Dear Fellow Christians:
Cyrus and the whole vast Persian army were camped outside the walls, but Belshazzar felt secure within the confines of mighty Babylon. To ridicule the would-be attackers he called a feast and brazenly ignored the army camped without. Starvation was the greatest enemy of a city under siege so for Belshazzar to declare a feast in the face of a siege was an uniquely boastful taunt.
His great walls (there were both inner and outer walls) were over 130 feet thick and impossibly high—taller than could be scaled by any enemy. They enclosed a city of some 170-200 square miles through which flowed the Euphrates River. With fortifications like this, together with an unending water and food supply, a handful of defenders could hold off an entire army. And so Belshazzar and the rest of the lords and nobles celebrated. They trusted their bricks.
But the handwriting, quite literally, was on the wall. In fact it is here that the expression first began, for on this fateful night Belshazzar saw a hand writing on his wall. The words were from God and conveyed doom to Belshazzar—his reign was about to end. The message, you may recall, was interpreted by Daniel: “And this is the inscription that was written: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. This is the interpretation of each word. MENE: God has numbered your kingdom, and finished it; TEKEL: You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting; PERES: Your kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.” (Daniel 5:25-
Unknown to Belshazzar, or at least of little consequence to him, Cyrus the Persian was busy diverting the Euphrates River (so certain historians and archaeologists believe) into those imposing walls, dissolving the bricks. Belshazzar’s security turned to mud. That very night the entire Persian army marched into the city and captured it intact, killing Belshazzar.
As Belshazzar ignored Cyrus just before the end, so today we toy with sin. We are well aware that it is “out there,” but we feel safe and secure inside the walls of our faith. Feeling fairly invincible, we taunt sin, flirt with it, or ignore it. This is a most dangerous game we play. We imagine that the Devil will never breech the walls of our faith, just as Belshazzar believed Cyrus was powerless against the massive walls of mighty Babylon. How ironic that the very walls that Belshazzar thought would save him, served instead to insulate him from reality. He could not see the Persian army from his palace, so the threat became less real.
God forbid that we fall into such foolishness. The Holy Spirit did not create saving faith in our hearts so that we might ignore the sin that continually assaults us. Faith is the wall from which we continue to do battle with the Devil and his minions and against the sins that tempt us. The world around is blind to the sin that possesses it. Let it not be so with us, for the light of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus has not only been revealed to us, it has also served to awaken our hearts and minds to the dangers all around us. In this, and in so many other ways, our merciful Father has provided us with sublime illumination. So we read in our text for this morning, found in the second letter of Paul to the Corinthians, the fourth chapter:
“2But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. 3But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, 4whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. 5For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. 6For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:2-6 NKJV).So far the very words of Almighty God. With reverence and awe, and in complete trust that these are indeed the Words of God, so we pray, “Sanctify us through Your Truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth!” Amen.
The opening verse of the text denounces “handling the Word of God deceitfully.” [v.2] What does this mean to “handle deceitfully”? The most obvious offense is the manipulation of Scripture to make it say what God never intended it to say. We obviously condemn such a practice. Yet it is also true that a great deal of all Bible study done today (perhaps even a majority of all Bible study) has as its goal the proving of a man’s opinion about God’s Word, rather than the discovery and establishment of God’s Word itself. Understand that the two may be identical (what a man believes might be in harmony with what God actually says), but this is indeed a backward and dangerous way to approach God’s Word.
Why then do we study Scripture in that way? Circumstances at times dictate that we do so. It begins when someone challenges this or that doctrinal position of Holy Scripture. How do we defend what we teach? Obviously, we want to establish all truth with passages from the Bible. Therefore, we ransack our Bibles to find passages to prove that what we teach is correct. This kind of study is, of course, necessary and good, but it can also be very dangerous. This is especially true when we do little of the other kind of Bible study—when we spend little or no time simply reading and studying the Scriptures in an effort to hear and learn what they say (rather than what we hope or believe they say).
The real problem is that when we study the Scriptures in an effort to prove what we already believe to be right, we tend to ignore passages that seem to disagree with what we are trying to prove. We call them “dark” or “unclear” and focus instead on those that seem to support our position. This tendency can easily deteriorate into “handling the Word of God deceitfully” as it is named in our text. It results in robbing God’s Word of its position of final authority, and instead sets man up as the ultimate judge. Carried to its extreme, this is just one more way that mankind can serve to veil the Gospel, and our text is all about the unveiling of the Gospel. It is about letting the light of Jesus Christ—the light of truth and of His glory—shine in all that we say and do.
Rather than “handle the Word of God deceitfully,” Paul talked about “manifesting (making known) the truth” and “commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” [v.2] This is precisely what each one of us has been called to do. We have been called by Almighty God to make known, or “unveil” the Gospel to a world born blind. It is, therefore, the Gospel itself that must be unveiled.
It is only the Holy Spirit who can perform the miracle of truly enlightening someone. Only the Holy Spirit can call someone to faith through the Gospel, but that same Holy Spirit works through means. You will recall that the “means of Grace” is the Gospel, transmitted to human beings in Word and in Sacrament. Here we find a great irony. It is the Gospel alone that can lead a man to believe the Gospel. This is a bit like the bank requiring that you have money before they will give you a loan; or like needing your car keys to unlock the door so that you can retrieve your car keys from the ignition. Look again at what our text said, “But even if our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them.” [vv.3-4] Our text pictures our condition without Jesus Christ as desperately impossible. We could not see the only thing that could make us see.
How foolish must man look in God’s eyes when we imagine that we had something to do with opening our own eyes or “accepting the Gospel.” The Gospel had to be unveiled for us by the Holy Spirit or we would have remained forever blind to it—damned to Hell for an eternity. This is the truth taught by our text with the words, “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” [v.6] Here is the first message of our text: The Gospel had to be unveiled for us or we would have remained forever blind.
But now our text holds other insights for us. That same light of the Gospel, once it has revealed the Lord Jesus to us and brought us to saving faith in Him, also reveals to us a whole world of truth and light. It is, in a sense, the spiritual equivalent of learning to read. In much the same way that learning to read will open a whole new world to a human being, so too the Christian’s rebirth by the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to God’s truth. Even unbelievers understand part of this concept. What the secular world will never appreciate is the depth of meaning, understanding, and truth that is illuminated for us by the light of Jesus Christ shining in our hearts. They will neither understand nor accept the fact that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7).
Have you ever looked up at a cloud and recognized some sort of a shape. Or, have you seen a face or image in the wood grain pattern of a door? Someone else might look for a very long time at the same thing and never see what you see. The more insistent you are that it is there, the more certain they will become that there is something seriously wrong with you. So too the Bible tells us clearly that “natural man cannot comprehend the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him” (1 Corinthians 2:14). Unconverted man will look right at these truths, just can’t see them. Christians, on the other hand, see so many things so clearly, and find it hard to believe that others cannot. Our text describes this illumination in verse 6: “God…has shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Do not allow your Christian humility to overstep its bounds. It is not a virtue to deny that what God has said is indeed true. It is neither prideful nor sinful to acknowledge the gift of understanding and wisdom that God has given to you as His child. God has given you the gift of truth and wisdom in Jesus Christ—a rare and precious gift that we dare never take lightly.
What then can we now see so clearly that the world cannot? Perhaps a better question would be, “What can’t the Christian now see more clearly?” We may not understand politics or finances or military strategy as do the wise of this world, but we can, by God’s grace, understand the relative unimportance of all things temporal when compared to all things eternal. We may not be able to recite the emperors of the Roman Empire or write a volume on world history, but we do understand that all history is in reality His Story—the true account of how God has arranged the events of this world to allow for the birth, life, and death of His Son, Jesus Christ. Only the child of God can truly understand what it means that Jesus was not defeated by death, but triumphed over death by the cross. Only the child of God can understand such things as why certain actions are wrong and others right; why global cooling, global warming, and the overall fate of the cosmos rest in the hands of a much higher power than man; why the institution of marriage is not man’s to tamper with; and why simple morality is established and changeless.
Yet all of these things pale in comparison to the greatest illumination that is ours: the ability to see our Lord Jesus for what He truly is—our glorified and risen Savior!
It is only the eyes of faith that allow you to see Jesus standing on the Mount of Transfiguration and to recognize that He exists right now with that same glory. In Jesus Christ you now see the true and only God as your dear friend—a friend that loved you so much that He willingly gave His life to spare you from an eternity in Hell. The Holy Spirit has opened your eyes to the humbling revelation that every single one of your sins has been forgiven by God, the Father—the whole ugly mess having been carried by Jesus Christ to the cross of Calvary.
These are the facts that now stand as sure and certain in your heart and in your mind. Every single one is a gift of illumination from God, the Holy Spirit. On this Transfiguration Sunday (a day when we celebrate light and illumination) thank God for the precious light that illuminates your world, and continue, day by day, to walk in that holy light—the clean, bright truth of God’s holy will. Amen.