Monday, December 30, 2013

When Bible Teachers Argue...Who Do You Trust? Matthew 7:16-20

Original Photo by Flickr user Kjunstorm

The context of this passage about fruit is Jesus' warning to beware of false prophets who "Come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves" (Mt. 7:15).

Jesus wanted his followers to know that there would be some people who would try to deceive them claiming a message from the Lord. The Jews would have immediately understood his reference to false prophets and to wolves. They had suffered at their hands many times in the past.

When I read this passage about false prophets, I thought about a passage I read in Jeremiah recently. In Jeremiah 28, a man named Hananiah tried to convince the people that Jeremiah was wrong about the destruction coming to Jerusalem at the hands of God. He claimed to speak for God when he said that God would "break the yoke of the king of Babylon" (Jeremiah 28:1-4).

Jeremiah's response was direct.
"Amen! May the LORD do so! May the LORD fulfill the words you have prophesied by bringing the articles of the LORD's house and all the exiles back to this place from Babylon. Nevertheless, listen to what I have to say in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people: from early times the prophets who preceded you and me have prophesied war, disaster and plague against many countries and great kingdoms. But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the LORD only if his prediction comes true." (Jer. 28:6-9)
 In response to that, Hananiah broke the yoke Jeremiah was wearing by direction of the LORD to symbolize that God would break the yoke of the Babylonians. "At this, the prophet Jeremiah went on his way" (Jer. 28:11).

But God sent him back to Hananiah.
"Listen, Hananiah! The LORD has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies...." (Jeremiah 28:15-17).
When I read that story several weeks ago, my heart went out to all of the people who were torn between believing Jeremiah's true words from God or Hananiah's false words. How were they to know who to trust when both were claiming to speak for God!?

And my heart went out to all of the people living today who face the same reality. It's not hard to see that we face a similar situation today. People claim to speak truth from direct revelation or even from the revelation of the written word...and so many people claim these truths in direct opposition to others who are also claiming God's word as the basis of truth! Both sides accuse the other of misinterpreting the scriptures. I remember a woman in Jamaica crying when we knocked on her door and offered a Bible study. She was so upset because several different people claiming Christianity's truth had been knocking on her door and they all said different things. She had no idea who to trust and who to believe.

How are we as followers of Christ supposed to know who to trust? Obviously, we go straight to God's word, but what about when two sincere students of God's word claim truths that oppose each other and it is not just a matter of opinion, but one that bears more weight and importance?

By pointing to their fruit, Jesus gives us a very good place to start. What is the purpose of the teaching? Is it self-serving or self-sacrificial? Does it lead one to closer obedience to the plain truths of God's word or does it force a choice between being obedient to a difficult-to-interpret passage over a plain one? Does the teacher live what he teaches? Is the teacher obedient to Jesus' commands to love as He loved us?

What does his fruit look like?

I think it is worth taking the principle a step further since as Christians we are all called to be priests and teachers (1 Peter 2:9, Hebrews 5:12-14).

Do I ask out loud or even in my mind for the preacher to preach messages that are pleasing to me instead of challenging to me? Do I claim to want to know more and more about God and His word and stand ready to defend His word, but balk at the idea of defending the widows and orphans? Do I claim the Spirit of God in my life and set myself up as a teacher in word or in example, but fail to actually carry (bear) the fruits of the Spirit- Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? (Galatians 5:22-25)

What does my fruit look like?

May we strive to be bearers of good fruit instead of simply bearers of a pleasant message of comfort and salvation without sanctification. May God give us the discernment to recognize wolves in sheep's clothing and may God give us the courage to look inside our own lives and allow Him to weed out those wolfish, self-seeking tendencies in ourselves. May we trust and may we become the Jeremiahs who speak the difficult but true messages of God's word. And may we never listen or spread the messages of the Hananiahs.

It should be very sobering truth to us who accept Jesus' teaching that "every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

Monday, December 23, 2013

Is God a "Bigot"? - Matthew 7:13-14

When I pulled the the internet up a few moments ago to write this article, I was immediately bombarded by at least 2 articles about Phil Robertson from Duck Dynasty. It seems the whole nation is either defending or attacking him based on his calling homosexuality (among other things including lying, drunkenness, adultery, etc.) sin. Most of the discussion seems to be based on his right to free well as A&E's right to suspend him based on their beliefs. But we all know that the issue of free speech is not what ignited the controversy. Free speech is simply the political hot-button that has been pressed.

At the heart of the issue is something that is much more central to who we are as human beings and to our deeply held beliefs and emotions. At issue is the claim of the exclusivity of the gospel. What ignited the firestorm of emotions and reactions was the debate about whether or not any action can actually be called a sin. Of course that conversation then leads to what a sin does to your relationship to God and how it affects your afterlife.

One of the biggest arguments against the Biblical picture of God is that a loving God could not lovingly throw anyone into hell. How could He be loving and do that to one of His children? Jesus' claim above is one of the passages that people struggle with when they try to rectify it with their concept of God. The claim of Biblical Christianity is that sin separates man from God (Isaiah 59:2), and that the only way back to God is through Christ where we receive the forgiveness of sins (John 14:6, Acts 4:8-12, Romans 6:1-14).

That claim will never be a popular one because so many people choose to worship false Gods, choose a path of self-determination over submission to God, choose to satisfy momentary desires of the flesh instead of receiving "abundant life" (John 10:10).

The truth is that all of have sinned (Romans 3:23). There is no difference in what type of sin as far as its effect on our souls (Galatians 5:19-21). But the greater truth than our sin is that God offers redemption to us in spite of our sins!

Phil Robertson came under attack for quoting 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 which is a list of sins that prohibit someone from entering the kingdom of heaven. But arguing about this list forgets verse 11 which says, " And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."

What does that mean? It means that homosexuals, liars, adulterers, drunkards, drug addicts, the prideful, the arrogant, the greedy, the abusive, those who rage, those who steal, those who disobey parents can all be "washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God!"

And now what does all of that have to do with the Matthew 7:13-14 which claims that there are few who find the way to salvation as opposed to many who walk the road to destruction?

People have argued for centuries about their concept of God. About heaven. And about hell. People have railed against the idea of so many people in the world being cast into hell because of their refusal of Christ. People have labeled God as unloving and turned away from their faith as a result of this or else they have twisted the scriptures to make these statements more palatable and opened the way for any "good" person to go to heaven. All because they view a God who would make an exclusive statement like this as unloving.

But what if we are reading it incorrectly? What if Jesus' statement of the wide and narrow paths says more about man's rejection of a loving God than it does about an unloving god's rejection of man?

Consider these passages:
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing."    - Jesus in Matthew 23:37
"The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." - 2 Peter 3:9
"I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. " - 1 Timothy 2:1-4
And finally:
 "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son." - Jesus in John 3:16-18
 Now I ask you, does it sound like the God of the Bible...the God that sent His one and only Son...the same God that warns of hell...does it sound like He is an unloving God who wants to throw people into everlasting fire? Or does it sound more like God is doing everything He possibly can short of taking away our free will to save as many people as possible to be with Him in paradise?

The sad truth of the Christianity that we preach is not that God will ultimately reject and condemn most men...but that most men have already rejected the love of God and have so condemned themselves.

May we always spread God's message of love. May we see people the way God sees them. Not as people who we desire to see their punishment, but as souls who we long to restore to their Creator.

And may we take seriously Jesus' warning about the wide and narrow paths because none of us have to pay attention to be lost. We can all do that simply by drifting through life selfishly (i.e. sinfully). No, being saved is not a matter of works-righteousness. But it is a matter of seeking for the narrow gate that so many ignore.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

When did the Golden Rule become silver? Matthew 7:12

The Golden Rule.

I would venture to say that there are more people in the world who could quote at least some form of this rule than there are who could not. As I was reading Barclay's commentary on this passage, he pointed out that the negative form of the rule is stated in countless places throughout many different religions, cultures, government figures. The negative form of course says basically that if there is something you would rather someone not do to you...then don't do it to them! Pretty simple and pretty basic to human existence. That rule is what governs every law on the books. Don't steal, you don't want to be stolen from. Don't abuse; you don't want to be abused. Don't slander; you don't want to be slandered about.

Here's the problem: too many times we, as followers of Christ, attempt to make the "Golden Rule" of Christ something less...we are content to live by what I will call the "silver rule" of not doing others harm. But living that way does nothing but make us sterile and basically moral people. It does not give us purpose; it does not fill us with passion; and it does not inspire the world to look for the God they have been missing!

What if we have taken what some call the climax of the sermon on the mount- the Golden Rule- and we have stripped it of its power? Could that be why we focus on teaching our children what not to do more than we focus on what to do? Could that be why we spend so much time in front of the television and our teenagers spend so much time in front of their game systems? Could it be that Christianity has become just another voice calling for people to do nothing to others that you wouldn't want done to you, when our message is supposed to be "Do unto the others what you would have them do to you!?"

Christianity is a religion of action, not of restrictions!

I love this paragraph in Barclay's commentary. Read it slowly and let the end of it especially sink in.
"It is perfectly possible for a man of the world to observe the negative form of this golden rule. He could without very serious difficulty so discipline his life that he would not do to other what he did not wish them to do to him; but the only man who can even begin to satisfy the positive form of the rule is the man who has the love of Christ within his heart. He will try to forgive as he would wish to be forgiven, to help as he would wish to be helped, to praise as he would wish to be praised, to understand as he would wish to be understood. He will never seek to avoid doing things; he will always look for things to do. Clearly this will make life much more complicated; clearly he will have much less time to spend on his own desires and his own activities, for time and time again he will have to stop what he is doing to help someone else. It will be a principle which will dominate his life at home, in the factory, in the bus, in the office, in the street, in the train, at his games, everywhere. He can never do it until self withers and dies within his heart. To obey this commandment a man must become a new man with a new centre to his life; and if the world was composed of people who sought to obey this rule, it would be a new world."
May we strive to live up to the Golden Rule and never be satisfied to simply follow its "silver" form.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Quit praying like God is a dead-beat dad.- Matthew 7:9-11

Original photo by Flickr user bterrycompton

Ask any kid in the U.S. over the age of 5 what they want for Christmas this year or for their birthday and I guarantee that 95% of the answers will begin with the letter "i"- as in i-pad, i-phone, etc. I may be exaggerating the age a very well might be 4! By the way, did you know that 78% of all statistics are made up on the spot :)

I suppose with the traffic to Opry Mills backed up for a mile and half 23.5 hours of the day from last week till Christmas, it is appropriate that we come now to this verse about giving gifts. What's on your kids' list? was I right? Did it involved the letter "i"? If it didn't, I would be willing to wager that it at least involved some electronic gadget...even if they already have one!

I think it's possible that our extreme affluence (even those of us who don't consider ourselves to be rich are actually filthy rich compared to the rest of the world and compared to previous generations) has tainted our understanding of Jesus' command to ask, seek, and knock and His comparison to a Father that gives good gifts to his child.

Last week we committed to asking, seeking, and knocking trusting that God would answer, open, and be found based on Jesus' promise. But we addressed that it is difficult to believe those promises in light of what seem to us to be unanswered prayers. The problem is quite so much in figuring out a theology that is suitable to explain it in a way that makes sense. The problem is figuring out how that theology fits when I am the one who has lost a loved one. When it's a personal unanswered prayer, it becomes much more real.

In our passage for this week, Jesus compares God' willingness to give us good things to the dads that we see every day.

I have to tell you...I feel like I'm a pretty strong dad. I don't give in all of the time to my daughters when they are whining or are begging for something. Why? Because some of the stuff that they ask for, I know they really don't need and often I know that it will actually hurt them! But when they really ask in a sweet way and give me that look...let me tell you, I've caved a time or two! (Thankfully, they haven't quite figured out how to manipulate me completely, but I'm sure my time is limited!)

But what if they asked for something that I know they actually do need? I'm here to tell you, if my daughters were really hungry and in need of food, I'm pretty sure I would do just about whatever it took to provide it for them when they asked. I'm just thankful that God has provided for us so well, that I have not been put in a situation that I felt like I needed to steal. I'm not saying it's right...I'm just saying, if they were really in need, and I couldn't figure out any other way to put food in their bellies...I'm not sure what I would do. Please don't blow up the comments about the rightness or wrongness of stealing...I know its wrong. That's not the point. The point that Jesus points to is the desire of earthly fathers, who are very, very imperfect- in fact Jesus says "evil"!- to provide for and take care of their children.

Take the most doting, spoiling his little princess, wrapped around little fingers dad in the world. His emotional connection and love for his child is nothing compared to the emotional connection and love that God feels toward His children.

I tell my daughters every day how much I love them. I try to tell them every day that I don't love them nearly as much as their Daddy in heaven. I want them to trust Him more than they trust me. I want them to petition Him even more than they petition me. I get frustrated with their requests sometimes because of their 3-yr old selfishness and whinyness. But God the Father begs us to bring all of our complaints and worries and fears and needs to Him.

What a beautiful picture.

Unfortunately, there are some who did not, or do not, have a good relationship with their dad. I assume this verse must be hard for them because they have not experienced a dad who desired what was best for them. All I can say to them is this...the promise of the Heavenly Father...Abba..."Daddy" is for you and maybe in an even deeper way. All through scripture God's love for the orphaned and fatherless is shouted from the law and the prophets.

May we all work to focus and to help our children to focus more on the gifts of answered prayer and the providences of God every day that we take for granted. How many meals did you eat today? Did you drive to work? Do you have a job? Did you pick which clothes to wear today? Did you forget how cold it was outside until you opened the door of your centrally heated house? Boy do we have a lot that we haven't even thought to ask for and yet it's been given us!

When we struggle with why some prayers are not answered the way we want, may we take comfort and gain strength from the infinite numbers of prayers that He has already answered...before we even asked for them. May we quit being ashamed to pronounce our faith in answered prayers because some of them have not been answered the way we hoped. May we quit praying hesitantly and timidly as if Abba were a dead-beat Dad that we had to beg for the things we need. And may our thanks for the countless blessings He's already given us turn into strengthened faith for future prayers.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

I've asked. I've seeked. I've knocked. Why have I still not recieved the open door I've been seeking for?- Matthew 7:7-8

For everyone who asks, receives; the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.  - Mt. 7:8

One quick question...
If all I have to do is ask then how come I haven't gotten everything I've ever asked for?

Do you struggle with that as much as I do? I have often come to the "prayer promises" passages in the Bible and either rushed through them so I didn't have to deal with them, or else I've just settled to not fully understand them.

I remember very plainly standing in a hospital room of a young man who had either just died or was dying. I am actually fairly confident that he was already dead, but the doctors, for some reason, had not pronounced him dead yet. With his wife wailing in the room, I began praying...earnestly. I reminded God that he had raised people from the dead before. In fact, He had raised people who were much more dead than this man if he was in fact dead. (Lazarus was already in the tomb long enough to start smelling when Jesus told him to come out!) I knew then, and I still do, that God has more than enough power to raise someone who has already been pronounced dead. With that knowledge, I pleaded with God to put life back into this young man who still had not been pronounced dead.

I reasoned with God. I pointed out the praise that He would get when the doctors had to pronounce a miracle instead of a time of death. I begged for the wife of the man that I didn't know how she would make it if he died. How as it fair to let him die when he had raised others!?

I kept praying after even the wife had even given up hope that there was a real reason why the doctors had not pronounced him dead yet. And I left the hospital- and his funeral a few days later- frustrated that this verse about the surety of asking, seeking, and knocking is so difficult to understand in practice.

I also remember the feeling when I walked out to the Vanderbilt parking garage with my brother the night I thought my daughters were going to be born at 27 weeks. They wound up coming at 29.5 weeks and are doing great now! But that night, we got the visit from the doctor who was in charge of telling us all of the statistics of mortality and morbidity for babies that are born that early. Jon David walked me to the car and I shared what had been screaming silently in my mind for hours. "I prayed several weeks ago that if they weren't going to be faithful to God and Christ as adults, that God would take them before they got to that point and were still innocent."

Timidly, I still pray that prayer. I would rather lose my daughters who I love with all my heart for the next several decades and have them for all of eternity than have them till I die and lose them for eternity. That is still my prayer...but that night, anyway, I was scared to death that God had answered my prayer...and I wanted Him to take it back.

Why do we see such strong promises in the scriptures and from the mouth of Jesus and yet know that sometimes prayers are answered with "no?" Jesus, himself, was answered "no" in the Garden of Gethsemane when he begged the Father to take his cup from him. How do we reconcile that?

I have to say humbly that I still have no idea. I know intellectually the arguments about Jesus praying, "nevertheless not my will by yours be done." Those are good and true arguments. But how are we supposed to pray at all believing these commands of ask, seek, and knock when we can't see the specific and detailed plans and will of God from his eternal perspective instead of our temporary one?

Here is what I choose to believe.

Jesus was telling the truth. God makes big promises about our prayers and petitions. Jesus- and others (think Elijah in James 5:17-17)- put that truth into practice and saw incredible results in their prayers. And still at times they were told "no." I wonder if they struggled with these questions like we do. But they chose to believe. And while at times they may have been frustrated and confused about not seeing what God sees when the "no's" came, they chose to keep praying, seeking, and knocking. And their prayers closed and opened the heavens, raised the dead, and healed the sick.

I wonder if I see more "no's" than "yes's" simply because I have not chosen to translate my belief into actions and adventurous faith-led and faith-filled risk-taking like they did. I wonder.

I don't know that I will ever come to a good answer. I have some theories that I am comfortable with. But I don't think they would do you any good, because they didn't do me any good until I came to them myself. But I will choose to believe...and I will pray the prayer of a father who believed as much as he could.

I will choose to ask, seek, and knock expecting the results Jesus promised and when God questions my lack of faith I will reply like that father, "I do believe! Help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Was Jesus really calling some people "dogs" and "pigs?" Matthew 7:6

The general principle of this verse is pretty easy to get- don't waste something valuable on something that is not worthwhile.

That truth can be applied in a number of different situations. Don't waste your purity on someone who is not your spouse; don't waste your time and resources on foolish pursuits, etc.

But it's the context and the situation in which Jesus applies it that gives me trouble. He's just been talking about not judging people (Mt. 7:1-2), and then taking the beam out of our own eye so we can help removed the speck from someone else's (Mt. 7:3-5), and then goes straight into this verse about giving holy stuff to dogs and pearls to pigs. I don't know how else to read this verse in the context without it including making some sort of judgment about people and what we offer them.

The reason I have trouble with this verse is because I feel like I know for sure what Jesus could not have been teaching here based on his other teachings and his work. He could not have been saying that there are some people who are unworthy of being preached to. We are all unworthy of the gospel and Jesus made a point of reaching those who society shunned as "the worst." He could not have been saying that we are to be very selective about who we preach to based on who we think will respond and who will not. Otherwise, how could the kingdom of heaven be compared to the farmer sowing seed, some of which fell on the road, some on the rocky soil, some among the thorns, and some on the good soil?

Knowing Jesus most certainly was not giving us an out to pick and choose who we want to share the life-giving message with, how did he want us to apply this truth in the context of Matthew 7?

I consulted at least 3 or 4 commentaries and two co-workers (would have been 3 but one was at a funeral) trying to figure out how to apply this passage. Most people view Jesus' comments as a general truth that there are just some people who are not ready to receive the gospel. With that interpretation, the "holy" and the "pearls" are both the gospel message. The problem with that, in my mind, is that the "pigs" and "dogs" then become people that we must make a judgment call about whether or not they are ready to receive the gospel. None of us can see into someone's heart the way Jesus did so why would he ask us to do that? Not to mention the fact that Jesus still proclaimed truth to those that he already knew would reject him!

Another option I found makes much more sense to me in light of the context on Matthew 7 and in light of Jesus' other teachings and way of dealing with people. Since Jesus had just talked about the beam and the speck in someone's eye, what if the "holy" and the "pearls" he refers to in verse 7 refers not to the gospel message itself, but to a more specific message of reproof, rebuke, and correction? If that is the way Jesus intended it, then Paul gave a great commentary on it in 1 Corinthians 5 when he wrote to the church in Corinth about the brother who was sleeping with his step-mother.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.
Notice that Paul draws a very clear distinction not in the way we love people or try to share the life-saving gospel with them. He draws a distinction in the way we deal with sin in the lives of those who are inside the church already and should have already been saved from sin versus how we deal with sin in those who are outside the church still living in sin. He goes on...
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”
1 Corinthians 5:9-13

Here's the point:

I don't believe Jesus is referring to any group of people as "dogs" or "pigs" unworthy of the gospel. I believe he is using an illustration that everyone will understand to state the general truth that some people simply are not ready to hear some things. It makes no sense to offer some truths to people who are not ready to receive them, just as it makes no sense to offer holy things in the dog bowl or pearls in the pig slop. In the context of verses 3-5, I believe the holy things and the pearls Jesus is referring to are the words of rebuke and correction that would help remove a "speck from someone's eye." Why would anyone in the world welcome me pointing out their faults and sins before I have first pointed out the love of God and the life that He offers?

I read a Christian fiction novel a long time ago in which a Christian woman is very offended and shocked at an inappropriate advance by a man. Her son-also a Christian- shields her and diffuses the situation, and then asks, "why are we surprised when sinners sin?"

That line has stuck with me. Why are we often more outraged over the things we see in the news about the ways people are treating each other than we are about the things we see in the pews about the ways Christians treat each other? Why are we willing to wage political wars about homosexual marriage but willing to overlook the heterosexual lust and lasciviousness that invades our Christian homes through the media we use? Why do we mobilize and come together about abortion but overlook brothers and sisters in Christ murdering each other with their words? 

Don't get me wrong...sin is sin. It kills and destroys and separates people from the God who loves them perfectly, sacrificially, and eternally. But perhaps Jesus would have us point out that God to the world and work to convert them to His love before we work to point out their sin and convert their actions. Just think about the anger and resentment that is often pointed at Christianity about the issues that get national attention. Could it be that we sometimes try to confront people with sin before we have confronted them with God and therefore they have "trampled [our well-meaning efforts at righteousness] underfoot and have turned to tear us to pieces?"

May we never downplay the devastating effects of sin. But may we heed Jesus' teaching here and be filled with God's wisdom to know when and how to confront sin in a way that focuses on winning souls and not just changing behaviors.

As I said earlier, I struggled with the application of this verse and would love to hear more discussion on it.

Monday, November 18, 2013

"In your eye, man!" Matthew 7:3-5

"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye."

Matthew 7:3-5

 Last week we focused on the command of Jesus not to judge in verses 1 and 2. If you were not convinced that the command not to judge had nothing to do with not working to correct and reprove sin when we see it, then these verses should make it inescapably clear. We are not called to judge someone's soul based on their action, but Jesus states it very plainly that there are some things in our eyes that need to be cleaned out and we have a responsibility to help each other do that...we just need to be sure we get the cleaning steps in order.

I shared two stories from my childhood a few weeks ago on a Sunday night to illustrate this verse. 

I remember going with my family to buy an interior door. I am in the middle of 4 other siblings and we are all 1.5 years apart. Needless to say, there were things that went on in the back of the van anytime we went anywhere. On this trip, the door was propped up between me and my sister. I was picking on her doing something...I have no idea what. All I remember is that I was looking through the empty doorknob hole at her. Her answer to my picking was to blow through the hole into my eye. Let's just say we made a stop by my dad's clinic to clean all of the sawdust out of my eye. And let's be very clear...IT HURT!

I also remember going on several medical mission trips with my dad to Nicaragua. One of the trips he took me on was to a town called Rancheria. It was without a doubt, the dirtiest place I have ever been to. I have very clear memories of having to fan each bite of food as I brought it to my mouth so I wouldn't swallow one of the swarming flies. An even more vivid memory than that, however, was the sight of a little boy- maybe 2 or 3- who had some sort of infection in his eye. There was obvious drainage and pus in his eye and he looked miserable. But that wasn't what stood out. What stood out were all of the gnats and flies that were walking around on his eye in the drainage. He never blinked; he never swatted them away; and he never acted like he even noticed they were there.

I tell you these stories to point to one truth. Jesus' comparison of the "speck" or splinter to a beam or mote in our eyes seems a little absurd, but I believe he does that for a reason. Here is what I think we need to take away from it:
  1. First and foremost, we are not being called to ignore sin. Sawdust in the eye hurts! You know exactly how uncomfortable it is when you get something stuck in your eye. We may think we are being kind and compassionate by overlooking someone's sin, but the truth is that their sin is hurting them. Unfortunately, so many of us have walked around with nastiness in our eyes for so long, that, like the little Nicaraguan boy, we don't even notice the irritant anymore. 
  2.  Second, some of us reading this verse, need to realize that the people ignoring the "biggest" sins in their own lives are often not the adulterers, drunkards, drug addicts, or homosexuals; they are the self-righteous "church folk" who feel comfortable condemning others for sin while ignoring their own pride and hypocrisies. Just think about this for a minute. Try to find one place in the New Testament where Jesus really blasted an out and out "sinner." Look for a prostitute or thief or murderer that Jesus spoke harshly to. You won't find it. What you will find is that when Jesus' tone changes to sternness and rebuke, he is talking to the religious people who had been shunning and shaming the "sinners" all along. If you have grown up in the church as I have, that should serve as a serious call to pay attention and do a thorough check in the mirror to see if there have been any lingering planks or beams of smugness, arrogance, pride, and comparison oriented self-righteousness. 
I think Paul reiterates Jesus' words very well:
"Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load."
Galatians 6:1-5

May we see sin as God sees it. May we be honest with our own sin so we can be free to be honest with others. The whole world is walking around with drainage and pus and flies and splinters in their eyes because of the damaging effects of the sin disease. May we never fail to bring them salve and cleansing and help because we who are disciples of the Great Physician cannot see clearly ourselves. May we view our own sins as beams and others as specks so that we can magnify God's grace that heals both. And may the world see only the love of God in our eyes when we confront sin instead of the hypocrisy, hyper-critical spirit, and self-righteousness that too often dominates the world's view of the church.

Monday, November 11, 2013

"Don't judge me!"- Matthew 7:1-2

original photo by Flickr user Robin Hutton
Oh, the abuse that Matthew 7:1 has taken. I would venture to say that it may be one of the most often quoted...and misapplied verses in the Bible. It typically happens when someone is feeling guilty or feels like they are being made to feel guilty for something they have done. In that situation, it doesn't take long before someone says, "Don't judge me!" Occasionally, they will know the second half of the line and throw it in as well, "lest you too be judged!"

Before we dig into the verse...let me ask a couple of questions so we can start on the same page.

Is murder wrong?
Is stealing wrong?
Is abuse- physical, sexual, or emotional- wrong?
Is hypocrisy wrong?
Is genocide wrong?

I would venture to say that there are not very many people in the  world who will have a difficult time answering those questions. There are some issues of right and wrong that cut across all cultures, time periods, and social settings. People internally know that some things are just wrong. Even those who would deny the truth of those standards of absolute right and wrong will be very quick to demand retribution when they or their family is wronged in one of those ways. So let's just cut to the chase and make the statement that there are at least some things that are categorically wrong. By doing so, we have just ruled out that making judgments about the rightness or wrongness of an action is not what Jesus is forbidding.

Once we have established that, we don't need to argue about the "gray" areas of morals that people get into so many arguments about. That is a different discussion about where we turn for the standards of right and wrong. In this discussion and in this passage, the question we want to ask is not "which things are we allowed to pass judgements on and which are we not?" The question we must ask is, "what type of judgement at all is Jesus forbidding." And we have already established that He is most certainly not forbidding the judgments of individual actions as right or wrong. Jesus made very explicit judgment statements about actions of people. See Matthew 23 for several examples. "But," someone might say, "that was Jesus. He had the ability to see people's hearts." That's correct. However, Jesus also commanded us to evaluate fruit as either good or bad only verses later in the same chapter he told us not to judge (Matthew 7:15-20). His apostles also passed judgments about the wrongness of different actions. You can see an example of Paul rebuking Peter for being hypocritical and cowardly in Galatians 2.

So what, then, is Jesus forbidding the judgment of?

James Coffman's commentary on Matthew has an excellent explanation of what the word for judge really means in this passage. 
"The word 'judge' in this place is translated from a Greek word, krino, also found in such passages are John 12:48, Acts 17:31, and 2 Timothy 4:1, indicating that the type of judging forbidden in this place is that of presuming to determine salvation, or the lack of it, in others. Not even Christ did this while on earth. 'I came not to judge the world but to save the world' (John 12:47)."
 The Tyndale commentary has this:
"This passage, however, is concerned with the fault-finding, condemnatory attitude which is too often combined with a blindness to one's own failings."
So how does this play out in real life?

Well, for starters, it does not mean that what we do doesn't matter. That idea would contradict everything Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere. It also doesn't mean that we don't point out wrong when we see it and ignore things that, according to scripture, kill people's souls. (See Matthew 18:15-17; and Acts 8:14-24 for just a few examples.) In fact, we have a duty to call sin, "sin" just as a doctor has a duty to call disease, "disease." If we fail to do it for fear of offending the person who is sick with sin, then we are just as negligent and infinitely more so than a doctor who neglects to inform their patient of a treatable tumor!


I would also say based on the meaning of judging that we have already discussed, that while we have a duty to guide people to the truth, at absolutely NO point at all do we have the duty...much less the say who is and who is not eligible for heaven. We state the truth that we know from scripture- that the only way to the Father is through the Son (John 14:6), that we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8), that in response to recognition of our sinfulness and Jesus' act of redemption as the Son of God we are called to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38), among other doctrines that are clear and easy to understand- and then we leave room for God to judge as He sees fit. It is not my place to say what God will or will not do on judgment day based on whatever hypothetical situation someone brings up. That is a foolish argument to have with someone. It is my place to proclaim from the rooftops that sin is a killer of souls, but God in Christ is a Savior of souls. It is not my place to figure out which groups have enough correct doctrine to get into heaven because they are doing it right. It is my place to study and be as obedient as I can possibly be to what I find in scripture and to help others study and obey the truth as well.

I realize that some might take offense at this article...from either side of the argument. On one side, some might accuse me of still being judgmental because I proclaim that Jesus is the only way and I point to how He and his apostles instructed to get into the Way. On the other hand, some might accuse me of being too liberal and failing to stand for the truth because I am teaching that we do not have the right to proclaim who is and who is not counted among the saved.

I pray that you will hear what I am saying. I'm saying that Jesus calls us to righteousness. He calls us to preach righteousness. He calls us to repentance. He calls us to preach repentance. He calls us to grace. He calls us to preach grace. But He doesn't call us to judge. That is God's job. It makes no difference what I say about the destiny of someone else's soul. God will judge. So why should I say anything at all? Wouldn't I spend my time better by preaching Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2) and then leave room for God to open someone's heart to respond to the gospel (Acts 16:14), and for the Holy Spirit to convict someone of sin, and righteousness, and judgment (John 16:7-11)?

And as if the fact that God is the judge and I am not is not reason enough to make me think twice about pronouncing condemnation upon someone's soul as opposed to pronouncing the way to life and letting them choose, Jesus follows the command not to judge with a pretty good reason to obey.

"For in the same way you judge, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."

I will never, to the best of my ability, shirk from preaching and teaching the truth that I find in the scriptures. I will never, to the best of my ability, dismiss as insignificant what God has already called sin. But I will tell you this. The one thing I most certainly do NOT need to hear God say on judgment is that He would be more than willing to forgive me this sin or that based on the grace and sacrifice of Jesus, but unfortunately He is going to use my standards of judgment instead, and those are stricter than His.

How silly to think that Jesus needed to remind us-- horribly imperfect, consistently inconsistent, selfish, and constantly caving to temptation us-- to not use stricter judgment on our brothers and sisters than the Almighty Creator and Judge of the living and the dead uses.

And yet as we think about the lines that have been drawn, the articles that have been written, and the relationships that have been necessary.

May we seek to "speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent." May we rightly judge actions based on God's standards found in scripture. And may we leave the judgment of someone's heart and soul to the only One capable of doing that job justice.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Finally, reinforcement for procrastination! - Matthew 6:24

 Have you ever heard someone speak or been on the phone with someone who seemed to have multiple conclusions to the sermon or the conversation? You keep thinking, "Oh, this is it. He's done," but then something else is added and concluded again? I feel like that is what verse 34 is. Last week we looked at what would have been a perfect conclusion to the section on worry, "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you," but then Jesus adds verse 34 and concludes the section again with a call that on the surface seems to contradict much of the prior teaching. Here the conclusion seems to have gone from "do not worry...period" to "do not worry...about tomorrow, there's enough to worry about today."

And I have to be honest. I am incredibly glad and thankful that Jesus added another conclusion. It's almost as if Jesus knows our hearts and knows how difficult the instruction "do not worry" is. Kind of like "he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust" (Psalm 103:14). But I don't think that Jesus is simply letting us off the hook and softening the teaching to something that we can actually handle. That doesn't sound at all like the rest of the sermon on the mount in which he keeps saying, "you have heard that it was said...but I say to you." What I do think Jesus is doing is calling us back to the same reality that he has been calling us to throughout the entire section...worry can't do a single thing about whatever the problem is!

And when we realize that truth, then we can finally enter into a position of trusting God. And trusting God is what faith is all about. I think a couple of passages from the Old Testament will help shed some light on the discussion.

 Isa 33:2- "O LORD, be gracious to us; we long for you. Be our strength every morning, our salvation in time of distress."

What if we trained ourselves to pray only for what is needed for the day? Sounds kind of like another familiar prayer, doesn't it? "Give us this day or daily bread." How much worry and stress could be eliminated from our lives if we simply learned to start each morning assessing what must be done for the day and asking God to stay with us and empower us with the Spirit that He has already given us just for the things that we have to get done today!? How much freer and less overwhelmed would we feel if we recognized that we are not responsible for our tomorrows...we are only responsible for our todays!?

How about this passage from Lamentations which was written after Jerusalem had been destroyed and its people were in the process of being carted off. Talk about a situation in which worry and stress would be a normal part of every day!

But Jeremiah writes:
"Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, the LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him. The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD."   - Lam. 3:22-26

I'm not exactly sure what my life will look like in a couple of weeks. I'm trying to juggle several different roles and dropping any of them is just not an option. I'm worried about not being able to function well in any or all of the roles due to lack of sleep and time. I think about new roles that will be added soon (like a new baby boy that I'm ecstatic about!) and how that will decrease sleep and time even more. And if I'm not careful, I begin to worry.

But this is what I know. God is great. This great God lives in me. And I am COMPLETELY confident that He will see me and my family through today. I know that for a fact, no matter what happens today. And tomorrow when I wake up- if I can remind myself that He saw me through today, then He will also see me through tomorrow- then I will be able to live in the moment in trust and peace because, "I know who holds tomorrow."

May we all see God's providence for today and lean on all of the days of providence in the past so we can live with courage and peace and joy each  day as it comes instead of seeing the problems of tomorrow as so big that we cannot see the providences of today.
 I Know Who Holds Tomorrow
words by Ira Stanfill
I don't know about tomorrow;
I just live from day to day.
I don't borrow from its sunshine
For its skies may turn to grey.
I don't worry o'er the future,
For I know what Jesus said.
And today I'll walk beside Him,
For He knows what lies ahead.

Many things about tomorrow
I don't seem to understand
But I know who holds tomorrow
And I know who holds my hand.

* Lest moms of teenagers everywhere start attacking me because of the title...No you shouldn't put off till tomorrow what you can do just shouldn't worry about tomorrow because when you do, you are forgetting about the blessings of the day. :)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Only Way to Stop Worrying Once and For All- Matthew 6:31-33

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Matthew 6:31-33

 We could run over this passage fairly quickly. Many of us could already quote it (or sing it) without looking at the words. But slow down for just a minute and really think about it.

Why shouldn't we worry about those things?

1. Because when we do we look like everyone else in the world scurrying around worried about what is right in front of their faces! I got smacked in the face by this principle on the way home from a long day of studying and clinicals yesterday. I was tired and frustrated and feeling very overwhelmed and joined in the complaining and fretting that all of the other nursing students were doing in the computer lab. And then I got in the car and turned the radio on. It just so happened that I caught the tale end of a sermon that was apparently about Christians exhibiting joy and peace in the middle of trying circumstances and how that joy and peace brings notice and praise to God when others witness it and ask "why are you so happy!?" I want to be different than the rest of the world that does not know the providence of my Father. I want to live with more trust, more calm, and more peace. Not because I want anyone to notice me, but because I want them to notice the One who lives in me.

2. Because your heavenly Father already knows that you need all those other things! Quick, name one thing you need that God hasn't already thought about? Having trouble? I'll give you more time, but I doubt you'll ever be able to come up with anything. So let's try another. Think of one thing you need that God does not have the power to provide. Blank again? Huh. That's strange. One more thing. Think of one dad that you know that loves his kids more than God loves you. I'm not being sarcastic to make a point to you...I'm needing to make the point to me! I'll lose the sarcasm and approach it like a logical proof. 

If God is my Father who loves me infinitely and perfectly, 
and if God is more powerful than any force in this world or any other, 
then God is both infinitely more willing and more able to take care of me than I am to take care of my 3 yr old daughters.

God is my Father who loves me infinitely and perfectly, 
and God is more powerful than any force in this world or any other,
Therefore God is both infinitely more willing and more able to take care of me than I am to take care of my 3 yr old daughters.

I'm know some philosophy student is yelling about why the format of this proof isn't set up exactly right, but if you fix whatever technicalities need to be fixed (and please do and let me know so I can set it up better!), I feel like the basic logic is sound, don't you?
I'll add one more conclusion. If that proof stands...then I can trust Him completely even more so than my daughters trust me. And I'm pretty sure they have never really been worried about not having enough to eat or drink or wear.

That sounds pretty simple, right? About as simple as 2+2=4. But you and I both know the living of faith is a lot more difficult than the stating of faith. I think Jesus knew that too and that's why He added the next verse. Instead of just telling us to stop worrying, he tells us how to stop worrying. Focus on something worth worrying about---The kingdom of God and his righteousness.

Christianity is not a religion of negatives. "Don't do this and don't do that." It is a religion of radical action based on faith. When we forget that and focus hard on what we are not supposed to do, we miss out on the peace that God offers in His Son. The only way we will ever be free of worry and truly exhibit peace and joy is by actively seeking God's kingdom. How have you done that today? How will you do it tomorrow.

Maybe if we all commit to doing so, we will finally be able to quit worrying about worrying too much and we will actually quit worrying once and for all!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Why big worries= little crops- Matthew 6:28-20

original photo by flickr user Flavio~   
I think I've already belabored the point about those of us with plenty complaining about our lack of options, so I won't do that today with this verse. I won't get on my soap box about the phrase, "I have nothing to wear!" that actually means, "the stuff in my closet is out of date now that I've already worn it," or "it doesn't fit quite right," or "someone else wore it already." I think I've already made that point about our "worry" about clothing in so many homes in the U.S. so I won't make it again, we'll just move on.

It's almost redundant to keep looking at this theme of worry, because Jesus' illustration of the flowers of the field doesn't really add anything to the conversation as much as it emphasizes what he has already said. However, I have a feeling that if Jesus used two illustrations to make the same point, its a point that is worth dwelling on for a couple of weeks!

Since we have already looked at the basic principle, though, I want us to approach it a different way by looking at one of Jesus' most famous parables- the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23).

If you are not familiar with the parable, I would encourage you to read it at the link above or in your own Bible, but here is the gist of it: a farmer scatters seed in many different places. Some falls on the road, some falls on rocky soil, some falls among thorns, and some falls onto good soil that produces a bountiful crop. Of course the parable is a picture of how people respond to the gospel with each of the different types of soils representing the status of people's hearts when they hear and respond to the gospel (the seed). The soil that I want to look at today is the thorny soil, because the seed that fell there did produce a plant. In fact, as far as the parable goes, I don't believe the plant ever completely simply can't produce any fruit because, "the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful" (Mt. 13:22). 

How many of us have a faith... of sorts- we attend services regularly, we profess faith in Christ, we read our Bibles and pray- and yet we grow frustrated because we do not see more fruit produced in our lives? When we are talking about fruit, I believe it means one of two things. It can mean the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5, but it can also mean the good that is done in someone else's life because the "seeds" of our faith are being planted in someone else's life to produce a "faith plant" in them.

Take a minute to examine your life:
  • Are you more loving now than you were last year, not just toward those who love you back, but toward your enemies and those you disagree with?
  • Do you have more joy in your life now compared to a year ago?
  • Can you face difficult situations with the "peace that passes understanding" because you know your future?
  • Are you growing more patient as you age physically (which tends to make us less patient) but also mature spiritually?
  • Are you kinder to strangers now than you were last year?
  • Are you able to make better moral decisions (i.e.- goodness) now? 
  • Are you more faithful now to people and to God?
  • Are you more gentle now even as life gets more difficult as far as challenges and health goes?
  • Are you more self-controlled now?
 Those are the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5. Are they yours? Are they growing?
Some more questions to ask:
  • Whose faith is growing right now as a direct result of God working through your life?
  • Who in the congregation are you currently encouraging in their faith?
  • Who in your neighborhood is having seeds dropped on the soil of their heart?
  • Who has come to faith in Christ over the past ten years that you know God has used you to either plant or water the seeds of their faith?
The reason I want us to think about those questions is that if we struggle to answer them, then there is a problem. These are the fruits that the Spirit is supposed to be producing in my life. I am called to bear them. If there is little to no evidence of fruit, then what has happened!?

Is it possible that many of us have let too many "thorns" (the worries of this world like clothing, and the deceitfulness of riches) grow up with our faith and it is choking out the fruit that should be produced? In other places, we read about the "quenching of the Holy Spirit." What if worry- lack of trust in God- does just that and is directly responsible for our faith not producing significant changes in our lives or in the lives of the people we come into contact with? What if we are not taking God at his word when he reminds us of the birds and the flowers and commands us to quit worrying? What if Jesus was not just giving us something else to feel guilty about but He was really trying to explain that God loves us and will take care of us, so we can quit worrying? 

Because worrying chokes out the fruit that should be hanging on our branches. And when we have no fruit, then no more seeds will be available to plant in others who are lost. What if our churches are stagnating not because of the secularization of society, or the lack of funding or the wrong method of attempts at "drawing in the crowds" but in direct correlation to Christian's lack of confidence in the providence of God?

What if we quit worrying about our clothing because God loves us just as much as he loved Solomon and infinitely more than He loves a lily? What if we quit being people of "little faith" and started living like we actually believe that the God we sing about actually is an awesome God?

Monday, October 7, 2013

Don't Worry; Be Happy- Matthew 6:27.


"Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?"

Matthew 6:27


It's about that simple. The answer is "no, there is not a single person in the world that is capable of accomplishing or changing anything through worry alone." Of course, I didn't need to point that out because it is an obvious rhetorical question. At least our brain knows that. Our hearts sometimes take a little longer to understand it. We feel like if we are not worrying about it then we are just being careless and reckless.

It's important to point out-- and both commentators that I read did-- that Jesus in no way negates the responsibility to work and provide for our families. There are other scriptures that spell out very plainly the duty of working for food, shelter, and clothing (1 Timothy 5:8).  Jesus simply states that stressing out over those things and continuing to stew over them after we have done everything we can do simply won't change one iota about what actually happens!

When you think about it, it's actually pretty freeing. After all, if I can finally realize that ultimately God is responsible for whether my family eats today or not, then I am relieved of the pressure. If I have done my best and trusted in Him, then it is no longer in my hands any more than the crop that grows in the field is in the hands of the farmer who has diligently planted, cultivated, and watered. Beyond that, there's not much he can do. It's up to God to make it grow!

So are we talking about a "don't worry, be happy" mindset?
Well, I'd say it depends on what you mean by that. 

Are you following the philosophy of the song that is missing the dependence of God and acting like problems don't exist when they actually do? I believe that philosophy is incorrect. It denies reality and in so doing puts the person living it out and those who depend on him/her in jeopardy because they are not living prudently.

But if what you mean by "don't worry, be happy" is that you can't "add a single hour to your life by worrying," so just do what you can do in accordance with God's will and then enjoy the life that God gives you knowing that whether you receive abundant blessings or few (relatively speaking in terms of others around you and in the world) you most certainly will receive infinite and eternal blessings in the heavenly places if you have walked through this life trusting God. And I'm talking about a trust that is not just for salvation, but also for food and clothing, and guidance, and relationships. In fact, "What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived— the things God has prepared for those who love him"(1 Corinthians 2:9).

I don't know about you, but if I could keep the things God has prepared for those that love Him in the front of my head all of the time even in the stressful situations, then I'm pretty sure I could live with a "Don't worry, be happy" philosophy! The problem is that we just forget those blessings and focus on the problems.

I remember hearing a comment from a mom after a sermon on worry. "Great," she said, "now I'm worried and feel guilty about being worried!"

I don't think that's what Jesus had in mind for his disciples when he gave the instruction! :) 

I do think He came "that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10). I have to think that a "full life" ("abundant life" in some translations) included a life free of worry. Not because there are not legitimate needs. Not because there are no worrisome events. But because we recognize our human weakness and inability to change some outcomes. Therefore, why worry? And then, in surrendering to that realization, we acknowledge that while we are impotent in the face of some things, God is eternally omnipotent. And He is our Father. 

No matter how "adult" we feel and no matter how many people depend on us because we are "responsible," in the end, we are all completely and utterly dependent. But we are dependent on Him. And that is a good thing. In fact, it really makes me want to start whistling and singing, "Oooh, oooh ooh ooooh, ooh ooh ooh ooh, Don't worry, be happy."

What a great day it will be when Christians are the one's spreading that message based on a real confidence in God instead of leaving it to Bob Marley.