Matthew 16:1-4 is one of the more off-putting passages in the gospels. Some Pharisees and Sadducees come to Jesus asking for a sign. A reasonable request, right? Don’t you have the right to ask a self-proclaimed prophet to show that he’s really from God before you believe in Him?
However, Jesus does not accede to this apparently reasonable request. Instead, He condemns the sign-seekers as belonging to an evil, adulterous generation and then leaves. If Jesus were merely human, the exchange might leave us wondering if He woke up on the wrong side of the bed that morning!
Of course, Jesus is not merely human, and His response clues us in to an important piece of spiritual wisdom. Contextually speaking, the Pharisees and Sadducees were not seeking a sign. After all, Jesus had just miraculously fed more than 4000 people! Instead, they were seeking another sign, not because they were looking for a reason to believe, but because they were looking for a reason to doubt.
Jesus makes this point in vs. 2-3. His critics were perfectly capable of assessing the atmospheric conditions and reaching a conclusion about the weather, but when it came to Jesus, they all of a sudden got dumb: “We don’t have enough information yet! We need more!”
Really, though, their problem wasn’t an information problem. They had all the information they needed. Instead, they had a heart problem, and all the information in the world wouldn’t help.
Today, Christians frequently encounter modern-day sign-seekers. These are people who already have made up their minds that they don’t want to believe in the Bible, or that they don’t want to believe something in the Bible. However, they hide their hard-heartedness behind reasonable-seeming requests for more evidence, and whatever evidence is supplied, it still won’t be enough.
Here, I’m particularly reminded of a story that a sister in Joliet once told me. She was talking Bible with a friend of hers who belonged to a denomination that practiced baptism by sprinkling. Naturally, they started talking about the necessity of immersion.
The friend asked to see a passage that showed that baptism was by immersion. The sister turned to Acts 8 and the story of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. She noted that Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and came back up out of the water. Ergo, immersion.
The friend replied, “I want to see another passage besides that one.”
No, she didn’t. She wanted to go on believing that sprinkling was an acceptable mode of baptism, and a whole Bible-full of evidence wouldn’t have been enough to change her mind.
In our discussions with others, it is useful for us to be able to recognize the “one more sign” pattern of behavior. If we make a solid Scriptural argument, and a friend immediately asks for more proof without engaging the proof we’ve provided, that’s a sign that they’re not being honest. Nothing we say is going to get through to them, and we might as well stop wasting our time.
Most of all, though, we need to watch out for such a spirit in ourselves. One passage is enough to establish a spiritual truth, and if somebody reasons from that passage to a conclusion, we are responsible either for rebutting the argument or accepting the conclusion. What we must not do is cry out for more evidence when the evidence provided is sufficient.
In response to my post about thanksgiving in the midst of a racism crisis, I received a very interesting question. I had said that I was thankful for all of the brethren who respond to a thoughtless comment from a brother with a thin-lipped smile instead of an explosion of anger. Consequently, a sister asked when it’s appropriate to trot out that thin-lipped smile, and when it’s appropriate to speak up about the heart issue behind the thoughtless comment.
Predictably, I will open my reply with a great big, “It depends!” After all, the principle underlying Colossians 4:5-6 is that our speech should be situation- and hearer-dependent. There are many factors that can figure into our analysis, but here are three that I think are particularly relevant:
First, we should consider the importance of the issue. How likely is it that someone’s convictions and behavior in a particular area will affect their eternal salvation? For instance, in my time, I have run into Christians who have the bad taste to be fans of University of Kansas athletics. As all right-thinking people do, I regard Jayhawk sports with revulsion and disgust. However, I also know that if God will show mercy to me, He will show mercy to those who root for the Technicolor Chickens. As a result, though I will harass such people mercilessly once I find them out, we’re not going to have a serious sit-down conversation about their college-athletics allegiance.
On the other extreme, there are a number of things about which the Bible says, “If you do this, you won’t inherit the kingdom of God.” If somebody’s wrong about one of those things, their souls are in terrible danger. That points strongly toward, “Have the conversation.”
Second, we should consider how likely we ourselves are to be wrong. Does the Bible speak directly to this issue, or am I required to reason from the Scriptures to reach my conclusion? The more I must reason, the more likely it becomes that I have made a misstep along the way.
For instance, it doesn’t take much reasoning to arrive at the conclusion that racism is wrong. No, the Bible doesn’t say so directly, but it does say that all of us are created in the image of God and that people from all different races can become one in Christ Jesus. It’s simple to conclude that racism is an affront to the reconciling work of Christ.
By contrast, the pro-racism arguments from the Bible are weak and strained. Yes, Noah did curse Ham, but a) the evidence that “Ham” means “black” or “burnt” is sketchy, and b) at this point, it’s impossible to tell who is a descendant of Ham and who isn’t. After thousands of years of interbreeding, all of us may be. The leap from Genesis 9 to “We get to subjugate and oppress black people!” is long and perilous. That hasn’t kept people from making the argument, but it probably should have.
Third, we should ask how likely our words are to persuade. How certain is our hearer that we love them? How much do they love and trust us? How difficult are they likely to find the discussion? Are we confronting them publicly, or are we speaking with them in private? All these factors, and many more, will affect the reception of our words.
Sometimes, we might need to have that conversation no matter what. I doubt Jesus was under any illusions about whether His words in Matthew 23 were going to persuade the Pharisees to repent. However, much like an imprecatory prayer, a burn-you conversation is a fraught step! You’d better be real sure it’s important, real sure that you’re right, and real sure that some other good will come from speaking up. Generally, I prefer to pick my spots, to wait for a time when I think my words will be illuminating rather than infuriating.
These are spiritually oppressive days. The coronavirus is oppressive, the George Floyd killing and its fallout are oppressive, and the online quarrelling between brethren over these issues is oppressive. All these things combine to paint a grim picture of our spiritual reality.
However, I don’t think that this picture is accurate. Nothing about God’s people and His church has been fundamentally altered. The storm may be raging, but the houses with foundations continue to stand. We are not a perfect people, but we do diligently seek the Lord, and for those with eyes to see, the search is so, so evident. I am thankful for everyone who is engaged in it. In particular:
I am thankful for every Christian and every church that strives for unity in the face of racial and political difference. We are not all the same, and if that changes in the future, something horrible has happened. We do not all see things the same way, and that is unlikely ever to change!
Nonetheless, we work to be one in Christ Jesus. We carefully, awkwardly reach out to those of different races. We make allowances for differences in upbringing and experience that lead to different perspectives. When a brother or sister makes a thoughtless comment, we smile with thin lips instead of exploding in outrage.
Unity is not an accident. It is the product of constant, patient effort. I am thankful for everyone who makes the effort.
I am thankful for my black brothers and sisters. Though I try to empathize, I know I never will be able to see the world through your eyes. When I say the wrong thing, it’s because of my imperfect understanding, not evil intent.
Nonetheless, I don’t have any trouble seeing Christ in you. I see your anger and your pain, but I know that Christ was angry. I know that Christ suffered when He saw injustice. I rejoice when you rise above those who hold you in contempt, when, rather than returning evil for evil, you speak truth in love. By your godliness and self-control, you put your enemies to shame.
I am thankful for my black brethren who are church leaders. You are among the best of us, and in many cases, your example is one I honor and strive to imitate. The work that you do as preachers, elders, and deacons brings glory to God, and your dignified, humble service powerfully rebuts the lies of racism. May your hands and your hearts always be strengthened for the labor you do for God!
I am thankful for the white brethren who serve as adoptive and foster parents for children who are black and brown. You know as well as anybody that love isn’t color-blind, that love sees color, because love has to see color. You also know, though, that color is no barrier to love. In many cases, you have taken heavy burdens upon yourselves because of love, and though your struggles and suffering often are known to no one but God, they still glorify Him. White sisters, every time you go out in public with a child of color and somebody sneers at you, remember that fools sneered at Christ too. As you despise the shame, you walk in His footsteps.
Most of all, I am thankful for the love of the God who has called us and bound us together. By nature, we are children of wrath, hateful and hating one another, and yet He had compassion on us and showed us mercy through His Son. As we seek to be transformed into His image, may His compassion and His love be our guiding star, imperfectly seen, even more imperfectly followed, yet always present. As we despair of ever perfecting ourselves, let us repose our hope in the One who fully is able to perfect us.
The law of Christ is not as I would have written it. There are actions that don’t bother me very much that God labels as sins, and there are things that chap my hide but are not condemned by Him. I think pineapple on pizza ought to be classed as an abomination, but Jesus declared all foods clean, so there I am.
More seriously, there are plenty of people out there with serious, serious problems with portions of the word of God. Their problems are so serious that they go hunting for reasons to become atheists, just so that they won’t feel obliged to keep that abhorrent commandment. Sometimes, it’s not even something that they have to do. They just don’t like that God said it, so they leave.
This is not a new problem. Indeed, it is clearly on display in John 6. Contextually, Jesus’ ministry has reached a high point after His feeding of the five thousand. Throngs of new disciples think so highly of Him that they want to make Him king by force.
In response, Jesus preaches one of the most alienating sermons of His ministry. Among other things, He tells His disciples that they have to eat His flesh and drink His blood if they want to inherit eternal life. 2000 years later, this is still a difficult concept, and its effect on its immediate hearers is predictable. His new followers desert Him in droves, grumbling that His teaching is too hard to understand.
I doubt this result was accidental. I’m sure Jesus would have been pleased if the crowds were sufficiently devoted enough to stick around even though they didn’t understand what He was saying, but He knew they weren’t. He made such challenging statements in order to separate those who were truly committed from those who weren’t.
Today, God’s word continues to serve the same function. I’ve never met anyone who was upset by the content of John 6, but I have studied with those who stumble over baptism, sexual morality, and marriage. Others don’t like what the Bible says about authority. Still others would rather zero in on grace and ignore Scriptural teaching on obedience.
Sooner or later, all of us are going to run into a hard saying in Scripture, something that we don’t want to do or don’t want to believe. That’s not in question. The question is what we will do when it happens. Either we turn tail like most of the disciples in John 6, or we struggle on regardless.
If we want to be pleasing to God, though, this choice is no choice at all. Either we submit to Jesus in everything, whether we understand it, whether we like it, or we submit to Him in nothing. If we pick and choose from His precepts, we have removed Him as Lord and set ourselves in His place.
The temptation to do so can be severe. If we decide to reject the words of Christ, the devil will hand us half a dozen justifications for doing so in a heartbeat. We must remember, though, that the troublesome issue really isn’t what’s at issue. It’s just a tool that the devil is using to get what he really wants—our souls. As long as he can separate us from Jesus, any method will serve.
That’s the decision that we have to make, then—whether we want Jesus to save us or not. If we do, we will accept Him, hard sayings and all, because there is no other option. Peter says lots of dumb things in the course of the gospels, but in John 6:68, he gets it exactly right. He asks, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Next to those words, the hard words pale into insignificance.
Just when we thought that racist behavior couldn’t get any more indefensible and awful than the Ahmaud Arbery shooting, along comes the George Floyd suffocation. The image of a uniformed police officer kneeling on the neck of a compliant Floyd who is pleading for air is among the most horrible I’ve ever seen. I can’t bring myself to watch the video, even though I can claim no closer kinship to Floyd than being the fellow bearer of an immortal soul.
In the face of such a stark symbol of human hatred, I completely understand why black people all over the country have taken to the streets, crying for justice. Though I cannot condone it, I even understand the behavior of those whose rage and pain has led them to loot, burn, and destroy. Surely something must be done in response to such monstrous evil! If there is anything in this tragedy that I don’t understand, it is how one human being can literally crush the life from another while listening to his pleas for mercy.
However, as comprehensible as the actions of the rioters are, I only can see them as fundamentally misguided. It may be satisfying to destroy the business of some shopkeeper who had nothing to do with the Floyd killing, may well be committed to racial equality, and might even be black themselves, but doing so does nothing to advance justice for anybody. In fact, it only makes the world more evil and less just. People who feel like they have to do something are doing the wrong thing.
I worry too that the feeling that we have to do something is a trap for the rest of us. In its infinite wisdom, the online mediasphere has concluded that all of us need to take a stand against systemic racism, but the problem is that there don’t seem to be any systemic solutions available. The state of Minnesota already has laws on the books prohibiting murder. I’m sure that the handbook for the Minneapolis police department emphasizes that officers must treat all people equally and fairly. I’m sure they undergo sensitivity training on a regular basis. I’m sure they’ve been told that they must intervene whenever they see a fellow officer abusing someone.
And yet, one police officer killed a man who was no threat to him while three others watched. Write the laws how you will; until the hearts of people like that change, nothing will change. After all, if the Pharisees successfully subverted even the law of God, I am confident that those who are so minded will be able to subvert and defeat the intent of any mere human law.
This takes us, then, to Christ. He has the power to transform the most corrupt and hateful heart if it will submit to Him. When it comes to racism, meaningful change is possible only through the gospel, one conversion at a time.
Some say that’s not good enough. We can’t wait for the slow work of the word; we have to take action now! However, those apparently quick, easy solutions tend to have coercion behind them. If others do not want to be righteous, we must make them be righteous.
Sadly, the more we use force to fight against racism, the more it will flourish. Even now, racists across the nation are watching looting videos and nodding self-righteously, confirmed in their belief that black people are little more than animals. If the government seeks to compel heart change, it will create martyrs for a cause unworthy of them.
The work of persuading others to God is like planting a white-oak sapling in your front yard. Change is always slow, sometimes imperceptible. As the years go by, the apparent lack of progress will be frustrating. However, if we are patient and do not lose heart, it will produce the result that we desire to see.