Sermon preached on Luke 12:1-12 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 04/24/2022 in Novato, CA.
Whom should we fear? This is a question raised throughout our passage for today. Here we are reminded again in Scripture that fear is not inherently good or bad. There are some things we should not fear. There are some things we should fear. Even things that we should fear, we can fear inordinately, more than is warranted, but that is a lesson for another day. Today’s passage instead calls us to consider whom we fear. While our pew Bible discretely divides today’s passage into three sections, each develops this theme for today. In short, we can see that our passage warns us to not fear man but to fear God. We’ll explain and clarify what these exhortations do and don’t mean as we work through our text for today.
Our first point for today will be to consider how we ought not to fear man, as Jesus says in verse 4. Let me begin by clarifying that biblically there are in fact certain ways in which are to fear men. For example, Romans 13:7 says there is a way in which we should fear the civil government. 1 Peter 2:18 says that servants should fear their masters. I could go on with more quotes. The point is that there is a certain fear of respect that shows due honor to humans in general and especially those in various positions of authority. Since Scripture must interpret Scripture, we must not understand Jesus’ words here to deny such. Rather, what Jesus is dealing with in this passage is a relative and comparative fear between God and man. We must fear God over man. In fact, when we fear a civil magistrate in the Biblical sense it should be because we fear God who told us to fear those in authority. And yet Jesus acknowledges how too often we can fear man over God. That’s what he is addressing when he commands us here to not fear man.
So then, we see this concern first raised by Jesus in verse 1 when he warns them about the bad influence of the Pharisees. Remember that the Pharisees were a religious sect among Israel and Jesus warns them against their leadership. Normally, you would think how your religious leaders would be people you should show a proper fear of respect. You would especially honor them by following their leadership. This would all certainly be true if they were leading you in the ways of God. But Jesus warns the people that these Pharisees were not doing that.
Jesus then explains why in verse 1 that the Pharisees were not good leaders to follow. It’s because they are hypocrites. This is actually another form of wrong fear of man. The word for hypocrite in the Greek means to put on a show. It’s to pretend to be something that you aren’t. The pretense is the emphasis in the Greek. They are pretending to be very religious. And why would someone put on such a religious show? It’s not going to fool God or impress him. People pretend to be very religious to try to get praise from men. It’s people-pleasing and it’s a sinful form of fearing man. More specifically, it’s fearing man over God because such religious hypocrisy means you care more about what others think of you than what God thinks of you. And so, Jesus warns against showing too much fear for these religious leaders given the fact that they themselves are showing too much fear for man. For the people to follow such leaders would not make them more religious. Instead, they would just fall into the trap of fearing men over God by being led into hypocrisy like the Pharisees.
We see another situation where we don’t need to fear man over God in verse 11 when Jesus references various human courts. Verse 11 says, “And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say.” Jesus here is speaking about when his disciples may end up in front of some human court because they acknowledge Jesus. Christians have ended up before both religious and civil courts, on trial, because of their testimony to Jesus. Jesus says not to be anxious in such situations. Anxiousness is a form of fear. If you get brought before some human court or tribunal for Christ’s sake, there will be a test. Will you recant your confession of Christ because your fear man over God? Or will you hold fast to your witness because you fear God over man? That’s again the issue in that situation.
One reason why Jesus encourages us and says we don’t need to be afraid of such human courts is that the Holy Spirit will give us the words to say in such circumstances. That is a promise to trust in. That is a promise to be comforted by. God will not leave us abandoned in such situations. He will be with us and use us to give a good testimony in the proper time. We don’t need to fear men over God in positions of authority because God will be with us.
This does not necessarily mean that those human authorities, religious or civil, might not persecute us. While it is true that God has at various times delivered his people from humans in authority who were trying to persecute them for their faith, it is not always the case that such has happened. While we can think of Daniel being miraculously saved say from the lions’ den, we can also think of all those prophets from Abel to Zechariah who were not. So, Jesus’ encouragement that God will be with us in the face of persecution doesn’t necessarily mean that we will be saved from such. But in light of that truth, Jesus does give another encouragement in verse 4. He says to not fear those who can only kill the body. He says after that, after they kill you, they can’t do you any more harm. Whatever human court that you stand before, the worse they can do is sentence you to death and execute you. The same for any other human enemy out there, the most any enemy can do is kill you. After that they can’t touch you further. Jesus says this as encouragement for why we shouldn’t fear men over God. Obviously, this requires faith to understand that the Christian has a hope of blessed eternal life beyond physical death. But to us who have that hope, this is indeed a reminder that we need not fear man over God.
A final encouragement about why we need not fear man over God is because of what Jesus says in verses 6 and 7 about sparrows and us. Jesus gives an illustration that while humans sell sparrows for so cheap, suggesting their relative low value to us, those sparrows are still valued by God. By the way, the translation in the pew Bibles in verse 6 for the word pennies is not very accurate at all, at least not in light of current inflation. The word here in the Greek refers to the Roman coin called an assarius. An assarius was worth 1/16 of a denarius, and since a denarius was the average daily pay for a common laborer, that would make an assarius worth quite a lot more than a penny. In other words, in modern currency, verse 6 refers to 5 sparrows being worth probably about $30 to $40. These would have been sold to eat, so think about the cost of a 5 pack of whole chickens today in the store, and that is probably about what you are looking at. That’s a long winded aside for accuracy’s sake, but the point is you can buy 5 small birds to eat for a relatively small amount of money. Humans don’t value them that much. But God knows each little birdie. But then the key point is verse 7. Jesus says that we are of far more value that sparrows to God. While God knows every little birdie, he even knows each little hair on our head. God is concerned for us. We should understand this as an encouragement to not fear man over God because God loves us and is watching over us, even if any human should stand against us. Even if that human should kill us. Fear not, but trust in God and his great love.
Let us now turn to the other side of this. In our second point, let us now consider how we ought to fear God. Like I did with our first point, let me start with a clarification that there are in fact certain ways we should not fear God, at least for the Christian. As Christians, we fallen sinners have been reconciled to God and adopted into his heavenly household. In reconciling us to God, Jesus puts away our sin, so that we no longer need to fear that God will bring his judgment and wrath upon us. 1 John 4:18 specifically teaches that Christians don’t need to fear God anymore in terms of his judgment. Likewise, because we are adopted, Jesus teaches us that our relationship then with God as a child to his father. God is our heavenly father who loves us and desires to give us good gifts, as we learned in Luke 11. The point about God valuing us more than sparrows is along these lines. So as high and exalted God is over all creation, we don’t need to fear him as Christians that he is some uncaring despot just looking to bend us to his will however it serves him best. No, we don’t need to fear that God would treat us like that. He loves us who are his adopted children in Christ. So then, while there remains a fear of respect and honor that we give to God as both our God and Father, we ought not to fear him in terms of punishment or to think he doesn’t love us. And so here, we see what Jesus’ concern is not just that we should have a right fear of God, but that we should fear God over man.
You see, if we don’t fear God over man, if man is our God instead of God being our God, then we really don’t know the Lord. Then we will need to fear him in terms of his wrath and judgment. In other words, all those things I just got done saying why we wouldn’t need to fear God as a Christian, then those things wouldn’t apply. That is much of Jesus’ point here. We need to fear God over man and in doing so we end up not needing to fear God in terms of his wrath and judgment. We see this in verse 5. It says that God can do what man can’t do in terms of punishing us. Man’s punishment can at worse be to physically kill us. But God can do that and also throw our soul into hell, verse 5. Some people incorrectly teach against hell and one way they do so is by arguing that the word “hell” is not in the Bible. Well, that is a foolish argument because “hell” is an English word, and of course there aren’t English words in the Bible in terms of the original language. Yet there are places where some English Bibles will use the word “hell” to translate from the original language. In this case, our pew Bible does just that. The Greek word is gehenna and it actually comes originally from the Hebrew referring the Valley of Hinnom. That was a valley that in ancient times became a perverse place of pagan idolatry in Israel and was later destroyed and turned into a trash heap where they burned trash. It was so regularly smoldering that overtime it became a common term to vividly portray the idea of God’s punishment for the wicked in the afterlife. So then, this is why we need to have a right fear of God over man, and put our allegiance in with him in Christ, so that we don’t need to fear falling into that judgment.
That is what Jesus goes on to teach in verses 8 and 9. There he speaks of how those who acknowledge him before men, he will acknowledge before the angels of God. Likewise, those who deny him, he will do the same. Realize that this continues the courtroom idea we mentioned earlier. You can stand before human courts and either acknowledge your hope in Christ, or deny Christ. But Jesus speaks of what will be said of you before the high court of heaven. What will Jesus say of you? The idea here is that we should fear the judgment of God in his heavenly court more than any human court. What’s implied here is that you may need to pick which court you will get punished by. Based on what we confess or deny in a human court, we will either be in trouble with the human court or with God’s court. And so, if we fear God over men, then we will confess Jesus before human courts even if we know we will face punishment for doing so.
Jesus then gives a related point about blaspheming the Holy Spirit in verse 10. This is typically referred to as the unforgivable sin and we find a few parallel passages that teach on it. It is elsewhere paired with what we see last chapter in Luke where some of Jesus’ opponents said that his ability to cast out demons was because Satan was the power at work within him. Jesus said that was blasphemy against the Holy Spirit because it was the Holy Spirit and not Satan that was at work in Jesus. So then, here Jesus takes this idea and says its forgivable to speak against himself, but not against the Holy Spirit. This idea of an unforgivable sin has raised many questions since the Bible elsewhere repeatedly gives the unqualified offer to be forgiven of all our sins as we turn in faith to Jesus. Presumably one who so hardens his heart to willfully slander like this against the Holy Spirit is not capable to turning in faith to Jesus, and if he does turn unto Jesus he must not have committed this unpardonable sin. But I think a more interesting question in this passage is why does Jesus say its okay to slander him but not the Spirit. And I suspect it’s closely related to the issues we’ve been discussing today. Jesus said fear God over man. When Jesus speaks of slandering himself, I think he has in mind his role as Messiah in his human nature. But when he speaks of slandering the Holy Spirit, the very power by which Jesus exercised his ministry, it is to slander God. In other words, it’s apparently one thing to slander Jesus in his humanity. It’s another thing to slander God who is fully present and at work in Jesus. This again seems to be another sort of fear of God versus man idea. We ought to fear God and never slander him. And so Jesus speaks of how unforgivable it is when one truly recognizes God’s work by the Spirit and yet to harden your heart against it. We should not turn a hard heart unto God but see how he speaks to our soul to come to him and find mercy and grace in Jesus.
So then I draw your attention to verses 2-3 to one further component of this call to fear God. There it speaks of how secret things will ultimately be revealed. This is again a reference to the final judgment of God. This is again a reason why we need to fear God over man. It is again to contrast the practice of the hypocrite Pharisees. Being a hypocrite means that you have a difference between what you let people see and what you keep hidden from people. What you let people see is in fear of man because you know you would be judged by them if they knew your secret things you are hiding from them. But you see, this is why we should fear God more than man, because all those secret things you’ve successfully kept from man won’t be kept from God. In the end, they will be exposed before the judgment seat of God. God sees all and knows all. This is again why you need to be saved on that final day by acknowledging Christ now and receiving the ministry of Holy Spirit in your hearts.
Today we’ve been told we need to not fear men over God and instead to fear God over men. We’ve been reminded that the fear of God as judge that we should have is so that we don’t have to fear him as our judge. I’d like to tie this all together then with the language of verse 1 where Jesus said we need to beware the leaven of the Pharisees. The language of leaven is an analogy. Leaven is that agent put into dough to make it rise. It just takes a little leaven and some time and the whole dough becomes completely affected by that little bit of leaven. Jesus says that the leaven that the Pharisees would bring to God’s people would be to make them hypocrites like themselves. The leaven the Pharisees would bring to God’s people would be to make them fear man over God. The end of that path is eternal damnation as they reject God at work in Jesus by the Holy Spirit.
On the other hand, Jesus presents a different way. If I can continue the analogy, Jesus brings a different kind of leaven. He brings a leaven to see our need for being right with God. We must fear God not man. We must realize that it is a terrible thing to be a sinner in the hands of an angry God. We must find atonement for our sins by confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. If we put such right fear of God over man, we will not have anything to fear from God’s wrath on the coming day of judgment. The Pharisees have their bad leaven. Jesus brings a good leaven. That is the imagery Jesus will himself use next chapter of his ministry when he compares the kingdom of God to leaven.
These are easy truths to affirm at church. In practice, we can struggle with hypocrisy, people-pleasing, and fearing man more than God. May we see that part of what we have in Jesus is the Holy Spirit within us. Jesus said he would teach us what to say when we need. And the Spirit will also train us to grow our hearts to be what they should. In fact, the Spirit is doing that right now here this morning through his word. Do not resist his rearing of your soul today, but seek to walk in step with his divine guidance.
Copyright © 2022 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.