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The Root of Bitterness

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Most of us have had experience, invariably bad, with bitter people.  Something has happened to them that they have continued to resent for years or decades, and they often take out their resentment on those who are closest to them.  Frequently, we turn to Hebrews 12:15 for a Biblical condemnation of such behavior. 

Because Hebrews 12:14 emphasizes the importance of pursuing peace with others, I think this is a correct reading of the text.  It makes sense in context.  However, the Hebrews writer is saying more here than we commonly credit. 

The concept of a root of bitterness does not appear for the first time in Hebrews.  Instead, the writer is paraphrasing Deuteronomy 29:18, which warns against those who are roots that bear poisonous and bitter fruit.  However, in the context of Deuteronomy, such people aren’t quarrelsome and resentful.  Instead, they are idolaters.  They cause widespread trouble because they lead others away into idolatry.

At first glance, it appears that the Hebrews writer has missed the point of the quotation from Deuteronomy 29.  However, given the great skill with which the writer (to say nothing of the Holy Spirit!) uses the Old Testament through the rest of the book, this is extremely unlikely.  Instead, he has left an additional lesson for those who are familiar with the Law of Moses too.

He wants us, in fact, to recognize that bitterness is a form of idolatry.  After all, the New Testament frequently reminds us that idolatry does not necessarily involve worshiping a golden statue.  In Colossians 3:3, Paul notes that greed is a form of idolatry.  People who care about money and stuff more than anything else are bowing down to Mammon, whether they recognize it or not.

However, we can take the analysis one step further even than that.  When we are greedy, it’s not really the money and the stuff that we value.  It’s the way that they make us feel, and we prize that feeling so much that we are willing to abandon God and do evil in order to experience it.  When it comes to covetousness, the idol we are worshiping is the self.

The same is true for bitterness.  People who can’t move past a wrong that they have suffered are resentful because it is a wrong that they have suffered.  Somebody has hurt them, or hurt somebody close to them, and that’s the unforgivable sin, because it is a wrong that has touched their precious, invaluable self.  This is so great a violation of the way that they think things ought to be that they feel justified in mistreating the wrongdoer, or even in mistreating an innocent third party. 

As a result, they repeatedly express the outrage they feel at their own injury by injuring others, often until the end of their lives.  Even if people like this faithfully attend worship services, Jesus is not and cannot be the Lord of their hearts.  He cannot be most important to them, because nothing is more important to them than they are. 

They are their own miserable, spiteful idols.

When Jesus exhorts us to be merciful and forgiving, then, He does not merely do so because mercy and forgiveness are good.  Instead, it is because being merciful and forgiving is a necessary part of subjecting ourselves to Him.  When we place so much importance on ourselves that we refuse to forgive, we reveal that we have been defiled by the idol of selfishness in our hearts. 

More Than Conquerors

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

By now, most of us have realized that shelter in place ain’t no fun.  Thankfully, in Maury County, TN, there have been few who have contracted coronavirus, and even fewer who have died from it.  If all continues according to plan, in a few days, many of the restrictions that have prevented us from assembling will be relaxed.  It is likely, though, that the economic effects of social distancing will be felt here for months to come.

For a moment, let’s take a grim view of that future.  Suppose that the recession of 2020 is both deep and prolonged.  Suppose that the ‘rona makes a much more deadly return.  Suppose, in fact, that problems we haven’t even imagined yet rear their ugly heads.

Know what?  For Christians, none of that makes any meaningful difference because it does not alter the relationship between God and us.  Our brethren in the first century faced problems far worse than any of us are likely to see, but they remained triumphant through it all.  This morning, let’s examine the back half of Romans 8 to see how we can remain more than conquerors.

This begins with an examination of GOD’S PURPOSE.  Let’s read here from Romans 8:18-30.  In this reading v. 28 is one of the most famously Pollyanna-ish verses in the whole Bible.  How can it possibly be true that all things work together for good for God’s people when we regularly endure suffering, tragedy, and heartbreak? 

Paul, of course, was no Pollyanna.  In what we just read, he refers to the sufferings of the present time.  A little later on in the chapter, he discusses trials like being executed because of our faith in Christ.  His point is not that our suffering is not real, nor is it that every trial we face was crafted by God for our enjoyment.  Instead, he’s telling us that our reward is so great that next to it, our suffering pales into insignificance.

He explains this particularly with reference to this physical creation.  We live in a fallen world that is replete with suffering.  However, it exists for a noble purpose—to reveal who God’s children are.  As a result, even when our misery is so great that the whole creation can be said to be groaning, those groans are not the hopeless groans of the terminal cancer patient.  They are the hopeful groans of the woman in childbirth.  Even though the present may not be wonderful at all, the future that it is certain to produce will be wonderful.

In addition to the groaning of the creation as it strives for this wonderful future, Paul mentions two other groaners.  We ourselves are groaning as we long for the resurrection, and so is the Spirit of God as He intercedes for us.  We are not satisfied with the imperfection of this life, and neither is God satisfied with our position.  However, our groaning and the Spirit’s groaning are going to be fulfilled too.  Together, the creation, we ourselves, and the Spirit are the “all things” that are working for our good.

We can be certain of what God will do for us because of what He has done for us.  After all, we were dead in our sins, but He foreknew, called, justified, and glorified us.  When we consider our position as those who have been raised up with Christ in heavenly places, we can rest assured that our future will be even more glorious. 

Here’s what this means for us.  I know some of the brethren here are suffering intensely for various reasons.  It is likely that the future holds intense suffering for all of us somewhere.  However, unlike the suffering of everyone else, our suffering is endurable because of our hope.  Earthly suffering is limited in time, and it is limited by our capacity for enduring pain.  However, when we are with God, we will experience a joy that is infinite in duration and scope.  No matter how bad things here get, we can lift up our heads because of that joy set before us.

Having advanced this audacious claim, Paul stress-tests it by considering various trials.  The first of these are SPIRITUAL TRIALS.  Let’s read from Romans 8:31-34.  This is an important question to raise.  After all, our glorious future depends on our maintaining a right relationship with God.  At the beginning of the book, Paul reported that sinners only can expect wrath from Him, so that our hope and our freedom from sin must be linked.

Paul points out, though, that we have nothing to fear on the sin front.  First, we enjoy the favor of God.  If God was willing to surrender even His Son, His most precious possession, to redeem us, He will surrender everything else for our sakes too.  Second, once we have been justified by Christ, Satan the accuser no longer has a charge to bring against us.  Even if Satan did, there is no penalty that he could ask for because Jesus already has died in our place.  As if that were not enough, Jesus rose to power at God’s side so that He could continue interceding for us.

With some regularity, I talk to Christians who still feel guilt over sins they’ve repented of.  If you’re feeling that way, there are few better passages to turn to than Romans 8:31-34.  God loves you more than you can imagine.  He has done more to save you than you can imagine.  As long as you cling to Him, you have nothing to worry about.

The same is true of PHYSICAL TRIALS.  Let’s finish off the chapter with Romans 8:35-39.  Having sent the spiritual forces of wickedness against Christians on an all-out blitz, now Paul is doing the same thing with physical trials.  He’s imagining a future of persecution so bad that Christians are getting slaughtered like sheep every day.  Surely that will show that Christ doesn’t love us anymore, right?

Actually, no.  Paul says that nothing, not the worst persecution imaginable, not the most powerful forces in heaven and on earth, can separate us from God’s love in Christ.  If the government starts slaughtering Christians like sheep, that doesn’t make us the conquered.  It makes us the conquerors.  One can well imagine the glorified martyrs on the day of judgment looking at their miserable earthly tormentors and saying, “Well, that didn’t work out the way you thought it would, did it?”  The worst this world has to offer only can send us home ahead of schedule.

In short, brethren, we need to worry a lot less about earthly things because God’s got it covered.  It doesn’t matter whether there is a massive recession.  It doesn’t matter whether COVID explodes again.  In fact, it doesn’t matter whether the wrong guy becomes president in November.  None of those things can separate us from the love of God, and that means everything is going to be all right.

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.

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