Righteous People Who Appear Like Wily Sinners…

English: A painting created by Leonardo Da Vin...

English: A painting created by Leonardo Da Vinci depicting St John the baptist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m sure some of you, unlike me, grew up in Sunday schools that painted coloring book depictions of the biblical characters in the Bible.  Even in adulthood, many people who adhere to these same scriptures can be in danger of maintaining a child-like, naive view of them.  Certainly, it’s good to have an innocence when it comes to simple faith.  Even Jesus prescribed  this (Matt. 11:25; 19:14).  However, as we mature in our understanding of the ancient scriptures, we must study and probe, going deeper into the true meaning of the text, the context surrounding the text, and the overall consciousness of the people involved in the text.  By this, we step into the shoes of these non-fictional, historically present characters, and gain insight into the Kingdom of God that can deeply empower and inspire our lives.

With all of this in mind, I want to look at Matthew 11:1-19…

The scenario is this…  John the Baptist, a powerful, wild renegade prophet, (whom I have always pictured being a little dirty with sweet dreadlocks), has been thrown into prison by Herod Antipas, and is serving a death sentence.

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

John the Baptist is rotting in prison, and it seems that he is doubting that Jesus is the true Messiah!  The promised expectation of this time was that the Messiah would come as a conquering Davidic King, and likely wipe out Rome to restore Israel to the powerful status they felt they deserved.  John had “prepared the way” for Jesus, baptizing him in the Jordan river. He had spent his ministry calling the religious and unreligious alike to true repentance.  But ultimately, he was like everyone else in his era, merely a human being that was hoping a Messiah would come and conquer the evil powers that be- the oppressive pagan empire of Rome and the corrupt, hypocritical religious institutions of the Pharisees and Sadducees.  Here he was, rotting in prison instead…

And Jesus answered John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Jesus sends correction…  a mild rebuke back to John through his messengers!  In the midst of this correction, Jesus confirms His messianic identity.  He quotes passages that John would have studied and likely known by heart…  and all from the book of Isaiah which had prophesied of the coming of the Messiah (Isa. 29:18; 35:5-6; 53:4; 29:18-19; 35:5; 26:18-19; 61:1 and 62:1).  Then He even shockingly states, “blessed is the one who is not offended by me”.  This is almost to say- “Look John, you thought I was going to come and take over the world and save your life?  God has a different plan to invade the hearts of humankind…  trust Him and trust me, His true Son!”

It’s not much of a Sunday school coloring book picture of John the Baptist, rotting in prison, potentially sinking into misery, doubt and confusion over what is happening.  But you tell me, would any human being rot in prison with some kind of glad little Ned Flanders smile on his face?  I think not…  This is true faith at work.  John was probing into the deeper things of God, and Jesus was giving Him an answer that would give him hope…  hope to share the promises of the Lord with his eventual killer (Matt. 14:1-5)… hope even to endure being beheaded by evil people and having his head served on a plate in the middle of what was likely a drunken orgy. (Matt. 14:6-12)

Does Jesus only rebuke John for his unbelief?  No…  He restores him and lifts him up to a beautiful exalted place in the eyes of God and men.

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is he of whom it is written,

“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.’

11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Jesus was saying that John was He whom Malachi had prophesied of. (Mal. 3:1; 4:5)  John was not a reincarnated Elijah, but rather had come in the spirit of Elijah to prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry.  Much like Jesus, John would suffer an unjust death at the hands of corrupt leaders.  John was final in the line of Old Testament prophets, and after the atoning death and resurrection of Christ, everyone after would have an even more effective direct line to God, and therefore even the least of the new believers in the church of Jesus would be greater than John.  John was not some softy rich dude dressed in velvet robes with a crown, and neither was Jesus.  The kingdom of heaven would not come by violence and world domination either.  This kind of attitude is what had led the corrupt religious leaders of the first century to become legalistic hypocrites.  The Kingdom would come in an unexpected way.  Jesus had to inform John and remind him of this, so that he would be given strength to remain faithful.

Jesus then would go on to address the crowd…

16 “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,

17 “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’

19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”

People during the time of Jesus were so deluded by the corrupt, legalistic false teachings of the religious elite, that many wouldn’t receive the ministry of a truly righteous man like John the Baptist.  John balked at the materialism of his day, and had an ascetic appearance, living like a wild minimalist hippie, but never drank a drop of wine (Luke 1:15).  He baptized wily sinners and offered them true repentance, and rebuked the religious leaders publicly.  They responded in jealousy and made up slanderous rumors about him, saying that he must have “had a demon”. Unfortunately so many “followers of Jesus” say nasty things about people like this, and could go so far that they may completely miss the righteous and holy, yet radically gracious heart of God Himself.

The religious elite had spread rumors about Jesus as well.  Ultimately, they were so bitter, that they wanted to discredit his ministry, and eventually Jesus would prove them so wrong, and prove His messianic identity by being above reproach, that they would murder Him.  They accused Him, the Son of God Himself, of being a glutton and drunkard, and a friend to sinners.  Jesus certainly never got drunk, but occasionally publicly sipped on the tremendously weak wine that was a necessary, sanitary replacement for water in this culture.  Jesus spent time defending those whom the religious leaders had condemned to hell.  The religious leaders were always busy judging people- calling them adulterers, sinners, and fools.  Jesus would stick up for these “sinners”.  The religious elite did the same thing that unrepentant religious people do today.  They slandered and gossiped about Jesus, gathering a consensus of angry legalists around them to justify their ungodly hatred.

But, as it is true now and has always been, “wisdom is justified by her deeds”.  God is looking for changed hearts, or even just hearts whom are willing to consider change.  His plan is being worked out in time and history, despite the limited human ability to comprehend it at times…  Jesus still makes His grace and goodness available to us, whom He calls His own.  As John Foreman of Switchfoot puts it so poignantly:

We are a beautiful let down,
Painfully uncool,
The church of the dropouts
The losers, the sinners, the failures and the fools
Oh what a beautiful let down
Are we salt in the wound?
Let us sing one true tune

I don’t belong here…

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The Gospel, Plain and Simple

loncura

loncura (Photo credit: Dave_B_)

 

The gospel is well described by Paul in Romans 3:23-26, where he writes, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

First of all, the gospel declares that we are all sinful, every one of us.  We all fall short of God’s perfection and holiness.

However, we are justified by God’s grace through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ.  God offered His Son on the cross as an atoning blood sacrifice for us.  In relation to the Old Testament way of sacrifice, this act of Christ’s sacrifice satisfied once and for all the wrath of God.  It annihilated the system proposed in sections of scripture like Leviticus 16, where the blood of animals was needed to appease God’s disfavor on His children.  It also annihilates all systems of religious striving that are dead in themselves, and leads to true religion that seeks to commune deeply with God Himself.  In relation to the world, it became a door into God’s presence that is offered to all who would “receive it by faith”.  This is God’s grace, because He “passed over former sins”.  Because of this act of divine grace, the believer in and follower of Jesus is not viewed by God as being the miserable, helpless sin-addict that he is.  He is viewed instead in light of Jesus’ sacrifice, which makes God view Jesus instead of him.  This core truth is at the root of true obedience, because we don’t naturally desire to live for and serve a holy, perfect God until we discover His love for us.  But Christ’s sacrifice made this relationship possible.  Charles Spurgeon articulated this scandalous love well when he wrote, “When I thought God was hard, I found it easy to sin; but when I found God so kind, so good, so overflowing with compassion, I smote upon my breast to think that I could ever have rebelled against One who loved me so, and sought my good.” Indeed, it is “the kindness of the Lord that leads to repentance” (Romans 2:4)

Leading Like Moses

Moses the prophet, Russian icon from first qua...

Moses the prophet, Russian icon from first quarter of 18th cen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

It’s interesting to read about the ancient renown leader of the Israelites, Moses, and really take a close look at the way he led the massive group of Hebrew ex-slaves that had been delivered out of the oppression of Egyptian rule.

Moses had a profound, rare experience with the God of the Universe, who spoke to him audibly through a burning bush, giving him the biggest task of faith that had ever been given to anyone at that time.  Moses felt a heavy weight of leadership from this, and obviously wanted to carry it out his entire life, even after he had been the instrument of deliverance for his people…  He confronted the mighty Pharaoh.  Then he courageously led a multitude of people out of the most powerful world empire of his era.  He watched God do mighty miracles- sending plagues on Egypt, and watching the Red Sea swallow up the Egyptian army after supernaturally leading the people through it.  This guy had the right to be an egomaniac, didn’t he?  Moses was obviously a chosen leader of God, more powerful than all the others, right?

So how did he wield that power?

Let’s look at this passage found in Exodus 18…

13 The next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening. 14 When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” 15 And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God; 16 when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.”

Here we have Moses doing what he does…  He’s burning himself out constantly, feeling that he almost needs to be a mediator between the people and God.  He is foreshadowing Jesus Christ in this way, which makes him a wildly unique leader in the Bible.  Remember, this was a time before any book of the Bible as we know it was available… because Moses and the community of Israel wrote the first 5 books of the Old Testament.

Now we’d figure that Jethro, Moses’ father in-law, would look at what Moses is doing, and think to himself… “Man, my son in law is the head honcho of all these cronies!  What a powerful kid!  I’m so proud of him!”  But that isn’t Jethro’s reaction at all.

17 Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. 19 Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, 20 and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. 21 Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens.22 And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23 If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.”

Wow… that’s some heavy advice from the Father-in law!  In-laws sure can have a lot of nerve, can’t they?  We’d figure Moses would be tremendously offended, and blow off this advice.  I mean, he’s God’s chosen man, right?  The most powerful man in Israel, right?

24 So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said. 25 Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. 26 And they judged the people at all times. Any hard case they brought to Moses, but any small matter they decided themselves.27 Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went away to his own country. (Exodus 18:13-27)

Moses wasn’t a fool.  He knew he wasn’t invincible.  Like any other great leader throughout history, he knew he had limitations, and needed to delegate leadership to able bodied men of high, godly character.  In many ways, we see how Moses’ greatest leadership quality was his continual ability to build up other leaders.  He was commanded by God to empower and commission the Levitical priesthood.  He brought up a successor, Joshua, who would lead Israel into a greater era of victory than himself.  Moses was not a megalomaniac, autocratic, “my way or the highway” kind of leader.  He was a leader of leaders. People came to him mostly because he had the spirit of God upon him, and obviously the spirit of God made him a just and fair, but also powerful man of great integrity and humility.

It literally drives me crazy to consider even the possibility that a person could compare themselves to Moses.  But nonetheless, people, even pastors, do this.  They often do it to justify thinking they’re a great, powerful leader that everyone needs to depend on.

This couldn’t be further from the biblical truth.  The thing that made Moses great and powerful was the fact that he was a leader of other powerful leaders.  He laid out a template for the church of Jesus Christ to follow.

Jesus laid out the instructions for his disciples quite clearly…  And contrasted these with the corruption and foolishness of the majority religious leaders of his time…

Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matt. 23:1-12)

Peter, who was the chief leader in the church after Christ’s resurrection, also would have had plenty of reason in his natural flesh to exalt himself above everyone.  After all, he and Jesus Christ, the Son of God, had been pretty tight during His time on earth in human form.  But what did Peter write to his fellow believers?

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)

All followers need to be led, and all great leaders are essentially followers.  Great leaders are great followers of Jesus, who laid down His life and empowered a rag tag bunch of wild men and women to do His work on earth.

Foolish leaders are prideful, and poisoned by delusions of grandeur.  They won’t succeed, but “whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”  This is the beautiful, earth shattering way of the Kingdom of God.

 

Religious Legalism and Hedonism, Two different brands of the same Poison (Legalism is Poison, Part 2)

PVC tube with rat poison warning

PVC tube with rat poison warning (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s look at what Paul wrote to the Galatian church in regard to their faulty religious habits…

“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners;” (Gal. 2:15)

Paul was referring to Gentiles who did not even attempt to follow the OT laws and therefore clearly did not live up to them.

We need to understand that Paul was identifying with his Jewish audience here by using the phrase “Gentile sinner”, because later on in the book of Galatians he said things like:

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Gal. 3:27-29)

Paul is identifying with his Jewish audience in Galatians 2:15.  It doesn’t give us the license as followers of Jesus Christ to label everyone else as a “sinner”.  Besides- I hope you who follow Jesus interact with enough people in our culture today to know that they find that tremendously offensive… and for no good reason!  Correct biblical understanding says that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).  So even those of us who follow Jesus are still sinners- As Mark Driscoll would say, it’s not “the good guys vs. the bad guys”, it’s that we’re all bad and Jesus is the good guy that rescues us!

Paul goes on to say…

“yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Gal. 2:16)

“Justified” means “counted righteous” or “declared righteous” by God.  If people were sinless and perfectly obeyed all of God’s perfect moral standards, they could be justified or “declared righteous” because of their own efforts.  But Paul says that this is impossible for any Irreligious or religious person to do.  Paul saw that Christ had taught justification by faith, and so he called God the one “who justifies the ungodly”.  Paul would soon show that this view was taught even in the OT, though it was not the view of most of 1st Century Judaism.  (For example, a 1st Century B.C. Jewish writing states, “The one who does righteousness stores up life for Himself with the Lord, and the one who does wickedness is the cause of the destruction of his own soul [Psalms of Solomon 9.5].  But hmmm… that sounds right to most of us, doesn’t it?  Obey God and be blessed, disobey God and be cursed…  But the real question is- how are we really able to obey God?  Just out of obligation or compulsion, or out of love and gratitude?

In Galatians 2:16, “works of the law” meant not only circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath, but any human effort to be justified by God in obeying a moral law.  So keeping the whole law was impossible to be perfect at.

The true believer in Jesus is not justified by anything they do, or by their “performance for God”- like the Pharisees were.  There is nothing at all that they can do to “impress God” or “win His favor”.  It’s rather that we don’t deserve His favor, and we can never be “good enough” to earn it!  We stay in that place of humility our whole lives as believers, and God forgives us through Jesus Christ- making us more and more like Him despite our failures…  As A.W. Tozer would put it, we can surely please God, but can’t ever satisfy Him

No human effort or merit can be added to faith as a basis for being justified by God.  It’s what Jesus has done that makes us justified in God’s sight.  Nothing more!!!  There’s nothing else that we can do to equal what He did on the cross for us!  Naturally, when we TRULY realize that God loves us like that, we will agree with Charles Spurgeon, the late, great English preacher who said:

(SLIDE) “When I thought God was hard, I found it easy to sin; but when I found God so kind, so good, so overflowing with compassion, I smote upon my breast to think that I could ever have rebelled against One who loved me so, and sought my good.” Indeed, it is “the kindness of the Lord that leads to repentance” (Romans 2:4).

When we require things of people that the scriptures don’t specifically talk about, we could actually be pushing them away from Jesus.  This could be the reason why so many kids who grow up in church reject Christianity in their twenties and never go back.  We may not come out and say it to people who aren’t believers, but we dump a heavy load on people after they have become believers and teach them “extra laws” that we have added to scripture that are not clearly required by God.  And because of our extreme, and usually inconsistent viewpoints, people think that they need to obey these extra laws to become Christians.

Now some of you are saying, “Cool, now I can just do whatever I want, and God will love me!”  Hold on a second!  We’re going to deal with that later!

The truth is, we will constantly find ourselves at a myriad of crossroads.  We need to make decisions based on what we understand about God, what we can do to honor and love Him, and who and what kind of people we want to reach out to…  All of our decisions should center around two things- loving God and loving people.  But that’s a tension sometimes, isn’t it?  To be factual, it is a tension that is scriptural.  (Prov. 3:1-4)  In fact…  if we seek to please God, we will find favor in the sight of man.  Sure, those who despise goodness will slander and persecute, but many people in states of both desperation and righteousness will respect us and be drawn to Jesus because of us if we honor God by our goodness and love.

All followers of Jesus have personal convictions about things that are important- they deal with daily choices we make.  How do we deal with issues like alcohol use, the celebration of certain holidays, listening to Christian or secular music, dancing, kissing or not kissing, dating or not dating before marriage, politics, putting our kids through home-school or public school, R-rated vs. PG-13 vs. PG vs. G movies, the kind of friends we hang out with, the kind of material lifestyle we live, or the kinds of situations we put ourselves in?

On one extreme you could take this and say, “Look, I’ve got freedom in Christ!  I can watch R movies, I can listen to any music I want, I can drink a lot of beer and smoke and swear and whatever!  Jesus loves me no matter what!”  But that is taking advantage of God’s love for you.  If you teach a dog discipline and give it a lot of love, it will be sweet and kind to you as well as obedient, not run around peeing on the carpet!  We shouldn’t take advantage of God or we’re as annoying as urinating, disobedient dogs with perfect owners.  And at the same time, the people outside of Christianity will look at us and say we’re hypocrites, because they know that following Jesus should lead to having a moral lifestyle!  Every friend I’ve had that doesn’t follow Jesus is annoyed at the moral hypocrisy of so many Christians.

Just like this next verse says…

17 But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!

-In verse 15, Paul discussed how Gentiles are known among Jews as “sinners”.  When Jewish Christians associate with them, they are liable to be accused of becoming “sinners” themselves.  Paul is passionate in saying this totally isn’t true.

Paul is saying that we should do everything, as far as we’re possibly aware of it, not to participate in sin.  “He who knows what is right and doesn’t do it, to him it is sin.” (James 4:17)

Paul was also defending himself!  The religious people of his day accused Paul of sinning because of the kind of people he hung around with and the situations he put himself in.  Paul wanted to reach any and everybody for Christ, and he was willing to be labeled falsely, because he knew in his heart that Christ had taken over his life, and he wanted to reach people far from God with the gospel.  He knew that he wasn’t hanging out with sinful people so that he could sin with them, but he was working with a team of people who loved Jesus and were on mission to reach people who didn’t know Him, reaching out in dark places to be a light.

Paul wanted to imitate Jesus.  He had Jesus living in Him by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus befriended and walked right into the middle of where people far from God were and offered them love, friendship, God’s forgiveness and repentance from their sin.

So I would say- when we make choices about things like alcohol, movies we watch, music we listen to or anything else- we have to remember that Christ didn’t come to be a servant of our sin, but He did come to save sinners like us and all the people that do the worst things, and He wants to use us to be a part of that rescue plan.  We need to be different and live holy lives, but that doesn’t mean we should cut ourselves off from everybody who doesn’t believe what we believe or do what we do!  If we do that, we’re like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, and we’re not at all imitating Jesus.

On the other hand, some of us need to be careful not to put ourselves in places where we know we’re going to mess up!  If you’re a hopeless alcoholic with no self-control, it’s probably a bad idea to hang out at a bar!  But we shouldn’t become so isolated and paranoid that we avoid people who do crazy things.  And if you ask me, I think as our maturity in Christ grows, our boldness in taking Jesus to people far out there should grow as well.  Like everything, it takes time.

This puts us at a crossroads again where we have to make some hard decisions, because on one extreme we can live a loose life, making God’s grace look cheap.  The other extreme is to reject all culture and throw stones at it- calling everything “evil” and “of the devil”.  When we do this we’re letting the devil win, and we’re guilty of a sin equally as bad as any, though maybe harder to cure- legalism.

Just to give the most extreme example, this is when we seem to say to people, “God loves you and wants to save you, but when you become a follower of Jesus you have to watch only G-movies, never touch a drip of alcohol even if its’ a glass of champagne when you’re 21 at a wedding, you have to listen to only Christian music, and you can’t ever kiss someone before you’re married to them, (etc. etc. etc.)”  This is how the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were, as well as some of these Jewish Christians in the book of Galatians.  They were so concerned about forcing people to keep the law, that God’s grace and actual presence were far from them, and Jesus was clear in telling them that they had gone so far with this, that their Father was the devil himself, because they were ready to murder Jesus in order to keep their twisted version of the law.  They also tied up heavy loads for people and didn’t lift one finger to help them!  They went extreme on obedience to the law for all the wrong reasons.  They wanted other people to look up to them and fear them.  They took it way further than what is necessary.  Ultimately, they were trying so hard to obey God that they missed God’s heart and pushed people away from Him.

The real fact is, behind closed doors, Paul was sinning far less than most of these people who were accusing him, because he knew that God loved him and the last thing he wanted to do was dishonor his loving Father.  He understood God like Charles Spurgeon did- that God loved Him, so it made him not want to sin against such a loving God.  People that act legalistic are usually putting on a show, because deep down they are always failing and always feeling guilty…  they’re worried that God hates them and will reject them…  and here is why…

“Legalism takes the perfect and attainable ideal or impossible goal and makes it a rule”

So you can’t preach your personal convictions about stuff that isn’t clearly defined in scripture like it is God’s law.  People come to Christ and then go through the long process of sanctification- which is a gradual, sometimes slow, sometimes fast process of getting rid of sin in their life.  That’s something we’re all going through together!  And if we are bringing people to Christ and then forcing them to turn on all their friends who don’t believe in Jesus by becoming self-righteous- we’ll become a holy huddle while the rest of the world heads towards hell without Christ, not a place of grace and forgiveness for people who need Jesus.  That is the last thing that God’s people should become- because God will remove the Holy Spirit from our midst if we do that!  If you don’t believe me, read about the church of Ephesus in Revelation 2.

As my friend Brian Bales would say, “The church should be a hospital for sick people, not a club for healthy people”.  And Jesus is the great Physician

But the funny thing is- people who are legalistic are just as spiritually sick as the liar, thief, drug addict, violent person and adulterer!  This is why my heart breaks for people caught up in legalism- even though I am not totally rid of it myself, and probably never will be.  I know that people caught up in legalism are not truly free from being trapped in sin, because they are bent on guilt and are desperately trying to obey God, but failing miserably.  They are usually depressed… they don’t have real joy…  Deep down, the reason why they judge others is because they themselves feel so condemned and… LOST.  I have been in this place many times.  It is a painful place to be…

And legalism does just that- it either leads to total arrogance or total despair- Likely it will lead to both, and not the joy that Christ gives.

Are you caught in that today?  Christ wants to set you free.  Guess what, that’s just as powerful of a story as being saved from being a violent person, drug addict or criminal!  Being a religious legalist is just as bad of a sin as all those things!  Christ wants to set you free.  He wants you to be free not to sin and love God, and free to love people.  That’s why Jesus gave up His life for us!

Can I give some practical tips here?

  1. Admit that you’re a legalistic person, and ask God’s forgiveness.  Really, all of us are legalistic, and we all need to admit it.  I’ll be the first to say that I am guilty of this.
  2. Ask forgiveness from the people you have hurt with your self-righteous behavior- your family, your kids, your friends or ex-friends.  Apologize and ask them to forgive you.  Tell them you want to do a better job of loving and representing Jesus to them but you blow it all the time.  Watch what happens when you humble yourself like that.  Get ready for some honesty to come out.  Get ready for some discomfort.  Also get ready for some healing, and maybe some tears to be shed by you or others.
  3. Lean on Jesus!  We need to remind ourselves constantly of Christ’s gift to us.  He is the reason why we have a relationship with God, and there’s nothing about us that makes us right in His sight!  However, God loved us enough to send His Son!
  4. Stop being so serious!  The biggest weapon we have against legalism overflows from Christ’s gift.  When we realize God loves us, we can be full of joy.  We don’t have to take ourselves so seriously anymore!  We don’t have to get so shocked and offended by people’s sin!  We can live in the freedom where we don’t need sin and personally refuse it, and love people who are in the middle of any sin like crazy.

Do we know that God’s heart breaks over our petty religion?  He desires us to have a pure heart and be a blessing to others, and we’re WASTING OUR LIFE in religious squabbles.  I live in the mountains of New Hampshire where religious legalism is a huge problem.  I think the church in New England is on the brink of flourishing and seeing people far from God come to know Him.  But the reason why New Hampshire is the second most “un-churched” state in America is not because of the “evil culture far from God”, because this culture is not a whole lot different than others.  The real problem is that so many Christians live in constant fear and judgment.  We treat non-Christians like they are doomed and evil beyond repair.  Could it be that it’s up to the church to make things right?  I think the scriptures tell us- “YES”!  Where is our heart?  Where is our mercy? 

I desperately long for us all, especially in the church of New Hampshire, and all of New England for that matter, to stop being the moral police that are constantly looking to bust people for their sin, and starting living in the freedom and love and grace and GENUINE holiness that can come when we live every day in light of the fact that JESUS DIED FOR US! 

If you have questions or disagreements about anything I’ve said, I’d love to talk with you- please leave a comment below.  I want us all to be open to correction- me first!  But to get to that place we have to be honest about our flaws and humble enough to learn from each other.  Most of all, I want the Word of God to be at the center of everything that you and I believe.

(Factual information is adapted from the ESV Study Bible, 2008, Crossway Bibles/Good News Publishers; Wheaton, IL.)

Tips From the Ultimate Pastor- Jesus

Jesus from the Deesis Mosaic

Jesus from the Deesis Mosaic (Photo credit: jakebouma)

And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. (Matt. 10:1-4 ESV)

Jesus was sinless.  Jesus was fully man and fully God.  Jesus wasn’t married.  I find it informative and helpful to see that Jesus really only truly spent quality time with twelve guys and a few women.  He really only spent deep quality time with the three in His inner circle, Peter, James and John.  Sure, He continually touched the lives of countless people. But He wasn’t at the disposal of everyone.  He, even being the perfect, sinless Son of God, had human limitations during His life as a man.  This is because God placed Him in human form, so that He could struggle with limitations and temptations as we do, ultimately being unjustly murdered and providing the perfect sacrifice for sin, and yet also providing the ideal example for us by His life.

So I glean a few things from this…

I should only really spend deep, quality time with about 3 dudes who want to follow Jesus with me.  They should be dudes that I really connect with and care for.  They should not be female because I already have one wife and I don’t plan on connecting deeply with another woman that is not her!  I’m not Jesus, so I’m not capable of connecting and understanding every personality that exists out there.  I have people that possess similar personalities to mine.  I can be a good friend to a few people, or be spread thin and never really have quality time with anybody.  I’d rather have quality than quantity in everything I do.  Jesus modeled this.  It is a key essence of discipleship.

I believe, as a general principle, that I should have meaningful friendships with at least 3 dudes who don’t follow Jesus.  All the same principles apply here as well.  These are genuine friendships with people that I truly understand, and who understand me.  I don’t have the agenda of forcing conversion on any of these guys.  Rather, they’re people I relate to well and have great friendships with.  We may not share the same beliefs, so these friends aren’t spiritual advisors to me.  However, there is a mutual learning thing that happens here, because these guys keep me from becoming an enclosed, holier than thou Christian who is irrelevant to my generation, and maybe, hopefully, they’re drawn to Jesus because of me.  Guaranteed, we have a lot of great laughs and truly are close friends to the extent that we share similar dispositions, dreams, aspirations and interests.

When it comes down to it, these all have to be genuine, authentic friendships.  I’m comforted to know that I don’t have to understand and relate to every type of person out there.  Granted, I have to be able to love and seek to understand everyone.  That is part of what I’m commanded to do as a follower of Jesus.  But God also created me, and all of us, as unique people who can understand others like we are.

This is why pastors need a break from their people.  Here are some things a pastor is not:

1. A pastor is not the best friend of everyone in the congregation.  He is human and needs friendships with a few people, just like everyone else.

2. A pastor is not at the disposal of everyone in the congregation.  That is “pastor-olatry”.  People who expect the pastor to be at their disposal are putting that pastor as an idol in front of Jesus.  Fourteen year old kids don’t get fed breast-milk, needing to have a babysitter.  Likewise, mature, adult Christians can feed themselves and follow Jesus- they shouldn’t depend on the pastor.

3. A pastor is just a human being with a big responsibility in their life’s calling.  They should be held to a higher standard to prevent them from sin and hypocrisy.  But they’re a regular human being with real human needs, and they’re not the Dark Knight or Superman.

Here are some things that a pastor should be expected to do…

1. A pastor is called to empower the people of his congregation to take care of each other and reach out to their communities.  When we all do the work of ministry together, side by side, none of us will burn out and we will have contagious joy and passion in what we do.

2. A pastor is called to serve his people well.  This doesn’t mean that he says yes to everything or no to everything.  It means that it’s a priority to be available to people, but first to God, next to his family, and third to the work of ministry.  There are limits and boundaries that every human being has.

3. A pastor is called to point his people to their responsibility to live out the Word of God and recklessly follow Jesus.  He is to point people to this by his words and, maybe most of all, his example.

What Did You Just Say to Me??? (Thoughts on Donald Duck and the Meaning of Conscience in the 19th, 20th, 21st and 1st Century)

Donald Duck as he first appeared in The Wise L...

Donald Duck as he first appeared in The Wise Little Hen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A 1938 Disney view of conscience:  “Donald’s Better Self”-  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDLWbBrvA40

I came out of a party lifestyle.  I grew up with no background whatsoever having to do with Christianity.  My parents’ had actually both rebelled against institutional religion.  Christianity in particular.  In high school I ended up getting involved with some weird, psychologically dangerous drugs.

Once when I was having a rather bad, intense experience on one of the occasions that I took strong drugs, I took so much that it actually put me into a mini coma for about half a minute.  I literally thought I was dead for a bit, and then came to.  I was so afraid that I prayed to God (whoever He or “It” was to me at the time!)  And I was filled with this intense feeling inside of me- it was a gut check that made me want to change everything.  I wanted to stop all the destructive stuff I was doing and start a brand new life in that moment.  Unfortunately I fell back in with bad things after a couple of weeks.  But I always held on to that moment where it seemed like everything was so clear, and doing the right thing was so attractive.  My guilt for doing bad things seemed to fester in me, especially after that experience.  Nothing wrong brought me satisfaction, and things that once brought a thrill turned into dark addictions that eat away at me.

I had a basic idea about God (or my conscience) because of what my Dad had told me about God when I was young…  One night when I was in 5th Grade I was having some bizarre nightmares.  I called my Dad in a fit of fear, and he told me; “Pray to God, and you won’t be afraid anymore…”  It was something really simple like that.  But I would often try it, and it would work.  In those moments, I’d realize that it was silly to be scared and to worry.  Something in me would realize that it was ethically right to not be afraid and be at peace.  It seemed in those moments to be a waste of time to dwell in fear.

Maybe I had an idea about my conscience because of cartoons like the 1938 classic, “Donald Duck’s Better Self”!  Growing up I learned plenty of moral lessons from children’s stories.  My religious sources were Dr. Suess, Sesame Street and the Disney Channel (to name a few).  At the very least, they told me that I should try to do what’s right, obey my parents, wash my hands before I eat, and sing songs to rubber ducks.  A lot of the children’s stories that we read to our little 7-month old daughter Charlotte have good moral lessons like this.  We read them to her along with Bible stories because even before she knows what’s going on, we want her to be a voice to her culture!

But think about the title of that cartoon from 1938: “Donald’s Better Self”.  Now I’m not sure if Walt Disney was aware of it, but he was actually putting out a really Buddhist idea of “our good self” vs. “our bad self”…  Buddhist philosophy has many similar ethics to Christianity, but there is one fundamental difference that changes everything.  Buddhist philosophy says that all this power to do the right thing, to be loving, etc, comes only from within us.  They believe that God is within us and is a part of everything, and all we have to do to unleash our “God potential” is to center ourselves.  Therefore, Donald has a “good Donald” and a “bad Donald” within him.  Granted, they seem like separate, angelic entities.  But you get the nuance.  What is really communicated in that cartoon is that we have the power as moral agents to choose what is right, and let the “bad self” or the “good self” have dominion over us.

In a letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome, the apostle Paul gave a comprehensive history that describes the pagan world as he knew it in the 1st Century.  It’s basically a history of human depravity!  Let’s look at that passage…  Be ready to be offended, because you will find that one section, or another describes you in the present or past!

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Sidenote: It’s important to say that The wrath of God is not an irrational emotional outburst. It is his personal reaction to sin based on his holy character. (Asbury Bible Commentary)  So don’t read “wrath” here as God being a big angry jerk or nasty Grandma with a paddle.  God is completely loving and fair!) 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (In this context, these were idols that people literally worshipped in Rome, along with a majority of the ancient world…)

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, (God gives them up by withdrawing his restraining grace (Wesley)) 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

(Romans 1:18-32)

You see, God gave you a spirit.  A.B. Simpson described our spirits this way; “The divine element in man, or that which is aware of God”, so whether you acknowledge Him or not, God gave it to you!  And when something rubs against your spirit, which is the seat of your conscience, you can feel it, right?  You can sense when you’re doing something unethical.

When we do the wrong thing, we feel guilty about it!  It’s just a fact!  There is not one single person in the world that doesn’t experience guilt.  Now don’t get me wrong, people may numb themselves to their guilt.  They justify what they’re doing even though they have a feeling it’s not right.  But at the end of the day, most people who are sane will admit that they’re unhappy with the choices they make, wishing they made better ones instead.

How often do you get that feeling in your gut?  How often do you hear the distant voice of your conscience or Jiminy Cricket or “good Donald” or whoever else?  God put that ability to reason out the right thing in you!  That is your Spirit talking.  It is something that you own and have free will over.  Freud called our spirit the “superego”, and was aware that we also had a natural self called our “id” that would be in conflict with it.

See, it’s so important to know the verses that are before that whole section of Romans that we just looked at.  They say:

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes… 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

If you follow that stinging feeling of having to do the right thing, and you are sane and in your right mind, it will lead you to Jesus…  People come to faith in Jesus because they just get sick of their inability to do the right thing.  People come to Jesus because they realize that they can’t ever do the right thing on their own.  You see, the scriptures aren’t like any other religion.  They say that we’re all prone to do bad and fail, and God is perfect, but God decided to reach out to us in love and give us His power through His Son Jesus’ death for us, and Jesus is now sitting at God’s right hand, working even more powerfully today through the people that follow Him!

When you truly walk with Jesus in faith, not just believe in Him in your head or heart, you get the Holy Spirit!  And then your spirit/conscience is activated to it’s full potential!  This is the way we were truly meant to live as human beings, empowered by the Holy Spirit and making the maximum amount of right choices possible!  To be sure, we will fail because we are still human and still struggle against sin, but with the Holy Spirit alive in us, we become progressively more capable of desiring the right things all of the time!  Here’s the question- do you want to be activated to your full capacity as a moral agent, or are you content to live in the depression of the in-between, or even worse, amidst the misery, chaos and dark eternal destiny that sin brings?

Pete Townshend, Hosea, the Ancient Whoredom of God’s People, and Jesus’ Solution

Lead guitarist Pete Townshend performing in Ha...

Lead guitarist Pete Townshend performing in Hamburg with The Who (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Ancient, Old Testament prophet Hosea was literally told by God that the wife whom he loved and would marry would turn out to be a whore that he would be asked to forgive.  “When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.”” (Hosea 1:2)  Israel had become faithless in their selfishness and idolatry, and Hosea’s marriage would be a reflection of God’s marriage to Israel.

This state of broken-hearted desperation was exactly how God felt about His supposed people, who had forsaken Him for the enticements of the culture around them.  They had rendered themselves hypocritical by their chameleon adaptations.  They had been blemished by this corruption in God’s sight.  At one point, Hosea declares in a burst of desperate emotion;

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes early away.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets;
I have slain them by the words of my mouth,
and my judgment goes forth as the light.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:4-6, ESV)

Ephraim and Judah, or the nation of Israel as a whole, were fair-weather lovers of God.  They thought they could love Him when it was convenient or religious.  They offered burnt offerings and went through religious rituals, but their hearts were far from Him.  Much like Hosea’s wife, they were deceptive adulterers in their affair of religious hypocrisy.  They were sell-outs and phonies, not living as they proclaimed, indulging in sin when they felt like it and then placating God.

Didn’t God, being omnipotent and omnipresent, see what they were doing anyway?  Like Pete Townshend wrote; “I know you deceived me but here’s a surprise…  I know that you did cause there’s magic in my eyes…  I can see for miles and miles…”  But Pete wasn’t omnipresent like God is.  We can’t fool Him or placate Him.  He knows and sees all that we do.  He is the only one that sees into our hearts as well.

God desires “steadfast love and not sacrifice.”  He desires “the knowledge of Him and not religious rituals”.  We are commissioned to obey Him out of a pure love because He first loved us beyond what we could reciprocate.

It is no wonder why Jesus challenged the religious people of His time.  He quoted the words of Hosea, pointing them to what they had studied over and over again.  He wanted them to get to the place where they realized their sin, so that they would be healed, instead of thinking they had figured everything out.  By their self-righteousness they had actually shut out the voice of God, and had become prone to sin, hypocrisy and arrogance.

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9-13)