Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 04/14/1996
Luke 23:1 Then the whole body of them arose and brought him before Pilate. 2 And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” 3 And Pilate asked him, saying, “Are you the king of the Jews?” And he answered him and said, “It is as you say.” 4 And Pilate said to the chief priests and the multitudes, “I find no guilt in this man.” 5 But they kept on insisting, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching all over Judea, starting from Galilee even as far as this place.” 6 But when Pilate heard it, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. 7 And when he learned that he belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who himself was in Jerusalem at that time. 8 Now Herod was very glad when he saw Jesus; for he had wanted to see him for a long time, because he had been hearing about him and was hoping to see some sign performed by him. 9 And he questioned him at some length; but he answered him nothing. 10 And the chief priests and the scribes were standing there, accusing him vehemently. 11 And Herod with his soldiers, after treating him with contempt and mocking him, dressed him in a gorgeous robe and sent him back to Pilate. 12 Now Herod and Pilate became friends with one another that very day; for before they had been at enmity with one another.
There are many things we could notice in this passage today. We could pause to appreciate the irony in the fact that the one who was to give the order for Jesus’ execution is forced many times to pronounce his innocence. We could examine the way Pilate’s indecision at the outset, passing the buck to Herod although he has already been convinced of Jesus’ innocence, sets up his final betrayal of justice and of Jesus. (We will spend some time on that next week, perhaps.) We could notice how the savage mockery of Jesus adds to the tale of his sufferings on our behalf. We could marvel at the patient submission of Jesus to his Father in all of this. But these are all points that will continue to come out as we work our way through the story of Jesus’ trial leading to his crucifixion. For today, I want to focus our attention on verses 8-9. “Now Herod was very glad when he saw Jesus; for he had wanted to see him for a long time, because he had been hearing about him and was hoping to see some sign performed by him. And he questioned him at some length; but he answered him nothing.” You could summarize this whole message in one phrase: The necessity of seeking God with the proper motives. For that is precisely what Herod does not do.
Herod had been wanting to see Jesus for a long time. You might think that an encouraging sign, but first we have to ask why he wanted to see him. Unfortunately, it was not because Herod thought Jesus was the Messiah or because he even had any interest in the Messiah. Alas, it was only out of idle curiosity. He wanted to see Jesus perform a sign; he wanted to see a miracle. For Herod, Jesus was nothing more than a sanctified sideshow. And we have seen all through Luke’s Gospel how Jesus felt about that kind of thing. “A wicked and perverse generation seeks for a sign.” It started with his own home town when he preached at the synagogue in Nazareth, where his old friends were wanting to see the things they had heard about. But there is no recorded example of Jesus ever responding positively to such a request. Miracles were done in response to need and to faith, in response to needy faith, never to overcome dishonest doubt or to satisfy idle curiosity. So it is not terribly surprising that Jesus refused even to speak to Herod. Even Pilate got an answer to his questions! Herod got nothing at all. And this is always what happens to a wicked generation that comes to God seeking a sign.
Well, we certainly don’t have that problem. Most of us would probably be made quite uncomfortable if we were given a sign! But maybe we have our own versions of coming to Christ out of idle curiosity. Have you ever read your Bible to prove a point, rather than to meet God and submit to his Truth? Do you ever come to church hoping for a certain kind of experience—aesthetic, uplifting, inspiring—rather than to meet the God the experience is supposedly about? Have you ever engaged in a theological discussion to “hear some new thing” rather than to know God and his will better? One thinks of Calvin’s answer to one who asked him what God did before he created the heavens and the earth. “God was not unoccupied before he made the heavens and the earth; he was busy making Hell for idle questioners!” Do we not have our own ways of turning God into a sideshow? Some churches do it blatantly, others subtly, but none of us is immune from the temptation.
I remember seeing a tent at the Fair one time which claimed to contain the world’s largest bull. For a dollar you could go into the tent and see the bull. I was running low on cash at the time, so I passed up this opportunity of a lifetime. Had it been free I might have gone in. Others perhaps would not have bothered except for the fact that the fee made it seem like something worth doing. Either way, we would be satisfying our curiosity, for lack of anything better to do. And where a bull is concerned, I suppose there is nothing wrong with that. Now, let me be blunt and clear here. How many of you would have gone in to see the bull? Several would. And why not? Nothing wrong with that. But how many of you would be prepared to sell everything you have for the privilege? Do you see? Lots of people come to church the way the crowds went to see the bull. Lots of people come to church the way I visit a showroom to pass time while my car is in the shop. You can’t come to Christ that way! He is the pearl of great price. The only way you can come at all is to sell all you have to buy that field. That is the wonderful paradox of the Gospel. God’s grace, the salvation that is in his Son, is a free gift. You could never earn it or deserve it if you wanted to; it can only be received as a gift. But this is a completely free gift that costs you everything! And to come to Christ in any other way just simply isn’t serious. In fact, it really isn’t to come at all. Curiosity without commitment is ultimately blasphemous. It treats God like a sideshow. And it gets no response from the Lord whatsoever—except those awful words, “Depart from me; I never knew you.” Herod’s idle curiosity and the response it provoked form an important lesson for us today.
But there are other improper motives for coming to Christ, maybe less insulting to him on the surface, but not so when we really understand them. There are also those who come out of selfish indulgence. What does James say? “You have not because you ask not. You ask and do not have because you ask amiss, to spend it on your lusts” (James 4:2-3). This is the “What I can get out of it” syndrome. What’s in it for me? Health and wealth? The opportunity to be a big fish in a small pond (the church)?
Oh Lord, won’t you give me a Mercedes Benz. My friends all have Porsches; I must make amends. I’m trying to cut back on most of my sins, So Lord, won’t you give me a Mercedes Benz!
If idle curiosity treats God like a sideshow, this treats him like a vending machine. It might at first seem to have more to do with faith, but in the long run it is at least as blasphemous. God is the ultimate end to which all things must be oriented to be fulfilled in their creaturely nature. It is nothing less than idolatry to treat him as a mere means to some other end, however noble. For then that end is more important than God himself who gives it—the very definition of idolatry. And many of the ends we seek him for aren’t noble at all; they are just plain selfish.
Another improper motive people have for coming to Christ is personal protection, whether from temporal disaster or eternal Hell. This seems to have been part of what motivated Herod. For this is not the first time we have heard of his desire to see Jesus. Back in Luke 9:9 we read that he wanted to see Jesus because some people thought he was John the Baptist come back from the dead. Apparently one reason Herod had for wanting to see Jesus was to reassure himself, to confirm that this was not the case. He was superstitious and did not want to be haunted by John! Do not think that modern Christians are immune from this motive either. We are all too familiar with those who think of Christ as a fire insurance policy. Just in case there is a Hell, we’d better take out the policy by “going forward.” Of course, after that, we can live just as if Christ were not part of our life at all—which may be evidence that in fact he is not, since we are saved by faith in him, that is, by the trust that commits us to him, not by merely professing faith or having some kind of religious experience. If idle curiosity turns God into a sideshow and selfish indulgence turns him into a vending machine, this reduces him to a fire extinguisher, or maybe a security blanket.
Now, I am not denying that salvation has some pretty impressive fringe benefits, escape from eternal damnation being not the least of them. We receive forgiveness, peace with God and with ourselves, meaning, purpose, fulfillment, love, belonging, and maybe material blessings too (though there is no guarantee of that). But these are fringe benefits of salvation, byproducts of our relationship with Christ. And we only enjoy them when they are not the central thing. To make them the central thing is no longer to be worshiping God at all, but treating him as a means to those ends—and that is the very opposite of worship.
The common denominator of all these improper motives is that they treat God as a thing; they do not treat God as God. Be not deceived; God is not mocked! He can tell the difference. He an infallibly distinguish the person who comes to Christ in faith from the one who is merely playing religious games for his own ends while remaining his own God. So let us indeed desire to see Christ above all things. But let us not be modern Herods as we do so. That way lies futility—and blasphemy.
OK, if idle curiosity, selfish indulgence, and personal protection are not proper motives for coming to Christ, what is? The answer is found in Hebrews 11:6. “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” Wait a minute. Rewarder? Doesn’t that sound perilously close to everything you have been warning us against? Yes, perilously close—but not the same, when you come to it through the first part of the verse.
Those who come to God must come in faith, believing that he is. Believing that he is what? Believing that he is God! We have a whole generation of Christians who have insufficiently reckoned with the fact that God is God. What can get this across that you have not already heard a thousand times? He is the Creator of all else that exists, and therefore absolutely sovereign over it, including you and me. He is omnipotent, all powerful. He is holy. You are totally dependent on his good pleasure for your next breath, even if you use it to curse him. He owns and has an absolute right to your worship, your obedience, to all you have and are, for without Him you would not be. And shall we then DARE to use him for a sideshow, a vending machine, a bandaid, a security blanket? To come to him that way is not to come to him at all.
But then—and only then—we come to the next glorious phrase. He is a Rewarder of those who seek him! When you come to him in faith he will not annihilate you. The fire of his holiness will not burn you to ash, because if you come to him in faith you are covered by the blood of his Son, clothed in the white robes of Christ’s righteousness, and that is what the Father will choose to see. When you come to him in faith, you are seeking first the Kingdom of Heaven and his righteousness—and then he rewards you, then you find that “all these things” are added unto you! Then you will be forgiven, you will have your sins wiped away and never counted against you, you will be adopted and loved and given a purpose and eternal life in which to fulfill that purpose. Then he will meet all your needs, including the things the gentiles seek. Then you will be astounded by his mighty works, flooded by his blessings, healed of all your wounds, and wrapped in his loving arms forever. You will find all these things because you came not for them but for him—and they are in him. They are nowhere else to be found.
And this is the wonder. This is the God who so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life. This is who he is. He is God! Is it any wonder then that he said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you”? Herod had it all wrong. You cannot seek those things for their own sake. You must seek him first. And knowing who he is, how else can we respond to him? Come to him even now! And find the One whom to know aright is life eternal. Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams