Scripture: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-13
Today’s sermon will answer three questions. Number One: Why is our church asking everyone to read God’s Word, holy scripture, through in one year? Number Two: What does today’s scripture teach us about the temptation not to read and treasure and take seriously God’s Word? And Number Three: Where do we see Jesus in today’s scripture?
But point number one: Why is our church asking everyone to read the entire Bible this year?
Let me begin by apologizing for missing last Sunday! Yes, I had Covid. Yes, it was the first time since this whole thing started that I’ve gotten it! It knocked me down a for a few days, that’s for sure! But before it became clear to me that I was going to have to throw in the towel, before I tested positive for Covid, before I had to face the fact that I was sick—too sick to preach and lead worship last Sunday—I was looking forward to sharing an insight from Matthew chapter 16 that I had never noticed before. I want to share it now, and I promise it relates to this first point: It’s that episode from Caesarea Philippi in which Jesus asks his disciples, “‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’” 1
And of course Peter bravely answers the question on behalf of the rest of the disciples: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”2 But notice that when Jesus asks the question, Peter doesn’t say, “Well, Lord, it’s like you’ve said a hundred times already: You’re the Messiah and the Son of the living God. We listen to you when you teach us, after all. We take notes. You told us last week, you told us a few months ago. You told us when you preached that sermon by the lake, and when you preached that other sermon on the mountain. You’ve told us dozens of times already! We believe you, Lord! You’re the Messiah and Son of the living God!”
No. Peter doesn’t say that… Why?
Because it’s clear that Jesus is asking a question to which he has never given a direct answer before. And when you go back and review the first fifteen chapters of Matthew’s gospel—when you review all of Jesus’ teaching and preaching up to that point—it’s clear: Jesus simply doesn’t talk much about his identity… about who he is.
Which must mean that Jesus wanted his disciples to figure out who he is based mostly on their personal experience of living with him for three years—three years of watching him, of listening to him, of seeing him in action, of seeing him interact with other people, of watching him heal people, of ministering alongside him.
“Who do you say that I am now,” Jesus asks, “after experiencing me for all of this time? What do you know from your own personal experience about who I truly am?”
Jesus is confident that his disciples will answer the question correctly—“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”—based not mostly on what he’s said about himself, but on what they’ve experienced in him and through him and with him.
It’s as if Jesus were saying to his disciples, “If you want to know who I am, look at the way that I live. Look at the things that I do. See how differently I live my life in light of God’s coming kingdom”…
What if the same is supposed to be true for us… I mean, as it relates to our witness to others? What if the most important things that someone can learn about Jesus they learn not from the words we speak but from the way we live our lives? And from the way we live our lives together as the church?
One Scottish pastor, Sinclair Ferguson, complains that today’s church is far too quick to say, “Don’t look at us! Don’t pay attention to us… Don’t look too closely at the way we live our lives… Look at Jesus instead!”
The problem, he says, is that Jesus intends for people to find him in part by looking at us, the church. Do we dare say, “People of Stephens County, look at us… Because by looking at us, you may see at least a little bit of Jesus”?
We can even put it in terms of our church’s vision statement: What is our vision statement?“Treasuring Christ above all and helping others do the same.”
How do we “help others” treasure Christ?
Surely the most important way is by letting them see and experience how we ourselves treasure Christ above all! To let them see that because we treasure Christ above all earthly treasures—like money and possessions, like work or career or academic pursuits, like popularity and praise, like family and friends and romantic relationships… like free time and hobbies and sports—even college football… all those things, as good as they often are, and important as they may be,palein comparison to our personal relationship with Christ!
Can people look at our lives and see that? Can they see the difference that Christ is making in our lives? Can they see the way we treasure Christ?
Surely they’re not supposed to just take our word for it!
Yet, as I’ve seen on bumper stickers and T-shirts and coffee mugs over the years, “Christians aren’t perfect. Only forgiven.” Christians aren’t perfect, only forgiven. Well, I agree with the first part! We’re not perfect. And I’m sure this sentiment is a well-intentioned way of saying, “Don’t blame Jesus for the fact that so many of us Christians act like jerks!” “Don’t blame Jesus for the fact that so many of us Christians act like judgmental hypocrites!” “Don’t blame Jesus for the fact that so many Christians seem so angry and mean-spirited and lacking in compassion! After all, we Christians aren’t perfect, only forgiven.”
And I just need to say, that second part of the bumper sticker is not true: We’re not only forgiven! We’ve got to stop letting ourselves off the hook so easily! We Christians are not only forgiven!We are born again by the Spirit of Almighty God! The Holy Spirit is living within us! The Holy Spirit is giving us power. The Holy Spirit is transforming us from within—sanctifying us, changing us, empowering us… as scripture says, making us conform more and more into the image of Christ.
And by the way, the Bible says that if this process of transformation isn’t taking place in our lives, then we are not Christians at all!
Yes, by all means, we Christians are forgiven, Amen, Hallelujah! God forgives us the way the old hymn says: “Just as I am, without one plea/ But that Thy blood was shed for me.” By all means that’s true! When we first believe in Christ, God accepts us right where we are and forgives us just the way we are—even though we have all of these sins. But God loves us far too much to leave us just as we are—in our sins, struggling in our sins, victimized by our sins, harming others through our sin.God would be less than fully loving if he didn’t also insist on changing us… on healing us… on making us into people who learn to freely choose him, and choose the treasure that he offers us in his Son over and above all the worldly treasures… worldly treasures that lie to us, and tempt us, and tell us, “We can make you happy! Trust us! Follow us! Submit to us!”
All that to say, there are no “only forgiven” Christians. There are only Christians who are in the process of being changed from the inside out in a supernatural process we call sanctification.
And how desperately the people of Toccoa, Georgia—the people of Stephens County—need to see a group of Christians at Toccoa First Methodist who are not “only” forgiven… How desperately they need to see us Christians at Toccoa First treasuring Christ above all; how desperately they need tonotice the difference that Jesus makes in our lives.
No more of what I call easy-believism. Easy-believism takes many forms. In the big city, where fewer people report being Christians in the first place, easy-believism often takes the form of universalism: It says, “God loves and accepts and forgives everyone, without condition. God isn’t bothered by sin at all. He doesn’t have anger or wrath toward sin. No one is really lost. Everyone is ultimately going to receive eternal life. It doesn’t matter what they believe or what they do, or even whether or not they have a personal relationship with Christ. God loves you just the way you are! Don’t change a thing.”
I know from personal experience that this kind of easy-believism pervades the left wing of the United Methodist Church and is moving closer to the center as we speak. God willing, if our Annual Conference in November approves it, our church will join about 200 others in disaffiliating from the UMC, so we won’t have to worry about it anymore.
But let’s not feel morally superior or proud… Because in our community, in Toccoa, easy-believism is alive an well… It just takes a different form, and it’s not much better: The kind of easy-believism that infects our community affirms that, yes, by all means, salvation comes through Christ alone—“We’re not like those liberals, after all!” So you gotta walk down an aisle and pray a sinner’s prayer, you gotta make a public profession of faith, you gotta get baptized, you gotta go through confirmation class, you gotta get your name on a church roll somewhere, and then… whew! Then you can just pretty much do whatever you want! Because you’re saved, after all. Once saved always saved!
The Christian faith becomes like fire insurance, right? It becomes a “Get out of hell free” card.
This kind of easy-believism focuses on saving faith as a past event: “Did you pray this prayer at one time in your life. Did you receive Christ at one time in your life? Did you make a profession of faith at one time in your life?” If so… you’re good.
I just want to say, “That’s false assurance!”
True assurance is, you have a living relationship right now with God through Jesus Christ. True assurance means you have the very Spirit of Christ is living within you, “bearing witness with your own spirit” that you are a child of God. True assurance means that your own life bears witness to the activity of the Spirit, because the Lord is, right now, at this moment, producing within you the fruit of the Spirit: which means that your life is increasingly characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 3
Is this happening? If not, I don’t know any kinder way of saying it: You may not be saved.
We got too many preachers preaching easy-believism that says otherwise. And they’re wrong. I’m against it. I’m a Methodist. Let’s be Methodists! What I’m saying is from the very center of Wesleyan Christian thought! There’s a reason the church sign doesn’t say Baptist or Alliance or Presbyterian or Episcopalian.
So I’m not giving you false assurance.
I’m saying, along with the apostle Paul, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”4 2 Corinthians 13:5.
How desperate our world, how desperately our community, needs to see people like us, at Toccoa First, “treasuring Christ above all”! How desperately they need to see the difference that having a living relationship with Jesus Christ makes in our lives!
And the primary means for being transformed by the Spirit, through this process we call sanctification, are the Spirit-breathed words of this book, holy scripture. “All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, that the man [or woman] of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”5 Elsewhere we’re told that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” 6
That sounds painful, doesn’t it? It’s supposed to be. If you need life-saving surgery, after all, the surgeon is literally going to injure you first—is literally going to hurt you first—in order to save you. The pain is necessary. That’s what it’s like sometimes to submit ourselves to the two-edge sword of God’s Word!
So this is why I… and pastor April… and our church are inviting you… challenging you… no, expecting you, as a member of this church, to join us in reading through the Bible in this next year: from September 1, 2023, to August 31, 2024. We started reading on this past Friday. It’s not too late to get started, if you missed it. You got a holiday tomorrow. Spend a little more time resting from your labors in God’s Word. You can find the postcard with September’s daily reading plan on it. You can find resources online. You can even go to Harry and Patti’s Hallmark store and get an excellent book that follows our reading plan—and will help you understand the readings.
But for the next year, Pastor April and I will shape all of our discipleship efforts around this reading plan. It is simply the most important thing that our church will be doing together. Please join us. Every week, including on Wednesday nights and maybe some other times, we will be discussing and answering questions from that week’s Bible reading. If Wednesday night doesn’t work for you, and you want to be part of a small group that’s doing the reading, let us know…We can help you get one started! Every week you’ll have online resources to help you with that week’s reading. And every week I will preach over an important scripture that we read the previous week.
Including today’s scripture, from Genesis 3… Which coincidentally also has a lot to say about God’s Word, the Bible.
And this is Point Number Two… What does today’s scripture teach us about the temptation not to read and treasure and take seriously God’s Word?
Look at verse 1: Satan—in the guise of the serpent—asks, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” Commentators point out that there is a sneer in the devil’s voice as he says these words. He is mocking God’s Word. He’s trying to make God’s Word seem ridiculous… hard to believe… something we can’t really take seriously. “Did God actually say…”
And of course, going back to chapter 2, verse 16 and 17, that’s not even close to what God said. Far from saying, “You can’t eat of any tree,” God said, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden”—except one.
And Eve knows this. I mean, yes, she adds a little bit to God’s command—she says that God said she wasn’t supposed to even touch the tree; God never command that. But Eve’s problem isn’t that she doesn’t know God’s Word, or that she fails to understand what God wants from her, or how God wants her to live… She doesn’t doubt that God said, “Don’t eat the fruit of this tree.”
Eve’s problem is… She doubts whether she can trust the God who said it! She’s beginning to think, in other words, “If I obey God, I will not be happy. Faithfulness to God’s Word will stand in the way of my happiness. God knows that I will be fulfilled, I will be living my best life now if I eat the fruit of this tree, and for some reason, he doesn’t want me to do that!”
And isn’t that true for us today? “I know the Bible says I shouldn’t sleep with that person out of the context of a marriage between one man and one woman for life, but wouldn’t it be great if I could.” “I know the Bible says I shouldn’t horde all of this money, and think only of myself, and spend it on my own selfish concerns, but wouldn’t it be great if I could buy this or purchase that?” “I know the Bible says I shouldn’t hold a grudge and seek revenge against my enemy, oof… but it sure feels good to think about that person getting their payback!” 7
In other words, Satan instills within Eve—and within us—doubts not so much about what God said, but about God’s character, about his trustworthiness… about his very goodness!
And Satan followed this same strategy when he tempts Jesus in Matthew chapter 4.
Recall that the devil shows up for Jesus, when Jesus is on the brink of starvation—having been led by God to fast in the wilderness for 40 days. There’s no food in sight. Meanwhile, forty days earlier, when Jesus was being baptized by John in the Jordan, he heard the voice of his Father from heaven: “You are my beloved Son. With you I am well pleased.”
So Satan means to put the Father’s affirmation of his Son Jesus to the test: He says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
In other words, it’s as if Satan were asking Jesus, “What kind of loving Father—and God did say that he was your Father, right? What kind of loving Father would lead you—his beloved Son, after all—out here in the middle of nowhere to starve to death? Surely a loving Father would want you to eat… and he doesn’t appear to have provided you with any food himself.
“Are you sure he loves you the way he says he does? Are you sure you can trust him? I mean, how can you fulfill your mission to save the world, if you starve to death before you even get started?
“When God said that you were his beloved Son, do you think he was telling the truth?”
Similarly, in the garden with Adam and Eve, Satan questions God’s character: “You’re not going to die if you eat of this tree. God only told you that because he knows if you eat of it you’ll become just like him. And he’d be jealous. Do you really think you can trust a God like that?”
In both cases, Satan is tempting them to believe that God doesn’t have their best interests at heart. God isn’t going to take care of them. God doesn’t really love them… So instead of depending on God completely, they’d better depend on themselves. Instead of trusting in God completely, they’d better trust in themselves. “Go ahead,” Satan says, “eat that fruit”; “Go ahead, turn that stone into bread.”
That’s the test… Adam and Eve failed it; Jesus passed it with flying colors.
And it’s a test, by the way, that every single one of us—not counting Jesus—has failed.
So death begins in this world as estrangement from God. We’re born into a world in which our relationship with God is broken. And unless God does something to solve this problem, our estrangement from God will end in eternal separation from God… in hell.
When Paul, near the end of Romans chapter 7, considers our helpless human condition—how, apart from God’s grace, we are enslaved to sin, we are unable to escape it bonds, he cries out, “Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?”8
And then he says, “Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
And as we go through the Bible this year, I’m going to show you that on nearly every page of scripture—not just the pages of the New Testament—but on nearly every page of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, we will see how Jesus is the answer to our primary problem… with sin, with death, and with separation from God in hell!
And even in today’s scripture we see how Jesus is the answer… Let me give you just one example. And there are others, trust me… And the following insight comes from Pastor Tim Keller.9
Notice the devil’s words to Eve in verses 4 and 5. “But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
You will be like God… In other words, when Adam and Eve were asked to obey God concerning a tree, they chose instead to put themselves in the place of God, a place where only God deserves to be—they attempted to usurp God’s throne, and instead of submitting to God’s will, they attempted to be assert control over their lives apart from God… They put themselves in the place of God… which led to the fall of humanity into sin and misery and eternal death.
Now consider Jesus: The Father asked Christ to obey him concerning a tree—in this case, the cross10—and Christ put himself in place of humanity—a place where only we sinful human beings deserve to be—Christ suffered for our sin what only sinful humanity deserves to suffer… Christ put himself in place of humanity…and result is forgiveness of sin and never-ending joy and eternal life for those who believe in Christ.
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” Galatians 3:13.
- Matthew 16:15 NIV
- Matthew 16:16 NIV
- Galatians 5:22-23
- 2 Corinthians 13:5 ESV
- 2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV
- Hebrews 4:12 ESV
- This is a paraphrase from Tim Keller’s sermon, “Paradise in Crisis,” 01 January 2009. gospelinlife.com. Accessed 30 August 2023.
- Romans 7:24 NLT
- Tim Keller, “Paradise in Crisis,” 01 January 2009. gospelinlife.com. Accessed 30 August 2023.
- Which Paul himself compares to “a tree” in Galatians 3:13