This week we got back on track with our series, Hard Sayings. One of the things Jesus made fairly abundantly clear over the course of His ministry is that following Him isn’t something to which we can get by with giving merely a cheap lip-service. The hard saying we examined together yesterday morning makes this even clearer than most. Too often we rely on serving Jesus to cover up for not knowing Him well. That won’t cut it. Keep reading to see why.
Think back with me for a minute to your bedroom growing up. What kind of stuff did you have in it? Specifically, whose poster did you have on your wall? Was it an actor? A musician? A sports star? Who was it? How much did you know about this person? Were you a casual fan or a full-blown disciple in the model of the Beliebers? It is not at all uncommon for young people to have someone they idolize. A lot of young, aspiring basketball players today want to be the next Steph Curry. Baseball players look up to Aaron Judge—literally, since he’s a giant. Singers want to be the next Arianna Grande or Miranda Lambert or Taylor Swift.
And when we look up to these kinds of people, we tend to learn everything about them that we can. Young sports fans might be able to recite a whole book of statistics about their favorite players. Fans of the latest boy band could probably give you the whole biography of each of their members. I was a nerd who was into superheroes, and I could…okay, can…tell you whatever you want to know about a pretty healthy group of them. We can get to where we know everything about a person and even wrap our whole identity in being like them—consider just how many young boys and not a few girls got their hair cut like Justin Bieber for a few years there. We know them…all without having ever actually met them. Indeed, if you were to meet such a person on the street and go completely fanboy or fangirl on them, while they might be polite at first, what they’re going to say when the police arrive to pull you away from them is that they don’t know you.
Well, this week finds us getting back on track with our series, Hard Sayings. Last week we took a brief hiatus to get a sneak peek at the big ideas that the kids spent the past week unpacking at Vacation Bible School. I had fun then and I hope you did. I certainly had fun this week with the kids. I even had fun getting a pie smashed in my face. It was comforting to not have to face it alone, although there at the end I was feeling a little alone as all the youth helped me make a whipped cream mold of my whole head. Getting a pie smashed in my face so that we can be a part of building a church for some fellow Baptists in Ghana, though, was worth every bit of it. (Check out the video here.) And let me tell you how incredible these kids are (and their parents and some number of other adults who I think really just wanted to see pie fly). The total cost for building the church was $960. I challenged the kids to bring in $400 of that. By the end of the day Thursday, they had given over $1,100! That plus some more money that I know was given today means we will have been a part of building one whole church and contributing to a second in one of the places in the world where the Gospel is advancing like crazy. This kind of reaching out for God’s kingdom is a way to demonstrate our knowledge of Jesus as a community.
This kind of demonstration is important as we are going to see in the next hard saying from Jesus we’ll talk about this morning. So far in this journey we’ve looked at a few doozies. In our first conversation we saw Jesus raise the bar on what following Him means. It’s not something we can get by doing with only half a heart. Instead, following Jesus takes everything. What this means, as we saw in the second week, is that following Jesus is hard. It’s hard to follow Jesus well. It’s hard to remain committed when the journeying gets tough, and no one makes clearer than Jesus that if we stick with Him long enough, eventually the journeying is going to get tough. But, as tough as the journey is, the rewards for faithfulness over the long haul are even better. Or, to put it as we did then: Faithfulness is hard, but the rewards are rich. Finally, in the week before our break, we looked a bit closer at the challenges associated with following Jesus. The fact is, many of them will come not because of anything we have done, but rather because of who it is we are following. Because He stands as a constant and glaring indictment to folks who are intent on pursuing a path other than God’s, the world hates Jesus. It hates Him, but His physical absence means it can’t take out this hatred on Him. So, it goes for the next most convenient target: Us. The world hates Jesus, but sees us.
If those first three parts of our conversation were focused a bit more on the external challenges associated with following Jesus, the one we’re going to look at this morning is much more internal in nature. As far as I’m concerned, this is about the hardest thing Jesus said period. At the very least it’s the thing that should stop us in our tracks and make us think. In fact, if this saying doesn’t make you pause for at least a few minutes every time you read it to examine your life, you may not actually understand what Jesus is saying here.
We’re going to look this morning at something Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. Now, Jesus was a teacher. He was the master teacher. A significant part of what He spent His time doing was traveling around and helping the people both understand the Law as God had intended for it to be understood as well as to take the Law and advance it forward to the next level. On one occasion in particular near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, a huge crowd had gathered around to hear Him teach. Matthew actually managed to record the whole spiel, and included it in His reflections on His time with Jesus. The Sermon begins in Matthew 5 where Jesus starts out by reinterpreting several key passages in the Law of Moses. Over time, folks had begun to think incorrectly about God’s standards and expectations, and Jesus wanted to fix that. Then, in chapter 6, Jesus dug in a bit deeper to our personal relationship with God, talking about issues like prayer and worry and trust. Chapter 7 of Matthew was a little like the lightning round, but as Jesus was nearing the conclusion, He said several things that at first glance seem unrelated, but all together have a clear trajectory to them.
Look at this with me starting in Matthew 7:12: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
Look at what Jesus does here. He starts by outlining the Golden Rule. Treat other people the way you want to be treated. Versions of this saying have been around for a whole lot longer than Jesus. The difference is that all the other versions make it something either negative or passive. They all say something along the lines of don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you. Jesus’ version is much more fitting with the character of the God who sent His Son to die for us when we were still sinners, as the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 5:8. But then Jesus seems to shift gears talking about gates and ways. He lays out a general standard, but then He starts putting some fences around it. The fact is, not everybody keeps the standard. In fact, if we are to take Jesus’ words at face value here, most don’t keep it. As we’ve already talked about: the path to the kingdom isn’t an easy one. Here is Jesus reminding us of this yet again.
Next, He adds a warning. Check this out in v. 15 now: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
There are probably a couple of sermons in these words. On the one hand, there is the real warning against folks who come in to churches looking to cause trouble, but putting on a mask to hide it. It’s a call for us to trust people, but verify that they really are who they say they are. Don’t throw someone into a leadership or teaching position who hasn’t been around long enough to assess their character well. I once read about a book a woman who was an unbeliever wrote about Christians. In order to do some research, she took a year, moved to Lynchburg, VA, and started attending Jerry Falwell’s church, Thomas Road Baptist. She joined the church, was baptized, joined a small group, got involved in some service teams, and the like. She made herself a part of that community. But it was all a ruse so she could write about us. Now, she was shocked that many of her presuppositions about Christians were wrong, and she found herself really enjoying the community and loving the people, but her devotion was all an act all the same.
On the other hand, though, put yourself in the shoes of Jesus’ audience. That may not actually be so hard here. When someone says something like this, we rather naturally think in terms of us versus them. They—whoever “they” happens to be—are the wolves in sheep’s clothing. We are the true and faithful followers. When Jesus said this, there were some folks in His audience who were no doubt thinking to themselves, “You know, He’s right. We’ve got to be vigilant against folks who might try and corrupt us deceitfully. We’ve got to clarify who the true followers are and start weeding out the rest.” They may have been thinking something like, “Right on, Jesus! Jesus, we’ve been doing all kinds of good things for you. We’ve got good fruit in our lives. You go right on after those folks who would just pretend to be sincere!”
But, this is Jesus. He really doesn’t let anybody think like that for long before dropping a bomb on them. That comes in v. 21 and this is where we find the hard saying. Brace yourselves, and listen to this: “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 I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
Now, perhaps that doesn’t chill you to the bone at first read, but take another look at it with me. In Romans 10:13, Paul writes this: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” That’s pretty powerful stuff. Anyone who cries out to Jesus can receive the gift of salvation He offers. And, far from just being someone strictly New Testament ideal, Paul was quoting this from the prophet Joel. This idea was one that had a long history among the people of God. There’s incredible hope in this saying. There’s incredible hope that Jesus seems to contradict rather directly: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” So, which is it? Can anyone call on the name of the Lord and be saved, or are there some who aren’t going to make the cut?
Well…yes. Clear as mud now? Here’s what Jesus was getting at: The name “Jesus” isn’t a magic word. And, wearing it as a banner while you do great religious deeds—or even ordinary religious deeds—doesn’t make you a Jesus person. In fact, if anything, it can make you the very wolf in sheep’s clothing Jesus warned about just before saying this. Being a follower of Jesus takes more than surface level words and deeds. It is a whole life commitment to the ways and will of God. It is a sacrificial rejection of our will in favor of His. And here’s the really hard thing here: Whether or not someone falls into this category may very well be a surprise to them. Indeed, we can deceive ourselves into thinking we’re on track with Jesus because of all the good things we are supposedly doing in His name, when the reality is that we’re just not. Friends, the thought that someone might get to the throne of judgment, point to a whole lifetime of religious devotion and activity, and have Jesus say, “I never knew you,” should stop us in our tracks to do some internal evaluation.
Here’s the thing: If you’re doing a whole lot of stuff for Jesus—coming to church, serving in church, serving in the community, talking about Jesus with your friends and family, and so on and so forth—but not a lot of stuff with Jesus—reading the Scriptures on a regular and consistent basis, fervent prayer, practicing the spiritual disciplines, and the like—you need to ask some hard questions. They are uncomfortable questions. They are, frankly, terrifying questions. They’re questions like these: When I do the things at church that I’m doing, who am I doing them for…really? How much time do I spend doing for Jesus versus doing with Jesus? Have I given the same amount of time to knowing Jesus more as I have to doing church work? How often am I merely “going through the motions” when it comes to serving the Lord? When it comes to Jesus, am I a friend or a fanboy? Those aren’t easy questions to answer. Depending on what the real answers are, they may be incredibly uncomfortable questions to answer. But, we’ve got to answer them. Jesus’ words here are just too cutting for us to try and ignore them or leave them alone. Because, here’s the big idea: Serving Jesus isn’t the same as knowing Jesus. We can serve Him all day long; we can serve Him when it’s inconvenient; we can serve Him in ways both big and small, but if we don’t know Him, then we can’t really have a relationship with Him. And if we don’t have a relationship with Him, doing things for Him won’t do us any good. It would be like hanging up a poster of our teen idol and claiming it’s evidence that he’s a close friend of ours now. Serving Jesus isn’t the same as knowing Jesus.
Okay, well then how do we demonstrate that we know Jesus? Jesus gives the answer in the next thing He says, but let me give you the summary version first: We build our lives on His words. You see, while following Jesus certainly entails serving Him, that’s not nearly the whole of it. Following Jesus isn’t merely some fashion accessory for our lives. It is a whole life commitment to who He is and what He’s said. The idea here is best wrapped up in the word disciple. Now, the word disciple, at the most fundamental level, just means “learner.” A disciple is someone who learns from another person. But, in the cultural context of Jesus’ day, a disciple was more than just a learner. Disciples were said to be covered in the dust of their masters’ feet. The idea was that they were so committed to being like their teacher in every single detail that they would walk right up behind him everywhere he went just to be sure they didn’t miss anything. They would follow Him everywhere, even into the bathroom, just in case he did something special in there or said a certain prayer which they could learn and practice to be even more like him. They would build their whole lives on his words. Serving Jesus isn’t the same as knowing Jesus, and if we’re going to know Him so that our service actually means something, we’ve got to build our lives on His words.
This is exactly what Jesus said next. Check this out: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
Come on, you’ve built a sandcastle before. You know what Jesus is talking about here. If you build something on the sand with no foundation, then when a big enough storm comes, it’s going to collapse. Structures that outlast the storms have strong, sturdy foundations. Folks, Jesus’ words form the kind of strong foundation on which we need to build our lives. Serving Jesus isn’t the same as knowing Jesus. Well, Jesus isn’t physically here anymore. He won’t be again until He returns to claim His kingdom. If we are going to know Jesus, then, His words are going to be the ticket to the goal. So then, how do we actually do that? What does it look like to build our lives on His words?
For starters, we read them. There is simply no substitute for reading the Scriptures if you are a follower of Jesus. If you want to grow in your faith and grow in your reflection of God’s character, there is no better place to start, to continue, and to concentrate the bulk of your efforts. And yet, as central and simple-to-access as this key resource for spiritual growth is (indeed, the Bible is simultaneously both the most widely available and least read book in the world), far too many professed followers of Jesus engage with the Scriptures on only an occasional basis at best. Let’s put some numbers with that. When asked how often they read the Bible, 13% of the general population of Americans said daily. Want to guess what that number becomes when the sample pool was restricted to professed believers. Let me put it this way: Look around and find the four people seated nearest you. Only one of the five of you reads the Bible daily.
Listen: Serving Jesus is not the same as knowing Jesus. If you want to make the transition from the former to the latter, the best and most basic thing you can do is to read the Scriptures. Make a goal, then, to do just that. Commit to reading the Bible every single day. Set a reminder on your phone. Read along with an accountability partner so you can help keep each other on track. If you use a Bible App like the YouVersion Bible App, you can set your read plans to pop up and remind you to read each day. Whatever it is you have to do to make it happen, reading the Scriptures is the single best way you can come to know Jesus better. Indeed, how are you going to build your life on His words if you don’t read them so that you know what they are?
The second thing you can do to build your life on the words of Jesus is to study them. While reading them is really important, the fact is, some of them are hard. We’ve looked at four hard spots in particular in the last five weeks. Here’s a truth we just can’t escape as much as we’d like to do so: Reading the Bible (especially every day), isn’t always easy. For starters, because of the potential power such a practice has in our lives, if we endeavor to incorporate it more fully and intentionally, our enemy, the devil, is going to do everything he can to throw us off track. More than that, though, the Scriptures were written to a set of cultures, the most recent of which is about 2,000 years removed from ours. Things that they understood as a matter of course we often don’t. Just because you read the words of Jesus doesn’t mean you’ll immediately understand them. So, get some help and learn. Use a good study Bible. Use a commentary (I have several on every book in the Bible). Talk over what you’ve read with another person. Ask me for help. Do something. Just like if a friend said something confusing, you’d stick with it until you understood it, God’s word isn’t always clear at first read. Stick with it—study it—until you get it. This is how we come to know Jesus better.
Don’t stop with just studying them, though. When we study the words of Jesus, we have to have our Bibles or phones or some other device with us to be able to do it. When we memorize them, however, we are unrestrained by anything physical. We have Jesus’ words with us—in us—everywhere we go. Now, when it comes to memorizing Scripture, everybody says the same thing: “I can’t memorize Scripture!” Nonsense! You memorize all kinds of things. Fill in the blanks here: My address is… Take me out to the…ballgame. I pledge allegiance to the…flag. Sing us a song, you’re the…piano man. So bye, bye, Miss…American Pie. My Social Security Number is…okay, don’t answer that one out loud. Should we keep going? The point is: You have all of those things memorized, and I’ll bet if we kept going we could find a whole lot more things you have memorized as well. You can memorize things. You memorize things you deem sufficiently important or which you encounter on a recurring frequency. In other words, if you read the Scriptures, the words of Jesus, on a regular basis, you will begin to memorize them simply by their recurring frequency in your life. Serving Jesus is not the same as knowing Jesus. And one of the best ways to know Jesus—to bring Him into our hearts—is to memorize His words.
One more here: Reading, studying, and even memorizing Jesus’ words are excellent goals in and of themselves. But, if we stop there, we really haven’t done anything for ourselves. Without this last thing, we’re still building our lives on the sand. We’re still running the risk of falling on the wrong side of Jesus’ terrifying declaration, “I never knew you.” There’s one more truly essential thing we have to do: We have to put them into practice. Serving Jesus is not the same as knowing Jesus, and once you know Jesus, you put His words into practice because of who He is. His words lead to abundant life. His words bring hope and healing. They are the words that spoke creation into existence. They called a man alive from His tomb after rotting in it for four days. They stilled a storm and multiplied a small lunch many thousands of times over. They changed water into wine and brought sight to the blind. His words are powerful and true. If you really knew Jesus, why wouldn’t you put His words into action? When Jesus said to love our enemies, then find someone you don’t like and find a way to show Jesus’ love to her. When Jesus said to love God with all your heart, take an inventory of the things you love more than Him and one by one put them back in their proper place. When Jesus said to forgive others, find someone who has hurt you—even if years ago—and intentionally release them from the debt they owe you. Put His words into action. Build your whole life on them. Prove your knowledge of Him. And out of all of that, serve Him with all of your heart.
Serving Jesus isn’t the same as knowing Jesus. But, once you know Him, the serving flows naturally. It flows naturally because of who He is. Serve Him in small ways and big ways. Serve Him publicly and privately. Serve Him in every way you can. Cry out His name for salvation. Shout, “Lord, Lord!” in joyful repose. Because you’ll be His. And life will be yours. And when you stand before Him at the throne of judgment after knowing Him for as many years as He gives you leave to do so in this place, He’ll know you too, it will be a happy reunion. Know Him well and serve Him with gladness.