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"God Opposes the Proud"

Sunday, June 23, 2024

During Jesus’ time in the flesh, he often talked about the religious authorities.  It’s sad to see the very same people who were in the best position to recognize Jesus as the promised Messiah, instead using their many blessings to further elevate and insulate themselves from the people God appointed them to serve, teach, and lead.

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.”

(Matthew 23.2-3)

Their hypocrisy and abdication of their God-given responsibility were frequent targets for Jesus.  In this passage, he’s not exceptionally upset with them for failing to live up to the standard, God’s perfect righteousness—we all share that failure!  But these people first pretended to be perfectly righteous, next proceeded to ignore whichever of God’s commandments they pleased, and then used their position of authority to create tighter restrictions than God himself had mandated, and enforce those new constraints on everyone else, with little regard for ability.

“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.”

(Matthew 23.4)

On top of this, their sheer phoniness was galling to the God whom they claimed to serve.  When it came down to it, most of them were more interested in the temporal benefits of appearing righteous in the eyes of decent people who, though flawed, still prized and respected God’s standards.

“They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.”

(Matthew 23.5-7)

Phylacteries were small boxes worn by some Jews on the forehead or arm, into which were placed passages of the Law, in keeping with God’s instruction through Moses,

“You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.”

(Deuteronomy 11.18)

Given the impracticality of maintaining such a practice while, say, quarrying stone, hauling fishnets, or harvesting barley by hand, we may conclude that this was intended at least somewhat figuratively.  But these religious leaders were not only wearing these, but making sure theirs were bigger than those worn by others.  First, that meant they’d be more noticeable; and on top of that, they’d be more obviously awkward and obtrusive, silently proclaiming just how much needless inconvenience these special people were willing to tolerate for the sake of their record of righteousness.  Long fringes are a similar, if less obnoxious story (cf. Nu 15.37-39).

It was all to be seen by men, and not genuine devotion to God.  They’d become addicted to their own smug superiority.  This is why they enjoyed the best seats at dinners and in the synagogue—not because they were more comfortable, or meant better food.  They were interested in the status these positions conferred.  It was the same motivation as the one at play in schoolchildren hoping for a spot at the cool kids’ table during lunch.  In short, it was pride.

The same is true of the greetings in the marketplace.  Considering the talk of good deeds back in verse 5, one could be forgiven for surmising that Jesus is talking about the sort of glad-handing and baby-kissing we associate with sleazy politicians; but consider the immediate company—the coveted seats of honor and the title, “rabbi.”  Jesus’ point is that they act the way they do, in part because they enjoy being recognized and having a fuss made over them, in contrast to the surrounding riff-raff, who weren’t worth noticing for a lack of moral uprightness.

In what follows, Jesus uses hyperbole to cut down this false notion of the eminently respectable, authoritative, righteous, and elite scribe or Pharisee.  “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher” (v8).  Who’s the one teacher?  Jesus!  Does that mean no Christian should teach another?  Of course not!  Jesus appointed Apostles for this very purpose!  But they’d better be teaching Jesus’ word and not their own ideas!  Similarly, when Jesus said, “call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father” (v9), did he mean it’s wrong to address your earthly father this way?  No; and in fact the Apostles continually wrote about both earthly and spiritual fathers (cf. 1Co 4.15, Php 2.22, 1Th 2.11, Phm 10, 2Pe 3.4, 1Jn 2.13-14).  But these fathers had better be fulfilling the role God assigned to them, representing God before their households and their households before God, not making themselves gods!

Jesus went on to pronounce “woes” on the scribes and Pharisees; but first, he summed up his point, warning his disciples about them and the prideful spirit of which they partook:

“The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

(Matthew 23.11)

The problem was never on the surface of any of these behaviors we’ve considered.  Want to preach God’s word?  Great!  Want to recommend safe practices above and beyond what God commanded?  Ok.  Want to wear a phylactery and a long fringe?  Knock yourself out.  Do your peers show you respect and honor?  How nice!  But whom do you exalt and serve?  God?  Your brother?  Or yourself?  “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1Pe 5.5).

Jeremy Nettles

Don't Be Fooled

Sunday, June 16, 2024

And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.

(1 John 5.20-21)

At first glance, the last line of 1 John seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the letter.  John wrote about walking in truth, keeping Jesus’ commandments, loving one another, and the fact that Jesus came in the flesh.  He did not mention idols—at least, not directly. 

Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.

(1 John 2.22)

Anti- is a Greek proposition meaning against, or in place of.  It’s not just that the antichrist denies Jesus’ teachings and divinity; rather, by his own teachings he replaces Jesus with something else—a cheap imitation of the real thing.  The heresy known as Docetism was growing in the churches, and John was pointing out that to deny God became flesh is to replace Jesus with a false god—an idol.  The idol may wear the same name as the real God, but it’s still an imposter.  Stay away!

This was neither the first, nor the last time Satan made use of parodies to lead God’s children astray.  Paul preached the gospel and founded the church in Corinth, but his departure was followed by the entrance, or perhaps the ascendency, of some unnamed teachers who bad-mouthed Paul, promoted themselves as better orators, with more knowledge and a greater understanding of the truth than the “humble” Paul (2Co 10.1).  For the sake of his “beloved children” (1Co 4.14), Paul insisted on addressing this problem and receiving the proper degree of respect.  He hinted that these pathetic imitations were taking credit for his work, saying that, by contrast, “We do not boast beyond limit in the labors of others” (2Co 10.15).  He writes that these upstarts, in effect, preach “another Jesus than the one we proclaimed,” along with a “a different spirit from the one you received” and “a different gospel from the one you accepted” (2Co 11.4).  Although decades prior and doubtless for different immediate reasons, this perfectly mirrors the situation in 1 John! 

But it gets better.  Paul calls these men “super-apostles,” using a word that he appears to have made up himself, ὑπερλίαν-huperlian.  This is a combination of two words, a preposition and an adverb, either of which would have been adequate for the job on its own.  The fact that Paul smushes them together in an awkward fashion, and uses the  word again in 12.11, combined with his biting sarcasm throughout this portion of the letter suggests he’s being glib.  An approximation in English might be, “super-duper apostles.”  That’s how they see themselves, anyway; but they’re just pale imitations of the real thing.

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.

(2 Corinthians 11.13-15)

These men were not pursuing Christ’s glory, but their own prestige and enrichment!  They were playing a part, nothing more.

Another example appears in John’s second and third letters.  John tells Gaius that faithful brothers “have gone out for the sake of the name,” preaching the Gospel and deserving our “support” (3Jn 7-8).  At the same time, he warns the church that “many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh” (2Jn 7).  This is the same heresy he covered in 1 John, and he calls its teacher “the deceiver and the antichrist” here, as well.  What is to be done about such a person?  John writes, “do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works” (2Jn 10-11).  But when John names one of these antichrists in 3 John, he says that Diotrephes “refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church” (3Jn 10).  Isn’t that pretty much what John said ought to be done, to someone like Diotrephes?  And here he is, using the same tactic, for Satan’s purposes!  He’s another imitation, a parody of the faithful preachers.

Let’s consider one last example.  There are several main characters in Revelation, who are generally not identified by name, but rather by symbols and descriptors.  This starts with the Father, who sits on heaven’s throne (ch4).  The Lamb stands before the throne, even though it appears “as though it had been slain” (5.6).  Also near the throne are “seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God” (4.5).  Then there is the city of Jerusalem, which is also pictured as the Lamb’s “Bride” (19.7).  Corresponding to the Father is the Dragon (ch12), who rebels but cannot achieve victory.  Corresponding to the Lamb is the beast from the sea, who has a head with “a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed” (13.3).  Corresponding to the Spirit of God is the false prophet (ch13b). Corresponding to Jerusalem is “Babylon the great” (17.5), which is also pictured as “the great prostitute” (17.2), a parody of the Bride.

Considering that he is the father of lies, we should not be surprised that one of Satan’s favorite tactics is to make use of “false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Mt 7.15).  Rather than create something of his own, he merely imitates the outward appearance of God’s good creation, while remaining polluted to his core.  Keep watch, and do not be fooled!

Jeremy Nettles

Drinking the Kool-Aid

Sunday, June 09, 2024

“You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice….”

(Exodus 23.2)

On November 18, 1978 a religious cult called the Peoples Temple committed one of the most heinous acts of the 20th century—a mass murder-suicide.  Since the cult was mostly about enacting communism, it had enjoyed about fifteen years of support from the political left.  But when the fake faith healings and former members’ accusations of horrible abuse started to garner attention, the cult leader, Jim Jones, decided it was time to flee the United States for Guyana in South America.  There they established a new commune, but unsurprisingly, conditions steadily declined over five years, culminating when the cult’s thugs murdered U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan, along with many of his associates, who had traveled to Guyana to check up on alarming reports concerning these American citizens.  Knowing that the jig was pretty much up after that, the leaders decided the best course of action was the “revolutionary suicide” they’d planned and dry-run many times over.

There were about a thousand people in the commune, more than a quarter of them children.  They were directed to ingest a Kool-Aid type drink, spiked with sedatives and cyanide, which Jones had been stockpiling for years.  If they refused, they’d face the guards’ guns.  Parents first gave a cup to their children, and then drank a cup themselves, and over the next few hours, more than 900 people died.

This event popularized an expression: “drinking the Kool-Aid.”  Peer pressure is so powerful that it can induce people to literally, even knowingly ingest poison, rather than being left out, or exchanging former friends for deadly enemies.  We pull out this expression when we see someone engaging in bad, and especially self-destructive behavior in order to fit in with some subculture.  We use it derisively, scornfully.

We also live in society that mirrors Jones’ cult, immersed in political ideology that champions greed and envy, and saturated with disordered sexual practices, including the abuse of children.  This is especially evident during “Pride Month,” in which every individual and every institution is encouraged, then commanded, to drink the Kool-Aid, or else face the wrath of society.  Christian denominations fall like flies, choosing to join with the atheists and the reprobates, rather than the Word of God.  Just recently, the United Methodist Church voted—692 to 51—to lift its ban on ordaining and appointing self-described and practicing homosexuals as ministers.  So-called “gay marriage,” an oxymoron if ever there was one, was an open discussion even in the political sphere, just in 2015.  Only nine years ago, the Supreme Court discovered that the 14th Amendment contains a right to marry a member of one’s own sex, and since then, one after another, religious institutions that profess to serve Christ decide to fall in with the many in rejecting Christ’s teaching on this matter, which is both concise, and thorough.

“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

(Matthew 19.4-6)

It’s not a question of whether the gays are icky; standing firm on this point purely out of personal, prejudicial revulsion, as some do, is not standing with Christ.  Jesus was seen by the aloof Pharisees as “a friend of tax collectors and sinners,” and was not ashamed of that characterization (Lk 7.34).  On one occasion, a Pharisee observed “a woman of the city, who was a sinner,” washing and perfuming Jesus’ feet, and thought, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner” (vv37 & 39).  Seeing her obvious remorse and belief in him, Jesus responded to the Pharisee, “her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much” (v47).  We must follow Jesus’ example, standing against the tide, in full confidence that Jesus means what he says, knows better than we do, and is able to redeem the worst sinner and make him righteous.  Do we trust in Jesus, or not?

We have many more examples to encourage us.  Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah saw everyone around them bowing to the idol, but they refused, telling Nebuchadnezzar “we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Da 3.18).  Job’s three friends relentlessly badgered him to admit he’d sinned, and he looked like an arrogant, obstinate fool for refusing!  Yet God eventually told them, “you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Jb 42.7).  The prophet Micaiah stood alone among “about 400” prophets, all feeding the king the same lie he wanted to hear (1Ki 22.6).  The Apostle Paul stood for truth against other Christians, including elders and Apostles, who were unwilling to fully accept that God had called the Gentiles to Christ. 

None of these were enjoyable—in fact, all were miserable situations, with a strong likelihood of being put to death in some cases!  But we don’t honor the ones who caved in and drank the Kool-Aid.  The world offers a pathetic, synthetic, sickly-sweet alternative that appeals to our lusts, but leads to death; don’t drink the cup it offers!  Jesus offers something far more radical, that doesn’t seem as palatable, but leads to life:

“Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

(John 6.54)

Jeremy Nettles

Seven Deadly Sins

Sunday, June 02, 2024

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.

(1 John 5.16-17)

There is considerable confusion about what this passage means, but rest assured, John is not giving you license to freely commit some sins.  Even “sin not leading to death” carries a mortal peril with it—otherwise, why should you pray on behalf of the sinning brother, for God to “give him life”?  Nevertheless, some sins are more imperiling than others, and over the last two millennia several of these have been generally recognized as what we might call “capital” sins—that is to say, most other sins fall into one or another of these categories.  This list appears nowhere in the Bible, of course, and so we should be careful not to assign it that kind of prominence.  But it is still worthwhile to examine this list of sins, and consider how to avoid them.

Lust

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

(Matthew 5.27-28)

Jesus tells us that sexual sins aren’t merely the misuse of the body, but begin with a misuse of our natural desires.  The virtue that stands opposite this sin is chastity—which does not mean abstinence from all sexual relations, but from those that would be immoral.  God designed us with sexual desires; fulfill them within the union he instituted, between husband and wife.

Gluttony

If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it.

(Proverbs 25.16)

The point of the proverb is clearly not that one should abstain from any and all pleasing food!  As with sexual desire, there is a way to fulfill the natural and wholesome urge to eat, and even to “enjoy” such material blessings (1Ti 6.17).  The opposite of gluttony is temperance—which does not mean total abstinence, but self-restraint.  We must keep this desire, too, in its proper place, not indulging it to our own and others’ harm.

Greed

The evil here is not wealth, nor pursuit of gain.  The problem is a love of wealth or gain!  The most obvious expression of greed is to take something you do not own.  What does God prescribe in such a case? 

Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.

(Ephesians 4.28)

The opposite of greed is what we often call charity—the kind of love that gives freely to the needy and undeserving.

Sloth

If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.

(2 Thessalonians 3.10)

It may be expressed through laziness, but in keeping with the theme, sloth is a matter of the heart!  Why don’t you care to fulfill your obligations?  Why aren’t you interested in doing what God has directed you to do?  The opposite of sloth is diligence—an active care to accomplish what is needed.

“You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his testimonies and his statutes, which he has commanded you.”

(Deuteronomy 6.17)

Wrath

God does not prohibit you from getting angry—rather, he says to refuse to let anger rule you!  “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ep 4.26).  The person who becomes angry over things that do not matter, or allows that anger to spark ill-will toward others, is not just experiencing a natural emotion.  He is surrendering to wrath!  The opposing virtue is patience, which God displays in abundance for all of us!

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.

(Ephesians 4.31)

Envy

Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

(Galatians 5.26)

Envy has much in common with greed, but whereas greed is self-centered to the point of apathy toward others, envy specifically wishes to harm the person toward whom it is directed.  It starts with resentment of someone who has possessions or status you desire, and if left unchecked soon grows into active hatred.  In a sense, it is admiration turned toward evil.  Avoiding this, what should you cultivate instead?  Kindness—the pursuit of others’ well-being, whether they need your help, or not! 

Pride

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

(Romans 12.3)

This pride is not a healthy sense of self- worth; rather, it is an excessive and unreasonable estimation of one’s own importance!  This attitude leads us to elevate ourselves to the detriment of others, and before long we presume even to encroach upon God’s role!  As with the other sins on this list, it is self-evident that this is wicked; but with what should we replace it?  Humility.

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

(1 Peter 5.5)

Jeremy Nettles

"Therefore God Gave Them Up"

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

(Romans 1.22-23)

The first chapter of Romans lays out the bad news that precedes the good news of the gospel—that those who practice unrighteousness face God’s righteous wrath.  Paul first observes that even the creation itself silently testifies to the power and divinity of its creator, and that humanity, consequently, is obligated to order itself after God’s instructions in keeping with the pattern of obedience.  However, this is not what mankind has done.  Rather than honoring God, he has lifted up imposters and imitations.  He has worshipped idols.  That was bad enough—but did it stop there?

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

(Romans 1.24-25)

Their sin was not confined to the apparently external failure to worship God properly.  It swiftly grew to personal degradation and enslavement to various fleshly passions.  That’s not good for anyone!  But did it stop there?

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

(Romans 1.26-27)

They continued down the path of debasement, going even beyond the sinful desires that are common to all, and venturing into behaviors that were even more disordered than before—especially self-defeating and purposeless sexual perversion.  But did it stop there?

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

(Romans 1.28-31)

This is now the third time Paul has said that “God gave them up” to the next degree of depravity.  It’s important to temper this with the understanding that God “is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2Pe 3.9).  It’s not that God has signed the death warrants, so to speak, of those who sink this far from moral purity.  As long as life continues, he’s ready to accept them back whenever they choose, as the good father in Jesus’ parable of the lost son.

“I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.’” And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.”

(Luke 15.18-22)

Not only was he willing to take his son back into his house, but he had been anxiously waiting and watching for him to return, so that he could celebrate his salvation!  But you’ll notice that the father sent no delegation to find and implore his son to return—let alone compel him to do so!

Returning to the depraved and rejected souls, immersed in all kinds of sin, we see, at last, the endpoint approached by those who travel down this road, which began when they replaced God with an idol.  Paul listed so many categories of sin that they blend together and it’s unclear where one ends and the next begins!  For example, what distinguishes “evil” (Ro 1.29) from “inventors of evil” (v30)?  How is “malice” (v29) different from “maliciousness” (v30)?  In part, we could dissect the language and attempt to carve out territory for each word in this tapestry of sin; but in fact the wording in Greek makes use of so many literary devices (rhyme, alliteration, consonance, and asyndeton) that it’s clear the jumbled nature of the list is part of the point!  Once a person reaches this stage, it’s incredibly difficult to tackle the now multi-faceted problem!  We know this intuitively.  We don’t expect the murderer to draw the line at lying, we don’t expect the sexual predator to be a peacemaker, and we don’t expect the despairing heroin addict to show proper respect to his parents.  One type of sin tends toward more types of sin. 

Where did this all start?  The sin that set them on this path was idolatry.  This seems odd to us, because we rarely see people bowing before images of fake gods.  But Paul elsewhere tells us that “covetousness…is idolatry” (Co 3.5)!  And it’s certainly not the only narrowly defined sin that is simply a form of idolatry.  Anything that replaces God in your heart is an idol!  Do not think that this progression of depravity is beyond your capacity for sin.  Do not gloat over the fate of the wicked who have made it farther down the path of depravity than you yourself have gone, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Ro 3.23).  Instead, soften your heart, and thank God for his mercy.

Jeremy Nettles

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