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“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
We like to keep things simple, but we are endlessly bombarded with an immense amount of sensory information. This includes current states of being like pain or pleasure; as well as memories of previous experience, like the appearance of your seventh-grade English teacher, which some words on a screen were able to call to your mind; and also our imagination, which makes use of the same faculties to consider unrealized ideas.
Let’s focus on our sense of sight. Roughly half of your brain is used in processing visual information. In fact, when your eyes are open, almost two-thirds of the neural activity in your brain is devoted to vision. We see a constant barrage of information, and most of it is utterly irrelevant. Test it out. Without the aid of a mirror, you can still see the tip of your nose, can’t you? Now consider your horizontal field of view—without moving your head or eyes, you can see roughly 210º, out of a 360º circle. Your visual acuity drops the farther you get from the center of the field, but you’re still collecting a mind-bogglingly huge amount of information, and your brain updates it constantly—a gross oversimplification would be to say that your brain processes, at the very least, about 30 “frames” each second, and perhaps many more. This is a staggering amount of information. We have to sort the things that matter from the things that can be ignored, just as you ignore that you can see your nose.
When we introduce other people into the mix, life gets even more complicated, because they’re all acting in ways that we have to sort out and categorize in our minds. When they hurt us, or behave in ways of which we disapprove, the simplest thing for us to do, is to move that person from one mental category to another—from “benign” to “dangerous”—and then treat that person accordingly. This is incredibly useful to us. We don’t have the time or resources to give each person a fair assessment at every moment, and then decide again whether to tolerate interaction with that person, during which we might end up on the receiving end of his bad behavior. If your brother steals from you, why should you allow him to do so again? Sure, you could reason that perhaps there are extenuating circumstances, or contrition, and that your relationship with your brother is valuable enough to accept the risk of a repeat offense, signing up to have to scrutinize his demeanor and actions more closely, for the remainder of your lives. But it’s easier to move your brother from the mental category of “trustworthy and helpful,” to that of “too dangerous,” sever the relationship, and move on with your life.
There is great utility in writing sinners off. It keeps life relatively simple, and frees you up to devote your attention to other matters, like where your next meal is coming from, or how to achieve a long-term goal, or whether a different, as yet uncategorized person presents a mortal threat to you, or is just a helpful grocery story bagger. But God isn’t primarily concerned with what’s useful in our fleshly pursuits, is he? Each human being is made in God’s image, and each immortal soul carries incalculable value. Paul tells us,
we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
(2 Corinthians 5.10)
As we dole out little judgments in this life, categorizing the people around us as “good” or “bad,” the prospect of our own day in God’s court may not frighten us, until we realize that we, too, have done evil deeds, as it is written, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Ec 7.20). What’s to stop God from treating us in exactly the same fashion as we have treated others, putting us with the goats, rather than the sheep (Mt 25.32), and sending us into the outer darkness forever?
Praise the Lord! He sent his Son as a sacrifice, to bear the penalty for our sins, and give his own sinless life in exchange for ours! Despite the evil we’ve done, God is willing to forgive us! What will we do with that forgiveness?
“So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.”
It’s easy to find yourself behaving like the man in this parable, holding sin over the head of someone who demonstrates the same repentance and contrition as you have shown before God. What became of the unforgiving servant in Jesus’ parable?
“And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
We must forgive, or we forfeit our own forgiveness. But when? What is a sufficient display of penitence? That part is simple:
“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.
The writer of these words certainly knew whereof he spoke. He’d been one of the brothers who tried to use words to goad Jesus into making a public spectacle of himself and get it out of his system, because “not even his brothers believed in him” (Jn 7.3-5). He had certainly stumbled in the things he’d said. On top of that, as a teacher he had experience with the disproportionate influence his words could have on others, even when his words were misconstrued. He agreed with Paul and Barnabas on the question of Gentile Christians and circumcision, and yet Paul described the false teachers pushing circumcision on the Gentile Christians of Antioch as “men [who] came from James” (Ga 2.12). Was James to blame for this problem? No, and Paul doesn’t really say he was. These Judaizers held James in high regard, but when they presumed to speak on his behalf, telling Gentile converts they must become Jews in order to enjoy the blessings of Christ, they were mistaken about James’ view. James’ own words, spoken during the conference at Jerusalem that soon followed, indicate this:
“Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree… Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God…”
When they wrote a letter to Gentile Christians spread far and wide, James and the other leaders in Jerusalem specifically disavowed the false teaching, both in the present and, crucially, in the past:
“some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions…”
James, and the other apostles and elders, had not been mistaken on this point, and yet their authority had been invoked, and their teaching misrepresented, in order to mislead. Teachers are not chiefly responsible, of course, when their words are misconstrued; yet a conscientious teacher prefers to give few opportunities for such misunderstandings!
We’re especially prone to making mistakes of this kind, when we hold up any person other than Christ as the exalted teacher whose word is infallible and authoritative. James, through no fault of his own, saw himself elevated in the minds of some of his followers, to their great detriment. He’s among the first of many examples of this problem flaring up among Christians. Some Christians still venerate Paul to an improper degree, so that they will flatly ignore or explain away truths God spoke through others of his servants—not to mention things Paul himself wrote, that ought to limit the extreme interpretations offered on a handful of points.
This shouldn’t shock us—there’s a long list of prominent teachers who were held in such regard that, practically speaking, many of their followers treated it, and in some cases still treat it, as if they were hearing “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” (Ac 12.22). This list includes Marcion, Tertullian, Montanus, Origen, Arius, Athanasius, Donatus, Augustine of Hippo, Nestorius, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, Menno Simons, John Calvin, John Knox, John Smyth, and many more at lower levels. While this list only covers the 2nd to the early 17th centuries, the problem is by no means exclusive to that period!
For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
(1 Corinthians 1.4-7)
This problem is almost as old as the church itself, and continues today, in many circles. Teachers represent God in their work, as God told Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet” (Ex 7.1). When their students begin to confuse the representative for the one he represents, they turn their spiritual leaders into idols. In some cases, this is done despite the teacher’s warnings; in others, the teacher encourages it. Be on guard against putting any man other than Jesus into the place of God. We are commanded,
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.
God holds leaders responsible, to a greater degree than followers. This is why James advised caution for aspiring teachers, and followers should strive to distinguish leaders who sincerely pursue God’s will, from those who pursue their own.
Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.
(2 John 9-11)
Do not be deceived. Do not put your eternal trust in mere mortals. Respect and appreciate the servants, but listen to God.
“There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”
(2 Samuel 12.1-4)
This was God’s way of telling David that he’d committed a grievous sin. In the previous chapter of 2 Samuel, David had stayed home while his armies went to war, and in his newfound leisure had faced the otherwise unlikely scenario of happening on the scene of a beautiful woman bathing. He found out who she was, sent for her, slept with her, impregnated her, and then attempted to cover it up by calling her husband back from the front lines. When Uriah refused to cooperate by enjoying himself at home while his brothers-in-arms risked their lives and slept in tents, David sidestepped the issue by having him deliberately killed in battle. In the process, many more Israelite soldiers died.
In just a few days, David went from a seemingly harmless act of voyeurism, to adultery, coverup, conspiracy, manslaughter, and murder—and this list could surely be expanded to include more sins committed in pursuit of the others. How could the man after God’s own heart do all this (1Sa 13.14)? It was more than a momentary lapse of self-control. There were off-ramps available to him at every point along this descent into sin, disorder, death, and misery—but he refused to take any of them, and just kept forging ahead into the abyss.
In the first place, assuming it was an accident that he stumbled upon the lurid scene, he first chose to indulge the lust in his heart, likely on the grounds that it had never caused a problem before. After all, God created this feminine beauty, and it ought to be appreciated, even celebrated! Then, he sent for her, perhaps rationalizing that he just wanted to be in the presence of this beautiful lady, who was left alone when her husband went off to war—the poor thing! Of course, deep down, he had “already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5.28), but some harmless flirtation is surely no big deal.
As they say, one thing led to another, and while he probably thought later, I shouldn’t have done that, it seemed like the whole affair was past, until Bathsheba’s message arrived several days later: “I am pregnant” (2Sa 11.5). Well, now you’re in a pickle, aren’t you, David? Her husband has been away for some time, and when he discovers his wife’s pregnancy he’ll be, understandably, upset. Then the whole thing will be out in the open, and David will look like a rotten, licentious pig—an apt description of the facts, but that’s no reason for the people to know it!
What a disaster! How to get out of this mess of his own making? Aha! Why not call Uriah home, on the double, and let him sleep with his wife, too? The birth will seem a little early, but not suspiciously so. In a way, giving him this child was a blessing, if you ignore the cuckoldry. When Uriah’s sense of duty kept him from visiting his wife in the middle of a campaign, David was afforded yet another opportunity to come clean. But no—now he was deeply invested in the coverup. How much worse would it look, if everyone found out he not only fooled around with his neighbor’s wife, but was planning to dupe her husband into raising David’s child? How could he ever face Uriah? How could he face the nation? How could pretend to have any moral authority, when this is how he himself behaved? Think of God’s people! They’ve been through so much under the judges and King Saul, and just as things were getting better, this happens? Oh no, for the good of the nation, he simply must keep it quiet!
But how? Well, Uriah’s a soldier; he deliberately risks his life to fight the Lord’s battles on a regular basis. Oh, if only his name could appear on the list of those killed in action, during the next battle! That would solve everything! Well, you know…
David’s loyal servants obeyed his orders, and soon Uriah was killed, and David’s problem seemed to be dead, as well. He surely breathed a sigh of relief that it was finally over, and then moved on with his life—with the noble gesture of taking Uriah’s widow into his own household being first on the list of things to do. Of course, when Nathan told David the parable with which we began, David immediately saw the problem, and passed harsh judgment: “the man who has done this deserves to die” (2Sa 12.5). Then, when “Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man!’” (2Sa 12.7), David despised himself and repented in shame and humiliation (Ps 51). God forgave his sin, adding it to the list of offenses for his own Son to carry to the cross; but he also imposed temporal consequences, including the implosion of David’s household, and the death of the child conceived in sin.
If Nathan had, instead, approached David as he gazed on Bathsheba’s beautiful body, and foretold what would be the consequences of acting out his heart’s desire, do you think he still would have summoned her? We don’t know. He may well have done everything exactly the same, always telling himself he would stop short of the next evil step. But it’s clear that even his first mistake, indulging his lustful thoughts, was far from harmless. “Flee from sexual immorality” (1Co 6.18).
Is it for me, dear Savior,
Thy glory and Thy rest?
For me, so weak and sinful?
Oh, shall I be so blessed?
(Havergal, Frances R., 1871. “Is it for Me, Dear Savior?”)
This beloved, old hymn asks Jesus whether the great gift of salvation can really be intended for someone so flawed as me. It’s a rhetorical question, not expressing doubt, but wonder at God’s immense grace. The rest of the hymn follows this observation to its natural conclusion, that such love demands a response from each one of us:
Dear Savior, I must praise Thee
And love Thee evermore.
(Chorus) O Savior, my Redeemer,
What can I but adore
And magnify and praise Thee
And love Thee evermore?
It’s a wonderful hymn, taking the worshiper—if he’s paying attention to the words he sings—from wonder, to a sense of his own unworthiness, to gratitude and resolve to serve faithfully. But it’s not the whole picture, nor does it claim to be. This hymn is written from a self-centered perspective. The assembly does not sing, “Is it for us?” but rather, “for me?” This is a big surprise in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Whereas man’s general assumption through the ages, and God’s own covenant with Israel, were focused on the group, Christ brought God’s plans into clearer focus for the individual.
We should temper this self-centered view by reaffirming that God does, indeed, see the new covenant in collective terms, as well.
For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.
Paul points out that God’s plan was always for “Israel,” for “the children of Abraham” as a group—but his criteria for who belongs to that group are not the directly observable, fleshly characteristics we would have expected; rather, his mercy is intended for “us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles” (Ro 9.24).
While the hymn is correct in its observation that God’s “glory” and “rest” are intended “for me”; and while God’s own word is obviously correct in grouping together the individual recipients of God’s promise into a “people” (v25), this is still not the whole picture. While we’ve been busy navel-gazing, God had an additional, and far more obvious purpose in mind.
“It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.”
This is addressed to Israel during their exile in Babylon, the punishment for their sins. Yet the New Testament foreshadowing is apparent in God’s concern over “the nations.” His point is that his chosen people deserve to be destroyed; but he has decided to use this opportunity to demonstrate his holiness to the nations, instead. How?
“I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses.”
God punished Israel, but after his justice had been clearly displayed, he turned to mercy, promising great blessings to the undeserving, purely because they were his people.
“Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord God; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel.”
He wants his people to know that it’s not about them. It’s about him. We struggle to comprehend this, because Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Php 2.8). Yet, what desire did Jesus himself express to his Father, just before he began the process of his greatest humiliation? “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son” (Jn 17.1). The same passage that spoke of his great humility also points out that, because he subjected himself to such humiliation, “Therefore God has highly exalted him” (Php 2.9). A similar promise is extended to us: “if we endure, we will also reign with him” (2Ti 2.12).
This all sounds wonderful, and it brings us back to where we began: “Is it for me, dear Savior, Thy glory and Thy rest?” Yes, these gifts are for you; and they should motivate you to praise and love him evermore; as well as to endure humiliation for his name’s sake—because while the gifts are for you, they’re not all about you! In the same way, even as Jesus was asking his Father for glory, what end goal did he have in mind? “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you” (Jn 17.1). To God be the glory!
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.
Thus begins one of the most beloved children’s stories in the Bible. A silly man named Jonah tries to run from God, and for his efforts he gets eaten by a great big fish. So, don’t any of you kids disobey God, or you might get similar treatment!
Except, that’s not the point of the book, and while it certainly contains lessons for children, it’s far more meaningful, and instructive, for adults. The book of Jonah is about the prophet’s hatred toward Gentiles, and God’s love and plans for them. In the middle, it contains several nested analogies for the New Testament. Jonah’s three days and nights in the belly of the fish predict Jesus’ time in the belly of the earth. At the same time, this is an analogy for man’s struggle against sin and death, and God’s willingness to rescue him from it, by an unexpected means. This, in turn, highlights that Jesus, in his physical death, burial, and resurrection, modeled what each of us needs to undergo spiritually. Finally, God’s chosen means of symbolizing this deliverance mirrors Jonah’s description of his own salvation:
For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me…
The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me…yet you brought up my life from the pit,
O Lord my God.
Jonah is certainly not the only book of the Bible with this sort of layered meaning and impact—nor is it the only example whose weight is too often ignored by followers of Christ. Consider Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” as we call it. We remember several tidbits, like “Blessed are the poor” (Mt 5.3), “You are the light of the world” (5.14), “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth,” (6.19), and “Judge not” (7.1). But seldom do we consider what the introduction and epilogue indicate:
Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”
When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him.
Matthew wasn’t sharing a sample of Jesus’ greatest hits. This was a coherent sermon, intended to drive a specific point, articulated just after the introduction, in the thesis statement, which Jesus proceeds to unfold as the carefully crafted speech continues:
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
We’ve seen one example from the Old Testament and one from the New, both in basically narrative format; but even the poetry of the Bible should be given similar attention. Consider Psalm 19:
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
…In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
What a nice little observation: creation’s majesty cries out that it was designed and made by a divine mind and hand; does David then change the subject as he continues?
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple…
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
No, this follows David’s reflections about inanimate heavenly bodies—that they obey God’s design and degree, and consequently they transcend whatever brief and minor glory we humans may achieve, before we succumb to death and are quickly forgotten. His point is that God also established a design and a decree for us, and if we’d follow the example of the sun, moon, planets, and stars, and simply obey him, we’d find ourselves part of an intricate, elegant, and beautiful display of God’s wisdom and might.
We’ve given brief consideration to just three passages whose broad impact is often lost on Christians today, because we generally treat the Bible as a goldmine with an occasional nugget to extract, or vein to follow, amid a mountain of valueless waste. That’s not an accurate vision of God’s word.
The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.
It’s all like this, to a greater or a lesser degree. It all deserves our attention and respect. It all deserves to be taken seriously. So, when Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14.15), consider the quiet dignity with which the moon tirelessly runs the course God mapped for it. When he says, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Le 19.18), consider the wide array of specific examples Jesus provides in the Sermon on the Mount of this genuinely righteous behavior. When he says, “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Ac 22.16), consider Jonah’s plight, drowning and destined for hell, because of his own sin; and how God was willing to intervene and rescue him from his watery grave.