Christmas: Religious BUT Lost How Close Can You Get And Still Miss Him? Salvation is Knowing Him
Here is a sobering thought from the Christmas story—there were a group of very good, and very religious people in Christ’s day—who missed Heaven by only 18 inches.
Can you imagine how horrible it would be to miss eternal life with God in the place He is making for us, and instead spend eternity in the blackness of darkness, suffering the searing pain of eternal fire?
Today as we turn to Matthew 2:1-6, we are asking the sobering question, “How close can someone get to Christ, and His gift of salvation, and not be saved?”
God so loved the world that He sent Jesus to save lost people from their sins. But, the saddest story of Christmas is how those closest to God’s Word, God’s Worship, and Christ’s birth—completely missed that first Christmas; and that tragedy has continued to this day. You can be so close and yet so far away! They were:
Immersed, Exposed, and Yet Lost
Matthew 2 and Luke 1 introduce us the chief priests and scribes. The most religious people of Christ’s day had a schedule that daily immersed them in the Scriptures, exposed to endless hours of handling of all that God had left to point to Him and His salvation. But they were lost: God was only near in their mouths—but not in their hearts.
Missing Jesus and His salvation is seen most vividly in the story of Christmas. In both Luke and Matthew’s record we find that you can grow up living in the very shadow of God’s Temple; and hear God’s Word read, sung, and explained every day of your life; and personally have met the Wise men themselves; and even know God’s Word well enough to personally explain the Old Testament to them—and still miss everything. God was not inside their hearts and minds.
As we look in Matthew 2:1-6 today, learn from this group of very religious people, closest to the birth of Jesus—who missed Him completely.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is He who
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has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he enquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:
6 ‘ But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’” (Micah 5:2)
Christmas is a time to remember that Jesus came to save us from sin and live within us. Beware of getting so close to Christ in every way—but in your heart. Beware of being acquainted with Christ but never knowing Him1, as we meet those:
ONLY ACQUAINTED WITH GOD
So who were these students of God’s Word that were as close as anyone could be and yet missed Christ’s coming, and Christ’s gift of salvation? They were the Chief Priests and Scribes. They were perhaps the group of individuals more acquainted with God than nearly any other people who ever lived. Think of what these men had:
• They lived in the presence of God as He accepted the offerings and sacrifices all day long at His Temple: which is kind of like growing up in a godly home.
• They saw all day long the symbols and pictures of salvation in the substitutionary deaths of countless animals offered in atoning sacrifices to God: which is kind of like going to regular celebrations of the Lord’s Supper at church.
• They held the Holy revelation of God’s Word in their hands as they read; and in their minds as they quoted the sacred commands of God each day: which is kind of like having several personal copies of the Bible.
• They sang each day from the Scriptures in public and private worship: which is kind of like listening to good Christ honoring music on a regular basis.
• They recited, memorized, and discussed the Word of the Lord from their earliest days—and often knew many chapters by heart: which is kind of like growing up in Sunday School, youth group, Awana, Word of Life, and with Christian Schooling.
1 Webster’s Dictionary says that knowledge has three levels: recognition, acquaintance, and experience. Knowing Christ means a personal experience of His grace that leads us to partake of His salvation.
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Yet all that exposure to God ended up only in their heads, not in their hearts.
Think of the dangerous place these religious leaders found themselves in2 by:
NOT LOOKING FOR JESUS
What happens if you are very religious and yet indifferent to any heartfelt depth to that truth? The answer can be seen in these religious leaders who knew all about God’s Word but were not personally seeking to know God.
Matthew 2:4-5 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:
So they knew about the texts but failed to notice the significance of this event. They knew what God had promised in His Word, but they didn’t care enough to go five miles south of town and experience it personally.
They pointed others to seek out the Savior but never went to worship themselves. Chief priests and religious leaders—they knew the prophets but did not believe the prophecy.
They were over familiar with God; they were indifferent to His Word; and thus very close but unconnected. So we can conclude that:
1. They missed JESUS because—these Bible scholars had the Word but never saw the God of the Word. They dealt with God’s Word, but God’s Word was never allowed to deal with them.
Isaiah 29:13 Therefore the Lord said: “Inasmuch as these people draw near with their mouths And honor Me with their lips, But have removed their hearts far from Me, And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men.
2. They missed JESUS because—these students of God’s Word were religious but not true worshippers.
John 4:24 God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
2 Every day as they dressed in their priestly vestments the sacred anointing oils made with the secret and unique formula mandated by God, causing them to smell like no one else on earth ever could as they approached the Lord. Every day their hands and clothes were deeply filled with the indelible scent of incense as the fragrant smoke rose before God as a picture of their prayers of worship. Every day they came home with blood stained clothes from the substitutionary sacrificial animals they offered according to God’s Word.
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3. They missed JESUS because—these servants of God were only acquainted with God, but they had never experienced Him. They were good at the outward motions but not the inward worship.
Joel 2:13 So rend your heart, and not your garments; Return to the Lord your God, For He is gracious and merciful, Slow to anger, and of great kindness; And He relents from doing harm.
4. They missed JESUS because—they were religious professors not possessors; they were hearers and not doers; they were talkers and not walkers.
2 Peter 2:19 While they promise them liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by whom a person is overcome, by him also he is brought into bondage.
5. They missed JESUS because—they had a lifetime of religion but were only self-righteous, not righteous through God’s work. They felt they were GOOD enough for God. Consequently God’s Word wasn’t for me, its something for others.
Matthew 23:27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.
6. They missed JESUS because—God only comes to those who see their lost condition. They knew all about God, but didn’t care enough to go five miles south of town and experience it. They pointed others to seek out the Savior but never went to worship themselves. They knew the prophets, but did not believe prophecy. God can only be found when we seek Him!
Deuteronomy 4:29 But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul. (NIV)
Please pause and honestly ask yourself, no one else, just yourself:
Could I be just Eighteen Inches From Really Going to Heaven?
Has all that you know about God traveled yet, those 18 inches from your head (intellectual knowledge) to your heart (intimately, personally making a choice of your will to embrace Jesus as Lord and Savior)?
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They did not choose to let those truths invade and take over their hearts and wills. The spiritual skin of their lives, overexposed to the Light of God’s truth, had developed the deadliest cancer of all—spiritual indifference3.
What did these so close to Christ miss? They missed salvation, the greatest gift, what every one of us really needs. This warning was the theme of the early church.
Remember, the first church was in Jerusalem, right? The first pastor of that First Church was James. His sermons to the saints of the First Church are still available for us to read. In James 2:14-17 that first pastor, echoed Christ’s words in Matthew 7:21-23 when he solemnly declared: Beware of Mere Intellectual Faith4.
Saving faith is life-changing faith. If there is not a changed life and resultant good works, that profession is a false profession. That kind of faith is dead faith. “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” (James 2:17). The word alone in James 2:17 simply means “by itself.” True saving faith can never be by itself: it always brings life, and life produces good works.”
James gives a second sobering call to those who appeared to be believers in that earliest of all churches when he said in James 2:18-19: Beware of Mere Emotional Faith.
Demons have strong faith that is intellectual and emotional.
To illustrate this mere intellectual or emotional faith that is dead, James uses one of the most unbelievable comparisons. He explains the inner workings of the spirit world. Only here do we see applied, what the Gospels so clearly illustrate—the complete intellectual and emotional faith of demons that can never save them.
Beware of Demon Faith
It may shock you, but God’s Word testifies that demons have faith! What do they believe? If you analyzed all the times that the Gospels capture demon’s responses you would find that:
3 They cared not for God—they just knew all about Him. They loved not the Lord—they just spoke often and deeply about Him. They longed not to know and worship Him—they just helped others get to Him. Remember what Jesus said about them? Matthew 15:8 ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, And honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. 4 Intellectual Faith is dead faith because it can’t change the heart; and touches only the intellect. This form of dead faith is illustrated in James 2:14-17. This is faith that talks but never does. These “Christian look-alike” can pray and talk about God, but their hearts are not changed. Literally, the question in James 2:14 reads, “Can that kind of faith save him?” What kind of faith is God talking about? Dead faith that is never seen in good works. And what is the answer to can that kind of faith save anyone? The answer is no! James uses the simple test of compassion. If a poor believer shows up at church obviously in need, and those who realized this need and do nothing—God says their faith is dead. As a Christian we are to be doing good, to everyone we can, especially believers (Galatians 6:10). And when we do so, Jesus said it is just like we fed and clothed Him (Matthew 25:40). John emphasized salvation changes our self-focused hearts into hearts of compassion like Christ as an evidence of true believers. Look at what he says in I John 3:17-18: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and truth” (1 John 3:17–18, NIV). Over 400 years ago, the great Geneva pastor, John Calvin, wrote in his commentary on this passage in James, “It is faith alone that justifies, but faith that justifies can never be alone.”
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1. Demons completely believe in the reality of God—but they are unrepentant and thus LOST! They have no doubts. They have seen the Lord, seen His Throne, know all about the spiritual world, and have met Jesus Christ personally. Demons could never be classified as either atheists or agnostics. They had an accurate faith in God intellectually, in their minds. You can believe all the correct facts and not be saved.
2. Demons completely believe in Deity of—but they are unrepentant and thus LOST! Demons trembled in Christ’s presence while He walked the Earth. They have no doubts about who He really is. Often we hear the demons publicly stating to Jesus, “I know who You are” (Mark 3:11-12, 5:7). Demons had an emotional response to their faith, they feared, shuddered, and trembled.
3. Demons completely believe in the Supreme Power Christ held over their destiny—but they are unrepentant and thus LOST!! They even would plead for some leniency, or mercy from Jesus Christ as the ultimate Judge who held their eternal destiny in His Hands (Mark 5:1–13). Demons had a firm intellectual faith.
4. Demons completely believed in Hell and the horror of eternal punishment—but they are unrepentant and thus LOST! They knew and testified to people that they believed in the existence of a place of punishment, and knew that they were headed towards torment (Mark 5:7), and said that they didn’t want to go there “before the time” (Matthew 8:39). Demons had a firm emotional faith.
5. Demons completely believe in submission to God’s Word—but they are unrepentant and thus LOST! They never expressed doubt that His Word was true, and they usually instantly obeyed, though a few did one final shake of their victim, or convulsion just to show their malignant hearts. So as James repeats, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (James 2:19, NIV). Believing to the point of fear and trembling does not save. Only a life-changing faith, produced by God within, can save.
Now we need to apply this sermon James has just preached to our lives today. First, an intellectual agreement or assent doesn’t save us. That is James’ point—intellectual belief is present in demons.
Second, an emotional response, coupled with an intellectual response is also not sufficient. Demons had regular emotional responses to their faith in Christ as Creator, as Omnipotent Ruler, and as the Ultimate Judge. None of those intellectual and emotional responses prompted by their faith were sufficient. Saving Faith is faith that is real, faith that has power, and it is a repentant faith that results in a changed life.
Be Sure Today
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If you are religious, and morally good, you still may not be genuinely born-again. It is possible to have emotional and intellectual faith. If you have fears and doubts in your heart and mind, about your salvation, that is not God’s will.
Why not stop everything today, and make sure you don’t miss Heaven by 18 inches?
There is no formula given in God’s Word that each person must recite or follow. God looks at our hearts and knows the true desire of our hearts. He has said that no one that comes by faith seeking Christ’s sacrifice for their sins will ever be denied.
So if that is your heart’s desire, if you want the sacrifice of Jesus to take the penalty of your sins, if you want His complete cleansing and forgiveness—He is here today waiting to respond to your call.
Here is a prayer you can pray, a prayer that calls on the Lord expressing your desire to transfer your trust to Christ alone for your eternal salvation.
This prayer5 can be the link that will connect you to God. And if you pray it in faith, God will receive you. Please bow with me.
I know that I am a sinner and there is nothing that I can do to save myself. I confess my complete helplessness to forgive my own sin or to work my way to heaven.
At this moment I trust Christ alone as the One who bore my sin when He died on the cross. I believe that He did all that ever will be necessary for me to stand in your holy presence.
I thank you that Christ was raised from the dead as a guarantee of my own resurrection. As best as I can, I now transfer: my trust to Him.
I am grateful that He has promised to receive me despite my many sins and failures. Father, I take you at your word. I thank you that I can face death now that you are my Savior.
Thank you for the assurance that you will walk with me though the deep valley. Thank You for hearing this prayer. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
5 Erwin W. Lutzer, One Minute After You Die. Chicago, Illinois: Moody Press, 1997, pp. 141-143.
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Remember that Christmas is when God offered the only gift that everyone really needs? But that gift must be received. Jesus said that only to as many as “received Him” (John 1:12) it is those that become a part of God’s family. Christmas reveals:
THE ONLY GIFT EVERYONE REALLY NEEDS
As you think about Christmas, gifts, presents, giving and receiving—why not check and be sure that you have received the most important of all gifts.
Only if we have received Him, Jesus who came to save us from sin, do we really have anything in our possession that matters. Every other possession and gift can be stripped away from us by death, disease, or disaster. Only Jesus will never leave us or be lost; only He can save and keep us forever.
Have you received the one and only gift that you (and everyone else) really needs? It starts with:
THE GIFT OF FORGIVENESS—CRITICAL NEED #1
Because of our sin—we are all debtors to God’s Righteousness; so we need forgiveness.
Christmas is all about Jesus coming to live and then die the substitutionary death to take the hopeless debt we owe to God and pay with His own life our eternal death sin has caused us to be responsible to pay–that’s forgiveness. A Sinner stands before God as a debtor and that debt is forgotten by His payment.
Ephesians 1:7 In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace NKJV
We also saw:
THE GIFT OF JUSTIFICATION—CRITICAL NEED #2
Because of our sin—we are all guilty convicts in God’s sight; so we need justification.
Christmas is about Jesus who died to take guilty convicts and destroy any record that that ever committed a crime and takes their place in the punishment—that’s justification! A Sinner stands before God as accused and is declared righteous by His imputed righteousness.
Romans 5:1 Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, NKJV
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Justification is what Christ did for me on the cross; it is immediate and was completely finished in me the instant I was saved; activated the moment I trust in the Person of Christ Jesus and His finished sacrifice of the cross; it is my position as declared right in God’s sight.
Then we saw:
THE GIFT OF REGENERATION—CRITICAL NEED #3
Because of our sin—we are all dead in our trespasses and sin; so we need regeneration.
Christmas is about Jesus who died to take us who are dead in our sins, bring us to life and welcome us as family members, full of endless life and brand new—that’s regeneration!
Ephesians 2:1 And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, NKJV
Have you experienced the power of an endless life, and every day partaking of the powerful presence within of the very Lord God Almighty?
That is the third part of the only gift everyone really needs this Christmas.
THE GIFT OF RECONCILIATION—CRITICAL NEED #4
Because of our sin—we are all enemies of God; so we need reconciliation.
Christmas is about Jesus who died to take enemies and make them friends—that’s reconciliation! A Sinner stands before God as an enemy and is made a friend by His peace.
Romans 5:10 For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. NKJV
Have you experienced the wonder of friendship with God?
That is the fourth part of the only gift everyone really needs this Christmas.
THE GIFT OF ADOPTION—CRITICAL NEED #5
Because of our sin—we are all strangers to God; so we need adoption.
Christmas is about Jesus who died to take strangers and make them part of the family— that’s adoption! A Sinner stands before God as a stranger and is called a Son by His choice.
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Galatians 4:4-6 But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” NKJV
Adoption is not our entrance into God’s family, the way a homeless child would enter an adoptive family in our society. Rather, our only hope of getting into God’s family is by regeneration or “the new birth” (John 3:3). In New Testament language, the word used by God for adoption means “placed into a family as an adult son.” This denotes our standing in God’s family of God: we enter God’s family not as little children but we enter as adult sons with all the privileges. Entrance into God’s family is by regeneration, but enjoyment of God’s family is through adoption.
Have you experienced the joy of being adopted into Christ’s family?
That is the fifth part of the only gift everyone really needs this Christmas.
THE GIFT OF REDEMPTION—CRITICAL NEED #6
Because of our sin—we are all slaves to unrighteousness; so we need redemption.
Christmas is about Jesus who died to take slaves and make them freed forever—that’s redemption! A Sinner stands before God as a slave and is granted freedom by His ransom.
John 8:34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. NASB
John 8:36 Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed. NKJV
Have you experienced the thrill of being liberated, set free, and rescued by God forever?
That is the sixth part of the only gift everyone really needs this Christmas.
THE GIFT OF SANCTIFICATION—CRITICAL NEED #7
Because of our sin—we are all defiled; so we need sanctification.
Christmas is about Jesus who died to take our soiled and misdirected lives that always get wasted and make them clean, focused and fruitful—that’s sanctification!
John 17:17 “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.
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Romans 6:13 And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.
Sanctification is what Christ is doing in me because of the cross; it is an ongoing process never completed on earth until I meet Jesus face to face at death or His coming; it grows with each obedient choice I make empowered by the Holy Spirit; sanctification is my practice made right by becoming more conformed to His image.
That is the final part of the only gift everyone really needs this Christmas.
Christmas is a time to remember that Jesus came to save us from sin and live within us. Beware of getting so close in every way—but in your heart, to Christ. Beware of being acquainted with Christ but never knowing Him.