The Lord's Day Morning
February 6, 2011
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 17. We’re going to be looking at verses 7 to 10. As you turn there, I want to remind you that the passage that we're going to read today takes place in the context in which Jesus has been instructing His disciples against the backdrop of the teaching that they have heard from the Pharisees and rabbis, teaching which is wrong — wrong about God, wrong about their attitude as to how a believer relates to God. And what Jesus is going to say in this passage is meant to correct that. We've seen this in chapter 16 but we also saw it in chapter 15.
If you look at the end of chapter 15 you will remember that there is the story of the prodigal son. And at the end of that story, the elder brother says to the father, when the father has thrown the party for the prodigal son who has come home, the elder son says what? “Why, you never threw me a party like that!” The elder brother is suspicious that somehow God is stingy in His dealings towards him; that somehow God is going to stiff him and do him wrong. Now Jesus is, in part, showing us that a wrong attitude about who God is and how He relates to us persists amongst the Pharisees and their parties in Israel and He wants to correct that amongst His disciples.
Anne had a relative who was famed for being tight. And one of our favorite preoccupations at family gatherings is to tell “Uncle Rosser stories.” One his deathbed, my father-in-law went to visit Uncle Rosser and Rosser said to him, “Bill, I need five dollars. Can you loan me five dollars?” So Bill pulls a five dollar bill out of his wallet and hands it to Rosser. Rosser immediately hands it to his son and says, “Put it in the bank for me son!” The man had ninety-nine cents out of every dollar he had ever earned. I don't know whether it was Peter or Gregory, but one of Anne's cousins went to work for Rosser raking leaves one day and worked all day long and had dreams in his mind of the money he was going to make off of this. He thought, “You know, I could make fifteen, twenty — I could make twenty-five dollars probably. I've worked all day long. I've gotten this whole yard in shape.” At the end of the day, Rosser came out and Peter or Gregory, whichever it was, kind of shuffled around waiting for him to pay. And finally, reluctantly, Rosser pulls out his wallet and opened it up and pulled out a five dollar bill and said, “Do you have change?”
Well, this is kind of how the Pharisees thought about God, that He's stingy, that He's not generous. And it caused them to have a messed up view of obedience in the Christian life. You know, if “we’ll do this, then God's got to do that for us.” They viewed obedience as something that gave them leverage over God. “Surely if I do this, God's got to do that for me.” And there’re people who believe in salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone who still find themselves falling into that pattern of thinking when they’re looking at their lives. Something hard is going on in their life and so they decide, “Well, you know, if I just obey enough, maybe I can make up for whatever it is that I've done wrong that has caused this bad stuff to come into my life and then maybe God will bless me. My obedience will give me some leverage with God.” And it's precisely that wrong attitude that Jesus, in this story, is going to seek to correct in His disciples.
Now the one other thing you need to know before we read the passage is Jesus is describing here not the way it is between God and His children, between God and believers, but the way the Pharisees think it is. And He's showing that even the way they conceive things doesn't work. He's showing them that the way that they conceived one's relationship with God does not cash out the way they view it. So bear that in mind.
Let's pray before we read God's Word.
Lord, this is Your Word and we need it. We need it because we don't live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. But we also need it Lord because the patterns of the Pharisees’ teaching are deeply ingrained in the human heart. We want to think that we can do something that puts You at our beckoned call and we do this precisely because we don't know how great and loving and gracious and generous You are and because we don't realize how deeply sinful we are. Correct that kind of attitude in us even as we read Your Word. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it:
“’Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down at table?’ Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
The Bible says a lot about the connection between obedience and blessing. One of the great themes of the Old Testament and of the New Testament is that the way of blessing is the way of obedience. That because of God's mercy and grace, those who walk in the way of obedience to God's command may expect to find blessing in that way. And that goes all the way back to Genesis 1 and 2 where you will remember the very first command that is ever given by God to human beings is itself a blessing. In Genesis 1, all the commands are blessings and all the blessings are commands, so there's a tying together of blessing and obedience. But the blessings that God gave to Adam and Eve in the Garden were not blessings that they had earned by their performance. God — if you read Genesis 1, just pick up at Genesis 1:26 and read — you will discover that the very first word that man ever heard God say to him was a word of blessing. Man had just been brought into being. He had done nothing to earn or merit God's blessing. God simply in His kindness and generosity and love gave that blessing. And the blessing was a command and the command was a blessing. And so from the very earliest chapters of the Bible, blessing and obedience were tied together.
And that theme of the blessedness of obedience continues in the Old Testament and the New Testament but it is also very apparent in both the Old Testament and the New Testament that some people misunderstood this. So for instance, in the book of Job, Job's friends saw him not being blessed and they drew the deduction, what? “Job, you must have been sinful. That's why you’re not being blessed. You were disobedient; now God has handed it to you.” And so there is this correlation in the minds of some that obedience puts God in a position where He must bless and disobedience is the cause of all non-blessing. And therefore if we will just do this, God must do that. If we will do this that He commands, then God must do this. And if we don't do what He commands then God is going to curse. And therefore it is our obedience that conditions God's blessing.
That theology was around in Jesus’ day too, and we see it regularly in the Gospels as the Pharisees look at people who are ill or diseased or disadvantaged or poor. And regularly, the Pharisees look upon those people as what? People who are disobedient and therefore cursed, whereas people who are rich and prominent and powerful they view as essentially blessed. And what's the connection? They did something; therefore God had to do something for them. Or, they did something wrong and therefore God had done something to them. It's a very simple black-and-white world that they had developed. Unfortunately the theology was all wrong. It was not based on what God had said in His Word. And Jesus, in this story, is using a common practical reality in His day to show that the Pharisees’ own theology of obedience and blessing does not work.
Now this is a hard passage to understand for several reasons. It's hard because it's easy to understand how people could read the Old Testament and the New Testament and see the connection between blessing and obedience and draw the wrong conclusion that our obedience binds God to give us a blessing and that therefore God's blessing is contingent upon our obedience. It's easy to see how someone could make that mistake. The best false teachings have a little bit of truth in them, don't they, or else they would be very effective as false teachings. People wouldn't follow after them if they didn't have a little truth in them. It's also difficult because the story that Jesus tells describes a wrong theology — the wrong theology of the Pharisees — and you can look at this story and you can come away saying, “What in the world do You mean by this, Jesus?” because He's telling a story from the Pharisees’ perspective and showing how their own theology isn't justified by the common practical realities that that exist around them.
Thirdly, it's difficult because there are different pictures of how we are to think of ourselves in the New Testament. For instance, in Galatians chapter 4 verses 6 and 7, Paul will say, “Remember, you are no longer slaves, you’re sons.” Well here, Jesus says to His disciples that they are to think of themselves how? As “unworthy slaves.” So which is it? Do we think about ourselves as sons or as unworthy slaves? And then there's John 15:15 where Jesus says to His disciples, “You are no longer servants (or slaves), you are My friends.” So am I supposed to think of myself as an unworthy servant, as a friend, or as a son? And of course the Biblical answer is, yes! So all three of those things make this a challenging passage to say the least, but Jesus has some very important things that He wants us to learn about our attitude to God – what we think about God and what we think about God's blessing. And I want to show you four things very quickly this morning from this passage.
First of all, Jesus wants us to learn from this story that our obedience is not leverage to claim obligation on God. Our obedience is not leverage. Now He explains that by the story that He tells. Jesus is not commending servitude or slavery in this passage. He's telling a story that everybody around Him would have understood. This is probably a small farmer because only one servant is spoken of. This is not a big farm owner who's got fifty or a hundred or hundreds of servants working for him. This is a small farmer who works out at the field along with his one servant. And at the end of the day when they’re both hot and sweaty, the small farmer comes into his house, cleans up, sits down at the table, and waits for his servant to come in and clean up so that he doesn't smell like the field or the sheep, and then prepare his meal and then serve him. And Jesus tells that story. And He says, “When the servant works in the field, whether it's with the sheep or plowing, and comes in and cleans up and makes supper and feeds the farmer, then and only then does the servant get to do what — sit down himself and have supper. And when he does that, the farmer does not say, ‘Oh thank you so much for doing your job’ because the servant has only done his job. That's what he's supposed to do.”
Now what's the point of the story? Jesus is saying, “Look Pharisees, your own theology of God and of blessing doesn't work. Take for instance a farmer and his servant. When the servant does what he's supposed to do it doesn't give him leverage over his master. He's just done what he's supposed to do. It doesn't give him merit. It doesn't change his position in relation to him. He's just done his job. So your own theology of how you relate to God doesn't even work in common life. You think that you do certain things that put God in your debt. You think that God is so stingy that He needs to be put in your debt. You think that you can do stuff that's good enough that puts Him in your debt. Neither of those things is true. He's not stingy; He's generous, and you’re not as obedient as you think you are but your obedience in any case cannot act as leverage against Him. It's not a means to an end in order to put a stingy God in a corner where He's got to pull His wallet out and give you four dollars. That's not how obedience works. You've completely misunderstood the role of obedience in the life that God calls His children to live.”
And this leads us to the second thing that Jesus teaches. Not only that our obedience isn't leverage to lay a claim of obligation on God, but God does not reward us based on our performance in some sort of a quid pro quo kind of way. “You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours. God, I’ll do this if You’ll do that for me. Or, I’ll stop doing this if You’ll stop doing that for me. Or, I’ll do this if You’ll give me this blessing. Or surely if I do this it will earn Your reward.” Jesus is saying in this passage, “That's not how it works!” The servant comes in and yes, he works hard in the field or with his sheep and yes, he works hard preparing the meal for his master and yes, he has to wait until the master is done before he can sit down for his meal, but he's still just doing his job. He hasn't done anything to merit some sort of response from his master. He's just done his job. And Jesus is saying that God doesn't relate to us that way. God isn't like that small farmer. That's not how God relates to us. In fact, Jesus is going to point out in this passage that, just as He did in the story of the prodigal son, that God is in fact lavish in His kindness to us and He gives us things that we don't deserve.
What's the next story going to be? What's the next story that He's going to tell us? It's the story of the lepers getting healed. And you remember, all the lepers get healed. How many of them are thankful? Only one. And who's the hero of the story? The thankful one. What's Jesus’ point? God is incredibly generous. If we, who are incredibly ungrateful, rather than God being incredibly stingy and us just working like beavers to get God to do something nice for us, it's actually, it's actually the other way around. God is more able to give blessings than we are to be thankful for them. So the Pharisees’ idea of God and obedience is all upside-down. It's all cattywampus, as my grandmother used to say. They've got it all messed up and confused and mixed up. God doesn't reward us based on our performance in some sort of an, “I do this if You’ll do that for me. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” sort of way.
Third, Jesus makes it clear in this passage that we ought to serve God in humility and gratitude, in love and joy. In other words, our service of God is not a means to an end. “God, I’ll do this as long as You’ll finally give me what I've been wanting for so long. God, I’ll do this but You've got to give me this blessing or this reward.” That's not the attitude of a follower of the Lord. The Lord is generous and lavish at all times. That's not the way that we obey. In fact, when we serve, we say, “Jesus” — look at how He says it in verse 10 — we say what? “We are unworthy servants. We have only done what is our duty.” In other words, Jesus is saying we ought to be humble about our duty. What we've done hasn't put God in a corner where He's got to bless us because He's a gracious and a generous and a loving God. He doesn't need to be put in the corner – even if we could, but we can't. He's saying our service then ought to be rendered with humility. “Lord, we've done our best and even when we've done our best it's only what You've commanded us to do in the first place.”
You know one of the reasons that we can't merit our standing before God is because it is literally impossible for us to do more than we're commanded to do, first of all because we're sinners and we never ever do what we're commanded to do, but second of all, even as creatures we can't do more than we're commanded to do. When we've done everything that we could possibly do we've only done what we're supposed to do as creatures. The only person who ever merited God's favor is the Lord Jesus Christ and that is because He did something voluntarily that you were commanded to do and that I was commanded to do that we didn't do. He obeyed God's Law perfectly and then He took on Himself the penalty for our breaking that Law, and thus earned the free grace blessing that God poured out on all those that trust in Him. So that God saves us not because of what we've done or because of our merit but because of what Jesus has done and therefore all of our service ought to be done with humility and gratitude. “Lord, every blessing we have is a blessing from Your free favor. We didn't earn it. We didn't put You in a corner where You had to give us something. We’re grateful for it and we're humbled that we have the privilege to serve You.” That's what Jesus is saying. His statement about our viewing ourselves as unworthy servants here needs to be seen in the backdrop of the wrong theology of the Pharisees, yet elsewhere in the New Testament we're told to think of ourselves as sons and as friends and as other things too. Jesus is not contradicting that. He's talking about what? Your attitude in obedience and attitude means a whole lot. It means a whole lot.
Think about it my friends. Cain and Abel both offered an offering. Abel's offering was accepted by God. Cain's was not. Why? The only reason the text tells us has to do with the attitude of Cain's heart. Think of it. In the Gospels, Jesus tells a story of a Pharisee and a tax collector. They both went to the temple and they both what? They both prayed. But Jesus tells us one went away justified and one didn't. One's prayer was heard and one wasn't. What's the difference? Jesus tells us — the heart attitude. Our attitude in obedience matters a lot and that's what Jesus is getting at here. We don't obey because God is stingy and we've got to get leverage over Him. Our obedience flows from gratitude for His generosity and grace to us. We know that He has designed life so that blessing and obedience are tied together, but the real reason we want to do what He asks us to do is because it glorifies Him and we enjoy Him in doing what He calls us to do and be.
But there's a fourth thing I want you to see here as well, and that is we need to fully take in that God deals with us by grace. And to understand this we actually have to go back five chapters in the gospel of Luke because Jesus has already given us a clue to understanding this passage. In this passage that we've just read, we're told that the slave or the servant doesn't get to eat with the master at the same time of the master. He has to wait until the master has eaten and then go off to his little table in his little room and have his meal. Now to show you that Jesus has already explained to you that that's not how God deals with His people, turn back with me to Luke chapter 12. Jesus is speaking to His disciples and He's telling them to be ready for His coming in Luke 12:35, and He says, “When I come it's going to be like a wedding feast and the bridegroom is going to come.” And who's the bridegroom? He's the bridegroom, Jesus is the bridegroom. He's the guest of honor at this wedding. But in Luke 12:37 He says, “Blessed are those slaves whom the master shall find on the alert when he comes. Truly I say to you that he will gird himself to serve and have them recline at the table and will come up and wait on them.”
Now this is the most important party that will ever be thrown — the marriage supper of the Lamb. And who is serving at the marriage supper of the Lamb? You? No, Jesus. And who is Jesus serving? Everybody who trusts in Him. Jesus, like He did in the upper room with His disciples when He washed their feet, will gird Himself again at His own marriage supper and He will say, “Please, recline at the table. I want to serve you a feast.” You see, Jesus is already showing you there what your God is like. That kind of God doesn't need the leverage of your obedience to urge Him into grudgingly giving you a blessing. That kind of God is ready to lavishly pour out His grace on His children and we need to fully take it in that God deals with us that way by grace.
You know, I have met many godly believers over the years who truly believe that salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone and yet either because there were some hard things in their life that they had to deal with, or there were some blessings that were not in their life that they had longed for for a long time and hadn't had, there was a part of their heart and mind that thought, “Well maybe if I just obeyed more I'd get the blessing. Maybe if I just obeyed more I wouldn't have this hard thing in my life.” And one thing Jesus is saying to us is be careful of thinking like that. We want to pay close attention to the providence of God in our lives. Sometimes God, in His kindness, does wake us up with circumstances. Sometimes those circumstances make us realize, “You know, things we thought were important are not so important, and things that we didn't think are important are really important.” So God certainly uses circumstances in our lives, but beware thinking that God is not generous and beware thinking that somehow our poor, pitiful obedience could leverage Him into being more generous than He is, because the fact of the matter is, He is more generous than we are ready to be grateful.
Now Jesus is telling this to His disciples because He doesn't want His disciples to turn out another generation of followers that are like the Pharisees around them that had this terrible view of God and this terrible misunderstanding of obedience. Of course He's telling it to us too because the reason you do what you do makes all the difference.
I was talking to a brother at the door of the church this morning who was in Merrill's Marauders and he fought for this country and risked his life, not because he was a slave but because he was a free man. And he realized what he had been given by the blessing of God to live in this country and he was ready to lay his life down for it. I'd rather fight against an army of slaves than an army of free men and women. And you see, that's what Jesus is saying to His disciples. “Don't you realize how free the grace that God has given you is?” Now won't you live your life in energy for the One who is so generous?
Lord, this one is a hard one to get right. We so easily veer off to one side or the other of the road. Teach us from Your Word deeply of these things. Make us to be those who understand the freedom that there is in obeying Your commands and who never view Your commands as something that gives us leverage or earns us a deserving of Your blessing, but help us always to understand that You are the most generous God that could possibly be conceived and that Your blessings You are waiting to rain down on us, not withholding until we condition Your response. Help us to understand that. We need to understand that. In Jesus' name, Amen.
Now if you’ll turn with me to 565, we're going to sing that our motivation in everything that we do is Jesus and what He's done for us.
God always has the last word in our worship and what is His word to you, unworthy servant? Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.