[December 30, 2007] Today’s message is important. It is a New Year message, but it is a very serious one. In the secular world, Christmas is a children’s fantasy, and everyone is expected to be merry and cheerful. But readers of the Bible know that the true Christmas story is full of hardship, tension and conflict. Today’s assigned gospel reading is a case in point. Herod murders all the little children of Bethlehem in an attempt to kill our Lord Jesus. The cross, the symbol of the Christian faith, represents the conflict that Jesus brings into the world. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mat. 10:34). He does bring peace, but He makes us takes sides first. The New Year question is this: whose side are you on?
Herod claims the title, ‘king of the Jews,’ but when he hears from the magi about the arrival of the Messiah, the real ‘King of the Jews,’ he attempts to murder him. When the magi refuse to be his spies, he slaughters the children of Bethlehem, reminding us in an obvious way of Pharaoh at the time of Moses’ birth. Pharaoh was like a god to the people and symbolized the ruler of the world, Satan. Herod is moved by Satan to perform this deed.
But the real comparison is with Saul, the first king of Israel. Some of you may not be familiar with his story in 1 Samuel 9-31, which handicaps us a bit. I need to review some points then. He was appointed king because the people were no longer satisfied with God being their king. He was a vain man who wanted to be popular with the people. He was also dishonest and cruel, full of intrigue, and he was very religious. But he was more religious than obedient. Through the prophet Samuel God rejected him as king with the words: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed, than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and insubordination is like idolatry and teraphim. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He has also rejected you from being king” (1 Sam. 22-23). Herod was famous for building up the temple of Israel, and he surrounded himself with religious scribes and curried favor with the Pharisees. When the magi came, he consulted them to find out where the Messiah was to be born.
But while Saul was still ruling, Samuel anointed David as king. David served Saul as a warrior and also playing the harp for him when he was depressed. But Saul was filled with jealousy and attempted several times to murder David. David had to flee and Saul sent out troops in search of him. David eventually ended up living among the Philistines, Israel’s enemy, because he refused to fight back against Saul. Even though David was anointed king, for a long time he lived as an exile from the throne. Jesus, the Son of David, was like David, the anointed king hunted down by the false king Herod.
The comparison is not superficial. Matthew starts out by making it clear that Jesus is the Son of David. Then he shows Herod as jealous of Jesus the way Saul was jealous of David. But Jesus continues to compare himself to David in exile. In 8:20 He says He is homeless. In 9:13 He compares His Pharisee opposers to Saul. Then in chapter 10 He spells out that opposition to Himself is going to haunt His followers wherever they go. His followers can always expect opposition to the Gospel, even within their own homes, and He says that we must choose: “He who loves father or mother above me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter above Me is not worthy of Me” (10:37). In 11:12 Jesus speaks, in the context of Herod’s opposition, of violent men trying to steal the kingdom. Then in 12:3-7 He is opposed by certain Pharisees and compares Himself to David on the run.
This is quite important for you. For this opposition is not just the opposition between the church and the world, between Moses and Pharaoh. No, it is the opposition between two kings, both of whom claim the kingdom of God. Saul and Herod were both kings of Israel, ruling in the name of God, but they only falsely represented God’s interests. And Jesus lumps certain Pharisees with them, with their excessive zeal for the scrupulous, ostentatious aspects of outward religion. These Pharisees used the Bible to speak falsely on behalf of God. In Acts, after the Sadducees and the high priest persecuted the church, a particular Pharisee named Saul killed Stephen and, in the employ of the high priest, also persecuted the church. Then, once the Gentile mission got under way, certain Pharisees and their followers out of their zeal also began to persecute the church. Herod joined them, killing James and attempting to kill Peter.
This is important for you because the religion of the Bible can be false. It can be opposed to God. The word for this is apostasy. In the Old Testament Israel often turned away from God, turning to idolatry. But it sometimes did this in the name of God. The golden calf was called by the name of the Lord, and when Jeroboam set up golden calves in the northern kingdom, he called them by the name of the Lord. In the same way, Christianity may put something in the place of Christ and still imagine that it worships Christ. Would you know the difference?
There was another time when Israel became apostate— it was in the days of Eli, when Samuel was a child, Samuel who anointed both Saul and David. The Ark of the Covenant was removed from the tabernacle of God and taken by the Philistines (1 Samuel 4). Eli’s grandson was born at the time and his mother named him Ichabod, which means ‘no glory,’ for she said, “The glory has departed from Israel,” that is, the glory of God. In other words, from then on and during the reign of Saul, the central room of the tabernacle was empty, there was no ark. The tabernacle was an empty shell, without the testimony of God’s presence and glory. Yet worship continued as always. Do you see? It was David who recovered the Ark of the Covenant, but without the tabernacle. He put up a tent around the Ark and set up the worship of praise until his son built it the Temple.
The Ark of the Covenant represents Christ. This is very clear in so many ways. The point here is that Christianity may perpetuate its worship and religion but it may be an empty shell, without the ark, without the presence of Christ.
Is it possible for apostasy to happen within the church? Jesus speaks of a falling away in the end (Mat. 24:13) and says, “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). Paul speaks mostly of the Jewish apostasy of self-justification and turning the Law into an idol. But he also speaks of apostasy within the church. “From among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverted things to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). He also says the end will not come “unless the apostasy comes first” (2 Thessalonians 2:3). 1 and 2 Timothy speaks repeatedly about apostasy. Paul warns specifically about those who “give heed” to other things besides Christ and God’s “economy” in Him. 2 Peter 2-3 and Jude are all about apostasy. John also speaks about apostasy. There he says, “Young children, it is the last hour; and even as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come; whereby we know it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us” (1 John 2:19). The word ‘anti’ does not mean ‘against.’ It means ‘in the place of.’ For example, it says Archelaus ruled anti Herod, in the place of, instead of. Antichrist means that something is put in the place of Christ, replacing Him, substituting for Him. They preach in the name of Christ, in other words, but they put something in the place of Christ and are calling it by His name.
Historically, the church fell into apostasy in the time of Constantine when it jumped into bed with the empire. This marriage should never have happened and the church to this day has never recovered from it. The church fell into apostasy many times during the Middle Ages, to be recovered by reforms and movements. Then in the late Middle Ages it fell again into the apostasy which caused the split between Catholics and Protestants.
The question for you is: how much of Christianity is in apostasy right now? Can you tell if you are in apostasy with it? Or are you faithful to Christ? Many sects and movements are a reaction against apostasy in the church but most of the time they are extreme and miss the mark, and simply become another form of apostasy. Do not be fooled by them. But what about the mainline churches, divided as they are between the right and the left? Quite honestly, the only function they serve is to help legitimize social stability on the right and social change on the left. In other words, they are thoroughly Constantinian. On one extreme, the fundamentalists substitute the infallibility of the Bible as a mere document for the content of the Bible; and they substitute certain formulaic doctrines and morality and personal experiences in the place of the living Christ. The liberals on the other extreme have reduced Christ to a revealer of ethics; the ‘gospel’ is simply ‘love’ and ‘social justice.’ They have thrown away the living Christ and replaced Him with Kant’s ethical imperative. In the middle is the empty shell of religion: going to church out of a sense of righteousness or holiness, or just obligation. When you listen to preachers, do you hear what they are saying? Can you read between the lines?
What is true Christianity? It is the revelation of Christ, which reveals the Triune God. This is the testimony of the Scriptures and of the apostolic church, and it always has been.
- The Word of God is ‘virgin-born.’ This means its father, its initiator, is not from within this world. It is from outside the system, the society, the culture. The Word of God is something completely new in the world. It is a radical break with everything that is.
- Nevertheless, the Word of God today is not original. It is always based on God’s prior Word.
- Just as the Word of God is ‘born’ of the Holy Spirit, it can only be received by the Holy Spirit. Not only is it ‘inspired,’ it must also be revealed. No amount of intellectual understanding is sufficient, even though the Word is not irrational or illogical.
- The Word—that to which the Scriptures always point—is Christ. Christ is the whole Word of God. There is no other Word of God besides Christ. And the Word reveals nothing except Christ.
- Christ cannot be known apart from the Holy Spirit revealing the Word.
- The revelation of Christ reveals the Triune God, creation, and the human condition and situation.
- Anyone who would substitute something else in the place of Christ has a false teaching.
This is the essence of Reformed Theology.
Should this matter to you? Your eternal salvation depends on it. We are incapable of self-salvation. So what happens without salvation? We will ‘lose’ our soul, our spirit will be dead to God, and we will enter perdition or damnation. What if we are neutral? Jesus makes it clear that not choosing is a choice. If we do not choose, our heart will harden and we will drift further away, making the choice harder and harder. We will misunderstand and misunderstanding will result in resentment and resentment will turn into rebellion.
People turn to religion to “feel good.” They come to church to feel good. Religion evokes reassuring feelings by making us feel like good people and giving us a mythological framework to make sense of life. But it is merely a pain-killer. It eases the guilty conscience. It fills in the gaps where mystery scares us. And it leaves you in charge of your life. You end up knowing nothing of God.
The “comfort of the Gospel” is different. It means knowing God and His love, but it only comes when we let go of our life, our ambitions and goals, and live only for God. It only comes when we let Christ be our only Master, when we allow ourselves to not know, and to give up control, when we realize our petty interests don’t matter, when we embrace the cross. Then you know you are in God’s hands, He carries you, He takes care of you, He surrounds you with His love, He takes responsibility for you, He is your only future.
Should it matter to you? Which side are you on? Saul or David?
If we would be Christ’s church, we need to choose, and it needs to be an active choice on our part. We cannot leave this to someone else. It is our own responsibility before God.
The church is not here to wait on you, to service your religious needs. The church is something Christ calls you into as the way to be His follower. It is something you are, not something you come to and expect to receive from.
So I say, go ahead and make a New Year resolution, but this must be serious. How will you deepen your discipleship this year? How will you make your choice real? Make a concrete resolution, one that’s measurable.