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Good Soil

Sunday, January 16, 2022

“A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” (Luke 8.5-8)

Jesus explains the parable in the verses that follow, saying that the seed represents the word of God, and the soils are different types of people—specifically, they are different types of hearts, as Jesus says that the word is “sown in [a person’s] heart” (Mt 13.19). 

The path, where feet have constantly tamped down and compacted the soil, represents a hardened heart.  The seed finds no way to penetrate beneath the surface, nor is it sheltered from the birds—representing Satan.  He “takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved” (Lk 8.12).  It’s important to note that Jesus specifically mentions that these people do not believe the word they hear—not because we would have concluded otherwise, but because we might have assumed the same thing about the next two types of soil.  We would have been mistaken!

The rock represents those who “believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away” (v13).  Contrary to the earnest desire and conclusion of many, a moment of belief and profession does not bear fruit and lead to eternal life.  Jesus himself, while encouraging belief, says that many will believe, yet fall away through lack of soil, and lack of firm rooting.

The thorny ground also receives the word—these people also believe, and even produce a more enduring growth than the rock.  But where’s the fruit?  It’s not that the word has produced no growth, but the plant faces too much competition for limited resources due to the weeds that surround it.  Although it may eke out a brief existence, there’s no way for it to sustain itself in the long run through bearing fruit—creating more seed.

Finally there’s the good soil, “those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience” (v15).  This represents the whole package, and the intended outcome is achieved: a bountiful harvest a hundred times as plentiful as the seed that was scattered over the ground at the beginning.

It would be a terrible misfortune, then, to be the wrong type of soil.  Right?  It’s a tragedy of fate, or destiny, or whatever you might call it—God’s arbitrary providence, perhaps?  The Nile Delta was the breadbasket of the Mediterranean, but the Sinai desert was so barren that God had to provide bread from heaven for the Israelites.  Some hearts are created as good soil, and others are created as clay and stone.  Whose fault is this, if not God’s?

But that’s not fair.  God also gave us minds, and we’re capable of understanding why our own gardens fail to produce what we want; furthermore, we are capable of addressing the problems and achieving the desired outcome.  We can all till the soil, remove the rocks, and pull up the weeds—in fact, if we don’t, we have no one to blame but ourselves for a poor yield.  What did we expect?  So what can you do, if the fruit you produce isn’t good, or isn’t as plentiful as the farmer—Jesus—expected?  How can you turn your heart into good soil for God’s word?

You can soften your hard heart to allow the word a place to take root, sheltered from the devil who wants to take it away.  This process will be invasive and uncomfortable, but avoiding that pain will do you no good, when judgment comes.  Your heart may be hard enough to keep God’s word out for now, but he promises that one day, “every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God” (Ro 14.11).

You can break up and dig up the rocks, or build a more fertile soil above them.  In a garden, we’d layer organic material and minerals.  For a heart, we must grow a depth of vision and character that is not only interested in the superficial and pleasant aspects of God’s kingdom, but can bear fruit over the long haul, due to a rich and healthy system of unseen roots, nourished in the fertile ground prepared beneath the surface.

Finally, you can—and must!—deliberately remove the thorns and weeds that will grow in any remotely fertile environment.  There’s great competition for our attention and our resources, and by entertaining these seeds scattered by the workings of the natural world in addition to those sown by God, we deprive God’s seed of both our attention, and of the resources it needs in order to produce fruit in us.  Eliminate distractions from your responsibility to bear fruit for God.  More will sprout tomorrow, of course—the work of weeding never truly ends, as long as the work of farming continues.

The difference between the good soil and the bad isn’t limited to external circumstances that happen to befall each parcel of land—each person’s heart.  Those things matter, of course; it’s much easier to grow corn in southwest Indiana than in the Mojave Desert.  But when you drive past an empty field in April with rich, dark, consistent, well aerated soil and not a speck of green to be seen, do you conclude that this came about naturally?  No, someone deliberately worked that soil in order to prepare it for planting and give it the best possible chance of providing a good crop.  Prepare your heart in the same way.

Jeremy Nettles

"For She Loved Much"

Sunday, January 09, 2022

“Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7.44-47)

This passage affords us the opportunity to go however far into the weeds we’d like.  To begin with, what is the significance each of the three mentioned acts of hospitality?  Then there’s the obligatory speculation about the nature of this woman’s well-known sins—and all of those trains of thought seem to end at the same station.  Of course there’s been debate for nearly two thousand years over whether this scene in Luke’s Gospel is, or is not the same event as the one recorded in Matthew 26.6-11, Mark 14.3-8, and John 12.1-8, which the other three say took place in Bethany near Jerusalem, and John says was within a week of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Yet Luke’s account, while bearing an uncanny similarity, differs drastically where the map and timeline are concerned, if nothing else!

But there’s a question that’s more doctrinally significant: which came first, the forgiveness, or the love?  Jesus himself says in verse 47, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much.”  This appears to answer the question easily.  Why did Jesus forgive her sins?  Because she loved him much; it’s simple.  The timing involved points us to the same conclusion—his proclamation of forgiveness (v48) comes after her acts of love (vv37-38), both in the text and on the timeline.  So the problem is solved; the question is answered.  Right?

Well, there are few hitches with this interpretation.  First of all, it runs counter to the parable Jesus told just before declaring that the woman’s sins were forgiven:

“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” (Luke 7.41-42)

The analogy is obvious, and so is the direction of cause and effect—did the lender forgive these two debtors because they loved him to degrees matching the size of their debts?  Clearly not; in fact, his reasons never enter into the equation.  The question posed by Jesus is this: given that the lender has already forgiven both of these debtors, which will appreciate his forgiveness more?  Jesus doesn’t ask which one must have previously loved the lender more, but which one will love him more in response to his mercy.  In addition to this, while we may have thought Jesus already gave a clear answer in verse 47—“for she loved much”—he gives an equally clear explanation in verse 50: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”  Well, which is it? 

Isn’t this an important question?  Shouldn’t we be able to answer whether love for Christ precedes forgiveness of sins, or whether it is the unavoidable response to a forgiveness available on some other basis?  Surely, we must know!  But it’s usually a mistake to build entrenched positions around a verse or two, as we’ve done here.  The rest of the Bible has a thing or two to say about salvation, and anytime we elevate one favorite verse at the expense of other things God has said, we’re behaving like the Pharisees.

Speaking of behaving like the Pharisees, to engage passionately in this argument puts us in the same boat as Simon, the Pharisee, the other person in the story we’ve been examining.  Wasn’t he guilty of sin?  Wasn’t he in need of Jesus’ grace, mercy, forgiveness, and salvation?  He certainly was, and he certainly should have responded to Jesus’ forgiveness with some expression of gratitude, love, and honor not too different from those given by the sinful woman.  But where was his focus?  It clearly wasn’t on his own shortcomings, or his need for a Savior.  It was on the minute details of everyone else’s behavior, so that he could pass judgment on them—as he did:

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” (Luke 7.39)

As Jesus might tell us, based on his lack of love for the Messiah, he must not have been forgiven for very much at all!  But he needed that forgiveness desperately, as we all do.

In contrast, where was the woman’s focus?  Based on her uninvited presence at this dinner and her position at his feet, her focus was on Jesus.  Based on her tears, her focus was on her own shortcomings, or her appreciation of Jesus’ care and attention for her in spite of them.  Based on her kisses and anointing, her focus was on expressing that appreciation, even though she may well have thought the Teacher wouldn’t even notice.  It wasn’t on the Pharisee’s judgmental glare, the whispers of the other guests about her, the expense of the perfume she was pouring on Jesus’ feet, or the fact that she was becoming a spectacle in all of this.

Of course, this nameless woman was not spiritually mature, and as that maturity comes, we should develop an understanding of the finer details regarding the how’s and why’s of God’s grace and salvation.  But remember that Simon the Pharisee thought he had that kind of maturity, and where did it leave him?  The nameless woman fared better than Simon, in their joint encounter with Jesus.  Imitate her.

Jeremy Nettles

Something New

Sunday, January 02, 2022

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. (Acts 17.16-21)

The Apostle Paul was a highly intelligent, educated, and accomplished man.  He was born a Roman citizen (Ac 22.28), in a city characterized by prosperity and prestige (Ac 21.39).  He was educated by the premier rabbi of the entire Jewish nation (Ac 22.33).  He was the standout talent of his generation (Ga 1.14), and apparently sat on the ruling council of Jews, the Sanhedrin (e.g. Ac 6.15, 7.58), despite his youthful age.  He was a man to watch, who could be expected to succeed his mentor, Gamaliel, as the preeminent interpreter of the law and the guide of the council, but also to bring to that position a zeal to act with harshness in service of the law.  He wasn’t just a thinker—even before God singled him out for a more important and rewarding task, Paul was a man of action.

So imagine his frustration at the people of Athens.  Athens was supposed to be the intellectual and philosophical capital of the world, and not so long ago it had wielded a tremendous amount of political and military power as well.  When Paul visited, however, the city was just a superstitious, decadent has-been, coasting on the achievements of its inhabitants from 3 or 4 centuries prior.  It still had the natural resources and population to be an important city, but there was no compelling reason for it to be the most important city anymore, and so its glory continued to fade.  Meanwhile, its populace was unwilling to admit that their city had nothing more of value to offer the world.  So what did they do?  Most of them got on with life, working for a living.  But others inherited the cultural and intellectual leadership positions—as well as enough in the way of property to finance a very idle lifestyle.  It is amusing that they had the nerve to call Paul a “babbler.”  The Greek word is σπερμολόγος-spermologos, which literally signifies one who scatters words like seed in a field.  That’s exactly what Paul was doing, but they didn’t mean it as a compliment!  They thought there was no good purpose to the word Paul spread around—much as they saw little value in the work of the hardworking farmers who ensured these idle affluents had something to eat each winter.  What was their goal?  What was their purpose in life?  As Luke told us, it was “nothing except telling or hearing something new,” spewing their own meaningless words far and wide.

These were the people who had it all—the lifestyle others dream about, with no need to work, surrounded by great works of all types of art, plenty of money, plenty of prestige, plenty of diversions, and their whole long lives to sit and ponder whatever thought occurred to them.  Even then, with all their desire to hear something new, it’s telling that Luke can neatly group them into two camps: the Stoics and the Epicureans—who, frankly, agreed on most points in practice, and hadn’t done much to advance their respective philosophies for the past couple of centuries.

Paul tried to jar them out of the clouds and back into reality.  His sermon to them applauded their better tendencies, and included some well-placed references to Greek poetry.  Then he dropped the hammer:

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Ac 17.30-31)

A handful were converted, but it appears the general reaction was apathy and mocking.  They wanted something new, but they scoffed when it didn’t line up with their own preconceived notions.  What they wanted wasn’t to learn, it was to be entertained.

Isn’t that what we see in our society today?  There are many similarities between our own political and cultural situation and that of Athens in the 1st century AD.  Increasingly it’s clear that we consume, but don’t produce nearly as much; we’re the wealthiest country in the world but also the most dissatisfied.  We have everything our forebears could have wanted or dreamed of, but we don’t appreciate it, don’t produce much that’s worthwhile, and scorn the ones who keep us afloat.  We’re addicted to 24-hour news, but we shout down anything that’s actually new, or spin it as part of a longstanding trend we’ve known for ages.  We long for entertainment above all else.  Our society is sick, in the same way Athens was sick, and this is not a recipe conducive to the church spreading and thriving.  The good news is that there are a few who see through the cultural clouds to something far more important in Jesus, and through him they see everything else more clearly, too.  They won’t worry themselves over what society will say.  They’ll be ready when the time of judgment comes.  Make sure you’re one of them—not a mocker, but a believer.

Jeremy Nettles

"Let my people go"

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5.1-2)

Not only is this scene famous and storied, but the chain of events it kicked off is the main thrust of the book of Exodus, which itself has been the subject of many books, songs, plays, and films.  It fills us with empathy for the Israelites, and ever since those events took place, the story has been invoked by people who saw in their own circumstances a similar struggle between oppressed and oppressor.  The most famous of these was the plight of African slaves in the American south leading up to the civil war.

There’s an odd feature of the story that plays out between Moses and Pharaoh following this initial confrontation.  We all know of the Ten Plagues, culminating in the death of the firstborn throughout Egypt—the final straw that led to the Israelites’ liberation.  But Pharaoh didn’t change his mind all of a sudden after holding out for months while his kingdom fell apart around him due to God’s wrath.  Several times Pharaoh considered granting Moses’ demand—but the demand itself is the really interesting thing.  Moses and Aaron appear to be requesting a temporary leave of absence for the whole nation, rather than absolute freedom.

Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please let us go a three days' journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest he fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.” (Exodus 5.3)

This is just after the very first time they’ve told Pharaoh, “let my people go.”  At the least, there’s room for misunderstanding, as if perhaps the Israelites intend to return to their burdens after they hold their religious observance in the wilderness.  This happens several more times.  For example:

Then Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron and said, “Go, sacrifice to your God within the land.” But Moses said, “It would not be right to do so, for the offerings we shall sacrifice to the Lord our God are an abomination to the Egyptians. If we sacrifice offerings abominable to the Egyptians before their eyes, will they not stone us? We must go three days' journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the Lord our God as he tells us.” So Pharaoh said, “I will let you go to sacrifice to the Lord your God in the wilderness; only you must not go very far away. Plead for me.” Then Moses said, “Behold, I am going out from you and I will plead with the Lord that the swarms of flies may depart from Pharaoh, from his servants, and from his people, tomorrow. Only let not Pharaoh cheat again by not letting the people go to sacrifice to the Lord.” (Exodus 8.25-29)

Pharaoh cheats again, by not letting the people go to sacrifice to the Lord—but that’s beside the point.  Moses uses an awful lot of words to try to justify this scheme in Pharaoh’s eyes, when it’s really not the issue at hand, and they both know it.  They’re both talking about this as if it’s a temporary thing, but Pharaoh clearly understands that the Israelites will not come back, if he gives them leave to do what they’re asking.

So Moses and Aaron were brought back to Pharaoh. And he said to them, “Go, serve the Lord your God. But which ones are to go?” Moses said, “We will go with our young and our old. We will go with our sons and daughters and with our flocks and herds, for we must hold a feast to the Lord.” But he said to them, “The Lord be with you, if ever I let you and your little ones go! Look, you have some evil purpose in mind. No! Go, the men among you, and serve the Lord, for that is what you are asking.” And they were driven out from Pharaoh's presence. (Exodus 10.8-11)

Moses resists saying the obvious—“we’re all leaving, and we’re not coming back.”  But Pharaoh gets it, and refuses again.  This bizarre, politely euphemistic argument continues right up until the tenth plague puts an end to the discussion.

Why does this matter to us?  Just as the slaves of the antebellum south saw an analogy between Exodus and their own situation, we can see parallels to our spiritual struggle with enslavement to sin.  For us, the argument often goes the other way!  As Satan tries to hold on to us, or to recapture us, his spokesman—usually our own thoughts—refuses to be forthcoming about what he wants.  It’s just one time, we may tell ourselves, I won’t become addicted. It’s just one lie to clean up this mess and then after that I won’t have to tell any more.  It’s just one night of fun, I can always repent later.

Both parties really know what’s on the table, though.  When Satan asks for an inch, he has every intention of taking a mile.  We may convince ourselves it’s not that bad, and continue our flirtation with sin.  When we back away from its more extreme ends, we use that as evidence we can stop ourselves from letting it become a real problem.  But we know it’s a farce.  When we give in to temptation in the little things, we’re laying the foundation for another “just this once” to follow on its heels.  Add up a lifetime of “just this once” sins, and what do you get, but a life of slavery?  Instead, start taking the small steps to reject sin’s rule over you.  If you’re already enslaved, try Moses’ approach of asking for an inch with every intention of going much farther.  Try saying “no,” just this once.  If you follow the Prophet through the waters, a short distance into the unknown, you’ll get a glimpse of the freedom you’ve never had, but always wanted.  “If you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity” (1Co 7.21).

Jeremy Nettles

Power in Weakness

Sunday, December 19, 2021

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12.7-9)

The apostle Paul teaches us so much about Christ’s salvation and his plans for us.  Most of this comes from direct teaching in his 13 letters in the New Testament, but we can learn from his experiences, too.  When we put together the record of his work in Acts with the letters he wrote, we get a fuller picture of Paul that is more relatable today.

Paul’s second missionary journey started out fairly well, with a jaunt through the churches of southern Galatia he’d established the first time around.  This was familiar territory and familiar work—it was Paul’s comfort zone, and the churches grew in strength and numbers while he was there.  But when the Holy Spirit instructed Paul and his crew to cross the Aegean Sea and spread the gospel in Macedonia, they set off into the unknown.

Their first major stop in Macedonia started out well, but soon took a distressing turn:

The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. (Acts 16.22-23)

God rescued Paul and Silas, and brought salvation to the jailer and his household in the process; but while that’s cause for rejoicing, the next day the authorities sent them away from the city.  They went to Thessalonica, where at first they had success spreading the good news of Jesus.  However, once again some of the local Jews took great offense,

and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring [Paul and his helpers] out to the crowd. (Acts 17.5)

The mob was unsuccessful, but it alarmed the church to the extent that they smuggled Paul and Silas out of the city that night—chased away before his work was finished.

His reception in Berea was better; but when the angry mob from Thessalonica down the road got wind of what was happening, they followed Paul to Berea and chased him from there, too!  This time, he set off alone, and went much farther, to Athens.  There he continued his work of preaching the gospel, including a beautiful speech appealing to these pagan Gentiles to turn their devotion away from idols and toward “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth” (Ac 17.24), who had appointed a man to “judge the world in righteousness,” and proved it “by raising him from the dead” (v31).  He had some success, but his departure from Athens seems abrupt and lacks an obvious cause; on top of that, there’s a suspicious silence about Athens for the rest of the New Testament.  This suggests that, in the midst of an intensely pagan culture, the church fizzled out quickly.

By the time Paul made it to Corinth, he was alone and battered by a string of what must have seemed abject failures.  He was clearly frustrated, and his enthusiasm somewhat diminished—he later tells the church at Corinth, “I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling” (1Co 2.3).  He did his best, but at this point, he probably expected another short-lived success before the rug would be jerked out from under him.  But this time, things were different.

And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them. (Acts 18.9-11)

What changed, so that Paul’s long streak of swiftly established, then abandoned churches came to an end at Corinth?  Was he doing something wrong at Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens?  Not necessarily.  Some find fault with his approach to preaching the word in Athens—a lofty, philosophical presentation built on the words of pagan poets.  There’s a kernel of truth to this, but it ignores that this was only intended as an introduction to the one and only God and his Son.  Additionally, Paul was already preaching Jesus in the synagogue before the pagans invited him to speak.  So it’s not that he was failing in his duty before—it’s that Paul’s labor was never the key to the audience’s response.  “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1Co 3.7).

Paul was keenly aware of this while at Corinth, and we should learn the lesson, too!  The power isn’t in us—to impart salvation, to defeat sin, to pass judgment, to vindicate Christ, or anything else.  We may become discouraged, as Paul was, when we do the right thing, and it still doesn’t turn out the way we want or expect.  That’s not an excuse to give up, but it is a reminder that we’re not in control of the world.  God shows his power in weakness.  If you want his power to be shown in you, then stop pretending to be powerful yourself!  Admit that you’re broken, and submit yourself to his will, to obey what he tells you.  Like Adam and Eve from the beginning, we’ve only ever messed things up when we tried to take over God’s role.  We’re too weak.  Trust him to do the heavy lifting.

Jeremy Nettles

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