This Week’s Sermon is From Scott Bayles Based on Max Lucado’s Book “3:16”

This Day's Thought


3:16 The Numbers of Hope

John 3:1-3:16

by Scott Bayles adapted from Max Lucado

In Max Lucado’s book titled simply 3:16, the entire book focuses in on just one single verse from the Bible–John 3:16. I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy, sent to Family Christian Stores employees by Thomas Nelson, and I’m so thankful that I did because 3:16, the book, drew me back to what I believe is the single most significant sentence in all of Scripture–3:16 the verse.
Preschoolers can recite it. Football fans paint boldly across cardboard signs. It’s brief enough to write on a napkin or memorize in moment, yet solid enough to withstand 2000 years of storms and questions. It begins with God, ends with life, and urges us to do the same! Listen to the impact this verse has had on people’s lives:
“I love John 3:16 because it is the gospel in a nutshell. It shares God’s great love for us, and our great need for him.” Mac Powell, Third Day
“John 3:16 is the foundation of my faith. A picture of undeserved, unconditional, and unwavering love from a Father to his kids.” Ernie Johnson, TNT Sportscaster
“John 3:16 is the North Star of the Bible. If you align your life with it, you can find The Way home.” Anne Graham Lotz
“This is the promise that bears hope for the hopeless. When we finally realize ‘I can’t do this on my own’ this is the Father responding, ‘I know, so I’ve done it for you.'” Jeff Foxworthy
If you know nothing of the Bible, begin here. If you know everything of the Bible, return here. This is the Hope diamond of Scripture!
But before we can get to 3:16, we have to set the stage. It all begins with a silent figure moving stealthily through the darkened streets of Jerusalem. Nicodemus was one of the Pharisees, the religious elite who militantly rejected Jesus. So when he decided to seek Christ out and learn from him, he had to do so in secret. Slipping through alleyways and dimly lit streets, Nicodemus finds his way to a simple house where Jesus and his followers are staying.
“Rabbi,” he said, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you” (John 3:2 NLT).
Without hesitation, Jesus replies, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God” (John 3:3). I’m not sure what was on Nicodemus’ mind that night, but it’s clear what was on Jesus’ mind. Christ’s exposition on salvation reaches it’s climax in the sixteenth verse.


John 3:16 (NIV)

For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
In this one verse, we see the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ how it relates to us. I want you look at some of the beautiful intricacies of this verse, starting with two simple words…



“For God so loved the world…” If those words are true, it changes everything, doesn’t it? Imagine what the world would be like without God’s love… A dark planet hurtling through space unguided, undirected. No hope. No future. Nothing to live for. No greater purpose to our existence. Every death would be an end. Every grave a place of despair.
But God does love the world! We see it in every sunrise… every blade of grass… every fountain of water… every birth… every child’s face. God so loved the world!
My children watch these cartoons–Veggie Tales. In case you’ve been living under a rock somewhere and haven’t heard of Veggie Tales, it’s this show with computer animated vegetables that tell bible stories. You know, Sunday morning values, Saturday morning fun. Well, at the end of every episode Bob (he’s a tomato) says, “Remember kids, God made you special, and he loves you very much!”
Isn’t that the message of John 3:16? Isn’t that the message the world needs to hear? God made you special and he loves very much. That’s the message George Matheson needed to hear. He was only fifteen when he was told that he was losing what little eyesight he had. Not to be denied, Matheson continued with his plans to enroll in the University of Glasgow, and his determination lead to his graduation in 1861 at age nineteen. By the time he finish his graduate studies he was completely blind.
But his spirit didn’t collapsed until his fiancée returned his engagement ring. She said she couldn’t see herself spending her life bound by the chains of marriage to a blind man. He adapted to life without sight, but never recovered from his broken heart.
Years later, as a well-loved pastor in Scotland, George’s sister came to him announcing her engagement. He was happy for her, but his mind went back to his own heartache. He consoled himself in thinking of God’s love which is never limited. Never conditional. Never withdrawn. Never uncertain. Out of this experience he penned these words:
O love that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee; I give thee back the life I owe, That in thine ocean depths it flow may richer, fuller be.
The Bible says, “And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow-not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below-indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39 NLT).
In another of Max Lucado’s books, he writes, “If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it. If He had a wallet, your photo would be in it. He sends you flowers every spring and a sunrise every morning. Whenever you want to talk, he’ll listen. He can live anywhere in the universe, and he chose your heart…”
He loves. And because he loves…
Jesus said, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…” Just to say, “I love you,” doesn’t really mean a whole lot. Love–agape love–is a verb. It has to be tangibly demonstrated. It has to be proven. God’s love included. The Bible says, “But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us!” (Romans 5:8 HCSB).
That sounds strange to some people. So many people in the world respect the teachings of Jesus. They admire his example. But no matter how they turn it around, they can’t see any significance in his death. One man even said, “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. I don’t need God to give anyone for me,” he claimed. “I’ve led a good life. Held a good job. People respect me. My wife loves me. I don’t need God to give me his son.” Maybe you agree. But are we really as good as we think we are? Let’s see how well we score against God’s basic laws–the Ten Commandments:


1. “You shall not steal.” have you ever stolen anything? A paper clip, a peanut? That makes you a thief.


2. “You must not lie.” Those who claim they never have, just did.


3. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” Ever let God’s name slip passed your lips in anger or frustration? The Bible calls that blasphemy.

4. “You shall not commit adultery.” Before you excuse yourself from this one, Jesus said that if you so much as look at a woman with lust, you’ve committed adultery in your heart.
And that’s just four out of ten. We could keep going, but I don’t think we’d fair any better. Most sincere people, when we’re honest (when we’re alone at night with just our thoughts), we know that we’re really not all that good. We all have regrets. We’ve all made mistakes. The Bible calls that sin. And we do it all the time.
The Bible tells us, “Everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23 NCV). Our sin separates us from God. So if any of us are ever going to have a real relationship with our Creator, then it’s up to him to find a way to reconcile us. That’s where Jesus comes in. He determined to build that bridge with an old rugged cross. He gave himself. He gave Jesus to bring salvation to the world through his death.
In verse fourteen, Jesus alludes to an event in the Old Testament. It’s a story told in Numbers 21:4-9. It was a story of sin. The children of Israel–God’s special people–had rebelled against God, so God sent poisonous snakes that bit the people so that many died. But this was also a story of grace. Moses interceded for the people and God provided a remedy. He told Moses to make a brass serpent and lift it up on a pole for everyone to see. Anyone who had been bitten who then looked at the serpent would immediately be healed.
We’re in a similar situation. The whole world has been bitten by sin, and the “wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Just as the serpent was lifted on that pole for the people to look to for healing, Jesus would be lifted on a cross for us to look to for our healing. God sent his Son to die, not only for Israel, but for the whole world.
Although God’s remedy was sufficient for all of Israel, it was only effective for those who “looked upon the serpent.” And although God loves and Jesus sacrifice was sufficient for the whole world, it is only efficient if…
Jesus said that God, “gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish…” This concept runs contrary to our instincts. And it’s so simple. We expect a more complicated cure, a more sophisticated salvation. And what about that Bible verse that says, “God helps those who help themselves”? Well, that’s not really in the Bible.
No other religion offers what Jesus promises. Judaism sees salvation as a Judgment Day decision based on morality. Buddhism grades your life according to the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Muslim earn their way to Allah by performing the duties of the Five Pillars of Faith.
But not Christianity. Jesus calls us to do one thing: believe! Listen to what the Bible says:
Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. (John 1:12 NIV)
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:18 NIV)
He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him. (John 3:36 NKJV)
I tell you the truth, whoever believes has eternal life. (John 6:47 NCV)
He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water. (John 7:38 NKJV)
Then he brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.” (Acts 16:31 NLT)
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. (Ephesians 2:8 ESV)
Maybe you’re thinking what about baptism, repentance and a changed life? Are you saying those things aren’t necessary? No, of course not. Those things are absolutely essential. But baptism, repentance, a changed life, and things like that are not in addition to faith. They are expressions of it. They acts of faith that work together with our faith to make our faith real.
But what Jesus wants us to see is that it’s not because of what I’ve done, but because of who he is. It’s not because of who I am, but because of what he has already done! And all he asks is for us to put our trust in him, and him alone!
Once upon a time, there lived an elderly man whose one and only son proceeded him in death. The man was very wealthy, but because he had no living heirs his estate was auctioned off when he died. People came from miles around to bid on all the wonderful antiques and riches proudly displayed in the courtyard of his manor. The first item up for bid was an amateurish portrait of the rich man’s son. No one bid. The attendants grew restless, anxious to bid on the real family treasures. But the auctioneer wouldn’t proceed to any other items until the painting had sold. Finally, a sweet young mother, with southern accent, bid on the painting. She had worked in the manor as maid for a little while and new how much the boy meant to his father. Suddenly the auctioneer threw down his gavel and announced that the auction was over. He walked over to the woman, gave her the painting and told her that everything she saw now belonged to her. The elderly man left specific instructions in his will that whoever buys the son, gets it all!
God has done the same thing! The Bible says, “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12 ESV).
Max Lucado, has said, “God rewards those who seek him. Not those who seek doctrine or religion or systems or creeds. Many settle for these lesser passions, but the reward goes to those who settle for nothing less than Jesus himself.” And the reward is that when we believe…
“Whoever believes in him,” Jesus said, “shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Although, people sometimes imagine spending eternity in the clouds, floating around and strumming harps unendingly, that’s certainly not the Biblical picture of Heaven.
The Bible describes Heaven as a place that will have rivers, trees, cities, buildings, gates, streets, mountains, and houses (Revelation 21-22). Although its glory will be beyond description, its essential components will be the same as those we find here on Earth. Paradise lost will be paradise restored. Long ago, God declared, “Look, I will make new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17 NCV). God’s plan for the Earth is not to destroy it, but to redeem it, to renew it, to restore it to the perfect paradise it once was before the fall–before sin entered the world and corrupted it.
Although the full glory of Heaven will be beyond description, we are certainly capable of imagining a better world; a world of beauty and grandeur, a paradise as God intended it to be. But that’s not all.
One of the greatest blessings of heaven is what won’t be there. No death, disease, or divorce. No trials, tribulation, or turmoil. Without the presence of evil, the New Heaven and New Earth will be like nothing we’ve ever experienced. In his book, Heaven, Randy Alcorn responds to the question-what won’t be in heaven?
No death, no suffering. No funeral homes, abortion clinics, or psychiatric wards. No rape, missing children, or drug rehabilitation centers. No bigotry, no muggings or killings. No worry or depression or economic downturns. No wars, no unemployment… Close friendships but no cliques, laughter but no put-downs. Intimacy, but no temptation to immorality. No hidden agendas, no backroom deals, no betrayals.
What a wonderful world to look forward to. But still there’s more. The Bible says that when Jesus comes riding on the clouds “those who have died believing in Christ will rise,” and after the resurrection we will be given new bodies! Listen to how the Bible describes our heavenly bodies:
The sun has one kind of beauty, the moon has another beauty, and the stars have another. And each star is different in its beauty. It is the same with the dead who are raised to life. The body that is “planted” will ruin and decay, but it is raised to a life that cannot be destroyed. When the body is “planted,” it is without honor, but it is raised in glory. When the body is “planted,” it is weak, but when it is raised, it is powerful. The body that is “planted” is a physical body. When it is raised, it is a spiritual body. (1 Corinthians 15:41-44 NCV)
Indestructible. Honorable. Glorious. Powerful. Those are words that describe what your new body will be like. In this life, we get old. We get tired. Our bodies just won’t do what they used to do. But in eternity, we’ll run faster, jump higher, play harder, worship with radiance, and we’ll never get tired. Never grow old. One translation says, “when they come back to life they will be superhuman bodies” (vs. 43 TLB).
Not only will Christ’s coming inaugurate our resurrection, but it will also initiate our reunion. Imagine reuniting with family and friends! Imagine meeting your great, great grandchildren or holding the hands of loved ones you once laid to rest. But most importantly of all we will be reunited with our Creator and Savior. “On the day when the Lord Jesus comes,” the Bible says, “all the people who have believed will be amazed at Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:10).
The most amazing thing in heaven will be our intimate relationship with our Maker and Redeemer. In Heaven, the Bible says, “God’s presence is with people and he will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them and will be their God” (Revelation 21:3). “We won’t need to be drawn into God’s presence. We’ll live there, constantly and consciously.” Our restored relationship with God will offer infinite possibilities. “Imagine exploring the depths of God’s love, wisdom, and holiness. Imagine forever growing in our capacities to fathom his immensity, immutability, and incomprehensibility. And to top it all off the more we come to know him, the more there will be to know.” Jesus will spend eternity revealing to us why he is all the wonderful things he is.



He loves. He gives. We believe. We live.
It really is that simple. God loves this world, more than we’ll ever know. He gave his one and only Son so that we could live forever with him. Apart from him we die. With him we live. Choose life. Choose Jesus!
If you aren’t sure you’ve done that, you haven’t. If you want to today, I’d like to help.

Lenten Journey Day 29; Testimony

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21-Mar-12:  John 8:12-20

12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” 13 Then the Pharisees said to him, “You are testifying on your own behalf; your testimony is not valid.” 14 Jesus answered, “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid because I know where I have come from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. 15 You judge by human standards; I judge no one. 16 Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. 17 In your law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is valid. 18 I testify on my own behalf, and the Father who sent me testifies on my behalf.” 19 Then they said to him, “Where is your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” 20 He spoke these words while he was teaching in the treasury of the temple, but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come.

Lenten Journey Day 18; Revealed

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10-Mar-12:  Mark 9:2-8

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

This Week’s Sermon From The Ranch – A Year Of Gratitude

A Year Of Gratitude

By Eric Elder

The Ranch

We’ll be returning next week to our study of the book of Romans and the “Lessons in Renewing Your Mind.”  But while the New Year‘s still fresh, I wanted to give you a prescription for how to have the best, brightest, and most fulfilling New Year you’ve ever had.

It’s simpler than you might think, and the price is within reach.  The prescription is this:  give thanks in all circumstances.

The idea was sparked anew within me over the holidays after reading a great book called 365 Thank Yous.  The book was written by John Kralik, who was a lawyer in L.A. when he wrote it.

At 53 years old, he thought he was at the end of his rope.  He had been through two failed marriages, his most recent girlfriend had just left him, and his business was on the brink of financial ruin.

So he took a walk into the mountains on New Year’s Day.  As he walked a voice seemed to speak to him saying that he shouldn’t focus on what he wanted or had lost, but should be grateful for what he had.  Looking  at his life, though, he couldn’t think of even one thing for which he could give thanks.

Then he remembered his grandfather, who at John’s age had already retired and was spending his days golfing and watching the stock market.  John remembered a lesson that his grandfather tried to teach him when John was young.  His grandfather had given him a silver dollar and told him that if he were to write a thank you letter for the silver dollar his grandfather would send him another silver dollar.  That was the way thank you letters worked, his grandfather told him.

True to his word, his grandfather sent John a second silver dollar upon receiving the first thank you note.  But John says he failed to learn the lesson.  Having received the second silver dollar, John never sent a second thank you letter, and thus never received a third silver dollar.

Reflecting on this lesson on his mountain-top walk, John came up with an idea.  He had a stack of stationery in his office with a return address that might soon become obsolete.  He decided he would try to find one person to thank each day.  At the end of the year, he would have written 365 thank yous, he would have used up his stationery, and if his grandfather was right, he would have a lot more to be thankful for at the end of the year.

The only problem was, he couldn’t think of even one thing in his life for which he could be grateful.

The rest of the book describes what happened as John set out to find something to be thankful for each day, whether it was a tie that someone had given him for Christmas, or a kind word spoken by someone who regularly served him coffee at Starbucks, or the fact that one of his clients had actually paid their bills on time.

The response he got from people varied from shock and delight to overwhelming emotion, as so few people had ever received a hand-written thank you note from anyone, let alone from John.  But this simple act of finding something to be thankful for every day began to release a wave of return in John’s life that he could have hardly imagined that day on the mountain.  His relationship with his estranged son was restored.  Some of his paying clients began to refer other paying clients to him.   He began to take notice of those around him, from co-workers in his office to the maintenance man at his apartment.

His heart began to soften to the plights of those around him, and his attitude about his own frustrations began to diminish, too.  By the end of the year, and by the end of the book, John was in a new place on many levels:  personally, professionally, spiritually and emotionally.  What he learned from his grandfather had turned out to be true.  Blessings abound for those who give thanks.

And isn’t this just what the Bible says?  Even though John Kralik’s book is not particularly spiritual, per se, what he says underscores the wisdom of the Bible in many ways.  There’s a blessing of peace and joy that comes to those who have a grateful heart.  The book of Philippians says:

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition,with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).

God wants us to present our requests to Him.  But He wants us to present them to Him with thanksgiving.  When we do, the peace of God follows.

The book of Colossians says:

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Colossians 3:15-17).

Three times in these three short verses thankfulness is mentioned.  The same God who called us to peace has also called us to be thankful.  Peace and thankfulness go hand in hand.  The God who wants us to teach and admonish one another and to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs also wants us to do these things with with gratitude in our hearts to Him.  And in whatever we do, whether in word or deed, God wants us to do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.

The book of First Thessalonians tells us when we should give thanks:

“Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

If you’d like to know God’s will for you this coming year, here is is, at least in part:  be joyful always; pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances.

This doesn’t mean that it’s always easy to give thanks in all circumstances, but it does mean that the peace and joy that might be eluding you now could be easier to recover than you might think.  God’s peace doesn’t come from getting everything you want, but by being thankful for what you’ve been given.  Being thankful changes your heart, your mind, and your attitude in a way that can bear a fruitful return in your life.

I wish I could read you all the stories in John Kralik’s book.  While it doesn’t have a fairy-tale ending, it does show that the powerful impact that gratefulness have have.  And what did it cost him?  Just a little time to reflect each day on those things for which he could be truly thankful, and the cost of a stack of notecards and stamps so that he could express his gratitude to others.

In the short time since reading the book, I’ve already had several occasions to express my thanks to those around me.  On a visit to a dermatologist with my daughter this week, I was able to tell him thanks for a treatment he had done on my foot several years ago.  It was a painful treatment, but now it’s healed and I’m pain-free.  But I never had a reason to go back to his office after that treatment, so I never told him thanks.  I was able to write some thank you notes for some Christmas gifts, not out of obligation, but with a renewed sense of thankfulness in my heart towards those who took the time to give them to me.  I’ve been able to thank my wife and my kids for things that I might otherwise have overlooked.  I can tell in my own life that the gratitude that is welling up in my heart is already bringing about a new level of joy and peace.

It’s amazing what a little simple act of gratitude can do–both for you, and for those around you.

As we head into 2012, I’d like to encourage you to make this, “A Year of Gratitude.”  A year where you put the Bible to the test and see what happens when you “give thanks in all circumstances.”  If you do, I believe you’ll find that the Bible will prove true for you on this point just as it has proven true on so many other points that people have put it to the test and found to be true.  And if you follow this prescription, I’m confident that you’ll have a better, brighter, and more fulfilling New Year than you’ve ever had before.

And if you’ve got some thank you notes handy, why not take one out from time to time to express your gratitude to those around you?  John Kralik suggests that the notes don’t have to be long, just three or four lines at most. Start with “Dear So-and-So,” he says, then identify the gift specifically (“the red and white tie”), and say one sincere thing about why you like it (“It’s a perfect match for my blue suit.”)  Remember that thank you notes don’t have to be just for those who give you gifts, but for anyone who has been a blessing in your life, whether it’s helping you through a crisis, or serving you with a smile.

With all the other New Year’s resolutions that you could start this year, one of the simplest, yet most beneficial is to be thankful for at least for one thing each day.  Or for best results, as the Bible says, “give thanks in all circumstances.”

Will you pray with me?

Father, thank You for giving us another year of life.  Help us to live each day with gratitude in our hearts toward You and toward those around us.  Help us to express that gratitude in ways that others can benefit from it as well.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

P.S.  I’d like to say a sincere “thank you” to all of you who have taken time to read these messages this past year, sharing them with your friends, praying for our ministry, helping us financially, and writing me your own notes of gratitude.  While I try to respond personally to as many notes as I can, I’m sorry I’m not able to respond in that way to every note that comes in.  But I do read every note, and want to let you know that I very much appreciate hearing from you.  It bolsters my faith, gives me encouragement, and is exciting to see how God uses His Word to touch people’s lives.  Thank you!

365 Thank YousWhile I don’t have copies of John Kralik’s book to send to you (I got mine from the library), I’ve included a link below to the book on Amazon if you’d like to get a copy for yourself.  Thanks to Greg Potzer for recommending the book to me!  Now I’m glad to recommend it to you!
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This Week’s Sermon Is From Alan Smith (Eric Elder is Away) – Forceful Men


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(This week, we share in a message from Alan Smith, as Eric Elder, of The Ranch Ministry, is away.)

Forceful Men
by Alan Smith

Matthew 11:7-11:15

When I went to school at Freed-Hardeman, we were required in our English literature class to read part of John Bunyan’s book Pilgrim’s Progress. It is perhaps the most well-known religious allegory ever written. For those of you who never had an English teacher force you to read it, let me explain that it is the story of a man named Pilgrim who is searching for and traveling toward the Celestial City. Pilgrim represents the Christian and the Celestial City is, of course, heaven. The book describes the twists and turns and detours and disasters that wait for those who walk the heavenly road.

Early in the book, Pilgrim is led up to the doors of a grand palace. Outside the palace sits a recorder who is ready to write down the names of those who enter the palace. Many people are standing around waiting to go in, but they are afraid of the armed men who block the entrance. Then Pilgrim saw a man with a “very brave countenance” come near. He said to the recorder, “Set down my name, sir!” And then armed with a sword and a helmet, the brave man fought his way into the palace of glory.

Let me raise a question to you this morning: Do you think this is an accurate portrayal of the Christian life, or was John Bunyan just being overly dramatic? Is it the case that we must fight our way into the Celestial City tooth and toenail, or is it possible that we can stroll into heaven with our hands in our pockets?

There are many people who evidently believe that the pathway to heaven is an easy one. Most folks in the world believe that it really doesn’t take much to get into heaven. If you are a fairly good, honest and decent person, then that’s really all that matters. In fact, a Gallup poll taken several years ago indicated that the majority of people in America believe that they will go to heaven when they die. And, I can’t recall a single person who ever told about a near-death experience who came back with the smell of brimstone in his nostrils!

But even those of us who are Christians rarely see Christianity as much of a struggle. Christianity is an easy way of living for most of us. In one congregation where I was teaching class, a member spoke up and remarked how easy the Christian life-style had been for him. I think he meant by that statement that his life had become fuller since coming to Christ. He had come to be more at ease with himself; his life was free of the inner turmoil he had experienced before. And that may be true for the Christian; in fact, it should be true. But is it accurate to say that Christianity is to be an easy lifestyle?

I think there’s enough in scripture to label Christianity as a struggle for our faith. In Luke 13:24, Jesus said, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” We don’t just walk through the narrow gate; we have to strive to get through. That word suggests there is to be a great deal of effort on our part.

In Ephesians 6:12, Paul describes the Christian life in this way: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” The picture Paul paints for us is a picture of struggling, a picture of constant battle.

The Hebrew writer constantly alludes to the fact that we need to put a great deal of effort into our Christian lives. The word diligent is frequently used. “Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall after the same example of disobedience.” (Hebrews 4:11).

And in Acts 14:22, we read about Paul and Barnabas “strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.'” The New Century Version translates the last part of that verse, “We must suffer many things to enter the kingdom of God.”

We don’t hear a lot of talk in the church today about the “necessity” of suffering. We don’t think much about Christianity being a struggle. We don’t seem to do a whole lot of wrestling with the spiritual forces of evil. But we should.

This morning I want to look in some detail at a passage that relates to this subject in Matthew 11:12. But first of all, let’s go back a few verses and begin reading in verse 7.

I. Background of the Passage

“As they departed, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John: ‘What did you go into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written: “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.” Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:7-11).

This whole chapter deals with the Messiahship of Jesus. John the Baptist had been in prison for about a year, and he was approaching the end of his life. Earlier in this chapter, he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you really the Messiah or should we look for another?” It seems strange that John would ask that question. He had been filled with the Holy Spirit from the time he was in his mother’s womb to do one thing — prepare the way for the Messiah.

John had personally heard God declare from heaven that Jesus was his Son and he had seen the Holy Spirit descend upon him like a dove. He had spent his entire ministry pointing the Jews to Jesus. In fact, some of Jesus’ own apostles had been directed to him by John. You have to believe that John knew who Jesus was. More than any other human, John knew the Christ.

But perhaps a year in prison had caused John to doubt a bit. “Jesus, if you are who I think you are, it’s time to do something.” Or perhaps John sent his disciples to Jesus with this question for their benefit, not his own. Maybe he wanted them to see for themselves that Jesus was the Messiah. So Jesus answered their question by pointing them to the evidence. He said to them, “Tell John what you see; tell him about the lame walking and the sick being healed. Tell him about the lepers being cleansed and the dead being raised. And tell him that the gospel is being preached to the poor.”

And then, after Jesus sent John’s disciples back to John, he began to speak about John himself . He said, “Among them born of woman (and that includes just about everybody I know), none is greater than John.” Think about what a tremendous statement that is. How would you like to hear Jesus say, “Among those born of woman, nobody is greater than Park Terrell! Nobody is greater than Dave Spiceland!” That would really get our attention! But that’s exactly what he said about John the Baptist.

But that’s not all he said. He also said, “He that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than John.” And that’s also a pretty amazing statement. Even though John was greater than anyone born of a woman, any Christian is even greater. The reason is that a Christian is not just born of a woman; he is also born again by the power of God. While John preached that the kingdom of God was at hand, those of us who are Christians have the privilege of being a part of that kingdom.

II. The Effort of Forceful Men (Matthew 11:12)

It’s immediately after this comment concerning “the kingdom” that Jesus makes the statement that I really want us to focus on.

“And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!'” (Matthew 11:12-15).

Verse 12 is a very difficult verse to understand. What does it mean that the violent take the kingdom by force?

Charles Spurgeon had this to say about this text: “When John the Baptist preached in the wilderness of Judea, the throng of people who pressed around him became extremely violent to get near enough to hear his voice. Often when our Saviour preached did the like scene occur. We find that the multitudes were immense beyond all precedent. He seemed to drain every city, every town, and every village, as he went along preaching the word of the gospel…..So intense was their desire to hear the Saviour that they pressed upon him, insomuch that they trod one upon another. The crowd became so violent to approach his person, that some of the weaker ones were cast down and trodden upon. Now, our Saviour, when he witnessed all this struggling round about to get near him, said, ‘This is just a picture of what is done spiritually by those who will be saved. As you press and throng about me,’ said Christ, ‘and thrust one another, with arm and elbow, to get within reach of my voice, even so must it be if ye would be saved, “For the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.”’”

In the last part of Matthew 11, Jesus is going to talk about those who have rejected both John and himself. He says that they’ve not been honest with the facts. Because of this, he says that it will be more tolerable in the day of judgment for Tyre, Sidon and Sodom than for those who rejected him.

There seem to be two groups of men who are being discussed here by Jesus. First, there are forceful men who seize hold of the kingdom of God. Second, there are others who reject it even though they have seen the evidence. Jesus commends the one group and condemns the other.

That really sums up the main two reactions that Jesus received while he was here on this earth. On the one hand, you had men like the Pharisees and their followers. They rejected Jesus because he didn’t fit their mold. He associated with sinners and didn’t follow their traditions. He was a threat to their positions of power. Therefore, they wouldn’t draw near to the kingdom even though John had been telling them that it was near. They rejected the gospel message even though they saw the overwhelming evidence that the kingdom was right there in front of them.

But, on the other hand, we read about a group of outcasts known as “sinners” who were pressing hard to enter the kingdom. They were desperate men and women whose desperateness came from the fact that they knew their own sin, and they understand their inability to change that fact. So, when they heard the good news of the kingdom, they were ready to act. These forceful men were as it were storming the walls of heaven in an effort to get in. And Jesus says that they were the ones that were going to get in!

I think what Jesus is doing here for us is drawing a comparison between the self-satisfied Pharisee on the one hand and the desperate sinner on the other hand. The Pharisee was willing to stroll toward heaven satisfied that his self-righteousness was all that was required to gain entrance. But Jesus made it clear that those men would never reach heaven. They were, in fact, rejecting the God of heaven even as Jesus spoke.

But there were others who because of their sin and helplessness were charging ahead toward salvation. These were desperate and forceful men that were forcefully laying hold of the kingdom. They were willing to do whatever it took, make whatever sacrifices were necessary to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Like the man of brave countenance that John Bunyan wrote about, these were shouting “Set down my name, sir!” and they were fighting their way into the kingdom of heaven.

III. So What Does All of This Mean For Us?

It has been said that our favorite hypocrisy is to make a choice and then to refuse to pay for it. We have a word for that — it’s called credit! Thanks to credit, I can go to the store and pick out something I want, and then not have to pay for it now. In fact, some stores go so far as to say, “Come in and buy our furniture and make no payments until April 2001!” But how many people do you suppose have gotten themselves into severe financial difficulty because they made a choice that they were not really willing to pay for?

But this truth applies to far more than just financial matters; it applies to all of life. It is indeed hypocritical for us to choose something and then be unwilling to pay the price for it. We may choose to have a slim physique, but are we willing to pay the price for that? We’ve accomplished nothing if we say, “I make the choice to lose weight,” and then not be willing to pay the price of diet and exercise. If that’s the case, you really haven’t made the choice at all.

Rudyard Kipling once said that if anyone did not get from life what they really wanted, it was because either he didn’t really want it or because he began to quibble about the price. Now, that may be an overstatement, but I think there’s a great deal of truth there. We must be willing to pay the price for what we want.

The price for the Christian life is high, and Jesus wants us to count that cost as part of our decision to follow him. In Matthew 10, Jesus warned his apostles not to think that their job as evangelists was going to be easy. He wanted them to see the cost of being his disciples:

“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man’s foes shall be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. And he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:34-39).

While Jesus did indeed come to give us peace, that peace that passes all understanding has a high price; it’s the price of the sword. To be his disciple, one must pick up the sword and fight his way into heaven. Yes, the gift of grace is free — there is no grace but free grace. But the cost of accepting that grace is high. We must be willing to face broken earthly relationships in order to have our relationship with God restored. We must be willing to pay the price whatever that price may be in our lives. No one will stroll into the Celestial City with his hands in his pockets. That palace is reserved for forceful men who in their desperation will do whatever it takes.

In his book Applause of Heaven, Max Lucado tells about taking his two daughters to an amusement park. They went into a plastic ball pit to play. Now, if you’ve never seen a plastic ball pit, you’re missing one of the wonders of modern civilization. It’s a huge three-foot-deep pit the size of a backyard pool. But instead of being filled with water, it’s loaded with balls — thousands and thousands of plastic, lightweight balls.

Like I said, Max watched as his two daughters went into this plastic ball pit to play. The older one did just fine. But the younger one, who was only three years old, had a few difficulties. As soon as she stepped into the pit, she filled her arms with balls.

Now, it’s hard enough to walk through a waist-deep pile of balls with your arms spread to keep your balance, but it’s impossible to do so with your arms full. So this little girl, Andrea, took a step and fell. She tried to get up without letting go of the balls. She couldn’t do it and began to cry. Max walked over to the edge of the pit and said, “Andrea, let go of the balls and you can walk.”

“No,” she screamed getting deeper and deeper. Trying to be both wise and patient, Max said, “Andrea, if you let the balls go, you’ll be able to walk.” She said, “No!”, took two steps and fell again.

Parents aren’t allowed in the pit, so Max asked his older daughter, Jenna, to come over and help her sister get back on her feet. But Jenna wasn’t strong enough, and Andrea wasn’t helping any because she was still clutching the same balls she had grabbed when she first stepped into the pit.

Jenna said, “Daddy, I can’t get her up.” So Max said, with a great deal more irritation in his voice, “Andrea, let go of the balls so you can get up!” The cry from beneath the balls was muffled but clear. “Nooo!”

Max thought to himself, “She’s got what she wants and she’s going to hold on to it if it kills her.” The next step was to tell Jenna to take the balls away from her sister. So they engaged in hand-to-hand combat for a while until finally the attendant told Max he could go on in to get them out.

Later he reflected, “What is it that makes children immobilize themselves by clutching toys so tightly?” Then he thought, “Whatever it is, they learned it from their parents.”

You see, that child’s determination to hold onto those balls is nothing compared to the grips we put on the things this world has to offer. And if you think Jenna’s job of trying to take those balls away from Andrea was tough, try prying our fingers away from our earthly treasures. The way we clutch our possessions and our pleasures, you’d think we couldn’t live without them.

Our resistance to the Father is just as childish as Andrea’s. God, for our own good, tries to loosen our grip from something that would cause us to fall. But we refuse to let go.

Jesus said, in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6). We usually get what we hunger and thirst for. It’s something we want so badly that we’ve just got to have it. Let me ask you: What do you hunger and thirst for? What is it that that you want so much that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to get it?

I think the message of Matthew 11 has direct application both to those who are Christians and to those who are not yet so. First, to the Christian, Jesus’ words demand that we think about our concept of discipleship. Do we believe that our own righteousness has secured us a place in the kingdom of heaven? Has your satisfaction with your spiritual level of development caused you to stop seeking to learn and grow and mature in the faith? Have you adapted religion in your life to the point where it really makes no demands upon you other than simply getting up early enough on Sunday morning to make it to services?

If that’s the case, then the words of Jesus cry out to you. He wants you to know that simply having your name on the church roll isn’t going to secure your place in heaven. We can’t just sit back, relax and take it easy. Rather, we as Christians must continue to struggle toward heaven. We must be diligent to enter that place of rest. We must strive to enter the narrow gate. We must constantly struggle with whatever forces within or without us that try to keep us out of heaven. We must shout to the recorder, “Set my name down, sir,” and then we must fight our way into the Celestial city of God.

To those here this morning who are not Christians, these words of Jesus challenge you as well. They challenge you to give yourself to the Christ who died for you. That doesn’t mean simply accepting a new way of believing; it means accepting a new way of living. As we extend the invitation of Jesus Christ to you this morning, please understand what he’s inviting you to. He’s inviting you become a child of God. He’s inviting you to possess inner peace and joy. He is inviting you to have your sins forgiven and your guilt removed. He’s inviting you to heaven. But the pathway there is narrow and at times is difficult to walk. It’s the way of self-sacrifice and the way of self-denial. But it’s the only way of salvation.

No one will stroll into heaven with their hands in their pockets. Those that get there will fight their way there. The way of salvation is for forceful and desperate men and women who are willing to fight through the temptations of this world in order to possess the glory of heaven.

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