We’ve come in our sermons on the Gospel of Luke to chapter 12 and the first three short paragraphs of that chapter, vv. 1-12. The Lord has just completed a series of addresses against the Pharisees and these three paragraphs seem to continue, at least in a general way, the teaching of the material immediately preceding them. You remember, of course, that the chapter divisions were added to the Bible one thousand years after Christ and so are not original to the Bible.
v.1 An eyewitness touch. Today as well we worry about crowd control when large numbers of people gather. Everyone made his own bread in those days and everyone understood how a little bit of yeast or leaven would spread through and affect a large lump of dough.
v.3 There are many things to be said in criticism of hypocrisy, but on this occasion the Lord chose to say that it is shortsighted. [Morris, 226] Whatever you hide behind your mask will eventually be uncovered and will be the worse for the deceit that hid it from others. The words you spoke you thought other didn’t hear, the deeds you did when you thought you were alone or with others who didn’t know you, the poses you assumed that did not reflect your true thoughts and attitudes: God knows it all and it will someday be revealed. This somewhat indirect reference to the Last Judgment leads to a more direct one.
v.4 Death is, to be sure, a great enemy, but it is not the real catastrophe of human life. There is something much worse than death.
v.5 “Hell” here is the Greek Gehenna, the place of positive punishment in the afterlife. It was the name of the valley to the south of Jerusalem in which in earlier days Jewish children had been sacrificed to the god Molech. It was remembered in later years for the terrible crimes that had been committed there and was regarded as a cursed place. Later it became a rubbish dump and fires burned there almost constantly. Its name then, by analogy, became a name for the place of eternal judgment.
v.7 But the Lord’s main concern was not to frighten his friends but to reassure them, and the Lord does that here with a reminder that God cares for them and their lives are valuable to him.
v.9 As has already been made clear, one’s loyalty to Jesus is the key to one’s fortunes in the world to come. Just as those who acknowledge Jesus before men can be sure of his acceptance by God, so those who refuse to acknowledge him can be sure of their rejection. There are, of course, lots of ways to deny Jesus or to refuse to be numbered among his true disciples. One can deny his Word, “the unique authority of his teaching,” [Morris, 228], claim to know better than Jesus about this or that, explain away the account of his ministry, his death, and his resurrection, even while claiming to be a Christian; and so on. A failure genuinely to acknowledge in one’s life the supremacy of the Lord Christ is another definition of unbelief.
v.10 Solemn thoughts about the judgment day lead to this next warning. But the Lord’s remark has been much misunderstood to the great distress of the Lord’s people who have a sensitive conscience. The Lord is not talking about a particular kind of remark or form of words. He is talking about the character of one’s life and, in particular, taking all the Bible’s teaching about the unpardonable sin together, the Lord is talking here about the willful and conscious rejection of the Lord and his salvation by someone who should know better, the very sort of sin so many of the Pharisees were guilty of. It is the sin of apostasy, the intentional, constant, and intractable refusal of the grace of God. Because it is the Holy Spirit who reveals the truth of divine grace to the human heart, such a rejection can be said to be particularly a sin against the Spirit. By the way, as I have said to many troubled souls through the years, if you are worried that you may have committed the sin against the Holy Spirit, you have not committed it. It is the very nature of this sin that those who have committed it do not worry that they have.
v.12 But, once again, the Lord’s disciples are not to take this warning to heart without remembering at the same time that the Spirit is their friend and helper. When they acknowledge the Lord before men, he will be present to help them do that well. The Spirit is one not only to fear, but to rely on for his help.
Those who are tempted to reject the Lord — or at least to refuse to identify with him publicly — typically think that standing up for him at their workplace, or in their family, or among their fellow students or friends would be simply impossible. They would be laughed out of the room or would lose their job or, as the British say, they would be sent to Coventry, by which they mean they would be shunned. As a matter of fact, the Lord says, I will give to all my loyal disciples the help they need, the support they require at such critical moments. This is, by the way, a promise that has been fulfilled countless times even in the hottest fires of persecution. It explains why the words uttered by simple and humble Christians on the scaffold, block, or pyre have proved so memorable and powerful and were so carefully preserved for posterity. The Holy Spirit gave them the words to say and his words are not like other words!
In Matthew and Mark these sayings are found in a variety of different contexts. It is not at all unlikely that the Lord said similar things many times in his teaching, but it is also not unlikely that Luke has collected some of the Lord’s sayings and placed them here because they so well summarized what he wanted to say about the error of the Pharisees and of so much of Judaism in his day and to put his disciples on notice with respect to those errors.
Now we begin our examination of our text by noting that the Lord was explicitly speaking to his disciples when he made these remarks. The Lord delivered much of his teaching to his disciples even when others were close enough to listen in. The Bible is virtually in its entirety addressed to believers, even if its teaching has tremendous implications for unbelievers. So what we have read was spoken to us!
Now we have before us a passage that in one particular and very important way is entirely typical of the Bible. It is one of Holy Scripture’s distinctive features that it teaches its truth in the way in which it does, in what may seem to be contradictories. You are familiar with this of course and not only because I have made it an emphasis in preaching here. You have encountered this phenomenon in your own reading of the Bible whether or not you have articulated the problem to yourself precisely as I am going to articulate it now. It is characteristic of the Bible’s pedagogy to tell us at one and the same time that God is one and God is three, but never to discuss how he is one and three. Frankly, the truth is beyond us and that should be obvious. Finite human beings peering into the very nature of the Infinite Almighty will find themselves baffled; of course they will!
In the same way the Bible tells us that Jesus is Almighty God and an authentic human being with all the limitations of his manhood, but never does it discuss how he is both at the same time or precisely what that meant for him and his interior life and self-consciousness. How could the one person, Jesus Christ, not know things and be omniscient at the same time? We have no idea. It is a mystery that is too high for us. Or it is utterly typical to find on virtually every page of the Bible that we are appealed to as free, responsible creatures, able creatively to participate in the work of God in the world and yet at the same time that everything we do is foreordained by God and all our good works must be ascribed to him. So, for example, in Romans 9 salvation is taught to us as a purely divine decision and divine act, a sovereign choice on God’s part to give it to one and not to another. But in the next chapter we are taught that unless a man confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and which he will never do unless we send out people to ensure that he hears the Good News about Christ and salvation, unless all of these things are done no one will be saved. As Rabbi Duncan famously put it: That God works half and man the other half is false; that God works all and man does all, is true.” [Colloquia Peripatetica, 29-30) But never does the Bible explain how we are to understand the relationship between these two truths, that of an absolute divine sovereignty and a true human freedom and accountability. Again, this is knowledge too high for us. We must simply confess both to be true and live accordingly.
And it goes on and on. Justification is by faith and not by works we are taught a thousand times in Holy Scripture. But we are also taught that in the Last Judgment men will be judged according to their works and that each man will get what he deserves! That is the very language of the Word of God. We are taught in no uncertain terms that in Christ the power of sin has been broken and that we are no longer bond slaves to sin, but Paul a chapter later speaks for all of us when he mourns that, far into his Christian life, he remained a bond slave of sin. We are taught that all at once and forever our sins are forgiven when we believe in Jesus and we are taught that unless we continue to confess our sins to God and continue to forgive the sins that others commit against us, we will not be forgiven. We are taught that God has made some men for honor and some for dishonor and we are taught that he does not desire the death of the wicked but that all should come to repentance and the knowledge of the truth. Or think of this: we are told a number of times that the Lord will come again quickly, that’s the very word the Bible uses on a number of occasions, quickly; “Behold I am coming quickly,” but we are also told not to be deceived by his long delay in returning, thinking that because he is taking so long to return he will not return at all. The list goes on and on. Again and again we are tempted to say: “Well, which is it?” Is he coming quickly or is he not coming quickly? Is God sovereign or are we free? And as often the Bible requires us to believe what we are told, to admit that our minds are too small to embrace reality in its divine fullness, and that our task is to live according to both truths at the same time. Biblical theology is and has always been tension laden precisely because it consists of so many of these seemingly incompatible truths.
And in the area of biblical ethics it is the same. We are told to carry our neighbor’s load and told that each must carry his own load. We are told not to judge others lest we be judged, but in the next breath we are told not to cast our pearls before swine. That sounds a little judgmental to me! We read in the Bible of the equality of men and women in the kingdom of grace, an equality that is described in the most absolute terms, and we read elsewhere in the same Bible texts that are, God forgive us, now an embarrassment to the evangelical church for the emphasis they place on the distinction of genders. We have texts that would seem to rule out any use by Christian women of jewelry or cosmetics, the styling of hair, or any other means intended to enhance physical appearance, and other texts that celebrate these very same things. We have texts that decry any attention to outward form and beauty, especially of women, and, contrarily, texts, many texts, in which God himself calls attention to a woman’s physical attractiveness. We are told to preserve the unity of the church at all costs and, at the same time, we are told to cast out of the church those who teach falsehood and who live scandalous lives. We are commanded in absolute terms to obey those in authority over us and commanded to obey God rather than men.
You get the point. Never is the tension between these polarities resolved, no effort is made to locate a golden mean between them. The Bible virtually never discusses the apparent conflict created by the assertion of two facts, two truths that seem impossible for us to reconcile. Indeed, this is so much the pedagogy of the Bible that I have come to think that if a particular teaching of the Bible does not have another biblical teaching hard to reconcile with it, I have probably misunderstood it. And sometimes, as here, those two seemingly contrary truths are set side by side. It gets our attention, which is no doubt the point.
Again, there are no real contradictions, of course. All truth is a perfect harmony in the divine mind and in reality. The problem is that our minds are too small to comprehend that harmony. We can see only individual pieces and so we are given the pieces that lie at the end of a particular continuum of truth. We can understand each of them. Each of them is clear and sharp in its individual meaning. It is the reconciling of them that is beyond us. So we must live with the tension: believing two things to be true when it would be much easier to believe that one or the other is true. Indeed, most false teaching in Christian history takes the form of sacrificing one truth to its opposite. Some deny divine sovereignty; some deny human freedom, rather than confessing them both to be the clear truth of the Word of God. Some deny Christ’s deity, some his humanity. Some the unity of God and some his triple personality. And on it goes.
Now all of that is to introduce our text. We all find, when we read a text like this, that we are drawn to one teaching more than to another, which usually means we prefer one teaching to its polar opposite: we prefer our freedom to God’s sovereignty, or we prefer hearing of our once for all forgiveness rather than hearing that we will be forgiven only if we forgive those who have sinned against us, as we heard the Lord say at the beginning of Luke chapter 11. We then tend to remember the truth we prefer and forget or ignore the other.
In our text we read of divine judgment and the fear of God and we read of the welcoming heart of God. We read of love and trust and we read of fear and worry. Divine judgment is not very often nowadays a topic of the Christian pulpit. And very few Christians I think, including myself, are really awake to the need to fear the Lord our God, which Jesus teaches us to do here. He makes an emphatic point of it. “Yes, I tell you, fear him!” Remember, he is talking to us, “…fear him!” We are of a mind to hurry on and to say, “Yes, but he then he says, ‘Fear not.’” We hear the “fear not”; we do not hear the “fear him.” In the next paragraph we are put on guard against a cowardice that fails to acknowledge the Lord and against a creeping indifference to a real, public loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ. But we hurry past the warning to the encouragement to count on the Spirit’s help which will never fail us when we are in need of it.
To be sure, there are some Christians, fewer of them in our world today, who latch on to the “fear God” and sail right past the “fear not;” or who show little interest in the Spirit’s help but want to ring the changes on the warning not to sin against the Spirit or to betray the Lord. But we are all inclined to prefer one truth rather than both together.
So what are we to do with these warning and these encouragements, side by side as they are, seemingly contradictory as they are? Well, we are to believe them both and take both of them to heart and live according to both. That it can be done — embracing these seemingly contradictory teachings at one and the same time — is not only the teaching of the Bible but the experience of the saints.
These are hardly the only warnings in the Bible after all. The Bible is full of warnings: warnings concerning the present and warnings concerning the future, threats of God’s displeasure in our present life and threats of his judgment, even his rejection of us in the world to come. We are to be people, the Bible says, “who tremble at the Word of God.” (Ezra 9:4) Does not the Lord himself say this?
“This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” [Isa. 66:2]
There are a lot of things in the Word of God to tremble over. Are we not, as we read in Isaiah 29:23, to stand “in awe of the God of Israel”? Absolutely we are. In the NT as well, and not just here in Luke 12, we are commanded to fear God. We read at the end of Hebrews 12, a chapter of warning in a book of warning:
“…let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
The God we believe in is the holy God who inhabits eternity, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. You will never in all eternity see the divine nature in its full glory. You can’t. To see the glory of God, really to see it, would consume you, destroy you. That is what God is like. We read that he will by no means clear the guilty, that he is angry with the wicked every day, and that is only by his mercy that we are not consumed. He is the God who will not be mocked. He sends the unbelieving and the impenitent to hell and among those are some who spent all their lives in the Christian church claiming to be the followers of Jesus Christ. This is our God and our Savior.
Such is the flaming furnace of the divine wrath that Jude can exhort us in terms that sound quite strange to the modern evangelical Christian ear.
“Be merciful to those who doubt, snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear — hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.”
Try to pull those people out of danger, but be very careful that you don’t yourself touch the sinfulness that has gotten them into that mess; that’s the idea. The recognition of God’s majesty and holiness makes wise men and women very careful to say and do nothing that might offend him. Somebody said to Richard Rogers, the Puritan, “Mr. Rogers you are so precise.” His reply was, “I serve a precise God.” Is that part of your understanding of the Christian life? Divine wrath looms over the world like a specter. He will judge the world and many will be condemned. Our God, our Father, our Savior will consign multitudes of human beings to eternal judgment. “Hell is scorched through and through by the holiness of God: it is there as all pervasive and inescapable as it is in heaven.” [R.A. Finlayson, God’s Light on Man’s Destiny, cited in BOT 39 (Nov/Dec 1965) 7] You cannot believe otherwise and be a Christian who reveres the Word of God. Our Savior talked about hell a great deal and repeatedly warned his hearers of its reality and the ferocity of divine judgment. Do you think I’m trying to scare you? Of course I am. More importantly, so was Jesus. No faithful minister should fail to attempt to bring his hearers face to face with the picture of the divine wrath from time to time just as the Bible does.
Frankly, I’ve never been much impressed by the arguments against hell. People believe in heaven because there are so many intimations of it in the joy, peace, love and beauty we encounter in our life in this world. But are there not just as much intimation of judgment and hell in the alienation and the loss and the discouragement and the despair and the pain of life in this world?
But for Christians, who are hard put to believe that such warnings really apply to them, try this on for size. The Bible also teaches that God’s judgment is so impeccable, so precise, so perfect that he will judge even his people according to what they have done, either good or bad. You might not know this from what you hear and read from Christian preachers nowadays, but it is the universal witness of the Bible and the Christian ages that God will judge all men on the Last Day, Christians included, and dispense his judgments according to everyone’s deserts, carefully distinguishing between individuals even within their respective classes of the saved and the lost. As in hell some will be beaten with few stripes and some with many. So in heaven some will have greater reward than others. Did you really think that it wasn’t going to make any difference: what you did that time; what you failed to do on that other occasion?
Dante in his Paradiso meets a nun by the name of Piccarda on his passage through heaven. In fact she inhabits the lowest level of heaven but with perfect contentment. Heaven is heaven after all and all who are in Christ go there and are happy forever; sure enough. Piccarda had broken a vow and this was the eternal consequence of her moral failure. Then the poet reflects:
“…it was clear to me that everywhere
in heaven is paradise, though the High God
does not rain down his grace on all souls there
Where did Dante get that idea? Well, he got it from the Lord Jesus. He got it from the Apostle Paul who taught the same thing. Does that send a shiver down your spine when you think of the things you have done and failed to do, when you begin counting up your sins, your many and inexcusable sins? It should! The effect of our sins in some mysterious way unknown to us is permanent. No matter the impossibility great forgiveness of God. The Bible teaches you to tremble over this as over many things that we would just as soon forget or ignore, over teachings, to be honest you and I may wish weren’t even in the Bible.
But, that God of great and perfect justice and holiness before whom the nations are as a drop in the bucket, is also our heavenly Father. The Lord Jesus is our shepherd, our friend, our brother, and our savior who loved us so much he came into the world, and gave himself over to a life of ignominy and humiliation and finally to death for our deliverance from sin. That is also who he is. He is one who stands ready at any moment to help his people, to love and care for them. Their names are inscribed on his heart never to be removed. Your names are inscribed on his heart. Your very own name!
And you wonder: how can he be both at one and the same time and how can I relate to him as both at one and the same time? How can I fear him if perfect love is supposed to cast out fear? Well, you can love him and fear him at one and the same time even if it is hard to explain how. The Bible says you can. As out of fashion as the fear of God may be in our day, one has only to consider the teaching of the Word of God and the nature of God himself to realize that no true faith in God fails to take account both of God’s greatness and holiness, on the one hand, and our sinfulness and smallness on the other. But, just as much, the entire weight of biblical revelation stands behind our confidence that God is love. There would be no incarnation, no cross, no resurrection, no coming again, no offer of salvation and complete forgiveness in the Lord Jesus Christ, if God were not love. You must believe both. In fact, you must believe both that God is a God to be feared and that God is a God to be loved, or you won’t really believe in either. As C.S. Lewis once observed, “I have met no people who…disbelieved in hell who also had a living and life-giving belief in heaven.” [Letters to Malcolm, 76]
In Psalm 2 we read:
“Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling.”
Or think of Paul’s words, so like our Savior’s here in Luke 12:
“Behold the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, [Quit there, Paul, we think; that’s the place to end the sentence.] provided you continue his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.” [Rom. 11:22]
Gratitude and love mixed with fear. Is that not what Paul said? Is not that what Jesus said?
Just as we Christians can be described as “sorrowful but always rejoicing,” so we can be like the women who left the tomb the morning of the resurrection, “afraid yet filled with joy.” I loved my father, but I feared him as well. I trusted him but I was careful to obey him. I admired him greatly, but was careful not to cross him or show him any disrespect. So, only much more so, must be our thought of God and our view of him, as the great Majesty in heaven and the loving Father who cares for every detail of our lives, as the Lord Christ who will judge all men and send the unrighteous to perdition and the Lamb of God who gave himself for us and who will never leave us or forsake us. And so of the Holy Spirit: he is one we dare not offend, never; but one who’s loving help we can count on in every trial of our lives.
What do you and I need more than anything else? We need God, the whole God, the God who actually is, in his terrible majesty and his tender love. We need the whole Jesus Christ, the judge of all and the shepherd of his people. We need the Holy Spirit, the unrelenting enemy of rebellion and unbelief and the almighty helper of the weakest of those who love him and walk with him.
Such is the true and living God and those who know him know him to be both a God to be feared and a God to be loved; a God to be obeyed and a God to be counted on even when we sin. And those who know him to be so live as if he were so!