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Doubting God

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Therefore the Lord said to Solomon, “Since this has been your practice and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant. Yet for the sake of David your father I will not do it in your days, but I will tear it out of the hand of your son.”

(1 Kings 11.11-12)

Solomon reigned over Israel’s brief golden age, in which the nation enjoyed unparalleled material blessings, honor, and peace.  But Solomon grew complacent, and was drawn away from God, who had given him all these things.  As a result, God made the above decree.  When Solomon died and his son Rehoboam was set to take over the kingdom, the dissident leader and expatriate Jeroboam returned, to carry out God’s plan.  Naturally, Rehoboam tried to avert this course of events and cement himself on the throne of Israel.  He attempted to frighten his subjects into submission, but failed miserably.

And when all Israel saw that the king did not listen to them, the people answered the king, “What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, David.”

(1 Kings  12.16)

Clearly, this plan didn’t work.  Instead of accepting Solomon’s son as their new king,

when all Israel heard that Jeroboam had returned, they sent and called him to the assembly and made him king over all Israel. There was none that followed the house of David but the tribe of Judah only.

(1 Kings 12.20)

Jeroboam was in a good position!  God had told him beforehand (1Ki 11.26-39) that he would receive the kingdom, and now he’d been given an overwhelming vote of confidence by his subjects.  Even if he’d harbored doubts when first told of God’s plans for his future, seeing is believing!  He could not have forgotten such an incredible and apparently unlikely prophecy, nor failed to have noticed its fulfillment.  Yet he began to worry about the stability of his position, almost immediately.

And Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the Lord at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.”

(1 Kings 12.26-27)

Now, let’s think about this.  God had given him firm assurances.  In the first place, he’d predicted,

“And I will take you, and you shall reign over all that your soul desires, and you shall be king over Israel.”

(1 Kings 11.37)

This much had already been fulfilled.  Then, in the the same breath God had said,

“if you will listen to all that I command you, and will walk in my ways, and do what is right in my eyes by keeping my statutes and my commandments, as David my servant did, I will be with you and will build you a sure house, as I built for David, and I will give Israel to you.”

(1 Kings 11.38)

Standing between these two promises, Jeroboam managed to see with his own eyes that God knows the future and keeps his word, and yet to doubt that God knew the future or would keep his word!  And where did his faithlessness lead?

So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.

(1 Kings 12.28-29)

That does not look like a man listening to all that God commands, walking in his ways, doing what is right in his eyes, or keeping his statutes and commandments.  The most sympathetic interpretation possible would be to say that Jeroboam wasn’t intentionally violating the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20.3), but merely intended for these idols to represent the Lord, God of Israel.  But of course, the second commandment is,

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image…. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…”

(Exodus 20.4-5)

There’s no weaseling out of that one; but someone might raise a partial defense of Jeroboam, saying that, while mistaken, he thought this only meant a prohibition on idols representing other gods—those outlawed in the previous commandment.  This, too, falls flat.  In the same chapter, God said, “You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold” (Ex 20.23).  In the first and most basic set of laws God gave to Israel, he expressly prohibited exactly what Jeroboam later did.

In fact, in addition to being wrong on its face, the cult Jeroboam built around these two idols led his subjects straight into imitation of Canaanite idolatry, lawlessness, oppression, cult prostitution, and human sacrifice—which were the reasons for which God eventually destroyed the nation (cf. 2Ki 17.7-18).  Because he was afraid to lose his kingdom, he set it on the path toward destruction.

Jeroboam’s story is worthy of our attention, in part because he’s a sympathetic character.  He was given incredible promises by God, but he recognized his own limitations and felt insecure, as we often do as well.  Rather than trusting God, he employed consequentialist reasoning without even the benefit of God’s foresight, and then presented to the people a different reason—convenience.  Thus he led them astray.  Both reasons were bad; but both were persuasive!  We must be on guard against such doubt and transgression, today.

Jeremy Nettles

Obeying the Law

Sunday, March 03, 2024

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For 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.

(Romans 13.1-2)

Several New Testament passages remind Christians to obey the law of the land.  It seems self-explanatory—and so it is, in ideal circumstances.  But there are caveats.  The first is usually introduced with a look at the Apostles’ own conduct toward authorities, when their instructions conflicted with God’s.

“We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”

(Acts 5.28-29)

Aside from these circumstances, it’s generally accepted that human law is backed by God’s authority, and rejecting legitimate human authority is a one way ticket to hell.  That’s an exaggeration, but only a slight one.  This cut-and-dry view of the issue is built on our general assumption, in the United States of America, that we are a nation of laws, and not of men.  That is to say, the law is the law, and it is not subject to the whims of officials, whose job is to enforce it.  This is a long and strong tradition in our country, going back to John Adams, one of the least appreciated and yet most effective of the founding fathers, who in March of 1775 wrote:

If Aristotle, Livy, and Harrington knew what a republic was, the British constitution is much more like a republic, than an empire. They define a republic to be a government of laws, and not of men.

(John Adams, 1819, Novanglus, and Massachusettensis, p.84)

His point was that Britain’s refusal to give the colonies legislative representation flouted its own law.  Britain was by then a constitutional monarchy, and its king ruled in conjunction with a parliament, elected to represent the populace.  In an autocracy, or “empire,” as Adams termed the undesirable system, “the maxim is quod principi placuit, legis habet vigorem” (ibid.), which may be translated, What pleases the prince, has the power of law.

Adams’ legal mind was hugely influential in bringing about the American Revolution, and even before hostilities broke out, Adams recommended to the Continental Congress that each colony create its own State Constitution, ratified by a popular vote.  His own Massachusetts was the first to respond, and whom, do you think, they would ask to draft it?  Adams’ words would soon become a model for other states to follow, and made it painfully clear that power ought to separated between three branches, “to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men” (Pt. I, Art. 30).

Why does all of this matter?  It illustrates that our nation is built on the tradition of governance through a robust system of laws, and not the whims of officials.  We take this for granted, but it is exceptional!  A quotation is often attributed to Stalin’s secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria, “show me the man, and I’ll show you the crime.”  But this sentiment is hardly unique to the mass murderers of the 20th century!  A little research will turn up many related proverbs, one of which—involving a prosecutor and a ham sandwich—you may have repeated, yourself!

In the political climate surrounding the early church, the Roman Empire did not call itself an empire, nor did it call its rulers emperors.  Instead, the emperor was princeps, the “first citizen,” and definitely not a king, because Rome hated the concept of monarchy.  Until late in the third century, Rome maintained its pretense of being a republic, ruled by the senate, whose foremost member just sort of happened to get his way, right around 100% of the time.  But whatever the politicians claimed, normal people understood the situation.  As Peter wrote, sometime in the mid-60’s, “Honor the emperor” (1Pe 2.17).  The Greek word behind the ESV’s “emperor” is βασιλεύς-basileus-“king.”  Regardless of the written law and supposed constitution, they were living in an autocracy, in which—to return to what John Adams wrote—“what pleases the prince, has the power of law.”

This made the Christian’s job harder, and helps to explain why Paul also wrote, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Ro 12.18), and urged

that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.

(1 Timothy 2.1-2)

They couldn’t rely on compliance with the written law to keep them out of government crosshairs, and instead had to grapple with the unwritten law and try their best to avoid worldly troubles from which they ought to have been exempt but, in fact, were not.

There’s no sense in Christians today making an idol of the written law of the land, either.  Despite a long history of “government of laws, and not of men,” things are rapidly changing—regressing to the sadly normal state of human affairs.  We, likewise, must wrestle with this uncomfortable truth, and muddle through life, balancing our God-given responsibilities with the ever-increasing burdens men lay upon us.  It’s not easy.  But it will help immensely to remember that

our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

(Philippians 3.20-21)

Jeremy Nettles

Holier Than Thou

Sunday, February 25, 2024

“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.”

(Matthew 23.23)

Jesus did not take the Pharisees to task for being careful or meticulous.  He didn’t want them to neglect their responsibility to tithe from their herb gardens.  After all, the commandment was “You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year” (De 14.22).  The very next verse refers to “the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock,” which puts the focus on what are effectively cash crops, rather than small-scale yields intended for personal use; but it is good to pay attention to little things, and refuse to cheat God out of his share.

However, many of the Pharisees’ traditions and interpretations, like this one, served as excuses to ignore the big things!  Their righteous deeds were far too often aimed at the goal of being “praised by others” (Mt 6.2), and so an elaborate game of one-upping each other ensued.  God gave Israel a law that emphasized ritual purity; from that principle the Pharisees built a tradition of washing their hands before eating.  Hygiene is good; but they invested it with the weight of God’s Law, and they imposed it, not as a wise recommendation, but as a mandate.

From there, we should not be surprised that the game progressed to “the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches” (Mk 7.4).  This was not, of course, a couch like the modern living room furniture piece, but that amusing mental image can serve to emphasize the ridiculous lengths to which the Pharisees were going, in an effort to prove their extraordinary holiness.  These traditions, which over time came to have the force of law among the Jews, also included the “Sabbath day’s journey” mentioned in Acts 1.12, which was an oddly specific 2,000 cubits, perhaps found written in invisible ink between the lines of Exodus 16.29, in which Moses commanded the Israelites, “let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.” 

Yet another example is seen throughout the New Testament as well as the Old, in which the name of God is generally rendered “the Lord.”  The actual text behind this is יהוה-YHWH, which we don’t know how to pronounce but is probably something like “Yahweh.”  We don’t know, because the Jews decided this name was too holy for human lips to utter; so they replicated the name in writing, but instead spoke the word, אֲדֹנָי-’adonai-“master” and, when vowel markings made their way into written Hebrew, put the vowels for ’adonai with the consonants of the unutterable name. Was this what God was demanding, when he said, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Ex 20.7)?  No; but from that commandment, a superstitious tradition grew, which still has effects today.

Nor does it end there.  Around the middle of the 20th century, a few major Bible translations were published, which all capitalized pronouns (He, Him, and His) that referred to God.  This quickly became the norm for individual Christians, leading to occasional disputes, albeit usually minor, when someone bucks the tradition.  You may even see the word, God, instead rendered, “G-d,” in a cringeworthy imitation of the Jewish practice just discussed.  Just as with the Pharisees of old, you can clearly see the desire to one-up each other’s holiness.  The Jews refused to say G-d’s name?  Well, I won’t even fully write out the generic substitute term for G-d’s actual name!  Who’s holy, now?

The same impulse drove Peter to disagree with the Lord himself, during the Last Supper.  Jesus circled the room, washing the feet of each disciple in turn.

Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.”

(John 13.8-10)

Despite already observing the interaction between Jesus and several of Peter’s peers, he was intent on distinguishing himself from the rest.  There’s no doubt his objection came from a sincere conscience; but what good is a sincere conscience that disagrees with Jesus?  Then, when Jesus soundly rebuked him, he ran to the other extreme—in all sincerity—only to be corrected by Jesus once more. 

It’s so easy to slip into this holier-than-thou attitude, without realizing it.  On this topic, Solomon wrote, “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise.” (Ec 7.16).  He was not recommending that you deliberately sin once in a while; rather, he was talking about your own self-assessment.  When you start to believe that you’ve got righteousness under control and deserve an eternal reward from God, that’s exactly when Satan has you where he wants you.  Instead, we should imitate Paul, who wrote, “I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me” (1Co 4.4).  Whether you keep to man’s traditions in an effort to serve God, is your business.  But do not think that your meticulousness in the little things—especially the things God has not commanded—has earned you a place in God’s house.

For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.

(Romans 10.3)

Jeremy Nettles

Entering Christ's Kingdom

Sunday, February 18, 2024

For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

(2 Peter 2.11)

Taking this verse alone, what would you expect to be hiding behind the phrase, “in this way”?  To answer that, we must consider what followed—“an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  What, exactly, is that kingdom?  When Jesus spoke of his kingdom, he repeatedly stated that it was “at hand” (cf. Mt 4.17, 10.7, Mk 1.15).  On one occasion, he even said,

“there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”

(Mark 9.1) 

Armed with this information, we are primed to equate Jesus’ kingdom with the church—which, indeed, was established and began to flourish, within the lifetime and in full view of many who heard him make this prediction. 

Now, let’s interpret Peter’s statement in light of what we just concluded based on Jesus’ own words.  “For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into” Christ’s kingdom.  We should expect, then, that Peter must have just related, or is just about to relate, how a person becomes part of the church or, to put it another way, how one becomes a Christian.  Yet, that simply doesn’t square with the letter Peter is writing!  Who are his audience?

Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ,

To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ:

May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.

(2 Peter 1.1-2)

He’s writing to those whose faith is comparable to his own—to Christians.  Yet, he’s explaining to them how they will become Christians?  That doesn’t make any sense!  Perhaps it will become clearer, when we examine the discourse summarized by the phrase, “in this way.”

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.

(2 Peter 1.5-10)

That’s a lot to take in.  Peter provides a list of qualities which Christians ought to cultivate; and says that lacking them undermines one’s faith and cleansing—in other words, it undermines one’s very salvation!  On the other hand, to practice these qualities brings great stability and spiritual prosperity.  That’s noteworthy in and of itself, but why were we looking at this passage?  Because Peter followed it by saying,

For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

(2 Peter 2.11)

So, Peter told Christians—who are already citizens of Christ’s heavenly, eternal kingdom—to practice these qualities, and thus secure an entrance into Christ’s heavenly, eternal kingdom.  Is it making sense, yet?

We need to consider another passage.

“You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.”

Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.

(Hebrews 2.7-8)

The unnamed recipient of glory and honor is, of course, Jesus.  He has been crowned; he is king; he has a kingdom.  And yet, the author makes his own observation—that Christ is clearly not yet the undisputed sovereign of all creation.  In fact, most of humanity—not to mention “the cosmic powers over this present darkness” and “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ep 6.12)—continue to rebel against God’s Anointed King.  Paul, likewise referring to Psalm 8, put it thus: “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1Co 15.25). 

The question in mind was not how to become a citizen of Christ’s kingdom.  For that, Peter would have a different answer, echoed by the author of Hebrews, as well as Paul, involving faith in Jesus and obedience to his instruction to “Repent and be baptized” in his name (Ac 2.38).  But while Christians can already state with certainty that God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Co 1.13), we must also “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2Pe 3.18), in order to be granted entry to the final and complete manifestation of his kingdom.

For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And

“If the righteous is scarcely saved,

what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

(1 Peter 4.17-18)

Do not take your own promised crown for granted.  Diligently pursue it, and do not lose heart.

Jeremy Nettles

Measuring Up

Sunday, February 11, 2024

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do…”

(John 14.15)

Jesus is our standard.  This is no surprise—to begin with, he’s the Son of God, the Anointed Prophet, High Priest, and King, and he told us as much.  But on top of that, not only is is his word absolute and binding, but as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1.29), he is entirely free from the blemish of sin.  We can see that this must be the case, because it’s crucial to the scheme of sacrificial atonement God ordained; but on top of that, the evidence from his life confirms it.  Of course, when the apostles wrote that “in him there is no sin” (1Jn 3.5), the skeptic may simply say they were mistaken, if not lying; but even the skeptic must admit that Jesus was executed on charges of blasphemy, because he made himself out to be equal with God—which, of course, isn’t a blasphemous thing to say, if it’s true!  Many times Jesus issued a challenge to those who wanted to get rid of him: “Which one of you convicts me of sin?” (Jn 8.46).  But, in fact, despite having all the reason in the world to delve into Jesus’ past and his private behavior in order to discredit him, their every attempt fell flat.

Of course, modern skeptics occasionally attempt to succeed where Jesus’ accusers failed, and paint one or another of Jesus’ actions, recorded in the Gospels, as sinful.  Likely candidates for this treatment are his use of force in cleansing the temple, (cf. Jn 2.15), attempts to catch him in a lie (e.g. Jn 7.8-10), or in recent years the more creative accusation of racial bigotry surrounding the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15.  Christians are often tempted to skirt the issue with respect to these, and simply refer to one of the several verses that affirm, “He committed no sin” (1Pe 2.22).  That’s a mistake—we ought to confront the specific accusations and wrestle with them, in light of the Scriptures’ consistent line on this point.  And in fact there is a simple explanation available for each of these imagined infractions.  But that brings us back to Jesus’ sinlessness, and his instruction to follow his example.  This is where it gets uncomfortable.

If we are to do the works that Jesus did (Jn 14.15), it would be sensible for us to create a rough list of his works.  Browsing through the Gospels, we see that he resisted temptation; that he taught the will of God; that he instructed sinners to repent; that he called average people to devote their lives to his service; that he prayed—a lot; that he endured persecution; that he fasted; that he feasted; that he associated with the lowly and sinners as easily as with elite pharisees; that he perplexed many and enraged some; that he humiliated the self-righteous who tried to entrap him; that he forgave those who sinned against him; that he blessed and gave attention to children.  This is a long list, and includes some difficult, yet attainable behaviors for us to emulate.  But it’s hardly exhaustive!  On that long list, there’s a surprising lack of the “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father,” which is “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (Ja 1.27)!  But that sort of thing is missing, only because we’ve carefully skipped over Jesus’ supernatural works!

He also healed the sick and disabled; cast out demons; calmed storms; raised the dead; fed enormous crowds; and much, much more!  In fact, these are the “works” Jesus himself meant, when he said,

“If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”

(John 10.37-38)

As we strive to imitate Jesus, we should not ignore these deeds of mercy!  Of course, we’re quite limited in our ability to do these things—lacking his divine power, we can only do our best to accomplish similar ends, by natural means.  But failure to do these things does not come from a lack of miraculous power; rather, it comes from a heart that pursues only its own interests, ignoring those of others!

When we compare ourselves to Jesus—as we should do on a weekly basis, at the very least—we will always come up short.  We simply fail to measure up to the standard he has set, and any suggestion otherwise is the product of either ignorance, or arrogance.  Our inability to accomplish his supernatural feats of love is mirrored by our repeated failure to keep ourselves “unstained from the world” (Ja 1.27). 

But the situation is far from hopeless!  Yes, we are prone to sin—but “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1Jn 2.1).  He doesn’t sit on his throne, shaking his head in disgust and looking forward to sending us to hell.  It’s the opposite!  He’s our advocate before his Father, interceding on our behalf, since he has experienced our human weakness.

In similar fashion, we lack the power, for example, to feed thousands of people with no more than a handful of fish and loaves.  But it’s not just about the outward form of these things.  It begins with a mind and heart to serve—the mind and heart of Jesus.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant…”

(Philippians 2.3-7)

Jeremy Nettles

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