Iron sharpens iron
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)?
We live in strange times. For my lifetime up to this point, at least, the focus in the church has been on doctrine surrounding worship and salvation. This has been for two reasons—first, those were the main problems the church faced; and second, we pretty much all agreed on the basic standard of right and wrong already. Our nation, taking most of its moral cues from the Bible, mostly agreed, and so we were left to argue over finer points, which are nonetheless important. Who would have thought, a month ago, that there would be widespread questions over whether stealing, for example, was right or wrong? There was theft, of course; but the great majority, in both the church and the world, could easily agree that it was wrong, even if they might have disagreed on precisely why.
I’ve held off talking about this because there were other things more pressing than this to address, and because I wanted to take some time to develop my understanding of worldly events, and to think about God’s Word on the matter. With that done, it’s no longer time to remain silent, and I’m afraid this is becoming a pressing concern that the church should be ready to meet.
We live in a society that no longer agrees on right and wrong. The groundwork for this rift was laid a long time ago, with some maintaining that the things God clearly says are sinful are, well, sinful, and others saying that such attitudes are hateful, intolerant, and directly contrary to God’s Word, or that God’s Word doesn’t matter, or that God doesn’t exist, and we get to make up our own rules. Let’s consider an example of a world without enforcement of any of God’s rules. If you’ve never read the last five chapters of the book of Judges, there’s no better time than now to do so. They are not G-rated, or even PG-13; they paint a grisly picture of life without some enforcement of God’s basic moral rules.
It begins in chapters 17 and 18 with a story of theft within a family, giving way to idolatry and a perversion of the priesthood, after which the author gives a helpful note to explain how events got this ridiculous: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Jdg 17.6). The guy behind all of that nonsense, Micah, ends up being victimized, in turn. What he had built is stolen from him, by a marauding band of fellow Israelites, who then go and murder an entire city for the express purpose of leaving the land God had allotted to them, and taking these poor people’s home for themselves. There’s no one to mourn these “quiet and unsuspecting” people (18.27) as the tribe of Dan sets up its own city, as well as an idolatrous shrine. Lovely.
Shifting gears, we see some more awful behavior in chapter 19, prefaced with a reminder that “there was no king in Israel” at the time (19.1). This time a nameless Levite has a falling out with his concubine (by the way, for some reason he had a concubine rather than a wife…), and then in the course of reconciling, his father-in-law coaxes him into a five-day party, which raises the question, don’t these guys have anything useful to do? The Levite finally sets out on his journey home with his…girl (e.g. v3)…as evening falls, which does not seem like a stupendously responsible decision. They pass the town of Jebus, not wanting to stay there because it’s full of (*shudder*) Gentiles, and eventually reach the Benjaminite town of Gibeah. The Israelites of that town then attempt to force themselves sexually on the nameless Levite, who, in a despicable act of cowardice, throws his concubine to these animals, who proceed to, um, mistreat the poor girl, to such an extent that she dies. How’s that no-enforcement thing looking?
Believe it or not, it gets worse—the Levite (the girl’s “master” according to 19.27) dismembers her body and sends these gruesome postcards to the 12 tribes of Israel. The entire nation is, on the bright side, outraged at this incident, and so after some tribal back-and-forth and escalation, they determine that the logical reaction is to exterminate the tribe of Benjamin, which, call me crazy, seems excessive. In the ensuing war, at least 65,000 men are killed, and that doesn’t take account of the death toll within the towns, of which it is reported, “all the towns that they found they set on fire” (20.48). In the aftermath, someone notices that no one came to help from Jabesh-gilead, in the eastern territory of Manasseh, and so, of course, they slaughter that entire town for the crime of not helping them slaughter several other towns. They do spare the 400 young girls they find there, in order to give them forcibly as wives for the few remaining Benjaminites whose tribe they just finished massacring. This isn’t enough to ensure the tribe doesn’t die out completely, and so “the elders of the congregation” (21.16) settle on a plan of community-sponsored rape. The whole thing leaves me feeling like I could use a shower. Lest we forget, the author helpfully reminds us, as the chapter, and indeed the book, ends: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21.25).
Why anyone would think that some sort of rule-free, communal paradise is a viable option, is beyond me. Humanity tried that once—you can read about it in Genesis 3 and 4. In those sorts of situations, someone always brings evil into it, and it’s not long before Paradise descends into hatred and violence, where the only moral code is to do what you want at others’ expense. That’s not God’s way—“every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart” (Pr 21.2). In fact, we could go farther: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Pr 14.12 & 16.25). Jesus has promised us a return to Paradise. We can see its firstfruits in the church he established, and can glimpse from afar what awaits us after this life. As long as we live in a fleshly world, evil will reign, and we must stand against it. But take courage, and as you stand for God’s Word on what is right, look forward to the day “when all things are subjected to him” (1Co 15.28).
Jesus constantly dealt with hypocrites, most of whom simply didn’t like that he didn’t praise them or uphold them as the paragon of righteousness; and what’s perhaps most infuriating about them is that they’re willing to go to amazing lengths to try to discredit him, focusing in on whatever minuscule breach of etiquette they can pin on him, or even on his followers, in order to delegitimize his authority or righteousness.
One of the standout encounters of this sort is found in chapter seven of Mark’s Gospel, when the Pharisees notice that some of Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating. We’ve all gotten used to life with COVID-19, and so perhaps empathize a bit with their complaint, but of course they’re not concerned about external effects eventuated by lackluster hygiene—they’re just mad that the “tradition of the elders” (v5) is being ignored.
I’ve written about this text before in the last few months, focusing somewhat on the good aspects of these traditions, but this time I’d like to pay more attention to Jesus’ response, and apply that standard to us. He deftly swats down the initial complaint, calling out the hypocrisy, and the fact that tradition is a far lower standard than God’s commandment; but he’s not done there.
And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” (Mk 7.14-15)
This would seem like lunacy to his audience of Jewish disciples, because of course their entire system of ritual purity focused on the external, with detailed instructions about how to avoid defilement, and what onerous steps had to be taken in order to be considered “clean” after a defiling event, such as coming into contact with a dead body, becoming infected with various dermatological ailments, eating unclean foods, having a baby, or even simply participating in various required aspects of worship that led to ritual defilement. Even though God acknowledged that many of these acts weren’t avoidable, there’s a general stigma against even taking the action that would lead to becoming ceremonially unclean, which is particularly easy to see with respect to the dietary code in Leviticus 11, where the terms are “clean” and “unclean” just like the rest, but they’re commanded, “You shall not eat” the unclean foods (e.g. Le 11.8).
Yet, here Jesus says the opposite, even to the point that Mark includes a helpful commentary on his teaching, “Thus he declared all foods clean” (Mk 7.19). Of course, this is because of what Paul says in Colossians:
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Co 2.16-17)
Jesus is explaining to them more fully, at the proper time, what the Law was meant to teach them about holiness—that it is delicate, that it is easily tainted, that it must be carefully guarded and deliberately cultivated; and that our everyday actions in even the most mundane situations put us in danger of defiling ourselves.
In, or Out?
However, those shadows were not the substance, and the substance gives us freedom, while simultaneously applying a more stringent standard on us.
And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. (Mk 7.20-23)
If we’re honest, we’ll admit that there is darkness within our hearts, however much we wish it weren’t there, try to eradicate it, or simply pretend it isn’t so. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Je 17.9). Our hearts are complicated, more complicated than we ourselves even understand, and within the labyrinth are corners, walls, and even entire hallways that remain hidden in the shadows ruled by the “the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Ep 6.12). If left to our own devices, we’d all succumb to that darkness and let it enslave us, while telling ourselves that we are really the ones in charge.
When we repent of sin, as Jesus tells us over and over again that we must do, we are, in a sense, filling another of those dark corners with the light of Christ, exposing their secrets for what they are, and replacing them with truth, love, and God’s glory. It’s all too easy to pin our eternal fate on a single “come to Jesus” moment, and while there is a clear turning point, demonstrated by the many events of baptism and conversion preserved and explained for us in the book of Acts, we must not stop there. This is to be a lifelong process of conforming more and more closely the image of God’s Son (Ro 8.29), constantly examining and testing ourselves (2Co 13.5), never sitting back in satisfaction with our own cleanness. “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Pr 4.23).
We recently studied Pontius Pilate at River Ridge. While the story of the man himself is instructive, one aspect of the story that really stands out to me is how readily he is swayed by the mob. The historical record offers some pretty strong clues as to why this is, but even without those the Bible makes it clear that a) he knew Jesus was innocent; b) he knew the mob was both dangerous and fickle; and c) he based his decision, not on justice, but on whatever would appease the crowd. It is with disapproval that the earliest Christians remember his part in the story. While acknowledging that his role had been to further “whatever [God’s] hand and [God’s] plan had predestined to take place” (Ac 4.28), they portray Pilate as one of the Gentiles who raged, plotted in vain, and “gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed” (vv25-26, citing Ps 2.1-2).
The mob is even worse, of course. Jesus tells Pilate “he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin” (Jn 19.11b). They are the driving force, not Jesus, and not Pilate. Yet even they had been hijacked by a small cadre of ideologues who bent the mob to their own will. As Mark tells us, the greater part of the crowd had gathered, not to demand Jesus’ execution, but to request the release of a prisoner, because “at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked” (Mk 15.6). Perhaps it’s Pilate’s naïveté showing through, but more likely he knows enough about Jesus and his following that he simply assumes they will be asking for this harmless, innocent teacher, suggesting to them in verse 9, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?”
But no—the society’s supposed moral betters had already gotten to them. “The chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas” (v11), a rebel, “who had committed murder in the insurrection” (15.7). Note that Mark doesn’t say he was suspected of committing murder, or that he was awaiting trial for murder, but that was in fact guilty of that offense. Yet, having been primed by these self-righteous snakes, the mob goes right along in asking that he be put back on the streets of Jerusalem, among their wives, children, friends, and businesses. It’s obviously not in their own best interests even from a fleshly perspective, but they made the mistake of listening to the lies spread by those who supposedly stood for justice and righteousness.
“So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified” (Mk 15.15). He knows justice is not being served. He knows this is due to the “envy” (v10) of an elite few. Still, he bows to the mob, and gives them what they think they want. Pilate was not a God-fearing man, but was appointed by God for a purpose:
There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. (Ro 13.1b-4a)
Jesus says the same to Pilate’s face, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (Jn 19.11a). Pilate failed in this purpose, and while he preserved his political power for a while, he also made himself guilty, by going along with the mob.
I suppose it’s obvious why I’ve been thinking about these events a lot lately, and perhaps as you read it you’re trying to determine what is my political angle. I don’t know that I have one—I just can’t get past the moral catastrophe that has unfolded in every major American city over the last two weeks. There’s been so much rotten behavior, from so many sources, fueled by pent-up stress and cabin fever after we all locked ourselves away for two months, and fanned into flame—figuratively, by the same sort of self-righteous, cynical snobs as those who smugly celebrated after murdering Jesus; and literally, by a morally bankrupt mob, devoid of the conscience that would have barred most of the individuals from such acts, if only they weren’t egged on by truly reprehensible instigators.
I’ve been very saddened to see so many lives destroyed, so many people who worked hard and did their best to build something, suffered through the economic drought of the pandemic, and then watched all their labor go up in smoke, or out the door in the hands of thieves, or simply dashed in pieces because a mob was angry and they happened to be the closest target. It’s tough to watch. Every element of the story, from the incident that provided the spark, to the smoldering ruins, breaks my heart to see. But it’s not the first time this has happened, even in this country, and although it may get much, much worse, it may also get much, much better. That’s up to each of us to decide for ourselves.
There are other mob scenes in the Bible, and they’re all instructive as we try to process this and move forward. But I’d like to wrap up with the one that occurred in Ephesus, led by a group of people who felt their economic fortunes were looking bleak, and exacerbated by racial hatred between Gentiles and Jews. Eventually, a nameless, low-ranking public official steps in and addresses the crowd. He soothes the specific fears of the instigators, and then closes:
“If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly. For we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly.
Every town should have such a clerk. This guy isn’t even a Christian, but he shows a basic awareness of right and wrong, practical foresight, and the guts to put his own life on the line for what’s right, and for the common good. How much better could you do?
The transfiguration of Jesus is an episode in the Gospel that almost feels like a dream to us. Jesus performed a number of miracles, but the great majority of them fall into a couple of categories—healing, and demonstrating mastery over nature. On top of that, there are a handful of instances in the Gospels when the Father gets involved, speaking from heaven or altering natural phenomena, but it’s rare. We’ve perhaps gotten used to the miracles by this point—not to be irreverent, but Jesus does them so often that they become for us a bit commonplace.
And then there’s the transfiguration. Before that, he feeds people, teaches people, walks on water, heals people, teaches people, people, feeds people, and teaches people some more; then all of a sudden, he’s on a mountain somewhere, talking to two dead guys while shining like the sun and being shrouded by a shiny cloud that talks. Then he heals some more, teaches some more, sends his disciples out to teach, heals some more…Clearly, one of these things is not like the others, and we’re perhaps left feeling the way we do in a dream, when we can’t keep up and process all of the sensory input we’re receiving, and struggle to recall it later. In fact, although by all available evidence this happened in the physical world, Jesus even refers to it as a “vision” as he is telling “heavy with sleep” (Lk 9.32) Peter, James, and John to keep it quiet for the time being: “as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, ‘Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead’” (Mt 17.9). Yet, although it remains somewhat fuzzy, its immediate witnesses weren’t allowed to mention it, and we can’t explain or fully understand everything that occurred, there’s surely a reason this episode is shared with us.
We don’t know exactly where this took place. The authors of the Gospels tell us it happened on “a high mountain” (e.g. Mt 17.1), but that isn’t very specific. The most serious of the many proposed locations are Mount Tabor and Mount Hermon, but really, it isn’t all that important beyond what we’re told—it’s a mountain. Why? Because it juts into the sky, getting closer to heaven, in a manner of speaking. There’s a long history and tradition surrounding God and mountains, for example Moses’ several meetings with him on Mt. Sinai, as well as Mt. Nebo; the Temple Mount also fits in here going all the way back to Genesis 22, and of course the Israelites’ unauthorized use of “high places” to worship God, as wells as idols, subscribes to the same notion. So, when Jesus ascends a mountain and encounters these two heroes of the Old Testament, as well as the Father himself, it’s both symbolic of proximity to God, and a reference to the many other encounter like this one.
The transfiguration took place “after six days” (e.g. Mt 17.1), which is not particularly helpful without knowing the context, but what’s more important is knowing the overall story arc, and this incident’s place on that arc. It follows right after Peter confessed his belief that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (e.g. Mt 16.16), and Jesus’ pronouncements not only about the church he would institute, but about his own coming death and resurrection. After this point, while Jesus continued much of the same teaching and healing as before, he also foretold twice more that he would die and rise, and it was shortly after this that he “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Lk 9.51), setting off the cycle of events culminating in that death and resurrection. There’s much left to the story, but the transfiguration is a turning point, after which the story focuses on coming closer and closer to the purpose for which Jesus came to earth.
The usual members of the cast are standard equipment at this point, but the other two, Moses and Elijah, are quite surprising, not least because they’re dead—well, sort of. Moses had died before Israel entered the promised land, and God buried his body somewhere secret (De 34.5-6); but Elijah was taken up into heaven without experiencing death (2Ki 2.11). In fact these two events happened in the same area, just east of the Jordan River opposite Jericho. There are other similarities between Moses and Elijah, from their meetings with God on Mt. Sinai to their crossing bodies of water on dry land, to their relationship with Israel’s thirst. But perhaps most important to the transfiguration is their status as representatives. In broad terms, Moses stands for the Law, and Elijah stands for the Prophets—the whole of God’s word to Israel.
In this, the reason and purpose are made clear. Peter’s dumbfounded, cringe-inducing input at seeing all of this is to say, “let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Mk 9.5). It’s obvious that he attaches some kind of religious significance to these proposed tents, perhaps in line with the Feast of Tabernacles. Since he proposes a tent for each one, it’s as if he’s exalting Jesus, implying that he holds him in the same regard as even Moses and Elijah—high praise, indeed! Yet, “He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him’” (Mt 17.5). And that’s pretty much the point of this whole thing, both for them and for us. We may hold Jesus in high esteem, but does he have any equals in our minds? The Father gave his endorsement of his Son’s teaching, the next step in fulfilling, superseding, and annulling the old way of doing things. For us, it’s probably now the Jewish Law and Prophets that need to be subordinated to Christ, but whatever else we might hold in high regard, whatever else we might consider authoritative. These things may still be good, but they are nothing in comparison to God’s own Son. Let’s make sure we are listening to him.