When my family and I were on vacation last month, the Sunday we were gone, we assembled with a local congregation of Christians. It certainly was one of the more memorable services I’ve attended, but not in a good way. Most notably, it took 45 minutes for anyone behind the pulpit to invite me to open a Bible. No Scripture was read during the Lord’s Supper, and even the sermon was a long story rather than an examination of God’s word.
Not surprisingly, this was a church in trouble. Even though there were about 100 people in that building, my children were far and away the youngest present. The singing was downright dispiriting. I’ve been far more edified by the song worship of congregations a tenth of that size. Unless something dramatic changes, that church will shut its doors, and right now, all they’re doing is running out the clock.
This is not something that only happens to other churches. It can happen to the Jackson Heights church too, and all the problems begin with a failure to turn to the word. The Bible is the wellspring of our spiritual existence, and as soon as this congregation gets cut off from God’s word, it will wither and die. The same thing happens to Christians who lose their connection to the Scriptures. With this in mind, then, let’s consider this morning what we can do to be people of the book.
There are many passages that could help us with this study, but I think one of the most powerful statements of God’s will here appears in Deuteronomy 30:11-14. In fact, this text is so rich that we’re going to stay here for the rest of the morning.
In it, Moses makes three main points, and the first of these is that if we want to be people of the book, we have to SEEK THE WORD. In this regard, he tells us first of all that the word is not too difficult for us. Contextually, this isn’t talking about the word being difficult to do. It’s about the word being difficult to understand.
There are plenty of false teachers out there who insist that the word is too difficult, that everybody can’t understand it, but that’s a lie. In reality, everybody here who has enough spiritual understanding to be accountable to God for their sins also has enough spiritual understanding to grasp the gospel. Now, it is true that different people have different gifts when it comes to Bible study, and some can understand more than others, but all of us can understand what we need to.
Second, we don’t need to find somebody else to understand the word for us either. As Moses says, we don’t need to ask who will go up to heaven and get the word, or who will go across the sea to get it. Instead, the word is very near to each one of us.
This means that every one of us should make the Bible our guide rather than relying on any human being to be our guide. I hope that the things that I teach and preach are helpful to you spiritually, but never should any of you take my word for it instead of searching the Scriptures for yourself. I think Clay does an excellent job in his work here, but I know he too would say, “Don’t trust me. Trust the word of God.” Sad to say, millions will find themselves in hell because they trusted a man instead of the word. The more time we spend with the word ourselves, the safer our souls will be.
Second, we must OWN THE WORD. We must make it our own. We must make it a part of ourselves. Notice that Moses says that the word is to be found in two places in God’s people. It is to be in their mouths, and it is to be in their hearts.
Let’s start with the mouth. A couple of years ago, there was a meme floating around on Facebook that bemoaned one of the consequences of getting older. It said, “These days, I open my mouth, and my mother comes out.” I’m here to tell you, brethren, that’s true for me! I’m pretty much the male version of my mother. In fact, part of me is kind of glad that nobody here but Lauren met my mother so that none of you can tell how bad I’ve gotten!
Many of us know what that’s like. We know what it’s like to open our mouths and have our parents come out. How often do we open our mouths and have our Father in heaven come out? How often do we open our mouths and have Jesus come out? How often do we open our mouths and have Bible come out? If we truly have made the word our own, it will reveal itself in our speech. If, on the other hand, nobody could tell from talking to us that we’ve ever cracked a Bible, we’ve got work to do.
In fact, there’s only one way to make sure that Bible comes out of our mouths. It’s by implanting the word in our hearts. It’s by studying the Scriptures with the goal of remembering them and transforming ourselves.
It’s one thing to be a hearer of the word, to show up for services and sit passively through sermons and Bible classes. It’s another to be a student of the word, to be eager, attentive, hungry to learn, to ask questions when we don’t understand. We can’t absorb the word by osmosis, like the student who tries to prepare for a math test by putting the textbook under his pillow. Instead, we must choose to actively take it within ourselves and make it a part of us.
Finally, we must KEEP THE WORD. As Moses indicates, God has revealed His will to us and instructed us to internalize it so that we can keep all the commandments of His law. Bible study isn’t an intellectual exercise. It’s a life-transformation exercise, and if the word does not transform our lives, we have missed the entire point of the activity.
Sadly, I’ve known Christians who have missed the point like this. They regard themselves as great students of the word. Frequently, they sneer at the ignorance of their brothers and sisters in the congregation.
However, their lives reveal their own lack of understanding. They struggle with horrendous sin problems. Their marriages are a mess. Their interactions with others are frequently unpleasant, marked by anger, bitterness, and pride. Now, I’m not in any position to assess the claims that such people make about how much time they spend with the Bible. Nonetheless, I can say with confidence that whatever time they have spent, it has not had the effect on them that God desires it to have.
Of course, even as we consider such Christians, we must beware of falling into the same trap. They claim to be freshwater springs, but they send out salt water. How about us, though? How is the transforming work of the word of God evident in our lives?
Many of us here are not new Christians. We’ve been studying the word for decades, and if we have applied ourselves at all, that should have resulted in a pretty decent understanding of what’s between the covers of the Bible.
As James says in James 3:13, if indeed we are wise and understanding, it’s time to reveal the gentleness of that wisdom in our good behavior. It’s time to erase the last traces of worldly wisdom from the way we treat others. We know that God wants us to be peacemakers in all our relationships, especially the relationships of our families. Well, it’s time to start making peace. We know that God wants us to be gentle and compassionate to those who have any kind of need, whether physical, mental, or spiritual. Well, it’s time to start caring for those people. Only in this way do our lives proclaim God’s will and show His glory to others.
The more I study the Bible, the more I am amazed at its ability to capture profound truths about human nature in a few words. One such amazing text appears in John 13:3-5. To worldly eyes, there seems to be an immense disconnect between Jesus’ self-perception and His actions. He thought to Himself that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was returning to God. In other words, Jesus was a being of incredible, astounding position and worth.
And yet, what does this being of incredible, astounding position and worth do? He takes a towel, girds Himself, and begins to wash the feet of His disciples. The One who ruled the universe took upon Himself the duties of the lowliest slave.
Human wisdom might conclude that Jesus washed feet despite His awareness of His lofty position. However, it is more accurate to say that Jesus washed feet because of His awareness of His lofty position. Because God had given Him everything, He had nothing left to prove about His status. His absolute security in God freed Him to perform a humble act of service and love. Foot-washing didn’t diminish Jesus. Jesus ennobled foot-washing.
In John 13:15, Jesus tells us that He did this as an example for us, and we ought to pay attention. However, that example does not lie in the expression of His humility and love. It lies in the basis of His humility and love.
The world is full of people who are constantly grasping and clawing for respect and status. This behavior, though, does not reveal true security and self-confidence. Instead, it bespeaks insecurity and lack of self-confidence. Those who insist that they are important and worthy of respect do not believe it themselves, and no amount of honor ever will assuage their self-doubt.
As Jesus frees us from so many things, He frees us from that. He knew that the Father had given all things into His hands, and from 1 Corinthians 3:22, we know that all things belong to us. We know that we are the adopted sons and daughters of the King of heaven, and shortly we will inherit everlasting glory with Him. No force in heaven or on earth can diminish our position or our value.
Consequently, we can smile serenely at threats to our self-worth that would devastate the worldly. Somebody insults us? We know better. Somebody steals from or defrauds us? We’ve still got treasure in heaven that they can’t touch. Somebody calls on us to do some demeaning thing? Big deal. If Jesus washed feet, we can scrub toilets.
No matter what happens to us, no matter what we must do, we still will emerge from it as sons and daughters of the King, destined to inherit everlasting glory. Like Jesus, then, we can live fearless lives of humility, compassion, forgiveness, and service. Let others fret over threats to their ego! We’ve got work to do.
The man is blessed in the Maker’s eyes
Who does not walk where wicked men advise;
He does not stand where sinners love to go,
Nor does he seek the scoffer’s seat below,
But in the law of God is his delight;
On it, he meditates both day and night.
This man is firmly planted, like a tree;
Beside the streams of water he will be;
His fruit will be abundant every year;
In time of drought, his leaves will still appear.
In all he does, whatever he may see,
His righteous work will find prosperity.
It is not so for those who disobey;
They are like chaff the breezes drive away.
They will not stand when judged, nor find a place
When righteous ones assemble in His grace.
The Lord regards the pathway of the pure,
But those who walk in sin will not endure.
I suspect that the longer a preacher works with a congregation, the more the congregation gets used to the preacher and can identify his particular hobbyhorses. That being the case, I’m sure that some of you, at least, have figured out that I’m particularly interested in fear. In my time, I’ve seen a dismayingly large number of people give in to fear in their spiritual lives, and whenever they do, it never works out well. Fear is a much bigger spiritual problem than we commonly recognize!
In fact, I think it’s fair to say that fear operates to destroy us in a particular way. This characteristic of fear is not an obvious one. Indeed, it leads to results that are the opposite of what we would expect. Nonetheless, it appears to me to be true.
What I see is this: whenever we give in to fear, we bring the thing that we fear upon us. When we sin because we are afraid of some outcome, we actually are inviting that thing to happen. I’ve seen this happen in real life, but it happens in the pages of Scripture too. This evening, then, let’s consider some unhappy people who fell before the rule of fear.
The first test case I want us to consider is SAUL. Saul has a problem with fear throughout his lifetime, but we see him sin because of fear for the first time in 1 Samuel 13:5-14. As I read this story, I honestly feel a fair amount of sympathy for Saul. He’s in a terrible situation! Saul hasn’t been king for very long at all, so he’s still unsteady on his feet. The Philistines are invading with a massive army. Samuel has told Saul to wait for him to come and offer sacrifices, but Samuel is nowhere to be seen. The people are terrified, and with every day that Samuel doesn’t show up, more of them desert.
Naturally, Saul is afraid, and because he is afraid, he does something that he knows is wrong. He offers the sacrifices himself. Is this understandable? Absolutely. Does that make it right? Absolutely not! In fact, this is one of the characteristics of fear that we need to watch out for: it makes sin appear excusable. We think it’s OK to do something we normally wouldn’t do because we’re afraid. However, God does not want us to show fear in doing wrong. He wants us to show faith in continuing to do right.
As Saul’s faith would have been rewarded, his fear is punished. Samuel appears just as he finishes the burnt offerings. Remember how the rule of fear is that you bring the fear upon you? Look at it here. Saul offered the sacrifices because he was afraid of losing his kingdom. Now, Samuel tells him that because he offered the sacrifices, he will lose his kingdom. Because of his sin, Saul must face the very thing he was afraid of.
Our second illustration is ZEDEKIAH. Here, turn with me to Jeremiah 38:14-23. You know, it’s interesting. We think of the books of Kings and Chronicles as books of history, and Jeremiah as a book of prophecy, but Jeremiah contains much more detail about the end of the kingdom of Judah than either 2 Kings or 2 Chronicles. This story is one of many that are recorded in Jeremiah and not elsewhere.
In any event, during the final siege of Jerusalem, at a point where Jeremiah already has been imprisoned for telling the truth, Zedekiah secretly summons him. He asks for a word from the Lord. Jeremiah tells him that if he wants to survive and wants the city to be spared, he needs to surrender immediately.
However, Zedekiah is afraid. He is concerned that if he surrenders to Nebuchadnezzar, the Jews who already have gone over to the Chaldeans will abuse him. Jeremiah tells him that won’t happen, but he can tell that Zedekiah doesn’t believe him, so he warns the unhappy king that if he does not surrender, he will be taken, the city will be burned, and his household will be destroyed. Sadly, this is the way things play out. As the next chapter of Jeremiah reveals, Zedekiah tries to flee but is taken. In punishment, the Babylonians kill his sons before his eyes and then blind him so that it is the last thing he will ever see.
The tragic story of Zedekiah illustrates a particular kind of fear: the fear of dealing with the unpleasant consequences of sin. Zedekiah was a wicked king, and Jerusalem was under siege in the first place because of his wickedness. It was time for him to face the music, to do what he could to make his peace with the Babylonians and with God. However, he was afraid to do that, so he lost everything that remained.
So too for us. There are times when we also must face the music. It can be really painful to work through the consequences of our sin, but if we refuse, the consequences will be even worse.
Finally, let’s consider THE ONE-TALENT SERVANT. We see his story in Matthew 25:14-18, 24-27. This is a familiar parable, and we’re only considering the unpleasant part. Elsewhere, the five-talent servant and the two-talent servant work to earn more and are rewarded. Here, rather than seeing opportunity like they did, the one-talent servant sees only the prospect of failure. He is worried about being punished by his unsympathetic master, and his fear paralyzes him. He buries his talent, and when the master returns, he tries to argue that his failure is his master’s fault because his master made him afraid.
What’s the outcome? We should be starting to see the pattern by now. Saul was afraid of losing his kingdom, sinned, and lost it. Zedekiah was afraid of being tortured, sinned, and was tortured. Similarly, the one-talent servant was afraid of being punished, disobeyed, and was punished. He gave into his fear and brought the thing he feared upon himself.
Today, we must beware of the fear of failure in serving the Lord too. How often do we see some spiritual opportunity before us, but we are afraid of failing, and so we don’t take it? Let’s think about this. Yes, if we take action for the Lord, we risk failure. However, if we never do anything, we guarantee failure. Nobody ever succeeds at what they refuse to attempt!
There are times when serving God demands that we step into the unknown. That’s not easy or fun. I’m here to tell you, brethren, I’m a conservative soul. By nature, I hate taking risks like that! However, if we allow Satan to use our fears to keep us from acting, none of us ever will accomplish anything for God at all.
Through the years, God has managed to hammer a few insights about the Bible into my thick head. One of them is that in the gospels, the order of stories matters. It’s common for the Evangelist to arrange material so that a text offers commentary on what precedes and follows it.
Reading the gospels in this way widens our focus. Rather than merely considering what a passage says, it’s important for us to ask what its context says about it too. Often, the writers do not spell out these connections (just as Jesus did not spell out the meaning of the parables for the multitudes), but when we make them ourselves, they give us a deeper insight into the Scriptures.
This process is particularly fruitful in Matthew 25. Even though Matthew presents all this material as part of one long discourse, we often don’t study it that way (except maybe at the end of a book study on Matthew when the teacher is desperately trying to reach Matthew 28 by the end of the quarter). We know the parable of the virgins, the parable of the talents, and the throne scene, but rarely do we tie all three of them together.
However, when we do, an important message emerges. The parable of the virgins is about perseverance. We are supposed to be like the wise virgins who kept their lamps lit until the bridegroom arrived, rather than like the foolish virgins who ran out of oil.
The parable of the talents is about productivity. We are to imitate the five-talent and two-talent servants, who did something with what they had been given, rather than the one-talent servant, who accomplished nothing.
The throne scene is about compassion. Jesus wants us to see that caring for His brothers and sisters is so important that He makes it equivalent to caring for Him. Our eternal destiny depends on the way we treat one another.
When we consider these three messages together, it answers questions that each individual message leaves unanswered. If we want to be like the wise virgins, in what should we persevere? Contextually, the answer is that we should persevere in taking advantage of opportunities to care for one another. If we want to be productive like the faithful servants, what does that look like? Contextually, it looks like caring for one another until the end of our time on earth. If we want to minister to one another’s needs, how should we do that? We should do it by continually taking advantage of opportunities for service.
Interestingly, this combined analysis leads to different applications than the ones we usually make. For instance, we generally read the parable of the talents as being about staying faithful (continuing to show up for services, not falling away) rather than serving faithfully. It’s a lot less demanding that way! However, when we pay attention to the full message of the Lord, we better understand the path that He would have us walk.