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Tim Keller Sermon: “THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN A NUTSHELL” – Genesis 4:1-10

SERIES – Bible: The Whole Story—Creation and Fall

Tim Keller preaching image

Preached in Manhattan, New York on January 25, 2009

Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man.” Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.

The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” – Genesis 4:1-10

We’re looking at the storyline of the Bible. We’re saying each week that the Bible is not primarily a set of disconnected individual stories, each of which has a little lesson or moral about how to live life, but primarily, the Bible is a single storyline, a single story, that tells us what’s wrong with the human race, what God is doing about it, and how history is going to turn out at the end. We’ve begun to trace out this storyline by starting with Genesis, the first four chapters.

The Bible’s simple answer to the question, “What’s wrong with the human race?” is sin. Contemporary people just cringe and wince and get a tic when we use the word sin because we don’t like it. Recently I actually read a book review (kind of an older book review but not too old) in the London Times. It was the London Times online. As an offhanded comment, the reviewer said, “You know, we need to retire these words sin and evil. They’re empty and obsolete.”

Okay, then what vocabulary will you use to talk about war atrocities or massive corruption in government and business or slavery or violence? What will you use? What language will you use? Will you use the language of technology or sociology or psychology? Will you talk about maladaptive behavior or dysfunction? That’s not sufficient.

The language we have in those disciplines isn’t profound enough and rich enough to deal with the realities of what’s really going on in the world and what’s wrong with the world. We have to recover the vocabulary of sin. That’s one of the things we’re doing as we look here at Genesis 3 and 4.

Tonight we learn more about what the Bible means by this term sin by looking at this sad and poignant narrative, famous story of Cain and Abel. Let’s look at three new things we learn tonight about what the Bible says is wrong with us and, therefore, three new things about sin. Let’s notice the potency of sin, the subtlety of it, and we see a foreshadowing of the victory over it. So let’s notice the potency of it, the subtlety of it, and our eventual victory over it (all in this text).

1. The potency of it

In verse 7, God, in speaking to Cain, uses a remarkable image. He says, “But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” It’s a remarkable image. It’s the image of a leopard or a tiger, a predatory animal, crouching in the shadows, coiled and ready to spring and kill.

God says that’s sin. Sin is predatory. Sin has a deadly life of its own. How is that? Here right away we’re going to see why there is no other set of vocabulary words that we have that deal with the reality of what sin is. How so? First of all, when God uses this image, it’s telling us that sin has an abiding, growing presence in your life. If you commit sin, sin is not over. Sin is not simply an action. It’s a force. It’s a power.

When you do sin, it’s not now over, but it actually becomes a presence in your life. It takes shape, a shadow shape, and stays with you and begins to affect you. Eventually, it can just take you out. You say, “Well, how could that be?” Well, you can start with the psychological concept of habit. You can start there, but you can’t end there. You can start by noticing the things we do become easier to do again and easier to do again and easier to do again and harder to stop doing.

C.S. Lewis some years ago wrote this passage in one of his chapters of Mere Christianity. He says, “That explains what always used to puzzle me about Christian writers; they seem to be so very strict at one moment and so very free and easy at another. They talk about mere sins of thought as if they were immensely important: and then they talk about the most frightful murders and treacheries as if you had only got to repent and all would be forgiven.

But I have come to see that they are right. what they are always thinking of is the mark which the action leaves on that tiny central self which no one sees … but which each of us will have to endure—or enjoy—forever. One man may be so placed that his anger sheds the blood of thousands, and another so placed that however angry he gets he will only be laughed at.”

Do you hear that? Here are two people. They both get angry. One of them, because of the conditions, has the power to kill people with it. The other person, no matter how angry he gets, people just laugh at him. Each has done a little mark on the soul. It’s pretty much the same case in both men.

“Each has done something to himself which, unless he repents, will make it harder for him to keep out of the rage next time he is tempted, and will make the rage worse when he does fall into it. Each of them, if he seriously turns to God, can have that twist in the central man straightened out again: each is, in the long run, doomed if he will not. The bigness or smallness of the thing, seen from the outside, is not what really matters.”

There’s another place, by the way, nearby in Mere Christianity where Lewis makes the interesting observation that first, the Nazis killed the Jews because they hated them. After awhile, they hated the Jews because they had killed them. Here’s the point. When you sin, the sin doesn’t just go away. The sin becomes a presence in your life. You start by doing sin, but then sin does you.

You can decide, “I’m not going to forgive my mother, I’m not going to forgive my father, for what he or she has done.” Okay, you’ve done it, but then it will do you, because that will poison your relationships with other people, certain people in all kinds of ways you don’t even see. It will harden you. Do you see the difference already in this family? When God comes to Adam and Eve (remember last week if you were here) and God says, “What have you done,” at least they’re kind of abashed and sheepish.

Adam is saying, “My wife made me do it.” The wife says, “The Serpent made me do it.” But here God comes to Cain and says, “What have you done?” He says, “Do you think I’m supposed to keep tabs on that guy?” There’s a hardening. First, you start to do sin, and then sin does you. It becomes a presence in your life.

See, it’s not just inside. It’s not just that you … This is the reason why legal terminology is not enough just to say, “We’re violating God’s norms,” nor is psychological terminology quite enough to say, “Well, it creates bad habits or psychological problems.” No, let me go a little further. When it talks about sin as a crouching tiger (or hidden dragon), when it talks about sin like that, it says, for example, in Galatians 6, sins will find you out. You reap what you sow.

Do you know what that means? Sin also creates a presence not just in you but around you. Why? It sets up strains in the fabric of things, the way God made the world, especially in the human community. Haters tend to be hated. Cowards tend to be deserted. He who lives by the sword will die by the sword. What is all that?

When you sin, that sin becomes a presence in your life. It takes shape in and around you, and it will take you out. Therefore, you should avoid sin like the plague, because it is a plague. Somebody says to you, “You know, you have a cancerous tumor growing in this part of your body.” You say, “Well, one of these years I’ll get to it.” You don’t do that. For somebody to come along and say, “You have an abrasive spirit,” or, “You can’t control yourself in this area,” or, “You have this,” or, “You have that character flaw,” you don’t say, “Well, yeah.”

Don’t you dare, because that’s the second aspect of potency we see in this image. The idea of sin crouching at the door not only tells us it’s coiled to spring (it’s a presence in your life that when you sin, you create a presence in your life that then can take you out), but also the image gets across the fact that sin hides.

See, the lion, the tiger, the leopard is crouching. That means down away out of your sight. Why? Because if you see a crouching tiger, you have a chance. You can get a couple of steps on it, but if you don’t see a crouching tiger, you’re dead. If you don’t see it well or you don’t know quite where it’s located … The less aware you are of the location or the reality of the crouching animal, the more vulnerable you are, and the more likely you are to die.

What that means is the worst things in your life, the character flaws and the sins in your life that are most going to ruin you or are ruining you or are going to make the people around you miserable are the things, the character flaws, you least will admit. They’re the ones you’re in denial about, you rationalize, and you minimize. Whatever the consequences happen to you, when somebody brings them up, you rationalize them.

By definition, those are the crouching sins in your life (the ones that are going to take you out). As long as you look at workaholism as conscientiousness, as long as you look at your grudge as moral outrage, as long as you look at materialism as ambition or arrogance as healthy self-assertion, as long as you look at your obsession with looks as good grooming, you’re vulnerable. You’re in denial.

What are the crouching sins in your life? Do you not have a short list of character flaws you know have power over you but you always tend to rationalize, you always tend to minimize? You know, many of us get at least to this spot. We know we’re bad at that. We know that’s a problem for us, and yet when anyone ever brings up an actual particular case of it, “Oh no! You don’t understand.”

At least you know there’s a crouching tiger in there somewhere. You just don’t quite know where. Do you know what your sins are? Do you know what your besetting sins are? Do you know what your crouching sins are? If you don’t even have a list, then you’ve been mastered. So see the potency of sin. See how deadly it is. See why it’s nothing to take lightly. It’s nothing to be trifled with. Okay, now secondly, let’s notice …

2. The subtlety of sin

This brilliant narrative shows us how subtle it is, because here you have Cain, and here you have Abel. We have Abel being accepted by God and Cain being rejected. So what do they represent? They represent the people who call on God’s name and find favor with God and then the people who God rejects.

When you actually read through the narrative, it’s difficult to know why, isn’t it? See, that’s part of the brilliance of the narrative, because we don’t have … Look. Liberals and conservatives basically … When they divide the world into good and bad people, they have this nice, bright line. I think the traditional idea is good people are the people who uphold moral values, and bad people are the people who don’t believe anything, and they live any way they want.

The liberal bright line is good people are the people who are working for inclusion and who are working for a pluralistic society and equality. Bad people are the intolerant people, the fundamentalists, the bigots. I mean, they have these nice lines, but here you have … Look. You don’t see Cain and Abel … One of them is running around boozing it up and womanizing, and the other one is going to church and bringing their offerings.

You don’t see one person working hard, and the other person a ne’er-do-well living off welfare. That’s not what you have. What do you have? The only difference is one seems to be a farmer and one seems to be a rancher, from what we can tell. One is raising animals. To make an offering to God, you bring the firstfruit of the new animals born to you this year, because that’s your income. The other one is a farmer. What you do is you bring some of the produce of your field because that’s your income.

Well, they’re both offering up to God, are they not? They’re both doing God’s will. They’re both seeking God. So what’s the problem? All we’re told is God blessed and showed favor to Abel, which probably almost certainly means he prospered him and made him successful and let things go well in his life, and he didn’t favor Cain. Why? What’s going on? It’s subtle. It’s supposed to be subtle. It’s supposed to be a matter of the heart.

That’s how the narrative gets you to start to investigate. Here are some clues to the answer. The first clue is this. Do you see what it says? It says, “Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering … But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.” Here’s what’s interesting. Every year, the income of a rancher basically is how many more calves and colts and lambs and that sort of thing are being born.

If you want to be really cagey, you wait and give the Lord his offering after you see how many animals are being born to you, right? I mean, if you’re going to have 12 animals born, then, “Oh, I’ll send the Lord one or two.” You know? “I’m a tither. I’ll send three, a little more than a tithe.” Here’s the danger. If you send the first one born, what if there are only two this year? What if there are only three? “I don’t want to give God 50 percent. That’s kind of exorbitant, don’t you think?”

Therefore, there’s a kind of person who is pretty calculating and is “absolutely making sure I give God just what I have to.” Then there’s a kind of person who is openhearted. They’re not calculating. There’s a joy. There’s an abandon. There’s a trust. So we see that in Abel. Do you recognize that? We see a different kind of spirit there, a different level of commitment, a kind of joy, a kind of freedom. You don’t see it in Cain.

Well, where was that? Why? Okay, secondly, Hebrews 11, looking back on this passage … In Hebrews 11, we’re told Abel made his sacrifice and offering in faith, but Cain did not. Well, what the heck does that mean? That’s a little difficult to understand. Why? Well, when you and I think of faith in God, are we saying Cain didn’t have faith in God? You don’t think Cain believed God existed?

I think he believed God existed. He is talking with God here, so that’s not a problem. He really knows God exists. What’s going on? You have to remember from last week God hasn’t given this first family a whole lot of information yet about how he is going to save the world. He has just given them one verse. It’s Genesis 3:15. In Genesis 3:15, God promised one of the descendants of Adam and Eve is going to crush the Serpent’s head, is going to destroy sin and death.

Therefore, God promises to save the world. That’s all we know. It’s pretty vague. It’s awfully rudimentary, but this is what I want you to consider. There are only two reasons you can possibly bring an offering to God. There are only two reasons to put money in the plate. There are only two reasons to bring a lamb or an offering in the Old Testament and New Testament. It doesn’t matter. There are only two reasons to give God an offering.

One is to give God an offering in response to salvation, in gratitude toward salvation. The other reason is to do it as a means of salvation, as a way of getting God to bless you, as a way of getting God to reward you, answer your prayers, take you to heaven. There are only two possible reasons. Even in the rudimentary form that the gospel existed in Abel’s mind, Abel, in some way, was putting his trust in God’s promise of salvation.

As a result, there was an openheartedness about him. There was a lack of calculation. Here’s what happens with Cain. Do you not remember (if you were here in the fall) the parable of the prodigal son and the elder brother and what the elder brother’s heart was like? We said back then … If you weren’t here, don’t worry. I’ll give you the nutshell version of it. If you believe you’re a sinner saved by grace, then everything is gravy. You believe God has saved you in spite of your merits, and everything God gives you is gravy. Everything is icing.

But if you’re an elder brother, if you believe, “God owes me because I’ve worked so hard, and I’ve served my father, and I’ve obeyed the Bible, and I’ve done everything right. God owes me it,” if you believe you’re saved by works, if you believe you’ve put God in your debt … The way you know you’re a sinner saved by grace or an elder brother saved by works is that when God doesn’t let your life go the way you think it ought to go, when God is not blessing you and prospering you and having things go well, the elder brothers get absolutely furious.

Why? It proves they actually believe God owes them because of their good works, because of their offerings. When you see Cain looking first at Abel and seeing Abel being blessed over himself, he is murderously angry, and he is angry at God. He is so angry at God, he is willing to say, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” “Get out of my face.”

What do we have there? You don’t see the difference between Cain and Abel on the surface, do you? They’re both hardworking. They’re both going to church, as it were. They’re both trying to do God’s will, but what is the fundamental trust of their heart? Are they looking to other things or themselves for their salvation, or are they looking to God? That makes all the difference between whether you’re a grumpy, angry, furious Cain, always mad with how the world is going, always upset because somebody is getting ahead of you, competitive, looking at the Abels around …

“Why are they getting ahead? They don’t deserve to be ahead. What’s going on here?” Do you want to be a Cain, or do you want to be an Abel? See, Cains hate Abels. Abels don’t hate Cains. Cains denounce. Cains demonize. Cains are always comparing. Cains are always grumpy. Cains are always anxious. It all has to do with what are you looking to as your salvation? What is your heart’s fundamental trust?

Do you see the subtlety of it? That’s the very essence of whether sin is mastering you or whether you are mastering sin. There’s the potency of sin, and there is the subtlety of sin. Is there any hope? “Preacher, is there any hope?” Well, you know, it’s a sad story. Of course, the story seems to end … There’s no happy ending.

“Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ […] The Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.’ ” Yet because this is such a brilliant narrative, it’s such a brilliant text, because the author ultimately was the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is an incredible storyteller, we have foreshadowing. Right there at the very end, you actually have the basic furniture for …

3. The eventual victory over sin

What do you see? You see two things about God. One is his grace, and one is his justice. First of all, notice his grace. He is asking questions. Again! Remember last week, if you were here? Last week, God does not show up after Adam and Eve sinned and say, “How dare you do what I told you not to do!” Instead, he comes and says, “What have you done? Where have you been? What’s going on?” Even here, he shows up even after the murder and says, “Where is your brother Abel?”

Now look. When God asks you a question, I can guarantee one thing. He is not looking for information. If God is asking you a question, he is not trying to understand your heart. He already understands your heart. He is not trying to figure out what’s going on. He already knows what’s going on.

If God asks you a question, he is trying to get you to understand your heart. He is trying to bring you along. I think in Genesis 3 and 4 one of the most moving things as I’ve meditated on these texts for years now is that God does not show up and say the first time to Cain, “How dare you question who I bless and who I don’t bless! I mean, don’t you know who I am? Who do you think you are? I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.” He doesn’t do that.

He says to Cain, “I see you’re downcast.” Literally, by the way, God says, “Your face has fallen,” which is actually a Hebrew idiomatic expression for depression. He is coming, and he is counseling a depressed man. He is asking him questions. He is pursuing him, and he is trying to get him to understand his own heart. Look at the tenderness of it.

What amazes me is how, even though he is telling him the truth, he says, “Look, Cain. It’s not Abel’s fault you’re depressed, and it’s not my fault. It’s your own actions and your own attitudes.” Yet he says, “But sin is going to master you. I don’t want it to master you.” Isn’t that amazing? He is coming after Cain. He doesn’t want to see him perish. So there we see the grace of God. There we see the love of God, but at the very same time, in verse 10, we see something.

It’s always kind of spine tingling to me when he says, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” What does that mean? All through the Bible, there are places where God says, “The innocent shed blood is crying to me from the ground.” What does that mean? God is a God of justice. It means when injustice is done, it cries to God, as it were. There’s an outcry.

When there’s violence in Sodom and Gomorrah, he comes by in Genesis 18, and he says to Abraham, “I’m on my way down to Sodom and Gomorrah because of the outcry, the cry of the oppressed, because of the violence, and because of the terrible things that are happening there.” God can’t shrug at sin. He just can’t let it go. He is a righteous God. He is a just God. Injustices cry to him all the time. Innocent shed blood always cries to him for rectification, for making it right. He can’t deny that. He can’t just turn away from that.

Here you have an absolutely just God, and yet an absolutely loving and gracious God. How in the world can a just God save us? He wants to save us, but he is just. How will he ever be able to make good on his promise of Genesis 3:15 to save the world, to save us like this? Here’s how he can be both just and gracious.

Years later, another Man showed up who was a lot like Abel, because he came into a world, he came into a nation, filled with Cains, people who were religiously very observant, who were always bringing their offerings, honoring the sacrificial system, and yet they hated his Spirit, and they slew him. The book of Hebrews says when Jesus Christ shed his blood, an innocent victim of injustice, his blood cried out, but in a new way.

See, this is in Hebrews 12. The writer to the Hebrews says, “You have come to God, the judge of all men, 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.” That’s interesting. What is that talking about? Here’s what it’s talking about.

Jesus Christ was, in a sense, the ultimate Abel because he was the only person who was truly innocent who came into this world. He was not a grumpy Cain. He was beautiful. He was gorgeous. He was loving. The Cains couldn’t stand it, and they killed him. But he didn’t die only as a victim of injustice. He also died by design. He died in our place. He died to pay the penalty for our injustices.

Do you know what that means? Let me be as personal as I can possibly be. In the first three or four years of my Christian life, every time I went to God to ask for forgiveness, I was nervous. In fact, when I got up off of my knees when I was done confessing my sins, I was still nervous because I would take 1 John 1:9, where it says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” and I’d say, “Okay. I’ve sinned, and so I’ll kneel down, and I’ll ask for God’s forgiveness.”

But do you know what? I would sin, and I’d say, “I’ll never do this again.” A few days or weeks later, I had done it again. I’d get down on my knees. A few days or weeks later, I’d done it again. I’d get down on my knees. Every time I would say, “Please be merciful. Please be merciful!” There was something in the back of my head that kept saying, “Okay. You’re in your early twenties. What if you’re still doing this in your early forties, your early fifties? Where will God finally say, ‘Hey, I’m under no obligation to be merciful to you infinitely’?”

Every time I would get up, I would wonder, “Will he be back in my life? Will he bless me?” Then one day I understood what Hebrews 12 was talking about when it says Jesus Christ’s blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Jesus Christ’s blood, like all innocent blood, is crying out for justice, but now what is it saying?

In a sense, Jesus Christ is standing before the throne of his Father and saying, “Father, your law demands justice. These people here have sinned. The wages of sin is death. But for all the people who believe in me, I have paid for it. There is my blood crying out for justice.” Here’s how it cries now. “Justice demands that you never condemn my brothers and sisters.”

Everyone who believes in Jesus Christ and who says, “Father, forgive me because Jesus Christ has died in my place,” do you know what that means? God can never condemn us. Why? Because that would be to get two payments for the same sin, and that would be unjust. That’s the reason why 1 John 1:9, does not say, “If you confess your sins, he is faithful and merciful to forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.” It says, “… he is faithful and just …” What does that mean?

A life-changing sermon for me was a sermon by David Martyn Lloyd-Jones that I read years ago on 1 John 1:8 and 9. Here’s what he said: If Jesus Christ has shed his blood for you and you have asked God to forgive you because of Jesus Christ’s shed blood, God could never, ever, ever condemn you, because that would be to get two payments, and that would be unjust. Therefore, the justice of God now demands that there is no condemnation for you as long as you live and that you will never perish.

Jesus Christ, in a sense, is not standing before God interceding for us by asking for mercy, because, you see, Jesus is not actually getting up there saying, “Here’s Tim Keller, and he sinned again. So, Father, give him one more chance. Please be merciful one more time.” God is up there saying, “Well, all right.” No wonder I never felt good when I got up off my knees. Now I realize what Jesus Christ essentially is doing.

He is saying, “Tim Keller sinned again, but I’m not asking for mercy. I’m not asking for mercy. I’m demanding justice. Embrace him. Cleanse him. Open his eyes. Come into his life.” The justice of God is infallible. The justice of God is like the mountains. The justice of God and the righteousness of God cannot be gainsaid. Now it’s on our side if you believe in him. See, now the blood of Jesus Christ cries out for justice, but the justice is not against us anymore. It’s for us … all of it.

If you really know you’re that secure in his love, if that moves you to the depths, it shakes you to the depths and it moves you to tears, you’re not going to be a grumpy Cain anymore. You’re not going to always be comparing yourself to other people. You’re not going to be angry because somebody is getting ahead of you. Your identity is not based on your performance anymore and all that kind of thing.

There will be a security. There will be a poise. You’ll become a sweet, loving Abel, not a grumpy, condemning, self-righteous Cain. Don’t you want that? The world needs a lot of Abels. The Cains are out there killing each other, exploiting each other, lying about each other, elbowing each other out.

They’re as miserable as can be. Sin is mastering them, but use this potent gospel of the grace of God to deal with the potent sin in our lives, in your life. The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from all unrighteousness. Go and learn what that means. Spend the rest of your life learning what that means. Let’s pray.

Father, we thank you that you have given us this great gospel. As sad as it is to see the blood of Abel crying out from the ground for justice, how remarkable it is that it points us to the blood of Jesus Christ crying out that now there can be no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Oh my! Would you give us a sense of our security? Would you give us a glorious sense of it? Let that reality be the one that controls us. Let it turn us more and more into the Spirit and the image of your Son, Jesus Christ, who did all this for us. It’s in his 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.

 
 

 

 

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David R. Helm: A Biblical Exposition on Sharing in Christ’s Sufferings From 1 Peter 4:1-6

“Embrace Your Calling to Suffer in the World”

“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does” (1 Peter 4:1-6).

Some would say that those who suffer most often suffer first from blind naiveté. Albert Schweitzer thought as much about Jesus, claiming that his cruel death on the cross was nothing more than the unfortunate result of naiveté. According to Schweitzer, Jesus, the misguided visionary, never saw the sufferings of the cross coming until it was too late:

There is silence all around. The Baptist appears, and cries: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Soon after that comes Jesus, and in the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn, and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, He has destroyed them. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign (Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. New York: Macmillan, 1968, pp. 370, 371).

Peter, however, has been telling a different story. Jesus was vindicated in death. He rose victorious in the spirit and now reigns eternally as the Ascended Son at God’s right hand. According to Peter, naiveté is set aside. Jesus’ suffering was not the unfortunate result of an impoverished itinerant’s idealistic fervor. Instead, his suffering was by divine initiative. Persecution was the predetermined pathway for God’s Son.

All the Gospel writers concur. The Jesus they present to the world is well aware that his unique work required suffering and service. Jesus believed it on the strength of the Hebrew Scriptures. And Jesus embraced it every step along the way of his earthly ministry. Repeatedly he told his disciples, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed” (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33). When Jesus stood before the Sanhedrin on the night of his betrayal, never once did he defend himself in hopes of avoiding the cross. In fact, when he did speak, he intentionally said what he knew would seal his fate (Mark 14:62).

Clearly, Jesus fully embraced his calling to suffer out of his desire to save us. As Peter argued in 3:18: Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.

Now, with the opening phrase of our text, Peter again returns to Christ’s sufferings, but this time with different intentions — he feels no need to further encourage us with Christ’s triumphant vindication. He accomplished that in 3:18-22. Rather, he writes about Christ’s suffering in this particular text to call us to embrace it as well. In 4:1 he says: “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking.”

“Arm yourselves.” Emulate Jesus. It is as if Peter has finally come to the place in the letter where he rises up to unashamedly proclaim, “Followers of Jesus, be prepared to embrace not only submission but suffering as an aspect of your calling! Get yourselves ready for suffering!” (It is interesting that until this time suffering appears in the letter to be “if necessary.” But now he speaks with definitive force, preparing the church for the inevitable).

The question of course is, how? How do we go about getting ready? What does a person need to know and do to prepare to embrace his or her calling in the world?

Fortunately for us, the structure of our text unfolds the answers to these questions with clarity and simplicity. If we intend to embrace this aspect of our calling, there are three gospel commitments we must be willing to make (4:1-3), two personal costs we should be ready to endure (4:4), and one encouraging reminder that a final accounting awaits all humanity (4:5, 6).

THREE GOSPEL COMMITMENTS (vv. 1-3)

Become a Person of Resolve

How do we go about embracing our calling? First, by becoming persons of resolve. Take another look at verse 1. Peter writes, “arm yourselves with the same way of thinking.” Notice, to embrace our calling in Christ initially requires the attention of our mind. We begin by thinking clearly. And for that we need to develop the mental disposition of Jesus.

Today, in the West at least, it is the church that suffers from a naiveté of the mind. It is difficult for Christians here to understand and embrace God’s intentions in suffering. We prefer a gospel in which God gives us healthy bodies and bulging wallets. And we too readily think that material blessing is the entitled reward of the gospel. To put it bluntly, the democratized West expects in Jesus, comfort, ease, and acceptance from the world.

Yet, in actual fact the life of Christ challenges all of this. Jesus resolved to live as a stranger in the world. He expected hardship. And when he read his own Hebrew Scriptures, they taught him that union with God culminates in mixed reviews here on earth.

In one sense, when Peter calls us to arm ourselves with “the same way of thinking,” he is saying, “Beloved, grow up! Get the mind of Christ. Become a person of resolve. Be prepared. If you have been united with him by faith, you will need to identify with him in suffering.”

The first gospel commitment Peter calls us to embrace closes with a phrase that needs some explanation. Look at the latter part of 4:1:

“Arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.”

The natural question this phrase raises is, what does it mean to “cease from sin”? Is the suffering person a sinless person? We ask this even though we know that such a wooden interpretation of the verse goes against all of Scripture and life experience. So what is Peter saying?

He is simply affirming that those who suffer for the gospel do, by their very willingness, demonstrate that they are done with sin. To put it as clearly as I can, everyone who suffers for Jesus first resolved, somewhere along the line, to cease from sinning. After all, the suffering they experience is a result of leaving off with sin. Thus, Peter says, “For whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.”

Live for the Will of God

In the next verse Peter puts forward the second and third gospel commitments that followers of Christ make as they embrace their calling in the world: “…so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God” (v. 2).

The two commitments we are to make are spelled out by way of contrast: “…no longer for human passions” with “but for the will of God.” Since the following verse is going to highlight the kinds of behavior the Christian leaves behind, let’s look first at what we are to be about. Peter says we are to live “for the will of God.” What does Peter mean by the phrase “the will of God”? And how are we to start living for his will? Fortunately we have already seen in 1 Peter the kinds of godly pursuits he wants us to pursue. And in fact, in each of those places he contrasted the
things that God wills for us with the same phase he uses here — “human passions.”

So by looking back in the letter for “passions” we will run headlong into what Peter means when he wants us to make a commitment to “the will of God.” Look at 1 Peter 1:14,15: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.”

If the will of God is found by way of contrast to human passions, then we can know for sure that we prepare our minds for suffering by giving ourselves wholly over to the pursuit of holiness. God wants us to make a commitment to holiness, to sanctification, to putting on the new man. This is how we prepare to embrace our calling.

Another text in 1 Peter that teaches us what the will of God is can be found in 2:11,12: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

We do the will of God when we “keep [our] conduct . . . honorable” by doing “good deeds.” This, of course, will require us to be countercultural. We will always be swimming against the current of today’s moral tide. We are to be known for doing good. And as we have seen in this letter, the supreme mark of goodness is our submission to difficult and ungodly people in authority.

Leave Human Passions Behind

I love the opening phrase in verse 3: “The time that is past suffices.” It is as if Peter barks out, “Enough already. Put sin in your rearview mirror.” And then he goes on to list the kinds of things that Christians are to put away. Look at how the verse finishes: “living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.”

Be done. Enough. The past is sufficient. Life as an ongoing fraternity party is a major problem in the church today. If we are not there in person, we are all too often present through what we watch on television, see in the theaters, or watch on the Internet. For men, sensuality is an especially prevalent issue. Sex is the elephant in the room. Peter says that in this matter it is time to clean house. Until we wake up and tackle this area head-on and out in the open, we will only continue debilitating a generation and will keep them from being grounded in their faith, unable to fly unencumbered toward Heaven’s delights.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard tells a parable of the disastrous effects of not putting to death the desires of the flesh, of failing to leave a way of life behind. One springtime a duck was flying with his friends northward across Europe. During the flight he came down in a barnyard where there were tame ducks. He enjoyed some of their corn. He stayed for an hour, and then for a day. One week passed, and before he knew it a month had gone by. He loved the good food, so he stayed all summer long.

One autumn day, when the same wild ducks were winging their way southward again, they passed overhead, and the duck on the ground heard their cries. He was filled with a strange thrill and joy, and he desired to fly with them once again. With a great flapping of wings he rose in the air to rejoin his old comrades in flight.

But he found that his good fare had made him so soft and heavy that he could rise no higher than the eaves of the barn. He dropped back again into the barnyard and said to himself, “Oh well, my life is safe here, and the food is good.” Every spring and autumn when he heard the wild ducks honking, his eyes would gleam for a moment, and he would begin flapping his wings. But finally the day came when the wild ducks flew overhead uttering their cries, but he paid no attention. In fact, he failed to hear them at all.

What an apt parable for the church in our time. As Christians, too many of us have feasted for too long on the pleasant fare this world has to offer. We too easily forget that the time past was enough. We forget that we are still far from home — we haven’t arrived at our destination yet. Sadly, many go on day by day unfazed by the gospel thought that as we feed on the husks of this world we demonstrate that we think too little of the delights that await us in Heaven. Peter says to us, “Enough. Rise up, O men of God. Have done with lesser things” (From the hymn “Rise Up, O Men of God,” lyrics by William P. Merrill; http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/r/i/riseupom.htm; accessed July 31, 2007).

C. S. Lewis struggled with his own inability to grasp the gravity of his sin in light of God’s clear teaching on the subject. He wrote:

Indeed the only way in which I can make real to myself what theology teaches about the heinousness of sin is to remember that every sin is the distortion of an energy breathed into us — an energy which, if not thus distorted, would have blossomed into one of those holy acts whereof “God did it” and “I did it” are both true descriptions. We poison the wine as He decants it into us; murder a melody He would play with us as the instrument. We caricature the self-portrait He would paint. Hence all sin, whatever else it is, is sacrilege (C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, chapter 13, as quoted in Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root, The Quotable Lewis. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1989, p. 547).

God has plans for your body, and they are plans for purity and for good. Don’t cheapen life. Don’t settle for distortion. Don’t poison the wine God decants into you. Be done with “sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.”

Make three gospel commitments that tell the world you are prepared to embrace this aspect of your calling in Christ.

  • Become a person of resolve.
  • Live for the will of God.
  • Leave human passions behind.

TWO PERSONAL COSTS (v. 4)

But as you do, know this: your newfound commitments come with a twofold cost. Consider verse 4: With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you.

They Are Surprised at You

First, your friends and family will be surprised. You will be misunderstood. Remember, there are no categories for them to understand why you no longer grab all that you can in this life without regard for the next. “Come on,” they will say. “What happened? Loosen up. Look out for your own happiness. Pursue some pleasure. Live a little!” Malcolm Muggeridge articulates well how your new life in Christ will affect your relationship with former friends who are still pursuing only happiness and pleasure:

Anyone who suggests that the pursuit of happiness — that disastrous phrase written almost by chance into the American Declaration of Independence, and usually signifying in practice the pursuit of pleasure as expressed in the contemporary cult of eroticism — runs directly contrary to the Christian way of life as conveyed in the New Testament is sure to be condemned as a life-hater (Malcolm Muggeridge, Jesus Rediscovered. London: Collins, 1969, pp. 101,102).

Over time their surprise will turn to ridicule.

They Malign You

Surprise evokes misunderstanding, and misunderstanding evokes a sense of being judged. And when the world feels that it has been judged by your way of life, those who are of it will condemn you as “a life-hater.” They will malign you. Take a look again at the progression of behavior embedded in verse 4. “Surprised” gives way to the word “malign”:

With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you.

R. C. Sproul, in his book The Holiness of God, tells of a time when Billy Graham was invited to play golf with President Ford and two PGA tour professionals. He writes:

After the round of golf was finished, one of the other pros came up to the golfer and asked, “Hey, what was it like playing with the President and with Billy Graham?” The pro unleashed a torrent of cursing, and in a disgusted manner said, “I don’t need Billy Graham stuffing religion down my throat.” With that he turned on his heel and stormed off, heading for the practice tee. His friend followed. . . . His friend said nothing. He sat on the bench and watched. After a few minutes the anger of the pro was spent. He settled down. His friend said quietly, “Was Billy a little rough on you out there?” The pro heaved an embarrassed sigh and said, “No, he didn’t even mention religion. I just had a bad round.”

About the incident Sproul concludes:

Astonishing. . . . Billy Graham is so identified with religion, so associated with the things of God, that his very presence is enough to smother the wicked man who flees when no man pursues. Luther was right, the pagan does tremble at the rustling of a leaf. He feels the hound of heaven breathing down his neck. He feels crowded by holiness even if it is only made present by an imperfect, partially sanctified human vessel (R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1985, pp. 91-93).

ONE FINAL ACCOUNTING (vv. 5, 6)

Peter closes our text with a reminder on the final judgment. It is meant as an encouragement to his readers. In verse 5 it appears that he is especially thinking of the judgment that awaits those unbelievers who choose to malign us. But they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. In one sense you and I do not need to judge the world. It already stands condemned. Entrust yourself to God, and wait for Jesus to set all things straight. The closing verse in our text is tricky to get hold of at first glance. It is especially hard to see how it functions as an encouraging word to

Christians who await the final judgment. “For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does” (v. 6).

What we need to remember is that the early church had many questions about their family members and friends who had died after coming to faith in Christ. They wondered what happened to believers after death. There was a concern for those who had already undergone the penalty of death. Peter wants to reassure his readers here with news that although believers are “judged in the flesh the way all people are,” they need not worry about their future with God. He says they will still “live in the spirit the way God does.”

We have nothing to fear in Christ! We have nothing to fear in embracing suffering in this life. Peter wants us to grasp this as part of our calling. To do so, we need to make three gospel commitments: become a person of resolve, live for the will of God, and leave human passions behind. We must be ready to incur two costs: the surprise of those with whom we once lived in sin and the inevitable maligning and slander that is sure to follow. In all this, though, Peter reassures us with one encouraging reminder: there will be a final accounting for everyone. As those who are in Christ, we shall live on in the Spirit forever.

Dear Lord, help us to truly embrace our calling to suffer in Christ. May we receive it with open arms. We know that everything we bear for you in this life will be nothing to compare with the glory we will share in with you in Heaven. Make us people of resolve. In your precious name we pray, Amen.

The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (4:7-11)

The Sermon/Article above was adapted from the sermon based on 1 Peter 4:1-6 in David R. Helm’s terrific book of sermons on 1 & 2 Peter, and Jude: Sharing Christ’s Sufferings in the Christo-centric Series of expositions published by Crossway books in Wheaton, IL. – The Preaching the Word Series edited by the faithful expositional preacher R. Kent Hughes.

About the Preacher:

David Helm, along with Arthur Jackson, serves as Lead Pastor of our Hyde Park Congregation, and is the Director of Ministry Training at HTC. After ten and a half years as founding Sr. Pastor of Holy Trinity Church, David handed off the Senior Pastor role to Jon Dennis on November 23, 2008. In addition to serving our South Side congregation, David is Chairman of The Charles Simeon Trust, a ministry devoted to equipping men in expository preaching.

A graduate of Wheaton College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, David is ordained in the PCA and serves on the council of The Gospel Coalition. He authored I, II Peter and Jude in Crossway’s Preaching the Word series, and contributed to Preach the Word:Essays in Expository Preaching in Honor of Kent Hughes. In addition, David has written The Big Picture Story Bible and The Genesis Factor (the latter with Jon Dennis).

David and his wife, Lisa, have five children (Noah, Joanna, Baxter, Silas and Mariah) and reside in the Hyde Park neighborhood. In his spare time, he generally roots for the Chicago White Sox and enjoys Johnny Cash.

 

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