God’s Gift: The Falling and Rising of Many

“And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed’” (Luke 2:33–35 ESV).

Imagine Mary, marveling but wondering, what did Simeon mean, a sword piercing my soul? She wouldn’t know for 33 years until she stood near Jesus as he hung dying on the cross. Makes you wonder if she thought as she looked at Jesus on the cross, now I know what old Simeon meant.

I want to draw your thoughts to one part of Simeon’s prophecy, “this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many” (Luke 2:34). This is an interesting way to say it. We say the phrase the other way. The rise and fall. So many history books are written that way, the rise and fall of Rome. The rise and fall of the third Reich. I’ve been watching a biography series on Napoleon, which is the rise and fall of Napoleon. Napoleon rose to Versailles. Napoleon fell at Waterloo. The great kingdoms of history rise and then they fall. I’m unaware of any books about anything or anyone that are entitled, The Fall and the Rise.

Did Simeon just get it wrong? In his excitement about holding the Messiah, perhaps he simply misspoke. He got it backwards. You and I do that all the time. Some of us get paid to do it regularly in front of a lot of people.

Yet Simeon says that this Jesus will be the cause of the fall and rise of many. What does that mean?

From Guilt to Forgiveness

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus” (Matthew 1:18–25 ESV).

Jesus’ Name Explains His Mission

“For he shall save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). God names his gift to us, and in doing so, he gives us a hint of what and who is hidden in the wrappings of this little baby.

Have your kids ever tried to pry out of you what is wrapped under the tree? Please, Daddy, can you give me a clue? Just a hint? Just a little glimpse into what it might possibly be? Please Daddy?

God the Father, without our begging, gives us a very clear clue as to the nature of this precious gift. His name? Jesus. His mission? To save his people from their sins. His name explains his mission. Also…

God’s Gift Displays Our Need

I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of receiving a gift that either we didn’t really want, or we already have. It’s a future white elephant gift. You know the look we feign on our face: Oh, thank you. How kind of you.

Have you ever been offended by a gift? What does the wife think when the husband gives her a present and it’s a subscription to Weight Watchers? Does that go over well? Or a wife who buys her husband a book entitled, How to be a Better Husband? The gift is saying something about the need.

In a much more serious way, what should we humans think God is telling us when the gift to us from above is a Savior who will save his people from their sins? By the very nature of the gift, we see from God’s perspective, our greatest need.

“There is a sense in which this statement is not only Christological in nature (in what it says about Mary’s child) but also anthropological, for it says that the Gospel’s readers, both past and present, are the kind of people who need a Savior!”[1] What a wonderful point. God’s gift indicates our greatest need. Our greatest need is forgiveness of our sins. Our greatest need is to be reconciled with a holy God. Our greatest need in a world of death is eternal life. So, what does God do? He sent a sin Savior. He gave us Yeshua.

If God had sent a doctor, we’d know our bodies were sick.
If God had sent a politician, we’d know our government was broken.
If God had sent a plumber, we’d know our pipes were leaking.
If God had sent a soldier, we’d know we were going to war.
If God had sent an architect, we’d know we would need to build.
But God sent a Savior.

If God had sent an electrician, we’d know our wires were crossed.
If God had sent a midwife, we’d know we were pregnant.
If God had sent a pastor, we’d know we needed a sermon.
If God had sent a teacher, we’d know we need some learning.
But God sent a Savior.

If God had sent a mailman, we’d know we had mail coming.
If God had sent a pilot, we’d know we were going on a trip.
If God had sent a chef, we’d know we were in for a feast.
If God sent a farmer, we’d know we needed food.
But God sent a Savior.

If God hadn’t sent a Savior, we’d think Christmas was about trees and toys.
If God hadn’t sent a Savior, we’d assume we and God were good.
If God hadn’t sent a Savior, we’d think our sins were no big deal.
If God hadn’t sent a Savior, we’d not be saved from our sins.
But praise God, God sent a Savior![2]

The one God sent shows us what we need the most. Sinners need a Savior. God’s gift perfectly corresponds to our greatest need.

There is one easily missed part of the angel’s words that may mean the difference between eternal heaven or hell for you. For he will save all people from their sins. Is that what it says? No. “He will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21, emphasis added). Even here before Jesus was born we see the division that his life and ministry would create forever. His people. Jesus will later call this group his sheep. The apostles will call this group the elect, the church, the redeemed. The angel foretells a salvation that is particular. Or to say, Jesus is a Savior only to those who believe in him as the Savior from their sins.

This is where Christmas gets offensive to the modern person. Our culture likes sentimental Christmas and holiday Christmas and gift giving and receiving Christmas. Retail money-making Christmas. Days off from work and school Christmas. Salvation Army bell ringing and TV Christmas special Christmas. But the modern person rejects an exclusive Christmas and an exclusive salvation. This is certainly not politically correct. But when you are an angel of the Most High God, you don’t care what humans think. You just say it the way it is.

So, the lingering question from the words of the angel is not what Jesus’ name means or why he came, but are you included in “his people”? To receive the blessing of this gift from God requires a sinner to repent of his sins and turn to God by faith in Jesus as the Savior who died for our sins and who was resurrected for our eternal life. Then we become “his people” and then Jesus becomes God’s personal gift to us.

If you are a Christian, rejoice that when the angel said, he will save his people from their sins, 2,000+ years ago, an angel of God was talking about you.

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

© 2020 by Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.

[1] Robert Stein, Luke: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (Nashville: B & H Publishing, 1993), 108.

[2] Steve DeWitt

To hear the message of this excerpt in its entirety, click here

To You, from Above

A Gift for Whom?

Please note the pronouns here…

“And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger’” (Luke 2:10-12, ESV emphasis added).

Answering the question of why Jesus came and died and rose again is a question with a lot of right answers to it. He came to defeat Satan, he came for God’s glory, he came in obedience to his heavenly Father, he came to fulfill prophecy, and on and on we could go. But those are not the reasons the angels highlighted to the shepherds, are they? Angels are messengers of God. They told the shepherds exactly what God wanted them to say. There is a baby whose identity is Savior, Christ, and Lord. He is lying in a manger. But what you need to realize is that he has been born unto you, for you, and for all the people.

This echoes the emphasis of a famous prophecy of Isaiah: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). To us a child. To us a son.

Here is where so many people miss out on the true gift of Christmas because they think salvation is transactional. I do something, and by me doing something, I get God to do something for me. I give you something, you give me something.

The Weak, the Strong, and the Way of Christ

The Strong’s Spiritual Duties in the Church

Bear with the weak and their struggles

“We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me’” (Romans 15:1–3 ESV).

Bear with here doesn’t mean “put up with it.” Bear means “to carry it.” Help them carry the burdens of their weaker conscience. Share the weight of a weak conscience with them.

Unity as Witness and Worship

“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:5–7 ESV).

Live in Harmony with One Another

Harmony is a great word, isn’t it? Who doesn’t love harmony? In music, it’s a function of complementary notes to the melody. To our ear, a really tight harmony sounds beautiful. People spend a lot of money on concert tickets and music in order to hear really tight harmonies.

Ever hear bad harmony? If not, come stand next to me during our singing on a Sunday morning. I like to try to sing harmony but I’m not very good at it. About every third note is right and the rest of the time I’m searching for it. Anybody married to someone like that? It can make worship difficult. Bad harmony is when the notes aren’t getting along. There’s dissonance. It sounds terrible.

Obviously, these verses are not talking about the music in the choir but the relationships in the church. In the Greek it is a thinking word. Live with a mindset of closeness with one another. It’s likely not a coincidence that the word used is thinking, not so much feeling. How does harmony in marriage go when harmony is based on feelings? Not well. At least, not for long. In church life, if my unity with other Christians is feelings-based, it won’t last long. What is the basis of our unity? It is creedal and spiritual. It is the gospel and our spiritual unity in and through Christ.

Christian unity isn’t something we create. We are unified in Jesus. We are baptized all into one body by the Holy Spirit. Our call is less to make unity as to display unity. What’s a good word for what that looks like? Harmony.

“…to live in such harmony with one another…” (Romans 15:5) Please note, Paul doesn’t tell them to agree on everything! It’s a whole chapter about things not agreed on. He could have said, and once you achieve unanimous opinion in all things, live in harmony with one another. But he didn’t. Christian unity is a testimony to the world because it is unity across disagreements, despite disagreements.

“…does not mean that they should all come to the same conclusion. That is obvious from his discussion of the weak and the strong – the conscience of each is to guide the conduct of that person. It is unity of perspective that is desired. And that perspective is that of Christ Jesus, our model for Christian conduct. Think as he does. Take on his values and priorities. As each member of the church draws closer to Christ, we will at the same time draw closer to other members of the body. The experience of Christian unity produces a symphony of praise to God in which each voice blends with all the others to the glory of God” (Mounce).[1]

So, here’s the question, can you love and serve alongside someone who doesn’t agree with you? Most people would say that depends. Are we talking about preferences? Are we talking about politics? Are we talking about essential oils?

What is Paul talking about? Look at verse 7, “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7). What is required for God to fellowship with a sinner? We must repent of our sins and turn in faith to Jesus as our Savior and Lord for forgiveness of sins and eternal life. When the worst sinner trusts in Jesus, Jesus welcomes him into his heart. Are there significant differences between Jesus and the sinner? More than we can imagine. But Jesus’ arms are wide open to people of every preference, ethnicity, tradition, and sinners of every kind and struggle: the liar, the thief, the adulterer, the murderer, and all the rest. Acceptance doesn’t require agreement.

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

© 2020 by Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.

[1] Robert H. Mounce, The New American Commentary: Romans (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 260.

To hear the message of this excerpt in its entirety, click here

The Role of the Old Testament for Us in the New Testament

“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures…” (Romans 15:4, ESV, emphasis added)

Encouragement

Here is where the value of the Old Testament shines so spectacularly. The Old Testament is so encouraging! Is all of it? All of it can be. You may say, what about those long genealogies or some dry section of Ezekiel? Those aren’t that helpful. Admittedly, not every passage is as pastoral or devotional or immediately applicable as other sections. But all of it is encouraging in some way. How?

Truth for life

The entire Old Testament is the divine revelation of God, his character, his purpose, and his glory. As such, it provides truth by which I can live my life. David celebrates this in his amazing tribute to the Scriptures in Psalm 119. One verse says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). It provides direction in practical things, explanation in difficult things, and comfort in devasting things. The Old Testament is truth for every stage of life.

Examples to warn/inspire

It is also encouraging as it provides living, breathing examples of people like us succeeding and failing, sinning and repenting, struggling and overcoming. Teaching is great but don’t we often learn more from living, breathing examples? The Old Testament is filled with them.

Don’t hate your brother, like Cain. Build a preposterous ark if God tells you to. Listen to God and do what he says, even if your name isn’t Abraham. God judges sexual immorality—look at Sodom if you can find it. Even when things are dire, God sends heroes—see Judges—but don’t look too carefully, because all heroes have flaws. David is an example of the destruction of lust and the power of confession and forgiveness. Elijah won at Mt. Carmel and then ran like a schoolgirl from Jezebel—just like us. Esther was courageous and God used her wonderfully. Dare to be a Daniel. I could go on and on. All of them were so flawed yet so wonderfully used by God. The Old Testament is encouraging. It instructs. It encourages. And it gives us…

Hope

“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).

Hope for what, exactly? Hope is about the future. Not the past. Not the present. The future. The hope of the Old Testament centers on a person. The Messiah. In fact, the connection between the Old Testament and the New Testament is Jesus. How does Matthew begin his gospel? Does he just start with Mary and Joseph? No. He starts with a genealogy from the Old Testament. Why? He is connecting what God does in the New Testament with what God does in the Old. The “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1).

Indeed, the Old Testament sets the stage for the glory of the incarnation of Jesus. In many ways, you cannot understand the Old Testament properly without Jesus. As Augustine said, “In the Old Testament the New is concealed; in the New, the Old is revealed.”[1]

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

© 2020 by Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.

[1] Augustine as quoted by Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 100.

To hear the message of this excerpt in its entirety, click here

Together

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24–25 ESV).

Stir/Spur One Another to Love and Good Deeds

“And let us consider…” To consider something is to give it thought, to be intentional. This is not just something that happens, it requires forethought. What are we to think carefully about? How to stir up one another or as the NIV says it, spur one another on. Right now, this sounds interesting to some of us because there are some people in our lives we wouldn’t mind giving the spur to at all. Wait. The goal of the spurring is not retaliation, but love and good deeds produced in their life.

Stir or spur is an interesting word in the Greek. It can mean, “to provoke, to incite, even to irritate.” The word is often used in the negative sense of inciting someone to some action, like a bully picking a fight. Come on! But that is the exact opposite of the sense here. We are to think about how to stir up desires of love and good deeds in the spiritual lives of our fellow members in the church.

Spurs provide a great example. Some of you know that I grew up around horses, although I was never a big horse lover. Most of this was because I had to feed them and help take care of them while my sister rode them in the horse shows and got the ribbons and the trophies and her name in the paper. They never noted in the paper that I was the one feeding them. I don’t recall her ever feeding the horses or pitching manure from the stalls. She was the princess rider.

Anyway, if you’ve ever seen a western, they are always riding horses wearing spurs. What is their purpose? They are there to slightly irritate the animal to get them to do what they need it to do. It puts the horse in motion. It gets them going. I was watching a rodeo with my daughters. The question came up why the horses buck like they do. I said because they put something scratchy on their belly. It really gets them going.

Anybody wearing spiritual spurs to church? Anybody going to church this week with someone on their heart that you are purposefully going to help in their spiritual walk? No. Pastor, I came to be helped. But the passage doesn’t say, Let us be stirred or spurred. It says, Let us spur. It’s an activity we do in love for others. Why? One way that God works to preserve his people is through his people working to preserve one another.

In other words, God uses the local church community to keep the individual members saved as the members look out for one another and actively promote the Christian life in one another.

Years ago, a remarkable thing happened to a man in our church. It ran in the papers and was quite the story. This man was playing golf at Oak Knoll Golf Club here in Crown Point with some friends. As they were playing, he suffered a massive heart attack. I was told that medically speaking, he died right there on the golf course. But he wasn’t alone. His golf buddies raced to him and did CPR. A neighbor happened to be looking out the window and saw it happen. They called the paramedics who were able to get to him in time to shock his heart and bring him back to life.

What’s the lesson? Don’t go golfing? Don’t go golfing alone? Maybe. But the point is that others play a role in sustaining our spiritual lives, especially when we are going through trauma, trials, or suffering. It’s an example of how we desperately need each other. By divine design, the Christian life is to be lived in community with other Christians. What does that look like? Look at verses 24-25:

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

There is a life choice that will seriously diminish your spiritual vitality. What is it? It’s said in the negative, don’t give up meeting together. There may be a play on words that hints at the problem—the Greek word is a form of synagogue. As the name of the book hints, Hebrews was written to formerly practicing Jews who have converted to Christianity. What might have been happening is that these Jews were “synagoguing” again. Not “churching” but synagoguing and being drawn back to Old Covenant religion. We don’t know. What we do know is that some of the members of the church were not prioritizing being together with other Christians.

The word for meeting together conveys a formal gathering. Let us not forsake the formal gathering of Christians, which some are already habitually doing. Why would this be so important that the Holy Spirit would inspire the writer to include it in Scripture? Because there is nothing more invigorating to the Christian life than being with other Christians who are passionate about living for Jesus Christ. And there is nothing more damaging than ignoring that opportunity.

Apparently, some professing Christians in Rome were doing just that. They were habitually not getting together. The reasons are not given but I think we can assume some of them.

  • Sunday chariot races
  • Sunday’s a great day to sell stuff at the market
  • Up too late the night before
  • Too many hypocrites at church

If we were to examine the heart issues behind these excuses, what is the real reason they were neglecting to get together? Pride (I don’t need church or other Christians). Idolatry (Sports, yard work, convenience). Greed (maybe I can pick up some overtime). How about this one—Lost. Pastor, are you saying people who don’t prioritize being with God’s people aren’t saved? Last year, we had 6,000 people at our Easter services across all campuses. We don’t have that many on a regular Sunday. One reason for Christmas- and Easter-only church attenders is that there is no reality to their faith. God isn’t the priority of their life.

“The warning about apostasy that follows (26–39) implies that people who deliberately and persistently abandon the fellowship of Christian believers are in danger of abandoning the Lord himself!” (New Bible Commentary)[1]

Here’s the point: we simply cannot do it alone. Our faith is too flimsy without the love and support of the church, so one reason I go to church is to stay saved. That’s the admonition here. Let’s get together, and in the getting together, let’s individually feed off the corporate heat that being together produces.

Martin Luther said, “At home in my own house there is no warmth or vigor in me, but in the church when the multitude is gathered together, a fire is kindled in my heart and it breaks its way through.”[2] Luther is remembered each year on yesterday’s date, Reformation Sunday. This hero said, At home, I’m weak but something happens in the corporate experience that I cannot produce on my own.

I hear that sort of thing from many people, I leave Bethel and I am ready to take on the week, or this is the highlight of my week. Good. It’s supposed to be.

Our church is in Indiana, home of the most famous car race in the world, the Indy 500. Did you know that the actual beginning of the Indy 500 was right here in Crown Point, Indiana? Before it moved to Indy, it was called the Cobe Cup race from Crown Point to Lowell and back. Average speed? 50 miles an hour. Try to beat that speed when you drive to Lowell. In a sense, you are winning the Indy 500. If I may connect one more dot, the property our building is on was a tree farm owned by the family the Cobe Cup hired to build the first grandstands. It’s possible wood from this property was used. For history lovers like me, that’s fun to think about.

I’ll assume you have watched at least a portion of the Indy 500. Round and round they go. But at certain intervals, they take a pit stop. They do this very fast. They clean the windshield. They change the tires. They top off the gas. They give the driver the thumbs up, and off the car goes.

What happens if an Indy car skips pit stops? Tires get really worn. It’s hard to see through the windshield. And worst of all, they run out of gas. They may go awhile. They run on fumes. They can coast for a long time. But eventually, they stop.

God’s design for Christian community and gathering is for it to be a spiritual pit stop. We all run 200 miles an hour throughout the week. Go. Go. Go. Got to win. Got to compete. Got to get around the track. As we do, our spiritual tank approaches empty. Our tires start to wobble. The service engine light comes on. Spiritually, we desperately need a pit stop.

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

© 2020 by Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.

[1] D.G. Peterson, as quoted by D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, & G. J. Wenham (Eds.), “Hebrews,” New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition (4th ed.). Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 1345.

[2] Martin Luther as quoted by R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul (2 Volumes in 1, ESV Edition), (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), page unknown.

To hear the message of this excerpt in its entirety, click here

Strength for the Weaker Conscience

If Our Conscience Says It’s Wrong, for Us It’s Wrong (Even If for Others It’s Right)

  • “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (Romans 14:14 ESV).
  • “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).

This may sound confusing. How can something be wrong for one person and okay for another? It’s not that the activity itself is subjective in God’s eyes. Rather, when I violate my conscience, I’m no longer acting according to what I actually believe is pleasing to God.

“Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Faith here is that quality of assurance and confidence that something is in God’s will. It’s okay with God. Whatever does not proceed from a moral confidence is sin. It’s a sin to violate your conscience. As Mark Dever succinctly puts it, “Conscience cannot make a wrong thing right, but it can make a right thing wrong.”[1]

Let me share a story here from my past. I know to some this will sound perhaps silly and I certainly don’t want to assume all have freedom, so I’m not encouraging you to violate your conscience. But here is an example from my life. I grew up in a conservative home with convictions about certain activities. One of them was that Christians shouldn’t go to the movie theater. I was the conscientious oldest son, so I didn’t. Then I went to a Christian college that included in its lifestyle statement that we wouldn’t attend movies. I believe I had to sign my name. Again, I was conscientious about things and I conformed. So, by the time I graduated from college at 22, I had never been to a movie theater in my whole life.

I went away to Phoenix, Arizona to go to seminary and a Christian movie came out that I really wanted to see. I was living out west, on my own, and was ready to spread my wings, but I struggled with whether to go see this Christian movie at the movie theater. I decided to go. But you know what happened while I was sitting there? The Tell-Tale Heart. My heart was beating inside me as I tried to watch the movie. I felt so guilty. As I recall, I left early I was so miserable. I knew in my mind that this was morally neutral to God. But my conscience wasn’t there yet.

Years later I came to enjoy the experience, but then I came to Bethel Church 23 years ago. At that time, there were some Christians for whom going to a movie was not appropriate. What did I do? My memory is that I didn’t go to a movie, in our area at least, for many years. Why? Different reason. I had gone from a Susceptible Weaker Brother to a Participating Mature Brother to a Non-Participating Mature Brother [See full sermon for a description of these categories]. My conscience was my guide, and then it transitioned to whatever would be best for the church, at least for where it was at that time.

Culture changes. Different Christian cultures have different consciences. I’m told that there was an international missions conference where many American missionaries were upset by the Europeans drinking alcohol and many Europeans upset that the Americans were drinking soda pop, which is so unhealthy and poor stewardship of the body.

We see so many of our assumptions are less tied to Scripture and more tied to our culture. Our upbringing. The example of some key person in our life.

While We Shouldn’t Violate Our Conscience, We Can Change It

We should all want to be mature in everything. To grow. Growth means change. Certainly, a church filled with mature conscience Christians is to be desired. Andy Naselli wrote an excellent book on the conscience. Here’s a great quote on changing our conscience,

“This means that the second principle (obey conscience) has one critical limitation. If God, the Lord of your conscience, shows you through his Word that your conscience is registering a mistaken moral judgment and if you believe he wants you to adjust your conscience to better match his will, your conscience must bend to God…. If your conscience is so sacrosanct that it’s off-limits even to God, that’s idolatry.”[2]

Don’t disobey your conscience, but don’t bow to it either. Our consciences are not the voice of God. They are broken and they can be changed and redeemed. How?

Compare your position with the Word of God

This is always first. Our consciences are not infallible guides, but the Word of God is. Therefore, we must seek to inform our consciences with God’s Word. If I feel guilty over something that God says is okay, why do I feel that way?

Study what the Bible says either implicitly or principally. Meditate on key related passages. Strive for a renewed mind in that area. I am amazed at how many people get extremely irate over an issue but don’t have a clue what the Bible says on the matter. Go back to the Word. The Bible is my final authority, not my tell-tale heart.

Return to key doctrines like the authority, inspiration, and sufficiency of Scripture and our freedom in Christ

As you struggle with an area that feels wrong, but you recognize that it isn’t wrong by God’s standard, return to key doctrines regarding the Word of God. It is inspired. It is reliable. It is all that we need.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Meditate on that truth. Preach that to yourself. Repent of judgmental attitudes toward others in non-essential areas.

Wait for conscience clearance before participating

If you do steps one and two, and can’t have a clear conscience about something, don’t do it. Wait. Perhaps that will change, but if it doesn’t, don’t violate your conscience. Pray and ask God for wisdom and wait for the internal green light.

Whether you are strong or weak, participating or not, remember the main goal: In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

© 2020 by Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.

[1] Mark Dever as quoted by Andy Naselli & J.D. Crowley, Conscience: What it is, How to Train it, and Loving Those Who Differ, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 72.

[2] Naselli & Crowley, Conscience, 31, 33.

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Love over Liberty

“Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:13–23 ESV).

Keep the Main Things the Main Things

You may say, why should I even care about all this? The key verse here is verse 17,

“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).

Paul says to the strong, your priorities are all messed up if you make this about eating and drinking. The kingdom of God is about so much more than kosher foods and sabbaths. When Christians go to war over Christian liberty issues, it trivializes the really important stuff, which he lists here as “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” How much damage has been done in churches when we make things of really minor importance occasions for major arguments? Have you been in church meetings like this? Yelling. Neck veins popping. Over what? The virgin birth? The nature of Christ? No. It’s who chairs the committee or who picks the color of the carpet.

This leads to the question, what things should we go to the wall over and what things do we, for the sake of peace, not get too worked up over?

Liberty and the Lordship of Christ

“For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:7–12 ESV).

Who is the Priority?

The mature Christian lives verse 8, “So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8). We could easily call this the All About Him approach to Christian liberty. Weak in faith, don’t judge the strong because Jesus is judge. Strong in faith, don’t despise the weak because Jesus is their Savior, too.

The glory of Jesus Christ is our prime directive, and we must approach these otherwise divisive issues from his perspective. What’s best for Jesus’ name? Jesus’ fame? Jesus’ glory? This isn’t about me. It’s not about bacon or vegetables, Sabbaths or not, wine drinking, or a host of other secondary matters.