Tag Archives: judgment

A Heart that Bears Fruit for God (3 of 4)

This is the third part of the sermon I shared on Sunday at Followers of Jesus Church Atlanta. Here is my outline for the blog version of the sermon:

Part 1: What Is “Fruit”?
Part 2: Two Kinds of Hearers
Part 3: Isaiah 6 and Hardness of Heart
Part 4: Four Kinds of Hearers and One Goal


This brings us to Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 6:9-10:

14 “Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
‘“‘You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.’
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.”'”

Jesus quotes something God foretold to the prophet Isaiah about Israel in about 700 BC and says it has been fulfilled in the Jewish nation of his own day. We should probably not think of this passage as being prophecy in the same way as the Micah passage about the Messiah being born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Rather, it is typology—the hardness of Israel toward Isaiah and his message is a picture that was repeated in even fuller measure by the hardness of Israel toward Jesus and his message. If God’s words were true about Israel in Isaiah’s day, how much more true were they about the evil generation who rejected Jesus!

God spoke these words to Isaiah when he first called him to be a prophet. God told Isaiah to tell his people, “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” This was a warning to Isaiah’s hearers about how his message would affect them. God told Isaiah, “Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes.” “This [was] not God’s planning in advance to make Israel sin; instead, it [was] his confirming them in their repeated, freely chosen decisions to reject him.”[1]

As Israel heard Isaiah’s message and rejected it, their hearts would only become more “dull” or hard, until they had no spiritual hearing or sight left and were fit only for destruction and exile. Only a “stump” or “holy seed” would remain. As commentator Oswalt summarizes, “Isaiah is to speak a message that will harden the people’s hearts and prevent them from being healed.”[2] But that is not the full picture. Oswalt continues:

Isaiah is called upon to preach a message that, given the already-hardened hearts of his generation and several of the following, will only push them farther away from God. But some will turn, among them faithful followers of Isaiah, who will preserve his words until the day when the cauterizing fires of the Exile fall and there will finally be a generation willing to listen. Then real healing will result, and the stage will be set for the promised Messiah to come… The only hope of healing for these people is in near total destruction… Their religion is already half-pagan, and if they are allowed to continue, they will ultimately be completely pagan and all of the revelation will have been for nothing. But God is not going to allow that to happen, either to his revelation or to his people. So the cleansing must be frighteningly thorough. But afterward, when the forest has been felled and even the remaining stumps have been burned, one of those stumps will still have life in it.[3]

Given this context, it is clear that when Jesus quotes Isaiah here in Matthew, he is not merely making a dry observation that the crowds around him have poor hearing or are intellectually dull. Rather, he is warning that the Jewish nation as a whole is beyond recovery, that God has turned his back and is withdrawing the opportunity of national repentance. The nation is headed for inevitable judgment!

We are talking about having a heart that understands and bears fruit. Our words understand and heart appear twice in this Isaiah quote. First, Jesus warns that the crowds will “never understand” (v. 14). Why? Because their “heart” is dull—it has been hardened by repeatedly hearing and rejecting the word of the kingdom. This hardening is part of God’s judgment, which he has given “lest they should… understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them” (v. 15b).

Notice the sequence in the last two lines of the prophecy: understanding with the heart leads to turning (repentance). Then comes healing, so that we can “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8). In sum the following sequence depicts what God longs for his people: understanding –> repentance –> healing –> fruit (doing God’s will).

But here God is preventing that sequence from even starting! He is making repentance, healing, and fruit-bearing impossible, by making understanding impossible. Osborne again:

“In essence [God is saying], “I want them to remain this way lest….” Their guilt has produced a sovereign judgment, and Jesus’ use of parables is part of that judgment. The parables as riddles will stymie any possibility of “turning” back to God. They have committed in effect an “unpardonable sin”…, and God has turned his back on them! The parables will shut their eyes and close their ears.”[4]

This Isaiah passage is quoted other times in the NT, and not only in the parallel passages in Mark and Luke:

  • Jesus quotes the same passage in John 12:40, in a passage summarizing the unbelief of the Jews who rejected him. This passage, significantly, uses the word “believe” as a synonym for “understand.” In other words, the sort of understanding that Jesus requires for us to be fruitful goes far beyond mere mental assent. To really “understand” is to have something grip your heart so powerfully that you are utterly convinced it is true and worth revolutionizing your entire life for.
  • Paul quotes this Isaiah passage at the very end of Acts (Acts 28:25-27), as evidence that God is sending his salvation to the Gentiles, since most Jews would not “believe” the gospel.
  • Paul quotes similar language from Isaiah and Deuteronomy in Romans 11 (cf.  Is. 29:10 and Deut. 29:4 with Rom. 11:8), as part of an extended discussion (Rom. 9–11; esp. Rom. 10:16-11:10) explaining God’s election and Israel’s stubborn ignorance. (See also the Is. 53:1 quote at Rom. 10:16, an Isaiah passage also quoted in the John 12 passage referenced above.)

This hardening of Israel against Jesus is one of the great mysteries of the New Testament. Why would God prevent his people from understanding the gospel of the kingdom? Commentators do their best to explain:

“God’s judicial hardening is… a holy condemnation of a guilty people who are condemned to do and be what they themselves have chosen.”[5] (D.A. Carson)

“‘Hardening’… represents divine surrender of human beings to their rebellion.”[6] (Mark A. Seifrid)

After such heavy thoughts, Jesus pivots to a blessing:

16 ‘But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.’”

Did the disciples really see? Did they really hear with understanding? In the next chapters there are multiple times where we read that the disciples did not understand what Jesus said (Matt. 15:15-20; 16:5-12; 17:9-13). But we also read that they sought and received explanations from Jesus until they did understand, and that God the Father revealed to Peter the understanding that Jesus was the Christ (Matt. 16:17).

This refines our image of our two kinds of hearers: (1) There are those who refuse to believe and are denied understanding; and (2) there are those who are willing to believe and are gradually granted increasing understanding.

But here Jesus is saying the disciples are not just more blessed than the unbelieving crowds. They are even more blessed than the faithful saints of old!

This gives us another glimpse into how God grants or withholds understanding: God sovereignly withholds understanding at times not only in response to the hardness of people’s hearts, but also because of his divine timetables of salvation history. Even good hearts are sometimes not given as full an understanding as they desire. But the disciples are incredibly blessed, possessing the double gift of soft hearts and of being alive at the time of the revelation of the Messiah!

(And we, too, are similarly blessed!)

Your responses are welcome in the comments below!

[1] Craig L. Blomberg, “Matthew,” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 46-47, comment on OT context of Matthew 13:14-15.

[2] Oswalt, John N.. Isaiah (The NIV Application Commentary) (Kindle Locations 2562-2563). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[3] Oswalt, John N.. Isaiah (The NIV Application Commentary) (Kindle Locations 2612-2622). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[4] Osborne, Grant R.. Matthew (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament series Book 1) (Kindle Locations 9523-9526). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[5] D.A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, Pillar NT Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 448-49, comment on John 12:39-41.

[6] Mark A. Seifrid, “Romans,” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 670, comment on Romans 11:8.

Naked and Exposed Before the Living God (Sermon)

The word of God reveals our hearts, leaving us naked and exposed before God. When God’s word comes to us, we are forced to respond, and how we respond reveals what is in our hearts.

First, we respond by our actions, which reveal either faith or unbelief in God’s word. Second, on the Last Day we will be called to give a word of response to God’s word, a word about the condition of our own hearts. On that day—as already now—it will be pointless to make our word deviate from God’s word, for the thoughts and intentions of our hearts are open before God.

Thus God’s word exposes us,  leaving us defenseless. It demands faith, and it demands a word in response—a word that matches God’s word.

These sobering thoughts come from Hebrews 4:12-13:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (ESV)

This passage was the central text in a sermon I recently preached on the danger of secret sin. I am generally more of a teacher than a preacher, but this was preaching. It was definitely more of a message of warning than I have ever shared before. I felt God’s grace as I shared. You can download the sermon or listen to it here:

Here is a summary of what I shared:

  • God tested Israel in the wilderness, between Egypt and the Promised Land of rest, revealing what was in their hearts. (Ex. 17:1-7; Num. 13-14; Deut. 8:2; 31:20-21; etc.)
  • God spoke to Israel “today” in the Promised Land, testing whether they would believe and enter eternal rest. (Ps. 95)
  • God is also speaking to us “today” in the wilderness, between our initial salvation and our eternal rest, testing our hearts. (Heb. 3:5–4:13; etc.)
  • God’s knows every secret of our hearts. (Many Scriptures, including Lk 8:17.)
  • “Are You in the Dangerous Time In Between?” —Tim Challies.
  • What should you do if you have hidden sin? Confess it, own it, repent of it, forsake it, replace evil desires with good desires, rely on divine help, seek human help. (Plead for the gift of repentance, which will not always be possible: Heb 6:4-8; 12:17. “Six Signs of Genuine Repentance”—Bryce Klabunde.)
  • Faithful response to God’s word is a community effort. We must exhort each other and sometimes even act urgently to “remove the evil from our midst.” (Heb. 3:12-13; 12:15; Deut. 29:18; 13:1-18; 1 Cor. 5; etc.)
  • “The Damning Devastation of a Single Coddled Sin”—Tim Challies.
  • Final warning from Hebrews—from the passage that is set in literary parallel to the sermon’s main text (Heb. 4:11-13):

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Heb. 10:26-31 ESV)

  • Comfort: Your love for God is also “naked and exposed” before him, and he will not overlook it. (Heb. 6:9-12)

Here was the final exhortation we heard, summarizing God’s word to us:

Brothers and sisters! God has rescued you from Egypt! He is leading you to the Promised Land of eternal rest! But you are in danger of missing that rest! Today God is speaking to you! Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts!

God is speaking to you, and his word will reveal the secret thoughts and intentions of your heart! There is no hiding from God! You lie naked and helplessly exposed before him! “Nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.”

Confess your sin to God! Own it! Repent of it! Forsake it! Replace your evil desires with good desires! Rely on divine help to live a holy life! Seek the help of your brothers and sisters!

Do not let your brothers and sisters coddle secret sins! Urge them to repentance! Don’t play around with fire that could burn the whole community! Don’t ignore any bitter root that will spring up and defile many! Purge the evil from your midst!

Determine today that you will no longer coddle a single persistent, deliberate, knowing sin! It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!

May the God who knows our hearts turn our hearts anew to him in faith and obedience each day.

And may we help each other, for faithfulness is a community effort! What do you have to share that will help the rest of us live with pure hearts before God? Share your thoughts in the comments below. Thank you!

Judgment and Meaning: You’ll Get Your Day in Court

I build sheds for people I don’t know so they can store things they probably don’t need. Swinging a pound or more of hammer at pieces of wood is a purposeless activity on its own, but it becomes purposeful when the action contributes to a meaningful end. But when the end is just to store more junk (or more lawnmowers to trim Iowa’s ridiculously over-sized and costly yards), then the activity of hammering is doubly futile.

I was mulling this over at work last week. While doing so, I was also recalling other vain activities in my recent history—things involving feeding cats that we really don’t want anyway, killing a crippled chicken that refused to either lay eggs or die responsibly on its own, and nursing my gastrointestinal disorders. (I’ll spare you the details on that last one but, really, few things make you appreciate the vanity of life so deeply. If you’re honest, you’ll agree.)

Looking for comfort, I selected some Scripture to listen to while I persevered with those sheds. I chose Ecclesiastes. (My job is an exceptionally good place for listening, thinking, and mentally composing blog posts. It is also an exceptionally poor place for writing down said blog posts before they are hammered out of my head. This, too, is vanity.)

I found the empty-glass Preacher consoling—for two reasons, I concluded. First, it is perversely heartening to be assured that you are not the first human being to be crushed by the futility of life. Second, there is that last verse of the book—spoken, apparently, not by the Preacher himself but by the writer of the book; but we won’t get into the positively confusing questions of which voice is speaking which verses in Ecclesiastes, and of how reliable those voices are as mouthpieces for God’s perspective on life; that investigation would be meaningless to this post.

Questions aside, here are the last two verse of Ecclesiastes:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Eccl. 12:13-14)

At the end of the book, and at the end of the day, one thing gives meaning to life for the author of Ecclesiastes: the coming judgment. The wicked and the righteous and the beasts all die alike; they all return to dust. But life is not meaningless, for “God will bring every deed into judgment.” It is this fact that clarifies and establishes “the whole duty of man.” It is the coming judgment that stirs us to “fear God and keep his commandments.” It is the coming judgment that keeps my hammer swinging when all else feels futile.

No, I am not merely talking about “the fear of Hell,” although this is certainly an important part of the picture. Notice that “God will bring every deed into judgment,” not only the “evil” but also the “good.” More on that later.

Yesterday I listened to another preacher. He told us about another mysterious OT figure, a man named Enoch. I was reminded again of how future judgment gives meaning to present life.

We read about Enoch only three places in the Bible. Let’s read all three passages.

Here is all we hear about Enoch in the OT (besides his birth notice):

When Enoch had lived 65 years, he fathered Methuselah. Enoch walked with God after he fathered Methuselah 300 years and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Enoch were 365 years. Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him. (Gen. 5:21-24)

This brief and intriguing bio spawned a rich tradition of Jewish reflection and speculation. What does it mean that Enoch “walked with God”? What does it mean that “he was not, for God took him”? We’ll focus here on the first question and ignore the latter.

The NT mentions Enoch twice. The first mention sticks pretty close to the facts of the Genesis account:

By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Heb. 11:5-6)

I said that this passage sticks pretty closely to Genesis, so I better clarify something. Do you notice the second sentence? “Before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God.” Where in Genesis does it say that Enoch pleased God?

A footnote in the ESV helped me answer this question. Back in Genesis 5:22, the Hebrew text says that Enoch “walked with God.” However, the Septuagint (the Greek translation commonly used in Jesus’ day) translated this to say that Enoch “pleased God.” The author of Hebrews evidently was familiar with the Septuagint, thus he could rightly claim that Enoch “was commended as having pleased God.”

The Septuagint is using a thought-for-thought translation philosophy here, thus providing good precedent for translations such as the NIV or NLT. “Pleased God” does a good job capturing the sense of “walked with God.” The notes to the NET Bible say this:

The rare expression “walked with” (the Hitpael form of the verb הָלָךְ, halakh, “to walk” collocated with the preposition אֶת, ’et, “with”) is used in 1 Sam 25:15 to describe how David’s men maintained a cordial and cooperative relationship with Nabal’s men as they worked and lived side by side in the fields. In Gen 5:22 the phrase suggests that Enoch and God “got along.” This may imply that Enoch lived in close fellowship with God, leading a life of devotion and piety.

This reminds me of Abraham, who “was called a friend of God” because he believed God and therefore obeyed him (James 2:23). Abraham was God’s friend because he believed God. Similarly, the author of Hebrews focuses on Enoch’s faith. He implies that Enoch believed two things—God exists, and God rewards those who seek him.

Did you catch that? There we have it again—the importance of coming judgment: God “rewards those who seek him.” What gave meaning and purpose to Enoch’s life? What motivated him to “get along with” God, to “walk with” and “please” him? It was his faith in the coming judgment, in a day to come when he would be rewarded for seeking God.

We see Enoch’s belief in coming judgment even more clearly in the final NT passage mentioning him. In this passage Jude draws heavily on intertestamental Jewish reflection about Enoch, quoting directly from the Book of Enoch (chapter 1, verse 9), which may have been written starting about 300 B.C.:

It was also about these [ungodly blasphemers infiltrating God’s people] that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” (Jude 1:14-15)

If we examine the original context where Jude found this quote, we see that Enoch is recorded as describing a future time during “a remote [generation] which is for to come” (1:2-3) when “the eternal God will tread upon the earth” (1:4) “and there shall be a judgment upon all” (1:7). But Enoch is not just anticipating judgment upon the wicked. He is also—as Hebrews 11 records—anticipating reward for the righteous. And so we also read these words right before those quoted by Jude:

But with the righteous He will make peace.
And will protect the elect,
And mercy shall be upon them.
And they shall all belong to God,
And they shall be prospered,
And they shall all be blessed.
And He will help them all,
And light shall appear unto them,
And He will make peace with them. (1:8)

So there we have it: Hebrews 11 cites Enoch’s faith in a coming reward for those who seek God. Jude records Enoch’s warning of a coming punishment upon the wicked. And the Book of Enoch records both.

It was this faith of Enoch in a coming judgment at the hands a just God that motivated his walk with God. It was coming judgment that gave meaning to his present life.

The author of Hebrews tells us that “the resurrection of the dead” and “eternal judgment” are “elementary” things, part of the “basic principles of the oracles of God” (Heb. 6:1-2; 5:12). But these matters also provide an essential and sure “foundation” for pressing on to “maturity” (Heb. 6:1).

And some days Enoch and the Preacher and Dwight need to feel the foundation under our feet. Some days, days when our faith is small, we need reminders of the basics:

  • There is a judgment to come.
  • The wicked will be punished.
  • Those who seek God will be rewarded.

So be sure to get along with God today. Keep walking with him. Please him. Be his friend.

And keep swinging your hammer, if that is what he asks of you right now. You’ll get your day in court, and the pay-off will be greater than you can imagine.

In a day when people prefer talk of “love” and tolerance over talk of judgment, we don’t talk about the coming judgment as much as many previous generations did. But belief in a final judgment is foundational not only for persisting through the seeming vanity of life, but also for things such as non-resistant love of our enemies (see Rom. 12:19; Rev. 11:16-18; 16:5-6; 19:1-3).

Do you believe in a coming judgment? Do you think about it often? What difference does it make in your daily walk with God? Share your comments below, and thanks for reading!