Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
It’s not difficult at all to see the contrast between these two sisters. Martha appears to be running around the house, probably preparing a meal, and doing everything she can to ensure the comfort of whom is undoubtedly the most important guest she will ever have in her home. Meanwhile, Mary is doing very little by comparison. She’s just sitting there, listening to Jesus teach.
Here’s what’s interesting to me about Martha in particular. It’s a bit of irony, I guess. I have few doubts that Martha has the very best of intentions. She thinks like my own mother and every good hostess out there. She’s thinking about Jesus, her guest. She’s thinking about his comfort. She’s thinking about serving him a hot meal that will nourish and strengthen him. Her focus is on Jesus, yet she somehow loses Jesus in the hustle and bustle of everything she’s doing.
The text says, “Martha was distracted with much serving” (Lk 10:40). Jesus, then, says, “Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things” (Lk 10:41). None of them, by the way, were Christ.
This is a problem that any Christian could run into. The very activities we’re engaged in that are meant to express devotion to Christ and draw us closer to him may actually distract us from him. Typically, we don’t realize it’s happening, but in hindsight, we can look back and say, “Wow. I lost sight of Christ somewhere.”
I’ve been there. I’ve been busy studying and preparing sermons. I’ve been organizing Bible studies and leading prayer groups. I’ve made efforts to disciple others when all of sudden, I realize I’m spiritually drained. Jesus said, “Learn from me, and you will find rest for your souls,” but I don’t feel rested at all (Mt 11:29). To the contrary, I feel empty and exhausted. Why? I’ve become like Martha, distracted with much serving, anxious and troubled about many things other than the person of Christ (Lk 10:40, 41). I’ve lost sight of Christ, though everything I’ve been doing was for Christ, and that’s the irony of it.
“Learn from me,” Jesus said, “and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt 11:29). Mary is an example of that. She sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching (Lk 10:39). This, according to Christ, is the one thing that is necessary (Lk 10:42). He goes on to say, “Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
Mary is right where she is supposed to be. She’s right where Martha needs to be. She’s right where we all need to be—at the feet of Jesus learning from him.
Not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord’
Not too long ago, I was speaking with a gentleman, who made the claim, “I don’t have to go to church to be a good Christian.” Though I’m always discouraged to hear it, I’ve known many to make similar statements, but he did surprise me a moment later when he admitted he doesn’t read the Bible. To be clear, I wasn’t surprised that he doesn’t. I was surprised by his admission.
Thinking back to that conversation, I wish I would have asked him a few follow-up questions. I should have asked, “Without reading the Bible, how can you define what it means to be a Christian? Where does your definition come from? How do you know you’re a Christian? Without reading the Bible, how do you know what is good versus evil? What makes you a good Christian? How do you define good apart from God’s revealed will in the Bible?”
Above all else, I wish I would have asked, “Why do you want to be a Christian?” Think about it. This man was very quick to express and defend his allegiance to Christ. By saying, “I’m a Christian,” he was saying “I follow Christ. My identity is wrapped up in Christ.” Yet, he wants nothing to do with Christ’s visible body, the church. He has no interest in reading what Christ says to his disciples. He says he wants to follow Christ, but follow him where? This man would have to read and study his teachings to know. So, why does he want to be a Christian?
This is an issue I’ve encountered countless times throughout the years. It’s a problem we call nominal Christianity—Christianity in name only. People want to identity as Christians for one reason or another, but the truth is, they don’t want anything to do with biblical Christianity. Many of these so-called Christians are not a part of the church. They never read the Bible. They may pray only when crisis strikes. Their lifestyles and behaviors may be completely unaltered from what they were before they became Christians, and it breaks my heart to see it.
This kind of nominal Christianity breaks my heart because it gives people a false sense of security. I say I am a Christian. Therefore, I’m a Christian. But that’s not always true.
Consider what I’ve often described as the most terrifying passage in all the Bible. Near the end of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7, he says:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21-23)
Here, Jesus gives us a sneak preview into the future. He describes a day when everyone stands in judgment before him, but there are some who find themselves utterly confused. “Lord, Lord,” they say, “let us into the kingdom of heaven,” but Jesus says no. They don’t belong.
“How can this be?” they ask. “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” (Mt 7:22). Notice how these people are quick to address Jesus as Lord. They’re emphatic about it. They don’t say, “Lord.” No, they say, “Lord, Lord.” The repetition is meant to serve as emphasis. “You are Lord,” they say.
Furthermore, these people have spent much of their lives doing things in the name of Jesus. They preached him. They performed miracles. They fought against devils. By all appearances, they were Christians. Evidently, they believed themselves to be Christians, yet Jesus utters to them the most terrifying words one could ever hear from the mouth of Christ. “I never knew you; depart from me” (Mt 7:23).
How could this happen? What were they missing? Clearly, they had the name. If someone had asked, “Do you believe in Jesus?” they would have said, “Yes, of course. Do you not hear what we’ve been saying? Have you not seen what we’ve been doing?”
“So, you are Christians?”
So, what were they missing? Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 7:21).
In other words, bearing the name of Christian or even professing to know Christ isn’t enough. According to the book of James, even the demons believe (Jas 2:19). So, what separates the nominal Christian from the genuine Christian? Again, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 7:21).
One notable implication of that statement is that a genuine, heaven-bound Christian will sincerely care about the will of God. He or she will have a desire to know God’s will. He or she will make an effort to learn his will. He or she will be like Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching (Lk 10:39). How else could we become one who does the will of the Father? (Mt 7:21). We can’t do the Father’s will if we don’t know the Father’s will, and we can’t know the Father’s will without a desire and effort to learn it.
My sheep hear and follow
We can go through many of the motions of Christianity. We can stake our claim on the name, but none of it changes our hearts or our true identities. None of it saves us or guarantees us a place in heaven. Jesus taught, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10:27). In other words, a genuine conversion to Christ is accompanied by a sincere desire to follow him. If we truly hear the voice of the Savior, we will instinctively want to pursue him. We’ll want to know more about him. We’ll want to study his steps, so we can follow after him.
I remember confounding some of my friends years ago when I was first converted to Christ. The very next day, I had dug an old Bible out of the back of my closet and began reading it. I was full of so many questions. I wanted to better understand everything—God, salvation, myself, the experience I had just the night before. I read, and I read. I studied the text. I consulted Bible commentaries. My friends thought the whole thing was strange. It’s one thing to become a Christian and join a church. It’s something else altogether to become obsessed with studying the Bible.
It was only later that I came to understand what had happened to me. I was never much of a reader. I wasn’t studious at all. I barely made it through high school. But my newfound desire to study the Bible was nothing short of a supernatural compulsion. I heard the voice of Christ. By the grace of God, I heard the voice of Christ, and I had to sit at his feet and listen. If for no other reason, I had to listen because I wanted nothing more than to know how to follow him. “My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus said, “and they follow me” (Jn 10:27). Elsewhere, he said, “Everyone who is of the truth,” everyone who belongs to him, “listens to my voice” (Jn 18:27).
When you think about it, there’s something nonsensical about someone wanting to be a Christian but having no interest in the Bible. It makes as much sense as someone wanting to go to heaven but having no interest in the church. Why would you want to spend an eternity with the very people doing the very things you avoided while you were here on the earth? Why do you want to identity as a disciple of Christ—that is, a student and follower of Christ—when you have no desire to learn from him?
Why do you want to be a Christian?
Let me ask a different question. Suppose I surveyed a large group of Christians and asked, “For what does God save us?” What kind of answers do you think I’d get? I suspect most people would say, “God saves us to go to heaven.” Alternatively, they might say, “He saves us from hell.” The most theologically astute among us might say, “He saves us for his own glory.” And all of these answers are correct, but I’d like to consider two other possible answers.
To know God and Jesus
Go with me for a moment to John 17.
Jesus is spending the final night before his crucifixion with his disciples. They’ve eaten the Passover meal together, he has essentially preached a last message of encouragement to them, and here he begins to pray.
When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:1-3)
For what does God save us? You’ll notice Jesus doesn’t mention heaven here. He doesn’t even talk about escaping sin or hell. Instead, he defines the essence of salvation this way: “This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3). For what does God save us? He saves us to know him and his Son. This is how Jesus defines eternal life.
The phrase to know in that statement is significant. It implies much more than head knowledge. In fact, it is a Jewish idiom that often refers to the physical, intimate relationship between a husband and his wife. For example, the Old Testament says, “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain” (Ge 4:1). To know God the Father and Christ his Son is to have a personal, deeply intimate relationship with them. It is to love and cherish them. It is to embrace them. It means we have a strong desire to be with them.
This is true of every genuine believer. To be saved does not mean we tip our hats to Christ, call ourselves Christians, and merely wait for heaven while we continue to live as we always have. We may very well have those moments when become distracted like Martha, but as a general rule, Christians will be like Mary. We will long to sit at the Lord’s feet (Lk 10:39). We will want to know him, to be closer to him, to learn what he loves and hates. This is, after all, the very essence of eternal life. This is what it means to be saved.
Conformed to the image of Christ
Go with me to one another passage in Romans 8. I’ll begin reading at verse 28, which is likely a familiar verse to most of us.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30)
This particular text of the Bible is often referred to as the “Golden Chain” of salvation because every link is vital and one cannot exist without the others. If someone is foreknown by God, he is also predestined. If he’s predestined, he’s also called, justified, and ultimately, glorified. But I want to focus on that verse in the middle—“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Ro 8:29).
Notice what the apostle Paul doesn’t say here. He doesn’t say, “Those whom God foreknew he also predestined to go to heaven.” While that would certainly be true, like Christ in John 17, he’s pointing to yet another facet of salvation. Yes, God redeems his people for heaven, but there are other underlying reasons. In this case, Paul says the redeemed were predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ (Ro 8:29).
To illustrate this, think back to the Old Testament. Adam and Eve were given heaven on earth, but they chose to sin against God. In turn, God banished them from paradise and placed the curse of death on them. As time passed, however, he also gave his law and commandments. He essentially said, “Okay. If you want to be righteous as Adam and Eve were once righteous, if you want to be justified in my sight, here’s my law. Keep it, and you’ll be righteous.”
Despite what many of the Jews came to believe, they could never keep God’s law, and they proved it time and time again. God would extend his grace to the Israelites, the Israelites would repent and promise to do better, they would collectively fall back into sin again, God would punish them, and the cycle would start all over. Through all of it, God was teaching them something. As Paul would say later, “It is evident that no one is justified before God by the law” (Gal 3:11).
So, what was the point? The point of the law was to reveal God’s holy standard and confront sinners with the hard reality that we cannot meet that standard. In other words, we cannot save ourselves. “It is evident that no one is justified before God by the law,” Paul says, “for ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Gal 3:11). All we can do is trust in Christ for salvation. We cannot save ourselves.
We see this as the Old Testament progresses. For example, God sends a prophet by the name of Ezekiel. Listen to what God said through Ezekiel.
I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26, 27)
What is God saying? He’s saying, “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.” After many generations of watching the Israelites break his covenant and clearly fail to keep his law, God reveals the plan he had all along with even greater clarity. People can never be holy enough for God on their own. They can never be good enough, so God himself will intervene. He will make his people holy. He says, “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Eze 36:27). “You’ve proven you can’t do it on your own,” he says, “so I will do it.”
How do vile sinners become holy? Returning to the “Golden Chain” in Romans 8, God calls us, justifies us, and glorifies us. He does it all. And before all of that, he predestines us to be conformed to the image of his Son (Ro 8:29). In short, the underlying purpose of God going to all the trouble of redeeming sinners is to restore our good and righteous condition before we were corrupted by sin. He’s not merely overlooking our sins and letting some of us into heaven. He’s transforming his people into righteous saints.
On the one hand, God does this through the death of Christ. Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Co 5:21). But that’s not to say Christians are born, or born again, into a perfectly holy state. We still wrestle with the flesh. We are still sinners. Even so, from the very moment God calls us and justifies us through faith, removing the heart of stone and giving us a heart of flesh, he begins moving us toward greater and greater holiness (Eze 36:26). It’s a process we call sanctification. He begins transforming us, little by little, into that perfect image of his Son (Ro 8:29).
Slaves of righteousness
Think of the Israelites when they were enslaved in Egypt. If you’ve ever seen any movies about Moses, you’re familiar that line God told Moses to repeat to the Pharaoh—“Let my people go” (Ex 7:16). The movies, however, always leave out the last part of that line. The full line says, “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness.”
God did not rescue the Israelites for the sake of their freedom alone. No, he delivered them from their slavery so they could finally be free to serve him, and the same is true for sinners. Paul says:
Thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Romans 7:17, 18)
Under Egyptian bondage, the Israelites couldn’t serve God as God wanted. Under the bondage of sin, we can’t serve God either. He frees us from that bondage as a first step toward conformity to his Son. And like the Israelites, who wandered the wilderness for forty years before entering the Promised Land, God doesn’t save us and take us immediately into heaven. We have lessons to learn. We have lots of rough edges that need smoothing. God will spend the rest of our lives slowly conforming us into the righteous image of Christ.
Paul says, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1Th 4:3). The author of Hebrews says, “Strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14).
If you want to know why someone like me would spend so much of his free time reading and studying the Bible, if you want to know why I would stay up late most nights, depriving myself of much-needed sleep, to produce a podcast like this one, this is it. Personally, I want nothing more than to learn as much as possible about my Savior, to grow closer to him, and to become more like him. That is, after all, why God saves us. It is what Jesus defined as that one thing that is necessary (Lk 10:42).
As for the podcast, if I were to discover that even one person has been motivated to pick up his or her Bible and begin learning about Christ and his will, I would rejoice, praise God, and consider it all worth it.
I pray you will sit at the Lord’s feet (Lk 10:39).