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So You Want to Be a Teacher?Sunday, February 19, 2023
…and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? (Romans 2.19-21)
Not everyone wants to teach. It can be a thankless job, one that opens you up to relentless criticism. If the students mess up, it’s easy to blame the teacher, regardless of whether the students wish to learn, or expend any effort at all in order to do so. But it can also be extremely rewarding to teach, leading to selfish gain—there is substantial prestige awarded to some teachers, and that feeling of influence—let’s face it, of power over others—can be worth more than money, to some. Our broad-sweeping English word, master, comes from the Latin magister, which refers to a teacher or tutor. Outside the context of the Gospels, we think of disciples primarily as followers or adherents, but again, the word comes from the Latin discipulus, which means a student or pupil. It’s easy to see the appeal Paul mentions in the Romans 2 passage above. When people ask you for advice, answers, or instruction, it makes you feel accomplished and powerful. Jesus points this out concerning the scribes and Pharisees, saying that “they love … being called rabbi by others” (Mt 23.6-7). Rabbi, of course, literally means “my great one,” but in common use had come to mean, “my teacher.”
Perhaps this illustrates why so many people continually offer unsolicited advice, on every topic, to everyone around them. Yet, in the context of the most important matters in the world, James gives us a stern warning:
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3.1)
There’s some debate over what this stricter standard means—is James talking about the same thing we noticed earlier, that teachers are unfairly criticized for the performance of their disciples? Or, is it about the judgment of God falling more harshly on those who presume to teach? There’s no reason both can’t be true! When the judgment comes from men, perhaps we can write it off as comparatively unimportant; but when it’s from God, we can’t brush it aside so easily!
Why would God hold teachers to a standard any different from everyone else? Simple! As Paul asked, “you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself?” We don’t expect anyone to be perfect, but teaching always involves some amount of judgment: no, that’s wrong. Here’s the right way. And it’s easy for us to recognize that there’s something perverse about passing judgment on others, when the self-appointed judge is guilty of the same offense. This is what Jesus was getting at, when he said, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged” (Mt 7.1-2). Just a few verses later he follows it up: “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (v5). It’s not always unfair to hold a teacher responsible for his pupils’ actions. If he won’t put his own teaching into practice, or if he failed to teach them properly, and certainly if he taught them falsehood and lawlessness, should we be surprised that God is upset with him?
This teaching business seems awfully dangerous! Although we might be enticed by the prospect of sharing our considerable wisdom, correcting everyone else’s mistakes, and receiving honor for it, we are at the same time duly warned by Paul, by James, and by Jesus himself against it! But that’s not the whole story. We shouldn’t swear off teaching entirely, worrying only about ourselves. James says “Not many of you should become teachers,” but by no means does he mean “none of you”! On the contrary, we often have a responsibility to teach! “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ep 6.1). Not every father is responsible for teaching everyone else’s children, but their own fathers are obligated to do so! Additionally, Paul tells Timothy, “what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2Ti 2.2). If we wanted to get out of the responsibility, perhaps we’d point to Timothy’s position as a minister of the church, and conclude, well of course he ought to be teaching, it’s his job, and we pay him to do it so we don’t have to! There’s an element of truth there; yet what was the stated goal in teaching these faithful men? They are expected to teach others! Jesus also gave an instruction like this, the great Teacher telling his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28.19).
We live in a culture that is increasingly similar in spirit to that of the scribes and Pharisees, which encouraged extremes. More and more, whatever is not compulsory is considered to be forbidden, and vice versa. Although the application of that principle looks drastically different in many respects today, it’s the same principle behind much of our modern confusion. But in many areas, the proper approach is moderation—engaging in a behavior when it is right, wise, and prudent, and otherwise avoiding it. Too often, we’re either afraid to teach and run to the extreme of refusing to do so, or else we’re convinced we must teach everyone about everything, and run to that extreme, instead. Instead of looking at it as a danger, a chore, or our unique gift and achievement, let’s see it for what it is—a risky responsibility—and carefully work to fulfill it.
When We DisagreeSunday, February 12, 2023
Christians face a difficult and often frustrating balancing act, in the effort to keep doctrine pure. On one hand, the risks involved in failing to address such a problem are obvious, and there are multiple commandments in the New Testament to deal with false teaching quickly and decisively. For just one example,
For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. (Titus 1.10-11)
It doesn’t get much clearer than that! There are also examples that show us the consequences of failing in this responsibility. Even before considering that we must all one day stand before the judgment seat of God, the results of these heresies have direct and immediate consequences in this life.
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. (2 Peter 2.1-3)
Yet, as horrifying as these consequences are, and as much as they motivate us to uproot any such destructive heresy, we must also acknowledge that simple misunderstandings are liable to cause just as much havoc! For example, after helping to conquer the promised land under the direction of Joshua, the tribes who’d settled on the other side of the Jordan set up an altar before crossing over back to their homes.
And when the people of Israel heard of it, the whole assembly of the people of Israel gathered at Shiloh to make war against them. (Joshua 22.12)
Fortunately, they had the good sense to send a delegation to ask just what was the intent behind this, along with an admonition,
“do not rebel against the Lord or make us as rebels by building for yourselves an altar other than the altar of the Lord our God.” (Joshua 22.19)
They soon learned that this altar was “not for burnt offering, nor for sacrifice, but to be a witness between” the Israelites on each side of the river, to remind them of their shared heritage and covenant with God (vv26-27). It must have been somewhat embarrassing to the gathered armies, to realize they’d gone to such trouble in preparing for a civil war, over an imagined offense; but what a relief! Think of the bloodshed and the lasting divisions that would have resulted, if they'd acted with any more haste, or if they’d been unwilling to admit their mistake and back down!
It gets worse. What if you’re wrong, and don’t admit it, or even acknowledge the possibility? Gamaliel—no Christian!—gave good advice to the Sanhedrin, when he said of the newly-established church,
“if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5.38-39)
We can see a similar example—with Peter again stuck in the center of the strife—when he fielded the damning accusation, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them” (Ac 11.3). It’s sad to say, but versions of this controversy lasted, among Christians, for many years—one holding that “there is neither Jew new Greek” (Ga 3.28), and another insisting, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Ac 15.1). Eventually it was sorted out, and today almost no one can fathom that there would be disagreement on this point. But how many people fell away, were pushed away, or forged ahead down a path of their own making, over this issue?
We’d like to think we have it figured out, in our day and age—after all, during those days God was still giving additional revelations to his people, and so it’s more understandable that some questions remained unanswered, or insufficiently answered. But today? God’s Word is unchanging! How could there be doctrinal disputes? And yet, one has only to look back at the divisive behavior of Christians when covid hit, to see that it’s very possible for brothers and sisters, reading the same Word of the same God, could reach opposite conclusions and flatly condemn any who didn’t see it their way. Do you think that’s the only area where such doctrinal disagreements could occur?
We should strive for doctrinal purity, but we should also take to heart Jesus’ rebuke:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23.23-24)
Camels and gnats were both unclean, according to Leviticus 11; was Jesus advocating for ignoring the rule that pertained to insects, in favor of the one pertaining to mammals? No; but he used this ridiculous metaphor to illustrate that they had misplaced their focus. Let’s not make the same mistake! As Paul reminds us, when we engage in these controversies, we run a risk. If we’re wrong—and even if we’re correct, but go about the argument improperly—we may create a stumbling block for a brother, and thus “destroy the one for whom Christ died” (Ro 14.15). What are your priorities?
Asking for a SignSunday, February 05, 2023
Then Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said, behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said.” And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water. Then Gideon said to God, “Let not your anger burn against me; let me speak just once more. Please let me test just once more with the fleece. Please let it be dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground let there be dew.” (Judges 6.36-39)
In the book of Judges, as a general rule, the more text is devoted to telling us a judge’s story, the more we can see his moral shortcomings. This reflects the condition common to all mankind, that
The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man,
to see if there are any who understand,
who seek after God.
They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one. (Psalm 14.2-3)
While it would be unfair—and unrighteous—to pass judgment on Gideon and ignore our own sins, Gideon’s story was written so we would learn from both the good and the bad. In the passage quoted above, we find Gideon asking God for a sign, not once but twice in as many days! We can tell that even Gideon knows he’s treading awfully close to the line with God, because he prefaces his second request with, “let not your anger burn against me” (v39). Considering that God has already given him exactly what he requested, we’re left wondering why the first sign isn’t enough for him to believe. It doesn’t appear that he doubts God’s power, only his will to help Israel—as he asked the angel prior to this incident, “if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us?” (Jdg 6.13).
What’s that? Oh, yes, an angel of the Lord spoke to Gideon! Not only that, but Gideon made a request of the angel: “If now I have found favor in your eyes, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me” (v17). The angel provided what was asked, and “Gideon perceived that he was the angel of the Lord” (v22). That first sign strengthened Gideon’s wobbling knees enough that he obeyed his orders and tore down his own father’s altar of Baal and attendant Asherah idol, replacing them with an altar to the Lord. But despite making it safely through this first ordeal among his own people and even amassing an enormous army to fight the oppressing Midianites, he again became reluctant to put himself at the front of the conflict, and asked for the two signs of the fleece, with which we began.
Despite the reminder that each of us has his own shortcomings, we’ve been looking at Gideon’s repeated requests for miraculous signs in an unfavorable light. And that’s in keeping with the words of Jesus, who on more than one occasion said things like, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign” (Mt 16.4; see also Mt 12.39ff). But, on the other hand, isn’t it understandable that we should be skeptical about outlandish or fantastical claims to be an angel of the Lord, or even the Messiah? The Spirit himself says,
do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4.1)
Yet, he also told the Israelites, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (De 6.16) and, getting back to Gideon, he admitted he wished to “test just once more with the fleece” (Jdg 6.39). It’s not that God expects us to have an innate ability to discern instantly between his Spirit and those that tell us lies in his name; he gave Israel a straightforward test to determine whether a prophet really spoke for God: wait and see whether his predictions come true (De 18.22). In the early church, he gave some the supernatural “ability to distinguish between spirits” (1Co 12.10). But the point is this: when he’s already given you plenty of reason to trust him, don’t push him to do more. This was Jesus’ gripe with the scribes and Pharisees who showed up and demanded he given them miraculous signs in addition to the countless healings and exorcisms he’d already publicly performed.
That brings us back to Gideon, once again—wasn’t that exactly the same thing he was doing? God provided one sign; he asked for a second. God obliged, and Gideon—knowing he was now on thin ice—requested a third. But even that isn’t the end of it. We don’t read of Gideon asking for more signs; but all the same, God gave him one. He told Gideon,
“Arise, go down against the camp, for I have given it into your hand. But if you are afraid to go down, go down to the camp with Purah your servant. And you shall hear what they say, and afterward your hands shall be strengthened to go down against the camp.” (Judges 7.9-11)
We may find fault with Gideon’s weak faith and persistent need for reassurance—and make no mistake, that’s why they’re recorded for us!—but God is more gracious than we are, and strengthened Gideon to do the task he’d appointed, with yet another sign—this time, an unsolicited one. Does that mean we should “despise the riches of his kindness, restraint, and patience” (Ro 2.4, CSB)? Certainly not! But take note of the abundant proofs he’s already provided for us, even before we could ask! It’s more than we deserve, giving us in his creation and his Word ample evidence of his power, righteousness, faithfulness, and love. We shouldn’t demand additional signs of him; instead, we should look to those he’s already given, and placing our faith, our souls, and our daily choices into his hands, not our own.
All About the FamilySunday, January 29, 2023
The book of Genesis gives us many answers, if we’ll only listen. The first several chapters, especially, do a marvelous job explaining intuitively the relationship between God and man, sin and death. We appreciate this partly because it satisfies our curiosity about the origins of the universe, and of life; but the answers go beyond, and start telling us not only the way things are, but also what we ought to do about it. The story of creation is a record of God’s commandments, bringing things and eventually people into existence by calling them into being out of nothing; but sitting right at the transition between this story and the next chapter is the first general commandment, not a quotation from God within the narrative, but an eternal law.
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2.24)
This instruction—to leave parents and be joined to one’s spouse—seems so obvious that we take it for granted. Yet, today there are many in the world who wish to play the part of the serpent from the next chapter, and convince us that the truth is really the opposite of what God said. If we were to forget everything we think we know, and treat God’s commandment as if it contained all the answers, what would we discover?
Therefore a man…
God expects men and women to fulfill the particular roles he has assigned. In nearly every case, the animals he created are designed to reproduce sexually, and even the plants are mostly divided into male and female at some level; but only with human beings was this considered important enough to warrant a mention in the text:
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1.27)
Both are made in God’s image, but male and female are obviously different, never mind that our society has been trying desperately to change that fact, even carving up the bodies of children in a horrible, but ultimately vain attempt to deny the obvious. Those using technology to pharmaceutically and surgically alter the form of bodies may tell themselves they have become like God (cf. Ge 3.5), creating in their own image; but all they’ve really done is to mangle that which God made and declared “good” (Ge 1.31).
…shall leave his father and his mother…
God expects men to be active and decisive, leaving the comfort of his parents’ home and setting out to build his own. This does not, of course, mean that women have no agency, or expectations to fulfill before God. But God did not have Moses write, “therefore a person shall leave his or her parents and hold fast to his or her spouse.” There’s a reason for the gendered language.
While we’re at it, take note that, according to the pattern, the man ought to have a father and mother to leave. Not a single mother, nor a father and stepmother, nor a pair of fathers, nor a father and a mother and another mother, nor a village, nor any other combination than a father and a mother. There will be understandable exceptions to the rule, for example when one parent dies while the child is still at home. But God’s expectation is clear: a nuclear family comprising a father, a mother, and children who remain in their home until they grow up and leave.
…and hold fast to his wife…
This isn’t a requirement that all men marry—both the Law of Moses and Jesus in the New Testament permit both men and women to remain unmarried—the New Testament even encourages it for some (cf. Mt 19.12, 1Co 7.8). But it is a general requirement. God told the human race to “Be fruitful and multiply” (e.g. Ge 1.28), and built into us an incredibly strong desire to do so. He declared all of creation to be good, except for one thing: “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Ge 2.18). His expectation is that most of us should seek to satisfy that desire to procreate, and to do it within the boundaries he has established—a man and a woman, creating a copy of the household the man has left.
…and they shall become one flesh.
This is obviously an allusion to the anatomical appropriateness of sexual coupling—it’s so fundamental that we refer to electrical and plumbing components as “male” and “female” to illustrate their function. A male fitting without a corresponding female mate serves very little purpose. God’s instruction here has to do with more than closing a circuit, though. He says that joining the two results, not in two bodies connected, but one body. “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mt 19.6).
So, the pattern is clear: a man and a woman marry and form their own family, following the template of those into which they were born. This means the fulfilling of their roles, a strong and exclusive sexual relationship, and the generation of children, who will one day be released into the world to continue the cycle. Of course, the world is tainted by sin, and people find all sorts of ways to complicate the situation. But it’s important to realize that, as with the rest of Genesis, this is about more than fleshly restrictions and reasons to find fault with each other. Since we are made in God’s image, there’s more to us than flesh. There are spiritual implications, too! God’s Son and heir suffered death on the cross in order to adopt us into the family, so that we may be children in “the household of God” (1 Pe 4.17), with all of the responsibilities and blessings that go along with that relationship. It’s all about the family, and it always has been.
Cycles of SinSunday, January 22, 2023
Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. (Judges 2.18-19)
When we read about the Israelites’ long history, we are by turns saddened and maddened. On one hand, we tend to show some understanding for many of their sins, since we’re well acquainted with our own failures. On the other hand, how could they be so dense, so obstinate?! At some point our patience with them is exhausted, as it often is when we see a neighbor or brother repeatedly running headlong into destructive and sinful behavior. When we see such a person in distress, obviously reaping what he has sown (Ga 6.7), we’re inclined to ask, “well, what did you expect to happen?” We all find ourselves in such predicaments, though. Perhaps it’s not as extreme as the situation of the addict who’s lost his job, his family, his home, and his friends, as a result of indulging his appetite at their expense; but from a young age we often require painful consequences to learn a lesson. We learn that we shouldn’t touch the hot stove—not because it’s morally wrong to deliberately damage the bodies God gave us, but because it hurts! We’re supposed to learn from these natural consequences, and then begin to forecast what will result from, for example, walking into traffic, without having to test it to see whether our hypothesis is correct, or the instructions of our leaders. When we see someone willfully ignoring the obvious consequences and continuing into reckless behavior for the sake of momentary pleasure, we’re not sure how we could possibly help. What could we say or do that would get them to change course, when they ignore that?
The Israelites do this throughout the book of Judges. Part of the problem lies in the fact that it’s not only individuals making foolish choices to continue sinning against God, as if the results will be different this time; instead, it’s a crowd of people, spanning a period of many generations. Sometimes there’s wisdom in a crowd, checking the more extreme impulses of an individual; but more often there’s folly instead. When a bad behavior becomes common, the crowd influences those who might have otherwise rejected it to question their own judgment in favor of the crowd's, and thus be led along into the same bad behavior.
Both the crowd and the individual can be influenced to change—to repent—by consequences. But all too often, as soon as the pain disappears, we go right back into the same old sin. That’s what Israel did, over and over. They rejected God, God allowed the Mesopotamians to oppress them, they returned to God and cried for help, and he sent Othniel to save them. They forgot the Mesopotamian oppression and rejected God again, so God allowed the Moabites to oppress them, after which they returned to God and cried out for help, and he sent Ehud to save them. They forgot again, rejected God again, and the cycle continued with the Philistines, the Canaanites, the Midianites, their fellow Israelites, and the Ammonites taking turns oppressing them.
The generation that followed Joshua into the promised land reflected immense growth beyond their fathers, who’d rebelled constantly against God and his chosen human representatives. It’s not that this new generation was perfect—we can read about several of their sins and shortcomings. But on the whole, they had made a strong commitment to remain faithful to the Lord.
Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the Lord did for Israel. (Joshua 24.31)
We might have thought the nation had put away certain sins for good; but the next generation proves us horribly wrong.
And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel. And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. (Judges 2.10-11)
All too often, individuals do the same thing, in a single lifetime. After a period spent in open rebellion to God, they learn from the natural consequences of their actions and make a commitment to God that lasts a while. But before long, that gives way to old habits of sin, until consequences produce sorrow and repentance, which lasts until the next relapse. Often the core sin has to do with drugs, or sex, or money, and just as often it comes with a host of other sins in service of carrying out, or covering up, the central transgression. Meanwhile, what do we silently scream at the Israelites? What did you think was going to happen? Why won’t you learn your lesson? Jesus taught about this:
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.” (Luke 11.24-26)
Why not, instead, give the evil spirit no room to occupy? Why not, instead, give his room to Christ, forever? Like Paul, we should say,
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2.20)