Iron sharpens iron
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them... (Romans 2.14-15)
In this passage, Paul points out that even the Gentiles throughout the ages, who did not have access to “the oracles of God,” as he calls them in verse 2 of the next chapter, still basically adhered to the same moral code of conduct as the one God gave to the Israelites. The ritual stuff concerning the priesthood and tabernacle/temple worship wasn’t exactly mirrored among the widely dispersed peoples of the earth, but it was pretty much accepted that murder, theft, adultery, fraud, and other such things were to be avoided, and punished. Individuals may disagree and engage in all of these sins and more, but broadly speaking, societies accept God’s basic law by nature, and when a society fails to uphold it, it implodes, often with the aid of a foreign invader seizing the opportunity to expand its power.
Why is this? Even among people who didn’t recognize the Lord God Almighty, there was an assumption that some divine order existed, and that some things were right and others wrong. As Paul says in the passage quoted above, “the work of the law is written on their hearts.” This law is so obvious that even idolatrous people will attribute their morals to the commandments of whatever god they worship; but what about those who simply reject the idea of God altogether? There are many attempts from the atheist perspective to uphold the basic moral code, but if you ask “why?” at each step, you quickly reach a point where there is no coherent atheistic answer. If there’s no God to tell us what to do, then right and wrong mean about as much to us as they do to a hyena in the Serengeti.
Yet, most people aren’t hung up on this, because they’re perfectly happy to admit that there is a God. As Paul says earlier in the letter,
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 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. (Romans 1.19-20)
He’s not the first to make this observation. Another example is found in Psalm 19, which begins, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Since his existence is self-evident, it’s easy to account for morality by pointing to God. But of course, he didn’t only write laws on hearts—sometimes, he simply tells people what he expects of them.
In establishing God’s covenant with Abraham, he tells him: “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless” (Ge 17.1). To be fair, God gives him other instructions from time to time, but over the course of this decades-long relationship, we don’t see a comprehensive law passed from God to Abraham, just this very basic appeal to standard moral uprightness: “be blameless.” In fact, even after giving an extremely detailed set of rules to the Israelites, he gives them a similar, although slightly more detailed summary of his expectations, asking in Micah 6.8, “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” This rhetorical question is presented as a simpler and easier alternative to the overboard and even immoral sacrificial offerings his people consider bringing in order to seek God’s favor. It’s as if he’s telling them, “look guys, this isn’t that complicated.”
Of course, figuring out the details in any given circumstances will be more difficult—for example, how do we determine what is just, in a given case? Fortunately, God has given us a lot of commentary on these general principles, found throughout the rest of the Bible. But what God was telling the Israelites through Micah, and what he was telling Abraham, and what he silently has told all of mankind forever, is simple: focus on justice, mercy, humility, blamelessness, love for God and neighbor.
Yes, there are fine details to work out, and some counterintuitive conclusions and obligations. But in general, if we’ll just focus on living our lives in accordance with these basic principles, we’ll have God’s moral expectations of us pretty much under control. These rules are so obvious that even the pagans—sinful as they were—could easily recognize that they were real, and right. There’s not much overt paganism today, but it is just as astonishing that so many atheists believe in a moral law, although not the lawgiver.
None of this is enough to secure salvation for ourselves, of course. Jesus is the only way, and his atoning sacrifice is the only reason that we can escape the eternal punishment we deserve, and be sent to heaven, instead. But Jesus’ expectations of how his followers are to behave in their fleshly lives aren’t all that different from his expectations before the new and living way was opened for us. This is what Jeremiah prophesied centuries beforehand:
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
...our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. (2 Peter 3.15-17)
After 2,000 years, we should not be surprised that there are many divisions, factions, sects, or denominations all claiming to be “the Church.” Most of these arose as a result of doctrinal disagreements. Either a teaching was not well-formed or articulated, leading to confusion and conflict, or (more often) someone did what Peter was warning against in the passage above—came up with his own idea, presented it as the truth backed by a mishandling of the Scriptures, and thus led others astray.
The New Testament is full of warnings this sort of thing would happen. In addition to the passage in 2 Peter 3 quoted above, Paul spends the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians addressing just such a problem springing up already in the church at Corinth. He also predicts a departure from the faith in 1 Timothy 4, and warns against wolves in sheep’s clothing in Acts 20, as did Jesus himself in Matthew 7. 2 Peter 2 predicts that false prophets will preach heresies, and Jude points out that it’s already happening toward the late 1st century.
After that, a stroll through later church history scares up a long list of terms for such divisions in the church: Valentinianism, dualism, adoptionism, doceticism, trinitarianism, antinomianism, Montanism, Arianism, Marcionism, Arminianism, Pelagianism, catholicism, Calvinism, protestantism, and many, many more. Half of these have names that roughly describe the doctrine in question (in Greek or Latin), but the other half are tied instead to an individual’s name. Paul warned us about this:
For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. (1 Corinthians 3.4-5)
Today, when Christians study, ponder, and discuss spiritual matters—as well they should!—they’ll often reach a conclusion, or at least entertain a notion, tied to one of these -isms debated and bickered over in centuries past. Often, someone with a smug disposition will see the connection and assign the idea its accepted label: “oh, that’s Arianism.” This is usually intended to stop the discussion, on the grounds that this heresy was debunked long ago, and is now off limits. Most of the time it is, in fact, a false doctrine; but shouldn’t we address the substance of the argument, demonstrating from the Scriptures why it is false? And if we can’t do that, do we have any business dismissing it on the basis of its name?
On the other side, and even more alarming is that so many people are quite happy to label themselves by such terms—a Baptist, a Lutheran, an Episcopalian, a Presbyterian, a Methodist, a Pentecostal, an Anabaptist, and so on. Sure this is a convenient way to categorize the ridiculous variety of beliefs, doctrines, and practices; but isn’t it also a tacit admission to following the teachings of someone other than Christ?
Why do people do this? And why is there so much more variety in the western world, than anywhere else? The situation is quite similar to what Paul found at Athens: “the city was full of idols” (Ac 17.16). In his speech, he generously calls the people of Athens “very religious” (v22), but the reason behind that characterization is that the city was a melting pot of cultures and ideas, and as each new religious idea entered the scene, it found a handful of people with whom it resonated, and so in the absence of real problems, or anything of tangible value to do, the people of this washed-up, has-been, decaying former military, economic, and cultural superpower reveled in their open-mindedness. As Luke tells us, “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Ac 17.21). Over the centuries, our society has followed Athens’ example, and has gutted the radical teachings of Christ, then parceled them out according to philosophical preference. There is little regard for truth or authority, and much for subjective feeling and novelty.
It all comes down to the rebuke Jesus gave to the Pharisees—one of the competing philosophical factions at the time:
“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Mark 7.6-7)
Let the labels fall where they may; and “Let God be true though every one were a liar” (Ro 3.3). The true Christian isn’t too concerned with the teachings of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jacobus Arminius, or Alexander Campbell. These men all said good and true things, as well as bad and false things. They were fallible men (some more fallible than others). Do you know who’s not fallible? Jesus. As the voice from heaven told Peter, James, and John: “listen to him” (Mt 17.5). Let us be followers of Christ.
But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). (Matthew 1.20-23)
Surely there is no Old Testament prophecy more clearly explained in the New, or more widely known by Christians today. These lines are cherished and repeated just about every time Jesus’ birth is discussed. But how much attention is given to the text in which they appear, the seventh chapter of Isaiah?
At the source, we find a surprisingly earthly setting for the first time these words were spoken. The king of Judah, Ahaz, is concerned about the national defense, since the kings of Israel and Syria to the North have joined forces to attack Jerusalem. God has sent Isaiah the prophet to tell Ahaz, “do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands” (Isaiah 7.4). God says of Syria’s and Israel’s plan, “It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass” (Is 7.7). He offers a sign to assure him these words are from God. Ahaz politely refuses, but God insists:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. (Isaiah 7.14-16)
Well, that was weird. There’s our prophecy, which tradition, common sense, and the Gospel of Matthew tell us is about Jesus, and yet it’s difficult to make sense of it in context. God seems to go from talking about a very simple physical concern on the part of the king of Judah, to making spiritual predictions about the eternal salvation of mankind through the Messiah, and back again, nearly giving us whiplash.
In fact, it’s worse than that. Let’s look more closely at verse 16: “For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.” Since these events occurred around the year 735 BC, and Jesus wasn’t born for more than seven centuries afterward, what kind of lame and useless “sign” is this for Ahaz? God is trying to give him confidence to trust one prediction…by making another prediction that no one involved can possibly live to see fulfilled? How is this helpful?
It isn’t; but that’s not what God intended Ahaz to get out of this prophecy. Let’s pretend, for a while, that we don't know about Jesus yet, and Matthew hasn’t told us the interpretation of this prophecy. Now, it begins to fall into place. God is addressing the simple, earthly situation right in front of the prophet and king. The king struggles to believe his kingdom can withstand the attack from the north, and God reassures him through a more readily visible sign: a young woman becoming pregnant in the near future as predicted, and giving her son the extremely appropriate Hebrew name, “God is with us,” or Immanuel. The promise is that, before this child is old enough to know right from wrong—within the first few years of his life—the threat from Syria and Israel will fizzle out to nothing, and the nation of Judah will have plenty to eat, even luxury foods like curds and honey.
That’s something Ahaz can actually observe: a young woman turning up pregnant just after Isaiah said it would happen. Then, at each step along the way, when the sign is confirmed the king may have greater and greater confidence in God’s promise to protect Jerusalem from this attack. It’s not a virgin birth in this case, but a maiden who would not be expected to conceive in the near future, hence the impact of the sign.
But now we must drop the pretense—we do know about Jesus, and the virgin birth, and Matthew’s explicit interpretation of this prophecy in reference to Christ. So what? Is God not smart enough, or complex enough, or a good enough organizer to give a dual-purpose prophecy? Why should that surprise us? He did it with the promises he gave Abraham in Genesis 12, which were fulfilled in part through the nation of Israel, but in fuller measure through the church. He also did it with the prediction that after Moses’ death God would raise up a prophet like him (De 18.15), which was fulfilled in part through Joshua and the prophetic institution that continued throughout Israel’s history, but in fuller measure though Christ. He did it with the covenant he established with David, saying that his son would “build a house for my name” (2Sa 7.13). This saw its first, and smaller fulfillment in David’s son Solomon, but a far greater fulfillment in the Son of David who built the church.
Rather than sowing confusion about what prophecies must mean or couldn’t possibly mean, we should first acknowledge that God is better at this than we are, and open our minds to consider the likelihood that he’s got bigger and better things in mind than we’d have ever imagined. God is great! Let’s honor and revere him, giving thanks for his promises and watching for their fulfillment always.
Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer. (Revelation 6.1-2)
These words usher in some of the most difficult chapters of the Bible. The horsemen, just four of the seven seals, are enough to startle us. The first conquers, which doesn’t sound so bad, but realize that the deaths of many soldiers and defenseless civilians will be involved in his conquest.
The second horse is “bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword” (Re 6.4). Not only is he bringing suffering, death, and defeat to many, but inciting people to fight against each other, so there is no peace.
The third is
a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!” (Revelation 6.5-6)
It’s not that luxuries are drying up, it’s the food! In our cushy, western lives, we don’t think much about food shortages, but this sort of thing leads to mass starvation, and the old, the children, and the sick are the ones most likely to suffer and die.
If we hadn’t had enough of death yet, here comes the fourth horse, a “pale” one, whose
rider's name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth. (Revelation 6.8)
The term “pale” translates the Greek word χλωρός-chlōros-“green.” But no, this isn’t a mistranslation, and it isn’t a horse out of The Wizard of Oz. It means the horse looked sickly, hence “pale.” The focus here is on disease, but it’s wrapped together with the third horseman’s famine, first and second horsemen’s sword, and attacks by wild animals, to top it all off.
This is all pretty scary stuff, not least because these horsemen seem to be supernatural beings, whether of heavenly or hellish origin is not completely clear. We’re confused by this, and left fumbling for interpretations. There is no shortage of ideas about what all of this means, but it would be a mistake to reach a conclusion without all of the pertinent facts. Is this the first time such horsemen appear in the Scriptures? Practically all of the players, and even inanimate objects involved in chapters 4 and 5 are not being introduced for the first time, but are making second, third, or fourth appearances after showing up in Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. We can understand what they mean far better by examining those books, first. The same is true of the horsemen.
“I saw in the night, and behold, a man riding on a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen, and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses.” (Zechariah 1.8)
This isn’t identical, but it’s the same idea of four horsemen, riding horses of different colors, in a vision from God. Like us, Zechariah wonders in verse 9, “What are these, my lord?” The answer comes in verse 10: “These are they whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth.”
Again I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four chariots came out from between two mountains. And the mountains were mountains of bronze. The first chariot had red horses, the second black horses, the third white horses, and the fourth chariot dappled horses—all of them strong. (Zechariah 6.1-3)
Here they are again! Now they are chariots with teams of horses, but the four divisions remain, and the distinguishing colors, too. Zechariah again asks for an interpretation, which is helpfully provided: “These are going out to the four winds of heaven, after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth” (Zec 6.5). The specifics have to do with events surrounding the returned exiles of Judea, and their relations with the border world. But note that in both cases, the horsemen are servants of God. They patrol and carry out his will, and it’s not always pretty. The number four represents God’s command of the whole earth, since they go “to the four winds,” north, south, east, and west. They correspond to the four living creatures “on each side of the throne” of God in Revelation 4.6, who instructed the horsemen in chapter 6, “come!” They’re carrying out God’s will, scary as it is.
So what’s the point? We’ve established one central fact about the four horsemen of Revelation 6, but it didn’t tell us much we could use. But it got us started, at least. We’d have been lost, without considering all that God has said. This is one easy demonstration of how handicapped we would be in trying to understand Revelation without knowing the Old Testament, but the obscure sections of the Old Testament aren’t just the big gun to bring in when nothing else can break through the walls that stand between us and an understanding of God’s Word and will. If we’ll pay attention to all that he said, especially the difficult bits, we’ll be better equipped to understand and apply all of his instructions for us.
So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. (1 John 4.16-17)
This passage speaks of confidence for the day of judgment, meaning the assurance we will not be surprised or disappointed (to drastically understate the gravity of the situation) when God passes final judgment on us, and sends us to our eternal home. In short, it’s confidence of personal salvation and a place reserved in heaven.
That’s great, because many people have a keen awareness of their own guilt, and struggle to forgive themselves for sins they’ve committed. They know their own shortcomings, and know that what they deserve is punishment, not reward. It’s not good to live life in this world in constant, crippling fear of judgment.
Yet, anyone who looks around and pays attention will quickly see that confidence can be taken too far. A person who lives in complete rebellion against God can claim to know in his heart that he is saved. A person who has gone through the motions of obedience at one time, or even lived a fruitful Christian life for decades, may feel so assured of his salvation that he either begins to overtly disobey God’s instructions with no fear of retribution, or simply stops doing the hard work of struggling to remain on the right path in daily life. For the most part, it’s obvious to this person that things like theft, adultery, and murder are still off limits, but it becomes easier and easier to make excuses about what are perceived as lesser sins—a white lie, some small cheating on taxes, a little refusal to help those in need, a minor pornography habit, and other such things. It may not be as overt as that. Self-promotion, judgment of others, and arrogance are just as harmful, and just as damaging to one’s relationship with God. When John brings up the sins of Diotrephes in 2 John 9-10, he doesn’t have a list of blatantly immoral behaviors to condemn, but instead says that he “likes to put himself first,” that he “does not acknowledge [the apostle’s] authority,” and when someone disagrees with him, he “puts them out of the church.” This is a man with too great a measure of confidence.
We can see the same thing, perhaps more easily, in the fleshly attitudes toward everyone’s favorite topic, the coronavirus. At one extreme, there are people confident that the virus is a scam—that it either doesn’t really exist, or carries no potential for harm. They’re confident. They know in their hearts they are perfectly safe. But the virus doesn’t care about their confidence, and some people who’ve denied COVID-19 is real, have ended up dying from it.
At the other extreme, there are people confident that the virus is the greatest threat the world has ever seen, and the only way any of us will survive is through a series of difficult and painful societal practices, some of which haven’t been scientifically shown to have much effect, and yet are preached as the saviors of mankind. These people are also confident. They know in their hearts that we will all be perfectly safe, as long as we do exactly as they say. But the virus doesn’t care about their confidence, either. Some of the people who’ve preached the gospel of masks, lockdowns, social distance, work from home, school from home, no church, no Thanksgiving, no friendship, no fellowship, and no freedom, have ended up dying from the virus they said they could control.
Most people aren’t at the extremes, of course. They’re somewhere in the reasonable middle, trying their best to make wise decisions. But there’s a constant pull toward the extremes, and neither one is any good. The same is true in the religious context. It’s obvious that the extremes can’t both be correct; in fact, neither is.
It’s bad enough to do this where lives are on the line. It’s a far, far worse problem when souls are at risk. It’s uncomfortable to be in the middle, dealing with difficult decisions and disagreements, and there’s a similar pull toward the extremes, both of which are overconfident. On one side, there are people so confident in their understanding of God’s grace, that they see no danger, and no reason to fear judgment. That won’t stop God from passing judgment, though. On the other side, there are people so confident of their own total righteousness that they have no patience for dissent, and ample judgment of their own, for anyone who comes to a different conclusion about anything. Perhaps they’re right more often than not, but they’re not perfect, and they don’t have God’s judgment under control.
Both of the extremes have confidence in themselves, and that’s the real problem. We ought to have confidence, as John told us in the passage with which we began. But if our faith is in ourselves, we’re missing the boat. Put your confidence in God. Recognize your own shortcomings and disappointing track record, and do your best to make good decisions now, using the tools he’s given us. There’s a “because” in the verse we’ve been examining, which we’ve ignored until now: “because as he is so also are we in this world” (1Jn 4.17b). Are you as Jesus is? That’s how you can assess yourself. Have confidence in him, and do your best to follow his example in humility.