What is Church Discipline?

What gospel do you believe in? Do you believe in a gospel that says “God is holy. We have all sinned, separating us from God. But God sent His Son to die on the cross and rise again so that we might be forgiven. Everyone who believes in Jesus can have eternal life and be welcomed by God just as they are” (Jonathan Leeman). Do you believe in that gospel? Or do you believe in a gospel that says, “God is holy. We have all sinned, separating us from God. But God sent His Son to die on the cross and rise again so that we might be forgiven. Everyone who believes in Jesus can have eternal life and be welcomed by God just as they are. But in His grace and by His Spirit He doesn’t leave us as we are. No, He slowly and surely makes us into different people. People who love Him and hate sin. People who refuse to do life alone but do it in the community of the local church. People who grow in godliness, eager to reflect His holy character and glory to this fallen world.”

Which gospel do you believe in? The first version presents Jesus as Savior, the second presents Jesus as Savior and Lord. The first version points to our new status as children of God, the second points to our new status as children of God as well as our new job description as citizens in His Kingdom. The first version has a view of God’s grace saving us, the second has a view of God’s grace not only saving us but sanctifying us as well.

Everything in the first version is true, wonderfully so. But there’s much more to be said. My guess is that most of you would say you believe in this second version of the gospel, and that’s a good thing. But I am coming to you today with a pastoral question, “Are you sure about that?” So please pay attention to not only what God is about to tell you through His Word, pay attention to how you respond to what is said in God’s Word. Why? Your response to these things reveal which version of the gospel you really believe as well as which version of the gospel you’re really living out.

 

The passage we’ll be walking through today is Matthew 18:15-20, where Matthew would have us consider three points today, all aiming at how we as fellow believers do life together when one of us wanders and how to restore such a person(s) to a right standing within the church.

Notice What’s Before Our Passage (18:10-14)

In the verses that lead up to our text today, we find Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep. In this parable Jesus says, “If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of My Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (18:12-14). See here the great love of God for His people. It is so great and so vast that if one of them wanders off, He will always go after them and bring them home. Jesus shows Himself to be here in Matthew 18 what John 10 says He is, the great Shepherd of the sheep. And being the great Shepherd of the sheep, He not only has a great love for the sheep but He also sees to it that every sheep in the flock will remain in His hand until the end. None of them will perish or be snatched up by a wolf or some other intruder.

Church, since this is how God loves His people, since this is how Christ loves His Sheep, isn’t this to be how we love one another? Paul similarly, in Galatians 6:1-2 says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness…Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” This means when we come together and commit to one another in the membership of the local church, we commit to chasing down the wanderer, bringing back the sinner, loving one another despite our own foolishness, and pursuing the offender so that they are brought back home.

Into this context, comes one of the most detailed explanations of how to do church discipline. That this parable of the lost sheep comes before v15-20 gives us an example of the spirit in which church discipline is to be carried out. Not to punish, but always to be aiming at restoration, at winning back the wanderer.

Notice What’s In Our Passage (18:15-20)

Jesus has already told us that every one of us is to be about the business of pursuing, chasing, and bringing back the wandering sheep in our midst. But now suppose the shoe is on the other foot, what then? Did you notice the first words in v15? “If your brother sins against you…” If you’re the one sinned against, are you still to chase them down? Or does someone else do that? To see it in yet another manner, get out of your shoes altogether and get into the shoes of another and suppose you’re the one doing the sinning against another. What is supposed to happen then? What actions are you to take? What does the church do? Or the offended party? These are deep questions, loaded with all kinds of baggage, that God has not left us in the dark with. The light of His Word shines into our disobedience with all manner of grace.

Here Jesus gives us four steps that make up the whole process of church discipline.

Step One – Private Admonition (v15)

In v15 we learn that the very first step in the church discipline process is to go to the person who has sinned against you personally and privately. This means when sinned against, you don’t sound off to the whole church about how bad they really are and how they’re the worst thing that’s come into this church in years. You don’t refuse to talk to them anymore, give them the cold shoulder, or close yourself off from them. You don’t build up a bitter resentment in your heart toward them. No, you go them and bring it up privately. They may be aware of what they did, they may not. But by going to them privately you’re protecting the offender’s reputation by keeping the circle of people who know about this offense as small as possible. And you’re also protecting yourself from gossiping about them to others in the church by going to them immediately and personally.

When you go, what do you speak with them about? In v15 when it says “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” it implies that you’re intentions in going to them are to make them aware of their sin and seek repentance from them for their sin. You’re not going to condemn the person, you’re not going to tell the person off, you’re there to share what they did or what they continue to do, how it crossed the line of right and godly behavior for a Christian, and to see if they feel a godly remorse over what has happened and desire to make things right. If they listen to you, express sorrow over offending you, and repent Jesus says you’ve gained your brother back! I’ve often found that when this occurs the result of such a meeting is a much deeper relationship in the future. But if they refuse to listen, don’t acknowledge that what they’ve done or keep doing is sinful even though it’s clear in Scripture, you move onto to step two.

Before we get to step two notice something else here in step one. This initial step doesn’t involve any kind of official organization or leadership in the church. It’s simply between you and the other person, which is where Jesus intends church discipline to begin. In this light see that step one of church discipline is just a normal part of Christian discipleship where we are seek to do spiritual good to one another. I think if we got this step right more often, most of the discipline cases in churches would be solved right away. But sadly in this fallen world, rather than humbly seeking restoration and repentance with those who sin against us, we too quickly go the opposite way, wrongfully involve way too many people in what should be a private matter, and destroy relationships and reputations.

Step Two – Group Admonition (v16)

In v16 we learn that the second step in the church discipline process is not to give up but to again revisit the offender, with one or two others. Now, there is no timeline given here as to the exact amount of time required between these two visits. Patience, love, and grace should allow at least some time between the first and second visit to let the private admonition sink in. But if in time it is clear that the offending member is remaining unrepentant the one who went by themselves now must carefully choose one or two others, probably ones that know and love this person, or an elder, and go back to give another admonition. That a few others go back echoes Deut. 19:15 which says, “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” That additional witnesses must be involved at this point encourages the one doing the sinning to come out of their sinful isolation, and encourages the individual sinned against to think deeply about whether or not this case is serious enough to warrant the sound judgment of a few others, or if they’re just making a bigger deal of this than is necessary. If they do deem it worthy of another visit, though the circle is still intentionally kept small here, a small group’s plea with the wanderer to return does make the admonition a bit weightier as well as harder to ignore.

Hope remains, for the offender could hear and heed the second warning, and if they do, you’ve won them back and will rejoice to bring them home! But if they do not, step 3 comes into view.

Step Three – Church Admonition (v17a)

In v17 we learn that the third step in the church discipline process is again, not to give up, but to tell it to the church. As we’ve seen throughout these steps, here also we do not receive a time requirement between step two and three, so patience, grace, and love should allow at least some time between the second step and the third step. When it’s clear that the offending member is still remaining unrepentant Jesus is clear, the matter now comes to the entire church. This is not strictly just telling it to the elders, not strictly just telling it to the pastor, but it really does seem to be the whole body or the entire local congregation in view here. Of course the elders need to take the lead here, they need to be the ones who decide how and when the church is to be told about it to ensure this is done orderly and graciously, but through them the matter is to come to the whole of the assembly. Do you think this is unloving or embarrassing? Remember the parable of the lost sheep. When the first two steps have been employed and the wandering member has refused to listen we’re not to give up, but in this third step we’re to enlist the whole of the congregation to go and gain back the wanderer. David Platt, in his commentary on Matthew says of this third step, “God loves us so much that if we are caught in sin, He will send an entire army of believers to us as a demonstration of His love and mercy.” In this step the circle is no longer small. It is intentionally large. Large enough, by God’s grace, to wake the wanderer out of his or her sin.

So again hope remains, the offending member who has not repented could hear and heed the warnings when they see the whole church pursuing them, and if they do, they are won back! But if they do not listen to the whole church, the final step, step 4 becomes a necessity.

Step Four – Excommunication (v17b-20)

Look at v17b, “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” What does this mean? It means that when the offending member refuses to listen and repent after these first three steps, Jesus now commands one thing – excommunication. Though probably stirred quite a bit from the whole sermon up to now, our modern sensibilities are now in full shock. ‘Isn’t the church supposed to be welcoming to sinners? Isn’t the church a where sinners find hope? Isn’t the church where sinners find rest? Yes, of course. The Church of Christ is a very safe place for sinners, but it is not ever to be a safe place for sin. To excommunicate someone isn’t to forsake them or to forget about them, no. To excommunicate someone is a public declaration from the church of which they are a member, that this church no longer believes their profession of faith is true. So by excommunication, they cease to be a member of that church and cannot partake of the Lord’s Supper any longer.

In 1 Cor. 5 we see an example of this when Paul instructs the Corinthians to excommunicate a certain man (who had sinned grievously) so that he would be delivered “…to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5). See it is restoration in view even here at this last step not punishment. So when this happens we should never forsake the person, but in treating them like an unbeliever we ought to pursue them with the gospel urgently. And just in case anyone is thinking ‘Who gives you the right to do such a thing?’ see v18-20. Here we receive the promise of authority in v18, that the church holds the keys of the Kingdom so that whatever is bound or loosed on earth is also bound or loosed in heaven. Here we also receive the promise of support in v19, that the Father will give His full support to what we agree about in prayer concerning these difficult matters of discipline. Here lastly we receive the promise of presence in v20. This is not a blanket statement about God dwelling in the midst of His people’s prayer, it’s specifically about God dwelling in the midst of His people’s prayer about excommunicating a wayward brother or sister. So when we do the tough work of church discipline, God encourages us with His authority, His support, and His presence.

Notice What’s After Our Passage (18:21-35)

We’ve seen what’s before and in our passage, now see what’s after it. In v21-35 we find the parable of the unforgiving servant, which asks “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times? (18:21). No, Jesus says, “…not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (18:22). Lesson? That the passage describing how church discipline is done is surrounded before and behind, shows us church discipline must be carried out with gospel grace. How often will God forgive us for our sin? His grace never ends. Ours shouldn’t either.

In an age where this topic is as popular as a parent publicly spanking their child…

-We must remember that not all discipline is bad.

-We must remember that the exercise of pastoral authority is not the same as the abuse of pastoral authority.

-We must reject the belief that church discipline is a bad thing, and come to embrace the belief presented to us in the text, that the neglect of church discipline is a bad thing.

-And we must reject the critical/judgmental spirit that we’re all prone to, remembering that because we’ve received extravagant grace in the gospel, we now must extend extravagant grace with the gospel as well. These things are commanded by Christ for the wanderer’s good, for the purity of the church, and ultimately for the glory of God.

What That Verse Really Means – Matthew 18:20

There are a number of Bible verses that well-meaning people often quote at different times which twist Scripture into saying things it never intended to say. Some of us have probably heard or been guilty of using the phrase, “Where two or more are gathered, there am I among them.” This statement of Jesus from Matthew 18:20 is usually quoted when there is low attendance at some church function. Basically, we want to tell each other, “Hey guys, there may only be a handful of us here, but Jesus is with us.” It is true that Christ is among a small group of church members, but Matthew 18:20 isn’t saying it in that way.

Many people would be surprised to discover that Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20 deal with church discipline. I’ve always heard it said that a text without a context is just a pretext. So let’s look at the context. Context is best found by reading the verses and chapters before and after. To discover what Jesus means in verse 20, we only need to read verses 15 through 20. Jesus says there,

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

The concept of church discipline is foreign to many churches today because we live in a society that embraces inclusion and we don’t want anyone to feel left out. Also, we may have seen this practiced in an unbiblical way and thrown out the baby with the bathwater. But due to our throwing out church discipline, we have an even more serious problem: unregenerate church membership, or worse, unregenerate church leadership. 

Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has pointed out that Southern Baptists, America’s largest denomination, haven’t included a statement on church discipline in their doctrinal beliefs (The Baptist Faith and Message) since prior to 1925. Yet there is no avoiding it here; Jesus is talking very plainly and clearly about church discipline.

We can’t say with Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” When a person becomes a believer, they join a family, and families love one another. What compels families to hold interventions for an alcoholic parent? Love. As church members, we’ve got to ask ourselves, “Is it really love that motivates me to keep quiet when a brother’s foul language ruins his witness or when a sister’s addiction to pain pills enslaves her?” We may say it is love that silences us, but it is really fear. Love compels us to confront brothers or sisters caught in sin. Fear stands idly by and watches while someone’s life implodes, while love acts to rescue them. This is why we have a Good Samaritan’s Law which criminalizes onlookers who don’t help a person in danger. Real love is concern in action; a heart attached to hands, feet, and a yes, even a mouth.

But how is church discipline to be exercised? Are we to go around pointing out each other’s sins every time we see one another? Of course not. Jesus gives us some very clear steps to take and each imply some covenant relationship between both parties. These steps are to be carried out among members of a local church who have covenanted to care for one another spiritually. We’re not the spiritual police for the planet, but we are responsible to our fellow members.

Step One

According to Jesus, step one involves going to the sinning brother or sister on a personal level. Paul explains the spirit we should have in step one this way: “Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 5:26-6:2). The aim in every step is restoration, yet loving confrontations enables this. If they do not “listen” and refuse to express any change of mind (repentance) about their sin, we move on to step two. 

Step Two

This involves bringing one or two others. Why? They can be extra witnesses, they add seriousness to the need for repentance, and this allows others a chance to persuade them. If repentance occurs, the process stops and restoration begins. If they refuse to listen even to these two or three gathered in Christ’s name, then the church body as a whole is to be notified. 

Step Three

And by “tell it to the church”, Jesus doesn’t mean the universal church! So sin that was once a matter between two members, due to ongoing unrepentance, has now become a matter for every member of that church who has covenanted to care for one another spiritually. This process probably goes on for a period of months and involves many prayers and tears first individually, then among the two or three, then as a unified church body. If however, this individual is so entrenched in sin that they refuse to repent even before the church body, the church is to respond by no longer treating them as a fellow member, but as an unbeliever in need of salvation. Paul uses the language of handing them over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that their spirit might be saved in the end (1 Cor. 5:5). Even biblical ex-communication aims for eternal salvation!

So what does it mean when Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them”? It means that if two or three believers go to an unrepentant brother or sister on behalf of the church, that individual should know they come with the authority and presence of Christ himself. We are all sinners, but we are all repentant sinners. Unrepentant church members must know that their sin not only brings them out of fellowship with fellow believers in their church, but out of fellowship with Christ himself. So in the event that you find yourself among the two or three going to confront another brother or sister living in sin, take Matthew 18:20 with you…and pray for the miracle of restoration.

What Child is This?

The advent hymn ‘What Child is This?’ is one of my favorites because it answers the question of who and what Jesus came to be and say. Taking the cue from this wonderful song, let’s ask a question today: according to Matthew’s gospel what child is this?

In Matthew 3:13-4:11 we see three answers:

a) Jesus came to bring New Creation:

In Genesis 1:2 the Spirit of God hovered over the waters of creation, and in Exodus 14:21 a ‘strong wind’ (‘wind’ also being ‘spirit’ in Hebrew) drove back the waters of the Red Sea making way for God’s people to safely go through. Here in this passage the Spirit of God similarly hovers over the Son of God at His baptism in the Jordan River. In each of these moments we see the Spirit hovering over water. It is not a coincidence that we find all of this same Genesis 1:2 and Exodus 14:21 activity at Jesus’ baptism. Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters of the creation of the world in Genesis and just as the Spirit hovered over the waters of the Red Sea in the creation of Israel in the Exodus, so too the Spirit hovered over Jesus in the waters of baptism to teach that Jesus came to, not to bring creation, but a to bring a new creation. Therefore it is no coincidence that when Paul is speaking of salvation in 2 Cor. 5:17 he states that those who repent and believe in the gospel become ‘new creations.’

b) Jesus came to be the True Israel:

In Exodus 4:22 God calls Israel His ‘firstborn son’ and in 1 Cor. 10:2 Paul calls Israel’s passing through the Red Sea their ‘baptism.’ Question: where did Israel, God’s son, go after they were baptized in the Red Sea? Into the wilderness. Second question: where did Jesus go after His baptism in 4:1? Into the wilderness, led by the Spirit. Is it a coincidence that we see the almost the exact same Holy Spirit activity at work in the Exodus and Jesus’ baptism? No, it’s not. God planned for it to be this way to teach us that with the coming of Christ not only comes a new creation, but that a new and greater exodus comes as well. An exodus in which God will once again save His people, not from Pharaoh, but from the greater pharaoh of ‘Satan, sin, and death’ and will take His people a new and greater promised land. So Jesus, by being baptized and going into the wilderness, replays the story of Israel in His own life. The difference shines through when we see that while Israel was unfaithful in their wilderness, Jesus is faithful in His. He is the true Israel. We also see echoes of this when we read in both Hosea 11:1 and Matthew 2:15 “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”

c) Jesus came to be the True Adam:

There are even more similarities between Jesus’ temptation in Matthew 4 with Adam and Eve’s temptation in Genesis 3. Both Adam and Jesus are tempted to eat food God has forbid. For Adam it was fruit, for Jesus it was stones. In both tempting’s the devil used the same bait, ‘Did God really say?’ ‘Adam, did God really say you wouldn’t die?’ ‘Jesus, did God really say He would always care for You?’ Again Jesus, by being tempted by the devil with the same bait, replays the story of Adam in His own life. The difference shines through when we see that while Adam was unfaithful in his tempting, Jesus is faithful in His. He is (praise God!) the true Adam.

What Child is this? According to Matthew He is the One who will bring new creation, and the One who will be the True Israel and True Adam.

Where is Your Heart?

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

Dr. Paul Fritz, Professor at Trinity College of Florida, recently found out that he has been cut out of a hefty inheritance. He was born into a very prosperous family and, if he had desired, could have been a beneficiary of his family’s money. However, he decided to put that life to the side and become a missionary proclaiming Christ to the lost. He endured many difficulties and illnesses along the way. Life was not always easy. Circumstances were not always perfect. But Dr. Fritz does not regret his choice to live his life for Christ, for there is no greater endeavor. “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose” (Jim Elliot).

Dr. Fritz could have spent his life making millions of dollars, but in the end what would that have mattered?

As someone once said, “You cannot pull a U-haul to heaven.” Only what is done for Christ lasts. So as the verses above say, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” 

Let me ask you, where is your heart?

Is your heart focused on God and living life for eternity? Or is your heart focused on this world and living for the temporal? What you pursue in this life is a reflection of your heart. And it is so easy to live for the nicest car, the biggest house, the best vacation, and the rest of what this world offers, but these are fleeting joys that do not fully satisfy. To live for these things is a futile pursuit that leaves you empty and lost. Instead we are to live for eternity. To live for the One who gave His life that you might have eternal life. Live for Jesus Christ.

This is the pursuit that matters.

Go Therefore…

Go therefore…

Two of the most important words to us in Scripture: ‘Go therefore…’

What is so important about this phrase for many probably is not the words themselves but how often it has been preached and how often these two words have been addressed. As an alumnus of Southeastern Baptist in Wake Forest, I heard these words a lot. These words helped to shape my understanding of the gospel and the importance Christ put on our call not just to pastors and missionaries, but to all believers. We are called to go, or as can be derived from the text ‘to be going.’

Now before I get too far ahead of myself there are some crucial things in Matthew 28:18-20 that we need to embrace. First while the verse does say go, there is a very important phrase before that, a phrase that makes it all possible, a phrase that shapes how, why, and to what end we go and it is this simple phrase: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Let us just stop right there. In Jesus’ final words to his disciples He wants them to understand the most important thing about what is to come and what is happening right now and that is: All authority is His, All power is His, All that can be and ever was to be is His. In these 11 words Jesus gave the disciples and us everything we ever need, not just to go but to live.

This authority is what gives the Gospel power, Jesus conquered the grave and in so doing revealed all authority to be His and has made it evident for all to see and know. And because of this authority He is now sending out His disciples on the most important task of their lives to make more disciples. Surprisingly to some, we see that Christ’s authority was not dependent on the disciples, but rather one who sent them. In this they are assured that it is not by their might or power that people come to know Him or grow but by the authority of Him alone.

However this should be a motivation for the pursuit of making disciples not an excuse, if for no other reason than the fact that this is commanded by God. As we continue in the text we see that the disciples are to teach every new believer the commands of the Lord and to follow after His teachings and the truth of the Gospel, which clearly means the one He is giving them here before He ascended. In the book of Matthew these are the last words of Christ to the 11 remaining disciples. His final words are to go, baptize, teach, and know that He is with them. And these words apply to us today as much as they did then. We are called to go. God has placed each of us in this specific place, in this specific time, with our specific jobs and neighborhoods not simply for our own well-being, but for the proclamation of the Gospel. We exist and are called to go and make disciples, some will go to far off countries, some will go across the street, some will go to a new city or job, but all will go and as we go we make disciples.

For most of you who read this you will say you have read this before. There is nothing new here, I will agree with you on that. For most of us this is one of the first things we learn when we come to faith. I mean we came to faith because someone told us, whether that be a relative or a friend someone told us, someone spent time with us, someone walked us through the basics of the faith, someone taught us about the work of the Spirit in us leading to holiness, someone taught us we needed to forgive others and seek forgiveness when we sin. Someone discipled us, whether that was one-on one or in a group. Someone followed Christs command to go and make disciples. How did they grow in holiness and understand the Lord more, they followed his commands to go and make disciples. You are the product of God’s work in their lives.

So I write this not because it’s new or revolutionary, but because it is the most basic thing we are called to do and at times it is one of the easiest to forget.

I pray for each of us that we will never forget, because we have the assurance that all authority is His and He is the one at work, so rest in Him and go make disciples.

Why Do You Love Christmas? For God? Or For His Gifts?

We’ve walked through Matthew 2:1-12 this week verse by verse and seen much glory in it.  Today, I want to end the first week of Advent by challenging and calling you to enjoy Christmas for one reason this year.

Did you notice Matthew 2:10? Once the wise men saw the star stop over the house where Jesus was, it says that they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” This funny language describing how the wise men rejoiced literally means in the original Greek “their joy joy’d!” This is supreme happiness, supreme delight, so much so that words in any language cannot describe a higher level or degree of satisfaction or pleasure.

The wise men were white hot with devoted affection for this new born King. But why did they rejoice? Why was their joy joying? It’s simple isn’t it? We all know the answer, but do we really? You see Church, I’ve noticed something in you and in my own life that breaks my heart and grieves the heart of God. We say we delight in Jesus, we say we rejoice in our salvation, and we say we love the freedom from the punishment of sin and wrath of God. We say we believe Jesus is enough for us, and we only need Him. But Christmas presses something in us that ought to call us out.

Do you love God for who He is alone. Or do you love God for His gifts, blessings, or benefits?

I’m convinced church, that where God’s gifts are sought after and prized more than God Himself, God is not loved, honored, or known. He is blasphemed by this frail attempt of love. Matthew 2:1-12 calls us out into one thing and one thing only – the same thing God called the wise men too – HIMSELF!

God is the greatest gift we could ever have, and in the incarnation we received just that.

The Baby Turned Boy Receives Gifts

Matthew 2:9-12, “After listening to the King, they went on their way.  Behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.  And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped Him.  Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.  And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed another way.”

Well after being politically obligated to share with Herod when the star had risen, the wise men now set off again. The same star they once saw rise, they now see moving south and coming to rest. They went south, and where the star stopped they see a house. The fact that it was a house they saw, and not the inn with no rooms available, means it took such a long time for the wise men to get from Babylon to Jerusalem that baby Jesus is now boy Jesus.

Going in to the house, they saw Him, and upon seeing Him they fell down and worshipped!

They recognize God has given mankind a gift in this boy King, and they rightly respond with gifts of their own. Gold because it is a King’s abundant and overflowing currency. Nothing befits a King like fountains of gold to share with His people! The resin Frankincense to acknowledge the presence of absolute divinity and the worship due to Him from all peoples and nations. The other resin Myrrh to symbolize death, burial, foreshadowing that King Jesus will suffer death to usher in the Kingdom of God.

It is quite timely the wise men came the moment they did, for this little family (Joseph, Mary, Jesus) would soon have to travel another far distance – to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod when he seeks to kill the Christ by killing all boys under 2 in Bethlehem. I say it’s timely because this family probably used and survived solely on these three gifts until they arrived at Egypt. We see God caring for His Son here, protecting Him from Herod, providing Him with all He needs.

The same is true for us. The same is true for the wise men also. We read in 2:12 that God warns the wise men in a dream to not return to Herod, but to return to Babylon on a different road. So off they went – Happy to have beheld the Christ, safe with new directions from our Father.

Herod: Corruptly Using Religion to Serve Political Power

Matthew 2:3-8, “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared.  And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”

Well, it appears that not everyone is as happy about the birth of the King as the wise men were.  Herod the King, known also as Herod I and/or Herod the Great was the appointed King of the Jews under the authority of Rome.  History teaches us that Herod was ruthless.  He killed his wife, many of his sons, and many family members during his reign.  If he was this way with his own family, can you imagine what he would have been like to the people?  Also, you aren’t placed as King in Jerusalem if you’re a big deal in Caesar’s or Rome’s eyes.  If you’re big wig in Rome – they keep you in Rome!

To put it in perspective, placing Herod in Jerusalem is similar to once playing for the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field to playing 3rd base coach for church softball.  It is not career move marked by improvement or success.  All this to say, Herod was oppressive.  Upon hearing the news from the wise men that the Christ had been born, he was troubled, and if Herod is troubled, you can bet the whole city was trembling.  After all, this Christ had to be a great King to call such men of renown out of the affluent east to all the way to dusty Jerusalem.

This prompted Herod to inquire as well and ask his learned men, the chief priests and scribes saying, “Where is the Christ to be born?”  They answered him honestly and said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for it is written by the prophet, “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”  In answering Herod the priests and scribes quote Micah 5:2, and this was no small prophecy to quote at this time. You see, Micah 5:2 describes the time when the time when a King will come from the little city of Bethlehem. But Micah doesn’t refer to just an ordinary king, but the King. This King, Micah says, is from of old, from ancient days. This King is nothing less than the Messiah, the Christ, the Lord of all Lords, the King of all Kings! Can you understand the position of Herod? He is King in Jerusalem and to his knowledge he has just learned that One who has been foretold and has now come. In Herod’s eyes this Christ, this Messiah, this Savior, is a political problem, a threat to all that is established by Rome in Jerusalem. It must be stopped before it has a chance to begin. And that is exactly what Herod intends to do.

At this point, we don’t know how it happened but Herod secretly had the wise men brought to him and from them Herod learned what time the star had appeared. So after learning these things, Herod sent the wise men to Bethlehem saying in 2:8, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you’ve found Him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him.” Of course we have here a great display of something we see all too often throughout history and in our day – the incorrect and corrupt use of religion to serve the purpose of political power. It is plain to us that Herod will not worship this Child, but will try with all his might to end the boy’s life before Jerusalem is overthrown. If this it is plain to us, you know it was plain to the wise men.

The Nations Shall Stream to the Son

Matthew 2:1-2, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem saying, “Where is He who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.”

So we read that Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem of Judea while King Herod was ruling over Jerusalem.  Immediately Matthew tells us of the famous wise men, or “magi” in the original Greek.  He doesn’t tell us how many wise men there are (most people say there are 3 because there are 3 gifts) nor does Matthew tell us exactly where they came from.  All we know from the account in Matthew is that there is a group of wise men coming from the East.  Why did they come?  Verse 2 tells they came asking a question: “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”  Why did they ask this question?  Verse 2 continues with their reason, “For we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.”

Now, in order to understand this question and the reasoning behind it we have to look deeper into who the wise men were.  Here’s what we know.  When Jesus was born they saw a star rise in the East.  Like today, not very many people in ancient times normally and habitually watched and noted the behavior and pattern of the stars.  People notice them, and maybe even talk about them a little bit.  But it was the Astrologers who studied and noted their individual and collective movements in ancient times.  It is from this that most throughout history have concluded that the wise men were in fact learned Astrologers: watching, studying, noting, and learning from the patterns displayed in the heavens.  Now, think about it.  What large, affluent, urban city was east of Jerusalem at that time in history?  Every map of this time will lead you to one answer, Babylon.  It was large enough and affluent enough to have men within it that could devote their lives to the scholarly occupation of Astronomy.

Therefore, I conclude that the wise men were learned Babylonian Astrologers who knew the heavens like the back of their hand, and when they saw something abnormal occur in the sky, like a star rising over Jerusalem, they not only noticed it, but ran toward it!

This is no small thing.  It was near 800 miles between Babylon and Jerusalem.  It not only would have taken them a long time to travel that distance, but they would have needed a large group carrying a large number of supplies, and most of all, they would have needed a very good reason for being willing to travel such a distance.  So why go?  Remember, they were learned men who would have been familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. They knew what was going on, remember they said, “We saw HIS star rising, and have come to worship Him.”  For them, the star rising indicated a Person worthy of their worship had come.  What led them to believe this?  They knew the prophecy written down almost 1600 years earlier found in Numbers 24:17 which says, “I see Him, but not now.  I behold Him, but not near.  A star shall come out of Jacob, a scepter shall come out of Israel.” You see it? A star will rise? A scepter shall come out of Israel? They saw the star, they knew that only a King could hold a scepter, and they knew He had finally come. So off they went.

That non-Israelite men would journey this even more gospel roots. Long ago, it was spoken of in prophetic visions that “all peoples” and “many nations” would come streaming in to Mount Zion to behold the King on His throne and worship the true God.  Both Isaiah and Micah say, “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come, and they will all say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob…” These wise men remind us that there is only one God, and that this one God is the Christ who was born in Jerusalem. He is the King who reigns, He is the One who made the world and all in it, who desires all tribes, and tongues, and peoples, and nations to come and worship and bask in the light of His infinite glory.  Jesus has just been born and already the peoples and the nations are streaming to Him worship!

You know what this means right?

The Kingdom of God is here.

God has come.

The darkness is about to fade.

Light is breaking through.

Dawn is here!

Do Not Mock God This Christmas, Glut on Him!

Now to close our time in Matthew 2:1-12.

Did you notice 2:10?  Once the wise men saw the star stop over the house where Jesus was, it says that they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”  This funny language describing how the wise men rejoiced literally means in the original Greek “their joy joy’d!”  This is supreme happiness, supreme delight, so much so that words in any language cannot describe a higher level or degree of satisfaction or pleasure.  The wise men are white hot with affection.  But why did they rejoice?  Why was their joy joying?  It’s simple isn’t it?  We all know the answer, but do we really?

In a few days time, most of you reading this blog right now, will be sitting around a lit Christmas tree, unwrapping presents that you asked for.  Some of you will unwrap a new Xbox one, maybe a new gold iPhone 5, or a 70″ TV, even maybe a new car.  I’m convinced that if you rejoice exceedingly with great joy over these gifts you will waste Christmas.  How then will not waste it?  Not by not rejoicing, but by rejoicing is what is worth rejoicing, Christ!  Glut your souls on Him as you open gifts, and use and handle and be happy over your new gifts in such a way that people know you love Jesus more than these gifts.

God is not honored when His gifts are treasured over Him.  Do not mock God this Christmas.  Honor Him by enjoying Him.

The Wise Men’s Three Gifts

Matthew 2:9-12 says, “After listening to the King, they went on their way.  Behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.  And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him.  Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.  And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed another way.”

After being politically obligated to share with Herod when the star had risen, the wise men now set off again.  The same star they once saw rise, they now see moving south and coming to rest.  They went south, and where the star stopped they see a house.  The fact that it was a house they saw, and not the inn with no rooms available, means it took such a long time for the wise men to get from Babylon to Jerusalem that baby Jesus is now boy Jesus.  Going in to the house, they saw Him, and upon seeing Him they fell down and worshiped!  They recognize God has given mankind a gift in this boy King, and they rightly respond with gifts of their own. 

Gold because it is a King’s abundant and overflowing currency.  Nothing befits a King like fountains of gold to share with His people!  The resin Frankincense to acknowledge the presence of absolute divinity and the worship due to Him from all peoples and nations.  The other resin Myrrh to symbolize death, burial, foreshadowing that King Jesus will suffer death to usher in the Kingdom of God.  It is quite timely the wise men came the moment they did, for this little family (Joseph, Mary, Jesus) would soon have to travel another far distance – to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod when he seeks to kill the Christ by killing all boys under 2 in Bethlehem.  I say it’s timely because this family probably used and survived solely on these three gifts until they arrived at Egypt.  We see God caring for His Son here, protecting Him from Herod, providing Him with all He needs.  The same is true for us. 

The same is true for the wise men also.  We read in 2:12 that God warns the wise men in a dream to not return to Herod, but to return to Babylon on a different road.  So off they went – Happy to have beheld the Christ, safe with new directions from our Father.

Old News: Political Power Play Using Religion

Matthew 2:3-8 says, “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared.  And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”

Well, it appears that not everyone is as happy about the birth of the King as the wise men were.  Herod the King, known also as Herod I and/or Herod the Great was the appointed King of the Jews under the authority of Rome.  History teaches us that Herod was ruthless.  He killed his wife, many of his sons, and many family members during his reign.  If he was this way with his own family, can you imagine what he would have been like to the people?  Also, you aren’t placed as King in Jerusalem if you’re a big deal in Caesar’s or Rome’s eyes.  If you’re big wig in Rome – they keep you in Rome!  To put it in perspective, placing Herod in Jerusalem is similar to once playing for the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field to playing 3rd base coach for church softball.  It is not career move marked by improvement or success.  All this to say, Herod was oppressive.  

Upon hearing the news from the wise men that the Christ had been born, he was troubled, and if Herod is troubled, you can bet the whole city was trembling.  After all, this Christ had to be a great King to call such men of renown out of the affluent east to all the way to dusty Jerusalem.  This prompted Herod to inquire as well and ask his learned men, the chief priests and scribes saying, “Where is the Christ to be born?”  They answered him honestly and said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for it is written by the prophet, “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”  In answering Herod the priests and scribes quote Micah 5:2, and this was no small prophecy to quote at this time.  You see, Micah 5:2 describes the time when the time when a King will come from the little city of Bethlehem.  But Micah doesn’t refer to just an ordinary king, but the King.  This King, Micah says, is from of old, from ancient days.  This King is nothing less than the Messiah, the Christ, the Lord of all Lords, the King of all Kings!  Can you understand the position of Herod?  He is King in Jerusalem and to his knowledge he has just learned that One who has been foretold and has now come.  In Herod’s eyes this Christ, this Messiah, this Savior, is a political problem, a threat to all that is established by Rome in Jerusalem.  It must be stopped before it has a chance to begin.  And that is exactly what Herod intends to do.

At this point, we don’t know how it happened but Herod secretly had the wise men brought to him and from them Herod learned what time the star had appeared.  So after learning these things, Herod sent the wise men to Bethlehem saying in 2:8, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you’ve found Him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him.”  Of course we have here a great display of something we see all too often throughout history and in our day – the incorrect and corrupt use of religion to serve the purpose of political power.  It is plain to us that Herod will not worship this Child, but will try with all his might to end the boy’s life before Jerusalem is overthrown.  If this it is plain to us, you know it was plain to the wise men.

“All Nations Shall Stream to Him!”

Matthew 2:1-2 says, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem saying, “Where is He who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.”

It is quite telling that non-Israelite men would journey this even more gospel roots.  Long ago, it was spoken of in prophetic visions that “all peoples” and “many nations” would come streaming in to Mount Zion to behold the King on His throne and worship the true God.  Both Isaiah and Micah say, “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come, and they will all say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob…”

These wise men remind us that there is only one God, and that this one God is the Christ who was born in Jerusalem.  He is the King who reigns, He is the One who made the world and all in it, who desires all tribes, and tongues, and peoples, and nations to come and worship and bask in the light of His infinite glory.  Jesus has just been born and already the peoples and the nations are streaming to Him worship!  What a King!  What a Man!  What a Savior to draw peoples of all nations to Him!  You know what this means right?  The Kingdom is here.  God has come.  The darkness is about to fade.  Light is breaking through, dawn is here!

Men of Renown From the East

It is always fitting to mention the birth of Christ during Advent, for that is what it is about.  But did you know that Jesus’ birth carries far more weight and meaning to it than can be found in 1st century Bethlehem alone?  His birth was the culmination of promise after promise after promise made by God to His people.  This means that to properly understand the birth of Jesus one must understand that the birth of Jesus is not beginning of the story.  You see, Jesus’ birth has roots and like a plant’s roots usually must go deep underground before the plant grows tall, there are prophetic gospel roots all throughout the Old Testament.  In fact the whole of the Old Testament exists to prepare the way for the King of Kings hundreds and even thousands of years before He arrives on the scene.  It is no small thing when the Author of the play walks on stage, and in the birth of Christ we have such an event.

For the next while I’ll be blogging through Matthew 2:1-12.  It is the famous story of the Wise Men who came to see Jesus.  Throughout this you’ll see why this passage is found within Matthew’s gospel rather than Mark, Luke, or John.  Why is this so?  Out of all 4 gospels it’s Matthew that uses the Old Testament most in describing how it all began.

Our text today following last week is Matthew 2:1-12.  It easily divides into three sections, and I’ll walk through one at a time, hear the Word of God:

Matthew 2:1-2 says, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem saying, “Where is He who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.”

Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem of Judea while King Herod was ruling over Jerusalem.  Immediately Matthew tells us of the famous wise men, or “magi” in the original Greek.  He doesn’t tell us how many wise men there are (most people say there are 3 because there are 3 gifts) nor does Matthew tell us exactly where they came from.  All we know from the account in Matthew is that there is a group of wise men coming from the East.  Why did they come?  Verse 2 tells they came asking a question: “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”  Why did they ask this question?  Verse 2 continues with their reason, “For we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.”  

Now, in order to understand this question and the reasoning behind it we have to look deeper into who the wise men were.  Here’s what we know.  When Jesus was born they saw a star rise in the East.  Like today, not very many people in ancient times normally and habitually watched and noted the behavior and pattern of the stars.  People notice them, and maybe even talk about them a little bit.  But it was the Astrologers who studied and noted their individual and collective movements in ancient times.  It is from this that most throughout history have concluded that the wise men were in fact learned Astrologers: watching, studying, noting, and learning from the patterns displayed in the heavens.  Now, think about it.  What large, affluent, urban city was east of Jerusalem at that time in history?  Every map of this time will lead you to one answer, Babylon.  It was large enough and affluent enough to have men within it that could devote their lives to the scholarly occupation of Astronomy.  Therefore, I conclude that the wise men were learned Babylonian Astrologers who knew the heavens like the back of their hand, and when they saw something abnormal occur in the sky, like a star rising over Jerusalem, they not only noticed it, but ran toward it!  This is no small thing.  It was near 800 miles between Babylon and Jerusalem.  It not only would have taken them a long time to travel that distance, but they would have needed a large group carrying a large number of supplies, and most of all, they would have needed a very good reason for being willing to travel such a distance.  So why go?  Remember, they were learned men who would have been familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures.  They knew what was going on, remember they said, “We saw HIS star rising, and have come to worship Him.”  

For them, the star rising indicated a Person worthy of their worship had come.  What led them to believe this?  They knew the prophecy written down around 1600 years earlier found in Numbers 24:17 which says, “I see Him, but not now.  I behold Him, but not near.  A star shall come out of Jacob, a scepter shall come out of Israel.”  You see it?  A star will rise?  A scepter shall come out of Israel?  They saw the star, they knew that only a King could hold a scepter, and they knew He had finally come. 

So off they went.

Want to Save Your Life? Want to Find It? Lose It

“Then Jesus told His disciples, ‘If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”  (Matthew 16:24-25)

Does this seem harsh?  At first I think it does, don’t you agree?  Jesus is making an awful big statement here.  “If you want to follow Me, deny yourself (everything you’ve ever wanted and hoped for), take up your cross (embrace the will of God no matter the cost), and follow Me.”  The initial shock of this statement is meant, I think, by God to display a) the normal manner of Christian living, b) the allegiance Christ calls out of us, and 3) the reward for doing so.  One at a time.

The normal manner of Christian living is presented in this verse.  Though it seems radical is this not what Jesus calls all His followers to?  Or is this what He only calls seminary graduates and pastors to?  The answer is clear, Jesus calls every Christian to lay aside hopes and dreams and embrace God’s call to suffer in the footsteps of Christ upon believing in Christ.  As soon as one does this they will find another thing happening along with it.  When all your hopes and dreams are laid aside God fills the void with Himself.  New dreams, new desires, new hope, new loves, new passions, new directions blossom into life in a heart with fertile soil that used to be a hard stony heart focused only on self.

This is part of the reason we see the second thing clearly.  This is a radical call to allegiance, this is life changing stuff.  Have you stopped and thought of that?  Embracing life with Jesus, becoming a Christian, means everything must change.  Everything.  I learned this at my conversion at 20 years old.  After 20 years of non-Christian living I had built up a life for myself focused on one thing, me.  And now for the first time God was calling me to set that aside and pursue a higher joy and end, Him.  This is a radical shift in allegiance indeed.

But it is not without reward.  What will we find when we do this?  Our lives.  Notice that?  “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”  You will find that which you’ve always wanted, your life!  You, who you were supposed to be all along is waiting for you with open arms with you lose your life in Christ.  In fact, it is true to say that upon losing your life for Christ, you become more truly “you” than you’ve ever been before.

So the question after this call to allegiance is easy.  Want to save your life?  Want to find it?  Lose it for Christ, lose it in Christ.  He’ll empty you and fill you with the thing we need most, Him.