Some ways of thinking seem to lend themselves naturally to apostasy. There are some arguments that, if you find yourself making them, are signs that you are about to abandon the truth. Among these is the cultural-coincidence argument.
It goes like this: “I know that X has been the traditional understanding of Scripture for hundreds or thousands of years, but I’m a better Bible student than all of those other people, and I have arrived at the more enlightened understanding of Y. Coincidentally, X is something that the worldly culture around me dislikes, and Y is something that it celebrates. Isn’t it wonderful that my new, 100 percent intellectually honest, interpretation is helping me to win the friendship of the world?”
Perhaps this is cynical of me, but when I see people making arguments like this, I tend to suspect that maybe, just maybe, they are using the world to understand the Bible rather than using the Bible to understand the world.
One of the more obvious places where this occurs is in the recent re-reading of Scripture to endorse the practice of homosexuality. Apparently, all those passages that people of faith have always understood as condemning same-sex intimacy do nothing of the sort.
For instance, this revisionist interpretation claims that the sin for which Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed was not the homosexual lust expressed in Genesis 19:4-5. It was hostility to the poor. This argument is based on Ezekiel 16:49-50, in which Judah is warned not to imitate the pride and greed of Sodom.
If Ezekiel contained everything the Bible says about the sin of Sodom, the argument would be valid. However, it doesn’t. Jude 7 says that Sodom and Gomorrah sinned by engaging in gross immorality and going after strange flesh. This does not contradict Ezekiel; instead, it adds to our understanding of the wickedness of the Sodomites. Their hearts were filled with both greed and lust (and yes, it is still sinful today to be hard-hearted toward the poor).
In response to this, revisionists will sometimes argue that “going after strange flesh” means trying to have sex with angels because that’s what the visitors of Genesis 19 were. Merely having sex with men, then, would be OK.
The problem with this claim, though, is that “going after strange flesh” is a statement of intent, of desire. The Sodomites did not know that the visitors to their city were angels. As is evident from their speech, they believed they were men. They did not intend to have sex with angels (which I don’t think is possible anyway). Instead, they intended to have sex with men, and they were destroyed not for making an innocent mistake, but for acting on an evil desire.
Whenever we think we’ve found a way to re-read the Bible to accommodate what we want to believe and do, we should be very concerned. So it is here. I don’t agree with the people who reject the Bible because they believe the practice of homosexuality is good, but at least they’re being honest. On the other hand, those who twist the Scriptures to fit their pre-conceptions are not succeeding in reconciling the two. Instead, they are endorsing sin and adding to it self-deceit.
The world is full of teaching strategies and teaching experts, but as Christians, we should be taking our example from the One who is supposed to be our example in everything. Being a disciple of Jesus means believing that imitating Jesus is enough. That’s true in faith, it’s true in morality, and it’s true in teaching. Ph.D.’s in education are all well and good, but no man ever spoke like that Man!
Indeed, as we seek to reach the lost, Jesus must be our guiding light. It is not easy to imitate the Lord. In fact, I think that’s why there have been fad evangelism programs sweeping the brotherhood ever since I was a kid. We want the lost to be saved, but we don’t want to be personally involved.
However, personal involvement is the essence of discipleship. What was the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, if not Jesus personally involving Himself with mankind? As His example shows, this kind of personal connection is the only way to be truly effective in personal work. Let’s see what we can learn, then, as we consider the way that He instructs the woman at the well.
The first thing that we should take from Him in this story is the importance of CONNECTION. Look at how He connects with the woman in John 4:1-9. Jesus’ initial interaction with her reminds me of His initial interaction with Zacchaeus in Luke 19. In both cases, what you see on the surface is Jesus asking somebody to do Him a favor.
However, in neither case is that really what is going on. Instead, in both cases, Jesus is using His request to treat somebody better than they were expecting. Zacchaeus is a tax collector, the woman at the well is a Samaritan, and both expect Jews to treat them like dirt. When Jesus asks them for help, He shows them that He believes that they have dignity and value as human beings. That opens the door for everything else He says.
Today, whenever we want to teach somebody, we must begin by showing them that we respect and value them. This can be as simple as getting a child to pass out color sheets in a classroom. It can be as complicated as spending months nurturing a relationship with an outsider. Regardless, people who know that we value them are far more likely to value what we say. When we treat them better than they expect, we stand out to them.
Second, let’s notice how RELEVANCE is central to the initial part of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman. The story continues in John 4:10-14. Of course, Jesus knew hearts and knew everything about the woman before she opened her mouth, but everything He says here could have been based on keen observation and quick wits.
Apparently, this well is some distance from the village of Sychar, where the woman lived. We know from later in the account that people coming from the village were clearly visible to those at the well. As He was resting by the well, Jesus doubtless watched this woman lugging her heavy jar toward Him, and He knew that she would have to make the return trip with an even heavier jar. She does this not because she’s in desperate need of exercise, but because she’s in desperate need of water. So what does Jesus talk about with her? Water—the one thing it is clear she cares about and needs.
So too, if we want people to listen to us, we need to present the gospel in a way that is meaningful to them. Because it is universally relevant, there’s always going to be a way to do this. However, as Jesus observed the woman with her water jar, we have to observe those we teach. The more we learn about them, the better able we will be to present God’s word in a way that resonates with them.
Third, if we want to be effective teachers, we must have CREDIBILITY with our students. Look at how Jesus establishes His credibility with the woman at the well in John 4:15-19. Through the conversation to this point, Jesus and the woman really have been talking about two different things. She thinks Jesus is discussing literal water, whereas in reality, He’s been talking about the water of life. When she asks Him for water, then, He uses the opportunity to establish His spiritual bona fides by revealing His knowledge of her complicated marital history. She concludes, and rightly so, that He is a prophet.
Today, obviously, none of us are prophets. However, we can establish our credibility by referring to God’s prophetic word. If we want to accomplish this, though, we can’t rely on a series of half a dozen proof texts. Instead, like Jesus adapted His words to the life of the woman, we have to adapt our use of the Scriptures to those we are teaching. As we answer their questions and meet their needs with book, chapter, and verse, we show them that they can trust us as a source of spiritual information.
The final thing that we see in Jesus’ teaching style is CHRIST-CENTEREDNESS. Let’s see how this unfolds in John 4:20-26. Now that the woman has decided He is a prophet, she asks Him to settle the centuries-old religious controversy between Jews and Samaritans. Where should they worship, in Jerusalem or on the mountain? Jesus responds by telling her that the time is coming when the worship of Jews and Samaritans alike will be transformed, so that rather than worshiping in a place, they will worship in spirit and truth. She hears that and correctly concludes that the bringer of truth will be the Messiah, the prophet like Moses predicted in Deuteronomy 18. This allows Jesus to reveal Himself to her.
From the beginning, Jesus’ goal was to get her to accept Him as the Christ. This must be the goal of all of our teaching too. Brethren, if the time we spend teaching in Bible classes and kitchen-table studies doesn’t bring our students closer to Jesus, we have wasted our time. We’re supposed to be engaged in soul-winning, not academics, and if soul-winning is our aim, the more we talk about the Lord, the more we lift up the Lord, the more successful we will be.
Proverbs 31 contains the wisdom of King Lemuel’s mother. She addresses two main topics. The first concerns the dangers of drinking alcohol. She warns him that alcohol isn’t for kings. It will destroy him and lead him to forget justice. If he wants to defend the rights of the poor and needy, he needs to abstain.
The rest of the chapter concerns the worthy woman. She is a trustworthy wife to her husband, works hard in providing for her household, cares for the needy and the members of her own family, and earns their praise.
Psalm 82 is addressed to the judges of the earth (called “gods” in 82:1 and 82:6 because they exercise the authority of God). It warns them that as they sit in judgment on others, God sits in judgment on them. He calls them to account for their failure to judge in favor of the weak and vulnerable. Because they have not judged wisely, God will strike them down, and they will die as other men do. The psalm concludes with an appeal to God to exercise this judgment.
Psalm 83 asks God for His help in battle. Many of the nations around Israel, from the Philistines to the Assyrians, have joined together and conspired against her. The psalmist appeals to God to defeat this alliance as He defeated the Midianites in the time of Gideon. He asks God to make them as impermanent as chaff and fire, so that they will be defeated and forced to acknowledge Him.
Psalm 84 is an expression of delight in God’s temple. The psalmist longs to be in the temple, and he compares being in the temple to a bird being in its nest. He belongs there, and he envies those who are always there. Similarly, the most blessed people are those who know how to travel to Zion, where the temple is. God will protect them.
Finally, the psalmist asks God to hear his prayers. Because of God’s presence and attention, a day in the temple is better than a thousand elsewhere, and dwelling in the temple is better than dwelling with the wicked. God will surely bless those who seek Him.
Psalm 85 is an appeal to God to restore His favor. It begins by pointing out His past kindness in bringing Israel back from captivity. Now, the psalmist asks God not to remain angry forever, but to show similar kindness to His people in their current trouble.
The psalmist then expresses his determination to wait for what God will do. He is confident that God will bring peace and bless the land. All sorts of virtues will come together there, the land will prosper, and God will dwell there.
Be merciful to me, O God!
To You my soul will fly;
Beneath Your wings I will abide
Until the storms pass by.
To God Most High I will cry out,
For He will send and bless
To put to shame my enemy
With all His faithfulness.
My soul is in the midst of foes
Whose ways are not the Lord’s;
Like spears and arrows are their teeth;
Their tongues are sharpened swords.
Be great, O God, above the skies,
With glory over all!
With hate, they dug the pit for me
Where they themselves now fall.
With steadfast heart I praise the Lord
And make a melody;
Awake, my heart, to honor Him;
Awake the dawn for me!
Among all nations, I will sing
And hail Your faithful love
Because it stretches to the skies
And to the clouds above.
Last Sunday night, Clay led the young families’ devotion, and he focused our study on 1 Thessalonians 5:18, which tells us that we are to give thanks in all circumstances. Clay observed, and rightly so, that “all” means “all”. Even in times of sorrow, Christians are supposed to be thankful people.
That raised the question, though, of how we do that. How can I be thankful when I’m in the middle of some horrible trial, when everything in my life is going wrong, and the last thing I want to do is to thank God for anything?
We batted around some answers to that question, but as I was meditating on it over the next few days, it struck me that a different answer appears in the Psalms. As hopefully our Bible reading plan this year has shown us, many psalms are written from dark places. They reveal God’s people grappling with the same kinds of trials we face. And yet, with only one exception that I can think of, even the most downcast psalms are psalms of thanksgiving too. With that in mind, let’s turn to Psalm 77 this evening to learn how we can offer thanksgiving in sorrow.
The first thing that we see in Psalm 77 is THE PSALMIST’S UNHAPPINESS. Look at Psalm 77:1-4. The thing that jumps out from this text is that the psalmist is doing what he ought to be doing, but it’s not working. He’s praying, he’s expressing his confidence that God will hear him, but God is not giving him the peace that he wants.
In particular, the psalm paints a vivid picture of his misery at night. He can’t sleep, he’s praying all night long, but despite this constant prayer, he can’t find any peace. His misery continues, and it so oppresses his thoughts that he can’t string a coherent sentence together.
I don’t know about you brethren, but I identify with this. There have been many times in my life when I felt exactly this way, right down to the insomnia and misery all night long. I think this is a perfectly legitimate place for a Christian to be. We can be righteous and miserable at the same time. Jesus himself was called a man of sorrows, despite being perfectly righteous. When we demand constant happiness from ourselves and our brethren, we are holding up a standard that goes beyond anything that God asks. No matter how faithful we are, all of us will encounter suffering. It’s the nature of life in this fallen world.
Indeed, his predicament leads the psalmist to QUESTIONING GOD’S GOODNESS. Let’s read from Psalm 77:5-9. You know, this is one of the places in the Bible when I have to stop and appreciate God’s compassion for us as shown by His revelation. It’s so important that the Psalms aren’t happy-happy joy-joy all the time. They show that even the most faithful of God’s people go through times of questioning and doubt.
I think there are two lessons for us here. First, for those of us who aren’t going through those hard times right now, but are around those who are, we need to learn to accept faith questions as a natural response to suffering. It is not ungodly for Christians to wonder aloud if God ever will allow them to be happy again!
Second, though, if we are the ones going through the valley, we have to make sure that our questions are genuine. Are we asking these things because we want reassurance, or are we asking them because we are looking for an excuse to leave the Lord?
The first, as I’ve said, is completely legitimate. The second isn’t. There’s nothing wrong with engaging God in our doubt. There is something wrong with refusing to engage Him because we doubt.
What keeps the psalmist from going down that dark road is his RESOLVE TO REMEMBER. Consider Psalm 77:10-12. This is the key turning point in the psalm. Even when he’s in the middle of this terrible suffering, the psalmist says, “I’m not going to think about my horrible present and judge God on that basis. I’m going to remember everything that I have learned about God from the past.”
This is important because it highlights one of Satan’s great deceptions. Remember how last week I said every temptation has a lie in it? Here, we see the lie in the temptation of suffering. When we are experiencing suffering, Satan wants us to get tunnel vision about that suffering. He wants us to make our judgments about God solely on the basis of our current horrible experience. He wants us to conclude that because we are unhappy right now, God is not a good God, and there is no purpose in serving Him.
When we remember the past, we defeat this lie. If we’re going to put God on trial, we’d better make sure we’re bringing in all the evidence, and our current suffering does not provide all the evidence there is. When God’s people have suffered in the past, how has He dealt with them? For that matter, when we’ve gone through hard times before in our lives, how has God dealt with us? If we’re going to be fair, those are the questions we must ask.
This takes us, then, to THE IMPORTANCE OF THANKSGIVING. Let’s conclude the psalm by reading Psalm 77:13-20. Notice that the psalmist isn’t thanking and praising God for what he is going through right now. Instead, he is looking to the past. In particular, he is looking to the time when God delivered the Israelites by parting the Red Sea so they could escape from the Egyptians.
That wasn’t a happy time either. Before God acted, the Israelites were convinced that He had led them out into the wilderness only to die under the Egyptian chariots. However, God confirmed His faithfulness by delivering them with a display of power so great that none of them could have imagined beforehand what He would do.
Even though the psalmist doesn’t spell this out, his conclusion is plainly implied. He is comforted because God’s past deliverance of his people shows that God will deliver him personally. Even though the present is awful, the past reveals what the future will be like.
This is why thanksgiving in sorrow is so vital for us too. When we pause, even in the middle of suffering, to glorify God for His past goodness, it reminds us that He is faithful and will surely bless us once again. Has God ever abandoned us before? For that matter, do we see Him ever abandoning any of His faithful people? If the answer is “No,” we can be sure that He won’t abandon us this time either.