FEAR GOD, NOT PEOPLE
Luke 12:1-12, Key Verse 12:5
“But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.”
In today’s short passage we hear some of Jesus’ most focused and urgent teaching to his disciples. We can see that he is preparing them for their life of mission as apostles after he returns to the Father. We also need to be equipped with the same tools that Jesus gives his disciples. We can summarize what Jesus wants to give us in this passage as three pieces: We need to be wise about hypocrisy, we need to overcome fear, and we need to be equipped to confess Jesus before people. Let’s pray to receive the powerful spiritual equipment Jesus wants to give us through his words.
Jesus warns his disciples against hypocrisy (1-3)
At the time of the events in today’s passage, Jesus’ ministry was at its peak of popularity. Verse 1 begins, “Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another…” So many people were coming to Jesus for help. They felt in their hearts that Jesus had what they urgently needed in their troubled lives. Jesus felt compassion for them and I’m sure he was getting ready to speak to them to give them words of life. But look how verse 1 continues. It says that, in spite of this huge, needy crowd in front of him, “Jesus began to speak first to his disciples.” Even though the crowd was huge and pressing in urgently, Jesus gave first priority to teaching his disciples. It’s because Jesus knew his time on earth was short. He knew he could not lay the foundation for God’s work after his ascension just by addressing crowds. He had to teach his disciples more personally and deeply, helping the kingdom principles take root in their hearts.
In last week’s passage, we saw how Jesus harshly rebuked the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, who were supposed to be the shepherds and Bible teachers of the Jewish people. He accused the Pharisees specifically of looking clean and holy on the outside, while in truth, on the inside, they were full of greed and wickedness. The Pharisees’ bad example was still on Jesus’ mind when he began to teach his disciples. Look at the end of verse 1. Jesus says, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” After confronting the evil of the Pharisees, now Jesus wants to help the disciples be sure they don’t become like Pharisees!
Several times in his teaching, Jesus uses the analogy of yeast for some kind of influence, whether good or bad, that pervades and spreads in the world. Here, Jesus says the Pharisees’ hypocrisy has the yeast-like property, in a bad way. What is hypocrisy anyway? Hypocrisy is pretending to be what we are not. It’s trying to appear to be one thing but in truth being something else. And so it’s really living a lie. The Pharisees made great efforts to look as though they were holy and devoted to God, but in the decisions and actions of their private lives, they were following sinful desires as much as anybody.
And what makes hypocrisy even worse, Jesus says, is that it spreads like a disease. Humans are a highly imitative species. Psychologists have confirmed that the first and most powerful way we learn is by watching and copying others. If God’s people see that all their leaders being holy-looking fakers, what are they likely to become? The same thing. In this way, hypocrisy spreads like yeast, or in today’s language, it becomes normalized, until examples of a life of holy integrity become very hard to find. Even though Jesus’ disciples now looked like humble fishermen, Jesus knew that soon they would be raised up as respected leaders in the early church. As such, they would not be immune to being infected by the yeast of hypocrisy. Most of us have some immunity to Covid-19 now, but nobody has full immunity from the temptation of hypocrisy. We have to be on our guard and not tolerate it in ourselves.
In the end, hypocrisy is not maintainable, and a hypocritical life always ends in failure. Look at verses 2 and 3. “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.” Jesus assures us that nothing remains hidden forever.
This can both warn us and comfort us. It warns us, of course, against trying to live a double life ourselves, or trying to succeed by pulling the wool over people’s eyes. People who live that way can surely expect to have their charade exposed. In the news, we see this happen to famous people all the time, as some formerly respected star or leader falls from grace, but let’s think more personally. Have you ever “let” someone have some good assumption about you, even though you know that assumption is not strictly true? Sometimes, in grad school, I would “let” my advisors think I was making more progress in my research than I actually was. But in the end, I always had to suffer the pain of having the truth coming out and having my advisor realize that not only was I behind on my progress, but also that I lacked the character to be honest about it.
It’s painful, but spiritually, it can be good for us when our weaknesses and failings are exposed; it keeps us humble. These small exposures of our hypocrisy can help us repent and bear good fruit in the end. When our faults are exposed, we shouldn’t get mad but be thankful that we have been set free from a false image of ourselves. Remember that to receive Jesus’ grace, we don’t need to believe that we are anything good. Our fall from grace in people’s eyes can actually be falling into God’s grace. From there, we can begin again to build up integrity of character on the right foundation.
Jesus’ words, “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed” also reassure us that even though two-faced people may seem to succeed and get far in this world, while honest and pure people seem to be nobodies, in the end we can be sure that true motives will be revealed, even if only on judgment day. So, let’s not be ashamed to live an honest and humble life, even if the whole world seems to be based on false appearances.
Jesus teaches about overcoming fear (4-7)
In the next verses, Jesus talks about fear—specifically, overcoming the fear of people. Look at verse 4. “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.” Here Jesus calls his disciples “friends” because he loves them and is very earnest to make them strong on the inside against all kinds of fear. We are also Jesus’ friends.
Jesus is helping his disciples because he has in mind the severe persecution that the apostles will face in the future, from many of the same religious leaders that Jesus has already been confronting. In order to maintain their hypocritical power, some of those leaders would persecute Jesus’ followers, sometimes even to the death. Such persecution is indeed a frightening prospect. But Jesus gives a new perspective that makes the power of malicious people look quite small. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.” We normally think of someone killing us as being about the worst thing that could happen. Someone who can kill us seems to have a great deal of power over us. However, from Jesus’ perspective, even that amount of power is very limited. Jesus lived before a much greater power than that. Let’s look at verse 5. “But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” I don’t believe Jesus is threatening his disciples with condemnation here, but rather encouraging them to think about what kind of power God has, what he has the ability to do to people that’s far beyond what people can do to people. Jesus is also reminding us here that the bodily life is not the true or most important part of our life; the spiritual is. Losing one’s bodily life is not as bad as losing one’s soul.
In short, Jesus is teaching us that the way to overcome the fear of people is to live in the fear of God. To fear God, in the Christian sense, does not mean to live in terror of God’s punishments, but to have a sense of how much God’s power eclipses everything in this world. If we know this in our hearts, we will be humble and reverent and not overly shaken up by things that happen on earth. If you compare the power of God to the power of people, you will not be overly frightened by people. It’s like if you go to Chicago and look up at the Willis Tower and say, “Wow, that’s impressive”, but then you go to the Rocky Mountains and look up at them and you say, “Oh, that’s much more impressive.”
After giving us a sense of the greatness of God’s power, now to complete his antidote to fear, Jesus turns to the greatness of God’s love. Look at verse 6. “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.” Our lives seem subject to so many accidents, troubles, and tragedies, and it’s hard to see how God is in control when everything looks just chaotic. Our lives seem so small that we feel like one little ant that could be snuffed out at any moment. But Jesus helps us by pointing our attention to sparrows.
A sparrow is a small bird with a short lifespan. I wondered why they were sold in Jesus’ time, and I found out that it wasn’t as pets; they were sold to eat. There’s not a lot of meat on a sparrow, but they were so abundant that they could be sold very cheaply as food for poor people. Considering all this, the life of an individual sparrow looks very insignificant. Sometimes I think about the chickens that Costco sells off the rotisserie for five dollars, and what that says about how little the life of a chicken is valued by us. Well, a sparrow is even less than that. Yet Jesus assures us that God remembers each one of them individually. So we don’t have to doubt that God remembers us and knows everything that is going on.
Look at verse 7: “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” Though there are now close to eight billion people living in the world, God knows and keeps track of each one with such a level of detail that he even numbers the hairs on our heads. It’s not even difficult for him to keep track and take care of us, even though to us our situation looks very complicated.
Jesus sums up the lesson he wants us to take away at the end of verse 7: “Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” In this world we might be nobodies. We might feel fear because of forces that are beyond our control. But with faith, that is, with living before God, we are abundantly strengthened and comforted to know his mighty power and his attentive love that values us personally.
Giving our testimony (8-12)
Jesus has given us the greatest possible encouragements to overcome our fears. Now the question is, what are we meant to do with this great courage he gives us? The answer is, testify. Look at verse 8. “I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God.” In today’s world, it can be difficult to clearly admit to being a Christian before people who we know or suspect are antagonistic toward religion. Actually, that’s not a new phenomenon. That’s why Paul had to write in Romans, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.”
And there’s another reason it can be difficult to acknowledge Jesus before others—it’s because it creates an obligation. In other words, when others find out that we follow Jesus, from that point they will be watching us, and then we become responsible for acknowledging Jesus not just with our words, but with the way we live and treat others. It indeed requires courage to acknowledge Jesus before people. But we have to know that our reward is with God. The reward of having Jesus acknowledge us before the angels of God is beyond any earthly reward.
To emphasize how important it is to have courage to speak what we believe, in verse 10 Jesus says, “And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” We may think this is strange, because we consider Jesus and the Holy Spirit to be equals in the Trinity, and Jesus just said that whoever disowns him before others will be disowned before the angels of God (9). Then why does Jesus say that blaspheming against the Holy Spirit is so much more serious than speaking a word against him? I think Jesus is saying what is important is what happens in our heart.
Speaking a word against Jesus means sinning with our mouth, which we do all the time. It’s a good thing we can be forgiven for that, because we need a lot of forgiveness for what we say with our mouth. But the Holy Spirit gives God’s testimony in our heart. It’s the Holy Spirit who convicts us of sin and prompts and prods us to repent and return to God. Blaspheming against him means rejecting the conviction that God gives us in our own heart. If we never listen to that, and keep going against it, that is when we lose our very soul. I believe none of us here are blasphemers against the Holy Spirit but that we are each full of earnest desire to listen to the Spirit’s promptings.
Finally, Jesus promises that in the situations where it is most dangerous to testify about him, we have a source of supernatural help. Look at verses 11 and 12. “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, 12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” In the persecution that would come on the early church, the disciples would be arrested and brought before antagonistic people with a lot of power. They could easily be intimidated and feel totally out of their league. But in such a case, Jesus says that we don’t even need to worry beforehand about what we will say. When we are on trial because of the name of Jesus, Jesus himself will provide the words, using us powerfully by the Holy Spirit. He is glad to do it when we bear his name into the world. If you read the book of Acts, you will see how this promise was fulfilled for Peter, for Stephen, and for Paul as they were persecuted for Jesus’ sake but received the Spirit’s power to testify and won the final victory.
Today we saw how wonderful it is to live before almighty God. It allows us to overcome the temptation to hypocrisy. It is the antidote to all fear, because we know God loves and cares for us more than sparrows. And this faith gives us power to testify to acknowledge Jesus even in difficult or dangerous situations. May God bless you to live before God’s power and love every day and win spiritual victories.