It seems like I’ve spent a fair amount of time these past couple weeks reading critiques of the churches of Christ from various sources. These critiques, usually written by former members, tend to have a common theme. The churches of Christ would be better off, they opine, if they stopped being so narrow and legalistic and focused instead on mercy and grace.
That’s a fascinating claim, and it even has a certain amount of Biblical resonance. Did not Paul argue, for instance, that the grace of Christ set him free from the law of sin and death. Poor members of churches of Christ! They don’t see that they’ve been set free already!
However, as I've written before, it doesn’t make much sense. Logically speaking, law and grace are positively correlated, not inversely correlated. The greater my respect for God’s law, the more my consciousness of my own sin should grow, along with my awareness of my desperate need for grace.
Things move in the opposite direction when concern for lawkeeping diminishes. If following God’s law isn’t very important, then breaking it isn’t very important either. At that point, grace stops looking like grace and starts looking more like apathy. I really don’t need God’s mercy anymore because my sin is no biggie.
There’s another problem too. As my respect for divine law and my desire for mercy diminish, so too will my willingness to show mercy. Good Bible students know that one of the most sobering passages in the entire volume is the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35.
Most Christians are aware that if you live a life of sin, you will not inherit the kingdom of God. In this parable, Jesus points out that if you are unmerciful, you won’t inherit the kingdom of God either. In fact, your failure to show mercy to others will drown out your pleas for mercy to God.
Christians who honor the law of God, then, should be the most merciful people on earth, both because they have been taught by Christ to show mercy and because they know what will happen to them if they don’t. I am constantly aware of the gulf between God’s perfect law and my own obedience. Without His mercy to bear me up, I surely will plunge into the abyss. For me to be merciless, then, is an act of spiritual suicide.
Without an emphasis on law, though, all this falls apart. If I violate a law I think is unimportant and indifferently accept God’s apathetic grace, that gives me zero incentive to change my conduct toward those who have wronged me. God’s law might not matter much, but the offenses of others against me sure do! We don’t need the law to teach us vengefulness; it’s imbedded in every one of our selfish little hearts.
When I have been forgiven little (I think), I will love little, and I will be little inclined to show mercy. Not surprisingly, people who accept the first part of this statement end up living out the second two. As I wrote about a year ago, some of the most vicious, unforgiving people on earth are “tolerant” secular progressives. Because they do not acknowledge God’s law, they do not admit their need for grace, so they see no reason to extend it to others.
I certainly hope that in the years and decades to come, brethren will be more grace-centric and more conscious of their need to receive and show mercy. However, trying to get there by downplaying the importance of the law of God (all of it) is going in exactly the wrong direction. Paul does not free us from the law. He frees us from the illusion that we can justify ourselves, which is the very illusion that minimizing law creates.
We often don’t realize it, but one of the main themes of the gospels is the interaction between Jesus and people who ask Him questions. If we considered Jesus’ replies to those questions in isolation, His replies would seem so divergent as to be irrational. In Matthew 13:16, He calls one set of questioners blessed. In Matthew 13:7, He condemns another set as a bunch of hypocrites.
What gives? It’s just a question, right?
In reality, of course, Jesus’ answers are so different because He is responding to different motivations and positions. The disciples of Matthew 13 get a commendation and a straight answer because they are seeking truth. So does the woman at the well in John 4 (who is so deferential that she only hints at her questions).
Nicodemus, interested in the truth but full of himself, gets an answer but also gets taken down a peg in John 3. The lawyer of Luke 10:25, who thought to set himself up as Jesus’ schoolteacher, ended up getting schooled instead. Finally, of course, the parade of Pharisees with their trap questions uniformly found out that Jesus was smarter than they were.
Today, the motivations of questioners are every bit as diverse. Some still want to know truth. Others think they know it and hope to use their questions to lead you down the primrose path. Still others ask questions not because they want an answer, but because they believe the question won’t have an answer. They think this will embarrass you or perhaps justify their unbelief.
This is important for us to remember as we consider both others and ourselves. Though we can’t see hearts as Jesus could, it’s still possible to discern someone’s intent by considering their words. I’m perfectly willing to answer questions for hours if the questioner is hungry for the gospel. On the other hand, I’m not interested in patiently answering objection after objection, only to be met with a haughty “That’s not good enough!” One suspects that for some, an answer from the Lord Himself would not be good enough.
It’s important too, though, to be honest about our own motivations when we ask questions. Wanting to learn more about spiritual things is wonderful! I think the same is true of using questions to teach. When somebody figures out the answer for themselves rather than the teacher figuring it out for them, the lesson tends to stick longer.
However, we should be wary of questions that are designed to trap others or to justify a conclusion we already have reached. Jesus used the former tactic, but He only did it to embarrass hard-hearted religious elites who were trying to embarrass Him first. Unless we are sure that someone is acting in bad faith and needs to be humiliated for the benefit of third parties, it’s not wise and probably not godly to make them the target of our Perry Mason impression.
Similarly, it is better to own our convictions directly, whatever they may be, rather than hedging them around with disingenuous questions designed to make our conclusion seem reasonable. If there is no answer to a question that will satisfy us, we should save everyone time and not ask it. There is no value to the smugness that comes from winning a debate when we are the self-appointed judge.
Truth only can be found in God, and questions are the means by which we seek it. However, as with everything else, the devil is capable of twisting questions to his ends. May the questions we ask always serve truth and not him!
I’ve read the Beatitudes a time or two, but as I visited them again as part of our Bible-reading plan this year (it’s tough to write the bulletin article if you’re not a week ahead!), the one that jumped out at me was Matthew 5:9. We don’t live in a very peacemaker-y time. The political polarization in our country has become so obvious that mentioning it is nearly a cliché. On both sides, increasing numbers of people believe that the other side is The Enemy, to be defeated by any means necessary, even at the cost of the dearly held principles of 20 years ago.
Of course, we are not the first to live in a time that is not very peacemaker-y. Jesus did too. Indeed, anger and conflict are the backdrop of the gospels. The Jewish community of AD 30 was deeply divided by the presence of the occupying Romans. Some, from the tax collectors to the chief priests, collaborated with them, generally as a way of acquiring wealth and power.
Reacting to this corrupt bargain, the Pharisees demanded fidelity to a body of religious tradition that they claimed came from God but really came from them. Still farther along the political spectrum, the Essenes withdrew from a society that they considered irredeemably wicked. The Zealots plotted to overthrow it.
To them all, Jesus says that the peacemakers are blessed and are sons of God. Not the Sadducees, the Herodians, the Pharisees, the Essenes, or the Zealots. The peacemakers.
In Jesus’ view, the peacemakers need first of all to seek peace with God, but secondarily, they need to seek peace with one another. What matters is not somebody else’s privileged position or nit-picky moral code or contempt for the world or desire to burn it all down. What matters is whether they have a soul. Of Jesus’ twelve closest followers, one was a tax collector and another was a Zealot. Hint, hint.
2000 years ago, the vast majority of Jewish society didn’t listen to Jesus. The power brokers had Him killed because they thought He was a threat to their position, not realizing that their own actions were the greatest threat. Over the next 35 years, tensions between Jews and Romans, and indeed between Jews and Jews, increased until they exploded in the catastrophe of the Great Jewish Revolt.
Nobody won the Great Revolt. Not the Romans, who had an entire legion massacred by the rebels and only were able to put down the rebellion at an immense cost in treasure and blood. Not the Jewish factions, who spilled blood in the courts of the Temple as they battled each other for dominance until the Romans arrived and killed them all. Not the common folk of Galilee and Judea, countless thousands of whom were butchered by the contending forces. Nobody emerged from the cataclysm better off.
Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who love their enemies. Blessed are those who are able to find value and worth in the most obnoxious proclaimers of an opposing viewpoint.
Blessed are those in our time who are willing to hear the voice of Jesus.
Without question, the Sermon on the Mount is the best known sermon in history. Throughout the centuries untold numbers of people have dissected, analyzed, discussed, taught, and wrote about this magnum opus of Jesus. Yet, its message continues to challenge readers today. For the next few weeks we'll explore this great teaching of our Lord one section at a time. It's always a good time to start The Life and Teachings of Jesus 2020 Reading Plan.
The Life and Teachings of Jesus - Week 8 – February 24-28:
Monday – Matt. 5:1-12 (cf. Luke 6:20-26): Without question, the Sermon on the Mount is the best known sermon in history. Throughout the centuries untold numbers of people have dissected, analyzed, discussed, taught, and wrote about this magnum opus of Jesus. Yet, its message continues to challenge readers today. After the scene is set in vv. 1-2, Jesus begins His discourse with a series of nine Beatitudes (vv. 3-12), a declaration of blessed happiness and joy. The sharply paradoxical character of these statements runs counter to conventional values. Thus, the Beatitudes call on those who would be God’s people to stand out as different from those around them.
The Beatitudes describe the qualities Jesus requires of those who will follow Him. How would your life look different if you lived out these sayings to their fullest?
Tuesday – Matt. 5:13-16 (cf. Luke 14:34-35): Coming out of the Beatitudes Jesus summarizes Christianity and its relationship to the unbelieving world through the elements of salt and light. “You are the salt of the earth” (v. 13). Believers flavor the world in which they live and help prevent its corruption. “You are the light of the world” (v. 14). The world needs the light of the gospel of Jesus, and it is through the disciples that it must be made visible. Ultimately, the disciple whose salt is diluted or whose light is hidden is worthless. Nominal believers who do not live a life of discipleship will be “thrown out and trampled under people’s feet” (v. 13); the phrase is intentionally graphic.
How are you “salt” and “light” in your community? List any areas in which your “salt” has lost its taste or your “light” may be hidden. What can you do today to change?
Wednesday – Matt. 5:17-20: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (v. 17). In this manner Jesus begins the second section of His sermon (5:17-48). Here He clarifies that He will neither give a new law nor modify the old, but rather explain the true significance of law and the prophets. Furthermore, Jesus “fulfills” the law by keeping it perfectly and embodying its types and symbols. With strong words, He warns against anyone breaking even the least of the commandments and teaching others to do the same. Lastly, the statement that the righteousness of those who enter the kingdom must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees must have come as a very surprising, if not alarming, piece of news to His audience.
Looking ahead at vv. 21-48, how does Jesus illustrate that one’s righteousness must exceed that of the religious elites of His day, the scribes and Pharisees?
Thursday – Matt. 5:21-26 (Luke 12:57-59): Once Jesus has made it clear that He is not opposing the law but fulfilling it, He shows how the customary practice of the law in His day, as interpreted by the scribes and Pharisees, is inadequate. Jesus uses six varied topics to illustrate the concept of a righteousness which goes beyond the legal correctness of the scribes and Pharisees (see v. 20). Each is presented in the form of a contrast between what the people had heard, “You have heard that it was said…” to Jesus’ more demanding ethic, “But I say…” The principle of vv. 21-22 is that the actual committing of murder is only the outward manifestation of an inward attitude which itself is culpable before God. Angry thoughts and contemptuous words deserve equally severe judgment Jesus declares; indeed, the “the fires of hell” goes beyond the human death penalty which the Old Testament declared for murder.
In what way(s), are Jesus’ words about anger shocking? Why do you think that it’s important to come to terms quickly with those who have “something against you” (v. 23)?
Friday – Matt. 5:27-30: In this second saying, Jesus addresses adultery and lust. His warning against lust challenges many. Of course the Lord is not referring to noticing a person’s beauty, but to imbibing it, meditating on it, harboring a desire for an illicit relationship. This, Jesus says is tantamount to adultery. We should note that Jesus squarely places the blame and responsibility for lust on the person doing the lusting. Thus, Jesus declares in a graphic manner that by whatever means necessary, the lust-er should cast off the sin of lust. He doesn’t mean that one literally plucks out an eye or cut off one’s right hand to combat temptation. Rather His point is this, do everything you can to not sin; a partial loss, however painful, is preferable to the total loss of the body (and soul). Jesus graphically illustrates the importance of dealing with sin in one’s life.
What difference might His teaching make in the way that you consider your own personal conduct and decisions?
For about 20 years now, I’ve been having discussions with brethren all over the country about who should lead singing. Some argue that the congregation’s best song leaders should lead on Sunday morning to the exclusion of everyone else. They say that’s giving to God our best.
By contrast, others argue that it’s ungodly to judge the value of a song leader according to fleshly, external standards. The technical virtuoso may be self-centered and godless in his heart, while the guy who can’t hardly carry a tune in a bucket may be giving the Lord heartfelt glory. In consequence, we should let everybody lead who wants to lead and leave the judging to God.
I think both sides have a point, but I also think that the difference between them is not so great as it appears. To illustrate what I mean, let’s consider a couple of different sacrifices from the Law of Moses.
Leviticus 5:7 is an illustration of God’s kindness toward the poor. In it, God recognizes that some of His people may not be able to afford a lamb to offer as a sacrifice for sin. As a result, He allows them to offer according to what they could afford, by substituting turtledoves or pigeons for livestock. In God’s eyes, the turtledove offered by one who was giving his best was just as pleasing as the bull.
In Malachi 1, particularly in Malachi 1:14, we see a very different scenario playing out. This time, comparatively wealthy Jews who owned flocks were offering their lame, sick, and blind animals as sacrifices. They had the resources to do better, but instead of striving to give God their best, they offered what they thought they could get away with. God was not pleased with them!
Today, I think there are unblemished-turtledove song leaders and blemished-lamb song leaders. The former is a man who is simply limited in his gifts. He’s gone to song-leading schools to perfect his craft, he practices every time before he leads singing, but he regularly makes mistakes.
However, I think God is pleased with a sacrifice like that despite those mistakes. When we fall short of skilled perfection because of the way He created us, He doesn’t expect any better than that. I have a lot of sympathy for a song leader who is struggling but obviously offering his best.
On the other hand, though, we have blemished-lamb song leaders. These men make mistakes during the assembly too, but their mistakes are the fruit of lack of effort. They’ve never bothered to learn how to blow pitch, beat time, or master any of the other skills that are so important to the song leader. Before the assembly, they can be seen hurriedly putting together a song list on the front pew. In raw talent, they may well blow the unblemished-turtledove song leader away, but men like this never will realize their potential because they can’t be bothered to try.
Now, I’m not saying that every Christian man should feel responsible for becoming a song leader. However, if you want to be a song leader, then you need to put in the work. Nobody is entitled to lead the Lord’s people in worship on Sunday morning simply by virtue of church membership!
When men who have not developed their skills and do not work hard seek that position anyway, that is not a God-honoring spirit. Yes, it’s important not to presume what someone’s heart is like, but the one who is not diligent in preparing to serve makes his heart obvious by the absence of fruit.
When somebody wants to open up the song-leading roster, then, I want to know who the additions will be. Are these men who have worked hard, hit their ceiling, and want to serve despite their limitations? Or, on the other hand, are these men who are limited because they never have bothered to learn how to serve? Once we figure that out, I don’t think we’ll have any trouble discerning who should enter the rotation.