There is no error more dangerous to the Bible student than overlooking the context of a passage. Though all of us know the temptation to proof-text, many of the most pernicious false doctrines of all time arose because someone prioritized the verse over the context.
Of course, dismissing the context doesn’t always lead us into apostasy. Sometimes, it merely leads us to miss the point. This is probably true for most brethren when it comes to Matthew 18:15-18. We know this one as the withdrawal-process passage. It lays out the steps that you have to go through before you can cross a brother off the membership rolls who is “walking disorderly”.
A look at context, though, sheds a different light on these four verses. In Matthew 18:1-5, Jesus informs us that we have to become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. In vs. 6-9, He warns us about the dire punishment that will come upon one who causes such a child to stumble and emphasizes how far we must go to avoid such a fate. In vs. 10-14, He highlights the value of every such child to their heavenly Father. Even vs. 21-35 show how important God’s children are by explaining the lengths to which we must go in forgiving them.
In sum, the context of Matthew 18 is about the value of every child of God. Every. Single. One. If our reading of vs. 15-18 also does not reaffirm that importance (and it usually doesn’t), we’ve overlooked something vital.
Read in context, vs. 15-18 isn’t the bureaucratic process for excluding a Christian from fellowship. Instead, Jesus is setting out the lengths to which we must go to try to rescue an erring child of God, because every one of them is that precious.
When we see a Christian who looks like they’re getting in trouble, we don’t gossip about them with our friends or wait quietly for the elders to get involved. We go to them ourselves. We act immediately, just as we would act immediately if hackers got hold of the password to our bank account.
If that doesn’t get through to them, we’re supposed to return with reinforcements, bringing in others in a desperate effort to avert calamity. If that doesn’t work, we are supposed to involve the entire congregation. Only then, only after we have done everything we possibly could do, to no avail, are we allowed to consider that Christian as though they are no longer part of us.
Too often, we follow the letter of the law here while ignoring its spirit. One Christian learns of another brother in sin. He informs the elders, who send the erring brother a letter that gets ignored. The elders announce to the church that the wayward member isn’t responding to correction, and two weeks later, they read another letter which they have used to inform him that he has been withdrawn from. None of this produces any outward result because the brother in question stopped assembling six months ago.
Does this follow the form of Matthew 18:15-18?
Does it honor the Lord’s intent?
Fulfilled prophecies play a central role in the New Testament. Matthew and Luke use passages from Isaiah and Micah to explain the events of Jesus’ birth narrative. All four gospel writers take predictions from Isaiah and other prophets and employ them to define His ministry. In John 12, John explains the unbelief of the crowds by claiming that Isaiah predicted it. So too, the stories of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection are studded with citations of prophecies that Jesus and His enemies fulfilled.
To Christians both 2000 years ago and today, these prophecies are powerful evidence in support of our faith. As meteorologists prove on a regular basis, it’s very difficult for human beings to predict what is going to happen even next week. When, however, a man foretells an event that happens centuries in the future, it shows both that God has intervened in history and that the man is speaking for God.
Not surprisingly, then, the authors of the New Testament are at pains to indicate when a prophecy by Jesus or one of His followers is fulfilled. In John 2:19-22, John explains Jesus’ facially bizarre claim that He would tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days as a prediction of His death and resurrection. In Acts 11:28, Luke notes that Agabus’ prediction of a worldwide famine was fulfilled.
More subtly, there are many instances in the gospels when prophecies are confirmed by subsequent events. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus predicts His death, burial, and resurrection three times during the last part of His ministry, then dies, is buried, and is resurrected. In Acts, Paul is told by Agabus that he will be imprisoned, then is imprisoned. Again, examples abound.
It makes perfect sense for Christian authors to do this at every opportunity. Every time they can write that Jesus predicted something and it happened, it confirms that Jesus is the Son of God. Every time Luke can establish that Paul, Agabus, and all the rest did the same thing, it shows Jesus’ authenticity and theirs.
However, there is one fascinating exception to this rule. In the gospels, Jesus probably spends more time predicting the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans than any other event. Some of the prophecies are cloaked in apocalyptic language, but others are quite plain. In Luke 19:43, for instance, Jesus says to Jerusalem, “For the days will come on you when your enemies will build a barricade around you, surround you, and hem you in on every side.” Pretty straightforward!
The prophecies of Jesus concerning Jerusalem were indeed fulfilled, 40 years after His death. This is a huge piece of evidence confirming that Jesus was a genuine prophet. Thus, we would expect Luke, for instance, to point out that Jesus’ prophecy was fulfilled as he pointed out that Agabus’ prophecy was fulfilled. This opportunity was not lost on the ante-Nicene Fathers, several of whom noted in the second and succeeding centuries that Jerusalem was destroyed according to the word of Jesus.
However, Luke never says a word about it. Neither does Matthew, Mark, or John. There is not a shred of evidence anywhere in the Scriptures that Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70.
I see two possible explanations for this. The first is that the Evangelists are idiots. After painstakingly highlighting all these other fulfilled prophecies, they simply missed their chance to confirm Jesus’ divine origin by pointing to His correct predictions of Jerusalem’s fall. I find this hard to credit. Whatever else one may think about the Gospels and Acts, they clearly are not the work of idiots.
The second is that the Evangelists failed to make this rhetorical point because they did not have opportunity to make it. They couldn’t write about Jerusalem’s destruction as a fait accompli because when they were writing, that destruction hadn’t happened yet. Like the general resurrection that Jesus predicts in John 5, it was an event they anticipated, not one they celebrated.
If so, the dates for at least the Synoptic Gospels, and probably John as well, are all very early, before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. If this in turn is true, all of the Evangelists are writing within 40 years of the bulk of the events they record—well within living memory. The gospels, then, are not the accretion of decades or centuries of folkloric tradition about Jesus. They are nearly contemporaneous records that deserve to be treated as reliable historical accounts, and that has a host of implications.
2 Corinthians 6:14 is one of those passages that seems to lend itself more to discussion of what it doesn’t mean than what it does mean. Everywhere I’ve been, brethren have been adamant that it does not mean that it’s wrong per se for Christians to marry non-Christians. I agree, but that still leaves us asking what kind of relationships we’re supposed to avoid.
Most commentaries will say that the metaphor in the text (“Do not be unequally yoked,”) has to do with putting a strong ox and a weak ox in a yoke together. The strong ox will pull harder than the weak ox, and the wagon will go off course.
Notice, though, that there are two elements here that make the situation problematic. First, there has to be a yoke. The two parties have to be joined in some way. Second, there has to be an inequality between them. Logically, I think this has to mean that the unbeliever has more influence over the Christian than vice versa. After all, we generally call a Christian influencing an unbeliever for good “evangelism”.
This does not apply to every marriage between a Christian and an outsider, but it does apply to some. If you are considering marrying a non-Christian and you know in your heart that eventually they will lead you to fall away, you should not marry them! On the other hand, I know plenty of Christians who have been married to unbelievers for decades. That’s probably not the wisest decision, but if the believing spouse still is on course for heaven, clearly the yoke has not been unequal.
I think this principle also can be applied profitably to the political realm. Recently, I’ve seen a number of Christians warning against conflating “black lives matter”, the slogan, with “Black Lives Matter”, the political movement. Semantic disputes aside, the former is a conviction that every Christian should share. Do black lives matter? Yes!
However, Black Lives Matter does not merely stand for the inherent value of black people. It also stands for expanding abortion rights (behold, here is irony!), normalizing transgender behavior, and various other unrighteous goals. The concern is that a Christian might be led by their godly convictions into an association that will influence them to accept or at least wink at ungodliness.
This seems to me like an example of unequal yoking. After all, no individual is going to exert more influence on BLM than BLM is going to exert on them. The only question is whether yoking has occurred. Has our connection with BLM become so strong that our allegiance to it overrides our allegiance to Christ?
I do not, of course, speak with reference to BLM, which is too radical to be appealing to most brethren. Instead, this is a danger that arises whenever we join ourselves with any political party. There are none righteous, no, not one!
For every godly policy a political party promotes, there is another that is ungodly. For every morally upright political leader in a party, there is another who is a scoundrel. If we become so filled with a partisan spirit that we ignore the ungodliness and excuse the scoundrels (while loudly pointing out the ungodliness and the scoundrels on the other side), we are unequally yoked.
This is not to say that we cannot hold political convictions or vote. However, we must maintain a wary detachment while doing so. Even as we cast a ballot for one side or another, we must not put our hope and confidence in them. Politics can’t save the world, but it can cost us our souls.
It is easy for us to separate ourselves from the parts of the world that disgust us. When it comes to the parts of the world that allure or even inspire us, separation becomes more difficult. However, it also is then that separation becomes most important.
If there is any phrase that has become a cliché in 2020, it is saying that we live in unprecedented times. Actually, we don’t. In the bosom of the mightiest nation ever to exist, maybe we’ve been enjoying peace and security for decades, but that’s not how things have gone for most people ever, and it’s certainly not how things went in the first century.
Back then, before people figured out germ theory, epidemics were so common that they weren’t really worth talking about. We’re all aflutter about civil unrest in the US, but Christians 2000 years ago had to deal with the Great Jewish Revolt and Roman civil wars. In short, the things that we think are big problems they probably would not have noticed!
However, the striking thing about God’s message to His people in turbulent times is that it did not change. Jesus’ call to discipleship remained the same for them, and it remains the same for us. We still have our marching orders. As part of our continuing study of living for Jesus, then, let’s see what we should do, both now and always.
The first thing that we must remember is to CONTINUE IN LOVE. Here, look at 1 Peter 4:8. This isn’t a very long verse, but it reveals the chasm between the world’s definition of love and God’s definition of love. In the world, love is something that happens to you. You fall in love; you fall out of love. In this passage, though, we see that love is something we maintain. It’s something we keep constant. To put things another way, to the flesh, love is an emotion. To God, love is a commitment.
This passage tells us, then, that it’s not enough for us to love one another. Instead, God expects us to keep on loving one another. He expects us to be committed to one another. This is true not only when love is easy and we want to. It’s true when love is hard and we don’t want to.
Maybe this is true in our marriages. Maybe we’re going through a rough patch that has been so long we’ve forgotten what a smooth patch is like, and we’re tired, and we want to quit. Maybe it’s true in our families, when we’re struggling so hard to see eye to eye with them on some issues that we start wondering what we have in common with them at all. Maybe it’s in our congregation, because somebody else has been thoughtless or we’ve been thoughtless and this whole big problem has brewed up out of nowhere.
It doesn’t really matter what the situation is. The Holy Spirit’s words are the same. Maintain that love. Keep the relationship going. Stay committed.
Indeed, if we have that love, Peter says, it will cover a multitude of sins. Love will help us to overlook and forgive things that we never would otherwise. Love reveals to us that even the people who drive us crazy are precious in the sight of God. Finally, when we are merciful to others, we ensure that He will be merciful to us. Love does cover a multitude of sins, and some of the sins it covers are ours!
Second, we must CONTINUE TO PRAY. Here, let’s look at Luke 18:1-7. I admit, I could have read just v. 1 and made my point, but I wanted to read the whole parable because I think it’s amazing. Here’s what God is saying to us. He’s telling us that in our prayers to him, he wants us to be like this stubborn widow lady who harasses a wicked judge into giving her justice, even though he had no concern for her or justice or anything. She wore him down with sheer persistence! God says, “Pray like that!”
I think that usually, we see two possible answers to our prayers: “Yes,” and “No,” right? The point of this parable, though, is that there really are three: “Yes,” “No,” and “How bad do you want it?” God does not tempt us to do evil, but there are times when He does test our faith, and prayer is one of those times. Yes, He could give us what we ask for right when we ask for it, but sometimes He delays His answer just to see what we do with the delay. Will our trust in Him remain strong, so that we continue to pray? Or, instead, does our weak faith give in and give up?
If we want to see the fullness of God’s blessing, we need to remain steadfast in prayer. We need to keep praying for our country, even when it seems to be getting worse instead of better. We need to keep praying for our loved ones who are not obedient to the word. Sometimes, it takes decades for those prayers to be answered! We need to keep praying for the church despite an uncertain future.
Above all, we must remember that we are praying not to an unrighteous judge, but to a merciful God. If even the judge in the parable gave in eventually, how much more will our heavenly Father hear the cries of His children!
Finally, we must CONTINUE TO WORK. Consider Galatians 6:9-10. Much like we can get discouraged in loving others and get discouraged in praying, we can get discouraged in our work for the Lord too. Sadly, it’s all too common for preachers to burn out, but I know this is a struggle for the brethren in the pews too. So many of you do so much, both for this congregation and in the rest of your lives, that’s out of sight. You put all this time and effort in, and the world seems to flow on unchanged.
If that’s how you’re feeling, I have some things I want you to think about. First, your contributions aren’t going as unnoticed and appreciated as you think. I don’t know how many times I’ve been talking with one of the elders, and they’ll mention that So-and-So is doing this. They know what you’re doing, and God certainly knows what you’re doing!
Second, we need to remember that it’s a lot easier to tear down than it is to build. With one bad decision, any of us can ruin our lives, but to accomplish anything for good often takes years of patient effort. When you’re working for the Lord, things usually aren’t going to happen very fast. However, the more effort we put in, the better the results will be.
Let me say to all of you, then: don’t grow weary and lose heart! All of you who are working in our classes, working on VBS, working in the AV room or the security team, working on the building, and a host of other things besides—your work matters, and it will matter.
Most of all, though, if you’re trying to shine the light of Christ to the lost, don’t give up on that! There are dozens of Christians here this morning who had a spouse, or a friend, or a co-worker who didn’t give up on them, who patiently taught and encouraged them until they obeyed the gospel. We can be that spouse. We can be that co-worker. We can be that friend. I know as well as anybody how discouraging personal work can be, but we have God’s promise: if we don’t grow weary, somewhere, with somebody, we will reap.
Like all the gospels, Mark is not written for everyone. Those who come to it casually, not willing to invest the effort to understand, will remain ignorant. Only those who doggedly pursue enlightenment will—eventually—figure things out.
This is certainly the case with Mark 9:38-50. At first glance, this context appears to contain four unrelated sections: the story of the man casting out demons in the name of Jesus (9:38-41), a warning against leading others to fall away (9:42), a warning about what we must be willing to sacrifice for eternal life (9:43-48), and a weird discussion about salt (9:49-50).
However, as is often the case in Mark, these apparently unrelated subtopics are tied together by a common theme. In fact, everything that Jesus says from 9:39 through the end of the chapter explains why He told John to leave the unfamiliar exorcist alone.
His first point (9:39-41) is that anyone who does good while operating under the authority of Jesus is good. Indeed, those who help the workers of righteousness, even by giving them a cup of water in the name of Jesus, will be remembered too. Sadly, though, that’s not the only way that we can treat such people. We also can make them stumble (9:42)—by discouraging them, for instance—and if we do, we will be punished rather than rewarded.
In Matthew 5, Jesus’ cut-off-body-parts discussion is appended to His condemnation of lust. Here, though, it’s directed at a different heart problem—in context, the evil desires that make us want to interfere with those who are doing God’s work. There are many reasons why we might want to do this. It could be, as in John’s case, that the worker doesn’t come from the “approved” group of workers. It could be that we don’t like the way they’re doing the work. It could be that we think we should get to control them. Regardless, the Lord wants us to see that being a stumbling block will cause us to meet a horrifying fate. Nowhere else in Scripture is the ultimate punishment for sin described as graphically as it is here!
Interestingly, in v. 49-50, Jesus describes the fires of hell as having a salting effect. I think that here, as elsewhere, salt refers to palatability, especially palatability to God. In other words, the sin of being a stumbling block leaves a bad taste in God’s mouth, and the only thing that can get that taste out of His mouth is the punishment of the sinner. We’re supposed to encourage one another—that tastes good to God—but if we go through life discouraging one another instead, nothing can salvage us. It is much better for us to be salty people who are at peace with one another.
Sadly, the need for this teaching has not declined over the past 2000 years. It’s still true that so-called disciples of Christ have a bad habit of hindering the work of other disciples. This shows up in those cross-grained folks who have it in for the preacher and criticize and oppose him at every turn. It appears in the fossilized pew-sitters who squelch the zeal of the new convert because they “aren’t doing it right”. It flourishes in those who know in their hearts that they could do a better job of leading singing than the song leader, a better job of teaching class than the Bible-class teacher, and a better job of leading the church than the elders. Somehow, these convictions always end up revealing themselves somewhere, and there are many thousands of Christians who sit on the sidelines because some brother or sister told them they didn’t belong on the field.
When it comes to others’ work for the Lord, our work is simple. Support. Encourage. Praise. Help. Don’t say anything critical unless we’ve thought about it and are 100 percent sure that our critique will be received gratefully. When we find ourselves in the role of the discourager and the stumbling block instead, we endanger our souls.