We have two small pieces of the Lord’s teaching before us this morning. We don’t know when they were delivered or if they were often repeated. Luke places them here because they deal with the same point the Lord was making with the parable of the sower or the soils which immediately precedes these two short paragraphs. Just as Luke includes only the parable of the sower and not the other parables the Lord taught to the same point and which we find together with that parable in Matthew 13 and Mark 4, so here Luke includes only these two short paragraphs that in the other two synoptic Gospels are part of much larger blocks of material. We have in Luke an epitome, a summary of teaching that Matthew and Mark give us in greater detail.
v.16 This little proverb about lighting a lamp appears again in an almost identical form in 11:33. It is used in a variety of contexts by the Lord in his teaching; an obvious point, perhaps, but very important to grasp.
v.18 The idea is simply that those who respond to the Lord’s teaching in faith and obedience will continue to get more and more from the Lord; but those who do not embrace the Word, who reject it, must eventually experience even more complete spiritual destitution. Note that Luke doesn’t say that such a person has so much; only that such a person thinks he does! He thinks he has peace with God; he thinks he has God’s favor; he thinks he is safe. But if he rejects Jesus and the light that comes from Jesus, he will eventually learn that he had none of this. Remember, the Lord’s original audience was Jews who thought that God would always have a special place in his heart for them and that they, because they were Jews, already had the light. In a sense, of course, they had. What made the Lord’s teaching so controversial to his original audience was precisely his insistence – and you find it everywhere in his teaching – that they, like their ancestors in the days of the prophets, were, in fact, living in darkness, not in light. They had the truth but they weren’t doing anything with it. They weren’t living by it so they might as well not have had it all.
v.19 The most natural understanding of “brothers” is that they were other children of Joseph and Mary, the Lord’s younger siblings. Roman Catholic theologians, bound to the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, often view these men instead as the children of Joseph by a previous marriage or, perhaps, as the cousins of the Lord. There is little evidence to offer for such an understanding, however, and until the celebration of virginity and celibacy became common in the church and the Catholic dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity was developed, it was understood without controversy that Jesus had other brothers and sisters who were likewise the children of Joseph and Mary.
We know from elsewhere in the Gospels that the Lord’s brothers did not believe in him at this time. Fortunately they all came to believe in him later. In 1 Cor. 15:7 we read of his appearance to Jamesafter his resurrection but we assume that at some point after Easter all of the Lord’s siblings saw him and the sight of him was enough to dispel any doubts that remained. James and Jude were among his brothers and would eventually write books of the New Testament. But the Lord’s point, made even more clearly in Mark, is that belonging to the same family as those who walk in the light isn’t the same as walking in the light oneself. One of the saddest situations in life is that in which a Christian or Christians in the same family do not share their faith in Christ with their own siblings. They belong together to one natural family, but not to the family that really matters.
v.21 The reference to “hearing” the Word of God connects the point to what has gone before in the chapter: the “take heed how you hear” in v. 18 and the several references to hearing the Word of God in the parable of the sower. As always, the kind of hearing that is done is disclosed by whether or not the person does what he hears. Hearing that leads to doing is the mark of true faith in the Gospel of Luke. James, the Lord’s brother would make the same point with different words: “faith without works is dead.” We have the same thing, for example, in 6:46: “Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them” is the man who can’t be shaken.
There is nothing very difficult about figuring out what Jesus is talking about in the two short paragraphs that we have read or why Luke has placed these short specimens of his teaching immediately after the parable of the sower. That parable reminds us that people respond to the Word of God in quite different ways but only one kind of response represents true, genuine and saving faith and leads to salvation. That parable ended with an exhortation to hear the Word of God, hold fast to it, and bear fruit from it.
In these next two short paragraphs the theme is the same and the exhortation is the same, though put in a slightly different form. The Lord Jesus is still challenging his audience – as he must have done many times – to respond to the message that he was preaching to them. Jesus was a preacher of the Word of God, the good news, the truth – call his message what you will – and so he was a bearer of light. Light reveals things that otherwise we would not see and Jesus and his Word are that light. Without the Word of God there is a great deal of the greatest conceivable importance we would not know; we could not know. We need the light. But light in and of itself does no one any good. Its purpose is to show the way: one must then walk in that way illuminated by the light. That is what matters! And walking by the light is just another way of describing a faithful response to Jesus’ teaching.
One of the striking features of Holy Scripture, one that very early impresses itself on the attentive reader, is how solemn it is. Anyone who reads the Bible with an honest heart must become a serious man or woman. It is, frankly, what puts a lot of people off the Bible, this relentless seriousness. There is very little fun, very little lightheartedness in the Bible. From the beginning to the end the Bible never lets us forget how much is at stake in the acceptance of its teaching, in our faith in God and Christ, and in our surrendering our lives to the Lord’s rule.
Think of such characteristic passages as those in which we are told that God is angry with the wicked every day, or in which we are urged to gouge out our right eye or cut off our right arm rather than allow ourselves to be cast into hell; or in which we are reminded that broad is the way that leads to death and vast multitudes can be found on it at any moment, but narrow is the way that leads to life and how a comparatively few walk that way; or in which we are warned not to let anything cause us to lose our souls; or in which we are taught that while whoever believes in Jesus is not condemned, whoever does not believe in him is condemned already. There are statements without number as serious as these everywhere in the Bible.
Well here it is as it is everywhere else: solemnity is laid upon solemnity. Why must we receive the Word of God and practice it in our lives? Because the day is coming when the secrets of men’s lives will be revealed: a day of reckoning, a day of judgment. You must respond in faith, you must live in and by the light of Jesus Christ, because someday every life will be judged according to that truth, that one standard. And, lest anyone miss the point, to make sure that everyone grasped how absolutely essential it is that we respond in faith and obedience to Jesus and to his teaching, he uses the occasion of a visit by his family to say that his true family consists only of those who hear in faith and respond in obedience.
And lest anyone still be inclined to miss his point, he puts it in a form so stark as to seem virtually calculated to offend. The one who has will get more; the one who does not have will have even the little he has taken from him. “Take care then how you hear!” BEWARE is written large over these short paragraphs. Beware! Beware! There is only one way to eternal life!
There are secrets in every individual life – you know very well that you have secrets, there are things you would be absolutely mortified for others to know about you – and, to be sure, we can be grateful to God that some things can be kept secret. He shows us great kindness in not exposing all our secrets. But we should never imagine that they will always and forever remain unknown. God knows them all and he has promised to bring them to the light. How they are to be disclosed and to whom the Lord does not here say, but that they will be uncovered he assures us and warns us, therefore, not to base our hope for the future on the possibility of keeping our secrets secret. Salvation requires that even your secret sins be forgiven!
God always knows and a day of reckoning is coming! Your secrets remind you that you need forgiveness more than anything else! The Lord has shown you a way to receive the forgiveness of your sins – including all the sins you know about that no one else does – he has brought that reality of full and free forgiveness into the light. But it will do you no good if you do not live in that light. Not only will those who do not respond to the light not profit from God’s goodness to them, they will suffer the more for having seen the light and chosen to continue to walk in darkness. That is a theme we often find in the Bible’s teaching: to whom much is given, much is required.
You will notice that the Lord talks here and throughout the Gospels about hearing the Word. This was a day in which almost all communication was oral and aural, by mouth and ear. Books (or scrolls) were expensive and owned and read by only a few. It would not always be so. Augustine discovered the light reading from his own copy of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, by that time in book form. By the 18th century books were found in virtually every home. John Wesley discovered the light while listening to someone else reading the preface to Martin Luther’s commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. From that time on many people found the light of Christ reading books and do so still today. But the word and the light have since come in many other forms as well. Though I haven’t any illustration to provide you, I would be surprised to discover that there wasn’t someone who became a Christian when the good news was communicated to him or her by telegraph. Certainly there have been many through the years who have felt the light shine in their hearts and seen it illuminate their lives at the other end of a telephone conversation. The late Dr. D. James Kennedy, founder of our Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, was converted, that is, he began to walk in the light, as a result of hearing on the radio a sermon of Donald Barnhouse, then pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Nowadays the light sometimes shines on hearts and minds through the internet. We have read and heard of young men and women in the Middle East who have found Christ either reading material on the internet or listening to gospel programs on their computer. As much harm as computers do and have done, they have done immeasurable good as a means of transmitting the good news to those who would be hard to reach in other ways.
Still, no doubt far and away the most effective means of transmitting the light to those who are in darkness, of communicating the truth to those who do not yet know it, of bringing the good news to those who have not yet heard it is as it has always been hearing the Word spoken by someone else. Surely still today the vast majority of people who become followers of Jesus Christ do so because they have heard the truth about him and have believed it and begun to practice it.
My point is that what the Lord Jesus said so solemnly long years ago remains the truth today. We too are responsible for how we hear and what we do with the truth that we hear. “Take care then how you hear” is the summary of all of this teaching from beginning of chapter 8 and that warning is addressed to us as surely as it was addressed to those who first heard the teaching of the Lord Jesus those long ago days in Galilee.
And how does one take care how he or she hears? Well, that is not so difficult question to answer. Someone who is taking care how he or she hears, listens to the truth with attention, with a real desire to understand, with a real appreciation of its importance, and, and this is the point the Lord draws attention to in these verses, with full intention to obey that truth and live in its light. For example, all of you are hearing the truth right now. But do you have in your heart at this moment a living sense of your obligation to take this truth and then do something with it in your life? That is what is required whether a person is reading the Bible, or listening to a sermon in church, encountering the message of Jesus by some other means, or even mulling it over in his or her mind. To hear the truth, to see the light lays us under an obligation to be faithful to that truth and to do that truth. That is the Lord’s point.
All of that sounds unobjectionable, but the fact is, it is an attitude that is becoming increasingly rare even in Bible-believing communities in our day. Over the past generation and a half there has been a huge shift in view point that has occurred in the culture as a whole, you know it as post-modernism and so on, but a shift that has also made itself felt in the life of the church. Over the past generation and a half a great change has come over Christian society in regard to truth and the importance of the truth. Some years ago, David Wells, a South African by birth, formerly a protégé of John Stott, now a professor of theology at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, father of one of the ruling elders in our presbytery, and a man who preached in this pulpit some fourteen years ago, published a book entitled No Time for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology. It was a very important book about which many people pursed their brow for about two weeks and then promptly forgot. Wells, I fear, is a voice crying in the wilderness. In that great and important book, Prof. Wells demonstrated that a real interest in discovering the truth so that one can live by the truth and practice the truth has been replaced in the evangelical Christian mind by an interest in one’s own present well-being and happiness. The truth is not denied, but by means of an epoch-making change in our culture, the truth has now become our servant and we are no longer its servant as we were before. In that book Prof. Wells provided massive illustration and demonstration of this shift: from the books that evangelical publishers publish, to the way seminarians are trained for the ministry, to his own experience as a professor of theology finding it difficult to get his colleagues to be interested in questions of truth.
But perhaps the most obvious evidence of this shift is that Christian congregations nowadays much less often ever hear such texts as the one we have before us this morning. They are not hearing about the exposure of their secrets on the judgment day; they are not hearing in their pastors’ sermons about the broad way and the narrow way; they are not hearing about the terrible consequences that must befall those who hear the truth but who do not do it. They are hearing comparatively few such sermons and many, a great many Christians today, virtually never hear a sermon that warns them to Beware! Beware!
There is a great deal in the Bible that is meant to worry us, to frighten us, to make us shudder. But you would never know that listening to the contemporary Christian pulpit. There is virtually no beware left in Christian preaching. And that, surely, is a recipe for spiritual disaster, all the more in a culture and a time like ours. The Jews of the OT and of Jesus’ day are the great illustration of a fact that has been proved with dismal regularity in the Christian ages since: it is very easy to hear the truth, even to know it on a certain level, and never respond with faith, never hold fast to the truth, never bear fruit from it, and never do it! That is what the Jews did: they squandered the truth and, as a result, what they thought they had was taken from them and given to somebody else.
And the same thing has happened countless times to generations of the church in the two-thousand years since. People read the Bible in church, they sang the good news in their hymns, they nodded their agreement with the platitudinous sermons they heard, they would have said that they had the light and been offended, as the Jews were, by any suggestion that they did not, but they never held the truth fast in an honest heart, they never bore fruit with that truth, they never took the light they had been given and lived by it helping others to do so as well, and they never did the word of God, that is lived by it, practiced it, worked it out in their own lives and the lives of their families.
I am a minister, which historically meant I am a preacher of the word of God. In colonial America ministers were the first men in a town. No office or calling commanded greater prestige. Why? Because people were of a mind to think that what the minister taught them from the pulpit on Sunday was the most important thing for them to know. What he told them were the things they absolutely had to believe and had to do if they were to be SAVED. To know and do the truth of the word of God was essential to life both now and forever and ministers were the principal agents of that truth and so were considered the most important people in the community. But times have changed.
One recent survey ranked Christian ministers – in what is ostensibly still a Christian country (at least most Americans, more than 90%, still call themselves Christians) – at 52nd place on a one hundred point scale of social prestige, right next to factory foremen and operators of power stations. [Wells, 113] Another study revealed that the most desired quality in a minister – what would you say in answer to that question; would you not say that the most desired quality in a minister is that he knows the truth and can communicate it to me? – well, what the people surveyed said was the most important quality in a minister was “an open, affirming style” and that what people least like in a minister is “legalism in matters of truth and ethics” or a domineering personality. You see, people no longer see ministers as first and foremost purveyors, brokers, revealers, teachers of truth, bearers of the light. Now, more and more, a minister’s job is to make us happy, make us feel good about ourselves and life. What is this but the demonstration of the fact that “Beware! or Take care how you hear the word of God!” is no longer an interesting message to most Christians. If it were, the one thing, the only thing congregations would demand from their minister is that he bring them the truth of God and help them to understand it, grasp it, hold it fast, and practice it in their lives. They are no longer thinking much about the day when secrets will be disclosed or when what many church people think they have will be taken from them and given to somebody else.
In a more recent publication, Prof. Wells describes what he calls the “crumbling of our theological character.” He doesn’t mean that theological beliefs are being denied – though there is surely some of that – but that they have little of what he calls “cash value.” They just don’t matter to people. He likens the situation to that of a child who is neglected in his home. He isn’t abducted and taken away; he is still there. But he is ignored. No one really cares for him. The great doctrines of the Bible are not denied, but neither are they very interesting to people. God, the Majesty who created the heavens and the earth, our Maker, the judge of all men, and the only hope of our salvation in the Day of Judgment; even God does not interest Christians as he used to. And there are hardly any words that better describe our modern age, even this modern age in the church, than these: “there is no fear of God before their eyes.” [The Bleeding of the Evangelical Church, 8]
That God will take away from people who neglect his word what they think they have is a commonplace biblical doctrine, but you would never know it from listening in on the modern American church. The secrets of men’s lives are going to be exposed, but you would never know it by attending to the modern Christian pulpit. And that one must obey the light to be counted among those who have the light, again one of the Bible’s most emphatic themes, might as well be a secret so far as many American Christians are concerned. In one recent survey of American evangelical Christians, 91% said that God is very important to them – what else is a Christian going to say to a survey taker? – but 66% of them went on to say that they do not believe in moral absolutes and 67% that they do not believe in absolute truth! In other words, God is important to them as a vague idea, some avuncular and kindly presence who can be counted on to do him or her good, but not as the owner of their lives, not as a lawgiver whose will must be obeyed or else, and not as the source of truth by which alone we can live forever, truth that all must believe, hold fast, and do. [Ibid]
The seriousness, the solemnity, the relentless urgency conveyed on every page of the Word of God is somehow being missed in our day. It is perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of the sentimentality of the modern world. Everywhere we look there is death, everywhere we look there is judgment, but we are acting as if such things hardly exist. Multitudes of people nowadays have been trained to read the Bible as if it were a self-help book instead of what it is: a rope thrown to drowning men and women by which they may be saved if, but only if, they hang on for dear life! The Lord did not say that those who are happy, well-adjusted, and comfortable in life are his mother and brothers; he said that those who receive the light and walk by the light, that those who hear the word of God, hold it fast, and do it, those and those only are his mother and his brothers. Every time you hear the truth of God, every time you hear the word of God, every time you hear the good news of Christ’s kingdom an obligation has been laid upon you to do something with that truth, that word, that news.
In these short texts the Lord doesn’t elaborate the various things we are to do with the truth we hear or how we are to do the word of God. But one doesn’t have to read very far in the Word of God to learn how to do the Word of God.
Take, for example, the proverb the Lord began with: “No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a jar or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light.” There are people around you every day who are living in darkness. They don’t think they are. They have no sense that they are in the dark because they’ve never seen the world or themselves or God in the light! They are constantly tripping over all sorts of things but have no idea that they could miss them if only they had the light. How many people have become Christians and have said “I never realized who or what God was. All those years I never realized that I was a sinner before God. I never realized what a human life was supposed to be. I never imagined that I could have such high purpose in my life, or that I could know such love, or that I could find such pleasure and help in prayer, in worship, in obedience. I never knew, until I saw the light and I first saw everything I hadn’t been able to see before.”
Well, if you are a Christian you have that light and it’s now your responsibility to put it on a stand and bring others into its circle of illumination. Only a very selfish man or woman is content to go to heaven alone! To do the word of God is certainly first and foremost to share it with others.
Let me finish with a beautiful illustration of how one holds fast to the Word of God, bears fruit from it, and does it. Here is what a man does who realizes that the word of God is not only a surpassingly great gift; it is as well a solemn stewardship, a responsibility.
I read some years ago a monograph on the life and theology of Alexander Comrie, an 18th century Dutch theologian. [A.G. Honig, Alexander Comrie, Leiden, 1991] Comrie was actually a Scot, a contemporary of Thomas Boston. As a boy he contemplated becoming a minister but his father thought he ought to go instead into business and sent him to Holland to apprentice with a merchant. Those were, as you might imagine, lonely years for the young man. He had to find his way in foreign country, learn a new language, make new friends, and learn a trade all at once. One Sunday in church he met an old man who fell to talking with him about the work the Spirit of God was doing in some of the villages along the Rhine River. At his first holiday, Comrie set out to see for himself. He went at first by barge which sank in a storm; Comrie had to swim ashore losing all his possessions in the process. Being the determined young man he was, he walked onward toward his destination until it was dark and, attracted by a light came up to the house of a Dutch farmer.
The farmer saw him coming and somewhat suspicious came out to greet him and ask him what he was doing and where he was going so late in the evening. Comrie replied that he needed a place to sleep and was hoping the farmer might allow him to spend the night in his barn. His accent awakened the farmer’s suspicions but he didn’t feel he could refuse the request so he showed Comrie to a granary that adjoined the house. Actually, he put him there because he could watch him through a small hole in his bedroom wall. He left him some bread and milk, bid him good night and retired to his bedroom to keep his eye on his guest.
But as he peered through the hole what did he hear and see but the young man on his knees, pouring out his soul in a touching prayer to God, giving thanks for the Lord’s having guided him to a kind farmer and asking the Lord to bless the farmer for the kindness he had shown. In fact, he prayed that if the farmer was not yet a Christian in earnest, he might be shown the light and be saved together with his family.
All this was enough for the farmer. Still peering through the hole in his wall, it seemed to him that he had been given a vision of heaven. Was this man an angel he was entertaining unawares? Comrie’s prayer had shone such light in his heart that he went to his own bed, to his own knees, and surrendered himself to God and to the Word of God just as Comrie had prayed he would. That moment he found light flooding into his heart and his life. Comrie had carried the light to this man’s farm; he had with his prayer hung up the lamp, so that when the farmer “entered” by peering through is peep hole, he saw by the light.
The next morning the farmer told his young guest what had happened and how before he had mistrusted God and been uninterested in the word of God and also how wonderful the word of God seemed to him now. I haven’t time to tell you the rest of the story: how Alexander Comrie eventually received his theological training and came back to this same place to be this same farmer’s pastor.
That is the kind of thing that happens, this is the kind of thing someone does who hears the word of God, holds it fast in his heart, bears fruit from it, and does it. Which is to say that is how a real Christian hears the Word of God and what a real Christian does with the light he has been given.