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    July 12, 1981 (Morning)
    Bethlehem Baptist Church
    John Piper, Pastor

    
    EVEN THE HAIRS OF MY HEAD ARE ALL NUMBERED:
    REFLECTIONS ON MY FIRST YEAR IN THE PASTORATE
    (Matthew 10:24-33)

    
    On this Sunday one year ago I preached my first sermon as pastor of Bethlehem. And now
looking back on one year in the pastorate I feel two main emotions: 1) a sense of weakness
and inadequacy to fulfill this very high and holy calling and 2) a sense of God's great mercy
and power to help in time of need, namely always. The first emotion is often a mingling of guilt
and fear--guilt that I have done something harmful or left something good undone, and fear that
tomorrow's crisis or pressure may be too complex or too heavy to bear. The second emotion
is a humbling gratitude to Christ whose strength is made perfect in our weakness. I say it is a
humbling gratitude because it has been my experience that my pride is most thoroughly
broken when, at the end of my resources God meets my need. Most of my tears in this first
year have not been shed in the moments of tragedy but in the moments of victory. Again and
again I have entered situations afraid, and God has rebuked me with mercy. And I have been
abased for my unbelief. Those are strange tears: joy, gratitude, sorrow and repentance all in
one.

    I can't understand with any empathy or appreciation what goes on inside a person who
says that when he sees the cross of Christ and experiences God's power, he feels a sense of
worthiness. My experience is exactly the opposite: when I catch a glimpse of Calvary-love, my
first feeling is not, "My, how worthy I must be that he would die for me!" but rather, "O how foul
must be my sin to require such a sacrifice, and how horribly lukewarm is my love and
adoration and trust and obedience to such a worthy Savior!" And it's the same when this
mercy, purchased at Calvary, meets my need in some crisis situation: I don't come away
feeling worthy or sufficient; I feel broken and abased that in spite of my fears and halfhearted
trust he condescends in free mercy to my need.

    Those are my main emotional responses after a year in the pastorate: fear because of my
own insufficiency, and gratitude because of God's merciful sufficiency. You must understand
this as a confession of sin and a confession of faith. I do believe that God is merciful, that I am
one of his elect children and that he will cause his power to be magnified in my weaknesses.
But I also know that most of my fear is sin. It goes against the command of God because it
does not come from faith in his promises. It comes from unbelief.

    For example, the telephone is a wonderful invention for ministry. I can be in touch with
almost any of our 800 members in one minute. For over 1800 years no pastor in the world
could do that. I can make plans in minutes and break plans in minutes; I can get counsel and
advice from any of dozens of sources. But there is some troublesome emotional fallout from
the telephone. Not only is the flock more easily accessible; so is the shepherd. It is easy to
become paranoid about a ringing telephone. Almost every time my phone rings at home I get
a knot in my stomach. The reason is fear--fear that there may be a question I can't answer, an
emotional problem I can't alleviate, a crisis I can't handle or anything at all that may keep me
from finishing my sermon by Sunday morning. And you know what that is a sign of? Pride and
unbelief. Pride, because of fear that some weakness might be exposed, unbelief because I am
not resting in God's promised sufficiency.

    This is just a little example of how the battle has shaped up over the past year for me. It is
not a unique battle at all. It is the same one you fight every day--the battle to take God at his
word and rest in his all-sufficiency and do what he commands without wavering in fear. Since
the battle is not unique to me I hope you will allow me to preach a sermon to myself this
morning, which will help me overcome the sin of fear by strengthening my heart in the
gracious words of Jesus. You listen too. There is something for all whenever Jesus speaks.

    The text is Matthew 10:24-33.

        A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master; it is enough for
a disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the
master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.

       So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden
that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear
whispered proclaim upon the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body, but
cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not
two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your
Father's will. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore, you
are of more value than many sparrows. So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I
will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men,
I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.

    The main point of the text is that Jesus' disciples should not fear anything but the wrath of
God who can destroy soul and body in hell. You can see that fearlessness is the main point
because it is repeated three times and everything else is argument for why we should not fear.
First in verse 26: "So have no fear of them." Second in verse 28: "Do not fear those who kill
the body but cannot kill the soul." Third in verse 31: "Fear not." So what Jesus is trying to do
with these words is fortify the hearts of his disciples against fear. He is trying to help me have
his peace as pastor of this church; he is trying to make me bold amid opposition; he wants
me to be free from anxiety so I can answer the phone in love, with a genuine concern for
others instead of myself. And the way Jesus aims to accomplish all this in my heart is by his
word: by telling me some truth about God that, if I believe it, will liberate me for fearless,
authentic, loving life in the service of the church. Jesus argues for fearlessness. He reasons
with us. He wants to change the emotions of our heart, but the pathway of his transforming
power leads through the mind. One year in the pastorate has confirmed my experience of
many years: it is the Word of the Lord that changes people most deeply. On the wings of the
Holy Spirit the Word has power to create sons of Abraham out of stones, and to overcome
fear in a wavering pastor. I would count it the highest privilege God could give me if he were to
enable me to preach this Word with ever greater understanding and conviction and power for
the rest of my life.

    There are at least four reasons Jesus gives in this text for why I as a pastor and you as lay-
ministers should not be fearful. Let's listen to these and pray that the very hearing will create
the peace and boldness Jesus wants. Notice in verse 26 that the command, "have no fear of
them," is preceded by a "so" or a "therefore" and is followed by a "for" or "because." This
means that a reason not to be fearful precedes the command to have no fear, and another
reason follows the command. Let's look at these one at a time.

    Verse 25 says, "If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will
they malign those of his household." Why would Jesus follow this with "therefore have no fear
of them." We might expect him to say, "Nevertheless, have no fear of them." But he doesn't.
The argument seems to be something like this: if in your effort to be like Christ as his disciple
and slave you are met with ill will, do not jump to the fearful conclusion that you have failed
and God is punishing you. On the contrary, if Christ met with ill will, it is to be fully expected
that his disciples and servants will too. So be encouraged, your trouble is a mark of Christ-
likeness. It is a great help in overcoming fear when the master of your life tells you ahead of
time that trouble is coming and that it's not necessarily your fault. This helps us meet
opposition as a matter of normal Christian ministry. It takes at least one of the stingers out of
insult and slander if you can respond without surprise or alarm.

    Peter wrote to the Christians of Asia Minor, "Beloved do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal
which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you, but
rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings" (1 Peter 4:12f). One of the elements of fear is
the encountering of something unexpected. It takes us off guard, pushes us off balance and
creates the sensation that things are out of control and that aimless absurdity reigns. Jesus
sweeps all this away by telling us ahead of time very matter-of-factly that if we try to be like
our teacher and like our master we will be mistreated. We need not be taken off guard or lose
our emotional balance; things are not absurd; they are quite under control--all foreseen and
predicted by the Lord. Therefore we should not fear. On the contrary it is comforting to see
signs that we are part of Jesus' household. How can you fear if you have Jesus as the Lord of
your house?

    That's Jesus' first argument why we should not fear what people might do to us. His second
argument follows the command in verse 26: "Have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that
will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known." One of the things that makes being
slandered so fearful is the thought that the slanderers may be able to convince everyone of
their lie. It would be a frightening thing to think that those who call Jesus Beelzebul and who
malign us as fools or devils would be so persuasive that the truth is never known. A significant
element in the fear of being wronged is the thought that the wrong may never be righted and
the truth will never be out. But Jesus assures the disciples, he assures me as pastor, that the
truth now concealed will one day be revealed. Every evil word spoken against the sons of God
will be brought to light and they will be exonerated. Someday it will be manifest to all mankind
that Jesus is not Beelzebul and that his disciples are not fools or devils. The whole universe
will be lit by the light of the glory of the children of God and the mouth of every opponent will
be eternally stopped. So do not fear their words.

    And the point of verse 27 is that even before that great day of revelation we should be
declaring the truth about Christ and his disciples: "What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light;
and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops." During Jesus' earthly ministry
he kept a fairly low profile. But now he instructs his disciples to cut loose, to expose every
false notion about Jesus and to placard his glories before the nations. But what is comforting
in this argument is the promise Jesus gives in verse 26 that whatever evil men speak of us
falsely will most surely be exposed. Therefore we need not fear that they will have the last
word. God will have the last word. We can relax, endure their criticisms and threats and even
have the freedom and grace to return good for evil.

    The third reason Jesus gives for why we need not fear what man can do to us is found in
verse 28: "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can
destroy both soul and body in hell." This is an amazing verse. Who today would say things
like this? In the midst of trying to encourage fearlessness and comfort Jesus throws this
sentence: "fear God because he can destroy soul and body in hell." Fear doing anything that
would cause you to be cast away by God. How does that help us become fearless toward
man? It's quite simple. The fear of man is the motive behind many sins. And Jesus wants to
tell us that the penalty of those sins is much more to be feared than anything man might do to
us.

    Verse 33 says, "Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is
in heaven." And why do many people deny Jesus before men? Fear. But fear of the wrong
thing. What ought to be feared is denying Jesus because if we do that Jesus will deny us and
God will destroy soul and body in hell. Therefore, Jesus is indeed trying to embolden his
disciples and take away their fear of men. A proper fear of God liberates us from the bondage
of fearing men.

    But there is another reason why verse 28 is amazing. It shows how radically other-worldly
are the values Jesus lives by. We say, "O no, we could even be killed." Jesus says, "Fear
not, you can only be killed!" Do you hear the way our Lord Jesus talks? Do you hear how
strange and out of step with humanity he is? I get so excited when words like this begin to
sink into my heart, when I begin to feel how free and how authentically different followers of
Jesus can be if we share his radical values. "Don't fear! You can only be killed!"

    The only way to find comfort in a sentence like that is to experience an utter revolution of
what you count as most valuable. Fear is what you feel when your greatest values are
threatened. So when Jesus said, "Don't be afraid, they can only kill your body, he meant,
"Don't count this life with all its attachments as most valuable. Confessing my name before
men is more valuable than life. Choose death before you choose to deny me." "If anyone
comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers
and sisters, yes, and even his own life he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). When you set
out to follow Jesus you surrender earthly life as an ultimate value. And in its place you put the
life of the soul in God. Eternity is far more important than time on earth. Hell is more fearful
than suffering for Christ on earth. Union with God is more desirable than all the pleasures of
earth. If this revolution of values has taken place in your heart by the new birth then you will
understand fully and be encouraged by the words of Jesus, "Don't fear. You can only be
killed."

    The fourth and final argument for why we should not be afraid is found in verses 29-31. Who
but Jesus (and perhaps Jonathan Edwards) would put back to back the fearfulness of God
who destroys in hell, and the tenderness of God who cares for the sparrows? The argument
goes like this: Sparrows are of very little value; nevertheless God concerns himself so much
with their existence that not one ever dies apart from his will; you are of more value than many
sparrows; therefore, God will much more concern himself with you so that nothing befalls you
apart from his gracious will. The reason we know God's will for us is gracious is that he is
called our Father: "Not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from your Father's will" (verse 29).
"If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will
your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him" (Matthew 7:11). God's
will for us is our good.

    Then Jesus adds one other ingredient to this argument for fearlessness: namely, verse 30:
"Even the hairs of your head are all numbered." God knows us minutely. He knows us better
than we know ourselves. He has counted and named every hair, even though they are of little
value. And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father's will.

    So there are three things that conspire in this last argument to give us peace: 1) God
knows us perfectly; 2) God governs our lives and the world minutely; 3) God cares for us with
fatherly concern. How does this comfort us if the sparrow still falls and if the enemy still kills
the body? It doesn't, unless that mind is in us which was also in Christ. When we have the
values of Jesus we will not need to be assured even of life on this earth. It will be enough to
know that our Father in Heaven loves us deeply, knows us fully, and governs us completely,
and that, therefore, everything that befalls us is for our good. So don't be afraid of anything
except unbelief.

    There are literally dozens of things I would like to say at the end of this first year. Dozens of
thank-yous to you and countless praises to God. I do not take for granted the kindness and
patience shown to me in all my greenness. You are a remarkable people. The Spirit of God is
in this place with sanctifying power. My great desire is to be a better pastor for the eternal
good of your souls and for the glory of God. And my prayer is that I not be diverted from this
goal by any fear or anxiety. God help us all to trust his Word and be free.

COPYRIGHT John Piper.