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Jesus and Progressive Enlightenment

Monday, June 15, 2020

When we read the gospels, it is often the stories that strike us as strange that have the most to teach us.  This is the case with the healing of the blind man in Mark 8:22-26.  It begins like a typical Jesus miracle.  Someone with an incurable problem, in this case a blind man, is brought to Jesus for help.  In response, Jesus does a Jesusy thing (spitting on his eyes, laying hands on him) to heal him.

However, the miracle doesn’t seem to take.  When the man looks up, though he can see, he can’t see clearly.  Jesus has to touch his eyes before his vision is perfected.

Given that Jesus is the One who does all things well, this is bizarre.  How could He fail to heal someone perfectly the first time around?  Was the Master having an off day?

As is often the case in Mark, the answer lies in the context.  Mark always has a moral to his stories, but he almost never directly tells us what it is.  Instead, he arranges material thematically, so that an apparently unrelated story offers commentary on what precedes and follows it.

That’s exactly what is going on with the story of the blind man.  It occurs in the context of stories about incomplete understanding.  In Mark 8:14-21, the disciples mistake Jesus’ warning about the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod for a complaint that they had failed to bring any bread on the boat.  In Mark 8:27-33, Peter recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah, but he fails to see (get it?) that God’s plan for the Messiah was for Him to be taken and killed by His enemies.

I believe that Jesus could have healed the blind man in one shot, as He completely healed other blind men on other occasions.  However, He chose instead to use the blind man as a live-action parable, an illustration of the imperfect spiritual vision of His followers.

At this point, the disciples see some things.  They’re different from the hard-hearted and unbelieving Pharisees of Mark 8:11-13.  However, like the blind man after Jesus’ first healing, they don’t yet see clearly.  They’re focused on questions of physical nourishment instead of spiritual danger, despite having seen miracles in which Jesus produced practically unlimited quantities of food on demand.  They acknowledge Jesus as the Christ, but they want to force-fit Him into their Christ-shaped preconceptions  rather than waiting for the unfolding of God’s mystery.  Jesus could heal physical blindness instantaneously, but not even the master Teacher could bring immediate enlightenment to the eyes of the heart.

Today, all of us are in the same boat.  We have God’s completed revelation, but our understanding of that revelation remains incomplete.  We may have read, but our spiritual vision still is imperfect.

Like the blind man, then, we must return to Jesus, acknowledging our need for His work to continue in us.  For us, it won’t take two passes, or even two hundred passes, but a lifetime of Him refining our understanding.  As Jesus points out in John 9:41, at the end of a different story about vision, there’s no shame in acknowledging our blindness.  The problems begin when we start thinking we already see well enough.

The Son of Man Will Come in Might

Friday, June 12, 2020

The Son of Man will come in might
And sit upon His glorious throne;
Dividing nations left and right,
The King will separate His own,
And to the blest He will declare,
“Receive the kingdom I prepared!”

“I hungered, and you gave Me bread;
“You brought Me water in My name;
“Within your homes, I laid My head;
“You clothed My nakedness and shame.
“To sickness and captivity,
“There too you came to care for Me.”

The just will say, “When did we see
“That You were hungry or in need
“And show You hospitality
“Or quench Your thirst, or clothe, or feed?
“That we should gain this great reward,
“What have we done for You, O Lord?”

And then the King will make reply
To those who followed His design,
“The brethren you did not deny,
“The very least of these are Mine,
“And all you did in charity,
“You did it also unto Me.”

Romans 13 and the Second Amendment

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Since I moved to Tennessee, one of the most obvious changes in my life has been a greatly increased interest in and appreciation of firearms.  I think that they’re valuable for any number of uses, from hunting to self-defense.

What’s more, I believe that it’s lawful for a Christian to use a firearm to defend innocent life, whether his own or someone else’s, from the lawless.  I argue here that Jesus’ commandment to turn the other cheek should be read in a context of refusing to resist governmental oppression from the Romans.  Nothing in Scripture prevents a disciple from using weapons for protection from criminals. 

However, this argument has consequences, and it particularly has consequences for our views of whether American Christians have the right to take up arms against an oppressive and tyrannical government.  At least some of the Founding Fathers (most notably Thomas Jefferson) would have argued that we do.  In this case, though, it is the word of God, not the views of the Founders, that must guide our behavior.

Most Christians who have thought about the subject recognize that Romans 13:1-7 is the most relevant text here.  On their face, Paul’s words appear straightforward.  Christians are to submit to the government, full stop.  However, I have heard brethren argue that in the case of the United States, the Constitution, particularly the Second Amendment, is the true government.  Thus, Christians can “obey the government” by asserting their Second-Amendment rights against the villains in Washington who want to take away their guns.

There are two problems with this claim.  First, according to constitutional theory, the sovereign of the United States is not the Constitution.  It is the people.  The Constitution is merely an expression of the will of the people, as are the various officials elected and appointed under the Constitution’s terms.  Yes, there are checks and balances built into the Constitution to protect the minority from the majority, but if the people decide that the Second Amendment refers to the National Guard, or that it should be written out of the Constitution altogether, that is the right of the sovereign.

Second, and more tellingly, the Constitution doesn’t fit the definition of “the governing authorities” in Romans 13.  In Romans 13, the government brings wrath on those who practice evil.  It collects taxes.  It demands obedience from its subjects.  The Constitution does none of those things, so it doesn’t make sense to apply Romans 13 to the Constitution.  Instead, the clear modern analogue of the Romans 13 government is. . . our federal, state, and local governments—all those who make, carry out, and interpret the law of the land.  If they say, “Give us your guns!” and we say, “No!”, we are resisting the lawful, God-established government.

Some might argue that Romans 13 does not require Christians to submit to tyranny, but according to our definitions, all the governments of the New Testament were tyrannical.  They beat, imprisoned, and even executed the innocent without a fair trial.  They imposed taxes to which the taxed had not agreed.  The Roman Empire ruled by the swords of the legions, not the consent of the governed.

Oppressive?  Yes.  Unjust?  Yes.  The government to which first-century Christians were to submit?  Also yes.  Indeed, one of the great overlooked themes of the gospels is Jesus’ desperate attempt to persuade the Jews not to take up arms against Rome.  Christians may sometimes be forced to obey God rather than men, but they are not to be the architects of civil disorder.

I sympathize with the Christians who want to hold on to their guns, no matter what.  I think it’s good public policy for them to be allowed to do so, and it accords with the priority that God’s word places on protecting the vulnerable and weak.  When my daughter moves out of my home, I want her to take with her a firearm that she knows how to use, so that she can defend herself in the hour of desperate need. 

However, our hope is not and must not be founded on these things.  If we are blessed with the opportunity to live under a just and well-ordered government, we ought to be thankful.  If we are not, we must remember that God, not ourselves, is our ultimate hope for justice.  If we assert our rights at the expense of honoring Him, we will have made a bad bargain. 

Portrait of a Loveless Christian

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

As all of you hopefully know by now, my favorite sermon topics are the ones that the brethren here request.  I know that when I preach on those topics, my sermons are closely connected to the interests and needs of my hearers, and I believe that makes them as useful as they possibly can be.

This morning’s sermon idea comes from Jason.  He and I were talking after my sermon two weeks ago, which was about love, and he began musing about what the portrait of a loveless Christian would look like.  I said, “That’s a great idea!  I’ll preach on that!”, so here we are.

It’s tempting, I think, to compare such a portrait to other Christians whom we have known, but it’s most important to compare it to ourselves.  When we figure out where we have fallen short in our love, it shows us where we most need to improve.  Indeed, if we don’t figure that out, we may lose our souls over it.  Let’s consider, then, what this portrait of a loveless Christian looks like.

First, the loveless Christian is PUFFED UP.  Consider 1 Corinthians 8:1-2.  In context, Paul is referring to first-century Christians who understood that it didn’t matter whether meat had been sacrificed to an idol or not.  In comparison to God and Jesus, idols are nothing!  However, these knowledgeable Christians were so self-centered that they didn’t care that their behavior was leading others to sin against their conscience.

Today, the debate about meat sacrificed to idols isn’t an issue for us, but spiritual arrogance still is.  It can show up in any number of ways.  It appears in the life of the Christian who has studied a great deal, but who uses his knowledge to crush and intimidate others rather than gently guiding them to God.  It also shows up in the Christian who doesn’t know nearly as much they think they do and aren’t nearly as righteous as they think they are, yet presume to sit in judgment on others.  When Christians insist on getting their way in every decision that the church makes and aren’t willing to let some minor matter go for the sake of peace, that too is being puffed up.

These things are sinful, but they are insidiously dangerous because they are not immediately obvious as sins.  The Christian who is living in adultery sooner or later is going to be unmasked and called to repentance, but it is entirely possible for unloving and arrogant Christians to remain on the membership rolls for years or decades.  We’re usually not comfortable in confronting one another when the presence of sin is a matter of judgment, so when it comes to these things, each one of us must search our own hearts.

Better still, we must work to develop the humility of Christ:  not callous toward others, not blind to our own shortcomings, not self-seeking.  For the Christian, it always is right to put others first, to set their good before our own.  The worldly wisdom of arrogance sees this as the road to ruin, but in reality, it is the way to becoming greatest in God’s kingdom.

Second, loveless Christians are HYPOCRITICAL.  Look at Paul’s appeal in Romans 12:9.  Love must be without hypocrisy because the presence of hypocrisy reveals the absence of love. 

We have no better example of this than the Pharisees.  Often, people describe the Pharisees as arrogant legalists.  They did everything right in the Law, and they trusted in their own righteousness to save them.  Well, that’s partially true.  They did trust in their own righteousness, but they did not do everything right in the Law. 

The problem with the Pharisees wasn’t the laws they kept.  It was the laws they broke.  According to Jesus, the Pharisees were willing to watch their parents starve in order to keep a vow they had made to the temple.  They used legal trickery to take the houses of poor widows away from them.  They tithed garden herbs, but they had zero interest in justice, mercy, and faithfulness. 

In short, the Pharisees followed all of their own little rules and condemned those who did not do likewise, but the godliness they claimed for themselves was not actual godliness.  Instead, they were disobedient to God’s will and dishonored Him.

Today, then, Pharisaism still is a massive potential problem for Christians, but it’s not the problem that people think it is.  It’s not a problem when we care about all of God’s commandments, even the tiniest ones.  However, when we get so focused in on the tiny ones that we stop obeying the broad, significant ones, that’s when we walk in the footsteps of the Pharisees.

We don’t have a piano in our church building.  Great!  We don’t spend money on church colleges and fellowship halls.  Wonderful!  We show up for services every time the doors are open.  Outstanding!

But where are our hearts, brethren?  Where do we stand when it comes to justice, mercy, and faithfulness?  Do we shine at home and at work so that people who look at us see Jesus?  Do people know that even the hard things we tell them, we say because we love them?  These are the things that distinguish the genuine disciple from the hypocrite.

Finally, loveless Christians BITE AND DEVOUR.  Pay attention to Paul’s admonition in Galatians 5:13-15.  Here, we learn that contention and hostility toward our brethren is another thing that excludes the possibility of love.  As John so pointedly asks, if we can’t love our brother whom we have seen, how can we love God, whom we have not seen?

There are so many ways that biting and devouring can show up.  It happens on social media all the time.  In fact, it seems to be happening all the time recently.  This isn’t scientific by any means, but I’ve had a number of Christians tell me over the past week that they’re leaving Facebook at least temporarily because they can’t handle all the vitriol that brethren are spewing at other brethren.  All these ugly arguments over the pandemic and racism and what have you—those things are biting and devouring.  They’re sinful!

Biting and devouring happens plenty in person too.  Sometimes, we bite and devour a brother or sister when they’re not even present.  I’m talking, of course, about gossip.  I think all of us know that not all Christians are equally easy to like and get along with.  It’s probably true that for somebody, every one of us is one of those Christians!  Nonetheless, even if a brother jumps up and down on our last nerve every time we see them, that still doesn’t give us the right to talk bad about them behind their back. 

Love doesn’t do that.  Love doesn’t zero in on the quirks and faults and imperfections.  Love celebrates what is beautiful and good about everyone—and prays for patience with the rest!

Finally, we bite and devour when we stir up trouble in the congregation.  Some Christians seem to have a knack for it.  They’re always in some fuss with somebody, and it’s always going to the elders and making their lives miserable.  Brethren, if that’s us, we need to take a long, hard look at the possibility that the problem isn’t all those other Christians.  It’s us!  If we aren’t careful, our selfish bickering can do massive damage to the church.

Confusing Mercy with Justice

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

The other Sunday, I was approached by one of the younger sisters at church.  She had a couple of questions.  They involved hypotheticals that many of us have encountered before.  What about the tribesman in the Amazon jungle who never gets to hear about the gospel?  What about the man who is on his way to be baptized when he gets in a car wreck and dies? 

I gave her my usual answer about not letting hypotheticals and things that happen to somebody else distract us from what we should do, but she didn’t seem satisfied with that, so I promised her I’d consider the subject further.  True to my word, I gnawed on the questions until my subconscious bit off something. 

Eventually, I saw that even though these two questions are aimed at different doctrinal positions (the necessity of the gospel versus the necessity of baptism), they both operate the same way.  Both are an appeal to our sense of fairness.  We intuit that if somebody dies without having heard the gospel and goes to hell as a result, it’s unfair.  If somebody sincerely intended to be baptized but dies before being able to and goes to hell as a result, it’s unfair.

The problem, though, is not with the doctrine in question.  It’s with our intuition.  “Fair”, after all, is a dressed-down synonym for “just”.  We feel that it is unjust for God to punish the sinner who never heard or to punish the penitent sinner who never managed to make it to the baptistery.  However, we need to be suspicious of that feeling.  Not only is it incorrect, it is ultimately fatal to the Christian system of faith.

Let me explain.  Neither in Hypothetical 1 nor Hypothetical 2 is a sinner being unjustly condemned.  God gave both of them the same things He gives all of us:  life, free will, ample evidence of His existence, and a sense of right and wrong.  Despite these gifts, the people in both hypotheticals chose to sin. 

According to the first three chapters of Romans, such sin incurs the wrath of God, and it does so justly.  As Paul puts it in Romans 6:23, the wages of sin is death.  It is just for such people to spend eternity separated from Him, as it would be just for all of us to spend eternity separated from Him.  That is what we all deserve.

However, in the case of Christians, God has chosen to be merciful.  He showed us mercy in two ways:  in sending His Son to die in our place, and in giving us the opportunity to hear and obey the gospel.  None of us are entitled to His mercy.  It is utterly and completely undeserved.

As a result, neither of our sinners has any standing to complain that God has been unfair to them.  They don’t have any right to expect His mercy.  They are entitled to His justice, and God will be scrupulously fair to them as He is to everyone.  They could have chosen to do right, they had all the information they needed to make that choice, but they chose evil instead.  They will be judged accordingly. 

If this is not true, if sin does not invite the just judgment of God, God does not have the right to judge any sinner.  Any attempt to preserve His right to judge anyone will devolve into a standardless exercise in line-drawing.  If the one who never has heard is entitled to mercy, what about the one who heard an incompetent preacher?  If the one who dies on the way to the church house is entitled to mercy, what about the one who dies on the way to a Bible study that would have convicted him?  The more these questions unfold, the more obvious it becomes that our cheap sympathy for sinners (as opposed to Christ’s precious sacrifice) has overwhelmed God’s right to judge righteously.

There is no partiality with God.  This is my chief objection to Calvinism.  How can it be just for God to condemn an unbaptized infant who has done neither good nor evil, simply because of who their ultimate ancestor was?

However, God’s impartiality is a knife that cuts both ways.  If God is just in condemning sinners, He must be just in condemning all sinners.  Only the death of Christ and the faith of those who trust in Him allow God to do anything else.

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