God’s Zeal for Our Happiness
There is a fundamental, universal truth that is common to all human beings: we all want to be happy. It’s what drives everything we do—even those who seek vengeance against others, even those who hang themselves (as Pascal famously said) are driven by the desire for happiness. For satisfaction. For fulfillment.
But we never know quite where to go to look for it.
That search is where Jesus is going to begin today. We’ve got a lot to see today, so I’ll invite you right away to turn with me to the gospel of Luke, chapter 11. We’ll begin reading at v. 27.
The blessedness of obedience (v. 27-28)
27 As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!”
This verse always catches me by surprise, no matter how many times I read it. And the reason is because in v. 27 this woman in the crowd sounds awfully…Catholic, doesn’t she? “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” Whose womb is that? Who nursed Jesus? The virgin Mary! And this woman wants to proclaim her blessed.
Now, she may have simply meant it the way the Bible means it when it talks of Mary being blessed—remember at the beginning of this gospel, in Luke 1? The angel appears to Mary, to tell her she’s pregnant with Jesus, and she’s afraid, and he says to her (Luke 1.30),
Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.
Literally, it’s “you have found GRACE”: and grace in the Bible is always unmerited grace. Only sinners need grace; only people who don’t deserve grace can receive it, because otherwise it’s not grace, but a due.
But Catholics will jump on this and say that Mary was without sin, and that that is why she was found worthy to bear the Son of God.
Now, why is this such a big problem? Two reasons.
First of all, seeing Mary as particularly holy in the eyes of God diminishes the value of his grace to everyone else. The gospel tells us that when we place our faith in Christ, his perfect righteousness is given to us, and God considers us just as righteous as Christ was.
But if there are somehow different tiers of people, different levels of “righteous” before God, then that means that Jesus’s sacrifice for us didn’t really do all it could do—it brought us here, but not here. And that, of course, destroys the value of the gospel itself. It’s a very big deal.
The second problem is simpler, and completely obvious from our text: when the woman singles Mary out as particularly blessed because she was Christ’s mother, Jesus disagrees with her! V. 28:
28 But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
He says, “No no—I understand why you’d want to single my mom out, but God’s doing something much bigger than that. If you want to see someone truly blessed, look at the man or the woman who hears the word of God and keeps it.”
We like that…but we have a hard time believing it, don’t we?
Have you ever wondered why it’s so hard for some people to buy into the whole “eat-healthy-and-exercise” lifestyle? I’ve had conversations with Paul about his exercise routine: he plays some kind of sport multiple times a week, and he can’t imagine doing otherwise.
People who eat well and exercise know that when they do this regularly, they feel better. And they want to feel better, so they stick with it.
I hate sports, and when I go running or do anything like that, all I feel is exhausted and nauseous. But I know that the reason I feel this way is because I never make it past the first couple times. I generally don’t feel bad enough to convince me that I need to feel all that better, so I don't last long.
This is essentially what Jesus is saying here, but on a much larger and more important scale. He’s saying that those who persevere in obeying God’s commandments will be happier. (The Greek word for “blessed” literally means “happy.”)
Let me just give you an example (that I’m borrowing from Matt Chandler). Some Christians tend to neglect the Law of Moses as unnecessary or unimportant, because Jesus has come and fulfilled that Law for us. But what they forget is that every moral law given in the Law of Moses is there to ensure the happiness of the society that keeps it.
Think back, for example, to the ten commandments we find in Exodus 20.
Left to their own devices, human societies always tend toward certain sinful behaviors.
The powerful wield totalitarian control over the weak. So God says (v. 3),
You shall have no other gods before me.
God’s absolute authority prevents any human being from having absolute authority over any other—since there is only one God, no human being can raise himself up as one.
In human societies, false gods are used to support the powerful. The powerful set up symbols—statues and slogans and monuments—to drive home in the hearts and minds of their subjects the power they hold over them. So God says (v. 4),
4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
In human societies, religious leaders wield significant psychological power over believers, and very often abuse that power. So God says (v. 7),
7 “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
This is not just about bad language—it is about preventing anyone from trying to appropriate God’s power for his own gain, using God’s name for anything other than God’s will.
Human societies are driven by desire and greed, so in the face of increasing demand, those workers who are weak and the poor will be exploited to meet that demand. So God says (v. 8),
8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.
Some of you really need to hear this: no employer should have an all-consuming power over the life of any of his workers. God’s commandment reminds everyone—from the top-level CEO to the lowest-level day-laborer—that we were made for more than productivity.
In human societies, family life is fragile and expendable. So God makes moves to protect the family unit he himself instituted (v. 12):
12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
And in v. 14:
14 “You shall not commit adultery.
Under God’s authority, children are protected from broken homes; husbands and wives are protected from broken hearts.
In human societies, the weak are vulnerable to violence and genocide and exploitation. So God says (v. 13),
13 You shall not murder.
And v. 15:
15 You shall not steal.
And v. 17:
17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”
Everyone’s personal property, and everyone’s life, are protected.
Finally, in human societies, the weak have no effective legal protection. If someone powerful accuses them unfairly, they do not have the means or the resources to defend themselves from unfair punishment. So God says (v. 16),
16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."
Some of the commandments in the Law of Moses were dependent on their time and culture—they were ritual in nature, meant to demarcate the people of Israel from the pagan nations around them. Thankfully, Jesus fulfilled the Law for us, so we needn’t worry, for example, about boiling a goat in its mother’s milk.
But inherent to the very life of the people of Israel were moral commandments, which transcend time and culture, which God took very seriously and punished very severely if broken, and every one of these commandments existed to show us God's character and to ensure that the people who followed these commandments would flourish. They would be a societal haven, a place where anyone who lived there would say without question, “This is the way it should be everywhere.”
And the same thing is true for every single commandment God gives to his people. Every time God gives a command and says, “This is the kind of people you should be,” the result for those who obey those commands is always blessing and flourishing for them and those around them.
That’s not to say, of course, that following Jesus will solve all our problems or protect us from all pain—there is always that awful burn in the lungs, those sore muscles, before the athlete begins to feel the benefit of his obedience. But God knows how he created us, and each commandment he gives is in line with that design. So we have the rock-hard certainty that if we do what God tells us to do, it will be good for us—infinitely better than our own ideas of what would make us happy.
Now, if we stopped there, it would be tempting to see what Jesus says here as a simple means to an end—if you want to be happy, do what God says. But Jesus is not a means to an end, and God’s commandments are not a means to an end. Simple obedience, no matter how good it is for us on its own, is not enough—in fact, it’s not even the beginning.
That’s why he goes on.
The danger of seeking a sign (v. 29-32)
Now before we move on, we’re going to need some information to get us ready. Jesus will cite two stories from the Old Testament to illustrate what he’s trying to say.
The first is the story of Jonah. If you’ve never read the book of Jonah, go read it (it’s really short, you can read it in a half hour). God sees a town called Nineveh in which sin and depravity have run rampant—he can’t tolerate it any longer. So he sends a prophet named Jonah to Nineveh, to tell them that if they don’t change their ways and repent of their sins, they will be destroyed.
But Jonah doesn’t want to go—he hates the idea that God would just forgive them if they ask him for forgiveness. So he gets on a boat and goes off in the other direction. God makes a storm blow up, and when Jonah realizes the storm is there because of him, he makes the men on the boat throw him overboard, and he is swallowed by a huge fish, and he stays in the belly of this fish for three days and three nights. After this, the fish vomits him up onto the shore near Nineveh, Jonah goes into the town and finally tells them what God told him to, and the people of Nineveh repent, and are spared.
That’s the first story.
The second story Jesus mentions is found in 1 Kings 10 and 2 Chronicles 9. It centers around King Solomon, who was by all accounts the wisest man who ever lived. There was a queen, the queen of Sheba, who heard of Solomon’s wisdom, and who came a very long way to hear his wisdom, and believed that the Lord had blessed Solomon in giving him all this wisdom.
That’s the second story.
Now, the question is, what is Jesus trying to say by bringing them up? Let’s take it little by little.
29 When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.
So Jesus says that the crowds around him are “seeking for a sign.” They want to see miracles, spectacular things to validate Christ’s claims. But Jesus says they don’t really want to validate what Jesus says about himself; they just want to see something to tickle their own fancies—they are “an evil generation.”
So Jesus says, “OK—no miracles here. You’re not going to get the kind of sign you want. I’ll give you a different kind of sign—the sign of Jonah.”
What is “the sign of Jonah”? In Matthew’s gospel, in chapter 12, we see it a little more clearly. Matthew’s telling the same story we see here, but he adds something else Jesus said (v. 39-40):
39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
So what is the sign of Jonah? It’s Jesus himself—crucified, buried and raised. What happened to Jonah would be similar to what happens to Jesus. Jonah was thrown into the sea to drown, and was swallowed by the fish, and three days later spit back out onto the shore, very much alive. In the same way, Jesus would soon be crucified by his people, buried in a borrow tomb; he would remain in that tomb for three days and three nights, and would come out of that tomb, very much alive.
That’s the sign you’re going to get. You want to see a miracle? There’s your miracle.
But clearly, and rather incredibly, it won’t satisfy everyone. Jesus says (v. 31):
31 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. 32 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.
Jesus is reminding these people of stories they know very well in order to rebuke them for their lack of faith. You have seen the Messiah, he says. You want to see a sign, and you have seen me—I’m the greatest and most complete sign you ever could have hoped for. But you still want more.
So you stand condemned. The queen of the South went to extraordinary lengths just to hear Solomon’s wisdom, and I am infinitely greater than Solomon. The people of Nineveh repented when they heard Jonah preach, and I am infinitely greater than Jonah.
You people have no excuse. Other people have seen less than you and believed; you have seen the Son of God himself and yet you want to see more.
Do you see why that is such a scathing rebuke? It’s like telling your teenager who fails at a simple task, “Your six-year-old brother does this better than you.” It’s starting with less and elevating to more.
Jonah shouldn’t have been at Nineveh—he should have died in the sea. And yet God brought him safely to shore, so he could go to Nineveh despite it all. And for the people of Nineveh, hearing the word of someone who shouldn’t be there, speaking on behalf of God, was enough.
In the same way, those who see and hear Christ, and still refuse him, have no excuse. Jesus shouldn’t be there either. By all rights, he should still be in heaven with his Father. Or at the very least, he should still be in a borrowed tomb in Jerusalem.
But he’s not. He came. He lived, he died, and was raised. He shouldn’t have been with these people, and yet he was. He shouldn’t be alive today, speaking to us through his Word. And yet he is.
Hearing the word of someone who shouldn’t be there, who is God himself, speaking on behalf of the Father, should be enough.
And still, we want more proof, just as the people in the crowds did. We still want something undeniable to which we can point before we will accept to trust him. We still want all of our questions answered “just so” before we’re willing to accept the truth of the gospel—until then, we hold our breath.
Jesus says that if we persist in this, we will stand condemned, because while we wait for something we want before we believe, in reality we have everything we need.
I’m not suggesting that your faith should be blind; it needs to be based on something.
But you can’t expect God to accept faith on your terms. He’s the one who gives faith; he’s the one in whom we place our faith; he gets to set the terms of our faith, not us.
The faith we have is based on what he has given us, and he hasn’t given us answers to all of our questions, or just the right miracle, wrapped up and tied with a bow, to satisfy us—he’s given us Jesus. In Jesus, God has given us all the evidence we need.
A road-map of the Christian life
If you want a road map for the Christian life, you need look no further than here.
Jesus, by all rights, should still be in heaven with his Father. And yet he came. He lived, he died, and was raised. He took our sins on himself and he gave us his perfect righteousness.
And at some point, we are told. This good news is proclaimed to us. We hear Christ’s word, coming to us through the words of the Bible, and although all of our questions are not necessarily answered, the news of Christ’s salvation, coming through the proclamation of Christ’s words, is enough. We place our faith in him—we see the sign of Jonah, and we believe; we see that Christ is greater than Jonah or Solomon, and that he is here, and we believe.
When we place our faith in him, we realize how wide the gap is between what God declares us to be (perfectly righteous in Christ) and the way we live our lives today (as sinners). So we repent of that sin, like the people of Nineveh. We hear the good news, and we want to keep in step with it—so we ask God to forgive us our sins, we turn from those sins, and we trust Christ’s righteousness given to us.
We keep on listening to Christ’s word, because his gospel is not just about how we are saved, but how we are to live now that we are saved. We hear the word of God given to us through the faithful transmission of the Scriptures.
And finally, when we hear God’s word, we keep it. We commit ourselves to obeying his commandments—no matter how hard or confusing it is, no matter what sacrifices obedience requires. The queen of the South came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; we will go as far as we must, work as hard as we must, to hear the word of God and keep it.
And why do we do all of this? For two reasons:
• Because Jesus deserves it; and
• because we want to be happy.
I would be super reticent to say that last if Jesus didn’t say it himself. He says (v. 28),
“Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
If we hear the word of God—not just his commands to repent, but his counsel on how he created us to live; his descriptions of his own glorious attributes; his declaration of his own goodness and character; his love for us, which drives us to love others—if we hear his word and keep it, we are blessed. We are happy.
Now I know what some of you may be thinking, and you're right—I would never presume to say that unbelievers aren't happy.
But they are not as happy as they could be. And neither are we. Christians aren't as happy as they could possibly be, at least not right now.
But there are two fundamental differences between a believer's happiness and an unbeliever's:
- Our happiness is still growing, just like theirs—but it is growing from the right source, so it will grow in the right way. "Like a tree planted by rivers of water," the psalmist said: because the Christian's happiness is rooted in God, for whom we were created, it is growing into what it was always meant to be.
- And our happiness, because it is rooted in Christ, will never end. It may be small today, for some of us; for all of us, it is still growing. But it will keep growing, and will never stop, for all eternity.
Without Christ, all the happiness we can find, no matter how potent and powerful it seems today, is temporary. Like a tree being watered with vinegar, because it is not rooted in the right source, eventually it will stagnate. And without Christ, at death, all trace of even that counterfeit happiness will disappear.
True happiness—happiness which finds its source in truths worthy of it; happiness which never ends, but which continues and grows for all eternity... True happiness, brothers and sisters, is found in Christ, and in the life he invites us to live.
Think back to what the woman in the crowd said of the virgin Mary (v. 27): “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” It’s easy to see why she would say that—how amazing must it have been to be her? to be the mother of the Son of God? to see in her own little boy extraordinary wisdom and absolutely no sin? to know that through him would come the salvation of God’s people? What a joy must it have been to be Jesus’s mother!
And yet, if Jesus is telling the truth here, being Jesus’s mother was not the source of the greatest joy God had reserved for Mary.
J.C. Ryle, commenting on this passage, said, “We should observe in these verses how great are the privileges of those who hear and keep God’s Word. Christ views them as his closest relatives. It was a greater honor to the Virgin Mary herself to have Christ living in her heart by faith than to have been the mother of Christ and to have nursed him.”
Faith in Christ; repenting of our sin; listening to God and obeying what he says… This is happiness. It is the happiness we were created for.
And we see in our text two very important things, and I’ll close with these.
Firstly: for those who don’t take their happiness seriously, who don’t seek to gain that happiness in the right way and from the right source, there are very serious consequences.
Those who hear the word of God and keep it are happy, Jesus says. And yet, he is speaking to people who hear the word of God, but don’t keep it. So he says that the people of Nineveh and the queen of the South will condemn them at the final judgment, because they did much more with a lot less. They repented at the preaching of Jonah, but something greater than Jonah is here.
Do you see that this is no laughing matter? This is not a take-it-or-leave-it scenario. He’s not saying, “It’d be cool if you could do this.” He’s saying that God will call up witnesses against you at the final judgment if you do not place your faith in Christ, the sign of Jonah; if you do not repent of your sins and turn from them; if you do not hear the word of God and keep it, and find yourself blessed.
God takes our happiness very seriously—far more seriously than we do.
Secondly: you have everything you need.
That’s the flip-side, the good news: in Jesus Christ, you have everything you need to start seeking your happiness in the right place. You may have questions that don’t have answers today; you may only be half-convinced. But if you have heard the gospel, and know what Christ did for you, and know the call he has given to you to trust in him and follow him, then you have everything you need.
Again, he’s not calling you to blind faith; he’s just calling you to faith on his terms, based on what he has already given you—and he’s given you enough. And the good news is that when we do that—when we trust in him despite our questions and our hesitations, when we obey him despite not quite understanding why or how it would be a good thing—he gives us more and more, he convinces us more and more fully, he strengthens our faith rather than leaving us to wonder.
So brothers and sisters, who hear the word of God day in and day out, do what he says. Hear the word of God and keep it. Give God the chance to show you that he knows what he’s talking about when he tells you what is right and what is wrong; that you will not shrivel if you do what he says, but rather flourish. Obey him, in everything he commands you to do, and see that he knows what he’s doing.
And if you don’t know Christ today, you have everything you need to know him. You have heard the good news. So you can respond rightly.
In a minute we’re going to take communion. Communion is the moment in each service when we remember what Christ did for us on the cross by eating bread (which represents his body, broken for us) and by drinking juice (which represents his blood, shed for us). As we take the bread and the juice together, we remember what Jesus did, and we proclaim to one another that we are all a part of this now.
Everyone here who has faith in Christ—whether you’re a member of this church or not, whether you’re baptized or not—is invited to participate in Communion with us.
If you don’t know Christ, I’ll ask you to stay in your seats during this time. But I’m going to put two prayers on the screen.
The first is a prayer for those who are still seeking the truth. If you want to know what is true, but aren’t convinced yet, pray this prayer and ask God to show you what is true.
The second is a prayer of faith. Perhaps you want to follow Jesus, but don’t know where to start. Well, you can start there—pray this second prayer as a first step of faith toward him. As I’ve said, there is no other rite you need to perform, no other information you need to have. You can begin following Christ today—you, as much as anyone to whom Jesus was speaking to, have seen the sign of Jonah. You have heard the words of Jesus Christ, and know what he did.
So trust him. Turn to him in faith. Repent of your sins. And seek your happiness in him by keeping his word.