For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (2 Timothy 4:3–4)
This passage is the first reason why the issue of courage is on my front burner. Most places where I’m going these days, as well as the Bethlehem Conference, are teaching all about courage. This coming February, it’s called Courage in Christian Ministry. If 2 Timothy 4:3–4 bodes ill for you, then it bodes well for sick or overly sensitive preaching.
All Eyes on Comfort
Preaching to felt needs is the easiest thing in the world. Preaching to create new felt needs that corresponds with real needs is the hardest thing in the world. Do you understand that? “The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Timothy 4:3–4).
What does that mean? How relevant can you get? It is hard work to preach in such a way as to create felt needs that correspond to real needs. My daddy — who had surgery at seven o’clock this morning and to whom I will fly to see in Greenville, South Carolina, after preaching here on Sunday morning — had said to me, as an evangelist who preached for fifty years: “Johnny, it’s easy to get people saved. It’s hard to get people lost.” The first one is an overstatement, but it makes the point.
It’s hard to get people lost today. There’s a lot of thought that because people have so much bad feeling, all you need to do is preach to help them feel good, and that’s rescue. It’s not rescue — because they’re not feeling bad because they’ve offended God. How many people feel bad in America because they’ve dishonored their Creator by paying no attention to him?
They feel bad because they’re divorced or they feel bad because the kids are leaving home or they feel bad because they have cancer or they feel bad because they’ve lost their job. That’s not something we can preach to if we want to preach the gospel. The problem with human beings is that they’re damned. There’s a sign on Hiawatha Avenue in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, a big black sign with white letters, that says, “I love you, I love you, I love you. – God.”
I said to Noël the other day as we were coming back from our little day-off date down to Capps Barbecue, “I think that is a totally misleading thing to say in the Twin Cities.” Because I think it’s saying, “You’re okay. I support you. I’m on your side,” which is wrong. God is angry at sinners.
Everything Hinges on Happiness
God is angry every day at the unrighteous. Well, that doesn’t “itch” anybody’s ears (2 Timothy 4:3–4). Nobody’s going to “accumulate” you for their pastorate — perhaps unless God gives you a way to preach that truth in such a way as to awaken felt needs that correspond to real needs that are then met and lead to everlasting joy.
“I know what I want: God. And I’ll do anything to get God.”
I’m a Christian Hedonist through and through. If you ask me to define Christian Hedonism, or just hedonism as it occurs in that sentence, it is a life devoted to pleasure. That’s all I am. I am a dyed-in-the-wool, sold-out Christian Hedonist. I live for pleasure. Not ninety-nine percent pleasure and not pleasure that lasts only eight hundred years and then lets you down, but one hundred percent proof pleasure and everlasting pleasure. There is one place that it can be found, according to Psalm 16:11:
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy.
If that’s true, I know what I want: God. And I’ll do anything to get God. I’d die to have God. You can preach the anger of God in that context and have self-centered sinners awaken to joy — real joy. So, my first reason for talking about courage is that the people that are out there that need the gospel and the people that are in your churches that need the whole counsel of God will get “itching ears,” and they’ll only want people to tinkle them (2 Timothy 4:3–4).
Self-Centered by Nature
Another reason is that we live in a culture that is saturated with relativism and subjectivism. Relativism means there are no absolutes. What’s good for you may be good for you, but it doesn’t have to be good for me. What’s right for you may be right for you, but it doesn’t have to be right for me. What’s beautiful for you doesn’t have to be beautiful for me. What’s ugly for you doesn’t have to be ugly for me, because there is no standard to which we all bow. What I mean by subjectivism is that in that milieu, my subjectivity is God. For relativists, God is choice.
It used to be that the Enlightenment was a man-centered thing, but today it is self-centered. The twentieth century will be the century of the self. It will also be the most violent century and deadly century, unless it gets worse in the next one, but more people have been slaughtered by man in this century than in any other century, and it is self to the core. We have magazines named Self. You have self-esteem, which is often mistaken as the purpose of the gospel in America.
Therefore, relativism is a very fitting view of life for those for whom the self is God, because you’re not going to submit to anyone else. It doesn’t matter if they’re God or man. That’s what you can’t say man-centered in the sense that what’s good for humanity is what I believe in. Baloney. Nobody, without God, believes in what’s good for humanity. They believe in what’s good for me. That’s the world we live in, and you’re called upon to preach in such a way that claims the good of humanity to be God’s work.
When the World Hates Truth
Do you know what that’s going to be called? Arrogance. Take that word God in the title “Preaching God in a Man-Centered Age.” What that means, according to John Armstrong’s theology, is preaching the God of the Scriptures, preaching God — not just doorknobs, a higher power’s doorknobs, or a higher power’s whatever. He means a biblical vision of God, which says, “It’s this way and not that way.” There are denials as well as affirmations.
It has contours. There’s character to this God. He’s identifiable. His name is Jesus, and if you don’t believe in Jesus, you don’t have the Father. “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23). Preach that in Temple of Israel on Hennepin Avenue or just in the hearing of Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, which I did in the newspaper two weeks ago. It’s an immediate, front-burner issue with me.
Preaching in Print
Do you know who got all this started? The Southern Baptists. They’re doing a lot of things right these days, especially what they did during Rosh Hashanah. Do you know what that means? Rosh: head. Hashanah: the new year — the highest days of the Jewish calendar. So, the Southern Baptists put out this public statement that all Southern Baptists, all fifteen million of them, should pray for their Jewish friends to believe in Jesus as the Messiah and be saved.
Well, that hit the Wall Street Journal, hit every magazine, hit the editorial page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and there was one word for it everywhere: arrogance. Well, I read this one editorial in the Tribune — that’s my newspaper. I live in this city, and I’ve never had an article published by the Minneapolis Tribune in my life. I’ve written letters for years. I’ve lived there for twenty-five years, and they’ve never printed a letter that I’ve written. Not one.
I read part of the editorial from the Tribune to my people the Sunday after it appeared and said why I thought it was tragic to call arrogant the preaching of the gospel to the Jewish people and inviting them to trust their Messiah. I said, “I’m going to write a response to this. I’ve never had a response published in my life. Would you pray?” And so we had eighteen hundred people pray.
They published it the next Saturday on an opinion page. And I said things like this: “Christianity is defined by Jewish Scriptures and the New Testament. According to the New Testament, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of all the hopes of Israel. He’s the ‘Yes’ to all God’s promises (2 Corinthians 1:20). He is the Messiah.”
I used a bunch of text that was just the Bible’s words. They actually included the Bible’s words. I said, “To reject him is to reject God the Father, and to confess him as Lord of your life is to be reconciled to God: ‘No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also’ (1 John 2:23).” I just preached. They printed it. That’s a miracle.
People Will Push Back
Well, now comes the issue of courage, because the fallout from that was really quite ugly. I’ll give you a few tastes. This appeared the following Saturday: “It is intolerably patronizing the tell adherents of another religion that there is no salvation outside of our faith and community.”
“Nobody, without God, believes in what’s good for humanity.”
That’s one: I am intolerably patronizing. Another one said, “Arrogant is about the nicest thing I could think to say about such a belief.” That’s two. I happened to go that week down to Southern Seminary, when Al Mohler got himself in trouble, also writing in the Wall Street Journal. The responses that hit Al — Al told me that the viciousness of the criticism he received was worse on this issue than when he took a stand on gay rights and so on.
The letters in the newspaper of the Louisville Courier-Journal went like this: “His idolatrous focus on propositional truth is, in my judgment, a retreat from modernity. I want people to know that not all Baptists embrace the my way or no way approach to religion. God’s light shines from many candles, and this Southern Baptist’s focus is simplistic, insensitive, and arrogant.”
Even Churches Will Chide
Then, here’s the one that saddened me most, which came two weeks later. Our church is in downtown Minneapolis. It’s four blocks from the Metrodome. You can walk to downtown, and so I’m included in what’s called the “downtown clergy,” which means the hundred-year-old churches. There’s Westminster Presbyterian, there’s St. Mark’s Episcopal, there’s the Basilica of St. Mary, and there’s Plymouth Congregational — all these mainline Protestant and Catholic churches.
I used to eat breakfast with these guys, but I’ve stopped going to the meetings. I won’t tell you why because it would be indecent, but they teamed up to write a letter, and all of them signed it. I’ll just read you a piece of it, because here’s the grievous thing. Here are the shepherds of the leading churches of Minneapolis. Now, they’re not the most dynamic churches of Minneapolis — those churches are all out in suburbs, and we have hundreds of great churches in the Twin Cities.
But the churches who teamed up are big, ancient, esteemed. If anybody at the newspaper wants a clergy opinion, they go to one of these guys. They’re leading thousands of people and representing Jesus Christ, and here’s what they wrote:
The relationship of Christians to Jews begins, as Reverend John Piper allows in his October 2nd counterpoint, with Judaism of Jesus, but Christianity, while it is Judaism’s child, is not necessarily its fulfillment. To suggest that Judaism is somehow incomplete without Jesus is as inappropriate as a child saying to a parent, “Without me, your life has no meaning.” Further appeals to New Testament texts, as one finds in Reverend Piper’s essay, while appropriate for dialogue within the Christian family, do little to further the cause of Christian-Jewish amity.
Our two traditions now stand side by side, the one acknowledging its debt to the other, but each appreciative that God has seen fit to bless the world with diverse families of faith. True interfaith dialogue is possible only when neither of the parties try to win over or save the other. Such attempts imply and assume superiority, and that is no basis for real conversation.
That’s really sad. That is really, really sad. What I’m illustrating is the relativism of our day, which has penetrated to the heart of most mainline denominations and is trying to penetrate other denominations as well.
Relativism Says, ‘Sez Who?’
Let me illustrate it with a few quotations from contemporary, wise spokesmen. Here’s a word from Michael Novak, who won the Templeton Prize for the advancement of religion in 1994. He said,
Totalitarianism, as Mussolini defined it, is the will to power unchecked by any regard for truth. To surrender the claims of truth upon humans is to surrender earth to thugs. It is to make a mockery of those who endured agonies for truth at the hands of torturers. Vulgar relativism is an invisible gas — odorless, deadly — that is now polluting every free society on earth. It is a gas that attacks the central nervous system of moral striving. The most perilous threat to the free society today, therefore, is neither political nor economic. It is the poisonous, corrupting culture of relativism.
He’s coming at it from a political side and saying that if anything destroys society and leads to totalitarianism, it will be relativism. Back in 1979, there was a law professor, Arthur Leff, who delivered a lecture at Duke University in which he laid down the torture of his soul in wanting there to be absolutes and knowing that there are no absolutes, and what it meant to him. Let me read you this soul-bearing that was most remarkable. He said to the students,
I want to believe — and so do you — in a complete, transcendent, and imminent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe — and so do you — in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want, heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.
Then he closed like this:
All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us “good,” and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us, could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things stand now, everything is up for grabs.
Nevertheless: Napalming babies is bad.
Starving the poor is wicked.
Buying and selling each other is depraved.
Those who stood up to and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and Pol Pot — and General Custer too — have earned salvation.
Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned.
There is in the world such a thing as evil.
[All together now:] Sez who?
God help us.
That’s the end of his talk: the grand Sez who? Sez who? In this milieu of relativism, which has penetrated to the core of the church as well as the world, you are going to need courage to preach the truth the way it ought it be preached.
It could mean controversy. I just came through one, albeit one in my denomination. Frankly, I am stunned at the height to which the avoidance of controversy is elevated as a supreme value. I am stunned at the implicit — though it would be totally denied — truthlessness of that value. Oh, that we would go back and read John Machen, from eighty years ago. Here’s what he wrote in London in 1932:
Men tell us that our preaching should be positive, not negative, that we can preach the truth without attacking error, but if we follow that advice, we shall have to close our Bible and desert its teachings. The New Testament is a polemic book almost from beginning to end.
Some years ago, I was in the company of teachers of the Bible in colleges and other educational institutions of America. One of the most eminent theological professors in the country made an address. In it, he admitted that there were unfortunate controversies about doctrines in the epistles of Paul, but said he, in effect, the real essence of Paul’s teaching is found in the hymn to Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13, and we can avoid controversy today if we will only devote the chief attention to that inspiring hymn.
In reply, I am bound to say that the example was singularly ill-chosen. That hymn to Christian love is in the midst of a great polemic passage. It would never have been written if Paul had been opposed to controversy with error in the church. It was because his soul was stirred within him by a wrong use of spiritual gifts that he was able to write that glorious hymn, so it is always in the church. Every really great Christian utterance, it may almost be said, is born in controversy. It is when men have felt compelled to take a stand against error that they have risen to the really great heights in the celebration of truth.”
My point here is to say not only do we have a biblical warning — “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions (2 Timothy 4:3),” and therefore if you say what is the full counsel of God, you may have to bear some consequences, so have courage — but also that we live in a day in which relativism is the air we breathe.
Absolutes as ‘Arrogant’
It is a humble thing to submit to an objective word outside yourself and to preach it instead of creating out of your own head ideas. Now, that’s exactly the opposite of what contemporary views of humility and pride are today: “Say what you want to say, Tom, and you’ll be humble, but tell me that I should believe what you say, and you are arrogant.”
“You’re simply going to be accused of arrogance if you preach.”
Everybody saying what they want to say is a humble state of affairs. Anybody telling anybody else to believe what they ought to believe is arrogant. That is a total redefinition of humility and pride from what it is in the Bible and what it is in reality. This led me a few weeks ago to write an article called “What Is Humility?” I quoted Chesterton, who got it so right, and I want to make sure that we get this, because you are going to be accused of arrogance if you preach.
You’re simply going to be accused of arrogance if you preach. Anybody that stands up and says, “Thus saith the Lord,” will be scoffed at, sneered at. What then is humility? I’ll just give you five brief statements of what humility is.
Humility begins with a sense of subordination to God in Christ. Luke 6:40 says that a disciple is not above his teacher, so we go under the Bible. We go under Christ. We go under God, and we don’t presume to say anything as our own ideas. We go under, and if somebody can prove us wrong, we will submit to the authorities. That’s the beginning of humility.
Humility does not feel a right to any better treatment than Jesus. When you are persecuted, you don’t huff and puff and say, “You have no right to treat me that way.” George Otis said, “God never called his people to a fair fight.” If you insist on the fight being fair, you’ll never preach the gospel. You’ll ruin the gospel by your insistence on your own rights. You don’t have any rights under God.
You’re a servant. You’re a slave. You go where he tells you to go. You say what he tells you to say. You take your lumps, like it says in 1 Peter 2:20: “For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.” That’s exactly the opposite of the way the world thinks.
The only suffering that you should have is undeserved suffering. When it comes, you don’t have any right to be treated any better than Jesus, and you just accept it. That’s your lot: “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
Humility asserts truth not to bolster the ego or to get control, but as a service to Christ and love to the adversary. I will look any Jewish person in the face who’s calling me arrogant and say, “What you call arrogance and my directing you to Jesus Christ as your Messiah, your Savior, I call love.”
Humility knows it is dependent on grace for all knowing and believing. Finally, humility knows it is fallible. Yes, the world likes that one. Humility considers criticism and learns from it. It considers and listens to all criticism and learns from it, but it also knows that God has made provision for human conviction and that he calls us to persuade others with it.
Rich Off Reproach
Now, I call you to courage in the face of this culture and this biblical warning. Preach the truth boldly. Take stands in newspapers. Take stands at rallies. Go to jail for the unborn. Take some radical steps to put truth before the people. Do something weird and crazy. Take a sabbatical and go to Saudi Arabia.
Last night, I was teaching on suffering at my church, and I quoted this text from Hebrews 11:26 where it says that Moses considered reproaches, suffering for the Christ, to be of greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt. I paused, and I said, “Does anybody feel that your life, your Christian life, is poor right now? Well, do you want some riches? Go out and get some reproaches.”
Come on Tuesday night and go knock on doors with us in Cedar-Riverside. Get some reproaches, and then you’ll be rich. You’ll be able to sleep with mounds of riches around your bed at night. We wonder why we’re poor. It’s because we bought the American Dream of prosperity and comfort and ease, and we don’t realize that riches are in reproaches. The book of Hebrews ends this way: “Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:13–14).
Courageous in Controversy
Our text is Matthew 10:24–31. I want you to read this with me, and I want to give you five incentives to be courageous, the same five that Jesus gave to me about nine years ago. These just set me aflame in the cause of pro-life back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when things were really popping in our city. There were all kinds of rescues going on, and we were a part of that, and at each stage, there has been a different controversial issue.
It seems like we move from one to the other. Some things come to the front burner and other things recede, but if you love truth, and if you believe people’s lives are at stake in regard to truth, you will always be in some controversy. How you comfort yourself in that controversy is very crucial, and courage is one key element of it. Humility is another.
‘Do Not Fear’
A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.
So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:24–31)
Now, there’s no doubt what the main point of this text is, right? Three times he says it. Matthew 10:26: “So have no fear of them.” Matthew 10:28: “And do not fear those who kill the body.” Matthew 10:31: “Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Fear not is the main point of this text. Three times he gives the imperative: “Don’t fear. Don’t fear. Don’t fear.” That’s translated into my sermon this way: “Be courageous. Be courageous. Be courageous.”
Grace Cures All Fear
Get fear of men out of your life. Don’t fear men. Don’t be what Ayn Rand called a second-hander. Ayn Rand was an atheistic philosopher and novelist who wrote Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, The Virtue of Selfishness, and a whole bunch of other books that I got utterly swept away with about twenty years ago.
“If you insist on the fight being fair, you’ll never preach the gospel.”
She’s dead now, and I assume she’s in hell because she hated Christianity with a passion, unless she converted at the end. She thought Christianity was a bunch of baloney because it just had to do with altruism, not courage and standing up for your own convictions, but just laying down dead, like Jesus on the cross, and sacrificing your highest convictions. She talked about being a second-hander, and she despised it, and so do I.
A second-hander is a person who’s so weak in what they believe and in their own sense of their standing in grace that they’re always looking over their shoulder at what others are going to say about what they wear, or say, or how they comb their hair, or do their makeup, or clean their house, or drive the car. “What are others saying about me?” That’s a weak, sniveling, low, despicable way for a human being created in the image of God and redeemed by the blood of Jesus and destined for glory to live.
Five Ways to Catalyze Courage
Who cares what anybody says? You speak the truth. You give an account to the King, and you let the chips fall where they will. That’s what this text is calling you to do. Now, what are the motives here? What are the motives to speak the truth?
I’ll tell you: “What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops” (Matthew 10:27). So, the point is speaking the truth openly, even when it’s controversial, and there are five incentives for it. If you get a hold of them, or if they get a hold of you, you will be one courageous person.
1. Christ accompanies you.
Notice the so or therefore, depending on your version, in Matthew 10:26: “So have no fear of them.” Well, what is that pointing back to? The answer is, this verse, in the preceding one, or these words, in the preceding verse: “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matthew 10:25). Therefore, have no fear of them.
Do you understand the argument? “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household. So have no fear of them” (Matthew 10:25–26). That’s odd. “They’re going to call me Beelzebul? I should fear them.” No, no, no. If they call the master of the house Beelzebul, they’re going to call you that. Therefore, don’t be afraid of them.
Well, what’s the logic here? The logic is, you’re in good company when they call you Beelzebul because they call Jesus Beelzebul, and Jesus is God. He’s all-wise and he’s all-powerful and he said exactly what ought to be said on every occasion and they called him the devil. What do you expect to happen to you? You’re in good company. That’s the argument. You’re with Jesus. You’re not above your master.
2. One day God will vindicate the truth.
In the middle of Matthew 10:26, there’s a little word that the NIV drops out. Shame on them. Thank you, Lane Dennis, for taking the initiative to do better in the upcoming ESV. It’s going to be the best translation out there because the goal of the translation is to be as literal as it can be and to be as readable as it can be. Well, that’s a big challenge, but the NIV is a paraphrase. It’s just leaving words out right and left. I can’t preach from the NIV. I’d have to constantly be pulling rank on my people.
However, last Sunday, I preached from Romans 5:1–2. The NASB says, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.” The NIV leaves out the word also, the RSV leaves out also, and the ESV leaves out also, but we’re going to fix that, I hope, because I built my whole sermon on the word: also. Here’s the reason.
Without the word also, you get this: “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace.” All the commentators who don’t pay any attention to the Greek and don’t read the NASB treat this grace as the same thing as the peace with God. It can’t be the peace with God because of the word also. It’s another thing.
Why the NIV and the RSV and the brothers over in Cambridge working on the ESV leave it out I don’t know, so I emailed Wayne Grudem and said, “Put the also back in, Wayne, because I built my sermon on it this morning. I have to have the word kai in the text.” That’s why we have the NASB in our pews, crummy as it is, wooden and hard to read. It has the words you need. Who cares if it’s smooth?
Now, that was not the point. The point is, there’s a word for here. It goes like this: “Have no fear of them” — here comes an argument, which is incentive number two — “for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Now, how does that work for your courage?
It means that even when you preach something, and many, many people may not get it, and it may not be known as true, and it may not stand on its own two feet out there, being praised by everybody, “Yes, he said a right thing,” but many people are saying, “It’s a wrong thing. It’s a false thing. He’s not telling the truth” — there’s coming a day when what was spoken in the dark will be made light, and what was in secret will be proclaimed on the housetop. It’s going to come to light.
It’s going to be made known. Even though you may not be vindicated now, you will be vindicated later. Take heart, brothers. Life is two seconds long, according to James 4:14. That’s how long a vapor lasts on a good cold day.
3. No enemy can harm your soul.
Matthew 10:28: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” Now, my paraphrase of that is this: “Fear not. You can only be killed” — which is exactly what it says. Isn’t it? “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
That’s mindboggling. That’s radical. That’ll change your preaching. That’ll change your life. That’ll change your ministry. That’ll get your people to the mission field with their children in malaria-infested places.
“You mean more to God than all the birds in the world as his child.”
We’re a bunch of wimps in America. I can’t believe how wimpy we are. “It’s a closed country.” Baloney, there aren’t any closed countries. You just can’t get out of them. There never has been a safe place for kids. There never has been a safe place. America is the most dangerous country in the world for teenagers. I’d rather lose my kid at nineteen to malaria than lose him to the devil at sixteen or twenty-nine or sixty-nine any day.
Don’t fear those who can kill the body, brothers. Preach like this to your people. Get your people moving into some hard things. Get your young people excited about this. Kids are ready to lay down their lives if somebody will tell them these things. They don’t want just to get the latest design or clothes. They think they do. They don’t. You know they don’t.
4. Those close to Christ will experience no harm.
Matthew 10:30: “Even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” Now, what’s the point of that? “Don’t be afraid. The hairs of your head are all numbered.” I think what Jesus wants us to feel when he says that is, to count hairs on the head, you have to get really close. You have to care and have to spend a lot of time going, “One, two, three.”
We adopted a little girl four years ago, and she’s African American. We’ve learned a whole new thing about hair. Her hair is big, and my wife devotes three hours to this hair. Because, when white people adopt African Americans, one of the first assessments of us — I live in a very multicultural neighborhood — is, “Do you know how to take care of this girl? Are you going to make her look stupid?” We go to the black community and we say, “Teach us. Show us. I want to do this right.”
Three hours are needed for those little tiny braids — just as Jesus is over us. He’s close to us. He’s near to us. Do you remember what Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:17? He says, “But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it.” The Lord stood by me — I love that picture.
There’s a picture on my wall I grew up with, and now it hangs in the hallway of our house. It’s painted on a log, and it’s a young teenager in a boat with a big steering wheel, and the clouds are dark, and Jesus — bigger than life, like John says — is behind him with his hand on his shoulder. That hung at the foot of my bed for eighteen years. I think, probably, that I owe more to that picture than my preacher when I was growing up. What that communicated to me is that the Lord stood by me, and my teenage years were hard. He was never, never far away.
There’s something very striking about this, that the hairs of your head are all numbered, because in Luke 21:16–17, when Jesus is describing how horrible it’s going to be in the last day, he says, “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.”
One verse later it says, “But not a hair of your head will perish” (Luke 21:18). What? “They’d catch your head in a basket. Is that what you mean? Chop off your head, and I catch your head?” No. Not a hair of your head will perish when they kill you. You get a hold of that truth, and you will become one free, radical, countercultural citizen of heaven in the Disneyland called America.
5. You can rest in God’s good, sovereign hands.
Matthew 10:31: “You are of more value than many sparrows.” Matthew 10:29: “Not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” You mean more to God than all the birds in the world as his child. Not one bird, not one little sparrow, tips over and falls dead to the ground without God’s purpose in it, which means that everything that befalls you is of God for your good.
Even cancer. I just laid a 23-year-old young man in our church into the ground a week ago. At least, I was part of it. I didn’t do it all, and I had done the wedding for him and his wife seven weeks earlier. That, too, is for the good of his wife, at twenty-one years old, and the good of his mom and dad.
“Christians ought to be the freest, most risk-taking, most radical people in the world.”
His mother and dad started coming to our church six months before he was diagnosed with leukemia. They wouldn’t mind me telling you this because they’ve testified repeatedly to it. They said, “Pastor John, we would have gone insane.” This was halfway through the treatments. “We would’ve gone insane were it not for the sovereignty of God that we’ve heard proclaimed week after week.”
Henry Martyn, the missionary who died at age thirty, said, “If God has work for me to do, I cannot die.” You are immortal until your work is done. Christians ought to be the freest, most risk-taking, most radical people in the world. Don’t yield to the spirit of the age, brothers. Take up whatever sacrifices are necessary and whatever suffering is necessary. Don’t be afraid of controversy. Be courageous.