Episode 77: Hard Sayings from Our Lord Jesus, Part 2

Peace to Live By Episode 77: Hard Sayings from Our Lord Jesus, Part 2 - Daniel Litton
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       Last week I started a new series on hard sayings from our Lord Jesus, particularly from Matthew’s Gospel. The first three teachings that we considered came from the Sermon on the Mount, and that’s where we are picking up today. I want to consider one more saying from this sermon, and then we will be moving into the rest of Matthew’s Gospel. Indeed, as we read the words of Jesus, we often find passages or verses that seem to bother us a little, and perhaps even sayings that we wish weren’t there. They make us uncomfortable. And that’s the goal of this series, to consider some of these things that may seem unpleasant at first glance. My hope is that as we think about these things, we will become more comfortable with them, and even realize that Jesus really isn’t trying to tie a load on our backs that is too heavy to bear. Hopefully we will realize that his yoke is easy, and that his burden is light.

       In getting started today, let’s turn to Matthew chapter 7. This will be the final saying we look at in the Sermon on the Mount. Let’s go to verse 21. The text says: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’ (Matthew 7:21-23, ESV). What a frightful passage we have here.

       Probably the biggest question on everyone’s mind is, “Who is Jesus talking about here?” And that’s a good question, and one that we absolutely need to have answered correctly. Notice that Jesus starts this passage by saying, “Not everyone.” That’s significant because it shows that among us Christians there are people who call Jesus “Lord, Lord,” but are not going to go to Heaven when they die. So, while you may have a group of people who profess and acknowledge Jesus as Lord, some will go to Heaven and some will not. Therefore, it’s pretty important here that we understand those who are not going, so that we will not be part of that group and end up going to Hell when we die.

       Jesus lays out a stipulation for those of his who get to go to Heaven. And what is that stipulation? Well, he says the only person who gets to go to Heaven is “the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (ESV). So, what does this mean? At first glance, I also thought it meant it’s the person who does good works is the one who gets to go to Heaven. That’s what he seems to be saying on the surface. But we know from other places in the New Testament that no one gets into Heaven by works, but by the gift of God’s grace—the acceptance and belief in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross on our behalf—that’s what gets us into Heaven. God’s salvation is a gift. How then is it that the person who does God’s will is the one who gets to go to Heaven?

       Let us bring to mind what Jesus has taught us elsewhere in Matthew. If we go over to Matthew chapter 12, we read the following: “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit” (v. 33, ESV). This is the key here to understanding what Jesus is telling us. He says that we recognize who a person really is by the fruit he or she bears in life. This is in contrast, obviously, with what they say—for they have called Jesus “Lord” in the passage. In essence, Jesus is saying that you tell if a person is truly his follower by what you see the person doing in life—though his behaviors. Is the person one who abstains from sin? Does the person display the fruit of the Spirit—“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23, ESV)? The tree then, as Jesus has said, is known by its fruit.

       We cannot, however, just consider outward works alone in evaluating our own lives, as to whether we are in the faith or not. For Jesus listed outward works here—none of which qualified the person as a Christian and to enter the kingdom of Heaven. These people in the passage were prophesying in Jesus’s name, casting out demons in his name, and doing many mighty works in his name. So, these are things done with the Christian label, and not just humanitarian things. These people had invoked Jesus’ name while accomplishing their works. This is where it gets concerning. Notice the power then behind the works, and there is great deception here. These people were able to predict the future, for one. And how could this be possible? Isn’t God the only one who knows the future? Actually, no, but some demons have the ability to see into the future. Remember the servant girl who had followed Paul and Silas around in Acts chapter 16? She had a demon that she used for fortune telling—the demon allowed her to see into the future.

       But what about casting out demons in Jesus’ name? Surely that’s a sign that a person is in Christ. Maybe, maybe not. Recall, the Pharisees had accused Jesus in Matthew 12 of casting out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons. And he told them, “If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?” (v. 26, ESV). We could also consider the passage in Acts 19 where some Jewish exorcists were trying to cast out demons from people by using Jesus’ name, but were attacked by a demon in the process. I think it is obvious that not everyone who professes to cast out demons is actually casting them out. That is, they are putting on a show in front of a crowd in order to get money, or perhaps just attention and fame. Regardless, they use the name of Jesus when they do this. It could also be that people who are false are using Jesus’ name to cast out demons, but that the demons are actually coming out of the people. Remember, Judas Iscariot was not saved, and yet he casted out demons as we see in Matthew 10:1, for instance.

       Back in the Matthew 7 passage, when Jesus tells the people that he never knew them, notice that he calls them “workers of lawlessness.” This reiterates what we have already been talking about, and that is the fact that these people who are rejected from the kingdom of Heaven are not only those who are partakers in false signs and wonders, but who also are practicing sin in their lives. Surely, that is a true mark of a believer—one who seeks to eliminate sin from his or her life. And, this is not just done externally, but this is accomplished internally too—in evaluating one’s thoughts, words, and behaviors—and seeking to align those with what God says to be true in his Word. The true Christian doesn’t want to live in sin; he or she wants to be seeking after obedience to God. That’s why we know when a person says he or she is a Christian, but is practicing sin in his or her life—we know that person is either deceived (that is, the person thinks he or she is a Christian but really isn’t) or the person is deliberately telling us a fib (the person really knows, deep down inside that he or she isn’t a Christian). Sometimes it’s also the case that the person hasn’t realized what he or she is doing is sin, especially for a new believer. Nevertheless, as Jesus said also in Matthew 12: “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (v. 50, ESV).

       Now, let’s leave the Sermon on the Mount and consider our next hard passage, this time found in Matthew 10. Go to verse 34, and we’ll pick up there. The passage states: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:34-39, ESV).

       A lot of people have a misperception of Jesus that he is all love, and wants to unite everybody in the world. This, however, is a lie from Satan. As we just read, we see here that Jesus warns us that his coming to earth—his fulfillment of the Jewish law—is not to unite everyone. Because Jesus stands for the truth—and the truth hurts, it causes pain, and goes in contrast with what Satan says in many different ways—because Jesus stands for the truth many people will be divided against one another. And many of us know about this on a personal level. Whether it is division within families, with friends, with coworkers, whatever, we know the pain that can come from our believing in Christ and their not believing in him. Sometimes people become Christians and they are the only Christians in their household. And conflicts definitely erupt as a result of that. Perhaps he or she leads others to Christ within the family, or perhaps they don’t come to Christ. There is that constant push-back from the family members against the person to not follow what the Bible says but to just keep doing what everyone else does. And then there are the friendships that may even end because the person now believes in Christ. The new Christian may have to end them to stay devoted, or the unbelieving person may walk away and give up the friendship.

       So, Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (ESV). What does this mean? Simply put, what Jesus is saying is that he has to be first in the believer’s life. If it comes down to making a particular choice about something, the believer should always side with Christ and not with a fellow, unbelieving family member. The relationship may stay intact just fine, but with this particular choice, the person sides with Jesus. If a person has to sacrifice a relationship with a fellow family member for his name’s sake, then so be it. A Christian should always choose Christ over an earthly relationship, or that person really isn’t fully devoted, or an even truly devoted follower. Again, some people have never had do to this, or have never had this experience. But many Christians have.

       Let’s consider a couple examples of what this might look like for practical application. Let’s say a college-aged girl who was raised as a Muslim becomes a Christian while she is away at college. She phones her mother to tell her that she has decided to become a Christian. This undoubtedly is going to cause quite a stir. The girl who has converted is so convinced of her newfound faith in Christ that she is willing to lay everything on the line. Her mother may tell her that unless she renounces her Christian faith, she is no longer welcome at home. So, the new convert to Christ has a choice to make. Will she love Christ more, and be devoted to her newfound Lord and Savior, or will she love her mother more. Or let’s say a son phones his father from college saying he’s decided he’s gay, and wants to practice homosexuality. The father has a choice to make. He can still love his son, but he has to choose who he loves more. Will he love his son and tell him he doesn’t approve of his homosexuality behavior, or will he just cave into his son and tell him it’s okay that he is now gay—thus loving his son more than Christ. Will the father stand with Christ and denounce his son’s behavior, or will he give approval of it so there are no waves within the relationship?

       Let us not forget that every sacrifice we give in this life for our Lord’s sake does not go unnoticed by him. Let’s quickly look at a passage in Matthew 19 about this. Jesus said the following to his disciples: "Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 19:28-30, ESV). This is an incredible statement by our Lord. So, every sacrifice that is made in this life will be reimbursed many times over—a hundredfold, as Jesus has said. And let’s think about what this might look like. If we have given up relationships for Jesus’ name, we know that in the future we will have many more intimate, close relationships for all eternity with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and not to mention our intimate relationship with Jesus himself. We will have close relationships with both people we helped lead to Christ, and with other believers, both those whom we know in this life, and those who lived at other times. And not only that, but also we will have our own residence, and abundance in possessions—many things that meet our hearts desires.

       Now, in talking about taking our crosses up and following Jesus, let’s move to our final passage for today from Matthew 16. Go to verse 24, and let’s start there. The text says, “Then Jesus told his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:24-28, ESV). This passage here is probably one of the hardest, if not the hardest saying that comes from Jesus’ mouth. At least, at first look it seems rather hard. Let us consider what he is saying here step-by-step.

       When Christ talks about becoming his disciple, the first thing he mentions here is that a person must deny himself. Now, what does this mean? I think those of us who have become Christians at a later age (not as a child) can easily identify what this means. We know what we were like before we became believers. We know the kind of life that we lived. And what did we do when we became a Christian? Well, we denied ourselves, right? We denied our sinful flesh the right to rule over us anymore, and we died to this world and following its ways.

       When we deny something, we take the opposing side. When Peter denied Jesus, he said he didn’t know him, and he put himself on the other side of the fence in regard to being Christ’s follower. In essence, he said, “No, I am not a follower of Christ.” And he did this to get out of any possibility of being arrested and condemned. Well, we did the same thing in the opposite way when we accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior. When we believed on him for the forgiveness of sins, we said “I am not going to follow the world’s way any longer. I am going to follow Jesus’ way of doing things.” And, hopefully, that’s what we have done in our lives. This is how we lose our lives, as Jesus said, not becoming severe and ascetic in the Christian life as some might read it. The Gospel shows us the world for how it really is, and we realize its great influence and power from Satan. We seek to align our thoughts, words, and behaviors with Christ, thereby denying our old selves and seeking to live after the new way of the Spirit, in our new selves created in Christ Jesus for good works.

       Thus, after we have denied ourselves, what’s the next step? Well, Jesus talked about picking up our crosses and following him. Well, let’s stop and think about this for a minute. During Jesus’ time, the Roman cross was a form of capital punishment, it was how a person was executed for a severe enough crime. So, a person would pick up his cross—that which he was to be executed on—and carry it toward the place where he was to be executed. In our day and age, we might say a person must sit in his electric chair, take the noose by which he is to be hanged, or walk into his gas chamber, to use some examples. The point is that by picking up our crosses, we are saying that we are so devoted to Jesus that even our own lives are less important than he is. In other words, we are willing to give our lives for him—that is, even to die—if necessary and if in God’s plan and will, for his sake—for the sake of the Good News, the Gospel. That’s how much we love the truth, how much we love Jesus. Therefore, picking up our crosses and then actually following Jesus, which is making his Word the guide to our lives in being obedient to him—those two things—go hand-in-hand.

       I think this concept of taking up our cross individually and following Jesus seems pretty foreign for us here in American society. For one, I think that’s because of the current religious freedom that we so definitely enjoy in our country. Our government stands, at least currently, on freedom of religion, the ability to be free in following Christ as we feel called to do so without threat from our own government or fellow citizens. The disciples during Jesus’ day would often face threats from the Jewish government, and even the Roman government. Really, we face no such threats for us today—God has blessed us very much. Now, some Christians believe because of this, we need to find new ways to suffer, so to speak, since we have this privilege of religious freedom in our country. But I would say that is nonsense. If God has given us this freedom, it is something he has given to us to enjoy. As a matter of fact, many people have given their lives so that we could retain this freedom. To just give it up, and not rest safely in it, is really sin in and of itself. Just because we may not have the same persecution level the New Testament believers had does not mean we are sinning against God and in the wrong. This is not to say that some day we might lose our freedom, or have it to a lesser extent, but right now we do, and we should enjoy it. People have spilt their blood for us to have it.

       On a smaller scale, Christians in the United States certainly do experience persecution, but generally it’s over matters of things like creation, or what is sin versus what is not sin. It’s the typical battles with unbelievers over the truth that have been faced from the beginnings of Christianity. The important thing is that we stay grounded in the Bible, and follow what it says—that we still call sin what actually is sin, and that we do not let what the Bible calls sin to change over time. It is crucial that we still stand for the truth, even when people don’t like it and may even come against us. We need to pick up our crosses, and be willing to stand with Jesus even when it’s not popular and when it’s uncomfortable. Hopefully none of us will ever have to be imprisoned or even face death for our beliefs in our country. If it were to come to that, we should be willing to give up our lives for Christ’s sake. But the battles seem to be more on a smaller scale right now, like the loss of friends, reputations, and even money for the name of Jesus. That seems to be largely the trials that we face here in America.

       In closing today, perhaps you've been listening to this discussion—considering these hard sayings from Jesus. Maybe, as you've listened, you've believed that what I’ve said really is true. Perhaps you’ve been feeling God speaking to your heart today. Well, no matter who you are, no matter what your position in society is, no matter how unimportant or important you think you are, I am here today to tell you that God is offering you His free gift of salvation that He offers to anyone who would believe in Him. God wants everyone to accept the truth, to accept Jesus' death on the cross as a payment for their sins. All that matters today is whether you know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. You cannot earn God's favor. You can't bargain with God—you can't say, “God, if I do this for you, will you do this for me?” That's not the way it works. You can have much, much more than that.

       If you will come into a personal relationship with God, He will give you eternal life, and a new life, starting today. He will forgive you of your sins, and eventually, as you seek to please Him and follow Him, he will give you, according to His will, the desires of your heart. God wants people to be at peace, to have joy, to be happy. Now, that's very counter to our society because our society teaches that obtaining things or people—whatever it be—that's what our society says will make you happy. But that's not reality. The truth of the matter is what will truly fulfill your life is being reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, knowing that your sins are forgiven, and that you are now in right standing with God in a personal relationship with Him. God isn't just wanting to save you from hell—though that is very important—God wants to be part of your life. He wants you to surrender your life over to Him, so that He can give you true life. There is nothing to lose, at all, by knowing God. All there is, by knowing God, is gain.

       So, if you believe that you would like to have a personal relationship with God today, and accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, then follow my lead in this simple prayer:

God, I am a sinner. But today I understand that Jesus died for my sins, and He forgives me of everything wrong that I have ever done. I believe that Jesus died on the cross for my sins, and that on the third day He rose from the dead so that I might have a new life. And I, God, want to surrender my life to you now, so that you may be Lord of my life because, Father, you know what is best for me. Please, Father, come into my life, and start the transformation process, so that I become like you want me to be, so that I become pleasing to you. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

-Daniel Litton