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The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity is on September 25, 2022.

Readings for Year C can be found here.

The Gospel is as follows (emphases mine):

Luke 16:19-31

16:19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.

16:20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,

16:21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

16:22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.

16:23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

16:24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’

16:25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.

16:26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

16:27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house–

16:28 for I have five brothers–that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’

16:29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’

16:30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’

16:31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’

Commentary comes from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Luke 9 through Luke 19 is all about our Lord’s teachings in the final six months of His ministry.

We are in the latter part of those lessons.

Today’s post is another long one. It explores why people go to hell and the nature of hell.

Before exploring this parable in detail, please note that this Sunday’s readings, perhaps apart from the one from Jeremiah, all tie together in denouncing the love of riches and luxury.

Today’s parable was our Lord’s warning to the Pharisees about self-righteousness and the need for repentance.

John MacArthur says:

Hell is full of surprised people.  That’s really what this story is about — a man who was shocked to find himself in hell Equally shocking to those who listen to the story was the idea that the other man was in heaven.  This was contrary to all of their expectations.

MacArthur explains about the ancient Jewish tradition of believing in a type of prosperity religion. The Pharisees also subscribed to it. In short, the faithful were blessed with wealth while the poor and infirm were cursed:

This story is about a rich man.  He’s the main character.  He’s a religious man.  He would be understood in the context of this story, as Jesus is telling it, to be a man who had been blessed by God.  They had their own sort of prosperity religion in those days, and…and they saw the poor people as cursed and the rich people as blessed.  That’s the view of the Pharisees, the religious leaders of Israel.  So this is a man who has been singularly blessed by God.  He is a man who lives life to the max, who enjoys the best that life can bring limitlessly, who surely expects to go to heaven but ends up in hell.  And then there is that other man, that despicable, poor man, who, by very evidence of his life is being cursed by God, who ends up when he dies in heaven.  That’s why you could call this story “The Great Reversal.”

And just exactly to whom is this story directed?  Well, it is directed, first of all, at the moment, at the time to the Pharisees again, verse 14“The Pharisees who were lovers of money were listening to all these things, and He said to them.”  This section is a section of Jesus speaking to the Pharisees; 17:1, he turns to speak to His disciples.  So for the moment, this story is directed at the Pharisees, as have been a number of our Lord’s stories, including the amazing three stories He told in the 15th chapter about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the tale of two sons In fact, the Pharisees are the ones who have declared their loyalty to the law and the prophets, referred to in verse 16.  They had declared their adherence to and obedience to Moses and the prophets.  They were the religious leaders of Israel.  They were the ones who considered themselves blessed and, according to verse 14, they were lovers of money.  They had a convenient theology that accommodated their wealth prosperity view.  The more money you had, the more you were blessed by God.  Loving money, pursuing money, is like loving God and pursuing blessing.  That was their view.  The truth is, verse 15, “They were detestable in the sight of God,” because they did, in fact, love money and did not, in fact, obey Moses and the prophets.

So the story is directed at the Pharisees.  Their hero in the story is the rich man. He’s the symbol of a God-blessed life in Israel.  On the other hand, they would treat the poor man the same way the rich man did, for they were famous for disdaining outcasts And, by the way, the Pharisees also believed in life after death.  The Pharisees believed in judgment, and the Pharisees believed in heaven, and the Pharisees believed in hell.  And none of them expected that they would end up in hell

And so Jesus is really giving them another jolt.  He’s giving another shock to them in this story.  It is directed at those people who are false religionists.  But you have to understand that this kind of jolt and this kind of shock to their system and the system of anybody who comfortably thinks he or she is going to heaven because they are religious, when, in fact, they’re going to hell, is not an outrageous act.  It is, on the other hand, a very compassionate and a very merciful act.  Warning people of reality is the…the most compassionate, loving, gracious, kind thing that you can do.  Warning self-righteous, religious people that they’re going to end up unintentionally in hell is the most important thing we can do. And that’s exactly what Jesus did.  Hell is full of people who went there unintentionally, from their perspective.  The rich man no more expected to find himself in eternal torment than the Pharisees did when they arrived there.  They were among those who gained the world and lost their soul.

MacArthur discusses how Jesus constructed this story:

You have a poor man and a rich man.  The poor man then becomes rich; and the rich man becomes poor; and the poor man becomes richer than the rich man ever was; and the rich man becomes poorer than the poor man ever was.  You have a poor man on the outside of the house, and you have a rich man on the inside.  Then comes death, and you have a poor man on the inside and a rich man on the outside.  You have a poor man with no food, and a rich man with all the food he can possibly need; and then you have a poor man at the great heavenly banquet, and a rich man with absolutely nothing.  You have a poor man with needs and a rich man with no needs; and then you have a poor man with no needs, and a rich man with needs.  You have a poor man who desires everything.  You have a rich man who desires nothing. And then you have a rich man who will never have his desires fulfilled, and a poor man who has all his desires fulfilled.

You have a poor man who suffers and a rich man who is satisfied; and then you have a rich man who suffers, and a poor man who’s satisfied.  You have a poor man who’s tormented, and a rich man who’s happy; and then you have a poor man who’s happy, and a rich man who’s tormented.  You have a poor man who is humiliated, a rich man who’s honored.  Then you have a rich man who is humiliated, and a poor man who is honored.  You have a poor man who wants a crumb, a rich man who feasts; and then you have a poor man who’s at a feast, and a rich man who wants a drop of water.  You have a poor man who seeks help, a rich man who gives none.  Then you have a rich man who seeks help, and a poor man who gives none.  Then you have a poor man who is a nobody, a rich man who is well-known; and then you have a poor man who has a name, and a rich man who has none.  You have a poor man who has no dignity in death, not even a burial.  You have a rich man who has dignity in death.  Then you have a poor man who has dignity after death, and a rich man who has no dignity after death, not even a name.  You have a poor man with no hope, and a rich man with all hope.  Then you have a rich man with no hope, and a poor man who has hope realized.

Jesus began His parable by introducing the rich man as being someone who dressed in purple and fine linen and who dined sumptuously every day (verse 19).

Before I go further, this story is often referred to as ‘Dives and Lazarus’. ‘Dives’ is Latin for ‘rich’. It is not a name, only an adjective.

Matthew Henry points out that it is not a sin to have riches, but it is when those riches consume one’s life:

It is no sin to be rich, no sin to wear purple and fine linen, nor to keep a plentiful table, if a man’s estate will afford it. Not are we told that he got his estate by fraud, oppression, or extortion, no, nor that he was drunk, or made others drunk; but, [1.] Christ would hereby show that a man may have a great deal of the wealth, and pomp, and pleasure of this world, and yet lie and perish for ever under God’s wrath and curse. We cannot infer from men’s living great either that God loves them in giving them so much, or that they love God for giving them so much; happiness consists not in these things. [2.] That plenty and pleasure are a very dangerous and to many a fatal temptation to luxury, and sensuality, and forgetfulness of God and another world. This man might have been happy if he had not had great possessions and enjoyments. [3.] That the indulgence of the body, and the ease and pleasure of that, are the ruin of many a soul, and the interests of it. It is true, eating good meat and wearing good clothes are lawful; but it is true that they often become the food and fuel of pride and luxury, and so turn into sin to us. [4.] That feasting ourselves and our friends, and, at the same time, forgetting the distresses of the poor and afflicted, are very provoking to God and damning to the soul. The sin of this rich man was not so much his dress or his diet, but his providing only for himself.

MacArthur describes the man further:

“There was a rich man.”  How rich?  Extravagantly rich.  Luxuriously rich.  And by the way, again, I remind, he would be respected immediately He would be envied immediately, honored.  He would be viewed as blessed by God.  That’s why he was so rich.  In Israel, his business had been touched by God; and he would be a hero to the money-loving Pharisees.  So he would also be a man who would assume, and everybody would assume, that God had blessed his life; and…and that’s why he was as wealthy as he was.  So it wouldn’t be just the religious leaders who would think that.  Anybody would think that, even in general, even today, would look at him.  He’s a religious man.  He’s in Israel.  He’s a part of the society.  Look what God has done to bless his life.

How rich was he?  Well, “He habitually dressed in purple and fine linen.”  Imperfect tense, “habitually,” it means exactly that.  It is an imperfect verb that means this was his regular way of dressing.  He didn’t have a casual day, apparently. He just put it all on every day. And what did he wear?  It might not sound like a lot to us, but he dressed in purple and fine linen.  Now, let me tell you a little bit about this…this purple, first of all.  The outer garment that the people wore in those days if they were wealthy enough was made out of wool; and wool was, for the elite, fulled.  You’ve heard of fulled, F U L L E D, woolIt was placed into a basin, and then it was mingled with clay, and the process, a very time consuming, laborious, hands-on, manual labor to full that wool in clay, produced a kind of white that was almost blazing, brilliant, shining white.  Very expensive process done for the elite.  They had whiter clothes than everybody else, and it wasn’t because of their detergent.  It was because of this process the wool was put through.

And then if you wanted to really make it luxurious, you had it dyed with a Tyrian purple dye.  That’s from Tyre, which is on the north coast of Israel; and this dye came from a shellfish called a murex Obviously, you had to go get the shellfish, and then extract the dye, and it was the most expensive dye.  You remember Lydia in the book of Acts was a seller of this purple dye; and this dye was used to dye the robe purple, which was considered the highest degree of opulence This is the robe of royalty, the purple robe.

Underneath this robe was fine linen.  The normal tunic would be made of fine linen.  Probably a reference to the finest linen of the day, which is probably still the finest cotton in the day, and that’s Egyptian cotton Linen here referring to something made out of cotton.  Egyptian cotton was the most expensive and the best and the highest thread count, and you ladies know all about that So it signified…It signified that this is the finest clothing that somebody could wear, and he wore it every day.  He came out in splendor every day.

Not only was he dressed that way, but he was euphrain He was joyously living It means to be glad to enjoy oneself.  It is the verb used in Luke 12.  I think it’s verse 19, where it says, the…the man who built the bigger barn said, “Let’s eat, drink, and be merry.”  So he lived a merry life He lived a joyous life.  He lived to the max.  He was the party guy, and it was a very luxurious, opulent kind of party.  It is described as splendor.  Actually an adverb; he lived splendidly; and, again, all the language is over the top here; and he lived like that every day.  I mean, for him, every day would be like the feast that the father in Luke 15 gave to the prodigal who came back Every day would be a killing of a fatted calf kind of event.

Extreme riches, extreme self-indulgence, lavish lifestyle, ostentatious display; he’s got it all.  He is the definition of what it means to be filthy rich, which is a term devised by poor people.

At the rich man’s gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, who was covered with sores (verse 20).

Henry and MacArthur both say that, in Hebrew, Lazarus is Eleazar, which means, as Henry says:

the help of God, which they must fly to that are destitute of other helps. This poor man was reduced to the last extremity, as miserable, as to outward things, as you can lightly suppose a man to be in this world.

MacArthur says:

Lazarus is the Greek form of the Hebrew Elazar, or Eliazar.  It means “whom the Lord saved, whom the Lord helped.”  Very common name, by the way, in Israel, and a wonderful name for this man; because it tells us how he ended up in heaven.

Anyone familiar with Ohio might remember the Lazarus department stores, which eventually merged with Macy’s. As a child, I had trouble reconciling department stores with the men named Lazarus in the New Testament. It was only later that I found out Lazarus was the family name of the brothers who founded the department store chain.

This brings me to another point. Both men named Lazarus in the New Testament are canonised saints. This Lazarus is unique to Luke’s Gospel. The Lazarus here is not Mary and Martha’s brother from Bethany. The feast day of this Lazarus is June 21 and that of Lazarus of Bethany is December 17.

Henry describes Lazarus further:

(1.) His body was full of sores, like Job. To be sick and weak in body is a great affliction; but sores are more painful to the patient, and more loathsome to those about him.

(2.) He was forced to beg his bread, and to take up with such scraps as he could get at rich people’s doors. He was so sore and lame that he could not go himself, but was carried by some compassionate hand or other, and laid at the rich man’s gate. Note, Those that are not able to help the poor with their purses should help them with their pains; those that cannot lend them a penny should lend them a hand; those that have not themselves wherewithal to give to them should either bring them, or go for them, to those that have. Lazarus, in his distress, had nothing of his own to subsist on, no relation to go to, nor did the parish take care of him. It is an instance of the degeneracy of the Jewish church at this time that such a godly man as Lazarus was should be suffered to perish for want of necessary food.

MacArthur takes a less charitable view than Henry and says that Lazarus was practically tossed at the rich man’s gate:

… verse 20, “A certain poor man,” ptchos in the Greek, meaning extreme poverty Galatians 4:9, “beggarly, worthless,” could be translated pitiful Could be translated inferior.  It’s not just he had a little.  He had nothing.  Destitution.  This the absolute 180 extreme.  The man has nothing, and it says, he’s also laid his gate, the gate of the rich man, covered with sores, covered with sores.  This is to have ulcers, oozing, open lesions. This same word is used in the book of Revelation to describe the horrible judgment of God when the angel pours out the first bowl of wrath in the final judgment.  It becomes a loathsome and malignant sore, Revelation 16:2, on the men who had the mark of the beast and who worshipped his image.  Verse 11: “They blaspheme the God of Heaven because of their pain and their sores.”  It is an ugly kind of sore.  Where did the sores come from?  We don’t really have a diagnosis of that, but I can give you a pretty good guess; because, if you go back to the verse, it says, “The poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate.”  That’s not a good translation.  That sounds like come…somebody came and just kind of delicately laid him down.  That is not a delicate word.  That’s the word ball.  It means to throw, throw or throw down.

What happens here is you’ve got a man who is thrown down at the gate to the rich man’s house, which indicates that he probably was paralyzed, couldn’t move.  The sores may well have come from the inability of the man to move, as people who can’t move in a bed or can’t move in a wheelchair develop sores at all points of pressure.

Jesus said that Lazarus wanted only what fell from the rich man’s table — crumbs — yet only the dogs came to lick his sores (verse 21).

Henry points out how patient Lazarus was and how cold-hearted well-fed people are towards hunger:

He desired to be fed with the crumbs, v. 21. He did not look for a mess from off his table, though he ought to have had one, one of the best; but would be thankful for the crumbs from under the table, the broken meat which was the rich man’s leavings; nay, the leavings of his dogs. The poor use entreaties, and must be content with such as they can get. Now this is taken notice of to show, First, What was the distress, and what the disposition, of the poor man. He was poor, but he was poor in spirit, contentedly poor. He did not lie at the rich man’s gate complaining, and bawling, and making a noise, but silently and modestly desiring to be fed with the crumbs. This miserable man was a good man, and in favour with God. Note, It is often the lot of some of the dearest of God’s saints and servants to be greatly afflicted in this world, while wicked people prosper, and have abundance; see Ps 73 7, 10, 14. Here is a child of wrath and an heir of hell sitting in the house, faring sumptuously; and a child of love and an heir of heaven lying at the gate, perishing for hunger. And is men’s spiritual state to be judged of then by their outward condition? Secondly, What was the temper of the rich man towards him. We are not told that he abused him, or forbade him his gate, or did him any harm, but it is intimated that he slighted him; he had no concern for him, took no care about him. Here was a real object of charity, and a very moving one, which spoke for itself; it was presented to him at his own gate. The poor man had a good character and good conduct, and every thing that could recommend him. A little thing would be a great kindness to him, and yet he took no cognizance of his case, did not order him to be taken in and lodged in the barn, or some of the out-buildings, but let him lie there. Note, It is not enough not to oppress and trample upon the poor; we shall be found unfaithful stewards of our Lord’s goods, in the great day, if we do not succour and relieve them. The reason given for the most fearful doom is, I was hungry, and you gave me no meat. I wonder how those rich people who have read the gospel of Christ, and way that they believe it, can be so unconcerned as they often are in the necessities and miseries of the poor and afflicted.

MacArthur explains how a goodly portion of bread ended up on the floor after a meal in that era:

Jaconias Jeremias writes…and he tells us about this. . .a very gifted historian, done a lot of great work around that time of the year…he says…that time of human history: “Guests at a meal used pieces of bread to clean their hands.”  Now, let me tell you what the…how the picture works.  In those days, you might have a little fruit and a little vegetable or whatever, but they ate with their hands.  There weren’t any knives and forks and all that.  So you basically ate with your hands as…as most of the world has done for most of its history; and, typically, you took bread — bread being a staple — and you dipped it in some kind of stew or thick soup or whatever; and you ate that way.  You ate the bread, like at the Last Supper, dipped in a sop, remember?

OK?  So that’s what you did.  Well, I mean it’s a little messy; and they didn’t have paper napkins; and I guess they could’ve used cloth if they had to; but they had a really good method for cleaning up the mess on their hands.  They used the bread that was a little more stale.  Now, there would be some bread on the table that was to be dipped.  Then there would be other bread that was to then be used to mop up your…your hands.  Now, the bread had the capability of absorbing the sop, and you ate it that way; and it also the capability of absorbing what was dripping all over your hands; and so they would use the bread to clean their hands and then throw it under the table.

The dogs who licked the poor man’s sores were not pets of the rich man. They were the scavengers — wild dogs — that roamed the streets then.

MacArthur says:

These dogs are always presented in the Bible as scavengers, mongrels, sort of semi-wild, not domesticated, ugly.  Was just the way it was in the world at that time.  They roamed the cities.  They roamed the periphery of the cities eating the garbage, and they came in, and in these open courtyards where meals would be held, they would clean up the bread that had been thrown there. And so the rich man has this big feast.  The people are eating, taking the bread they needed to, cleaning, throwing it under there.  The dogs were coming and eating it; and the poor man would’ve given anything if he could have moved himself under the table with the dogs, to get some of that dirty bread.  That’s how desperate this man was.

Dogs are always pictured as dirty.  Second Peter 2:22 says, “The dogs lick up their own vomit.” He wanted to get down there with the dogs and eat the dirty bread.  It reminds me of another man in the 15th chapter, the prodigal who wound up eating with what?  Pigs.  Such a humiliated situation.  So destitute.  He’s road kill, really.  He’s being treated as if he’s dead by the rich man. That’s how the Pharisees would treat him, too.

Then, one day, the poor man died and angels carried him off to rest with Abraham; the rich man also died and was buried (verse 22).

Note how Jesus framed that sentence. The poor man was lifted up to glory with Abraham, by angels, no less. The rich man ended up in the ground.

MacArthur says the Pharisees would have found that shocking:

The poor man died; and, immediately, he’s carried away by angels. That’s stunning. That is shocking. That is unthinkable; and then he is taken by the angels to the side of Abraham. The angels take his body from the licking mongrels and they take him and place him beside Abraham. First of all, the fact that angels are doing this is a jolt to the Pharisees who are hearing the story, because they view this man as cursed by God

So the shock is this man is in heaven. The next shock is he’s not just in heaven, he’s taken by the angels to heaven. The next shock is he’s not just taken by the angels to heaven, but he’s not on the periphery. He’s not at the back of the room or the back of the crowd looking over everybody’s head and between their heads to see who’s sitting up at the main table. He’s sitting next to Abraham. Wow. This is just way out there. A…a broadside on their theological assumptions.

Henry reminds us that death comes for the rich and the poor alike. Some rich people believe they are invincible.

This is why our late Queen nurtured her personal faith so carefully and why she took the time to evangelise in her Christmas messages — and, most importantly, in her two televised funeral services, seen by four million people around the globe just this past Monday, September 19, 2022:

Death is the common lot of rich and poor, godly and ungodly; there they meet together. One dieth in his full strength, and another in the bitterness of his soul; but they shall lie down alike in the dust, Job 21 26. Death favours not either the rich man for his riches or the poor man for his poverty. Saints die, that they may bring their sorrows to an end, and may enter upon their joys. Sinners die, that they may go to give up their account. It concerns both rich and poor to prepare for death, for it waits for them both. Mors sceptra ligonibus æquat—Death blends the sceptre with the spade.

———æquo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas, Regumque turres. With equal pace, impartial fate Knocks at the palace, as the cottage gate.

Jesus purposely took some liberties with this parable as He said that, while being tormented, the rich man saw Abraham from a distance with Lazarus by his side (verse 23). That would not happen in reality.

MacArthur tells us:

Nobody in hell could see into heaven, because nobody in hell would ever know the heavenly experience. Nobody in hell is omniscient, so they wouldn’t be able to see in heaven, look around till they found Abraham. They wouldn’t know who Abraham was. Nobody in hell can have a conversation with somebody in heaven; but for the sake of the story, to make a point, because it does reveal the essence of the suffering in hell

MacArthur says we can be sure the man is in hell, as his translation uses the term Hades:

in the New Testament, Hades clearly refers to hell, with only one exception, and that is Acts chapter 2 verses 27 and 31, which is a quote from Psalm 16; and there it has a vague meaning of just the grave; but that’s because it’s quoting an Old Testament passage. Every other usage of the word Hades in the New Testament refers to the abode of the damned. It is never, in the New Testament, the abode of the redeemed, of believers. And so it is synonymous then with hell.

Some might ask about Gehenna.

MacArthur says:

Gehenna is a word referring to the Valley of Hinnom, the city dump that was burning all the time.  It became a metaphor for hell — the never, ever extinguished fire.  The fiery hell of Matthew 5:22 that Jesus spoke about.  The hell of Matthew 5:29 and Matthew 5:30, and there are many other references to it. 

The rich man called out, ‘Father Abraham’, a reference that would not have been lost on the Pharisees, and he asked him to send Lazarus with a fingertip of water to cool his tongue, for he was in agony in the flames (verse 24).

MacArthur tells us something vital about hell:

One thing about hell, you get a fully active conscience. I’m not going to develop all that. You get a fully active conscience, so that the true wretchedness of who you are is completely dominant in your thinking. All that illusion about how good you are, all those illusions about your self-worth and…and your basic, innate goodness gone. There is a full realization of the sinner’s wretchedness in hell. A fully informed, acutely aware and sensitive conscience becomes the tormenter. He doesn’t say, “How did I end up here?” That question’s never asked in hell. He doesn’t say, “Did I really deserve this?” He doesn’t say, “Don’t you think this is a little extreme?” He doesn’t say any of that.

Note that the man still thought so little of Lazarus, as if he were the lowliest servant:

he looks in his own mind at the person he would consider to be the most wretched person who ever got into heaven, and he picks him, and it’s Lazarus. That’ll tell you that hell didn’t remediate him. He viewed Lazarus exactly the way he always did; and he also thought somebody that lowly ought to serve him. He never got heaven’s assessment of Lazarus, because people in hell don’t have heaven’s assessment of anything

He’s tortured.  The metaphor is thirst and water, but the point is relief.  He wouldn’t give Lazarus a crumb, but he wants Lazarus to give him a drip.  “Dip your finger in water, drip it on my tongue.”  Minimal.  Any tiny, small bit of relief dripping off the end of Lazarus’ finger.  He’s not asking for a barrel, not asking for a bucket.  He’s not asking for the heavenly pipeline to be extended to hell, so there’s a constant flow.  The souls of the damned know they’re doomed to suffer.  They know they are suffering justly.  All they ask for in the lips of this man are small moments of relief in this eternal, unending horror.  “I am in agony,” odunaō, to be in great pain.  “I am in great pain.”  Real water’s not going to sooth the eternally tortured soul.  That’s not the point.  The message is the desperation for just the smallest moment of relief.  This is consistent with the image of hell.

You read the New Testament, you read even the Old Testament, Isaiah 66:24 talks about the fires of hell.  You go through the New Testament … The gospels and the writers of the New Testament describe hell as a fiery place, and its fire is the fire of torture and tormentIt’s also described as darkness, outer darkness, like being lost in the most infinite corner of space under horrible torture and pain, a place of weeping, wailing, teeth-grinding agony.

… A fire that burns forever, but never purifies. A fire that burns forever in an everlasting darkness that only punishes.

Abraham replied, addressing him as ‘Child’ — some translations say ‘Son’ — and not in a good way. This is the way a parent addresses a poorly behaved child or a law enforcement officer addresses a criminal.

Abraham reminded the rich man that he received his reward with good things on earth, whereas Lazarus received evil things. In the afterlife, Lazarus was in comfort and the rich man in agony (verse 25).

Henry says that Abraham represents Christ in this parable:

Abraham in this description represents Christ, for to him all judgment is committed, and it is his mind that Abraham here speaks. Those that now slight Christ will shortly make their court to him, Lord, Lord …

He puts him in mind of what had been both his own condition and the condition of Lazarus, in their life-time: Son, remember; this is a cutting word. The memories of damned souls will be their tormentors, and conscience will then be awakened and stirred up to do its office, which here they would not suffer it to do. Nothing will bring more oil to the flames of hell than Son, remember.

Abraham went on to say that a great chasm has been fixed between heaven and hell and that no one in one place can reach the other (verse 26).

Still considering Lazarus to be the lowest of the low, the rich man asked Abraham to send him to his father’s house (verse 27), to his five brothers to warn them so that they do not end up in the same place of torment (verse 28).

Abraham denied that request, too, telling him that his brothers have Moses and the prophets: ‘they should listen to them’ (verse 29).

MacArthur gives us a brief set of Old Testament verses to illustrate that point:

Psalm 3:8, “Salvation belongs to the Lord.”  Isaiah 43:3, “I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”  God says, “I am your Savior.  I am your only Savior.”  “Truly,” says Isaiah 45:15, “Truly Thou art a God who hides Himself.  Oh God of Israel, Savior.  Israel has been saved by the Lord with an everlasting salvation.”  God is the Savior.  “Turn to Me.  Turn to Me,” verse 22, “all ends of the earth and be saved.  I am God, and there is no other.  There is no other God besides Me, a righteous God, and a Savior.”  There’s none except Me.  This is total abandonment to God who alone is the Savior; no one else, and you give up everything.

Listen to Isaiah 55:6“Seek the Lord while He may be found.  Call upon Him while He’s near.  Let the wicked forsake His way, the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to Lord, and He will have compassion on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” It’s about forsaking everything and embracing the God who is the Savior.

Now, in conclusion, does that sound any different than the New Testament?  It’s not one bit different.  All those components are components of New Testament salvation.  The only difference is we’ve seen the reality of the coming King and Sacrifice. If they believed Moses and the prophets, that would’ve been enough.

The rich man went on with a third request, asking for a sign sent to his brothers — someone from the dead — who will cause them to repent (verse 30).

That request is very much in line with those from the Pharisees. They saw miracles but wanted to kill Jesus. They wanted Him to perform a sign just for them. Our Lord did not grant it.

Abraham replied to the request in the negative, saying that if the five brothers do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced if someone rises from the dead (verse 31).

The man ended up in hell because he did not repent (verse 30).

MacArthur tells us how that man and his brothers could have found the way to repentance:

You must recognize your sinfulness, and the Old Testament commands that you repent. That is, you turn from your sin and turn toward God, realizing that God is gracious and offers grace to those who repent, that God is willing to forgive sin. He is a God of forgiveness by nature, who has no pleasure in the damnation of the wicked; and how do you appropriate that gift? Not by works, not by religious ceremony, but by faith. Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness; and that God will justify you. That is, He will declare you righteous, not because you are righteous; but He will credit His righteousness to you, the great doctrine of justification. Abraham believed God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness. It was his faith, even though he was unrighteous, that God accepted; and then gave Abraham, credited to his account, God’s own righteousness.

In closing, MacArthur discusses the differing notions of hell between our society and in the Bible:

it is critical for us to understand the literal reality of hell, and to accept the warning of Scripture. Hell has really disappeared from the vocabulary of many preachers.  Hell is denied by many in favor of universal salvation or everlasting nonexistence called soul sleep where people die and just go out of existence forever.  That’s a popular view among those who call themselves Christians.  Hell is denied by many.  It is preached by few, because it makes people uncomfortable.  That is true.  Hell has been reduced to a swear word, used by unbelievers not believers.  It has been reduced to a trivial verbal epithet that we sling around when wanting to express our anger.  Unbelievers flippantly and frequently tell people to go to hell. And while unbelievers don’t seem to have any hesitation to talk about hell and to verbally threaten people with it, at the same time the church is reluctant to warn people not to go to hell, supposedly out of love and compassion and concern and a desire to be acceptable.

So while unbelievers have the word “hell” on their lips frequently, believers have it on theirs rarely; and that is certainly what Satan would want.  Trivialize and make nothing but an epithet out of hell, words that you sling around that have no meaning, and silence the church about the truth of it. But it is the fearfulness of hell; it is the horror of hell that is exactly the point of its revelation.  The purpose of telling us about hell and describing it with such detail and so repeatedly in the Scripture is to produce in sinners fear, terror, and panicThat’s what it’s for.  It’s to contribute to the way in which they anticipate their eternity.  It is to frighten them, to horrify them so as to produce a terror of spending forever there that drives them in the direction of repentance and faith in the gospel.

Now, the leading preacher of hell of all people, the leading preacher of hell ever is the Savior of sinners, the Lord Jesus ChristThe most references to hell are in the four gospels and they come out of His mouth.  It is Jesus who teaches us about hell.  Clearly, the epistles are the…the ground in which we will find the clearest foundation for our understanding of hell.  Not just there.  The writer of Hebrews refers to it.  The apostle Peter refers to it.  The apostle John refers to it.  The apostle Paul refers to it.  Even Jude refers to it.  All the writers of the New Testament pick up on the issue of hell.

This punishment is defined by the word aiōnios, which is the word eternal or everlasting; and there are people who would like to redefine that word aiōnios and say, “Well, it doesn’t really mean forever.”  But if you do that with hell, you’ve just done it with heaven, because the same word is used to describe that.  If there is not an everlasting hell, then there is not an everlasting heaven; and I’ll go one beyond that.  The same word is used to describe God. And so, if there is not an everlasting hell, then there is not an everlasting heaven, nor is there an everlasting God.

It is clear that God is eternal; and, therefore, that heaven is eternal, and so is hell.  This is what is on the heart of the Lord Jesus when He talks to the Pharisees, the religious leaders of Israel, and tells them the story in Luke 16:19 to 31.  He makes it up as He did His parables.  He invents the story.  The only difference between this and any other parable is He has a name for one of the characters; and there’s a reason for that; but the story really has one purpose.  It is to warn of hell. It’s a story about a man who was surprised to end up in hell.

If you know someone who needs a discussion about hell, do not wait. It is essential in order for them to be saved. Teach them what Jesus says about hell. My prayers go with you in that effort.

The Third Sunday in Lent is March 20, 2022.

The readings for Year C can be found here.

The Gospel reading is as follows (emphases mine):

Luke 13:1-9

13:1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.

13:2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?

13:3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.

13:4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them–do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?

13:5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

13:6 Then he told this parable: A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.

13:7 So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’

13:8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.

13:9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Commentary comes from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Last week’s Gospel passage came later on in Luke 13. That said, it helps clarify today’s verses. Luke 13:34-35 refers back to the aforementioned parable of the fig tree:

13:34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

13:35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

John MacArthur adds further context:

the subject here is judgment now. End of chapter 12, Jesus closed out that portion of the message by talking about the fact that a person who is going to go to court, who is guilty of something, better settle with his accuser before he gets to the judge or the judge is going to expose his guilt, turn him over to the constable, or the…or the jailer, and put him in prison until he pays every last cent. And what Jesus was saying is, “Look, you better settle your case with God before you ever get to the judgment. You better settle your case with God before you ever get to the judgment because when you get before God at the judgment, it’s too late. You’re going to be turned over to eternal punishment.” That was the point. So judgment is the theme. And that p[ique]s the interest of these people.

Some in the crowd mentioned the Galileans who died at the hands of Pilate’s Romans; the soldiers murdered them and mixed their blood with that of their sacrifices (verse 1).

MacArthur says this was a tragedy that had occurred not long before this discourse from Jesus, so it was fresh in people’s minds:

Now this was something that had just happened, a fresh event. This… This would have been headlines in the Jerusalem Gazette, if there was one. Everybody would have heard about it. It would have gone through Jerusalem like a wildfire. Everyone would have known this … It was largely Pilate’s treatment of the Jews that precipitated the Jews’ rebellion that led to the Roman invasion and the destruction of the city and of the nation in 70 A.D. Pilate lit the fuse because of how he treated the Jews. And so this is consistent with Pilate’s behavior. And apparently Pilate sends his soldiers to find some Galileans and slaughters them while they are offering sacrifices, Galilean Jews who had come down to offer sacrifices. Only one place in Israel where you could offer sacrifice, that’s the temple. Very likely this is the Passover. This is a Passover. And these Galilean Jews had come down to offer their sacrifices. There were so many tens of thousands, in fact some estimates, a quarter of a million animals were slaughtered in the Passover week. It was so massive a slaughter, the priests couldn’t do it themselves, and so the actual worshiper would participate in it. So we could assume that this would have been very likely at a Passover.

Furthermore, Pilate would have been in Jerusalem at the Passover because that’s when the city was bulging with all the pilgrims and trouble could come. And so he would have left Caesarea to come there to be in Jerusalem. And the Galileans were notoriously rebellious so apparently there were some Galileans who maybe had done something of a rebellious nature against Rome and they were tracked down into Jerusalem and tracked by whoever investigates those kinds of things, found at the temple, found there offering sacrifices. We don’t know any…any of the details. But there they were, offering their sacrifices.

And Pilate comes, not personally, but his soldiers. Finds them there and slices them up so that in a very gruesome way, a gory way, it describes their blood as being mingled with the blood of the sacrifices. Now you have to understand, offering sacrifices at Passover would be like being in a slaughterhouse. That would be the only thing comparable. In fact, to kill a quarter of a million animals in a week, you can imagine what kind of a slaughterhouse the temple was, blood everywhere. And now the blood of these Galileans flows with the blood dripping off that altar. Maybe… Maybe they had known Pilate’s men were after them. Maybe they sought sanctuary at the altar. You remember in the Old Testament there was a man named Adonijah, according to 1 Kings, who…who ran into the altar and grabbed on the horns of the altar as if it was a place of safety. And if they were holding onto the horns of the altar of sacrifice, Pilate didn’t spare them. He slaughtered them there.

Jesus, knowing that they were thinking those Galileans must have been very bad to deserve such a horrifying fate, asks whether they were worse sinners than their countrymen (verse 2).

He tells them that they were not worse sinners than other Galileans, but unless those listening to Him repented, they, too, would perish in the same way (verse 3).

Jesus brings up the catastrophe in Siloam, a district of Jerusalem, where the tower had fallen; He asked whether those killed were worse sinners than other residents of Jerusalem (verse 4).

He answers by saying no, adding that unless the people listening to Him repent, they will perish just as those in Siloam did (verse 5).

MacArthur explains this exchange:

The Jews down in Jerusalem tended to think of the Galileans as inferior. So maybe implied in that question was, you know, sort of the idea that Galileans are bad and maybe those were the worst of them. But now Jesus takes it down to their own city and their own area. And He says, “There was a tower in Siloam as you well know that fell over and killed eighteen people.” I mean, there’s no indication of sin here. There’s no indication of sin on the part of the Galileans. They weren’t doing something wrong; they were doing what was right. These people aren’t doing anything with moral consequences. They’re just there when it falls. These aren’t issues of sin.

He tells us more about Siloam and the tower:

We don’t have any other details on this, by the way, except to say Siloam is a section of Jerusalem, the lower city, where the southern and the eastern wall meet. And there was a spring in the area outside the wall called Gihon and the Gihon spring had an abundance of water and that water was brought into the city of Jerusalem through a tunnel that Hezekiah built, well known Hezekiah’s tunnel to anybody who visits Israel. And the water came through Hezekiah’s tunnel and filled up a pool called the Pool of Siloam which is where Jesus sent the blind man in John 9 to wash. Remember that story. So it was a water supply. The city had to have water supply. The water springs on the outside, the water was then funneled into the city through that tunnel.

Well in order to spread the water, Pilate had built an aqueduct. The Romans were great at building aqueducts. The ruins of one is still available to be seen in amazing repair at this point in the city of Caesarea by the coast there. But the Romans loved to build aqueducts by which they moved the water around. And Pilate had done that, put on a big building program to produce an aqueduct which was connected to Siloam and to the water source. Apparently either in the building a scaffolding fell over, or they had constructed a tower on the aqueduct, which the Romans often did in order to observe the flow of the water, and to protect the flow of the water from enemies cutting it off, whether the tower itself that had been built there for that reason fell or whether some kind of scaffolding tower fell, we don’t know. But either workers or people watching or walking by were crushed and died. It’s nothing about sin there. They were just there. They just, you know, we would say today they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And so He says, “Do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem?” Was that the scum of Jerusalem? Were they the worst people here?

Jesus repeated Himself about repentance in verses 3 and 5 for a reason.

Matthew Henry’s commentary says:

Some lay an emphasis upon the word likewise, and apply it to the destruction that was coming upon the people of the Jews, and particularly upon Jerusalem, who were destroyed by the Romans at the time of their passover, and so, like the Galileans, they had their blood mingled with their sacrifices; and many of them, both in Jerusalem and in other places, were destroyed by the fall of walls and buildings which were battered down about their ears, as those that died by the fall of the tower of Siloam. But certainly it looks further; except we repent, we shall perish eternally, as they perished out of this world. The same Jesus that calls us to repent because the kingdom of heaven is at hand, bids us repent because otherwise we shall perish; so that he has set before us life and death, good and evil, and put us to our choice.

Also:

The perishing of those in their impenitency who have been most harsh and severe in judging others will be in a particular manner aggravated.

MacArthur says that these people are not worried about the true calamity, which is the lack of repentance:

That’s the true calamity. The real calamity is not that you were killed in the temple or that the tower fell on you or that you died by any other means. The real calamity is that if you don’t repent, when death comes you will perish. And He’s talking there about eternal judgment. Just because you’re alive doesn’t mean you’ve escaped judgment. “It’s appointed unto men once to die and after that (what?) the judgment.” True calamity is that you die and experience the judgment of God because you haven’t settled your case before you got to court, back to verse 58 of chapter 12. The true calamity is that you feel the judgment of God eternally because you will not repent. The issue is not how people die or when they die or by what cause they die. The issue is that they die without repenting. That’s what I kept saying in interview after interview. “Look, the lesson is you’re going to die, you don’t know when you’re going to die. You need to repent before that happens.” And certainly our Lord knew that a lot of the people who were in Jerusalem at this very time were going to die in 70 A.D. about thirty-five years from now if they were still alive. Those who still lived would very likely perish when tens of thousands of Jews were massacred by the Romans

… Jesus says, “Look, don’t assume anything. You’re going to likewise perish,” likewise not by the same means but with the same certainty. Everybody’s headed for death. And the point is: You better repent before you get there. You better settle your case before you get to court. Just because Pilate’s soldiers ran by you to get to those Galileans, says nothing about your righteousness. Just because the tower fell and you had just left with your water doesn’t mean you’re more righteous than the ones who were crushed. Just because your plane landed and somebody’s crashed doesn’t mean you’re any better than anybody else. What it does mean is God is showing you more mercy, more patience, giving you more opportunity to repent.

The crowd would not have liked that, because, after all, they were already God’s Chosen.

MacArthur says:

This was such a bitter pill the Jews wouldn’t swallow it. Repent? We’re the righteous. We’re the godly. We’re the spiritual. We’re the chosen. We’re the blessed. What are You talking about, repent? They hated His talk of repentance. They hated it with John the Baptist. They hated it with Jesus. And it was because He called them to repentance that they plotted to murder Him and eventually did. They refused to see themselves as sinners. They refused to see themselves as headed for judgment. It infuriated them to be diagnosed that way; most of all the leaders and then the leaders passed on that infuriated attitude to the people. And our Lord doesn’t try to prove they were sinners. He doesn’t give some long litany trying to prove they were sinners … They had the law of God, well acquainted with it. He just said to them, “You better repent. Are you prepared when a tower falls on you?”

MacArthur discusses repentance at length. This is particularly useful:

repentance is simply agreeing with God’s diagnosis of your wretchedness and understanding that you can do absolutely nothing about it.

And so, when you talk about repentance, you’re talking about having to cast yourself on somebody who can do something for you in your helpless condition, somebody who can rescue you from the guilt that you bear, somebody who can rescue you from the judgment that awaits you, somebody who can take you out of the power of sin because you can’t do it for yourself. And there is only one such person. You need mercy. You need grace. You need forgiveness. You need deliverance. And there’s only one Savior and that’s the Lord Jesus Christ.

That leads to the second element in repentance: to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the only Savior, to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the only Savior. Repentance in the New Testament always includes faith in Jesus Christ as the only Savior. You could talk about repentance in its narrow sense, the sense that it is turning from sin. But…and that would be a way that it could be used. But in its New Testament gospel usage, it always embraces faith in Christ. It is a turning 180 degrees, so it’s turning from sin to something and the something or someone is always Christ.

Then Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree that bears no fruit.

He does this to illustrate God’s mercy, but God’s mercy with sinners is not everlasting. If we do not repent, we are doomed.

Jesus illustrates this by telling us the story of a man who owned a vineyard with a fig tree planted in it and saw that the tree had no fruit (verse 6).

Because vineyards need constant tending, they are a good place to intersperse fruit trees.

MacArthur explains:

… they prepared the ground for the vineyard and because they had the most prepared ground and gave the most attention to the vineyard and it was protected and guarded and watered and fertilized, it was just a perfect place to plant the fruit trees So very commonly and you find it in a number of places in the Bible, they planted their fruit trees in the same soil where the vineyard was.  And that’s what happened here.  You can read Micah 4:4 and you’ll see illustrations of that.  There are others as well.

The owner was vexed to find no fruit on the fig tree and told his gardener to cut it down; it had been growing for three years with no fruit and was a waste of soil (verse 7).

The gardener replied, requesting that he give the tree another year; he would tend to the tree with digging and manure for fertiliser (verse 8).

Henry compares the gardener to Christ:

Christ is the great Intercessor; he ever lives, interceding …

We owe it to Christ, the great Intercessor, that barren trees are not cut down immediately: had it not been for his interposition, the whole world had been cut down, upon the sin of Adam; but he said, Lord, let it alone; and it is he that upholds all things.

The gardener concluded with a condition: if the tree bears fruit the following year, all is well; if not, the owner can then cut it down (verse 9).

The fruit of the fig tree is analogous to the fruit of faith that comes through repentance.

MacArthur says of our Lord’s audience:

You think they got it?  I think they got it What would they be thinking of?  John the Baptist, chapter 3 of Luke, down at the river, talking about the Messiah coming and saying, “You better bring forth fruits fit for repentance because the ax is already laid at the root of the tree.”  Right?  Luke 3:9The decree has already gone out: Cut it downThe ax is laid at the root of the tree ready for the first blow.  Hold that ax for a minute.

MacArthur says that we can understand the parable in a personal way and in a way that relates to the Jews of the day:

First of all, the tree is a solitary tree.  The tree is a solitary tree, and therefore, it has individual application.  It has individual application, first of all, to a nation and then to individuals It is both national and personal.  The fig tree, first of all, certainly has to be viewed as Israel This is the patience, if you will, of the Lord saying, as it were, to the Father, just hold back your judgment and give them a little more time.

Like in Isaiah 5, Israel was planted in a very fertile hill.  They were blessed with everything God could give them Like Romans 9:4 and 5, they had the revelation of God.  They had the prophets.  They had the Scriptures.  They had the covenants.  They had the adoption and from them came the Messiah They had it all.  They were already apostate when Jesus arrived They were apostate when John the Baptist began to preach The ax was already laid at the tree when it started Before Jesus ever began the ministry, John said the ax is laid at the tree because the nation was already apostate They already had departed from the true faith and the true and living God and created a system of works righteousness that was an abomination to God.

And now after the three years nearly being up — there’s a number of months yet until it’s all over — but here they are into the last year of Jesus’ ministry and they’re fixed in their unbelief The ax is still at the foot of the tree And yet, there’s a pleading here for a little more time There were a few months before the crucifixion.  There were some more miracles, incredible miracle of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, which everybody knew about, which prompted the Hosannas on Palm Monday, it actually was a Monday, there were some pretty dramatic things going on: the cleansing of the temple on Tuesday of the Passion Week; more teaching from Jesus; more powerful displays from Jesus.  They still had some time.  The hope was dim, but the heart of God was willing to be patient even when the hope was dim.  Look at verse 34 of Luke 13.  Jesus says, “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem.” He’s headed there.  He knows He’s going to die.  “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets, stones those sent to her, how often I wanted to gather your children together just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you wouldn’t have it.  Behold your house is left to you desolate.”

That was fulfilled historically in 70 A.D., as well as looking ahead to the further destruction of that place that comes in the time of tribulation.  Jesus confirmed then that over and over, that judgment was coming, judgment was coming, judgment was coming. 

Matthew and Mark have the story of Jesus cursing the fruitless fig tree in the week of His Passion. It died instantly.

MacArthur says that fig tree also represented Israel:

… both the fig tree, this one a real fig tree, the other one a fig tree story, there’s one fig tree.  It has that solitary significance.  A lone fig tree; this is emblematic of Israel again He came to it, found nothing on it except leaves only, pretense of life.  Religion, false religion gives a pretense of life, but no fruit.

And He said to it, “No longer shall there be any fruit from you.”  And at once the fig tree withered.  Mark says, gives the parallel account, it withered from the roots up And the disciples were just absolutely stunned to see it die in front of their eyes So in reality, they had time, but they didn’t have much time.  They had months as a nation to change their attitude about Christ.  And that would only happen if individuals changed their attitudes about Christ.  And when Jesus came in two days after hosanna to the Son of David, hailing him as Messiah, two days later He cursed the nationAnd it was over.

MacArthur then gives us the application for us to consider for ourselves:

He’s talking about individuals here It’s a solitary tree.  It’s not just a solitary nation It’s a solitary individual.  Every one of us has to do something with Jesus Christ And let me just have you think about this: Those who have no spiritual fruit will be judged If there is no spiritual life in you that comes only through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, you will be cut down and cast into the fire as John the Baptist put it.  That’s eternal punishment.

Those who bear no spiritual fruit through a relationship to God by means of Jesus Christ will be cut down and that judgment is forever The next thing to keep in mind is that the judgment is near He says “next year” or “until the time.”  And the idea is just one more chance.  The tree has had its whole life and I’ve checked it for three years.  I’m going to give it a little time … Your judgment is near.  The sand is running fast out of the hourglass …

Borrowed time is not permanent.  God’s patience is not permanent.  These points are easy to understand in this little story.  In fact, they’re virtually unmistakable.  The tree is a solitary tree.  It’s a nation, but it’s an individual.  If you have no fruit, you will be cut down … 

You need to come while you have the time, while you have the opportunity.  Psalm 32:6, “Let everyone who is godly pray to You in a time when You may be found.”  There will be a time when He won’t be found …

We all live on borrowed time.  I don’t know how much until Jesus comes, until you die, or until God withdraws.  He relents the calamities because of His mercy, but His mercy is only everlasting to those who worship Him and love Him

What a Lenten thought to contemplate in the week ahead.

May all reading this have a blessed Sunday.

John F MacArthurJohn MacArthur often laments the state of the Church today.

In May 1998, he gave a sermon on 2 Corinthians 13:1-2, which I cited in my post yesterday.

The sermon is called ‘The Pattern of Sanctification, Part 1: Church Discipline’.

Whilst discussing the first two verses of 2 Corinthians 13, he also gave an excellent exposition of everything that is wrong in the Church today. Excerpts follow, emphases mine below.

Since 1998, the following has exploded in churches around the Western world. Around the end of the 20th century, church growth rose to prominence. Moving on to the 21st century, the last decade saw a rise in home churches. Online church services surfaced during the pandemic and became normalised. The Church of England hierarchy wants more online services and fewer church buildings, retaining them only in community ‘hubs’. I do despair.

MacArthur points out the folly of it all:

Now, before we look at the text itself, I want to kind of get us into the importance of the subject and the importance of the attitude of the apostle Paul here by sharing with you perspective that I think exists in the Church today. Many people are concerned about the state of the Church. The condition of churches today have caused a myriad of seminars and conferences and books to be written. There are constant calls for renewal in the Church, for better understanding of the culture, for changing the style of the Church to fit the style of the ‘90s, replacing preaching of the Scripture with more interesting methodologies and technologies.

All across our country – in fact, all around the world there are these efforts being made to reinvent the Church. The fear is that the Church is not speaking to the time, people are not listening. The Church has somehow become irrelevant; it has become obsolete. Self-styled experts are saying that the future of the Church is in the balance, and the Church may not survive in the West if it doesn’t become culturally relevant, if it doesn’t learn how to package its message better, if it doesn’t target felt needs, if it doesn’t employ more popular and efficient communication devices that it currently uses.

All of this comes into focus in a new book that’s just been out a couple of weeks. It’s one of those books that you could pick up and read rather rapidly. I read it fairly rapidly; I couldn’t put it down. It just kept compelling me to read. It was sort of like enjoying the pain, actually. It was like there’s something redeeming in this self-flagellation that I’m going through, and I’m going to carry it all away to the end. The book pained me deeply, and every page added more to my pain, but I couldn’t put it down because I was so startled by what the book was saying.

It is a book that calls for the Church to do what I just said: reinvent itself. And it says, on the cover of the book, “Today’s Church is incapable of responding to the present moral crisis. It must reinvent itself or face virtual oblivion by mid twenty-first century.” End quote.

So, the book says that if the Church doesn’t reinvent itself, and put itself in better cultural relevance, it’s going to go out of existence in 50 years. That statement alone was overwhelming for me. Do you mean to tell me that the eternal God who determined in the counsels of the Trinity, before the foundation of the world, before time began, who He would redeem and how He would gather His own to Himself and bring them to eternal glory is somehow going to find His whole plan coming unglued in the next 50 years? Do you mean to tell me that the Church which Jesus Christ purchased with His own blood is somehow going to escape His purposes for redemption and atonement? Do you mean to tell me that the Church which Jesus said He would build, and the gates of Hades could not prevail against it is somehow going to become victimized by its own inept[itude]? That is a brash and irresponsible statement, to say that if the Church doesn’t reinvent itself, it’ll face oblivion by the mid twenty-first century.

The only thing that could possibly obliterate the Church on earth by then would be the end of the age and the return of Jesus Christ and the glorification of the Church. That’s a very irresponsible thing to say. And the author of the book fearing – and I think he probably genuinely fears that the Church might go out of existence – suggests that there are some ways to save the Church, and these are the suggestions. “Develop cyber churches, virtual churches on the Internet.

Secondly, develop house churches which appeal to people because they have low control, low authority, and operate without historical tradition, I might add, or theology.” “Eliminate congregational churches” – like this – “for more congenial, less confrontational, and more dispassionately interactive forums. Preachers must be replaced by presenters who have no notes and don’t hide behind pulpits, and who generate a more positive response for their listeners.

“We must get rid of sermons, because one-sided communication is ineffective, and eliminate series and Bible exposition, because everybody’s attendance is sporadic, and people really get irritated coming in and out of series that they can’t consistently hear. So, we need to play to their sporadic attendance. And every sermon should be a unit in itself because most of the folks will miss the next two weeks before they decide to come back.”

You say, “Well, where did he get those ideas?”

They were the result of a survey. If you ask unbelievers outside the Church what they want, you can get answers like that. If you ask unbelievers inside the Church what they want, you can get answers like that. If you ask believers in the Church, ignorant of Scripture, what they want, you can get answers like that. But if you were to survey biblically literate believers, you wouldn’t get answers like that.

So, who is it that determines the character of the Church? You go to the lowest possible source. Unbelievers outside the Church, unbelievers inside the Church, or ignorant believers in the Church. What is the hope of the Church? Is this really it, if we can just disband congregational churches and develop a virtual church on the Internet, will that solve our problem? Will that dramatically affect the Church’s ability to confront the moral crisis of our day, as if that were somehow our reason for existence? And it’s not. Ours is not a moral agenda. Ours is a spiritual one.

Would it be better if we had presenters instead of preachers, and we got rid of pulpits, and got rid of sermon notes, and sat on stools, would that be the difference? And just sort of told stories?

Would it be better if instead of somebody preparing to preach a sermon and giving forth an exposition of Scripture we had a pooling of everyone’s ideas? Would it be better if we never had any continuity in or sermons but had little units week in and week out? Would that really save the Church from virtual oblivion?

And by the way, are we the ones responsib[le for] sav[ing] the Church from going out of existence? Is that our job? That’s all the result of a survey. You see, that’s what people want. And what they want is what they should get. That’s the basic thesis behind all of that.

Now, if you ask me what the Church needs, I don’t need a survey. I just ask the Lord of the Church, and He’s revealed it in His Word. And what the Church really needs is more consistent, faithful, clear theological exposition of the mind of God through the pages of Scripture. What it needs is better preaching, better sermons – and I may get in trouble for saying this – fewer small churches with ungifted, untrained, and unskilled preachers.

The Word must dominate the Church and bear its God-intended power and authority over all who hear. You see, the only way that the Church will ever effectively counter the crisis of our time – moral crisis, spiritual crisis – is when the Word of God is working powerfully in the Church – listen to what I say – to produce not information, but “holiness.” There’s the operative word, folks. Write that down somewhere; that’s the theme of the message this morning.

You see, the hope of the Church and the impact of the Church is all connected to the purity of the Church. Holiness is the issue. When Jesus first addressed the Church in Matthew 18, the first time he ever said anything related to the Church, in that great sermon in Matthew 18:7, the first thing he said about it is this, “If somebody’s in sin, go to him. If he doesn’t listen, take two or three witnesses. If he doesn’t listen, tell the church. And after the church has pursued him, if he still doesn’t repent, throw him out; treat him like an outcast.

The first instruction our Lord ever gave to the CHURCH had to do with sin. In that very first sermon, Jesus said, “If you ever lead another believer into sin, you’d be better off if a millstone were put around your neck and you were drowned in the depths of the sea.” The Lord of the Church is concerned about the purity of the Church. He’s concerned about the holiness of the Church. Sin is the issue to the Lord of the Church, and it should be the issue for us. But I daresay you can go from conference to conference to conference, and book to book to book, and this is not the concern today. You won’t hear talk about the holiness of the Church, the purity of the Church.

When I was at Moody this week, I spoke, and I basically said to them, “You know, I’m going to preach the sermon I’ve prepared for my own church on Sunday.” I kind of tweaked it here and there a little bit. But I said to them what I’m going to say to you, because everybody’s talking about church growth and how to grow your church and have a successful church in a flourishing ministry and more folks and church growth is a begin thing. And I said to them, “It may surprise you to hear this, but I really believe the single greatest contributor to the impact of our church, to the growth of our church, to the ministries of our church, to the effect of our church – the single greatest factor that exists – has existed through the years of Grace Community Church – the single greatest contributor to the influence, and the strength, and the growth of our church has been” – and I paused, and it got real quiet, and I said – “church discipline.” And there was a pall over the meeting.

Church discipline. That is not normally considered a principle of church growth. Most people would assume, “If you want to kill a place, do that. Just start poking around in everybody’s life and they’ll split.” Not the people who love righteousness. Not the people who hate sin. Not the people who want to honor God. Not the people who care about obedience. And that’s the Church, isn’t it? That’s the true and redeemed Church.

It may surprise you to hear this. I believe that ignoring church discipline is the most visible and disastrous failure of the Church in our time. Because what it conveys is we aren’t really concerned about – what? – sin. The Lord of the Church is concerned about sin. The apostle Paul was concerned about sin. It left him with a constant, unrelenting ache in his heart.

The problem with the Church is not that it’s got bad methodology or bad technology. The problem with the Church is it’s lost its interest in holiness. It’s lost its interest in maintaining purity. Churches have become content to be fellowships of independent members with minimal accountability to God, and even less to each other

The absence of church discipline – and I mean it’s absolutely a foreign thing in churches – the absence of church discipline is a symptom of the moral decline, the theological indifference of the Church. It’s a symptom, I believe, of a shallow commitment to Scripture. It’s not as if the Bible is unclear on the subject. It couldn’t be more clear. It is a lack of reverence for the Lord of the Church. It is saying, “Well, I know you’re concerned about the holiness of the Church, but we’re really not. We have other things to be concerned about.” Church discipline is not an elective; it is not an option; it is a necessary an integral mark of true Christianity and life in the church.

And I say it again; the absence of church discipline is the most glaring evidence of the worldliness of the Church. And the worldliness of the Church is the reason for its impotence. And you can have all of the entertainment, and all the hoopla, and all the big crowds that you want and not impact the world. It’s the purity of the Church; it’s the holiness of the Church that is the cause of its power. The problem is the Church is unholy.

Even the idea of confession of sin is outdated in an age of moral relativism and moral ambiguity. The answer is not let’s break up the congregation and produce less accountability; let’s get down to house churches where we have less authority, less confrontation, more autonomy, more independence. The answer is not let’s have more compassion; let’s have a kinder, gentler church.

Albert Mohler, who’s the president of Southern Seminary, writes – and I quote – “Individuals now claim an enormous zone of personal privacy and moral autonomy. The congregation, redefined as a mere voluntary association, has no right to intrude into this space. Many congregations have forfeited any responsibility to confront even the most public sins of their members.” He says congregations are consumed with pragmatic methods of church growth and what he calls congregational engineering. And most churches just ignore the issues of sin.

Let us contrast that approach with that of St Paul:

Well, the apostle Paul wasn’t that way. We’re learning, at the end of the book here, about the faithful pastor’s concerns. What is it that concerns a faithful pastor? What is it that concerns Paul? Well, he’s giving us a summary of that, starting in chapter 12, verse 19, running all the way to chapter 13, verse 10. That whole section is a summation of what concerns Paul.

And we could sum it up in a word. He’s concerned with the spiritual well-being of his flock. That’s what he’s concerned about. Corinth was a challenge. The city was gross in terms of its wickedness. People who came to Christ in that city were coming out of very immoral backgrounds. They brought some of that garbage into the church. He had to write to them 1 Corinthians to confront a long litany of iniquities that they were still engaging in, even though they were in the church and calling themselves believers.

Having sorted out those problems in the writing of 1 Corinthians, it wasn’t long until false teachers had come, and along with false teachers came pride, and along with pride came more sin. And Paul could see the subsequent impotence of that unholy situation and the loss of testimony, the loss of evangelistic impact that would follow.

Paul knew that the problem in Corinth was not going to be whether they were culturally relevant or not. The false teachers criticized Paul for not having a relevant message, not taking into account the expectations of the Corinthians for what oratory ought to be because of what they were used to. They had criticized Paul because his person, his persona was unimpressive, and his speech was contemptible; he was a lousy communicator; he didn’t speak in the venue that people were used to hearing. He didn’t have all of the personal charm to woo the audience.

He had already addressed the issues that he didn’t speak with men’s wisdom, and he didn’t come in the wisdom of the world to achieve divine purposes. He already had laid it down that he was going to come and speak the Word of God, and he believed the Word of God, and he believed the Word of God was the power. And behind that came this conviction and commitment to the fact that the church had to be holy. And what Paul feared in his church was error and sin. Either one of those destroys the church. Theological error, theological ignorance or inequity devastates the church.

I can think of very few pastors who would pursue Paul’s route. Yet, it is the correct one for the Church.

There is the world, the slave to sin. And there is the Church, which teaches that the way to eternal life is through the repentance of sin, a turning around of ourselves and our worldly ways towards … holiness.

Do we notice how the more modern and relevant the Church becomes, the more people avoid it?

There is another problem and that is the use of churches as tools for evangelising. Evangelising is a necessary activity but, done properly, it takes place outside of the church service, not during it.

The church service is designed for worship of our Lord and the exposition of Scripture, not winning converts off the street.

How bad do things have to get before our clergy realise the error of their ways? Sadly, I fear this will drag on and on for decades.

Having posted most, though not all, of the readings for the three Lectionary years, it is now time to delve into the readings.

The readings for Sunday, December 6 — St Nicholas Day, incidentally — are in the following post:

Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent — Year B

You can read more about St Nicholas and his feast day below:

St Nicholas Day (much to learn about a man of great faith)

More on St Nicholas — feast day December 6

St Nicholas Day — December 6 (1970s celebrations in Germany)

Let us look at the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Advent in Year B (emphases mine):

Mark 1:1-8

1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

1:2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;

1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”

1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.

1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John MacArthur preached an excellent sermon on these verses in 2009. Mark was the last book of the New Testament on which he preached.

Excerpts from ‘The Herald of the New King’ follow, emphases mine.

Unlike Matthew, who went into the full earthly genealogy of our Lord, Mark begins by stating ‘the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (verse 1): no ifs, ands or buts.

That is because Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience and Mark wrote for the Gentiles, specifically, those in Rome:

He’s writing to Roman Christians – and, of course, Roman non-Christians – who will hear his history read. He is not concerned primarily about the Jews, so he doesn’t frontload his book with a lot of prophecies. He doesn’t make efforts to connect the arrival of Jesus with the Old Testament, say, by giving genealogies like Matthew and Luke are so careful to give. He doesn’t give specific prophesies about Jesus, such as the virgin birth, Bethlehem, called out of Egypt. And there are a number of prophesies that Matthew refers to and Luke refers to. None of those does Mark refer to in the beginning of his history. It is simply enough to say, “He is the Son of God.” He is the Son of God.

As Christians, we take for granted that Mark used the words ‘the good news’, but, interestingly, that phrase was also used of Roman emperors. Furthermore, the word in Greek is euaggelion, ‘of the gospel’:

This is an inscription from the Roman world. The date is 9 B.C. Okay? Before Christ. This is the inscription, “The Providence, which has ordered the whole of our life” – translated into English, obviously – “showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving it to Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men and by sending in him, as it were, a savior for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere. The birthday of the god Augustus is the beginning for the world of the euaggelion” – of the gospel – “that has come to men through him.”

How interesting. They used the word euaggelion on that occasion, in that inscription, to describe the arrival of Caesar Augustus. Caesar Augustus is – “by the Providence,” it says – the one who will bring to us the work of a benefactor, the work of a savior, make war cease, create order everywhere. It is the arrival of a god. The good news, then, is that Augustus Caesar has arrived. That actual inscription was dedicated to him, apparently, on his birthday. Then, as a technical term again to refer to the ascendancy of the triumph of an emperor.

So, the Jews and the pagans would both see that word as signifying the arrival of a new monarch, and that would signify the arrival of a new era. And the new era would be an era of order and peace and salvation and blessing.

Mark intended for his story to describe a King that was not of this realm and to ensure it was understood as such:

This is the story of the new King who has arrived, who is about to inaugurate His kingdom and bring a new era of salvation, blessing, peace, and order to the world. One historical writer says, “The parallel between ‘evangel’” – or the gospel – “in the imperial cult and the Bible is Caesar and Christ, the emperor on the throne and the despised rabbi on the cross confront each other. Both are gospel to men. They have much in common, but they belong to two different worlds.”

So, Mark begins his historical account of the life of Jesus with language that would make his Roman readers know that the new and most glorious King has come, and He sets Himself against all other kings, including Caesar. He is the theme of this history. And this is only the beginning of His story. And what is His name? Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Jesus identifies His human name, Yeshua or Yehoshua in Hebrew – basically, Joshua – meaning Yahweh is salvation. Yehoshua – Yahweh is salvation. That’s His name. “Call Him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins,” Matthew 1:21. His title – His name is Jesus, His title is Christ. That is not a name; that is not His last name. That’s a title. Royal title. The Anointed One. That’s what Messiah means. Christ and Messiah are the same thing. It means Anointed One. It’s a royal title. His human name is Jesus. His royal title is Messiah, the Anointed One. Simply King. And his lineage? He is the Son of God. One in nature with God, coeternal and coequal.

And thus does Mark introduce us to the beginning of the history of King Jesus. The beginning of the history of King Jesus, the Son of God. Not the Son of some other earthly monarch.

The next two verses refer to passages from the Old Testament. Just as earthly kings had family history, Mark wanted his audience to know that our Lord had been prophesied in Scripture:

No king ever arrived and said, “Hey, I’m the king, and I’m here.” The king always had a forerunner. The king always had an entourage. The king always had some coming before him to prepare the way and make the people ready, and then was appropriately introduced by someone who bore authenticity and authority to make that introduction.

So, Mark, consistent with the Gentile approach to how kings were announced, goes to the Old Testament for the only time in the beginning of his Gospel, not to find a prophecy about Jesus, but to find a prophecy about His herald, to give authenticity to His herald.

But there was more. Mark wanted to include the story of John the Baptist, who preached of His imminent ministry:

With all the Old Testament texts that connect to Jesus Christ, Mark uses prophecy not about the new King at all, but about His forerunner, the one who is to proclaim His arrival. This would be in the kind of official structure of what people in the Gentile world will be used to.

MacArthur says that the Gentile believers in Rome would have known Isaiah’s prophecy:

So, there is coming a messenger. That’s identified in verse 2, “I send My messenger.” And he further identifies the messenger as someone who will be a voice crying in the wilderness. This is from the ancient prophets. He’s quoting from the ancient prophets, and he labels this from Isaiah the prophet. Certainly Isaiah was well-known to even Gentile Christians because of his vast book, much of which was centered on the arrival of Messiah, the servant of Jehovah, as Isaiah identifies Him. So, he draws prophecies out of Isaiah.

By the way, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all use – all use these prophecies to label John the Baptist as the fulfillment. John the Baptist is the fulfillment of these prophecies, and all four Gospel writers indicate that. “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet” – or preferably “as it has been written.” The new King is not a new plan; the new King is not an afterthought. This is the plan that God was working out in ancient times. The plan is one culminating in the arrival of the new King, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The Gentile readers need to know that the one who announced His arrival is the one prophesied by the ancient prophets, and by the notable prophet Isaiah from the Old Testament. He is an official, divinely commissioned herald for the new King. And so, he’s the one being described in these prophecies.

To be precise, verse 2 is from Malachi and verse 3 is from Isaiah:

Verse 2 is actually Malachi 3:1; and verse 3 is Isaiah chapter 40, verse 3. This is not an uncommon thing to do, to refer to only one of the Old Testament prophets, the more prominent one, the more notable one, and tuck in another prophecy by another prophet, since it was all the Word of God.

These prophecies go together so perfectly, and both refer to the same person, so they may have been frequently used together. Malachi is the introductory one; Isaiah is the more important one. But both are general references. If you go back, they’re – and this is something you need to know that New Testament writers do. Sometimes they quote exactly from the Hebrew; sometimes they quote from the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament; sometimes they make sort of a general reference to a text, and sometimes it’s an interpretive reference. Because remember now, the New Testament writers are inspired by God. And so, when they interpret an Old Testament text, they interpret that in an inspired way.

So, they always give the true interpretation of the text. Sometimes you’d directly quote it; sometimes it’s an interpretive quote. Here you have some interpretive quotation, certainly in the case of Malachi 3:1.

Isaiah 40:3 is part of the First Reading for this particular Sunday:

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

MacArthur discusses Malachi 3:1:

Malachi 3:1 records, “Behold, I send My messenger” – and Malachi says – “before Me.” Here you have an interpretation of that, “Behold, I send My messenger ahead of You, who will prepare Your way.” Obviously, You and Your refers to the coming King. But before the King comes, ahead of Him comes the messenger. So, this is a prophecy that there will be one who comes before the King comes, whose job will be to prepare His way.

Like all prophets, this is a messenger. All prophets are proclaimers. He’s a preacher. He will make a strong call for people to prepare for the arrival of the new King. Malachi 3:1 is a direct reference to this messenger, this herald of the coming new King.

MacArthur then looks at Isaiah 40:3. Today’s First Reading is Isaiah 40:1-11:

from Isaiah chapter 40, the opening, and then down in verses 9 and 10, Isaiah prophesied the return of the Jews from the Babylonian captivity. He prophesied they would come back to Israel; they would go through the wilderness, and God would lead them. And when they arrived, God would be with them, and He would ascend to His throne, and again He would rule over them.

And so, in the near intention of that prophecy, He was talking about the return from the Babylonian captivity and the ascendancy of God to His sovereign place over a reconstituted Israel. And that would require making ready the way of the Lord. God would lead them back from captivity, would make the path for them, make the road for them, and they would head back, and God would be with them. In the future sense, one would come who would make the road ready for the new King. Make the road ready for the new King. And this, of course, is here associated with the forerunner of Jesus, namely John the Baptist. There was to come one who would herald the new King’s arrival, call people to prepare for His glorious ascent to His throne and the establishment of his kingdom of salvation, and blessing, and peace.

In verse 4, Mark says that John the Baptist — ‘the Baptiser’ — was ‘in the wilderness’, proclaiming baptism as a form of repentance.

John the Baptist lived in the desert:

… he appears in the wilderness, in the desert. In fact, in John 3:23, it places Him about 25 to 30 miles south of the Sea of Galilee, along the Jordan River. And up and down that river he went for the duration of his ministry, preaching out in the desert, away from all the cities and all the towns and all the people. He was in that wilderness, basically, his whole life. According to Luke 1:80, he spent his life in the wilderness. He was a wilderness guy. He was a desert man.

When God’s people repented in the Old Testament they were in the wilderness. Many of us consider wilderness to mean a forest, but in Scripture, it means desert. The Jews of John’s time would have understood the significance:

William Lane writes – and I think it’s well stated – “The summons to be baptized in the Jordan means that Israel must once more come to the wilderness. As Israel long ago had been separated from Egypt by a pilgrimage through the waters of the Red Sea, the nation is exhorted again to exercise separation. The people are called to a second exodus in preparation for a new covenant with God.

“As the people heed John’s call and go out to him in the desert, far more is involved than contrition and confession. They return to a place of judgment, the wilderness, where the status of Israel as God’s beloved son must be reestablished in the exchange of pride for humility. The willingness to return to the wilderness signifies the acknowledgement of Israel’s history as one of disobedience and rebellion, and a desire to begin once more. Let’s go back to the wilderness, before we ever came into the land, and start all over again.”

With regard to baptism, the only time it featured in Jewish ceremonies was when a Gentile fully converted to that faith:

The Jews had ceremonial washings, no baptisms except for proselyte baptism.

Therefore, for John to call upon the Jews to be baptised was an unusual request, as that ceremony was only for Gentile converts. Gentiles were outside of the Covenant, so they had to be fully cleansed in order to be brought into it. The Jews considered Gentiles to be spiritually unclean. One can imagine the tension this must have caused Jews who listened to John’s message:

So, a Jew would be saying, by doing that kind of one-time symbolic baptism, “I’m no better than a Gentile. I am no better than a Gentile. I am no more ready to meet the new King, I am no more ready for God to ascend to His throne, I am no more ready for God to establish His kingdom and make me a part of it than a Gentile.” That is a huge admission, for the Jews had been trained pretty much to resent and hate the Gentiles and think of them as outside the covenant.

MacArthur discusses the importance of repentance, which involves a genuine turning away from sin:

He’s calling the Jews to declare themselves no better than Gentiles, to turn many of the hearts of the people toward righteousness, away from rebellion, as Luke 1 put it. And to mark that repentance, that deliberate metanoia which means a turning, a genuine turning. They would need to bring forth the fruit of repentance. Do you remember how John the Baptist said that? Matthew 3:8 records it; Luke 3:8 records it. Luke says, “Bring forth fruits fitting for repentance.” Prove it. The first step would be to be willing to undergo a proselyte baptism and view yourself as if you were no better than a Gentile. Radical, radical repentance. And this was the message that came from God to John, Luke 3:2, “The Word of the Lord came to him,” and this is what He said. This is not baptism in Jesus’ name. We know that because John the Baptist’s followers were later baptized by Paul in Jesus’ name, according to Acts 19.

John’s message worked. We might find that surprising, yet, as MacArthur explains, no one wanted to be left out of the Messiah’s kingdom to come, so they followed along (verse 5):

He was a judgment preacher – fierce judgment preacher. That’s what drove the people to want to deal with their sins. The fear that when the Messiah finally came, when the new King ascended to His throne and established His kingdom, they’d be on the outside looking in. And so, he was a judgment preacher. Judgment was coming. But while God was a God of judgment, He was also a God of grace, and He offered forgiveness of sins for those who repented.

Well, everybody practically wanted to be a part of the Messiah’s kingdom. They didn’t want to get left out. They knew their own heart’s sinfulness. So, according to verse 5, all the country of Judea was going out to him, all the people of Jerusalem. They were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. This looks like a national revival.

Verse 6 describes John’s primitive appearance and way of life. This would have been according to Nazirite vows that some men took. Paul took Nazirite vows, but for him and most Jewish men, those were only temporary. Samson, Samuel and John the Baptist took lifelong Nazirite vows. In John’s case, this was prophesied. Luke 1:5-17 has the story of John’s conception and the angel’s prophecy of how he would live.

This post of mine has more information about Nazirite vows:

Luke 1:5-17 – Zachary, Zechariah, John the Baptist, Nazirites, incense, Aaron’s lineage, priesthood

See what the angel said to Zechariah, John’s father, in Luke 1:13:17. Abstinence was part of the Nazirite vow:

13But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

John knew that he was merely the messenger for the Messiah, Jesus Christ. He knew his role was to prepare people for His ministry among them.

He said that Jesus was ‘powerful’ and that he was unworthy of undoing his sandals (verse 7).

He also added that his baptism was of water but that the baptism that Christ would bring was one ‘of the Holy Spirit’ (verse 8).

MacArthur notes that John never pointed to himself, but to the Lord:

he points to Christ; he points to Church; he points to Christ. Never points to himself. John 3:30, “I must decrease, He must increase.” This is a model for any preacher. Don’t identify with the people, identify with the prophets. Don’t look like the people; look like the prophets. Maintain the dignity of that office handed down. And don’t point to yourself; point to Christ.

“After me the One” – literally definite article – “After me the One is coming who is mightier than I.” How mighty is He? He’s the Lord; He’s Yahweh; He’s Kurios; He’s God the Son; He’s the King – King Jesus. How far above me is He? Huh.

Here’s the negative. “He is so much mightier than I, that I’m not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals.” You know what? That was the lowest possible job that any servant could have. That was it. That was the bottom. If you were the servant who untied your master’s sandals, you were the scum of the scum of the scum. Dirty feet.

Old quotes from Hebrew sources. “A Hebrew slave must not wash the feet of his master, nor put his shoes on him.” That’s beneath the dignity of a Hebrew slave. Another one, “All services which a slave does for his master, a pupil should do for his teacher, with the exception of undoing his shoes.”

John says, “I’m below the people who do that. I’m not even up to the level of those who would untie His shoes. That’s how low I am.”

Well, that’s the picture, but what’s the reality? Verse 8. Why am I so different? Why are we so infinitely separated? “Because I baptize you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

“All I can do is stick you in the water; He can transform you on the inside.” This refers to the soul-transforming work of salvation, being born of the water and the Spirit. This is not some Pentecostal second baptism; this is the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Spirit of Titus 3. This is the new covenant: purification, cleansing, transformation, regeneration, new birth.

John says, “I can’t do that. Only God gives the Holy Spirit. So, the new King, He will give you the Holy Spirit.” With the Holy Spirit comes salvation, sanctification, service.

John MacArthur’s sermon adds more meaning to the Advent message of repentance and to John the Baptist’s ministry.

The content of Advent sermons can be difficult for today’s pewsitter to accept — provided the clergyman (or woman) giving the sermon is true to the Bible.

For example, this year — Year C — the First Sunday of Advent gives us Luke’s account of Jesus’s words on His Second Coming. I was really looking forward to going to Sunday worship to hear about that.

But, no. Instead, we heard about the Creation Story in Genesis juxtaposed with John 1, the arrival of the Light of the World — the usual Christmas Day reading. The young ordained Anglican priest told us — a group of oldsters — that God really loves humanity, and we have nothing to worry about from Him. As we are all long in the tooth, we remember fire and brimstone sermons.

My takeaways from the old days were, ‘God loves humanity — His creation, made in His image — but He hates sin’. The Bible is all about this message, from cover to cover.

Advent readings follow a sequence for a reason. The sermons are supposed to match each Sunday’s theme, intended to get us to repent — ‘turn around’ — from our worldly ways before Christmas.

Therefore, it was a relief to read two reflections for Gaudete Sunday, the Third Week of Advent, from fellow Anglicans: an Episcopalian and an Anglican priest.

My reader undergroundpewster, the author of Not Another Episcopal Church Blog, wrote his reflections of John the Baptist’s message to his numerous and diverse followers (Luke 3:7-18). Although Gaudete Sunday is one of joy, John the Baptist called his followers ‘you brood of vipers’, warning them of ‘the wrath to come’ if they did not repent. And, he said of Jesus:

His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Undergroundpewster wrote (emphasis in the original):

Good news like, “but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Hmm…

With good news like that, who needs bad news?

Then he directed us to an excellent sermon at Crossway by Pastor Paul David Tripp, which explains why Jesus is the Good News (an excerpt follows, emphases mine).

It is all about humanity’s sins (bad news) for which Jesus sacrificed Himself in a once and perfect oblation on the Cross (Good News). Emphases mine below:

Sure, you can run from a bad relationship, you can quit a bad job, you can move from a dangerous neighborhood, and you can leave a dysfunctional church, but you have no ability whatsoever to escape yourself. You and I simply have no ability to rescue ourselves from the greatest danger in our lives. This means that without the birth of Jesus, we are doomed to be destroyed by the danger that lurks inside us from the moment of our first breath.

You don’t need to look far in the Bible to know what this danger is. Its stain is on every page of Scripture. Romans 3:23 exposes this danger with a few simple words: ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ Sin is the bad news of the Christmas story. Jesus didn’t come to earth to do a preaching tour or to hang out with us for a while; he came on a radical mission of moral rescue

He came to rescue us because he knew that we couldn’t rescue ourselves. He knew that sin separates us from God and leaves us guilty before him. He knew that sin makes us active enemies against God, and what he says is good, right, and true. He knew that sin blinds us to the gravity of our condition and our dire need for help. He knew that sin causes us to replace worship of God with an unending catalog of created things that capture the deepest allegiances of our hearts. He knew that sin renders all of us unable to live as we were designed to live. And he knew that sin was the final terminal disease that, without help, would kill us all.

The Revd Paul David Tripp holds a DMin from the well regarded Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Sermons from Reformed — Calvinist — pastors are always useful in reminding us why we need to repent: so that we might share eternal life with God and His Son Jesus Christ.

So, going back to the sermon at my church, yes, God loves humanity, but God really hates the sins that humans commit because of Original Sin. We cannot help ourselves, as the Bible tells us. Therefore, it is misleading for a young cleric to say, ‘God loves humans — nothing to worry about, folks’.

The second helpful sermon comes from an Anglican vicar in England, The Revd Vic Van Den Bergh, author of Vic the Vicar! Vic also had a post on the meaning of Luke 3:7-18, which puts repentance into perspective. Vic addresses his thoughts to present-day Christians, who are, after all, supposed to walking in Christ’s ways.

Excerpts follow:

Are we producing fruit ‘in keeping with our repentance’? Does the gratitude for our salvation have any substance in the way we live or do we think that attending church, wearing a cross (fish), and dropping money in the offering makes us fit for heaven?

Do you think the crowds were asking themselves how much bad stuff they were laying up alongside, or instead of, the treasures they should have been storing up in heaven?  Yet this is what John was calling them to focus on. John was calling them (and us) to look at the ways they (we) can raise their game and live differently

He didn’t tell anyone that God wanted them to be happy doing what they saw as fit and right to do (regardless of what the Bible might teach). He didn’t tell them to give more money – because God doesn’t want your money, He wants your hearts and lives filled with love and generosity in things, actions, and in spirit.

He told the people before him to live a godly and righteous life in the things and the places they were returning to after the show – and that is exactly what the prophecy of Malachi some four hundred years before called the people to do. And they didn’t and so, with the arrival about to be made public, John is trying to get the people to get their lives in order so they look at least a little bit presentable. This is not a harsh rebuttal but an act of generosity for it’s giving those hearing his words the chance to turn around (that’s a clever use of ‘repent’ innit?) – and this is what we are also doing when we encourage people to change their lives before it’s too late.

Living our lives well, looking and sounding and acting like Jesus, in the world is one of the most important witnesses we can make to our being people of faith. You don’t need a dog collar or a title or a medal – you need to exhibit the generous heart of God and that needs a cross – and gratitude, rejoicing in the freedom from sin and reconciliation with the godhead that that brings. Here we find the fruits of gladness become made real in our generous and right living. It’s so simple really, isn’t it?

He explains why even such a harsh message should bring us joy on Gaudete Sunday (December 16):

rejoicing is the natural response to the fact that God has taken away the punishment of his people and has ‘turned back’ their enemy. The reality in the words of Zephaniah given some time around 620 BC is the same reality that Jesus’ death on the cross brings for the Christian too. Jesus’ death brings defeat for our enemy (satan) and he (Jesus) bears in His body the punishment for us. He takes our place. What love. What generosity to pay a bill that wasn’t His to be paying! Jesus is the mighty warrior who saves; them one who no longer rebukes but rejoices over us with songs of deliverance.

And the Apostle Paul gets into the act with his letter to the church in Phillipi, a communication which I think affirms all we have here, for when he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice,” he is nodding towards the fact that to rejoice is a choice of attitude. It is the expression of our gratitude for all God has given and done for us

Let us bear this message in mind as we celebrate Christmas with friends and family.

Regardless of desirable gifts and sumptuous feasts coming up on Tuesday, one thing should stay in our minds as we contemplate the Christ Child in the crib: Jesus is our eternal Lord and Saviour, who paid the bill ‘that wasn’t His to be paying!’ Rejoice!

Bible evangewomanblogspotcomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy have omitted — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 19:17-20

17 And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. 18 Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. 19 And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. 20 So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.

——————————————————————————————————————————

Last week’s entry discussed the seven sons of Sceva, who travelled in and around Ephesus earning money by performing exorcisms. Sceva was a Jewish high priest, so it is bemusing to read that his sons engaged in such activity, as these were not true exorcisms. Two of the sons had the wits scared out of them when attempting to perform an exorcism on a man with a demon. The evil spirit — which said it knew Jesus and recognised Paul but not them — worked through the man to overpower the two sons, driving them out of the house naked and bloody.

The moral of that episode shows Satan is no friend of humankind. He has no use for man other than to sin, and, as that reading shows, he can turn on mankind immediately.

The Ephesians — Jews and Gentiles alike — were shocked by what happened (verse 17). ‘All’ were afraid. Luke, the author of Acts, says that they extolled the name of the Lord Jesus.

Interestingly, a number of new Christians publicly confessed their magic practices (verse 18). They were not forced to do so, but they were so overcome by what had happened that they wanted to make a clean break of their sin of casting magic spells.

Matthew Henry’s commentary says that these new Christians were not as discerning as other converts (emphases mine):

Many that had believed and were baptized, but had not then been so particular as they might have been in the confession of their sins, were so terrified with these instances of the magnifying of the name of Jesus Christ that they came to Paul, or some of the other ministers that were with him, and confessed what evil lives they had led, and what a great deal of secret wickedness their own consciences charged them with, which the world knew not of–secret frauds and secret filthiness; they showed their deeds, took shame to themselves and gave glory to God and warning to others. These confessions were not extorted from them, but were voluntary, for the ease of their consciences, upon which the late miracles had struck a terror.

This is important:

Note, Where there is true contrition for sin there will be an ingenuous confession of sin to God in every prayer, and to man whom we have offended when the case requires it.

John MacArthur raises an important point about magic spells and divulging magic practices. This isn’t about card tricks or rabbits in hats, but more along the lines of ‘magick’. He thinks that among the converted Christians were people who converted after the sons of Sceva incident:

It’s a perfect participle, the word “believed,” and it could mean those who had already believed and had already been Christians but had never given up their magic, or it could mean those who were then saved and then came and confessed. Either possibility. But anyway, these people who believed came, confessed, and showed their deeds. A most interesting phrase. “Showed their deeds” means they came and revealed their spells. According to magic theory, the only good spell is the one that’s secret, and once you divulge the secret, the spell’s no good. So everybody came and told all the secrets. They were giving up all their magic. Giving it up. The whole satanic game was over. They saw the truth of the power of Jesus; and they saw that magic didn’t work, and in comparison to His name it was absolutely impotentThe Name of the Lord Jesus was magnified, and when the Name of the Lord Jesus is magnified, people will believe. You hear that? It’s right. His Name was magnified in verse 17, and people believed and confessed, and their lives were transformed.

Verse 19 relates their edifying method of repentance. They gathered together and burnt their magic books — scrolls. Although the books were worth 50,000 pieces of silver — tens of thousands of pounds/dollars/euros in today’s money — they didn’t sell the books and give the proceeds to the church or to the poor. No. They destroyed them so a) they would not be tempted to look at them again and b) to prevent others from delving inside.

Henry has a good analysis:

It is taken for granted that they were convinced of the evil of these curious arts, and resolved to deal in them no longer; but they did not think this enough unless they burnt their books. (1.) Thus they showed a holy indignation at the sins they had been guilty of; as the idolaters, when they were brought to repentance, said to their idols, Get you hence (Isaiah 30:22), and cast even those of silver and gold to the moles and to the bats, Isaiah 2:20. They thus took a pious revenge on those things that had been the instruments of sin to them, and proclaimed the force of their convictions of the evil of it, and that those very things were now detectable to them, as much as ever they had been delectable. (2.) Thus they showed their resolution never to return to the use of those arts, and the books which related to them, again. They were so fully convinced of the evil and danger of them that they would not throw the books by, within reach of a recall, upon supposition that it was possible they might change their mind; but, being stedfastly resolved never to make use of them, they burnt them. (3.) Thus they put away a temptation to return to them again. Had they kept the books by them, there was danger lest, when the heat of the present conviction was over, they should have the curiosity to look into them, and so be in danger of liking them and loving them again, and therefore they burnt them. Note, Those that truly repent of sin will keep themselves as far as possible from the occasions of it. (4.) Thus they prevented their doing mischief to others. If Judas had been by he would have said, “Sell them, and give the money to the poor;” or, “Buy Bibles and good books with it.” But then who could tell into whose hands these dangerous books might fall, and what mischief might be done by them? it was therefore the safest course to commit them all to the flames. Those that are recovered from sin themselves will do all they can to keep others from falling into it, and will be much more afraid of laying an occasion of sin in the way of others. (5.) Thus they showed a contempt of the wealth of this world; for the price of the books was cast up, probably by those that persuaded them not to burn them, and it was found to be fifty thousand pieces of silver, which some compute to be fifteen hundred pounds of our money. It is probable that the books were scarce, perhaps prohibited, and therefore dear. Probably they had cost them so much; yet, being the devil’s books, though they had been so foolish as to buy them, they did not think this would justify them in being so wicked as to sell them again. (6.) Thus they publicly testified their joy for their conversion from these wicked practices, as Matthew did by the great feast he made when Christ had called him from the receipt of custom. These converts joined together in making this bonfire, and made it before all men. They might have burnt the books privately, every one in his own house, but they chose to do it together, by consent, and to do it at the high cross (as we say), that Christ and his grace in them might be the more magnified, and all about them the more edified.

MacArthur says the bonfire lasted for a long time:

… the interesting thing, the word “burned” is imperfect. They kept on burning. I don’t know how long the bonfire lasted. But they kept burning.

The result was that the Gospel story not only circulated — but also prevailed — all the more, in fact, ‘mightily’ (verse 20).

There is a lesson here for today’s Christians — especially clergy. By erring in making the Gospel about social justice and identity politics whilst excusing every sin in the book, we are doing our fellow man a disservice in denying him the eternal truth of Jesus Christ.

Our two commentators were/are tied to the truth of the Gospel.

Do we see that today? Not often enough.

MacArthur is one of the rare exceptions. His church, Grace Church in southern California, is packed on Sundays. People hunger for the truth, not a sermon akin to a newspaper editorial! Of verse 20, he says:

In your life, where the Word of God dominates, there’s victory. You know that in this church, as long as the Word of God dominates, there’ll be victory. That’s the pattern. That’s the pattern. The church established with the Word, the individual established with the Word is clean and victorious over the enemy.

Henry tells us:

It is a blessed sight to see the word of God growing and prevailing mightily, as it did here. 1. To see it grow extensively, by the addition of many to the church. When still more and more are wrought upon by the gospel, and wrought up into a conformity to it, then it grows; when those that were least likely to yield to it, and that had been most stiff in their opposition to it, are captivated and brought into obedience to it, then it may be said to grow mightily. 2. To see it prevail extensively, by the advancement in knowledge and grace of those that are added to the church; when strong corruptions are mortified, vicious habits changed, evil customs of long standing broken off, and pleasant, gainful, fashionable sins are abandoned, then it prevails mightily; and Christ in it goes on conquering and to conquer.

I pray that our clergy turn from their theological error — likely learned at seminary — and preach the truth of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Redeemer. Only then will the Church prevail once more.

Next time — Acts 19:21-22

Bible treehuggercomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy have omitted — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 19:11-16

The Sons of Sceva

11 And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. 13 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” 14 Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. 15 But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” 16 And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all[a] of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.

———————————————————————————————————————

Those who are familiar with the Book of Acts, which St Luke wrote, know that sorcery was not unknown as an attack on the earliest churches:

Acts 8:14-25 – Philip, Simon Magus, sorcery, money, divine gifts, God, Holy Spirit, Peter, John

Acts 13:4-7 – Barnabas, Saul of Tarsus, John Mark, Cyprus, Sergius Paulus, Bar-Jesus, Elymas

Acts 13:8-12 — Paul, Elymas, magician, sorcerer, Paulus Sergius, conversion, blindness, miracle, doctrine, Cyprus

Acts 16:16-18 — Paul and the fortune-telling slave girl in Philippi; he drove an evil spirit out of her

In last week’s entry about Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, the Apostle had to withdraw from the synagogue because of all the evil Jewish resistors spoke against the truth about Christ Jesus.

This week’s passage, which immediately follows in Acts 19, reveals that the spiritual situation grew worse in Ephesus. This is not the whole story, which will conclude in next week’s post.

We see here that a great spiritual tension was building between good and evil.

On the good side, God worked through Paul to work ‘extraordinary miracles’ (verse 11).

Was this the first time or were these particular healing miracles? Matthew Henry’s commentary has this analysis (emphases mine below):

I wonder we have not read of any miracle wrought by Paul since the casting of the evil spirit out of the damsel at Philippi; why did he not work miracles at Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens? Or, if he did, why are they not recorded? Was the success of the gospel, without miracles in the kingdom of nature, itself such a miracle in the kingdom of grace, and the divine power which went along with it such a proof of its divine original, that there needed no other? It is certain that at Corinth he wrought many miracles, though Luke has recorded none, for he tells them (2 Corinthians 12:12) that the signs of his apostleship were among them, in wonders and mighty deeds. But here at Ephesus we have a general account of the proofs of this kind which he gave his divine mission. 1. They were special miracles–Dynameis ou tychousas. God exerted powers that were not according to the common course of nature: Virtutes non vulgares. Things were done which could by no means be ascribed either to chance or second causes. Or, they were not only (as all miracles are) out of the common road, but they were even uncommon miracles, such miracles as had not been wrought by the hands of any other of the apostles. The opposers of the gospel were so prejudiced that any miracles would not serve their turn; therefore God wrought virtutes non quaslibet (so they render it), something above the common road of miracles. 2. It was not Paul that wrought them (What is Paul, and what is Apollos?) but it was God that wrought them by the hand of Paul. He was but the instrument, God was the principal agent.

These miracles were so extraordinary that when people touched Paul’s skin with garments and took them home to their loved ones afflicted by illness or demons, those ailing were also cured (verse 12). That was truly extraordinary.

Thinking back to Christ’s ministry, the lady with the 12-year haemorrhage was cured when she touched His garment. If there were other instances, the Gospel writers did not record them.

Returning to Paul as a conduit for God’s healing power, John MacArthur says that the people pressing garments against him did not understand that God was working through the Apostle. They thought he had some sort of personal power, similar to that of a magician or sorcerer:

The people in Ephesus were very, very superstitious. And when they saw these miracles going on, coming out of Paul, they assumed the power was Paul’s.

MacArthur says that people picked up handkerchiefs which Paul used to wipe his brow while making tents:

the word “handkerchief” means “sweat cloth.” Those people who work, artisans or anybody in the crafts or anybody who did manual labor in those days, carried about these cloths with which they would wipe their brow and sometimes tie around their head. Well, they got Paul’s old, dirty, crummy sweat cloths! And they attached so much healing power to Paul, they figured if they get ahold of those sweat cloths, that that could work the same thing for them. And you know what? In spite of their superstition, God went ahead and did His miracles! Because God was in the business of confirming the Word, and He never let their superstitions violate what He was gonna do.

Seeing this, some Jewish exorcists who travelled from town to town to perform notional exorcisms for money, thought they could replicate divine healing miracles by invoking Jesus’s name (verse 13). These were not converts. They were just going to use what they thought was a magic incantation. Henry describes their appeal in that era. They were around in Jesus’s time, too:

They strolled about to tell people their fortunes, and pretended by spells and charms to cure diseases, and bring people to themselves that were melancholy or distracted. They called themselves exorcists, because in doing their tricks they used forms of adjuration, by such and such commanding names. The superstitious Jews, to put a reputation upon these magic arts, wickedly attributed the invention of them to Solomon. So Josephus (Antiq. 8. 45-46) says that Solomon composed charms by which diseases were cured, and devils driven out so as never to return; and that these operations continued common among the Jews to his time. And Christ seems to refer to this (Matthew 12:27), By whom do your children cast them out?

MacArthur gives us the origin for the historian Josephus’s claim:

in the Book of Tobit, the heart and liver of a miraculously caught fish are burned in the ashes of incense, and the resulting smell and smoke are supposed to drive away the demons. Josephus, who was a very intelligent person, a noted Jewish historian, told of a cure in which a demon was drawn through the nostrils of a demoniac by the use of magic root supposedly prescribed by Solomon. And there are other rabbinical writers who reflect the same fanciful magic superstitions.

Now, it may have been true that in the Old Testament time, demons were expelled through prayer, fasting, if Matthew 17:21 is true and if it is belonging in the manuscript. It may be true, and I’m sure God did answer prayer and demons were cast out in the Old Testament.

The men trying this incantation in Ephesus were the seven sons of a Jewish high priest, Sceva (verse 14). It did not work for them, because a) they had no belief in Jesus and b) were preying on the vulnerable in their trade. Henry explains:

They said, We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preaches; not, “whom we believe in, or depend upon, or have any authority from,” but whom Paul preaches; as if they had said, “We will try what that name will do.”

However, the evil spirit answered them, saying that it knew Jesus and recognised Paul, but asked who they were (verse 15).

Worse came when the man with the evil spirit leapt up and overpowered the phony exorcists. The evil spirit worked through the afflicted man to the extent that the charlatans were injured and left his house naked (verse 16).

MacArthur says that not all seven sons of Sceva were in the house when the incident happened:

the old manuscript also includes the word “both” here, which indicates there were probably only two of the seven there. “And overcame them both and prevailed against them.” The demon was powerful, strong. And they fled out of the house naked and bleeding. Wounded.

MacArthur says that Satan played a violent trick on them, even though they were his servants. That incident further demonstrates that Satan is no friend of humankind.

Matthew Henry concludes with this:

This is written for a warning to all those who name the name of Christ, but do not depart from iniquity. The same enemy that overcomes them with his temptations will overcome them with his terrors; and their adjuring him in Christ’s name to let them alone will be no security to them.

Both commentators say that there is only one way to overcome Satan — lively faith and true repentance.

Henry has the short version:

If we resist the devil by a true and lively faith in Christ, he will flee from us; but if we think to resist him by the bare using of Christ’s name, or any part of his word, as a spell or charm, he will prevail against us.

MacArthur’s version is longer, based on personal experience:

We had this illustrated to us when we were working with this one girl who had all these devils that were speaking, and all this thing was going on, and the phenomenon was very unusual; and I tried to cast those demons out. “Get out!” You know? “Name of the Word!” They didn’t go. Some of the other guys on the staff tried, and they couldn’t do it either, which made me feel better. But none of us could get ’em out.

Let me give you a simple statement. All of the efforts to cast out demons are useless if that person doesn’t confess and repent of sin. Okay? Listen to this, then. If the person confesses and repents of sin, all of the efforts to cast out demons are unnecessary. So if you want to be real clear about it, it’s never a question of casting out the demons. It’s a question of repenting of the sins. If the person involved repents of the sin that allowed Satan to get a grip on them, then you don’t need somebody there doing all this other stuff. If they won’t repent of the sin, then it doesn’t matter what you do! You stand there ’til you’re blue in the face trying to cast out demons; but if that person’s harboring prolonged sin in their life, those demons have a place. Well, that’s all we’re trying to say.

Today, many Christians have become so preoccupied with Satan and so preoccupied with demons, and now Christians are having these new deliverance ministries that are growing up where you can go and get delivered. One guy had to pay $3,500.00 to get delivered. Found out he didn’t get delivered at all; he got bilked

And you say, “Well, you mean that we should never have Christians come around and pray?” Yeah, well, maybe that’s all right, but maybe they ought to be really talking about sin, not demons. Maybe we need to rebuking sin; maybe we need to be getting people to deal with sin.

I think so many times this whole thing of demons is a big copout. “Well, the demon made me do it, the demon made me do it.” Satan. You’re not dealing with your own sin. You’re not dealing with the issue of your nature. Your old sin nature. Confession, repentance, submission to the Word, submission to the Spirit removes the power of Satan.

Just another thought on this. Of all of the ministries of the body, of all of the responsibilities that we have toward one another, there is no statement or command to go around and cast demons out of each other! It says love one another, teach one another, edify one another, admonish one another, nurture one another, comfort one another, build up one another, reprove one another, rebuke one another, and so forth and so forth and so forth; but it doesn’t say cast demons out of one another.

That’s – beloved, I can comfort you and so forth and so on, but you don’t need me to take care of Satan in your life. I can’t do that, ’cause I can’t be holy for you. You got it? That’s your problem! Now, I can rebuke your sin, and I can give you wise counsel about your sin, and I can admonish you about your sin, but I can’t be holy for you. And if you’re gonna deal with Satan, that’s yours to do! And if I do all the exorcism in the world in the Name of Jesus Christ and there’s still harbored in your life, it’s unnecessary – I mean, it’s ineffective – and if there’s no sin in your life, then it’s unnecessary. If you have confessed and repented and submitted to the Truth of God, you’re clean.

Oh, you don’t have anything to fear. No. You have all victory over Satan

I don’t need to worry – I can’t do much about demons in you, but every man can about himself. That’s the issue. The apostolic day was confirming the Word; that was different. Today, every Christian has the resources to take care of his own problem. But I don’t think we can walk up to unbelievers and cast demons out. If an unbeliever comes to Jesus Christ, He alone can cleanse. By faith.

I hope this gives people a nugget of truth about overcoming serious sin and Satan.

What happened afterwards in Ephesus will be the subject of next week’s post.

Next time — Acts 19:17-20

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