Sermon 4: Obeying the Scriptures
Animals live to fulfil their instincts. That is enough for them. Pour out the corn from the sack and the chickens run to peck it up. Set a mate before them and they will copulate. A cow is content to gaze at grass all day. Man, however, is unique. That level of existence is not enough for him. He cannot go on and on with his nose in the feed bin, and sniffing the air at that poor animalistic state. He has more than basic instincts. In the heart of man eternity has been set, God having given him a conscience. Man has a sense of beauty, and also of companionship. Unlike the animals a man may lay down his life for his friends. God has placed us solitary individuals not in communes or kibbutzim or so-called 'open marriages' but in families. Since creation there has been the ordinance of marriage with a husband, wife - two parents, and children. Man has a unique mind; at first meeting he can speak profoundly to another.
There was an officer in the army who was in a city in the west of the USA during a time of civil disturbance and riots, crowds of looters running through the streets. In the midst of this mayhem the officer noticed one man who was in command of restoring order. His very appearance and bearing was bringing about peace. As he walked away from the scene he looked back over his shoulder for another glance at that striking man, to discover the man looking back at him. The stranger then proceeded to walk across to the officer and touched his chest with his finger and his first words to the officer were, "What is the chief end of man?" "Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever," the officer replied. "Ah, I knew you were a Shorter Catechism boy by your looks," the stranger said. "That is the very thing I was thinking of you," the officer replied. A first encounter of strangers, and the greatest question asked which it is possible to ask, and that true and profoundest of answers given. That is how man differs from the animals, as created by God and for God.
So, man cannot live only by satisfying basic hungers. He may survive even when ignoring his God because of an earlier grace in his family or in his community, and because of the vestiges of the divine image he bears. But abundant life, Christ insists, can only be found in conscious dependence upon the God that is.
This God has given us his own Book to educate, inspire and motivate us never to live by bread alone. It tells us firstly who God is, and what God is doing, and will do. As a Book of prophecies and promises it reveals God's purposes. Secondly, it tells us what we ought to do in order to please God. It warns us what patterns of conduct we are to avoid to escape his condemnation. In other words it is a Book of precepts and prohibitions.
1. How God Speaks to Us.
Let us think of the Bible in a number of ways:-
i] An Introductory Handbook. Five thousand new students arrive at a university to begin their studies. The university cannot call them in one by one and explain to them individually how the university runs, where the departments are, what the arrangements for finance, health and research may be. It sends them all a comprehensive handbook with a map of the campus, and telephone numbers and the names of people to contact. The readers are students, let learn by studying it. So too God does not speak audibly one by one to every follower of Jesus but in the Bible he has provided us with an introductory handbook to the Christian life. There we learn what God is like, and what he has done. "We may learn about the Saviour whom he sent, and gain informed conviction concerning His Person and His work; we may learn how salvation can be made ours, and worked out in our daily lives by the indwelling Spirit; and we may learn how all these purposes of God's saving grace are to be consummated in the great coming day of the Lord, when the Saviour will re-appear and gather around Him His glorified people ("Obeying God's Word," Alan Stibbs, IVP, 1955, p.10).
ii] A Rule Book. My father was a station-master with enough responsibilities to have developed a stomach-ulcer when he was in his fifties. The rule book of British Railways would be regularly updated and I would occasionally see him studying it for some tests he would have to take. Rule books do not have an attractive image and so Christians today are reluctant to talk of the Bible in terms of laws. The New Testament writers had no such coyness. James says to his readers at the beginnings of the Christian era when the Spirit of God was mightily moving in the church, "If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, 'Love your neighbour as yourself,' you are doing right" (James 2:8). Then James speaks about certain specific sins that the divine rule book condemns, "But if you show favouritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers ... For he who said, 'Do not commit adultery,' he also said, 'Do not murder.' If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker." (James 2:9&11). Such laws to the servants of the King are not grievous. "The law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good" cries Paul (Romans 7:12) "Love is the fulfilment of the law" he says again (Romans 13:10). No Christian need fear stomach ulcers from carefully studying and keeping God's rule book, because God gives the grace to love his rules and energy to keep them.
iii] A Seminar. We are moving from a static to a more dynamic image. Some in our congregation are research students and lecturers who conduct seminars at a nearly University, while others are students who remember seminar sessions or are involved in them today. My experience was in many sermon classes led by Edmund Clowney. A student would preach and then another student, who had spoken the previous week, would dialogue about the sermon straight away. The Dr Clowney would analyse the sermon in a kindly way, doing it so skilfully that members of the class, could see at once from his comments on the sermon what he would have to say about their own ideas on it. By his direct dealing with the student preacher, therefore, he would be actually teaching you a great deal. Should the preaching class end without you speaking a word to Ed Clowney or him to you, you would still go out wiser than you came in.
Jim Packer says, "This illustrates our fly-on-the-wall relationship to God's dealing with Bible characters and his address in and through the biblical books to their original recipients. By observing and overhearing we learn what God thought of their attitudes, assumptions, ambitions, and activities, and what changes in their mind-set and lifestyle he wanted to see, and this shows us what he must think of us and what changes he must want to see in us" ("Under God's Word," Jim Packer, Lakeland, 1980, p.28). God dealt with David, or Peter, or the Corinthian congregation, or the seven churches of Revelation chapters 2 and 3 in ways that indicate to us how he expects us to behave both individually and as a church.
iv] A Coaching Session. In his book, "Spiritual Depression", Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones has a sermon entitled, "In God's Gymnasium." The divine Instructor has taken us under his wing and he is putting us through our exercises so that hands which hang down can be lifted up, and feet are straightened out, and a lame man is helped to walk. The Instructor is saying such things as, now "Keep moving, don't let yourself get stiff, keep the joints moving, keep them as supple as you can" ("Spiritual Depression," Lloyd-Jones, Pickering and Inglis, 1965, p.257). Today the Instructor has become the Coach, but he is doing the same work for your good, to get you to step up your game. "Hey, not like that; that's no good; do it this way instead." We learn that understanding the Bible is never abstract and theoretical; it is always becoming more aware of the work and will of the living God who is constantly demanding that we change. When we move to a new area we can choose a congregation which will confirm all our prejudices, or we can attend a church where the Bible does its great work of changing the life of the congregation just as it was intended to do - teaching, reproving, correcting and instructing in righteousness (2 Tim.3:16).
It is not enough to be convicted by the preaching of the Word of God. We must do it. A woman used to attend a friend's church and nearly every week she would say to him, "You sure stepped on my toes again today!" Then she would go home and live like a devil for the rest of the week. The Bible commentator, Adam Clarke, said, "He who does not listen to obey, listens to reject and to disobey."
So those are some of the ways in which the Bible addresses our lives, testing and directing our conduct by its plain, detailed and constant instructions - just like an introductory handbook, a rulebook, a seminar or preaching class, and a coaching session. How do men respond to this relationship to God which is always via this living Word?
2. The Possibility of Defiance.
Where do we find the most notable example of defying God's Word? It is, of course, in Genesis 3 in the account of the fall of our first parents. The man and woman were given words from God which would bring unimaginable benefits into their life if they did them. Adam was also warned of death which would be visited upon him the moment he defied God. Adam and Eve's responsibility, then, was to become doers of God's Word. That was life for them.
When the serpent approached them he came with a question. It was, "Has God said?" Satan was raising such questions as, Are you quite sure God did say that? Or, can God have meant exactly what you thought he meant? Or, surely it is inconceivable that a loving Creator should thus restrict the freedom of his creatures? Of course, the serpent's intention was not to help them to better understand the Word of God (this was not the first lesson in hermeneutics) but destroy the authority of the Word for Adam and Eve. The first step was to get Eve to abandon an attitude of passive acceptance of the divine Word simply because it came from God. The second step was to entice her to adopt an attitude of superiority over God's Word and sit in judgment over it. One can readily imagine Eve turning to Adam and saying, "Well, God says that, but the serpent says this, and we've got to decide which one is right. I've come to my decision. Adam, who do you think is right?" The third step was one of active and open rebellion, appealing to Eve's pride, suggesting that God had prohibited something just to keep them from something good and to hold them in servility: "for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen.3:5). We hear such sentiments everywhere today. Passive acceptance of the word of God is deplored. "You are asking us to become spectators, as if you preachers were the only onee who had anything to give." How often you hear that. Have you noticed how a churchgoing upbringing is always described as 'strict', and Calvinists are always 'extreme' or 'narrow,' as though we and our poor poor children have lost out on so many rich experiences in life because we have misunderstood God's law, or because of the very commandments themselves. The serpent's misleading words had one intention of encouraging defiant ungodliness. How effective they were! It seems from the narrative that it only took about five minutes and Eve was persuaded by them.
How was she corrupted so easily? What made her lightly abandon the Word of God? There were exterior and interior forces at work: the enemy's devices from without and her own feelings within. In other words, the devil and self. That is what replaced the objective word and her love for God. Let us see the anatomy of this disobedience:-
Firstly, she ceased to cry to God for guidance. There had been a time when she looked around and was overwhelmed by God's majesty. The heavens declared to her the glory of God. There were times when she and her husband had a blessed walk with God. But the serpent challenged the familiar reality of all that, and Eve began to say to herself, "Now, what if this is not what God is all about?" She began to take her bearings from her own hunches and from voices within and without, instead of those very simple words that God had spoken. She stopped asking God to help her.
Secondly, she stopped listening to the words of her best friend, whom she had come to know from her first conscious thoughts. She owed the Lord everything, life and loveliness, every good and precious gift, yet she paid attention to the unsupported assertions of a strange speaking snake. Have you noticed that? How some Christians get drawn into some kind of cult after a single hour with a fascinating stranger. They have been listening to you for twenty years, but made no commitment, and then they bump into a man with a serpent's tongue and they are enthusiastically echoing his heresies. He has spoken with a shining face and deep sincerity and what he says seems so revolutionary - "you will be like God, knowing good and evil." None of this 'passive obedience to the preacher' business. So, Christians abandon the best to follow the latest.
Thirdly, she gave ultimate authority to her own feelings. Did the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end when Satan said, "You will not surely die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened (wow!), and you will be like God (wow!), knowing good and evil (wowie!)." "That's incredible," thought Eve: "I've never heard anything so wonderful all my life" - and she was a spiritual baby - "what a sheltered life I've been living." Then she looked at the fruit, like a good scientist, using her God-given powers of observation. "All my knowledge of fruit tells me that that is not poisonous," she said to herself but "good for food" (Gen.3:6). "And all my training in aesthetics tells me that that fruit is "pleasing to the eye" (Gen.3:6). More than that she had an additional voice to God's opinion in the unique witness of the serpent who was saying, "Go ahead. The fruit will make you wise." So a strong and irrepressible desire to eat was awakened in her. She became utterly infatuated with the fruit on that tree, and the enticements of the serpent, and who has ever won an argument with carnal desires? Her instincts triumphed.
Fourthly, all sorts of specious rationalisations won the day. The command not to eat was made to seem so petty - unworthy of a great God of love - he is not interested in little people taking some fruit. He is governing the universe not prying into our lives. It all appeared so unfair. So her conscience was clouded, and her earlier respect for the Word of God was undermined, and her feelings were bolstered by lies about the benefits that would be hers if she turned from doing God's will. The serpent persuaded her to use her reason to criticize and deny what God had so clearly said and decide for herself.
So, Eve chose a false way to obtain imagined benefits at the cost of leaving the true way of avoiding actual evil. There was only one way she could have escaped her fall, and that was by adhering to the divine Word. For example, think of all the harm that drugs can do. But one day a drug-dealer is going to offer you excitement and a whole new vision of life if you simply pop a pill. Now there is no way you can avoid the actual evil of taking that drug except by saying No. You cannot swallow chemicals simply to find out. You read and think and learn and say no. But if you take those forbidden fruit you are involved and sucked into it. You can experimentally discover what drugs will do for you only by actually taking them. Then it's too late to avoid the damage.
In the Bible God has spoken, and he talks about realities that lie totally outside our own experience to prove or disprove. But our faith in the Bible's message is not irrational, and certainly not a leap in the dark. The Lord Jesus lived in this world, and he raised the dead, and preached the sermon on the mount, and healed every incurable who came to him, without a solitary failure. He loved men purely and gently. There was an integrity, dignity and purity of life about him that made him utterly trustworthy. He was not a crank, or a little bit simple, or at all fanatical, but he claimed, "I and my Father are one." And he himself rose from the dead. I live because of him, and I live with him day by day, and so do all Christians. It is this Lord Christ who says that God's word is truth, and that in the beginning male and female God created them. We affirm that he is true. I have no way of proving that except the way of faith in the Lord Jesus. That is the way of wisdom, to cleave to him and to his Word - that is man's only safety, hope and peace.
Adam and Eve's rejection of the Word of God has been echoed a million times in our century. The result for our civilisation has been a tragedy of immense gravity which has brought guilt, torment and death into ten million lives. The lie was the promise of freedom, the result was bondage. The serpent continues to speak through the propaganda of the media, and the great supremos who have formed our age - dubbed by Paul Johnson the 'Intellectuals.' Their lives do not bear scrutiny: they destroyed their own families, wives and children, and their allegedly revolutionary ideas already seem old hat and utterly quaint. Reading their opinions is like watching extracts from such 1960s' satirical programmes as, "That Was the Week That Was." How pathetically quaint and archaic it all seems, the unsubtle schoolboy humour, but then how wonderfully contemporary and witty it appeared to be. The only appropriate anthem for this generation is "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way."
3. The Possibility of Victory.
The Lord Jesus Christ is the last Adam, and in a wilderness lacking every natural comfort he prevailed by obeying the Word. So, triumphant living doesn't depend upon your environment. In Matthew 4 we are given an account of Satan coming and tempting man once again, but three times.
Firstly, the last Adam was tempted to turn stones into bread. When the first Adam fell it was through appealing to his hunger: our parents fell when they took the forbidden fruit. The Lord Jesus prevailed when he refused to make bread and eat it. Food is good: food is necessary, but it is not the first necessity. It has to be kept in its place. We eat to live, but we do not live to eat. How often have you heard a man defending his putting his hand in the till and taking something, or cutting the corners in his business ethics, and he says slyly, "but a man's got to live." No! You don't have to live, but you do have to obey God.
God tests us, putting us in places where we suffer pangs of need. "Don't we have the right to food, to sex, to children, to pleasure, to money, to happiness? What is God doing to me putting me in a place where I can't get satisfaction?" I will tell you what God is doing, he is testing and proving you, to know what is in your heart. God is humbling you because you are so proud you have kept God out of your life. So he is bringing you low, and I tell you he can bring you much lower, and I tell you that it can be for much longer. And I further tell you he can bring you down to the gates of death and rapidly, and say, "You fool." God is teaching you this great lesson, "Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God." The first principle in life is not your eating or satisfaction, but pleasing God. I once took part in a discussion in the University Gay Society and a gentle homosexual said to me, "But why is it wrong? It is so beautiful." I said "Because it is more beautiful to take up your cross and deny yourself and follow Jesus." We don't live by satisfying our hungers. We live by doing everything that our God says.
You think of a diesel engine, its tanks full of oil, pulling out of the King's Cross station heading for Scotland with 1000 passengers on board, the crew just having settled in for their shift, but the very first signal they meet is red. Everyone on board is anxious to keep going and reach a hundred miles an hour and fly north to Edinburgh, but they are sitting in the middle of nowhere for what seems an age. The driver cannot say, "There is no sense in this. Let me ignore it just this once and go through the signal." Getting to the destination does not depend upon his willingness to travel there, or his ability to get there, or his skill, or resources, or evaluation of the circumstances. It depends upon his obeying a signal-man who has TV monitors and electronic maps and knows the whole line both sides of the border. It is not mere caprice that tells that engine-driver to stop. So it is with us. It is not mere sovereignty that stops us satisfying our desires. It is an all-wise heavenly Father. When you are tempted to disbelieve then you have nothing but your instincts to guide you about crashing through the red lights.
Secondly, the last Adam was tempted to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple and discover angels zooming along to catch him and let him down to the ground - "just like that!" (Matt. 4:4-7). Instant vindication! Immediate proof to the little crowd watching the stunt that Jesus was the Son of God. But what about those who could not push their way into the streets around the temple to see the show? Another performance in the evening, or twice nightly, and every day, until the appetites are jaded, and the crowd is arguing how it is being done, and that they want to see something else? Jesus was always being followed by people who desired to see him perform wonders. Herod was very glad at last to meet him because he wanted Jesus to do a sign for him. The Saviour always refused to satisfy men's curiosity for sensational displays.
But aren't there scriptures to quote about men doing signs and wonders? Certainly there are, and they have been quoted ad nauseum throughout this century. The devil here quotes the word of God to Jesus to encourage him to go for a miracle. How many people have been led astray with enticements to announce disastrous displays of divine power? It was in the last century that here in Aberystwyth, 200 yards from this church, the 26-year old Methodist preacher Humphrey Jones announced that the Holy Spirit was going to descend visibly at 11 in the morning, and usher in the Millenium. The Queen's Road chapel was packed hours beforehand, but the time came and went and Humphrey Jones was discredited as a fanatic and soon spent a period in the Mental Hospital in Carmarthen.
Humphey Jones was putting pressure on God with that announcement, like every divine healer who comes to town and declares that he is going to perform miracles. He is telling God to act on cue 7.30 every evening when his meetings begin. The Lord Jesus says to the devil, "It is also written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test'" (Matthew 4:7). You don't call God to a test by announcing miracles to be performed at a certain time, or by jumping off a cliff. God doesn't need to be tested. He preserves and provides for us every day of our lives. He delivers us from death and crowns our lives each day with his tender mercies. God is not being tested; he has been proved by what he has done in creation and redemption that He is omnipotent and full of grace and truth. We are the ones being tested as to whether we will go on obeying God, patiently preaching and pastoring when the Holy Spirit does not fall upon a congregation, trusting when faithful deacons die prematurely, and children are born with handicaps, and our dear wives do not recover from that illness. Do we acknowledge him as Sovereign God then? It is we who are being put to the test, not God.
Thirdly, the devil took Jesus to the top of a mountain and showed him the kingdoms of the world and all their splendour. He offered to give it all to Jesus if he would bow down and worship him. I guess the thought that softens us up to give in to every kind of temptation is that God is not completely sovereign. The temptation to doubt, despair, blasphemy and suicide crashes into our lives when we begin to think God isn't in control of us, or his church or the world. Perhaps our prayers have been long unanswered, our hearts have been broken, we have passed through multiple pain - how can we believe that God is still in control of this sick world?
The devil comes to Jesus, shows him the glory of the world and says, "I can give you this if you worship me. It is mine to give. I've got the power. Let's be realistic. How can a God of love be in charge of a world of hatred? Who runs the kingdoms of the world? Who are they following? They are all in my power, and I can give them to whomsoever I will. Come unto me, Jesus of Nazareth, and I will give you their glory" That is what Satan says to Christ
He is promising the Saviour the power and splendour without the cross. Instant victory. Instant majesty without pain. Just tip your hat to Satan and it's yours. Millions do. God is really powerless, and so let's go for glory in the world
Christ conquers by obeying the Word of God, "it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only'" (Matt.4:10). He hides behind the word. Only by worshipping God can the king be set on the holy hill of Zion. "Ask of me," for this, says the Lord. He is the one giving enthronement to his Son, not Satan. Jesus will not bow before the devil because he is determined to wait on God. "Worship the Lord your God!"
In other words, it is worship that repels temptation, not counsellors' rules and the psychologies devised by man. When a Christian seeks the glory of God and is motivated by love for the Lord, then that is the way of victory. In worship we repel temptation because then we are closest to God. Our eyes are not on the glory of the kingdoms of this earth. Do you understand? It is the man who is full of the glory of God who gains the victory over temptation and turns aside from it. But the Christian who ceases to pray and neglects meeting with others, and does not actually love the majesty of God above everything else - that man succumbs to temptation every time.
The Lord Jesus has seen the glory of God. You see the emphasis on the word 'only'? Worship the Lord you God and serve him only. That 'only' is a reflection of a heart that jealously loves God's glory more than anything else. Our life's exclusive and primary loyalty is to serve God only, not Satan, not doubting about who is truly in control of this world and our circumstances. Serve God. This is what is written.
4. The Reward of Obedience.
"What's in it for me?" man says about obeying God. In this context how selfish and sinful that question is. The living God has spoken, and that is enough. The Saviour who shed his blood to save us from hell has told us how we should live, and that is enough. The loving Holy Spirit who made us alive has moved holy men to speak a word to us, and that is enough. We obey God because that glorifies God and there is nothing more than that.
The Lord Jesus Christ said this, "Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me" (John 14:21). That's all; but that is everything. By obeying Christ I show I love him. Robert Murray McCheyne sings,
Teach me Lord on eath to show By my love how much I owe.
You remember the great question the Lord Jesus once asked some people, "Why do you call me, 'Lord, Lord,' and do not what I say?" (Luke 6:46). There was this great show of being disciples, and this repeated title, "Lord, Lord." There was, "Yes, Lord; no, Lord; what about this, Lord, and that, Lord? Lord can you do this, and help here? And I have this sick friend Lord..." All their speech was laced with the title 'Lord.' But they were not doing what the Lord said. They were living lives of disobedience while at the same time putting on this show of being his disciples. If he is our Lord indeed it shows by our obedience, and in no other way.
Again let me say this, that obedience to the word saves us from destruction. Remember the great parable that ends the Sermon on the Mount. There is this wise builder who erects his house on the rock. When the rain comes down, the streams rise and the winds blow and beat against that house it does not fall because its foundation is on the rock. And who is such a blessed man? "Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practise" (Matt. 7:24). All of us face storms ahead, and the greatest is going to be the storm of the end as we go through dying, and leaving all that is precious to us, and have that open-ended confrontation with God. What will we be resting on in that day?
Is there obedience in our lives? Not a perfect obedience but is our life lived on a new plane? Is there a new purity and elevatedness and majesty? Should we discover one Sunday when we went to church and hear the Word of God that something we once held to be right was in fact wrong, would we change it because God said it? Even though there were many emotional memories attached to that old way, would we be prepared to sacrifice it on the altar of Christ's obedience? Are we constantly restructuring our lives in the light of the demands of the Bible? Applying God's word to our personal lives is one of the major tasks of our occupation. Present obedience is always God's condition for obtaining an increased understanding. The Holy Spirit of discernment and consecration is given to those disciples who obey him.
Now the Christian life is not perfect, but it is new. This newness is in comparison to what it once was and in comparison to the life of the world around us. The Christian is a new creation; a new man in Christ. The disciple has new strength and has drawn on new resources in Christ's fullness. So there is a new contentment, and new ambitions, and new priorities. Everyone who calls Christ his Lord has a new capacity for loving him and for loving all Christ's people. That obedience is going to registered in freshness, originality, differentness, elevatedness of life and conduct.
GEOFF THOMAS JUNE 6 1999