What They Are: A collection of Charles Dickens’ Christmas novellas, including his masterpiece A Christmas Carol; a small collection of Christmas-themed sermons from The Spurge; and a behind-the-scenes guide of the Frank Capra film classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.
Why I’m Reading Them: The Dickens stories are for fun, basically. The Spurgeon sermons will be encouraging, as well as providing some quotes for some sermons in November/December that I’m delivering at my home church. And not only is It’s a Wonderful Life my favorite Christmas movie, but it’s also the topic of a series of long-form blog articles I’ve been kicking around in my head for a year or so. Will those come to fruition in blog or book form? We shall see…
Do you have a favorite Christmas-themed book? Have you actually read A Christmas Carol? Let me know in the comments!
What Is It: This book contains sermons/lectures by “The Doctor” covering Jesus’ most famous teaching, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
Why I’m Reading It: As I’ve said elsewhere, Dr. Lloyd-Jones has become one of my favorite (if not my all-time favorite) theologian. His writing is clear, crisp, logical, and impactful. As others have described him, his preaching is “logic on fire.” I have studied the Sermon on the Mount and read the sermons and teaching of other faithful pastors on this section of Scripture, but I know I’ll be greatly blessed by sitting with The Doctor and hearing him break it down.
Have you read this book? If not, is it something you would enjoy? Let me know in the comments!
It’s nice to work hard and then look back and see some good coming out of it.
An example from yesterday:
The new garden is still not quite done: more cement blocks needed, more rebar reinforcements, and a good deal of top-soil is lacking before we can start planting (what you see there is a combination of grass clippings, disassembled tree, peat moss, and compost). But after several hours of hot, hot labor, I can look out my window and say, hey! I did that. Praise God.
Looking back at my blog stats over the last month, if you discount the hits on my home page, the 5 highest-traffic posts on this site are two sermon manuscripts, the notes from two Sunday School lessons, and a Monk Manual review (still somehow one of my top-three posts of all time).
If you expand that out to the past 3 months or all of 2022 so far, it’s largely the same five posts.
What that tells me is that no matter how many book reviews I write, how many pop-culture posts I produce, the content that seems to be doing the most good for y’all is my Bible teaching.
That’s also why it’s going to continue being a focus of this blog in the coming years.
Those posts are the seeds that grow best, it seems. I think that’s pretty awesome. Praise God.
[Background/Disclaimer: The following sermon was delivered at Cornerstone Community Church in Montgomery, TX, on 07/11/2021. I adapted the section covering verses 3-4 from an earlier sermon I preached on 6/20/2021 at my home church, University Park Baptist Church, in Houston, TX.
In preparing for that first sermon, I relied mainly on the ESV Exegetical Commentary covering the epistle of Jude, Matthew Henry’s commentary on Jude, and various available study Bible notes. While I try to cite any direct quotations, I also want to acknowledge the background assistance of these study helps, in case there are any turns of phrase or linguistic connections that I may have appropriated without realizing and acknowledging it.
I’m sharing this sermon manuscript solely as a blessing to my readers in their personal spiritual walk, and I hope it is edifying in that regard.]
I’d like to open this morning with a lengthy, but I think beneficial, quote:
“The purpose of this book is not to decide the religious issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself. Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time; there are many who prefer to fight their intellectual battles in what Dr. Francis L. Patton has aptly called a “condition of low visibility.” Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding. May it not discourage contribution to mission boards? May it not hinder the progress of consolidation, and produce a poor showing in the columns of church statistics? But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight.”
J. Greshem Machen, Christianity and Liberalism
Machen wrote this opening paragraph to Christianity and Liberalism in 1923. It seems that not much has changed in the last 100 years. At this moment in the life of the Evangelical church, we are hard pressed on all sides to be very broad-minded and tolerant when it comes to doctrine and practice, urged from both without and within to focus on what we agree about instead of what we disagree about, when it comes to the world around us. Machen disagrees, suggesting that what matters most is what we’re willing to fight for.
Over the next few weeks, we will be looking at the epistle of Jude and thinking about why we as Christians are called to “contend for the faith.” This morning, we’ll look at the first four verses, which encompass the introduction and main thesis statement of this powerful letter.
For those taking notes, the outline has 3 points: 1) A Chosen People (v.1-2); 2) A Change of Plans (v.3); and 4) A Church in Peril (v.4).
Let’s take a look at the full text:
Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James,
To those who are called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ:
May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.
Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Jude 1-4 ESV
A Chosen People (v.1-2)
This letter begins the way many of the other epistles do, typical of first-century correspondence: we have a statement of whom the letter is from and to whom the letter is written. In verse 1, we see “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James.” Well, who’s Jude? For that matter, who’s James? What we know from the writings of the early church is that this James is James the half-brother of Jesus, the writer of the epistle of James in the New Testament and the apostle who eventually became one of the elders of the Jerusalem church, taking over for the more famous disciple and apostle James (Son of Thunder, brother of John) after that James was martyred in Acts 12.
So what do we know about this James? He was the son of Mary and Joseph, and at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he didn’t seem to believe Jesus was the Messiah. In Matthew 13, we see that Jesus goes back home to Nazareth to teach, and the response of the crowd is, “Don’t we know this guy? Isn’t he the carpenter’s son, Mary’s boy?” In verse 55, it continues, “And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?” So James (and by extension, Judas or “Jude”) are half-brothers of Jesus, sons of Mary and Joseph.
Jude identifies himself as the brother of James, so that the readers know who is speaking—but notice that he didn’t call himself the brother of Jesus. Instead, he calls himself Jesus’s servant (or, in the Greek, bondservant or slave), just as James does in James 1:1. And notice also that Jude calls Jesus “Christ”—Messiah, Anointed One. What would have caused such a change in Jude, and in James?
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
I Corinthians 15:3-7 ESV (emphasis mine)
Seeing your older brother working miracles, teaching with wisdom and authority, and then coming back to life after being brutally crucified would probably do the trick! Now, Jude isn’t just the brother of “Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter’s son”; he’s the bondservant and slave of Jesus the Risen Messiah!
Who is Jude writing to? He doesn’t indicate a specific church or region. Some commentators point to context clues to suggest it may be specific churches in Israel or nearby regions—churches with lots of Jewish believers who would recognize the references to the Old Testament and other Jewish works throughout the letter. However, I would suggest that while Jude certainly had a specific audience in mind, his greeting and message to all of us who are in Christ, because they are universally applicable to the church in every age: “To those who are called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for [or by] Jesus Christ.” We could spend all day on this one verse, because there is such richness in it. But I want to take just a few moments to help you see why it’s so important that we know who we are when we make our stand. If you are a born-again disciple of Jesus Christ, this is who you are:
You are called. The God of the Universe chose to reveal Himself to you and to draw you to Himself through the effectual call of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says in John 10 that His sheep hear His voice. Because you have been called by God, you are now His, you are in His hand, and nothing and no one can take you out of it. You have been adopted by God and have all the rights and privileges that come with that adoption.
You are beloved of the Father. You are loved by God—all 3 persons of God, the Father, the Son, the Spirit. Our position in Christ gives us security and confidence that we can approach the throne of grace boldly, not only because we are cleansed from our unrighteousness and given the righteousness of Jesus, but because we are truly and completely loved by God.
You are kept for Jesus Christ. Those whom God calls, God keeps. Those who are born again to new life are secure in their salvation. We’ll spend some more time at the end of the series talking about this, but let’s just revel in this reality for a moment.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:28-39 ESV
What beautiful promises we have in just this one verse—a verse that, let’s admit it, we’re tempted to gloss over.
Then Jude gives an initial blessing in his greeting in Verse 2: “May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.” As if his previous comment weren’t enough, Jude prays that God would not just grant his readers mercy, peace, and love, but that they would have these graces in abundance—that they’d be multiplied to them! Throughout the New Testament, we see prayers and promises to this effect: the gracious generosity of God toward His people, granting them mercy, peace, and love in Himself, which they then extend and display to the world!
After this beautiful introduction, we move on to the main message of Jude’s letter in verse 3.
A Change of Plans (v.3)
In the first phrase of verse 3, we see a change in plans. “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation…” Jude tells us that his original intent for writing was pastoral and didactic—his desire was to write about theology. He tells his brothers and sisters, beloved of the Father, that he was very eager to expound on “our common salvation.” He wished to establish the faith of the believers by reminding them of the truths of the Gospel taught by the apostles—the very faith he describes as being “once for all delivered to the saints.” We don’t know what that epistle would have looked like. Perhaps, like Paul, he would have talked about how there is no distinction or favoritism when it comes to who has access to God in Christ Jesus, or how all believers have the same Father and the same Lord and the same Spirit and the same baptism. Maybe Jude would have reminded the churches what his brother Jesus taught about the narrow way of salvation and the call to all who were willing to come and drink from Him the water of life. Perhaps Jude might have commented on Peter’s letters that reminded the church of the rich blessings of salvation and the calling to live as holy exiles.
We have no indication what his specific focus might have been, because as he considered taking up the pen (or, possibly, dictating to his personal scribe) to write to the scattered churches, he was moved by the Holy Spirit to address a different matter. He says that he “found it necessary to write, appealing to you to contend for the faith…” Rather than focusing on the more uplifting topic of our salvation, Jude is compelled to sound a warning bell for the churches. This was his duty as a servant of the Lord, a responsibility that Paul writes in Titus 1:9 is laid upon every minister of the Gospel: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Don’t miss that two-part requirement: a faithful elder/pastor must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught—the “faith once delivered to all the saints”—AND be able to rebuke those who try to subvert it. In this passage, Jude is calling out not just to church leaders but to all believers to contend for the faith.
Commentators indicate that the word contend here has a grammatical root from which we derive the English word “agonize.” This is a word from the athletic arena, as wrestlers and combatants grapple and strain and struggle and fight for ground. This word “contend” is not a word with a clean and wrinkle-free jersey; “contend” here is a sweat-soaked and blood-stained word. It’s similar to the phrasing in Paul’s instructions in I Corinthians 9 to run the race to win, and his declaration in II Timothy 4 that he has fought the good fight and finished the race, in keeping the faith. Jude is pleading with the believers to fight, to wrestle, to struggle for the sake of the unadulterated and undiluted faith, the true word that was handed down to them from Jesus and His apostles.
What is this precious word? It’s the word of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that begins with bad news: All people are sinners by nature and choice, and all of us deserve the just wrath of a holy God for our rebellion and sin. But Jesus, the son of God, came to us, born of a virgin, born under the law, lived a perfect life of holy obedience and complete righteousness before God, and then died in the place of sinners as a sacrifice for sin, taking on the guilt of our sin and the wrath of God against it, satisfying justice, dying and then rising again 3 days later, in victory over death and as a sign that the penalty for our sin has been paid. Now, we who turn away from our sins and believe on Jesus as Savior AND Lord, trusting in His death and resurrection in our place, are credited with Jesus’ perfect righteousness and have peace with God in Him. When we are born again from death to life, we receive the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of our future inheritance, we are sanctified bit by bit, remade day by day into the image of Jesus, and looking forward to the last day, when we will be raised up with Him, freed of all trace and effect of sin, to live forever in perfect communion with God and His people!
That’s the message that Jude urges his hearers to fight for. Not a social program, not a political strategy, not an ideological agenda: a declaration that Jesus is Lord of all and an invitation to all who have ears to hear to repent and believe this good news.
My friend, if you don’t know this Jesus or believe this message, I’m thrilled to get to tell you: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. Are you a sinner? Turn from your sin and rebellion and run to Jesus! There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. He is your only hope. Don’t put this off another day, even another hour, because you truly don’t know for sure how much life you have ahead of you. I’m begging you—come talk to me after the service, for the sake of your very soul.
So, why was Jude compelled by the Holy Spirit to sound the alarm and call the churches to stand firm and fight for the faith? Because Jude recognized they were in danger. That’s our third point.
A Church in Peril (v.4)
Look at the beginning of Verse 4: “For certain people have crept in unnoticed…” Jude knows that there are false teachers who have worked their way into the churches. These spiritual saboteurs didn’t kick open the front door, announcing their apostasy openly. As John MacArthur puts it, the phrasing here describes someone who slides in through the side door, making his way among the flock, before his works become plain.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to believers; throughout the New Testament, we have been warned about it by Jesus and the apostles. Four examples:
Jesus warns of wolves in sheep’s clothing and false teachers (Matthew 7:15-23)
Paul warned the Ephesian elders as he was leaving that they would eventually be infiltrated (Acts 20:25-31)
Paul tells Timothy in II Timothy 3 and 4 that apostates will arise even within the church, and that in the last days, false converts will be drawn to false teachers that please their appetites (II Tim. 4:1-4)
In Peter’s second letter (which covers many of the same themes as Jude), he warns of false teachers who infiltrate the church in much the same way (II Peter 2:1-10).
Are we surprised that the sons of the Serpent have the same methods as their slithering father, who smoothly approached Adam and Eve and hissed, “Has God really said…?”
I was reading recently some of Charles Spurgeon’s articles in which he described the Downgrade of evangelicalism in his day. In one piece describing the slide of certain churches into error (often by name!), he noted how it usually wasn’t the lead pastor who would fall into theological error directly; instead, these men erred by not being vigilant in whom they welcomed as guest speakers or whom they hired as assistant ministers. They welcomed false brothers to come alongside them in ministry, excusing or ignoring the occasional red flag in that person’s teaching, until finally the older minister would retire and be succeeded by these younger men who were steeped in theological liberalism and humanism. The lack of watchfulness on the part of the shepherd and the flock allowed the wolves to enter the sheep pen.
This is a danger we should be on guard against, even among “conservative” denominations and associations, as some people, even some influential voices, decry calls for doctrinal clarity and accountability as “the leaven of the Pharisees” and a rising tide of “fundamentalism.” But we must not let fear of being called “legalists” cause us to run into the opposite ditch of becoming complacent about what we affirm together as believers. By all means, let us strive to be kind, winsome, and humble in what we proclaim and how we communicate, but our efforts to be gentle or welcoming must NEVER come at the expense of compromising or downplaying what the Scriptures clearly state.
In our text, Jude is sounding the alarm that the churches should be on the alert against these false teachers, and it would benefit us, as it has every generation before us, to mark these characteristics in our minds. In verse 4, Jude describes the false teachers in 4 ways:
They were long ago designated for destruction:
They are ungodly people;
They pervert the grace of God into sensuality
They deny their Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
First, these false teachers were designated for destruction; the wording here is that their doom was written out beforehand, warned about in the past. Jude is pointing to the various Scriptural warnings (including the ones we’ve looked at already) about the destiny of all those who corrupt the truth of God’s word for selfish gain. Beyond that, these false teachers were designated for destruction in that their fruits showed they were themselves “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” as Paul describes in Romans 9—doomed by their rebellion against the truth to face the wrath of God for their wickedness.
Second, the false teachers are ungodly people: Their lives and lifestyles were oriented away from God and toward selfish gain. They are irreverent, impious, disregarding or even mocking what is holy. Later, in verse 18, Jude describes them as “scoffers, following their ungodly passions.” It should always put us on alert when a professing teacher of the Gospel is happy to make light of the things of God or mock what is holy.
Next, Jude writes that they pervert (or twist/replace) the grace of our God into sensuality: Even while they pretend to be spiritual leaders and faithful teachers, their actions reveal their true desires. These false teachers abuse the very concept of grace by using it as an excuse to indulge in sensuality—a shameless flaunting of immoral behavior, usually in regards to sexual sin. These people push the boundaries of what is appropriate or acceptable, under the guise of “spiritual freedom.” They are driven by their passions and lusts and often struggle (and fail) to hide their sinful hungers—all the while claiming “grace” as a cover for sin. Consider how Paul rebukes this thinking in Romans 6. Throughout the Scriptures, the people of God are called to live holy lives—and the standard of holiness is set by God, not by the culture around them. Yet these false teachers abuse the grace of God for their own selfish ends and teach their followers to do the same.
Finally, they deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ: The rebellious nature of their false doctrine ultimately leads to a denial of the lordship of Jesus (either directly or indirectly) over the life of the believer. Jesus said in Luke 6:46, “Why do you call me ‘lord, lord’ and not do what I tell you?” False teachers pay lip-service to the lordship of Jesus but deny it by their lives because they refuse to obey the commands of Jesus. In some cases, they may even deny their Lord and Master by creating a false version of Jesus to worship and serve in His place: a counterfeit Jesus who excuses sin and perversion, who feeds their ego and looks the other way when it comes to their greed and selfish desires. Like the Israelites bowing before the Golden Calf and calling it “Yahweh,” false teachers present a false Jesus that promises everything and demands nothing, a pseudo-Christ who just so happens to look like HE was made in OUR image.
Jude goes on in his letter to describe these false teachers in greater detail, before closing out the letter with exhortations to the churches to stand firm and build themselves up in the faith, but for now, we will stop here and spend the rest of our time considering how these warnings apply to the church in our day. Because we should make no mistake: this is a warning bell that should be ringing in the ears of every generation of Christians until Jesus returns. Our enemy hasn’t taken a vacation; he is still seeking to steal, kill, and destroy. He is still sowing weeds among the wheat field. And he’s still sending out false teachers to try to ensnare true and false converts in a web of deception.
So I want to close with some applications and exhortations for you, brothers and sisters:
Hold fast to the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
You may have heard it said before, but the way that federal agents learn how to recognize counterfeit money isn’t by spending their time looking at fake bills but by extensively studying the authentic ones. Beloved, we have been graciously given the very words of God, in a book preserved through the ages. We have no reason not to study it, to fill our minds and hearts with it, to know the truth and be able to distinguish truth from the “almost-but-not-quite-truth” or the “truth-plus-a-little-something-else.” And we don’t study the Scriptures merely to increase our knowledge (this was the error of the Pharisees in John 5, who studied the Scriptures thinking that this is what would give them eternal life); we study the Scriptures because we want to know the God who wrote them. When my wife writes me a little card or encouraging note, I don’t put it away without opening it and say, “Thank you so much. I appreciate your thinking of me.” Of course not! I read it and take in its meaning; why? Because I adore my wife, and her words reveal her heart and mind to me. How much infinitely more does the perfect, inerrant, sufficient, authoritative Word of God reveal to us who He is and what He expects of us! Christian, we are to be people of the Book. That is our first and greatest defense against the schemes of false teachers. We need to be diligent to learn these precious truths, so that they shape our thinking and speech.
Be careful whose voices you welcome as your teachers.
We live in a world that is jam-packed with messaging. All day long, we are being bombarded with ideas and suggestions from marketers, influencers, and would-be teachers. Every single piece of media we consume, from books to music to visual entertainment to social media feeds, has a specific worldview behind it. We cannot be naïve about this. We must—MUST—be on guard about which voices we are giving our attention to. Everything we take in and engage with needs to be run through the filter of “Is this true? Is this consistent with what God says in His Word?”
I want to speak a word here specifically to the men in the church, to the husbands and fathers. As a husband and father myself, I want to urge and exhort you my brothers to stand guard over the eyes and ears, the hearts and minds of your household. You are responsible as the spiritual leader of your home to guard your wife and children against those who would try to lead them astray. And I’m not saying that wives or even children are helpless or unable to discern truth from error—not at all; in fact, that should be one of our goals, to teach, train, and help them do just that. And there is a great blessing in having a godly wife who is equally vigilant over herself and her children. My wife recently encouraged me when she watched a movie before showing it to our daughters, and later told me she decided against it because she recognized the subtle worldview implications that were hidden inside the otherwise sweet and innocent-looking cartoon. She understands how media can catechize our children in ways we don’t expect.
Men, we must not follow the pattern of our first ancestor Adam, who passively stood by as his wife was lied to by a false teacher telling sweet little lies about who God is and what He has commanded. We need to be paying attention to what voices come into our homes, into our car radios, into our children’s electronic devices. I’m not calling for a locked-down, 1950’s hyper-fundamentalist “keep out the world” approach either. I spent part of my childhood in that kind of church. That well-intentioned approach doesn’t work. What I’m talking about is active participation in advising and exhorting and supporting your wife, in taking the lead with her help to train your children to engage the world as Christians, to think Christianly, to be good Bereans and measure everything against the Scriptures. We dare not check out and back off, because we’re too busy or we want to avoid conflict in our homes over certain media. Men, your family is being hunted. Our enemy is a predator who wants to ensnare and drag away the hearts and minds of you, your wife, and your children. I’m not being overdramatic. I’m telling you the truth. Let’s get serious about this.
And that even means having a discerning ear when it comes to voices that claim to be Christian. Did you pick up on this from the text? These aren’t teachers from the outside, trying to lure the believers into worshiping an obvious idol. These are false converts, using the language of Christian faith as a cover for worldly philosophy and practice. In other words, we can’t let our guard down when we turn on Pureflix or tune the car radio to the local Christian station. Some of the most damnable heresies are smuggled into our homes through the “safe for the whole family” programming we are fed under the banner of “Christian.” No matter how many times a song says the name Jesus, we need to listen carefully to make sure they’re talking about the right one!
Again, please don’t mishear me: I’m not trying to create an extrabiblical code of conduct or confuse the commands of God with the traditions or cultural preferences of men. But, brothers and sisters, we who have been called, redeemed, and kept by God, who live in this world as strangers and pilgrims, need to remind ourselves what the Scriptures say: anyone who loves this world and its system and its wicked ways does not have the love of the Father in them.
Speak up when it comes time to take your stand.
Finally, we should heed Jude’s exhortation in verse 3: our brother urges the Church then and the Church now not just to hold onto the faith, but to contend, to struggle, to wrestle for it. This means there comes a point where we must engage the people and ideas around us with what we know is true.
This contending isn’t a physical struggle; we’re not called to wage a holy war and physically destroy those who oppose us—that’s not the way of Christ. Rather, as Paul writes in II Corinthians 10:
“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.”
This means that, in the arena of ideas, Christians are called to contend for the truth of God with the weapons God gives us in the way that God commands us to do so. In our generation, as in past generations, the plain truths of the Scriptures are called into question. Today, the Bible’s teaching of God’s design for human sexuality and holy marriage is denied or contradicted as being hateful and harmful. The truth about how the blood of Jesus tears down the dividing wall of racial hostility and gives us new identities in Christ is called insufficient, simplistic, or even oppressive. The insistence that Jesus is Lord of His Church and that we must in all things obey God rather than men is considered by some to be subversive and dangerous. In the marketplace of ideas, we should be ready for these doctrinal truths that we hold to be mocked, opposed, or even shouted down. This should not surprise us. Yet here we stand; we can do no other.
But in the midst of our contending, let’s not forget what we’re fighting for. We are not merely culture warriors; that’s not our true calling. We have not been given a divine mandate to save western civilization or American culture; that’s not our true kingdom. Our king has given us marching orders, based on His having all authority in heaven and on earth, to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that King Jesus has commanded us. That’s our mandate. That’s our mission.
Saints, contend for the faith: in your hearts, in your homes, in the world. To God be the glory.
The following is the text of a sermon I had the privilege to preach at Cornerstone Community Church in Montgomery, TX on November 22nd of this year. Even though it’s a bit late for the Thanksgiving holiday, I hope it blesses you anyway. Thanks.
When I started thinking about what I wanted to study and preach on this week, I couldn’t help but think about the upcoming holiday: no, not the A&M-LSU game. Thanksgiving.
Now, I’ll admit, folks: normally, in my family, we start our Christmas holiday decorations and celebration on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, but we’ve had our tree and lights up for over a week already (partly because my 3 year old is OBSESSED with Christmas lights). It seemed appropriate in a challenging year to spend some extra time celebrating the coming of Jesus to dwell among us. But I recognize that doing so gives short shrift to Thanksgiving, so I started thinking about what passages might be appropriate for the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
And for some reason (the providence of God, ultimately), I landed on Luke 18. If you’ve looked at the passage already, you know that this is…not exactly what you’d call a “Thanksgiving” passage—and I agree, it’s a bit of a stretch. But I think it’s what I needed to hear, so I suspect some of you may benefit as well.
Today, we’re looking at the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. And it’s a story that has something to teach us about how we should—or rather, how we should NOT—give thanks.
Here’s the big idea we will consider this morning: True thanksgiving – true Christian thanksgiving – begins with a recognition that, if we are in Christ, we havenot gotten what we deserve for our sin, but have instead gotten what we do not deserve. We deserved judgment, but received mercy. We earned wrath, but were given grace. True thanksgiving from the heart is fueled by this fundamental reality.
Let’s look at the text: Luke 18-9-14. I’ll read it in its entirety and then we’ll take a look at it verse by verse.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Luke describes this story as a parable (the stories that Jesus told that taught spiritual truths using symbols and veiled language that could only be discerned by those given “eyes and ears” to do so). But this is less of a parable and more of a straightforward (if likely fictitious) description of 2 mindsets or approaches to worship.
Setting the Scene (v. 9-10)
Notice from the very beginning that Luke clues us in on EXACTLY what Jesus is doing here. This isn’t like some of Jesus’ other parables or stories where he has to decode for us what He means. He is speaking plainly, and both we and his original hearers knew what he was getting at. If anything, what Luke gives us here is a peek into the hearts of the hearers more than the point of the parable. Notice that he describes these people 2 ways: “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous” and “treated others with contempt.” As we will see, these two traits are connected, with one often flowing into the other. While there are other applications to be made with this parable, Jesus’ primary target audience thought they were as holy as they needed to be, and that somehow God owed something to them for their good works.
Jesus sets the scene in verse 10: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” They went up to the temple because the temple in Jerusalem was built on a hill. That’s why we see some psalms are called Songs of Ascent—they were literally sung by pilgrims who travelled to Jerusalem to ascend the temple mount for yearly sacrifices and feasts of worship. So these 2 men went up to the temple.
They went up to pray because it was at the Temple where they believed their prayers would be heard. In I Kings 8:27-30, when Solomon dedicated his temple to God on this spot, he prayed that it would be a place where God’s name and heart will rest, so that His servants may come to this place to pray and he would hear and forgive them. God responded in the next chapter (9:1-3) that His eyes and heart would be there for all time. In Isaiah 56:7, the Lord says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” So it was at the temple that faithful Jews believed God would be most attentive to their cries.
Consider our two characters: the Pharisee and the tax collector. While we in later generations have been trained to eye pharisees with distrust, and to use the term as an insult, remember that, in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were the theological elite—the trusted theologians, preachers, teachers, highly respected in their community. Contrast them with the tax collectors—Jews who have colluded with their Roman oppressors and collect taxes on their behalf to fund their military war machine. Tax collectors routinely extorted money from their fellow Jews (beyond the already oppressive taxes) and grew rich off the grift. They were held in contempt in their day, the lowest form of scum, because they defied the Mosaic commands against extorting and oppressing their countrymen. Jesus often used social contrasts like this to shock or surprise his audience, in order to reveal truth. Here was no exception, and it would do us good to consider this contrast with fresh eyes. On the one hand, a revered spiritual father and pillar of the community—on the other, a low-life who was distrusted and avoided because he was known (or at least assumed) to take advantage of his poor neighbors to fill his pockets.
But when they open their mouths, everything changes. And it’s here were Jesus shows us the dangers of the wrong kind of thanksgiving.
First, we see the danger of treating others with contempt.
1) Beware Treating Others with Contempt (v. 11)
Notice the Pharisee’s posture: “standing by himself.” Standing was a common prayer posture in that culture, but the implication here was that this man was standing apart from others, not one of the crowd of worshippers. He set himself apart physically—presumably to be seen and/or heard more clearly. Jesus warns about this in the Sermon on the Mount:
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”
Some translations even word verse 11 as such: the Pharisee “while standing, prayed to himself” (which may be more of an editorial comment than a straightforward translation!).
Listen to the opening words of this Pharisee’s prayer (a prayer in which we hear the word “God” used one time and the word “I” used 5 times, by the way): “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”
The Pharisee “thanks” God by bragging about who he is not—and lists off a handful of notorious sins and sinners (including the tax collector who he likely passed by on his way to the front of the room!). The Pharisee prides himself on not being guilty of gross, scandalous, public sins—yet he doesn’t mention any of what Jerry Bridges called “the respectable sins” like anger, lust, jealousy, greed, or pride. But Scripture is clear that these sins are no more acceptable than others in terms of God’s holiness. Just a few chapters earlier, we see this, in Luke 16:
“The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things [Jesus’ parable of the shrewd manager], and they ridiculed him. And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”
While Pharisees were careful to keep a holy external appearance, that holiness sometimes didn’t penetrate to their hearts. This is why Jesus also said in the Sermon on the Mount that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees, we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Something more than external piety is needed.
The Pharisee had no awareness of his own sin and unworthiness. He judged himself against the worst sins of others—and in a sense used the known (or assumed) sins of those around him to make himself feel even more holy by comparison. It’s almost as if he were glad they were so bad, because it made him look all the better.
The Apostle Paul sternly warns against such judgments in Romans 2:1-5:
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
We should pause in this moment and examine ourselves: have we been guilty of this? Perhaps we have said in our hearts, “God, I thank you that I’m not like this pastor fallen into disgrace, or like that politician surrounded by scandal. I thank you that I am not like those people on Facebook or these people on Twitter. I thank you that I’m wise enough to vote the right way and have the sensible position about pressing social issues and political topics, unlike those with whom I disagree who are being led around by the nose and haven’t thought things through properly.”
The scary thing about this first part of the pharisee’s prayer is that he *is* like those notorious sinners—he’s just as prone to fall into temptation and a snare. And so am I. And so are you. It is only the grace of God that we do not destroy ourselves in our sin.
But let’s keep looking at the pharisee’s speech (I hate to call it a prayer!). Next we see that we should beware trusting in our own righteousness.
2) Beware trusting in your own righteousness. (v. 12)
The Pharisee follows up his favorable self-comparisons by giving evidence of his personal piety: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” On the surface, these are laudable actions—actions that go beyond even what the Mosaic law required. The only mandatory fasting day was the yearly Day of Atonement, and the tithe was mainly intended to be from crops/income in order to provide the material needs of the Levites and care for the poor and sojourners. So on the surface, what the Pharisee says should be met with praise. You did pious works; good for you.
But Jesus is never satisfied with mere ritual or surface-level obedience. Again, from His Sermon on the Mount, He says that giving to the needy should be done in secret, and that fasting should be a private act of worship between you and God. Why? Matthew 6:1 says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” That’s the problem with the Pharisee’s prayer. He’s bragging about his piety in order to be seen by others—and worse than that, in order to be acknowledged by God. He’s listing off his religious practices as if to remind God how good he is, while at the same time dismissing the sin that may yet be in his heart. That’s why in Luke 11, Jesus pronounced woe upon Pharisees who “tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”
What a contrast to Jesus’ teaching in the previous chapter of Luke, in which he states that obedient servants of God should be satisfied that they have simply done their duty!
Such self-confidence also misses the point that our good works fall so immeasurably short of God’s standard—Jesus said we must be perfect! And of course, in our fallen state we cannot be perfect, which is precisely the point. We need a righteousness outside of ourselves, because all our best works are stained by sin. That’s the whole message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—we will never, ever, ever be good enough to earn or maintain our place before God. We have all broken His law and disobeyed His commandments, and we deserve punishment for our offenses against a holy God. But because God is gracious, He sent Jesus to live the perfect life we couldn’t live ourselves, completely fulfilling all of God’s commands and the demands of the Law, and then dying in the place of sinners, to become “sin” for us so that we might become the righteousness of God. The perfect record of Jesus is transferred to sinners who turn to him in repentance, and all of their guilt is put on Jesus, who pays for it all with his precious blood.
If you’re hearing this and you know that you are guilty before God but you have been trying to do good works to make up for it or wash away your stains, listen to me closely: you can’t clean yourself. You can’t pay for your own sin. There’s nothing you can do to take away your shame and guilt. But there’s something that can be done for you. What can wash away your sin? Nothing…but the blood of Jesus.
Let’s turn our attention away from the preening Pharisee to the downcast tax collector in verse 13.
3) Be Humble before the Mercy of God (v. 13)
What a contrast we find here.
“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”
Note the difference in posture: The tax collector stands afar off—not in an area of prominence, possibly trying to avoid other people who are there in the temple court. His hands are not upraised, and his face is not lifted. Perhaps this is an unspoken recognition that he knows he does not have “clean hands” before God. Psalm 24 says, “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of his salvation.”
The tax collector cannot bring himself to look upward to heaven in the normal posture of prayer, but keeps his eyes on the ground, beating his chest in an outward sign of deep sorrow. He prays a prayer of just 7 words (even fewer in the original Greek) but those seven words are powerful and are weighted with importance: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Charles Spurgeon quoted another unnamed pastor who said this prayer is a “holy telegram”—condensed and compact with no unnecessary words. In our hours of desperation, sorrow, and exhaustion, all of the flowery language is stripped away and the cry of our heart is laid bare in its simplest form. And this is the type of cry that we see throughout the gospels would stir the heart of the savior. Jesus seems to have a particular care for tax collectors and outcasts, because those are the type of people he came to rescue: the sick, not the well; sinners, not the righteous.
What does this simple seven-word prayer of the tax collector show us about his faith? Seven key truths:
He knows who God is—perhaps an artifact from his upbringing or just the gracious reminders of God throughout his life that kept the reality of the Judge of all the earth in his mind.
He believes God answers prayer—if not, he wouldn’t be praying.
He recognizes that he must answer to this God for his actions—the tax collector calls on the one to whom he knows he must give an account.
He believes this God is merciful—otherwise a plea for mercy would be pointless.
He believes this God is even merciful to sinners—God does not just show favor to the righteous but to the unrighteous who call out to him.
He confesses that he himself is a sinner who needs God’s mercy—unlike the pharisee, the tax collector has no illusions about his standing before God.
He recognizes that the mercy of God is his only hope for dealing with his sin—in his state of despair, he turns to God in faith, asking for clemency. He doesn’t try to bargain or impress. He doesn’t claim pious deeds as his access to God. He brings only his need and his faith that God will respond.
There is no indication of how the tax collector came under such conviction, but the fruit of the conviction is plain in his demeanor and his prayer.
Do you need to pray this kind of prayer today? You’ve been trying to earn God’s approval with pious activity. You’ve been trying in your own efforts to improve yourself, to be a good person, in the foolish hope that such labors will balance out the ledger in your favor. If that’s you this morning, you need to stop what you’re doing and just come to God in faith. As the old hymn says, “nothing in my hands I bring / simply to the cross I cling.” You’ve got nothing to bring to God. All your best works are infected with sin, until you are given a new heart and new desires and the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit to work in and through you to do God’s will.
If you need to call out to God in mercy this morning, you’d be in good company. Prayers for mercy are shared throughout the Old Testament, as God’s people call out to Him in faith, asking for His patience, His forgiveness, and His help in times of distress. In Psalm 79, the psalmist Asaph writes, “Do not remember against us our former iniquities; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low. Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and atone for our sins, for your name’s sake!”
In Daniel 9, Daniel prayed on behalf of his people:
“O Lord, according to all your righteous acts, let your anger and your wrath turn away from your city Jerusalem, your holy hill, because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and your people have become a byword among all who are around us. Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name.”
Notice in both of those examples that the person praying is not telling God how good they are and how much they deserve. They recognize they have nothing to offer and that God’s mercy and forgiveness aren’t owed to them. They also call out that God’s mercy comes from His nature and the point of it is ultimately that it gives Him glory to be merciful to us, and that mercy is for our good as well.
So how does God respond to these 2 prayers? Jesus says the humble tax collector went home justified, rather than the pharisee.
This word “justified” is important. It carries a legal designation of “not guilty”—but there’s more to it than that. The tax collector wasn’t just forgiven of his sins, though he was. He wasn’t just shown mercy—the judgment he deserved being withheld. He was declared righteous before God. To get the full weight of that, we need the rest of the New Testament to flesh out its implications—this parable wasn’t intended to provide us a full theology of justification. But we see pretty clearly in this story a contrast of works-based righteousness versus a righteousness that is received by grace through faith in the God who shows mercy on those who call to Him in repentance.
Paul expounds on these monumental truths in his letters to the Romans and Galatians, among others. That’s why he writes in Romans 3:
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
And in Romans 8:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of theSpirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
And in Galatians 2:
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
I don’t mean to beat this point home more than that, but I think too often we run past this and risk taking it for granted, especially if we have been in the church for a long time. If you are a Christian here this morning, I have to ask you: Have you forgotten what you’ve been saved from? Have you forgotten what that means? If you have repented of your sin and put your full hope and trust in Jesus’ work on the cross, then you are forgiven—declared not guilty—and even declared righteous before God, wrapped in the spotless white robes of Christ. And that’s not even to begin describing the benefits of adoption into God’s family, the inheritance of the saints, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the gradual and inevitable work of that Spirit in sanctifying us to make us like Jesus, and the countless benefits and beauties of knowing God as Father!
Christians, do you remember these precious truths? Do you dwell on them in your thoughts? Do you treasure them away in your heart? Because if you do, you will respond with true and lasting thanksgiving!
Let’s consider Jesus’ summation of the story as we close this morning: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The tragedy of this parable is that the Pharisee is so blind to his sinful pride that he goes into the temple and, rather than being forgiven of his sin, heaps more sin and more judgment upon himself, before going away oblivious, thinking he had done his pious duty. The very Law that should have brought him to a place of recognition that he could never stand on his own works before a holy God became a tool that he used to justify himself in comparison to others. And on the last day, when Jesus Christ judges the living and the dead, those who walk in the way of this pharisee will be brought low, while those who humble themselves before the Lord Jesus will be lifted up.
Consider Paul’s words from Romans 10:
Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them [his fellow Jews] is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
If you have received this salvation, then let this Thanksgiving week be a week in which you remember that what you have to be thankful for goes so much deeper than the good gifts of physical provision and the gift of family. Let your thanksgiving well up from a recognition and remembrance of how much you deserve the wrath of God, and how much mercy you have been shown in Christ Jesus.
And let us all heed the warning of Jesus’ parable and humble ourselves before the Lord, so that He may lift us up. If you stand guilty in your sin, call out to him for mercy, in repentance and faith, and He will cleanse you of all unrighteousness, and declare you not-guilty before Him. If you do that, I suspect this Thanksgiving will be a truly joyous one for you as well.
[The following sermon was preached in August 2020 at Central Baptist Church in Livingston, TX. You can find the video of this sermon here. There are some variations between the two, as happens when you preach, but this is more or less my transcript. Thanks for reading!]
When I first began thinking through which passage I wanted to preach on this morning, I heard about a sister in Christ who had drawn comfort from this passage in particular recently, and I decided to look it over. To be honest, it’s a psalm I’ve read more times than I can even remember, and I felt that I was fairly familiar with it. Well, as you may know, the Bible has a way of catching us off-guard, and some passages seem to be cast in a new light, depending on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The subject matter of this psalm in particular sounds a lot different to my ear in 2020 than it did in 2019! As I began to dig in and study, I came to realize that many pastors and commentators over the centuries have been drawn to Psalm 91 in particular during seasons of plague and pestilence. One German doctor wrote in the 1800’s that this psalm was the best preservative during a time of cholera. So it is my sincere hope that it will be an encouragement to us as well, in this particular season of pandemic.
Now, I recognize that some of you may have seen the title of the sermon in your order of worship and thought, “Oh boy, here we go.” If your church family is anything like mine, there are folks who are particularly concerned about the coronavirus, and others who are particularly unconcerned. Some of you may be very adamant about wearing masks and social distancing, while others of you may hate every bit of it and avoid doing so whenever possible. I’m going to ask you all to do me a favor: take all of those feelings, all of those disagreements, and put them away for the next hour. I’m not going to bother with litigating those issues of the moment, because the word of God is inspired, inerrant, trustworthy, true, and timeless. What we will look at this morning will apply just as much in the year 2020 as it did in the year 1020 or as it will in the year 3020, if the Lord gives us that long. The truth of God stands the test of time, and as such is just as timely today as it has ever been.
Here’s the big idea for us to consider today: In the day of trouble, God always provides exactly what His people need.
Our outline for this passage is broken down into 4 sections: God gives us his PRESENCE (v. 1-2, His PEACE (v. 3-8), His PROTECTION (v.9-13), and His PROMISES (v. 14-16). To be honest, these are somewhat blurry lines, because the whole psalm is a meditation on these repeated themes. I’ve just broken it down this way for the sake of those who like outlines.
Psalm 91 has no specified author—the previous psalm (Psalm 90) is attributed to Moses. Some past theologians suggest that Psalm 91 was penned by Moses also, citing both this immediate context as well as the similarities this psalm have with Moses’ language in Deuteronomy. Others argue that we should assume this unattributed psalm was written by David, inspired by the sad outcome of the census he made late in his reign. I think the context clues point more strongly to Moses, but it doesn’t affect our reading of this chapter either way. There is no doubt, however, that this psalm seems to allude to the events of the Exodus and journey to the Promised Land, as we will see shortly.
Let’s look at the first provision of God in this psalm: His Presence.
1 – God’s Presence (v. 1-2)
1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. 2 I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
What should stand out right away in Verses 1-2 is a sense of intimacy—God is not a far-off deity like Zeus on Mount Olympus, nor is He the Cosmic Watchmaker of the Deists who stands back and refuses to interfere. No, here we see right away the active involvement of God in the lives of His children. The psalmist says those who dwell in God’s shelter will rest in His shadow –you can’t be in someone’s shadow if you’re not close to him, especially in the heat of the day when the sun is at its highest. The shelter of the Most High God is a place of direct divine protection.
The “shadow” is a place of protection, proximity, and care. Psalm 121:5 calls the Lord “the shade on your right hand.” Isaiah 25:4 calls God our “shelter from the storm and shade from the heat.”
Matthew Henry writes that “a sincere believer takes comfort in closeness with God and can rest easy in that closeness. It is a sign of true religion and growing faith when we desire to spend time in God’s presence.”
Charles Spurgeon wrote that the promises of this psalm are particularly held by those who are walking in close communion with the Lord. While all of God’s children draw near from time to time, Spurgeon suggests that those who dwell close to the Lord experience His daily grace and comfort in a richer, more particular way.
In Verse 2, the Psalmist makes this promise personal: “I will say…” “my…” These statements are not abstract or academic observations; they are the confession of personal experience!
Notice, the Psalmist uses God’s covenant name here—YHWH – the name God revealed to Moses and the people of Israel, the name associated with His faithfulness and deliverance. It is He alone who is the Psalmist’s hope. We dare not turn to another god for protection or provision!
Again, from Spurgeon: “Some men love to broadcast their doubts and suspicions… hence, it becomes the duty of all true believers to speak out and testify with calm courage to their own well-grounded reliance upon their God.” I love that phrase, “testify with calm courage.” I grew up in the church and can remember the rise of the “Emerging/Emergent” church movement about 25 or so years ago, a movement influenced heavily by post-modernism that seemed at times to revel in its doubts. This reflected the growth of post-modern thought in our culture as a whole, in which certainty and conviction are seen as arrogant or presumptuous. Yet what do we see in the Bible? We see this calm courage in the mouths and hearts of God’s people, as we say together that we know whom we have believed.
In these first 2 verses, we see God as a rest and residence for His people, and it is a privilege to be able to draw near to Him. As believers in Jesus Christ, we now have the assurance that we can draw near boldly, approaching the throne of grace by the blood of Jesus! (Heb. 4:16)
In a season of pandemic and civil strife in our nation, it is good for us to remember that God has provided us with His very presence—a closeness that we as Christians can partake of through our union with Christ Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Paul writes in Col. 3:3 that we have died, and our lives are hidden with Christ in God. Jesus said that no one can snatch His sheep out of His hand. There is no greater security for the Christian than the fact that we are held by Christ, united with Him, eternally secure, with the presence of the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of our future inheritance and hope!
See next that God not only gives us His presence, but He also gives us His peace.
2 – God’s Peace (v. 3-8)
3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. 4 He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. 5 You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, 6 nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
7 A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. 8 You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked.
In Verses 3-8, the Psalmist lists a series of threats and dangers that God’s people face. I would encourage you to notice in this section not only God’s continued presence with His people, but also how He delivers us from fear as well as from danger.
Isaiah 26:3-4 – “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock.”
Let’s consider the many dangers, toils, and snares that God’s people face in this passage:
The Snare of the Fowler (v.3): This points to the traps and deceitful schemes intended to catch the righteous. In Psalm 124, David writes that it is only because the Lord was on their side that they “escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers.” In Psalm 140 and 141, snares are the traps that the wicked and arrogant set to capture the righteous and pious, to destroy them.
The Deadly Pestilence (v.3): In the Old Testament, pestilence is often used by God as a judgment against His enemies and a tool of discipline and chastening His rebellious and idolatrous people. Here, God encourages His faithful ones by saying He will deliver them from this deadly threat. Spurgeon writes that “Faith, by cheering the heart, keeps it free from the fear which, in times of pestilence, kills more than the plague itself.”
Look now to verse 4: “He will cover you with His pinions, and under His wings you will find refuge.” Like a hen covering her chicks, providing protection and warmth by her closeness, the Lord Himself covers His people with his feathers. Notice the contrast here—God delivers His little chicks from the fowler’s snare by covering them with His mighty wing!
The metaphor of God as a protective parent bird is used throughout Scripture. In Deuteronomy 32, Moses likens YHWH to an eagle, not only protecting Israel but catching her and bearing her up with his wings. In Ruth 2, Boaz describes Ruth as taking shelter under the wings of the God of Israel. In Psalm 17, David asks the Lord to “hide me in the shadow of your wings from the wicked men who do me violence.” In Psalm 57, David asks to take refuge in the shadow of His wings till the storms of destruction pass by. Jesus Himself laments over wayward Jerusalem in Matthew 23, because they refused to come to Him when he sought to gather them under His wings.
Verse 4 continues by describing God’s protection over His people, not just as a tender parent but also as a fierce man of war. The faithfulness of God is called a shield and a buckler—armor that a warrior uses when he engages in hand-to-hand combat. God’s covenant faithfulness is a shield to His people against the attacks of the enemy, and He stands ready in their defense.
Verses 5-6 list 4 fearsome threats common to man: the terror of night, the arrow in daylight, the pestilence in darkness, and the destruction that wastes at noonday.
Sometimes we face the terror of night—the unknown fears that stalk in darkness as we try to sleep. Spurgeon writes, “Our fears turn the sweet season of repose into one of dread… Blessed is that communion with God which renders us impervious to midnight frights and horrors born of darkness.” Matthew Henry writes that even in our homes on our beds, we can be plagued by the fear of unknown or unseen threats. I’ll confess that I tend toward an anxious heart, and have spent too many nighttime hours fretting over imagined noises and invisible attackers. In the last week or two, I’ve prayed through portions of this very psalm to help calm my jangled nerves.
There are also threats that may surprise us in the noonday sun; this is described as the arrow in daylight: Perhaps, like me, you are burdened when you hear stories of brazen, daylight violence. Even in broad daylight, we are not able to fully secure ourselves. The arrow in daylight describes the indiscriminate and unpredictable violence of men. In the day of danger, however, God can certainly deliver us from fear. Matthew Henry: “Wisdom shall keep you from being causelessly afraid, and faith shall keep you from being inordinately afraid. You shall not be afraid of the arrow, knowing that though it may hit you, it cannot hurt you. If it take away the natural life, yet it shall be so far away from doing any prejudice to the spiritual life that it shall [instead] be its perfection… It is also under divine direction, and will hit where God appoints and not otherwise. Every bullet has its commission. Whatever is done, our Heavenly Father’s will is done; and we have no reason to be afraid of that.”
To be clear, thinking about God’s sovereignty should in no way create in us a numb sort of fatalism. That’s not what Matthew Henry is describing here. But we can only be helped when we meditate on the fact that the God who determines the end from the beginning has numbered our days in his book, as it says in Psalm 139. There is nothing in all of creation that can thwart the plans of God for his people, so we can live prudently but confidently in that reality.
The pestilence in darkness and the destruction that wastes at noonday together describe the full spectrum of diseases and plagues known in the ancient world—those that lurk in both cold and heat. It’s amazing how simple and yet profound these descriptions are: we still face diseases that seem to survive better in either cold and damp climates or hot and humid ones. God’s people have always lived in a world stricken by disease, from leprosy to the Black Plague to cholera and typhoid and influenza. There have been countless illnesses in the world before COVID-19 ever showed up, and if the Lord tarries, there will be countless more after it. Spurgeon writes that “those choice souls who dwell in God shall live above fear in the most plague-stricken places—they shall not be afraid of the plagues which in the darkness walk.”
This doesn’t mean that we as God’s people should be careless or flippant about real threats of illness. The Westminster Assembly of the mid-17th century noted that we must not assume or presume the righteous are always exempted from times of plague or pestilence—that would be a “rash judgment” in the context of this passage. Martin Luther, when asked by a friend to provide recommendations regarding how to conduct oneself during a time of plague, basically said to take appropriate precautions (wash your clothes, air out your house, minimize your interactions with others to that which is needful, and stay at home if you get sick) and then trust the Lord’s will without fear. The German theologian Andreas Muesel said that those who dismiss concerns about the threat of plague are neither kind nor pious, and that doing so dishonors the blessings of divine protection from illness.
Nor should we interpret this passage as implying that illness is no big deal, even if we are faced with it. It’s appropriate and natural to be saddened by a debilitating illness or a cancer diagnosis. Jesus Himself was moved with compassion for the suffering of others. The key here is to see all of these things in light of God’s sovereign will for our lives as His children. I don’t say that flippantly, but hopefully. In the midst of our tears, we can have that “calm courage” that all things do actually work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose.
It would be tempting to take some of these verses out of context and claim them as a promise of divine immunity against all disease, and there are those in the world who might seek to deceive people with that kind of promise. We should be careful not to follow the footsteps of Job’s foolish advisors who argued that nothing bad should ever befall the righteous!
Instead, I think there are two keys to help us understand this section rightly: the first key is the first phrase of verse 5: “You will not fear.” This is the deliverance that the people of God are promised in this passage: not just from evil, but from the fear of evil. Paul Carter writes that verses 3-6 don’t say we won’t have to face trouble—Jesus Himself tells us otherwise in John 16—but rather we don’t have to fear trouble, because the faithfulness of God means we won’t be abandoned to trouble.
I think the second key to understanding this passage is found in the next 2 verses, verses 7-8. Even if there is destruction all around us, it will not come near us. Joseph Caryl writes that “the power of God can bring us near to danger yet keep us from harm.” Matthew Henry writes that “if people around us die in a plague, we can prepare ourselves for death but the fear of it need not come over us.”
In Hebrews 2:15, the author of Hebrews says that Jesus came to “destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” In times of unrest, in times of plague, in times of war, the greatest fear of natural man is the fear of death. You can see it all over our culture today.
Perhaps you’re here this morning or watching online and you’re not a follower of Jesus–you’ve never turned from your sin and trusted in Him for salvation. If that’s you, I’ve very glad you’re listening, because I need you to understand something really, really important: the greatest threat to you is not the threat of disease or violence. It’s not even physical death. The greatest threat you face is what comes after death. The Bible says that it’s appointed for man once to die and then to face judgment. On that day of judgment, you will have to stand before God the Righteous Judge and account for your sin against His holy Law. Standing on your own meager merits, you will fall shamefully short of His righteous standard, and you will have to face the just and holy wrath of God. BUT there is hope for you. Jesus, the Son of God, stepped out of eternity and humbled Himself to be born as a man, lived a perfect life of complete obedience to God’s Law, and then died as a sacrifice to pay the penalty for sin—taking our guilt and punishment upon Himself and satisfying the debt we owe for our sin. Then on the third day, Jesus was raised from the dead, demonstrating that His sacrifice was sufficient to rescue us from God’s wrath. Now, for all who turn from their sin and in faith put their full trust on the work of Jesus to rescue them, His perfect standing before God is credited to our bankrupt account. We no longer have to fear the condemnation of God for our sin, for there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the Spirit of Life has set us free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
So now we can look to verse 8 and see that the judgment of the wicked does not touch those who have been redeemed by God. David writes in Psalm 37: “Wait for the LORD and keep his way, and He will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on when the wicked are cut off.” Each one of us deserves that judgment, and outside of the grace of God in Christ Jesus, that would be our fate. But, for those of use who have been rescued by Him, we will only look on at a destruction that can never touch us. When we read in this section about snares and terrors, arrows and plagues, we will not be afraid, because our greatest enemies have already been defeated, and all that happens in our life now flows through the hand of our Father in Heaven.
Let’s look now at the protection that God provides His people in verses 9-13.
3 – God’s Protection (v. 9-13)
9 Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place— the Most High, who is my refuge— 10 no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. 12 On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone. 13 You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.
See the assurance that the believer has in verses 9-10: Those who make their home and refuge in God are protected from evil befalling them, from the plague coming near their tent.
All this discussion of plagues and judgment recalls to mind the plagues God visited upon Egypt in the book of Exodus—and no verse seems to indicate this more clearly than verse 10. Just as the people of God in the land of Goshen in Egypt were spared the affects of the judgment upon the Egyptians, including the final plague of the Death Angel killing the firstborn of Egypt, so here the psalmist says that those who call the Most High God their refuge will be protected from the destroyer. Christian, no matter what happens in your life, no evil will befall you.
The Puritan writer Thomas Watson clarified, “God does not say no afflictions shall befall us, but no evil.”
The early church father John Chrysostom: “Faith is endangered by security, but secure in the midst of danger.”
Matthew Henry: “Trouble and affliction may come as part of God’s will for us, and they are not ‘evil’ to us; though in the moment, it may be grievous, in the end it will bear fruit.”
Spurgeon puts it beautifully: “It is impossible that any ill should happen to the man who is beloved of the Lord; the most crushing calamities can only shorten his journey and hasten him to his reward. Ill to him is no ill, but only good in mysterious form. Losses enrich him, sickness is his medicine, reproach is his honor, death is his gain. No evil—in the strictest sense of the word—can happen to him, for everything is overruled for good. Happy is he who is in such a case. He is secure where others are in peril; he lives where others die.”
It’s in this context that we can know that even the “calamities” of this life are blessings. As the hymn writer William Cowper wrote, “Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.”
Verses 11-13 may be particularly familiar to us, as they are partially quoted by Satan during his temptation of Jesus in the desert in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. Let’s look at them in detail here and then consider how they are used in the New Testament.
First, we see here plainly that God commands his angels to watch over His people. We’re not told in Scripture that we are each assigned one particular angel to watch out for us. This isn’t the charming and childlike Clarence of “It’s A Wonderful Life” or the cherry-cheeked cherubs depicted in popular culture. These spiritual guardians are His warriors, His servants, and like all faithful servants they desire to shift the focus back to their master’s work. They are emissaries of God’s presence, ministering spirits who protect and watch over His children in His name.
In writing about the ministry of angels, William Bridge says God’s angels never fail to obey their master. They do not consider our care to be “beneath” them, and they likely protect us from more threats than we even realize.
Verse 11 says they are tasked with guarding us “in all [our] ways.” The implication here is that we are walking in the way of faithfulness, as has been described thusfar in the chapter. Again, William Bridge writes: “Your ways are to be God’s ways, the way commanded by God. If you be out of God’s ways, you are out of your own way; if you be in ‘your way,’ the angels shall keep you, even in time of plague, and bear you up in their hands that you dash not your foot against a stone. But if you be out of your way, I shall not insure your safety… You may expect the Lord’s protection and the angel’s attendance if you be in your way, but not else.”
Indeed, we hear echoes of these promises in Proverbs 3:19-26 – that the way of wisdom (which begins with the Fear of the Lord!) will give us boldness and sure footing.
Verse 12 says the angels will “bear us up” on their hands—the image here might be of a nursemaid or governess, guarding the wellbeing of the little ones entrusted to her. We see that angelic care is in all circumstances, even down to the smallest details—care that we may not stumble against a stone.
In a sermon on this section of Psalm 91, Spurgeon argued that “all our ways” does not include a path of presumption, sin, worldliness, pride, doctrinal error, or the like—that we may find ourselves stumbling along those wicked ways (and often that is a gracious thing, to call us back to obedience). Rather, we can walk in security when we have humble faith in Jesus, obedience to His commands, childlike trust in the Father, and a life devoted to holiness and watchfulness. All things are thus on our side because God has commanded our protection. We travel as with a royal guard, the servants of the Most High King surrounding us. As such, we should also gladly do the “angelic” work of watching over and caring for our fellow believers.
Verse 13 contains an unusual promise—that God’s people will tread upon the lion and the adder unharmed. This could be taken a few different ways. Some point to times of literal physical protection from these creatures (such as Daniel in the lion’s den, or Paul on the island of Malta). Others point to passages like Psalm 58, which describe the wicked as lions and serpents. Still others point to Luke 10:19, arguing that these creatures are actually symbolic of demonic spiritual forces. To be honest, I think all of these interpretations have merit. As John MacArthur notes, the lion and the adder are a metaphor for all sorts of deadly attacks from which the Lord can shield His people.
Now, I had mentioned this passage in relation to the Temptation of Jesus—let’s take a quick look over at that before moving on. Here’s what we see in Matthew 4:5-7:
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
“‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
I want you to notice 3 things here:
First, notice that Satan leaves out a key phrase: “in all your ways.” As we’ve noted previously, there is a clear implication that the promise of angelic overwatch is given to those who are walking in the way of the Lord—it’s not a blanket “Get-Out-of-Gravity-Free” card for anyone who wants to claim it. To treat it as such is to misapply the verse and pull it out of context.
Second, notice that Satan stops at verse 12. Why? Because verse 13 may also contain within it a promise of his eventual downfall. Satan is described in the New Testament both as a lion and as a serpent—and the promise of God from way back in Genesis 3 is that the seed of the woman (the promised Messiah, whom we know now is Jesus) would crush the head of the serpent! Not only that, but because we as Christians are in Christ, we share in His inheritance (Romans 8:17), including His victory over the enemy! In Romans 16:20, Paul writes that “the God of Peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”
Third, notice how Jesus responds to Satan’s temptation—not by correcting his mangling of the Scriptural text but by recognizing the real root of that temptation: putting God to the test. This is instructive to us as we read and apply Psalm 91. These comforting promises of God are not given so that we can abuse them as His people, making foolish decisions and living reckless lives. Rather, they are given as an encouragement to us so that, as we seek to live in the world “not as unwise, but as wise,” we can rest in the assurance that the Lord’s care for His people extends to the ministry of His holy angels.
Finally, we see in Psalm 91 that God not only provides His presence, His peace, and His protection, but also His promises for our future.
4 – God’s Promises (v.14-16)
14 “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. 15 When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. 16 With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”
The psalm closes with a series of promises God makes to His faithful people. If nothing else so far has been an encouragement to you, this surely will be.
God pronounces blessing upon those who know His name, set their love upon Him (or cling to Him), and call upon Him. But even here, we see the matchless grace of God: we don’t do those things on our own. In Deuteronomy 7, God describes how He chose Israel, and then in chapter 10, He says that He set His heart on Israel to be His covenant people. In the New Testament, in John 15, Jesus tells His disciples that they didn’t choose Him, but He chose them and appointed them to bear much fruit. In I John 4:19, John writes we love God because He first loved us! So when we see these precious promises of God, given to those who know and love Him, we can rest assured that the only reason we know God’s name and call upon Him in faith is because He Himself is drawing us, redeeming us, keeping us.
So what does He promise His children in these last 3 verses? Six things:
He will deliver us and protect us: As we’ve already noted, that doesn’t mean a trouble-free life—in His providence, God may carry us through some challenging and even devastating experiences. But He promises that He will rescue us, and that He will preserve us.
He will answer us: Spurgeon reminds us that we should marvel at the fact that the very God of the universe not only listens to us, but responds at all! As Matthew Henry notes, God responds to our prayers and requests with promises to hold onto, providences to meet our needs, and graces to help us endure.
He will be with us in trouble: Pointing back to the first section, we are reminded that God gives us His own dear presence “to shield and to guide.”
He will rescue and honor us: He not only delivers us from danger, but will honor us. The way of this world is to chase after your own honor, to elevate your own name. Jesus said in John 12:26 that those who serve Him will be honored by the Father.
He will satisfy us with long life: Long life was a specific promise to OT saints for obedience to the Law, and the prophets describe it as a blessing of the Future Millenial or Messianic Kingdom (Isaiah 65:20). This phrase may also be translated “fullness of life” or “fullness of days.” This speaks to a satisfaction at the end of one’s life. One more Spurgeon quote: “The man described in this psalm fills out the measure of his days, and whether he dies young or old, he is quite satisfied with life and is content to leave it. He shall rise from life’s banquet as a man who has had enough and is content.” Or, as Paul put it, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Finally, he will show us His salvation: To see God’s salvation in the Old Testament was to look toward the resolution of all things, when God finally and fully delivers His people from all their enemies. That deliverance would come in the person of the promised Messiah. Remember Simeon in Luke 2, who took up the baby Jesus in his arms and praised God for letting him live long enough to see “His salvation.” Now, we who live under the New Covenant and have placed our hope in the death and resurrection of Jesus also look forward to His Second Coming, the restoration of all things, and our final home in that new city, the one not made with human hands, where God will dwell among His people.
All of these other promises point us to that final, beautiful day, because all of these promises flow through and are ministered by Jesus our savior.
These now are the great and glorious provisions that our God has made for us in this time of pandemic. He has provided us with His presence, His peace, His protection, and His promises.
And my prayer for us as we face whatever comes next in this crazy year is that we will rest on the sure and settled declaration of our God that He will show us His salvation. Until that day, let us walk in faith, hope, and love as we anticipate His coming.
Amen! Come Lord Jesus. Let’s pray.
Thanks for reading. I hope this sermon encourages you and challenges you. If you have questions about anything you’ve read here, please feel free to comment below!
This week, I wanted to share the transcript of a sermon I preached about a month ago at a nearby Baptist church–a church that my home church is considering merging with in the near future. That congregation is made of mostly older adults (as opposed to our church of mostly young families), so this sermon provided a unique opportunity to focus my message to their particular church family. I hope it encourages you.
Greetings from the believers at Baptist Church of the Redeemer. It is a privilege to be back here with you, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. Our text for the morning is Psalm 71, so please turn there if you haven’t already.
It didn’t occur to me until it was pointed out by one of our elders that I would be the first man up after your pastor’s retirement last Sunday—no pressure! But as I was considering what to preach today, I realized that what I wanted to do most was to encourage you that our God is faithful in every season of our lives and every season of the life of our churches. My prayer is that you will see this clearly today.
If you are taking notes, you can break this sermon down into 3 sections: 1- The Security of God’s Protection (v. 1-6); 2- The Testimony of God’s Faithfulness (v. 7-16); and 3- The Witness of God’s People in their Later Years (v.17-24).
Number One: The Security of God’s Protection (v.1-6)
Let’s take a look at the first 6 verses of Psalm 71.
In you, O Lord, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame! 2 In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me, and save me! 3 Be to me a rock of refuge, to which I may continually come; you have given the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.
4 Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel man. 5 For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth. 6 Upon you I have leaned from before my birth; you are he who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you.
While this psalm is not directly attributed to David in a notation (as other psalms are), it does mirror the language of other psalms of David, which leads commentators to think that it was likely penned by David, sometime between the middle and (more likely) latter years of his life.
Notice right off the bat the personal language here: God is not some distant and unapproachable being. No, David proclaims that YHWH, the Lord God of Israel, is his refuge, his fortress, his God. He calls on the faithful, covenant-keeping God to uphold him in the face of wicked men and enemies who want to see him fall.
David asks God to deliver him because of God’s own righteousness—for the sake of God’s own name. We see this later in the history of Israel when God tells his wayward and rebellious people in Isaiah 48 that He will preserve them and deliver them for His own glory, even though they’ve broken His law. How often do we deserve God’s righteous punishment for sin, and yet because of His great kindness and mercy, He holds back from letting us be destroyed?
Look particularly at verses 5 and 6.
5 For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth. 6 Upon you I have leaned from before my birth; you are he who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you.
Consider for a moment David’s history: before he was a king, he was a shepherd boy who defended the flock against a lion and a bear. He was the brave young man who faced down the taunts of a giant in front of two standing armies. He withstood the jealous rage of King Saul, who sought repeatedly to take David’s life because he was anointed to be king over Israel instead of Saul’s son, Jonathan. Surely when David says the Lord is his hope and his trust ever since his youth, he’s thinking of these events and more!
Beyond that, though, David says that God was there from before his birth—that it was God who “delivered” him by His providence from the darkness of the womb. As Spurgeon writes, God has been faithful to David since before he was born. God knows who are His, and He cares for them. In the perilous hour of birth, God is present and cares for both mother and child.
Spurgeon goes on to call us to consider that childbirth is a daily miracle! Although each person fulfills their assigned role (the mother, the doctor, the midwife or nurse), yet it is God who carries us out of darkness and into light. What a beautiful metaphor this is for salvation. As Jesus told Nicodemus during their late-night conversation, you must be born again if you are to see the kingdom of God—born of the Spirit. While God does use human beings as his means of proclaiming the Gospel of salvation, it is God who brings us from death to life, God Himself who is the author of salvation. As Jonah proclaimed from the belly of the great fish, salvation belongs to the Lord!
So how do we respond to such gracious Divine care, from the very beginning of our existence? In Matthew Henry’s commentary, he writes about this section: “The consideration of the gracious care which the Divine Providence took of us in our birth and infancy should engage us to an early piety and constant devotedness to His Honor. He that was our help from our birth ought to be our hope from our youth. If we received so much mercy from God before we were capable of doing Him any service, we should lose no time [now that] we are capable.” In other words, as soon as we can consider God’s faithfulness to us from the earliest moment of existence, it should compel us to love Him and follow Him in all things. How can we respond any other way?
If you’re here today, and you don’t follow Jesus, first, I’m glad you’re here. And I want you to think on these things: God has given you life, breath, and all good things. Yet, because we are born rebels, we break God’s law as soon as we are able to do so. We are, all of us, sinners by nature and choice. Because of this, we are all deserve God’s righteous condemnation. Yet, because God is patient and merciful, he didn’t destroy us instantly, but instead has provided a way for sinners like you and me to be declared not-guilty, washed clean, and made brand new—and this is only through Jesus, the Son of God, wholly God and wholly man, who lived the perfect life we couldn’t live, and then died in our place, paying the penalty of our sin, fully satisfying God’s righteous wrath against us, and 3 days later, rising to life again, demonstrating that Jesus is Lord and King over all things, including death, and that His sacrifice satisfies the just judgment of God.
If this good news of Jesus is something new to you, or if you want to find out more about it, please come talk to me after the service.
Let’s look at the next section.
Section Two – The Testimony of God’s Faithfulness in All of Life (v. 7-16)
7 I have been as a portent to many, but you are my strong refuge. 8 My mouth is filled with your praise, and with your glory all the day. 9 Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent. 10 For my enemies speak concerning me; those who watch for my life consult together 11 and say, “God has forsaken him; pursue and seize him, for there is none to deliver him.”
12 O God, be not far from me; O my God, make haste to help me! 13 May my accusers be put to shame and consumed; with scorn and disgrace may they be covered who seek my hurt. 14 But I will hope continually and will praise you yet more and more. 15 My mouth will tell of your righteous acts, of your deeds of salvation all the day, for their number is past my knowledge. 16 With the mighty deeds of the Lord God I will come; I will remind them of your righteousness, yours alone.
Notice in verse 7, David says he has been a “portent” to many. Your Bible may translate that a bit differently; some versions may say “sign” or “marvel” or “wonder.” All these words point to the fact that this believer in the one true God is a bit astonishing to the people around him. In fact, God’s people are always going to be distinct, strange, perhaps even a bit unsettling to nonbelievers. “You mean, you actually believe all that? You really think that God is there and listens to you? You’re willing to do what? To go where? Are you crazy?” Peter writes in I Peter 2 that the church is to be a people of God’s own possession—or as the King James translates it, a “peculiar” people. In I Corinthians 4, Paul writes that God uses the righteous persecution faced by the apostles as a spectacle for the world, for men, and for angels—a testimony to all who see them of the power of the Gospel. Or, as Paul would say later in II Corinthians 2, those who are following Jesus bear the aroma of death to the unbelieving world. The church stands as a proclamation of God’s great mercy to those who would be saved, but a proclamation of God’s coming judgment to those who refuse to turn from sin and believe in Jesus.
How does David respond to God being his refuge against those who gawk at him? In verse 8, he says that his mouth is filled with God’s praise and glory all day long. Verses like this challenge me to ask: what is my mouth filled with? More pointedly, what is my social media profile filled with? Is it praise to God, or anxious worry and frustrated clamor? (Should I save that question until after November?) There is no room for murmuring or backbiting when your mouth is full of praise. As James says in James 3, a fresh spring shouldn’t produce salt water.
Take a look at verse 9 and following. [read 9-11] David is asking God not to abandon him in his twilight years. In Charles Spurgeon’s “Treasury of David,” a rich commentary on the Psalms, Spurgeon reminds us that the world casts off its elderly, but God never does; even those who are weary and infirmed are held fast. If we look later in Israel’s history, to the prophecy of Isaiah in Isaiah 46:3-4, we hear God’s reassurance to the remnant He will save from His people Israel that He will not change—from birth to death, He will still be their God.
3 “Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb; 4 even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.
David’s cry to God is that He would not abandon His servant in the twilight years. He says that his enemies are surrounding him, waiting for God to abandon him. This is sometimes the way of this sinful world—godless men try to prey upon older folks, to stoke their fears, to deceive, to try to get them to slip up. David here expresses a concern that many people have. But look how David responds, after pouring out those concerns to God.
12 O God, be not far from me; O my God, make haste to help me! 13 May my accusers be put to shame and consumed; with scorn and disgrace may they be covered who seek my hurt. 14 But I will hope continually and will praise you yet more and more. 15 My mouth will tell of your righteous acts, of your deeds of salvation all the day, for their number is past my knowledge. 16 With the mighty deeds of the Lord God I will come; I will remind them of your righteousness, yours alone.
David prays like a child in the dark, reaching for His father’s hand—and I don’t think there’s one of us who is too old to do that: to call out to our Father in need and desperation, trusting him to answer. David asks His Father to turn the accusations, attack, and shame back on those who would do him harm. Rather than being crippled by worry about the threats of his enemies, David says in verse 14 that he will choose to hope in God and praise Him more and more! Instead of giving in to fear, David defies those who seek his destruction by doing what? Proclaiming God’s faithfulness. Testifying of what he has experienced of God’s salvation and righteous works. Their number, he says, is beyond calculation.
I love verse 16: “With the mighty deeds of the Lord God, I will come.” David brings his testimony of God’s power and faithfulness into battle—his greatest weapon is praise. He carries the testimony of God wherever he goes. And don’t miss this—what he’s bringing isn’t human wisdom or philosophy, but the pure testimony of someone who has experienced firsthand what God does for His people.
I have to stop here and remind you: Church, you have that, too. You have a story. You have a testimony of how Jesus died on the cross to save you from your sin, how He brought you from death to life, how He made you a new creation. You have testimonies of how God has been faithful time and time and time again. No matter what the world brings against you, no matter what the Enemy accuses you with, no matter how age or sickness or suffering may try to take away your hope—you come bearing the mighty deeds of the Lord God. Don’t forget that. He has done great things among us.
In preparing for this sermon, I was reminded of the story of an early church martyr named Polycarp. This was around 155 AD, under the Roman emperor Trajan. Polycarp was an old man, perhaps in his late 80’s to mid-90’s, who was still serving as the Bishop of Smyrna (a coastal city in what is now modern-day Turkey). He had been a friend and student of Ignatius, another church leader who had been martyred some years earlier. It happened that a group of believers who had been rounded up, had refused to deny Jesus, and were put to death had infuriated the bloodthirsty pagan mob because of how they boldly proclaimed Jesus was Lord, all the way to the end. The mob then cried out for Polycarp to be arrested and killed—he was known in that region as being a pastor and church leader. Polycarp’s congregation urged him to hide from the Roman soldiers, but after several close calls, he turned himself in. The Roman official gave Polycarp a chance to recant, since he was so advanced in years. The official said, “Just say ‘Away with the athiests!’ and you can be released.” The Romans called the Christians “athiests” because they denied Roman gods. Polycarp then turned to the Roman crowd and shouted “Away with the athiests!” After this, he was told to curse Christ and swear by the emperor, and he would be freed. Here’s how Polycarp responded: “For 86 years I have served Him, and He has done me no evil. How can I curse my King who saved me?” The Romans threatened Polycarp with being burned at the stake, and he responded that this fire will last a moment, but the fire of Hell is eternal. As he was about to be burned, Polycarp prayed aloud, thanking God that he was deemed worthy to join the martyrs and suffer with Jesus.
An old man—a man that the world would have passed over without a thought—stood firm and proclaimed the mighty deeds of God, and his testimony still rings out almost two thousand years later.
Let’s move on to the final part of the psalm.
Section 3 – The Witness of God’s People in Their Later Years (v. 17-24)
17 O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. 18 So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come. 19 Your righteousness, O God, reaches the high heavens. You who have done great things, O God, who is like you? 20 You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again. 21 You will increase my greatness and comfort me again.
22 I will also praise you with the harp for your faithfulness, O my God; I will sing praises to you with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel. 23 My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have redeemed. 24 And my tongue will talk of your righteous help all the day long, for they have been put to shame and disappointed who sought to do me hurt.
Again, David recalls God’s faithfulness throughout his life and asks God not to forsake him, so that he can proclaim God’s might to the next generation. See, David understands that in his later years, he still has a mission to complete. I think this is the same mission for all of us, when we reach this stage of life: our responsibility as followers of Jesus is to proclaim the goodness of God to those coming after us.
As we see so many fall away over the years of their lives, we must marvel in gratitude over God’s preserving grace as we grow older. Those whom God saves, God keeps to the end. David had seen what happened to Saul when he turned his back on God in disobedience. David’s desire is to continue proclaiming God’s goodness, even as age and infirmity may limit him. He wants to train the next generation to follow God, just as he was trained. This makes it all the more important that older saints never stop being disciples first, and never stop learning all they can about the Scriptures. When you do that, like David, you can delight in God’s righteous character and deeds, as we see in verse 19.
In verse 20, David notes that God has “made [him] see many troubles and calamities.” Because we know that God is sovereign over all details of our lives, we can say with confidence that whatever we have to face in life, we know that God is in control of it. We can further say with Paul in Romans 8 that God is using all of these experiences—even the most painful ones—for His glory and our ultimate good, to make us more like Jesus. So, like David, we can say with confidence that God has brought us through “many dangers, toils, and snares.” But God is still faithful, and he will revive us again. And here’s the thing: there may come a day, if the Lord tarries, that we will each face the final enemy, death. But even then, we can echo David’s words in verse 20: “From the depths of the earth, you will bring me up again.” This is the hope we have as believers in Jesus Christ. Because we have repented of our sins and trusted in Jesus as our Lord and Savior, just as He was raised back to life again, we know with confidence that God will bring us up again from the depths of the earth, and that on the last day, we will be raised to glory.
So how do we respond to these great truths? The way David does: we sing. As one pastor said, “redeemed people are singing people.” When we meditate on how God has been faithful to us since birth, and will be there to carry us when we breathe our last, we can respond with singing, with shouts of praise, and with testifying of God’s help all day long.
This is the exhortation I want to bring to you this morning, College Park: remember what God has done for you; recall His mighty works; look to Him to hold you and guide you into the next chapter of your life as a church; and never stop proclaiming His goodness.
And if I may add, specifically for those of you who are in your later years, who perhaps have known and served the Lord a long time: we need you. We need your faithfulness. We need your testimony. We need your wisdom. I say this for myself, as a man who has been married for less than 6 years, with a toddler and an infant at home: I need your prayer and your counsel. I need to hear your stories of God’s faithfulness.
And whatever happens in the next few months with this potential merger, I want you to know that you, brothers and sisters, are not done by a long shot. God still has work for you to do for His Kingdom and for His glory. So be ready to step into what comes next.
Let me close with one more story: As I was preparing for this sermon, I was using that Matthew Henry commentary, as I noted. It actually belonged to my grandfather. As I was flipping the pages, I found his old American Legion membership card (he served in the Navy during the Korean War). He must have been using it as a bookmark. It made me laugh because I do the same thing with business cards or random scraps of paper. My grandfather was a middle-school teacher by profession, but he was also an ordained Baptist minister. For decades, he and my grandmother would gather a kids’ Sunday School class and Vacation Bible School in the large basement of their home for the local children in the neighborhood who didn’t have any other church influence in their lives. He would pick them up every Sunday morning in their minivan, and then drop them off afterwards. Not only that, but my grandparents were faithful members in their local church and served well into their retirement years. My grandmother still plays piano and organ when she can make it to church. My grandfather eventually developed Parkinsons, which would slowly take his mobility, his speech, and finally his life, a little over a year ago.
I bring this up because as I looked at that American Legion card, I was reminded of a few things that disease and age could not steal from my grandfather. First, illness couldn’t take away his legacy of faithfulness. That card was updated less than 10 years ago—which means that even as he was likely starting to feel the effects of the disease, he was still studying the Scriptures. He was still a disciple. The last time I saw him, a few years ago, even as he had trouble speaking the words, he told me he wanted me to take whatever I wanted from his theological library, to use in my own studies. I relied on his commentaries to help prepare for this sermon. But more than that, all the way to the end, my grandfather was a man of prayer. Over and over, he and my grandmother reminded us that they prayed for us every day. The greatest gift an older saint can give to their family and their church is the gift of prayer.
Brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers in the faith—pray for those of us who are following behind you. Tell us your testimonies. Proclaim God’s faithfulness to each new generation, so that we all will stand together in wonder, praising our faithful God as one people.
Hey y’all! Wanted to drop another short post here with some recommendations for podcasts I enjoyed through the month of December and am eager to keep enjoying into the new year! Here we go!
American Elections: Wicked Game— This podcast by Lindsey Graham (the creator behind the podcast Terms, not the congressman) begins with the question: Was there actually a “good ol’ days” before partisan rancor dominated American presidential politics? (In a word: no.) Each week, AE:WG explores the history of presidential elections, covering each election in order from 1789 to 2016 (leading right up to the week before the 2020 contest in November). I’m 4 or 5 episodes in, and I’m loving this. It’s well-produced, well-researched, and engaging. While I have to assume that there will be some perspective-shading when we get to the more modern elections (because there always is, no matter who’s writing it), I hope it’s this enjoyable all the way through. You can bet I’ll be eagerly listening to find out.
The Redeeming Productivity Show — Reagan Rose hosts this look at how our theology must necessarily guide our desire for productivity. In one of his earliest episodes, Rose details how even the most popular productivity and efficiency gurus today all have an ideological and even theological underpinning, and he encourages his listeners to consider that everything–even productivity–is shot through with theology. This podcast is quickly becoming a favorite. If you’re interested in the productivity/efficiency/creativity space like I am, put this one in your podcast feed.
The Twilight Zone Podcast— I’ve been a fan of The Twilight Zone since I was a kid, but it’s only been in the last year that I’ve gotten to enjoy Tom Elliott’s episode-by-episode recap and analysis. If you grew up watching TZ and want to revisit some favorites, I’d encourage you to check out Tom’s podcast and download those episodes. Not only is his soothing British accent a auditory pleasure, but he provides some thoughtful analysis and helpful behind-the-scenes research to enhance your appreciation of Rod Serling’s masterpiece. Tom’s just finished his analysis of Season 3, and is gearing up for the somewhat-controversial fourth season of TZ. I’m excited to hear what’s in store.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones Sermon Podcast— I was first exposed to Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones about 10 years ago, but it’s really been in the last year that I’ve come to appreciate The Doctor’s preaching. It’s sometimes described as “logic on fire,” and rightly so. While his delivery may seem stiff at times, especially at the beginnings of his sermons, his passion for the truth explodes in his preaching. What I most appreciate is that no matter when he preached the sermon (anytime from the 1950’s to the 70’s or later), he doesn’t use too many contemporary analogies or illustrations, and his messages thus become more timeless and applicable. I’m so thankful that the MLJ Trust has preserved this treasure-trove of audio teaching for later generations. It’s well worth your time to check it out.
Fiction Podcasts — Okay, this last one is a cheat, but I’ve just recently started listening to fiction podcasts again. This is essentially the resurrection of the old-time radio serials of the 1930s and ’40s, but in 21st-century form. There are some really fascinating audio dramas being produced and released for free (with commercials) in recent years. I’ve downloaded 3 or 4 podcasts to check out but not yet listened to enough to recommend any of them fully (like Welcome to Nightvale, Blood Ties, and Dust, a sci-fi anthology show). The podcast I mentioned earlier (Terms by Lindsay Graham on the Wondery Network) is an excellent bit of political intrigue that sadly has only seen one season produced–and was left on a cliffhanger! All that to say, if you haven’t yet checked out serialized story podcasts yet, you should look around for some. While there are sometimes content concerns for sensitive listeners, there’s a whole world of options out there for you to enjoy.
What podcasts are you enjoying most, as you head into 2020? Recommend your favorites in the comments!