Calling All Sinners

Understanding the Red Letters   Part 20

Even a casual reading of the gospels suggests that Jesus’ ministry had a particular focus toward “sinners”.  In fact, we see now that coming to save sinners was the heart of Christ’s gospel mission.  “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (I Timothy 1:15).  Paul wrote it.  Jesus said it.  And Jesus lived it!

“Friend of Sinners” is one of the most overlooked, but powerful titles ascribed to Jesus.  It was initially given to Him as a criticism by the religious leaders of His day.  Jesus had a penchant for hanging out with sinners.  He seemed to make a point of gathering with sinners.  And it was a constant angst for the religious leaders.  They accused Him of being “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ “ (Luke 7:34).

Accepting a dinner invitation and eating with tax collectors and sinners was considered the worst by the Jewish religious leaders.  “Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him.  Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them’ ” (Luke 15:1-2).

But Jesus had an answer for their complaints.  When Matthew gave a big reception for Jesus that was attended “by a great crowd of tax collectors and other people, the Pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at His disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?’ “ (Luke 5:29-30).

Before the disciples could answer, Jesus spoke up.  “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick.  I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance’ “ (Luke 5:31-32).

This is Jesus’ answer to their charge of “friend of sinners”.  Jesus said, “This is exactly why I came and who I came for!”

This was us!  Sinner is who we were.  Sinner is who we were when Christ first found us, loved us, and saved us.  “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  Praise the Father and the Son for finding, loving, and saving sinners!

Let me close with three quick points on Jesus’ answer, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”  First, we lose the “sinner” label immediately when we believe the gospel.  Holy and beloved saint is our new name.  Our sinner label is in our past.

Second, Jesus did not come just to be a friend of sinners, as beautiful and reassuring at that is.  He came to call us and them to repentance.  Jesus did not require the tax collectors and sinners to change their behavior to come to Him.  Their requirement to join Jesus’ kingdom was the same as ours; repent, change your mind, and believe the gospel.  Change would come to them the same way it came to us; change over time as we allow Jesus to live His life through us.

Finally, the “righteous” who seem to be left out of His call?  These are the self-righteous who had no interest in repentance.  High on their own perceived moral superiority, they were unable to see that they were sinners as well; sinners who needed a Savior.

Faith Like a Child

Understanding the Red Letters   Part 19

“At that time Jesus said, ‘I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.  Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight’ “ (Matthew 11:25-26).

Embracing the gospel message of Jesus Christ has always been about seeing with the eyes of faith.  It has not been about seeing with the most educated eyes, the most intelligent eyes, or even the most religious eyes.  And I believe Jesus’ reference here to children fits this “eyes of faith” theme.

Children have a natural trust in their parents.  Even if we don’t deserve it.  Even if our parenting skills are lacking.  Children have an inherent trust in their mom and dad.  And in a healthy family, that trust is rewarded with a home of love, acceptance, and peace.

Our approach to our heavenly Father should be a child-like trust in the goodness and grace of God.  Fear of His disapproval or disappointment in us is removed as we truly trust our Father’s unconditional love for us.  Don’t overthink it with a bunch of “what ifs” regarding His love for you.  There are none.  He loves you just as you are!

Children understand this kind of love and respond to it.

I think that it is significant that just after Jesus offered this prayer to the Father commending child-like faith, He called out the following invitation.  “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

Infants know how to rest.  Jesus is inviting you to enter His rest as a child.  Not as a toddler who is screaming, running away, and resisting a nap.  No, be like a newborn infant softly resting in the arms of his fawning parents.  God loves you and you can rest in His unconditional love.  You are safe and secure in the loving arms of your heavenly Father.

Shutting the Door to the Kingdom of Heaven

Understanding the Red Letters   Part 18

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in” (Matthew 23:13).

How do we “shut off the kingdom of heaven to people” today?  I think we do this in two ways to two different kinds of people.

To the lost, we shut off the kingdom of heaven by preaching a message of rules and regulations to become a Christian.  We have painted Christianity as a religion of restrictions, sin management, and self-effort.  How is the message of try harder, clean yourself up, and then come to Jesus good news?  It’s not.

The grace of God is good news.  The love and forgiveness of Jesus that is waiting and available to you no matter where you are in your moral endeavors is good news.  The fact that Christ died in our place on a cross, finished the work, and took away our sin is great news!  Our response is to believe His gospel message and be saved.

When we preach an old covenant to-do list such as obeying the ten commandments as our path to God’s acceptance; when we preach the punishment awaiting us from an angry God when we stray; when we preach an Old Testament mindset as part of the Christian life, we are raising a barrier to the gospel.

Jesus’ offer is come as you are.  Our offer is often come when you have it all together.  Preaching a behavioral requirement to becoming a Christian is shutting people out of the kingdom.  Preaching grace is opening a door to the kingdom.

Secondly, we can shut the door for those who already believe from enjoying the kingdom of heaven.  We do this by leading them away from the freedom that comes to us when we enter God’s family; when we enter the kingdom of heaven.

It seems everywhere I look, I see heavy chains placed upon believers.  Following rules, regulations, and spiritual disciplines are required to stay in the kingdom (if your church believes you can lose your salvation) or at least to stay in good standing in the kingdom (if you are taught that your salvation is secure).

In either case, join me, join us, in throwing off your chains!  You are always in good standing with Jesus.  Why?  Because His love is unconditional, His death paid for all of your sins, and you believed His gospel message.

You are set free in Christ from rules, regulations, the Law, or any other burden that leaders send your way.  “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

Throw open wide the doors to the kingdom of heaven so the lost can enter in and the saved can find joy and freedom in the journey!

The Sheep and the Goats

Understanding the Red Letters   Part 17

Continuing on in Matthew chapter 25, we come to a picture of the final judgment.  First, Jesus speaks to the sheep on His right.  “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me’ “ (Mathew 25:34-36).

The righteous will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or in prison?”  “The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’ “ (Matthew 25:40).

To those on His left, the goats, the King will say, “You didn’t do any of these things for Me.”  The goats protest, “When did we see you that way?”  “Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’  These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life“ (Matthew 25:45-46).

If we did not have the rest of the gospel, it would be easy to conclude from this one story that our entrance into heaven, our entrance into “the kingdom” is totally based on our good works toward our fellow man.  But as we have been showing throughout this series, our welcome into heaven is completely based on our faith in Christ.  So how does this parable fit in to our salvation understanding?

The key to the story, in my opinion, is the question that the righteous ask, “Lord, when did we see you this way?”  The righteous were doing righteous acts toward Jesus without even knowing it.  They obviously did not have this checklist on what was required to get into heaven since they didn’t even know they were doing it.  Or said another way, I don’t think this can be a checklist for getting into heaven, because the righteous did not even know they were achieving it.

Why didn’t the righteous know how serving their fellow man related to serving Jesus?  Because serving others is what the righteous do.  It is what they do because it is who they are.  Do we serve our fellow man perfectly?  No, living into our new identity and serving by Christ living His life through us is a maturing process that we learn how to do.  But serving others is not an entrance requirement to get into heaven.  It is what we do as we live into our new identity in Christ.

Never forget the one requirement to enter heaven; believe the gospel message of Jesus Christ.  When you believe this message, you receive the Son.  “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.  He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.  These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life” (I John 5:11-13).

Serving others is part of our new identity DNA.  But as a requirement to enter the kingdom?  That just doesn’t fit the rest of the gospel.

The Parable of the Talents

Understanding the Red Letters   Part 16

The next parable in Matthew chapter 25 (vs 14-30) is often called the parable of the talents.  And the use of the word “talent” in most Bible translations is a bit unfortunate.  The “talent” referred to in the story is simply an amount of money.  But it is nearly impossible to read the passage and not see it as God giving us various talents, giftedness, and abilities.  And it becomes a parable about how we use those abilities to serve Him.  It has nothing to do with that.  So let’s set that aside, and stick with amounts of money.  In the interest of space, here is a quick summary of the story.

A man is about to go on a journey.  He calls his servant and gives him $5000 to invest.  To another servant, he gives $2000.  And to his third servant, he gives $1000.  Upon the master’s return, servants one and two have doubled the master’s money and are rewarded.  Servant three hid the money and returns the original $1000 to his master.

The gist of the last servant’s excuse for not investing the money was, “I know you are hard to please so I didn’t want to take any chances with the money.  So I hid it away and here it is safe and sound.”  The master is furious with the last servant.  The parable ends with this punishment doled out to servant number three, “And cast out this worthless servant into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30).

This sounds terrifyingly bad for the $1000 servant.  What are we to make of his punishment?  And what about the symbolism of who these servants represent?  Is this a picture of three Jesus followers given different amounts to manage?  Is a big punishment waiting for you if you do not make enough use of what God has given you?  And how do you know if you have done enough?

Like the story of the ten virgins, I believe this parable is talking about our salvation.  And the key to this understanding is to start at the end of the parable, verse 30, and work backward.  Similar to the “I never knew you” of the ten virgin story, what appears to be the punishment of hell in this story signifies that servant three is not a believer.  We have it clearly throughout the rest of the gospels that no believer can somehow land in hell because they didn’t live up to a standard.

The iron clad promise from Jesus of heaven and eternal life is based on one thing as far as our part goes; did we believe His gospel message?  If we did, then eternal life in heaven is ours.  Going to hell is never based on our works.  It is the destination for those who refuse to believe the gospel.  So, if we start with that knowledge and see servant three as an unbeliever since his destiny is hell, what are we to make of this parable and the other servants?

The other servants are the saved.  The gospel message has been offered to us in various ways.  Some have more opportunities to hear and receive the gospel.  In this fallen world, some have more barriers to hearing and believing the gospel message.  I think that is what is meant by the various amounts of money given.

The first two servants took what they received – the opportunity to hear and receive the gospel – and did exactly that; they believed.  “Investing” was receiving and believing the gospel.  Servant three “buried” the message.  Servant three rejected the gospel.  Servant three represents the lost who never believe.

I don’t believe that this is a story from Jesus to scare us into working harder.  These parables in Matthew chapter 25 are in the context of being ready for His return.  If you have believed the gospel message of Jesus Christ, you are ready for His return.  Your lamp is full of oil and your investment has produced the desired result – you believe the gospel.  You are ready for the master to come for us.