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I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. (1 Corinthians 5.9-11)
The withdrawal of fellowship is a touchy subject. One reason is that conflict between brothers is ugly and unbecoming. Another is that obeying this instruction is difficult—we just don’t like doing it. Never mind what God says about it, there are people we love, for whom we’re tempted to disobey God’s clear instructions. That’s not often acknowledged, of course. Instead, Christians propose all kinds of exceptions and workarounds, much like the Pharisees had done. Jesus said,
“For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’” (Matthew 15.4-6)
It was dressed up to look like devotion to God, and it seemed plausible enough, because there really are times when the letter of one commandment gets in the way of the letter of another. Usually this happens when something has already gone wrong, and those left picking up the pieces are torn between obeying a prohibition, and fulfilling a responsibility. In such cases, we’re supposed to do our best to adhere to the spirit behind both, and Jesus gives us multiple examples to guide us in this pursuit (e.g. Mt 12.1-14). Instead, this tension is often used as a license to do what we want, picking and choosing from God’s word to justify our selfishness. Continuing the passage above, Jesus told the Pharisees guilty of doing this,
“you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me…’” (Matthew 15.6-8)
There are, in fact, difficult situations in which a brother is rightly disciplined by the church, through the removal of fellowship and refusal to associate with him—but certain members have competing obligations to the erring brother, which were also handed down by God. Does such a withdrawal permit the wayward man’s believing wife to leave him and file for divorce? What about his faithful children, who are also members of the congregation that has reached the decision to “take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed” (2Th 3.14)? Does the aforementioned commandment to honor their father no longer apply? Of course it doesn’t work that way. Instead, it means those closest to the erring brother will face a tougher job than everyone else—figuring out how to adhere to the spirit of all God has said on the matter, rather than elevating the letter of one commandment above another, and gutting God’s word in the process.
Most of the time, the supposed carveouts don’t relate to fulfilling another God-given responsibility. Instead, they stem from simply not wanting to obey. The objection goes like this: “but brother so-and-so is one of my closest friends! The rest of you can withdraw fellowship, and I’ll understand—let’s face it, he’s been leading a sinful life lately—but I have such a close relationship with him, I can’t do that to him. Besides, I think I’ll be more effective by continuing to hang out with him. Do you expect him to turn his life around, without any positive influences?” It all seems plausible, but is it grounded in God’s instructions? Not at all!
That approach is a misrepresentation of God’s pattern for discipline in the church, as if he meant that the people who sit in the same church auditorium once or twice a week, but otherwise have no relationship with the erring brother, should break off their imagined association; but those Christians with closer relationships to the sinner can maintain their association, because it would be unreasonable and unhelpful to expect them to participate in this discipline! How ridiculous! Setting aside the considerable problem of finding no support in the Bible, this reasoning implies that our relationships through Christ are less significant than our relationships to family and friends, and so these win out over the comparatively minor disagreements on religious matters. Can you claim to believe that Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth, and yet disobey the instructions he left for his church?
What is the goal of discipline? There are three essential components. The first is justice—evil conduct deserves punishment. The second is to protect the innocent from harm, and from evil influence, since “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Ga 5.9). The third is to rehabilitate, that is, to correct the disordered behavior and restore the repentant sinner back into the group. All three are at play in the church’s discipline, and especially the third one! Concerning the openly incestuous brother at Corinth, Paul instructed, “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1Co 5.5). What good is it, if the people with the most influence over the sinner, refuse to use it for his good? Which is more important to you: your ability to enjoy a relationship with your loved one for a few years on earth, or for eternity in heaven? Which matters more: hurt feelings, or eternal damnation? Which is more loving: to snatch an erring brother out of the fire (Jd 23), or to remain by his side while he burns?
But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. (Hebrews 8.6-7)
How could God’s workmanship have faults? That picture doesn’t seem to be consistent with what we read in the rest of the Bible, and it strains our core assumption about God’s perfection. We take for granted that he is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, and so the idea of him failing in anything is immediately suspect. But we haven’t read far enough!
For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah…” (Hebrews 8.8)
It’s not a case of man finding fault with God; rather, God finds fault with his people, who are the other party to the covenant in question. As a result, the covenant itself is flawed, but not because of any failure on God’s part!
At this point, perhaps some would be keen to condemn Israel—and certainly, Israel deserves it! But that’s not the whole story. When Paul discussed the different paths Jews and Gentiles took to Christ, he wrote,
For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. (Romans 2.12)
It’s not just the Israelites who failed here. Sin is everyone’s problem, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Ro 3.23). The flaw in the first covenant wasn’t in God’s work—that was perfect! The trouble was that we all sin. No matter the covenant, humanity will transgress. Of course, the Law of Moses built that into the system, with a means of dealing with sin through an elaborate scheme of sacrifices, especially animals killed and offered as something of a substitute for the life of the offerer, as God himself said:
“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.” (Leviticus 17.11)
But while God accepted this as a means to continually push back the deserved judgment, we all know that it isn’t good enough. It was never really intended to be.
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10.1-4)
Every year, it was the same old thing, the same old sacrifices, the same reminder of sins; which was just as well, because they kept committing them. But God planned all along to enact a better covenant:
“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8.10-12)
The author of Hebrews is quoting from Jeremiah 31, who foretold this more than 600 years before it came to pass. It’s not that God instituted the Jewish system, then discovered to his surprise that, despite his best efforts, none of them were fully adhering to the agreement. God knew that from the start. It was part of the plan! Centuries before the covenant with Israel was inaugurated at Mount Sinai, God told Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Ge 12.3). It was always about more than just the nation of Israel.
But that leaves us wondering, why impose the Law of Moses at all, then? And God provides an answer:
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made… (Galatians 3.19)
The Law of Moses did many things, but chief among them was to convict those living under it, and teach them, from above, what righteousness was. Israel stood in as a representative of all humanity, and so it convicts all of us, too. That’s the bad news; but it helps us to make sense of the good news, as a result. The same people who constantly transgressed their covenant with God and were punished for it with increasing severity, were then used as a vessel to bring God’s Son into the world for our redemption!
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. …She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations… (Revelation 12.1-5)
The Law of Moses was a failure—if you think the goal was to make humans fit to dwell in God’s presence for eternity. But instead, its purpose was to demonstrate our brokenness, and bring the one and only Savior into the world. For that task it was, indeed, perfect.
Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
Put not your trust in princes,
in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.
When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;
on that very day his plans perish.
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord his God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the sojourners;
he upholds the widow and the fatherless,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
The Lord will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, to all generations.
Praise the Lord! (Psalm 146)
The Psalms don’t get nearly enough attention. Between their quantity, the lack of names and tunes, and the somewhat difficult nature of poetry in general, and Hebrew poetry in particular, they’re too often considered a chore, and forgotten as soon as the book is closed. But all of them are important, and many of them have New Testament ramifications, including Psalm 146. This one actually gets more attention than many of the others, owing to the line, “Put not your trust in princes” (v3), which is a ready reminder to those who foolishly make political leaders into messianic figures—a perennial problem. But the message there is prohibitive: don’t do this thing. With what should we replace that evil tendency?
The main point of the psalm is clear enough by verse 5, which begins, “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,” and makes the comparison to the “princes” of verse 3 both explicit and laughable. God does all of the things people want their politicians to do for them—only, God does them all much better! This is the same problem the Israelites created when they demanded a king from Samuel:
“…that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (1 Samuel 8.20)
If they want justice, God provides that. If they want military leadership, God provides that, too. As God responded, “they have rejected me from being king over them” (v7), in favor of a flawed human king—but at least they’d be like all the surrounding nations!—as if that were a goal worth pursuing.
But there’s more to this psalm than a point about politics and God’s place above it all. Its final section sounds suspiciously similar to another passage in the Bible:
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4.16-21)
As Luke tells us, this is a quote, but not from Psalm 146! Rather, it’s from Isaiah 61, where it applies very obviously to the Messiah—the anointed one. Just like the Lord in Psalm 146, he helps the poor, frees the prisoners, and gives sight to the blind. This should be no surprise to us—Jesus is God, after all. But this happens very often with the Psalms, and the Old Testament in general. Even when we see obvious applications both for the period in which it was written, and for today, God had more in mind, and he hid little tidbits like this one, for us to find and later read through the lens of Jesus, to bring it into clearer focus.
What reasons were given, in the psalm, for not putting our trust in a political leader? Because the best we can hope to find in him is someone who generally seeks justice, tries to help the poor, and gives a few people their freedom. Most won’t even do that, but even if he does, he will eventually die, and “When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish” (Ps 146.4). But now we’ve started reading it with Jesus in mind, and he also died, didn’t he? But what’s the difference? His plans did not perish! His death was not permanent! “The Lord will reign forever,” from Zion, even “to all generations” (v10)! Christ’s resurrection and victory over sin, over Satan, and over death is more than just another miracle performed to get us to believe he’s the Messiah. It’s the fundamental distinction between Jesus, and any other king, even a good one—there is no end to Jesus’ reign, because he will never die again. “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him” (He 7.25). In man, “there is no salvation” (Ps 146.3). In Christ, the wicked are brought to ruin, but those who put their trust in him and obey him as king are fed, healed, freed, exalted, and loved forever. As the psalm said, “Praise the Lord!”
Most people know of Solomon, the wise king of Israel. Not many are familiar with his son, Rehoboam, who inherited his throne; but his story, which is also the story of how and why Israel split into two kingdoms, has a valuable lesson to teach us. It should be no surprise that Solomon was a tough act to follow. Known for his wisdom and his wealth, he had inherited the kingdom from his father, David, and by God’s grace managed to multiply the power and glory of Israel and make its name recognized and respected throughout the known world. Now that Solomon was being replaced by his inexperienced, half-Gentile son (cf. 1Ki 14.21), there was, naturally, some uncertainty about how this next phase would unfold. Loyal servants of Solomon surely harbored doubts about Rehoboam, and many who had feared Solomon, but never loved him, saw their opening, now that the old king was out of the way. This is the case in any royal succession, and was surely on Rehoboam’s mind, when one such man, Jeroboam, led a large group of Rehoboam’s new subjects in crashing his coronation party to make demands:
“Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke on us, and we will serve you.” He said to them, “Go away for three days, then come again to me.” So the people went away.
Then King Rehoboam took counsel with the old men, who had stood before Solomon his father while he was yet alive, saying, “How do you advise me to answer this people?” (1 Kings 12.4-6)
So far, Rehoboam is handling this crisis well! He successfully defused the situation for the moment, and took the prudent step of seeking advice from trustworthy sources.
And they said to him, “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.” (1 Kings 12.7)
But Rehoboam was still seeking advice, and next he went to his younger courtiers, who gave exactly the opposite answer, telling him to reply thus:
“My little finger is thicker than my father's thighs. And now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” (1 Kings 12.10-11)
Why were the young so harsh, and the old so soft? It’s not really that simple. Both groups were advising Rehoboam on how to cement his position at the head of the people, but they had very different methods of getting to that point, stemming from different views of the world and their place within it.
It’s also not fair to attribute the entire difference to the wisdom of the old, and folly of the young. That is a factor, but age does not necessarily equate to wisdom, nor youth to folly—as Solomon observed, “Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice” (Ec 4.13). In this case, however, the older advisors had specific experience that equipped them to give a better answer. They had lived through Solomon’s reign, and remembered what it was like before! They honored him, but not because he was gentle and permissive! He spent the majority of his 40-year reign working on massive construction projects, involving hundreds of thousands of his subjects, most of whom were not given a choice whether to participate in this difficult and dangerous work that often took them from their homes and families! They’d tolerated this for decades, for the sake of building a glorious temple for the Lord, a similarly majestic palace for Solomon himself, and the infrastructure and fortifications for many other Israelite cities, turning their kingdom into the principal economic power in the region, in addition to the military dominance inherited from David. This all required untold sacrifice on the part of the citizenry, and now it was time to let them go back to normal.
But an important fact of politics is that almost nothing ever goes “back to normal.” Born just one year before Solomon became king, Rehoboam never knew what it was like before, and so was afraid to loosen his grip, lest he lose his throne. He took the bad advice of his peers, and held on so tightly that it slipped from his grasp.
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)
This shouldn’t have been a great surprise. In his later years, Solomon turned away from God, who told him,
“Since…you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom…out of the hand of your son. However, I will not tear away all the kingdom, but I will give one tribe to your son, for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem that I have chosen.” (1 Kings 11.11-13)
We can’t blame Rehoboam for trying to avert this prediction; but we may notice that he didn’t go the route of dedicating himself and his reign to serving God, in the hope he would relent; instead, he only served himself, and fought against God, ultimately bringing about exactly what God had predicted—by means of his very attempt to avoid it!
This is a reminder that we can’t outsmart or outmaneuver God. He’s just better at this than we are, and will win every time, regardless of what we may think is a clever plan to avoid it. What falls to us is not to win or lose, but rather to choose whether to join the winning side and submit ourselves to its commander-in-chief.
“Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one” (2Co 11.24). Paul includes this in his list of sufferings, and then moves on without explanation. In front of “forty lashes less one,” which is an unnecessarily verbose way to say thirty-nine, he places a definite article: the forty lashes less one—you know, the ones we’re all familiar with. That’s the idea, at least, but we’re not so familiar, anymore. So what does he mean?
“…if the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall cause him to lie down and be beaten in his presence with a number of stripes in proportion to his offense. Forty stripes may be given him, but not more, lest, if one should go on to beat him with more stripes than these, your brother be degraded in your sight.” (Deuteronomy 25.2-3)
God limited floggings to forty strokes, and by Paul’s time tradition further limited it to thirty-nine, to avoid transgressing the law by accidentally miscounting. This became so ingrained, that Paul could say, “the forty lashes less one,” and his audience knew exactly what he meant.
English has an expression, a baker’s dozen, with a strikingly similar origin. In 13th-century England, there was concern over vendors shorting their customers, by making their products smaller, without decreasing the price. This happens today, by the way, and is sometimes called, “shrinkflation.” It helps to explain your ever-increasing grocery bills, and God had covered this in the Law of Moses as well, saying later in the same chapter,
“You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, a large and a small. You shall not have in your house two kinds of measures, a large and a small. A full and fair weight you shall have, a full and fair measure you shall have, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are an abomination to the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 25.13-16)
In 13th-century England, the Law of Moses wasn’t in force, but English law established price and weight controls for things like bread. The penalty for shorting a customer was often, coincidentally, a flogging. When a customer ordered a dozen loaves, an easy way for the baker to make sure he didn’t inadvertently skimp on the total weight, was to include an extra—hence, a baker’s dozen.
We have another expression, that grew out of the same problem: one for good measure. There’s no specific backstory this time, but we’ve all encountered situations in which we’re not sure what is enough, but would rather err on the side of too much, than to come up short. “One for good measure,” then, means an extra thrown in, to make sure the total is at least what it ought to be. And here, we come back to the Apostles, although before Paul was included in their number. In the early days of the church in Jerusalem, the Jewish council took exception to the gospel of Christ, and told the Apostles to stop preaching it. They went right back to preaching, and were hauled back before the council, most of whose members
were enraged and wanted to kill them. But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while. (Acts 5.33-34)
Gamaliel served as the voice of reason, and while he was far from convinced Peter and the rest were right about Jesus, he advised leaving them alone and letting this Christianity thing fizzle out like other Messiah cults that had arisen around that time.
So they took his advice, and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. (Acts 5.39b-40)
This seems like a strange way to take Gamaliel’s advice, which was to “let them alone” (v38). It only makes sense in light of the fact that most of them were ready to kill the Apostles, probably in the same fashion as they did, in fact, kill Stephen a short time later—as an out-of-control mob, dressed up in a thin veneer of legal proceedings. They were convinced to back away from this approach, for the moment, but that wouldn’t entirely stop them from lashing out—with literal lashes, in this case. This unnecessary measure could be rationalized—we’re just trying to dissuade them from spreading false prophecy!—but while Gamaliel explicitly entertained the possibility the Apostles’ teaching came from God (v39a), the others obviously weren’t on board with that part, and they weren’t about to let them walk away unscathed, after ignoring the council’s previous warning (Ac 4.18). The punishment was for the gratification of the council, not for the good of the community, and certainly not for the good of the Apostles. It was thrown in, as we say, for good measure.
When we see Satan at work in these men, we’re left with a warning against this kind of bitter and selfish motivation, particularly when it’s covered up in self-righteousness. We begin to see more clearly why God imposed a strict limit on this type of punishment, because it’s so easy to abuse, and none of us is immune to that temptation! Better, instead, to follow the example provided by the Apostles, who suffered this punishment unjustly, and nevertheless “left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (v41). That kind of thing isn’t an unfortunate cost of being a Christian—it’s a stated goal! Jesus said,
“they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them.”(Mark 13.9)