As a church, we have just come out of a wonderful World Outreach Celebration, and like all previous years, it was a blessing. The music empowered our worship as we were edified by both the content and the quality. The presentations were both encouraging and challenging. Of course, the highlight was the preaching of God’s Word, and I dare say that we will never look at the book of Ruth in the same way! And contrary to a particular Texan preacher that our main speaker quoted, we have a very good idea of what Psalm 87 means! The nations are being reborn and will continue to be reborn until the knowledge of the glory of the Lord covers the earth as the waters cover the sea. There is every reason to celebrate; there is every reason to sing a new song to the Lord.
But having just completed such a special week for our church, we would be amiss to not ask and to attempt to answer the question, what now?
There is a biblical principle that much will be required from those to whom much is given. This certainly applies to BBC in a very profound way. We have been blessed to be a blessing, and so the challenge confronting us now is, will we be a blessing, or will we hoard the blessings that God has given to us?
Our faith promise commitment for the coming year saw a fairly dramatic increase. We have never promised so much, and so, what now? Will we actually give it?
We have been instructed from God’s Word to show extravagant kindness to those around us and to those who are far from us—the marginalised of our own community as well as the marginalised of the unreached peoples on this planet. So will we?
Particularly, for our purposes in this study, we have been blessed as recipients of the gospel. Many have not experienced this blessing. So, what now? Will we fulfil our responsibility to teach others what we have been taught? As South Africans, we are blessed with the privilege to freely worship God multiple times on any given Lord’s Day without fear of recrimination. Billions in our world do not have access to such opportunity. And so again I want to ask, what now?
This morning I want to bring a very pastoral message to ask and to answer the question: What now? My answer is that we are under obligation to proclaim and to promote the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to a world that is under the wrath of God. We are–now–to preach, publish and promote this gospel to all and sundry. We have been given the privileged, the blessed obligation, to be teachers. If we do not fulfil our obligation then we are failing to fulfil our purpose. We are disobeying our Lord and Saviour. We are sinning against our God.
So, let’s now examine our obligation that we might faithfully respond to the question, what now?
We Must Know and Be Convinced of our Obligation
We must begin by answering a fundamental question: What is our obligation? The writer of Hebrews makes very clear the obligation of his readers. These professing believers were under obligation to be teachers. They were to quit behaving as if they are in Grade 0 and to be what they had previously been: adult teachers.
The word “ought” in 5:12 is a translation of a word that means “to be under obligation.” It is an obligation that comes from God. They were under a God-given obligation to teach others the gospel of Christ. They were under obligation to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. And all who have been born again are obligated to be teachers. Yes, those saved by grace are under obligation.
In what precedes this verse we are told, in no uncertain terms, that those who believe on Christ are to “obey Him” (5:9). Obedience is a sign of saving faith. This truth is declared time and again in the New Testament (see Romans 1:5; 6:12, 16-17; 10:16; 16:19, 26; Galatians 3:1; 5:7; Philippians 2:12; 2 Corinthians 9:13; 10:5; 1 Peter 1:2, 22; 3:1).
After all, if the winds and the sea obey Christ (Matthew 8:23-27), and if the demons obey Jesus (Mark 1:21-28), then certainly it is expected that His “brothers” will!
It is clear from the epistle that the readers had come to see the gospel of the person and the work of Jesus Christ as the fulfilment of all of shadows and symbols of the sacrificial system of the old covenant. The writer therefore expected them to teach these same truths to others. They were to proclaim the gospel to others and to build up believers in the faith as they taught the gospel. They were under obligation to obey their Master by doing the Great Commission.
Every believer in Christ is expected—obligated—to obey Jesus, and among the many things that Jesus commanded His disciples is that we teach all nations to observe all that He commanded (Matthew 28:18-20). This is not merely the duty of a select few who have been called to serve the Lord as preachers and as teachers; rather, it is the obligation of every child of God. Though there may be some exceptions (due to physical restraints and the like), nevertheless the majority of Christians are under obligation to be teachers. This means that every new convert is obligated to become a teacher. This is the result of discipleship.
The Great Commission was given to every Christian, with the original disciples being the representative recipients of this command. In fact, as you study the book of Acts you find that it was the regular church members, and not the apostles, who became the first cross-cultural teachers. Christian men are to disciple other Christian men, and Christian women are under obligation to disciples other Christian women.
Though James 3:1 warns us of the high accountability of teachers, this is not intended to discourage people from teaching others truth; it is designed to highlight the sobriety of doing so. I think a case can be made that James 3:1 is not discouraging being a teacher per se, but rather it is encouraging us to take this responsibility seriously. In fact, note that this warning heads the chapter that goes on to speak of spiritual maturity. The point that James is making is that our life must match our lips if we will teach others. It serves as a challenge for us to grow up rather than a command to us to shut up!
Every Christian should be committed to being a teacher of the gospel to others.
It will be helpful for us to reflect upon just what the mark of maturity is—and what it is not. Maturity is not measured by longevity, but by perseverance in the faith. Maturity is not measured by knowledge, but by obedience. Maturity is not measured by factual intake, but by faithfulness. Maturity is not measured only by taking in but also by telling out.
In the light of this we should see that if we are truly growing up in Christ, then one huge manifestation will be going out and telling out. If we are growing up in the faith, then we will be growing in our love for the story and therefore we will increasingly love to tell the story. And if we ourselves are not able to tell the story due to limitations then we will be committed to supporting those who can go out to tell out.
Why Don’t We Fulfil Our Obligation?
Perhaps this sounds like a presumptuous and therefore offensive question. Is it fair to say that we have failed in our obligation? I think so. I would simply point to the multitudes that have not yet been given the opportunity to hear the gospel. There are some 3.9 billion unreached peoples! This is certainly strong evidence that the church at large is failing in some way in its obligation.
I believe the reason that we do not do our obligation is the same reason why this first-century group of believers were not fulfilling theirs. We, like they are guilty of the same “besetting sin.”
The KJV speaks in Hebrews 12:1 of “the sin which doth so easily beset us,” and we are challenged to “run with patience the race that is set before us.”
The phrase “besetting sin” has entered the vocabulary of the church over the past five centuries with such phrases as, “We all have our cross to bear.” It has been personalised to mean all kinds of erroneous things. For example, if one has an anger problem, a problem with lust, or a problem with greed, we speak of this in terms of their (or our) “besetting sin.” I don’t think that such an appellation is correct or helpful. Such sin problems are, in fact, symptoms of a deeper besetting sin. They are symptomatic of the besetting sin, as expounded throughout this epistle; namely the sin of unbelief.
It is clear that the people whom the writer is addressing at one time were bold in their commitment to Christ. The writer hints at their former obedience in various places throughout the epistle (see, for example, 6:9-12; 10:32-34). It is clear from these and other passages that these people at one time were doing right, but that they were now in need of reminders to continue to do right (10:22-25; 13:1-3). They had at one time been willing to be insulted for the name of Christ and to suffer loss for Him. They had once taken seriously the call of Jesus to take up their cross and to follow Him. They had formerly taken seriously the words of Jesus that only with “violence” will one enter the kingdom (Matthew 11:12), meaning that one need be willing to pay a price of suffering violence to themselves to faithfully follow Christ. A would-be follower of Jesus must reckon on death to self. As Elton Trueblood once wrote, “We must never suggest that . . . discipleship is easy or mild. . . . There is no easy Christianity; there is no mild Christianity. It is violent or nothing at all.”1
But something had occurred that had tempted them to begin to behave like the Hebrews of old (see chapters 3—4). They began to “draw back” from open commitment to and bold confession of Jesus Christ as Lord. They were guilty, not merely of doubt, but of unbelief.
From the letter, and from what we know of those times from other passages (see Matthew 24, Jude, 2 Peter, Revelation), and from what we can legitimately glean from extrabiblical histories of the times, it is clear that these Hebrew Christians were under pressure for their profession of faith. Their pressure led to a deterioration of their commitment to Christ. It led to a blinding of their vision of the glory of Christ. It led to a marginalising of the importance of God’s Word.
And what was the consequence? Among other things, these believers were no longer obedient to their calling to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. They marginalised the mission. We gather this from the words of v. 12: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again.”
As we saw previously, these believers were no longer in a condition in which they could appreciate the deep things of God; namely the deep truth of Christ being the centre of the old covenant. They were not appreciating Him under the new covenant. They had regressed to seeing only the shadows of Christ rather than the substance of Christ. They were missing the wood for the trees. More aptly, they were missing the cross for the rituals. And so, rather than growing up in Christ, they were going backwards. The story of their lives was more akin to C. S. Lewis’ Pilgrim’s Regress than Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
The fundamental issue here is their failure to see Christ in the symbols and shadows of the old covenant, including the typology of Melchizedek. They were not seeing Christ, and the result was that they were confused, stunted in their growth and unable therefore to meaningfully tell others about Christ. It is for this reason that the author tells them they “they ought to be teachers.”
As these Hebrew believers circled their wagons and sought to be safe from the encroaching persecution, they were no longer interested in teaching the gospel to others. In fact, they had lost sight of the gospel. They had forgotten the gospel. They returned to a system while abandoning their Saviour. They practised their rituals while ignoring the person and work of Christ—the very fulfilment of those rituals. They had substituted a relationship with the living Lord for religious convenience. And they, along with the society surrounding them, were so much the poorer for it.
Does this describe you? Does this describe BBC? Does this describe so many churches and Christians in our own town and municipality and province and nation? If it does, then shame on us. If it does, then let us do something about it. If it does, then let us repent of this besetting sin of unbelief and its symptom of silence. Let us fulfil our God-given obligation to be “teachers.”
In summary, their dullness of hearing was a faith problem. Their hearts of unbelief were creating such a deafening wax that they were now unable to hear and to appreciate the glory of Christ. And their faithless hearts and closed ears led to an atrophy of mouth. They became mute in speaking of Christ. And, sadly, this is the same problem for many today. Because of the besetting sin of unbelief, we are quiet about the gospel. As our hearts have grown dull our mouths have become shut.
Like these Hebrew believers, we too need to continually recapture the supremacy and superiority of the Lord Jesus Christ and then we will be moved to tell others about Christ. Then, and only then, will we be willing to sacrifice to be “teachers.” Then, and only then, will we be willing to pay whatever price necessary to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In his excellent book, Hell is Real (but I Hate to Admit it), Brian Jones writes, “Christians don’t think their way out of a faith crisis, they repent their way out of a faith crisis.”2 In fact, though I get his point, I think that both are necessary. We need to think right if we will repent right, and repentance in turn enables us to think right. Such repentance will empower us to do right—to fulfil our obligation to be “teachers.”
Consider a pertinent example of how unbelief in the heart leads to silence of the lips.
In Luke 1 the Lord sent Gabriel to Zacharias, a priest, to announce that his wife, Elizabeth, was going to be blessed with a child (vv. 11-17). After decades of barrenness, this couple will experience an Abraham-like blessing. They were promised a son. But Zacharias did not believe the promise of God (v. 18). The result is that he was chastened with muteness because he “did not believe” the angel’s “words” (v. 20).
His wife conceived, and after the child was born, Zacharias clearly believed (vv. 59-63). And what happened? “Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed and he spoke, praising God” (vv. 64). Verses 67-79 record Zacharias’ praise to God as he told the story of God’s amazing grace. Again, note that his speaking—by which he was now teaching others—came on the heels of faith. Unbelief closed his mouth while belief loosened his tongue. When you are filled with the Spirit (v. 67) then, like a person intoxicated, the words flow (see Ephesians 5:18-21). May God grant to us eyes of faith producing tongues that teach.
How Do We Fulfil Our Obligation?
Sadly, there are too many believers who have little or no understanding of their obligation. The result is that they spend their lives aimlessly.
Why is this? Because of unbelief which breeds fear. And when fear comes, so does silence.
So, how then can we overcome this fear? There are many ways, but let me mention a few.
First, we need a greater sense of God’s love for us. As John wrote, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).
As the Spirit of God sheds forth such love (Romans 5:5) we are in a wonderful position to risk all for Him. Paul said so in 2 Corinthian 5:14. We need this experiential love of God.
When the apostles experienced God’s love, they were able to fearlessly obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). Paul and Barnabas prayed and sang hymns to God in prison because they understood God’s love (Acts 16:25). Again, Paul was willing to both live and die for the Lord Jesus (Acts 20:24; 21:13). For him to live was Christ and to die was gain (Philippians 1:21). Those who love God and know His love for them rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory (1 Peter 1:8).
This all comes down to a growing love for Christ. After all, we love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). That is, as we experience His love, we love Him experientially in return. This introduces another means of overcoming our fear to speak.
Second, we need a deepening vision of the glory and greatness of God. We need to believe that God in Christ is the greatest treasure. If we will speak up for Christ then we must grow up in Christ.
It is to be noted that, before the author ever exhorts these believers concerning their Christian duty to speak up and to serve the church, he first gives doctrinal instruction—for nearly five chapters. He was well aware that, before they would get up and grow up and go out and speak up, they would need an expanded and an expanding vision of Christ.
This is why he so painstakingly instructed them about the High Priesthood of Jesus. Christology always drives missiology. We might expand this further by saying that doxology leads to missiology. A church will only be missional if it is visional. That is more than a clever saying; it is an undeniable truth. God’s revelation is essential if we will avoid unrestrained living (Proverbs 29:18). Be Thou My Vision is the driving force behind effective obedience to Christ’s mission.
Isaiah needed a vision of Christ high and lifted up before he was empowered to continue his prophetic ministry (Isaiah 6:1-8). The Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20 is driven by an understanding of the absolute authority of Jesus (v. 18). Some of the greatest missional Psalms (67; 96; 96) offer a vision of God as the basis for the mission of the readers.
Our problem as Christians is usually not as much a lack of knowledge as it is a lack of will, which is in essence a lack of devotion. We need healthy and even forceful reminders at times to stir us to radical living. Again, devotion is clearly the issue here, not merely the attainment of better doctrine. We need doctrinally-driven devotion. This will lead to delightful fulfilment of our duty, of our obligation.
Mark 8:13-33 is a passage which illustrates the common problem of Christians in the church. The disciples had plenty of evidence before them of who Christ was and how He met their needs, and yet they were still plagued with doubt and unbelief (vv. 13-21). Jesus asked them, “How is it that you do not understand?” (v. 21). It was not a lack of intelligence, nor was it a lack of information, but rather a lack of trust. Their lack of trust was tied to their lack of “vision.” And clearly Jesus held them accountable for this.
Again, the miracle of healing the blind man (vv. 22-26) well illustrates the dullness, not only of the disciples, but also of us. By virtue of the new birth, we do “see” and yet, like this man, we see men as trees walking. We see, but not clearly enough. We, like him, require further touches. And as we receive these, our confidence in Christ grows, and this is manifested in speaking of Him. As we seek Him we cannot help but speak of Him.
Note, further, Peter’s glorious confession (vv. 27-33). It is clear that the Lord had opened his heart to believe. He was a Christian. He had been born again (1 John 5:1). And yet, so soon after this amazing experience, he failed to appreciate the call of the cross to suffer. He needed a strong admonition. His refusal of the cross was diabolical. Peter saw, but only trees walking. All too often this is how we are. We need strong and pointed rebuke to wake us up to the danger. And once we wake up, we will speak up.
Perhaps a word of caution is in order here. Be careful of rashly writing someone off as an unbeliever or apostate because they have become dull. They indeed may be the real deal in need a brother or sister to speak forthrightly into their life. What they therefore need is a fresh, and then a continual, experience of repentance.
Third, we need to believe in hell. If we no longer believe that God is both loving and wrathful, it is small wonder that we will not warn others to flee the wrath to come from God by fleeing to God.
A pastor recently said to me that perhaps church planting is not a priority because we do not believe in hell. As Brian Jones observes, we need this “apocalyptic urgency.”3 In other words, hell is real, and those who die in their sins spend eternity there under the just, righteous and awful wrath of the holy God.
A huge motivating factor behind getting up and going out is the reality of God’s wrath; the reality of hell for those who die without Jesus Christ (though, granted, it is subservient to the priority of the vision of the glory of God). The liberal church unfortunately has lulled many to sleep concerning the reality of hell, and sadly this has infiltrated even the evangelical church. H. Richard Niebuhr characterised the message of liberal church of his day as “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”4 We are surrounded with the remnants of this theology in our postmodern world and church.
I fear that indeed our greatest problem is that we do not really take seriously the Word of God and the reality of judgement. In fact, the writer of this epistle very much believed in the wrath of God and he believed that the recipients of this letter would experience it very soon. He knew that the old covenant symbols and structures were soon to “vanish away” (8:13) He was persuaded that soon the “heavens and earth” would be “shaken” (12:25-27) and that God, who “is a consuming fire” (12:29), was soon to unleash His wrath upon Jerusalem. The writer was persuaded that, indeed, “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31). And so should you.
Brian Jones tells the story of a drive to a family holiday during which he noticed a plume of smoke on the horizon. He wondered whether it was perhaps a residential building on fire, but initially reasoned that, even it if was, fire fighters were surely on top of it. As he continued driving, he could not shake the sense that lives may be in danger, and so, at the next off ramp, he turned back. When he arrived at the source of the smoke, he found an apartment complex on fire—and that no one had responded. He immediately charged into the three-storey building and began banging on doors to warn residents of the danger. In the end, no one was injured, but Jones relates what a stark realisation it was to him that he was willing to risk his life to save people from temporary fire, but was far more reticent to do so from eternal fire. Perhaps you can relate.
Hell is real and we need to tell people about it before it is too late. As Carl F. Henry well said, there is a very real sense in which “the gospel is only good news if it gets there in time.”5 We are obligated to be teachers because hell is real. Please hear this in the spirit in which it is given: Who the hell cares? You and I should.
Though much of the hell-fire-and-damnation preaching was ugly, hell fire and damnation are biblically revealed realities. Sadly, much preaching with reference to hell has been done with a bad attitude. I appreciate, as a correction to this, the advice of Matthew Henry, who said no one should preach on hell who cannot do so with tears. Perhaps we don’t because its reality has not set in. Let’s fix that. Let us ponder the truth of Jesus that we are to fear not those who can destroy only the body, but instead the one who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell.
When Brian Jones was one day called upon to witness to the dying father of a church member in hospital, he agreed to go, though the man, an avowed sceptic, had often ridiculed his teaching before. Jones arrived at the hospital and again shared the gospel with the man, but was again snubbed. As he entered the elevator to leave the hospital, he was overcome by a sense of urgency. He went back to the hospital ward and continued to share the gospel, literally pleading with the man to repent. After a while, tears began to well up in the man’s eyes. He professed Christ, and thanked Jones for coming back. Would to God that we would share his urgency!
What if We Are Not Fulfilling Our Obligation?
So what is the result if we to do not fulfil our obligation to grow up and be a teacher? The marginalised will remain so and the evangelised will waste resources.
I cannot develop this for time’s sake, but we know that the lost need to be reached and that we are called to reach them. We must devotedly, delightfully, sacrificially and faithfully embrace our obligation. The marginalised all around us, and the marginalised far from us, need us to love God enough to love them enough to risk all so that they will hear of this God, who is worthy of our love and devotion.
Sadly, one reason why the gospel-marginalised are so is because the gospel maximised are behaving like infants. That was the problem that our writer was addressing, and it is still a problem today. We are fighting in the sandbox while the world is drowning in the quicksand of unbelief. We are wasting time sorting out problems at home while the world is perishing.
Yes, the problems—marriage problems, sin struggles, relationship strain, etc.—at home need to be sorted out, but if we are committed to growing up then we can invest our resources better elsewhere.
Paul faced a similar challenge at the church in Corinth. He wrote at least four letters to the church (two of which were inspired) and had visited them on a couple of occasions. In 2 Corinthians, however, the fourth of the aforementioned letters, Paul hints that the problems he had been seeking to address were still not resolved. In chapter 10, the apostle writes of “having hope, that as your faith is increased, we shall be greatly enlarged by you in our sphere, to preach the gospel in the regions beyond you, and not to boast in another man’s sphere of accomplishment” (vv. 15-16).
Much could be said here but suffice to let me sketch this briefly. Paul wanted to go to the “regions beyond” to preach the gospel where the Christ had not yet been heard. He wanted to reach the unreached—including the unengaged. But he could not do so yet. He first had to make a third visit to Corinth to sort out problems there.
The church there had foolishly listened to false apostles, who were undermining the Word of God, with the result that the church was regressing. Paul saw little value in going to the unreached if the church was unravelling elsewhere (which shows, by the way, the value and import of the local church). But note what he says: His desire was that they would grow up, that they would increase in faith, with the result that he could then go elsewhere to preach the gospel.
Tasker captures this well when he writes, “It was to the great discredit of a small section of the Corinthian Christians that they had given these men a hearing; and Paul does not propose to venture further afield in missionary work until their faith is increased. He hopes indeed to preach the gospel in places beyond Corinth, but only so soon as the state of affairs at Corinth permits.”6
In other words, Paul needed them to progress in the faith so that he could tell the gospel story elsewhere. However, until they did so, his ministry would be curtailed.
The principle is clear: If the church does not grow up in Christ, then the unreached will not be reached. Resources will be spent at home while the regions beyond will remain marginalised.
The application I want to make, the appeal I am giving, is that BBC continue to grow up. As each of us grows in devotion to Christ, we will be in a better position to reach the marginalised. As marriages are godly, we are free to invest more time teaching the untaught. As believers grow in holiness, more people are equipped to teach others.
Please do not misunderstand: If you have a sin and relational problem, we are committed to helping you. But we want you to overcome sin and then to join the efforts to teach others so they can overcome sin to the glory of God.
So, what now? Let us grow up and go out and tell out and send out the blessed gospel to the glory of God. Let us make it our increasing passion for Christ to be our passion. Let us work on our devotion. Let us then work on our efforts to include others in our passion. Let us return over and over to Christ for a better vision of who He is, and then let us be committed to pay whatever price is necessary.
- Elton Trueblood, The Yoke of Christ (Waco: Word Books, 1958), 89. ↩
- Brian Jones, Hell is Real (But I Hate to Admit It) (Colarado Springs: David C. Cook, 2011), 28. ↩
- Jones, Hell is Real, 31. ↩
- H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1959, 193. ↩
- Jones, Hell is Real, 156. ↩
- R. V. G. Tasker, The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary (London: Tyndale, 1958), ??. ↩