Today, I want us to take a look back on 2013. Was it a good year for you? Was it a good year for us, Hill Community Church? How do you define a year as being good or successful? What criteria do you use? Is it a good year if you got a new job or a new baby was born into your family or you got married, or your kids got all A’s in school, or you got a raise and so you can buy the things you always wanted?
In the church setting, how do we define success? Is it growing in numbers, more salvations, more baptisms, more members getting involved in service, going on missions, planting churches, feeding the hungry and visiting the elderly? How should we define success?
For the Christian, and this is my main point, success can only be defined in one way. That I grew in my personal knowledge of Jesus and became a little more like Him. If you can say that, then 2013 was a personal success. Is that your confession? That Jesus became more dear to you, more real to you, more precious to you and because you stayed closed to Jesus and followed Jesus and gave your life to Jesus and obeyed Jesus, you became more like Him in the process.
This sermon is going to part review and part testimony. I want us to take a step back and see the forest of what God taught us through the Word on Sundays and I want to share my testimony about how I personally encountered the risen Christ this year. This is not your typical sermon from me because I tend to focus on one tree at a time, one aspect, or a few aspects of one chapter of one book and I generally emphasize the Word of God over my personal testimony because I feel that my story is not that important compared to God’s story as revealed in Scripture. But allow me to deviate for this week.
We covered five and a half books this year. We covered the last half of the gospel of Matthew because we were continuing from the previous year. Next, we covered 2 Corinthians, then Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and most recently, Colossians.
When I look at these 6 books as a whole, 2 themes emerge. One, Jesus is the Son of God, the Word become flesh, the Savior of the world. This is from Matthew.
Jesus is the gospel embodied, He is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy and Law, Jesus is the giver of the new covenant by the Spirit and this new covenant replaces the old covenant of laws inscribed on stone tablets. Instead, Jesus by the Spirit writes His law directly on our hearts. This is from 2 Corinthians.
Jesus is the Source of life, He is the one who demonstrates and models what a fruitful, Spirit-filled person looks like, Jesus has the characteristics of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness and self-control, He displays these 9 traits in perfect balance. And by his death at Calvary and by our ongoing crucifying of our sinful flesh, we, too, can display the same fruit of the Spirit and become more and more like Christ. This is from Galatians.
In Christ, we have every spiritual blessing, Jesus is our Bridegroom waiting for us to be His spotless, radiant bride. There is no marriage and no local churches in heaven. So why bother getting married and joining a local church? It’s because on this side of eternity, marriage and the local church are tools in God’s toolbox to chip away at our rough edges so that we can become more and more like Jesus. Jesus is the truth that we are to speak to one another in love over and over at the church so that believers can grow in every way into Him who is the head—Christ. This is from Ephesians.
Jesus is the Son of God who existed before the foundation of the world, the One who spoke the entire universe into being and yet this omniscient, omnipotent God humbled himself and became a man, but not just any man, but he became a servant, but not just any servant, he became a lowly servant, and not just a lowly servant, he became the lowliest of servants, and not just the lowliest servant who serves, but he became the lowliest servant who dies on a cross, shamefully. And Jesus, the agent of creation, who created the muscles in our mouth, allowed his creation to spit at him and the One who created iron and steel and metal and all the elements on the periodic table allowed the humans he created to fashion metal nails to pierce His hands and feet. And it is Paul’s confession that everything is rubbish, trash, filth, a steaming dung heap compared to the surpassing value of knowing this Jesus. This is from Philippians.
Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. All things have been created through Him and for Him. Jesus is like the glue that holds everything together, He is the One who gives the very breath in your lungs that is giving you life right at this moment. Jesus is the glue that holds the very universe together. Jesus holds His church together. He is the head of the body, the church. He is the head or FIRST place in the church. He is the beginning, He is literally the First One, He is the firstborn from the dead, so that He might come to have FIRST place in everything. Jesus is first in the church, Jesus is first in the present creation, He will be first in the new creation to come, Jesus is first place in every single thing. This is from Colossians.
One important thread that runs through these 6 books, and in fact, through all 66 books in Scripture is the towering figure of Jesus. It is His life and His work on the cross, His death and resurrection for our sins, the gospel, which gives purpose and meaning and joy in this journey we call life. And this physical life will end some day and we will be ushered into His presence where we will have an opportunity to meet this Jesus face to face. At that moment, faith will become sight. Knowing Jesus and becoming like Jesus is what it’s all about and God through His word has taught us this lesson amply in 2013.
We all know that it’s all about Jesus. We all know that without Jesus and what He did for us by dying and resurrecting and forgiving our sin and reconciling us back to God, we know that without Jesus and His work, there would be no Christianity. We know that it is impossible to grow spiritually without abiding in Christ, without staying near to Him and relying on Him and trusting in Him and putting our faith in Him. Without Jesus, there would be no life, no salvation, no church, no spiritual growth, no fruit of the Spirit, no motivation to serve others, no hope.
Yet, why do you and I settle for something other than Jesus many times? Only one reason. Satan. And this brings us to the second thread that runs through all 6 books–Satan is real and the spiritual battle that we are engaged in is fierce. Christian life is not a walk on the beach or a stroll through the park. It is blood, sweat, tears, landmines at every turn, flaming darts flying straight at us. Make no mistake about it, here on earth, we live in a war zone.
The gospel of Matthew is the most obvious example of spiritual battle. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, He was constantly bumping heads with the Jewish religious leaders. Quite literally, Jesus was engaged in a physical, verbal battle with His own people. These Jewish religious leaders are religious professionals who knew the Old Testament inside and out, they taught the Scripture in the synagogues week after week, yet when the fulfillment of the Old Testament walked and taught among them, what did they do? They nailed him to a cross.
What does this teach us? We are gaining insight into the spiritual battle and one of Satan’s strategies. Satan loves it when you and I settle for empty religion and tradition for tradition’s sake.
Please turn with me to Matthew 21:18-22 [READ]
This passage is about fruit and faith. Having faith in Jesus will result in fruit. The opposite is also true. No faith in Jesus, then no fruit. Just a lot of activity, but no genuine heart change. The figless fig tree was a picture of the spiritual condition of the entire nation of Israel and this was an indictment against their dead religion.
What happened in this story? Jesus was hungry and so he went up to a fig tree looking for figs, for fruit to eat. Failing to find fruit, he curses the tree. Why was Jesus so upset? You have to know a little botany to understand why. In the case of fig trees, the figs grow BEFORE the leaves. Fruit then leaves. And this fig tree was full of leaves so Jesus rightfully assumed that figs would be present. But he was deceived.
Satan loves to deceive the people of God. He loves it when we settle for leaves. For outward professions of faith without true, inward, heartfelt faith. Satan loves it when we focus on external things while neglecting the most essential thing–faith in Christ. The Jewish leaders had worked so hard in being religious, but they missed the point because they failed to put their faith in Christ.
You cannot merely say that these Jewish leaders were generally good people but they were slightly off in their theology. No, they were unwitting instruments of Satan himself. They were deceived and as teachers of their false religion, they were deceiving an entire nation, the very people who said they worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but who were instead following the false teachings of leaders mobilized by Satan to kill the Son of God.
Listen to the fate of these Jewish leaders as described by Jesus himself in Matt 23:33-36 [READ]
Pretty harsh words. These Jewish leaders will be condemned to hell and charged with all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from Abel all the way to Zechariah. That’s a lot of blood. I can’t imagine the eternal punishment that faces these religious leaders.
Going back a few verses, we read about the specific ways in which Satan was working in the lives of the Jewish religious leaders and everyone who was taught by them.
15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to make one • proselyte , and when he becomes one, you make him twice as fit for • hell as you are!
You can’t question the commitment level of these scribes and Pharisees. They are willing to travel over land and sea, to sacrifice incredible amounts of energy for missions to save one soul. Yet look at the result? Look at what Satan is doing. Satan wants to bind you and me. And when we are bound, what happens to our converts? They are doubly bound. Twice as fit for hell as you are. Chilling words.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus has come to set us free so we should not be surprised that Satan wants to accomplish the complete opposite. He wants to bind us. And he will use false religion as one of his tools to bind God’s people.
23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You pay a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. These things should have been done without neglecting the others.
Do you see what is happening here? Tithing is good. Look at how carefully they observe the tithe–they will even tithe mint, dill, and cumin, these are spices for goodness sake. They are such nitpickers when it comes to tithe, observing the tithing law to the tee. Yet, when it comes to more important matters like justice, mercy, how they treat others, whether their heart has any mercy in it, faith, they totally ignore these.
Satan loves it when we focus on one little thing, the tree in front of us, and we lose sight of the forest. Satan has won when he can fool us into believing that since we have one thing we can look to, we must be in good standing before God. Look, I never miss church. Look, I read my Bible more than half the days out of the week. Look, I pray before meals. Look, I tithe a full 10% when the national average is 2%. Look, I serve others.
We can easily justify ourselves before God when we are selective on what we want to obey. If these leaders read the entire counsel of God and really paused to consider the implications of what Scripture said, shouldn’t they have seen that the condition of their hearts? That they were nothing more than rule keepers and upholders of tradition and they had no concern for others? Shouldn’t they have recognized the obvious fact that there was no justice, no mercy, no compassion, no love in their hearts so what was the point of their religion? Just for them to feel good and important.