Aren’t All Religions the Same?

Aren’t All Religions the Same?

John 14:1-11

Dr. Jim Denison

Poliomyelitis, or polio, is a disease caused by tiny virus particles which attack the brain and spinal cord. Until this generation, polio was a kind of AIDS in American society. Many of you remember those days when polio was a feared enemy; many of us know someone affected by the disease and its accompanying physical problems.

Why is polio not feared as it once was? The answer is named Jonas Edward Salk. Dr. Salk, an American research scientist, announced in 1953 that he had developed a trial vaccine for polio. He tested his vaccine on himself, his wife, and their three sons. It worked for them. Immediately it was tested widely; by 1955, it was being used across the world.

In those exciting days, there were two questions no one thought to ask. First, aren’t all vaccines basically the same? They knew that all others had failed, and that Dr. Salk’s had succeeded. And second, why only one vaccine? For the simple reason that only one was needed.

No one asked these questions, for the answers were obvious. And across the world, millions of people made sure they were vaccinated, and those they cared about as well. Today polio is virtually no threat to world health.

Unfortunately, there is another disease which still exists today, and is far worse even than polio. This disease has infected every person who has ever lived, and is always fatal. Fortunately, there is a vaccine which will work for every person on earth, and is free of charge.

The disease, of course, is sin, our broken relationship with God. The cure is salvation through Jesus Christ, his Son. And yet questions persist about this spiritual, eternal “vaccine”: aren’t all faiths the same? Why is there only one way to God?

Today, as we continue to ask hard questions about God, let’s explore this issue together.

What does the Bible say?

First let’s examine what God’s word says, four clear facts in Scripture. We need to understand what Jesus claimed about himself.

Fact number one: Jesus is God (v. 1). “Trust in God; trust also in me,” he says. In verse 9 he repeats the assertion: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Earlier the authorities tried to stone him to death “because you claim to be God” (John 10:33).

Other religious leaders claimed to reveal God; Jesus alone claims to be God.

Fact number two: Jesus is preparing our place in heaven (v. 2).

“Prepare” means one sent ahead to get ready for the arrival of those to come.

This is the picture of an Army scout, making sure the way is clear. It’s the President’s envoy, preparing the way for his arrival. In Malaysia, I had guides who would hack a trail through the jungle for me to follow. This is what Jesus is doing for us, right now.

He says that his Father’s house has “many rooms.” This is an oriental picture of the family, where all the rooms are under the father’s one roof. Jesus has already gone there, to get our room ready for us. This is what he’s doing this moment.

Other religious leaders taught about heaven or the afterlife; Jesus alone claims to be preparing it for us.

Fact number three: Jesus will take us to heaven personally (v. 3).

Here we discover another great word for what he is doing for us. “Take you to be with me” translates a word which means “to walk alongside of.”Jesus hasn’t gone to heaven and merely left us directions for finding our way there. He will come back and lead us there, personally. He will escort us home.

Other religious leaders taught about the way to heaven; Jesus alone claims to take us there.

Fact number four: Jesus is the only way to the Father (v. 6).

Jesus is not just a way, truth, or life. His Greek is emphatic: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” He claims to be the exclusive way to God the Father.

Later he was even more emphatic: “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). No one in all of human history ever made this claim! Not Buddha, or Mohammad, or Caesar, or Stalin, or anyone else. No one but Jesus.

Peter made the same announcement: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Now, you may agree or disagree with Jesus, but you need to know what he claims about himself: that he is God, preparing our place in heaven, and that he will one day take us there, as only he can. These are the clear statements of Jesus Christ.

What do people say?

Now, this claim flies in the face of contemporary culture, doesn’t it? These statements are politically incorrect, to say the least. Three “isms” dominate our culture and reject everything we’ve heard so far today.

The first is relativism, the idea that all truth is relative and subjective. Most Americans don’t believe there is such a thing as absolute truth, let alone that it is found in Jesus Christ alone.

200 years ago, philosopher Immanuel Kant said that we come to truth as our minds process sense data. As a result, we cannot know “the thing in itself,” but only our experience of it. Now, two centuries later, everyone seems to agree. Truth is personal and subjective, we’re told. This “postmodern” worldview dominates our culture.

And so 93% of us say that we alone determine what is moral in our lives.

Only 13% of us believe in all ten of the Ten Commandments.

We’re taught that language is only a convention of human power; words do not describe reality, but only our version of it. There can be no objective truth claims, only subjective experiences. It’s fine if Jesus is your way to God, but don’t insist that he must be mine.

The second word for our society is pluralism: the different religions are roads up the same mountain. They’re all worshipping the same God, just by different names, we say.

For instance, 64% of us say that all religions pray to the same God. God just has different names for different people. It’s fine if Jesus is your road to God, but don’t make the rest of us travel it.

And pluralism typically leads to universalism, the idea that everyone is going to heaven, no matter what they believe. Only 2% of Americans are afraid that they might go to hell. 62% say it doesn’t matter which God we believe in, so long as we’re sincere. We’re all on the road to God, whatever we might believe about him.

With relativism, pluralism, and universalism, the biblical teaching that Jesus is the only way to God is made to be mean, judgmental, and arrogant. Tolerance is the most important attribute in our society. Anything less is hypocritical at best, dangerous at worst. Or so we’re told.

Can we make a relevant and realistic response? Absolutely.

How do we respond?

First, let’s respond to relativism with the fact that objective truth is an intellectual and practical necessity in life.

To deny absolutes is to affirm them. If I say, “There is no such thing as absolute truth,” haven’t I made a claim to absolute truth? This is not new. The ancient “skeptics” were a philosophical movement centuries before Jesus. They said in essence, “There’s no such thing as truth, and we’re sure of it.” The relativists make the same mistake today.

Recently I heard the apologist Ravi Zacharias tell about an experience on a college campus. At the end of his defense of an objective and coherent universe a woman confronted him: “Who told you the universe has to be coherent?” His answer was excellent: “Do you want my response to be coherent or not?”

We don’t accept relativism with the Holocaust, do we? I hope no one here would dismiss the Holocaust as “Jewish truth” but not ours. Do you want your doctor to be relatively sure of his diagnosis? The cook to be relatively sure that your food isn’t poisoned? The airplane mechanic to be relatively sure the plane won’t crash?

Objective truth is an intellectual and practical necessity in life.

Next, let’s respond to pluralism with the fact that the world’s religions teach radically different truth.

For instance, Hinduism teaches that there are many “gods” but no God, and that through mutual reincarnations we will all be absorbed into ultimate reality. No sin, no salvation, no personal eternity in heaven. Buddhism similarly teaches that we come to “Nirvana,” “blowing out,” and cease to be one day. Islam says that Allah is the one God, that he has no Son, and that “salvation” comes through obedience to the Koran. Judaism does not accept Jesus’ claim to divinity, of course, or believe that he is the way to the Father.

If one is right, the others are wrong. These cannot be different roads up the same mountain—they are different mountains.

Third, let’s respond to universalism with the fact that Jesus is the only way to God we need, or can trust.

It doesn’t bother me that only one key in my pocket will start my car, so long as it works. It doesn’t bother me if doctors can prescribe only one chemotherapy when someone I love has cancer, so long as it works. It doesn’t bother me that only one microphone will amplify my words so you can hear them today, so long as it works.

And only Christianity works. Our basic problem with God is called “sin.” We have all made mistakes and committed sins in our lives. These failures have separated us from a righteous and pure God. The only way to heaven which works is the way which deals with these sins. And only Christianity does. No other religion offers forgiveness for sins, grace for sinners, and the security of salvation. Only Jesus.

If your child was facing the threat of polio in 1955, would you accept a doctor’s relative assurances that she would be well? Would you try every possible vaccine, in the belief that they’re all the same? Would you protest that only one works? Or would you vaccinate your child, gladly?

What about your soul?


You can do so today. You can ask Jesus Christ to forgive your mistakes and take charge of your life, today. Unlike the world’s religions, there is nothing else you need to do. No multiple reincarnations, or four noble truths and eight-fold noble path, or life of obedience to religious laws. Just Jesus, today.

If you have your “vaccination,” you must share it with someone else. Someone you know is in danger of an eternal separation from God in hell. You have the cure for their terminal disease. Would you pick just one such person you know, and pray for him or her right now? Would you ask God to give you the chance to share your salvation with that person this week?

An elderly man became dissatisfied with his religion. He studied each of his options, and chose to become a Christian. A friend asked why, and he explained this way:

“It was as though I had fallen into a deep well, with no way out. A Hindu master came by and told me that if I would be faithful in this well, in the next life I would escape it. Then he left. A Buddhist monk came by and told me that if I would cease desires, I would cease suffering in this well. Then he left. A Muslim imam came by and told me that it was Allah’s will that I be in this well. Then he left. A Confucian teacher came by and told me that if I had not tripped, I’d not be in this well. Then he left.

“Then Jesus Christ came by, and Jesus got into my well. And lifted me out, forever.”

To whose well will you take Jesus this week?

Does God Work For You?

Does God Work For You?

Isaiah 6:1-8

Dr. Jim Denison

Henry Blackaby, the author of Experiencing God, tells of the time his church in Canada started their first mission. They had no money to move the mission pastor or pay him the $850 per month he would need, and no idea where to get such funds. So they asked God to provide, and the mission pastor agreed to come on faith.

As he was on his way, Pastor Blackaby received a letter from an Arkansas church he did not know, giving him $1,100 for their ministries. A few days later he received a phone call from a person whose pledge was just enough to complete the money they needed for the pastor’s salary.

As he got off the phone, the mission pastor drove up. Henry asked him, “What did it cost to move you?” He said, “Well, Henry, as best I can tell it cost me $1,100.”

God is so good, so powerful, so able to meet our needs. And so we are continually tempted to come to him for what he does more than for who he is.

The ancient Canaanites worshipped Baal and Ashtoreth, believing these gods would make their lands fertile and their crops abundant. The Egyptians worshipped the sun and other heavenly bodies for the same reason. The Greeks worshipped or at least placated Zeus so that their lives would be blessed and prospered.

Muslims seek heavenly reward from Allah, and Jews from Yahweh; Buddhists seek Nirvana through their meditations and asceticism; Hindus seek moksha, which is union with ultimate reality through manifold reincarnations.

And Christians seek God’s help through church attendance and worship. We want our children to prosper, our finances to grow, our bodies to be healthy, our families to be happy, and we come to church in the hope that God will bless us in return. Not all of us do this consciously, but most of us have this understandable and all too human motive in our hearts.

Today I want to convince you that there’s more to God than what he does. I want to show you who God is. I think you’ll know what to do in response.

Who is God? (vs. 1-4)

Three stands for perfection in Scripture. In the Hebrew language, anything repeated three times is raised to the highest level. We say “good, better, best.” They would say “good, good, good.” And the third time means the very best.

Only once in all the Bible is an attribute of God raised to the third power. This attribute must therefore be the highest and best single description of God, and the foundation for all the others. This characteristic will define, better than any other description, who God is. And we have that characteristic, that word, before us today.

First let’s enter the scene, standing alongside Isaiah the prophet. If Isaiah could see God in the midst of his circumstances, we can in the midst of ours.

It is the year 736 B.C. Uzziah had ruled Judah for 52 years; he modernized the army, conquered the Philistines, extended commerce, and brought peace and prosperity such as the nation had not known since Solomon. But now King Uzziah is dead.

So Isaiah comes into God’s presence with grief and fear in his heart. Grief, because the king was his cousin. Fear, because hard times are ahead. Uzziah’s young and untested son Jotham has ascended the throne, war-clouds are gathering to the North, and economic storms are beginning to brew.

The great king is gone from his throne, so Isaiah goes to a higher throne and a higher King. And in his grief, pain, perplexity and fear, he sees him. If you would come to God today in the midst of your pain, anger, hurt, or fear, you will see him as well.

Here’s what we see.

“I saw the Lord,” Isaiah says (v. 1). Not his face, for no one can see God and live (Exodus 33:20). But we are in his presence.

We see his throne “high and exalted.” In the ancient world, the higher his throne, the greater his power and authority. And “the train of his robe filled the temple.” The longer his robe, the greater his power.

This scene is occurring in the Most Holy Place, a room in the Temple thirty feet by thirty feet in length and width, by forty-five feet in height; God’s robe filled 40,500 square feet of space.

“Seraphs” fly around him. They are mentioned only here in Scripture; their name means “to burn.” And they burn with the presence and awesomeness of the God who is “a consuming fire” (Hebrews 13:8). The closer we get to fire, the hotter we become. So with them.

They cover their faces, an Oriental expression of humility in the presence of a greater person. They cover their feet in expression of his holiness as well. Moses took off his shoes when he was standing on holy ground; the seraphim have no shoes, so they cover their feet.

And they shout to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty.”

In the Hebrew, we actually hear them as one says, “Holy”; a second replies, “Holy”; and a third cries, “Holy.” They repeat this again and again and again.

Nowhere does Scripture say that God is “love, love, love,” or “light, light, light,” or “fire, fire, fire.” But it says that he is “holy, holy, holy.”

And not just here. In Revelation 4:8 we read of heavenly worshippers, “Day and night they never stop saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.'” All of heaven is shouting his holiness, even right now.

This word “holy” translates the Hebrew “qadosh,” which means to be clean, hallowed, pure, sacred, different from all else.

No genie in a bottle, here. No mere problem-solver, or dispenser of blessings, or tool for our use, or means to our ends. The only One in all the universe who is holiness to the highest degree, sacred, hallowed, pure.

Who are we? (v. 5-7)

As we stand before him, we see who God is. And we see who we are. The great Jewish scholar Rudolf Otto stated that every authentic human experience with the divine must result in feelings of awe, majesty, vitality, otherness, and compelling fascination. He called this God the “mysterium tremendum,” the “numinous,” the “wholly Other.”

Isaiah was more confessional: “Woe to me! I am ruined!” The Hebrew could best be translated, “I am doomed!” This priest, royal family member, and prophet now sees himself in light of God’s holiness. The closer we get to God, the further away we realize we are. The stronger the light, the more obvious the dirt. In the presence of holiness we feel our sinfulness.

Before we could come to God with self-congratulatory sentiments, proud of ourselves for going to church or praying or reading Scripture, feeling that we deserve God’s assistance in light of our religiosity. But not now. Not now.

W. E. Sangster was a great preacher and writer, a man whose public ministry was applauded and congratulated by the world. And yet he once encountered the holiness of God so fully that he was moved to write this private confession. His words may make you as uncomfortable as they do me:

“I am a minister of God, and yet my private life is a failure in these ways: (a) I am irritable and easily put out. (b) I am impatient with my wife and children. (c) I am deceitful in that I often express private annoyance when a caller is announced and simulate pleasure when I actually greet them. (d) From an examination of my heart, I conclude that most of my study has been crudely ambitious: that I wanted degrees more than knowledge and praise rather than equipment for service. (e) Even in my preaching I fear that I am more often wondering what the people think of me, than what they think about my Lord and His word. (f) I have long felt in a vague way, that something was hindering the effectiveness of my ministry and I must conclude that the ‘something’ is my failure in living the truly Christian life. (g) I am driven in pain to conclude that the girl who has lived as a maid in my house for more than three years has not felt drawn to the Christian life because of me. (h) I find slight envies in my heart at the greater success of other young ministers. I seem to match myself with them in thought and am vaguely jealous when they attract more notice than I do.”

The more clearly he saw the holiness of God, the more clearly he saw his own unworthiness before him.

But this holy God loves us anyway. Knowing our sins and failures better than we know them, he loves us more fully than we can love ourselves.

He sends one of these burning seraphs with a live coal in his hand, a coal so hot even the seraph had to use tongs to pick it up. The coal burns away the sin from Isaiah’s preacher lips.

See how this cleansing is an expression of God’s love. The coal came from the altar of sacrifice, proving that forgiveness is not cheap—it came at the expense of the sacrifice laid there, and ultimately the sacrifice of God’s own Son for us.

Immediately God calls this now-cleansed preacher to proclaim his judgment, justice, and holiness. And Isaiah does.

And what God did for Isaiah, he has done for us through Jesus. He has forgiven every sin we have confessed to him, and purified us through Jesus’ sacrifice. He has given us eternal life with him, and called us to serve him. To the degree that he loved Isaiah, this holy God loves you and me today.


So, why worship this God? Why attend church services? Why read Scripture? Why give? Why pray? Merely for what he does for us, or for who he is?

Consider this fact: God made us to love him. Before he wants us to ask for his help, he wants us to give him our love.

Listen to his pleas: “love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life” (Deuteronomy 30:20); “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and might” (Matthew 22:37).

If you were standing before God, could you describe your relationship with him by saying, “I love you with all my heart and all my soul and all my mind and all my strength”?

Henry Blackaby is right: “Everything in your Christian life, everything about knowing him and experiencing him, everything about knowing his will, depends on the quality of your love relationship to God…A love relationship with God is more important than any other single factor in your life” (Experiencing God 44, 45).

Consider this fact as well: God loves you, and proved his love on the cross. Scripture says, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins…We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:9-10, 19).

Can we make such a holy, loving God only the means to our ends, a tool for blessing our lives, a genie in our bottle? Or must we come to him with adoration, awe, and gratitude?

Elie Wiesel lost his entire family in the Nazi concentration camps. His first memoir of these horrors was titled Night, one of the most powerfully moving books I have ever read. In it he tells the story of a young boy who was convicted of sabotage and sentenced to die. The prisoners were made to watch as he was hung.

Wiesel describes what happened: “For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed. Behind me, I heard [a] man asking: ‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows” (Night 62).

The Jewish writer was more right than he knew. Wasn’t he?

Is God Fair?

Is God Fair?

Hebrews 12.25-29

Dr. Jim Denison

Some children wrote questions for God, including these: “Dear God: Instead of letting people die and making new ones, why don’t you just keep the ones you have? Johnny.”

“Dear God: I read the Bible. What does ‘beget’ mean? Nobody will tell me. Allison.”

“Dear God: Did you mean for the giraffe to look like that or was it an accident? Norma.”

“Dear God: Did you really mean, ‘do unto others as they do unto you’? Because if you did, then I’m going to fix my brother. Love, Darla.”

We have many questions for God. But none is more pressing than ours today: is God fair? How can God be fair when a fifteen-year-old kills two innocent high school students and wounds eleven more? How can God be fair when an American submarine crew makes a mistake and kills nine Japanese fishermen? How can God be fair and allow so much that is not fair?

If God were only fair, this would be a better world, we say. Let’s see if that’s true.

Consider these facts

Let’s begin with the facts of our text. First, God speaks to us: “See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks” (v. 25a).

More than 300 times in Scripture, God speaks to his people.

Mother Teresa said that at the beginning of her spiritual life she spent 90% of her time talking to God, and 10% listening to him. At the end of her life it was the reverse.

He spoke from Sinai in giving the Ten Commandments: “At that time his voice shook the earth” (v. 26).

He has spoken in his word: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways” (Hebrews 1:1).

And now he speaks most fully in his Son: “In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe” (Hebrews 1:2). God is not an apathetic deity, removed from our lives and fears and problems. God speaks to us, every day.

Second, we must obey what he says (v. 25b).

The Jews at Sinai refused to obey what God said to them, and so died wandering in the wilderness far from their Promised Land (cf. Hebrews 3:16-19). The author says, “they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth” (v. 25a).

Now Jesus speaks to us, and we must listen: “how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven?” (v. 25b).

Have you ever refused to obey God? Refused to obey his word? His Spirit’s urging in your life? His will for you?

Third, God will judge our obedience.

Verse 26 is clear: “At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.'” This is a quote from Haggai 2:6-7, the promised judgment of God.

He will do this to separate that which can be “shaken” from that which cannot (v. 27).

We will each stand before God in this judgment: “If any man builds on this foundation [Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).

God will judge our obedience to his word and will.

Last, we must approach God with reverent gratitude.

But despite our failures and sins, “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (v. 28). This is by God’s grace. So we must be “thankful,” the NIV says. The Greek says: “let us live in this grace,” or “let us be grateful.”

We are to come to God in reverent gratitude because of what he has done for us, and because of who he is: “Our God is a consuming fire.” This quote from Deuteronomy 4:24 evokes the purity of God, his power, his justice and judgment, his awe and righteousness.

And so, because of his grace and because of his purity and power, we must approach God with reverent gratitude.

Friedrich Schleiermacher, the most famous theologian of his day, defined religion as a “feeling of absolute dependence.” While religion is certainly more than a feeling, it is at least this.

Remember Isaiah before God: “Woe is me! I am ruined!” (Isaih 6:5). Remember Jeremiah before God: “Ah, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak; I am only a child” (Jeremiah 1:.6). Remember Peter’s response to seeing Jesus’ miraculous power: “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). Remember John’s response to the risen Lord: “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Revelation 1:17).

If his best friend on earth, and his leading disciple, and two of his greatest prophets had to come to God in reverence, awe, and humility, what of us? When did you last come to him in this way? Not flippantly, or easily, but in deep awe and reverent worship?

If God were fair in judgment

Now, in light of these facts, let’s address our question. Is God fair? Well, if God were fair, what would happen to us when we stand before him in judgment one day?

Scripture is clear: “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). What would happen to you and me then, if God is truly fair?

Let’s think about that question for a moment.

We know that a hospital operating room must be absolutely sanitary for surgery to be successful.

When I visit someone in an isolation room at the hospital, I must wash my hands and face, and put clothes over my clothes and hair, so that I don’t bring germs into the room which could kill the patient.

In Rio Rancho, New Mexico, chips are fabricated for computers in rooms larger than three football fields. The technicians spend their shifts encased in GORE-TEX “bunny suits.” Workers also wear helmets which pump their expelled breath through a special filter package. Powerful pumps in the ceiling replace the air in the lab eight times a minute. All so computer chips will be clean enough to work.

Of course, God’s heaven is perfect, more pure and perfect than any computer lab or hospital room. The God who is a consuming fire must have a perfect realm for himself. What happens if he lets us in his heaven with sin in our lives?

Please raise your hand if you’ve never lied. If you have never stolen something, or acted out of ego and pride, or lusted after someone, or broken another of God’s laws. If God were fair, what would happen to us at our judgment?

Jonathan Edwards’ most famous sermon was titled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Preached to his congregation at Enfield, Connecticut, in 1741, its words still haunt us today. Here are some of his closing statements:

“O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.”

He’s right. If God were fair, what would happen to every one of us at our judgment? Where would we spend eternity?

Thank God, literally, that he’s not fair. His Son died in our place, to pay the price for our sins and failures, so that we could be spared from hell and given heaven with God. His perfect, innocent Son died for our crimes. That wasn’t fair.

Now because of Jesus “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (v. 28). A kingdom we did not earn or deserve. That isn’t fair.

If you have not received this salvation, you have the opportunity to do so today. The opportunity billions do not have—precious souls who live in the third of the world that has never even heard of Jesus, that has no access to the gospel. You are no better than any of them, but you hear it. That isn’t fair.

If you have received this salvation, this gift doesn’t make you better than others, just forgiven. This isn’t fair. Have you thanked God? Our text is clear: “let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe” (v. 28). Today.

If God were fair in life

We’ve thought about God’s fairness with our judgment before him one day in heaven. What about his fairness with respect to our lives today on earth? Why isn’t God more fair here? Why does he allow pain and suffering and disaster in our world? Some of the principles from last week still apply:

Some suffering comes from the natural world, not from God.

Some comes from the enemy, not from God.

Some comes from our own wrong choices, not from God.

In such a world as this, think about the way things would be if God were always fair.

If God were fair, he would never help us with our problems, never forgive our sins, never redeem our suffering, never strengthen us as we go through it, never intervene miraculously, never walk with us in our pain. If he were fair.

If God were fair, we’d get caught every time we sin. A ticket every time we speed; jail for every law we have ever broken; public exposure for every private sinful thought; no pardon from anyone we ever hurt or wrong.

If God were fair, no one would hear the gospel twice until every person has heard it once. I heard the gospel in the seventh grade, at a Christian concert to which a friend invited me. I didn’t understand it, and didn’t accept it. If God were fair, there would have been no bus ministry three years later, no knock at my door, no invitation to church, no explanation of the gospel, no salvation, no sermon today. If God were fair.

Think about the sins you’ve committed which no one else knows, which God has pardoned and forgotten. What if God were fair? Think about the mistakes you’ve made for which there has been little or no price to pay. What if God were fair?

Think about the multiple opportunities God gave you to hear his gospel. Are you better than people living in Saudi Arabia, with no access to God’s word? Think about the freedom you have to worship him today. Are you better than those who live in Communist China or Afghanistan? Think about the prosperity you enjoy. Are you more deserving than starving souls in Ethiopia? Think about the health your children enjoy. Are they more deserving than AIDS babies in Africa? What if God were fair?


Do you wish God were fair, or are you glad he isn’t? If you’re grateful for his grace, have you told him? Did you come to worship today with “reverence and awe”? Will you tomorrow?

A dear friend gave me a profound theological thought Wednesday night after prayer meeting: “I prove my love to God by my obedience. Not my words, my obedience. I love him to the degree that I obey him.”

If God has been not fair but gracious to you, would you obey his word? Would you worship him with reverence and awe every day this week and beyond?


When Success Isn’t Enough

When Success Isn’t Enough

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Dr. Jim Denison

Revelation 3:14-22

Laodicea stood 43 miles southeast of Philadelphia, on the Lycus River at the border of Phrygia, six miles south of Hierapolis and ten miles from Colossae. The city occupied an almost square plateau several hundred feet high with mountains to the south rising to more than 8,000 feet. The city was founded in the mid-third century BC by Antiochus II, who named it after his wife Laodice (meaning “justice of the people”).

The Laodicean Christians received two letters from Paul: one letter sent first to Colossae and a second (now lost) sent directly to Laodicea (see Colossians 4.16). The church at Laodicea was probably founded by Epaphras (Colossians 4.12-13) during Paul’s third missionary journey (Acts 19.10). There is no evidence that Paul ever visited Laodicea, although his letter to Colossae reflects his concern for the church.

The enormous wealth of Laodicea was derived in large measure from her location. She stood at the intersection of two great trade routes: one going from Ephesus to the east and the other heading south from Pergamum to the Mediterranean Sea. Five of the seven cities in Revelation lay on the latter route: Laodicea, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, and Philadelphia.

Laodicea was also the site of large manufacturing and banking operations and was known for fine woolen carpets and clothing. The city served as the center for the worship of Asklepios and the seat of a medical school. Cicero lived there and wrote many of his letters at the provincial court located in the city.

How we get to Laodicea

The city’s great material success did not translate into spiritual significance. In fact, Laodicea is the only church in Revelation to receive no praise whatsoever from Jesus. Let’s see why, and how the same problem can exist in our spiritual lives. Ask yourself three questions.

First, is my faith routine? Jesus says, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!” (v. 15). Why does he use this metaphor for their souls?

Laodicea had every natural resource except one–water. The city’s location had been determined by the road system, not by water sources. Water had to be transported through stone pipes which were three feet in diameter. This aqueduct was an engineering marvel (many parts still exist), but the water it supplied was adequate at best.

Pipes were laid to two sources, each six miles from Laodicea. One was located to the south at Denizli. This water source was fed by snows from the mountains and started the journey to Laodicea at near freezing temperature. By the time it had traveled six miles through sun-warmed stone pipes the water temperature became lukewarm.

The other source was the hot springs at Hierapolis to the north. These are still stunningly beautiful and are a major tourist attraction. The ruins show how wealthy and prosperous the city once was. The springs arise from within the city, flow across a wide plateau, and then spill over a broad cliff 300 feet high and a mile wide. At its source, this spring is near boiling temperature with steam rising from its surface. It felt like a sauna to my touch when I visited it. However, by the time the water was piped six miles to Laodicea, it, too, became lukewarm.

The people of Laodicea knew all about lukewarm water. Unfortunately, their souls had come to the same state. Their worship had become boring, routine, comfortable. The newness of their faith had worn off in the 40 years since their church had been founded, and their relationship with Jesus had become a religion about him. Faith was just one part of their lives. They had lost their joy, zeal, and passion. Their hearts were as lukewarm as the water they drank.

How long has it been since you were excited about coming to church to worship Jesus Christ? When was the last time you were overjoyed to read God’s word, or thrilled to be with him in prayer? Do you share your faith with zeal? Do you give your money to God gratefully? If your faith is lukewarm, it’s certain that Jesus is standing outside your life today. He continues knocking to get your attention.

Second, am I self-sufficient? Prime land contributed to Laodicea’s wealth. The fertile ground of the Lycus Valley provided great agricultural prosperity. The sheep bred in this area provided a soft, glossy black wool that was in demand across the Empire. Clothing from Laodicea was even mentioned in an edict by Emperor Diocletian.

The city’s location brought trade from across the world to her merchants. Her bank was famous across Asia; in fact, Cicero wrote of cashing his treasury bills of exchange there. Although most cities had only one theater, Laodicea possessed two.

The most striking proof of Laodicea’s wealth occurred in AD 60, when an earthquake devastated the region. Without financial aid from Rome, the people rebuilt their opulent city. Tacitus, the most famous of all ancient historians, paid tribute to their wealth: “Laodice arose from the ruins by the strength of her own resources, and with no help from us” (Annals 14.27).

Against the backdrop of such affluence, Jesus quotes his church: “You say, I am rich, I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing” (v. 17a). They thought their future was secure and their resources sufficient for any crisis. But self-reliant people are always wrong. Circumstances eventually will force us to recognize that we each need the protection and power only Jesus can give.

Today the formerly beautiful Laodicea lies in ruins, mostly unexcavated. A large mound of dirt covers the place where this proud city once stood. These Christians and their city were self-sufficient, until they were gone.

In the same way, it is easy for prosperous Christians to become self-sufficient, blind to our need for Jesus Christ. And so we become lukewarm in our faith, and lose all passion for our Lord.

Third, am I spiritually satisfied? The Laodicean Christians were satisfied with their material wealth and lifestyles. Jesus had to shout to them from behind their locked hearts: “You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (v 17b).

This spiritual condition was truly ironic. The Laodiceans possessed the greatest bank in their region, yet they were “poor,” the Greek word for someone as destitute as a beggar. Their city was famous for an eye salve known as kollyrion, yet the people are “blind.” They were known for a wool they manufactured, but their souls were “naked.” They were satisfied with their spiritual lives, and didn’t realize how “wretched” and “pitiful” they were.

Whenever we are comfortable with our spiritual lives and progress, we’re in Laodicea.

How to leave Laodicea

And so Jesus must knock persistently on the locked door of their hearts and souls. Here is his answer to their spiritual malaise: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline” (v. 19). They are still loved by their Lord. How can they return to him? How do we?

First, seek God with passion. Jesus says to lukewarm Laodiceans, “Be earnest” (v. 19). The words in the Greek mean “be zealous, excited, passionate.” This is a command, not an option; it is in the present tense, and should be translated, “Be continuously passionate.”

Passion is the cure for a lukewarm spirit. Drive, energy, and devotion should characterize our quest to know God. Note that passion is a decision before it is an emotion. Feeling follows action. We must choose to seek God earnestly, to read Scripture avidly, to pray without ceasing, to worship God with heart, soul, mind, and strength. We can choose to replace our staid religion with a living relationship. In doing so, we will open the door to the very One we seek.

Second, pay the spiritual price. Jesus continues: “Be earnest, and repent” (v. 19). He calls Laodicean Christians to admit our sins and failures, and to reject them. Turn from them, once and for all. He knows that the more our passion for him grows, the more we will reject sin and temptation. A spiritual inventory is never more essential than when we are in Laodicea.

Third, welcome the Savior. When we return to our passion for Jesus and repent of our lukewarm hearts, Jesus will come through the door we open to him. He guarantees it: “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (v. 20).

In Jesus’ day, dinner was a long meal and time for fellowship. Here Jesus promises a time of personal fellowship and relationship to anyone who truly wants it.

And we will be in this relationship forever: “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne” (v. 21). We will share in the feast of the Messiah for all eternity, as we rule with him (cf. Mt 19.28; Lk 22.29-30; 1 Cor 6.2-3; Rev 22.1-5; 2 Tim 2.11-12; Mk 10.40).

Any Christian can be in Laodicea, but prosperity makes this condition even more likely. The first step to leaving spiritual Laodicea is to admit the problem. Next, we spend intentional time alone with our Father. And we choose daily to walk with our Savior.

Jesus is still knocking at the door of our hearts. What is your answer today?

When You Lose Touch with Your Soul

When You Lose Touch With Your Soul

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Dr. Jim Denison

Revelation 3:1-6

Sardis was located 30 miles southeast of Thyatira and 50 miles northeast of Ephesus. She had been an important and wealthy city for centuries, dating back to 1,500 BC when she was the capitol of the Lydian Empire.

Sardis was the center of transportation for the entire continent. Like spokes of a wheel, major trade routes led from the city in five different directions–northwest to Thyatira and Pergamum, west to Smyrna, east toward Phrygia, southeast to Philadelphia, and southwest to Ephesus. These trade routes brought the citizens commerce beyond any city in Asia Minor.

In addition, the Pactolus River carried gold dust literally into the city’s market place. Croesus, whose name is synonymous with wealth, was king of Sardis in 560 BC. He minted the first modern coins, so Sardis became the place where money was born.

The dye and woolen industries thrived here. Merchants lined her streets with their shops, some of which have been excavated and reconstructed today. The public baths with their ornate columns, swimming pool, and gymnasium have been restored and truly impressive. The people were so wealthy that when an earthquake devastated the area in AD 17, the people of Sardis rebuilt the city in nine years without any aid from the Empire.

Sardis was the political capitol for her region and a thriving religious center as well. She possessed a temple of Artemis which, while never completed, rivaled in size the famous Temple of Diana in Ephesus. The Jewish synagogue was famous for its size and opulence.

And the authorities in Sardis were tolerant of all religions, including Christianity. The church faced no persecution, and believers here had no need to compromise their doctrine or moral convictions to survive. These believers had none of the problems plaguing the other churches of Revelation.

In every way Sardis seemed to be an ideal church in an ideal city. The believers had a wealthy support base, enjoyed religious tolerance, and experience no apparent problems. In fact, Jesus says they “have a reputation of being alive” (v. 1a).

Then comes his shocking indictment: “you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (v. 1b).

How a soul falls asleep

How did things get this way in Sardis? The same way they do in Dallas, or any place.

First, trust appearances: “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead…I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God” (vs. 1, 2). If you want your spiritual life to grow useless and lifeless, trust how it looks. Sardis was infamous for trusting appearances historically, and this tendency led often to her fall to military enemies. In the same way, Christians in Sardis are trusting in the appearance of spiritual vitality, when their souls are in fact far from God.

Second, live in the past. Sardis had a wonderful reputation for past greatness. But her present situation was critical. In the same way, we often trust in our past spiritual experiences when we should be seeking God today.

Third, preserve the present. Sardis is happy and complacent with the present. These Christians are engaged in none of the self-examination and spiritual introspection so important to a growing soul. In the same way, if our circumstances are good we are the last to examine our spiritual lives. And the results are disastrous.

Any Christian who believes that the tragedy of Sardis could not occur in his or her spiritual life, is close to repeating it today. When did you last examine your own soul before God?

How a soul revives

Jesus’ call is clear: “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God” (v. 3a). How do we revive a sleeping soul?

First, listen to God’s Spirit: “Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard” (v. 3). “Remember” is in the present imperative and should be translated, “Go on remembering,” or “don’t ever let yourself forget.” Remember “what you have received.” “Received” translates a word for a possession deposited with a banker for safekeeping. We received the Christian faith in the same way a banker receives money. Faith did not originate with us. We do not need to create resources or to manufacture vibrant spirituality. God’s gift of the indwelling Spirit is our means for growing deep in the things of God, and we have already received it.

Remember Peter’s encouragement: “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1.3).

Remember “what you have received and heard.” The Spirit delights to speak God’s word to us: “Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live” (Isaiah 55.2-3). We need both time and silence to listen to the Spirit of God, for the sake of our souls.

Next, obey what you hear: “obey it, and repent” (v. 3b). “Obey” translates a Greek word which means “to keep,” in the present imperative, so that it could be rendered “continually hold onto and never let go.” We must continue to obey what God has taught us. This obedience will require constant repentance. The closer we come to God, the further away from him we realize we are.

Third, act now: “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. 3c). We have only today to be ready to meet God.

Rewards for a living soul

Even in this city of sleeping souls, it is possible to be alive and dynamic spiritually: “Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes” (v. 4a). The woolen industry in Sardis was famous the world over. Jesus contrasts their beautiful outer garments with their dirty souls. Yet, he says, there are a few who have stayed close to him. And he commends them.

The future of these few is bright: “They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy” (v. 4b). In the ancient world white garments stood for purity, as a white wedding dress does today. White robes were also used at banquets, festivals, and in victory celebrations. Those whose souls are close to God are pure, joyous, and victorious.

And Jesus promises that we can all join them in this spiritual victory: “He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white” (v. 5a). These robes will last forever: “I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels” (v. 5b).

Ancient cities kept a register of their citizens, and officials blotted out a man’s name when he died or committed a crime. Christians faced the constant threat of having their names stricken from the book of their city for following their illegal faith. But God will never blot his followers’ names out of his eternal book of heavenly citizenship.

In fact, Jesus will “acknowledge” us before the Father and his angels. This term can be translated “confess” and is a strong word which means to advocate before the courts. Jesus will be our defender and win us approval before the Judge of the ages.

Any Christian who is sure he or she is not in Sardis, probably is. It is not too late to return to vibrant faith in the living God. We walk with God through personal communion with his Spirit, listening to his voice and obeying his word. We must begin again, now.

When You’re Ready to Quit

When You’re Ready to Quit

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Dr. Jim Denison

Revelation 3:7-13

Philadelphia, the youngest of the seven churches of Revelation, was located 28 miles southeast of Sardis. The city was probably founded by Eumenes II, king of Pergamum (197-160/159 BC), and was named in honor of his younger brother Attalus II, surnamed Philadelphia (“brotherly love”) for his loyalty to his older brother. But some evidence suggests that the official founding of Philadelphia did not occur until 140 BC when Attalus II had succeeded his brother as king of Pergamum (159-138 BC).

From the very beginning, Philadelphia was given great opportunity to fulfill its name. Located on the great highway which connected Europe with the East, the town stood at the intersection of the three countries of Mysia, Lydia, and Phrygia.

As the easternmost frontier of the Hellenistic world, Philadelphia was intended to be a missionary city. Its founders envisioned the Greeks using the city as a beachhead for spreading their language and culture throughout the regions beyond. Philadelphia was literally the gateway from one continent and civilization to another. But such hopes were unfulfilled. The Phrygians to the east stubbornly resisted Greek culture. In time the city decayed into ruins.

It is noteworthy that Jesus says his tiny church in Philadelphia will do what the mighty Greek empire had not been able to accomplish: God would make them an open door to the East and the world. “See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut,” he announced (v. 8). Things are not what they seem.

How others must have scoffed at Jesus’ claim! This church had “little strength” (v. 8). The believers here were small in number, perhaps no more than a handful of people. They were small in resources, for it was difficult for Christians to find work in Philadelphia. And they were small in status and significance. Many of them were slaves, street people, or other outcasts. They had no standing in their community whatsoever.

But Jesus’ promise is clear: if they will hold onto the opportunities God has given them, no one will take their crown (v. 11). The same promise is ours as well.

When we’re in Philadelphia

When we find ourselves in Philadelphia, we have three options:

•We can give up, assuming that we don’t have the strength or resources to go on.

•We can give in to the culture and pressure which surrounds us.

•We can go on. Jesus urges us, “Hold on to what you have” (v. 11).

Why go on?

•God will use us: “What I open no one can shut” (v. 7).

•God will vindicate us. Jesus says of our enemies, “I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you” (v. 9).

•God will help us stand: “Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it” (v. 12a).

•God will claim us: “I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name” (v. 12b).

We will all spend time in Philadelphia. Perseverance is the key to the power of God.

Where Is God When It Hurts

Where Is God When It Hurts?

1 John 4:7-12

Dr. Jim Denison

So you think you had a bad day recently. This true account was taken from a recent Florida newspaper.

A man was working on his motorcycle on his patio when it slipped into gear and dragged him through the glass patio door and into the dining room. He lay bleeding on the floor as his wife called the paramedics, who transported him to the hospital for stitches. Then she went into the living room, pushed the motorcycle back outside, and used some paper towels to blot up the gasoline which had spilled onto the floor. She threw the towels into the toilet and went to the hospital to check on her husband.

His stitches done, he was released to go home. As he looked at his shattered patio door and damaged motorcycle, he became despondent, went into the bathroom, sat down and smoked a cigarette. He then threw it into the toilet where the gasoline-soaked towels were. It exploded, blowing his trousers away and burning his backside. His wife again ran to the telephone to call for an ambulance.

The same paramedics came to the house again. As they were carrying him on their stretcher down the stairs to the ambulance, one of them asked his wife how he had burned himself. She told him, and the paramedics started laughing so hard one of them tipped the stretcher and dumped the man out. He fell down the remaining steps and broke his arm.

Now, how was your week?

We begin today a series on problems with God, starting with the hardest question of all: where is God when it hurts? Christians believe three facts: God is all powerful, God is all loving, and evil exists. If you’re hurting today or care about someone who is, you know the third statement is true. But what of the others? Where is God when life hurts?

God is love

One answer to this problem is to deny the first statement, the assertion that God is all-powerful. If God could not prevent this problem, or heal this disease, or change these circumstances, then we should not blame him for them. Across the years many have unfortunately chosen this approach.

Here’s an example. Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote the bestseller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, out of the suffering and death of his own child. In his book, the rabbi states flatly that God cannot change the laws of nature for our benefit, and will not answer our prayers for the impossible or the unnatural. The rabbi has chosen a limited God as his approach to suffering in the world. Many would agree.

But most of us would not. I am assuming today that most of us know that God, if he is indeed God, is all-powerful. The God who created the universe out of nothing clearly has the power to intervene in that universe. If I can create a watch, I can change its time. If I can create a car, I can drive it.

We more commonly question God’s love, don’t we? If God really loved us, he wouldn’t allow this problem or this pain, we say.

Now our text is clear: “God is love.” The text does not say, “God loves,” for we love and we are not God. It does not say “love is God,” for God is more than a loving feeling or action. The Bible says that God is love.

Love is his nature, his very being. You and I sometimes do loving things—God is love. God loves in action because he is love in essence. Love is who God is, the Bible says.

Do you believe that it’s really true?

Many did not believe these words when John wrote them. The Greeks of his century pictured their gods living on Mt. Olympus, removed from our cares and problems, throwing thunderbolts at us on a whim.

The Roman Stoics of his day saw the gods as fates. They said that we are dogs tied to carts. We can run with the cart or be dragged with the cart, but we’re going with the cart. Apathy—literally “no feeling”—is the best way to deal with gods who do not feel.

Some today struggle to picture God as love. They know that Jesus loves us, but are not so sure that God the Father does. I still remember the preacher’s story about the dying woman, with her husband on one side and their estranged son on the other. In her last act, she took the hand of the father and the hand of the child, brought them together, and died. And so the preacher said that Jesus on the cross took the hand of the wrathful Father and sinful humanity and brought them together in his death. But the Bible says, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16).

Perhaps you struggle with this assertion that God is love. If God really loved you, he wouldn’t let you hurt like this, would he? He wouldn’t allow a plane to crash, killing ten people associated with a college basketball team; he wouldn’t permit an earthquake to kill multiplied thousands; he wouldn’t countenance cancer or heart disease, or rape or drug abuse, or poverty or pain. Or so it seems.

How do we know that God really loves us in the face of hard times? This must have been a question John anticipated in writing this letter as well, for he answers it immediately: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (vs. 9-10).

He sent his Son as our sacrifice (v. 10). He died in our place, for our sins, to prove his love.

He sent him as our Savior: “We have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world” (v. 14). He sent him to save us from our sins and give us eternal life in heaven, to prove his love.

And he sent him as our security, to guarantee us this life with his Father: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).

I first preached on this text on March 16, 1986, the Sunday after Ryan was born. I only thought I did not understand God’s love in sending his Son to die for us. Then God gave Janet and me a son. Now I know that I don’t understand how God could do this for you and for me. But he did. Our Father proved his love by sending his Son for us.

And he is love, no matter what our circumstances might be. No conditions are placed on this statement in Scripture, or in life. No matter what is happening to you, God loves you. It probably doesn’t seem or feel that way, but it’s so.

Charles Spurgeon, the Baptist preaching genius, was out for a walk in the country one afternoon. He came upon a farmer’s barn with a weathervane on the roof, and saw the words at the top of the weathervane, “God is love.” Just then the farmer came out, and Spurgeon asked him, “Do you mean to say that God’s love is as changing as the weather?” The farmer smiled and said, “Not at all. I mean to say that no matter where the winds blow, God is love.”

Help for our minds

So why would a loving God allow life to hurt so much? Here in brief is the collected wisdom of theologians and other scholars on the subject. Here’s help for our minds. Then we’ll seek help for our hearts.

First, some suffering comes from the natural order. God created a world which operates according to natural laws. As one theologian observed, the man who jumps from a fifty-story window doesn’t break the law of gravity—he illustrates it. God could not give us fire without the possibility that we might be burned, or water without the possibility that we might drown, or the ability to produce cars without the possibility that they might crash. Some suffering results from the natural world.

Second, some suffering comes from the enemy. Scripture says that Satan is a “roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Lions only roar when they are about to attack. Not all pain comes from him, but some does.

Third, some suffering results from our mistakes. Not all, but some. When I don’t study for a test and fail it, I shouldn’t blame the teacher (but I do). When Mickey Mantle was dying of liver disease caused by a series of wrong choices he told the world, “Don’t do what I did.” And I admire his courage in saying it.

God gave us freedom of choice, so we could choose to worship him. If we misuse this freedom, the fault is not with God but us.

Fourth, God can redeem all suffering. Scripture teaches that God works through all things for good (Romans 8:28). He sometimes permits suffering so as to grow us spiritually and personally. And he always redeems suffering for good, either now or in the future, given the opportunity.

Fifth, we will fully understand suffering one day. The Bible says, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

When Mike Yaconelli’s child died he wrote, “We are surviving this a day at a time, knowing that one day we will be able to ask God some very hard questions.” So will we all.

Last, God suffers with us. Because he is love, he hurts as we hurt. David was right: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4).

Every parent in this room knows that we hurt when our children hurt, for we love them. How much more does the God who is love hurt as we hurt. And love us all the while.

Help for our hearts (11-12)

Now let’s make this study as practical as we can. How do we experience his love, his help, his presence? In his Spirit, in his word, but especially in his people.

God calls us to prove his love through ours: “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” “Ought” here means to be morally obligated or compelled.

Then the text continues: “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (vs. 11-12).

We are the only Bible most people will read, the only Jesus they will see. Nearly 20 centuries ago, Clement of Alexandria said that the real Christian “practices being God.” Because we have received, we know how to give. Because we are accepted, we know how to accept. Because we are loved, we know how to love. With God’s love.

Jesus said that loving hurting people would be our greatest witness: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). We prove God’s love when we love.

When my father died, two of the people who helped me most were Ricky Wilcox and Linda Sharp. Ricky drove across Houston the next day, and spent that day sitting with me. No advice, no words of wisdom, just his presence. He was just there. I’ve never forgotten the love of God I felt in his love.

And Linda Sharp was there. Linda’s father had died of cancer and then her pregnant older sister was killed by a drunk driver. She put her arms around my brother and me and said, “Time helps.” She was right. And God’s love was in hers.

Someone said, “I would like to ask God why he doesn’t do something about all the pain and suffering in the world.” “Why don’t you ask him?” someone replied. The man answered, “Because I’m afraid he’ll ask me the same question.”


No matter where the wind blows, God is still love. He hurts as you hurt, and wants to redeem your suffering for his glory and your good. And he wants you to show his love to the hurting people close to you. Today.

Debbie Hamilton has helped us worship God today, and I’m grateful. One of the most powerful experiences of my three years with you occurred in Paul and Debbie’s home last fall. The Waggoners are in their Sunday school class; as you know, Chip and Wendy’s little baby Benjamin was born with serious health challenges, though surgery this past week was wonderfully successful.

The week before the birth, the Hamilton class met in their home to pray for Chip, Wendy, and Benjamin. They surrounded them with their care and love. Then, when the members left, each took a specific assignment for helping: mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, bringing food, etc. They each also took a stamped envelope to send the Waggoners a note of encouragement. They showed Jesus’ love in theirs.

Where is God when it hurts? Someone is waiting for your answer.