The Safest Place in All the World to Be

The Safest Place in All the World to Be

Matthew 4:18-25

James C. Denison

A “conundrum” is an intricate and difficult problem. For instance, what 11-letter word is pronounced incorrectly by more than 99 percent of Ivy League graduates? “Incorrectly.” Care to try again? I’m sitting at a table. Ten flies are on the table. With one swat, I kill three flies. How many flies are left on the table? The three dead ones–the other seven already flew away. Now aren’t you glad you came to church today?

We’ve been studying biblical images of the church, the world’s only hope. Last week we learned that we are the only salt and light of our decaying, dark world. Today we learn that we are called to be “fishers of men” in that world. I’m interested in what Jesus calls us to do. But I’m even more interested in the fact that he calls us to do it, that great theological conundrum of divine sovereignty and human freedom.

If he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, why does he need to call these men? Why cannot he order them to follow him? Do they have freedom to decide whether or not to follow him? If they can refuse his will for their lives, how is he the Sovereign Lord of the universe?

Does everything happen in life the way God intends for it to? “Everything happens for a reason,” we’re told. “It all works out for the best,” we hear. Is that true? Did God intend for Hurricane Dean to decimate the Yucatan peninsula and the eastern coast of Mexico this week? Did he intend Michael Vick and his accomplices to torture and execute dogs in Virginia? Is the ongoing war in Iraq part of his plan and will? More than 3,700 of our troops have died there. More than 655,000 people, most of them Iraqis, have perished in this conflict.

Will God’s will be done in the upcoming presidential election? Will his will be done for your children away at college or at home in school? With your health and finances and marriage and family? Is the will of God always fulfilled, for Peter and Andrew and you and me? The question is crucial for our lives today, as we’ll soon see.

Hear his call

Our text begins: “Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee” (v. 18). “Walking” in the Greek syntax expresses contemporaneous and continuous action–he was constantly walking around beside the Sea of Galilee, as though he was looking for something or someone.

The Sea of Galilee is a small lake, roughly 13 miles long by six miles at its widest part. It was and is one of the most beautiful bodies of water on earth. But it was one of the least likely places for a rabbi to find new students. Those who lived and worked in this hill country were far from the training schools with their famous rabbis down south in Jerusalem.

These men were no less intelligent than those in the rabbinic schools. But they clearly had chosen lives of labor and business, not academics. MIT doesn’t usually recruit doctoral candidates from the ranchers out in the Davis Mountains. That’s not what ranchers are interested in doing.

Nonetheless, Jesus walked up to “two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew.” They were working at the time, “casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.” They were using the “amphiblaistron,” a net thrown from a boat or shore. It was nine feet across, weighted with lead around its circumference. It sank into the sea, then was drawn up with fish inside. This was hard manual labor–nothing automated or technological about it.

Going on a little farther, he saw James and his brother John “in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets.” They were mending them, washing them, setting them out to dry for the next day’s work.

Jesus said to Peter and Andrew, “Come, follow me.” His words meant “become my students” or “enroll in my school.” In Jesus’ day, students chose their rabbi. A rabbi never went soliciting students. But Jesus called these men specifically to follow him. He did the same with James and John. And all four agreed.

Understand why he calls

The Bible says that “by Jesus all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17). He made the Sea of Galilee, and the fish swimming in it, and the men who were fishing for them.

One day, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). If he is indeed the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, why did he need to walk the beaches of the Sea of Galilee looking for these men, then call them to follow him and wait while they decided?

If he is truly the Lord of all that is, how can anything happen contrary to his will? But if everything happens according to his will, does this mean that God wanted a hurricane to decimate Mexico and the economy to become a roller coaster and average incomes to fall each of the last five years in America?

By definition, God must either cause or permit all that happens, or he is not God. His perfect or permissive will must be done. Nothing about Hurricane Dean surprised God this week. The fact that you’ve come worship this morning was not news to him. He created time and transcends it, so he knew before time began that you and I would have this conversation today.

In the world he created, everything happened as he intended it to happen.


What Happens to Those Who Never Hear?

What Happens to Those Who Never Hear?

Matthew 5:13-16

James C. Denison

A friend recently sent me an essay titled “Ode to Plurals.” It goes like this.

We’ll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes; but the plural of ox becomes oxen, not oxes. One fowl is a goose, and two are called geese, yet the plural of moose should never be meese.

If I speak of my foot and show you my feet, and I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet? If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth, why shouldn’t the plural of booth be called beeth? We speak of a brother and also of brethren, but though we say mother, we never say methren.

There is no egg in eggplant, no ham in hamburger, and neither apple nor pine in pineapple. Boxing rings are square, and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig. And if teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught?

We recite at a play and play at a recital. We ship by truck but send cargo by ship. We have noses that run and feet that smell. We park in a driveway and drive in a parkway. Your house burns up as it burns down; you fill in a form by filling it out; an alarm goes off by going on. If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? And if Father is Pop, how come Mother’s not Mop?  

You probably hadn’t asked yourself any of those questions before today (and you probably won’t ever again). Here’s another question you may not have come to church wondering, since it doesn’t apply to you. But it is crucial to more than two billion people on our planet: what happens to those who never hear the gospel? How can God be fair in sending them to hell for rejecting a message they never heard? But if they can go to heaven without trusting in Christ, how can God be fair in sending Christians to sacrifice their time and even their lives to tell them?

All through our summer series we’ve been calling the church “the world’s only hope.” Today we find out why. And why the answer is the key to living with purpose, redeeming your days, and leaving a legacy that matters.

Wrong answers

More than two billion people on planet Earth have never heard the gospel. To them, the syllables “Jesus Christ” are like “mumblephump” to you–sounds with no significance. There are a billion more unevangelized people in the world today than there were a hundred years ago. Eighty percent of the Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus in the world have never met a Christian, much less heard the gospel. What happens to them?

Let’s begin with the wrong answers to our question. “Universalism” is the very popular idea that a loving God wouldn’t let anyone go to hell. “Christian universalism” says that Jesus’ death paid for all our sins, so everyone goes to heaven.

Except that the Bible says, “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15). And Jesus was explicit: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life…Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:16, 18).

“Middle knowledge” is the idea that God knows what we would do if we had a chance to hear the gospel. It is clear that God knows the future better than we know the present. But if he knows what the unevangelized would do if they heard the gospel, why tell them?

Natural revelation is the assertion that God judges us according to the light that we have. If that’s true, why give people any more light? Some say that if a person responds to the light he has, God will see to it that he receives the light of the gospel. If that’s true, why do I need to go?

“Determinism” is the claim that God chooses who will be saved and who will be lost, and makes sure that the “elect” hear the gospel. But what of the biblical promise that God does not want anyone to perish but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9)? Or the assertion that God wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4)?

Jesus’ answer

So, what is the answer to the problem of the unevangelized? You are. “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13); “you are the light of the world” (v. 14). “You” is plural–all of you, not just those who went to a seminar. “Are”–present tense, right now. “The”–the only salt and the only light in all the world.

Salt was the one way people in Jesus’ day could preserve their food. During their frequent crop failures and droughts, salt was crucial to life. The “lamp” to which he refers (v. 15) was a small clay oil lamp with a floating wick. It was their only means of lighting a dark room. Nothing could take the place of his salt and lamps in their world. Nor in ours.

That’s why Jesus called us to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19), to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8)–because those who do not believe in him are condemned (John 3:18). The only way to be in the “lamb’s book of life” is to trust in the Lamb, Jesus Christ. He is the way, the truth, and the life–no one comes to the Father except by trusting in him (John 14:6).

But what happens to those we don’t tell? The Bible doesn’t really say, because we’re supposed to tell everyone.

Supernatural evangelism is one option. As God revealed himself to the prophets through dreams and visions; as he revealed his plans for Christ’s birth to Joseph and Mary through dreams and visions; as he revealed himself supernaturally to Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus Road and to John on Patmos; so he might reveal the gospel supernaturally to those the church does not reach. For instance, thousands of Muslims are reporting visions and dreams in which Jesus appears to them and calls them to himself. Nothing in Scripture says that God cannot do this.


Why Do Bad Things Happen to God’s People?

Why Do Bad Things Happen to God’s People?

1 Peter 1:1-2

James C. Denison

A friend sent me some questions I could not answer. Let’s see how you do:

The first couple to be shown in bed together on prime time television? Fred and Wilma Flintstone.

Coca-Cola was originally what color? Green.

The state with the highest percentage of people who walk to work? Alaska.

The percentage of Africa that is wilderness? 28%. The percentage of America that is wilderness? 38%.

The cost of raising a medium-sized dog to the age of eleven? $6,400.

What do bulletproof vests, fire escapes, windshield wipers, and laser printers all have in common? They were invented by women.

If such trivia represents one end of the relevance spectrum, our question today represents the other. You’ve heard the question, Why do bad things happen to good people? Our question is even tougher: Why do bad things happen to God’s people?

This summer we’ve learned that we are God’s saints, his new creation, the temple of his Holy Spirit. We are branches of his vine, his building, his bride, his body, citizens of his Kingdom, the very people of God. Why, then, are our lives so often so hard?

Being a Christian does not immunize us from a single problem the rest of the world experiences. We get cancer and heart disease just like the rest of the population; the divorce rate is apparently the same for Christians as for the rest of society; our sons and daughters fight and die in Iraq; we lose our jobs and parents and children just like everyone else. If the God of the universe is our Father, why does he treat his children this way?

Where is our question especially pertinent for you this morning? How has stress or struggle or suffering found you today? Why?

Know who you are

Let’s start with the good news. Our text tells us exactly who we are, no matter where we are. It describes in very specific ways precisely how God sees us. No matter how lonely we feel, or abandoned we seem, we’re not. God + 1 = majority, always. Here’s why.

We are “God’s elect,” “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.”

“Elect” translates the Greek word for “chosen, selected.” It was used to describe fruit chosen because it was especially ripe, or clothes chosen because they were especially well-tailored. Once this word applied only to Israel, as the “chosen people of God.” But now it applies to us–all of us.

You read it last week: “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10).

This happened by “the foreknowledge of God the Father.” God knew before time began that he would choose us, that he would want a personal, intimate, eternal relationship with every one of us. He wants such a relationship with every person he made, for he is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). He “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy. 2:4).

When we accept his invitation to personal relationship with him, we “elect” the One who “elects” us. We join his chosen people from across all the nations and all the centuries. We become part of God’s people forever. This is our identity.

Here is the power to be who we are: “through the sanctifying work of the Spirit.”

The Spirit saved you when he convicted you of your sins and led you to faith in Christ. He is saving you now, “sanctifying” you–making you more and more God’s saint, his holy one. He will save you for eternity.

To partner with the Spirit, we surrender to him every day. We begin the morning by yielding it to his Lordship. We ask his guidance before our decisions, his forgiveness when we sin, his power to defeat temptation, his help for our problems. When we walk in the Spirit, we are sanctified by the Spirit.

Now we discover the purpose for which we are chosen and sanctified: “in obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood.”

To obey and to serve him. As Moses sprinkled blood on the altar of sacrifice, so we are to sprinkle the “blood of Christ” wherever we go. We exist to make disciples of all nations, to be the salt and light of Christ, his witnesses to the ends of the earth.

The church is the only hope of the world. As we obey Jesus and share his saving love with our dying world, we fulfill a purpose more significant than any other. Bodies may be healed, but they will one day die. Finances will belong to someone else or be lost. Cars will rust. Clothes will wear out. Houses will be torn down. Nothing we do in time will count for eternity, except what we do to obey Jesus and share his love with all we can. This is the reason we are here, the purpose of our lives. It is the highest purpose in all of human history.

Know where you are

So you are not what you do, or what you own, or how many friends you have. You are the chosen, sanctified, serving child of God. If all this is so, why do bad things happen to God’s people? If we are chosen, sanctified, and called, why is life so often so hard? The answer lies not in who we are, but in where we are.

We are “strangers in the world.” “Strangers” translates the Greek word for “sojourners,” temporary residents, not permanent settlers in the land. We are immigrants in this world, just here for a while, only passing through.