In my years of talking to people who are in the midst of leaving the church/leaving the Lord, I’ve found that I hear one justification more than any other. The departing Christian is leaving because of some failing on the part of the members of the congregation. They are hypocritical. They gossip. They are unfriendly. They care more about politics than Jesus. They are unloving.
Admittedly, I’ve become more cynical about these claims than I was 15 years ago. For instance, when somebody tells me, “I’m leaving because nobody reached out to me,” I typically understand them as meaning, “I’m leaving because nobody reached out to me except for those who did.” Frequently, there are inconvenient facts that cast doubt on the narrative.
Let’s suppose, though, for the sake of argument, that these claims are true. The disgruntled Christian has indeed seen brethren be hypocritical, gossipy, unfriendly, politically fixated, and unloving. Certainly, brethren can be all these things.
However, even the most virulent church-hater is unlikely to claim that all Christians are all these things all the time. Experientially, we know that the life of every disciple contains a mixture of good and bad behavior. So too does every congregation. The proportion varies from Christian to Christian and church to church, but both are always present.
When a Christian says, “I am going to overlook the good and focus on the bad,” that is fundamentally ungodly behavior. I mean that quite literally. In His relationship with us, God does exactly the opposite. He is merciful to our iniquities. He remembers our sins no more.
Indeed, this selective, gracious amnesia is the only thing that makes it possible for us to glorify Him. He forgets our sins, but He remembers our good works. Like the chisel of a sculptor, the grace of God removes everything from our lives that He does not desire, leaving only the image that He wishes us to bear. When Christ looks at His ransomed, washed, forgiven church, He sees an assembly that is unspotted, unwrinkled, holy, and without blemish. That is not because we are pure. It is because we are continually renewed and purified.
In our dealings with one another, who are we to remember what God has chosen to forgive and forget? Who are we to glue the chips of marble back onto the statue, to dump the filthy wash water back on the spotless wedding dress? And yet, that’s exactly what every Christian who complains about the conduct of God’s redeemed people is doing.
I will not deny that dwelling on the bad behavior of brethren is seductive. The devil makes it seductive. He loves to get us brooding over all the wrongs, real and imagined, that we have suffered. However, if we are committed to the higher calling of imitating Christ, that is precisely what we must not do.
If you’re thinking about giving up on God’s people, let me appeal to you. Don’t remember their sins. Remember their good works. Don’t remember the failed Christians. Remember the amazing ones.
Remember all the people whom you have seen with your own eyes be devoted to the word, joyful in worship, humble before the King, generous to the poor, and hospitable to everyone. Remember the brethren who did reach out rather than dwelling on the ones who didn’t.
And if the same brother who opens his wallet to people off the street loves himself a good political rant on Facebook too, make the choice that God makes. Overlook the sin committed in ignorance (unless you believe that you never sin ignorantly). Celebrate the goodness.
In short, love, and continue to belong accordingly. If ever there were a church that didn’t need grace to reveal its good works, none of us would have a right to belong to it.
Spoiler up front: For this week’s reading and half of next week’s reading, I’m not going to do chapter summaries. The readings in question come from Song of Solomon, and though some of the poetry of the book can be hard to understand, for the sake of our bulletin-reading children, I’d prefer to keep it that way!
As the above implies, I’m firmly of the opinion that Song of Solomon is about marital intimacy. However, as obvious as it seems to me, that’s not the only interpretation. Indeed, theologians have been arguing for centuries that the text is an allegory of the relationship between Christ and the church.
Oddly, this view is adopted by many of our hymns. The title phrase of “The Lily of the Valley” comes from Song of Solomon 2:1 (though in context, “the lily of the valley” is female). The same is true for “Jesus, Rose of Sharon”. Many hymns, chief among them “In Christ Alone,” cite “My beloved is mine, and I am his,” from 2:16. “You are altogether lovely,” in “Here I Am to Worship” is taken from 4:7. Few books of the Old Testament feature as prominently in our worship of Christ as Song of Solomon does!
However, the justification for such application is quite thin. For one thing, Song of Solomon is among the books of the Hebrew Bible that are never cited nor even alluded to in the New Testament. If Paul had said that Jesus was the lily of the valley, that would be one thing, but he didn’t.
Additionally, if the Song of Songs is intended as Christian allegory, it is an allegory that gets quite detailed in perplexing ways. For instance, breasts are mentioned frequently throughout the book, appearing eight times in eight chapters. No other book of the Bible is as concerned with breasts as Song of Solomon. If it is about the relationship between husband and wife, that makes perfect sense. However, if the wife of Song of Solomon is the church, I am at a loss to explain their significance.
From this, I think there are two lessons we should draw. As always, we should be concerned with how the hymns that we sing influence our thinking. If we adopt romantic, even sexual language from Song of Solomon and apply it to Christ, that’s likely to romanticize our view of Him in unbiblical ways. I don’t think that we should remove these hymns from the repertoire (especially not “In Christ Alone”!), but we should be aware that they are using Biblical imagery in ways that the Holy Spirit did not intend.
Second, we should not shy away from the true meaning of the book. It is meant to be a celebration of married sexuality, and married sexuality is something we should celebrate. Even though the capacity for intimacy can be corrupted and misused, it is still a gift of God, and like all of God’s other gifts, it is good. We should not allow Satan’s corruption of it to corrupt our understanding of it too.
In the adult class several weeks ago, we came to the first part of 1 Corinthians 11, which is famous for being one of the most difficult contexts in the entire New Testament. Of course, this was not news to me. I’d studied it and even preached on it before. As a result, when Doug bravely began exploring the context and comments began trickling in, I started composing my own comments.
However, after I reached about the fifth paragraph of those comments in my head, I realized that I was about to preach a sermon disguised as a Bible-class comment. Rather than holding forth, I suggested to Doug that it might be best if I simply preached a sermon on the subject. He agreed that such a sermon would be useful, so I slotted it into the next available preaching slot, which for me happened to be today. With this in mind, then, let’s return to this perilous context and see what we can learn about understanding the covering.
In this study, we first have to consider THE COMMANDMENT. It appears in 1 Corinthians 11:4-6. At first glance, this seems pretty straightforward. Men aren’t supposed to pray or prophesy with their heads covered, but women are. This text certainly mandates the covering for women in the Corinthian church and possibly for all women everywhere.
However, it’s obvious from considering the congregation this morning that most women here do not put an artificial covering on their heads in worship. Generally there are two arguments being made for this practice. First, Paul says in v. 15 that a woman’s hair is given to her for a covering, so hair is enough. Second, it’s clear from context that this is a commandment given to people in a particular culture, and because we don’t share the culture of the Corinthians, it doesn’t apply to us.
These are popular arguments, but there are problems with both of them. First, consider v. 6. There, Paul tells the Corinthian women that if they don’t adopt the covering, they might as well cut their hair short. From this, we can conclude that in Corinth, long-haired women still were expected to wear an artificial covering. Even today, long hair is not a reason to refuse to.
Second, we need to be very, very careful dismissing Biblical commandments on the basis of culture. As Jason observed in class that day, culture is the key that opens every door. Whatever you don’t like in the Bible—baptism, restrictions on divorce, the role of women in the church—you can dismiss on the basis of culture. This is not to say that the cultural argument is a bad argument. In fact, I think it’s correct. However, we must not reject commandments because of cultural differences without a very good reason.
From here, let’s turn to examining PAUL’S ARGUMENTS in this context. The first appears in 1 Corinthians 11:1-3, 7-10. In these texts, Paul is arguing from creation. Just as man was created for God, woman was created for man. As a result, there is a spiritual hierarchy: First God, then Christ, then husbands, then wives. Paul’s concern is that without some symbol of authority on their heads, some reminder of this hierarchy, women will imitate the angels who did not honor God’s authority and become rebels too.
Of course, this leaves open the question of whether the covering is Paul’s conclusion or simply a cultural application of that conclusion. As I’ve said, the first is the preferred interpretation. However, notice how strong this argument is. It is universal in scope. If the covering is demanded by this argument, we should expect to see the covering in all places and times. After all, the hierarchy that Paul lays out exists in all places and times.
The same thing is true of Paul’s second argument, the argument from nature. Look at 1 Corinthians 11:13-15. Logically, I think this is similar to the argument that Paul makes in Romans 1, where he describes same-sex intimacy as “unnatural”. We can tell that it’s against nature by comparing the anatomy of men and women. Clearly, nature intends men to be with women and women to be with men. In the same way, Paul is arguing that differences in anatomy ought to be reflected in appearance. Men shouldn’t adopt the hairstyles of women, nor women of men.
This too is a universal, since-the-creation, argument. If Paul is arguing specifically against long hair in men, we never should see men of God in the Bible with long hair. If, on the other hand, we do see men of God elsewhere in Scripture with long hair, then that’s evidence that Paul is speaking to a cultural context and not laying down a universal principle.
Thankfully for us, there is a way to test whether the covering and hair length are universal requirements or culture-specific applications. We can do that by considering THE WITNESS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT. If we see Old-Testament women covering themselves in worship, that shows that God intends the covering for everyone. On the other hand, if we don’t see the covering in the Old Testament, that’s evidence that the covering is culture-specific. The same thing holds true for long hair on men. Long-haired Old-Testament men show that Paul is only binding short hair on the Corinthians.
So then, what do we see about the covering in the Old Testament? Frankly, it’s kind of weird. Old-Testament women did cover themselves, but they didn’t do it as a prelude to worship. They did it as a prelude to intimacy. Look at Genesis 38:13-15. How does Tamar indicate her availability? She covers herself.
There is, by contrast, neither requirement to or example of Old-Testament women covering themselves to pray or prophesy. These women did honor the hierarchy of God-husband-wife, but they didn’t show it with the covering. We can conclude that the covering isn’t meant to be universal because it wasn’t universal in the Old Testament.
The same holds true for hair length. Look at Judges 13:3-5. Clearly, godly men in the Old Testament weren’t required to have short hair. In fact, Samson was required to have long hair, and cutting his hair short got him in all sorts of trouble! Hair length on men is a cultural issue too.
We have good reason, then, to confine both the covering and hair-length rules to the cultural context of first-century Corinth. However, we still must honor the principles of 1 Corinthians 11. Women still have to look and dress and act like women, not men. Men still have to look and dress and act like men, not women. Our cultural expression of these principles is different, but it still must exist.
Sometimes, the stories from the Bible that we most need to hear aren’t the pleasant, uplifting ones about the righteous who overcame through God. Instead, they’re the sobering ones about when God’s people chose to forsake Him and paid the penalty. As Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 10, we are sure to face the same temptations that those people did. If we come to those temptations unprepared, that makes it all the more likely that the devil will overcome us and destroy us as he did those unfortunates so long ago.
As a result, it’s important for us to spend some time considering those stories, but it’s even more important for us to consider our own lives in their light. Could it be that our souls today are imperiled as the souls of the ancient Israelites were, or the souls of the church in Ephesus were? This kind of introspection is the only cure for the disease of self-deception. With this in mind, then, let’s spend this evening considering the first Christians in the entire Bible whom we know for sure were lost. Let’s consider Ananias and Sapphira.
This downbeat story, though, begins with an upbeat narrative about how our first-century brethren were of ONE HEART AND SOUL. Let’s read about them in Acts 4:32-37. Because many of the brethren in the Jerusalem church were only in town for the Passover when they obeyed the gospel on Pentecost, the local Christians had to step up and provide for them. This they did joyfully, even selling their houses and lands when that became necessary to support their brethren.
In this section of the story, I see two main lessons. The first is that good hearts bear good fruit. Luke begins by observing that the Jerusalem church is of one heart and soul, and he is able to point to particular actions taken by brethren, sometimes even particular brethren, to back up his claim. So too for us. We know that this congregation, like every congregation, is supposed to be of one heart and soul too. If we are, that’s going to show up in the way we lavish money, time, and energy on one another.
Second, this is one of several places in Scripture where we see evidence of a church treasury. Sometimes you’ll hear folks arguing that there’s no Scriptural authority for a church to have a treasury. However, in this text, it’s clear that money was being laid at the apostles’ feet for them to distribute in a time and manner that seemed best to them. If an accumulation of money to be spent over time isn’t a church treasury, I don’t know what is!
This takes us, though, to THE SIN OF ANANIAS. Look at Acts 5:1-2. I’ve heard it said that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, and so it is here. Ananias and Sapphira see all the acclaim that people like Barnabas are getting for their generosity, and they want that praise too. However, they don’t want to give everything to the Lord, so they keep part of the proceeds back for themselves while claiming they’ve given all.
On one level, this seems like a victimless crime, doesn’t it? We don’t have to imagine too hard to see Ananias and Sapphira convincing themselves that their little white lie wouldn’t hurt anybody.
Indeed, we have to watch out for this trap in our own lives. We must beware of the temptation to give part while acting like we’re giving all. We want people to think of us as super-Christians, as pillars of the church, so we talk a good game around brethren, but we don’t live the way we talk. We wring our hands about how filthy our society is, then we go home and watch the latest pornfest on HBO. We exalt selfless love in marriage, but behind closed doors, we treat our spouses like dirt. This too seems like a harmless pastime, a victimless crime, but we must be aware that God sees things differently.
We see just how much differently in PETER’S INDICTMENT of Ananias’s sin. Let’s continue with Acts 5:3-4. As Peter points out, there was no good reason for Ananias’ hypocrisy. The property belonged to him; nobody made him sell any of it. Likewise, nobody required him to give every penny from the sale. When it would have been easy for him to tell the truth, he chose to lie instead.
In this, I think there are two lessons for us. The first is that when we lie, we must remember whom we’re trying to lie to. I suspect that Ananias didn’t have the slightest thought that his “little white lie” was directed at God. He figured that he was going to fool his brethren and go his way. However, the spiritual consequences of his sin—and our sin too—were much wider than he thought.
Second, we must remember that hypocrisy never fools God. Sure, we might well deceive everybody at church. We might go on fooling them for decades. However, we never should think that we are deceiving the Lord, not for an instant. He knows what we’re up to, and He is not pleased.
The story of Ananias and Sapphira ends with GOD’S JUDGMENT. Consider Acts 5:5-11. The husband-and-wife team tells the same lie, and both of them meet the same fate. God strikes Ananias down, and a few hours later, He strikes Sapphira down too.
Once again, I think there are two applications here for us. The first is that God hasn’t changed since the Old Testament. Of all the myths of pop religion, this is one of the most persistent and dangerous. People say all the time that God in the Old Testament was wrathful and harsh, but in the New Testament, He is merciful and forgiving.
The problem with this theory is that it simply doesn’t match up with the evidence. By the end of this story, Ananias and Sapphira are no less dead than Nadab and Abihu, or Uzza, or any of the other poor fools who put God to the test in the Old Testament. God’s conduct does not change because God does not change, nor will He ever do so.
From this, we can conclude that God will judge iniquity. In fact, I think this is the reason why God did what He did. He destroyed Ananias and Sapphira to leave us with no doubt about what the fate of hypocrites always will be. If we practice hypocrisy, God may not blast us on the spot (although He might!). However, when we choose to continue in sin, secure in the delusion that we will not suffer for the wrong we have done, we do nothing less than make our punishment certain.
As you know, one of my favorite things to do in the pulpit is to preach sermons based on the requests made by members here. After all, the whole point of me being up here is to help y’all on to heaven, and the more you tell me what you need, the better able I am to do that!
This morning’s topic came to me from Billy Tanner, who suggested that I ought to preach on laying up treasure in heaven. This is a familiar topic. I can remember studying Jesus’ teaching on this in children’s Bible classes when I still lived in New Jersey. However, even if we know the words to Matthew 6:19-21 by heart, I think there is still more for all of us to understand about them. Without further ado, then, let’s consider the subject of treasure in heaven.
The Lord opens His discourse on this subject by observing that there are TWO OPTIONS FOR TREASURE. Look at Matthew 6:19-20. As I’ve said, this is a passage that many of us have known all our lives, but because it’s so familiar, I think it’s hard for us to appreciate how amazing the Lord’s teaching here is. We have a mental category for “treasure in heaven”, but that category did not exist until Jesus invented it.
He did so to address the struggle that all of us face when we are presented with an opportunity to be generous. I know that when I put my check in the collection plate, or when I give money to a poor person, that money’s gone. However, if I don’t open my wallet, the money stays with me, and I can use it for whatever I want.
When we think that way, Jesus wants us to understand that we’re looking at things exactly wrong. When we refuse to be generous with our money, all we are doing is ensuring that one day we’re going to lose it. Moth and rust can eat it up, and even if they don’t, one day we’re going to die and leave it all behind. As the saying goes, you never see a hearse pulling a U-Haul!
On the other hand, though, He wants us to see that the money that we apparently give away is the only money we keep. When we are generous, we are actually saving up that money in the only place it will be safe—in heaven. Of course, this is not literally true. There is no First National Bank of Heaven. However, it is true that God will see our good works, remember them, and reward them.
Next, Jesus wants us to consider the connection between TREASURE AND THE HEART. Let’s read Matthew 6:21-24. Before I go on, it’s worth noting that for some reason we want to cut the context off at v. 21. That’s actually not correct. Jesus’ discussion of treasure in heaven continues to the end of the chapter.
In this section he observes that in addition to not being effective, storing up treasure on earth has another problem. Wherever we put our wealth, that’s where our hearts are going to be too. If we store up treasure in heaven, our hearts will be set on heavenly things, but if we store up treasure on earth, our hearts will be set on earthly things.
The next two verses illustrate the problem with this. When Jesus is talking about the eye here, He’s actually talking about our desires, the things we want. Contextually, He’s talking about whether we desire the things of heaven because we have stored up treasure there, or whether we desire the things of earth because we’ve stored up treasure there. If our hearts are set on heavenly things, our whole lives will be filled with goodness, but if they are set on earthly things, those lives will be filled with darkness and corruption.
At this point, we might find ourselves wondering if we can split the difference, if we can make part of our lives about storing up earthly treasure and part of them about storing up heavenly treasure. No dice, says Jesus. He points out that trying to love both God and money is like trying to be a slave with two masters. In the final analysis, we are always going to belong to one of those masters, and if we think that somehow we have managed to set up a time-share arrangement, Jesus wants us to see that we’re wrong. If we think we’re serving both God and wealth, it’s really Mammon who owns our hearts.
After this, Jesus presents us with OUR APPLICATION. Let’s conclude our reading for the morning by considering Matthew 6:25-34. Once again, allow me to observe that a passage we commonly treat as a separate context actually isn’t separate at all. Notice that v. 25 begins with the words “For this reason”.
For what reason? Well, it’s everything we’ve already studied in the previous six verses. It’s because laying up treasure on earth isn’t effective and laying up treasure in heaven is. It’s because our hearts follow our treasure. It’s because if we think that both earth and heaven can be our goal, we’re fooling ourselves.
So if that’s the logic, what’s the conclusion? Jesus says it’s that we shouldn’t be anxious about even the necessities of life. To us, this may seem like a leap, but it really isn’t. Think about it. When we store up money primarily on earth, isn’t that because we trust in money to be powerful? This money will take care of me. It will keep me safe from harm. On the other hand, when we store up money in heaven, that’s because we trust in God to be powerful. God will take care of me. God will keep me safe from harm, and I’m so sure that He will that I’m even willing to give away the money that would otherwise protect me.
If we choose the first path, we’re going to be anxious. You know why? Because no matter how much money we have, it never will be enough to guarantee our safety. The right job loss, the right stock-market crash, the right illness—all those things still can wipe us out. And so we fret and worry and are miserable.
On the other hand, if we are truly putting our trust in God, we won’t feel anxious. We’ll feel safe. Unlike money, God is great enough to fully protect us. He won’t make us rich, necessarily. He won’t protect us from hard times, even. However, He never will abandon us, and He will make sure that we always have enough.
When we seek His kingdom first, we are putting our trust in His promise, and that’s a good place to put it. There’s not one story in the Bible about God abandoning His faithful children, and I’ve never seen it happen to a faithful Christian in real life either. Only God can keep us safe, and He will always do it.