Bulletin Articles

Bulletin Articles

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Seasoned with Salt

Sunday, July 09, 2023

We increasingly live on the internet.  Facebook’s short-lived “Metaverse” received abundant mockery, was used by few people, and was more or less abandoned after just a year as the social media giant’s new flagship product; but still, in many ways the blending of internet and spatial reality was already the default for most of the world, and that trend is only accelerating, regardless of one company’s failed attempt to monopolize it.

We interact with each other using screens, we learn about what’s happening throughout the world using screens, we let the screens tell us how to get to places we’ve been many times before, we work on screens, we play with screens, we get our music and entertainment from screens, we do our reading, banking, shopping, taxes, bills, and education on screens.  And, crucially, all of these screens, and all of these activities, are now connected to the internet at all times.  They’re generally connected to our hands, too—everyone has seen a family out to dinner, all silently scrolling though their phones instead of interacting with the flesh-and-blood humans sitting at the table.

We all know this isn’t particularly good for us, and we also know that the screens are here to stay—useful but dangerous tools that we must learn to manage and use in moderation.  These interconnected electronic devices already blend the real, physical world with a virtual world of our own making, and what happens on the internet is often just as real as what happens in the “real” world.  An entire generation has now grown up taking for granted the ubiquitous smartphone; but in terms of human development, we’re still very early on the timeline of this virtual reality.  It often takes several generations to figure out what to do with a new and groundbreaking technology—how best to use it, and how best to prevent or discourage its misuse.  In some cases we never figure it out.  This generation will be long dead before this disruptive technology becomes no longer a disruption but a fixture of civilization, but Christians should be ahead of the curve, using not the slowly-accumulating wisdom of man to guide them through these troubled waters, but instead the eternal principles of wisdom laid down in God’s word.

And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.

(James 3.6)

James isn’t telling us to take a vow of silence, but he is warning against saying everything that comes to mind.  In our internet-driven world, there is more opportunity than ever before to speak directly to people all over the globe.  Even with friends and family, it’s easier to say hurtful things through a screen, than face to face—why do you think most couples break up via text message now?  How much worse is the temptation, when you’re talking to someone you don’t know?  Or worse still, when you’re hiding behind a false name and picture?  These trends bring out the worst in humanity, but as Jesus said:

“Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.”

(Luke 12.2-3)

Many people spew ignorance, folly, and hatred all across the internet, every day, and while it’s good to recognize their sin and point it out, it’s also very easy to go about it in the wrong way.  It may feel good to fire off a scathing reply that you believe will humiliate the sinner; but in that case, you’ve only joined him in his sin.  What’s the goal?  Are you the judge?  Or are you God’s deputy, sent to mete out punishments on his behalf?  Shouldn’t your goal instead be to draw the sinner away from his sin and toward God?

Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

(Colossians 4.6)

For most of us, there’s very little value in getting into arguments online.  Most of the people you’ll encounter are not receptive to the gospel, and so the pitfalls outweigh the potential benefits.  But occasionally you’ll have the opportunity to speak with a random stranger who seems to be somewhat open to God’s word.  In these instances, speak up—but do it carefully, for the other person’s good and not your own self-righteousness.  Often, this means fielding insults and other verbal abuse.  You may be tempted to lash out in response—but “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ep 4.26-27).  Or, you may be tempted to be genuinely wounded by the things people say to you, or about you—but “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on [Jesus’] account” (Mt 5.11).

The advice, “be careful what you say,” applies throughout life, but we particularly need to hear it, where the internet and social media are concerned.  Whether it’s gossip, or slander, or betraying trust, or getting involved in fruitless battles of words, there’s enormous potential for us to reject Jesus and pursue something else that we think will bring us satisfaction in this life.  It’s not inevitable.  As with most things, it’s fine to participate in life in the internet age, in moderation and within limits; but we must also be willing to give it up entirely, if necessary, for the sake of our own souls.

“And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

(Matthew 5.30)

Jeremy Nettles

Which King Would You Want?

Sunday, July 02, 2023

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

(Judges 21.25)

“He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

(1 Samuel 8.17-18)

What a contrast!  The first passage is an explanation of how things got so out of hand in Israel.  It follows the story of the tribe of Benjamin forcibly abducting young women from their homes and families to become unwilling brides to the few remaining Benjaminites, while the wise elders of the nation defended this mass rape to the victims’ families and refused to prosecute their cases.  How did it get this bad?  Well, that was before they had a king, you see!

But in the second passage, Samuel warns Israel that submitting to a monarchy is a terrible idea.  Were things really better, under the judges?  Perhaps some taxation and forced labor are a price worth paying, for stability and order!  There were costs and advantages to each system, and the potential for both good and evil outcomes.  What determined the direction things would go?

Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child,

        and your princes feast in the morning!

Happy are you, O land, when your king is the son of the nobility,

        and your princes feast at the proper time,

        for strength, and not for drunkenness!

(Ecclesiastes 10.16-17)

The earlier system of judges afforded the people great freedom—but what did they do with their freedom?  The monarchy provided much more order—but what kind of order?  The king’s conduct had enormous influence, for good or ill, on the whole nation.  This is visible in the comparison between Saul and David, the first two kings of Israel.  Let’s consider just a handful of the many differences between these two men.

Basis for selection

Saul was chosen by God, it’s true; but God picked him because he satisfied the people’s expectations—after all, they wanted to “be like all the nations” (1Sa 8.20).  What are the first things we learn of Saul?  He came from a well-off family of the tribe of Benjamin, he was “handsome,” and he was “taller than any of the people” (9.1-2).  What more could you want in a king?

David, while he possessed some of those qualities, was chosen on a different basis.  God “sought out a man after his own heart” to replace Saul (13.14), and “rejected” David’s taller brother, who seemed the more likely choice in Samuel’s eyes, because “man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (16.7).

Readiness

Saul was reluctant to take on the role God assigned to him.  After anointing Saul, Samuel called an assembly for the nation to proclaim him king.  Saul was eventually found,  “hidden … among the baggage” (10.22).

When David had likewise been anointed but remained unknown to the public, he was running an errand for his father when he discovered a Philistine spewing blasphemies at the Israelite army, along with a challenge that not one of these warriors was willing to accept.  David couldn’t understand why no one else had stepped up to put a stop to this.  He told Israel’s big, strong, warrior king, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine” (17.37). 

Godliness

Saul made a show of devotion to God.  He “cut off the mediums and the necromancers from the land” (28.9), made sure to offer sacrifices before battle (13.12), rebuked his army for eating blood in hunger and haste (14.32-34), and encouraged David to “fight the Lord’s battles” (18.17).  But many of these were self-service masquerading as piety.  In reality, Saul rebelled against God and “rejected the word of the Lord” (15.23).  This is, perhaps, most clearly observed in his numerous attempts to Kill David, despite David’s consistent, humble service.

David, on the other hand, put his own life on the line for the sake of God’s reputation (ch17), and for his people’s well-being (chs 18, 23, 29 & 30), and—most tellingly—to make peaceful gestures toward Saul, even as Saul was trying to kill him (chs 24 & 26), vowing, “I will not put out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord’s anointed” (26.11).

Which would you choose?

There are many more contrasts to draw between Saul and David—between the bad king whose reign is regrettable, and the good king whose reign is a blessing.  If you could choose between these two, who would it be? Saul might have looked the part, but now that we see the character of these two men, it’s plain that David is the better choice, despite the many—many!—flaws he showcased later in his life.  It may seem like a silly question, since Saul and David lived and reigned more than three thousand years ago, and we don’t get to choose between them.  But in fact, a more important version of the same choice faces each of us, just as it faced the Israelites to whom Joshua presented the following dilemma:

“And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

(Joshua 24.15)

Whom will you serve?  The “ruler of this world” (Jn 12.31) who looks like “a great red dragon” (Re 12.3), or the King of Heaven, who looks like “a lamb” (4.6)? 

Jeremy Nettles

Living in the Past

Sunday, June 25, 2023

And all the people said to Samuel, “Pray for your servants to the Lord your God, that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask for ourselves a king.” And Samuel said to the people, “Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil. Yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. For the Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you a people for himself.

(1 Samuel 12.19-22)

Despite being “broken in pieces” by the kingdom of God (Da 2.35), the Roman Empire was the most important in a long line of earthly kingdoms in many ways.  It was the political structure of the world into which God sent his Son to save us.  Its language—Latin—although dead today, still speaks, exerting its influence in science, medicine, law, government, and a host of other fields, including the everyday vocabulary of billions of people who speak languages that either descended from it directly, or borrowed from it heavily.  Most countries’ governments today are modeled, in part, on the Roman system.  But one of the major turning points in that system is noteworthy for its contrast to the Israelites’ experience a thousand years prior, summarized in the passage above.

Only God knows the full truth of Rome’s early history, but according to Roman legend, the city was ruled by a succession of seven kings, the last of whom was deposed and exiled due to numerous abuses of his people.  This supposedly took place in the year 509 BC, and over the next four centuries the Roman Republic was ruled by a system of checks and balances including a senate, a voting citizenry, and a small number of executives who served generally short terms and then relinquished their power.  You can probably see many similarities, at least in principle, to today’s representative governments, and this system came with an intense aversion to monarchy.  The Romans, to put it simply, hated the idea of being ruled by a king again.

Then along came Julius Caesar, and the Republic, already faltering, collapsed in on itself.  Caesar wasn’t formally recognized as a king, but everyone could see the direction things were headed, even before the senate, mostly full of his toadies, voted that he should be dictator for life.  A group of several dozen senators decided to put a stop to this madness, and hatched a plot to assassinate him, which they carried out on the infamous “ides of March” (i.e. March 15), in the year 44 BC.  The conspirators had no plan for what to do next, because they thought the people were on their side, and expected things to go back to normal.  In fact, what was “normal” had changed, without them noticing.  The people loved Caesar, and made their feelings known by burning the Senate house, eventually putting a latrine in its place.  The assassins meant to rescue the Roman Republic from Caesar, but by murdering him, they instead sealed the Republic’s fate.  Rome was plunged into civil war, and when the dust finally settled, it was no longer a Republic, but an Empire, ruled by a single man, Augustus Caesar.

Israel’s situation with their newly successful King Saul mirrors Rome’s story in many respects, but the ending was different.  The Israelites had demanded a king over Samuel’s protests and warnings (1Sa 8).  Even after Saul’s great victory over the Ammonites (1Sa 11), Samuel reminded the people of their mistake, calling it “wickedness” to ask for a king (1Sa 12.17).  Yet, his instruction for them was not to get rid of Saul.  He didn’t tell them to go back to judges and local rule by each town’s elders.  Instead, he told them,

If you will fear the Lord and serve him and obey his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the Lord, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the Lord your God, it will be well.

(1 Samuel 12.14)

It must have crossed many men’s minds, that they could be rid of the king rather easily, and thus, seemingly, rectify their sin in asking for a king in the first place.  But that’s never the way it works.  What’s done is done, and can never be undone.  God provided wise counsel through Samuel, who simply told them to make the best of it, and move forward.

Our sins, too, have consequences in the present world, and even when God wipes them away from our record in heaven, their earthly consequences often remain, and can even outlive us.  That’s sobering enough; but another lesson is in teaching us to look to the present and future rather than mourning what is past.  Another wise counselor tells us,

Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.

(Ecclesiastes 7.10)

The past matters, because it’s what teaches us—we learned something from the past just now!  But living in the past is unprofitable, whether pining after the good old days, or hanging on to old sins.  The past is past; the present is now; the future awaits.  What are you going to do about it?  Whether you like it or not, and whether you asked for him or not, a new King reigns.  Will you get with the program, or try to get rid of him and go back to the way things were before?  Samuel, looking forward not only to Israel’s immediate future, but also to Christ, finished his counsel to ancient Israel:

Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way. Only fear the Lord and serve him faithfully with all your heart. For consider what great things he has done for you.

(1 Samuel 12.23-24)

Jeremy Nettles

One Word

Sunday, June 18, 2023

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.

(Galatians 5.13-15)

The past two weeks’ articles were launched by this passage, and Paul’s letter to the Galatian Christians, in general.  We focused on the freedom Paul mentions, and especially what it does not mean.  First, we considered freedom from the Law of Moses, but a multitude of factors forced us to conclude it was bigger than that—the original audience of Gentile Christians were never enslaved to that Law in the first place.  Then, we looked at the outer limit of this freedom—if Paul succeeded in convincing them they were free from such restrictions as those in the Law of Moses, there was a very real chance they’d latch onto this “freedom” talk and conclude that some horrible sins were just fine! 

This is, in fact, what happened in another location, Corinth—despite more than 18 months (Ac 19.11ff) of Paul’s residency and constant teaching, some of the Christians there managed to convince themselves it was ok for a man to carry on a sexual relationship with his step-mother (1Co 5.1ff); that it made sense to take brothers in Christ before a court that blessed paganism (6.1ff); that visiting prostitutes was acceptable (6.12ff); that the Lord’s Supper was a great time to rub a brother’s poverty in his face (11.20ff); and more!  Paul wrote Galatians  years before 1 Corinthians, but already he—not to mention the Holy Spirit!—saw the danger in running with “freedom” headlong into sin.

However, as we saw in last week’s article, the answer also wasn’t mandatory abstinence from everything your flesh desires.  Many years later, Paul was still singing the same tune, predicting that in the future,

some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.

(1 Timothy 4.1-5)

The right method is easily said, but less easily applied.  It’s wrong to forbid certain foods; but it’s also wrong to be a glutton!  It’s wrong to forbid marriage; but it’s also wrong to get married outside the lines of God’s design!  The all or nothing approach seems simpler, but the proper path is in between.

Are you starting to see why many of the Galatian, Gentile Christians were enticed by the prospect of submitting to the Law of Moses?  Smaller factors included clever twisting of the Scriptures to deceive them (Ga 3.1), man’s judgmental gaze, and selfish pleasure at being “made much of,” as Paul says (4.18), meaning that they just enjoyed the positive attention; but the dealmaker was how the heresy made navigating life before God seem so cut-and-dry.  No tough questions, very little thought required—these foods are off limits, a minor surgery for visual confirmation, all the requirements are written down in detail, and that’s all you’re responsible for.  Easy, peasy, check the box, and move on with your life, secure in your own self-righteousness.  But that’s not what Christ brought us!  For our dealings on earth, there’s just one core principle: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Le 19.18).  That’s it?  Such freedom!  But wait…how shall I love my neighbor?

Certainly biting and devouring (Ga 5.15) doesn’t qualify!  And yet, it was easy to convince themselves they were behaving righteously, while biting and devouring over the application of this very heresy!  Certainly the “works of the flesh” are off limits:

sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies…

(Galatians 5.19-21)

Great, there’s a list!  So avoid those things and you’re home free!  Until Paul finishes the sentence, “…and things like these,” and now we have to exercise some kind of personal judgment again.  We’ll be similarly frustrated at the “fruit of the spirit,” if this is our mentality:

love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

(Galatians 5.22-23)

Those sound wonderful!  But they’re not as simple to apply in everyday situations, like the Old Testament commandment “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk” (Ex 23.19).  That leaves very little room for discussion!  Be kind, on the other hand, is something of a judgment call.  In any given situation, there may be a multitude of ways you can behave that are “kind,” leaving it up to you to choose.  On top of that, you’ll face judgment from other people, who may disagree with your choice.  There are two things to remember about this: first, God set it up this way on purpose.  He wants you to be “obedient from the heart” (Ro 6.17), not merely observing a checklist to stay on God’s good side, while pursuing a life of self-gratification; and second, other people may help you decide what is the loving course, but their approval means very nearly nothing. 

“For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ”

(Galatians 1.10). 

Let him be your guide, and be ready to stand and give an answer before his judgment seat.

Jeremy Nettles

Opportunity for the Flesh

Sunday, June 11, 2023

In last week’s article, we considered the freedom promised in Christ, and searched for the answer to the question, freedom from what?  Answers included the Law of Moses, judgment of man, and (more importantly), sin and death; but the quest also dragged us into the realization that absolute freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Being freed from unjust, unloving masters will simply lead to our enslavement, yet again, to something or someone else.  The goal is to “become slaves of God” (Ro 6.22), submitting our will and our bodies for his service.

This is because we’re simply not equipped to be our own masters.  When we try, we end up submitting our bodies to our own desires, which quickly becomes sin, and look, we’ve become slaves of Satan, again.  Even though our rational, spiritual will knows better, we still give in to the flesh.  Would we do that, if our rational, spiritual will were in charge?

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

(Romans 7.15-20)

This notoriously dense passage is a challenge to understand, but well worth the effort.  Having parsed the language, the next point of confusion comes from the mistaken notion that Paul is making excuses for sin, or denying man’s culpability, saying twice, “it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (v17, v20).  But that’s obviously not his point; rather, having accepted responsibility for his own sin, saying “I do the very thing I hate” (v15) and “evil…is what I keep on doing” (v19), he describes his “wretched” state (v24) by saying that sin has taken up residence within him.  The problem is that he has presented his body as a slave to sin, and so now it rules him, even when he knows it’s bad for everyone.  His flesh and his spirit are at war with each other, we might say.  In fact, Paul did say that—

For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.

(Galatians 5.17)

Now we’re back in Galatians 5, where all of this talk about freedom in Christ first began.  How are Christians supposed to deal with this internal conflict?  In this same context, Paul told these erring Christians, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (Ga 5.13).

The whole letter, up to this point, has been about convincing Christians, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Ga 5.1).  We’ve already considered the many forces in competition to be our masters, and seen that the best candidate, who allows the most meaningful freedom, is God—not to mention his plans to adopt even his slaves as sons and heirs; but as we move forward through this life, it’s not as if “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1Jn 2.16) will simply melt away and never bother us again.  It’s not as if Jesus will physically prevent us from choosing the path of sin.  He puts up roadblocks to slow us down and encourage us to reconsider, but many Christians still fall away.  This is why the author of Hebrews encourages Christians,

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

(Hebrews 3.12-13)

As we deal with the daily onslaught of temptation, how do we sow to the spirit and not the flesh (Ga 6.8)?

The simplest response would be to deny all desires of the flesh.  How far would that get you?  You’d die of hunger in a few weeks, but not before you died of thirst in just a few days!  God built in a fleshly desire for food and drink, and if you never satisfy those, you’re not racking up points before God by your refusal!  In fact, this approach is doomed to failure, anyway.  You’ll find you have excellent control over your breathing, too; and will find immense pleasure in a big breath of air after holding it under water, for example.  That is a fleshly desire, too; but if you decide to abstain from breathing, you’ll soon discover that your will is inadequate to the task!  God built these desires into us, for our good, and not merely to tempt us into sin.

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

(Colossians 2.20-23)

The conflict between flesh and spirit is a part of life in the flesh.  Running from it won’t work.  There are, of course, innumerable problems with “the indulgence of the flesh,” but putting your faith in asceticism is simply enslavement to flesh, in a slightly different form.  Instead, the Christian is to keep fleshly desires in their proper place, and refuse to be ruled by them—after all, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Ga 5.24).

Jeremy Nettles

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