Serving others is an important virtue in the Christian life, but it is not a greater priority than hearing the Word of Christ. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Luke to consider an important lesson that Jesus gave to a friend named Martha.
We will continue our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke, and we are in the end of chapter 10. I will be reading Luke 10:38–42. I am going to ask the congregation to please stand for the reading of the Word of God:
Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.”
And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”
This is a brief passage, but one filled with profound significance, as it gives us a word from Jesus Himself to His beloved friend, Martha, presumably at Bethany. This comes to us through the superintendence and inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, who is a God of total truth, and I ask you to receive it as such this morning and be seated. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, we look to You as the fountainhead of all that is true, all that is good, and all that is beautiful. We pray that the truth, which is revealed to us this day in Your holy Word, may grip our souls and profoundly influence the way we live out our faith before You. For we ask it in Your name. Amen.
Jesus Comes to Mary and Martha’s House
This morning’s sermon is intended to be practical, not heavy with theology or philosophy. It will deal with some fundamental principles by which we are to live out the Christian life.
We are told by Luke, “Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village.” Let me stop there, because there are some questions here. Luke does not tell us what the village was. He does not tell us how many of them went to the home, whether the whole group of disciples and Jesus came to Mary and Martha’s house for dinner, or if the disciples went with Jesus to Bethany and then separated, and Jesus alone went to the home for supper. We do not know these details, so in many ways, we must guess.
Presumably, the Mary and Martha mentioned here are the Mary and Martha that we meet elsewhere, particularly in John’s gospel. They are the Mary and Martha whose brother, Lazarus, Jesus raised from the dead. They often hosted Jesus in their home at Bethany, just beyond the slope of the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem.
We are told that Jesus entered the village, and “a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house.” Presumably, Martha was the older sister, as the house was assigned to her. She had a sister named Mary who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His words.
Distracted with Much Serving
The crux of the matter comes up in verse 40: “But Martha was distracted with much serving.” What was the distraction? Was she distracted because she was left in the kitchen to prepare a meal for Jesus, her sister, herself, and perhaps her brother? Or was it that she had the even greater responsibility to prepare a meal to feed all the disciples, if they had come with Jesus into the home? Or was the serving not simply the preparation of the meal, but perhaps the clean-up afterwards?
When we began our ministry at Ligonier, we began it as a study center in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania, and much of it was patterned after Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri. In fact, Dr. Schaeffer had a hand in helping us get the study center started, and we followed some of the practices that had been done at L’Abri, principally that our resident students stayed in our homes.
We had several host families, and the students stayed with the resident families, slept in their homes, and had meals at their tables. The topic of discussion around the table every night at dinnertime would be theology, following the practice of Martin Luther in sixteenth-century Wittenberg, when he would meet his students for what he called Tischreden, or “table talk.” Now you know where the title of our magazine, Tabletalk, came from.
After the dishes were clear, we would spend time continuing the discussions about theology around the table while the host wives would retire to the kitchen to clean up the dishes. On more than one occasion, as we would have staff meetings, the women would raise the question, “Why don’t we have the students helping out with the dishes?” Then we would go to this text in the New Testament and explain to them that, as important as it was to clean up after dinner, it was even more important to spend this time discussing the truths of God. That message had not yet gotten across to Martha, so Martha was distracted with much serving.
Let me stop and say that service is an extremely important virtue in the Christian life. In fact, service is considered to be one of the means of grace. The means of grace are those instruments God gives to His people to assist them in their personal growth in righteousness and conformity to the person of Christ. We serve not simply to do a good thing, but as we serve each other and serve others, we aid in our own spiritual growth and sanctification.
It was not a bad thing that Martha was so busily engaged and, as it were, distracted by service. However, she was becoming more and more annoyed as she was left to do all the service while her sister was sitting down and having a nice conversation with Jesus.
Finally, Martha’s annoyance reached its peak, and she came to see Jesus. Listen to what she said: “Lord,”—so far, so good—“do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.” She called Jesus Lord, then proceeded to rebuke Him and say: “What’s the matter with You? Why aren’t You having my sister help me instead of having me do all the work? I want You to tell her to give me a hand with these things.” She was telling her Lord what He had done wrong and what He needed to do to correct the matter. Listen to Jesus’ answer: “Martha, Martha.” If you have heard me preach on Matthew 7, you know the significance of the address, “Martha, Martha.”
When we went through the Gospel of Matthew, I preached a sermon in which I said that the scariest thing Jesus ever taught was at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. He said that on the last day, many would come to Him saying: “Lord, Lord. Didn’t we do this in your name? Didn’t we do that in your name?” Then He would say to them: “Depart from Me. I never knew you. Leave. I don’t know who you are.”
On that occasion, I pointed out that there are about fifteen times in sacred Scripture where people are addressed by the repetition of their name. The workers of lawlessness who would claim to know Jesus say on the last day not simply “Lord,” but “Lord, Lord,” indicating a deep personal relationship of affection. God addressed Moses that way, Jacob that way, Abraham that way, and so on through the Scriptures.
There are only about five or six times in the New Testament where anybody is addressed by the repetition of their name, and this occasion is one of them, indicating that Jesus rebuked Martha in the most tender fashion possible. He looked at her and said: “Martha, Martha. You’re worried. You’re so troubled about many things. I can see that, but you must understand something. One thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part.”
The Better Part
Notice that Jesus did not say, “Martha, Mary has chosen the good part, and you’ve chosen the bad part.” Jesus was not saying that serving the way Martha had been serving was a bad thing to do. This was not a contrast, but a comparative analysis.
Jesus said that what Martha had been doing, working to prepare and serve, was a good thing. However, the better thing, the higher calling, was the one Mary had undertaken. What I want us to think about is this: Why did Jesus say that? Why was it better that Mary seemingly neglected the regular duties of preparation and service to spend time in conversation?
Beloved, we know one thing: this was not chit-chat. This was not idle conversation. She was conversing with the Son of God. She was attending His teaching. She was devoting herself to a means of grace that was far more powerful than even service itself.
Devotion to Apostolic Teaching
Let me refresh our memories by going to the book of Acts and the early church. There is a description of how things were going at the end of the second chapter of the book of Acts, after Peter’s sermon:
And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.
In this brief description, we get a clue as to how the first century church spent its time in worship and in the assembly. They came together first to devote themselves to the Apostles’ teaching, as well as for fellowship, for celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and for the offering of prayers and giving a sacrifice of praise in worship.
One of the things that marked that early church was their dedication and devotion to the teaching of the Apostles. On Sunday morning, we do not just have worship. The single most important thing that we do in church is corporate worship on Sunday morning. There is nothing more important for our souls than to be in attendance on Sunday morning for worship.
A Matter of Principle
The author of Hebrews exhorted the people of that day not to neglect coming together in the assembly of the saints (Heb 10:25). He realized that, as a rule in most churches, 25% of the members are absent on any given Sunday morning. It could be that they are out of town. It could be that they are ill. There is a host of possible reasons, but the average person is not sick one out of every four weeks. Even still, the average member of the church misses a quarter of the church’s assemblies for worship.
I remember when I was teaching in a seminary in Philadelphia that the president of the seminary was a former bishop from Australia. He told a story one day about a curate in the cathedral in Australia. One day, the young curate came to work, and he had not shaved. The bishop asked him, “Why didn’t you shave?” He said: “Every morning, I get up and wait for the leading of the Spirit. If the Spirit leads me to shave, I shave; if the Spirit doesn’t lead me to shave, I don’t shave. This morning, when I got up, the Spirit didn’t lead me to shave.” The bishop said to the young minister: “Why don’t you make it easier for yourself and for the Spirit of God? Instead of travailing with the Holy Spirit every morning for directions on whether you should shave or not, why don’t you just, as a matter of principle, decide to shave every morning?” The young man took that to heart.
What is the point of that story? The point is that our attendance in church on Sunday morning should not have anything to do with whether we feel like attending. God calls us to solemn assembly as His people, as His congregation, and we are to be in attendance if we are able. So, I challenge you to make it a matter of principle. Say no to the inclination to sleep in one out of four weeks. Be in church, and make sure that you are in attendance not just for your soul, but for the whole people of God, who encourage each other by useful presence and fellowship.
Feed Your Soul
I do not know about you, but I need to be in worship on Sunday morning. I love to be in worship on Sunday morning, but not only do I love it, I need it. We do not have enough of it. It is not like we are overwhelmed with too much time in the presence of God and too much study of the things of God.
If you notice the pattern not only in the first century church but throughout church history, people who grow in grace are not only always in worship, but they are devoted to study, to grow, and to show themselves approved. This is not so that we gain knowledge to be puffed up, arrogant, and proud by our theological acumen. Rather, we need to have our souls fed.
I am urging you to give all of Sunday morning to your Christian development and growth in your Christian life. Even beyond worship, make it a point to be involved in learning the things of God through Sunday school or other education that the church offers. This is what Jesus calls the “better part.” This is what Mary was doing.
Mary said: “I’m going to let the dishes stay dirty for fifteen minutes. I’m going to leave some of the necessary tasks and chores that press upon me every day because Jesus is here, and I have a chance now to learn from Him.”
While Martha was grousing, complaining, and feeling annoyed at her sister, Mary was basking in the presence of Christ. That is how we grow. That is part of the means of grace that God has given to His people for their sanctification.
Developing Core Beliefs
I talk a lot about justification, and we cannot be sanctified unless we are first justified. We are justified unto sanctification. God saves us that we might be changed and brought into conformity with Him.
The Old Testament tells us, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7). It is not that the Old Testament writer confused the organs of the brain and the heart. We think that thought takes place in the brain. The Old Testament author understood where thought occurs. When he said, “As a man thinks in his heart,” he was getting at this: we have all kinds of ideas that race around our minds, going in one ear and out the other, but we also have core beliefs.
The word core is the word for heart. A core belief is one that gets beyond your immediate consciousness and penetrates your heart, into the very core of your being. What you really believe is how you live, and that is why repentance in the New Testament is called changing your mind. Until we get the mind of Christ, we will never begin to live like Christ. That is why Christian education is so important, not to pass a test, not to get a degree, but that our core thinking may be informed by the mind of Christ. So, I ask that you give serious consideration to increasing your study of the things of God and taking advantage of courses made available to you through Sunday school and adult Christian education.
Finally, Jesus said, “Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.” If we choose to spend time with Christ, if we choose to devote ourselves to being at His feet, to take everything we can from His teaching, whatever we get will not be taken away. That is God’s promise for you. Let us pray.
Father, thank You for the means of grace that assist us in our weakness and our frailty. Thank You for Your Word, by which we are sanctified. Thank You for truth that gives us the ability to discern good and evil. We ask that we may not only learn the truth from You but that we may love it, and that the truth may dwell in our hearts. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.