that raised him up from the dead, and gave him glory; that your faith and hope might be in God.
Christ’s sacrifice in your place, for your sins, as your substitute was foreordained (planned and determined) before the world even began, and He came, died and was resurrected in these days for your sakes! He didn’t just die to accomplish something when you die, so you be reconciled to God and spend eternity with Him. No, Christ died to redeem you from the “vain conversation” you were in bondage to. “Vain conversation” is “worthless conduct;” the empty and useless things you used to live for and do before you were called by the Holy Spirit for salvation. Christ died to redeem you from that unholy way of life.
Shame on all of us who don’t seize on that freedom He provided us, and continue to live unholy lives, knowing our responsibility to be holy, but not caring to even try. If you’re struggling to be holy, to have victory over a specific sin in your life – then praise God and keep on fighting today, tomorrow and forever. You were set free from this sin, and you can have victory over it by God’s grace!
 “The attitude advocated is not the craven, cringing dread of a slave before an offended master, but the reverential awe of a son toward a beloved and esteemed father, the awe that shrinks from whatever would displease and grieve him,” (D. Edmond Hiebert, 1 Peter, revised ed. [Chicago, IL: Moody, 1992; reprint, Winona Lake, IN: BMH, 2008], 100).
 This seems to be the sense of “who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work.” It is in the present tense, which indicates that God judges believers in the here and now in some fashion. Discipline (e.g. Heb 12:12:4-14) seems to be Peter’s point. For example, Jay Adams writes, “[i]t does speak of the final judgment of God among His people, but it also refers to the on-going judgment of God by which He trains and governs the members of His family (the verb is in the present tense). And, at times when He deems it necessary (because of the disgrace it brings on His name), that Fatherly judgment can be quite severe,” (Trust and Obey: A Practical Commentary on First Peter [Greenville, SC: A Press, 1988], 41-42).
Although the thrust of the passage could be referring to the judgment of believer’s works in the last days (e.g. 1 Cor 3:11-15), that really doesn’t seem to be what Peter is driving at. Wayne Grudem observes, “. . . the phrase is better understood to refer primarily or even exclusively to present judgment and discipline in this life,” (1 Peter, vol. 17, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988], 86). “Peter’s primary reference is to God’s present dealings with His saints in the development of holiness in their lives,” (Hiebert, 1 Peter, 99).
 “The design of Christ in shedding his most precious blood was to redeem us, not only from eternal misery hereafter, but from a vain conversation in this world. That conversation is vain which is empty, frivolous, trifling, and unserviceable to the honour of God, the credit of religion, the conviction of unbelievers, and the comfort and satisfaction of a man’s own conscience,” (Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible [Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994], 2424). Emphasis mine.
If you’re a believer, Peter just spent a lot of time reminding you of several things believers ought to be thankful for. If you’re a Christian, you have a lot to be happy about. So smile! You ought to smile. I’ll re-state it all for you in case you forgot:
God has given you a home!
God chose to save you – individually and personally!
Your salvation is eternal and secure because it’s based on God’s grace, not your own merit
Because you have the New Testament and understand the finished work of Christ, you can know more about God than David, Moses or any Old Testament saint ever could!
All this means you can keep struggling while you wait for Christ to return for you!
But, now that Peter has reminded us of all the things God has done for us, it’s time to look at our obligations in light of all this. What does it mean to be holy, because God is holy? What does Peter mean? Let’s take a look!
Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ;
Because all these things are true – we’re commanded to live our lives and act a certain way. Peter writes, “Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind . . .” That means to get ready, to steel yourselves, to prepare yourselves. It means to get your mind ready for action. Have you ever known something terrible is coming, and you had to psych yourself up and prepare for it?
I was in the U.S. Navy Security Forces for 10 years. I started as a military policeman and did standard patrol work, and ended my time in the service as a Criminal Investigator. When I was on patrol, I had to carry what is usually called “pepper spray.” In order to carry this, you had to be sprayed by it first and demonstrate you can still function while your face felt like it was melting! I wasn’t looking forward to being pepper sprayed – nobody was! I had to mentally prepare myself for this awful event, and I was very glad when it was over!
In Peter’s day, when a man “girded up” his robe, everybody knew that meant he was getting ready for some kind of physical activity. If I’m wearing a suit and a tie, and I take oof my suit jacket and loosen my tie, you immediately know that I’m about to do something physical and I don’t want my suitcoat and tie to get in the way. Peter is saying that we have to get our minds ready for battle in the Christian life – we have to gird up our minds.
Peter says we ought to be pretty serious about our Christian life, how we live our lives, what we think, what we watch, what we do. This isn’t a picture of somebody casually drifting through life in a lackadaisical, uncommitted way – this is serious! He says we have to “be sober.”
To be sober means to be serious. It also means to not be drunk, but Peter doesn’t mean that here. We’re commanded to be serious about our walk with God. That means we take His word seriously and let Him rule our lives. That doesn’t mean we become a bunch of stiffs who look down our noses every time somebody laughs or smiles, and who seem to hate life! It just means we’re serious about our faith, and we allow it to shape our entire outlook. We don’t get lazy
“And these are they which are sown among thorns; such as hear the word, And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful,” (Mark 4:18-19).
There’s a reason why the Holy Spirit moved the authors of the sacred Scripture to warn Christians so much about persevering, about struggling forward, looking to Jesus Christ the author and finisher of our faith – because God doesn’t want us to get distracted and lose focus! Let’s be serious and sober about the Christian life, and not let the cares of this world distract us
“If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God,” (Colossians 3:1-3).
Does Christ take a backseat in our lives to our own ambitions, dreams and hobbies? If it wasn’t a possibility that we needed to watch out for, then Paul wouldn’t have warned us about it!
“Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever,” (1 John 2:15-17).
These are harsh words! We’re strangers and pilgrims in this world, and while we enjoy the blessings, family and stuff God has given us – we ought to be looking for that heavenly country that we’re actual citizens of, where Christ has prepared a place for us!
Peter goes on, and writes that Cristians are to “hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” There it is again – the idea of perseverance. Because of everything Christ has done for us (vv.1-12), we can keep on keepin’ on in the here and now. Peter has told us that we ought to get ready for battle and be serious about our Christian life, but what does that actually mean!?
As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance:
It means to not act like we used to before we were saved. Peter tells us to be like “obedient children.” God is our Heavenly Father. We are the children who are under training and discipline. When we’re in glory and our life is over, that training is over, we’re free from sin, temptation and everything evil or wrong. Until then, we’re in training, and we need to be obedient children of God. A real Christian life is characterized by action and determination, and by the power of the Holy Spirit we can resists sin and temptation and not be the way we used to be today, tomorrow or the day after.
If Peter had wanted to give an exhaustive list of what “un-Christian behavior” is, then he’d still be writing today. Instead, he repeats a very simple and profound truth from Leviticus . . .
But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation;
Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.
Holiness is the complete opposite of evil:
“And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, Ye shall be holy: for I the LORD your God am holy,” (Leviticus 19:1-2).
God commands us that we do our very best to purge evil and sin out of every aspect of our lives:
“Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God,” (2 Corinthians 7:1).
The idea of “cleansing ourselves” means we’re dirty and filthy, somehow:
“And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled In the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight,” (Colossians 1:22-23).
We were alienated from God and His enemies before we were saved because of what was in our minds, which expressed itself by our actions. We were saved from darkness, now we’re commanded to walk worthy of God – so that, as much as we’re able, we’re ready to meet Christ at a moment’s notice without regret or sorrow.
When my wife goes out shopping and leaves me alone to watch the children, I know that it’s my responsibility to make sure the house is clean when she comes back. I have to make sure the kids clean up the mess they’ve made before Mommy gets home. I can’t lose track of time, or else I’ll be in trouble when she comes home. Usually, I do a decent job at this. Sometimes, however, I completely lose track of time. I hear my wife’s key in the door upstairs, and my heart sinks. I know the house is a disaster. I know the kids are running wild. I know I’m going to be in trouble. Grimacing, I head upstairs to face the music! In an infinitely more important way, we should not be caught unprepared when our Savor comes back for us!
I want you to think about the Old Testament Priest and the Temple.
Priests were sinful people
God dwelt in the temple
If priests just blundered on into the temple to offer a sacrifice to God, they would die
They had to atone for their own sins before they brought any offering for another Israelite. Just read Leviticus 8-10 if you want to get a sense of the preparations priests had to go through to actually approach God
Now, let’s make the New Covenant contrast. There isn’t a literal temple anymore where God dwells on earth – He lives in our hearts because all believers have the Holy Spirit. That means our bodies are temples of God:
“Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are,” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).
When you think about the extremely detailed, meticulous preparation OT priests had to go through to even approach God in the temple . . . what should that mean for us, if our bodies are temples of God today?
“What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s,” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
God commands us to be holy people. It’s up to each and every one of us to examine our own lives and consider whether our lives could be called “holy.” Because God:
Prepared a home for us in eternity
Will never let us lose our salvation, and
Has given us more info about Him than Moses, David or Abraham ever had
. . . then is it really so much to ask that we should honor Him and try our very best to live holy lives for Him, because He’s holy? We’re commanded, not asked, to be obedient children for our Heavenly Father – to be holy in everything we do. Let’s make a decision to obey that command today, tomorrow and every day.
 “He knows how easily Christians can lose their spiritual concentration through ‘mental intoxication’ with the things of this world (cf. Mark 4:19; Col. 3:2–3; 1 John 2:15–17). We today might well consider the dangers presented by such inherently ‘good’ things as career, possessions, recreation, reputation, friendships, scholarship, or authority,” (Wayne A. Grudem, 1 Peter, vol. 17, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988], 81).
“There is a way of living that becomes dull to the reality of God, that is anesthetized by the attractions of this world. When people are lulled into such drowsiness, they lose sight of Christ’s future revelation of himself and concentrate only on fulfilling their earthly desires,” (Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary [Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003], 79).
Here, we see the disciples’ complete failure to appreciate or acknowledge who Christ was after the clear and unmistakable miracle of feeding the 5000 (actually, more like 15,000 – 25,000!). There is a limit to how much they could have understood of Christ before His death, burial, resurrection and ascension, but still – why did these many miracles not make them understand?
Amidst the disciples’ confusion, Christ is faced with a large crowd which likewise misapprehends who He is, or more likely, simply doesn’t care. They only want a solution to a political problem, not the Kingdom He was preaching and offering. They wanted no part of this Gospel of repentance and belief (Mk 1:15). As they finished their meal, miraculously provided by Christ, their only thought was to seize Him by force and make Him their King (Jn 6:15). Here we see only one of three instances where Christ retreats alone to pray, disconsolate and beset with a very human need to speak to His Father.
This is a very powerful message of faith; it is about understanding who Christ really is. The disciples were not ready for ministry and had a long road ahead of them, for Scripture tells us they did not apprehend who Christ was “for their heart was hardened,” (Mk 6:52).
Do you have a true and full appreciation and understanding of Jesus Christ today?
I preached this message for teen Sunday School at my church this morning.