In a world that elevates personal ambitions at the expense of others, Christ calls His people to a completely different way of life. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of the gospel of Luke by expounding on our responsibility to pursue God’s glory in humble faithfulness.
Let us continue this morning with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. This is another watershed moment for us as we begin a new chapter. I will be reading from Luke 14:1–14. I would ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
Now it happened, as He went into the house of one of the rulers of the Pharisees to eat bread on the Sabbath, that they watched Him closely. And behold, there was a certain man before Him who had dropsy. And Jesus, answering, spoke to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”
But they kept silent. And He took him and healed him, and let him go. Then He answered them, saying, “Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?” And they could not answer Him regarding these things.
So He told a parable to those who were invited, when He noted how they chose the best places, saying to them, “When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, lest one more honorable than you be invited by him; and he who invited you and him come and say to you, ‘Give place to this man,’ and then you begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place, so that when he who invited you comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher.’ Then you will have glory in the presence of those who sit at the table with you. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Then He also said to him who invited Him, “When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
What you have just heard is not the insight of an ancient thinker, but rather the veritable Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, carrying the full measure of God’s truth and authority. Please receive it as such.
Our Father and our God, Your Word comes to us from Your lips, for our souls. We pray, as we consider this episode in the life of Jesus, that we may be instructed by it to the end, that we may make the chief business of our lives the desire to imitate Him in His holiness and His righteousness. For we ask it in His name. Amen.
Set Apart Hypocrites
What we have heard this morning is the third episode in the book of Luke about Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees concerning healing people on the Sabbath day. It seems like there was no end to this dispute in the New Testament, as the Pharisees pounced upon Jesus’ healing activity. In their view, it seems this was the most sacrilegious and blasphemous thing Jesus did during His earthly ministry.
Remember, these were Pharisees. They were so named because, in the intertestamental period, they saw the moral decline of their own nation. They saw people moving away from a desire to obey the law of God. They called themselves the “set-apart ones.” They were uniquely devoted to keeping every law from God in the Old Testament.
Some Pharisees were convinced that if they kept the law perfectly for one day, it would induce God to send the long-awaited Messiah. Here is the irony: the Messiah was standing before them. The Pharisees, who had dedicated themselves to the pursuit of righteousness, had degenerated into a group of hypocrites. They were involved in a parade and in a charade. Their joy was to parade their righteousness and their holiness, not before God, but before the eyes of men.
The Genuine Exposes the Counterfeit
The Pharisees lusted for the applause of human beings. They paraded their righteousness before the eyes of the people. Their parade was a charade. It was an exercise in hypocrisy. It was a pretense, as their righteousness was not genuine.
Nothing exposes the counterfeit like the genuine. When Christ came in their midst, the Pharisees could not stand Him. Their overwhelming desire was to get rid of Him, by execution if necessary. In this text it happened again, where they invited Him to dinner on the Sabbath.
Jesus came to the dinner, knowing full well the feast was a trap. They did not invite Him out of kindness or friendliness or to honor Him, but rather to catch Him in a violation of the Sabbath. We are told that they watched Him closely. Every eye was on Him. “What will He say? What will He do?”
Is It Lawful?
Luke tells us that there was a certain man already at the dinner who had dropsy. Our best guess is that the man, who suffered from acute edema and was possibly manifesting a serious illness involving the heart, kidneys, or liver, was a plant. The Pharisees found somebody to put amid the feast to see if Jesus would heal again, like He had done on at least two other occasions, on the Sabbath day.
Before Jesus did anything, He asked His hosts a question. Speaking to those assembled there, including the scribes and the Pharisees, He asked, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” He put His petition before the court prior to acting and asked them to give a judgment: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath day?”
Healing was lawful, according to Jewish law. There were exceptions to the prohibition against work. Those exceptions involved emergency situations when human beings or animals were in severe distress.
There was one sect among the Jews, the Essenes, who were even more narrow and scrupulous than typical Pharisees. We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran that the Essenes prohibited assisting one of your animals or livestock in giving birth to their young if it was the Sabbath day. If it was the Sabbath day and one of your animals gave birth to its young, then the newborn animal fell into a pit, you could not rescue it. That narrow view was not the traditional view of the Pharisees, and Jesus knew that.
He asked the question, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” What did they say? They said nothing. The room was silent. They did not know what to say to Jesus. They kept their mouths shut. He took the man and healed him, then let him go.
Jesus directed His attention to the Pharisees and said, “Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?” This is the same argument He used on a previous occasion. Once again, they could not answer Him. They had not even started eating yet.
Honored Places at the Feast
Jesus punctuated His action by giving a parable: “So He told a parable to those who were invited, when He noted how they chose the best places, saying to them, ‘When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, lest one more honorable than you be invited by him; and he who invited you and him come and say to you, “Give place to this man,” and then you begin with shame to take the lowest place.’”
The wedding feast was a memorable time. There were places set for those holding high offices, similar to the feast to which the Pharisees had invited Jesus, where He healed the man. At a normal dinner party of this kind, the host would have three U-shaped couches where people would recline to eat their meal. The tables were established with priorities. Table number one was for the highest honored guest. Table number two, for the next group. Table number three, for the group after that. The person in the highest honor sat at the bottom of the U, then those at his left and his right sat in order of honor.
There were no “reserved” signs or name signs placed at each table. It was open seating, as it were. Everybody was supposed to know his place. When the host, who sat at the highest place, sat down, he expected that the two seats beside him would be occupied by the most highly honored guests.
Jesus was watching what was happening at the dinner party. There was a scramble among the invited guests to sit next to the host or get closer to him. Nobody wanted to sit in seat number nine. That was for the lowly person among the guests.
The First Chair
At a symphony recording I attended recently, it struck me that there were forty-six strings. I do not know how many of them were violins, but at least twenty-five, maybe thirty.
I met the concertmaster, who was the first chair violinist. He was playing a $250,000 violin. That is a good violin, by the way. I watched and listened to him. His music was impeccable. The concertmaster worked along with the conductor to hear notes that nobody else in the room heard when they were not exactly what they were supposed to be.
During one of the breaks, I asked the concertmaster: “How does the violinist in seat twenty-five feel? What does it feel like to be relegated to such a lowly place in the orchestra?” He smiled and said, “Whoever is in that seat is thrilled to be able to be in this orchestra at all.”
Then I thought about Jesus’ parable, and I thought, “What would happen one day, when it’s time to record, if the man who was assigned seat twenty-five sat down in the number one chair?” How long do you think he would stay there? Until the concertmaster would come in and say, “Excuse me, you’re in the wrong chair.” You would see the man then sheepishly slink off, going back to the back of the room, sitting in seat twenty-five.
Gazing in the Wrong Place
Jesus said: “Don’t be foolish. Don’t be hustling, rushing, and pushing to find yourself in the most honored position. When the host comes, you will be ashamed when you are escorted to the back of the room. Rather, when you come in, sit in the lowliest place, and then the host will come to you and say: ‘My friend, don’t demean yourself like this. I have a higher place for you. Come forward, I have a place for you at seat number four.’ Then, before the watching group, you will receive honor and glory.” Then Jesus gave the maxim: “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Jesus continued with the parable: “If you’re going to give a feast, don’t be like everybody else where you only invite the rich and the famous, or your friends or business associates, expecting that because of your generous feast you’ll be repaid and honored by those who are in attendance who will reciprocate in like manner. Instead, invite the poor, the maimed, the shunned, the lowly, the people of the earth. Bring those who cannot repay you, and your repayment will be great in heaven. What those people will not be able to do for you, My Father will do for you.”
What is this all about? This is about something basic to our humanity, an ungodly ambition and quest for recognition, honor, and glory. Jesus was saying: “Your gaze is in the wrong place. Your gaze is fixed on the terrestrial plane. You need to lift up your eyes unto heaven.”
The Reformers had an adage that we are to live our lives coram Deo, before the face of God. Everything we do should be done before God, under His authority, and to His glory, not bound to the world and the ambitions that define our earthly estate.
No Room for Compromise
I would like to move briefly to another passage written by the Apostle Paul, a passage that has had a deep impact on my life. Working as a professional theologian for most of my life, I have had my share of theological debates and controversies. Several years ago, I was involved in one of the most painful theological controversies of my life, where there was an issue at stake so weighty and severe that I felt constrained to stand in opposition to some of my closest friends and comrades in the faith. I must confess, that was one of the most painful experiences of my life.
The issue was about the gospel, which we cannot possibly compromise for the sake of relationships. The Bible teaches us, as much as possible, to live at peace with all men. We are not to be quarrelsome. We are not to be contentious. We are not supposed to be fighting over the falling of a leaf. At the same time, there are times when the line must be drawn, where you simply cannot tolerate the intolerable.
That is what happened in the sixteenth century. That is what happened at the Diet of Worms when Luther said: “Revoco? You want me to say revoco? I recant? I can’t do that. If a floodgate of iniquity is opened, so be it.”
I must tell you, I was in agony over the issue. I went into the church, and I was by myself. I had my Bible. I opened it up to Galatians 1:6, where the Apostle Paul, writing to the Galatians, wrote these words: “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel.”
Paul expressed Apostolic astonishment that some of the Christians who embraced the redeeming gospel had moved away from it so quickly to what he called a different gospel. Then he corrected himself and said, “Which is not another.” The Apostle understood there was only one gospel. There are not two gospels.
Paul continued: “But there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed,” in the Greek: anathema. The literal translation: “Let him be anathema,” or “cursed of God.”
Paul was saying: “Anyone who preaches any perversion of the gospel, even an angel from heaven, let him be accursed. If an angel walks in the door and tells you a different gospel from what I have preached to you, you are to take him by the seat of his celestial pants and kick him out of the church under the anathema of God.”
Before I went to the church that day, I read that passage from Galatians a hundred times. I knew that the Apostle Paul had told us that we must not negotiate, compromise, or exchange the gospel in any way whatsoever, and that if any would seek to pervert the gospel, they were under the judgment of God. I knew that.
I knew what happened in the sixteenth century at the doctrine of justification by faith alone was denounced by Rome, with a series of canons at the sixth session of the Council of Trent which says, “If anyone says… let him be anathema.” The Reformed doctrine of justification had been cursed by Rome in the sixteenth century. I knew that the Roman understanding and the Reformed understanding of the gospel were different. They could not both be right. One is gospel, the other is not. I knew what the pressure would be to soften that difference and negotiate the article upon which the church stands or falls.
I kept coming back to Galatians: “If anyone, even an angel from heaven, even if it’s your best friend, even if it’s your co-laborer, preaches a different gospel, you can’t negotiate that. No matter what.”
Please Men or Please God
Most of the times I read the passage in Galatians 1 during that controversy, I stopped at the end of verse 9 and did not go on to verse 10. That day, however, in that church, I read verse 10: “For do I now persuade men, or God?” That is the option. Am I trying to persuade men or God? “Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ.”
Paul was not saying that we should be as displeasing to human beings as we possibly can, nor was Jesus saying that it is always wrong to have a dinner party where you just bring your friends in. He did not say that. Jesus was talking about the sin of being a man-pleaser. There are moments that every Christian faces in which we have that dilemma: “Do I please these people or do I please God?”
The Bible is a history of what happens to people who have made the choice to please God rather than man. It is a bloody history. It is not a pleasant thing to lose friends. It is not a pleasant thing to have your reputation tarnished because you would not play ball. With respect to the gospel, it is never, ever a game. It is a commitment on which eternity hangs in the balance. It is better to lose one thousand friends or relatives than to lose the gospel.
If you seek to please men rather than God, it might get you into the most honored seat in the house until God comes and says: “Please move. Go to the back of the house. Those who have kept the faith, who have honored Me, and have sought more than anything else to please Me rather than the applause of this world, they will come here and sit in my Father’s house.” Whom do you want to please? The world, or the Lord of the world?
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.