Jesus Calls Your Bluff
“Come on” you say. “I can understand why people aren’t convinced by the Bible and Jesus’ teaching, but if God raised someone from the dead, everyone would believe.” Maybe many of Jesus’ hearers were even saying that to themselves. And so Jesus calls their bluff in the most blatant way.
How many of you know the story of Lazarus? Not this Lazarus obviously, but the one Jesus raises from the dead. Well that happened very shortly after Jesus tells this story. In fact, Jesus was almost certainly pointing forward to that very event in telling this story. Let me break it down for you:The rich man in the story says “Send Lazarus back from the dead to warn my family that God is serious and hell and the afterlife are real”.
- Abraham replies, “They will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
- Jesus’ hearers are thinking “Baloney. That would convince me.”
- Days or perhaps weeks later Jesus raises a man named Lazarus from the dead. (Could you be a little less obvious, Jesus?)
- Everyone got the point and repented and turned to God and confessed Jesus as Messiah. Right? I mean, it’s obvious. Jesus is putting the cookies on the bottom shelf where all the kiddies can reach ‘em.
“Nuh-uh,” you say. “I go to church.” So did the Pharisees.
“I give to the poor”. So did the Pharisees.
“I read my Bible”. So did the Pharisees.
“I fast”. Yeah right. I mean . . . so did the Pharisees.
“I pray to God”. So did the Pharisees.
Remember what Jesus said motivated the Pharisees, they were trying to justify themselves by their obedience. And that will always and forever be a failing effort. Why? Let me remind you of what Pastor Lee said last week: Obedience can’t save us because we aren’t very good at obeying, and even when we get it right we get proud! We ruin even our obedience and make it something ugly. It doesn’t say to God “I love you and do this for you”, it says “I don’t need you and I can be good enough on my own”. Remember, “God knows your hearts”.
“OK” you say “I’m not sure I buy it, but what if you’re right? What’s the answer? Do I give all my money away, become poor, sick, weak, and outcast like Lazarus the beggar?” No. Because that is the other side of the same coin that the Pharisees were working off of, trying to justify yourself. The answer is that your justification before God will never come from yourself.
The Pharisees are not alone. The default mentality of every person in the world is some sort of self-justification, a “I’m going to prove myself worthy” sort of mindset. Most people think of life like a test: if I try hard enough, if I get a good enough grade, if my good deeds outweigh my bad deeds, I’ll get into heaven.
Let me just say, this is a terrible, damaging, unhealthy, and unhelpful belief. Oh, and it’s not true. But let me tell you not only why it’s not true, but why you wouldn’t want it to be true if you thought about it for five minutes. Let me tell you why we should all be glad it’s not true.
First, it’s not true because God doesn’t grade on a curve. God’s standard on this test is perfection, this test isn’t pass or fail, it’s ace or fail. And all of us, no matter how self-deceived we might be, are under no delusions that we’re acing the test.
Second, however, is the fact that if we are saved by our works, by our performance--and God decided he would be cool and grade on a curve--it would be horribly arbitrary for God to make a cut-off, no matter where he put it. I was a good student in college. But there were times I didn’t put in the effort I could have. Well, four years went by and at graduation, I was literally hundredths of a grade point away from getting summa cum laude honors. So while all my closest friends were receiving the summa cum laude honors from our university president, I got magna cum laude. When it came to those receiving top honors, I was just as out in the dark as the students who got Cs and Ds and Fs. And I was crushed! If only there had been a running tally, if I had known I was so close, I would have tried just a little harder for an A in just one more class instead of cruising for a B grade.
Now magnify that idea into infinity. What if eternity were like that? If we are saved by our performance and God has put a cut-off somewhere, where would it be? And how would we know?! Imagine if you were the poor sap who got a 2.998 and the passing grade was a 3.0 for eternity in heaven? You landed on the side of the cut-off with Hitler and Ted Bundy! You’d be saying, “If only I had put a little more change in the Salvation Army donation can! If only I hadn’t rolled through that stop sign! If only I hadn’t lied to my meemaw about that cookie I took that one time when I was a kid! I was soooo close!!” And you think Jesus’ view is unfair?!!!
That’s unfair! But what if salvation isn’t based on a grade, but on a relationship? What if God has said “I know you can’t be good enough to get to me, so I’m going to come to you.” And the people that are saved, the people whose heart trajectory is heavenward are those who have said “I recognize my need, I want that relationship, I need Christ ”. And the people that aren’t are the ones who say “I don’t need him, I can do this on my own, I’ll find another way, my own way”. If salvation is not how you’ve performed but rather who you’re living for--whether you are doing this for yourself so that God has to save you or if you are doing it out of absolute gratitude that God has saved you--those are completely different.
Let me suggest that all of life is a test. But it’s not a test of your performance. It’s not a test you can cram for, screw up your best effort and try to pass. It’s a test of your heart. A test of the trajectory of your heart. We’re all familiar with the ACT and SAT tests, but let me suggest that life is more like a litmus test. Perhaps some of you remember this from chemistry: a little piece of paper that, when dipped in a liquid, would turn red if the liquid was an acid and blue if the liquid was a base. So lemon juice would turn the paper red but soapy water or bleach would turn the paper blue.
Money, success, health, and prosperity aren’t always signs of God’s approval. Sometimes, but not always. Illness, poverty, and misfortune aren’t always signs of God’s disapproval. Sometimes, but not always. But I can tell you this with certainty, all of these things--and every single other thing in life--is a test of the trajectory of your heart. How do you respond when you succeed and when you fail? What do you do with your wealth and with your poverty?
When you succeed, ask yourself “What is my heart doing? Am I responding in joy and thankfulness or pride?” When you have excess wealth ask yourself “What is my heart doing? Am I more eager to bless myself or others with this?” When someone cuts you off in traffic, ask yourself, “What is my heart doing? Is it angry or forgiving?” But most importantly, when you blow it in these and so many other things every day, ask yourself “What is my heart doing? Am I beating myself up and swearing I’ll be better and do better and that I am better than this, or am I reminded again of my dependence on Christ, my need for his grace?”.
Notice: This view doesn’t necessarily change the things we do, but it fundamentally changes why we do them. The person justifying themselves and the person in Christ are both going to church. They are both giving to the poor. They are both trying to be good in lots of different ways. But the person trying to justify himself does good to get good things and get leverage over God, he’s motivated by self. The person justified in Christ already has their good things in Christ (both in this life and the life to come), and we are now freed to do good things out of love for God. This is why the Pharisees could look so good on the outside, but on the inside Jesus said they were full of death and decay.