That All Important First Question



NOVEMBER 5, 2006

It has often been suggested that the first thing we always should do whenever we start to read the Bible is to ask ourselves the question: “what is God saying to me?” In other words, what truth is contained in these particular bible verses I’m about to read that God wants me to understand and apply to my life? Although this may sound like a good idea, don’t believe it. The devil himself couldn’t give us a worse iron-clad rule as to how to study the Bible.

In a few minutes I’ll explain my concern by sharing a recent email describing the dilemma of a very troubled woman. First let’s test this rule and see how it plays out in actual usage. Suppose we wanted to explain to a non-Christian the folly of the current conventional wisdom which tells us, that, as long as we sincerely try to treat folks in the same manner we would like them to treat us, then, when we die, we can count on going to heaven if there even is such a place. Be a nice person, do all sorts of nice things and you will have earned your admission into heaven.

Suppose you were to ask your non-Christian friend to read the following. John 3:1-8 (NIV) 1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” 3 In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” 4 “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” 5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” John 3:16 (NIV) 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 14:1-6 (NIV) 1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” 6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Now if you were to start off by asking your non-Christian friend the question: what truth is God saying to you in these verses I hope the person would answer by saying, that, contrary to what he or she always believed; Jesus is saying that we must be born again, we must believe in Him, and that it’s impossible for anyone to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven except through Jesus. Your friend may not agree with what they just read, but their answer confirms they understood what He said.

These answers may seem to shoot down my suggestion that the first question we should never ask ourselves whenever we start to read the Bible is “what is God saying to me?” Now allow me to explain by sharing that recent email I mentioned earlier. (I have the person’s OK to tell you their identity after the service if anyone is interested). “Hi Mike. You don’t know me, but a friend has been giving me copies of your sermons about the sins we commit by not doing something He would want us to do. You know; those people that knew or thought something really bad was happening or might happen, and yet they did nothing.” You called them Christian bystanders.

“I’ve been thinking about what you’ve been saying in those sermons. They got me really depressed. For a couple of years now my husband and me have been sending money every month to a Christian ministry to help Russian Jews get out of Russia and into Israel. We did this even though we know that we are living in the “end times” and as soon as the Great Tribulation which everyone knows is right around the corner starts, two-thirds of all those poor Jews living in Israel at the time will be incinerated in the “Battle of Armageddon.” Do you see what I’m getting at Mike? I feel awful. What should I do?”

Speaking to His disciples and the crowds of people in Matthew 23, Jesus singled out the scribes and Pharisees and gave them a series of scathing rebukes. They were hypocrites who didn’t practice what they preached. Actually they were evil men, whom Jesus predicted would murder some of the prophets and teachers and wise men He was going to send to the nation. Continuing His denunciation in verse 29 we read:

Matthew 23:29-39 (NIV) 29 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! 33 “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?

34 Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35 And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 I tell you the truth; all this will come upon this generation.

37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'” Continuing in chapter 24 we read:

Matthew 24:1-3 (NIV) 1 Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 2 “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” 3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

In the rest of the chapter Jesus went on to tell them about the awful things which would happen in what He referred to as being a time of “great tribulation” v.21; a time which would bring about the end of the age His disciples had just asked Him about. Now ask yourself a couple of questions. What is God saying to you in these verses we have just read? The lady who sent me the email has come to the conclusion that the great tribulation and the end of the age are right around the corner from us.

That woman is not alone in her belief that the end of the age is quickly approaching. In a recent article concerning these things the author ends by asking: “So are we [you and me] living in the last days?” “Those terms—“latter days,” “last days,” “latter years,” “end of time” and “end of the age,”—all refer to a time when Israel is in her time of tribulation. This is a future time, which “we could very well be on the verge of entering. I do believe that we are seeing the stage set for last days or end time events of the tribulation.”[1]

Jesus was very graphic in His description about the horror of the coming tribulation which He said would precede the end of the age. His disciples were certainly concerned as to when it would occur. Now if you had just finished reading Matthew 23 & 24 for the first time and you came across this phrase, and you asked yourself the question: “what is God saying to me?” would you know the meaning of the end of the age?

But suppose we didn’t start by asking the questions, what is God saying to me? What truth is contained in these particular verses I’m about to read that God wants me to understand and apply to my life? Suppose instead we started by asking ourselves different questions. Suppose we asked what extremely important information Jesus intended to communicate to those folks He was actually speaking to; life and death information which He wanted them to clearly understand concerning the time of great tribulation and the end of the age?

Matthew 13:36-47 (NIV) 36 Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

Matthew 13:47-50 (NIV) 47 “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

As I said a moment ago; if you were hearing this phrase “end of age” for the very first time would you understand what Jesus was speaking about? Would you even have a clue about certain crucial information Jesus wanted to convey to you? But suppose instead of asking what Jesus is saying to you, you started by asking what information Jesus wanted to communicate to the people He was actually speaking to. Do you think they would have understood Him? Furthermore, because it was vitally important that they understood what He was telling them; how could He be absolutely certain He got through to them?

Matthew 13:51 (NIV) 51 “Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked. “Yes,” they replied.

But how can you and I understand what Jesus meant? How can we determine the meaning of that phrase? We would have to go outside the Bible and refer to recorded history to shed light on it. “It’s important for us to understand that at the time Christ spoke these words “The Jews divided all time into two ages. [To those Jews] there was this present age [in which they were living], which… [was] [totally bad and beyond redemption. For…[that age] there can be nothing but total destruction.”

“The Jews, therefore, waited for the end of things as they were. [Then] there was the age which is to come which was to be wholly good, the golden age of God in which would be peace, prosperity and righteousness and God’s chosen people would at last be vindicated and receive the place that was theirs by right.”

“How was this present age to become the age which is to come? The Jews believed that the change could never be brought about by human agency and, therefore, looked for the direct intervention of God. He would come striding on to the stage of history to blast this present world out of existence and bring in his golden time. The day of the coming of God was called The Day of the Lord and was to be a terrible time of terror and destruction and judgment which would be the birth pangs of the new age.”[2]

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus told His disciples once more about “the End of the Age”. It’s included in what we know as “The Great Commission.”

Matthew 28:16-20 (NIV) 16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

So ends the Gospel of Matthew. But it isn’t the last time we read about that particular phrase which we can be assured those early Christians knew the exact meaning of.

Speaking of the gift of redemption through the precious blood of Christ, the divinely inspired author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes:

Hebrews 9:26 (NIV) 26 Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at “the end of the ages” to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.”

I hope I have given each of you some food for thought this morning and I hope each of you will really think about what we have covered. Now in answer to the depressed person that sent the email asking my advise as to what they should do about continuing to help Russian Jews to immigrate to Israel, or warning the Jews who are already there to flee Jerusalem before the Great Tribulation starts; I hope I have convinced you folks to respond by suggesting that they search the Bible for themselves and then ask that all important first question: “what extremely important information did Jesus intend to communicate to those folks He was actually speaking to; life and death information which He wanted them to clearly understand concerning the time of “great tribulation” and “the end of the age?”

[1] Dr. Thomas Ice, National Liberty Journal, September 2006.

[2] —Barclay’s Daily Study Bible (NT), electronic version.

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