Our conscience knows truth when it hears it

For centuries, the idea has been pumped into our heads that God is angry at us, and the only reason he can even tolerate us is because he vented all his anger on Jesus, and the only way he can bring himself to forgive us for all we’ve done is if we repent, and if we don’t repent he packs us off to an agonizing hell forever.

But that’s not what we instinctively believe about God, is it? Deep down we believe God is merciful and he forgives. And the Bible explains why that is. It’s because God gave us a conscience, which knows when something “rings true,” or not. And it does NOT ring true to us hearing about God casting people into an everburning hell and never letting them out. It doesn’t ring true to us at all that a God of love would allow suffering like that to go on forever.

The gospel, therefore, is designed perfectly to pierce through to our conscience, because our conscience recognizes truth when it hears it. “By setting forth the truth plainly,” Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:2, “we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” Paul realized that if he spoke the truth, people’s consciences would pick up on it, because God has equipped all people with a highly sensitive “truth detector” that comes to life when the true picture of God is presented.

Paul also realized that the conscience is so sensitive it can pick up on what’s right even when people have no knowledge of God or the gospel. People who “never had (or heard about) God’s written laws,” Romans 2:13, “down in their hearts they KNOW right from wrong.” These are people who have never been influenced by any church, religious preaching or knowledge of God, but they still recognize there are laws of right and wrong to live by. And how do they know that? Verse 15 – “Their own consciences endorse the existence of such a law.” That’s how brilliant the conscience is. It enables anyone and everyone to detect right from wrong, or to recognize truth when it’s plainly spoken.

And knowing that drove Paul to keep on preaching the gospel, because he knew what he was saying would “COMMEND” itself, or ring true, to people’s consciences, even if they’d never heard of God before, or they’d had a wrong picture of God lodged in their heads for years. There may be a pile of false religious rubble jamming up the conscience’s receivers, messing up the conscience’s ability to discern truth from error, but eventually the truth gets through.

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“Please take a look, that’s all”

Our humble request to people is that they please, at least take a look at Jesus Christ. Why? Because “In him was life, and that life was the light of men,” John 1:4. It answers the big question, “Where does life come from?” It came from Christ. And how do we know that? Because Christ came to this planet as a “light” to show us. He came so that we could look at him and see.

So that’s why we say, “Please, just take a look at Christ, that’s all,” because he is “The light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out,” verse 5. For all those who wonder what this life is all about, where life came from and what it’s for, the place to start looking is Jesus Christ. And it’s a promising place to start because he is a bright light, so bright it can pierce through the darkest darkness in any person’s brain, if that person can just bring himself to open the door a crack and let the light shine in.

Because with that light comes life. Open the door a crack to Jesus Christ and it’s not just light that enters, it’s life as well. What life? The life that is within Jesus himself. The life that can create things out of nothingness. The life that created the universe (verse 3). But even more important, the life that makes Jesus a child of God (last part of verse 14).

But why is that important to us? Because to those who opened the door to Jesus, “he gave the right to become children of God” too, verse 12. Open the door to Jesus and he starts the process rolling of making us into children of God, just like himself. Because that’s what we’ve been given life for. It’s to receive the same child of God life Jesus has. And Jesus came as a “light” first to show us that, that not only is he a child of God, so can we be.

Now we know what we’ve been created for and how it happens. God made us in his image. He created us to be his children. And to make that happen he sent his Son, the only one up to that point who had the life of a child of God within himself already, to birth and nurture that life of a son of God in us.

Open the door a crack and in comes the light and life of Jesus to start that ball rolling. So, please, just take a look, that’s all.

It all begins with the willingness to listen

In John 6:63-64 Jesus said, “The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” And why didn’t they believe? Because, Jesus “went on to say” in verse 65, “no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.”

But that doesn’t seem fair, that people only believe if the Father enables them to believe. Non-Christians could justifiably say to Christians, “Your God plays favourites. He chose you and gave you belief, but he ignored us entirely. And he made belief easy for you because he helped you believe, but we get blamed and threatened with hell for not believing. But how can we believe if God didn’t choose us to believe in the first place? It’s not fair.”

So does God only help some people to believe and not others? No, verse 45, because “It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will ALL be taught by God.'” God does not play favourites. He’s willing to enable anybody to believe. But first – finishing off verse 45 people have to be willing to listen, because “Everyone who LISTENS to the Father and learns from him comes to me.”

It all begins with the willingness to listen. That’s all God asks of us. We don’t have to believe right away, just listen. The problem with so many of those in Jesus’ day, however, was their UNwillingness to listen (Matthew 23:37). They didn’t think Jesus had anything worth listening to. And Jesus knew that, which is why he spoke to them in parables. They’d already closed their ears to anything he had to say, so God certainly wasn’t going to help them believe. Nor was he going to force them to believe against their will, either.

But in Acts 17:32 some were willing to listen: “We want to hear you again on this subject,” they said, and look at the result in verse 34 – “A few men became followers of Paul and believed.” And where did that belief begin? In their willingness to listen. And when did people not believe? When they weren’t willing to listen – like those in Acts 7:57 who literally covered their ears so they couldn’t hear Stephen speak.

That’s why the gospel went to the Gentiles instead, because “they WILL LISTEN!” Acts 28:28. And because they listened “All over the world this gospel is producing fruit.” God enabled all kinds of people to understand “God’s grace in all its truth,” Colossians 1:6. Why? Because “Faith comes from HEARING  the message,” Romans 10:17. Listen first, and then God enables belief – in ANYONE humble enough to hear him out.

Many are called but few are chosen

Matthew 22:14 talks of many being called but few chosen, the context being a “wedding banquet” for a king’s son (verse 2). Sadly, those whom the king himself invited had refused to come, and they’d even murdered the ones bringing the invitation (verse 6). The king was so angry he had them all killed (verse 7).

But that left a wedding banquet all ready to go with no guests (verse 8). The king, therefore, gave orders to invite in anybody from the neighbourhood no matter how “good or bad” they were. Lots of people took up his offer and the banquet hall was filled with guests. But someone got in “not wearing wedding clothes,” verse 12. The king asked him why he was dressed the way he was when wedding clothes were readily available to him, as they were to everyone else.

The man didn’t say a word (verse 12). He didn’t say, “Sorry, I’ll go get dressed immediately in wedding clothes,” he just stood there as if to say, “So what if I’m not dressed properly?” The king blew a fuse and had the man thrown out, concluding his fury with “Many are called but few are chosen.”

The “few” being whom? In context, it was those who accepted his invitation and dressed in the right clothes. And who was Jesus aiming all this at? The “chief priests and Pharisees,” Matthew 21:45 and 22:1, to whom he’d just quoted Psalm 118 that talked of people just like them who’d rejected him as the key to their salvation (Psalm 118:20-23). The story was a major warning, therefore, to anyone thinking they could just waltz into God’s Kingdom without depending entirely on Jesus for their salvation. The kingdom is “given to a people who will produce its fruit,” Jesus said in Matthew 21:43 – or to those who wear the right clothes (Matthew 22).

So what were the right clothes? Verse 32: believing Jesus was “the way of righteousness.” That’s what gets a person “chosen” for the kingdom, or allowed to attend the wedding banquet.

God had invited the Jews to the banquet of salvation in his Son. All the righteousness they needed for that salvation had been provided in Jesus Christ – just like the wedding clothes had been provided for all the guests. But the Jews trusted in their own righteousness (or their own clothes) instead, expecting it to be good enough to get them into the kingdom.

It was to these people that Jesus said, “Many like you are invited to the banquet of salvation, but oh so few get to attend,” as a warning to anyone who misses the obvious, that Jesus is the way to salvation and there is no other.

Does God hide the truth from people?

In Matthew 13:11 it sounds like God only reveals his truth to a select group of people: “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to YOU, but not to them.” So, does God deliberately hide the truth from people so they can’t respond to the gospel?

But why would Jesus say in verse 9: “He who has ears, let him hear” if only SOME people could hear and understand what he was saying? Jesus is telling these people, “You’ve all got ears, so use them.” They could, therefore, if they opened their ears and listened to what he was saying, understand him. Why would God say, “Hey, listen up everybody and hear what my Son has to say,” but then hide the truth so they couldn’t understand it?!

But why did Jesus speak in parables, verse 10, and make it difficult for people to hear and understand? Answer? Verse 15 – “For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and THEY have closed their eyes.” Oh, so it wasn’t GOD hiding the truth from people, it was the people hiding from the truth themselves. They all had ears and eyes – but they weren’t using them!

And who was Jesus talking to? To people who knew better. They were Jews who knew their Bibles backwards, especially the religious leaders, but they weren’t willing to listen and learn. The Jewish leaders were even antagonistic toward him.

But WHY aren’t people willing to listen and learn? Because, verses 19-22, Satan jumps in and messes up people’s thinking. Or people are simply lazy thinkers and are easily distracted. Other interests are more important. Objections from relatives and sarcasm from work-mates make it embarrassing and awkward being a Christian. Or people are just too busy to listen. But, verse 23, despite all these obstructions and objections Jesus still predicted an abundant harvest. Many people would listen and learn, no matter what circumstances they were in.

That’s why Jesus could say, “Anyone who has ears, let him hear,” because people COULD understand him IF they were willing to listen and learn. Jesus also realized that many wouldn’t listen and why they wouldn’t listen too, including fear of what other people think (a powerful force on people, John 12:42-43) – but God wasn’t deliberately hiding the truth so people couldn’t understand it. He only did that to people who refused to listen.

The gospel wasn’t meant for just a select few while God blinded the rest. The gospel is open to anyone with ears. So, “He who has ears, let him hear.”

Is God only calling some people now?

In John 6:44 Jesus said that “No man can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him,” or in verse 65, “unless the Father has enabled him.” But most people don’t seem to show any interest in Christ, so does that mean the Father is only enabling some people to come to Christ, and he’s not interested in the rest? If that’s true, though, why do we bother trying to reach the world with the gospel – as Jesus instructed us to in Acts 1:8 – if most people aren’t going to be the slightest bit interested?

But who’s Jesus talking to in these verses? He’s talking to his fellow Jews who were having trouble believing who he was. What they saw was “Jesus, the son of Joseph,” verse 42, a typical, ordinary human being like themselves, yet here he was claiming “I came down from heaven” (same verse). But they’d also seen Jesus do “miraculous signs,” verse 26, so surely they could see that “God the Father had placed his seal of approval on him,” verse 27.

But no, they couldn’t, which brought this retort from Jesus in verse 36, “you have seen me and still you do not believe.” But not to worry, Jesus says in verse 44, “No one can come to me (or believe in me and what the Father sent me for) unless the Father enables him to.” In other words, “God will help you believe, because without his help no one can.” And how many of those Jews was God willing to help? Jesus answers that with a verse from the Old Testament: “It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will ALL be taught by God,'” verse 45.

Ah, so God wanted to help them ALL believe, not just a select few. And he expressed that wish very clearly in Jesus preaching openly and publicly to thousands of people and telling them in verse 45 that “EVERYONE who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me.” This is all wonderful, positive stuff. First of all, the Father is willing to help and teach everyone, and secondly, ANYONE who’s willing to let him help and teach them, by being willing to listen and learn, will find their understanding and belief in Jesus take root and flourish.

God is all for helping every one of us to learn, by pouring out the Spirit on all flesh (Acts 2:17), and by giving us a conscience that responds to truth as well (2 Corinthians 4:2). The incentive for preaching the gospel, therefore, is that God is willing to teach ANYONE who’s willing to listen and learn, not just a few.

Do people respond only because God calls them?

If it’s true that people respond only because God calls them, then why preach the gospel? All God has to do is open the minds of those he wants without any preaching of the gospel being necessary – which is exactly what he did with Jesus’ disciples. They responded because God chose them, and it was he who then opened their minds to understand who Jesus was (Matthew 16:16-17).

Couldn’t God do that with everyone else, then? Yes, he could. All God would have to do through the centuries is pick out those he wanted and open their minds to the truth. But that isn’t how he operated. Instead, in Acts 1:8, Jesus told his disciples he was sending them to the world with the gospel message, and as we see later on in the book of Acts, it was through their preaching that people responded.

Did they respond only because God was calling them, though? But if that’s the case, we’re only preaching the gospel to reach those God is calling, and is that what God intended?

Not in Acts 17 it wasn’t. Paul arrives in Athens and starts preaching the gospel openly and publicly “in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there,” verse 17. He preaches a powerful message about the real God versus their empty man-made gods, and tells them in verse 30 that “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands ALL PEOPLE EVERYWHERE to repent.” His message was meant for EVERYONE, not just a select few that God was calling. And look what happened next. Some in the crowd responded, verse 32. Some “became followers,” verse 34. Others, however, “sneered,” verse 32. It was a mixed bag of responses, not because God was only calling some people, but because this was the way it was. People heard the gospel and some responded while others didn’t.

Some in Athens found it hard to respond because of their religious baggage. Others, like King Agrippa in Acts 27:28, were wary about any religious message. So when Paul preached to him, Agrippa fired back with, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to become a Christian?”

Did Agrippa’s negative response mean God wasn’t calling him? But that wasn’t how Paul took it, because he replies, “Short time or long – I pray God that not only you but ALL who are listening to me today may become what I am,” verse 29. Paul believed that ALL the people in that room could have what he had. Any of them could respond, in other words, because the gospel wasn’t just for those being specially called, it was for “all people everywhere.”