What I want to talk about is the courage to open your mouth and to say things that you’ve learned about Jesus to people who don’t know those things. If you are single, there is a special calling on this season of your life to be courageous, a season which could extend until you die. I don’t know. Some of you are called to be like Amy Carmichael or like the apostle Paul, and others will be married.
If you are in the unique season of singleness, you have a unique moment to speak to a certain group of people that only you can speak to. They won’t listen to me as well. I don’t cross their paths, but you cross their paths at work and in neighborhoods and at gatherings like this, where you have a special opportunity to say things that nobody else can say. And I just want you to be bolder. That’s all.
Let me give you four or five reasons why courage may be harder for you in our day than it was in certain other times in history. This afternoon I jotted down why courage — or the boldness to open your mouth and say truths about Jesus — is going to be hard.
1. Sinful hearts reject authority.
Wherever authority encounters a sinful heart, the sinful heart generally reacts negatively. It doesn’t say, “Oh, good. I’m glad there’s an authority telling me what I should think or believe.” Instead, it gets its back up.
Well, Jesus is the biggest authority in the universe. There is no higher authority than Jesus, and now you are presuming to be his spokesman, his representative. If everyone in the world has a sinful heart, then conflict will be in the DNA of any relationship where you try to be a spokesman for Jesus to someone else.
“Wherever authority encounters a sinful heart, the sinful heart generally reacts negatively.”
There is going to be bristling, and nobody likes to be bristled at. We would rather talk to someone who agrees with us so that we don’t have to deal with the conflict. And so right off the bat, the call for courage is there in the nature of the one you represent.
Jesus is also the most loving and most compassionate and most understanding and most beautiful and most glorious person, but he’s also totally authoritative. And people today don’t really like to be confronted with that kind of thing.
So, the first reason that it is difficult to have courage is that, when a sinful heart meets Authority — Jesus — sparks fly, and we don’t like to make sparks. Let’s go the other way. I would like to help you overcome that, to stay in that situation and to go all the way through.
2. Our world does not like objective truth.
We are in a day of great relativism, pluralism, postmodernism. All kinds of words are used for it. It’s a day when truth is not esteemed as something that’s there — objective, outside of us, to which we all strive and conform to, and everybody must see it and agree on it ultimately or perish. That’s not the way most people think today.
Most people like to think that truth is something you feel, something that’s good for you. It’s not “out there” — it’s in here. Therefore, what is true for me is true for me, and what is true for you is true for you.
The illustration that’s most emotionally powerful for me comes from around 1999. You may remember the group Jews for Jesus, which is a very controversial group. I love them. They came to town on their program called “BYG God.” What does it stand for? “Behold Your God.”
They were going to all the cities in the world that had over a million Jewish people and doing major, on-the-street, engaging evangelistic efforts to talk to Jewish people about Jesus. That’s what they do. They’re in your face, on the ground: “Hi, I’m with Jews for Jesus.” Then they tell about Jesus, and it’s very tense and controversial.
Well, of course the liberal media cannot stand Jews for Jesus. Back in ’99, Herbert Heschel wrote this in the Minneapolis Tribune: “Christians must abandon the idea that Jews must be converted. This is one of the greatest scandals in history.” So, there you have a strong, published Jewish rabbi saying that it is an absolute scandal for Christians to presume that Jewish people need to be converted — or saved, or made followers of Jesus.
Life Through the Son
You might be immediately thinking, “Wow, I’m going to walk into that setting and proclaim Christ and have a strong, articulate Jewish rabbi get in my face and say, ‘That’s a scandal, what you’re doing. John Piper is teaching a scandalous thing to you. You shouldn’t do that.’”
So, I wrote a response and sent it to the newspaper, and lo and behold, for the first time ever, they published it. And it was just a series of quotations of Scripture, including texts like, “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12). In other words, all Jewish people are lost if they don’t believe in Jesus. They actually published that in the paper.
Well, in response, twelve pastors downtown got together and wrote another thing that was published. Let me read you what they said. They knew who they were talking to, even though they didn’t name me. They said, “Arrogant is the right word to describe any attempts at proselytizing — in this case, the effort of Christians to win over their Jewish brothers and sisters.”
The second reason why you need courage is that, in a day of relativism, it is considered simply scandalous to present your truth as something someone else should agree with. And that’s what Christians are about. If that is not true, I’m just going to get another job. I’m wasting my time, if in fact Jesus Christ is not necessary for salvation. He is necessary, and we need to say it, and we need to say it lovingly, and we need to say it courageously.
3. Our culture fears ‘right-wing’ religion.
Today there is amazing fear in the broader culture of right-wing religious people. Now, I don’t like the term right-wing. I’d rather not be associated with a kind of brittle, Republican, right-wing thinking. But if anyone were to take the temperature of what I believe and what I do, they would put me in that category in a minute.
Well, what are people saying about them? I wrote down four or five book titles that are being written about people like us — only, I’m going to try to distance myself somewhat.
‘Those Crazy Christians’
You can get all these at Amazon. They’re all written in the last few years. Here’s one from Michael Lerner: The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. Next one: Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism.
“I’m wasting my time if Jesus Christ is not necessary for salvation.”
This is what’s feared. Almost all the media, all the leftward-leaning, all the liberal believers think that people like you want to take over the world, to make everyone believe like you, or to throw them in jail. That’s really what they believe. They don’t make many distinctions between the Taliban and Christians. That’s what is felt about people like me: “If he had more influence, he’d throw us all in jail if we were atheists.” I’ll try to show why that’s not true, but that’s what they think.
Here’s the third title: Why the Christian Right is Wrong, by Robin Meyers. Fourth one: The Kingdom Coming: How the Religious Right Distorts Faith and Threatens America. And one last one: Blasphemy: How the Religious Right Is Hijacking the Declaration of Independence.
So, there are five books written by people who look at the large megachurches of the Twin Cities, or the big church in Houston with thirty thousand members, and tremble at “these crazy people who want to take over the world and make everybody believe the way they believe.”
How Should We Respond?
Most people who are not religious have only one category for tolerance and peace and how to get along in diversity, and the category is relativism. They think that people in other categories talk like this: “If I don’t believe that your truth is as good is my truth, I will use force to make you agree with me if I can. Power will hold sway.”
So, in their mind, the only way to have a democracy is to have relativism. The people like us who say, “This book is true, we believe we know the truth, we’re going out into the country and are telling people to believe this, or you perish” — they think we’re just Taliban. We’re just Jihadists. We’re just like the people who flew the jets into the towers. There’s no distinction because they think that truth — claiming truth — flew those jets into those towers, and the only way to keep people from killing others is to say, “Respect for all views. Equal respect for all views.”
Now, I think that’s dead wrong, and I don’t think it will even preserve tolerance. Because in a culture where relativism holds sway, and there is no truth, once a person gets power, you have no moral sanction to call them to account. Because they’re going to say, “Look, I’ve got the power. There is no right and wrong. I’ll do with it as I please, thank you.” Therefore, you have totalitarianism. It will come eventually.
How do we, who believe that Jesus is the only way, stand for tolerance? In other words, how do we defend the right of an atheist to say what he has to say — right here, right now, after I have come to this microphone — without going to jail? My answer to that, is Jesus Christ. The King of kings taught me to treat people that way. He said, “I am the only way, but you can’t coerce anyone to believe this. You can’t make disciples with a gun or a bomb or a whip or a prison” (John 14:6; Luke 6:27–31).
Waiting for Our Kingdom
Jesus said this amazing thing in John 18:33, after Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting” (John 18:36). Now, that to me is a huge text for why I — as a believer in the King who will one day rule over the whole world and the truth that anyone who has not bowed to him will perish — will not force his kingdom now by gun, by bomb, by sword, by prison.
I will argue, I will commend, and I will fight for the right of others to do the same. You know, one of the things Baptists have done well for about four hundred years is defend the rights of all people to speak, because it’s Baptists who were thrown in jail in Massachusetts. I mean, they came over here for religious freedom, and lo and behold, the Puritans who had come for religious freedom started to repeat England in New England. They were throwing Roger Williams and the others in jail because they weren’t bowing to the appropriate thing. I love the Puritans, but they got that wrong. Big time.
So, I’m really kind of happy to stand historically for the tradition of the Baptists, who had enough input into the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights to say, “We will establish no religion, and we will favor no religion.” Meaning, we will not structurally make any demands upon a person to belong to any religion. We won’t tax anyone if they don’t belong to our religion — things like that.
Defending Others’ Freedom
That’s the end of the mini sermon. That was my answer to the people who are writing all these books about how the right-wing, if they got control, would really throw all the unbelievers in jail and turn this into a theocracy — that’s the code word that fear uses. “America is going to become a theocracy if people like George Bush get the upper hand.”
Here’s the catch: There are people like that. There are right-wing people like that — theonomists, who would in fact legislate Christianity. Well, I wouldn’t. And so I would be happy to go to the mat with any atheist or relativist who would argue that the only way to preserve tolerance and democracy is through relativism. I would come back to them saying, “No, no, no. That will not work in the long run. I think Jesus is the best ground to defend those who don’t believe in Jesus.”
4. Atheism is getting aggressive.
My fourth reason for why courage is going to be necessary is that atheism is becoming increasingly aggressive. I want to pull out this article about a guy who wrote a book about parenting children without religion. One of the questions the interviewer asked him in the paper on Saturday was: “Are you surprised at the sudden popularity of atheist and agnostic books?”
“Fear not — you can only be killed.”
If you’ve been listening or if you’ve noticed, you probably will have a bell ring when I say names like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens. These are mega-atheists popping up on Facebook that millions of people are reading. If you go home tonight, click on Amazon and type in The End of Faith or The God Delusion or God is Not Great. On Amazon, they’re probably all in the top one thousand books, and weeks ago they were in the top five hundred.
You’ve got millions of people reading these books that are in-your-face atheistic. All of that to say, the culture that you live in, where you function, has got that feel about it, and therefore it’s going to take courage to stand up and say, “A man who lived two thousand years ago is the only way to know God and be rescued from perishing.”
5. A crucified King confuses most people.
The last one is that the Bible itself says that the gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18). It is wisdom and it is power to those who are being saved, but a crucified Messiah — that’s a stumbling block and foolishness.
Those are five reasons, though there are many more, why you have your work cut out for you. I have my work cut out for me. If we’re going to open our mouths in this day, in this park, at our workplaces, and speak in advocacy for Jesus Christ, it’s going to come back at us.
Five Ways Christ Encourages Us
So, we’re going to look at one paragraph in Matthew 10 and five brief incentives that Jesus gives for courage.
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 [that is, the devil], 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, it’s obvious what the main point of that text is because it’s mentioned three times: “Fear not, fear not, fear not.” That’s the main point, and the rest of the text after the main point to fear not is to speak on the housetops what you’ve heard from Jesus. Everything else is motivation — and that’s what I need. I need motivation to be courageous, and there are five motivations in this paragraph. I’ll just give them to you.
Fight from Jesus’s Victory
The first time that Jesus says not to fear is in Matthew 10:26. What went before that verse? “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matthew 10:25). That’s a weird argument: “If they called the master of the house — Jesus — the devil, how much more will they call those members of his household — you — the devil. Therefore, don’t be afraid.” I would think it would be: “Therefore, be afraid.”
Well, how does that work? I think it works like this. If you are being called the devil because you are lovingly commending Christ, it’s evidence that you’re in the house, you’re in the household, you’re in the family, you’re lining up with Jesus. Nothing could be more reassuring and encouraging than to know that Jesus is saying, “You’re on my side.” I’d rather be on Jesus’ side than a million people’s side — because he’s going to win in the end. I think that’s the way the argument works: “If they called me the devil, and they’re calling you the devil, who are you lining up with? Me, and I win, so be encouraged. Don’t be afraid.”
Envision the Last Day
The text also says, “So have no fear of them, for — ” (Matthew 10:26). You all know how that works. That’s an argument: “ — for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.” Have no fear of them, because nothing is covered that will not be revealed, and nothing is hidden that will not be made known. How does that argument work?
It goes like this. One of the things that makes us fearful is that everyone’s going to think we’re wrong, and then they’re going to bring forth arguments that make us look wrong. Jesus is saying, “Listen, if you proclaim what I have told you in my book, the whole world might think you’re wrong, but what is hidden will one day be revealed.” I mean, picture the last day. That blue canopy splits, rolled up like a scroll, and King Jesus appears with millions of angels.
“The worst thing that they can do is wipe you out on earth. And for Christians — doorway to paradise.”
Matthew 25:31 says that all the angels are coming with him. Heaven is filled with angels, and these angels are not like little cherubim with wings that flutter like in Peter Paul Rubens’s paintings. No way. These are the kind of beings that shake the temple threshold of heaven when they speak. If they were to open their mouths, we would fall to the ground.
And there are millions of them coming. Do you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to vindicate you. The time you were just laughed to scorn at work or at school, and they just rolled their eyes and thought you were the weirdest, most right-wing religious fanatic that they’d ever met in their lives, and you went home feeling crushed and like a failure — this King is coming, and his arrival will be trumpeted to the whole world.
That moment will be worth everything to you. I think that’s what it means. Nothing is covered that will not be revealed or hidden that will not be known, so don’t fret too much when what you say is rejected because it’s not rejected by the one that matters, and the whole world will see it one day when it is revealed and is written across the skies: “Those who followed me were right.”
View Death as a Door
Here’s the third incentive to be courageous: “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). Fear God, but don’t fear man — why?
I preached a message on this around 1983. I can still remember it because one of the pastor’s wives — though she’s not here anymore, her name was Sue — took my hand at the door. She was living in the inner city, and her street was tough. I praised God that they were there. I preached this message, with my main point being from this text, and I closed with the phrase: “Fear not — you can only be killed.”
Because that’s what it says — doesn’t it? It says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28). All they can do is kill you. That’s what it says. So I ended my sermon on that note, praising God for people who live in the city or take risks or go to hard places, and she took my hand, tears running down her face, and said, “I’m scared to death.” And I said, “Well, that’s okay. You’re living there, so you’re overcoming it, and God will help you.”
The third incentive is to remember that death is all that man can do to you in the end. The worst thing that they can do is wipe you out on earth. And for Christians — doorway to paradise. I hope I have the courage on that day, when somebody’s got a gun to my head or whatever, to say, “Make my day.” I probably won’t, but I dream about it. Don’t we all dream about being good martyrs?
No Suffering Is Light
It’s not easy, although it’s easy to laugh about now. Is anyone following the Steller blog like I am? The Stellers are in Cambridge, England. They took a little tour in the last two days with their family, and they went to visit a place where they had a rack — do you remember the rack from three hundred years ago? One of their kids lay down on the rack. In a rack, your hands are tied with ropes one way, and your feet are tied with ropes another way. There’s this big ratio of a turning wheel, and they just begin to stretch you.
Now, I have a bad lower back, so I sit down on my study floor, and I put my feet flat against my desk. I put my hands on the floor behind me, and I push my hamstrings against the desk. Sometimes I push as hard as I can, and sometimes I hurt myself pushing. I just imagine, What if somebody wanted to make me scream as loud as I could scream by pulling my joints apart?
So, I do not take the suffering that our forefathers have gone through lightly, and I don’t know what I would do. I just pray that grace would show up for that. Right now, you and I probably feel like we don’t have the grace for that. I’m not mature enough, deep enough, strong enough for that.
Grace When You Need It
But it’s just like the time that Corrie ten Boom said to her dad: “Daddy, I don’t think I’ll be able to stand it if they take us away to the concentration camps and try to get us to deny our faith.” And her dad said, “When I want to send you to your grandmother’s house on the train, Cory — when do I give you the ticket? Three weeks ahead, or as you get on the train?” She said, “As I get on the train.” He said, “Grace will show up when you get on the train.”
Believe that. God has a grace for every trial, and today’s grace is not the grace for tomorrow. Tomorrow’s grace is for tomorrow. So, the third incentive is that they can only kill you. Be strong. Be courageous.
Know His Nearness
It gets sweeter now. Those three are kind of tough — like, they can only kill you. Haven’t you got anything sweeter to say? Well, he does, and the last two are sweet: “Even the hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew 10:30). Now, why did he say that? He’s in a context of courage and speaking boldly, and he says, “I can count the hairs on your head.” How does that encourage us?
Talitha, my eleven-year-old, got on the bus today at one o’clock to go to camp for fifth and sixth graders. Now, Talitha is African American, and we have learned to do hair. Hair is big. Hair is big for everybody, but bigger if it’s different than your parents’ hair. You have to learn, you have to think, you have to work. So, doing hair that will last a week at camp is a big deal for an eleven-year-old.
“If I die, his work for me is done, and until then, I cannot die.”
Noël knows all about hair. She has learned a lot in eleven years, and to watch my wife do hair with Talitha — it’s about this text. Now, she doesn’t wear braids much anymore. When she was little, we did braids. They were cool. We thought they were really pretty. It took about three hours to do braids on this hair, to get around fifty braids. I would just watch them, and I’d say, “How in the world do you do that? How do you separate out enough to make that work so you can braid with your fingers?” I just marveled at it.
And it hit me: “Okay, she’s doing fifty braids. God does every hair separately.” God does hair, which simply means that, as intimately as my wife hovered over my little girl, sitting on the edge of the kitchen bench for three hours — that’s the way God hovers over us on the rack, or when we’re talking to somebody in the park, or wherever. To point out that he knows the number of our hairs is simply to point out he’s really close. He’s really intimate. He’s really there for us.
Isn’t that the point? Who cares about hair? Right? Who cares if he knows the number? The number doesn’t matter, but getting close enough to count them matters. I think that’s the point. So, here’s the fourth incentive to be courageous: God is there. He’s intimately involved with your conversation and your life.
See His Sovereignty
Here’s the last one, and I think probably the best of all. He says, “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 10:29–31). There’s an argument here. There’s logic, and then there’s sweetness.
Here’s the logic. First premise: No sparrow in the world falls dead out of a tree in the middle of a forest —watched by no one but God — apart from God’s design and ordination. Premise two: You are of more value than sparrows. Conclusion: You won’t fall out of a tree without God’s sovereign design. Nothing will happen to you apart from God’s care.
God is so in charge of the world that birds do not die apart from his choice. You are a thousand times — ten thousand times — more important to God than birds, and therefore he watches over your life more closely than he does birds’ lives. If they don’t die without his decree, you won’t die without his decree.
Remember Henry Martyn, the missionary to the Persians. He said that famous line, which I am paraphrasing: “I am immortal until God’s work for me is done.” If I die, his work for me is done, and until then, I cannot die. That’s a great way to live. That’s a great courage to have.
We live in a culture where to be forthright and bold and loving about Jesus Christ, Son of God, coming into the world, to pay a ransom for our sin, to rise again, to offer himself to anyone who believed as the only way to the Father, saying, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) — we live in a culture where to say that, to explain that to people, is simply going to be offensive. It’s going to get us in trouble, but there are going to be people everywhere ready to receive that.
God Wastes No Words
I think one of the things that keeps us sometimes from speaking more forthrightly and boldly about Christ is that we have the feeling, “I’ve got to say it all, and I’ve got to close the deal. It’s my job to get the whole gospel out, to answer all the objections, then to lead them in a significant, life-changing prayer, and to have them in church next Sunday. I have to have the whole package after this conversation.”
And it paralyzes us because we think, first, that there isn’t time. It’s lunch. We’ve got to be back to work in fifteen minutes — or a whole other host of reasons. I just want to relieve you of that, and here’s the reason that you should be relieved of that. When we listen to testimonies at baptisms at Bethlehem, month after month after month, do you know how the stories go? So-and-so said this to me when I was six, and then this happened when I was eighteen, and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened, and then God got a hold of me at twenty or twenty-five or whatever.
“Nothing spoken in the name of Jesus is ever wasted.”
It’s always a series of influences, and I’m saying that, in God’s providence, you will be appointed to be one of those influences. You might happen to be the last one, which is always wonderful if you can be the person who leads someone straight across the line, but there have been a hundred other people up until that moment who said things.
I remember a girl’s testimony who said that, as she’s walking down the beach at thirteen, three big macho guys came walking toward her. She wanted to be cool while walking by, and these guys just said, “Believe in Jesus,” and kept walking. She said that was the most decisive sentence she ever heard in their life. Those guys didn’t have a clue that they had just been decisive in saving a soul. In fact, we would’ve probably criticized them and said, “You think you’re going to do any good doing that? That is a waste of time to say, ‘Believe in Jesus,’ on the beach and just walk on.”
I’ll tell you, nothing spoken in the name of Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, with love for other people, is ever wasted. Just do what you can do, write the note you can write, send the email you can send, make the phone call you can make, talk to anybody about anything, and if God leads you to more ¬— great. But we’re all in this together. Who knows, but the person you talk to today, I might bump into them while I’m jogging tomorrow, and they’ll think, “God must be ganging up on me. He must want me, because they didn’t plan that — somebody else did.”