following Jesus without fear
Last week we looked at a hard text. Jesus is speaking to a group of Pharisees and experts in the Law, and he accuses them of hypocrisy. It’s a hard text because all of us, at some point or another, are guilty of the same things. So if you left last week feeling a bit heavy, that’s good: that’s what that text is designed to do.
That’s why I’m happy to announce today that if last week’s discussion on hypocrisy was hard for you, we’re not done yet! Jesus is going to come back to the subject of hypocrisy, this time with his own disciples, and this time, he’s going to put it in an entirely different context and apply it in an entirely different way.
If you’re not a Christian this morning, it may be hard to identify with any of what I’m about to say. That’s normal: Jesus was speaking to his followers here, not to unbelievers. But there’s something you should take into account here. Luke wrote this gospel for an unbelieving friend, Theophilus, in order to convince him that Jesus was real and that these things were true. And he still felt it important to include these sections where Jesus is speaking directly to believers.
And I think he did that because he wanted Theophilus to see that what Jesus calls his followers to do and believe is never cruel or harsh or undesirable. He calls us to believe that he is for us, even though he has every reason not to be; and that when the God of the universe is for us, nothing—not even death—can take away our joy or our security in him. I think he included these things because he wanted Theophilus to want this, even if he didn’t quite believe it yet.
So if you’re not a believer today, that’s okay; we’re thrilled that you’re here. But I’d like you to keep your ears open, not just for things that seem believable, but for things that seem desirable. Because the kind of joy and security Jesus ensures for us is something we all want. And in Jesus’s case, it’s not too good to be true—it is true. And if you come to him in faith, everything he promises to us becomes a promise to you as well.
That being said, let’s jump right back in. Jesus has just finished criticizing the Pharisees and the scribes at their dinner party.
So afterward, Jesus comes back to where he was before, the crowd of people is still there, and it’s getting bigger and bigger. But rather than standing up to preach to the crowd again, Jesus gathers his disciples around to do a kind of debriefing of his dinner with the Pharisees.
This passage, verses 1 to 12, is an encouragement to Jesus’s disciples to not be afraid to live the life he is calling them to live, no matter what it may cost. And he gives us five reasons why they shouldn’t be afraid.
We find the first reason in v. 1-3:
1) It Will Come Out Eventually (v. 1-3)
1 In the meantime, when so many thousands of the people had gathered together that they were trampling one another, he began to say to his disciples first, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.
Just a reminder of last week: these men, the Pharisees and the experts in the Law, give every impression of being very religious and very holy: they show extravagant generosity, they obey the Law of Moses to the letter, they interpret the Law for others. But inside, Jesus says in 11.39, you are full of greed and wickedness. They give the false impression that they love God and follow him faithfully, when in fact they pursue the details, while entirely missing the point.
So Jesus warns his disciples to watch out for “the leaven of the Pharisees.” This is a strange image, but if you know how leaven works, it makes sense. If you put just a little leaven in a lump of dough, it will spread to every part of that dough, making it rise. It doesn’t take a lot. In the same way, the Pharisees’ hypocrisy infiltrates every aspect of their life and practice: their hypocrisy in one area drives them to act hypocritical in other areas, for as we saw last week, the motivation for hypocrisy is always the same: What would people think if they knew what I was REALLY like?
So Jesus says (end of v. 1):
“Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. 2 Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 3 Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.
It’s a sobering reality that everything we do will one day be made known. Whatever we’re trying to hide will eventually come to light. We’ll slip up and accidentally reveal something about ourselves we didn’t want to reveal. Someone will catch us in the act of doing something we don’t want them to see. The Holy Spirit will convict us to the point where we won’t be able to sleep until we confess it. Or, last but certainly not least, God will reveal all of our works at the judgment (cf. Acts 17.31).
Nothing remains hidden forever. Whatever we’re trying to get away with, we won’t.
So Jesus says, as he said to the Pharisees, don’t try to hide it. Be real. If there is sin in your life, confess that sin to others. Don’t pretend to be better than you are. That’s what we saw last week: the first step in being made more like Christ, in growing in holiness, is being open about the fact that we are sinners in need of a Savior.
But what Jesus says here is actually deeper than that. It’s not just about sin. He said to the Pharisees, Don’t pretend to be perfect, when in fact, you’re not. That’s true for the disciples too. But to his disciples (and we’ll see this from the wider context in a minute), he’s also saying, Don’t pretend you don’t follow me, when in fact, you do.
If your faith is real, it will come out eventually. If your faith is real, people are going to notice it.
Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.
Whatever you have said in the dark, in the privacy of your community group, shall be heard in the light.
What you have whispered in prayer meetings or worship services shall be proclaimed on the housetops.
You see what I’m getting at. In the disciples’ hyper-religious society back then, and in our hyper-secular society today, it is so tempting for a Christian to want to live a “normal life.” The disciples of Jesus would be facing death for following him; but even in our much safer context today, it is still tempting for us to want to act like everyone else and dress like everyone else and talk like everyone else, because if we don’t, people will keep us at arm’s length.
They’ll send subtle jabs at us in team meetings at work.
They’ll be awkward and uncomfortable around us, because they won’t know how to speak to someone whose ideas are as backward and old-fashioned as ours.
We’ll be rejected by friends we hold dear; we’ll even be rejected by our family members who want nothing to do with our faith.
So faced with this impending rejection, many of us prefer to try to blend in, to not say anything which will make people uncomfortable, to laugh at the jokes everyone else laughs at, to keep up with our friends when they’re seeing just how much they can drink tonight.
But this is hypocrisy too, and while the temptation is natural, attempting to blend in and hide our faith is utterly pointless, because if our faith is real, it will show itself eventually.
We’ll slip up and accidentally let slip that we go to church on Sunday. Someone will catch us with a Bible in our bags, or reading it on our phone. We’ll make choices that people will find incomprehensible. The Holy Spirit will convict us to the point where we won’t be able to sleep until we finally tell our closest colleagues the most important thing about us.
So Jesus encourages his disciples: Don’t be afraid. Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Live the life I’m calling you to live, no matter the threat—you wouldn’t be able to hide it even if you tried.
Here’s the second reason he encourages us to live this life without fear: because—
2) God Is the One We Should Fear (v. 4-5)
4 “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do.
Jesus tells his disciples not to fear men who can kill the body—after all, as Eugene Peterson translated v. 4, “they can kill you, but then what can they do?” Rather, we should fear God—and Jesus tells us why.
5 But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!
God has the power and authority to kill. He can take one look at us, and we’ll fall dead on the spot. All he has to do is think it, and he can stop our hearts in their tracks.
And not only does he have the authority to kill, but after he has killed, he has the authority and the right to cast us into hell. It’s a reality we don’t like to consider: hell is what we all deserve. We have all rejected God’s reign and power—even this week, we have preferred our own desires over our King’s desire for us. So we all deserve to be rejected by him. Should he decide to cast us into hell, he would be absolutely right to do so.
This is not the way many of us see God when we come to him.
We try to remake God to be conformed to our desires, rather than forming ourselves to be conformed to who God actually is. We come to God like we’d come to a benevolent and harmless grandfather, who will give us a piece of candy if we’ll come and talk to him.
This is not the God of the Bible, and we should not approach him as such. Everyone who comes near to God should do so with a healthy fear of him.
Matt Chandler tells maybe the best story I’ve ever heard which illustrates this point. Members of his church were on a church retreat in the woods, and at their campgrounds they had a petting zoo with “fainting goats.” (It’s a real thing: the goats will actually fall over if they get spooked.) There was a sign at the entrance of the petting zoo which said, “Please don’t frighten the goats.”
So of course, what did everyone do? They had contests to see who could make the highest number of goats faint. They’d sneak up behind them and go, “Boo!” then watch them fall over.
Here was Chandler’s point: they would not be playing that game if, instead of goats in the pen, it was a lion.
A lion can eat you. A lion can rip you to pieces. It may not do it—it may just sit and consider you silently—but it could. You don’t mess with a lion.
That’s the kind of fear the Bible’s talking about when it talks about fearing God. God has the power and authority to kill us, and after killing us, to cast us into hell.
We should not be afraid to live the life Jesus has calling us to live, because we have something much bigger to fear. That’s the second reason.
Here’s the third: Despite the fact that God is to be feared, he will take care of us.
3) God Will Take Care of Us (v. 6-7)
6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. 7 Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.
Jesus gives us three separate affirmations here that are both staggering. Each one builds on the last, and together they make for one extraordinary assurance.
First of all: not one sparrow is forgotten by God. Sparrows are a dime a dozen. They’re those tiny birds that you see everywhere but probably couldn’t name.
And yet—God knows each and every one of them, in great detail. God decided where this spot would go on this sparrow, and where this sparrow would live, and for how long, and what it would eat this morning. He thinks about them, although they are everywhere and do very little.
Secondly: even the hairs of your head are all numbered. This is already amazing enough—the time and effort it would take to number the hairs on your own head are staggering. Even worse: the average human being loses between 50 and 100 strands of hair every day—so that number is constantly changing.
And yet: at any given moment of any given day, God knows exactly how many hairs are on your head. And it’s not a generality: Jesus is speaking to specific men at a specific time, and he says the hairs on your head are all numbered.
God is focused on the most seemingly insignificant details of the world he created. He numbers the hairs on our head. He knows precisely what is happening in our body at any given time.
Thirdly (and here’s where he brings it home): you are of more value than many sparrows. That doesn’t sound impressive taken out of context; but if we consider the insane attention God gives to the smallest details, it’s incredible.
If God pays that kind of attention to the sparrows, if God pays that much attention to the number of hairs on every person’s head, how much more attention does he give to the men and women, boys and girls, he created in his own image? The people whom he imbued with aspects of his own character and nature, which differentiates them from the animals?
Infinitely more. Incalculably more.
Now, what is the point of all this? I hope you notice the oddity of this whole section.
Fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!
FEAR NOT; you are of more value than many sparrows.
We have this fearsome God, who has the authority to kill, who has all authority over hell itself. Every human being should tremble and quake at the mere idea of his regard landing on us for even a moment.
But to this infinitely powerful, infinitely holy, infinitely fearsome God, his children are of more value than many sparrows. He knows us; he created us in his image; he gave us his Spirit to give us new hearts which desire to follow him; he saved us through the sacrifice of his Son.
What should it do to us, to know that such a massive, all-powerful, infinitely worthy being is in our corner? That he is FOR us? That he values us?
When we know that, what else is left to fear? He has the authority to kill, he has authority over hell itself; and he puts all of his power behind his children, to bring them exactly where he wants them to be.
So we needn’t worry that living the life Jesus has calling us to live will cause us trouble, will bring us persecution, will even bring us death. What could possibly come against us that doesn’t first pass through his hands?
Our God is a fearsome God…and he is FOR us.
So we can obey him without fear—we can obey him with joy—knowing that the God of the universe has not only decided not to kill us, but that he is in our corner, fighting for us. And that whatever may come as a result of our faithfulness will only be what is for his ultimate glory, and our ultimate joy in him.
Next, v. 8: Jesus encourages his disciples to live the life he is calling them to live, because he himself will validate their faith.
4) Christ Validates Our Faith (v. 8-10)
8 “And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, 9 but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God. 10 And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.
Verse 10 is tricky, so we need to spend a minute here before getting back to the point.
Jesus says that someone who speaks disrespectful words against the Son of Man—Jesus—will be forgiven; but whoever “blasphemes against the Holy Spirit” will not be forgiven. There has been an incredible amount of debate around what exactly blaspheming against the Holy Spirit is.
Jesus doesn’t say a lot about it here, and it’s not a big topic of discussion in the rest of Scripture. That is why in order to understand this term—blaspheming against the Holy Spirit—the fathers of the church, throughout most of orthodoxy, have come at the Bible through a wide-angle lens, asking themselves, What is the sin for which there is no forgiveness? And the only possible answer in the rest of the Bible is, unrepentant sin. Sin of which a person never repents.
Now, why would that be blaspheming against the Holy Spirit?
The Holy Spirit’s job is to take the gospel that is proclaimed and apply it to our hearts. But if we persist in rejecting that gospel, in resisting the work of the Spirit, and we resist until the end, there is no possible forgiveness.
Christians often worry that they’ve committed this sin, but that concern is, in and of itself, evidence that they are open to what the Spirit’s doing in them (otherwise, they wouldn’t care).
Now that we know what he means by that, let’s consider why he says what he says:
8 “And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, 9 but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God.
He says it to encourage his disciples to faithfully follow him, because ultimately, God is the only one who can give or refuse a stamp of approval on anyone’s faith.
If we persist in rejecting Christ and denying him before others, then we needn’t worry about being rejected by men; Jesus is the one who will reject us. We saw it earlier—if our faith is real, it will come out. If it never comes out, that’s a pretty good sign our faith isn’t actually real. Again,
fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell.
At the same time, if we faithfully acknowledge Christ before men; if we live our lives unhypocritically, open before others about the God that we serve and the faith we have in him, then Jesus will acknowledge us.
Jesus will validate our faith. Jesus will advocate on our behalf, before the angels in heaven, before the Father himself (cf. Matt. 10.32-33).
Think of that. Jesus gathers the angels around—a multitude of angels in heaven—along with his Father, brings you to stand next to him, puts his arm around your shoulder, and says to the millions of beings present, “________ wasn’t ashamed of us. He was faithful.”
Who could possibly level a criticism against you after that? Who could do or say anything to you that would hurt you, if you knew that the Son of Man himself is defending you?
No one. So don’t be afraid to live the life he has called you to live. Christ will validate your faith.
Lastly: he encourages us to follow him because the Holy Spirit will guide us.
5) The Spirit Will Guide Us (v. 11-12)
11 And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, 12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”
The disciples were potentially facing a much harder struggle than we do today. If they persisted in their faith, they would be persecuted to such an extent that they would be brought before the ruling authorities and accused of treason. There are many, many Christians in the world who still face this kind of persecution today. This is a very, very scary possibility to entertain.
But Jesus tells them, do not be anxious. Why?
Because the Holy Spirit will guide you in what you should say. At that moment, he’ll give you the words. At that moment, he’ll fill in the gaps in your ability.
A great example we see in the New Testament is Stephen. In Acts 6-7, the magistrates accuse Stephen of blasphemy, and the high priest straight-up asks Stephen, “Are these things so?” (Acts 7.1). And rather than simply giving a yes or no answer, Stephen launches into quite a long and very persuasive discourse explaining how it’s actually the religious authorities who are resisting the Holy Spirit and rejecting the God they claim to serve.
It’s a brilliant piece of exposition, and in Acts 7.55, Luke explains what was happening in Stephen, all this time and before: he was full of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was guiding Stephen about what to say.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the authorities were persuaded by what Stephen said, and let him go: they were so enraged following his speech that they kill him, making him the first Christian martyr.
So how could Jesus possibly tell his disciples not to be anxious, if such an outcome was a possibility, even with the Holy Spirit guiding them?
Because when the Holy Spirit regenerates us, our priorities change.
The most important thing for us is no longer our own personal comfort and well-being, but God’s glory and renown. Our chief desire is no longer to live a long and happy life, free from pain or worry: our chief desire is to see the promise fulfilled, that promise given in Habakkuk 2.14, that
the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Why? Because that’s what we were created for. That’s what will make us ultimately happy, and happy forever. When Stephen finally dies, no one is under the impression that he is disappointed about the outcome. He asks Jesus to receive his spirit, he compassionately prays that God would forgive his killers, and Luke tells us (Acts 7.60), he fell asleep.
No matter how the world reacts to our faith, no matter how the world reacts to the Spirit working through us, we need not be anxious. Because he will guide us, and tell us what we need to say, and accomplish his will through us, and lead us into everlasting life and joy in Christ.
I hope you can see the inevitable conclusion to everything Jesus says here. The result of these encouragements is assurance and confidence in the life Jesus calls us to live.
There is a multitude of reasons why Christians today are afraid to live visible and faithful Christian lives. There is a multitude of reasons why we feel the desire every day to blend in, to not stand out, to laugh at the same jokes and pursue the same entertainment and desire the same sexual adventures and build the same lives as everyone else. We want these things, so we pursue them—hiding our secret desires from our brothers and sisters on one side, and hiding our faith from our unbelieving friends and neighbors on the other.
That is a pretty miserable way to live. Always hiding, always pretending, never being open or real with the people who surround us week after week.
Not only does hypocrisy dishonor God; it makes us deeply unhappy.
But Christians are meant to be the most confident people in the world—not because we have confidence in ourselves, but because we know who is behind us. We know who fights for us. We know who contends on our behalf. We know who defends us. We know guides us.
There are areas of our life where God gives us clear instruction as to how we are to obey—how we are to act, what we are to desire, what we are to reject and accept and say—and if we do what he tells us to do, there will be times in which that obedience will be at odds with the world around us, and we will be noticed for it. We will be seen as strange. We may even be persecuted.
But we have the encouragement and exhortation of the Son of God himself, to live the lives he calls us to live.
We live this life because not living it is hypocrisy, and it is impossible: if our faith is real, it will come out. It will be noticed.
We live this life because man can do nothing to us—they can kill us, sure, but then what can they do? No: God, who has the authority over death and hell, is the one we should fear.
We live this life because this fearsome God is the one taking care of us—and there is no stronger or more protective hand.
We live this life because Christ has the final word concerning our faith: it is he who validates our faith before the angels and his Father, and there is no better advocate.
We live this life because we have the promise that no matter the threat, the Spirit will guide us, and teach us in that moment what we are to say and do.
So the call of this morning’s text is simple: Trust that Jesus is telling us the truth here. Trust God to be God for you. Be confident in God’s plan, in God’s hand at work; be confident in him, and be utterly joyful in that confidence.
And unbelievers here today—I started with you, and I’d like to finish with you.
I’m well aware that what I’ve said today, and what I said last week, could potentially give you a lot of ammunition against Christians. Because the warnings Jesus gives here, if we realize that he actually needed to tell us these things, doesn’t make Christians look good. It makes us look weak; it makes us look unsure of ourselves; it makes us look fearful; it makes us look sinful. It’s all, frankly, pretty disappointing;
Can I just be honest? That’s true. We are weak. We are unsure of ourselves. We are fearful. We are sinful. And we disappoint ourselves all the time. Like everyone else. No one’s trying to pretend otherwise.
And that’s exactly why the gospel is good news.
The difference between me as I am now, and me as I was before I became a Christian, is that now, I have someone infinitely strong, infinitely confident, infinitely courageous, and infinitely holy, to go to bat for me. Don’t get me wrong—I’m a totally different man than I was fifteen years ago. But that is only because Jesus was the perfect man I could never be. He took my sin on himself and paid for that sin, and gave me his perfect life, so that God might declare me righteous.
He showed me that I have nothing to fear—not because I’m strong, but because he is. And knowing we have nothing to fear frees us to obey him; it frees us to want what we were created to want and to do what we were created to do.
So we’re not perfect; we are weak; and sometimes we are afraid. But when we are, Jesus steps into that space and says, You’re wrong to fear. In me, you have nothing to hide. You can be yourself. You don’t have to be perfect, because I am perfect for you.
If you would like to know, like us, that you have nothing to hide, nothing to be afraid of; if you would like to be free to know the One who created you, and be what he created you to be, we’re going to something up on the screen during Communion to help you start that journey. We’d love to take that journey with you.