The Lord's Day Morning
August 8, 2010
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
God is our refuge and strength, our very present help in time of trouble, therefore we will not fear though the earth should change and the mountains slip into the sea. The Lord of hosts is with us. The God of Jacob is our God. Let us worship Him!
Lord, You are great and greatly to be praised and You have drawn us this day by Your grace to this place under Your Word that we might give to You the glory due Your name and that we might enjoy the blessing of Your presence and of the distribution of Your means of grace, for You come to us today by Your Word and You speak Your Word into our hearts and we seek to receive it by faith, to trust on You alone for salvation as You have offered in the Gospel.
We pray, heavenly Father, that as we come we would be conscious to depend upon Christ, that we would know that we come into Your presence by Christ alone, that we come into Your presence by the Gospel alone. It is by His finished work. It is not by our own deserving. It's not because of our works. It is not because of our own efforts. It is because of His deserving and His work on our behalf that we are able, by grace, to come into Your presence and say, “Abba, Father,” and to give to You the glory due Your name and to ascribe to You dominion and power and honor and to give to You thanks.
And so we ask, O Lord, that You would make the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts to be acceptable in Your sight for You are our Rock and our Redeemer and we pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Now let's pray together.
Our Father in heaven, we bow in Your presence. We acknowledge again, “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling, naked look to Thee for dress, helpless look to Thee for grace. Foul I to the fountain fly. Wash me Savior, or I die.” We thank You Lord for a Gospel that provides everything. In all of its totality from beginning to end You have chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world, You have called us by an effectual call into union and communion with the Lord Jesus Christ. You have taken our sins away. You have enabled us to believe and repent. You have granted to us the blessing of justification and adoption. Your Spirit continually strives with our spirits working in us that which is pleasing in Your sight. And You have promised that having begun the good work You will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ. So help us O Lord, even as we were exhorted in Scripture this morning, to examine ourselves and to see whether we are in the faith. And Lord we find that we are truly in the faith this morning because we are resting in Jesus only. “We dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus' name. On Christ the solid Rock we stand. All other ground is sinking sand.”
Father, we pray for blessing now upon the service as we sing Your Word and pray Your Word and read Your Word and as Your Word is preached to us this day. May it find a lodging place in our hearts. Father, we want to fall in love with Jesus all over again. We want Him to be the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega in our lives. Father, we pray this morning for our president and for the cabinet. We pray for the congress. We pray for the rulers and administrators of this state and for the mayor of this city, for all the forces of law and order that seek to provide stability within government and within the land. Father, we pray for Your blessing. Now bless us, continue with us, forgive us all our sins. We ask it all in Jesus' name. Amen.
If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 12. We’re continuing our way through Luke's gospel. The last time we were together in this book we were looking at chapter 12 verses 1 to 3, a passage in which Jesus is essentially telling His disciples not to be like the Pharisees, especially in the Pharisees’ hypocrisy. Now if you've already skimmed the verses that are before us today, verses 4 to 7, the subject is the fear of God as opposed to the fear of man. And you may be scratching your head and wondering what in the world the subject of hypocrisy might have to do with the fear of God and why would there be this kind of transition in the story that Luke is telling. And that's fair enough. Let me try and explain.
I believe that if we were the original people hearing this gospel read out loud the connection between this passage and the one that immediately precedes it would have been obvious. You see, Jesus, in the passage that we're going to read today, was warning His disciples about the persecution that they were going to experience from Jewish leaders. They had already had something of a taste of it in His public ministry from the opposition that they had from the Pharisees and from the scribes, but it was going to intensify at Jesus’ dead and afterwards, and by the time the gospel of Luke was written the original Christians who would have read it would have known personally, and perhaps experientially, over maybe two decades, the kind of persecution that Jesus was trying to prepare the disciples for. So when Jesus, in this passage, says to the disciples, “Don't fear man. Don't fear persecution. Don't fear those who can harm your body,” it would have been absolutely logical to the first Christians hearing this book having just spoken about the Pharisees because it would have been the religious leaders represented by the Pharisees and scribes that would have been leading in that persecution against the early Christians. So there's a logical connection to speaking to the disciples about fear and having spoken to them about the Pharisees.
But there's also an inner logic to this. What is the source of hypocrisy? Well, we've talked about that actually over the last several weeks as we've worked our way through Luke 11 and into Luke 12. But one of the sources of hypocrisy is the fear of man. If you fear man more than God then your religion will be hypocritical because you will be more concerned about what people think of you than what God thinks of you. And so there's an inner, spiritual reason for the connection between these two passages. Well, before we read God's Word let's pray and ask for His help and blessing as we hear it and study it together.
Heavenly Father, this is Your Word. It is as fresh and pointed and timely and needed as it was almost two thousand years ago when it was first read out loud. Though our circumstances could hardly be more different from the circumstances of the disciples to whom Jesus first spoke these words, and to the earliest Christians who first heard these words read, yet Your Word still speaks to us today. We need this Word. Your Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our way. Your Word is as necessary as food because we do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. So even if we have come here today not thinking that Your Word is what we need, and even if we begin this study of this passage together not thinking that this passage has anything to say to us, we pray that by the Holy Spirit You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your Word and to believe them and to respond to them in obedience by the grace of the Holy Spirit. We ask these things in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is God's Word. Hear it:
“I tell you, My friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Amen, and thus end this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Who do you fear? What do you fear? Your answer, your honest answer to that question means a lot. It tells you a lot about yourself. It tells you a lot about the comfort or the lack of it that you’re going to experience in this life. Jesus, having just said, “Don't give into the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Don't allow the hypocrisy that characterizes their hearts and their religion to corrupt you,” now says to His disciples, “Don't fear those who can kill you.” It's quite striking. This whole passage is filled either with almost amusing words of comfort and stunning words of strengthening and encouragement. Now here's one of them — “Don't fear those who can kill you.” You understand that's exactly what Jesus is saying to the disciples. “Those aren't the people you ought to worry about,” He's saying to His disciples. “Don't fear those who can kill your body.”
You see, Jesus is telling the disciples not to fear the persecution of the Jewish leaders and the first readers of the gospel of Luke or the first hearers of the gospel of Luke being read were being told, they were being exhorted, not to fear the persecution of the Jews around them, to stay faithful to Christ. And so Jesus is giving a word of exhortation to the disciples that they would not be crippled by fear of what others may do to them because they have professed faith in Christ, because they have trusted in Christ, because they have become followers of Christ, because they have been baptized in His name and are walking in His way. They are not to fear.
But He's also in this passage telling them something about the Pharisees’ own hypocrisy and warning them about a heart temptation that all of us experience. Most of us in this room don't know anything of the kind of persecution that these early Christians face, though many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world today know exactly the kinds of persecution that Jesus is talking about here.
Back in January I was at a Lausanne meeting in preparation for the Congress on World Evangelization that's going to be held in Cape Town, South Africa in October, and a number of leaders from around the United States were being brought together for discussion and preparation for that meeting. And at that meeting there was a brief video shown about the violence on the part of Muslims against Christians in the city of Jos in Nigeria. And even as that video was being shown to us, news broke out that there was another pogrom by the Muslims against Christians in the city of Jos. Just a few weeks ago when I was with missionaries in Florida for the Rafiki Foundation, I struck up a conversation with one of the Rafiki missionaries who was running an orphanage in Nigeria, and I began talking with her about the situation in Jos. We chatted for a few minutes and I shared the little that I knew about what was going on there and she politely listened to me and then she said, “Well, I live in Jos.” And then she began to recount some of the things that had been going on there. I was met at the door after the early service by someone who had also heard reports about what had happened in Jos, Nigeria.
Well, it's as if Jesus would walk into that situation, to Christians who had seen relative maimed and killed, and say to them, “Don't fear those who can kill your body. Those aren't the ones that you really ought to fear. There's somebody else that you ought to fear. Don't fear those who can persecute you that way.” It's that shocking; it's that's striking what Jesus is saying in this passage. And that really ought to resonate with us, my friends, because for the last ten years, we in the United States have been working very, very hard to the point of spending billions of dollars to make sure that we are safe from ones who would harm us. Ever since September 11, multiple billions of dollars have been spent to make sure that people cannot kill our bodies.
And yet Jesus is saying to His disciples, “You know, in the end, those are not the people to be afraid of. Those are not the people to fear. Don't fear those who can kill your body, but rather,” He says, “fear him, who after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell.” Now every Jewish person who would have heard that word from Jesus’ lip and every early Christian from a Jewish background who would have heard that word read from Luke's gospel would have known immediately who was being talked about. Now we might hear that word and think that Jesus is talking about the devil. He's not talking about the devil. He's talking about God. He's saying, “Don't fear those who persecute you. Don't fear those who can take away your life. Don't fear those who can kill your body. Fear the one who has the authority to cast, not only your body, but your soul into hell. Fear God, because God is in charge of everything and everyone, including your soul.”
Now the fear of God is something that has been almost lost from the vocabulary of evangelical religion in our own time. In fact, when we hear the phrase, “fear of God,” you may have a negative response to that. In the Old Testament, the fear of God was the way you summed up the essence of heart religion. Think of passage that perhaps you've memorized from Proverbs – “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The fear of God is one of those seminal ideas in the Old Testament that encapsulates the very heart of a human being's relationship with God. When you hear the word fear, don't hear fear like a woman might think of who has an alcoholic father who flies into tyrannical and inexplicable rages without any prediction whatsoever. Have you ever talked with someone who's experienced that kind of irascible, erratic, unpredictable behavior? It wreaks havoc on their life, doesn't it? That's not the kind of fear that's being spoken of here. It's not saying, “Now remember to treat God like an irascible, unpredictable, erratic tyrant.” No, what is being said here is to reverence God more than anything or anyone else, to care more about what He thinks than anybody else thinks, to love Him more than anything else, to value Him more than anyone else, to treasure Him above everything else — that is to fear God. It is to revere Him, to desire Him, to long for Him, to hold Him in awe, to adore Him, to treasure Him, to delight in Him, to acknowledge Him to be high and exalted and above everything else – this is the fear of God. And Jesus says, “As long as there's anything in this world or anyone in this world that you fear more than God, you are going to be a slave to fear. If you fear man, you’ll be a slave to fear. But if you fear God, then you will be free, for if you fear God there's nothing else to fear.”
Take your hymnals out and turn with me to number 624. One of my favorite hymns is this rendition of Psalm 34 that Tate and Brady did back in the 18th century, or maybe the late 17th century. And if you’ll look at the last stanza it goes like this — “Fear him, ye saints, and you will then have nothing else to fear.” How does the fear of God free you from the fear of everything else? It's very simple. If you believe that God is sovereign, He is almighty, He is in control of everything, and if you love Him, trust Him, value Him, adore Him, hold Him above everything else, what can anyone do to you? What can anyone take away from you? And Jesus is saying to the disciples, “You know, this is one of the problems of the Pharisees. They pretend to fear God but they care far more about what other people think of them than what God thinks of them.” And He's saying to His disciples, “Don't you live that way. Don't you even be afraid of those who could take your life. You be more concerned about the One who has power over your souls.”
You know Bishop Hooper was one of the great protestant reformers in England and he was burned at the stake because he had converted to Protestantism. And his inquisitors at the pyre said to him, “If you will simply recant your profession of faith, then we will spare you this horrible death of burning at the stake. We’ll give you a merciful death by the sword.” And Bishop Hooper responded, “Life is sweet and death is bitter, but eternal life is sweeter and eternal death is even more bitter.” In other words, he was saying he feared not those who could take his life, those who could kill his body, he feared the One who had authority over his soul. He cared about his eternal life, his soul, his heart, more than what could happen to his body. And Jesus is saying to His disciples here, “Fear God rather than man.” You know, that's one of the characteristics of Christian discipleship. A Christian disciple fears God rather than man, and that fear of God forms our character and it gives us confidence.
Jesus offers two interesting encouragements here. The first encouragement that He gives
is — those who persecute you, they may be able to kill your body, but they can't kill your soul. In other words, Jesus’ encouragement to His disciples is, “Cheer up, they can only kill you!” Now again, most of us don't face that kind of reality in terms of persecution. Many of our Christian brothers and sisters do, but we don't. So how much more ought Jesus’ words to apply to us than them? We’re not talking about a potential persecution as great as these original disciples faced and as many of our brothers and sisters around the world face. Very often, our testimony to Christ only costs us a little esteem, a little reputation, and we're fearful to admit that we're Christians or evangelical Christians or Bible-believing Christians because we’ll be laughed at and looked down upon and considered backwards and ignorant and uneducated. And Jesus is saying, “Okay, are you going to care more about what they think about you, or are you going to care more about the One who has authority over your soul?” So His word of encouragement is, “Cheer up, they can only kill you!”
But He gives another encouragement here. How often have you heard “hell” used as an encouragement? Jesus uses hell as an encouragement in this passage. He employs it as an encouragement to Christians. He says, “Cheer up, only God can cast you into hell. No one else can put you there. Only God has authority over the soul.” And so in these ways Jesus encourages us to fear God, not to fear people — not to fear what people may say about us or do to us, but to be faithful to God and love Him above everything else. There may be some of you today who know what it is to have your reputation ruined by what others say about you falsely. And Jesus is saying to His disciples, “Don't care about those who can harm you that way. You just fear the living God who's in charge of everything.”
Then in verses 6 and 7 He says a second thing. The fear of God actually is a comfort for Christians. It is the comfort of the Christian disciple to trust in the Lord's watch care, and Jesus does this in an almost humorous tongue-and-cheek sort of way. He gives this tongue-and-cheek affirmation of the disciples’ value to the Father. Look at what He says — “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Did you catch the humor in that? You’re more valuable to God than a bunch of little birds.
When I was a little boy, one of the things my father said to me to show his affection is, he’d say, “Son, I wouldn't take a nickel for you.” Now that always warmed my heart. When I grew up I started thinking about that and I wondered what the compliment was there, but you understand he was being humorous. He was saying, “Son, I love you. I wouldn't take anything for you,” but he was saying it in a funny sort of way. I wouldn't take a nickel for you. Well that is exactly what Jesus is doing here. He's saying, “You are extremely valuable to God. Why, you’re more valuable to God than several birds.” It would be as if, let's change the animal — if He were to say, “You know, I love you so much. I value you more than chipmunks.”
You see the logic — if God cares about sparrows that you can buy five for two pennies, how much more will He care about the crown of His creation, men and women, especially men and women who have, by grace, been brought into a saving relationship with Him through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. These are men and women and boys and girls who have trusted in Jesus the Savior. And He says, “Now if My Heavenly Father takes care of little birds and chipmunks, how much more will He take care of you?” You see, Jesus is offering another encouragement to you here. He's reminding you that there's no enemy that can undo the Father's will or undercut His loving watch care of you because He's sovereign over all and He loves you even more than these tiny little creatures that He cares for. Do you believe that?
How do you come then to have this kind of fear of God? Well first of all it begins by fearing your sin, acknowledging that you have rebelled against God, acknowledging that you’re not right with God, acknowledging that your problems don't come from out there. They haven't been forced on you by your circumstances in life. Your choices reflect your deep heart problems, and recognizing that that sin deserves the condemnation of God. You deserve to have your soul cast into hell. And then you look into the eyes of the Savior that the gracious heavenly Father gave and said, “I’ll give My Son in your place. He’ll bear the penalty of your sin. You trust in Him and I’ll pardon you of all your sins.” So the fear of God begins by seeing our own sin and fearing it and then turning to the Savior who bore the penalty that our sin deserved, who took that hell upon Himself that our sin deserved, and then loving and trusting Him more than anything else in this world, valuing what He thinks of us, loving Him more than anything, delighting in Him above all things else. With that kind of fear of God there's nothing that you need fear in this life, and so Jesus speaks these words both to remind you of the character of a disciple and of the comfort of a disciple. His followers are those who fear God, and His followers, because they fear God, are able to experience comfort in this life no matter what is happening.
Heavenly Father, we bow before You today acknowledging that these words are very easy to say, to say that we're going to fear God more than man, but they are very, very hard to do because we're sinful and self-protective and we don't adequately believe that You’re strong enough to protect us or gracious enough to love us. Lord, break us of this sin. Help us to trust in You and love You more than anything else, and then comfort us in every circumstance. We ask all these things in Jesus' name. Amen.
Receive this word of blessing from the One who has, by His grace, saved you from the power of hell. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.