Luke 8:19-21 “Now Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. Someone told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’ He replied, ‘My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.’”
As I get older the thought of meeting my mother once again in heaven in the presence of the Lord Jesus takes my breath away. The devil whispers to me, “It’s too good to be true,” but the Christian hope of heaven runs through the New Testament, especially its final chapters. All the people of God are going to meet again in glory, delivered from the presence of sin. We shall know one another in heaven, just as on the Mount of Transfiguration the disciples knew Moses and Elijah. Sometimes I worry, “Do I want to see my mother more than I want to see my Saviour?” but then I know that that isn’t so. I want to see them both, and Dad and my friends in the faith who have already gone there, but especially the Lord Jesus who gave his life for me and taught me all I have needed to know for forgiveness and joy in this world and blessedness in the world to come. There is going to be a glorious reunion of all the Lord’s people, with Jesus at the centre. I suppose I want to tell my mother how much I’ve loved her, and to tell her that I owed her an enormous debt, and that I am sorry I ever hurt her, and didn’t show my love more when we were here together. We are to honour our fathers and mothers because of their sacrificial, consistent care and affection for us.
The incident recorded in our text is found in all three synoptic gospels. Jesus had at least four half brothers whose names were James and Jude (that is the same name as Judas, and those brothers wrote two New Testament books); the other two were Joseph (named after his father) and Simon (the same name as Simon Peter). Jesus also had a couple of half-sisters. All seven of them were Mary’s children, and on the occasion set before us in the text Mary took the four boys with her (all of them in their 20s) to have a heart to heart talk with Jesus. In the accounts in Matthew and Mark it appears that the family were concerned about him, after thirty years helping Joseph in Nazareth he went to the wilderness, heard John preaching, was baptized by him and then became a peripatetic preacher and healer. The family seemed afraid that he was over-taxing himself, doing too much, getting a bit fanatical, extreme, almost going out of his mind, and their mission on this occasion was to take him back home.
When they found Jesus he was surrounded by crowds of people and they couldn’t get through the press. It was so important for that audience to hear what Jesus was saying; they didn’t want to miss anything and they wouldn’t give way. So the family were marginalized on the edge of the congregation and finally they sent a message indoors to Jesus. “Your mother and brothers are standing outside wanting to see you,” but instead of Jesus excusing himself, taking a break and pushing through the crowd to his mother he says, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice” (v.21). That is the text from the Holy Bible we have to consider. It is found three times in the New Testament. What does it mean? Let us begin with this:
WHAT IS THE CONTEXT OF THESE WORDS?
Jesus has been speaking about the sower going forth and scattering the seed and the remarkable consequences of doing this – great fruitfulness. He has said that the seed is the word of God. Then he has been speaking about the importance of letting our light shine before men, not lighting the wick and putting the lamp under a pot. The only light we have is our message, the gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. It was then that he seized on this interruption to his preaching to say these striking words. “Hearing and doing the word of God is even more important than family ties,” Jesus is saying.” Do you realise how shocking that is? Let me illustrate it like this;
Imagine an important business meeting; all the top executives were meeting around the large table with their documents and lap tops before them. They were at the point of closure of a new development costing millions if it were to go ahead; all their futures were wrapped up in this momentous decision, and then the chairman’s secretary knocked and entered the room. “Sir, you told me to come to you with this call.” “Thank you.” he said and he took the phone out of the room. He was gone for five minutes at that key moment, and then he returned, “It was my daughter,” he said, “She won the under-nines’ race in the swimming gala this morning. It’s a great day! Now where were we?” And so there’s a stunned silence and the business of the day is resumed in quiet perplexity. It would be quite shocking for a businessman to keep twenty of his colleagues waiting in the midst of crucial negotiations to talk to his eight year old daughter about her swimming success. Your tie to your daughter is not more important than your vocation to work to God’s glory. I could use the same illustration with a judge being interrupted by the ringing of his phone to talk to his little child during his summing up and sentencing after a three month trial. Where are his priorities? Maybe such illustrations will alert you to the dilemma of our Lord’s words. For them this rabbi was merely speaking to them as he had on hundreds of other occasions. It was just another sermon, and see, his mother has come to see him so they will all have a break . . . but Jesus doesn’t drop everything and go out to her. In fact he tells them that listening to him speak to them is more important than most things in life, certainly than his visiting with his mother.
I am saying that shock waves were sent through this gathering when Jesus summarily dismissed the request of his mother and family to go and see them. In the world of the Lord Christ the family unit and solidarity, honouring one’s mother was paramount. What an earth-shaking culturally-challenging response these words of Jesus were! Luke highlights this by not mentioning his family’s concerns for his mental health; he describes a normal visit from the family, and then – Slap! – such a slap in the face to Mary – of all people – whom all generations call blessed. “Mother? Brothers? Here they are,” Jesus said gesturing to this motley untried crowd of fishermen and women who were helping him. “Anyone who hears and does God’s word is my mother and my brothers.” That is the context of these words.
THE IMPORTANCE OF HEARING AND DOING GOD’S WORD.
We are at a real danger point here. I could really confuse you at this juncture and you would miss the whole point of what our Lord is saying. He is not saying to an unconverted audience, “Try your best to obey the word of God and you’ll all become my brothers or mother.” That is not the thrust of this passage. He is talking to his disciples (v.9). These people are already following him. There is a famous question whose answer you must get right. “If you were to die tonight, and God were to ask you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ what would your answer be?” That is a crucially important question. Now the overwhelming majority of those who are asked that question give this sort of reply, “Because I’ve always done my best . . . I’ve fundamentally been a good person . . . I’ve tried to live morally . . . I’ve gone to church all my life . . . I’ve never hurt anyone.” All those people thought they’d earned their entry into the presence of God by how they’d lived.
Then why did God send his Son into the world, and why did he have to die on the cross? If going to heaven is simply based on us doing our best, and trying to live a decent life, and going to religious services then who needs the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world? But the nature of God, as holy and just and straight, is such that the only way our sins can be forgiven is through a mighty atonement that appeases the wrath of God, and redeems us from the bondage of sin. The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin. That is our hope of entering heaven;
“He died that we might be forgiven; he died to make us good;
That we might go at last to heaven saved by his precious blood.
There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin.
He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.”
So the Christian answer to the question, “If you were to die tonight, and God were to ask you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’” is, “Because of Jesus Christ.” He lived for me. He died for me. He saved me. He keeps me following him. He prays for me. He is coming again for me. He is taking me to himself that where he is I might also be. It is all because of Jesus. My hope is not that I’ve always done my best, because I haven’t and no one has, and anyway our best isn’t good enough for God. My hope is not that I’ve never hurt anyone, because I have, just think of your sins of omission. My hope is in the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. God will open his heavenly home to me because I plead the name of Jesus his dear Son. That is how we are let into heaven, by Jesus Christ. No other ferryman can take us across the river over which there’s no bridge. Don’t pay any ferryman to take you across. Jesus Christ alone.
So when Jesus is talking to a group of unbelievers he tells them to repent. He tells even a religious man he must be born again, that he cannot see the kingdom of God let alone enter it without a birth from heaven. He tells unbelievers that they must become converted and be like little children if they are to enter heaven. However, when he is talking to his disciples, to those who claim to have trusted in him, and have repented of their sins, and have been born again, and have their hopes in him then he encourages them with such words as the words of our text, “Anyone who hears and does God’s word is my mother and my brothers.” He is focusing their futures lives on hearing his message correctly and putting it into practice day after day, and never stopping. The evidence that all your hopes of entering heaven are indeed in the Lord Jesus Christ is this, that you are hearing and you are doing what the Lord tells you. It is not that you have to be sinless to get into heaven; no one is sinless, but you are pursuing righteousness, and constantly dealing with your sins. You are turning from them and putting them to death and confessing them to God. Think of the difference between a cat and a pig falling into a pile of mud. If a cat falls into mud it immediately begins to clean itself, very thoroughly. If a pig falls into mud it wallows in it. It has found its own element. Christians may fall into some atrocious sins, but they are like cats that want to be clean, and they ask the Lord to wash and purify them from their guilt. However, an unbeliever might carry on in sin; he might tell other people about his sin; he might be quite unashamed of it. He is wallowing in it. Now let me give you some of the great advantages of hearing and doing the word of God.
i] It is safe for you to obey the word of God. The God who created you and the world has given us a set of instructions concerning how we are to live. We are not in the dark; it’s not all left up to us. God has given us Ten Commandments written on tablets of stone. They are a statement of what God wants from us. He wants us to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with him. He requires that we love our neighbours as ourselves. This is a recipe for the right stuff of the Christian life. I will illustrate it like this; when you get into your late teens you can apply for a driving license, and that is very desirable, because when you can drive you are free to visit people who live a few miles away and take other people with you and you don’t have to leave with the last bus. But you’ll need guidance in how to drive; you’ll need an instructor to tell you, “Do this. Drive like this. You are too near the centre of the road . . .” Then you will need a log book that tells you how to drive this particular car, where the switches and even the fuses are, how to open the bonnet, at what pressure you should keep the tyres, whether the car takes diesel or lead-free fuel. It is wise to be instructed in how to drive and also how your car operates. Then you also need the Highway Code that tells you how to get along with other drivers on the road, stopping, priority at roundabouts, overtaking and so on. The word of God is like instructions for new drivers; it is a log book in knowing yourself, and a Highway Code in getting around in the midst of other people. If everyone kept the Highway Code then there’d be very few accidents; many less people would be hurt. We’d all be safer as we traveled about. I am saying that it is like this if you hear and do what the law of God says. It makes things safe. A church and a Christian family should be a safe environment in which to live. You are surrounded by Christ’s mothers and brothers. “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.”
ii] It is unifying for you to obey the law of God. There is melody and harmony if we’re all singing from the same hymn-sheet. Suppose the parts of our bodies, instead of being controlled by our minds, had each a separate, independent will of its own. Wouldn’t our bodies become useless and mischievous? You know this actually takes place sometimes. A person can have an illness like Parkinson’s Disease and there will be many an hour in which their limbs seem to escape from the directions of their minds; their arms flail around, and their legs kick out. The head has no control over its members, and there are convulsions and a pitiful chorea. Now I am saying when the will of men and women refuses to be controlled by the will of God the most terrible moral convulsions occur in society. Prince Amnon wanted to sleep with Princess Tamar, his half sister. They were both the children of King David, and the ensuing rape of Tamar by her half brother Amnon was a terrible convulsion in that family. It tore the family apart and resulted in another brother killing Amnon, and that led to the civil war in which a son of David Absalom led a rebellion against his father. Amnon could plead that it felt so right for him, but what he did destroyed the unity of the family and the nation.
You Christians have been baptized by one Spirit of God into one body, and we all drink of the same Spirit, and we all learn from the same Bible. Now there are different emphases, but the historical Christian faith summarized, for example, in our doctrinal statements or in the Apostles’ Creed unites us; “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord . . .” Then we believe in the Ten Commandments, and they are expounded by Jesus in Matthew chapter five where their inwardness and spirituality are shown. They are further explained in Romans chapter twelve and again Ephesians five and six, so that we all know what is right and wrong and we are to do it. Indeed the ethical teaching of the Bible is the most clear part of Scripture. So from hearing God’s word and putting it into practice harmony comes into the life of a church. If you reject the word of God you get the situation the Anglican denomination is in at the present time, tearing itself apart.
iii] It is honouring to God and to our neighbour when we “hear God’s word and put it into practice.” You say you are a Christian. You believe upon the Lord, and he is Jesus the Messiah. He is your Lord. Is he Lord over all your life? Let us think of your life as a house with many rooms. There is your family room, and there are your leisure interests (your hobbies and your TV and the world wide web) and they are all in another room; there is your job and that’s in another room, and there is your money in another room, and there are your Sundays and they are in another room. All the different parts of your life, and Jesus Christ is your Lord. Is he Lord of all those rooms? Is all your life under the lordship of our Saviour? Or is there one room that is locked and bolted, and you have the key of that room, and even Jesus is never allowed to enter that room? Is that the case? Then who is the Lord of that house? It’s not Jesus is it? It’s you. You are the one who allows him access to some rooms, maybe many rooms, but there is one room and it says, “PRIVATE.” There is no admission to that area of your life even for Jesus. So the ultimate authority for what you do is not in God’s word but in your decisions. You draw the line and tell Jesus where he can’t go. We often hear it said that if Christ is not Lord of all he is not Lord at all, and I think that that is a little extreme, but I don’t find in the Bible the doctrine of limited Lordship. I think that the Christian life is a movement, a progression, so that more and more of our lives comes under the control of our Lord. That comes from a growing understanding of what it means to put into practice God’s word. Every room is open to Christ; all the keys are put in his hand. He can enter whenever he pleases, wherever he chooses.
I am saying to you that that response honours God. That is where the ten commandments start. You have no other gods before him, and obedience to that honours him. You make no idol and will not bow down before one, and that honours him. You do not take his name in vain, and that honours him. You keep one day for him each week, and that honours him. Then you honour other people by not lying to them, not stealing from them. You honour your spouse by being faithful to her or him, and honour your neighbours by not taking their husbands or wives. You do no violent harm to them, and you don’t covet anything that is theirs and that is honourable. So you honour God and your neighbour when you hear God’s word and do it.
iv] We are taught to love one another when we hear God’s word and put it into practice. Let me say some things about love. You are all interested in love. You all hope one day someone will fall in love with you, and you will marry and enjoy all your life together. So I am going to say something to you about falling in love. Are you ready? I think that there are two kinds of love. There is what I call ‘need-love’ and there is ‘gift-love.’
Need-love is the kind of love we feel when we think we cannot survive without another person. We need this person to fill us, to complement us, to make us feel whole and happy. This is seen in romance, what a man and women feel for each other when they fall in love.
Gift-love is almost the opposite. Gift-love is the kind of love we feel when we want to bring something of value to another just to make that person whole or complete or happy. For example, think of David’s brave warriors who heard him one day musing, longing for a drink of water from the well he’d always drunk from as a boy, the well of Bethlehem. But Bethlehem was in enemy territory. The Philistines had taken Bethlehem as a garrison town, but the brave men decide they would slip into the town under the cover of darkness, risking their own lives to bring a water-pot of water back to David. They did it, and they presented the water to David because they loved their king, but he was overwhelmed at what they’d done and he couldn’t drink it. That water was too precious to drink. It represented their willingness to lay down their lives for him. The king took the water but he offered it to God in worship, he poured it out before Jehovah in thanksgiving for the gift of their love to him.
Need-love cares about its own needs.
Gift-love cares about the needs of others.
Need-love is empty and wants to be full.
Gift-love is full to overflowing and wants to fill someone else who may be empty.
Need-love is a powerful yearning for others; it wants them to adorn us with something they have. That was the love of David for Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife.
Gift-love is the power of caring for others and wanting to adorn them with something we have. It was Mary breaking open the jar of precious perfumed oil and pouring it over Jesus’ feet.
You learn about this in God’s word; the phrases are mine but the truth is God’s. You learn that healthy relationships have both some need-love and some gift-love. You learn that both kinds of love come from God. Take need-love: we are created to need others. It is not good for us to be alone. When a person hungers for another, when she says, “But I love him so much” that longing has been created by God. It is an appetite God has made, and whatever God makes us long for is good, but you need God’s word to purify and elevate and educate that love. You also need God’s word to see the glory of gift-love. God so loved the world that he gave his own Son. He did not spare him from the cross. Jesus chose not to spare himself because he loved us, and he had determined that where he was there we would also be for ever.
We hear of that gift-love from the word of God and then we put it into practice by the power of the Holy Spirit. We learn to love the unlovely; we love our enemies. Need-love is something that comes naturally; it is in the realm of common grace. I don’t have to tell any of you to fall in love. You just do. But gift-love is to be learned in the gospel from the word of God, week by week, and then put into practice.
v] It is liberating to hear the word of God and put it into practice. There are two great verses in Psalm 119 (which is all about the word of God). In verses forty-four and forty-five the writer says, “I will always obey your law, for ever and ever. I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.” What a marvelous pair of verses, in the first he says that he will always obey God’s law, for ever and ever. Then the very next verse says what? That he would walk about in legal bondage for the rest of his life? No! “I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.” Do the rules of the game spoil the game? No, they make the game. We are never so free as when we are serving God. We are never such slaves as when we are obeying sin. Don’t you see the men addicted to sex, dependent on alcohol, or nicotine, or drugs, insisting on money or fame being first in their lives? Are they free? Is Madonna free? Are the Stones free? Is the much married Dawkins free? Drug addicts will tell you that when they were doing heroin they were slaves, but when they turned to Jesus Christ and were converted then they were free at last.
What do I mean? Think of the freedom of the violinist playing Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto without a score. It has taken discipline to make her that free. She looks as if she could play it backwards. She soars because she is disciplined by the basic rules of her art. She doesn’t even think of those rules in the midst of her concerto. She knows the rules so well they have become second nature to her, and all she wants to do in the concert is to play. “I will play in freedom for I have sought out your precepts.” Think of the freedom of the athlete running down the track to the tape. It takes discipline to be that free. A rugby player trains; he learns the rules of his game; he learns the rules for getting the most out of his body. He learns that there are dozens of options open to him when he finally has the ball in his hands. He can charge, or pass, or kick. He is free to do any of those things. He is free because he is disciplined by rules and by training and by heeding his coach. “I will play in freedom for I have sought out your precepts.”
Why are we never so free as when we are putting into practice the word of God? Because the God who inspired that word made us and knows how we work, and what gives us lasting joy. The law of God is like a training schedule that is teaching us to do right until it becomes second nature to us. When you first sat behind the wheel of a car you thought you’d never learn to drive. You needed three legs for three pedals. You needed two sets of hands for the steering and the gear lever and the lights. Did you give up? No. You kept learning, and now look at you. You can drive, and put a CD in the CD player, and switch on the windscreen-wiper, and increase the temperature, and change gears, and discuss predestination all at the same time. How can you do all that? It is not magic. It is not that you are somehow specially gifted to drive a car. You kept going, and kept learning, and kept doing what your driving instructor told you to do, so that now driving is second nature to you. So it is with the Christian life. You keep hearing the word of God every single Sunday, morning and evening, and so you keep learning new patterns of freedom.
It is the great theme of Ephesians chapter four, putting off your old self and putting on the new; putting off falsehood and speaking truthfully to your neighbour; stealing no longer but doing something useful with your own hands; not letting unwholesome talk come out of your mouths but what is helpful to build up others. These are new blessed patterns of living that you learn by hearing the word of God week after week and putting them into practice. Don’t you see how important it is for your whole future that you hear and do the word of God? Never give up. It is a disaster to give up. It is destruction to give up. Keep on hearing and keep on doing it. That is true freedom.
THE RESULT OF HEARING AND DOING THE WORD OF GOD.
You become deeply and personally loved by the Lord Jesus Christ, for ever and ever. What does he say? “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice” (v.21). I began by telling you how much I still love my mother, and that it seems to be a growing love, and I hope and long to see her once again in a land of pure delight. My love for her is of course the love of a sinner. There can be wonderful love between a husband and a wife neither of whom profess to be Christians. You look at them and you are tempted to think, “I wish some Christian couples could love one another like them.” On a human level Jesus is like the most caring person that you’ve ever met. He is the perfect family man. The Lord Jesus loved his neighbour as himself, and so he loved Mary exactly as he loved himself. He loved her purely and passionately. But she was his mother and so there was a special love for the one who’d given him birth and nurtured and nourished him. He honoured her because she had said to the angel Gabriel “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you said.” She was willing to risk her betrothal to Joseph and be misunderstood by her family in order to bear Jesus, and he loved her for that. But Jehovah Jesus loved Mary as the incarnate God with all his infinite and immeasurable divine love. He loved Mary so much he laid down his life for her; Jesus died for his own mother’s sins. His love for her was as strong as death, burning like a mighty flame, unquenched by many waters, on and on it burned, his love for Mary. What a love!
But let me tell you something even more wonderful, that he loves you with that same love, with the identical love. There is this little Christian woman whose past has had a lot of ups and downs; she carries many regrets; she has done little in her life that brings any recognition, no great gifts, no big personality, just following the Lord Jesus and putting into practice what he says. I am saying that Jesus smiles and smiles at her, that he says to her, “You are my mother.” He loves her as though she were his own mother.
It is the same with the Christian man of low degree; he may be illiterate; he may be penniless; he may have some physical handicap and some personality problem. You never notice him in a congregation though he is there. He walks along a street and draws no attention to himself. He is the sort of man who dies and his body lies unnoticed in the quiet house for weeks, and when the reporters come along his neighbours say, “He was very quiet. He kept himself to himself. He just went out to church every Sunday.” He kept hearing and putting into practice the word of God. How different is Jesus’ verdict on that same man. “He is my brother” says Jesus, and he loves him as Andrew loved Peter, and as David loved Jonathan, but a million times more affectionately. And there are millions of Christian men like that little man, and the Lord knows all about them, and the Lord loves them with a love that will never let them go.
I spoke at length on Friday with a man who told me he wished that he’d never been born. He had rejected any God; his faith was in the atheist Dawkins; his philosophy was science; every night he lay in his bed for hours and he feared death coming during the hours of darkness; he hoped he would soon be annihilated and cease to exist. Estranged from his family; divorced by his wife he had to gather together every atom of courage and energy just to join some people for tea where we met. He envied all I had, my family, faith, personality and peace, but he repudiated my trust in the Bible and my quoting the words of Jesus to him.
The Saviour once said, “By their fruits you will know them.” There were two men talking together for an hour that Friday afternoon and one man was living without God and without hope, rejecting the Bible, feeling he was utterly alone in a world that he thought was formed by mere luck without any purpose. The other man’s life, since bowing before Jesus Christ as his God and Saviour, consisted of hearing and speaking and doing the word of God. He was a man at peace with himself and with his fellow man, conscious he was loved with an everlasting love, and going to meet soon the one who loved him. Which man would you rather be at the end of your days? Because all of us are going to be the one or the other. Choose ye this day whom you will serve, but as for me, I will serve the Lord.
26th October 2008 GEOFF THOMAS