M. W. Bassford

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Questions and Motivations

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

We often don’t realize it, but one of the main themes of the gospels is the interaction between Jesus and people who ask Him questions.  If we considered Jesus’ replies to those questions in isolation, His replies would seem so divergent as to be irrational.  In Matthew 13:16, He calls one set of questioners blessed.  In Matthew 13:7, He condemns another set as a bunch of hypocrites. 

What gives?  It’s just a question, right?

In reality, of course, Jesus’ answers are so different because He is responding to different motivations and positions.  The disciples of Matthew 13 get a commendation and a straight answer because they are seeking truth.  So does the woman at the well in John 4 (who is so deferential that she only hints at her questions). 

Nicodemus, interested in the truth but full of himself, gets an answer but also gets taken down a peg in John 3.  The lawyer of Luke 10:25, who thought to set himself up as Jesus’ schoolteacher, ended up getting schooled instead.  Finally, of course, the parade of Pharisees with their trap questions uniformly found out that Jesus was smarter than they were.

Today, the motivations of questioners are every bit as diverse.  Some still want to know truth.  Others think they know it and hope to use their questions to lead you down the primrose path.  Still others ask questions not because they want an answer, but because they believe the question won’t have an answer.  They think this will embarrass you or perhaps justify their unbelief.

This is important for us to remember as we consider both others and ourselves.  Though we can’t see hearts as Jesus could, it’s still possible to discern someone’s intent by considering their words.  I’m perfectly willing to answer questions for hours if the questioner is hungry for the gospel.  On the other hand, I’m not interested in patiently answering objection after objection, only to be met with a haughty “That’s not good enough!”  One suspects that for some, an answer from the Lord Himself would not be good enough.

It’s important too, though, to be honest about our own motivations when we ask questions.  Wanting to learn more about spiritual things is wonderful!  I think the same is true of using questions to teach.  When somebody figures out the answer for themselves rather than the teacher figuring it out for them, the lesson tends to stick longer.

However, we should be wary of questions that are designed to trap others or to justify a conclusion we already have reached.  Jesus used the former tactic, but He only did it to embarrass hard-hearted religious elites who were trying to embarrass Him first.  Unless we are sure that someone is acting in bad faith and needs to be humiliated for the benefit of third parties, it’s not wise and probably not godly to make them the target of our Perry Mason impression.

Similarly, it is better to own our convictions directly, whatever they may be, rather than hedging them around with disingenuous questions designed to make our conclusion seem reasonable.  If there is no answer to a question that will satisfy us, we should save everyone time and not ask it.  There is no value to the smugness that comes from winning a debate when we are the self-appointed judge. 

Truth only can be found in God, and questions are the means by which we seek it.  However, as with everything else, the devil is capable of twisting questions to his ends.  May the questions we ask always serve truth and not him!

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

Monday, February 24, 2020

I’ve read the Beatitudes a time or two, but as I visited them again as part of our Bible-reading plan this year (it’s tough to write the bulletin article if you’re not a week ahead!), the one that jumped out at me was Matthew 5:9.  We don’t live in a very peacemaker-y time.  The political polarization in our country has become so obvious that mentioning it is nearly a cliché.  On both sides, increasing numbers of people believe that the other side is The Enemy, to be defeated by any means necessary, even at the cost of the dearly held principles of 20 years ago.

Of course, we are not the first to live in a time that is not very peacemaker-y.  Jesus did too.  Indeed, anger and conflict are the backdrop of the gospels.  The Jewish community of AD 30 was deeply divided by the presence of the occupying Romans.  Some, from the tax collectors to the chief priests, collaborated with them, generally as a way of acquiring wealth and power. 

Reacting to this corrupt bargain, the Pharisees demanded fidelity to a body of religious tradition that they claimed came from God but really came from them.  Still farther along the political spectrum, the Essenes withdrew from a society that they considered irredeemably wicked.  The Zealots plotted to overthrow it.

To them all, Jesus says that the peacemakers are blessed and are sons of God.  Not the Sadducees, the Herodians, the Pharisees, the Essenes, or the Zealots.  The peacemakers. 

In Jesus’ view, the peacemakers need first of all to seek peace with God, but secondarily, they need to seek peace with one another.  What matters is not somebody else’s privileged position or nit-picky moral code or contempt for the world or desire to burn it all down.  What matters is whether they have a soul.  Of Jesus’ twelve closest followers, one was a tax collector and another was a Zealot.  Hint, hint.

2000 years ago, the vast majority of Jewish society didn’t listen to Jesus.  The power brokers had Him killed because they thought He was a threat to their position, not realizing that their own actions were the greatest threat.  Over the next 35 years, tensions between Jews and Romans, and indeed between Jews and Jews, increased until they exploded in the catastrophe of the Great Jewish Revolt.

Nobody won the Great Revolt.  Not the Romans, who had an entire legion massacred by the rebels and only were able to put down the rebellion at an immense cost in treasure and blood.  Not the Jewish factions, who spilled blood in the courts of the Temple as they battled each other for dominance until the Romans arrived and killed them all.  Not the common folk of Galilee and Judea, countless thousands of whom were butchered by the contending forces.  Nobody emerged from the cataclysm better off.

Blessed are the peacemakers.  Blessed are those who love their enemies.  Blessed are those who are able to find value and worth in the most obnoxious proclaimers of an opposing viewpoint. 

Blessed are those in our time who are willing to hear the voice of Jesus.

Unblemished Turtledove or Blemished Lamb?

Friday, February 21, 2020

For about 20 years now, I’ve been having discussions with brethren all over the country about who should lead singing.  Some argue that the congregation’s best song leaders should lead on Sunday morning to the exclusion of everyone else.  They say that’s giving to God our best. 

By contrast, others argue that it’s ungodly to judge the value of a song leader according to fleshly, external standards.  The technical virtuoso may be self-centered and godless in his heart, while the guy who can’t hardly carry a tune in a bucket may be giving the Lord heartfelt glory.  In consequence, we should let everybody lead who wants to lead and leave the judging to God.

I think both sides have a point, but I also think that the difference between them is not so great as it appears.  To illustrate what I mean, let’s consider a couple of different sacrifices from the Law of Moses.

Leviticus 5:7 is an illustration of God’s kindness toward the poor.  In it, God recognizes that some of His people may not be able to afford a lamb to offer as a sacrifice for sin.  As a result, He allows them to offer according to what they could afford, by substituting turtledoves or pigeons for livestock.  In God’s eyes, the turtledove offered by one who was giving his best was just as pleasing as the bull.

In Malachi 1, particularly in Malachi 1:14, we see a very different scenario playing out.  This time, comparatively wealthy Jews who owned flocks were offering their lame, sick, and blind animals as sacrifices.  They had the resources to do better, but instead of striving to give God their best, they offered what they thought they could get away with.  God was not pleased with them!

Today, I think there are unblemished-turtledove song leaders and blemished-lamb song leaders.  The former is a man who is simply limited in his gifts.  He’s gone to song-leading schools to perfect his craft, he practices every time before he leads singing, but he regularly makes mistakes.

However, I think God is pleased with a sacrifice like that despite those mistakes.  When we fall short of skilled perfection because of the way He created us, He doesn’t expect any better than that.  I have a lot of sympathy for a song leader who is struggling but obviously offering his best.

On the other hand, though, we have blemished-lamb song leaders.  These men make mistakes during the assembly too, but their mistakes are the fruit of lack of effort.  They’ve never bothered to learn how to blow pitch, beat time, or master any of the other skills that are so important to the song leader.  Before the assembly, they can be seen hurriedly putting together a song list on the front pew.  In raw talent, they may well blow the unblemished-turtledove song leader away, but men like this never will realize their potential because they can’t be bothered to try.

Now, I’m not saying that every Christian man should feel responsible for becoming a song leader.  However, if you want to be a song leader, then you need to put in the work.  Nobody is entitled to lead the Lord’s people in worship on Sunday morning simply by virtue of church membership!

When men who have not developed their skills and do not work hard seek that position anyway, that is not a God-honoring spirit.  Yes, it’s important not to presume what someone’s heart is like, but the one who is not diligent in preparing to serve makes his heart obvious by the absence of fruit.

When somebody wants to open up the song-leading roster, then, I want to know who the additions will be.  Are these men who have worked hard, hit their ceiling, and want to serve despite their limitations?  Or, on the other hand, are these men who are limited because they never have bothered to learn how to serve?  Once we figure that out, I don’t think we’ll have any trouble discerning who should enter the rotation.

Judgment Calls and the Bible

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Along with most other members of churches of Christ, I believe that the word of God is the sole authoritative guide to serving Him.  In particular, I believe that within the New Testament, we can discern a pattern of work and worship in the first-century church that God expects all Christians to follow. 

However, I also believe that this pattern is limited in its scope.  The Bible does not provide an answer for every question that we might ask about the church.  Should the congregation meet on Sunday night?  Should there be three trays of bread on the Lord’s Supper table, or four (or trays at all, for that matter)?  The Scripture leaves these issues, along with a host of others, to our judgment and discretion.

Judgment also plays a role in the way that we interpret many commandments.  Sometimes, the role of judgment is limited.  1 Timothy 2:1-2 doesn’t leave Christians with a lot of discretion about praying for the government.  We have to. 

At other times, though, our understanding of a passage can’t be anything more than a judgment call.  I have read numerous explanations of what “the husband of one wife” means in 1 Timothy 3:4.  However, I don’t think there’s any way to conclusively determine from the text what the phrase means.  Nor can we duck the question altogether—not, at least, if we want to appoint elders!  Instead, each congregation must judge for itself what a husband of one wife is.

So too, the application of Scriptural principles is left to our judgment.  I can clearly define what adultery is, but I can’t do the same with modesty or uncleanness.  I can offer my judgment about whether a particular garment is modest, but that will never be anything more than my judgment.  On the extremes, I think it becomes increasingly difficult to argue that my judgment is wrong, but on the margin, that argument is very easy to make.

All of this is important for several reasons.  First, we must acknowledge that we do make judgment calls as we apply the word.  Some brethren have real trouble seeing this.  They are every bit as confident in what they say about modesty as in what they say about adultery, even though the Scriptural witness in each case is very different.

This is problematic.  We need to be able to distinguish between our judgments and the judgments of the Lord, or else we will end up in the same boat as the Pharisees!  Additionally, Christians who turn their judgment calls into matters of faith bring the Restoration project itself into disrepute.  It’s easy for critics to point out their error and use that error to deny that a first-century pattern exists at all.

Second, we must acknowledge the right of others to make their own judgment calls, particularly when they differ from ours.  Just because I see the right answer to a spiritual question so clearly does not mean that the answer is, in fact, clear.  “Judge not, that you be not judged,” is not as broad as the world wants to make it, but it is perhaps not as narrow as we want to make it either.

Third, we must confess that not everyone’s judgment is equally good.  We all differ in Biblical understanding, life experience, and good sense, and all those things affect the quality of our judgment.  No, there is no text in the New Testament that explicitly says, “Thou shalt not drink any alcohol, ever.”  However, it’s also the judgment of countless elders, preachers, and older sisters in Christ that drinking is a bad idea.  Is it wise to reject the judgment of the wise?  Probably not.

Rather than being a flaw in our conception of the Biblical pattern, the exercise and development of our judgment is one of its strengths.  Just as God has given each of us the right to read the Scriptures for ourselves, He has given us the right to interpret and reason from them.  As we grow in our ability to judge, we mature in Christ.  May we use this gift wisely, yet fearlessly, so that the longer we walk with Him, the more we become like Him!

The Incognito Messiah

Monday, February 17, 2020

In this week’s reading, we begin to encounter what is one of the most surprising themes of the gospels.  As Mark 2:34 reports, “[Jesus] healed many who were sick with various diseases and drove out many demons.  And He would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew Him.”  Lest we think that this spiritual gag order is confined to demons, consider a text that will appear in our reading in several weeks, Mark 1:44.  There, after cleansing a leper, Jesus tells him, “See that you say nothing to anyone.” 

The leper ignores Him, but that’s hardly the point.  It’s clear that Jesus, who later tells His followers to preach the gospel to every creature, is doing the best He can to suppress the truth about His identity.  What on earth is going on?

In order to understand this, we need to understand the urgent nature of Jesus’ ministry.  Today, we think of someone who obeyed the gospel three years ago as a new Christian--if not a babe in Christ, at least a kindergartner in Christ!  However, the entirety of Jesus’ ministry was only about three years long. 

Some of His disciples had been disciples of John; others were observant Jews.  Still others (at least Matthew, maybe more) had been irreligious.  Regardless of where they began, though, none of His followers were prepared for the transformation in their thinking that the gospel demanded.  They spent three years trying to drink from a spiritual fire hose!

Throughout His ministry, Jesus displays a painful awareness of how much His disciples have to learn and how little time He has to teach them.  It’s not hard to hear the impatience in His voice when He says to them in Mark 8:21, “Don’t you understand yet?”  Come on, people!  We don’t have time for your hard-heartedness!

Three years proved to be enough time to get the job done, even if all the disciples crater pretty spectacularly when Jesus is arrested and crucified.  One year, though, or even two?  It seems likely that Jesus’ ministry lasted for three years because He knew that it was the minimum amount of time that it would take for Him to prepare His disciples.  Jesus could raise the dead instantaneously, but changing hearts required three years of frustrating work (which is perversely reassuring to those of us who are in the heart-changing business!).

Those three years come to an end, of course, when the leaders of the Jewish nation decide that Jesus is an existential threat to them and must be killed.  They didn’t come to this conclusion on their own.  Jesus provoked them into it by raising Lazarus and challenging their authority on the very grounds of the temple itself. 

It was vitally important for the chief priests to decide to kill Jesus, but it was just as important that they not reach that decision too early.  If they did, it would have cut into that vital time He needed to teach His disciples.  I don’t think they could have killed Jesus early, but they certainly could have made it impossible for Him to teach publicly.

However, if the chief priests are deluged with reports of a prophet whom even the demons proclaim to be the Son of God, they might well move early.  Jesus, then, forbids them to speak not because the message is wrong, but because the time isn’t right.  He doesn’t want the narrative to spin out of His control.

Rather than being irrational, then, Jesus’ desire to conceal His identity makes perfect sense.  Not surprisingly, the Man who does all things well is able to keep the leaks to a minimum, to give Himself the time He needs to accomplish His mission.  Today, we are able to hear the gospel because Jesus kept too much of it from being proclaimed too soon.

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