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The People Who Don't Want to Be Free

Friday, July 17, 2020

One of the most revealing exchanges in the Bible occurs in John 8:31-33.  Jesus promises the Jews freedom through following Him and learning His truth, and the Jews turn Him down flat.  The problem is that in order to be freed, the Jews had to have been slaves, and they don’t want to acknowledge that.  In their own words, “We are descendants of Abraham, and we have never been enslaved to anyone.”

Logically speaking, the first half of the statement doesn’t appear to have a whole lot of relevance to the second.  In the Bible, Abraham’s descendants spend a lot of time being slaves:  to the Egyptians, to the Moabites, the Midianites, and the Philistines, and to the Assyrians and the Babylonians.  In fact, even since the restoration from captivity, the Jews largely have been under the control of a foreign power and not ruling themselves.  They certainly wanted a Messiah who would liberate them from the Romans!

However, Jesus isn’t even talking about that.  He’s talking about slavery to sin, which everyone since the time of Adam has experienced.  Nonetheless, because they hate the label of “slave” so much, the Jews refuse to listen to the One who offers them freedom.

Today, much the same thing happens.  We live in a sin-sick society, and yet perversely, so many celebrate the sins that enslave them as sources of freedom.  We are sexually liberated, and yet sexual sin leaves in its wake STD’s, abortion, single-parent families, divorce, and broken homes.  We are free to pursue our greed, and the result is giant houses that we don’t spend time in filled with junk we don’t use, and ever-increasing salaries vanish beneath ever-increasing mountains of debt.  We are free to speak our minds, but our careless words produce contention, division, and bitterness, both in our in-person relationships and online.

The result appears paradoxical to anyone who doesn’t understand the schemes of Satan.  We have all this freedom, and we exercise our freedom freely, but we end up enslaved and unhappy.  Some kind of freedom that is!

So too, submission to Christ leads to a paradoxical result.  Discipleship is demanding.  It requires us to shun the worldly pleasures in which our friends and neighbors revel.  Rather than looking like fun, walking the strait and narrow looks like a lot of work!

However, when we discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness, we make a strange discovery.  Just as the freedom of sin leads to servitude, so too servitude to Christ leads to freedom.  We learn that the things we are tempted to do are not good for us and do not benefit us, and we find joy in the practice of righteousness.  We are set free from sin, not only from its guilt, but from the misery of its dominion.

The life of the Christian is indeed a life of freedom, a life intended for the flourishing of humankind.  When we are not crushed beneath our pleasures, we can dedicate ourselves to the noble joys of loving God and loving one another.  We are freed to be merciful, to be compassionate, to be kind, to be peaceable, to be gentle, and to be grateful.  Ironically, only when we give ourselves over wholly to Christ do we truly find ourselves.

The Law and the Christian

Friday, July 10, 2020

During the church leadership meeting last November, one of the suggestions that was made to Clay and me was that we look for opportunities to preach timely sermons about topics that were on everyone’s minds.  Then 2020 happened, and lo and behold!  Opportunities to preach timely sermons have abounded!

Many of these opportunities have to do with the relationship between the Christian and the government.  For instance, I have seen Christians who live in states that have made mask-wearing mandatory insisting that they are going to refuse to wear a mask anyway.  Similarly, there are some who, in the light of the recent racial tension in our country, are arguing not merely that the police should be defunded (which can mean any number of things) but that the police should be disbanded (which means what it sounds like). 

Where, as children of God, should we stand on these issues?  What guidance does the Bible give us?  Let’s answer these questions tonight as we consider the law and the Christian.

In this regard, we first must examine what the Scriptures say about THE ORIGIN OF GOVERNMENT.  Here, let’s look at Romans 13:1-4.  Right from the very beginning, Paul tells us where governments come from.  No authority exists apart from God, and every government has received its authority from God.  Thus, along with the family and the church, the government is an institution created by God. 

Additionally, this text tells us what the government primarily is supposed to do.  Our government today does all sorts of things, from issuing fishing licenses to supporting National Public Radio.  Paul, though, regards government as doing two main things:  terrifying would-be criminals into good behavior and punishing those who do wrong.  Thus, it is not only true that the government is instituted by God.  Law enforcement also is instituted by God.

Against this Biblical truth, I want to set a claim advanced by the disband-the-police people and even repeated by some brethren:  that the police departments in our country were originally created to track down and capture escaped slaves.  Though this may be correct in some places in the South, countrywide, it generally is not.  The Los Angeles Police Department, for instance, began in response to a crime wave following the ’49 California Gold Rush.  Now, certainly, the LAPD has plenty of racist incidents in its history, but to claim that it was founded as an act of racism doesn’t fit the historical facts. 

This has significant implications for the way we should look at police departments nationwide.  If indeed law enforcement were wholly evil in its origins, we ought to burn it down and start over.  However, if what we’re dealing with is an institution perfect in its divine origin but imperfect in its human implementation, that should call us not to revolution, but to reform. 

It is undeniably true that through the years, some police officers have trampled on the rights of black people in this country in many and serious ways.  We must do better.  However, if we abandon God’s plan for the ordering of humankind, that ultimately will help no one.

Second, let’s ponder the Christian’s responsibility to HONOR THE GOVERNMENT.  Look at Romans 13:5-7.  In v. 5, Paul instructs us to submit to the government, to obey its laws.  Unlike would-be evildoers, we don’t abide by the law because we are afraid of punishment.  We do so because we are subject to Christ, and those are His expectations. 

This tells us all we need to know about mask-wearing.  I live in a jurisdiction that encourages but does not require the wearing of masks in public spaces.  That leaves us free to act according to our consciences.  I personally choose to wear a mask as a show of respect for the government, but other Christians may decide to do differently, and that’s their right.  However, when a state or locality requires mask-wearing, this text tells us that we don’t have any choice.  Either we submit to the government, or we sin. 

The only exception to this arises when a human government enacts a law that contradicts the commandments of God and we are forced to choose between the two.  For instance, if Tennessee made singing in the assembly illegal as California has done, that might be a law that Christians have to seriously consider disobeying for the sake of conscience.  When human law contradicts divine law, we must obey God rather than men.

However, our general duty to obey the government applies not only when the government is good and just, but also when it is tyrannical and oppressive.  Paul wrote the book of Romans during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero, who was one of the most disgusting, evil, depraved human beings ever to sit a throne.  Even when he took Christians and turned them into human torches to light his garden parties, Christians still were responsible for submitting quietly to the Empire. 

Christians are not to be criminals.  We are not to be rebels.  We are not to cause civil disorder.  We are to continue to live quiet lives and look to God to deliver us.

Honoring the government also extends to the respect that we show government officials.  In similar language to what we see in Romans 13, Peter tells us in 1 Peter 2 that we are to honor the emperor as well as those who serve him.  Anytime we encounter a member of law enforcement, whether we think they are worthy of the uniform or not, we are to treat them like someone who is doing God’s work.

This same honor should be evident in our speech when the government official isn’t around.  Again, this is true regardless of who the official is.  It has not escaped my notice that some Christians have been very loud about honoring the president for the past four years, while they spent the eight years before that saying abusive, insulting things about the previous president.  Brethren, that’s hypocritical and ungodly!  Lowering ourselves to the level of partisan strife is unworthy of the gospel of Christ.

Finally, though, let’s study what we can do as Christians in ASSERTING OUR RIGHTS.  Turn here to Acts 22:23-29.  If you’ll recall, Clay preached on the two verses right before this last week.  It’s striking to see how issues of race and government arose together 2000 years ago too!

In any case, here’s what’s going on.  The commander wanted to know why the Jews were rioting, so his solution was to scourge Paul until he started talking.  However, Paul was a Roman citizen, and Roman citizens could not be examined by torture until they had been condemned of a crime. 

Paul, then, as the soldiers are tying him down to start flogging him, asks if it’s lawful to do this to a Roman citizen, knowing perfectly well what the answer was.  Once they figure out that he’s a citizen, the commander and all his men are terrified.  Roman law was not kind to people who ignored the rights of Roman citizens!  Thus, Paul uses his rights under the law to ensure just treatment for himself.

Today, Christians can do the same thing, even in response to unjust treatment at the hands of local officials.  Under the Constitution, we have many rights that were not available to the Romans.  We can elect our leaders.  We can speak out against injustice.  We can assemble peaceably to demand redress of our grievances.  We can insist on due process of law before we are deprived of life, liberty, or property.  We’re not being troublemakers when we exercise these rights.  Instead, we are walking in the footsteps of the apostle Paul.

The only exceptions arise when our rights according to the laws of the United States exceed our freedom in Christ.  For instance, the First Amendment gives me the right to say disrespectful, insulting things about the president.  Christ, though, doesn’t give me that right, and ultimately, it is His will for our lives that must control us.

When Relationships Get Hard

Thursday, July 09, 2020

About a month ago, I had a conversation with a sister who requested a sermon on how one should honor one’s parents.  Her own father is not a Christian and has been doing some foolish things that she has trouble respecting, so she wanted to know how to navigate that.  Naturally, I agreed to help

As I was mulling over the topic, though, it occurred to me that though important, our relationships with our parents are not unique.  Instead, the Bible defines what we should do in a number of different relationships:  with spouses, with children, with employers, with governing authorities, and with other Christians.  When we’re happy with the actions of all of the above, we don’t have much trouble with the relationship. 

However, all of those relationships can go south.  We all know people who have struggled with foolish parents, jerk spouses, wayward children, harsh employers, unfair officials, and obnoxious brethren.  Maybe we are those people.  What do we do then?  How can we glorify God in a situation like that?  With these questions in mind, let’s consider what we should do when relationships get hard.

First, we must REMEMBER OUR RESPONSIBILITY.  Consider what Peter has to say in 1 Peter 2:18-20.  In fact, everything we look at this morning will come from 1 Peter 2, so you might as well put your marker there. 

Peter starts off with a familiar idea:  that servants should submit to their masters.  Paul says similar things in Ephesians and Colossians, and even though this was written about masters and slaves, we generally apply it to employers and employees.  Peter, though, adds another dimension to this familiar teaching.  He tells Christian servants that they don’t only have to submit when their masters are gentle and good, but when they are unfair and harsh too.  In other words, in the master-servant relationship, the responsibility of the Christian servant stays the same, regardless of what the master does.

Peter makes this idea explicit here, but this is implicit in every Biblical command about human relationships.  Husbands have to love their wives with the self-sacrificing love of Christ.  This is true when your wife is a wonderful woman, but it’s also true when she’s an ill-tempered shrew.  Wives have to respect their husbands.  This is true when the husband is a wise and godly uber-leader, but it’s also true when he’s an idiot who makes 20 bad decisions every day.  Children have to honor their parents.  This is true when their parents are a credit to the Father in heaven, but it’s also true when they don’t show the sense of a five-year-old.  Under God’s law, our responsibilities to others do not change.

To worldly wisdom, this seems nonsensical.  Why should we work as hard for a rotten employer as we do for a good employer???   The answer, of course, is that we don’t do what we do for the sake of people at all.  I’m sure you all will agree that my wife is an extremely lovable person, but fundamentally, that’s not why I as a Christian love her.  I love her because God commanded me to, and even though her lovability might change, at least hypothetically, God’s commandment does not and will not.

Second, Peter tells us to ENTRUST OURSELVES TO GOD.  Let’s look here at 1 Peter 2:21-25.  Notice that by bringing in the example of Jesus on the cross, Peter turns the intensity of his argument up to 11.  I don’t know about the rest of you, but a few verses ago, when I read about slaves being beaten by their masters, that makes me cringe.  It gets a whole lot worse in this section!

Even though Peter doesn’t say so directly, this is really about Jesus and His relationship with the government that was killing Him.  The actions of the chief priests and the Romans were utterly cruel, brutal, and unjust.  They tortured and killed an innocent man.  Nonetheless, despite the suffering He endured and the mental suffering of knowing that He didn’t deserve it, Jesus neither insulted nor threatened.  Under the most severe provocation that we can imagine, He was faithful to the will of God.

Instead, Peter says, He entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly.  He entrusted Himself to God.  I think this was true in a couple of senses.  First, He trusted to God to help Him endure and continue to be righteous.  We should do the same.  Whenever we find our relationships growing difficult, we should pray.  We should pray for ourselves.  We should pray for them, which, notice, Jesus did too.  We should lean on God for the wisdom and strength to continue doing right.

Second, though, Jesus entrusted Himself to God by looking to God for vindication.  Jesus knew that as long as He was pleasing God, the judgment of corrupt humanity didn’t matter.  So too with us.  No matter how much those relationships frustrate us, no matter what awful things the people in those relationships say and do to us, the important thing is that we remain faithful.  If we do, we will receive eternal glory from Him.

Finally, Peter encourages us to OVERCOME EVIL WITH GOOD.  Let’s read from 1 Peter 2:11-15.  Here, Peter explains that when Christians remain steadfast despite the slander of their enemies, they silence them and put them to shame.  To put things another way, we exert the greatest influence on foolish and evil people when we respond with wisdom and goodness. 

This is the exact opposite of the wisdom of the world.  The wisdom of the world says, “Return evil for evil.”  If somebody hurts you, get them back.  If they do something dumb, be sure to let them know how dumb it was.  The problem is, it never works. 

Just look at the recent racial unrest in our country.  There were millions of people out there who were outraged and upset about the wrongful death of George Floyd, and rightly so.  However, some of them decided in their outrage that the thing to do was to go out and riot and loot and get in fights with police.  Let’s be honest, brethren.  Did their returning evil for evil persuade others to their cause, or did it harden hearts against them?

Sadly, as all of us know all too well, returning evil for evil is so seductive.  We want to hit our jerk spouse with that zinger.  We want to make our punk kid feel about six inches tall.  In every situation, though, retaliation only makes our problems worse.

As Christians, we are called to rise above petty revenge.  We’re called to rise above the thoughtless expression of our hurt and anger.  This doesn’t mean that we can’t ever speak truth to someone who needs to hear it, but we have to make sure that we are speaking truth in love, and that our actions speak even louder than our words do.  Worldly wisdom only knows how to make broken relationships worse, but God’s wisdom knows how to heal them.  Continually taking the high road, even when others don’t, might seem like the road to failure, but in reality, it’s the only path to success. 

Always Look up the Passages!

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

There are many attempts to interpret the Bible floating around on the Internet, some of them very useful and good, some of them very. . . not.  Indeed, as the above illustrates, it is possible to find memes that claim that the Bible teaches exactly the opposite of what we believe it teaches.  Many of them look very authoritative, too, with loads of parenthetical citations of Scripture. 

Lazy, ignorant people who agree with the meme rejoice.  “See???  I knew it all along!”  Lazy, ignorant people who disagree with the meme, on the other hand, become disheartened and confused.

However, there is a simple cure for such confusion.  Don’t take Random Internet Dude’s word about what a passage says.  Instead, look it up, and see for yourself if the interpreter is interpreting correctly.

In this case, such a simple process (I can’t imagine it taking anyone more than 15 minutes) will reveal the meme as a tissue of lies, cynically crafted to cast doubt on Biblical teaching about the value of life.  Let’s take it from the top:

Hosea 13:16 predicts that pregnant women will be slaughtered.  It does not offer permission to do so.

Genesis 38:24 is about Judah demanding that pregnant Tamar be burned for prostitution.  Before we get too impressed with Judah as an example of righteousness, we should remember that he was the one who impregnated Tamar in the first place.  He slept with her because he thought she was a prostitute.  Nobody in this story reveals God’s will.

Hosea 9:16 discusses God punishing Israel by killing those who already have been born.  It’s not about fetuses in utero.

Numbers 5:21 is in the weird context about the water of bitterness bringing a curse on adulterous women.  It has nothing to do with miscarriage.

Leviticus 27:6 is about valuing people who have been vowed to the Lord in some way.  Only providing a valuation for infants who are at least a month old has a lot more to do with the horrific prevalence of infant mortality 3500 years ago (newborns often did not survive) than it does with the newborn’s intrinsic lack of value. 

Numbers 13:15-16 excludes newborns from the census for the same reason.  Note also that women weren’t numbered either, but any argument that women are valueless runs headlong into a number of New Testament passages.

Matthew 18:6 is about drowning the one who offends a little child, not about drowning the little child, and it’s figurative anyway.

Deuteronomy 21:21 is about stoning a rebellious adult child, someone who is a glutton and a drunkard. 

Ezekiel 5:10 is a prediction of cannibalism during the siege of Jerusalem (fathers eating sons, sons eating fathers).  It does not establish cannibalism as godly behavior!

Genesis 19:24 describes God judging Sodom and Gomorrah by raining down fire on them, and it’s blasphemous to claim that the judgments that the Lord executes give us permission to kill.

Joshua 10:37 (the meme says 10:36, but I will be gracious) is about the Israelites destroying the Canaanites of Hebron, including children.  Again, they did so because God expressly commanded them to, in Deuteronomy 20:16-17.  There is no corresponding commandment concerning abortion.

Deuteronomy 32:24 mentions poison but not children.

In short, what looks like a devastating rebuttal of conservative views on abortion proves to be anything but.  It does nothing to prove that the Bible and Christianity are “fine with it”, nor does it reveal what God thinks about the practice.

The point is this:  Whenever anybody (whether I or an angel from heaven) makes a spiritual claim and cites a Scripture in support, always, always, ALWAYS look up the passage!  Teachers of the truth won’t mind; in fact, they will be pleased.  False teachers will mind very much, but it is godly to expose their falsehood.  Never put your trust in men.  Put your trust in the word of God!

The Unexpected Jesus

Monday, July 06, 2020

There is a famous Charles Wesley hymn entitled “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”.  Certainly, there is plenty of Scriptural justification for applying that adjective to the Lord.  As the words of Zechariah in Luke 1 and Simeon in Luke 2 attest, the Jews had been waiting anxiously for the Messiah for centuries!

However, there is another sense in which Jesus’ coming was unexpected, and this sense is prominently displayed in John 7.  Throughout the chapter, nobody knows what to make of the Messiah they actually got.  7:4 tells us that His brothers did not believe in Him.  7:12 describes the dispute between the Jews who thought He was a good man and those who thought He was misleading the people (correct answer, none of the above).  In 7:27, some argue that because they knew where Jesus came from, He couldn’t be the true Messiah (never mind Isaiah 9, Micah 5, etc.).  Likewise, the chief priests claim in 7:52 that Jesus’ Galilean origin disqualifies Him from being a prophet. 

Ultimately, most of the Jewish nation rejects Jesus because He doesn’t fit in their Messiah-shaped box.  He doesn’t seek out the people they think He should seek out, He doesn’t tell them to do what they think they should do, and He doesn’t solve the problem they think He should solve.  The Jews turn aside from Jesus, straight into the downfall of their nation in 70 AD.

Today, we might shake our heads sadly at those foolish, foolish Jews.  However, we are better off considering whether we are behaving like them.  Even though the gospels reveal Jesus to us, the Jesus in the minds of most in our society doesn’t look much like the Jesus of the gospels at all.

Most Americans are looking for a Jesus who is an unconditional grace and blessings dispenser.  They don’t have any interest in discipleship or living holy lives.  Nonetheless, when they have problems, they want to be able to get Jesus to fix their problems.  This does not involve repentance, humility, or life change; instead, it’s about Jesus slathering their brokenness with His love.  Then, when their lives have improved, they want to put Jesus in the attic until the next time they need to feel better. 

Such expectations will keep them (and us) from any meaningful encounter with the Lord.  Jesus did not come to kiss our boo-boos.  He came to die a hideous death in our place because our sin was that bad and nothing less could help.  He doesn’t let us do whatever we want.  He demands utmost obedience because we owe Him everything.  His work doesn’t leave our lives unchanged.  It leaves them transformed.

This is the Jesus of the gospels, the Jesus who calls us to follow.  Either we pick the cross up, or we don’t.  However, indifference will meet an inevitable end—a shattering encounter with the Lord who will come one more time in a way that no one expects.

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