Luke 12:8&9 “I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. But he who disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God.”
I heard an interview on Radio 4 talk programme with a man who claims to be a reincarnation of Buddha, the 17th Karmapa Trinlay Thaye Dorje. A young man, he chuckled a lot; he likes Premier League football and Coca Cola, but he does not like the concept of ‘conversion’ – not at all! He does not want to convert anyone. He respects everybody’s beliefs. So there we meet an enormous gulf between this religious man and the Jesus of the Bible, the Christ who spoke and the winds and waves obeyed him, the one who sent his followers out into all the world and told them to make disciples from every nation. There are countries where everyone is a Marxist, or everyone is a Muslim, or everyone in a community is a Hindu, and changing individuals so that they begin to acknowledge that the Lord Jesus is the Son of God will have devastating consequences for their future lives, but still the commission we’ve received is spectacularly clear. Go to the uttermost parts of the world and make men and women Christ’s disciples. Our Christianity is not to be secret, private and personal affair. We are to acknowledge Jesus Christ before men. We are to confess him as our Lord. Not to do so does not display a sense of proper modesty; not to do so is disobedience and cowardice; it is to banish him from his throne which has been erected in our hearts.
I have a friend who is a preacher, and during the last two years he has been attacked and accused of abusing his congregation, and domineering his people. I have acknowledged him as my friend who has not done those things. I have stood up for him in every way I could. So it is with the Lord Jesus. His reputation is attacked; he is mocked and ignored and it is our duty to acknowledge him. We defend him before the judging world.
So I am to speak to you on this appointed text which is about the importance of acknowledging Jesus Christ before our fellow men. It is not about becoming open air campaigners, though some of you might. I am thinking of something more modest. Let me tell you a story. Twenty-five years ago a married couple arrived at university full of zeal for Christ. The wife was delightful, fresh and full of faith for our Lord. She wore badges professing she was a Christian. One day at the university refectory there was a line of students waiting to pick up their meals and she moved steadily down the line giving out tracts and leaflets. Standing down the queue was another first year student; a secret Christian. She got nearer and nearer to him and he felt more and more tense. Finally she reached him, smiled at him and offered him a tract, “Thanks,” he said, “I am a Christian.” It was the first time he had said it. He told me that he had such a sense of peace and joy after saying those simple words, “I am a Christian.” That is what I am talking about. That is where it starts. That is the purpose of Jesus’ words here, “I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. But he who disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God.” The opposite stance to this is the man who joined the army and after six months returned back to his home church for a visit. “What is it like to be in the army?” they asked him. “Fine,” he said. “How do you find it being a Christian in the army,” they persisted. “Oh, fine,” he said. “Yes,” they asked querulously. “I haven’t told anyone I’m a Christian,” he added lamely. That is disowning Christ. If you are not for Christ then you are against him. The Bible at the side of your bed; the attendance at church on Sunday, going to a Bible study – in all these ways you begin to acknowledge the Lord Jesus before men. Maybe there is a teenager here for the first time this morning and he is thinking that he can now throw off the shackles of a Christian home. He will go to this church once so that he can tell his parents he has been to Alfred Place, and that he will tell no one at the University that he is a Christian and he will do his own thing in the next three years. This message is for you. God in his providence has brought you here to hear this sermon. So how can I best acknowledge Christ before men?
GET THE GOOD NEWS STRAIGHT.
The God who created the world is a God of love, that he has given his only begotten Son to become a man begotten in the womb of Mary, to live and die the death of the cross as the Lamb of God making atonement for our sins. He invites us all to put our trust in him, to come to him and accept his salvation, to take Jesus Christ as our Saviour, as our prophet to teach us how we are to live, as our priest to make a sacrifice for our guilt, and as our king to protect and keep us all our days. This salvation God is offering to all the world; he is pleading with men to come to Jesus Christ; he is longing with them to come and take eternal life and the forgiveness of their sins.
Let us be absolutely clear about the message; we deserve eternal death because we are sinners but Jesus Christ because he loved us died in our place. Let us be sure we have grasped that good news. Let us sit under a ministry that declares that most clearly and powerfully every single Sunday. Let us be sure we are hearing biblical preaching each week. This is not a luxury. The best preaching we can hear is essential for our soul’s welfare. Let us take advantage of the public means of grace. Let us go to the Christian Union at the university each Friday night. Let us go to mid-week Bible study groups. Let us go to the Christian book shop and buy such books as Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, and J.C. Ryle’s Holiness. They will explain the nature of the Christian life, and buy J.I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. That will explain the nature of biblical evangelism. Let us make every effort to grow in grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us see our great enemy is religious stagnation and formalism. Let us be true disciples, learners, of our Lord. Get the good news straight.
TAKE THE GOOD NEWS IN.
Perhaps we have heard the gospel and believed the Christian message all our lives, but have we, in fact, become disciples? Have we taken up the cross, denying ourselves the things that would distract us from becoming Christians, and have we made a decision to begin to follow Jesus? Have we made it publicly? Do we sit before Jesus Christ today able to say that he is our Lord and he is our God? Can we say in our hearts, “I am a Christian. Jesus Christ is my Saviour”? Do we confess that also with our lips? Now it seems to me that that is an immensely challenging question. It appears to me to be a very solemn thing that there are in any gospel congregation those who have heard the good news, and who believe the message and who yet are in no real and salvation sense disciples of Jesus Christ. They have never taken this message right into their hearts believing that God raised Jesus from the dead, and they have not confessed with their mouths that he is Lord.
Now I would hope that when I am saying that to you that you’re not thinking that that is a very interesting statement. You don’t just say that that is very direct preaching, but rather I hope you’re thinking, “Now that’s a very disturbing thing.” I am bringing to you all this possibility of a church attender knowing and understanding the Christian message and yet never having taken it right into the centre of his life. These truths are not reigning in that dispositional complex that is the centre of your will and emotions and actions and thinking – what the Bible calls your ‘heart.’ That is very disturbing, and furthermore it is very strange for someone who knows the good news. We know that unless a person believes on the Lord Jesus Christ he is going to perish, and perish eternally, and we say that believe that, and yet we feel or even know that we’re not real disciples. We haven’t taken God right into the heart of our lives, and yet we’re not bothered.
I would ask, are we prepared to face this challenge? It may only be a very slender possibility, but is it a possibility at all, that you have not taken the gospel of Jesus Christ right in, that your souls are not saved, that you are going to perish. You may be very intelligent. You may be respectable. You may be regular in your church attendance. That is grand, but I’m not asking about that. I think that that’s admirable. I am only asking are we Christians? Have we taken the message right in so that it is part of ourselves? I am not asking whether you are indulging in those things that people call ‘worldly.’ I’m not awfully interested in that, but I am interested in knowing whether the story of God’s great love and his sending of his Son into the world and the offer of mercy and forgiveness for those who have received him as their Saviour – whether that message has been taken into your life, whether Jesus Christ is your Lord, and whether you are acknowledging him before your family and friends?
Have you got the story straight? Do you really accept that you are by nature without God and without hope? Many people are without hope. Bertrand Russsel was one of them. He said, “Man is a pygmy hurling defiances at a soul-less universe.” Well, is that where we are, or do we know that the God who made the world became a man and suffered and bled and died for our redemption? Have we taken the good news into the very centre of our lives so that it affects us, motivates and moves us day by day?
GIVE THE GOOD NEWS OUT.
Now this is generally where we all feel out of our depth. We are conscious of our great inadequacies. We are torn between a genuine desire to see this good news going out and a fear of our actual speaking about it with someone, and it is all very self-conscious and introspective. We are on the train or a plane or have picked up a hitch-hiker, or got involved in conversation with a fellow student, or we are in a tutorial group and we are thinking “Now I must acknowledge Jesus Christ before men.” Then we do it, we blurt it out quickly in some garbled fashion, and afterwards we think, “Whew! Well, I did it. I acknowledged him before men.” It was like keeping a dentist’s appointment; it’s necessary but not enjoyable. We are glad when it’s over and we can get back into our comfort zone. How should we approach giving out the good news?
i] Be conscious of the leading of providence. Each day we say, “Lord, lead me and make me usable today. Forgive me for my hard heart and the foolish things I have done and said. Wash my mind and sprinkle my conscience, and don’t let my guilt make me mute. Pardon my sins for Jesus’ sake.” In other words you prepare yourself for the daily duty of serving God and serving your neighbour, acknowledging Jesus Christ before the watching world. Then you wait on God to guide you and put you into situations where you can fulfil your heart’s desire to confess him before men. You remember how our Lord Jesus on one occasion ‘had to’ go through Samaria (Jn. 4:4). There was some divine necessity of his making that journey on that occasion. When he got to a village he was weary and he sat down at a well, yet he was looking round and curious and conscious that this whole situation was planned by God. A woman turned up and a conversation began.
ii] Always be ready to acknowledge Christ. Now there are times when we are tired or thirsty or disadvantaged in some way, but when someone comes to us then we have to overcome those disadvantages. Jesus was weary and thirsty when he met the woman by that well in Sychar and spoke to her. Peter tells us always to be ready to answer those who ask us to give a reason for the hope that is in us. Many of us are ready some of the time. We can feel at times all revved up for it. We have done a course; we have been to a camp; we have been surrounded by many other Christians, and we are able to respond to the challenge; we can exploit the situation. But the apostle is saying, “Always be ready.” When a friend says to you, “What do you get out of going to church?” you are ready. When a sceptic says, “Do you think there is life in outer space? What does your Bible say?” You can say, as a young Christian teenager said to a school teacher who recently asked him that question before the class, “The Bible does not speak about this. It tells us of God and the gift of his only Son to be our Saviour.” Or in a very different sphere, there might an arrest in China or north Korea or in the middle east and a Christian is under suspicion and on trial. The Christian is asked, “What is your faith? What do you believe?” and you are ready to speak. There is some opportunity that you did not seek for, but you are ready to answer those who ask you. You can take advantage of the moment to be an effective witness for God. Seek to be always ready and then God will entrust you with opportunities. What does being prepared to acknowledge Christ mean?
iii] Set apart Christ as Lord in your heart. I am referring now to that great exhortation of Peter in I Peter 3:15 and 16: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience.” Peter is telling us that the most fundamental element in our readiness to acknowledge Christ before men is that we be in a right relation with the Lord. In your heart Christ is not in constant competition with Welsh rugby, or house improvement, or growing the biggest marrow, or how your stocks and shares are doing, or what the situation is for your political party. He is not there struggling to speak in the maelstrom of your many interests, one among many excitements. He is set apart even from every worthy and honourable matter. Jesus Christ has a unique place. He is Lord over everything in your life. He has first place. He has supreme place in all your thinking and enthusiasm. He really is on the throne of your heart. Make sure that you are in a proper relationship with the living God.
You see, so often we’ve been encouraged to think that acknowledging Christ before men is a matter of gaining people’s attention, gathering a crowd, having some fascinating ploy, some activity that creates a buzz, that it’s a matter of technique, or method, or skill. But Peter is telling us that there is something that is immeasurably more fundamental and it’s this, are we right with God? If we are not, then there is no possibility of being effective in answering people’s questions about the hope that we have. The reason why we are incapable of acknowledging out Lord before men, of even being disinclined to do so, is not that we need some dramatic hook on which to hang our words, or that we haven’t done a course in witnessing, or that we are slow-witted in speaking up. The reason is that Jesus Christ is not very special in our lives just now. He is lost amidst the many other interests we have in music, and drama, and sport, and money, and friendships with people of our age. We are not right with God, and the way to sort that problem out is to go right back to the point where he started to slip off the throne and went bump, bump, bump, down the steps until he was down there having to compete with other things.
Wordsworth once gave a famous definition of poetry. He said, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” That would be one definition of what every great poem displays. Certainly it is essential in this matter of acknowledging Christ before men. That is not repeating a formula, like the cults do when they go through their memorized routine on the doorstep. If you let them give their rehearsed speeches to you then this will always result in your leaving the encounter feeling defeated. The only way to counter them is that you have set apart Christ in your heart and you know the joy of having the truth, of knowing what is man’s chief end in life, and having peace with God, that it is well with your soul. One problem in a failure to acknowledge Christ before men is the lack of powerful feelings, of the absence of proper experiential religion, of the absence of a living and growing relationship with God.
If powerful feelings are there, with Christ set apart as Lord of your life, then there will be a spontaneous overflow of those feelings. What I am saying is this that what I need is not so much getting my methods right but getting my relationship with God right. Someone asked Wesley why he thought people were drawn to him, almost like a magnet, and when Wesley answered he could have referred to the truths that he spoke that met men’s interests and needs, but he actually said, “Well . . . you see . . . when you set yourself on fire, people just love to come and see you burn.” That is a powerful acknowledging of Christ before men. It is not a programme; it is not a speech read aloud; it is a fire within. People will be drawn to the warmth of God’s love within us, though they may not realise at first what is the magnet. That is why men like Daniel Rowland and Spurgeon were such great speakers. The secret transcended the matter of their intellects and natural gifts of oratory and talent and personal industry and self denial – all of which were crucial – there were also these powerful inner feelings. They had set apart Christ in their hearts before they set him before their neighbours and enemies in their acknowledgment of him. So I am saying that what we should be crying out to God for is not better techniques and methods but a richer, stronger relationship with himself.
iv] Keep a good conscience. Again this is what Peter says (I Pet. 3:16). Once again this is something so closely connected to faithfully acknowledging Christ before men, and you can see that it’s got nothing to do with some learned technique. You set apart Christ in your heart and you keep a clear conscience. In other words, you make sure that there is nothing that stands between you and God – some unconfessed sin, some unmortified lust which we are feeding rather than killing. Make sure that there is nothing between you and your neighbour that makes it impossible for you to bear witness to that person. How delicate that problem can be, maybe on the grounds of some completely non-religious matter. There has been some tension, a difference of opinion and one of the sad effects of that is that we can’t speak of God to that person. We don’t have a healthy relationship which will allow us to bear witness to him or her. Or perhaps we feel guilty before God of unconfessed sin and we think, “Who am I to be speaking to anyone about their need of grace and mercy from God? I need his mercy.”
The answer is not to find some kind of juniper tree and mope under it and indulge in depressive silence. The answer is to get your conscience right with God, to have the sin dealt with, that the sin is forgiven, and then we have the boldness and confidence to speak to anyone. The Cornish preacher Billy Bray knew of a Christian man who was a coal merchant, and Billy spoke very highly of him. He said that the man had never once knowingly cheated anyone out of a lump of coal. The consequence of that was a good conscience and so he had strong grace to acknowledge Christ before men. So you see when Peter encourages us to confess our faith before men he doesn’t speak of methodology or technique but of having a right relationship with Christ and possessing a good conscience. But he has more to say:
v] Speak with respect. You see that again in the words of Peter, “Do this with . . . respect” (I Pet. 3:15). Again God is talking about relationships. We are not speaking up to salve our consciences; we are not speaking up to proselytize. We speak to a fellow human being with ‘respect,’ or the word actually is ‘phobia,’ fear. “But,” you say, “That’s my very problem. I am frightened when I acknowledge that I’m a Christian. I’m scared to speak. How can I be rid of it?” Well, do you want to be rid of it, if it’s the right kind of fear? If it is a seriousness about God and eternal things that comes from knowing how grand God is, and from knowing the value of an immortal soul and from knowing the preciousness and glory of truth. There is no place for Mr. Cool in acknowledging Christ before men or angels. We have just been exhorted by the Son of God to, “Fear him who can cast body and soul into hell!” There is no place in this activity for flippancy or for acting a role, no room for a lack of gravity, because God is so great, and the truth is so important, and the soul is so precious.
When Paul was sent to acknowledge Christ in Greece before the men of Corinth then he went there, he tells us, with “weakness, fear and much trembling.” I doubt very much if Paul were afraid of men, but he was a very frightened preacher; he was afraid; there was a phobia. He was conscious of the greatness of his responsibility, the significance of this opportunity and his obligation to be faithful to his commission. Maybe the very fear you want to be rid of is something God is enjoining on you as an authentic part of the Christian testimony. I know there is a servile fear of man that brings a snare so that preachers do not say what needs to be said. But there is an imperative fear, a respect for the truth, a regard for the never-dying souls of men, a fear of God. It means that all Christian evangelism is reverential and must be suffused with the holiness of God, and that has to control our tendency to blokiness and being a comedian and everything else that tends to dumb down the eternal gospel, because we are doing the supremely important thing of magnifying the name of the Son of God. There must be reverential fear every time Christ’s holy name is exalted. There is more in this giving the good news out.
vi] Deal gently with people. Peter tells us “do this with gentleness” (v.15). The word is ‘meekness.’ That means we can never acknowledge Christ before men while feeling particularly superior to them. We are not better than they are. We are not more noble. Do I really believe what John Newton said, “There but for the grace of God go I”? It is one of the great problems of witnessing that we tend to occupy a position of moral superiority, and our witness becomes condescending, and paternalistic, and we forget that we ourselves are sinners, and that we deserve nothing. We don’t have the least right to feel superior to that drunk, or to that tramp asking for money, or to that hitch-hiker, or to that child to whom we are speaking about Jesus. I hope we are certain of that with the utmost sincerity. We are characterized every time we acknowledge Christ before men, as men of meekness. We don’t go along in the spirit, “We – good: you – bad.” We are all sinners saved by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
There was an occasion when Paul was telling the Galatians to restore a repentant sinner in the congregation, and he told them to do it in a spirit of meekness adding, “considering yourself.” In other words as men who know only too well their own hearts and their own past and the mercy they have received on many occasions from God, and the fact that he has veiled their sins from others. To speak to another person about the greatness of Christ means accepting that person as a neighbour, not as an object to be addressed, respecting him, not treating him as conversion fodder but as a human being with rights. It means you often do not dictate the conversation; you have to listen to a lot of irrelevant and unhelpful words because you are hearing him meekly and patiently. When we acknowledge Christ before men it is not a superior talking down to an inferior. It is a word passing from one sinner to another.
What does God call Jacob, this great patriarch who founded a nation, a civilization, through whose line Christ was born? Through the prophet Isaiah God called him “the worm Jacob.” Now there is no need for us to hold a competition to see who can choose the most self-deprecating phrase to describe himself. We simply need to know the truth about ourselves as we are to appear before the Holy One. Do we accept what Paul said about himself that “in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing”? He acknowledged that he was “the chief of sinners.” All he said and did as he confessed Christ before men was founded on that conviction. So we are to get the good news out in those ways.
GET THE GOOD NEWS’ REWARD.
Do you see what Jesus says? “I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God.” (v.8). Jesus Christ is the one who claims to be the way to God, that no one goes to the Father but by him. He is the keeper of the everlasting doors, and to some he will say, “Come and welcome, you who are blessed of my Father. Heaven and all its glory is prepared for you.” And when these disciples will see the Son of Man immediately they will be transformed into his image. All the weakness and shame and the marks of sin will be gone from them for ever. They will be as loving as Christ is loving, as holy as he is holy, as joyful as he is joyful, as gentle as he is gentle, as good as he is, as humble as he is, as filled with the love of God as the man Christ Jesus. They will be glorified. The work of sanctification will be ended and perfected. The angels will bow down and be lost in wonder love and praise, and then Jesus will say to the archangels Michael and Gabriel and to all the hosts of heaven, “Do you see these men and women transfigured before you? These are the people who were not ashamed of me in the world. They acknowledged me before men, before their own families who threatened them with death, before their old religious leaders, before Caesar and his Coliseum where some were torn apart by wild beasts. Come you blessed ones! You are mine. Come to the new heavens and the new earth. It is your inheritance prepared for you. It will never fade away.” There we will be, for ever with the Lord, welcomed by our Lord himself to the mansions he has prepared for us.
Do you long for that? Are you at all thrilled with the terrible prospect of being wiped out and ceasing to be, snuffed out like a candle? Not at all! The thought fills you with dread, separating you from all you know, and all who know and love you! Non-existence terrifies you. The Christ who rose from the dead on the third day and ate and drank and spoke with his followers for forty days, who transformed their lives and gave them hope and courage and love – he is the one who promises that at the end of the world he will speak to his own people and confess them as his own, welcoming them to glory for ever.
AVOID THE GOOD NEWS’ JUDGMENT.
The good news is that we live in a moral universe and that men will all have to answer for the terrible things they have done. They have escaped scot-free from human condemnation, but God knows and God will call them to account. Good news! We are not allowed to cherry pick all the most hopeful evangelical promises in the Bible and ignore Jesus’ solemn warnings. In other words, we may not make God in our own image. Do you see in our text what Jesus Christ also says? “But he who disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God” (v.9). The sheep will be gathered on his right hand, but the goats will be gathered on his left and to them he will say, “Depart from me you cursed into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels, because you disowned me before men. You would have nothing to do with me. I preached the Sermon on the Mount but you ignored me. I was raised from the dead but you dismissed me as a fiction. You worshipped yourselves, and I disown you.” The angels will hear the sentence and will see it worked out as they once had seen it passed on Sodom and Gomorrah. None will cry, “Unfair! Unjust!” Every mouth will be stopped. The Judge of all the earth is just and will do right.
Let us own our Saviour in this brief lifetime. Let us not be ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let us bear our testimony before the world, before those who hate what we believe, and mock us. The army of atheists, who have a profound constitutional aversion to the whole Christian faith, who are confronting you, so that at times you are intimidated, and then you cry to God, as Moses did, “Lord I cannot speak.” Other times you are so conscious of the total futility and waste of effort of the whole witness. It seems no one is interested. All the seed seems to be falling on stony ground and it is making no impression at all and you are tempted to abdicate, and abandon the whole enterprise.
Remember the living Saviour. Remember his resurrection. Remember the appointment we all have with him, the great reward and the great judgment and the bifurcation of the destiny of all mankind and then keep acknowledging him before the world, no matter the world’s hostility to your message and your overwhelming sense of incompetence; no matter the constant lack of success. Keep your banner flying tenaciously whether you have some leadership in Christian work or not, or in your home and family, or in your place of work, or your school or college. Hold it fast! Set your eyes on Jesus Christ and never take them off his wonderful face. This is the only hope the world has or ever will have.
25th September 2010 GEOFF THOMAS