Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The King and His People

Part 1 of Kingdom Life

Text: Matthew 5:1-2

Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them (Matt. 5:1-2).

Can You See the Difference?

The teaching of Jesus found in Matthew 5-7 is commonly called the “Sermon on the Mount.” The sermon gives us the essence of Christianity. In other words, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his followers how he wants them to live.

There used to be an ABC laundry detergent commercial that asked the question “Can you see the difference?” According to the commercial, clothes washed with ABC look no different than clothes washed with a more expensive brand of detergent.

Sadly, many people say they can’t see a difference between Christians and everybody else.

We Should Be Different

Matthew 4:17 says, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven [1] is at hand.” [2] The kingdom was “at hand” because the King was present. And Jesus declared that all who desire to enter God’s kingdom must “repent.” To repent means to change one’s mind. Those who enter the kingdom of God decide to make Jesus the King of their lives. And when Jesus is our King, we are expected to live a certain way. [3]

The Sermon on the Mount is meant for all Christians--not just a special class of Christians. R. Kent Hughes writes that the Sermon on the Mount “is the antidote to the pretense and sham that plagues Christianity.” [4]

The Sermon on the Mount is the King’s declaration that he expects his people to be different. 

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is often compared to Moses. [5] Jesus is a new and greater Moses. Moses went up a mountain to receive God’s law for the Israelites. Obeying God’s law would make the Israelites different from the other nations. Matthew 5:1-2 says, “Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them.” And in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeatedly makes it clear that his followers are to act differently than other people.

We should be concerned with our inward desires, not just our outward actions. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (5:27-28).

We are to love our enemies, not just our family and friends. “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (5:46-47).

We are to try to impress others with our religious acts. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for them you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (6:1).

We are not to worry about material things. “Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seeks after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows you need them all” (6:31-32).

If you’re a Christian—a citizen of God’s kingdom—people should be able to see a difference in your life.

What Difference Would It Make? 

What difference would it make if people could see a difference in our lives?

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that living out the Sermon on the Mount “is the best means of evangelism.” “I am never tired of saying that what the Church needs to do is not to organize evangelistic campaigns to attract outside people, but to begin herself to live the Christian life.” [6] 

[1] “The kingdom of heaven” is identical to “the kingdom of God.”
[2] The kingdom of God is the rule of God. God rules in the lives of Christians, but the church is not synonymous with the kingdom. The kingdom is both already here (“the kingdom of God has come upon you,” Matt. 12:28) and not yet here.
[3] This doesn’t mean that we enter the kingdom by our own good works. The only requirements are repentance and faith in Christ.
[4] R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount, 16.
[5] An example of this is how both Moses and Herod were saved from two murdering kings: Moses from Pharaoh and Jesus from Herod.
[6] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 13.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

How Can I Keep My Resolution to Pray Daily?

Part 2 of Resolutions

Text: 1 John 4:13-15

You can listen to this sermon here.

And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him (1 John 5:14-15).

Resolutions Are Hard to Keep

This is the time of year when people are trying to keep New Year’s resolutions. Christians often make New Year’s resolutions. Two of the most common Christian resolutions are to read the Bible daily and to pray daily.

January 17 was Ditch Your Resolutions Day. Two ice cream franchises, Marble Slab Creamery and Maggie Moo’s, celebrated the fake holiday by offering a special by one, get one free ice cream deal. Why was January 17 picked as Ditch Your Resolutions Day? Because by this time, many people have already given up on the resolution. Resolutions are hard to keep. How can we keep our resolution to pray daily?

Keeping Our Resolution 

If we are to keep our resolution to pray daily, we should remember five things.

1. When we pray, we should remember that it’s normal to be frustrated with prayer. 

There are many biblical examples of people who were frustrated with prayer. One of these people was the prophet Habakkuk. The book of Habakkuk begins with the prophet complaining to God about unanswered prayer: “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you, ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” (Hab. 1:2). Sometimes it’s encouraging to discover that other people struggle like us. (We’re not happy about the struggles of others, but we are happy to know we’re not abnormal.)

2. When we pray, we should remember that we’re approaching a loving Father. 

Throughout 1 John, John emphasizes that believers are God’s children (“born of God”). In 3:1, he writes, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God.” God is a Father who loves his children more than we can imagine. Because we know God loves us, we can have “confidence” (v. 14) when we pray.

When we approach God in prayer, we are approaching a Father who wants what is best for us. Jesus said, “Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matt. 7:9-11). Sometimes God’s children ask him for stones and serpents, and God says, “No.” Sometimes God grants his children’s requests for bread and fish, but he says, “Wait.” Sometimes God’s children ask for bread and fish, but God says, “I have something else planned for you” (e.g., Paul’s denied request in 2 Cor. 12:7-10).

3. When we pray, we should remember that prayer really does work. 

Sometimes, when something good happens, we think, “Maybe that was going to happen whether or not I prayed.” But prayer is not a waste of time. It’s possible that when we pray we can “have the requests that we have asked of him” (v. 15). Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can make God do things he doesn’t want to do.

4. When we pray, we should remember that prayer isn’t all about us.

Prayer is about getting God’s will done, not ours (“if we ask anything according to his will,” v. 14). We should also prayer for the needs of others, not just our own needs (see v. 16).

5. Before we pray, we should have a plan. 

Instead of saying to ourselves, “I want to pray daily,” we should make a specific plan. An ideal plan would be to combine Bible reading and prayer. Here’s one possible plan: (1) set aside 20-30 minutes; (2) pick a quiet time and place; (3) read a portion of Scripture; (4) meditate upon the words you read; (5) ask God to speak to you through those words; (6) pray.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

New Sermon Series: Kingdom Life

The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is one of the most familiar, yet also challenging, portions of Scripture. This coming Sunday, I am going to begin a new sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount called "Kingdom Life." I decided to give the series this title because Jesus' sermon talks about how Christians are to live as members of his kingdom. Below are the books I'll be using in my sermon preparation.

Dale C. Allison, The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination
D. A. Carson, Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World
W. D. Davies, The Sermon on the Mount
Daniel M. Doriani: The Sermon on the Mount: The Character of a Disciple
Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Sermon on the Mount
R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount
Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount
Charles Quarles, Sermon on the Mount: Restoring Christ's Message to the Modern Church
John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How Can I Keep My Resolution to Read the Bible Daily?

Part 1 of Resolutions

Text: 2 Timothy 2:15; 3:16-17

You can listen to this sermon here.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). 

New Year, New You

This is the time of year when people make New Year’s resolutions. Unfortunately, most people don’t keep their resolutions.

A common New Year’s resolution for Christians is to read the Bible more regularly. How can we be more successful in keeping our resolution to read the Bible daily?

Keeping Our Resolution

If we are to keep our resolution to daily read the Bible, we must do two things.

1. We must have a high view of the Bible. 

Paul writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (3:16). The Greek word for “breathed out by God” (“inspired,” NASB) is theopneustos. The word does not occur in any other Greek text (biblical or secular) prior to 2 Timothy. Some people think that Paul might have invented the word.

The apostle Peter states, “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (1 Peter 1:21). The Bible is both a divine book and a human book. It was written by humans but breathed out by God. God used each author’s unique style and experiences, but, at the same time, they were “carried along by the Holy Spirit.” 

Second Timothy 3:16 and 1 Peter 1:21 actually refer to the OT. What about the NT? Peter implies that Paul’s writings are Scripture: “There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). And Paul quotes the words of Jesus in Luke 10:7 as Scripture: “The Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’”

The psalmist says, “I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word” (Psalm 119:16). The Hebrew word for “forget” (shakach) means to lay aside, to forget, to take for granted, to neglect. If we believe that the words of the Bible are the words of God, we shouldn’t neglect to read the Bible’s words. As Paul writes, the words of the Bible are “profitable” (cf. 1 Tim. 4:8; Titus 3:8).

2. We must have a plan.

Why do so many people fail to keep their New Year’s resolutions? They don’t have a good plan. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

Paul tells Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handing the word of truth” (2:15). Paul compares a Christian to a “worker” (i.e., a laborer). To work effectively, a worker needs a plan. Of course, with a plan we also need to have dedication.

We must plan how we will read the Bible. There are many Bible reading plans. We must also plan when and where we will read the Bible.

But we must not read the Bible just to read it—to merely get it done. Reading the Bible is important, but being changed by the Bible is much more important. As James writes, “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).

Are the Words of the Bible Valuable to You? 

Two men were especially influential in making the Bible available to English readers. John Wycliffe was the first person to translate the Bible into English in 1380. William Tyndale was the first person to print an English Bible in 1526. Wycliffe and Tyndale risked their lives because they saw the great value in English people being able to read the Bible in their own language. Tyndale was strangled to death, and his dead body was burned at the stake. Wycliffe’s body was exhumed and burned.

Think about Wycliffe and Tyndale’s view of the Bible and our frequent neglect of it. Today, we are often guilty of taking the Bible for granted. English Bibles are so easily available in Canada. Most Christians have multiple copies in their home.

Do you believe the words of the Bible are the words of God? Do you believe there is value in reading the Bible? If you do, you need to have a plan to daily read the Bible—a wise plan you can stick to. And as you read it each day, seek to understand it and obey it.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Binding of Isaac: How Could a Good God Tell a Father to Kill His Son?

Abraham and Isaac, Rembrandt, 1634

A Shocking Command

At the age of seventy-five, Abraham was given an incredible promise from God. Abraham and his wife Sarah would be given something that they had desperately wanted for so many years: a son. And through the birth of this son, God would bless Abraham in many amazing ways: God would make of Abraham “a great nation” (Gen. 12:2) [1]; in Abraham “all the families of the earth [would] be blessed” (Gen. 12:3); and his descendents would be as numerous “as the dust of the earth” (Gen. 13:16).

Many years passed without a son being born to Abraham and Sarah. And when God repeated his promise of a son, they both laughed (Gen. 17:17; 18:12). [2] Such a thing was beyond improbable. But in spite of their doubts, Abraham and Sarah’s miracle child was finally born (Gen. 21:5). He was named “Isaac,” which means “he laughs.” Their laughter of skepticism [3] had turned into laughter of joy.

But some time later a shocking command came from God to Abraham: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Gen. 22:2). Did these words really come from the God whom the Old Testament declares to be compassionate? How could such a God ask a father to kill his own son?

Skeptics, seeking to discredit the Bible, assert that this is an immoral command. For example, well-known atheist Richard Dawkins describes the binding of Isaac as a “disgraceful story” of “child abuse” and “bullying.” [4] However, this post will argue that the command of Genesis 22:2 was not immoral. Rather, the binding of Isaac [5] should be seen as a test of Abraham’s devotion to God, a repudiation of child sacrifice, and a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of God’s own Son.

The Biding of Isaac as a Test of Abraham’s Devotion 

Genesis 22 begins by informing us that the command of verse 2 was a test (“God tested Abraham, v. 1). Clearly, it was not God’s desire for Isaac to die. However, Abraham was given no hint that he was merely being tested. Therefore, the reader of Genesis 22 must not think that the nature of the command (i.e., it being a test) made Abraham’s obedience any less difficult.

The command to sacrifice Isaac was similar to the earlier command that God gave to Abraham in Genesis 12:1: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Paul Copan writes,
Abraham had left his home in Ur and given up his past for the sake of God’s promise. Now he was being asked if he would trust God by apparently surrendering his future as well. Everything Abraham ever hoped for was tied up in this son of promise. [6]
Victor P. Hamilton points out that the command “Take” is “followed by the participle -nā’ [and] is normally translated something like ‘please’ or ‘I beg you.’” [7] Hamilton also points out that -nā’ “is used only five times in the entire OT when God speaks to a person. Each time God asks the individual to do something staggering, something that defies rational explanation or understanding.” [8] This indicates that God was sensitive to how difficult the command would be for Abraham to obey.

Verse 3 states that “Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac.” James L. Crenshaw comments, “The astonishing thing about this divine command is Abraham’s readiness to accept such a word without the slightest whisper of objection.” [9] Abraham had been bold enough to question God in the past. In Genesis 18, when God told Abraham that he would soon destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argued that this judgment was unfair: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25). So why didn’t Abraham question the fairness of the divine command to sacrifice Isaac? We are not told why, but perhaps Abraham had learned to trust that the Judge of all the earth does in fact always do what is right.

What was the purpose of God’s test of Abraham? When Abraham “reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son” (v. 10), the angel of the LORD, speaking on behalf of God, said to Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, [10] seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (v. 11). The purpose of the test was to demonstrate whether or not Abraham feared God. [11] Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son clearly showed that he did.

But what does it mean to “fear God”? One helpful definition of the “fear of God” is “affectionate reverence.” [12] To “fear God” means to both love and obey Him. There is a connection between love for God and obedience to God. To love God is to obey Him. Jesus declared that the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37).

Timothy Keller believes that God’s test of Abraham was “about loving God supremely.” [13] Abraham might have been in danger of slipping into idolatry. Keller defines idolatry as “the making of good things into ultimate things.” [14] We are to put nothing—including a very good thing like a son [15]—before God. The first commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). Abraham had desperately wanted a son. Now that he had finally been blessed with a son, whom did he love more: Isaac or God? In the end, Abraham’s obedience to such a difficult command proved that he was most devoted to God. If ever anyone did truly love God with all his heart, it was Abraham in that moment when he was ready to sacrifice his beloved son.

The Binding of Isaac as a Repudiation of Child Sacrifice

Before addressing the issue of child sacrifice, there are a couple of details that should not be overlooked. First, it is possible that Isaac was willing to die. Isaac is often imagined as a little boy who was forced to submit to his father. However, Isaac was probably the stronger of the two. Abraham was an elderly man, over one hundred years old, and the text suggests that Isaac was at least a teenager, maybe even a young adult.

In verses 5 and 12, Isaac is called a “boy,” but the English Standard Version notes that another possible translation of the Hebrew word na’ar is “young man.” Hartley points out that na’ar is also used in Genesis 22 for Abraham’s “young men” (i.e., his servants) in verses 3, 5, and 19. [16] Therefore, it is possible that Isaac was around the same age as the servants. Furthermore, verse 6 states that Isaac carried the wood for the burnt offering. This would probably be a task too difficult for a little boy.

If Isaac had been a little boy, it is improbable that a centenarian like Abraham would be able to force him on the altar. In verse 9 we are told that Abraham “bound” Isaac. Gordon J. Wenham writes, “That an elderly man was able to bind the hands and feet of a lively teenager strongly suggests Isaac’s consent.” [17]

Second, the text hints that Abraham thought Isaac would be delivered, or at least raised, from death. In verse 5, Abraham says to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” Why did Abraham say, “I and the boy will…come again to you”? Perhaps he was trying to conceal the truth from the servants and Isaac. But a better explanation is that these words were an expression of faith. Abraham believed that somehow he would return to his servants with Isaac. Why? Because he believed the promises God had given to him—promises that depended on Isaac remaining alive. [18] This is the interpretation of the writer of Hebrews:
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. 
Whether or not Isaac was willing to die and whether or not Abraham believed Isaac would be spared, the issue of child sacrifice still remains. In Exodus 22:29, God does say, “The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me.” However, this does not mean that God wanted the Israelites to literally sacrifice their firstborn sons. The point was that everything rightfully belongs to God. Also, the Israelites were able to redeem their firstborn sons (see Exod. 13:13).

What does the binding of Isaac tell us about child sacrifice? Simply put, it tells us that God does not accept child sacrifice. As Hartley argues, the binding of Isaac “clearly and unequivocally teaches that Yahweh, the only God, never accepts human sacrifice. If God did not accept the sacrifice of Isaac, the first child of promise, surely no other sacrifice of a child would be acceptable to him. [19]

The Binding of Isaac as a Foreshadowing of God’s Sacrifice

Readers of Genesis 22 usually focus on Abraham’s obedience, but perhaps the most important message of the story is God’s provision. Hamilton writes, “Appropriately Abraham names this place Yahweh-yireh, ‘Yahweh sees (or provides).’ He does not call this site ‘Abraham-shama’ (‘Abraham obeyed’).” [20]

The verb “provide” in verse 8 (“God will provide for himself the lamb,” cf. v. 14) literally means “to see.” Walton comments, “This usage approximates one of the idiomatic uses of the verb ‘to see’ that we also have in English. When we say ‘I will see to it that the report is done one time,’ we are using the verb ‘to see’ to convey that the details will be taken care of.” [21] So God saw to it that there would be a lamb for the burnt offering.

In the binding of Isaac, it is not difficult to see Abraham as a type of the Father and Isaac as a type of the Son. The actions of Abraham foreshadowed the Father’s sacrifice of His Son, and the actions of Isaac foreshadowed the Son’s willing death. [22] There is ample evidence that the New Testament authors saw it this way.

The clearest New Testament allusion to the binding of Isaac is probably found in Romans 8:32, where the apostle Paul writes that God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all.” Also, during the baptism of Jesus, the voice from heaven declares, “You are my beloved Son” (Mark 1:11; cf. 9:7). These words are reminiscent of how God described Isaac: “your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love” (v. 2). For Isaac, there was a substitute—“a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns” (v. 13), but, for Jesus, there was no one to take His place on the cross. Jesus was the provided “Lamb of God” (John 1:29) who was “led to the slaughter” (Isa. 53:7) to die for the sins of the world. 

As Abraham and Isaac did the work of the servants—Abraham chopping the wood for the bunt offering (v. 3) and Isaac carrying the wood (v. 6)—so the Father and the Son served humanity. Jesus proclaimed that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). In their service to humanity, the Father and Son’s love is revealed.

In Genesis 22, we can look below the surface and see something more. This story is not really about Abraham; it is about God. It was not Abraham who provided the sacrifice; it was God. It was not Abraham’s son who died; it was God’s. The divine promise given to Abraham (“in your offspring shall all nations of the earth be blessed,” v. 18) was fulfilled through Jesus Christ. God’s Son was born a Jew (i.e., a descendent of Abraham) to die for the salvation of people of all nations.

An Amazing Love

From beginning to end, the binding of Isaac was a test. It was never God’s will for Isaac to die. But the question still remains: why did the divine test need to be so emotionally painful? Why didn’t God tell Abraham to give up his wealth instead? Wouldn’t this be a suitable test?

It has already been stated that part of the reason why God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was to prevent Abraham from turning his son into an idol. However, an additional reason is also possible. Perhaps God wants us to put ourselves in Abraham’s place—to think about how heart-wrenching it must have been to be told to put one’s own child to death. Yes, the command given to Abraham in Genesis 22:2 was disturbing. But maybe God wants us to be disturbed. Why? Because the more we are disturbed by the divine command, the more we should be amazed by God’s love.

What Abraham was told to do, God actually did. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations in this post are from the English Standard Version.
[2] In Genesis 17:17, Abraham says, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”
[3] Genesis 15:6 states that Abraham “believed the LORD” when God promised Abraham that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars in the heavens (v. 5). But it appears that his faith contained a certain amount of doubt.
[4] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), p. 243.
[5] The story recorded in Genesis 22 is often called “the binding of Isaac.”
[6] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), p. 46.
[7] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 101.
[8] Ibid.
[9] James L. Crenshaw, A Whirlpool of Torment (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), p. 20.
[10] Why would an all-knowing God need to test Abraham if He already know what Abraham would do? John H. Walton in Genesis writes, “We must differentiate between knowledge as cognition and knowledge as experience. We can agree that God knew ahead of time what Abraham was going to do. But there is ample evidence throughout Scripture that God desires us to act out our faith and worship regardless of the fact that he knows our hearts” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), p. 514.
[11] A secondary purpose of the divine test was to provide for others an example of genuine faith (see James 2.21-23).
[12] Charles Bridges, Proverbs (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), p. 67.
[13] Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods (New York: Dutton, 2005), p. 13.
[14] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008), p. 162.
[15] Obviously there was nothing wrong with Abraham loving his son. But his love for his son was not to come before his love for God.
[16] Hartley, Genesis, p. 211.
[17] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16-50 (Dallas: Word Books, 1994), p. 109.
[18] Another possible hint of Abraham’s faith can be found in verses 7-8. When questioned by Isaac about the lack of a lamb for the burnt offering (v. 7), Abraham declares, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (v. 8).
[19] Hartley, Genesis, p. 212.
[20] Hamilton, Genesis 18-50, p. 113.
[21] Walton, Genesis, p. 511.
[22] It is sometimes said that Isaac carrying the wood for the burnt offering (v. 6) foreshadowed Jesus carrying the wooden cross (see John 19:17). It is also often contended that Moriah was the future site of the temple mount (which was located in the city where Jesus was crucified), but this is often disputed.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

What You've Always Wanted

Part 3 of Keep Yourselves from Idols

Text: Genesis 22:1-14

You can listen to this sermon here.

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there was a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Gen. 22:1-2). 

The Worst Thing That Can Happen to Us 

In the movie A Christmas Story, Ralphie desperately wants a Red Ryder air rifle for Christmas. But the adults in his life—his mother, his teacher, even the department store Santa Claus—keep telling him, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” It appears unlikely that Ralphie will get what he most wants for Christmas. But on Christmas morning, Ralphie’s father surprises him with one last present: a Red Ryder air rifle. An excited Ralphie goes outside to try out his gift. His first shot ricochets off a metal sign and hits the lens of his glasses. He almost shot his eye out. Getting what he wanted for Christmas almost became the worst thing to happen to Ralphie.

What have you always wanted? People say, “If I could […], then I’d be happy.” We are all prone to think, “If I could get what I’ve always wanted, then I’d be happy.”

Getting what we’ve always wanted can be the worst thing to happen to us. 

Tim Keller tells about a woman he knew who desperately wanted to have children. Eventually she did have two children, but she didn’t live happily ever after. She wanted to give her children perfect lives, but she became so overprotective and so demanding that she made her children and herself miserable. Keller comments, “There’s a good chance her drive to give her children won-derful lives will eventually be the thing that ruins them.” Her problem was not that she loved her children too much but that she loved God too little. [1]

In the book of Genesis, Abraham desperately wanted a son—a son who would fulfill the promises given to Abraham by God. Eventually a miracle son was born to Abraham and his wife Sarah. But years later God told Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there was a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Gen. 22:2). [2] God wanted to make sure that that Abraham getting a son would not be the worst thing to happen to him.

Now I Know You Love Me

God didn’t really want Isaac to die. God’s command was a test of Abraham’s devotion (“God tested Abraham,” v. 1). Whom did Abraham love more: God or Isaac? John Calvin writes that idolatry is “to worship the gifts in place of the giver himself.” [3]

1. When God gives us what we’ve always wanted, there is the danger of loving the gift more than the giver. 

Just before Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac, the angel of the LORD stopped him. He said to Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen. 22:12). Are there any “Isaacs” in our lives that need to be demoted (not necessarily removed).

2. When our love for God begins to fade, we must remember that he gave up his Son for us. 

What God asked Abraham to do, God actually did. [4]  He “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32). When we understand what God has done for us, we say, “Now I know that you love me.” “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16).

God Is Not Merely a Gift-Giver 

Some of you probably remember the Cabbage Patch craze. Cabbage Patch dolls were the must-have gift of 1983. Children desperately wanted them, and parents were desperate to give them—sometimes even resorting to violence. According to Wikipedia, “Reports of violence included hitting, shoving, trampling as well as some customers attacking others with hand-held weapons such as baseball bats in order to obtain a Cabbage Patch doll.” [5]

God is not a means to an end (i.e., just a gift-giver).Would you be happy in heaven if it contained all of God’s good gifts but not God himself? That would be like a child saying he would like to have Christmas if it included all the gifts but not his parents.

[1] Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods, 1-3.
[2] It’s unclear how old Isaac was at this time. The text provides a few clues that suggest he was not a little boy and that he might have been willing to die.
[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.36.
[4] Skeptics often try to discredit the Bible by saying that God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was im-moral. But if the incident was meant to foreshadow the sacrifice of Jesus, the heart-wrenching nature of the test helps us further appreciate God’s love for us in the giving up of his Son.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Image Is Everything

Part 2 of Keep Yourselves from Idols

Text: Romans 1:18-25

You can listen to this sermon here.

[They] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things (Rom. 1:23). 

Those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29).

A Foolish Trade 

Have you ever made a bad trade?

In Romans 1, the apostle Paul declares that those who worship idols have made a foolish trade. He writes that idolaters “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (v. 23). Paul also states that idolaters “exchanged the truth for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (v. 25).

Idolatry is the worship of a God-substitute. Idolaters exchange the worship of God for the worship of a substitute.

Resembling Our God

How does our worship—either of God or an idol—affect us?

Paul was probably thinking of Psalm 106:19-20 when he wrote verse 23: “They made a calf in Horeb and worshiped a metal image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass.” The psalmist is referring to the golden calf incident. After God had delivered the Israelites out of Egypt, they “made a golden calf” (Exod. 32:4) and “worshiped it” (Exod. 32:8).

The worship of the golden calf took place while Moses was receiving God’s commands for the Israelites. And what were the first two commands? First, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). And, second, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exod. 20:4-5).

After the Israelites made and worshiped the golden calf, God described them as “a stiff-necked people” (Exod. 32:9; cf. 33:3, 5; 34:9; 2 Chron. 30:8; Neh. 9:16, 17, 29; Jer. 7:26; Acts 7:51). The golden calf would have been a bull (an ox?), a stiff-necked animal. The Israelites resembled their idol. [1] Psalm 115:8 says, “Those who make [idols] become like them; so do all who trust in them” (cf. Ps. 135:18; Isa. 42:17-20). This is true for both traditional idolaters and idolaters of the heart. 

We become like what we worship. 

We were not made to worship and resemble an idol; we were made to worship and resemble God. Genesis 1:26 says that God made us “in [his] image, after [his] likeness.” When we worship idols, God’s image in us is distorted. Idolatry is a distortion of reality. Idolaters think they are wise, but they’re really fools. Traditional idolaters pray to idols who “have ears, but do not hear” (Ps. 115:6). Idolaters of the heart seek happiness in things that can’t satisfy. Paul says that idolaters “suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18; cf. vv. 21-22).

Ruin and Restoration

In his book We Become What We Worship, G. K. Beale writes, “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration.” [2] In Romans, the Greek word for “image” (eikon) occurs twice: “images [i.e., idols] resembling moral man and birds and animals” (1:23) and “the image of [God’s] Son” (8:29). Idols ruin God’s image in us. God restores his image in us.

Idolatry is really the root of all sin. When Adam and Eve sinned, they doubted the goodness of God. They thought that God was withholding something from them that would make them happy. The serpent said to Eve, “God knows that when you eat of [the fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4). Adam and Eve made knowledge an idol, desiring to eat the fruit more than desiring to obey God. Their idolatry brought ruin to their lives. And Adam became like his idol, acting like a know-it-all when con-fronted by God about his disobedience (Gen. 3:12).

When we give our hearts to God, he begins to restore his likeness in us. 

Do you want to know what God’s image looks like? It looks like Jesus, “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15; cf. 2 Cor. 4:4). For God to restore his image in us means to make us like Jesus: “Those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). The gospel is the story of God’s restoration plan.

Image Is Everything

Back in the ‘90s, Andre Agassi used to be on Canon camera (EOS Rebel) commercials, and the slogan was “Image is everything.” The image that Agassi portrayed in those commercials seems kind of silly today.

For God, image is everything. He made us to be like him. He made us to know him. When we trade God for idols, we further distort his image in us. In the end, there will be ruin.

Salvation is not just about delivering us from God’s wrath against our sin. It’s also about restoring us. Contrary to popular opinion, obeying and imaging God is the path to true happiness.

[1] The Israelites repeatedly acted in a stiff-necked manner in the wilderness, refusing to obey God. This was espe-cially seen when they refused to enter the promised land.
[2] G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship, 16.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Idol Factory

Part 1 of Keep Yourselves from Idols

Text: Exodus 20:1-6

You can listen to this sermon here.

Little children, keep yourselves from idols (1 John 5:21). 

Idols of the Heart

The first commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). Is idolatry a problem in our city? Yes, it is. This afternoon, our city will be filled with idolatry. Mic Mac Mall and Dartmouth Crossing will be crowded with shoppers worshipping the idol of materialism. People will be visiting salons and gyms worshipping the idol of physical beauty. Football fans will be seated in front of TVs worshipping the idol of sports. Idolatry is a problem in our city because it’s a problem that originates in our hearts.

The human heart is an idol factory. 

When John wrote, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols,” he was probably writing to Christians living near or in the city of Ephesus. [1] In Ephesus, there was both traditional idolatry and idolatry of the heart (cf. Ezek. 14:3, 4, 7). Ephesus was famous for its Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (see Acts 19:21-41). The worship of Artemis was traditional idolatry. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, states that a “covetous” person is “an idolater” (Eph. 5:5; cf. Col. 3:5). Covetousness is one form of idolatry of the heart.

How to Make an Idol 

What is idolatry? John Calvin writes that idolatry is “to worship the gifts in place of the giver himself.” [2] Tim Keller defines idolatry as “the making of good things into ultimate things.” [3]

In his book Counterfeit Gods, Keller writes than an idol is “anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.” [4] Whenever there is a financial crisis, there are some people who commit suicide. Without their money, life isn’t worth living. Money is their god. 

Idolatry is turning a good thing into an ultimate thing. 

Something like sports is a good thing. But if we begin to care more about sports than God, we have committed idolatry.

Guarding Against Idolatry

In 1 John 5:21, the Greek word for “keep” (phylasso) means “to guard.” “John is urging his readers to watch out for anything that may become a substitute for God.” [5] How can we guard against idolatry in our lives? We must continually remind ourselves of two truths.

1. Only God deserves our highest love, not an idol. 

God told the Israelites, “You shall not bow down to [idols] or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God” (Exod. 20:5). [6] In the OT, God is described as the husband as his people, and idolatry is said to be spiritual adultery. In Jeremiah 3:20, God said, “Like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you, Israel, have been unfaithful to me.”

God will not tolerate any rivals for our love. Nor should he. To the Israelites, he was the one “who brought [them] out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod. 20:2). To us, he is the one “who redeemed [us]…with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19, NIV). He deserves our highest love. Jesus said that the most important commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). [7]

2. Only God can truly satisfy us, not an idol.

When people are devoted to an idol, they are looking elsewhere for satisfaction. People who are devoted to idols say, “If only I could [fill in the blank], then I’d be satisfied.” But idols always end up disappointing us. 

God declared, “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that hold no water” (Jer. 2:13). To the woman at the well, Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again” (John 4:13-14).

We Are All Worshippers

Every baby is born with a desire for milk. What would happen if you gave a baby Coke to drink instead of milk? It wouldn't be good.

Whether people realize it or not, everyone is born with a desire for God. We are all worshipers. We either worship God or a substitute.

As a baby’s life would be harmed by drinking something other than milk, our lives are harmed when we worship an idol.

[1] D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, 451.
[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.36.
[3] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, 162.
[4] Keller, Counterfeit Gods, xviii.
[5] Gary M. Burge, Letters of John (NIVAC), 218.
[6] Jealousy is not always sinful. It’s fitting for a husband or wife to be jealous if his or her spouse commits adultery.
[7] The command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart” is stating positively the negative command “You shall have no other Gods before me.”

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Justified by Works

Part 3 of Faith and Works

You can listen to this sermon here.

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:24). 

Same Word, Different Meaning 

Do you know what a homograph is? A homograph is a word that is spelled like another word but is different in meaning (e.g., “park,” “bat,” “fine”).

The word “faith” has more than one meaning in the Bible (though perhaps not technically a homograph). “Faith” in the Bible does not always refer to saving faith. James writes, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (v. 14). In this verse, James is referring to a certain kind of faith—a faith he describes as “dead” (vv. 17, 26) and “useless” (v. 20). [1] It’s a faith of words but not deeds. How can I be sure that my faith is not dead and useless? 

Saving faith results in good works. 

Abraham's Faith and Works

James writes, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” (v. 21). In Genesis 22, God told Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Gen. 22:2). [2] But as Abraham was about to sacrifice his son, the angel of the LORD said to him, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen. 22:12).

In verse 23, James writes, “And the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’—and he was called a friend of God” (v. 23). The quote about Abraham’s faith is from Genesis 15:6, which indicates that Abraham had faith in God long before his obedience recorded in Genesis 22.

Abraham believed God before he obeyed God. 

How was Abraham “justified by works”? “Justified” is another word that has more than one meaning in the Bible.
James 2:21, 24, and 25 are the only verses in James that contain forms of the verb “justify”...; in each case, the term means to “show to be righteous.” Thus [Abraham was] shown, in history, to be righteous by [his] actions, giving proof of [his] prior spiritual state (cf. Ge 22:12, with its “now I know”). [3]
When Paul writes that Abraham was “justified by faith,” he’s referring to Abraham’s initial justification (declared righteous by God through faith). But when James writes that Abraham was “justified by works,” he’s referring to a present justification (shown to be righteous through works). [4]  Jesus used “justified” in the same way that James does: “By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:37; cf. 11:19).

James states that Abraham’s obedience demonstrated that “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (v. 22). The Greek word translated “completed” (teleioo) is also found in 1 John 4:12: “If we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” Douglas Moo writes,
Clearly our love does not "complete" God's love in the sense that the love of God is in-adequate or faulty without our response. It is rather that God's love comes to expression, reaches its intended goal, when we respond to his grace with love toward others. So also, Abraham's faith, James suggests, reached its intended goal with the patriarch did what God was asking him to do. [5]

Testing the Genuineness of Our Faith 

James states, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (v. 24). The NIV says, “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”

How we treat others is a good test of the genuineness of our faith.

What James writes in 2:14-26 is possibly in response to people saying, “We have faith. Don’t bother us about helping others.” This could be why James says what he does in vv. 15-17 (see also 2:1-4, 8-9; 3:8-11).

[1] John 6:66 mentions that “many of [Jesus’] disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” John 12:42-43 says that “many even of the authorities believed in [Jesus], but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.” These are two examples of people who possessed faith that did not save.
[2] Skeptics often claim that it would be immoral for God to tell Abraham to kill his son. However, God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac was a test of faith (Gen. 22:1) that resulted in a promise of divine blessing for Abraham and his descendents (Gen. 22:15-18) and foreshadowed God’s gracious sacrifice of his only Son (Rom. 8:32).
[3] Craig L. Blomberg, Miriam J. Kamell, James, 136.
[4] Many commentators see this justification as a future justification at the final judgment: “Paul refers to the initial declaration of a sinner’s innocence before God; James to the ultimate verdict of innocence pronounced over a person at the last judgment. If a sinner can get into relationship with God only by faith (Paul), the ultimate validation of that relationship takes into account the works that true faith must inevitably produce (James)” (Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, 141).
[5] Moo, 137.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Justified by Faith

Part 2 of Faith and Works

You can listen to this sermon here.

And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness (Rom. 4:5).

Standing Before the Judge

On Friday, Justin Bourque, who shot and killed three RCMP officers, was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 75 years. It is the longest sentence in Canadian history, and the harshest since the death penalty was abolished.

The writer of Hebrews states, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). That’s a sobering thought. One day I will die, and then I will stand before God. And without God’s provision of justification there wouldn’t be hope for any of us.

What Is Justification?

The most common meaning of the word “justify” is “to prove or show (something) to be just, right, or reasonable.” When you justify a purchase, you declare the rightness of the purchase.

What does it mean to be justified by God? It means to be righteous in God’s sight (i.e., innocent of wrongdoing).

When God justifies a person he declares that person to be innocent of wrongdoing. 

But how is it possible to be justified? Paul repeatedly states in Romans 3 that everyone is guilty of wrongdoing. “None is righteous, no, not one” (3:10). “By the works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (3:20). “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).

Justification is possible because of Christ. Sinners “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (3:24-25). All who put their faith in Christ are justified (see 2 Cor. 5:21).

People sometimes ask, “Why did Jesus have to die? Why didn’t God excuse our sin?” When people ask these kinds of questions, they reveal that they are underestimating the awfulness of sin in God’s eyes (like a baby not realizing he has filthy hands). There had to be atonement for our sins.

Boasting Eliminated

Paul writes, “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:28). Since we aren’t justified by works, “our boasting” is “excluded” (3:27).

In 4:1, Paul asks, “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather, according to the flesh?” (v. 1). “With the word ‘then’ Paul connects what he is about to say about Abraham with what precedes (3:21-31), where he claimed that a righteousness of God comes through faith in Christ apart from the law.” [1] Is Abraham an exception? Was Abraham justified by works? Paul says no.

1. Justification is not a reward earned by works. 

Paul writes, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God” (v. 2). What does Paul mean by “but not before God”? John Piper puts it this way: “But before God such a thing is inconceivable.” [2]

2. Justification is a gift received by faith. 

Paul quotes from Genesis 15:6: “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God’” (4:3). In Genesis 15, God said to Abraham, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.... So shall your offspring be” (v. 5). Abraham was childless and was in his nineties. But Abraham believed God’s promise. His faith revealed that he was relying on God, not himself. Because Abraham believed, his faith “was counted to him as righteousness” (4:3).

Paul writes, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (vv. 4-5). Thomas Schreiner comments, “Righteousness is obtained not by working for God but by believing in a God who works for us in that he justifies the ungodly.” [3]

Is Justification Just? 

Does justification violate the principle of Proverbs 17:15: “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD” (cf. Exod. 23:7; Isa. 5:23). God condemned a righteous person (Jesus) and justifies wicked people (e.g., me). How is God not an abomination to himself?

First, when judges acquit a guilty person, they often do so because they are bribed. But to justify sinners, God gave. He “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32). Second, when judges acquit a guilty person, they the acquitted person is a high risk to reoffend. But those whom God justifies, he also transforms. Douglas Moo writes,
…God’s “justifying the wicked” cannot be seen in isolation. Yes, it is clear that God puts us right before him when we are still sinners and that justification in itself does not change our moral status or basic nature. But Paul insists that God does more than “justify” us when we become Christians. He also “regenerates” us, “sanctifies” us, and causes his Spirit to indwell us. These acts of God change us “from within.” Paul is one with James in insisting that a genuine Christian must always reveal the transforming work of God in a new life of obedience. 
The person who claims to be justified but has no interest in doing works is an abomination to God. 


It's been said that we don't truly worship God until we are amazed by him. The truth that God justifies us by grace through faith should amaze us. We sing songs about God’s “amazing grace” and his “amazing love,” but have we stopped being amazed?