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Friday, October 21, 2022

We don't often think of it this way, but one of the most significant moments in the Pentateuch occurs in Exodus 16:2. By this point in time, the Israelites have seen one of the most impressive displays of God's power in the entire Bible. He has rescued them from Egypt, brought them safely through the Red Sea, and destroyed Pharaoh's army when he attempted to follow them. Now, God is leading them to the bountiful land He promised to their fathers.

Nonetheless, they complain. Even though they have watched God destroy countless thousands on their behalf, they express regret that God did not destroy them too because their situation is so, so bad. We have seen similar behavior from them before, but this time, they prove themselves unchanged by an experience that Paul compares to baptism in one Corinthians 10:2.

In fact, they won't ever change. On its own, this incident seems insignificant. God even reacts to their complaining by giving them the food they ask for. It sounds like everything is fine, right?

Everything is not fine. Through their complaining, the Israelites have started down the slippery slope to disaster. The same spirit that leads them to grumble also will lead them to rebel when God tells them to go up and claim the land. They will grumble about God's choice of Moses to be their leader, His decree that priests must come from the tribe of Levi, and, in the height of irony, the delicious manna that He gave them in response to their grumbling about lack of food!

In time, this exhausts even the patience of God. He decrees that none of the complainers will enter the land. Every time they grumble thereafter, He kills off another few thousand. By the end, of the more than 600,000 men who began the journey, only two survive to complete it. In the Bible, the people of God are frequently a wretched lot, but rarely do they behave so shamefully as this.

It's easy for us to sneer at their bad behavior. However, it should call us to examine ourselves instead. In the style of Romans 2, we must ask whether, as we condemn the grumbling and complaining of others, we ourselves grumble and complain.

Do we, for instance, complain about the elders whom God has given charge over us? How about the preachers who faithfully present the word to us? What about the spouses that God has given us? What about the jobs that we can use to provide for ourselves and our families?

This is far from a complete list. Satan tries to get us to complain about a nearly infinite list of things. Many of these things are gifts from God, but somehow, we don't think they're good enough for us.

Because complaining is so common, we often treat it as a minor spiritual problem. However, the example of the Israelites shows that it is anything but. I'm not the judge of anybody, but I suspect that when Christ returns, more than one Christian will learn to their dismay that their practice of the sin of grumbling has led them to lose their souls. We cannot be faithful Christians and habitual complainers at the same time.

Instead, let us be people who are thankful, humble, and patient. If we suffer from the failings of others, how much more do we ourselves fail! If earthly life is imperfect, how much more should we look to the joys of the life to come with eager anticipation! As with the Israelites, God has given us all we need. In all things, let us seek and glorify Him.

Marriage Counseling

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

I’m a simple man. I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that it is sufficient to equip us for every good work. My favorite hymn is “Give Me the Bible”. Consequently, whenever I encounter a problem that afflicts the soul, I presume that the solution lies in learning and following the whole counsel of God.

This also leads me to raise an eyebrow when I see brethren coming up with extra- Biblical cures for spiritual ailments. The phenomenon occurs in several different areas, but it is perhaps most prominent in brotherhood teaching on marriage and family. Though marriage counseling based on secular wisdom varies greatly in quality, all of it pales in comparison to the word of God. If Christians want to treat such counseling as a side dish, fine, but they must not mistake it for the main course.

That main course consists of all Biblical teaching about human relationships. Too often, we behave as though the only texts about marriage are the ones that mention marriage: Ephesians 5:22-33, 1 Peter 3:1-7, and the like. Indeed, this apparent paucity of Scriptural material becomes justification for the use of material from elsewhere. We can't just go on preaching the same three marriage sermons, can we?

For those with eyes to see, the list of relevant passages is far longer. In fact, thousands of verses of Biblical ethics apply with greatest force in our marriages. If we can't seem to manage treating our spouses in a Christlike way, it calls into question the sincerity of our godliness in every other area of our lives. James would ask us if the same spring can send forth both sweet and bitter water. A bad marriage is a fundamental and potentially soul-destroying problem for at least one spouse.

Sadly, Christians in difficult marriages commonly use this truth as an opportunity to pin all the blame on the other spouse. I suspect that most of the time, brethren go to marriage counseling because they want to get their partner fixed. Almost always, they try DIY counseling and berate their husband or wife for perceived failings.

This is exactly backwards and dangerous besides. Christ does not call us to control others. He calls us to submit to His control.

He also warns us in Luke 6:37-38 that according to our standard of measure, it will be measured to us. We are on notice, then, that if we harshly judge our spouses, God will treat us the same way, only more so. Thus, unless we are James’ hypothetical perfect person, able to bridle both our tongues and our bodies, our desire to improve our marriages amounts to the familiar call to improve ourselves.

At this, thousands of voices cry out in outrage, “But what about them???” What about them, indeed? Conveniently, the Bible gives us instructions for how to handle a spouse who is not merely engaged in questionable behavior but is clearly and actively sinning. They appear in 1 Peter 3:1.

The way for a wife to win over a disobedient husband is by submission and godly living, all without a critical word being spoken. It is the way, not an occasional break from a campaign of nagging. Neither does this text exist to provide moral cover for a well-I-tried-that refusal to obey in the present and future. The passage addresses women specifically, but it is excellent advice for men as well.

Along similar lines, consider the relevance of Philippians 2:14 to marriage. It is one of the shocking verses in the Bible. Surely when Paul says, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing,” he is using hyperbole! He doesn't actually mean for us to do that!

It is not hyperbole. It is a commandment, and its edge is sharp. If you want a better marriage, you know what you can do? Don't dispute with your spouse. If they invite you to a fight, decline the invitation. Don't grumble to your spouse. Don't grumble about your spouse. If you obey, your marriage will be better, if only because it will contain less shouting.

There are many, many other passages with equally sharp edges that concern our marriages too. They are not easy to follow. In fact, they are quite difficult, which is why many Christians do not honor them. It is, alas, much easier to complain that our husband or wife is toxic, narcissistic, and gaslighting us.

Additionally, even if we do what is right, our godliness is not guaranteed to win over our spouse. Some Christians are married to people with hearts like rock. They will stubbornly pursue evil all the days of their lives to their ultimate destruction. If so, nothing we can do will change them.

We do not imitate Christ because it is effective in influencing others, though it is more effective than anything else. We imitate Him because it is right. Even if godliness does not lead to a better marriage, it invariably leads to glorifying God. When we are tested in our marriages, may He help us to steadfastly seek Him regardless!

Blind to the Truth

Friday, October 14, 2022

Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”  Few better illustrations of this truth exist than the behavior of the craftsmen of Ephesus in Acts 19.  They, along with everyone else in the city, are familiar with the miraculous powers of Paul and the large numbers of Ephesians who are coming to Christ.  However, the craftsmen are much more interested in income than in eternal life.  Because Paul’s success means that they can’t make as much money from selling idolatrous shrines, rather than obeying the gospel themselves, they start a riot to oppose it.

Still today, there are plenty of people who would rather serve Mammon than the Lord.  Consider the man who lies because his boss expects it, or the woman who never attends Sunday services because she works every weekend.  To their number we can add the denominational preachers who invest countless hours in trying to explain away passages like Acts 22:16 but won’t spend five minutes trying to figure out what it means.  I’ve known exceptions, but most people who are required to maintain a doctrinal position to keep their job will continue to maintain it in the face of overwhelming Scriptural evidence.

However, money is far from the only thing that can blind our eyes to the truth.  There are few passages that are as straightforward as Matthew 19:9.  I’ve studied the verse with any number of couples before they even obeyed the gospel.  Not once has any of those Biblical novices had any trouble figuring out what the text means, even when it had dire implications for their own marriage. 

Ironically, the people I’ve encountered who struggle with comprehension in Matthew 19:9 have much more Scriptural experience than that.  99 percent of the time, they’ve got a problem.  They’re unscripturally divorced.  They’re unscripturally remarried.  They’ve got a loved one who is unscripturally divorced or remarried.

Then, with such powerful motivation, they return to “restudy” the text.  The ones who know enough Greek to get into trouble use their Greek to do exactly that.  Others engage in massive Scriptural-reinterpretation projects.  I’ve seen novella-length papers arguing that Christians are still under the Law of Moses, written with the sole goal of applying Deuteronomy 24 to modern marriages instead of Matthew 19.  Sadly, none of this changes the teaching of Matthew 19:9 or what the Lord will do on the day of Judgment.

It's easy for us to shake our heads at how easily others fall into self-deception in their study of the Scriptures.  However, these things should call us not to arrogance, but to watchfulness and fear.  If others who are knowledgeable about and even devoted to the word can make such grievous errors, none of us are exempt!  Money, family, and even the fear of what others might think can render us equally blind.  Only through awareness of our own vulnerability and stern commitment to the truth can we avoid stumbling ourselves.

The Passover Lamb and Baptism

Monday, September 19, 2022

The story of the first Passover is familiar to most of us. In Exodus 12, Moses instructs the Israelites to take an unblemished male lamb, slaughter it, eat it as part of a ritual meal, and apply its blood to the doorposts and lintels of their houses.

This strange ceremony had a vital purpose. God was going to send a destroying angel throughout the land of Egypt, and he would kill the firstborn of both men and animals in each house. The angel would pass over only the houses that were marked with blood.

There are several elements to this story that are worth noting. The first is that the coming catastrophe would be universal. God did not single out the firstborn of the Egyptians for doom. Instead, unless some action were taken, every house would be visited by the destroyer.

God did not intend for His people to face this destruction. However, He did not automatically spare them either. Instead, He gave them instructions that, if followed, would turn aside the destroyer. If the Israelites did not follow those instructions, their firstborn would perish along with those of the Egyptians.

Following those instructions had no intrinsic merit. The destroyer did not approach the houses of the Israelites and say, “Wow! I am so impressed with the artistic application of that blood! I could never destroy the firstborn of such gifted people!” The blood was effective for only one reason, because God had decreed that it would be. Even though the Israelites had to act, they still were saved not by their actions, but by His mercy.

All of these things are true of baptism under the covenant of Christ. We too are faced with universal catastrophe. On the day of judgment, the condemnation of God will not be limited only to Hitler and the other really, really bad people. Instead, every sinner will face it, and all of us have sinned. Unless we act, all of us are headed to the fires of hell.

God desires not to destroy us but to save us. However, salvation does not come automatically. As He did for the Israelites, He has given us instructions that we must follow. The Scriptures teach that we are forgiven of our sins when we are immersed in water in the name of Jesus. Unless we are baptized, we will perish.

Like the blood on the doorposts, baptism has no intrinsic merit. It is not a good work that convinces God that we deserve eternal life. Rather, baptism saves only because God has said that it saves. As with belief, repentance, and confession, it is one of the conditions that we must fulfill before God will extend His mercy. We are rescued not by magic water, but by a gracious Creator.

We understand how foolish it would have been for the Israelites to refuse to apply the blood yet loudly proclaim their confidence that God would save them. Sadly, millions today make the same mistake with baptism, and if we follow their example, we will lose our souls.

However, if we act in faith as the Israelites did, we too will be rescued by the mercy of God. How marvelous it is that He has provided so great a salvation for us, and how tragic it would be for any of us to reject it!

The Progress of the Hypocrite

Wednesday, September 07, 2022

The first nine verses of 2 Timothy 3 contain one of the most brutal condemnations of the wicked in the entire New Testament. However, its subject does not appear to be people in the world. Instead, it describes Christians who have been corrupted by the world. Normally, we think of hard times for the faithful as being the result of external persecution. In this case, though, Paul says that internal decay will cause the hard times.

Among the worst of the fallen are those who use the gospel as a pretext for seducing foolish women. Paul compares these evil men to two other men named Jannes and Jambres. He does not further identify them, but contextually we can link them to the magicians deployed by Pharaoh in Exodus 7 and 8.

For a time, it seems like these Egyptian occultists can keep pace with Moses, the prophet of God. Moses’ brother Aaron throws down his staff so that it becomes a serpent; the magicians do the same. Admittedly, Aaron's snake proves to be a little higher up the food chain than theirs, but they make the miracle look less extraordinary.

The same thing happens with the first and second plagues. Moses turns the Nile to blood; they turn water to blood. Moses creates frogs; they create frogs too. However, when Moses brings forth gnats for the third plague, the magicians are baffled. They are revealed as pretenders to the power that the prophet wields, and we see no more of them in the story.

Paul warns us that those who use the gospel to satisfy the flesh are on a similar track. For now, they can resist the truth. Such resistance can take two different forms, either contradicting the gospel directly or bringing it into disrepute through luxurious living. How many people sneer at Christianity because of what they have seen from televangelists or from corrupt leaders in their own congregations?

However, just like the magicians didn't have true power, the pretense of Christianity doesn't have any power either. False teachers have no answers when life gets hard or when tragedy strikes. How can they call others to surrender everything to Jesus when they themselves have not surrendered?

Finally, the hypocrite always ends up being exposed. Thankfully, this seems to be happening a lot more in this life these days. Countless predatory clergy have been brought to shame by the people they abused and ruined years or decades ago. The IRS catches up with a fair number of embezzlers and cheats too.

Far worse is the certainty of being exposed in the next life. On the day of judgment, God will reward both the faithful servant and the scoundrel far beyond what either had imagined was possible. Untold billions will watch the downfall of the lying teacher.

The point is plain. Don't be a worldly, corrupt Christian. Especially, don't be a worldly, corrupt church leader. The devil wants you to believe that you will get away with it.

You won't.

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