I know a pastor whose church split over the color of the ceiling.
Black, as any good Christian should have known, is the color of evil. The devil may disguise himself as an angel of light, but he certainly keeps his office painted with the baleful hue. “Should we lift the devil’s dye in the congregation of the righteous? May it never be!” the faction declared. And when the demands were refused, they left. The body could not endure such colorful compromise.
When a church splits over the color of the ceiling, one must wonder: Why do we even go to church at all? To worship God? To be entertained? To have all of our preferences met?
Why Do You Go to Worship?
Jesus asked people of his day the same thing when they went to hear the preaching of John the Baptist.
Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’” (Matthew 11:7–10)
Surveying John the Baptist’s ministry and Jesus’s questioning of the crowds, God gives us five bad reasons to go to church.
1. To Be Comfortable
What did you go out into the wilderness to see? (Matthew 11:7)
Church, if we’re not careful, can become a suitable backup for those who cannot afford a country club. Free childcare, beautiful people, motivating messages, an inviting place to belong, coffee, donuts, and all sorts of modern conveniences could even draw someone who doesn’t love God at all. Such conveniences need not be bad if they do not lull us to sleep or blunt our zeal.
Jesus reminds the Israelites that they went to the wilderness to hear John speak. They did not sit in plush auditoriums with fresh brewed coffee to hear God’s word at their convenience. They were willing to endure discomfort to hear from God. Would we go into the wilderness, sit in uncomfortable chairs, suffer through less than professional musicians (or children’s ministries) to worship with saints and hear the word of God declared? They went into the wilderness to hear John.
The party, fog, strobe lights, and palace did not draw them. They went to a place they would never go — unless the prophet were there.
2. To Hear Wobbly Opinions
What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? (Matthew 11:7)
Jesus confronts what seems so prevalent these days: uncertain teaching. This prophet wasn’t the popular Bible teacher of today, who explains away the parts he finds problematic or makes a name for himself questioning orthodox belief. He did not rely on skepticism or suspicion to prove his authenticity and gain a following. He did not discuss; he preached. He did not question; he answered. He did not shake in the breeze; he stood firm upon the rock.
Jesus’s hearers went to hear a man of God speak on behalf of God. John, filled with the Spirit since birth, blazed. We, like those Israelites, should long to hear humble men whose “humility” doesn’t make them uncertain about revealed truth, but causes them to be all the more dependent upon it. Any whisper of self vanishes as he proclaims the word from the rooftops (Matthew 10:27). Self-proclaimed skeptics who “don’t have it figured out,” just like most of us, should not teach, just like most of us.
3. To Be Entertained
They did not shrink back from a pastor who was willing to wound them with truth, and confront false teaching. They went to hear John the Baptist say,
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father,” for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. (Matthew 3:7–9)
They did not have itching ears seeking to “accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Timothy 4:3). They did not go to see a man afraid to speak hard things for the good of their souls. He did not flatter them. He did not shoot at other people’s idols. He challenged their false hopes, and the hopes of the Pharisees and Sadducees, about an Abrahamic lineage.
Unlike so many who can see no place for fruit in their scheme of easy-believism and cheap grace, John called his hearers not merely to say sorry, but to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” He did not fear charges of promoting a legalist religion by antinomians in love with their sin. His listeners could not sit back and sip Starbucks while listening to motivational speeches filled with warm stories, and leave unaffected. The wilderness with the prophet was the wrong place to be passively entertained. It was the place to hear from the prophet, believe, confess sins, repent, and be baptized.
4. To Be Shielded from Reality
Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:10)
God had a common mantra he spoke over his false prophets and priests in the Old Testament,
They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14)
John the Baptist proved not to be such a prophet. He warned that, if they had no fruit of repentance, they would be “cut down and thrown into the fire” — an “unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). He did not heal the wound of his people lightly. He did not mumble about judgment or whisper hell away through fictions of annihilationism. He did not pretend to be more loving and forgiving than God. He did not treat eternal realities or immortal souls casually.
Jesus’s forerunner sounded sirens to prepare them for the Lamb of God. Because, as should be unmistakable in Scripture, this life alone sets the course for eternity. Sink in a leaky vessel now, and you shall be lost forever. If he preaches as if nothing were at stake — as if hell’s mouth did not gape open or heaven stands beckoning before us, if he giggles about evil in the pulpit or tells soothing stories to motivate better living but never addresses those secret loves that threaten to undo us or the Christ that offers to save us — he is a scandal to his post.
5. To Hear Mainly About Ourselves
What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.” (Matthew 11:9–10)
John the Baptist’s ministry epitomizes what all true Christian ministries do: they point incessantly to Christ. They are not the light, but they stand as a witness to the light so that all might believe in him. They say with John, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) and, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). They make much of the Christ whose sandal they are unworthy to untie.
They do not proclaim man’s glory, but Christ’s. They do not point to us, but to Christ. They do not preach the Scriptures sanitized, but Christ crucified. John’s hearers went to hear from God and heard about the coming Messiah. The greatest of men lived to herald another (Matthew 11:11).
If the man of God preaches the excellence of Christ boldly, paint the ceiling black, give tree stumps for seats, speak hard words in love about sin — all that we might have more of him.