Iron sharpens iron
One of the most comical characters in the Bible, from a modern perspective, is Nehemiah. The parts of the story that we usually remember aren’t so much comical as exemplary—we think of his deep love for the Lord, and willingness to leave his cushy position as cupbearer to the King, in order to oversee the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls and bring God’s holy city back into repair as a safe citadel, impervious to the inevitable attacks from the surrounding Gentiles. We think of his dedication to building the walls even under constant threat, and how “each labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other” (Ne 4.17). That only gets us up through chapter 4, though. There are nine more chapters to follow.
It starts out pretty somber—Nehemiah was functioning as governor of Judah (5.14), and it was brought to his attention that the wealthy Jews of the area had been oppressing the poor ones, lending out money at interest contrary to the Law, and then taking away their fields and vineyards, and even enslaving them as payment for the debt. Nehemiah “was very angry” (5.6) about this, and confronted the nobles and officials who were enriching themselves unscrupulously at their brothers’ expense. They quickly agreed to shape up, but that didn’t stop Nehemiah from making a somewhat silly-looking display of his frustration: “I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, ‘So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied’” (5.13). After detailing other ways he helped the poor during his tenure as governor, he closes out the section with a written prayer, “Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people” (5.19).
Following this and some further external strife, the wall is finished, the people celebrate, Ezra the scribe teaches the people about the Law, and things generally look like they’re headed in the right direction in most ways, with the people even keeping the Feast of Booths as prescribed—something that hadn’t been done properly since the time of Joshua (8.17)! They make a blanket, nationwide confession and apology for all the ways Israel had continually transgressed God’s commandments over the generations, and renew the nation’s covenant with him, with much attending pomp and circumstance.
Yet, affairs are not all moving in as positive a direction as it would seem. There’s more to be done, and the final chapter of the book chronicles several changes Nehemiah effected later on. Here’s where it gets really good. After his term as governor is up and he has returned to Artaxerxes’ court for a while, he takes a trip to check on things back in Jerusalem. On finding another way in which the Jews had been ignoring God’s Law in his absence (this time the priests were allowing an Ammonite into the Temple complex, contrary to De 23.3), he says, “I was very angry and I threw all the household furniture of Tobiah out of the chambers.” I’m sure it looked less comical in reality than I tend to imagine, but the picture of this respected, dignified wordsmith hurling a mattress out the door…well, it makes me chuckle. After addressing a second oversight, he repeats again what we saw before: “Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God and for his service” (13.14).
He’s not done. When he sees the people failing to keep the Sabbath, he tells them their fault, and then simply locks the doors of the city, preventing commerce one day a week, and even threatening the merchants that if they don't stop trying to desecrate the Sabbath, “I will lay hands you” (13.21). Having succeeded in this endeavor as well, he repeats, “Remember this also in my favor, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love” (13.22).
The best is saved for last. He notices a number of Jews who have transgressed the Law by recklessly marrying Gentile women (contrary to De 7.3-4). Here is the most entertaining of Nehemiah’s reactions: “And I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair” (13.25). This man was on speaking terms with the most powerful man in the world, had been governor of his home province, and was a respected leader of his community—and here he is, beating the snot out of other respected members of society and pulling out their hair. When he discovers that one of the priests had married the daughter of Sanballat, the Moabite leader who’d done so much to disrupt the building of the wall years before, he says, “I chased him from me.” It sounds almost like an extended playground squabble, not rational interaction between adults. This would not be acceptable in just about any other context; I’m not certain it was completely acceptable when Nehemiah did it, even. And yet, he closes out the topic, and the book, by repeating the refrain once more: “Remember me, O my God, for good” (13.31).
We could nitpick and detract from the way Nehemiah went about correcting these problems. We could certainly point to the different between Old and New Testament to find our own guidance from God for our conflicts in the present time. But that should not detract from the spirit in which Nehemiah undertook all of these actions. Can anyone question his love for the Lord? Can anyone cast doubt on his devotion to God, and to God’s Law?
Here was a man who didn’t care (clearly) about damaging his own reputation; who didn’t care about looking silly, or receiving blowback, or hurting feelings, or any such thing. Here was a man who cared passionately for his God, for his people, and for the relationship between the two. While we should be cautious of the exact methods he used, we would do well to imitate Nehemiah’s devotion to God; and God will remember us, too.
One of the odd things about this pandemic has been its ramifications on the observance of the Lord’s Supper. Hygienic concerns were occasionally brought up in the past over the rather silly one-cup question, but beyond the obvious “don’t be the one to serve it if you’re sick,” it just didn’t come up. Now, we’re hyper-conscious of all the little germs changing hands, and while our present method of single-serving, sterile kits has been working out relatively well, I’m afraid it may be a distraction from what is supposed to be the focus.
Tomes have been written on the Lord’s Supper. It’s the defining act of Christian worship each week. It is a deep, powerful expression of Jesus’ love for us, and our devotion to him. It neatly symbolizes the relationship we ought to cultivate with him, and the manner in which he proved his care for us. Yet, comparatively little is said about it in the Scriptures themselves.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record the scene in that upper room in Jerusalem, but Matthew spends only four verses on the Lord’s Supper (Mt 26.26-29), and Mark’s version (also four verses—Mk 14.22-25) manages to be a hair more concise even than Matthew’s, with the omission of several explanatory words and phrases, in favor of a more economical, man-of-few-words approach. Luke, ever the academic, gives it a little more space (Lk 22.14-23), devoting ten verses to the memorial and including a few small details passed over by Matthew and Mark. But John throws us a characteristic curveball, spending chapters 13 through 17 of his Gospel on the events that took place in that upper room, while neatly avoiding the centerpiece, the memorial Jesus established.
The longest treatment of the Lord’s Supper in the Bible is found, not in the Gospels, but in 1 Corinthians—a letter to a church struggling in many respects, including their observance of this act of worship. Even here, it only gets 18 verses (1Co 11.17-34), and Paul dedicates a fair amount of his verbiage to reminding these people what they’re supposed to be doing, and why they’re supposed to be doing it. As for his narration of the scene in that upper room…well, that comprises just three verses, covering just the basic facts.
What I hope this demonstrates is that it is unnecessary to theologize, christologize, science-ify, and pontificate about the precise spiritual mechanisms by which the power of communion imbues the participant with Eucharistic grace, or some other such arcane nonsense. Did Jesus convey such a notion to his Apostles, when he said simply , “Take, eat; this is my body” (Mt 26.26)? Of course, it’s worth contemplating the full meaning of all that Jesus told them, and all that Paul told the Corinthian Christians as well, but it’s ludicrous to develop a highfalutin, jargon-filled, binding orthodoxy, when God himself left it somewhat vague—to be taken on faith.
Jesus called it a remembrance (Lk 22.19, 1Co 11.25), not a sacrament. He didn’t even call it an ordinance, the term used by most Protestant denominations—although in a non-technical sense that’s at least an accurate description. Jesus focused first on the tangible, visible, and obvious, while also drawing on their shared knowledge and awareness of God’s covenant with the Israelites.
When he distributed the bread, he told his disciples to take and eat, and said, “this is my body, which is given for you” (Lk 22.19). He didn’t launch into a treatise on vicarious atonement. Instead, he simply let their shared understanding of the Passover they were celebrating that night point them in the right direction—which is not to say, even, that they all fully understood what he meant (when did they ever?). No, it is simply his body, “given for you.”
For the cup, the most verbose account of Jesus’ words is Matthew’s: “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26.27-28). Once again, we might have expected him to go into more detail about exactly how that transaction occurs, and when, and precisely for whom; but he doesn’t. His few words have already told us a lot: that his blood would establish a “new” (Lk 22.20, 1Co 11.25) covenant, replacing the old one; that his blood would be “poured out”—i.e. that he would die violently; that the sacrifice would be made on behalf of “many,” not just those present in the room; and that it would be made for the purpose of securing forgiveness of sins.
All of those terms need defining, of course, and the only proper way to accomplish this is by further study of God’s Word, in both Old and New Testaments; however, Jesus was putting this into terms that uneducated fishermen from Galilee could comprehend, and comprehend it well enough to (with God’s help) effectively teach it to others, both Jew and Gentile. We shouldn’t be completely satisfied with this as we grow and mature, but neither should we treat a fundamental understanding of these basic principles as if it fails to reach God’s standard. Jesus gave himself to die for us, to rescue us from sin and secure us a place in God’s Kingdom. Now, he wants us to fill ourselves with him—with his body, blood, and memory. That’s not the whole story, but it’s a start. Don’t lose sight of it.
This pandemic is getting old. That’s pretty much been the case since it started, but now that we’ve been living under its shadow for four months, I imagine we’re all very ready to move on, to one degree or another.
As I’ve observed behavior across the country throughout this, and especially as I’ve paid attention to the responses of Christians far and wide, it has struck me that many have developed a spirit of fear. Not all—in fact, most of the Christians I know who fall into the categories of highest risk for death due to the virus have been the most resolutely fearless, most at peace with the prospect of going to see Jesus sooner than expected, and frankly, the most crotchety and irritated with others who don’t see it the same way.
It’s easy to dismiss their attitude as unscientific, misguided, or stuck in the past, but the simple fact is that they’re the ones who bear the greatest burden of risk in this scenario, and the patronizing responses to them have often been downright disrespectful, by young and healthy folks whose lives are not at any elevated risk.
As I’ve watched this and wrestled with facts, interpretations, and most importantly tried to determine God’s will in all of this, the distinction that stands out most in my mind is not between young and old, between, scientific and unscientific, between caring and heartless, between rational and irrational, between humble and arrogant, or any of the other dichotomies we might have expected. It’s simply between those who are fearful, and those who are courageous.
This doesn’t always correlate with general attitudes toward the pandemic—often the fearful ones don’t take it seriously at all, and some courageous ones are convinced they’ll be dead by next Tuesday; but the way we handle these divergent beliefs is the point. It reminds me of Paul’s situation when he wrote the letter to the church at Philippi. Imprisoned and facing a death sentence if convicted, he wasn’t sure what to expect.
It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. (Php 1.20-22)
He isn’t even sure what he wants to happen, continuing on to say, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (v23). Having reasoned through to that conclusion, he expects to be spared, apparently through God’s providence. Yet, as the letter continues, he shows that he’s not entirely confident, in 2.17 entertaining the notion that he may “be poured out as a drink offering,” and saying that he wants to send Timothy with further news, “just as soon as I see how it will go with me” (2.23).
We may sympathize with his plight to some degree since, whatever our tentative conclusions may be with respect to the virus in whose shadow we now live, the possibility that we’re wrong always hangs in the back of our minds, tempting us into ambivalence and vacillation. While we can’t do much at the present time to validate our theories and predictions (apart from simply waiting), we should certainly “join in imitating” Paul, as he encouraged the Philippian Christians to do, so long ago. His was in an unthinkably stressful situation—not a mere 4% maximum death rate, among the less than 1% of the nation’s population that has tested positive for the virus over the past four months, but instead something much closer to a genuine 50-50. Yet, even in his uncertain situation, what was his overall demeanor? What characterized his spirit? “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel,” he tells them in 1.12. “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death,” he said in 1.20, as we noted already above. We began to look at 2.17 earlier, but didn’t complete the verse: “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.” He tells these Christians, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (4.6).
His other letters written during this time (Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon) all display the same resolute courage, that he will defend his Lord before both Caesar and anyone else he has the opportunity to teach; that whatever the outcome of his next few weeks might be, he will “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Php 3.14). We would do well to imitate his brand of strength, in our own uncertain times.
In that instance, Paul’s well-reasoned conclusion proved to be correct, and he was freed, allowing him to continue his fruitful work. However, he wrote a letter to Timothy later on having been imprisoned a second time, and by all indications, he didn’t make it out alive this time. Yet, he didn’t build unnecessary walls, suspend God’s less convenient commandments, or allow these fleshly concerns to take control of his spirit. Instead, he opens up his letter by reminding Timothy, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2Ti 1.7). We, too, must remember this fact, and refuse to take on a spirit of fear.
There are a number of puzzling verses in the Bible, sometimes due to the counterintuitive mysteries of God, sometimes because of difficulty and differences in translation, and sometimes because of cultural assumptions that we don’t share in this day and age. But the one that stands out to me as the most glaringly opaque is Ecclesiastes 7.16: “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself?” That’s right, sandwiched right in the middle of a giant book about how God is righteous and demands that humans be righteous, too, is a cavalier “meh” toward the whole premise. It’s right there, you can take it to the bank, “the Bible says I shouldn’t bee too righteous, so sign me up for a little debauchery…” Obviously, something is amiss, here.
It would be easy, and natural, for someone who wants to hear and believe this message, who’s all about mercy, to take it at face value and turn it into an axiom by which to live—it’s been done many times before with favorite verses, in most cases putting no appreciable burden on the bearer of the holy words, yet conferring immense benefit. Conversely, it’s easy and natural for someone who’s more concerned with justice, to immediately set about gutting the verse in question by pointing out that it’s part of the Old Testament and doesn’t apply to us anymore, that it was written by Solomon, who wasn’t exactly a great role model, or perhaps that consulting my preferred translation will clearly demonstrate that yours is from the devil, placing a burden on each individual that is more than they can carry.
Both these responses are understandable, but neither one is good. They represent extremes—on the one hand a licentious, self-centered hedonist, and on the other a stoic, heartless authoritarian. This example is more overt than most, but it really highlights the same problem that plagues all interpretation of God’s Word, as well as the way we live our lives in general. Why is this one verse taken alone, out of context? You might say that Solomon’s words—and more than that, God’s words!—have been selectively edited to give the wrong impression, and the only way to find the truth is to look at the whole picture.
In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them. (Ecclesiastes 7.15-18)
The problem Solomon is addressing is the fact of undeserved outcomes. The Law of Moses didn’t entirely account for this, and while Christ actually did, he also made it clear that scores wouldn’t all be settled until the physical is completed, and that God expects us to endure some undeserved outcomes in this life. As Peter says, “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” (1Pe 2.20). Of course, it’s easy to take that to an extreme as well, one which neglects, among others things, that Jesus said in Luke 22.36, “let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one,” and that Jesus himself violently drove intruders out of his Father’s house. That highlights the need for a balance between the extremes, which, is exactly what Solomon was trying to say in the first place.
He didn’t only say, don’t be too righteous; he followed it up a warning against being too wicked. The inference that some amount of wickedness is acceptable isn’t really accurate, but his method of bouncing back and forth between extremes is the real point. That’s why he says, “take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand” (Ec 7.18)—the identities of “this” and “that” are deliberately vague; they don’t mean anything in particular. The focus is balance.
Of course, the broad context of Ecclesiastes, a search for meaning and fulfillment from an entirely earthly perspective, goes a long way to remind us that all of this is not precept from God, but God’s demonstration of this life’s “vanity” in the absence of something greater; but just as it was important that we consider the context, and guard against leaping to one extreme or the other, it’s important that we not abandon the meaning behind the text—when we leap to either extreme, we bring problems on ourselves. When we focus on one thing to the exclusion of all else, it brings harm to us. When we think ourselves righteous and wise, then we are at great risk of falling.
That’s one of the many reasons why Jesus’ sacrifice is so important. Try as we might—and try we should—to behave righteously, we all fail. Not unavoidably, or it wouldn’t be our fault; not innately, or we wouldn’t be accountable. But fail we do, by our own choice. Jesus, by his own choice, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (He 5.8-9). He has been to the extremes for us, suffering the penalty that should be ours, and gaining the reward that is promised to us, if we trust and obey him.
1 Thessalonians is one of my 66 favorite books of the Bible (a lame joke that I just keep using). It stands alone just fine, as one of comparatively few times Paul wrote a letter to a congregation without really tearing into them. Yet, the deeper we study it, and especially upon comparing it to 2 Thessalonians, which he wrote a very short time after the first letter, the clearer it becomes that he was, in fact, trying to address some pretty significant problems the first time around, but he was being delicate and hoping they’d get the picture without him having to resort to more forceful words. They didn’t, and he did.
At the end of the second letter in question, he gets rather specific in discussing one of the prominent shortcomings among the Christians at Thessalonica:
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. (2Thessalonians 3.6-14)
There’s a lot in there, but chiefly I want to focus on the problem of “idleness”—not working for a living. He writes as if he is surprised this came up, since, after all, he and Timothy and Silas had deliberately taken steps above and beyond their own responsibility in order to forestall this eventuality, working for their own living, even though they had a right to be compensated by the church they were serving so diligently. But, their efforts were ignored, or forgotten.
As usually happens, one sin compounded with another, as Paul noted in verse 11 with a slight pun, that some are “not busy at work, but busybodies.” We all know, and most of us have seen firsthand, the damage and destruction that can be wrought by people who just won’t mind their own business, and never seem to have anything more important to do than to meddle in other people’s affairs, usually second-guessing, finding fault, and incessantly pestering someone who’s just trying to do their best and get home to their family. We all know someone like this, and even if we love them, we dread their presence.
Where it starts to get a bit comical is in the following verse, when Paul brings it home: “such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (v12). He hasn’t even directly addressed the busybody problem, instead going for the root and using strong terms to get his point across. The funny thing, though, is that he’d said almost this exact same thing in the previous letter, but there it seemed a lot more gentle, urging them “to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1Th 4.11-12).
Well, now that we know what’s coming in the second letter, it’s easy to see how the roots of the problem were already present when he wrote the first one, and instead of drawing attention to the sin, calling out those responsible, he just mentions in passing what ought to be their goal. It’s a clever persuasive technique, but it didn’t work, and so he had to be more aggressive the next time.
There’s something to learn in this about how we correct others, as well as about making sure we don’t become busybodies. It’s a problem endemic to humanity, but right now especially, we’re seeing society at large poking into each other’s affairs, past and present, and then passing sweeping moral judgment based on tenuous standards that seem to shift drastically by the week, if not the day. God’s answer, passed through my “snarky” filter, would be, “don’t you have anything more important to do?”
As I’ve mentioned a number of times lately, we live in interesting times. As a group, we need to be standing up for truth and right; as individuals, we’ll generally avoid most of the problems, as well as avoid becoming problems ourselves, if we take the first encouragement. “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands”—if you’re busy working to take good care of your family (and this does not only mean working to get paid!), you generally don’t have time to cause problems. You generally don’t have time to dig into other people’s lives and flush out, or fabricate, their problems. Ultimately, there’s nothing to be done about most of those problems anyway—we all have created problems—they’re called “sins.” Rather than drawing attention to the specks in each other’s eyes, wouldn’t it be better if we all focused on removing the logs from our own eyes (Mt 7.3-5)? In our daily lives, let’s make sure, first of all, that we aren’t continuing to sin, before we start calling for others to be punished. “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another” (Ro 14.4)?