Is Jesus actually important in church? As I write this, the question seems odd. I am a Christ follower and most of those who will read this will consider themselves to be Christ followers. I might need to explain the question. Of course, we will say that, yes, Christ is important in church! He died so that we might be saved! My question, then, would have to be: Is this all that Jesus is to you? If you have stopped at the cross, have you truly confessed Jesus as Lord? If we just say, “Jesus, come and save us,” and that is our only focus, I wonder if we have even trusted Jesus in our churches at all. As we consider who Jesus is in the church, we are going to notice something very important about the nature of our faith.
Before we arrive in this morning’s text, we walk through Deuteronomy and learn that God was using the sins of the rebellious generation in the wilderness to draw the next generation, the generation of promise, to Himself. In chapters 7 and 9, we learn that God did not choose the Israelites because of their size or because of their own righteousness. He chose them because of a promise that He made and in order to bring glory to His own name. We are introduced to this idea of Soli Deo Gloria (glory to God alone). Once we accept that God alone deserves all glory and is working to bring glory to His own name, the idea of Solus Christus (Christ alone) follows logically. It would be nonsensical for anyone to claim that God receives all glory, but he or she can somehow achieve that glory or share in that glory. As a brief example, I remember being at a prayer meeting where we sang songs about God’s glory and then dedicated our time to group prayer. There was this guy who came in, sang with us, and during the prayer time was praying as loud as he could. After the prayer meeting, I remember him asking what others thought of his prayer. Of course, we were all tempted to ask if he thought God was deaf. This guy had the audacity to sing about God’s glory, then to seek glory for himself. I’ve seen this in musicians and praise leaders. I’ve seen this when a church glorifies in how much it does or how many ministries it has. I’ve seen this in churchy people who are just hungry for power in the church. I’ve seen this, dare I say, in preachers and even in the Pope. The glory of God is incompatible with the glory that people seek for themselves. Logically, then, there must be a way for God to receive all of the glory from anything done in a body of believers. So I ask this question: Who is Jesus to us?
Deuteronomy 29:16-29 HCSB
“Indeed, you know how we lived in the land of Egypt and passed through the nations where you traveled. You saw their detestable images and idols made of wood, stone, silver, and gold, which were among them. Be sure there is no man, woman, clan, or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those nations. Be sure there is no root among you bearing poisonous and bitter fruit. When someone hears the words of this oath, he may consider himself exempt, thinking, ‘I will have peace even though I follow my own stubborn heart.’ This will lead to the destruction of the well-watered land as well as the dry land. The Lord will not be willing to forgive him. Instead, His anger and jealousy will burn against that person, and every curse written in this scroll will descend on him. The Lord will blot out his name under heaven, and single him out for harm from all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant written in this book of the law.
“Future generations of your children who follow you and the foreigner who comes from a distant country will see the plagues of the land and the sicknesses the Lord has inflicted on it. All its soil will be a burning waste of sulfur and salt, unsown, producing nothing, with no plant growing on it, just like the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the Lord demolished in His fierce anger. All the nations will ask, ‘Why has the Lord done this to this land? Why this great outburst of anger?’ Then people will answer, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of Yahweh, the God of their fathers, which He had made with them when He brought them out of the land of Egypt. They began to worship other gods, bowing down to gods they had not known — gods that the Lord had not permitted them to worship. Therefore the Lord’s anger burned against this land, and He brought every curse written in this book on it. The Lord uprooted them from their land in His anger, rage, and great wrath, and threw them into another land where they are today.’ The hidden things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and our children forever, so that we may follow all the words of this law.
As we read through this portion of Scripture, we are in the midst of this story where an entire generation rejected God’s promise. God has now raised up their children and is reestablishing His covenant promise with them. Leading up to this point in the book of Deuteronomy, God has reminded the people of the Law that stood as a symbol of this covenant promise.
In this part of the story, God has made a very clear warning to this generation of promise: Anyone who considers him or herself to be exempt from the Law, saying something like, “I will have peace even though I follow my own stubborn heart,” that person will be cursed and his name will be blotted out from under heaven. According to God’s own words through Moses, God will not be willing to forgive that person. His anger and jealousy will burn against that person.
These words from Moses sound so harsh to us. I fear that, in many churches today, we have not represented God well. Most messages I hear will declare to you that God will absolutely forgive anyone who asks and that Christ will most certainly come into our hearts if we simply pray a prayer. If we read this passage of Scripture genuinely and honestly, we see very clearly that there have been people whom God has not forgiven and whose names have been blotted out from under heaven. God was jealous and angry toward these people. They are the people who call themselves by God’s name and believe that they are good even though they still follow the desires of their own sinful hearts. By this, we discover two very important truths about what it means to be a genuine Christian and to have genuine local churches.
- The work of Christ does not stop at the cross. There is a transformative process that overtakes the life of the true believer. In Romans 12, Paul even writes that the Christian is to be transformed by the renewing of his or her mind. A sign of a true relationship with Christ is the denial of sinful desires and the gaining of godly ones.
- Just because we have asked God to save us does not mean that He has. There is no power in a ‘sinner’s prayer.’ In fact, if God is to receive all glory, there is no power in the human ability to produce faith at all. We have to mean it and we have to be transformed. If there is no transformation, we have not been saved.
We get to this outstanding tension in the text of Scripture. God requires so much! I can’t keep this law. I cannot keep this covenant. What a weight this is. If I cannot keep this covenant, my name will be blotted out from under heaven. God’s anger will burn against me with righteous indignation. He has stated that He will not forgive me if I cannot forsake the desires of my own heart! Do you feel the weight as you read this?
Not only does God make this warning to this generation of promise, but He continues by saying that their children will ask why the land is in such bad shape and they would have to admit to their children that they failed to keep God’s covenant. What a dismal place to be.
We might remember that before we get to this part of the story, we have already seen that transformation is needed in the Christian life. Deuteronomy 29:4 states that God must give a mind to understand, ears to hear, and eyes to see. It is God who gives a new spirit and a new heart. In Numbers 14:24, we see that Caleb had a different spirit than the other Israelites and that this different spirit enabled him to follow God completely. The only way that we can have godly desire in contrast to our sinful desire is if God actually places a new spirit within us.
Why do we think that later in Deuteronomy (31:26), it is stated that the Law serves as a witness against the people? No person was capable of keeping the covenant. In order to follow God, people would need the gift of a new spirit. With this new spirit, people’s desires would be transformed. This means that the one who calls himself by God’s name, but still actively pursues his sinful desires has not been given a new spirit. Similarly, the person who prayed a prayer without genuine surrender and who actively pursues his or her sinful desires has not been given a new spirit. The local church that sings about Jesus, but still pursues the human-centered sinful desires of the people is a local church that has not received a new spirit; which can only be given as a gift from God. This idea that a new spirit is a gift is not only found in the Torah (also Pentateuch), it is evident in the New Testament.
In Matthew 16, Jesus states that He will build His church as God reveals His own word to people. In John 15, we see this picture of Christ, who is the vine, trimming His own branches so that they will produce much fruit. God is the one who gives a new spirit. God is the one who transforms. God is the one who receives all glory. Here is where Christ alone is necessary when we accept that all of creation and history is for God’s glory alone. We have nothing to offer. We cannot fulfill the covenant that God made with people. God has to fulfill His own covenant and He does so in the person of Christ (Matthew 5:17). Those who have a transformed spirit in Christ, then, are able to honor God. Their names will not be blotted out under heaven. God’s anger and jealousy will not burn against them. They will have a new desire to pursue genuinely the things of God. This is the message of the cross and a message of deep and profound grace. This is not where the message of the cross stops.
We have such a tendency to think that we have received Christ and stop following Him. It may be the case that we receive Christ and then begin trusting in our own works again. What we do not realize is that salvation is not a one-time event. Christ is continuously saving His people and has a very real promise for those He has brought into His kingdom.
God’s warning to the generation of promise in the above text comes from a God who has all knowledge. After this generation goes into the land of Canaan and takes the land, the people will break the covenant that God has made with them. We can read about this in Judges 2, before Joshua’s death is recorded.
“The Angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim and said, “I brought you out of Egypt and led you into the land I had promised to your fathers. I also said: I will never break My covenant with you. You are not to make a covenant with the people who are living in this land, and you are to tear down their altars. But you have not obeyed Me. What is this you have done? Therefore, I now say: I will not drive out these people before you. They will be thorns in your sides, and their gods will be a trap for you.” When the Angel of the Lord had spoken these words to all the Israelites, the people wept loudly. So they named that place Bochim and offered sacrifices there to the Lord” (Judges 2:1-5 HCSB).
We notice something very specific about the Angel of the Lord. After He rebuked this generation of Israel, the people offered sacrifices to Him. To offer sacrifices is to praise and no mere angel would accept praises from people. We see this in Revelation 22 when John begins to worship an angel and the angel rebukes him and tells him not to. The angel tells John that he is a fellow servant with John, with the prophets, and with John’s brothers. The angel told John to worship God. As the people of God, we remember that God receives all glory. He alone is to be praised. We do not worship angels. We do not worship the prophets. We do not worship the apostles. We do not worship Mary. We do not worship the saints. They are our fellow servants and we are fellow servants with one another. No angel of light would ever accept being worshipped by any person. The Angel of the Lord refers to this covenant as His own covenant. He rebukes the people for not obeying Him specifically.
This is what we might refer to as a theophany. God was manifesting Himself into some physical form to speak to His people. Ultimately, this would foreshadow the coming of God in human flesh as the person of Jesus Christ and, ultimately, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as a helper and a guide (who indwells the people of God making them members of Christ’s body, 1 Corinthians 12:12-14). We see the Angel of the Lord explicitly described in the Old Testament at least fifteen times. He always appears as a shepherd to His people, reorienting the hearts of His people to God.
In the Old Testament, Jesus shepherded His people. People weren’t just the people of God and they weren’t just given a regenerate heart. Jesus actually met with them and guided them. Not everyone had a regenerate heart (or a new spirit, a mind to understand, ears to hear, and eyes to see), but those who had been given the gift were preserved as the true people of God and, like Caleb in Numbers 14, were able to follow God. In the Gospels, Christ came and led His people. He referred to Himself as a shepherd and stated clearly that His sheep hear His voice and listen (John 10:27). Those who are not His sheep, including many people of Israel, do not hear His voice. In John 16:5-15, Jesus states that He must go back to be with the Father and that this is better. When He went back to the Father, He sent the Counselor (the Holy Spirit) who guides us in all things. He shepherds all the people of God and convicts the world concerning sin.
Does it look to you like God is interested in giving people any power at all? Does it seem to you as though Jesus’ work stops at the cross? Do you still believe that God has chosen you because of your righteousness or because of your skill? Do you still think that you have to look like you have everything together? The freeing truth for us is that Christ builds His kingdom. Christ alone holds up and sustains His kingdom. When I fail, Christ is ever faithful to continue building His church and to shepherd and preserve His people. No one can boast. We can freely admit our imperfections. The building and sustaining of the church does not depend on any one of us. Christ alone is preeminent. Solus Christus follows logically and biblically from Soli Deo Gloria. One of these ideas does not exist without the other also, they are inseparable. As we operate in our lives being the body of Christ, being husbands and wives, being fathers and mothers, when we are at work and at home, as we learn in school, as we retire, and as we raise grandchildren, we know that Christ is building His church and shepherding His people. He is the builder and the cornerstone. Since we are the body of Christ, no matter what role God has given us in our current season, our primary objective as we follow Christ is to recognize Christ as preeminent in all things. At Christmas, we don’t raise our children to worship the god of consumerism or of the sort-of works based righteousness we teach by telling them that they are on some naughty-nice list. We take them to Jesus. We don’t complain about coworkers when we have to pick up the slack. We recognize that Christ has given more grace and we abide in Christ’s promise, always practicing grace and generosity while pointing our coworkers to Christ. The Christian faith is entirely political, but it does not abide in the Republican or Democratic party. Christ is the preeminent one. In the local church, we don’t have to have our way and we don’t assume that anything about the church depends on us. Christ is the true builder and He is the cornerstone. If we have this new spirit, we will hear Christ and follow Christ because He is preserving and shepherding His people. We see this throughout Scripture:
So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. The whole building, being put together by Him, grows into a holy sanctuary in the Lord. You also are being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit.
Christ is the cornerstone and the whole building is put together by Him! We are being built together, not raising ourselves up. We show, in our lives, that Christ is not preeminent even in something as simple as our absence from a church body. Christ is building His people together. Local churches show that Christ is not preeminent when they compete with one another, when they think themselves to be better, and when they refuse to associate with other local churches for the purpose of this gospel. There are both unregenerate churches and unregenerate people, just as Christ does not abandon His people, we cannot abandon the world.
Then Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit and said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders: If we are being examined today about a good deed done to a disabled man — by what means he was healed — let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene — whom you crucified and whom God raised from the dead — by Him this man is standing here before you healthy. This Jesus is
the stone rejected by you builders,
which has become the cornerstone.
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people, and we must be saved by it.”
When people tried to build God’s kingdom, they failed. Luke quotes Psalm 118 to insist that Christ is the cornerstone even though He had been rejected by human religion (namely that of many Jews).
1 Peter 2:4-8 (Psalm 118)
Coming to Him, a living stone — rejected by men but chosen and valuable to God — you yourselves, as living stones, are being built into a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it is contained in Scripture:
Look! I lay a stone in Zion,
a chosen and honored cornerstone,
and the one who believes in Him
will never be put to shame!
So honor will come to you who believe, but for the unbelieving,
The stone that the builders rejected —
this One has become the cornerstone,
A stone to stumble over,
and a rock to trip over.
They stumble because they disobey the message; they were destined for this.
Peter also quotes from Psalm 118, adding Isaiah 8:14 and 28:16. Jesus is the cornerstone who builds His own kingdom.
Therefore the Lord God said:
“Look, I have laid a stone in Zion,
a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation;
the one who believes will be unshakable.
God laid the cornerstone. Those who believe will be unshakable.
We claim that Jesus is important. Do we mean it? Do the desires of our regenerate hearts, the different sort-of meditations of our minds, and our willing acts of obedience reflect the preeminence of Christ; or do we show that we have claimed the name of Christ only to continue following the sinful desires of our unregenerate hearts? Solus Christus.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.