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Without Neglecting the Others

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

There are a number of things that the Internet holds to be self-evident truths.  Among these is that “Pharisee” and “legalist” are synonyms.  To be a legalist is to be a Pharisee, and furthermore, to be concerned with obedience to the commandments of God is to be a legalist. 

This is very convenient for opponents of the return to first-century Christianity.  We say, “There is no authority in the Bible for the use of instrumental music in our assemblies.”  They reply, “Pharisee!”  We care about commandment-keeping, so we are legalists.  We are legalists, so we are Pharisees.  Jesus opposed the Pharisees, so we are enemies of the gospel and should be dismissed.  QED, right?

However, before we abandon the Restoration because it is Pharisaical, it would be well for us to consider what, precisely, Jesus condemned about the Pharisees.  To my knowledge, Matthew 23:23 appears to be the best Scriptural basis for the above argument.  There, Jesus says, “You pay a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, and yet you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness.  These things should have been done without neglecting the others.”

Notice that nowhere in this does Jesus condemn paying attentions to the minute details of the Law.  Instead, He objects to the hypocrisy of tithing garden herbs while failing to practice justice, mercy, and faithfulness.  The problem wasn’t the commandments the Pharisees were keeping.  It was the commandments they were breaking.

Similarly, we need to pay attention to Jesus’ two-part solution.  The Pharisees need to start practicing justice, mercy, and faithfulness.  However, they need to do so “without neglecting the others.”  Yes, they need to pay attention to the more important matters of the Law.  However, they also should continue to tithe garden herbs.  Jesus is telling us that all of God’s commandments are important and should be followed, not just the big ones.

For us, the application is plain.  I don’t know anybody who would class the Scriptural witness about mode of worship, use of church funds, etc. as “the more important matters of the Law.”  We talk about those things a lot for the same reason that Paul talked about circumcision a lot—because God’s will in those areas frequently is ignored.  However, no one sets them on the same level as “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  If we aren’t practicing “Love your neighbor as yourself,” we are in a heap of trouble!

Nonetheless, even if we have an obedience problem there, the solution to the problem isn’t to focus on loving our neighbor while ignoring what God has to say about worship and the church treasury.  Instead, it is to continue to honor what God has to say about worship and the church treasury while striving to love our neighbor better.

In short, obedience to God’s commandments never is a spiritual problem.  It always is part of the solution.  Obedience doesn’t make us Pharisaical.  It makes us faithful.  We don’t become more like the Pharisees by caring about all the commandments.  Instead, paradoxically, we imitate them by refusing to attend to the commandments we don’t like.

Jesus Turns up the Pressure

Friday, October 02, 2020

As different as the four gospels are, all four of them put their greatest emphasis on the events of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.  Before that point, their narratives take different paths and discuss different things.  At that point, all of them focus on the garden, the cross, and the empty tomb.

However, even before the gospels come together, we can feel them beginning to converge.  Jesus, even though He will be the innocent victim, is the one firmly in control of the situation, bringing the threads of history together.  Indeed, even though Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are interested in different facets of the story, they all reveal Jesus doing the same thing:  turning up the pressure on the chief priests.

John 12:9-11 reports that the resurrected Lazarus was, not surprisingly, attracting tremendous attention from the crowds.  In response, the Jewish leaders decide not to believe Jesus because of the miracle, but to try to kill the evidence of the miracle—Lazarus—in order to keep the people from believing. 

In Luke’s account of the Triumphal Entry in Luke 19:37-38, the crowds are celebrating Jesus’ entry as King into Jerusalem, using the words of Psalm 118:26.  This is rebellion-against-the-Romans talk, so the Pharisees urge Jesus to quiet them.  He refuses.

In Mark 11:15-17, Jesus cleanses the temple, driving out all the animal sellers and moneychangers who were clogging the temple courts.  Everyone in Jesus’ day would have known who got a cut from all the commerce—the chief priests.  According to Matthew 21:14-17, in response to His miracles of healing, the crowds begin to hosanna Jesus as the Son of David—more incitement to rebellion.  The chief priests get angry and demand that Jesus shush them.  Again, He refuses.

In this context, our final reading for the week is unsurprising.  The chief priests plot with Judas for Jesus to be betrayed into their hands.

If they weren’t so utterly corrupt and evil, it would be easy to feel sympathy for the Jewish leaders at this point.  Jesus has them completely boxed in.  His spectacular miracles have won over the crowds.  Those same crowds are saying irresponsible things about Jesus as King, and Jesus is allowing them to continue.  He is challenging their authority and showing them up as spiritual frauds.  All of this is happening in the spiritually volatile atmosphere of the week before Passover, a holiday that celebrated the Jews’ deliverance from a foreign oppressor.

If the chief priests do nothing, the situation will spin out of their control swiftly.  If they decide to back Jesus so that the whole nation rises against the Romans, they are convinced that the Romans will win and destroy them along with Jesus.  The only solution that is left is to solve the problem by killing the man, the option they decide to take. 

We often think of the Jewish leaders as these devious, cunning plotters, and they were.  However, all through the week before Jesus’ death, we see them running scared, constantly thwarted in their attempts to restore order by Jesus.  They are the rulers of the nation, but they aren’t directing events.  He is, and He is directing them toward a conclusion that nobody but God had even dreamed was possible.

Loving Your [Political] Enemies

Thursday, September 17, 2020

It’s no secret to anyone who pays attention that year by year, the political climate in our country grows more and more toxic.  Political dialogue is dominated by extremist voices on both sides who openly describe people on the other side as their enemies.  Believing the best about one’s opponents is unheard of.  Civility is nonexistent.  Rumors are flying of civil disorder if the wrong side wins, and sometimes even if the wrong side loses.

All of this says that the upcoming election is a very important one for Christians, though maybe not the way that you think.  The truly meaningful choice before us is not whether we vote Republican or Democrat.  It is whether, however we vote, we allow ourselves to be dragged down into the mud with the world, or whether we glorify Christ in what we do, say, and think.  Some will say that the fate of the nation is at stake in November, but our souls are at stake right now. 

In particular, let’s evaluate ourselves according to the standard of Matthew 5:43-44.  Here, our Lord tells us that we are to love not only our neighbor, but even those who hate and persecute us.  These were challenging words when He first said them, and they remain challenging today.  With this in mind, let’s consider loving our political enemies.

This morning, let’s evaluate ourselves on this according to four Biblical standards.  The first is, “DON’T RETURN EVIL FOR EVIL.”  This comes from 1 Peter 3:8-9.  By the point in his life when he was writing this, Peter knew a thing or two about persecution.  He knew what it was like to be beaten and humiliated even when he had done nothing wrong.  Nonetheless, he warns us that it’s wrong to repay the wicked in their own coin.

I see two political applications here.  The first is that it is not godly to respond to the other side’s evil with our evil.  One of the political diseases of our time is whataboutism.  Whenever somebody in our party, it’s common for partisans to reply with, “Well, what about when So-and-So did Thus-and-Such?” as though hypocrisy on the other side mitigates bad behavior on our side.  Evil conduct doesn’t become less evil because the other side did it first.  Sin is sin, even when it’s practiced by somebody on the home team.

Similarly, we must beware of approving in our hearts when a political commentator on our side attacks the other side with vicious sarcasm.  It doesn’t matter whether we think they deserve it.  Hate-filled vitriol is hate-filled vitriol regardless of the source, and Christians never should have anything to do with it.  When we buy in to political savagery, it inevitably corrupts us.

Second, we must be sure NOT TO REJOICE IN UNRIGHTEOUSNESS.  This, of course, is 1 Corinthians 13:6.  This is a familiar passage, but this morning, I want to put a little different spin on it.  Rather than talking about our attitude toward unrighteousness in the people we love, I want to talk about our attitude toward unrighteousness in our political enemies.

Let’s say you flip on the TV or open the Internet browser in the morning, and the first thing you see is a story about awful, wretched behavior by a politician in the other political party.  How does that make you feel?  Do you feel gleeful that the wickedness you always knew was there has been exposed for all to see?  Do you feel vindicated that someone you opposed has lived down to your expectations?  “See!  I knew it all along?”

If so, let me suggest that that’s a problem, because that’s not how we respond to wrongdoing in people we love.  When somebody here at Jackson Heights gets trapped in sin, I’m not gleeful.  If some brother I’ve been concerned about for a long time falls away, I don’t feel vindicated because I was right.  Instead, I’m heartbroken!  In fact, if I weren’t, and I went around talking about how glad I was that Brother So-and-So was gone, I’d probably get fired over it.

Brethren, if it’s not loving to rejoice over unrighteousness in our brethren, it’s not loving to rejoice over unrighteousness in our enemies either!  We should never feel justified or satisfied or vindicated by someone else’s wickedness.  If we respond to sin in anyone with anything other than mourning and a prayer for their souls, we’re doing it wrong.

Third, also from 1 Corinthians 13:6, if we love our enemies, we will REJOICE IN THE TRUTH.  Necessarily, that means that we can’t rejoice in lies, and these days, that poses a problem.  Right now, there is no “the news” anymore, like there was when I was kid.  Instead, you have Red News and Blue News, and Red News promotes Red narratives, and Blue News promotes Blue narratives.  What people watch and read and listen to depends on what they believe already. 

In fact, the deeper Red you get, and the deeper Blue you get, the more important the narrative becomes, and the less important the truth becomes.  It is often the case that the most wretched lies put out by far left and far right alike are the stories most eagerly read and shared by partisans.  “The other presidential candidate had an affair with a space alien?  Great!  I’m going to share that on my Facebook page, right next to the inspirational Bible quote from yesterday!”

Brethren, no!  If we love our enemies, we won’t be eager to believe lies about them either.  If you come to me with some whopper of an awful story about my wife, I’m not going to lap that stuff up.  I’m going to be really reluctant to believe you.  Why?  Because I love my wife!  When we want so badly to believe evil about our political enemies that we embrace even falsehood, it reveals that we don’t have a shred of love for them in our hearts.

Finally, it will help us to love our enemies if we ENTRUST OURSELVES TO GOD.  Consider the example of Jesus in 1 Peter 2:23.  Even on the cross, Jesus did not cease to love His enemies, and He was able to endure such terrible suffering because He had entrusted Himself to God.  They could kill His body, but they couldn’t touch what truly mattered.

I predict that over the next couple of months, we’re going to hear a great deal about how this election is going to be one of the most important in our lifetime.  We have to get out and vote right, or else horrible things are going to happen!  Of course, the same people also said that the 2008 election, and the 2012 election, and the 2016 election also were the most important in our lifetimes.  If we’re still here in 2024, I predict that will be called the most important election of our lifetimes too.  All of them are, apparently.

But really, brethren, for the child of God, no election is truly important.  No matter who wins the vote, they can’t touch our relationship with God unless we let them. 

Right now, all is well with us, not because of our earthly blessings, but because our lives are hidden with Christ in God.  On Wednesday, November 4th, if the wrong guy wins the election, it still will be well with us—so long as our lives are hidden with Christ in God.  Even if worst comes to worst, and stormtroopers from the other side come after us, and they drag us out of our homes and stand us up against a wall and shoot us, even then, it will be well with us—so long as our lives are hidden with Christ in God. 

So long as we are with our Lord, our enemies can’t touch us, no matter what they do.  We have no reason to fear them, and that frees us to love them.  If we entrust ourselves to God, something as insignificant as an election isn’t worth worrying about.

Jesus Predicting His Death

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Luke 18-19 chronicles the high point of Jesus’ ministry.  He is on His way to Jerusalem, surrounded by an exultant crowd.  According to Luke 19:11, the throngs believed that “the kingdom of God was going to appear right away.”  In other words, they anticipated that when Jesus came to Jerusalem, He would set Himself up at King David II and begin the glorious work of booting the Romans out of Jewish territory (and possibly even making the Jews the overlords of the Romans!).

It is in the midst of this euphoria that Jesus does something very strange.  According to Luke 18:31-34, at the peak of His earthly popularity, He pulls the Twelve aside and reveals something to them that He doesn’t want the crowds to hear.  Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem isn’t going to end with triumph over the chief priests and Gentiles.  Instead, it is going to end with their triumph over Him.  They are going to take Him, humiliate Him, and kill Him.  After that, He is going to rise from the dead.

Not surprisingly, Luke tells us that this does not compute.  The Twelve don’t understand it, not the humiliation and death part, and not the resurrection part.  Why should it have?  It fit into their preconceptions about as well as a fur coat fits into a PETA meeting.

Nonetheless, it is extremely important that Jesus predicted both His death and His resurrection.  Not even a skeptic has much reason to doubt that He did so.  The gospels report that He did so on three separate occasions, and Matthew 27:62-64 reveals that even the Sanhedrin has heard the story.  Indeed, they ask Pilate to post the guard at Jesus’ tomb to keep His disciples from helping the fulfillment along themselves.

As Gary Habermas points out in The Case for the Resurrection, these predictions provide vital context for understanding the significance of the risen Christ.  We have seen before that the evidence for the resurrection is quite good, even if we take a minimalist approach to the Scriptural witness. 

However, merely accepting the resurrection accounts still leaves us adrift.  If I were to die and rise from the dead three days later, that wouldn’t be any reason to build a religion around me.  It simply would be a weird, inexplicable thing.

Jesus’ predictions provide the necessary explanation.  It’s one thing to rise from the dead.  It’s another thing to claim to be God, predict that you will rise from the dead, and then do so.  The claims by themselves are lunacy; the resurrection by itself is incomprehensible.  However, claim plus resurrection equals proof that Jesus is the Son of God.  Here as elsewhere, the word gives us all the reason we need to believe.

Was Jesus Just a Good Teacher?

Friday, September 11, 2020

Every so often, you run into something that makes you scratch your head.  So it was with a survey I read about last week.  Though the full results of the survey won’t be released until the day after tomorrow, the survey conductors released a few advanced snippets.  Among these, they found that a majority of Americans no longer believe that Jesus was God, which is sad but not surprising.

However, the one that blew my mind was that 30 percent of self-identified evangelicals also agreed that Jesus was a good teacher but not God.  Even the supposed Christian conservatives in our country are beginning to question the deity of Christ!  That shocks me, and when I see such a surprising result, normally I start questioning the integrity of the survey conductors.  However, the outfit in question is Ligonier Ministries, a respectable group that has been doing surveys like this for years.

I decided, then, that we need to talk about this.  Lots of people apparently think it’s reasonable to believe that Jesus was merely a human being who said lots of good things.  Is it?  This evening, let’s ask if indeed Jesus was just a good teacher.

In order to answer this question, I think there are three main pieces of evidence we need to consider, evidence from the mouth of Jesus Himself.  The first of these is that HE CLAIMED TO BE THE SOLE SOURCE OF TRUTH.  Look at His exchange with Thomas in John 14:5-6.  We are very used to this idea.  We sing hymns that praise Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life.  Many of us can quote John 14:6 from memory.

However, I think that because we are so used to it, we no longer are able to see how shocking the words of Jesus are here.  To illustrate how shocking they are, let’s take them out of the mouth of Jesus and put them in somebody else’s mouth—mine.

 Imagine, brethren, that I’m preaching along one Sunday morning, and in the middle of the sermon I say, “I, Matthew W. Bassford, am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  What would you think of that?  I strongly suspect that if I were to say such a thing in deadly earnest, by next Sunday, I no longer would be employed by the Jackson Heights church!

Why?  Because for a mere human being to make that claim would be extraordinarily arrogant.  Even Moses, the great giver of the Law, never claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life.  In making that claim, Jesus put Himself over every other teacher of the Law.  He condemned every other religion in existence as false. 

What’s more, He even put Himself over the Law itself.  Think about it.  For thousands of years, the Jews had regarded God’s word as truth.  It was their way to pleasing Him.  If they obeyed, God would give them life.  In saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus is telling His hearers, “You need to quit following the Law and start following Me instead.”

Anybody who makes that claim about themselves cannot be merely a good human teacher.  Either they are leading people astray, or they are a being of such transcendent wisdom that it is right to reject everything else in favor of them.  Jesus did make that claim, so it is impossible for us to believe that He merely is a good teacher.

Second, HE CLAIMED TO BE THE MESSIAH.  Look at the exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4:25-26.  This, I think, is another shocking claim that has lost its shock value because we are so used to it.  In our society, it’s probably true that most people think that “Christ” is Jesus’ last name.

Of course, “Christ” is not a name.  It is a title, and it means the same thing that “Messiah” does.  It means “Anointed One”.  Even this doesn’t mean a whole lot to people in the 21st-century United States, but it would have meant everything in first-century Palestine.

Under the Law of Moses, three classes of people were ceremonially anointed:  prophets, priests, and kings.  Various prophecies throughout the Old Testament predicted the coming of one who simultaneously would be a prophet like Moses, a priest like Melchizedek, and a king like David.  When He came, this Anointed One would deliver God’s people from their enemies once for all. 

More than anything else, the people of Jesus’ day wanted to see the Messiah come.  Not surprisingly, lots of people tried to take advantage.  Both the New Testament and secular historians record false Christs, people who claimed to be the Messiah and weren’t.

It was possible for somebody to be a false Christ.  What wasn’t possible was to make that claim and simultaneously be a good human teacher.  If you said you were the Christ, either you were, or you were a deceiver on a massive scale.  If you were the Christ, then you also were the Redeemer, the Savior, the Holy One of God.  The true Christ wasn’t somebody who came to pass along a few wise little parables.  He was somebody who came as the greatest fulfillment of divine prophecy ever to be.

Finally, of course, Jesus could not merely be a good human teacher because HE CLAIMED TO BE GOD.  Consider what Jesus says to some opponents of His in John 8:56-59.  Jesus begins this exchange by asserting something that others in His day would have found ridiculous—that Abraham, 2000 years ago, looked ahead prophetically and rejoiced to see the coming of Jesus.

Naturally, the Jews jump all over this.  Who does Jesus think He is, to make such a claim?  In response, Jesus tells them, “Before Abraham was, I am.”  This is not Jesus mixing up His verb tenses.  Instead, He is taking the divine name of God from Exodus 3 and He is appropriating it for Himself.  He is claiming to be eternal, pre-existent, and divine.

The Jews understand perfectly well what Jesus is saying here, so well, in fact, that their next action is to pick up stones to stone Him to death.  These aren’t Greeks who accept the existence of gods and demigods in human form.  For them, for any human being to claim to be God is blasphemy.  Such a one deserved to die.

I’m sure that throughout this sermon, some of you have been thinking about C.S. Lewis’s “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” argument, and this is where it comes to a point.  Jesus claims to be God.  That means that one of three things must be true of Him.  Either He was a con artist, He was out of His mind, or He really was the God He claimed to be. 

Indeed, this claim completely forecloses the possibility that Jesus merely was a good human teacher.  Good human teachers don’t claim to be God.  Evil human teachers might make such a claim, or crazy human teachers, but not good human teachers.

In order to believe, then, that Jesus was a good human teacher and nothing more, these 30 percent of evangelicals must reject the words of Jesus Himself.  Whatever they say about themselves, they are not Christians in any meaningful sense.  For us to be Christians, we must accept not only His goodness and humanity, but also His exclusivity, His Messiahship, and His deity.  There is no other way.

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