COLOSSIANS #19: BAD NEWS, AND GOOD NEWS

person holding white ceramic mug on newspaper
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The gospel is made up of two parts: Bad news, and good news. The bad news is that there is something fundamentally wrong in every human heart. If you don’t believe this, just read or watch the news. The stuff that makes the world a scary and bad place is also inside of you and me. If we don’t believe this, we don’t believe the gospel.

The good news is that Jesus Christ has made a way to take care of that deep and universal human problem. His actions, his death and resurrection, are the only way to bring evil to justice, and, at the same time, save those who want to be saved. If we don’t believe this, we don’t believe the gospel.

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Colossians #19. Colossians 2:13-15

 Colossians 2:13-15 provides a clearly laid out message. There are two pieces to it: 1. Our situation. 2. What God did about it. You could picture it like this:

US GOD
Dead Made us Alive with Christ
In trespasses (sins) Having forgiven our trespasses
In the uncircumcision of our flesh Canceled the written code with its requirements
Nailed our sins and the written code to the cross
Disarmed spiritual forces of evil
Put the evil spiritual forces to shame
Triumphed over evil through Jesus

This is the gospel in a nutshell. We need to trust the truth of both sides of the equation. We believe that we are dead apart from Christ, that we are sinners who have no way to make good with God. If you looked up the record of good and bad in our hearts (not just in our outward behavior) we would stand officially condemned. If everyone could see into our hearts, no one would call us truly good. If you still think that somehow you can please God yourself, then you don’t believe the gospel. If you think “I’m no worse than most people, so I’m probably OK,” you don’t believe the gospel. The power that makes some people serial killers and rapists lives inside of each human heart. We might control it better than criminals, but it is in there.

After WWII, the Allies held trials in order to bring to justice the Nazi’s who had done such horrific things to Jews and others. At one such trial they brought in a Jewish man named Yehiel Dinur to testify. He saw the Nazi Adolf Eichman sitting in the defendant’s chair, and broke down into uncontrollable sobs. Everyone thought that seeing the Nazi had brought back the terrible memories and losses suffered by Dinur. But Dinur explained. He said when saw Eichman sitting there, looking so ordinary, he realized that the same horrific evil that lived inside of Eichman lived also inside himself. He realized that all humans, given the right circumstances, were capable of such atrocity. In believing this, Dinur was right in line with both the Jewish and Christian faiths. The Old Testament teaches us that human evil is universal:

5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:5, ESV)

 9 Who can say, “I have made my heart pure;
I am clean from my sin”? (Proverbs 20:9, ESV)

9 The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV)

The New Testament affirms it as well. Romans 3:10-18, quoting several Psalms, says this:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10-18, ESV)

Also from the same chapter of Romans:

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (Romans 3:23, ESV)

John puts it plainly several times in his first letter:

8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8, ESV)

10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:10, ESV)

So, if we believe that we are basically OK, we don’t believe the gospel. In this day and age, a lot of people like to focus on the aspects of the gospel that lead us to help others. That’s good, and we should look for ways to serve other people. But if we think that is all it’s about – just being kind, and helping out where we can – then we don’t believe the Bible and we don’t understand the gospel. The evil of sin lives inside of every human heart, and we are powerless to remove it for ourselves, though we often dress it up, and hide it well. If you don’t believe me, just go find any normal news site, and you will see how pervasive and universal and damaging and disgusting is human sinfulness.

In some ways, sin is like a virus. Take for example Coronavirus-19. Some people get it, and have very few symptoms. Others have it, and die from it. Even if you have few or no symptoms, you are a carrier of the disease, and you might pass it on to someone else, and that person will die from it. Though it may not affect you as much as someone else, it is the same disease. Sin is like that, but it is worse, because it might lie dormant within you for years, and then, if you relax your vigilance, suddenly rise up within you and lead you to ruin your life and those of others around you.

I’ve lived a pretty good life, outwardly. But I know that inside me are lust, and rage, and self-centeredness, and pride. I can hide them, but I can’t eliminate them by myself, and I know I am capable of doing some awful things, and capable of hurting those I love. If I gave myself permission to give in to my impulses, it wouldn’t be long before others could see more of the dirty muck of sin that lives inside of my flesh.

If you don’t believe that sin is real, and that it is a terrible problem for you personally, and for the world generally, than the good news about Jesus will not be particularly good news. Jesus came to save us. If we don’t believe we need to be saved, we might think it’s a nice gesture, but it really doesn’t mean that much to us. So we must understand and accept this first part of the gospel. We must recognize that we need to be saved from the sin that lives within us, and we must want to be saved from it. In addition, we need to recognize that we cannot save ourselves. Many people, both believers and unbelievers alike, have the mistaken impression that Christianity is all about behaving well so God loves us. That is absolutely false. True Christians know that they are sinful, and utterly lost without Jesus. True Christians know that they aren’t better than anyone else. They know that even if they are no worse than anyone else, that is not good enough. The sin and selfishness that live inside of us separate us from God and true goodness.

There is a second half to the gospel. Just as we don’t believe the true gospel unless we accept that sin is a huge problem that we cannot overcome, so we must also accept and trust the second part: Jesus, through his death and resurrection, has paid the price for our sins, and through that, has obtained eternal life for us. Jesus, and what he did for us, are the only way we can be made right with God and receive eternal life.

6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (ESV, John 14:6)

10 All who believe in the Son of God know in their hearts that this testimony is true. Those who don’t believe this are actually calling God a liar because they don’t believe what God has testified about his Son.
11 And this is what God has testified: He has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have God’s Son does not have life. (NTL, 1 John 5:10-12)

Some people say, “Why can’t God just sort of wave his hand, and say, “forget about it?” If no one is really capable of measuring up, why not just change the standard? Let’s start with this thought: Imagine someone raped you (guys can be raped, as well as women). Or maybe someone did that to a person that you love. Why can’t you just wave your hand, and say “forget about it?” Not so easy, is it? Instinctively, deeply, something inside of us cries out for consequences to evil, for justice.

Let me give you an analogy. Suppose your house is somewhat close to the street. One night a woman gets drunk, and rams her truck right into the middle of your living room. Your outside and inside walls are in shambles. You have three broken windows. Some of your furniture is trashed, and a piece of artwork is ruined. One of your pets was killed. And the drunk woman was driving without insurance. Now, you aren’t going to leave your house this way. It has to be fixed in order for you to live there. So somebody has to pay for the damage. You can wave your hand and say “forget about it,” but that doesn’t change the fact that the damage has to be repaired, and it costs a fair amount. That cost has to be covered by someone. If you were to truly forgive the woman for her drunken accident, it would mean you pay. Forgiveness says: “I will pay the cost for something that is your fault.”

This is exactly what God did for us in Jesus. The damage caused by the sin that lives in every one of us is death and hell. That is what it costs. By the way, that is one reason the world so often looks like it is going to hell – because it is. But Jesus stepped in and said “I will pay.” He suffered death, and he suffered the torment of hell, so that we don’t have to. He gave us life when our future was death. He paid the price that we were obligated to pay. In doing so, he triumphed over the forces of evil which encourage us in our sins and evil behavior.

If Jesus did all this for us, then why doesn’t the world look better than it is? There is a “catch,” if you want to call it that. We can’t hold on to our sins; we can’t keep living for ourselves, and also, at the same time, receive what God offers. One cancels out the other. So we need to turn away from living for our desires and pleasures, turn away from the sin that lives inside of us, and also the individual sins that we commit, and turn toward God. That is called “repenting.” By the way, this is a lifelong process, and no one does it perfectly. We fall down as go forward, but at least we are now moving forward toward God, not away from him.

Next, we receive what Jesus did for us – that is we trust that it is true, and we act like it is true. People generally act according to what they truly believe: that is why faith is so important. There are many ways our faith can be strengthened: First, by thanking God for what he has done for us. Next, reading the Bible, praying, listening to Bible teachers, “doing life” with other believers, listening to music that uplifts us, maybe even using ancient prayers and ceremonies written by other believers. I guarantee one thing: if we don’t take steps to maintain and strengthen our faith, it will most likely get weaker, because the world around us is mostly influenced by those who don’t believe.

One reason the world remains a crazy place is because many, many people reject the forgiveness and grace offered by Jesus. They would prefer to be the Lord of their own lives. When we do that, human beings generally make a mess of things, and so, things are a mess. If you want to go back to “the car-crash in the living room” analogy, imagine a very kind, very rich person stepped in and said: “I’ll pay to have this fixed. But I want you trust me. I made my first million as an architect, and if you let me pay for this, I’ll rebuild it better than it has ever been.” But many people are too proud to admit their need for help, or they don’t want someone else involved in designing their life, so instead, they live with a gaping hole in their living room, with broken glass and ruined furniture, because at least that way they remain in control. Though, of course, they aren’t really in control – that’s an illusion. There is an unimaginable number of things that we cannot control. As Jesus put it:

27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? (Matthew 6:27, ESV)

The whole paragraph of what Jesus says there is useful to our discussion:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:25-33, ESV)

The key is at the very end: seek first the kingdom of God. In other words, don’t first seek what you want, or what you believe you need; instead, start with seeking God and his kingdom. When our priorities are straight in that way, everything else false into place.

We start that seeking journey with the process I have just described: repenting of our sins, and trusting in the incredible love and grace of God. We can know that God is loving and gracious toward us because of what Jesus did for us. If we learn to treasure Jesus above all else, no matter what life throws at us, we can be secure.

THE MOST IMPORTANT MOMENT IN HISTORY

centurion-at-cross

It is very important for us to understand that death of Jesus fundamentally changed forever the way human beings relate to God. We live after that world-changing event, after his death has broken every barrier between us and God.

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Matthew #98.  Matthew 27:51-61

Christianity is a faith deeply grounded in, and connected to history. The Bible is not a book of fairy tales. Scholars have confirmed, countless times, that the people in the Bible were real people, the places were real places and the events that are recorded actually happened.

According to our faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus were the pivotal moments in all history. Something happened at that time in Jerusalem that is unique in all of human existence. You might expect that a moment so special might look or feel different than other moments. All four gospel writers confirm that it did indeed.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all record a three hour darkness, leading up to the death of Jesus, from the sixth, to the ninth hour. (Matt 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44). This was not an eclipse: eclipses do not last that long. It may have been simply heavy cloud cover, but that’s not exactly what they say. Also, cloud cover that is that dark usually turns into a storm quickly, and passes quickly, but everyone agrees that this darkness lasted three hours. At the very least, we could say that it wasn’t coincidence that the clouds were so heavy that day that it felt like darkness.

At the moment of Jesus’ death, the curtain in the temple was torn into two (more on that in a moment) and there was an earthquake that split open rocks. Earthquakes are not unknown in Jerusalem, but it is interesting, to say the least, that one occurred the very moment of Jesus’ death. Also, in order to split rocks, it would have to be a very violent earthquake indeed. Matthew also says many dead people came alive from their tombs, but he also mentions that they showed up after the resurrection, not immediately after Jesus’ death.

He also writes this:

54When the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they were terrified and said, “This man really was God’s Son! ” (Matt 27:54, HCSB)

Luke and Mark also tell us about this centurion. A centurion in the Roman legions was something like a Master Sergeant in the Marines today. He had the primary responsibility for one-hundred, hard-bitten, violent, unruly legionnaires. It was up to him to make sure that his “century” (100 men) obeyed the orders of officers, kept their equipment maintained, marched in formation, and maintained discipline. He had to force these mean, angry, violent men to do what he told them to. He had probably seen men die, and certainly, he had seen men beaten and whipped. He’d probably been in some brawls and seen and done some nasty things. In other words, a centurion had to be one tough, no-nonsense son-of-gun.

Something about the way Jesus died touched this hard-bitten, cynical, violent man to the core. He makes what is in the New Testament, a basic declaration of faith: “Surely this man (Jesus) was really God’s Son!” We don’t know what all went into this man’s faith. I tend to believe it was a combination of the way Jesus handled himself on the cross, along with the physical signs of darkness and violent earthquake.

We don’t know a lot more about this centurion, but I have some speculations. John records one moment when he and Jesus’ mother were close enough to the cross to hear Jesus speak. Mathew, Mark and Luke tell us that most of the time, the women were all standing off, watching at a distance. So, how do the gospel-writers know what Jesus said and did on the cross? How do they know what he said and did at Pontius Pilate’s trial? I suspect that this centurion ended up as a member of the early church. He was certainly there, right at the foot of the cross. He was probably there at Roman headquarters, when Pilate questioned Jesus. He may be the source of some of that information. Of course, Jesus himself could also be the source of that information, after his resurrection. In any case, I think it is testimony to the uniqueness of Jesus’ death that a Roman centurion came to faith because he witnessed it.

Another one of the unique events was that the curtain in the temple sanctuary was torn in two (Luke 23:45; Matt 27:51; Mark 15:38). This is actually a tremendously significant event, but we need to understand more about the temple to know why.

The temple at the time of Jesus was actually a complex of buildings. There were two large courtyards which contained various covered porticos, and other rooms and smaller courts around the edges, but within the walls of the larger courtyards. One courtyard was generally for women and Gentiles, with a sub-court for lepers. A second, more exclusive courtyard was for only Israelite men. Within this inner courtyard was the “sanctuary” which we might think of as the “main building” of the temple. The sanctuary was also called ‘the holy place” (actually, the English word “sanctuary” comes directly from the Latin for “holy place.”) Only priests could enter the sanctuary, where they would change out bread on the altar of bread, and offer incense on the altar designated for that, and light candles. The priests were divided into divisions for these duties, and then chosen by lot. To enter the sanctuary was probably a once-in-a-lifetime event, even for priests. The sanctuary was a large rectangular room. One end of the sanctuary was curtained off, from wall to wall, and floor to ceiling. Behind that curtain was the “most holy place,” or “holy of holies” (sanctum santorum, in Latin – a phrase some people still use in different contexts). It was believed by the Israelites that the very presence of God dwelt in the most holy place of the temple. Only the high priest could enter the most holy place, and only once each year, to offer atonement for the sins of the people.

The message of all this was that the presence God was separated from the vast majority of the people at all times. Women, gentiles and lepers could not even enter the courtyard that surrounded the sanctuary. Israelite men couldn’t enter the sanctuary. Even priests almost never got to go into the sanctuary, and inside the sanctuary, the curtain kept them from the most holy place.

It is very important for us to understand that death of Jesus fundamentally changed forever the way human beings relate to God. We live after that world-changing event, so we can’t really conceive of what it was like before. But the Old Testament gives us glimpses of it. Before the death of Jesus, some tribes of people were so beyond redemption that they had to be entirely wiped out (Deuteronomy 7:1-6). Before Jesus’ crucifixion, God’s holiness could kill you if you simply worshipped at the wrong time, or in the wrong way (Leviticus 10:1-3). Before Jesus, God’s holiness could kill if you simply reached out to prevent a holy artifact from falling off a cart (2 Samuel 6:1-7). Before the death of Jesus, more than half of those who wanted to worship could not even enter the courtyard where the sanctuary was built. Almost all of the remaining half could not enter the sanctuary itself. The message was this: “We need God, but his holiness destroys us, because of our sin. We have to stay separated from him in order to be safe.”

But Jesus, by his death, ripped down the barrier between us and God. The physical tearing of the curtain in the sanctuary was a manifestation of the spiritual reality that Jesus accomplished by his death. He has definitely destroyed the barriers between us and God.

Now, let’s make this real in our own lives. What are the barriers that you feel between you and God? What keeps you distant from him? I want you to pause and think about this. Let the Holy Spirit bring things to mind.

After you have thought about that for a moment, ask yourself this question: “Did the death of Jesus remove this barrier?” (Hint: the answer is “yes.”)

The next question is this: if the death of Jesus removed the barriers between me and God, how do I “take hold” of that? What I mean is, it’s fine to say the barrier was removed, but what if I feel like it is still there? How do I live in the truth that it is gone?

The centurion shows us the way: repentance and faith. If you hold on to your sin – that is, you do not repent, and turn away (however imperfectly), then  you yourself are holding the barrier in place. Repentance drops that barrier. Faith – as the centurion shows us – is simply trusting it is true. Yes, Jesus is the son of God. Yes, his death did remove the barrier between me and God. I am going to act and feel as if this was really true. The more you do so as an act of will, the more real it becomes in your life.

The death of Jesus changed history. It changed everything. Will you let it change you?

WOE, IS ME!

woe

The Pharisees and religious leaders. They are bad and wrong, and by pointing out exactly how so, Jesus is warning us about other leaders like them. He is also warning us about becoming like them ourselves. In other words, Jesus, as God-the-Son, is expressing his very real, and thoroughly righteous anger against sin. Let’s consider how the Holy Spirit might want to speak to us through these ‘woes.’
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Matthew #82.  Matthew 23:13-36

We are in the middle of a long rant that Jesus makes against the religious leaders of his time. Frankly, when I just read through quickly, I don’t get a lot out of this portion of Matthew. The Pharisees are bad, Jesus is mad, end of story, right?

Whenever I encounter a piece of scripture that leaves me cold, like this, I often find it useful to pause and ask some questions. Why exactly does Jesus rant and rave like this? Is he just angry? Is he just venting? What is the purpose of this section of scripture – why did the Holy Spirit preserve these words of Jesus for Christians throughout the ages?

As I do that with this particular passage, I think the Spirit can show us several things.

First, there is the straightforward issue of the behavior of the Pharisees and religious leaders. They are bad and wrong, and by pointing out exactly how so, Jesus is warning us about other leaders like them. He is also warning us about becoming like them ourselves. In other words, Jesus, as God-the-Son, is expressing his very real, and thoroughly righteous anger against sin. Let’s consider how these woes might affect us as well.

Jesus points out seven or eight areas where the religious leaders are in deep trouble. He begins each one with the phrase: “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”

First, let’s talk about the word “woe.” It can mean: “trouble, sorrow and distress.” There is often an element of sorrow associated with this word, both in Greek and in English; it can be a lament, like “Alas!” So, in Matthew 24:19, Jesus says:

“Woe to pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days! Pray that your escape may not be in winter or on a Sabbath.”

But I think here, in this passage, Jesus is adding a sense of warning and judgment with it. The “woe” upon the pregnant women and nursing mothers was not because of anything they did. But here, Jesus clearly connects each woe to the behavior of the religious leaders. I still think he speaks with sorrow; I don’t think he is happy about it. Even so, clearly, he is enumerating their sins, and pronouncing that they will experience trouble and sorrow as judgement for them.

The first woe and sorrow (in verse 13) is because they refuse to enter the kingdom of heaven, and stop others from entering in. This is Jesus’ core issue with the Pharisees. They warned people against the only way of salvation, which is Jesus himself. Instead, they believed that they did not need him. Specifically, they taught (and obviously believed) that they could earn their salvation by behaving well. In a more general sense, this woe applies to anyone who leads others to believe that they can be saved by any other path than repentance from sin, and trust in Jesus. So Paul reiterates this woe in the first chapter of Galatians:

6I am amazed that you are so quickly turning away from Him who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — 7not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are troubling you and want to change the good news about the Messiah. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than what we have preached to you, a curse be on him! 9As we have said before, I now say again: If anyone preaches to you a gospel contrary to what you received, a curse be on him! (Gal 1:6-9, HCSB)

Make no mistake. Christianity has always insisted that Jesus Christ is the only way to forgiveness, reconciliation with God, and eternal life:

5“Lord,” Thomas said, “we don’t know where You’re going. How can we know the way? ” 6Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. 7“If you know Me, you will also know My Father. From now on you do know Him and have seen Him.” (John 14:5-7, HCSB)

 11And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12The one who has the Son has life. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have life. 13I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1John 5:11-13, HCSB)

11This Jesus is the stone rejected by you builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people, and we must be saved by it.” (Acts 4:11-12, HCSB)

The Pharisees and Scribes rejected Jesus, and therefore rejected salvation, and led others to do so as well. Today, Christians must remember that our core belief is grace, forgiveness and salvation through Jesus Christ alone. We don’t have forgiveness or life because “God is love, and just wouldn’t send anyone to hell.” That lie is just as bad as anything the Pharisees taught: Woe to anyone who tells it! We are not saved because we “have lived a good life, and tried to do the right thing.” We are not forgiven because we “aren’t worse than anyone else.” Sin is much more serious than that. We aren’t forgiven because we make sacrifices, or take mission trips, or because we “speak the words of truth.” We are saved through Jesus Christ alone, and we receive that salvation by grace when we repent and trust him. Woe to anyone else who teaches otherwise!

The second woe is found in verse 15. Some of you may not have verse 14 in your Bibles: it will skip from 13 to 15. Verse 14 is actually one of those places where there is a dispute about the original manuscript of the New Testament. The oldest and best manuscripts do not contain it. The textus receptus (which is the source for the King James version of the Bible), does contain it, as do some other later manuscripts. I think the best evidence suggests that this was not originally part of the book of Matthew. This is one example of why I am not a fan of the King James version. Even so, I’d like to point out that whether you leave verse 15 in, or take it out, it does not change very much at all; certainly it changes no Christian doctrine. This is considered a major variant, and once again we see that even major variants are actually extremely minor. We can have great confidence that the New Testament we read today is, in fact, what was written by the apostles.

In any case, I will move on to verse 15, where Jesus pronounces judgment upon the religious leaders for converting even non-Jews to the belief that they can earn their way into God’s favor, and eternal life. This is very much like the first woe, the main difference being who gets led astray: Jews, or non-Jews. For our purposes, it is a warning that if we get people to join our church, but do not teach them that forgiveness, life and salvation are found only in Jesus, given to us by grace through faith, we would be better off not bringing the new people in the first place.

The third woe is described in verses 16 through 22. Basically, Jesus is giving an example of how the teachers of the law, and Pharisees twist and undermine God’s word. Many times I have given you the example of the Sabbath, and how they added their own laws on top of the commands of God. Here, Jesus is referring to the way that they do mental gymnastics in order to benefit themselves in the matter of taking oaths. They argued that certain kinds of vows were not binding, and made fine distinctions that sounded intellectual, but were completely against all common sense.

These days, we don’t often make vows, particularly not religious vows. I made vows when I was married, and when I was ordained as a pastor. However, even in those cases, I did not swear by or on anything; I simply said: “I will, and I ask God to help me.” So the practice of swearing by (or on) something is no longer a big issue, at least not in Western culture. True, some folks might say something like: “I swear by my mother’s grave.” I don’t think anyone takes them seriously. Even so, I think we can learn something from this particular woe. The underlying issue is that the teachers of the law and the Pharisees were playing games with the truth. As Jesus points out, clearly, if you swear by the altar in the temple, really, you are swearing by God. But the religious leaders came up with all sorts of obscure reasoning to avoid that obvious, common-sense conclusion.

I think that today this woe could refer to the way some people treat the Bible. Unfortunately, I have many times read Bible commentaries that tried to say that certain verses mean the exact opposite of what they clearly say. Now, you know that I’m all for thoughtful, scholarly Bible interpretation. Not all Bible verses are obvious in meaning. Even so, there are many people today, whom I can only call false teachers, who twist the words of the Bible, play games with the truth, and do mental gymnastics in order to eliminate the plain, common sense meaning of God’s Word. What they are doing is not careful interpretation, but rather, twisting the obvious truth. I think Jesus would say to them: “Woe to you!”

The fourth woe is essentially captured by Jesus’ words in verse 24:

24Blind guides! You strain out a gnat, yet gulp down a camel! (Matt 23:24, HCSB)

The religious leaders spent a great deal of energy on relatively trivial matters, while ignoring the more important things. Notice that Jesus says that the trivial things are, in fact, good to do; but the important things should have first priority. I want to try and finish the woes in this sermon, so I won’t go into this one in great depth, but there are many, obvious applications for it. Woe to the church that is more concerned about the color of their carpet than about the homeless population all around it. Woe to the leaders who police the kinds of clothes people wear, and ignore the lust in their own hearts. I could spend all day on this one, but I believe you will be able to think of your own examples without too much effort. I do want to point out that this particular woe contains much of what really turns people off about churches and Christians. I think it’s good to know that Jesus hates it when people focus on minor things, while neglecting the things that are most important to true faith.

The fifth woe, found in verses 25-26, is much like the one before it. The religious leaders are concerned about looking good. They are focused on outward appearances, while they ignore the filth inside of their own hearts. Probably, Jesus is referring to the Jewish tradition of ceremonially washing cups. Mark records a different instance, where Jesus spoke about this at greater length. After discussion about ceremonial washing with the religious leaders, Jesus said this to his disciples:

18And He said to them, “Are you also as lacking in understanding? Don’t you realize that nothing going into a man from the outside can defile him? 19For it doesn’t go into his heart but into the stomach and is eliminated.” (As a result, He made all foods clean.) 20Then He said, “What comes out of a person — that defiles him. 21For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, 22adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, promiscuity, stinginess, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness. 23All these evil things come from within and defile a person.” (Mark 7:18-23, HCSB)

The sixth woe, is also similar. This time, Jesus describes them as whitewashed tombs, which look good on the outside, but inside are filled with rotten flesh and bone. I’m going to get personal for a moment. I don’t want to be offensive, but I do want us to get the full impact of the words of Jesus here. Here in the Southeastern USA, we have a somewhat religious culture. Even in areas where the culture at large is not particularly Christian, some churches can have a religious culture within their community. I personally know many people who are like these whitewashed tombs. They go to church and they talk a good talk. As far as the people that they go to church with know, these are wonderful Christian folks. But during the week they have affairs, they do drugs, they get drunk, they run businesses that are dishonest, they cheat people, and they are stingy and miserly. Of course, everyone struggles with sin. I’m not talking about Christians who have surrendered their lives to Jesus, but who sometimes fail and fall. I’m talking about people who pretend; people who talk the talk, but do not let Jesus have any real influence in their lives. Jesus says to such people: “Woe to you!”

Finally, Jesus says: “Woe to you who reject God’s messengers!” (verses 29-34). That is what this seventh woe is all about: rejecting those whom God has sent, and rejecting his message through them. In the Western world, thankfully, people do not kill, crucify, or whip Christian teachers and preachers. However, I think it is important for us to remember that this still happens regularly in other places in the world. And even in the Western world, often times those who seek to be vocal about their faith in Jesus are treated with contempt and derision. As one small, and relatively insignificant example, I offer Tim Tebow, former NFL quarterback. Tebow had a year or two as a starting quarterback in the NFL. It was his habit to kneel down as a sign of humility, and praise to the Lord, whenever his team scored. That may or may not be a silly thing; but it was relatively harmless. However, Tebow received a huge amount of criticism for this, and for his outspoken faith. In fact, he received more negative media coverage than many NFL stars at the time who were accused of things like drunk driving, drug possession, assault and rape. Woe to a culture that is more concerned about a public expression of Christian faith than about crimes that deeply hurt others!

Let me say another thing about mistreating God’s messengers. I will admit that this one feels a little personal with me, but that does not make it untrue. I also want to say that I am not complaining, and for the most part I have been very blessed to not experience too much of what I’m about to share with you. Even so, it is shameful – I can think of no better word – the way that many Christians and churches treat their pastors and teachers. Of course there are some bad pastors, and bad leaders, just as there are bad bartenders, truck drivers and school teachers. Even so, many of the pastors who are mistreated by their congregations have good hearts, pure motives, and have done no wrong. Sometimes people direct hateful and hurtful words towards them for doing and saying what they believe God wants them to do and say. Sometimes people slander them. Sometimes people try to run them out of a job, for no reason other than that the pastor has threatened their sense of personal power within the congregation. Sometimes pastors are threatened after teaching something unpopular that the word of God says. Quite often, pastors are underpaid, and it is unusual to find anyone who cares, in most churches, whether or not a pastor is being appropriately compensated. Almost all the time at least some people are critical of their pastor, without doing the least thing to help him.

When I look at these seven woes spoken by Jesus, I think of it as an extreme measure he is taking in order to bring the religious leaders to repentance.

Let me try and illustrate what I mean. About a year ago, I began to have constant pain in one of my kidneys, like I was having a kidney stone. After a long and difficult time, doctors finally determined that some of my nerves have been damaged by frequent kidney stones. I sat down with a pain specialist, and he outlined a number of steps to help me deal with the pain that I still have.

First, we will try a very safe, well-tested, inexpensive medication that has very few side effects. If that works, great! If not the next step is to try a second medication. The second drug is more expensive, and has not been tested for as long as the first. It has more side effects and risk factors. If the second drug works, great! However, if not, there is another step, involving directly stimulating the nerve. This is a more invasive procedure, with greater risks. There is another step after that, and another. Each new step is more drastic, increasingly invasive, and carries greater and greater risk. The final step involves “killing” the nerve that serves my kidney.

When Jesus confronts the religious leaders during these last few days of his life, he is taking the final and most drastic step in trying to bring them to repentance, faith, and salvation. He lived among them, letting his life be a testimony, but that was not enough. He gave them his preaching and his teaching, but they did not respond. He showed them miracles, and the power of God, but they turned away. And so now, he is directly confronting them with their sin. It is their last chance, and he says that if they do not take it, judgment will come upon them. He will “kill” the problem, if it can’t be fixed any other way.

In fact, he says: “I assure you, all these things will come on this generation.” I want to point out two things about this. First, it was literally fulfilled among those who heard Jesus say these words. Jesus was crucified sometime around 30-35 AD. In 70 AD, while that generation still lived, the Romans utterly crushed the Jewish people, slaughtering huge numbers, destroying the temple, and sending the Jews that survived into an exile that lasted almost 2000 years. That generation of unbelieving Jews was indeed judged.

Second, because of how Jesus said it, these words are also for us. Whether or not we are judged as a group, when it comes to the end of our life, when our “generation” passes, we will stand before the judgment seat of God. This is true of every generation that reads Jesus’ words. Let his words sink in. They are drastic, yes. But they are spoken in order to ultimately lead is into the grace of God by driving us to Jesus as our hope, life and salvation.

 

 

JESUS INVADES YOUR “SACRED SPACE”


Sometimes, I think we forget this side of Jesus. In Jesus, both God’s judgement, and also his grace, are perfectly in harmony. Jesus’ actions weren’t reasonable. They weren’t nuanced. But they were righteous

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Download Matthew Part 73

Matthew #73 Matthew 21:12-17

As often happens, there is more than one layer to what Jesus was doing and saying in this passage. The first layer is that Jesus is setting the political wheels in motion which will lead to his crucifixion. He is now becoming much more public and noticeable in his ministry, for the very deliberate purpose of provoking the religious leaders. He is getting in their faces, beginning the process that will force them to make a choice about him. It began with his ostentatious entry into Jerusalem. He continues it now by challenging the institution that was at the very heart of the religious elite in his day – the temple. He is actively pursuing the path that leads to crucifixion.

The second layer is that while he is doing this so that he can suffer and die as he was meant to, he is also doing it in a way that is completely righteous. Everything he says and does here is right and good and legitimate. He is not taking the attitude of “the ends justify the means.” He isn’t doing something wrong when he confronts the religious leaders in this way. His “means” of speaking truth to the leaders are just as good and righteous as his goal of dying for the sin of the world.

Sometimes, I think we forget this side of Jesus. In Jesus, both God’s judgement, and also his grace, are perfectly in harmony. Most Christians tend toward one or the other. Some of us focus on what we’re doing wrong, and how we need to fix that, and we lose sight of God’s incredible grace, forgiveness and love. Other Christians focus on the love and forgiveness so much that we lose sight of God’s holiness and the seriousness of our sin. We end up watering it down so much that we are in danger of losing sight of the truth.

Though Jesus is headed towards the cross in order to make his grace and love freely available, during this last week of his life, he often reminds us of why the cross is necessary; of how serious our sin is, and how absolute God’s holiness is. That is true in the incident we are looking at today.

Let’s start by understanding what was going on in the temple in those days.

The Old Testament commands God’s people to make animal sacrifices as a reminder of how serious their sin is, and how holy God is. The people were commanded to bring various types of animals for sacrifice, depending on the type of sacrifice, and the financial means of those coming to worship. Normally, you would sacrifice a goat or sheep at the temple. However, not everyone could afford that, so poor families were allowed to bring a pair of doves or pigeons, as it says in Leviticus:

7“But if he cannot afford an animal from the flock, then he may bring to the LORD two turtledoves or two young pigeons as restitution for his sin — one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering. (Lev 5:7, HCSB)

First, the animal brought for sacrifice had to be inspected by a priest to make sure it was without blemish, as was commanded in the law of Moses. However, by the time of Jesus, this system had become corrupt. Some of the priests turned away perfectly good animals, and then recommended that the family buy a different animal from one of the livestock merchants on the temple grounds. The priests would get a financial reward, or “kickback” from the merchants for every sale that was made in this way. In this way, the merchants and the priests were using the laws of Moses to extort people.

A second thing was also offensive. Since the Passover drew so many people to Jerusalem, it was the normal time when people paid their half-shekel temple tax. The specific wording of this law comes from Exodus 30:13

13Everyone who is registered must pay half a shekel according to the sanctuary shekel (20 gerahs to the shekel). This half shekel is a contribution to the LORD. (Exod 30:13, HCSB)

Over time, “the sanctuary shekel” became its own unit of currency. People couldn’t pay the tax with the money they made in everyday life. They had to have their money converted to “sanctuary shekels” in order to pay. Eventually money changers set up on the temple grounds and they charged a fee to convert the real money into “sanctuary money.” Sanctuary money was no good for anything but the temple tax, so the money changers made out like, well, thieves.

The third thing that was generally offensive was that the temple became a marketplace. Some people did not bother to bring animals at all, but planned to buy them at the temple. And who could blame them, since the priests were likely to rip them off if they brought their own animal? Merchants hawked doves to the poorer families, and doubtless everyone paid much more for “temple animals” then they would have anywhere else in the country. God’s holy place of worship became one of the busiest marketplaces in Jerusalem during the Passover season.

I’d like to point something out here. All four gospels make it clear that Jesus substantially interfered with all of this sort of “temple business” that was going on that day. He overturned the tables of the money changers, spilling their coins everywhere. He knocked over the stalls of those who sold pigeons and doves. He made them leave the temple complex. John records that Jesus even drove out the sheep and oxen. It would only be natural for these merchants and money changers to resist him, to try and stop him. For one man to do all this, it must have taken a great deal of physical strength, and even violence. In fact, it was a remarkable feat of physical power. I think a lot of people picture Jesus as a sort of wimpy, sensitive guy, but this gives us convincing evidence that he was capable of great strength when he wanted to be.

Now, I want us to see Jesus’ actions for what they are: extremism. God’s holiness is extreme, and uncompromising. We don’t like to remember this. I think if Jesus did something equivalent in the church today, it would meet with widespread disapproval. Let’s start with an obvious one. Jesus drove out those who sold doves, and doves were the sacrifice of choice for poor people. I can see someone saying: “Where are the lower income folks supposed to get their doves now? How could this be a loving action? It hurts the poor! What about all those who traveled from home without animals, expecting to be able to buy one at the temple? How were they supposed to make a sacrifice if they couldn’t buy their animals? You have to be reasonable. Your response has to take all the nuances into account.”

I can see other people saying, “Look, I know having a marketplace in the outer courts isn’t ideal, but ultimately it allows a greater number of people to come and worship here. It makes it easier on worshipers; it makes us more seeker friendly.”

I can see yet others saying, “Yes, I know that some of the merchants, and even some of the priests, are over-charging people. That’s deplorable, and I condemn it. But we can’t expect a perfect system in this imperfect world. It is what it is, and really, it isn’t that bad. We have to be reasonable.”

Jesus’ actions weren’t reasonable. They weren’t nuanced. But they were righteous. This was about the holiness of God. Holiness isn’t nuanced. It isn’t reasonable. It is absolute.

Jesus quoted to them from Jeremiah. Matthew records only the tail end of the passage in Jeremiah, but I want to share the beginning of it with you here:

9“Do you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and follow other gods that you have not known? 10Then do you come and stand before Me in this house called by My name and say, ‘We are delivered, so we can continue doing all these detestable acts’? 11Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your view? Yes, I too have seen it.” This is the LORD‘s declaration. (Jer 7:9-11, HCSB)

Today, we do not have a temple where we worship. We don’t have money changers who charge to turn real money into “church money.” But we have different ways in which we degrade the holiness of God through our worship. Let me suggest a few of them.

Here where I live in the Southeastern USA, a lot of people still go to church because it is considered the right thing to do. Many of those same church-goers spend the rest of the week living as if they were not Christians at all: They get drunk, they have sex outside of marriage, they make shady business deals, they treat people badly, they gossip and slander. These verses from Jeremiah are for people like that:

10Then do you come and stand before Me in this house called by My name and say, ‘We are delivered, so we can continue doing all these detestable acts’?

Going to worship will not save you if you have not humbly repented and submitted your life to Jesus Christ. You cannot be a Christian, and at the same time, live however you please. When you submit your life to Jesus Christ, you will, however slowly and imperfectly, be led to change. Don’t think you can come to church, and then say “We are delivered!” when he has no say whatsoever in how you actually live. If your faith doesn’t change you, it isn’t real faith. Jesus drove such people out of the temple.

Before some of us start feeling smug, let me speak to another group of people. To set it up, let me give you an analogy. Imagine I meet someone who tells me that he is in the United States Marine Corps.

“Wow!” I say. “Where are you stationed?”

“Well, I’m not really a part of any organized unit at the moment.”

“Oh,” I say, puzzled. “How does that work?”

“Well, the actual organization of the Marine Corps does a lot of stupid things. I don’t like to salute. I think it’s stupid. Saluting has nothing to do with actually being a Marine. On the battlefield, that stuff doesn’t matter.”

“Go on.”

“Also, when you join the Marines, they force you to make your bed perfectly, and iron your clothes perfectly, and shine your shoes and boots. None of that has anything to do with being a real Marine. Your boots aren’t going to be polished in the middle of a battle. I think it’s fake and hypocritical.”

“So you are a Marine, but you don’t actually belong to the Marine Corps.”

“That’s another stupid thing. Why should I have to sign up, and complete boot camp and do all that? I don’t enjoy all the rigid structure. That’s not the essence of being a Marine.”

“So what makes you a Marine?”

“I believe in the mission of the Corps, to protect and defend America. Sometimes I do some pushups, you know, to keep in shape.”

“So, if the Marines go into battle, they can’t count on you.”

“Oh they can count on me. I’ll fight the battles too. In my own way.”

“But not alongside them.”

“No. Because they would make me jump through all those stupid hoops.”

You get the idea. This guy is not a Marine, and never will be. It doesn’t matter how much breath he wastes claiming that he is. There are a large number of people in our Western culture who are just like him, only they apply it to being a Christian. They say something like this : “I’m a Christian, but I don’t go to church. I don’t want to be a part of all that hypocrisy, and all those politics.” So they live their own lives, giving nothing of value to the church, which the Holy Spirit calls “the body of Christ.” They think they can claim Christ while having nothing to do with his mission or his followers; his very Body. They deceive themselves, like my hypothetical “Marine Corps” solider. Again, the words of Jeremiah are chilling:

10Then do you come and stand before Me in this house called by My name and say, ‘We are delivered, so we can continue doing all these detestable acts’?

A Christian who is not connected to other Christians in regular fellowship and worship won’t be a real Christian for very long.

Let me give you one more general thought about Jesus’ actions here. By doing this, he was challenging the heart of the religious leadership. This was their sacred place, and he came busting in, acting like he had the right do whatever he pleased there – and indeed, he did have that right. So I want us to consider this question: Where is Jesus challenging your “sacred place” and asserting his right to be true God, truly in charge of your entire life? Maybe it is in one of the things already mentioned here. Maybe it is in some other area. But the big question is this: will you recognize that Jesus has the right to come and upset your world, just as he turned over the tables in the temple? Will you receive what he wants to do in your life?

In Jesus we have both God’s holiness – which brings judgement upon the entire world – and also his grace and forgiveness. We need to be reminded from this passage that our sin is nothing less than evil. You are not “OK,” you are not graded on a curve, and you are (on your own) separated from a Holy and Righteous God. If you don’t want to trust Jesus and submit to him as ruler of your life, you are like those people he drove out of the temple. Not everyone goes to heaven, Jesus made that very clear:

13“Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. 14How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it. (Matt 7:13-14, HCSB)

Just let that sink in for a moment.

Now, I’m not a fan of just saying “You’re going to hell,” because you don’t have to. In Jesus, your sin is not excused, or explained away, or ignored – it is punished by crucifixion. In Jesus death, righteousness is satisfied so that you are now free to live in the grace, forgiveness and righteousness that Jesus obtained for you. It is simple to receive. What I mean is, it is not complicated – though it usually involves a battle of surrendering your will and your desires. All we need to do is repent, surrender our will to Jesus, and trust that through his work, we are indeed make right with God, and given eternal life. We don’t have to be perfect – Jesus was perfect on our behalf. But our faith in Him, and our surrender to him, will lead us to live lives that are increasingly more holy, more in line with what the Bible teaches, more in accordance with our Holy God. It happens very slowly at times, and we often fall down, or even take steps backward, but when we truly trust Jesus, it does happen – the speed at which it happens is not the important thing, but rather, that it is happening.

Many of you reading have already repented and given your lives to Jesus. If you haven’t, I encourage you to do so right now.

For those of us who have already done so, we may still need to repent of certain sins or certain areas where we have been holding out on God. Let’s do that now. Let’s allow Jesus to come into our “sacred place” and challenge even the things we hold very dear. He has the right. Let’s receive what he is doing in us.

And let’s all of us trust and receive that grace that came through Jesus so that the Holiness of God is no longer a problem for us, but rather, part of our own inheritance now and in the future.

GRACE IN THE STRUGGLE

As Christians we know that we cannot earn our salvation. Resisting sin does not, in and of itself, make you righteous. But I think we are called to resist sin and deny ourselves because in the process of doing so (even when we fail) we truly learn and receive the grace and forgiveness and joy that God offers us in Jesus Christ. There is wonderful grace in admitting that we are sinful and broken.

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Homosexuality & the Bible #4.

Matthew 9:10-13; 1 John 1:7-10; Matthew 16:24-25; 1 Corinthians 10:13

I want to take a look at the bigger picture here: Christian living and the struggle against personal sin.

I think there are two big errors in Christianity right now concerning homosexuality, and they reflect the larger issue concerning how we approach sin in the life of a Christian. The first error, widely reported by the news media, is that many Christians single out homosexual acts as the most terrible of sins, and they focus on this, while ignoring “lesser” sins like greed, lying or gossiping. Such Christians make anyone in church who struggles with homosexual temptations feel condemned and unwelcome and beyond redemption. Some Christians in this category say hurtful, even evil things, like “God hates gay people.” People who do this come across as hateful, legalistic and hypocritical. I will not defend such behavior.

There is a second error that many other Christians commit. People in this group either ignore what the bible says about homosexual behavior, or they try to justify it in ways that undermine the bible entirely. The result is that what the bible calls sin, they call “not sin,” and by doing so, they deny gay folks the opportunity to be forgiven and redeemed in their particular struggle. It’s like coming up to a child with a fever and saying, “Don’t worry, some people just feel lightheaded and strange and cold. You don’t need a doctor or medicine. Enjoy it – you are fine just as you are!”

Jesus said something that should be considered one of the scariest statements he ever made:

10 While He was reclining at the table in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came as guests to eat with Jesus and His disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? ” 12 But when He heard this, He said, “Those who are well don’t need a doctor, but the sick do. 13 Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-13)

These words cut to the heart of both errors. We get caught up in the fact that the Pharisees were religious and the tax collectors were not. But that isn’t the point at all. The point is that the Pharisees believed that they were well, not sick; they believed that they did not need the grace and forgiveness offered by Jesus Christ.

If you are not gay, or if you believe homosexual behavior is sinful, you still personally need the forgiveness and grace found only in Jesus Christ. Your sins separate you from God just as much as any sin committed by a gay person. Don’t be a Pharisee: understand that you are among those who are sick, and who need the Great Physician, Jesus Christ. You must admit your need to receive it.

If you are gay, you must understand exactly the same thing. Your particular struggle with temptation is no more or less than that of other Jesus followers. You need the forgiveness and grace found only in Jesus Christ, and it is totally available to you if you will only admit your need and receive it.

One of the chief dangers on both sides of the issue is to suggest that sin of a homosexual nature are somehow different than others. On the one hand are people who say they are especially bad; on the other we have people saying they are not sins at all. According to the bible, both are wrong.

I will say once more: being gay is not a sin. Having those desires and temptations is not the same thing as indulging them and acting on them either through fantasy or reality. Now, according to the bible, acting on those impulses is a sin, but it is not an unforgiveable sin, and there is grace and redemption in Jesus Christ for anyone who will receive it.

However, if someone says, “I will not call this a sin. I will not seek forgiveness for this,” he is declaring his own actions righteous, in spite of what the bible says. Such people are acting like the Pharisees, saying, “We don’t need Jesus here. We aren’t sick, we are righteous.”

This is one of the main reasons I am preaching on this subject. Think of the same scenario only with a different sin. Imagine a movement of alcoholics saying: “Stop calling drunkenness a sin. We are alcoholics by disposition and we can’t help it. We promise we don’t drink and drive, so we aren’t hurting anyone. Stop judging us. We don’t want to stop drinking and we don’t want anyone to tell us it is wrong. We struggle enough with shame as it is, and so we want our public drunkenness to be welcomed and accepted by the church.”

There are several places where drunkenness is clearly listed as a sin (among other sins). If we endorsed drunkenness, no matter what the rest of society thought about it, we would be giving alcoholics the idea that they did not need to be forgiven by God when they get drunk. Also, if there was a movement of Christians who wanted to declare drunkenness righteous according to the bible, it would be natural to expect a counter-reaction of Christians explaining why it should still be considered sinful.

All Christians must struggle against sin. To deny this is to deny a large portion of both the Old and New Testaments. The apostle John writes this:

7 But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say, “We don’t have any sin,” we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.

I don’t know how to be more clear about the problem than that. The one who says “homosexual behavior is not a sin,” is calling God a liar. So is the one who says, “drunkenness is not a big deal,” or the one who says “it isn’t wrong for a Christian to pursue wealth,” or “it’s OK to be dishonest if it doesn’t hurt anyone.”

However, when we accept what the bible says about our own sins, we are in a position to receive grace and forgiveness and wholeness through Jesus Christ. Sometimes it may help to hear a real life example. I don’t want to share things that have been told me in confidence, so I will give you a window into my own struggle with sin. I am not eager to do this, but perhaps it may help someone.

For many, many years, I have had a great struggle with (heterosexual) lust. I don’t believe it is wrong for me to be attracted to women. I don’t believe I have a choice when it comes to that “first look” – noticing women who are attractive to me. But the problem comes in after that. My particular sin is to look again, even after I have a conscious choice to not do so. Then I indulge my imagination and fantasize about what it would be like to be with that person. That is what the bible calls lust, and it is a sin.

For years, no, decades, I felt almost helpless to resist the temptation to lust. If I encountered temptation, I knew I was going to fail, nine times out of ten. In fact, I felt like that was simply who I was – a lustful man. I don’t know for sure, but for years I have believed that I might have a higher “sex drive” than many people. It felt almost impossible to separate Tom from lust. I was very deeply ashamed about this (and even now, I am tempted to feel ashamed as I share this), but no matter how guilty I felt, I did not regularly overcome the temptations.

I certainly did not choose to be this way. I never wanted the temptation and struggle I endured. I tried to change, but even with the help of Jesus, for decades, I could not. Change did not appear to be an option for me. Failure was an option, and I took that option all the time. But two other things were not optional. I never believed I had the right to disagree with what the bible says about lust and sexual immorality. And also, I never believed I had the option to give up on my struggle against sin.

I knew I was forgiven, of course. But at times, it felt kind of shallow. I felt like maybe God was looking at me with disapproval saying, “All right, I’ll let you off the hook one more time, but watch yourself, Buddy. You are not my star pupil. You are skating along on very thin ice; you are barely making it.”

However, at last, two things began to happen. First, I admitted that I was broken. For reasons I still do not understand completely, there was something deep inside me that wasn’t right, and led me back to this sin over and over again. I began to admit my brokenness not only to God, but to a few trusted Christian friends also. It was humbling and difficult for me.

Second, the Lord was finally able to show me how completely and truly he loved me, and how thoroughly he had saved me through the cross. I began to believe that there was nothing I could do that would prevent him from loving and forgiving me – not just “giving me a pass,” but really delighting in me. I knew at last that Jesus had truly and thoroughly already made me holy in my spirit, the place where it mattered most. Because of Jesus, I really am “OK,” even right now. I finally understood that the power and extent of the holiness that Jesus imparted to me through the cross was infinitely greater than my deepest, most depraved sin, imagination or temptation. The Holy Spirit made it clear through the scriptures that the part of me that he has made holy is greater and more enduring than my sinful flesh.

When I finally began to believe and receive all this, I found that temptation began to lose its power. I was still tempted. Even today, I still experience temptation. Sometimes I still fail, but not nearly like I used to. The love of Jesus, and what he has done for me, is much more powerful in my life than those temptations.

Let me make this clear: I struggled for decades with a sin that felt like it was so deeply entrenched it was simply part of who I was. But because I continued to accept that it was a sin, the Lord was able to use that struggle to show me His love and grace in much deeper and more wonderful ways than I had ever known, and eventually, that love and grace began to overcome the sin in my life.

Suppose someone had come to me in the middle in my struggles, and said, “Tom, you were born this way,” (and for all I know, I really was). “God doesn’t want you to be unhappy. You aren’t broken, this is just who you are. It’s time you stopped calling this a sin, and stopped tormenting yourself about it, and just express who you really are.” If I had been given such advice, and taken it, I would never know the grace and joy and love of Jesus the way I do today. God’s word, calling my sin “sin,” is the same word that overcame sin in me. The only way for me to experience grace in my struggle was to first agree with God that I was sinning.

Now, you might argue that I have not struggled as deeply as a gay person. I personally have no way of knowing one way or the other, and frankly, neither do you, nor does anyone else on earth. But I do know this: it never did me any good at all to think that my own struggle was worse or harder than that of others. I don’t know why it would help anyone, gay or straight, to think so.

The fact is, ALL Christians are called to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Jesus.

24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)

Denying ourselves the permission to do whatever we want, and certainly denying sin, are part of what that means. I don’t know what it feels like to be gay and a follower of Jesus. But I do know that Jesus asks all of his followers to be willing even to die for His sake. Truthfully, I think all Christians, if they are really Jesus-followers, eventually find that following Him involves real, deep self-denial. I think it is pointless and even counter-productive to dwell upon whether your self-denial is harder than someone else’s, and I believe it arrogant to think you can even know. I understand any given person may feel their struggle is different, but it is not worse (or better). 1 Corinthians 10:12-13 says:

13 No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to humanity. God is faithful, and He will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation He will also provide a way of escape so that you are able to bear it.

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to humanity. Clear enough for you?

One aspect of the self-denial that the Lord asks of gay people particularly, is lifelong celibacy. But he does not ask that of only gay people. In fact, millions upon millions of Christians throughout the ages, both men and women, have been led by Jesus to make the commitment to lifelong singleness with lifelong celibacy, including some of the greatest Christian writers and thinkers in history. Some of them may have been gay, but undoubtedly a great number of them were heterosexual. Singleness and celibacy are not the worst possible fate a person could have. The apostle Paul himself was led to that lifestyle by Jesus, and though at times he was undoubtedly lonely, he also considered it a great gift. He said that he wished all people could have the gift of singleness/celibacy as he did (1 Corinthians 7:1 & 7:7).

As Christians we know that we cannot earn our salvation. Resisting sin does not, in and of itself, make you righteous. But I think we are called to resist sin and deny ourselves because in the process of doing so (even when we fail) we truly learn and receive the grace and forgiveness and joy that God offers us in Jesus Christ. There is wonderful grace in admitting that we are sinful and broken. There is wonderful grace even in the struggle of trying to avoid sin, and yet failing.

Let’s not deny another person that grace by telling them that they should not have to struggle or say “no” to some of their desires or temptations. Instead, let us receive that grace in our struggles, together with all our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Thanks again for making use of Clear Bible.

I want to remind you again that we are a listener-supported ministry, and that means, first and foremost, that we are supported by your prayers. We need and value your prayers for us.

Please pray that this ministry will continue to be a blessing to those who hear it. Ask God, if it is his will, to touch even more lives with these messages. Ask him to use this ministry in making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Please also pray for our finances. Pray for us to receive what we need. Please pray for us in this way before you give anything. And then, as you pray, if the Lord leads you to give us a gift, please go ahead and do that. But if he doesn’t want you to give to us, that is absolutely fine. We don’t want you to feel bad about it. We want you to follow Jesus in this matter. But do continue to pray for our finances.

If the Lord does lead you to give, just use the Paypal Donate button on the right hand side of the page. You don’t have to have a Paypal account – you can use a credit card, if you prefer. You can also set up a recurring donation through Paypal. We can make this tax-deductible if you just mention that it want it to be so in the “note” part of the transaction.

You could also send a check to:

New Joy Fellowship

917 Canyon Creek Drive

Lebanon, TN 37087

Just put “Clear Bible” in the memo. Your check will be tax-deductible.

Thank for your prayers, and your support!

WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY ABOUT HOMOSEXUALITY?

 To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

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Homosexuality and the Bible #2: What does the Bible say?

Even if you normally read these notes, you may want to listen to the podcast. Particularly with a sensitive issue, it may help if you can hear tone of voice and expression.

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Last time we considered some ground rules for our topic. I want to reiterate: there is no room for hate, violence, slander or anything like that in this Christian discussion. It is also worth remembering that not everything that hurts was necessarily said with hateful intent; and the fact that someone disagrees with you does not mean they hate you. In addition, a person can love you without endorsing every activity you engage in. I have many friends and family who feel differently than me about homosexual behavior, and I truly do love them, and wish for the best for them. I have no desire to see them come to harm in any way, and though I wish they might choose differently, I have no desire to take away their right to choose the life they want.

If you are reading this, and you have not yet read the first message in this series, I plead with you to go back and read it. I do not think you can fully understand all that I am saying on this subject until you have read this entire series. We are not operating in “sound-bytes” or catchy phrases here.

I apologize to parents, but there will be some “plain talk” in this message. If you aren’t ready to talk with your children about sexuality, you might not want them to listen to this sermon. On the other hand, I think kids need to learn about this subject sometime. They will hear it from their friends, probably sooner than you might think. In many places, they’ll even hear about it in school. I think the ideal way for children to learn about sexuality, and God’s plan for it, is by talking with their parents and considering what the bible says. Obviously, however, you as the parent need to make the call as to where and when that might happen.

This week I want to look at what the Bible actually says about homosexual behavior. My goal is to treat the relevant verses same way I treat the rest of the bible, and to use the common sense approach to biblical interpretation that I have been using for years in my teaching. In other words, this subject is no different than other subject I have taught about – it just happens to be politically charged at the moment, but I will not let politics change the way I teach on the bible.

I want to make one more note before I start. I am the messenger, not the message. The verses I am going to quote are really in the bible. We will find that the bible has no ambiguity about the subject of homosexual sex. The message is easy to see, and it is clear. In addition, where I share interpretations or add comments, those interpretations and comments are consistent with what Christians have taught for two-thousand years. They are not unusual or different. They are not popular at the moment, but this isn’t my message – it is the testimony of the bible and the church has affirmed it for millennia. It was not even controversial until the past few years.

Again, I share all this because it is my responsibility before God to teach sound biblical doctrine, and because for me, the true teaching of the bible is an act of love. It brings people closer to the truth, love and forgiveness that are found in Jesus Christ.

The bible always distinguishes between sins, and the people who commit them. God hates sin. But he loves sinners. Also, having homosexual feelings is different than having homosexual sex. No one is condemned for how they feel, or the temptations they struggle with. What the bible condemns is not homosexual people, but homosexual behavior. We can, and we should, accept and love people who identify themselves as homosexuals. In the church, this should be exactly like loving and accepting alcoholics, or convicts or single mothers, or me, a “normal sinner,” for that matter.

But acceptance and love are not the same as endorsement. Jesus and accepted and loved at least one prostitute. He accepted and loved a woman caught in adultery. Does that mean he endorsed prostitution and adultery? Of course not. He accepted and loved the people. But he told the woman who was caught in adultery, “Go, and sin no more.” He gave the prostitute a new life that did not involve prostitution any more. He said very clearly, in several places that “sexual immorality” is sinful – and that includes adultery and prostitution.

There is a distinction between the behavior, and the person. This is true, even though homosexuals themselves often refuse to make this distinction. “Being gay,” is not a behavior. Most gay people feel it is integral to who they are as people. We need to be clear that this – being gay, identifying yourself as homosexual – is not a sin. We do not reject people for who they are.

Now, let’s get to what the bible says.

Genesis chapter 19 tells about a city named Sodom. The male residents of Sodom wanted to have sex with some male travelers who had come into town. Shortly after this, the city was destroyed in judgment. Other bible passages tell us that the people of the town were guilty of many sins, but among them was sexual perversion – meaning, in this case, homosexual behavior. (Jude 7).

In the same way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them committed sexual immorality and practiced perversions, just as angels did, and serve as an example by undergoing the punishment of eternal fire. (Jude 1:7, HCSB)

The only type of sexual immorality that we know for sure was in Sodom, was homosexual sex.

Leviticus chapter 18:22 says:

You are not to sleep with a man as with a woman; it is detestable.”

Leviticus 20:13 says,

“If a man sleeps with a man as with a woman, they have both committed a detestable thing. They must be put to death; their blood is on their own hands.”

These verses are pretty clear, but pause here for a moment. Why do Christians think today that homosexual behavior is wrong, but we don’t think people should be put to death for it?

The punishments listed in the first part of the Old Testament were specifically given for life in ancient Israel. They were, in effect, the civil and criminal laws of the land. We don’t live in ancient Israel anymore. The moral law (the act that is called sinful) remains in effect, but we don’t live under the same civil or criminal laws.

The same section of scripture (the latter part of Leviticus) also says that adultery is wrong, and those who do it should be put to death. In Jesus’ day, under the Roman law, Jews were not allowed to execute someone for committing adultery, and in fact, the practice had fallen into disuse even before that. However, in spite of a change in the punishment, there continued to be a clear understanding that adultery was wrong. In fact, in John chapter eight, Jesus condemned adulterous behavior, but refused to let people kill the adulterer. Likewise today, any serious Biblical ethicist must condemn the act of adultery as morally wrong – even Jesus did! (Matthew 5:27-30). Most people, in fact, still believe adultery is wrong. But virtually no one thinks we should have a law by which adulterers are punished by death. In the same way, we may certainly maintain a Biblical morality, while adapting the legal consequences to the society we live in today.

The New Testament also talks about homosexual behavior. Romans 1:29:

24 Therefore God delivered them over in the cravings of their hearts to sexual impurity, so that their bodies were degraded among themselves. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served something created instead of the Creator, who is praised forever. Amen. 26 This is why God delivered them over to degrading passions. For even their females exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 The males in the same way also left natural relations with females and were inflamed in their lust for one another. Males committed shameless acts with males and received in their own persons the appropriate penalty of their error. (Rom 1:24-27, HCSB)

This is pretty clear. Homosexual behavior is called sexual impurity and a perversion. In other words, it is regarded as a sin.

I have already mentioned the Jude passage in the explanation of Genesis 19:

In the same way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them committed sexual immorality and practiced perversions, just as angels did, and serve as an example by undergoing the punishment of eternal fire. (Jude 1:7, HCSB)

I mention it again here because the verse is in the New Testament, and also because it tells us something very important about a particular Greek word. The root word is “porneia” and is used in various forms dozens of times throughout the New Testament. Most often it is translated as “sexual immorality.” Jude (who, incidentally, was the half-brother of Jesus) is using this word to refer specifically to homosexual sex (the only sexual sin recorded in Sodom was homosexual in nature). In Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, Jesus uses a form of the word when he is clearly talking about adultery. So, although there are specific terms for adultery, homosexual sex and other sexual sins, “sexual immorality” includes them all. In other words, “sexual immorality” means: “any sexual activity except that between a married man and woman.” Therefore, whenever the New Testament says “sexual immorality,” homosexual sex is included in that phrase, along with any other sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage. The New Testament is relentlessly consistent in calling sexual immorality of any sort a sin. Verses which do that include (but are not limited to): Ephesians 5:1-5; Galatians 5:19-21; Colossians 3:5-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8.

But just so we are absolutely sure, let’s consider a few more verses:

We know that the law is not meant for a righteous person, but for the lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinful, for the unholy and irreverent, for those who kill their fathers and mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral and homosexuals, for kidnappers, liars, perjurers, and for whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching (1Tim 1:9-10, HCSB)

I want us to note two things: first that homosexual behavior is specifically mentioned, and second, that it is not singled out as any worse or better than thirteen other sins. All these things are “contrary to sound teaching.”

In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul breaks mentions several types of sins, specifically naming homosexual sex among them.

Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: No sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, or anyone practicing homosexuality, no thieves, greedy people, drunkards, verbally abusive people, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom. And some of you used to be like this. 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. (1Cor 6:9-11, HCSB)

Many English translations don’t show it, but Paul actually lists homosexual behavior twice in this list. He uses a Greek slang word which should be literally translated as “soft” (malakoi). This is probably equivalent to our English use of “gay.” Paul also uses a more specific technical word that means “homosexual.” I think most translators simply use one word to avoid redundancy, but a properly nuanced translation of this might read: “…neither gay, nor any kind practicing homosexual…”

We’ve already seen several clear passages. It’s hard to be more clear than right here in 1 Corinthians 6:9.

Again, in 1 Corinthians 6:9 homosexual behavior is called sinful along with eight other behaviors: sex between unmarried people, adultery, idolatry, theft, greed, drunkenness, slander and swindling. Let’s get this straight. Greed is as sinful as homosexual behavior. So is petty theft (the Greek word for “thieves” is the same root where we get “kleptomaniac”). Habitual drunkenness is as sinful as homosexual behavior, and so is adultery, and promiscuity and telling lies about others. So it would be wrong to suggest that homosexual behavior is particularly singled out as something more evil than other sins. But it would also be wrong to suggest that the Bible approves of “committed homosexual relationships.” It is a sin. There is no ambiguity. But it is not a special sin.

I have talked with gay people who told me that they’ve heard Christians say that homosexuals automatically go to hell. I’ve never actually heard a real Christian say that, though I’m sure that some people, somewhere, do. However, that would be a misunderstanding of this passage. If that were true, then it would also be true of alcoholics, petty thieves, any greedy person, and all those who have had a sexual relationship at any time in their lives with anyone other than their spouse. The real and main point of this passage is what Paul says in verse 11:

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.

In other words, whatever our particular sinful struggle, Jesus can put an end to it, and he has done so for billions of people around the world throughout history. So obviously, people who struggle with homosexual feelings can be saved and go to heaven – some of the Corinthians had those very struggles before they came to Jesus. People who struggle with drunkenness can be saved. So can thieves and those who are greedy. It all comes back to putting our faith in Jesus. Usually people who struggle with sins like homosexual behavior and addictions need help, support and understanding from fellow Christians as they open their lives to the Holy Spirit, but the Lord can change them. I have personally known several people who used to call themselves homosexuals, who even lived the gay lifestyle, who are now happily married (to the opposite gender) and call themselves heterosexual. Their testimony was that the Power of the Holy Spirit changed them. One them is the wife of a seminary classmate of mine. It can happen. It does happen.

In the interest of honesty, I will say that another one of my gay friends is completely committed to Jesus, and to healing and wholeness, but he has not lost his attraction to men, and at this point, he believes he never will. Even so, he is committed to a life of celibacy, and is trusting Jesus for all of emotional needs.

We need to remember: Jesus is a game-changer.

Speaking of that, what about Jesus? What did he say about gay sex? If you have spent any time on social media sites, you have probably seen claims that Jesus said nothing at all about it. In a narrow, technical sense, that is true. But we should also note that in a narrow technical sense, Jesus said nothing about incest, child-abuse, the oppression of women, slavery, or drugs. In a narrow, technical sense, Jesus never condemned war or racism or human trafficking.

Let us remember that all that we know about Jesus was handed down to us by the apostles, who are also the writers of the New Testament. In other words, we only know what Jesus taught because the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote it down. These apostles, and others, also expounded upon the teachings of Jesus in the other books of the New Testament. If you believe that the apostles correctly preserved the words of Jesus, you must also believe that their other teachings reflected the true teachings of Jesus. There is simply no reason to believe one and not the other.

In other words, if you think that apostles were correct to recall Jesus saying that we should love our neighbor, you should also think that they were correct to say that following Jesus means we should forsake our sins, including the sins of homosexual sex. If they were wrong about the latter they were also wrong about the former.

In addition, Jesus did frequently talk about marriage and sex in general. He clearly taught that sex is good when shared in heterosexual marriage, and sinful in any form outside of that. He very specifically said that sexual immorality (which we know includes homosexual sex, among other things) is evil (Mark 7:21 Matthew 15:19).

Homosexuals are not the worst sinners imaginable. In fact, I don’t see any evidence that simply being homosexual (that is, having homosexual feelings or attractions) is a sin at all. However, the bible does call it a sin to act on those feelings, in the same way that it is a sin to act on heterosexual feelings outside of marriage.

Sin does not disqualify you from the kingdom of heaven, because Jesus died to forgive us and free us from all sins. ALL sins. A gay person has never done any worse sin than I myself have done. In terms of biblical morality and righteousness, there is no room for any person to think of himself or herself as better than any other person. I think the failure of the church to make this crystal-clear is part of the reason that today there is so much confusion about homosexuality.

The message of Christianity has always been that the only answer to sin is Jesus. People who engage in sex outside of marriage are forgiven the same way as people who engage in homosexual sex: by admitting their sin, admitting their need for Jesus, and putting their trust in Him to forgive them and change them.

There is much more to discuss. Next time we will look at some common objections to the verses and interpretations I have shared here.

Thanks again for making use of Clear Bible.

I want to remind you again that we are a listener-supported ministry, and that means, first and foremost, that we are supported by your prayers. We need and value your prayers for us.

Please pray that this ministry will continue to be a blessing to those who hear it. Ask God, if it is his will, to touch even more lives with these messages. Ask him to use this ministry in making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Please also pray for our finances. Pray for us to receive what we need. Please pray for us in this way before you give anything. And then, as you pray, if the Lord leads you to give us a gift, please go ahead and do that. But if he doesn’t want you to give to us, that is absolutely fine. We don’t want you to feel bad about it. We want you to follow Jesus in this matter. But do continue to pray for our finances.

If the Lord does lead you to give, just use the Paypal Donate button on the right hand side of the page. You don’t have to have a Paypal account – you can use a credit card, if you prefer. You can also set up a recurring donation through Paypal. We can make this tax-deductible if you just mention that it want it to be so in the “note” part of the transaction.

You could also send a check to:

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917 Canyon Creek Drive

Lebanon, TN 37087

Just put “Clear Bible” in the memo. Your check will be tax-deductible.

Thank for your prayers, and your support!

THE COSTLY, FREE GIFT

marriage-proposal

God’s grace is free to us, but it was not free to Him. It was very costly. It is free in the same sense that a diamond is free to the girl who is getting engaged. It is freely given, but it cost the giver a great deal. And like the diamond engagement ring, it is offered not just as a trinket, but as an invitation into a lifelong relationship that will change the course of our future forever.

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EASTER 2015

LIFE FROM DEATH

 

On Good Friday, we remember the crucifixion of Jesus – how we was killed by torture on a Roman cross. On Easter Sunday, we celebrate his resurrection – the fact that he physically came alive again and appeared to many of his followers. But the truth is, the two go together. If we had a crucifixion with no resurrection, the result would be simply despair. It would mean that Jesus was not who he said he was, and there would be no hope for us for forgiveness or eternal life. But a resurrection without the crucifixion first would also be meaningless. Jesus wouldn’t be dead in the first place, so there would be no need for one. But if Jesus simply revealed his full glory, and then went back to heaven, it would be great for him, and everything he said would be proven true…but we would still have no way of receiving forgiveness or eternal life.

Mostly, each year on Easter Sunday, I preach on the resurrection. Go figure. But the resurrection is only one half of a two-part equation. So, in order to set the resurrection in its proper context, I want to spend most of my time this Easter, talking about Jesus’ death – the other, indispensable half of the story.

Jesus was killed by torture. There is really no other way to say it. It began with three beatings during the course of about eighteen hours. First, Jesus was taken to the high priest’s house – and you can bet they weren’t gentle in the taking. Most likely they pushed him and perhaps even struck him on their way there. Once there, he was surrounded by an angry mob, and beaten with fists (Matthew 26:67-68; Mark 14:65; Luke 22:63-64). At least some of the blows were to his head. This kind of beating alone would probably put most of us in the hospital, at least overnight. Picture an LA street gang finding the member of a rival gang alone, and deciding to teach him a lesson. You can imagine several people holding the poor man up, while others took turns punching him. It is possible that Jesus sustained a concussion from this, and certainly he received multiple bruises; possibly even broken ribs or teeth. Remember, there was no pain medication in those days.

After a mock trial from the Jewish religious leaders, they took him to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who did not live in Jerusalem, but was there to try and keep the peace during the Passover festival. A standard Roman response to suspected trouble makers was to have them “scourged.” Pilate had this done to Jesus. In common language, this means he was whipped – not horse-whipped, but beaten with an instrument designed to inflict pain on human beings. Instead of one “tail” to the whip, it had several strips leather. At the end of each strip was fastened rocks or bits of glass or even pieces of lead. So each strike of the whip caused multiple gashes, laying open the flesh, and bruising the muscles as well. Most probably Jesus was given the 39 lashes, which had been known to kill people occasionally. Remember, Jesus had been beaten up by a mob, just hours earlier. In addition to his other injuries, Jesus certainly lost a lot of blood from the whipping, and perhaps sustained more broken ribs. Between these two beatings, the overall physical shock to his body was enormous. Coming so close together, there is no doubt that many men would have died from the combination of these two traumas.

After that, Jesus was turned over to the Roman cohort for crucifixion. Before they did their job, however, the entire cohort had fun mocking him. This involved about 600 brutal, hardened soldiers. They jammed a crown made of thorns on his head. They took a staff most likely made out of a cane stem (something like bamboo, but smaller in diameter) and gave it to him, and then took it away and used it to beat him over the head. This cane rod would probably not have created any serious injury, unless it was used to strike Jesus on the face, and thus open up cuts on his cheeks. Even so, they were likely hitting the crown of thorns, driving thorns into his head, and the direct blows themselves would have been very painful.

But all that stuff – physical punishment which could easily have killed many men – was only preliminary to the suffering which killed the Son of God. After these severe beatings, they strapped a big beam to his back and made him carry it a mile or two. The beam was likely equivalent to a 4”x4”, perhaps six or eight feet long. Considering what he had been through, it was no wonder he needed help. When they got to the place, they put metal spikes through his hands, into the crosspiece. Though tradition pictures these as going through the palms of the hands, it is more likely that they put the spikes through his wrists between the two bones of the forearm, so that the flesh would not tear away and drop him from the cross. Either way, that alone would have been painful beyond belief. His legs were slightly bent, and then they pressed his feet, one on top of the other, and drove a spike through them into the upright beam of the cross. Tradition pictures a kind of triangular piece of wood for his feet to rest on, but this is doubtful. Then they raised it up.

At this point, Jesus had two choices. He could let the weight of his body hang from his wrists, tearing away at the flesh, and rubbing on bare bone. Or he could straighten his legs, and push up against the spike driven through his feet, inflaming the wounds there, and grinding against broken metatarsals and tendons. Each movement probably drove splinters into his raw, lacerated back. If he had an itch, he couldn’t even scratch it. If he had to go to the bathroom, it would be right there in front of everyone.

Over time, victims of crucifixion spend more and more time hanging from their arms, since pushing up on the spike through the feet was intensely painful, and required effort. As Jesus’ body weight pulled on his arms, and kept them above shoulder-level, his lungs gradually began to fill with fluid, and breathing became difficult. The only relief for this came from thrusting against the spike in the feet. By pushing himself up this way, he could straighten his body and breathe more freely. But the pain was such that no one could endure this for long. It also required strength and energy. He was undoubtedly weakened by his beatings to start with, and as his body grew weaker through this torture, he got less and less air. In this position, fluid also collected around his heart, putting pressure on it. As a result the organs slowly got less blood and oxygen.

Incidentally, this was why, late in the day, they broke the legs of the other men who were crucified alongside Jesus. By breaking their legs, it became impossible for them to straighten up and get air, and so they died more rapidly.

Jesus was taken to the Roman governor early in the morning. He was put up on the cross before noon, possibly as early as eight or nine in the morning. He endured this suffering until it killed him, about eight hours later. It killed him, either by filling his lungs with fluid and suffocating him, or by the pressure of the fluids surrounding his heart, which could have caused it to stop.

This was actually a relatively short time for death by crucifixion. When we read the gospels, we find that Pilate was surprised when he heard that Jesus had died by late afternoon. But then, most people being crucified were not beaten three times within hours before they were put on the cross. Jesus’ suffering began not when he was put on the cross, but in the early hours of the morning, with the first beating.

But the suffering wasn’t only physical. He also went through emotional and spiritual agony.

First, he endured the anticipation of suffering. He knew, long before what happened, what was waiting for him. When I have some special event approaching in the future, anticipation is almost half the joy of it. I enjoy the feeling of looking forward to a good thing coming. But the reverse is also true. If you know about something you dread that is coming up, part of the negative experience is anticipating what you don’t want to go through. It is clear that Jesus knew about his approaching suffering, and that he dreaded it. That is why he said hours before he experienced any physical torment:

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:36-39)

He also experienced humiliation. He was the King of the Universe, the very One whom everyone around him professed to worship. And yet, in order to accomplish his purpose, he had to allow them to mock him, to spit on him, to humiliate him as if they were right and he was wrong. There was a physical aspect to the humiliation as well. It is a terrible experience to be a man, and be struck, and yet not be able to strike back. In addition, they almost certainly stripped him completely naked when the put him on the cross.

In addition, Jesus experienced abandonment. All his followers ran away and left him to his fate. His faithful lieutenant, Peter, denied him publicly. But even worse, he was abandoned by God. 2 Corinthians 5:20 says this:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

God the Father abandoned Jesus the Son in a way that he has never abandoned any human being, ever, nor ever will. The bible teaches us that if we choose to reject God’s grace through Jesus, then ultimately God allows us to do that. In other words, God doesn’t reject us, but he gives us the freedom to reject Him. If we choose that, we will experience what it is like to be without God – but it will be our doing not His. He does not willingly forsake us. But in the case of Jesus on the cross, it was the opposite. Jesus never turned away from the Father. He followed him obediently, and perfectly to the end. But when the Father made Jesus into sin – for our sake – He turned away and abandoned him. He had to, if Jesus indeed took our sin on himself.

Now, I want us to consider something. When I think about the horrible suffering that Jesus experienced, it’s hard to contemplate. But there are many other things in this life that are hard to contemplate as well. For instance, it is hard to contemplate the horror of rape. It is hard to truly grasp the awfulness of murder. We don’t like to think this way, but even the sins which we think aren’t so bad are so far removed from God’s holiness that they are as fully horrific to God as the suffering Jesus experienced. The extremity of Jesus’ suffering shows us the extremity of our sin. All this is the depth of God’s love for us. This is picture of the true horror of our sin. This crucifixion is the gulf that would exist between us and God if Jesus had not taken our place.

The cross is also justice for sin. This is what makes forgiveness possible. We can’t just wave our hands and say “it doesn’t matter.” When we hurt others, it matters. When we offend God, it makes a difference. There are a lot of people who like to say, “It’s OK to do whatever you like, as long as you don’t hurt anyone.” But what if you hurt God? He has told us, in the bible what matters to Him, what drives a wedge between us and him. Why is it OK to hurt him, but not anyone else? A sin that is only against God is just as much a sin as something which hurts another person.

Jesus, by his suffering, has endured what sin deserves – all sin. I can forgive the person who did something horrible to me because there was punishment and suffering for the evil that was done. It was made right, and justice was done for that sin.

No other faith takes sin or forgiveness seriously enough. You can’t just wave your hand and say, “it doesn’t matter,” as Buddhism does. One reason Buddhist monks dedicate their lives to separation from the world and to meditation is that you have to concentrate very hard and remain very isolated to believe that the suffering caused by sin in this world doesn’t matter.

You can’t say, “You’ll make it up next time you’re re-incarnated,” as Hinduism does. Since nobody is perfect, all you would do is rack up more “karma-debt” with each new life. Even Islam and Judaism say “Well, you do your best, and God forgives the rest.” But why? On what basis can God allow un-holiness into his holy presence? If he could do such a thing, it means that God isn’t really holy, and therefore that moral standards are not actually real; in short, that anything goes. We like “anything goes” if it means we can do whatever we want, but it becomes intolerable when someone else can do whatever they like to us with no consequences. If there is no moral standard, we live a world of senseless brutality, and all kindness and love mean nothing. Even what think of as moral good is meaningless. If nothing is evil, nothing is good either.

That is why it was necessary for sin to be accounted for. Justice must be done. Sin must have consequences. If not, there is no such thing as goodness or grace. If not, we cannot survive in the presence of a holy God. It is only through this extreme suffering of Jesus that sin could be dealt with. The Lord has made a way to take away the power of sin, and still allow goodness and grace and love to flourish.

There is one more thing about the cross. Scripture tells us that there is a mysterious spiritual truth: when we trust that Jesus did this for us, it was not only he who died there. We too, died with Jesus to sin.

Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life. For if we have been joined with Him in the likeness of His death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of His resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that sin’s dominion over the body may be abolished, so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin, since a person who has died is freed from sin’s claims. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him, because we know that Christ, having been raised from the dead, will not die again. Death no longer rules over Him. For in light of the fact that He died, He died to sin once for all; but in light of the fact that He lives, He lives to God. So, you too consider yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Rom 6:3-11, HCSB)

This cross that killed Jesus also killed our sin. This is now also our death. This is why we can be free from guilt – our sins were punished with this severe and just punishment. Just last night I was speaking with a murderer. I mean it, this man was just released from prison after doing time for murder. He was marveling at the fact that he could be forgiven. It was this horrible crucifixion death that punished his terrible sin of murder, and he is putting his faith in Jesus that this is so. He doesn’t need to feel guilt anymore, because his murder was paid for – not by his ten years of prison time, but by the death of Jesus. I think when we feel guilt, it is usually because we have not considered how fully our sin was punished on the cross. The extreme suffering of the Perfect Man was enough for you, for me, for the world.

And now, the new resurrection life that Jesus has can also fill our spirits with eternal life. You see, sin had to die, yes. But what then? If our sin is dead, and we are dead, that takes care of the problem…except that we are dead.

But Jesus didn’t stay dead. And just as he invites us to place our sins on him, and die with him, so he invites us to put our faith in him, to live resurrection life with him.

Jesus’ resurrection proved that his suffering was not in vain. It means that it truly was all on our behalf, and not for his own sake. It means that death is no longer the end, or just the dark doorway into into an evil eternity of suffering or oblivion, but rather just a portal that we pass through into eternal life and joy. As the writer of Hebrews says:

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)

As we consider all this, I want us to be very aware of one thing. God’s grace is free to us, but it was not free to Him. It was very costly. It is free in the same sense that a diamond is free to the girl who is getting engaged. It is freely given, but it cost the giver a great deal. And like the diamond engagement ring, it is offered not just as a trinket, but as an invitation into a lifelong relationship that will change the course of our future forever. A single woman doesn’t accept a diamond ring from the man she loves and then go on in her life without him, except for maybe occasionally remembering him fondly. No, the diamond is not just a gift – it is an invitation to a new life. When she accepts that gift, she also accepts that invitation, and enters a new relationship, a relationship that is strengthened and reaffirmed daily as they make their lives together. The acceptance of that gift is life-changing.

What Jesus did for us on the cross – the grace that God offer us – is far more precious than any diamond ring that ever has, or ever will, exist. It should not be received any less casually than a marriage proposal. To receive this gift is also to accept the invitation to a new life. It is to give your life to Jesus, to commit to Him for forever, to live in a daily relationship with him. It is life-transforming.

If you’ve never received that gift, never really accepted that invitation to a new life, now is the time. Pause and do it now. There are no special words, just your willingness and acceptance and surrender to God’s love.

Let us thank him for that gift today!

He is risen!

Thanks again for making use of Clear Bible.

I want to remind you again that we are a listener-supported ministry, and that means, first and foremost, that we are supported by your prayers. We need and value your prayers for us.

Please pray that this ministry will continue to be a blessing to those who hear it. Ask God, if it is his will, to touch even more lives with these messages. Ask him to use this ministry in making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Please also pray for our finances. Pray for us to receive what we need. Please pray for us in this way before you give anything. And then, as you pray, if the Lord leads you to give us a gift, please go ahead and do that. But if he doesn’t want you to give to us, that is absolutely fine. We don’t want you to feel bad about it. We want you to follow Jesus in this matter. But do continue to pray for our finances.

If the Lord does lead you to give, just use the Paypal Donate button on the right hand side of the page. You don’t have to have a Paypal account – you can use a credit card, if you prefer. You can also set up a recurring donation through Paypal. We can make this tax-deductible if you just mention that it want it to be so in the “note” part of the transaction.

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Thank for your prayers, and your support!

DO YOU REALLY NEED JESUS?

 

Jesus

 

As always what is at issue is not “religion,” but Jesus himself and how we respond to him. Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees was not that they were religious. The issue was, they did not think they needed him. They were satisfied with themselves as they were. They weren’t willing to admit their need for grace, nor were they willing to humbly follow Jesus Christ. You can be a self-righteous Pharisee, and think you don’t need Jesus. You can be an obvious sinner, and still think you don’t need Jesus. Either way, it’s the same thing, and it’s a tragic thing.

 

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Matthew #31 Chapter 9:9-17

As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office, and He said to him, “Follow Me! ” So he got up and followed Him.

While He was reclining at the table in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came as guests to eat with Jesus and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? ”

But when He heard this, He said, “Those who are well don’t need a doctor, but the sick do. Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Then John’s disciples came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast? ”

Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests be sad while the groom is with them? The time will come when the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one patches an old garment with unshrunk cloth, because the patch pulls away from the garment and makes the tear worse. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the skins burst, the wine spills out, and the skins are ruined. But they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matt 9:9-17, HCSB)

Matthew records that Jesus came to him when he was a tax collector. In this incident, Mark and Luke call the same individual “Levi.” However, later on, when the twelve special apostles of Jesus are named, Luke and Mark use the name “Matthew” and mention no one named Levi. The obvious solution to this puzzle is that just as the apostle Peter once was called Simon, and Paul was once Saul, before he was changed by Jesus, Matthew was known as Levi. Matthew himself, feels the change is so profound that he does not even refer to his old name in the telling. He is fully convinced that he is not the old person, Levi, but rather the new person, saved and changed by Jesus Christ. He isn’t who he used to be. He is done with his former way of life.

What was his former way of life? Well, Matthew/Levi was a tax collector. The Romans controlled Judea and Galilee and the whole region, and they required taxes from it to run their empire. They used underlings who were not Jewish to help them – these underlings were the Idumean people, the most famous of whom was Herod the Great. The Idumeans owed the Romans the taxes for the region, and they also collected their own taxes to run the provinces and also to enrich themselves. The Idumeans, in turn, left the dirty work of actually collecting the taxes to traitorous, unscrupulous Jews, who willingly cooperated with these foreign oppressors because they could get rich doing so. Matthew was one such person.

Basically, the way it worked was this. Matthew was given an amount that he needed to collect to satisfy his Idumean masters (who in turn, also had to satisfy the Romans). But Matthew could collect any amount he wanted. In other words, suppose his masters needed a thousand dollars from each family. Matthew could charge a family $1500, give the Idumeans the $1000 and pocket the $500 for himself, and go on to the next family and do the same thing. So he was a traitor, because he worked to support the foreign oppressors, and he was a parasite, even a thief, because using his position, he took whatever he thought he could get from his fellow countrymen. If anyone objected to what he was collecting in taxes, he simply whistled for the soldiers, and the person who refused to pay was beaten and imprisoned, and the tax was forcibly taken anyway.

Not to belabor the point, but Matthew was not “good people.” He was a quisling and a snake. People looked at him the way you and I might view a pimp, or an organized-crime boss. He might have money, but it was the kind of money no good citizen would touch. Respectable folks did not hang around with people like Matthew.

We have to understand this, because it was shocking – scandalous, even, that Jesus, a godly Jewish Rabbi, would invite Matthew into his core group. It was even more shocking that right afterwards, Jesus went to Matthew’s house for dinner, and Matthew invited such friends as he had – none of which were good people, because good people wouldn’t hang around with Matthew. So use your imagination to recreate the picture. Jesus is at the house of a local organized crime boss. Next to him on one side is a drug dealer. Two places away is a pimp. Across the table from Jesus is a guy who makes his living breaking the legs of people who don’t cooperate, and he’s in the middle of a discussion with a hit man. The meal is being served by hookers.

If this makes you uncomfortable, then you are getting a sense of why the Pharisees reacted the way they did. They ask him why he’s hanging out with such people. It’s not an unreasonable question. Jesus says, basically, “I’m here for sick, not the healthy.”

It’s easy to mis-apply the words of Jesus here, so pay attention. What Jesus basically means by his words is, he is seeking people who need him, and who know it. Some people mistakenly claim that Jesus prefers blatant sinners to religious people. But Jesus’ problem was not with the fact that the Pharisees were religious. The issue was, they did not think they needed him. They were satisfied with themselves as they were. They weren’t willing to admit their need for grace, nor were they willing to humbly follow Jesus Christ.

Applying this to today, a “Pharisee” may or may not be religious, but the defining characteristic is that such a person does not truly, in his honest heart, admit that he needs forgiveness, grace or Jesus. So today, like back then, you find some “Pharisee-types” in churches. These people are concerned with the form of religion, but their hearts are not humbly surrendered to Jesus. They have never truly acknowledged that they need him.

Surprisingly, you can also find many “Pharisees” who never go to church, and who sin blatantly. They are Pharisees not because they are religious (they aren’t) but because they don’t think they need Jesus, or they aren’t willing to follow him. They may admit (even somewhat cheerfully) that they are sinners. But obviously, they don’t take it seriously, and they refuse to humbly receive the grace that Jesus offers them and to follow him.

You can be a self-righteous Pharisee, and think you don’t need Jesus. You can be an obvious sinner, and think you don’t need Jesus. Either way, it’s the same thing, and it’s a bad thing. As always what is at issue is not “religion,” but Jesus himself and how we respond to him.

There is no doubt that in the church we still have some people who look down upon those who are caught in overt sin. Jesus’ words should speak to us. He came precisely for everyone who knows they need him and want him. We have no right to reject, or look down upon, anyone who wants Jesus and is willing to take him on Jesus’ own terms. He says, “I’m here for those who know they need me, who want me, who know the desperation of their situation without me.” Matthew was precisely one such person and that is why Jesus called him. We can assume that Jesus was hoping to find other people like him at the dinner party in Matthew’s house. By all accounts he did.

Jesus was not affirming the sin of the sinners. But he was also not affirming the self-righteousness or prudishness of the Pharisees. As Christians, it is good for us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and welcome sinners who want him. We shouldn’t exclude anyone, no matter what they have done, no matter how bad they are. Jesus makes it very clear: his mission is to call sinners to repentance and faith in Him. Our mission should be the same.

It is also true that not every sinner wants Jesus. And I think it is a mistake to affirm people who are not interested in repentance or in following Jesus. We are not doing them a favor if we give them the impression that a sinful lifestyle is okay. Part of the proof of this is that Matthew’s own lifestyle changed radically. Matthew left his position as a tax collector. He gave up cooperating with the foreign authorities and he gave up vast wealth to follow Jesus. The same is true of other sinners whom Jesus encountered. For instance, Mary Magdalene, who gave up prostitution and followed Jesus, Zacchaeus, another tax collector, followed Matthew’s path, and even the thief repented as he was crucified next to Jesus.

The Pharisees were not the only people who failed to understand the mission of Jesus. The followers of John the Baptist were also puzzled. They approached the disciples and asked them why they and Jesus did not engage in fasting. What this has in common with the problem of Pharisees is that Jesus is not conforming to their expectations. The Pharisees expected Jesus to stay away from sinners. The followers of John expected Jesus to fast. Jesus did neither one.

Jesus’ reply to the followers of John is yet one more instance where he claims to be divine. His response is essentially, “Why would anyone fast when I’m here with them? The whole reason for fasting is to get close to me, and here I am!” Jesus clearly saw himself as the “bridegroom.” This picture is drawn from Jewish weddings, but basically what it means is that Jesus sees himself as the one everyone has been waiting for. Once more, this is not great moral teaching – unless it is true. Once more we are confronted with this choice: Jesus is either a megalomaniac, or God come in the flesh.

Matthew closes out this section with a comment from Jesus about patches and wineskins. Unfortunately, these days, many of us have never even patched a piece of clothing, let alone seen a wineskin or used one. We need to understand the cultural reference before we can realize what Jesus is talking about.

This was long before the invention of polyester or nylon so imagine a piece of cotton clothing. Cotton shrinks appreciably when it is washed and dried. So if you sewed a brand-new cotton patch onto a piece of clothing that had already been washed and dried, the first time you washed it after the repair, the new patch would shrink more than the fabric around it, and simply tear the shirt again.

The picture with the wineskins is similar. In those days most wine was not put into bottles like we do today. Instead, the wine was put into containers made from animal skins – basically, leather. However, the wine was not fully fermented when it was placed into the skin container. As the wine continued to ferment inside the leather container it bubbled and released gases, putting pressure on the sides of the container. If it was a fresh new wineskin, it would stretch with the expanding gases within it and continue to hold the wine securely. However, if you put new wine, not completely fermented, into an old leather skin that was already stretched out, when the gases expanded, the leather would have no more flexibility left, and it would burst.

It amounts to this: both the Pharisees and the followers of John wanted Jesus to conform to their own expectations. But Jesus was telling them “something new is happening here. You can’t contain it within the old forms of the Jewish religion. You can’t make it fit your own personal expectations.” It took a long time for both sides to realize, but this is the beginning of the split between Christianity and Judaism. Jesus was saying, “this is not the religion you have known. Something new is happening now. It will take a new approach to get the good wine I’m offering.”

So what does all this mean for us today? Have you thought of yourself as a sinner? Do you feel that you don’t deserve grace love and forgiveness? The wonderful news is that Jesus came precisely for you. His whole mission was to find people who are not perfect people, not “good” people, but rather, people who know that they need him and are willing to receive him. So receive him. There is nothing that you have done, or could have done, that puts you beyond his grace and forgiveness. He says that he came for people just like you and me.

As you receive Him, he calls you also to follow him by obeying Him, to the best of your ability. As you continue to trust Jesus, the Holy Spirit will make you more and more able follow him in obedience.

Next, I think it is important for us who have begun to follow Jesus to recognize that Jesus’ mission is to sinners. We don’t get to decide who deserves his grace. The fact is, he offers his grace to everyone: even tax collectors and prostitutes and hit-men. I believe he wants us right there beside him offering his grace to everyone. On the flipside of course, just because someone is a sinner does not mean that she automatically wants the grace that God offers to her in Jesus Christ. And it is not helpful for us to pretend that it is better to be an honest, yet unrepentant, sinner than a dishonest religious person; the truth is it is better to be neither, and instead to be a repentant Jesus follower. Even so, we Christians should not dismiss anybody out of hand. Jesus came for those who are sick, those who are sinners.

Another thing is that, like the Pharisees and John’s followers, I think we all tend to want Jesus to conform to our own personal expectations. But he has a way of bursting our paradigms like old wineskins. Are we willing for Jesus to be himself even if that turns out to be different from how we expect him to be? I think one of the biggest reasons that people reject God is because he often does not behave the way we want him to. He doesn’t always heal those we think he should heal. He doesn’t always answer prayers that we think are reasonable and even righteous. Jesus is calling us to forsake our own paradigms and accept him as he is; to follow him in trust, even when we don’t understand.

What is the Holy Spirit saying to you today?

Thanks again for making use of Clear Bible.

I want to remind you again that we are a listener-supported ministry, and that means, first and foremost, that we are supported by your prayers. We need and value your prayers for us.

Please pray that this ministry will continue to be a blessing to those who hear it. Ask God, if it is his will, to touch even more lives with these messages. Ask him to use this ministry in making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Please also pray for our finances. Pray for us to receive what we need. Please pray for us in this way before you give anything. And then, as you pray, if the Lord leads you to give us a gift, please go ahead and do that. But if he doesn’t want you to give to us, that is absolutely fine. We don’t want you to feel bad about it. We want you to follow Jesus in this matter. But do continue to pray for our finances.

If the Lord does lead you to give, just use the Paypal Donate button on the right hand side of the page. You don’t have to have a Paypal account – you can use a credit card, if you prefer. You can also set up a recurring donation through Paypal.

You could also send a check to:

New Joy Fellowship

625 Spring Creek Road

Lebanon, TN 37087

Just put “Clear Bible” in the memo. Your check will be tax-deductible. Unfortunately, we cannot do the tax deductible option with the paypal donate button, however the money does go directly to support this ministry.

 

Thank for your prayers, and your support!

“DO NOT JUDGE”: ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST MISUSED BIBLE VERSES.

I don't Want to Judge

It has never made sense to me to try and get people who do not trust Jesus to live according to His teachings. Many Christians condemn where they should not, and fail to correct where they should.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

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Matthew #21 . Matthew 7:1-6

“Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged. For with the judgment you use, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a log in your eye? Hypocrite! First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. Don’t give what is holy to dogs or toss your pearls before pigs, or they will trample them with their feet, turn, and tear you to pieces. (Matt 7:1-6, HCSB)

Matthew 7:1-5 has probably been one of the most misused, misunderstood passages in the Bible during my lifetime. Let me give you a few examples of how it is used wrongly.

· Suppose a friend of mine claims to be a Christian, but he watches pornographic movies and visits nude-bars. He sees nothing wrong with doing these things. I might say to him, “You claim to follow Jesus. But the lust in your heart is something wrong, Jesus died to make it right. You shouldn’t continue to feed your lust that way. Jesus is calling you to repent.” He replies to me (quoting the bible) “Jesus said, ‘Don’t judge others!’”

· Suppose someone else says, “I’m a Christian, and I don’t believe sex is wrong for gay people or unmarried people.” I might direct the person to Ephesians 5:1-5; Colossians 3:5-7; Galatians 5:19; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 7:8-9; 1 Timothy 1:10 and Romans 1:26-27. Their response is “Well, Jesus said, ‘Don’t Judge!’”

“Don’t Judge” has become a kind of rallying cry for many Christians who are ignorant about what the Bible teaches. They use it against anyone who ever dares to suggest that their actions might not be what Jesus wants from them.

It has also become a stock-response for people who are not Christians at all. If a Christian suggests in a public forum that any activity is immoral, or even harmful, we are quickly silenced with “Jesus said, ‘do not judge.’” In fact “judging” or “intolerance” has become one of the only things that our society as a whole is willing to call an evil thing. Why non-Christians care that Jesus said ‘do not judge,’ I have no idea. I suspect they don’t, and are only looking for a chance to accuse us of hypocrisy.

So how do we respond to these things? Remember, the entire New Testament – including the words of Jesus – comes to us through the teaching and writing of the apostles. We Christians believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the apostles to remember and record the words of Jesus. We believe equally that the Spirit inspired them to write down the other teachings found in the New Testament also. To put it another way, the teaching of Jesus is the teaching of the apostles, as the Holy Spirit inspired them to remember and write. So let’s look at what the Holy Spirit has to say about holding on to the truth, and telling others the truth:

“If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he won’t listen, take one or two more with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established. If he pays no attention to them, tell the church. But if he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like an unbeliever and a tax collector to you. (Matt 18:15-17, HCSB) [This one was said by Jesus, by the way, later on in this very same book written by Matthew]

Publicly rebuke those who sin, so that the rest will also be afraid. I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels to observe these things without prejudice, doing nothing out of favoritism. (1Tim 5:19-21, HCSB)

I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and because of His appearing and His kingdom: Proclaim the message; persist in it whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching. (2Tim 4:1-2, HCSB)

There are many more verses like those I have listed here. Jesus Himself, just a few minutes before saying this, was telling his disciples to avoid being like the Pagans and the Pharisees. Before that, he told them to avoid all kinds of different sins. Obviously then, “do not judge” should not prevent us from speaking the truth in love and gently correcting Christians who stray. It does not mean we cannot call something “sin” when the Bible calls it sin. It should not prevent us from having moral standards, or believing in certain absolute truths. It doesn’t mean we should never be discerning, or use our critical thinking. Paul describes it like this:

For the grace of God has appeared with salvation for all people, instructing us to deny godlessness and worldly lusts and to live in a sensible, righteous, and godly way in the present age, while we wait for the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for Himself a people for His own possession, eager to do good works. Say these things, and encourage and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you. (Titus 2:11-15, HCSB)

But also obviously, Jesus did mean something by his statement. What was it? For “judge,” Jesus uses the word “krino.” It is a common word, used in ninety-seven different verses of the New Testament. Sometimes it simply means “to firmly decide.” More often it means something like “official judgment.” It is used frequently to describe God judging the world, or Jesus judging at the end-times. In these contexts, it might equally suggest condemnation. It is used many times for “sitting in judgment” as an official government magistrate does, or a court of law. At times, this words is clearly used to mean “condemn.”

I think when we consider all that New Testament has to say on this matter, I think there are three important aspects of Jesus’ command: “do not judge.” First, we should not condemn other people. We can say that something is wrong without condemning the person who is doing it. The approach I usually take is something like this: “Look, I want to make sure you know what the Bible says about this. What you do about what the Bible says is not my call. I’m telling you what I know of the Bible, and the rest is between you and God.”

The second aspect of not judging is that we should not set ourselves up in the place of God. It isn’t our place to decide someone’s eternal fate. It is our place to say what the Bible says. But we need to stop there. Saying what the Bible says is not the same as condemning someone. The Bible may say a particular behavior is sinful. If we pass that information along – with the goal of helping our fellow Christians – then we have not set ourselves up as judges. We are only saying what the Bible already says. What the other person does about it is between them and God. We need to bear in mind that we are not the authorities here – God is the one true judge.

Third, Jesus was talking to people in culture of First Century Judaism. The people in that culture, particularly the religious leaders, were prone to call out others and sit in judgment over them for things that were not even sins in the eyes of God. For example, they made up their own rules about the Sabbath, and then judged people for not obeying them. Understanding that context, I think we can safely say that Jesus is also telling us not to judge one another over things that are not in the Bible, or over man-man regulations. Once again, we have other passages in the New Testament that explain this:

Accept anyone who is weak in faith, but don’t argue about doubtful issues. One person believes he may eat anything, but one who is weak eats only vegetables. One who eats must not look down on one who does not eat, and one who does not eat must not criticize one who does, because God has accepted him.

Who are you to criticize another’s household slave? Before his own Lord he stands or falls. And he will stand. For the Lord is able to make him stand.

One person considers one day to be above another day. Someone else considers every day to be the same. Each one must be fully convinced in his own mind. Whoever observes the day, observes it for the honor of the Lord. Whoever eats, eats for the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; and whoever does not eat, it is for the Lord that he does not eat it, yet he thanks God.

For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. Christ died and came to life for this: that He might rule over both the dead and the living.

But you, why do you criticize your brother? Or you, why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before the tribunal of God. For it is written: As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to Me, and every tongue will give praise to God. So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore, let us no longer criticize one another. Instead decide never to put a stumbling block or pitfall in your brother’s way. (Rom 14:1-13, HCSB)

So the Holy Spirit is saying, through Jesus and through Paul, “There are some issues that should not be issues. Don’t sit in judgment or condemnation over each other. Especially, don’t get into fights about things that are not actually commanded or forbidden in scripture.”

I know someone who was in a church where they condemned you for wearing blue jeans. I’ve been judged and criticized for not being the kind of pastor that some people expected me to be. When I sat down with my critics, I learned that what they were upset about had nothing to do with what the Bible says pastors should be like, or do. Sometimes people are judged for the music they like, or what they wear, or for drinking a glass of wine with dinner.

The Bible does have certain standards of Christ-like behavior, including moral standards. Jesus is not telling us to ignore those, or throw them out, but rather to approach each other in gentleness and humility about those things. And there is also lot of freedom in how we live out and express our faith. Jesus is telling us not to judge each other at all in these areas of freedom.

Jesus did not only say: “do not judge.” He had more to say on the whole subject. Jesus actually says we should examine ourselves first, and then we will be able to help someone else who has a problem. He says we should recognize that the same standards apply to us, as well as the other person. In other words, when there is an issue of Biblical morality or false teaching, we need to be humble, and recognize our own faults before we approach someone else to help them with their problem. But Jesus’ words here (in context) assume that we should still approach the person, once we are appropriately humble. The Holy Spirit inspired Paul to flesh it out like this:

Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you also won’t be tempted. Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal 6:1-2, HCSB)

We are not to approach each other in condemnation. We are not to set ourselves up as judge in God’s place. We are to be humble, to let our own lives be under the authority of God’s Word (the Bible) and then – only then – in gentleness, with the goal of helping fellow-Christians, we can approach someone else about a sin.

Jesus’ last sentence in this section seems a little strange. He says:

Don’t give what is holy to dogs or toss your pearls before pigs, or they will trample them with their feet, turn, and tear you to pieces.

Make no mistake, this is also about judging others. I think what he is saying is that we should not waste time trying to bring grace-filled correction to people who are not humble or open enough to receive it. Proverbs says:

The one who corrects a mocker will bring dishonor on himself; the one who rebukes a wicked man will get hurt. Don’t rebuke a mocker, or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man, and he will love you. (Prov 9:7-8, HCSB)

In other words, we don’t take the log out of our own eye, and then graciously approach someone who isn’t even a follower of Jesus and try to help them stop sinning. When we share the truth about Jesus, the good news, of course we talk about how our sins have separated us from God and from each other. But our goal in sharing the good news is not really to get people to just quit sinning. It is to exhort people turn to Jesus for grace, forgiveness and help.

Look at it this way. Suppose you have a friend who is not a Christian, who gets drunk all the time. Your friend is sinning, and, according to the bible she will go to hell because she has not trusted in Jesus who call Himself the only Way, Truth and Life. Now, suppose you convince her that it is a sin to get drunk, and she stops doing it. She is now not sinning in that way, and yet she will still go to hell because she still isn’t trusting in Jesus. All your efforts to get her to stop sinning have not helped her at all spiritually.

Not only that, but it has never made sense to me to try and get people who do not trust Jesus to live according to Jesus’ teaching. Suppose one of my Muslim friends came to me and said, “Tom, you need to stop eating pork. According to the Koran, it is a sin to eat pork.”

I would say, politely, “I don’t follow the Koran. I don’t believe what it says. It doesn’t matter to me what it says about pork.”

But too many Christians try to get people who don’t even trust Jesus to follow what the Bible teaches. Jesus is saying here, “Don’t bother. There’s no point to it. It’s like feeding dogs a gourmet meal, or dressing pigs up with pearls. It’s a waste of time and effort, and the precious truth of God’s word will be trampled in the mud.”

I don’t think he means that we should view unbelievers like dogs or pigs. He’s just saying, trying to bring correction to people who do not believe is silly and pointless.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians about this subject:

I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. I did not mean the immoral people of this world or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world. But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. For what business is it of mine to judge outsiders? Don’t you judge those who are inside? But God judges outsiders. Put away the evil person from among yourselves. (1Cor 5:9-13, HCSB emphasis mine)

So, I actually have no moral problem with people who do not claim to be Christians, and live in sin. They are morally consistent. In fact, I would find it surprising if they refrained from sin even while they do not trust Jesus. Now, of course, I pray for such people to turn to Jesus. I pray that they see the futility of their lives without him. I pray that they fully experience how their sin separates them from God and from each other, and become desperate for the forgiveness and grace they can have in Him alone. But I’m not interested in making them clean up their lives first. I’ll let the Holy Spirit do that, once they have put their trust in Jesus.

On the other hand, if someone claims to be a believer, and yet persists in an ongoing pattern of sin, I will examine myself, and then humbly, gently try to remind them what the Bible says. Paul says (inspired by the Holy Spirit) to let them know they are no longer acting like believers. Even so we are supposed to do this without condemning, and without putting ourselves in God’s place, as if we are the ones who get to decide their fate.

This is a nuanced teaching. We are to try and bring correction to fellow believers (not outsiders) when they stray from what the Bible teaches. But we do so humbly and gently, and not judgmentally. We bring correction by reminding them what the Bible says; we are not supposed to bring judgment and condemnation. And we don’t even do that with those who are not Christians. In addition, we are not to bring any kind of judgment at all in areas where the Bible gives us freedom.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you about this subject right now.

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BAD KARMA

badkarma-big

Does this passage disturb you at all? I hope so. In such passages, we are meant to be shocked, horrified and put off. This is how bad sin is. This is how completely unattainable holiness is. This is how much we need Jesus.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 2 Samuel Part 21

2 Samuel #21 . 2 Samuel Chapter 21

I’m very glad we’ve done this extended series on the Old Testament, because we have encountered many of the things that cause trouble for people when they think about the bible. The first part of 2 Samuel Chapter 21 is another one of those troublesome parts for me. Hopefully, however, as we have gone through these difficult passages, you have begun to learn (as I have) how to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying through them.

The New Testament tells us that everything in the Old Testament was written for our instruction; it is useful and helpful for Christians today. Another thing the New Testament teaches is that the Old Testament is about Jesus. So, first and foremost, we should ask, “What does this have to do with Jesus? How does it teach me about him?” Next, we can ask, “What does this have to do with my present day relationship with the Lord? What does it teach me about myself?”

Some Old Testament passages paint a picture, a foreshadowing of what Jesus was going to be like. People like David and Samuel and Uriah show us, through very limited parts of their lives, something of the attitude, life or teaching of Jesus. Theologians call these “types of Christ.”

There are other passages that are primarily about how people relate to Jesus – how they respond to him. We’ve had quite a bit of that lately, seeing how people responded to David when he forgave his enemies. There are lessons there for us in how we respond to Jesus.

Some of the most difficult passages, however, are there to show us how much we need Jesus. They show us the depths of our sin, the heights of God’s holiness, and the huge gap in between. They show us how it was between God and people before Jesus made it right. They show us what our situation would be without Jesus. I think this is one such passage.

It started with a famine. This is equivalent to a modern-day economic recession or depression. Times were tough, families were struggling. After three years of this, David began to wonder if there was a spiritual reason for the hardship. When he worshipped and inquired of the Lord (probably through the prophet Gad, and through the urim and thummim, the “holy dice”) he learned that the famine was because of something king Saul had done.

There was a group of people known as the Gibeonites. They were not Israelites, but when Israel invaded in the time of Joshua, the Gibeonites had tricked the leaders of Israel into swearing an oath that they would not destroy the Gibeonites. So they had lived for more than four hundred years in Israel’s territory. According to the old agreement, they were essentially a tribe of servant-class people for the Israelites. They kept their part of the agreement, working as laborers for the Israelites, and remaining peaceful. But at some point not recorded in the bible, Saul had tried to wipe them out. Essentially, he tried to commit genocide, similar to what Adolf Hitler did to the Jews in the 1930s and ‘40s. Apparently he slaughtered a great many of them, but obviously not all.

Stop for a moment here. The famine came along years later. Saul was dead. The whole nation had repudiated Saul’s family, and chosen David. David had never done anything like Saul’s slaughter. He had never hurt the Gibeonites. But the entire nation was still punished, years later, for what Saul did.

My first response to this is to think that it was not fair. Why should David’s kingdom pay for something David did not do? Why should the people suffer for a crime they had no part in?

But there is another question here also. Why should the Gibeonites suffer? Why should they be denied justice? Would it be right to ignore the crimes that were done to them?

When David heard what the problem was, he spoke to the Gibeonites directly.

He asked the Gibeonites, “What should I do for you? How can I make atonement so that you will bring a blessing on the LORD’s inheritance? ” (2Sam 21:3, HCSB)

There is a key concept here: atonement. The idea is that harm done must be made right; justice must be appeased. When you break a window, you atone for it pay paying for a new window. But how do you atone for something like genocide? It would appalling and offensive to simply suggest we should “just forget about it.”

The Gibeonites told David that they would like to execute seven of Saul’s descendants. David made sure to protect Mephibosheth, son of Jonathan. The seven who were executed were Armoni and Mephibosheth (a different one) – sons of Saul by his concubine Rizpah. The other five were sons of Merab, Saul’s oldest daughter, who was originally supposed to be David’s wife (thus they were Saul’s grandchildren). They were hanged, and their bodies were left exposed.

Does this disturb you at all? I hope so. In such passages, we are meant to be shocked, horrified and put off. This is how bad sin is. This is how completely unattainable holiness is.

In many areas of our lives, we accept that things must be made right. When we make our bank statement right, we call it, reconciling. The balance MUST equal deposits minus expenditures. That is the nature of a bank balance. If we refuse to accept that, our finances will be in a mess. All of our hurt will not change the basic facts of mathematics. Our ignorance will not make any difference either. 2+2 MUST equal 4. If you have a two, and then you have another two, what you have is four. It HAS to be four – that is simply how the universe works.

Too look at it another way, we sometimes say, “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” Someone pays for it, even if it isn’t you. The food had to come from somewhere. Someone had to work to harvest it and cook it.

But for some reason, we seem to think that in terms of moral actions, nothing must be paid for, and nothing has to add up. This passage shows us how horribly wrong that is. Sin MUST be accounted for. The balance must be reconciled. Deep down, we know this. It would be a permanent obscenity upon the human race if no one had tried to bring justice upon the perpetrators of Jewish holocaust. We know that. If the man who killed all those young children in Connecticut were still alive, it would be an insult to all humanity if we simply let him go free.

If sin isn’t atoned for, it lasts. There is no statute of limitation. In the case of the Gibeonites, the atonement required was gruesome and was itself full of tragedy.

This passage shows us the futility of what some religions call “karma.” If it is true that “what goes around, comes around,” then we are doomed. If we need to make up for all of our sins not only in this life, but also for past lives, we will never find rest for our souls. If the sins of previous generations are on our heads, there is no hope. If even just our own sins are accounted to us, there is no hope.

Now, if you read this passage, and you think about what I’m saying, there are two possible responses. One response is to say, “Wow! I really need to straighten out my act and get serious.” If that’s your response, you still don’t get it. If this makes you think you need to get it together, you still don’t understand how bad this is.

The only appropriate response to this passage is: “If this is the way things are, I’m screwed.”

We are screwed.

Saul’s sons and grandsons were screwed. There wasn’t anything they could do to avoid a shameful death. According to moral law – according to God, if we understand this passage correctly – they deserved it. Nothing would be right until they got what was coming to them.

This how it stands in the universe. The moral equation must add up. The only way to make it add up is for you to suffer and die. Too many Christians don’t take it seriously enough. When someone tries to straighten out her life and live morally, to be a good person for God, she isn’t taking this seriously.

Imagine a homeless bum who is stupid-drunk. In his intoxication, he kills a woman – someone else’s wife and mother. Now imagine he sobers up, and realizes he’s done something bad. In response, to try and make up for it, he offers the family all the money he has, which amounts to $3.35.

“I’ve given them everything I have,” he says. “It’ll just have to be enough.”

It’s an insult. It is offensive that he would even offer it, let alone that he would try to pretend that it would make up for what he did. That is just how ridiculous and offensive it is to suppose that we can be good enough to make up for the times when we sin. We are screwed.

That is what this passage is all about. You have no hope. You have no options. You deserve to die and your attempt to make up for things is so pathetic that it is offensive.

Thankfully, these are not the only verses in the bible. Thankfully, the Lord loves us too much to leave us without hope. But get this straight: there is no hope in your behavior. There is no hope in you straightening out and doing better next time. You can’t dig yourself out of this pit – the walls will come crashing in and bury you.

Too many churches give the impression that Christianity is about getting your act together. It isn’t. That’s entirely false. If you think you can get your act together enough to make a difference to God, you aren’t a Christian. Sometimes I think Christians don’t get excited about the “Good News” because they haven’t taken the bad news seriously enough.

The accounts of morality must be balanced. But we can’t do it. And that is why Jesus came to earth. Soon, we will be celebrating his birth. We often do that with a lot of vague feelings of peace and goodwill. But the most appropriate response should be profound gratefulness.

Jesus took our sins upon himself. The balance was paid out through his torturous death. Through faith in him, we were punished by his death. That is what we call atonement. There is no other hope of settling the score.

But in Jesus, that hope is real and true. There isn’t anything you can do. And so he did it all. Our part is merely to believe that, and accept it with gratitude. When we truly believe both the bad news and the good news, Jesus changes us from the inside out. When we know we truly don’t have to measure up, there is a tremendous freedom and joy that brings us even closer to God.

Pause now, and let the Holy Spirit speak to you today.