Tim Keller Sermon: Paradise Lost – Genesis 3:8-24

SERIES: Bible: The Whole Story—Creation and Fall – PART 3

Tim Keller teaching at RPC image

Preached in Manhattan, New York on January 18, 2009

Genesis 3:8–24

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” 10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” 12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,

Cursed are you above all the livestock

and all the wild animals!

You will crawl on your belly

and you will eat dust

all the days of your life.

15 And I will put enmity

between you and the woman,

and between your offspring and hers;

he will crush your head,

and you will strike his heel.”

16 To the woman he said,

“I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing;

with pain you will give birth to children.

Your desire will be for your husband,

and he will rule over you.”

17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’

Cursed is the ground because of you;

through painful toil you will eat of it

all the days of your life.

18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,

and you will eat the plants of the field.

19 By the sweat of your brow

you will eat your food

until you return to the ground,

since from it you were taken;

for dust you are

and to dust you will return.”

20 Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living. 21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. 22 And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”

23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

We’re looking at what the Bible says about sin. The Bible is not a disconnected set of stories, each of which has a little moral about how to live life. Primarily, the Bible is a single story telling us what is wrong with the human race, what God is going to do about it, and how history is going to end, how it’s all going to turn out. It’s a single story. We’re looking at Genesis 3–4 to give us answers to what’s wrong with the human race, why the human race is so prone to selfishness, violence, wars, atrocity, and corruption all the time.

C.E.M. Joad was a British philosopher. He was an atheist. He was a member of The Brains Trust. He lived in the early twentieth century. He was an atheist but came back to faith later in life and, at the very end of life, wrote a book called The Recovery of Belief. In it he said this very fascinating thing: “It is because we rejected the doctrine of original sin that we on the left were always being disillusioned by the behavior of both the people and the nations and politicians, and by the recurrent fact of war.”

Did you hear that? He says he thought most of the problems were the capitalists, not the common people, because he had rejected the doctrine of original sin. He bought into what Rousseau said, what Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, what almost all of the European intellectuals in the nineteenth century said. That is, that though human beings have their problems, the problems are not hardwired into us. They are lack of education. We can make the changes.

He realized near the end of his life that because he didn’t believe in the doctrine of original sin, he didn’t believe what the Bible said about the universality and the depth of sin in every human heart, he had basically based his whole life on a different view of human nature. He set in motion social policies that didn’t work. Basically, because he didn’t have the Bible’s understanding of human nature, he wasn’t able to navigate life as it was. Isn’t that something?

So let’s see what the Bible has to say about sin (last week, this week, and the next couple of weeks) as we look at Genesis 3–4. We learn four things here: the heart of sin, the breadth of sin, the depth of sin, and the end of sin.

1. The heart of sin

What is sin again? What is the definition of sin? The reason you may find out every week I give you a different definition is that, like the concept of God, the concept of sin is so profound you can’t stick it into one single nutshell definition. Last week we said, in terms of a vertical perspective, sin is putting yourself in the place of God. It’s taking upon yourself prerogatives and rights only God has. We talked about that last week.

Today I’d like to give you a more horizontal perspective. You see it right away. As soon as Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit and now sin has come into their lives and we’re seeing the results of this, immediately we see what I’d like to show you here. When God says here in verse 11, “Did you eat of the tree I commanded you not to eat from?” the man says, “The woman did it.”

Just to show you, by the way, the man is not more sinful than the woman, when God turns to the woman and says, “What do you have to say for yourself?” she says, “The Serpent did it.” We’ll get back to that, the equality here. Here’s the point. When Adam says, “She made me do it; send her to hell; give me another wife,” basically … “You’re talking to the holy God of the universe. What do you have to say for yourself?” “Take her.”

Here we see the essence of sin in a horizontal perspective. Sin is a willingness to throw anybody else under the bus to justify yourself. Sin is justifying yourself at the expense of other people, to feel superior to other people. In order to have a self-image, I have to feel superior to other people. I have to expose other people. I have to exploit other people. Sin is saying, “Your life to enhance mine,” not “My life to enhance yours.” See that’s servanthood.

“Your life to enhance mine. I will suck you dry. I will drain you dry. I will disadvantage you so I can feel good about myself, so I can justify myself, so I can have the significance and security I want.” Philip Roth wrote a novel called The Human Stain. That’s his metaphor for evil. The novel is actually about a man who starts to do very well in life, and everybody feels they have to bring him down. They have to find something wrong with him. They have to ruin his career.

Philip Roth has one of his characters talk about what he calls “the human stain,” which is this proneness to evil in the heart, which is, in a sense, deeper than behavioral actions. It’s this need to pull people down, this need to justify yourself at the expense of other people, to feel better than other people. “I’m good because you’re bad. I’m competent because you’re incompetent.”

At one point one of his characters … She calls this the human stain in the heart, and she says something like, “It’s in everyone, indwelling, inherent, defining. The stain that precedes your acts of disobedience, that encompasses disobedience and perplexes all explanation and understanding. It’s why all talk of cleansing your heart is a joke. The fantasy of purity is appalling, for what is the quest to purify but more impurity? The stain is inescapable.”

What does she mean by that? She says, “If you actually try to purify yourself, that just brings more impurity.” Here’s why. The stain is self-righteousness. The stain is, “I justify myself by pulling you down, by making myself feel superior to you, better than you.” If that’s the case, then to try to purify yourself from the stain only makes you more stained, because you say, “Look, I’m pure,” and you’re not.

C.S. Lewis wrote a little satirical piece called “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” Screwtape is a senior devil (this is a satirical, fictional piece, by the way) who basically is at a dinner for a college of junior devils who are getting ready to go out there and tempt the human race and make life horrible. So Screwtape suggests a particular method for making people’s lives miserable and making the world a horrible place.

What he suggests is there’s a particular feeling human beings have, and what you want to do is turn the gas up on that feeling. Whatever else you do, make sure you enhance this feeling, because this is the feeling that will really ruin their lives. Then Screwtape says, “The feeling I am talking about is that which prompts a person to say, ‘I’m as good as you.’ ” That’s the essence of sin. That’s the essence of how hell operates. That’s what made the Devil, the Devil. “I’m as good as you.” When Satan started saying that about God, it was all downhill for the universe.

He says, “Anyone who says, ‘I’m as good as you,’ does not believe it. No one says, ‘I’m as good as you,’ if you believe it. You wouldn’t say it if you did. The St. Bernard never says to the toy dog, ‘I’m as good as you.’ ‘I’m as good as you’ is a useful means for the destruction of whole societies, but it has a far deeper value as a state of mind, which necessarily, excluding humility, charity, contentment, and all of the pleasures of gratitude or admiration, turns a human being away from every road which might finally lead him to heaven.”

The impulse that makes you say, “I’m as good as you. I don’t like you getting ahead of me …” The impulse that says, “I’m better than you; that’s how I know I’m okay” is sin, and it’s really at the root of everything from murder to racism to all of our conflicts. This is another view into the heart of sin.

2. The breadth of sin

This is really important. I’ve already alluded to it. What the man does, so does the woman. The man and the woman are both equally ashamed, both equally filled with blame shifting and doing the same behavior, both equally banished. There’s no difference. One is not more sinful than the other. This is crucial.

The Christian doctrine of original sin is that we are hardwired for selfishness and cruelty. It’s not just a problem of we have bad examples or bad environments. We’re hardwired for it. Secondly, the Christian doctrine of original sin is that we’re all hardwired for it, all of us, across the cultures, across the races, across the classes, across the genders. Everybody. Let me show you how important that is.

Remember what Joad said? He said we were on the left, because we denied the doctrine of original sin, thought what’s really wrong with the world was located in the capitalists, in the elites, not in the common people. But life showed him that, no, sin is everywhere. He realized the mistake he made as a member of the left was, because he didn’t believe in the doctrine of original sin, he demonized a certain group of people, he demonized a certain set of folks, and saw that is where the problem is, but the doctrine of original sin is it’s in all of us equally.

On the other hand … I don’t want you to think I’m picking on people from the left. People from the left would say, “Oh, it’s the elites; it’s not the common people.” There are other ways to look at it. What about conservative people, or what about people who just simply are traditional and feel like what’s really wrong with the people is the hoi polloi, the unwashed masses, the common people?

There’s a very famous letter that has come down to us from the Duchess of Buckingham. The Countess of Huntingdon, who had become converted to evangelical religion under the preaching of George Whitefield in the eighteenth century in Britain, tried to evangelize her aristocratic colleagues. She would send sermons by George Whitefield to her friends. She would invite them to come to hear him preach. One of her aristocratic peers, the Duchess of Buckingham, after having been invited by the countess to come and hear George Whitefield, sent her an icy note declining. This is what she said:

“I thank Your Ladyship, but the doctrines are most repulsive and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect toward their superiors in perpetually endeavoring to level all ranks and do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl upon the earth. It is highly offensive and insulting, so I cannot but wonder that your ladyship should relish any sentiments so much at variance with high rank and good breeding.”

She’s right. The doctrine of original sin levels people. The doctrine of original sin makes it impossible for people from the left to say, “It’s those elites up there, not us common people,” and it makes it impossible for the people from the right to say, “It’s you unwashed masses,” or “It’s you criminal element,” or something like that, “not us virtuous people who have good breeding.” She was right. Do you know why? The doctrine of original sin creates a radical democracy of sinners.

If you believe in original sin, nobody is better than anybody else. You cannot look down your nose at a criminal or a drug dealer and say, “There’s a sinner; not me,” because the doctrine of original sin says the same seeds of that kind of behavior are in your heart. Maybe it didn’t sprout because you weren’t in the very same environment as that person out there, but the fact of the matter is you’re no better. We’re all sinners. We all need grace.

The Duchess of Buckingham was right. She says, “This levels everybody, to say that I have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl the earth.” That’s what the Bible teaches. It destroys self-righteousness. That’s the reason G.K. Chesterton says, “Christianity preaches an obviously unattractive idea, such as original sin; but when we wait for its results, they are pathos and brotherhood, and a thunder of laughter and pity; for only with original sin we can at once pity the beggar and distrust the king.”

What does he mean by “brotherhood”? What it means is it’s possible for a society that claims to be Christian to be racist, but if it is, it’s racist in spite of the doctrine of original sin, not because of it. It’s not grasping what the doctrine says. What the doctrine says is it’s a radical democracy. We’re all brothers and sisters in sin. We’re all under judgment. We all have no hope except for the grace of God.

That’s the reason why if you really grasp the doctrine of original sin, it creates a solidarity between you and every single person, even the most wretched people you see on the streets of New York City. When that comes into your heart, no longer do you say, “Oh, who are these people?” You are these people. I read about a discussion that happened here in New York City recently about the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, which still beggars the imagination. How could it have happened?

They were getting together and they were talking. “Well what does this mean?” One person had the audacity to say, “Look, let’s not call this sin. Let’s not say there was anything wrong. This is the way people are. People are going to do this. People are going to cheat; they’re going to lie. They’re going to do this. This is why we need government regulation. The only hope is government regulation.”

But government is people. Soylent Green is people, but government is people. Oh, that’s terrible. You guys don’t know what Soylent Green is? Unless you’re a real movie geek, you need to go and Google “Soylent Green,” and then you’ll know. It has nothing to do with the sermon at all, so just please don’t even think about it for the rest of the sermon, or you’re going to hurt yourself. Government is people. We are all the same. That is the breadth of sin.

3. The depth of sin

Here’s what we mean. Human beings are radically relational. That’s what we’re made for. Remember, we’ve seen this as we’ve gone through Genesis 1–2. We’re in the image of God. That means we’re built to reflect or to relate to God. We saw we are built to be lonely without other human beings. We’re relational beings. We live for relationships.

What we see in these verses right here is every single relationship being destroyed by sin. Another way to put it is sin is a malignant tumor eating away at our very ability to conduct any relationship. Sin destroys our relationship with God, our relationship with ourselves, our relationship with others, and even our relationship with nature and the world around us. Look carefully quickly.

First of all, we see in these verses it destroys our relationship with God. In verse 8 we’re told God comes walking into the garden in the cool of the day. When the Bible says David walked with Jonathan, or Abraham walked with Lot, or something like that, of course it means they literally walked, but it means more than that. The word walking in Hebrew was an idiom that meant friendship, relationship.

The fact that God walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day meant he was coming in wanting friendship, seeking relationship, and we hid. Sin is running from God who wants a relationship with us. Why don’t we want a relationship with him? The answer is (we said already) sin now means our lives are about power, about getting power over other people, about saying, “I’ll have a relationship with you as long as it doesn’t get in the way of my needs, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of my happiness and my fulfillment.”

It’s always, “Your life to enhance me.” You’re happy to have relationships as long as they enhance you, as long as they build you up, as long as they make you feel good. What we don’t like is servanthood. We like consumer relationships. “As long as the cost-benefit analysis is working well and I’m getting as much or more out of you as you’re getting out of me, fine.”

We don’t like covenant, where you are committed to someone to serve somebody whether or not you’re getting anything out of it or not. We hate that. Covenant goes against the grain of the heart, because sin is now all about keeping control and having power. There’s no way for a finite being to walk with an infinite being without losing control, so we won’t have it.

Yes, it’s true most people in the world say they believe in God and they pray, but most people in the world do not actually have in their minds the real God, because most people have a god they can pray to when they want to and doesn’t really demand loss of control of your life, doesn’t really demand that you change your life. Haven’t you seen that? Isn’t that true of a lot of us? In which case, we’re actually running from God and hiding from ourselves the fact we’re running from God by essentially believing in a god who isn’t holy, isn’t infinite, isn’t sovereign.

So first, our relationship with God has been destroyed. As a result, our relationship with ourselves is destroyed. How do we see that? When Adam says, “The reason I hid from you is I was ashamed because I was naked.” In the Bible, just like walking is an idiom for something bigger than just walking, so nakedness is an idiom for something bigger than just being ashamed of being naked.

Nakedness is a sense of guilt, that there’s something wrong with me, a sense of shame, that I need to prove myself, I need to cover, I need to keep people from seeing who I am because they’ll reject me. Nakedness is a psychological dislocation, a lack of ease with who you are. When our relationship with God is severed, our relationship with ourselves is severed. That is to say, we really don’t want to admit what’s wrong with us. We really don’t want to admit the worst about ourselves.

See the one thing we don’t want to believe is that we’re utterly dependent on God. We want to think we need God occasionally or maybe not at all, but in our heart of hearts we know we’re utterly dependent on God, and therefore, we are in denial about who we really are. That’s where the shame comes from, and that’s where the guilt comes from, and that’s where this lack of ease with being able to admit who we are comes from.

Thirdly, our relationship with each other is destroyed. We already saw some of that when the man starts to throw the wife under the bus just to save his neck. Even the making of fig leaves in verse 7 … As soon as sin came into their hearts, they covered up from each other. They sewed fig leaves to cover up their nakedness, but they were covering up their nakedness from whom at that point? God wasn’t even around. From each other.

We cannot bear to have other people really know who we are. We have to control what other people see about us, because we have to maintain power and control. Because our relationships are now power relationships, not love and service relationships, our relationships with each other are messed up. Individually we have superficial relationships, exploitative relationships, but corporately, races don’t get along with each other, the genders don’t get along with each other. Because our relationships with God are messed up and our relationships with ourselves are messed up, so our relationships in the world are messed up.

Lastly, the fourth thing that’s destroyed here is even our relationship with nature, the physical environment. Verse 17 says instead of just going out there and tilling the ground and up comes nothing but, I guess, flowers and food, now thorns and thistles will come up. The dust is no longer your friend. There is a lack of mesh with the physical environment. There is a clash with the physical environment. It’s no longer our friend. Now we age, now we get sick, now there are natural disasters, and now we die. We came from dust, but what’s going to happen at the end?

Erma Bombeck, who used to write humor columns many years ago, generally for women, in newspapers, at one point said something like, “You know, my life is dominated by dirt. At this end of the house there’s dirt. There’s dirt in the bathroom, dirt on the plates in the kitchen, dirt in the rug. So I work to get rid of the dirt, and by the time I get to the other end of the house, the first end of the house is dirty again. It never ends. And in the end, after all of these years of struggling against dirt, struggling against dirt, what do I get? Six feet of dirt.”

That’s almost exactly what God says in Genesis 3:17–20. In the end the dust wins. Every one of our relationships has been decimated by sin.

4. The end of sin

Now, what’s God going to do about it? You know, even though the Bible has all kinds of authors … Every one of the books has a different author, yet the Holy Spirit is the Author behind the author, and therefore the Bible is, in a sense, a single book with a single author, and he, the Holy Spirit, is an incredibly good storyteller. What we have here in the midst of this incredible disaster is the most enigmatic, intriguing foreshadowing. What is the foreshadowing of what God is going to do about it in the future? What are we going to see?

First, look at the mercy of God’s heart. He comes in, and he doesn’t smite them. He says, “Where are you? What have you done? Have you done what I asked you not to do?” What does God want with those questions? God could not be seeking truth and illumination for himself. He knows the answer. The only reason God would be asking questions is if he’s trying to give truth and illumination to them.

He’s treating them as adults. He’s not treating them as objects. He’s not treating them as animals, or even as children. He’s doing what people in AA call an intervention. He is trying to get them to tell him what they should know. “Admit what you’ve done. Say who you are. Own it. Take responsibility.” It’s fascinating. He’s counseling them. He’s seeking them in love, asking the questions instead of just telling them what they’ve done wrong. Isn’t that something?

Notice really carefully, by the way, whereas he asks questions to Adam and Eve, he doesn’t ask any questions to Satan. Do you know what that means? God loves the sinner but hates the sin. God holds out hope for evildoers, but he will not compromise with evil. It’s very interesting. So first of all, we see God makes a distinction between the evildoers and evil, and he seeks in love to change people’s hearts.

Secondly, we see the mercy of his hand. The second thing he does is he makes garments for them. Isn’t that something? See they had sewed fig leaves all over themselves. When God makes garments for them, they need garments psychologically for privacy, now physically they need garments because we have a hostile environment and they need better things than fig leaves, and he makes garments out of animal skins.

Many people over the years have noticed this seems to be God’s hint, a pointer toward the sacrificial system, toward the atoning sacrifices of the temple and tabernacle, and eventually, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus himself. Therefore, when God clothes Adam and Eve, do you know what he’s saying? He says, “Someday I’m going to have to give salvation, but my salvation is holistic. You need forgiveness. You also need shelter from the stormy blast.”

Therefore, human beings who seek to spread God’s salvation out in the world have to deal with all of the results of sin: physical, spiritual, psychological, and social. That’s the reason we don’t just go out into the world to help people get their sins forgiven and connect to God, but we also feed and clothe. Derek Kidner in his commentary on Genesis on this passage says, “The coats of skins are forerunners of the welfare, both spiritual and physical, which man’s sin makes necessary. Therefore, social action could not have had an earlier or more exalted inauguration.” Interesting.

So we see the holistic nature of God’s hand, and we see the mercy of God’s heart, but what is he going to do? He says in verse 15. This is the enigmatic foreshadowing. He looks at the Serpent and he says, “Because you have done this, I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers. He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” There’s a lot to be said here, but here’s what we have to see.

Do you know what the picture is? Imagine a group of people, a family, and into the midst of them comes slithering as fast as it can (and you know how fast they can come) a snake, a venomous snake, a poisonous snake, coming right at them. One man goes after the snake, and he begins to stomp on it. Finally he crushes the head and saves the family, but only after, in the process, the snake bites him, the poison goes into him, and he dies. That’s the picture.

What God is saying is … This is amazing if you realize this snake is not just a snake but is Satan. It represents evil. God is saying one of the descendants of Adam and Eve, the seed of the woman, a human being, is going to destroy sin and death itself but get a fatal wound in the process. A human being is going to come, and he’s going to destroy sin and death, and in the process lose his life. I wonder who that could be.

You see, the first Adam should have done something like that, not just stood there and let the Serpent destroy his family. The first Adam should have jumped on the snake or stomped on the snake or whatever. But the second Adam will. It’s Jesus Christ. Keep this in mind. In Romans 4 Paul says, “In Christ your sins are covered.” In Romans 4 Paul says, “Blessed is the one whose sin is covered. Blessed is the one to whom God does not impute sin.”

Now we don’t like cover-up, do we? Cover-up, Watergate … that’s not good. No, cover-up when you’re just sweeping things under the rug is not good, but that’s not what’s happening here. What we’re being told is that Jesus Christ is going to deal with your sin. When he goes to the cross he’s going to deal with your sin so your sins can be covered, pardoned, forgiven. How? Look at the last verse.

When God sends Adam and Eve out of the garden, there’s a sword there, and nobody can get back into the presence of God. Nobody can get back into the garden. Nobody can get back into paradise. Nobody can get to heaven unless you go under the sword. What does the sword represent? The wages of sin, the justice of God. The wages of sin is death. Nobody can get back into paradise unless they go under the sword.

The Bible says in Isaiah that when the Messiah comes, the suffering servant, he will be cut off from the land of the living. Jesus Christ went under the sword. He opened a new and living way back into the presence of God. He went first, and the sword slew him. He has covered our sins. Here’s what it means to be a Christian. It’s not to say, “I’m going to try real hard to live a good life.”

To be a Christian means to say, “Father, cover my sin because of what Jesus Christ has done. Objectively cover it by pardoning my sin, but subjectively deal with the sin in my heart. I don’t feel loved. I don’t live loved. I’m trying to prove myself. I’m trying to get control. Let the love of what Jesus Christ did for me so flood my heart by the Holy Spirit I can start to serve people.”

You know what? A lot of people in New York … If there’s one thing I’ve seen over the years, it’s how hard everybody is working. Everybody is working so hard to achieve, and a lot of people are really upset. “I didn’t get into that graduate school. It’s not the top tier. I’m not there. I didn’t make that much money. I didn’t achieve. I’m gaining weight. Nobody wants to go out with me.” You’re really upset because you’re looking for beauty, and you’re looking to achievement, and you’re looking to accreditation and credentials.

Do you know what these things are? They’re fig leaves. They’re ways you’re trying to deal with the nakedness. You’re trying to deal with the sense that, “There’s something wrong with me, and I don’t quite know what it is.” Let Jesus Christ clothe you with his love. Accept what he has done. Ask God to receive you because of what Jesus Christ has done, and ask the Holy Spirit to make real to your heart what he has done for you.

That will begin not only to cover your sin objectively so God accepts you and you can go to heaven because of what Jesus has done, but subjectively it’ll start to heal your heart of sin, the canker, the cancer, the thing that’s destroying all of your relationships because you’re so nervous and so ashamed and you’re trying to prove yourself and you’re so needy. When the love of God comes in there, it changes everything. Ask God to cover you with the righteousness of Christ now so that someday you can be utterly covered with the very glory of God. Let’s pray.

Our Father, we’re so grateful it’s possible for us to know this horrible spiritual cancer, sin, has already, actually, been dealt with and is eventually going to be dealt with completely and is going to be over. Until then, we ask that you would help us to receive your salvation, your grace, into our lives in such a way that we can begin to more and more die unto sin and live more and more unto righteousness and be conformed to the image of your Son, in whose name we pray, amen.

ABOUT THE PREACHER

In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting.  Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.

Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal Christo-centric books including:

Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (co-authored with Greg Forster and Collin Hanson (February or March, 2014).

Romans 1-7 For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (2014).

Encounters with Jesus:Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. New York, Dutton (November 2013).

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York, Dutton (October 2013).

Judges For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (August 6, 2013).

Galatians For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (February 11, 2013).

Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.

Center ChurchDoing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.

The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.

Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.

The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.

King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (Retitled: Jesus the KIng: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God). New York, Dutton, 2011.

Gospel in Life Study Guide: Grace Changes Everything. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010.

The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.

Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2009.

Heralds of the King: Christ Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney (contributor). Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.

Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.

Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.

 
 

 

SUNDAY NT SERMON: Tim Keller on “The Presence of the King”

Series: The King and the Kingdom Part 3 – Acts 4:23–37

Tim Keller teaching at RPC image

Preached in Manhattan, NY on August 6, 1989

Our Scripture reading is found in the book of Acts 4, and we’re going to read from verses 23–37. Just keep in mind the apostles have just been interrogated by the civil authorities, and they’ve been warned not to preach the gospel upon the peril of their lives. We pick it up at verse 23.

23 On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.

25 You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: ‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? 26 The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.’ 27 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed.

28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. 29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. 32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all.

34 There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. 36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

In just a few weeks, we’re going to be launching a new church, and I believe it’s fair and right that these last weeks of the summer we would spend our time looking at what the church is, see what it ought to be, and see what it can be. Now what I’d like to do tonight is very simple, and it had better be. There is one central fact, one central principle, one great essence of the church, and when you’re talking about the church, it is so easy to run and immediately begin discussing what the church should do. What does the church do?

When we talk about what the church does, we immediately get into the lists of functions and duties and responsibilities, and that’s all important, but before we talk about what the church does, we have to understand very clearly what it is, because you see, if you look at what it does and not what it is, you can really go astray. If you define a human being in terms of what he or she does, you might come up with an android. You know, an android can do everything a human being does, but it’s not a human being because the android doesn’t have the essence of a human being, whatever that is.

In the same way, it is very possible to have very busy churches; the only thing I can call them is robotic. Robotic churches that have focused in on the functions, and they’ve learned and decided what the church is supposed to do, but they haven’t got a good grip on what it is, and that’s very important. I think we need to be very honest about the condition of the church today, and it’s very easy when a church is brand new or when a church hasn’t even started to throw rocks at the way other churches are, and I don’t want to do that.

It’s a little bit like running for office when you have no record. It’s very easy to lash the incumbent, you see. Yet, we have to see what the Scripture says. In 1 Peter 1:8, Peter writes to a church and he says, “Though you have not seen him … you rejoice [in him] with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” Now here is Peter and he’s writing to a whole congregation, and he’s able to confidently assume every one of them has a joy in Christ that leaves them speechless. He can write them, and he says, “I know you’re in that condition. Why? You’re the church.”

Or you go to Acts 2, which we’re going to look at next week, and at the very end of Acts 2, it says the church was “enjoying the favor of all the people [of the city]. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Here was a church full of people and those people were so radiant, so compassionate, so responsible, and yet so unassuming the church was the praise of the whole city. Every day the church added people. Now how many churches are like that?

The normal church Peter was writing to … the normal church Acts 2:47 is talking about … how many churches are like that? Maybe those of you who have come and are either intending to come or just considering coming to this church are very happy because you might have found a church (and it’s only maybe; I admit it) you can bring friends to and not be embarrassed, and you think you’ve come across something cool. (Well, not tonight.) You’re excited. Friends, give up your small ambitions.

The glory, the brilliance, and the stupendous nature of what the church is … That is what I want to look at tonight and the next few weeks. The thing that’s going to be so hard is every one of us is going to look at what the Bible says the church is supposed to be through spectacles, and do you know what those spectacles are? They’re the spectacles of your own experience in the church. Some of you have had bad experiences. Many of you (most of us) have had mediocre experiences.

We’ve been stifled by mediocrity for years in the church, so when you read what the Bible says the church ought to be, you have these spectacles on, and what you tend to do is twist it and make it look like what you already expect. You see things the Bible says, and you whittle it down and say, “Well, I know what it’s talking about.” No, we don’t! We don’t, or what Peter said would be normal. The Acts church would be normal. It’s not, so I want to ask you tonight and the next few weeks if you’re able to come not to be passive.

If I just lay out what the Bible says here, you’re going to read it through the spectacles of your own experience and you’re going to filter out half of what is there. You have to help me. You have to help yourselves. You have to listen, grasp, and get a vision for what the church is supposed to be. Tonight, one thing I want to show you is the essence of the church. It’s in verse 31. This is the heart. This is the essence of what the church is. This is the central fact without which all the rest of the ministries and functions of the church are nothing but android operations.

Do you know what the central fact of the church is? It’s in verse 31. No, it’s not what you think. You think I’m going to say they were filled with the Spirit. That’s not what I’m going to say. That’s a symptom. That’s a result. What was the cause? The shaking. Realize that was the answer. In verse 29 (in fact, that whole passage) what are the apostles praying for? They’re praying that they might do the church’s ministry. They’re saying, “Oh, Lord, make us your servants,” they say in verse 29. They say, “Help us to preach the Word.” They say, “Help us to do all the things the church is supposed to do.”

How does God answer that? He answers it with the shaking. They prayed, and here is the answer. “… the place where they were meeting was shaken. And [as a result] they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and they spoke the word of God boldly.” Now what is the shaking? That’s a very important thing. Is this a Steven Spielberg special effect? Is it just a nice touch God put in there? Maybe it was a thunderclap. Maybe it was a bolt of lightning. That would be a nice effect. No. It’s not an effect. It’s the heart of things.

The shaking is a theophany. It means a visible representation of the presence of God. In Exodus 19, when God came down on Mount Sinai, his presence came down on the mountain, the mountain was crowned with smoke and fire, and the mountain shook. Hebrews 12:26 says on that day the earth shook with his voice. Whenever God comes down there is an earthquake. Israel never forgot him coming down on Mount Sinai, and they constantly prayed, “Oh, Lord, come back.”

For example, Isaiah 64:1. Listen to this prayer. “Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence.” The presence of God is so powerful, Isaiah is saying, that the timelessness of the mountains looks like brevity compared to this presence. The solidity of the mountains looks like liquid compared to the presence. Whenever God comes down, he shakes things. In Hebrews 12 we read about a commentary on Exodus 19. Listen to this.

It’s talking about Mount Sinai. The Hebrew writer says, “At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ The words ‘once more’ indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire.’ ”

What is that saying? It’s saying whenever God shows up (when his presence descends) there is a shaking because next to God everything else that looks so strong and so solid is revealed as being shaky. Do you see? When the presence of God comes down, when his reality is clear, when we’re seeing him face to face, then things that look solid suddenly appear very shaky. Now that’s very important. Next to God’s power, all other things that impressed you as power are just popguns. Next to God’s love, all the things that look like love are very pale.

Why do you think the people who experienced the presence of God, like David, like Moses, like Jacob, were so bold? Why do you think people are able to die for their faith? Why is it that many of us in this room, if we were honest, would say, “I’m not sure I would die for my faith?” David, who saw the presence of God, had a very interesting verse that explained it. He said, “… thy loving kindness is better than life …” You’ve heard that. There is a song that says, “Thy loving kindness is better than life.”

Do you know what you’re saying when you sing that? You’re singing the loving kindness of God (the love of God) is that solid, and that’s more important than anything else in my physical life, my prosperity, and my goods. Everything else is shaky. It’s expendable. In the light of God’s face, I see what is really solid and what is shaky, and that’s why in the Old Testament Isaiah was saying, “Oh, I want your presence.” That’s why Moses was saying, “I want to see your face.” That’s why they prayed for that presence, because anyone who saw the face of God became unshakable.

Their love couldn’t be broken. Their courage couldn’t be broken. They wanted that! Some of you, if you’re thinking, and I hope some of you are thinking still, might say, “Now wait a minute. This presence of God stuff … I thought God was everywhere. How can you talk about coming into the presence of God? You might say, The only time I have felt the presence of God was when I was on the lip of the Grand Canyon and I was just overwhelmed with the beauty of nature, and I recognized God was in all of this, and I felt close to God. Isn’t that experiencing the presence of God?”

Not really. There is an Eastern concept of God that says, “God is everywhere. God is in everything.” The presence of God means coming to see that you are part of God and God is everything. Now friends, the Bible says that is only half true. The Bible says God is definitely everywhere because he’s a spirit, but the Bible also teaches God is not only a spirit, but a person. The Eastern view of God says he’s a spirit. Period. The biblical view says he’s not only a spirit; he’s a person, which means you can’t experience him at the Grand Canyon.

But because he’s a person, you don’t want to just experience God; you want to meet him. You don’t want to just experience God; you want to see him. You want to know him face to face. I’m not a computer expert, but maybe somebody out here is. Suppose I said to you, “Hey, listen. I have a friend named Jack, who is a terrific computer expert, and he designed this computer.” You started to look into it, and you noticed the design, and you began to say, “Man, this was a brilliant guy. I have never seen anything like this. Oh, look! He must be into this, and he must have read so and so. Oh, look! He’s done this.”

You’re deciphering this computer in a way I can’t. When you’re done, do you know anything about my friend, Jack? A lot. Have you learned about him? Have you experienced him? Yes, you know a whole lot about him. Do you know him face to face? Absolutely not. You can stick your head in there with the microchips and say, “Jack, Jack. Are you in there, Jack?” You can stick your head in the Grand Canyon but you won’t meet the Creator that way. You can’t!

The glory of the gospel is just this: Yes, God is everywhere because he’s a spirit, but there is also a royal throne-room presence. Everybody in this room is in the presence of everybody else. I don’t know how many people are in here. It looks like 90 or 100 people. You’re in the presence of 90 or 100 other people, and yet, the only person you’re facing right now (I think) is me. So because I’m a person, the fact that you’re facing me means there is a sense in which you’re in the presence of everyone else in the room, and yet you’re in my presence to a heightened degree?

There is greater communication, except some of you are poking each other and saying, “Gee, what do you think of that?” But most of you are looking at me, and if somebody would walk up here and sit down so our faces were closer together and we were talking one to one, you’d have to move our face-to-face knowledge, our communication, our intimacy up another notch. If you’re a person, face-to-face meeting is subject to degrees. The Bible says though you can kind of know God from the backside, from a distance, sort of the way I know there are a lot of people out there in New York …

I’m living in the presence of 18 million people, but I don’t know them. You can live in the presence of God in a general, backside way, but the Bible says there is a way to know him personally, and that’s what the Old Testament saints wanted. That’s what Jacob wanted, and when Jacob woke up after he had his dream and there was a stairway and the angels came back and forth, that was a theophany, because wherever the angels are there is the presence of God. God came down the stairway and talked with Jacob, and when Jacob woke up, what did he say?

“Boy, that was fun?” “Boy, he promised me a wife and kids. I always wanted to know if I was going to get married.” No. He said, “How awesome is this place!” “This is the [very] gate of heaven.” “This is Bethel, the house of God.” Now do you know why he talked like that? Because all the ancient people in Mesopotamia built these pyramids. They were called ziggurats, and the ziggurats had steps on them. You probably have seen pictures of them, but do you know archaeologists have dug those things up and found the steps were far too big for human beings to use?

What were they there for? Well, they were landing pads for the gods. They were trying to establish a link between heaven and earth. See, even the pagans wanted to come into the presence of the gods. When Jacob woke up, what did he say? He said, “Guess what? This is the stairway to heaven. This is Bethel. I’ve seen God face to face, and I’ll never be the same,” and yet, sad to say, if any of us had gone back to that spot to try to see God, would we have done it? Could we have met him face to face? No.

This is where the New Testament comes in. The New Testament makes a claim that is astonishing, and that is … now listen … the presence of God that was available sporadically, occasionally to the great men of the Old Testament (Moses, David, Jacob) … The presence of God that was fatal to people …

When God came down on Mount Sinai, no one could touch the mountain because his holiness and power and majesty were so great. They couldn’t even listen to him. That power, that presence, that reality which was available sporadically is now available continually to all those who know Christ as Savior and who gather in his name for worship.

When Jesus Christ was gathering his disciples, he talked to Nathaniel. Nathaniel had never met Christ. He went to Nathaniel and said, “Nathaniel, I saw you under the fig tree.” Now Nathaniel falls off his chair, but we don’t know why. Nobody really knows why. Obviously, Nathaniel was doing something under that fig tree that was either very bad or something very, very important happened to him there. Whatever it was, Jesus was showing Nathaniel he knew what really made him tick.

What did Nathaniel do? Nathaniel said, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” “I can’t believe it. You’re clairvoyant. It’s a miracle.” What did Jesus say? A weird thing. He said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.” “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Real clear, right? Do you know what he’s saying? “You get excited by a miracle. Big deal. Wait till you see. I am the gate. I am the stairway of heaven.

The thing Jacob had for a moment, I am the axis mundi, the axis of the world. I am the link between heaven and earth. I bring the presence of God into your midst. You will see angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” In John 3, Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born again.” Nicodemus said, “How? How can you be born again?” He said, “You must believe me because I’m the only one who both descended and ascended to heaven.” Do you know what he’s saying?

He’s again saying, “The reason you can be born again is I’m the stairway. Through me, the presence of God that made Mount Sinai smoke and tremble, that killed cattle and killed people, can come right into your life, transforming you, and you can know it continually.” Then in the book of Hebrews, you have this absolutely, incredible passage without which you can’t understand the gospel, really. Hebrews 12. It’s the latter part of chapter 12 and goes like this:

“You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire …” “The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, ‘I am trembling with fear.’ But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly … You have come to God … to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant … and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

Do you get that? Can I translate? It says there was a mountain that could be touched, and it was burning and smoking with the presence of God, but now you’ve come to a mountain just as real, a presence just as real, though you can’t touch the mountain. You come right into God’s presence. You’re right there with the angels.

Every time Christians meet to worship, the same presence of God that was on the mountain that could be touched is present here. It’s available. How could that be? Because of the mediator, Jesus Christ, whose blood speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel. You remember when Cain killed Abel, his blood spilled on the ground, and God came to Cain and said, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”

It cries out vengeance and revenge. But Jesus’ blood cries out grace, and the minute Jesus died, the veil in the temple that separated the presence of God in the Holy of Holies from the people outside was ripped. It’s the death of Christ. Those of us who have come in under his blood, those of us who have just asked him to be our Savior, the presence of God is now safe for us.

It’s no longer a terrific thing. It’s no longer a terrible thing because we’re covered by the blood. Because of the mediation of Christ, we can come right into the presence of God, and that is the central fact of the church. Aren’t you glad I only have one point tonight? This is it. Everything the Bible says about the church hinges on this, and you’re going to be a cynic if you don’t understand this, and if you understand this, you cannot live in cynicism. How many of you are cynics? “What do you mean? I live in New York.”

First Corinthians 14:24–25 says when an unbeliever comes into your worship and sees us worshipping, “he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner … the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’ ” That is saying in worship the presence of God is so real, even an unbeliever walking in, though he cannot account for it, will be forced to acknowledge it. Does that happen? You see, there’s the claim for ministry.

Paul, the apostle, writes the Ephesians. The Ephesians were Greek people, and they lived far away from Palestine, and he said Christ, “… came and preached peace to you …,” therefore, you believed. Now we know for a fact Jesus Christ did not come and preach to the Ephesians while he was on earth. Then what could Paul mean? What he means is when any of us who are Christians receive the presence of God into us, when we go minister we’re not ministering out of our own power, but Christ is ministering through us.

That’s the only reason Christ could say to people when he was on earth, “You will do greater works than I.” That is a promise. “You will do greater works than I.” That is only possible if the very presence of God is in our midst. That’s the thing that is promised, and because of the shaking, which happens again and again (not once) in Acts 2, 4, 12, 13, 14, and so on (then again 400 years like in the Old Testament), continually. God descended. In verse 31, it says when that happens the result is people are filled with the Holy Spirit.

Fortunately, those of you who don’t have much of a church background (there are plenty of you, and that’s great) haven’t heard about all those controversies, but, you know, Christians argue a whole lot about what it means to be filled with the Spirit. Let me tell you what I think. People who are aware of the presence of God, who are living in the presence of God, are filled with the Spirit. Period. To be in the presence of God means reality.

When I’m talking to my kids and I’m driving along (I just did 10 hours of that yesterday) and I want to say something to one of my children … “You have to stop picking on your brother.” My face is looking out the windshield. The kids are back there. Maybe they don’t get the point. I stop the car. I turn around. I put my face in the child’s face, and I say, “Go ahead. Make my day.” Now what I’ve done at that point is I’ve filled his vision and filled his attention and filled his focus and attention with me and my word. What I say has more reality than any of his little impulses.

My friends, to be in the presence of God means always his power is so real you’re not intimidated by anything else. His love is so real you’re not swayed or wooed by any higher loyalty. Now the fact is the presence of God is subject to degrees. I said so. Some of you are in my presence now, but you could walk forward and be more in my presence. It’s natural. An experience in the presence of God, which is available to all Christians, is something we have to seek continually because it’s available continually.

Sometimes it comes through with incredible power. Jonathan Edwards, some of you have heard of him. He was a Congregational minister in New England 200 years ago. Listen to this little note from his prayer diary: “Once, as I rode out into the woods for my health, in 1737 … I had a view that was for me extraordinary. [The inward eyes of my heart were opened and I saw the] glory of the Son of God … and his wonderful, great … pure and sweet grace and love.

The person of Christ appeared ineffably excellent with an excellency great enough to swallow up all thought and conception, which continued as near as I could judge [as a condition of me, for] about an hour, which kept me the greater part of the time in a flood of tears and weeping aloud. I felt an ardency of soul to be … full of Christ alone; to love him with a holy and pure love; to trust in him; to live upon him; to serve … him.”

Now I don’t know about you, but when I read a statement like that, this is what I think. “Is this guy in the same religion I’m in?” Maybe I’m in the international league, and he’s in the big leagues or something. Don’t be discouraged. He was experiencing the presence of God at a heightened degree, and the presence of God is something you cannot push buttons and experience to the same degree when you go before him in your private prayer or when you come together and go before him corporately, but what the Scripture teaches is we expect far too little of this. We expect so little reality in our lives.

The people of the church experienced this, and you see in verses 33 and 37 a lot of interesting descriptions, but they all boil down to two things, and they’re both in verse 33: Great power and great grace. Power and grace. If you see God’s power, if it’s real to you (you know, it’s up in your face) first of all you will stop being a coward about a lot of things. You’re not afraid. That’s why every time in the book of Acts where it says they were filled with the Spirit, they got bold. Because you see God and you say, “What in the heck am I afraid of? This is for me.” It also means, when you see the power of God, you stop being cynical.

I warned you I was going to get to this. Let me push this button. Cynicism is a condition where shaky things look solid to you. Things that are shaky, things that can come down, the habits in your life you haven’t been able to kick, the people in your life you know you’ve given up on … they’ll never change … who are either too powerful and together to ever, ever be reached for Christ or the people who are too messed up and weird and twisted to ever be helped by Christ, the cultural trends that will never, never change and reverse.

All these things make you cynical. You don’t expect much. You are not living in the presence of God. It’s impossible to have any kind of a grip on his power and be cynical. Repent! I know starting up here, at least 80 to 90 percent of us tonight ought to respond to this passage by going home and repenting for the cynicism we have in our lives. Do you hear that? If you don’t do that, if you don’t even think about it … You can always say, “Oh, well, it was awfully hot and it was hard to really concentrate that night.”

The other thing that always is a result of being in the presence of God besides great power is great grace. You see, there is a hardness and a toughness that come from seeing God, and there is an intimacy, because to be in the presence of God means his love washes over you. The effect of that is to make you generous. That’s why these people were incredibly generous with their money and with their time. In fact, I want you to know the early Romans thought Christians were unbelievably strange in two major ways.

Christians stood out completely in the Roman Empire because of their sexual purity and because of their incredible financial generosity. Those were the two things that set them completely apart from their society. On the one hand, they believed sex was something exclusively for the marriage covenant. Period. On the other hand, they were anti-materialistic, incredibly generous, and deeply involved in helping the needs of the poor.

You see, I think when you see somebody who is incredibly licentious in their personal life but wonderfully altruistic in their social action or when you see somebody who is unbelievably upright and moral in their personal life but proud and greedy and materialistic when it comes to their social ethics, you cannot see in either of those mirrors God, because anyone who sees God is both full of great power and great grace. Without God, you can be a barbarian or you can be a wimp, but you can’t be …

A person who is being transformed into the image of Jesus Christ … The more we look at him face to face … You know, the medieval concept of chivalry (the Knights of the Round Table) was a Christian concept, because knights were not just supposed to be fierce; they were also supposed to be meek and cultured. They weren’t a compromise between fierceness and meekness, sort of a happy medium; they were fierce to the nth degree and they were meek to the nth degree.

That is a picture of what a Christian is. It’s a picture of what the church is, and a church that is continually living in the presence of God will constantly be looked at as weird, because on the one hand, we won’t be a legalistic church, always talking about repentance without any talk of grace and compassion, nor will we be an inspirational church always talking about positive, wonderful self-esteem without ever calling people to the bad news of the gospel. Do you see that? If we live in the presence of God, we’ll be weird.

All right. In the next few weeks, I’ll talk to you a quite a bit more about how you get there, but let me just say this. If you look to see how the apostles got into this condition, I will challenge you to look at two things. First, they did not form a committee. They prayed, and it’s a long prayer. It takes up the whole chapter. You know, when I was getting ready to preach on this thing, I wanted to find points in this. You see, a good preacher wants to find points in his text.

Well, the whole point is they prayed, and they prayed, and they prayed, and they prayed. It goes on verse after verse, and then God came down. I said, “Gosh! There is only one point.” Actually, there are two. They prayed and they prayed. They didn’t form a committee. They didn’t jump to what the church does. They started with what the church is, and they filled their minds with it and they prayed. The prayer is completely unselfish. They’re not praying for themselves at all. They don’t say, “Oh, Lord, protect us. Protect our kids.”

They don’t say, “Oh, Lord, when the new election comes in, bring a mayor in and an administration that will be more open to religious freedom.” They say, “Oh, Lord, just don’t let us chicken out.” They pray. It is kingdom centered. It’s corporate. It’s prevailing. But the other thing they do is they make themselves a living sacrifice. Now this is another sermon, so I can just summarize. In the Old Testament, whenever God’s fire came down it was because somebody put a sacrifice there, and the bigger the sacrifice (the more goats and sheep and oxen, and all that) the bigger the fire.

The lavish sacrifices, the most extravagant and expensive sacrifices, brought down the biggest fire. These apostles made themselves living sacrifices in that prayer. If you look carefully, what they’re saying is, “Oh, Lord, take us. We don’t care if we’re killed. We go flat-out for you. We make ourselves a living sacrifice.” Do you know how they did it? They said, “We’re going to obey you, and we’re going to trust you, and no matter what happens, we’re going to obey and trust you and make our lives a sacrifice.”

Until you do that, you can forget about experiencing the presence of God and being people of power and grace. Until a group of people does this, you can forget about the church ever being anything remarkable. Don’t you see? What does it mean to make yourself a sacrifice? What does it mean to put yourself on the altar? It means, number one, to give him your agenda. Some of you have agendas you won’t give up. You believe the basic Christian principles, you come to church, you try to be moral, but do you know what your agenda is?

You’ve decided your life has to go a certain way, and if God is going to be loving and kind and good to you, he’s going to give you that agenda you have set, and you’re going to take that agenda or nothing at all. You’re watching God to see whether he does it, and some of you are pretty upset because he’s way behind your schedule. You sacrifice your agenda or you’re not a sacrifice. You have to say, “Lord, your agenda, not mine.” You have to say, “My time, my money, my will,” and if you give him those things, he turns it to gold.

I’ll just finish with a story. It was an old beggar … (This can’t be a true story. Who cares?) Years ago, there was an old beggar who lived back when there was a king. The king came to town, and the beggar lifted his plate to him. It was full of foodstuffs and things that had been put in there by people who had been donating all day. He lifted it to the king, and the king said, “Oh, no. I’m not going to give you anything. I want you to give me something.”

The beggar said, “Wait a minute. This isn’t very democratic,” but he put his head down and reached in and pulled out all the rice that was in there: five grains. There were a lot of other things in there, but he pulled out five grains of rice and put it in the king’s hand. The king said, “Thank you.”

That night, the fairy tale goes, the beggar came back and looked into his bowl, and he found five nuggets of gold in there with the carrots and potatoes, and he looked down and said … This is how the fairy tale ends, and it’s not a Christian fairy tale, but I’m making it that, you know. “Oh, that I had given him all!” No sacrifice, no fire. No power, no grace. The only way to receive a King into your life is to give him the key to the house, to the life. Let’s bow in prayer.

Our Father, all we ask is that you would enable us to see we cannot lose anything worth keeping if we give ourselves to you totally. Corporately, we need to do that as a body, but individually, first of all, we need to do that. Many of us are holding on to our agendas. Many of us are holding on to our time, holding on to many things we believe we cannot lose, but Father, we have to put everything on that altar and then we will gain you yourself. Enable every person here to do that. We pray it in Jesus’ name, amen.

ABOUT THE PREACHER

In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting.  Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.

Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal Christo-centric books including:

Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (co-authored with Greg Forster and Collin Hanson (February or March, 2014).

Encounters with Jesus:Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. New York, Dutton (November 2013).

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York, Dutton (October 2013).

Judges For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (August 6, 2013).

Galatians For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (February 11, 2013).

Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.

Center ChurchDoing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.

The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.

Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.

The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.

King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (Retitled: Jesus the KIng: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God). New York, Dutton, 2011.

Gospel in Life Study Guide: Grace Changes Everything. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010.

The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.

Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2009.

Heralds of the King: Christ Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney (contributor). Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.

Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.

Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.

 

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