A City on a Hill

A City on a Hill

Matthew 16:13-20

Dr. Jim Denison

The scene is one of the most dramatic in all of God’s word. The Galilean Carpenter stands on a massive outcropping of rock, 1150 feet above sea level, dwarfed by the gigantic cliff which towered above it.

Just a short distance away stands the brilliant white marble temple built to the worship of Caesar, hence the name of the place, Caesarea.

Nearby is the cavern where the Greeks said their god Pan was born.

Scattered around the hilly countryside are fourteen temples to Baal, the Canaanite god where the Syrians worshipped.

And nearby is one of the origins of the Jordan River, the holiest river to his own people, the Jews.

In the midst of such religious traditions and fervor, surrounded by every kind of god known to his culture, he asks his rag-tag band of peasant followers, “Who do you say that I am?” And one of them declares, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And the Carpenter says, “On this rock I will build my church.” And the Church is born.

On this Heritage Weekend, we look back with pride and gratitude to our history and heritage. And even more important, we look forward to our future with faith. Jesus called us a “city on a hill, which cannot be hid.” Today I will tell you why.

See the rock on which we stand

First, let us consider together the heritage of the Church of Jesus Christ.

Jesus said, “On this rock I will build my church.” Which rock? Peter? No, the church does not stand on a man. Peter’s faith? No, the church does not stand on the faith of a man. Himself. Jesus pointed to himself, for Scripture is clear: “no one can lay any other foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11). His Church, the church, belongs to Jesus Christ. He founded us, twenty centuries ago at Caesarea Philippi. We are his.

The Church is the idea and passion of Jesus, and his answer to the problems of mankind. Jesus could have established any institution, begun any movement. He could have left behind any entity to carry on his work on earth. And he founded the church. For this singular purpose and future: “the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (v. 18).

The Church exists to assault the gates of Hell. Not to withstand the assault of Hell upon us—to assault them. To take the gospel of God’s love into our fallen, dark, dying, decaying, immoral world. Not to wait for them to find us—to find them. To go to them with the incredible good news that God loves us.

On this Heritage Weekend, let us be very clear about our founding and our future. We exist by the creation of Jesus Christ, to take the incredible news of his love to our lost and dying world. This is the rock on which we stand, and the purpose for which we exist.

And this rock will stand forever. This foundation is sure.

The Golden Gate bridge was completed in 1937, at a cost of $35 million. It stands directly over the San Andreas Fault, and yet it can withstand an earthquake measuring 7.0 in the Richter Scale. Why?

Its two great cables contain enough strands of steel wire to circle the globe three times. The concrete in its piers would pave a five-foot wide sidewalk from New York to San Francisco. But the cables and the concrete are not the secret to the bridge’s great stability.

The secret is simple. Every part of the bridge, from the concrete roadway to the steel railings and cross beams, is related ultimately to two great towers and two anchor piers. The towers are deeply imbedded into the rock foundation beneath the sea. In other words, the entire bridge is totally committed to its foundation.

So should we be. Each of us. See the rock on which the Church stands today. No earthquakes, no storms can shake us so long as we are bolted to this foundation.

Celebrate the heritage we have been given

We’ve seen where the Church began. Now on this Heritage Weekend let’s draw the circle more tightly. Let’s remember where the Baptist church comes from, and this church. Then we’ll see why this heritage matters to your soul and mine.

Meet John Smyth. Smyth and his follower, Thomas Helwys, were members of the Church of England. But they became increasingly convicted about three facts: in Scripture, believers can come to God without a mediator or priest save Jesus; in Scripture, believers have a personal relationship with Christ, and are baptized only then; in Scripture, the state does not govern the church, or the church the state.

And so in the year 1606, Smyth and Helwys led a movement which broke with the established state Church of England, beginning the group known as Baptists today. To shorten a long story, by the year 1630 there were six Baptist congregations with 150 members. These Baptists experienced various periods of persecution and tolerance at the hands of the British monarchy.

As a result, in 1631 Roger Williams fled England in search of religious freedom. In March of 1936 he helped to found the first Baptist church in North America: First Baptist Church of Providence, Rhode Island.

From such humble beginnings, Baptists have grown to become the largest Protestant denomination in the world. In time, Baptists moved across the frontier and became the largest Protestant movement in Texas, and in Dallas.

And so in early 1939, Dr. George W. Truett, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas and one of the greatest leaders Baptists have ever known, announced that “There ought to be a church” in the Park Cities. Park Cities Baptist Church was organized on Thursday evening, October 26, 1939, by the action of some three dozen persons gathered in the auditorium of the City Hall in University Park.

How to Get an Appointment with God

How to Get an Appointment with God

Matthew 27.51-54

Dr. Jim Denison

A few years ago our family went to Washington, D.C. on summer vacation. The highlight of the trip for me, I was sure, was going to be our visit to the White House. I’ve long been fascinated with presidential history, and have read with interest the stories of many of our presidents and the remarkable House they occupy. Now, at long last, I would see its storied rooms and historic halls for myself.

Not really, as it turned out. After waiting in the rain an hour the night before to buy tickets, and two hours the day of our tour, finally we entered the most visited site in America. And left nearly as quickly. Four rooms, and a souvenir shop at the end. That’s all the White House tour sees.

So we cannot see the office of our president—perhaps we can call him. Again, not really. The White House switchboard answers over 5,000 calls every day, and this number doubles in times of crisis. Not to mention the thousands of letters which are delivered each day, and the hundreds of people who try to get a personal appointment with the president. Of all these requests, the president personally sees only a small number, and of these he actually deals with only a few.

By comparison, our Father in heaven receives multiplied millions of prayers daily, millions at this very moment, in hundreds of languages. And yet he is able to hear and answer every one of them. Why? And why does this fact matter to your soul and mine?

In our series titled “These Things We Believe,” we’ve talked together about Bible freedom and church freedom. Today we’ll explore soul freedom and its enormous implications for every one of us.

How you became a priest

Our text describes the actual moment of Jesus’ death in remarkable detail. These few words are worthy of an entire series of study in themselves.

He “cried out again in a loud voice.” John tells us that his last word from the cross was “Tetelestai!” which means, “It is finished!” or “The victory is won!” The strength to make this “loud” cry (“mega” in the Greek) shows that Jesus still had energy and life at his command.

And so he “gave up his spirit.” This was his voluntary choice. Augustine said it well: “He gave up his life because he willed it, when he willed it, and as he willed it.”Where? Into his Father’s hands (Luke 23:46), into Paradise with the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43), into the glory the Son had from eternity (John 17:5).

Now comes the miracle which is our focus today: “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (v. 51). I’ve never preached a message specifically on that event before today, and was fascinated with what I learned about it this week.

This curtain was the great veil which separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Jewish temple. A little background is essential here.

Abraham offered Isaac on the top of Mt. Moriah eighteen centuries earlier, making that rock a holy spot to the Jewish people. And so when Solomon built the first Jewish Temple in 1004 B.C., he located the Holy of Holies at the same spot.

This was a small room, thirty feet square, within the larger Temple. Here the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments was placed. Here the High Priest would come one day a year, on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), to offer sacrifice for the sins of the people. In the Jewish mind, the Shekinah glory and presence of Jehovah God dwelt here as in no other room on earth.

And this Holy of Holies was separated from the rest of the Temple, and the rest of humanity, by a magnificent veil. Sixty feet high, thirty feet wide, as thick as a man’s hand, the veil was so heavy the Jewish Talmud says 300 men were required to move it.

Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, describes it as “embroidered with blue, and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple, and of a contexture that was truly wonderful” (Wars 5.5.4).

Now, in the moment of Jesus’ death at 3 o’clock that afternoon, as the priests were gathering in the Temple for the customary evening sacrifices, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”

This was in every way a miracle. An earthquake would have shredded the veil, not torn it. Even if men could have torn the thick, heavy veil, they would have done so from bottom to top, not top to bottom,

This is a fact of history, not religious myth. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record it, writing at a time when the eyewitnesses to the torn curtain were still living and could easily have refuted them if they were wrong. And Tacitus the Roman historian, Josephus, and the Jewish Talmud all refer in various ways to the event as well.

Why did God do this? I admire Lenski’s comment: “Jesus is dead, his lips are silent; now God speaks in a language of his own.”Just as the Jewish people tore their garments in times of grief, so God the Father tears this, the “garment” veiling his Most Holy Place, in grief as well.

But there’s more. By tearing aside the veil separating humanity from the Holy of Holies, God gave access to his inner sanctuary to all of mankind. Now, for the first time in Jewish history, anyone could come to God. Anyone could see into his presence. Anyone could speak to him. Anyone.

Now for the first time, women could come into his presence. For the first time, Gentiles. For the first time, men besides the one High Priest chosen for each generation. For the first time, you and me.

Today the veil is gone, the Holy of Holies is gone, the very Temple itself is gone. Their purpose is done, their work completed. Now God’s word declares, “You yourselves are God’s Temple and God’s Spirit lives in you…. God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16, 17).

Love Letters from Home

Love Letters from Home

Luke 24:25-32

Dr. Jim Denison

Billy Graham was thirty, and already a well-known evangelist, when he came to a crisis of faith. Could he believe the Bible to be the word of God? His friend Chuck Templeton and others were raising doubts in his heart. In his autobiography, Just As I Am, he tells the story of what happened next.

He took a walk in the moonlight of the San Bernardino Mountains in California. He dropped to his knees in the woods, opened his Bible and put it on a tree stump before him. He prayed, “O God! There are many things in this book I do not understand. There are many problems with it for which I have no solution. There are many seeming contradictions. There are some areas in it that do not seem to correlate with modern science. I can’t answer some of the philosophical and psychological questions Chuck and others are raising.”

Finally he was able to say, “Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word—by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word.”

He says, “When I got up from my knees at Forest Home that August night, my eyes stung with tears. I sensed the presence and power of God as I had not sensed it in months. Not all my questions were answered, but a major bridge had been crossed. In my heart and mind, I knew a spiritual battle in my soul had been fought and won” (Just As I Am, 139; emphasis his).

He was right. And you know the results.

Billy Graham is a Baptist. Like him, Baptists have always been “people of the book.” We have always opposed creeds, man-made statements of faith which are required for Christians. But we have strongly believed the Bible to be the word of God. Augustine called the Bible, “love letters from home,” and we agree. “No creed but the Bible” is our motto historically.

Today I want to tell you why that is so, and especially why our beliefs about the Bible matter to your soul this day.

Learning from the Source

Luke 24 tells one of my favorite stories in Scripture. Remember how these two people are walking home to the village of Emmaus, 7½ miles to the west of Jerusalem, on Easter Sunday evening. One is named Cleopas; we’re not told the name of his companion.

They’ve been to Jerusalem, and know all about Jesus.

They know that he was “a prophet, powerful in word and deed” (v. 19).

They know that the chief priests and rulers “handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him” (v. 20).

They had hoped that he was the Messiah, “the one who was going to redeem Israel” (v. 21).

And they have heard the rumor that “he was alive” (v. 23).

A more compact Christology, one cannot find in Scripture.

But while they knew about Jesus, they didn’t know Jesus. As he joined them along the road, “they were kept from recognizing him” (v. 16). And so he showed them who he really was, and what he came to do: “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (v. 27).

“Moses and all the Prophets” refers to the Old Testament, as we call it today.

To “explain” is to teach, to translate, to interpret. This is the Greek word from which we get “hermeneutics,” which means “to interpret.”

He showed them “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

He could have shown them how his virgin birth was predicted in Genesis 3:15, his lineage was described through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesse, and David; his birthplace predicted in Micah 5:2; his ministry in Isaiah 9; his suffering in Isaiah 53; his death and resurrection in Psalm 22; his return in Daniel 7.

He could have referenced the 48 major messianic prophecies he fulfilled. The odds of fulfilling just eight of them is one in ten to the seventeenth power; to picture this, fill the state of Texas two feet deep in silver dollars, mark one with a dot, and ask me to find it. He showed them all the ways the Scriptures tell his story.

With this result: “They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?'” (v. 32).

“Burning within us” is an ongoing experience in the Greek here, not a single act or feeling. All the time Jesus was teaching the Scriptures to them, their hearts were aflame. Jesus had only to speak through his word, and their lives were forever changed.

So it has been from then to now. St. Augustine, the greatest theologian after Paul in Christian history, was converted when he picked up the Bible and read its truth. Martin Luther was converted to personal faith in Christ through his study of Scripture. John Wesley began the Methodist church after attending a prayer meeting where he said his “heart was strangely warmed” by Jesus through his word. Dr. Bill Tolar, long-time academic dean at Southwestern Seminary, came to Christ by reading the Bible. Jesus can still speak to our hearts through the word of God.

This week I have been applying this message to my own life. As I have opened the Scriptures each morning, I have asked Jesus to teach me as he taught these two on the way to Emmaus, and he has. I have sensed a new life, a new fire, a new power in God’s word as Jesus has spoken it to me.

What he is doing more and more in my heart, he wants to do in every heart. He wants you to say today, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us … and opened the Scriptures to us?” And tomorrow as well.

What Jesus Doesn’t Know

What Jesus Doesn’t Know

Matthew 24.36-44

Dr. Jim Denison

This morning we begin with life-changing facts: the shortest war in history was fought between Zanzibar and England in 1896; Zanzibar surrendered after 38 minutes. Dueling is legal in Paraguay so long as both parties are registered blood donors. Donald Duck cartoons were banned in Finland because he doesn’t wear pants. If the population of China walked past us today in single file, the line would never end because of the rate of reproduction. A snail can sleep for three years. You share your birthday with at least nine million other people. Women blink nearly twice as much as men. And the electric chair was invented by a dentist.

Sometimes we know more than we want to know. And sometimes we know far less. No topic has generated more debate among Christians of this generation than ours today. Typically the result has been more heat than light.

Today we close our series on the Christ you never knew: eight pictures of the real Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew. We do so with this text, because it makes the other seven pictures of Jesus urgent and vitally significant for your soul and mine. Right now.

Let me show you why.

Get ready to meet God

“No one knows about that day or hour,” our text begins (v. 36). “That day” refers to the return of Jesus Christ, commonly known as the Second Coming. The visible, glorious return of Jesus Christ to this planet. This is the subject of our text and our study today.

About its timing, “No one knows.” Not the angels in heaven. Not even the Son of God. Only the Father himself. It is blasphemy for us to claim knowledge Jesus Christ does not have. Anyone who tells you when Jesus will return is wrong. No one knows.

And so everyone must be ready. Jesus gives us three reasons why this is so.

First, his return will be unexpected. Here our Lord cites the days of Noah (vs. 37-39). The world refused to believe that the Flood would come, until it did. And all who were not ready, perished.

Second, we must each be prepared to meet God. Here Jesus points to two men in the field and two women at work with a hand mill.

Today he’d point to two men in their offices and two women at work, or waiting in the carpool line, or somehow at least as busy as men.

They likely know each other, and are perhaps even father and son, mother and daughter.

But their close relationship is not enough—they must each be ready. One is, and one is not. One is saved and one is lost.

Last, Jesus could come now. Here he warns them of the thief in the night (vs. 43-44).

If the owner of the house knew when the thief was coming, he’d be ready. This is the whole point of our alarm systems today—to tell us and the police when the thief is coming. But he doesn’t know. In precisely the same way, we don’t know when Jesus will return. A thief could be at your home right now. Jesus could be returning right now.

Again and again Scripture makes this plain. For instance: “Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief” (1 Thessalonians 5:1-4).

Remember Jesus’ warning to the church at Sardis in Revelation 3: “Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you” (v. 3).

Here’s the summary of our text today: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (v. 42).

“Watch” is imperative, addressed in the second person plural and so to us all. We do not know—this is a categorical statement, with no exceptions. So we must be ready—every one of us. Today.

“The day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare” (2 Peter 3:10).

Jesus’ last words recorded in Scripture are these: “Yes, I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:20).

Why get ready?

What if it were today? Would you be ready? Why get ready? Why live in preparation, ready each day? Consider these facts.

First, you don’t know when you will meet God. He may come for you, or you may go to him. No knows when that day will come for them. No one.

Pompeii was destroyed by the volcano Vesuvius in A.D. 70 (check date). The entire city was sealed by lava, and preserved. Fascinating finds have been made as a result. A hand clutching a bag of gold. A soldier standing at attention. A man cutting a piece of bread, his dog at his side. They didn’t know. Neither will we.

Abraham Lincoln didn’t know he would meet God on date; or John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963—presidents don’t know. Yitzhak Rabin didn’t know he would meet God on date—prime ministers don’t know. John Lennon didn’t know he would meet God on date—celebrities don’t know. Neither will we.

We must be ready to meet God today, for today is all we have.

A second fact: spiritual procrastination is a temptation of the enemy. Remember the old story about the meeting in hell: how will the demons best tempt mankind? One said, “I’ll tell them there is no heaven,” but the devil knew that wouldn’t work. Another said, “I’ll tell them there is no hell,” but the devil knew we’d not believe it. Then a third said, “I’ll tell them there is no hurry.” And Satan said, “Go.” And he did.