But it is not as though the word of God has failed...
There are times, especially in large crowds, when I think, How can so many people persist in unbelief? How can multitudes who have read the truth live their lives without embracing the gospel, without ever investigating it? Then I remember that at one time I was in the exact same position, “having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:13). And I remember, after opening my mind enough to entertain even the possibility that the gospel could be true, how long it took me to act upon it.
The reason wasn’t because the truth was hard to find. The reason was because the truth was hard to embrace. As a sincere skeptic learning about Jesus I knew He was the Christ long before I obeyed the gospel. So why the reticence to embrace Him? Because I knew there are consequences to belief.
As a Christian, it’s easy to look at unbelievers and wonder why they persist so long in unbelief. Don’t they see the evidence? Don’t they see the beauty of the Scriptures? Don’t they see God’s love for them? They would be fools not to obey! We think people come to hear the gospel with a blank slate wanting to believe the truth when that is hardly ever the case.
Thomas Nagel, a professor of philosophy at New York University once admitted,
“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
When we approach skeptics and hold up a beautiful verse like John 3:16 we may wonder, How could the beauty of these words not overpower their skepticism? How beautiful and true do words have to be to conquer the human heart?
Somehow, the answer lies in freewill. God gives us the dignity of choice, the freedom to disagree with Him. The Bible doesn’t say, “Say these words in this order and they will believe.” Instead it warns us that most will respond with rejection and some even outright hostility. Even Jesus didn’t convert everyone! On one occasion, Jesus told a rich, devout young man that to go to heaven he would have to do the one thing he wasn’t willing to do. And Jesus let him walk away. (Mk. 9:17-22)
The gospel is still powerful. (Rom. 1:16) “It is not as though the word of God has failed.” (Rom. 9:6) The gospel is hard to accept because it requires change. For the saving word to be planted we must swallow our pride first. (Jas. 1:21) As messengers for God sharing the gospel with our neighbors we have to appreciate #1 – the power to save is in God’s word and #2 – God gave us the will to choose. This is why salvation depends on faith. (Rom. 1:16)
But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost [sinner], Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.
(1 Timothy 1:16)
Trial lawyers know the importance of evidence and the value of a witness. But things get challenging when a witness has something to gain by testifying one way or the other. The “Hearsay Rule” says that statements made out of court by a witness can’t be admissible in court if they are being used to prove the truth of the matter asserted by the statement. This is a convoluted way of saying out-of-court statements can’t be trusted because they can’t be cross-examined in court.
There are a number of exceptions to the “Hearsay Rule” and one of them is an admission by an opponent called a “statement against interest.” In other words, when someone on the other side of the case makes a statement that admits the weakness of his own case and the strength of the other. For example, if a major corporation is being sued for dumping chemicals into a river and the CEO of the corporation admits out of court he ordered the dumping, he has made a “statement against interest.” Since his statement harms his side of the case it carries more weight in court.
Now let’s pretend you were trying to prove the validity of the New Testament or the resurrection in a court of law. Who would be the best witness? Whose testimony would carry the most weight? Many say that the Bible was written by Christians who have a vested interest in Christianity being true. A better witness would be an enemy of the Christian faith who actively opposed and publicly denounced the movement. Can you think of anyone who would fit this description?
Saul of Tarsus would be the most valuable witness for proving the validity of the Christian message. A good trial lawyer would put an eyewitness like Saul, a former enemy turned ally (Gal. 1:13; Phil. 3:4ff), on the stand and let him sing his song to the jury over and over again. Saul was willing to change his mind and it cost him dearly. He was severely persecuted for “switching sides” which gave him credibility as a witness for the truth.
And how did God use Paul in the book of Acts? In every place, He was in a position to share his testimony publicly. When Paul was eventually arrested and put on trial in front of a string of government officials, none of the charges for treason or rebellion stuck. But he used this ready audience not only to defend his innocence but to promote the gospel message.
“I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Tim. 1:12ff)
It seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
Most people know the New Testament begins with the four books of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John. We call them the four Gospels. Sometimes we think of them individually as “Matthew’s Gospel” or “Mark’s Gospel” etc. But instead they should be called “The Gospel according to Matthew, Mark…” etc. In the New Testament there is only one Gospel. (Gal. 1:6-9) And in the first four books of the New Testament we have this one gospel being presented according to the witness of four individuals.
That’s why there is so much similarity between these books. They each have unique qualities but they are telling the same story. They all start, in some way, with the beginning of Jesus’ work on earth and end with His crucifixion and resurrection. Reporting the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is a tidy way of summarizing the good news. (1 Cor. 15:3-4)
We hear a lot about “The Gospel of Thomas” and “The Gospel of Peter,” which are second and third century documents that some say are just as authentic and authoritative as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But if you read “The Gospel of Thomas,” for example, you will notice the difference in content to the original four. It is a fake document that was written later and ascribed to Thomas. In fact, it does not follow the storyline that the others follow. There is no account of Jesus’ ministry, of His death or His resurrection. It is simply a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus. Whatever it is, it is certainly not “The Gospel according to Thomas.”
But the four Gospels of the New Testament are telling the same story and are just ordered differently by four different men. The beginning of Luke’s gospel is especially fascinating because he gives us insight into how he compiled and wrote it. Luke says he did a lot of research. Many people had written summaries of Jesus’ life but Luke wanted a more comprehensive account. So he studied early church documents and he interviewed early Christians, people like Peter and Paul, whom he knew personally.
He did all of this for a man named Theophilus who was a young Christian who needed reassurance about the things he was taught. Theophilus may have been a wealthy patron who funded Luke’s research and the publishing of the document, which was an extremely labor-intensive and costly process.
The purpose of the document was to reassure him of the truth of the Gospel. Many people think faith is a subjective choice and has nothing to do with objective truth. But faith in the Bible is never used in this post-modern way. Rather, Biblical faith is perceiving and acting upon what is true. Our faith is increased (our faith in who God is, what Jesus has done, His death and resurrection) when we understand what is true. When the truth is articulated and defended, faith is established. (Rom. 10:14ff)
"But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere."
(2 Corinthians 2:14)
In this section (2 Cor. 2:14-17) Paul uses the metaphor of a Roman triumphal procession to describe his work as an apostle. He expresses his gratitude (“thanks be to God”) that God is able to display His magnificent power through his weaknesses (cf. 2 Cor. 12:9-10). This emotionally charged illustration provides us with a beautiful picture of the victory we all share in Christ.
Paul says, “Christ always leads us in triumphal procession.” In ancient Rome, when a battle was won, the victorious general and the conquering army would lead the defeated captives through the city in a celebratory victory-march. Although, from the captive's perspective, it was a death-march!
History records more than 300 of these “triumphal processions” between Rome’s founding (7th century BC) and the reign of Vespasian (1st century AD). The Emperor would ride a two-wheeled chariot pulled by a team of four horses through an ornamented triumphal arch with the defeated captives in tow. The arch of Titus, which still stands in Rome today, celebrates his conquest over Jerusalem in AD 70.
Though there is some debate as to how Paul meant his metaphor to be understood, I believe the picture he paints goes something like this: Christ, in defeating sin and death in His resurrection, is the victorious King of kings returning home from battle. He has conquered sinners by His love (Rom. 5:10) and parades His captives before the world as His trophies of divine grace.
Those of us who have willingly submitted ourselves to Christ’s reign were once His enemies but, through the power of His divine love and resurrection, have been reconciled to Him in the cross (2 Cor. 5:18-19; Eph. 2:3; Col. 1:21-22). Now, as we follow our King Jesus, we share in His glorious victory and we march, not to our death, but toward eternal life.
But Christ was not only victorious over the repentant. In Colossians, Paul uses the same word to describe God’s victory over enemies who persist in their rebellion against Christ. “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” (Col. 2:15)
And just as the captives in the ancient world scattered sweet-smelling incense as they marched along in the parade, Christ’s willing captives disperse the beautiful fragrance of the “knowledge” of Christ in every place.
Jesus is the victorious general. He conquered our sinful hearts with His divine love and life. Today, He leads us in triumphal procession before the world as His trophies of grace. And as we follow Him by faith in this triumphal procession we leave in our wake the fragrance of the gospel leading others to Him.
Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Brother JR used to say about nostalgia, “I don’t want to live in the past, but it is nice to visit for a while!” There is something very important about recalling the past. God gave us minds to store our memories for a reason. In fact, memory was a vital part of Israel’s life and worship. In their worship, Israel was to be reminded of their history as slaves in Egypt and of God’s mighty acts of deliverance and grace. They were to remember lest they forgot. (Deut. 4:9, 23; 6:12; 8:11, 14, 19; 9:7, etc.) Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Memory is a powerful tool and can be of great use to us. But memory can also function as a prison or a poison.
In a moment of panic, when Israel was hard pressed between the Red Sea and their captors, their present danger perverted their memory. By contrast, their past as slaves seemed preferable to whatever catastrophe they would face that day. (Ex. 14:11-12)
We also can be guilty of allowing the pain of the present to distort our memory of the past. This distortion may tempt us to fall back into a lifestyle of sin. (Heb. 10; 2 Pet. 2:22)
Sometimes, we see the wickedness of the present and compare it with a past that never existed. The Preacher exhorts us, “Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” (Ecc. 7:10) The past was not better than the present. Though there may have been some bright moments, we should not be so naïve to think that the arc of human history has been anything but a total rejection of God’s truth. (Rom. 3:9-20) While we can see standards of morality shifting, sin has always plagued this earth since Genesis 3.
Other times, we can grow so fond of the past that we begin to mentally “live” in the past at the expense of our future. Faith looks to things “hoped for” in the future. (Heb. 11:1) It is, by nature, forward thinking and so must be forward acting. For a Christian to live by faith, he must “hope” for a brighter future, (Rom. 5:3-5) namely, the resurrection. “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we await for it with patience.” (Rom. 8:24-25)
Remember Lot’s wife who, when escaping from the destruction of Sodom toward God’s salvation, “looked back” and was destroyed for it. (Gen. 19:26) We cannot afford to be like Lot’s wife – frozen in the act of looking backwards. An unhealthy fixation on the past will immobilize us in the present and cost us our eternal future.
Our Lord said of our devotion to Him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Lk. 9:62) When it comes to our commitment to the Lord, we can never look back or second guess our decision to follow Him.