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Iron sharpens iron
The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden. (1 Timothy 5.24-25)
A persistent gripe among atheists and others hostile toward Christ and the Bible, is that the ostensibly perfect and unchangeable Word of God is so full of contradictions. Many have published lists of these supposed contradictions, and while a few are genuinely difficult to explain, the great majority of examples cited on most lists serve only to demonstrate that the skeptic has no more than a passing familiarity with the text he so despises. The context—textual, narrative, historical, and theological—in almost all cases clears up the confusion and leaves us in awe of the author’s wisdom and obvious authority. Nevertheless, as we do our best to wrap our feeble minds around the nature of the immortal, invisible, eternal, all-knowing sovereign of creation, it’s not surprising that our ability to comprehend comes up short from time to time. Often, he tells us through his Scriptures things that are not exactly in conflict with each other, but that stand in tension with each other, setting an outer limit on the silly extremes to which we would otherwise try to take God’s commandments and observations.
An example of this can be seen in Jesus’ well-known Sermon on the Mount. Jesus spends considerable effort illustrating that the outer appearance does not always match the inner man, beginning with the instruction,
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 6.1)
Yet, he says before the sermon is over,
“You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.” (Matthew 7.16-18)
There is certainly no contradiction here. The most straightforward conclusion to be drawn from Jesus’ combination of warning against putting on a show of righteousness, and his prediction that the unrighteous will reveal themselves, is simply that putting on a show doesn’t work—people see through it. This is, of course, true; but it’s not the whole story.
Jesus gives examples—giving to the needy, praying, and fasting. These are all good things to do. They are the fruit. But doesn’t that mean those who do them are healthy trees? Similarly, Jesus’ instruction is to keep your giving a secret, pray in private, and do your best to conceal your fasting. But to an outside observer, the person who keeps Jesus’ instructions about this may appear to be bearing no fruit at all, and what is he left to conclude? Sure, he’s not the judge who matters, and Jesus says three times over, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6.4, 6, 18). But how are we to know a tree is healthy, when the tree keeps concealing its fruit from us?
This isn’t all that challenging to figure out. It’s not that Jesus is mistaken, nor has he changed his mind; it’s just that there’s some tension between the instruction and the prediction. When we observe a single good work from an individual, we know it would be foolish to pass a sweeping judgment based upon one action, that this is a righteous person. Even if we didn’t know better, Jesus tells us to beware of judging and pay careful attention to the standard we use, in the very same sermon (Mt 7.1-5). Just as we wouldn’t pick a single apple and judge the tree based on a glance at that one specimen, we know to look at the whole picture before declaring a tree good or bad. Even when we notice someone giving to the needy, or praying in public, or fasting out of devotion to God, if we pay attention we’ll easily see whether he’s trying to make a spectacle of himself, or just doing a good deed without drawing attention or accolades. If he’s putting on a show, he won’t fool most people. They’ll generally notice the defect in the fruit, and rightly conclude that this is not a good tree.
On the other hand, if you’re “always abounding in the work of the Lord” (1Co 15.58), you’ll be noticed no matter how hard you try to hide your good works. Some of that attention will be unwelcome and uncomfortable. Jesus tells us—again, in the very same sermon—“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5.10). Even the severest persecution and most damning lies will not change God’s mind about you, and his chosen people will generally not be fooled, either.
Paul covered both sides of sin and righteousness in the short quote at the top of this article. “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later” (1Ti 5.24). They may hide them for a while, but try as they might, their sins most certainly will become apparent. “So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden” (v25). Try to hide them. It’s an incredibly effective way to make sure you’re doing them out of devotion to God, and not a desire to exalt yourself. But don’t be surprised when you’re found out. An abundance of good works will not escape notice.
…if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday. (Isaiah 58.9)
The first chapter of the Old Testament book of Job is one of the most gut-wrenching passages in the Bible, as it relates, in vivid detail, how the title character lost everything in one fell swoop. It’s not a story of a rough few months, or even just an extraordinarily bad day, but rather the complete unraveling of Job’s entire life in just a few moments.
…and there came a messenger to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, and the Sabeans fell upon them and took them and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “The Chaldeans formed three groups and made a raid on the camels and took them and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother's house, and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” (Job 1.14-19)
Sometimes struggles, trials, and misfortunes seem to pile up on us today, too. While it’s good to consider Job’s situation in order to keep our own troubles in perspective, the knowledge that someone suffered worse, on the other side of the world and several thousand years ago, doesn’t actually alleviate our sufferings. But there are plenty of New Testament reminders that provide clear direction. One tells us to rejoice:
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1.2-4)
In another, Paul welcomes persecution because it brings him closer to Jesus—he’s particularly interested to “share his sufferings” (Php 3.10). In a different letter, he encourages afflicted Christians by pointing out, “as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2Co 1.5). Along similar lines, Peter instructs Christians to endure undeserved harsh treatment, and reminds us not to behave in such a way that we come to deserve it!
For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. (1 Peter 2.19-20)
He also gives us a reward to keep in mind, later in the same letter, instructing us, “rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1Pe 2.13).
So, we have ample encouragement to endure suffering with a good attitude and righteous behavior, as well as a promised reward to follow our toil. But it’s a tall order! Often we feel overwhelmed by our troubles, especially when they multiply as Job’s did, and then we give in to despair, surmising that there’s no point trying to handle it all graciously, since we’re certain to fail. When that happens, it’s good to consider another well-known verse that specifically addresses temptation, but applies to trials in general. “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability” (1Co 10.13). The next part of the verse talks about the “way of escape” God always provides, but even before we get to that, pause to contemplate, for a moment, that God knows what you can handle, and will never allow you to face trials beyond your ability to navigate successfully. This is the same thing, after all, that he did with Job. God himself did not inflict all Job’s misery on him, but he did, in fact, call Job’s righteousness to Satan’s attention, inviting him to do his worst.
And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” (Job 1.8)
Satan is successfully baited, and accuses both Job and God of misrepresenting the bond of faith between them. God allows Satan to attack Job—Satan requires permission from God to tempt you!—but he also imposes a limit: “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand” (Jb 1.12). God is confident Job can handle so much, and prohibits Satan from exceeding that level. He refuses to let Satan go beyond your ability, too. That doesn’t mean that passing the test will be easy, or pleasant, or that it will look the way you expect. It doesn’t mean you won’t face difficult trials. It doesn’t mean they won’t pile up in devastating ways. It doesn’t mean your friends will stick by you, or that enemies won’t accuse you. It certainly doesn’t mean that in the end, you’ll get everything back twice over in this life, as Job did. But you can face your trials in a way that pleases God, refusing to give in and curse God; and the reward that awaits you beyond death will be far greater than you can even imagine.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12.1-2)
Then Boaz said to his young man who was in charge of the reapers, “Whose young woman is this?” And the servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the young Moabite woman, who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. She said, ‘Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves after the reapers.’ So she came, and she has continued from early morning until now, except for a short rest.” (Ruth 2.5-7)
Sometimes it’s assumed that Ruth is hiring out her labor to Boaz’s crew. But that’s not the case. Rather, she has asked to glean, and that is something different entirely. She’s not getting paid for this work, because she’s not performing a valued service to the owner of the field. No, whatever she gathers, she’s allowed to take home and use for herself. Why is Boaz so cheerful about the prospect of this newly-arrived Gentile woman making off with grain that he laboriously cultivated? Because he respects the Law of Moses.
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19.9-10)
God included several other, similar notes at various points in his Law; for example, one in Deuteronomy specifies that these privileges belong to “the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow,” a recurring theme throughout that book (24.19). Ruth fits into each category—she is poor; she’s a Gentile just arrived from her former home in Moab; she’s bereft of her father-in-law, whose family she had joined by marriage, and to top it all off, her own husband has also died, making her a widow, too. She and her mother-in-law Naomi have only each other; they are alone and destitute. God’s Law allowed them to gather enough grain to feed themselves, but not enough to exploit it for profit. God demonstrated his foresight and love through these commandments, as well as his desire to shape his people’s habits and mold their character, so that they would learn to have a generous heart like he has. Indeed, the list of related laws In Leviticus 19, which began with the right of the poor to glean, is capped off with the oft-quoted, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Le 19.18b).
Compare this to the modern approach—the welfare state. It’s obvious that there are still people in need, and whether they brought their troubles on themselves or not, it’s good to make sure they aren’t simply ignored—that their suffering is alleviated and their basic needs are met. But the similarities end there. In the system God designed for Israel, family bore the responsibility before anyone else. Jesus tore into the Pharisees for eroding this expectation:
“But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down…” (Mark 7.11-13)
In cases where there is no family member available to help, there’s no reason for the unfortunate soul to starve; he’s allowed to simply take his food from the farms that spread across the land. The farmer is in no way required to gather grain, thresh, mill, leaven, and bake it, then deliver a quota of freshly-baked bread to the poor. The poor have to work for it themselves, albeit far less than the farmer himself already has. Rather than an entitlement to food, it’s a right to gather, requiring deliberate exercise—both literally and metaphorically!
Similarly, the farmer’s responsibility is rather small—simply to allow the poor to feed themselves on the standing grain in his field. But there’s no standard in the law for how close to the edge they’re allowed to reap, or how many grapes to leave on the vine for the poor—leaving it to each individual’s own judgment, forcing him to decide how much he will leave. Surely many took this as an excuse to be stingy; but how many others developed an attitude more like that of Boaz? He told his employees,
“Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not reproach her. And also pull out some from the bundles for her and leave it for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.” (Ruth 2.15b-16)
This goes above and beyond the Law, to be clear. But it’s exactly the sort of outcome God was aiming for, in giving them such a Law, with such room for their own discretion. It left room for Boaz to be impressed with Ruth’s work ethic. It left room for Ruth to be incredibly grateful to the individual whose food she was being allowed to take and eat. It left room for them to love each other, and from that love, unending blessings flowed.
In contrast, our centrally-planned, wasteful, and routinely abused system of entitlements has encouraged the poor to hate the rich, who pay the taxes that feed them, but rarely stoop to recognize their individual humanity. It has encouraged the rich to despise the poor, who show them no gratitude and only seem to require more and more as time goes on. It’s more complex than just that, of course, but in basic terms, while no system will be the Paradise for which we all yearn, it’s clear that no one is happy with man’s attempts to solve the problem of the poor. But as Jesus told his disciples, “you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them” (Mk 14.7). He still encourages us to help them. His system is better. It’s one that starts, not in the halls of power, but in the heart.
The Lord saw it, and it displeased him
that there was no justice.
He saw that there was no man,
and wondered that there was no one to intercede;
then his own arm brought him salvation,
and his righteousness upheld him.
He put on righteousness as a breastplate,
and a helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on garments of vengeance for clothing,
and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.
According to their deeds, so will he repay… (Isaiah 59.15b-18a)
The Apostle Paul took note of this passage, which describes God’s resolution to step in and execute justice against evil men. This whole latter portion of Isaiah looks forward to the coming Messiah. Paul applied it not only to the Son of God as he prepares for war, but to each individual Christian.
During his imprisonment in Rome, a constant presence with him was a Roman soldier tasked with guarding him (Ac 28.16). It’s likely that the ever-present image of a man in full armor and ready for violent action suggested to Paul the following:
Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God… (Ephesians 6.14-17)
Belt of Truth
This is not the kind of belt that holds up your pants. This is a piece of armor, complete with small disks of metal sewn into the leather and intended to deflect attacks against one of the most sensitive and vulnerable areas of the body, including numerous organs and two major arteries. Being tied up with truth is to protect and fortify us in the same way.
Breastplate of Righteousness
The vital organs require substantial protection, too. The body provides its own, skeletal protection of the heart and lungs, but when someone is out to kill you, something more comprehensive is required. Righteousness—not of our own doing, but “the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Php 3.9)—provides just such a barrier between what is vital in our souls, and the attacks from Satan and his minions.
Shoes of Readiness
One of the reasons for the Roman army’s effectiveness was its ability to travel great distances in very little time, with each soldier carrying his basic necessities with him in the field, on foot. For this reason each soldier was equipped with a sturdy pair of hybrid sandal-boots, to protect his feet and provide the surest footing possible, both on the march and in battle. “The gospel of peace” teaches us to go where we are needed, at a moment’s notice, whether in the physical world or its more important spiritual analog.
Shield of Faith
This is the first item on the list that is active. The shield performs the same function as the belt and breastplate, but not only is it much more effective, it’s also movable and adaptable, a dynamic piece of the soldier’s equipment, to be used both as a powerful defense against “the flaming darts of the evil one,” and also in conjunction with the sword, as part of the offensive armament. Our faith, likewise, must be wielded in attack or defense as the situation requires, and provides the most effective protection available to our spiritual lives.
Helmet of Salvation
To be without any piece of the assigned armor would mean the soldier is unequipped for his appointed task; but the helmet is of particular importance, because it not only helps to preserve the soldier’s life, but also his ability to interact with the world around him. Attention is paid to the eyes and ears, and the hard shell, whose chief job is to protect the skull and brain within it, demands more skill and attention in its manufacture than any other piece of the armor. The head is one of the most attractive targets to the enemy, and having it well protected is essential. In the same way, if our heads are not helmeted with salvation, there’s very little reason to even bother fighting.
Sword of the Spirit
The last piece of equipment on the list is the sword. This is not the precise, renaissance-era rapier, or the massive, slashing cavalry saber of the Napoleonic age, but a short, broad, stubby affair, sharpened on both sides but used mainly for getting in very close with the enemy and stabbing relentlessly at his least protected points. Our spiritual combat will not resemble a civilized competition, nor is it the kind of fight where we can bludgeon from on high and then gallop away before the enemy has a chance to react. Instead, it will require us to look evil in the eye and use the tools God has given us, including his word, to defeat and leave it dead on the field.
But why should we take up the armor at all? Couldn’t we pay someone else to do our fighting, as the average citizen paid the taxes that covered the legions’ salary? No. Our fight is more important, and the enemy will not limit himself to attacking those who stand against him on the battlefield.
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. (Ephesians 6.12-13)
After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.” At the same time he hoped that money would be given him by Paul. So he sent for him often and conversed with him. When two years had elapsed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus. And desiring to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul in prison. (Acts 24.4-7)
There were some surprisingly gracious accommodations provided to Paul in prison. He was “often” afforded the opportunity to speak to the governor, and that alone seems a nice gesture, considering his circumstances. Note also that Paul took advantage of the chance to work on Felix, telling him from the beginning “about faith in Christ Jesus,” and some of the details—“righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment.” While Felix remained unwilling to surrender to Christ and repent of his sin, at least Paul had a project to keep him occupied during his imprisonment. In fact, it gets better. Felix
gave orders to the centurion that he should be kept in custody but have some liberty, and that none of his friends should be prevented from attending to his needs. (Acts 24.23)
As political imprisonment goes, this is a pretty good deal! And yet, although tantalized and tempted with the prospect of freedom in exchange for a bribe, Paul also knew that, even if he’d been freed, a group of “more than forty” people, in league with “the chief priests and elders” at Jerusalem, had made a poorly-hidden “conspiracy” to kill Paul, going so far as to swear “neither to eat nor drink till” their evil task was done (Ac 23.12-13). We may pause to wonder for a moment how those forty conspirators fared over the next two years while Paul was safe from them in a guarded cell at Caesarea, but the point remains, freedom was not the same as security, and Paul was stuck between remaining in prison forever despite being innocent, or else being hunted down and murdered by his own countrymen.
Paul found a way to improve on this no-win situation, telling Felix’s replacement, Festus,
“To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you yourself know very well. If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.” Then Festus, when he had conferred with his council, answered, “To Caesar you have appealed; to Caesar you shall go.” (Acts 25.10b-12)
After a harrowing journey to Rome involving a raging storm, lack of food, a shipwreck, and an encounter with superstitious but kind natives, Paul made it to Rome, which was where he had wanted to go in the first place, even before his fateful journey to Jerusalem (Ro 15.25-28). What awaited him at Rome? “Paul was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier who guarded him” (Ac 28.16b). Much like his stint of imprisonment at Caesarea, he was allowed some relative luxuries—this time, house arrest rather than being chained up in a cell. Also like the previous arrangements, he was allowed to take all the visitors he could handle, and to continue preaching the gospel. Even the period of his imprisonment was the same:
He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. (Acts 28.30-31)
Yet, for all the surprising good points, he was still, for these four years, a prisoner. He’d spent ten years or so occupied with traveling all over the northeast quadrant of the Mediterranean, establishing too many churches to name, and returning to each either in body or spirit through various letters, which, in turn, have taught Christ to millions all over the world for two thousand years since. He went from that work, to suddenly being confined in a cell, and later a house that probably wasn’t much bigger—for which privilege he had to pay out of his own pocket. What miserable circumstances!
Paul wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon during this imprisonment, and we might have expected him to display a woe-is-me attitude about his suffering. But no. He makes only a handful of references to his imprisonment, mostly highlighting good points and opportunities! Here he was, suffering for his faith, yet he genuinely rejoiced in his trials. This is certainly a good example for us to follow, as Paul himself points out (Php 3.17). But how did he do it? How did Paul maintain a positive attitude in the midst of persecution? How did he remain at peace? As he begins to wrap up his letter to the church at Philippi, he tells us exactly how he did it, and how we can face our troubles with the same calm and assurance:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4.4-9)