The Whole Counsel of God

Text: Jeremiah 23:16-29

You yourselves know how I lived among you,” St. Paul said to the Ephesians, “how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ…I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” (Acts 20 English Standard Version) These were some of St. Paul’s last words to the Ephesians, after spending several years with them. Just after his farewell, St. Paul boarded a ship for what would be his last trip to Jerusalem. There, St. Paul ended up being taken into Roman custody and remained so for three years, eventually testifying in Rome before being set free. As a farewell to the Ephesians, Paul wanted them to be prepared for the false teachers who would soon appear in his absence. 

One tell-tale mark of these false preachers and prophets would be that they would not teach the whole counsel of God, but would teach only the desires of their own hearts, thus said the Lord in our text from Jeremiah. Jeremiah prophesied during the lowest point, spiritually and morally, in Judah’s history – the decades leading up to its fall. A large factor in the fall of Jerusalem is condemned by our Lord in this text: false prophets who teach only their own dreams, along with the willingness of the people to listen to them. Today, we confess that God calls true prophets to preach His whole counsel, which includes both Law and Gospel.

I.

Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord.’” (Jeremiah 23:16) That’s pretty much the key verse in the whole text, the whole point of it. Remember that Jeremiah prophesied during the decades leading up to, and then during, the Fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. We’ve talked before about the role of kings in the Old Testament, how they were meant to be shepherds of the people. Kings were to see that the people were also cared for spiritually, that they were taught rightly to believe and truly to confess God’s saving name. When kings were faithful to God then, generally speaking, so were the people. When they were unfaithful, that unfaithfulness was carried on and enhanced among the people. After the kings, the next biggest influences on the people of Israel were the false prophets. In Jeremiah’s time, they were a dime a dozen. Remember Elijah and the prophets of Baal? That was 1 versus 450.

Although there were a multitude of false prophets, they were united, as the Lord said, in that they did not speak His Words but the visions of their own minds and the “deceit of their own heart[s].” (v. 26) The Lord continued, “They say continually to those who despise the Word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’” (v. 17) There was no preaching of repentance and faith on the part of the false prophets, no mention of sin – or even forgiveness. The topics of their sermons were only health, wealth, and happiness. And, because those are things that we all like to hear, the false prophets were very well-received. They had no trouble gathering audiences, since their message was, essentially, that people could live and do as they please, without fear of punishment or judgment from God. The result was a generation of people worshipping every “god” but the true One, who, in fact, hated the true God, and were bankrupt of morals. “If they had stood in My council,” God said, “they would have proclaimed My Words to My people, and they would have turned them from their evil way.” (v. 22)

II.

Just before our text, Jeremiah complained that his heart was broken and his bones shook, “because of the Lord and because of His holy Words.” (23:9) Jeremiah is often called “The Weeping Prophet,” because of the burden placed upon him as a true prophet of God. Jeremiah’s call was to preach the Word of the Lord to His people in full, which included both Law and Gospel. The Law to be preached in Jeremiah’s time was that, if the children of Israel did not repent of their wicked and evil ways, they would be overthrown. The Lord would send Babylon upon them, as Isaiah prophesied a century before, and Jerusalem would be destroyed as punishment for her sins. Jeremiah did preach this, and the people hated both the message and the messenger. They attempted to kill him. But, even then, there was a remnant. There was a small group of people who heard Jeremiah’s preaching and listened. They confessed their sins and looked to God for forgiveness and life.

That, really, is the goal of Christian preaching. We aren’t after peace and security as the world seeks it, but a Godly righteousness that endures unto eternal life. Godly righteousness is produced by faith in Christ, which includes repentance over sin. Because we are by nature hard-hearted and evil, God sends us His Word of Law to break our stony hearts in pieces. He does this when He shows us that all the things we naturally like to do are sinful. For example, none of us keeps as close a watch on our mouth as we should. We curse and swear and take His name in vain. We do not close our ears to gossip. Nor do we guard our eyes as the lights of our bodies. When something is placed before us that is against the Sixth Commandment, we do not avert our eyes as we should. Rather than step away from our program, we tell ourselves the story is worth the unsavory elements that burrow into our hearts. This is what God says about our sin: we shall die.

God sends true prophets to preach His whole counsel, which includes the Law and the Gospel. The Gospel is not that God doesn’t judge us, it’s that the judgement that God has rendered against sin was carried out on Christ, and not on you. The Gospel is that the wrath that God had stored up for you when you were living in unbelieving sin was poured out on Christ, instead of you. When you hear this, that Jesus has paid for your sins, and believe it, you have the forgiveness which Christ won. This is what it means to be saved by faith. We recognize from the Law of God our own sinfulness, along with the temporal and eternal punishment which we have earned. We confess our sins and receive from God the free forgiveness won for us by Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. But, how can we have faith without the Gospel, and how can the Gospel be preached without the Law? Therefore, God sends true prophets to preach His whole counsel, both Law and Gospel.

III.

There is a portion of the Catechism that goes well with, really, all our texts this week. I invite you to turn with me to the First Petition in the Catechism (pg. 323 in the hymnal). Let’s read it together. I’ll ask the questions.

What is the First Petition?

Hallowed be Thy name.

What does this mean? 

God’s name is certainly holy in itself, but we pray in this petition that it may be kept holy among us also.

How is God’s name kept holy? 

God’s name is kept holy when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we, as the children of God, also lead holy lives according to it. Help us to do this, dear Father in heaven! But anyone who teaches or lives contrary to God’s Word profanes the name of God among us. Protect us from this, heavenly Father!

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