REMOVING MASKS (2): TO FEAR OR NOT TO FEAR
Intro – (Read Lu 12:4-7). Bill got a parrot for his birthday. But it had some salty vocabulary from its previous owner. Nothing Bill tried cured the habit. Frustrated, Bill threw the bird into the freezer one day. All was quiet at first, but soon the parrot was begging for its life, promising to reform. Bill soon relented and freed the bird. The turnaround was astounding, but became a little more clear when the parrot said, “BTW – I gotta ask. What did the chicken do wrong?” He’d developed a healthy fear. That’s our topic today. Healthy fear. Fear of the right things and no fear of the wrong things.
Our context starts at 11:37 where Jesus’ lunch with a Pharisee quickly turns into a sermon against hypocrisy. I doubt much lunch got eaten that day. As Jesus leaves lunch, a crowd awaits His ministry – but first He turns to His disciples. Hypocrisy is still on His mind. These guys are going to take the gospel to the world. They must not become dead religionists like the Pharisees. The must exude genuineness. So in 12:1-3 Jesus gives a solemn Warning Against hypocrisy that we examined last week. Now – in vv. 4-12 He gives the Way to Avoid hypocrisy. Authentic living relates to the whole Trinity -- Fearing the Father, Confessing Christ and Esteeming the Spirit.
I. Fear the Father
No Fear! That’s our motto. No one wants to be paralyzed by fear. It’s no fun to be like the guy who was taking flight training when his instructor turned to him one day and said, “You know, you’re not nearly as much fun since you stopped screaming.” Who wants to live in fear? Yet we all know there are times when fear is helpful. We fear robbers and take protective action; we fear disease and get flu shots; we fear the highway patrol and drive a reasonable speed. Healthy fear is good. We want healthy fear – but not unhealthy fear.
To Jesus this is step one in avoiding a hypocritical existence – fear the right things; don’t fear the wrong things. That keeps us rooted in reality. Let’s look.
A. What to Fear – The Father
5 “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” As a child I thought that was referring to Satan, but, of course, it is not. Jesus is not warning us to fear the Devil; He is warning us to fear God. He is the one who not only has the power of life and death, but also has the power of eternal destinies. When you put it like that, no wonder we should fear Him.
Typically we soften the word “fear” to mean reverence or respect or awe – all of which are true meanings of the word. But if we do not give the word its full force here, we kill the impact! To reverence or respect makes the whole thing sound optional! But to fear God is not optional. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” according to the psalmist (Psa 111:10). Your IQ can be through the roof; absent the fear of the Lord, you’re out of touch with reality.
To fear the Lord is to recognize His absolute power and authority – not just over the universe, but over me! To fear the Lord is to recognize that by character and lifestyle, I violate His holy character, and He must either deal with that truth or cease to be God. His wrath against sin, including mine, is not a temper tantrum, but a holy expression of who He is. To fear the Lord is to live with the daily reminder that all sin must be paid for, either by the offender or by Jesus. Death is not the greatest enemy of mankind. Something lurking beyond physical death is a million times worse.
Thus Jesus says “fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell.” We must absorb that there is something worse than death. Max fear must be reserved for the One who imposes that penalty. Jesus’ intent is that that fear drive us to the eternal life that is the only antidote for sin’s penalty.
Now, Jesus refers to the thing worse than death as “hell.” The actual word He uses is Gehenna. Most Bibles note that. So what is Gehenna? Well, in Lev 18:21 God warns Israel, “You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God.” Who was Molech and how could children be given to him? Molech was a Canaanite god – especially cruel in that people burned their own children alive in offering to him. Amazingly, the Israelites took up this horrendous practice. II Chron 28:3, we read of King Ahaz in around 730 BC, “and he made offerings in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom and burned his sons as an offering, according to the abominations of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.” The Valley of Hinnom – a little ravine just south of the city walls of Jerusalem – easy walking distance. A high place, or tophet, was built where this unthinkable practice was carried out. Other kings followed suit – offering children to Molech hoping to stave off enemies. Naturally the people fell in line. Jer 32:35, “They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech.” Hinnom became known as the Valley of Slaughter. King Josiah ended these practices, but it became the place for burning rubbish and dead animals – a place of endless fire -- named Ge (land of) Hinnom – Ge-hinnom; in Greek – Gehenna.
You see why it became a synonym for hell, the place to which those who have rejected Christ are eternally sentenced (Mt 23:33). Jesus elsewhere describes it as a place of unquenchable fire and eternal torment. It is so awful that in one sermon Jesus advises if your foot, hand or eye keep you from faith in Christ, cut them off. Mark 9:47, “And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” Jesus listeners could graphically picture Hinnom where dead carcasses were thrown and where the poor and outcasts were buried. They had seen the continuous fires and worms preying on the dead – a dreadful image. It symbolizes the eternal destination of all who reject Christ – hell, where the fires never cease, and worms never die. The pain, the corruption, the decay go on endlessly. This is the horror of the hell that awaits unbelievers.
So, is hell fire real, or is it symbolic? The answer is it doesn’t matter. Physical fire would not burn a spiritual soul. But it clearly symbolizes persistent, unremitting, eternal torment of body and soul. The prospect of hell is so abhorrent that we have taken it out of our vocabulary except as a swear word. But, Beloved, it is as real as the chair you sit on this morning. Jesus’ comparison makes no sense otherwise. If there is no such place, then physical death is the worst thing that could happen. Jesus clearly teaches there’s something worse - to be avoided at all cost. We just won’t believe it.
You know what the worst thing about hell is? It is the absence of God. The God who has created, sustained, protected, compelled and even died for our sin will suddenly and irrevocably be gone. There will be no more appeal and no possibility of redemption. His blessed presence forever gone! – even from religious people. Jesus says in Mt 7:21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” Hell ultimately is the absence of God, and Jesus is saying, “That’s far worse than dying physically.”
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” For those who have no such fear, their IQ test with God registers negative no matter how high they are humanely speaking. If hell is as Jesus depicts, only a fool would ignore the one with the authority to sentence them to an eternity there. To those who have accepted Christ, God is the best friend and Father they could ever have. Fear has become reverence for His greatness and respect for His authority. For those still living who are outside of Christ, God is still their best friend, having given His own life to obtain their redemption from sin if they will accept. But if they die in their sins, God becomes their worst nightmare. Heb 9:27, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” Isa 55:6 advises, “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near.” Soon He will not be found. So fear the Father is the motivation Jesus uses to expel hypocrisy from our lives. Fear Him now while He can be found and while He can forgive.
B. What Not to Fear
1. Atrocities of men
4 “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do.” “Friend” is not a term that Jesus used lightly. He says in John 15:14, “14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.” When Jesus says to these disciples, “do not fear those who kill the body” He knows something they do not know. He knows that just as He is going to be killed for His message, they will as well. They will demonstrate their friendship by following that most onerous of all commands – to give one’s life. They will choose friendship with Him over the world.
Jas 4:4 reminds us all: “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” To be friends with Christ is the most privileged position in life. But it comes at a cost; sometimes a high cost. So Jesus reminds them that there is a fate worse than death. Therefore, they are not to fear the atrocities of men. We must all choose.
Take Martin Luther – a monk intent on his own salvation – often going to confession for as many as 6 hours at a time, killing himself with anxiety that he was not good enough. He began to study the Scriptures for himself in the original languages and found that we are justified by faith alone and not by faith plus works. He found Rom 1:17, “The just [justified person] shall live by faith.” He found Titus 3:5, “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy.” He found Eph 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” He found truth and took his stand against a church that added to grace baptism, penance, indulgences, last rites and other works of merit. He said, “No – it is by grace alone through faith alone that we are justified.”
Rome caught on. Luther found himself called before the Diet of Worms to give account for his heresy. He went fully expecting to die for his faith as had many, like Wycliffe a hundred years before him. His judge, Archbishop John Eck asked him, “Martin Luther, do you recant of the heresies in your writings? Do you defend them all, or do you care to reject a part?” Much to everyone’s amazement, Luther asked for a night to consider. But he did not ask out of the fear of men. He asked to consider one more time before God whether he had it right. Luther feared God, not men who could do no worse than kill the body. His answer is legendary: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen. That is a man who preferred Jesus’ friendship to any other – who feared the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell more than he feared those who can only destroy the body. Unwittingly, the church let Luther live – a decision they have regretted ever since.
We may never face death for our convictions, tho it’s not impossible. But we will surely face the test – Who is your friend? Who do you love, Jesus or the world? If we are claiming Him on Sunday, but deny Him by our words and actions the rest of the week, we are exactly the hypocrites that Jesus is condemning. The solution – fear the Father more than the atrocities of men. Accept His love and forgiveness and become His beloved child.
2. Abandonment of God
6“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. 7 Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.” At first these words seem out of context here. One minute Jesus is telling us to fear God, the next he is noting the great care that comes from the Father. What is His point? I think it is simple. Human opposition looks very real – whether it actually includes the threat of death, or the threat of being ostracized, losing friends, looking stupid – whatever – the threat is palpable, immediate, clear, fearsome. Meantime, an invisible and often mysterious God can seem very far away. It is easy to feel abandoned in those circumstances. It is easy to feel lost. God was there for Moses, yes, but for little ole me? I’m not so sure.
Jesus realizes that fear of abandonment is natural. He knows. He’s been there. And so He addresses that fear with these tender reminders. Is God your Father? Have you become His child by faith in Jesus? Then you need never fear. Even the little useless sparrows – sold in those days for 2 for a penny, five for two pennies – worthless little guys. Yet God knows every one of them. And you – He knows far more about you than you. He knows how many hairs you have. Forgotten by God? Abandoned by God? Never – not on your worst day. What hope Jesus give us here.
When our fear of God’s holiness drives us to Him for mercy, we need never fear again – not the atrocities of men, and certain not abandonment by Him. Here’s why. Jesus took the abandonment for us. On the cross. There He experienced all the wrath of God against the sin of the world, and in that moment of optimal abandonment, He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” He was forsaken, so that we need never be.
That doesn’t mean we will never suffer pain, even death in His service, but we will never face the abandonment of hell. No matter what it looks like, God is neither apathetic nor uninvolved. Unseen, He is before us, behind us, above us, all around us.
Conc -- John G. Paton was an early missionary to New Hebrides, among the cannibals. For years he saw few results in his work other than the constant threat to his life. At the lowest point he found himself very alone. His wife and 36-day old child had just died of tropical disease – and he was hiding in a tree surrounded by natives intent on his death. Talk about atrocities of men and abandonment by God? Paton knew. But he also knew what to fear, and what not to fear. But here is what he report later, "I climbed into the tree and was left alone in the bush. The hours I spent there lives before me as if it were but yesterday. I heard the frequent discharging of muskets, and the yells of the savages. Yet I sat there among the branches, safe in the arms of Jesus. Never, in all my sorrows, did my Lord draw nearer to me, and speak more soothingly in my soul, than when the moonlight flickered among these chestnut leaves, and the night air played on my throbbing brow, as I told all my heart to Jesus. Alone, yet not alone! If thus thrown back upon your own soul, alone, all alone, in the midnight, in the bush, in the very embrace of death itself, have you a Friend that will not fail you then?" Great question. Have you such a friend? Let’s pray.