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advent wreath stjohnscamberwellorgauThe Second Sunday of Advent is on December 4, 2022.

Readings for Year A can be found here.

The Gospel reading is as follows (emphases mine):

Matthew 3:1-12

3:1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,

3:2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

3:3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

3:4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.

3:5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan,

3:6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

3:7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

3:8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

3:9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

3:10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

3:11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

3:12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Commentary comes from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

This is a long post, so grab yourself a cuppa and a snack.

To set the background for John the Baptist, it had been 400 years since God had sent the Jews a prophet.

Malachi was the last. This is Malachi 4, with which the Old Testament ends:

Judgment and Covenant Renewal

[a]“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty.

“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.

5 “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea proclaiming (verse 1) repentance, for the kingdom of heaven was near (verse 2).

Matthew Henry’s commentary points out that both John the Baptist and his cousin Jesus were of humble families and led unremarkable childhoods, yet figured mightily in God’s plan:

Glorious things were spoken both of John and Jesus, at and before their births, which would have given occasion to expect some extraordinary appearances of a divine presence and power with them when they were very young; but it is quite otherwise. Except Christ’s disputing with the doctors at twelve years old, nothing appears remarkable concerning either of them, till they were about thirty years old. Nothing is recorded of their childhood and youth, but the greatest part of their life is tempos, adelonwrapt up in darkness and obscurity: these children differ little in outward appearance from other children, as the heir, while he is under age, differs nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all. And this was to show, 1. That even when God is acting as the God of Israel, the Saviour, yet verily he is a God that hideth himself (Isa 45 15). The Lord is in this place and I knew it not, Gen 28 16. Our beloved stands behind the wall long before he looks forth at the windows, Cant 2 9. 2. That our faith must principally have an eye to Christ in his office and undertaking, for there is the display of his power; but in his person is the hiding of his power. All this while, Christ was god-man; yet we are not told what he said or did, till he appeared as a prophet; and then, Hear ye him. 3. That young men, though well qualified, should not be forward to put forth themselves in public service, but be humble, and modest, and self-diffident, swift to hear, and slow to speak.

Matthew says nothing of the conception and birth of John the Baptist, which is largely related by St. Luke, but finds him at full age, as if dropt from the clouds to preach in the wilderness. For above three hundred years the church had been without prophets; those lights had been long put out, that he might be the more desired, who was to be the great prophet. After Malachi there was no prophet, nor any pretender to prophecy, till John the Baptist, to whom therefore the prophet Malachi points more directly than any of the Old Testament prophets had done (Mal 3 1); I send my messenger.

Henry describes this wilderness, sometimes called a desert, of Judea, which has biblical significance:

It was not an uninhabited desert, but a part of the country not so thickly peopled, nor so much enclosed into fields and vineyards, as other parts were; it was such a wilderness as had six cities and their villages in it, which are named, Josh 15 61, 62. In these cities and villages John preached, for thereabouts he had hitherto lived, being born hard by, in Hebron; the scenes of his action began there, where he had long spent his time in contemplation; and even when he showed himself to Israel, he showed how well he loved retirement, as far as would consist with his business. The word of the Lord found John here in a wilderness. Note, No place is so remote as to shut us out from the visits of divine grace; nay, commonly the sweetest intercourse the saints have with Heaven, is when they are withdrawn furthest from the noise of this world. It was in this wilderness of Judah that David penned the 63d Psalm, which speaks so much of the sweet communion he then had with God, Hos 2 14. In a wilderness the law was given; and as the Old Testament, so the New Testament Israel was first found in the desert land, and there God led him about and instructed him, Deut 32 10. John Baptist was a priest of the order of Aaron, yet we find him preaching in a wilderness, and never officiating in the temple; but Christ, who was not a son of Aaron, is yet often found in the temple, and sitting there as one having authority; so it was foretold, Mal 3 1. The Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to his temple; not the messenger that was to prepare his way. This intimated that the priesthood of Christ was to thrust out that of Aaron, and drive it into a wilderness.

The beginning of the gospel in a wilderness, speaks comfort to the deserts of the Gentile world. Now must the prophecies be fulfilled, I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, Isa 41 18, 19. The wilderness shall be a fruitful field, Isa 32 15. And the desert shall rejoice, Isa 35 1, 2. The Septuagint reads, the deserts of Jordan, the very wilderness in which John preached.

As the prophets did before him, John the Baptist exhorted his audiences to repent, to turn their lives away from sin:

Those who are truly sorry for what they have done amiss, will be careful to do so no more. This repentance is a necessary duty, in obedience to the command of God (Acts 17 30); and a necessary preparative and qualification for the comforts of the gospel of Christ. If the heart of man had continued upright and unstained, divine consolations might have been received without this painful operation preceding; but, being sinful, it must be first pained before it can be laid at ease, must labour before it can be at rest.

John MacArthur looks at the Greek word for ‘proclaim’, or ‘preach’:

It says in verse 1, “He came preaching,” and the Greek word there is “to herald,” “to announce,” “to proclaim,” kerussoAlso, it’s interesting that it says, “In those days came John,” and the verb “came” there is literally used in the Greek to speak of the arrival of an official The arrival of an official.  John was an official herald announcing the arrival of a king; and you know his message in verse 2?  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  And “at hand” means it’s imminent, it’s the next thing

Kerusso, the noun form is krux or krux, and it means “a herald.”  Literally, “one who with a loud voice announces the arrival of a king” – a herald.  And so he was heralding.  He was heralding, and what was he heralding?  “Repent!”  That was the message.  “This kind of King demands that you repent.”  In other words, He wants you to worship Him, but you can’t worship Him legitimately until you get sin out of the way You can’t come to Jesus Christ and just worship Him first.  First, you’ve gotta deal with your sin.  That’s what he was saying.

He was saying to Israel, “Look, you just can’t accept the King and begin to worship the King.  You’ve gotta get rid of your sin.”  In fact, it’s the identical message that Jesus preached when He came.  Matthew 4:17, “From that time Jesus began to preach.” And what did He say?  “Repent.”  Same sermon.  Jesus and John preached the same sermon.  The word “repent,” metanoeo, means more than just sorrow.  We think of repentance, and we say, “Oh, he’s so repentant.  He’s weepy, and he’s sorrowful.”  That isn’t what the word means in the Greek It means “to turn around.”  It means “to be converted.”  It means a change of opinion.  A change of purpose.  A change of direction.  A change of mind.  A change of will.  A change from sin to holiness.

Broadus, who has written a classic commentary on Matthew, says, “Wherever this Greek word is used in the New Testament, the reference is to changing the mind and the purpose from sin to holiness.  It implies sorrow for sin, but that’s not what it means.  It means to turn around.”  It is 2 Corinthians 7 that talks about godly repentance, godly sorrow, that turns you around, and that’s what John was saying He wasn’t just saying, “I want you to feel sorry for your sin.”  He was saying, “I want you to change from sin to holiness.  You will never have the kingdom.  You will never have the King until you turn around.”  The message really could be better translated, “Get converted.  Get converted.”

MacArthur discusses Matthew’s use of the words ‘the kingdom of heaven’:

The precise phrase, “the kingdom of heaven,” is not found in the Old Testament; but it is an Old Testament concept.  This is why I say that.  Nebuchadnezzar, for instance, in Daniel 4:37, refers to God as “the king of heaven.”  Daniel 2:44 calls Him “the God of heaven”; and Daniel 4:25 says, “He will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed.”  Now, the God of heaven, the King of heaven, God and heaven are then associated.  The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God then are associated terms.

Now, Matthew uses the term “kingdom of heaven” 32 times; and he is the only gospel writer that ever uses it Mark doesn’t use it.  Luke doesn’t use it.  John doesn’t use it.  They use “the kingdom of God,” and there may be a special reason for that.  As I tried to point out from Daniel, and there are many other illustrations, heaven and God were thought of as synonymous.  God was the King of heaven; and the reason Matthew may use it is because Matthew’s gospel is a characteristically Jewish gospel; and one thing about Jews that you learn historically as you study Judaism is that a Jew would never say the name of God; and in deference to that, they would substitute frequently the term “heaven.”

MacArthur explains what the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, is:

The kingdom of heaven has two aspects.  Two aspects – the outer and the inner, and sometimes, in the gospels, the outer is in view, and sometimes the inner is in view Let me show you what I mean.  In the broadest sense, the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, includes – watch this – everybody who professes to acknowledge God.  Now, in Matthew 13 we’ll see that, that the kingdom of heaven’s got in it wheat and what?  Tares, right?  That the kingdom of heaven is like a great big bush with birds in it; and you’ve got the true and the false, the real and the non-real.

So in the outer sense, the kingdom of heaven is, is everybody that professes; but in the inner sense, it’s only the really regenerated, born-again, genuinely saved people; and in some passages, the inner is in view; and in some, the outer; and we’ll see that as we go through Matthew.  The big circle of profession includes the true and the false.  The little circle only those truly born again in Christ.

Now, tracing the kingdom will help us a little bit.  Let me give you a quick little historical look at the kingdom.  We’re gonna go flying by, so hang on.  There are five distinct phases in the kingdom.  Five phases.  I, I tried to reduce a very difficult subject to simple terms so I could understand it and pass it on to you simply.

First of all, it’s talking about the rule of God.  The rule of God over the hearts of men and over the world.  Both are included.  Now, the first phase of this thing is the prophesied kingdom, the prophesied kingdom.  For example, Daniel said that God is gonna come and set up a kingdom, a kingdom that’ll never be destroyed; and Daniel foresaw that Christ would be the King of that kingdom It was a prophesied kingdom.

The second thing, the second phase of this is what you could call the present kingdom or the at-hand kingdom; and that was the kingdom described by John the Baptist He was saying, “The prophesied rule of God is now imminent.  It’s now ready.”  Jesus said it.  The twelve said it.  It’s at hand.  It’s coming.  It’s imminent.  It’s near.  The rule of God, the reign of Christ, both internally and externally – it’s here.

Then the third phase of the kingdom was what I call the interim phase The prophesied, the imminent or at-hand, and the interim; and, there, the kingdom is described in this way.  After the King was rejected by Israel, the King returned to heaven, and the kingdom now exists in a mystery form.  Christ isn’t literally in the world, literally reigning, literally sitting in Jerusalem ruling the kingdom; but He reigns a kingdom in the hearts of all who acknowledge Him as Lord, right?  So it’s an interim kingdom, the mystery form.  So you have the prophesied, the at-hand, which would’ve been both earthly and internal, the whole thing; and when they wouldn’t accept the King, the kingdom went inside; and now in a mystery form is in the hearts of those who believe And, as Paul says in Romans 14:17, “The kingdom of God is righteousness and joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.”  It’s internal.

The fourth phase of the kingdom is what I call the manifest phase You start with the prophesied, the at-hand, the interim, and then the manifest; and this is the literal, thousand-year millennium that is to come It will involve an external rule where Christ literally rules, physically in the earth, and an internal where He rules the hearts of the believing people.

The book of Revelation talks about this.  Jesus, in Matthew 16, gave people a glimpse of this in the transfiguration.  So what do you have?  You have the prophesied kingdom, the at-hand one, the interim one, the manifest one for a thousand years; and finally what I call the everlasting kingdom.  Second Peter 1:11, Peter calls it, “The eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  The fifth and final phase.

Now, that’s generally the flow of the kingdom.  The Old Testament prophesied a kingdom — a kingdom that would be external, where they would literally be in the earth; and the earth would be the place of the kingdom; and the earth would be ruled by the King; and it would also be internal, the hearts of the believing people would submit to that reign.  And John and Jesus and the twelve said it’s at hand. But it was rejected, and so an interim, internal kingdom has taken form now that we call this mystery age.  But one day the kingdom will be manifest internally and externally, and then that thousand-year kingdom will exist and, at the end of that, an everlasting kingdom.

This bit is particularly interesting:

So John was talking about the at-hand. Now listen to me – had they received John, and had they received Christ, there never would have been the interim – you understand that there never would have been the mystery church age. They would have gone into the thousand-year manifest kingdom and from there right into the everlasting kingdom, and John would have been that Elijah and it would have all been fulfilled. But when they killed the forerunner and they killed the King, the whole thing was future postponed and in the meantime the mystery kingdom dwells in the hearts of believing people. And Christ may not be reigning in the world, but He’s reigning in my heart, right, and your heart. So John was calling the nation to turn its back on sin, to be converted, to get ready for the kingdom, because the kingdom was coming.  The tragedy of it is that they didn’t hear his message.  They didn’t listen.  They never received the kingdom, and that whole generation died without the King, died without the kingdom, and went into hell. So the man, the message, and the motive.

The notion of the herald continues as Matthew tells is that Isaiah spoke of a man in the wilderness who would cry out, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ (verse 3).

MacArthur explains:

Fourthly, the mission. Simply stated, and we’ve already seen it, he was called to be the herald of Christ, but the mission was laid out long before in the Old Testament prophets.  Look at verse 3, “For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.'”  He fulfilled Isaiah 40, verse 3, “He is the one of whom the prophets spoke.”  He is the one who was to come and get things ready, and he was preparing a way.  Not a road, not a dirt path, but a way into the hearts of believing people.  He was “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”

Oh, that’s such a great passage.  Isaiah 40, you see, that tells us about the forerunner in 40, verse 3. But in the verses after it tells us why he was getting them ready.  Listen to chapter 40 verse 1, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,” and you can’t know what an exciting thing that was in chapter 40 ’cause they had just had 39 chapters full of judgment; and, boy, here comes this comfort “Speak ye tenderly to Jerusalem.  Cry to her.  Her warfare is accomplished.  Her iniquity is pardoned.  She’s received from the Lord hands, Lord’s hands double for her sins.”  All that’s done, and now comes the voice of him that cries in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.  Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Why?!  Because the kingdom is coming, and he describes it this way:  “Every valley shall be exalted.  Every mountain and hill shall be made low.  The crooked shall be made straight, and rough places plain.  And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”  One of the, one of my favorite passages of the Messiah taken from that marvelous text.

You see, John was crying to prepare the people for the kingdom, and Isaiah described the kingdom in 4 and 5.  He was fulfilling the prophetic word of Isaiah.  “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, make his paths straight.  Prepare a road into your heart by turning from sin.”  So his mission was preparation, deep conviction.  He wanted to bring to bear on Israel such conviction that they confessed they were unfit, sinners, poor, damned, miserable – he was a judgment preacher.  He was a judgment preacher designed by God from way back in the book of Isaiah to confront a wicked, evil nation and get ’em right for the arrival of the King. So he fulfilled prophecy.

Part of the herald’s job was to make sure that the road upon which the forthcoming king travelled was smooth and free of obstacles.

MacArthur says that the straight paths here were spiritual rather than literal:

So to John was given the role of being the herald of the King, announcing the King’s arrival and making sure the people made the preparations so that the path was smooth This was a customary oriental thing, and John was called to do it.  Only in his case, he was heralding the King of kings; and in his case, he wasn’t asking people to prepare a dirt road He was asking them to prepare the road into their hearts, that the King might enter there.  That was his purpose.

Henry has more on the corrupt religious system that the Jewish hierarchy imposed on the people, legalistic without holiness:

In the Jewish church and nation, at that time, all was out of course; there was a great decay of piety, the vitals of religion were corrupted and eaten out by the traditions and injunctions of the elders. The Scribes and Pharisees, that is, the greatest hypocrites in the world, had the key of knowledge, and the key of government, at their girdle. The people were, generally, extremely proud of their privileges, confident of justification by their own righteousness, insensible of sin; and, though now under the most humbling providences, being lately made a province of the Roman Empire, yet they were unhumbled; they were much in the same temper as they were in Malachi’s time, insolent and haughty, and ready to contradict the word of God: now John was sent to level these mountains, to take down their high opinion of themselves, and to show them their sins, that the doctrine of Christ might be the more acceptable and effectual. (2.) His doctrine of repentance and humiliation is still as necessary as it was then to prepare the way of the Lord. Note, There is a great deal to be done, to make way for Christ into a soul, to bow the heart for the reception of the Son of David (2 Sam 19 14); and nothing is more needful, in order to this, than the discovery of sin, and a conviction of the insufficiency of our own righteousness. That which lets will let, until it be taken out of the way; prejudices must be removed, high thoughts brought down, and captivated to the obedience of Christ. Gates of brass must be broken, and bars of iron cut asunder, ere the everlasting doors be opened for the King of glory to come in. The way of sin and Satan is a crooked way; to prepare a way for Christ, the paths must be made straight, Heb 12 13.

John wore simple clothes made from camel hair along with a leather belt; he ate locusts and wild honey (verse 4).

It is probable that he had taken a lifelong Nazirite vow, as Samson and Samuel did.

However, our commentators note that Old Testament prophets dressed similarly and lived simply without that particular vow.

Henry says that John might have purposely dressed like Elijah:

John appeared in this dress, (1.) To show that, like Jacob, he was a plain man, and mortified to this world, and the delights and gaieties of it. Behold an Israelite indeed! Those that are lowly in heart should show it by a holy negligence and indifference in their attire; and not make the putting on of apparel their adorning, nor value others by their attire. (2.) To show that he was a prophet, for prophets wore rough garments, as mortified men (Zech 13 4); and, especially, to show that he was the Elias promised; for particular notice is taken of Elias, that he was a hairy man (which, some think, is meant of the hairy garments he wore), and that he was girt with a girdle of leather about his loins, 2 Kings 1 8. John Baptist appears no way inferior to him in mortification; this therefore is that Elias that was to come. (3.) To show that he was a man of resolution; his girdle was not fine, such as were then commonly worn, but it was strong, it was a leathern girdle; and blessed is that servant, whom his Lord, when he comes, finds with his loins girt, Luke 12 35; 1 Pet 1 13.

As for his meagre diet from foraging, Henry posits that he probably had more normal meals, just not that often:

… his meat was locusts and wild honey; not as if he never ate any thing else; but these he frequently fed upon, and made many meals of them, when he retired into solitary places, and continued long there for contemplation. Locusts were a sort of flying insect, very good for food, and allowed as clean (Lev 11 22); they required little dressing, and were light, and easy of digestion, whence it is reckoned among the infirmities of old age, that the grasshopper, or locust, is then a burden to the stomach, Eccl 12 5. Wild honey was that which Canaan flowed with, 1 Sam 14 26. Either it was gathered immediately, as it fell in the dew, or rather, as it was found in the hollows of trees and rocks, where bees built, that were not, like those in hives, under the care and inspection of men. This intimates that he ate sparingly, a little served his turn; a man would be long ere he filled his belly with locusts and wild honey: John Baptist came neither eating nor drinking (ch. 11 18)—not with the curiosity, formality, and familiarity that other people do. He was so entirely taken up with spiritual things, that he could seldom find time for a set meal.

The people of Jerusalem and all of Judea as well as those who lived along the Jordan flocked to him (verse 5).

MacArthur says:

This man had an amazing impact.  He called the society to attention.  In Matthew 21:26, it says, “For all men hold John as a prophet.”  It was common belief this was a prophet from God, and they went out. 

John baptised people in the River Jordan and they confessed their sins (verse 6).

This was radical, because the Jews of that era had ritual ceremonial baths but not the type of baths that proselytes — converts — had. John the Baptist’s form of baptism was the kind that those converting to Judaism had.

MacArthur explains:

As much of a shock as it was, people came, and they were baptized, and they confessed their sin Can you imagine it out there? One crowd after another, everywhere, even in Galilee they came.

The fact that they were baptized is shocking.  I’ll tell you why.  Listen to me.  Never — I’ll say it again — never in all history had any Jew submitted to being baptized Okay?  This is something new.  “Oh,” you say, “what about the Levitical washings?”  Those were different.  The Levitical washings of the hands and the feet and the head and all of that were frequent.  There were certain ceremonial bathings among the Essenes, which was a community of the Jews living out in that area; but all of those – listen to this – purification ceremonies were repeated daily and even hourly if you sin.  You understand that?  These were just ceremonial washings, and every time you suspected another pollution, you did it again.

John’s baptism was a one-time, one-shot deal; and Jews never did that.  You say, “Why?”  Listen to this.  Because single baptism was exactly what was required of a Gentile proselyte, who was entering into Judaism. And a Jew who would submit himself to that kind of baptism would be saying, in effect, “I am an outsider seeking entrance into the people of God,” and that’s quite an admission, isn’t it?  They were literally indulging themselves in proselyte baptism.

So, they did this; it was really a step.  A member of God’s chosen people, a son of Abraham, assured of God’s salvation, baptized like a common proselyte? And, yet, that’s exactly what John asked of them He called Israel to realize that their nationality couldn’t save ’em.  Their race couldn’t save ’em.  They had to forsake sin.  They had to be converted to righteousness.  They had to get in the kingdom like everybody else did; and in the East, no act of religion, no act of crisis in religion was ever done in the heart without an external act to go with it.  That was part of the culture, and baptism in the Jordan River was the sign of the public confession of sin that had occurred in the heart.

So John was calling for a fundamental transformation that even a Jew had to make.  Now, some of these people were hypocritical.  Some of them went through it, but they were phony … the fascinating confrontation with the snakes who were also known as Pharisees.  But they came confessing their sins.  The man had an incredible impact on the entire country.

When John saw the Pharisees — those who had devised the legalistic religious system — and the Sadducees — those who ran the temple system and did not believe in the divinely supernatural — he called them a brood of vipers and asked them who warned them to flee from the wrath to come (verse 7).

MacArthur says that the Pharisees inherited their beliefs from the predecessors, the Hasidim. (Today’s Hasidim are probably a mix of the original and of the Pharisees.) The Pharisees focused more on legalism than holiness:

… it all started out kind of okay with the Hasidim, but by the time it got to the reorganized Pharisees, they perverted everything.  And there was no inward life left.  There was no real devotion.  There was no real consecration.  There was no real piety.  There was no real godliness.  It was all an external, phony deal to set themselves above everybody else as the real super spiritual people.  They were, literally, fanatics at self-righteousness.  They withdrew themselves, Luke 7:39 says, from all sinners.  And they tried to condemn Jesus for even going near sinners.  You remember that?  They blasted Him for hanging around drunkards, winebibbers and sinners, and any of those kinds of people.  They tried to force Jesus into their same kind of fanatical self-righteousness.

The Sadducees got rich off the sacrificial system and courted the Greeks when they ruled, then the Romans:

They didn’t particularly care about the intrusion of Greek culture.  They could have cared less about Greek customs.  They were the ones who courted and kowtowed and hassled around and fiddled with Rome to get everything they could out of it.  The high priests at the time of Jesus were Sadducees.  They were compromisers.  They didn’t believe in any resurrection, so they didn’t have to worry about how they lived ’cause there weren’t any consequences.  They just, you know, made hay while the sun shined, that’s all.  Everything was here-and-now, get it while you can get it, make it while you can.

And so they did everything they could politically to make sure they got out of Rome all they could get and they played the political game to get into the seats of power.  They were few in number, extremely wealthy. They were a priestly party, and the chief priest, by the way, is almost a synonym when you see that in the Bible. The term chief priest, the New Testament, is almost a synonym for the Sadducees.  Their big thing was to make money, and they ran the temple franchises.  You say, “What?”  Oh, yeah, they had big business in the temple.  When certain feast time came – in fact, all year long, when people came there, pilgrims from other countries, to make sacrifices – the first thing they had to do was exchange their money, because they had to buy sacrificial animals.  And in the temple they sold everything, the doves and the pigeons and the goats and the sheep.  They sold it all there.  They provided the whole bit, and when these pilgrims would come to the temple they would first of all have to exchange their money to trade in Jerusalem And the place you exchanged your money was at the temple and, of course, they charged an exorbitant interest to change the money.  And then it turned right around, when they went to buy the animals, they paid incredible prices for the animals and the Sadducees were gettin’ wealthier and wealthier and wealthier.  And that’s why Jesus went in with a whip and cleaned them out.  And when He cleaned the thing out, that’s when He alienated the Sadducees ’cause that was their business that He was messing with.  And that’s why people like Annas and Caiphas hated Him for the rest of the time that He lived and ministered, until finally they got Him to the cross.

MacArthur analyses the verse and explains why the two groups were there:

In Matthew 3 we find a very interesting thing in the Greek “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.”  What’s interesting to me about this, in the Greek there are two nouns but only one article And it seems to me that John is kind of pointing to the fact that he saw them as one group.  It’s sort of like he was saying, “and when he saw the Pharisees/Sadducees.”  They’re just like one group, one class of religious phonies, one class of people all wrapped up in the religion of human achievement.  In one case it was get it now, in one case it was earn it for later, in both cases it was the same thing.

You say, “Well, John, if they’re so bad off and they’ve got it all figured out with their human achievement, why are they coming to be baptized?”  Good question.  Why are they coming to be baptized?  What do they want out of John?  Well, you know something?  The Bible doesn’t tell us why they came.  But I’ll give you some reasons that I thought of.  First of all, they may have come because they were curious.  I mean, if the whole city of Jerusalem had come out there, you know that they’re gonna come out.  And it’s amazing that they figured it was a threat to them, too – Right? – or they wouldn’t have banded together.  Or at least we assume they were together because they appear together so frequently following this.  I think maybe, too, that the Bible tells us, you know, that all men perceive that John the Baptist was a prophet, and I think they were intimidated by the population that thought this man was a prophet of God.  And maybe they even had some real questions ’cause they’d had prophetic silence for 400 years.  Maybe they figured that maybe the people are right.  Maybe the guy’s a prophet.  We certainly can’t stay in here and be ignorant while everybody in town’s running out to find out about it.  We gotta find out about this guy.  And so under the pressure of curiosity and the pressure of the people believing he was a prophet, they showed up. And I got another think, too.  I think maybe they figured if they didn’t join the people, they might get left out and then the people would know something they didn’t know and they might lose their influence.

And I think, also, that they probably wanted to get in on the movement so they could move to the top and take it over.  Listen, that’s an old one.  We’ve got that in Christianity today.  We’ve got all kinds of people running churches and running organizations in Christianity who aren’t Christians.  Satan moves these people in.  The apostle Paul told us that.  “Beware, because when I leave grievous wolves shall come in not sparing the flock.”  Watch out for false teachers.  Watch out for false apostles.  Watch out for the people who want to come in and take over the church – false leaders.  They wanted to get in on it.  This was a movement that was gonna make a difference.  If this was a movement that was gonna capture the people, then they were willing to stoop to conquer.  Now, you can see they were all the wrong reasons There was no real repentance, no real repentance, no real confession of sin, no honest spirituality, no real search for God, no real heart-rending sorrow, no desire to get a heart that was sinful righteous, to get ready for the coming King and His kingdom.  They were so smug and self-righteous. They believed that they would be the great exalted ones in the kingdom when it came, just as they were; so they didn’t repent.  There wasn’t any conversion, no transformation.  They were just deceitful hypocrites.  And they just come walking out minding their own business and they run into John.  And I don’t know what they figured about this guy, but I’m sure they didn’t figure what they got.

Henry says that John was warning these two groups about the wrath here and the wrath to come. Recall that the Romans destroyed the temple in AD 70:

Note, (1.) There is a wrath to come; besides present wrath, the vials of which are poured out now, there is future wrath, the stores of which are treasured up for hereafter. (2.) It is the great concern of every one of us to flee from this wrath. (3.) It is wonderful mercy that we are fairly warned to flee from this wrath; think—Who has warned us? God has warned us, who delights not in our ruin; he warns by the written word, by ministers, by conscience. (4.) These warnings sometime startle those who seemed to have been very much hardened in their security and good opinion of themselves.

MacArthur explains why John called them a brood — offspring — of vipers:

“O, offspring of snakes, who chased you out here?”  The proud sons of Abraham, honored leaders of the nation, and he says, “You offspring of vipers.”  You know, the Lord must have liked that title for them ’cause He used it a lot.  It became rather common.  Jesus said to them in Matthew 12:34, “O offspring of vipers.”  And then over in Matthew 23:33, Jesus said again to them, “O offspring of vipers”  Boy, I mean, that’s pretty strong stuff.  What does he mean by that?  Well, he exposes in one expression the great and fatal sin that marked them.  He condemns them instantly as religious phonies.  Let me tell you why.  Viper, echidna, interesting little Greek word.  It refers to a small, poisonous desert snake, very familiar to John the Baptist.  And that snake was so deceitful.  It looked like a dead branch or a little stick, and it would stay still and somebody gathering firewood, phe-ew!  That’s exactly what happened on Melita in Acts 28, you remember, in verse 3, the firewood, and Paul was at the fire and that little thing that looked like a stick got Paul, Acts 28.  That was the viper, deceitful.  Suddenly it would strike and sink its teeth in and shoot its poison.  Now, he doesn’t call them just vipers; he calls them offspring of vipers, for they were just the product of the people who preceded them He really talked about the sin of their fathers.  But they were deadly hypocrites.  They were poisoning a whole nation with their fatal deception.  They were passing themselves off as if they were harmless and they were venomous.  And by the way, it was fitting that he called them vipers because their own originator and their own leader was nothing but a viper himself, and who was that? – Satan.  Revelation, chapter 12, verse 9 and Revelation, chapter 20, verse 2, Satan is seen as a serpent.  He is a serpent in the Garden.  John 8, he is a deceiver.  He is a liar.  And so he calls them poisonous, deceitful vipers, snakes.

It is common to see vipers slither out of the way of danger:

… basically, in the desert, and if you were there today, you’d see that this is all there is – in places in the desert there was dry, short grass, and it’s just very dry and you see fields of it.  Maybe it’s sometimes left over from a harvest, but just sometimes growing there.  Perhaps the water of the Jordan allowing some growth and then as the heat of the summer comes and the Jordan becomes a little narrower, it dries out and is very parched.  And then, now and then, around the desert, as John would well know, you would see these stunted little bushes, thorny bushes, very brittle for lack of water.  And sometimes a desert fire would come.  And when a desert fire would break out, it would sweep like a river of flame across that dry grass and those brittle little thorny bushes.  And invariably, and this is still true, in front of that wall of fire would come scurrying these little snakes, these little vipers, and other little scorpions and desert creatures running for their lives In fact, the same thing happened when a field was burned Today in America we still burn fields after harvest.  They did the same then.  During the time when the grain was growing, the snakes would hide in the grain.  They would live there.  And then all of the sudden the harvest would come and they might endure the harvest.  And then the field burning would come and if the field was being burned, you’d see the little snakes fleeing across the desert in front of the fire.  And so John the Baptist faces the snakes and says, “What made you run to safety before the fires of judgment?”  You see this picture?  Graphic.  He sees these people scurrying in front of the flame.  It’s as if to say, “Who brought you snakes out of your holes?” What brought you out of your holes?  What fire got you moving?  And, you know, in his own mind and in his own heart, he knew what that fire was It was the fire of the judgment of God he’s about to talk about.  But that wasn’t what really moved them.  They weren’t moved by the fire of the judgment of God; they were chased out of their holes by Satan The devil had pushed them out there to carry out their hypocrisy.  And just like snakes scurrying before a fire, they were running out there as chased by Satan.  They should have been running out there running from the wrath of God with real repentance.

John warned that repentance is evidenced by worthy fruit (verse 8), meaning that those who have truly turned away from sin will lead sincerely godly lives, not just on the surface — not through legalism — but in spontaneous and heartfelt good deeds.

MacArthur explains:

What he’s saying is there oughta be a change in your lifestyle.  Stop doing what you used to do.  Do righteous things, not unrighteous things.  Be loving and sharing and kind.  He says to the Pharisees and the Sadducees, if you got two coats, give one to somebody and if you’ve got food, give it to somebody who’s hungry.  Let me see something in your life.  That’s exactly what James says: “Faith without works is” – What? – “dead.”  You’ll never prove true repentance unless the fruit of repentance and the work of repentance is visible.  True repentance will manifest a changed life.  And there’s a beautiful little word here.  “Bring forth, therefore, fruits befitting repentance.”  That Greek word means “of equal weight.”  In other words, there ought to be works that are of equal weight with repentance so you can see it’s legitimate And this wasn’t true of them, and he knew it, and they knew it, and everybody around knew it.  And so he nails ’em with it.  “If you’re coming here with genuine repentance, then let’s see it.  Let’s see your life change.”

John had a special message for his fellow Jews: their Abrahamic lineage meant nothing. John said that, if He chose to do so, God could raise stones as children to Abraham (verse 9).

The Jews of that era were fond of saying they had nothing to worry about spiritually, because Abraham was their father. They did not need to repent. John was telling them otherwise, hence the exhortation to be baptised as if they were Gentile converts.

MacArthur elaborates:

“Think not to say within yourselves, ‘we have Abraham as our father,’ for I say unto you that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.”  Big deal!  “You have Abraham as your father.  God can make a child of Abraham out of a rock.  You’re not so hot.”  Now, this he says, “Stop presuming on your descent from Abraham as a passport to heaven.”  Boy, this was really a shock to them Do you realize that orthodox Jews believed that they were saved by their Jewishness?  I’m sure you know that.  The rabbis said, quote, “All Israelites have a portion in the world to come.”  They believed that.  They talked about – listen to this – they talked about “the delivering merits of the fathers,” “the delivering merits of the fathers.”  They had their own Jewish treasury of merits.  Another thing the rabbis taught was that Abraham sat at the gates of Gehenna and hell to turn back any Israelite who happened by chance to come that way.  They said that it was the merits of Abraham which enabled the ships to sail safely on the seas, that it was because of the merits of Abraham that the rain descended on the earth, that it was the merits of Abraham which enabled Moses to enter into heaven and receive the law, that it was because of the merits of Abraham that David’s prayer was heard, even for the wicked these merits sufficed.  They said, “If thy children were mere dead bodies without blood vessels or bones, thy merits, O Abraham, would avail for them.”  And it’s just that spirit that John is rebuking.  A degenerate person cannot claim salvation on the basis of a heroic past.  An evil son cannot plead the merits of a saintly father.  They were tryin’ to hold onto their nationality.  They were dead wrong

And the Pharisees and the Sadducees that confronted John were headed for hell because they were relying for their eternal security on their descent from Abraham They were Jews, and they were so smug.  And he says to them, “God is able to take these stones and make children unto Abraham out of ’em.”  What a statement.  You see, it minimizes the importance of being a son of Abraham.  But more than that –  listen to this.  It is a symbolic statement, I feel.  If these Jews – now watch – if these Jews, by turning their hearts to stone in resisting God’s converting grace, if they wish to do that, if they wish to turn their hearts to stone, then God will take stones – lifeless, useless, dead things – and make them into his sons And I believe those stones are symbols of the Gentiles “If you want to turn into rocks, dead, lifeless and useless, then I’ll take the dead and lifeless and useless Gentiles and turn ’em into sons.”  In chapter 8, verse 10, Jesus said the same thing.  He met a centurion servant who was a Gentile, and he saw, and he listened and he marveled and he said, “Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.”  I never met a son like this.  And here’s a rock that I can turn into a son.  “And I say unto you that many” [such Gentiles] “shall come from the east and west and sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.  But the sons of the kingdom” – the Jews – “shall be cast out into outer darkness.  There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  If God finds a son who has become a rock; He’ll find a rock that He can make a son out of.  And so John confronts them and condemns them.

There is a note of caution here for Christians, too. Some firmly believe that the denomination they belong to is the only one that brings salvation and that anyone who doesn’t belong to it is destined for hell. That sort of thinking is along the lines of the Jews invoking Abraham here.

MacArthur says:

You know something very interesting to me?  Do you know that the rich man in hell in the story that Jesus told about the rich man and Lazarus – You remember that? – the rich man went to hell; the rich man was a man who had Abraham for his father.  That’s right.  He had Abraham for his father.  I’ll tell you something else.  He even heard Abraham call him “son” and it didn’t do him any good.  He recognized Abraham as a father.  Abraham recognized him as a son racially; it didn’t do him any good.  No religious attainment does.

Tying into that verse, John then goes into an agricultural analogy which everyone listening to him would have understood, even if they lived in Jerusalem. He said that the ax is lying at the root of the trees, and that every tree that does not bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire (verse 10). Farmers chop down trees that don’t bear fruit. Gardeners do, too. Those trees are wasting space that could be used for productive trees.

Henry says:

It is now declared with the axe at the root, to show that God is in earnest in the declaration, that every tree, however high in gifts and honours, however green in external professions and performances, if it bring not forth good fruit, the fruits meet for repentance, is hewn down, disowned as a tree in God’s vineyard, unworthy to have room there, and is cast into the fire of God’s wrath—the fittest place for barren trees: what else are they good for? If not fit for fruit, they are fit for fuel.

To understand this more fully, MacArthur explains true repentance as expressed in Psalm 51:

First of all is the intellectual.  Repentance begins when there is a knowledge of sin, when there is a recognition of sin.  So John, like any good preacher of repentance, confronted people with sinfulness.  There had to be an understanding of sin involving a sense of personal guilt, a sense of personal defilement, a sense of personal helplessness.  Now, all three of these are illustrated very aptly in Psalm 51first of all is the intellectual part in verse 3 “For I acknowledge my transgression and my sin is ever before me.”  Verse 7, “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean.  Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”  Verse 11, “Cast me not away from thy presence.  Take not thy Holy Spirit from me.”  Now, in all three of those verses is a recognition of sin.  Verse 3 explicitly, “For I acknowledge my transgressions, my sin is ever before me.”  Verse 7 and 11, implicit, the sense that he needs to be cleansed, the sense that he needs to be purged, that there is something wrong, that God may leave him, verse 11, the Holy Spirit may be removed from him.  And so there is an acknowledging, an acknowledging of sin, a recognition of what we are before God.  That is the beginning of repentance …

There must be, secondly, the emotional; and … this what we have in the feelings.  We go from the mind to the feelings, and it becomes a recognition not only of sin, but that sin is hateful to a holy God, and then there is an overwhelming sense of guilt in the emotions Psalm 51 again – in this psalm where David is facing his sin, we find this element in verse 1: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness, according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.  Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”  You see, here is a man crying for mercy and the only man who needs mercy is a man who is – What? – guilty.  You see, innocent men don’t need mercy.  Justice will do fine for them.  It’s guilty men that need mercy, and David recognizes here that he is guilty and his emotions are stirred.  In verse 10, “Create in me a clean heart” – he sees the evil in his heart – “O God, renew a right spirit in me.”  Verse 14, “Deliver me from blood guiltiness.”  And David even felt the anxiety and the pain in his physical body He cries out to God in the midst of this sin, in terrible anguish in his heart … True repentance doesn’t think of consequences, it doesn’t think of other people’s opinion, and it doesn’t think of excuses; it does think of transgressing God, it does think of being personally guilty.  So it is lupe kata theon, “sorrow toward God.”  That’s the issue.  And when there is genuine repentance, there will be this deep sense of sorrow directed toward a holy God who has been offended

But no matter how convinced the mind is about sin, and no matter how pained the emotions become, even in the right way, true repentance will never happen without the third area, and that’s volitional – intellectual, emotional, and volitional.  There’s got to be an act of the will.  There’s got to be a turning around With David he recognized it and he felt guilty for it and his guilt was directed toward God, but the thing that really made the repentance happen was the fact that he had an act of will in which he said “I will not do this anymore.  I turn from this.”  He changed his life pattern.  Look at Psalm 51, verse 5.  “Behold, I was shaped in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me.”  He recognizes that this is the past, this is the way it was.  But in 7 he says, “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean.  Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”  Turn it around.  Turn this depravity around.  Turn this sinfulness around.  “Create,” verse 10, “in me a clean heart, O God.  Renew a right spirit within me.”  You see, his will wanted a dramatic change.  That’s vital.  That’s vital.

Guilt is of no use if we do nothing with it to change our lives with the help of divine grace.

Now on to MacArthur’s explanation of verse 10:

John is saying this: “Look, you can pretend to be running from the wrath to come.  You can pretend to be fleeing from the judgment of God, but if there’s not any fruit there, and if you’re depending upon your self-righteous smugness and your descent from Abraham to save you, you’re in a lot of trouble because the axe is already laid at the root of your tree because there’s no fruit.  There’s an imminency here.  He says – look at it – “the axe is laid unto the root of the trees” already.  “Now,” he says, “it’s there.  It’s there now.  Judgment is now.  It’s imminent.”  Notice a most interesting thing that judgment, in John’s preaching and in all of the prophetic preaching of the Old Testament, was connected with the coming of the Messiah, just as much as salvation was

As Henry said above, there is judgement here and judgement in the life to come. MacArthur agrees:

I can’t help but think back a few weeks ago in Matthew that as soon as that little baby arrived, as soon as that little baby arrived it wasn’t very long until other little babies were slaughtered, until there was chaos in Israel, until 70 A.D. came and the whole nation of Israel was drowned in a bloodbath and the city of Jerusalem literally obliterated from the map When John preached this word, when John said the axe is laid at the root of the tree, do you realize the destruction of Jerusalem was only about 40 years away and it would be all over And so there was imminent judgment.  By the way, this is always true There is always imminent judgment, because the moment you die, the moment any man dies, there is judgment.  Oh, not the final great white throne judgment, but listen, when you die without Jesus Christ, at that moment you go out of the presence of God forever That’s judgment.  And, additionally, God brings about judgment and vengeance even in this life before we die.  If you live a life in violation of God’s principles, you will suffer consequences here and now.  Read the book of Proverbs.  The bottom line in the book of Proverbs is this:  It’s gonna be good for the good and bad for the bad, here and later.  That’s the bottom line in the book of Proverbs.  Good for the good, bad for the bad, now and later.  The axe head is at the root of the tree.  And, of course, ultimately, the great white throne judgment – terrible, fearful, fearful judgment.  So, John had to say judgment is just as near as the kingdom is near.  If the King comes, He comes not only to save, but He comes to judge and always the same.  By what you do with Jesus Christ, you determine whether He’s the Savior or the Judge. 

Then John spoke of Jesus. John said that he provided a baptism of repentance but that Jesus — unnamed here — was more powerful and coming after him; John said he was unworthy of carrying His sandals and that he would baptise the people with the Holy Spirit and fire (verse 11).

Henry says:

See how meanly he speaks of himself, that he might magnify Christ (v. 11); “I indeed baptize you with water, that is the utmost I can do.” Note, Sacraments derive not their efficacy from those who administer them; they can only apply the sign; it is Christ’s prerogative to give the thing signified, 1 Cor 3 6; 2 Kings 4 31. But he that comes after me is mightier than I. Though John had much power, for he came in the spirit and power of Elias, Christ has more; though John was truly great, great in the sight of the Lord (not a greater was born of woman), yet he thinks himself unworthy to be in the meanest place of attendance upon Christ, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear. He sees, (1.) How mighty Christ is, in comparison with him. Note, It is a great comfort to the faithful ministers, to think that Jesus Christ is mightier than they, can do that for them, and that by them, which they cannot do; his strength is perfected in their weakness. (2.) How mean he is in comparison with Christ, not worthy to carry his shoes after him! Note, Those whom God puts honour upon, are thereby made very humble and low in their own eyes; willing to be abased, so that Christ may be magnified; to be any thing, to be nothing, so that Christ may be all.

Of Christ’s forms of baptism, Henry tells us:

By the powerful working of his grace; He shall baptize you, that is, some of you, with the Holy Ghost and with fire. Note, [1.] It is Christ’s prerogative to baptize with the Holy Ghost. This he did in the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit conferred upon the apostles, to which Christ himself applies these words of John, Acts 1 5. This he does in the graces and comforts of the Spirit given to them that ask him, Luke 11 13; John 7 38, 39; See Acts 11 16. [2.] They who are baptized with the Holy Ghost are baptized as with fire; the seven spirits of God appear as seven lamps of fire, Rev 4 5. Is fire enlightening? So the Spirit is a Spirit of illumination. Is it warming? And do not their hearts burn within them? Is it consuming? And does not the Spirit of judgment, as a Spirit of burning, consume the dross of their corruptions? Does fire make all it seizes like itself? And does it move upwards? So does the Spirit make the soul holy like itself, and its tendency is heaven-ward. Christ says I am come to send fire, Luke 12 49.

John warned that Christ’s winnowing fork is in His hand and that he will clear the threshing floor, gathering His wheat — the saved — into His granary but burn the chaff with unquenchable fire (verse 12).

Henry explains:

By the final determinations of his judgment (v. 12); Whose fan is in his hand. His ability to distinguish, as the eternal wisdom of the Father, who sees all by a true light, and his authority to distinguish, as the Person to whom all judgment is committed, is the fan that is in his hand, Jer 15 7. Now he sits as a Refiner. Observe here [1.] The visible church is Christ’s floor; O my threshing, and the corn of my floor, Isa 21 10. The temple, a type of church, was built upon a threshing-floor. [2.] In this floor there is a mixture of wheat and chaff. True believers are as wheat, substantial, useful, and valuable; hypocrites are as chaff, light, and empty, useless and worthless, and carried about with every wind; these are now mixed, good and bad, under the same external profession; and in the same visible communion. [3.] There is a day coming when the floor shall be purged, and the wheat and chaff shall be separated. Something of this kind is often done in this world, when God calls his people out of Babylon, Rev 18 4. But it is the day of the last judgment that will be the great winnowing, distinguishing day, which will infallibly determine concerning doctrines and works (1 Cor 3 13), and concerning persons (ch. 25 32, 33), when saints and sinners shall be parted for ever. [4.] Heaven is the garner into which Jesus Christ will shortly gather all his wheat, and not a grain of it shall be lost: he will gather them as the ripe fruits were gathered in. Death’s scythe is made use of to gather them to their people. In heaven the saints are brought together, and no longer scattered; they are safe, and no longer exposed; separated from corrupt neighbours without, and corrupt affections within, and there is no chaff among them. They are not only gathered into the barn (ch. 13 30), but into the garner, where they are thoroughly purified. [5.] Hell is the unquenchable fire, which will burn up the chaff, which will certainly be the portion and punishment, and everlasting destruction, of hypocrites and unbelievers. So that here are life and death, good and evil, set before us; according as we now are in the field, we shall be then in the floor.

Before I forget, MacArthur has an English anecdote that needs correction. As he preached these sermons in 1978, he did not have the benefit of the Internet.

MacArthur’s sermon says:

The story goes that Lady Huntington was invited, or rather invited, I should say – the Duchess of Birmingham – to come to hear George Whitfield preach.  The duchess responded in this manner, quote, “It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth.  It is highly offensive and insulting,” end quote.  Well, Lady Huntington was insulted when George Whitfield attempted to call her to the recognition of sin, and consequently she never entered into the act of repentance.

I do wonder about the veracity of that story, since Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791), devoted her life to the Christian faith and to charity. George Whitefield became her personal chaplain and preached to invited guests in one of her homes in London. She had connections with Anglicanism, her first denomination, then Calvinism and, finally, Methodism, participating in the work of the Great Revival.

In closing, MacArthur tells us what made John the Baptist the greatest human that ever lived:

Number one, made him great, he was obedient to God’s Word.  From the very beginning of his life, he obeyed.  From the very start of his life, he obeyed.  He never wavered from the calling that God had given to him.  From the time that he was a little child, he obeyed God.  That’s part of greatness.

Second, he was filled with the Spirit.  Luke 1:15 says he “was filled with the Spirit from the time of his mother’s womb.”  He was great because he was obedient.  He was great because he was filled with the Spirit of God.  He was controlled by the Holy Spirit.

Thirdly, he was great because he was self-controlled.  Luke 1:15 says he, “drank neither wine nor strong drink.”  Matthew 3 says that, “His clothes were only what was necessary, and his food the same.”  The man had self-control.  The man had brought his body into subjection.  He didn’t overdo anything …

Fourth, he was great not only because of his obedience, because he was Spirit-controlled, because he was self-controlled, but because he was humble He was humble.  The greatest thing he ever said, I think, in this regard was when Jesus finally arrived on the scene, and the disciples who had so fallen in love with John the Baptist were gathered around John, and they said, “And, John, now what?  This, this is the Messiah, and He’s come, but, but what about you?”  And John said in John 3, in verse 30, “He must increase, and I must” – What? – “decrease.”  “It’s over for me, guys.  You go and give your love to Him.  I’m not even worthy to unlatch His shoe.”  Right?  That’s what he said.  Humble.

Fifth, he was great because he proclaimed God’s Word.  “Behold, the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.  Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  You can hear him thundering it out, “He shall turn many of the people to righteousness.”  That’s the sixth He not only proclaimed God’s Word, he won people to Christ He was obedient, filled with the Spirit, self-controlled, humble, proclaiming God’s Word, and winning people to Christ.  “He shall turn many of the hearts of the people to righteousness.”  And he did.

You say, “Oh, boy, but even if I did all that, I’d never be as great as John.”  Hang onto your seat and listen to this.  Matthew 11:11 says, “Verily I say to you, among them that are born of women, there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist.”  Now listen to this.  “Nevertheless, he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”  You get that? Shock.  Listen, we’re in the kingdom; and any of us, the least of us in the kingdom, surpasses the one who foretold its coming.  We have all the resources he looked for.  We have all the realities he searched for.  We have all the blessings he anticipated.  We’re not greater in terms of character.  That isn’t what he’s saying.  We’re greater in terms of privilege and opportunity.

It’s like Jesus said to His disciples, “Greater things than these shall” – What? – “ye do, because I go to My Father.” We can be great for God.  The least of us, greater than the greatest who ever lived.  That’s what it is to be in His kingdom.  Are you grateful?

That is certainly something to ponder in the days ahead. So often, we take our spiritual blessings for granted, but they are the greatest gifts we can receive in this life, because the Lord gave them to us.

Reign of Christ — Christ the King — Sunday is on November 20, 2022.

Readings for Year C can be found here.

The Gospel reading is as follows (emphases mine):

Luke 23:33-43

23:33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.

23:34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing.

23:35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”

23:36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine,

23:37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”

23:38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

23:39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

23:40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?

23:41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”

23:42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

23:43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Commentary comes from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Apologies in advance for another long post, but what our commentators have to say will open our eyes to the true depth of this reading.

John MacArthur says that the story of the penitent thief is found only in Luke’s Gospel:

The story of the penitent thief is not in Matthew, Mark or John.  It is only in Luke.  This is all we have.  And in a sense, as we look at verses 39 to 43 and consider this miraculous conversion of a thief hanging on a cross next to Jesus, we might conclude that this is a rather cryptic account Perhaps we would wish that Matthew had given us another look at it or Mark or both or John, but this is all we have …

we come to the conversion at Calvary, the story of the salvation of a crucified thief.  And as I said, as you first look at it, it seems a bit brief and perhaps not very revealing, but you will find by the time we’re done that it is anything but that.

MacArthur explains that our Lord’s crucifixion was set up to play out as a comedy for both Romans and Jews:

I understand that’s a stunning notion, that this is a comedy, but it is precisely that which was intended by the crucifiers.  To them, Jesus was an object of absolute ridicule.  As a king, he was laughable.  This whole thing was intended to be a mockery of the fact that he was a king.  He had no army.  He had no sovereignty over anything or any place.  He had meager and minimal followers.  He had conquered no one and nothing and delivered no one.  There was nothing about him that looked as if he was a massive power, but rather he was increasingly weaker and weaker and weaker And so the whole thing was so comedic they turned it into a kind of burlesque.  Here, those that are gathered around the cross are mocking, sneering and hurling abuse at Jesus with sarcasm.  They’re endeavoring to treat the Son of God with as much dishonor as they can muster, with as much disrespect and disdain and shame as they can possibly generate. 

Along with Judas’s betrayal a few days beforehand, this is one of history’s greatest sins. Both show how horrible spiritual blindness truly is:

Here is sin at its apex.  Here is sin at its ultimate.  Here is blasphemy at its pinnacle.  Mocking deity, sneering at the incarnate God, and with glib satisfaction piling sarcastic scorn on the Creator and the Redeemer – the true King; the true Messiah.  Sinners cannot to worse than this.  Nothing that sinners can do could more offend God than this.  Blasphemy can’t be worse than this.  We might ask that in light of the heinousness of this, maybe this is time for God to act.  We should be expecting a holy, righteous God to react to this kind of ultimate blasphemy by pouring out wrath and vengeance and fury on those who are perpetrating this on him …

Judgment will come 40 years after this in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.  Many, if not most of these people, gather today who are still alive 40 years later will perish in that judgment.  Many will die before that ever comes.  But doesn’t this seem like an undue patience?  Just how tolerant is holiness?  Just how patient is righteousness?  Just how enduring is divine mercy and grace?  If ever there seemed to be a time when God’s wrath would be justified if it came swiftly, this would be it.

Well, in a strange irony, His judgment did come swiftly at the cross, but it didn’t come on the crowd, it came on Jesus on behalf of those who blasphemed him.  The Old Testament is clear about blasphemy.  It says this in Leviticus 24:16, “Anybody who blasphemes my name shall die.”  It is a capital crime to blaspheme the name of God.  They are blasphemers.  They know that.  They’re content to blaspheme Him, to pronounce curses on Him, to heap abuse on Him.  That is exactly what they are doing.  In a perverted twist, however, they accuse him of being the blasphemer.  When earlier in his ministry Jesus demonstrated the power to forgive sin, Matthew 9, they said this man blasphemes.  You come to the end of Matthew – or toward the end of Matthew in chapter 26, Jesus says, “You’ve said it yourself, nevertheless I tell you that you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven.  And the high priest tore at his robes saying, “He has blasphemed.  What further need do we have of witnesses.  Behold, you have heard the blasphemy.  He is deserving of death.”  And they spit in his face and beat him with their fists and slapped him.

They are the blasphemers, but in a perverted twist, they make him into the blasphemer and they are the ones who think they’re upholding righteousness

MacArthur reminds us of God’s infinite patience:

When you run out of patience, God does not.  When you look, at something and think the patience of God must be exhausted because my patience would have been long ago exhausted, God’s is not.  And the answer is that God is far beyond us, infinitely beyond us, in how He thinks and how He acts.  The uniqueness of God is this: when He is massively offended and when He is relentlessly offended, He still comes to the offenders, and warning them of the judgment to come offers them forgiveness and mercy and grace and compassion and makes them His children and takes them to His holy heaven forever.  It is that God who is hanging on the cross.  That God whose patience is far beyond ours because His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts.  The stunning contrast at Calvary is the contrast between the merciless insults of the crowd and the merciful intersession of the Christ, and those are the two points I want you to look at.  The merciless insults of the crowd, verse 35.  We’re going to look at the merciless insults of the crowd.  The crowd is made up of four groups.  There’s the people, the leaders, the soldiers and the thieves and they all have the same response to Jesus.  They’re literally without sympathy.  They are heartless, cruel, brutal.

When the Romans — ‘they’ — came to the place that is called The Skull, or Golgotha, they crucified Jesus with the two criminals, one on His right and one on His left (verse 33).

Matthew Henry’s commentary says:

he was crucified at a place called Calvary, Kranion, the Greek name for Golgotha—the place of a skull: an ignominious place, to add to the reproach of his sufferings, but significant, for there he triumphed over death as it were upon his own dunghill. He was crucified. His hands and feet were nailed to the cross as it lay upon the ground, and it was then lifted up, and fastened into the earth, or into some socket made to receive it. This was a painful and shameful death above any other.

Our Lord’s place in the middle of the two men was significant:

he was crucified in the midst between two thieves, as if he had been the worst of the three. Thus he was not only treated as a transgressor, but numbered with them, the worst of them.

Jesus interceded to His Father asking Him to forgive them because they didn’t know what they were doing; the soldiers cast lots to divide His clothing (verse 34).

MacArthur says that casting lots for a criminal’s belongings was normal:

That’s standard procedure, by the way.  The executioners were given the right to keep the possessions, the final possessions of clothing and things of the people who were executed.  That was sort of a small job benefit, I guess, a perk.  Now there’s a little more detail on this back in John because John gives us some insight into exactly what the soldiers did.  In 19 John 23, “The soldiers, therefore, when they crucified Jesus, took his outer garments and made four parts.”  There would be four parts.  There would be four garments that a man would wear in that day.  There would be an outer cloak that you kept warm with, like a jacket, and you slept on and used as a blanket.  There would be shoes or sandals.  There would be a headpiece.  There would be a sash or a belt.  Four pieces. 

Psalm 22 prophesied this would happen:

We know that there were four Roman soldiers assigned to a crucifixion.  If you look in 12 Acts 4, you read about a squad of Romans.  It’s a quaternion made up of four In fact a full one was four units of four, so it’s very likely that there were four soldiers in a death squad That’s why the four garments could be divided one to each of the four, but there was also a tunic which would have been his regular garment and the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece, so they said let’s not tear it.  Let’s cast lots for it to decide whose it shall be.  That the scripture might be fulfilled they divided my outer garments among them and for my clothing they cast lots.  That, too, in Psalm 22. 

Out of the four groups of people there that MacArthur wants us to look at, we see the soldiers first:

We might expect cruelty out of Roman soldiers because they did this all the time. 

The people stood by watching, and the leaders scoffed at Jesus, saying that if He saved others, let Him save Himself if He is the Messiah of God, His Chosen One (verse 35).

Here Luke shows us the crowd and the leaders.

Remember that every Jew possible was in Jerusalem for the Passover, so it was a huge crowd.

Of them, MacArthur gives us something to think about:

these are the people, probably, who had been healed by Jesus of certain diseases.  These might be people who had had experiences of other miracles that Jesus had performed in the area of Judea and Jerusalem, and there were lots of them from, of all places, Galilee in the north.  There may have been, and surely were, people in the crowd who were fed among the 5,000 when Jesus made the food.  There were certainly people who knew well those who had been healed, maybe been given their hearing or their sight, or raised up to walk from a state of paralysis.  I mean wouldn’t we expect to find something sympathetic out of them and didn’t they hear Jesus teaching, and didn’t they experience the meekness and gentleness of Christ and the love of Christ that was so manifest in the beauty and magnificence of what he taught? 

But even the crowd is merciless.  You say, “Wait a minute.  All it says in that verse is the people stood by looking on.”  Well, that’s not all that can be said about the merciless crowd, I’m sorry to say.  This is a large crowd.  They’ve come from everywhere.  It’s Passover.  The city has swelled by hundreds of thousands of people and the crowd moving toward Calvary from the public trial early in the morning is growing and growing and growing, because Jesus is the most popular person in the country by far and he’s drawing a massive crowd that are now collected around the cross.  These are people who were there to hail him as the potential king on Monday when he came into the city.  They were the same people who were there to scream, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!” earlier in the day, and now they sort of appear to be exhausted, I guess, sort of blank stares from what Luke tells us.  But Matthew and Mark tell us more.  Matthew and Mark tell us what we need to know.  Matthew 27:39, “And those passing by, the milling crowd, were hurling abuse at him, wagging their heads, a gesture of taunting, and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself.  If you are the son of God, come down from the cross in the same way,” the priests, etc.

MacArthur thinks the leaders influenced the crowd:

Mark 15 verse 29, “And those passing by the milling crowd were hurling abuse at him saying, “Ha!” Wagging their heads, “You are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days.  Save yourself and come down from the cross.”  Again, in the same way which sorts out the rulers from the passing, milling crowd.  The crowd were in it.  They had been orchestrated by the leaders.  They’re easily seduced by their evil hearts of unbelief, easily seduced by the manipulation of their leaders.  They’d picked up the comedic game and they pour out the venomous sarcasm on Jesus.  They never do the right thing, this crowd.  They haven’t done the right thing all week.  Here they’re just vicious, merciless, to the merciful son of God.  It’s amazing.  It’s amazing.  This is the worst possible conduct by the people of Israel.  So the merciless crowd, then the merciless rulers – back to Luke 23:35, “And even the rulers were sneering at him.”  Of course they had orchestrated all of it, “Saying he has saved others, let him save himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One.”  Then they use to Messianic terms, The Christ of God, the Anointed; the word Messiah, and His Chosen One a Messianic title taken from Daniel chapter 9 The Old Testament expressions related to the Messiah are in reference – in general reference when they use the term the Christ of God.  The specific words, “His Chosen One” comes from Daniel 9 and definitely is a Messianic title. 

The soldiers joined in the mocking, offering him sour wine (verse 36) in His moment of greatest thirst and taunting Him, saying that if He were the King of the Jews, He should save Himself (verse 37).

Of the sour wine, Henry says it was a taunting invitation to drink with them:

They mocked him (v. 36, 37); they made sport with him, and made a jest of his sufferings; and when they were drinking sharp sour wine themselves, such as was generally allotted them, they triumphantly asked him if he would pledge them, or drink with them.

MacArthur discusses the Greek word for ‘taunt’ and the sour wine:

The actual Greek word empaiz is to taunt.  Inflicting even more pain on him to his face as he hangs in agony.  And in a mock act of obeisance and service to him as if he were a king, they offer him sour wine Now there are a couple of occasions that are clearly identified when Christ was crucified in which he was offered something to drink.  The first one was when they got him to the place to be crucified, you remember they offered him a drink that had a sedative in it, that would probably be used to sedate the person a little bit so it would be easier to nail him to the cross and he wouldn’t fight And Jesus refused that, remember? 

And then when he comes to the very end of his dying, six hours later, at the very end, at 3:00 in the afternoon when he’s about to die, he says, “I’m thirsty,” and they lift up to him a drink on a sponge on the end of a stick.  This seems to me to be something different from both of those.  This seems to me to be part of the game they were playing.  This is certainly not their giving him the wine in response to his asking.  This does not appear to be the sedative because he’s already there and the mockery is already full scale.  It seems to me that they are offering him sour wine and saying at the same time, if you’re the King of the Jews, save yourself.  It’s a pretend act of obeisance, as if they were bringing royal wine to the king.  The mockery just reaches ultimate proportions.  Roman soldiers drank a cheap form of wine.  They offered it to him, mimicking the rulers, mimicking the people, spewing out the same taunts.

MacArthur looks at Matthew’s account and prophecies from the Old Testament:

According to Matthew’s account, Matthew 27:42, “He saved others, he can’t save himself.  He is the King of Israel.  Let him now come down from the cross and we’ll all believe him.  He trusts in God, let Him deliver him now if he is taking pleasure in him, for he said, “I am the son of God.”  You know, they say these things and they just have no idea what they’re saying.  Listen to this.  Psalm 22 looks at the cross of Christ.  It’s prophecy.  It starts out this way.  Here’s the beginning of 22 Psalm, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Does that sound familiar?  The very words of Jesus on the cross. But go down to verse seven, 22nd Psalm 7, “A reproach of men despised by the people, all who see me sneer at me.  They separate with the lip.  They wag the head.”  That’s exactly what they did.  “Saying commit yourself to the Lord.  Let Him deliver him. Let Him rescue him because he delights in him.”  All that sarcasm was predicted in the Psalm.  They fulfilled it to the letter. 

They knew about the title of the Chosen One, because Jesus had applied it to Himself during His ministry:

… you can go back to the ninth chapter of Luke and in verses 20 and 35 you will see that Jesus did take the title The Christ of God and he did take the title His Chosen One.  They knew he claimed it.

Paul said that the Jews would find Jesus to be a stumbling block and the Gentiles would find Him foolish, things that are still true today. MacArthur addresses that and dying on a tree, the ultimate curse for a Jew:

Remember, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1 that a crucified Messiah is to a Jew a stumbling block, and of course to the gentile, foolishnessThey thought of someone hanging on a tree according to 21 Deuteronomy 23 as cursed by God and Jesus was cursed by God, and so they heap on him all the scorn of this notion that he is the true Messiah and King that they’ve been waiting for.  How could that possibly be true?  It’s absurd.  The leaders orchestrate this and egg on the mindless crowd.  Little did they know, as I said, that he was being cursed by God That was true.  Further, 53 Isaiah 4 says, “He was smitten by God and afflicted,” and verse 10 says, “The Lord was pleased to crush him, putting him to death.”  Paul looks back on that and said he was made a curse for us But it was all nonsense to the people. 

Henry says this mocking of Jesus was a moment of unity between Roman and Jew:

… they said, If thou be the king of the Jews, save thyself; for, as the Jews prosecuted him under the notion of a pretended Messiah, so the Romans under the notion of a pretended king.

There was an inscription over Jesus: ‘This is the King of the Jews’ (verse 38).

Although Luke doesn’t say so, it was written in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Our commentators place great emphasis on it being in those three languages.

Henry says that it was part of God’s plan to spread the Gospel:

That the superscription over his head, setting forth his crime, was, This is the King of the Jews, v. 38. He is put to death for pretending to be the king of the Jews; so they meant it; but God intended it to be a declaration of what he really was, notwithstanding his present disgrace: he is the king of the Jews, the king of the church, and his cross is the way to his crown. This was written in those that were called the three learned languages, Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew, for those are best learned that have learned Christ. It was written in these three languages that it might be known and read of all men; but God designed by it to signify that the gospel of Christ should be preached to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem, and be read in all languages. The Gentile philosophy made the Greek tongue famous, the Roman laws and government made the Latin tongue so, and the Hebrew excelled them all for the sake of the Old Testament. In these three languages is Jesus Christ proclaimed king. Young scholars, that are taking pains at school to make themselves masters of these three languages, should aim at this, that in the use of them they may increase their acquaintance with Christ.

MacArthur explains why Pontius Pilate wanted the inscription to read just that:

We know historically that when people were crucified, their crime was posted and since Jesus committed no crime there could be no crime posted over him So Pilate decided what was going to go on the sign Pilate, 19 John 19, Pilate wrote an inscription and put it on the cross.  This was Pilate’s thing and this is what it said, “Jesus, the Nazarene” or Jesus of Nazareth, “The King of the Jews.”  If you combine Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, it actually says, “This is Jesus of Nazareth, The King of the Jews.”  It was all placarded there.  Well, therefore this inscription many of the Jews read for the place Jesus was crucified was near the city, again reason for the huge crowd.  It was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek.  Pilate wanted everybody to know it and so the chief priests and the Jews were saying to Pilate, “Do not write the King of the Jews, but that he said, “I am King of the Jews.”  Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”  Pilate wouldn’t change it because this is Pilate’s way to mock them.  They had mocked him.  They had backed him into the proverbial corner and blackmailed him into a executing a man he knew was innocent.  Even his wife said wash your hands of this innocent man.  Pilate said multiple times, “I find no fault in him.”  Herod found no crime.  And Pilate had been made to look like a fool and he wasn’t going to leave it at that, so he wanted to turn the tables and make them look like fools.  It was Pilate’s little joke.  This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.  They said take that down and put up he said he’s the King of the Jews and he said what I have written I have written.  So you have the people mocking Jesus and Pilate mocking the people.

Then we meet the last group, the two criminals on crosses next to Jesus.

One of them also joined in the mocking, saying Jesus that, if He were the Messiah, He should save Himself — and them (verse 39).

MacArthur tells us that in Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts, both thieves had been mocking our Lord:

One of the thieves, only one is quoted by Luke, but Matthew and Mark tell us the rest of the story.  Here’s what Matthew says, 27 Matthew 44, “The robbers were also insulting him with the same words,” both of them; plural.  15 Mark 32, “Those who were crucified with him were also insulting him.”  They both joined in; the whole crowd, all the rulers, all the soldiers, both thieves.  All Luke does is record for us what one of the two said, but they were both involved.  “Are you not the Christ?” again with scorn and sarcasm, “Save yourself and us.” 

The silent thief rebuked the other, asking him if he did not fear God, for both were under the same sentence of condemnation (verse 40).

The penitent thief told his companion that both of them were justly condemned but that ‘this man’ — Jesus — had done nothing wrong (verse 41).

Henry points to divine grace in the spiritual transformation of the penitent thief:

2. He owns that he deserves what was done to him: We indeed justly. It is probable that they both suffered for one and the same crime, and therefore he spoke with the more assurance, We received the due reward of our deeds. This magnifies divine grace, as acting in a distinguishing way. These two have been comrades in sin and suffering, and yet one is saved and the other perishes; two that had gone together all along hitherto, and yet now one taken and the other left. He does not say, Thou indeed justly, but We. Note, True penitents acknowledge the justice of God in all the punishments of their sin. God has done right, but we have done wickedly. 3. He believes Christ to have suffered wrongfully. Though he was condemned in two courts, and run upon as if he had been the worst of malefactors, yet this penitent thief is convinced, by his conduct in his sufferings, that he has done nothing amiss, ouden atoponnothing absurd, or unbecoming his character. The chief priests would have him crucified between the malefactors, as one of them; but this thief has more sense than they, and owns he is not one of them. Whether he had before heard of Christ and of his wonderous works does not appear, but the Spirit of grace enlightened him with this knowledge, and enabled him to say, This man has done nothing amiss.

MacArthur describes what happened to the penitent thief physically and spiritually:

As the hours passed on the cross, one of the two most thoroughly degenerate people on the mountain, at the scene, a man devoted to violent robbery, a wicked criminal, has a massive transformation.  It is shocking; 180 degrees.  His taunting goes silent and while his body is in horrible trauma and agony, the unparalleled suffering of crucifixion, his mind might be assumed to go foggy as he tries to deal with the pain.  And as some kind of shock would set in, just to protect him from agonies that would be totally unbearable, and we know the body has the capacity to send us into shock in order to mitigate those kinds of excruciating experiences, but in the moment of the worst imaginable kind of agony, his mind becomes crystal clear with a clarity and perception of reality and truth that he’d never experienced in his life.  With a clarity and a perception of truth and reality that he hadn’t experienced a moment before.  Something has happened.  All of a sudden, he turns to his friend and rebukes him for doing what he had just been doing.  What has happened?

I’ll tell you what has happened.  A divine, sovereign miracle has happened.  There is no other explanation.  You want a parallel to this?  Paul on the Damascus Road.  That’s the best parallel.  His thoughts of Jesus are thoughts of hate.  His thoughts toward those who confess the name of Jesus are thoughts of persecution and execution.  Paul has papers.  He’s on his way to Damascus to persecute and execute those who named the name of Christ.  And while he’s on his way with his papers in his hand, God invades his life, slams him to the dirt, blinds him and saves him That’s how salvation works, folks.  It is a sovereign miracle.  Not always that dramatic, but sometimes that dramatic

The penitent thief is a form of the Prodigal Son:

If you want to connect this with somebody else, this man would be the prodigal This is a wicked man, but all of a sudden in the moment he is dramatically transformed and it becomes immediately evident what has happened.  He goes from blaspheming Jesus to being horrified at the other criminal blaspheming Jesus.  His whole perception of how you treat Jesus is completely changed and that’s where the story begins The other criminal has had no such change, hanging there hurling abuse at Jesus with the same mocking sarcasm, “Are you not the Christ?  Save yourself and us.”  It must have shocked him to hear from the other side of Jesus, his friend, verse 40, who answered and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God since you’re under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we, indeed, justly for we’re receiving what we deserve for our deeds.  But this man has done nothing wrong.”  This must have been a shock to the other thief who was hurling the abuse.  What happened to you?  What happened to you since you were nailed up there?  The transformed man finds the taunts coming out of the mouth of his companion criminal repulsive to him and frightening to him and they had just come out of his mouth.  What this man says is the evidence of his changed heart. Salvation is a divine miracle and it manifests itself There’s a lot more here than you might think. 

First of all, he becomes very, very aware of God and the fear of God Then he openly acknowledges his own sin Then he confesses the sinlessness of Christ and affirms his messiah-ship and his savior-hood It’s an amazing thing.  And all of these are responses to the miraculous sovereign work of the spirit of God on his dark heart.  This is the light of the glorious gospel of Christ shining in the midst of the darkness and dispelling it.  I want to sort of unpack those elements that are the manifest evidences that God has done the work of transformation.  The other sinner, no fear of God, no fear of judgment, no sense of sinfulness, no sense of justice, no sense of guilt, no desire for forgiveness, no longing for righteousness, no desire for reconciliation.  And the thief who has been transformed confronts that tragic condition, which moments before had been his own condition.  He can’t understand it any more.  In a moment of time he went from being a part of it to not being able to comprehend it.  How can you act like that?  How can you talk like that?  Don’t you fear God?  Don’t you know you’re getting what you deserve?  Don’t you know this man is righteous?  What a transformation.  Let’s look a little more closely at it.

While the one criminal is hurling abuse at Jesus, the other answered and rebuking him said – rebuking is a very strong word Epitima He said, “Do you not even fear God?”  Let me tell you the first evidence that God is doing the work of conversion:  the fear of God.  The fear of God.  If someone is converted to Christ, if someone is regenerate and someone is born again, made new, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17 he becomes a new creature, old things pass away and all things become new.  Boy, do we see that here.  And the first thing you see in a real conversion is a heightened awareness that God is a threat.  To be afraid of God, literally to fear God.  He really is not seeking someone to get him off the cross.  He’s not trying to find someone who can save him from physical death.  He wants to make sure he is saved from divine judgment.  His problem is not really what’s happening to him on the earth, it’s what’s going to happen to him when he comes to the throne of God.  He’s a Jew, no doubt, raised to know the laws of God, to understand God – God’s holiness, God’s law, obedience to God’s law.  He is a violator of God’s law.  He is an open violator of God’s law.  He is a known violator of God’s law.  He is a tried and proven violator of God’s law and he’s dying a death that is just and he says it.  And the law of men was a reflection of the law of God, certainly in Israel, and so he knows that if this is what men to do him for breaking the law of God, what in the world is God going to do to me?  All of a sudden he has clarity on what he had learned about the law and guilt and sin and judgment.  He knew he was a violator.  He was internally convicted by the work of the Holy Spirit, to be aware that what he was getting from a human judge was only a small sampling of what he was going to get from a divine judge.  And to add to his guilt, which put him on the cross, you can add that he had been blaspheming the Messiah and he now knows it, producing an even greater guilt From this place of clarity he can’t even imagine that he did that, that he said what he said to Jesus and he can’t understand how his friend can say that.  He says in verse 40, “Do you not even fear God since you’re under the same sentence of condemnation?”  They’re two of a kind.  Look, we’re getting exactly what we deserve.  Don’t you have a fear of what’s going to happen when we wind up before God?  As Jesus said in Luke 12:4-5, “I don’t fear those who destroy the body, but fear him who destroys both soul and body in hell.”  I will tell you this, and you need to remember this, Romans 3:18 says this when it defines the inherent nature of fallen man and his sinfulness, “there’s none righteous, no not one, there’s none that understand, none that is good,” etc.  That text from verse 10 of Romans 3 to verse 18, ends in verse 18 with this statement:  “There is no fear of God in their eyes.”  It is characteristic of the unregenerate not to fear God.  This is a typical unregenerate comment, “I’ve lived a pretty good life.  Certainly God will take me to heaven.”  Like the Jews in Romans 10 who didn’t understand the righteousness of God.  The sinner does not live under the fear of God.  He must be brought under the fear of God by the convicting power of God.  This thief who is still hurling abuse at Jesus has no fear of God like all other sinners.  But the sinner who comes to salvation has been brought by the power of the Spirit of God to a deadly fear of divine judgment And friends, as we communicate the gospel with sinners, you can’t hold back that reality.  The gospel is not telling sinners that Jesus will make them happy or Jesus will give them a better life or Jesus will fix up the pain and bring fulfillment and all of that.  The message of salvation is you are a violator of God’s law and you are headed for eternal punishment under the wrath of God. You’d better fear God.  That’s the message.  And when you see a real conversion, you see this and it’s reminiscent, isn’t it, of Luke 18.  What is the public doing as he pours his head down and looks at the ground and pounds his breast saying, “Lord, be” – what – “merciful to me, a sinner.”  Don’t give me justice.  Don’t give me judgment … 

… All of a sudden, he had crystal clarity in his mind on the fact that he was going to stand before God as a sinner with nothing that could rescue him.  That’s the first evidence of a work of salvation in the heart.  The second one is a sense of one’s sinfulness.  They go together.  The fear of God coupled with a sense of one’s guilt.  Verse 41, we indeed, justly, we’re receiving what we deserve for our deeds.  He says I’m a lawbreaker.  I know that.  It’s a true assessment of his condition.  Like the prodigal, who in getting down with the pigs and trying to eat and be on the brink of death, he says – and Jesus told the story in Luke 15 – he came to his senses That’s where true repentance begins, when you come to your senses.  He’s guilty, he’s aware of his sinfulness, he’s in a sense saying I am a sinner.  I know I am a sinner.  I am receiving what I deserve for my deeds.  This is the attitude of a true repenter.  He understands that if justice is operating in his life, then he is going to get exactly what he’s getting.  No excuses.  He’s not saying I was led astray and there were evil influences in my life.  I was molested when I was four or whatever it might be.  He’s saying look, we’re receiving exactly what we deserve for our deeds.  Justice is operating and it will operate not only in the human world, in the world of men, but it will operate in God’s realm as well.  Spiritual reality makes clear that in spite of the system of Judaism teaching salvation by works, salvation by self effort, salvation by ceremony, etc., the true convert pleads nothing but confesses his utter guilt and absolute bankruptcy.  He has nothing to offer God; nothing to commend himself.  Like the prodigal he comes back stinking and dying.  He needs mercy, he needs grace and he knows it He’s an unworthy sinner.  These are the evidences of a saving work of God He needs mercy and it’s never been this clear.  By the way, sin never becomes as clear to the sinner as when he’s in the presence of righteousness.  Like Isaiah, who in the presence of God, who was holy, holy, holy, said, “damn me, for I am a man of unclean lips.”  He had a clear perception of the judgment of God which he was deserving and a clear perception of his great guilt. 

There’s a third element that becomes in evidence for us of the work of God in his heart and that is that he believed in Christ.  He believed in Christ.  We talk about two things that make up a real conversion repentance under the fear of divine wrath and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and we see that.  The things that he says about Christ, though brief, are really quite stunning.  The end of verse 41 he does what the sinner must do.  He compares himself with the perfection of Christ.  “We’re getting exactly what we deserve for our deeds.  But this man has done nothing wrong.”  Here the story moves from an assessment of his own condition to an assessment of Jesus Christ That’s what happens in a true conversion.  And he goes beyond saying Jesus isn’t guilty of the crime for which he’s being crucified to saying something far broader than that.  He has done nothing wrong.  I don’t know how much he knew about all the attempts to try and find a crime for which they could legitimately crucify Christ and they never could find one.  I don’t know what exposure he had to Christ.  I don’t know what he heard other people say about the perfections of Jesus Christ, but our Lord had been on display for three years with all of his perfections and no one had ever been able to lay any legitimate charge against him.  He is given, by the power of the Spirit of God, clarity to understand that he is hanging on a cross as a sinner who is getting what he deserves next to someone who is righteous and is getting what he doesn’t deserve.  He believes, then, in the righteousness of Christ. 

The repentant thief asks Jesus — by name — to remember him when He comes into his kingdom (verse 42).

It’s a highly humble request.

Henry also says the request showed that the man believed in the righteousness of Christ:

1. Observe his faith in this prayerChrist was now in the depth of disgrace, deserted by his own disciples, reviled by his own nation, suffering as a pretender, and not delivered by his Father He made this profession before those prodigies happened which put honour upon his sufferings, and which startled the centurion; yet verily we have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. He believed another life after this, and desired to be happy in that life, not as the other thief, to be saved from the cross, but to be well provided for when the cross had done its worst. 2. Observe his humility in this prayer. All his request is, Lord, remember me. He does not pray, Lord, prefer me (as they did, Matt 20 21), though, having the honour as none of the disciples had to drink of Christ’s cup and to be baptized with his baptism either on his right hand or on his left in his sufferings when his own disciples had deserted him he might have had some colour to ask as they did to sit on his right hand and on his left in his kingdom. Acquaintance in sufferings has sometimes gained such a point, Jer 52 31, 32. But he is far from the thought of it. All he begs is, Lord, remember me, referring himself to Christ in what way to remember him. It is a request like that of Joseph to the chief butler, Think on me (Gen 40 14), and it sped better; the chief butler forgot Joseph, but Christ remembered this thief. 3. There is an air of importunity and fervency in this prayer. He does, as it were, breathe out his soul in it: Lord, remember me, and I have enough; I desire no more; into thy hands I commit my case.” Note, To be remembered by Christ, now that he is in his kingdom, is what we should earnestly desire and pray for, and it will be enough to secure our welfare living and dying. Christ is in his kingdom, interceding. “Lord, remember me, and intercede for me.” He is there ruling. “Lord, remember me, and rule in me by thy Spirit.” He is there preparing places for those that are his. “Lord, remember me, and prepare a place for me; remember me at death, remember me in the resurrection. See Job 14 13.

MacArthur looks at the thief’s calling Jesus by name:

“Jesus, yeshua.”  What does that mean?  Jehovah saves.  “We shall call him Jesus for he will save his people from their sins,” Matthew 1:21.  Yeshua.  He recognizes Jesus as righteous.  He recognizes Jesus as a source of forgiveness and grace and mercy.  He recognizes that Jesus is so merciful and gracious that he’s not even holding the sin of these people against them, but rather desirous of their forgiveness.  And he sees, I think, all of this with clarity given only by the spirit of God who drew, perhaps out of his background, perhaps out of conversations – who knows where it came from – to focus the clarity because he had to know the truth about Christ.  Then when he says, “Jesus,” there’s a lot in that word.  He recognizes Jesus as the Savior.  How do you know that?  Why would he then ask him to remember him when he comes into his kingdom unless he thought he was the one who could save him?  He doesn’t say to him, “Dear sir, could you find somebody that could save me.”  He doesn’t say, “Could you connect with whoever’s in charge of saving people like me?”  He says, “Jesus.  Yeshua.”  Save me.  Remember.  More than a thought.  We think about remember, it’s a hazy, foggy kind of thing.  That’s not what he’s talking about.  Much, much more than that.  It’s a plea of a broken penitent, an unworthy sinner, for grace and forgiveness.  And what he’s really saying is save me from the judgment of God.  Save me from what I deserve.  Forgive me.  You’ve prayed it.  Can I be one of those that’s in answer to your prayer? 

And then I love this.  Boy, he’s got a pretty comprehensive Christology because he says, “Remember me when you come in your kingdom.”  He’s got the Old Testament eschatology.  What did the Old Testament teach?  That the Messiah would come in the end of the age, gloriously, and establish a kingdom, right, fulfilling all the promises to Abraham, all the promises to David and fulfilling all the reiterated promises of the Old Testament that are rehearsed again and again by the prophets, including the new covenant salvation to Israel, and that there would be a kingdom established on earth that’s defined and described in great detail in the Old Testament …  Nobody survived crucifixion, so he also believed that Jesus would die and what, rise again and bring his kingdom.  That’s pretty good Christology.  That’s exactly what he was saying.  Remember me when you come in your kingdom.  He is saying this isn’t the end of you. Like the Centurion, remember, who says surely this is the son of God He’s convinced.

Jesus replied, beginning with ‘Truly I tell you’ — meaning emphatically and sincerely — that the repentant thief would be that day, with Him, in Paradise (verse 43).

Paradise was the third of the heavens referred to in that era. It meant the highest heaven.

MacArthur discusses our Lord’s reply and promise:

Did he have a right to be with Christ?  Are you kidding me?  With me?  Today.  What had he done to earn it?  Nothing.  He’d be dead before he could do anything.  This is grace, isn’t it?  This is the father kissing the son.  This is full reconciliation; instantaneous.  Today.  Paradise, paradeisos, an old Persian word for garden.  It’s a synonym for heaven.  In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul says in verse two, “I was called up to the third heaven.”  And in verse four he says he was called up to paradise.  Same thing.  Third heaven, first heaven, atmospheric, second heaven, celestial, third heaven the abode of God.  That’s paradise.  Or in relation to seven, Jesus says, “To him who overcomes I will grant the tree of life which is in the paradise of God.”  If you turn to Revelation 21 and 22, the tree of life is in heaven.  So he’s not saying anything but you’re going to be with me in heaven today.  There’s no waiting place.  There’s no transitional place.  Absent from the body, present with the Lord, to depart and be with Christ.  If that is not the great illustration of grace I don’t know what is.  This is a man whose whole life qualified him for hell.  And in one moment a sovereign God swept down, gave him complete clarity on himself and on Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit rescued him from divine judgment and that same day met him in heaven and fellowshipped with him

Henry has this analysis:

1. Christ here lets us know that he was going to paradise himself, to hades—the invisible world. His human soul was removing to the place of separate souls; not to the place of the damned, but to paradise, the place of the blessed. By this he assures us that his satisfaction was accepted, and the Father was well pleased in him, else he had not gone to paradise; that was the beginning of the joy set before him, with the prospect of which he comforted himself. He went by the cross to the crown, and we must not think of going any other way, or of being perfected but by sufferings. 2. He lets all penitent believers know that when they die they shall go to be with him there. He was now, as a priest, purchasing this happiness for them, and is ready, as a king, to confer it upon them when they are prepared and made ready for it. See here how the happiness of heaven is set forth to us. (1.) It is paradise, a garden of pleasure, the paradise of God (Rev 2 7), alluding to the garden of Eden, in which our first parents were placed when they were innocent. In the second Adam we are restored to all we lost in the first Adam, and more, to a heavenly paradise instead of an earthly one. (2.) It is being with Christ there. That is the happiness of heaven, to see Christ, and sit with him, and share in his glory, John 17 24. (3.) It is immediate upon death: This day shalt thou be with me, to-night, before to-morrow. Thou souls of the faithful, after they are delivered from the burden of the flesh, immediately are in joy and felicity; the spirits of just men are immediately made perfect. Lazarus departs, and is immediately comforted; Paul departs, and is immediately with Christ, Phil 1 23.

What an amazing illustration of forgiveness, divine grace and salvation.

MacArthur has an interesting observation on the Jews’ misunderstanding of Passover during that era. This ties in with the Crucifixion:

There’s another irony, that the Jews want him dead so they can get on with the celebration of the Passover that points to his death.  The Jews want to get on with the slaying of the lambs that can never take away sin while rejecting the one, true lamb of God how alone can take away the sin of the world While they are busy killing the lambs who had no power, God was by their hands, killing the lamb to whom all salvation power belongs.  The Jews looked at Passover as God rescuing them from Pharaoh.  That really wasn’t what the Passover was.  They looked at the Passover as God rescuing them from the power of Pharaoh in Egypt.  It was really far more than that.  While there was a deliverance from Egypt, there was a far greater deliverance in the Passover.  Do you remember what the Passover was?  The word came from God that he was going to come in sweeping judgment on both Egyptians and Jews, and the only people who would be protected from that judgment would be those who put the blood of the lamb on the door post and the lintel.  Otherwise, the judgment of God would hit that house and take the life of the first born.  And God did not discriminate between the Jews and the Egyptians.  He would take the life of any first born.  He would bring wrath and judgment on any household that was not covered by the blood of the Passover lamb.  The night of the Passover, then, was not truly a deliverance from the power of the Pharaoh and the wrath of Pharaoh, it was a deliverance from the wrath of God.  Somehow they had skewed that thinking that they were delivered from the wrath and power of Pharaoh.  They celebrated that part of it and they forgot that the real Passover was a deliverance from the wrath of God And all sinners are always deserving of wrath unless they’re covered by the blood, and the blood of bulls and goats can’t take away sin and can’t really cover the sinner.  So they had no idea what as going on at their cross of Calvary when the true Passover lamb was dying so that his blood might become the protection of all who believe in him.

So in not saving himself, Jesus was able to save others, exactly opposite their assumption that he couldn’t save anybody because he couldn’t even save himself.  How twisted their perception.  How wrong.  And the whole scene was feeding this twisted perception.  There was no clarity anywhere.  The leaders didn’t have clarity.  The people didn’t have clarity.  The Romans didn’t have clarity.  The high priests didn’t have clarity.  The chief priests didn’t have it.  Nobody had it.  Everybody had a twisted and perverted understanding of what was happening and in the midst of all of this, one man gets clarity.  In spite of everything that’s going on around him in which he’s been a participant, the light dawns.  Life comes out of death.  Knowledge comes out of ignorance.  Light dispels the darkness.  And that’s the story of this man that we call the penitent thief.  It’s a personal story. It’s a very personal story.  It’s about one man.  It’s a personal story of salvation, but it’s also the pattern of the story of all people’s salvation  

MacArthur sums up these verses as follows for what to remember about the Crucifixion and what happened at the first Pentecost:

Without argument what is being spewed out of these evil hearts and evil mouths right at the son of God is the supreme blasphemy, the ultimate desecration of holiness, the lowest sin every committed, wickedness at its lowest, and it is deserving of divine cursing, divine threatening, divine vengeance, divine judgment, divine damnation.  This is injustice without parallel, transgression without equal.  This is heresy above heresy, irreverence above irreverence, profanity above profanity, sacrilege beyond comprehension.  We would expect Jesus to pour out furious denunciations on all of them, to judge them, to make them pay for their outrageous, extreme iniquity immediately on the spot, but he doesn’t.

Contrary to that he says, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they’re doing.”  He asks God to provide forgiveness for them.  Now Jesus spoke seven things from the cross He spoke to one of the thieves and said, “Today you’ll be with me in paradise.”  Then he spoke to his mother and John and said, “Behold your mother, behold your son,” and gave the care of his mother to the apostle John who were standing far, far away.  And then for three hours the whole earth was dark and he spoke not at all.  And after the darkness he spoke to God and he said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  And then he spoke to the soldiers and said, “I’m thirsty,” and they gave him the sponge And then he spoke to himself and said, “It is finished.”  And then he spoke to God and said, “It’s at thy hands I commit my spirit.”  But the first thing he said, before any of those was, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”  His first words were words seeking divine forgiveness for the world’s most wretched sinners Certainly this is Jesus, the Father, running to embrace the stinking prodigal, isn’t it?  This is not surprising.  Jesus even said that the more someone is forgiven the more they love, so he set himself up to forgive great sinners so that he might experience from them great love. 

Peter says that when he was reviled he was reviled not again and that when he was being abused he did not cry out for vengeance, 1 Peter 2:23 and 24 Stephen picked up on this and when Stephen saw life was being crushed out by the bloody stones, Stephen, following his Lord said, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”  This is a general prayer.  To understand what he meant by this, it is a general prayer for all the world to know that there’s no sin against the son of God that is so severe it cannot be forgiven if one will repent That’s the message.  If there is forgiveness for these people, there is forgiveness for anyone.  You can’t get beyond this.  But it’s more than just a general prayer, it’s a specific prayer.  When he said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they’re doing,” he knew who the “them” were because on the day of Pentecost, 3,000 Jews in Jerusalem were converted to Christ and baptized and the church was begun Within a few weeks another 5,000 men and more and more and it moves into tens of thousands of people in Jerusalem who embrace the faith of Jesus Christ, and there must have been many of those who came to Christ in those weeks after the resurrection who were there in that crowd, so that it is a general prayer telling the whole world that the sinner who repents and comes to Christ can be forgiven of the worst crime ever committed.  But it is also a specific prayer that God knows in His mind from before the foundation of the world, who in that crowd He will truly forgive A church was born out of these people who stood at the foot of Calvary and mocked the son of God.  They became the first church.  Not only that, there was a soldier among the soldiers.  One of them came to salvation.  23 Luke 47 when the Centurion saw what had happened, he began praising God saying, “Certainly this man was innocent.”  And Matthew says he said something besides that, he said, “This was the son of God.”  And by the way, don’t think it was just that Centurion Listen to 27 Matthew 54, “Now the Centurion and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus said, “Truly, this was the son of God.”  The prayer was answered on the spot.  Some in the crowd formed the first church.  Some among the soldiers affirmed the deity of Jesus Christ, and a Roman Centurion praising the true God of Israel and affirming the reality of His son and others with him?  By the way, some of the leaders also were saying it.  In 6 Acts 7, “The word of God kept on spreading.  The number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem.”  Listen to this:  “And a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.”  And by the way, there was one of the two thieves who said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and to him Jesus said today, “I’ll meet you in paradise.”

In one sense it’s a general prayer that throws open the forgiveness of God for all who have rejected Christ no matter how great the crimes committed against him, but on another level this is a very specific prayer that was immediately answered among the crowd, among the soldiers, among the thieves and even among the priests.  The great irony of Calvary is that while all this scorn was being heaped on Christ, he was bearing the curse of God far worse than anything they could put on him You think it’s bad to be cursed by men, he was being cursed by God.  But in taking both the curses from men and the curse from God, he provided the very atonement which makes the forgiveness he prayed for possible

Christ the King: truly He is, now and forever.

This is the last Sunday in the 2021-2022 Church year. Next Sunday, a new Church year begins with the season of Advent, and a new set of Lectionary readings from Year A.

May everyone reading this have a blessed Sunday.

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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