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The People Who Get to Understand

Monday, April 27, 2020

Classical Calvinism teaches that it is impossible for the unregenerate to understand the word of God.  We first must be anointed by the Holy Spirit before we can comprehend it and be saved.  At first glance, Matthew 13:11 appears to support this doctrine.  Here, Jesus says to His disciples, “Because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given for them to know.”  Sounds like the elect versus the reprobate, doesn’t it?

However, a study of the context reveals that something very different is going on.  In the first eight verses of Matthew 13, Jesus relates the parable of the sower, a description of agricultural events with no apparent spiritual application.  In v. 9, He offers an invitation:  “Let anyone who has ears, listen.”  In v. 10, while the multitudes mill around in bafflement, the disciples come to Him and ask Him to explain His teaching methods.  In vs. 18-23, He explains the parable of the sower to them.

In this context, the clear difference between the enlightened disciples and the ignorant multitudes is not the anointing of the Spirit.  It’s plain and simple want-to.  The people who wanted to figure out the meaning of the parable exerted extra effort and got what they wanted.  The people who didn’t want to bother did nothing extra and remained in the dark.

This same pattern plays out today, even among baptized believers.  When it comes to figuring out the Bible, some Christians have want-to.  They study their lesson before Bible class.  They listen intently.  They ask questions.  They engage the preacher about his lesson after the sermon is over.  They read the Bible daily.  And so on.  Though such brethren never satisfy their desire for the truth, they steadily grow in understanding.

On the other hand, there are Christians who don’t have that want-to.  They do none of the things that their more diligent peers do.  However, they are very good at manufacturing excuses for their lack of diligence. 

“I’m too busy,” is a favorite.  “The preacher/teacher is boring,” is another.  Strangely, they don’t find the latest episode of “Tiger King”, with its constant parade of ungodly freaks, to be boring, but those who proclaim the word of life are.  Perhaps they would be happier if the Bible-class teacher were more like Joe Exotic.

Regardless of excuses, the outcome is the same as it was 2000 years ago.  The motivated gain enlightenment; the unmotivated remain ignorant.  This is no mere academic difference.  Greater understanding of the word increases faith, produces hope, builds character, and protects from temptation.  Those who are not growing become more faithless, more hopeless, more useless, and more godless. 

Over time, many such brethren fall away, astonishing those who had worshiped with them for years or decades.  In reality, their collapse is no more surprising than the collapse of an old, dead tree.  On the outside, little change was evident, but within, rot and termites were hard at work.

The risks are too real for any of us to take chances with our salvation.  Each one of us needs to return to the word with zeal and Berean love of truth, not because we love academic minutiae, but because we love God and His Son.  With such a spirit, we bring joy to the Lord’s heart and make the devil’s job that much harder.  We have ears to hear.  Let’s use them.

Jesus' Preferred Companions

Friday, April 24, 2020

OK.  It’s meme-check time again.  I encountered the above on Facebook a few days ago.  It plays off of two common beliefs:  first, that Jesus preferred the company of sinners and primarily associated with them, and second, that Christians are a bunch of stuck-up modern-day Pharisees who prefer the company of their own kind.

I think the first belief reveals a lack of familiarity with Jesus’ actual ministry rather than the pop-culture conception of that ministry.  Yes, Jesus was the friend of tax collectors and sinners, but those weren’t the people He associated with above anybody else.  Instead, He spent the most time with His disciples. 

The disciples are around when Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners (as in Mark 2:15).  They’re around when He is debating with Pharisees, chief priests, and what have you (Mark 7:2; Matthew 23:1).  They’re around when He is teaching the multitudes (Matthew 13:1, 10). 

However, there are also several occasions during which Jesus separates Himself (or at least tries to do so) from everybody but His disciples.  John 11:54 is only one example of this kind of conduct.  In short, when we ask the question, “With whom did Jesus spend most of His time?”, the answer is unequivocally, “His disciples.”

When we consider the class of disciples, several characteristics emerge.  They abandoned their previous lives to follow Jesus.  They often suffered great personal and financial loss as a result of having done so.  They were more interested in His teaching than anyone else was.  The best of them continued to follow Him even when they found Him hard to understand. 

Are you trying to tell me that modern Christians wouldn’t accept with open arms people who had those characteristics?  Come, now!

However, even granting that Jesus spent “most of His time” with sinners and the poor (though I think that the gospels have more to say about His interactions with the crowds and even the Pharisees), I don’t think it’s true that “most Christians” don’t want those people in their church either.

For instance, across the street from the Jackson Heights church building is the Columbia Inn.  It’s one of the lowest, if not the lowest, motels in the city.  Lots of folks on the down-and-out stay there with government assistance.  With great frequency, they show up at services Sunday morning asking for money.

In two and a half years, I’ve never seen the brethren treat these people badly.  They are uniformly welcomed, treated kindly, offered a visitor’s packet, and conducted to a seat.  Commonly, kind-hearted individuals give them money.  They’re offered the chance to study the Bible and are even baptized if they want to be.  At the end of the service, they’re invited back.

To be blunt, this is not a ministry that bears much fruit.  I’ve neither seen nor heard of someone from the Columbia Inn sticking it out as a Christian for more than a couple months.  And yet, the Jackson Heights church has been welcoming these people into their assembly for decades, for no other reason than Matthew 22:39.

I don’t know whether “most Christians” would want sinners and the poor to join their congregation.  I do know that the Jackson Heights church does, and the same has been true everywhere I’ve been a member. 

When others paint Christians as self-righteous hypocrites, it becomes much easier to dismiss them and the gospel they proclaim.  However, before we rely on such a portrait, we ought to make sure it’s not a caricature.  Otherwise, we will make the same self-righteousness we condemn in others plainly evident in ourselves.

Don't Make Government Your God!

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The recent pandemic has had many negative consequences, but on the positive side of the ledger, it has at least crippled, if not killed, the American myth of self-reliance.  For decades, the gospel in this country has been battling the delusion that I’m Just Fine On My Own.  Don’t need God, don’t need nobody, don’t need help for nuthin’!

Well, no.  The downfall of the most self-reliant person on the planet is never more than a catastrophe away.  Sometimes, the catastrophes are personal; at others, they involve the whole nation.  In the U.S., we’ve largely been spared the first-tier national kind since probably the Great Depression, which is more than long enough for the experience to fade from our collective memory.  As a result, millions have been allowed to indulge the fantasy that they can handle whatever comes their way.

No more.  You can nurture your small business for decades, guiding it through every foreseeable challenge with wisdom and skill, but when the governor shuts your doors for two months, it’s game over.  You can eat right, exercise, have yearly physicals, and confidently expect to get your four-score years due to strength, but if the wrong person coughs on you these days. . .

The changing times have left lots of folks feeling more than a little bit uneasy.  They recognize for the first time that they can’t make it on their own, that the struggle before them surely will overwhelm them.  For the first time, they find themselves turning to a higher power to protect their lives from harm.

I refer, of course, to the government.

It is striking how the news for the past couple of months has been dominated by the government.  It has been responsible for the first-order (“The virus is coming!  Shut everything down!”) and the second-order (“Everything’s shut down!  Throw lots of money at the problem!”) reactions to the pandemic.  Partisan bickering, though not silenced by the crisis (that would have been too much to hope for), has at least been focused on it.  Both parties are promising that if we do it their way, we’ll get through this thing with nothing more than a metaphorical hangnail.

However, trusting in the government, regardless of who is at the helm, doesn’t make any more sense than trusting in oneself.  The problem with self-reliance is that we all are fallible humans, but the government is made up of fallible humans, and it tends to magnify the frailties of those in power.  No matter who wins the next election, their response to the present distress will be expensive, short-sighted, poorly coordinated, and bedeviled by unintended consequences.  I’m no prophet, and neither was Dad, but you can take that one to the bank.

In short, don’t put your trust in princes.  Don’t set your hope on the government.  It will not protect you.  It will not make all right with your life or with the country.  It will not do for you what only God can do.  Indeed, history teaches us that the higher the aims of a government, the more catastrophic its failures will be.

The Christians of the first century were well familiar with crisis.  They faced persecution, disease, famine, natural disasters, civil war, and, as the crowning glory of the century, the destruction of Jerusalem and the overthrow of the Jewish nation.   They had no illusions about the government fixing things and making them better.  As 1 Timothy 2:2 reveals, their highest aspiration for the government was that it would leave them alone so they could worship.

Instead, they trusted in God and were not disappointed.  Through all of the above trials, they were more than conquerors through Him who loved them.   Government promises, but God performs.  If, in these troubled times, we want a kingdom that cannot be shaken, there’s only one place we can look.

What Kind of Woman?

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

There are many passages in the gospels that leave me marveling at the ability of the Evangelists, and indeed of the Holy Spirit, to pack so much content and depth into so little space.  One such a passage is the story of the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50.  It contains only three characters:  Jesus, Simon the Pharisee, and an unnamed woman.  Really, only the woman does anything.  She weeps and washes Jesus’ feet with her perfume and her tears. 

Jesus does nothing.  He sits there and allows her to do it.  Outwardly, Simon does nothing.  Inwardly, though, He is seething.  He had invited Jesus into his home because he believed He was a prophet.  However, no holy man of God would allow a woman like that to touch him! 

Simon knew—or thought he knew—what kind of a woman she was.  We don’t know specifics, though Simon did.  All we know about her is that she was a sinner, and her sin was such that a Pharisee—even a more thoughtful Pharisee like Simon, a Pharisee who was willing to give Jesus a chance—would never consent to having her touch him.

Jesus, though, looked at her and saw a different kind of woman altogether.  Simon was wrong about Him—He did know about her past sins, in much greater detail than Simon did.  However, Jesus didn’t focus on those things.

Instead, He focused on the tears she shed, the tears that showed her sorrow for her sin.  He focused on her humility, her willingness to kiss His feet, filthy with the mire of the streets, and wipe them with her hair.  He focused on her willingness to sacrifice for His sake by anointing His feet with perfume.  We don’t know how much her perfume was worth, but the perfume that Mary used to anoint Jesus for burial was worth 300 denarii, and it’s likely that the value in this case was similar.  He focused on her choice to come to a place where she knew she would not be welcome, a place where she would be sneered at and hated, in order to be near Him. 

In short, He focused on her faith, the faith that would save her from her sins.  To Jesus, that was the kind of woman she was—someone who trusted in Him to forgive her, someone whom He would gladly forgive.  Indeed, she received her salvation before she left the room. 

However, her spiritual transformation is probably not the only one in the story.  Scholars believe that when Luke identifies a minor character in his gospel by name, it’s because he talked to that person and is using them as a source.  If that’s the case here, Luke got the story not from the woman, but from Simon, a disciple of Jesus decades after the events in the story took place.

In that case, the story does not only reveal the woman’s repentance.  It reveals Simon’s too:  his remorse at judging her so harshly, his shame at not seeing what Jesus sees, and his willingness to humble himself and exalt Jesus by recounting these events to Luke.  Ultimately, then, this is not only the woman’s salvation narrative, but Simon’s too, as he realized what kind of a man he was and the depth of his need for Jesus.

What kind of people are we?  Are we humbled by Jesus in the midst of sins that lead the “good people” of the world to regard us with contempt?  Or, instead, are we humbled by Him in the midst of our religious pride, as He gently reminds us that we need His grace as desperately as the worst sinner out there?

“Forgiven sinner” is the only kind of people that we can dare to be.  There is no hope in being anything else.

Hannah's Prayer (1 Samuel 2:1-10)

Friday, April 17, 2020

My heart rejoices in the Lord,
Who lifts my horn on high;
I boast before my enemies
Because You heard my cry.
Not one is holy like the Lord;
Beside You, there is none,
And there can be no other rock
But God, the Holy One.

Boast not before Him in your pride,
Nor try Him with your speech;
He is a God who understands
And weighs the deeds of each.
He breaks the bows of mighty men
But makes the feeble strong.
He starves the rich but grants the poor
The food for which they long.

He gives the barren seven sons
While fruitful women pine;
He brings forth death and offers life,
Each one, by His design.
He sends both poverty and wealth;
They come from Him alone:
He lifts the needy from the dust
And seats them on a throne.

The pillars of the earth are His;
His will sustains it all;
He guards the footsteps of His own
But makes the wicked fall.
Their strength cannot defy His will;
“Repent!” His thunders warn;
With judgment, He exalts His king
And glorifies his horn.

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